Lovecraft Country – A Few Thoughts

Lovecraft Country started out as a brilliant genre mashup of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, history, and social commentary. The first episode thoroughly impressed me because it mixed fantasy horror with real life horror quite effectively. 

The second episode seemed to be a strange break from the first, and each subsequent episode always felt a little disjointed from the series as a whole. There were so many zigs and so many zags that I couldn’t synthesize the overall plot. 

In the end, these inconsistent storylines proved too much for me to say that I enjoyed the series. 

However, Lovecraft Country’s secret weapons are the cast. In the end, I’ll watch anything with Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in starring roles. These two were fantastic. Furthermore, the show just looked good. The costumes, the sets, the props, the cars–everything was topnotch. 

And, though we only got to see them in one episode, Topsy and Bopsy proved to be the breakout superstars of Lovecraft Country. These charismatic fiends are the stuff of nightmares, yet I can’t wait to see them again. 

I appreciate everything Lovecraft Country set out to do. It tackled social issues, historical tragedies, racism, sexism, abuse, and many other important things, all while telling a story based within the worlds of magic and horror. 

In the end, though, it simply couldn’t tell a streamlined, coherent story that stretched across all ten episodes. No matter how great the acting, how beautiful the sets and costumes, and how noble the intent, the writing has got to be the best aspect of any show. 

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The Third Day – A Few Thoughts

I wanted to like The Third Day–I really did. I stuck it out. All six hours. Kept hoping it would get better.

It didn’t.

The Third Day had so much going for it. Beautifully shot. Excellent locations. Charismatic acting. An interesting concept. It’s just … it didn’t make any sense to me at all.

The Third Day jumped around so much that the plot became a muddled mess. The characters made such irrational, ludicrous decisions that I simply couldn’t suspend my disbelief. The show contradicted itself at every turn.

But … the actors! The actors were so good! Naomie Harris, Jude Law, Emily Watson, Paddy Considine, Katherine Waterson–these are quality actors doing quality work!

It just didn’t work.

As much as I want to, I simply can’t recommend The Third Day.

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Cobra Kai: Seasons One and Two – A Few Thoughts

I’ll admit it: I thought it was a terrible idea when I heard YouTube planned to release an original series furthering the Karate Kid story. But, as time progressed, I heard some positive things about the show. Some were even calling it a hit.

Cobra Kai, the show in question, came to Netflix a few weeks ago. My wife and I thought we’d preview it to see if it was appropriate for our twelve-year-old. First of all–it’s not appropriate for a twelve-year-old due to sexual references; second of all–we LOVED it and binged the whole series.

Cobra Kai is a magical blend of nostalgia and modernity. For middle-aged folks like me (I’m 43), it brings back all of the incredible feels from the original Karate Kid. It even goes so far as to provide literal cuts from the first movie during flashbacks.

However, it’s novel in that it provides a completely different take on the prototypical teenage bad boy–Johnny Lawrence. Johnny is no longer the archetypal golden boy villain. He’s now relatable, sympathetic, and even likable. Sure, he’s still rough around the edges, but I think the older crowd sees a lot of themselves in him … for better or for worse.

On the other hand, Danny LaRusso has changed as well. He’s still trying to do the right thing, but we learn Johnny has his own ideas about how things happened back in the 80s which casts Danny in a different light. Furthermore, in his own way, and despite being very successful in life, Danny can’t let go of the past, either. He is every bit as paralyzed in time as Johnny Lawrence.

This kind of complex characterization was COMPLETELY unexpected and riveted us.

Also, the show struck gold with casting their new karate kids. In my opinion, Xolo Maridueña, who plays Johnny’s first protégé, is the heart and soul of this show. He’s a likable, charismatic actor who makes us care about the ups and downs of his character. In fact, though talent varies a bit, all of the “teenage” characters are extremely engaging in their own way. Each one of them has a distinct personality and unique motivations. The days of one-note teen archetypes are over in the Karate Kid saga.

Most surprisingly, Cobra Kai is truly funny. Johnny, though always completely serious, is absolutely hilarious. He’s so disengaged from the modern world to such a degree that he doesn’t understand contemporary civility, technology, or even medical conditions. He utters some horrifically crude lines, but I can’t deny how funny they are.

Finally, the action is fantastic in Cobra Kai. Ralph Machio (Danny) is currently 58. William Zabka is 54. Both of these men can still sell the martial arts. Xolo Maridueña seems to be a natural as do the other lead karate students. There are some great fight scenes in this series, particularly in the final episode of Season 2.

I’m not surprised Cobra Kai is taking the world by storm now that it’s on Netflix. It’s the best of something old and something new. I’m so happy for this second chance at stardom for the original cast, and I love that the new blood is forging their own fame. As you’ve probably guessed, I highly recommend Cobra Kai.

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An American Pickle – A Movie Review

An American Pickle is a strange, disparate comedy, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.

The premise is that an impoverished immigrant comes to America with his new wife, begins working in a pickle factory, and then, after falling into a vat of brine, wakes up 100 years later in modern day Brooklyn. He only has one surviving member of his family left, a great-grandson. By the way, Seth Rogen plays both the immigrant and the great-grandson.

I described An American Pickle as strange and disparate because while there are some laugh-out-loud moments, this movie is oddly quiet and serious at times. It very much centers on the importance of both family and faith. However, it will then switch gears and become absolutely ridiculous. This uneven pacing threw me for loop, but that’s not to say I didn’t like it. The unpredictable nature of the film actually kept me engaged.

Again, An American Pickle has a rather unexpected sense of poignancy. Rogen plays both Herschel Greenbaum and Ben Greenbaum. Herschel is literally a relic of the past. He is bias, violent, crude, and uneducated, yet he is also devoted to family, hardworking, tenacious, and devoutly religious. Ben, on the other hand, is technologically savvy, intelligent, and politically correct, but he’s also disconnected from society, has no real sense of family, and won’t acknowledge his own emotions. I think we recognize certain aspects of ourselves in both these characters–the good and the bad.

There also seems to be quite a bit of social commentary in An American Pickle (but you have to perhaps overanalyze the film in order to recognize it). The insanity of our current political climate, our overabundance on technology, our waning sense of community, our religious indifference, and our tenuous grip on family bonds are all on display in An American Pickle. Of course, the film is not overemphasizing these issues, but they are definitely there if you want to notice them.

I wouldn’t say An American Pickle is among my favorite movies, but I certainly enjoyed it and appreciated the fact that it took a different approach to comedy. If you’re in need of a quick, unusual movie to watch, I recommend you give An American Pickle a try.

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The Kind Worth Killing By Peter Swanson – A Book Review

A friend recommended this book to me after I requested a fast, action-packed read. The Kind Worth Killing did not disappoint.

The story is centered around Ted and Lily, two strangers who meet in an airport bar. During conversation, Ted reveals he’d like to kill his cheating wife, and Lily is more than happy to assist.

From there, things get very complex as their pasts become interwoven with the present. The author, Peter Swanson, also alternates perspectives from Ted to Lily with each chapter. As the book progresses, however, new perspectives enter the fray, which offers fresh insights into the overall story.

Swanson absolutely knows how to write a fast-paced story. The chapters are short, the plot races forward, and the dialogue flows smoothly. The twists and turns were very entertaining, and the book as a whole proved quite fun.

My only complaints are that the characters tended to sound the same to me. The men all seemed to have the same voice, as did the women. Their plots and circumstances set them apart, but their voices did not. None of their personalities were unique.

I also found the very last two pages of the book unnecessary. A revelation occurs that is executed in a manner inconsistent with the rest of the style, and this revelation really serves no purpose other than to suggest a sequel. As it stands, those last two pages usurp an otherwise satisfying ending.

This is a slight grievance, however. Overall, the book thrilled me for several days as I truly enjoyed it. If you’re looking for an exciting mystery or thriller, I recommend The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson.

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HBO Max’s Harley Quinn: Seasons 1 & 2 – A Few Thoughts

I subscribed to HBO Max because I am DC Comics for life and I could not resist the Zack Snyder Justice League Director’s Cut. 

Okay. There, I said it.

However, there have been some very welcome surprises since subscribing to HBO Max, and Harley Quinn is very much among them.

Let me explain. DC Comics launched a streaming service about two years ago featuring original show content such as Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol, Titans, and Harley Quinn. I heard rumors that, with the advent of HBO Max, the DC streaming service might get absorbed, at least in terms of shows. To my great advantage, that is happening even as we speak. 

Harley Quinn never struck me as a must-watch, but I’d heard good things about it, and so when it popped up on the HBO Max “just added” page, I gave it a shot.

I instantly loved it.

At just about 23 minutes apiece, this animated comedy regularly made me laugh out loud as I powered through the first two seasons. The show is cartoonishly bloody and relentlessly profane, but it is absolutely hilarious.

It features Harley Quinn played by Kaley Cuoco, Poison Ivy played by Lake Bell, Batman played by Diedrich Bader, Clayface played by Alan Tudyk, King Shark played by Ron Funches, Dr. Psycho played by Tony Hale, and Commissioner Gordon played by Christopher Meloni.

You’ve also got substantial voice appearances by J.B. Smoove, Jim Rash, Jason Alexander, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Ironside, Wanda Sykes, Rachel Dratch, Wayne Knight, Will Sasso, and Alfred Molina. These are NAMES, people!

However, I’m not sure how funny this show is to anyone not deeply steeped in nerd culture. There are a ton of inside comic book jokes, parodies, and satires squarely aimed at the last eighty or so years of DC Comics.

Furthermore, they make everyone hilarious. Clayface makes me roar every time he talks, Bane is comedy gold, and King Shark is adorable. Kite Man has become the most sympathetic character going, and Poison Ivy is cooler than anyone ever imagined possible, and also bitingly funny. Don’t even get me started on Commissioner Gordon. 

Harley Quinn is such a fresh take on these characters and so unusual that you have to watch it for the novelty alone. For anyone who says DC is too dark, I dare you to feel the same way after watching Harley Quinn. (Just don’t pay attention to the blood, the maiming, and the general anarchy.)

Best of all? HBO Max just announced that Harley Quinn: Season 3 is coming exclusively to HBO Max.

If you have HBO Max, I highly recommend that you give Harley Quinn a try.

The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie – A Book Review

A good friend recommended The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, and though it’s been in publication for almost 100 years, I’ve never read it. In fact, I’ve never read a single Agatha Christie book.

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it! I’m often not a fan of mysteries because I feel that they usually don’t lay the serious groundwork needed to provide the reader with actual clues, but Christie more than satisfied me in that regard. She gave all of the characters a possible motive for the murder, and had them all in the vicinity of the murder near the time of death. Her details were quite meticulous. Furthermore, finding the answer to the mystery was quite possible. 

On that note, I also appreciated that Christie wrote quite a bit of this book using dialogue. She provided only the most necessary of description, which made for a very quick read. Many of her clues were revealed through characters talking to one another, which proved a pleasant experience. 

My only complaint is that the detective, Hercule Poirot, seemed to be an almost secondary character. Because he was not the narrator, we only got to know Poirot in a limited way. This was necessary due to the structure and narrative style of the book, but I’m curious to know if all of Poirot’s books feature someone else as the narrator.

I’ll find out soon enough! I am absolutely excited to read more Agatha Christie. She writes my kind of mystery books. 

Mulan (2020) – A Movie Review

As a family, and after a very long week, we were very excited to watch Mulan the night it premiered on Disney Plus. 

I can honestly say it was a hit with the whole family!

My eight-year-old and twelve-year-old daughters liked the action, the humor, the live horses, and the fact that an out-and-out action movie starred a female lead. 

My wife appreciated the “girl-power” aspect of the film and that fact that, while epic in scope of warriors warring, it never crossed the line into overt violence. (I challenge you to find a drop of blood among all the swordplay in this film.) She also liked the theme imparting the importance of family.

I found the cinematography breathtaking. There are some incredible shots of landscapes in this film. They also utilize unique angles and perspectives enough so that I actually found myself commenting on it. That doesn’t happen to me very often. 

I delighted in their nod to traditional Chinese action cinema. There’s a lot of wire work in this film with people running up walls, along walls, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, which is fairly common in Chinese film. My eight-year-old asked me at one point if people can really run sideways on a wall. I briefly explained what was going on with that. Total dad move, I know.

Speaking of action, there’s quite a bit of it in Mulan. I found it very interesting how they suggested a great deal of violence without actually showing anything all that violent. If you pay attention, you’ll notice quick cut after quick cut in the action scenes. They don’t linger too long on any one shot during the battles, and that is done with intention. By Disney’s standards, this is a pretty violent film, but I still had no problems letting my eight-year-old watch it because it never actually showed anything. In fact, though it’s rated PG-13, I would have been comfortable with it having a PG rating. 

Granted, some of the action is a little hokey. There are moments that absolutely remind an adult that this is a Disney film and therefore a film primarily aimed at children. But, overall, even this grizzled old man found it quite exciting to watch. 

Furthermore, it was fantastic to see some of our favorite actors in this film. Jason Scott Lee, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li all play significant roles in Mulan. The crazy part was that I somehow didn’t recognize any of them until the credits rolled! Jet Li is virtually unrecognizable. And Jason Scott Lee’s performance proves that he has been extremely underutilized in Hollywood. 

Yifei Liu plays Mulan, and though the actress has been the subject of controversy, there’s no denying the fact that she oozes charisma. She is simply interesting to watch. Her acting didn’t blow me away, but I still found myself captivated by her performance.

However, to me, the real star of the movie is Li Gong. My understanding is that she plays a completely new character named Xianniang, a witch, and I found her character to be the most complex, the most sympathetic, and the most interesting. I was shocked when I visited her IMDB page and saw her body of work. Li Gong has been around for a long time! Though her scenes probably take up no more than fifteen minutes of the film, they were a fantastic fifteen minutes. 

Of course, it’s only fair that I mention that Mushu, the dragon from the cartoon, is nowhere to be seen. However, they do replace him in a way with something quite mesmerizing and important to the story. Mulan is somewhat rooted in reality, at least enough so that a character like Mushu wouldn’t fit. Also, there is no singing in this version of Mulan. You’ll hear some familiar orchestra music, but there are no ballads or bangers. 

I’d also like to briefly talk about the price point. As Disney Plus subscribers, we had to pay $30 for the premier access. For me, this was not an issue. Let me explain why. First of all, we haven’t been to a movie theater in six months due to the pandemic and we’re desperate for something approximating the big-budget, blockbuster experience. Secondly, I would have spent far more than $30 at the actual theater–after tickets, drinks, and popcorn it probably would have been closer to $70. Does it bother me that I had to pay when I already have a Disney Plus subscription? No, because I still would have paid that $70 at the theater while still having my Disney Plus subscription. Of course, there’s also the strong possibility that we would have bought the Blu-Ray in three months, so tack on another $25. Because we bought Mulan on Disney Plus, we now own it for as long as we have our Disney Plus subscription. In my mind, I’m actually coming out ahead. Feel free to disagree with me, but that’s my point of view on the topic. 

If you’re looking for a family movie night, I absolutely recommend Mulan. I’m not sure I would let a child younger than seven or eight watch it, but if you’ve got kids around that age or older, it’s perfect. Enjoy!

Storm Front by Jim Butcher – A Book Review

A friend recommended this initial book of The Dresden Files. It’s called Storm Front, and it’s the first time we meet Harry Dresden, a Chicago private investigator and practicing wizard. 

Yes, you read that right.

I appreciated that Storm Front is a wonderful blend of genre. It often reads like hard-boiled detective noir, full of all the cliches and tropes you would expect. But then it blends in high fantasy with magical rods, demon trolls, and dark magic. I also liked that it moved at a very fast pace and proved pretty easy to follow.

That being said, I’m not sure I’ll revisit Harry Dresden. I found the dialogue a little too predictable, the writing technique felt a little too familiar, and the detective aspect never quite connected with me.

However, I know a lot of very smart people who love this series, so I may have to give the second book a try and assume that they get better and better as they progress. 

The One and Only Ivan – A Movie Review

My wife and oldest daughter adore the book that this movie is based upon, so we had to watch it on Disney Plus when it debuted this weekend. Overall, they were very happy with it.

I wasn’t familiar with the story at all, so I didn’t quite know what awaited me. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, Ivan is a gorilla headlining a small circus found in a shopping mall. (Yes, you read that right.) He has lived most of his life in this circus, and though his domain is not as small as a cage, he also isn’t allowed outside and the quarters are cramped. This part of the book is based on a true story, believe it or not. In the movie, he also shares the space with a dog, a seal, an elephant, a parrot, a chicken, and a rabbit. When a new arrival shows up to join the circus, the entire dynamic shifts, but is it for the better? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

First of all, the CGI in this movie is superb. I had a hard time telling where reality ended and CGI began. To my eye, it appeared almost perfect. Ivan, in particular, looked lifelike, especially when it came to his expressions.

Secondly, the voice acting is superb. I loved Sam Rockwell as Ivan. Danny Devito as Bob is equally lovable. I don’t want to spoil the other parts, but you’ll hear voice work from Helen Mirren, Angelina Jolie, Chaka Khan, Ron Funches, and Phillipa Soo. Impressive cast, huh?

Bryan Cranston plays the human lead, Ivan’s owner and ringleader. As usual, Cranston manages to make a man who has some unappealing traits somehow likable. Furthermore, a child actor named Ariana Greenblatt held her own. The only reason I may sound surprised is because this actor plays the youngest sibling on the Disney show Stuck In the Middle. (You folks with kids will know who I’m talking about.)

I found the story appealing, but I won’t lie, it’s a pretty slow moving film. The ending makes the wait worthwhile, but impatient viewers may wander off to the kitchen for a snack. However, like I said, the ending is really good and solidifies many of the themes explored throughout the film. These themes include ideas pertaining to freedom, security, family, and even friendship.

I think this is a very good family film. My eight-year-old got a little antsy about three-quarters through it, but that’s when things picked up, so she got drawn back in. My wife and twelve-year-old daughter were entertained throughout.

It’s not violent, there aren’t any bad words, and it isn’t terribly sad except for the off-screen loss of one character. Those experiencing tears at the end will do so out of happiness, not sorrow. I’m told the book is far sadder.

If you’re a fan of the book, looking for a family movie, or simply a CGI aficionado, I recommend The One and Only Ivan.