Can Lego Storytellers Overcome Their Own Structural Shortcomings?

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Image source: The Christian Post

I have never liked Lego’s Ninjago franchise. I don’t like the premise, I don’t like how it’s animated, and it’s regularly a contender for my Top Five Worst Written TV Shows list, so I certainly don’t like the writing. This didn’t used to be a big deal. Ninjago is just one of many Lego-based TV shows, most of which are fairly mediocre. And of all the mediocre and sometimes awful shows available for children these days, Ninjago is hardly the worst, and it’s not a glaringly popular show, so it was fairly easy for me to ignore up until this point.

That’s no longer the case. Lego (and Warner Bros.) did this to themselves, really, by deciding that Ninjago should be the subject of the third Lego franchise movie. The Lego Ninjago Movie is coming to a theater near you on September 22, 2017. And that’s fine–it might even be a good movie! The two previous Lego movies were pretty good!–but it means that Ninjago is about to get way more mainstream than it’s ever been. So I’m taking the chance to air my grievances with this previously obscure animated kids’ show.

First: The Premise.

Ninjago is the story of five young ninjas–Kai, Jay, Cole, Zane, and later Lloyd–who are tasked with defending their world from a variety of villainous forces. Along for the ride are several supporting characters, including Sensei Wu, the group’s mentor, Kai’s sister Nya, and Lloyd’s mother Misako.

The show is ostensibly set in a fantasy version of feudal Japan–hence the ninjas–but after the two pilot episodes, the show abandons that setting pretty quickly in favor of “Ninjago City”, which is just a generic city setting, and other set pieces that don’t generally have much to do with feudal Japan, or ninjas. This leads to the impression that the writers are just throwing in as many bankable elements as they can in an attempt to sell more toys. This has given rise to a couple of interesting episodes, such as “Ninjaball Run” and “Wrong Place, Wrong Time”, but mostly it just makes the show feel unfocused and confusing. Every time you revisit the show, there’s a new flying pilot ship or army of cyborgs or ghost realm, and that makes it hard to keep up.

Another problem with the premise is that while the original setting is inspired by Japan, the show never really follows through with that idea. Ninjago City takes no inspiration from modern Japanese cities; it’s as generic as they come. There are random elements, like the aforementioned flying pirate ship, that have no reason to be in fantasy Japan. Most of the characters aren’t identifiably Japanese–Wu, Garmadon, Misako, and I think Nya are all coded as Japanese, but none of the main characters are. It’s never explained how Lloyd turned out blonde. By season six, I think the writers just gave up, because season six’s villain is a djinn, which is an Arabian mythological creature.

Ninjago, with a little thought and creativity, could’ve actually had a really interesting setting and premise, with the characters being ninjas in a steampunk/modern-mythical version of Japan. I’m disappointed that the show didn’t run with that, because it would’ve been more interesting and engaging than the mush of ideas they’ve got going now.

Next Up: The Animation.

This is probably the least frustrating problem I have with the show, and the issue most likely to be fixed by the new movie. The animation of most Lego shows, due to having comparatively lower budgets, has a sort of unfinished rubbery look to it, and the characters tend to move with a full range of motion, just like they would if they weren’t Lego minifigures, which is strange to look at when they are Lego minifigures. The animation in Lego movies is much better–it’s meant to emulate stop action, so it looks more natural. The character designs for the movie also look more visually distinct and unique, so that’s good. Overall I’m not too worried about the animation in the movie; as long as it improves on the show’s animation, it’ll probably be fine.

My last point is the one I could talk the longest about. I’ll try to keep it brief, but to sum up: I absolutely despise how Ninjago is written.

If there’s one thing in stories that irks me, it’s missed opportunities. And Ninjago is chock full of those. As with the setting, the writers’ tendency to choose the most cliche or well-established route for the story means that the show is constantly bypassing opportunities to do interesting and creative things.

The pilot (which is technically two episodes) starts with Kai, the main character (at least for a little while), being forced to become a ninja when his sister is kidnapped. This is… an alright plotline, but it’s been done to death in other media. Everyone has seen it before. What’s worse, this begins a plot thread for Nya that sees her almost constantly sidelined and treated as a damsel in distress, or a romantic trophy for Jay. (And Cole that one time.) Nya occasionally has an effect on the plot; in season one (after the pilot) she becomes a samurai for a while… after being told by her brother and the other ninjas that she just isn’t up to being a hero. Season five sees her become the ninja of water, but by season six Nya is back to being the damsel in distress, as that season’s villain kidnaps her and basically uses her to repeatedly lure Jay into traps. And that’s just Nya. I haven’t even talked about how the other characters are written yet.

Remember Kai? Kai is the character the series starts with, and the viewpoint character for about a season and a half. After that the focus abruptly shifts to Lloyd, who then remains as the real main character for most of the rest of the show. Kai’s narrative never really reaches a high point or finishes; he just keeps leveling up after every season with the rest of the supporting characters. And that’s another problem: at this point the main characters are all so absurdly powerful that the villains have to be reality-warping time travelers to pose any kind of threat. After a while, repeated level-ups and ridiculously powerful villains just start to get boring.

These are the bones of Ninjago‘s writing problems. Just about every season of the show is plagued with missed opportunities, cliche plot points, underused (and overused) characters, and a lack of focus that just make it disappointing to watch. Somewhere inside Ninjago there are a lot of interesting ideas trying desperately to fight their way to the surface through an ocean of tired, lazy writing decisions.

You might ask, “Why does any of this matter? It’s just a kids’ show. It’s not supposed to be good.” Maybe it’s not. There are still a lot of animated kids’ shows that range from mediocre to awful. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In recent years, shows like Adventure TimeAvatar: The Last Airbender, and Phineas and Ferb have proven that even shows meant for kids can have engaging storylines, complex characters, and stunning plot twists. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has all of those things, and it’s meant to sell toys–just like Ninjago is. So there’s really no excuse for the show to be this mediocre–other than the fact that the creators just don’t care that much about what they’re doing.

I hope the movie will be better than this. It seems like it’s going to attempt the same style of humor and action that The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie had. The animation will be better, and the format will (hopefully) force the writers to tell a more complete and streamlined story. But I have to admit that I’m worried. The Lego Ninjago Movie is primarily pulling from the show’s material–material that is, as I’ve pointed out at length, quite flawed. The Lego Movie was an original story and The Lego Batman Movie had 65+ years of comics, animation, and movies to pull from. The Lego Ninjago Movie only has this. I hope they can fix the show’s structural problems and tell a better story. We’ll have to wait until September to see if they do.


Did Anyone Here Ever Read the Redwall Books?

I saw War for the Planet of the Apes recently. It was one of the few times I’ve ever gone to see a movie in a series with almost zero context for what else happens in said series. I mean, I knew it was about apes and humans… fighting a war? But that was about it. Fortunately the movie filled me in on just about every important event in the series, so that was good. And besides that, it was… a fine movie. It had its share of plot holes and annoying moments, but no more so than any other blockbuster I’ve seen this year. The one thing that set it apart from other same-universe franchise films released in recent years is that it reminded me of the Redwall series.

Redwall is a series of books written by Brian Jacques. It consists of twenty-two books, none of which were directly related to each other but all took place in the same universe. The first book is also named Redwall. The books are fantasy epics often compared to Tolkien and Lewis, with the added kid-friendly approach of all of the characters being talking, anthropomorphic animals. These animals have fun, exciting adventures that take them all over their quasi-medieval world. The Redwall books were a staple of my childhood, and like most of the other books I read as a kid, they were at times incredibly dark. Pretty much every villain was some kind of ravenously evil warlord bent on destroying and subjugating the peaceful woodland folk–and the villain usually had some measure of success before it was all over. Characters were frequently killed, tortured, or enslaved, and every so often you’d run across a really freaky or grotesque monster-slash-character. Even so, the books always ended with the good guys triumphing, mourning their fallen comrades, and returning to a peaceful and prosperous life. They were formulaic at times, but the Redwall books also had a rather comforting view of morality, where the good and bad guys were easy to identify and the good guys always won out in the end. That view of things, along with many humorous moments and characters, tended to balance out the darker content.

I suppose it’s that mostly black-and-white morality, coupled with similar story beats, that makes me think War for the Planet of the Apes and Redwall are more similar than they appear. There are certain scenes in War that could’ve been ripped almost whole cloth from a Redwall book, as could the overall storyline, of a few courageous characters fighting to save their entire community from an insatiable warlord.

Part of the genius of War for the Planet of the Apes is that it takes what seems like a really weird and possibly silly premise–humans and intelligent apes fighting for control of the world–and infuses it with deep themes and imagery that make the story much more profound than you might think going in. Alissa Wilkinson, a writer for Vox, pointed out how it uses Biblical undertones; I would argue that it also pulls from the language of fantasy epics, what with its overarching journey narrative and the villain being a military leader intent on controlling the story’s world. It’s those storylines and themes, borrowed from traditionally meaningful genres, that give War for the Planet of the Apes some real depth. It’s a franchise blockbuster with its share of plot holes, but it’s also an apocalyptic film that may leave viewers thinking about it for a while afterward. That’s the effect it had on me. It also made me want to re-read some of my favorite childhood novels, and think about why we tell these stories about people who aren’t human.

Spider-Man: Homecoming


When Marvel first announced that they had acquired the rights to make a Spider-Man movie, the entire fan community collectively sighed. “Why would they make another Spider-Man movie, though?” we all said. “We don’t need another Spider-Man movie. They’re just going to do another origin. We don’t need that. We’ve seen Uncle Ben die enough times!”

Well, I’ll say it. We were wrong.

First of all: Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t an origin story, and that’s for the best. It plays off of the fact that everyone already knows who Spider-Man is and where he got his powers, and just runs with the story afterward. Secondly, it’s a fresh story, different from every other Spider-Man movie, with a different villain and a new look at things. The result is almost my ideal Spider-Man movie–a small yet compelling story about a teenage hero trying to protect the little guy in a big city.

Part of the appeal of a Spider-Man movie is that it’s about the underdog–a teenager going up against superpowered villains on the regular. And Tom Holland, the latest in a long line of actors to play Spider-Man, embodies that character perfectly. This version of Peter Parker balances too many extracurricular activities, is never really sure of himself and yet has a drive to do the right thing no matter what. Tom Holland’s acting really brings the character to life, embodying the witty and sarcastic side of Spider-Man, as well as a shy, quiet side of Peter Parker.

The rest of the cast is equally talented, especially Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture. For the first time in a while, the villain of this Marvel movie is interesting and understandable, and has a complex relationship with the hero. Michael Keaton’s acting is great, and the CGI backing up his character as the Vulture is beautiful. The rest of the cast is equally talented, and I appreciated how the classic Spider-Man story has been updated for a different audience. Peter Parker is still the shy, nerdy kid bullied by his more popular classmates, but the school he goes to looks and feels like a modern-day high school in New York, and his classmates are no longer a bunch of white kids from the 1960’s. Laura Harrier, Jacob Batalon, and Zendaya all perform excellently as Liz Allen, Ned, and MJ respectively.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is fun and enjoyable take on the Spider-Man mythos, one that easily competes with the earlier trilogy and two-movie reboot. It’s well-written and well paced; maybe the only thing marring it is Marvel’s incessant need to tie every movie they make into their extended shared universe. Tony Stark appears several times as Peter Parker’s new superhero mentor, which is fine, except that his involvement–and, indirectly, the Avengers’ involvement–adds a new layer to the already confusing timeline Marvel has established ever since The Avengers came out in 2012. Between the assertion that eight years have passed between The Avengers and Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the scene that implied Tony Stark and Pepper Potts are back together despite breaking up in Captain America: Civil War (which occurred immediately prior to this movie)… well, the Marvel movie timeline is a little bit rough. I greatly enjoyed Spider-Man: Homecoming, but I think the narrative themes it brought up could have been explored better if Tony Stark hadn’t been so involved in the story. And someday, we’re all going to sit down and have a long talk about how Marvel keeps screwing up their own continuity with every movie they release.

Despite some timeline flaws and the obligatory tie-ins to the rest of the Marvel universe, Spider-Man: Homecoming manages to be a genuinely entertaining movie that’s true both to the character and the mythology of Spider-Man. Tom Holland continues to impress with his acting, and Michael Keaton is in my opinion one of Marvel’s most interesting villains. I wasn’t sure Marvel could accomplish a fresh take on Spider-Man, after all of Sony’s various attempts. But they did it, and they pulled it off without ever feeling like a rehash of earlier films. That’s what I call proving the fans wrong.

Tell, Don’t Show: Narration in Visual Media

One of the most commonly given pieces of advice for young writers is this: “show, don’t tell”. Stories are always more engaging when the audience is allowed to see for themselves what’s going on, and to draw their own conclusions and implications. When the author is constantly holding the audience’s hand, it just makes for a boring story.

One of the easiest “telling” techniques to identify is narration. Since narration involves a character speaking more or less directly to the audience, it’s easy for narration to become a lazy author’s way of communicating information they cab’t think to work into the story. However–this isn’t the only way narration is ever used. It’s actually an essential element of written-word stories, and it can be well incorporated into visual stories–television and movies–as well. It all hinges on the narration playing a meaningful role in the story.

Two of the television shows I’ve watched recently feature narration as an element the writers attempted to use within the first few episodes. These shows are DC’s Arrow and CBS’s Limitless, both of which are currently available on Netflix in their entirety. Arrow is a superhero adaptation of the DC comics character Green Arrow, and Limitless is a spinoff of the 2011 Bradley Cooper film of the same name. Both shows are available to stream, and they’re both fairly interesting. But their respective usage of narration effectively shows the pros and cons to using such a narrative device in a visually told story.

Arrow features narration by the main character in the first few episodes only. Said main character eventually stopped narrating along to the events of the show, because the narration was effectively useless. All it did was sum up the events that had happened so far–events the audience had already seen play out. The narration was redundant, and that made it boring. Even worse, it had little to no entertainment value. Arrow has drawn criticism for taking itself too seriously, and the narration at the very beginning of the show was the perfect example of that problem. Arrow‘s narration, limited as it was, was an unendingly grim summary of the show’s events–and some of those events were too absurd to fuse well with the gritty, self-serious style of the show. Fortunately, the writers seem to have realized this, the amount of narration in Arrow dropped dramatically within the first few episodes, almost to zero.

Now let’s talk about Limitless.

Limitless also features narration by the main character as a defining characteristic of its first few episodes. However, narration in Limitless works much better than it does in Arrow, for a few reasons.

First: it actually serves a purpose. In Arrow, the narration really only exists to let the writers rehash what they already showed the audience, and to let them tell the viewer how the main character is feeling. It’s essentially the worst combination of showing and telling. Limitless‘s narration, by contrast, gives the writers a way to show the main character’s thought process. this might not work in a different story, but Limitless relies on being able to quickly communicate the main character’s genius-level reasoning and leaps of logic with the audience. This justifies the use of narration, making it less grating to the audience.

The second reason is that it’s just more pleasant to watch. Arrow‘s narration, as I said, is almost unendingly somber and bleak (just like the show itself, but that’s another topic). Limitless plays to its strengths and keeps its bouts of narration relatively lighthearted, in keeping with its own tone. The actor also delivers the lines with more emotion and interest than there is to be found in Arrow. All in all, Limitless is just more fun to watch.

Finally–going back to what I mentioned in the first point–Limitless‘s writers don’t use the narration to cheat their way out of writing an emotionally engaging character. They never use it to tell the audience how the main character is feeling–only what he’s doing and thinking, whenever he’s doing or thinking it faster than the average audience can follow. In essence, the writers of Limitless don’t take the chance to be lazy. They weave the characters’ feelings into the story and let the actors portray those emotions within each scene. The show isn’t perfect, but it feels more authentic than the early episodes of Arrow, because it trusts it audience to understand what’s going on, and draw their own conclusions.

Narration, like all elements of story, isn’t right for every story. It can’t and shouldn’t be applied across the board. But it is a useful tool for some stories, and when it’s used well in visual media it’s important to study why it works. Looking at the difference between these two shows, it’s easy to see where one went wrong. Limitless lets the actors and story communicate the emotional beats without holding the audience’s hand. Arrow feels that it can’t rely on its audience to understand what’s happening, so the characters are constantly talking about how their emotions. And that’s a failing that can make a decent show mediocre. If not used carefully and purposefully, narration can all too easily become a crutch that writers use to avoid writing emotional subtext.

The Racing-est Generation: A Cars 3 Review

Image source: IMDB

The bar for Pixar’s Cars 3 wasn’t set all that high–but at the same time, it was surrounded by high stakes. After Cars 2‘s general failure at re-capturing what people originally enjoyed about Cars, the third installment was seen as Pixar’s chance to do one better and live up to their good name. Cars 3, it was hoped, would be the sequel that had the same heart and storytelling as the first movie.

Did it succeed? To make a long story short: Yeah, mostly.

Let me start with the positive: Cars 3 is miles, leagues, light-years better than Cars 2. It represents a return to the soulful, sensible storytelling Pixar built its brand on. Cars 3 is beautifully animated, and as with (almost) all Pixar movies, it has a decent story and some genuinely funny humor. It’s on par for a Pixar movie, which means that it’s in general a good movie. It has all that down.

Cars 3 is not as good as the first Cars movie. It doesn’t have the same brisk yet quiet plot, the same rock-solid character arc and sense of pace. In fact, Cars 3 is a little clunky in terms of pacing specifically–the flow of the story is somewhat, if you’ll pardon the pun, stop-and-go. What rescues it from feeling mediocre in comparison to the first movie is its unique themes. While the first Cars was about a young star athlete learning humility and openness, Cars 3 is about… an older, seasoned athlete learning humility and openness.

Cars 3 follows Lightning McQueen, the main character of the Cars franchise, as he reaches what looks like the end of his racing career. As a host of rookie racers with fresh skills and technological enhancements take to the track, everyone seems to agree that Lightning McQueen’s racing days are over–everyone, that is, but Lightning himself. Desperate to continue doing what he loves, McQueen is forced to team up with a young trainer named Cruz Ramirez, as he discovers a new aspect of following your dreams.

In many ways, Cars 3 is about the gap between generations. (It’s very easy to draw parallels to Baby Boomers and Millennials; at least, that’s the first conclusion I came to while still in the theater.) It’s about an older athlete who’s starting to slow down, who’s realizing that he’s not on the cutting edge anymore, that he can’t rely on his speed alone as technology and technique marches on without him. The movie’s plot forces Lightning McQueen to confront the creeping fear of aging and retirement, which he sees as an ultimate loss of purpose. This is a conflict regularly faced by each generation as they age and are forced to work with the younger folk, who seem to want nothing more than to replace their elders.

The entitlement and smugness of the younger generation (insert a tired quip about millennials here) is represented by Jackson Storm, an unbearably egotistical young racer who’s perfectly tuned to be as fast as is physically possible for a race car. He throws his victories in Lightning McQueen’s face and is utterly assured of his own skill and status. He’s easy to hate, and it’s clear that he represents the Ultimate Millennial™, the person every thinkpiece writer over fifty-five sees as the enemy.

Fortunately, Jackson Storm isn’t the only pseudo-millennial character the movie has to offer. The other representative of the younger set is Cruz Ramirez, a racing trainer assigned to help Lightning McQueen get back on track. Cruz represents the uncertainty, caution, and crushing self-doubt that many millennials wrestle with. To explain further would be to spoil some of the movie’s pivotal emotional points, but the relationship between Cruz and Lightning is ultimately one of the best parts of the film. The character of Cruz keeps the movie from veering into a tired rant against Those Darn Millennials™–and it allows the movie to make some subtle points about representation and the different kinds of confidence between generations, to boot.

Cars 3 is very much a kid’s movie–but below the surface, it seems more geared toward the parents in the audience. It’s not a perfect movie. The plot feels rushed in some places and too slow in others, and some of the dialogue is rote. The ending, in my opinion, was too neat and tidy, and should’ve been more like the ending of the first Cars. But Cars 3 does represent a welcome return to the heart and soul that’s supposed to characterize Pixar movies. It’s a well-made film with thought-provoking themes and an interesting plot–even if it does drag a bit at times. Like many of Pixar’s newer movies, Cars 3 has its flaws. But, ultimately, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. And I for one am very glad to finally have a genuine, decent sequel (and possible conclusion) to the Cars franchise.

Define “Groundbreaking”: A Wonder Woman Review

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I vividly remember the popular attitude most reviewers took towards Joss Whedon’s The Avengers when it came out. “If this doesn’t make your inner nine-year-old scream with excitement, you’re probably dead inside.” That seemed to be most people’s reaction to a superhero team-up movie years in the making: it made them feel like kids again, in the best way. Oftentimes that’s the point of movies, to appeal to your inner sense of excitement and wonder for a few hours. I like superhero movies, but not all of them have that affect on me. My usual reaction is to criticize movies, even ones I like. But in this case, I can say without reservation that Wonder Woman made me feel like a kid again.

As the first female-led superhero movie since 2005, Wonder Woman had a lot riding on it. It had to be a better continuation of the DC cinematic universe, it had to adequately provide a backstory for an iconic comic book character, and it had to prove that female-led and female-directed action films can do well at the box office. So far, it’s done all of those things. Based on the movie’s critical response and box office earnings, even just a few days after release, it has been a rousing success.

As a story, Wonder Woman is fairly usual, with plot elements that have all been used before in different movies. The villain’s motivation is one you’ve heard before. The hero(ine)’s journey is fairly standard. The war movie elements (since the film is set during World War I) are familiar, even those with a superhero in the mix, since Captain America: The First Avenger established long ago that you can, in fact, meld the superhero genre with the war movie genre. The editing of the movie has some pitfalls but is overall extremely competent, and the fight scenes are amazing. A mixture of quick-cuts and longer shots and a highly skilled use of slow motion, coupled with the film’s soundtrack, make them an absolute joy to watch. Taken at face value, Wonder Woman is a very good movie, definitely the best DC movie in recent years (if not ever), but it’s not the best movie ever. Taken at face value, you might say it isn’t a “groundbreaking” movie. But that would depend on how you define “groundbreaking”.

As I stated before, Wonder Woman is the first female-led superhero movie since 2005. Nearly all of the female-led superhero movies before now–such as Catwoman, Elektra, and the 1984 Supergirl film–have been badly written, poorly shot, or have objectified the leading lady–or done all three of those things at once. And none of them did well at the box office, which led to the drought of female-led superhero films from 2005 to 2017. Wonder Woman was seen as a gamble for DC, especially since it had a female director. But the choice of Patty Jenkins to direct Wonder Woman turned out to be one of the movie’s greatest strengths. It is a factor that did turn the movie into something groundbreaking.

Wonder Woman doesn’t indulge in any of the objectification that most superhero movies–most action films in general–go in for. It’s obvious that it was directed by a woman–obvious in how the camera frames Diana’s face instead of her chest, in how the fight scenes are about her brute strength and power instead of how pretty she can look while doing martial arts. Diana is obviously, obviously, the hero of the film. She follows through the hero’s journey. She starts out innocent and learns from her journey as she goes along, without ever falling into the cliche of a woman who must learn everything she knows from a man. There are male characters in this movie–several of them. But Diana is never overshadowed by them. The narrative of the movie respects her even when some of the characters do not. The story lets Diana fail, lets her experience loss, without ever falling into hurtful tropes or cliches. And that is groundbreaking.

By all metrics, Wonder Woman was a good movie. From a technical standpoint, a writing standpoint, that is more or less all it was: a good and well-made superhero movie. But from a cultural standpoint, it was much more. Wonder Woman gave us an origin story centered around a woman, with the leading man acting as a sidekick for once. It balanced out a lot of the insidious sexism in action movies, giving us an action movie that can be enjoyed without worrying about that one gross scene or the plot points that don’t hit because the female lead was sidelined. Wonder Woman made me feel like a kid again. It inspired me. It gave me hope that one day I can work on a movie like that, that one day there might be more opportunities in cinema for women to create women-oriented stories. That is how Wonder Woman is groundbreaking.

And besides that? It’s a fun movie. It’s enjoyable. It’s as historically accurate as a superhero movie can be. It’s not mean-spirited or harsh, even when it has the opportunity. I highly recommend Wonder Woman. I know I’m going to see it again. It may not be perfect. Even I’ve got some thoughts about the plot that I plan to hash out at a later date. But Wonder Woman is such a hopeful and inspiring movie that I can’t help but give it my recommendation. After all–it’s pretty groundbreaking.

Everything, Everything

Image result for everything everything movie poster
Image source: Epicreads

[A spoiler-free review.]

Everything, Everything is the film adaptation of a novel that tells the story of Maddy Whittier, a teenager with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). This prevents her from ever leaving her house, where she is protected from any allergen or germ that might make her sick. When a new family moves into the house next door, Maddy encounters Olly, and her entire world begins to change.

Everything, Everything is, at its heart, a story about Maddy. Played by Amandla Stenburg, Maddy is the narrator and sole point-of-view character of the film. Stenburg portrays the character with finesse, showing a wide range of emotions. Olly (Nick Robinson) has similar depth, and the two actors have plenty of chemistry together. One of the strengths of the film is that it knows when to focus on Maddy and Olly and together and when to leave the focus simply on Maddy.

The high point of the film is how it portrays Maddy’s point of view. The audience sees everything that happens in the story through her eyes, and the cinematography supports that view. Multiple scenes take place partly in Maddy’s head, as she imagines herself meeting Olly face-to-face in a variety of locations. Since Maddy is the central focus of nearly every scene, the audience is drawn into her mind, and we quickly come to see how Maddy sees the world, how she experiences life. One thing Everything, Everything has mastered in deep POV (point of view). This well-executed technique combined with Amandla Stenburg’s acting means that the main character is fully realized and a joy to watch.

(Also, on a personal opinion note: Amandla Stenburg is one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve seen in a long time. I just enjoyed looking at her throughout the movie. And I love that she’s actually the same age as her character.)

The overall camerawork of the movie is decent. It’s not perfectly smooth, but it’s not distracting either, and there are a number of shots that are truly impressive. The movie’s sets are gorgeous, and each has a distinct feel that adds to the tone of the movie. Maddy’s imagined conversations take place in almost dreamlike settings–a diner, a library, and outer space, to name a few. The shot-to-shot editing is well composed, although some of the scene transitions (particularly in the first half of the movie) are jarring. Overall, Everything, Everything is an enjoyable, well-made movie.


Everything, Everything was a book before it was a movie. And before the movie came out, the book drew criticism for how it portrayed the story of the disabled protagonist. Fully describing the book’s problems would spoil the plot, but suffice to say that the narrative does veer into problematic cliches that often plague stories with disabled protagonists–particularly the cliche that a protagonist must be cured of their disease before they can have a happy ending. The movie sticks close to the same plot from the book, so it has many of the same problems. Disabled reviewers who know more about this topic have written at more length about this; if you’re interested in learning about the controversy, there are links at the end of this post to articles that discuss the story’s problems in depth.

To sum up, Everything, Everything is a well-made movie starring two skilled, beautiful actors. Taken on its own with no cultural context, it’s an enjoyable movie. I certainly appreciated watching it. But the reality is that every movie has some kind of cultrual relevance, and every movie–especially Hollywood movies released to a mass audience–has some kind of impact on the people who watch it. Unfortunately, Everything, Everything perpetuates cliches and maintains a somewhere narrow view of living with a disability. This is a beautiful movie, and I wish that it were more aware of the harm it could do in terms of portraying disabilities.


Further Reading:
Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
– A book review from the Disabilityinkidlit blog, which features reviews written by disabled reviewers.
Everything Everything: An In-Depth Analysis Into the Ableism Problem – Another book review by a disabled blogger.
‘Everything, Everything’ Draws Criticism for Its Portrayal of SCID and Disability – An article summarizing the negative response the book and movie attracted from some reviewers.

5 Reasons Not to See the New Pirates of the Caribbean

This week, the fifth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise will be released. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the official title of it, and based off of the trailers released so far, it’s Disney’s attempt to return the Pirates franchise to its former glory (after the fourth movie was received with less enthusiasm than the first three). This film is probably going to be similar to the others: a fun, mindless fantasy movie about 18th century piracy with plenty of fight scenes and plenty of Johnny Depp. I have no doubt that people will go see it in the millions. In spite of that, I’m here with a different message. I give you: my top five reasons not to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. 

5. It isn’t going to be a good movie.
At this point, though, that’s kind of a given: movies in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise aren’t good. Sure, they’re on par in a technical sense, and they’re fun to watch, but they aren’t good movies. They aren’t artistic, and they mean almost nothing in a cultural sense–except for the fact that they prove that, in the early 2000’s, people liked watching historically inaccurate movies about pirates. Pirates of the Caribbean is the type of movie you watch when you want to turn off your brain for a couple hours. But of course, everyone already knows that, and that’s precisely why most people go to see it.

4. It’s a shameless Disney cash grab.
Disney is the undisputed champion of sequels that range from unnecessary to straight-up bad. For Disney, sequels aren’t about exploring the characters, the plot, or the world; sequels are about making even more money off the success of a single film. And that’s worked pretty well for them in the past, well enough that they’re still doing it. But here’s the thing: the moment a company starts making cash-grab movies is the moment they realize they no longer have to put any effort into their films. It’s the moment they consent to at least some of their future films being lowest-common-denominator blockbusters. Disney crossed that line a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep rewarding them for it.

3. There’s nothing in this movie you haven’t seen before. 
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “An undead pirate and his horde of similarly undead lackeys seek out Captain Jack Sparrow to get revenge for some trick or crime he committed against them years before.” If that sounds like the plot of almost every other Pirates of the Caribbean movie, that’s because it is. I am very sure that this film is going to be exactly like all the others. There might be a couple new characters/bankable movie stars to keep things fresh. But ultimately, the corporate filmmakers involved with this movie aren’t going to try anything new. And even if they do incorporate some sequence or plot point that hasn’t been done before in the franchise, it will be something that’s been done before in the film industry at large–probably in a better movie.

2. There are better movies to spend your money on.
We’re heading into the summer movie season now, and it looks like it’s going to be a good one. DC’s Wonder Woman comes out June 2nd and Marvel’s Spiderman: Homecoming will be released on June 7th. Speaking of Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 came out a couple of weeks ago, and should still be in theaters for a week or too before it’s gone. Even if you’re still determined to see a Disney movie, the live-action Beauty and the Beast is still in theaters and Star Wars: The Last Jedi is coming out in December. (And sure, those two movies could also be called cash-grab sequels, but at least they add something to the previous installments of their respective franchises.) If action/fantasy films are what you’re looking for, it’s never been a better time to go to the movies. We don’t have to rely on Pirates of the Caribbean for entertainment.

1. Johnny Depp is a domestic abuser.
Johnny Depp is a popular movie star who’s built his career off of playing quirky, weird characters. Unfortunately, he’s also been accused of spousal abuse by his former wife, actress Amber Heard. In May of 2016, after being married to Depp for fifteen months, Heard accused him of abuse and applied for a restraining order, while also going ahead with a divorce. Heard originally sought a restraining order rather than any of kind of money; eventually, she and Depp settled both the case and their divorce. Depp settled the case for seven million dollars, and in return Heard dropped her request for a restraining order, without the option to refile. Amber Heard donated much of the money she received in the settlement, and the joint statement the couple released notably stated that “Neither party has made false accusations for financial gains.” While Johnny Depp has not been convicted of abuse in a court of law, the evidence is clear. Though the film industry will probably continue to hire him due to his popularity, moviegoers don’t have to support the films that cast him. And I believe that we shouldn’t.


So there you have it. Five reasons why I believe Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn’t deserve your money when it comes out. Please understand that I’m not calling for a boycott or saying you’re a bad person if you do go see the movie; all I’m saying is that I don’t think this movie is worthwhile. As I already said, there are better things to see, and movie tickets are expensive. Maybe Pirates of the Caribbean is a movie better seen on DVD or Netflix, at some point in the future.

2016 Recommended Books List

2016 has been a pretty full year for me, and I suspect for everyone else, too. We had an election this year, and that was certainly a wild ride from start to finish. A lot happened in the world. We lost some pretty amazing people. A lot happened in my life, too, although I’d hope those events were more positive than what happened in the world and the U.S. at large.

I read quite a few books this year, in between school and writing and spending time with family. A lot of those books were amazing, the type of books that take hold of something in your soul. Looking back at the list, it’s an odd combination of non-fiction and sci-fi/fantasy, with one lone exception. These are all books that deeply appealed to me in some way, whether that was the premise or the characters or the overall theme of the book. I would highly recommend them all.

1. Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Summary: Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician–not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life.
With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

I read this book way back in February, and I absolutely adored it. In fact, it’s pretty much the book that got me started doing book reviews on this blog. Once I read this book, I felt the need to share it with as many people as I possibly could. I’ve written a much longer review already, but to sum it up: this is a well-written book with amazing characters and an incredibly nuanced view of the Old West. I highly, highly recommend it. 

2. Starflight by Melissa Landers
Summary: Solara Brooks needs a fresh start, someplace where nobody cares about the engine grease beneath her fingernails or the felony tattoos across her knuckles. The outer realm may be lawless, but it’s not like the law has ever been on her side. Still, off-world travel doesn’t come cheap; Solara is left with no choice but to indenture herself in exchange for passage to the outer realm. She just wishes it could have been to anyone besides Doran Spaulding, the rich, pretty-boy quarterback who made her life miserable in school.

The tables suddenly turn when Doran is framed for conspiracy on Earth, and Solara cons him into playing the role of her servant on board the Banshee, a ship manned by an eccentric crew with their own secrets. Given the price on both Doran and Solara’s heads, it may just be the safest place in the universe. But when the Banshee’s dangerous enemies catch up with them, Solara and Doran must come together to protect the ship that has become their home-and the eccentric crew that feels like family.

I read this book in about half a day. It’s a fun, fast-moving little sci-fi story with fun characters and a plot that features plenty of twists and turns. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read; and it’s not deep and thought-provoking like Under a Painted Sky. But it’s a book I greatly enjoyed, and it’s the type of fun, inoffensive sci-fi fluff I like to read when my brain needs a break and I don’t want to have to critique something too hard.

3. Women Heroes of World War II by Kathryn J. Atwood
Summary: Noor Inayat Khan was the first female radio operator sent into occupied France and transferred crucial messages. Johtje Vos, a Dutch housewife, hid Jews in her home and repeatedly outsmarted the Gestapo. Law student Hannie Schaft became involved in the most dangerous resistance work–sabotage, weapons transference, and assassinations. In these pages, young readers will meet these and many other similarly courageous women and girls who risked their lives to help defeat the Nazis.
Twenty-six engaging and suspense-filled stories unfold from across Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, and the United States, providing an inspiring reminder of women and girls’ refusal to sit on the sidelines around the world and throughout history.

I first encountered this book while volunteering at my local library. It seemed like the type of book I would like, so I checked it out and started reading. And just as I’d suspected, I loved it. This book tells the story of a variety of female heroes during World War II, most of whom are rarely taught about elsewhere. It doesn’t restrict itself to any one type of hero, either. Included are women who fought the Nazis nonviolently, like Sophie Scholl and Johtie Vos, and much more literal fighters like Hannie Schaft. Women of color are included in the stories of Noor Inayat Khan and Josephine Baker. The faith and religon that inspired many of these women, such as Corrie ten Boom, isn’t overlooked. Each story is concise yet important. This book really is an important reminder of women who were not afraid to do what they knew was right, even in the face of death.

4. Failures of the Presidents by Thomas J. Craughwell and M. William Phelps
Summary: In an effort to put an end to Britain and France’s policy of seizing American ships and sailors, Thomas Jefferson calls for an embargo. The result: 30,000 soldiers out of work, mercantile families bankrupted, and a nationwide economic depression.

In an effort to install a capitalist government in the Middle East, stabilize the region, and protect America from a possible Iraqi terrorist assault using weapons of mass destruction, George W. Bush orders the invasion of Iraq. The result: More than 4,000 American soldiers and personnel dead; estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead; hundreds of billions of dollars spent; the torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction leave American global credibility in tatters.

What were they thinking?

One of my favorite genres of history, so to speak, is the “American history they didn’t teach you in school” genre. This book appeals very heavily to that interest of mine, as it not only explores little-known anecdotes from history, but calls attention to the flaws of most U.S. presidents. It’s a fairly unbiased book that provides cultural and historical context for the presidents’ various decisions, without absolving them of the consequences. This is the kind of history I very much appreciate.

5. On Basilisk Station by David Weber
Summary: Having made him look a fool, she’s been exiled to Basilisk Station in disgrace and set up for ruin by a superior who hates her. Her demoralized crew blames her for their ship’s humiliating posting to an out-of-the-way picket station. The aborigines of the system’s only habitable planet are smoking homicide-inducing hallucinogens. Parliament isn’t sure it wants to keep the place; the major local industry is smuggling; the merchant cartels want her head; the star-conquering, so-called “Republic” of Haven is Up To Something; and Honor Harrington has a single, over-age light cruiser with an armament that doesn’t work to police the entire star system. 

But the people out to get her have made one mistake. They’ve made her mad. 

This is another book I’ve already done a full review for, back when I read a bunch of SF novels over the summer. I enjoyed it pretty thoroughly, since it takes the story of the “misunderstood military genius” and gives it to a female protagonist. It’s well-written and the story moves just fast enough. I’ve heard that this series (the Honor Harrington series) is based off of the Horatio Hornblower books, and it does seem that way, but the books are different enough, in genre and in writing, that they don’t come off as too similar. I look forward to reading the next book, whenever I can find it. 

6. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Summary: How far would you go for revenge if someone killed your father? If someone destroyed your city? If everything you ever loved was taken from you?

David Charleston will go to any lengths to stop Steelheart. But to exact revenge in Steelheart’s world, David will need the Reckoners—a shadowy group of rebels bent on maintaining justice. 

And it turns out that the Reckoners might just need David too.

This is yet another book that I’ve previously reviewed on this blog. Again, see that post for my complete thoughts. To make a long(ish) review short, well… This is a book with a very unique perspective on superheroes. It turns genre conventions upside down and tells a heartfelt, enthralling story, and the whole thing is very well-written. As a side note, the sequels are just as good. I’d recommend the whole Reckoners trilogy, which stems from this book; but even as a standalone, Steelheart is awesome, and comes highly recommended by me.

7. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Summary: After Martians invade Earthspecifically, England—a philosophically-inclined writer is set on a journey across the ravaged English countryside as he attempts to find his wife and, with luck, avoid death. 

This is this year’s obligatory really old, yet surprisingly good novel (last year’s was Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days). First published in 1898, War of the Worlds is thought to be the first mainstream alien invasion story, and besides being groundbreaking science fiction, it also carries some scintillating social commentary. It isn’t as exciting or fast-moving as modern sci-fi, but it still carries its fair share of action. The best part of the novel, though—at least in my opinion—is the atmosphere Wells creates with words alone. The scenarios presented in the novel, the hopelessness and fear, were mildly terrifying even to me. They’re even sharper when you think of how nineteenth- and twentieth-century readers must have perceived the story. All of Wells’s fiction was based on real science of his day, after all.

So there you have it: seven books I read this year and loved. I’d recommend all of them, especially if you’re a fan of science fiction or history. Even if you’re not, these are still, in my opinion, valuable books. If you’ve read any of these or end up reading them in the coming year, I’d love to discuss them. Until then, Feliz Navidad, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year

Book Recommendation: Steelheart

Summary: How far would you go for revenge if someone killed your father?

If someone destroyed your city?

If everything you ever loved was taken from you?

David Charleston will go to any lengths to stop Steelheart. But to exact revenge in Steelheart’s world, David will need the Reckoners—a shadowy group of rebels bent on maintaining justice. 

And it turns out that the Reckoners might just need David too.

Recently, I’ve been getting more and more into the superhero genre. It’s fun to think about people with awesome skills or superpowers–and often, the narrative of a vigilante with a hidden identity raises interesting moral questions. The superhero genre, when handled right, contains a wealth of storytelling possibilities. This book–and its sequels–explores one of the lesser-seen possibilities, and boy is it enthralling.

The premise of Steelheart is that at some point twelve or so years in the past, a weird astronomical event called Calamity occurred–and people all over the world started gaining superpowers, bending and breaking the laws of physics. And then all of these superpowered people (called “Epics”) decided that what they really wanted to do with these powers was take as much power as they could for themselves, and subjugate anyone too weak to fight back.

That’s the setup for the novel’s main story. This certainly isn’t the first book to feature a story where people with superpowers go bad instead of good and try to take over the world. But this book takes the idea further than most. In a sense, this is an anti-superhero story: here, the people with powers are the villains, the monsters, the evil ones. The only heroes here are the ordinary people with the courage and cunning to fight back.

In fact, the more I think about it, this story is the antithesis to stories like X-Men, where people with powers are oppressed solely because they have powers. In this story, author Brandon Sanderson takes the idea of “superpowers” to its logical extreme. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If ordinary people really did start gaining superpowers out of nowhere, who’s to say they wouldn’t all become tyrants?

Of course, the sequels muddy this philosophical bent quite a bit. But the books still have a very interesting and thus far underused premise. In addition, the characters are all sympathetic and complex, and the plotting of the books is a thing to behold. Seriously, Brandon Sanderson has a knack for weaving an action-packed mystery and revealing a plot twist at the very end that changes everything. He’s also good at coming up with intriguing settings; each book takes place in a different city that’s been transformed since the coming of the Epics. Each place is unique and drives the action in its own way.

In short, the Reckoners Trilogy–of which Steelheart is the first book–is an amazing series, and I’m glad I had the chance to read it. I would highly recommend it to others looking for a short series to get into, especially if superheroes are your thing.

I give Steelheart four stars out of five (though the Reckoners Trilogy as a whole is more of a 4.5/5).