How Moon Knight Reminds Me of Anime

It’s said in the MCU fandom that each MCU film and show falls under a different genre. For example, Captain America: The First Avenger was a historical wartime film while Guardians of the Galaxy would be considered more of a sci-fi action/comedy. In the case of Moon Knight, the best genre I can compare this show to is actually anime.

Anime in and of itself has many genres, but elements of Moon Knight reminded me a lot of various anime shows I watched. Here’s a list as to how:

1) The Egyptian/Middle Eastern aesthetic of Moon Knight’s costume reminded me of Moonlight Knight from Sailor Moon R.

Back in the very early days of Sailor Moon’s infamous DIC English dub, there was a filler arc in the 2nd season (Sailor Moon R) where Darien/Mamoru’s “subconscious” manifested itself into an Arabian Night inspired hero called Moonlight Knight, complete with a saber sword and everything. I mean, look at this picture.

The resemblance is uncanny.

2) Like Sailor Moon, Steven Grant starts out as a crybaby but develops into a courageous monster hunter

Steven Grant is, by far, the most relatable reluctant hero in the MCU. He’s got the most ordinary job: gift shop worker and inventory for a museum in England. However, he also struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder and he was unaware of his condition until he comes across the villain, Arthur Harrow. And even when Steven Grant tries out the Moon Knight powers for the first time, he doesn’t get things perfect right away. By the end of the series, Steven developed his own fighting style.

It’s very similar to how Usagi Tsukino became Sailor Moon. She started out as a below-average middle school student who gets powers she doesn’t understand. When she goes into her first fight, she literally cries so hard, her wails turn into a sonic scream. However, like Steven Grant, Usagi eventually develops into a true soldier of love and justice.

3) The relationship the hero has with the supernatural world

There are a lot of anime shows involve protagonists with some connection to the supernatural world. Dragon Ball Z was partially inspired by The Legend of Sun Wukong which includes lots of gods and mythical figures from Chinese mythology. Yu Yu Hakusho featured an entire underworld and one of the supporting characters was a psychopomp, a guide of lost souls. In these anime, the supernatural world interacts with the world of the anime, having real consequences.

Moon Knight is the first show outside of the Thor movies to have a connection with an established pantheon of gods. What makes Moon Knight unique, however, is that the gods themselves interact with the protagonist and play a larger role in the story, interacting with the human world, rather than being separate from it like the gods of Asgard are. My favorite of the deities featured was Taweret, the sweet hippo-humanoid goddess of childbirth and mothers who became an essential ally to Steve/Marc as well as to Layla.

4) The Egyptian aesthetic is similar to Yu-Gi-Oh

The first Yu-Gi-Oh series centered on a very meek, mild-mannered student named Yugi Moto who (for a while) was unaware of the spirit that lived in his Millennium Puzzle. He’s quite similar to Steven Grant as both Yugi and Steven had a love for Egyptian history. Similar to Marc Spector, Yami (or Atem as he would later be known) was ruthless, relentless, and created some nightmare-fuel punishments for those who crossed his path. However, Yugi eventually worked alongside Yami/Atem and the two of them became great friends.

Also, to note, one of the Millennium items was the Millennium Scales, used by Shadi. These Millennium Scales He also attempted to summon Ammit in order to devour Yami Yugi’s soul. More info about the Millennium Items can be found in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKRbLZh8vcw

5) The hypercompetent tsundere

I. Love. Layla. As far as MCU girlfriends and love interests go, she takes the top tier, stealing the spot from Pepper Potts. She is a very smart, strategic woman who just happens to have a love/hate relationship with Steven and Marc. And by that I mean she starts falling for Steven all the while being very estranged from Marc.

The “tsundere” is a classic anime archetype, usually reserved for female characters. The best way to describe a tsundere can be found in this video:

So yeah. Layla is very much a tsundere. And I love where she ends up in the finale. But that’s spoiler territory.

Overall, I really loved Moon Knight as it’s the perfect mix of urban fantasy, supernatural, and adventure.

How long until Season 2, people?!

A Chat With Mack Attack

One subculture I got into during the pandemic was the anti-MLM community, which includes people who deconstruct self-help culture. The anti-MLM community exposes all sorts of business scams and has people who make videos who make fun of popular self-help “gurus” such as Tony Robbins, Gary Vee, Rachel and Dave Hollis, etc.

Today, I’ll be featuring Mack Attack, who started out making videos exposing the shady business tactics the MLM Monat. His videos are very fun to watch if you like snark, sarcasm, and music. When he’s not making videos, Mack teaches people how to ski and he’s also making music under the name Millimeters of Mercury. What I love most about Mack is that he shares parts of his personal journey and background as his credentials for why criticizing MLMs and the self-help influencers is necessary. I think Mack shows that you don’t have to have everything all figured out, that you’re allowed to make changes in life when necessary, and those changes can lead to some fun things in the future.

So with that all out of the way, time for a chat with Mack Attack!

Tell me your story, as much as you feel comfortable sharing, anyway.

Hey, I’m Mack , I’m 31 and I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio. I went to the University of Southern California for my BA in Biological Sciences, and then got my Doctorate of Pharmacy (PharmD) from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. I worked as a pharmacist for a little over 3 years, but some personal issues forced me to take a step back and regroup. While I could return to working as a pharmacist, I have little interest in doing so – I like my current job and a lot of the stressors and abusive working conditions in the retail pharmacy landscape have only intensified since my departure, and that deterioration is going to accelerate dramatically as the job market for pharmacists goes from stagnant growth to actual contraction.

Why did you get into Anti-MLM?

I’ve always had a mild fascination with cults and manipulative groups and the factors that make people vulnerable to them. I also have always had an underlying anger at the growing levels of dishonesty being perpetrated by “influencers” that is not being taken seriously by the regulatory agencies that are supposed to protect us. This is probably how I started to run across the proto-antiMLM-YouTuber wing of the larger antiMLM movement (which of course already existed long before the YouTube niche), back before Kiki Chanel, etc., when it was Cuestar and iiluminaughtii and Fresh who from time to time would read posts from r/antiMLM. (It kind of seems like that “era” of the YouTube antiMLM space has been forgotten but I would be willing to bet most of the current creators remember haha).

It was also particularly infuriating to me to hear the health claims being made by the health and nutrition and essential oil MLMs given my healthcare background, which is why my first 2 videos were about Young Living

Monat came onto my radar mostly because they were really rapidly growing and they were just an incredible source of content that was both entertaining and very useful as an example, and that just kept being true, but they also really got slimier and slimier with their practices, which also makes me rage and want to take them down.

What’s your current line of work?

Currently I am a warehouse manager for a small startup company.

Where do you see your career going in the future?

Oh boy, I have no idea, haha. Because I several years ago had to sort of regroup and get back on my feet, I’m still making sure I’m situated well, so I haven’t had as much of a forward grand vision or anything. I’m just deciding as I go.

What advice do you have for those who want to change careers or for those who just want advice for what they want to do for their future?

I would say that if you really want to then you shouldn’t let the fact that people will have questions for you about what might seem like a puzzling decision to them stop you. Life is way too short. However, be careful and be thorough in your research. What are your chances of getting this opportunity? What does it pay? How does that compare to what you are making now? Can you swing that?

Most importantly: DO NOT EVER, under ANY circumstances, quit your job for ANY reason without another job lined up. If you must stop working there and I can’t convince you to stay, then make them fire you. Then you can get unemployment, which you cannot get if you quit.

In terms of YouTube, I mean, the best advice I have on that is persistence is everything. You have like, years or longer of nothing happening until something happens. 

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You can find Mack Attack on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/MackAttackReturns

Mack Attack’s music: https://www.millimetersofmercury.com/

Mack Attack on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/returnofthemackattack/

Mazarine by Cece Louise: A fantasy book review

What happens when a cursed mermaid rescues an exiled prince out at sea? You get the unlikely romance between Marilee and Darius. Readers of Desperate Forest will remember Darius as the mercenary, power-hungry prince who was exiled from Marsnovia. Darius’s time in exile has hardened his heart even more. At the start of the novel, he nurses a grudge against Jay and Roselynn.  

Meanwhile, Marilee is a prisoner of the sea, cursed to be a mermaid by day and a regular woman at night. Desperate to free herself, she strikes a bargain with Darius: return her to her home, the kingdom of Kirdsortt in exchange for a reward, as it’s reported that the Princess of Kirdsortt has gone missing.  

Before she became a mermaid, Marilee was desperate to escape an arranged marriage to the prince of Ebonwood. Tricked by a female mermaid, Marilee was introduced to the underwater kingdom of Vaitha Nera and became the prisoner of Khaled, the ruler of the sea. 

Darius and Marilee both have to deal with the consequences of their selfish ambitions and foolish actions. Darius has to forgive Jay for the accident that killed his father and the huge misunderstanding that ensued. Marilee, in turn, has to live with the guilt of abandoning her family during a time when the kingdom was in ruin due to an outbreak of a terrible fever. The arranged marriage could’ve brought Kirdsortt to prosperity, but the prince of Ebonwood had a horrible reputation. 

Similar to the romance in Desperate Forest, Darius and Marilee’s romance is a slow burn, one that spans their entire sea-faring journey. By no means is Marilee a “manic pixie dream girl.” Her lively attitude doesn’t change Darius overnight. Her trust in Darius, however, even after he shows his true colors, inspires the former prince to try and live up to Marilee’s unfounded expectations. Since Darius is the only one who knows how to navigate the vast Mazarine Sea, and Marilee can only be human for twelve hours out of the day, Marilee puts her trust in him often. Marilee, in turn, helps Darius out of some sticky situations along their journey. 

I recommend this fantasy story to fans of fairy tales such as The Little Mermaid. What makes this particular novel unique is that Darius and Marilee end up redeeming themselves and saving each other. They end up changing each other for the better. 

Tick, Tick…BOOM!–A Movie Review

I mentioned on this blog before that Rent was one of my first musical loves back in my teenage days. I knew of Tick, Tick…BOOM! But up until now, I didn’t do a deep dive into the musical. The Netflix adaptation, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, was my first experience watching it. I knew I would be hooked from the trailer because it included “Boho Days,” a deleted song from the original musical.

What’s interesting about this movie is that the stage show of Tick, Tick…Boom! acts as the framing device. Susan narrates the beginning and the ending, but most of the show centers on Larson narrating his life as he tries to get a show that he created produced on Broadway.

I want to give all the kudos to Andrew Garfield for being such a chameleon of an actor. Many people on Twitter have pointed out how Garfield nails ever tiny movement and expression Jonathan Larson had. 30/90 was the song I looked forward to the most.

Throughout the opening number, Jonathan makes small talk with his fellow diner workers. Jonathan is planning to quit his job at the Moondance diner so that he could focus more on his big musical: Superbia. It’s really interesting that while Tick, Tick…Boom! starts out on the stage (and still shows parts of the on-stage performance), there are also a lot of moments where Larson is singing in his apartment and even at a bookstore, complete with backup dancers and singers. Howard Ho, you better have a good insight on this!

Just so you know, there are a lot of shout outs to Rent throughout this movie. For a complete list, check out Kristen Maldonado’s video:

There are a lot of moments throughout the movie where Jonathan Larson writes lyrics into a memo pad. These lyrics would eventually build up to become “Louder than Words.” It feels like such a realistic way for a song to come together, especially when you look into the Rent demos and see how much the musical changed from the New York Theatre Workshop.

One particular subplot that is woven throughout the movie is Jonathan’s relationship with Susan, who performs in modern dance shows. Susan got a job teaching dance in the Berkshires which is all the way up in New England. Jonathan, unfortunately, isn’t sure if he wants to move up there with her. On the other hand, Michael is moving up to a swanky apartment, complete with a doorman and other luxuries. “No More” reminds me so much of how “Rent” sounds, musically.

In the midst of all this, Jonathan is working on Superbia, a musical he worked on for eight years. (Eight years was also the same amount of time he worked on Rent.) Unfortunately, much like Roger in Rent, Jonathan needs one more song to complete the musical. In “Johnny Can’t Decide,” Jonathan deals with a major case of writer’s block while trying to decide if he want to move with Susan.

As timeless as the movie feels, though, there are plenty of reminders that this story takes place in the early 90s, most notably the AIDS epidemic. At night, Larson watches the news as some Republican congressman shows how little things have changed in the past 30 years. The following morning, one of Jonathan’s coworkers, Freddy, misses out on work because he got hospitalized.

“Sunday” is a really interesting because for one thing, there are over a dozen cameos from various Broadway stars. I hate to say it, but Andrew Garfield was majorly out-sung in this number. I could hear Philippa Soo really well in this one. My favorite part of the number was when Jonathan starts arranging all the people in the diner and the bums on the street like a stage director.

Another instance of 90s nostalgia is “Play Game,” which is styled as a very retro MTV music video. It’s based on an actual song that Jonathan did, complete with him dancing around in a baseball cap like he’s Vanilla Ice. I am very glad that Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to do the retro style and only showed a small segment of Jonathan Larson trying to rap cuz rap is not Larson’s strong point. High concept musicals, however, definitely are.

When Jonathan explained the concept of Superbia, my jaw dropped at how ahead of its time the idea of the musical was. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, Superbia, to quote Larson in movie is…

A satire set in the future on a poisoned planet Earth, where the vast majority of humanity spend their entire lives just staring at the screens of their media transmitters watching the tiny elite of the rich and powerful who film their own fabulous lives like TV shows.

That musical concept was made for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, Larson is dealing with so much on his plate: his friend is in the hospital, he still can’t create the song he needs for Act 2, he misses Michael, and he can’t decide what to do with Susan. Larson decides to take on a focus group gig if it means getting the money to pay for a keyboard player and a drummer. Turns out the extra money was worth it.

Seriously, social media, GET ON MAKING A SUPERBIA REVIVAL! Songs and dances from TikTok, story bits from YouTube, characters with accounts on Twitter and Instagram.

One hilarious part of the movie was “Therapy.” It plays out like a 500 Days of Summer “expectations vs reality” situation. The song performed on stage is a comedic, neurotic argument that goes faster and faster while Susan and Jonathan have a very raw argument in Larson’s apartment.

Things start to spiral downward from there. Larson goes to the focus group session, but it’s very draining and brain-numbing, which leads to an argument with Michael. Then, just as Jonathan gets inspired, the power blows. This leads to the song “Swimming.”

“Swimming” reminds me a lot of “Contact” as it’s a very stream-of-consciousness song that Jonathan narrates himself swimming as he’s trying to look for inspiration and deal with the problems in his life. Then the inspiration finally hits him as he swims and he starts composing his song the old fashioned way.

Finally, the big day comes when he presents Superbia to the world. And it’s everything he wanted…but it doesn’t lead to his big break like he hoped. All Jonathan can do is work on whatever comes next and his agent tells him the first rule of writing: Write what you know.

Jonathan is in a crisis because he feels like he’s running out of time. Of course, he doesn’t know what we, in the future, know, that he actually was running out of time. But Michael brings Jonathan back to reality, revealing that he has HIV.

“Why” acts as the big 11 o’clock number and it’s a big tear-jerker. Jonathan comes back to Michael and tells him about a support group that actually exists called Friends In Deed. Jonathan also decides to keep working at Moondance, with the promise of a mentorship from Stephen Sondheim.

The end of the film is a bittersweet one because Jonathan and Susan part ways and the inevitability of Jonathan Larson’s real life death comes crashing down. “Louder Than Words” acts as the finale, sort of a bridge between Tick, Tick…Boom! and Rent. The parallels are definitely there. “Louder Than Words” asks “Why,” “Rent” asks “How.”

As someone on the cusp of turning 32, this musical really hits for me and I feel like I was watching this movie at the perfect time. So much and so little has changed, but if there’s one thing I took from this, it’s that artists shouldn’t give up on their dreams of creating something that has meaning.

Loki (The Series): Conviction, Self-Love, and Glorious Purpose

This is not gonna be a typical recap and review of Marvel’s Loki series on Disney Plus. I think the general consensus is that after that jaw-dropping finale, nothing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is ever gonna be the same ever again.

What I want to do instead is give my thoughts on Loki’s character arc and the debate of free will vs determinism. If there’s anything that we can learn from Variant-Loki, it’s that a person’s purpose isn’t limited to what other people say. When given the right motivation, even the worst people can learn to love themselves, find the conviction to do the right thing, and discover their own glorious purpose. So obviously, there will be spoilers!

The biggest lie that gets introduced right off the bat is the philosophy of determinism, that everything was predetermined and that free will is non-existent. If there’s anything I learned from The Matrix and The Good Place, it’s that in reality, while we are somewhat limited by our circumstances, our actions within those circumstances will always have consequences and we have the potential to create a change within said circumstances, even when powerful institutions try to prevent us from doing so.

Loki starts out constantly (and rightfully) questioning the TVA’s authority and eventually teams up with Sylvie to find the man behind the curtain, so to speak. In contrast, Renslayer digs in her heels and tries to find a sense of meaning even with the revelation that the entire TVA is a lie. As someone who’s Catholic, but deconstructing, I can relate to Renslayer’s personal crisis and have seen people dig in their heels and believe the lies created by various institutions in the hopes of finding something that makes sense and feels secure and safe.

In contrast, the truth of everyone in the TVA being variants allows for an opportunity for Mobius and the hunters to find their authentic selves, in a similar way that Loki did. Loki coming face to face with his “inevitable” death was a huge “Memento Mori” moment. I also like to think that while he was totally falling in love with Sylvie (which is not something the entire fandom is happy with, myself included), Loki was basically learning how to love himself as he was in the present. He may not be the Loki we knew from 2012 up until Infinity War, but this Loki learned how to love himself in a completely non-narcissistic way, which (according to Whitney Houston) is truly the greatest love of all.

He Who Remains is a very interesting “final villain.” He is very understated and way too chill, but that comes from just being omniscient (to some extent). He’s like a very genre-savvy MCU fan who knows Loki and Sylvie as well as what they seem to desire most. However, the paths the two Variants take deviate because by the last episode, Loki has a sense of conviction that came from seeing the multiple, equally bad versions of himself (literally) and the desire to make sure that Sylvie stays safe. I also think that Loki was trying to look for a third option that would dismantle the TVA while preventing a multiversal war, but obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.

The difference, in the end, between Loki and Sylvie is that Loki found a sense of conviction and the glorious purpose he so desperately desired while Sylvie was merely driven by revenge. While her desire for revenge is completely understandable, it won’t really get her far. Revenge isn’t much of a glorious purpose, nor is it much fuel for conviction.

So in the end, was it all for nothing? The entire Infinity Saga? Loki’s efforts to dismantle the TVA? Loki and Sylvie’s (ahem) questionable romance? I honestly don’t think so. Loki might have ended up in a different timeline, but somewhere out there is the Mobius he knew. I like to think that somehow, the TVA will be dismantled or at the very least reformed and repurposed because the real threat isn’t the multiverse itself, but the evil variants of He Who Remains aka Kang the Conquerer.

The Infinity Saga has ended and therefore, the Infinity Stones have served their purpose. (As much as I wish that Thanos could’ve been stopped before he snapped!) One era has ended and now a new era is beginning. And we don’t know what to expect.

I’m gonna close this philosophical contemplation with a quote from Angel that kinda sums up the idea of finding meaning within a universe that doesn’t make sense. “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do…if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

Of course, our actions actually do matter and they do make a difference. We shouldn’t be doing the right thing out of a sense of getting some kind of reward, though. Our glorious purpose is to just keep trying in the hopes that things might turn out right, that our actions can make the world just the tiniest bit better.

Black Widow: One Story Ends, Another Begins

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It’s no secret that a Black Widow movie was long overdue. For what it’s worth, long story short, I feel like this movie was very good. It’s by no means an “S Tier” movie on the same level as Captain America and the Winter Soldier, but we get to see Natasha on her own journey to redemption, revealing some things about her past that everyone wanted to know, and I hope that there will be more “interquels” with OG Black Widow in the future.

But non-spoiler: The best thing I can say about this movie is that I got a good sense of closure. If this is the only Black Widow movie we get, I’ll be okay with it. I loved the major characters, especially Red Guardian. He was a total ham and I hope he gets to show off more of what he can do in later materials. Yelena was such a great foil for Natasha and I love that she points out how ridiculous Natasha’s “superhero landing” was, even as she ended up doing it herself! So yeah. Definitely an A-Tier movie that I would probably put up there in the same level as the Ant-Man movies. Solid and enjoyable and definitely worth watching at the movies.

Spoilers from here on out!

Unique to the MCU films, we have an opening sequence with a darker and edgier version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I loved that there was an opening sequence, but I also missed having a creative closing credits.

The Ohio sequence reminded me a lot of Stranger Things in terms of aesthetic. And I’m not gonna lie, hearing “American Pie” was a real dissonance to me cuz I am way too used to Weird Al’s Star Wars parody version. In between the creative opening and the real start of the story, we finally find out what happened in Budapest. Sadly, it was not anything involving a couple of vampires. Instead, Natasha was on a mission with SHIELD, killing General Dreykov, the creator of the Red Room/Black Widow Program, with Dreykov’s daughter apparently dying in the process.

Natasha starts out her new life on the run while Yelena is deprogrammed from the Black Widow’s mind control and sets out to free the rest of the young ladies, sending the deprogramming antidote gas to Natasha. The vials put Natasha on Taskmaster’s radar and I loved the fight they had on the bridge. We can clearly see that Taskmaster imitated some familiar Avenger fighting styles, but I wish the fight choreography was more distinct because I could only recognize Captain America with the obvious shield. None of the Avengers use a sword!

Nitpicking aside, I love when, eventually, Natasha reunites with her sister and (down the line) breaks her foster father Alexei (Red Guardian) out of jail. As I said before, Red Guardian is a total ham. And his delusions about fighting Captain America can make sense from a certain point of view. He may not have fought Steve Rogers, but given that he was this Communist Russian hero, there’s nothing that says that he didn’t encounter Isaiah Bradley during the Korean War. He has such a big ego, he’s hilarious, and while he’s obviously got his ideals in the wrong place, he genuinely loves his wife and daughters.

Melina, Natasha and Yelena’s mother, is a lot more unnerving as the scientist behind the Black Widow brainwashing program. That said, she’s intent on taking Dreykov down. She’s a lot more understated compared to her bombastic, hammy “husband.” So as far as helping our heroes get the job done, I definitely liked her.

Blockbuster Buster pointed out that having a Super Soldier and a mad scientist as parents really explains why Natasha was always so close to Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. (Cue to Steve/Tony fanfics.) The brother/sister relationship she had with Steve can now be seen with the lens of Natasha seeing Steve as a healthier version of Alexei. (Sorry Steve/Nat shippers!) I also liked Yelena’s little bit about Natasha teaching science and having a husband who flips houses. It’s a small nod to both of the men in Natasha’s life (Bruce Banner and Clint Barton).

The second half of the movie focuses on Natasha, Yelena, Melina, and Alexei taking down Dreykov and putting an end to the Red Room/Black Widow Program once and for all. Dreykov is an antagonist that really makes me feel uncomfortable because he exploits young women and tampers with their bodies and minds without their consent. There are some major real world parallels here, but I’ll let y’all connect the dots. (Hashtag Me Too movement.)

What I liked the most about the overall story arc of this movie is Natasha getting closure on the Red Room and killing Dreykov’s daughter. Dreykov was the Big Bad of the movie, with Taskmaster being more of an enforcer, similar to The Winter Soldier.

And yes, I am perfectly okay with Dreykov’s daughter, Antonia, being Taskmaster. Within the narrative, she’s the living embodiment of Natasha’s biggest regret and also represents who Natasha probably could’ve been if she remained within Dreykov and was submitted to that level of mind control. Defeating Dreykov and dismantling the Black Widow program really calls to mind a famous quote from Labyrinth: “You have no power over me.”

The post-credit scene

While I’m still sad about the fact that Natasha is truly dead and gone, it’s nice that her grave has been honored with lots of teddy bears and flowers. I also liked seeing Yelena maintaining the grounds.

I was looking forward to seeing Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine and she definitely didn’t disappoint. But I’m also glad that this was actually her second appearance. If this was the first instance that I saw her, she would’ve left a bad first impression. Blowing her nose and saying that she was allergic to the Midwest is very snobby and rude. It fits her character, but it doesn’t match the swagger she had during Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I mean, in the latter, she knew how to make an entrance and introduced herself in a way that got everyone’s attention and established her as someone who had a lot of authority and did not give three straws about what anyone else thought of her.

Also, why the heck would Yelena think that Clint Barton would be behind Natasha’s death? I guess we’ll find out in the Hawkeye series.

Final thoughts

I am very happy that this was the first movie that I saw in theaters after getting vaccinated. It’s a movie that’s worth seeing for that unique cinematic experiences. This movie was a great sendoff to Natasha Romanoff and I look forward to seeing how Yelena will pick up the mantle.

In The Heights: What Dreams are Made Of

In The Heights logo

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda created Hamilton, his biggest claims to fame were both related to Hispanic culture and theatre: Providing Spanish translated lyrics to the 2009 West Side Story revival and creating his own musical about the Hispanic-American culture–In The Heights. I listened to the original Broadway soundtrack every now and then and thanks to Howard Ho, I found a really good proshot of the musical and watched it in anticipation of the 2021 movie.

There’s a reason why this movie was always meant to come out in the summer. It’s the musical version of a summer blockbuster. What I’m gonna say, spoiler-free, is that this movie isn’t a one-for-one remake of the stage musical. And that’s honestly a good thing. For the most part. Minor spoilers ahead!

The big theme of In The Heights is the dreams that everyone has, symbolized by the phrase “El Suañito” which means “Little Dream.” Usnavi dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic, Nina has dreams of making it big at Stanford, and Vanessa dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Everyone in Washington Heights works hard and dreams big. Yes, this movie is basically slice-of-life with a bit of romance and a bit of drama. But the optimism of this film is very refreshing given how cynical and dark a lot of other movies out there have been.

Also, this is just me being petty, but this movie kicks La La Land‘s butt in terms of story and cinematography and having people who can, you know, actually sing. The actress playing Nina is by far the weakest singer, sorry to say, but she’s at least better than Emma Stone. Sorry not sorry!

Speaking of singers, though, Daphne Rubin-Vega was seriously awesome as Daniella. Most musical fans will recognize Rubin-Vega as the original Broadway Mimi from Rent. Rubin-Vega sounds a lot older now, but she puts so much spirit into her performance. Stephanie Beatriz is equally impressive as Carla, the ditzy salon lady. It’s very different from her signature role as Rosa from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Daniella and Carla are an official couple in the film and their relationship is treated very nicely.

Vanessa also gets some much-needed fleshing out. Her dream is a lot more specific here: becoming a fashion designer. Similar to Usnavi, she realizes that (much like The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life) all that she needs to inspire her is already in front of her, in the barrio. And of course, Anthony Ramos as Usnavi is just perfect. He plays the role with charm but he’s also a major dork, especially around Vanessa, and he’s a lot more realistic compared to his friends. Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Piragua Guy is also really nice cuz he gets to really sing some great stuff, especially in “Carnaval de Barrio.”

Standout moments: Obviously “96,000” was a big moment! I was dancing in my living room (one advantage of watching a movie at home) during that song as well as “Carnaval de Barrio.” I totally felt the pride of everyone waving the flags of their home countries. I almost want a Philippine flag just so that I could join in! “Paciencia Y Fe” had me tearing up (not an easy job but musicals do this to me every time). And of course, the way the movie ended was just pure heartwarming.

Overall, I think the director really wanted this to be more of a lighthearted, optimistic musical and John M. Chu did a really good job of doing that. The framing device of the film (Usnavi telling the story of Washington Heights to a group of kids) really suits his character arc and the overall theme of just being heard in the world. I liked that they included topical events without being heavy-handed about it. The struggles feel relatable, but they don’t hit you over the head with it which is a lot nicer than I can say about other ways the whole ripped from the headlines trope can be executed.

There are other minor changes to the narrative that, to me, don’t really affect the overall story. But if you’re a diehard fan of the stage show, I’ll admit that some of the drama/suspense gets taken away.

Minor Nitpicks/Minor Spoilers:

Minor nitpick #1: I don’t exactly know why Cuca was added to the film, however. Minor nitpick, but it would have been an easy fix to just rename Cuca as Yolanda, since Yolanda gets mentioned in “No Me Diga.” Then again, that might have led to a minor catfight since Vanessa calls Yolanda a skank.

Minor nitpick/spoiler #2: I wanted closure for Nina, Benny, and Kevin. Yes, Nina might go back to Stanford, but what’s she gonna do with her education? Where are Benny and Kevin gonna go? It’s stated (minor spoiler) that Nina will use her education to try and help her community, especially the undocumented immigrants, but it would be nice to see it on-screen. My personal headcanon is that Nina follows through on her dream, finishing her degree. Benny and Kevin might find a career with traffic reporting and Benny could’ve moved to California (however temporary) to be with Nina. In relation, I also think that Sonny can definitely get involved with the community in a very grassroots kind of way and advocate for immigration reform in his own way.

Minor spoiler/Minor Nitpick #3: Okay, it’s implied in the stage show (maybe in a previous draft) that Sonny and Graffiti Pete could’ve been in a relationship. There was a chance for them to kiss in the stage production and maybe future productions can throw it in. But come on! If Daniella and Carla can be in a relationship, I want Sonny and Graffiti Pete to kiss, dang it!

Final thoughts: If you can, please see this movie in theatres! If you plan to dance along at home, though, make sure you have friends who can dance along with you. This movie is definitely as sweet as piragua! Watch this movie and enjoy the songs!

Dreams of Fire by Nathaniel Wayne – A Book Review

I joke with my friends that I basically live on the Internet. When I say that, I mean that I spend a lot of time watching people on YouTube. One channel I subscribe to and watch on the regular is Council of Geeks, who does videos critiquing episodes of various shows, mostly Doctor Who. The host of the channel, Nathaniel Wayne (who also goes by Vera), has given me an ARC of his debut self-published fantasy novel Dreams of Fire. In their second channel, Break Room of Geeks, Nathaniel says that Dreams of Fire does away with a lot of cliches associated with the fantasy genre.

One way that Dreams of Fire stands out amongst the current trend of fantasy novels is that it’s a straightforward adventure with no romantic subplots. Another thing that I think makes Dreams of Fire unique is that while Ferris is an elemental with the ability to wield fire, the ability feels more like a curse rather than a superpower. Ferris’s main goal through the novel is to avoid the Science Guild–an organization that’s been experimenting on elementals for as long as Ferris has been alive. Don’t worry. This review is spoiler-free.

Ferris is a very relatable character. He’s constantly in fear and he doesn’t plan too far ahead. All he wants is to find a boat that can take him to freedom, wherever that may be. Ferris doesn’t get any wise old mentor who could help him hone his gift. The closest thing he gets is someone called The Shadow Man who is more of an annoyance to him. The Shadow Man proves to be a lot more complicated than he seems to be. Ferris also meets a fellow elemental named Poena, who is able to wield lightning, and she proves to be quite formidable in a fight.

The settings in this book reminds me of The Legend of Zelda. There are scenes that take place in a dense forest that’s riddled with fey, who are regarded as dangerous creatures. Later in the novel, it’s clear as to why–the fey are at war with humanity and elementals are unfortunately caught up in the middle, not fitting in with regular people, but also scared of the fey.

Aside from Ferris, the book also has chapters that focus on Garion, a half-breed and the only character connected to the Fey. He works with the humans as a Marshal in searching for elementals. I love Garion’s character design as shown in the illustrations. Garion reminds me of a Hobbit in terms of size, but he’s completely cloaked, wearing a red scarf that obscures most of his face.

The other POV character featured in this book is Professor Raines, who teaches about elementals and is part of the Science Guild. In spite of the fact that she works for the people that Ferris regards as the enemy, she’s not a Big Bad. In fact, there isn’t any real “big bad” aside from the authorities who want to keep all the elementals off the streets. There’s also this subplot-aesop of messing with something that’s beyond their understanding: studying the fey and putting these creatures in labs. It’s no wonder that the fey might regard humanity as threatening to them.

I think my only problem with this book is that I didn’t want it to end. And the way the book ended was not exactly what I expected, but I understood what Nathaniel was going for here. This was never really a “standalone” novel as it was like the first season of a show that has the hope of a second season. (Thank you, by the way, for not ending this novel on a cliffhanger.) I am really hoping that there will be a sequel.

How Rent Hits Different in the 2020s

December 26, 10AM, Central Standard Time.

The power generator blew on my block. Without power aside from phone data, I decided to stream Rent because all the musical fans on Twitter were quoting it a couple days ago. (“December 24th, 9PM, Eastern Standard Time…”)

Rent was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. I fell in love with the musical in a really unusual way. It was part of a recommended reading list and a library that I frequented back in California just so happened to have the Rent libretto aka “The Rent Bible.” This also happened to be the same year that the movie came out. Aside from Wicked and Phantom of the Opera, Rent became one of my first post-Disney musical loves.

I’ll admit that the show is not a perfect one, but I still love most of the music. What I didn’t expect was how the themes of the musical would resonate in a time when everyone started panicking about catching a certain virus and struggling to pay rent. So leave all your jokes about “they should all just get jobs” at the door, thank you very much.

The song “Rent” really hits different in the 2020s with how bizarre everything felt. I also related a lot to Mark and Roger, who were both trying to create something in the midst of all the craziness. The imagery of everyone burning their eviction notices is also very poignant and dazzling.

Something I learned about while I was diving back into my love for Rent was that there was a recent production of Rent in the Hope Mill Theatre (England) and one choice they did as part of their production was that the characters would rarely, if ever, touch each other. It’s not something that can be noticed from the clips. (And sadly, I missed my opportunity to stream it), but given that they were doing this production in 2020, the threat of COVID was looming just as much as the threat of dying from AIDS did back when this musical was originally written.

If there’s anything we can learn from Rent, it’s that nothing is guaranteed, to make the most of the time that we have. Whether it’s the early 90s or the start of the 2020s, people struggle with creating and finding meaningful things and the existential dread of dying from something outside of your control. And in the 2020s, when we’re not sure what the future holds, making the most of each day and measuring our lives by the love we have makes life just a little bit better.

Falcon and The Winter Soldier: Refining Identity and Politics

After the emotional rollercoaster that WandaVision put me through, I went into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier thinking I was signing up for an action-packed buddy comedy. What I got instead was a really good continuation of the Captain America films, complete with politics that felt all too real!

Spoilers!

Politics and Captain America going together is nothing new. The original Captain America comics started out as WWII propaganda and they were published before America officially got involved. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War also had political themes.

Now I usually don’t like political themes or “ripped from the headlines” type of writing. I’ve seen way too many cases of it being done badly. At worst, the characters are basically standing on a soapbox and preaching to the choir. In the case of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, the political message is woven in naturally with the show because it connects to Sam Wilson and his character arc.

When we last left Sam Wilson at Avenger’s Endgame, he received Steve’s shield. The problem is that he didn’t feel worthy of it. He never used the shield during that opening mission. So in Episode 1, he gives the shield to the Smithsonian Museum. Not only does Sam have to deal with the looming threat of the Flag Smashers (an organization that appears to be modern-day Robin Hoods), he also has to help out his family with maintaining the family business. I loved that Sam’s family gets introduced in this series in the form of his sister Sarah and his nephews. But the scene at the bank where Sam couldn’t get a loan hit hard. (I know that crowdfunding could’ve dated this series, but many fans were saying that Sam should’ve started a “gofundme.”)

Meanwhile, Bucky is trying to readjust to living in the real world, complete with sessions with a government-appointed therapist. He’s got a list of names written in Steve’s old notebook of people he has to make amends with, but so far, he’s just been getting back at some bad guys he helped put into power. This storyline feels familiar to me for some reason… Some people liked Bucky’s therapist, Dr. Raynor, but TikTok sensation and former Air Force Veteran Nicque Marina pointed out how similar Dr. Raynor acted to VA therapists she used to see. Dr. Raynor was government-appointed and while I liked her in Episode 2, she was pretty abrasive and I’m glad that she didn’t overstay her welcome.

Anyway, Episode 1 basically establishes the character arcs for Sam and Bucky as well as their personal, real-world, real-life struggles. And it ends with introducing a guy who embodies a lot of the stuff that Sam and Bucky lack: privilege and prominence. Hello, John Walker.

John Walker has his share of fans who have sympathized with him a little bit more than he deserves, I think. In my honest opinion, John Walker is a complicated character. Unlike other MCU antagonists, he doesn’t start as an outright villain with charisma. He’s the chosen soldier for the government, perfect on paper but lacking in essentials (like being able to speak more than one language). It’s pretty easy to see John Walker as representing how the world sees the American military, for better and for worse. And while he isn’t a racist character, he’s very privileged. He’s surrounded with Black people who uplifted and supported him: A Black marching band championing him at his old high school, a Black wife, and a Black best friend.

My personal beef with John Walker is his entitlement complex. Yes, the government chose him to be Captain America and he knew that he had a lot to live up to. But he still acted like an entitled, inconsiderate brat in a lot of ways, like thinking he can just ask Sam and Bucky to be his sidekicks when they did all the work. I won’t discredit John Walker’s military accomplishments. It’s implied that he’s in Special Forces (by the green beret he wore in Episode 5). Sam and Bucky dealt with HYDRA agents, went on the run from the government, and fought Thanos’s army twice. John Walker couldn’t hold his own in a fight with the Dora Milaje.

The entitlement issues come to a head in Episode 4. The debate about the super soldier serum gets discussed between Zemo, Bucky, and Sam. Later on, Walker has a similar debate with his partner, Lemar Hoskins aka Battlestar. While Lemar believed the somewhat true statement that the serum would just emphasize whatever strength the user already has, he forgot Erskine’s explanation of how the serum actually worked. And I can’t believe that a guy like him never heard of the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Walker did not get enough comeuppance in the finale, especially given his actions at the end of Episode 4, but to me, him joining up with the ambiguously evil Contessa is exactly what he deserves. He thinks that he’s getting what he wants, but I’m hoping there will be an instance where the Contessa will ask him to do something he doesn’t feel comfortable doing. And if and when he realizes he got in bed with the wrong people, we’ll all point and laugh. For now, I’m just rolling my eyes at how basic and privileged he is. (Quoting Lincoln, dude? Really?)

Walker represents one of the many ideologies brought up in the series. Walker represents the government, white privilege, and extreme entitlement. On the other side of things are the Flag Smashers. On the surface, Karli and her cohorts come off as modern day Robin Hoods. They’re shown trying to redistribute vaccines to refugees. The problem is that the motivations of the group are kind of a mixed message. On the one hand, they want to have a more globalized society, with people being able to find jobs and housing and healthcare no matter where they reside. In essentials, it’s a good idea. But on the other hand, their desires come at the expense of literally half the world that was lost from Thanos’s snap. Karli is a teenager and it’s implied that the serum radicalized her into taking extreme measures. But her own followers were starting to get worried, especially towards the end.

I’m sad that Karli died at the end, but thematically speaking, I wasn’t exactly on the side of the Flag Smashers aside from their ally that spat in John Walker’s face. They represented extreme lawlessness, even with their best intentions.

A third ideology presented in this series came from Zemo, Sharon Carter, and Isaiah Bradley, who all represented various types of cynicism. Zemo’s cynicism is of the Ayn Rand/objectivist variety. He thinks that anyone who takes the serum is a supremacist and he’s not wrong, but Sam was quick to point out that Zemo’s viewpoints are just as extreme. (Side note: While I loved how efficient Zemo was in getting exactly what he wanted and his dorky dance moves, he still creeped me out when he was giving Turkish Delight to kids on the street. Dude broke the Stranger Danger rules from the 90s! Did nobody read CS Lewis?!) Sharon Carter is nihilistic and embraces her new chaotic neutral lifestyle, done with all the stars and stripes. She’s a burned spy and she has every reason to be nihilistic, but her taking advantage of that pardon at the end is opening a whole new Pandora’s Box of trouble! She is scaring me!

Finally, we have Isaiah Bradley, who’s cynicism is more than justified. His story is a mix of the comic Truth: Red, White, and Black and stuff from actual history like the Tuskegee experiments and Henrietta Lacks. This man was put in jail for essentially doing the same thing Steve Rogers did (only his brothers-in-arms ended up dying soon after they were rescued). It’s no wonder he lived a very solitary life with only his grandson for company. Bradley acts as a cautionary tale for both Sam and Bucky. All three of them were veterans who served their government, but were discarded after they were no longer seen as assets. (Side note: I am loving the conversations brought up amongst the veteran community.)

In the midst of all these conflicting ideologies, Sam is set on walking that narrow road, where he can define what the right thing to do is. He sympathized with the Flag Smashers, but cautioned against taking extremes. He understood Isaiah’s pain, but he chose to take a stand instead of falling into despair. I loved watching Sam’s journey throughout the series. I also loved that Sam didn’t get on a soapbox until the very end. For the most part, his actions speak for themselves.

The process of refining involves removing impurities from substances such as iron or silver. To me, Sam refined what being Captain America means and the ideologies behind the shield. His speech at the end really resonated with me because it felt timely and timeless. This series could’ve easily happened about a decade ago (complete with the politics) and it would’ve felt just as realistic because the struggle to find your place in the world and keep the powers in check is one that’s been around for a very long time. And like what Sam said “The only power I have is that I believe… we. Can do. Better.” Sam’s speech to Isaiah is equally relevant as he is defining how he is going to be Captain America. He wants to uphold the history of all the Black people who came before him, Isaiah included. I was so happy that Isaiah got a section of the Captain America exhibit dedicated to him!

My favorite thing about this series as a whole, though, was Sam and Bucky’s dynamic. They started out not exactly being the best of friends, but by the end of the series, Bucky was practically adopted into Sam’s community in Louisiana. Sam helped Bucky realize the difference between avenging and actual atonement. The time they spent fixing Sam Wilson’s family boat and the cookout in the finale will live in my mind rent-free. We do not get enough domestic Avengers!

Overall, I think this series is one that really reflects the politics of the 2020s. While there will sadly be people who won’t understand or refuse to acknowledge the lessons that this series has to teach, it’s gonna open a lot of discussions. And at the very least, it gives us a lot of insight into the struggles military veterans have to deal with and the importance of not going to extremes when it comes to politics or ideologies.