Here we are at the end of Thanksgiving week, and as we hurtle forward toward the end of the year, film studios are offering up their biggest and most exciting movies, and the list of video games and TV shows I need to catch up on reaches its absolute breaking point. We’re truly spoiled for choice in 2016, so with that in mind, here are three highlights from my past week in geek culture.
All of this week’s picks just so happen to represent brand new entries in established series, and it’s not surprising. What’s old is definitely new again, as studios and publishers become more and more motivated to mine the past for ideas rather than take a risk with a new IP. And I can’t totally fault them for it – it’s unlikely that I would have chosen to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on opening weekend if it weren’t attached to a series – and more importantly, an author – that I know and love.
Without further ado, on to this week’s list.
#1 / Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Following up the Harry Potter series is impossible – we all knew that – and when I first saw the trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I have to admit it was with more than a touch of skepticism. I mean, of all the directions to take the series in, we get Eddie Redmayne back in 1920’s America, with a plot that centers around him bringing magical creatures to the country, proceeding to lose those creatures, and then spending two hours trying to find them again. It just seemed like a pointless exercise – a macguffin, if you will – that looked too obviously like a pointless exercise to convince me to care.
But alas, this is the official continuation of the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” we’re talking about here, written by the brilliant J.K. Rowling (check out her mystery novels if you want further proof). So, as the release date crept closer, my skepticism gave way to anticipation, which then turned into excitement. My hope was that the whole “Magical Creatures” angle was merely an entree into bigger, more consequential things, and for the most part this proved to be the case.
I won’t try to give a full review here, but I will say that Fantastic Beasts is a bountiful banquet of likable elements, including great new characters (especially the NoMaj scene-stealer Jacob Kowalski), lots of new US-based magical lore, beautiful special effects, and the introduction of a promising new villain. The film is also led by a surprisingly charming (it surprised me, anyway) lead actor in Redmayne. He plays hero Newt Scamander as a young, forgetful-professor-type with a heart of gold, and his performance is an understated ballet of inconstant eye-contact and a warm-but-cautious interactions. In action scenes, however, his youthful energy emerges and manifests itself in an awesome new fighting style that incorporates wand work, gymnastics, and ample help from his array of diverse creatures who distract enemies and land blows of their own when necessary.
And sure, there are elements of Beasts that I didn’t care for as much – the depressingly-dour Second Salemers, for example – but I also see their necessity as a catalyst for the plot. We now know that this is the first in a series of 5 new films, all directed by David Yates, and in that context, the film serves as an excellent primer on America’s Wizarding Community of the early 20th Century. Most important of all, though, is that it’s a great deal of fun to watch, and even more fun to talk about and obsess over after the credits have rolled. And on the subject of the love-it-or-hate-it twist at the end? I loved it, so that didn’t hurt either.
#2 / Pokemon Sun and Moon
For the past two generations, I’ve been trying to get into Pokemon, and it just hasn’t happened. Most recently with X and Y, I picked up X because I liked the Colorfully-Antlered Deer-looking Legendary Pokemon on the cover (Xerneas, I believe), but after the first few hours of playing, somehow the game lost me. Still not sure why this keeps happening. But this time I am absolutely committed to giving the series a chance with Generation 7. I bought Moon on Friday (‘cause I’m a total night person and buying Sun just didn’t feel right) and I started playing it this weekend.
Upon firing the game up, my first task was to choose a player portrait to represent me as my avatar in the game world and on my pokemon passport, and I found it surprisingly difficult to choose. I wanted to pick the blonde portrait (because its closest to my hair color), but the kid’s eyes are light blue and stare-y and made it look like he was hypnotized at all times. So then I reset the game and chose the more traditional looking Pokemon trainer kid who looks like ash with darker eyes and hair. But that one didn’t look at all like me so I switched back again, and then those annoying blue eyes looked even worse than I remembered, so I reset again and…look, I know this sounds crazy, but it’s one reason why I get stifled by Pokemon games. They’re so simple, but man do I overthink every decision.
And overthinking can be bad news in Pokemon, as my next decision was coming really soon: which starter would I choose? This decision was surprisingly easier for me, though. I have a certain affinity for the much-maligned Popplio because I love an underdog (get it?), and Litten is really cute too, but its final evolution – Incineroar – looks more like a Luchador wrestler than a Pokemon so Litten’s out. In the end, Rowlet was the porridge that was just right, as his bow tie, cleverly-swiveling head and oodles of charm won me over. So I said “I choose you, Rowlet!” and continued my adventure.
Next I was set loose to do some easy battling and build my first team of six Pokemon. Soon my roster included Rowlet, Pikipek, Caterpie, Rattata, Slowpoke and Yungoos, and everything was good. That is, until I caught my seventh Pokemon and had to decide which of the first six to send back to base camp so Wingull could join up. And then, every Pokemon I caught after that led to the same decision. But there’s more to consider, because some Pokemon you catch aren’t as cool as the ones on your team, but their levels are higher, leading to an even tougher Sophie’s choice.
And then, when my Rowlet finally reached level 11, I hit a choice that stalled me for literally 30 mins of online research. I had unlocked a new move, Astonish, but I could only learn it if I “un-learned” one of my four current moves. I didn’t want to un-learn a crucial move I might need later, but otherwise, I’d have to forego the new, potentially more powerful Astonish. In the end, I swapped out Tackle and learned Astonish, but I’m still not sure I did he right thing. Argh!
So this is where I find myself on Sunday night: having progressed only about 2 hours into the game. Am I having fun yet? I’m not actually sure, but I am determined to keep playing and to finally understand what so many people have been trying to explain to me for so long: the enduring appeal of Pokemon. I’ll keep you posted as I battle on – in the Island Trials and against my own, inner Poke-demons.
#3 / Black Mirror Season 3 (especially “San Junipero”)
I’ve been a big fan of Black Mirror since it first aired on Public Television here in the states, and have been happy to see it’s slow-but-steady rise via Netflix onto the radar of savvy viewers everywhere. The series began life in the UK on Channel 4 as two series of three hour-long episodes each followed by a Christmas Special (which starred Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm), and while each of the episodes possesses a strong point-of-view and a number of thought-provoking ideas, certain episodes are decidedly better than others.
The best episodes of Black Mirror, however, transcend just about anything else on modern TV, and offer a gut-wrenching and emotionally-moving look at the potential pitfalls of technology if we allow it to progress too far. Charlie Brooker is the writer and creative evil-genius behind the show, and his vision of the future is often as un-endingly bleak as it is seemingly clairvoyant. If you want proof of just how good Black Mirror can be, I’d suggest watching “10 Million Merits” first, with “Be Right Back” and “White Bear” as excellent next steps.
So flash-forward to today, and no-one is happier than me that Netflix has decided to continue the series with two new seasons of six episodes. I mean, for a show that’s only released seven total episodes since 2011, these twelve new episodes are a veritable Black Mirror feast. So when Season 3 dropped on Oct. 21, I jumped right in with the first episode, “Nosedive” – but as much as I wanted it to blow me away, I came away feeling like it was only…pretty good.
I spaced the next two episodes out a bit, and watched “Playtest” (about Virtual Reality becoming a bit too real) and “Shut up and Dance” (a frenetic thriller with similarities to Jason Statham’s Crank – minus the lighter bits) over the next two weeks. They were also pretty good, but none of these new episodes was able to do what “10 Million Merits” did so well – blending technological insight with emotional understanding to create a magical brew all its own.
And then this weekend I saw episode 4, “ San Junipero,” and everything changed. This episode is up there with the absolute best Black Mirror episodes, and it tackles a brand new intersection of technology/humanity that I’d never even considered. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what that intersection is here because you have to go in without any preconceived notions to really appreciate what this episode does. It’s full of twists, full of emotion, and airtight in terms of potential technology plot holes, and beyond all of that, it’s just tremendously moving. It also tackles the subject of same-sex relationships in an organic and non-political way.
“San Junipero” is an incredible hour of television, and I implore you to stop reading right now and watch this episode. I mean, everyone has Netflix, right?
Did you experience something amazing this week in the world of TV, Movies, Video Games or Comics? Let me know in the comments.