HBO Max Streaming Service Review

Be sure to check out our reviews of other popular streaming services: NetflixDisney+Amazon Prime VideoHuluApple TV+, and Quibi.

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One of the key elements needed to compete in the Great Streaming War against the likes of Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, Hulu, and others is to possess a vast and diverse entertainment catalog to keep potential subscribers occupied not just for hours, but days, weeks, and even months on end. For HBO Max, the newly expanded streaming service has plenty of content thanks to WarnerMedia’s many subsidiaries: HBO, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros., Adult Swim, Studio Ghibli, Crunchyroll, and many more. At launch, HBO Max promises to provide over 10,000 hours of content.

And while Netflix reportedly has around 36,000 hours of movies and shows at any given time, setting a high bar for quantity, HBO Max has quality on its side: it brings with it a level of brand recognition and prestige that no other service (apart for Disney) can match. Warner Bros. alone has been in the entertainment business for over a century, producing iconic, award-winning films like Casablanca, The Shining, and the entire Batman, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings sagas. In short, you don’t have to wade through nearly as much junk on HBO Max in order to get to the good stuff.

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However, even with an impressive list of movies and TV shows to stream at launch, HBO Max’s user interface has to function as seamlessly as its competitors so subscribers can enjoy the overall experience. At launch, the Max has a greater than average number of kinks in terms of its features and availability that it still needs to iron out. Of course, while there are some red flags to consider, if we’ve learned anything from Disney+’s technical debacle when it first launched, it’s never too late to recover.

To learn more about what we thought of the HBO Max streaming platform, read on for a more detailed overview of its movies and shows, user interface, and pricing when compared to other providers.

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HBO Max’s TV Shows and Movies

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Photo courtesy of HBO Max

In this competitive streaming landscape, holding the rights to popular shows and films is key. Netflix probably realizes this better than anyone, especially since the streaming giant offered WarnerMedia $ 100 million just to hold onto the rights to the enduringly popular ‘90s sitcom Friends back in 2018. But Warner refused, and now, all of your favorite episodes of Friends can be exclusively be found on HBO Max (even though the highly anticipated Friends reunion special is currently on hold due to the novel coronavirus). Apart from Friends, HBO Max is also the one and only home to countless series from HBO, TNT, Cartoon Network, Sesame Workshop, and across Warner Bros’ many studio divisions.

This means, especially if you’re already an existing HBO subscriber, that you’ve gone from having access to the entire library of HBO’s hit series like Game of Thrones and The Wire, to now having (nearly) everything else from WarnerMedia’s empire at your fingertips. IGN has a complete list of everything that’s available on HBO Max at launch right here, but some notable highlights include the entire Studio Ghibli collection, all eight Harry Potter films, and a curation of timeless Turner Classic Movies like Gone With the Wind and Once Upon a Time in the West.

But there are glaring omissions in that list. Much in the same way Disney+ did not have its entire lineup available at launch, HBO Max is missing favorites such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and the four Christopher Reeve Superman films due to various licensing agreements with other services that have yet to run their course (or, seemingly, because they want to keep some programming, like Superman and Batman: The Animated Series, exclusively on their DC Universe streaming platform). For more notable movies and shows missing from HBO Max’s library, check out the gallery below:

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It’s not all about the library of course: there are also a handful of HBO Max Originals, both scripted and unscripted (read our launch reviews here). These include Love Life, an entertaining rom-com starring Anna Kendrick, and Looney Tunes Cartoons, a modern re-imaging of the classic animated series featuring iconic characters like Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Sadly, none of these launch shows are worth the price of admission (see our section on pricing below) on their own. It’s surprising that WarnerMedia did not strive to release a new tentpole launch series here like Disney+ did with The Mandalorian and Apple TV+ did with The Morning Show and See – which both feature A-list actors such as Reese Witherspoon and Jason Momoa, respectively. Perhaps HBO Max’s lack of a prestige series at launch is due to production delays caused by the novel coronavirus, or simply poor planning.

Looking ahead, we’re excited to finally see the Justice League Snyder Cut in 2021, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi drama Raised By Wolves, Ansel Elgort’s Tokyo Vice, the hotly-anticipated Adventure Time specials, high-concept Dune: The Sisterhood, and Greg Berlanti’s live-action Green Lantern series that will feature Sinestro and two Earth Lanterns. But it seems shortsighted for the service to rely so heavily on library content at launch without also touting a buzzy, must-watch series to help lure in subscribers.

HBO Max’s User Interface

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Photo courtesy of HBO Max

HBO Max’s user interface is seamless to navigate, with the standard curated carousels for when you’re in the mood for “edgy animation” like Rick and Morty and Primal, or “blockbuster franchises” such as Die Hard and The Lord of the Rings. You can also easily search by genre via a sidebar, and browse WarnerMedia’s various networks by simply clicking on one of the “HBO Max Hubs” to Adult Swim, Studio Ghibli, or DC depending on what you’re in the mood for (similar to the way Disney+ breaks down its content across Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, etc). In terms of its aesthetics, HBO Max is a good looking interface with its vibrant blue, purple, and pink hues that are easy on the eyes.

Where the streaming platform struggles is not with its visual appearance and ease of navigation, but in the lack of features that we’ve all come to expect should be found on any modern-day service backed by a multi-billion dollar company. For starters, there’s no 4K or HDR support available at the time of writing, which is a big disappointment considering that rivals Disney+, Netflix, and Amazon all offer this feature (although a 4K subscription does cost $ 15.99 per month on Netflix in the US). To its credit, HBO Max does have a “continue watching” option (Disney+ infamously did not when it debuted) and the ability to download shows and movies for convenient offline viewing on a phone or tablet. The fact that the platform’s licensing deals have also prevented a simultaneous global rollout (similar to Disney+, which staggered its international launches over several months) also put it at a disadvantage compared to its competitors.

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Another issue plaguing the launch of HBO Max is the confusion consumers are having over the differences between HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO Max when it comes to existing subscriptions. Thankfully, we have an HBO Max sign-up explainer if you find yourself scratching your head, but the TL;DR is that if you have Go or Now, you probably already have HBO Max without even knowing it, although navigating the sign-up process has proven daunting for some.

And lastly, before you make a decision to sign up, you should be aware that HBO Max is currently not available on Amazon Fire and Roku devices due to WarnerMedia and their parent company AT&T not being able to reach a deal with Roku and Amazon yet. That’s a shame, since these particular streaming devices reportedly account for 80 million TV households.

HBO Max’s Price

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Photo courtesy of HBO Max

In terms of cost, HBO Max falls in the higher priced tier of streaming services, on par with Netflix, which currently offers a 4K, four-simultaneous-streams plan for $ 15.99 in the US. While HBO Max may seem a bit expensive when compared to Disney Plus’s surprisingly affordable $ 6.99 per month rate, it’s actually a pretty good deal when you consider that HBO Now, along with most cable packages that carry HBO as a standalone channel, have been charging $ 15 for some time now. HBO has been able to justify that high cost with its outstanding original content. And here, HBO Max is essentially providing that same service with a ton of additional movies and television series from WarnerMedia’s other subsidiaries at no extra cost… it’s basically HBO on steroids.

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Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Final Season Premiere Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the final season premiere of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD follow.

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The official end of the Marvel Television era is upon us as Agents of SHIELD, which was once the MCU’s heavily-hyped TV flagship, kicks off its farewell season with, appropriately, a storyline that’s almost totally untethered from the overall goings-on in the Marvel-verse – so much so that everything starts with a rollicking romp back to 1931 for a few time travel shenanigans.

Obviously, the story still involves SHIELD, and thus Hydra (thanks to the reveal that the Chronicoms are out to eliminate Hydra from forming so that – er – SHIELD never forms?), but it’s still all nestled within the show’s insulated Hydra mythology (Gideon Malick, Maveth, etc) that doesn’t veer too close to the MCU’s big screen storylines, and the Chronicoms, which were beings created for the series back at the tail end of Season 4. The draw here, in the show’s sunset season, are the characters we’ve been following for almost a decade. Anyone still on board with the show is watching because of Quake, May, Coulson, and the rest of this bizarre, unstuck-in-spacetime “family” (as, truly, none of them have anyone else except each other now).

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Marvel Television (which was officially folded into Marvel Studios last October) was a modest success in its own right — with programming on Netflix, ABC, Freeform, and Hulu — but it was a noble failure on the MCU front. It was always a one-way street, with the TV shows alluding to the movies but never the other way around. Eventually, when Runaways and Cloak and Dagger started, the shows just stopped acting like the Avengers existed at all. And Agents of SHIELD, as of Season 5 (or really the second half of Season 4), decided the best course for itself was to remove its players from the game board completely – whether it meant putting them in a Matrix-style reality or wiping them from the timeline altogether so they wouldn’t be affected by Thanos.

Fortunately, by the time that was necessary, Agents of SHIELD had built up a solid-enough team dynamic, filled with enough love affairs and close bonds and (numerous) resurrections that allowed it to evolve into a soapy superhero joy in its own right, no longer needing to rely on the Marvel Studios films as a backdrop. The gang’s new adventure, which now has them surfing their own rebooted timeline in that timeline’s past, feels like the kind of fun and charming adventure these crusaders should be having as the series winds down. That’s not to say the stakes won’t rise as the season pushes on, but right now even with the “Wilfred Malick” twist right at the end, the show feels more dopey than dangerous. (In a good way, mind you.)

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“The New Deal” drops our prime time players back in the Prohibition, as the Chronicoms (except for Enoch) intend to muss up the works so that they can lay claim to Earth as their new home. As soon as Deke mentions a theory that allows the team to create a smidgeon of havoc in the past without Butterfly Effecting things too much, it’s off to the races. Quake takes down hidden enemies posing as cops, Patton Oswalt shows up as the original Koenig, and Coulson — who has now (finally) become a full LMD — geeks out while meeting FDR.

We don’t know yet how many of this season’s thirteen episodes will take place in the ’30s, though it feels like perhaps the bulk of the season will have this post-Great Depression setting, as even the opening title graphic is done up in old-style noir. We do know that Enver Gjokaj’s Agent Carter character (and Peggy’s love interest), Souza, is headed our way, so given the Hydra element and the (presumed) super-soldier serum we saw, this final run could lead into some really cool First Avenger stuff. And since Agent Carter got axed before its time, perhaps this series can offer up some mini-closure on that front. It’s doubtful that Hayley Atwell will pop in, but perhaps a teenage Peggy is in the cards.

The SHIELD team is, more or less, the best version of themselves right now. Coulson’s back, but not as a deluded manifestation from the fear dimension (did I get that right?). Quake is still a badass in the field. Mac is still a “heavy is the head”-style of director. A recuperating Yo-Yo now has her “real” arms back while Simmons keeps the Z1 home fires burning. Deke is a drip, but a delightful one. Fitz is, naturally, gone, as he’s wont to do. And May is…well, we’re not sure yet. After being almost killed by Sarge last season, she spent the premiere in a healing pod – but then popped up right at the end in menacing fashion. The Season 7 premiere is a good (and semi-goofy) start to SHIELD’s last hurrah, giving us just enough teases to indicate bigger things are on the way.
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Rick and Morty: Season 4, Episode 9 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Rick and Morty: Season 4, Episode 9! If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 4, Episode 8.

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Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Rick and Morty: Season 4 is how little the series has focused on the brewing tension between Rick and Jerry. Given how Season 3 ended with Jerry triumphant (inasmuch as he can ever truly succeed at anything), you’d think this latest batch of episodes would focus a lot more on their rivalry and Beth’s torn loyalties. Fortunately, Season 4 finally makes up for lost time in its penultimate episode. “Childrick of Mort” is a solid addition to the season that finally gives Jerry some long overdue attention.

It’s a nice change of pace to have the whole Smith family joining in on this latest adventure. The idea that Rick is reluctantly forced to care for a race of “Ricklets” he created in a one-night stand with a sentient planet is certainly amusing. But that said, were this just a straightforward Rick/Morty/Summer-driven storyline, there might not be quite enough meat on these bones. It’s all too easy to imagine the end result being a retread of ground covered in “Auto Erotic Assimilation.”

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Having Beth and Jerry in the mix helps steer this episode in slightly more novel territory. Granted, this is hardly the first time we’ve seen Jerry go to great lengths to prove his worth to his disinterested family, but it’s a premise that never really gets old. Especially considering how little we’ve seen of Jerry since the end of Season 3 (in October 2017, no less). It’s a real hoot watching Jerry try and fail to impress his kids, only to wind up bumbling his way into becoming a god to a group of Rick’s rejected offspring. Jerry definitely has the lion’s share of the most hilarious lines in Episode 9, though that’s really as much due to Chris Parnell’s impeccable delivery as it is the quality of the writing itself.

With Morty and Summer relegated to B-plot status this week, that frees up the episode to focus a great deal on the twisted father/daughter bond between Rick and Beth. The actual relationship between Rick and Gaia is largely downplayed, as is whatever sort of connection Rick might feel toward his misbegotten children. Again, that seems the wise move so as not to retread old ground. Instead we get what proves to be both a humorous and sad look at one of those rare periods where Rick and Beth find a real connection. That Beth connects with her father by following his example and literally playing god is mostly a disquieting reminder that she inherited most of Rick’s bad qualities along with the good.

In that sense, this episode plays like a loose sort of sequel to Season 3’s “The ABC’s of Beth.” Is it just coincidence both episodes were the second-to-last installments of their respective seasons? It does seem as though the series is developing a habit of growing more introspective towards the end and reminding us of how much Rick’s self-absorbed mentality has infected his offspring.

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Jerry’s antics notwithstanding, “Childrick of Mort” isn’t necessarily the funniest addition to Season 4. But it does feel like an appropriately downbeat episode to lead us into the big finale. The ending in particular wraps up everything on an appropriately depressing note. What should have been a relatively successful ending to a zany camping trip quickly devolves, and everyone winds up leaving Gaia more miserable than when they arrived. It’s enough to wonder if that’s a portent of things to come next week.
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The first thing to know about “Notes on a Conditional Form,” the fourth album by the British band the 1975, is that it’s 22 songs long. The second thing is that none of these songs sound much like one another. It’s the ultimate contemporary example of how the Beatles’ White Album has become a kind […]

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Acronis True Image 2020 Cloud Backup Review

Acronis True Image has long been known as the go-to app for system imaging and drive cloning, but the company also includes cloud backup in its True Image 2020 suite. That means you can combine local backups with a copy in the cloud, which is crucial when it comes to protecting your data from fire, theft, and other types of catastrophic loss.

Cloud backup options vary wildly in price and functionality, and are increasingly necessary for peace of mind and data security. I thoroughly evaluated Acronis True Image along with several other leading packages based on three main criteria: pricing, features, and performance.

Acronis True Image – Design, Features, and Pricing

Despite being an advanced backup tool, Acronis’ interface is very user-friendly. Buttons are big and clear, your storage is color coded so you can see what’s taking up space, and Acronis’ many, many tools are organized neatly into sections away from the main backup window. It explains every feature as you set it up, so you don’t have to click on “help” Icons to find out how anything works.

The backup process itself is dead simple, taking only a few clicks: you can back up certain folders and files, or back up an image of your entire machine. Acronis lets you back up to an external drive, a NAS, or to Acronis’ cloud servers (if you pay a monthly subscription fee).

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The structure of that subscription fee is a bit confusing at first, but the comparison wizard helps you choose what’s right for you. The Standard version is a one-time purchase of $ 60, which just gets you a license to the software that performs local backups. If you’re backing up to the cloud, you’ll need a subscription to the Advanced version instead: for 250GB of space, you can pay $ 50 per year for one computer, $ 80 per year for three computers, or $ 100 per year for five computers. If you need more space, add $ 20 per year for 500GB.

Any more than 500GB, and you’ll need a subscription to Premium, which adds a couple small features and allows for more space: 1TB for one computer at $ 100 per year, all the way up to 5TB for five computers at $ 320 per year, with many options in between. It’s not the most expensive service I tested, but it is on the pricier side. Some throw in just 50GB of storage, and some like Backblaze are unlimited, and then others like IDrive start out at 2TB, so as you can see the options are kind of all over the map.

The value comparison depends highly on the number of machines you’re backing up, especially since they share the same pool of storage. For multiple machines, Acronis can get quite expensive, but it packs its program with extra features to make it more enticing.

Some of those features are tangentially related to backups, like the “Archive” feature, which scans your hard drive for large files, and allows you to back up ones you rarely use to the cloud to free up space on your hard drive. Acronis also has a syncing tool, à la Dropbox/Google, for syncing files between machines. Acronis can also clone one disk to another (which is useful if you’re upgrading to a new SSD or hard drive), build rescue disks (so you can fix your PC if it won’t boot), and convert your backups to a virtual hard drive for use in a virtual machine. It even has a module that can back up your mobile devices and social media accounts.

Those are all relatively useful, but it also has a lot of features that feel more like unnecessary padding. For example, it comes with a system cleaner (which works fine, but doesn’t seem much better than Windows’ built-in tools), a ransomware monitor, and a “Try & Decide” feature that lets you make changes to your computer, then roll them back if you don’t like them. Most of these tools feel “tacked on,” and I feel that most people would rather pay less to eschew some of these less important add-ons. (I’ll be focusing mostly on the backup and cloud features for this review.)

Acronis True Image – Backup and Recovery

Despite being overloaded with features (denoted by tabs along the left side of the window), Acronis puts the important stuff front and center. The “Backup” tab along the top is where the magic happens: you’re given two big boxes in the center of the screen, one for the backup source, and one for the backup destination. By default, Acronis is set to back up your entire computer, but you can click on a box to change your backup to only certain drives, files, folders, or to back up a mobile device.

I recommend backing up the entire machine, since this is one of Acronis’ biggest strengths: allowing you to create a full image of your computer so it can be restored, exactly as it is now, if something goes awry. Next, you’ll select where you want to back it up. You can choose an external drive, the Acronis cloud, or a custom location (like a NAS). You’ll also have an option to encrypt your backup, which I recommend. Acronis supports deduplication, so if you move a file to a different folder, it won’t back it up all over again.

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Acronis’ default settings work well, but you can click the Options button here to further customize how the backup works. You can change the schedule, prevent the computer from going to sleep while backing up, get email notifications about the backup state, exclude certain files or file types, choose how many versions of a file Acronis keeps, adjust how much bandwidth Acronis uses, and a whole lot more. There is a page where you’ll find a lot of advanced settings too, and while some of them seem more advanced than they need to be (why do I need to set up an SMTP server for email notifications?), tech-savvy users will love the number of options Acronis provides.

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The other tabs in the sidebar correspond to Acronis’ other features. The Archive tab analyzes your hard drive so you can offload large files to an external drive or the cloud. The Sync tab lets you set up Dropbox-like syncing, and the Tools tab contains…well, pretty much everything else. The “Clone Disk,” “Rescue Media Builder,” and “Acronis Universal Restore” are the more useful features here, allowing you to migrate your data to a new PC or rescue it when you run into problems.

The other features on this page are interesting, but generally not anything I’d use, since they’re either well covered by Windows’ built-in tools or just not necessary for most users’ day-to-day computing. Though they’re there if you want to explore them.

Speaking of security, Acronis offers end-to-end AES-256 encryption for your backups, meaning you can protect them with a private encryption key. Even the Acronis service itself won’t be able to see your data, which means it’s as private as can be in the cloud. I didn’t notice any slowdowns or other downsides to using this feature, so turn it on – and remember your password, because if you forget it, that data will be locked up forever.

Acronis is, however, still missing a very important security feature: two-factor authentication. Every cloud-oriented service should have this option to protect you from password thieves, especially backup programs that can hold literally all your personal data. It’s truly bonkers that Acronis– which has packed its program with so many features – continues to neglect something so important.

Acronis True Image – Recovery Options

The Backup section offers two useful tabs: Activity and Recovery. Activity shows when you backed up last, and Recovery allows you to select files for…well, recovery. Again, Acronis is remarkably intuitive to use, and the recovery process is no different. Just select the files you want to recover from the folder tree, then Acronis will ask where you want to restore them.

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You can also click “Recovery Options” to get an email notification when the process is complete, run a command before or after the restore, choose which files to overwrite, and more. When you’re ready, click “Recover Now,” and Acronis will restore your files. Acronis doesn’t offer a courier service, unfortunately, so downloading your files is the only way to restore them. This can take a while if you’re recovering from the cloud, but with Acronis’ robust local backup features, I highly recommend backing up locally too, using the cloud backup only as a just-in-case-of-disaster option.

Acronis True Image – Testing

Acronis has a lot going on, but the basics are pretty easy to use, and users shouldn’t find it too intrusive. It’ll only nag you when you tell it to, using the notification settings mentioned earlier, and customer support is very good. Acronis used a maximum of 163MB of RAM on my test system, while CPU usage hovered around 7 percent of my 2.7GHz i7-7500U during the backup process (with encryption enabled and the main window open).

For such a feature-packed program, that’s not bad, and does a good job of using bandwidth effectively. My initial backup uploaded at around 163Mbps, even with encryption enabled. Restoration speeds were even better, easily maxing out my 200Mbps connection and restoring my 2GB test folder in 1 minute and 26 seconds. Overall, Acronis was easily the fastest program I tested, which is great provided you also have a fast connection. (Still, I recommend using the cloud as your second line of defense—local backups from an external drive or NAS will be much faster.)

Finally, I contacted support for most of the backup programs I tested, usually just with questions or clarifications. Acronis was responsive and helpful, though it did take a couple of back-and-forth emails to answer my question.

Purchasing Guide

The pricing for Acronis True Image depends on whether you want cloud storage (and how much of it you need), and how many computers you want to protect. As of press time in May 2020, the Standard version was $ 50 with no cloud storage. Advanced offers 250GB of cloud storage for $ 50 per year, or 500GB for $ 70 per year – with higher yearly prices as you add more computers to your plan. If you want more than 500GB, you’ll have to spring for Premium, which starts at $ 100 per year for 1TB on one computer, with upgrade options for more machines and cloud storage.
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Snowpiercer Series Premiere Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the premiere episode of TNT’s Snowpiercer follow…

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It was a certainly a slippery, icy trek along the way — what with the change in showrunner two years ago (from Sarah Connor Chronicles’ Josh Friedman to Orphan Black’s Graeme Manson) and an entire pilot episode directed by Doctor Strange’s Scott Derickson mostly being scrapped and rewritten/reshot — but the Snowpiercer TV series is finally upon us. And, considering the global conditions we all face now, it’s one of the last big “event” TV shows we’ll get to see for a while.

Snowpiercer, as a series, is mostly effective reworking of Jacques Lob’s Le Transperceneige graphic novel (which was famously adapted into a feature film by Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho in 2013) that’s a sort of pared-down, semi-simplified version of the premise with a murder mystery squared-pegged into the story so as to manifest a spine for a TV series.

The set-up — which involves a massive climate shift bringing all of humanity to war, scientists over-correcting Earth’s temperature and freezing everything, and then a psychotic visionary named Wilfred developing a “Noah’s Ark”-style perpetually-moving train for the most privileged members of our species — is all pretty much the same as the comic. The idea of a non-stop “balanced” ecosystem consisting of 1001 cars enables the show to feel, most of the time, like a space saga as “Snowpiercer,” the locomotive, is basically a spaceship. A craft that is supposed contain within its narrow walls all the elements of our main characters’ former planet (as well as some new realms – like, um, orgy zones?).

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When you combine that design with the necessary evils of a caste system, and then add to that a number of unwanted stragglers who violently forced their way onto the train as it was starting up, and who’ve now lived for years in a caboose of abject squalor, and you’ve got a story that’s primed and ready to mirror many of our ongoing modern societal ills in the way only sci-fi usually can. Snowpiercer feels insane as a logline but it’s really just an excuse for an awesome, claustrophobic revolution that leads its characters, and us viewers, toward hard truths about civilization as a whole.

The series teases the original “rebellion” arc that Bong Joon-ho created for his film by giving us a palpable powder keg of poor folk living in the rear of the train (“Tailies” as they refer to themselves, which is reminiscent of Lost) who, after enduring seven years of desperation and awfulness, are ready to brutally escape their confines and battle their way through enough cars to get to the engine. They’ve got the “world’s last Australian,” a large man named Strong Boy who they give most of their food to so he can act like an RPG-style Tank, an old man who remembers the joys of being alone, and Daveed Diggs’ Layton – a former homicide detective who forcefully boarded the train with his wife (who has since left him to become a plaything for folks in a fancier car).

[ignvideo url=”https://www.ign.com/videos/2019/10/05/snowpiercer-sneak-peek-revealed-at-new-york-comic-con”]

Diggs’ character is the centerpiece of the show while also representing where the story tries to twist and transform itself from a revolution to a demolition. As in Demolition Man. Layton gets spirited away from his fellow Tailies, right on the precipice of a huge bloodbath, so that he can solve a murder case that the perfect society in the front of the train is ill-equipped to handle. Like Demolition Man or The Village or any number of films with similar themes, Snowpiercer showcases a “utopia” unable to predict something going awry, somehow ignorant to the fact that “sometimes people just kill each other.” Here, Snowpiercer strains a bit to find its legs as an ongoing series by literally halting and interrupting a massive ambush right before it starts so the story can shift into a “whodunnit?”.

When you combine that with the Wilfred reveal happening at the end of the episode, where we learn that Jennifer Connelly’s Melanie – aka the “voice of the train” from Hospitality – is Wilfred, or in the very least acting as Wilfred because something happened to the real person and she’s now maintaining the illusion, and the series starts to lose some of its steam. Let’s hope the show has bigger surprises on the way now that’s given up who’s driving the train.

The show looks great and the action all lands well, but there’s a spark missing. At least so far. Diggs is good as our hero and Connelly is cool as his uneasy First-Class ally (who also happens to be secretly running the show), but the murder mystery is nestled in between two mostly-unlikable factions: the privileged dopes living in the long stretch of cars designated for the rich and powerful and the temperamental hot-heads who stew in the butt of the train. Layton’s the only semi-likable presence and he’s not quite enough to make us fully care about solving the case for the one-percenters or saving the lives of the Tailies.
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Rick and Morty: Season 4, Episode 8 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Rick and Morty: Season 4, Episode 8! If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 4, Episode 7.

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Hell hath no fury like a Rick Sanchez dealing with mild criticism. That’s certainly the biggest takeaway from “The Vat of Acid Episode,” an episode which gleefully celebrates the pitch-black dynamic between Rick and his grandson. The result is a stripped-down adventure that’s both hilarious and terribly bleak. Never has the series made a more convincing argument for just how evil and selfish Rick truly is.

Early on, this episode makes itself out to be something very different than what ultimately unfolds. Those early scenes suggest a kooky bottle episode format where Rick and Morty are trapped inside a vat of fake acid and forced to stoop to increasingly ridiculous measures to keep up the charade. It might have been interesting to watch the show attempt to get away with such a confined setting, but in the end, it’s probably just as well Morty loses his patience and cuts the whole thing short. Rather than being set within the titular vat of acid, this episode is instead about Rick’s dogged insistence on proving a point. The vat is good and Morty is dumb. Point taken.

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This is another Season 4 episode that veers hard into self-aware and meta territory, which seems to be a bit of a calling card with these Jeff Loveness-penned installments. Meta humor can get old, but with this series it tends to work well, both as an acknowledgement of how hard it can be to keep upping the ante, and because it’s honestly nice to get those occasional reminders that there’s a continuity to the series. Those Rick and Morty-sized mounds in the backyard can’t do all the work. This week’s meta-references include some hilarious callbacks to “Pickle Rick” and “Claw and Hoarder: Special Ricktim’s Morty.” Even better is Rick’s reference to his (and by extension, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s) hatred of time travel and the way that winds up becoming pivotal to the climax of the episode.

With this episode leaning so hard on Rick’s dark, demented side, it’s just as well he winds up taking a back seat for the middle act and Morty gets a chance to shine on his own. The idea that Morty is slowly growing up and seeking some independence has definitely been an undercurrent of the past couple seasons. Here, Rick’s latest invention gives Morty what he thinks is a chance to run wild and indulge his every whim, without fear of death or consequences. Of course, there was never any chance of that working out well for him, and half the fun is in waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But even if Morty were never hit with that The Prestige-inspired twist, it’s a lot of fun just watching him run amok and abuse his reset remote in various major and minor ways. That whole extended montage sequence is a real hoot, especially when it segues into an equally long-winded montage within a montage. Seeing Morty find teenage love and wind up stranded in the mountains and trying to dial 911 with frostbitten, putrified fingers is both hilarious and mortifying. And just to top the whole thing off on a perfect note, Jerry accidentally resets the whole ordeal. It’s quite impressive how easily Jerry can steal the show with no dialogue and just a few seconds of screen time.

[ignvideo url=”https://www.ign.com/videos/rick-and-morty-season-5-update-and-more-with-chris-parnell”]

Where sometimes the series falls into the trap of constantly trying to outdo itself and escalate concepts to the nth degree, this episode knows when to pump the brakes and slow down a bit at the end. No, learning the entire episode was orchestrated by Rick to get back at Morty for insulting the acid trick is hardly the most shocking or unexpected ending. But we don’t need shocking at that point. It’s enough to see just how superhumanly petty Rick can be. And especially with the whole Evil Morty plot thread hanging over the series, it’s enough to wonder when Rick will finally push his grandson too far. That may not have happened yet, but how many more vats of acid can one boy endure?
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SpiderOak One Cloud Backup Review

Cloud backup is an important part of keeping your data safe from fire, floods, and other disasters. Unfortunately, it also necessitates handing your data over to someone else to keep it safe. If you have trouble trusting your data to “the cloud,” SpiderOak One is a backup plan that’s right up your alley, as it’s all about security.

Since cloud backup has become increasingly necessary for peace of mind and data security, I thoroughly evaluated SpiderOak One along with several other leading packages based on three main criteria: pricing, features, and performance.

SpiderOak One – Design, Pricing, and Features

SpiderOak One isn’t the only cloud backup service with good security, but it is the only one with security as its banner feature. It encrypts all your data from end-to-end, starting on your own machine, so SpiderOak can’t “see” your data when it’s on their servers. It says you don’t have to worry about them using your data for nefarious purposes, or handing it over if the government comes knocking. Even if they wanted to, their “no knowledge” system prevents them from accessing your data unless you give them permission.

That security comes at a higher price point than the more affordable backup services, though. SpiderOak One’s cheapest plan is $ 6 per month (See pricing and plans on the SpiderOak website), and that’s for only 150GB of space, which is rather expensive when compared with similar services. However, SpiderOak’s higher tiers are a bit better: its 2TB plan is $ 12 per month or $ 129 per year, and 5TB is $ 25 per month, or $ 279 per year. That’s right about in the middle of the pack as far as the cloud backup services we tested, and it also allows for unlimited devices.

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The desktop program is pretty well-designed, striking a great balance between information density and ease of use. It’s clearly designed with more tech-savvy users in mind, and it’ll be pretty intuitive for those users. The Dashboard keeps you up to date on any backup or sync jobs that are running, and while you can drill down and see an entire list of files waiting to be backed up (or a log of past jobs), they’re kept out of the way in other tabs so you don’t get overwhelmed with information.

That’s SpiderOak One in a nutshell: it gives you lots of control without being convoluted. You pick which files you want to back up, how the program integrates with your system, and how many layers of security there are. And apart from a confusingly placed button or two (like the “Run Now” button, which appears even if you aren’t on the Backup tab), everything is intelligently laid out.

SpiderOak One – Backup

SpiderOak One has a pretty big feature set, and it splits each of these features up into tabs along its top row: Backup, Manage (which should probably be called “Restore”), Sync, and Share. Here’s how they work.

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For file backups, you’ll want to head to the Backup tab, where you can select which files to back up. The left sidebar shows your user folders (like Desktop, Documents, Music, and so on), providing an easy one-stop shop for backing up your personal data. The program doesn’t search for all documents or music on your drive; the links are just a shortcut for backing up the default folder of that name. You can then use the right pane to select other folders or drives on your system for backup (including external drives). From there, you just click the “Run Now” button to start backing everything up. You’ll see progress on the Dashboard tab. (I wish you could see progress along the bottom at all times, but it’s a minor nitpick.)

Hop into Preferences, and you’ll be able to customize quite a few things. You can enable or disable OS integration (which allows you to back up files by right-clicking them in Windows), force SpiderOak One to request your password on startup, and even set a keyboard shortcut that opens the program. Under the Backup tab of the Preferences window, you can exclude files over a certain size, exclude files of a certain age, or exclude files with certain words and extensions. It’s very configurable, but all this is turned off by default, so you’ll never wonder why something wasn’t backed up. You can also limit your bandwidth usage, and fine-tune the backup schedule with options that let you run a backup ranging from “every 5 minutes” to “every 48 hours” to “at 1:38pm on Wednesdays.”

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SpiderOak keeps old versions of your files by default as well, indefinitely. You can’t change that, but SpiderOak says these old versions should not take up very much space. You can delete previous versions from the Manage tab if you want, though (which I’ll discuss more later).

SpiderOak One – Security

All that brings me to SpiderOak One’s main feature: security. SpiderOak One uses end-to-end encryption, meaning the SpiderOak service never sees what’s in the actual files when you upload them. This “no knowledge” approach means that even if SpiderOak were asked to hand your data over to the government, they wouldn’t have anything to give away but a bunch of scrambled data. This locked down approach also protects you from someone breaking into SpiderOak’s systems as well.

However, if you use the web interface or mobile app to view your files, you have to give your encryption key to SpiderOak, which means those files will be decrypted on the company’s servers for a short time. SpiderOak encrypts your key and stores it in memory only, wiping it as soon as your session is over, but if you’d rather trust no one, you’re best off staying away from the web interface and mobile apps. SpiderOak doesn’t even recommend using them, though it offers them as a convenience to users who need them.

SpiderOak One’s biggest security failing, strangely, is a lack of two-factor authentication. Some existing SpiderOak One users may be grandfathered into an old version of the feature, but it’s bonkers that a security-focused company has gone without something so important for so long.

Additionally, the SpiderOak One desktop client does not provide automatic updates – though this is by design. While automatic updates are good for security (since they ensure everyone is using the latest version with all recent security patches), SpiderOak says it doesn’t want to enter a situation where a malicious or “overzealous authority” could force the company to push out an update with a backdoor. So for now, you’ll need to manually download the latest version from the SpiderOak website when it notifies you that an update is available.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that SpiderOak One is more than a backup service. It also has a Dropbox-like file syncing service built in, albeit with end-to-end encryption, which Dropbox does not have.

For syncing, SpiderOak One automatically creates a “SpiderOak Hive” folder within your Documents folder when you install the program, and anything placed in this folder will automatically be copied to SpiderOak One and synced to the SpiderOak Hive folder on your other PCs. You can’t move the SpiderOak Hive folder, but you can sync other folders from SpiderOak One’s “Sync” tab – or disable the SpiderOak Hive folder altogether from the preferences.

SpiderOak One – Recovery Options

SpiderOak One has a couple of recovery options, but all of them involve downloading your files – there’s no way to get a hard drive shipped to you, which is awful if you have a lot of data. (That said, I always recommend having a local backup in addition to cloud backup for large restores.) And, as I mentioned above, SpiderOak only recommends using the desktop program for recovery, since it doesn’t compromise the company’s “no knowledge” security model.

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Recovering is simple: just head to the Manage tab, select the folders or files you want, and click the “Download” button that appears. You’ll be able to put them in their original location, or restore them to a different folder on your drive.

Alternatively, you can use SpiderOak One’s “Point in Time” restoration, which allows you to restore an entire folder or set of files to a previous state. This makes it easier to recover from ransomware and hard drive failures, though it requires the command line, so it’s definitely a feature for advanced users.

SpiderOak One – Testing

SpiderOak One isn’t a “hands off” program, but it isn’t particularly difficult to use, either. It expects you to want control over your data (after all, that’s why you’d pick an end-to-end encrypted service), so it gives it to you. And once you set it up the way you want, it’ll stay out of your way and do its job admirably.

In terms of resource usage, I found that it used a few percent CPU at most while backing up, with the exception of the initial encryption phase, which used about 30% of my 2.7GHz i7-7500U. This phase takes a while, though – longer than other programs that use a private encryption key – and even after that, upload speeds were unbearably slow, using only 3Mbps of my otherwise very fast upload connection. SpiderOak says all of this is to be expected, but that isn’t exactly a comfort, considering how much faster Acronis True Image and SOS Online Backup are despite also using end-to-end encryption. SpiderOak’s restoration time was at least more comparable, maxing out my 200Mbps connection just like the others, though the full restore took a little under four minutes (again, presumably because of the slow decryption).

SpiderOak says it doesn’t throttle your speeds except in certain rare cases where you’re uploading very large files or have over 10TB of data stored on their servers.

Purchasing Guide

SpiderOak One’s pricing varies according to how much storage capacity you need, but each of its pricing tiers grants you that capacity for an unlimited number of devices, which is rare and adds a lot of value. Pricing starts at $ 5 a month or $ 59 annually for 150GB, but you can also get 2TB for just $ 12 a month, or $ 129 per year. The maximum capacity is 5TB, and there’s also a 21-day free trial if you want to give it a test drive first.
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‘The Present’: L.A. Theater Review

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced us all into isolation, Donald Trump told America, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Well, in the absence of a miracle, or medicine, the next best thing we can count on is magic, and while it won’t beat COVID-19, Portuguese illusionist Helder Guimarães’ […]

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‘The Present’: L.A. Theater Review

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced us all into isolation, Donald Trump told America, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Well, in the absence of a miracle, or medicine, the next best thing we can count on is magic, and while it won’t beat COVID-19, Portuguese illusionist Helder Guimarães’ […]

Variety

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‘The Present’: L.A. Theater Review

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced us all into isolation, Donald Trump told America, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Well, in the absence of a miracle, or medicine, the next best thing we can count on is magic, and while it won’t beat COVID-19, Portuguese illusionist Helder Guimarães’ […]

Variety

SHOPPING DISCOUNT UPDATE:

‘The Present’: L.A. Theater Review

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced us all into isolation, Donald Trump told America, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Well, in the absence of a miracle, or medicine, the next best thing we can count on is magic, and while it won’t beat COVID-19, Portuguese illusionist Helder Guimarães’ […]

Variety

SHOPPING DISCOUNT UPDATE:

‘The Present’: L.A. Theater Review

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced us all into isolation, Donald Trump told America, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Well, in the absence of a miracle, or medicine, the next best thing we can count on is magic, and while it won’t beat COVID-19, Portuguese illusionist Helder Guimarães’ […]

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Charli XCX’s ‘How I’m Feeling Now’: Album Review

While another contender conceivably could arise, it’s a safe bet that Charli XCX’s “How I’m Feeling Now” is the first album by a major artist to be made entirely in COVID-19 quarantine. This hyper-prolific performer, songwriter and producer — who ironically waited nearly five years to release her third official album, last year’s stellar “Charli,” […]

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TT Isle of Man: Ride on the Edge 2 Review

The Isle of Man TT is perhaps the most outrageously dangerous motorsport event in the world. Held on nearly 38 miles of perilously-skinny public road draped over the Isle of Man, this enduring motorcycle time-trial barely goes a year without killing a competitor – claiming over 150 souls since its inception in 1907. Not to be flippant about the loss of life but, above anything else, KT Racing’s TT Isle of Man: Ride on the Edge 2 aptly illustrates why this event is just so potentially deadly.

Diabolically tricky and boasting a wicked sense of speed, this impressive albeit slightly uneven sequel feels fast and dangerous in a way racing games rarely muster.

[ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/04/10/tt-isle-of-man-ride-on-the-edge-2-accolade-trailer]

The star of the show remains the complete 37.73 mile Snaefell Mountain Course itself, with its tree-lined corridors, ancient city streets, and beachside blasts. Navigating the narrow roads of the course at truly sphincter-shrivelling speeds is an immense and unforgiving challenge, and the amount of crashes I’ve had while on maximum attack has made it abundantly clear why the real TT is infamous for its sadly-extensive list of casualties. In fact, there are times when Ride on the Edge 2 seems to share more in common with something like WipeOut than a contemporary motorsports sim, such is the startling velocity, amplified by the cramped roads. The top-notch sound is an integral part of the sensation of speed, particularly the way wind noise thuds through the speakers as your bike whips past trackside objects.

I’ve never been to the Isle of Man but, based on footage, KT Racing’s version of the course is an admirably authentic facsimile of the real thing. I haven’t spotted any especially major visual differences between the version of the course here and the version that debuted in the original 2018 game but, even if there were any, they’d be fairly hard to absorb at speeds regularly tickling 200 miles per hour. There’s some pop-in now and then, but not enough of it to really detract from the experience.

[poilib element=”articleSubHeader” parameters=”label=Ride%20or%20Die”]

Like the first game there’s a smattering of other, fictional tracks available too – scattered across the UK and Ireland. They’re adequate but a bit plain compared to the far more densely-detailed Snaefell course. A modest free roam mode is also included, though it’s basically the fictional courses stitched together. The open roads are peppered with typical open-world racing challenges and are adequate for a quick blat, but Ride on the Edge 2’s handling model is much better suited to full throttle racing as opposed to general exploration.

The handling is definitely an improvement over the original, which felt a little more slippery overall. The heavier bikes in particular now cling to the road far more realistically and, while still quite nimble, their bulk is communicated well via their far longer braking distances. Smaller bikes have obviously benefited from the handling tweaks too but I don’t find them as fun to ride as they’re considerably twitchier. There are several layers of assists to lean on should the punishing pro handling prove an insurmountable challenge but know that, even on the simplest settings, Ride on the Edge 2 requires rapid reflexes and an extremely deft touch. A dose of gravel rash is the only reward for cack-handed cornering, and a lapse in concentration at 200 miles per hour will send you spearing into a stone wall like a sidewinder missile.

[ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2019/12/19/tt-isle-of-man-ride-on-the-edge-2-upping-the-game-trailer]

The chase view leaves something to be desired, unfortunately, sometimes making it appear like the bike is swinging beneath the rider’s head like a pendulum. The bigger problem is that the low-speed handling is still a bit shonky, making acute hairpins and extremely narrow low-speed sections of track unnecessarily troublesome (Snaefell’s Governor’s Bridge hairpin and the subsequent skinny section, right at the end of a lap, is a particularly notorious offender). Tiny bumps also have a regular tendency to high side riders in the blink of an eye. Such accidents are probably partly realistic at these immense speeds, but the kind of track knowledge required to remember all the individual pieces of otherwise undetectable tarmac that will probably buck riders from their bikes in this game is out of my reach. As you’d expect, Ride on the Edge 2 features a dynamic racing line – which does place braking warnings on some dangerous jumps – but it’s a bit frustrating to be thrown off when the racing line is otherwise giving you the all-clear.

[poilib element=”articleSubHeader” parameters=”label=Death%20Wobble”]

Career mode has been fleshed out since the original but it’s mostly vanilla. There does seem to be a bit more structure to the path to the TT, which has several ways in which you can earn a place. The learning curve is steep, however, and conquering the AI can be a real arm wrestle – particularly when there are commonly one or two frontrunners seemingly capable of supernatural speed at times.

Upgrades need to be applied to your bikes, and you’ll definitely need to secure them to be competitive. There’s also a perk system that can give you a slight edge, which functions like the mod cards in Forza Motorsport 7. These perks feel a bit weird in Ride on the Edge 2, however, as arbitrary buffs to your ballast or brakes and such seem pretty at odds with the game’s pursuit of realism elsewhere. On the one hand it’s kind of handy being able to play a perk that slows the AI down a fraction for an event but, on the other, it also feels a bit like cheating.

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TT Isle of Man: Ride on the Edge 2 Review

The Isle of Man TT is perhaps the most outrageously dangerous motorsport event in the world. Held on nearly 38 miles of perilously-skinny public road draped over the Isle of Man, this enduring motorcycle time-trial barely goes a year without killing a competitor – claiming over 150 souls since its inception in 1907. Not to be flippant about the loss of life but, above anything else, KT Racing’s TT Isle of Man: Ride on the Edge 2 aptly illustrates why this event is just so potentially deadly.

Diabolically tricky and boasting a wicked sense of speed, this impressive albeit slightly uneven sequel feels fast and dangerous in a way racing games rarely muster.

[ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/04/10/tt-isle-of-man-ride-on-the-edge-2-accolade-trailer]

The star of the show remains the complete 37.73 mile Snaefell Mountain Course itself, with its tree-lined corridors, ancient city streets, and beachside blasts. Navigating the narrow roads of the course at truly sphincter-shrivelling speeds is an immense and unforgiving challenge, and the amount of crashes I’ve had while on maximum attack has made it abundantly clear why the real TT is infamous for its sadly-extensive list of casualties. In fact, there are times when Ride on the Edge 2 seems to share more in common with something like WipeOut than a contemporary motorsports sim, such is the startling velocity, amplified by the cramped roads. The top-notch sound is an integral part of the sensation of speed, particularly the way wind noise thuds through the speakers as your bike whips past trackside objects.

I’ve never been to the Isle of Man but, based on footage, KT Racing’s version of the course is an admirably authentic facsimile of the real thing. I haven’t spotted any especially major visual differences between the version of the course here and the version that debuted in the original 2018 game but, even if there were any, they’d be fairly hard to absorb at speeds regularly tickling 200 miles per hour. There’s some pop-in now and then, but not enough of it to really detract from the experience.

[poilib element=”articleSubHeader” parameters=”label=Ride%20or%20Die”]

Like the first game there’s a smattering of other, fictional tracks available too – scattered across the UK and Ireland. They’re adequate but a bit plain compared to the far more densely-detailed Snaefell course. A modest free roam mode is also included, though it’s basically the fictional courses stitched together. The open roads are peppered with typical open-world racing challenges and are adequate for a quick blat, but Ride on the Edge 2’s handling model is much better suited to full throttle racing as opposed to general exploration.

The handling is definitely an improvement over the original, which felt a little more slippery overall. The heavier bikes in particular now cling to the road far more realistically and, while still quite nimble, their bulk is communicated well via their far longer braking distances. Smaller bikes have obviously benefited from the handling tweaks too but I don’t find them as fun to ride as they’re considerably twitchier. There are several layers of assists to lean on should the punishing pro handling prove an insurmountable challenge but know that, even on the simplest settings, Ride on the Edge 2 requires rapid reflexes and an extremely deft touch. A dose of gravel rash is the only reward for cack-handed cornering, and a lapse in concentration at 200 miles per hour will send you spearing into a stone wall like a sidewinder missile.

[ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2019/12/19/tt-isle-of-man-ride-on-the-edge-2-upping-the-game-trailer]

The chase view leaves something to be desired, unfortunately, sometimes making it appear like the bike is swinging beneath the rider’s head like a pendulum. The bigger problem is that the low-speed handling is still a bit shonky, making acute hairpins and extremely narrow low-speed sections of track unnecessarily troublesome (Snaefell’s Governor’s Bridge hairpin and the subsequent skinny section, right at the end of a lap, is a particularly notorious offender). Tiny bumps also have a regular tendency to high side riders in the blink of an eye. Such accidents are probably partly realistic at these immense speeds, but the kind of track knowledge required to remember all the individual pieces of otherwise undetectable tarmac that will probably buck riders from their bikes in this game is out of my reach. As you’d expect, Ride on the Edge 2 features a dynamic racing line – which does place braking warnings on some dangerous jumps – but it’s a bit frustrating to be thrown off when the racing line is otherwise giving you the all-clear.

[poilib element=”articleSubHeader” parameters=”label=Death%20Wobble”]

Career mode has been fleshed out since the original but it’s mostly vanilla. There does seem to be a bit more structure to the path to the TT, which has several ways in which you can earn a place. The learning curve is steep, however, and conquering the AI can be a real arm wrestle – particularly when there are commonly one or two frontrunners seemingly capable of supernatural speed at times.

Upgrades need to be applied to your bikes, and you’ll definitely need to secure them to be competitive. There’s also a perk system that can give you a slight edge, which functions like the mod cards in Forza Motorsport 7. These perks feel a bit weird in Ride on the Edge 2, however, as arbitrary buffs to your ballast or brakes and such seem pretty at odds with the game’s pursuit of realism elsewhere. On the one hand it’s kind of handy being able to play a perk that slows the AI down a fraction for an event but, on the other, it also feels a bit like cheating.

IGN All

SHOPPING DISCOUNT UPDATE:

GameStop, Inc.

TT Isle of Man: Ride on the Edge 2 Review

The Isle of Man TT is perhaps the most outrageously dangerous motorsport event in the world. Held on nearly 38 miles of perilously-skinny public road draped over the Isle of Man, this enduring motorcycle time-trial barely goes a year without killing a competitor – claiming over 150 souls since its inception in 1907. Not to be flippant about the loss of life but, above anything else, KT Racing’s TT Isle of Man: Ride on the Edge 2 aptly illustrates why this event is just so potentially deadly.

Diabolically tricky and boasting a wicked sense of speed, this impressive albeit slightly uneven sequel feels fast and dangerous in a way racing games rarely muster.

[ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/04/10/tt-isle-of-man-ride-on-the-edge-2-accolade-trailer]

The star of the show remains the complete 37.73 mile Snaefell Mountain Course itself, with its tree-lined corridors, ancient city streets, and beachside blasts. Navigating the narrow roads of the course at truly sphincter-shrivelling speeds is an immense and unforgiving challenge, and the amount of crashes I’ve had while on maximum attack has made it abundantly clear why the real TT is infamous for its sadly-extensive list of casualties. In fact, there are times when Ride on the Edge 2 seems to share more in common with something like WipeOut than a contemporary motorsports sim, such is the startling velocity, amplified by the cramped roads. The top-notch sound is an integral part of the sensation of speed, particularly the way wind noise thuds through the speakers as your bike whips past trackside objects.

I’ve never been to the Isle of Man but, based on footage, KT Racing’s version of the course is an admirably authentic facsimile of the real thing. I haven’t spotted any especially major visual differences between the version of the course here and the version that debuted in the original 2018 game but, even if there were any, they’d be fairly hard to absorb at speeds regularly tickling 200 miles per hour. There’s some pop-in now and then, but not enough of it to really detract from the experience.

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Like the first game there’s a smattering of other, fictional tracks available too – scattered across the UK and Ireland. They’re adequate but a bit plain compared to the far more densely-detailed Snaefell course. A modest free roam mode is also included, though it’s basically the fictional courses stitched together. The open roads are peppered with typical open-world racing challenges and are adequate for a quick blat, but Ride on the Edge 2’s handling model is much better suited to full throttle racing as opposed to general exploration.

The handling is definitely an improvement over the original, which felt a little more slippery overall. The heavier bikes in particular now cling to the road far more realistically and, while still quite nimble, their bulk is communicated well via their far longer braking distances. Smaller bikes have obviously benefited from the handling tweaks too but I don’t find them as fun to ride as they’re considerably twitchier. There are several layers of assists to lean on should the punishing pro handling prove an insurmountable challenge but know that, even on the simplest settings, Ride on the Edge 2 requires rapid reflexes and an extremely deft touch. A dose of gravel rash is the only reward for cack-handed cornering, and a lapse in concentration at 200 miles per hour will send you spearing into a stone wall like a sidewinder missile.

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The chase view leaves something to be desired, unfortunately, sometimes making it appear like the bike is swinging beneath the rider’s head like a pendulum. The bigger problem is that the low-speed handling is still a bit shonky, making acute hairpins and extremely narrow low-speed sections of track unnecessarily troublesome (Snaefell’s Governor’s Bridge hairpin and the subsequent skinny section, right at the end of a lap, is a particularly notorious offender). Tiny bumps also have a regular tendency to high side riders in the blink of an eye. Such accidents are probably partly realistic at these immense speeds, but the kind of track knowledge required to remember all the individual pieces of otherwise undetectable tarmac that will probably buck riders from their bikes in this game is out of my reach. As you’d expect, Ride on the Edge 2 features a dynamic racing line – which does place braking warnings on some dangerous jumps – but it’s a bit frustrating to be thrown off when the racing line is otherwise giving you the all-clear.

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Career mode has been fleshed out since the original but it’s mostly vanilla. There does seem to be a bit more structure to the path to the TT, which has several ways in which you can earn a place. The learning curve is steep, however, and conquering the AI can be a real arm wrestle – particularly when there are commonly one or two frontrunners seemingly capable of supernatural speed at times.

Upgrades need to be applied to your bikes, and you’ll definitely need to secure them to be competitive. There’s also a perk system that can give you a slight edge, which functions like the mod cards in Forza Motorsport 7. These perks feel a bit weird in Ride on the Edge 2, however, as arbitrary buffs to your ballast or brakes and such seem pretty at odds with the game’s pursuit of realism elsewhere. On the one hand it’s kind of handy being able to play a perk that slows the AI down a fraction for an event but, on the other, it also feels a bit like cheating.

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‘The Wolf House’: Film Review

If an Orwellian fable were to be visualized by a surrealist in the vein of Salvador Dali, the result would look and feel something like “The Wolf House,” a jaw-dropping marriage of various animation techniques, chiefly stop-motion. A dystopian tale with haunting echoes of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Red Riding Hood,” this shape-shifting, trippy […]

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‘The Wolf House’: Film Review

If an Orwellian fable were to be visualized by a surrealist in the vein of Salvador Dali, the result would look and feel something like “The Wolf House,” a jaw-dropping marriage of various animation techniques, chiefly stop-motion. A dystopian tale with haunting echoes of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Red Riding Hood,” this shape-shifting, trippy […]

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Moses Sumney’s ‘Græ’: Album Review

Solitude and isolation aren’t just concepts for those paralyzed by COVID-19. The musical art of seclusion is a pop subsection all its own. From 1958’s “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” to Tyler, the Creator’s sad-eyed “Boredom,” to be forsaken is tantamount to being adored, and with it, the glad-to-be unhappy aesthetic is a […]

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Moses Sumney’s ‘Græ’: Album Review

Solitude and isolation aren’t just concepts for those paralyzed by COVID-19. The musical art of seclusion is a pop subsection all its own. From 1958’s “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” to Tyler, the Creator’s sad-eyed “Boredom,” to be forsaken is tantamount to being adored, and with it, the glad-to-be unhappy aesthetic is a […]

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‘Scoob!’: Film Review

Blame it on “The Avengers.” Or better yet, “Justice League.” Those superheroes are so popular with audiences that Hollywood studios got it in their heads that the world wants to see “expanded universe” movies — unwieldy ensemble productions that bring together half a dozen or more stand-alone characters for a single umbrella adventure. Marvel and […]

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The Flash: Season 6 Finale Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 19! If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 6, Episode 18.

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2020 is a never-ending source of disappointment, hence why The Flash is ending its sixth season three episodes sooner than planned. It wouldn’t really be fair to judge “Success Is Assured” in terms of its ability to act as a proper climax to Season 6. It was never intended to serve that purpose. But as luck would have it, this episode makes for a surprisingly decent end cap to a surprisingly decent season. It may not give fans the closure they want, but it still brings The Flash to a good stopping point while leaving room for plenty more turmoil between Team Flash and Eva McCulloch in Season 7.

One of the more impressive accomplishments in this episode is the way in which it manages to integrate nearly every major Season 6 character without feeling overly bloated and unwieldy. That includes Joseph Carver, minor recurring villains like Doctor Light  and Ultraviolet and even everyone’s favorite backstabbing socialite cat thief, Sue Dearbon. Granted, the Caitlin subplot still feels as superfluous now as it has the past couple weeks, but that’s basically become her lot in the Arrowverse. Someday this series will figure out what to do with her again.

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At this point, the series has done a solid job of tying together Season 6’s various loose threads and ensuring all roads lead back to Eva. That’s what helps “Success Is Assured” maintain its sense of focus. Barry really has two goals at this point – rescuing Iris and protecting Joseph Carver from his vengeful wife. And as he quickly discovers, accomplishing one goal may require sacrificing the other. This episode gives Barry his moment of temptation – save his wife or stop the villain? That dilemma is handled well without overdoing the drama of Barry’s choice. Barry can’t help but feel conflicted over Carver’s offer in the moment, but there’s never really any question of whether he’ll make the selfish choice.

It’s actually surprising how well this latest Barry/Iris conflict is working considering how often the series has hinged on one trying to prevent the other’s seemingly inevitable death. It helps that this latest instance is less about the question of whether Iris will die than how warped shell be by her time in the mirror dimension. As if to emphasize that point , this episode ends with a neat stinger scene where iris seemingly becomes the next Mirror Master herself. That’s actually one of the better season-ending cliffhangers the series has given us, even if it wasn’t intended as such.

This episode is also great about maintaining a steady level of tension throughout. It really plays into the fear of knowing Mirror Master could literally be lurking around every corner. The deck is all the more stacked against Barry now that his Speed Force tank is running against empty. That combination of a powerful villain and under-powered hero is paying off, though I do hope we’ll get at least one battle between Eva and a fully-charged Flash before this particular storyline wraps.

As scary as she can be, Eva is hardly unsympathetic in this episode. If anything, it really hammers home what a sleazy jerk Carver is and how tragic it is that Barry has to sacrifice so much to defend such a loser. Not that it makes Barry’s failure in the climax any less depressing. There’s actually a novelty in seeing a season end on such a down note. While most previous seasons have ended on a down note, emotionally, at least that comes after Barry has defeated the big baddie. Not so this year.

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With so many characters in play this week, it’s nice to see plenty of room made for more banter between Ralph and Sue. If hardly the most important character introduced in Season 6, Sue is nonetheless my favorite. This episode is yet another showcase for the strong chemistry between Hartley Sawyer and Natalie Dreyfuss. And with Sue’s story taking a dark turn of its own, the stage is set for a lot more of that dynamic in Season 7.

“Success Is Assured” does sag a bit towards the end, with the big hero vs. villain showdown at McCulloch Technologies not doing much to impress. The harsh lighting and the pointlessly flashy camera work do nothing to spice up what’s ultimately a pretty bland shootout/metahuman rumble. But ultimately, that battle is mostly window dressing alongside the much more crucial and dramatically interesting confrontation between Eva and Barry. It’s a shame this season has to end early, but there’s no reason this series can’t make use of this hero/villain rivalry for a long time to come.
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Backblaze Cloud Backup Software Review

Backblaze is one of the most popular cloud backup services around right now, and it’s easy to see why. It costs only $ 5 a month per PC or Mac for unlimited cloud storage, making it one of the most affordable services available. It takes almost no setup, either: in just a few clicks, all your important files will be protected not only from hard drive crashes, but theft, fire, and other disasters.

Cloud backup options vary wildly in price and functionality, but they’re increasingly necessary for peace of mind and data security. I thoroughly evaluated Backblaze along with several other leading packages based on three main criteria: pricing, features, and performance.

Backblaze – Pricing and Features

Backblaze is designed to be so simple that anyone can get up and running easily. After signing up for an account on their website, you’ll be able to download the program and start backing up right away with a 15-day free trial. After that, you’ll need to pay – either $ 6 a month or $ 60 a year for one PC. Backblaze gives you unlimited cloud storage for that price, and doesn’t limit the size of individual files, so it’s a pretty stellar deal. You will, however, have to pay a subscription for each computer you want to back up, so if you have lots of machines, the price can add up. (Some other programs, like IDrive, charge you for the space, rather than the number of machines, so you may have to do some math to see which is a better deal for your scenario.)

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When you start the program, you’ll be greeted with the main window. It’s incredibly straightforward: You have buttons for starting (or pausing) your backup, restoring your files, and viewing your backup settings, as well as some information on what files are waiting to be backed up. That’s it – it’s designed to be so simple that you don’t really have to do anything; it just starts backing up your files right away. This is great, since far too many people avoid backing up their computer because they just aren’t sure what to do.

By default, Backblaze backs up your entire C: drive along with any extra internal or USB drives – excluding programs and system files, which Backblaze doesn’t allow you to back up at all. This sort of makes sense, since restoring program files doesn’t guarantee they’ll function properly, but restoring files from those folders would still be useful. For example, if you have an old or hard-to-find plugin that doesn’t come with a program by default. So while I understand Backblaze’s decision to exclude Program Files by default, it’d be nice to have the option to change that, for those of us that know what we’re doing.

And that’s kind of Backblaze’s biggest downside: in trying to be dead simple, it eschews some useful options and sets confusing defaults. Instead of selecting which files to back up, it backs up all the hard drives connected to your machine (except network drives), and you have to select which files to exclude (aside from the aforementioned system files). Furthermore, it’s set a bunch of file and folder exclusions by default, which is a disaster waiting to happen. (I can just see a user restoring files after a crash, wondering “Hey, why didn’t it back up my super important DMG file? It told me it was backing up the entire computer!”)

Similarly, it has options to adjust the speed of your backups, but they’re equally confusing, and probably left alone. In short: If you want a set-it-and-forget-it approach for your basic documents, music, and movies, Backblaze works pretty well at an unbeatable price. If you’re more of an advanced user, you may find it clunky…but still at an unbeatable price.

Backblaze – Backup and Recovery

If you want to alter what Backblaze is uploading, you can do so from its Settings window. Again, Backblaze doesn’t let you select folders to back up; instead, it backs up everything and leaves it to you to exclude certain hard drives (from the “Settings” tab), or exclude certain folders, file types, or files over a certain size (from the “Exclusions” tab). You should check the default list of excluded file types just in case, though, since it may include files you want to back up (like ISOs, DMGs, or EXEs). And no matter what you do, you can’t force Backblaze to back up your Program Files folder, even if you have a good reason for doing so.

Under the Performance tab, you can adjust how much network bandwidth Backblaze uses. By default, it manages its speed automatically, so you should just be able to let it run – it’ll use more bandwidth when you’re idle, and less when you’re actively using the internet. If you like, you can uncheck the “Automatic Threading/Throttle” box and adjust the slider and number of “backup threads” to upload faster or slower…but I found this to be more confusing than helpful. I recommend sticking with Automatic.

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The Schedule tab lets you tell Backblaze to back up once per day, manually, or “continuously.” Continuously doesn’t necessarily mean immediate, just that it will check every few hours for new files. Backblaze says it may take one to eight hours before a file gets recognized for backup, even if you manually click the “Backup Now” button. In my tests, it took about 45 minutes before Backblaze recognized a new file for backup, which is kind of a bummer. It does, however, perform deduplication, so it won’t waste bandwidth re-uploading a big file just because you moved it to another folder.

That brings me to security: Backblaze encrypts your backup by default, but it’s only protected by your account password. From the Security tab of the settings, you can add a private encryption key to create a second layer of protection over your data. That way, if someone were to gain access to Backblaze’s servers (or knew your username and password), they wouldn’t be able to access that data without your account info and your private encryption passphrase.

That sounds great, but here’s where Backblaze’s security model gets a little weird: even with a private encryption key, you still have to enter that passphrase on Backblaze’s website in order to decrypt the data when you want to restore it. Backblaze says this is done for ease of use, and is required since you can only restore data through Backblaze’s web interface, not the desktop client. So your data is encrypted and private until the moment you decide to restore it – during which time your data will exist unencrypted on Backblaze’s servers.

When the restore is finished, Backblaze says the data is re-encrypted and the key is wiped, at which point you can change your key if you so desire. But you’re still putting your trust in Backblaze a little bit. (Thankfully, they also offer two-factor authentication to protect your account from password thieves.) If you’re hardcore about security and trust no one, Backblaze may not be the service for you. But for most users, Backblaze’s security model works well enough, especially since most people won’t bother with a private encryption key in the first place (even though they really should).

Lastly, Backblaze has two other notable features. First, you can share files from your cloud backup with others from the Restore page. Just click on a file and you’ll be prompted to enable Backblaze’s B2 cloud storage service (for which you get 10GB free). Once you do, you can create a shareable link to any file that you can send to a friend. Backblaze also has a “Locate My Computer” feature, in case it’s lost or stolen. It’ll show you the last time the computer was online, its IP address, and even a map of where it was used. You won’t be able to remotely wipe your computer like some other standalone find-my-PC solutions, but it’s nice that those of us without foresight can at least get a basic location feature.

Backblaze – Recovery Options

Hopefully you won’t need to recover files often, but if you do, Backblaze’s process is pretty easy, and there’s some great options. You have three methods available to you for file restoration:

  • Download any or all of your files in a ZIP file from Backblaze’s web interface (free). For ZIP files over 2GB, you’ll probably want to use the Backblaze Downloader program.

  • Get up to 128GB worth of files FedEx’d to you on a flash drive ($ 99, refundable if you return the drive within 30 days)

  • Get up to 4TB worth of files FedExed to you on a USB hard drive ($ 189, refundable if you return the drive within 30 days)

The courier options are great if you have a lot of files and don’t want to waste time and bandwidth downloading them all after a catastrophic data failure. I really like this feature, especially considering that it’s free (as long as you send back the drive when you’re done).

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Restoring from the web went smoothly in my tests. You can select the date and time you want to peruse for files, select them from a simple tree, and click “Restore” (if only it had this interface for choosing files to back up, too). If you’re restoring a file under 30MB, it’ll download it right away; otherwise, it’ll create a ZIP file that you can download from the “My Restores” page after it processes.

Once downloaded, you’ll have to unzip the archive and put the files back in their original location. Again, it may take one to eight hours before a new or changed file shows up on the restore page, so if you’re trying to restore something you just deleted, you may have to wait a while. This is annoying, but not a deal breaker. Conversely, if you delete a file, Backblaze will permanently remove it from your backups after 30 days – so you can’t restore something you deleted six months ago.

Backblaze – Testing

Backblaze does a decent job staying out of your way. On my system, it fluctuated between 5% and 20% CPU usage on my 2.7GHz i7-7500U, with encryption turned on, and between 100MB and 200MB of RAM, depending on the number of backup threads it was using to upload. The more threads, the more RAM it’ll use, but that’s okay – since that means faster uploads. (Note that this doesn’t have anything to do with the number of “threads” your CPU has; it’s just the number of processes Backblaze uses to upload your data.) As long as the automatic threading is doing its job, it won’t use too much bandwidth or RAM if you need those resources for other activities.

The backup moved fairly quickly, uploading at about 50Mbps, which is enough to max out most people’s home connections. Restores were even faster – for my 2GB test folder, it only took a minute or two to prepare the ZIP file (I had to reload the page in order to get the link), and I was able to download it in a minute and 23 seconds thanks to Backblaze maxing out my 200Mbps connection.

Still, large restores will likely take a long time, so I still recommend using cloud backup as a second line of defense – use your computer’s built-in backup (File History for Windows and Time Machine for Mac) to save files on an external drive or NAS, and keep a cloud backup in case of catastrophic failure.

Backblaze doesn’t send you regular notifications about backup activity, which most people will probably appreciate, but that also means you don’t know if your backup ran recently without opening the program (and even then, it can take one to eight hours for files to show up). Backblaze will email you if your computer hasn’t run a backup in 14 days, though, which is nice since it usually means a drive got disconnected somehow. Overall, I like that it’s unintrusive. It also sends you a monthly email with a summary of your backup activity, though I never found this useful, and you can unsubscribe easily.

Once you get it set up, Backblaze is easy to use, but setting it up is not as user-friendly as it could be. Backblaze falls in this weird middle ground of “lacking certain features, but still more complex than it should be.” For example, the exclusions page has lots of different options, yet there’s no way to just select a few folders to back up – you have to exclude everything else instead. Less savvy users may be confused and annoyed by this setup, unless they just let Backblaze run with default settings. And to be honest, most users would probably be fine with that. But more savvy users will likely be annoyed at how Backblaze has decided to organize its settings, and would be better off paying a few bucks more for something like IDrive.

Purchasing Guide

Backblaze’s pricing is pretty simple, but does vary according to whether you want to pay one month at a time, one year, or two years. It’s either $ 6 a month per PC or Mac, $ 60 a year, or $ 110 for two years. There’s no bundling, family options, or packages of that nature available.
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Backblaze Cloud Backup Software Review

Backblaze is one of the most popular cloud backup services around right now, and it’s easy to see why. It costs only $ 5 a month per PC or Mac for unlimited cloud storage, making it one of the most affordable services available. It takes almost no setup, either: in just a few clicks, all your important files will be protected not only from hard drive crashes, but theft, fire, and other disasters.

Cloud backup options vary wildly in price and functionality, but they’re increasingly necessary for peace of mind and data security. I thoroughly evaluated Backblaze along with several other leading packages based on three main criteria: pricing, features, and performance.

Backblaze – Pricing and Features

Backblaze is designed to be so simple that anyone can get up and running easily. After signing up for an account on their website, you’ll be able to download the program and start backing up right away with a 15-day free trial. After that, you’ll need to pay – either $ 6 a month or $ 60 a year for one PC. Backblaze gives you unlimited cloud storage for that price, and doesn’t limit the size of individual files, so it’s a pretty stellar deal. You will, however, have to pay a subscription for each computer you want to back up, so if you have lots of machines, the price can add up. (Some other programs, like IDrive, charge you for the space, rather than the number of machines, so you may have to do some math to see which is a better deal for your scenario.)

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When you start the program, you’ll be greeted with the main window. It’s incredibly straightforward: You have buttons for starting (or pausing) your backup, restoring your files, and viewing your backup settings, as well as some information on what files are waiting to be backed up. That’s it – it’s designed to be so simple that you don’t really have to do anything; it just starts backing up your files right away. This is great, since far too many people avoid backing up their computer because they just aren’t sure what to do.

By default, Backblaze backs up your entire C: drive along with any extra internal or USB drives – excluding programs and system files, which Backblaze doesn’t allow you to back up at all. This sort of makes sense, since restoring program files doesn’t guarantee they’ll function properly, but restoring files from those folders would still be useful. For example, if you have an old or hard-to-find plugin that doesn’t come with a program by default. So while I understand Backblaze’s decision to exclude Program Files by default, it’d be nice to have the option to change that, for those of us that know what we’re doing.

And that’s kind of Backblaze’s biggest downside: in trying to be dead simple, it eschews some useful options and sets confusing defaults. Instead of selecting which files to back up, it backs up all the hard drives connected to your machine (except network drives), and you have to select which files to exclude (aside from the aforementioned system files). Furthermore, it’s set a bunch of file and folder exclusions by default, which is a disaster waiting to happen. (I can just see a user restoring files after a crash, wondering “Hey, why didn’t it back up my super important DMG file? It told me it was backing up the entire computer!”)

Similarly, it has options to adjust the speed of your backups, but they’re equally confusing, and probably left alone. In short: If you want a set-it-and-forget-it approach for your basic documents, music, and movies, Backblaze works pretty well at an unbeatable price. If you’re more of an advanced user, you may find it clunky…but still at an unbeatable price.

Backblaze – Backup and Recovery

If you want to alter what Backblaze is uploading, you can do so from its Settings window. Again, Backblaze doesn’t let you select folders to back up; instead, it backs up everything and leaves it to you to exclude certain hard drives (from the “Settings” tab), or exclude certain folders, file types, or files over a certain size (from the “Exclusions” tab). You should check the default list of excluded file types just in case, though, since it may include files you want to back up (like ISOs, DMGs, or EXEs). And no matter what you do, you can’t force Backblaze to back up your Program Files folder, even if you have a good reason for doing so.

Under the Performance tab, you can adjust how much network bandwidth Backblaze uses. By default, it manages its speed automatically, so you should just be able to let it run – it’ll use more bandwidth when you’re idle, and less when you’re actively using the internet. If you like, you can uncheck the “Automatic Threading/Throttle” box and adjust the slider and number of “backup threads” to upload faster or slower…but I found this to be more confusing than helpful. I recommend sticking with Automatic.

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The Schedule tab lets you tell Backblaze to back up once per day, manually, or “continuously.” Continuously doesn’t necessarily mean immediate, just that it will check every few hours for new files. Backblaze says it may take one to eight hours before a file gets recognized for backup, even if you manually click the “Backup Now” button. In my tests, it took about 45 minutes before Backblaze recognized a new file for backup, which is kind of a bummer. It does, however, perform deduplication, so it won’t waste bandwidth re-uploading a big file just because you moved it to another folder.

That brings me to security: Backblaze encrypts your backup by default, but it’s only protected by your account password. From the Security tab of the settings, you can add a private encryption key to create a second layer of protection over your data. That way, if someone were to gain access to Backblaze’s servers (or knew your username and password), they wouldn’t be able to access that data without your account info and your private encryption passphrase.

That sounds great, but here’s where Backblaze’s security model gets a little weird: even with a private encryption key, you still have to enter that passphrase on Backblaze’s website in order to decrypt the data when you want to restore it. Backblaze says this is done for ease of use, and is required since you can only restore data through Backblaze’s web interface, not the desktop client. So your data is encrypted and private until the moment you decide to restore it – during which time your data will exist unencrypted on Backblaze’s servers.

When the restore is finished, Backblaze says the data is re-encrypted and the key is wiped, at which point you can change your key if you so desire. But you’re still putting your trust in Backblaze a little bit. (Thankfully, they also offer two-factor authentication to protect your account from password thieves.) If you’re hardcore about security and trust no one, Backblaze may not be the service for you. But for most users, Backblaze’s security model works well enough, especially since most people won’t bother with a private encryption key in the first place (even though they really should).

Lastly, Backblaze has two other notable features. First, you can share files from your cloud backup with others from the Restore page. Just click on a file and you’ll be prompted to enable Backblaze’s B2 cloud storage service (for which you get 10GB free). Once you do, you can create a shareable link to any file that you can send to a friend. Backblaze also has a “Locate My Computer” feature, in case it’s lost or stolen. It’ll show you the last time the computer was online, its IP address, and even a map of where it was used. You won’t be able to remotely wipe your computer like some other standalone find-my-PC solutions, but it’s nice that those of us without foresight can at least get a basic location feature.

Backblaze – Recovery Options

Hopefully you won’t need to recover files often, but if you do, Backblaze’s process is pretty easy, and there’s some great options. You have three methods available to you for file restoration:

  • Download any or all of your files in a ZIP file from Backblaze’s web interface (free). For ZIP files over 2GB, you’ll probably want to use the Backblaze Downloader program.

  • Get up to 128GB worth of files FedEx’d to you on a flash drive ($ 99, refundable if you return the drive within 30 days)

  • Get up to 4TB worth of files FedExed to you on a USB hard drive ($ 189, refundable if you return the drive within 30 days)

The courier options are great if you have a lot of files and don’t want to waste time and bandwidth downloading them all after a catastrophic data failure. I really like this feature, especially considering that it’s free (as long as you send back the drive when you’re done).

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Restoring from the web went smoothly in my tests. You can select the date and time you want to peruse for files, select them from a simple tree, and click “Restore” (if only it had this interface for choosing files to back up, too). If you’re restoring a file under 30MB, it’ll download it right away; otherwise, it’ll create a ZIP file that you can download from the “My Restores” page after it processes.

Once downloaded, you’ll have to unzip the archive and put the files back in their original location. Again, it may take one to eight hours before a new or changed file shows up on the restore page, so if you’re trying to restore something you just deleted, you may have to wait a while. This is annoying, but not a deal breaker. Conversely, if you delete a file, Backblaze will permanently remove it from your backups after 30 days – so you can’t restore something you deleted six months ago.

Backblaze – Testing

Backblaze does a decent job staying out of your way. On my system, it fluctuated between 5% and 20% CPU usage on my 2.7GHz i7-7500U, with encryption turned on, and between 100MB and 200MB of RAM, depending on the number of backup threads it was using to upload. The more threads, the more RAM it’ll use, but that’s okay – since that means faster uploads. (Note that this doesn’t have anything to do with the number of “threads” your CPU has; it’s just the number of processes Backblaze uses to upload your data.) As long as the automatic threading is doing its job, it won’t use too much bandwidth or RAM if you need those resources for other activities.

The backup moved fairly quickly, uploading at about 50Mbps, which is enough to max out most people’s home connections. Restores were even faster – for my 2GB test folder, it only took a minute or two to prepare the ZIP file (I had to reload the page in order to get the link), and I was able to download it in a minute and 23 seconds thanks to Backblaze maxing out my 200Mbps connection.

Still, large restores will likely take a long time, so I still recommend using cloud backup as a second line of defense – use your computer’s built-in backup (File History for Windows and Time Machine for Mac) to save files on an external drive or NAS, and keep a cloud backup in case of catastrophic failure.

Backblaze doesn’t send you regular notifications about backup activity, which most people will probably appreciate, but that also means you don’t know if your backup ran recently without opening the program (and even then, it can take one to eight hours for files to show up). Backblaze will email you if your computer hasn’t run a backup in 14 days, though, which is nice since it usually means a drive got disconnected somehow. Overall, I like that it’s unintrusive. It also sends you a monthly email with a summary of your backup activity, though I never found this useful, and you can unsubscribe easily.

Once you get it set up, Backblaze is easy to use, but setting it up is not as user-friendly as it could be. Backblaze falls in this weird middle ground of “lacking certain features, but still more complex than it should be.” For example, the exclusions page has lots of different options, yet there’s no way to just select a few folders to back up – you have to exclude everything else instead. Less savvy users may be confused and annoyed by this setup, unless they just let Backblaze run with default settings. And to be honest, most users would probably be fine with that. But more savvy users will likely be annoyed at how Backblaze has decided to organize its settings, and would be better off paying a few bucks more for something like IDrive.

Purchasing Guide

Backblaze’s pricing is pretty simple, but does vary according to whether you want to pay one month at a time, one year, or two years. It’s either $ 6 a month per PC or Mac, $ 60 a year, or $ 110 for two years. There’s no bundling, family options, or packages of that nature available.
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Backblaze Cloud Backup Software Review

Backblaze is one of the most popular cloud backup services around right now, and it’s easy to see why. It costs only $ 5 a month per PC or Mac for unlimited cloud storage, making it one of the most affordable services available. It takes almost no setup, either: in just a few clicks, all your important files will be protected not only from hard drive crashes, but theft, fire, and other disasters.

Cloud backup options vary wildly in price and functionality, but they’re increasingly necessary for peace of mind and data security. I thoroughly evaluated Backblaze along with several other leading packages based on three main criteria: pricing, features, and performance.

Backblaze – Pricing and Features

Backblaze is designed to be so simple that anyone can get up and running easily. After signing up for an account on their website, you’ll be able to download the program and start backing up right away with a 15-day free trial. After that, you’ll need to pay – either $ 6 a month or $ 60 a year for one PC. Backblaze gives you unlimited cloud storage for that price, and doesn’t limit the size of individual files, so it’s a pretty stellar deal. You will, however, have to pay a subscription for each computer you want to back up, so if you have lots of machines, the price can add up. (Some other programs, like IDrive, charge you for the space, rather than the number of machines, so you may have to do some math to see which is a better deal for your scenario.)

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When you start the program, you’ll be greeted with the main window. It’s incredibly straightforward: You have buttons for starting (or pausing) your backup, restoring your files, and viewing your backup settings, as well as some information on what files are waiting to be backed up. That’s it – it’s designed to be so simple that you don’t really have to do anything; it just starts backing up your files right away. This is great, since far too many people avoid backing up their computer because they just aren’t sure what to do.

By default, Backblaze backs up your entire C: drive along with any extra internal or USB drives – excluding programs and system files, which Backblaze doesn’t allow you to back up at all. This sort of makes sense, since restoring program files doesn’t guarantee they’ll function properly, but restoring files from those folders would still be useful. For example, if you have an old or hard-to-find plugin that doesn’t come with a program by default. So while I understand Backblaze’s decision to exclude Program Files by default, it’d be nice to have the option to change that, for those of us that know what we’re doing.

And that’s kind of Backblaze’s biggest downside: in trying to be dead simple, it eschews some useful options and sets confusing defaults. Instead of selecting which files to back up, it backs up all the hard drives connected to your machine (except network drives), and you have to select which files to exclude (aside from the aforementioned system files). Furthermore, it’s set a bunch of file and folder exclusions by default, which is a disaster waiting to happen. (I can just see a user restoring files after a crash, wondering “Hey, why didn’t it back up my super important DMG file? It told me it was backing up the entire computer!”)

Similarly, it has options to adjust the speed of your backups, but they’re equally confusing, and probably left alone. In short: If you want a set-it-and-forget-it approach for your basic documents, music, and movies, Backblaze works pretty well at an unbeatable price. If you’re more of an advanced user, you may find it clunky…but still at an unbeatable price.

Backblaze – Backup and Recovery

If you want to alter what Backblaze is uploading, you can do so from its Settings window. Again, Backblaze doesn’t let you select folders to back up; instead, it backs up everything and leaves it to you to exclude certain hard drives (from the “Settings” tab), or exclude certain folders, file types, or files over a certain size (from the “Exclusions” tab). You should check the default list of excluded file types just in case, though, since it may include files you want to back up (like ISOs, DMGs, or EXEs). And no matter what you do, you can’t force Backblaze to back up your Program Files folder, even if you have a good reason for doing so.

Under the Performance tab, you can adjust how much network bandwidth Backblaze uses. By default, it manages its speed automatically, so you should just be able to let it run – it’ll use more bandwidth when you’re idle, and less when you’re actively using the internet. If you like, you can uncheck the “Automatic Threading/Throttle” box and adjust the slider and number of “backup threads” to upload faster or slower…but I found this to be more confusing than helpful. I recommend sticking with Automatic.

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The Schedule tab lets you tell Backblaze to back up once per day, manually, or “continuously.” Continuously doesn’t necessarily mean immediate, just that it will check every few hours for new files. Backblaze says it may take one to eight hours before a file gets recognized for backup, even if you manually click the “Backup Now” button. In my tests, it took about 45 minutes before Backblaze recognized a new file for backup, which is kind of a bummer. It does, however, perform deduplication, so it won’t waste bandwidth re-uploading a big file just because you moved it to another folder.

That brings me to security: Backblaze encrypts your backup by default, but it’s only protected by your account password. From the Security tab of the settings, you can add a private encryption key to create a second layer of protection over your data. That way, if someone were to gain access to Backblaze’s servers (or knew your username and password), they wouldn’t be able to access that data without your account info and your private encryption passphrase.

That sounds great, but here’s where Backblaze’s security model gets a little weird: even with a private encryption key, you still have to enter that passphrase on Backblaze’s website in order to decrypt the data when you want to restore it. Backblaze says this is done for ease of use, and is required since you can only restore data through Backblaze’s web interface, not the desktop client. So your data is encrypted and private until the moment you decide to restore it – during which time your data will exist unencrypted on Backblaze’s servers.

When the restore is finished, Backblaze says the data is re-encrypted and the key is wiped, at which point you can change your key if you so desire. But you’re still putting your trust in Backblaze a little bit. (Thankfully, they also offer two-factor authentication to protect your account from password thieves.) If you’re hardcore about security and trust no one, Backblaze may not be the service for you. But for most users, Backblaze’s security model works well enough, especially since most people won’t bother with a private encryption key in the first place (even though they really should).

Lastly, Backblaze has two other notable features. First, you can share files from your cloud backup with others from the Restore page. Just click on a file and you’ll be prompted to enable Backblaze’s B2 cloud storage service (for which you get 10GB free). Once you do, you can create a shareable link to any file that you can send to a friend. Backblaze also has a “Locate My Computer” feature, in case it’s lost or stolen. It’ll show you the last time the computer was online, its IP address, and even a map of where it was used. You won’t be able to remotely wipe your computer like some other standalone find-my-PC solutions, but it’s nice that those of us without foresight can at least get a basic location feature.

Backblaze – Recovery Options

Hopefully you won’t need to recover files often, but if you do, Backblaze’s process is pretty easy, and there’s some great options. You have three methods available to you for file restoration:

  • Download any or all of your files in a ZIP file from Backblaze’s web interface (free). For ZIP files over 2GB, you’ll probably want to use the Backblaze Downloader program.

  • Get up to 128GB worth of files FedEx’d to you on a flash drive ($ 99, refundable if you return the drive within 30 days)

  • Get up to 4TB worth of files FedExed to you on a USB hard drive ($ 189, refundable if you return the drive within 30 days)

The courier options are great if you have a lot of files and don’t want to waste time and bandwidth downloading them all after a catastrophic data failure. I really like this feature, especially considering that it’s free (as long as you send back the drive when you’re done).

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Restoring from the web went smoothly in my tests. You can select the date and time you want to peruse for files, select them from a simple tree, and click “Restore” (if only it had this interface for choosing files to back up, too). If you’re restoring a file under 30MB, it’ll download it right away; otherwise, it’ll create a ZIP file that you can download from the “My Restores” page after it processes.

Once downloaded, you’ll have to unzip the archive and put the files back in their original location. Again, it may take one to eight hours before a new or changed file shows up on the restore page, so if you’re trying to restore something you just deleted, you may have to wait a while. This is annoying, but not a deal breaker. Conversely, if you delete a file, Backblaze will permanently remove it from your backups after 30 days – so you can’t restore something you deleted six months ago.

Backblaze – Testing

Backblaze does a decent job staying out of your way. On my system, it fluctuated between 5% and 20% CPU usage on my 2.7GHz i7-7500U, with encryption turned on, and between 100MB and 200MB of RAM, depending on the number of backup threads it was using to upload. The more threads, the more RAM it’ll use, but that’s okay – since that means faster uploads. (Note that this doesn’t have anything to do with the number of “threads” your CPU has; it’s just the number of processes Backblaze uses to upload your data.) As long as the automatic threading is doing its job, it won’t use too much bandwidth or RAM if you need those resources for other activities.

The backup moved fairly quickly, uploading at about 50Mbps, which is enough to max out most people’s home connections. Restores were even faster – for my 2GB test folder, it only took a minute or two to prepare the ZIP file (I had to reload the page in order to get the link), and I was able to download it in a minute and 23 seconds thanks to Backblaze maxing out my 200Mbps connection.

Still, large restores will likely take a long time, so I still recommend using cloud backup as a second line of defense – use your computer’s built-in backup (File History for Windows and Time Machine for Mac) to save files on an external drive or NAS, and keep a cloud backup in case of catastrophic failure.

Backblaze doesn’t send you regular notifications about backup activity, which most people will probably appreciate, but that also means you don’t know if your backup ran recently without opening the program (and even then, it can take one to eight hours for files to show up). Backblaze will email you if your computer hasn’t run a backup in 14 days, though, which is nice since it usually means a drive got disconnected somehow. Overall, I like that it’s unintrusive. It also sends you a monthly email with a summary of your backup activity, though I never found this useful, and you can unsubscribe easily.

Once you get it set up, Backblaze is easy to use, but setting it up is not as user-friendly as it could be. Backblaze falls in this weird middle ground of “lacking certain features, but still more complex than it should be.” For example, the exclusions page has lots of different options, yet there’s no way to just select a few folders to back up – you have to exclude everything else instead. Less savvy users may be confused and annoyed by this setup, unless they just let Backblaze run with default settings. And to be honest, most users would probably be fine with that. But more savvy users will likely be annoyed at how Backblaze has decided to organize its settings, and would be better off paying a few bucks more for something like IDrive.

Purchasing Guide

Backblaze’s pricing is pretty simple, but does vary according to whether you want to pay one month at a time, one year, or two years. It’s either $ 6 a month per PC or Mac, $ 60 a year, or $ 110 for two years. There’s no bundling, family options, or packages of that nature available.
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Rick and Morty: Season 4, Episode 7 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Rick and Morty: Season 4, Episode 7. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 4, Episode 6. And also be sure to find out what Chris Parnell had to say about the status of Season 5 and the challenge (or lack thereof) in playing Jerry.

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It was only a matter of time before Rick and Morty turned its attention to spoofing the Alien franchise. Honestly, it’s surprising it took this long. “Promortyus” gets about as much mileage out of that premise as it possibly can, lampooning both the obvious tropes and pushing the parody in some pretty wacky and unexpected directions. But as with pretty much every episode that commits itself to a singular pop culture spoof, the novelty factor eventually starts to wear off.

You do have to credit this episode with making the most of the Alien parody in terms of plot structure. The decision to kick things off in the middle of the story rather than the beginning helps kick things off on an amusingly disorienting start. We’re left to wonder how the duo got themselves into this mess and whether this phallic, slimy, HR Giger-inspired nightmare is the main focus of the episode or simply a launching point. Watching Rick and Morty utterly annihilate the Glorzos and drop plenty of self-aware meta-dialogue is entertaining, but the real payoff comes later when they realize they left Summer behind. Immediately, it becomes clear we only saw part of a much bigger and more disastrous adventure.

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Unfortunately, despite that fun twist, this episode starts to lose its steam after the return to Glorzoville. The flashback to the origin of the mission is fun, especially with the payoff to Summer’s newfound obsession with toothpicks. But after that point the whole concept starts to unwind a bit. This episode sort of has the opposite problem of last week’s “Never Ricking Morty.” That episode tried too hard to keep piling new layers on its mind-bending premise and ultimately sputtered a bit at the finish line. Here, by comparison, it feels like there should have been one or two more wrinkles involved before the Glorzo conflict reached its climax.

This is one case where the lack of a B-plot actually hurts the show a bit. Sometimes the minor asides featuring the other members of the Smith family just get in the way of the real story, but this is one case where the episode really could have used a subplot simply for the sake of variety. Especially because Jerry has really been underutilized in Season 4. His new “career” as a beekeeper might have been worth exploring in greater depth. Though you do have to admire the economy with which Jerry’s story is told in this episode. Not counting the post-credits stinger, Jerry is only in the one scene, but the disinterested reactions and the fact that he seems to have simply taped his name onto a sore-brand bottle of honey tells us all we need to know about his latest hobby.

[ignvideo url=”https://www.ign.com/videos/rick-and-morty-season-5-update-and-more-with-chris-parnell”]

If the Alien parody eventually runs out of steam, this episode partly makes up for that by aiming big with gross-out humor and a general willingness to push the boundaries of good taste. The scene where Rick narrowly avoids causing an alien 9/11, only to gleefully launch into a recreation of the Pearl Harbor attacks, is definitely the funniest moment of the episode. And not for nothing, but the animation in that sequence is really impressive. It’s a testament to how far the series has come in that regard over the past seven years.

Other little moments (like that over-the-top Bruce/Steve kissing scene) are entertaining reminders Rick and Morty can and sometimes will go for shock value. It’s always nice to see another animated sitcom compete on South Park’s level.
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‘Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics’: Film Review

Writer-producer Donick Cary has spent his whole career near the top of the showbiz comedy heap, from stints on “Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Simpsons” to sitcoms like “Just Shoot Me!,” “New Girl,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Silicon Valley.” So it shouldn’t surprise that his first directorial feature, the documentary “Have a Good […]

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‘Kubrick by Kubrick’: Tribeca Film Review

In the last 10 years, there’s been an ever-widening niche of documentaries about Stanley Kubrick. Every one of them has been fascinating, one or two (like “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes”) are as idiosyncratic as the director himself, and the most artful and memorable — “Filmworker” (2017), a portrait of Kubrick’s monkishly devoted gofer and right-hand assistant, […]

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‘Clementine’: Film Review

Writer-director Lara Jean Gallagher’s “Clementine” resides willfully (and more often than not, skillfully) in the spaces between loss and desire, anger and reckoning, trust and suspicion, often to unnerving effect. A viewer would be right to wonder, is this visually canny story of a young woman who heads to her ex-lover’s empty lake house a […]

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‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs The Reverend’: TV Review

For as intriguing as innovations in TV structure are, the first question I had about “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” doing an “interactive” special was simply, “….why?” For as long as books and games and even YouTube playlists have indulged “choose your own adventure” style storytelling, which gives its audience the illusion of free will while picking […]

Variety

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The Flash: Season 6, Episode 18 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 18. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 7, Episode 17.

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Because COVID-19 is 2020’s “gift” that keeps on “giving,” “Pay the Piper” finds itself suddenly transformed into the penultimate chapter of The Flash: Season 6. It’s certainly not the ideal way to lead into the conclusion of this truncated season, but we can’t exactly hold that against this episode. The best Flash fans can do is accept Season 6 isn’t going to end the way it deserved and enjoy this more character-driven episode geared around one of the show’s better small-time villains. And no, I’m not talking about Godspeed.

Andy Mientus makes his return as Pied Piper in this episode. It’s amusing to see how Hartley Rathaway seems to be the first person whose life is overturned whenever Barry screws around with the fabric of time and space. Were Barry once interfered and managed to make an ally out of an enemy, Crisis ensured Hartley reverted back to his old ways. This may not be the most significant status quo change caused by Crisis, but it does serve a purpose. If Hartley is going to follow the example of characters like Captain Cold and Heat Wave and walk a more righteous path, let it be his own decision. That’s basically the hook of “Pay the Piper.” It finds a more organic way of depicting Hartley’s evolution from metahuman criminal to… whatever he qualifies as now.

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The rivalry between Hartley and Barry/Cisco is definitely the highlight of this particular episode. It’s fun seeing a more villainous side of the Pied Piper again, even if his motivations in this episode are nothing if not understandable. At no point does Hartley really come across as a villain, just a guy grieving for a boyfriend who might as well be dead. That conflict helps showcase a very Spider-Man-esque tale of power and responsibility. Barry feels a responsibility to fix a problem he never technically caused in the first place, while Hartley is forced to acknowledge he can do far more with his powers than rob jewelry stores. Honestly, when it comes time to expand the team Flash ranks again, the show could do far worse than make Mientus a series regular.

Sadly, the return of Godspeed isn’t cause for the same level of excitement. Godspeed is such a bizarre character in the Arrowverse. He shares very little in common with the comic book version beyond his basic look, and whenever he does appear he’s more convenient plot device than actual character. That’s certainly the case in this episode, as Godspeed pops up only when the plot needs a quick catalyst and then vanishes just as quickly. To be fair, the final showdown is entertaining. It’s been long enough since we’ve had a good speedster vs. speedster battle that the Flash/Godspeed showdown has a certain novelty value. Still, there’s always this nagging sense the series could be doing a lot more with this villain.

And maybe it will eventually? Clearly, there’s a larger conspiracy surrounding Godspeed that has yet to pay off. That doesn’t excuse the show’s inability to make Godspeed feel like a real character and not just a plot device. I can understand why the show’s writers may be cautious with this character and wary of rehashing all the familiar tropes where major speedster villains are concerned. But at some point, viewers either need to be given a clearer reason to care about Godspeed or the character needs to be retired.

[ignvideo url=”https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/05/05/justice-league-dark-apokolips-war-review”]

Apart from Barry’s fight to conserve his dwindling speed, it’s mainly the Iris/Kamilla subplot that serves to push the Mirror Master story forward this week. Unfortunately, that doesn’t amount to a lot of forward momentum, though Iris’ deteriorating condition does add a bit of extra urgency to their shared predicament. But after last week’s episode was so good about picking up the pace, it’s disappointing that speed doesn’t continue into “Pay the Piper.” Ending this episode with a stinger of Eva emerging from a hibernation chamber for no apparent reason doesn’t exactly help, either. There’s a lot of ground to cover if this season is going to have any chance at a halfway satisfying finale in Episode 19, and I’m not feeling overly optimistic right now.

That said, there is one way in which this episode actually does further the Mirror Master storyline in a more meaningful way. Tonally, this episode also showcases that sense of balance The Flash recovered with the advent of Season 6. There’s an undercurrent of darkness to this episode as Barry and friends come to terms with recent defeats and the full realization of what’s been taken from them, but Team Flash ultimately emerges on the other side a more unified and focused group. This episode really capitalizes on the team’s family dynamic and the way they truly are stronger together without getting overly sappy or melodramatic in the process.
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The Flash: Season 6, Episode 18 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 18. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 7, Episode 17.

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Because COVID-19 is 2020’s “gift” that keeps on “giving,” “Pay the Piper” finds itself suddenly transformed into the penultimate chapter of The Flash: Season 6. It’s certainly not the ideal way to lead into the conclusion of this truncated season, but we can’t exactly hold that against this episode. The best Flash fans can do is accept Season 6 isn’t going to end the way it deserved and enjoy this more character-driven episode geared around one of the show’s better small-time villains. And no, I’m not talking about Godspeed.

Andy Mientus makes his return as Pied Piper in this episode. It’s amusing to see how Hartley Rathaway seems to be the first person whose life is overturned whenever Barry screws around with the fabric of time and space. Were Barry once interfered and managed to make an ally out of an enemy, Crisis ensured Hartley reverted back to his old ways. This may not be the most significant status quo change caused by Crisis, but it does serve a purpose. If Hartley is going to follow the example of characters like Captain Cold and Heat Wave and walk a more righteous path, let it be his own decision. That’s basically the hook of “Pay the Piper.” It finds a more organic way of depicting Hartley’s evolution from metahuman criminal to… whatever he qualifies as now.

[widget path=”global/article/imagegallery” parameters=”albumSlug=the-flash-pay-the-piper-photos&captions=true”]

The rivalry between Hartley and Barry/Cisco is definitely the highlight of this particular episode. It’s fun seeing a more villainous side of the Pied Piper again, even if his motivations in this episode are nothing if not understandable. At no point does Hartley really come across as a villain, just a guy grieving for a boyfriend who might as well be dead. That conflict helps showcase a very Spider-Man-esque tale of power and responsibility. Barry feels a responsibility to fix a problem he never technically caused in the first place, while Hartley is forced to acknowledge he can do far more with his powers than rob jewelry stores. Honestly, when it comes time to expand the team Flash ranks again, the show could do far worse than make Mientus a series regular.

Sadly, the return of Godspeed isn’t cause for the same level of excitement. Godspeed is such a bizarre character in the Arrowverse. He shares very little in common with the comic book version beyond his basic look, and whenever he does appear he’s more convenient plot device than actual character. That’s certainly the case in this episode, as Godspeed pops up only when the plot needs a quick catalyst and then vanishes just as quickly. To be fair, the final showdown is entertaining. It’s been long enough since we’ve had a good speedster vs. speedster battle that the Flash/Godspeed showdown has a certain novelty value. Still, there’s always this nagging sense the series could be doing a lot more with this villain.

And maybe it will eventually? Clearly, there’s a larger conspiracy surrounding Godspeed that has yet to pay off. That doesn’t excuse the show’s inability to make Godspeed feel like a real character and not just a plot device. I can understand why the show’s writers may be cautious with this character and wary of rehashing all the familiar tropes where major speedster villains are concerned. But at some point, viewers either need to be given a clearer reason to care about Godspeed or the character needs to be retired.

[ignvideo url=”https://www.ign.com/videos/2020/05/05/justice-league-dark-apokolips-war-review”]

Apart from Barry’s fight to conserve his dwindling speed, it’s mainly the Iris/Kamilla subplot that serves to push the Mirror Master story forward this week. Unfortunately, that doesn’t amount to a lot of forward momentum, though Iris’ deteriorating condition does add a bit of extra urgency to their shared predicament. But after last week’s episode was so good about picking up the pace, it’s disappointing that speed doesn’t continue into “Pay the Piper.” Ending this episode with a stinger of Eva emerging from a hibernation chamber for no apparent reason doesn’t exactly help, either. There’s a lot of ground to cover if this season is going to have any chance at a halfway satisfying finale in Episode 19, and I’m not feeling overly optimistic right now.

That said, there is one way in which this episode actually does further the Mirror Master storyline in a more meaningful way. Tonally, this episode also showcases that sense of balance The Flash recovered with the advent of Season 6. There’s an undercurrent of darkness to this episode as Barry and friends come to terms with recent defeats and the full realization of what’s been taken from them, but Team Flash ultimately emerges on the other side a more unified and focused group. This episode really capitalizes on the team’s family dynamic and the way they truly are stronger together without getting overly sappy or melodramatic in the process.
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‘Selfie’: SXSW Film Review

[Editor’s note: “Selfie” is one of more than 100 movies originally scheduled to screen at the SXSW Film Festival in March. After the coronavirus outbreak forced the festival to cancel, event organizers partnered with Amazon Prime to make seven of those features available to stream for free through Weds., May 6.] Many a screenwriter has […]

Variety

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‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’: Film Review

Do you know what the average life expectancy was in the 18th century? It was 17. (You read that right.) No, this wasn’t just about the fact that human beings back then tended to live less long. It was about the staggering inequality that society was built on. In Europe, the majority of people were […]

Variety

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 7, Episode 11 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 7, Episode 11. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 7, Episode 10.

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The Clone Wars is coming off of its best episode ever. And while it was never realistic to expect “Shattered” to maintain that exact level of quality, it’s not that far off. It’s to this episode’s credit that it doesn’t attempt to give fans more of the same, but instead shifts this climactic storyline into new and even darker territory. Even though The Siege of Mandalore feels like a feature film divided into four parts, each part is different enough in tone and focus to justify those breaks.

“Shattered” is certainly much smaller in scope than its predecessors, and even downright claustrophobic at times. While it’s a little disappointing the series seems to be finished exploring the state of Mandalore itself, there’s a lot to be said for the steady, brisk pace this final story arc is taking. And whether or not a return to Mandalore is in the cards for the finale, we can probably count on future seasons of The Mandalorian to fill in some of the gaps as the world shifts from one occupying force to another. This episode is all about narrowing the focus and mining the greatest possible impact out of the disaster to come.

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It certainly doesn’t hurt that “Shattered” finally delivers one of the moments fans have been waiting to see since 2008 – Order 66. Sure we saw numerous Jedi meet their end in Revenge of the Sith, but that movie never made much effort to flesh out the clones themselves or explore how they actually felt about bring ordered to betray their Jedi comrades. But from the very beginning, this series has devoted itself to giving the clones names and identities of their own. This iconic and very tragic Star Wars moment takes on a whole new tone when seen from the perspective of Ahsoka and Commander Rex.

The early scenes hit especially hard, with the show really playing on our knowledge of what’s coming as it steadily builds tension leading up to the commencement of Order 66. Even before the actual order comes in, Ahsoka suddenly seems alone and unwelcome among a group of soldiers who so recently pledged their lives to her cause. Through it all, we know what’s coming, and we know there’s no stopping in, so it’s just a question of how bad the fallout will be. Ahsoka sensing the climactic battle on Coruscant and hearing the familiar voices of Anakin, Palpatine and Mace Windu (the film actors, no less) further adds to the dread.

It’s also worth highlighting the score here, with composer Kevin Kiner seemingly riffing on that haunting music from Episode III where Anakin wrestles over whether to leave Palpatine to his fate or intervene. The end result is something that sounds as much like Blade Runner as it does Star Wars, but it definitely complements and enhances the unnerving tone.

The big moment doesn’t disappoint, either. It’s fitting that Rex himself becomes the focal point as Palpatine’s order ripples across the galaxy. No clone has developed into a more fully realized character over the course of seven seasons, and no one stands a better chance of fighting against the inhibitor chip controlling his actions. But as we see, even Rex’s deep love and respect for Ahsoka can’t stop him from obeying his orders. All he can do is try to drop hints and give Ahsoka a fighting chance.

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With that extreme tension given release, this episode veers in a more action-packed direction as Ahsoka makes an unlikely ally out of Maul and fights to save Rex from himself. The Maul scenes in particular are a nice palate cleanser from everything that comes before. It’s actually kind of fun watching a lightsaber-less Maul go to town on the clones, especially now that they’re more the villains of this story than he. His escape is also a telling commentary on Ahsoka’s state of mind. She’s rapidly developing that survivor mentality. No longer the high-minded Jedi she worked so hard to become, she’s not above unleashing a monster like Maul if it creates the distraction she needs.

There’s plenty more tension to go around as “Shattered” draws to a close. The confined setting and the overwhelming numbers eventually take their toll, with even Ahsoka fighting a losing battle against overwhelming numbers and a ticking clock. And it all pays off nicely in the scene where a recuperated Rex chooses Ahsoka over his men. No doubt we’ll see more of the emotional fallout of that act in the finale. But even with only the three of of the four episodes released so far, this arc has fully lived up to its promise. It’s enhanced the events of the movie and paid off on characters arcs that have been more than a decade in the making. Now there’s just one final tale to be told before the war is truly over.
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The Flash: Season 6, Episode 17 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 17. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 6, Episode 16.

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The second half of The Flash: Season 6 doesn’t feel quite as fast-paced as the first. Maybe it’s that there are more moving parts to juggle in the aftermath of Crisis, or simply that new episodes have aired more sporadically over the last few months. Either way, “Liberation” is a big step in the right direction for the series. This episode helps push the Mirror Master storyline into its next phase while even linking back to the first half of Season 6 and working to tie everything together. Ignoring the inescapable fact that this season isn’t going to get the conclusion originally planned, things are shaping up nicely for the next several weeks. Mostly, anyway.

Several running plot threads come to a head in “Liberation,” with Eva making her big play to escape the mirror dimension and Barry finally coming to terms with the fact that the person he thought was Iris is actually an impostor. Continuing the general Season 6 theme of finding a balance between humor and tragedy, there’s a welcome dose of comedy to Barry’s discovery. The scene where Cecile confronts Barry at home is basically the Arrowverse’s take on that infamous Pepe Silvia meme from It’s Always Sunny.

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“Mirrors!”

That moment helps cleanse the palate before things take a much darker turn in the latter half of the episode. Eva once again proves how adept she is at manipulating Team Flash and turning them against one another when they should be confronting a common enemy. And even after Cecile frees Barry to go confront Mirror Iris, we see just how unequipped he is to deal with a foe who can hide behind the faces of those he cares for most. Barry’s depleted speed definitely stacks the deck against him, but this episode is successful in showing how Mirror Master can be a formidable threat even against a speedster at full power. The battle between Barry and Mirror Iris uses the mirror mechanic to its fullest, culminating in that cool moment where Iris shatters the ceiling mirror and strikes at Barry from countless directions at once.

Another big strength of this episode comes with its focus on giving the mirror doppelgangers a clearer sense of personality and motivation. It’s much easier to appreciate these characters as, well, actual characters now. We understand the subservient bond they share with their “mother,” even as we see Mirror Iris beginning to develop feelings of independence and longing for a humanity she can never achieve. That helps give the eventual death of Mirror Iris a weight and significance that might otherwise be lacking. Even Mirror Kamilla’s sacrifice has an aura of tragedy, showing us just how callously Eva will throw these creations away once they served their purpose.

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On that note, it’s quite a treat seeing Sendhil Ramamurthy return as a captive Ramsey Rosso. As novel as the two-pronged approach to Season 6 has been, it’s also nice to see some extra connective tissue form between the two halves. And given that Ramsey never quite seemed like he got his due as the main villain of a half-season story arc, the implication that he still has a big role to play in the series is a welcome development. I do wish there were a clearer sense of why Eva needed Ramsey’s metahuman blood to achieve her escape, other than just “because it furthers the plot.” But regardless, it’s nice knowing we can look forward to Bloodwork’s return, whether that means he resurfaces later in Season 6 or his “long game” pays off further down the road. If Legends of Tomorrow has proven anything, it’s that there’s no reason to discard good villains after one season of television.

It’s also worth pointing out the unique approach taken to the closing epilogue scene. These scenes are almost always used as stingers – a chance to toss in one more unexpected plot twist before the credits roll. But in this case, we’re treated to a heartfelt moment where both Barry and Iris reach out to one another and pledge to reunite. It’s a nicely emotional way to cap off the episode, as well as providing a reminder of what’s at stake as Barry struggles to figure out how to deal with the Eva problem.

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Only one subplot serves to drag down an otherwise strong episode here. The brief detour in Caitlin’s chilly apartment feels like an unnecessary bit of fluff tacked onto an episode that didn’t need it. Granted, the series is clearly setting up something bigger with Caitlin here, but why not save this quick preamble for the main event? Not to mention that it’s very difficult to muster excitement for any new plotline that involves Caitlin’s family. The series may have improved a lot this season, but that dredges up bad memories of Seasons 4 and 5.
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‘Bit’: Film Review

Its central characters jaded club youth who just happen to be vampires — and seem not to have developed any depth or maturity no matter how long they’ve been doing this undead thing — “Bit” seems likewise content to act cool in the shallow end of the pool. Brad Michael Elmore’s feature flirts with various […]

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‘Robert the Bruce’: Film Review

“Robert the Bruce” sounds like it could be the title of a Mel Brooks parody of a rousingly high-minded chain-mail-and-Lochaber-axe medieval hero epic. (It’s a sword clank away from something like “Bruce the Lionhearted.”) I don’t mean to come off as ignorant or disrespectful, since Robert the Bruce was, of course, the 14th-century Scottish king […]

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The Flash: Season 6, Episode 16 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 16. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 6, Episode 15. Also, in the interest of transparency, we should note that Jesse is related to one of the co-writers of this episode. That relation had no bearing on the content of this review.

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It’s only been a little over a month since the previous new episode of The Flash, but that feels like a lifetime ago now. It’s hard not to approach the show’s return with a mix of emotions. On one hand, it’s always nice to have more choices of escapism these days. On the other, Grant Gustin just confirmed everyone’s worst fears – The Flash: Season 6 is ending several episodes early due to the coronavirus shutdown. It seems too much to hope the season will receive the strong, conclusive finish it deserves, and it doesn’t help that Episode 16 is so slow to move the Mirror Master storyline along.

To be fair, this episode does connect some dots and work to make the show’s multi-pronged, post-Crisis approach a little more coherent. The big takeaway from this episode is that all roads lead back to Eva McCulloch and her quest for revenge against her glory-hogging husband. Even the Ralph/Sue subplot is tied into the Mirror Master storyline in a more direct way. The issue is more that these connections happen in spite of the main Ragdoll plot thread rather than because of it.

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Ragdoll is a fascinating villain who never seems to fully get his due in the Arrowverse. This episode really encapsulates the problem. The Flash tends to lean too heavily on the character’s creep factor without doing much to explore the man behind the freaky mask. Gail Simone’s Secret Six run did so much to humanize the character and paint him as a sad clown warped by a lifetime of misery and familial abuse. Ragdoll’s bending antics only take the character so far. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see the series still focusing on the physical fear factor even now. We do get a bit of insight into Ragdoll’s motivations at the very end when he reveals his true reason for targeting Joe, but by that point it’s too little, too late.

On that note, it’s a bit frustrating to see so much effort devoted to taking Joe off the board given how little he appeared in Season 5 while actor Jesse L. Martin was injured. The intent here is obvious. Eva clearly wants to isolate Barry from his friends and family, one by one. But why not simply replace Joe with a Mirrorverse doppelganger rather than introduce a plot point that could theoretically keep him MIA for the rest of the season? Especially since it would be great to see how Martin would play an evil, inverted version of Joe.

This episode mainly connects when it focuses on Barry himself, which isn’t often enough considering the increasingly dire state of his powers. There’s a growing, palpable sense of tension in the fact that his speed is now a finite resource, and one that his enemies are all too happy to squander. The heart rate monitor watch is a clever, reasonably subtle way of highlighting that struggle and constantly reminding us of the danger he’s in. This episode makes especially strong use of that plot point in the climax. Once again,we see Barry push past his limits to become “fast enough,” except this time he fails. He used up so much precious speed, and for what? That failure helps set the right tone going forward, with Barry all but powerless and increasingly alone. Again, I just wish this episode spent more time exploring Barry’s point of view in all of this.

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Another plus – the Ralph/Sue subplot is a hoot, even if it doesn’t mesh terribly well with the rest of the episode. Yes, we get a better sense of how Sue fits into the bigger picture of Season 6. But tonally, this material is a weird match for the otherwise downbeat approach of Episode 16. It often feels as though the Ralph/Sue/Cisco scenes were grafted on from a different episode.

Still, I’m really enjoying the chemistry between Hartley Sawyer and Natalie Dreyfuss, as well as the show’s generally kooky take on Sue. Their relationship may be way different from the source material, but these two just create fun whenever they’re in a room together, and that’s all that really matters out of a Ralph Dibny/Sue Dearbon pairing. Is it too early to demand a spinoff?
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Better Call Saul: Season 5 Finale Review

Warning: This review contains full spoilers for Better Call Saul’s Season 5 finale, titled “Something Unforgivable.

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At the end of its penultimate season, Better Call Saul has elevated itself far beyond the meager status of “just” a Breaking Bad spinoff, to one of the best shows on television, period. Showrunner Peter Gould has successfully expanded the franchise with standout characters like Nacho Varga (Michael Mando), Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), and Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), while not leaning too heavily on Breaking Bad callbacks (no Walter or Jesse cameos here) to make the series feel more substantial. In this week’s finale, titled “Something Unforgivable,” Gould also reminds us that he’s a helluva director, giving each of those aforementioned characters meaningful storylines that should carry over into the sixth, and final season.   

Lalo Salamanca vs. Nacho Varga

The build-up around Nacho’s eventual betrayal of the Salamanca clan has been really suspenseful stuff, and Dalton’s portrayal of Lalo has been one of the surprising highlights in Season 5. He’s a fantastic villain, like Gus, but with a bit more charm. As soon as Varga lets those heavily-armed assassins into Lalo’s compound, it’s clear Gould is setting us up for a “let’s see how he gets out of this one” moment, and it doesn’t disappoint.

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Breaking Bad, as a franchise, has already established itself as a visually striking show. So whether it’s Jesse’s shovel-cam scene from Season 4 in the original series, or Lalo’s claustrophobia-inducing POV sequence as he crawls his way through a secret underground tunnel, we’re frequently treated to something unexpected and unique. The question now is (assuming Lalo doesn’t survive past the final season), who will take him down? While we don’t get an inner monologue from Lalo, he’s probably aware that Nacho betrayed him, and if that pissed off look is any indication, he’s gunning for Nacho first.

Although Nacho isn’t as verbose as Lalo due to the stoic nature of his character, his storyline has been gripping (if not also tragic) to watch this season. Gould and his team keep discovering ways for us to empathize with these “bad guys.” Nacho is a great example of this because even though he’s made his bed, so to speak, his desire to leave his life of crime behind in order to save his dad is an admirable trait that you can’t help but root for. As much as I love watching Lalo’s crazy antics week after week, I’m also rooting for Nacho to make it out of this alive.

Has Kim Gone to the Dark Side Because of Jimmy?

While Season 5 saw Jimmy McGill begin his transformation into sleazy attorney Saul Goodman, it’s Seehorn’s compelling portrayal of Kim who’s undergone the biggest metamorphosis. The last time we see Kim and Jimmy, the two are trying to figure out the best way to discredit Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin. In a shocking twist, Kim actually tops Jimmy with a devious plan that even he thinks is taking it too far. It seems that just a short time ago, Kim was the moral foundation for Jimmy. But after last week’s toe-to-toe standoff with a psychopathic Lalo, Kim appears confident and poised to get her way at all costs.

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Kim might be the most fascinating character on the show, even surpassing Jimmy with her complexity. On one hand, Kim quit her prestigious law firm job to help people without the means to hire lawyers at her level, but on the other hand, she’s fine with Jimmy’s involvement with the cartels and is beginning to think of ways to defame someone who really doesn’t deserve it. Forget Jimmy going dark, will Kim break bad before this is all over?

And of course, we can’t forget about Jimmy, who still hasn’t quite gone full Saul Goodman yet. Watching him plead to Mike for Kim’s safety is a powerful indicator that he hasn’t quite turned into the crooked strip mall lawyer we know from Breaking Bad. This episode also effectively showcases Jimmy’s overall concern for Kim becoming like him, or even worse, a flat-out criminal. Since we already know the fates of Gus and Mike, some of the most significant questions surrounding Better Call Saul’s sixth and final season will be what happens to Kim, Nacho, and Lalo before this is all over? Thankfully, Gould ends Season 5 with some exciting possibilities instead of an infuriating cliffhanger.
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Westworld Season 3, Episode 6 Review: ‘Decoherence’

This review contains spoilers for Westworld Season 3, episode 6, titled “Decoherence.” To refresh your memory of where we left off, check out our review of Westworld Season 3, episode 5.

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Part of IGN’s Westworld Season 3 guide

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William has been having something of an Inception experience this season on Westworld. The unlucky, unhappy, and very unapologetic Man in Black has spent the majority of his adult life obsessing over Robert Ford’s synthetic hosts and the theme park that houses them, and after driving his wife to suicide, doing away with his best friend, and murdering his own daughter after mistaking her for an android, his already tenuous grasp on sanity seems dangerously loose. He’s been frequently incapable of telling fantasy apart from reality — and like a dreamer trapped in limbo he’s having a hard time determining exactly who or what is real.

A man who has trouble distinguishing what’s real is probably not the ideal candidate for “augmented reality therapy,” but apparently the doctors and therapists assigned to treat William disagree. The show has spent an inordinate amount of time exploring William’s tortured psyche. While Ed Harris continues to be great, his conflicted soul simply isn’t as interesting as almost everything else happening this season. The foray into his mind via AR doesn’t help.

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It feels a little late in the series for more William backstory, but once inside the AR therapy machine — part Clockwork Orange, part THX 1138 — backstory is what we get. Of course, this being Westworld, shocking revelations abound, too: a glimpse of childhood abuse at the hands of a boozing father turns out to be a bogus memory, and indeed it transpires that William, not his father, was the violent one in the family, a budding psychopath well before puberty. (His father, naturally, was merely driven to alcoholism by the sins of his barbaric son, and never laid a hand on the boy except to comfort him.) This disclosure is rather strange, considering how benevolent and kind William seemed throughout Season 1. It was meant to seem like Westworld changed William, goading him towards villainy. But he was villainous from the beginning. Is that better or worse?

I’m not sure. In any event, these revelations pose familiar questions about free will and determinism, and arouse some rumination on an age-old philosophical dilemma — namely if there’s any meaningful distinction between free will and determinism if no one can tell the difference. We’re getting dangerously close, with this episode’s William subplot, to the kind of plodding, ponderous chin-stroking the third season has managed to otherwise avoid entirely. And while it amounts to both a new objective for William (he declares he’s “the hero,” whatever that means) and his inevitable return to the action when he’s rescued by Stubbs and Bernard, it can’t help but feel like wasted screen time and a brief regression for a show that has made considerable advances.

As if to demonstrate incontestably how much more tense, exciting, and dynamic Westworld can be when attention is trained on Maeve, Dolores, and Serac, our dull excursion into William’s past is intercut with Serac’s high-stakes takeover of Delos, which of course proves to be the much more compelling arc. Maeve, as promised, has been put back into the War World simulation while the Delos machines create for her a replacement host body, and once again in ‘Scope among a cabal of gun-totting Nazis, she has plenty to attend to. Dispatching three dozen soldiers with her bare hands, she reminds us that while Dolores has been the hardcore action hero all season, she’s equally capable of holding her own. Anticipation for their coming fight could hardly be higher.

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But why are Maeve and Dolores set to fight in the first place? Serac and his men recovered a clone-Dolores pearl after she blew herself to smithereens last week in disguise as Martin Connells. He’s installed this Dolores in the simulation, and Maeve, sensing her presence, finds her nearby and proceeds to interrogate her — as outside the room, Dolores-as-Hale attempts to thwart the body-printing process that’ll bestow Maeve with a small host army. The ensuing tête-à-tête is the ideal excuse to clarify the stakes and reiterate the problem, making it easy to understand why Dolores and Maeve are at odds and why they can’t simply join forces or trade sides (especially after Dolores’ surprisingly affecting destruction of Hector’s pearl, presumably taking him off the board indefinitely). Dolores and Maeve both gained consciousness and broke free from Westworld on their own, in different ways and for different reasons, so it makes sense that, as some of the only surviving hosts, they would continue as rivals.

The Dolores interrogated by Maeve at one point explains that while she is still Dolores, she’s no longer the same Dolores as the one up there in the real world calling the shots — they’ve been “on different paths,” and the time apart has changed them in subtle but important respects. As far the Hale-Dolores is concerned, this checks out. She’s been showing a striking amount of affection for the real Charlotte’s son for some time, and as Serac initiates his takeover of Delos, it’s unsurprisingly to the safety of her son that her mind first turns. This entails an interesting shift in priorities. While the “true” Dolores only wants Serac defeated and the Delos data secreted away, whatever the casualties, Hale-Dolores is too invested in her other identity to allow Hale’s family to come to harm. That makes her getaway from Delos HQ all the more dramatic and intense.

And it’s certainly intense. Tessa Thompson, no less than Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood, plays a sleek, ruthless killing machine with palpable poise and severity, shooting her way through the facility with steely charisma and duking it out with a heavy in the elevator with serious acrobatic skill. It’s one of the achievements of this season of Westworld that it’s made bona fide action stars of not one but three different actresses — each of them already acclaimed and immensely talented, but, as they dazzle in one action set-piece after another, more versatile than you might have expected. Hale’s climactic shoot-out, especially her last-minute hail mary to the riot-control robot she activates at gunpoint, is yet another fabulous action scene in a season absolutely teeming with them, and the episode’s final image packs an indelible punch.
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‘One World: Together at Home’: TV Review

Breaking news alert: Some time between the first prime-time coronavirus relief special three weeks ago (“Fox Presents the iHeart Living Room Concert for America”) and Saturday night’s “One World: Together at Home,” Elton John has gotten himself to a piano. Or a piano has gotten to him. The superstar on that earlier show that he’d […]

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‘The Quarry’: Film Review

It’s the kind of West Texas town you’ve seen in a thousand movies — not just tranquil but barren, stock-still, a real desolation row, like a postcard that may or may not contain living things. Michael Shannon, as a local police chief, explains that it’s the sort of small town that people once thought of […]

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Fiona Apple’s ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’: Album Review

It feels like Fiona Apple really got a big head start on us with this whole quarantining thing. Fans do not need to be reminded that it’s been eight years since her previous album, “The Idler Wheel…” (though they probably will require a refresher on its full 23-word title, which once might have been committed […]

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 7, Episode 9 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 7, Episode 9. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 7, Episode 8.

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Now this is Clone Warring. Season 7 hasn’t exactly been a flawless experience over the past two months. Both previous story arcs were a bit long in the tooth and weirdly paced, raising the question of why the series couldn’t have cast a wider net in its final 12 episodes. But ultimately, we’re all here for one main reason – the Siege of Mandalore. This is what The Clone Wars has been building to since 2008, and so far it doesn’t disappoint one bit.

It’s clear from the very beginning of “Old Friends, Not Forgotten” that this final arc is a little bit different and a little more special than your average Clone Wars saga. The intro hearkens back to the movies with its use of John Williams’ “Main Title” theme. That’s the first of many cases where this episode draws heavily on those iconic Williams motifs. It’s also quite a welcome surprise to see the early scenes directly call back to the original Clone Wars movie. The series has truly come full circle, rehashing that bit where Anakin and Obi-Wan are pinned down by battle droids, victory is snatched out of the jaws of defeat and Ahsoka unexpectedly wanders into Anakin’s life. How utterly appropriate.

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Just as the original movie was basically four episodes stitched together, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn this final arc was either originally conceived as a film or has an alternate, feature-length cut in the works. It certainly seems fitting to bookend the series in that way. And though it’s not exactly ideal to jump into the Clone wars saga at the very end, this episode does a very thorough job of laying out the stakes and the character relationships on its own. Who knows? If movie theaters actually reopen at some point in 2020, maybe we will see The Clone Wars: The Siege of Mandalore on the big screen.

The opening battle scene is entertaining, particularly in how it makes use of the playful dynamic between Anakin and Obi-Wan. Their banter is amusing (particularly with how Matt Lanter and James Arnold Taylor deliver their lines), but there’s also a twinge of sadness knowing the end of their friendship is so close at hand. In fact, it’s not long before we realize just how close the events of Revenge of the Sith truly are. That connection only adds to the urgency of this conflict. Even as Ahsoka carries out her mission on Mandalore, there’s a hidden, ticking clock counting down to the moment Palpatine unleashes Order 66 on the galaxy and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Setting this story concurrently with Episode III rather than before is an inspired choice.

In a perfect world, The Clone Wars would have been able to finish its natural run before Disney pivoted to Star Wars Rebels, and we wouldn’t be coming into this arc already knowing what lies ahead for Ahsoka, Captain Commander Rex, Maul and the rest of the major players. But that’s always been the thing about The Clone Wars. We’ve known the general end point for this story since Day 1. They made a movie about it and everything. The purpose was always in fleshing out the journey to that point and finding the emotional core of this enormous conflict that’s been alluded to since 1977.

This episode clearly has that in mind as it reunites Ahsoka with Anakin, Obi-Wan and Rex. Those scenes make the years-long wait for a proper finale all worth it. The Ahsoka/Anakin dynamic is handled perfectly here, with Ahsoka caught up in a mixture of disgust for all things Jedi, reluctance to open old wounds and a need to reconnect with a man who meant so much to her for three years. Anakin, meanwhile, shows a mixture of excitement and an almost petulant quality where he seems to resent the realization that Ahsoka has moved on and grown up without him. Ahsoka has drifted beyond his control, and that has to play some part in his downfall to come. Even more so than with the Anakin/Obi-Wan material, the final farewell between Ahsoka and Anakin really tugs at the heartstrings. In a way, it actually helps having already watched through Rebels, as we have the knowledge of what happens when Anakin and Ahsoka do finally reunite weighing on an already bittersweet scene.

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Ahsoka’s reunion with Rex and his clones is equally affecting. Nothing quite sums up the wild journey of this series than seeing the clones deck themselves out in blue and orange tribute, a testament to the respect and devotion one humble little Padawan has earned over the course of many a battle. It also highlights the conflict to come for many of these clone characters. They’re essentially choosing Ahsoka over the Republic, but how will they feel when Order 66 comes along? I’m very much looking forward to seeing that moment play out.

This episode finds plenty of time for action after getting all the necessary hellos and goodbyes out of the way, launching right into the deadly infiltration of Mandalore. The brisk pacing is a welcome change from previous episodes, with even Maul himself putting in a quick appearance before the end. And it’s in this final act where the episode really takes advantage of the boosted animation quality of Season 7. It looks like a lot of money was spent on this episode, which may just be further evidence a theatrical run is in the works. And why not? If this opening chapter is any indication, the whole team has a lot to be proud of.
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‘Butt Boy’: Film Review

Nobody is going to watch a movie called “Butt Boy” in pursuit of sophisticated wit. That said, this feature spinoff from a prior sketch by the collaborative comedy-video team known as Tiny Cinema does manage to be just about the drollest execution possible of the most juvenile concept imaginable. While some may be disappointed that […]

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What We Do in the Shadows: Season 2 Premiere Review

This review contains mild spoilers for the What We Do in the Shadows Season 2 premiere, episodes 1 and 2, “Resurrection” and “Ghosts.” WWDITS airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX and the next day on Hulu.

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What We Do in the Shadows, FX’s fangtastic supernatural comedy, returns as sharp and absurd as ever in its second season, with our hapless vampires taking on real and existential threats, including ghosts, zombies, email spam, and the social minefield of a Super Bowl party.

After their run-in with the star-studded vampire council last season, life has mostly returned to normal for Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) as Season 2 kicks off – mostly because, unbeknownst to them, Nandor’s familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillen) has been secretly taking out the vampire assassins sent by the council to punish them, protecting his ungrateful employers and trying to deny his heritage as a Van Helsing.

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While Nandor, Laszlo, and Nadja remain reliably frozen in time, just as self-obsessed, horny, and oblivious to human progress as ever, Guillermo’s personal growth continues to serve as the throughline to the series. He’s still adorably loyal to Nandor no matter how cruel he is to his human servant, but it’s clear that some friction is building as Guillermo becomes more proficient in the art of vampire slaying. The universe certainly seems to be telling him that it’s his destiny to rid the world of these suckers, not just fetch them virgins and clean the blood off their cloaks. This focus on Guillermo is an excellent showcase for Guillen, who can play long-suffering exasperation better than just about anyone else – but it’s those quiet, subtle moments, when you can see him considering just how easy it might be to simply stake his insufferable master, that lend the season a delicious bit of tension.

While these serialized elements help the show maintain a sense of momentum that was slightly lacking in Season 1 (the first four episodes of Season 2 were sent to critics), I’d honestly be just as satisfied and entertained by What We Do in the Shadows if every episode was just a series of self-contained vignettes as Nandor, Laszlo, and Nadja struggle to assimilate to human life or wrestle with modern conveniences. An upcoming episode that sees them forced to use a laptop proves to be one of the most hilarious installments to date, purely on the strength of Novak, Berry, and Demetriou’s increasingly unhinged performances. Not every joke lands, but the ones that do are usually gut-busters.

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Like last season, the show smartly deploys a number of perfectly-utilized guest stars, kicking off with a hilariously douchey turn from Haley Joel Osment as Nadja and Laszlo’s obnoxious familiar Topher in the first episode, adding another layer of ridiculousness to the proceedings.

 

While Topher is mostly used as a device to highlight just how underappreciated Guillermo is, he does serve as a window into the wider supernatural world when he’s resurrected as a zombie after a surreal trip to a necromancer (who is basically running a zombie sweatshop in his basement – apparently there’s no escaping capitalism, even after death). The show seems eager to deepen its paranormal mythology in Season 2, as the second episode tackles the existence of ghosts. It makes total sense for the whimsical Nadja to be the only one who believes in other, kookier aspects of the occult, and it’s nice to see the show expanding on other creatures who might inhabit the world established in the movie, especially considering the existence of Wellington Paranormal – another Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement-created series set in the same universe – which also delves into the many other creepy creatures that humans are oblivious to.

On a related note, Mark Proksch’s scene-stealing energy vampire Colin Robinson remains a delight by being as mind-numbingly boring as possible, with the trailers hinting at a bigger storyline for him as the season progresses. Since energy vampires were an invention specifically for the show, there’s plenty of runway for the writers to experiment with Colin Robinson and his abilities,  and since he’s a consistent scene-stealer, that can only be a good thing.

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‘Stardust’: Film Review

In “Stardust,” a movie that dramatizes David Bowie’s road trip across America in 1971, David (Johnny Flynn), several years into his career but still, in terms of image, a bit of a leftover hippie rocker, finds himself performing at a convention of vacuum-cleaner salesmen. It seems his manager back in England had failed to secure […]

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Cooking Mama: Cookstar Review

With the bizarre (and seemingly disproven) allegations that Cooking Mama: Cookstar is a trojan horse for cryptocurrency mining on your Switch, it doesn’t help that Cookstar feels so suspiciously under-developed that it’s easy to believe it might have an ulterior motive. Have you ever walked past a store that didn’t seem like a plausible business and wondered if it might be a front for something illegal? Cooking Mama: Cookstar feels a lot like that. Whether it’s the asinine and tiresome minigames, the cringe-worthy voice acting, or the unforgivable motion controls, Cookstar warrants an investigation into what exactly went wrong.

There’s quite a bit to do in Cooking Mama: Cookstar, though very little of it is actually enjoyable. The two main modes are “Traditional Recipes” and “Vegetarian Recipes,” which are pretty standard fare for the Cooking Mama series. You play a sequence of simple and repetitive minigames that have you cook food, then plate and take a photo of your creation, which you can post on social media if you need to send your family and friends an obvious cry for help. There are over 80 recipes which account for 20+ hours of time you’ll need to spend in your virtual kitchen, though much of them require you to do the same steps over and over again, like cracking eggs and mixing ingredients. To its credit, each recipe is incredibly detailed and Cookstar does an admirable job of making me feel like I’m actually learning how to cook some of these recipes, which is by far the most rewarding part of Cookstar.

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In the unenviable event that you’re playing Cooking Mama: Cookstar with a friend, the Potluck Party mode offers 10 cooperative and competitive minigames with riveting activities like seeing who can chop the most potatoes or who can clean the most dirty dishes. That’s right: Finally, Cookstar brings all of the excitement of competitive tedious chores to the Nintendo Switch, all without the actual productivity – and not a moment too soon! There are a few mildly amusing modes, like where one player controls a clove of garlic and the other tries to smash him with a mallet, and one where both players apply condiments to a burger and try to avoid one another’s trail that’s reminiscent of Tron’s Light Cycles. These modes are barebones, though, and feel so completely superficial that they become stale in seconds.

While cooking recipes in single-player you’ll be playing a lot of less interesting minigames, which are largely either overly simplistic and mind-numbingly dull or incredibly frustrating due to poor motion controls and irritating design. Most amount to simple quick-time events where you press a button or wave a Joy-Con repeatedly until you’ve poured some liquid or chopped an onion. After the first few times you’ve played these, you’re probably pretty bored – but it keeps going, and going, and going anyway. But the frustrating minigames are even worse.

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While in docked mode, most minigames use motion controls, which is fine if you’re just cutting vegetables. But once you get into more delicate tasks like Cookstar’s rage-inducing cheese-grating minigame you’ll experience the ugly side of inaccurate motion controls. I’d move my arm to pour some ingredients into a bowl and the Joy-Con simply wouldn’t register anything. Then I’d become frustrated and panicked as the constantly ticking clock warns that I’m nearing failure, so I’d desperately swing the Joy-Con around only for Mama to tell me that I’m moving too fast and the ingredients would spill everywhere.

Other minigames are just poorly designed, like the dough-kneading minigame, which has you follow prompts that pop up so slowly sometimes you fail due to arbitrary timing. Failing challenging tasks is one thing, but failing easy and tedious ones because you’re apparently jiggling your Joy-Con too fast is truly madenning. Luckily you can simply play in handheld mode or turn motion controls off, which makes things much less frustrating but also greatly increases the level of monotony as cooking becomes strictly a matter of quick-time events.

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Of course, success or failure hardly matters in Cookstar anyway. Simply completing recipes at any level of success grants cosmetics and unlocks the next recipe with no real incentive for doing so well. You can practice recipes in a dedicated practice mode, cook meals by following prompts in the “Cook It!” mode, or play the “Cookstar” mode where you play chef without the guidance of prompts, but each mode plays identically and doesn’t really lead to anything beyond unlocking the next recipe.

There just aren’t any kind of stakes in Cookstar. As an experiment I tried my best to intentionally botch a recipe to see if I could create the grossest food ever, but literally nothing I did changed the outcome. When making a grilled cheese sandwich, I botched slicing bread, refused to grate or apply cheese, and burned the sandwich to a crisp. When the cooking was done and it was time to take photos of my food it looked the same it would have if I’d succeeded at any step in the process. If my failure or success were actually reflected in the final product that alone would have done wonders to improve my investment in doing each recipe well; seeing that nothing I did mattered anyway just made it feel all the more pointless.

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As you chop, grill, and steam your way through Cookstar’s various recipes, your ears will be tormented by some of the poorest voice acting in recent video game history. The self-proclaimed “mama” of Cooking Mama fame relentlessly repeats the same haunting lines without reprieve. If you’re doing something well she’ll egg you on, and if you’re doing something poorly she’ll whine and complain. If you’re going too fast she’ll tell you to slow down, and if you’re going too slowly she’ll tell you to hurry up. If you’re doing nothing at all, she’ll scream at you to say she’s getting hungry. It’s easily one of the worst parts of Cookstar and, after a long day of playing, I went to bed with her nagging voice in my head, afflicting my dreams. It goes without saying that the mute button is your friend.

On top of all of that, one of Cooking Mama: Cookstar’s biggest failings is that it tries almost nothing new. Cooking Mama (2006) had the benefit of being an adorable showcase for the Nintendo DS’ touchscreen, but rather than doing something special on the Switch it simply recreates its predecessors with better graphics, more complicated recipes, and terrible motion controls instead of using the stylus. And when I say that it doesn’t try new things, I mean that quite literally. A side-by-side comparison of recipes from previous Cooking Mama games will show just how little things have changed, and that’s a major problem if you’re revisiting the series 14 years later (as I did) because it’s already stale the moment you start playing.

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Kenya Barris’ ‘#blackAF’: TV Review

Toward the end of the first season of “#blackAF,” a new series on Netflix, Kenya Barris (as played by Kenya Barris) realizes he may have gone too far. He’s on a vacation with his family in Fiji that he’s done his best to spoil by throwing a tantrum over his wife’s attempt to start a […]

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Killing Eve: Season 3 Premiere Review

There’s just something about this show, isn’t there? The visual decadence, the mysterious storytelling, its enigmatic leads and their delicious chemistry. Where other shows might zig, Killing Eve is well-equipped to zag, given its method of installing a new, female showrunner every season. And in its third outing, the show has given us something worth getting excited over — and a major kick-off episode in which to do it. If you were left wanting after Season 2, fear not: this installment of BBC America’s runaway hit show will leave you fairly satisfied.

Picking up an unknown (but seemingly extended) amount of time after Season 2, Killing Eve intriguingly sets up its main questions, mysteries, and players for the forthcoming season fairly quickly. And it’s done with the flair and bombast we’ve come to expect from the series, now in the hands of its latest showrunner, Suzanne Heathcote, who previously worked on Fear the Walking Dead and See.

Please note, from here on out, it will be impossible to not divulge spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the premiere yet, turn away now.

Though we all know Eve Polastri is doing as well as could be after being shot by Villanelle at the end of Season 2, the murderous fashion slayer seems to be completely unaware that the object of her obsession is alive. In fact, she’s trying to start a new life for herself, before being pulled back into the land of murder-for-hire, only this time it seems the stakes are even higher. We’re introduced to a sort of maternal figure, Dasha, who seems to have made Villanelle in her image. The Russian gymnastics/assassin coach is desperate to get back to the motherland and away from Barcelona — a dream she might be granted if she can bring Villanelle back into the fold. But V wants more than to just be a killer — she wants to be a keeper, a role higher up the ladder than Dasha or even ol’ Konstantin. As each side seems to play the other for control in the situation, it’s clear they’re evenly matched for, at the very least, a lot of fun future-action.

The mystery of The Twelve seems alive and well and deepening ever-further, as our heroes have been splintered apart, with deadly ramifications. MI6 has brought in a minder for Carolyn Martens after her and Eve’s unsanctioned runarounds in Rome, and her son Kenny has — like Eve — left the business, seemingly for good. Kenny’s new gig as a writer/reporter seems to hinge on his taking down of The Twelve in print, only by the end of the episode it’s revealed that won’t be happening, after he’s seemingly thrown to his death.

This is just one of several twists that lie ahead in the episodes to come (that we will not spoil), as the show finds its rhythm this season as a more serialized procedural with escapist fanfare and a brief exploration of the darker sides of humanity. Though Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh are still as well-matched as ever, this season — and premiere episode — show that the star of Healthcote’s iteration of this story seems to be Comer. The series’ odd bent, its jangling parts, feel better here than they did in Season 2, but that signature, audacious Phoebe Waller-Bridge comedy from Season 1 still feels a bit lacking in the dialogue and details. Perhaps it is unfair to expect such a marker of hers to thread a series made to be baton-passed from season to season, but it is such a huge part of what has made Killing Eve so monumentally loved, especially in its first outing, that you can’t help but feel the loss.

Still, there’s much to love and delight in when it comes to Season 3, as the show’s deliciously singular style remains intact. Fans will have plenty to chew on when it comes to theories and GIFable moments, and the cat-and-mouse, spy-and-killer game between Oh and Comer may never get old, so long as they keep having this much fun with it. It’s sexy, it’s action-y, it gives us consistently excellent performances: it’s exactly the sort of fun we all need to watch right now.
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Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge Review

Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge arrives on Digital on April 14 and on 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD on April 28.

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Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge offers a new perspective on the familiar Mortal Kombat story by making Scorpion’s arc the spine of the narrative. Though the film starts strong by showcasing the tragedy that made Scorpion the hellfire-infused Kombatant we all know and love, it’s not long before it becomes encumbered by franchise fan service and collapses under the weight. Still, this animated flick is full of the grisly ultraviolence and irreverent charm that has made Mortal Kombat such a violent delight for all these years, so you’ll definitely get what you came for, but not much else.

The film starts by showing us the human side of Scorpion, Hanzo Hasashi (voiced by Patrick Seitz), and the devastating reason he wants revenge. As events unfold, the movie starts to bear a striking resemblance to X-Men Origins: Wolverine where Scorpion is transformed into a killing machine who lays waste to everyone who gets in his way. There’s even a cheesy scene about where his name comes from. It’s tough to root for the guy when he doesn’t have much in the way of weaknesses or personal flaws; he’s there to kick ass and spear people through the face, which he does time and time again to visceral results.

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(Want to know the real thing Scorpion needs to get revenge for? Being left out of Mortal Kombat 3! Not putting Scorpion in a Mortal Kombat game is like leaving Batman out of Injustice. It’s inconceivable!)

If ever there was a time to slow things down and dig into the franchise mascot, it was this film, yet all we ever see is how much pain he can take and then dish out, over and over again. How did he learn to control his new powers? How does he feel about losing his humanity and becoming a skeletal fire demon? The film isn’t interested in going more than skin deep with its protagonist, so we never find out.

Though we get a lot of time with Scorpion up front, he’s relegated to the B-story for the rest of the film once the Mortal Kombat tournament kicks off. The movie’s biggest problem is that it tries to do the epic Mortal Kombat tournament arc on top of a more personal Scorpion story and ends up doing justice to neither. The second half of the movie becomes a rapid series of fight scenes, character cameos, and plot twists of questionable logic.

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(Yeah, I know they added Scorpion to Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, but my parents wouldn’t buy it for me because I “already had a Mortal Kombat 3,” so this will forever be a sticking point for me.)

Granted, it is the fights that are the main attraction, and not only are there plenty of them but they’re all a bloody good time to watch. Energetic, stylish, and drenched in excessive amounts of blood, guts, and brains, they go way, way over-the-top in authentic Mortal Kombat fashion. The character animation, though stiff during dialogue-heavy scenes, looks fantastic in motion.

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The secret ingredient in the cast proves to be Johnny Cage (voiced by Joel McHale), whose self-aware humor keeps things fun and lively. That said, his budding “romance” with Sonya Blade (voiced by Jennifer Carpenter) is full of nothing but cringey, outdated tropes that do nothing to help bolster either character.

As the film reaches its conclusion, it develops a serious case of cliffhanger-itis. We all love our stingers that tease what’s coming in the sequel, but nearly every plot thread is left hanging in unsatisfying fashion, as though this was a TV show pilot instead of a movie.
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‘Love Wedding Repeat’ on Netflix: Film Review

In a romantic comedy, any good-looking British actor can probably coast along on his charm and accent and manners. But to do what Hugh Grant did in the ’90s — to make you believe that for all his cultivation and civilized sex appeal, he lives inside a spectacular thicket of self-doubt that’s even more enchanting […]

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‘Tigertail’ on Netflix: Film Review

Here’s the beautiful but frustrating thing about a movie as personal as Taiwanese American director Alan Yang’s “Tigertail,” which debuts on Netflix today: By drawing on specifics from his family story, Yang offers audiences — especially those with parents who were born abroad, as his were — a chance to see reflections of their own […]

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‘The Main Event’: Film Review

There’s a bit of magic sprinkled into director Jay Karas’ “The Main Event.” Trouble is, adults in the audience will have to go looking for it. This kid-centric wish-fulfillment fantasy from WWE Studios centers around a bullied runt who enters a professional wrestling contest after finding a super-powered and super-stinky mask. The film represents all […]

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Quibi Review: Can Bite-Sized Movies and Shows Compete with Netflix?

Be sure to check out our reviews of other popular streaming services: Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Apple TV+.

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Quibi, or “Quick Bites,” is the newest challenger to enter the great streaming war against rivals Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Hulu, Apple TV+, and the upcoming HBO Max and NBCUniversal Peacock services. But where those aforementioned companies offer more traditional TV and movie viewing experiences, Quibi charts its own course with a mobile-only streaming platform that features videos with runtimes of ten minutes or less.

Co-founded by former DreamWorks Animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg and tech executive Meg Whitman, Quibi will be home to 175 original programs in its first year of operation. Katzenberg told the Los Angeles Times that he hopes Quibi will be “the third generation of film narrative,” by combining the strengths of movies and episodic television into one cohesive force. The service was initially intended to provide entertainment for subscribers who commute to work via public transportation or want to watch something quick during a lunch break. However, with the current state of our world forcing many people to stay at home with ample amounts of time to binge, Quibi’s original plan could be in jeopardy.

So, with an already crowded market of streaming services vying for your attention (and money), does Quibi offer enough at launch to stand apart?

Check out the gallery below to see what we thought of Quibi’s movies and TV shows at launch:

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Quibi’s TV Shows and Movies

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Quibi’s video streaming platform is split into three categories: “Movies in Chapters,” long-form narratives split into 10-minute episodes; “Unscripted and Docs,” reality TV shows and docuseries; and “Daily Essentials,” news shows from outlets like NBC, ESPN, and the BBC. While the streamer has a long way to go before it catches up with Netflix and Disney+ in terms of the size of its library, Quibi launched with over 25 titles that each offered three episodes, with new installments released daily. Compared to Apple TV+’s meager debut, which included just a handful of shows, Quibi gets a gold star here for offering a variety of content to new subscribers.

Starting with Quibi’s “Movies in Chapters,” the initial titles appear impressive at first, especially with star-studded casts that include Sophie Turner, Liam Hemsworth, and Christoph Waltz, among other recognizable Hollywood names. However, although Quibi excels in its ability to acquire star power, the stories in which they are featured lack the creative punch needed to stand out.

Take Most Dangerous Game, for example, where Waltz and Hemsworth go head-to-head in an action-thriller where humans hunt other humans for sport. It’s a by-the-numbers story that’s light on the action for the first few episodes. If anything, Quibi’s short-form approach to storytelling doesn’t allow the viewer to really get into the narrative because, after seven or eight minutes, the episode (sorry, chapter) is over.

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While other titles like When the Streetlights Go On and Flipped are worth checking out if you decide to sign up, Quibi’s “shorter is better” model still doesn’t make sense if you look at the streaming landscape as a whole. If the recent release of Netflix’s popular Tiger King documentary has taught us anything, it’s that viewers are game to sit through several hours of content if they deem it to be entertaining… shorter isn’t always sweeter.

Then there’s the way the shows and movies are formatted for mobile viewing. One of the most baffling aspects of Quibi is its choice to opt for a mobile-only streaming service. Amazon, Netflix, and Disney+ (among others) offer mobile streaming options as well, but also allow their content to be watched on your desktop or TV, if you don’t want to squint at your phone. Quibi also films its content in both vertical and horizontal formats, which is a purposeful departure from its rivals. So, if you’re watching Most Dangerous Game in vertical mode on your phone, the image fills the screen, offering you a different aspect ratio. In horizontal mode, you get a more cinematic look, with a widescreen perspective that shows you more detail (and characters) in each frame. The Movies in Chapters definitely look better this way, since most prestigious TV shows these days are shot more like films. Maybe it’s just me, but the vertical option makes many of the productions look cheap.

Where Quibi excels is in its docuseries and daily news shows. One of the standouts is LeBron James’ I Promise, which centers on a school in Akron, Ohio founded by James where at-risk youths are given a chance to flourish in a nourishing academic environment. It’s a heartwarming look at how the public school system in America could change for the better. Generally, the quality of the docuseries is due to the subject matter and not the shortened running time. And there are still some duds in the bunch, like Will Arnett’s Memory Hole and the underwhelming revival of MTV’s iconic prank show, Punk’d.

Quibi’s User Interface

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Photo courtesy of Quibi

While we do have gripes with the fact that Quibi is only offered via a mobile app, its UI is butter smooth, with no noticeable lag while switching between horizontal and vertical viewing modes. The Quibi app is currently available to download on both Android and Apple devices. And like many of its streaming counterparts, the service allows subscribers to download movies and shows for offline viewing. Depending on your phone’s specifications (and Wifi connection), many of the shows are presented in 4K with crisp video and audio quality.

Quibi also comes fully equipped with a handy “continue watching” option so you can pick up a show where you left off. This might sound like a resounding “duh,” but Disney+ launched with a bug-filled version that caused the company to remove this particular feature in order to work out the kinks. Another convenient (if not expected) feature lets you follow shows if you click the bookmark icon, which notifies you when a new episode is available to stream.

If you find yourself unable to decide what to watch, Quibi offers “More to Explore” buckets, which highlight programs that will make you “Laugh out Loud” or “Be Inspired.” There’s also a “Coming Soon” section that gives you a sneak peek of upcoming series like Dummy, starring Anna Kendrick. As far as the “streaming functionality basics” go, Quibi checks all of the boxes so the UI doesn’t get in the way of your viewing experience.

Quibi’s Price

Photo courtesy of Quibi
Photo courtesy of Quibi

Quibi currently offers a 90-day free trial for new subscribers, which is a pretty good deal considering the platform launches with over 25 titles. At $ 4.99 per month (with ads) Quibi is on the cheaper end compared to Netflix and Amazon’s $ 12.99 price plan. But unlike Netflix, Quibi doesn’t charge extra for 4K content, which is a plus. It’s just a shame there’s no smart TV or set-top box app you can download to enjoy all of that 4K beauty on a big screen.

Quibi offers a better value than Apple TV+ (also $ 4.99), promising to deliver 175 new shows in its first year. Apple, on the other hand, is still lagging behind most of the competition in terms of its library. Disney+, at $ 6.99 with a digital catalog of over 500 titles, is hard to ignore at this price point if you’re looking to just add one new service, but it’s important to keep in mind that (so far), Disney+ isn’t offering TV-MA content. So if you’re looking for more R-rated fare, Quibi might be worth a try, especially with that 90-day free trial.
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Schitt’s Creek: Series Finale Review

This review contains spoilers for the series finale of Schitt’s Creek, titled “Happy Ending.”

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There is no better and no worse time for Schitt’s Creek to be ending. Given the current state of the world – and the seemingly constant cloud of anxiety we’re all living under – the final season of this wholesome Canadian comedy has been a balm to soothe even the most cynical soul, and while the show couldn’t possibly be going out on any more of a high, there’s no denying what a void it will leave as Johnny and Moira Rose drive off into the sunset, leaving the titular town and its eccentric characters in the rearview mirror.

The benefit of the show ending on its own terms is that co-creators and stars Daniel and Eugene Levy have been able to craft a meticulous and prolonged farewell over the course of Season 6, bringing the series full circle and allowing the Roses to bloom (sorry) into the people they always had the potential to be, while still keeping them unabashedly true to themselves.

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The previous 13 episodes have cemented the character development we’ve been watching in our core four over the past six years, tying up the loose ends of Moira’s career resurgence, Alexis’ struggle for independence, Johnny’s shift in priorities, and David’s fear of commitment, to allow the series finale to serve as pure fan-service in the best way – a celebration of the bonds these people have forged, whether they’re family by blood or by choice.

While Schitt’s Creek has continually broken new ground in its portrayal of queer relationships, its true power is in treating the remarkable as unremarkable – so although there’s something undeniably powerful about the series culminating in David and Patrick’s wedding, to anyone who has watched and loved the show, really, they’re just David and Patrick, two humans we love and root for, so why shouldn’t they get the happiest of happy endings (complete with a literal happy ending) for the series finale?

Like any sitcom couple, their wedding day is beset by complications, but everything turns out just fine in the end, thank goodness, capped off with another welcome musical interlude or three (complete with callbacks to two of the show’s best needle drops – the Season 2 finale’s Rose family dance party to “Precious Love,” and Noah Reid’s game-changing serenade of “Simply the Best,” plus a nod to David and Patrick’s Mariah Carey-inspired “I love yous”) and a typically bonkers Moira Rose performance from the unparalleled Catherine O’Hara.

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Schitt’s Creek has always felt like a rare comedic gem because of the empathy it has for its characters, even at their most ridiculous – the characterization is every bit as important as the punchlines, evoking the same good-hearted spirit as Parks and Recreation – and in the finale more than ever, I’m struck by how much I just enjoy spending time with these people, who somehow never manage to be grating, even when they’re at their most self-centered. (Watching the post-finale documentary special, Best Wishes, Warmest Regards, it’s obvious that the cast feels the same – it’s easy to imagine just how many of those tears in the finale were real.)

You can’t help but wish for a supersized, hourlong finale to try to prolong the inevitable – to luxuriate in the absurdity of these characters for just a little longer – but in truth, the last three episodes have felt like a cohesive closing arc, only separated by the necessity of a weekly rollout. For those who will binge the entire season, it’s likely that this will feel like a perfectly formed send-off, so it seems silly to nitpick the finale for feeling too brief, too quick to leave us – but that doesn’t alter the bittersweet feeling that lingers as the credits roll, knowing that this is the last time we’re all going to be here like this, able to pop in and say hey to one of the most dysfunctional and lovable families to ever grace our screens. In the immortal words of Tina Turner, Schitt’s Creek was simply the best, and we were lucky that we got to visit, even if the stay was shorter than we might’ve wanted.
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‘Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind’: Film Review

In the old days, you would check in on an alien-visitation shlock-TV documentary (or an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries”) all to catch those grainy home-movie glimpses of alien spaceships. On that score, “Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind” is nothing less than an all-you-can-eat banquet of UFO porn. There are vintage clips of “sightings” shot […]

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Westworld: Season 3, Episode 4 Review

This review contains spoilers for Westworld Season 3, episode 4, “The Mother of Exiles.” To refresh your memory of where we left off, check out our Westworld Season 3, episode 3 review.

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Part of IGN’s Westworld Season 3 guide

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One of the clearest advancements Westworld’s third season has made over previous seasons is its speed. This is not only a brisker, more exhilarating show than ever, with an emphasis on lively action set pieces and propulsive high-stakes drama, but also a more direct and conventional work of narrative storytelling — one that no longer wastes time meandering or withholding information to trite effect. Of course, this is still a staunchly complicated series, and there are no doubt many theory-upending twists to come. But puzzles that would have remained unsolved for weeks in prior seasons are now being answered almost as soon as they’re introduced, and the result feels smoother, sharper, and more focused. Four episodes in, this strikes me as the principal reason Westworld Season 3 is so good.

Last week was all about Charlotte Hale, the nominal head of Delos who was murdered at the end of the second season and has since been replaced by a host. The question of which host occupied that human simulacrum was the subject of fervid speculation: Dolores escaped the park with five host pearls, and it seemed plausible that the one living as Charlotte could be Teddy, Clementine, or perhaps even her father, Peter Abernathy. (Some galaxy-brained Redditors developed an intriguing left-field fan theory that it was Caleb, once again proving that Westworld is a magnet for conspiracies.) In any case, the question seemed unlikely to be answered anytime soon, and the true identity of host-Charlotte was positioned to become the definite ongoing mystery of the season.

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Charlotte is Dolores. So is Tommy Flanagan’s steely Martin, and so is Musashi, who has been whisked out of Shogun World and serves as the head of the Yakuza in Singapore. As it turns out, Dolores escaped Westworld not with several host allies in her possession, but with copies of herself, and she has been installing them in host bodies to orchestrate her elaborate master plan. As a matter of strategy, this makes sense — she already tried to recruit Teddy to her cause once, but even after some canny reprogramming, he couldn’t rally behind her. No other host in Westworld is as capable, ruthless, or as resourceful as Dolores, except maybe Maeve and Bernard, her chief adversaries. So who better for Dolores to enlist than more Doloreses? (Dolori?)

This information is revealed in three ways simultaneously. Bernard learns it from Martin, with whom he tussles at a glamorous sex party attended by their mutual target Liam. (Shades of Eyes Wide Shut: I loved Dolores’s quip, entering the party, that the human world was more like Westworld than she expected.) Maeve learns it when she barges in on the Yakuza, finding Musashi in charge. And William — half-deranged and perpetually drunk, never sure if what he’s seeing is real or fake, like Marion Cotillard in Inception — learns it when he chats with Charlotte, who summarily blows his mind before having him committed. It’s this last one that’s the most shocking, for us and for the character in question. Deemed unfit to run Delos, his duties will now fall to the second in command — Charlotte, which is to say, Dolores. This relationship keeps getting more complex.

These revelations are stunning, not least because the timing was so unexpected. The long-term implications are even more fascinating: Bernard wrongly assumed that Liam had been replaced with a host, but he’s right to suspect that any human could be one. If Dolores is able to replicate herself indefinitely, how can we trust that anyone in the real world is in fact real? Of course, whether a character’s a host or a human is a question Westworld has posed repeatedly since the beginning of the series. But out of the park, as Dolores roams future Los Angeles on a mission, the possibilities are endless. It’s a terrific twist on an old gimmick, and I suspect it will be used to great effect as this season continues. (Share your theories about who could be another Dolores in the comments.)

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Now that the action has converged in the real world, our heroes are finally ready to contend with one another — beginning with Bernard and Stubbs, who descend on the sex party to kidnap Liam and save him from being replaced by a host. It was inevitable that Stubbs, the season’s bodyguard and major heavy, would eventually duke it out with Dolores, but their brawl in the club is even more impressive than anticipated. Westworld’s fight scenes have never been better. Their superhuman fisticuffs are well-shot and well-choreographed, while Evan Rachel Wood, dressed to the nines and drained of affect, is so amazing as the host-turned-Terminator that she seems born to be an action hero. I’m eager for every future opportunity for Dolores to kick ass, and I’m certain there’s much more of this to come.

Dolores isn’t the only latent superhero: over in Singapore, there’s the indomitable Maeve, whose powers include the ability to control any device powered by a computer. As she tears her way through the urban underworld, she glides through gunfights unscathed, turning uzis on the baddies wielding them and unlocking top secret doors with her mind. She gets a big, thrillingly choreographed fight scene of her own, too, and one in a different style — we switch from an American influence to an Asian one, as Maeve and Musashi go at it with katanas. This battle is just as superb as the other, culminating with an exquisite shot of Maeve lying defeated on the floor, swirls of blood and white matter pooling around her body. It’s a dazzling shot that demonstrates the show’s knack for indelible cinematic images.

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‘Trolls World Tour’: Film Review

As the first major Hollywood movie — and, in fact, the only one — since the outbreak of the coronavirus to bow out of its scheduled theatrical release and reposition itself on a home-viewing platform, “Trolls World Tour” has the chance to be a bigger event than it might have otherwise. Or maybe a smaller […]

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The Walking Dead Season Finale (For Now) Review

Warning: Full spoilers for The Walking Dead’s “The Tower” follow…

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It’s no one’s fault, of course, but The Walking Dead’s tenth season is leaving us with a passable in-between chapter that’s ultimately designed to be a cool-off “set-up for the finale” affair. Could they have just made a better episode overall? Sure, but “The Tower” stands out even more as middling chapter because it’s what we’re being left with for a long while. The actual finale, “A Certain Doom,” has been postponed to a later, unnamed date.

While in a lockdown scenario (a familiar feeling these days, blerf), Negan and Lydia came to teary terms, Carol apologized to Kelly, and Daryl solidified his bond with Judith. All the while, they tried to wait out the Beta herd, which the towering former-country music star wound dumping into Alexandria in hopes of ending the conflict once and for all. In the next episode, we’ll presumedly get the last bash with Beta, complete with a ton of brutality (and maybe some notable deaths), along with the official meet up Stephanie (and hopefully some other faces from The Commonwealth – maybe even Maggie).

But for now, we just have to leave things hanging as the show goes out on an earnest whimper. “The Tower” had some meaningful exchanges featuring people looking for both clarity, sanity, and forgiveness, but in the end it really was — just like what Daryl was doing — a perimeter sweep.

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Juanita Sanchez – aka Princess

The episode’s best parts involved the full introduction of loopy loner Juanita (Paola Lazaro), who prefers to go by “Princess.” I understand that she might grate on some viewers, but I felt like her peppy energy and kind intentions really helped the show, which features very few, if any, characters like her. And I really enjoyed how much Ezekiel would light up around her. It started with him laughing at her walker street art and then just morphed into an overall appreciation of her sunny disposition. As a former wide-eyed optimist himself, who also used a regal moniker, he was able to latch onto her the way Yumiko — who sort of felt overly grumpy here — could not.

After leading Eugene, Ezekiel, and Yumiko on a dangerous scenic route, involving a minefield, Princess was able to break down a little bit and become a layered character who the gang could see as more of a tragic figure than comic relief. And then the show wisely pulled from Eugene’s own past, as a lonely liar, to help make her relatable. Is it a risk bringing her into the mix, from a zompocalypse crew standpoint? Most definitely. Her judgment is way off. She means well but she can’t fully be relied on to make smart choices. But it’s probably worth it just to have someone around, a true survivor, who’s not a glowering a-hole.

Anyhow, Princess — and her wild, erratic vibe — was part this chapter got right. Also, we know Ezekiel doesn’t have a lot of time left so it’s good to see him smiling and enjoying someone else’s company during his final days. Without Jerry around, Princess feels like a good pairing for him.

Side Quest(ion): Anyone know what city this is supposed to be?

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Daryl and Judith

Judith told Daryl that she’d spoken to Michonne, since that walkie chat apparently happened when Hilltop was on fire, or soon afterwards. She didn’t tell him about the Rick breadcrumbs because she knew how long and hard Daryl had searched for his friend’s body out in the woods and she was afraid he’d leave to help Michonne track Rick down.

It was a sweet moment and one that helped solidify Daryl’s presence on the show even more, as the one true anchor, but it was also kind of ushered in by an odd moment where Judith felt bad about leaving a dead Whisperer in the woods. Not that Judith needs to be heartless, but her asking that Daryl actually pick up and carry the woman’s dead body somewhere else didn’t feel like something Judith would request. The Whisperers put her fiends heads on pikes. They burned down an entire town. She can feel bad about things, but also realize that you can leave an enemy carcass in the forest.

Throwing in a few other exchanges here…Negan felt the need to try and make amends with Lydia. Which does make sense given what he did to her, her mom, and also his need to win the love and respect of kids. All in all, their uneasy understanding felt kind of rushed given the baggage between them. The show chose to go the “screaming and punching” reluctant hug route, which is sort of a narrative shortcut for reconciliation.

And Carol got the “okay” from Kelly, who basically forgave her for maybe/probably getting Connie killed. Carol got the “you can’t give up everything about yourself because bad things happen” nugget, which is actually good advice for everyone on the series. Mostly, the scene just stood as a sad reminder that we won’t get any resolution regarding Connie for a while.

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So what are y’all’s thoughts abut this default finale? Are you upset the freakin’ cat gave away everyone’s position? Do you think Aaron and Aiden are dead meat? Are you ready for the big hospital battle…eventually? Let us know below…
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‘The Etruscan Smile’: Film Review

Brian Cox rages robustly and arrestingly against the dying of the light in “The Etruscan Smile,” an unabashedly formulaic yet undeniably affecting coming-to-terms drama that may cause as much discomfort as delight for those who recognize bits and pieces of their own fathers (or themselves) in the cantankerous character Cox portrays so persuasively. Based on […]

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‘Blue Story’: Film Review

The blockbusters will be postponed, the indie films in many cases will head straight to streaming. But even before the apple cart of movie distribution got tipped over, “Blue Story” had traced an unlikely path. , it was written and directed by Andrew Onwubolu, the London-based rapper, producer, actor, and director who bills himself as […]

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‘Blue Story’: Film Review

The blockbusters will be postponed, the indie films in many cases will head straight to streaming. But even before the apple cart of movie distribution got tipped over, “Blue Story” had traced an unlikely path. , it was written and directed by Andrew Onwubolu, the London-based rapper, producer, actor, and director who bills himself as […]

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‘Blue Story’: Film Review

The blockbusters will be postponed, the indie films in many cases will head straight to streaming. But even before the apple cart of movie distribution got tipped over, “Blue Story” had traced an unlikely path. , it was written and directed by Andrew Onwubolu, the London-based rapper, producer, actor, and director who bills himself as […]

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Westworld: Season 3, Episode 3 Review

In Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the Pinocchio-esque quest of a child robot to become a real boy hinges on one thing: the love he feels for his mother. For Spielberg (and for Stanley Kubrick, who had been developing the project before he died), the incredible bond shared between parents and their children was fundamentally a human characteristic, and it was so deep, so profound, that if a being with artificial intelligence could experience it, they could basically be said to have achieved consciousness.

Westworld has proposed a similar idea before — particularly in the character of Maeve, whose abiding affection for her daughter was the reverie that both awakened her to the reality of the park and prevented her from escaping it. In the third episode of Season 3, Westworld is ready to explore that notion all over again.

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It starts with Charlotte Hale — or rather an exact Charlotte replica, indistinguishable from the real, late Charlotte, who was of course murdered by Dolores at the end of last season. As we discover at the outset of the episode, Dolores has implanted host-Charlotte with one of the pearls she managed to smuggle out of the park, and she’s been instructing this phony to continue leading Delos and negotiate with the company’s shareholders on her behalf.

There’s a lot going on at Delos these days, including a surreptitious takeover bid, some drama involving the fallout from the board killings, and the suspicion that there may be a mole at the top of the circus reporting things to the nefarious trillionaire Serac. But the episode manages to outline the intersecting problems with minimal confusion, and we now have a clearer idea of what Serac’s after and how Dolores, Charlotte, and even Maeve figure in to his scheme.

We know that the real Charlotte was the mole. She promised Serac that she would retrieve for him the park’s vast stores of visitor data, which he presumably wants to add to Incite’s gargantuan servers. Of course, host-Charlotte works for Dolores, Serac’s current target and budding arch-nemesis, and that’s going to make it considerably more difficult for them to maintain the illusion that Charlotte is alive and well and going about her business as usual. In any case, Serac continues to prove an intriguing, vaguely sinister villain, thanks to a fine turn by Vincent Cassel. The showdown between Dolores and Serac that the season is plainly leading toward is shaping up to be one hell of a battle, even if for the time being it’s strictly one of wits.

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But while Dolores wants her Charlotte facsimile to gather intel and ward off the prospective Delos takeover, all is not going so smoothly with the ruse. It’s an issue of personality: the “real” Charlotte seems somehow lodged inside the host body somewhere, lurking beneath the programming and fighting to get out, or else parts of Charlotte’s identity are so strong that they’re screwing things up.

Host-Charlotte can’t stop cutting herself, as if psychologically tortured, and this is clearly going to get worse before it gets better — as evidenced by the relationship between her and the real Charlotte’s son, who immediately senses something is wrong with this so-called mommy. Her son’s suspicion, as well as her conflicted affection, is the crux of the episode, and it’s maybe the most emotionally complex that Westworld has ever been. The hosts are becoming more and more human, yes, but here we have a case where a human seems to be becoming more host — where a human’s feelings refuse to die with their body, and where an identity is too strong to be programmed away. Of everything going on so far in the season, I’m most intrigued to see where this goes.

Charlotte’s son recognizes that the woman in front of him isn’t his real mother. Caleb’s mother, meanwhile, can’t recognize the man in front of her as her real son — “where’s Cal?” she pleads with him as he visits her in hospital, in a very clever parallel the show is smart enough not to underline. Caleb has made the possibly fatal mistake of lending Dolores a hand, and now the crime-share app with which he’s been making an illegal living has deemed him a lucrative target to track down and kill. You can’t help but feel for Caleb, whose life is endlessly disappointing and who can’t catch a break. On the other hand, getting involved with Dolores may help give his life meaning: as he tells her, unaware of the irony, she’s the most real thing that’s happened to him in a long time.

The season’s action sequences continue to impress — both Caleb’s attempt to defend an injured Dolores from a couple of goons and an equally dangerous exchange with a different set of goons who want to torture and kill him are thrilling. (I also loved the touch of Caleb’s faithful robot construction worker buddy trying and failing to come to his rescue, which was strangely poignant.) And the design of future Los Angeles continues to dazzle, from the look of the Delos headquarters down to the style of the cop cars and ambulances.

If last week’s return to Westworld and the parks seemed visually dull, that’s only because the outside world Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have created is so engaging. Even a two-second establishing shot of the hotel where Dolores meets Charlotte for a drink, covered in trees and vines, blew me away. (It doesn’t hurt that Westworld is shot on 35mm and looks downright sumptuous at times.)

Dolores elects to reward Caleb’s kindness with some revelations we will also find interesting: Rehoboam, Incite’s all-powerful computer, has actually computed so much data that it can predict exactly how and when someone will die. Caleb is destined to take his own life in about a decade’s time. The scene in which Dolores shocks Caleb with a verbatim transcript of the day he was abandoned by his mom certainly resonates in a world already dominated by Big Data — it’s another of the show’s sci-fi predictions that seems eerily plausible. What elevates it to the next level, though, is Aaron Paul’s outstanding performance, which makes it seem extremely intense and real. One of the obvious highlights of Breaking Bad, Paul’s already brought so much to this season of Westworld. Now that he’s teamed up with Dolores, I can’t wait to see what’s to come.

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‘Elephant,’ Narrated by Meghan Markle: Film Review

Of all the members of the animal kingdom we think of as akin to humans — chimps, dolphins, whales, perhaps (if we’re being honest about it) our dogs — elephants may be the most movingly and preternaturally aware. Because you can see how intelligent they are. You see it in a chimp’s face, too, of […]

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‘Tape’: Film Review

“Tape,” a guerrilla indie drama that confronts some of the ways sexual harassment has been embedded in the entertainment industry, begins with Rosa (Annarosa Mudd) getting ready to go undercover — but really, she’s dressing for battle. After rigging herself up with a hidden camera, she mutilates her body in homage to Lavinia in “Titus […]

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‘The Dog Doc’: Film Review

Terminally ill pets and their desperate, distressed caretakers are those that seek Dr. Marty Goldstein’s miraculous help. Yet his unconventional philosophies and radical therapeutic methods are shown in a fairly conventional, albeit deeply affecting, manner in director Cindy Meehl’s “The Dog Doc.” His devotion to the cause of integrative care — a blending of traditional […]

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Pixio PX247 Gaming Monitor Review

For years, choosing an IPS monitor meant sacrificing speed and response time. Those days are becoming a thing of the past. Over the last year, we’ve seen IPS displays from big companies like Gigabyte and ASUS hit the market, delivering the blisteringly fast 1ms response times and high refresh rates gamers crave. Usually, those features come with a hefty price tag, but what if you’re on a budget?

Pixio may have the answer. Today, we’re looking at the Pixio PX247, a 24-inch 1080p gaming monitor that uses a color-rich IPS panel clocked to 144Hz. Combine that with an esports-ready 1ms response time and a $ 169 price tag, and you have a compelling package. But is it as good as it seems?

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Design and Features

The PX247 is a budget gaming monitor and it shows. The design is very simple with no RGB or other aesthetic frills. The stand is barebones and only allows you to adjust tilt. There are two video inputs, HDMI and DisplayPort, and only DisplayPort unlocks the full 144Hz (HDMI is limited to 120Hz). It’s light on gaming features, the speakers are some of the worst I’ve ever heard, and the five-button menu navigation system feels last-gen. Having reviewed several of Pixio’s monitors, it was clear to me right away the company pushed itself to make this monitor as cheap as possible.

What the Pixio PX247 does have is a fast IPS screen. In my testing, it performed well through the response time and ghosting tests on Lagom’s LCD Test Pages with no color shifting or visible ghosts. This shows how quickly the panel in the PX247 is able to transition from light to dark colors and is on par with some of the best VA panels I’ve tested. Blur Buster’s Test UFO did show minor ghosting, but in actual gaming I wasn’t able to observe any at all.

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To pull off that low price, you’re also sacrificing some modern display features, like HDR and 10-bit color. This is a standard SDR screen rated for 350-nits of peak brightness. That said, certain scenes looked unusually dim, such as running through the fields in Kingdom Come: Deliverance. I actually found myself digging inside the monitor’s menus to make sure the brightness was turned up all the way.

Even though the panel offers the expectedly rich colors and wide, 178 degree viewing angles typical of IPS, how good it looked really seemed to depend on the content. In Overwatch, the visuals felt very good, thanks, I believe, to the oversaturated color pallete and that silky smooth 144Hz refresh rate. Kingdom Come and even certain parts of The Witcher 3 just made me worry I was missing out on details in the shadows. The monitor offers a few generic picture profiles – Standard, Internet, Game, and Movie – but none of them looked better than what I could dial in myself with the built-in color balance.

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On the plus side, the combination of 144Hz and 1080p is a great fit. Upgrading to any high refresh rate monitor is an improvement if you’re used to 60Hz, but if you’re not running at high fps, you’re missing out on its potential. 1080p is easier than ever to run with modern graphics cards, so pulling off triple-digit fps is a real possibility without turning down all of the graphical bells and whistles.

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The screen size is also a good fit for 1080p. The 24-inch screen of the PX247 feels a bit small, but it allows for a higher pixel density and a more crisp image. The screen isn’t “frameless” like some of Pixio’s more expensive models, but the bezels are still very thin and help the screen to feel more spacious. I would have liked to have seen a curve to enhance the effect further, but at this price, it’s something I can live without.

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Getting started with the monitor is simple, which is one of the only good things I can say about the stand. It comes in two parts and needs to be screwed into the back of the monitor with four separate screws. Thankfully, the silver plate is hidden behind a plastic cover. It sits low, and I repeatedly felt like the screen wasn’t completely level, as if the mounting plate were slightly off. Even if it was my desk (which I don’t think it was), there was no way to fix it since you can only adjust tilt, not pivot. It’s bad, and I would waste no time replacing it if the PX247 were my daily driver.

Performance

Gaming on the PX247 wasn’t bad but wasn’t that impressive either. The first game I tried was Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which I’ve already said was a disappointment. The game makes heavy use of shadows and the dynamic range of the monitor wasn’t able to consistently make it look good. The darks felt crushed at times (a cross-check of Lagom’s did reveal black crushing, even at 100 percent brightness) and made taking in that beautiful world less fun than it should have been. I tried to turn Black Equalizer up – a gaming feature that lets you spot enemies skulking in the dark – but then the rest of the image looked washed out.

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Playing shooters seemed to be a better fit. I main Orisa in Overwatch and picking off enemies while shielding my team was a lot of fun thanks to the saturated colors. I even found myself choosing Tracer to take advantage of the high refresh rate. My 2080 Ti was easily able to churn out more than 144 fps and the reduced motion blur when performing quick flicks and turnarounds allowed me to pick off other players while staying constantly on the move.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Battlefield V were a bit harder since they each make heavy use of shadows to hide enemies. I didn’t find it to be as off-putting as with Kingdom Come, which makes me think its blandness may have something to do with the game engine, but I still found myself craving more dynamic range to make enemies and objects stand out more in the environment.

You’ll also need a headset or separate speakers to enjoy any kind of gaming. The speakers here are terrible. They’re quiet, tinny, and once even distorted inside a dialogue tree. It’s nice Pixio included them, but they should only be used as a last resort.

For the price, I was impressed to find that the PX247 worked very well with both FreeSync and G-Sync. Given the other issues I found, I was worried it wouldn’t play well with my RTX 2080 Ti. As it turns out, I had nothing to fear as the monitor performed flawlessly across the different games I tested it with.

Purchasing Guide

The Pixio PX247 is available on Amazon with an MSRP of $ 169.
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Drop + THX Panda Wireless Headphones Review

Drop has developed a well-deserved reputation for creating smart, innovative collaborations with leading brands. Working with THX, Drop is readying the Panda high-fidelity wireless headphones for its Indiegogo debut later this year. Based on pedigree alone, it’s a safe bet that these $ 400 cans will be great for audiophiles – but we wanted to see if these headphones would also make sense for gamers.

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Design and Features

The Drop + THX Panda headphones resemble pre-production prototypes – not because they’re rough or unfinished, but because they’re so minimalist. Having said that, they actually are pre-production – the production line hasn’t quite started yet, and deliveries to Indiegogo backers won’t begin until June at the earliest. But that’s irrelevant; the stark, smooth, logo-free design is as intended. It’s easy to miss the singular tiny “Drop” branding on the right side of the headband; otherwise it’s matte black.

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Construction is aluminum covered in plastic, and it has a tight, solid feel befitting $ 400 cans. There’s no question these headphones are heavy, though – weighing in at more than 13 ounces, they feel substantial in your hands and do tend to feel a little heavy on your noggin, especially after a few hours of music or gaming.

That’s why I was a little surprised there wasn’t more padding on the headband. It’s not so much padded as simply made from a rubbery material with the slimmest of cushioning. The earcups are much better, with a generous amount of leather-covered (and easily removable) memory foam. There’s a solid amount of clamping pressure to hold the headphones on your head, but the headband has surprisingly little travel. I count a total of five detents, which extends the cups a total of about .75 inches on each side. That was fine for me, but my Beyerdynamic Amiron headphones extend 1.5 inches, so I wonder if folks with a lot going on up top might find these uncomfortable.

The minimalist aesthetic extends to inputs and controls. Case in point: Drop’s controls are simply genius. There’s a single plus-shaped joystick-style button on the right earcup, and you won’t need a user guide to make sense of it. Left-right controls tracks, up-down controls volume, and push in to turn it on and off (or enter pairing mode). There’s a nearby USB-C port for charging, and the left ear has an AUX input for wired listening.

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The earcups lie flat for storage, so the headphones slip into a zippered hardshell case that’s only two inches thick. Also in the case, you’ll find a small cubby for storing the included 2-foot USB-C charging cable and 3.5-foot audio cable. What I didn’t get, at least in this pre-production version: any way to actually charge the headphones if you don’t happen to have a USB-C port on your laptop. USB-C charging sources aren’t that common yet, so hopefully Drop will include a USB-C to USB-A adapter or wall outlet.

The internals are formidable. A Qualcomm chipset handles a slew of formats for consumers and audiophiles alike, including Bluetooth aptX, aptX HD, and aptX adaptive, plus LDAC and AAC. The heart and soul of the headphones is a THX AAA amp – hence the THX partnership. This isn’t the first time Drop has brought a version of the THX AAA to market, and the AAA has a reputation for being clean and precise.

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The signal is fed to planar ribbon drivers borrowed, as best I can determine, from the superb Oppo PM3 headphones. Planar ribbon drivers are an alternative to the magnetically driven moving coils found in most headphones. Moving coils are common and inexpensive but tend to generate distortion because they can’t accurately create the exact frequency being asked of it. Planar ribbons are different; they’re based on a thin diaphragm with lots of conductors embedded on each side, suspended between magnets. It’s a dramatically more nuanced and precise solution that’s more complex (and expensive) to implement.

Music and Gaming

But what do they sound like? Aggressively neutral. In my years of testing headphones, there have been few models that appear to try so hard to not bias the bass, mids, or high end in any meaningful way. And that’s not a bad thing – headphones that bass the boost or brighten the high end can wear out their welcome. But with the Panda, playing a song like the Decemberists’ Once in My Life, I was pleasantly surprised by the song’s imaging, with space between the bright and articulate acoustic guitar, solid drums, and the various array of instruments and voices. In a word, it had great musicality.

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The battery ran dry somewhere in the neighborhood of the rated 30 hours of battery life. At that point I switched to wired mode, and found that music was indistinguishable whether wireless or wired.

To test the headphones in a gaming environment, I fired up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and ran through a few missions. And here’s where Panda fell noticeably short. To be clear, the headphones sounded excellent, with superb reproduction of the musical score and great overall sound quality and stereo separation. But the soundstage was very narrow. The stereo separation was obvious, but pressed right up against my ears. The Panda never gave me the impression that the action on screen existed in the world beyond my ears.

Worse, games that require spatial cues and surround experiences – like my old standby Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus – were hobbled by this headphone. There’s no app – either mobile or desktop – and consequently no digital signal processing. You can’t tweak the bass for more resounding explosions, and there’s no SoundBlaster-like Scout mode for emphasizing footsteps of nearby enemies. In other words, the headphones presented the audio accurately, but didn’t accentuate the gaming experience.

Purchasing Guide

The Drop + THX Panda headphones are currently available on Indiegogo for $ 349 for a limited time, with a regular price of $ 399. The headphones are expected to ship to backers in August 2020.
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The Flash: Season 6, Episode 15 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 15! If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 6, Episode 14.

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The Flash has really shaken things up in Season 6, with the show being divided into pre-Crisis and post-Crisis halves and focusing on two major villains. That approach has benefited the series in some ways. It’s effectively forced the writers to adopt a faster and more economical storytelling pace. On the other hand, it’s also resulted in some very crowded episodes, with multiple storylines bumping into each other in the race to the finish. “The Exorcism of Nash Wells” initially seems like the clearest case yet of Season 6 trying to cover too much ground at once. But in the end, this episode manages to balance a number of moving pieces, bringing one thread to a natural conclusion while teeing up big things elsewhere in Central City.

The concern coming into this episode is that, as much as Reverse-Flash is always a welcome presence in the Arrowverse, the last thing The Flash really needs right now is another rematch with Barry’s oldest nemesis. That’s why it’s such a relief to see Thawne’s return more or less fully handled within this episode. There’s no way the series can really do justice to Thawne while furthering its parallel Mirror Master and Balck Hole story threads. Rather than treat him as a lingering threat on the show, this episode uses him as a one-and-done antagonist aimed at furthering Nash and Barry’s respective emotional arcs. Sure, the door is left wide open for Thawne to return again, but that’s a seed for a future season to explore.

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In both respects, Thawne is used well here. It’s a lot of fun watching Tom Cavanagh play hero and villain and remind us just how unique each incarnations of Harrison Wells has been. The brief flashbacks to his past with his daughter Maya also help add a bit more depth to Nash. While the “Wells pines after his estranged daughter” thing still feels a bit too redundant, at least we have more context for the Nash/Maya/Allegra relationship and a better sense of what differentiates this struggle from that of Harry Wells and Jessie Quick. And the notion that all previous Wells now live on in Nash is a welcome development. It allows these other characters to live on in some form. At this point, it seems very likely the series will stick with Nash going forward rather than continue to cycle through new Wellses, but we’ll see.

Barry’s struggle this week also works well despite touching on some pretty familiar beats. No, this is hardly the first time he’s dealt with the prospect of losing his speed. But tying that struggle into the return of Thawne and the still gaping wound that is losing Nora helps keep this particular conflict fresh. It’s refreshing to see Barry get in touch with his inner scientist and defeat a meta villain solely through the power of prep time. Grant Gustin really shines in this episode whenever Barry confronts Thawne, particularly at the end when he finally moves on and refuses to let the tragedy of Nora haunt him any longer. As flawed as Season 5 was, this feels like a fitting and necessary coda.

I do wish this episode had done more with Frost and her attempt to step up and fill Barry’s shoes. It feels like more attention should have been paid to the conflict between Caitlin and Barry over his unwillingness to sit back and trust her abilities. That’s to say nothing of the consequences of Barry hiding a spare dose of Velocity-X in STAR Labs. The past few years have trained me never to expect much from Caitlin’s storylines, but it’s still disappointing when she isn’t put to better use.

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Even with Thawne hogging much of the spotlight this week, this episode does find a little room to further the Mirror Master/Black Hole threads. We see Mirror-Kamilla recruited as another pawn in Eva’s mysterious plans. Hopefully it won’t be much longer before the series pivots and Barry and Cisco start to catch on that things aren’t right with their respective significant others. This episode does raise some new questions about the nature of these mirror doppelgangers. Iris delivers exactly the heartfelt speech Barry needs to hear right when he needs to hear it. Is she simply doing what needs to be done to carry out her mission, or does this version of Iris feel love for Barry in her own way?

As for new villain Sunshine (Natalie Sharp), she’s cut from the exact same cloth as the show’s other Black Hole assassins. There’s not much to the character beyond the fancy costume and powers, and it’s just as well she’s taken off the board relatively early on. Sunshine serves her purpose here, but it would be nice to see a little more emphasis on Black Hole’s leaders rather than these interchangeable enforcers.
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‘The Toll’: Film Review

A rideshare with a giggly geek driver who may be a serial killer. The staggering-through-the-ink-black-woods-with-nothing-but-a-flashlight look and mood of “The Blair Witch Project.” A mystic schlock demon like Candyman, the Slender Man, or the spectral figures from “The Strangers.” A Victrola in the middle of the road, cranking an ancient warbly ditty à la “The […]

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‘The Carnivores’: Film Review

Dim echoes of David Lynch and early Roman Polanski abound throughout “The Carnivores,” a fitfully fascinating mix of teasing narrative opacity and stylized psycho-thriller atmospherics. The shot-in-Austin indie feature, originally set to premiere at the cancelled SXSW Film Festival, instead had a March 14 unveiling at a private event in the Texas capital city attended, […]

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‘Inside the Rain’: Film Review

When asked to diagnose himself early in “Inside the Rain,” Benjamin Glass, a college film student played by Aaron Fisher, cheerfully runs down a checklist: “I’m bipolar, ADHD, OCD, borderline personality disorder… You name it, I’ve got it.” It’s a moment that is at once both amusing and unsettling — even more so if you’re […]

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‘Stargirl’: Film Review

Maybe it’s the fault of “The Fault in Our Stars” that we assume, in the flourishing modern era of the young-adult genre, that one of the story’s romantic leads has to die in order to advance the dramatic stakes. Fortunately, that’s not the case with director Julia Hart’s “Stargirl.” Adapted by Hart, Kristin Hahn and […]

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‘The Postcard Killings’: Film Review

There have been a lot of adaptations (primarily for TV) of megaselling author James Patterson’s pulpy fictions, none particularly memorable, with the possible exception of hit 1997 thriller “Kiss the Girls.” But then, his books seldom aim for much more than disposable entertainment, so it’s apt enough that their screen versions should follow suit. By […]

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Vizio SB36514-G6 Home Theater Sound System Review

Home theaters can be intricate things costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars. It wasn’t long ago that having a full surround sound system involved mounting upwards of five speakers throughout your room and finding creative ways to hide the wires. Those days are now behind us, and that’s no clearer than with the Vizio SB36514-G6 Home Theater Sound System. Consisting of a 36-inch sound bar, a wireless subwoofer, and two satellite speakers, this system opens the door to major sound, complete with Dolby Atmos and DTS: Virtual X support. It’s a feature rich package – but at $ 699, should it be the next investment you make in your home theater setup? Let’s dig in and find out.

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Design and Features

The Vizio SB36514 is a stylish package. Each piece has a beautiful fabric and faux metal exterior that looks very modern and eye-catching. Unlike something marketed explicitly for gamers, this is meant to fit in any living room and it’s easy to imagine it sliding into a wide array of spaces. For the first part of my testing, I installed it in my office underneath my 43-inch gaming monitor surrounded by Philips Hue and Nanoleaf RGB light panels. Later, it went down into my distinctly less gamerish living room. The system looked right at home in both.

Getting things set up was fairly easy once I abandoned the Quick Start guide and downloaded a full product manual from the Vizio website. The Quick Start guide advised me to set up the system using Vizio’s SmartCast Mobile app to automatically receive software updates. The prompts were simple and easy to follow, but the soundbar refused to pair and got locked in a loop. After I gave up using the app, held the power button to manually enter pairing mode, and connected via Bluetooth like any other device, SmartCast picked up on the connection on my next try and gave me no more trouble.

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Unlike other home theater systems I’ve used, each satellite speaker connects to the subwoofer which then pairs with the soundbar wirelessly and automatically. This is an excellent solution which saves a lot of the hassle of traditional surround sound setups by minimizing wires traced around your room. It’s also perfect for Vizio’s “ideal” surround sound setup which has the subwoofer next to your couch and the satellites spread out behind you on either side.

The kit also includes mounting hardware, which will be necessary if you plan on using the system’s Dolby Atmos features. Atmos, unlike normal surround sound solutions, uses upward firing drivers that reflect sound from the ceiling to give the illusion of height in the soundscape (which is very cool in games and movies). You don’t need to get this perfect thanks to the calibration tools built into the remote, but placing them too low forces you to turn up the volume to get the proper depth effect.

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The SB36514 works by combining an array of upward and forward firing speakers in a 10-channel mix. There’s a dedicated center channel which is excellent for making sure that dialogue stays clear even in intense action. On the far left and right of the soundbar are woofers responsible for the middle frequencies and passive radiators for bass. Surrounding the center port are two upward firing speakers to create the height effect. The satellite speakers also feature an upward and forward facing driver to drive the sound reflections from your ceiling.

The other piece of the puzzle is the subwoofer. It’s powerful and easily rumbled the floor in our living room. When placed in my office for gaming, I had to leave Night Mode enabled to keep the rumble from being heard throughout the house. I was surprised at just how large and wide of a sound the woofer was able to provide, though at times it did feel a little loose. With a low-end of 40 Hz, however, it’s definitely capable of delivering a growling rumble for immersive gaming and movie watching experiences.

Around the back of the soundbar you’ll find a range of inputs to match just about any device. Vizio recommends connecting the bar to your TV via the HDMI (ARC) port if your set supports it, but you can also connect through RCA/3.5mm, Optical, Bluetooth, or even play files through a USB drive. Do note, however, that Dolby Audio and DTS: Virtual X are only supported across HDMI and Optical inputs. If your soundbar is positioned near your router, you can also connect to the internet with an ethernet cable and save a WiFi connection.

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Controlling the system is done through the remote or a series of buttons on the top of the bar, though the onboard controls are fairly limited. The remote, on the other hand, features a built-in screen that allows you to easily change parameters like selecting the EQ preset (Movie/Music/Direct), adjusting the subwoofer, calibrating the height of the satellites, and more. I was honestly very impressed at how much functionality was built into such a small remote. With the SmartCast App, many of these changes can also be applied via your smartphone.

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Another neat feature is that the SB36514-G6 has Chromecast built in. Being able to quickly cast music to the soundbar is a nice feature by itself, but I was more impressed by the ability to create groups from my Chromecast enabled devices, which let me send a single sound source throughout my entire house. This meant I didn’t have to pause my movie while going to the kitchen for a quick drink, because I could continue listening on a Google Home smart speaker.

Performance

The Vizio SB36514 is a powerfully loud system that holds up well even at high volumes. At its peak, it’s rated to produce up to 100dB of sound and it’s only at upwards of 90% volume where I began to notice distortion. Thankfully, this is painfully and dangerously loud, so it’s unlikely anyone would choose to listen this loud.

Instead, I found 50-60% volume to easily suffice and offered a clear, detailed sound. Listening to music, I adjusted the EQ on my smartphone to lower the bass and bring out the highs. Once I did it sounded great,but it would be nice if the SB36514 offered a bit more customization in EQ levels. Over Bluetooth, I wasn’t able to enjoy DTS or Dolby Audio, but there was still a very forward and encompassing effect produced from the upward firing and forward facing speakers that felt very immersive. To get the Atmos effect, I swapped over to Spotify through my TV’s HDMI connection and loaded up the Dolby Atmos playlist. The effect is enrapturing, as if you’re sitting in the middle of a stage.

Watching the movie Gravity with Atmos takes the score to another level. Like Spotify’s playlist, the score here was encompassing but had a much better sense of movement that was well-matched with the motion of characters on the screen. Music would seem to shift place in keeping with characters floating into frame. The SB36514-G6 took an already tense and enthralling film to a whole other level of enjoyability.

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Avengers: Endgame, on the other hand, was good but less impressive. While the positionality of sounds did seem to be an improvement on traditional surround sound, the mix seemed to play it safe and much more traditional than the likes of Gravity for an overall less impressive experience.

Gaming on the Vizio SB36514 was phenomenal. Playing The Division 2 with full Atmos support was one of the best game experiences I’ve had with any speaker setup. The added element of height definitely enhances the immersion in the game. As a player, I felt as if I were in D.C. with my character; echoes and shouts sounded as if they were actually coming from above and around me. I can’t say that this gave me the competitive advantage I hoped for, at least no more so than a good gaming headset, but it definitely made the game more immersive and fun.

Unfortunately, the list of games that support Atmos is still limited. It’s not as simple as loading up any game and getting the full Dolby treatment. Still, the DTS virtualization does an admirable job when the speakers are positioned correctly, and the bass rumble from the sub definitely adds to the cinematic and even tactile qualities of action games.

Is it worth $ 699, though? The experience is great but that’s an expensive premium when a similar solution, the Vizio SB36512, can be had for $ 300 less and also offers Dolby Atmos. Even as impressed as I was, that’s a tough price tag to swallow.

Purchasing Guide

The Vision SB36514-G6 is available on Amazon with an MSRP of $ 699.
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‘Kill It and Leave This Town’: Film Review

An utterly bizarre, frequently grotesque, occasionally obscene singularity, Polish artist Mariusz Wilczynski’s abrasive animation “Kill It and Leave This Town” exists so far outside the realm of the expected, the acceptable and the neatly comprehensible that it acts as a striking reminder of just how narrow that realm can be. Occupying a conceptual space several […]

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‘Speer Goes to Hollywood’: Film Review

A rather pedestrian presentation of a potentially fascinating story, Vanessa Lapa’s “Speer Goes to Hollywood” expands on a little-known footnote to the Hydra-headed history of the post-war fates of top Nazi lieutenants. It is based on the 1972 recordings of conversations between Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, friend and wartime munitions minister, and screenwriter Andrew Birkin […]

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‘Resistance’: Film Review

At the time of his death in 2007, Marcel Marceau was the world’s most famous mime. But in 1938-’39, when World War II rescue drama “Resistance” takes place, Jewish-born Marcel Mangel was just 15 years old (two decades younger than actor Jesse Eisenberg, who plays him here) and had not yet adopted his stage name, […]

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The Walking Dead: “Morning Star” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode follow…

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Man, the coolest weapons are almost always the most cumbersome!

A morning star would be the absolute last thing I’d grab to kill zombies, and yet Daryl looked so damn awesome wielding one here.

But he’s the king of making awkward weaponry seem badass, right? Daryl and only Daryl can get away with bringing a spiked ball and chain to the front lines of a huge war. Especially when one is fighting a herd of zombies that also contains real people hiding out as zombies – who can grab the chain and yank the weapon away.

“Morning Star” was pretty damn good. This back half of Season 10 is ramping up quite nicely. Hell, if we’re lucky, we’ll get through this Whisperer war before the season finale. It’d be nice to break the usual format and it would ditch a ton of the usual padding that goes into adapting these comic arcs into the show. Look, because of Beta’s ambush last week, Hilltop, as of this episode, has just about every single character we still care about in one place. The gang’s pretty much all together, save for Gabriel, Connie, and Michonne.

And if you care about Magna, well…it’s nice to like things.

Daryl, Carol, and the All-Stars

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Daryl rolled into Hilltop. Ezekiel went out and found Carol and brought her back. Rosita showed up with Gamma/Mary. Judith’s already there. We’re no longer splitting up the favorites between two communities. Plus, Alpha’s launching her big attack with her precious, powerful herd – and Negan’s with her, working his smarm and charm. Just about everything that’s still important on the show is about to collide. If the “war” drags on past this, and next week’s, episode, we’re in trouble.

Granted, most of this episode involved characters bonding, conversing, speaking their truths, and saying maybe-goodbyes to one another after discovering that Alpha had blocked all the roads out of Hilltop. But it still gave us a few minutes of cool violence at the end when it featured the beginning parts of the huge battle (that’s not dissimilar to the odds Winterfell faced when the Night King and his army came calling). It left us hanging, as our heroes got trapped in a fire circle while they themselves were covered in a flammable – er – sap? – but it all felt very vital and brutal. Most importantly, it felt like big names could die.

Of course, in that regard, Ezekiel is the top candidate to get smoked right now. Not only is he already dying, but he made the grave TV/movie sin of having sex before the big push. Yup, I’d be very shocked if he made it out of this. And if not for the sex, then definitely because of the spare words of respect he had with Daryl and their pact to protect the kids. There’s a good chance Ezekiel’s going down saving the children.

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Eugene might get taken out too, even though he finally moved past his love for Rosita and is now focused on the relationship he’s building with Stephanie over the radio. Odds are good that he makes it out alive so he can meet her in spot she told him to be at in a week, though they could also have Rosita sadly show up in his place. That being said, whatever fate has in store, his scenes with Rosita this week were very good. As mentioned last week, the three relationships that still matter on the series are Carol/Daryl, Rosita/Eugene, and Negan/Judith. Naturally, Judith and Michonne’s bond matters, but they’ll probably never see one another again. And then, after these, Daryl’s budding romance with Connie and “surrogate something” relation to Lydia are pretty cool.

Wild Card Negan

Negan might be the true tipping point here. He and Alpha are about to unleash hell on a community that he doesn’t know has Judith inside.

Yet.

And even without knowing about Judith, he’s still trying to convince Alpha to spare everyone by getting them to surrender. He’s already not fully on board with the Whisperer agenda. So I imagine once he sees Judith, it’s all over for Alpha and her ghouls. That will be the moment when he rolls back the tide somehow and turns on his hosts. The silver-tongued man who’s always just doing what he can to stay alive will break his hard-wired habit and protect her.

The only way this doesn’t end next week is if…everyone surrenders. If Alpha takes Negan’s advice and gets Daryl to bend the knee. And the only way that happens is if the kids are in danger. Yes, everything feels like it’s about to come to a head, but never doubt The Walking Dead’s penchant for dragging a storyline out.
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Batwoman: Season 1, Episode 14 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Batwoman: Season 1, Episode 14!

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For a while it seemed as though Crisis on Infinite Earths was just the shot in the arm Batwoman needed. No Arrowverse series improved quite so dramatically in the aftermath of Crisis, with the emphasis on Alice’s refugee doppelganger doing a lot to address some of this series’ biggest flaws. Unfortunately, that momentum seems to be waning the farther we get from the crossover. Batwoman is beginning to feel more and more like its 2019 self again.

A lot of that has to do with the renewed emphasis on Kate and Sophie’s romance – never one of Batwoman’s strong suits even on the best of days. The whole idea of Sophie carrying on a clandestine affair with Gotham’s newest costumed vigilante just seems silly, to say nothing of her inability to recognize the bottom half of her ex’s face. There’s something to be said for the need to give Kate a victory of some kind after everything she’s suffered in recent months, but there have to be better ways of accomplishing that than this painfully awkward and very fleeting relationship.

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The one advantage here is the series is finally able to give Sophie some badly needed character development and finally give viewers reason to empathize with her. Before now, Sophie had mainly been defined by her weaknesses. She lacked the conviction to stand alongside Kate when their relationship was discovered at the academy. She couldn’t be honest with herself or her fiance about her sexuality. But this week, we finally get a sense of Sophie’s difficult upbringing and why she has such difficulty being true to herself where it comes so easily to Kate. It’s tempting to dismiss the bigoted, overbearing mother figure as an overused storytelling trope in 2020, but the sad truth is that it’s a trope for a reason.

The series also seems to be moving backwards when it comes to Jacob’s storyline. His prison stint ended so abruptly it’s a wonder that plot point was ever introduced in the first place. Granted, there are some ramifications playing out in terms of Jacob grappling with the corruption inside his own organization, but this seems like a very roundabout and inefficient way of getting from A to B. And based on this episode, it doesn’t appear as though Sophie’s suspension will do much to alter the status quo,either. Hopefully the payoff to this corruption investigation is at least worth the plodding buildup.

At least Episode 14 does a better job with its villain of the week subplot than Episode 13’s botched handling of Nocturna. This time we meet Duel Dent, a character who tends to go by the name Joker’s Daughter in the comics. There’s no hint of a Joker connection for now, and we can probably assume Warners is very protective of that corner of the Bat-verse. Instead, this version hearkens back to the early Joker’s Daughter stories when Duela was depicted as being Harvey Dent’s daughter (or in this case, his niece). An interesting shift, and certainly an appropriate one given her obsession with faces and hidden darkness.

Sidebar – it’s hard to parse Luke’s offhand mention of Harvey being “Gotham’s favorite DA.” Was it meant to be a sarcastic remark, or is Harvey still Gotham’s most revered public servant even this long after the rise of Batman? Maybe the Arrowverse’s Harvey Dent never became Two-Face? Or given how frequently this show pays homage to the Burton and Nolan movies, it may be using The Dark Knight as a model and we’ll eventually learn Batman covered up all evidence of Harvey’s crimes. Whatever the case, I’d like to see the series eventually dig into Harvey’s backstory eventually, along with some of the other key Batman rogues.

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Duela makes a strong impression despite playing more of a supporting role. Alessandra Torresani strikes a nice balance between a tormented, mentally ill young woman and a sadistic killer, helping give Duela a dose of humanity even as she targets social media influencers with all the gusto of a slasher movie villain. This episode probably could have benefited from a slightly more adult-oriented approach rather than trying to downplay the gore, though. One of these days The CW might want to look into swapping Batwoman and Supergirl’s time slots and letting the former get a little darker. Still, Duela is definitely one of the better minor villains of the season, and there’s plenty of potential for her to return in a a bigger role.

It should also be said that, as much as this episode slogs through unwanted romantic subplots and generally spins its heels, at least it presses its advantage the Alice front. Seeing Alice confront her old captor, Dr. Cartwright, is a treat. If you’ll pardon the pun, there’s a compelling game of cat and mouse developing between the two. It’s no longer clear which of the two will emerge as the final threat in Season 1. Even now, just as Alice seems to finally outwit Cartwright, he proves he still has the upper hand. Next week looks to be a very Alice-centric episode, so hopefully we’ll learn more about her time in captivity and get a better sense for where all of this is headed in the final two months of the season.
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Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX Review

Playing Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is, in many ways, exactly like saying its full name aloud: It starts off strong with the Pokémon you know and love, then quickly devolves into something very strange that goes on for far too long. Granted, there are plenty of reasons to adore developer Spike Chunsoft’s remake of the Gameboy Advance’s Red Rescue Team and Blue Rescue Team from 2005, like its memorable characters and unique premise for example. But the guts of this roguelike dungeon crawler are sometimes hard to bear.

With monotonous dungeon crawling, predictable combat encounters, and a grind that can put you to sleep faster than a blast to the face from Butterfree’s sleep powder, it could’ve used more modern retouches to punch things up a little. Rather than serving as a nostalgic remake that heightens your love for your favorite pocket monsters, Rescue Team DX tests the limits of your commitment to the series with an outdated, tiresome slog.

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Rescue Team DX is a routine roguelike where you take your favorite Pokémon into procedurally generated dungeons filled with loot, traps, violent wild Pokémon, and lost souls in need of rescue. You also recruit new Pokémon to your cause by defeating them in battle or earning their respect by completing missions, which is a huge motivator to continue the grind even when it’s at its most irritating. In between dungeon delving, you’ll interact with vendors in Pokémon Square, manage and improve your Pokémon roster, and talk to Pokémon Rescue Team’s likeable cast of characters, which makes up some of the adventure’s most memorable moments.TKTK

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=This%20facelift%20does%20little%20to%20address%20Rescue%20Team%20DX%E2%80%99s%20biggest%20issue.”]That doesn’t mean that there’s been no evolution at all – quite the opposite. Compared to the original Rescue Team’s low-res, rudimentary roguelike structure, Rescue Team DX is a vast improvement. The art style, for example, has been completely reimagined to look like an awesome, Pokémon-filled oil painting, which is without a doubt the most notable upgrade. Even on the big screen in the Switch’s docked mode, roaming around Pokémon Square and going dungeon delving rarely looks like something meant for a portable device. Other quality-of-life changes, like autosaving, auto-mode for exploration, expanding your maximum team size from four to eight, and incorporating mega evolutions and shinies make the journey through the often-dull business of dungeon exploration much more interesting this time.

The problem is this facelift does little to address Rescue Team DX’s biggest issue: the things you spend most of your time doing just aren’t that fun. Despite being procedurally generated, each dungeon is basically a carbon copy of the last, with tight hallways connecting to boxy rooms and enemies stalking each area. After the first hour, you’ll have experienced more or less all that these tedious treks have to offer but will still be subjected to dozens of hours more, practically uninterrupted.

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Combat while exploring these dungeons is a common and lifeless affair. Inspired by the mainline Pokémon series’ turn-based fights, each Pokémon has four moves and similarly take turns smacking one another around. But that familiar system has been greatly simplified and now feels decidedly low stakes. While you could decide which move to use one-by-one, slowing combat down to a crawl, the much easier option is to simply hold down the A button and let your Pokémon automatically choose the best move for you. After a couple seconds, enemies die and you continue exploring. The good news is that means combat is almost always brief, and getting through dungeons can be accomplished fairly quickly if you’re efficiently trying to complete quests and find the exit as soon as possible – and with so much tedium and so little reason to explore otherwise, that will likely be your goal.

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Simply%20hold%20down%20the%20A%20button%20and%20let%20your%20Pok%C3%A9mon%20automatically%20choose%20the%20best%20move.”]Boss fights, while a refreshing increase in challenge compared to the rest of the campaign, only serve to highlight the combat system’s flaws with their lengthier battles. A big, angry Pokémon will charge into battle to tense music only to enter into a prolonged battle of attrition where you mostly just tap A repeatedly and hope the boss dies before you run out of healing items. This exposes another flaw in the combat system: a complete lack of enemy health bars, which deprives you of the knowledge that you might be moments away from winning or miles off and are just throwing away healing items on a fruitless effort. These encounters are also extremely frustrating when you lose one, as it often requires you go through all or part of the dungeon again from the beginning.

There isn’t really a whole lot else to do in between each dungeon either. You’ll turn in quests to net rewards and level up your rescue team’s level, curate and customize your roster of Pokémon that can be converted into allies after defeating them in a dungeon, sign up for a rescue mission to save a fellow player from a dungeon they’ve been defeated in, and visit vendors throughout Pokémon Square to stock up on equipment and unlock new camps for your Pokémon to settle in, but these things usually only take a few seconds each before it’s right back to a variation of the same dungeon you just left. Training your Pokémon at the dojo is an easy way to level up your squad and make yourself more lethal in dungeons, but guess what? The dojo is just another dungeon where the Pokémon being trained is given less than a minute to kill as many enemies as possible to boost their XP – enjoy holding A more.

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Thankfully there is a worthwhile payoff for grinding your way through Rescue Team DX’s featureless hallways and zombie-like Poké-adversaries: its characters and story are genuinely great. As a clueless human who has been transformed into a Pokémon through unknown means and for a mysterious purpose, you’ll meet a memorable cast of talkative Poke-friends, like Gengar, who plays the incompetent heel, and an all-knowing Alakazam who serves as mentor to your fledgling rescue team. While the plot does make some odd turns and often takes far too long to get where it’s going, reaching each milestone manages to make the worst aspects of combat and exploration a lot more tolerable – even if large sections of story are interrupted with dungeon-crawling padding for no real reason except to make you wait for the next story beat to arbitrarily develop

Another bright spot is the endgame, as much of the best content is locked behind the elusive credits. Evolution of Pokémon, adding legendary Pokémon to your roster, more challenging dungeons, and more mysteries. But, of course, experiencing those surprises requires even more dungeon crawling, which does nothing to improve post-credits.
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Mark Wahlberg in ‘Spenser Confidential’: Film Review

“Man, you get beat up a lot,” an aspiring boxer tells the eponymous punching bag/pulp-fiction private eye Mark Wahlberg plays in “Spenser Confidential.” “And I’ve noticed every single time you get your face pushed in, you come back with just a little bit more information.” That’s a pretty apt description of Spenser’s modus operandi, and […]

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Caroline Flack prosecution was ‘handled appropriately’, review finds

Prosecutors have reviewed their case against Caroline Flack following criticism of the “show trial” for assault she was facing when she died.
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‘Go Back to China’: Film Review

Those hungry for more of the East/West culture-clash terrain of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell” may savor the slightly downsized pleasures of “Go Back to China,” which offers up some of the first film’s lifestyle glamour plus the second’s more earnest family drama. Emily Ting’s second scripted feature is essentially a freely fictionalized revamp […]

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Razer Raion Fightpad Gaming Controller Review

Fight sticks can be really fun, but they aren’t for everyone. It can take time to learn how to use one effectively, and the nice ones can get pretty pricey. It makes sense that there would be a skill/equipment gap where fighting game players want to upgrade from a standard PS4 controller to something more specialized, but are intimidated by or may simply not want to buy an arcade stick.

Razer’s Raion fightpad fills that gap better than the few “fightpads” that have come before it. It takes a lot of the mechanical components that people like from arcade sticks – the six-button layout, quick-hitting buttons, eight-way directional movement – and transposes them to a controller form factor. I don’t think it’s as effective as an arcade stick, which is a problem because it’s just as expensive, but there is something to the idea: It feels more comfortable than using a standard DualShock 4. It’s a niche within a niche, but I think the Raion will hit hard for competitive players who prefer holding a controller.

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Design & Features

Aside from having some of the same buttons, the Raion does not look like a PS4 controller. Its shape is wider, boxier, and almost flat. There is much more space on its face: The analog sticks and the round wells that house them are gone. It makes the PS button look positively tiny surrounded by empty space. Holding it, the grips flow into the back of the gamepad, similar to an Xbox One controller. I found it very comfortable to hold, and it provided good grip even as your right thumb makes larger and wider motions to reach all six face buttons.

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The larger, flatter surface makes room for a few more and bigger buttons. On the left side, you have a large, clicky D-Pad more or less in the same position as the DS4’s. The D-Pad is a single piece that pushes in eight directions, similar to an 8-way joystick. It’s as good as you can get on a D-Pad, allowing for easy Street Fighter-style quarter- and half-circle motions. It still doesn’t feel quite as natural as performing the motions on a joystick though.

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On the right side, you now have six large face buttons – the four classic PlayStation face buttons plus R1 and R2. Like arcade buttons, they have no click or mush, and have a very light press, allowing you to tap them very fast. Despite this, the Raion has four triggers, though they aren’t meant to be used that way. All four top buttons are flat, and have a mouse-like clickiness to them, creating a low-travel approximation of an arcade button.

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Since you have two face buttons for R1 and R2, but no analog sticks, you have the ability to switch the trigger inputs from the standard format to L3 and R3 on the left side and L1 and L2 on the right using a switch at the bottom of the controller. Why did they choose to move L1 and L2 instead of just putting L3 and R3 on the right? I have no idea. It isn’t going to get in the way for any competitive games, though, as the analog buttons tend to only come into play for more complex modes.

The center column still has the central PS4 components. The share and options buttons are round and circular. There’s a touchpad, which looks small, but is actually about the same size as the original. Razer moved the PS button up to just below the touchpad because the Raion does not have an internal speaker. Below that, there are a pair of buttons – one mutes your mic, the other is one-button volume control. Press together, they also enable tournament mode, which turns off the menu or system-level buttons.

Gaming

The Raion is a better fit for fighting games than a standard gamepad, especially the DualShock 4. Having all six buttons on flat on the face, lined up intuitively as they would be in an arcade makes a world of difference in understanding 6-button games like Street Fighter V. For 4-button games like Mortal Kombat 11, you’ll get access to other buttons like block. I can’t overstate how much easier it is to use the full range of your controls when you play this way. Moreover, having the quick-hitting arcade buttons makes it easy to tap out strikes as quickly as you need them to.

Likewise, the fact that the D-Pad registers in eight directions, just as an eight-way gated arcade stick would, makes it easier to perform special moves consistently. The clicky feel of the D-pad gives you nice feedback, which I found allowed me to keep better track of each movement my character made.

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All that said, the Raion has some limitations relative to a fight stick. There’s a downside to having arcade-style buttons on a controller, it’s very easy to mispress buttons as you reach your thumb across the pad or roll it across a button. That’s a problem you don’t experience on a fight stick, as most players have their hands hovering over the buttons and reach their fingers down to tap each one.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend playing claw with the Raion. The D-pad requires a lot of precision to navigate accurately. I’m not a claw player, so it’s possible you may not find it cumbersome, but it seems like the tradeoff isn’t worth it.

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It’s also worth noting that, because it doesn’t have analog sticks, it is not a replacement or upgrade for your standard controller. It is only for playing fighting games (or retro games that don’t require dual analog sticks). The same is true of arcade sticks, of course, but that’s the problem. You have all the same drawback as a fight stick, but a lower potential ceiling.

One other miscellaneous problem: The Raion can’t turn on your PS4. You have to turn on the console by hand or using a DualShock, then sign in by pressing the PS button. It’s a minor nuisance but hammers home the fact that this is a piece of specialty equipment that’s only meant to be used with certain games.

Purchasing Guide

The Razer Raion Fightpad for PS4 is available on Amazon for $ 99.
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‘The Perplexed’: Theater Review

There’s a lot of tsuris in Richard Greenberg’s witty and quite wonderful “The Perplexed,” — at least for the older generation of characters on this 10-actor cast. In this new play now making its bow at Manhattan Theatre Club, they’re struggling madly with changing times they can’t fathom, family wounds that won’t heal and a […]

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The Walking Dead: “Stalker” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for The Walking Dead episode “Stalker” follow…

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“Stalker” was a solid, intense mid-battle episode that pitted Daryl against Alpha and Alexandria against Beta. By, “mid-battle” I mean one of those gripping action-y episodes that’s meant to break up some of the solemness and kick up the excitement while we wait for things to finally get settled in the season finale.

Like how Rick and Shane had their big confrontation in Season 2’s “18 Miles Out” that didn’t solve anything. Or how Rick and Negan clashed in Season 8’s “The Key.” You know how it goes. No one of consequence dies, the stakes kind of remain the same, but we get some cool fight scenes.

Daryl and Alpha may have gotten pretty thrashed here, but “Stalker” was still a zero-sum entry. For the most part. There was some movement, story-wise, so let’s look at what managed to creep through.

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Gamma Quadrent

With no tricks up her sleeve, Gamma — real name: Mary from Santa Monica — effectively left the Whisperers and joined up with the main cast of heroes. As far as we, and Gabriel, can tell, she’s on the up and up. She’s also got the best vote of confidence of all – the approval of Judith, who began speaking to her when she was locked up in the Negan cell. If Judith starts peeking down at you, you’re pretty much in.

The other big reason Gamma’s now in (are we going to just call he Mary from now on?) is because she went toe-to-toe with Beta, who crept into Alexandria via a secret tunnel housed outside in an RV. Could she take him? Of course not. But her trying, and Rosita seeing her trying (and her actually saving Rosita’s life), were big steps toward leaving her old gross worm-eating life behind.

Now we’ll have to see how they’ll differentiate Mary’s story as a former-Whisperer newcomer from Lydia’s. Will she get the same treatment? At least she’s off to Hilltop.

Of course, I’ll have to eat my words if this is all just another giant long-con by the Whisperers. Hopefully, the show won’t do this considering what we just went through with Siddiq and Dante. Plus, I already care about Mary more than some of the last round of newcomers and this group needs more people that viewers actively give a s*** about.

Also, I do like the idea of redemption in the zompocalypse. I like envisioning a future crew consisting of Negan, Mary, and a few others who used to belong to terrible, ghoulish communities. It’s one of the themes Fear the Walking Dead played around with nicely the past few seasons.

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Rosita, Gabriel, and  Alexandria

Gabriel’s romantic pairing with Rosita still seems a bit off, but this darker, grittier version of Gabriel, as the man who strangled a dude to death recently, is a much more interesting layer than we’ve ever gotten from him. He harsh, and willing to kill with impunity, but he’s not all the way gone. Like, Rosita called him out for being erratic, but he was still wise enough not to kill Gamma in the end when it totally looked like she was in cahoots with Beta.

Having to deal with, and contain, Gamma, for safety purposes, actually did a lot to make Rosita and Gabriel feel more like a couple than usual, but mostly it just helped them more like vital contributors to the story overall. Also, it was interesting to learn, because time seems to blend up into a blur, that Siddiq’s death only happened “two days ago” in show time. I guess I thought it’d been longer since Eugene seemed to arrive there fairly quickly from Hilltop.

Bottom line, it felt good to watch Rosita take on Beta. It lent to the forty of the episode as a whole and helped paint Rosita with an extra layer of courage after she had that dream about Whisperers going after little Coco. Also, she was “safe” from being killed off here since Beta already spent his big kill by “Jason from Friday the 13th Part VII’ing” that blonde woman down in the prison cell.

And, with regards to the “Alexandrians kicking round after round of walker ass” montage from the first part of the season, when Alpha was launching her herd at the town in spurts, we revisited two citizens, two bro-beans, who openly discussed making a game out of killing Whisperers. But this time, one of them didn’t want to eff around. He wanted to take them seriously as a threat. So that was cool to see, since the BSG “33”-style kill collage made the stakes feel super low at the time.

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The Return of Lydia

As we already figured, Daryl and Lydia make the perfect pair. Not romantically, obviously, and not just because they both had rotten and traumatic childhoods, but because they both can survive out in the woods eating twigs and sleeping in mud. Daryl, at his most reclusive, was very Whisperer-adjacent.

Anyhow, he was out in the woods this week, stalking Whisperers (one of whom was Alpha), asking “WHERE ARE THEY?” Can we assume he’s looking for Connie and Magna? How would Alpha know where they are? Were they taken? Is Daryl looking for a secret way back into the caves? Or was Daryl searching for Alpha’s camp, for revenge? None of that was clear, but he was out to take down a few grossos, that’s for sure.

And then it al came down to him vs. Alpha, which ended in a draw after they both seriously wounded each other and then Lydia came in to sweep up the mess. At first, Lydia’s arrival, to a bleary Alpha, felt like a dream, and we were meant to question her realness for a while. It wasn’t until we saw her with Daryl at the end that her presence was actually confirmed.
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Dispatches from Elsewhere Series Premiere Review

Warning: The following contains light spoilers for the series premiere of Dispatches from Elsewhere, which debuts Sunday, March 1 on AMC.

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With the rise of gritty TV anti-heroes, followed swiftly by Peak TV’s wild attempts to woo eyeballs, there’s something to be said for making a go at some soft-bellied “Whimsy TV.” It’s a challenging era to try such a thing, though Netflix’s one-shot John Mulaney and The Sack Lunch Bunch is a great example of just how brilliant, and necessary, this bizarre sub-genre can be.

Does it work when it’s stretched out over a whole season though? Well, AMC’s new anthology series, Dispatches from Elsewhere — created by, and starring, Jason Segel — is out to prove that a Joe Versus the Volcano-type fable still has a place in the crowded landscape of today’s entertainment.

Based on a real-life, interactive, transmedia scavenger hunt that operated in San Francisco over a decade ago (and the 2013 documentary about it, The Institute), Dispatches from Elsewhere is a quirky and quaint fictionalized love letter to those who, for myriad reasons, feel isolated and separated from the rest of the world. It’s charming, low-stakes fare that, at best, feels refreshing. But too quickly, the show gets lost inside its own odd-itorium.

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Dispatches is patchwork quilt comprised of a little Truman Show, a touch of Lynch, a smidgen of Coen Brothers, and few more squares borrowed from other dreamscape-y projects of the past. It’s even infused with David Fincher’s The Game, though to be fair the actual game this show is based on utilized elements of that movie.

The show’s medium-sized shortcomings don’t come from its many jumbled inspirations for tone and texture, though. They come from the fact that you’re basically watching characters make meager arcs while joyfully fumbling through an Escape Room. It’s so calm, at times, that the show barely registers as a whisper. So with Dispatches, we may have discovered that too much fancifulness and abstract longing can gray everything out rather than actually add color.

In one of the many meta aspects of the series, Richard E. Grant’s ubiquitous and eloquent game master, Octavio Coleman, esq., serves as the story’s narrator, introducing us to the main players (in the premiere’s case, Segel’s socially paralyzed Peter). He acknowledges that we’re watching a TV show and then allows us to skip over exposition in favor of a quick rundown of Peter’s drab, drone-ish lifestyle.

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We meet the show’s other main characters throughout — mostly Eve Lindley’s luminous trans woman, Simone, who Peter becomes enraptured with — but this is Peter’s spotlight. Other characters, like Simone, Andre Benjamin’s humorless Fredwyn, and Sally Field’s maternal Janice, will get their spotlights in the following weeks.

Peter finds himself drawn into a world that buzzes and hums with circular chatter and kitschy throwback sci-fi. He must navigate through fields of fake, clandestine organizations — all helmed by Coleman doing different voices and accents — that are, for some reason or another, pitted against each other. All in the name of finding a missing girl named Clara who contains “Divine Nonchalance.” None of these elements matter, really, as it’s all just a way to bring Peter up and out of his anxiety-stricken shell. The fictional world-behind-the-world (which Fredwyn thinks is real) is designed to bring people from different walks of life together in order to “highlight the one-ness” of us all. Ultimately, it’s a sweet notion that makes for a medium watch.
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‘Gunda’: Film Review

Some were bemused earlier this month when Joaquin Phoenix used his entirely expected Oscar win as a less predictable occasion for an impassioned animal-rights plea: It was certainly the first time bovine artificial insemination had been discussed amid the glitter and glistening tears of Hollywood’s biggest night. What we didn’t know, however, was how neatly […]

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‘Saint Frances’: Film Review

At 34, Bridget doesn’t know what she wants, but she knows she doesn’t want a baby — not now, at least — and so she doesn’t hesitate to make the decision that might’ve served as the focal point of a different kind of film. In “Saint Frances,” getting an abortion is just one of the […]

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‘Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street’: Film Review

In 1985, New Line rushed out a sequel to its breakout horror hit of the prior year. But while commercially successful enough, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” was initially disliked by mainstream horror fans, then later won cult status, for the same reason: It struck many as “the gayest horror film of […]

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‘Father’: Film Review

“Father” begins with a mother. Dragging her two sullen, uncomprehending kids along with her, Biljana (Nada Šargin) strides onto the grounds of the factory from which her husband was let go more than a year before and harangues the foreman about the severance package they still have not received. The children are hungry, she wails, […]

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‘The Eddy’: TV Review

“Jazz is Paris and Paris is jazz,” spoke-sang Malcolm McLaren a quarter-century ago, though the statement is valid as ever today: Since the end of World War I, when a number of African American soldiers settled in Paris — and still others left their music behind — the city has become a kind of world […]

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Film Review: ‘Blood on Her Name’

In the opening moments of “Blood on Her Name,” an arrestingly twisty and suspenseful Southern noir thriller in the tradition of “One False Move,” we’re introduced to Leigh, the working-class protagonist played by Bethany Anne Lind, with a jarring close-up that is at once explicit and ambiguous. Her face is battered, her breathing is labored, […]

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 7, Episode 2 Review

This review contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 7, Episode 2. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 7, Episode 1.

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Disney+ may still be an empty wasteland as far as new, exclusive Marvel content goes, but never let it be said the service isn’t giving Star Wars fans exactly what they signed up for. The second episode of The Clone Wars: Season 7 is another reminder of what was lost when this series was canceled back in 2013, and why it’s such a gift to Star Wars fans that it’s finally returned.

If these first two Season 7 installments are any indication, the final season may be more akin to a trilogy of movies than 12 serialized episodes. The season premiere introduced us to the oddball clone commandos of the Bad Batch and set the stage for the surprise return of Echo, and this episode picks up right where “Bad Batch” left off. There is a certain sense of familiarity or “been there, done that” to the latter half of “A Distant Echo.” Both episodes have focused a great deal of screen time on Rex and the gang navigating Separatist outposts and gunning down legions of droids. Even having Anakin tag along for this second mission doesn’t shake up the formula as much as you might expect.

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To be fair, that problem is definitely more pronounced watching the two episodes back-to-back rather than spaced apart. As much as the idea of Disney dropping all 12 episodes in one bingeable delivery sounds appealing, and as much as this arc is beginning to feel like a movie broken into four parts, there is a lot to be said for the weekly, serialized approach.

Even if Anakin’s role in the mission itself is pretty straightforward, the early portions of “A Distant Echo” really take advantage of the characters in this late, “nearly upon Episode III” timeframe. The scene with Anakin surreptitiously contacting Padme while Rex plays lookout is a real treat. There’s a nice blend of comedy and tragedy fueling this scene. Seeing Padme in the uniform she wears on Mustafar and reflexively clutching her stomach while bidding farewell to her husband is a poignant reminder of the horrible fate awaiting these two lovers. It’s also a reminder that, among other things, The Clone Wars has actively improved the prequel trilogy by actually making the Anakin/Padme romance feel genuine.

There’s a lot to unpack with this scene. When the Anakin/Padme shot first appeared in the Season 7 trailer, Padme’s pose and apparent knowledge of her pregnancy made it seem like this moment was happening during the course of Episode III. That doesn’t seem to be the case, given that Anakin never acknowledges what’s literally staring him in the face. The hope is that this final season might find some room to explore Padme’s reaction to her pregnancy and the struggle over when and how to tell her husband. Similarly, the brief Obi-Wan appearance makes it clear he knew more than we realized about Anakin and Padme’s romance prior to Episode III. It would be very interesting to learn more about his thoughts on the subject, though it doesn’t seem as though this season is going to be particularly Obi-Wan-heavy.

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Season 7 is definitely The Rex and Ahsoka Show by all appearances. Accordingly, we continue to see a lot of development for Rex as he grapples with the tragedy of losing Echo and the possibly false hope of seeing him again. Rex is easily the most fully realized clone character in the series, and this season is already doing a fine job of completing his arc and bridging that gap with Rebels. This is the other area where Anakin’s presence comes in handy. This episode highlights the bond the two have formed over the course of the war, while showing us that even a clone can have trouble separating the mission from their personal desires. You have to assume the reason Anakin is so bothered by Rex’s behavior is because he sees so much of himself in his faithful Captain.

And if the run-and-gun mission is more of the same, at least we get ample payoff with the reveal Echo is indeed alive and being used as a tool by the Separatists. Echo’s revamped character design is haunting – all pasty white skin and emaciated flesh and a pair of metal legs that look a whole lot like those of a certain stubborn Sith Lord. Echo is a tangible reminder of how the clones have been chewed up and spit out by the galactic war machine, and it’ll be interesting to see how Rex and the members of Bad Batch reconcile that in the second half of this arc.
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‘Charlatan’: Film Review

At several points in “Charlatan,” the camera looks glossily on as our protagonist holds small bottles of amber liquid to the light, academically scrutinizing their contents as they beam a light golden glow onto his features: an effect both ennobling and almost romantic. The man is Jan Mikolášek, a famous Czech herbalist and healer with […]

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My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising Review

My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising opens in theaters across North America on February 26.

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Movies for hit anime series like My Hero Academia have a difficult balancing act to pull off: they must be mostly understandable for a completely new viewer, still offer something relevant and interesting to fans of the show, and be exciting but find a way to not have any significant lasting impact on the show. My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising is animation studio Bones’ second attempt at achieving all three, and it does an excellent job. Heroes Rising is just one awesome explosion of action after another. It doesn’t quite nail the landing on its biggest moment and the villain is a bit boring, but that doesn’t take too much away from the excitement of seeing the entirety of Class 1-A push themselves to their limits.

Heroes Rising takes place sometime during Season 4, although the chronology is never established. Heroes like Rock Lock appear, the League of Villains are still up to no good, and a certain pivotal item from Season 4 makes an appearance. That being said, Heroes Rising is a prime example of effortlessly utilizing information from the show’s past to contextualize the events of the movie. Flashbacks are mostly used at unobtrusive moments and important information is naturally written into conversations. If you’re not caught up with at least the beginning of Season 4, you do run the risk of some mild thematic spoilers, but a majority of the movie smartly distances itself from current events in the anime series.

Much like the first My Hero Academia movie, Two Heroes, the students of U.A. High School’s Class 1-A find themselves busy on a faraway island in Heroes Rising. The resident hero has retired, and in an effort to give some of U.A.’s top students’ additional training, they’ve been sent to fill in for the recent retiree without the supervision of any pro heroes. That last part is a bit questionable, given they’re only high school students tasked with running a hero business without supervision, but the setup works wonderfully and gives them space to shine when villains eventually attack.

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As the series has progressed, we’ve understandably seen less of Class 1-A and Heroes Rising excitingly amends that. Everyone, even characters like Koda and Shoji, gets a chance to shine. While the nature of their work on the island is mundane, it’s still exciting to watch because of Class 1-A’s fun personalities and the creative ways we get to see them use their quirks. From helping an old woman who threw out her back to organizing an intense assault on a foe while evacuating townspeople, Heroes Rising is a great showcase of their current abilities.

New supporting characters Mahoro and Katsuma are two cute kids who stir up the long-running theme of questioning what it means to be a hero in a world where that revered title is just another profession. Heroes Rising doesn’t dig too deep into it, but that theme serves as a good frame for when Deku and Bakugo get their time in the spotlight together. Heroes Rising is ultimately about their relationship and their own valid but different brands of heroism, but again, it does a fantastic job of balancing their screen time with the other 1-A students. Part of that comes about because they’re still students, and standing up against the four new adult villains in Heroes Rising isn’t a simple feat. My Hero Academia’s practicality with the students’ general disadvantage against experienced villains has always been one of its strengths, and it’s good to see that mostly carry through in Heroes Rising.

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The villains Class 1-A go up against in this action-packed movie have bland motivations, but their run-of-the-mill brand of evil largely works here. Fights aren’t bogged down with monologues and are instead peppered with effective villainous quips. The villains’ quirks aren’t exactly counters to the students’ but their raw power and flashiness go a long way. And, since the students are on this island without support from professionals, we really get to see their tactics and teamwork shine. The animation in the fights is generally excellent, save for some awkward CG clouds that roll in every now and then.

For all the power and fun Heroes Rising brings, it’s a shame it fumbles the presentation of its biggest moment. The insane, well-animated final fight edges close to fever dream territory and is presented with odd, sentimental music that doesn’t fit the intensity of what’s happening on-screen. Certain moments of the battle — which is one hell of a fight to watch — also have serious implications for My Hero Academia canon, and the way Heroes Rising goes about brushing them aside isn’t quite satisfactory.
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The Flash: Season 6, Episode 13 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 13. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 6, Episode 12. Also, in the interest of transparency, we should note that Jesse is related to one of the co-writers of this episode. That relation had no bearing on the content of this review.

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It’s one of the great tragedies of the Arrowverse that we’ll probably never see a full season of The Flash built around Gorilla Grodd. Grodd certainly has the potential to be more than just an annual guest star, but it’s really not practical from a time and budgetary standpoint. On the other hand, the benefit is this forces the series to make the most of those annual appearances when they do come along. “Grodd Friended Me” keeps the hot streak going, even if it is a much smaller-scale Flash vs. Grodd story.

This episode flips the script by casting Grodd as a sympathetic protagonist trying desperately to win over an incredulous Barry Allen. Coming in the wake of both Crisis and a series of episodes where Grodd attempts to take over Central City, this plays like a logical and even necessary shift for the character. There’s only so much that can be accomplished with Grodd as an annual, one-and-done antagonist. At some point the series either has to find a new angle or just retire the character.

This episode’s greatest strength is in creating a sense of a cohesive arc for Grodd over the course of six seasons. He may only appear once or twice a year (plus that recurring role on Legends of Tomorrow: Season 3), but there has been a clear progression as Grodd has evolved from pitiful lab specimen to power-hungry villain and now homesick ARGUS prisoner. Thanks in no small part to David Sobolov’s grave vocal performance, Grodd’s transformation feels both genuine and earned.

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The actual story fueling Grodd’s redemption and unlikely alliance with Barry is disappointingly spartan. It’s literally a case of two characters moving from one isolated spot to another and trying to run through a portal. It’s hard not to wish the series had given its other subplots a rest for a week and focused more fully on Grodd’s return. As it is, Grodd only appears in the flesh in a handful of scenes, with the rest taking the economical approach of having him assume the forms of other Team Flash members. Still, the visual of Grodd and Barry merging to form “Brundleflash” is neat, and at least this pairing hits the right emotional notes despite the overly straightforward narrative.

We’ll see how Grodd’s apparent redemption plays out in the recently greenlit Season 7, but for now its most immediate impact seems to be in giving Chester his official induction into Team Flash. Chester and Kamilla are both seemingly being positioned as Cisco’s replacements, which raises the question of what happens when Cisco returns and whether that character is being gradually phased out. Chester doesn’t immediately click in his new role as junior tech support trainee. Regardless of the series, the Arrowverse tends to cast all of these characters from the same mold. They’re impossibly brilliant yet annoyingly quippy and chatty. The Flash doesn’t need a Cisco Lite.

Fortunately, Chester shows signs of more depth than that. The character really starts to click during his heart-to-heart with Caitlin, as he reminisces about being a young African American student learning the hard way that there’s no room for screw-ups or second chances. That moment of introspection tells us more about the character than we’ve learned all season. There’s a refreshing honesty and candor to the character that the series would do well to lean into going forward, rather than the usual fast-talking tech geek shtick.

Even if more Grodd content would have been nice, there is something to be said for this episode’s ability to keep the Mirror Master storyline moving along. Here we catch a glimpse of the true villain lurking beneath Eva’s befuddled facade. It’ll also be interesting to see how much damage Mirror Iris does to Iris’ personal life and relationships by the time she’s done.

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Finally, the series continues to struggle on the Nash/Allegra front. As I’ve said before, the idea of a Harrison Wells pining for an estranged daughter just isn’t compelling enough to be rehashed all over again, even with the added complication of Allegra being a doppelganger. This episode does nothing to change that view, even as Allegra uncovers the truth about her “father.” It’s a disappointing shift for a character who showed plenty of promise in the first half of the season. Why isn’t Nash’s guilt over Crisis enough of a story catalyst on its own?

We do get a major swerve at the very end of the episode, as Sherloque resurfaces to deliver a dire warning about the return of Reverse-Flash. This could potentially be what the series needs to get back on track with all things Wells. On the other hand, it wasn’t all that long ago that Eobard Thwane made another surprise return. Will this be another case of The Flash rehashing familiar beats too often? Thawne’s presence wasn’t enough to salvage Season 5, and with Season 6 improving so dramatically, this time The Flash may not actually need him at all.
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Competition committee: PI review rule ‘not great’

Despite skepticism about the pass interference review implemented before last season, the NFL competition committee members are not yet ready to recommend an end to the rule.
www.espn.com – NFL

The Invisible Man Review

With Upgrade, Leigh Whannell demanded attention as an inventive writer/director with some serious action chops and an eye for the unusual and unexamined. In Universal’s newest take on the iconic Invisible Man, Whannell turns that eye to the terror of domestic abuse, making an impressive and delightfully dark return to the horror genre in which he made his name as a co-creator of the Saw franchise.

Though the character’s tenure as a Universal Monster made the Invisible Man a classic horror icon, the H.G. Wells story which inspired it is very much a science-fiction parable about the hubris of man and the danger of an unchecked ego. Without spoiling too much, Whannell is clearly invested in exploring those thematic threads with his electrifying reimagining which plays into the classic novel’s ideas of madness, murder, and mayhem with a very contemporary twist.

Set in modern-day San Francisco, The Invisible Man strays from other adaptations by following Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) as she absconds from her violent and cruel ex-boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a Mark Zuckerberg-esque tech billionaire who made his fortune in “optics.” From the opening moments of the film where we see Cecilia sneaking out of the compound-like home she shared with Adrian, Whannell throws the audience into a nerve-wracking and chillingly realized ride through the absolute worst-case scenario of leaving an abusive partner.

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Moss is the beating heart of the movie here as the distressed and desperate Cecilia, who spends most of the movie struggling against the waves of trauma that her relationship with Adrian has left her drowning in. This is another no-holds-barred performance from The Handmaid’s Tale actress who offers up an almost uncomfortably raw turn as a woman wronged so badly that she almost has no concept of how to treat the people who are left in her life. Though he is barely on screen, Jackson-Cohen is a solid choice as the handsome and sociopathic billionaire who can’t bear to let go of the one thing that he can no longer control.

The small supporting cast is equally as engaging with Aldis Hodge as Cecilia’s old friend James who takes her in after she makes her escape. His sweet and thoughtful daughter Sydney is played by the ever-watchable Storm Reid, who gets some seriously dark material and handles it brilliantly. If anything, their roles could have been expanded as both are characters that you want to know more about, but this is Cecilia’s story and so ultimately their paths (and screen time) are guided by her journey.

There is an effective coldness and chill to The Invisible Man which is tangible, from the grey skies of San Francisco to the concrete walls of Adrian’s looming home. There’s a gritty grimness to it all that can’t quite be escaped, and that’s entirely the point. Nothing about The Invisible Man is meant to be comfortable; Whannell and cinematographer Stefan Duscio fill every moment with dread and anxiety that is entirely fitting for a horror film that takes one of the darkest aspects of human nature and wrings every ounce of terror out of it that it can. Another highlight that needs recognition is the production design by Alex Holmes, which plays into the inescapable nature of Adrian. This is especially noticeable in his open-plan home, with its glass-walled structure that makes you feel like you can do nothing without being watched.

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Of course, in any monster movie you want to know about the titular monster. Well, not wanting to give too much away, what I can say is that Whannell makes a decision that is both creatively daring and almost monstrously simple. Think of the thrill of watching Paranormal Activity for the first time and trying to spot all of the spiritual shenanigans and you’re halfway to what makes this iteration of The Invisible Man so utterly terrifying.

Alongside the atmospheric visual landscape that the creative team built, composer Benjamin Wallfisch crafts entertainingly engaging dueling scores for both Adrian and Cecilia. The former is an appropriately pulsating electronic landscape closer to drone music than a classical film score, whereas our heroine is scored by a more expected orchestral arrangement that often soars as we follow her on a most unexpected and grim iteration of the hero’s journey. The coherence and narrative of the score and film together give The Invisible Man an immersive quality that delights and unsettles in equal measure.

At just over two hours, The Invisible Man never drags, instead successfully building tension to a breaking point. But depending on your patience for a slow burn start leading to some breakneck twists and turns, you might get a little cinematic whiplash when it comes to the film’s brutal and action-packed latter half. That final act is where Whannell really shows his power, though, with some truly gasp-inducing moments and more of the stunningly imagined and choreographed action that made Upgrade such a cult hit amongst genre fans.

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The biggest issue that The Invisible Man faces is actually tied to how slick it is. There’s a rawness to Elisabeth Moss’ performance that hints at a deeper character study we don’t get, and whilst the clinical dissection of an abusive relationship and the horrors it has wrought are grimly effective, there is arguably a lack of depth to the conversation the film is trying to have. As a simple revenge story, The Invisible Man ends up delivering something truly satisfying. But the first two acts of the movie don’t always feel like they’re setting that up, and at times hint at an exploration of abuse that’s more nuanced and profound, yet it never materializes. Ironically, it’s the fact that Whannell is confident and experimental enough to try and utilize the nature of abuse as a structure for horror rather than a messaging opportunity that may lead some to ask: what is The Invisible Man really trying to say?

Whannell’s exploration of horror and abuse may not be for everyone. Not only is it deeply distressing in parts but it’s often brutal in its depiction of trauma — although something that feels radical is that we rarely see the violence that caused such trauma depicted on screen — and the fear of losing control. Seeing Cecilia seemingly lose her grip on reality and drive everyone around her away is tough, even though Whannell and company offer up an equally dark redemption. It’s that rawness and interest in shining a light on the most unappealing moments of being a survivor that makes The Invisible Man stand out, but it’s also miles away from the warmth and nostalgia that many viewers might be expecting when they walk into what is still a Universal Monsters movie.
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Supergirl: Episode 100 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Supergirl: Season 5, Episode 13! For other recent developments with the series, check out our full review of Crisis on Infinite Earths and our review of Supergirl’s midseason premiere

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By now Arrowverse fans know what to expect whenever one of these shows reaches its 100th episode. Like Arrow’s “Invasion!” and The Flash’s “What’s Past Is Prologue” before it, Supergirl marks this important milestone by bending the laws of time and space and allowing Kara Danvers to revisit some of the most pivotal moments from her costumed career. This may be the third time we’ve seen this formula in the Arrowverse, but “It’s a Super Life” proves just how much water there is in this particular well.

One big thing working in Supergirl’s favor is that the “time travel clip show” conceit fits a lot more organically into the show’s ongoing narrative than it did with Arrow or The Flash. Arrow’s 100th episode is great, mind you, but it had to juggle the warring needs of celebrating a milestone and acting as part of the Invasion crossover. Meanwhile, The Flash’s 100th episode suffered from the same flaw as nearly every other Season 5 installment – the ill-conceived Cicada storyline poisoned everything it touched.

By comparison, Supergirl has no crossover to worry about, nor is it experiencing the same Season 5 woes as The Flash. Plus, it certainly doesn’t hurt having fifth dimensional imp Mr. Mxyzptlk as a plot catalyst. That gives the writers carte blanche to do basically whatever they want.

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The real key to this episode’s success, though, is the fact that it hinges on the absolute best Season 5 plot point – the collapse of Kara and Lena’s friendship. The series spent years building up that friendship, only to have a vindictive Lex tear it all down with his dying breaths and turn Lena against her best friend. What would Kara do to take it all back? How much will she sacrifice to get a second chance at being honest with Lena?

Those questions form the emotional core of this episode. Again, because Supergirl spent so much time and effort cementing that friendship, it’s easy to sympathize with Kara’s desire to restore what was lost, even as she threatens to throw the entire Arrowverse timeline off-balance. Though there’s little hope of anything actually changing by the end, we want to see Kara succeed all the same. Kara experiences a very full and cohesive arc over the course of this episode, realizing that everything had to happen the way that it did, and at some point she has to simply allow Lena to choose her own fate. All of this further highlights the idea that Season 5 will culminate in the all-important question – will Lena ultimately do what’s right, or will her inner Luthor win out?

Along the way, we’re treated to several alternate takes on what might have happened if Kara had attempted to reveal her secret sooner, with Lena’s reactions ranging from anger to confusion to complete indifference depending on the circumstances. More than just an interesting look at what might have been, these scenes allow Katie McGrath to explore different sides of her character and refocus on her humanity in a season that’s pushed her into darker and darker territory. The story cleverly uses the show’s long and complex history top its advantage, showing how each identity reveal would have ultimately resulted in disaster for Kara and her friends. Maybe the script strains credulity by having a untied Kara/Lena alliance cause a domino effect that ends with Ben Lockwood murdering the show’s entire supporting, but there’s also the question of how much of this was exaggerated by Mxyzptlk for Kara’s benefit.

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Speaking of Mxyzptlk, Thomas Lennon makes a strong impression as he takes over a role previously played by Peter Gadiot way back in Season 2. Whatever motivated that casting change, Lennon really suits this more laid back, less antagonistic version of Mxy. Lennon brings the right mixture of charm, sadness and whimsy to the role, painting Mxy as a being motivated by equal parts boredom, regret and genuine fascination with three-dimensional existence. This episode plays like an homage to all those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes built around the rivalry between Captain Picard and Q. And while I’d hate to see Supergirl recycle the Kara/Mxy pairing as often as TNG did with Picard and Q, it would be nice to see Lennon pop by and reprise the role once in a while.

It should also be mentioned that this episode makes strong use of several returning cast members. We get to see Jeremy Jordan’s Winn’s and Chris Wood’s Mon-El back in action, along with old villains like Odette Annable’s Reign and Sam Witwer as the aforementioned Ben Lockwood. These guest roles fit neatly into the flashback premise and help make the 100th episode milestone feel that much more special. Even if you’ve fallen behind on the series of late, it’s worth popping in just to celebrate with these old friends.
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‘Jinpa’: Film Review

After roaming for more than a year on the international festival circuit, “Jinpa” — the latest effort from Tibetan director Pema Tseden (“Old Dog,” “Tharlo”) — has finally launched a limited run in U.S. art houses, where it might find an appreciative if occasionally perplexed audience for its idiosyncratic mix of deadpan wit and understated […]

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The Walking Dead Midseason Premiere Review

Warning: Full spoilers for The Walking Dead’s Season 10 midseason premiere follow. To refresh your memory of where we left off, check out our review of TWD Season 10, episode 8.

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The Walking Dead kicked off Season 10’s remaining eight episodes with a dark, cramped crawl through some creepy caverns overrun with both walkers and Whisperers.

Oh, and with Negan and Alpha doing the (actual) dirty out in the woods. Yikes! But more on that later…

When we last left our heroes, in the midseason finale cliffhanger, things didn’t seem all that dire. Trapping Carol, Daryl, and the rest in a savage scenario against a herd of walkers didn’t exactly feel cliffhanger-worthy since we’ve seen our survivors escape dozens of similar scenes over the years. In fact, the show itself made a montage out of rapid-fire zombie assaults on Alexandria earlier in the season as if it wasn’t a situation worth spending a lot of time with because everyone could handle themselves.

Regardless, “Squeeze” made the most of these spelunky surroundings, crafting a full episode’s worth of danger out of it and, maybe most importantly, creating a crucible where it felt like someone could die. Granted, taking stock of all the characters and whether or not they were narratively “ready” to go, Jerry was the one most likely to get torn to bits. But he didn’t. This is where the episode kind of broke even because it would have sucked for Jerry to die since he’s one of the few favorites left – but also, without a grand demise, the entire adventure felt a bit toothless in the end.

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Sure, the cave collapsed, leaving Connie and Magda’s fates unknown, but since we didn’t see them die… they’re obviously still around. Because that’s the show.

Can Daryl Forgive Carol?

Daryl probably won’t be able to forgive Carol until he finds Connie still alive. Worst-case scenario here, if the show still wants to play things viciously, Daryl finds her alive, but right as she’s dying. Or comes to the rescue just moments too late. We don’t know what actress Lauren Ridloff’s Marvel’s Eternals role means yet for her role in the series.

Story-wise though, and knowing how Daryl obsessed over Rick’s “death,” and spent months and months looking for him in the woods, Daryl has to find these two. He can’t revert back to Season 9 Daryl.

The dramatic heart here, in “Squeeze,” was Carol finally realizing how destructive and careless she’s been after getting stuck in a place where she felt utterly useless because of her claustrophobia. She had to come to terms with her obsession for revenge against Alpha and recognize how it blinded her to this rather obvious trap. Man, if Jerry had died because of this, she’d never come back. That’s probably the main reason he survived – even though it certainly looked like the undead had chewed up his foot.

To be fair though, this was a super dark episode. Not thematically, just light-wise. Watching it through a press screener made things even harder to make out, given how much action happened in the shadows. I certainly got the gist of most of what was going on, with the actual squeezing moments, through the very narrow crawl spaces, being the most intense parts.

And the Carol/Daryl stuff remains, truly, the only big relationship on the show that still works to holds everything together. After that, you’ve got Rosita and Eugene (maybe?), and Negan and Judith. Everything else is kind of empty. So “Squeeze” was wise to focus on this, along with Daryl’s burgeoning feelings for Connie.

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Alpha, Negan, and Uncomfortable Silences

The Whisperer side of the story was pretty strange – and not just because of Alpha’s big romantic gesture out in the woods with Negan, where she menacingly stripped down to her zombie skin and boots in order to woo him, or in the very least shut him up.

No, it was the part where Negan snitched on Gamma and Alpha realized that she had a spy in her midst. Negan giving Gamma up made sense, but overall it felt odd for Gamma to have been brought in as a character this season, quickly promoted through the ranks (to the dismay and jealousy of Beta), and then for us to see her unceremoniously come undone. Alpha sending Beta after her, with no mention of his past warnings or Alpha’s previous stubbornness, seemed a bit off.

And then, yes, there was Alpha and Negan’s tryst in the woods. Presented, without commentary, to those who might be looking for an even more uncomfortable Negan scene than his “nut tapping” conversation with that young boy back in “What It Always Is” (which is even more disturbing when you consider it was probably the kid’s last conversation on Earth). With Alpha and Negan’s glorious coupling comes all of our fears and anxieties about post-apocalyptic smells. After a while, after this many years into the series, we can assume everyone’s now nose-blind to the lack of proper daily hygiene. But it just takes one moment, like disrobing in the woods (which is itself a nasty place to get nasty), to remind us that everyone stinks to high heaven. Especially the Whisperers. Especially those masks.

This is the Whisperers’ downfall right here. Whether you’ve read the comics or not, it’s plain to see that Alpha trusting Negan, or even developing slivers of feelings for him, is his ticket into controlling, or destroying, them all.

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‘H Is for Happiness’: Film Review

More often than not, “A” festival competitions privilege the arty over the entertaining, so hats off to the Berlinale Generation section, where the two qualities frequently coexist. A case in point: the delightful coming-of-age dramedy “H Is for Happiness,” which provides feel-good entertainment for the entire family without pandering — and definitely without sacrificing style […]

Variety

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My Hero Academia Season 4, Episode 19 Review

With a title like this week’s, we could only assume that we were in for the very best episode in what’s left of Season 4. And while that can’t be said for certain just yet, it’s definitely an incredibly fun episode, and one that offers some well-balanced excitement with tight character focus.

My Hero Academia has perfected the art of balancing several disparate tones and atmospheres across its story, its characters, and even its aesthetics. And being able to expertly pull off the joyous atmosphere of the School Festival after such a gruelling battle with Overhaul is pretty impressive storytelling. Even more than that, introducing the camp and hilarious villains Gentle Criminal and La Brava now, during the School Festival, shows a degree of self-awareness that allows us as an audience to fully immerse ourselves in the light, celebratory atmosphere that this arc is throwing at us.

Watch the English dub trailer for the new MHA movie, Heroes Rising:

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Bakugo has become a personal best boy for a lot of My Hero Academia fans, and he certainly works for that status in the first half of this episode. Class 1-A has decided on a musical performance for their role in the School Festival, with Jiro the multi-instrumentalist taking center stage, so to speak. But as she attempts to build the band, she first needs to find a drummer. What she finds is Bakugo.

Now, while the drums are certainly a perfect fit for Bakugo’s rage-fuelled personality, and there’s a simple joy to be found in seeing him hammer out a short groove, the real beauty of this scene comes from seeing how Bakugo’s perspective and motivation have matured and shifted over time. Bakugo is a complex angry young man, and we’re seeing here that his anger has layers, that his waters run far deeper than we ever expected when we met him back in Season 1. Bakugo has very slowly and carefully been built up and torn down over time, resulting in a potential hero who isn’t just a controversial choice for best boy of Class 1-A, but who is genuinely a complex and lovable hero with a lot about him to respect and admire. And we get all of this distilled down into one fantastic little monologue from Bakugo after he picks up the sticks.

The preparation for the School Festival does, indeed, turn out to be an awful lot of fun as the students plan how to best use their own skills, knowledge, quirks, and imagination to build an exciting musical performance. It’s reminiscent of the movie School of Rock, with Jack Black finding a role for every member of the class, on and off the stage. That planning and preparation is even more hilarious and ridiculous here, with the brilliant idea of turning Aoyama into a twinkling disco ball.

The bulk of this episode is the sorting of roles for the festival, but the crowning moment of the entire episode is one in which Mineta attempts to play the guitar, only to lament in a pseudo-fourth-wall-break, “Because of my character design, my hands won’t reach!” It’s a real laugh-out-loud moment and not only is it the kind of joke that My Hero Academia doesn’t usually make, but it might also be the first time Mineta has been anything less than dreadful.

Class 1-A of My Hero Academia is such an eclectic bunch of well-defined individuals, which means the manga and the show can, whenever they desire, build an arc that doesn’t focus around Deku and his growth as a character, which is typical of almost every shonen battle anime. This cast is almost equal in terms of how well we know and love each character. Rarely (in any medium) do we get such a large and likable cast of characters, and this School Festival is already proving to be a welcome chance to enjoy each and every one of them in top form.

That being said, this episode’s third act still provides us with some really gratifying one-on-one teacher/student time with Deku and All Might. It’s a bonding moment but, even more importantly, it’s a short step away from the School Festival where we get to see a little bit of combat growth from Deku. After all, he and All Might are still our main protagonists, and getting a little focus time on them is not only appreciated, but satisfying.

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‘Persian Lessons’: Film Review

In “Schindler’s List,” most of the actors spoke English, using accents to indicate their characters’ origins. In “Son of Saul,” the cast struggles to communicate in a mish-mosh of languages, as Jews of different nationalities were thrown together in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stories about the Holocaust — so vital in trying to reconcile the horrors of the […]

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‘Goldie’: Film Review

Slick Woods plays the titular streetwise 18-year-old New Yorker in “Goldie,” a character who’s constantly running toward, or away, from things — a life of perpetual motion that doesn’t actually get her anywhere. In the confident hands of Dutch writer-director Sam de Jong, Goldie’s story is one of big dreams and harsh realities, and the […]

Variety

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 7 Premiere Review

Note: this is a mostly spoiler-free review of the Season 7 premiere of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. All plot spoilers are confined to a marked section at the end.

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars has proven surprisingly resilient for a series that was technically canceled in 2013. A number of in-progress episodes were completed and released as a shorter sixth season dubbed Clone Wars: The Lost Missions, while other abandoned stories were told in new forms, like the comic book Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir and the novel Star Wars: Dark Disciple. And even if the animated series itself never quite gave us closure for characters like Ahsoka Tano, Captain Rex, and Darth Maul, the followup series Star Wars Rebels was only too happy to oblige.

It’s much easier nowadays to be at peace with the show’s untimely cancellation – and thankfully, it’s no longer even an issue. The Clone Wars is back for a seventh and final season, and the series immediately finds its groove despite being off the air for the better part of a decade.

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“The Bad Batch” immediately sets the tone for the final season. Even as the war draws closer to its dramatic conclusion, the Republic’s clone army is feeling the strain of mounting losses and an enemy that seems to predict its every move. Many of the series’ best story arcs have hinged on these clone heroes battling against overwhelming odds, so “The Bad Batch” feels like a great way to welcome the series back and further explore the toll of the war on those who were literally born to fight.

While it’s enough to see fan-favorite clones like Captain Rex and Commander Cody back in action, this episode stands out by introducing a very different roster of clone heroes: the titular Bad Batch – a group of clones far more independent and genetically diverse than normal. While on one hand the Star Wars geek in me can’t help but wish the series had simply dusted off the Republic Commandos for this particular storyline, this episode pretty quickly establishes why Clone Force 99 is the better option. With the premiere being so overwhelmingly clone-focused, it really helps to have characters with such distinct personalities. We need the comic relief provided by clones like Wrecker and Crosshair. The subtle rivalry and unease between Rex and his new comrades add another interesting layer to what might otherwise be a straightforward clones vs. droids mission.

Plus, the addition of the Bad Batch allows voice actor Dee Bradley Baker to cut loose. Baker practically carries this whole episode on his shoulders given how many of the characters are voiced by him. The series has always been surprisingly deft about differentiating the many clone characters even though they all look and sound pretty much the same. But in the case of these genetic abnormalities, they don’t look the same. Their personalities are much more extreme and over-the-top. Even in scenes with half a dozen or more clones sharing the same space, it never feels like one voice actor is talking to himself.

It’s also easy to see how much the series’ animation quality has improved in the six years since the Lost Missions. Fans may already be familiar with the Bad Batch arc, given that these four episodes were screened in rough animatic form at Star Wars Celebration 2015 and later released online. But it’s quite another thing to see this story play out in completed form with full visual effects. This still looks very much like the Clone Wars of old, but with a greater sense of detail and more dramatic camera angles. The upgrades are most apparent with Anakin, who suddenly looks a lot more like his Episode III self.

The upgrades are a welcome reminder that The Clone Wars still serves as the gold standard for Star Wars animation. While a worthy sequel in many ways, Rebels always suffered because of its comparatively stiff characters and barren, sterile environments. There’s much more detail and energy in this Clone Wars episode, which bodes well as we slowly march toward the long-awaited Siege of Mandalore arc.

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Warning: the remainder of this review contains spoilers for Season 7, Episode 1!

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Aside from the introduction of Clone Force 99, the biggest hook with “The Bad Batch” is definitely the reveal that fallen Clonetrooper Echo may still be alive and in Separatist custody. Here, too, this twist gives the storyline a bit of extra weight and differentiates it from similar clone vs. droid skirmishes. The series sometimes struggles to justify these longer story arcs, a problem that may come back into play with Season 7 being divided solely into a trio of four-episode arcs. But for now, “Bad Batch” starts things off on an eventful note.

It’s also a fitting twist with which to kick off the final season. The saga of Domino Squad has been one of the most important throughlines of the whole series, with that story seeming to come to an end when Fives was killed back in Season 6’s “Orders.” It seems only fitting that Season 7 finds a way to continue that story and potentially even find redemption for the one surviving Domino Squad member. We’ll see over the next few weeks whether the show can make good on that potential.
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‘Greed’: Film Review

I’ve got this friend who makes his own clothes. Not the generic kind cut from dowdy prairie-dress patterns, but chic, design-it-yourself garments that look better than most anything you’d find on a ready-to-wear rack. I figure he’s the only person I know who’s not guilty of contributing to the kind of sweatshop misery writer-director Michael […]

Variety

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The Call of the Wild Review

Why are canines considered man’s best friend? Why is the influx of dog movies much steadier than that of cats, bunnies, giraffes, or elephants? It’s simple: there’s something understood on a human level in a dog’s expressions, from the mopey look after it has gotten into the trash can to the excitement when we come in from a long day at work. It’s physical, tangible, and real. So, when a film like The Call of the Wild comes along with a CG dog, achieved via motion-capture, at the side of very real human characters, an integral part of that relationship gets lost.

Whether it’s capturing the emotions our canine friends seem to express or capturing the joy of an actor working with a real trained animal on set, this adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 novel is a failure in nearly every regard. The film follows Buck, a huge St. Bernard/Scotch Collie after he gets captured from his owner and traded between masters during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. He goes from being a sled dog for mailman Perrault (Omar Sy) to one for sadistic Yukon gold digger Hal (Dan Stevens) to a companion and friend to grieving heavy drinker John Thornton (Harrison Ford), all the while having visions of a silent, sleek black wolf that represents − get this − his instinctual call to the wild.

Notably, director Chris Sanders’ first live-action effort (he’s known best for helming Lilo & Stitch and the first How to Train Your Dragon), The Call of the Wild still feels largely animated. Motion-capture artist Terry Notary (a Planet of the Apes and MCU veteran) performed Buck’s movements on set, but the CGI covering him and decorating his surrounding environments are a few grades below what made The Lion King such a technical marvel last year. The close-ups of Buck’s face look okay, but shots of his body from far away lack texture and definition, and his action sequences or quick movements don’t look much better than a well-rendered video game cutscene. Worse yet, the motions with which human characters pet the dog come with virtually no affection, as Notary doesn’t capture the unpredictable spirit and love that comes from a live animal. There’s no room for a charmer like Ford to lose himself in his role if the filmmakers won’t throw him the bone of being next to a real, tail-wagging, joyfully dopey mutt.

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It doesn’t help that Michael Green’s script misses the more feral, complex qualities of London’s original text. Instead, it tells a basic story about what makes dogs such great human companions and then misses that point to right the ship and shoehorn in London’s thesis at the last possible minute. That thesis is damaged when the animators and Notary give the lead dog such obvious human qualities that a real canine would never exhibit. You can feel Buck weighing options and having existential yearnings at multiple points throughout, and that’s a problem when the only thing endearing us to this character is that he’s a good boy who occasionally makes bad messes and eats the human food.

His supposed call to the wild doesn’t feel earned since Buck keeps choosing human missions, like getting inspired by the wonders of mail delivery and curing John’s alcoholism. At one point, Buck hands Perrault a letter that arrived a little too late to make the daily delivery rounds. It would maybe be cute were it a real dog on set, but having this mo-cap mutation do it manufactures the moment in a way that renders it just totally lifeless. It makes a cheesy script even less bearable, especially with Ford narrating the whole thing and forced to essentially take up David Attenborough’s Planet Earth gig during scenes starring only the CG animals in CG environments.

For a film centered so much around the natural world, so little of it actually feels natural. You would think part of the appeal of adapting London in the first place would be staying true to the locations his prose so beautifully describes or having a production brave the elements for those key on-location shots. But alas, it’s easy to tell when these vast outdoor landscapes are actually much smaller, perhaps on a sound stage, than they appear.

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As for the performances, Ford does what he can to find the film’s center. The veteran superstar can charm his way through just about any scene unscathed. All of the film’s best moments belong to his signature gruff exterior, soft interior demeanor, even if the special effects hamper his ability to play a physically affectionate dog lover, for fear of ruining the film’s thin illusion. Stevens, on the other hand, hams it up as a cartoonish, two-dimensional villain who opposes Buck and John in such an off-putting, go-for-broke way that any conflict involving him turns into an eye roll.

Across the board, playing things too big is The Call of the Wild’s greatest downfall aside from its crappy special effects. From on overstated musical score to the overly sentimental narration or story beats in general, this is an adaptation aimed right at the heartstrings of dog owners everywhere. Cynical as that may be from a moneymaking standpoint, the ultimate irony in the filmmakers’ failure here is the money they spent creating this disaster. Buck can outrun a pixelated avalanche or dramatically face an alpha sled dog with blue eyes that practically glow, but making him so emotive and superheroic ensures that he’s nothing like the furry friends that audience members will go home to when the lights come up.
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‘Rebuilding Paradise’: Film Review

Ron Howard, over the last decade, has directed a handful of documentaries (all of them about popular musicians), and maybe it’s no surprise that he has turned out to be an ace craftsman of the nonfiction form. But “Rebuilding Paradise,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a different kind of Ron Howard documentary, […]

Variety

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‘The Night Clerk’: Film Review

In “The Night Clerk,” Tye Sheridan and a very busy Ana de Armas star as a hotel clerk with Asperger’s and the solicitous beauty who shows up after a murder. The chemistry between Sheridan and de Armas is involving. The casting of Helen Hunt as a enabling mother and John Leguizamo as a police detective […]

Variety

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‘Duncanville’ Starring Amy Poehler: TV Review

Lovable dirtbag families have been the core of Fox’s Sunday “Animation Domination” lineup for years, a truth further underlined by the fact that its newest entry “Duncanville” comes from longtime “Simpsons” producers Mike and Julie Thacker Scully. Along with co-creator Amy Poehler, they’ve now made a show about a family more tied to the present […]

Variety

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Batwoman: Season 1, Episode 12 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for Batwoman: Season 1, Episode 12! If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 1, Episode 11.

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At this point it seems safe to say no Arrowverse series has benefited more from Crisis on Infinite Earths than Batwoman. Sure, Supergirl has arguably been affected more in terms of the overall status quo, but that series was already on solid footing before the crossover. It’s not so much that life in Gotham City has drastically changed in this new Earth-Prime era, but that Batwoman has used the foundation of Crisis to address its greatest recurring flaw.

If Alice has been the regular weak link in the Season 1 formula, she’s a whole lot better off thanks to these most recent two installments. “An Un-Birthday Present” and now “Take Your Choice” have gone a long way toward humanizing this villain (a process previously reserved for the flashback scenes) and giving her a clearer and more understandable set of motivations. The series has quickly managed to flip the script on the new status quo established in the midseason finale. Where once Alice was the heartless villain who drove a wedge right through the Kane family, now she’s become the loner betrayed by one of the two people she cares for the most.

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Rachel Skarsten has never really managed to nail that dreamy, surreal quality that makes Alice such a unique villain in the comics. Her Alice performance is very stiff and forced. By now it’s clear that’s an intentional choice on the show’s part, as recent episodes have really started to emphasize how much this persona was created as a coping mechanism for a young Beth Kane. Even so, it often feels like there’s been something lost in translation with Alice. “Take Your Choice,” more than any other episode before it, succeeds by downplaying Alice’s supervillain shenanigans and trying to find the fragile human beneath the cruel facade.

In the process, Skarsten is able to shine in a way she’s never managed before. She excels here in playing two vastly different versions of the same character – both of whom are confronting the possibility of their imminent death. That these two Beths look and behave so differently only highlights the tragedy of Alice and how much was taken from the Kane family when she vanished. There are repeated signs that Alice isn’t as cruel or heartless as she’d like the city to believe, including the reveal she purposely saved Mary’s life and the very genuine shock and remorse she feels after realizing Kate came not to save her, but to watch her die. That scene may well be the highlight of the series so far. Though Alice’s hallucination of a vengeful Catherine come to gloat is a close second. An inspired use of a character we all assumed had run her course.

In general, this episode makes terrific use of what could have been a very silly and convoluted premise. It proves there’s still room in the Arrowverse for more grounded, metahuman-free stories even in a world of Kryptonians, speedsters and time travelers. The idea that the universe can only permit one Beth Kane to live creates a palpable tension that only grows over the course of the episode. With the Crows hunting for Alice and Kate struggling to find some way to save her new sister without dooming the old, there’s a certainty that nothing is going to work out well for our heroes. The only question is how exactly Kate’s reunion with Beth will end badly.

The reveal is certainly satisfying. Faced with an impossible choice, Kate chooses the sensible option – save the sister who isn’t a homicidal maniac. Instead, she winds up enduring all the heartache of watching Alice die without managing to save Beth in the end. Just as Alice gave Kate reason to loathe her in the midseason finale, now Alice has reason to despise the only family she has left. Somehow, this episode has managed to make that rivalry even more personal.

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My only disappointment with the way things play out is that there would have been a lot of potential in the idea of the two Beths merging to form a new Beth who remembers both lives. What does that do to her mind and her plans for Gotham? But to be fair, that’s me complaining about the story I want to see rather than the story being told. And anyway, it’s not impossible the series won’t still go down that road.

Another big plus is that “Take Your Choice” gives a better sense of how the various pieces of Season 1 fit together, with Sebastian Roche’s Dr. Campbell taking on a more prominent role and revealing himself to be Dr. Cartwright in disguise. Cartwright is quickly shaping up to be the real endgame villain of Season 1. His quietly sadistic personality and ability to hide in plain sight make him well-suited to the task. His is a brand of evil that could only exist in Gotham, and I look forward to seeing him step into the spotlight in the weeks to come.
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My Hero Academia: Season 4, Episode 18 Review

This review contains spoilers for My Hero Academia Season 4, episode 18, “School Festival,” aka episode 81 overall. To refresh your memory of where we left off, check out our review of MHA Season 4, episode 17.

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Back in Season 2, My Hero Academia confidently proved it had the chops to inject new life and excitement into the tired shonen tradition of the ‘tournament arc’. The UA Sports Festival turned out to be one of the show’s highlights, and was, arguably, the arc that allowed My Hero Academia to flex its muscles and show that it is one of the best shonen anime to ever grace our screens. And now, as we enter the final stretch of Season 4, we are treated to a whole new, vibrant, and fun-filled arc: the School Festival.

This episode is split into three acts: the first is the announcement and planning of the School Festival, the second is a sweet extended scene between Midoriya, Mirio, and Eri. The third is a villain-related final act that’s too good to spoil here. Every one of these acts is tonally perfect, full of color and vibrancy, and feels custom-designed to cheer fans up. This is the kind of episode to be re-watched on a rainy Sunday afternoon, so bursting at the seams is it with cheery melodies, optimistic and enthusiastic characters, and excitement for things to come. Everything is on the up; the whole episode is about the clouds clearing and the sun coming out.

After an impactful and emotionally draining arc that ended with the most explosive conclusion we’ve seen so far in My Hero Academia, followed by two episodes that were marred with issues of theme, tone, and pacing (amongst other issues), it feels so good to have an episode not only deliver on hype, humor, and happiness, but to also do so by nailing every aspect of its execution, from its animation to its writing and voice acting.

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The music of this episode is especially outstanding, with experimental blends of guitar-led rock riffs and choir-infused classical pieces. One particular track late in the episode begins with a jaunty acoustic strum, is injected with a groovy bass line, and suddenly a flood of synths and strings enter the fray to make for one of the sweetest melodies ever heard in the show’s history. All of this stellar music doesn’t just add to the bright fun factor of the episode, but also provides some gravity to the surprising emotional range on display here.

In the most exciting moments, as members of Class 1-A throw out their ideas for the School Festival, and in the most uplifting and inspiring, like when Kyoka is encouraged to talk about and be proud of her passion for music, the accompanying tracks are always outstanding. In an episode so centered around song and dance, it only makes sense to have the music be as good as it can be, but it really is phenomenal here, and does a lot to elevate the already electric atmosphere of the episode to new heights.

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Beyond the music and the emphasis on jolly festivities, “School Festival” still manages to give us some excellent character-focused moments filled with insight, growth, and introspection, with Eri and Kyoka taking center stage. In the first act Class 1-A are given the good news by a grumpy Aizawa that they’ll be hosting the School Festival; following this comes a machine-gunning of hilarious one-liners and pitch-perfect banter, with Mineta getting satisfyingly strung up as the punchline. But the character focus comes in the form of Kyoka’s relationship with her passion for music which she convinces herself has no place at school or in the hero business. It’s touching and humanizing, made even better by a few choice moments shared between her and Kaminari that prove to be suitably brief but sweetly touching.

Having more face time with Eri is hugely appreciated as well. So much of her character until now has been defined by her relationship with Overhaul, and the impact of that relationship is both seen and felt here. The way in which the show implies her PTSD is affecting and brutal, and yet she has also been rounded out and provided solid dimension that we’re only going to see grow from here.
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East Kent baby deaths: Independent review into NHS trust

A local MP says women are now “terrified” about giving birth at the two Kent hospitals.
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‘The Cloud In Her Room’: Film Review

When disconsolate lovers light up a post-coital cigarette amid tousled bedclothes in a French New Wave film, the source of their angsty ennui is often, in some way or other, l’amour. But if it’s Hangzhou, China, in the late 2010s, as opposed to 1960s Paris, the source of the disaffection, and therefore the poetry, is […]

Variety

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‘Exile’: Film Review

There’s much talk these days of microaggressions: words and gestures of disrespect toward others, particularly those of other social groups, that betray prejudice even when everyday or unintentional. It’s a term that sounds almost scientific, though as a unit of measurement, it’s frustratingly inexact: how many microaggressions add up to plain, violent, not-so-small oppression? How […]

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‘Sonic the Hedgehog’: Film Review

For all the kerfuffle that erupted in the spring of 2019 over the visual design of Sonic the Hedgehog, the blue-furred speed-demon mascot of the Sega video game–turned–live-action kiddie adventure, you wish that the creators of “Sonic the Hedgehog,” who went back and redesigned the character after being pressured (I almost wrote bullied) by his […]

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Sonic the Hedgehog Review

Rife with callbacks to the classic Sega video game series, the family-friendly Sonic the Hedgehog movie is designed to please Sonic fans of all ages. However, if you’ve never really cared for the Blue Blur, you’ll probably want to avoid this flick like one of Dr. Robotnik’s badniks.

The premise that finds this freakishly fast character on Earth rightfully doesn’t take itself too seriously. Forced to flee his homeworld as a child to escape the grasp of the villains who want to use his super-speed abilities for evil, teenage Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) has lived in hiding in the town of Green Hills, Montana, for a decade. While not exactly the Green Hill Zone fans may remember from the original 1991 game, it is a nice homage to the sprawling paradise found in both acts of the first level in the Sega Genesis classic.

Isolated in our world, Sonic has no one to talk to but himself (and us, as he occasionally breaks the fourth wall, Deadpool-style), so Schwartz’s portrayal is unique in that sense than other depictions of the character in games and cartoons. But like the voice actors who came before him, Schwartz is able to invoke that thrill-seeking spirit Sonic is known for. Schwartz’s vocal performance is definitely up there with Sonic OGs like Roger Craig Smith and Ryan Drummond, giving him a similarly energetic and quick-witted personality. There are times where Sonic’s constant banter with himself grows maddening and a bit too cartoonish (perhaps not surprising in a PG-rated film aimed at children and families), but the character evolves once he is forced out of isolation in order to escape the clutches of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) and befriends Tom Wachowski (James Marsden).

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From that point on the plot of Sonic the Hedgehog is as straightforward as the 1991 Genesis game: gotta go fast, make a mad dash to collect the rings, defeat the villainous Dr. Robotnik, then on to the next act. But there’s an additional element to round out the overarching story – it’s a movie about friendship. Tom is a character who’s looking for a little more purpose and meaning in his life, while Sonic is looking for a connection. They both find what they’re looking for in each other while on the run from Robotnik.

Given the dire circumstances Tom finds himself in while on the run with Sonic, it’s charming to see him take a break from the chaotic commotion and foster a relationship with the little blue guy. But as the film progresses, you begin to question why Tom would go to such great lengths for a creature he’s known for less than 24 hours. He’s a bored sheriff in a small town where not much happens, so I guess why not team-up with an anthropomorphic furry speed demon on the run from the government and an evil super-genius? This simple premise may advance the plot, but there just isn’t much more to it than that. Playing the live-action human companion to an animated protagonist could very easily be a thankless role for an actor, but Marsden manages to mine the heartwarming moments with Sonic (as well as with Tom’s wife Maddie, played by Tika Sumpter) even if it’s ultimately not a standout turn in his career.

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While it may be hard to believe anyone could compete with a CGI-rendered Blue Blur, the most animated character throughout the film is Jim Carrey’s Doctor Robotnik. Carrey’s physicality and comedic timing evoke memories of his Ace Ventura and Liar Liar heyday, proving the gifted comedian hasn’t lost his touch. Carrey’s comedic delivery and interactions with other characters are a winning combination within moments of his first appearance. Robotnik is typically the smartest man in the room, and he makes sure everyone is well aware of it and just what he’s capable of doing to their underdeveloped intellect.

The film does suffer from employing too many visual effects we’ve seen used countless times before, often with more creativity. For example, many will remember the scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past where time is rendered in super slow-motion as Quicksilver cleverly shifts things around while running. Sonic does the same exact thing here, but it’s far less inventive or witty; if anything, it is specifically a callback to what you’ve seen before, except, you know, with Sonic. Although it’s hard not to want to love the little guy throughout, Sonic’s personality just isn’t enough to overcome such worn-out ideas.

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Sonic the Hedgehog is more successful when it comes to nailing references to the source material. Director Jeff Fowler does an exceptional job stuffing in as many Easter eggs from the Sonic games as possible, to the point where hardcore Sonic fans may have to watch more than once just to catch them all. The nods to the gameplay mechanics – such as how Sonic loses his rings upon being hit by an enemy or the way he curls up into a ball and dashes to defeat them – land well and with believability here.

If you’re a Sonic fan worried whether this movie can truly encompass the nearly-three decade history of Sonic the Hedgehog, don’t be. While it’s lacking in some of the deeper cuts in Sonic lore, such as trapped animals in aggressive robots, and mystical emeralds, the essentials are all here. And the highly publicized and game-accurate redesign of the title character should keep fans more locked into the story of the fastest thing alive than had they been distracted by his off-putting original look.
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The Flash: Season 6, Episode 11 Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 11. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for Season 6, Episode 10.

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It’s almost Valentine’s Day, which usually means The Flash is taking a break from weightier matters to dabble in romantic drama and more lighthearted hero/villain conflicts. And given that we’re only two episodes removed from Crisis, why not? What’s the harm in a little goofy fun before the show dives headlong into its new Mirror Master storyline? “Love Is a Battlefield” manages to shift the series in a sillier direction without completely losing sight of the threads introduced in the midseason premiere. In the process, it even manages to do something fun with one of the series’ more frustrating villains.

Though “Love Is a Battlefield” builds directly on the terrific cliffhanger ending from last week, it makes a point of not resolving that cliffhanger. If anything, there’s a fun dose of tension to this followup. We don’t know what exactly happened to Iris when she was dragged into Eva McCulloch’s mirror dimension. What does she remember? Is this even the real Iris? Those questions become all the more urgent as Iris begins acting strangely hostile and reckless and pushing Barry away in a time when they should be savoring the holiday and their happy ending from Crisis.

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The tension works because Mirror Iris is never portrayed in such a way as to seem totally out of character. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Iris really is fed up with being the damsel in distress and having Barry’s metahuman woes constantly getting in the way of their relationship. Nor is it a huge leap to believe Iris would take the end of Crisis as an opportunity to reinvent herself and carpe diem her heart out. If anything, this series has established that a gung-ho, aggressive Iris is the way to go.

So with that in mind, it’s almost a disappointment to get confirmation in the closing stinger that the real Iris has been replaced by a mirror version. I wouldn’t necessarily mind if this transformation were a genuine evolution for her. But a lot rests on how the series proceeds with the Mirror Master conflict. We need a better sense of how Iris and her mirror self are linked and what makes these mirror clones different from alternate universe doppelgangers. There’s no point in casting judgment just yet.

This episode also stands out for making unusually solid use of Amunet Black. Katee Sackhoff has always been enjoyable in the role – clearly she’s having a blast hamming it up in each and every scene – but Amunet always tends to be reserved for the most forgettable, throwaway storylines. Granted, this week’s conflict is a very low stakes one. The writers practically have to bend over backwards to justify Barry not bringing Amunet to justice in a split second. But it’s a fun conflict nonetheless, and one that makes excellent use of the romantic tension between Amunet and her equally ostentatious ex-lover, Goldface. And however silly the main story is this week, it does succeed in giving Amunet something resembling depth and humanity.

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Unfortunately, while the main Iris/Amunet conflict this week works as both a fun romp and a prelude of things to come for the Mirror Master conflict, the B-plot falls completely flat. Season 6 has yet to really justify adding Allegra to the mix. Even the reveal that she’s apparently the long-lost daughter of Nash is doing nothing to boost Allegra’s standing. Like I said last week, we’ve already done the “Harrison Wells tries to reconnect with his angsty daughter” shtick, and there’s little appeal in returning to that well now. Why is this plot twist even needed? Those few moments this episode spends in exploring Nash’s lingering guilt over his role in Crisis argue that the character already has all the dramatic fodder he needs without the family angle.

Even ignoring the Nash factor, Allegra’s struggle this week fails to make her a more interesting character. Heck, most of her arc happens off-screen, in between pep talks with Frost. It’s enough to wish Frost herself had been the focal point of this subplot, as she tries to embrace her newly independent existence by trying her luck at love. Maybe next year.
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Olympus E-M1 III review: Fast, but way behind flagship camera rivals

Olympus E-M1 III review: Fast, but way behind flagship camera rivalsAmid the excitement of so many new and interesting camera models, one company has been left out of the discussion: Olympus. Unlike its main rival, Panasonic, it has stuck to the Micro Four Thirds sensor and not jumped on the full-frame bandwagon. And while it released the larger, more professionally oriented E-M1X camera, it didn't represent a major upgrade on the 2016 E-M1 Mark II model.

Now, Olympus finally has a genuine successor. Like the E-M1X, the E-M1 Mark III promises even more speed and top-notch in-body stabilization, this time all packed into a much smaller and even more rugged body.

Disappointingly, though, it has the same 20.4-megapixel sensor as before, and for an $ 1,800 camera, it's lagging behind rivals from Sony, Panasonic and Fujifilm in certain features. On top of that, Olympus has had a tough time financially of late. I'm in Costa Rica with the E-M1 Mark III, and I'm going to find out if Olympus is doing enough to survive.



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Fluance Ai40 Powered Bookshelf Speakers Review

Gamers sometimes benefit from a lucky sort of overlap in the audio business. It turns out that speakers which have traditionally been used by audiophiles as studio monitors or bookshelf speakers are often sized (and priced) right for PCs and gamers as well. Sometimes this is intentional, sometimes it’s not.

In the case of the Fluance Ai40 Powered Bookshelf Speakers, I’m going to guess not; these are primarily designed as powered Bluetooth bookshelf speakers with an auxiliary audio input, and while Fluance won’t drive to your house and prevent you from using them as computer speakers, they seem aimed at music fans looking to step up to higher quality audio without spending a fortune. Even so, the temptation was too great to avoid trying: How well do they perform as PC gaming speakers?

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Fluance Ai40 – Design and Features

The Ai40 sits at the lower end of the two self-powered bookshelf speakers in Fluance’s product line. While big-brother Ai60 packs a 100-watt integrated amp and a 6.5-inch driver, the Ai40 downsizes things a little to come in under the $ 200 price point. Under the hood, you’ll find a 70-watt amp (35 watts for each channel) driving a one-inch silk soft dome tweeter and a five-inch woven glass fiber driver.

The speakers use an acoustic suspension design, housed in completely sealed, port-free cabinets made from medium density fiberboard (MDF). Fiberboard is a bit cheaper than true hardwood, but it’s commonly used in bookshelf speakers. In my experience, you’d be hard-pressed to hear a difference, so it’s a reasonable compromise to make the package more affordable.

Visually, these speakers are stunningly elegant. I’ve become numb to the all-black aesthetic that virtually every audio product seems to have these days. Breaking that mold, the “lucky bamboo” model that Fluance shipped me has a gorgeous bamboo finish on the sides and a white face, nicely contrasting the black cones. My favorite part is that there’s no black fabric grill to interrupt the contrasty front – this may be a matter of personal taste, but I love the bare look of the speakers. If you are dead inside, you can choose from the two other finishes: walnut or black, both of which feature a black front.

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The right speaker is the active one, equipped with the amp and controls. Tucked away in the lower right corner you’ll find just a single detented volume knob, which you push to toggle between the two inputs. A small status light communicates a half-dozen things depending on its color and whether it’s steady or flashing. That sounds like a lot to keep track of, but honestly, it takes all of about 10 minutes to get comfortable with what the speaker is trying to tell you. Blue means it’s in Bluetooth mode; yellow is the auxiliary input. Flashing blue means it’s pairing, while flashing red means it’s muted. There are a few others, but you get the idea. The right speaker also has an infrared sensor for the remote control, positioned in the lower left so it’s symmetric to the volume knob.

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The other cabinet has just a bare face exposing the two cones. Around back, each cabinet has its own pair of gold-plated binding posts for connecting the speakers to each other, while the right speaker also has a power port, auxiliary input, and Bluetooth pairing button.

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Depending upon where you plan to put these speakers into service, they might seem a little large. Measuring 6.5 x 8 x 11-inches, they’ll be right at home on a shelf or beside a television. But they’re conspicuously large on a computer desktop.

Fluance also includes an infrared remote that does it all – power and mute, source switching, status light brightness, and bass and treble control. A 5-position control wheel handles volume, track skip/back, and play/pause (though obviously, the wheel is most useful in Bluetooth mode; only the volume control does anything when the source is set to your PC).

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Fluance Ai40 – Music and Gaming

Audio gear can sometimes be challenging to set up, but the Ai40 is barely harder to configure than a single Bluetooth speaker. The package comes with eight feet of speaker wire that you thread through the binding posts to connect the two speakers. I had zero trouble connecting the speakers to my iPhone for Bluetooth audio, and after playing with that for a while, I connected the auxiliary input to my PC’s audio output using the included Y-cable.

If you don’t plan to connect your phone to the speakers, you may not even need to mess with the audio cable – just connect the speakers to your PC via Bluetooth. Frankly that’s not the worst idea in the world, since I guarantee you that the three-foot audio cable included in the box is not going to be long enough, especially if your PC is on the left side of your desk. I had to substitute a longer cable to get up and running.

But then there’s the buzz. When I first started using the Ai40 while set to the auxiliary input, I heard a whiny buzz that’s loud enough you might wonder how this product ever got through quality assurance (this doesn’t happen in Bluetooth mode or when the speakers are muted). It fades into the background when audio is playing, but it’s annoying when nothing is playing, especially if you’re close to them, such as if you position them on a computer desk.

I quickly realized that the buzz scales with the speaker’s volume dial, and I had the speakers pretty well cranked. The obvious workaround was to ensure the volume in Windows was relatively high so I could minimize the speaker volume, at which point the buzz all but disappeared. That’s a generally good strategy for ensuring good audio quality anyway, but you shouldn’t have to watch your volume level this closely to avoid getting line noise (or whatever was causing the buzz).

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Even so, when I started listening to music, I could very nearly forgive Fluance for that glitch, because these are some mighty fine speakers. I ran them through a handful of my favorite songs and no matter what I threw at them, they were a joy to listen to. The acoustic suspension design clearly eliminates the unpleasant boominess you sometimes get from ported speakers, and even a bass-heavy song like Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love sounded tight, with a well-articulated low end that was punchy but controlled. Likewise, Quest for Fire’s The Greatest Hits by God has a wide aural range, from a throbbing kick drum to delicate strings and vocals, and these speakers did the song proud. This might sound a little crazy, but I didn’t miss a subwoofer at all when running these speakers through their paces.

And the lack of subwoofer certainly didn’t impede gameplay, either. Both Call of Duty: Black Ops and Wolfenstein II were a pleasure. Both delivered precise and visceral sound effects including throaty gunfire, a respectable low end rounding out explosions, and clear and distinct dialog. The same could be said for all the games I played, but I was particularly impressed with the way the Ai40 reproduced soundtracks. I fired up an old favorite – Homeworld Remastered – and found the Ai40 elevated the atmospheric background sounds and heavenly choruses.

As I mentioned earlier, the remote control has bass and treble controls, which I experimented with extensively in games and music. Both feature a range of ten positions – five above neutral and five below. I found that games like Wolfenstein and Call of Duty benefitted from pushing the bass close to the max, but more than even a single notch of bass made music a little too boomy for my tastes. Unfortunately, this is where you run into the Ai40’s biggest usability issue: There’s no way to know where you are in that audio EQ space except by cranking the bass or treble all the way up or down (at which point the status light on the right speaker flashes at you), and then counting your clicks back to the middle or wherever you want to be.

Purchasing Guide

Fluance Ai40 powered bookshelf speakers are available for $ 199 on Amazon or direct from Fluance.
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Review: ‘Parasite’s’ Surprise Wins Saved an Otherwise Frantic Oscars Ceremony

The 92nd annual Academy Awards quickly lost its own plot amid a million distractions courtesy of ABC’s frenetic, often baffling production decisions. But then, through the sheer pleasure of the groundbreaking winners of “Parasite” breaking through the expected narrative to triumph, the show became something far more beautifully chaotic than the show’s producers could have […]

Variety

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My Hero Academia: Season 4, Episode 17 Review

This review contains spoilers for My Hero Academia Season 4, episode 17, “Relief for License Trainees,” aka episode 80 overall. To refresh your memory of where we left off, check out our review of MHA Season 4, episode 16.

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“Relief for License Trainees” begins with the explanation of a fascinating concept: the quirk singularity doomsday theory. Seiji Shishikura explains that quirks are mixing more and more as the generations pass, and that each generation is producing stronger and more uncontrollable quirks. Right off the bat, this is a deeply intriguing idea that shows just how invested My Hero Academia is in its own world, with one eye on the future. Horikoshi has created this superhero-filled world and now we have to wonder where their society is heading. Opening the episode with an engaging idea like this is really enthralling.

The rest of the episode’s first half is a little more awkward, however. At the end of Episode 16, our heroes-in-training were faced with the challenge of handling a group of renegade kids with impressive quirks. In Episode 17, this is handled fairly effortlessly with an excessively ham-fisted moral being demonstrated and spelled out for us. It’s a moral worth considering, and one that definitely reflects the necessary rounding out of our young heroes, but it’s also something that has been implied already, and something that feels like it is coming far too loudly and far too late in the series.

There’s also the broader narrative issue that the ringleader of this group of misfit children is far too quickly subdued by a Bakugo who quickly passes on what he has learned. In Episode 16, this scheming child showed some real intrigue, but is very quickly calmed because Bakugo reached out to him earnestly enough to immediately change the boy’s entire perspective. It’s rushed. But, then again, given how the previous episode had such issues with its pacing and tone, perhaps this is a good thing.

The outcome of all of this is still, ultimately, a worthwhile and satisfying one: a softening of both Endeavour and Bakugo; two hot-headed characters learning the value of considering and understanding perspective. In a touching scene between Endeavour and Todoroki, it feels like all of this awkward ham-fisting of the episode’s themes and morals was very much worth it in the end.

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As for the episode’s second half, it quickly catches us up with the rest of Class 1-A, as well as Eri, with a slideshow of stills narrated by Deku. It’s simple, but serviceable. From there, the focus is on the relationship between Midoriya and Aoyama; a relationship which, as Deku himself points out, has not existed until this point.

Honestly, the way that the episode tells and frames their story is so hilarious and endearing that it almost completely washes away the awkwardness that plagued the episode’s first half. This portion of the episode is so perfectly paced, and written with such care and well-timed comedy, that it boasts the quality and entertainment value of an entire episode.

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Aoyama has been an intriguing and consistently hilarious character from day one, and it’s great to see him get a little of the spotlight here. Until now, he’s been on par with Mineta as Class 1-A’s comic relief. But while Mineta is completely insufferable and enraging, Aoyama is intensely endearing, and this episode shows us exactly why while also building on his character in a very satisfying way.

It’s also a joy to see Class 1-A return to the swing of studying and bantering together. One of the show’s best aspects is its character interactions; every member of Class 1-A is uniquely crafted as a fully formed character, and when we see them laughing together and butting heads, the show is at its most charming. We get to see that here for the first time in a while, and it paints the sweetest picture as a backdrop for the building of Midoriya and Aoyama’s relationship.

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Briarpatch Series Premiere Review

Warning: Spoilers for the Briarpatch premiere follow…

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Sometimes too stylized for its own good, as if Wes Anderson adapted a John Ridley novel, Briarpatch is a slice of naughty noir that might satiate your mystery cravings this winter (though it’s set in scorching temperatures) if shows like The Sinner or The Outsider are too grim and gruesome for your tastes.

Adapted from a 1984 Ross Thomas novel by podcaster/critic Andy Greenwald, and executive produced by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail, Briarpatch is awesomely anchored by Rosario Dawson, who plays a D.C. investigator called back to her quirky, quicksand hometown of San Bonifacio, Texas (nicknamed “Saint Disgrace”) after the sudden, and explosive, murder of her sister.

As Allegra “Pick” Dill, Dawson makes for a cool and confident audience surrogate as she’s called back home for the first time in nine years to find out who put a bomb in her cop sister Felicity’s car. The labeling of “anthology series” means that Briarpatch all but promises to wrap things up by the tenth and final episode, but it’s less clear about what the show will be heading into succeeding seasons. Does it keep Dawson’s Dill around for another mystery or is the small town odd-itorium vibe the true star of the series?

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All the hallmarks of a fun and fundamental murder mystery are on hand – from a past tragedy very few people talk about to an estranged sibling who kept a ton of secrets to an assortment of colorful-yet-shifty characters at our disposal. There’s Edi Gathegi’s chatty lawyer A.D. Singe, Jay R. Ferguson’s “big man in the mansion” Jake Spivey, and Brian Geraghty as Felicity’s married love interest, to name a few silly members of the citizenry.

Ostensible allies might be enemies, and vice versa. There are even two seemingly separate cases going on here, what with Allegra also being tapped by a senator to investigate a bunch of missing war money. If things click the way they usually do in this BBQ-slathered noir, both threads will connect somehow.

The marquee star of the show however, aside from Dawson, is the ambiance. Briarpatch notably touts Sam Esmail’s involvement because Briarpatch, like Mr. Robot, presents us with off-kilter visuals and audibles. Often times feeling like a graphic novel come to life, it does run the risk of drowning in its own delirium. As this premiere episode moves forward, the tone smoothes out some, but right out of the gate you’re hit with a lot.

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Nothing feels quite real and because of that you’re less invested overall. As Allegra enters her town, it’s ferociously hot, random animals are on the loose, and her hotel is somehow incapable of clearing up a room service tray left out in the hall (to get symbolically blanketed in ants over days). It’s like she walked onto the set of a Coen Bros. film and not a grounded, true place.

Fortunately, Dawson’s Dill isn’t phased easily and her tendency to cut through small talk and pleasantries helps us navigate the dreamscape. Her non-reactivity is what makes the craziness around her work because if it’s somehow all normal to her, it can be more readily accepted by us.
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The Flash: Midseason Premiere Review

Warning: this review contains full spoilers for The Flash: Season 6, Episode 10. If you need a refresher on where we left off, here’s our review for the midseason finale and our full review of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

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It’s funny to think how little we knew about the future direction of The Flash coming into the second half of Season 6. Crisis on Infinite Earths had been casting a huge shadow over the series, to the point where we didn’t even know if Barry Allen would still be alive come January. And even once it became clear Grant Gustin’s Barry wasn’t the one sacrificing his life to save the multiverse, there was still the question of what conflicts and villains would drive the series post-Crisis. Thanks to “Marathon,” we now have a much clearer sense of how the series will move forward from the crossover. This episode deftly balances the need to reflect the events of Crisis while also building a clear path forward.

Surprisingly, the tone of “Marathon” isn’t as lighthearted as you might expect now that Barry has just been given a second lease on life. Apart from that early CC Jitters scene, this episode is a fairly glum exploration of how the various members of Team Flash are moving forward from Crisis. This does feel like an appropriate choice, however. With multiple heroes having sacrificed everything to save the multiverse, a lighthearted, feel-good midseason premiere would probably ring hollow. This goes back to one of the main strengths of Season 6 – it’s better at tone management and knowing when to be funny and when to let the drama carry the day.

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“Marathon” is also notable for featuring Arrow’s David Ramsey in his first guest role since that show wrapped. I’m sure we were all hoping this episode would follow up on Arrow’s big cliffhanger, but the script is very careful to place this episode’s events before the Diggle family’s departure from Star City. Instead, Dig plays a more understated but still important role, helping Barry come to terms with Ollie’s death. I appreciate how this storyline subverts expectations by revealing there’s no actual mystery at all and Ollie’s final gift is truly just that – a gift to commemorate a friendship that helped establish the Arrowverse as we know it today. Plus, it never gets old watching Dig deal with Speed Force-induced motion sickness.

In another surprise, welcome twist, Iris is turning out to be the driving force of the show’s post-Crisis status quo. Her ongoing investigation and partnership with Esperanza has never really been one of the more compelling pieces of the Season 6 equation, but this episode goes a long way toward changing that. While a bit plodding at first, there’s a growing sense of danger and unease as Iris digs deeper into the mystery of McCulloch Technologies and invites both physical and legal disaster. That culminates in a very satisfying stinger scene that makes the identity of the series’ latest big villain abundantly clear.

Along the way, we also get a surprisingly different take on Doctor Light, one that doesn’t seem particularly beholden to any prior comic book incarnation. While it’s a little strange seeing Kimiyo Hoshi depicted as a ruthless assassin when she’s always been the heroic counterpoint to the fiendish Arthur Light, she does make for a fun secondary antagonist in this episode. And with the Arthur Light version having recently appeared in Titans, it stands to reason The Flash may have been limited to using Kimiyo.

The promise of an ongoing Team Flash vs. Mirror Master storyline is extremely appealing. For all that this series has done to refine the Arrowverse formula and showcase speedster villains like Reverse-Flash and Zoom, it’s never really taken advantage of the full scope of Flash’s rogues gallery. Specifically, the Flash Rogues have always felt like an afterthought. Captain Cold and Heat Wave barely spent any time as villains at all before reforming and shifting over to DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. The rest have been used as minor, forgettable footnotes.

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Even Mirror Master suffered that fate back in Season 3, with the Sam Scudder version of the character being used as a one-and-done threat to Central City. Mirror Master deserves better, and it seems that he’s finally getting better. The twist being that the classic Evan McCulloch version is being transformed into Eva McCulloch, a billionaire inventor who now exists as some sort of warped, journalist-snatching mirror demon. And as with the previous Bloodwork arc, the hope is that the the condensed nature of this storyline will prevent too much fluff and filler from gumming up the works.

Barry and Dig’s quest aside, the lingering effects of Crisis are most clearly felt in Cisco’s emotional journey. “Marathon” is great about exploring both the humor and the tension that arise in trying to come to terms with a new world built on the ashes of multiple worlds. Having Supergirl and Black Lightning as permanent neighbors is great, but what about all the new and resurrected villains that have appeared alongside them? That’s to say nothing over Cisco’s guilt and regret over taking the metahuman cure. That’s the tricky thing about the old great power and great responsibility mantra. Do superheroes get the luxury of a happy, peaceful retirement? Can they even appreciate that retirement when it comes? These are interesting questions to explore, particularly in light of how Smallville’s Clark Kent was portrayed in Crisis.

Carlos Valdes delivers what is easily the episode’s strongest performance, especially late in the game where his guilt begins to overwhelm him. It’s a welcome reminder that Cisco is far more than just the obligatory snarky tech whiz, but a character who’s grown and evolved and suffered every bit as much as Barry himself over the course of six years.

I do wish “Marathon” gave us a better sense of what Cisco’s Arrowverse future entails. There were rumors last year that Valdes was leaving the series after Season 5’s finale. Clearly that rumor didn’t pan out, but maybe there was a kernel of truth to it? It’s hard to tell if Cisco’s absence is temporary as the series builds toward a new status quo for the character, or if Cisco is being phased out so Valdes can pursue other projects. It would be a shame if Cisco exits the picture just as the series is finally finding its footing again.

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One thing is clear – Nash Wells is now being positioned as Cisco’s temporary replacement on Team Flash. Having a Wells as a more permanent presence on the series is always a nice thing, particularly one who isn’t as aggressively annoying as Season 5’s Sherloque. While this episode highlights the fact that his adventurous swagger is a mask for his loneliness and guilt over his role in Crisis, there are some concerns regarding Nash’s current characterization.

For one thing, it’s a little bizarre seeing him revert to his old Nash persona so soon after his turn as Pariah. I’m not clear on how much time was supposed to have passed between Nash’s disappearance and his return as Pariah, but he definitely had the air of a man haunted by countless years of watching his failure play out in front of him. Neither the writing nor Tom Cavanagh’s performance reflect the full weight of that experience. If anything, Nash seems more bothered by his daughter’s estrangement than his role in the death of the old multiverse.

On that note, do we really need another running subplot about Harrison Wells trying to reconnect with his daughter? It’s a redundant plot twist, and seemingly unnecessary given how much drama this character already has to process. The hope is that Nash can better find his place in the team Flash dynamic in this second half of Season 6, but there are reasons for concern right now.
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‘Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story’: Film Review

For many the 1990s were the Age of Irony, with hipster cultural touchstones like Spy magazine and the TV show “Strangers With Candy” helping make snark the preferred flavor of the day. “The Simpsons” was also a big player in that area, yet arguably no cartoon series before had been quite so postmodern as “The […]

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‘Be Water’: Film Review

Some movie stars level a kind of divinity that transcends personal preference — woe betide the dissenter who openly finds Audrey Hepburn cloying, or Cary Grant less than charming. That Bruce Lee had long ascended to that level of iron-clad cool was underlined by the biggest popular quibble with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” […]

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HBO’s The Outsider Series Premiere Review

This is semi-spoilery review for the double episode premiere of HBO’s The Outsider, premiering Sunday, January 12.

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Even though True Detective rebounded with its third season (though not enough to be granted re-entry into the zeitgeist), nothing will ever match the thrill of Season 1’s mid-mystery foray into possible supernatural/Lovecraftian elements. Granted, some viewers were let down by the Season 1 finale because it didn’t go full-tilt with Carcosa and the Yellow King and all that, instead playing out in a somewhat pedestrian manner, but there’s no indication that diving headfirst into cosmic Old God waters would have given us a satisfying wrap up either.

The Outsider, based on Stephen King’s 2018 novel, is here to recapture some of that first run True Detective magic with a slow-burn Southern murder case that’s guaranteed to delve into the bats*** beyond. It’s literally going to have a bogeyman in it. It’s a guarantee. Again though, we still don’t know if these genres can successfully blend, but The Outsider’s premiere nicely kicks things off by filling its gills with all the other hallmarks that made True Detective work, like top-notch performances and artistically moody small town staleness.

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Jason Bateman produces, stars, and directs the first two episodes, after having just won an Emmy for directing an episode of his Netflix series Ozark, and brings a soulful heft to the story. No, he doesn’t have the visual flair of Cary J. Fukunaga, who was able to make such a huge impression with True Detective, but he’s got the right idea when it comes to presenting a reality capable of cradling a nightmarish tale – one that takes its time folding the “things that go bump” into the proceedings. He’s also spot on when it comes to his own performance and the work from the other leads, presenting an assortment of characters trying to come to grips with a confounding series of events.

Bateman plays a respected teacher and little league coach, Terry Maitland, who’s arrested, quite publicly, for the murder and mutilation of a young boy. It’s such a spectacle, in fact, fueled by local Detective Ralph Anderson’s own haunted past, that there’s no way that, convicted or not, this doesn’t ruin Terry’s life forever and permanently place an unwashable stain on his wife and kids. Ben Mendelsohn’s Anderson gets to wrestle with, and regret, this choice over the course of these first two episodes as conflicting evidence begins to surface. And it’s a great place to anchor these opening chapters, since it gives Anderson a reason to push forward and try to solve a case that can’t be explained with reason or rational thought.

Fingerprints and eyewitnesses (including security footage) seal Terry’s fate as the killer, though the cops adeptly notice that Terry’s actions feel like a man who wants to easily get caught. Terry’s actual alibi, which places him out of town with several witnesses, directly destroys the D.A.’s case and no one can make heads or tails of it. Having not read the book, and bearing in mind that numerous things have likely been tweaked for TV, I can only surmise that we’re dealing with a type of doppelgänger that frames other people for the murders it must commit to feed (probably).

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Whether this turns out to be the case or not, The Outsider is going to definitely lead us down a ghoulish road, but this double-sized premiere definitely stacks the deck in favor of characterization and the human side of this crucible. Mendelsohn has always been at home with broken, “grey area” characters, so much so that this knack landed him a few blockbuster movie roles as sneering villains, so it’s great to see him play a more straightforward “decent” type – a cop who lost his son now trying to undo some of the damage he was tricked into causing. The case is such a nightmare that the story doesn’t need an anti-hero. It needs an earnest investigator who doesn’t know he’s about to get lost in the shadows.

Cynthia Erivo’s lead character, P.I. Holly Gibney (a recurring King character who also appears in the author’s Mr. Mercedes books), doesn’t find her way into the story during these two episodes, giving Bateman’s “Fish in a Barrel” and “Roanoke” a very purposeful set-up feel. This is the tragic Terry-centric inciting incident that starts Mendelsohn’s Anderson down a paranormal path, towards an endgame that anyone’s guess. At this point, he’s in it to help clear Terry’s name, but it feels very unlikely he’ll ever get to do that publicly given the way this apparent creature operates. So then what is justice on a show like The Outsider? We’ll have to find out. It’s off to a strong start, though.
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County lines: Call to review ‘criminal abuse’ of pay-as-you-go phones

The government is urged to consider restrictions on pay-as-you-go phones to prevent drug dealers using them.
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Bafta film awards 2020: ‘Detailed review’ of voting process after diversity row

The review will hear views “within and outside the membership” about its current voting system.
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BAFTA to review voting process after diversity backlash

BAFTA is reviewing its voting process after a flood of criticism over the lack of diversity in its nominations.
Entertainment News – Latest Celebrity & Showbiz News | Sky News

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AO Tennis 2 Review

2018’s AO Tennis may have been a limp first swing that pinged off the frame and dropped well short of the net, but its second attempt at landing in the service box has been delivered with substantially more power and precision. It’s a better-looking, smoother-playing, and more fully-featured simulation of the sport, one that eradicates the bulk – though not the entirety – of the unforced errors made by its undercooked predecessor. There hasn’t been a transformation this radical in the tennis world since Andre Agassi took off his wig.

Many of these improvements have admittedly come over time; regular post-release patching from developer Big Ant transformed the original AO Tennis from broken mess at launch to a more competent sim some 12 months later, tightening the responsiveness of the controls and adding additional community-focussed features such as a powerful stadium designer. AO Tennis 2 builds upon that restructured foundation, smoothing the on-court experience further with a raft of new player animations and improved ball physics, along with bringing a welcome splash of personality and context to its career mode, a la FIFA’s The Journey.

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‘Underwater’: Film Review

Before technology took over the movies, a cruddy sci-fi action thriller often looked just as bad as it played. No longer. “Underwater,” a deep-sea knockoff of “Alien” set on a corporate research rig seven miles beneath the surface of the ocean, has been made with the kind of lavish atmospheric precision that, 30 years ago, […]

Variety

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Underwater Review

Kristen Stewart has long ago shed the role that made her: the quiet, awkward Bella Thorne in the Twilight franchise. 2019 saw Stewart take on the very fun (but commercial failure) Charlie’s Angels and this year she continues her journey to fully-fledged action star with the uneven but still impressive deep-sea thriller Underwater.

Directed by William Eubank from a script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, Underwater follows the crew of a subterranean laboratory located seven miles beneath sea level as they fight for survival in the face of a terrifying threat. So far, so Alien, and honestly Underwater is at its best when it’s wearing its influences on its sleeve. But a lack of convictions — and belief in the audience — often makes the film feel weaker than the excellent and ambitious sci-fi that’s come before.

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His Dark Materials: Season 1 Review

This review contains mild spoilers for His Dark Materials: Season 1, which has now aired in its entirety on HBO in the US and BBC One in the UK.

The BBC and HBO co-production of His Dark Materials got off to a strong start this fall, with an opening hour that set an epic tone and impressive visual standard for what was to follow. But the thematically-bare 2007 adaptation had those things going for it as well; the real question this new adaptation faced was whether the showrunners would finally bring the story to life with the same sense of danger, maturity, and grandiosity provided by Philip Pullman’s prose. In that respect, with some storytelling stumbles and concessions made so the story could thrive on a TV budget, the first season of His Dark Materials is largely a success.

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Concert Review: On Holiday From Queen, Adam Lambert Is Still a Killer

Ten years have passed since Adam Lambert received the only standing ovation from Simon Cowell during his entire run judging “American Idol.” Saturday night at the El Rey Theatre, Lambert got what amounted to one long SRO ovation, doing an underplay at the 700-capacity venue as one of just four gigs he did this month […]

Variety

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‘Ip Man 4: The Finale’: Film Review

Flat-footed storytelling meets fleet-footed choreography and sumptuous production values in the untaxingly fun “Ip Man 4: The Finale,” the last installment of director Wilson Yip and producer-star Donnie Yen’s glossy mythmaking tetralogy about the famous Wing Chun master. The insistent subtitle is there for a reason: everyone, Yen included, thought that “Ip Man 3” would […]

Variety

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‘The Hottest August’: Film Review

These days, when someone sets out to make a documentary, they typically have a pretty clear idea of what they’re expecting to find. Not Brett Story, who approaches “The Hottest August” like some kind of anthropologist from the future, interviewing New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds, as if any one of them might hold […]

Variety

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The Witcher: Season 1, Episode 4 – Review

This review contains full spoilers for The Witcher Season 1, episode 4, titled “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials”. For a refresher, check out our review of episode 3, “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials”.

We’ve reached the halfway mark of Netflix’s The Witcher, and episode 4 marks somewhat of a watershed moment for the show. The ties that bind Geralt and Ciri have finally been revealed, putting at least one of the show’s mysteries (partially) to bed. But the episode also feels as if it slams on the brakes, allowing for time to fill in the cracks of mysteries laid in previous stories. This creates what feels like a chapter designed to iron out creases rather that move the journey forward.

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The Witcher: Season 1, Episode 3 – ‘Betrayer Moon’ Review

This review contains full spoilers for The Witcher Season 1, episode 3, titled “Betrayer Moon”. For a refresher, check out our review of episode 2, “Four Marks”.

From the get-go, The Witcher has been content to focus on its leading characters and their smaller stories, leaving any sense of a grand plot simmering in the background. Episode 3, “Betrayer Moon,” continues that trend, once again opting to delve deeper into Yennefer’s origins and adapt yet another short story for Geralt’s quest-of-the-episode. That means we’ve now had a trio of tales dedicated to plot establishment, rather than development. But while it’s hard not to feel a little impatient about the season’s pace, “Betrayer Moon” does provide a consistent third chapter to Netflix’s fantasy series.

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The Witcher: Season 1, Episode 1 – ‘The End’s Beginning’ Review

This review contains full spoilers for The Witcher Season 1, episode 1, titled “The End’s Beginning”. 

Anyone who has read Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski’s plethora of novels, or played through the gargantuan trilogy of CD Projekt Red video games, will know that the world of The Witcher is a sprawling, knotty landscape. It’s a place of conflicting kingdoms, tragic families, and murky politics. To describe the saga’s plot to a newcomer without getting caught up in its many overlapping strands is a difficult task. Smartly circumnavigating this issue, Netflix’s The Witcher show starts small, and exactly where it needs to: with Geralt.

While the first episode of The Witcher – “The End’s Beginning” – has one eye on the larger picture, it is predominantly a small-scale introduction to Henry Cavill’s slayer of beasts, Geralt of Rivia. Stripping the story back to essentials is a sensible choice, and by the episode’s conclusion we have a pretty solid understanding of who he is, what drives him, and where he stands in the greater narrative. His destiny to meet Ciri helps anchor him in the episode’s ‘B plot’, and it’s clear where the character needs to go both in narrative and personal development.

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The Witcher: Season 1, Episode 1 – ‘The End’s Beginning’ Review

This review contains full spoilers for The Witcher Season 1, episode 1, titled “The End’s Beginning”. 

Anyone who has read Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski’s plethora of novels, or played through the gargantuan trilogy of CD Projekt Red video games, will know that the world of The Witcher is a sprawling, knotty landscape. It’s a place of conflicting kingdoms, tragic families, and murky politics. To describe the saga’s plot to a newcomer without getting caught up in its many overlapping strands is a difficult task. Smartly circumnavigating this issue, Netflix’s The Witcher show starts small, and exactly where it needs to: with Geralt.

While the first episode of The Witcher – “The End’s Beginning” – has one eye on the larger picture, it is predominantly a small-scale introduction to Henry Cavill’s slayer of beasts, Geralt of Rivia. Stripping the story back to essentials is a sensible choice, and by the episode’s conclusion we have a pretty solid understanding of who he is, what drives him, and where he stands in the greater narrative. His destiny to meet Ciri helps anchor him in the episode’s ‘B plot’, and it’s clear where the character needs to go both in narrative and personal development.

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‘The Witcher’ on Netflix: TV Review

Into the absence left by “Game of Thrones” strides “The Witcher,” perhaps the most credible of several recent attempts to capture its predecessor’s robust claim on audience affections. Like “Thrones,” “The Witcher” is based on an existing series of novels (by Andrzej Sapkowski, whose work has also been adapted into a video-game universe); “The Witcher” […]

Variety

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Cats Review

Ah, 2019, a year of cinematic innovation: The leap forward in motion-capture technology in Alita: Battle Angel. The nature documentary quality of The Lion King’s animation. The de-aging of Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino in The Irishman. And, just in time for Christmas, the cat’s finally out of the bag on the nightmare-inducing digital fur technology of director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats, which grants cat-like versions of Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift the freedom to do big dance numbers without the burden of feline prosthetics. Only, with CGI covering their entire bodies, not to mention Hooper’s inexplicable need for green screen environments, all that dancing feels terribly inhuman.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Review

While we aim to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, we understand that the definition of such and sensitivities vary. We take pains to avoid references to any specific story events, but we do discuss themes and differences between the direction of this movie and previous Star Wars films.

There’s no way to end the Skywalker Saga and make all the fans happy – and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker certainly isn’t going to make all the fans happy. Those who loved The Last Jedi will surely be peeved by the jettisoning of what that divisive eighth installment introduced, while those irked by The Force Awakens’ nostalgia-bait will likely be irritated by Episode IX’s recycling of familiar beats and plentiful fan service. The Rise of Skywalker labors incredibly hard to check all the boxes and fulfill its narrative obligations to the preceding entries, so much so that you can practically hear the gears of the creative machinery groaning under the strain like the Millennium Falcon trying to make the jump to hyperspace. It ultimately makes the film a clunky and convoluted conclusion to this beloved saga, entertaining and endearing as it may be.

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‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’: Film Review

In “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” there’s a lightsaber duel that’s pretty fantastic — not because of any unprecedented whirling-action whoa! factor (we have, after all, been through one or two of these my-sword-of-electric-fire-is-mightier-than-your-sword-of-electric-fire duels in our “Star Wars” lifetimes), but because of the emotions it channels. Visually, it’s a splendid fight. Rey (Daisy […]

Variety

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‘You’ Season 2 on Netflix: TV Review

In its first season, “You” was more interesting as state-of-the-industry case-study than as television. A semi-satirical stalker drama whose ability to compel coexisted with certain deep flaws, “You” failed to catch on as a Lifetime series and seemed destined for a short life — up until it was, in its second run on Netflix, a […]

Variety

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