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Movie Reviews

Saltburn

Directed by Emerald Fennell, 2023

Out of the frying pan and into the fire—what worked for writer-director Emerald Fennell in her 2020 debut Promising Young Woman is back with blistering fury in 2023’s Saltburn, a romantic drama/psychological thriller that left social media aghast once its scenes of raw romance and magnificent mind games made their way onto Amazon Prime Video late last December; however, is the film worth its salt or is Salt-BURN best left on nothing but a mild simmer?

 

Barry Keoghan stars as the film’s lead, Oliver Quick, a fresh face in the halls of Oxford University who finds himself rather out of his element until he comes across the school’s most eye-catching playboy, Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi of Euphoria and The Kissing Booth film trilogy fame.) After a death in the family leaves Oliver without a shoulder to lean on, Felix takes pity on his schoolmate and invites him to stay at his family’s luxurious mansion (the titular Saltburn) to help take his mind off of things. While there, the eccentricities shared between Felix and his family seem to serve as Heaven on Earth for Oliver, but it seems Ollie has much more on his mind than just living in paradise. There’s more to everyone than meets the eye, however, so whether Oliver will come out on top lies only in the conflicting secrets of Castle Saltburn.

           

While Promising Young Woman excelled in focusing its energy towards the central theme of a woman scorned inflicting her rage upon the world of men, Saltburn revels in the mental whiplash that it’s able to instill upon its viewers throughout the two-hour runtime, contrasting romance with perverseness, beauty with disgust, dry British wit with scenes that might not be the best to show to your parents, etc. With Keoghan and Elordi’s surprising chemistry comes one hell of a supporting cast (Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, and Alison Oliver, just to name a few) to back them up, bathing the film in a sense of mystery and uncertainty that keeps its viewers on their toes until the final shocking twist arrives minutes before the end. Add to that Fennell’s skill for writing that trademark blunt British comedy and the masterful cinematography of La La Land’s own Linus Sandgren behind the camera, and Saltburn is left delectably sweet between scenes of actual action, leaving the film impossible to put down once you’ve started which, in the time of shortened attention spans clashing with incredibly long cinematic runtimes, is no small feat.

           

That said, the movie isn’t without its faults; aside from wearing its cinematic influences rather heavily on its sleeve (A Clockwork Orange and 1999’s Cruel Intentions, just to name a couple), the contrast mentioned earlier makes the sudden twists and turns feel a bit blunt at times, as though a character changing motivations on a dime simply came from the flick of a switch or a need to progress the plot forward, as opposed to steadily weaving in that transition throughout the scenes before. That and, while I do enjoy the ending twist quite a bit, it feels a bit anticlimactic, seeing as how the chain of events building up to make that big reveal wasn’t impossible for the audience to decipher. On the other hand, I admit that having a somewhat obvious twist certainly ups the engagement factor, being right up to speed with the movie the moment it finally clues you in on what you might’ve been theorizing the entire time.

           

So despite the occasional misfire, Saltburn was still an absolute thrill ride from start to finish, filled with complex characters and moral themes of obsession and the danger that comes with it that left me guessing as to how it would go from the moment I picked it up to the moment the neo-disco vibes of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” began gleefully playing out the movie. If you’ve got Amazon Prime, Saltburn is free to watch on its streaming platform, so be sure to check it out if you’ve got the time! I rate it a 7.5/10.

 

-Noah Castellanos

CSU Stanislaus

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The Boy and the Heron

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2023

My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Princess Mononoke (1997). Spirited Away (2001). These are just a few of the classic animated films director Hayao Miyazaki created that propelled Japanese animation into the forefront of the Western world. Miyazaki’s latest film, The Boy and the Heron, is by no means an exception. Nominated as a Best Animated Feature Film, The Boy and the Heron takes all the best parts of a Studio Ghibli film—spunky characters, whimsical settings, meandering plotlines, and profound meanings—and pushes the minds of its audience even further, asking us to expand our view of what a film should do. While some may argue that the film is too abstract or ambitious in its methods, The Boy and the Heron nevertheless tells a beautiful story about the strange process of grief and the many ways it can unfurl—a touching message that, in a way, mirrors Miyazaki’s own life and his journey with Studio Ghibli.

The film begins with Mahito, a young boy who abruptly loses his mother in a hospital fire. Right at the start, the film breaks expectations: the animation style suddenly becomes blurred, as if muted bodies are dripping into each other while Mahito must barrel through. Interestingly enough, this scene may also reference Miyazaki’s own life, as traces of World War II riddle much of his early life. Also, like Mahito, Miyazaki’s mother was hospitalized when he was young; however, unlike Mahito, Miyazaki’s mother doesn’t die until a bit later in his life. Nevertheless, one can make many parallels between the director and the main characters, not just Mahito. While real-life parallels found in Ghibli films may not be totally unique to The Boy and the Heron in particular, this film most pointedly discusses the grief associated with being an artist, or perhaps a director, and the creative process.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and unnerving components of this coming-of-age story is the array of characters that challenge Mahito as he embarks on his journey to retrieve Natsuko, his new mother. Once Mahito enters Natsuko’s estate, a gray heron haunts and antagonizes him, slowly becoming more and more humanoid as he lures Mahito into the estate’s strange tower. Who once posed as a threat becomes Mahito’s companion and even rescuer when the heron retrieves Mahito and his mother from the tower’s delivery room. Some theorize that the heron also symbolizes Miyazaki; as the 83-year-old director nears the end of his life, with his son Goro Miyazaki ultimately failing in his feature Earwig and the Witch (2020), it can be said Miyazaki feels a sense of anxiety about leaving the company as well as the state of animation as a whole. What will the world of animation look like without him? These worries and concerns follow Miyazaki like the heron follows Mahito, taunting him with fantastical, impossible promises (like the illusion the heron creates of Mahito’s mother still being alive).

Similarly, the tower’s wizard, Mahito’s great-granduncle, can also act as a Miyazaki stand-in. His role as the aging old wizard who must pass down his legacy directly parallels Miyazaki’s current position as director of Studio Ghibli; Mahito’s refusal to take on that successor role may signal a “letting go” that coincides with his grieving process with his mother. Mahito must learn to let his mother go and embrace his new life with Natsuko as his mother. Likewise, Miyazaki must come to terms with eventually leaving the world of animation despite his incredible achievements in the industry. While addressing so many complicated topics, the film leaves its main question unanswered for its viewers: how will this industry proceed? Will directors honor the legacy that Miyazaki has left behind? Will they be willing to take artistic risks that a Western audience may or may not immediately understand? These are the questions that audience members are left wondering about, and only time will answer them.

As a film, The Boy and the Heron does what any piece of profound art should do to a viewer: it challenges them, leaves them intrigued—perhaps a bit frustrated—and overall inspires them to experience life more fully, paying attention to small details and creating stories we want to share with the world. Whether Miyazaki meant for this “last” film of his to be a deeply autobiographical one or not, the main message of the film still stands. Like the film’s title in Japan, Miyazaki asks us, “How do we live?” In terms of how to answer him, it is up to us, like Mahito, to decide if we will pursue what truly matters to us.

-Andrea Wagner

CSU Stanislaus 

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Einstein and the Bomb

Directed by Anthony Philipson, 2024

To everyone’s surprise, Barbenheimer conquered theaters this last summer. For many of us who took part, we can still recall its salty-sweet aftertaste as a rare moment of unity in a divisive world. “I am become death” and “I’m just Ken” meshed unexpectedly well. The odd character out was Einstein, who, at least in my theater experience, provoked unintended laughter during his limited screentime in Oppenheimer (2023). To give him his due, a joint effort between Netflix and the BBC resulted in Einstein and the Bomb (2024), a hybrid docudrama of questionable quality.

In a media landscape dominated by algorithmic predictions and approximations, such an endeavor as Einstein and the Bomb inevitably invites accusations of unoriginal bandwagoning. In other words, every streaming service wants to have results for those who search for “Oppenheimer.” In its indecisiveness, Einstein and the Bomb is more of an ersatz good than a worthy companion piece, a plastic stopgap whose color has flaked off to reveal an unappetizingly dull gray.

At the start of the film, explanatory text crawls across the screen, promising that all the words Einstein speaks are verbatim his own; this feels like an attempt to assuage skeptical viewers who have seen “based on a true story” abused one too many times, but we hear an annoyingly clichéd click of typewriter buttons underneath it. Sophomoric sound design, editing, and pacing immediately undercut the possibility of finally seeing an “accurate” documentary (whatever that means). Rather than establishing the historical background—or even Einstein’s personal background—the film indecisively shifts back and forth from archival footage to colorized re-enactments. Each jump feels disorienting, as does the chronological meandering. Though the filmmakers might have been punning off of Einstein’s theories about the relativity of time, we are left with no stable point of reference to make sense of this web of events. Though Einstein is ostensibly the documentary’s focus, each new scene shows a new year on the screen, and many of these scenes don’t involve the title character. Topics including general relativity, Nazism, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, the Manhattan Project, the Cold War, and McCarthyism all parade through the documentary. Each of these topics could easily demand its own documentary (or documentary series), and as a result, this one touches too lightly on all of them.

Einstein only interacts with most of these topics through voiceovers by Aidan McArdle, who plays Einstein in the live-action sequence. Because of the strict adherence to verbal accuracy, these sequences lose much of their realism. Whenever McArdle speaks, it becomes obvious he’s reciting quotes from letters, not engaging in natural conversation. More than a few times, other characters who lack such restraints speak to Einstein, yet McArdle can only nod or make faces back at them. Such rigidity typically appears in ultra-literal biblical re-enactments, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and it feels equally deadening here. Normally, such faithfulness to the original would be commendable, but this film proves itself an example of the limitations of accuracy.

In all fairness, I frequently felt the weight of what they attempted with this documentary. Einstein, a pacifist Jew tangentially responsible for the atom bomb, finds his legacy more precarious today than ever before. Now is certainly the time to re-investigate him and the complex nexus of issues that swirled around him, but to do such complexity justice would require a depth and length not afforded by this attempt. Furthermore, the medium of documentary, even a hybrid docudrama, proves too limiting to achieve anything approaching coverage of the topic(s) at hand. From Häxan (1922) to today, documentaries inevitably prioritize entertainment above information. That isn’t necessarily a fault of the genre, but it does betray a mismatch between the topic and the medium. Other documentaries, such as Manson: Music From an Unsound Mind (2019), treat old topics with fresh approaches (in that case, focusing on Manson’s aspirations and connections within the music industry). In short, successful approaches tend to narrow in order to achieve depth.

Einstein and the Bomb’s lack of focus ironically comes into focus at the end, which concludes with a jarring juxtaposition. In a voiceover, Einstein condemns all posterity to hell if we do not improve ourselves morally. But what is the accompanying visual on the screen, the last visual of the documentary? It’s none other than the classic photograph of Einstein playfully sticking his tongue out. Instead of watching Einstein and the Bomb, I recommend you watch a documentary (or better yet, read a book!) on any of the topics raised in this documentary; taking your time with these topics will prove more rewarding than sprinting past all of them.

-Mark Schmidt

University of South Dakota

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The Color Purple

 Directed by Blitz Bazawule, 2023

Fingers strumming a banjo to the tune of “Huckleberry Pie” take the audience back to a scene in early twentieth-century Georgia with two girls playing hand games in a tree and singing about promises that assure everything will be alright. Adapted from Alice Walker’s novel and the Broadway musical, The Color Purple follows the life of the protagonist Celie Harris-Johnson as she endures losing everything that matters to her because of the men in her life: her babies, her sister, her home, and even her dignity. With everything stripped away, Celie embraces life for what it is instead of what it could be; she takes the brute force of her husband’s hands, listens to her father’s directions, and accepts her place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Inspired by her relationships with her daughter-in-law Sofia, the blues-singing Shug Avery, and the letters from her far-off sister Nettie, Celie discovers the means to empower herself. The Color Purple is a film that revives the endless possibility of hope and demonstrates the need to have faith in things turning out alright in the end.

When I first viewed the movie’s trailer last fall and saw the all-star cast featured (including Taraji P. Henson, Halle Bailey, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, and so many more), I knew The Color Purple would be a film I needed to see. Enchanted from the beginning, I felt my emotions rise and fall as I witnessed Celie’s life on the screen, and through a sense of catharsis, I felt revived as I left the theater that day. While the film highlights God’s spiritual presence, Celie’s journey through her life demonstrates she is more than a spiritual person; she recognizes her strength lies in more than her faith—it lies in her family and friends who support her, too.

As the film concluded with Celie singing “The Color Purple” with the rest of the cast, tears fell from my eyes due to how Bazawule brought his audience full circle. The film commences and concludes in the same place: it begins with two girls hoping everything will be alright and ends with Celie standing reunited beside her sister, children, and chosen family around the same tree as everyone hums “amen.” She recovers everything the men in her life took from her, and while she thanks God for all He did for her, she also uses her song to thank the people in her life who supported and empowered her. Through Celie’s self-actualization, I recognized the beauty within my own life and the love I share with others.

Shifting to the film’s elements, such as the character performance, music, dance choreography, and costume design, I cannot stop praising the director’s work and the producers who helped produce this film. It’s imperative to appreciate that this film is Steven Spielberg’s second adaptation of The Color Purple and is co-produced with Oprah Winfrey, who originally played Sofia in the first adaptation in 1985. Along with highlighting Oprah, the film also makes a callback in one of the opening scenes depicting Whoopi Goldberg as the midwife of a pregnant Celie. As a small sentimental scene, Goldberg’s presence provides a moment to acknowledge her previous role, like a passing of the torch, and I felt casting her as a midwife aided in symbolizing the birth of a new Celie, a new rendition. By subtly acknowledging the past adaptation, the 2023 version springs up to be as it promises in its advertisement: bolder with its color.

From the red in Shug Avery’s dress within her song “Push Da Button” to the lesbian tension experienced between Shug and Celie, the boldest piece I would like to acknowledge above all else is Danielle Brooks’ role as Sofia. As a hard-headed woman who refuses to be knocked down, Brooks brings to life a woman whose strength should be preached to all women who question their place in the world. In her powerful anthem, “Hell No!” I could not help but join in her march. From sharing her soulful musicality to portraying the beauty of being a Black woman and demonstrating a level of independence that screams, “I don’t need no man,” Brooks gives a performance that deserves an audience’s full level of “Resp-e-ck-t.” Her journey as Sofia alongside Celie helped make the film worthwhile to watch as any I have seen.

A final note I want to mention is the film’s attention to the blues genre of music. As the years progressed in the film, it was entertaining to watch the evolution of blues from a country twang to a sultry jazz to a soulful, uplifting rhythm and blues. As a musical genre created by African Americans, it is very befitting to include this evolution in this film, and it aids in celebrating a fictional tale that contains a rich historical reality. I highly recommend giving The Color Purple a view.

-Heather-Anne Jaeger

CSU Stanislaus

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Elemental

Directed by Peter Sohn, 2023

From real-life experiences to a beautifully animated film, Disney’s Elemental magically transports audiences to a world where the elements—fire, water, air, and earth—come to life. Directed by Peter Sohn, best known for directing both Elemental (2023) and The Good Dinosaur (2015), the film shows Disney’s and Pixar’s continuous efforts and enduring abilities to create enchanting tales that resonate with audiences of all ages. Elemental captures the resilience of the protagonist, Ember, as she embarks on a quest to save not only her father’s store but the rest of the space for the fire people as she encounters a diverse range of characters with unique abilities and challenges. I would suggest having tissues nearby during this film, as the timing of events hit so perfectly.

At its core, Elemental is a tale of self-discovery, friendship, and unity’s power amid adversity. Bernie and Cinder Lumen, voiced by Ronnie del Carmen and Shila Ommi, are fire people, and they immigrate to Element City, where they face xenophobia from the other elements. On their track, they create a home and a family business, a convenience store called The Fireplace, where they set up the Blue Flame, which keeps them connected to their culture. Soon after, their daughter, Ember, voiced by the talented Leah Lewis, is born and raised in The Fireplace. The family business is central to Ember’s childhood, and she is preparing to one day take over when her father retires. We begin to notice Ember’s inability to control her temper, which causes her to blow up several times throughout the film—enough to break the pipes in the basement of The Fireplace.

Wade Ripple, voiced by the talented Mamoudou Athie, is a city inspector and water person who gets sucked into the pipes. His empathy is immediately notable, as he feels heavy emotions for others. Reluctantly, Wade writes citations since Bernie had rebuilt the place without permits, and he travels to Element City to submit them. Dedicated, Ember chases after the city inspector to retract the citations that would cause the shutdown of The Fireplace. After Wade hears the despair in Ember’s voice during her quick monologue, he decides to help her convince Gale, his employer, to reconsider the shutdown. Gale says that if they can find the main source of the leak that coincidently sucked Wade into The Fireplace’s basement and stop it, she will forgive the citations; this sparks the rest of their time spent together in the city as they work to stop the leak.

During her journey, Ember realizes her temper has been telling her that she doesn’t want to take over The Fireplace; instead, she wants to use her artistic talent to create glass sculptures and other artwork. After Ember’s skills astonished them, Wade’s mother offered her an internship. Knowing nothing but The Fireplace her whole life, the option of having a career choice overwhelmed Ember. After she decides to continue taking over The Fireplace, Wade gives it one more attempt to stop Ember from hiding how she feels about taking on this responsibility. With this, her father angrily breaks off his retirement and is disappointed that Ember broke the pipes and touched Wade. Throughout the film, Bernie shows his hatred for the repression water people forced on fire people, but in contrast to this, Wade encourages Ember’s fire abilities and always admires her for who she is. I won’t spoil the rest of the movie, but Elemental is a visually stunning and emotionally resonant film that will leave audiences inspired and entertained.

The details of each of the elements are truly remarkable. There is careful consideration in the city, quickly showing its works for the elements. There are also incredible scenes, like when Wade managed to take Ember underwater to show her the Vivisterias, flowers she’d been yearning to see. Ember’s flame also becomes very small when she’s most vulnerable, metaphorically showing the tropes of “feeling small” in the perfect moment. The soundtrack in this film certainly enhances the viewing experience, as each song fits perfectly with the scenes.

There are many themes explored in this film. From socioeconomic statuses to immigration struggles and pressures, the film effectively communicates and artistically displays each intentional theme. Overall, Elemental covers several topics in a fresh and invigorating manner. Whether you’re a longtime fan of Disney classics or simply looking for a captivating adventure, Elemental will delight and inspire audiences of all ages. I rate this film 8/10.

-Estrella Ramos

CSU Stanislaus

Mean Girls
Directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., 2024

From the big screen to the Broadway stage and back again, Mean Girls (2024) is directed by the husband-wife duo Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., whose other works include the TV series Quarter Life Poetry (2019). As before, it was produced by Lorne Michaels and adapted for the screen by Tina Fey, who also wrote the original film in 2004 and the script for the Broadway production from 2018 to 2020. This film adaptation presents a version of the Mean Girls universe that blends the original script with the musicality you would expect from a stage production, so it reflects the story’s evolution and the way scriptwriters have told it since they lifted it from the pages of Queen Bees and Wannbees, the 2002 book by Rosalind Wiseman. I would also say this version of Mean Girls is a little more meta in how it tells the audience what it knows of itself.

The movie opens with its first self-disclosure as the story’s outcasts, Janis ʻImiʻike (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian Hubbard (Jaquel Spivey), make a video on their phone in their garage. As if they are the choir of an old Shakespearian tragedy, they sing to “their followers” (the audience) that what they are about to see is a cautionary tale of being mean and lacking integrity, warning that integrity is not “something you can buy at the mall.”

The scene then cuts to the new “new girl,” Cady Heron (Angourie Rice), singing her own song in the wilds of the African savanna. The lyrics tell of her looking to explore the possibilities of life and her potential for personal growth. Cady is all about “no what-ifs” and “my limit doesn’t exist” until the scene cuts again to her on the first day of school, walking up the sidewalk entrance of her new school. “Watch it, bitch!” is all she gets when a fellow peer making their way through the crowd bumps into her. The first four minutes and 50 seconds prepare the viewer to expect the same storyline: a naive new girl enters the world of high school and will inevitably discover (and maybe even battle) the mean girl inside.

Because song and dance numbers push the plot and its actions forward, there is no inner dialogue from Cady’s omniscient point of view; this makes all the characters very self-aware, which is another way the film recognizes itself and its characters. Regina George (Reneé Rapp) sings her own introduction as she enters the cafeteria’s social scene, confirming she is “a massive deal” and that “she doesn’t care who you are” or “how you feel.” The sequencing from this point is a little out of order from the original, but much of the main plot points remain. Cady immediately falls in love with Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney), the cute boy who sits in front of her in AP Calculus and Regina’s ex-boyfriend, and breaks into another self-explicating song about being “smart in math” and “stupid in love.”

Additional musical numbers help the audience learn more about the characters. In “Apex Predator,” Janis and Damian warn Cady about the dangers of crossing Regina. Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Wood) reveals that she is unhappy under Regina’s reign in “What’s Wrong with Me?” Throughout her song, Gretchen questions what is wrong with her and admits she can’t hear or believe her mom when she calls her beautiful. Karen Shetty (Avantika) remains ever-clueless, as her boisterous number, “Sexy,” is about the thrill of being a sexy version of yourself on Halloween, which is “like the internet, but with candy.” By far, the best number occurs at the Halloween party; the choreography is intricate, and the sequencing, body movement, and lighting fuse to create a fun cinematic moment.

I’m a fan of this rendition of the Mean Girls universe overall. This troupe is always timely, and I love the work of Tina Fey and her collaborators. This movie is no exception: it brings about self-reflection, wit, and plenty of camp to entertain you. And here is where I leave you to log on and stream to see if this version of Mean Girls ends up in the Burn Book or turns out to be “Totally Grool!”

-Mary Worthington

CSU Stanislaus

Television Reviews

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One Day

Created by Nicole Taylor, 2024

WARNING: I hope you have a box of tissues nearby because you will definitely need them for this show!

 

Based on the novel One Day by David Nicholls, this Netflix limited series is a must-watch for many reasons. Initially, I had no clue what to expect, as I had not read the books or watched the 2011 film version starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess; however, I was pleasantly surprised (and ultimately moved to tears) by this show.

 

In the first episode, we meet Emma Morley (played by Ambika Mod) and Dexter Mayhew (played by Leo Woodall) at their graduation ball on July 15, 1988. Even though they both attended the University of Edinburgh, they never formally met (despite Emma admitting she had seen Dexter around). We learn Emma is from a working-class family in Leeds, while Dexter comes from a privileged family in London. Despite these differences, Emma and Dexter connect and spend the whole night together, mostly talking and sharing their goals for their fast-approaching future.

 

Interestingly, the night they share seems like it will be a simple one-night stand; however, they don’t go that far together. Instead, Emma seems adamant about getting to know more about Dexter, establishing a unique type of friendship between them that continues to the next episode/year. The first episode ends with the two spending the morning together and Emma suggesting they climb Arthur’s Seat (an ancient volcano near the school) where Dexter explains it is St. Swithin’s Day and that the saying goes that if it rains on that day, it will rain the whole summer. Each episode takes place on St. Swithin’s Day of the following year, which becomes a significant day in both of their lives.

 

How this series is structured is unique in that every episode occurs exactly a year after the previous episode. As the viewer, it adds a level of suspense since we don’t always know where Dexter and Emma will be at the start of the episode. As they begin to find themselves and attempt to navigate their new lives, Dexter and Emma have their own struggles with their careers, relationships, and other problems that arise after graduating from college and entering the “real” world. After their first meeting, Dexter and Emma stay in touch via letters and postcards. While Dexter goes on holiday after graduation, Emma struggles to make ends meet, working at a Mexican restaurant and unsure about what to do with her life.

 

Dexter and Emma’s friendship contributes to the show’s uniqueness. It’s obvious they both feel more for each other than they express. Yet, they spend years apart, dating others and doing their own things. It is the classic trope of “right person, wrong time,” and while it felt frustrating as the viewer sometimes, it’s the beauty behind the show. Emma and Dexter are individuals, and their stories do not always revolve around each other. During a time when she and Dexter have a falling out and are not friends, Emma becomes a teacher and later a successful author without Dexter’s help. Emma’s story is not always about Dexter or finding love but about finding herself and proving she can achieve her dreams.

 

As for Dexter, we also learn more about him and his struggles with a drug and alcohol problem, especially after the loss of his mother from cancer. Dexter becomes much more complex than the privileged party boy in the first episode. The show demonstrates character development well: it creates two characters who, as the series progresses, become more and more complex, and we, as the audience, become more and more invested in the two separately.

 

This show is a love story between two people, but it is also a lot more than that! It is about two people’s life stories and how their experiences in life shaped them into their future selves who can genuinely love each other. Without Dexter and Emma’s separate stories, I don’t think this love story would have been so impactful. While we root for them to get together, we also learn to root for them individually. Dexter and his feelings for her do not define Emma—she doesn’t pine over him and let it rule her life; this makes their stories realistic and turns their love story into one about life itself.

 

I won’t spoil the ending, but all I know is that I felt the need to hug my partner at the end, and I think any piece of media that creates that effect is powerful. I advise you to embrace this rollercoaster of a show because every bit of it is valuable; I realized this at the end, as it all ties back to Emma and Dexter’s first meeting in the first episode. The only spoiler I will offer is this: it does not rain on any St. Swithin’s Day except in 2001, so be prepared for that downpour.

 

Cheers!

 

-Lauren Krone

CSU Stanislaus

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Fallout

Created by Graham Wagner and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, 2024

Venturing into the wasteland of television adaptation, the TV series Fallout, directed by Jonathan Nolan and Todd Howard, stands out as a daring attempt to bring the cherished video game franchise to the small screen. This fresh adaptation of Fallout invites both fans of the games and newcomers to delve into its post-apocalyptic landscape in America 200 years after humanity detonated the first nuclear bomb. While the TV series lacks the interactivity of the video game franchise, it still captures the game’s essence through its characters, their development, and distinctive cinematic techniques that mirror the thrill of action. The narrative revolves around three characters who must kill through the wasteland: gulpers, rad roaches, feral ghouls, and raiders to confront the show’s antagonist, Moldaver.

Disclaimer: if you haven’t watched the series yet, be aware that this review contains spoilers!

For those familiar with the video games, the series offers a comforting start, demonstrating its fidelity to the game’s lore. It begins with the iconic introduction of the seven attributes, known as SPECIAL (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck), that players would select for their gameplay and how successful their character will be in surviving the wasteland beyond the safety of the vaults. The series brings to life this familiar element through our first character, Lucy, who, although many would say she is naive to the reality of the wastelands, the attributes she lists to the council members of Vault 33 demonstrate a well-balanced “player” who can survive. Moreover, her kind-hearted interactions with other members of the vaults and those on the surface (even if they have ill intentions toward her) illustrate a “good” gameplay that players would attempt to play if they wanted to obtain a good reputation in the wastelands. Yet, like any other harsh landscape, Lucy’s trustworthy and good-hearted nature will be warped by what will be required of her to ensure her survival. Such circumstances are no surprise to players, as sometimes the wasteland will require players to make ruthless decisions, which viewers can experience firsthand when Lucy is tasked to cut off a stranger’s head to rescue her father.

Another character introduced to viewers is Maximus, a non-titled member of the Brotherhood of Steel. Maximus doesn’t come from the safety of the vault, but from what he and Thaddeus (another character in the Fallout series) mention regarding the Brotherhood, it’s “complicated,” which is a fair review of the Brotherhood of Steel itself for those familiar with the Brotherhood’s agenda. However, for those who are not, the Brotherhood seeks to preserve advanced pre-war technology and regulate its usage from those they deem irresponsible to handle such power. Yet, their quest to ensure the safety of the wasteland has led to control over the wastelands, resulting in never-ending violence between two other significant factions in the show, The Enclave and the New California Republic (NCR).

Nonetheless, Maximus’s role in the show doesn’t entirely reflect that of the Brotherhood but instead uncovers his ulterior motives: survival and finding a place to call home that abandons the violence of the wasteland. Through this narrative, gamers and viewers come to understand that he’s not inherently good or bad but that his own survival drives him. Maximus’ character echoes the qualities of a “neutral” gameplay, a route many players would play in their playthrough. Yet, similar to Lucy, Maximius’s actions begin to shift as he starts to interact with Lucy and others within the series, revealing that despite the brutal nature of life in the wasteland, it can be slightly less harsh if he considers the effects of his actions on those around him.

Lastly, the series introduces us to the Ghoul (also known as Cooper Howard before the bombs dropped), a foil to Lucy. The Ghoul will do anything to ensure he survives to find his loved ones. Yet, it’s important to note that he wasn’t always the bad guy from the beginning. It’s more like being alive for over two centuries can start making someone impatient for some results (which can you blame the guy?!). While it’s clear that the Ghoul’s actions reflect a morally questionable approach similar to a “bad” gameplay—where he resorts to killing or seriously injuring numerous townspeople in Filly—the Ghoul justifies his actions as necessary to capture his bounty. Yet, the most important part of this scene is its resemblance to the game’s VATS system on the pip-boy Lucy wears. Although the Ghoul doesn’t have one, which doesn’t correlate with the game’s lore or combat system, it still shows the care the directors put into the show to capture the iconic cinematics found in the game.

As viewers learn more about these characters, their journey becomes an example of the larger themes within the Fallout universe: survival, resilience, and the search for what it means to be human in a world ravaged by nuclear devastation. Well, this review references the video game lore in the series, which is a more than “okey-dokey” show I highly recommend to anyone interested in anything post-apocalyptic and satirical.

-Joy Ok

CSU Stanislaus

Book Reviews

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But Everyone Feels This Way: How an Autism Diagnosis Saved My Life

by Paige Layle, 2024

Did you ever feel that something was wrong, but you could not put your finger on what the issue was? We all have had that moment at least once in our lives. Several years ago, I had that moment: I was placing the people I love at a distance in many ways, and I wasn’t sure why. After suffering for several months, I decided to go to therapy, and it was there that my therapist diagnosed me as being on the autism spectrum in my mid-40s. Similar to that of Paige Layle, the author of the new memoir But Everyone Feels This Way: How an Autism Diagnosis Saved My Life, I was skeptical at first. How is this possible? My therapist must be wrong. Then it hit me: I am socially awkward; hate small talk in intimate settings; eat the same thing ritualistically; rock while I grade my papers; despise eye contact; have issues with certain foods because of texture; always liked playing games by myself; get very disturbed by changes in my routine; and the list goes on. My therapist was right: I am autistic!

            And so is Paige Layle.

“I was autistic, and I have always been autistic” is both a simple and profound sentence in her informative and enlightening memoir, which candidly speaks about her experience as a suicidal young girl who always had difficulties regulating her emotions and behaviors. Throughout the book, most especially at the beginning, she writes about her constant crying fits due to stress, frustration, exhaustion, panic attacks, hyperventilating, and loss of consciousness, among others. She claims that during the first 15 years of her life, she would constantly ask herself: “What’s wrong with me?” And then, she gets her diagnosis at 15 years old, which exposed a whole new set of challenges—including her becoming alienated from her mother and her friends—as she unmasked herself for her own comfort (“masking” is a technique those on the autism spectrum use to avoid making waves in their relationships by showing their true selves). Layle did not change who she was; in fact, she could not change who she was. Instead, in learning more about herself, she changed her behaviors to make herself feel more comfortable in her skin and surrounding environment.

Thus, the book answers the question: how does one work with something beyond their control? Layle takes readers on her harrowing physical and psychological journey from childhood to adulthood, presenting them with a comprehensive understanding of how she developed into the accomplished mental health activist and advocate she has now become, as well as with definitions and descriptions of what makes one a person on the spectrum. It is in these moments where Layle shines. She expertly weaves her unique narrative with data and her opinions about neurodiversity, giving the reader a tutorial while presenting herself as a walking example of what it means to live a life with this disability (Layle clarifies she is “disabled” and not “differently abled,” as some may call themselves).

Because of the previous reasons, But Everyone Feels This Way is a bit different than other texts written by those on the spectrum. Layle is brutally honest, not only about what she can and cannot do and what she will and will not do; she is also brutally honest about how her depression, anxieties, and urges to commit suicide did not and will not define who she is. Now a teacher, Layle educates readers by using a unique mixture of prose, poetry, side notes, and checklists, which can be appealing to both allistic and neurodiverse learners in that they can see how the autistic brain works (“long-range underconnectivity,” for example) while also diving deep into her overactive and overemotional mind.

One of Layle’s more memorable moments involves her favorite chair in the living room of her home. “When my parents moved things around, they always kept the chair in the same place. If they didn’t, I’d get upset. I’d try to live with it, but it was always worse, and I wanted it to go back to normal. My parents always put it back in the perfect spot.” This moment, among others, is a masterfully written example of what Layle and others in her position—including me—go through daily. What are smaller issues for some become exacerbated for the neurodiverse; what is seemingly ridiculous becomes the end of the world, and we do not know why until we do when we receive a diagnosis.

So, how do we cope? Layle has her outlets: she loves to act and dance, for example. But what Layle more importantly expresses is that with a better understanding of autism spectrum disorder by both the patient and the patient’s loved ones, coping can officially begin. There is no longer a need to construct an unreliable narrative, which can unintentionally morph into ableism and alienate the people who want to develop a more fruitful relationship with those fighting through the diagnosis.

By the end of But Everyone Feels This Way, there is no doubt that her journey has led Layle into some sense of peace, but her goal here is not solely to express to her readers what her struggles and triumphs were and are. It is also to ensure that those who do not understand find ways to do so. In an important moment in her text, Layle says: “I don’t believe in ignorance. I believe ignorance is the [sic] one of the worst traits a human being can possess.” She claims it is a “lack of knowledge [that] separates all of us,” and to “change a system, you have to first know there is something that needs to be changed.” Thus, there needs to be more of an “investment” in mental health resources and “better education for teachers and other students.” Layle’s work takes a step in that direction; from this autistic person’s perspective, she does a fine job of using her lived experience as an educational resource to help eradicate the stigmas and stereotypes associated with this disorder.

-Dr. Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr.

SUNY Cobleskill

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Hello Stranger

by Katherine Center, 2023

If you lost the ability to recognize people by their faces, do you believe you would still be able to discern the identities of those around you? I think the assumed answer to this question would be “yes” because your identity is so much more than the physical appearance of your face. But if you think about it, familiar voices, styles, and other traits aren’t the first thing you look for in a person: it is typically, if not always, their face. So, what’s to say you genuinely know someone if you can’t cognitively recognize their facial features anymore?

Face blindness, medically termed apperceptive prosopagnosia, is the inability to process or perceive a face. Individuals who acquire this disorder may be unaware of their inability to recognize faces because they lack perception, not the entire physical appearance; the brain is like an ecosystem, so if one part fails and destabilizes it, it will continue performing—only at a slower pace. Essentially, individuals can very well live with face blindness unknowingly if they’re born with it or (if acquired) until they stare at their reflections and realize the person looking back is a stranger. Sadie Montgomery, the protagonist in Katherine Center’s 2023 novel Hello Stranger, experiences this exact predicament.

Now in recovery after undergoing a life-saving brain surgery, Sadie, a portrait artist, discovers she cannot recognize faces—even those belonging to people she has known for years. The ability to recognize faces is thanks to our fusiform face gyrus (FFG), which resides within the brain’s temporal lobe and is essential to facial perception and recognition. Sadie’s surgery leads to swelling (medically referred to as edema), which temporarily affects her FFG. With doctors unable to gauge how long it will be before her ability to recognize faces returns, Sadie learns to navigate life by looking through the lens of face blindness. Her predicament causes unfortunate but hilarious mix-ups alongside many other shenanigans and awkward interactions that a Center novel isn’t complete without. For Sadie, her condition pushes her into unique situations that she would have never willingly encountered in the past. It also forces her to experience the world and interact with those around her differently, and with her own face becoming unrecognizable, she must confront her identity (and even her past) from a new angle, too.

A lot of the conflict arises from Sadie’s mind being unable to meet her halfway with the usual learned assumptions and expectations that come racing to the surface when recognizing a face. As a result, Sadie has to build identities—including her own—based on details she never entirely considered before. On top of all her struggles with family, friends, and herself, Sadie winds up in a love triangle with two faceless men she just met—each one wrapped in ever-changing associations as new details pop up and force her to reevaluate what she thought she already knew several times over. To make matters worse, Sadie gets accepted into a highly competitive portrait competition before her surgery, only now she cannot even see the faces she must paint. So, essentially, Sadie’s in a mess. But personally, I was having a good time.

As is with most topics Center raises in her novels, I had no idea what apperceptive prosopagnosia or anything related to the condition was before reading this book. As an NYT best-selling author with ten published titles (and two book-to-movie adaptations, I might add), Center has proven time and time again that she is not only talented but also very well-informed, and she makes sure her readers are as well. Like all her past stories, Hello Stranger, her tenth novel, deep-dives into human lives and the things we experience alongside the identities, careers, conditions, and anxieties that shape us. Center never fails to weave intimately portrayed friendships, pure-hearted romances, and healing family relationships with educational factors. Readers can always trust Center’s representations because she does research and consults experts to depict them accurately.

While educating and informing her readers, Center also packs her stories with dramatic and comical characters and loads of hilarious, tear-jerking, and heartwarming scenes. Basically, she writes the perfect reads! The first Center novel I read was Things You Save in a Fire, and it honestly cracked my heart open; I’ve learned that her stories will make me cry as much as they will make me laugh. So, I also read her books when I pursue joy, and this novel did not disappoint. Hello Stranger even seemed to have a few extra doses of happiness that made it such a fun, feel-good novel with moments purely fictional in the best way. Categorized in the women’s fiction and contemporary romance genres, I rate this story five stars, and I recommend it to readers looking for a genuine, romantic comedy feel.

Also, Katherine Center will release a new romance novel on June 11, 2024, called The Rom-Commers! You can find more information about Center and her upcoming book here.

-Veronica Aguilar

CSU Stanislaus

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An Inheritance of Magic

by Benedict Jacka, 2023

Benedict Jacka’s An Inheritance of Magic covers the story of Stephen Oakwood, a 22-year-old man stretched across the four corners of his life and struggling to mature after his father mysteriously disappeared when he was 19. Stephen’s work life, friend life, search for his father, and practice of Drucraft occupy his thoughts, and the book shows how each part pulls him in different directions. Stephen’s ordinary work and personal life eventually lead him to a crossroads: if he doesn’t do something soon, he’ll have to give up an aspect of his life to focus on the others.

The book’s magic system, Drucraft, manipulates essentia in various ways to create or influence matter. Essentia manifests an omnipresent spiritual energy coursing through all life that doesn’t typically interact with the physical world. This spiritual energy has ebbs and flows like an ocean’s waves or the windiness of the sky. Some of this energy naturally accumulates in certain places consistently and becomes known as a well. Sigls are a result of a Drucraft practitioner channeling the immense power of a well and crafting or condensing essentia into an actual physical item that they can use to channel specific spells that would normally require too much time, concentration, or essentia to cast on their own.

The wells are also intriguing because they are variable, chaotic, and simultaneously predictable. Wells are large reservoirs of essentia that replenish naturally over time, and they also ebb and flow in how fast they replenish depending on their tendency. For example, the well in Stephen’s neighborhood charges fastest in spring and summer because it responds to light. Moreover, practitioners can draw from wells to bolster their magic.

Sigls are odd, but I like them, as they play a significant role in creating magic items. Sigls are essentially crystallized essentia and are extremely difficult to make. Individuals can only create them using the accumulated essentia in naturally occurring wells or other large energy sources. Drucraft practitioners can practice creating a practice sigl using the essentia around them, but only a fully replenished well has enough raw essentia to create a physical item.

In Jacka’s soft magic system, the possibilities for magic items are endless, limited only by the caster’s creativity and imagination. The magic items are made only from essentia, and practitioners commonly use essentia wells in the earth to create them; these conduit items channel ambient essentia from themselves or the world around them. You’ll love An Inheritance of Magic if you like exploring magic systems, learning about the power of perspective, and understanding the difference between theoretical potential and the results of crazy ideas within magic power systems.

Since this book is the first in a new series planned for ten years of book releases, most of the story builds Stephen up, fleshes out his troubles, and introduces him to the wonderous world Jacka built for both the beautifully mundane and the mystically horrific. The streets and experimentation are Stephen’s primary teachers, and they help him gain his footing and an advantage over others in the mystical world. Moreover, his determination, perseverance, and tempered approach to his life and magical studies drew me in; it makes the novel more relatable than many other fantasy books.

Stephen’s background as a mainly self-taught mage also captivated me because I love magic and exploring the limits of our understanding of fantasy. The idea of an incomplete understanding of a system with existing interpretations and curricula beautifully transitions into unconventional modalities of thought; in the novel, such modalities promote a unique perspective that highlights Stephen’s progress as he learns to build his understanding of the mystical arts. It’s fascinating to see how Jacka establishes Stephen’s various reasons for learning Drucraft, as well as the consequences of his haphazard experimentation, which include his decision to share his essentia with his cat, Hobbes, and his efforts to create sigls since his childhood.

The world Stephen inhabits is one of our modern-day struggles for rent and board but doubles as an exploration of the self through mystical fantasy. It’s refreshing to see someone start as someone who doesn’t see their magic as a commercial benefit but as a means of self-expression, exploration, and personal enlightenment. So many books and stories present characters pushed to their extremes that it’s simultaneously soothing and engaging to see Stephen make continuous incremental progress with determination and passion.

The world Jacka paints is one of wild wonder and harmonious chaos, and the protagonist, Stephen, is an underdog with relatable twists over his head in a mundane world that wants him to grow up and in a mystical world that carries various plotlines underpinning the abuses that can come from this largely interpretative and beautiful magic system. The book’s flaws come from how much it talks about how Drucraft works, as it sometimes feels a little much, even for me; from my perspective, however, that’s a minor issue. An Inheritance of Magic is a delightful book with a promising future, and I can’t wait for more installments!

-Marcio Maragol

CSU Stanislaus

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