Bengal’s Vegas Cinema Deep Dive part 1 of 2

Thanks to the glory of the Gorillaz, I visited Vegas last weekend. Seeing them live for the first and maybe only time was quite something. I got a new white t-shirt of them over there to both commemorate the event and because a white shirt in the Vegas heat is better than a black one. Also, the black shirt I’ve got was wearing down and getting too tight.

I couldn’t help but take a break from 80s cinema for my retrospective series to focus on some recent Hollywood offerings about the city of “second” chances. All of them are from the 90s to today and in doing so removes some titles that were already waiting on my watchlist far in the future after I conquer everything in my 80s’ itinerary.

The second part will be two movies based or inspired by historical fact, seeing which is better at telling a history lesson and which is just the better film. These three explore the cool, the profane and the sad of what is known in English as The Meadows.

Ocean’s 11 (2001)

Image from IMDB (Release the Safe-Crackers.)

Steven Soderbergh is a man who, comfortably it seems, lives in two worlds. Ever since his breakthrough debut in 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (which of course dear viewer I will one day tackle), the bald maestro has done many, many films. Some have been mainstream work that even attained critical and commercial success like the film here and others are movies which made so little money you’ve likely never heard of them.

My first time seeing a Soderbergh picture was 2017’s Logan Lucky and how fortuitous for me that that was my first film of his. It’s a heist film involving some West Virginia brothers breaking a southern-fried Daniel Craig out of prison so they can perform a break-in of the Charlotte Speedway during a Nascar race. It’s a Robin Hood tale with it’s players consisting of the proudly podunk, yet smart enough to know that the system has screwed them. They’re just about smart enough to perform a Danny Ocean play but on a smaller scale.

It’s an endearing little movie and proved prophetic for Daniel Craig’s future career choices of playing Dixie-accented figures like in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. I don’t know if any film of his before Ocean’s 11 could be construed as heist picture, but as the general public is concerned, 2001 was the beginning of a more playful Soderbergh experience.

The early 2000’s was a good time to be that man. In 2000, he somehow found the time to make two blockbusters, Traffic and Erin Brockovich. He would follow up the next year with his interpretation of a Rat Pack flick from 1960. Frank Sinatra and his thick as thieves performer friends got involved in a heist picture that on paper sounds like it should be a classic of the era.

Imagine it, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin alongside eight others on a daring Vegas heist plan: Rob five casinos in one night. Sounds awesome, right? Well, apparently not, as the original Ocean’s 11 is not a film to write home about from basically all accounts. Aside from the Rat Pack presence, inspiring the concept of the first modern feature and there being a crew numbering 11, nothing about it is exceptional.

It seems evident to me that Soderbergh took a film maybe he liked as a kid, thought could be better and did just that. The remake stands a better chance of being remembered, respected even in the long course of time. It’s rare that a remake utterly eclipses the original but here we are.

Danny Ocean is played by an actor, who almost by design, was meant to portray a heist crew ringleader, George Clooney. It takes a lot to make the guy not charming or charismatic. It is sadly possible, as evidenced by Batman and Robin.

After leaving prison, with the board narrowly deciding that he won’t go back to his robbery wiles, Danny immediately starts canvassing to get a crew together for a job that’s more personal than just business.

He gets his number two from L.A. back, Rusty (Brad Pitt), and tells him that despite his recently concluded prison time and that he’s supposed to stay in New Jersey as part of his parole, he wants to rob three Vegas casinos in a single night. Fortunately, there is an underground vault where money that comes from those three casinos is stored. The establishments are all run by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), a mildly criminal business magnate whose as far as I can tell is actually on the level. His only vice really is that if someone screws him in any way, his retribution is quite disproportionate.

In order to make us not despise even like the heist crew, to want them to outright win, the victim of this supposedly victimless crime has to be on some level, unsympathetic or villainous. Only Terry is affected by his money being stolen so you don’t feel uncomfortable at the ultimately still criminal thing the Eleven pull off. This is more so for caper films where the crew gets away scot free, a more recent trend in the genre.

It used to be the case that the crooks would start to get what’s coming to them after the heist is successfully pulled off, their own greed and/or carelessness being their undoing. It lets the more morally minded audiences of yesteryear have it both ways: they get to enjoy a risky, even stressful break-in occur and then after it is gloriously accomplished, they still get the hammer of the law smacked on them, so the audience is reminded that as cool as that caper was, please don’t commit any crimes.

Outside of wanting to show how awesome a caper-man he is and I guess money in and of itself, why is Danny going forward with this super dangerous, seemingly impossible job? Well, his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) is dating Terry and he still holds a candle for her. It’s not so much showing up Terry as ultimately he must not know for certain he pulled the caper, it’s just to impress his old flame, show her that he most certainly still has it, even after having served time.

Danny and Rusty assemble the 11 in a humorous, expectedly montage manner. Strangely enough, it can also come across like Seven Samurai or any film like Magnificent Seven that apes Kurosawa’s masterpiece: looking around for people to join a team on what could be a suicide mission.

One of the eleven is someone they already know: Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), a con man and actor whose good at drawing attention away from something more important, a must for someone who won’t just do it the forceful way, which in Vegas is essentially either a prison or death sentence.

The guy who gets them the financing and equipment is Reuben, an old friend of Danny who’s the only other member who has a personal stake: he lost his casino to Terry and wants some bloodless revenge. Won’t be the last time that Elliot Gould appears in my Vegas series.

Scott Caan, the late James Caan’s son, and Casey Affleck play Virgil and Turk, two mechanic brothers who play the getaway drivers. Eddie Jemison is Dell, the appropriately named tech guy. Don Cheadle is the cockney accented demolitions man and Shaobo Qin is a short, Chinese acrobat who goes from circus attraction to both genuinely impressive athlete and comic relief, often through his very flexible body.

Rounding out the eleven is Carl Reiner as the old con artist Saul who decides an almost certain to fail heist in Vegas is better than dogtrack betting. At least it will be entertaining for him no matter the outcome. Due to his advanced age compared to everyone else, he’s the one who appears the most vulnerable and even likely to die just for that reason.

The real life Reiner was in his late 70s in 2001 and still had the moxy for two more capers down the road. He managed to have a one line cameo in 2019’s Toy Story 4 before he finally cashed out the following year in 2020 at 98. This tangent is here because I was genuinely impressed by Reiner’s longevity after Ocean’s 11 made it look like this was a swan song role. For him, he was never too old for one last score, bless him.

Finally, MATT DAMON. Sorry, I momentarily envisioned his unflattering voice and appearence from Team America, which oddly enough the real man actually likes. Damon is the young rookie Linus picked up in Chicago by Danny Ocean. Despite his inexperience, his skill’s undeniable as he did manage to pick-pocket a guy like Ocean.

Due to Julia Roberts being prominently featured in the marketing and because usually there is a token female, I assumed Tess or someone else would take the place of one of the eleven. I actually thought Reiner’s Saul was going to die before the job began. Referencing Seven Samurai again, one of the seven dies before the big battle that closes out the movie. I thought Damon was supposed to debut later as no. 12 in the next movie. This uncertainty and getting everything mixed up sure helped with the drama of a job that you already know is going to succeed.

The inevitability that the heist will, 90% of the time, be pulled off doesn’t ruin the magic. You want to see how it’s pulled off, what tricks or on the spot actions are taken to make it work. More importantly, can the audience place themselves in the shoes of someone like Terry Benedict and believe that they got duped?

Despite being over 20 years old now, it really is great that I was entirely unspoiled to how this movie plays out. Let’s just say for your sake that the movie plays a con on you not unlike how in Redford and Newman’s The Sting, the finale fools both the main antagonist and the audience with one big sleight of hand. There’s a sleight of hand that Ocean and Co. pull off that I should have seen coming but was successfully prevented from predicting. The bastards got me good and I loved it.

How Soderbergh goes about with Ocean and his eleven eventually thirteen continuing to cleverly dupe both antagonist and audience remains a divisive topic. Ocean’s 12 released three years later is seen as the weakest of the now four contemporary Ocean pictures. Soderbergh on the other hand thinks the opposite and considers 12 to be the best of the three movies he made. I’m not curious enough to see if that’s true.

I’m not even curious enough to check out 2007’s 13 which was seen as better but the details of how Danny Ocean pulls it off that time has been taken to task as too ridiculous. Can’t honestly speak for the recent Ocean’s 8, where Sandra Bullock plays Danny’s sister, on any account other than I hear it’s just OK and that Soderbergh didn’t direct.

What I can tell you is that the first time is considered the charm and does as good a job as you can imagine making you understand why Clooney and Pitt aren’t just considered sexy Hollywood royalty but charming royalty. To preface way down my thoughts on the early works of Jim Jarmusch, this movie will put a spell on you.

The Hangover (2009)

Image from IMDB (Two of the three man Wolf Pack, encountering a very annoying problem.)

Just recently, I rewatched the Simpsons episode having Homer and Ned Flanders going on a trip to Las Vegas, all because the latter is worried he’s wasted his life being a totally square, unhip Christian man. On the one hand, he looks barely 40 at the age of 60 due to his pious lifestyle. On the other hand, he wonders concerningly what he’s been missing. Homer, despite normally despising stupid, lousy Flanders is actually happy to help him with his unusual life crisis.

Eventually, both Homer and Ned got so wasted that they forget a wild night that involves them both getting married to some strippers and their escapades eventually involve a tiger, a Mike Tyson parody and it all takes place in a joke version of Caesar’s Palace.

The Hangover is a story of two brothers and their two best friends going on a bachelor party trip to Las Vegas. As the title makes inevitable, a wild night is stripped from memory as three of the four wake up to find one’s missing. The hotel they groggily awake in is Caesar’s Palace and the following proceedings will include a tiger, one of them marrying having married a stripper (played by Heather Graham), and Mike Tyson.

My friends, what we have here is a case of what South Park famously called “SIMPSONS DID IT!” Or, The Simpsons already did it. Sure, there are more details to what should have been an unforgettable night for the four but man they just had to drink what is revealed to be roofies at the start of the night. A lot of those details would’ve been almost impossible to allow on the Simpsons.

Todd Phillips most critically successful movie was a sleeper hit in the summer of 2009. Only an abysmal Transformers sequel and Pixar’s masterpiece Up made more money that season. Before the Hangover came out, the idea of a drunken, crazy night with a destructive aftermath was already a concept. Again, the Simpsons. So, what made this take on the idea into such a cultural phenomenon, leading to two lackluster sequels and essentially launching the careers of Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms?

It was probably that this take leaned in on at being a comical mystery, seeing how far down the rabbit hole the three friends fell and for rewatch value, seeing how the pieces fit together before the credits show a chronological photo montage of the wild night.

It’s also the interplay of the three friends searching for the fourth. Bradley Cooper’s Phil is nominally the most mature and is revealed to be a dad by the film’s end. He is the most concerned with dealing with the problem as orderly as possible and when things refuse to go their way, grows the most aggressive. Ed Helms’ Stu is the put upon guy, with an overly controlling girlfriend and a real passive streak that comes with a lack of spine. The wild night reveals that he is a more decisive person when under the influence.

Maybe the most memorable of the Wolf Pack is Galifianakis’ Alan, a man-child who despite growing up with a loving brother can’t seem to mature fully into an emotionally adult person. For me, this is ironic considering that due to the beard Alan looks the oldest of the three or at least in appearence the least child-like. He’s the innocuous type of man-child, as he can’t even bring himself to swear like his friends.

What works about the humorous task of seeing the Wolf Pack learn about the night and figure out how to unscrew themselves is the balance between being not absurd enough or too absurd. Nothing about The Hangover is completely off the wall bonkers. It seems crazy enough to actually happen and that this is set in Vegas, a place notorious for wild, seemingly unrealistic events helps shore up plausibility.

It could be my bias in favor of the striped, orange animal, but seeing how the trio deals with the tiger in their bathroom is the most enjoyable obstacle they have to solve. It’s also the scenario that seems least likely for them to resolve because it’s a tiger in a Caesar’s Palace hotel room. How the tiger got up there is never explained and it is honestly better that is never revealed. We certainly know how the friends came across it and it ties into another famous obstacle: Mike Tyson.

One of the greatest boxers of all time is notorious for his behavior off the ring with an incident involving punching someone down some stairs being for many the standout moment. Now, while playing himself in an acting role, part of the humor is not only that the Wolf Pack got involved in a bad way with Tyson, but their fear that Tyson will physically hurt them, due to reputation. I ain’t spoiling if he does though considering this film’s blockbuster status, you likely already know.

The Hangover presents conventions of a stay in Vegas going wrong to comedic effect as intended but it also sometimes subverts what you think might happen. The reveal that Stu drunkenly married a stripper comes to a conclusion that some may seem coming and others won’t. I didn’t, for what’s it worth and it sometimes feels that The Hangover is almost satirizing the cliches of Vegas more than simply comically upping the ante about them.

Let’s get to the obstacle that I’m sure split people more than not on how funny or unfunny it was. Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow works for the intended reason of being an eccentric Chinese mobster that the Wolf Pack got in trouble with. In terms of how actually funny he is, that is subjective even by the standards of comedy. Clearly, Phillips thought people liked Jeong as Chow since he’s around for the whole trilogy.

I didn’t like him though I could at least tolerate him. He is meant to be annoying for the Wolf Pack, further emphasizing how deep the problems they have go. My first real exposure to Ken Jeong was in the third Transformers movie playing a horribly grating and quite racist figure who calls himself Deep Wang. A person who has traded information with the Decepticons in secret, he gets up close and personal with Shia LeBeouf’s Sam in an infuriating comedy sequence that does at least end with him getting killed by a Decepticon.

I was actually cheering when he finally did die, albeit from an dumb interpretation of a fan-favorite Transformers villain. It was moments like Jeong’s contribution to Transformers where it felt less like another immature comedy skit and more like Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger were demonstrating spite on those hoping to have a decent film involving transforming, warring robots.

Jeong is never near as horrible in at least the first Hangover as he is in Transformers 3. He serves his purpose, acts as a genuine threat to our marginal heroes and once his role is done, it is done.

The Hangover’s success can also be best recognized for its interpretation that comedy should be about failure. We laugh at fictional characters making mistakes and suffering defeats over and over again. While this film is about the Wolf Pack stumbling their way out of a totally ruinous mess and actually triumphing, be honest with yourselves: your amusement also comes from seeing them in these messed situations and wondering how worse it will get before it does get better.

The Wolf Pack are not the most likable group of characters and thankfully them not always being sympathetic actually adds to the comedy at times. They’re just likable enough and that they ultimately make it out of Vegas with some dignity intact is a testament to one of the lessons that can be given out like a PSA message: Teamwork matters. One of the funniest moments is when the Pack have to win back some money so they can pay Chow in exchange for what they think is their missing friend.

Alan gets cleaned up, dressed up and uses a guidebook about gambling to help beat the system and win the money. Though it predates it, Alan’s mental process at the game table is just like Sherlock piecing together the mystery’s clues.

It’s not the best comedy I’ve seen, it’s not the best film about Vegas I’ve seen. But it is a film that can be understood for why it was the surprise hit of 2009. Those with the right attitude will enjoy, maybe even savor this comedy with quite an attitude all its own.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Image from Business Insider (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Hangovers)

Based on a novel from a young author who shot himself after learning his book would be made into a novel, Leaving Las Vegas is often considered one of Nicolas Cage’s best movies, proof that he is more than just his eccentricities or voice. The Academy thought so, they gave him Best Actor.

It’s a film that shows perhaps the best the utterly sad, unenviable side of Las Vegas. Or at least, for those who have and could live there. Cage’s Ben Sanderson is a drunk. A hopelessly, I mean hopelessly drunk man. He can’t write scripts for Hollywood anymore and his addiction, compulsion to drink has cost him his wife, kids and circle of friends. After getting a “golden parachute” pension from the workplace who shows uncommon pity on him, he decides to buy as much booze as possible, burns all of his personal belongings and drives to Vegas.

Why Vegas? Oh, it’s not to gamble, he has no reason to. Other than gambling, what is one thing that place has in great quantity? Booze. Based on my recent trip, I can confirm that in 2022, that is still very true. It might’ve been the first time I’ve personally encountered drunk people. I’m so sheltered.

There, he meets Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue. I know her as the girlfriend for Daniel-San in the original Karate Kid, the replacement for Jennifer, Marty McFly’s girlfriend in the Back to the Future sequels and recently in a very uncomfortable to watch role in the first season of The Boys. Here, she’s a prostitute who is able to get much free time to spend with Ben after her Latvian pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) gets whacked due to his poor turnout of profit.

Ben goes from being customer who really isn’t interested in her “services” to simply having someone to talk to in his last days. He intends to drink so much that it kills him. Overtime, the two start to become romantically involved in spite of one having a terminal connection to liquor and the other being a lady of the night.

As you could infer, they come together due to both being outcasts of society: one a failed screenwriter turned drunkard and the other a hooker. This and a little more causes their romance to blossom, but Ben says rather bluntly that she can’t expect him to be kept from his “drink to death” mission. No matter what, it will happen, no matter how much it hurts.

Nicolas Cage’s voice adds well to the sense of a person being hammered and then some. Even when sober, his voice has a certain lilt which suggests something is off. Anyone who has heard Nic Cage speak knows what I’m talking about. He’s perfect for the role as Ben is never sober, not once in the film. He’s clear-headed enough at times to socialize with Sera, to know how to push back verbally when he thinks he has to.

His performance did make me wonder about how often Cage actually drank, because makeup aside he does look and act like a drunk. It gets increasingly discomforting to watch because I started to wonder if Cage actually caused himself harm playing this role. Now, obviously there are certain parts where you can tell he wasn’t actually hurt. The end result of drinking to death can’t be replicated because you know you’re endangering an actor at that point. It’s like actors including extras who play Holocaust victims.

How much should be done to show the starved, weakened results of that genocide? You got to make sure the actors are healthy enough at the end of the day or really put in the movie magic to create the visual illusion of a person brought physically low by the holocaust.

Directed by Mike Figgis, there is an appropriately dreamy look to the film, helped along by Anthony Marinelli and Figgis’ own composition of the score. A jazz score that always underscores that this film will not head to a happy ending, even though the convention is that the drunk will be saved and sober up, helped along by the hooker with the heart of gold. Nope, real life is not often enough like that Hollywood ending and the real life plight of John O’Brien, the story’s writer, cements that.

This Vegas movie is not about Vegas, it is merely the backdrop to a man’s fall and a woman’s potential rise above her current lifestyle. The 90s’ filmgrain, which is quite thick, lends to this environment of forlornness, where every bright spot in Ben and Sera’s short time together is followed up by a reminder that none of this is going to last.

This sure sounds like a depressing watch and the film all but begins with the warning that don’t expect it to lighten up. I found it more sad than depressing. Maybe it was me knowing ahead of time that Ben was indeed doomed to the fate he had decided for himself, perhaps knowing eased that. Or I don’t know, maybe something more depressing in my own life actually made this an escape. A coolly filmed picture which better than any other movie in this series of mine makes you feel like you’re in Vegas, no matter the circumstances.

It’s not the best film about Vegas I’ve seen, but it’s the best set in Vegas I’ve seen.

Part Two: Coming this Weekend

Bengal’s 80s Retrospective Part XIV

Following this entry, I will be taking a break from this category to focus on films centered on Vegas, due to next month being my first trip to Sin City. For that reason, the naming joke inspired by Final Fantasy XIII will be scrubbed. That I felt I had to explain already ruined it anyway.

The impetus: seeing Gorillaz live for the first time. Well, you know, as live as the world’s most successful virtual band can be. If the background image for this website wasn’t any indication, Gorillaz is my favorite band and they will be part of the annual Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas. Other artists that I might check out for the one day of the festival I booked include Lorde and Pussy Riot. That latter act is quite something in terms of background but to keep focused, I would recommend looking them up on your own time.

Las Vegas is one of the few places in the world I can think up that can qualified as both the best and worst place to visit simultaneously. I don’t know if this registered with any of my readers over the years but I am not a fan of gambling. I don’t plan to do any kind of betting or game of chance in the one place other than maybe Monaco everybody knows it has in spades. There’s plenty of non-gambling hedonism to partake in, enough so that it will only mildly erode my soul. I’m there for two full days half a month from now so we will see how much more pathetic a human being I will be when I return home.

So, after this entry, I will be doing a series of films set in and around Vegas. They don’t necessarily involve gambling, but they do paint a picture of how our culture has come to understand or reckon with the artificial oasis. You can expect me to cover in the coming weeks the first of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films, Scorsese’s Casino, Levinson’s Bugsy, The first Hangover and a return to the beautifully sad mind of one Hunter S. Thompson, both through his immortal portrayal by Johnny Depp in the Fear and Loathing movie and a documentary about the man simply titled Gonzo.

But now, onto the 80’s cinema. This go-around, we’ll be coming some box office hits from early in the decade I hadn’t seen before and of course, another offering from Bollywood.

Scarface (1983)

Image from Taste of Cinema (Pacino may not be Cuban, but he does have that Cuban energy.)

Brian De Palma’s initially controversial remake of the early 30s’ gangster classic is now considered many things, all of them good. It’s considered one of the best remakes of all time, some would say one of the few that surpasses the original. It’s one of the best and most influential crime films. It’s one of Al Pacino’s best known roles with only his time as The Godfather’s Michael Corleone fighting for the spotlight.

Love or hate the movie, Pacino’s kinda goofy, kinda charming Cuban accent is unmistakably his. Everybody knows the voice, even the kids. The best known line of course is “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!”, which begins Tony Montana’s unforgettably violent last stand against the cartel he turned against, ironically for a moral reason.

It’s a line, taken out of context, that has made it’s presence known across all of popular culture, even extending to all-ages media. I certainly heard the line before I turned 13. Scarface is hardly a movie kids should watch. It’s less appropriate than even the most excessive stuff in any Godfather movie. There are moments where De Palma does leave some things up to the imagination and yet it makes it no less uncomfortable.

Scarface, no matter how you feel about it’s R-rated roughness, is a film that can’t be ignored, even after nearly 40 years. It’s influence as mentioned earlier continued to seep into later crime dramas. Alongside Miami Vice released the same year, it helped make Miami into one hell of a two-faced metropolis, beautiful and ugly, garish and artistic, tropical but very, very shady.

Regardless of the actual history of Miami as a 1980s’ nexus for drug smuggling and distribution, specifically cocaine, Scarface and Miami Vice did wonders in promoting this exotic Florida city with a bad side. Having visited Miami myself, first in 2006 back when I lived in the land of the Florida Man, despite its history and some really rundown aspects, I have perhaps a naive appreciation for the place.

Miami is one of the few things I missed about FL after leaving for greener(‘ricochet’) pastures in Colorado. It’s not just the cityscape and the public transit I loved, it was its immigrant flair through the great selection of foods from beyond our shores, predominantly Cuban.

Well, Scarface is the story of one Cuban immigrant trying to make it big in the land of opportunity. Following a real life exodus that Castro signed off on that sent many Cubans to America, Tony Montana goes from immigration holding camp, to street vendor to something just a little bit off the official channels of business offer.

At the time, one of the controversies surrounding Scarface was its accusation of anti-Cuban sentiment. Many of the Cubans that Castro was sending our way were considered “undesirables” by his government. Many had records that could or should be considered criminal or at least concerning. While we never get to know the full background of who Tony Montana was before he made it to Miami, it was certainly nothing that either the Cuban or American authorities would call “above board.”

The protagonist was viewed as an ugly avatar of all the potential bad that can come through allowing immigration. It’s a discomforting, bigoted notion that is more noteworthy now in the Trump era than it was back in the Carter/Reagan period. However, De Palma is never as simple as that.

Keep in mind that many of the “opportunities” that Tony embraces to eventually become a drug baron came from the circumstances that can be called a result of America’s (ongoing) failure to allow the newcomer to often have a chance, or at least a legal chance, at the big time. Sure, Tony had pre-existing skills from his life in Cuba to make him a violent enforcer for organized crime, but the people that hired him had been American for awhile or all their life. He gets his start going up the ladder from American criminals. In turn, he undergoes a journey into the dark underbelly of the American Dream.

Eventually, to expand his business, he gets involved with the Bolivian drug operation, but can it not be said, in a dark fashion, that Tony Montana is ultimately an American Made Man.

A lot of what Scarface has to offer can come across as pretty familiar, but that is the fault of this film’s impact. You have his elderly mother, herself an immigrant who does not approve of him becoming a cold-blooded criminal boss, all while he casually blows off his Madre’s concerns. He has his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who he slowly but surely gets her caught up in the hedonism that comes from his ill-gotten gains, all while acting overly protective, eventually to a tragic extreme.

He ignores the clear warnings from his higher-ups in the drug trafficking empire that no matter what, don’t screw with their plans. He gets a trophy wife, played by an early Michelle Pfeiffer, who he often ignores for all of the other riches he has. For those who have taken Scarface as an uncritical look at attaining power and wealth through criminal action, one should look at how increasingly lonely Tony gets as the film goes on, how it, as everyone is vaguely knowledgeable of, ends him with getting blown off a balcony in the back by a shotgun into a indoor fountain.

As a modern viewer, I was aware of Tony’s fate for much of my life. It’s not so much that the familiarity of the experience is a downer, it’s an appreciation for what Scarface captured in the zeitgeist. If what Scarface did didn’t work, would it have been repeated, referenced like it was?

What keeps Scarface fresh enough is enjoying Al Pacino’s performance. Yes, the accent is thick and can be distracting from the weight of a lot of scenes. But then again, it isn’t Scarface without that voice. Seeing Tony go from calm and collected yet cocky to a vicious, frightening beast of a man is maybe what redeems Pacino’s choice of approach best. Also, no matter what you have to say about Tony Montana as a person, in how he may perpetuate a bad influence on male masculinity, make no mistake. They’re worse gangsters than Tony Montana. Hell, he’s killed by those that are worse.

When it comes down to it, the biggest kick I got out of finally seeing the 83′ Scarface was its impact on the Grand Theft Auto series. 2002’s Vice City is essentially a massive love letter to Scarface among other things. You have a small time but talented mook, Italian-American not Cuban this time, who rises to the top of Vice City’s (Miami’s) criminal food chain.

He even gets a mansion almost exactly like the one Tony has. The final mission is an extended riff on the final moments of the movie. Except, Vice City’s “hero” Tommy Vercetti survives. The game goes out of its way to show the playable Tommy avoiding all the mistakes that sunk Tony. He doesn’t imbibe in his own product, cocaine, and is thus clear-headed to defeat the criminals storming his estate. You get to witness an alternate scenario where Tony wins in the end through Vercetti. And that’s before an actual Scarface game in the vein of GTA would do just that itself.

Scarface also has the Giorgio Moroder produced song “Push it to the Limit”, that was included along with some other pop songs from the movie in the car radio for Grand Theft Auto III, released a year before Vice City. That game made GTA into an undeniable force on both gaming and popular culture. You’ve heard much about Scarface’s impact on gangster cinema. Well, never forget that much of Grand Theft Auto’s early success can be partially credited to both Brian De Palma and Tony Montana.

Say goodnight to the bad guy, indeed.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Image from Youtube (You know this scene cause Simpsons.)

An Officer and a Gentleman would’ve been the biggest film of 1982 if it wasn’t for a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman and an alien dialing his buddies for a ride home. If nothing else, this film is all about showcasing how more often an R-rated movie could make crazy big box office gold.

As the header image shows, and really, could I show anything else, it’s how the film ends that is best remembered. With early 80s’ pop blaring, Zack Mayo (yes, that’s his name), having become at last the film’s title, marches over to garment worker Paula, shows her he’s gone the distance and delivers her to a world less depressing than being forever stuck as a factory seamstress. She, too, has made it. Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes then serenade us all with their hit single, “Up where we Belong”.

You likely know the ending, but do you know how it came to happen? That’s less known unless you were there yourself in 82′. Mayo, played with distinction by a young Richard Gere, is the son of a very disgraced Boatswain, played in a role tailor-made for Robert Loggia. He gets sick of living with his always drunk, always lecherous father in the Philippines. He wants to make something of himself, be better than a father who has long since given up on even caring.

He heads over to AOCS, the Aviation Officer Candidate School, in Washington State. Upon arriving, he is greeted by the expectedly nasty drill sergeant Emil Foley, played by Louis Gossett Jr. in an Oscar winning role. And boy oh boy, does he have some things to say to the cadets. OK, I know it’s the 1980s and that a drill sergeant is supposed to say demeaning things to you, but goddamn if it actually made it harder for me to like this guy, especially since over the course of the movie Foley becomes more of a father figure to Zack than his actual dad ever did.

If the crude, cruel imagination of Foley’s style seems familiar upon viewing this flick, there’s a reason. The guy who was the advisor on being a drill instructor is….

Image from The Guardian

Gossett Jr.’s Foley is also present for the other scene you might be familiar with even if you hadn’t seen AOAAG. I didn’t know about the scene beforehand, but it involves our boy Zack at the lowest point of his time at the Academy, making up for breaking the rules at his dormitory. Forced to perform manual labor outside in the scorching heat, all while Foley glowers and constantly belittles him. He keeps on egging him into asking why his ass is till hanging on to a place undeserving of him in which Zack replies “I HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!” He then proceeds to sob and even Foley is left with pause.

If it wasn’t clear from me summarizing one of the few moments you might remember from this flick, Zack struggles to make candidate for the Air Force. While he handles the physical stuff quite well, from an obstacle course, from an underwater cockpit ditching exercise to a pressure chamber, it’s the more “civil” training and following all of the absolute guidelines that he gets hung up on. Of course his father’s influence, by nurture and by nature, can be inferred. The same can’t be said for his cadet buddy Sid (David Keith).

A number of factors, internal and external, just break the guy overtime, leading to a pretty hard sequence to just look at. While he does pretty swell on the obstacle course, it’s the other two physical challenges that he blows pretty bad. On top of that, he like Zack, begins a relationship with a “townie”, young attractive ladies who try to make it big with potential candidates.

According to the film’s logic, and I have no way of ascertaining how valid this was and still is now, if the townie’s cadet lover doesn’t make it through the school, then they will be stuck forever at the nearby garment factory. Apparently it is impossible for Paula (Debra Winger) or Lynette (Lisa Blount) to achieve any other aspirations or success if their cadet boyfriends wash out. I don’t buy it, as an outsider looking in.

If his poor performance in the school wasn’t enough, Sid is further weighed down by thinking that his townie girlfriend Lynette is pregnant with his child. Thinking that does give Sid a second wind of determination. He eventually concludes he isn’t cut for AOCS, but still does the gallant thing and offers to support Lynette. What a Chad.

I’m inferring to 40 year old spoilers here, but that is not exactly how it plays out. After all, Sid’s failure must further emphasis Zack’s eventual success by contrast. Zack shacks up with Paula, portrayed by an early Debra Winger, who first came to attention two years earlier in Travolta’s Urban Cowboy. An Officer and a Gentleman remains one of her best known roles, even if the actress looks back on it rather apathetically, as little more than a paycheck role. We’re not done with Winger, as she will be the main character of the next movie to tackle.

Paula, compared to Lynette, certainly has more scruples as it will turn out. While she remains resigned to the idea that Zack won’t make it, she of course comes to also care for him anyway. I honestly view her not unlike of all things a Disney Princess, stuck in a mundane or banal position in life, waiting for someone or something to sweep her off her feet to a better future, a whole new world. An interesting comparison I just made, considering the frank love scene that occurs between Gere and Winger.

There’s an undeniable, of-its-time melodrama that hangs over Officer and Gentleman. It doesn’t feature the kind of 80s’ score I look forward to but to be fair, this is still the early 80s. But hey, despite my deep reservations about a piece of media, no matter how old, that uncritically espouses the virtues of being part of the American military machine, this is still an engaging story about a man, physically grown up, who gets to emotionally grow up and find a gal.

Before I close out this part, I cannot ignore Lisa Eilbacher’s performance as Cadet Casey Seeger, one of the few female cadets. It should be noted that this was actually an unlikely scenario to happen in real life at the time, a female cadet for the Aviation Office. There were roles then that could be available, like being part of a radar plane crew but not piloting a fighter jet. That option wouldn’t be around until the late 90s’.

Casey excels in the academic stuff but struggles with the physical, mostly relating to the obstacle course. Of course, near film’s end, Zack helps motivate her to cross over that last obstacle and beat the course, making her into a gentlewoman. You know, with Casey in mind, it would be kind of interesting to see a gender inverted version of this story with the officer female and the townie male.

The irony behind the scenes was that Eilbacher was actually a female bodybuilder. In truth, she stood a better chance of getting through the obstacle course faster than any of her male actors, including Gere and Keith. She had to pretend to be the least physically strong of the cadets, but isn’t all pretend anyway?

So, yeah, check it out, if you haven’t already. This declaration of mine seems less necessary when I cover movies that were blockbusters but then again, a lot of this movie hasn’t stayed common knowledge so maybe if need be, check it out again.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Image from IMDB (A mother, her boyfriend and a worn-down daughter in what I imagine is the blistering Houston sun.)

Quick, off the top of your head, what do you think was the second biggest film of 1983? Ignore this part if you’re entirely unknowledgeable of such matters. A hint is that the last original Star Wars movie was number one.

Second only to Return of the Jedi is this R-rated family drama starring a returning Debra Winger as a daughter becoming a mother under the shadow of her overly neurotic mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. As Winger’s Emma marries Jeff Daniel’s Flap( roll with it) and moves from Houston all the way to Des Moines for his College teaching job, MacLaine’s mommy Aurora deals with being without her daughter and finds companionship with the neighbor Garrett (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic astronaut.

As for what the film is about, it’s one of those movies where it’s not readily apparent while watching it. Directed by James L. Brooks, one of the three men responsible for giving us The Simpsons, I think it’s about how one person’s real life quirks and traumas (the mother) help mold the kind of person the child becomes (the daughter). How many of the actions: good, bad or inbetween Emma makes in her life going forward were the result, in nature and nurture, of her mother?

There’s also the dynamic of strained connection between parent and child. Despite being either in her late 20s or 30s by the time she marries and leaves her mom, Aurora clearly goes through some kind of empty nest syndrome and finding a potential new partner (from a guy who claims he’s not about that life) is to help alleviate that as well as the earlier issues she’s been dealing with even before her daughter’s birth.

Emma and Flap’s relationship starts off quite well, neither glorious or horrid. But, the growing strains of them being parents to ultimately three kids begins to chill the love. Both of them start to engage in extramarital affairs. We see Emma’s more closely with Sam (John Lithgow), an older, middle-aged guy who turns out to be pretty sweet-natured. Both ends of the coupling prove how hypocritical their disdain at the other’s cheating is, though because we see this almost entirely from Emma’s perspective, and we see the kind of guy she’s (maybe) sleeping with, I at least tended to be more forgiving of her infidelity compared to Flap’s.

Am I engaging in a double standard being more OK with her over his affair? Possibly, but then again, the framing of perspective might’ve convinced me to think against my own general stances on marital infidelity.

But all of the plot threads come to a head and connect through the unifying thread of Emma getting CANCER. DUN DUN DUN. A cancer development occurring in a narrative can seem like an overly obvious even cheap way to escalate the drama, but the handling of Emma’s slow decline helps reshape how you viewed her relationship with her family, especially her husband and mother.

Why is the film called Terms of Endearment anyway? Could be that once the cancer hits, mother and daughter are forced to come to honest reckoning with how they feel about one another, since the end, as it’s made clear, is near. Considering her mother’s psychological influence, can Emma look at her mother and really love her? She might’ve inadvertently helped along the deterioration in her marriage with Flap. A butterfly effect if you will, but without time travel. The conclusion they come to before it’s too late is up for you to see for yourself.

Danny DeVito’s also in it and has quite high billing. He acts as one of Shirley’s suitors following her daughter’s move up north. I’m honestly puzzled by DeVito’s billing as he really feels tangential to the story, especially when Nicholson arrives with his apparently, irresistibly snarky voice. He doesn’t have many lines or scenes and I honestly forgot at one point he was in it. I don’t know when DeVito started getting big to warrant such attention in the marketing, but here we are.

Why was this decent film the second biggest movie behind Star Wars? In all honesty, ROTJ had a massive lead in box office over TOE. Episode VI made $309 million in 83′ money while Terms of Endearment made $108 million. But silver place is still silver place. It could have been the cast, with MacLaine and Nicholson’s involvement. Winger is also a factor due to appearing in Officer and a Gentleman the prior year. It had positive word of mouth from the critics on top of that so it all combined to make it the hit film it was.

I seriously have no idea if a movie like Terms of Endearment could be a blockbuster in this day and age. If nothing else, that consideration helps further cement it as a noteworthy film of its time and a just saccharine enough yet grounded experience to have while looking back at the past.

Saaheb (1985) (India)

Image from Dailymotion (Anil Kapoor is back to suffer for your Bolly Entertainment!)

Anil Kapoor is one of the most recurring faces in my ongoing, nearly completed selection of 80s Bollywood cinema. He might well be the leading man of the time as other major figures like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan have appeared less from my recollection.

He plays the titular figure of Saaheb, a young man living the dream as a football (Soccer) star on the rise. And yet, the responsibilities of his extended family which all live together keep him tethered from moving out in the world.

Eventually, one of his sister’s is about to marry, and the expense of the marriage is so high that they will have to sell their ancestral home. Eventually, Saaheb learns of a risky alternative to that drastic measure: selling one of his kidneys. A wealthy business owner has a dying son and Saaheb is a valid donor. However, and this could speak more to the risks of the Indian health industry at the time than anything else but there is a risk that poor Saaheb could die on the operating table.

My mom is a nurse so maybe she could tell me what the current day risks, if any, for an American kidney removal operation. On top of that, the kidney removal, even if a complete success, would make it impossible for Saaheb to continue his Football career. I don’t remember what the film says happens to the body to make having only one kidney something to poo-poo an athletic career, but basically, for the love of his family, he’s putting more than his life on the line.

Why this self-sacrificial path he’s going through? It’s not simply that it’s the only way to afford the wedding without losing a house. Well, leading up to his dramatic decision, he is seen as the underachiever or the “black sheep” of the family. In spite of what I imagine would be considerable wealth attained from a successful football career (It’s commonly stated or assumed that one of the few ways a kid from a Brazilian favela can escape said favela is through becoming a Soccer player), his earnings aren’t really helping at all his family situation.

So, to prove to his family, especially his sisters and father, that he really does love them, in secret he gets an advance payout for the operation so the family may proceed with the wedding and on the wedding day does he grimly head over to the hospital.

The sequence showing the interplay of the happy family and friends at the wedding with Saaheb’s kidney operation is played for great effect. The million dollar question is if the operation works, does Saaheb survive? You should know by now that I rarely give away the result, unless for the sake of a point I want to make. Or, like in Scarface and Officer and Gentleman’s case, the conclusion is well-known or unavoidable.

To be honest and this wouldn’t be the first time, I have forgotten a lot of Saaheb since I saw it weeks prior. It runs around 150 minutes and the third act really is the part meant to linger in memory. I do wonder if the film being in Hindi, a language I do not know, does affect my memory. Often, when I think about many Japanese films I’ve watched, like from Kurosawa’s, I struggle to remember any lines of dialogue.

While looking at English subtitles, the delivery in Japanese or in Saaheb’s case Hindi does take away from recalling what was said. I remember the context and the outcomes of scenes based mostly on body language and the actions of the players, but I do regret it can’t be better than that for me.

I should recall more from a 150 minute movie, but maybe the other Bollywood films and just the great number of films I digest nowadays does a number on the memory banks. It’s a shame, I’ve been told my memory is great.

So, yeah, like with most films I’ve covered, give Saaheb a chance. Just it’s melodramatic but heartfelt climax is enough to recommend. I remember that, if nothing else.

Next time: VEGAS part I

Bengal’s 80s’ Retrospective Part XIII: CANNON’S REVENGE

Author’s note: the next three entries’ titling, including this one is an extended riff on the Final Fantasy game series. An inevitable joke since I chose Roman numerals to number this series. If you don’t get the joke, look it up if you care enough to find out. If you do get the joke, well then you do.

It’s time to return to the glory of 80s’ action cheese, where the adrenaline is matched only by its commitment to stupidity of varying degree. There were many sources for the especially tasty 1980s flavor of this cheese and one of the best purveyors was the American-Israeli film company Cannon-Globus or The Cannon Group. Last featured in my covering of the glorious NINJA trilogy, this often maligned side of filmmaking for the time would actually create some works that won respect or even acclaim, begrudging or otherwise. One of the films to be featured down this long pipeline will be Runaway Train. Basically Unstoppable, that OK Chris Pine/ Denzel Washington vehicle, but with a lot more balls.

Say what you will about Jon Voight now, but back when he appeared in this essentially “Mad Max but Train” flick, you couldn’t help but respect his integrity in seeing that kind of production through. As the excellent documentary “Electric Boogaloo” would delve into, Cannon were THE creators of fun, often not great B-movies of the era. Some were just plain bad, no cult following to really mitigate matters, others approached so bad, it’s good or reached an alternative plain of existence where they were good in an entirely different way.

Before we delve into two of these movies, starring one of the Cannon mainstays Michael DUDIKOFF, let’s tap into a non-Cannon B-film that had actually died in production in 1984 but was resurrected last year for all the world to see. Presenting: John Liu’s once thought lost NEW YORK NINJA.

New York Ninja (1984/2021)

Image by IMDB (No one will see this white-clad master of stealth…UNTIL IT’S TOO LATE.)

As far as I can tell, the biggest modern additions to allow New York NINJA to be released in an acceptable state is a massive redubbing of all the dialogue. This is especially true for the original director, writer and starring actor John Liu. I seriously doubt that Liu’s voice then and now sounds remotely like the dubbed voice, now voiced by kickboxing legend Don “THE DRAGON” Wilson.

We will probably never now how bad or (maybe ?) good the original performances were, but when you get into the bad acting of this 2021 cut, you know in your heart that the intention was to go for an overblown, decidedly not good take. Knowing it was intended to be bad, to capture the likely result of what this film would’ve been like had it actually made release in 84′ certainly gives it something of an edge in defense from any real criticism. It has a surprisingly great critical reception with the understanding that they know it’s supposed to be bad and that in doing so, it’s fulfilling its creative vision.

More than Cannon’s NINJA trilogy or the to be discussed next AMERICAN NINJA, New York NINJA shares a possibly unintentional identity with one of the cult greats of bad 80s action, martial arts based or otherwise: a film I love so much I got a poster of it: The Miami Connection.

Image from Enzian Theater (Bask in its splendor.)

Like NYN, Miami Connection was produced in 1987 by a South Korean-American man called Y.K. Kim. As that film will showcase well, his grasp on speaking English was not the best and it only makes the movie better. This guy was heavily involved in the whole thing, not unlike John Liu or for that matter, Tommy Wiseau.

Miami Connection and New York NINJA’S biggest connective tissue is not the similarity between creative heads, it’s use of martial arts and sharp weaponry to bring justice to ner’do’wells or that the acting is bad. It’s that both have plots and villain motivations that are hard to follow as all hell. Miami Connection eases you better overall through the confusing if even existent plot structure through its charming elements, one of which being its completely unironic, uncynical devotion to friendship and family above all else. The signature song, “Friends”, is a banger of a song to listen to, whether in an ironic or unironic mindset.

New York NINJA does not have those same strengths in carrying me through its muddled plotting. For that reason, whether the “bad” here was on purpose or not, I consider Miami Connection the superior movie. Some things about the synopsis are quite simple, certainly enough to hook the inclined like myself if they heard it.

Crime sweeps over the great city of New York. The Police are powerless to stop the roving gangs of eccentric thugs harassing, haranguing or worse the good people of the city. Women are especially prone to these street-level monsters and one Asian-American man, Liu, and Nita, his hot Caucasian wife, learn this ugly reality.

The poor woman is found by a gang and killed. Liu, upon learning of his wife’s fate, screams in the most hilarious manner fathomable up into the air, “WHHHHYYYYYYYYYYY???!!!!!!!!!!!” Trust me, it’s funny. Now, having lost the one he loves most to the worms of the Big Apple, he takes up his Ninjutsu Code and becomes: THE NEW YORK NINJA.

Mostly in broad daylight, he dons his all white uniform and confronts the many gangs of the city and shows them justice as only a NINJA can provide. One sequence involving roller-skates is quite amusing, to say the least. He becomes a bonafide vigilante, and he is embraced essentially as a superhero. Despite committing lethal vigilante acts against the criminals of the city, the people love him. Merchandise, especially for the kids, is created and distributed across town.

Liu finds it both amusing and hopeful, thinking it can inspire New York’s people to rise up and defend themselves, inspired by the NINJA’s example. It would be one thing if this was a non-lethal vigilante like Batman, Spider-Man or Daredevil. Instead, he is like the Punisher, but far less grimacing and more, well, NINJA than not.

While the public authorities have their qualms and apparently little more than that with an American citizen taking the law into their own hands, the rest of the non-criminal public can’t get enough of him. He is stopping what the NYPD seems completely incapable of even starting to do. I was going to make a joke about the Uvalde PD and I think it would still be allowable since I’m explicitly mocking them, not anyone else, but any connection to a group of dead kids makes me uncomfortable. It’s like a 9/11 joke where the punchline is aimed squarely at the terrorists and no one else.

However, dark forces within the rotten underbelly of NYC conspire to stop the New York NINJA from his plans to clean the streets with his katana, tanto, shruikens and what else. The lead bad guy is known only as The Plutonium Killer and he is something else. This guy apparently gets off on finding women taken off the street and exposing them to lethal levels of radiation.

He also points that radiation right at his face for pleasure. How this never kills him, never explained. The worst is that his face gets messier but otherwise he’s A-OK to keep being the most expensive serial killer ever. Why didn’t Doc Brown get his plutonium from him and his handlers? Ethics? Can’t be, he did go to Libyan terrorists in the end. But this guy’s not an ocean away, come on Doc!

Why does the Plutonium Killer and his handlers/ assistants, one who looks like Agent Smith crossed with a College age Yuppie, want to kill the New York NINJA? I guess it’s preemptive, as if the NINJA keeps on cleaning the city, eventually he will run into their bizarre and counterproductive form of human trafficking eventually. Turns out to be a wise assumption, as Liu does eventually start to target the trafficking ring, as it connects to his wife’s fate.

I will admit, good chunks of my memory for this film are shoddy. I did see it awhile ago, recorded on TCM. The dubbing might’ve done a number on sometimes understanding all the dialogue and I wish I could’ve had subtitles. It does end on quite a note I can tell you. I was first made aware of New York NINJA by the Double Toasted people, as part of their Bad Movie Roast segments, possibly the best reason to be subscribed to their YouTube channel. Their dunking of NEW YORK NINJA showed off a lot of the highlights of the film, so they weren’t as fresh or surprising when I saw the film in its entirety.

The funniest moment of both the movie and their roast was at the end, with the hilariously bad way the NINJA does in the bad guys. It is almost literally a cartoon. I won’t spoil it, so check the film out or watch Double Toasted’s deep dive on it.

Of course I recommend checking out New York NINJA. If you have already seen Cannon’s trilogy, it is a must. For the kind of “quality” I expect and desire from these movies, it’s not as good as the NINJA trilogy or the aforementioned Miami Connection. It’s not as good as the film coming up, but it is still good enough to see. If nothing else, seeing a film resurrected out of the blue thirty-seven years later is still an accomplishment in some way and viewing it honors it as such.

American Ninja (1985)

Image from Kung Fu Kingdom (The Gaijin with Honor.)

Michael Dudikoff, who is totally a dude, stated on the Electric Boogaloo documentary that he put his all into being Joe Armstrong, the titular Ninjutsu Yank. This was his first starring role and he wanted to show to the rest of the world that he was committed, he was hungry, he was a man who could get the job DONE.

Well, thanks to the works of Cannon, he is at least remembered. He created a legacy through his time with this beautiful schlock. I won’t lie, based on the two movies here to feature him, Dudikoff is actually a pretty good actor. Ironically, it was likely the stigma of being in numerous Cannon productions like the first, second and fourth American Ninjas that sunk his chances of reaching more prestigious work. This was not the Roger Corman School of Acting. Still, his undeniably confident presence with both American Ninja here and Avenging Force next does make him into what I think is a convincing and in some ways actually understated action hero. Perhaps in truth, too understated.

Joe Armstrong is an Army Private at an American military installation somewhere in the Philippines. The U.S. Colonel’s daughter is kidnapped by, what else, NINJAS during a convoy. Thankfully Armstrong is there to strongarm those dastardly NINJAS and actually manages to rescue and bring back the daughter back to the installation before the 30 minute mark! That obviously means, by the logic of cinema, that this won’t be her last hostage situation.

The skills he uses to dispatch the NINJAS and get the colonel’s attractive daughter back causes suspicion amongst the troops back at base. Those skills weren’t in any of their training. One of the most suspicious, Corporal Curtis Jackson, soon becomes Armstrong’s best friend and ally after a one on one bout where he gets to see his Karate skills used on him and good.

There is a very heartwarming connection here as Jackson is played by Steve James, a real life martial artist and was Dudikoff’s best friend in life. Dudikoff was the one to convince Cannon to not only feature him here but in later American Ninjas and Avenging Force. The real life friendship angle is much more strongly felt in Avenging Force. Tragically, James died at only 41 from pancreatic cancer a month after I was born in 1993. Had he lived, he could’ve endured as an black 80s action legend alongside Carl Weathers, Bill Duke , Mr. T and Keith David.

Together, the two of them unravel a conspiracy where the nefarious Black Star NINJAS are under the employ of the black market kingpin Victor Ortega and based on the guy’s name, would it surprise you terribly that much of what he smuggles are drugs? More significantly, he smuggles weapons and one of those weapon’s clients is the Colonel himself. DUN DUN DUN. The Colonel’s name, William Hickock, and lifestyle screams Texan and he wants to arm dissidents and terrorists so there’s an excuse for ‘Murica to swing it’s Florida-sized tallywacker around and show the world what’s what. Why this guy would need to create an excuse while Reagan was in office is a question meant for greater minds.

Eventually, the Colonel’s beautiful daughter, who of course by 80s’ cinema law starts a romantic relationship with our hunky hero, gets wind of the conspiracy and that is what gets her kidnapped again, against the Colonel’s wishes this time. Only Joe Armstrong and Curtis Jackson can save the day. But wait, you ask. When is this American going to NINJA?

Well, the answer lies with Ortega’s kindly gardener for his opulent estate. In truth, he is a Japanese holdout soldier, a veteran of WW2 who refused to believe or accept Japan’s surrender for years after. How did this particular soldier holdout? What else, with ninjutsu. Eventually, he accepts the hard truth but refuses to return home. He makes a new life for himself in the Philippines. One day roughly a decade ago, he comes across a lone white boy out in the jungle, with no parents in sight.

This orphaned boy is brought up by the soldier and learns not just karate but the ninja way. Eventually the boy grows up into Michael Dudikoff and seeks a new path in life with the skills he was taught. He decides serving the stars and stripes is the honorable path, in spite of his master/ father figure’s….strained relationship with the U.S. Now, the hour is nigh and to truly stop Ortega, save his dear Patricia and be a mostly All-American hero, he must don the armor of the NINJA and take on Ortega and his NINJA forces alone.

At first, at least. Even with the awe inspiring power of the NINJA, it is still too much for Joe. Not too surprising, seeing as how he faces other NINJA. However, the Colonel attempts to redeem himself and launches an all out military assault on the estate. Curtis Jackson is of course along for the ride, packing heat riding on a jeep with a light machine gun blazing.

The third act of American Ninja is essentially the best GI JOE movie yet made. You have a bare-chested African-American soldier packing serious heat, like in the toyline/cartoon. You have NINJA enemies on both sides like the Joe’s Snake Eyes and Cobra’s Storm Shadow. And there is plenty of explosions, soldiers running in guns firing, and a general compulsion to salute the flag. There really should be a cut of the film where this clip’s tune is interlaced with the climax:

(F*** YEAH.)

The film ends in just about the most appropriately expected way not just a NINJA film but a GI JOE-like film should end. It’s predictable, but wonderfully executed. All the slower, NINJA-less moments fall away to how perfectly this conclusion fulfills Cannon’s action movie mission statement. Again, for the ultimate NINJA action, you have their trilogy, but for featuring various microcosms of the Cannon touch, you could do much worse than the first American Ninja.

But what about the other ones, four in total? I’ve heard the second one, subtitled The Confrontation, is worth watching as it has also attained cult status. Based on the trailer I saw, I would want to watch it as we have the dream duo of Dudikoff and James kicking ass once more. Sadly, on no platform or service I had could I find a way to rent and watch American Ninja 2, not even YouTube. I guess this movie will have to remain sheathed for the time being.

The other three are not considered worth watching, even by defenders of the kinds of movies these are. Dudikoff was replaced as the lead for 3 and 4 by David Bradley (No, not that David Bradley). Dudikoff costarred for the fourth movie so there’s that. The fifth movie, despite involving NINJAS and David Bradley is barely considered to be part of the series, due to originally being a whole other movie not connected to the first four and he plays a different character than before.

So, watch the first two movies, if you can, is the recommendation. It is a key component of a NINJA to not overstay your welcome after all.

Avenging Force (1986)

Image from Kung Fu Kingdom (Don’t hassle the Dudikoff.)

Dudikoff’s next film after American Ninja is actually meant to be the sequel to one of Chuck Norris’ most recognizable movies, with or without Cannon’s involvement: Invasion U.S.A.

Image from The Action Elite (About as close to quintessential 80s’ fused with Chuck Norris as is humanly possible.)

In that movie, our boy Chuck plays Matt Hunter, a retired U.S. super soldier living a peaceful life in the last place a normal person like me would want to be in: Everglades Florida. However, vile Communist forces destroy his stilt-home and kill his war buddy, almost taking him down with it. Almost. Those dirty Commies, get this, launch an invasion of America, attacking the Deep South, the place most likely for the average American to be packing.

They waste precious resources on this already suicidal attack by firing rocket launchers into Norman Rockwell neighborhoods during Christmas time. Strategic targets, schmegic largets. Norris’ Matt Hunter begins a one man mission to stop the Communist invasion and kill their ringleader, who has a deathly fear of him, and for good reason.

At the admittedly pretty epic final battle where the Communist invasion force is cornered and defeated in downtown Atlanta, the ringleader Rostov is taken out by Hunter with an unfoldable rocket launcher and blown the hell up. Cannon was really in to this idea in 1985 as the same year Charles Bronson would dispose the lead bad guy of Death Wish 3 in the same way.

But that’s the background of Invasion U.S.A. How does it connect to Avenging Force? The main character is called Matt Hunter. That’s basically it. No mention is made of how, I’m guessing a year ago, there was a stupid but no less real ground invasion of the United States. Hunter played by Dudikoff looks entirely different from Norris, talks differently and his mannerism is distinct enough from Norris. Aside from being calm under pressure, badass killing machines with a hankering for justice, there is no connection to the Hunter of Invasion U.S.A. Fans of both movies basically separate the films as not being in connection with one another easily.

Instead of living in the worst place for a human to live in Florida (arguably), Matt Hunter now lives in a different American swamp, Louisiana boys and girls. Within driving distance of New Orleans, he and his teenage sister co-own a ranch with James’ Larry Richards and his family. Larry’s running for U.S. Senate and that makes him the target of some very, very unpleasant fellows.

During a Mardi Gras celebration, assassins start lighting up the parade with the intention of killing Larry and his family. Dudikoff’s Hunter dispatches of them in a battle that goes from the street to the rooftops. They soon learn that an extremely right wing cult called the Pentangle is responsible for the attack and want to bring down Richards and anyone else in their way for their horrid plan for America.

What is the Pentagle’s platform? Anti-immigration, extreme gun rights and you guessed it, anti-minority. The Pentangle is deadly clear that if you ain’t white, you ain’t right. It’s not explicitly stated, but they consider Matt Hunter to be little more than a race traitor. In fact, the politics of Avenging Force are distressingly relevant despite dating back from 1986. We now live in an era where the extreme Far Right have been ascendant in this country.

Whether it started under Trump with MAGA or there were earlier seeds, we now live in a frightening time when it comes to the positions of those in power. Look at the likes, with both their words and their actions of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tom Cotton and Ron DeSantis and you will see something familiar in the words and actions of those who make up the Pentangle.

Yes, I am saying that a dumb 80s’ action movie has a shockingly strong and prescient political message. To be honest, despite being placed under the category of “dumb 80s’ action”, Avenging Force is honestly not that bad or dumb. Maybe I’m missing something or I’m too enamored in the Cannon style of action/ drama cinema, but this is generally speaking a solid action thriller.

One component which adds to it being a “thriller” is that the Pentangle like to play a special game with enemies they capture. To their victims, including Matt Hunter and his sister, they sadly happen to be a fan of Richard Connell. Namely, his most famous work, The most Dangerous Game.

Donning a variety of creepy masks and grabbing their weapon of choice, the Pentangle members corral their “game” into the Louisiana bayou. Then, they get on a jet boat, enter the bayou and begin the hunt through the swamp individually.

It’s bad enough their targets have to navigate and survive in, you know, the Louisiana Bayou, now they have to deal with a bunch of predatory Conservatives. Hunter is a badass, no lie. But unlike the Norris Hunter, this one seems more vulnerable, more prone to making little mistakes that could cost him. The third act involving the Hunters vs Hunter involves desperate survival in the bog that leads to a no less desperate duel in the lead Pentangle’s mansion involving antique weapons. I thought it was quite thrilling stuff.

The film ends on a surprisingly intelligent, not naïve note about the kind of enemy Hunter is facing. He learns that the Pentangle’s reach goes further into the American government then at first thought. The metaphor at play here is not exactly subtle but it’s no less stirringly on the mark for it. In a more typical 80s/90s’ action flick move, Hunter coldly tells the Pentangle member hiding in plain sight that he’s coming for the whole organization and then walks towards the camera as the credits start rolling. Accompanied by some sweet 80s’ synth music that keeps you in that determined mood, like Hunter.

Avenging Force is possibly neck in neck with the NINJA trilogy for the best I’ve seen of the Cannon Group catalogue. It’s B-movie action is well executed, it’s themes and messages is more than you would expect. Even its handling of certain cliches endemic to both the genre and the time period don’t quite happen the way you think they would

. You’re probably guessing that Steve James’ Larry Richards, an African-American politician, is going to die. Well, I’m not saying you’re wrong. But the film actually surprises you when it happens and in terms of how it’s framed. You are likely expecting him to be bite the bullet earlier than it occurs. It’s not free of 80s’ convention but it’s also not beholden either. I give the heartiest recommendation so far for the not-sequel to Invasion U.S.A.

Now, let’s cap it off in the expected fashion, with a Bollywood film.

Meri Jung (1985)

Image from IMDB (This Bolly brother and sister go through a lot this go around.)

As I watch more and more of Bollywood’s extensive number of worthwhile films from the 1980s’, I keep thinking of declaring a single movie to recommend if you only have time to see one to get an idea of the Indian film industry’s tenets and trends at the time. Considering the often daunting runtimes, that’s not an unreasonable consideration.

To be featured in a later part is Karma, which while I wouldn’t call it the quintessential 80s Bollywood film, it is possibly the most patriotic film of them all. Hell, it might be one of the most patriotic films I’ve ever seen, regardless of what flag it salutes. There is also Shakti, which as a filmmaking effort, might be the best overall movie, no matter how it relates to ticking off the boxes of being Bollywood.

For a film that showcases the conventions of the older Bollywood experience, in that it has the musical numbers, the dance numbers, contemporary moralizing, dastardly villains you can’t wait (and you will wait) to see get comeuppance and this not having exactly the best staged but no less engaging action, Meri Jung has you.

This is also the time to talk about one of the most prolific figures of 80s’ Bollywood. Every other Bollywood film I’ve talked about and more has had Anil Kapoor, as you can see from the header above. This guy is just awesome. His youthful face and well-kept almost Tom Selleck mustache helps make him a distinguished leading man as he is here. No, his name is not Meri Jung. That’s Hindi for “My Battle“. What a battle it is.

Arun is a man who has lost so much. His father, innocent of a crime he didn’t commit, is nontheless tried in a court and sentenced to death by hanging. The prosecutor who convinced the jury to condemn the father to death is actually someone you might recognize if you’re not from India. G.D. Thakral, the utterly scummy and proud of it attorney that torments Arun and his family is played by Amrish Puri. Still don’t know, how about this?

Image from YouTube (A man after your own heart.)

That’s right, the villain of the Indy film you either love or hate is here. And that’s hardly the only villainous turn from him in his career. Puri was actually a go-to guy to play bad guys in Bollywood. I don’t know if Spielberg or Lucas saw a Bollywood film featuring him before beginning production of Temple of Doom, simply heard that this particular guy would be good for the role or what, but it’s a strangely comforting thought Mr. Puri has been a big screen menace for both the Indian and American moviegoer.

Now you can say plenty about Temple of Doom’s handling of Indian culture, let alone Hinduism (Not the best), but man does Mola Ram leave an impression. Puri’s signature, controversial scene of pulling a poor guy’s heart out not only helped inspire the PG-13 rating’s creation but it inspired one of the earliest and most iconic “fatality” finishing moves in Mortal Kombat, which in turn helped lead to the creation of the ESRB rating system for video games. So in a Kevin Bacon way, Amrish Puri helped push the envelope.

What makes Arun’s and his family’s hatred for Thakral even more stark is that Arun actually found evidence that would be enough to clear his father’s name. He races back to the court room to prevent the hanging. He’s too late. In turn, Arun studies to become an attorney at law so he can judiciously get not revenge but justice on Thakral, not just for what he’s done to his family, including his mother who suffers a psychological breakdown, but for everyone screwed over by the indifferent criminal lawyer.

Arun begins to make waves as a justice-driven, law-abiding attorney who fights not for the most money he can get on a case (you know, like the stereotypical lawyer), but for the fairest outcome of the case. Alongside the supremely melodramatic subplot involving her mother’s condition, the seemingly Bollywood desire to be entirely, gloriously unsubtle flares up when Anil Kapoor’s Arun is on the court room floor, orating heartily his stance about justice, about what he’s fighting for. It’s here where the film’s opinion about how the Indian justice system should be better is most apparent.

But slowly yet surely, Thakral makes plans to ruin Arun’s life all over, not knowing he had already done so. A new case opens up over the supposed malpractice of a female doctor, who, shocker, becomes Arun’s love interest. Well after I had seen Meri Jung, very recently in fact, I watched Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer fighting a seemingly impossible medical malpractice case, with him pitted against the slimy defendant lawyer played by James Mason in one of his last roles.

I won’t talk about The Verdict much as I watched it to be featured later on the 80’s Retrospective. But having just seen it, that Meri Jung has a plot element involving a doctor accused of malpractice involving a villainous lawyer versus heroic lawyer seemed quite peculiar. The Verdict released in 1982, Meri Jung in 1985. The details between movies are not exact and the malpractice case is the bulk of the Verdict, the one in Meri Jung is only in the second act, to help establish Arun and Thakral as being opposing forces and to start up the former’s relationship with the doctor.

Because the movie is 167 minutes and it’s been a good number of weeks since I’ve seen it, forgive me if I don’t recall every plot element or moment in general. You might have to get used to me making that apology as the series pushes forward. I actually want to spare you details on how the film reaches its third act here due to me positioning Meri Jung as being the sole Bollywood film for the curious but time-conscious reader to watch.

What else I can say is that the music, as is expected, is quite good. I was so compelled I checked iTunes to see if the soundtrack for this 1985 Bollywood movie was available and to my surprise it was, along with a good number of other soundtracks. The song that plays in the accompaniment of Arun showing off one of his other talents, with the piano, is the standout track. It’s a somber yet dramatic song about his family’s struggles, struggles for not just justice but just trying to live as happy a life as is possible in 80s’ India.

Meri Jung winning the “gateway” selection from me is also important due to Anil Kapoor’s appearence. Many consider Meri Jung to have one of his finest performances of his career and the presence of a more likely familiar face in Puri also helps ease it into being chosen here. If only it could’ve had other Bollywood heavyweights like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan and then it would be overqualified.

Come for the Indian Judicial drama, stay for the sudden but welcome dancing and singing.

Next time: Dunno.

More Marvel, more Problems: Reviews for Thor 4 and Ms. Marvel, guest starring The Boys Season 3 (Spoilers)

Image from Memphis Flyer (Two Thors, the rock guy from Neverending Story and a black, bisexual Valkyrie.)

San Diego was the place to learn about the future of the world’s biggest media series, the MCU.

Phase 4 is ending likely on a much needed high note with Black Panther 2. Phase 5 will open with Ant-Man’s third outing and will consist of two years like the current phase we’re in. Phase 6 will occur entirely in one year and will feature the new, hopefully improved Fantastic Four and the fifth and sixth Avengers. If nothing else, a sense of direction towards an ‘event’ level set of movies is welcome and very needed. If all turns out well, it might make reappraisal for the current set of films and shows we’ve gotten recently occur, for the most part. As for how they stand on their own, well….

My thoughts on Moon Knight and Doctor Strange 2 are already on site. Now, before She-Hulk and Black Panther’s return, let’s delve into two properties that are not exactly bad but endemic to an issue certainly discussed much in the past several months. If I could have it a different way, I would take people’s discussion over the state of a fictional universe and place that concerned passion over something far more meaningful by several thousands fold. Namely, a dying planet and the corrupt, sociopathic institutions that enable that slide downward. But you can’t always have what you want, even if it’s to the benefit of more than yourself. Anyway…..

Thor: Love and Thunder

I really wanna like Thor’s fourth, possibly last solo movie, though not final appearence. Conceptually speaking, Taika Waititi and Chris Hemsworth had the right idea with how to follow up both Thor Ragnarok and the titular character’s part played in Infinity War and Endgame. How it ends I’m genuinely quite fine with. You might agree but your enthusiasm for it’s outcome may not mirror your “agreement”. It resolves a romantic subplot that was seemingly abandoned for good with Thor and Jane Foster’s love story that was seen as too conventional for many. Natalie Portman agreed with that, hence why she was gone for a good amount of time. Then, a surprise cameo appearence in Endgame and the announcement that she was back as Jane Foster for Thor 4.

Recently in the comics, 2014 exactly, Marvel made the controversial decision to make one of Thor’s most enduring love interests, the mortal human doctor into a person who could wield the power of Thor, even taking on his Norse loverboy’s namesake, that itself being one of the sticking points for criticism. Wielding a new hammer distinct from Mjolnir, she basically became a new helmeted figure fighting the good, Scandinavian fight but it came with a catch.

Jane Foster had gotten terminal cancer and her chances of survival were expectably low. However, for reasons I could research right now but won’t, she become worthy of Thor’s power while also gaining some new abilities unique to her iteration. It even made her start speaking Shakespearean. As ‘The Mighty Thor’, it kept her cancer at bay but the continued use of her hammer would worsen the cancer. Don’t know Comic Jane’s current status or whether comic Thor has gone back to basics, but that is the comic book background to explain not only Jane’s cinematic return, but why Portman was convinced to return.

The dramatic romcom angle between Thor and Jane is one of Thor Four’s stronger aspects. Not only is it the unlikely return of something from the MCU you might have honestly forgotten, it helps reinforce that Thor still has a place to go in the increasingly unwieldy MCU. It ends both triumphant and somber, and yes, that movie Jane Foster shares the same cancer diagnosis should clue in those who have not yet viewed.

One of the big critiques of Love and Thunder was an element that went mostly uncriticized for Ragnarok, a distinct Waititi-like mix of seriousness and comic goofiness. While I can see why this tonal dissonance will turn off more than a few people (again, a main character has terminal cancer), my body’s response cannot lie as I certainly laughed at most of the humor. I did think that maybe, more than a few times a good joke or moment of humor that occurred could’ve been replaced for something more straight-faced. That being said, the standout recurring gag, the two giant screaming goats that Thor is gifted early on for “saving” an alien holy site never got old for me even though I was preparing myself to get sick of them.

It’s not just that actual goats really scream in that strangely human manner, it’s also a mythic in-joke that the Thor of legend actually does have two goats at his disposal. If you want to call the goats stupid, then blame the Norse people of over a thousand years ago for their involvement here. But they’re yet moments where the either Waititi, James Gunn or MCU brand humor doesn’t so much elicit a laugh as it does mild approval or not even a response.

This was evident most when Thor and his rock-man buddy Korg were hanging out with the Guardians. The Guardians themselves seem underutilized though again, this is not their movie. Star-Lord’s pep talk about the pain that comes with not so much loss but the pain of when you come to genuinely love someone and lose them was touching and certainly sets up something for next year’s Volume 3.

This in effect sets up Thor and Jane’s story and how in turn right after she returns to his life, he then learns that she doesn’t have much time left. That is, of course, right after coming to grips with his most beloved ex-girlfriend having his powers and his hammer. This leads to another amusing recurring gag involving his current weapon Stormbreaker, created with help from Groot in Infinity War, becoming jealous of Thor longing for Mjolnir back.

When I think back on it, Thor dealing with Jane’s return, potentially permanent departure and what comes after is the heart of Love and Thunder’s strength. The main antagonist, played by and with the same voice Christian Bale has for 85% of his roles albeit appropriate here, is almost another strength. As pointed out by others, including the fine Austin based people of Double Toasted, Gorr the God Butcher is good. But to paraphrase the Wonder Woman 84 villain, he could be better.

It’s rather surprising that the meaning of Gorr and his vendetta to kill all Gods hasn’t been the thing that has caused, ahem, “controversy” for Thor 4. The controversy as it happens comes from One Million Moms and their issue with both Valkyrie giving a bisexual kiss to the hand to one of Zeus’ ladies midway through, but also that Korg and his entire species are gay. Well, it so happens that Kronan reproduction happens in a manner that is not remotely sexual.

It’s about the most G-rated yet comically silly explanation for a type of procreation you could think up. But because it involves two male alien characters getting busy in any fashion, the most certainly 1 million of those moms are upset. Well, sorry to hear that. But, hey, it will be alright! The Supreme Court might soon remove Gay Rights up to and including bringing back anti-sodomy laws, so that should hold you over.

Anyway, I was surprised by how un-triggered people were by the movie’s commentary on worship of Gods and how Gorr responds to their promises in return for fealty being all BS, in the very first scene no less. Gorr, after losing his daughter and becoming the last of his species, comes across an oasis that is not actually a mirage. He finds his literally golden God lounging over there, with other Gods or God-equivalents just chilling. Gorr is confused as to why his God did not help his people, let alone him and his daughter in their absolute time of need. He has never broken faith.

The God rudely dismisses Gorr and essentially laughs at his plight and for falling for the lie he created that he would ever care about or for his creation. Unfortunately for those Gods, they had just killed a being that had a weapon capable of slaying them. Gorr takes up the sword in a fit of rage and kills his God, the others in turn flee. The God Butcher is born.

So you see, I’m wondering why Christians or news media folk who play up the “Christian Persecution Complex” like Tucker Carlson, haven’t had any conniptions over the supposedly anti-theistic sentiments of the latest Marvel movie. For many religions, namely Christianity and Islam, one of the selling points of being devout and faithful is that you will be rewarded with eternal paradise after death. Maybe because Yahweh and Allah aren’t any of the featured Gods in the movie, seeing as how lots of people actually believe they exist, they don’t appear, even in passing mention. Only mythological or whole-cloth made up Gods for Marvel’s universe apply here.

Yet, the critique at the heart of Love and Thunder’s opening sequence is a criticism of one major component of two of the biggest faith systems existing in the world today: be faithful and follow the teachings of the faith and you get not only an afterlife, but an awesome afterlife. Thor 4’s Gorr’s painful revelation seems to point towards it being a negative response to that aspect of faith. From where I’m standing, not only a good response but in this day and age, a timely one. How many Christians or Muslims show a lack of interest or concern with the cataclysmic consequences of climate change down the road for this very reason?

So long as Christians believe in Jesus as God the lord and savior, they will enter a never-ending Heaven. If that is in the cards for you, why bother insuring the temporary world you live in is protected or saved from ourselves? Even with future generations in consideration, why worry for them, so long as they believe like they do? To me, the promise of a better, permanent afterlife is one of the most dangerous and exploitable risks of religion. Indeed, not every religion necessarilly promises a heaven or even an afterlife. Buddhism from what I roughly know actually says it’s great that you won’t get one as Enlightenment in Death is comparable to cessation of existence. That oblivion under Buddhism is true peace.

This is indeed quite a tangent, but I wanted to delve into the surprisingly bold proclamations about religion and faith that a Marvel movie is making, seemingly out of the blue. Then again, there has to be a reason that Gorr, in both comic and on film, has a murderous hatred for Gods.

So, I’ve seen more supportive of Gorr than not, what is the problem? Well, the issue is that we don’t spend enough time seeing Gorr’s deeds as the God Butcher. Before the admittedly awesome encounter Thor, Jane and Valkyrie have with him in the Shadow Realm, the only time Gorr is doing or attempting his God-slaying on-screen is when he raids the New Asgard, run by Valkyrie in Norway. The principal heroes are all there to protect the city-state from Gorr. Gorr doesn’t kill any Gods save a few random Asgardians and he only succeeds in kidnapping the children of New Asgard including the never before seen son of the late Heimdall, Astrid. On that note, would’ve been nice to have established the kid before now, just saying.

All the other times, Gorr slays Gods off-screen and we get to see the aftermath of his destruction, such as when Thor and Korg investigate the death of a giant Snow-beast God. Maybe it’s because Taika wanted to focus more on Thor and Jane for understandable reasons, while also giving some time to where Valkyrie and Korg are at, but Gorr, for all of his significance, isn’t quite present enough. He’s certainly memorable, helped by where his story begins and where it ends. But for a film that was criticized for having too much of something, it also doesn’t have enough of another something.

Then, let’s deal with that dragon of an issue that is not necessarilly Thor 4’s fault alone. The oversaturation and overexposure of superhero content. While the general inconsistency of quality for Marvel’s Fourth phase is often viewed in a vacuum, it’s often paired with a growing sentiment that superheroes, mostly when it comes to the movies, are overstaying their welcome. What they’re doing for the most part isn’t enough anymore. The conventions and trends of a superhero story are becoming too familiar, even if still handled well.

We’ve reached the point of having a good number of media which satirizes superhero film convention, all the way to box office gold, as evidenced by Deadpool’s success. To be featured later, The television adaptation of The Boys is a satire and brutal critique of many things, and superhero storytelling and the culture that surrounds superheroes has proven to be a ripe, ripe target for three seasons and counting.

What was once niche or unprofitable, the deconstruction and critique of the superhero, with Snyder’s Watchmen film and the Kick-Ass movies, is now both making money and getting more than a few people talking. It is now exciting to talk about where superheroes conceptually fail or why they can’t get better or evolve once more. Whether they even should evolve is another question, but here familiarity breeds contempt and we are very, very familiar now. On my calendar for the rest of the year, four things are superhero based. When it comes to what Marvel expects you to watch just next year alone, it’s the following:

-Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

-Secret Invasion

-GOTG Vol. 3

-Echo

-The Marvels

-Loki: Season 2

-Ironheart

-Blade

-Agatha: Coven of Chaos

-Daredevil: Born Again

That’s ten things in one year and six of them are shows. People have already been complaining about the load of content to watch for this phase alone, currently over 50 hours. This is irrespective of how good or bad this content will be, but does it not feel like too much to process, to keep the complicated picture in place? Once, the MCU would give two things a year, then three. That was good enough for both audiences and critics.

Starting in 2021 with its fourth phase, Marvel asked you to consume nine entries of the MCU. If nothing else, Marvel and Disney are exacerbating a growing concern for the genre, making eventual burnout if not a possibility an inevitability. Some have already tapped out. Now Avengers Endgame was perhaps meant to be a stopping point for those who were already inclined to want a stopping point. But then again, having the next MCU entry release a mere two months later with Spider-Man: Far from Home might have confused that possible intention of there being a “stopping point.”

When it comes to how Thor: Love and Thunder addresses a concern that Marvel Studios should be aware of, just look at the second weekend drop, of 68%, to suggest if not an impending death in attendance, a withering enthusiasm for what Marvel has in store. Now, based on what I thought of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s teaser and even what I think of the conceit behind next month’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, there is still a chance to recapture that enthusiasm. The reveals at SDCC 2022 and that there is a direction to look at does mean if nothing else, there is something potentially dynamic on the horizon.

Thor: Love and Thunder is fine. In some areas, I like it, in others I almost love it, like that Shadow Realm sequence. All that said, I feel more approving of last May’s second Doctor Strange. It was darker, more daring, and had visual and stylistic choices which made it feel like not the same filmed thing we have grown weary of over the years. It took chances and while it also recieved a muted reception and a second weekend drop only a percent less bad than Thor’s, I believe the reasons for Stephan Strange’s divisive second solo outing were mostly different than Thor’s. The fourth Thor feels more indicative of much of the growing frustration with where both Marvel and superheroes are at this moment in time.

The visual set pieces were across the board more visually arresting and imaginative in execution for Multiverse of Madness than Love and Thunder. In spite of the very kind words towards the Shadow Realm sequence I’ve given, a lot of the other set pieces don’t feel as fresh or as rewarding. The opening fight Thor and the Guardians have with basically Fragglerock aliens wasn’t as fun as it should’ve been. It was there, more than anywhere else, where I felt that accusation of Love and Thunder being an inferior Ragnarok was real.

Thor: Love and Thunder seems destined less to be seen in its entirety again by me on Disneyplus and more to be watched through in parts, checking out the moments that really worked over those that either didn’t or not well enough. I suspect that is a diagnosis I will give to the next MCU entry up to bat.

Ms. Marvel

Image by Deadline (Fangirl Ascendant.)

My relationship with Kamala Khan, the most recent one to take on the mantle of Ms. Marvel, the first being Carol Danvers, is complicated. I would’ve liked and read more of her series which began in 2011, if I didn’t find the artwork so unappealing and honestly kind of ugly. It’s hard to describe why I didn’t like it but it reminds me of how butt-ugly John Romita Jr’s style is, especially on display in the comic book version of Kick-Ass. I’m sure that later on a different, possibly better (for me) art style took over but it not only stunted my exposure to one of Marvel’s newest mainstays, it also made it harder to appreciate what good was in those original stories.

Of course, the live action show doesn’t have that problem, though it does reference the comic series’ art in the closing credits. In this framing, its much easier to appreciate what makes Kamala Kahn potentially one of the “leading” figures of the MCU going forward, seeing as how the early maypole characters like Tony and Steve are certainly gone now.

Iman Vellani, despite being a first time actress, acts like she’s been a veteran actor for years. She encapsulates Kamala Kahn so well because she is almost certainly playing herself. If that is actually not the case behind closed doors, consider me fooled.

More than Oscar Isaac’s dual personality duties in Moon Knight, Vellani’s Kahn carries Ms. Marvel through the rough patches or elements that have sadly become an expected factor of the Marvel Disneyplus experience. It starts exuberant and so confident in it’s direction, that you and by that I mean I didn’t care when it ventured into territory that could reasonably be called “Disney Channel” adjacent.. Even when it starts to feel a little too close to the tone of Tom Holland’s Spider-movies, I still didn’t care because Kamala Kahn is executed so well. I could forgive and even mildly appreciate much, but not all.

The thing that makes Kamala Kahn/ Ms. Marvel stand out despite it all and the inevitable comparisons to Peter Parker or Miles Morales is that she is an in-universe fangirl of superheroes. She is a nerd who drinks deep the well of information and knowledge surrounding her world of real life superpowers and individuals. The poor girl would be shattered if she lived in The Boys’ universe. Of all the heroes, she idolizes most the girl power superhero of Marvel: Carol Danvers/ Captain Marvel. She’s such a fan, she makes excuses or rationales for the very issues most have with this interpretation of the already contested comic book figure.

I’ll go out on a limb and call her a better character overall than Carol Danvers. That’s…actually not a controversial opinion to be honest. When I think about Brie Larson’s take on Carol Danvers, I respect more than like how she has been handled. For those who complain about her being the perpetual frowner of the MCU, even more than her actually more cheerful looking comic counterpart, the point is that she is encompassing attributes of male comic characters that are either not even noticed or mocked if its gets a little too much, i.e. “emo” or “angsty.”

The point I’ve accepted about the Larson Carol Danvers is that she is defiantly herself, powers or no powers. Nothing will talk her down from that. Hopefully, next year’s The Marvels, which will be featuring Kamala, will actually take time to explore her more, something that none of her appearances outside of her first movie have deigned or had time to do. But I won’t lie: I’m more eager to see more of Kamala and the returning from Wandavision Monica Rambeau than Carol. I’ll let that ill thought-out gaffe of hers at the end of WV slide for now. Look it up online to know what I’m referring to there if you don’t.

Kamala’s interest bordering on obsession with Danvers and Marvel’s superheroes is just one of the two primary factors of Ms. Marvel. The other is the typical teenager growing up pains colored in by her admittedly very liberal Muslim upbringing. For one, the only time Kamala is told to cover her head with something is during mosque. The rest of the time, none of her family remotely cares that her whole head is uncovered. I take it on faith ironically enough that the Middle-Eastern American showrunners and Vellani’s own life experience explains this aspect of generally Progressive Islam on display.

It’s important to remember that like Christianity and most populated enough religions, there is a sizable number of strains to Islam. Despite what the era of the War on Terror might infer to you in Islamic practice, or what the horrifying extremes nations like Saudi Arabia practice, there is actually a lot of variation in expectation for the role a Muslim is expected to play in life. The roles of women can actually differ considerably depending on the interpretation that is given to the Quran.

Much is the same with the Bible and they’re passages of the Bible, non-contradictory passages mind you, that say a good number of things against general assumptions modern day Christians, namely many American Christians, have made in favor of being biblical. They’re is also stuff that modern Christians that I am very glad for all our sakes don’t practice. This conscious or unconscious cherry-picking of what or what not to follow in biblical faith, is by Ms. Marvel’s account, no less true for Islam, especially when it comes to Muslims living in North America.

In fact, now that I think about it, Kamala’s own relation with her Muslim faith is actually not a component of her story arc. Muslim culture, not necessarilly how to follow the will of either Muhammad and Allah, is at center stage, but when it comes to how belief colors the actions that lead Kamala on, it really isn’t a factor. There seems to be a general truth to this approach as plenty of people who live under religious households or self-identify as a certain religion, will not necessarilly paint a lot of their life course under it strictly or otherwise.

In that respect, Kamala very much comes across to me as a “secular” Muslim, which does sound like an oxymoron, but it’s an oxymoron that seems to be alive and well in the real world. Considering my own thoughts on religion, religiosity and so forth, it’s very much for the best that is the tact they’re going for with the MCU’s Kamala Kahn, which mirrors the comic version.

Of course, living in a multicultural place like Jersey City, with Manhattan just over the water, means that Kamala can’t help but be exposed to many different worldviews. She can’t be closed off even if her parents wished, which they don’t. They’re revealed to have been Bon Jovi fans in their youth on that note. Her best friend is a white as white can be nerd called Bruno who certainly mirrors Peter Parker but is destined to stay the Ned to Kamala’s Peter.

Around the midpoint, the aspects that make Ms. Marvel not quite the best Disneyplus Marvel show it could’ve been seep in. The introduction following her harnessing of powers of the two principal antagonist forces, The Department of Damage Control, given its more FBI-like feel in Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Clandestines, a group of superhuman beings also known as Djinn. Damage Control is the much expected, superpower police force that was bound to come into being in a world like the MCU’s Earth are better than the frankly underwritten and underexecuted Clandestines, led by Nakia (No relation to the Black Panther character).

They start off promising, not only to help explain why this version of Kamala has her powers (deliberately, controversially different than the comic explanation), but also to explore an idea that Shang-Chi last year first posited: alternate/pocket dimension worlds with entry points hidden throughout the planet. How they go about with explanation and what it leads to, leaves more than a little to be desired.

It leads to a trip from Jersey City all the way to Karachi, Pakistan. While it does give an informative look into the circumstances that lead to modern Pakistan’s strained birth, in connection with the fall of British India, that might be quite intriguing stuff to the uninformed, it does once again fall on how… half-baked the results can feel.

Whether it’s the consequences of a TV budget (some of the CGI is baaaaad), or whether this was actually the best format to tell this story, not unlike Obi-Wan’s own Disneyplus experience, I started to feel a little cut off from what made Ms. Marvel stand out in a good way. The action sequences, more so in the Pakistani locations, are less compelling than the ones that are back home in Joisey. How the Clandestines face up against the inexperienced Kamala and her scarved ally Red Dagger can be honestly kind of embarrassing.

Meant for a younger audience or not, the Clandestines’ sense of danger fades more and more as the season goes on to the point where they make bone-headed mistakes that are laughably stupid. Also, the motivations of the last surviving Clandestine at the end, Kamran (who of course Kamala crushes on) are more than a little confusing or hard to fully accept. Still, not as bizarre as what Reva was doing at Obi-Wan’s conclusion.

Ms. Marvel, like Thor 4 and Obi-Wan, ends in a place that makes you feel fine about the end result. How it got there is a lot harder to fully process one way or another. I for one am getting increasingly tired of Disney not really flexing their money power levels when it comes to their TV entries for the MCU. You and I both know that more money can and should go into making the shows be as well-budgeted in presentation as the movies.

This is especially true when it comes to the upcoming She-Hulk. The first trailer’s CG, which is a must considering not one but three Hulk-like characters are in the show, was seen as wanting. The second trailer, premiering at SDCC, showed off CG effects which were better. The expressiveness of the green characters is commendably present. Considering Kamala’s presence in next year’s The Marvels and how in time she might prove even more valuable to the MCU’s survival than at first, having her debut appearance be more polished would’ve helped.

Disney’s attitude towards poor Kamala might differ from Marvel’s, including Kevin Feige. The debut episode of Ms. Marvel aired the same day as Obi-Wan’s fifth. This, along with other factors, including a sizable portion of bitter and/or bigoted Marvel fans, resulted in the lowest numbers for a Disneyplus show. Online bad-mouthing, regardless of the more complex picture of the show’s quality led to scoring on sites like IMDB that are certainly not up to snuff not just with critical opinion but mine. As it stands in late July 2022, the IMDB score is 6.2 out of 10, actually higher than its rating while the episodes came out.

Please, if you’re inclined, share your honest thoughts about Kamala’s entry to the MCU. Earnestness of online opinion aside, Kamala Kahn and us should both be grateful that she has nowhere to go but up. Considering the cosmic place of Carol Danvers, she will go high indeed.

The Boys Season 3 (Huge spoilers in particular here)

Image from CNET (Audience surrogate Hughie and Soldier Boy, America’s Ass…hole.)

The third Season of the superior version of Garth Ennis’ vitriolic send up of superhero..anything is the most definitive proof that the tightrope balancing act it’s performing has been perfected. It is gross, it is beautiful, it is mean, it is warm, it is provocative, it is thought provoking. It hits more than almost any other piece of contemporary media at addressing the frightening circumstances of the modern world today, let alone for America. It’s an irreverent, to put it so lightly, satire of current superhero popular culture and what it means to us, why we follow it no matter what it might actually be prescribing.

It’s greatest feat, which might be the best showcased by this season, is it’s pitch perfect attack on “corporate wokeness.” As you might’ve guessed, I am not an anti-woke person, far from it. I’m only against it when it’s poorly or so bluntly executed it does a bad job of communicating its points in a relatable manner. The most recent season of DC’s Young Justice has suffered from this, when it was actually doing a pretty good job being “woke” in earlier seasons. In terms of media that does “dreaded” wokeness so well you might not even realize it’s happening, check out the newest She-Ra show and Disney’s The Owl House. The latter is so fantastic, you might have a hard time even believing it’s under the Mouse’s control.

The Boys is not anti-woke. It very much is. It’s against the cynical “wokeness” of corporations that make profit out of civil and human rights issues, namely LGBT rights. The Boys airing in June, which is Pride month, was almost intentional. Real life corporations put out all the rainbows and LGBT iconography to show their support. I am not saying that no one who works in any of those companies aren’t true believers in representation or rights. It’s often the creators, the artistic people within those places that actually show off their uncynical support through their work.

Getting back to the Owl House under Disney, it is created and showrun by Dana Terrace, a bisexual woman. She actually had to fight with Disney higher-ups to allow her bisexual and other LGBT subject matter to be showcased in the show, up to and including the main character and her love interest. Disney, whose board I’ve heard is actually pretty conservative, actually yielded because they reportedly admired Terrace’s stubborn determination. That, and they looked at where the polls were leaning to greenlight Terrace’s creative vision.

That’s the thing about “corporate wokeness” and why it’s actually insidious. If the polls somehow went in the opposite direction regarding gay rights and representation tomorrow, would those same companies still hold water for Pride? No, they would then change their tunes to fit with what the viewerbase supposedly supports by the charts. No actual conviction, no integrity. Sure, there will still be individual examples of people working under those corporations who will still fight for that representation no matter the direction of the wind. Because, to people like Dana Terrace, it deeply matters to them in a way that profit can never account for. That is at least my hope, and The Owl House’s earnest quality leads me to believe as such.

Vought, the monopolistic company that among other things runs the real-life superhero team, The Seven, would flip their tune on a dime if America changed their minds. The manipulation of the masses is a key feature of Season 3, as Homelander, the terrifying yet really sad deconstruction of Superman, becomes a Trump like figure. Near the Season’s beginning, after losing his girlfriend Stormfront (who happened to be a long-living, superpowered literal Nazi), decides he’s had enough of inhibiting himself for the sake of corporate image or fear that how he really feels will make the world hate and fear him.

Much to his surprise and eventual joy, many people love the things he’s saying, even as it leads to a cult of personality developing. A moment from the first season, that deliberately echoes George W. Bush’s words at Ground Zero, was the birth of an alarming seed that is flowering by this point of the series. It’s bad enough that Homelander is Superman without the humble upbringing that keeps him down to earth and decent. Now, the people of the modern world eat up his words, many of them lies or half-truths, because it rings true to them. Much like the prior and possibly future President of my nation.

The titular Boys, lead by Karl Urban’s quintessentially South London Billy Butcher, are a mostly unpowered group of agents whose role is to either clear up superhero messes caused behind the scenes or to outright neutralize Supes that have gone bad. Due to Butcher’s fraught history with the reality of superheroes, his end goal is ideally the end of all superheroes. But if he can’t have that, killing Homelander will do.

That’s a problem for the Boys considering that one of them is superpowered, the mute Kimiko, who was kidnapped and forced to have superpowers through Compound V, the man-made drug Vought created and administered into the global population in secret and without anyone’s consent. I don’t know which came first, this plot idea, but the Ultimate Marvel universe controversially revealed in the much despised Ultimatum event story that the Mutants of that Marvel continuity were all the byproduct of the U.S. government trying to replicate the super soldier serum that made Captain America, not the X-gene being the next step in human evolution.

Let’s just say that what really did not work out in the end for Marvel Comics really works out in the Boys. That a soulless corporation slowly created their own age of superheroes on the unsuspecting populace fits perfectly in line with the show’s philosophy. It also makes the more sympathetic, maybe even actually heroic Supes more interesting. Starlight is the one supe who in general avoids reaching the “grey” zone of most superheroes in The Boys’ universe.

She comes the closest this season of actually falling down the rabbit hole that leads other once optimistic and idealistic supes like the Wonder Woman-like Queen Maeve, Flash-like A-Train and Aquamanesque The Deep into cynical, desperate celebrities. Thankfully, a moment mid-season has her finally throw her hands up in the air and let go of the celebrity angle to her superhero life. She broadcasts to the world the truth about Vought, about Homelander, that she will no longer be Starlight to anyone or anything. She will be Annie Jones, her real self, come what may.

The Boys’ perspective on superpowers, if they were real, and what would actually happen, mirrors a line of thought that last year’s The Falcon and Winter Soldier brought up. Steve Rogers being the continually good person he was, despite the power the super soldier serum gave him was a reflection of the idea that the serum didn’t just give the guy super strength and agility. It enhanced what he was, made him more of who he already was.

When it is used by someone who does not share Roger’s morality or ideology, John Walker, the man who will be U.S. Agent, he turns not to be worthy of that power and abuses it almost immediately. That the MCU show does not stick the landing in that subject matter in the end, among other flaws, is not what matters. What matters is that The Boys picks up that idea and does it, what’s the word oh right, justice. Annie Jones started as a good person, and had less of an impulse to fall for the same vain things as other members of the Seven, especially A-Train and Deep. Queen Maeve has undergone a slow but steady redemption, to actually fight in secret against the corrosive nature of Vought and Homelander, even at the risk of her own life. Her ultimate goal, if it’s even possible, is to leave it all behind, maybe get back with her girlfriend.

Kimiko undergoes a personal revelation about her extremely violent powers and how it relates to the surprisingly sweet-natured relationship and romance she shares with Frenchie, the Boys’ weapon-master. What she once despised she comes to begrudgingly like, no matter how visceral it is. That it can let her protect the people she loves, predominantly Frenchie, has her come to a conclusion that was purposefully meant to let people like myself feel conflicted. Hughie, the audience surrogate, undergoes a similar crisis where he does not have the powers to protect Starlight, whom he is in a loving relationship with. When he is given the chance, offered by Butcher, to gain temporary superpowers for a day, he takes it without a second thought.

Butcher, a man who is shown to have every reason to be suspicious of those with power, figurative or not, allows himself to take Temporary Compound V. It gives him a fighting chance to actually stop Homelander, but he’s also putting his own values on the line on the process. Aside from Temp V unsubtly being like a dangerous drug that hurts you the more you take, it also best reflects the philosophy of superpowers enhancing who you already are, for better and more so for worse.

Butcher knows he’s not a good person. While he believes he does bad things for the right reasons, he yet realizes it’s still bad. Maybe he’s convinced himself, not unlike Stephen Strange up until a point, that his way is the only way. A really heart-breaking flashback sequence we witness shows that a lot of the bad aspects of Billy Butcher are the result of his abusive father.

Hughie on the surface seems like a far better person that Butcher, maybe even a guy who would be worthy of superpowers. His deep insecurities, and that his desire for power comes from misplaced lack of trust in his relationship with Annie/Starlight dooms his use to be bad. All of this ties into the very essential understanding that the reason we should be glad superpowers don’t exist is because most humans cannot handle that power. An argument could be made that humanity has not evolved or will never evolve to wisely use power as we know it now. Perhaps our species is falling down the path to self-destruction this century because our minds cannot properly harness power conceptually, at least not for long periods of time. Despite the show yet arguing that a select few like Starlight and maybe Kimiko can handle it, the argument is still against that power. Those two are the exception to the rule.

Even more than Homelander, no one embodies this concept better than the Captain America parody Soldier Boy. Jensen Ackles’ excellent performance as the Boys’ star spangled man echoes Chris Evans’ take, giving it a slightly more Texan slang, perhaps referencing the actor’s Texas roots. His outfit deliberately mirrors the MCU Cap, and his disheveled, bearded appearence recalls Rogers in Infinity War.

Soldier Boy is not solely a unrelenting stab at the “patriotic superhero” concept that basically began with Captain America back in the 1940s, he is possibly the best showcase of Falcon and Winter Soldier’s idea done well. This is John Walker truly without restraint. Before becoming Soldier Boy in the 40s, the guy was a douche, sharing many of the bigoted and contemporarily unwelcome attitudes of a person at the time. Actually, he might actually be douchey even for a guy from the 40s. Revealed as a silver spoon kid, he had less reason than most of the time to even try to be gentlemanly.

This in turn is not just an inversion of the Chris Evan’s variant, but is also another callback and improvement to Ultimate Marvel, in this case their more “realistic” depiction of Captain America, as written by Mark Millar. Millar is actually comparable to Garth Ennis, though Millar tends to do more “tame” stuff than Ennis from time to time. It would be news to me if Ennis ever did anything that went below a Mature rating in his works.

Soldier Boy is a supe from the past who was captured by the Russians during the Cold War. Unlike Cap America, Soldier Boy can actually go toe to toe with the Superman level Homelander. Even though it would never really happen, Superman would wipe the floor with Steve Rogers. Not here. He also has Wolverine-like long life, being essentially the same age today as he was in the 1940s. Butcher and the Boys risk a lot trying to break Soldier Boy out of his cryofreeze prison below Moscow. Once back in America, Butcher basically makes a deal with the devil: Help Soldier Boy with some loose ends and in turn he will help end Homelander.

Those loose ends involve his old team, Payback, who actually were responsible for him getting taken by the Reds in the first place in the 80s. Why the betrayal? Because he was f**king horrible to his team, being the toxic masculine figure he is. One of his old team-mates is Black Noir, a current day member of The Seven and the masked, mute supe undergoes an existential crisis upon learning of his return. He resolves it in possibly the looniest way imaginable. In that, it involves toons only he can see in his shattered mind.

If the amount of text alone for this section is any indication, The Boys handles an exceptional amount of content to parse through, all of it exceptionally well. I could bring up A-Train’s cynical use of his skin color to try to promote black rights, when it’s really about self-promotion. I could delve into the Deep’s own insecurities leading to his betrayal in time of good things he stands for over the fear yet respect he has for Homelander. The African-American member of the Boys, Marvin/Mother’s Milk/M.M., is reconciling his mix of fear and hatred for Soldier Boy, who did his family horrifically wrong growing up with the utility Butcher sees in bringing him along as a secret weapon. That’s not even counting his strained relationship with his ex-wife who has married a middle-aged, bespectacled schlub who begins to fall for Homelander’s rhetoric and how it affects his cute, growing daughter’s own life.

Then, there’s finally Ryan, the son of Homelander whose mother was Butcher’s wife and true love, Becca, who brought out the best in him. A recognition of who Butcher believes himself to be causes him to distance himself unwisely from the kid, who is in hiding from his awful father, following a mutually sorrowful end to Becca that happened due to Butcher and Homelander’s one-on-one war.

Left alone by Butcher, Ryan, who has the powers of Homelander, is now is running the terrifying risk of being like his old man. Homelander became a messed up figure due to being an artificially created person born in a lab with an uncaring, unnurturing environment. By season’s end, Homelander finds and offers Ryan to join him. With Butcher having left him, Ryan accepts. The last scene of the season involving Homelander and Ryan at a rally in the former’s honor ends with one of the most bone-chilling final shots I’ve seen from media in a long time. It recalls a moment from the MCU, actually one of the most iconic.

It recalls the final scene of Avengers: Infinity War, where after Thanos’ hard fought, hard cost victory in wiping out half of all life in the universe, he sits down at his retirement hut, looks out at the sunset and initially sports a morose visage. But it slowly turns to a smile, knowing that all his sacrifice was worth it, in his own twisted perspective. The Boys’ third season ends with Ryan watching something his father does in front of a crowd and then the crowd cheers and claps. What Homelander did was horrible, as you would expect and the crowd decided after initial shock it was great. Ryan goes from a concerned frown to a small smile. History does not repeat, it rhymes.

That’s not every thread worth mentioning, even now. There’s still Congresswoman Neuman, who I would bet strong money is meant to be a multifaceted critique of AOC. An AOC who has in secret, in my opinion, the scariest superpower in the entire show. What she is about is worth exploring all by itself. But much like sentiment about the superhero genre today, this is starting to overstay its welcome.

Against all odds and in spite of the utterly profane and honestly boundary-pushing humor The Boys proudly displays without any shame, this show and what it stands for is anything but overstaying its welcome. No matter how terrible, no matter how ugly the things it will show me in the coming years, The Boys remains one of the most necessary pieces of entertainment being made today. Only a weak stomach and deeply embedded personal bias will keep you out of its diabolical vacuum.

Next time: maybe, maybe not more 80s’ glory.

Bengal’s 80s Retrospective part XII

I should delve into the latest stuff happening this year like the fourth Thor, the third season of The Boys, maybe even some games I’ve come around to completing. Part of me even wants to talk about the astonishingly great reimagining of all things, She-Ra. A show that manages to be appealing to a straight white dude while also nailing the pursuit of “girl power” without becoming heavy-handed. Again, I’m referring to She-Ra. It also just happens to have one of the most emotionally satisfying endings I’ve experienced in a long time, while somehow leaving itself open-ended.

It’s also quite a treasure trove of joy for those who can appreciate LGBT storytelling and relationships like I do. It might be a bit harder to enjoy it as an American, knowing that LGBT rights may well be on the way out in a depressingly regressive political period through an authoritarian, anti-majority opinion Supreme Court. With that in mind, I will continue to likely torture myself, cursed with that knowledge, as I started watching another acclaimed cartoon show right after with a gay love story included, The Owl House, courtesy of Disney. As far as I know, the one place where on gay representation, the House of Mouse walks the walk and talks the talk.

So, after (maybe) depressing you with all that, let’s talk about four more films from a time where if nothing else, we had a lot more time apart from the present day hellscape of the 2020s’, even if a lot of the setup for said hellscape was being established at the time. Let’s get another Bollywood classic out of the way, 1985’s Babu.

Babu (1985, India) (Featuring a ramble about international media’s handling of progressive or not so progressive subject matter)

Image from cinemaazi (Have a poster, in lieu of a screenshot not available on Google Images.)

Films of other nations have been called or are indeed morality plays. America has made some, certainly. Nigeria from what I know is all about their motion pictures explicitly being tales with a moral learned at the end. India’s Bollywood industry, hardly the only major film industry for the nation, with entirely different languages boasting their own, such as the Tamil and Telugu tongues, just can’t seem to get enough of them, at least as far as the 80s’s period would inform me.

In spite of poverty or the lack of many first world utilities that are essentially a given in most parts of the States, India especially in presentation has always struck a balance between appearing behind the times and yet also of the times. I get that I’m watching Indian cinema that is around 40 years old give or take and plenty has happened since but I make the point that Bollywood takes India’s fears and insecurities and finds a way to address them, often with several dance numbers.

While involving stories about morality that may or may not be connected with Hindu beliefs and teachings, these 80s’ Bollywood flicks address then and maybe even contemporary societal and political ills. While I couldn’t call the political/cultural prescriptions of these movies on quite the same level as American progress, they do seem more progressive and even outright challenging of societal assumptions everyone has to some degree about India.

It appears to me that often the media of a country can be more progressive or more willing to challenge the status quo than not. Japan is a fantastic example. While there is plenty in Japanese popular culture that serves to remind one of not just cultural difference but a distinct “not quite based enough” attitude compared to something in America or Europe, there are just as many examples of their popular culture flying in the face to varying degrees to Japan being a “socially conservative” nation.

A lot of Japanese media features material that I would not call socially conservative. Female characters in positions of power, outright criticism of Japan’s modern political situation among other things. The layout however is complicated, as issues of female representation continue to be a thorny aspect of Japan’s cultural expression and in some ways they’re still catching up. Depictions of gay or trans people in Japanese media I’ve consumed can leave much to be desired. Transphobia is a particularly frustrating strain I’ve witnessed.

On that note, India is a country which has it’s continuous hang-ups, often religiously inspired, when it comes to its treatment of gay or trans people. Whole-ass pieces of media, like games featuring gay characters, are banned over there. And yet, as Babu here proves, Indian entertainment has a long-standing tradition of challenging tradition. Take for instance, the caste system.

While not explicitly mentioned, the titular character is part of a lower class in the caste system. I do not know or remember the levels of the caste system or what power or lack thereof one has over the other but it is made clear that the rickshaw driver that is our hero is not on the same level as other characters. I could be entirely missing the point over what Babu is saying but if nothing else the applicability resonates.

In what I imagine is Mumbai, Babu pulls people along the many crowded streets with a rickshaw cart. I was surprised at rickshaws being something in India as I assumed they were a uniquely Chinese form of transportation. Then again, this is just a grown man pulling someone in a cart, not very complicated. The story occurs over several decades as we see the once young Babu grow into an old man, with terminal sickness following suit. A little girl and her family also change with the times.

At first, Babu simply helps the rich family with their commute but after the patriarch of the family dies, it leaves the little girl and her mother poor and forced to live in a run-down home. This alone acts, I almost guarantee it, as critique of how for many Indian citizens the financial security of a whole family is dependent on just the man and if the man goes….

Out of the Samaritan kindness of his heart, Babu starts supporting the wife and her daughter, as she grows into a teenager and then a young woman. The girl is called “Pinky”. No, really. Eventually, as Pinky grows into maturity, the matter of her education and eventually marrying a guy takes precedent.

Babu essentially works himself to death over the course of the movie. Any of the money he earns through his hard work to help support himself or maybe ascend the ladder of Indian life he puts towards Pinky and her mother. In spite of having no blood relation to Pinky or her family, he basically becomes a new surrogate father for the girl.

This apparently acts as commentary on the nature of surrogate parenthood in India. Family, on a biological level, is a deeply important aspect of Indian life and this film is nowhere near the only to showcase that, as if there was any doubt. Based on the implication of this movie, surrogate parenthood appears to be if not taboo close enough to it. I don’t know why that has to be the case over in India. Whether the Caste system is tied into what is and is not appropriate to be a parent, I don’t know, but Babu’s blunt expression of somber regret over India’s position on the issue seems to suggest it is a tradition in some way.

Eventually, as age causes Babu’s beard to turn white, his illness grows worse. He soon becomes incapable of being the rickshaw driver he once was. He could get treatment for it but again Pinky comes first. Always.

In his last days, near the end of the surprisingly short (for Bollywood) run of the movie, Babu starts wearing a robe all black with a red stripe white on both ends. I could not help but think of the color layout for Mass Effect’s main character, Commander Shepard, whose outfit consists of blackish grey with a red and white sigil that runs down his/her armor’s left arm, representing them being part of N7, which is humanity’s space military’s version basically of the Navy Seals.

I would end my observation on how these two completely unrelated pieces of media have an arbitrary connection my autistic ass noticed, but I thought about how, by Mass Effect 3, the end of Shepard’s story in the Mass Effect series, in most cases, the story ends with their heroic sacrifice. They must make a decision that in 3 of 4 base scenarios, will involve them not reuniting with their friends and potential love interest. Whether they did it for their own ego or because it was just what they had to do, tailored of course in how you build Shepard to reflect what you want them to be, most players will have Shepard make the mortal choice at the end out of love for those that followed him/her through thick and thin.

Like Shepard for the most part, Babu does what he does entirely for the benefit of someone else. His last moments are at Pinky’s wedding, for which due to not being blood related to her, he was not allowed to attend. He comes anyway and the whole wedding crowd regrets that he was not officially invited, as he had done more than most to earn the right. Make no mistake, the whole thing is very melodramatic almost to a comical level with Babu’s near endless incurable cough of impending death.

Maybe that’s a consequence of my considerable exposure to many dramas or the conventions therein. Or maybe for the Indian audiences of the 1980s, what for me is somewhat overblown melodrama is just drama. I mean, again, Babu passes away at the wedding, all dramatically like, but still the point, let alone the political point is made. Of course, I played the music on my iPhone that occurs during Shepard’s almost certainly fatal, final action from Mass Effect 3. About half of it really lines up well with the emotions of Babu’s ending, even with no sitar involved. Here it is for context to listen to, if you want to.

Again, I wouldn’t have bothered if it wasn’t for the serendipitous choice of Babu’s robes to wear in his climatic final moments.

So, yeah, would I recommend Babu? I haven’t not recommended any of the Bollywood films so far but it might have been the melodrama but I was the least enthusiastic for this film compared to the earlier ones I’ve brought up in the retrospective series. It’s shorter length for the time-conscious readers is a bonus so keep that in mind. If you have any Indian friends, be sure to let them know about these particular entries I bring up and see how closely it reflects their own stories involving India and Indian life.

Ragtime (1981)

Image from MUBI (James “Jimmy” Cagney’s final role as turn of the century New York Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.)

Shortly after I was convinced to watch by my family 70s’ classic The Sting, the Robert Redford/Paul Newman blockbuster that acted as nostalgic throwback to the 1930s (Plenty of fond memories indeed from the Great Depression), I decided to put on my 80s watchlist a film I had initially turned my nose up at: Milos Forman’s Ragtime. What compelled me was the Sting’s use of two “ragtime” classics by Scott Joplin, “The Entertainer” and “Solace”. It threw me for a loop due to me being quite familiar with that music.

“The Entertainer” is often played in today’s internet meme culture as music that stands in for something really old, often with a silent film aesthetic. “Solace” however was more surprising due to it being the loading screen music for Bioshock Infinite, a game set in the ragtime period of both the public domain music it uses and Ragtime the movie itself.

Have a listen.

In case you didn’t know, Scott Joplin was an African-American composer who managed to create this widely used, widely loved music during what is called in no uncertain terms “The Nadir of American race-relations.” Wanna know what’s worse, I assumed that Joplin was a white guy who wrote all of this. I had no way to know unless I did a google search, but the reason I was surprised was that I thought it wasn’t until the 1920s’ when African-American musical voices recieved recognition, from the likes of Duke Ellington and of course Louis Armstrong. Before those two Jazz legends came to attention, Scott Joplin made enduring musical history when society supposedly would’ve shut the whole venture down back then.

Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, features a prominent character called Coalhouse Walker Jr, who basically in some respects is not unlike Scott Joplin. Coalhouse is played by Howard Rollins, who died at only 46 from lymphoma. Coalhouse starts off as a piano player using music similar to Joplin though those works of Joplin I mentioned do not feature here, perhaps due to association with The Sting. Funnily enough, it would more appropriate here than in The Sting, due to ragtime not having been in vogue in the 30s’.

Like Rollins, Joplin died early at 48. I can imagine that simply being a black man in that time and place made it not an easy life. I don’t know how closely Coalhouse Walker Jr. is meant to reflect Joplin as a very different fate awaits him, one even more tragic if sadly not surprising.

Ragtime, the book and movie, is historical fiction. In that, actual historical events are intermeshed with entirely fictional ones. The most important real life event is one I had no idea actually happened until I was told it had, a moment which made me scream “HOLY SHIT” when it happened early in the film. For one, Ragtime is a “PG” film before the PG-13 rating was created. A lot of PG films I’ve watched recently for this retrospective contain material that would either warrant PG-13 or an R.

The real life incident that Ragtime features is the murder of the architect Stanford White, best known for creating the Arch at NYC’s Washington Square, by the Millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw. This was a big deal at the time and I believe was the first murder trial to be called the “Trial of the Century”. Heh, just you wait, 20th Century….

The killing as depicted in the movie is graphic, something that would warrant an R today. The wife of Thaw, Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), soon becomes a scandalous figure over her behavior following her husband’s actions, making publicity out of the trial and helping pump herself up. Gotta say, this seems eerily prescient to nowadays if the portrayal of Nesbit here is remotely accurate.

A fictional, upper class white family from New Rochelle, New York soon becomes the maypole of sorts for the events that occur going forward in Ragtime. The family never gets first or last names and are called by the familial titles: father, mother, older brother, younger brother, etc. Older brother is the stand out member played by the unmistakable Brad Dourif in not only an early role but a non-villainous role if that can be fathomed.

He becomes involved first in Evelyn Nesbit’s life due to an infatuation he has with her, which almost leads to sex but does lead to PG-approved full-frontal female nudity. It was a simpler time. Eventually, the selfish, dare I say it sociopathic behavior of Evelyn pushes Older Brother away and he then becomes focused on an issue concerning the whole family.

A black baby is found in the family’s garden and soon after the mother is brought to the home. One of the police men who brings the mother to the family is played by Andreas Katsulas, the Hungarian-American actor who will one day portray G’Kar, one of the best characters on Babylon 5. The mother and child are Coalhouse Walker Jr’s girlfriend and daughter, who he is then given an emotional reunion with.

The problem with describing Ragtime is that these interconnected characters are all part of a story that spans a good amount of time. I must mention a major development involving racist behavior directed at Coalhouse that begins tying most of the cast together including Dourif’s Older Brother. He volunteers to help Coalhouse and his black acquaintances in an all-but-suicidal attack on the system, which gets James Cagney’s Commissioner Waldo involved in an anarchist bomb attempt of a historic Manhattan library. One of Coalhouse’s militant friends features an early and I do mean early appearence by Samuel L. motherf***ing Jackson.

Mother and Father, played by James Olson and Mary Steenburgen, attempt a go at a peaceful resolution that gets Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) involved. While the plot seems to coalesce around the library situation, side events involving Mandy Patinkin as an early filmmaker and Nesbit as film actress among others seems to be sideshows that don’t necessarily appear to matter.

Much like the novel, it appears to be a book chronicling through both fiction and non-fiction, a time and place. The film begins with actual silent news reels of figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Houdini interspersed with fictionalized moments. Having Coalhouse’s vendetta following tragedy borne out of racism become a focal point was I suppose a way to make a point about early 20th century America clear. Say what you will about all the cool stuff, all the things the gilded age/ ragtime period of the United States you might find appealing and worth remembering for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.

This 1981 movie was about reminding us of how distinctly bleak a period it could be for many of its players. About how complicated it is to be both nostalgic and yet honest towards a bygone era. To maybe learn from the past so we improve the future. About how the events of the early 20th century bore out the world that existed in 1981 and today even. Or maybe Doctorow and by extension Forman just wanted to make/ adapt a story about an era that intrigued them and in turn hopes to intrigue you.

There are so many other faces that Ragtime gives us a grand preview of on top of the ones already mentioned: Jeff Daniels, Debbie Allen, Star Trek: Voyager’s Ethan Phillips, Jeffrey DeMunn and Fran Drescher. There’s already by then familiar faces like Kenneth McMillan (The first guy to play Baron Harkonnen for Dune), Pat O’Brien, Norman Mailer, Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon), Michael Jeter and Jack Nicholson in a cameo role I wholesale missed.

Give it a watch and I wonder if your takeaway will be anything close to mine. Speaking of Jack Nicholson….

Reds (1981)

Image from IMDB (Making their “Marx” on the world.)

Here’s a fun fact to set the mood: Warren Beatty and Ronald Reagan were friends, due to them both being Hollywood guys and in spite of what I can gather is quite a gulf of political opinion. Reagan might be the President best known for being anti-communist and yet, within his first year in office, Beatty convinced him to watch a three hour movie all about American communists/ communist sympathizers where the sympathies of the movie are unambiguously on those Yankee Reds. They may be flawed, but it is never a question of conviction on their parts.

Not only did Reagan sit through a movie I imagine he was politically revulsed by, it was even a movie, PG or otherwise, which depicts sex in a manner he would straight up call “pornographic” if my perusal of “The Reagan Diaries” is any indication. If I could, I would perform black magic to go back in time, transmogrify into a fly and be on a wall in the White House so I could hear Ronnie Reagan’s thoughts on the movie to director/star Warren Beatty. Oh man.

My pro-Reagan parents have also seen the movie. In fact, it was the movie they first saw on their Honeymoon. In a time when America voted in Reagan, Reds actually did pretty well at the box office, earning $40 million in 1981 money and receiving mass acclaim which made it nominated heavily at the Oscars, albeit losing to Chariots of Fire, another early 20th century historical drama, best known for the oft repeated Vangelis slow-motion-running-on-the-beach music. In terms of sheer engagement, Reds is better than Chariots of Fire. I was honestly bored through most of it with the latter.

So, what made many proud American patriots, including my just married conservative parents spend three hours with Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, those godless commies? Could it be the somber manner in which it ends, not with communism triumphant but instead with communism perverted, twisted into the authoritarian fashion that became sadly fashionable to countries that proclaimed themselves communist? Neither Reed nor Bryant end the movie feeling as if their ideology has won out.

As for my own political identity, that is something I haven’t quite pinned down though part of me thinks it’s a waste of time to try to identify as a certain single thing when some other parts of my political beliefs wouldn’t gel with that “thing” in question. Am I leftist or left-leaning? Yes. Socialist or at least favorable to many socialist ideas or prescriptions? Yes. Anarchist, at least when it comes to governmental hierarchy? Dunno, but I wouldn’t necessarilly say “nay” if it was enacted and/or attempted. Communist? Well, maybe I would be OK with actual communism happening and working if it ever did so.

Since it hasn’t, I would take the alternatives or something like the alternatives over it. Beatty’s Reed makes a point towards a Soviet official late in the movie that what the new Soviet Union is doing or becoming is not communism or what communism should be. That same official would later be purged when our boy Stalin came into power.

It might’ve been an extended cut I was watching but intercut with the movie are these talking head interviews with elderly witnesses who were around in Reed and Bryant’s time. They give their Rashomon-like perspective and memory on who the two of them were like and the time and place it was to be a left-leaning person a century from today. I almost wondered if those interviews weren’t done in the early 80s as it looked a bit more modern, almost like it was done more recently like the early 2000s’.

Jack Reed is the man who wrote the controversial Ten Days that shook the World, his novel that acted as his perspective on the October Revolution as it happened. An American bearing witness to the death of the Tsar system and the birth of the Soviet Union. Warren Beatty, who honestly looks like Pierce Brosnan here due to his giant cheekbones, does a great job encompassing a man who if nothing else is passionate, endlessly passionate.

He dreams that a post-capitalist world is not only close but possible in the United States. Of course, the foregone conclusion that he is quite wrong from the audience’s perspective is played to maximum effect. Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant acts as the comparatively less zealous but no less committed Feminist author who believes that Marxist thinking goes hand in hand with increasing women independence. Keep in mind that this film is set in the decade that would actually give women the right to vote and by extension is a time where such strides were successfully occurring for Bryant’s cause.

The two meet in Portland and it should be remembered that Oregon’s largest city was not considered a left-leaning hub in America whatsoever back then. Jack Reed being the kinda guy he was is denoted by him coming from, of all places, Portland. If a guy like Reed came from Portland today, it would be read as “whatever.” While not exactly matching ideologically, the two certainly are close enough and their connection, heartfelt as it is, should make even the not politically sided viewer feel no small part of sympathy.

This is in of itself might be the most controversial aspect of Reds (assuming it was), but the good nature and good intentions of our duo of leads in conjunction with their communist beliefs is the heart of the movie, beating ever so red. The third character, as you can see from the header is Eugene O’Neill, played by Jack Nicholson.

I’ve come to recognize, having been exposed to much more of Jack, that his style of acting rarely changes, no matter the role. And yet somehow his relative one-notedness has not been a detriment, not really. I saw not too long ago a film that will make it onto this retrospective later, Terms of Endearment. Jack’s almost constant snarky/smarmy voice is ever present, even if the intention behind the performance is different. It does play up the idea that in Burton’s 89′ Batman, we weren’t seeing Nicholson play the Joker, we were seeing Nicholson play Nicholson, just a lot more misanthropic/psychopathic. Almost a spiritual successor to Jack Torrance from The Shining.

I had heard of Eugene O’Neill before Reds. He’s best known for created the plays The Iceman Cometh, Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day’s Journey into Night. All of those works that defined him were made after the period in which Reds is set and it’s safe to say that O’Neill probably had the least sad outcome to their life of the leading three.

I understand that artists, big thinkers and philosophers hob-knobbed with all sorts of people back in the day and maybe even now, but I had no idea that O’Neill was ever associated with two of the best known American Communists. O’Neill is sympathetic to what Reed and Bryant are fighting for, but befitting his body of work, he’s much more of a realist about the chances of their dream coming to life in the kind of world like the United States.

He certainly wouldn’t mind if their dream came to reality, but he tries his best, especially with Louise Bryant, to rein in their expectations. Something about Eugene works on her, as they have an affair while Reed is out covering Woodrow Wilson’s re-election campaign.

If there is a fourth lead, it would be Maureen Stapleton’s Emma Goldman. She is a fascinating figure to me as she went possibly further than Louise in marrying her feminist ideals with left-leaning belief. She is considered an important anarchist figure and you should probably know that political anarchism doesn’t necessarilly mean “Destroy everything cause freedom”, more an elimination of hierarchal structures in society that perpetuate an unequal and by extension, oppressive society. Considering America’s history alone with slavery, segregation and the place of women or anyone who wasn’t a white male, it’s easy to see where she came from.

I was first made aware of Goldman due to, what else, a Bioshock game, Infinite again in this case. The revolutionary figure of Daisy Fitzroy, who wants to tear down the white supremacist, American exceptionalist beautiful nightmare of the flying city of Columbia, is based off of her, but not entirely. She’s also like Harriet Tubman, if Tubman more distinctively followed Marx and had a hankering to do more than abolish slavery in America.

How many people my age became aware of life and the politics of the early 20th solely from video games like Bioshock or Red Dead Redemption? How many found out from perusing a book or watching a documentary? Possibly fewer than not, but then again, the internet gives anyone easy access to verifiable information.

As the years pass and Reed and Bryant grow closer, eventually resulting in marriage, which comes as a surprise to most, as people thought Louise’s ideology would have her resistant towards the practice, they eventually start hearing about rumblings of revolution over in the Russian Empire. The catalyst that might’ve well led to the Tsar’s collapse? Them getting involved in the First World War. As history tells us, in spite of the considerable numbers of the Russian army (almost always a constant throughout time), the Germans are better equipped and with more state of the art weaponry.

Unlike the notorious Western Front, it was mostly a lopsided affair on the East, ironically enough considering what the Eastern Front would end up being for the sequel. The Russians got curb stomped, again and again and again. The people of Russia, who weren’t in a great place to begin with before the Great War, got in an even worse predicament. Food and water became distinctly scarce, even by the standards of the era. What did Russia have to show for all the effort? Embarrassing defeats writ large.

Under those conditions, it seemed highly unlikely that the Tsar wouldn’t be taken out of power by some force eventually. The country essentially collapsed and Lenin, sent back home by the Germans themselves, took advantage. Reed and Bryant found themselves in the right place and the right time, in St. Petersburg (then the capitol) to witness what they thought was the culmination of their dream. If it was happening in Russia, why not America? The film cuts to intermission right as it seems a happy ending for our couple is at hand.

Then, the other half happens. The West, having seen what happened over in Eastern Europe, starts to crack down on anyone Red or Red-sympathetic. The first Red Scare begins. Reed attempts to organize himself in the American Communist party but infighting, some helped along by government moles on the inside, causes things to fall apart.

Even worse, as Reed heads back to the newly formed Soviet Union, having to wade across the vast Finnish-Russian tundra because normal means of transportation have been blocked, he gradually develops typhus, that will by the end, claim his life. Before you say this is too spoilerific, well this here is a historical fact. You’re just as likely to know Jack Reed’s fate via an internet search or maybe in school.

What perhaps made Reds palatable to the American public of the early 80s’ was that it was about the rise of the authoritarian communist system coming into power, not the communism that Reed, Bryant or Goldman wanted or intended. In one very noteworthy moment, as a weary from typhus Reed is addressing a communist gathering in Baku, he learns afterward on the train back to Russia that the translator for his English was saying something entirely different from what he was speaking. Seeing how the officials of the first “communist” nation betray him so deeply through that act kinda tears into what Beatty has been trying to say himself as the director.

They’re many leftists, communist or not, who view the Soviet Union not only as not communist, but a betrayal of its ideals. The Soviet Union carried with it many of the hierarchical even monarchist foundations that had plagued the Tsarist era. Internal corruption was soon a factor that would one day become terminal in the 1980s’. Chernobyl itself is the defining example of that rot, a rot that Reed saw for himself growing in his final days. In other words, you come up to a leftie, you will likely hear them detesting the Soviet Union and Mao’s China for that matter.

Based on what I know, a Leftist who will uncritically defend nations like the Soviet Union and Mao’s China are called “Tankies”. They will play defense for Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism, the philosophies that doomed those countries to be what they were. Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, based on what Beatty’s Reds says, would not stand for them, and neither would I.

It is rather crazy that a film like Reds was successfully made and even sold to the public to help show two distinctive sides of what a communist is or is not. It would be hard pressed I imagine, to be made and released today. But then again, the opening of this entry might’ve already disproved that. It would certainly be more attacked, fear mongered over today, in the internet age. If nothing else, Reds is all about perspective and what happens when good or useful ideas are twisted and essentially hollowed out by the same people who’re supposed to uphold them.

The question is then this: what hope of a better future do we really have if humanity perpetually undercuts it’s own progress, it’s own attempts at something different, possibly preferable? That’s a disquieting message more in tune to the 2020s than the 1980s.

Eye of the Needle (1981) (UK)

Image from Haphazard Stuff (I might just have to add Donald Sutherland to the handful of mustached men that I, a straight guy, think look attractive, along with Selleck and Reynolds.)

Return of the Jedi is to many the last good Star Wars film, especially if you are of a certain age. To others, it’s the first bad one. To some, one of the few good threequels, to others just another one on the long list. It ended the legendary Star Wars film series for 16 whole years. While George Lucas is notorious for how more involved in the production than he officially was or meant to be, it was yet directed by Richard Marquand, a Welsh director whose life was tragically cut short merely four years after Episode VI’s release.

One thing that Return of the Jedi maintains notoriety for, whether you fall in the camp of loving or hating it, was that it was more intentionally kid-friendly than the first two movies. The dominant reason?

Image from Warped Factor (The Care Bears go to Nam’.)

These guys make many like myself wonder so wistfully about the original idea for ROTJ involving the Wookies taking the place of the indigenous resistance who assist the Rebels against the Empire. Having Chewie’s race take center stage in what could’ve still been the grand finale for Star Wars would’ve been more fitting and epic. It would connect an established character more closely with the narrative and hell, could’ve actually addressed one of Jedi’s biggest criticisms: giving Han Solo more to do or have more stake. Sure, fighting the Empire for his friends on top of his love Leia is something, but it still can’t help but feel like less than he had in the first two episodes.

With the Wookies over the Ewoks, Han would’ve also been fighting on his best friend’s home turf and could’ve given a better lee-way for the original idea to have Solo commit a heroic sacrifice. But instead, wo got this internet meme as compensation. It’s a good one, no lie.

Image from Giphy (Apologies if this doesn’t play, but you’ve seen this film 40 times so you know the moment.)

So the guy who directed the most kid-pandering Star Wars film (before the Prequels) first directed an R-rated WW2 spy thriller. It was Eye of the Needle in fact that convinced Lucas to hire Marquand. Here, there’s murderous violence, a sordid love affair between a lonely married woman and a seemingly quintessential British gentlemen who is in fact a master German spy with an expected ruthless streak. Let’s just say the love scenes between Sutherland’s Henry Faber and Kate Nelligan’s Lucy Rose are not something you would expect from the guy who would direct Ewoks gallivanting in a forest. Well, I guess that means the guy has range? Sort of like how Alfonso Cuaron, the guy behind the sexually explicit Y tu Mama Tambien not only made a Harry Potter movie, but the best one all told.

Farber has been spying for years in Great Britain ever since the Second World War broke out. He is among the best in his class of German field intelligence, essentially a genius in espionage. He learns about a feint the Allies are using for their eventual invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and that Normandy will be the landing zone.

In his attempt to get to a U-boat off the British coast, an incident along the way following escaping British forces on a train has him wash up on the Scottish coast. A radioman lives with his wife and son near the coast and recovers him. Because this is Donald Sutherland we’re talking about, no one remotely expects him to be a Nazi spy, in spite of the state of the world. I would be fooled.

While the guy does have a time table, to get in contact with the U-boat so they can get him out of dodge and inform the Third Reich command of where the Allies will land, he becomes infatuated with Nelligan’s Lucy. Of course, it is quite mutual. What makes her temptation more evident is that her husband David (Christopher Cazenove) was handicapped in a car accident, the very day they were married. The guy’s frustration with being unable to fulfill his duty as a soldier for King and Country has soured the marital relationship.

Along comes a guy with the deepest British eyes fathomable and well, barring that she has a young boy who might learn about the two of them, it comes as no surprise that an affair occurs. Now, of course comes the expected tension of when she learns the terrible truth about Henry and what he is trying to do. It’s predictable but is carried because it is Sutherland’s stone cold portrayal of Faber that makes it so frightening.

There is then the extra drama that comes from whether Faber himself can go as far as he normally goes to keep his cover and complete his mission. There is the telling ambiguity to how much Faber comes to care for Lucy, how much of it is love and how much of it is lustful possessiveness? Considering what he does to the husband, well…

You basically know what you’re getting with Eye of the Needle and here it is more than acceptable, strangely enjoyable in spite of the beats in play. Like with Reds, there is the foregone conclusion that Faber won’t complete his mission. But how will he fail? Will Lucy and her son survive and will they be unscathed in the process? It ends on a note that despite being triumphant in the sense that, surprise, the Nazis lose, it still feels sad due to the circumstances of what Lucy put herself through with an unwitting affair with a Nazi agent. But had she refused Henry’s advances and stayed faithful, would that instead have doomed her to being quietly “taken care of” when no one was looking?

In the spy games, nothing is certain. A video game I’m fond of once asked if “Love can bloom on the battlefield.” Of course, this is not a conventional battlefield, and up until the end, only one player is aware that it is. But, in spite of it all, did love still bloom? I can’t say that it was a love that redeemed.

One’s a Master, the other’s a Learner: Reviews for Top Gun Maverick and Obi-Wan Kenobi (spoilers)

Image from Deadline (Cruise in control.)

Top Gun Maverick is for me an emotional paradox. Tom Cruise is himself a paradox when it comes to one giving him sympathy and respect. You know, the most visible member of the most visible American cult that isn’t a major political party.

Top Gun Maverick is a masterfully produced popcorn summer film that goes even harder than Cruise’s recent selection of Mission Impossibles in pushing actual risk to the art of entertaining the masses. It is frankly an experience I haven’t had at the multiplex even with those recent MIs in mind since George Miller’s triumphant return to the wasteland with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Where movie magic successfully maintains the illusion that bankable stars like Cruise and Miles Teller are in absurd amounts of danger in the air, with even the act of being in these expensive fighter jets a gamble.

Obviously, plenty of the flying sequences involve actual fighter pilots doing the maneuvers. With the modern age of CG, no matter how compelling, detailed or utilized, you will still know most of the time how the computer generated imagery is covering for something much riskier, which adds to the assumption that Hollywood is in most respects a risk-free venture in the 2020s’.

With Tom Cruise’s pull in the industry, he manages to make you not just more thrilled at what is happening, but potentially more frightened at what the outcome this fictional story will have. It is a minor miracle at not only what the film’s outcome ultimately is, but as far as I know, it was a production which didn’t have a horrific freak accident.

On the other side of the paradox, it is also the best imaginable propaganda for both the U.S. Air Force and Navy you could conceive of, making Captain Marvel’s condemned use of it seem tame by comparison. I know what the American Navy and Air Force is often used for when it comes to my nation’s involvement in foreign affairs. I can’t necessarily speak for the types of pilots who fly the jets you see in movies like Top Gun, but it’s still the same institution that double taps with missiles innocent civilians checking the rubble of a building we decimated and after the tap call it neutralization of “fun-sized terrorists.”

In the marginal defense of Top Gun Maverick’s politics and maybe even the politics of the original from a time long past, certain things are done to make it more palatable to a wider audience, to have a less mindlessly jingoistic attitude. Both films are more preoccupied with the “how” and are often obfuscating or disinterested with the “why”, though that itself can be used as an effective critique of what Top Gun is.

For one, the film has a displeased attitude about the idea of the Air Force becoming slowly but surely an unmanned program, no humans required. While it certainly protects human lives from risking a lot in the pilot’s seat, there is something uncomfortably cold and detached about AIs doing all of our air based military stuff. Potentially ominous for what happens when that tech gets out of our hands. An old but never outdated fear.

A decade ago, the Call of Duty series managed one of its more astute political commentaries with the second Blacks Ops game, where a political dissident getting his hands on both America and China’s unmanned military forces results in sheer, destructive chaos. Of all the political takeaways of that particular COD, that’s the one that will likely remain the least disagreeable. Top Gun Maverick is about the dying days of the “human” element of military air power and about that era going out in a blaze of glory….metaphorically they hope.

Regardless of your feelings on Reagan-era military thought as espoused in the 1986 original or the general attitude of the new 2022 flavor, Top Gun maintains an attractive pull through its frankly genius melding of war and sports drama. The 86′ original was basically a football movie, locker rooms and hot love interest on the side and all that. The spontaneous final showdown is for all intents and purposes the “big game”. Maverick follows in many respects the same playbook as the original, almost a soft remake akin to how Evil Dead 2 essentially redid and improved upon the first Evil Dead.

The difference is greater focus on an overall beginning to end goal in mind. The “big game” this time is extrapolated early on and remains a cloud over the cast’s heads until it’s time. Pay no attention to how it’s basically the Death Star trench run or maybe do as the movie all but brags about how it’s that basically. Aside from the practical effects done to perform this new version of one of the most recognizable third acts in film history, the details of this run would make Luke and Wedge squirm harder than they did in their own movie.

Let’s just say the optimal way to pull off this assault on an illegal nuclear test site in what is either non-descriptistan or based on the filming location, a far more malevolent Canada, would be hard to pull off in a video game. The sheer difficulty of the plan and that the Top Gun recruits under Maverick’s command are plain scared of the odds adds to how often the third act is more nerve-wracking than thrilling.

Peter “Maverick” Mitchell, warts and all, is just the man for a crazy stupid plan. He knows the alternatives are stupider and even a reckless guy like him has found some wisdom in age. In contrast to other legacy sequels, where a decades later continuation starring veteran characters and their actors in an older capacity, Maverick is refreshingly at peace with how his life has turned out by the time he’s reached I’m supposing his late 50s’ like Tom Cruise in real life. Aside from one obvious thing that haunts him from his past, he’s far more concerned with external factors affecting his career as king s**t of flying expensive as hell military planes.

The phasing out of humans flying the Air Force’s toys is one thing. Even his chance to try out experimental planes, for just the thrill of breaking records of speed and just being there and doing it, is coming to an end. Like the Deans of endless 80s College movies or da Chief from Police movies of the same period, Ed Harris and Jon Hamm play two superiors for Maverick who have put up and continue to put up with his antics and finally have the ability to ground him. Following his unauthorized use of a super hyper turbo alpha jet, he is given the best punishment he could ask for: going back to Top Gun.

But, once he’s done training the cadets for that mission brought up earlier, it’s time to turn in his wings, he’s off the force. Maybe then he’ll have the chance to get back with one of his past sweethearts and stick with her this time. No, not Kelly McGillis but Jennifer Connolly who honestly looks even younger than Cruise. Tragically, it’s often the reverse when it comes to the sexes aging.

Of course, the training for the “Oh, holy gee” operation gets even more complicated for Maverick when the son of his departed co-pilot Goose arrives as part of the squad. Miles Teller plays Rooster (dignified like his dad) who remains extremely resentful for Maverick pushing him constantly back from the Air Force big leagues.

The enmity one holds over the other intentionally mirrors Maverick’s legendary rivalry with Val Kilmer’s Iceman, though with less suggestive teeth chomping and general homoeroticism for obvious reasons. Iceman himself makes a surprising appearence, considering the actor’s rather sobering real life condition. As many have already said, it’s probably the best scene not involving flying planes.

Actually, the surprising thing is how engaging Top Gun Maverick manages to be when jets are not flying overall, like the original. While the dread over the mission’s outcome is part of what keeps Top Gun 2 maintaining a need for pacing, it also helps land the more reflective moments on how Maverick tries to, nearly 40 years later, still get over a freak accident that got one of his student’s dad killed. On whether he in fact does have regrets other than that over the course of a sizable period of his life. On whether his way of doing things can still work in the age of what are over and over called “FIFTH GENERATION JETS”. Yes, I know that stands for “more advanced”, but how more so? The film’s third act gives you an idea, courtesy of the dastardly non-descriptistanian air force.

In terms of callbacks and fan service, it ranges in bluntness though there’s an earnest melancholy or sense of genuine rather than corporate nostalgia. The opening crawl and sequence of jets taking off an aircraft carrier( replete with Harold Faltermeyer and Kenny Loggins) and how the end credits are done are essentially exactly the same as they were 36 years ago, leading some to wonder if this movie is stuck in the past. Like Maverick it kinda is, actually, but in the best way fathomable.

Top Gun Maverick takes the idea of a legacy sequel that is common now and refines it almost perfectly. You will not care at all how often this movie smells its own farts as those are farts that a considerable amount of work was put into. You will also stop caring about what it says about the U.S. military and its framing of force on a sovereign nation and the almost certainly hypocritical standards it puts forth. More than any other contemporary piece of pop culture I’ve come to second guess out of concern for my moral integrity (like a lot of the MCU sadly), in this instance I happily look the other way.

Like a lot of old works for whom their political and cultural frameworks come off sorely lacking, Top Gun Maverick has layers to enjoy that can be done without eroding your own sense of how you view the world, how you view the U.S. itself today. It’s not unlike Miyazaki’s own story of the joy of allowing flight screw the ethical concerns that was The Wind Rises. That liberal with the facts dramatization of Jiro Hirikoshi, the man who designed the notorious “Zero” Japanese military plane, is all about a man, who like Miyazaki, has a lifelong fascination with machines that enable which was once simply impossible: Man flying through the clouds. So great is his love for that potential he ignores what those planes he’s creating will be used for (something that Miyazaki loathes) and that it also keeps him apart from the other love of his life, his wife, as she dies from tuberculosis. What price are one’s dreams?

The price of enjoying Top Gun Maverick and it’s expert use of practical over computer movie spectacle and the drama of a man forgiving himself for his past errors and presenting the universally appealing fable of Man being potentially yet better or as good as Machine is to let yourself ignore that the real life utility of these men and women with their flying machines will rarely be as heroic as you want them to be.

Perhaps that is the biggest throwback Top Gun Maverick is to being “old or older Hollywood”. If nothing else, it’s a notion that still works in this changing, potentially post-American Century world, enough to earn over a billion dollars and counting. That plenty of people from outside the States can and will accept that notion too is quite something altogether.

I don’t know, maybe Cruise asked Xenu to put something in the water.

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Image from Tom’s Guide (Blue turns to Grey.)

Should you watch Ewan Macgregor’s much desired reunion tour with Hayden Christensen? Even though most will have already made that assessment by this point? …..Yeah?

I knew how to feel easily about the Mandalorian. I knew how to feel about the Book of Boba Fett. I just don’t know how to feel about Obi-Wan Kenobi. It could be that in spite of what Obi-Wan has said (hypocritically) before about absolutes, I often find myself categorizing the quality of maybe too much I consume in certain absolutes.

I’m not saying there is nothing out there that I have or continue to hold conflicting feelings over. Sometimes my opinions change. I for instance have to recognize redeemable aspects to some of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, relegated to The Force Awakens and Last Jedi (Rise of Skywalker can shove it). I even think some of Last Jedi’s philosophy might be necessary when it comes to whatever amounts to Episode 10 and after.

And yet, here we have the latest Disneyplus show, containing some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the Disney era for Star Wars. The final episode’s confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader with an absolutely stellar use of both Christensen and James Earl Jones’ voice in conjunction is on point for what Darth Vader simply is thematically and it acts as subjective proof that yes, Hayden Christensen could perform Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader without making you laugh or regret your Star Wars fandom. It only took 17 years.

But that same episode featuring a perhaps not needed yet supremely welcome piece of prelude for Darth and Obi’s for real last confrontation in Episode 4 also has the most baffling piece of villain behavior leading up to a redemption moment that left me feeling even colder than I did when Kylo Ren became a good guy.

Much like how George Lucas had to bend and contort the logic and believability of the prequels’ narrative to get to the part you were all waiting for: Darth Vader’s birth, so too must a six episode arc of characters, plotting and behavior bend and contort itself to get to a pretty sweet duel and grim conversation between two former best of friends.

Had this been a one episode length short story not featuring all the laborious and contradictory bells and whistles leading up to it, I would risk declaring this essential Star Wars to view, making the Original Trilogy just a little bit richer. Not unlike how Filoni’s Clone Wars brought richness if nothing else to the prequel era.

It starts off well, showing how ten years of hiding on Tattoine has given Obi-Wan a lot of time to think and it’s left him weary and full of guilt at what he thinks he let happen. How the deaths of not just most of the Jedi but every victim of the Empire should be on his soldiers.

He is brought back in to the wider conflict surrounding the Empire and its activities, when he was content just making sure Luke was doing OK on the farm, when the other Skywalker in hiding, little Princess Leia, gets herself kidnapped by a Red Hot Chili Pepper. Jimmy Smit’s Bail Organa pleads to Obi for help and he reluctantly goes forward on his quest, knowing that the Inquisitors, force sensitive Jedi hunters, are just waiting for his scent.

Moses Ingram’s Reva is the featured Inquisitor and she might be the most polarizing element of the show. Before and shortly after the series began, the actress received some rather raw attacks online from the scum of the internet all over ,what else, her race. That there continues to be racism from Star Wars fans over black characters in SW puzzles me.

I mean, I get it, racists are as racists do. But why would racists preoccupy themselves with a franchise that has featured black characters since 1980? Lando Calrissian, while certainly a “player” type of stereotype often associated with African-Americans, was ultimately a heroic figure whose act of betrayal in Empire Strikes Back was ultimately due to the guy having no choice in the matter.

He did have a floating city full of innocent people to think about. He manages to become one of my favorite characters from the OT era as well as a great foil of sorts to Han’s own type of roguish personality. We’ve also had Mace Windu from the Prequel era and Finn from the Sequel era. On that note, ironically for what is called the “SJW/ Woke” period of Star Wars from a certain group of dissenters, Finn and his actor John Boyega got the rawest deal of all the featured black characters. Like basically everyone starting off in Force Awakens, his arc starts off strong and with promise and is utterly squandered as the trilogy plays out.

By Rise of Skywalker, aside from being a guy like Poe who has the protagonist’s Rey’s back and that he might either be in love with Rey, force sensitive or both, he’s got nothing. His biggest purpose is to fight the bad guys, about as significant as any of the heroic named extras of the movie. An argument could be made that Disney’s handling of Finn and giving him a quasi-love interest in a brand new female black character rather than you know, working with what was possibly set up in a gay love story with Poe was at least insensitive on some level, though the biggest reason can be chalked up to corporate incompetence over malicious intent.

So, yeah, there’s the bare bones history Star Wars has had with black characters and their actors, more positive than not, which might help speak to the franchise’s enduring mass appeal. So after Lando, Mace and Finn( though the character very early on was attacked by online racists), now out of the blue does a new black character and her actress got mercilessly bullied.

Star Wars fans bullying an actor online for a perceived bad performance goes back at least as far as Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best for Episode 1, but the added inference of racist motivations for their displeasure has grown more frequent. I don’t know, maybe something in the contemporary American culture has emboldened such types, can’t quite put my finger on it but it might have something to do with a guy who has a bizarre, vaguely orange complexion. And was also President once and may to everyone’s detriment be President again.

Starting off, Reva didn’t get on my nerves for how the character was portrayed and acted. I actually found her quite disturbing as even before the reveal of where she comes from, she is very likely connected to the Jedi of the past and represents what Palpatine’s Empire does to the Jedi it “spares.” Her cutting off the hand of a dissenting voice in a crowd as she yells for information on Jedi in hiding was adding up for me to be a character that was at least decent for its purpose. But, by the fourth episode, she was starting to get on my nerves.

I’ve heard that Ingram has done good work before starring in Obi-Wan. She played the Lady Macduff in a recent version of Macbeth and recieved awards for her work on The Queen’s Gambit. And yet, how she was portraying Reva at times felt…awkward, unconvincing. A lot of that can and should be chalked up to the awkward way the show details her tragic history as a narrow survivor of Order 66, from the Jedi Temple massacre no less, to becoming a vengeful Inquisitor who ultimately wants to bring down the guy who killed her childhood friends and nearly her: Darth Vader who she extrapolates as Anakin Skywalker based on seeing his visage before the mask and lots and lots of burning. That too was hard for me to fully swallow.

Her plan on how she does it…will either leave you thinking that maybe she should’ve gone over the details in her head a bit more or it will leave you wondering if her plan really was as simple as sneak up on Darth Vader from behind. I mean, Vader or not, force users are pretty good at detecting threats nearby anyway unless the plot demands they should be a little more sluggish like the whole Jedi Temple stuff.

The strange or contrived behavior of Reva, especially showcased in her bizarre and nearly continuity shredding actions in the final episode, played inbetween the awesome stuff with Kenobi and Vader just so everyone can contrast the stark difference in screenwriting being done is of course not limited to her. Characters old and new are victim.

In the earlier, generally warmly received episodes, our biggest gripes surrounded the lackluster security detail that little Princess Leia had frolicking in an Alderaan forest on top of how a bunch of pirates couldn’t catch up with a ten year old who wasn’t even running that fast. Leia’s magical and certainly not forced based ability to outrun grown adults would return next episode when Obi-Wan can’t keep up with her.

Some plot contrivances aren’t limited to strange, even out of character actions, sometimes it’s just logic being again contorted so the plot can happen in spite of the circumstances established. Just as you’re wondering why after Reva’s woeful assassination attempt on Vader he didn’t ensure she was dead you then will wonder how a wounded woman not only found a nearby ship after being left for dead and managed to get to Tattoine even though it’s made pretty clear that perhaps mere hours or less has passed due to the circumstances involving Obi-Wan and Leia occurring at the same time.

Just as you piece that together, you bare witness to essentially a repeat of one of if not the dumbest moment from The Last Jedi where a heavily armed Star Destroyer is having difficulty taking down the shields of a rinky-dink shuttlecraft. TLJ was less stupid comparatively because at least the Resistance had a full on cruiser they were using, something you imagine would have good shields. But on that same note, nobody on the Destroyer let alone Vader considers having additional star destroyers drop right in front of the tiny vessel, surround it and/or further whittle down the surprisingly strong defenses of the little ship with their many tie fighters.

If you couldn’t tell, I am getting tired of Star Wars screenwriters not having the same foresight for the scenarios they brainstorm of someone like the 28 year old blogger I am. If I could realize these contrivances, couldn’t they?

Many more moments like that litter Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’m not even wholly against some stupid moments so long as it’s a little harder to pick up on them. People have noticed some pretty glaring plot contrivances in the all but sacrosanct original trilogy like why the Death Star doesn’t simply hyperjump right in front of Yavin 4 and blow it up instantly. The answer was actually due to the original movie’s troubled production and how it was re-edited to make it more exciting than the original cut. Yes, I am saying that Oscar winning editing created possibly the biggest ignored plot hole in Star Wars history. And yet, nobody cares. They might acknowledge it, laugh it off and go about their day.

So, why this greater scrutiny over plot holes or contrivances nowadays, let alone in Star Wars? Are audiences smarter? That can’t be true, due to Jurassic World Dominion’s box office. Maybe it extends to how much we care about a property, how if we care or are invested, we are then more willing to blatantly ignore such things, with a smile even.

How much more bitter would my consumption of pop culture be if I was hyper attuned to noting any and all possible plot contrivances in media? How much more sour would I be on stuff I love with that mindset? Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve distanced myself from Cinemasins.

I’m currently watching and loving stuff like The Boys and the surprisingly stellar reimagining of all things, She-Ra. I imagine some potential contrivances and holes exist in those shows. Would I then call those shows bad if someone compiled the flaws of those shows? Hell, even knowing its flaws I have a soft spot for Star Trek Voyager, whose premise might be predicated on a plot contrivance.

In spite of me mentioning its high marks which include Obi-Wan vs Vader, Obi’s relationship for the most part with little Leia which actually ties very well into Episode 4 and maybe even recontextualizes the moment where she comforts a heartbroken Luke after escaping the Death Star, why do I still feel cold overall towards the show?

It’s not just because I only cared in bursts rather than for the majority of the ride (like I did with Top Gun), but because the reason why plot holes and contrivances can be forgiven is if they ultimately don’t upset the flow of what the story is doing. The plot holes and contrivances might make Obi-Wan Kenobi have a pace worse than even Boba Fett, though I would still call this better than Boba Fett.

It makes what was in practice a heartwarming encore on the set for two Star Wars actors a frustrating demonstration of growing pains episodic Star Wars is not managing to grow past. How the great idea that existed in this show was not translated correctly possibly at the behest of Disney’s demands that this show must be this long to justify their needs for a streaming service. The needs of the market over the needs of the story.

As for what Disney offers up next on streaming, Andor has potential, especially if it manages to use its setting to allow fewer instances of fanservicing at its audiences and tell a straightforward, gritty tale of how the Rebellion took root. It’s grimmer setting with an apparent lack of force-users actually makes it potentially something different if still set in an era we are quite accustomed to. Obviously there’s Mandalorian’s third season and Ahsoka is oh so promising, even if it is a glorified live action fifth season for Rebels. There are branches to some sides of Star Wars I am quite eager to see continue, perhaps giving us in time a real send off for one of the best Star Wars characters created without Lucas’ involvement.

But as has been regurgitated plenty of times and even a feeling reciprocated by those at Lucasfilm like Kathleen Kennedy herself, Star Wars has to move on from the three eras we know, especially the first two chronologically. This is despite the SW line up consisting entirely of stuff from during or near the Skywalker Saga as we call it now.

That the latest Star Wars experience is a story that is basically chained between two already determined points in a concluded story echoes where Star Wars finds itself creatively. Ahsoka conceptually feels more liberated despite being in that era and so does Mando’s ongoing tale as the end of their stories haven’t been realized. I want to know where they have yet to go.

Audiences worldwide learned where Obi-Wan was going the year Star Wars itself began, in 1977.

Bengal’s 80s Retrospective part XI (De Palma Deep Dive) (Yup, spoilers)

In this rendition of the seemingly infinite amount of entries required to get through just the 80s phase of my movie catch up collection, I will be looking at three films from New Hollywood legend Brian De Palma, known both lovingly and derisively as the world’s biggest Hitchcock fan. The fourth film seems like De Palma but is actually directed by Paul Schrader, a collaborator with Martin Scorsese best known for having co-written Raging Bull.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Image from Film Forum (What was shocking in 1980 will be depressing in 2022.)

Of the three De Palma films to showcased here, Dressed to Kill might simultaneously be the best and yet the worst at the same time. All for a reason which might not have been all that noteworthy back in the day. It’s for a reason that even De Palma himself has admitted makes him feel a little uneasy and even apologetic.

It’s all tied to the reveal of who the killer is in this murder mystery. I should be grateful that this is also a well-crafted, well-filmed, well-paced and even most things considered well thought out R-rated tribute to the master of suspense at the end of the day.

De Palma’s Body Double, to later be featured, is meant as an ode to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, one of his most copied works though I would dare say Body Double is indeed inspired, not a copy like D.J. Caruso’s Shia LeBeouf vehicle Disturbia. If I was to reveal what movie Dressed to Kill takes influence from, it would give the game away too early and to really dig into this flick, I will eventually. Then again, the title itself all but acts as a spoiler if you know Hitchcock. You kinda should know the baby faced maestro, he’s the guy who coined two enduring names for plot devices, the macguffin and the red herring, among other lasting tenets of cinema.

Dressed to Kill starts as a story of a middle aged woman, Kate, living in Manhattan, played by Angie Dickinson. After being declined into entering into an affair with her therapist played by Michael Caine( infidelity or not, this is still Michael Caine), she then has a one night stand with a mysterious person she meets at an art museum. She learns after the night together that this stranger has some STDs and runs out of the apartment into an elevator where a blonde woman with a razor is waiting to do her in.

There was one witness to her demise, a high end call girl called Liz (Nancy Allen) who was, as befits Hitchcock storytelling, at the wrong place at the wrong time and flees before the killer can get her too. Also like a certain Hitchcock title, the focuses shifts from Kate to Liz, on account of the former having died.

I should note ahead of time that Allen’s Liz is treated surprisingly, even for the time, as a sympathetic, likable figure. More than just the “Hooker with the heart of Gold”, she is one of the two central characters after Kate’s murder. Because she is a call girl rather than a “Woman of the Night“, she is paid quite well for her services, some that are hinted to not always be exactly sexual, and has an impressive Manhattan Penthouse that would give the friends from Friends pause.

The other protagonist is Kate’s teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon), who is more interested in spending time with his pet invention based projects as well as some interesting plot related hobbies with regards to snapshot photography. I’m not certain if autism was well understood by the early 80s, I know it would take awhile and is still an issue when it comes to consistently decent portrayal of those on the spectrum like last year’s ill-advised Music.

Rain Man, eight years after Dressed to Kill, would be considered a landmark picture in regards to autistic representation, enough to make that film the biggest movie of 1988. It still receives flak, fairly or not, for presenting either the myth or exaggeration that autistics are all savants in a particular field, barring the social and behavioral hang-ups. Peter from Dressed to Kill is remarkably a more realistic depiction, if intended, of someone high-functioning autistic like myself. Socially awkward and restrained, has obsessive interests which makes it difficult to look into other new ones and often has a frustrating insistence to stay to a schedule that reflects those interests. Again, I kindof saw myself in Peter.

Of course, once his mother gets killed, he can’t help but take interest in that murder getting solved and it just so happens that his particular set of skills can help both him and Liz solve the mystery and save their lives. After all, their connections to Kate make them targets. It’s also quite nice that no tacked on romance happens between Liz and Peter. On one hand, one is teen age, the other isn’t. On the other, Pete possibly being on the spectrum might make him reluctant to go that far anyway. Besides, they’ve got no time for love.

As Liz and Peter’s increasingly perilous investigation goes further, with Caine’s Dr. Elliott, Kate’s therapist, and De Palma regular Dennis Franz’s Detective Marino getting involved, it all crescendos into a revelation that is perhaps not that shocking in terms of who dun it. I clocked it as soon as I recognized that the disguised blonde woman killing Kate in the elevator looked very familiar. It didn’t help that I went into this movie knowing De Palma’s admitted love for Hitchcock. Besides, this all culminates into discussing why Dressed to Kill, a great murder mystery drama, might be tainted by some extremely unfortunate implications by contemporary standards.

So, first of all, if you didn’t already piece it together by my summary or better yet have already seen the movie (It is one of De Palma’s more profitable movies), Michael Caine’s Dr. Elliott is the murderer in drag but it goes beyond even that. It is all but stated that Elliott is a trans woman on top of that. To further paint this as connected to transgender, Dr. Elliott pre-reveal watches a TV interview of a trans person discussing their sex change.

To the film’s credit, the depiction of this interview is not at all to suggest you should mock or fear this trans person, regardless of the details of the sex change. The framing of this moment suggests either neutrality or possibly sympathy. Perhaps it is De Palma going so far as to state that no matter your takeaway of my killer antagonist being a trans psychopath, not every trans person is a monstrous murderer to be feared.

Even then, when I consider how, based on present day statistics, transgender individuals in America are not only among the least violent demographics we have, there are also one of the most prone to violence committed upon them. That’s not even accounting for the suicide rate, all but stemming from a society or at least local social circles which struggle or refuse to accept them.

Don’t get me started on how there is, as of this writing, a loathsome roll-back on what rights they do have in certain parts of my nation, let alone more and more rhetoric that is meant to demonize and scapegoat them, all to fulfill rotten prejudices and to deflect from discussing far more pressing actual dangers to the country’s survival. Take for instance, how in the wake of our latest avoidable mass murder, this go around including elementary school children and their teachers in Texas, some outlets made the erroneous (or perhaps knowingly deceitful) statement that the shooter was a trans person.

So, yes, in light of the current climate, and on basic matters of human decency and empathy, Michael Caine playing a trans, cross-dressing murderer who masquerades as the vengeful wife of the STD filled man Kate slept with can be hard to fully accept, no matter De Palma’s current day opinions and that hey, at least it wasn’t demonization of all trans people. By the standards of 1980, that actually is quite commendable. Maybe.

Nevertheless, I feel weird about my albeit confident recommendation of watching Dressed to Kill. I already brought up all the high points, including some areas where this movie might actually be less problematic than not on certain subject matter. It’s certainly a great demonstration of De Palma’s skill as a drama director. In how he molds and bends Hitchcock’s style of both filmmaking and storytelling into something that remarkably ends up being his own. He certainly shows us Hitchcock through the end of an R-rated, gritty atmosphere that was mostly impossible in the master’s time.

Then again, the film that Dressed to Kill clearly takes most from, Psycho, was a movie that broke boundaries in what Hollywood could or could not do back in 1960. Many of the some concerning handling of subject matter that Dressed to Kill has been critiqued for was presented twenty years earlier, the same disconcerting conclusions that now look woefully outdated when we know or wish to know the truth as it is now.

Blow-Out (1981)

Image from MUBI (John Travolta, in his first strong period, probing for sound effects until…)

De Palma was more than just showing off his style of Hitchcock. While that certainly applies to the film he did after Dressed to Kill, there are shades of other filmmakers given his style. Like Francis Ford Coppola and the most significant film he made not called Godfather or Apocalypse Now, The Conversation.

Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sounds effect artist for an independent low budget film studio based out, of all places, Philadelphia. They mainly do slasher films, which was experiencing its greatest hey-day at the time, thanks to Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th.

At the moment in the film he’s working on where the killer, in first person view, is about to get his female victim in the shower, the screams they have on film just aren’t cutting it. So, he’s tasked by the movie’s producer to go out into the big wide world in Philly and find a sound more appropriate for that scene. While out at night in a park, Jack here’s something not meant for him to hear. The titular blow-out he records followed by tires screeching an a limousine careening over.

He gets to where the crash is and wouldn’t you know it, Nancy Allen’s back! Not that surprising when you learn she was married to DePalma at the time. She’s the sole survivor of the crash and was driving with, aw shucks, the governor of Pennsylvania, George McRyan, and even better, it’s election season and he was the favorite for the presidency. HMMMM.

Turns out Allen’s character Sally is a call girl, just like last time. In spite of the sympathetic portrayals of women with such professions, I’m starting to wonder if De Palma and Allen split up because the hubby kept making the wife into an escort. That, in and of itself, is actually a criticism some have with De Palma, continually making movies where women are prostitutes with the risk or follow through of violence or worse placed upon them.

The presidential candidate having a call girl is just one layer of the conspiracy that Jack Terry suddenly finds himself in. For instance, the circumstances of the crash sure are suspicious on its face. Like for instance, could Terry find in the recording an additional sound that might indicate a gun-shot, one responsible for the blow-out? On top of that, the people that end up being responsible for the assassination of the Governor are now hunting both Jack and Sally, but specifically the latter.

We go from a witness to a serial killer’s work to a political hit-job, literally in this case, with poor Nancy Allen again stuck in the middle. To better separate from Dressed to Kill, we soon see for ourselves the audience who the killers are and their motives and planning for their deeds. It’s now a matter of protecting Sally and proving the conspiracy behind McRyan’s death. Dennis Franz here plays Manny, a sleazy additional witness like Jack, who actually filmed the crash while he was out and about, not unlike Zapruder. However Manny is all too happy to sell the film to the conspirators not just to protect his ass but for some money on the side.

It becomes a matter of a sound effects technician, hardly a secret agent, trying to protect an innocent woman, prove an assassination and keep himself from death as the lead assassin, Burke (John Lithgow), menacingly hunts them down through the many streets of Philadelphia. It culminates in a chase where Sally tries to meet up with Jack during a city celebration, starting at 30th St Station, going through a light rail and eventually ending up at a harbor, with either Jack or Burke moments away from either succeeding.

The film’s conclusion, in which Jack fails to save Sally from Burke, is part of the reason for Blow-Out having a far poorer box office than Dressed to Kill and for initially having a lesser opinion from critics. De Palma would have box office success again right after with his controversial version of Scarface but it would take time for audiences and critics both to warm up to De Palma’s Dressed to Kill follow up.

Nowadays, the film as a whole has been positively re-evaluated, some considering it among De Palma’s best, one of them being Quentin Tarantino. In all fairness, the downer ending was actually set up from the start. After all, Jack’s producer wanted him to find the best scream for the movie and Sally’s fate provided it in the end.

Aside from providing more of De Palma’s love for Hitchcockian storytelling, it can also be seen as a film about De Palma’s own relation with film-making and the processes he goes to for his art. The main protagonist being a movie sound technician, like Star Wars’ Ben Burtt, helps accommodate the notion of this being a more personal title. Namely, the idea that an artist would be willing to use material which might come from an inappropriate place for the sake of a work. Maybe it’s a commentary on De Palma’s own marriage with Nancy Allen, which would end in 1984.

Maybe he was growing concerned with how people would view him putting his significant other into film roles with not the most uplifting of purposes or outcomes. Maybe Jack Terry’s depressed, self-loathing state by film’s end is permission from De Palma to say that if you dislike me for my work, for what I put in it, go ahead. I don’t mind the heat. Maybe, every now and then, I could use it.

Body Double (1984)

Image from TCM (Nope, not Richard Gere on the left, yes, Melanie Griffith on the right.)

Due to having inadvertently viewed two De Palma films back to back, I decided to just make the next selection about the man and went forward with a film from him I meant to watch later. His 1984 Body Double might be even more explicit about the Hitchcock connection than even Dressed to Kill. Here, it’s not just one but two of his films that are given the De Palma touch: Vertigo and more obviously Rear Window.

In all fairness, it also connects to a theme that is more De Palma than not: an interest in voyeurism and why we, no matter our backgrounds, are drawn to it. It gets meta when you consider De Palma has stated that the act of viewing movies is itself voyeurism. Of course, all the actors and actresses know that someone is going to watch what they’re doing on the screen, that’s the entire point. But, the fictional characters don’t know that and never will, not unless they break the fourth wall. Unlike anyone here, Deadpool can see you watching him. And he’s just peachy about it.

Hitchcock’s Rear Window wasn’t the only film with aspects of exploring voyeurism as Psycho and Vertigo also feature it in some way. Rear Window, with James Stewart’s wheelchair bound photographer watching his neighbors out of sheer boredom, starts to draw some amount of leeriness from the audience. Sure, his behavior soon involves him investigating a possible murder, which in turn puts him in danger following one of cinema’s most famous “oh shit” moments.

But he also watches moments that really should be left to his neighbor’s privacy, like a honeymoon couple who just can’t get enough of the other’s body. I mean, I know Hitchcock loved trolling censors with innuendo like the very last scene from North by Northwest but man I’m still wondering how our boy Alfred got away with the implication of, admittedly a married couple, getting it on a lot in a 1954 film.

This being a 1984 De Palma movie, there is less innuendo and more of, how should I put it, what you see is what you get. There is nudity, there is sex, there is one hell of a music video that snuck itself into a murder mystery. More on that later, my friends.

But you get the sense that the titillation you see here is part of an almost meta-observation on audience desires and how the camera isn’t just serving the filmmaker as it is the likely audience. Ironically, it’s a film about deception, about how maybe what you see actually is not what you get as it turns out. That cinema by design is about cleverly lying to you.

Jake Scully, played by Craig Wasson (who might as well be a body double himself for Richard Gere), is an actor whose career is put on the line after he suffers claustrophobia while filming a vampire sex comedy. Dennis Franz returns as that film’s director. Following his leaving the production from that psychological break, not unlike James Stewart’s titular vertigo from another Hitchcock production, and after he finds his girlfriend sleeping with someone else, he flunks out of a casting call and meets a strange man played by Gregg Henry. His role, spoilers, is on hindsight not unlike Strangers on a Train.

Out of supposed sympathy with Jake’s state, he allows him to stay at his swank future-home on a hill, with an observation deck-like window showing the valley below. Yes, the place does remind me of Troy McClure’s home from the Simpsons, right down to the interior detail. The stranger, Sam, is going on a business trip and is letting Jake watch the place while he’s out. There’s a telescope that allows him to see just about anything below, especially when a resident in an apartment down there at night dances nude, apparently unaware anyone could be watching. Jake of course gets a real kick out of that.

The music that plays while Jake watches the woman from afar is fantastic and can be enjoyed for its atmospheric peak 80s snyth feel without the context. It’s actually better without context as it can do more than just represent the sensuality of the sequence. Like much great music, it’s purpose is adaptable and is no less true here.

Eventually, however, as a film inspired by Hitchcock is want to do, things take a turn for the worse. During one session of watching the nude woman dancing to herself, suddenly MURDER happens and like the last two movies, our nominal hero finds himself embroiled in a mystery where nothing really is at it seems. Some twists and turns you can certainly already seem coming, like the stranger Sam not being on the up and up, and others are genuinely surprising. Melanie Griffith’s role in the story is part of the latter thankfully.

Griffith plays Holly, not a call girl this time, but a porn star appearing in a bunch of straight to private channel or VHS films that, for us the viewing audience, never go beyond an R-rating in terms of material. Funnily enough, maybe as part of a joke, the porno stuff we see Holly doing is pretty tame. Befitting De Palma’s kind portrayal of women in unsavory professions, Holly, while abrasive to Jake only due to the admittedly off-putting way he goes about explaining her role in the conspiracy, is ultimately not a character he wants you to look down on.

Like I would think most actual porn stars, male or female, it’s a job, one that involves if you could believe it some measure of genuine talent. In the film’s world, Holly is one of the best in the business. Once you get past her Jersey accent, not a bad person to know in general. Her role is where the Vertigo side of things really come into focus, such as her unknowingly playing a wait for it….body double for the woman Gloria , who Jake thought he was viewing through the telescope.

Why the conspiracy? Why this deception that Holly herself was put through? Unlike the last two movies, I won’t give away the whole game, as this film has the most upbeat even playful way it wraps up, as if to say that De Palma wants to both stress you out and give you a fun time in his own telling of Hitchcock’s stories, now with as heavy a sheen of that 80s’s magic as you could imagine.

Before I wrap up this section, I’ve gotta talk about the music video section, a moment where the movie basically stops dead for a somewhat brief but all-encompassing endorsement for one of the 1980s’ most significant one hit wonders: Frankie goes to Hollywood.

In order to get in contact with Holly over the mystery surrounding Gloria, Jake goes all the way to the porno studio where Holly works. The only way the producer will let Jake get in contact with Holly is if he participates in a shoot of her latest work. Fortunately, Jake’s already an actor and gets the part as a nerdy guy who wants to meet Holly in the video. It then leads to a music video rendition of the one song everyone knows from Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Relax.

In spite of the very suggestive lyrics, which made the song and the band controversial at the time, Relax is such a ubiquitous song with the era that even material which doesn’t have a shred of sexual content down the road uses this song. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which uses more than a little from De Palma’s Scarface, has the song in the game’s acclaimed radio selection, which might contain a near perfect sampling of 80s’ hits to give a lay-person an idea of the period’s music.

Of course Grand Theft Auto notoriously has sexual content in it, but the use of Relax ingame can have nothing to do with that, simply listening to its sick beats while driving recklessly or not through its send up of 80s Miami. Another game, which has no sexual content really at all, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, used the song to promote that game’s rendition of the “Zombies” mode, which had a tongue in cheek rendition of all things 80s, set in a theme park with a selection of music including Relax, all hosted by the man, the myth, the legend, DAVID HASSELHOFF.

All that being said, Relax as featured here in a music video with the band itself, certainly uses the sexual context of the song. It can be watched divorced from the film and it’s plain fun that way if you can stomach the subject matter like myself. But within the film it serves as another reminder of the film’s preoccupation of not just cinematic deception, but knowing deception.

Body Double has all the serious subject matter of De Palma’s earlier works but with an arresting sense of fun and in some areas even adventure weirdly enough in comparison. The film’s final scene, which plays over the end credits, is the best reminder that De Palma wanted you to have fun more than ever while also considering the food for thought he presented. Not just over his own appetites, but what potentially are yours.

Speaking of Richard Gere….

American Gigolo (1980)

Image from SARTOISM (Bill Duke and a pretty Man.)

Let’s set the mood.

The theme for Paul Schrader’s directorial debut comes from Blondie and the mesmerizing vocals of Debbie Harry, last featured on this retrospective for animated cult classic Rock n’ Rule. It should be noted that American Gigolo was not my first exposure to this particular Blondie hit. It was last year’s surprisingly great Guardians of the Galaxy game, from the makers of the recentish Deus Ex titles.

That’s the great thing about music, even some that have intended purposes from its creators can be made adaptable for more than one interpretation. In GOTG 2021’s case, it’s part of Peter Quill/ Star Lord’s jukebox of mostly 80s’ hits onboard the Guardians’ vessel the Milano. It’s played automatically after Peter and the Guardians have a heated meeting with one of his old flames, an alien police officer and as it turns out potential mother of his daughter.

In exchange for freedom following an illegal incursion the Guardians take in a no-fly zone part of the galaxy, she reluctantly allows Peter to go in search of credits (legally) to pay the fine. Blondie’s Call Me blares amusingly after this unexpected reunion as the puckish roguish heroes wonder what to do next.

In the context of American Gigolo, for which Call Me was written for, it’s pretty straightforward. Julian Kay, played by a young Richard Gere, a decade away from another movie of his involving sympathetic prostitutes, is a male escort. Like Nancy Allen’s character from Dressed to Kill of the same year no less, he is a high paid, high living courtesan who, wouldn’t you know it, doesn’t want to use his rockin’ body for this profession much longer.

The interesting thing about American Gigolo is how not actually explicit it is in spite of the subject matter, for the most part. There is implication of sex, of course, often pre and post the acts. The most R-rated the movie gets is the language and violence. For those who I guess are more squeamish about certain areas of sexual activity, there is a sequence at what very much looks like either a gay or S+M/ leather club. That sequence is much like a similar moment from the original Matrix, where the main character visits the club but only to meet someone for information.

The topic of note at that club is so Julian’s pimp Leon (Bill Duke) can further convince him to go into sides of the business he isn’t comfortable with like homosexual services. Fear not, audiences of 1980, Julian is quite straight. He even gets a loving girlfriend who further compels him to leave the job behind.

That being said, the main conflict is that after an assignment he’s given by Leon in Palm Springs, to give service to a wealthy man’s wife, after the job it turns out she was MURDERED. And gee, who could possibly have been framed in this situation?

It goes from a film that honestly sounds like a spiritual predecessor for Magic Mike to a murder mystery where a member of society we generally look down upon like prostitutes, male or otherwise, has been wrongfully pinned for a truly heinous act.

It deals with an idea that can be just as applicable for the more expected “female” variation on the oldest profession. While some can take this job with grace, like again Nancy Allen’s Liz of Dressed to Kill, some will just find it demeaning or a waste of their…natural talents so to speak. It’s not so much condemnation of prostitution as it is sympathy with both the physical and societal strains of the job.

Giorgio Moroder, the composer of Body Double, worked alongside Blondie to compose the distinctive and catchy score for American Gigolo. Regardless of its contemporary purpose, it yet acts as an effective time capsule to the time and the place that was 1980 America, especially in L.A. Moroder has been called “The Father of Disco” and Blondie’s earlier work was often described as a fusion of both rock and disco, though I have a hard time really hearing the latter part.

I would not call American Gigolo’s soundtrack truly disco as it doesn’t sound anything like what you might imagine the genre to be like Bee Gees or Village People. Then again, Moroder was an Italian composer known for European disco, not American, so maybe therein lies the difference.

In spite of some subject matter that might leave more than a few cautious (again, the movie is called what again?), it’s not that hardcore in spite of Gere admittedly breaking taboo at the time in being the first mainstream actor to bare all in one moment. It really is an atmospheric murder drama, where the focus is more on solving the mystery and survival than showcasing the tenets of this side to American pleasure-seeking.

The moment that sticks out to me is a section where Julian returns to his pad and it has been combed over, either by the police or possibly someone more nefarious. With varied colored lights seeping through the blinds, he sits on the counter and just thinks about what he can do next, all while Moroder’s low-key music quietly yet vividly sets the mood. No matter the context of the moment, it makes me feel just chilled out while watching and listening to that scene, even if Gere’s Julian is doing anything but.

Can’t forget to mention a moment that made me watch at long last a 70s’ classic that released the year before. Julian catches up to one of the people he thinks that might’ve framed him for the murder in Palm Springs. He pins him to the wall of a movie theater with his arm, interrogating him. The mook in question is pinned to a giant wall display for none other than Walter Hill’s The Warriors. I don’t know the behind the scenes reasons for this endorsement of the controversial gang classic. Maybe Schrader and Hill were friends and he was showing his support by this blatant marketing. The film was being produced as The Warriors opened in 1979.

So, maybe, Schrader thought why not and gave a promotion to a film that in time would be considered a quite quotable, overall classic of sorts let alone time capsule in its own way to the time and place it was made like American Gigolo. Can I dig it?

I. CAN. DIG. IT.

So, yes, I would at least give both The Warriors and American Gigolo a try and see where you end up. If you can’t take it, you can’t take it. If you can, you’re in for two distinct types of cinematic rides.

NEXT TIME: contemporary stuff catch up almost certainly.

Two Stephens, a Mark and a Wanda: Spoileresque reviews of Marvel’s Moon Knight and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Image from Variety (Dr Strange and the Strangeteers in an adventure that very much includes “evil” and the “dead.”)

When it comes to Marvel’s fourth phase in their cinematic universe, more than prior phases, your mileage varying seems to be the dominant thought process. The MCU in terms of attendance has hardly waned if the box office from last year’s Spider-Man and this month’s Dr. Strange has anything to say but in terms of quality it’s in the kindest terms a case by case basis.

Where Moon Knight stacks for me in the now six series’ strong Disneyplus lineup is not something I can easily gauge even after I give my thoughts on the latest and darkest chapter in this now 14 year venture. If that and this latest Master of the Mystic Arts misadventure is any indication, for an assembly line of superheroic struggle, it is at least an experimenting assembly line, wondering what can and will stick after the climatic events of 2019’s Avengers Endgame.

Before I get to the latest superhero adventure to successfully prop up the theatre business, I will get Moon Knight out of the way. Oscar Isaac, the world’s most attractive middle-aged Guatemalan has been both a make-up heavy supervillain in the ill-executed X-Men: Apocalypse and a dashing Rebel pilot in search of a character arc in the also ill-conceived Star Wars sequel trilogy. Now he gets to play a role offered by the House of Mouse that own both of the earlier roles: as a dissociative identity disorder suffering Jewish mercenary trapped in a pact with an Egyptian God of Vengeance. How’s that for novelty?

Moon Knight

Image from Forbes (This looks silly as a still image. The context makes it anything but.)

For the majority of Moon Knight’s six episode run, it does distinguish itself by distancing from the stuff that people have found some contempt through familiarity: super-powered fisticuffs, often in a third act. Like the first and third Disneyplus Marvel shows: Wandavision and Loki, much of its best moments don’t so much involve punching someone but talking to others and in this instance yourself.

Two men inhabit the body of a mysterious individual: Marc Spector, the base personality as we discover is a Jewish-raised private mercenary who has some truly startling demons to bear for something produced by Mickey Mouse and Stephen Grant, just the sweetest British accented gift shop owner you could imagine. There may or may not be a third personality lying within…who am I kidding, if you’re reading this, you already know there is one and he makes the future of this three-minded person in the MCU one I want to follow, to whatever end.

For the majority of Moon Knight, Marc and Steven fight each other over what to do not just with the life they are forced to have with one another, but with a common enemy: Harrow, Ethan Hawke finally convinced to be in the MCU by playing Jim Jones and David Koresh by way of Egyptian God worship rather than Christian.

Before Marc/Stephen/? became the avatar Moon Knight on behalf of that God of Vengeance Khonshu, Harrow took the lunar cowl. They had quite a falling out but Harrow never lost that hunger for justice.

The proceedings basically amount to Minority Report meets Gods of Egypt though in all fairness, if you’re gonna do Gods of Egypt better this is certainly one way. Ironically, despite running on a (high) TV budget, the CG is ultimately more convincing and coherent than the visual mess that was that Alex Proyas misfire.

In order to judge all the world’s sinners before they can commit their ills, Harrow needs another Egyptian God or in this case Goddess freed from imprisonment, which was contained of course by other Egyptian Gods. Ammit is that Goddess and you know she’s bad news when she appears half human/half crocodile. That being said and much to Moon Knight’s credit, Khonshu is not much better.

In spite of Harrow and Ammit being a threat that should be stopped, the show makes no bones about Khonshu being a problem in and of himself. Voiced wonderfully by F. Murray Abraham, his latest choice for mortal Avatar (yes, this does all sound familiar to Dr. Fate, doesn’t it?) is a mentally compromised man, whose three personalities are all distinctly different in ways that make Marc ultimately one of the saddest and most frightening figures thus seen in the MCU. As my thoughts on Doctor Strange 2 will entail, Marvel seems to now be in the habit of exploring characters that are sympathetic yet monstrous.

When it comes to the base personality of Marc, you will find him a flawed individual who through help from the kind Stephen and estranged wife Layla, yearns to be better and perhaps become a new player in the MCU’s lineup of heroes. Following Infinity War and Endgame, there are vacancies to fill.

Stephen’s truly moral and kind nature seems to support that idea and yet personality three, as revealed in what is possibly one of Marvel’s best and darkest stingers yet, takes that possibility and wonderfully balls it up and throws it in the bin. Oscar Isaac’s days as the underwritten Poe Dameron might be at an end, but he can’t help but be in a story that subverts expectations.

As to what a Moon Knight season 2 would entail, I couldn’t tell you for certain and that is quite great. More so than the Disneyplus shows that suggest or will have a follow-up like Loki and Hawkeye, Moon Knight is the most diabolically intriguing and may suggest one of the more complex conflicts to offer the MCU in the coming years.

Moon Knight is flawed in ways that are more forgivable than earlier missteps seen in shows like Wandavision and Falcon and Winter Soldier. It’s not so much flaws but aspects that didn’t work as much for me as I would like. The final super-powered fight that, like Isaac’s time as Apocalypse, just so happens to also go down in Cairo, Egypt, is fine but unspectacular. It is saved by, of all things, an anti-climax with ominous implications. An earlier fight in London involving Stephen’s sillier version of the Moon Knight, Mr. Knight, is better choreographed and more engaging due to the circumstances.

Some of the moments involving Layla with Marc or Stephen’s presence weren’t as compelling and in spite of their very best efforts, like actually filming in Egypt, Moon Knight feels more like a television production than the earlier Disneyplus entries though with exceptional sequences here and there.

Most of this Moon Pie’s (Poe’s) inner goodness comes from the ever entertaining dynamic between Marc and Stephen. That alone makes a season two a worthwhile venture for Feige and the MCU. Especially when inevitably, they get to meet their mutual fiend. And from that, possibly other familiar faces in this universe.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

The critical and to some extent public reception to Stephen Strange’s second titular adventure after playing major supporting fiddle to Spidey and the Avenger’s most recent excursions has been positive yet more muted than I would have thought. Some complain that the weight of a nearly 30 film cinematic franchise including canonical television shows is part of the problem. Others think it’s yet another CGI spectacle-thon in a time where we are growing pretty weary of this almost unavoidable aspect to the genre. Perhaps part of The Batman’s success this Spring came from it eschewing much of those aspects for something more grounded and practical looking.

Could it be aspects distinct to the handling of this Dr. Strange installment? Some of the acting and writing has been given negative marks. Despite being shorter than the last two MCU films and nearly an hour less than the aforementioned bat-flick, pacing was also part of some naysayers’ complaints.

As for me, there are issues certainly, but none that I would call detrimental really. This is not another Eternals. If anything, I’m debating with myself whether The Multiverse of Madness is better than the first Doctor Strange. Part of me thinks yes, the other thinks maybe not.

There are two important things a story dealing with multiversal theory needs to have: Focus and actual consequence. Both are accomplished here. I was never lost in the weeds with Stephen while exploring the multiverse this go around. There was one moment admittedly where the focus did shift from Stephen to other players in the story around the mid-point during a sequence that elicited the most cheers and the most “oh shits” from the theatre audience.

Because it was tied into the story centering on our three key players: Doctor Strange, Wanda the Scarlet Witch and promising newcomer America Chavez, this detour into different characters was more than forgivable. It is definitely one of the most discussed parts of the film to be sure.

What is most reassuring about the end result of Sam Raimi’s contribution for the MCU is that in spite of the bridges it is expected to build into latter entries and all the Multiverse fun that can be had visually, it is at the end of the day a continuation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent, distinct interpretation of the Marvel character as well as a grim yet appropriate conclusion to another’s, Wanda Maximoff. That alone may send off TMI waves to you, my readers, yet I did warn you at the beginning and the film opened to $185 million domestically this weekend, I feel at liberty to risk as much.

Despite the gap of time between Doctor Strange 1 in 2016 and Doctor Strange 2 in 2022, buffeted by his appearences inbetween, the film does not forget that Stephen has a personal story to continue in spite of his contributions to the wider narrative seeming to be more important up until now. I felt this way before I saw What If’s first season last year, but it occurred to me that Doctor Strange is a figure that can be easily imagined as a villain.

He has the name, he has the personality to an extent. He kinda resembles Vincent Price, a horror movie icon not without roles that were heroic or neutral, but come on, you think of him as a villain actor first. To younger audiences, he’s the guy who narrates Michael Jackson’s Thriller and ends it with a diabolical laugh. I don’t know if it was direct inspiration on creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s part, but the Sorcerer Supreme was born in Price’s 1960s’ heyday.

Doctor Strange 2 correctly guesses that me and others have suspected as much, especially with how his methods to win the day with figures like Dormammu and Thanos seem a little..devilish. Maybe it was true there was only a single way to defeat Thanos. Or as this movie’s dramatic conclusion suggests, maybe there was another.

People compare Tony Stark/Iron Man and Doctor Strange all the time and not just due to their preference in facial hair. These two heroes are known for their egos that both make them closer to the dark side than either would want to admit. Hell, they start off as dicks in their stories and it’s only through personal loss and revelation that they aspire to something that makes them likable.

In spite of his incontrovertible success in saving not just Earth and eventually the whole universe, there is a side to Stephen Strange that remains disquieting and that was not by accident. This entry is all about Stephen discovering that if anything he might be the exception to the multiversal rule that Doctor Strange is not a good guy and that exception has no guarantee of lasting.

Strange’s internal arc is contrasted with one that has already been both hero and villain, like her comic counterpart: poor Wanda Maximoff. In spite of the excuses her history would bring up, overtime Wanda’s behavior turns it into no excuse at all.

What Wanda does in the Multiverse of Madness is downright horrifying (again, spoileresque review). I go from maintaining my sympathies at the start from feeling that no matter how sad, what she does can’t go unpunished. Most felt the same at the conclusion of her titular Disneyplus series. She hadn’t truly atoned on behalf of the people of Westview and the catharsis she had by accepting both Vision’s passing and that their children together weren’t truly real was seemingly short-lasting or not genuine. If you were like me miffed by Wandavision’s conclusion, congratulations, you were supposed to. Not the same contrived takeaway as the next Disneyplus show to come after, Falcon and Winter Soldier.

Though some have expressed disappointment in the direction Wanda takes here, it’s not as if it was out of nowhere, it was actually a carefully maintained fall to darkness that was established as early as her mid-credits appearence in Captain American: Winter Soldier eight years ago. Lest we forget, she and her brother Pietro began their arcs submitting themselves to illegal experiments for a terrorist organization: Hydra. Their excuse is revenge for losing their parents on behalf of Tony Stark’s weapons. Seeing the man who indirectly slaughtered them being held up as a hero would rub me the wrong way too and yet, Hydra. You know, a fascist organization that was borne out of Nazi Germany.

We think at first Wanda is on the road to redemption early in her story arc through turning on Ultron once they realize innocent people will be hurt (extinction does that). They didn’t recognize that when working with Hydra but you know, blinded by vengeance. Hawkeye’s little speech in the middle of Age of Ultron’s climax to convince her to get up, get out there and help is the first step in really being a hero, if the earlier heroics in Seoul weren’t enough.

But just because someone starts down the path of redemption and heroism does not mean they will be set down that path. Would be disheartening if the villainous path was absolute too. I hope that down the road, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets to learn Wanda’s fate here. It was bad enough when Clint had to deal with Natasha’s death and his actions as Ronin but then this happens. Poor guy. At least he has a one eyed dog, a young protégé to carry on his mantle and a loving family.

Much like how Wanda’s first fall to darkness came from tragedy, new tragedies are inflicted on her almost as soon as she becomes an Avenger. She loses her brother, accidentally kills innocents on a mission in Lagos, is forced to turn on Vision and half the Avengers for a while, loses Vision and gets to see that happen twice and then the government prevents her from really saying goodbye to him. This all culminates in her accidentally taking control of a full town in New Jersey through her no longer latent Scarlet Witch mystical abilities. But once she learns how it happened, she keeps on doing it.

I am reminded of another figure owned by Disney that has a fall from grace, starting as a sad kid turned brave hero who then becomes a frightful monster who may or may not earn redemption through a sacrificial death. Who could that be?

Image from Den of Geek (Heroes becoming villains are best denoted by the color Red.)

So, yeah, it might be best for those with the free time and care to look back on Wanda’s history and realize that what she does in Doctor Strange’s second outing is not as inappropriate as you might think. To be honest, it is rather bold and dare I say it, refreshing, that not every MCU hero is going to stay a hero forever. That’s not how life works out.

Stephen’s dilemma is not only to protect newcomer America from Wanda for her own ends but to cheat the probability proven by the universe that he is also doomed to fall. Much like how it took lots of teaching and practice to become the badass wizard he is, he must also learn from himself and know that there are some things he cannot have in spite of his power.

Seems awfully deep for a film that has had above average marks this go around. So why is there some disdain? It can’t just be Wanda’s depiction or superhero fatigue. I have some further guesses and whether they’re an actual problem I will chalk up to personal preference.

This is directed by Sam Raimi, the man you might be most immediately familiar with for his Spider-Man trilogy that continues to enjoy much love from people in my age range and beyond. The opening fight against a Lovecraftian monster in which Strange meets America for the first time I think was deliberately set-up to recall some of the action set-pieces from Raimi’s time with Spidey. With help from Danny Elfman as composer, it particularly reminded me of the first fight Spider-Man had with Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, with poor Aunt May stuck in the middle.

That was me referencing Raimi’s time in the superhero genre. Now, due to Doctor Strange’s predilection with supernatural subject matter to say the very least, this gives Raimi the strongest opportunity he’s had to reference the trilogy that made him big before Spider-Man: Evil Dead. And trust me, it’s more than just a Bruce Campbell cameo, which itself makes cute reference to one of Evil Dead 2’s most famous sequences.

To be honest, you could come close to calling Doctor Strange 2 not just Evil Dead 4 but how to do an Evil Dead movie in a PG-13 format. Not every part of this movie is like the Evil Dead series, don’t get me wrong. Plenty of moments where it’s, well, Doctor Strange or a Marvel movie. But when the knowing person spots the Evil Dead stuff, it’s hard to ignore and it comes close at times to distracting from what we were originally here for. Certain camera angles or camera techniques that Evil Dead became renowned for are present in The Multiverse of Madness. My favorite is where, as Strange, Wong, America and a fellow sorcerer are waiting for Wanda to breach the room, the camera suddenly jerks into an askew shot of the doors, very much referencing the paranoia of Campbell’s Ash Williams inside the cabin.

Other moments might be nods to Evil Dead like camera angles in relation to Wanda and her selfish multiversal search for “her” children from Wandavision, a shot of two different Wandas looking at each other in a mirror and one very spoiler heavy section where a bunch of souls are streaming and circling around a character while shouting different things in high strung voices. I was waiting to hear one of them scream “DEAD BY DAWN”, but I suppose Raimi does indeed have some restraint.

Again, to the unoriented with Evil Dead, these will fly over their heads and just think it quirks of this particular Doctor Strange entry. Thankfully, Raimi knows to include some magical, mystical fun in relation to Doctor Strange and not his earlier body of work including a brilliant section involving classical music and the very soundtrack of the film. I will say this much: I can deal with more of the MCU, assembly line or not, so long as some imagination is along for the ride. It certainly is here.

Before I forget, I should mention that oft brought up newcomer America Chavez, played by Xochitl Gomez. It doesn’t hurt that the character’s powers from the comics is very much integral to the plot of this movie. Hell, without America, there wouldn’t be a movie, probably. There are times when America’s presence can feel like she is just here for the mcguffiny nature of her multiverse-traversing power and then there are moments where no, she actually is her own character, one with motivations that go beyond survival, let alone from evading a fallen Avenger.

As I’m sure conservative/right-leaning sources will bring up, she has two moms instead of ‘ahem’ the correct pairing don’t you know? America herself is one of the most upfront LGBTQ characters in Marvel comics nowadays and the presentation of that aspect to her is deliberately in your face with a “What’s it to you?” attitude that naysayers will just blow off as “woke” or worse.

Aside from her wearing a gay pride pin on her jacket, there’s no indication that this America is also gay though I can’t possibly imagine why she wouldn’t be. It could be just a badge in support of her parents or a subtle bit of coding that doesn’t distract from the conflict she’s facing here and now. Of course I’m quite comfortable with who America is and it doesn’t hurt that Gomez’s performance makes her a quite likeable character, one whom I’m more than happy to see the further adventures of which is basically a given at this point.

I’m expecting America to be a companion of Strange in later installments, mirroring and contrasting with the heated dynamic between the Doctor and Peter Parker from earlier. Give the film further credit, like Moon Knight, it successfully lays out crumbs to care for future MCU outings. It’s honestly a crumb more tasty than the sudden and kinda lamely executed one that occurs with the mid-credits scene.

Speaking of gripes like the mid credits scene, despite the shorter than usual runtime of 2 hours and six minutes, the pacing can make the film seem longer than it is. I’m never bored in spite of that but to say that it can seem as if the plot is a little too busy and by extension has effect on the pacing I would in turn say not untrue. It does all wrap up very well though again the mid credits scene does open up implications on the release schedule of the MCU that is not optimal unless of course Feige is hiding something which is probably the case.

Doctor Strange 2, for its uncomfortable character arcs and implications for the MCU, might result in a movie that does not have the same commercial staying power than the ludicrously successful Spider-Man: No Way Home. Of course, the reasons for that film’s results was something greater than just it being another MCU Spider-Man. We all know the answer there. Because we are approaching 30 movies with the fourth Thor this July making 29, it is very hard to know where to rank The Multiverse of Madness, much like how one would rank all of Bond’s films.

It succeeds at being the proper next step in Doctor Strange’s story, a somber last step for another’s and a hopeful first step for yet another. Maybe it’s better to just match it up with the MCU’s entries for just the year of 2022. How will it compare to Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and anything else that might be in waiting? That’s a thought process more worth your time and for what’s it’s worth, this assembly line we are getting more cranky about does bother to make you think at all.

Bengal’s 80s Retrospective Part X (spoilers)

Well, I’m back to do ever more films relating to the 1980s, films that I had never seen before, all to catch up both just because and that it might well be pragmatic to get it done in case of critical civilization failure caused by a number of crisis’ humanity refuses to address for its own good. If it makes you feel better, you can go with the former excuse as the dominant one and hey if my opinions incite your interest enough, you can use that as your excuse. This go around, we have a surreal Italian film about WW2, an Abel Ferrara cult classic, a Ralph Bakshi animated cult classic and a latest entry in the numerous offerings coming out of 80s Bollywood.

The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) (Italy)

Image from Filmlinc.com (The context behind this is no less uncomfortable, to be honest.)

The Taviani brothers, who you might know if you’re an Italian reader and probably won’t if you’re not, are a Palme d’Or winning directing duo, one of which is still alive at the age of 90. Their most notable work is the film to be discussed here, a dreamlike look at the Italian people trying to survive both Nazi and Italian Fascist forces near the end of the Second World War in 1945. We see several perspectives, but the most notable, who is the present day narrator is Cecilia, who was a 7 year old girl trapped in a situation she couldn’t fully understand.

Cecilia knows enough that they’re forces trying to kill her and that she, at the very least ,could be a collateral victim between not just the retreating Fascist forces but the Italian Partisans firing back at them in the crossfire. Cecilia could be an allegory for the conflicting emotions Italy itself felt and continued to feel about their role in the bloodiest war in history.

It was a boot shaped nation that found itself on both sides of the war, first under the sway of the original Fascist Benito Mussolini. After Il Duce proved to be extremely incompetent in his handling of the war and wasting of Italian lives, his government kicked him out and tried to get good with the Allies that had started to invade their country, starting with Sicily.

However, Hitler’s Germany just so happened to be in the neighborhood and had the manpower to take over the country and eventually made ol’ Benito a puppet dictator for Northern Italy. The Italian people were ready in a number of ways to help take back their homeland from Fascism, mostly through a resistance movement not dissimilar to the Free French and the various Partisan groups of Eastern Europe including the Czechoslovaks and Polish. As far as I know, Italy’s official government was mostly inert due to the Allies moving in after taking Rome and half of it being in the Fuhrer’s hands.

Not all Italians wanted to be made un-Fascist though it was admittedly a movement that was shrinking day after day after day. We see Italian fascists here try their best to survive themselves while also fighting a cause that none of them had illusions of winning. Hell, this movie shows them getting wiped out by just the Partisans alone, no American or British troops ever pop up. What makes this rout of the Fascists less triumphant for the viewer when it normally would be is that they’re children and their parents in the ranks and the hapless civilians on the run we follow get stuck in the middle of the skirmishes, most dramatically at a large wheatfield, the scene of the iconic, very impaled guy you see above you, more on him later.

It starts with a group of civilians in a small town, stuck on the same harrowing question that the Clash once posed: should we stay or should we go? The Nazis are coming and they fear they will burn down the town during their retreat from the Allies. They’re just as worried that they will be cut down in gunfire if they dare leave. Other rituals of Italian life, such as a couple that wishes to get married in spite of the extenuating circumstances complicates matters.

Little Cecilia, as young as she is can barely understand the deep shit she’s in. I would hope I would be a little more cognizant of the matters at hand if I were still her age. At times, Cecilia’s obliviousness or how she processes the very grim situation she’s in came across to me at times as if she were not quite right in the head.

Her behavior during the group’s travels didn’t always make her seem fully sympathetic and that famous shot of the guy with a bunch of javelins in his torso? That doesn’t actually happen. Cecilia imagines that a bunch of Roman soldiers appear and throw their spears at the Fascist to save her from getting capped. She remembers her history lessons from school as a basis for that fantasy. As to what actually happened to the Fascist that was about to kill her? It’s never actually shown what actually killed him and saved her, but I’m going to assume it involved lots and lots of lead.

I was starting to think that Cecilia might be mentally ill, hallucinating such things but the reveal at the end of her being a mother retelling her story of survival to her sleeping child during the titular Night of the Shooting Stars reveals her to be quite sane. It really was a Calvin level example of her imagination running wild, all while she was in very real danger. As other moments can attest, children were by no means exempt from the horrors of this war.

To this day, I can imagine Italy’s memory of their participation in WW2 must make them very uneasy. Sure, many of their countrymen and women would take up arms and fight on the right side of history ultimately. Hell, the partisans took care of Mussolini before the Allied forces could. But this sense of being on both sides and it tearing up the Italian psyche in the process is somewhat unique among European participants of the conflict. It became not just a fight against an invading force like Germany, it was also a brutal struggle against their own people, which is always a swell predicament.

The other most notable perspective is of a 60 something man called Galvano, who eventually becomes a de facto leader of the fleeing civilians. You can see the weariness of the man as you can infer he’s already been through much before WW2 affected his life’s course. He eventually strikes up an old relationship with a fellow survivor of similar age, an old flame he never eloped with back in his youth. With the possibility that the two of them might die tomorrow, they spend the night together in spite of their fatigue and unkemptness.

Ironically, the following morning, it’s revealed that no, the Nazis won’t be killing them. They have instead gotten in contact with the Allied forces and they’re actually home free in spite of how just a day ago they had resigned themselves to death. Rather than being super relieved and happy that he was able to keep his old sweetheart and others like Cecilia alive, he goes out of the hotel as it starts to rain in the sunlight. He sits on a bench in the middle of the courtyard. Cecilia and the others take a truck to greet their Allied saviors. Galvano just sits.

What’s he thinking about?. Disbelief he actually didn’t die when younger more deserving ones did. The things he saw during and before the trek he went on evading Fascists. Does he still have a future with that old sweetheart? What future does he actually have at his age anyway? Or maybe he’s just plain tired and finally has a chance to rest.

Is it any of those things or all of them? Galvano never says. Cecilia never learns. All she knows is that in spite of her childlike reckoning with what happened to her nearly 40 years ago, as a grown adult and mother, she still can’t quite comprehend what happened to her, her people and her beautiful country. She’s glad that her child will not experience what she did and that is enough. I guess in the end, despite the dithering over who in Italy was responsible or guilty for the atrocities of the past, perhaps the message that is most relatable is that it is over, it was survivable and hopefully it won’t happen ever again. As of 2022, that might still be true.

Ms. 45 (1981)

Image from MOMA (I need a gun to keep myself among….)

Abel Ferrara is a darling among America’s Indie/underground crowd of filmmakers. Hailing from the Bronx, you might be familiar with the guy if you’ve heard of Bad Lieutenant, one of the higher profile NC-17 flicks. There is debate if Bad Lieutenant actually is harsh enough for the harshest rating, but the point that should still be made evident is that Ferrara has no qualms about depictions of harsh material. It’s his forte, and Ms. 45 is regarded as one of his stand-out works.

Many point to the 2019 Joker movie being influenced by two movies: 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King of Comedy, two Scorsese/ DeNiro productions that have each in their own way become iconic examples of depicting mentally ill protagonists. Joker was set in the time range of those movies: 1981. So too does 1981’s Ms. 45 showcase a person’s descent into vengeful madness, all stemming from a sadly sympathetic place.

Zoe Tamerlis, a collaborator with Ferrara portrays Thana, a mute seamstress living in the seediest New York you could envision from the time and place it was made. She’s shy, good natured and just wants to stay out of trouble both on and off the clock. Unfortunately, she gets raped by the nadir of NY’s denizens. Twice. In one day.

She does not take it well and gets her hands on a colt. 45 pistol that one of the rapists misplaced in their trespassing. Very soon, with no ability to verbally communicate the horror inflicted on her, she decides that since she has the means, the power to avenge herself, why not just do it?

She eventually becomes a vigilante, deliberately looking for men on the mean streets of New York in the hopes of trapping and shooting them dead. Initially, it’s all a ploy to draw out the specific men who raped her but those rapists never appear again. I mean, this is Manhattan we’re talking about. Eventually, she becomes less vigilante and more straight up serial killer. She gets to enjoying her acts of slaying men in a manner that becomes uncomfortably similar to the enjoyment the rapists had in abusing her.

I should note, in spite of Ms. 45 being classified as an “exploitation” film, the two scenes of rape on Thana are not filmed in a sexual manner as we’re not meant to derive any sexual pleasure from her plight. In both cases, we focus only on Thana’s stricken, terrified face. There has been much debate as to whether or not rape is ever OK to depict in fiction, for any reason.

I forget who said it, but someone once said that including rape in a story is the cheapest, laziest type of drama to add This all-encompassing denouncement of allowing fictional depiction for this horrible act does seem limiting to a creator’s expression. If the purpose of a story would predicate this kind of behavior being depicted and if it serves a purpose that is I don’t know, anti-rape as Ms. 45 definitely is, I see no problem with including it. How you handle this demeaning type of criminal behavior is where I feel more comfortable joining in on having a critical eye drawn to it as a convention in storytelling.

There is a way to make the act of rape as a plot point skeezy, exploitative and just wrong when it comes to a character, namely a female character’s development. This was perhaps most noteworthy for recent popular culture in Game of Thrones where the beloved Stark character Sansa, after going through a lot of crap in the first four seasons, was raped in the fifth. In spite of the reasonings behind this moment, the moment along with the episode it was attached to, was considered the worst episode of GOT up to that point, though they were other reasons for the episode’s poor reception.

That episode’s reputation would be overtaken by how most of GOT’s last season was a startling dumpster fire. The point still stands that using fictional examples of rape, especially visual presentations of the act, are given super-scrutiny and even immediate dismissal in some cases.

But with Ms. 45, a film that is now over 40 years old, is it forgivable for including that subject matter now that it’s old, from a bygone time? Well, upon its release, critics were not kind at all to it though eventually it gained a cult recognition over time, salvaging its reputation. It should be said, and I am speaking as a male when saying this, that Ms. 45 was not careless when it comes to its subject matter.

Eventually Thana starts to see from her broken mind, all come-ons or attention from men regardless of context as sexual provocation. When invited from her boss to a Halloween party, she accepts only because she will been given a target rich environment.

The Halloween party in question is a haunting conclusion to the film for a number of factors. There is the eerie, offputting jazz soundtrack that plays during the climatic sequence, that is intercut with both Thana preparing her man-killing spree and the dancing party-goers one of which includes a creepy baseball-head costume that syncs with the music that creates a dreamlike visual that borders on fever dream.

Thana’s eventual unleashing of lead on the male partygoers, all while purposefully avoiding any of the female attendees is sheer, dark spectacle. Again referencing 2019’s Joker, it’s like the infamous moment where Arthur, that film’s Joker, suddenly whips out his gun on the talk show host who he’s murderously jealous of and shoots, all while shouting the oft quoted “YOU GET WHAT YOU F***ING DESERVE!”. Thana, being a mute cannot voice her venomous attitudes and lets her gun reveal how fallen she has become.

In spite of her actions, which grow more and more deplorable leading up to the Halloween party, there is a measure of tragic sadness yet in spite of what she’s doing. Even after her rape she remains a victim of tragic circumstance. Being mute, she cannot communicate to the police, her boss or her co-workers what happened to her. Her trauma makes her distrustful of even trying to express what has happened to her and though her 45., she finds an excuse to not only not communicate but hide what she becomes.

Soon, men who were never a threat to her are at her mercy and women, not knowing her rationale, scream in fear of her all the same. She has become a monster like her rapists. Some may then wonder if this film is anti-feminist. Here, we have a powerless woman gain power through a firearm and what does she do with it? Become a mentally disturbed serial killer. At the same time, she wouldn’t have become a monster had it not been for the loathsome behavior of men, many displaying on a number of levels toxic masculinity. Male behavior is not exempt from Ms. 45’s perspective, it is indeed as in contempt of it as it should be.

Was there any hope for Thana? Through a combination of internal and external factors, not really. Her frayed mental state, access to an easy “solution” and a growing addiction to the feeling she gets through her “revenge” doomed her to a place where everyone else treats her like a threat to be removed when initially that’s what she thought she was doing.

If Ms. 45 is exploitation, then it’s exploitation of the highest caliber. Taking subject matter that certainly features in exploitation but having more to say and more for you to think about than most other films of its genre. It’s neither pro or anti-feminist. It’s simply a story of a poor, hapless woman striking out at an uncaring, needlessly cruel world and not having the social circle to prevent her from becoming as pitiless as that world.

What it says about humanity and how we treat or ignore those we neglect should rattle male and female both. I imagine Ferrara looked at the New York he lived in when he made this film and felt just as perturbed as he hopes you would be when watching Ms. 45.

Fire + Ice (1983)

Image from Complex (Give Bakshi credit, he loves pleasing the male AND female viewers in this picture.)

Ralph Bakshi is a complicated yet important figure in American animation to me. He is important due to being one of the leading figures in not just making American cartoon-making have a more adult edge but also succeeding in the independent circuit. This is significant in making it more likely for adult or even teenage animation to have some success in the future.

When it comes to adult animation being a big thing both critically and commercially, Japan has gotten that down pat. America has relegated the success of animation for adult audiences to the small screen with only very occasional ventures into theatrical release like the satirical Sausage Party. Maybe you can credit the existence of South Park, Rick and Morty and Robot Chicken in part to Bakshi. Or maybe you can credit him with having the bravery to escape the assumptions that cartoons are only for the kiddies.

It hurts me to say that my limited exposure to his body of work is due to him not really being the best animator or storyteller. A for effort but a B or C in execution. The two projects that people most think of Bakshi for are Fritz the Cat and his valiant attempt at adapting the Lord of the Rings. I haven’t seen Fritz though I have heard that despite its “X” ( NC-17) rating, it really is just an R by modern standards and not even the strongest one. But then again, that classification came in 1972 and the marketing for the film wore that notorious rating as a badge of pride.

His Lord of the Rings, which aesthetically certainly inspired the film I’m about to talk about, is more intriguing than involving. His experimental mixture of traditional 2D animation and rotoscoping creates a surreal take on Tolkien’s masterwork that at times works and in other instances falls flat on it’s face. There are some interpretations of the material that I find to be a respectable alternative to Jackson’s and others where Jackson is laughably ahead of the curve.

On the one hand, there is some genuine creepiness to the atmosphere that fits into the story’s dark fantasy nature and then you find yourself rolling your eyes at Aragorn looking strangely Native American with a pants-less tunic, Boromir having for no discernable reason a horned Viking helmet and giant beard, and the Balrog looking absolutely pathetic in motion. As a still image, it’s not terrible, but man that rotoscoping sucks you out of the experience. But that same rotoscoping makes the Uruk-hai’s march to Helm’s Deep apocalyptically frightening. Oh, and this really isn’t Bakshi’s fault, but he didn’t finish the story, ending the movie right around where as it would turn out, Jackson’s version of Two Towers would stop. Funny that.

But what about Fire + Ice, a new fantasy story freshly crafted from none other than Marvel comic legends Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas with artwork drawn by fantasy art master Frank Frazetta? Surely not having the constraints of adapting a massive story like LOTR will free up Bakshi’s ability to tell a story his way, right? You would be right, yet I still feel mixed about the end result.

In another time and place, in a land not our own, a vicious war between the brutal people of the Ice lands against the peaceful people of the Fire lands rages. Simple stuff, right? Yeah, sure enough and the young blond haired warrior Larn and his barbarian looking people are stuck in the middle. His people are massacred as the vile hordes under the command of the dark lord NEKRON and his mother JULIANA smash through their defenses by unleashing massive glaciers on their fortifications.

It’s here that we see that Bakshi’s handling of timing, when it comes to things that should be fast and swift is not very good. You saw plenty of that in the numerous sword fights in his LOTR and it is no less numerous. Many of the fights involve rotoscoped humans duking it out and you might think that using real people with a reasonably high frame per second would make it quick yet clear enough, not unlike a live action fight. You’d be wrong here.

There is a strange, almost headache-inducing sluggishness to how these moments occur with rotoscoped figures fighting on a painted 2D backdrop. It’s indisputably distinct, but I would not call it an arresting visual experience. It’s hard half the time to register the results or how good or bad a fight is going and sometimes the conclusion to a bout can seem sudden or incomplete. Is it a consequence of rotoscoping’s limitations or Bakshi’s lack of understanding in choreographing fights? I don’t honestly know, and I yet respect the man enough for his ambition and pioneering spirit to not be too harsh.

Soon enough, Larn is on the run from the shambling, neanderthal-like hordes and some of the best animated moments come from his evasion through a jungle, up vine and tree branch. He meets a mysterious, expectedly bare-chested warrior called DARKWOLF, whose wolf mask makes him look like, well, who does he remind you of?

Image from Heroes wiki ( I was thinking of Space Ghost.)

Darkwolf here has his own vendetta against the dark lord Nekron, who is revealed to be either teenage or in his early 20s, and there is some subtle implications that the lord who is ruining the whole world might be his son. Almost reverse Luke and Vader but with no “GASP” revelation. He becomes Larn’s best chance of survival, stopping the freezing of the world (something that I wouldn’t terribly mind in my own reality right about now) and rescuing, what else, the super hot and basically naked Princess of the Fire realm Teegra.

This film is PG rated, though of the pre-PG-13 era and it’s honestly more adult for some pretty harsh violence, namely through a bunch of red shirts getting speared pretty good at the third act assault on Nekron’s Ice fortress. I made sure the header image for this entry featured both Larn and Teegra to emphasize that one of the things Bakshi wanted to push in American animation was nudity, something that again, pound for pound, Japan is beating us at in their arena of animation for better and for worse.

While Teegra is certainly alluring, I can’t complain due to how almost everyone is scantily clad including the male characters. In spite of Bakshi’s relatively rough style of animation, it’s a feast for both sexes so it seems less bad that way. Also, Teegra actually contributes more than just being the captive princess, though she is that. I don’t remember, but she might’ve actually gotten herself out of prison near the end, all while Larn and Darkwolf attempt to free her.

What can I say, it was the post Princess Leia era and I find it funny how both Teegra and the “slave bikini” iteration of Leia debuted the same year of 83′. That being said, and I do say this in a unisex manner but my God, do people in this world have thick skins. By the time we reach that ice fortress, NO ONE has bundled up and no one is at all bothered by being practically naked in that environment. What can I say, it’s a fantasy.

Speaking of, all that I have talked about reminds me that Conway and Thomas didn’t just do the usual suspects of Marvel characters like our boy Spider-Man. They also did Marvel’s versions of Conan the Barbarian and maybe more importantly, Red Sonja. Up until recently that is, the chainmail bikini fem-warrior to end all chainmail bikini fem-warriors didn’t mind the cold despite her lack of thermal protection. In light of who wrote this Bakshi production, it comes as little surprise that this stuff is featured here, let alone with an oddly pleasing lack of self awareness.

Fire and Ice can be fun in parts though Bakshi’s strange sense of pacing, particularly when it comes to when or when not to end a scene gets in the way. The film is only 81 minutes but this problem lingers all the way through. Also, some of the animation can just be bad at times. The opening sequence with the magical glaciers smashing through Larn’s village is very janky-looking.

Of course, I would still pay tribute to a man willing to do things that other animators of his time wouldn’t or just couldn’t. Also, this is still a shorter feature than his LOTR and for that reason can be a more expedient way to experience his distinct style for yourself. You can also avoid wringing your hands at the moments where Bakshi drops the ball with handling Middle-Earth and its denizens.

Kamla (1984)

Image by PicClicks (Sorry, couldn’t find any images from the movie.)

Kamla follows the trend in 80s’ Bollywood cinema in being morality plays that center on and critique contemporary concerns of Indian culture. Kamla is striking due to how surprisingly grim and sorrowful it’s outlook is. Other Bollywood films of this ilk have had upbeat conclusions with a measure of sadness. Not here.

Jaisingh is a investigative journalist hailing from Delhi who wants to expose the hidden female human trafficking system within his country. The titular Kamla is a sex slave that Jaisingh buys in order to showcase to the Indian press in hopes of inspiring a call to social change. Sounds great, right?

It obviously is and yet as the somewhat short (for a Bollywood film) proceedings go on, you start to see that Jaisingh’s desires for societal progress aren’t as humble as you would hope. The film is not subtle at all in making clear it’s intentions as a blatant end of film narration espouses, but it’s not just that human trafficking in India is bad that is the theme, it’s the self-sabotaging nature of humanity.

Jaisingh’s own ego and desire to impress others takes precedence over I don’t know, helping Kamla acclimate to an environment free of slavery and become a more free thinking woman (by Indian standards). Jaisingh basically ignores Kamla when it isn’t surrounding the press conference he is trying to set up, so his wife, daughter and servant take up the slack. They in turn try to have him pay more attention to her wellbeing but he just blows them off, a consequence of his sexist outlooks on female input.

In an attempt to bring attention and hopefully end one wrong in Indian society, he blinds himself to other considerations needed to achieve that goal, including needing to be a more open-minded and caring person to begin with.

In case you’re interested, I won’t give away the whole game of how Kamla concludes, but it does paint the admittedly blatant but no less valid argument that Jaisingh himself fails because of societal chains on himself. Chains his environment and his own volition placed him in. It’s a message that can very much be applicable to more than just the stakes of this film’s story. It’s a message that can resonate with concerns that India is facing nearly 40 years after this movie.

Perhaps the self-destructive assumptions about how to live as a man or woman in India can or are having terrible consequences on the billion plus population of that nation today. Modi’s Hindu Fundamentalist/ Nationalist stance on politics and the dangerous implications it has not just on the running of the country but in relation to fellow nuclear power Pakistan. Before you think I’m being too nosy on another country’s woes, keep in mind that a nuclear incident involving those two nations, even if isolated to just those two, can be catastrophic for the whole world. A contained nuclear war….won’t be in their case.

So I imagine there are plenty of people in India today who know the dangers of the kind of social contract Modi is trying to place on their country. The question that Kamla raises 38 years later to their situation is if they can make things better without unintentionally self-sabotaging. This is by no means a uniquely Indian problem: I have seen to my misery that same self-sabotage occur in my own country to those who are earnestly trying to challenge the status quo. Not naming any names here, mostly because I want to wrap this up.

I am not whatsoever saying this should stop people from trying to change the world for the better, but beware yourself when doing so. If you can do that, then half the battle may already be done, as GI Joe once told us.

Colossal Sorrow A Review of Shadow of the Colossus Remake for PS4 (Re-release)

 

The PlayStation 2 remains the most successful home gaming console in history, despite having the weakest hardware of its generation, the original Xbox and Nintendo GameCube considered more powerful machines. A lot of reasons for the PS2’s ultimate victory was first, the pedigree of the prior console being revolutionary for its large number of titles marketed for more mature audiences and creating more “cinematic” experiences than its contemporaries. It was secondly its outstanding collection of games which defined genres and pushed what was possible and allowable in games to new limits, examples like Grand Theft Auto III and Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 to name a few. But even if you were not aware of the second PlayStation not being as strong as its competitors, it certainly used every last drop of horsepower it had to mask that truth. In 2005, near the end of its life cycle, one game showed off the surprising potential now tapped: Shadow of the Colossus.

 

Whether it was 12 years ago or now in 2018, Shadow of the Colossus remains an essential example of what games can do that other mediums like film and literature cannot: conveying a narrative’s themes and weight through a participants’ actions. Your quest to slay 16 behemoth creatures reinforces the strengths of both the mechanical and storytelling components that are often lacking in this still burgeoning corner of the popular culture.

 

The story is simple as a pond but deep as a lake. A young man named Wander carries on horseback a dead woman, your lady love. He crosses into a forbidden valley with the intent to resurrect his love through a dark ritual. A deity named Dormin that is only heard and never seen proclaims that if you kill 16 Colossi in the valley, he will get his girlfriend back, but it will come at a severe cost. The man accepts without a second thought. His mind is made up and for the player’s desire to play, so are you.

 

The interactive tale goes forth as such: with your magical sword pointing the way via the sun’s light, you go to the location of the designated Colossus. You reach the giant beast and figure out how to get on and kill it. All Wander has at his disposal is his sword, his bow with a suspiciously infinite supply of arrows and some Olympian climbing skills married with one mother of a grip. You’ll need it as all the Colossi will do their best to throw you off and smash you. Despite the seemingly limited scope of your tools, the masterful design of both the surrounding area and Colossus makes none of the 16 encounters feel less cool and “cinematic” than the last. Your hardships in the struggle give you both a great sense of relief and satisfaction at quelling the colossus but also a great sorrow that grows overtime as another one bites the dust. Most of your foes are just minding their business until you show up and their literal falls feel increasingly cruel.

 

 

It’s not a happy story, and I have no intent to spoil the course of the experience despite this being a game over a decade old. Many of you may have learned the outcome by sheer happenstance while browsing the internet in the past. That being said, Shadow of the Colossus’s other great success is its presentation. It’s not considered a prime example of “video games as art” for nothing. The gray world of Colossus is both paradoxically inviting and oppressive, melancholic than depressing. The outstanding music remains a favorite both by the gaming community and by critics for conveying more than the vast yet intimate valley could. It’s an ancient world that suggests itself as a place where legends come and go but always leave a mark that is inextinguishable. Even your trespass feels like a grand tale in the making.

 

The translation of the world from the PS2-era to the PS4 era is incredible. In the bonus section of the menu, you can unlock a “comparison” category of images which show an exact area of the game from two entirely different but complementary periods of graphics. The PS4 edition was rebuilt from the ground up but it is more tribute to the Japanese studio Team Ico’s design wizardry of the original than just an attempt to outdo it. In the end, it’s a game that feels just as home now as it was then, a remarkable showcase for two evenly apart PlayStation generations.

 

The game is not flawless. In terms of Wander’s maneuverability while on the Colossi, it varies in terms of how frustrating it can become. In later fights, it will get aggravating having Wander not climb fast enough or move in the direction you want before your stamina runs out and the beast proceeds to fling you off like a ragdoll. How you control your loyal horse, Agro, can have a learning curve, as it’s hard to gauge how fast or slow you can allow the steed to go, often feeling as if its acting of its own accord, sort of like, well, an actual horse. Still annoying though.

 

Nothing is perfect, but at its best and most unforgettably beautiful moments, you can easily forget and better forgive the faults, like all the best things in life. I will admit to have given up on the original game when I tried it for the first time in 2008. The controls just didn’t click for a young teen who didn’t have the patience I now have. It’s a game that deserves to be played, not just as a testament for Sony at its creative best, but for proving the medium’s critics wrong. Art can’t just be observed, it can also be interacted with, making you feel the connection the game makers intended you to have. You had a part to play in this fable and it makes you think deeply about that part as more than just a way to past time.

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