From horrific returns to diminishing returns: guest starring the Gorillaz( reviews for Dead Space Remake, Ant-Man 3 and Cracker Island)

Image from Game Informer (In this Space shall you scream…)

In the interest of expedience, this entry will be covering a game, a movie and a new album of music from yours truly’s favorite band, that being a first for this blog. First off is hopefully not the last big budget remake of a classic horror title that proves to be welcome even if not completely needed.

Dead Space (2023)

Poor Isaac Clarke. One of gaming’s most pre-eminent forty-something age heroes couldn’t get a break in the end. We and by that I mean people who play video games of course thought that the outer space-faring engineer’s story had ended a decade ago with the highly disappointing Dead Space 3. Much like the enemies you will face in this survival horror franchise, it has reanimated itself into something familiar yet more frightening. On a meta level, it makes more sense than even Resident Evil to be a series that returns to haunt you.

Due to the popular reception from both critics and fans for this 2023 rebirth, the second and third games in the series seem destined for the same fate and yet what a promising fate it might be. Replaying Dead Space 2 thanks to this awesome update of a game, I am struggling to see how that 2011 title could be improved on due to how laser focused it was in being, for lack of a better description, a linear sequence of scares, but what a sequence.

Many of the improvements that brings Dead Space 1 back to life are taken from the improvements DS2 introduced. I’m sure Motive Studios has some ideas about that, possibly brilliant stuff but that’s a discussion for later. Dead Space 3, the black sheep of the series, that I’m more excited about seeing a second chance given to. I would prefer that to be a full blown re-imagining however, to keep the ominously good ideas DS3 had and excise the many awful or half-baked ones that sunk it.

That the Remake sneaks in elements and lore retroactively from the sequels suggest that Motive plans to do exactly that. Hell, it might even lead to an honest to God Dead Space 4 occurring, all to pick up where original DS developer Visceral Games had been forced to leave behind.

Dead Space can be called iterative sci-fi horror, in that a lot of it screams to you as familiar, but it’s intelligent and new enough in execution that you really won’t mind. Hell, you might be drawn on by the familiar all so you can witness what is different. That was one of the keys to the 2008 original’s success, to the point it has been proclaimed one of the best horror games ever made, forward thinking in it’s approach to how it has the player interact with its world literally and psychologically.

It’s iterative of classic gaming horror on a deliberate level too. Visceral Games have opened up rather directly about how Dead Space was ultimately their fusion of two classic titles: 1999’s System Shock 2 and 2005’s Resident Evil 4. Funny that latter inspiration, seeing as how that game is due for a March 2023 Remake of its own and against my own judgements about recycling old content, that remake looks dope and is one of my most anticipated experiences of the year. Only a first-time trip to Hawaii can keep me from it.

System Shock 2 is set in a space-faring future like Dead Space and involves an unnamed, mostly mute protagonist ending up on a star-ship undergoing one hell of a crisis. Namely, a bio-organic species called The Many is slowly taking over the crew’s bodies and minds and turning them into terrifying monstrosities hell-bent on either your conversion or more likely your death. Seems quite familiar to a Dead Space player I would think.

There’s much more than just that happening in System Shock 2’s story including rogue misanthropic AIs and a gameplay system that acts as spiritual predecessor to the Bioshock series 8 years later with some of the same people involved. This cult classic was so good and ahead of its time, it inspired not one but two franchises that continue to linger in the public mind to this day.

The Resident Evil 4 inspiration came through it’s ground-breaking use of the camera, through an over the shoulder perspective that would soon become an industry standard for just about any game called Third-Person. Gears of War would also take great inspiration, building on RE4’s design through its own influential taking cover system, itself becoming a standard for game design.

From Isaac’s perspective, you were always viewing his body from the left side of the camera, leaving enough space to observe your often claustrophobic environments. The effect is putting you in the place of a man navigating an environment from which deadly terrors can strike from essentially anywhere. In spite of not viewing it through Isaac’s eyes, you still felt alone, stuck in an unsafe place with him. It was this sense of being a stranger in a strange, hostile land that was just as necessary to borrow from RE4 as the camera perspective and how to aim a weapon in that perspective. Dead Space might be the gold standard of how to follow the leader without being cheap about it.

A distress call is received from a deep space mining vessel called the Ishimura, one of the oldest in the business, soon to be decommissioned. Isaac Clarke, our slowly graying hero (looking younger than he did in the original due to mo-capping the voice actor’s face) volunteers because his lady love Nicole is serving as the chief medical officer, a regular Beverly Crusher, minus any Wesley mercifully.

The crew arrives at the Ishimura hovering over the mining colony planet Aegis VII, disconcertingly radio silent. A technobabble issue involving a tractor beam causes Isaac’s ship to crash-land into the hanger. They investigate what’s going on and well, as expected, all hell breaks loose when the infamous Necromorphs greet the new arrivals. Isaac is separated from the crew and soon makes use of mining tools like the beloved “plasma cutter” to engage the undead menace in a manner that continues to be novel as far as I know to this series: Don’t go for the head or the torso, go for the limbs. Only dismemberment can keep Isaac and anyone else alive. Sadly, evisceration from monsters big and small is just the beginning of their woes, and not even the worst.

Isaac’s quest for survival and escape all while keeping his fellow repair team alive and finding Nicole is made much more difficult by the fact that they’re not merely facing a zombie-like enemy, they’re up against a threat that is Lovecraftian. The source of the Necromorph infestation that has nearly wiped out or changed the Ishimura crew is an ancient artifact called the Marker, full of old, essentially eldritch knowledge with a psychic ability to slowly but surely affect and take over the minds of those in its vicinity. Isaac being the player character is hardly exempt from its horrifying influence. Not too late into the game do Isaac and the player start hearing and seeing things that are certainly not there.

One area where the Dead Space Remake does one-up the original is not so much in making it scarier though there are some tweaks here and there that do that, it’s in actually making the fall of the Ishimura and the colony below more of a tragedy, a sad tale to be echoed.

The fates of characters from the original game are altered, not to save them from a death but make their ends more tinged with sorrow. One character even manages to live much longer than their original role but that character’s lengthier survival is capped off with an utterly cruel gut punch. It’s a change that also arguably resolves a plot hole from the original game that reinforces the insidiousness of what the Marker and its power can do to Isaac and dwindling company.

While I was rarely truly frightened by any one moment in the original Dead Space titles, the new take on the first game here does more to instill a sense of growing dread, placing players old and new in familiar scenarios that are made a little more oppressive. A tweak seen early on is in how Isaac and the player have to reroute power for an area of the ship to progress. In order to turn on power for a room that you need to reach, you have turn off the lights, submerging the location in a darkness inkier than anything the original game could manage. You now have to navigate by flashlight and your established sense of the place all while the Necromorphs make their move on you undeterred by the change in ambience.

Other changes, some subtle and some not, make this Ishimura not only more real but more of a genuine haunted house that’s out to get you. That Isaac gets to speak now when he was made a mute protagonist in the original (mute save for the grunts, gasps, moans and screams) adds to the sense of not so much putting yourself in Isaac’s place but of being an actor controlling an Isaac who has a distinct personality, retroactively formed by who he was in the sequels to be.

This Isaac is an all-around nice guy, appropriately an everyman where only his expert engineering know-how and the tools that come with them give him a chance at surviving his stay on his girlfriend’s place of work. When it comes to addressing Isaac and his search for Nicole on the ship, I imagine first time players who haven’t been spoiled to the game’s plot over the last fifteen years will pick up or not fall for the twist involving the latter’s fate. It’s almost done in a way where your foreknowledge of events is taken into account. There’s instead a twist on the twist since the original reveal is too easy to see through by this point.

Many will compare Dead Space 2023 to Dead Space 2008 of course and many will also compare it to contemporary remakes like for fellow horror titles such as the excellent 2019 Resident Evil 2 and not so excellent 2020 Resident Evil 3. This March and April will the same probably be done for the 2023 Resident Evil 4. I think the focus of comparing remakes should go to the often re-released 2002 Remake of the very first Resident Evil.

The 2002 take on RE1 is often acclaimed as being one of the best entries in its franchise, an improvement and surpasser of the 1996 original and possibly the single best example of survival horror, in which your resources and management of them in a dangerous, explorable environment is key to success. Resident Evil 02′ is a faithful second take that builds more than cuts from the original experience, giving you new puzzles, enemies, areas to explore and lore to digest. It’s bigger without becoming unwieldy and too disparate from the classic version.

The 2023 Dead Space appears to be echoing the first Resident Evil Remake as much as Dead Space itself is a riff on RE4’s design. It makes the Ishimura bigger, with more to explore and discover either to your delight or horror. How Isaac accesses new parts of the Ishimura is different. In the original, each new deck of the ship was reached through the ship’s trams system, each chapter bookended with a tram ride. Now, most sections of the ship Isaac must first reach on foot through new maintenance corridors, having to unlock the stations for future use later on. This plays up how unlike the original, you can revisit decks you’ve been to already. Whether it be because you have gained security clearance for a locker or room you didn’t have before or because you straight up missed something the first time, the Ishimura is a more organic place because it no longer locks you off from it like before.

Adding in side missions, which offer both new insight into how the Ishimura fell and lots of very welcome goodies to improve your chances of survival also contribute to an Ishimura that feels like an increasingly open place, in spite of the claustrophobic halls and ravenous creatures seeking you out. It’s bigger, more reflective of the actual size of the place you’re in but it’s not so big and extended that it drags the just as tight, anxious pacing of the original. In other words, it reflects the expansion of Resident Evil 1’s Spencer Mansion in making it a matter of,yes, more can actually be more. RE’s original mansion and now DS’s original Ishimura now feel smaller, though the atmospheres they introduced to players back in the day have not dissipated.

One more aspect that has made the once met-with-skepticism remake for Dead Space much more applauded by both critic and player is the remarkable amount of new detail given to matters big and small. When Isaac is severely injured, on the verge of death even, Gunner Wright, Isaac’s VA says the same lines he’s given but in a strained, tense tone reflecting his tenuous physical state. After Isaac becomes prone to damage in any way can Isaac’s manner of stating dialogue change at that point. The script is always the same, how it’s said is altered until you get his health back up.

The use of Isaac’s heartbeat in the original games was a brilliant way to reflect back on the player the sense of tension you should probably feel when in danger. That is, if the loud, angry monsters and blaring soundtrack wasn’t enough to have you stand at attention. Now, the use of Isaac’s heartbeat is affected not only by whether Isaac’s in combat or in dire straits, but by how Isaac is affected by something straight up spooking or startling him. The jump scares or fake out scares can also cause a rise in Isaac’s heart-rate which could very well now echo you the player. This along with other hiding in plain sight details makes this seemingly meant at first to be corporate reboot of an old property feel like a labor of love from the new developers Motive. Taking what worked before and instead of fixing it, enhancing it.

They’re changes in the sense that they’re new obstacles for the player to face so that returning veterans to the series will be left with some new surprises and challenges to overcome, all without overriding the course of events that will still play out basically as they did in 2008. The characterization of some of the story’s players have been changed though the places they end up in will be retained. I can’t give any hints as to who changed and why because that is something I would like left for you to discover. One change actually improves a really annoying sequence from the original that can be best described as a turret section from a flash game and is made into a new, less frustrating yet still strenuous challenge that gives you things to focus on rather than “shoot enough X fast enough to win”.

I wasn’t thinking this was going to happen a mere year ago, let alone when the remake was announced, but Dead Space has re-emerged as one of the preeminent interactive horror experiences out there. Now, the mostly uncontested Resident Evil series has some competition, let alone in the Remake department. I don’t know how far that matter of re-imagining old titles will go and if it will indeed go too far. While people seem pretty OK now with Dead Spaces 2 and 3 being given another moment in the spotlight and RE4’s return is awaited with at worst cautious optimism, what will be next? Will the either hated or polarizing Resident Evils 5 and 6 also be given this treatment? Can Dead Space 3 be made or rethought into a better game? Will truly unneeded Remakes emerge and make us regret we had ever encouraged this from developers and publishers?

I don’t know, but for now, by and large Resident Evil and Dead Space looking back at the past are horrifying us in all the right ways.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (some implied spoilers, take heed.)

Image by Hollywood Reporter (Kang isn’t what Scott should be worrying about. What people think of his cinematic universe now should.)

I would like to start off this discussion of the 31st MCU movie by staying that it’s title is pretty much a misnomer. Rather than Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, it should be called Ant-Man: Quantumania, Ant-Man and Kang: Quantumania or Ant-Man v Kang: Dawn of Secret Wars. One thing that should clue you in to how unwieldy at best this beginning to Phase 5 is that one of the titular characters of the movie is an afterthought in terms of character arc and overall role in this movie.

Sure, by the third act, Evangeline Lily’s Hope van Dyne ala The Wasp is contributing to fighting not so much Kang the Conqueror but a Kang the Conqueror though I suppose that distinction is essentially, purposefully irrelevant. But that can’t make up for the fact that what was the first titular female hero in the MCU lineup feels like supporting rather than lead character. You could technically argue that a Wasp, the first one: Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) plays a significant role but that can’t make up for this disorderly use of characters, especially as we grow increasingly restless of Marvel being disorderly when that is the thing we are craving almost more than anything from Marvel Studios not to be.

In this third installment of the Pym/VanDyne/Lang family drama, Scott Lang is enjoying well-earned fame for being one of the key players in Thanos’ defeat and the restoration of half of all life in the universe. Not bad for a semi-professional thief. His girlfriend and fellow superhero Hope is restoring the trust and success of her parents’ company all while being a rich corporate figure who actually does care about the little guy unlike in my reality. Well, I guess hanging out and literally being able to become a little gal would make her inclined to be uncharacteristically altruistic in spite of her class and status. Again, superpowers are hardly the only fantasy often at play in a superhero medium.

Life appears swell, sweller than it’s been for everyone in Scott’s family and friend’s circle though his group of thief friends led by Manny, Michael Pena’s character, are strangely absent and even unacknowledged outright. That might be because Tip T.I. Harrington, who played one of Scott’s thief friends had been accused of committed a serious real-life crime and thus that entire element of Scott Lang’s life is jettisoned from the movie, maybe for good. But who needs them when the overbearing needs of a cinematic universe’s trajectory is just so important?

This is bitterly ironic of me to say, some could argue hypocritical as one of the chief complaints of Marvel’s Phase 4 was a lack of direction or focus when it came to establishing what will be the overarching goal and/or threat. The first phase from between 2008 and 2012 set up the first batch of Avengers as well as more subtly the Infinity Stone macguffins that will become the definitive target for both hero and villain come phase 3.

Yes, it would be a lie to say that no setup for what “The Multiverse Saga” consisting of phases 4-6 will be occurred in the Fourth Phase. The Multiverse and its potential was given some exploration through the second Doctor Strange, the third Tom Holland Spider-Man and the first seasons of What If? and Loki. Kang himself and him being a being of many, many different entities through many different universes was established in Loki Season One. Here’s hoping you have or had DisneyPlus all so you would know who Kang was by now though to be fair Ant-Man 3 doesn’t do a poor job of (re)introducing Kang to an audience and some won’t even mind that there was some “homework” to be had due to Jonathan Majors’ standout performance.

Majors as Kang is often called the standout reason why Ant-Man 3 is even worth your time, including from critics and viewers who didn’t think much of the film. He’s so great that I will just come out and say it now that I am still willing to engage in the MCU further because there’s a guarantee that Kang will be there. Hearing that may make you enthusiastic or relieved but here it is time to pump the brakes again.

It is rather stunning to me how little I really found myself caring about Scott Lang and his family as they found themselves accidentally transported into the titular Quantum Realm. It’s stunning because I did care much more when I was hanging out with them in the first two Ant-movies or their appearance in Avengers Endgame. To be fair, I did kinda find myself caring somewhat about Scott if only due to Paul Rudd’s almost universally infectious charm. I have heard of people that can’t stand Paul Rudd no matter what they see him in but I’m not in that class of people clearly. Then again, my exposure to Rudd’s work outside of Marvel ain’t that strong so maybe he could get on my nerves in the right movie.

Rudd’s Lang gets the best moments not involving Kang directly out of the group of heroes. One of the best visual set-pieces directly involves Lang interacting with a Wobbly Wobbly, Time-Wimey device of Kang’s as it causes countless versions of Scott to apparate one after the other, all based on the various probable versions of Scott’s life. Of all things, it reminded me of Calvin and Hobbes’ Calvin and his Transmogrification machine which creates many troublesome duplicates of himself. Being reminded of Calvin and Hobbes is surely no sin on this movie’s part.

So I guess I was being dishonest when I said Kang was the only (surviving) character from this movie that I would want to see after Quantumania. Then again, Rudd’s disarming take on Lang can only take us so far when the story and fellow characters he’s with are so underbaked by comparison, just as irritating when they weren’t that way before.

The worst offender isn’t Lilly’s Hope vanDyne in truth. At least what she had done before this movie can count in her favor. It’s poor Cassie Lang. In the third casting of Scott’s daughter, Kathryn Newton is brought along almost certainly to portray that character going forward, such as in the upcoming Avengers movies. The first teen actress to portray her in Avengers Endgame, Emma Fuhrmann, was perfectly fine in the limited role she had there. Maybe it was due to her not being physically right for the more martial role Cassie has in this installment, but Fuhrmann was replaced with Newton and her performance in turn was not unlike an wet blanket. Yes, that old chestnut description.

Sure, you could argue that the material she was given was most responsible here. Maybe you’re right, but how is it that Majors, Rudd and Janet vanDyne’s Michelle Pffeifer pull off better performances with the same bad material? I think that they’re above average to exceptional performances at all here goes against Newton as an actress. It certainly suggests ill portents for Cassie’s role in future MCU appearances in terms of my investment.

Another way to suggest the “problem” with Ant-Man 3 and our heroes’ journey to confront and defeat Kang is that very little of what character arc Scott and company have is present. In a manner eerily similar to what befell many DCEU movies, the heroes and villains are at the mercy of the big picture over their own individual arcs. Sure, their arcs should intertwine with the big picture, but that balance that was much more strongly felt in earlier Marvel phases isn’t here.

Some have suggested the mostly bad or uneven state of the MCU is a result of Marvel with its Heads and writers becoming overconfident over the literal billions they’ve made over the first decade of this cinematic venture. After the “googly moogly” money that Avengers Endgame alone made, then the audience would welcome anything they brought to them going forward. I imagine the diminishing box office returns especially in the second weekends recent Marvel films have had must be getting Feige and the rest just a little bit sweaty I would hope.

Feige has admitted to “overload” when it comes to the distribution of MCU TV on Disneyplus if nothing else. A lightening of the MCU load in one department will certainly be welcome and the CGI artists no doubt are already grateful for the sentiment, so long as its put into motion. As for the movies, which are still viewed as the big attractions for the venture, well it stands to reason they should take their own advice as Tony Stark suggested: be better.

We are not dealing with Marvel’s best, even on a technical level. The quality of the CGI itself has become questioned on the big screen. Last year’s Thor Love and Thunder had some questionable implementation of V/FX in many but not all places and the third Ant-Man has some shoddy use of both CG and green-screen which does not do the movie many favors in convincingly transporting us the audience into an alien world existing inside the subatomic level of reality. For a movie where the Quantum Realm has taken the highest precedence thus far, the first two Ant-Man movies have more wondrous, intriguing depictions.

How it goes about with addressing it as a distinct civilization from ours or others in the MCU also suffers through either a lack of imagination or poor execution of what imaginative world-building there actually is. Some sights that are shown aren’t all that bad let alone in concept yet something always felt frustratingly “off” about how it was ultimately presented.

There are moments of fun, even intrigue in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. There are also moments of “been there, done that” or “That’s sorta new, but also not all that good” too. It really is one of the most mixed bags you could have at this point in a universe struggling to keep itself going in a manner that elicits excitement. Part of me thinks great things could still be ahead, another more cynical part thinks the peak is in the past. Another part of me, maybe the strongest part thinks it’s a fusion of both opinions. I can also say that what is here could’ve been done a whole lot better, meaningfully.

In a rather morose sense, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania simultaneously suggests hope and despair for this ongoing cinematic project, much like how many have two dissonant feelings about the state of the world around us, one day one feeling is stronger than the other. I’m old enough and wise enough to know that it’s not just me thinking that.

Now, how about a selection of music that’s all about that prescient worldview?

Gorillaz: Cracker Island

Image from Animation Magazine (No one mixes melancholy with joy like these creations from the Tank Girl guy.)

Gorillaz, a long running collaborative work between Brit-pop legend Damon Albarn of Blur and Jamie Hewlett, the Canadian artist of Tank Girl, is itself a glorious celebration of musical collaboration. How taking artists from disparate forms of musical genre and splicing together tracks that strangely, miraculously become bangers.

Two of the cartoon band’s most well-known pieces, “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.” fuse Rap/Hip-Hop with Rock and Pop into brilliant pieces of work which as far as I am aware are idiosyncratic masterpieces. Individual elements of their music are certainly familiar. Of course they are, as it is very difficult to create a new genre or sound wholesale and Albarn knows it. It’s that foreknowledge that the disparate parts are familiar and yet how they mix together like a fine stew is what makes and will always make Gorillaz tick with me and millions more.

The eighth (though in my heart seventh) album of my favorite band, having long since overtaken U2 is perhaps the most sorrowful work done yet while still against all laws of probability avoiding becoming a depressing listen. Gorillaz through Albarn’s beautiful vocals makes not exactly uplifting lyrics and themes consistently addicting for me to hear. It could be that the rhythm, the feel of the music is so engaging, so wonderful that it can belie the less than happy intention of what is being stated. Sort of like how an accurate to life war movie or show can seem exciting, adventurous almost, even if the details are distressingly correct.

Cracker Island, like every prior album, acts as a time capsule to the time in which it was being recorded. While you can call this record a record of 2023, it’s more so an emotional chronicle of 2021 and 2022 for Albarn and friends. One of the key themes I can derive is a sense of being trapped in the modern world, isolated in spite of being on a planet of now 8 billion people. Wondering if anything we absorb culturally that is new is good or worth our time. Earlier Gorillaz albums and tracks have expressed this sentiment. The first album’s “Tomorrow Comes Today” had the lyric “The Digital won’t let me go.” That song debuted in 2000. 23 years later, the song and its very name sounds like one of the most accurate predictions Gorillaz has ever performed.

The title track suggests many things. There is the in-universe story of the Gorillaz band which acts as a self-description of their predicament. Their founder and oldest member Murdoc has made the band part of a cult, The Forever Cult, and the music video is about the other members: singer 2D, Drummer Russell and Guitarist and my favorite Noodle trying to escape. Other music videos suggest Murdoc himself is aware he has gone too far this time and Murdoc has been the token evil member since Day One.

Without a full summary of the goings on for the band’s wacky, surreal misadventures, I can’t give you a fully accurate summation but the story of the foursome is all set dressing for the themes the song themselves are meant to have independent of the Gorillaz lore.

The songs, 11 in all with the last being a piano version of an earlier song, make a consistent point about not the political, economic or even cultural reality of the early 2020s we’re experiencing, but a psychological point. How about above all other manners, how tired we are. We’re tired of the celebrity culture, of the once enraging but now wearying inaction on so many pressing matters from those in power. To wondering if there is any point to the culture we consume. If the world is going down from either our self-inflicted actions or inactions, what is the point if there is no light at the tunnel’s end?

More than a few songs, such as my favorite “Silent Running”, are not about fighting for a better world to occur, but just hoping it will someday just happen. Earlier Gorillaz songs and albums end on a somewhat hopeful note in spite of the doomsday tone. 2017’s Humanz album literally ends in the vanilla version with a song called “We Got the Power.”

In spite of it all, the last original song, “Possession Island” does end on a note that is optimistic only in the sense that no matter what happens going forward: good, bad or somewhere in-between, we are in this together. That in turn is a reflection of how earlier tracks also express another thematic sentiment, of us craving for something more sociable, in some kind of unity that is meaningful.

The track “Oil” featuring Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks is pleading internally about finding someone close. It’s not strictly sexual, romantic or fraternal. It can be any of these things so long as it doesn’t end up being none of them. The aforementioned “Silent Running” literally gives its theme away if you know the definition of the term. Like a submarine quietly, purposefully trying not to give itself away to anyone, so many people, myself included, drift through life without attempting to form connection. Why? Is it fear? Anxiety? Afraid of being hurt? Our often digital addictions? Likely all of the above or maybe something else particular to yourself.

Perhaps that is where the cult stuff comes in, in ironic fashion. People who often end up in cults are those who have no direction, no purpose, no strong connection to someone other than themself. Out of desperation, they search for a community to belong to and in doing so, they are ensnared in something just as bad if not worse than where they were before.

Now look back at the world and look at anything remotely cult-like. Qanon, MAGA, The Andrew Tate fan-base, incels in general. Those are just some groups that can be construed as having cult-like tendencies or maybe even structure to boot. Not every person who ends up in those communities is necessarily a lonely, purpose starved guy or gal. In some cases, meaningful connections those people had are severed, sometimes beyond repair by entering those cults.

Among being musically enjoyable pieces of work, Cracker Island can be considered about the search for both a true escape from the dystopic circumstances we find ourselves in while also finding connections, closeness with others without falling into a new nightmare of a cult. That even in spite of the danger, we should try all the same.

For something marginally less heavy, you can also see the selection of music Albarn and his cartoon buddies have come up with as mental, musical salves for the increasing pressures of the world. That was the case for me a decade ago when I first exposed myself to Gorillaz in 2012, through coming across their music on Pandora studying at my charter high school in Florida.

Every Gorillaz album worth its salt and that’s almost all of them are that to me. In spite of the not necessarily hopeful outlook Albarn has nowadays (why would he?), he still finds a way to vent through his creation of this work, working alongside other artists to reach at the least a temporary catharsis from it all. I let Cracker Island, as short as it is, wash over me, letting it’s feelings reflect back on my own. Almost as if the album is trying to form a connection with me.

Has Cracker Island become my new favorite album? No, 2010’s mesmerizing Plastic Beach and 2018’s The Now Now’s somber yet sunny aesthetic are still my favorites. Nevertheless, several tracks from Cracker Island are on their way towards becoming some of my favorites. “Silent Running”, “New Gold” and “Baby Queen” refuse to fully leave my head in the days since the album’s launch though those songs premiered well beforehand.

Taken as a whole, Cracker Island is a swift yet effective medley about the time and place we live in. Decades from now and I speak quite optimistically of what the state of the world and my life will be by then, Cracker Island might make me nostalgic for a year that already I’m not fond of. Then again, I imagine any year a Gorillaz album released would also make a like-minded fan nostalgic for that year too. 2001, 2005, 2010, 2017, 2018, 2020 and so on. All in spite of how Albarn was melodically mourning those same years, those same timez.

Bengal’s Chinese New Year Liathon (Part 2)

This second part wrap-up for this year’s Lunar New Year is delayed due to me getting wrapped up in completing the surprisingly great remake for the original Dead Space (more than once) and comparing it with the 2008 classic. I also try to do blog entries on days when I’m free and also in a good enough state of mind, not helped from how my sleeping patterns make that less likely. Sleeping in can do a number on one’s enthusiasm, making one paradoxically tired with even a headache or two.

Afterwards, I will likely do a review of the new Dead Space and by the point that’s finished, It’ll be time perhaps to talk about the third Ant-Man film and whether or not it promises a renewed focus for the MCU. But for now, here are three Hong Kong classics, two from the 90s with our boy Jet Li and one from the 70s that helped inspire one of those two.

Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Image from IMDB (If these two aren’t careful, they’ll be navigating Jacob’s ladder next.)

I would like to take the time before delving into one of Jet Li’s most essential movies to complain about having no access to another of his must-see titles, the sequel to this film in fact. No place I searched or had available featured Once upon a Time in China II i.e. the only other OUATIC entry that is really worth watching if IMDB has any say. Some consider the second movie even better than the first and a lot of that has to do with Jet Li going up against a young DONNIE YEN. I mean, come on, it shouldn’t be hard to stream or rent that!

Amazon Prime, which I saw the first movie for free on that service, has all the movies in the six film saga except Once Upon a Time in China II. Even the two movies that didn’t star Jet Li, the fourth, the fifth, (The minor fall, the major lift) are there for you if either you have a Prime subscription or $4 for each flick to rent. Why? No idea.

At least the first movie is here and it’s a doozy. Being able to actually view a crisp image finally for the marathon was a plus and the Tsui Hark helmed feature is beautifully shot with an emphasis on the both beautiful yet occasionally haunting streets of urban 19th century China, the wind bellowing through alleyways with people Chinese, British and American. While the film didn’t bother to tell us which of the many, many metropolises this was set in (me and my Dad eventually concluded it was Hong Kong), it’s actually Foshan which admittedly is part of the Province Hong Kong neighbors, Guangdong.

The choice of locale is just as well a historical reflection of the main character portrayed by Mr. Li, a figure for which there is concrete evidence he existed unlike Fong Sai-Yuk and the Tai Chi Master. I mean, this guy was around in the 19th century and there are photographs of him. The film ends with Wong Fei Hung with his school of martial arts and loved ones taking part in the Western practice of photography. It’s a humorously done final scene which puts a lynch-pin on the movie’s themes of how to balance the good of the old with what good there is in the American-European imported new.

History (or Wikipedia) tells us that Fei Hung was a double dipper in talent, being both a beloved physician and of course a master martial artist in the Hung Ga style of Kung Fu. A person who can heal you as much as kick your ass. Of course as is often the case, Wong Fei Hung acts both for himself and for his school’s reputation as a peace-maker, only using his art to defend or fight a foe who will not accept any other path forward but to fight.

The set-up of Wong Fei Hung, regardless of the historicity, is fantastic for both a kung fu movie and as an audience guide to a particular, conflicted period in Chinese history. The nature of China as we know it now: authoritarian, brutal to undesirable peoples like the Uighur Muslims, imperialistic on a global stage that disturbingly parallels my own country is all but opposite in the late 19th century. For a good period of time, the Chinese were the underdogs, one of the most noteworthy peoples to be exploited and abused by powers beyond their shores.

This would get worse come the 20th century with the nadir being Japanese advances into their territory starting with Manchuria. It would get worse and worse as the 1930s went on with the Rape of Nanking and other similar atrocities precipitating the Pacific theater of WW2. But I’m getting ahead of myself as the next two movies are both about that.

It could be the English subtitle translation but it was hard to get a grasp on the plot. What ties together a story where Wong and his school become embattled in politics of the time involving Chinese gangs, European powers and a jealous rival martial arts master is the theme of how to proceed as a Chinese culture when it seems that the times demand such a culture evolve or die. In spite of being the creators of gunpowder and explosives, technologically China was lagging behind from others hence the reason it became a land carved up by stronger powers. The dying decades of the final Chinese dynasty, the Qing, is a time of sheer irony in how clinging to tradition made China ill prepared to hold its ground against those that would exploit them.

Wong Fei Hung, for all of his martial prowess, comes to realize that guns even in flintlock form trumps fists and feet. It’s not made clear when in the 19th century the movie plays out but I’m fairly certain it’s at least after the 1860s and the period of the American Civil War. That there are public displays promoting Chinese workers to come over to America to work on my country’s burgeoning railroad system suggests it could be well enough after. So, close to but not at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. Among other things, it was a catastrophic failure for a Chinese Nationalist movement to expel foreign powers from their land. I doubt this was the whole truth of the war that made up the Rebellion, but it became notorious for how many Chinese rebels believed they had attained the ability to deflect gunfire. They did not.

Again, it was made harder to place the exact time though I suppose looking at Fei Hung’s lifespan would give us a better idea. When you see the type of guns used by American or British troops in the movie, it further confuses. If it was the American Civil War era or nearabouts as my dad thought due to the blue look of the uniforms, then why are their rifles semiautomatic? That was a breakthrough in gun design that at the very least was reached near the civil war’s end. Then there is the dress of one of the villainous Americans, the enforcer for a General Wickens revealed to be trafficking Chinese over to America.

The guy is dressed 40 to 50 years in the past if this is the mid-latter 19th, like he was around for the War of 1812 if not earlier. Well, he’s the only American dressed that way so maybe it’s unique to his own sensibilities. Speaking of unique, he’s the one whitey who knows kung fu like our Chinese protagonists though sadly Li doesn’t get to duel him. In terms of potential anachronisms, nothing beats the Jesuit priest who is possibly the only Westerner not a douche to our heroes. His overall appearance is I imagine accurate to the time period until one lingering, in-your-face shot during an action sequence shows off the decidedly 20th century bottom of his sneakers. For a highly regarded piece of historical fiction, that is an oversight that’s staggering.

Wong deals with various burning fires, figuratively and eventually literally when an antagonistic gang lights his school on fire. It’s his handling: as professional yet directly as possible that allows me not to get lost in what to follow, though by movie’s end, it all comes together from disparate parts. A finale where Wong and several of his students infiltrate a harbor run by the Americans and harboring the trafficking ring. A gang consisting of aimless, wayward Chinese have decided to work with those heinous Americans and a homeless Martial arts master who ends up Wong’s main opponent for the movie, becomes their leader. That leader wants above all else to beat Wong in a fight to prove he’s the better master and hopefully get the respect that allows him a permanent roof over his head too.

I suppose the idea behind that Chinese gang and their hobo leader is that they are taking a darker approach to adapting to the new world where America and Europe are on top. If you can’t beat em’, join em so long as they get something out of it, even if their innocent countrymen and women are horribly mistreated in the process. Wong, in confronting this doubtlessly talented but morally broken master, perhaps comes to a Hegelian conclusion in learning and bettering himself from his enemy: he had the right idea but the wrong methods, hence why when he is ultimately torn down by both American and British gunfire in the chaotic yet exhilarating finale, he honors his passing and mourns his death.

This may speak much of me being a Caucasian viewer of a story meant to appeal to a Chinese audience with a multi-generational memory of things past, but another anchoring element of Once Upon a Time in China is obviously the fight choreography and it is as exaggerated as it is beautifully executed. Not reaching the insane heights of absurdity of the Fong Sai Yuk movies or Tai Chi Master, it is out there to nearly a fault though measured by how more real it looks and comes across. In that, not unlike a Jackie Chan movie, many set pieces seem to involve unnerving risk.

Take a scene early on occurring in pouring rain, the homeless master Wong will eventually battle several times is trying to make some money by breaking two spears with the weight of his throat. I should mention the spear-tips are aimed at his throat. The master effortlessly breaks the spears without slashing his jugular and in turn coins sprinkle the ground. An incredible feat that seemed impossible to me, let alone to actually film with movie trickery (which could’ve happened but you never know with HK cinema) and yet it’s done. The poor guy is yet barely subsisting for all his effort. It’s not just proving he’s the best around, it’s that he wants something a lot more tangible than respect.

For many and this is certainly the case with me, the standout set-piece is a multistage battle inside a grain warehouse that is near the ship where General Wickens is docked, the lair of the gang that preys upon Wong’s school. It goes from Wong and friends trying to outrun and outlast a whole bunch of goons on multiple levels of the building to one’s desperate escape from being tied on a rope suspended on the ground all so he can prevent a lead female character’s rape to a battle against the rapist to Wong showing up and he and the hobo master doing battle.

It’s a lengthy battle that’s almost too long, but it’s so amazing as it changes up what the two get up to in the battle that even if I did notice that it was running long I didn’t really care. It’s like Jackie’s last battle at the end of Legend of Drunken Master, which goes for over ten minutes but is breathless in intensity, up to and including Chan walking on live coals. The standout display of both stunt-work and martial acrobatics is the use of ladders as you see in the header. A single image doesn’t do it justice and like again a Jackie Chan feature you’re almost if indeed more worried for Li and costar’s safety than what is occurring in the fictional fight.

It arguably has the finale peak too early as the latter battle onboard the American ship is not as thrilling and Jackson the American fighter is given an anticlimactic if still harsh finish though that could’ve been intentional. When two masters fight, that’s when s**t’s the realest it will get after all.

I imagine some American and European viewers may take umbrage with the mostly negative portrayal we’re given in this movie. I in turn should bring up that if there was any real world dichotomy of good vs bad to be had in this historical scenario, hate to tell you, we were more the baddies than not. Hell, just the treatment we should be aware of for Chinese migrant workers that the film alludes to should tip you off that this Hong Kong film has a point even if it’s bias could blind it in terms of nuance. That’s what the corrupted master and Chinese gang members are for, to show collaboration with inequitable dealers of power.

As I brought up with the humorous final scene of a triumphant Wong with his school and friends getting a photo taken, our hero recognizes that some things must and will change if China will survive. He adopts a Western coat and jacket with top hat to show he’s not truly against Western influence inherently. So long as what still works about China’s culture can co-exist. In other words, it’s maybe even more an allegory of Hong Kong reconciling its nature as a place that is East and West, in spite of the movie’s Foshan setting.

If it were to be applied to all of China, then I would certainly say that it would learn lessons from the West and change into what it is now. Tragically, not all the teachings from my side of the world were for the better, as we are currently witnessing as I type this up. Those same European-American colonialist ambitions wouldn’t in time just affect China, sooner than them would they affect Japan. And that leads us into our next two movies, one a classic of Bruce Lee and the other a Jet Li remake of that same classic.

Fist of Fury (1972)

Image from Tubi (East vs Hired muscle from West…ern Russia I imagine.)

Fist of Fury and its remake Fist of Legend are both about the notorious death of Huo Yuanjia, a legendary practitioner and teacher of martial arts. He dies at the even then too early age of 42 and there are many theories as to what killed him though it was officially arsenic poisoning. For the purposes of narrative conflict that will lead to kung fu fighting, both films go with the “assassination” theory.

The year of death for Yuanjia is 1910 and while never brought up in the film, it is set then with his best student Chen Zen (Bruce Lee, duh) seeking vengeance for this cruel murder perpetrated by a rival Japanese school of martial arts. The Jet Li remake will take place in 1937 and still feature Yuanjia’s death in spite of the nearly 30 year difference in time, all for it to make a pertinent point about Japanese imperialism among other matters.

Japanese imperialism or supremacy over others especially the Chinese is certainly part of Fist of Fury and very one sided about it. Despite its 1910 historical setting, this movie carries the weight of Chinese memory over Japan’s invasion into their territory and the horrors that came with it. Early into WW2, British Hong Kong was captured by the Japanese Empire in a series of dire defeats of the Allied powers and their own claims in the Pacific. Due to pre-existing, possibly ancient mutual dislike for both peoples, the Japanese treatment of the Chinese was not good to say the absolute least.

Then again, their treatment of any occupied people up to and including British, Filipino, Korean and Americans was hardly decent either. I could be wrong, but the Japanese held special contempt for the Chinese not unlike the Nazis holding special spite for the Jews and Russians. The filmmakers of Hong Kong cinema remembered and so did the children born and raised in that period, such as Bruce Lee.

Unlike Fist of Legend, which takes a more nuanced yet pained approach to Sino-Japanese relations, Fist of Fury is one sided on the matter and it could be the English dubbing but almost cartoonishly so. By 1972, WW2 had been over only 25 years. To put that in perspective, the events of 1997 were as recent. There is much more pain and resentment left over in that time and so as a show of both Bruce Lee with his style’s quality, it becomes an underdog story of a victimized people standing up against a force that tried to destroy them.

That being said, it could be argued that in spite of the one-dimensional villainy of the Japanese school and ambassador that represents them, it is also a cautionary tale against taking revenge. Even though we enjoy and wish to see movies like Fist of Fury for its martial arts entertainment, the story and ultimate fate of Huo Yuanjia’s fictional top student Chen Zen ends in tragedy. That whole “dig two graves” chestnut.

Chen returns to learn of his master’s passing and tearfully and angrily tries to dig up the grave of a Sifu who left too early. He soon learns that it was a conspiracy to off this symbol of Chinese martial prowess and soon begins a one man mission to take out the leaders of the Japanese karate school. Unfortunately, in this officially neutral period between China and Japan, him doing so would disturb the peace for the Chinese and European officials.

Unlike Wong from Once Upon a Time in China, who wishes to make peace and only use force to break up fights or if left with no other choice, Chen wants a fight. He wants to take the sign that the Japanese school “gifts” his school that reads “Sick man of Asia” and literally smash it in front of them. Not unlike most video game heroes to come, he prefers the direct approach to airing grievances.

Early on after learning of the plot that killed his master, does he do just what I stated above. He breaks the sign, takes off his shirt to showcase Lee’s iconic physique and proceeds to own the everlasting s**t out of dozens of Japanese students. He’s so good, he even grabs two students by their shoulders and swings them around like they were dummies. That’s only because they clearly were.

Image from Wifflegif (He was the best but even the best can’t do that.)

Chen’s journey for justice though it is clearly vengeance in how he goes about it and expresses it alienates those in his school and his kung fu proficient girlfriend Yuan-Li not because they necessarily disagree but fear the repercussions of what he will do, namely for the school’s survival. Eventually, Lee makes it on to the Japanese school’s grounds and goes about one of the two final battles ( or bosses if you would prefer to call them), the first against a Russian karate master who is built as big as you would imagine a strong son of Mother Russia would be and then the corrupt, malicious sensei Suzuki.

It’s worth noting that there is no disdain or hatred shown towards Petrov unlike the Japanese characters. He is simply a guy who while on friendly terms with Suzuki holds no real ill will towards Chinese as far as I could tell. Chen certainly does kill him but hey on a quest of revenge it’s kinda hard to dispatch obstacles non-lethally you know. It’s really the early battle in the dojo (with the swinging dummies) and this battle against Petrov that are the highlights of the movie for me, where you get to see Lee’s iconic presentation of his art best. These are the moments that would help define not just Lee but how an entire generation or two would view martial arts period.

Jackie Chan and Jet Li among others would advance the use of martial arts onscreen well beyond Lee through higher budgets and more risk taking utility of stunts but it should be appreciated how well Lee and this movie come across in spite of how quite cheap it clearly is. How about those Shanghai city street scenes which are so obviously sound-stages. Still more convincing than the dummies.

In terms of action that doesn’t involve Lee, there is also a splendid battle royale between the Chinese and Japanese schools as the latter comes to them in a battle that martial arts excluded wouldn’t be out of a place in a rumble between the Jets and Sharks or Capulets and Montagues. There are ultimately star crossed lovers here through Chen and Yuan-Li but not quite like how the Bard would write it.

The most famous single moment in the movie does involve Bruce Lee springing into action but it’s not for a fight. It is a last act of defiance and the price of his quest for vengeance being paid for. You probably know it so I don’t think I need to describe per se but let’s just say that in relation to Bruce Lee’s own untimely death a year later, this final scene which ends in freeze frame does take on an unintentionally morose meaning. Lee never got old, never had the chance to retire comfortably if he wanted. He is immortally always poised ready to fight, ready to leap into it.

Many consider Enter the Dragon Lee’s best and most important movie and in times of audacity and scope I can’t argue against. But in terms of a movie that feels quintessential to what Lee was in life and how he came across after death, Fist of Fury is the Bruce Lee movie. If only for how the last shot of this movie does more to immortalize him here than Enter the Dragon.

Fist of Legend (1994)

Image from Dailymotion (When is a belt a weapon? Whenever you want it to be.)

By the 1990s, if nothing else the people of Hong Kong or artists from the sorta City-State were ready to take another approach to their frayed relationship with the people of the Land of the Rising Sun. Ugh, say that three times fast.

Unlike the one-sided attitude of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, Jet Li’s Fist of Legend acts I would hope more like real life and makes it…complicated. There is mutual racism between the Chinese and the Japanese that uneasily live in the 1937 Shanghai Settlement, a stopgap for a geopolitical issue that would be resolved in blood. Lots and lots and lots of blood.

This version of Chen Zen played by Li is attending school in the country that has and will continue to subjugate and fight a brutal war with his own. He gets along in the sense that he doesn’t cause trouble with any of the Japanese students and only uses force to protect himself. He has found love with a Japanese woman at the school to the point that his feelings about the Japanese people when prompted about it are totally mixed. He does love Mitsuko but big surprise that the times and powers that be look down on such a thing. Hate to say it, but such sentiment is still a problem nearly 90 years after the events of this movie.

Fist of Legend is often called one of Li’s best movies and I can kinda see that. It didn’t quite have the thrilling set pieces of OUATIC nor the Wuxia nuttiness of Fong Sai Yuk or Tai Chi Master. It is from what I have consumed the most adult, realistic movie, more concerned with what it has to say about the relations between the two Asian countries a layman would be most likely to name.

Don’t get me wrong, the action is fantastic, particularly a fight Chen has with an aging, blind and honorable Japanese martial artist that to make matters fair, he blindfolds himself to truly know who was the better fighter and the final fight with a Japanese colonel that mirrors the final battle of Fist of Fury. While both movies are R-rated, Fist of Legend feels more brutal because of the context behind it and just because the cinematography really makes you feel those being punched. If it seems somewhat familiar the choreography and framing of it all, that’s because HK legend Yuen Woo-Ping was behind it. He only did the same for the original Matrix movies. Woah.

In spite of how Jet Li fighting might be the main reason you would want to check out this film let alone any of his work, Fist of Legend is more concerned ultimately with what it has to say about a period in time between two peoples who happen to share a love of physical combat and through it self improvement. Shame that couldn’t be a unifier when instead they feud over who has the better style and with it superior culture.

Like before, Chen returns to Shanghai due to the sudden death of his master Huo Yuanjia that here occurred during a match with a Japanese opponent. As I brought up before, it is really strange this movie has a real historical figure who died at a certain point in time but is now transplanted decades in the future. Both movies use an actual photo of the fella so we have further confirmation he is who he is supposed to be.

Unlike Bruce’s Chen, Jet’s Chen is certainly justice focused, not viewing it as a matter of vengeance. He sees it as a protection of the school which I should’ve noted earlier is called “Chin Woo” and has managed to survive to this day. The movies portray Chen Zhen as the man who through his sacrifice would ensure its survival. Mild spoilers here, the fates of Chen diverge between versions. Like a legend, this fictional character has contrary reports of his fate. Funny considering the continuing debate surrounding his master’s end.

It’s not just a matter of seeing justice done for his sifu and upholding the art of an old Chinese practice, it then becomes a matter of what is most important to Chen as Mitsuko risks a hell of a lot heading over from Kyoto, Japan to be with him. Now he has an obligation to a person he loves. Chen in terms of prowess and decision making skills is a natural fit to take over as head of the school from his departed master and this is compounded when his master’s son and best friend Huo Ting’en is beaten in a match with him. And he’s not sure he wants the job what with Mitsuko and all.

There is a lot more for this Chen to chew on and work through compared to the mostly straight-forward path for Bruce’s take. Both films are of similar length and yet Fist of Legend never feels overstuffed. It even takes the time to have scenes between the Japanese characters alone discussing if the imperialistic path they’re taken is truly in their people’s best interest. The lead villain, General Go Fujita, obviously thinks so but the sensei of the Japanese school and Japanese Ambassador are deeply uncertain. One even makes a comparison to that of Japan as a mighty ant that’s awakening and angering a sleeping elephant that is China.

It’s often forgotten or not even known well that General Yamamoto after the attack on Pearl Harbor might not have made the famous statement about awakening a sleeping giant (The U.S.A) and filling it with a terrible resolve. That line is taken from the 1970 film Tora, Tora, Tora!, a movie that is otherwise respected for its painstaking historical accuracy to the event that brought America into WW2. Whether the General ever said anything remotely like that is not fully known, but he did have reservations over Japan attacking America that much is true.

Whether those lines were ever spoken outside a movie set or not, it did inspire a Hong Kong film to one day take that correct sentiment about not pissing off America and place it between China and Japan. Now, Japan’s impact on China was far greater, more brutal than the ultimate impact they had on my country. But, after awhile, whether they followed Chiang Kai-Shek or Mao Zedong’s banner into battle, they gave to the Japanese as good as they got.

Sure, I don’t know if China could’ve held on without Allied support, but it’s often under-observed at least in the West that one of the major factors in Japan’s defeat was that a crap-ton of resources and men were funneled into the battle for China. If Japan had an Eastern Front like Germany had against the Soviet Union, this was it. Both the military dictatorship that ran Japan in the Emperor’s name and Hitler both came to the same result, all because they were stretched too thin. That’s the problem with trying to conquer the world you know.

So, yes, it is comforting that a human face is given to the Japanese people It was the arrogance of the Japanese government and military, as is almost always the case that led to the evils they brought upon the Chinese. They inspired their people through propaganda and deceptions about traditions like that of Bushido to do what they would. Chen knows this having spent time in Japan and finding love through someone Japanese, and yet will the needs of his people, his school force him to overlook that truth?

Fist of Legend lives up to its reputation in being must see Jet Li faire, but it should be important to recognize that the prevalence of fighting is less here than in the other films I’ve seen of his. You’ll certainly get some great fights as you wanted, but don’t go into this particular movie thinking that is what this movie is truly about.

Next time: A look at the unwanted but ultimately welcome even strangely wonderful return of Dead Space.

Bengal’s Chinese New Year Liathon (Part 1)

Image from YouTube (The Asian equivalent of Ali vs Tyson, also never to be.)

As this Chinese New Year comes to a close, do I begin another two part deep-dive into Asian cinema, focused on a Hong Kong phenomenon and his connection to a legend everyone knows, even if they’ve never seen a single work of his.

Most Westerners got their exposure to one Jet Li through the fourth but apparently not to be final Lethal Weapon movie in 1998. As a villainous yet impeccably dressed Triad enforcer, Li had the chance to kick, punch and nearly kill Mel Gibson’s Riggs and Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in front of an international audience. I must wonder how the Chinese audience felt seeing a risen star of theirs handing these prevalent buddy cop figures their asses, though Gibson did have the last laugh through a gruesome though improbable method of dispatching Li, via AK to the chest underwater.

It was his first villain role on top of first feature done outside HK. He would have a fairly successful set of films (financially) in the U.S., one costarring DMX featuring the song that would define him for many, “X gon give it to ya”, as later heard in Deadpool and online memeing over the fantastic Remake of Resident Evil 2. His only critically well-regarded non-Hong Kong movie was 2005’s Unleashed (Danny the Dog) costarring Morgan Freeman and it almost made it onto the list if not for some version of Tai Chi Master being found to view.

These selection of films involving Jet Li are all from the early to mid-90s, considered by more than a few I imagine to be his heyday. I had covered him in last year’s Chinese New Year celebration through his debut film: 1982’s Shaolin Temple. His list of worthwhile films between Shaolin Temple and the dawn of the 90s are meager and one of those films is a sequel to a movie he had no involvement in, The Swordsman. Both of those are worthwhile from what I’ve heard so hopefully I’ll check them out next year’s time.

For this first part and in perhaps the interest of time, I will not separate the entries by film but put them all together. All forgiveness for implying as such and this could well be the poor quality of the YouTube screen I had to put up with, but these three Li titles all kind of run together for me. They were all released the same year, my birth year of 1993. They are all based on Chinese folk heroes for which their historicity is questionable. These are Fong Sai Yuk 1, 2 and Tai Chi Master.

Image from YouTube (Would it surprise you terribly that context is required with this image?)

Fong Sai Yuk is a possibly real or inspired by actual people folk hero who was around during the Qing dynasty, the last era of the Chinese Emperor system of government. That period lasted from 1636 to 1912 so the Heavens help you with narrowing down when exactly Fong’s story is supposed to happen.

The U.S. versions of this and its sequels are called “The Legend“, which I think is clearly a terrible rename as it ponders the question “Which legend?” If there is one thing China has no lack of over its long, long, long history, it’s legendary figures. Maybe the distributors for Western markets feared that audiences wouldn’t be able to spell or pronounce “Fong Sai-Yuk” or would make fun of it, much like I believe some have done for Chow Yun Fat. Whatever the reason, the horrible lack of imagination I’m not surprised us Yankees have shouldn’t deter you from finding any version to watch these movies, as among showcasing Jet Li’s incredible talent, it gives you a taste of Wuxia, where martial arts action goes to 11.

The best international example of Wuxia comes from two of the highest grossing Chinese language films ever in America: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, the latter starring Jet Li. These films depict martial arts and Chinese swordplay with essentially superpowers. You see Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Li performing feats that are simply impossible in real life, leaning into the idea you are not so much seeing an accurate representation of old Chinese combat but a fantastical, legendary some would call it exaggeration. Crouching Tiger and Hero are largely serious movies featuring moves and abilities that go, as Dragonball’s Goku would say, even further beyond.

Fong Sai Yuk’s movies and Tai Chi Master are action comedies where the impossibility of what the martial players, good or evil, do is played for both spectacle and laughter. I remember of the Sai-Yuk films, fuzzy as they are due to the atrocious visual quality via YouTube, battles where fishing poles at a dock are used as both balancing boards and offensive weapons, being gradually cut down by Fong and his opponent’s punches and slices. In spite of the comedic use of Wuxia, it’s also used for tension more effectively than you might think.

The story of Fong Sai-Yuk, from what I can parse through the fuzzy subtitles for the first movie and the awful English dub, is that of a young martial artists master who lives, like me sort of, with his parents. His mother Miu, played by Hong Kong veteran actor and producer Josephine Siao, is possibly as good an ass-kicker as her son and does it all while being the expected doting mother.

Fong finds love in Liu Ting-Ting, who is the daughter of an aggressive on the outside but soft on the inside ruler of the city Tiger Lui. A competition to win her daughter’s hand in marriage is announced: anyone that can get to the top of a raised gondola and defeat Tiger’s imposing yet regal wife Siu in combat. This is both paradoxically regressive and progressive a possibility of marriage I have ever seen: To win a wife, you must defeat a badass wife of someone else.

Fong opts out of the contest he is starting to win when he realizes that Ting-Ting is not present but that a servant girl has taken her place. In the first of several comic misunderstandings, his mother dresses as a man and pretends to be him, so Fong can get his bride. I should point out, in the original Cantonese dub I was listening to, not only does Fong’s mom not hide her middle-aged female voice, she doesn’t even disguise her face save for a hat, and no one sees through the deception until she “reveals” herself. It’s Mulan with zero effort and yet everyone gets duped. Maybe this being a comedy is meant to defend against this obvious contrivance and for my part, I was too entertained to actually care that much.

The bout involving Fong and Siu before he forfeits is a real show-stopper and almost has the film peak too early: It’s a battle of fists, feet and agility that goes from the gondola and adjacent scaffolding to almost the ground. I say almost as not unlike a tournament in early Dragonball, if someone reaches the ground, they lose. So, the battle goes to the crowd’s heads and shoulders as they literally battle on top of them. In an example of exceptional Hong Kong movie magic, what I’m seeing should be impossible also potentially fatal to a bunch of extras, yet I am still seeing Jet Li race across a sea of people via their heads to continue the fight to a near finish. Maybe the poor screen quality hides any wires or methods that made this possible, but already you see just the sheer effort and work a Jet Li film went through to build the legend of this actor. It’s this scene alone that is worth your time, but thankfully it doesn’t end here.

I will admit, the plots of all three films became a blur due to the way they were presented to me as a mix of betrayals, reveals, reunions and the like, all intermixed through Fong and his family both getting him acquainted and courted to the girl he’s after Ting Ting all while contending with his Dad being part of a rebellion movement called the Red Flower Society, who are against the tyrannical powers running the Qing dynasty at the moment . Turns out Fong’s dad was involved in both a political and cultural rebellion and that certainly complicates his original intention of simply getting the girl, with or without impressing her through wuxia antics.

As mentioned earlier, the use of wuxia, comically extreme as it is, is still effective as tension setter and builder. As much as you may be beside yourself during the duel atop the crowd’s heads, the film climaxes with Fong trying to save his insurrectionist Dad from being guillotined. The cruel enforcer for the Qing, called the Governor of Nine Gates, tells Fong he has until a rope holding the guillotine from swinging down on his father breaks from fire to defeat him. Fong does not manage to win the fight before it breaks off so now he must rotate between a vicious battle and holding the rope.

As genuinely funny as these films can and will get, they can be darkly serious without somehow ruining the tone. Fong’s underdog status is maintained despite his skill due to being given considerable challenge to match it, a cornerstone of martial arts cinema no matter how realistic or surreal.

Image from IMDB (I don’t care who you are, if you somehow see this on the street one day, Run.)

Fong Sai Yuk II is more of the same done more or less as well as the first with a whole new slice of set-pieces to keep you satisfied. It’s not unlike a John Wick sequel in that it’s not necessarily better than an earlier entry but you still manage to get what you wanted and occasionally and then some. Another reason I prefer English subtitles over dubs is not just authenticity, it can mess with the subjective equilibrium I get from these films. Studio Ghibli dubbing is often so good that I can prefer it over the original Japanese though it doesn’t hurt that lot of Miyazaki’s work occurs in a Western or Western-inspired locale. The anime Cowboy Bebop, often acclaimed as having the best English dub job ever is helped along by having a style and setting that is utterly multicultural, where Japanese may not be the first language for many of its world’s inhabitants.

That’s animation however. With a movie made by Cantonese speaking Chinese set within a specifically Chinese only period of Chinese history, it is extremely jarring hearing through the free YouTube version of this movie American voices coming out of the cast. The worst offender is whoever voices Fong’s Mom, who doesn’t come close to even vaguely resembling her intonations. It even sounds like someone just reading lines with no regard to what Miu the Mother is even doing in her scenes.

So, yeah this dubbing I put up with did affect my mood of what is still a fine same-year follow-up of the first. It is strange and the English translation could be responsible, but a lot of characters from the first movie who survived like both Fong and Ting-Ting’s dads don’t appear nor are even mentioned. At the end, after (SPOILERS) Fong and friends defeat the evil governor and his forces (shocking I get it), Fong accepts joining the Red Flower Society officially to both continue the fight and further master his abilities. I get why Ting Ting’s father Tiger Liu wouldn’t appear as he still has a town to run but isn’t Fong’s dad part of that society? Yet, he’s strangely absent.

While I’m at it, yes, this red flower society does remind me of the white lotus society from Avatar the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra. Beats me if that animated masterpiece’s creators took notes here.Anyhoo, the threat this time is internal rather than external as one of the society’s members wants to wrest control from the grandmaster and he will try to take down Fong and friends while he’s at it.

I actually forgot who the name of the dissident member was who successfully leads a coup that drives Fong out and nearly destroys the society. However, Fong makes his return, armed with a bunch of katanas from ronin who were involved in the coup attempt. In this sequence, which can feel as old Chinese as it is spaghetti western, Fong slowly walks down an alleyway filled with mooks, the wind blowing wildly, his head bent down. He then uses katana after katana in dispatching the guards before engaging the dissident in a final fight. Like last time, there’s a complication to take advantage of the wuxia genre.

Mirroring the climax of the first movie, Fong’s mom this time is about to be executed, this time by hanging. Fong must both fight and keep the many stacked objects above her mom from collapsing which would seal her fate. Of course, after her mom is freed, son and mother engage in a final fisticuff of much fury that ends up resolving the film quite nicely. The details of these movies are escaping me and I must apologize for my lack of detail. On the Kung Fu flip side, it will leave a lot for you to discover or maybe re-discover upon watching these pictures yourself.

Tai Chi Master (1993) - Kung-fu Kingdom

Image from Kung Fu Kingdom (In Ancient China, one man making a difference seems to happen every other Wednesday.)

Tai Chi Master rounds out this Part One and it does so while both being more wuxia zany fun, while also giving us an albeit concrete crash course on tai chi as an art form that’s all about putting the body and it’s movement in focus with nature. Another way to describe it as a martial arts form where you take physics and its equal and opposite properties and make it your weapon of choice.

The film’s alternate U.S. title, Twin Warriors, is actually constructive here. Before Jet Li’s Zhang becomes the Tai Chi Master (the actual Zhang he’s based on is believed to be the actual founder of the tai chi style, but unsurprisingly we don’t truly know.), he is one of two young kids who grow up together in the Shaolin monastery. Both kids grow into adults full of potential but it is safe to say their life paths go down greatly different roads. One, Zhang, becomes a freedom fighter alongside an early Michelle Yeoh’s Qiu Xue, against an oppressive Ming dynasty governor (hope you can see how these movies blur together here on that alone) and the other, Tienbo, a rising leader in that oppressive regime, who soon commits awful deeds that can only be forgiven if he were to, I dunno, throw the Ming emperor down a giant shaft and in doing so saving Zhang’s life but that doesn’t happen.

Before Zhang becomes learns Tai Chi he first gets super messed up in a desperate assault on the Ming military camp. Zhang and friends get all but massacred with a handful of survivors. Considering that Tai Chi Master maintains the comic wuxia feel, the massacre at the camp of the freedom fighters is really jarring, even more so than dark moments that occur in the Fong Sai-Yuk movies.

Zhang suffers damage to the head after and even the treatments seem to make it worse. As the few survivors wonder what they can possibly do at this point, as Tienbo has ordered all their heads, Zhang incidentally discovers Tai Chi through his broken state. His moves that no one can deter in part with the pre-existing superhero like nature of wuxia movement and action, soon becomes the secret weapon they need to stop Tienbo. And how.

Zhang leads a counterattack that allows him a rematch with Tienbo and while this might spoil the surprise and the fun while at the same time, the former destroys the latter. I mean, at this point, especially in this genre of movies, once the hero has attained this hidden knowledge and ability to face his enemies with, it’s often game set and match. All that’s left is to see the inevitable result to it’s end. It’s not a problem because it’s Jet Li here that’s doing it. And it’s always fun to see an entire army of soldiers throw in the towel after their leader is defeated because they just know it’s pointless.

You did not get the best deep dive of these movies. I’m sorry but through a Wikipedia summary and what I did remember did this entry take the form it did. My form is lacking as they would say but I know I did well by you, my existing and potential readers, if I encouraged you to check these films out, maybe glean something different from me. Maybe you’re lucky to find a version of these three films that were of superior or even adequate quality. Trust me, when there is a film I view that I don’t recommend, you will know it when I suggest as much.

Thankfully for part 2 next time, all three films I saw were of at least above average standard definition and my time with them was better for it. Next time we see Jet Li in the first of a six movie saga, two of which didn’t have Jet Li in them and one that I really, really wish I had access to but didn’t. Also comparing two martial arts classics, one from the Dragon himself Bruce Lee and the other Jet Li’s bold yet thoughtful re-imagining.

Bengal’s Top Ten for 2022 numbers 5-1

Let’s just roll, as it’s getting close to my next marathon session for Asian cinema in honor of the Chinese New Year with a theme I think you’ll like.

Number 5: Werewolf by Night

Image from Decider (Horror is universal, not just Universal’s.)

There’s some divide over whether you could call Marvel’s fourth Phase actually experimental. For all of the out-there ideas like Wandavision’s TV sitcom through the decades aesthetic wrapped in a mystery to Moon Knight tackling subject matter grimmer and more psychological than what is expected from something under Disney’s banner, it’s also accused of staying too close to one thread, one tone, for too long at times.

I mean by that how 2022 Marvel seemed to be too “jokey” at the expense of narrative weight. The latest Thor movie is often viewed as the maypole for that accusation and well it’s hard to argue against when you bring that example up. No one is saying that humor in and of itself is wrong for the MCU, in some ways it’s one of the glues that helps less knowledgeable audience members gel with a particular property, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. It’s even welcome and expected in some respects. But, can we get back to something darker, more serious, more story-minded?

This year’s Black Panther suggested, yes, more serious Marvel can and will happen, not that Wakanda Forever is bereft of comedy but it feels more balanced compared to the Waititi antics that was viewed as distracting from what meat on the bone Thor: Love and Thunder did have to offer. Next year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania of all movies appears to be promising to weary audiences to fear not for the plot again thickens as even Scott Lang’s next adventure is wrought with an ominous tone for things to come beyond his own film.

However, one way that Marvel shows it can experiment and do something essentially different is with its first “special presentation”, a 40 minute introduction to a character that does not necessarily need to appear in a later portion of the MCU but it wouldn’t hurt if he did. A way of expressing tonally new more than with regards to an ever-expanding lore for just the Earth side of this universe.

It also suggests through it’s albeit black and white gore and carnage that the MCU is ready for something dare I say it not appropriate for all ages quite like before. Considering Deadpool’s long awaited third outing will be officially in the MCU and still R-rated, maybe Marvel is preparing to explore an adults only angle to their universe which is fine by me. Also when you consider the age of this multimedia project having started in 2008, some youthful fans have grown up and may be eager for something over PG-13. Why not, seeing as how Marvel Comics has long since done the same.

Werewolf by Night is Halloween special, character introductions, comic book fan service and love letter to both 30s/40s horror cinema and 60s/70s grindhouse horror but without the sex and language. Michael Giacchino distinguishes himself as more than a exceptional composer but as a director who had a surprising passion for tackling out of all of Marvel’s catalogue this obscure piece of material that’s most significant contribution was introducing Moon Knight on top of Jack Russell the Werewolf by Night.

Gael Garcia Bernal’s soft spoken take on the underrepresented character shines especially in luring you into a false sense of expectations over how the special will play out. You keep thinking, this meeting among monster hunters seeking to decide on a new leader for their guild, is set at night and well, when’s the were-wolfing gonna happen, especially since we have less time to spare than usual?

The course of events and their unorthodox approach to resolution isn’t just offering those who have grown familiar and thus contemptuous of Marvel’s formula something new to chew on, but it also leads to of course some kind of action based finale but with an emphasis more on dread and fear of how messy the result could become, not something you normally expect from Marvel faire.

Whether it’s set-up for yet more crossovers or it really is a self-contained look at one in the grand scheme of things unimportant side to the MCU remains to be seen. The answer may lie in whether I the viewer want more of Bernal’s Werewolf and his best buddy the Man-Thing. Since the answer is yes seeing as how this is listed halfway through “Best of 2022” then Marvel may do so, but it would be just as cool if it were just left as is, emphasizing a world so big that not everyone needs to meet each other.

Werewolf by Night represents Marvel branching out in the best way possible and that not every risk will be doomed to either failure or a polarizing response. All the more reason to keep doing so as the phases keep on coming.

Number 4: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Glass Onion': Another fun, and scathing, Knives Out mystery - The  Washington Post

Image from The Washington Post (Someone’s Time to Die.)

Where was this tightly crafted, dryly amusing Rian Johnson when he was handed the reins that one time to Star Wars? It seems like his best work involves tightly crafted narratives with some kind of mystery or dilemma to solve and SW is not something that should be devoid of that possibility.

Maybe the issue arose from Johnson trying to attempt his style from a storyline he didn’t start but for which J.J. Abrams did. The Knives Out movies are from Johnson whole-cloth so the rules, characters and set-ups are his first and foremost. Johnson not only had to continue and work with a framework from a prior movie in The Force Awakens he had no involvement in, he also had to work without a vision for what the Sequel trilogy would be from beginning to end. So no, The Last Jedi’s problems are not Rian Johnson’s fault alone and to be marginally fair, even the Star Wars fanboys quickly came to realize that. Glass Onion’s multi-layered qualities re-affirm this.

When it comes to a follow-up of his own material, Glass Onion is an exceptional outing. While I was not the biggest fan of two of his pre-SW works that I’d seen, Brick and Looper, I certainly respected what he was trying to do and did. Knives Out was the first Johnson movie I was thoroughly impressed by and the second mystery adventure of its Benoit Blanc protagonist may be even better.

Seeing Daniel Craig in a role where you can tell he had enthusiasm for unlike 007 is something else, more so considering Blanc is sort of an anti-James Bond. He goes on adventures that now span the globe as here we go to Greece, but he’s not in it to kill the bad guy but expose them for their crime. He’s not there to woo the girl but protect and befriend her, though this entry in the Knives Out series all but states that Blanc isn’t in to the fairer sex like Bond. He’s warm and approachable though shy on occasion, nothing like Craig’s most famous role. His southern fried, Foghorn Leghorn voice could almost be no more further from the coldly soft interpretation of Ian Fleming’s secret agent.

It’s this knowing contrast that helps along the proceedings of both movies on top of Johnson’s vision for “who-dun-its” being loving deconstructions yet evolution of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle’s genre of work. That he manages to input some obvious but no less cutting (pun intended) social commentary shows that Rian Johnson is indeed a man of true talent and in the right environment a comically sound one too.

Benoit Blanc receives a wooden box full of intricate puzzles to solve and so do the four friends of a wealthy and eccentric tech bro played perfectly by Edward Norton. Turns out, he wasn’t supposed to get the puzzle box and upon solving it an invitation to an unforgettable weekend on billionaire Miles Bron’s insane Greek island, replete with a literal glass onion for its central building in the complex and a clock that every hour gongs to the voice of Joseph Gordon Levitt.

Bron, who has his own seemingly harmless “murder” mystery to engage in with his fellow influencer friends is first confused as to Blanc’s presence and then later aggravated that his sleuthy wit upends the whole game he had planned. But that course of events leads to ever more layers, being peeled off so to speak to the point where I couldn’t believe how deep the onion really got, even though the film is advertised as promising as much.

It’s a difficult film to talk about in specifics in spite of having to tell you why it’s high on this “best of year” list, because like any given mystery story, murder involved or not, it does no one any favors to give away too much. Like the first Knives Out, there is a flashback sequence that recontextualizes the entire story and it happens fairly early. This similarity is loose in that the circumstances of the context twist are quite different than before. That I didn’t see it coming could either say much about a literary illiteracy on my part or it speaks a lot about what Johnson had to do to put some wool over my eyes.

It’s a gorgeous looking movie, one of the most pleasant looking films of the year, which if nothing else helps lead one like myself into something approximating a false sense of security, even though at the same time I wait with bated breath for the other shoe to drop. And how it does. The colorful and in some cases intentionally cartoonish depiction of what makes up the suspects in Benoit’s latest case helps add to a surrealism that is mirrored well with it being a black comedy, maybe even blacker than before.

There are so many props and chekov’s guns laid around in Bron’s island mansion that it almost becomes an adventure game you can’t interact with, but that’s no complaint. The style of the place reminded me of games like Myst except a whole lot more populated. It creates a sense of fun no matter how serious things can get. It’s all wrapped up in a glorious send up of real life figures you and I are quite familiar with that I yet can’t say who because that would ruin the fun.

Glass Onion is intellectual yet fun which I suppose is one of the unspoken objectives of a mystery story. It’s colorful, crass and always makes you second guess yourself without getting upset that it made you that way. Like the first, it’s a movie that begs you one day to revisit it. so you can see the clues that were laid out in the open and yet somehow not truly visible.

This itself may be seen as a spoiler but I would prefer to call it an enticing clue: Rian Johnson has given us a new spin on Occam’s Razor, and even that may not mean what you think it means. Again, with all the layers and what not.

Number Three: God of War: Ragnarok

Image from NPR (Not pictured here with Kratos: Jesus. But he would turn the other cheek like Jesus.)

For brevity’s sake, both because this part of “Best of 2022” is running into mid-January now and because I already reviewed this title, let me just sum up why this made number three. It manages to be more of the same from the 2018 God of War soft reboot without being lazy about it.

That prior game is viewed as one of the finest games that ever graced the PlayStation 4 and for good reason. It reinvented tragic Greek God and God-slayer Kratos for both a new realm of mythology while still keeping enough of its identity from the old games intact,not unlike the brilliant yet reverent rebirth for the Doom series. By the time I was nearing 100% completion for GOW2018, I was curious how much more Sony Santa Monica Studios could push this new take on Kratos and son’s adventuring and combat dynamic. Turns out, a whole, whole lot more than I realized and I’m grateful.

The gameplay expansions in Kratos and Atreus’ set of moves and abilities, replete with new weapons that also serve a puzzle-solving utility alongside deep-diving ever further into Norse lore helps make up for admittedly quite a few slow sections, narratively necessary as they may be. In fact, the game often surprises with how much more is left for you to uncover across the Nine Realms even as they hurl towards seeming apocalypse through the titular Ragnarok. Some secrets or content completely flew under my radar until I saw on a YouTube playthrough someone had figured it out.

For those who want strong narrative let alone as a follow-up, God of War: Ragnarok is there for you. If you want, ultimately, a content rich piece of work that doesn’t forgo quality as is often the issue these days, Kratos and friends got you. If you want proof that, no, Sony exclusive titles have not lost the ability to impress, let alone in their first party use of Sony hardware, well, you need only check out the most epic adventure to be had on a console last year. It wasn’t the strongest year for games in my experience and the same was true for 2021. But don’t let that keep you in the way of the Ghost of Sparta’s latest odyssey.

Number Two: The Boys: Season 3

Image from Entertainment Weekly (The whole “He who fights monsters” dilemma rears its diabolical head.)

Few pieces of media from 2022, hell, from the last few years manages to cram as much relevant social commentary as the Boys does, all while being a skewering yet thoughtful examination on the superhero concept and how we as a society approach it. By its third season, The Boys has long past been just a take-down, both figurative and literal, of the superhero and its over-exposure nowadays.

It is it’s intelligent handling of essentially all its topics of discussion which lands it on the high place on this list, all while still having its highly crass cake. There are sights in this show which I didn’t think was possible even in an TV-MA setting with perhaps the sheer outlandishness and impossibility making it acceptable. It being tied to a show with heart to beat back its probable fall into sheer mean-spirited helps too.

Time and again does it manage to be more than the “at face value” superhero send-up the Garth Ennis comic it’s based on. The only thing it really shares at this point with its source material is it’s brazen audacity. In doing so, it ironically taps into possibilities for the genre its attacking that other superhero media cannot. Well, except maybe for Deadpool or the animated Harley Quinn but the Boys is keen on exceeding even them.

The non-powered mercenaries in charge of keeping the Supes in line begin to fracture as they come little closer to toppling their hold on society and by extension, their symbiotic connection to a toxic status quo. So, their leader Butcher (Karl Urban), gets his hands on a drug that can temporarily give him a super-powered edge. He also finds and tries to recruit a superhero trapped in time who may be even worse than their most feared opponent, the anti-Superman Homelander. Even he is now more sad than frightening though the fear of the guy is hardly gone.

A wide web of characters, powered or non-powered, good, bad or most often in-between litter it. Where trauma from the past becomes motivation for both the evil and the nominally good. Rarely has an irreverent, darkly comic piece of work had such a mind behind it and more importantly does the Boys rarely try to tell you how to feel. Its bluntness in action often lets you make up your own mind.

it’s sick and twisted, yet sweet and beautiful. It’s ugly and pessimistic, yet holds out hope that some good can win out from the people with power and not just with “super” next to it.

At its heart, the third season of the Boys is really a timely reaffirmation of the old adage to be wary of power, no matter what form it takes. As disheartening as it may be to some to see this series give such a brusque perception of what it would be like if superpowers were real you then realize especially if you’re perceptive of the real world that the Boys is actually being quite reasonable with its prediction.

Humans are really not cut out to handle power. That alone makes this show for all its excesses disturbingly real. One of the greatest myths superhero media knowingly or not perpetuates is not that there would be people willing to use their superpowers to fight crime or defend people, but that it would be the majority rather than the minority.

Perhaps it is the fatigue of the genre we’re experiencing at the moment that makes this really obvious truth digestible more so than ever. Perhaps it really does come down to being the right thing at the right time. As I said last year in my review of the season I say again now: The Boys is the parable of our time: That makes it the most enjoyable horror show too.

Number One: Top Gun: Maverick

Image by Los Angeles Times (L. Ron’s chosen one outdoes himself. And everyone else.)

Not unlike The Batman, I really should be at odds on moral grounds over any amount of support for Top Gun: Maverick. In manners implicit and explicit, it endorses a worldview that has proven time and time again to be deleterious to the United States and every nation it engages in.

While the film does make a not incorrect assertion that the end of the human manned air force in favor of an unmanned arsenal is concerning, it still implicitly acts as promotion for a military institution that is complicit in America’s imperialistic ambitions, cloaked in an aura of seeking protection or plain ol’ good intention. This same arm of the American arm that is connected to a war crime involving “fun size terrorists”, albeit not from a fighter pilot but the same unmanned technology that is bemoaned here nontheless.

It is important and thanks to Cruise’s charm not that difficult to view Maverick in a particular vacuum. A vacuum of an aging man with a passion not so much for furthering the advances of his nation’s interests, but of pushing himself and the human ability to literally soar. That similar to the men of the Space Race era, is willing to risk his life to push us beyond what we have done in exploration.

Maverick is a man who is going through a refreshingly different dilemma than at first glance while also dealing with one that is expected. Despite (presumably based on Cruise’s age) nearing the age of 60, he has not sought higher military rank nor office as he has been content for decades to stay at the rank that lets him play with the military’s aerial toys. Like an aging James T. Kirk, he would eschew Admiral status gladly to be a Captain again, his true calling and talent. Maverick belongs in a plane, any plane, not in an office.

However, for matters not of his, well, titular behavior, he will be forced to give up the fighter jet life because the world is moving on from his kind. This eerily mirrors the real world perspective that Tom Cruise is himself a dying breed, of a Hollywood actor or actor in general who can by his mere presence in a production attract moviegoers. Despite his best efforts and his efforts have been of much avail, maybe he knows he is postponing the inevitable.

Maverick, unlike Cruise, knows his time is running out and like we all should strive for, wants to make the most of the time left, as an instructor for a squadron tasked with a pants-sh***ing assignment. This ties into his other more familiar dilemma, of his departed best friend and copilot’s now grown up son, joining not just Top Gun but his squadron to train.

Maverick has really only one regret in his life and that is the now well known accidental death of Goose, so renowned that I knew he died well before I saw the original Top Gun. Maverick doesn’t want the twilight of his career to end with repeating history. It’s a film that is about exploring the stress of air combat and the stark decisions that must be made as much as about stressing yet thrilling its audience.

So adept it is that it practically copies one of the most recognized third act climaxes in cinematic history while not having you actually care. I mean, it doesn’t completely copy the Death Star assault and it eventually becomes both its own thing and yet a deliberate but earned piece of fanservice so audacious you’re more impressed than annoyed. That the film has tethered you through its astonishing use of camerawork in conjunction with actual fighter jet footage that it leaves you gnawing at the bit for the expected outcome to occur rather than be resigned to it.

It’s this laser focused and crafty use of the familiar from the original Top Gun that makes it both an obvious follow-up and stealth remake. A lot of the beats from the original return but welded into something more tight, organic and thought through, to the point that Maverick becomes essentially an unlikely 34 year later improvement on the original’s framework. Legacy sequels rarely fly as high as this one and the last time it really did was, depending on who you asked, a return to Mad Max’s wasteland or Rick Deckard’s cyberpunk nightmare. I think of both highly but if little else Top Gun is the most crowd-pleasing of these unlikely quality-decades-later resurrections.

There is so much to what makes Top Gun: Maverick the best thing of 2022. It is a technically excellent, even risky piece of blockbuster work that flies in the face of most of what Hollywood offers. It is a surprisingly heartfelt Part II to a Part I that most of us don’t necessarilly hold emotional attachment towards. It is popcorn entertainment without a shred of cynicism where its authenticity is intoxicating.

It’s a piece of military propaganda that everyone should see once and if nothing else in the coming decades could prove academically useful like examples before it. That is on top of being definitive proof as much as the new Avatar that the theater experience is not obsolete. We won’t or should not need films that promote provably dangerous worldviews like Top Gun Maverick. But we should need films that make us feel like it did. The fear is that maybe one day we won’t get them anymore, ever.

Bengal’s Top Ten for 2022 Numbers 10-6 with honorable mentions and exclusions (spoilers)

I regret to confirm to those who follow this blog that, yes, I did miss or decided not to review nearly as much of this year’s pop culture I consumed as I would’ve liked. Call it my work schedule getting in the way of my free time or unprofessional procrastination. On a similar vein, chalk it up to me not being in the mood at the moment or being distracted by so much sources of contemporary anxiety. That’s why I always thank myself for going along with the obligatory Year in Review entry. It lets me quickly cover stuff that I didn’t earlier while also telling you, the discerning reader, what of this year you should finally catch up on or maybe re-watch as we enter into 2023.

I’m not gonna lie: it was an exhausting year when it came to what I caught and the sheer number of things that I had on my itinerary contributed to the above excuses as to why a lot was not covered this year, a similar excuse from 2021. When you factor in my ongoing 1980s movie retrospective and my Halloween Horrorthon where I’m time-locked to a certain theme, that might better explain my output. It’s to the point where I am grateful for any dry spell of content to arrive next year and the years to come, so I can enjoy something older, let alone for my endless retrospective saga.

Before I get to the many, many honorable mentions, there are two big ones that you might find curiously absent. Those would be the latest and best regarded of the modern Star Trek shows, Strange New Worlds, and the most acclaimed video game of the year, one that will likely be a pick for among the best games of the decade by many voices: Elden Ring. allow me to explain….

I keep getting distracted by other things I want to check out on any given evening via TV or iPad and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is victim of this. Despite boldly returning to the kind of optimistic and curious outlook that made the original Star Trek shows so beloved, Strange New Worlds just hasn’t gotten the love from me that almost everyone, including the venomously angry ST fans who despise Discovery and Picard, have given. I do want to finish its initial season, hopefully before the first of many subsequent seasons arrive on Paramount +.

I have also been remiss on finishing Young Justice’s fourth season, Phantoms, though admittedly that is due in part to it being the most polarizing season in execution of its themes and narratives though it most certainly has its strong points, points that remind you of its glory from the first three. As for Elden Ring

Elden Ring, at it’s heart, is still the same kind of brutally difficult challenge as earlier From Software titles, arguably starting in 2009’s Demon’s Souls and then becoming an memetic legend through its spiritual successor Dark Souls in 2011. For over a decade, the Japanese developer has utterly changed the conversation on how we approach challenge in modern video games, even how it’s possible for the player to derive satisfaction from a seemingly unpleasurable experience.

As evidenced from one of my favorite video essayists on YouTube, Noah Caldwell Gervais, the trick to From Software’s success is that most of their games in the “Soulsborne” genre they helped create is that those games are rarely as restrictive and stringent as they appear in how you approach their challenges. How you build your avatar for exploring these dark yet beautiful worlds full of terrors and danger and how you take advantage of hinted at tricks and shortcuts pass imposing challenges has helped make their style of games into borderline sacred cows for the most part.

Even when they do create a game that demands you do basically exactly what they want you to do, like 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows die Twice, you might’ve already built up a passion and endurance for their earlier challenges in Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne so you now welcome something more rigid yet purposeful in design.

This year’s Elden Ring is the most open-ended in design of anything From has given, all through taking the Soulsborne formula and plopping it in an open world setting similar to either Grand Theft Auto or The Elder Scrolls. Confronting a steep fight against a boss who you know will wreck you? Fear not, as you can go in many other directions and face something less demanding, defeating it and netting rewards that can make that earlier enemy less cruel. It is this, among many other factors, like the further refining of a decade plus formula that has made Elden Ring nearly uncontested for the best and most significant game of 2022. I haven’t played it, but I have certainly read up enough on it, how it ticks similarly or differently from earlier From entries to understand the consistent acclaim it’s received.

So, with all that being said, why haven’t I played it? Because I still am fearful of paying $60 or around that price tag for an experience that could still leave me feeling cold. In a time where I had a surplus of things to see and do, getting Elden Ring and then putting it off because I reached this frustrating point still hinders me. I did say that Elden Ring’s design was all but tailor made to address that long-standing concern from new players, but still I remain reserved just in case. Of all the From games, Elden Ring does appear destined to be the one I will most likely check out going forward. It could well be the gateway entry it was lauded as to get me to experiencing the rest of the From Software catalogue and even crazier, completing them.

It could be, doesn’t mean it will.

But now, on to all of the honorable mentions I did experience and finish, summed up like last year in image caption.


Image from PCGamesN (This poor kitty and his dystopian cyberpunk adventure just couldn’t claw it’s way high enough for the Ten spots.)

-Horizon II: Forbidden West

Image from Wired (Like another Sony exclusive franchise entry this year, heroine Aloy’s second adventure is more of the same but better and in some areas, much better. Just not enough to make the cut. Still, if you want an open-world check-lister at this point, Horizon II is one of the better ones. Shame that it released alongside Elden Ring…)

-Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II

Image from MobileSyrup (Say whatever you want about the ethics of a game promoting intentionally or not, the geopolitics of modern conflict, but it’s yet better to do it just here than in the real world.)

-The Batman

The Batman: Robert Pattinson and Matt Reeves Confirm Exclusive New Details  About the Film | Den of Geek

Image from Den of Geek (Disconcerting and unneeded political takeaways, let alone in this day and age, hinder what is one of the caped crusaders most visually and atmospherically distinct outings. A must-see experience at conflict with itself. Kindof like Batman actually.)

-Turning Red

Image from New York Times (At least Pixar can rest well knowing Lightyear wasn’t all they had to offer. Like its subject matter and a to be discussed Rian Johnson film, Turning Red is a multi-layered tale that addresses subject matter that should be discussed or at least not ignored, no matter what “moral” grand-standings are made nowadays.)


Image from SyFy (Fine, you get more than one good Predator movie. I mean, it only took 35 years….)

-Weird: the Al Yankovic Story

Image from the New York Times (He saved the Wizarding World. Now, he here’s to save the parody genre.)


Image from NPR (From the man who (might) save DC movies from themselves comes a much viewed spin-off of a movie you (sadly) didn’t watch in 2021.)

Star Wars: Andor

Image from NPR (The unlikely savior of Disney Star Wars, all while being a surprisingly effective love letter to another George Lucas production and 70s sci-fi in general.)

10: Avatar: The Way of Water

Image from Brick Fanatics (But everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked…)

Based on the discourse, you might get the impression that the 13 year wait for James Cameron’s next movie and follow-up to mostly forgotten mega-blockbuster Avatar is one of two things: it’s better than the first or it’s worse. It’s one of those movies.

Has it moved past the still uncomfortable white-savior aesthetic or can it ever be escaped? Does it herald the return of 3D films and are they actually here to stay? Can it actually make enough money in time to give James Cameron his dream to finish up his legendary film career just making more of these, up to five or six? Can a film’s visuals and aesthetic really be the end all-be all for what matters in a “good” movie? For me, one of the takeaways that should be talked about more is if Cameron hasn’t essentially made a new type of movie: so advanced that the lines between live-action and animation disappear altogether? I don’t know about you, but that last one should be exciting no matter how you feel about the jerkass Canadian director’s vision.

More so than the 2009 original, I felt utterly taken in by what Avatar 2 had to offer. It could’ve been my mindset was much more open now, seeing as how I’ve come to really appreciate the technical craft of Cameron and his work, whether practical or CG. James Cameron has succeeded where George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and especially Robert Zemeckis have failed: making CGI worlds with such loving, considerate care that they really can convince you they’re a progression of a visual art-form rather than a lazy excuse to cut corners.

It almost certainly stems from Cameron beginning his career at Roger Corman’s school of filmmaking, where he was an art and technical director first before being the overall director. The films under Corman’s wing might’ve been cheap throwaway trash, but man even then did he commit to making the most out of everything he had. His “use the whole animal” approach to the film’s direction not only acts as amusing foreshadowing to the Avatar films like this one, it also shows that when he has a project, he will not stop until he has it just the way he wants it.

Despite the limitations faced with the original Terminator and Aliens, he yet bore out special effects masterpieces that helped shake up Hollywood time and again. Terminator 2 and Titanic would further affirm that if there is a technological push being attempted in filmmaking, it will almost certainly have James Cameron’s involvement.

Even in an essentially completely CGI world, Cameron has both the talent and the technology hand in hand where his ever present attention to detail wins out. No longer am I noticing annoyingly what is and is not CG in a movie with him, I now wonder how he got it to look even half as convincing as it is.

With a runtime of 3 hours, which yeah probably is too long, he still gives us no shortage of examples of how his world, fantastical as it is, oddly clicks with the mind’s ability to suspend disbelief. Set-pieces which are totally impossible with the practical Cameron takes to realizing as if on some level they are possible and practical even. With the use of 3D technology that is leagues beyond everyone else, Cameron gives us every opportunity to see and almost feel the difference and for the better.

Just the sheer believability of the alien Na’vi, more real than ever, belies how much I was willing to enjoy what is still in most regards a simple story, to some frustratingly simple. I wasn’t so caught up in the effects that I didn’t ignore the comparative simplicity in plot and characters, but I was still able to notice that it was yet a deeper, more potentially three-dimensional narrative than the first movie. That at least three follow-ups are on the horizon means that James Cameron has the chance though not certainty to follow up on seeds he does plant here for something, dare I say it, thought-provoking.

So thought-provoking that I utterly ignored considerable retcons performed like on the villainous character of Col. Quaritch, establishing well after the fact the excuse for an unlikely resurrection and having a son this whole time. But what they do with Stephen Lang’s returning antagonist is so full of potential, let alone in relation to his Na’vi loving son that I welcome what they do next. Yes, some of that bias may lie in that Lang’s character, one dimensional as he was, was the only evil human character that I had fun with and it had to do with Lang’s gleeful performance. Here, he’s not necessarily the same as he was before, and that alone could make him into an unlikely hero or an even more diabolical foe.

Cameron’s environmental and cultural expression through a production that is among the most expensive in history, if not the most expensive, might reek of a hypocrisy over his political stances. So much money on a sci-fi fantasy movie when that money could’ve gone to an actionable cause. I can’t necessarily disagree with that sentiment though the conversation now about The Way of Water is Cameron’s lack of narrative imagination, which many say was last seen with Terminator 2 or True Lies. Some would dare argue even Titanic was deeper than at first glance.

It is the lack of deepness for Avatar that is often given for why a film that made over 2 billion in its original run was largely forgotten save for the knowledge that it happened and was seen at all. Will Avatar 2 suffer the same fate? Is Cameron making numerous movies as part of one big story so it’s much harder overall to forget the story of human turned Na’vi Jake Sully and his big blue family?

Sure, he’s doing it first and foremost due to his, in my experience, infectious enthusiasm for the technology. But that can’t be the only reason or at least I hope so. Getting back to the potential hypocrisy of his ecological message being at odds with the means and finances required, it reminds of the story of Jiro from Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. His love for human flight and the machines that allow it blinds him to the purposes of the creation he designs, that of war and imperial conquest. Only too late does Jiro recognize that his benevolent dream for the Zero plane became a nightmare for countless people in the Second World War.

Is Cameron blinded by the beauty of his Avatar films? More than likely, but if you came away like I did with the sights of his latest masterwork, then you and I may be complicit with him in that near-nearsightedness. Nevertheless, Avatar: The Way of Water is a work of passion from a visual maestro and a work of art is ever that in the end. Here, it’s more literal than usual.

Image from Deadline

9: Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

7 best anime like Cyberpunk: Edgerunners for fans to watch next - Polygon

Image from Polygon

Replaying The Witcher 3 again, now on a PS5 console version that makes it bearable for long stretches at long last got me thinking about the story that came out of developer CD Projekt Red and their work on 2020’s Cyberpunk 2077, for which this entry is a spin-off of.

It went from being the most anticipated game of its time to being one of it’s most crushing disappointments. That it wasn’t a totally bad game actually made it worse, more frustrating a result for most, eventually myself. It wasn’t just that the PS4 and Xbox One ports were essentially unplayable garbage, it was that the best version of the game, on the PC, was itself not without annoying bugs and other such imperfections which reeked of a title being unfinished and unpolished despite its announcement 8 years prior.

Comparing Witcher 3, the game that really made the Polish company into an international darling to Cyberpunk 2077 is in truth unfair as the former game was a culmination of adapting a Polish book series’ lore into a three game narrative, each game building on the earlier. The third game took all the elements that had gelled well with critics and players, its dark, medieval fantasy world with a refreshing Polish/Slavic flavor with a host of stories and characters to explore and placed it into a well-designed, massive open world.

Despite its M-rated darkness and mature themes, the world of Witcher 3 was and continues to be acclaimed as one of the best visually and mechanically crafted open worlds ever made, particularly for its specific role of placing you as a world-weary monster hunter in Geralt of Rivia. Of a genetically altered person who tries his best to fence-ride on the grim politics he finds himself embroiled in, all while searching for his adoptive daughter and maybe maybe not finding a real, lasting love in one of two gorgeous looking sorceresses. It’s many optional quests that take you off the beaten path, whether it’s accepting a contract to find, prepare and slay a fearsome creature to a dispute between flawed human and nonhuman characters where the right answer perhaps isn’t apparent or even present has made the depth inside its large world possibly unparalleled so far in terms of consistency.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt alone was responsible for Cyberpunk 2077 receiving high expectations, and even then it became unreasonably steep. Even when tempered, Cyberpunk 2077 still felt like a game that was a quarter of the consistent quality in writing for narrative and characters from earlier titles of CD Projekt Red. It’s inconsistency in quality, even when working as intended became its legacy, a legacy that the company is striving to overcome with future titles set in both Cyberpunk and the Witcher’s worlds.

In the meantime, they collaborated with Japanese animation company Studio Trigger to create a standalone Netflix series set before the events of 2077. This series itself left two legacies of note: it gave gamers an excuse to check out Cyberpunk 2077 again, especially since numerous patches have now made it finally if nothing else a technically consistent title and to see if it was really as much a letdown as it felt two years ago. The other legacy is that in spite of the many unfortunate implications a cyberpunk story might inherently have, there is narrative gold in the genre to be mined and that is yet true of a cyberpunk world that felt more imitation than iteration of the genre.

As a series, Edgerunners manages to be both a zany, hyper-violent, hyper-Japanese anime experience while having surprising fealty to the vision of both Mike Pondsmith’s role-playing board-game and CD Projekt Red’s interpretation. It’s a series that takes the level design of 2077’s locale of Night City and makes it a convincing series of sets for the characters. The sights, the sounds, the feel of the game are reinterpreted well, as if seeing a virtual world in a different person’s eyes.

Teenager David is put in for a world of hurt when he and his mother find themselves in the midst of a high-speed shootout between mercenaries and a corporate convoy on the highway, all while on a commute to his high school. He loses his mother in the chaos that ensues but comes across high-tech gear that upon being installed into his body gives him a key to rising up the city’s underworld ladder. While his mother had hoped to help him get up in life in a way that was safe and legal, David knows that a place like Night City preys on those with such assumptions.

His accidental gift of the exoskeleton tech becomes as much a curse, as befits the genre. He gets in with a mercenary crew led by the Duke Nukem-looking leader Maine and finds overtime love with one of its members, Lucy, who not only dreams of leaving Night City, but making it as far as the moon. As the game also surmises, one of the best outcomes to a life in Night City is to escape it, so long as you’re not drawn in by its siren-like promises of power, wealth and prestige.

The team are called the titular “edge-runners” as most if not all of them engage in installation of cyber-hardware that pushes the limits of the human body beyond what is possible and maintaining that type of post-human lifestyle will in time lead to a breaking point. Once a person goes off the deep-end from all the tech in their body and head, they become cyber psychotic and there is no going back one way or another.

The style of animation which relies often on the exaggerated and extreme which has become over the decades a specialty practically unique to Japan both helps further create novelty to a story yet set in a world that is in terms of visual, personal expression, realistic. It manages to come across as an ersatz interpretation of a yet canonical story that precedes the story of 2077’s controllable protagonist V. It shouldn’t work for me and yet won me over.

What also wins me over is that it takes funnily enough a page from Hunter S Thompson and that it is a coherent story that is propelled by the excess of an insane drug trip. The philosophy that if you have a penchant for drug use, you should take it as far as you can. It stays cogent yet it is visual madness. It’s a paradox tailor made for both a certain type of anime and for more than a few types of cyberpunk faire. Maybe it’s not so paradoxical here since genuine mental collapse becomes a threat as great as the corporate monsters that run the city and threaten David and Lucy from any kind of happy resolution.

In terms of animated spin-off off a video game property, it is of course dwarfed by 2021’s Arcane but that too is unfair as Arcane was not only my number one thing I experienced that year, it might be ahead of the pack in most experiences for me in recent memory. Being on this list makes it clearly a recommendation, but one that might be predicated on your taste for anime, uberviolence and other such taboo subject matter for which the cyberpunk genre broadly embraces.

Number 8: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Image from Youtube (Now comes the days of the Queen?)

Black Panther’s sophomore solo outing is like Marvel’s Phase 4, conflicted by matters both it and yet not it’s fault, though it does shape up on a note that can have you leaning more optimistic than pessimistic about the course it’s going down. Of the MCU films for 2022, it’s easily the best and threads the needle of its intentions well.

It is a movie that is very conscious of its real world circumstances and almost appears to apologize to its audience for the situation it finds itself in, not that it needed to. It also wisely doesn’t steal the thunder of it’s memoriam honoring Chadwick Boseman’s passing and the legacy he left both in universe and out of it. There was a chance of a mid or post credits scene doing just that, all to set up for something on the horizon or to confirm a suspicion going in, but this time the MCU says no.

It’s also unafraid to explore even deeper, this time literally, into a universe that just can’t stop revealing ever more of itself from what was once hidden. The introduction of Marvel’s cinematic Atlantis in the form of another mythological lost civilization in Tulocan allows it to introduce an old yet important member of Marvel’s comic roster while also exploring for the first time an often underexplored side to Central American culture, writ large via Hollywood blockbuster budget.

It’s great to see Marvel’s experimental side clicking well here more than other places in Phase 4, let alone as a further exploration of the titular African superpower we know. Seeing how the players that keep Wakanda safe deal with the loss of their key player and how to move forward is strangely engaging in spite of how it seemed doomed to fall into being a rudderless narrative.

Some would say of critique for the second Black Panther that it is almost the polar opposite of rudderless. Too much is happening, let alone to establish for the MCU’s push onto Phase 5. Riri Williams’ introduction as the girl who will be Ironheart feels a little too forced even when directly implemented in the main conflict between Wakanda and Namor’s Tulocan. Dominique Thorne is not bad at the job though she feels overshadowed by the other prominent characters, let alone female in Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Danai Guirra’s Okoye. She doesn’t quite hit the feel of “I want to see more of her/him/them” that I felt with Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez in this year’s second Doctor Strange.

In spite of quality of life improvements, ranging from better CGI to superior action choreography, that the second Black Panther didn’t receive the glowing opinions of the first somewhat puzzles me. Is it because of how Riri Williams was utilized, let alone in her introduction? Was it the longer runtime? Was it just the mass of content the second movie needed to get through, all while carefully parsing through a fallen actor/ character’s impact on the whole scheme? I don’t know, but what I can say is that for all of it’s potential faults, Wakanda Forever was yet a bolder, more beautiful, more endearing piece of Marvel entertainment than before. Just it’s novel approach to an underwater city and its people, let alone in addressing the visibility of an underwater place should give it much to commend.

I liked Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness more than most. I tend to agree with what people have to say negatively over Thor: Love and Thunder though that film is not without its highlights. I placed Black Panther: Wakanda Forever here for its confidence in moving forward, not just from a tragedy but in terms of actually building ever further a world that many of us have come to view with contempt and not just due to familiarity.

The second Black Panther is both familiar and yet it is not at the same time. That’s a better note to end an overstuffed era of filmmaking on than you might think.

Number 7: Harley Quinn: Season 3

Image from Entertainment Weekly (This love is not as mad as you think.)

Persistence of vision, or a lack thereof, is one of several symptoms given as to why Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe failed and is now controversially having its plug pulled, all by a guy who positively contributed to it and appears humorously in this show. One can say that the vision that was there was bad. Fair enough but messing around with what you did have did not help.

This animated self-satire and deconstruction of not really so much the titular character but the logic and tenets of an entire comic universe never loses focus and that is why for all of its adult humor and seemingly sacrilegious talking points is one of the highest regarded DC properties, well, ever.

For those with the temperament, Harley Quinn’s three season strong cartoon show is ridiculous, adorable, crude, heart-warming, violent, thought-provoking and self-critical. Disparate elements that when being viewed from a character who may well be a little off her rocker than most, seem cogent. This Harley Quinn has entered into a relationship with the most affable interpretation of Poison Ivy yet, where if it weren’t for her eco-terrorist ambitions, would come across as either a neutral or even heroic super-powered individual. Lake Bell’s laid back take on her, which completely drops the sultry seductress aesthetic, really helps make her the needed straight man to Harley’s antics, which grow increasingly less villainous and more anti-hero every episode, to the point where she has all but abandoned being a villain. Forget Lobo, DC’s ironclad Deadpool is and should be Harleen Quinzel.

Hell, even the Joker voiced by Alan Tudyk is abandoning the anarchic destruction and general dickassery of his own past, going from being an abusive boyfriend to Harley to being a surprisingly loving boyfriend to a Hispanic-American nurse and her family. Of course, you can’t totally tame a person like the crown prince of crime and amusingly, he becomes a (mostly) non-lethal agent of chaos this go around, where he wishes to disrupt an even more wretched evil than he was: the status quo that led to the rise of superheroes fighting supervillains.

One such superhero ,Batman, while still heroic, becomes victim not so much of being a knowing or unknowing keeper of the status quo that perpetuates his never-ending battle against crime, but of the own psychological baggage that made him take the lifepath he has. While Harley, Ivy and the rest of their criminal best friends have, to varying degrees, deep-dives into their psyches, it’s Bruce Wayne, voiced perfectly by Diedrich Bader, who gets the biggest psychoanalysis.

You’re meant to both laugh at and yet feel sorry for this take on Batman, a figure that over the course of this season, has his relationship with the bat-family, including his son, deteriorate and a relationship with Selina Kyle fall apart. It’s all very funny and oh so very sad. For all of Batman’s skill, bravado and determination, he is yet a rich kid who lost his parents much too early. More than other takes on the Dark Knight, Harley Quinn ferociously examines what happens when a rich and smart person can’t fully deal with extreme loss at a vulnerable age. For all it’s delightful goofiness, Harley Quinn’s takeaways are straight-faced.

If there was a theme connecting Bruce’s woes with Harley and Ivy’s, which still appropriately take center stage, it’s the nature of maintaining meaningful relationships despite internal struggles with who you are in the midst of an ever crazier world. You know, timely.

Harley Quinn’s third season is its best so far, not the only adult superhero send-up with an exemplary “3” to it’s name and more on that later. It’s one of the funniest experiences of 2022 and justifies more so than Young Justice’s fourth season to not be axed in the name of James Gunn wiping the slate clean. Who knows, maybe the comical yet favorable depiction of Gunn in this season was an attempt to butter up the Troma turned Marvel veteran.

Number Six: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Image from The New York Times

The timing of this third cinematic adaptation of what is for many the WW1 retelling of the Western Theater is curious, and it may or may not b by accident. As Netflix released the film into their service last Fall, the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia has trudged on, with no real end in sight then as it is now, save for the fact that for one side it has largely been a disaster.

Some casualty estimates for both sides number over 100,000, which is numbers a European conflict hasn’t seen since the last World War. More to the point, one of the greatest ongoing fears of the Russo-Ukrainian war is that it risks going nuclear, finally bringing on WW3 in the form we most expect it to take. No matter your stance on the fight occurring in Eastern Europe, no matter your thoughts on the nature of aid being given by other Western powers and for what reason, at least it should be acknowledged that there is a certain level of brutality and coldness wars cause in the human spirit, no matter which side is justified whether in the moment or after.

We have known for over a century at this point what takeaways or recognitions of the nature of what the First World War was like. There are some voices out there who have given defense for the conflict occurring, at least from the Allies’ side. Most would say that the consistently galling execution of the war from both sides where countless lives were wasted for nothing in return makes such defense poor excuse.

One of the major things going against WW1 being excusable to say nothing of justification is that it created the conditions for an even bloodier world war roughly 20 years later. All Quiet on the Western Front once more shows off the misery of being on either side, whether it came during battle or before it.

The score of AQOTWF 22′ from Volker Bertelsmann emphasizes an old but still evergreen association with WW1: that of mechanical slaughter. The opening sequence shows what we are led to at first be is an in-media-res moment of our lead youthful German soldiers going over the line and into an almost certain massacre. Instead, the lead group of German boys fronted by Paul are at their university being congratulated by the Dean for forgoing their academic ventures in favor of taking up arms for the Fatherland.

Keep in mind that unlike earlier versions of the story, based on the novel by Erich Remarque this take doesn’t begin in 1914 at the start of the war, but in 1917, when those same boys probably should’ve seen the signs that among other things, maybe it’s not the best time or place to answer the call of duty. That is, of course, if they even had a choice in the matter ultimately. These boys like in all other takes including the book are bright eyed and enthusiastic to go off to the front to fight for Germany. Being in a college town and with a faculty that is fully willing to indoctrinate their students in spite of the increasingly grim status of the war, perhaps that is why they don’t see the signs and run.

It’s all very familiar and yet somehow all very engaging. Getting back to the fakeout in media res, through a German soldier we follow up until it cuts to black, we then witness the process of how German military uniforms are made at this point. After the cadavers of the dead Germans we were following are disposed of, the uniforms they carried are cleaned, reknitted and repurposed for the new meat of which Paul and friends are part of. All while the sinister mechanical music plays. Here is where blatantness is used well. But then again, does a WW1 story necessitate something other than that?

The sequence of Paul and his fellow soldiers entering the war and their number slowly yet surely being picked off one by one plays with a straightforward matter of factness, which only makes it worse. Rarely is there melodramatic musical cues, the scenes themselves and the vulgarity of the fight being the cue. At around the end of the second act approaching the third, as the war enters its final months in Fall 1918, does the stark horror of WW1 come into full focus. None of the soldiers on either side know the war is close to over, many assume it will be without end. And yet, we see from the perspective of the Germans, a wave of British-French tanks approaching. From the side of the war my country took part in comes pitiless destruction, in the form of shrapnel, flame and the crushing tank-treads.

Despite it being a German adaptation of a German novel, this movie in no way demonizes the Allied powers in favor of the Central Powers that Germany is part of. No side’s leadership is excluded from spite. The callousness of military leadership is present in generals British, French and German. The German general that Paul’s regiment is commanded by is a cruel, emotionally void man who begins to believe and pronounce conspiracies over Germany’s failure to win that will one day be used by the Nazis. The French general during a peace talks meeting is completely disinterested in any concessions from the Germans no matter how fair and even beneficial they could be for both sides long-term, echoing the short-sidedness that would help ensure tens of millions more would die in the future.

Daniel Bruhl, who was the only recognizable face in the movie, plays a German ambassador who is desperate for any way to end a war that Germany simply can’t win. He’s lost his son and even if the war was somehow salvageable would still sue for peace. By extension, he is the only person of authority not on the direct lines of combat that is given any sympathy for he is the only named character who wants an end to the nightmare we get to experience vicariously with Paul. That he has to accept terms that are not good enough in the end represents the endless frustration of the people who seek an end to pain in the face of those who can’t understand suffering.

In a grim year like 2022, it might seem like it’s the absolute worst idea to watch a movie about a time, however far back, that’s about among other things man’s inhumanity to man. We get that sentiment plenty from watching the news or checking Twitter. And yet, this new beautifully yet terribly produced depiction of a well-known conflict feels appropriate. Not only can it make one think about the inherent perniciousness of warfare but about the nature of wars occurring now and in the future.

Some of you have a defense for the war in Ukraine. Some of you have a retort towards it being an ongoing affair. Some of you may have not made up your minds or have no thoughts about it. While the nature of WW1 and the War in Ukraine is not the same in action, it can be the same in the potential if not reality of those in power and wealth to send many to an early end. To recognize that even in the best circumstances, these conflicts have everyday people forced and/or persuaded into unspeakable acts of violence and destruction. That even an act of defense can lead to in the heat of the moment the chance for something indefensible.

As we navigate the very uncertain nature of the 21st century, made ever quietly frightening by the actions and inactions of our species, tell yourself how long we have left to finally keep the lessons of a story based on history like All Quiet on the Western Front. The deadline, for all we know, could be in weeks or days.

Next time, parts 5-1.

Gods, Monsters and Modern Warfare: Reviews for Modern Warfare II and God of War: Ragnarok (Spoilers throughout)

Image from Call of (If you’re gonna do war crimes, at least be affable while you’re at it!)

Call of Duty Modern Warfare II (Infinity Ward) (USA)

Call of Duty 19 (no, really) is upon us and it’s pretty good. A spiritual successor in some respects to the original COD title to have “Modern Warfare” attached to “2” from all the way back in 2009, while also being an expansion for a refreshing take on the aging formula that was started in 2007.

I say as much when it comes to Modern Warfare II mechanically. As a FPS military shooter, there is nothing about this year’s entry that screams “OMG”, that’s so different!” nor was anyone expecting that to be the case. People just wanted a refined version of Modern Warfare 2019, and we got it. For a franchise that most everyone just wants to go away (if for awhile), there was actual demand for this year’s selection.

You get more of that patented Call of Duty multiplayer now with the mounting around cover mechanics and general feel which has made the series feel more realistic. “More” realistic, mind. Warfare as portrayed in COD multiplayer is still ever the equivalent of arming lemmings.

You have more Spec Ops which… I haven’t played any of, as I was warded away from even trying it due to the awful nature of the mode from MW 2019. I’ve heard it’s not as bad, but it doesn’t yet recapture the same sense of arcade fun that the original MW2 and MW3 featured.

You have, after the late October launch, a new version of Warzone, a giant military sandbox open world, independent of and yet maintaining features of MW2 2022 and free to play separately. And of course, you have the campaign, giving single-player enthusiasts a narrative adventure full of shooting, sniping, grenading, stabbing, sneaking and geopoliticking.

Coming into the campaign knowing full well that the majority of this game’s politics I would pretty much oppose was almost freeing. Rather than cross my fingers for something hopefully not being the expected pro-imperialist, borderline reactionary power fantasy, I just wanted to embrace what it had, see if I agreed with any sentiment expressed by the writers and well, if nothing else, enjoy what I heard was one of the best COD campaigns in recent years on a strictly gameplay level. That is exactly what I got.

I won’t bother giving a recap to MW 2019’s story as while connected in MW22, it almost feels oddly disconnected at many points. Our story begins with a reinterpretation of fan favorite character Simon “Ghost” Riley going on a scouting mission in a fictional Middle Eastern country. There, he spots an Iranian General making an arms deal with Al-Qatala, a fictional terrorist group that based on what subtext is allowed is more interested in Western powers, up to and including both America and Russia, simply going away. No real suggestion of Islamic Holy War at all.

But, Al-Qatala is working with big, bad Iran and take a wild guess what the name of the General sounds like. No, seriously, take a guess. It couldn’t sound like perhaps the only Iranian General you would be aware of, could it?

Well, yes, I do think General Ghobrani does sound like General Suleimani and to developer Infinity Ward’s credit, they did own up to the inspiration. Yes, Suleimani, the Iranian General who was actually doing us a solid by fighting terrorist factions up to and including ISIS. And yet, we performed an extrajudicial drone strike on his ass and if it wasn’t for the fact that Iran is indeed quite weaker than us and has no nuclear arsenal, could’ve been grounds for a declaration of war. Please ask yourself if you earnestly disagree with that sentiment if Iran somehow launched a successful drone strike on us in an attempt to assassinate one of our generals. I don’t think we would stop at holding a funeral for the fella like Iran did.

Of course, another one of the factors that prevented this act from causing World War Three was a once in a century global pandemic so I guess we could give Covid-19 some credit, maybe?

So, what does Ghost do when he confirms Ghobrani is there and making a deal with Al-Qatala? He requests a missile strike that you the player get to pilot! Using the very best in modern graphics, we blow the guy up and good. Then, cut to ominous opening credits. At first, I thought the new MW2 was trying to establish through the tone of said opening credits that we had actually made a big mistake. Gasp, could it be?

On some level, the answer is a quasi-yes. The assassination of Ghobrani does lead to another ner-do-well Iranian fella called Hassan (no relation to the Twitch/political guy) declaring a private little war against the West for their actions. Even worse, when the “heroes” of our story, Task Force I41 led by the ever mutton-chopped Captain Price, begin their hunt to kill or capture Hassan, they discover two startling revelations: Hassan has gotten access to American-made missiles and somehow a Mexican cartel is also involved. Dun Dun DUN.

After all this startling, I should take the time to give MW2’s campaign the first of several honest props. Despite it’s namesake and performing tribute to several visuals, set pieces and characters from the original MW2, it does not become as bombastic and nuts. There is no snowmobile chase that involves jumping over a canyon, no wild one-man push through the dense, gang filled hills of Rio’s favelas. There is no expertly realized yet still ludicrous invasion of America’s Eastern seaboard by the Russian military. Considering the embarrassing failure of Russia’s army to neutralize Ukraine this year, the original MW trilogy is indeed an alternate reality world stage on that facet alone.

There is only one set-piece that honestly would’ve been at home in the original MW2. During a desperate chase on a convoy that feels like a cross between certain sequences from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the playable soldiers, Gaz, is dropped out of a helicopter by an explosion. He thankfully still had his safety harness on and is now swinging upside down from the helicopter, dodging cars along with bullets. It’s pretty nutty but it also provides a novel challenge to Gaz and the player, one that I’m surprised hadn’t been done before in a franchise that will celebrate it’s 20th anniversary next year.

Aside from that, MW2 22′ is impressive in both raising the bar from the scale and scope from MW2019 while not going straight to the moon. In some odd ways, it feels even more restrained in parts, with quiet, smaller set pieces that yet feel impactful. It manages to stay true to being a depiction of well, modern warfare, where the majority of the scenarios would feel plausible to occur in real life.

Now, back to the plot, after learning that our main-ish bad guy has American-made weapons (none nuclear) and that a powerful cartel from down south is involved, it’s up to Price’s Task Force 141 to get rolling. In their ranks is the aforementioned Price with his flexible rules of engagement, Gaz with his once bright eyed but now colder outlook through a desire to just get the bloody job done.

There is also Ghost, who echoes the Mandalorian in never wanting to take his skull-mask off and due to his extreme efficiency out in the field, is granted this kind-of childish request. I mean, he does take his mask off at one point, but we the player never get to see his mug. There’s finally John “Soap” Mactavish, the original Modern Warfare protagonist at long last returned, with his Mohawk and Scottish accent thicker than ever. Appropriately, he gets the most missions to be played as.

There is no one protagonist in MW22 and there rarely is in a COD game. Echoing the series’ founding sentiments that “No one fights alone”, Task Force 141 and it’s various members and allies encompass the role of “protagonist” more than anything and structurally it works well. Upon reaching Mexico to follow up on the cartel lead they got from a super sneaky mission in Amsterdam, they meet what might be the genuinely nicest characters in the whole game and represent best Infinity Ward’s attempts to avoid accusations of taking a reactionary, xenophobic attitude towards contemporary Mexico and its people.

Alejandro Vargas, who looks like a Hispanic cross between Walton Goggins and Steven Ogg, the guy best known for playing Trevor in GTA V, and his partner Rudolfo are part of the Mexican Special Forces, operating in the fictional Mexican state of Las Almas. Contrary to many ugly American sentiments about the status of Mexico, its government and military, Alejandro and Rudolfo are steadfast in their commitment to a safer, better Mexico and would sooner die than cow tow to the wealth and power the cartels could offer them. It’s an uphill battle for them, but they are more than happy to assist the mostly British ranks of the 141 in their hunt for Hassan amidst the cartel.

One of the tricks that helps along MWII’s campaign as being genuinely enjoyable in spite of the, at best, questionable politics it still has is the successful interplay and camaraderie between the Task Force and Mexican Special Forces. Most of the team have character traits and banter that are pretty great at getting you to like them, in spite of what they do and what they on a macro level represent. Ghost has an especially dry and black British sense of humor that you know more than anything is meant to diffuse any potential anxiety his teammates may be going through. Soap has a “can-do” enthusiasm for getting the job done well and with his squad-mates alive that likely echoes his football (soccer) fandom.

Alejandro is basically a military version of one of the Three Caballeros, you know, Donald Duck and his two Hispanic bird friends from Disney. He comes to recognize rather early, that in spite of Task Force 141 being an off-the-books military unit, it’s members are on the level. The atmosphere of compadre-ship that make up their relationship is infectious and if viewed in a vacuum, is a genuinely welcome outlook for this day and age.

But, as my politically conscious mind was want to do, I kept focus enough on the many sus aspects to MWII’s worldview as a piece of media. Much like the discussion around this year’s Batman movie, it’s not only what Modern Warfare II says, it’s what it does not say that matters.

Why, again, not enough emphasis is placed on how the inciting incident that leads to a manhunt for an extremist Iranian is predicated on the mistakes of how we approach geopolitical conflict. MW2 does throw some attention to that idea while trying to obfuscate from the bigger, grimmer picture of Western culpability in the threats we face. Time for some big-boy spoilers.

The American general who oversees Task Force 141 is General Shepherd, who was in the same role for the original MW2. The original had Lance Henriksen voicing the general. Now it’s Glenn Morshower, who had voiced another unrelated character. In the original, Shepherd is revealed to be the actual big bad of the game, having assisted the other antagonist, Russian terrorist Makarov, in orchestrating a massacre on Russian soil that acts as reason for that grand ol’ invasion of the U.S.

Shepherd allowed this massive break in American defense all so he can fight a war for his country’s survival and in turn give his country a renewed sense of patriotism and himself the glory of leading its defense. He uses the original Task Force 141 to unknowingly take care of his dirty work in retrieving information that would incriminate him in what is, to put it quite lightly, one of the greatest acts of treason imaginable. In what remains for me one of the most genuinely shocking and saddest acts of backstabbing in a video game ever, he coldly murders the original Ghost and Roach, the playable character you’ve been with for most of the game, when they least suspected it, all while Han Zimmer’s glorious music somberly yet melodramatically plays over the scene.

To once again echo the original, the new MW2 has a betrayal scene involving Shepherd and his PMC group called Shadow Company. The PMC, led by a guy called Graves (Gee, maybe there’s some red flags here…), were established, like the Mexican Armed Forces, to be pretty amiable, getting along well with both Alejandro’s men and Price’s. The game attempts to fool a player who might’ve played the original that this Shadow Company won’t be so bad. When Graves takes to the field himself to assist the Task Force in the mission, during a callback to both the Tanker mission from the first Modern Warfare and the oil rigs in the second, he fights and coordinates with them beautifully.

He makes no real indication that he should be suspected of wrongdoing and seems to even be forming a comradeship with the Task Force like they did with Alejandro and Rudolfo. I was starting to fall for it, and I have every reason to be distrustful of especially a PMC. And for the record, the Call of Duty series has a consistent displeasure for the Private Military Company, as evidenced by them being the main baddies of 2014’s Advanced Warfare, led by the ever trustworthy Kevin Spacey.

This betrayal scene involves none of the task force members, let alone Ghost, getting surprise bullets to the face. It starts with Graves, who has been given permission by Shepherd to just straight up take over Alejandro and Rudolfo’s army base. Like that. Barring the fact that the Mexican government would lose all the shit over an American PMC doing this with the blessing of an American general, what really sets off the betrayal is that Graves offers Ghost and Soap, the Task Force members present, to just walk away and let it happen. Even though that means their new best buddies Alejandro and Rudolfo get imprisoned for their refusal. Of course they don’t accept and thus the betrayal that almost gets them killed leads to one of the darkest and moodiest campaign levels in Call of Duty’s history. Soap, with a bullet wound in his arm, is separated from Ghost and finds himself avoiding Graves’ men as they go through a Mexican city and begin, for seemingly no reason other than being irredeemable pieces of shit, both massacring and arresting Mexican civilians.

There is the flimsy excuse that many of the townspeople might be in league with the cartel but otherwise it’s just to show the evil PMC being evil and to give Soap and the player a novel stealth mission to get through, which basically becomes a survival horror level, not unlike Resident Evil, where the finding and managing of resources on the field is key. I get it, PMCs are bad, really bad, and Call of Duty is very correct to treat them as villainous. Just what the real life Blackwater PMC did stands as testament to that.

It’s just that for all the great writing that goes into the heroes and their interplay, that same level of writing does not reflect on the overall narrative, where villains like Shepherd and Graves have asinine reasons to reveal their true colors. They also do a disservice to Shepherd as a villainous character. In a stance which seems to support the misguided notion of our military being on some level still above board in its behavior (when it certainly is not), Shepherd is revealed to be behind the reason for the missing American missiles. Even without the knowledge of Shepherd being the antagonist of an earlier COD game, it wouldn’t take much for the average gamer to point to Shepherd and say, “He did it.”

Unlike the unsympathetic, sociopathic motivations of the original Shepherd, this Shepherd made a mistake that, ahem, came from a good place. He had Shadow Company escorting missiles through a Middle Eastern location, when suddenly a Russian PMC lays a successful ambush and steals the missiles, which in turn they give to Hassan and his cause. What Shepherd was doing was and is framed as illegal, but he still claims earnestly was for the protection of his country.

You could view this as Shepherd trying to excuse his actions and it can even be a statement that maybe, just maybe, America should stop using PMCs and doing covert missile deals without official backing of a larger governing body, but yeah I got a mixed message from this and chances are not poor you will too. For that and trying to cover it up as well as let Shadow Company try to up and murder Task Force 141, Shepherd goes to ground at the end of the game.

For the great execution and pacing of levels and things to do in MWII’s story mode, it’s built on shakier narrative ground than even the contrivances of the original 2009 game. Other actions taken by both sides of the story can upon some examination be seen as borderline ridiculous and stupid. I even think that some of these dumb narrative decisions was all to show the characters doing something that was for them out of character in following international law. For instance, mid-game the team captures Hassan and then right after are forced to let him go because it would be illegal.

Um, how much of what the Task Force has done is legal again? Why would this situational dumb action be done other than for Infinity Ward to say to a more politically awake audience “Hey, look, the good guys are doing something internationally approved!” Even when it breaks the narrative that is established and only causes further needless complications that prolongs the plot and ultimately leads to a desperate race against time where Hassan plans to missile strike Chicago.

In truth, I can’t fully complain as the quality of most of the levels in MW22 is of a high, even inspired tier. The dumb plot with not nearly as dumb characters leads to a series of great moments like having to swim down a Mexican river, using the rocks to hide behind cover while being shot at. A new intense variation on the “death from above” mission where you pilot the guns on an AC-130 plane and provide cover from the sky for the team on the ground, all in color this time.

A new take on MW1’s beloved “All Ghillied Up” level, where you must sneak through a Spanish Wind Turbine farm occupied by Hassan’s men and everything from adjusting to wind and distance, placement of yourself while hiding in the grass and many different ways to clear out the buildings are offered. A prison breakout that goes from using security cameras to guide Ghost to a breakneck fight for survival and escape. There’s even an penultimate mission involving a multi-layered assault on Alejandro’s base occupied by Graves that involves an unlikely salute to one of the least-favored entries in the Call of Duty series. Even more unlikely is that the salute actually works.

There’s the aforementioned stealth level with a wounded, winded Soap with only Ghost’s advice on the radio to assist him. There’s an earlier mission where Soap infiltrates the cartel’s headquarters, pretending to be a turncoat all so he can find the cartel leader and get him detained. Well, I should say her, as in a pretty well done subversion, the cartel leader is revealed to be a former member of Alejandro’s Special Forces team, Valeria. Despite her relative lack of screentime, she’s rocketed up to being one of my favorite Call of Duty villains due to her utter lack of giving a s**t over whatever anyone, especially Alejandro, has to say about her.

She betrayed her team, effectively her country, all so she could take power in a cartel, become a drug-lord. She shows no remorse nor does she fall for any attempt at being shamed. She’s good at her job, ruthlessly good, and she is proud of it. If ever there was proof that a strong female antagonist could work, it’s here and honestly, I hope there’s more of her in the future since she does survive the game.

The original Modern Warfare’s campaign was a series of initially unconnected levels that was, relatively late in development, given a connective thread. It mostly works though you can tell here and there that it was not planned out ahead of time based on certain plot contrivances. I can’t speak for the development process of this particular Modern Warfare’s campaign, but it does feel as if Infinity Ward was bursting at the seams with great ideas for what to do mechanically for this entry that they had a hard time reconciling their level design with the narrative context. Perhaps they hoped that you enjoying your time with the characters, going through it with their well-honed charisma would be enough and I suppose they were right.

When it comes to the plot contrivances or even holes of Modern Warfare II, at first I’m upset at the sloppiness and then I remember again all the things the ideology of this game says or does not say and then I feel a little less bothered. It’s not like Marvel’s Falcon and Winter Soldier show where it seems to be striving for the best worldview but of cowardice or obligation to the people who fund a project like that show, like the American military, it backpedals or suddenly states “but actually” because it may speak a truth that’s to the detriment of those that sponsor it.

Call of Duty, when in it’s Modern Warfare setting, almost seems doomed to not go as far in being truthful about the realities of what fuels the modern conflicts, the far less heroic reasons. It can’t be totally honest because then it would be very hard to accept Captain Price and friends for their roles. It can and does place unambiguous ire on pernicious things like the Private Military Industry but maybe as a way to take focus away from the perniciousness of what the straight up Military Industrial Complex does: waste our money, our men and women’s lives on wars and conflicts not approved by our congress on trying to maintain a global hegemony that in the coming decades may no longer matter in any respect due to the civilization-eroding effects of climate change, exacerbated by other unattended to problems like our population and the wasting of needed resources.

Not unlike an enjoyable Cop drama or buddy cop comedy like the Lethal Weapon series I’m watching fully for the first time, it’s best to view Modern Warfare II either in fragmented parts or as a genuine fantasy that has little bearing on not so much the methods of modern warfare as they are quite accurate here but the motivations and conceits of it. You can have fun in Modern Warfare II as I did, you can admire the art here from these artists. I can admire the art of one Mel Gibson and one Kanye West (though the latter has become increasingly difficult even irresponsible for me) and yet recognize the cruel truth of who they are as people in the real world. So long as you can divert your focus between the reality of actual modern warfare and the enjoyable illusion of this game, then for the record, I recommend.

Oh, right, the multiplayer is quite good if ever familiar but based on experience I’m quite poor at actually reviewing video games that involve more than one player in a non-narrative setting, so I will just echo the immortal words of the original Simon “Ghost” Riley from the original classic: Mission Accomplished, Good Work.

God of War Ragnarok (Santa Monica Studios) (USA)

Image from VG247 (They come from the land of the Ice and Snow, from the Midnight sun where the hot springs glow…)

Warning: Recap of first game included


The further adventures of both the last Spartan and surviving Greek God (that we know of) and his half God/half Jotnar (Frost Giant) son in this year’s second most beloved video game (behind Elden Ring) is my Game of the Year choice with nothing else remaining in 2022 that can challenge it.

I have not the courage nor the free time to see if the aforementioned Elden Ring could be at last the gateway I was looking for to get into not so much the “Soulsborne” genre but the genre with its attached difficulty. I have tasted of the genre’s style of interconnected level design through 2019’s Jedi: Fallen Order, and it was quite scrumptious, but I yet stayed away from the biggest game this year all the same, all on the premise that I didn’t want to put down $60 only on the possibility, not certainty, that this would be the one.

God of War Ragnarok strangely enough acts as the alternative to a “Soulsborne game” through its exacting focus on melee combat, specially crafted use of interconnectivity in the exploration of its world and by delivering optional enemy encounters that give the masses hungry for From Software’s style of challenge a place to bite into. All that, while allowing the less courageous like myself a still challenging but quite manageable adventure across the nine realms of Norse Mythology where its strong narrative, as strong if not more so than the 2018 predecessor, acts as being as important as the combat and exploration.

God of War: Ragnarok joins the likes of 1994’s Doom II and 2010’S Fallout: New Vegas in being a sequel that on the surface and especially at first seems identical to the prior game. It’s not merely a case of Ragnarok going for the “If it ain’t broke…” mentality, it slowly but surely reveals itself to be an ambitious expansion of what has come before, giving you more of what was but better and with further complexity. For some, Doom II’s near identical nature to the original Doom was saved from ridicule not merely from featuring new enemies and levels, but the introduction of one of the most iconic video game weapons ever, the glorious super shotgun, a double barrelled weapon where it indeed doubled the fun.

Does God of War Ragnarok give ever grimacing anti-hero Kratos a new weapon, to accompany his Blades of Chaos from the original titles and the Leviathan Axe brought in from the last game? Well, this is a partial spoiler review, so yes, it does do that. The new weapon, not that I will name it or give details, is not the sole thing that makes Ragnarok a superior game from God of War 2018, like perhaps the super shotgun was for Doom II. It’s one of many separate elements that add up to it being a superior title and at the same time, a companion piece of a sequel, like how Godfather part II fit that bill and in the realm of video games, Red Dead Redemption II and Last of Us part II do the same. Welcome to the club.

More importantly, it expands the number of tools or utility to what Kratos and his son Atreus can do either in combat or simply exploring and finding ways to traverse. Part of this is a consequence of all nine realms being accessible and with it, new possibilities arrive in what can be done within this Norse era for the God of War series. It might even act as something of a loose crash course on the Norse mythology, it’s ideas and iconography like how Kratos’ original six adventures scoured Greek mythology for ideas, even if it was often relegated for something new and exotic to fight.

Recap time

Three or so years have passed since the end of the first game where Kratos and Atreus, while on a journey to spread the ashes of Faye, the former’s wife and latter’s mother, accidentally begin the countdown to Ragnarok, the Norse end of the world. Their journey gets them in conflict with Baldur, who himself is both obsessed with killing the father and son because it can get him back in his father Odin’s good graces and because they have made friends with his mother Freya, who in this interpretation is also Odin’s wife Frigg. Or ex-wife at least.

Freya placed a spell on Baldur, all to protect him from any possible harm due to receiving a prophecy proclaiming an untimely death. Baldur views it as a curse as the spell not only made him invulnerable but robbed him of the ability to feel anything. He despises his mother for it and her being in association with Kratos and Atreus only makes him enjoy his mission from Odin more. However, in a freak moment fighting the father and son, all while Freya tries to stop the fight, up to and including reanimating a dead giant, Baldur makes contact with some mistletoe on Atreus, neither being aware it was the only thing that could break the spell, rendering Freya’s son vulnerable but with once more the ability to feel.

Baldur is joyous and Freya is horrified that her prophesied to die son is in danger after centuries. Baldur makes her way to Freya, ready to strangle her to death for the countless years she forced him to live a miserable existence, all to protect him. Kratos, aware of the dangers of vengeance being exacted, the cycles it causes, namely because he was part of one cycle which destroyed the Greek pantheon and his homeland, takes Baldur from Freya and snaps his neck.

Freya is livid with rage at the prophecy coming true, let alone from someone like Kratos who had become her friend, and swears revenge on him. Not only does the end of God of War 2018 set up the theme of whether cycles that define us, actions we took before can ever be forgiven or made up for, but it also helps establish the greatest theme of God of War: Ragnarok, the predeterministic fear of prophecy and if fate can be challenged, let alone for the better. Baldur’s death which fulfills the prophecy Freya spent so much of her life trying to prevent, bleeds in to another, Ragnarok itself. As Baldur lays dead, Freya cradling him, Kratos and Atreus finish their journey to spread the ashes.

The first snows of Fimbulwinter begin to fall, the prelude to Ragnarok. At the end of the journey, the two arrive at the tallest peak in all the realms per Faye’s wishes, on Jotunheim. There in the realm of the giants do father and son learn a good number of things: all of the giants that had fled home from Odin’s genocidal wrath and closed the gateway to it have somehow died. A massive mural they find shows that the giants had predicted accurately the course of Kratos and Atreus’ story. That Faye was in fact, Laufey and that Atreus was all along this take on Norse mythology’s Loki.

Kratos also sees and hides from his son events yet to be, that of his own death and his son mourning his fall. Despite being a new, triumphant beginning for one of the PlayStation’s most successful franchises, it seemed to signal that it’s mascot Kratos was bound for a permanent end. I say permanent as back in the Greek era, Kratos died a couple of times but still crawled his way out of Hades.

Base Review

There’s lot to unpack as God of War Ragnarok opens with fimbulwinter having fully engulfed Midgard, also known as Earth’s Scandinavia. It’s a miracle of the deft writing that it has so much to deal with, let alone as a follow-up for an earlier title, that it somehow stays in focus. That it also still manages to do justice to Kratos’ own storyline dating all the way back from the 2005 original game is an act of, well, godly proportions.

Despite the worlds-shattering, potentially apocalyptic conflict that Kratos and Atreus find themself in, it is even more an allegory than last time for the tribulations that a real life father and son will go through. Namely, when said son reaches the teenage years. So many moments, in spite of the mythic context, can play well as arguments and discussions between father and son. The son, having reached adolescence, starts to wonder what to do with his life, what his path will be and how will it connect with his father. Is his course of action right or his source of authority, dear ol’ dad, still right?

This is made further difficult by how Kratos was keeping more than a few secrets from his son out of fear over how he would view him last time around. Understandable if still the wrong move, due to the destructive actions of his old life, up to and including killing his own father, who happened to be Zeus.

Circumstances, much spoiler laden, force Loki to start keeping secrets of his own, much to Kratos’ frustration. Dad wants to hole up to avoid Ragnarok despite it being prophesied, while the son would prefer to take action, in the hopes of stopping it for one. This schism and interplay between the two that carries from the first is one of the defining strengths on both an emotional and intellectual level. It gives you something to chew on when you’re not considering which weapon to use and how in the coming fights.

Despite being a review with some spoilers, I still feel the desire to refrain from major plot beats unless there is something specific that I need to bring up. It’s a journey where father and son reunite with old friends like the Dwarven brothers and blacksmiths Brok and Sindri, make new allies in the likes of the Norse god of war Tyr, though both in action and appearance, he would much prefer the Jesus route along a considerable number of others and of course make new enemies such as the rest of the Aesir, the highest level of God in the Norse pantheon, led by Odin.

Can’t forget Mimir, the Norse God of Wisdom who returns from the last game still a decapitated yet living head who acts as the biggest expert on basically anything Kratos and Atreus need to know about the realms they visit. He is both one of the most important and for me, annoying side characters. His heavily Scottish accent can be grating to me at times though it became notably unbearable during the tough as nails optional boss encounters, where Mimir’s recycled advice and dialogue during combat became essentially an unintended weapon of the boss against Kratos and me the player. For the PC port I imagine is on the way, I hope someone makes a mod where Mimir goes quiet during combat.

Speaking of the Aesir, let’s talk about them. God of War’s depiction of Gods has always been from a cynical, “power corrupts” attitude. They’re often the bad guys or at least morally poor enough that epically fighting them as Kratos can be on some layer satisfying, even if the games also second guess Kratos’ self destructive actions.

First is Odin, who is an Orwellian control freak and more unpleasant and downright evil than Zeus, despite appearing on the surface far weaker and in behavior more affable. While Zeus only once used deception against Kratos, Odin is all about lying and tricking his ass off on anyone who gets in his way or can be of use to him.

It is ironic, intentionally, that in spite of Atreus being Loki, the God of mischief and deception, he only deceives and causes mischief reluctantly and out of desperation to protect his father and friends. Sometimes he doesn’t even realize the mischief part. Odin, all for the pursuit of knowledge at any cost and to protect his own ass from dying at Ragnarok, lies as much as Littlefinger would and does so with an even more convincing “I’m on your side or not your enemy” shtick that even I was almost falling for it. What almost did so in truth is that Atreus’ exposure to Odin gets him in contact with the rest of the Aesir on Asgard through a reckless though ultimately meaningful action on his part. He sees that not all the Asgardians are remorseless monsters, evidenced best by Thor’s wife Sif and his daughter Thrud. Speaking of the God of Thunder…

The God of War depiction of Thor not only ekes closer to the mythological Thor than Marvel’s well known version, both on and off the big screen, but as many have stated especially in light of the divisively received fourth movie, many prefer this Thor to Hemsworth’s. He’s super fat, even more so than the obese one from Avengers Endgame, though that does nothing to stop him from being a fierce opponent when confronting him in battle. He’s a recovering alcoholic, trying to get over the death of his two sons (which Kratos and Atreus were forced to fight and kill last time) and the fact that in spite of his gleeful bloodlust, feels that his loyalty to his father Odin has compromised his family situation, especially with his daughter who is indeed way too good for him.

With much evidence given in the prior game, this Thor has done many terrible things. He was most responsible for driving the Jotnar (Giants) to near extinction on his father’s orders and shows no remorse for it, in spite of he himself like Atreus being half-giant. How much of who this Thor is being his father’s influence acts as a dark counter-example to the same question given between Atreus and Kratos.

Finally, there’s Heimdall, the man who guards the great wall protecting Asgard from attack and his death in particular is when Ragnarok will be truly nigh. He is in some ways a spiritual successor to GOW’s version of Hermes from the Greek era, showcased in 2010’s God of War III. Of all the Olympian Gods, Hermes is the one meant to get on the player (and Kratos’) nerves the most. He is constantly talking, constantly belittling and demeaning Kratos, in spite of many of his barbs being ultimately true. Nevertheless, for the player’s own relief from his nagging presence when he appears, he gets one of the most drawn out and ruthless deaths in the series, for that particular reason.

Heimdall isn’t so much an annoying jester like Hermes as he is an insufferably pompous narcissist, who might be just as evil and callous as Odin, though the latter often pretends or obfuscates that reality. Heimdall is loyal only to Odin and without that, he would have no redeeming qualities if you can call loyalty in a vacuum a quality truly.

What makes Heimdall’s personality click so well is that he has the power of foresight where he can magically read both the intentions of anyone he meets as well as know when to counter every attack. From that comes his overconfident smugness. This Taskmaster-like ability makes him an unforgettable opponent when confronted in-game. His bout against Kratos will go down as one of my favorite boss encounters in the God of War series, for a franchise that is especially honored for that very thing.

More than the first, God of War: Ragnarok gives many avenues to explore the considerable suite of combat options that are unlockable over the long haul. New types of enemies appear that have defenses which negate one weapon and forces Kratos to use the other. Over time, especially when you get the new third weapon, you find that the properties of your weapons have abilities or effects, some manually set by you, that can create a great sense of discovery in how you overcome and damage your opponents. It was there last time, this element, but it is far more present now. The many challenges that awards you experience for beating enemies further emphasizes a desire to experiment in how you use Kratos’ three weapons of war.

Most of the fun doesn’t come simply from the rhythm of encounters but in how your exploration can help tailor a different feel to the experience. In several, not all, of the realms, there is a sense of continuous discovery, learning how this inaccessible place can be made so, what you discover along the way can help temper you for what could be around the corner. For every section, where you must follow the game’s direction, there are many more times ultimately where the game all but breaks the fourth wall and says to you that you can take a break and just go somewhere else, somewhere optional.

Find some treasure that can improve your abilities, allow you to upgrade your armor. Find more enemies off the beaten path that can give you the needed time to improve and iterate on certain skills. Go back to a place you’ve already been and discover new parts if it with new loot, new souvenirs and maybe even a surprising boss encounter. Or, it can be as simple as learning more about the realm you’re exploring, its history and maybe even solve a mystery here or there.

It is the sheer amount of content that God of War: Ragnarok ultimately offers you, maybe even more than the first, that helps make up for the one time where the fun slackens and you’re given something narratively nourishing, by all means quite important, but not so much when it comes to gameplay or the potential open-ended sense of exploration.

Thematically and mechanically speaking, it makes sense that Atreus is given controllable sections for the first time, away from Kratos. It makes narrative sense too. What I recognized early on was that making Atreus for some segments the player character was to represent that Atreus is growing up, that Kratos’ survival and combat training is paying off. It again reflects how whenever someone reaches teen-hood, they are more likely, with or without their parent’s permission, to go out by themselves for any given reason. It’s Independence, learning to start living part so you’re ready when your father isn’t there anymore.

While a good amount of depth is given to Atreus with his bow and arrow skills, it can never match the satisfaction of fighting with Kratos’ complement of weapons. The lack of unique animations for when Atreus finishes off an opponent also adds to his sections, few and far between as they are, feeling more dull. It doesn’t help that all of the Atreus sections are highly scripted with very little deviation from the chosen path, no matter how narratively consequential they may be. Turning control over to Atreus also signals that any ability or choice to go off the story path and on to something optional is being left with Kratos at the same time.

There are great, even impactful story moments here and that does help somewhat, but no matter how hard Santa Monica tried and you can tell they did, some part of you will likely feel as I did the impatience to get back to being Kratos. It’s a necessary evil and maybe the feedback from those sections will color in what Santa Monica Studios will do for whatever comes next, but it’s an experiment that doesn’t always work. That’s why the overall amount of content for 100% completion feels more relieving than exhausting for once as not only does it act, such as on a second playthrough and onward as a comforting reminder, but it makes you recognize that God of War: Ragnarok will be more of the game you want it to be than not.

I could look at a checklist of all the things that can ultimately be done throughout the game but many of those activities even in a spoilery review for a game that has become one of Sony’s fastest selling titles ever feels like a disservice to give away. Entire sections containing content are meant as big, pleasant surprises for those inquisitive enough.

God of War: Ragnarok, despite is grim title, is an uplifting experience. Not only does it involve more of what you love from God of War 2018, it does it better, with more layers added while narrowly avoiding the danger of running into feature creep and become like natural extensions, a bunch of branches like on the great World Tree that holds the nine realms you traverse. I kinda wondered whenever I near or reached total completion of the last God of War how much more of the gameplay loop for the series could be utilized.

Well, I got my answer and the result was much more pleasant than even I was expecting.. It is both a narrative and gameplay masterstroke, let alone for acting as continuation. It leaves you feeling like you have experienced a more complete story, like the prior game cannot exist with this one in truth and yet, against all odds, it leaves you once again eager to see what adventures Kratos, Atreus and the rest have in store for us, almost certainly in distant lands full of new pantheons to explore and go up against.

So long as there are other places with their own tales of beings greater than us in power, so shall there be the chance for another God of War odyssey. Let us hope they are half as good as what the Viking world offered us.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon Part VI of VI: POST HALLOWEEN EDITION

Three more selections of chilling terror to inspire your choices for next October or whenever you feel the call to horror. Afterwards, either I talk about something contemporary finally or more 80s retrospective entries.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Image from Youtube (Welcome to the Family, girl.)

Why am I talking about a 70s horror movie rather than the expected 80s one again? Because one of my selections for 80s horror is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and I had yet to see the highly influential and still highly effective original. It’s a movie that is able to shock and repulse, as it has been said, through not every element of what Leatherface and his family does is explicitly explained or shown off.

Much of what this movie does show you makes you think about what else goes into the process of this particular family’s lifestyle in some remote part of our second largest state, even if due to atlases we often see it and think of it as the biggest.

That Texas is this big, unwieldy state in the American Union adds to the tension of the concept of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not just that you could be effectively alone in this wide open place with any potential help far away, but that somewhere, maybe closer than you think, is a group of people more mad and macabre than you can fathom.

Another element is that while the narrative of the movie is indeed fictional despite the claims of the opening crawl, it was inspired by a real serial killer who is just about the most screwed up in the analogues of American history: Ed Gein. His influence is great, seeing as how he already inspired Hitchcock with Psycho and would later inspire Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, among others.

Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterwork is the most viscerally influenced as if there was doubt, but again it doesn’t go as far as you would think and it’s just as uncomfortable in spite of its restraint. While there is blood, especially near the end, there is basically no gore and only one person gets chainsawed, and it’s shot late at night and far enough away from view that the details are not graphic if still undeniably clear.

More than artistry, Hooper actually didn’t go further because he was originally aiming for a PG RATING. Now, of course, the PG rating back then was more broad in what could be covered, an issue that led to the PG-13 rating a decade later. I’ve seen PG rated movies with full on nudity and sex so there.

The raters at the time not only laughed at Hooper’s gall at trying for a PG rating, they initially slapped him with an X rating. Just the subject matter couldn’t allow for that low rating, hell, it would be very hard to pull off any story with cannibalism with even a PG-13. X was the original NC-17 and a lot of movies that once had that rating would be considered R or even lower by today.

1969’s Midnight Cowboy was given an X almost entirely because it had male prostitutes. Nowadays, it would be a light R or even PG-13 and even then the severe rating didn’t stop it from receiving Oscar Gold, at a time when that Gold meant something. Another film that could be given a less harsh rating or has done so is The Wild Bunch and TTCM 74 now has a fair R classification.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often viewed alongside Black Christmas of the same year of being the first real slasher movies. Psycho is considered a precursor than an actual example and the slasher genre in many people’s eyes truly began with John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 tells what is now an overly familiar tale of a group of young men and women going on a road-trip through a desolate place, all in their Volkswagen which sadly does not have A/C and the Texas heat is certainly sweltering. I thought Texas gets hot in the Summer now but I suppose it was little better in the 70s.

The crew consists of five, three males and two females, one of which is called Sally, who will become possibly the first of many, many “final girls”, the often feminine sole survivor of a slasher’s rampage. She has her brother Franklin, overweight, stuck in a wheelchair and the most overly Texan sounding of the group. Despite the circumstances of his condition, Franklin will be the last of the group to die, perhaps done to subvert the obvious expectation he’d be among the first.

After a seriously unsettling encounter with a hitchhiker called Nubbins, who acts as a clear forewarning for the film’s events, they come across an old abandoned house that used to belong to Sally and Franklin’s family. In fact, that near plantation-like house is due to them being part of a family which runs a slaughterhouse business, which makes the coming events all the more ironic.

I first thought that this was Leatherface and Co’s lair, but no, it’s nearby which contains most suspiciously before you reach the house a large tent containing a bunch of cars, with their fuel being drained to help power the lights. Hmmm, that’s odd. If I was remotely genre savvy, that would’ve been a titanic red flag to run back, collect your friends and keep on trucking along. That this is a movie at essentially the beginning of the slasher era actually helps as these youngsters have no cultural reason to be wary, though I suppose some deductive reasoning could’ve worked just as well.

The first teen to reach the house, who is the leader of the five, is also the first victim. I would not be surprised if the choice to off the leader early on would inspire the brilliant narrative move for Alien at the end of the decade.I should note now how ingenious this first encounter with Leatherface really is. You would expect a scare chord upon seeing Leatherface encounter our ill-fated teen.

Instead the admittingly disturbing music, which was meant to resemble sounds an animal would hear in a very particular place (do I need to spell it out?) is playing before, during and after the guy’s encounter with the big, apron-wearing fella. There is no sudden rise or drop in the music in the scene. There’s no need when what you’re seeing is the scare.

Despite the creepy music, it doesn’t fully prepare you for the moment and might leave you off-kilter with what you had just seen. It happens so fast. The dude walks into the house, asking if there’s any gas they can borrow for their van, which is running low, and decides to up and enter the house. I mean, I get that this is set nearly 50 years ago, but c’mon my man!

What further intrigues the guy to enter the house is not only that it’s an open screen door but that he hears a strange, off sound like a pig squealing, the source we never get to learn for certain. He comes across a red-colored hallway at the foyer, full of displayed animal skulls when suddenly Leatherface is there and he looks and acts just as surprised to see the teen as he is to see him. He immediately whacks the guy on the head and carries him further into the house, but not before shutting the hallway with a metal door. All of this occurs in around 20 seconds or less.

In spite of how genuinely scary Leatherface is, he’s also paradoxically the least evil of the family. For one, Hooper has stated that Leatherface’s behavior in at least the first movie is not predicated on rage, blood-lust or sadism, but on pure fear. He has been taught by his brothers that make up the appropriately titled “Sawyer” family that he must be wary of anyone that comes from outside the family grounds, most likely due to their activities being exposed and stopped. He is also overly subservient and pathetic around the Old Man (Jim Siedow), who may be one of three things: his father, his uncle or even his brother.

Right after he has caught and killed the third teen, while he was looking for his girlfriend the second victim, Leatherface rushes over to the window, looking out and around with terror in his eyes. That’s right, one of the most legendary, frightening and violent slasher villains of all time is, in at least one interpretation, as scared of you as you are of him.

A lot of the details of what the teens go through and see are pretty well known by now and not just because this film is currently 48 years old. It’s such a defining, influential and starkly memorable piece of American horror that a lot of moments have entered into generally broad knowledge, so I risk repeating a lot of what may be known or spoiling something that should be left for one to finally discover, such as the immediacy of Leatherface’s debut.

What I can also say is that Hooper’s filming of the movie is genius, as it doesn’t always feel like I’m watching a movie in the conventional sense. The minimalist approach to the soundtrack and how the camera is framed with a scratchy ,DIY feel to the camerawork almost feels like a found footage movie if it wasn’t for how many of the shots are staged. It’s unconventional, near Indie take on filmmaking reinforces a sense that what you’re watching is either really happening or that you are watching an utterly earnest recreation. It was this direction which led many to believe that the marketing had told the truth of this being a real event.

The third act , by which Sally is the last one standing has a near breathless pace, where neither her nor the audience have any time to decompress. A sense that any minute now, especially during the infamous dinner scene I have up there as header image, Sally will die. Despite being only an observer on a fictional series of events, I felt just about as helpless as Sally, hoping that the nightmare would end, that she would just wake up.

It even got to a point where it almost became too much. In spite of the lack of all the things a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre has you expect to feature, the endless screaming of Marilyn Burns’ Sally, the utter lack of sympathy or awareness that what the Sawyer family is doing is horribly messed up to say the least and wondering just how the first final girl will ultimately escape put me for in an exhausted yet exhilarated final stretch.

The famous conclusion, of Sally being chased by Leatherface onto a road and then finally finding safety on the back of a pickup truck, left me feeling not so much triumphant as weary, but in a good way. As the famous final shot of Leatherface twirling his chainsaw around in the air in frustration for failing to stop Sally which leads to an utterly sudden but correct cut to black, Sally is seen slowly laughing to the point of hysteria. She physically survived her stay at the Sawyer place, but as for her mind…

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often seen as not only the sole good movie period in the franchise it spawned, but as a must see for those with the stomachs to get through it. What I saw and what I experienced has me gladly join that bandwagon. If you but the courage and the will for just one of these kinds of movies, make sure it’s this one. It’s a literal grind-house film with a brain on top of its guts.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Image from The Austin Chronicle (Here, have a non-disturbing image to help lighten the mood after the last section.)

Rather than go for a straight follow-up to his 1974 classic, Tobe Hooper, who had (maybe) directed 1982’s Poltergeist and 1985’s Lifeforce (which I covered for this year’s Horrorthon), wanted a different approach than outright trying to top the original. It could be that the first couldn’t be topped, it was just so well done the way it was. But on the other hand, he still wanted to return to the grisly world that started his career.

He opted for a black comedy approach that, more than anything, reminds one less of the original movie in tone and more like the cult classic 1980 cannibalism horror comedy, Motel Hell. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 does actually carry a lot of the same plot beats of the original, including another dinner scene and the final girl that you see above you laughing mad by the end of it all. Despite being a narrative followup set thirteen years later, it’s almost a darkly comic remake or re-imagining of the first, much like Sam Raimi’s approach to the second Evil Dead.

The Sawyer family is still out there, still preying on people who happen to walk into their part of the figurative woods. Police officer “Lefty” Enright, portrayed with enthusiasm by Dennis Hopper, knows it and has spent the past near decade and a half looking for any clues that will lead him to Leatherface and company. Everyone thinks he’s mad, and they’re right. But, he’s also quite right about the Sawyers being out there.

“Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), a radio DJ living near Wichita Falls in Northeastern Texas, manages to catch evidence of Leatherface’s latest predation as some late-night callers, known to harass Stretch and her radio station with prank calls, happen to record the fatal attack they’re victims of. Hearing that is enough for Lefty to realize that he has to get literally revved up to face the family and end the massacre once and for all. In one of the best scenes, Lefty goes to a Chainsaw store, browses the many selections and decides on three that will do just nicely on gaining both justice and revenge on the cannibal family, seeing as how he has an out of nowhere connection to one of the victims of the first movie.

However, the Sawyer family also learn of the recording Stretch made of their activities. They send to the radio station the replacement for Stubbins the hitchhiker (seeing as how he’s the only family member that died in the original), Chop-Top, and as the consensus as proven, he is the best new addition for the movie. Even people who aren’t really hot about Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 admit that Bill Moseley’s performance as the music obsessed Vietnam veteran-hippie from hell is the true highlight of the movie.

The scene where he confronts Stretch alone in the radio station and rambles on and on to the point that Stretch gets increasingly worried (as she should) about what his actual intentions are is possibly the other standout moment aside from Lefty’s chainsaw shopping. He has a metal coat-hanger that he keeps scratching his head with, all the more concerning considering that he heats up the tip with a lighter though we soon learn why and how it relates to his Vietnam history. It also sheds light that more than a few of the Sawyer family may not be related by blood necessarily though supposedly Chop-Top wasn’t there for the first movie as he was busy serving in Nam’. The original movie was released in 74 but set in 1973, the last year of American involvement.

The encounter between Stretch and Chop-Top cascades into another fantastic jump scare reveal of Leatherface. While Leatherface was already revealed during the scene where the callers are killed on the road, his introduction regarding the lead characters is even better. How he appears actually made me jump in my sofa seat. It’s followed by a different take for the hulking slasher that keeps the mentally challenged grunting and mannerisms from before but frames it as much more comedic. In almost every scene involving Leatherface and his now much longer chainsaw, he moves his feet up back and forth and motions his chainsaw up in the air in a funny motion that’s purposefully silly. While he is still a killer and a threat, this Leatherface is even more sympathetic than before, due to him being treated even worse than last time from his family.

Leatherface is also shown for the first time to have the quality of mercy, if only due to becoming infatuated with Stretch. It’s both creepy and sad in how Leatherface goes about with Stretch and how she has to go through a hell of a lot to allow him not to, you know, do some chainsaw massacring on her. By the time the film crescendos with Leatherface engaging in an honest to God chainsaw duel with Lefty, I actually felt sorry for the big guy, likely because had he been in a much less depraved nurturing environment, he could’ve been a less dangerous and even friendly mentally challenged Goliath of a man.

The guy that nurtured Leatherface to be the horrifying yet tragic monster that he is the returning Old Man played by Jim Siedow. To tell you the truth, I often got Siedow confused with Gilbert Gottfried due to how both their face and manner of speaking are close if not exact. It was as if I was watching an evil relative of Gottfried onscreen and had a ball with his interplay antics with both Leatherface and Chop-Top.

The film concludes at an abandoned Texas History amusement park, which is the new Sawyer family hideout. What the family is up to now echoes the intent of what the couple from Motel Hell were about: taking their “practices” and making a profit out of it. The Old Man is the proud winner of a Texas vs Oklahoma chili contest and that he wins at all is you better believe a statement about how actually closer than not we may be to a much more savage, worse aspect of ourselves from the neanderthal age.

Despite the praise I’ve given to TTCM2, it’s not as good a movie as the first. It’s pacing especially at the end can feel overstretched (pun not intended) and that it copies, as a joke or not, a lot of the same moments from the first time around can make the proceedings feel repetitive. The last moment, which is more of a spiritual reflection of the last scene than a copy does work and honestly, were I or any to survive the events of this movie, would I not lose just a little bit of my sanity?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is not as strong a recommendation for me as the first, but once you understand what Tobe Hooper is getting at with his ersatz return to this flavor of slasher horror and you can also stand it, you should have a satisfyingly memorable time. If you can’t bring yourself to see the whole thing through, I still recommend finding and viewing online clips of the scenes with Lefty at the chainsaw store, Chop-Top’s introduction and maybe Lefty and Leatherface’s duel, a moment that like with Motel Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired a boss fight from Resident Evil 7, replete with chainsaw vs chainsaw.

After all, RE7 also clear took inspiration from Texas Chainsaw Massacre with its own first person dinner scene, a moment that counts among the most comically dark and disturbing in Resident Evil’s entire history, especially since all the player can do up to a point is move their head around in desperation, like Sally and Stretch before.

If you got the guts and the time, jump right in and see what you think.

Hellraiser (1987)

Image from Upcoming on Screen (The least disturbing yet still disturbing image I could find.)

Upon it’s impending American release, Stephen King himself declared that the future of horror, the guy that would carry the torch after him, was Clive Barker, the author/director behind the movie you see before you. He didn’t quite become the title he was heralded for, but he for certain became a facet of the horror landscape. He’s one of two figures identified with body horror, the other being our boy David Cronenberg.

There have been 11 movies in the Hellraiser series, the most recent being a reboot attempt under Hulu with a now female Pinhead. When it comes to films from the series to recommend, that has been difficult to ascertain, as only the first movie has garnered acclaim from both audiences and critics, albeit overtime. If I had to guess, it would be based on whats fans of the series say and on how closely or not Barker was involved in the project.

The first movie, as many allegorical horror movies are want to be, are about asking uncomfortable questions about ourselves and not being OK with the answers we might discover. Despite its title, Hellraiser is not about the horror of discovering that, yes, Hell and demons or something akin to that is real, but about how actually different the experience of pain is to pleasure. While the general attitude is that there is of course a difference as we always desire pleasure and fear pain, the truth is much more complicated.

What arouses or feels good to a human being is a canvas that gets bigger and bigger the more we study it. For a long time we have been aware of those who can find pleasure in pain being put upon them. Whether you call it BDSM or not, whether you find it morally abhorrent or not, it doesn’t change that it’s there and that plenty of everyday people, people you wouldn’t call suspect or concerning engage in it. They engage in it consensually, with rules and the understanding that it’s always OK to stay stop when the need arises.

Culturally, this side of sexual identity or expression, with it not always necessarily having a sexual aspect has been vilified, feared or at least questioned by those who either have or are instilled in them conventional attitudes or tastes in sexuality. I myself don’t quite get BDSM based on what I find pleasurable or not. When I feel pain, I simply feel pain and don’t want more of that. And yet, somehow, I do get the sense that someone could find a way to derive pleasure from it. For instance, after pain of many different sorts subside, you can feel pretty good even great afterwards. Have no idea if that’s a connection but there.

Hellraiser is not strictly about the “painful” pleasures as conventional pleasure is also explored. It’s core idea is what happens if you reach a point where all the options to experience pleasure are used up, explored and you still can’t get no satisfaction. That is the lead motivation behind Frank, a man who gets his hands on a puzzle box called the “Cube of Configuration”. Upon using it, the Cenobites arrive, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley with his wonderfully sonorous voice) and give onto him a supernatural experience that to some is a true nightmare but to him is the true peak of what he craves. The only cost is his soul under the Cenobites.

However, Frank’s brother Larry (who I just learned writing this is played by Andrew Robinson who portrayed one of the best characters on Deep Space Nine, Garak) arrives at Frank’s home with his British wife Julia. Because Frank seemingly abandoned the place, they get to buy it in his absence. Julia, who we learn in flashback was in an adulterous affair with Frank, learns to her initial horror what has become of Frank. In a freak accident where Larry bleeds on the floor where Frank was taken by the Cenobites, that begins Frank’s slow, gruesome yet amazingly filmed resurrection.

Just as Larry’s daughter Kirsty comes to visit the family, does Julia encounter a returned Frank, who is little better than a zombie in appearance. In order to get his full body back, he needs more blood and the best way to expedite the process is through whole ass people being brought over to the house when Larry and Kirsty aren’t around and killing them. At first Julia is horrified at what it will take to get her lover back, but eventually upon remembering her promise to Frank in the throes of passion that she would do anything for him and plain old lust, she slowly lets go of her reservations and starts to gladly help out.

As film academics have made note of, all while likely smoking a pipe thoughtfully, Julia and Kirsty are meant to be contrasted as the two female leads. Kirsty, in spite of being a young, sexually open woman is a kind, decent person who never falls victim to the same temptations as Frank her Uncle. Julia however, shows how simply unsuitable a partner she would be to Larry or basically anyone with ethics as she lets more and more terrible things slide, all to get someone that was really great in bed, if indeed the best, back. The things we do for lust.

Sexual arousal and the compulsions around it are near-universal, unless you are asexual or have a weak or non-existent sex drive. While most of us would be aghast at Julia’s actions, you never really know where those sexual desires could take you if you let them. Even worse, the drive could be so strong that a question of whether there was any choice in the matter arises. Our instincts define our choices more than we would like and rarely for the better.

Kirsty does get involved with the Cenobites’ cube, out of sheer curiosity, having no idea what it does save that it relates to what it’s doing to her family. It’s the cube’s capabilities, among others being a portal to a dark other-world. That alone can best explain why there is so much meat on the bone of Hellraiser as a franchise, so many possibilities. The meat proved to be not of the best quality, but still.

It’s when the Cenobites get directly involved with Kirsty’s use of the cube is where the film really picks up and becomes more of what I was expecting. I had no idea that a good chunk would deal with an unfaithful wife’s attempts to help restore a lover to life. The Cenobites are intriguing on top of how they look due to being evil beings who have a surprisingly ambiguous side. It could factor into Barker’s atheism, but they’re not strictly the hosts of hell the name implies and may not even be from Hell.

Often in fiction the devils or demons seek out human targets for their unholy games and agendas. The Cenobites are demons that wait on you to come to them. They are secure in the knowledge that the appetites of humanity will always be so that eventually someone will learn of their cube and their power and seek them out. In spite of the consequence that your soul and being will be forever in their hands, it is very much a deal with a devil that puts the impetus on you to see it through.

To save time and my carpal-tunnel hands from further undesired pain, the film concludes in a practical effects spectacle that once again shows the nigh unique things that practical 80s horror can bring to the table that is all but gone from today. In spite of its dark, brutal and oh so bloody imagery, there is a strange savage sense of satisfaction in watching the ultimate fates of Frank and Julia. No matter how horrible their ends by the cenobites are, they are very much deserving of what comes to them. You may cringe, but you still won’t call it inappropriate.

Like the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is enough that you cautiously check the first Hellraiser. It’s a still novel vision of horror and the supernatural that taps into various insecurities just about all of us have. I felt uncomfortable and yet I was glad I did as it reminded me of my humanity. If you didn’t feel anything from watching Hellraiser, I would be very sorry for you indeed. Unlikely I know, as this British classic HAS SUCH SIGHTS TO SHOW YOU.

On a final note, I must give props to composer Christopher Young, who does a classical sounding yet oddly fitting score that, of all things, reminded me of the music from my favorite Wallace and Gromit feature, The Wrong Trousers. Sounds random, but it’s a hearty endorsement all the same just to listen to Hellraiser on top of watching it.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon Part V of VI

It’s Halloween day as I begin writing this part and I shall complete it five days afterwards. It’s really so that I can’t help but do part VI well after as well. So again, take these belated Halloween entries on this blog for next year’s enjoyment or whenever you want, if I recommend it or it leave you curious.

Here, we cover Goonies-but Universal Horror Monsters, Stan Winston’s remarkable directorial debut and an anime movie classic coming from a time when Japan was showing us up in mature animation and then some.

The Monster Squad (1987)

Image from Bloody Disgusting (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Dark Universe if it happened in the 80s. And worked.)

The Monster Squad is special in that it recalls the last time I can think of when young kids or teens really seemed to care about the original block of horror monsters, or at least that’s the impression this movie is supposed to leave you with.

It could just as easily be director Fred Dekker and screenwriter Shane Black (script doctor for Predator and future director of Iron Man 3) making a love letter to what they grew up with as kids, seeing cinematic takes on Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, Mummy and the Creature from the black lagoon or in this movie’s case Gill Man on black and white television.

When it comes to the visual representations of this classic creatures, they are just about the best at being both quasi-contemporary while faithful enough to their original appearances.

The Monster Squad as a film of the 80s let alone a kids movie, is the type of experience that technically can’t be done anymore. I say technically because we actually kinda did have an experience that among other things apes with love The Goonies, Stand by Me and this film: Stranger Things.

Netflix’s blockbuster phenomenon continues to go strong based on the fourth season’s commercial success if nothing else and whatever good or bad you have to say about it, you can give partial credit to The Monster Squad. It’s a very appealing fantasy even as a grown adult. Imagine you’re put in a dangerous situation like confronting these literary and cinematic boogeymen and actually having the knowledge to confront and survive them. All of that and you are around 12 years old.

The Monster Squad is led by Sean who proudly wears a “Stephen King rocks!” shirt which considering a lot of what I’ve recently watched feels like a nice capoff. The squad consists of four other boys, one who seems young enough to be in Kindergarten and has interesting varied tastes beyond horror as I’ll mention later on.

The oldest member is a teen who is clearly trying to pull off a tough, bad boy image to get girls and yet despite his age wants to hang out with kids younger than him. A little weird honestly, though it could have something to do with the squad’s treehouse having a good view of one of the girl’s next door getting dressed or undressed (It’s an 80s movie).

One of the most notable members also plays on a convention that was very much of its time like pervy teens watching girls getting dressed: the chubby kid. Stand by Me has one ,The Goonies has Chunk and his love of Baby Ruths and this movie has what is up until his dramatic name reveal as straight up Fat-Kid. In what really does show the film’s age when it comes to demeaning people heavier than you who may or may not have an eating problem, Fat-Kid is called as such by both bullies and by his friends. The treatment is so similar that I actually mistook some bullies for being Fat-Kid’s friends. It’s that bad.

There’s also sadly then true to life casual slinging of the F-word when it comes to someone gay and one very dated scene where the girl that was being perved on earlier is being asked by the squad to help them with stopping Dracula and the monsters. They believe the teen girl called Lisa is a virgin so in order to get her to help in spite of her incredulousness, they up and blackmail her with pictures in a state of undress. Jesus.

I mean, this kinda stuff can distract and even detract from all the positives like the pretty great presentation and use of the monsters. Dracula as portrayed by Duncan Regehr is pretty fantastic as the vampire of vampires. This is the case for a lot of people but what really gets this Dracula high up there isn’t just genuinely trying to kill a bunch of meddling kids nor his cruel enslaved treatment for both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, but that he calls a little girl, Sean’s sister, a bitch right to her face.

In spite of Stranger Things existing, Monster Squad recalls a bygone time when films for all ages had both adults and kids swearing though rarely to the highest level and a level of violence that’s kinda daring. Dracula’s brides, the gill-man and the Wolf-Man get it the worst violence-wise and are the clearest reason behind the PG-13 rating, more so than The Goonies‘ PG, which was given after the creation of the former rating.

Of course the Wolf-Man often is the stand-out monster not only being central to the best known line, “Wolfman’s got Nards!”, but in an attempt to kill him when no silver bullet is around, he explodes from dynamite and because that isn’t a weakness, the guy comes back together like the Iron Giant would.

What exactly is Dracula and those monsters doing in the Squad’s home town? Well, it’s almost the hundredth anniversary of the last time that Dracula was truly vulnerable, when an amulet would make him so. Van Helsing a century ago tried to do so by sucking Dracula and his minions into literally Limbo but instead he got himself sucked up.

His followers took the amulet across the Atlantic over to America hoping that would deter Dracula. Well, it didn’t and Dracula summons and awakens the other Universal horror monsters to assist him in finding and destroying the amulet, making him invincible. It’s not explained why any other method of killing a vampire like a stake to the heart wouldn’t kill him though it certainly hurts as the film shows.

I guess being THE vampire means that his power level is so high it weakens the weaknesses. Also, there has to be an excuse for an epic finale, which is not unlike the ending of Evil Dead II, what with a spell from a book being read that summons a portal to suck stuff in. Same year in fact as Ash’s groovy sophomore appearance.

So the Monster Squad assembles, with their numbers growing to include Sean’s aforementioned little sister Phoebe, Frankenstein’s Monster who gives up his loyalty to Dracula very easily due to Phoebe’s friendly influence and a Holocaust survivor who knows German that is called at first apprehensively then affectionately by the Squad Scary German Guy. The poor guy is never asked what his real name is not that he seems to mind. Then again, him helping the kids fight literal monsters over the figurative ones from his tragic past takes precedence I suppose.

Aside from Scary German Guy, where’s all the adults? Well, of course they don’t believe the kids until it’s much too late and the lone black dude, Sean and Phoebe’s Dad’s cop partner, will pay the price for their disbelief. It is very established in stories where a kid or group of kids are the lead heroes facing a dangerous conflict will have adults, parents or otherwise, who are at best bemused by what their kids are up to. On the one hand, is that not how parents or anyone over the age of 13 would likely react? This realistic response has become overtime a turgid cliche.

So far, I have given off a positive response to this movie, barring that outdated stuff I brought up. Well, let me take the time to make it clear in how Monster Squad stacks up in comparison to the other “Kids go on perilous adventure” genre as seen through Stand by Me and especially The Goonies. This is the weakest of the three and that has to do with the weak characterization of most if not all the Monster Squad members.

The Goonies, from the four boys including Mikey (Sean Astin), Chunk, Mouth (Corey Feldman), Data (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan) to the teenage newcomers who join in due to place and circumstance such as Mikey’s brother Brand (future Thanos Josh Brolin), Andrea and Stef all feel well defined and recognizable on their own merits. It’s the well-defined nature of the seven Goonies that helps along what is one of the most enjoyable family pictures the 80s had ever produced. Their character aspects help better inform their underground adventure to find pirate treasure as being as memorable and fun as it was.

The Monster Squad characters, while some have a few traits, like Sean and Fat-Kid, feel flat and are just meant to serve what the plot needs them to do without any way of how their own characterizations inform what they go through. It doesn’t even bother me that some if not all of the Goonies fall into some convention or stereotype. How they’re told by Goonies screenwriter Chris Columbus and executed by the actors makes them feel more real and noteworthy than any one Monster Squad member.

The film is also really short, under an hour and 30 minutes, which means it doesn’t drag, but it also feels as if they’re rushing past any character buildup beyond the most obvious. Sure, it means it gets us involved with the monster stuff in good time, but there’s a cost.

If you haven’t already checked out The Monster Squad and people of a certain, nostalgic age likely already have, please do so but I would encourage you to also see Goonies and Stand by Me in conjunction if you have the time. You will likely feel the difference as I did. But there’s nothing from what I said that implies you won’t have something of a good time. It’s own conceit, that of youngsters enjoying old horror movies, is also a refreshing touch from where I stand.

Oh, and this film will likely have you google ”Robotech” and discover out of the blue an influential American dub and mashing of three separate anime shows. Love it or hate it, you will get something out of it, no lie.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Image from Entertainment Weekly (In West Virginia, no one can hear you scream.)

Stan Winston is a legend in the practical effects industry and is responsible for some of yesteryear cinema’s most impressive V/FX. The Alien Queen in Aliens. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Terminators in….The Terminator, John Carpenter’s Thing, The Predator among other accomplishments.

His sole feature length movie director job has him doing his unique take on both the creature feature and the slasher genre. Set in some podunk part of America, almost certainly part of the Appalachians, Lance Henriksen plays a simple road store owner named Ed Harley. He has a bespectacled son, Billy, and a dog.

Some city folk teens are looking to stay in a cabin deep in the woods and are bringing their motorbikes along. At a stop at Ed’s place, some of the more adrenaline fueled kids can’t wait to play with their bikes. In doing so, they run over little Billy. The teens save for one stay with the boy until Ed arrives and angrily takes his son away. Sadly, little Billy dies upon returning to their home.

Being already a widower and having no other family save his dog, Ed is left with nothing except vengeance. At the apprehension of his fellow hill-dwellers, he heads to an old crone who lives at a swamp near a mountain. That crone, who sounds as if she has smoked a trillion Marlboros in her life has indeed the power to get Ed Harley his vengeance. There is a steep price. Ed accepts as hasn’t he already lost basically everything that matters? Everything but his own moral compass that is.

As a young boy, he once stayed cooped up in his house with his ma and pa and saw for his own eyes the eventual tool of his revenge, the Pumpkinhead, as it slowly yet surely hunts down and kills some poor sucker who had wronged another man. Since childhood, he has known what his weapon would look like, and once it starts cruelly hunting down those city teens, he begins to regret it, as the crone had warned. But, there is no going back once the Pumpkinhead is summoned through a ritual in blood.

What separates Pumpkinhead from other slashers of its time and in general is that only one of the crew of teens meant to die or be victimized by our slasher is the teen biker who struck Billy accidentally. Due to pre-existing trouble with the police, he runs from what he did and soon puts the rest of his innocent friends including his girlfriend in grave danger. To be fair, not one of them could have known that a terror from hillbilly folktale was coming for them.

For that reason, you’re not meant to really be cheering on the slasher or at least looking forward to how he or it will do in its targets one by one. It’s more of a genuine horror experience for that reason. Playing on the idea that the wronged person for which it’s committing this violence would want to have the perpetrator suffer, Pumpkinhead takes his time when other slashers like Jason and Michael have the courtesy to often make it quick..

Now, based on the header image, you’re wondering how that monster got the name “pumpkinhead”. Well, it’s because the body that will be the creature is exhumed from a creepy graveyard full of pumpkins. When it comes to what the fella looks like, well, it actually changes overtime. At first I thought I had overlooked something watching or there was a continuity issue, but it soon becomes clear that it’s deliberate.

In this instance, as the film nears the end, it starts to resemble..Ed Harley himself and that leads into a ingenuous plot element I will leave for you to watch and see for yourself though I think some of you can piece it together already. As expected from Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead as an effects monster is brilliantly executed. It comes closer than most of its kind to actually looking like a real creature, alien yet so familiar to our eyes. Now, as my image blurb points out, it can resemble a familiar cinema monster from beyond the stars, one that Winston has already been involved in.

It’s Pumpkinhead’s behavior, his sheer presence that makes him into what is affectionately called by fans the “hillbilly xenomorph”. Where the similarity is forgivable due to how well he works conceptually and in practice.

This is a definite recommend, especially for those looking for an expedient horror thrill as it clocks at just 86 minutes. Unlike the issues that came with Monster’s Squad’s swiftness, not a second feels wasted nor does it last any longer than it needs to make it’s country-ass diabolical points.

Vampire Hunter D (Japan) (1985)

Image from IMDB (A whole different kind of “pale” rider.)

Rarely is the European aesthetic as cool or awe inspiring in my eyes when seen through the lens of Japanese interpretation.

While I have yet to summon the courage and the patience to see Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne or Elden Ring through, these hard but beloved games from Japanese developer From Software showcase in one respect what the Land of the Rising Sun have done in visualizing Medieval and Victorian Europe in a way that seems outwardly respectful, even fascinated.

Other examples are many of Studio Ghibli’s work, especially under Miyazaki. In spite of his many criticisms of the West’s geopolitical actions, he does wonders in bringing European cultural and architectural expression to life in a way that might be more beautiful than the real thing. All while still keeping his critique of Western imperialism intact, best seen in Castle in the Sky (my first and favorite) and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Some of Japan’s appreciation for European aesthetic can become uncomfortable, however. This is especially true when it tackles Germanic style, especially when regarding those in positions of power, like nobility and the military. Manga and anime series alike have received both praise and harsh criticism of utilizing European imagery that can get a little too…Nazi-like.

Mobile Suit Gundam’s Principality of Zeon was clearly inspired by the visual and political aspect of Nazi Germany, though in fairness they are the baddies of the story. But like Star Wars’ also Fascist Galactic Empire, they look so cool being evil. Zeon’s Mobile Suits (Piloted giant robots) called Zakus look menacing yet awesome.

MSG shows sympathetic if still villainous members of Zeon and also establishes that the original vision of the outer space breakaway state from Earth’s Federation wasn’t necessarily always Fascist, rather with supposedly noble intent that humanity must embrace being a species among the stars and not under Earth’s jurisdiction. Why I am spending so much time on how the Japanese use of European and recent European style and history can have unfortunate implications instead of just getting to Vampire Hunter D?

Well, I just wanted something of a crash course in how Japan, for all its at times too-reverent love of its own complicated and bloody history, like anyone else’s, can also show an honestly humbling enthusiasm for exploring other cultures and infusing a bit of themselves in it.

Vampire Hunter D is set ten thousand years in the future, presumably from when it was released like in 1985. It’s a post-apocalyptic future with a mix of high-flung cyber-tech like robot horses with stuff that is definitely more agrarian, old by today’s standards.

Whatever the event that sent humanity into this long, dark future with a mix of old and very, very new, it is certainly not a world that a viewer of 1985 or 2022 would recognize. The abundance of Gothic monsters preying on humanity’s remaining settlements attest to that.

Vampire Hunter D plays with how in this far future, humanity is still or maybe for the first time, openly dealing with fantasy horrors of a very distant past. What is one monster of the night that can naturally bridge the vast gulf of ten thousand years and even then? Vampires!

Count Lee (who I at first thought was called “Countly”), an obvious reference to the second most famous person to portray Dracula cinematically, wants a new bride. He doesn’t need one as his vampire aristocracy rules-minded daughter keeps reminding him of, but he wants one because why not? Why the hell not?

As he later reminds his vampire daughter that their kind can be around for a very, very long time. How you start to view time and keep yourself occupied when being immortal becomes as important as basic vampire stuff like drinking blood and caring for your fangs.

Doris Lang, a blonde-haired farm-girl, who lives only with her young brother Dan, are accosted by Count Lee and she is soon vampirized. It takes awhile for the process to become a full vampire on Doris, longer than most depictions, so there’s enough time,she hopes, for a very long-haired, hatted stranger on horseback to help with dealing with Count Lee and his court of vampires and other creepy-crawlies. Here comes the Toshiro Mifune/ Clint Eastwood-like D.

Yes, his name is straight-up D. Why? Well, as the final confrontation D has with the Count strongly insinuates, he is a descendant of THE vampire, Dracula. This also plays into the mid-movie reveal which I honestly saw coming that D is a Dhampir, someone who is the offspring of a vampire and human coupling. It doesn’t matter whom is whom, so long as they have sex and one doesn’t turn the partner before and during the process so to speak.

D is part of the small but significant group of heroes/anti-heroes that are half-vampires that include Marvel’s Blade and Castlevania’s Alucard. It is generally easier for a Dhampir to resist the desire to consume blood, but it is never gone. Because they can resist, they are thus far more likely to be on the side of good and also have the added benefit of walking in sunlight without consequence.

They are also made hunters of vampires for those same reasons, whether it comes from a thirst for justice or self-loathing or both. D falls more into the latter category than Blade or Alucard in wishing to hunt vampires because he despises that he is half of one and has that potential temptation at all. Even if his mission is impossible in ridding the world of vampirism, being long lived or immortal gives him basically all the time in the world to find out.

A key distinction from other hero dhampirs is that he has on his left hand a living entity with a mouth and eyes. It speaks to D and often tempts him to go about being more…vampy. He also tries to goad D to be more human as D also abstains from most forms of physical contact, up to and including sex. After all, D fears that in the heat of the moment, he could bite his lover/partner and spread the curse further, defeating his life purpose.

The Hand yet argues that he has to live a little eventually, he won’t necessarily get someone vampirized if he goes all the way with someone and without that kind of emotional or physical connection, all he’s got is his mission. A mission, while well intended, that by itself can make you lonely and miserable. Considering his dhampir lifespan, a far longer ordeal than any one of us will endure.

D accepts the offer to help Doris and Dan with their vampire problem even when he realizes it will involve fighting Count Lee, who he recognizes as a potentially unsurpassable foe, even for him. Eventually, circumstances force D to journey alone into the Count’s castle, full of beautifully animated yet ugly creatures for him to face.

It’s at this moment that I might address Vampire Hunter D’s mature if possibly reckless attitude towards sexual expression, namely showing off female nudity. Keep in mind that anime and manga have long surpassed other regional forms of animation like my own when it comes to mainstream mature content being presented. Japan, despite having many reservations about public displays of affection or sexual content, including for the most part not featuring sexual intercourse even, they are more OK with just showing off cartoon ladies with less covering them.

This very complicated nature Japan has with expression or showcasing of sexual activity can both leave one with a headache parsing what is and is not acceptable for what has been a socially conservative nation while it can also seem as if the ready featuring of female nudity can show a cultural double standard. Is it sexist? In some areas or examples definitely, but it can also be a case of Japan culturally trying to get past it’s own censorship and dare I very much say it, hangups. The notorious “tentacle” porn is actually an alternative to what has been allowed in other parts of pornographic or sexual expression.

Vampire Hunter D is only ever graphic in showing female breasts, and some of them come from three siren sisters who transform into super long necked serpent monsters and do the best job of anyone other than Count Lee and his hatchet man Rei of wrecking D’s shit. There is a scene where for a short moment Doris has a wardrobe malfunction, but it occurs during a dramatic scene, not played for carnal laughs.

While the serpent sirens showing off their breasts makes sense as they’re sirens and initially try to seduce D which of course doesn’t work for our stoic anime protagonist, it comes across as frivolous in Doris’ example. It’s just because the animators could or to further show off maybe maybe not to a non-Japanese consumer that this is what anime can get away with that American animation cannot, unless you’re Ralph Bakshi.

It reminded me of an intentionally disturbing moment from Akira released three years later which involves almost-rapists ripping off the shirt of a teenage girl and that moment doesn’t come as frivolous rather as a stark example of how dystopian and not okay Neo-Tokyo’s world is meant to be. Within the confines of how “justifiable” a scene like that can be, Akira is more skillful than Vampire Hunter D, but then again Akira is masterful in almost every sense save for compressing to feature-length a long manga narrative that hadn’t even been finished at the time.

Now, like I have done in a case of last resort before, I watched Vampire Hunter D in its entirety for free as a YouTube video. Don’t ask me why that hasn’t been taken down. For that reason and that I might have been watching a VHS copy of the movie, I didn’t see the film in a crisp manner. Being animated and not live action, it was easier to catch the details but it was not the optimum way to view a distinctive as hell take on the Vampire mythos. For the modern age viewer’s vocabulary, Vampire Hunter D is a mid-80s Anime classic that is dripping with style.

Yes, because the limitations of budget and time, it can be more stilted in character’s movement and expression than say Akira. But Akira’s animation quality is so ludicrously high that it still looks better and more animated than most animations made today, whether it’s hand-drawn, CG or anime. So, yes, a beastly unfair comparison to make.

Anime movies, as it would be the case with Western animation, typically have better animation or quality than a TV series, so if you wanted to get the real good s**t of Japanese animation of the time and even now, you better hope it’s feature length. Vampire Hunter D isn’t the apex of its era but it is a beautiful if morbidly presented example of how varied and ambitious animation could be across the Pacific from us. In the 80s, we were basically flailing for the most part in the U.S. when it came to animation, though we would end the decade on a refreshing high note with the beginning of the Disney Renaissance through Little Mermaid as brought up earlier with Return to Oz on this horrorthon.

Vampire Hunter D is a must-see whether you like anime or not and if you know that, yes, the blood shall flow, among other things in this animated picture.

Next time: Halloween Horrorthon concludes well after Halloween has.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon part IV of VI: Fight Night between Fright Nights

Vampires and werewolves, Werewolves and vampires. Somehow they keep on coming back to haunt me and my reader-base this Halloween season. The MCU’s Werewolf by Night only added to the coincidence as I didn’t even realize some of my selections for this year’s Horrorthon would feature these two Gothic monsters.

While’s it’s neat I have a consistent theme to what I’m covering for the most part, it can at times feel like overload having Vampires and Lycans constantly re-emerging in my work. Well, for this showdown of two vampire titles of the same name, there is at least the vampire and in the original movie’s case, a vampire who has a very werewolf transformation.

Fright Night (1985)

Image from YouTube (No wuv, true wuv here….)

Part of what made the original Fright Night so effective in a way that may not hold up as well to an audience of my generation is that it plays itself up as a celebration of an older generation’s consumption of horror media. The movie’s name comes from a TV show that showcases old horror movies. It’s host is Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) and I don’t think I have to tell you who Vincent Price was as that is something you a younger reader could have a vague recollection of. Know who the narrator is in Michael Jackson’s Thriller? Well then you know of Vincent Price.

There was also Elvira and Vampirella as hosts to TV-approved versions of old horror or relatively recent horror flicks. The most contemporary example would be Joe Bob Briggs and it’s worth it to check out his host segments for MonsterVision’s Friday the 13th marathon back in the 90s. Because of how viciously edited Jason’s movies were for public consumption, Brigg’s commentary during the breaks are all that’s worthwhile.

In spite of Briggs keeping the tradition alive with The Last Drive-In on Shudder, the kind of TV program Fright Night is known for is basically gone, unless you count TCM doing a horror marathon. The remake would address this by totally changing what Fright Night is.

Fright Night is also a 80s teen comedy that seeks to give an update to the vampire movie formula. Taking the trends of how vampires worked and were fought and killed in earlier movies and placing it in an 80s environment. I for one, am all for that concept on the face of it. Nevertheless, not every promising 80s teen comedy with a twist works as well as even I thought it would for me.

Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox is a perfect example. Save for one perfect scene, where Fox’s character transforms into a werewolf in his bathroom then opens the door to see his also transformed father, that’s just great, let alone a subversion of how you were expecting that scene to play out. But it begins and ends as what you don’t want the film to be, a sports movie. And even then, all the other moments with or without Teen Wolfing involved are either boring or not nearly reaching the highs of that one scene.

Fright Night thankfully is much better than Teen Wolf, both at executing its own premise, being a comedy involving teens and even being a horror film, not that Teen Wolf was ever trying to be scary. It also reminded me of another 1985 film released the same year as Teen Wolf and also starring Michael J. Fox. Do I even have to say what it is?

Image from IMDB (The original, not toxic Rick and Morty.)

I mean, Fright Night is a movie starring a teen who in this case makes acquaintances with what is at best a middle-aged man getting involved in something bigger than either one of them can solve alone. Only Back to the Future would became a monstrous box office success its year with a generation crossing recognition and acclaim. Like a vampire, Fright Night kept to the shadows.

William Ragsdale plays Charley Brewster, a teen who just wants his relationship with Amy (Amanda Bearse) to go all the way as an 80s teen was especially want to do at least in popular culture. But discovering that his new neighbor is a creature of the night just ruins the mood. Chris Sarandon plays the original Jerry Dandridge, the charismatic as hell vampire in secret and at first I thought he looked like a fusion of Hugh Grant and Billy Zane. I had to be prodded by a family member to remember that I had seen Sarandon before, as Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride. How could I forget him from a kissing movie no one would dare forget?

He’s also the voice of Jack Skellington from Nightmare before Christmas so his acumen is clearly something I should’ve picked up fast. He has his non-vampire yet not entirely human companion Billy who is meant to remind you of Renfield, the man Dracula enslaves and makes into a whimpering, desperate for affection fool. However, the relationship between Jerry and Billy seems to be mutually friendly without one dominating the other, the latter even pointing out how not miserable his setup is as a vampire servant.

Now, this came as a surprise to Sarandon and Jonathan Stark who plays Billy but there was intentional gay undertones to the nature of Jerry and Billy’s partnership. There’s one moment where anyone can see what the filmmakers are playing at with those two and you will know it when you see it.

Considering this is a film made and set in the mid-80s amidst the horrific AIDS crisis, it’s not as mean or outwardly homophobic as it could’ve been. Sure, Jerry is a remorseless vampire and Billy is his helper but if it wasn’t for that predilection of theirs, they would otherwise come across pretty well.

Hell, when Jerry and Billy are first seen publicly as living together, no one seems to make a fuss out of it, even though based on what was happening in America and much of the world at the time, you think someone would at least speak up in a way.

In fact, this movie seems to have a tragic yet sympathetic attitude towards homosexuals. Charley’s jerkass friend “Evil Ed” (Stephen Geoffreys), who is known for among other things saying one of the movie’s best known lines, “You’re so COOL, Brewster!”, is a guy who has been interpreted for being in the closest and the text of the film eventually gives way to making it not even ambiguous.

For starters, he’s shown to be annoyed and abrasive whenever Amy gets in the way of an activity that he clearly wanted to do just with Charley. Eventually, after getting shunned from his perspective by Charley and Amy, he encounters Jerry in an alleyway. He tells him to no longer be afraid for being different from his friends and to just embrace what he’s offering, which is, what else, vampirism.

Now, it’s also possible to take Fright Night’s attitude about homosexuality in a manner that is less accommodating and for that reason, less surprising considering the time it was made. Again, the scene of Ed being bitten by Jerry is occurring between a teen boy and a grown man. You know, that could be reinforcing one of the ugliest assumptions about someone being gay, especially for gay men. On the other hand, Ed not being “accepted” has him being drawn in and ensnared by a predatory person, one who uses him for his own ends.

Of course, the gay metaphor might become blurry to some considering that Jerry definitely preys on women as a vampire. But if Fright Night feels just a little bit allegorical for some stuff here and there, it was meant to be that way and it’s takeaways could’ve been much more disheartening.

So, basically, the premise is that Charley comes to learn that without a bat-shadow of a doubt that he has a vampire in his midst and sooner rather than later, he will come for his mother, his girlfriend and hell, maybe even him at some point. He soon realizes he can’t do it alone, especially since Amy and Ed are initially disbelieving and even then, not expert vampire hunters. The closest option is Fright Night’s Peter Vincent and he is a washed up, failing actor who can only be convinced to go along with Charley’s plans at first because money is on the table.

Roddy McDowall is the most recognizable actor and does a great job as the veteran actor getting on in years to help connect old cinema-goers with the new ones. Even though I implied he’s like Doc Brown earlier, he’s really more like if an actor who once portrayed Doctor Who was called upon by a fan to help him fight one of the Doctor’s enemies like Daleks or Cybermen. This may or may not be preparing you for David Tennant to be Vincent in the next movie.

As a horror experience, it can be effective yet the tone is always on mixing with comedy and other emotions. Some of the scarier moments of this movie can often be followed with something actually sad. Namely, when vampirized Evil Ed is preying upon McDowall’s Vincent during the third act, it at first baffles you by him transforming into a wolf (which I think is an actual ability for a vampire, one of many that are often underused in fiction).

Vincent accidentally gets Ed as a wolf staked with a broken table leg which leads to his slow, drawn out transformation back into human form. Yep, werewolf transformations were so much the rage in the 80s, even non-werewolf movies had them. That being said, there’s no humor, no real horror, just sympathy from an old man for a young man’s outcome.

There is an appropriate mixing of tones to Fright Night, neither zany silliness or fearful terrors all the time. If there’s one thing the original Fright Night struggles with, it’s the pacing of it’s climax which while there’s not necessarily an unneeded scene, it can go on too long. That header image showing Jerry realizing dawn has come, that’s a moment where you expect him to be exposed to sunlight and die there and then. Nope, and sure what happens after is certainly good, even great. But it can feel a bit too extensive. That being said, the final fates of both Jerry and Billy are near gold-standard examples of practical effects horror.

So yeah, Fright Night is an 80s cult horror comedy classic that does manage to hold up well enough though it doesn’t reach the heights of other similar movies of its era. But, it’s hard to be too down on a movie that shows up Teen Wolf and good.

Fright Night (2011)

Image from Plugged In (Offscreen: Colin Farrell’s Jerry circumventing a vampire rule in the coolest yet most alarming way possible.)

‘Oh look, it’s a 2010s remake of a horror movie or just a movie from the 1980s. Yawn, I’m not falling for that cash grab, see ya later.

I am guessing that is the abridged reason why audiences more or less skipped the 2011 Fright Night movie, having it even adjusted for inflation making less money then the original. All the more funny considering some consider it to be better than the original film. That’s not a universal opinion, and I go back and forth on which is better, but that this mental process is even happening is kind of shocking.

It’s still a story of a teen boy and his teen girlfriend getting wrapped up in the perils of having a vampire living next door, albeit without the “Renfield” character of Billy. There is still an actor of sorts in Peter Vincent, now a Las Vegas stage performer, with an understanding of vampires and their weaknesses. There is still the wayward friend, Ed, who will become a vampire himself all over a breakdown of friendship with our hero teen. It even ends with Charley and Peter Vincent bravely going into Jerry Dandridge’s home to find and kill him, ending the curse. It can be familiar, like a remake must risk being, but it never felt as distractedly similar as say the American Ring could.

It feels like an honest to God update on the original movie, not just placing it in a time much closer to our own, but also with building on the concept, even using the new Las Vegas setting to actually better justify the concept. You might think a vampire living in Nevada is a terrible idea, but the conceit that Jerry’s potential prey are often in transit, rarely ever staying in Vegas is actually kind of genius.

Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away shortly before the release of the third and most recent “Kelvin” Star Trek film from an auto accident, is the new Charley Brewster. He comes across as a slightly more mature and less fast-talking Tom Holland in both appearance and personality, which really works in this movie’s favor. Amusingly as I make this sentiment, the director of the original movie was named Tom Holland.

The boyish nature in comparison to Ragsdale’s take actually makes him seem more vulnerable a protagonist to Jerry and anything he might throw his way. His girlfriend, still called Amy, is played by Imogen Poots, and of course she is a bombshell-looking girlfriend though having been through College I can tell you they’re normal people in real life that do come close to approaching that level of look, so to speak, so it’s not purely Hollywood idealism.

Toni Collette plays Charley’s mother and like the original she is an open-minded, liberal-leaning woman who really has no problem with her son’s relationship with Amy going all the way. Collette is just the right person for that kind of mother character and she thankfully has a larger role to play than the original mom played by Dorothy Fielding. This won’t be the last time Toni Collette gets involved in a horror story, though due to Fright Night having a foot in comedy, it makes her role in 2018’s Hereditary far more stark in comparison.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the new Evil Ed and is for one less grating than the original, thus making his outcome even more pitiable. Because of Mintz-Plasse having already made a name for himself in pop culture unlike Stephan Geoffreys through Superbad and Kickass, it was a bit harder to just see him as Evil Ed where I know Geoffreys from just Fright Night at this point in my viewing experience.

On the other hand, the characterization is possibly the most different between versions of the whole cast. For one, he believes Jerry is a vampire before Charley and actually has to goad him into following along in breaking into a friend’s house which has curiously gone quiet. He still does the “You’re so cool, Brewster!” line but it feels even more sarcastic here than before, but that could just be Mintz-Plasse’s way of saying it.

This Evil Ed is the sole character for whom any gay undertones or subtext exist in this version. Jerry not having Billy here makes him come across as less of a potentially uncomfortable allegory, fitting more into just the sociopathic scumbag predator that was the first layer of takeaway to be had originally. They don’t even try to hide Ed’s closeted nature in this movie, as one moment between vampire Ed and Charley makes abundantly clear.

Now let’s talk about the two actors responsible for giving the new Fright Night the praise it did: Colin Farrell’s Jerry and David Tennant’s Peter Vincent.

Farrell’s take on Jerry is different than Sarandon due to him having less a suave sex appeal in favor of a rugged, bad-boy aesthetic which he of course uses to great effect on potential targets like Amy and Charley’s mom. That he lives by himself actually sells this better because me and likely you have known neighbors like this. But as we often are ones to wonder, rightly or not, about what our neighbors are hiding, so Farrell gives off a tone that might be dangerous but probably isn’t, assuming you don’t know the truth.

Once Charley infiltrates Jerry’s house, which on the outside looks like a conventional suburban home unlike the totally standout haunted-looking house from before, this is where the new take plays some of its more diabolical tricks to great effect. Charley’s search through the house reveals a hidden hallway meant explicitly for his still-living targets, all female. Unlike the original, where Jerry’s targets for feasting were killed then and there, this Jerry doesn’t immediately kill his food. Even worse, when Charley attempts to rescue one of Jerry’s food sources, he in turn plays a horrifically cruel trick on Charley.

Initially the scene is like hiding from the aliens from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. It seems as if Charley and the woman are mere moments away from being spotted by an unaware Jerry. Considering Charley has no skills in stealth and he has a quietly whimpering lady beside him, it appears inevitable they will be caught. But no, Charley manages to get out of the house with the woman. That’s when the other shoe drops and it leads to a shocking, inspired moment that helps sell this take as building on the original rather than merely copying it.

You might be wondering if any of the original cast appears in the 2011 version and you’d be right. Chris Sarandon appears in a wonderfully black comic encounter with Farrell’s Jerry in a moment that can act as visual metaphor for those who think this film supplants the original.

The last notable actor is David Tennant as Peter Vincent, coming right after his time as the Tenth Doctor. Well, his full time. Tennant’s incarnation has reappeared in special appearances down the road, very recently in fact as he helped with Jodie Whittaker’s bowing out as the Thirteenth Doctor to make way for the Fourteenth.

This Peter Vincent is very different from McDowall’s, save for being British and initially appearing as an actor with no actual belief or ability regarding facing off with vampires. For one, he’s meant to be like a Criss Angel/ David Blaine like stage performer, but with a supernatural twist. Seeing as how I was recently in Vegas for the first time, this version of Fright Night seems plausible. Performing and living in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Tennant’s Vincent makes no attempt to hide the actor’s unique Scottish accent to the point where it sounded and eventually looked as if the Tenth Doctor is actually in this movie facing off against vampires.

This is all the more funny considering that the next Doctor, Matt Smith’s 11th, would get to actually fight vampires in a place that Las Vegas has recreated: Venice. This Vincent is also a little bit better for me than McDowall’s due to giving him an actual connection with vampires in his past. I won’t reveal how, but unlike the original Peter Vincent who was just as shocked to learn vampires are real as Charley and everyone else, this one is hiding his history in plain sight, making up for his painful life with alcoholism, a frivolous stage life and being a really unsocial recluse.

All of these elements described add up to a new take that mostly follows the trajectory of the original, without feeling hollow. It doesn’t hurt that the third act occurring in Jerry’s basement is not as long as the original while losing none of the desperation or horror. Hell, it might be an even more desperate final struggle for Charley and Vincent as Jerry, unlike what I said earlier, isn’t actually as alone as I said before and there is a good number of times where it appears that all hope is lost.

It obviously isn’t, as Fright Night doesn’t lose sight of being both a horror and a comedy. It remains surprisingly reverent of even some assumptions or traits of an 80s teen comedy, feeling like a movie that both works as a product of modern day and as a love letter to a bygone era that doesn’t go for the easy bait of nostalgia and fan service.

That could be that Fright Night is not held as deeply nostalgic as other 80s properties of its time. Despite the clear references to the original movie, like the quote Evil Ed says and Jerry does indeed once again state “It’s Fright Night. For Real.”, it feels more like a project that had actual passion and interest from its creators than just studio obligation to resurrect an old property. That it was a box office failure helps secure it as becoming like it’s forebear, a cult classic.

It has become itself a creature of the night that is very much worth being brought into the light for your perusal.

Bengal’s Halloween Horrorthon Part III of VI

Almost half way there, how much more horror can my large group of readers take? Well, let me start you off easy with something crazy, something titillating and something kind of fascinating from cult horror icon Tobe Hooper.

Lifeforce (1985) (U.K.)

Image by IMDB (Please insert the obvious TNG joke for those in the know.)

I must say, I struggled to find a header image that, one, I liked, and two, didn’t show off one of the more…noteworthy aspects to this Tobe Hooper cult classic. I was first made aware of Lifeforce while watching on Netflix the highly entertaining documentary on the infamous Cannon Group, Electric Boogaloo.

Cannon has already received much deserved attention from this blog through its masterfully silly Ninja trilogy as well as Michael Dudikoff’s American Ninja and Avenging Force. Now, we take a look at one of the stingiest film companies’ most expensive and impressive works. From the man who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its comedy sequel as well as (maybe) Poltergeist, co-written by the man who wrote Alien and with a bombastic, epic score by the Pink Panther man himself, Henry Mancini.

It’s cast list includes the lead played by Steve Railsback who I last saw in 1980’s The Stunt Man, Patrick Stewart who you clearly see above you, Peter Firth as a quite British SAS agent and secondary, Frank Finlay as an inquisitive scientist who of course gets too close to comfort to the mystery and Mathilda May as the seductive and almost always nude space woman. It should provide some comfort that May had no reservations nor regrets about the requirements to portray the role and to be honest once you get past the bare obvious thing about her role, she can be kind of frightening.

Based on a short story by Colin Wilson whose title completely gives away the mystery of whom the mysterious aliens are in this movie, it is set in an extremely different, not so distant future as viewed from the mid-80s. A joint space expedition between the U.S. and U.K. is trying to actually land on the returning Halley’s comet but something else next to it catches the crew’s attention.

A massive obelisk that can grow in size into the appearance of an organic umbrella is riding on its tail and the shuttle’s crew just has to investigate no matter how clearly ominous it appears. To be fair, Halley’s doesn’t come around all that often so the opportunity is there and they’ve got to take it.

It’s at this point that I have to compliment the production design and scope of a movie that is one, crazy, and also from a company that was known to and had to penny-pinch to stay afloat. By the production standards of a mid-80s movie, Lifeforce can be pretty impressive, especially in the moments set in space, inside the obelisk, inside the space shuttle and then during the climatic, apocalyptic sequence in London.

What the crew find are three humans in giant crystals, all nude and very visually appealing if you get where I’m coming from. It’s almost as if they are… meant to look most alluring. They are surrounded by the drifting, dead carcasses of what seem to be bat-like creatures. Again, that could be a mighty big tell for the uninformed about this movie. One of the reasons given and the most understandable one to bring back these three humanoids is why they’re humans not of Earth here in this obelisk in the first place.

However, shortly after getting them aboard the shuttle and beginning the long trip home, contact is lost with the shuttle. It’s found drifting erratically above Earth. Another shuttle goes up to investigate and the entire ship is scorched from the inside, the whole crew skeletonized. The three in the crystals are curiously unaffected and the only unaccounted for member, Col. Tom Carlsen (Railsback) who captained the vessel, is found landing in an escape pod later with little to no memory of what had transpired on the journey home. He does begin to suffer horrible nightmares relating to the shuttle, its crew and one of the three humanoids, obviously in this case being the female.

The European Space Research Centre based in London, where the crew’s mission control was established, is where Carlsen tries to recover and give answers about what happened. It’s also where the three beautiful humanoids are brought in to see what they are and what relation they have to the ill-fated shuttle. Once May’s lead female alien awakens, you already know things are going to go cork-screwed from here on out.

In spite of the Cannon Group association and that yes, a lot of screentime is spent with a very titillating woman walking around naked and causing havoc, there is a genuinely entertaining even spooky at times mystery for Lifeforce to delve into. The dawning realization of what the lead scientist played by Finlay discovers about the humanoids, what they are and more importantly what they can do and intend to do is quite fun. Firth’s Col. Caine being the straight man to an increasingly unhinged Col. Carlsen as they both try to find out what happened on the shuttle and contain the danger of what those three are leads to a race against time that is as extravagantly out there as it is curiously, bizarrely, even paradoxically grounded. To the point that I can believe there could be aliens out there who would prey on us, namely through one of our more… intimate bodily functions.

It got to the point where I wondered if association with Cannon and a hot, full-frontal lady walking around were the reason for Lifeforce’s negative critical reception and reputation, only ever served from being forgotten due to a cult status. It’s honestly, as the British would say, a cracking good experience.

If there are problems, serious problems which gives it low critical marks and an IMDB rating that hovers above 6.0, I didn’t see it. I mean, perhaps the concept once it’s fully recognized by movie’s end and how the film plays on a strangely ambiguous note is part of it’s reputation not being higher.

You can call it sleazy, you can call it stupid, you can call it exploitative to an actress which based on her remarks didn’t feel exploited at all. You can even call it too strange to be good which I didn’t realize was a qualification for a bad or lesser film. What I call it is a movie that deserves less said here about the full picture to fully appreciate with a production that is economic enough to appear both expensive yet cheap in a way that is remarkable, much like a Hammer movie.

I also call it a movie you should definitively check out unless you really are put off by female nudity and yes, I did notice that the film was hesitant to show full male nudity, implying an unsurprising double standard from the filmmakers. There’s this long standing hang-up at least in America where an R-rated movie can’t show at least clearly, a fully nude man but is more accommodating to a fully nude woman.

For many reasons, Lifeforce is an ostensibly dumb movie with plenty of food for thought.

Silver Bullet (1985) (Spoilers here)

Image from Werewolf News (Here, have a mid-tier werewolf transformation.)

If the section for Lifeforce seemed slight, it’s because it’s a movie where a good portion of it I want you the reader to see for yourself. Due to it’s cult status, it does not guarantee having a wide viewership, so if there is anything cool or interesting left unspoiled out in the ether, I’d like to keep it that way.

Silver Bullet, also considered a cult classic, is not that film for me. For that reason, I don’t mind giving away the narrative too much, including the identity of the man whose a werewolf. Now, if you’re interested in watching Silver Bullet one day, then please skip this section to Cat’s Eye.

Another reason I want to spill the beans is due to the actor and appearance of the man who is a werewolf, Everett McGill. You might know him from portraying Stilgar in the original Dune movie by David Lynch and for playing a Bond henchman in License to Kill, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Silver Bullet is an OK Stephen King adaptation. I’m not a good judge of that seeing as how I haven’t read any Stephen King story, let alone the novella that this flick is an adaptation of, Cycle of the Werewolf. Instead, I should say it was an OK King movie. Many might think I give my thumbs up for consideration for a lot of movies I review in my retrospectives. Well, here’s one that I don’t necessarily recommend but I also wouldn’t say skip.

If you like or want to watch as many werewolf movies as possible, are a big fan of Gary Busey or just need to see any given movie based on King, then sure, it’s worth your time. Anyone else can use their own discretion.

Set in a place where 80% of King’s stories are set, his native Maine, not that you would necessarily know by watching, Silver Bullet is the story of a seemingly old woman recounting the year that her hometown of Tarker’s Mills was preyed upon by a werewolf and how her and her handicapped brother Marty end up learning who it is and being witness to its end.

The movie is set in 1976 and was made into a movie in 85′ and yet rather than having the woman recalling the story by what was the then present of the mid-80s, it sounds like she’s recalling it when she is elderly, just like Rose in Titanic. Considering that Jane the sister is either a pre-adolescent or a young teen in 1976, that would mean she’s retelling the tale far in the future, meaning after 2022 when I’m watching and reviewing it. She would be middle-aged, approaching 60 today. That thought kinda scattered my mind a bit while viewing.

Tragic child actor Corey Haim plays Marty, who is confined to a wheelchair. Now, because this is a werewolf movie, you naturally assume that the title of Silver Bullet is about just that, a werewolf’s weakness. You’re correct, eventually.

It starts off as the name of Marty’s wheelchair which eventually becomes a motorcycle that his Uncle Red (Busey, huge surprise) builds for him. So, a story about a werewolf has a central character whose wheelchair turned motorcycle is called “Silver Bullet”. King has been accused of a lack of subtlety from time to time.

On the note of Gary Busey, I did check afterwards about the accident he suffered that caused him brain damage and wondered, if based on his style of playing an oft drunk yet affectionate Uncle if that was just his style or an offshoot of the accident. Couldn’t be, as it occurred in 1988 three years later. It so happened it was a motorcycle accident he went through and his Uncle Red here gives Marty a stern warning about being careful on the machine he builds for him. Oof.

Other notable faces include an early appearance by John Loc….Terry O’Quinn as the town sheriff who of course remains skeptical of the claims that something more than human is preying on the town in increasingly frightening numbers. So much so, that vigilante search parties begin going against the Sheriff’s commands and he in return becomes helpless to stop it once one of the victim’s relatives, an aggrieved father, tells him what right he has to stop them from committing “personal justice”. I kept waiting for someone to say “vigilantism” or “vigilante” but it never happens. Just an observation about how the most expected description isn’t used here.

It soon becomes honestly an R-rated yet never excessive GooseBumps or supernatural Hardy Boys tale, considering it amounts to a brother and sister with their eventually convinced Uncle to solve a mystery. R-rated because ,what else, werewolf-inflicted violence and some of it can hit quite hard, especially when only seeing the aftermath.

One reason I decided to up and reveal the identity of the man whose a werewolf is because of how McGill appears in the movie. After a midnight rendezvous where Marty stupidly decides to try out the Silver Bullet at night in spite of the night-based terror on the loose, he of course confronts the werewolf at what appears to be a swamp walkway. It was that location that threw me off from thinking it was set in Maine when that looks like a location from down south like South Carolina’s Congaree. Gary Busey and his signature accent also helped with that confusion.

Marty uses some leftover Fourth of July fireworks to blind the werewolf and break one of it’s eyes, saving his life. What helps seal the deal on finding out the mystery for Marty is that the town’s Man of God, Reverend Lowe, has an eye-patch all of a sudden and in the place Marty struck. More importantly, Lowe’s human appearance kept reminding me of a certain figure from the comics.

Image from Horror Obsessive

Image from Comic Art Fans

I have no idea if Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon saw Silver Bullet and thought that having an eye-patch for a badass, Texan reverend literally searching for God in order to kick his ass in Preacher would be a swell idea or if this is sheer coincidence. All I know is that no one else including TV Tropes, which loves to point these things out, have brought it up and yet I couldn’t help but keep thinking of the best graphic novel series that one might hate solely for it’s severe (to put it lightly) stance on religion and everything that comes with it.

As for whether Silver Bullet is a story where Stephen King is airing out some thoughts on religion himself by making the Christian pastor the main antagonist, I doubt it. It appears that Reverend Lowe may have been bitten by a werewolf once in the past and like most werewolf characters has no real control over the horrors that his state puts upon him. However, and this is suggested to be the case based on the cycle of the moon, how close to or full it is to be precise, he can be a malevolent monster when he is human and much to poor Terry O’Quinn’s chagrin, can transform at will.

There is an ambiguity to Lowe’s responsibility as a serial slayer of innocent people based on how much is him and how much was the werewolf, which is of course intentional. Like it will be when I cover The Monster Squad, often the silver bullet is not so much just a weapon of self-defense or a hunter’s tool, but an act of mercy.

Silver Bullet works, but not to the point of enthusiastic appraisal. Maybe that’s why it’s one of the more “quiet” cult classics, let alone for horror. Other cult hits before and after this selection have more notoriety and popular recognition, coming dangerously close to leaving the distinction of “cult” behind.

One of my favorite movies, Big Trouble in Little China, I’ve now come to wonder if it’s gone past that status to becoming just a classic of action-horror-adventure 80s’ cinema, let alone one of the most accessible John Carpenter pictures. That there’s a remake on the way with Dwayne Johnson involved should make you wonder.

Don’t worry, we can put that idea to the test in the next part of the horrorthon but for now, take or leave Silver Bullet for your perusal. Not seriously pushing you one way or the other.

Cat’s Eye (1985)

Image from Bloody Disgusting (A future Charlie’s Angel and the world’s best tabby.)

I would like to take this time to remind you that even now, well into into the 21st century, people out there still harm and attempt to kill black cats, especially around Halloween. Considering how sweet-natured and affectionate my departed black cat Prowl was and that there is no basically no difference between a black cat and any other cat because obviously, I wonder how much is adhering to superstitious fear and how many use that superstition to air out their sadism with some manner of excuse.

Stephen’s King’s Cat’s Eye, an anthology picture with two stories adapted from his short story collection Night Shift and one created just for this movie, also plays up another superstitious myth meant to put down our brother and sister cats. The idea that at night, a cat can go up to where you sleep and steal your breath away. Literally.

I know of many myths involving felines, mostly stemming around the black ones of course, but I hadn’t heard of this myth existing until after watching Cat’s Eye. I thought the urban legend of cats stealing your breath was made up then and there by the movie. Nope, my mother told me that that legend existed well before 1985.

Like most superstitions, it was likely a consequence of time and fate. For instance, a person with pre-existing breathing or lung issues ups and croaks in bed. And a cat just happened to be there at the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t have any facts to back that up, but then again I don’t need to when cats nor any animal on this planet has the ability to suck air out of someone’s lungs. We can’t do that to ourselves.

In a move of genius, King and film director Lewis Teague (returning from Cujo) make an adorable tabby cat the framing device for three stories, eventually becoming the rightful protagonist for the third and final story. That story involves trading one myth for another, one for the cat to gallantly fight against.

The first story involves the stray cat wandering around Manhattan getting picked up by a stranger, right after witnessing a vision of a mysterious girl in a window, pleading for the cat’s help. The stranger takes the cat to Quitter’s Inc, a most extreme organization dedicated to helping anyone interested in kicking nicotine for good. They pride themselves on an especially low failure rate, only 2%. What they do with that 2% or most of their methods would certainly get them shut down or thrown in prison. It’s implied they have big money behind them and allows them to get away with it all.

James Woods is possibly the best overall actor in the film, big surprise, as his acting talent is one of the few redeeming features of the guy as far as I know. He might be the best thing about Disney’s Hercules and fans were oh so happy to see him reprise Hades for both Kingdom Hearts II and even Kingdom Hearts III.

Woods portrays Dick Morrison, a family man who is desperate to kick the habit for his wife and daughter, especially his daughter. He soon realizes how…much is included in the package deal of how they will get him permanently off smoking and the poor kitty is used to demonstrate a “shock” room. Non-lethally of course as the kitty has to get to the next two stories. It’s meant to forewarn Dick about what his wife will go through if he doesn’t stop after two strikes. The third strike, well, goes even harder.

It’s obviously an allegory for the kind of pressure one trying to kick the habit would go through, exaggerated with external forces promising physical harm on top of simple nicotine withdrawal. Some, like Leonard Maltin did, might find it mean-spirited but then again horror stories are not often known for being nice.

For anyone who has had some form of addiction they know they can’t manage and should stop, like me and food intake, it can feel real watching this segment. Sure, I’m pretty confident I’ll never get into nicotine as this rate in my life and not just because I was raised knowing it was horrible for you in the long run.

It’s a fun and dark in a different way from other King tales, as we often associate him with supernatural horror. Of course, books/movies like Misery are all about dispelling that pigeonholing of King’s range, on top of being one of the most visible meditations on parasocial relationships going off the rails.

My favorite of the three is the middle called “The Ledge“, starring Kenneth McMillan and Robert Hays, you know, from Airplane! The cat escapes Quitter’s Inc and manages to make it all the way to Atlantic City, where after escaping a death-defying lane of traffic, is picked up by an utterly scummy businessman played by McMillan. He has his mooks pick up Johnny Norris, a gambling man whose history with McMillan’s Cressner finally catches up to him.

With his girlfriend probably dead and him being framed for drug possession, Johnny is seemingly given one chance to escape with both money and his life by Cressner. Just crawl along the edge of a high-rise building all the way to the other side. Johnny being the gambler takes it though the other choice is to accept being framed and going to prison.

The tabby watches the events from the safety of the balcony as Cressner and his minions put extra obstacles in Johnny’s way on top of the wind, narrow ledge and some really obstinate pigeons. Does Hays’ Johnny survive and get back at Cressner? How does Hays keep arriving at dangerous situations involving great heights? I leave that for you to find out though I can tell you our tabby friend clearly makes it through and arrives in Wilmington, North Carolina for the final story where he’s the star of the show.

The cat arrives in suburban Wilmington and finds a young girl named Amanda played by Drew Barrymore, three years after E.T. It happens that this is the same mysterious girl the cat has been seeing in his visions. So, the cat goes ahead and warms himself up to young Amanda who immediately wants to adopt him. Candy Clark plays her mother who immediately does not want the cat part of the family, mostly because her daughter already has a pet bird.

James Naughton plays the father who is at best indifferent about the whole deal, because for some reason dads often are at least in fiction. However, the cat has good reason to become part of Amanda’s family as a mysterious, small gremlin-like creature, called the “troll” also makes his way to the household. Suddenly seeing a supernatural element enter a story which has thus far included outlandish if still natural elements can be jarring. Then again, maybe the filmmakers wanted to ease you into that element through the cat’s magical visions of a girl beckoning the cat to find and protect her.

The design of the troll resembles a cross between the front of a tortoise’s face and…something else I can’t quite place but it does strike the right balance between too dark and too whimsical. The effects for when the troll is going thorough Amanda’s room at night and climbing up stuff are pretty impressive though some of the green screen like when the troll is at the foot of the bed and you see Amanda’s superimposed feet look really bad.

Eventually, the troll frames the cat, whom Amanda names “General” for murdering and eating Polly the bird, all so there is no cat that can get in the way of him stealing the girl’s breath. That and the mom’s prejudice over the cat is enough to convince her to take General away over to a pound where it will be slotted to be euthanized. However, this cat, like it has before, takes advantage of split second opportunity to escape the pound and race back to the house in spite of a rainstorm to save Amanda from the troll. Now that’s some pawsitive reinforcement of human and cat relations there.

12 cats were used to portray General and in order to convince the cats to all do the very specific things they wanted, as felines are notoriously difficult to train unlike dogs, they goaded them into certain actions through offering them food, often tuna. I don’t know how the offer of food convinced them to do all the things the film needed of them. Scenarios such as getting an angry, hissing face and swatting something seems to be a contrary response to an offering of delicious tuna.

I’ve thought much of any scene where a cat is visibly angry like when Jonesy the cat starts hissing in closeup when Ripley has a chestburster nightmare at the beginning of Aliens. I mean, what did directors like Lewis Teague and James Cameron do to piss off cats in just the right way and at the right time?

Either way, Cat’s Eye ends on a note that reaffirms humanity’s relationship with not so much our “best friend” but our “best associate”. It also toys with the conceit that cats will try to steal one’s breath in a deliberate fakeout ending that I saw coming.

I suppose if Cat’s Eye has any consistent theme, it’s with the exploration of both phobia and obsession. The first story, Quitter’s Inc., juxtaposes the compulsion to smoke with the fear of being being watched upon by strangers and the expectations to meet commitments and failing. The on-the-nose yet perfect use of The Police’s Every Breath you Take accentuates this in one memorable hallucination sequence on Dick Morrison’s part. The song is later used more comically in the final battle between General and the Troll, with a different context.

The second story, The Ledge, combines the compulsion to gamble, with the fear with what will or could happen if you didn’t heed Kenny Rogers’ advice on whether to hold or fold em’. That fear then bleeds into a fear of heights and someone trying to actively kill you.

The third doesn’t seem to have any addiction or compulsion unless you have a compulsion to adopt cute animals which in this case is a good thing as it protects you from miniature fantasy monsters. There is the fear of what may bump in the night, like the troll and perhaps the danger of misunderstanding what one should be wary of. Again, humanity had an irrational fear of one of the most adorable creatures yet discovered in this universe. This is a story of a once feared animal becoming the hero they were always meant to be.

Next time, a look at an 80s vampire classic and its 2010s remake that if conceivable could be better than the original.