The Red and the Grey: A review of The Batman and Pixar’s Turning Red

Image from US Weekly (Finally, an emo role that won’t humiliate Robert Pattinson.)

Do we still need Batman as an icon of popular culture? Do we even need a new Batman movie considering how recent the last two cinematic takes of the character have been? At the end of Matt Reeves’ three hour re-re-reintroduction to the dark knight, the answer is in some places an enthusiastic “Yes” and in others an apprehensive “Maybe”.

The world I live in in 2022 is not a world I would wish for anyone. It is a world that is slowly dying in part due to human caused climate change and our infuriating refusal to take immediate and meaningful action against it, though seemingly intractable internal corruption in our global system perhaps speaks more to the state of the stomach-churning crisis than the actions of the average, powerless human individual.

One of the factors that leads to my and your future growing increasingly bleaker is that the rich not only refuse to use their considerable means to directly challenge what should be the unifying threat of our time, but they helped along the crisis through their support of the industries, oil and gasoline, that most contributed to it. All against the renewable and clean initiatives that would replace and best shore up our chances of a survivable future.

So, why should I expect myself to further ingratiate myself to a fictional representative of that class of people who is slowly murdering me? Well, because in spite of Bruce Wayne the Batman being part of that upper echelon of people, he is an icon who can be framed into a figure that would and should fight the same systems that lead to such ruin. More than Iron Man, I believe that Bruce Wayne can be a class traitor for our times.

Bruce Wayne lost his parents as a consequence of Gotham City’s decline, both moral and economic. Reeves’ latest take mercifully spares us the moment where Thomas and Martha Wayne get plugged much like how the Tom Holland version of Spider-Man deigned to not show us Uncle Ben getting killed in much the same way.

The takeaways to a childhood traumatic event like that are many and varied, though one’s position in life can create certain perspectives which might take emphasis over others. At the start of the movie, Bruce Wayne/Batman narrates to us that he has become a symbol of fear to the criminals that lurk on Gotham’s many dilapidated streets. Echoing the immortalized assumption that “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot”, he believes that what he must do is drive the fear of the Batman into their hearts so they plague Gotham no more.

In that same narration, Bruce yet admits that two years in, his plan is failing miserably. The city is still the gothic cesspool you know, the streets haven’t become safer just because Batman prowls them. All he’s doing is smashing his bat-fist against the wall.

Reeves does all of us justice let alone for Batman by finally, purposefully focusing in on the one key aspect of the caped crusader that was either missing or only played with: being a detective. He’s yet to be the world’s greatest detective, as Bats makes some prime grade mistakes in this film’s investigation, but cut him a break: he’s still early on in his bat-career.

The earlier bat-films to include investigative vigilantism mostly pertained to the Dark Knight trilogy, but only in parts. Batman v Superman’s Batfleck also did some detective work but it was hampered by this Batman being an emotionally vulnerable, gullible moron who was stringed around by Mark Zuckerlex. Aside from that, big screen Batman was often a more reactive figure in facing his rogues’ gallery and it stands to reason that some detective work might’ve occurred off-screen.

Having Batman face a terribly deep rabbit hole into Gotham’s morally bankrupt history through solving the Zodiac-like killings and brain-games of Paul Dano’s utterly terrifying Riddler helps accommodate this new take on Batman as being one that is more deconstructive and self-critical than earlier works.

Batman’s vengeful fixation on the lowly poor thugs and mooks that slew his parents blinds him to the darker reality of what he should actually be facing. Namely, how the rich and powerful of Gotham, alongside its mostly bought off police force and organized crime families are the true Hydra that he must face. That, much to his own personal horror, his family’s own standing in the city contributed to the nightmare he is facing. In a sense, the Waynes might’ve brought their own heinous murders upon themselves through the system they either didn’t challenge or didn’t challenge strongly enough.

The Riddler, like Bruce Wayne, absolutely seethes with hate for the powers that be that led Gotham to its current state. Unlike Batman, the Riddler is more than OK with murder to make his point, to attain the justice he believes is sorely lacking.

As much as Dano’s performance does register genuine horror on my part (I don’t even mind that his style reminds one of Nolan’s take on the Joker..), I felt at the bottom of my gut that I couldn’t totally disagree with his motivations. In fact, I dare say you’re missing the point if you don’t realize that Riddler’s own deep dive into Gotham’s rotten core is in fact correct.

In spite of Riddler’s brutal killings of what are yet clearly awful people and his terroristic ambitions that become more and more clear as the film goes along, his expose of why Gotham is the way it is is actually a net positive. The sad truth is that if Riddler didn’t kill or have those destructive ambitions, he could’ve been a genuine ally to Batman and those in Gotham who want a better tomorrow.

This line of thought is actually present in comics Riddler, in that he doesn’t necessarilly need to be a bad guy and could in fact be in invaluable to heroes like the Bat-family and even the Justice League. His own childhood trauma from his never pleased father and a desire to intellectually one-up Batman keeps him from a nobler place in life. A lot of Batman’s villains could just as easily be heroes (or anti-heroes) in Gotham. Some actually have like Catwoman, Harley Quinn after letting Joker go and nominally even Poison Ivy.

This version of Riddler echoes Hegel’s concept that an antagonist can positively influence the direction the protagonist takes in the future. A similar observation was made about how The Legend of Korra’s villain for each season influenced the titular character’s own worldview for the better. One of the most redeeming aspects for one of the most personally conflicting pieces of entertainment I’ve experienced.

It just so happens that this Riddler also has childhood trauma, albeit of a different sort from Bruce’s as well as a raging resentment for how the latter’s treatment following that trauma was a lot more swell than his. This Riddler also carries echoes of recently created Batman villain Hush, whose motivations are also reflective of resentment for Bruce Wayne and his lifestyle. The film more or less admits to this connection with some pretty blatant visual references. In fact, a recent direct-to-DVD animated Batman movie that loosely adapts the Hush comic storyline makes that connection between Hush and Riddler even more explicit.

Speaking of Catwoman, Zoe Kravitz’s depiction of the character is the most true to the text I’ve yet seen on the big screen, much like how the depiction of Gotham City is the truest as well, with only hints or perhaps visual gags to past versions like Chris Nolan’s over-dependence on making Batman’s home look or just be other known cities like Chicago.

Kravitz’s Selina Kyle oozes the alluring charm of the comic version that made her into one of Comicdom’s most immediately recognizable sex symbols, let alone one of the most significant female characters ever created for the medium. More than past iterations like the surreal yet literal Michelle Pfeiffer version or Hathaway’s more burger than cat take, Kravitz manages to be the femme fatale with very much a heart of gold crossed with cat themed burglar we all know her for the most.

Her interplay with Pattinson’s Batman is the closest to the comic text and also helps reflect the sense of accuracy that permeates their scenes together, as if you can just feel the self-assuredness that yes, they’ve really gotten it down this time. It also helps that this Catwoman, despite her deep ties to the conspiracy that embroils all the subjects of this movie, feels like her own person more than past movie Kyles, that she is not revolving around Bruce Wayne’s life. Like a cat and like the Catwoman we know, she does feel affection and connection to our caped crusader, but she is by no means bound to him. She is no dog.

The three figures of Batman, Riddler and Catwoman all represent three different perspectives to how Gotham’s fall has affected its denizens, rich or poor. Wayne as Batman is a symbolic figure, a force that haunts the criminals of the night and scares them away from breaking the law. The Riddler wants a more direct approach to targeting Gotham’s rot and his investigative nature obviously mirrors Batman’s. Catwoman does not have the same vendetta as the first two and only gets involved when she is forced into it by external factors. Despite her affection for the caped crusader and even admiration for his mission, once she is no longer directly affected by what Gotham is doing to her, she has no qualms leaving the city to its probable fate.

Despite the thematic interplay between the three, The Batman is a story of an ensemble web of figures, all stuck like flies in matters either of their own volition or not. It comes to be a story of fighting the spider that made that web and which approach is best.

The approach to justice that is often the main point of a Batman story reflects upon my own frustrations when it comes to what the approach justice in the real word should take. A combination of time or lack thereof, punishment in proportion to the crimes and whether the actions society could take to better itself do not also poison it in the process. There’s also the grim likelihood that there is no way to motivate the people of the world to take any action either due to lack of time in which the action wouldn’t even matter or that we are too distracted by little entertainments to focus on what should be attempted.

My mediation on that combined with my own political biases puts myself in the uncomfortable position of appreciating, even in some areas loving a movie like The Batman that maybe I shouldn’t as much. You can argue that I’m simply at odds with what Matt Reeves and the writers earnestly believe is the right course of action for a better world, that I’m placing too much emphasis on what I think the right thing to do should be when others either don’t know of those options or don’t agree with them.

The issue yet is that The Batman is consciously or not espousing a worldview and as it stands now in 2022, with both climate change and a horrifying rise in American fascism, the problem could be not that The Batman holds a bad worldview, it may not hold the best or most needed one.

In one area, the portrayal of the GCPD. Of course, Gotham’s police being (initially) corrupt and bought off by the mafia is a tried and true component of Batman as a medium critiquing the police. But it is yet the most obvious approach, perhaps the only approach that has in the past been broadly accepted by the American public.

The assumption of most depictions of police in comics storytelling is either as a force for good, a neutral force that still fights on the right side, a force that is basically good but for the purposes of a superhero story woefully unable to handle a situation typical to the genre like a supervillain or a force that is indeed corrupted not beyond salvation.

Jim Gordon, the ever eventual Commissioner for the force, is the “good” apple among the mostly bad ones which I suppose is actually truer to reality than not. With help from an outside force like Batman, vigilante or not, he helps mold the GCPD into a proper policing force and a valuable ally for Batman’s mission. This enduring partnership helps in turn give Batman legitimacy, as the exception to the rule that vigilantes are always more trouble than they’re worth.

In light of recent exposure of American police behavior, through highly public murders and abuse of citizens, how the smartphone era has better shed light on what was likely always there, the issue cannot just be that an institution like the police starts off good but is slowly corrupted. What recent examples in the past decade alone have shown is that the institution itself has an inherent perniciousness.

Perhaps as Reeves’ trilogy means to go on, it can and will dive deeper into the inner workings of not just how Gotham’s story of corruption goes, it could delve into how the institutions we hold for granted create the very problems we either pretend don’t exist or wish to have resolved. Perhaps it will take more than good men like Jim Gordon and Batman being around to make the GCPD and by extension Gotham better, maybe a different type of holistic approach to policing itself will be what assures Batman’s dream is more likely.

If you’re doing a narrative that is very much allegorical to the utter frustration and weariness many have to the status quo, it helps to actually give attention to the proposals that have been made to better society. In spite of where Bruce Wayne comes from, it is best to picture Batman, if you are interpreting him as as genuine good guy, to have his journey confront these topics and maybe even embrace them. If that can be done while still being a badass crimefighter who punches back evil with his fists and his brain, I would see that as a win-win that might make Batman a more relatable force rather than merely a fascinating one.

Michael Giacchino’s excellent score and theme for the Batman reflects off of the two core ideas of what makes Batman appealing on some level no matter what your political compass would indicate. A force that strikes from the dark against evil while not himself being so while also being a force that wants a place like Gotham City to shine, maybe for the first time and in more ways than one. A dark knight that yearns yet for the light. I would hate for the ultimate takeaway of Reeves’ three movie narrative to lessen the musical meaning behind that theme, make it a narrative that doesn’t honor the very best interpretation from that track of music.

In another comic property, in a whole other cinematic universe for superheroes, one of its villains stated to its heroic enemies that “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.” In spite of that villain Ultron’s plan being not agreeable to anyone but the suicidal minded (giant rock kills everything on Earth), can it really not be said that that line encapsulates one of the biggest complaints many have had with the superhero archetype: a lovable, protective figure who has the power to protect the innocent from harm but will not use that power to better the world and in turn lessen the necessity for most instances of protection?

That concept has been explored certainly enough with stories like DC’s Injustice showing the downside of the Justice League enforcing a “better” world through their authoritarian control of it. And yet, maybe what superheroes should be today are not a series of watchful guardians only, but forces for positive, necessary change.

These beings who use their power not to enforce a new world but influence the masses towards one. In this day and age, that message would reverberate far more than you might think and the ending of the Batman inspires some amount of hope that that is actually what is being aimed for. Not a complete hope, still a chance of the bat-ball being fumbled indeed, but it is in the end more than I was expecting.

The Batman, in and out of universe is an exercise in wrestling with what Batman should be at this stage in the 21st century. It’s conclusions will not and have not hooked everyone but it is still better than never wrestling with them at all.

Batman is often called the best superhero or at least the very best at what he can do as a superhero. In relation to martial and mental prowess without enhanced properties and to his ability to stand fast to his own integrity, undeniably . Robert Pattinson’s Batman is all that but trying (emphasis on trying) to be more than before.

Turning Red (2021)

Image from The Walt Disney Company (A rough approximation of my demeanor watching and internally enjoying this movie alongside my parents.)

Turning Red, Pixar’s latest movie, is many things.

It is proof that they’re still the masters of computer generated animation nearly 30 years after their start. It is proof that they’re by no means a “safe” purveyor of ideas and imagination if the high conceptual explorations to be had in 2020’s Soul wasn’t a tip off. In spite of the missteps or outright bad films that have been made under their banner since 2011’s Cars 2, they can still make thought-provoking, engaging entertainment for the whole family even when directly addressing a particular point in time in a person’s life.

2009’s Up focused in on the emotional plight of a nearly 80 year old man, filled with regret for the things he wasn’t able to accomplish before he reached that age. I am not yet a senior citizen in case you were wondering but I still found Carl Frederickson’s conflict very moving. Perhaps it was because it was tackling issues that we may one day face or could face before reaching Carl’s age. Or maybe we were won over by other topics Up has to offer. Or we just enjoyed it for how fun and funny it was. Or maybe as it often is, all or most of the above.

Turning Red centers on a 13 year old Chinese-Canadian girl going through a moment in life that all who reach that age will experience in some way. There is just a mystical Chinese twist on that “moment” in growing up that is indeed very out of the ordinary. Her ability to turn into a giant red panda upon puberty can be seen as analogous to more than just one thing though all sharing something in particular.

You might think a story about female puberty in particular would be inaccessible to a grown male like myself, but much like Carl Frederickson and his old age hangups, there is something relatable yet to Mei’s own take on adolescent arrival and what it does to her friend and family connections.

Female puberty is denoted as having one distinct difference from male puberty, we all know what it is. Turning Red brings it up directly in a manner that is still all ages appropriate. To those who think that it is a subject matter which is not at all appropriate to a young audience, I might remind you that it is actually the age group that would benefit most from this film’s thematic exploration.

All teenage girls start experiencing that certain thing upon becoming a teenager so having that be featured in a movie involving teenage girls makes plenty of sense. It’s that this subject matter has never been presented before in a movie like this that is perhaps where the “controversy” stems, or a notion that certain natural aspects of the growing human body should never be expressed outside a conversation between a kid and their parents. There can be a discussion on how to handle it of course through media but it is quite self-limiting to have certain topics be off limit for concerns some may have for “appropriateness”.

Turning Red nails not just how to handle this subject matter in a “PG” setting, but also confronts the personal embarrassment one may feel not simply of it being revealed to their friends but by having their parents inadvertently expose it, as one notable scene features. Despite being a cisgender male anxieties, annoyances and concerns over my own puberty and the emotional and physical messiness that comes with it were aptly reflected in Mei’s own struggle.

Like a good Pixar film, it’s not content to stop at just the growing pains aspect of this moment in Mei’s life, further exemplified through it featuring a “Teen Wolf” panda transformation, it also tackles expectation of role in life, old and new generations and their ever varying sensibilities about basically anything and what yet remains good about old traditions and what should instead be cast aside for something different. If nothing else, Turning Red presents a novel examination of the very old chestnut of “be yourself” while also expressing that a seemingly frightening aspect of yourself is only frightening if you let it be so.

One interesting wrinkle to my appreciation for Turning Red is in the form of its humor, definitely centered around the tribulations of being a adolescent girl. Mei’s relationship with her three friends contains much in the way of young teenage girl slang and expression and some of their verbal humor isn’t exactly laugh out loud funny. The distinction that keeps it from being cringey is that there’s an organic feel to Mei and her friend’s interactions. You can tell or at least I could tell that a lot of Turning Red came out of director Domee Shi’s own childhood. Considering her birth year of 1989 and the film’s time being set in 2002, we are looking at a semi-autobiographical movie, with some considerable liberties taken, like the whole giant red panda stuff of course.

It wouldn’t take a genius to recognize that Shi’s own life and friends she had are reflected in the cast of characters that make up Turning Red. How her friends acted are retold in Mei’s friends. Knowing this background makes it feel like a more authentic take on childhood in the oughts’. I didn’t have the same early 2000s’ childhood like Mei’s nor the same type of friends, but I can definitely feel the accuracy due to experiencing that era for myself.

It was nostalgic but not a frontloaded example. It’s a feature, not the feature of this film’s colorful depiction of Toronto. This might be the warmest depiction of a Canadian city I’ve ever seen and it does wonders to remind you that New York is hardly the only melting pot city in North America alone.

As you would expect from a film about a Chinese family not living in China, it deals with a third or fourth generation Chinese-Canadian girl not just trying to control the panda within her and her own new feelings that come with puberty but her own personal desires and interests independent of the expectations that come from being in a tradition minded Chinese household.

Sandra Oh plays Ming Lee, the very strict but still loving mother of Mei who very much expects the most out of Mei, especially when it pertains to her role in basically fulfilling the role she herself lives. One, as future dutiful wife and family raiser and as a manager of the family’s temple. Because a Chinese-Canadian developed this movie, it feels a little less uncomfortable watching a movie, coming from the heart no less, that confronts shall we say conventions of the Chinese or Asian family dynamic, namely the high demands that parents place on their kids.

It has become a stereotype for the parents to expect their kids to not just be smart but to enter a field or career that comes with a great yearly income. There’s a blink and you’ll miss it reference for this demanding lifestyle when while looking under Mei’s bed, you can see a test that Mei completed with a B+ score. To people in most demographics like my own, a B+ is very much a commendable score in education. For Asian families like Mei’s, if your best is under A….

Again, if a non-white director or writer was to touch on this subject matter and they didn’t do so tactfully at least, it can be seen as playing into derogatory stereotype. For Domee Shi, it’s admittance on her own life experience at least, that sometimes stereotypes can be correct or at least not wrong, and better yet her film promotes not a resigned acceptance on that grueling expectation but a pronounced retort, presented with all of Pixar’s eye-catching bells and whistles.

Despite not having those kinds of demanding parents in my childhood, I can still relate to the still relevant message that it is OK that you explicitly do not become your parents. That it can be psychologically unhealthy to be tied to only what your family wants and never what you want or believe you’re good at.

A quite surprising third act twist on the mother’s part reveals that among the themes of puberty, childhood friendship, self-control and familial/cultural tradition, there is also the universal topic of resentment, resentment that can be borne from those who had no ill will for you in how they molded your life. That alone can take on a whole host of applicable places to explore, making Turning Red a much more intellectually robust film than at first glance.

Turning Red is a swift, sound and fuzzy examination of subject matter that has proven to unsettle those that are not accustomed to seeing such matter explored. It shouldn’t need to, as this is a film meant to make both kids and adults ponder matters that may very well be pertinent to their life at this very moment. A film to both entertain and open up your mind to the obvious and not so obvious matters in how life naturally happens. In other words, it’s a Pixar film in the truest sense, even on the surface it appears a very different beast.

Next time, a long overdue entry in the 80s’ retrospective.

Bengal’s 80s’ Retrospective part IX (re-release)

After another delay from work and real world anxieties, I’m back to getting back to the pop culture of a “simpler” time and will follow up next time with a look at some new stuff released this March. First, a visually arresting arrival into cinema du look.

Diva (1981)

Image from madmuseum.org (An unorthodox commute in Paris’ Metropolitain subway.)

Jean-Jacques Beineix, the director of this picture, is often credited as the man who began the cinema du look trend in French cinema. A trend that would last throughout the 80s and into the 90s, possibly culminating in one of the best known modern French movies, Leon the Professional. That film’s director, Luc Besson, is one of the best known living French filmmakers and contributed to cinema du look before Leon with titles that I will certainly be viewing down the road like Subway and La Femme Nikita.

Beineix passed away at 75 this January, shortly after I had seen Diva. It’s a shame he’s not more well known but that may be in part due to his small filmography with his first film here being his most significant contribution. Those that took after Beineix in turn took the attention, his legacy assured through influence.

Diva is an absolutely beautiful film, that takes its cold ,blue, dreamlike imagery and gives it, at least to me, a peculiar warmth, making it dare I say inviting. It is married to a riveting story that yet leaves me apprehensive as it’s central figure, Jules (Frederic Andrei), is both in places a sympathetic youthful Parisian and in others a obsessive creep.

Jules is completely enamored with the African-American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmina Fernandez, an actual Soprano and it shows), the titular diva. He constantly plays her music on his mobile tape player, both while out and about as an urban postman and while he is at his garage/parking lot hybrid that acts as his home. On the one hand, it is established that Jules has a true appreciation for Cynthia’s talent as a soprano.

On the other hand, Jules is so taken with her that he basically becomes a stalker. He hires a prostitute to imitate the look of Cynthia. He steals her gown from her dressing room after the concert. Even more concerning is that Jules actually strikes up a genuine relationship with Cynthia after meeting. It doesn’t get sexual( at least onscreen) but at the same time regardless of earnestness shared beneath the two in the end, it is very alarming this film is so okay with Jules’ obsessive interests and in how it ultimately rewards him for it by the end.

Keep in mind that the year Diva released in France, President Reagan was nearly killed by a celebrity obsessed figure called Charles Hinckley Jr, all to impress the one he was irrationally enamored with, Jodie Foster. A year before, Mark David Chapman murdered the man whom he obsessed over, John Lennon. I’m fairly certain people in France were aware of these incidents and the uncomfortable implications it brought to the table.

Jules, in spite of the extremes he is shown to do, never kills anyone for Cynthia and certainly not Cynthia herself. If anything, Jules is made into a victim as he finds himself ensnared in a criminal conspiracy involving a corrupt detective in the Paris Police and a prostitute. Ironically enough, Jules’ own time with a prostitute has him record an incident by accident that gets him stuck in that quite stressful predicament. A film to be covered later down the road, Brian DePalma’s Blow-Out, also has a similar premise of an unsuspecting person recording sound only to capture something audibly not meant for strangers. Also, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.

His attempts to both show his affection to Cynthia and to get around the Hitchcockian conspiracy gets him involved with Serge (Richard Bohringer), a very French Bohemian artiste and his Vietnamese-French teenage muse, Alba. Unlike with Jules and Cynthia, the implications between Serge and Alba are less…concerning. Or at least I damn well hope so. Otherwise, I might feel really shitty about appreciating this movie.

Serge’s lot is where most of Diva’s expertly filmed cinema du look feel comes around the best. Three moments that stick out at the lot is Serge showing Jules the proper way to cut a croissant, doing a giant picture puzzle with help from Alba all while discussing how to help Jules and him taking a bath in the middle of the room with a great spotlight on him, while intercutting with a moving lava lamp that looks like a level measurer. Great stuff and not really artsy-fartsy. Just soothing.

In spite of the French moodiness that you can already infer from everything I’ve mentioned, it is a film that can actually be thrilling as an action movie and even with some surprisingly deft comedic moments near the end. The header image here is that of Jules racing through a subway station on his moped while trying to outrun who he thinks are hired thugs relating to the conspiracy, which he had been evading at an arcade earlier.

It’s in fact a good detective who is trying to help Jules, but, hey, misunderstandings leads to great drama and by extension, a really well shot chase sequence that is just as mesmerizing as Serge just sitting and relaxing in his tub.

The ethical takeaways of Diva are split down the middle. The film is certainly anti-police corruption( as you would hope it would be) and the characters meant to be good are mostly actually really good. But when you factor in how unquestioning the movie is with Jules’ obsessive desire for Cynthia and how it doesn’t really punish him outside of him accidentally getting stuck in a Hitchcock plot by way of French aesthetic, it’s makes Diva a must see experience with one very stark asterisk.

Jules’ behavior would be very troubling in 1981. It would be a humongous red flag in 2022. I will not chalk it up to cultural differences between America and France here. Obsession and its actual ramifications are universal. No amount of expert, genre defining film-making can absolve that.

Deathtrap (1982)

Image from IMDB (Superman and Alfred Pennyworth just chilling, nothing else to add here. OR IS THERE?)

Deathtrap is one of two Sidney Lumet films to be covered in this installment of 80s Retrospective. Lumet is considered an important contributor to American cinema, starting off with his cinematic adaptation of 12 Angry Men. Aside from that, I had also seen Network, a film about 70s TV executives which has become alarmingly more relevant in the 21st century than it was then. Starting in the 80s, Lumet started to have a string of rough patches for the rest of his career, which ended with the ultimately well received Before the Devil knows you’re Dead from 2007.

Before the “rough patches” began in earnest, he opened up the decade with Prince of the City to be discussed right after and Deathtrap, a film that is both tribute to Michael Caine’s earlier picture Sleuth and the French classic Les Diaboliques. I haven’t seen Sleuth, nor its needless 2007 remake also starring Caine, but after I saw Deathtrap I saw Les Diaboliques and well, seeing that after put the former film in a new context.

Both films have one insane twist, one that is so good it’s not worth spoiling despite the age of both features. Just mentioning that there is a twist will perhaps ruin it somewhat as I was completely not expecting one in Deathtrap’s case. I did know Les Diaboliques had one but knew no specifics about it. The French classic’s take on a twist that Deathtrap essentially copies or reinterprets more like does involve suspending some amount of disbelief due to the circumstances surrounding what exactly happens. It’s still a real shock and does give the movie considerable rewatch quality if only to notice the clues that validates it.

Deathtrap centers on a British-American playwright (Michael Caine, but you already figured that out) who is suffering from a low point in his Broadway career. One of his students (Christopher Reeve) is plagiarizing his work and decides to invite him over at the behest of his wife (Dyan Cannon) to their residence in Montauk on Long Island’s eastern edge. That residence has a windmill because of course a theatre writer would have one.

In a moment that does make me think Rian Johnson definitely saw this and used it to inspire Knives Out, the playwright conceives of a plot to get revenge on his upstart student. Like Knives Out, the house is filled with stage props of various weapons, all sharp enough for, say it with me, MURDER.

I honestly struggle to think of what else to say about Deathtrap without giving up the game so to speak. While Les Diaboliques’ twist happens at the climax, Lumet distinguishes his version by having the twist happen midway through. Half of the film I can’t really talk about sadly, as I do think it’s something you have to see fresh to get the most out of it.

I suppose I could bring up that Lumet has a proven talent for making the most of a limited setting. Like his debut masterpiece from 1957, 12 Angry Men, the majority of the film occurs in a somewhat small jury room where as promised, there are 12 male jurors and due to a combination of it being a sweltering hot Summer with no A/C and frustration over the complicated case presented to them, get kinda angry.

In spite of most of it occurring in a generally claustrophobic environment, you never get bored or distracted by the limited scope. If anything, it makes it even more focused, more stressful, being stuck in this place with a bunch of guys who don’t really want to be there for the most part but have to, all while deciding if some teenager gets a guilty or innocent verdict.

The majority of Deathtrap is within the playwright’s house, but due to its peculiar setup, again with an honest to God windmill whose inside is the bedroom and a low-key Tudor feel, helps make it a not boring environment for the proceedings on top of the merit of the actual proceedings. Go ahead and see it, especially so you can see a pre-accident Christopher Reeves and pre-Alfred Michael Caine share the screen together, all so you can make jokes about their DC comics connection.

Prince of the City (1981)

Image from Force Five Podcast (ACAB minus one.)

Prince of the City is inspired by an actual internal affairs case by NYPD detective Robert Leuci, who opened a boatload of corrupt worms when he turned state’s evidence against his fellow drug-busting team, who had taken too much money off of the crooks they took down, among other things.

Treat Williams, who I only recently learned did stuff before a silly ocean based horror movie I’d heard of offhand from the late 90s called Deep Rising, plays Daniel Ciello, based off of Leuci. Initially, Ciello is all too happy to bend the rules to have him and his fellow NY Blues enjoy a little something more off of their drug busts.

They also use junkies as informants to successfully pull off their busts. Buuut, doing so involves suppling those same junkies with heroin and on one fateful night involving a meetup to give his informant some drugs, that same junkie beats up his girlfriend and Ciello forces himself to let it happen, all because of the process he and his buddies use to get information.

Eventually, Ciello realizes he’s had enough and wants to bring evidence to the District Attorney of New York to end his drug squad’s operation. Hopefully in a way that won’t incriminate his friends too severely. Of course, you already know it won’t, it couldn’t be that simple and Ciello was probably fooling himself thinking that way.

With a runtime that approaches 3 hours, you know by that alone that this won’t be a simple task for Ciello. Having to put on a wire, obfuscate what he’s doing to men that, dirty or not, he does consider his brothers. But, the conscience he has grown forces him to go deeper and deeper and deeper into how big a hole his team had actually dug for themselves. It disrupts his life and the lives of his family, especially over those “Witness protection” woes to consider and eventually, he sees members of his team not just turn against them, betrayed by Daniel, some commit suicide either out of guilt or because they can’t bring themselves to turn evidence like him.

As you have already recognized, Prince of the City is a quite dark journey into the often subtle corruption those in law enforcement engage in to the point where they feel more loyalty to each other than you know, the law they’re supposed to be upholding. A war between two different loyalties or as they say in Samurai movies, two different masters. One cannot serve both if both do not serve each other.

Keep this in mind as a product of an actual internal affairs case that happened in the late 1970s and was adapted and abridged into a Sidney Lumet picture in 1981. Consider how even though the behavior Ciello’s squad is called out on is immoral and something that cannot continue, consider how sympathetic the portrayal of Ciello and those criminal cops still remain.

Sure, there’s like a couple of crooked cop figures that aren’t in Ciello’s team that are framed far less sympathetically, particularly an overweight one (that also resembles Uncle Vernon sortof) that Ciello goes to town on in one heated sequence at a Chinese restaurant.

You can either view this through the lens of not so much Lumet but Ciello’s perspective and the naturally pro-cop attitude he would still cling to or you can view it as an American cultural approach to how we broadly view the boys and girls in blue. One that is often idealistic, more willing to begrudgingly concede to when genuine corruption or outright breaking of the law is exposed or made clear but always with the understanding that it’s an aberration of a system that ultimately does more good than bad. Maybe that is easier to believe if you’re white like me.

In light of the past decade, what with how social media and portable cameras make it so easy to so how much brazenly awful stuff the American police get up to regularly, Prince of the City’s framing of the police and their nature, while not wholly untrue even now, feels more pernicious today to me. We get regular reminders of police brutality on minorities and occasionally even on Caucasian Americans. Some of these abuses extend to either manslaughter due to disregard for subject’s safety or blatant murder, as made evident to all who would see through George Floyd.

Even worse is how often, beyond these criminal even authoritarian uses of force against American citizens, there is the mountains of evidence proving how often the police protect their own in defiance of justice or what the will of the people actually expect or assume they do anyway. For those who decry the calls for defunding or abolishing the police, consider that they say this not in the heat of the moment through righteous rage alone, but through the understanding that for incidents like Floyd, Breanna Taylor and countless others to be prevented as much as possible in the future, the structure and function of the police must change.

Money should be redirected to other areas of our institutions perhaps to make fewer the number of criminal situations police would have to face in the first place. Maybe a cop is not best equipped to help with every domestic disturbance like say a mentally ill person who needs psychiatric care rather than a police officer for which force is the first thing that comes to mind in response. If all you have is a hammer….

In spite of my “controversial” statements made over the past several statements, Prince of the City does end on a note that I found rather profound. It’s almost the inverse of the scene in The Martian where Matt Damon’s astronaut survivor of Mars is telling a classroom about his experiences and all the questions they are eager to give him.

At the very end, after Daniel Ciello has done all that is needed of him to get his squad properly indicted and brought to justice, he is at a classroom for up and coming NYPD officers. As he goes about how he would operate as a police officer, one of the students contemptuously leaves the classroom upon realizing who the speaker is: the guy who ratted out his friends, screw the reasons.

In spite of what Ciello did being the absolute right thing and dare I say it a real necessity for a police officer to follow on principle, he is dismissed by some due to the whole idea that doing the right thing involves going against your supposed friends. Ciello, like perhaps the real life Leuci, looks utterly alone, despondent once the student storms out. Here is his reward, for trying to be as good an officer of the law as he once thought he was.

For a dude like myself who often feels completely alone, isolated on a political level to those in my immediate circle of family and friends, that ending moment was the most relatable that Treat Williams’ Ciello got. An important lesson, doing the capital letter right thing will lose you respect, it will lose you friends. Should you still do it? How you answer that question will say more about yourself than almost anything else in life.

Mashaal (1984)

Image by IMDB (The law abiding and the law agnostic unite in 80s’ Mumbai.)

Capping off this latest installment of 80s’ retrospective is a 1984 Bollywood crime thriller that combines political corruption, journalism ethics, youthful free spirited street gangs and shady underworld crime into a fun, typically complex Bolly-blender.

Vinod the moderately pudgy but upstanding man of the law who runs an independent newspaper business, the titular Mashaal, in downtown Mumbai is trying to bring down the head of organized crime in India’s then largest city. S.K. Vardhan, who kinda resembles an Indian Christopher Lee, wants to stop this change-minded rabble rouser and will stop at no sordid end to bring down around his ears Vinod’s life.

In the meantime, while blowing off all of Vardhan’s threats which become increasingly more extreme, Vinod befriends a vagabond of the Mumbai mean streets, Raja. Despite engaging in criminal behavior, all for a livelihood, Raja and his gang of friends are all nice guys, who due to the societal standards of life in 1980s India, don’t see any alternative. As you are conditioned to expect, they express their lot in life through song! The musical beat that punctuates their musical montage honestly sounds like it is from West Side Story, particularly a portion of “Maria”. If you see this movie and have heard that song from WSS, you will know immediately what I’m talking about.

Eventually Vinod and Raja come to meet each other and the former believes wholeheartedly that Raja can turn his life around, get a real job, go to College, actually achieve what I guess you could call the “Indian dream”. Raja of course initially blows off Vinod’s claims that that is possible for him, but a certain camaraderie between the two blossoms where eventually of course he does start to go down that better path.

However, Vardhan eventually pushes far enough that Vinod’s life becomes utterly ruined. He loses his home, his business, his wife becomes ill and dies on the streets, Vinod pleading in vain to the surrounding people of Mumbai to help him. After her passing, Vinod decides the only to stop Vardhan, get true justice is to start his own criminal enterprise, taking over all of Vardhan’s rackets to take him out of the picture. Vinod’s transition to becoming a mob boss on par with Vardhan happens hilariously fast through montage, once again showcasing how as long and longwinded a Bollywood plot structure can be, there are moments where suddenly everything zooms a bit in the proceedings.

What punctuates Vinod’s rise to a new vengeful power in the Mumbai underworld is that the manner of fighting he uses to personally take down the liquor and gambling dens is this kind of funny looking martial arts where they zoom up close to our hero in a manner that makes him look silly rather than threatening. It doesn’t help that again, he is a pudgy looking middle aged man to boot. On that same note, he does resemble an Indian Charles Bronson, and everyone knows he was an out and out badass middle aged dude if there ever was one. Basically, Vinod is believable in the role he is given around half the time for the Bronson factor alone.

More than the prior Bollywood films I’ve covered, Mashaal really focuses on Indian morality or at least Indian standards of personal morality in a way that can come across as a bit too morally puritan for I imagine even the average American viewer from the 80s, let alone 2020s. As mentioned earlier, Vinod singlehandedly battles his way through a bunch of liquor and gambling dens.

Obviously, America has had moral grief with liquor before (Prohibition, baby) and we still to some extent get flustered over the topic of gambling and how legal or defensible it is on not so much a legal but ethical level.

However, America drinks freely with basically no chance of a roll-back to the prohibition era on the horizon at all and gambling remains legal as can be attested by several major vacation destinations, Atlantic City and Las Vegas most significantly.

As for my personal take, I obviously believe liquor should continue to be legal and gambling should be allowed too. I am much more morally opposed to gambling due to how much it can screw you over either through poor luck or addiction.

Considering the to put it extremely lightly not-great economic standard of my generation, I find gambling much harder to swallow as something to partake in. If you’re rich, well, I see no pragmatic concern of course, but for a guy like me it comes off as an insult to those poor or at least not well off to promote gambling to those who have every reason not to play with their money. That doesn’t mean it should be banned. I mean, just the black market factor alone makes banning pointless and honestly a legal and regulated system better curbs chances of someone really getting screwed.

Of course, Indian standards of morality are not American standards. Due to what I am assuming is ethical guidelines inspired by the Hindu faith, the act of drinking alcohol and gambling is seen as quite bad, though the depiction of the acts are not censored at all to Mashaal’s credit. It’s not that hardline I guess. One of the most famous examples of self-censorship in Indian cinema and I doubt it’s only in Bollywood( India is home to quite a few major film industries due to the many prominent languages for a nation of over 1 billion people): refraining from couples kissing. At all.

While kissing became acceptable in American cinema by the 1920s, and even more pronounced with the overly grandiose style seen in the Golden Age of Hollywood, what with the swell of music, kissing for any reason is just not done in Indian filmmaking, even now. There have been some exceptions like the extremely controversial Kama Sutra: A Tale of Two Lovers starring a future Game of Thrones actress of all people, but yes, you are not likely to see locking of lips for any reason in this side of World Cinema.

Mashaal makes a blatant joke about the enduring practice where Raja tells his love interest that he wants to kiss her like it’s an American movie. Breaking the fourth wall, she responds back this ain’t an American movie now isn’t it and cue romantic Bollywood dance number in its stead. This continuous practice I’ve always found more fascinating than frustrating for myself considering that as Raja all but states, the Indian public is exposed to non-Indian movies regularly.

One of the earlier Bollywood films I’ve reviewed, 1980’s Shaan, becomes a Bond movie out of nowhere at the midpoint. Last I checked, the Bond series is known for having kissing scenes…..among other things. Clearly, Indian audiences and Indian filmmakers appreciate the Bond series in spite of all those taboo things 007’s filmography features. I have now way of knowing if India censors 007 films for those moments but that would cutting up quite a bit since the “taboo” stuff can also contain plot details that are important.

Take the moment where in From Russia with Love where Bond beds the Russian agent Tatiana in her bedroom (one of the key seduction moments in the series, a moment that is actually used during casting of new James Bond actors in fact). This moment which eventually leads to sex offscreen contains a key plot element that is needed for the audience to know. Do Indian audiences just turn their noses up at these scenes and enjoy the rest? Bond sure does imbibe in gambling and drinking too, but I guess it shouldn’t come as that big a surprise that James Bond 007, the most significant heroic seducer in cinematic history, found a way to seduce the Indian moviegoer into liking his movies.

The film ultimately culminates in a really violent but engaging final battle at a newspaper printing factory with Vinod and Raja on one side and Vardhan and his men on the other. On the topic of what is permissible for the Indian viewer, surprisingly harsh violence, stuff that would warrant either a hard PG-13 or R rating in America is viewed as “acceptable for all viewing audiences”, based on the rating disclaimer at the start of the movie. Considering how pacifist Hindu teachings in my readings have been, it is rather curious that bloody violence gets the thumbs up but banal if romantic kissing is given the thumbs down.

Obviously the history of India, like all human history, is filled with violence, sometimes borne out of necessity through self defense, often not because Indians are ever human like us. It’s just that I find it humorous the priorities the fictional representation of adult subject matter other cultures can showcase. America most certainly has and maintains certain hang-ups about various subject matters (select responses to the recently released Pixar film Turning Red for example). I would love to hear out the rationale from an Indian filmmaker about why X is fine but Y isn’t.

If you have the spare time and this is almost a given for the average Indian film, Bollywood or not, give Mashaal a shot. It’s melodramatic but fun take on a morality play which is actually a common trend with the 80s Bollywood films I’ve viewed so far, is worth the price of admission. No other culture I can think of makes long films worth it like India’s. Considering the sheer number of movies they produce, more than I can ever see, it is an art they got down pat.

Bengal’s 2022 First Review Roundup

I have been distracted from doing a post following my Chinese New Year entry due to reasons big and small. I have the typical questions of enthusiasm,, other things I want to do in my decreased free time and work stuff. Then there is the existential fears over climate change (and mankind’s horrid sluggishness towards confronting what should be a unifying threat) and wouldn’t you know it, full scale war on Ukraine from Putin’s Russia.

Empathy and sympathy reasons to pay attention aside, Russia’s widely condemned invasion of Ukraine gained extra amounts of scrutiny due to the fact that the aggressor has a nuclear arsenal, the world’s largest in fact. One must without exception tread carefully when dealing with a nuclear power. Whether by intent or by accident, once the nukes fly, it is extremely unlikely an end of the world scenario won’t materialize then.

And on top of all of that, I have a cold which has further dimmed my mood and my outlook in general. Why should it matter to me to write about recent pop culture when shit of this magnitude is in my metaphorical peripheral vision?

Well, because getting this done clears me up for future blog entries like the new Horizon game and latest Batman feature. And it’s something to do that doesn’t involve surfing the web or playing a game. It puts my mind off things that should be in focus but not so much it debilitates matters

Let’s start with the latest Star Wars product under Disney, representing the highs and lows of the brand as it stands now.

Image from Empire (All hail the king…….ha.)

The Book of Boba Fett’s wild inconsistency in quality is baffling. One of the memetic badasses of Star Wars, one who was that way before memes were even really a thing, should’ve had a wild, exciting and rougher ride to partake in then other sides to the Star Wars universe.

We consciously forget that the Boba Fett of the original trilogy was in truth not all that great. He stood around all cool, rarely speaking, did admittedly manage to track the Millennium Falcon to Cloud City and took a frozen Han Solo to Jabba. After giving him to Jabba, he stuck around as muscle and ultimately made a fool of himself in confronting our heroes over a giant mouth. Even before a blind Han Solo accidentally sent him tumbling into that immobile sandworm, he wasn’t making the best impression fighting Luke.

True, he was facing a jedi master, but considering the slowness of how Boba was facing a Jedi, he basically had it coming and not really because he wasn’t the good guy in the equation. It’s a miracle that Boba Fett’s legendary status endured for decades when his contribution in the canon ended with him screaming hilariously as his jetpack flies toward a sand barge, slams into it and then slides right into that giant mouth, capped off with a burp.

It’s his physical appearance and how his depiction in the now largely non-canon expanded universe portrayed him that led to him maintaining a status well above “joke”. Robert Rodriguez, Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s depiction of Boba as a seemingly reformed yet ass-kicking figure in Mandalorian’s second season inspired confidence in the further adventures of the most significant ancillary figure of the Original Trilogy not called Wedge Antilles.

Now, when people think of Boba Fett, they think of one scene where while teaching Tusken Raiders to use speeders, he gives them visual cues in what was ultimately seen as a goofy manner: “Like a Bantha”, says Boba, replete with a derpy expression off of Temuera Morrison’s face.

We see a figure that goes from silent badass to bumbling crime-lord in the making, hardly inspiring the same quiet awe of either the Boba we once knew or thought we once knew. In truth, Boba Fett’s haphazard and successful by sheer luck conquest of the Tatooine underworld might actually be closer to the Boba that is undone by a blind, hapless Han Solo.

Ok, so maybe Boba isn’t quite the super professional bounty hunter we thought he was. Doesn’t mean that his new adventures following his embarrassing defeat in Return of the Jedi can’t be awesome right? Aside from three noteworthy moments (raiding a desert train, taking out a bar full of bandits by himself, and killing the Sarlacc that nearly digested him), no.

Instead, Boba, with assistance from a cooler bounty hunter portrayed by Mulan’s voice actor, a big, slow-motion Wookie bounty hunter, a bunch of high-tech teenage street urchins who seem out of place in this universe, two fat barely agile green pigs, a better helmeted bounty hunter with his adopted merchandisable son, and finally a rancor, stumbles his way to victory over a crime syndicate over reasons you’re barely given reason to care about.

Sure, the Pyke Syndicate is an unabashed and provably ruthless crime group and they do hire one of the most badass characters Dave Filoni created for the Clone Wars show. But, other than that Boba could be a better alternative to them in regards to morals, in terms of competency his narrow victory in the end, that came off the backs of a bunch of more competent figures, would not inspire confidence that he keeps himself in that position for long.

The show ultimately does give you a general idea of why Boba would bother going off in this direction following both his defeat from Han and his time with the Tusken people, but ultimately the explanation does not translate into feeling involved with the why and more often than not my mind wandered to the how too often. It was rather amusing how many people just up and decide to join Boba’s cause when the incentive he offers really wouldn’t make them that committed to him, if I’m being honest.

The Vespa kids, often called the Power Rangers of Star Wars though that might be being disrespectful to the actual Power Rangers to be honest, after one conversation they have with Boba, show no indication of doubting their role as servants to him. Boba gives them plenty of reasons to consider jumping ship, considering how hilariously he’s presented as the underdog in the scenario and to boot, not the most sympathetic one.

Like all streaming shows, the entirety of the Book of Boba Fett was pre-produced, all seven episodes made before release. And yet, as has been brought up endlessly since it occurred, the two penultimate episodes suddenly switch gears to a bunch of star warriors we would be more interested in watching. Suddenly, Mando, the man known as Din Djarin, is back and with it the tone and quality of the entire show suddenly screams up into the air. Despite barely if at all featuring Boba Fett in those two episodes, I can’t recall being bothered honestly.

Mando and by extension Grog-Baby Yoda’s return to the fold lifts up the spirit and makes just about anything that is happening on screen immediately more interesting, even if it still includes awkwardness like Mando and a middle-aged Jawa-curious female mechanic talking and doing shop like it’s Ford v. Ferrari on a Naboo Starfighter. You know, the same one from possibly the worst Star Wars movie not involving J.J. Abrams. For what it’s worth, it manages to make that same Starfighter into something greater than the sum of it’s cinematic introduction back in 1999.

We also get the return of de-aged Luke Skywalker with a generally better if at times still uncannily valley face, Rosario Dawson’s better than expected live action Ahsoka( possibly the best “girl power” character in Star Wars history), Timothy Olyphant’s Marshal Cobb Vanth, other “Helmet or the Highway” Mandalorians of Din’s acquaintance, an adorable BD droid first seen in 2019’s stellar Jedi: Fallen Order and the aforementioned Cad Bane, where Star Wars truly, unabashedly goes spaghetti Western.

Like the rancor carrying Boba at the end, all of these characters carry “The Book of Boba Fett” into something approximating required viewing. This is doubly true considering how it very much sets up Mandalorian’s third season and Ahsoka’s first.

But it can’t be thrown aside that the Book of Boba Fett is indeed at it’s best when Boba isn’t just silent, but not on the screen. In truth, we did get those much imagined new adventures of Boba Fett as a super cool, super mysterious bounty hunter that you had hoped for from when you were a kid seeing the OG trilogy for the first time. Those adventures were instead featured under the name “Djarin” rather than “Fett”.

Jackass Forever

image by IndieWire (Camaraderie: the ultimate pain reliever. Maybe.)

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Jackie Chan became an international star for daring to put himself in greater physical danger than just about anyone else. Echoing the Do-It-Yourself bravery of silent film slapstick, Chan shocked the world with the audacity of what he actually did to impress audiences in Hong Kong and beyond. In one case, the finale of the original Police Story, he literally shocked himself by sliding down a pole flinging through a series of electric lights careening to the glass below. In truth not the stunt that brought him closest to death, but it still came close enough.

In a far more irreverent and grotesque manner, the crew of MTV’s Jackass have set out to continue Chan’s legacy on both the big and small screens. Safe to say that the four cinematic outings pulled off far more than even an MTV show could dare. They were controversial, they were hilarious, they were indisputably brave on top of knowingly stupid. Not so stupid, in that paramedics and doctors were always standing by. These are professional morons, mind you.

The latest and possibly last Jackass flick, at least to feature more or less the original crew (barring one’s absence over legal dispute and the other over a tragic untimely death), is a film that’s all about affirming two things: despite reaching middle age, Johnny Knoxville and friends still got it and that ,yes, intentionally abusing one another can create earnest friendships.

I’ll be honest, I’ve always gravitated towards the more physical skits than the ones meant to inspire queasiness. The gross stuff which is still very much on the table here is able to inspire in me at least admiration in that ,hey, they did that gross stuff pretty well and creatively. But the stuff involving almost certain pain is what I look forward to in terms of more or less seeing a live action Looney Tunes cartoon on display.

It’s analogous to the Mountain question. “Why climb a mountain?” someone asks. “Because it’s there,” says the other. Out of sheer curiosity, the Jackass boys and girls ask themselves if this really dangerous, overseen but still quite stupid scenario is feasible. Time and time again, the answer is a laughter and groan inducing yes.

There’s humor in how the skits sometimes involve tricks or surprises that other members of the Jackass team aren’t privy towards. Those that end up falling for a painful surprise are just as bewildered and stunned as the audience is. It also amounts to a guessing game for the audience and occasionally the team member as to how the skit will resolve and in what way? Was your guess to the resolution on point? Or, were you humorously off the mark? Sometimes, an accidental, unintended result in the skit works just as well in being considered a success.

I can’t really rank my favorite to least favorite skits nor which member I consider my favorite. That being said, Steve-O, the one who seems to willingly partake in the skits most likely to hurt or cause revulsion I have a respect for the most. Though he does stuff regularly that I wouldn’t ever dare do, his rather infectious enthusiasm for the job and him rarely ever losing that optimistic, cheerful expression in spite of the context of his job description is where the heart of Jackass really is: putting on not just a brave face, but a happy one in the face of quite possibly perilous pranks.

Another member, Ehren, is the one meant to inspire sympathy more than anything else. He’s the one, who despite being part of a group that regularly does stuff that would incite apprehension at performing, is the most freaked out and put off by the particular skits he’s part of. Much like how in every season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the character of Miles O’Brien had a episode all about putting him through hell, Ehren seems to be the one whose role is to get seemingly the shortest end of the stick by both the crew and the audience’s estimation.

You know it’s all going to be OK in the end, nobody died making it and if they had, it would make the news and possibly kill the movie too. In spite of the comical, self-knowing Schadenfreude intended through a regular production of Jackass, there really is a heart-warming message involved.

Preservation through (self-inflicted) hardship and the friends you make in the process, all while showing the world that this really dumb and dangerous idea that might have entered your head once is not only feasible, it can be construed as a funny gag for all the world to enjoy: if you have the guts to see it in any way similar to how Knoxville and co. see it.

I don’t know what Jackie Chan thinks of this raucous American interpretation of risk-taking for entertainment. Well, Chan did co-star with Johnny Knoxville in a film not too long ago so maybe taking one or several for the team is something that East and West really can both appreciate.

James Gunn’s Peacemaker

Image by Indiewire (Where the fit and the fat unite.)

James Gunn’s mission statement is to make gross, bawdy R-rated entertainment, which was his modus operandi under indie legend Troma Entertainment, that also involves superheroes and heart. He has succeeded in a PG-13 interpretation of that vision with his Guardians of the Galaxy work. He succeeded again with a proper R-rating with last year’s The Suicide Squad. Now, on HBO, he has perhaps mastered it with the spinoff Peacemaker.

Say what you will about John Cena. Many took umbrage for him apologizing in Mandarin for calling Taiwan a country on behalf of the PRC. For a long time, he was simultaneously one of Wrestling’s most famous and yet most hated superstars under the WWE. Now, he’s making a great new niche for himself as an honest to God actor who might be a genuinely better actor than the go-to example for ring to cinema transition: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Who else could it be? Well, Bautista maybe.

His performance of Christopher Smith, the self-proclaimed superhero Peacemaker, is likely a self-satire on his profile as being a buff, patriotic wrestler and action star. His first movie, The Marine from 2006, is an uber-patriotic and stupid action film, that is tied together by the sense that at least Cena is earnest about his intentions with the film undeniably pro Marine corps stance.

With his work under Gunn, Cena, now in his 40s and no less jacked and ready for the role, might have a bit more introspective even pessimistic outlook on American patriotism as it stands now in the 2020’s, as well he should. Or, he’s following along with Gunn’s perception and is simply acting so well it doesn’t betray his actual feelings on the matter.

Peacemaker is both a joke and yet the real deal at the same thing. Almost as literal-minded as Bautista’s interpretation of Marvel’s Drax the Destroyer though less deadpan, Christopher Smith is undeniably good at using weapons, killing people and being in truth excellent in combat scenarios. Amanda Waller would not have picked him as a serious candidate for her Task Force X, the Suicide Squad otherwise.

And yet, his delusional worldview on why he exercises his combat proficiency, to make the world more peaceful, is laughable to just about everyone else. It’s not surprising he makes friends with Freddie Stroma, who straight up calls himself “Vigilante”. Like Peacemaker, he has no qualms with killing for a supposedly moral cause and for any crime, up to and including vandalism. Unlike PM, it’s almost certainly to mask his sociopathy in spite of the seemingly genuine friendship he makes with Christopher.

In truth, Smith’s reasons towards being Peacemaker are tragic, no laughing matter. Living with a traumatizing upbringing under his racist Klan leader father, played perfectly by Robert Patrick, and being indirectly responsible for killing his beloved brother in a pit fight, Christopher Smith wanted to make amends for things that were much more the fault of his father than himself. He pledges to God that he will use the skills his evil father teaches him for the betterment of mankind. Also unlike his father, he has no bigoted inclinations. He comes to work alongside Adebayo, Amanda Waller’s daughter, who is both black and gay and only comes to blows with her over a reluctant act of treachery she commits on him.

Like with both the Guardians and the Suicide Squad, Gunn is all about taking figures that at a glance and even with some digging into one would reasonably write as “bad, shady, evil” and making them into genuine heroes and not just for one day.

All five of the original Guardians in the MCU came from backgrounds that were criminal, even Groot. And yet they have become two time galaxy saviors and contributed one time to saving the universe. Sure, they may maintain some amount of roguish behavior, but they are unambiguously on the side of the Angels.

The Suicide Squad as Gunn depicts them in last year’s excellent retooling of the concept are even more “bad guy” than the Guardians. Some are considered outright villains in general in the DC pantheon of characters. And yet, over the course of a mission set in a stand-in for Cuba, they come to recognize that their talents can be used for the greater good of all and not just for the whims of a deep state agent like Waller.

Due to circumstances from that film, Peacemaker didn’t get to have that epiphany like Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and the rest. He seemingly died a reluctant villain at Bloodsport’s hand no less. And yet, miracously he lived and now under a new black ops team under Waller’s control, he now has a chance to actually be the good guy in fighting a “Body Snatchers” like invasion and better yet, be the good person he deluded himself into thinking he already was.

Peacemaker is just as much a character study as it is a meditation on the American character as it now is. With all the horrible realities of what America is revealing to itself, to those who are willing, what is one to do? Even when still operating under the CIA’s thumb, can one better themselves and save the world?

At first, it’s Peacemaker attempting to make up for failing in his mission last time. Overtime, it’s to find that same type of family that Bloodsport discovered and Peter Quill/Star-Lord discovered, but with its own even more profane interpretation.

Peacemaker might be the most adult Superhero production Gunn has yet made. There are plenty of moments that you thought you would never see in something involving the DCEU or a DC project in general. Those same moments are also played for laughs while still, in spite of it all giving insight into the particular character at the heart of the joke.

It’s violence is able to know when to be darkly comic and when to be just dark, moments meant to inspire horror for the sake of the drama. A moment which involves assassinating a politician and his family on the suspicion they might be something akin to Body Snatchers is mostly given discretion where the act of assassination is mostly offscreen but still unsettling. Yes, I am saying that a veteran of Troma has taste. Another moment involving a mercenary masquerading as an FBI agent is bone-chilling, him psychopathically killing agents and having fun while doing so is treated as messed up as it is.

Peacemaker and other characters who confront or must commit violence are often haunted by its repercussions. Christopher Smith is haunted by a major character he killed in The Suicide Squad and he comes to see the violence his evil father committed on him or had him commit as being as monstrous as it was.

Most characters in the show have to come to terms with their violence their roles involve as well as the philosophies behind the roles there are in. Is there not perhaps an alternative to the obvious? What is unavoidable and what isn’t? Is the world they’re supposedly safeguarding worth protecting? The same world that indeed has a Justice League in it?

You might be saying that those same questions seem rather similar to the same questions that Zack Snyder’s vision of this universe posited. You’d be right and leave it to a darkly comic, highly irreverent dramedy to one up what might be the most self serious director working today, though Snyder’s recent Army of the Dead movie suggests he can try to be more lighthearted every once in a while. Emphasis on “try.”

Even if the emotion that is attempted in Peacemaker works for me often more intellectually than it does in genuine emotion on my part, it is no less successful in being at times the bloody laugh riot it was marketed to be. While not all of the gross or bawdy jokes land for me, it is made up for in the moments that do work and for the sheer recognition that such humor is actually working in conjunction with the structure of over the top violence, serious political observations and honest to god character arcs.

Maybe more than anything else, this is James Gunn at his most James Gunn, tempered with actual craft at not overdoing it and becoming himself a self-parody. He wants you to think about what Christopher Smith and his own peculiar Suicide Squad’s adventures are all about. Some takeaways can be uplifting, some can be disquieting, some can be sobering. All yet fit. The series brokers peace with its differing tonal priorities.

In that respect, it very much is truth in advertising. And Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith at the end of the day, delusional or not, does wish to fight for truth, justice and the American way. This go around, the truth he must first fight for is in himself.

Next time: Dunno either more 80s retrospective or The Batman.

Bengal’s 80’s Retrospective Part VIII (Chinese New Year Edition) (re-release)

Happy Year of the Tiger, everyone.

Though I have no Chinese ancestry or relatives, I was work friends with a Chinese-American student at a digital editing/cameraman job at my college in Florida. Lunar new year celebrations are not limited to China, as there are variations in Korea and I think Japan. I do have a Japanese aunt and through her a Japanese American cousin who now lives in Brooklyn.

Even without any of that background, I imagine there is in truth really no issue in a white dude like me enjoying the most recognized Asian holiday/celebratory period, due to its prevalence in Chinese American communities like Chinatown.

I mean, some might have an issue with it due to it being specific to Chinese culture and as a celebration connected through the family dynamic of that community. At the same time, non-Irish celebrate or partake in St. Patrick’s Day festivities (and not just to get wasted), and as far as I know Jewish Americans aren’t upset if gentiles politely observe some Hannukah festivities.

Basically, it can and does act as excuse for me to do the two things a non Chinese person often does relating to China: eat Chinese food and watch Chinese cinema, especially of the action variety. This year, I have four films to peruse: three from Hong Kong and one proudly American made that is about the Chinese American experience as it was in 1982 and perhaps to some extent still is.

The Victim (Lightning Kung Fu in U.S.) (1980) (HK)

The Victim (1980 film) - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Image from Alchetron (These two expressions from our kung fu compadres represent two distinct tones from this half comedy/half tragedy of an experience.)

Sammo Hung is a Hong Kong cinema legend that is not as well known as say Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, Jet Li or Michelle Yeoh. It’s a shame considering how distinctive a figure he is when he does appear in an HK production. Your best chance of seeing the portly yet kung fu-fast actor is when he appears in stuff that features Chan or any of the others mentioned above. The Victim is a Hong Kong dramatic comedy that showcases Hung’s talents perfectly and is decent introduction to him, if you don’t mind VHS quality despite being available on Amazon Prime.

Some time in what is vaguely meant to be either 19th or very early 20th century China, there lives a traveling kung fu enthusiast looking for a new master played by Hung. He finds that potential master in Chun-yau, a humble man who helps out with the occasional bout or rough-housing in his village but tries (emphasis on tries) to keep a low profile with his beloved wife Yuet-yee. He has good reason to.

That somewhat fat but no less quick kung fu wannabe apprentice Chan Wing, after seeing his display of awesome martial arts prowess, immediately wants him to become his master, despite already being very good at it. Chun keeps on saying no and a lot of the comedy comes at Chan being basically a comical stalker at the poor guy.

However, Chun’s complicated past comes back to haunt him in the form of his absolutely evil stepbrother, Cho-Wing, who you already know is evil before he does anything because he’s wearing an eyepatch. He proves that foregone conclusion by trying to rape Chun’s newly wedded wife because hey, what’s his brother’s is also his, right?

The wedded couple flee before they can even honeymoon and now Cho’s thugs have caught up. What are a duo of comic and straight man martial artists to do? The Victim brilliantly toes the line between seriousness and comedic fun despite how often stark the contrast between the two tones featured are.

On the one hand, there is the near breathless energy of how the verbal and physical humor makes the fights to come even more exciting and better yet, worth rewatching. Then, in spite of the overly obviously evil appearence of the stepbrother, his backstory in conjunction with Chun makes if not sympathetic at least understandable, as it was jealousy over his birth father, a Chinese Grandmaster, giving more attention and affection to a ratty orphan on the streets.

It’s obvious stuff made more enjoyable through both the ingredients that make martial arts comedies so bouncy and carefree while also lowering your guard to the darker material in store. Because of the VHS quality I had to view through, the great fight sequences lose some punch that later entries to talk about maintain through better visual presentation. It could even be that the latter films also have better fighting in general and for that reason are easier to access through streaming services.

This is ultimately as good an introduction to Sammo Hung as I can think, especially if you want to experience firsthand without Jackie Chan’s presence to compare to.

Chan is Missing (1982)

Chan Is Missing · SFMOMA
Image from SFMOMA (Moderate trouble in Little China)

It is the early 1980s. The culture that we know of that era is basically just beginning to form with some leftovers from the 70s. Synth, neon and mostly bad hair shall become a new normal. Question is, will every American follow suit and why? Obviously not, just consider the continuing anti-establishment punk culture and that in truth, there are always going to be different kinds of groups who present themselves in different ways, occasionally being colored in by changing times.

Chan is Missing is not just a polite critique of the well-meaning but heavily stereotyped fictional figure of Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective who helps out despite his heavily accented Far East voice and endless array of Chinese proverbs to expel. It’s not just a reflection on changing generations within the Chinese-American community and with it changing attitudes.

It’s fundamentally about what it means to be Chinese-American at all, or maybe even just Chinese in the late 20th century. The film’s conclusion ,which is all about throwing its hands up and saying “Who knows?” is not a cop-out, it’s a melancholic admission that the answer really can’t be found. Due to the film’s presence in San Francisco, I’d say us now discovering who the Zodiac killer is or was is more likely to occur.

Another thing that makes the film’s on-the-surface depressing conclusion not really hurt is that the other takeaway is that it is ultimately not that big a deal. It’s not unimportant to filmmaker Wayne Wang and the uncle and nephew duo who become DIY detectives. It’s not important enough that the lives that they’re living should be disrupted by it.

This deep dive into Chinese-American identity, which can be extrapolated as meaningful to the immigrant experience in America as well all stems from how Jo wants to make his nephew Steve a fellow driver of cabs in Frisco. To do that, his go-between, Chan, has to give Jo that license. Suddenly, Chan disappears, hence the title. All through Chinatown San Francisco and beyond, they search and search, all in indie camerawork black and white framing.

Thinking over it, it actually reminds me of the Italian classic depressor L’Avventura, all about a search for a missing person that ultimately ends up getting nowhere and getting nowhere was the whole point. That film was an addressing of Italian sentiment over existentialism and nihilism following the butchery of WW2. Chan is Missing is less heavy and anxiety inducing over its implications, but it’s likely Wang made the comparison if only for the style of film he intended.

All the while, you are treated to a colorless yet still colorful depiction of SF Chinatown 1982, with American ditties being dubbed over and even rewritten with new meaning in Chinese. Whose being assimilated? America or China?

Jo narrates the experience in a way that reminded me of Wallace Shawn’s narration at the beginning and end of My Dinner with Andre of all things, though this is a more personal story in comparison. The second generation Jo’s conflict with third generation and more explicitly American-like nephew Steve is both frustration over the lack of headway in both figuring out where Chan went as well as figuring out who Chan even is.

Despite being a go-between for Jo, the two have never met in person and the film ends with the intent of an anvil and also the impact of an anvil: the sole photograph of Chan he could find has him in dark shadow and blurry, elusive even when he didn’t mean to.

A number of scenarios for who Chan is/was and what he is about is almost akin to Kurosawa’s oft copied Rashomon. He was a Communist sympathizer, maybe he wasn’t. He was a nice guy, he was a prick. He was stodgy, he was open. He was here when he was actually over here. Rashomon is also famously uninterested in revealing to you the truth, because maybe it really can’t be found.

The way the camera moves in relation to Jo’s narrative gives Chan is Missing a really dream-like feel, as if our minds are trying to process the mystery more sluggishly than usual, maybe as a reflection of Jo and Steve’s. It is a definite article independently made movie, and for its purposes does make the proceedings feel more real. It also makes it really hard to tell who is and is not an actor. The truth is that it could be everyone in the movie, save the many streetgoers on the Frisco streets, are actors, maybe the majority were for real.

There is likely a concrete answer to that question. But back to the point of the movie is how much the players and you yourself actually care. Part of the reason Chan is never found is because these two men, none of which are trained detectives, get tired of the chase, find an alternative to their original problem involving a cab license. Some might be bothered that the main characters give up because the audience generally wants a resolution. It’s the American expectation as a cinemagoer. Rashomon was Japanese. L’Avventura was Italian.

Chan is Missing is American, but it’s also Chinese. What you get is the candid experiences, thoughts and expressions of people living in a real place at a real time albeit sprinkling in a fictional conflict. More than anything else, Chan is Missing is a human production. The real question you should be asking is if the act of “giving up” that occurs is laziness, disinterest or pragmatism. And on top of all that, how much does one conclusion bother you, if at all.

A question for us all.

Duel to the Death (1983) (HK/South Korea)

Duel to the Death
Image by Far East Film Festival (Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends?)

China and Japan have had beef for who knows how long, rarely ever just experiencing a period of “chillness” in relation from what I know.

This Hong Kong/South Korean co-production acknowledges that long ago the people who make up most of Japan’s population (save the Okinawans and Ainu) were descended from China. Of course, as a lot of time passes and I do mean a lot of time, very distinct cultures formed and China and Japan became alien to one another, not without any shared similarities, but hardly enough to matter ultimately.

In the modern context, the most infamous example of China and Japan having, to put it lightly, poor relations was what is officially called the Second Sino-Japanese War that began with Imperial Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and ultimately became part of World War 2. Statistically, the losses overall in the battle over mainland China would at least meet or surpass the Eastern Front between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

It is a major element to WW2 history that is rarely acknowledged in Western media despite its obvious importance. If I had to bet, it’s that taking the side of the Chinese over the Japanese, despite the former being the victims in this instance could come across as Pro-PRC sentiment nowadays even if unintended. Also, America loves Japan now. I’m one of them, Sugoi! As far as I know, the last time an American/ Western piece of media acknowledged that horrifying side to WW2 or the leadup, it was Spielberg’s overlooked Empire of the Sun from 1987.

Everyone is aware that Imperial Japan invaded China mercilessly for colonial intentions. It was that imperialist ambition that would lead to my country one day fighting them island by island, nightmare by nightmare in the Pacific. The 1937 pillaging/massacre of Nanjing/Nanking, often denoted as a “rape”, is the singular event that marks that aspect of shared Japanese and Chinese history as so notorious.

I really, really wish modern day Japan would come to greater terms with what they did in China and WW2 in general, as it is very concerning that Japanese curriculums often avoid or recontextualize in a less damning way their role in that side of history. It reminds me of my own country’s painfully slow and at times denialist approach to our own sins throughout history, not to mention the sins we commit now. No country, no matter how much they deliver cool even remarkable stuff into global culture, should be exempt from that criticism.

Among many other things, Japan gives us great cars, giant monsters, ramen, video game consoles and a wide range of appliances that are so ubiquitous to American life you might not even realize at first that its origins aren’t American. It took me until my teens, like I imagine most people, to realize that many of the cars and most of the game systems we own are from the land of the rising sun. If nothing else, it creates a new exotically “cool” factor, especially when you see them handle American concepts or characters.

Why have I spent an inordinate amount of time on what might be for some of you a heartbreaking history lesson on two major Asian countries? Because that is what Duel to the Death is all about.

Set in the 16th century, a master Chinese swordsman and a master Japanese swordsman have been ordered by their respective governments to take part in a once-in-a-decade duel of honor: a battle to determine which style of swordsmanship is superior. An entire people’s culture, their “face” is put on the line for this duel. As the title already spoils, it ain’t over until someone keels over.

Ching Wan is the Chinese champion while Hashimoto is the champion for Japan. Their own perspectives on honor and what it entails is also what is on the line. Both recognize that regardless of their standard for honor, being expert swordsmen does not guarantee long lives, let alone easy ones. They have come to grimly accept that dying in peace is not in the cards. If their honor is maintained all the same, what’s there to worry about?

Well, how about that both sides are willing to pull some heinous crap to rig the fight? Ching’s master, who is extremely resentful for his school’s waning recognition, makes a dirty deal with the Japanese Shogun to arrange the fight in such a way that both parties will be benefitted in some way. Instead of Ching, he will have his very talented daughter Sing Lam, fight Hashimoto while Ching is caged up while the Japanese send out bonafide NINJAS to kidnap their very best shaolin monks so they can force them to teach their skills to the Japanese.

As you can expect, both swordsmen are appalled at this horribly dishonorable treachery from both their countries. These two designated sworn enemies ironically become brothers in arms to end the conspiracy that has embroiled them both.

The film’s final bout, the much promised “Duel to the Death” is a bloody affair that is breathtaking in its execution and the amount of expert wuxia (wire fu) that is implemented. As cool as the fight between the two is, it is twinged with sadness that it is ultimately a fight only one of them wants. Ching, not having the suicidal level to commitment in maintaining face like Hashimoto, is all too happy to let bygones be bygones once they both stop the conspiracy.

Hashimoto, however, with his brutally taught interpretation of Bushido, wants a fight and he will get the fight he wants. The film at first ends on an ambiguous note, as technically speaking, both fighters are alive when the credits roll. However, when you realize the sheer punishment they’ve given their bodies, with Hashimoto getting punctured in the heart by Ching and Ching in return losing his whole right arm, you realize that both men are not going to make it.

Hashimoto stops the fight when he realizes he needs not deliver a killing blow. He instead sheathes his katana and looks out to the ocean back towards Japan. Both realize that no side will win, both will die, and in truth what honor was actually won that day? They actually did win honor through their foiling of the plot but then ruined it by performing the duel.

Now, unless you’re hopelessly literal-minded, this does sound very much like allegory doesn’t it? As it was in the 1980s and it is no less true in the 2020s, China and Japan remain very cross toward one another. There is some legitimate grievance that I can read from the current politics between the two. Namely, Japan, despite doing its best effort to put on a better image, being no longer conquest hungry for starters and getting along with almost everyone on the global stage, hasn’t done one thing that would possibly make a difference with regards to the Chinese people: apologize for what they did to them between invading Manchuria and World War 2.

Tragically, as mentioned before, Japan has never made any formal apology for their numerous crimes against humanity on the Chinese people. I don’t know if the same is also true of the Korean, Vietnamese and Burmese people or anyone else they victimized, but it is certainly true here. They’re a number of reasons Japan hasn’t apologized, not all of them are related to racism or stubborn nationalist pride. Due to the balance of power shifting after WW2, with China becoming an Authoritarian Communist nation on the Soviet side of the Cold War, suddenly Japan under initial American occupation was on the American side of things, however nominally.

Eventually, sentiments between American and Japan would drastically improve over the coming decades, mostly due to Japan adopting their own form of American economic and political philosophy while China became the second most noteworthy opponent against the West during the Cold war, barring Cuba I guess. True, Nixon opening up trade and a change of policy following Mao’s death would also blunt that, but to this day, America and China have maintained a passive-aggressive attitude towards one another, that itself blunted by a little thing known as economic interdependence.

Japan, despite America maintaining some perhaps too close to home ties such as controversial military bases, has done more its own thing. For a time, in the 80s and 90s, there was actual fears that Japan would overtake Murica’ economically as the greatest financial superpower in the world, though one heck of a crash in the early 90s would dissipate the reality of anything like that remotely coming to pass. To be frank, a lot of that fear-mongering over Japanese economic, corporate domination might have had some ‘ahem’ xenophobic undertones.

The point that Duel to the Death makes is not just that, despite some genuine and not so genuine grievances either nation might have, it is not worth it to mesh out the divide through violence. It was horrifying enough the last time around. While Japan is not a nuclear power (for depressingly obvious reasons), another such conflict would hurt both more than it would help. Why waste good men and women in such a way?

If all the politics and allegory is too much for you, Duel to the Death, like most HK action flicks, can be enjoyed solely on the visceral level. The aforementioned NINJAS that the Japanese use are of the comically supernatural level. Jumping up high, pulling up martial feats that can’t be done with some behind the scenes f/x, being able to run really fast in procession in a manner that would be utterly in line with the Benny Hill theme. There’s also one hilarious moment where some other Chinese warrior walking along the beach is suddenly attacked by NINJAS flying kites. It’s as technically remarkable as it gut-bustlingly silly. If it that were to happen to me, I couldn’t tell you if I would laugh or scream.

There’s also smaller scale but no less absurd battles between those that are not NINJAS like our two swordsmen and the NINJAS themselves. How the lead NINJA dies is both insanely ridiculous and yet another excuse to guffaw once you process what you just saw happen.

Oh and the more realistic fighting not involving NINJAS is pretty great. In other words, politics or no politics, it’s easy to see why this is an exaggerated martial arts/swordsmanship HK classic, the first directed by the man who would one day give us, wouldn’t you know, A Chinese Ghost Story. A must see, unless you’re sensitive to the kind of sword based violence that almost certainly helped inspire Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

Shaolin Temple (1982) (HK)

The Shaolin Temple - Is The Shaolin Temple on Netflix - FlixList
Image from List of Netflix Movies and TV Shows (Test your might…)

There were films about Shaolin martial arts before Jet Li’s debut feature in 1982. The legend Bruce Lee showed off the moves in defense of Shaolin tradition in none other than Enter the Dragon itself. Films which had “Shaolin” in the title had been made, some now considered classics of the genre like Lau Kar-Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978).

Shaolin Temple affected the genre significantly with one simple act: featuring the real life Shaolin monastery itself for the first and definitely not last time. This being a Hong Kong production, doing so involved filming on mainland China, which as you can imagine might seem risky. I suppose it was possible by the 80s’ due to an evolving change in policy following Mao’s death as mentioned in the Duel to the Death section of this article.

That being said, showcasing the honest to God real monastery (though I wouldn’t be surprised if some interior shots were filmed in Hong Kong) was a real turning point in how the martial arts genre went about representing the cultural aspects of this type of cinema, not just “that’s some sweet moves” aspect.

The success of this movie wouldn’t just make Jet Li into a Hong Kong cinema legend over the coming decades, but it would make the actual Shaolin Monastery into one of China’s largest tourist attractions. Chances are fairly good that if you were to decide on visiting China nowadays (barring COVID and your understandable misgivings due to their censor-heavy authoritarianism, among other stuff), the Shaolin monastery located smack dab in central China would be a strong suggestion given to you.

The story is fairly straightforward which works in the film’s favor both as introduction to Li and to the Shaolin itself. During one of the many terrible periods of civil war that plagued Chinese history, Jue Yuan (Jet Li) loses his father to a ruthless general called Wang Shichong, who upon writing this was based on an actual person of the same name.

After fleeing for his life with help from someone who eventually is revealed to be a rebel leader against Shichong, he is given sanctuary in the Shaolin Monastery, and eventually decides to go through the trials of becoming a Shaolin monk, all for revenge. Of course, the Buddhist monks who run the monastery do not train their students to kill for any reason. In spite of how plausible the moves of a Shaolin monk are in killing someone, only non-lethal violence is permitted, always in defense. Sounds similar to the Jedi code, don’t it?

This frustration over the rules of living a proper Shaolin life under the teachings of Buddha leads Jue to having a frayed relationship with the men he will in time call brothers. There’s also Bai Wu Xia, the beautiful maiden who lives in the monastery due to one of the lead monks being her adoptive father. Like the jedi code, shaolin monks do not take up with anyone in intimate relationships. Again, this is sounding like something our boy Lucas took inspiration from.

Eventually, the war that is transpiring makes it way to the monastery. The monks try their best to stay neutral in the conflict, due to their pacifist belief. Eventually, General Shichong’s methods, all to get a prisoner of his, Jue, pushes the monastery’s beliefs to the breaking point.

Of course, it’s easy to see why the Shaolin beliefs would send very mixed messages, as they regularly train and practice with weapons. Swords, spears, sword-spears, daggers with ropes like what you saw in Marvel’s Shang-Chi last year, you name some cool Chinese weapon, the monastery likely has it.

Of course, the use of some quite sharp weaponry is all in the training and mastery of one’s body and spirit. All to improve yourself, not to take the lives of others. The scenes showcasing the cast’s effortless use of those weapons, especially with Jet Li alone in demonstration, are mesmerizing to watch.

What makes it even more impressive is that there’s no fakery to protect the actors and actresses. Li and the others really are using weapons that if you’re not careful can seriously injure yourself or others, even accidentally kill. That is one major reason behind HK martial arts’ worldwide appeal: the characters and stories are fake, the danger is not.

It ultimately culminates in an epic battle on the monastery grounds between Jue, Bai and the monks versus Shichong’s forces. Not gonna lie, seeing the evil general and his forces approaching the monastery reminded me of the Uruk-Hai barreling towards the Fellowship in LOTR, with Howard Shore’s theme for Isengard blaring in my head.

It’s violent but not as violent as the proceedings in Duel to the Death, which had an almost Sam Raimi level of comic excess to lessen the graphic feel somewhat. Here, it’s much more serious, but not without moments of definite levity, more so in the moments where no one is fighting.

Oh, just a warning. Dog/pet lovers should beware as Shaolin Temple showcases the quite different standards the Chinese have towards canines compared to those living in the States. When you understand the background of that culture, the blow of a set of scenes involving a dog are not as severe. Just remember that from a Chinese perspective, how we view dogs and cats might seem strange even off-putting to them.

Jet Li’s first leading film role is a confident start, a confident beginning to the one post Bruce Lee martial arts actor that might give Jackie Chan pause. Others would also bring up Donnie Yen for example, but I rest my case. Shaolin Temple from 1982 is not just historically important, it’s yet another showcase for the breathless imagination of real often dangerous skills coming up to bat for our entertainment, whether you’re from Asia or not.

Next time: TBD

Bengal’s Ten Best of 2021 (with probable Spoilers)

Author’s Preface

I didn’t play enough games released in 2021 to create a separate article for best games of the year. Seeing as how I haven’t really delved into critical darling Deathloop well enough yet, there could be a post-article winner for game of the year. On that note, well down the pipe line for my games to cooperatively play with my best friend Angel living in Florida is a little title called It Takes Two, which won the highest honor at last month’s The Game Awards.

An entirely cooperative game with no way to play by yourself, It Takes Two promises to be an experience tailor made to spend time the best way I can with my college friend aside from talking. So, the absence of Deathloop and It Takes Two makes me feel that even the highest ranking game on this list is not necessarily my Game of 2021.

There is one movie that I wish I could have seen last year but due to being available at no theater in my area, I missed the chance to see Guillermo Del Toro’s take on noir classic Nightmare Alley, based on the pitch black novel of the same name. Due to it’s R-rating, it’s safe to say the new version ekes closer to the full content of the novel that a 1947 motion picture couldn’t.

For whatever reason, in eerily the same vein as me not finishing the 2019 HBO Watchmen series, I did not watch the final episode of Squid Game, Netflix’s hottest surprise success, save for an entry appearing in my top ten. This South Korean sleeper hit deserves attention, so I’m going to go ahead and make it an honorable mention that would be a definite placement on the top ten save for having not actually watched the finale for a reason I can’t completely explain.

Speaking of honorable mentions…

Honorable Mentions

Squid Game (2021)

Netflix's 'Squid Game' Is the Dystopian Hit No One Wanted—Until Everyone  Did - WSJ
Image from WSJ (Next game contestants will consist of everyone who seriously thought this show isn’t a critique of capitalism.)

Loki: Season One

Loki (TV Series 2021– ) - IMDb
Image from IMDB (It’s both easy and not so easy being green.)

Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart (PS5)

Biomutant' and 'Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart' Epitomize the Gaming Budget  Gap | WIRED
Image from Wired (Next-Gen Interactive Dreamworks cartoon antics coming at ya.)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Both 'Shang-Chi' Post-Credits Scenes, Explained (Spoilers)
Image from Men’s Health (If you like it so much, put a…)

Number Ten: Hawkeye

Hawkeye' on Disney+ Release Date, News, Cast, Spoilers, Plot, and Theories
Image from Elle (It’s a Christmas Miracle, Clint Barton!)

I don’t know if Hawkeye is the best MCU show released this year. The guy that once brainwashed one of the two leads of this show probably ekes out as better with his own show featured here as an honorable mention. Hawkeye was the most entertaining and probably the most consistent in sticking to what it was trying to be.

It didn’t get pulled back into the MCU’s baser formula like the up to a point experimental Wandavision. It wasn’t a politically intriguing drama that ultimately couldn’t make its mind up on what it was really saying to the audience like Falcon and Winter Soldier, save that we shouldn’t forget or hide the crimes we committed against Americans that didn’t share the skin color of one Steve Rogers.

Loki, for all it’s literally universe-shaking repercussions, didn’t have the best pace or the highest energy and yet is shielded by further criticism in that it is not the wrap-up of that particular adventure on Disneyplus. What If rarely was as far-out and thought provoking in its alternate universe exploration as it could have been and when there was a story-line like that, it often felt either undercooked or not explored long enough.

The least impressive original Avenger ironically has the best run this year when it comes to sticking to its bullet points and wrapping it all up in a surprisingly expansive but ultimately fitting bow. here we see Clint Barton’s journey to escape or find cantharis in the dark five years he spent murdering ner-do-wells as Ronin. All because he saw no other way to cope with losing his entire family from the other most significant purple figure in the MCU.

While he may have exclusively slain bad people or those who worked for bad people, he didn’t count on getting his happy non-Avenging life back, he honestly was attempting long term suicide-by-criminal organization if we’re being honest. Now that he does, he has created a new list of enemies to harbor his family from as well as get the attention of an old one who has gloriously become canon in the actual MCU. It will take more than one Hawkeye to save the day and as luck would have it, there is.

Portraying Kate Bishop rounds out an era for Hailee Steinfeld’s career that is about the most prosperous as I can see right about now. From getting to reprise the voice of Spider-Gwen in two more Spider-verse movies down the road to beginning to voice Vi, one of the main figures of what could in time be the undisputed champion for video game adaptations( if it hasn’t already), it’s a good time to be Hailee Steinfeld.

Steinfeld’s Bishop taking up screentime from Barton has ruffled some fans much like Natasha Romanoff’s “family” did so in Black Widow and how Shang-Chi’s best friend and sister did for me in his movie. But again, Hawkeye is a title, not a name, and considering that Jeremy Renner has been in the MCU for a decade at this point, are you really surprised the seeds for a successor have been sown?

Hawkeye is funnier more often than it’s not, dark enough when it needs to be but doesn’t sour the Christmas time atmosphere which aside from coming across as refreshing for being a “street level” marvel tale after the operatic excess of Eternals, helps give it a strong enough distinction from the rest of the ever crowded MCU lineup.

Hawkeye, as you would expect, promises much coming later to the MCU as has been the case since day one but it also promises that maybe a replacement character can be more than just a replacement character. Despite sharing mostly the same skill-set as Clint, Kate is her own person, albeit molded by her unlikely idolization of an Avenger.

Hawkeye makes a humorous case for what could happen when you meet your hero, both for why you should and should not at the same time.

Number 9: Castlevania: Season 4

Castlevania' Season 4 Ending, Explained | DMT
Image from Digital Mafia Talkies (Blue Oyster Cult circa late Middle Ages)

How I feel about the last season of Netflix’s surprisingly great take on the beloved video game series has changed due to the release of Arcane later that same year.

It’s still good if flawed here and there but what is refreshing about Castlevania’s errors is that they’re not tied into the endless pitfalls that beleaguer a typical video game adaptation. This year’s Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil movies continue more or less to follow many of the same mistakes in trying to imagine these video game worlds and their stories in a form that is not interactive. Too much emphasis on bringing attention to references or easter eggs from the games, not enough on letting a still reverent adaptation be its own thing, told in a way that suits linear, traditional models of storytelling. Imagine that.

Well, the four seasons of Netflix’s Castlevania are here to tell you need not imagine anymore. You can witness it. Arcane took the concept that Castlevania for the small screen adopted and has ran away with it to insanely glorious heights. Here, it’s enough that it’s a story of a world changing from the medieval to the Renaissance, of finding the distinction between science’s value and it’s detriments, of deciding how you want to live with the gifts you’re born with or grow into.

Maybe the wisdom that Castlevania uncovered not unlike finding some dusty tome in a mystic library is that maybe it is the story and its players, not the game and its players, that matter first. Once you have the basics down, you can then infuse an infectious anime-inspired style and fury to the fighting, the score and the tone. You can then sneak in the references both obvious and subtle and make it work with the tale to be told.

As much applause as Arcane has earned for finally getting it after nearly 30 years of wallowing in mediocrity or worse since the live action Mario Bros, Castlevania was the stepping stone, the first sign that we were learning to do what was once written off as impractical, impossible even: make a game’s world inviting to those who have never once taken up a controller or keyboard + mouse.

I have played many games. I have never actually played any Castlevania title. You won’t need to to get or appreciate what is offered here and that is the same times a thousand for a latter entry on this list.

Number 8: Resident Evil 8: Village (Played on PlayStation 5)

Resident Evil 8 gameplay breakdown: 20 new details we spotted in the Resident  Evil Village Showcase | GamesRadar+
Image from Gamesradar ( This guy is here to welcome you to celebrating 25 years of Survival horror. By flattening you with his hammer.)

Resident Evil’s 13th in truth main entry is a welcome reminder not rehash of past franchise glories, such as the venerated Resident Evil 4 from 2005, not unlike how RE7 from 2017 recalled the original PS1 titles. RE8 goes one step further by being a first person version of RE4 that ekes closer to actually being survival horror, with puzzles to solve, fewer resources to use and some monsters that just cannot be killed but outlasted. Also, in one area, being genuinely terrifying in a way I don’t think Resident Evil has ever been for me before.

RE8 yet reflects the pains of staying true to itself while also being drawn to the more explosive, actiony side of itself. RE4 is often derisively called the first “action” entry that eventually devolved the series’ reputation for the next two entries. That said, since the first game ended with you triumphantly blowing up the final monster with a rocket launcher, Resident Evil is a horror phenomenon that has always stood out for its internal conflict in trying to balance the scales between fright and fight and failing.

The cycle begins anew as after RE7 dialed down the manic action considerably, RE8 cranks it back up but still not too much to where it can mostly be called part of a REnaissance for the series so to speak.

Village’s cold, spooky atmosphere and contextualition of gothic horror with a contemporary feel also help it stand out from being just another game in the series and lays the groundwork for what might well be one of the most conceptually intriguing titles with the upcoming Resident Evil 9. Whether that successor wins or loses is beside the point.

It’s fitting that this middle child for this new trilogy of Resident Evil should be all about what we leave for the ones that come after. It’s also important that in and out of universe, the lessons that are learned will not always be the best ones.

Number 7: The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad (2021) - IMDb
Image from IMDB (The anti-heroes we didn’t need but deserved. And yet still didn’t show up to support.)

James Gunn surprised virtually everyone with his out of the blue success in making Guardians of the Galaxy part of the string of success stories for the MCU eight years ago. He probably surprised the actual readers of the comic book team that were reestablished into their modern take in 2008 as well.

It’s a pity that Gunn commercially couldn’t do the same for DC’s go-to example of villains forced to do good or the deep state’s interpretation of “good” with his vastly superior vision of the Suicide Squad.

So many factors go into making the 2021 Suicide Squad’s failure more sad than comically embarrassing. It flips the circumstances from the 2016 film by David Ayers: that film was a commercial success but critically panned, some calling it one of the worst superhero films ever made. This film is a critical success but was financially disastrous.

Disaster is yet a stretch as Gunn is still able to make and release his Peacemaker spin off show with John Cena and Gunn is already hard at work with getting his MCU Guardians of the Galaxy back into the spotlight with their appearance in the Fourth Thor this year as well as a series of Groot shorts, a GOTG holiday special and of course Vol. 3. So, yeah, The Suicide Squad did bomb but I’ve got a feeling that it’s “No hard feelings” all around.

In spite of the poor gross of Gunn’s take on bomb collared villains doing government dirty work and then doing of their rebellious own accord good work, you should see this movie. It’s easy if you try HBO Max and you might wonder why it failed if you don’t account for the factors that were not whatsoever the fault of the film’s quality.

It’s Gunn showing us what would happen if he made GOTG R-rated but not going too hard for the most part as to not alienate you from enjoying the host of characters on their terms. From going deeper into making Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn click in a manner that wasn’t possible the first time to Idris Elba delivering better than Will Smith on the sympathetic killer-for-hire with Bloodsport.

To the surprising, redeeming good nature residing within an individual called “Ratcatcher” to the adorable obliviousness of King Shark to the tragic circumstances of a once purely silly figure like Polka-Dot Man, The Suicide Squad is all about taking would be or were once villains and making them heroic enough or just plain heroes. Just like with the Guardians of the Galaxy, but rougher, edgier.

The Suicide Squad didn’t deserve to be overlooked last year, but then again it is a mission they’re on they’re not expected to survive. It’s meta-ironic no matter how you sliced the results.

Number 6: Dune: Part One

Dune: Will There Be a Dune Part Two? | Den of Geek
Image from Den of Geek (Before Tattoine, there was….)

Much like the circumstances young Paul Atreides and his mother Lady Jessica find themselves in at the end of the first of two or three movies, the circumstances of Dune as a new cinematic prospect is a narrow victory, more so with respects to the financial than the critical.

If you looked at Dune’s box office, it may not seem the most impressive, particularly for a new potential franchise. A little over $100 million domestically and a little over $300 million worldwide. But taking into account the HBO Max viewership, positive critical and audience reception and Oscar word of mouth, Dune is able to begin the journey to achieve something that has long been dismissed: a solid cinematic vision.

In terms of vision, Denis Villeneuve is the right man at the right time and in the right place. He got a chance to continue exploring the cyberpunk dystopia of Blade Runner with the excellent sequel 2049 and now he has a chance to show us what happens when a Hollywood blockbuster goes for the thinking man’s jugular rather than the spectacle craving.

Adapting for the most part the first half of Frank Herbert’s long and if I’m being honest, kindof unwieldy landmark piece of literary sci-fi, the first Dune installment by our man Denis inspires awe more so in its confident ability to show the scale of this world than perhaps anything else. Much like how his vision of continuing the dark world of Blade Runner was made to immerse you in its unsettling enormity, the vision of cosmic civilization a long ass time from now suggests you nor I can ever really encompass the full picture.

Those that can or earnestly try partake of the spice melange and they see the past, the present and the future, like Timothee Chalamet’s Paul. His reserved portrayal of the future Duke of House Atreides does not betray laziness or uncertainty of how to play this role but the uncertainty and fear of how he can be a good successor to his father. Following one intense but inevitable attack on his family, it then turns into how to thread the needle between vengeance and justice. On top of all that, how his prophesized (and manipulated) role as a messianic figure could cause more suffering than salvation.

Dune is about a lot of things, a lot of those things perhaps more pertinent to today than it was in 1965. It’s the difficulty not so much in encompassing the content of the book but the context that was the ominous task to be undertaken. You can tell Villenueve and friends love the series of books and clearly take to heart that it is the world and its themes that are most important. Sure, its characters also serve a needed purpose but for once them being secondary to the all encompassing messages of the narrative works here.

It’s rather appropriate, as these characters spend most of their time on Arrakis, a desert planet that might have given George Lucas a few ideas here or there down the road.

On this planet, you adapt or die as like the thematic power of Herbert’s world, it is the deafening size of the place, the apex predator sand-worms and the inconceivable size of the universe itself that caught Denis’ attention. These small people trying to find purpose in a reality that considers them as puny as they are.

As the first of hopefully a healthy number of installments suggests, it’s about what makes a good civilization and what is the cost of doing so? How much can man positively or negatively affect the scales of how the universe is run? What is better to pursue: your own ends however sympathetic or the needs of all around you? And most significantly, can these effects really last or even matter in the end?

For those simply going along with Villenueve’s take, a mixture of optimism and apprehension at Paul and his follower’s trials may be your takeaway, much like the general opinion of the new Dune before it’s October release. But as the story of Dune goes on, you start to realize that Herbert’s views on humanity’s potential were at best bittersweet. That for all our good intentions, we are either too self-destructive or are handicapped by the self limiting nature of who we simply are.

Dune Messiah, the initially polarizing second novel in the series is all about deconstructing or perhaps demolishing all the assumptions you might have made about the cast of characters. In spite of the end of the first novel laying heavy hints that this is not the story you wanted it to be already. Ironically, that might make Dune a less problematic story by modern standards, what with all the initial takeaways of “white savior narrative.”

I look forward if nothing else at seeing if Part Two and the certainly condensed take on Messiah by Villenueve sticks the landing in the ways that matter. With or without the spice, I see no reason to believe that he will fail in the attempt.

Number 5: Spider-Man: No Way Home

Box Office: 'Spider-Man: No Way Home' Cracks All-Time Top 10
Image by Forbes ( No more “Mr. Stark” guy.)

The third and not last certainly of the MCU Spider-Man flicks rests at polar opposites of assumptions about the modern blockbuster, particularly in relation to superheroes. It serves up the expected and in this instance desired fan service and nostalgic recognition of roughly 20 years of cinematic Spidey while also taking, on the surface, surprising risks that ultimately turned out to be widely embraced rather than bitterly divisive this turn.

Tom Holland’s tenure as Spider-Man has been both widely praised while also uniquely criticized. Not so much for the actor’s performance as Peter Parker, but for how this Peter seemed markedly different with respects to how he reflects the figure’s iconic status as basically “Batman but poor”.

Being the protégé of one of comic’s most noteworthy rich superheroes in Tony Stark did much to espouse a sense that this was not what the character of Spider-Man is supposed to be, privileged with a rich man’s toys rather than what comes from his own blood, sweat and tears.

Among other things, No Way Home seeks to redress this complaint, like a case of constructive criticism being taken to heart that manifests in the form of what is first a big screen Spider-Man movie easter egg tour that becomes in truth an endearing celebration of the different takes for the webhead we’ve seen.

It’s the first Spider-Man sequel to finally perform the balancing act that Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 failed at: having a lot going on, like with the villain roster, and finally making it work. No Way Home is packed but not crowded, knows what to do to partition the characters, friend or foe, effectively and ironically almost acts as a redemption story for the figures that emerged from the lesser Spider-outings of the past.

It also finds the time to do what the MCU is ought to do, continuing to build itself up with further hints of things to come and matters to be resolved, likely with spectacle involved. It does more than any other MCU property released in 2021 to market the future of itself with enthusiasm and a sense that was mostly lacking that yes, there are still some great things to come, some intriguing things.

Much like how Avengers Endgame wasn’t really the end of the MCU but gave off a sense of finality for something in that universe, Holland’s third solo outing also feels like an end that yet promises more without coming across as cheap for doing so. Like many of the elements of this film, it is exactly what it was trying to be: having a cake and eating it too. 1 and a half billion in gross and counting is the best empirical evidence I can think of for that being true.

Tom Holland will return as Spider-Man but next time, the Spidey you see really will feel as if he has actually come home at last.

Number 4: Invincible: Season One

Amazon's Invincible season 1, episodes 1-3 review
Image from Bam Smack Pow (These Teen Titans are in for a world of hurt like you could never imagine.)

Robert Kirkman’s Invincible stands out to me in threading the needle for combining the earnest optimism and wonder of a standard comic book story with the deconstructive pessimism or skepticism of the works of Alan Moore, Mark Millar an Garth Ennis.

At the same time, Invincible in both comic and now animated television form embodies why we love, gravitate towards the superhero mythos and why we would also be apprehensive of it were it to occur in real life.

First of all, Invincible uses it’s R-rated license to demonstrate why superhero training is direly important, what happens when mistakes are made. It’s not as pretty as the mistakes of a PG/PG-13 demonstration. It also highlights the much more brutal reality when those same powers, that of super strength, laser eyes and the like, are used for reasons that are to put it lightly, not on the level.

Of course, the live action and so far excellent live action The Boys series has also done that, but seeing that same realistic yet bombastic violence from superpowers come in animated form that hews to the romantic style of comic superheroes makes it that much more stark and for the purposes of the story of Mark Grayson and his friends and family, more effective.

More than any one moment so far in Amazon Prime’s The Boys, the violence that can and will happen in this take on Invincible made me wince, even honestly queasy. A mid season battle that goes pretty poorly for the up and coming titular hero of Invincible and his fellow teenage heroes was disturbing in a way I had rarely felt before.

This was all intentional. Sure Peter Parker and Clark Kent and many other heroes have had rough goes of it before as is inevitable in their line of work but the age limits on what content is permissible in their side of the genre never allows us to see how really terrible it would likely get if super-powers were a real phenomenon. Kirkman’s vision does not spare us what we’ve always perhaps quietly pondered would actually happen in a bout between superhero and supervillain.

It’s not just physical pain in a superhero story that Invincible has been about. it’s about what it means to be a good hero or just a good person with such power. How you weather not just the physical but the emotional and psychological baggage of such a job. Again, less violent superhero faire has dealt with this, it’s basically Spider-Man and Batman’s modus operandi. It’s the far more visceral consequences that happen that puts those same timeless themes into a fresher light.

On the deconstructive side of things is where the early volumes of Invincible the graphic novel and the first season of the show draw upon something newer. About the assumptions made about the role models that these same heroes like Invincible derive inspiration from to be a hero. As it has now become part of pop cultural common knowledge by now, Invincible’s father being the surprise initial antagonist of the story can no longer be really a spoiler.

One of the most iconic images from the show, that of a frustrated Omni-Man talking down to his battered, bloodied son about their real purpose to be on Earth, not like the desires of Jor-El to his son Kal-El, has all but given up the game on that front.

It’s not just a commentary on what a super-powered group of people would seriously want to do if they came upon a comparatively puny species like humanity, it’s about the painful reckoning of most kids growing into adults that your parents are rarely what you wanted them to be or what you thought they were. A betrayal more reaving than an actual blade.

In spite of the heaviness, Invincible paradoxically also contains that down-to-Earth quality that makes the modern superhero so appealing. Mark, like Peter Parker and many coming of age superheroes, has desires and responsibilities outside of saving the city or the world. He has burgeoning romantic affections, doubts on where to go next in education and employment and making sure the ties that bind him stay well wrapped. All the more prescient considering how one tie is strained past the breaking point.

Much like Kirkman’s other seminal comic contribution The Walking Dead, Invincible is not only about Invincible. Great time is given to figures other than Mark like his fellow superhero and eventual love of his life Atom Eve and her own struggles. Of particular interest based off of my comic reading is the fascinating, endearing and in time heart-wrenching love story between two other heroes in Mark’s circle, Robot and Monster Girl. If the first season is any indication, the show is well on its way to not just nailing that side of Invincible’s narrative, it might make it even more devastating than what occurs on the page.

So far, the ship of adapting Invincible into motion seems much surer than the very shaky hand that ultimately undid AMC’s live action take of the Walking Dead. I feel much more certain that Mark’s story of super and not so super woes and victories will reach a proper end, one that might even surpass in time what came before. It certainly doesn’t hurt that for my money, the voice casting is as perfect to my subjective imagining of how these characters sounded in my head as possible. Even the changes aren’t too terrible.

Invincible is the inspiring and thought-provoking superhero tale of our time that is not for the faint of heart and stomach.

Number Three: West Side Story

A guide to the 2021 remake of West Side Story - Classical Music
Image from BBC Magazine (A tale as old as Queen Elizabeth I.)

Steven Spielberg’s latest film has been called his best film in 20 years. I haven’t seen every film of his in that timespan and I likely never will but yet I can heartily endorse that statement as heartily as everyone performs in this remake of the 1961 classic, itself based on the runaway success of the 1957 Broadway show.

Much like how Kurosawa was able to reimagine William Shakespeare’s work brilliantly in Japanese through his masterpieces Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear), Stephen Sondheim, who passed away mere days before the 2021 West Side Story’s release, rethought the Bard’s most ubiquitous work, Romeo and Juliet, into mid 20th century Urban America.

The original 60s adaptation by Robert Wise is seen by some as an acquired taste due to its on the surface goofy hybridization of Shakespeare, singing and city gangs snapping fingers in groovy rhythm. Spielberg’s version remains faithful but successfully makes it seem more plausible even self-knowing at times at how inherently silly a musical can be. I can’t say whether it is darker than the original considering that the beats of the story remain unaltered though with an even greater sense of looming, inevitable tragedy.

Spielberg uses the fact that his version is no longer contemporary but now a period piece to great effect in distinguishing his version without losing the spirit of what it’s about. The foreknowledge that the titular part of Manhattan, the Upper West Side, is destined to change into something altogether different than what it was in the 50s. The inability for either the Caucasian Jets nor the Puerto Rican Sharks to reckon that they have a common nemesis in Robert Moses, an enemy they cannot defeat but could outlast, adds to the subtle pain that makes up West Side Story’s newest conceit.

Like the myopic, dueling Capulets and Montagues from fair Verona, the Jets and Sharks ensnare in their pointless feud innocent youths who ironically would likely never have met each other if not for that feud. The rumble gives, the rumble takes away.

Many have laid some heat at Ansel Elgort’s performance as our Romeo Tony, but I really see it as a decent actor not quite on the same high level as everyone else, including Rachel Ziegler as our Juliet Maria. It makes me feel more sorry for Elgort being dwarfed by everyone else especially Mike Faist as the Jets leader Riff, David Alverez as the Sharks leader Bernardo and Ariana Debose as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita who might well surpass Rita Moreno’s original performance here. Don’t feel too bad, as Moreno gets to play a new role beautifully herself as well as be an executive producer.

West Side Story’s greyer palette is offset by having genuine color being used not to mention a film grain that successfully reminds one of a bygone era of cinema much like Tarantino’s use in Once upon a Time in Hollywood. It manages to present itself as a modern production that has not lost the necessary cues from yesteryear to be called West Side Story. If nothing else, it better highlights how deadly serious a story it becomes as well as the frustrating obliviousness of most in the story to its growing peril.

West Side Story was a tragic failure at the box office, with Spider-Man’s release after further eating up potential viewers down the line. Most factors were not Spielberg’s or the film’s fault, namely the rather curious apathy the modern filmgoer has towards musicals on the big screen nowadays. Hamilton is proof that musicals in general can still be hot, but perhaps it’s hard to make appealing a story to younger generations about the silent generation dancing and fighting their issues away.

Of course, being number three on this list, I do recommend the new WSS regardless of your age. You might even find it more accessible and less initially strange an experience than the 1961 entry. It made a millennial like myself honest to God cry and I don’t often get into movies like this anyway, so take that as an endorsement and a reassurance that you won’t be wasting your time with this film the way these New York ruffians waste their lives.

Number Two: Guardians of the Galaxy (Played on PS5)

Where to buy Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
Image by USA Today (A Cowboy Bebop you could get behind last year.)

In 2020, Square-Enix released an Avengers game in the same vein of titles like Destiny and The Division. Always online, co-operative and as it turns out, not that fun or good. It was developed by two studios, Crystal Dynamics, the people behind the most recent Tomb Raider games and Eidos Montreal, best known for rebooting for a time Deus Ex and making the third modern Tomb Raider.

When it was announced at E3 last year that the latter studio were making their own Guardians of the Galaxy title, opinions were quite muted first because of the sour response to their Avengers work and because the game they were making didn’t seem all that impressive, almost imitative of the MCU conception.

Turns out, like in 2014, you shouldn’t underestimate those bunch of heroic A-holes. Eidos’ take on Star-Lord and friends was so good, it might even stand toe to toe or be better than the version we got from James Gunn.

This iteration of the Guardians combines the strengths of the cinematic and the comic into a hybrid that really doesn’t indicate the weaknesses of either. Star-Lord is still a developmentally arrested orphan who still pines for the life he was kidnapped away from in the 1980s, though under even more tragic circumstances. He’s also the son of the king of a planet and a war veteran like in the comics and unlike the movies. Gamora is an adopted daughter of Thanos now without the mad titan or her other adopted sister Nebula, whom she was forced to kill.

Drax is the man who took down Thanos himself, but still finds no peace from having lost his beloved family. Rocket’s douchey attitude comes from not really coming to terms with the traumatic life he lived as a test subject and the guilt over not saving the one he loved. Groot, despite being on the outside the cheeriest of the Guardians also harbors the pain of being the last of his kind. The Guardians are defined by their shared loss and come together ultimately as a Fast and Furiousesque family, and hardly as cheesy.

To add to the prevailing notion that the retooled version of the GOTG first seen in 2008 is based over outsiders coming together as one is that in this take Peter Quill, our Star-Lord, has to face a responsibility that would be hard even on the responsible-minded; of possibly being a father. I always enjoy a story where the Casanova hero not only reckons with genuine love and commitment but the chance to care for the product of his ways.

The twists and turns of this interactive Guardians adventure is not just punctuated by great drama but some of the funniest writing I’ve seen from anything in a long time. The banter between the five Guardians, whether it be onboard their vessel the Milano, exploring and adventuring out and about or in the midst of combat rarely failed to register as anything but pitch perfect not only to their characterization and character growth, but to my funny bone. I was gasping for air at the section where the Guardians have to use the Nova Corps virtual help desk.

The cherry on top of this rousing and surprisingly emotional adventure is the commitment to detail to make this your kind of Guardians adventure from the varied number of costumes you can give all the characters that detail their comic and film history since the 1970s to an excellent if familiar collection of 80s hits that can be played on the ship’s jukebox.

You know the developers really cared beyond a shadow of a doubt about their vision for this side of the Marvel universe when they created up to ten brand new songs for a fictional metal band that Peter Quill listened to as a kid, a band that wouldn’t you know it, was called Star-Lord.

It’s safe to call Eidos Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy the most pleasant surprise of 2021. No one expected anything as remotely as good or investing and yet here we have what might be a version of these space cowboys that I’m more eager for a follow-up to than Gunn’s own great rendition on the big screen. Turn up the radio.

Number one: Arcane: League of Legends

Arcane | release date, cast for the League of Legends Netflix series -  Radio Times
Image from Radio Times (If you think your sister or brotherhood is dysfunctional, watch this show and see if you still feel that way.)

From out of basically nowhere comes Arcane as the best thing of 2021. Based on a video game series you would have to hit up my friend Angel over in Florida to really get a good description of, this animated series out of Netflix finishes what Castlevania started: making not just a great adaptation of a video game, but a masterful one.

This could be my lack of exposure to the series developed by Riotgames but I basically forgot half the time this was even based on a game, so completely it can and will envelop you in its world, characters and emotional stakes. A tale of two cities whose future is decided by the tragic deterioration of two sisters’ relationship.

It doesn’t hurt that Arcane’s art style and animation is practically idiosyncratic with only 2018’s Into the Spider-verse to compare it to in terms of something really new coming onto the screen. It’s so beautiful and detailed that it’s fun to watch and rewatch the show just to see what the animated motion describes to you that words won’t. How the facial and body animations can convey almost better than a real person’s what they’re feeling and where the paths of their lives are taking them, for better and for worse.

It’s themes are both timeless and timely, leaving no small amount of sympathy for those you would call villain and no amount of disappointment for those you would call hero or at least not evil.

The sisters Vi and Powder and their evolution or devolution in the latter’s case make up the main thrust from which most every other conflict is affected. Vi becomes a gritty survivor whose admirable trait of never giving up comes in conflict with recklessness borne out of pride. How her desperation to find her sister Powder is colored in by her regrets in how she treated her in the past. How perhaps she can find a new beginning not with her estranged sister, but from a woman hailing from a part of the world she has every reason to despise.

Powder in turn becomes Jinx, an explosive anarchist who demonstrates the rather chilling lesson that even someone that can earnestly love you for who you are can also corrupt you into something that makes a troubled yet innocuous little girl into a nightmare. a nightmare that is as frightening as it is sorrowful. How trauma enflames the demons that were always there until the person you become is all but unrecognizable from what was once there.

It’s a story really about the two kinds of love, both intimate and familial, behind a background of significant technological change occurring in a world hungering for societal change but being kept from it, much like our own. How love can redeem and corrupt. How the smallest mistakes can be more destructive than you would first imagine.

That is a lot of food for thought for something that could be lazily construed as “video game adaptation.” Arcane is not an adaptation. It is a burgeoning new work of art inspired by a video game but desiring to be its own wonderful thing. Maybe that was what was missing in the nearly 30 years of attempts since the Mario Bros movie of 1993.

Arcane overnight changed expectations over a genre of adaptation that was practically written off for the most part. Now, every other attempt to give a video game brand a new alternative format that fails will be doubly a failure because now we know it can be so much better.

As for what comes next, beats me, probably a new installment in 80s retrospective.

Bengal’s 80’s Retrospective Part VII (re-release)

After many delays due to other contemporary topics to write about, I’m back to another of what is destined to be possibly hundreds of entries in this Retrospective series, as I’m doing these movies 4 at a time, with few exceptions. After around maybe the 20th entry, I might denote the normal number along with the Roman numeral, not that there is really any need to read these in order.

Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars" (1980) Kurt Russell | Movie scenes, Zemeckis, Scenes
Image from Pinterest (Where they’re going, they don’t need roads. Or scruples.)

Robert Zemeckis’ second movie, four years before his financial big break with Romancing the Stone and five before cementing himself as one of Hollywood’s new giants with Back to the Future, is a darkly comic sign of things to come.

His first flick, I want to hold your Hand, all about a bunch of Beatles fangirls trying to meet the fab four at Ed Sullivan, mirrors Used Cars as both were kindly received by the critics yet were box office failures. I probably should check out Zemeckis’ first one day but because it was released in the 70s’, I refrained from watching it.

Why this originally failed is what I’m wondering.

Romancing the Stone, which is on my list for 80s’ viewing for this site, likely won people over with it being an action-adventure/rom-com hybrid, a cheeky alternative to the concurrently releasing Indiana Jones movies, funny considering Zemeckis and Spielberg’s friendship and partnership over BTTF. Back to the Future, well, that is one of Hollywood’s most legendary sleeper hits, coming out of nowhere in the Summer of 1985 to be the year’s biggest film, and oh so deserving of it.

Why couldn’t Zemeckis’ flicks about 60’s fangirls and comically scummy used car salesman engender the same success? Of course, few directors launch themselves into both critical and monetary stardom at the start and maybe it was that factor alone that stymied Forrest Gump’s eventual director early on. Of course, the success of his filmography starting with either Stone or Future made his first two retroactively viewed and re-evaluated, as is want to happen. Similar to how the meteoric success of Final Fantasy VII led to greater attention to the first six games, especially for IV and VI.

Used Cars’ subject matter and mostly cynical depiction of human behavior might’ve also contributed to it being initially a financial clunker. It’s the story of two used car dealerships, located uniquely enough in Phoenix, Arizona. Two aging dealership owners, both played by Jack Warden and both named as a profane joke (Roy L. Fuchs and Luke Fuchs) are ever at odds, wanting the other to fall out of business. The much younger Rudy, played by our boy Kurt Russell, is the one who directly operates the dealership of the “lesser evil” due to the brother on that end being the eldest and having some severe heart issues.

One of the “greater evil” brother’s(Roy) plots leads to the other brother (Luke) dying and what does in the brother is just sad. While both Fuchs brothers are shysters, seeing how Roy’s henchmen kills Luke was plain cruel and hard to watch. Upon realizing what has happened to Luke, Rudy and his fellow dealership workers fake his survival, all so Roy can’t get that dealership and increase his fortunes. a battle of wits, scams and lemons begins between Rudy’s bad and Roy’s worse.

Rudy’s schemes to get people to buy his set of bad cars is always framed as being less egregious than Roy’s more morally damning behavior. Some of it is just mischievous if still illegal, like hijacking a TV broadcast to promote the dealership, leading to a juvenile but still effective gag at their expense.

Eventually, Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) arrives on the scene and both complicates and in a roundabout way later assists in keeping Rudy’s dealership from falling into Roy’s hands. It culminates in a legal battle over the number of cars Rudy claims to possess (a full mile of them) and if Roy wins the case, that will end the war of the con artists on the side of the guy who killed his own brother.

The set piece for how Rudy and Barbara plan to get those cars onto the lot in time to impress the judge( who is so, so eager to give out capital punishments) is pretty audacious and was a sign of how good Zemeckis was as a director who can coordinate a lot simultaneously and also foreshadows the high speed DeLorean antics of the Back to the Future trilogy.

Using hundreds of driving school students, a bunch of abandoned cars are fixed and made drivable( if nearly so) and are driven across the Arizona terrain to the dealership with the timer counting down before the judge comes to measure the length of all the cars. It leads to what is basically “Mad Max as a comedy”. It honestly resembles some of the bigger sequences from Fury Road though far less physically and technically taxing as a sequence.

Your mileage on the dark and bawdy comedy will vary, and I was often rotating between being impressed and disquieted, but it is ultimately an impressive early showing for Robert Zemeckis and friends, an indicator that there was indeed a bigwig in the making. It earns the reputation of being a once overlooked, now proper cult classic, rather than an embarrassing growing pain.

Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980) (HK)

Dangerous Encounters Of The First Kind, Director's Cut (Tsui Hark, Hong  Kong, 1980) – Neatly Arranged Rubbish
Image by Neatly Arranged Rubbish (This film is insane.)

From director Tsui Hark, the man who would eventually give us, in my own words, the Chinese Evil Dead with A Chinese Ghost Story, comes a tale of a group of Hong Kong teens with a penchant for making nonlethal explosives who meet a mentally disturbed teenage girl. A girl who has a penchant for torturing animals. It is as offputting as it sounds but it is yet an arresting dark dramedy.

Those three teen boys, Paul, Lung and Ko are pranksters, performing harmless yet still disruptive gags across town. They meet that demented girl Wan-Chu after running from the scene of their latest prank. She’ll rat out the boys unless they play along with her own extreme series of pranks. All of this while having her brother Tan be part of the HKPD.

The new crazier series of pranks gets them wrapped up in organized crime and a conspiracy involving Caucasian gun runners. The situation is both comical and distressingly dark as it keeps on getting worse and worse and worse and the youthful recklessness of those same kids exacerbates matters that left me struggling between a groan and a laugh. It all culminates in a group of mob hitmen hunting down the kids at a mountainside cemetery with Tan being the only one with any chance of saving their hapless asses.

I was only able to find Dangerous Encounters on Youtube, for free but on copied over VHS quality, the same as when I watched Sweet Home for Halloween Horrorthon. It was intelligible enough but I really wished a better version of this film was available to watch as it really deserves to be seen crisply.

I don’t really know the full extent of Hong Kong politics, not as much as I maybe should, but Dangerous Encounters is seen as being a politically charged film, towards the contemporary politics of the British Protectorate in 1980. 17 years away is the giving away of the city state back to mainland China, noteworthy in that the U.K. actually honored the deal.

Of course, HK going back to mainland China eventually led to a slow disintegration of the metropolis’ democratic institutions, as evidenced by the many protests that have made international news in recent years. But how does that actually fit with this movie? At the end of the film, as the last surviving teen fires an assault rifle in the air out of frustration from what had transpired, photos of the 1967 Hong Kong riots scroll across the screen.

Those protests involved pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) advocates using deadly force, including bombs. It was reflective not so much of a yearning from the populace to have a Communist takeover occur, but an expression of frustration over the British government not governing well enough, which they themselves would later admit to.

Is Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind pro-Communist, in favor of the ultimately quelled pro-CCP protesters? I have no idea, and it wasn’t until the very end of the movie that any concrete mention of something related to that history was brought up.

In spite of what is or is not the intended political takeaways, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind is best viewed as a darkly comic crime story with some pretty exceptional set pieces. The three that stand out are as follows.

The first is the girl taking control of a tourist bus, asking them all to strip to their underwear, ordering the driver on a merry chase for the cops. She keeps the driver and tourists in check with threat of setting off a DIY explosive. Not for any political or cultural statement. Because she can, because she’s bored. A dog chasing cars. The boys have the tools, she has the twisted imagination for them.

The second is an underground parking lot meeting that ends up being a run for dear life for the three boys as a seemingly unending number of mooks pour in trying to kill them, all set to this strangely soothing song that I first heard, funnily enough in the radio for Grand Theft Auto IV.

From Youtube (Very laid back track for what is happening in that scene.)

The third is the aforementioned cemetery finale, that is both literally and figuratively, quite gut-wrenching, and probably not for the reasons you might think, mostly.

Rarely has such a dark, ethically upsetting movie felt like an honest to god popcorn entertainment to me. Despite the unfortunate, occasionally obscuring VHS quality, I was having a really great time mostly due to the fact I really had no idea where it was going, what kind of comeuppance for our adolescent characters was or was not lying in wait on the horizon.

While it is quite easy to sympathize with the three boys as they never wanted to go as far as they did, and were all but blackmailed into it by the girl, you keep hoping she gets what’s coming to her, especially due to her being responsible for a grisly end to a poor stray cat. You’re also left wondering if her sane detective brother can make it out of the web of trouble she ends up creating alive.

Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind is not for everyone. I have a generally strong as steel skin for this kind of subject matter and am honestly drawn to stories that can be both morally grey yet entertaining, even better if you add a delicious spice of black humor to make its ironies in play sing to me. If you want a less perturbing Hong Kong experience from Tsui Hark, A Chinese Ghost Story is ready and waiting for you.

If you can find a version of the movie that is better than VHS, hit me up with where it’s at.

Breaker Morant (1980) (Australia)

Breaker Morant: Scapegoats of Empire | Current | The Criterion Collection
Image from Criterion Collection (These three from down under are in trrrooouble.)

Renowned Australian director Bruce Beresford (Crimes of the Heart, Driving Miss Daisy) swears up and down that the central, titular figure of his 1980 historical drama was in fact a bad dude. I believe him when he says that but I can understand why it might be hard to parse out the intended authorial intent here.

During the Second Boer War in the 1900s, fought in South Africa, Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) and two of his fellow Australian soldier pals are put on trial for committing war crimes. It is noteworthy for being possibly the first prosecution of war crimes in Britain’s very long military history. The three men are on trial for executing captured, defenseless Boer (Afrikaners, Dutch colonists in Africa) prisoners of war as well as a peaceful German pastor who was by all accounts completely not a threat to Morant’s regiment.

The excuse given is that one of Morant’s friends, Captain Simon Hunt, was killed by Boers during a skirmish at a farmhouse. Despite Hunt dying more or less within the rules of engagement, Morant and his two subordinates, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are pissed off at his death and want some revenge. They claim they were in their rights to commit the war crime due to fighting against a guerilla army.

Due to how creepily effective guerilla warfare can be, more so on a psychological level, Morant believes more “extreme” methods are justifiable. He calls it rule “303”, named after the class of bullets their bolt action rifles use. Maybe something could be said of that rule against the Boers but does it really hold up when some poor German missionary also gets rule 303, under the weak auspices he could’ve been a Boer spy?

The film does draw attention to the idea that the British military had condoned this contemptible practice up to a point and only when it became politically convenient do they now rule it as the atrocity it always was. That being said, Morant and friends did go ahead and ,”ahem”, follow those orders. They are still meant to be held accountable for committing unjustifiable acts, even by the standards of their era.

These “stiff upper lip” gentlemen of the British empire, albeit Australian, let their emotions and paranoia get the better of them and they ultimately pay the price with their deaths or imprisonment. Morant and Handcock are executed ironically through firing squad at sunrise and Witton, due to having a less damning part to play in the crimes, is sent to a penal colony. Considering he’s Australian, that is quite ironic as well.

Fun history fact: In the sequence where Morant and Handcock walk to the two chairs on the bluff where they will meet their ends, they solemnly hold hands and keep holding them into they leave the mortal coil. The filmmakers had no idea while filming that the real Morant and Handcock did the exact same thing during their final moments. They thought it was an “addition” that would be suitably dramatic. What are the odds?

Of course, if justice was fully served in response to the deaths of those P.O.Ws and that German minister, the higher ups that had allowed “rule 303” up until that point would’ve have also been condemned and punished in the military tribunal. More firing squads or penal servitude would’ve been served up. Alas.

So, it can be said fairly that Morant, Handcock and Witton where both perpetrator and victim, not one or the other. No one should call them hero and yet the nature of the trial they went through and that Witton following his prison time wrote a book in sterling defense of Morant and Handcock created a modern Australian myth: that in truth the three men were tragic “heroes”, victims of the powers that be back on the English island.

It all but certainly is tied into Australian nationalist identity, one of the sparks that would in time lead to full-on independence from the British empire. The more understandable grievance that both Australia and New Zealand for that matter would use to support a peaceful separation from the Empire were the ghastly losses they suffered fighting in World War 1 a little over a decade after the Morant trial.

The tragic history of the Australian/New Zealander soldiers (ANZACs) were most noteworthy in the appalling battle of Gallipoli, as dramatized in another Australian film, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson. WW1 was full of lopsided bloodbaths, but Gallipoli stood out in its pure hopelessness and needless loss of men and supplies. It is one of the most recognized failures of Winston Churchill’s career. For more contemporary audiences, 2016’s Battlefield 1 presented Gallipoli as an insanely bloody fiasco. So severe was Gallipoli alone that both nations recognize the conflict that enabled their national consciousness with ANZAC day, April 25th every year.

So, yes, the people of Australia and New Zealand definitely had justifiable beef with the British Empire’s management of their Commonwealths. Thankfully, both stuck around to help out the U.K. during WW2. Hell, they may have still been Britain’s ally out of mutual necessity anyway.

That being said, the pseudo-history surrounding Breaker Morant is unfortunate. Beresford never intended for his movie to add to that mythology. He wanted to show that even affirmed war criminals can have moments of genuine humanity, that before the acts they committed they could be and were agreeable people, with those that loved them and that they loved back. If anything, it should make the criminal behavior they still committed be more disturbing.

If it could happen to Breaker and friends, it could happen to you. Worst of all, in the century that has passed since the Second Boer war, it has happened many, many times, let alone from my own country. Consider the war crimes committed by Americans in both Vietnam and the endless War on Terror. Think about those perpetrators and what good they had lived before those acts. Some might’ve or are sociopaths or psychopaths, not all were. Think about this if you decide serving your country militarily is for you.

Could you do better than Breaker Morant? Could I?

Shaan (with a little bit of Sholay) (1980) (India)

Shaan (1980) | MUBI
Image from MUBI (Why yes, he does remind one of Telly Savalas from a certain Bond film…)

When it comes to bengalcritiques being a more comprehensive deep-dive into 80s’ cinema than most, I do try to mean it. When you think of 80s’ moviemaking, your thoughts are likely drawn mostly to what Hollywood was making at the time. Maybe some English language foreign films can also count, mostly from the U.K.

Well, I have been showcasing some non-American 1980s’ pictures, as is obvious from having just talked about a Hong Kong and Australian flick.

Well, Indian cinema definitely should factor into the equation and Bollywood alone has for damn certain pulled its weight in this decade and possibly every decade since they started making movies. Bollywood makes the most movies every year of any nation and that’s not counting the also lucrative Tollywood and Kollywood markets, which in more recent years have achieved better outside recognition. That being said, when you think of Indian movies, Bollywood is at the forefront of the average person’s understanding.

They are known for being long, full of musical numbers, many subplots to justify lengths that surpass 2 and a half hours or longer, as well as a curious mix of different genres all in one. A Bollywood action movie is rarely just an action movie. It can and likely will include comedy, romance, musicals and cultural/political commentary. Yes, non-Indian films are perfectly capable of mixing genres too, but Bollywood showcases its at times bewildering hybridization of subject matters and tone which likely helped lead to this side of World cinema having an international following.

Before I talk about the first of many, many, many, many Bollywood films to be featured down the road of Bengal’s 80s’ Retrospective, let’s talk about the 1975 landmark title that is arguably the film that patented what Bollywood films would be for decades to come, perhaps even unto present day: Sholay.

46 Years of Sholay: Bollywood Goes Crazy, Veeru Aka Dharmendra Reveals Big  Mistake
Image from OdishaTV (So happy together….)

If you have already watched a more recent Bollywood movie, a movie that came out after Sholay, you may wonder what the big deal is. Well, a trend in moviemaking has to start somewhere. Sholay was and remains one of the most financially successful Bollywood productions of all time, and by extension might make it one of the most successful motion pictures ever made. The sheer size of India’s population makes a Bollywood success appear far more massive than most Hollywood success stories.

It is the tale of two charming Indian rogues, criminals with a heart of gold. While being taken to prison on a train, they assist the cop who has them in custody with fighting off bandits raiding the train. For their efforts, the cop lets them go, so long as they stay out of trouble, pinky promise.

The two go on a series of merry adventures, where their criminal behavior is more playful and mischievous than anything else, such as intentionally getting in prison so they can troll a Hitler-looking prison warden among other things. Eventually, the cop they helped asks them to come to his valley home: he needs their assistance with helping his home village fight off the notorious Gabbar Singh. Singh is a vicious bandit leader who not only wants tribute from the all but helpless village but loves to torment them as well.

Singh has become one of the most beloved villains in Bollywood cinema, as recognized and remembered as Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter is to American viewers. He has specifically been parodied and referenced in many films made after Sholay. He certainly does more than a few truly heinous things to make me not forget him anytime soon.

The two far more heroic crooks come to the village’s aid, acting as armed guards and scouts, basically Seven Samurai minus five. They do take their absolute sweet time actually trying to fight Singh head on. Why? Well we have almost three hours to fill silly! We have lavish, elaborate musical numbers, budding romances and revelations on how much Singh has personally wronged the cop alone.

Because of the format insisting on a near three hour narrative structure, when the two good crooks do decide to finally stop Singh once and for all, it can feel abrupt and sudden, almost like the movie just realized, “Oh, crap, we got to wrap this up now! Get cracking!” That is a feeling that also registered in a later Bollywood film to be discussed, but not in Shaan.

Shaan is directed by Ramesh Sippy, the man behind Sholay and also stars two of its leads, the ones who played those lovable rogues. In Shaan, we once again initially follow a somewhat overweight but no less badass Indian Supercop, going toe to toe with the scum of Mumbai’s underworld (Bollywood is derived from Mumbai, or Bombay). He remains consistently disappointed that his two younger brothers, both con men, fail to live up to his own lawful standards.

Eventually, the eldest brother’s law-protecting actions makes him a target of Mumbai’s underworld boss and from that moment, he is doomed. Shaakal is the boss and he can be described less like the Kingpin from Marvel comics (despite also being bald) and more like he is a bonafide James Bond villain. I made him the header image for this section for a reason.

Remember how I said Bollywood films can have tonal whiplash almost as a feature of the style rather than a bug? Well, once Shaakal enters the picture, it becomes an Indian James Bond movie, minus all the sexy stuff that remains for the most part a big no-no to Indian cinematic custom. Even the act of romantic kissing is shooed away, as the next Bollywood film I will cover makes an outright joke about. However, the Bond villain, his supercool island lair, offing henchmen that fail him and loving the sound of his own voice, that is beautifully preserved for your enjoyment. Basically, you get to hear Blofeld in Hindu and I think you will like that a lot.

There is no specific James Bond character but instead a band of Indian heroes who decide to take the fight to Shaakal personally. The two con artist brothers and their quasi-girlfriends/love interests, and a remorseful agent of Shaakal come together to first infiltrate the villain’s operations and then confront him directly.

It’s a testament to the flexibility in translation of the Bond movie formula that even a sexual expression prohibitive culture like India can get a knack out of something from England’s most famous secret agent. Of course, the budget of Shaan is not really up to snuff with most if any Bond film, let alone at the time, but the attempt is heartfelt and the production value impressive still, all things considered.

When Shaakal’s base predictably starts blowing up like with the average Bond villain lair, starting all the way back with Dr. No, you might be genuinely surprised at how effective a copy it is of what can be gleaned from what was then nearly 20 years of 007 action.

If the Bond but Indian stuff isn’t enough, there is still plenty of impromptu musical numbers, songs that love repeating the same sentences over and over and of course, the amusing mix of comedic silliness and dramatic self-seriousness that is part of the exotic appeal of a Bollywood movie, even if the ingredients are commonly derived from something Western. Just a reminder of India’s extremely complicated history as being once part of the British Empire.

If you have the spare time for a full on Bollywood experience from decades past, I would probably suggest Sholay first as it is a landmark, trendsetting experience. I saw Shaan first, not realizing it was from the same people that made Sholay. Upon discovering that, I saw Sholay next with my dad before venturing to my next film, Bollywood or not.

Of the two, I actually enjoyed Shaan more, mostly due to the novelty of seeing a 007 film being given the Bollywood treatment at all and solidly. Shaakal alone is worth the price of rental though of course you will have to wait a while because Indian cinema likes them long. It might be a testament to the concept that maybe one of the Indian people’s cultural tenets is that of patience. Not that you will be bored before Bolly-Blofeld shows up.

Next time: A 2021 best of the year countdown and after that, TBD.

Leagues ahead of the competition: A review of Arcane: League of Legends (with mild spoilers)

Netflix Arcane Season 2: Release date, episodes, trailer, where to watch |  ONE Esports
Image from ONE Sports (What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.)

I have never played League of Legends.

I never plan to play League of Legends. I can’t fully describe what kind of game League of Legends is. It’s playerbase has long held the dubious distinction of being among the most toxic in the entire gaming community which further alienates me from trying it.

Yet, it has crafted a new Netflix animated series and its first season is the best thing I’ve seen all year. It’s one of the best animated productions I’ve ever watched. More than anything else expected to arrive in 2022, Arcane‘s second season has rocketed to the top of the list. I wasn’t even aware this show existed until a week ago.

There is only one other adaptation of a video game property that is worth a damn and it’s also from Netflix: the recently concluded anime of Castlevania. For more on that, check out my review of its fourth and final season alongside Invincible’s first. Some would also include the anime adaptations for Persona 3 and 4, but having not fully watched those I’m not at liberty to judge.

Arcane is a tale of a city split into two, facing class strife that relates to a certain Charles Dicken novel: the rich elitist side of Piltover and the poor, mostly underground district of Zaun. Tensions boil over and the poor underclass rises in resistance but is crushed by the ultimately more powerful upper class, their power maintained by the brutal enforcers. Two little girls lose their parents in the strife and one of the resistance leaders, Vander, emotionally broken by the result of his rebellion, takes them into his custody.

Who's Vander In the Arcane League of Legends? Character and voice Actor  Explained - Game News 24
Image from Game News 24

Their names are Vi (Violet) and Powder. Vi tries to restrain her vengeful fury at the literal upper class with trying to keep the loved ones that remain alive. Powder wants nothing more than to do right by Vi, her adoptive father and the other orphaned kids that come into her life.

Their surrogate father Vander is trying to keep the peace with the aboveground as best he can but his extremist former best friend and surrogate brother Silco changes everything. Their mutual bad blood puts the orphaned children in harm’s way by way of Vander getting kidnapped and being used as bait for his kids. Vi and Powder’s rescue attempt goes spectacularly wrong in a way that neither of the brothers would have wanted. One brother dies, the other left to grieve.

Powder, under Silco’s wing, takes on the name of Jinx following the horrible incident she caused and in turn begins her journey into becoming one of Piltover’s most feared residents. This is further spurred by the poor girl never really being right in the head, even before the tragedy that ripped her original parents from her. The brokenness of the world she lives in further shatters her mind and forms her into a new nightmare. One I can never fully hate in spite of the terrible things she will come to do.

As for Vi, she is taken into custody by the enforcers following that same catastrophe Powder caused and spends the following years hardening her body and her spirit, yet still trying to never forsake the better angels Vander tried to keep within her.

Arcane: League of Legends: What to watch, play, and know if you love season  1 - Polygon
Image from Polygon

Vi is freed from prison years later by the enforcer Caitlyn, who is investigating a crime related to her sister’s new anarchic life. Unlike the enforcers Vi grew up despising, Caitlyn wants to be a genuine keeper of the peace, no matter what class you are part of, all the more striking considering her own background, but more on that later.

During the time the sisters spend apart from one another, an aspiring young scientist called Jayce teams up with a handicapped, like-minded inventor called Viktor and together they advance Piltover’s technological prowess centuries forward through the successful harnessing of magic into utilitarian purpose, the “Arcane” if you will.

Who is Jayce in LoL Arcane? Character & voice actor Explained? - Game News  24
Image from Game News 24

Years later, Piltover has become a nexus for the world commercially and culturally through the Hexgates, basically teleportation made manifest. Jayce is the symbol of a new era. But can that new era really come into being on the rotten foundation of the old? Can Jayce’s good intentions for all stay that way as he enters hesitantly into the political game that led to Piltover and Zaun’s mutual animosity?

Arcane‘s first season is a beautifully tragic beginning to a story of love(of more than one kind), family, duty, honor and technological innovation with the fear that it musters. It will make you laugh, cry, leave you in awe and apprehension. It’s incredible art design is bolstered by an animation technique seemingly derived from the technology that powered 2018’s amazing Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. It’s mixture of 2D art and 3D motion is mesmerizing.

It’s such a cliché but, yes, Arcane really is a painting come to life.

Netflix's 'Arcane' is a masterpiece of animation
Image from Mashable (The best and worst of times.)

You can and likely will get swept up in what much there is to appreciate visually alone from the nine episode-long first of hopefully many expertfully made seasons. To say that expectations for video game-to-TV/Cinema adaptations has suddenly gone through the roof is an understatement.

What makes Arcane much more than a pretty face is that it has a complex yet never complicated narrative, all centered on how a sisterhood’s deterioration sets in motion events far graver than anything its world, called Runeterra, has ever seen before.

It’s ripple effects coming from decisions made from its all too human, flawed characters give it a feel to something akin to Game of Thrones though comparatively less adult, but no less mature. For one, the sex scene here would be agreeable to a PG-13 rating, if only just. It’s violence, much harsher than the game it’s based on hovers between PG-13 and an R, often landing between one or the other. What makes the violence hit so well as to elicit either a “Hell yeah!” or an “Oh s**t!” is how the animation exudes emotion brilliantly.

The facial expressions in and out of fighting often felt more real to me than real life. Sadness, rage, despondency, horror, desire, shame, guilt, hope and happiness are colored in splendidly through the French animation studio Fortiche.

The voice acting is also indispensable to Arcane’s success, as well you would hope. Hailee Steinfeld must have the best agent in the world right about now as on top of perfectly voicing Vi, she also voices Spider-Gwen in the aforementioned Into the Spiderverse and portrays Kate Bishop, Clint Barton’s probable replacement as Hawkeye in the now streaming Disneyplus series of the same name.

Elia Purnell’s portrayal of the adult Powder/Jinx is just as compelling, maybe more so. Jinx is clearly inspired by both the Joker and Harley Quinn, arguably as a fusion of the two. While her voice can recall Harley at times, her personality and heartbreaking descent into deeper madness is more similar to the Joker. Rather than being an anarchic force that just wants the world to burn, Jinx was once someone simpler, less destructive.

Again, she might’ve always had some type of mental illness lying beneath the surface, but a less brutal, sorrowful childhood would have at least made her someone with a chance for an untroubling life, especially living among loving people.

In spite of still having people that love her, her mistakes and the mistakes people make in responding to her errors, namely from Vi, unleash her inner psychosis. As Jinx, Powder becomes schizophrenic, finds it difficult to empathize with those that aren’t in her immediate circle of loved ones which in turn make it easier for her to blow up innocents with her colorful collection of explosives. She loves explosives all their own and has found a quite unhealthy outlet for that obsession, pushed by her loving but still corruptive third father Silco.

A concept that I love Arcane for exploring is the nature of relationships, both paternal and intimate. How the result of those relationships can be just as healing or damaging as a decision made by a politician or a crime-lord. As stated above, Silco does actually care for Jinx as an adoptive daughter in a way that is actually heartwarming. But it can’t act as excuse for the terrible lessons and lifestyle he instills in Jinx, all tied up in his vengeful designs for Piltover.

Arcane's Silco makes a surprise debut in Riot's Teamfight Tactics - Polygon
Image from Polygon

His ends justify the means outlook on how to get the downtrodden people of Zaun free of Piltover is often indistinct from his desire to exact pain on others for what he himself suffered. The classic dilemma of the revolutionary-minded: is it for revenge or justice? You can’t really have both in the end.

This is in reflection with major characters and their own familial ties. Jayce has loving and well adjusted parents who never discouraged him from seeking to technologically uplift Piltover into a new age. He also has a more argumentative but still caring mentor-apprentice connection to Heimerdinger, the adorable yet stately scientist who also acts as a co-founder of Piltover and a member of the city’s council.

Who is Heimerdinger in Arcane? – Esports | Esports.gg
Image from esports.gg

Caitlyn (voiced by Katie Leung, Cho Chang from Harry Potter) has two distinct relationships, which are for myself the most investing of the bunch, save for Vi and Jinx’s fraught sisterhood. Despite coming from an aristocratic family, with her mother part of the council, she wants her title of “Noble” to be more than just a title, she wants to be noble full stop.

Against her parent’s wishes, she joins the city’s Enforcer police and shows herself to be a great detective which in turns sends her on a journey which brings her into Vi’s life as well as allow the sisters their reunion. The friendship she effortlessly strikes up with Vi in their search for Jinx is clearly evolving into something that’s more than friends. The subtext between the two is barely subtext from where I’m standing.

Arcane: What Should We Expect From Caitlyn In The Series?
Image from Blog of Legends

This is derived from how in League of Legends the game, the dialogue between the two as playable characters was brimming with hints of something more occurring between the two. I would be surprised and a little crushed if Season Two doesn’t all but completely affirm what was always there. It doesn’t hurt that the chemistry between Steinfeld’s Vi and Leung’s Caitlyn is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Some of the best visual storytelling comes in how you can read so much in how the characters facially express themselves. A certain look that Vi gives to Caitlyn in one episode is where silence being golden most certainly applies.

Another romance subplot also works more in its subversion of expectation than anything else, and based on how the season ends, it’s a romantic arc that seems almost certainly doomed for tragedy. As Jayce rises in prestige amongst Piltover’s higher ups, he meets Mel Adarda, another of the council members and the one that is most interested in his designs for the future being fulfilled.

She comes across in how she interacts with Jayce as a Lady Macbeth-like femme fatale, often whispering and coaching Jayce in how to push forward with his plans for implementing magic as a tool for civilization. Much to my pleasant surprise, Mel herself is not the straightforward, manipulative dame you would think she is.

Is 'Arcane' Teasing Mel Medara As A New 'League Of Legends' Champion?
Image from Forbes

Her own background shows her as someone with a benevolent, altruistic side. It’s that side of her that got her banished to Piltover from her people due to concerns that it would make her a weak eventual ruler of her country. The relationship she begins with Jayce also reveals her as someone who does care for Jayce in truth in spite of the seemingly seductive tactics she uses for her own ends. Maybe because want she really wants in the end is what Jayce wants. Less a deconstruction of her archetype but a defiance of it.

There is so much more to the characters, their motivations and the placement they are given in the infernal game over Piltover’s, Zaun’s and perhaps the world’s future. What matters is that everyone, including those I didn’t have the time to mention, have a place in this world in its machinations. Few if any characters feel as if they don’t really belong in the story unfolding before us.

That was a trap that Arcane’s creators could’ve easily fallen into considering the huge number of characters to draw from, not to mention the characters newly introduced through this show. League of Legends has champions, which act as the characters players choose to control in the game. As of now, the number of Champions numbers over a hundred. For the first season of Arcane, Riotgames (the developer of both the game and show) and Fortiche had to carefully consider who among that vast roster was to play a role in this take on LOL’s narrative.

I seriously doubt every champion will appear as a character in the story to come, it would be a terrible choice. As they have now, they should only include characters that contribute to the wonderfully realized tale they are building. It’s less obligation and more necessity when it comes to Arcane’s choice of who is and is not up for screentime and that is wisdom that is often ignored when adapting anything that includes a large cast.

As you would expect, I read up on the video game version of the characters featured in Arcane and was surprised at the great number of changes made to those characters’ background and narrative purpose. Some have entirely new arcs that are distinct from what Arcane is doing so you can view this show as inspired by the world and story of the game, but not a direct adaptation of it.

The fandom has thus far been strangely not enraged by these big narrative changes, perhaps won over by how simply great Arcane comes across in its own telling. It’s an alternate history of the world of Runeterra that has echoes of the original story but is not whatsoever beholden to it. It gives newcomers and veterans of LOL’s world something fresh and excitingly unpredictable.

Speaking of exciting, Arcane’s dramatic moments are some of the best I’ve seen from something in the post GOT world. Moments that left me anxious, terrified by potential outcomes that seemed borderline inevitable. The cliffhanger ending is one of the greatest I’ve seen possibly ever as it leaves me wanting to watch season two immediately.

It’s a saddening, shocking season ender that left me basically dead quiet as the credits rolled, just trying to process that what had happened had happened. No matter where you fall into exposure with regards to its source material, to not call this fantastic television would be a straight up lie, with the potential to be even greater down the road.

Arcane inspires intense optimism that so much more can come of adapting video games into another medium. It frankly leaves me mad that we are approaching the 30th anniversary of the first, awful adaptation for a video game: Super Mario Bros, and only in the last couple of years have we seen successful attempts by people who cared and had the talent to back up their enthusiasm.

In the same year as both Arcane‘s arrival and Castlevania’s conclusion, we also had lackluster or simply bad new attempts at bringing beloved franchises to a different medium. Last April’s Mortal Kombat ( though not without its moments) and this month’s tepid Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Arcane’s subsequent release with the latest “attempt” at a decent RE movie only highlights what we have been missing so badly in the translation process.

An important step is to not pander relentlessly to fans of the original material. To a fresh-faced consumer of something League of Legends related, it was pleasing that I never once felt that I was watching a moment explicitly meant to cater to fans looking for a reference or easter egg. In spite of there being clear callbacks, namely through the characters gaining clothing and equipment like in the game, it felt like it was natural to the plot’s own progression, rather than just “Oh, it’s from the game, better include this.”

It makes Arcane feel welcoming to the lay viewer, not needing to know a single thing from anything before its release. It can honestly be enjoyed separately from the viewpoint of being based on a game. At times, I forgot it was based on a game and even better, I didn’t care.

As has been breathlessly commented on in recent weeks, Arcane is the new standard for properly and imaginatively translating a video game into a new medium. Not that there was much standard at all save Castlevania. It leaves me eager to see if other prospective filmmakers and animators take notes on what Arcane did to not shoot itself in the foot.

Let it lead hopefully to a new wave of adaptations that finally give the relatively young artform of interactive entertainment a new lease on life. To appreciate the world and characters of those games for those without the time, patience or ability to experience them like I do.

Phase Fourward: A review of Shang-Chi, What-If and Eternals (with spoilers)

How Shang-Chi's fighting style changes in the new Marvel movie's ending -  CNET
Image by CNET (How can I try to explain? When I do, he turns away again…..)

I have started to feel that dreaded superhero fatigue as Marvel’s Phase 4 begins over the course of this year. From unsatisfying conclusions to the first two DisneyPlus shows to the overall allrightness of Black Widow, my enthusiasm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe has slowly but surely begun to wane. Maybe it’s just waiting for the next big hook of what will make the MCU come together again or maybe it’s because the formula that Marvel has all but perfected is starting to show its limitations in terms of how to continually impress me.

I’m weighed down by the criticisms that have become harder to ignore as time goes on relating to what the MCU represents in today’s popular culture. An assembly line of entertainment that is often by itself lesser than the sum of its parts. The “assembly line” statement is almost unavoidable to completely dismiss when you consider the load of content that is now being given to this shared universe in just one year, let alone several.

There was a time when Marvel Studio’s ambitions to plan out films years in advance and then advertise them was seen as too much, too reckless. Going from two films a year to three, now four and on top of that several Disneyplus shows combined make the MCU busier but not necessarilly more fastidious.

Next year alone will be four new films: the next Dr. Strange, Thor, Black Panther and Captain Marvel features, on top of TBD releases for Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, She-Hulk and even a continuation of the beloved 90s’ X-Men cartoon, though that is reportedly unrelated to the MCU. With the Multiverse’s official debut in Loki, maybe that’s not as true as you would think.

I’m not saying that none or any of these upcoming projects will be good or great, some do have my rapt attention like Dr. Strange and Wakanda’s next appearances. Others can go either way, though I still hope for the best.

The problem that is compounded by this perceived bloat is that it starts to make individual entries of the MCU seem less important, perhaps lost in the overall picture. The more there is, the less special it can feel, regardless of the quality contained therein.

I still want Marvel to succeed in years to come, if only for the possibility of recapturing some of that earlier MCU magic I have felt in the past. This Christmas, the third Tom Holland Spider-Man film seems to be the best bet in the lineup to do so. But you can’t quite always strike gold and one of the entries on this lineup of MCU to look over is an intriguing strike-out if there ever was one.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Like with Dr. Strange before his first movie in 2016, I read the early classic stories of Shang-Chi, co-created by none other than Thanos’ daddy Jim Starlin. In spite of his stereotypically yellow appearance and his even more stereotypical looking father, literally Fu Manchu, the beginning of one of the more under the radar Marvel figures is actually quite wonderful.

Written in the early 70s, and in spite of the appearences of the Master of Kung-Fu and his father, Shang-Chi’s tale of forsaking Fu Manchu and his evil criminal empire is riveting stuff. The honor-bound hero, while of course full of East Asian philosophical wisdom, comes across as a relatable wanderer. Trying to both outlast and perhaps one day outdo his bad dad, Shang-Chi travels the world, relaying his inner conflict to the reader gratefully not in broken English.

His mental description of how he fights foes big and small is both entertaining and demonstrates effortlessly why we should believe he is the “Master of Kung-Fu.” The artwork for the most part is strikingly beautiful and goes against the assumptions often reality that American comic book art at the time was cheap and poorly constructed. Not here, Shang-Chi is among the best visually of Marvel’s work in the 1970s and as a result manages to be more than an obvious cash-in on the martial arts craze that hit the States following the rise of Bruce Lee.

How does Shang-Chi as a film work compared to his early comic days? Obviously, a lot of comics history has passed since the era I read of. A half-century in fact to borrow and utilize for the MCU’s interpretation. One notable and inevitable change to Shang-Chi’s background is changing the identity of his father.

It was already changed in the comics as Fu Manchu is a character that simply can’t be done anymore, no matter how tasteful the attempt. The character was a result of the xenophobic “Yellow Peril” of the early 20th century. A figure not just meant to be feared as an individual, but a ugly reflection of an entire group of people. Perhaps making Fu Manchu’s son into an unambiguously heroic figure who openly opposes his father was meant almost as apology. See, not all Chinese people are shady, lizard faced, Machiavellian monsters that will commit unspeakable atrocities on you? Shang-Chi, he’s one of the good ones. See what I mean?

Of course, Shang-Chi’s arch-enemy remains his dad and we all love a story every now and then of the son or daughter who are in the moral right showing up their in-the-wrong parents. Luke and Darth Vader are to modern generations the defining example of Generational Divide being translated into a Good vs Evil struggle. Darth Vader as the villainous father taught me an important though hard-kept lesson that was important to a young child: Sometimes, maybe more often than you think, your parents may not just be wrong, they can be evil. Being your parent is no excuse.

I don’t recall who is Shang-Chi’s father in the current comic continuity, but in the MCU he is the result of one of the biggest walk-backs Marvel has ever done in regards to criticism over character translation: The Mandarin.

Iron Man 3’s release in 2013 was met with controversy by the fandom over reducing the titular character’s comic arch-enemy, long expected to one day show up in the MCU, into a joke. It was a funny joke, a twist that landed very well with me. I’ll admit, the third Iron Man was starting to drag when I first saw it and the reveal that Ben Kingsley was merely an actor pretending to be a terrorist warlord gave me one hell of a second wind when it came to my enjoyment of the film. My takeaway was not in the majority.

Iron Man 3’s home release had a short called All Hail the King, which showed what happened to Trevor Slattery, the actor who portrayed the fake Mandarin in the main film. He ends up serving time in prison quite happily, not bothered all that much that he was caught up in trying to kill a freaking Avenger. At the end of the short, he is kidnapped out of prison by agents of the actual “Mandarin”. All this to reassure upset fans that yes, there is a real more or less comics-accurate Mandarin lying in wait to one day end up in this cinematic universe.

It’s a pity that Tony Stark never lived to face his comic book nemesis as having Robert Downey Jr. face down Tony Leung’s version of the character would’ve been quite fun. In the end, if Tony did have a nemesis, he had two: Thanos and himself. Worthy opponents that he both managed to defeat in the end.

Making the Mandarin Shang-Chi’s father was just too perfect. Not only does the Mandarin’s presence along with his terrorist empire The Ten Rings make it tie in with the very beginning of the MCU’s run, it also creates the perfect space to include possibly the highest profile Asian villain in Marvel’s history without any unfortunate implications.

Since the film’s been out since early September, I will give some plot details including over the third act but will continue to leave out one fun surprise in store even though I’m sure you may have learned of it by happenstance by this point.

The Mandarin joins Thanos, Ego and the Vulture in affirming the notion that one of the MCU’s enduring themes is daddy issues. Daddy issues that can have cataclysmic, cosmic consequences. I don’t know if this is a reflection of Kevin Feige trying to air out some of his issues but man the nasty daddies keep on coming.

Before I get to the titular Shang-Chi finally (don’t worry, just reflecting how sidelined he is in his own film half the time), let me just state that the best part of Shang-Chi’s first movie is Tony Leung as Wen-Wu/Mandarin. Leung is considered one of the best Hong Kong actors of his generation, an icon born out of an arguable golden age for HK cinema that bore Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Michelle Yeoh (also starring here), Donnie Yen, Stephen Chow and of course, the guns akimbo master Chow Yun Fat.

I was first exposed to Tony Leung in the fourth and best of John Woo’s “Heroic Bloodshed” features, 1992’s Hard Boiled, co-starring alongside Fat. Hard Boiled is my pick for the best action film I have ever seen with gun based action sequences that are as operatic as they are blood-soaked and stunning in their technical execution. Violent as they are, Hard Boiled and Woo’s The Killer are fantastic introductions to the man who will be Shang-Chi’s dad.

One enduring aspect to Chinese culture is the concept of family and the honor that comes with maintaining it. Virtually every human culture gives some amount of consideration due to it being an instinctual aspect of our species, but Chinese family structures are particularly placed into the forefront when demonstrating themselves to other non-Asian cultures. To some extent, striving on behalf of the family or society over yourself is a wide-spread aspect of all Asian cultures, at least to the ones I am knowledgeable of.

High-context cultures are less individualistic than low context ones like mine and I see both wisdom and issue with that mindset. Having your mind be attuned to the needs of a community is a mindset that would benefit the whole world to no end right about now in 2021. Shang-Chi reflects both an earnest and dark reflection on the family structure. Shang-Chi comes to blows with his father running a thousand year old criminal empire, maintained with the titular Ten Rings that give him both deadly power and eternal youth.

This is much like how Shang-Chi of the original comics was initially devout to his father until he realized what he would have to do to not only serve him but one day replace him. He retreats from his father and tries to live a normal, somewhat boring life in the states, making new friends like Katy (Awkwafina), being a car parker, enjoying after hours karaoke and miracously affording rent in San Francisco.

To take a page out of Cowboy Bebop, which recently suffered an awful live action adaption on Netflix, Shang-Chi tried to outrun his past. But in the end, doing so simply isn’t possible. In return, he has to kung-fu punch his way right back at it.

He ends up embroiled in a plot which gets both his not-love interest Katy and his sister Xu Xialing right back in his father’s presence. Turns out, daddy Wen-Wu plans to extend this big-old family reunion to a member who should be dead: his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother.

Tony Leung’s Wen-Wu is the best character in the movie and pulls off the “approachable yet still villainous” archetype of a figure as well as I had hoped. He elicits a particular specialty seen with Asian characters made out to be badasses: tranquil fury. Things happen to Wen-Wu in his long life that would make you understanding of him being angry, even if you still oppose him ideologically. Yet rarely if ever does Wen-Wu appear pissed or outraged.

An act of vengeance he commits to those that wronged him is witnessed by a child Shang-Chi. He wipes the floor with them in front of his son. He is ruthless in his action but dead quiet while doing it. Perhaps for a man who has lived a thousand years, pure action, not facial expression or words, is all that really matters to him. The point is made to both those he hates and those he loves.

What I find frustrating yet about Shang-Chi as a movie in spite of Leung’s performance and his relationship with his estranged son is that more often than not, the titular character is sidelined for other characters. While I’m not saying that Katy and Xu Xialing are unimportant, considerable time will pass before we see Shang-Chi again on screen. Much is established exposition-wise leading up the third act and time must be rationed accordingly, but a problem occurs if one begins to notice the lead’s absence.

This is a criticism that was made for Natasha Romanoff in relation to her own movie earlier this year. I was more forgiving due to the title of Black Widow meaning more than just one person. Her sister Yelena, her “mother” played by Rachel Wiesz and that the plot centers on the Black Widow spy program itself made it much easier to excuse when Natasha had to share more time with other people. The same applies to the now streaming Hawkeye show, as Clint Barton is not the only one with that moniker now.

Yet, Shang-Chi is not a title, it’s a person’s name and considering this is our first exposure to the character, unlike Natasha and Clint, I expect more of the dude to take center stage. What is set-up with Shang’s two companions is not without merit and in the case of the sister is actually quite important, especially when factoring the future of the story arc regarding the Ten Rings organization. Maybe this is in truth a quibble more than a structural issue, but if I noticed it, I can’t be the only one.

The third act takes us to a Chinese mythology fantasy land, a pocket dimension that runs on more or less the same logic as Asgard. The supposed source of much of Chinese lore and folk stories, which is bountiful considering how simply old China is as a civilized land, this Shangri-La like location is pretty interesting and only let down by how somewhat artificial it is in presentation, though not to a disrespectful degree.

The final battle, which is a near pre-requisite for an MCU movie starts off promising, presented as an honest to god battle between two small but formidable armies, not just a super-powered melee as we are accustomed to. However, after a certain point, the big giant CGI spectacle rears its expensive, semi-ugly head once again and that’s where I just have to put up with it.

Conceptually, how the battle concludes is actually kindof cool. I feel it would’ve gone down much better for me had it been a completely animated sequence as part of an animated movie. Matters aren’t helped when in the aftermath one of the characters literally compares it to an anime.

It distracts from the purpose of it being a personal yet still visually stimulating duel between father and son and with it two opposing moral sides. Smaller scale to be sure, but impressive enough. It’s also a weak denouement to the style of action that up until a point had made Shang-Chi stand out: honest to god great martial arts fighting.

In spite of occasional spotty camerawork and lighting, the actual hand to hand Mortal (Marvel?) Combat that occurs is among the best I’ve seen in the MCU, eliciting if not the reality but the suggestion of physical risk that marks the best sequences done by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. This practical fighting being tweaked with the bells and whistles of a modern Marvel picture, including the much advertised SF bus fight and the skyscraper scaffolding scuffle, helps give new life to what Marvel’s action based entertainment can offer.

It’s there up until a point in the final battle and it rather symbolically ends once Wen-Wu is taken off the board. In spite of my gripes, Shang-Chi’s first outing leaves me quite open to witnessing future adventures with him involved. Seeing how he interacts with other figures in the MCU as the mid-credits of course tease is to be looked forward to.

It’s the most solid introduction to a new character and his stand-alone set of work so far in Phase 4, but I would not call it a black-belt result.

What-If

Marvel 'What If...?' Season 2 - Release Date, Cast, Spoilers
Image by Men’s Health (Why not…..)

What-If, in terms of promising new exciting possibilities for storytelling in the MCU, very much something on the minds of the average MCU consumer, gets it half-way there. Intriguing ideas are explored or at least on paper given some kind of story to be delved into.

Much like the actual What-If comics, results will vary. Some stories are touching and give off considerations I had genuinely never thought about (the T’Challa as Star-Lord scenario), others are surprisingly dark and yet emotionally harrowing (Doctor Strange goes bad) and others are just not given nearly enough time to be fully explored (Kilmonger meets and befriends Tony Stark).

The first of potentially many seasons for the MCU’s variation on What-If does elicit in me a desire to see more of it, if that is any endorsement. But, at the same time, the handling on a narrative and script-writing level can be frustratingly less than I had come to hope for.

Take for instance the Zombies episode, which depending on who you ask is either among season one’s best or worst episodes. I’m in the middle, as that episode crosses boundaries I didn’t think were possible on Disneyplus, which for me should be cause for celebration in terms of what else can be allowable on the Mouse’s streaming service. On the other hand, the tonal inconsistency between a Return of the Living Dead-like black comedy and a dark horror story can be distracting toward my overall approval.

There is also the idea that some of the episodes like the Zombies one feels like it can and should encompass more than 23 minutes of time.

To once again rag on Netflix’s ill-advised live action take of Cowboy Bebop, it’s a matter of how much time is needed to really sell an idea, too much or too little. The new show starring John Cho and Mustafa Shakir has to take episodic stories from the original anime that lasted between 20 to 30 minutes and stretch it to an hour in length.

The youtuber Cosmonaut Marcus demonstrated that problem by comparing two different scenes of exposition over the same basic plot. The acclaimed anime summed up the conflict of the episode to be addressed in around ten seconds, effortlessly. The exposition in the new show for that same conflict takes over 30 seconds and not succinctly. All because we’ve got to a fill an hour of Netflix somehow.

Here, the reverse is the problem. Some episodes do manage to fit well enough under half an hour and some feel like they deserve a full hour to be properly addressed. The final couple of episodes do tie together into one narrative and much to my surprise, the entire set of seemingly stand alone episodes do come together. That in turn makes the episodes that feel over before they should be come across as more forgivable in hindsight.

What-If’s style of humor can act as a barometer for how funny you find the MCU in general, though I can remember laughing much harder in earlier entries than I had in What-If. One of the lesser regarded episodes, at least by user review on IMDB is the “Thor as party animal” scenario. It’s actually one of the more enjoyable and better written ones in my estimation. The reasons for Thor being a super-powered frat boy are actually well-justified and have an intriguing hook behind it, which makes the “College age but not too College age” humor land better.

What I’m looking forward to when it comes to the further narrations of Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher, aside from more consistent writing quality and perhaps longer episode run-times is seeing if any of the alternate versions of the characters you see in What-If are translated into live action in future MCU installments. Shouldn’t be too difficult and considering the number of upcoming movies like the next Spider-Man, Doctor Strange ,Ant-Man and Loki’s second season, it should be quite a rewarding treat for those who saw through What-If’s first outing. Maybe even a live-Action Uatu the Watcher could be in store.

Despite some standout moments that help make you realize how much further Marvel could take it than they ultimately did, What-If is overall just OK. Like with Shang-Chi before it, I’m up for more of it. And no matter what I say of what’s up next, the same applies there as well.

Eternals

Image from Screenrant (Ikaris and his SuperAncientFriends in a story that, yes, flew too close to the sun “ricochet”)

Eternals, the more I think about it, is such a maddening installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not really because it’s too complex, too expository or that structurally, is far weaker in result than you would expect from the people who made it.

It’s because in some respects, Chloe Zhao’s maligned entry in the MCU is a concept and a story that could have very well been one of this universe’s greatest achievements. It could’ve given so much of what the good-faith MCU nay-sayers have been wanting: not only something that looks more artful, but is more artful.

Budgetary concerns aside, but come on, considering how much money Disney/Marvel have in their coffers now, maybe screw those concerns, Eternals should have been an epic mini-series on Disneyplus. Unlike the other DisneyPlus offerings which are generally of a higher budget than most television, Eternals should have had the budget of a movie or several movies poured into that show. Again, if anyone on this planet could afford to pull off that financial gambit, it’s the company that is swallowing up other companies like it’s the Sarlacc they now own the intellectual rights to.

Eternals is a lengthy movie that is begging to be expressed over the course of quite a few episodes of TV. Based on the structure the movie actually has, being translated and expanded into episodic format is actually quite easy to picture. What makes this need for a different format even more apparent is that two veterans of a mostly incredible TV show phenomenon that adapted a book series that was once thought unadaptable are in this movie: Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington and Richard Madden. The answer was staring them right in the cast listing.

Eternals is based off of one of Jack Kirby’s latter day contributions to Marvel’s comic universe, created around the time when the fandom proclaimed “King” was having an uneasy relationship with the comic company he helped propel into legend.

In the 70s’, inspired by a thought of movement that can be ascribed as “Ancient Aliens”, in which humanity had been visited by extraterrestrial life much in our history, Jack Kirby created two different groups of godlike groups for two opposing superhero comic lines.

Kirby first gave us the New Gods for DC, best known for introducing one of that comic universe’s most iconic and frightening antagonists: Darkseid.

Image from AlphaCoders (You exist because Darkseid allows it and you will end because Darkseid demands it.)

Later on, Kirby gave us the Marvel equivalent to the New Gods in the form of, you guessed it, the Eternals. While the New Gods were too busy waging an endless war against each other far off away from Earth, the Eternals were involved in human history, helping inspire mythical figures across the world. Ikaris=Icarus, Makkari=Mercury, Phastos=Hephaestus, Thena=Athena, Ajak=Ajax, Gilgamesh….Gilgamesh, you get the idea.

The Eternals got up in our business for the most part due to the presence of the Deviants, a malevolent sister race to them who wanted to mess us up and stilt our progress. Those heroes from their Chariot of the Gods said “nuh-uh” to all that and have remained up until modern times at least one of the most covert groups of superheroes in Marvel’s world. The similarly themed Inhumans are more in the open than them.

The cinematic Eternals are called upon by Arashim, one of the Celestials, part of a group of basically God-like entities first glimpsed in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. They are tasked with helping an up and coming sentient species called humanity both get better at growing a civilization and also protecting them from a more predatory, wholly CG iteration of the Deviants. They must do so as long as the Celestials desire, as one day they will be relieved of their duties for Earth.

The concept of the Eternals as suggested through their new major motion picture is one with potential that again should be explored and made part of that cinematic universe we have been experiencing since 2008. The themes Eternals explore is certainly rich enough to justify something. Well, I guess we did get something either way.

What Eternal life does to an individual, psychologically, emotionally and with regard to relationships. What is more important, loyalty to a higher cause regardless of what that cause asks of you or to the people that are with you in life? With great power, comes great responsibility, isn’t that right? Well, what if that aforementioned “higher cause” told you not to use that great power save for only one purpose, no exceptions?

What if in truth, you might have wasted the life you had to live? This is more pronounced than for any one of us considering that the Eternals time on Earth alone measures thousands of years. What if all those millenniums you spent doing your job was for something you didn’t like or want? I mean, come on, this is narrative gold for Marvel and it’s exploration is stunted all because it has to be addressed in 2 hours and 35 minutes.

One of the most pronounced examples of this tragically wasted material is with the relationship between arguably the two most showcased eternals, though that can be occasionally hard to register due to their being up to ten of them to juggle: Ikaris and Cersi.

Richard Madden’s Ikaris and Gemma Chan’s Cersi are two eternals who over the course of 4,000 years fall in love, get married and then break up over irreconcilable differences( a break up that might have been nice to see, by the way).

Even with a well-paced mini-series, it might be impossible to really capture a romance that covers that much time. Considering that no human, no nothing on Earth can live that long, it really is a matter of theory. And yet, it would be fascinating and much more emotional to have more time spent with just this kind of dynamic of two individuals starting off as friends, becoming lovers, spouses, spending a great life together longer than you or I can ever have and then something heart-breaking bringing them apart.

That’s enough for one story in the MCU and yet there are eight other Eternals. To be fair, not every last Eternal needs to have as much attention given as the other, some can fit well as just secondary characters. Ironically, one of my favorite Eternals, Makkari the deaf speedster, is so because the movie allows her to just be a side eternal, not given even more pressure to the narrative by having a back-story to look at.

It could also be a consequence of her being deaf (for some reason) and having to use sign language to communicate, which simplifies her purpose altogether. I’m very aware I might’ve insulted actual deaf people with these words and I apologize. If it’s any further consolation, Marvel is about to give us another deaf character, Echo, to be seen in Hawkeye. Marvel sees so much potential with this hearing impaired character in fact, they’ve already greenlit her own DisneyPlus show. Maybe Makkari has to play a smaller role because of the room she has to share with her cosmic brethren, and the deaf thing was perhaps an excuse.

Ikaris and Cersi’s love story is not the only thing incapable of having the time to be not only explored enough, but to make us feel emotionally attached to. The two other standout eternals in terms of room to explore all on their own is Angelina Jolie’s Thena and Lia McHugh’s Sprite. The latter I am especially aggravated by, as her plight is something that I really wanted to see more time spent on.

Thena, the most warrior like of the Eternals (She did inspire the Greek Goddess of warfare), starts to develop a mental illness which becomes a dangerous liability to everyone in her life including her maybe (?) lover Gilgamesh (Don Lee). It stems from having so many memories in her incredibly long life that she basically experiences a magical form of Alzheimer’s. It reminds me of a mentally deteriorating Vulcan, like Spock’s dad Sarek.

Great idea, especially interesting to be coming from not only a character portrayed by Jolie, but by an otherwise badass female warrior. Her condition does come into play with a pretty dark revelation that helps move the plot forward, but otherwise it is a fascinating idea not given the time to breathe well.

Sprite is an eternally teenage looking Eternal who unlike Makkari does question why her Celestial master cursed her with an arbitrarily cruel impairment. While she can mimic any given thing, including a grown woman, as seen in an early scene with her at a London night club, she cannot actually just be a grown woman. Being thousands of years old, she obviously no longer has the mind of a child, if she had one to begin with, and wishes there was some way to magically augment herself permanently, rather than a temporary illusion.

She also cultivated one hell of a crush into eventually full-on romantic love for Ikaris in the thousands of years she was on Earth. Can you blame her, just look at Richard Madden.

Image by DailyPioneer (Such a shame about that very Red Wedding he attended once…)

Ikaris’ love for Cersi and the fact she couldn’t become an adult kept her from confessing her feelings so she manages to be the Eternal that does her job on Earth most begrudgingly. Save for one.

Barry Keoghan’s Druig, if for nothing more than his power set and that he is portrayed by a guy that looks like he has an unremovable scowl, is interesting in that he is the eternal that you would expect most to take a villainous turn.

He has the ability to straight up mind control people, an ability that’s very easy to abuse. Keep in mind Druig has been around the block for twice as long since the time of Jesus. Perhaps it was his fellow Eternals that reined him in or some amount of nobility he has by nature, but Druig is the most critical Eternal when it comes to the mission statement preventing them from interfering in human matters.

The other Eternal who is especially beaten down by this “prime directive” is Phastos, who witnesses the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima. All the Eternals are certainly bothered to some extent by the heartlessness of this directive, but only Druig openly rebels against it. Knowing he can’t do much by himself, he becomes a recluse deep in the Amazon, living among other humans in a perfect community. His mental power makes sure everyone behaves.

While you can and probably are called to question Druig’s manner of “retirement” from the Eternals’ mission, his philosophy that questions the Celestials leads him to creating a resistance against their mission for Earth, especially when they learn why they are really there to begin with. Not all the Eternals fall in line with this revolt and the ones that resist the rebels are genuinely surprising, which does give the movie credit at actually being novel in ways that click.

I would talk more about the remaining Eternals, like Phastos( Brian Tyree Henry) with his happy gay family, Gilgamesh being Thena’s minder and Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) awesome Bollywood career, but you know what, I haven’t the time really, much like this movie does not have the time to be what it is trying to be.

In the right framing, in the right format of storytelling, I genuinely believe that Eternals could be one of the MCU’s best installments, perhaps an expansion and evolution of what this long running cinematic universe can be. Visually, when the lighting isn’t obnoxiously low, it can be a beautifully different looking MCU film, another thing that is welcome within a universe that is attempting to stay in the spotlight for another decade.

But as I stated at the end of my thoughts on What-If, I do want to see more of the Eternals as the MCU pushes on. Why wouldn’t I, considering this section is all about lamenting lost potential. Perhaps when in unison with other MCU figures on their own adventures or given a new format to tell their story, the Eternals can succeed as new figures of this franchise.

What the Eternals accomplish at the end does suggest quite a ripple towards the narrative trajectory of the MCU and will be just as interesting when it is in concert with the developing multiverse plot. To say the Eternals debut appearance is unimportant would be a lie. But just because something is or might be important doesn’t always translate as good. The Eternals were striving within their limitations to make humanity grow, be better despite our self-destructive nature.

If they are to make us better, they must first make themselves grow, be better as well.

Next up: Maybe Arcane, maybe more 80s retrospective, I don’t really know yet.

It takes a Village….to kill you: A long expected review of Resident Evil VIIIage (spoilers included)

Capcom is charging $1500 for Chris Redfield's boring Resident Evil Village  coat | PC Gamer
Image from PC Gamer (25 years of surviving horror turns good men…cold.)

Over the past decade or so, Resident Evil has slowly become one of my favorite game series. Whether it’s trying to legitimately scare you or make you destroy supposedly scary things like a cinematic action hero, Resident Evil finds a way to satisfy me in multiple ways, even in manners that some fans would consider sacrilegious.

Take for example, that on this blog site I have an article dedicated to my apologetics over Resident Evil 6, the least horrifying and most action oriented main entry, often despised for that reason and that yes, there are some gameplay mechanics that aren’t as fully thought out or polished as they should be. I classified RE6 as a mastermess, not a masterpiece. But, my God, what a continuously fun and even more often than not mechanically intelligent mess it is.

I bring up Resident Evil 6, the fandom’s punching bag as the newest entry in the series, in truth the thirteenth not eighth installment in the pioneering franchise, has many echoes to the most divisive or hated period so far in the run. Resident Evils 4-6 is that contested or dismissed middle period though 4 continues to be unabashedly beloved for being, you know, one of the most influential and best video games ever made.

The “action” trilogy as I would call it saw a rising emphasis on players fighting and defeating the terrors that lied in their wake rather than thoughtfully avoiding and outlasting them. By RE6, clearing the area of enemies was the norm, which flies in the face of Resident Evil’s roots that barring some special unlockables that are earned through blood, sweat and tears on the player’s part, you will never kill every enemy in this kind of game. That was the original point. You’re doomed if you try.

More than any other game in the series except for 4, in which this entry deliberately echoes, Resident Evil 8: Village is the best game in regards to mixing a genuine horror atmosphere and the action packed feel discussed. RE8 contains one of, if not the scariest sequence I’ve ever experienced in the series while also having moments that would be right at home with RE5 and 6’s sensibilities, though the absurdity of those same games remains toned down.

A direct follow-up to Resident Evil 7: biohazard, the 2017 entry that brought the series back to its horror roots as well as for the first time into first person view, you continue the story of Ethan Winters as he tries to get over the grindhouse terror of that one insane night in the Louisiana bayou. RE8 cements Ethan’s status as the RE protagonist whose role above all is to suffer. Most will feel very sorry for Ethan’s life story by the time the credits roll.

Conceived as the “everyman” character who is thrust into events that would break almost anyone else, Ethan perseveres through pain, fear, fatigue and psychological trauma all because at the end of the day, he is a really good person. He just wants to have a quiet life with his wife Mia, a fellow survivor of RE7, and their infant daughter Rose.

He’s unlike most other survivor protagonists from REs past like Chris Redfield, his sister Claire, Jill and Leon, who in one form or another dedicate their lives to fighting the pharmaceutical monsters that plague their world. Once Ethan survived the first time, he was perfectly happy wanting to never bother with any of the frightful intrigue that has built up over the course of a series that just celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Ethan is often framed as being the most “relatable” of the protagonists of the series through a number of ways. Aside from his young everyman getup who initially had no combat experience, he often simply yet bluntly sums ups his experiences much the way the player would say it. Being a first person protagonist, his face is deliberately kept from view, often to hysterical measures. Ignoring that Ethan’s facial appearance was already datamined from RE7 so we already know what he looks like to begin with….

Who is Ethan Winters in Resident Evil Village?
Image from The Sun (The Cat’s out of the bag, Capcom, come on…)

Well, in RE8’s case, the game goes out of its way to hide a face that is already known. In the opening section taking place in Ethan and Mia’s new home curiously located in Romania, all the mirrors in the house that should show his mug are covered up, for no explainable reason.

The game has cinematic cutscenes, so when Ethan appears in the third person, his face is kept offscreen in a way that is as technically impressive as it is humorously distracting. This becomes funnier considering how emotionally heavy the conclusion of Resident Evil 8 is otherwise. Even the character model viewer that is unlocked upon beating the game insists on covering the poor guy’s kisser in shadow.

I get it on some level: Capcom wants to make Ethan an avatar for the average player, making you and me feel as if we are Ethan Winters. The same reason is given for Gordon Freeman, the beloved mute protagonist of the Half-Life series. Of course, fans of the series now overwhelmingly associate Gordon’s appearence off the promotional material as a brown haired and goateed bespectacled man with an appropriately determined expression.

Here is what a next-generation Half-Life Gordon Freeman could look like in  Unreal Engine 4
Image from DSOGaming (The man behind the glasses: is it really me or is it him?)

When I play Half-Life, I don’t think of myself as being Gordon Freeman, I think I’m controlling an individual independent from myself. I am given authorial control over how I think Gordon may be processing the many crazy, bewildering things he encounters on his adventures, but otherwise I don’t think of Half-Life as being my story over Gordon’s in the same way I would imbue Commander Shepard’s. Even then, in Mass Effect’s case, there’s plenty to my Commander Shepard that is and will never be me.

In one department, Ethan is already unlike me: he’s a family man and I, as of now at 28 years old, am not. With the bleak way the world is turning nowadays, I would find it exceptionally cruel and selfish to bring a child of mine into the world. That diatribe aside, Ethan’s commendable fatherly commitment to being the best dad ever is not something I can wholly relate to because I’m not a dad, much like how I’m not nor ever will be a theoretical physicist like Dr. Freeman.

Of course, it doesn’t entirely matter that Capcom’s ham-fisted but conceptually well meaning attempt at player-character synthesis is more awkward than not. What I want in a Resident Evil game and a little bit more is here and that was what I wanted to begin with.

Events transpire to place Ethan back in the world of survival horror no matter how badly he wished he could avoid it. He’s taken measures to protect himself and his family. He volunteered for combat training with none other than series legend Chris Redfield, who escorted him and wife Mia off the plantation setting of RE7 to safety.

He keeps a book around the house about gun and close quarters combat so he can stay honed in case worse comes to pass (which of course it does). He stays in contact with Chris due to him being part of a now seemingly reformed Umbrella Corporation which has become a PMC explicitly to fight bio-organic weapons, a catch-all term for the creatures which are RE’s gallery of enemies. Umbrella was the original antagonist of the Resident Evil series which created the viruses that make the monsters like the iconic zombies.

One night in their new spacious home in Romania, which strangely reminds me of Nathan Drake and Elena’s home from Uncharted 4, gun-shots pierce through the windows during dinner and hit Mia straight on. Ethan can only duck in stunned silence as a new nightmare begins by the very people he thought would protect him, Mia and baby daughter Rose. Chris, now appearing like his normal bulky self again after the despised redesign for RE7, comes in personally and fires several shots right in Mia’s head. Has the hero become the villain, as Aaron Eckhart warned us about all those years ago?

Ethan is dragged out of his house by Chris and his men and little Rose is taken out of her crib as well. Like in the beginning of Ethan’s first journey of survival, he is filled with questions. The one question that is never answered is why Chris would relocate the Winters’ not just to Romania of all places, but within proximity of the titular spooky village, which has managed to avoid outside discovery for a century as we learn. That’s one insane contrivance you are going to learn to accept, as RE8 is generally willing to clear away just about every other question you will have, including some you didn’t even think to ask in the first place.

Ethan eventually ends up separated from Chris and his team and finds himself entering at daybreak the village, with a beautiful Castlevania-like castle in the background. Very soon, like with the Baker plantation from last time, Ethan finds that everything is not fine whatsoever in this hamlet that seems for the most part trapped in the past.

It’s here where the many, many callbacks to one particular entry in the series make their start: for Resident Evil 4. Capcom was transparent about RE8 being inspired by that landmark entry and wanted to not just place players back in an ominous European village trapped in time but to also see it happen in first person and with some changes that are just different enough that it won’t feel like Village is just copying what came before.

It’s allusions to past glories are obvious, but never lazy, feeling like an earned self-congratulation that lands more than not. The opening moment of Ethan exploring the village eventually culminates in confronting one of the two base enemies of RE VIII: Lycans or if you want to be more to the point werewolves.

Fear not, it’s not supernatural, there’s no need when mad Lovecraftian science can take it’s place as explanation anyway. Like with Leon’s iconic arrival in the Spanish village in 4 where once the villagers spot him, all hell breaks loose, soon both the player and Ethan are frantically scrambling to find some modicum of safety as the village’s “residents” start descending upon you.

Leon’s frightening fight against overwhelming numbers in 4 was further punctuated by the arrival of Dr. Salvador, the chainsaw wielding foe that would kill you in one hit if he got close enough to you. The shock of that happening on top of all the other villagers trying to gut you made 4’s opening one of the most remembered opening hours in any game ever made, not to mention one hell of a tone setter.

With Ethan, it takes the player either attacking the werewolves prowling around the village or entering a certain house for the gauntlet to be thrown down. While the novelty is clearly not here, being a homage to 4’s beginning, the insane pressure and momentum, now viewed from the character’s eyes rather than over the shoulder, has been maintained. What makes it a still great opening salvo for Ethan’s time in the village is most apparent the first time playing: what to do?

Where does Ethan and the player go? What items can they grab before risking getting mauled, how long can they hold out, where should they hold out? Like the chainsaw enemy of 4, eventually a giant hammer wielding opponent jumps into the arena out of the blue making matters even worse. Unlike the chainsaw man, Urias the hammer wielding giant won’t kill you in one blow, unless you’re on the truly punishing highest difficulty of “Village of Shadows”, but would you be surprised that getting hurt by him is worse than by a Lycan?

Like with RE4, the endless parade of enemies coming at you ends with a cutscene, some force commanding the horde is compelled to leave you alone right at the darkest moment. As Ethan gets his bearings, I couldn’t help but mutter to myself Leon’s corny response to that situation in his game ,”Where’s everyone going, bingo?

Very soon does RE8 distinguish itself as being more than just RE4 in first person. It maintains most of the elements that are familiar to the classic formula: puzzles to solve, open-ended areas to explore, item management and so forth.

The village is a nexus for four distinct locations with their own regional boss for Ethan to fight and overcome in his efforts to rescue his daughter Rose who he learns is soon in the main villain’s hands, not Chris’. Led by the enigmatic Mother Miranda who takes on the appearance of a witch with raven like features, she has four lords under her thrall and all representing a cornerstone of gothic horror, which is RE8’s visual aesthetic. The most famous, due to her pre-release attention that took on absurd amounts of fandom, is Lady Alcina Dimitrescu, a 9 foot tall monster of a woman who runs the castle overlooking the village.

How Resident Evil's tallest and most terrifying vampire lady, Alcina  Dimitrescu, came to life | Engadget
Image from Engadget (Remember that one episode of Futurama where Fry and friends end up on the planet of giant Amazon women? Watch it again to understand the…appeal of the madam before you.)

It’s kind of a shame that the most iconic of the secondary villains in RE8 is the first up to bat for Ethan to confront. While Capcom had its narrative reasons and also knew players would want to experience her and her castle’s intrigue as soon as possible, it also means that you will after a point have to leave behind one of the most thematically and visually striking locations in the game for good. After Lady D is defeated, there is no return for any reason to the macabre yet beautiful castle she walks the halls of. Again, the game is called Resident Evil: Village, not Castle, and there’s much more to see afterwards, but I make my point.

The castle’s internal appearence is meant to both recall the castellan from RE4 as well as the various mansion like locations that have graced the series since the original. It doesn’t take long for Castle Dimitrescu to forge a visual identity that is distinct enough and give off a history that is as grim as it is sad.

One thing to note about all four of the Lords under Miranda’s command is that there are varying degrees of pitiability to all of them, maybe even Miranda as well. Like how RE7 slowly reveals that the grotesque Baker family that hunts you were originally a warm-hearted group of people (save one) that were tragically victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the Lords all have aspects that will make you feel something other than fright or revulsion.

Lady Dimitrescu is the least pitiable as are her three daughters. They are based off the vampire archetype. They drink blood to replenish themselves as well as ensure their practical immortality. Being bit by them does not make you a vampire because in truth they are inspired by vampires but aren’t literally ones. Again, it’s that insane medical science that exists in Resident Evil’s world.

Like vampires, they like big castles to roam around, the daughters dislike direct sunlight and they take on the aristocratic attributes seen in a lot of vampire popular culture. It is that elitist mindset, that they are entitled to prey and feast on poor Ethan that makes them least sympathetic. Instead, when Ethan confronts Lady Dimitrescu and her daughters one by one while searching for his daughter and a way out, I felt sorry that they could not recognize why other people like Ethan wouldn’t like being prey and are increasingly frustrated at his refusal to curl up and accept death.

It’s also clear that for all their mutual depravity, the mistress of the castle dearly loves her daughters and they in turn love her back. This “resident evil” I dare call it are not evil towards each other in the end.

It is also at the castle that we meet the Duke, a clear successor to the mysterious yet popular merchant of Resident Evil 4. The RE4 Merchant is one of the most entertaining mysteries in the franchise, a mystery that no one in particular actually wants to know the truth about. In Leon’s game from years past, the Merchant pops up out of nowhere, all too happy to assist our hunky hero in his quest to rescue the President’s daughter, for a price of course.

Despite his grim, almost enemy like appearence, the Merchant is never a threat to Leon. You can even shoot him dead and he will show up at a later point in the game, no worse for wear and unconcerned you shot him. What the Merchant mechanically brought to RE4 was so excellent and was such a fun fellow to listen to you with his strange Cockney like accent, that no one was bothered by how out of place he narratively was.

The Duke serves the same function but is actually integral to the plot, assisting Ethan in not just procuring items for him to buy but gives information on where to exactly go to save his daughter Rose. He reminds me somewhat of Vergil from Dante’s Inferno, a guide with some enigmatic qualities.

The Duke also makes Ethan food for free to improve his statistics and health, defense and accuracy, so long as Ethan brings the right ingredients through hunting wildlife throughout the game.

The Duke is not just callback to another facet of Resident Evil 4, he is an expansion of the overall idea and one of the best realized ones. I wouldn’t mind if the Duke returned in a future title, whether that be Resident Evil 9 or not.

After the journey up, down and below Castle Dimitrescu and one Bloodborne-looking final battle with the not so fair-Lady, Ethan’s next location to visit is House Beneviento, home to Donna Beneviento and her creepy as hell collection of dolls. In-between the regions Ethan must visit, the Village itself becomes more and more accessible, mostly to explore for treasures which when sold give you much needed Lei (Romanian currency like with RE4’s Spanish setting having pesetas) to upgrade weapons and buy ammo and equipment.

Once Ethan unlocks the gate taking him to House Beneviento, he and the player then enter what is in my opinion one of Resident Evil’s most terrifying sequences.

Resident Evil Village: Donna Beneviento's Tragic Origin Story Explained
Image from Collider (You are not ready for what they have in store.)

When most talk about RE8’s highs and lows, many consider House Beneviento or “the Doll House” to be the highlight of the game, wisely undermarketed to make its presence in the game more striking for the unspoiled player. Many lament that nothing before or after this House near a waterfall has anything close to the sheer rising dread and horrifying release of anticipation waiting for you there. I have rarely found any one Resident Evil to have any one moment that scared me like what I saw and heard in that house.

I feel it best that I spoil the least about this section of the game. What I have already said may be too much. To put it another way, the Resident Evil series has finally captured the same fear experienced in the early Silent Hill games, namely Silent Hill 2. It’s a segment that both torments Ethan and the player as well as make them truly vulnerable. I will say nothing more and simply warn that you are making things harder on yourself if you play this section for the first time with headphones on and the light turned off like I did. Or you’re doing yourself one hell of a favor.

As I espoused earlier, there is a sad sympathy to the Four Lords and Donna Beneviento might be the most sympathetic. Due to having considerable mental illness in combination with the powers she is given by Mother Miranda through the “mold” that is the scientific plot device for both RE7 and 8, she is possibly not fully aware of the awful things she does.

It left quite an impression on me that the Lord that spooked me best is also the one that I would feel most sorry for. Supposedly, it should be the other way around. Not here. Before I tempt fate and keep talking about her and her section and really ruin it for you, let’s move on to the third, least frightening Lord: poor Salvatore Moreau.

While Donna is said to be inspired by ghost stories, Moreau based on his name is inspired by the titular antagonist for The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. I don’t know if anyone would call that classic tale “gothic” but like Frankenstein, it’s about scientific pursuit involving life going so wrong.

Salvatore Moreau Boss Guide: How to kill Salvatore Moreau?
Image by Widget Core (A face that not even a Mother could love.)

Moreau isn’t just pitiable, he’s just pathetic. A hunchbacked figure of limited intelligence save for one grotesque specialty, Moreau is disliked by basically everyone. Ethan doesn’t like him, the other Lords don’t care for him and most importantly, Mother Miranda disregards him. Out of all the Lords, Moreau wants most to be loved by her. He is most keen to make her happy in stopping Ethan.

Moreau’s section involving a series of mines followed by a sunken village with windmills is often called the weakest portion of the game. It’s by no means bad and does involve some clever puzzles and a fun callback to RE4’s own lake section involving one giant fish that wants to make you supper.

The mild derision for this sequence likely stems from it coming right after the best moment of the game in the Doll House. Many would hope that what RE8 is serving up for you next would be just as harrowing if not more. It’s not, though if you have a real fear of dangers which lurk under the water, it might be a bit more effective. Here, it’s simply fun and much of the intrigue here comes from Ethan facing a dangerous entity that is so miserable and lonely.

The boss fight with Moreau does have a clever twist to it but it’s otherwise straightforward. Ultimately, considering the framing of Moreau being the bad guy who sucks, maybe this section in practice is quite intentional in being a letdown compared to Lady Dimitrescu and Donna Beneviento.

The fourth and final lord is Heisenberg, directly inspired by Frankenstein and with motivations that are not entirely beyond player disagreement. In terms of vocal performance, Heisenberg is probably my favorite character. He takes the series’ penchant for having hammy, self-indulgent villains and almost acts as a self-aware parody of that convention, which in turn might be the slyest callback to RE4 yet.

Resident Evil Village Heisenberg Boss Guide - SegmentNext
Image by Segment Next (“Never turn your back on fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed”-Hunter S. Thompson)

Resident Evil 4, for all of its genuine and successful attempts at horror, was seen as the first game to have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about itself and the series’ own struggle to maintain tonal consistency. Heisenberg is deadly serious about his intentions, but he tries to make a game of his actions more than anyone else in RE8.

As the page header infers, Heisenberg’s voice and temperament reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson or Thompson’s avatar Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’m not the first to make the comparison and it might not have been intentional on Capcom’s part, possibly something that his voice actor Neil Newbon thought would be cool to try out for what on the outside seems to be the most normal of Miranda’s subjects.

Despite me loving Heisenberg, he is still a figure meant to have some amount of player dislike and it comes from how short-sided and egotistical the character is. He and Ethan both have a common goal in truth and had he not been so solipsistic, he might have made RE8 a much less harrowing adventure for both involved.

Heisenberg’s location, a factory, is where Resident Evil Village’s higher emphasis on combat compared to 7 comes into focus. This has left mixed feelings for those in the playerbase not wanting the series to return to an overly action based experience. The escalation from horror to action has been a long-standing issue since jump.

Even in the original glory days for the series on the original PlayStation, there was an escalating focus on action. Though all beloved by fans, the increase in explosive set-pieces overtime made the divisive middle period of 4-6 all but inevitable. After the return to horror with Ethan’s first game with RE7, was it also inevitable that action as a core tenet would return?

RE8, like RE4, does manage to mostly toe the line between the two seemingly at-odds sentiments of the series. There is a section following Heisenberg’s factory which was widely condemned for being a descent into straight up action, a moment of criticism that hopefully has not gone beyond Capcom’s notice in the development of RE9 and anything else on the table.

What makes Heisenberg’s Factory work despite the increased focus on fighting enemies and defeating them is the style of the place. It is a darkly lit, grimy industrial hell where a bunch of modified zombie like enemies attack you with grafted on drills, hammers and knives. I’m not even kidding when I say you are basically playing Resident Evil’s own version of Wolfenstein, namely the modern titles made by MachineGames. That Heisenberg calls his minions “Soldats”, just like the Nazis BJ Blazcowicz lays waste to almost makes me think that unlike the Thompson reference, this might’ve been intentional.

Like RE4, if you’re going to up the action tempo, make it at least awesome, and here it certainly is. There’s even a couple of moments that I did fine genuinely creepy in regards to Ethan’s confrontation with the full metal army.

But once again, perhaps as prelude to the denounced “straight up action” sequence coming right after, the final fight with Heisenberg, while fun and epic, does begin to beggar belief in relation to the relative groundedness of the rest of RE8 up until that point. Perhaps as almost self-confession, there is a cheeky reference to one of the series’ most ludicrous and mocked moments, a certain moment from Resident Evil 5 involving a boulder. The bout with Heisenberg is not nearly as stupid as the moment mentioned, but it’s worth pointing out.

I’ve made a point out of detailing the general progression of RE8 on a structural level. While I’ve tried to omit details for the most part, the section by section breakdown is why I felt the need to mention spoilers in the title at all. That the game has been out since this May and has sold a pretty penny already, I felt comfortable with the format I went with here.

Now for something unrelated to Resident Evil 8. Or maybe not.

There was general confusion that following the underwhelming remake of Resident Evil 3, the next game Capcom would choose to reimagine wouldn’t be the next and possibly last old title in need of some kind of facelift: Code Veronica, originally released as a Sega Dreamcast exclusive in 2000.

It made sense on a number of levels. Due to Resident Evil 2’s wildly successful and excellent remake, players new and old would want to see the next chapter in RE2 protagonist Claire’s story, which is Code Veronica. For some, CV was the actual Resident Evil 3, and narratively it is actually one of the most important in the franchise, for how much that’s worth.

Aside from getting to see a new spanking game with the Claire Redfield brought to life in face and voice by Stephanie Panisello, we would get to have a new Resident Evil game with a younger Chris Redfield, Claire’s brother, who appears in RE8 nearly 50 years old, not that it’s easy to tell.

Due to to its initial exclusivity on the Dreamcast, a well loved console that ultimately died in the console wars facing the PlayStation 2, original Xbox and Nintendo Gamecube, Code Veronica is one of the more underexposed main entries in the franchise. It did receive an HD remaster for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but that was not quite the same as the remake treatment for the first three games.

I recently for the first time played Code Veronica. It’s overall a great entry but with some hurdles that are deserving of being addressed. It is perhaps one of the most punishing titles in difficulty due to there being certain windows of opportunity that if missed, make the third act of the game either extremely hard if not impossible to complete. Only in hindsight or by looking up a guide did I realize I had missed several things that would make the rest of Code Veronica if not easy, much more tolerable an experience.

If that wasn’t enough, a Remake of Code Veronica could involve genuine improvements in narrative ways, such as making side character Steve Burnside, one of the most gratingly annoying figures I’ve ever had to put up with in a video game, into at least someone that I didn’t want to freeze into carbonite like I would Jar-Jar.

There’s also the Ashford twins, the creepy, blond-haired, incestous aristocrats whose family are one of the co-founders of Umbrella. There is something quite disturbing in how the Ashford siblings can be executed in a remake. Their sociopathic indifference to anyone below their station, their obsessive mad love for one another and them being so, so eugenics happy.

How the original game did the Ashford Twins leaves much to be desired, often suggesting the possibility of something better and more frightening than what we get. The awful, shrill performances of the Ashfords in combination with a plot twist involving the brother’s obsession that would 100% not fly if made today means that this is an otherwise respected RE title that could have definite room to be improved.

Why am I putting so much focus on a game not called Resident Evil Village all of a sudden? Because one of the confirmed upcoming titles for the series other than Resident Evil 9 is the remake for Resident Evil 4. After playing through RE8 multiple times and having seen the many, many re-releases for RE4 through the years, including the very attractive VR edition for the Oculus Quest, I don’t think there’s any real need for it.

In comparison to any of the Resident Evils before it, Resident Evil 4 does not need any real update. It is still very playable and for the most part more user-friendly than any of its predecessors. It set a new template for over the shoulder, third person experiences in gaming across the board. The one area where RE4 could receive a meaningful update would be to completely overhaul the look of the game in the RE engine that fuels the contemporary entries starting with 7. There are many who might be curious to see the voice actor for RE2 Remake’s Leon perform the character in this project, but is that really enough to justify?

There is also the curiosity of how RE4 would be reimagined too, but play RE8 and you already get much of that. I’ve made a point to make note of the many callbacks to RE4 in Village and it makes the case that a spiritual successor should instead take the place of that Remake. Instead, Capcom would take its resources and bring back to life an old installment that could stand to have not just a facelift but a proper updating in Code Veronica.

Me calling Resident Evil VIIIage a spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4 sure sounds like a ringing endorsement of the game and that’s only because it is. While I wouldn’t call RE8 as good a game as RE4, you can call it a game that takes tenets of the installment that brought the series down the rabbit hole of action over horror and give it more of the classic Resident Evil formula.

Resident Evil Village delivers more of the potential of what RE7 established in bringing the series into first person, it also suggests real shakeups in the overall narrative that are as intriguing as they are full of mechanical possibility.

It’s a callback to an older glory while suggesting something promising in the present tense, a repackaging that does not give off a feeling of lack of imagination.

Resident Evil 8: Village is a barometer for what exactly is being sought after by the playerbase and the developers of these games. I can’t quite tell you what Resident Evil 9 will be. But I can tell you that it will be something to experience, even if it turns out a failure.

Bengal’s Halloween HORRORTHON 2021 part 2 of 2 (mild/inferred spoilers)

Let’s get on with it.

A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong) (1987)

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) – Monster Zone
Image by MonsterZone (I would take this tentacled monstrosity over the Carpenter Thing’s equivalent)

A Chinese Ghost Story is considered a landmark piece of Hong Kong horror entertainment, almost a quintessential example of the genre fusing genuine scares, comedy, romance and incredible martial arts action into a cacophony where one does not outweigh the others.

I don’t know if it’s right to call A Chinese Ghost Story the Chinese version of Evil Dead, specifically Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. I feel that way, but then I looked at the releases of both movies and they came out the same year: 1987. There are certain sequences where the camera moves erratically and swiftly in first person, like the one in Evil Dead 2, chasing after poor Ash in and around the cabin. It is a serendipitous coincidence and would honestly make for a great double feature seeing them one after another.

Set in late 19th century mainland China, in the dying era of the Dynasty system, it follows a tax collector called Ning( played by the too quickly departed HK star Leslie Cheung, also seen in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow). He’s just trying to stay afloat in an unfair world and will learn in time that death is just as unfair to those who exist on the other side.

Looking for a place to stay during his travels, he is given the joking suggestion to stay at a haunted temple on the outskirts of town and our somewhat bumbling hero does just that. In quick succession, he meets a Taoist Ghost Hunter called Yin and a mysterious, beautiful woman named Nip.

Yin steals the show as this absolute badass warrior against monsters of the East Asian variety, using his sword, spells and skills to be a chimera hybrid of Van Helsing, a Jedi, and even a Dragonball character due to using his Ki( chi) as an energy based weapon. He best demonstrates the unique form of cinematic martial arts that was introduced more prominently in the West through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Wuxia.

This floating and flying form of martial arts which often includes weapons like swords and spears mesmerized audiences throughout the world in 2000 and A Chinese Ghost Story was among many things, seen as a watershed moment for Wuxia becoming a box office draw in its native market.

Gradually, in an almost Inspector Closeau manner, Ning stumbles across a plot that involves the lovely Nip being forced into an arranged marriage with an evil spirit of the nearby mountain. Her mother is a powerful demoness that resides in the forest’s tree. If you hadn’t already figured it out, Nip isn’t exactly human, not anymore. She is a Jiangshi, a mythical being that combines vampire and zombie into one. There are different interpretations of Jiangshi in Chinese culture, another famous version being of the hopping variety, as seen in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, which was sadly unavailable for me to view at this time and place along with another Hong Kong horror comedy, Encounters of the Spooky Kind, with HK legend Sammo Hung.

She has preyed on hapless visitors to the haunted temple for a long time, not that she really wants to, as the tree demoness gives her no choice. However, the arrival of Ning into her “life” so to speak gives her a chance to refuse that job and with help from him and Yin, an opportunity to avoid a twisted arranged marriage and even better reincarnation into a mortal body.

There is a lot to take in for A Chinese Ghost Story’s narrative though due to its mostly madcap pace and tone, as well as a very humorous attitude, it is never confusing, just pleasantly bewildering. The pace in concert with the humor and action makes A Chinese Ghost Story one of the most purely fun Halloween experiences I’ve had this year. The effects are jaw-dropping and are on par and might even surpass Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead.

The header image is Ning in a very close encounter with the tree demoness in her true form but there is also her terrifying alternative form that is a nigh endless massive tongue that prowls through the forest and tries to take out Ning inside the temple in one hair-rising fight. That’s almost nothing to Ning and Yin’s trek into the underworld to save Nip from her dark wedding with the mountain spirit which is a battle which becomes all out Wuxia pandemonium that left me all but gasping for air. On the lighter side, there’s a very Peter Sellers moment where Ning is exploring the temple while a bunch of creepily animated stop motion zombies try to get his ass. Of course, they never catch him and he is none the wiser comically during that skit.

A Chinese Ghost Story manages to juggle its many disparate tones so well that I entirely ate up an honest to God RAP NUMBER with Yin singing and dancing to himself about how cool a demon hunter he was. This film is that good. It’s also a beautifully shot piece of film where the old woods, where most of the picture takes place, feel both haunting and strangely intimate at once.

You’ll rarely scream, but you will cheer and laugh at this example of Hong Kong doing what it did best: Not just delivering its own unique flavor of one genre but several and leaving you fulfilled. There are two sequels but there is a wide range of opinion about them. Some see them as worthy successors, more so the second than third, others think they don’t amount to nearly as much as they should. All I truly know, is that the first one is a must see.

Sweet Home (Japan) (1989)

Sweet Home (1989): A Mother's Love Never Dies! - Diabolique Magazine
Image by Diabolique (Welcome to the world of survival horror. Good Luck!)

Resident Evil, one of the most successful game franchises of all time, let alone in horror, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The 1996 original was one of the first true success stories of the original PlayStation and was the game to officially coin the term “survival horror.”

Dubbed by series creator Shinji Mikami, that subgenre of horror in gaming involves taking control of a vulnerable player character, who generally have low resistance to injury and a limited amount of supplies and inventory space. Careful management of items, both to stay alive and to explore and figure out the environment around you, is key.

The first game placed you in a mansion in the middle of the forest, full of ravenous dogs, hungry zombies and other more novel terrors like razor-clawed lizard men, giant spiders, a giant snake and shark. It was a wild game that managed to break new ground for games as an interactive, exploratory experience, not to mention cultivating an eerie, nervous atmosphere where danger you may or may not be prepared for always lies in wait. It did not break new ground in voice acting and contains some of the most enjoyably awful examples in the entire medium.

As mentioned, it spawned a monstrous franchise with ups, downs and in-betweens. Recently the eighth but in truth thirteenth main entry in the game series (this includes several remakes and the prequel Resident Evil 0 mind you) ,Resident Evil VIIIage, was released to positive attention. I have played and very much enjoyed the latest entry in the franchise for the Halloween season and will try however I can to write up a review of that latest jaunt in the series.

But, you’re here for me to talk about a horror movie for the Halloween season, right? Well, let me discuss the background of Sweet Home, both as a movie and as an early example of a tie in video game. Despite some definite winners in the acclaim and box office departments, Japanese cinema was struggling in the 1980s. This was in large part due to television and direct to video being a big thing in the popular culture of the era.

One way to promote a theatrically released Japanese film was to tie it in with a burgeoning new medium that while essentially created in America in the 70s, was all but perfected in the Land of the Rising Sun: video games. Yankees like me experienced the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the system that gave the world Mario, Zelda, Metroid and countless other enduring staples. It was the system that had Sweet Home, but only for Japanese audiences. The rest of the world could later experience the game adaptation through fan-made localizations.

Over in Japan, the NES was called the “Famicom”. Instead of calling it by it’s original name over in the U.S. of A., due to concerns over the video game crash of 1983 that occurred prior, Nintendo marketed it as an “entertainment system” rather than a game system to ease those who felt leery about a device with bad history attached.

So, with all of that out of the way, Toho( the studio that gave us all the glory of Godzilla) wanted to make a ghost story film. They got Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) to direct. He would eventually make Japanese horror landmarks Cure and Pulse that I will one day watch down the road. It was produced by Juzo Itami, best known for culinary Japanese comedy classic Tampopo, featuring an early appearence by Ken Watanabe that I am dining to see one day.

Due to the weakness of the theatrical Japanese box office in 1989, the filmmakers wanted an extra hook to the release of Sweet Home. So, in conjunction with Capcom (the future developers of Resident Evil, alongside a crapton of other huge franchises) and a young Shinji Mikami, a tie-in video game was developed for the Famicom. The movie was released in January of 1989, the game came out at the end of the same year. Nice symmetry there.

Sweet Home the game could possibly be described as the actual first survival horror title, seven years before Resident Evil and three years before Alone in the Dark, another title often seen as a precursor to the genre. You took control of three of the five principal characters in the movie. It was up to you to use your resources you collect throughout the game as well as tactical use of the characters and their skills to survive the mansion and make it out alive.

Unlike Resident Evil, which has always used science fiction medical horror as the root of its, well, evil, Sweet Home is completely supernatural. It is very much a ghost story. Though Japanese ghost stories are well known due to exposure to films like Ringu ( and the American remake The Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge in America), not to mention the acclaimed survival horror series Fatal Frame (where you must stand and photograph the ghostly terrors in your midst), Sweet Home feels like a fusion of Western and Eastern ghost tales.

Though set entirely in Japan, the mansion that a TV film crew goes to located inside a thick forest looks very Western influenced in and out, and the type of ghost that is encountered feels like a hybrid of what a person in Europe or North American would call a ghost and what a person in Asia would call one. This also foreshadows how Resident Evil, wanting to appeal to both Japanese and Western audiences, always has a charming toe dipped in two different parts of the world.

The film crew consists of a middle-aged TV producer, an aging female news host, the producer’s short-haired, spunky daughter and the cameraman and his girlfriend. Perhaps as a nod to this setup of a film crew in WAY over their heads, a playable subplot of 2017’s Resident Evil 7: biohazard has you play as a cameraman for a television show called Sewer Gators. Through VHS tapes found throughout the game, you can play flashbacks to other characters’ predicaments.

Poor Clancy Javis starts off filming his three-man team exploring a seemingly abandoned house on a just as seemingly abandoned plantation deep in the Louisiana bayou. It very quickly goes south, deep south you could say. He is then forced into various escape room situations by the terrifying Baker family and for more on that, play RE7 or watch it be played online. This won’t be the last time that the narrative of Sweet Home possibly inspired a Resident Evil game’s story, and not just through coinciding developments of game and movie.

Like with a film that I watched on Youtube for a non-Halloween 80s retrospective blog entry, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, I saw Sweet Home in its entirety for free on Youtube, though the quality was VHS and made the viewing experience difficult at times. It did add something to the atmosphere, but still I wouldn’t mind viewing a version with better visual fidelity.

Sweet Home is quite traditional plot wise when it comes to ghost story tradition and a lot of it will ring true to anyone who read over my thoughts on The Changeling. A group of people go over to a place that is supposedly haunted, discover gradually it is definitely haunted, and have their own reasons for not leaving a place that is likely perilous. In this case, it’s to record a TV special on the mansion.

There’s a subplot relating to the aging producer wondering if he should remarry so his daughter can have a mom again, despite the daughter fast approaching adulthood. The female TV host is the obvious candidate and the daughter happily ships her with her dad. This plays into Japanese cultural expectations on family and relationships though there wouldn’t be too drastic a change if this was an American or Canadian cast I suppose.

Much like how the Changeling’s ghostly conflict centers over a horrible incident in the past, Sweet Home’s haunting is borne out of an accident which in description is just ghastly, no lie. 30 years ago, the madam of the house lost her infant daughter in a freak accident involving the furnace. Following that horrific tragedy, the husband left and never returned and the mother took her life. Of course, she didn’t leave.

Now, the spirit of the mother roams over the house, unable to let go of losing her daughter and anyone who walks the halls of this tragic occurrence will be her prey. (Warning: potential spoilers for this year’s Resident Evil 8, you have been warned.)

The main antagonist of Resident Evil: VIIIage (i.e. Village) is Mother Miranda, who through the series sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and related experiments has managed to be alive since the 19th century, having not aged since the early 20th. During the Spanish flu, she lost her baby daughter Eva to the pandemic and has never been able to let go of that loss. She managed in short order to come across something called “the mold”, this and the prior RE’s substance which allows for the monster mashing to occur in the first place. With her long life, she has spent the next century using a Romanian village and their oddly American sounding residents as a giant science project with the mold.

All to find a way to get her daughter Eva back to life. A mother who will go to any horrible length, will hurt countless innocent lives and will allow herself to become a terrible monster. Not unlike the ghost mother of Sweet Home, at least in motivation. How the film resolves is kinda hard to describe, though it obviously involves the easing of the spirit’s pain. Along the way to the predictable but beautifully shot conclusion, there is some terrific practical effects involving a chair made of molten lava, a really spooky shadow that chases after our cast along the walls and one extended disintegration of a fella that ends with a skeleton collapsing onto the floor.

The familiarity is bolstered by the visual imagination that I could make out through the VHS quality of the screen and it having quite a few more telltale connections with the game series it would bring to life one day than the ones I mentioned. Namely, there being several McGuffin items that come across like the “key items” the player must acquire to open up the space they traverse to both survive and figure out what is going on.

It’s a more fascinating cinematic experience if you know it’s background and have been exposed to its bountiful legacy like I have. It’s kinda cute that a franchise that has sold as of 2021 117 million copies has origins in an otherwise quaint yet occasionally spectacular Japanese horror picture. It deserves more exposure than its gotten and not just because of Resident Evil. Like many things I like about watching cinema from the 1980s/90s, it’s a time capsule to a bygone era and its even better here seeing one from a non-American perspective.

Go ahead and look for Sweet Home full movie on Youtube and if you can find a better looking version somewhere, check it out. If you’re more inclined to the game legacy of Sweet Home, try to find the fan-made English localization of the Famicom game. Discover for yourself that Resident Evil’s shadow is longer than a quarter decade.

The Fly (1986)

The Fly Blu-ray
Image from Blu-Ray.com (A not gross or horrifying moment from Cronenberg’s best known work.)

For whatever reason, three movies, all remakes of 50s horror classics, were released roughly 30 years after the originals they were based on. Even crazier, all three of them have come to be considered horror classics of their era and arguably all superior than their forebears.

In 1982, indie cult master filmmaker John Carpenter( one of my favorites) gave us his version of The Thing from another World, now just The Thing, skewing closer to the landmark horror short story, Who Goes There?, then the original film. Initially dismissed over its insane gore and gross nature, it has now become one of the most acclaimed works in Carpenter’s career, one of the best loved horror movies and one of the greatest remakes ever made.

The third example, The Blob, will be talked about right after this one. Here we have David Cronenberg’s The Fly. The Canadian body horror extraordinaire had achieved attention with his controversial Rabid from 1977 and less controversial offerings like 1981’s Scanners and 1983’s Videodrome. The 1986 remake of The Fly is his most commercially successful feature. So great is Cronenberg’s association with this version of the Fly that anything humanoid that takes on a grotesque, messed up appearence is called Cronenbergian.

Rick and Morty paid tribute to the Cronenberg style of body horror in the vein of Fly 86′ with the outstanding episode “Rick Potion No. 9″, where a terrible accident on the titular duo’s part transforms nearly all of the world’s inhabitants into monsters that would be right at home alongside the final form of Seth Brundle into a horrifying half-human/half-fly creature. That episode of Rick and Morty is more shocking for Rick’s “solution” to the problem he made than the monstrosities he unintentionally created. This stunned, memetic picture of Morty from that episode works pretty well when one views the final stage of the “Brundlefly” that Jeff Goldblum tragically transforms into. A mix of shock and sadness.

Image from Tenor (Just soak it all in.)

Before watching the remakes for both the Fly and Blob, I saw for the first time the original movies they are based on. The 1957 Fly stars David Hedison as the poor Canadian scientist who unintentionally undergoes an extreme makeover. You might know Hedison as one of the many actors who has portrayed James Bond’s CIA best buddy Felix Leiter, first in 1973’s Live and Let Die and in 1989’s License to Kill.

It is better known for featuring Vincent Price in a rare non-villainous role as the doomed doctor’s brother. Due to Vincent Price being the biggest profile in Fly 57′, it is commonly mistaken that Price plays the scientist who becomes the Fly. Despite how unconvincing the effect of the transformed man is by modern standards, the original Fly remains a deserved classic of 50s’ sci-fi horror, in a time when really bad sci-fi horror films, brought into the forefront due to anxiety over the atomic age, were a dime a dozen and looked almost as cheap as such.

There is one case of surprising violence that I just don’t know how it was possible to get away with back in the Production Code era of the time. The original film is told mostly through flashback so we see at the start the bright-red bloody result of how Hedison’s Fly dies. There’s obviously some discretion away from actually showing the Fly’s death, but it’s pretty daring for a 50s’ movie to go that far. It makes Cronenberg taking the concept up to 11 feel more appropriate seeing as how the original was already pushing, borderline passing the limit.

The new 80s’ Fly carries many subtle similarities to the first. The entrance to the lab, in this case also being the scientist’s apartment home, is a sliding wall door. There is a love interest who is absolutely torn up by her love’s predicament. The scientist, Goldblum’s Seth Brundle, eventually locks himself away for weeks to avoid anyone viewing him devolving into the ghastly creature, like with Hedison’s.

Cronenberg is absolutely committed to keeping as much away from the imagination as possible, though there’s one moment where he shies away from showing us one of the grossest things Brundle as the Fly can do. You do get to hear it so you’re not entirely spared. This piece of advice is self evident, but eat lightly or not at all while watching. I managed to keep my stomach settled pretty well in truth, perhaps because I already knew some of the worst to expect.

The Fly, gross as it is, is able to wrap you up in its incredible visual effects, without a drop of any CGI. What sticks out, other than the horrifically realized final form of the Fly is the less visceral effects.

In the earlier, more subtle stages of Seth’s transformation, he starts climbing effortlessly on the walls with effects that would be spot on for any modern Spider-Man movie. The framing of the shots makes me wonder how they actually did it as you see in the same frame a bunch of stuff that is not nailed down, like bottles, trash and other props on ground level. There’s also Seth Brundle demonstrating his new-found agility and strength, by spinning around on a pull up bar. Basically, you’re watching Peter Parker’s origins with a messed up twist.

The physical horror is what is brought up most with Cronenberg’s Fly, how could it not? But the psychological and emotional horror is also what makes it more than an expertly done barf bag feature. You see a shy, good natured man, who might be on the spectrum like myself, try to impress a woman journalist with his teleportation device. Essentially, like with the original, the catalyst to the Fly’s creation is a machine that has a utilitarian purpose: instantaneous transit to anywhere on the planet.

Both movies make the strong argument that we should probably at least be extremely careful or shouldn’t attempt at all in creating a transporter from Star Trek. Barring the anxieties of whether or not transporters kill and then replicate you with all your memories retained, the possibility of an incident similar to the Fly also makes it a disturbing risk. There are accidents from time to time in Star Trek’s otherwise banal example of the technology, but those never get in the way of transporters being an indispensable part of everyday life in the 23rd and 24th centuries.

Over the course of showing off and testing the technology to Ronnie (Geena Davis), they form a romantic relationship which is hard for me to swallow if only due to the time restraints of the film. They do make a cute coupling (before the horror, mind), but I suppose a romantic subplot was needed to explore more of the allegorical horror of this movie.

Cronenberg has stated his version of the Fly is related to the heartbreak and tribulations of living or knowing someone who is either declining due to old age or slowly withering away from a terminal illness, chances of recovery nil. Due to its 1986 release, many saw it as metaphor for the AIDS crisis, and that is especially easy to ascertain due to the appearance of Brundle in the early to mid stages. Cronenberg doesn’t dismiss this applicability whatsoever, but he meant for the message to be widely attributed to any depressing and disturbing downgrade of a human body and mind. While the visuals are definitely not for everyone, the theme is horribly universal.

What is almost as disturbing as the physical transformation of Brundle, where more and more of his human attributes simply fall off in place of something not human is his personality change. He first becomes hypersexual, having a nymphomaniacal need for sex. He is also faster, in both mind and agility, unable to hold attention on much save for baser needs and is both impressive and disquieting in what his proportionate fly strength gives him. Again, like Peter Parker but without any inhibition.

Eventually, his attempts to figure out a cure for this predicament begins to fold to the needs of his “fly side” and his humanity shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until in the end, his very final moments of existence where any human side left is only theoretical, such as the heartbreaking last action he makes.

The Fly will disturb you on multiple levels, assuming you have not yet already seen it, which is a more likely possibility statistically than any of Cronenberg’s other works. If you have the courage, in mind and in stomach, it’s also worthy of watching more than once, just to piece together the series of events as you see the mistakes Seth and Ronnie made, where things could have taken a less harrowing turn and to see how one phase leading to the Brundlefly reflects off the last part.

The same I will say of the Blob, but watch the original and this version back to back. The context and where Cronenberg gruesomely built on the 1957 edition will fascinate you.

The Blob (1988)

Image from HorrorDVDs.com (Who says horror can’t come in pink?)

The 1958 Blob is a quintessential example of 1950’s B-movie sci-fi horror. Aside from Them! and Earth vs the Flying Saucers, if you want one movie to watch to get an idea of how American cinema handled themes of dangers from beyond and within our world, the original which features Steve Mcqueen in his first starring role is the one.

The Blob hits the sweet spot between being a just awful movie worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and an actual honest to God classic of sci-fi horror. It’s acting isn’t the best, but not bad. It’s effects are rarely state of the art but are imaginative and done with spirit. It contains and may well be one of the earliest examples of countless conventions for the type of film it is.

A tiny meteor crashes in the woods, containing an otherworldly..something that does not come in peace. Some hapless guy and his dog nearby just has to touch it, being inadvertently responsible for the peril to come. There is a teenage all-American couple, out at night, having an intimate date, when they respond to some strange occurrence nearby, though they really shouldn’t.

The titular Blob claims its first victim, the poor schmuck who put his hand where it shouldn’t and it sets off a chain of events which leads to a small American town stuck in some very sticky trouble. The teens try to warn the adults but they don’t believe them at first though eventually it’s impossible to ignore. The vindicated teens then help the rest of the adults defeat the Blob by finding some weakness by happy accident (not unlike your average Star Trek episode), and the film ends on an enjoyably ambiguous note of whether the Blob is defeated for good.

The manner of the Blob’s defeat, in that it is neutralized, not killed through the cold, and flown off to the Arctic where it can best stay immobilized takes on a terrifying new prevalence watching it in the 21st century. Basically, with the growing horrors of climate change, if the Blob actually existed and was defeated in the 1950s, then chances are very good we would be in deep s**t right about now.

The 1988 Blob is actually close to the original, most so at the start. It involves again, a meteor falling to Earth with what else inside it. An old man and his dog nearby spot the crash and decide to poke at it with a stick. The blob comes out, the old man is doomed the moment it makes contact on his skin and a group of teenagers, one of which is a young pre-Entourage Kevin Dillon, get him to a hospital.

Once we reach the hospital, the Blob 88′ takes on a format that’s different enough but still echoes the original. Certain set pieces, like the Blob’s iconic assault on a movie theater, with moviegoers running out screaming, is retained. The weakness of the blob is the same though the outcome changes into something more explosive. This is a remake that feels genuinely like an update rather than a retread. It is certainly a scarier film where the survival of some characters are actually not guaranteed.

While some characters’ survival in the end is entirely expected, some fates are genuinely surprising and add to the utterly terrifying way the Blob does in its victims. Due to the aforementioned “production code” in place in the 50s, how the original Blob kills people is left almost entirely to the imagination. People that the Blob consume simply disappear.

Here, you see how they die and go****n if it ain’t some of the worst ways to check out I’ve seen in a motion picture. Like with the Fly and Thing remakes, these updates succeed so well because there is something new to add to the experience that was either not permitted or possible back in the day. In the 1980s, audiences got to see old stories breathed with new life in the most obvious way: take what was already had to its stomach-churning furthest extent.

The Blob, in spite of the disturbing ends to many characters, is still a fun movie. It has a faster pace which at times reminded me of the same breathless motion of James Cameron’s Aliens up to a point. You get to have the female lead (played by Shawnee Smith) take on a much more active role in surviving and fighting the blob than the more passive one from the original, alongside Dillon’s male lead.

The effects, if you couldn’t already tell, are outstandingly impressive and for the most part are just as good now as they were in 1988, not that I would know seeing as how I didn’t exist in 1988. There are some genuine surprises in store and it has a really spooky score by Michael Hoenig, which underlies the more serious tone to the comparatively more playful first.

It’s co-written by Frank Darabont who wouldn’t be done with showcasing visceral horror, with getting Walking Dead’s TV adaptation off the ground and his 2007 film of Stephen King’s The Mist. It was directed by Chuck Russell, who the prior year directed the best regarded Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, the third, Dream Warriors.

Like with the other 80s updates of 50s sci-fi horror, you might want to be wary of the gross out factor that possibly lies in wait for you. Here, it’s more shocking and even awe-inspiring than digestively unsettling, but not everyone is me. I wholeheartedly endorse it. I think you will find it… an absorbing watch.

Next time will either be my overdue thoughts on the latest Resident Evil game or my next part of my 80s film retrospective.