Basque in the Horror: a review of Resident Evil 4 Remake (potential spoilers about both this game and the original)

Image from Gamesradar (In this Spanish villa, there is no mi casa es tu casa.)

I’m sure it hasn’t been overlooked by most that the best Resident Evil games coming out as of late happen to be top to bottom re-imaginings of classic titles in the venerated horror franchise. Sure, I muddle my point by the remake of 1999’s Resident Evil 3 being the worst of the new games (and possibly among the worst in the series), but if you were to put side by side the new Resident Evil 2 and 4 to the brand new numbered entries: 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and 2021’s Resident Evil 8: Village, chances are good that people would lean towards the remakes.

This attitude about and the reality of video game remakes seems alien to those who are familiar only with remakes as pertaining to movies. Almost all the time are film remakes dismissed or made to conjure groaning on the public’s part for echoing a perceived or actual lack of imagination and risk-taking on Hollywood’s part.

Sure, there are remakes that have become respected even reaching classic status like the De Palma Scarface, the 70s’ Invasion of the Body Snatchers and to some Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Two of the three remakes of A Star is Born are well-considered including the recent one with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Nevertheless, a cinematic remake has to work a lot harder to gain favor compared to a video game’s.

It’s not that no scrutiny is given to VG remakes, it’s more so concerning whether it brings anything new to the table, can improve upon anything from the original or if the remake is actually anticipated, crossing fingers they won’t screw it up.

Remaking 2005’s Resident Evil 4, widely considered one of the best games of its series and one of the greatest and most influential of all time, must have been a frightening prospect to the Capcom team led by Yasuhiro Anpo and Kazunori Kadoi. How do you properly remake a game that some consider perfect, groundbreaking and compared to earlier titles, accessible still to a newer audience, not to mention more readily available?

Capcom’s higher ups were so very wise to choose the Resident Evil 2 Remake team to be the ones to headline Resident Evil 4’s return. They are provably the best group of developers working on RE now based on RE2 2019’s reputation. It also made sense for them to be the ones due to RE4 being a narrative continuation for two of RE2’s lead characters: rookie cop and narrow survivor of zombie outbreak Leon S. Kennedy and Chinese-American International women of mystery Ada Wong. Having the same people in charge of both the story and gameplay for these two continuity intertwined titles (say that three times fast) was wise and an opportunity that didn’t occur with the development of the original games.

To put it simply when it came to Anpo and Kadoi’s meeting the challenge, it is an unbelievable victory. During my first of what was certainly not to be few consecutive playthroughs, I was in something of a mild shock as I realized they were succeeding. I didn’t know how you could make a new version of a well-aged game from the oughts’ work nearly as well as what I was experiencing. Well, I say that in spite of this year’s excellent remake of 2008’s Dead Space. I think it’s way too early to declare this effort better than the original game save in one department but my God it’s shocking that I’m even in the position to think such a thing.

The story of Resident Evil 4 and this could be said of most entries in the series is a B-movie with a first class production and on occasion first class scares to boot. Leon has spent six years since his traumatic night fighting to survive and escape Raccoon City training to become a special forces agent for the U.S. of A. This version of events makes it clear that Leon was forced to put his life in further danger due to the things he’s seen being for a lack of a better word “classified” during the city’s fall and it could be insinuated that he takes the job for the government to care for his two fellow survivors: the other playable RE2 character Claire and young girl Sherry.

If the training was dangerous, the missions he went on, including one backstory significant one, put him nearly in as much danger of dying as the horrors he faced in RE2. Nevertheless, Leon endured and survived. He proved his talent to be more than a product of chance on one night in 1998. Now, he’s part of the Secret Service and his first day on the job is once again to prove a doozy.

His mission: To search and rescue the President’s missing daughter, last spotted somewhere in the most rural, agrarian, stuck-in-the-past part of Spain conceivable. The most powerful nation on Earth sends in one man (albeit a proven badass) escorted by two Spanish police officers and assisted over the radio by woman-in-the-chair Ingrid Hunnigan, a rarely seen but nevertheless fan favorite.

The brilliance of the Resident Evil series, especially in this particular re-imagining is taking a worn conceit of horror media and adding in genuine horror and suspense mostly due to how you the player must literally interact with that convention virtually rather than simply observe.

Even if much of what Leon faces seems overly familiar in description to a horror know-it-all or know-enough, that still doesn’t do justice when you’re there in the thick of it with the bishonen-haired gaming icon and his beloved bomber jacket. Leon upon entering the spookier than ever Spanish forest soon discovers that matters are terribly off and the horror he has to survive is of a quite different beast from anything in Raccoon City.

The villagers of this seemingly ignored part of Spain are taken by some madness that compels them to kill anyone, anyone, that enters their territory. The two policemen that Leon was with don’t last very long, barely longer than the original game and soon our hero is finding himself frantically looking for a safe place that isn’t there in a new take on the iconic village fight.

I detailed my thoughts on this famous video game sequence when talking about a scenario that acted as spiritual successor in a game that was itself heavily inspired by RE4, RE8: Village. There were deliberate nods to that original moment, of being trapped in a place full of monsters trying to break in and kill you. Even the resolution to that moment that is out of the player’s hands is played much the same way.

It may seem repetitive of Capcom to remake wholesale a game that was given a spiritual successor in 2021, but the truth is for all of RE8’s qualities, it still isn’t exactly RE4 nor was it really trying to be. It still had it’s eye on being the eighth Resident Evil at the end of the day. For all the changes one can list in this 2023 take, Resident Evil 4 Remake is still Resident Evil 4 at its heart. You know that is true as soon as a new Leon Kennedy enters a familiar only mildly altered village full of very angry….residents.

The sense of you and Leon being in seemingly never-ending danger is propelled through the game’s modernization of the idea and it is here where “modernization” is anything but a dirty word. The villagers are faster, more agile than last time. The ways they can attack and grab Leon are more varied and more likely to make you initially panic. Entering a building to bar off the windows and doors to fend off the horde gives you even less time this go around to catch your breath as in half a minute the house you’re in is breached and one of the townsfolk is bearing a very red-tinged chainsaw.

Old tactics I had to hold off the assault straight up did not work. Old avenues of momentary escape weren’t as reliable. Ultimately I knew that all I had to do was maintain, wait for the nearby church’s bell to ring which in turn ends immediately the villagers attempts to skewer Leon. In an even eerier trance, all of the townspeople up and leave through the town hall, utterly ignoring Leon as they chant religious tracts in Spanish.

Even knowing what caused the bell to ring and why the townspeople are the way they are for years does little to diminish how unsettling a moment this is and Leon’s more believable appearance and confused expression adds new weight to a classic moment. Then to top it all off, as the villager closes the door, leaving Leon all alone, he utters a corny yet no less valid one-liner 18 years after it was first said. Then the title flashes confidently onto frame. The rest of the game would continually reassure me, but it’s here where the veteran player knows that Resident Evil 4 is back. And it’s teeth are ever sharp.

Resident Evil 4, then and now, is partitioned into three distinctive acts, titled after the location you’re in. You start off in the “Village” region, which for many continues to be the part of RE4 that best defines it to this day. Then, you enter a massive Spanish castle, full of horror both macabre yet goofy, almost as if Sam Raimi punched up the script at this junction. Then it ends on the generally polarizing “Island”, more industrial and military focused and it’s here where RE4 forecasts its’ series future as action over horror for the next two main entries.

Resident Evil 4 for 2023 manages to do an incredible feat in maintaining the main story beats and locations while somehow making it less tongue in cheek camp silly. There are still moments that will remind you of how absurd the original game could end up being yet many will miss that side of RE4, considered by them to be one of the game’s defining traits. Personally, I was just too impressed seeing a game pull off a more grounded version of the one out and out wacky Resident Evil game that was embraced for that reason.

The writing and performances of all involved are convincingly believable, fitting with the same tone that has been established with the modern games. The Leon you knew from the new RE2 is back, a little gruffer, more world weary for reasons that are sorrowfully apparent. Nick Apostiledes’ take on Leon has now become my favorite version of the character and it’s not just that his and the writers interpretation strikes a chord that wasn’t there before but it’s the consistency.

Leon in the games he appeared in before the Remakes were voiced by three separate people and with it came drastic changes in personality. It’s kinda hard to connect with the old Leon over the course of the games he was in (RE2,4,6) because his manner and voice was too different each time. I get that a considerable amount of time passes between each of these games, but if you contrast those three voices, you may feel like I do that you end up with Three Leons.

One of the things I was hoping for if Capcom should risk redoing Resident Evil 4 was not just seeing Apostiledes’ take return in a follow-up story of some kind, but to create a better continuity in and of itself. That alone does not justify a remake of course but it was one area that could be explored and thankfully that was realized. By the end of this RE4 Leon now feels like he has a cogent arc going for him, how the events of this game really do reflect back on RE2’s.

It’s for that reason that the new Resident Evil 4 now might be one of the best narratively drawn up games when before it was a gloriously obvious excuse plot for cool, spooky and stupid set-pieces. It’s another reason why I’m somewhat down for Capcom risking another version of the oft-ridiculed Resident Evil 6 just to see what this Leon would be like in that game’s scenario. Oh and I’m an affirmed RE6 apologist, I even have an entry on this blog about that.

Another thing that makes the plot of RE4 more worth paying attention to than before is that more than a few characters go through re-characterization, some more drastic than others. The most noteworthy is the President’s daughter Leon is trying to rescue, Ashley Graham. The original Ashley has been widely lambasted by many for her annoying attitude and voice and for being more of a gameplay prop than a real character. For many sections, you would have to escort her through enemy territory and make sure she doesn’t get hurt, killed or re-kidnapped (at least, in parts where she isn’t scripted to be kidnapped back anyway). She has her defenders admittedly, some proclaiming the criticisms of her to be exaggerated and I eventually got so good at playing RE4 2005 that she stopped being a serious nuisance for me even in the infamously harder sections.

This Ashley on the other hand gets to be both gameplay mechanic and an actual character. She’s now not annoying at all, helpful in ways that are more pronounced in the story and the interplay between her and Leon feels more organic. Capcom probably looked at the many games where you have an (often) female companion to the player character like in The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite and the modern God of War titles and thought of implementing improvements from those games into this one.

Sure, you still have to be more mindful of Ashley’s condition than you would LOU’s Ellie and Lev or GOW’s Atreus (You don’t have to worry about Bioshock’s Elizabeth period) as this is still a horror experience and Ashley’s involvement means you now have to consider her safety on top of yours which was already harrowing enough a prospect. But unlike last time, where saving Ashley from a cultist whose grabbed her, you won’t think “sigh, I’ll save you” now it’s “Don’t worry, I’ll save you!” Ashley’s improved characterization and her own little story arc actually makes you forgiving of the moments where she could’ve literally been a challenge for you to overcome.

This could well be testing the waters for a remake of Resident Evil 5 but the expansion in character and role of Luis, the mysterious, supposedly dashing Spaniard ladies man and secret scientist, makes a case that maybe that game being reimagined from the ground up wouldn’t be so terrible. Luis is a Mauser-wielding man who Leon meets early on in the game. He soon becomes one of the very few that Leon can trust but even then there’s something about him that keeps our hero on guard.

Luis and his relationship with the setting of Resident Evil 4 has been made deeper, more considered which is in line with basic expectations if you wish to be more than a lazy 1to1 redo. His connection with this trapped in the past portion of Spain is more intertwined and he is even made to connect with lore from earlier in the series which doesn’t come across as a contrived retcon. Instead it makes more sense, hell, one of the underlying accomplishments here is making this game more sensical.

In the original game, Luis dies suddenly near the mid-point in a shocking moment that when you rewatch it is both an obvious reference to a moment from Aliens (who doesn’t ape that movie?) and has a (possibly) unintentionally lewd manner to it. In the new take, as the trailers had already revealed, Luis gets to live past the point he originally died. I won’t say anything about whether he survives this version, but the moments where you and he are teamed up against the infected villagers and cultists is not just an expansion off of the original game’s acclaimed cabin holdout section, it could be seeing how players respond to sections where you are not the only capable person on the field fighting enemies.

Resident Evil 5 introduced Cooperative play to the series and in doing so brought in the character Sheva as a brand new figure. Player 1 would control veteran RE hero Chris Redfield and player 2 would control her for the entire duration of RE5. When people think of positives to bring to the first unabashed non-horror main entry for the series, it’s function as a co-op action/adventure game with horror elements is seen as it’s greatest strength. People still on occasion play Resident Evil 5 to this day despite having been released back in 2009.

Playing RE5 by yourself (which has largely been my lot) is not nearly as fun nor does it showcase the entry’s genuine additions at all. You ultimately end up with a shorter, less impressive RE4 albeit with improved graphics which for the most part are still pretty sharp all things considered. Having Luis in RE4 23′ be an AI partner for Leon for a relatively lengthy section of the game seems to be a test run not so much for what new Co-op RE games could be like, but if it’s possible for an entire new game to work like that section.

Some would say that having a constant partner at your side detracts from the sense of isolation that horror games feed on. By isolation, I mean there’s no friendly faces at your side or at least not for long periods. That’s one of the points taken against 2013’s Dead Space 3, where it’s own inclusion of a co-op version of it’s campaign was seen as part of why Dead Space ending up dying as a series. For a time, thankfully. Ironically, like with REs 5 and 6, the best way to play DS3 was, yup, with a friend. It’s a strange paradox of things working and not working.

I’ll save my thoughts on what further remakes Capcom should or should not pursue until the end, but at least this probable testing of an idea also gave us a chance to spend more time with a character that honestly did leave RE4’s story a little too early.

In terms of further characterization, I’ll say mum for those who still haven’t played yet, but I will say that two major antagonists in the game have essentially new backgrounds and motivations. Almost new characters for that matter. There could be some lore purists that turn their nose up at these changes (not that I’ve heard them at all for that matter) but what I like about those changes is that they, one, make a little more sense within the context of what is occurring and, two, it makes Resident Evil 4 feel a little more tragic.

Much like how I said the slight narrative changes to the Dead Space remake increased the sense of tragedy and sorrow from the original, RE4R tweaks what potential sadness could be found in the game’s backstory and extends it to both heroes and villains. Leon himself as discussed earlier is a figure who in spite of his nearly unshakable stoicism and stronger courage is a man who has been though hell so much that he feels more weary than spooked.

This is something that a theoretical RE6 remake could touch upon and maybe even a new numbered title featuring him but more than anything else he is a man growing increasingly tired with the weight of surviving horror, again and again. Fellow protagonist Chris is also noted to have this growing fatigue as the series marches on, but with the new direction for Leon, the cracks, however slight, could be hinted at.

Sure, someone could make the watertight counterpoint that it’s Leon struggling to deal with PTSD from Raccoon City. This is actually in the text of the game as the opening monologue Leon gives shows how six years later, he can’t let go of the many lives he failed to save in Resident Evil 2. All the worse since he was a rookie cop and joined with the express intention to help others. Sure, he did manage to save some people like Claire and Sherry. It wasn’t enough.

Maybe both of these things about Leon and where he’s at mentally can be applied but what ultimately matters is that this is a Leon you feel sorry for, no matter how much fun you’ll ultimately have in his shoes. The original RE4 Leon was an utterly confident, unfazed badass that wisecracked because he could. He had conquered his fear and now he was almost kind of having fun half the time one could argue in classic RE4.

This Leon while more professional and weathered by past experiences feels more human, more willing to take the situation seriously because that’s how he stays alive. He still wise-cracks and wise cracks good, but this time it sounds more like letting off stress from stuff that would keep me up at night if I had first-hand experience with RE4’s monsters. This Leon is conquering his fear and his self-hatred for failing to be as much of a protector as he had hoped.

Now, let’s talk about Leon and a survivor of RE2 he suspected had lived but remained doubtful could have. Ada Wong, the ever red-clad femme fatale of the franchise has a reputation for being basically the Catwoman of Resident Evil. RE4 further emphasized it by giving her a grappling hook, which sure sounds like a Batman thing but whatever. Some players of the new RE4 have taken to harassing her voice actress Lilly Gao online for her supposedly tepid, bored performance, to the point she closed her Instagram account. Putting aside that I would not condone this even if her performance were lackluster or outright bad, she’s perfectly fine here.

She feels like an extension of the new Ada we were given with the same voice actress in the new Resident Evil 2 from 2019. The complaints probably extend more to how hostile she behaves when she comes to her interactions with Leon, fewer here than the original. Ada, while likely developing genuine feelings for Leon’s “good boy” personality and selfless actions, still played him as a pawn in her subterfuge mission to steal the virus that causes the hubbub that ruins Raccoon City.

In spite of her deception, Leon still feels sorry for her apparent death at the end of RE2 but a certain moment hints to him that she improbably didn’t die. Six years later do the fellow RC survivors meet again and unlike the original take on Leon and Ada where Leon is a confident hunk and Ada is a sultry spy wearing a cocktail dress in a quite mission-inappropriate fashion, Leon and Ada are mutually more abrasive to each other. If there’s any Batman/Catwomanesque flirting going on, it’s far more subdued but not necessarilly absent. Certain looks the two make can suggest something is still there.

It’s really for the best that Leon and Ada are framed this way. In Leon’s experience, Ada is a duplicitous agent that was trying to sell a terrifying medical creation to some likely spurious third party. She used Leon emotionally to get what she wants. Now, six years later, she’s back clearly trying to get something from the cult responsible for his current predicament. Leon is on guard, wondering how she’s gonna take advantage of him next. The tricks she used on him before won’t work again obviously, so what’s her play now?

It might be that upon returning to the narratives of RE 2 and 4, Capcom recognized how toxic Leon and Ada really are as a potential coupling, and in a more realistic take on the games, make Leon more cognizant of how unhealthy and possibly lethal it would be to really give her a chance. Leon’s sad connection with Ada adds to Leon’s tragic story as well. Considering how young he was during the events of RE2, between 18 and 21, this could’ve messed up his sense of trust when it came to relationships, romantic or otherwise. Sure, he probably has a tight connection with Claire and Sherry but he wasn’t with those two all that much in RE2’s story. He didn’t even meet Sherry until he was finally escaping Raccoon City.

So, no, Gao’s performance as Ada Wong is perfectly fine, a natural continuation of what she would be to Leon and vice versa if they were to meet again. Admittedly, Ada does seem to have less of a presence in RE4 23′ narrative then before but with the near inevitability of a future DLC containing her Separate Ways campaign (Leon even namedrops it at the end), we might get a deeper picture in time of Ada’s contribution to the story, let alone perhaps her true feelings about Leon and a nagging self-spite over using a guy that she actually likes.

Having replayed Resident Evil 4 2023 many times at this point in writing a review, I’ve come to realize that the new version is shorter than the original. Some think that classic RE4 is a little overstuffed here and there and the Capcom team likely heard those complaints and used it to make a new take that is still lengthy but more compact. This move is made justifiable due to how like with every modern RE the game encourages you to complete the game faster, under a certain time based on chosen difficulty, all to unlock rewards both useful and cosmetic for Leon and Ashley. If you want Leon to sport his 1930s’ Gangster look with tommy gun and Ashley her hilarious yet handy suit of armor, you gotta beat the game faster and better now, rather than just period like before.

Unlike my completionist streak I accomplished with RE2’s remake, I’m more doubtful I’ll ever 100% RE4 23′ content. Beating this game on the hardest difficulty under a certain amount of time will give me the adorable “cat ears” for Leon which also gives him infinite ammo for all weapons but considering that part of the appeal of a Resident Evil game is the challenge of maintaining your finite resources, I wouldn’t be keen on unlocking something that all but removes the challenge though, true, you have to work your Secret Service ass off to get it.

With the tightening of RE4 in this modernization comes the removal of certain moments, some that may hold a special place in veteran’s hearts. Entire boss battles are gone, though thanks to the potential Ada campaign on the horizon a certain boss that was notably missing from Leon’s journey could well become Ada’s opponent. The game’s lore even namedrops this tardy adversary so it may not really be an omission rather a rearranging.

RE4 23‘ does a lot with its rearranging or reconsideration of existing elements from RE4 05′. A section late in the Castle part acts as a chimera hybrid of three separate scenarios Leon once confronted. The clock tower, the giant statue of the Castle’s villain Salazar and the circular tower stairwell and elevator that gets you to fighting Salazar as a boss are now all in one. The clock tower before was a puzzle area where you had to shoot wooden boards blocking the machinery. Now, it’s all set dressing as Leon can’t affect the clock at all.

The Salazar statue has been drastically shrunk and no longer inexplicably starts chasing you in a manner that is one of the looniest in the entire series. Now, it stays in place but it’s head will rotate, bellowing fire out of its mouth as you ascend the tower. As for the elevator tower, that remains most faithfully kept though the Donkey Kong barrels the cultists would drop down the stairwell via lever have been replaced with giant spikey balls.

This amalgamation of disparate parts of RE4 is part of making the intended speedier runs for multiple playthroughs more practical to accomplish and it tightens the pace, correcting a long standing complaint that for me was more nitpick if even that.

Some areas are just plain gone, though they could have some manner of return for Ada’s campaign. Some are less likely than others like the brazenly nuts “Lava Room”, where RE4 really stops trying to be consistent, all for the sake of gameplay variety, which is a fair enough goal for a game from 2005. Part of me does sorta miss those moments, if only because it does make the new version feel shorter, even if there is a perfectly solid reason for it. To perhaps compensate, there are entire sections which are borderline one to one in layout from the original, which could stand as testament to how well aged those parts remain, how well they still mesh with Leon’s more agile control setup or because these moments are just so caught up in the game’s identity.

As for things that I really did miss though this is much rectified by the painless process of playing classic RE4 which is again much more readily available than older games, was the humorous interactions Leon would have with two of the game’s bad guys, Napoleon complex-addled Ramon Salazar and the main antagonist Osmund Saddler. Whether in person or over Leon’s radio, the often funny conversations Leon would have with these two feel like something really is missing in comparison to other cuts.

True, Saddler is a much different person in this version so the radio calls just wouldn’t work the same but I still think they could’ve had Leon and Salazar interact more. On my first couple of playthroughs, I almost forgot Salazar was in the game. The original really wouldn’t let you and Leon forget and that adds to the particular charm of classic RE4’s mid-section. Sure, when Leon does interact with Ramon now, it’s still not bad. The boss battle almost overcompensates with regards to Ramon’s manic frustration with Leon not dying by his hand. It’s great stuff albeit tethered to one of the remake’s more difficult battles.

As for whether it is actually more of a survival horror game, well I would certainly say in parts it is scarier. The new version of the segment where you control Ashley is nerve-wracking in new ways. It’s a combat devoid area that plays on being all but helpless against a kind of enemy I don’t want to give away. Sure, foreknowledge of the original game should already tell you what Ashley’s up against. But how it happens is different enough and scary enough where not only is Ashley more vulnerable than before you also have to solve puzzles amidst that anxiety.

The puzzles are overall more difficult, especially on the first couple of runs. Only a handful of puzzles from the original were difficult and even the hardest one has a solution so easy to utilize that it makes it a cakewalk once you remember it. Certain puzzles, particularly of an electronic kind late in the game continue to hassle me and one for an optional treasure can bust your brain good.

On the subject of treasures, RE4 incentivized replay value due to the presence of the ever mysterious Merchant, whose pirate like voice is doubled down on in the Remake though his voice is (controversially) softer. He’s also much more talkative when perusing his wares so I can imagine more than a few players getting annoyed with him. I like him nonetheless as not only does his appearence and his teleporting shop guarantee you’re in a safe place, it also gives you a chance to unwind: check your attaché case containing your weapons, supplies and ammo, save your progress, buy some new stuff, upgrade your weapons and sell stuff including the many beautifully realized treasures.

Five of the merchant’s locations have the returning shooting gallery, completely pirate themed and while it certainly is a massive tonal shift from this darker take on the game, it yet rewards you with challenging ranges to conquer, all to acquire tokens which when placed in a vending machine get you a grabbag “charm” to attach to your attaché case with a special benefit. To showcase that the developers really care, they’re all figurines modeled after characters, enemies and items from the original game.

It’s the Merchant and his services which is more or less the core reason behind RE4’s immense ability to make you return again and again. Even when the horror diminishes, the fun doesn’t or at least much slower. Certain weapons are kept out of reach until New Game Plus and even the unlockable weapons can be upgraded such as a knife that can’t be broken.

That segues into one of the Remake’s best additions, if not it’s best one. In recent years, parrying enemy attacks has become a more popular game mechanic due to how it naturally coerces the player to train their reflexes and to take even less dangerous encounters seriously. I don’t know which game started the trend of parrying getting big but one likely culprit to spark the trend was the Soulslike titles from…From Software. It’s more of a strong recommendation in titles like Bloodborne, Elden Ring or Dark Souls but it’s a necessity for Sekiro.

Save for the hardest difficulty, RE4 Remake allows you to not always be completely on the mark when pressing the button to parry. Some fights, like a plot significant one (or two) are more demanding of what you’ve learned through using your knife to ward off attacks big and small. The expanded use of the knife helps forge RE4R as having something distinct about it mechanically, not just from the game it’s remaking but in the series as a whole. It ties in with the background behind Leon as a survivor being trained to be an agent after Raccoon City and upon using the knife as a handy tool in close encounters it shows growth both for Leon as a character and as manifestation of the player’s own skill.

It’s more than just ensuring that an enemy attack won’t hit, if you time it right it even gets you the chance to counterattack and even instantly down the enemy. The innovation with the knife is proof that you’re not just getting RE4 again, you’re getting it back with a new technique that makes the combat loop even deeper than before.

In spite of the shorter length, RE4 Remake is still capable of wowing you with it’s implementation of enemies in their environments, in how they complement the player no matter what your status is with regards to ammo, weapons and supplies. Like the original, they are hidden exploits or tricks that can be used not only to make a potentially grueling section less so but to also make new runs in the future more viable for a game plan you formulate in your head.

In spite of the praise I’ve heaped onto the new RE4, and you better believe it’s already a strong contender for Game of the Year, I still have cold feet about declaring it better than the original. I say this and I haven’t talked about the strong new soundtrack where even brand new tracks sing and how some of the puzzles can themselves be used as weapons against enemies. The thing about the original RE4 is that it is a game that can’t be truly replicated in one respect: it’s groundbreaking position.

It would be far too much to expect any developer let alone Capcom to make a game that would change the industry like the first Resident Evil 4. In more or less one area, it’s use of an over the shoulder third person camera, it established a template that is still being used today as standard practice and I see essentially no reason why it should ever go away. Not unlike how Super Mario 64 introduced us to how to properly, freely navigate a three dimensional environment to the point that non-Nintendo games took note like GTA developer Rockstar, RE4 ensured that one of the go-to ways of controlling a character in a video game would be a variation of over their shoulder.

Gears of War, Uncharted, Batman Arkham, Mass Effect, The Last of Us, Dead Space and later iterations of already existing franchises would permanently adjust their use of the camera to be modeled after Resident Evil 4’s innovation. Games like these do not come around often, even less so than before.

That legacy being replicated was far too tall an order so Capcom did the smartest thing and refined and experimented on what Resident Evil 4 specifically did for itself as a video game, on its own stand alone merits. The intent was to take what worked 18 years ago and make it work within a modern game engine with a reworked script, vocal performances and a different tone regarding horror. That intent has led to what may be the best modern Resident Evil experience, even if it is a recreation of the game that shifted the series for a time from its roots.

It’s too early to call this better than the 2005 version, it’s too early to declare it among the series’ overall best games or even among the best games ever made. But it’s clear respect for a half serious, half absurd masterpiece makes it a masterclass for getting at the heart of what makes video game remakes so wonderful when done right.

Do I really want Resident Evil 5 or 6 to be remade? Half of me says yes, half of me says no, no, NO. There are ways I can see those games be more so “reimagined” than remade like the games we’ve gotten recently. Many would however say RE5’s not exactly sensitive or accurate portrayal of Africa might by itself be a dealbreaker, let alone that it’s plot out of all the games feels like an 80s Saturday Morning Cartoon with an R-rated aesthetic. I mean, it ends with you punching a boulder out of your way inside a very, VERY active volcano. All while fighting social Darwinist Johnny Bravo.

It’s a miracle that Resident Evil 4 could be restructured into something more sensical. I don’t know if you can take what I just described about Resident Evil 5 and make it even a quarter grounded. As for Resident Evil 6, my apologetics aside, it’s utter craziness is part of what makes it the game it is. It’s approach to combat and movement is predicated on it being the “foaming at the mouth” member of the RE family of games. Making that more serious or believable would involve a total reconsideration of what RE6 even is and could in turn make it essentially a brand new game all it’s own. That description actually does sound inviting I can imagine but would that in turn honor what RE6 actually got right?

Some have suggested two alternatives to RE5 and 6 getting the reunion tour. They could look at older titles that have not gotten remade like the much requested Code Veronica from 2000 to even a second remake of the very first game, redone top to bottom in the RE Engine that has fueled the series’ entries since 2017. The other option would be to stop at this point. After all, Capcom will soon be turning its attention and hopes to do the same to you with the tentatively titled Resident Evil 9.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for Resident Evil as a franchise to go on a hiatus after that, to give you, me and the possibly exhausted people at Capcom a reprieve from the series. Of course I’m not saying no new REs after 9 but a good couple of years to just let that world of survival horror rest.

Every franchise, especially a horror franchise, needs to release the tension eventually.

Unfortunate Sons: A review of Da Five Bloods

Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods Honors the Valor of Black Veterans ...
Image from Vanity Fair (A father and son, the past and present, in a very serious moment.)

There is no uniform experience to how anyone experienced the Vietnam War. Yes, that is perhaps true of all conflicts, big and small, and events not related necessarily to war, but Nam’ was a nefariously special case.

Whether you were American, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian or some other national demographic tied into the affair, some things overtime were made consistently clear as takeaways, others not so much.

Whether or not you view America’s involvement as having any discernible justification, it is hard not to also agree that it was a tragedy. Even the ultimate victors, North Vietnam, suffered millions of losses and much ruin in driving away the United States through a campaign of outlasting rather than outdoing.

To make matters worse, Vietnam would suffer another brutal conflict following unification, in what Ken Burns’ acclaimed The Vietnam War documentary considered Vietnam’s Vietnam.

Much has been documented about the bitter histories of many American veteran. Their experiences have become cliches. The PTSD flashback, the paranoia from patrolling out in the jungle, having a child with a Vietnamese woman, the loss of confidence in the country they serve, taking drugs to offset the despair of their situation. All true yet never the full picture.

There are some veterans, more retroactive than not, who have come to find pride in what they did. These soldiers consider that they did the best they could’ve in a scenario where their commanding officers failed them and as well as get through it with some sense of prevailing honor.

Does that justify the conflict for me? No. America committed war crimes, some that literally blew up in their own soldier’s faces like napalm and Agent Orange. Even more sickeningly, my country has not truly learned the lessons of all that led to and happened half a century ago in Indochina as the War on Terror and its endless theaters in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond can attest.

There is one demographic of American veteran that has had a even less rosier view of the war and perhaps less positive reevaluation: The African American soldier. Despite the intolerance and bigotry the black serviceman faced in World War II, at least some comfort came in that war ultimately being something that did need to be fought. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy: either they go or we do.

It’s bad enough that direct military involvement in Vietnam was predicated on a lie through the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It is worse that the freedom and democratic institutions that many American GI was drafted or volunteered to presumably protect was not something that the African-Americans had.

Yes, The Civil Rights act passed by LBJ was in effect before direct military action began in 1965. Enforcing it while bypassing centuries of bigoted thought on the matter meant that for the black GIs, it was a real question of what exactly they were potentially laying their lives down for.

Spike Lee’s latest movie, in his blunt manner, is about that and what legacy came from that sacrifice. What reward, however late, should be given to the African-American GI for serving a country that was not willing for so long to return the favor, let alone back in the day.

Consider surviving and returning home with the horrors and pain of the war lingering and realizing your country was not much better off than you left it and just as willing to hate you as the enemy combatants back in the fight.

Spike Lee ties in the psychological trauma of PTSD with the underlying pain of being a second class citizen in a society that supposedly strives to have no such thing on paper. The titular five “Bloods” are a group of aging black veterans who have reunited and initially gone back to Vietnam to both cope with the past and enjoy the country in a far more peaceful manner.

In the sprawling, quite beautiful metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City,formerly Saigon and renamed after the face of their wartime enemy, the Bloods are back and happy to see each other. The camaraderie between the Bloods, consisting of Paul (Delroy Lindo),Otis (Clarke Peters),Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is a special glue that holds up the film and their interplay is infectious in raising spirits. When they’re not arguing.

There is a deeply personal and not exactly lawful reason for their return. I listed four bloods when there is supposed to be five. The fifth, the group’s squad leader from back in the war: Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), didn’t return home.

On an assignment to recon a downed cargo plane deep in the jungle, they discover a container filled with up to $20 million dollars in gold bar in today’s currency. Normally, they would call the Huey helicopter and take the gold back to base. But why should they? For all that they and their race has suffered, their ideological leader Norman says, at the hand of the white authority, why should they?

Instead, why not hide the gold where they found it, claim to their superiors that nothing could be salvaged from the wreck and then once the war passes, go back and take the gold back home discreetly? Finally, distribute the wealth to the African-American community. Why wait for the rewards the American system promises when they can take it for themselves?

Sadly, Norman never gets to see the Bloods reunite following the war and it takes roughly half a century for that reunion. There is still a fifth blood, however tenuous the four might consider it, that joins them on their treasure hunt. Paul’s estranged son, David.

Once their journey back into the country begins, so does Spike Lee rather divisively start bringing attention to the influences of this movie. The two films that Lee openly admitted to use as inspiration was Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

For starters, the night club that the Bloods visit to celebrate their reunion is literally called Apocalypse Now, with the exact same font as the original movie’s title. Once they head down the Mekong river on their quest, not unlike how Martin Sheen’s character began his nightmarish search for Col. Kurtz, what should play but Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

As for Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the group’s overall demeanor and actions upon acquiring the gold is clearly meant to echo the 1949 classic’s commentary on how riches like gold corrupts the mind and can make friend an enemy.

However, there is one moment later in the film where Da Five Bloods basically copies, word for word, the most famous line of dialogue from the original film. I won’t say what it is, in case you haven’t yet seen Sierra Madre. But if you’ve heard of that movie, then you almost certainly know what scene I am referring to.

Are these moments cheap on Lee’s part? Are they cute callbacks or the director being overly honest about where he’s drawing from? To be fair, the use of “Ride of the Valkyries”, based on how it’s framed with what is happening onscreen could be seen as a joke rather than serious callback or copying. It didn’t bother me, but I can feel why others may not be so kind to Lee about that.

However, some of the overall themes of those two works are expressed quite beautifully and with some measure of subtlety, especially from the likes of Spike Lee. The madness of what war does to people and how it may inflame what is already burning in a person’s soul, like Apocalypse Now.

How an initial desire for populist justice, in the case of the Blood’s racial demographic through acquiring the gold, can devolve into personal thirst for avenging individual slight, as is the case with Paul.

Paul is more or less the main Blood and the one who has the most severe ghosts from the war. He was closest to Norman than the other three, clearly has taken in what the war showed him and perhaps had him do the hardest and an awful concoction of trauma, loss and utterly bitter resentment towards his poor station in life due to racist treatment makes him an at times frightening figure.

Paul is the one for which the allure of the gold bars has the starkest reaction on and he is the one who makes the Bloods journey back a bloodier, more morally uncertain affair than originally intended. The presence of a son who wants to help him and his conflicted emotions on whether he can truly love him back is the core of the suspense that Lee cultivates best in the last act.

Da Five Bloods, for all its intentional meaning, is wise to let some things be up to the observer rather than be painstakingly laid out, as Lee has been criticized for doing in the past.

Perhaps his most famous, beloved movie, Do the Right Thing, is the best example of Lee allowing moral and narrative ambiguity to take over for the best effect. The famous conclusion, where Radio Raheem is notoriously killed, if not murdered, by the police, sets off a riot which destroys the pizzeria that is the nexus for the film’s events.

Main character Mookie, played by Lee himself, is the spark that leads to the restaurant’s destruction. He throws a trashcan through a window which leads the rioters to focus their wrath on the building rather than Sal and the family that owns and runs it.

While Lee later clarified that Mookie threw the trash-can as a deliberate act of vengeance rather than to save his boss and fellow employees, the framing of the moment is executed just so that both audiences and critics have come up with divergent theories on why Mookie did what he did and of course, if it was the right thing.

Are what the Bloods doing, by superseding both American and Vietnamese law through their gold heist, the right thing? Even if they have genuinely good purpose for the gold, perhaps even being outright owed it, is it still the right thing?

As Paul’s own story arc proves, our human nature and our depth-less capacity for violent resentment can upset not just the best laid plans but the intentions behind them.

Lee, whether it be in Da Five Bloods or in other works, manages to make his work ultimately matter and feel real in terms of getting his message across. The Bloods are likable yet flawed individuals with time and its various trials and regrets weighing heavier on them than even the gold in their backpacks.

It may take some time for you to piece together all that Lee has to say in Da Five Bloods, in how it incidentally relates to the pressing matters occurring as of this writing or in the grand scheme of things.

It’s ultimately more meaningful to watch, if to understand and appreciate that someone with talent has something to say and it is better said now more than ever than risk letting it never be said at all.



Originally posted 2020-06-16 22:59:26.

Impressive…Most Impressive: A review of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Image result for star wars jedi fallen order

Image from Techradar (Not an Ewok in sight)

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a strange miracle.

It is a more than competent action adventure title from the original creators of the Call of Duty franchise, under the sway of a publisher which has time and again proven to place profit over quality. This game should not exist. It should not be as good as it is, even though it is not fully one with the force.

Respawn Entertainment, who are known for their work on the Titanfall series, a COD spiritual successor set in the future with giant, controllable mech suits, deliver a jack of all trades and near master of all experience.

It is more a “Jedi Knight” than “Master” when it comes to what it entails in game mechanics. For the beginning of what damn well better be a new, unfettered franchise from Electronic Arts, it is enough.

Fallen Order is set in the near two decade span of time inbetween Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, the dark times, as Obi-Wan calls them. Dark they are, whether you are a Jedi or not. In this instance, you play Cal Kestis, a Jedi apprentice in hiding following his survival of Order 66, the beginning of the Great Jedi Purge that signaled the end of their order, hence the title, and the rise of the Galactic Empire.

For those who watch Gotham, you may recognize Cal’s face, as it’s the same actor who plays that version of DC’s Joker. Fitting, as this is not the first time a heroic male lead in a Star Wars story is portrayed by an actor who also portrayed the Clown Prince of Crime.

Cal is working in hiding as part of a scrapping team on the planet Bracca, breaking down and destroying the remnants of both the Old Republic and the conflict that ended it, the Clone Wars. Circumstances forces Cal to use the force to protect his best friend and work buddy and thus the Empire gets wind of a Jedi on the planet.

The Inquistorious, introduced in the cartoon show Rebels that acts as a sequel to the acclaimed animated Clone Wars series, are tasked with finding and purging the galaxy of any remaining Jedi. Not all the Jedi being hunted are killed. Something far worse lies in store to those that manage to be captured.

Cal makes a run for it upon his cover being blown and eventually makes it off-world with help from a odd duo and their spaceship: Cere Junda, a former Jedi master who has renounced using the force and Greez, a short four armed alien whose personality is a cross between Danny Devito and a moderately tempered Rocket Raccoon( at least the MCU version.)

Cere convinces Cal that the time for hiding from the Empire,and the Sith that control it, is over: it’s time to rise up. How so? The Rebellion as seen in the Original Trilogy hasn’t quite formed yet. It’s only five years since ROTS. Instead, Cere wants to go on a near Indiana Jonesesque artifact hunt in search of a holocron, a force infused object of power meant to hold information.

A holocron on the planet Bogano apparently holds the key to a list of children who are force sensitive, apparently as part of a prophecy or prediction. We all know how awesome prophecies turn out in Star Wars, am I right?

Cere wants to find the holocron and with it, the children, and raise them up to be the next generation of Jedi and take the war directly to the Empire. Cal is skeptical of whether this journey is wise and he himself is ready to be the Jedi to complete it. He’s not. Not yet.

Cal and the Mantis travel to several worlds in search of artifacts that act as keys to open the Jedi Temple on Bogano. One of them is Kashyyyk, the Wookie homeworld that either made its debut in Revenge of the Sith or the Star Wars Holiday Special. There is a Life Day reference so I’ll let you ponder that for a bit.

Cal is aided in his journey in two ways. One is the most adorable droid in Star Wars yet, just edging out BB-8 and R2-D2. BD-1 is a small, bipedal droid that can crawl and hang on Cal during their on-foot excursions.

He scans the environment for information and secrets, heals Cal with stims and can through upgrades unlock once inaccessible crates and doors and hack certain droids like the imperial probe from Empire and the large,long armed security droids from Rogue One.

BD-1 is your most reliable ally though his response time in healing you upon request from button prompt can feel too slow at times, especially in tougher fights. The other form of aid comes from moments in his journey when  he flashes back to his time as a young padawan in training under his master to learn how to do cool Jedi things to traverse the environment like wall-running, double jumping and pulling/ pushing objects.

An overly convenient partial amnesia Cal has from the trauma he endured during Order 66 is responsible for him forgetting those lessons. It’s a way to spread out what is readily available for the player to do when exploring the semi-open locations on offer.

Jedi: Fallen Order does a great job of making you feel your power and skill as a Jedi grow naturally as your search continues on. It’s not just the act of taking out enemies in your way, it’s also using Cal’s rare ability to use the force to sense objects and collect their “echoes”, which both give him experience to level himself up as well as background information on the events that transpired before he arrived at a certain location.

Like learning of a family going on the run from the Empire or how the guerrilla resistance movement on Kashyyyk is doing based on those echoes recalling small moments from the past for both Cal and player to piece together.

It’s not only an earnest way for Cal and the player to engage in Respawn’s well-crafted slice of the Star Wars world and mythos, it makes players want to fully explore every secret and part of the worlds that are visited.

Not all the planets have these semi-open environments for Cal and BD to explore and fight through, some like the opening on Bracca are linear plot focused A to B paths, not unlike the Uncharted series.

That brings me to how Jedi: Fallen Order takes aspects of many different game series and combines them into a mold that feels completely like its own genuine article. There’s the action set-pieces and traversal system from Uncharted, surprisingly thoughtful and occasionally challenging puzzles also from Uncharted and Tomb Raider.

There’s the clear inspiration taken from what is easily one of the most influential game developers from both the last and current generations: From Software. “From” is their  name, just so you’re not confused. You may know them as the makers of the “Souls” series, creating incredibly challenging yet for those with the time and patience( not me) rewarding experiences.

Whether it be the Dark Souls titles and their spiritual predecessor, Demon Souls, or successor,Bloodborne, the mode of play involves a melee-like experience of a player going through open-ended areas full of dangers and traps in an attempt to fight and dodge their way past and through enemies.

Eventually, to progress further, they face supremely difficult bosses that absolutely demand not only a true understanding of how to play the game and your build of the character you’re controlling but figuring out the boss’ pattern of attack and defense.

Do it fast because when you get hit by them, you have very few chances after to reciprocate before you’re dead and back to the checkpoint, which if you’re careless or overconfident could be hours back at a situated location called a “bonfire”.

Jedi: Fallen Order in terms of overall challenge is not entirely Dark Souls set in Star Wars. They’re are several difficulty settings you can switch to at a moment’s notice if one setting becomes too much for you. I haven’t tried the hardest difficulty but based on the description of enemy health, damage you give and take and most importantly your “parry” response time, it sounds just about as difficult as a From title.

Two other factors from the Japanese studio influence Fallen Order in a meaningful way. They’re meditation points, which are essentially this game’s bonfire. There, you automatically save upon using the point and level up Cal and BD’s abilities and rest, which restores your health, force and stims.

It also respawns all the enemies you have faced in your encounters exploring the planet’s locations, save for bosses and several one and done enemy scenarios. This may seem unfair at first, but it is a way for you to always have your guard and focus up when dealing with enemies and to further train yourself in the game’s mechanics of lightsabering, and using the force for defense and offense.

Using a point and resting is also a gamble based on how ready you are to face enemies in places you may have struggled earlier. It’s ultimately more rewarding than annoying in that it makes you appreciate the depth of combat you would hope for in using the force and your lightsaber.

The second element from..From Software’s line of work can be found in a game that was released this year in fact: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The Feudal era Japan/ Samurai simulator continued in the same style of gameplay of the studio’s “Souls” titles, but with an emphasis on “parrying” your opponents. That means carefully timing your blocking of the enemies attacks to both block and attack them back, often in a maneuver that could make or break the fight.

This style of correctly blocking against your foes is very suitable for a game about being a lightsaber wielder. Nearly every lightsaber duel I have seen in Star Wars is ultimately about breaking through the other’s attacks to score a hit, hopefully involving a lethal blow.

It can be challenging to know when exactly the right time to parry an attack can happen and there are alternatives to the parry, should you find the opportunity like dodging, jumping or rolling around the enemy to where they’re exposed. Some enemies however are wisely placed in some situations where either you learn the parry or hope you have enough stims to bleed through the enemies’ strikes.

The game, should you wish it, can be a pretty great challenge that makes your victories small and large feel like they really matter, not just for the player getting the hang of the mechanics, but for making Cal’s gradual journey to get over the trauma of the past and become a true Jedi feel meaningful.

I wouldn’t call this the best Star Wars story but it is certainly a worthy enough return to a larger world. The beginning of a new tale that I actually do want to see a follow up for. The acting and narrative is really decent, even occasionally great and always on point in understanding the kind of escapist adventure Star Wars was always intended to be.

The arcs of several characters including Cal, Cere and one that I will omit for mention due to it being something of a spoiler feel real and worth pursuing further, hopefully to a welcome conclusion.

In terms of disappointments, they’re few and not above post release revision. Playing on the PS4, in a similar vein to Control from earlier this year, the game’s performance can leave much to be desired. Old problems interfere with Cal’s adventure like slow-down, frame-rate drops and textures popping in or taking longer than I would like to load in. Visually, it can make a beautifully realized Star Wars story look ugly in several intervals.

It makes it much harder to ignore that Jedi: Fallen Order appears to be running on older hardware which means it’s not the most graphically up to date game in the first place. When the game’s performance worsens in these moments, though patches have been steadily improving overtime, it can actually get you killed while playing while also blowing the needed sense of immersion into your own Jedi power fantasy.

The other issue has to do with a pre-order bonus for the game, the closest the game comes to resembling an EA product. Like many, I waited until after release and the reviews came in to pick up Fallen Order. The pre-order bonus was an orange color for your lightsaber blade. This also acts as confirmation that the new Disney management of the lore considers orange-bladed lightsabers canon. And the fans rejoiced!

Turns out, partially thanks to tigers and Half-Life, orange is my favorite color. If I was a Jedi and had to choose the Kyber crystal for my weapon, it would certainly be orange. Despite its orientation on the color spectrum, it’s still a light side color. Only black and red are dark side colors, which sucks if you like those.

I’m hoping they make orange a downloadable piece of content for everyone later down the road, otherwise it sucks that my preferred color for a lightsaber in the game is cordoned off for the elite “preorder crowd.”

Furthermore, the customization system in the game can feel somewhat disappointing. Don’t take it the wrong way, it’s better than making all the cosmetic unlockables be stuck behind a money-grubbing paywall, as EA is infamously want to do, especially with their take on the multiplayer Battlefront games. Be thankful for what you got, I guess.

The customizables come in the form of parts and color schemes for your lightsaber, which you can change as much as you want at workbenches, even creating forms that can resemble classics used by Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, Mace Windu and Luke Skywalker.

You also can find through unlockable chests littered throughout the game’s planets color schemes for BD-1, your ship the Mantis as well as outfits For Cal which come in both jackets and…ponchos. Some of the designs look great and Jedi-like but it is odd that you can’t choose other styles of wear like Jedi clothing and robes, vests not unlike what Han Solo would wear or something else new. Often, I had Cal not wear the ponchos and just have different colors of the same jacket.

Nothing else comes to mind. The game’s length, depending on how interested you will be in exploring fully the planet locations and finding all the items to customize and strengthen Cal, will vary. It is not a very long game, but I struggled to really consider it short. It feels just long enough for the chapter or episode it wants to tell, enough meat to sate future endeavors.

This is only the beginning of hopefully a well-crafted new side to the ongoing cultural juggernaut that is Star Wars, whether you like, love or love to hate on for reasons reasonable or petty. It’s a Star Wars tale where the obstacles in your way are worth persevering over, whether those obstacles were intentional or not.

Of course the force is strong with this game, my and maybe your feelings already knew it to be true.

Originally posted 2019-12-08 00:13:30.

Now comes the Days of the King: A Review of Black Panther

Image result for black pantherImage owned by Marvel and Disney Studios and from Comic Book Movie


T’Challa( portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) is the main protagonist of his first solo feature film, but it is not so much a story about the newly anointed King of his African hermit nation. It is rather a story about the mantle itself, the throne and all that comes with such power and its use. For a good portion of the film, that mantle is challenged by one of the MCU’s few great villains, Erik Killmonger (Micheal B. Jordan), a man who brings an understandable but still radical and destructive vision of Wakanda’s power. It is an old yet relevant tale of what anyone, white or black, male or female, does with power and how that power’s use must evolve with the passing of time.

T’Challa, having brought to justice the man who killed his Father and prior King/Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, is now next in line of succession. He doesn’t believe he is ready, emotionally and politically, for the role of taking his people into the uncertain horizon. He has many friends and family still in his home to guide him. His mother,Ramonda( Angela Bassett), sister and tech master, Shuri (Letitia Wright), bodyguard and general, Okoye (Walking Dead’s Danai Guirra), spy and former girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), border guard and childhood friend, W’Kabi, (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and spiritual advisor Zuri, (Forest Whitaker). All these friends and yet it still seems too much. He would much rather just be the warrior in the job description than the rest that comes with the title.

Black Panther challenges the ethics of Wakanda despite its thousands of years of isolation successfully making them, along with their exclusive source of the alien mineral vibranium, the world’s most advanced nation. A balancing act of humility and arrogance that is as hard for our hero to confront as the mirror image he faces in Killmonger. It is best to keep what exactly Killmonger desires under wraps until one has seen the movie, as the antagonist’s journey nearly trumps the protagonist’s.

The performances are all outstanding, making this new slice of Marvel’s cinematic universe feel convincing yet fantastical, as is the core ingredient of the studio’s success. Boseman, Jordan, Wright and Guirra, as critics had suggested earlier, are the stars of the show and are the most enjoyable to witness onscreen, though Andy Serkis’s Afrikaner mercenary Ulysses Klaue, first seen in Age of Ultron, and a long running Black Panther foe in the comics, is delightfully silly in how he so happily goes off the deep end in comparison to everyone else’s relative stoicism.

The expected action sequences, are quite good with a chase in Busan, South Korea and an epic melee on Wakanda’s vibranium mound at the end, evoking the warg battle from The Two Towers. You’ll know what I mean by that when it arrives.

What makes Black Panther so successful, in spite of being Marvel’s eighteenth film thus far, is how it takes a scenario and cultural aesthetics, ranging from its soundtrack, gloriously traditional African with a subtle mix of instrumental hip-hop, to the visual color that represents the continent’s style, makes all of that work without feeling insensitive. Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) goes all the way with the style and never looks back out of fear of stepping on the eggshells.

It’s a new look for not just Marvel but the blockbuster. It tackles the touchy themes of race, historical bigotry and the cycle of violence that comes from retribution from centuries of unfortunate abuse. Racism and/or cultural division and uncertainty, from both sides of the aisle, are the true enemy of the movie, and it doesn’t pull half measures in its exploration, nor does it wham you with it like an anvil. It’s the sweet spot that all good films of this caliber Coogler has targeted and he has also made it a good superhero adventure for all to enjoy. Long live days of the King, may they be blessed.

Originally posted 2018-02-18 18:07:56.

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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


Originally posted 2018-02-11 01:57:45.

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

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

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

Dead Space (2023)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorillaz: Cracker Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted 2023-03-06 03:59:41.

Bengal’s Chinese New Year Liathon (Part 2)

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

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

Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fist of Fury (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fist of Legend (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted 2023-02-15 05:20:41.

Bengal’s Chinese New Year Liathon (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tai Chi Master (1993) - Kung-fu Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted 2023-02-05 23:40:10.

Bengal’s Top Ten for 2022 numbers 5-1

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

Number 5: Werewolf by Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number 4: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number Three: God of War: Ragnarok

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

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

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

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

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

Number Two: The Boys: Season 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number One: Top Gun: Maverick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted 2023-01-21 05:07:52.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could be, doesn’t mean it will.

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


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

-Horizon II: Forbidden West

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

-Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II

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

-The Batman

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

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

-Turning Red

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


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

-Weird: the Al Yankovic Story

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


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

Star Wars: Andor

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

10: Avatar: The Way of Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from Deadline

9: Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

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

Image from Polygon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number 8: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number 7: Harley Quinn: Season 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time, parts 5-1.

Originally posted 2023-01-04 02:41:06.