Review: Ip Man 4 The Finale

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There is a certain amount of leeway I give to Hong Kong cinema, especially for martial arts films. The history of the genre is not filled with the most grand scripts or original stories. Historical set martial arts films delve into historical fiction most of the time if not outright fantasy. A dead giveaway is that any movie with the word Shaolin in it is probably pure fiction. Any movie that features a character named Wuang Fei Hung is pure fiction other than there was a real Wong Fei Huang that existed in real life. Well, Ip Man, the real life grandmaster of Wing Chun, and Bruce Lee’s instructor, has now joined that pantheon of legendary martial artists immortalized as absolute fictionalized real life martial artists like Wong Fei Hung.

There is no such thing as an official Ip Man franchise since we are dealing with a historical figure, but the films that are used as reference are those starring Donnie Yen as Ip Man. Much like Jet Li’s portrayal of Wong Fei Hung, he will probably be synonymous with that character a.forever despite a multi-decade long career. Simply called Ip Man, the films have become a high standard in martial arts action. But let me be honest. While portraying titular character as a national hero, he has become a symbol of Chinese honor and virtue. That is all well and good. The downside, however, is casual, hopefully unintended, racism and and stereotyping towards non-Chinese. In the case of Ip Man 4:The Finale. there is a definite sense of Chinese spiritual pride in the face of xenophobia.

Through the last three Ip Man films, we’ve seen him fight against the Japanese occupiers of Shanghai (probably the least cartoonish portrayal of non-Chinese); an over the top British boxer in the Hong Kong colony who insults Chinese Kung Fu; and an American land developer trying to take over a grade school. Mike Tyson turns in a surprisingly decent performance as the leader of the real estate gang. The portrayals of white Europeans and Americans have tended towards stereotypical tropes of blatant racists.

In Ip Man 4: The Finale, Sifu Ip finds himself in 1964 San Francisco. After his wife passed away, he is left with a rebellious teenage son who is estranged from him (of course). At the behest of his student, Bruce Lee, Ip decides to visit him in San Francisco. This will set the table up for tensions between bigoted Americans and the community of Chinatown.

As a born and raised San Franciscan, it is absolutely obvious that the locations of Ip Man 4 look nothing like San Francisco. There is not much to recreate the look of the city from that time period other than maybe the correct look of our street signs. The main tensions arise from two fronts, a racist Marine sergeant and extremely pro-Karate exponent (Scott Adkins), and Walters, an Immigration officer who has it out for the local Chinese Association. There is no Marine training camp in Northern California, let alone the Bay Area. And I highly doubt immigration officers in 1964 wore black leather bomber jackets.

But, as I said earlier, no one comes to see a martial arts film for compelling scripts or spectacular acting. Though the Chinese cast is full of veterans and all do well, the same can not be said for the cast of Western actors who either stiff and unemotionally recite their lines or are over the top in their cartoonish villainy. Scott Adkins treads the line in between. Even though his character is over the top, he come across more emotionally believable.

There are, of course, plenty of spectacular fight scenes not only featuring Donnie Yen but also Danny Chan Kwok Kwan as Bruce Lee. Chan has almost made a career of playing Bruce Lee. He’s played lookalike homages to Bruce Lee in such films as Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu League. He has also played the legendary star The Legend of Bruce Lee television series, and  in Ip Man 3 and 4. By this time he fits in comfortably in the role. It is a faithful and close dedication to Lee, as we have know him on screen. Chan does well in that regard and carries it off well. The real Bruce Lee in non-screen fights would not have fought like we see in this film. Like I said, this is historical fiction.

But in the end it all comes down to the the one on one showdown between Donnie yen and Scott Adkins. Scott Adkins has, for years, been making a name for himself as not only a great martial arts actor, but has also impressed as an actor as well. With no wire or computer trickery, the fight is a a kinetic hard hitting battle between wing chun and karate.

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Returning as director is Wilson Yip as well as action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping. Yuen Woo Ping is a legendary choreographer, and he has worked with Donnie Yen throughout Yen’s twenty-five year plus career. The team manages provide plenty of glorious action set pieces. The same ca not be said for the scripting. However beneath that, either intentionally or unintentionally, lies a subtext of the treatment of immigrants. Though the comments from the Americans seem more at home to a show like Warrior, which takes place a hundred years before Ip Man 4, the xenophobia somehow seems relevant in light of how the world perceives America talks about immigrants today. And as I write this, we are seeing an uptick in xenophobia against Asians and specifically Chinese. Yes, some of the messaging can be over the top, but now it’s unfortunately too topical.

Ip Man 4: The Finale goes out with style and is proud entry into not only the franchise but as it closes out the series, it is also one that will stand as one of the better martial arts films to come out of China and Hong Kong. It concludes the saga on a high note, and if we can believe it, it genuinely is the last of these films. Now, that is not to say that such quality will be over with as there has already been a spinoff movie titles Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy released to very good reception.

Ip Man 4: The Finale is distributed by Well Go USA and comes to digital services on April 7th, 2020, and on home video, including 4K UHD disc on April 21st.

Final Score: 9/10

Game Review: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

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Oh Star Wars, just when I thought we broke up and we were done, you come along knocking on my door looking all sexy in a new outfit and I fall for your Jedi mind tricks all over again. Yeah, I got no illusions, we’ve gone our own ways, we’ve stayed more or less friends after a time of heated fights. But I guess now I’m just that booty call you make whenever you’re in town. Well, I guess I’ll just have to settle for being your side guy from now on.

Personal Perspective

Let me be upfront and declare I am not very good at video games. I don’t play well online in games such as Call of Duty or Destiny. And frankly only a couple of my real life friends even own video game consoles, let alone play online games. So going in and playing with a bunch of strangers is just not all that fun fore me. I’m not the best at action or fighting games either. I’ve always felt most at home and got the most enjoyment from story driven games. Some of those games have been great games such as the Mass Effect series and Dragon Age series. Yes, I love my role playing games. So long as it had a compelling story, I was often ready to give a particular type of game a go. As far as action games go I’ve loved all the Uncharted games and the latest Tomb Raider reboot, and amost of the Assassin’s Creed games.

Let me also be upfront and say that I’ve not played a lot of Star Wars games in my lifetime. I’ve played X-Wing, and even Tie Fighter. And I’ve never actually been good enough to finish either of them. The Empire Strikes Back game on the old Atari 2600 got repetitive and boring. I never managed to get into the classic and much revered Knights of the Old Republic either because my computer was not able to run it and later on I did not own an X-Box which was the console platform it was exclusive to.

When it was announced a few years back that one of the most hated companies in America, Electronic Arts, would have an exclusive contract with Disney and Lucasfilm to develop Star Wars games, I was not enthusiastic to say the least. Sure enough, EA’s first Star Wars game was Battlefront a multiplayer online game with absolutely no single player story driven campaign. It’s followup was Battlefront II which had a middling story campaign but was universally panned for its use of micro-transaction or pay to win gameplay.

It did not help that EA kept making headlines for cancelling several Star Wars games in development that were in development. Things were not looking bright for a genuinely good Star Wars game that wasn’t just a loot hoarding arena game.

“Ya Did Good, EA”

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a game that is developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts. And against all the odds and EA’s own track record, it is a single-player only, story driven game with no in-game purchasing transactions. Not only that, it is a melee based style of gameplay and not a shooter. How Respawn was able to push this idea through must have been a miracle and we are all the better for it.

No, Fallen Order is not the greatest game in the world. It is not very revolutionary in gameplay. It is, however, a blast of a game to play. There are a few caveats. You will die. A lot.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order takes place five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith. The player assumes the identity of Cal, a young human working on a scrapyard, breaking down wrecked ships. When he accidentally reveals that he is a Force user, he must get out of Dodge. Unfortunately it’s too late and very quickly (a little too quickly maybe) he has drawn the attention the Empire’s Inquisitors, Force users who hunt on-the-run Jedi.

He is conveniently rescued by Cere and Greez with their ship,the Mantis. They hope that he can use his Force powers to unlock a secret hidden away by Jedi Master Cordova that could lead to the rebuilding of the Jedi Order. Thus begins his journey to find clues to other clues so that will take place across several planets back and forth to basically unlock a vault. The soon learn that the object of the quest is a holocron that contains a list of names and locations of Force sensitive children throughout the galaxy. It’s very reminiscent of the first story arc of the second season of the Clone Wars animated series.

What Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order lacks in complex story, it makes up for in the gameplay and the characters. Cal Kestis’ back story of how he survived Order 66 and the slaughter of the Jedis is very emotional as it is shown in flashbacks. The main villain, known as the Second Sister, has her own tragic story that is a more interesting “good person turned the dark side” character than was done in with Kylo Ren in the sequel trilogy. Voice acting is impeccable across the board.

The game itself is not the smoothest experience, though. Armed with only a lightsaber, and Force powers in a skill tree that develops as Cal levels up, action is strictly melee based. If you have played any of the souls type games such as Dark Souls, Bloodborne, or especially Sekiro, battles can be quite brutal for the player. These games are known for tough enemies with sprawling maps, but as a concession, you do have the option to reduce the difficulty level of the game.

However, no matter how easy you set the game, it won’t help you when you are often wall running, jumping, climbing, or sliding your way through the different terrains and situations. Grabbing, climbing, and jumping are not as smooth as an Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted game. In fact it can sometimes be downright frustrating. You’ll find yourself falling off cliffs and edges and dying very often.

And as you traverse from planet to planet, it immediately becomes apparent that almost every native animal really hates you and wants to kill you. Seriously, some developer at Respawn must really hate spiders.

Besides the lightsaber focused combat, along the way, Cal will unlock more powerful Force skills. No, teleportation of objects and Force healing are not Force powers (I’m looking at you, Rise of Skywalker!). Your skill tree is ced to push, pull, and lightsaber skills. As you level up, you choose which to become more adept at. Healing is performed in the form of stims provided by your companion droid.

Very early on in the game, you will get a sidekick droid known as BD-1 which not only follows you around hanging on your shoulder but is genuinely helpful. Not only is BD-1 the second cutests and endearing mascot in modern Star Wars (darn you, Baby Yoda). Along the way, not only will it provide health stim injections when you call for them (there is a limit, however), it will point out points of interest that it can scan to level up your experience and also treasure boxes. Don’t get too excited for these loot boxes, though, as most of these boxes only provide cosmetic skin changes to Cal, his lightsaber, BD-1, or the Mantis. Honestly, I did not care or Cal’s pink poncho as one of the skins, but that is just me. But the lightsaber customization is rather cool.

I think the developers may have lost an opportunity here. As Cal traverses the planets with his companions, the other crew members tend to stay behind at the landing site with basic lines such as. “Well, it’s up to you now, we’ll just wait right here while your ass is in danger around every corner.” It would have been nice, evn logical to have some backup on some of the missions.

The game is not perfect, in fact there are points were it is downright clunky. The ability to lower the difficulty level is nice because at higher levels it can be quite brutal. The storyline is not wholly original if you have watched Clone Wars. But it’s a fun ride and a step in the right direction for Star Wars games. Hopefully they can improve on some of the mechanics in the sequel sure to come. But it is a solid game to play and you’ll spend a good 40 plus hours or so in a galaxy far, far, away.

Final Score: 8.5/10

 

Parasite vs. The Oscars So (Mostly) White

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Oscar season has come and gone and in what seems to be a ongoing problem with the Academy is the lack of diversity in their nominations. Yes, once again the major categories showed a lack of people of color. Only one Black woman was nominated for a major award,  Cynthia Erivo for Best Actress in Harriett. Akwafina may have made history and wowed the Golden Globes voters for her performance in The Farewell, but apparently she did not make the cut for the final list of nominees for Best Actress.

No female directors were nominated this year despite Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women making the list for Best Picture. Tom Hanks was acknowledged with a Best Supporting Actor nomination for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, yet it’s director, who used very unique techniques in filming to recreate the feel of the sets and the show, Marrielle Heller, did not get such acknowledgement. Lulu Wang, who directed one of my favorite films of the year, the aforementioned The Farewell, was passed over for all categories including her screenplay.

I recently saw a comment on social media to mention any other good films by female directors. So along with the above mentioned ones, we can add Alma Har’el (Honey Boy), Kasi Lemmons (Harriet), and Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers). It is very shortsited to think that no women diretors had directed anygood movies all year. and it just onfirms an inherent bias.

Now, let me be clear about the films that were nominated. I did manage to see a good portion of the major nominees and none of them I felt were undeserving of acknowledgment. However some of the films that I felt were slighted were just as deserving or even more so. But the Academy once again shows odd ways of nominating films.

Some films were almost automatic because of the names behind it like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman or Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Both were fine films but neither of them is a reflection of the best work by their directors.  The Irishman was a very good film but it is inevitable that it will be unfairly compared to Goodfellas yet it was Scorsese’s most ambitious film. I believe it got default nomination out of sympathy. As plodding and boring at some points that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was, The Academy loves films about itself and about the good old days in Hollywood. These two films were going to automatically suck up some air as far as nominations, especially with two nominations for supporting actors going to The Irisman actors Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. Sorry ,Tzi Ma (The Farewell), no room for you on the bus.

Yet somehow amidst the no surprise nominees, there  somended up some surprising winners. Bon Joon-ho won an Oscar for his original screenplay of Parasite. Taika Waititi was the first Maori to win an Academy Award for his adapted screenplay for Jojo Rabbit. You could feel something was in the air as the Academy audience was clearly cheering Bong Joon-ho and Parasite on during every category it was nominated for was mentioned. It was without question the favorite and eventual winner for best International film. The best screenplay win for Parasite was a nice surprise especially since it is a script originally in Korean. Winning International Film Oscar was probably the safest bet of the night.

When it came down to Best Director, I don’t think anyone was as surprised to win as Bong Joon-ho. Afterall, the other nominees were the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes (1917), and Todd Phillips (Joker). Like I said, I can’t argue with the choice of nominees, despite the lack of female representation. Yet history was made that night as Bong Joon-ho became the first South Korean director to win Best Director.

Parasite’s mark on Oscar history was sealed when the ever elegant, and not at all looking 82 years old, Jane Fonda announced that Parasite was the Best Picture of the year. Bong Joon-ho ended up tying none other than Walt Disney as the only person to win four Oscars in one night. Parasite was the first Korean film to win a screenplay award. As stated before, Bong Joon-ho was the first Korean director to win a Best Director Award. It was the first Korean film to ever be nominated for an International Oscar, and it won. Parasite was not only the first Korean film to win Best Picture it was the first film foreign language film in the entire 92 year history of the Academy Awards to win Best Picture.

The significance of Parasite’s success is hard to say at the moment, but it will definitely not be forgotten. Hopefully the Hollywood machine won’t grind up Bong Joon-ho like it tried to do with John Woo. Bong has already had some critical success with American productions such as Snowpiercer and Okja. He seems savvy and is genuinely loved by the Hollywood elite. We are also in a great era for many filmmakers to make films the way they want to despite the flood of remakes and tentpole blockbuster comic book franchises. Bong Joon-ho also knows he doesn’t need to make $200 million budgeted films to convey his vision.

One thing for certain, despite the Oscars so White Strike Back, people of color still managed to overcome the lack of diversity. Hair Love which took home the Oscar for Best Animated Short, is a beautiful animated short about an African American father trying to style his daughter’s hair for the first time. It comes at a time where natural Black hair is coming under fire by unfair and frankly, bigoted, discrimination.  One of the latest examples is of a Texas teen who was told that he would not be allowed to attend his own graduation if he did not cut his dreadlocks.

Am I saying that race and gender should be considered in the nominating process? Absolutely not. That would really not make sense. The problem is that in some ways the Academy has not considered many films featuring people of color  in their nominating process because they probably had not seen it or were uninterested in seeing it. The buzz and previous awards (Cannes Palme d’Or, The Golden Globes) given to Parasite certainly provided momentum to the Academy and especially the voters. Perhaps the nominating committee were uninterested in a movie about strippers drugging and rolling rich Wall Street bros for their money (Hustlers). Or perhaps they were uninterested in seeing, yet alone nominating a personal film about a Chinese family lying to the family matriarch about her cancer (The Farewell).The Farewell was also mostly in Mandarin. Maybe Academy members were confused whether it was an American film or an International film.

I myself was certainly rooting for Parasite for the best film of the year but having recently seen 1917 I absolutely thought it would win. But perhaps why Parasite is so popular and so loved is that even after watching the film, days later you are still thinking about it and the layers of messages within it. 1917 is a brilliant film from any standpoint and Roger Deakins hands down deserves the Oscar for Best Cinematography. But it does not have you thinking about the social economic implications of it weeks later and looking for and examining hidden messages. Parasite sticks with you long afterwards. And that is great example of the effectiveness of cinema to tell a story.

The Academy should not take the blame for the lack of diversity. Hollywood, for decades, has relegated persons of color in front or behind the camera to second consideration. Certainly some strides are being made, yet without fail, when a female director or a person of color is announced for a major project, especially a tentpole blockbuster product it is inevitable that “fans” pile on about the wokeness of Hollywood and agendas of Social Justice Warriors. Since when has being an advocate of social justice and being aware of disparities been a bad thing? It’s time to own and take those terms and wear them proudly as a badge. Eventually Hollywood, as well as the most prestigious awards given up will genuinely reflect the world they are trying to portray .

For more information about the way Hollywood has treated minorities read The Hollywood Jim Crow which I reviewed last year.

There is also Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism by Nancy Wang Yuen which I will be writing a review f down the road.

Why You Need to Watch The Mandalorian

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Now that the first season The Mandalorian on the Disney+ streaming platforms over, it’s time for a brief review of the season. There are a few minor spoilers, especially for the big reveal in the first episode. I’ll try to not get too detailed about individual episodes other than a couple standout ones.

It is no secret that the original Star Wars trilogy was heavily influenced by the films that George Lucas studied and admired as a film student. From war movies like Dam Busters, and westerns like The Searchers, and of course, samurai films like Hidden Fortress. Their influence on the aesthetics and feel of the original film were strongly evident.

I believe the new films from the Disney era is not so much influenced by their classic roots. They are influenced by current action films and previous Star Wars, but with no regard to pillars on which the franchise was built. The exception to that is Rogue One which was not only different from modern executions, but harkened back to war films like The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone.

Now, with The Mandalorian, streaming on the Disney+ service, Star Wars is deconstructed down to its roots once again and harkens back to the westerns and samurai film on which Star Wars built its foundation. Produced by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Dave Filoni (The Clone Wars), the show approaches the Star Wars universe as a gritty entry into the mythos that does not focus on grand battles between space wizards and fleets of spaceships. It’s episodic in nature with an underlying narrative of a loner on the run from planet to planet trying to stay one step ahead of the ones hunting him.

In the early years following the collapse of the Empire and in the Outer Rim of the galaxy bounty hunters eck out a living hunting down assignments and cashing in on the bounties. Right away, the esthetics of the spaghetti westerns pioneered by visionary director Sergio Leone are invoked in the first scene. The Mandalorian in the title is a man with no name and is just referred to as Mando by everyone else, including  the head of the Hunters Guild, Greef Karga (Carl Weathers). After turning in a rather annoying bounty (“I can bring you in war, or I can bring you in cold.” Apparently the cold is either dead or in carbonite.), he accepts an off the books assignment from Greef Karga to retrieve an asset for a former Imperial, played by Werner Herzog. After some great shootout scenes and the introduction of IG-11, the galaxy’s coolest hunter droid, the asset turns out to be the internet’s favorite meme of 2019, lovingly referred to as Baby Yoda.

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In a shot that is evocative of the final shot of John Ford’s classic western, The Searchers, we are introduced to Mando. Trivia: Pedro Pascal’s stunt double (from episode 3 onward) is Brendan Wayne, grandson of John Wayne and star of The Searchers.

In the third episode he turns in the young baby asset to the employer, Mando has second thoughts about turning in a child to people who obviously have some sketchy plans for it. So he turns back and rescues the kid and has to shoot his way out of not only the ex-Imp’s camp but through the rest of the Hunters Guild that would love to cash in on the reward. Of course he makes it out.

Most of the episodes after that is a bit of a planet of the week trek through the Outer Rim planets staying a step ahead of others that would hunt him and the child down. Along the way will be guest star appearances from actors such as Nick Nolte, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers, Clancy Brown, and Taika Waititi who directed the final episode and voices IG-11.

Episode 4 has Mando and the Child on the run and he has the idea to lay low in a remote planet in the hopes of the heat dies down and he can move on with his life. In the most straight up homage to the western and samurai films as he meets former Republic fighter named Cara Dune ( Gina Carano) who also is seeking a more quiet life. This changes as a local village is constantly being harassed by raiders.

And of course the village has no one that knows how to fight back so they recruit the magnificent duo to not only defend the village but to train the villages in how to defend themselves. Yes, this is basically Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, one of the most familiar tropes in the two genres. And it is one of the many standout of the series. But then again I’m an easy mark for the Seven Samurai trope and have always liked the premise.

After a couple of what I consider filler episodes one of which is pretty weak, the final two episodes ties a few plot threads together and culminates against the odds shootouts and more engaging action than some recent Star Wars films. Mando is given a chance to make nice with the Guild again by heading back to Navarro, the planet he bugged out of with the baby. Imps, led by the Client, have been interfering with the guild’s business and making it harder for the Guild to go about it’s work. So Mando gets an offer he can’t refuse, come back to Navarro, clear out the Imps and the Guild will clear off the fact that he killed a bunch a members a few episodes ago.

Things naturally don’t go as planned as the Bantha poodoo hits the fan. Along for the wild ride are a few characters that Mando has encountered along the way along with Greef Karga.

The casting of the show is near perfect. Pedro Pascal, who is always under the helmet has to basically do all his acting through voice work and stunts and he is very impressive. And seeing Carl Weathers as Greef Karga is an absolutely delight as he is both charming and menacing. Listen carefully and you will hear Nick Nolte’s voice for Kuill, an Ugnaught (those worker aliens last seen on the big screen in The Empire Strikes Back). Gina Carano is not only physically impressive as a former MMA fighter, but has really grown as an an actress as well. Taika Waititi voices the Hunter droid IG-11 and is an incredibly endearing character. Nearly the entire cast is compelling and has a distinct personality that is very memorable. Even minor characters like a Mandalorian version of a blacksmith has a moment that is memorable and tone setting. Giancarlo Esposito’s character is not only engaging but will leave you in the end wanting to know more.

Of course if you are on social media, the real star of the show is The Child, known all over as Baby Yoda. As much as there were leaks that came out for The Rise of Skywalker, there weren’t that many leaks about The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda may have been one of the best kept secrets in our modern day of leaks. The absolute adorableness of Baby Yoda is probably 2019s greatest phenomenon. It is certainly its cutest. I like the rest of humanity that has a heart love the little creature that is mostly a combination of puppetry and animatronics. I have, however, gotten a bit tired of the constant memes it has generated.

Baby Yoda’s adorable presence on screen steals everyone’s attention. The character not only has no name but we don’t even know what species it is. We know that someone powerful is after it, and that it has strong Force powers naturally. Other than that we know very little. Yet it steals every scene that it is in.

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I don’t think this pose is an accident. It’s obviously an homage to a scene from Hard Boiled, the classic Hong Kong action film by John Woo and starring Chow Yun Fat.

There are many reasons why The Mandalorian succeeds. One of them is that by stepping away from the grand scale of the Star Wars we’re used to and instead going for something different, it reinvigorates a live action series that had grown stale in its creativity. And yet, the show’s premise and storytelling technique is not new or particularly innovative. It’s not the Breaking Bad or the Sopranos of Star Wars. But by embracing a western like feel, it in itself is different as the western isn’t exactly crowding everyone’s televisions. The closest comparisons to this show would be the samurai series of Lone Wolf and Cub or the science fiction western anime of Cowboy Bebop.

The show is produced with an old school Star Wars aesthetic as well. This is a part of the galaxy that is lived in but forgotten. Stormtroopers are not always in the cleanest of armor and much of the equipment has a used and gritty look to it. The Mandalorian achieves a feeling of verisimilitude that unfortunately the sequel trilogy does not achieve. You get a sense of authenticity not evident in the recent movies. Only Amazon’s The Expanse (must-watch science fiction series) has that level of authentic feel to it (and I would argue even more so).

Ludwig Götansson, fresh off his Academy Award win for Black Panther’s score, provides the atmospheric music for thow and if you look online, he provides an album’s worth of music for each episode. Yes, some of the cues sound like music from the Rocky franchise. That may be because he also did the music for the Creed films which in itself took influence from the Bill Conti scores.

The Mandalorian genuinely changes the game as far as the Star Wars franchise is concerned and hopefully paves the way for a better quality and way of storytelling in the future, because the movies definitely need to do something different — without alienating the fanbase. Yes, there are moments of fan-service and homages, but it doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling. In fact the most homage filled episode, the one on Tatooine may be it’s weakest episode. But despite those few bumps, the show is an absolute delight and it comes with the highest recommendation.

Final Score: 9/10

So…Uhm…The Rise of Skywalker

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is not a great movie. It’s not a horrible movie either. It is, however, filled with so much pandering fan-service that it’s as if someone took a tee-shirt cannon filled with Star Wars tees and shot it on full auto into your face. Some folks may love that. I did up until a point. Your mileage may – no, it will – very. It serves its purposes only well enough to close out the Skywalker saga — and for better or worse, that’s the end of that. Now can we get on with telling other stories?

I’m going to keep this as spoiler free as possible which is hard since there is so much going on.

In the opening crawl we are told that supposedly dead Emperor Palpatine is still alive. So the return of the Original Trilogy’s biggest villain is introduced via a Star Wars version of a tweet. Kylo somehow tracks down the hidden secret base of Palpatine. Finn and Poe Dameron are off on a mission in the Millennium Falcon getting information from a mole within the First Order and make a daring escape from a squadron of Tie Fighters. Rey is furthering her training in the forest of some planet that is the current home of the Resistance and Leia is her Jedi trainer. Yet she is still haunted by her connection with Emo Ren — I mean — Kylo Ren, and memories of her parents dumping her. This is in the first few minutes of the movie.

What will follow is revelations that yeah, the Emperor is somehow: alive, cloned, magically resurrected by dark sorcery — take your pick because that’s literally how they explained it. Multiple choice. So, the Emperor is not only alive but it turns out he has his own fleet of ships and army called…are you ready? The Final Order! Dude shows a lack of imagination for sure. But he sure knows how to make conplicated and convoluted evil plans. So in a proposed merger between the First Order and the Final Order, details are worked out. There is literally a boardroom scene where someone asks what can they Sith have to offer in trade.

Rey, decides to go off on her own to go kill Palpatine because I guess being a space sorcerer really doesn’t equate to high IQs. Finn, Poe, Chewie, BB8, and Threepio(?) join her because going alone would be stupid, and because — you know, friendship. But no need to worry about Rey, there will be plenty of moments for her to rush off on her own without her friends. Now in order to get to the Emperor who is on the mythical and of course uncharted Sith homeworld of Exegol, they need a map, and in order to get the map, they must go on a mini-quest. They fulfill the mini quest, but in order to decipher the map, they must go on another mini-quest. And along the way we are introduced to more side characters and land on more planets and we have more cameos of actors who get to brag to their kids they were in a Star Wars movie. This is what happens when you have a generation of screenwriters raised on RPG video games.

In the middle of their mini-quest, we also run in that old smoothy, Lando Calrissian who drops in and points the way towards the film’s maguffin. But playa still has some swagger as he says “Give my love to Leia.” Yeah, dude, I know you’re thinking “What’s up, Princess? I heard Han’s gone now.”

There are chases in the desert and even an escape from a Star Destroyer that looks eerily familiar. Now where have we seen this before? And there are quite a few lightsaber duels, more than in any Star Wars movie to date.

Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ren still have that Force bond version of Skype going on and so they continue to troll each other with Kylo trying to turn Rey to the Dark Side and Rey saying she’s gonna destroy the Emperor and that Kylo is still Emo.

The characters and their interactions with each other are genuinely good and especially the trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe. There is genuine sense of chemistry between them. Too bad it took three movies to get them all together on screen. These are all top actors doing the very best they can with the material that they have been given. Richard E. Grant as Fleet Admiral Pryde is quite menacing as a First Order leader and just as Domhnall Gleeson seems most comfortable and least over the top in his roll, it’s the end of the trilogy. And of course Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine stands out as well. This time around they at least got the makeup effects right on him as opposed to that monstrosity of a Halloween mask look he had in Revenge of the Sith. And believe it or not, even Anthony Daniels’ Threepio gets a moment. Too bad that moment was given away in the trailer.

But we must address the presence of Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa. She of course died before filming could start on Rise of Skywalker and through many tricks of editing and writing, she was added into the film from unused footage from The Force Awakens and maybe The Last Jedi. It is not entirely seamless but in the end it works. Carrie’s spirit does seem to haunt the film as every scene that she is in is a focus of our attention whether it is intentional or not. If internet rumors can be believed, and of course we should never doubt internet rumors, Leia’s role Rise of Skywalker was supposed to be major. They did the best they could do with what they had. Should they have totally scrapped the idea and gone without Carrie Fisher in it or write her off in the crawl? I don’t know, the answer to that. But I will say it was done respectfully ad with genuine heart.

John Williams returns for what he has claimed to be his final Star Wars score and he does not hold back as the music is exceptionally grand and lush when it needs to be. No matter what fans may end up feeling about the new Disney movies, I think that we can all agree that John Williams’ scores have always been consistently good.

The script by Chris Terrio and JJ Abrams is exactly would you would expect from one of the writers of Justice League and Batman v Superman. It’s filled with odd choices in narrative and plot threads that were unnecessary. New Force powers are introduced that basically locks these guys into the category of space wizards now. I know it’s just fantasy. But I read enough fantasy books to know that good ones have well thought out magic systems. Why do you think that there are so many Dungeons and Dragons rule books?

Yet somehow it works as big dumb entertainment the same way that Aquamanor even Godzilla King of the Monsters works as trash . Because once you start thinking about he film everything falls apart. The action and the character interactions are totally watchable. And that is the main reason to watch it. And on a technical level, the film looks and sounds great. The space battle is massive, yet even though it is bigger, still doesn’t compare to the fleet battle in Return of the Jedi

Does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker make a fitting entry into the series? I guess it does. It hit the story beats it set out to do and hopefully the studio can move on from the heavy baggage of the Skywalker (and Solo) name, because Rogue One and The Mandalorian are both examples of how well Star Wars can be done without that heavy burden. As it is, there is a line in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman where the main character tells Jimmy Hoffa just before his demise “It is what it is.” That phrase and the meaning behind it about sums up Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. 

Final Score: 7.5/10 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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There was a time when I read practically every Stephen King book as they came out. Eventually I could not keep up and there were a few that I was not too fond of. In recent years, ‘ve tried to tackle the sprawling Dark Tower series. But the last King book I bought and read right after publication would go on to be one of my favorites, 11/23/63. When I heard that a sequel to the novel The Shining was coming out I downloaded it on the day of release. Unfortunately timing being what it was I did not get around to reading it until just before the release of the movie adaptation. And that is how things worked out and we come to Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep is a direct sequel of The shining and starts off shortly after the devastating events of The Shining. Now being a sequel to his novel rather than the Stanley Kubrick film, it continues with Dick Hallorann being very much alive as well as Danny and his mother, Wendy. A good third to a quarter on the book centers on the  continued repercussions of the trauma that young Danny experienced from the evil that lurked within the Overlook. He is still visited by the ghosts of the Overlook until Dick teaches him a trick to store these ghosts away in special mental lockboxes. This will come into importance later.

By the time we again meet Dan (as he now goes by), he is an adult, and also a complete mess. He is a drifting alcoholic and barely functional enough to hold down a steady job. While traveling on a bus, he gets an intuitive message in his head to get off at a small New Hampshire town. He finds a some peace and friends there as well. And also while there, he confronts the fact that he is an alcoholic and joins Alcoholics Anonymous.

Parallel to Dan’s adult story is that is Abra (like Abracadabra) Stone. Born in 2001, like Dan, she has the ability known as The Shining. But her ability just may be much more powerful than Ddan’s ever was.

We are also introduced to a group of road wanderers who traverse the country in a caravan of RVs and call themselves the True Knot. The True Knot may not look it, but they have a lot of resources at their command and they have lived a long time. They feed on those that have abilities like Dan and Abra. And they do not consider themselves human. They do have the ability to recruit others and make them like they are immortals who must feed on those with psychic abilities to survive. So…vampires.

Dan has achieved success with a few of years of sobriety and has taken a job at the town’s local hospice in the official capacity of an orderly. But everyone has come to call him Doctor Sleep because he has earned the reputation of helping those who are at the moment of death cross over peacefully, though no one really knows how. They just go with it. The precursor that seems to know when it is time for a patient to pass is the hospice’s cat Azzie (short for Azreel, an alternate spelling of Azrael, the Angel of Death) who will enter into the room of the patient which indicates to the staff they are about to pass.

In the meantime, a now older Abra has been able to reach out and occasionally leave messages with Dan, usually innocuous messages of “hello” or “good morning.”  That innocent communication is broken when Abra detects the painful psychic cries of a tortured boy who is a victim of the True Knot.

Everything begins to coalesce into a novel that is both epic and personal as the lives of everyone comes together as Abra, whose ability is so strong that she has drawn the attention of the True Knot’s leader, Rose the Hat. Dan finds himself reluctant at first to get involved but finds that he can’t ignore what they have been doing over the centuries as their victims are primarily children.

Stephen King not only follows up his classic horror novel effectively but also manages to build and in some ways surpass it. Where The Shining was a trailblazing novel by a young writer, Doctor Sleep is the extension from that seminal work by a writer who has matured, gone through more of life, and has learned to juggle multiple characters and narratives to come together into a story that is full of intensity. It does not have the weight or scale as other epics he’s written such as It or The Stand, but it feels like an epic in some ways. And like great epics, there is a gathering of companions that will help Dan and Abra in their fight, and there will be journey across one end of the country to another. And as most readers will suspect right away, there will be a final confrontation with the evil forces at the magnet for past evils, the burnt out remains of the Overlook Hotel.

Doctor Sleep succeeds as both a sequel and as a stand alone novel. It’s not necessary to have read The Shining, but it certainly helps, and I do recommend it. Dan Torrance emerges as one of King’s strongest and most memorable characters. The intricacies and the emotional struggles that Dan experiences as he comes to grips with alcohol addiction over time, feels authentic and may even have come from King’s own experiences with alcoholism. But it is Dan’s hospice persona which is the most emotionally powerful. Anyone who has ever had a loved one go through hospice care may relate to Dan’s ability and some scenes of people who are at their last few minutes of life. He uses his psychic ability to comfort them and ease their passing. In a way he sees this as atonement to the turbulent life he lead as a drunk. And as we go on a journey with Dan atoning for his past sins, we can relate to him all the more because they are common sins many of us may have felt hitting bottom.

Special mention of note goes to the audio edition as read by Will Patton. Will Patton has been the goto narrator for the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke and for Doctor Sleep, his talents are on full display as he manages New England accents effortlessly.

Doctor Sleep is more than a worthy successor to The Shining, it is a novel with depth and thrills. It may start just a little slow as we are brought up to speed on the intervening years since the events of The Shining but as an example of character build-up it succeeds very well and allows us to genuinely care for our main cast. It also features a villian with an array of cronies that are very memorable. The psychic vampire trope is not one that has been often explored. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons comes to mind as the closest to the creatures that King has created here. However you choose to consume the novel, whether by reading or listening, you should not be disappointed.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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I was not one of those people who grew up with memories of watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Yet, I knew who he was and I knew he was very popular. It was not until I was much older that I realized the man was not just a popular host of a children’s show but a true hero.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may be honestly mistaken as a biography of Fred Rogers, especially if you’ve only watched the trailers. But it’s more about how one man, by being kind, by listening and drawing out the pain from others can make a difference in our everyday lives. Yes that person is Fred Rogers, but the real main character of this film is Lloyd Vogel as played by Matthew Rhys.

There is some creative fiction in the story that this film tells and it comes together within the structure of what seems like an extended episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with Tom Hanks portraying Mr.Rogers in his iconic opening to the show and showing a picture of his “friend” Lloyd who is troubled . He asks if we would like to meet him and thus begins our story.

Lloyd is a damaged man with deep issues that have never been resolved, specifically issues with his father with whom he had been estranged from for many years. When we first meet Lloyd, he is at his sister’s wedding where he gets into an altercation with his father and ends up with a black eye. Lloyd is a writer for Esquire magazine, mostly known for his investigative articles. When he is assigned an interview with Fred Rogers profiling American heroes, he is disdainful of it and thinks it beneath him. All his editor wants is a 400 word profile of the beloved children’s television host. Lloyd is a cynical writer unconvinced that Rogers is the genuine article. But in trying to get to the real story behind Mr. rogers, it turns out that Mr. Rogers uncovers Lloyd’s real story.

Rather than being a straightforward biopic of Mr. Rogers, we end up with more of an example of the effect a person like Mr. Rogers can have on someone and others around him. In a way, it also plays like an episode of Highway to Heaven where an angel helps a common person who is under personal pain come to address that pain and deal with it. In the case of Lloyd, it is primarily focused around unresolved anger towards his father. Now if it were anybody but Fred Rogers or an Angel, his weaving himself into Lloyd’s life would be creepy but this case it is a form of healing.

Lloyd’s story is not all that unique or that different than many other back stories of millions of men in America. And I believe that is what makes this movie so relatable. It is a common story that speaks for common people. The magic of Fred Rogers as it is shown in scenes he has with children is his gift of not being judgmental or talking down to them. As Lloyd tries to get at Rogers’ real story he discovers that there is no Mr. Rogers screen persona and that what he sees on screen is a genuine caring man.

Matthew Rhys does a very good job as Lloyd Vogel. This is a role that could easily been performed as an unlikeable character but under the direction of Marielle Heller, he becomes a sentimental figure that loves his newborn son and has a loving relationship with his wife. And as he begins to realize he doesn’t want to ever become estranged with his family like he has with his father, we see it too.

But of course, it is Tom Hanks that will draw the most attention from everyone. Let’s be honest about Tom’s performance. He does not look or sound like Fred Rogers, but he captures his mannerisms and way of speaking perfectly. He is still Tom Hanks under that sweater. That is not a bad thing as Tom Hanks is known as one of the warmest and nicest guys in Hollywood. There is genuine heart in the way Hanks portrays the iconic children’s host and brings humble sincerity to a role that requires a sincere approach.

Chris Cooper plays Jerry, Lloyd’s father who a first comes across as that embarrassing relative that probably drinks too much and says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Jerry is also a character that needs to heal as much as Lloyd. And Cooper, like Rhys, takes a role that could easily have been made into a jerk and gives a sentimental nuanced glimps of a genuine human being trying to make things right.

Even though this film is “based on a true story,” we know that it is code that some dramatic liberties are going to be taken. That is certainly true for the subject of Lloyd as much of his background relationship is fictionalized from the real story of the Esquire writer. Much what you see of Fred Rogers story is more true to history, however. Some of it has been re-arranged for the purposes of film, tough. The film as mentioned before is framed like a two-hour episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and it even uses models similar to those used on the show’s set to illustrate transition scenes and cityscapes. Yes, it is as charming and nostalgic as it sounds. These filmmaking choices give it a near fantasy storybook fee to it. That fantasy world certainly comes across in a funny dream sequence where Lloyd finds himself on the set of miniature Mr. Rogers with the other puppets like King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped TIger.

The structure of the main story and the framing of the the narrative as a piece of journalism which is itself framed as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ is unique. But the back story of Lloyd Vogel’s story about his relationship with his father is not unique in itself. And that simple narrative is also what makes this movie so effective. Lloyd is just like many men in life who have grown cynical with the world and has issues from their past that have never been resolved. He’s just like you, he’s just like me.  By incorporating Mr. Rogers as a  supporting character this becomes more than a story of a guy with daddy issues, it becomes a story of how human kindness and the willingness to forgive can cause a ripple effect around you like a pebble dropped into a pond. And in a way that is a lesson that Fred Rogers has always been trying to teach us, understanding, compassion, and that you too were once a child.

Final Score: 9/10

Update: The original Esquire article can be found here.

For comparison of the real life events compared to the film, check out this from The Hollywood Reporter. Cinema Blend also has a one with spoilers.