Last Night in Soho

Last Night In Soho Cast & Character Guide | Screen Rant

This is London. Someone has died in every room in every building and on every street corner in the city.

Last Night in Soho is the latest film by director Edgar Wright who has given such gems as Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It is a movie heavily influenced by Hitchcock, De Palma (when he was copying Hitchcock), and Giallo films from actors Dario Argento and Mario Bava. That is pretty ambitious. For the most part, it works and the end result is a visual feast for the eyes. The movie itself does have some issues in plotting and minor holes in logic. Despite its flaws, it is one of the great rarities in modern film, an original story that does things differently.

Eloise “Ellie” Turner, played by Tomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), is a young woman who has an obsessive nostalgia for the fashion and music of the sixties. She lives with her grandmother in rural Cornwall and has just found out that she has been accepted into the London College of Fashion. Not only does this set her up as the country girl in the big city, but her mother has a history with London as well. We realize there is something different about Ellie from the outset as she apparently sees her dead mother in a mirror. Her grandmother knows that Ellie can see things that no one else does, but Ellie lies and says she doesn’t anymore. At this point, we don’t know if it is because of a mental illness or not.

When Ellie arrives at her dorm in London after a creepy encounter with a cab driver, she meets her roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) an overly posh and overly mean girls type. After a brief uncomfortable stay, she decides to move out on her own and rents a room in the Soho district from an elderly landlady played by the late Dianna Rigg in her final role.

On her very first night in her new flat, she dreams of traveling back in time to the swinging 60s of London. She finds herself accompanying a woman named Sandie, played by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit). Alternating from seeing through her eyes, and accompanying her in the second person, Ellie experiences a young woman’s desire to become a musical star in the neon-lit district of Soho. She seems to meet the perfect man to be her manager and lover in the person of Jack, played by Matt Smith (Doctor Who). Over the next few nights, she returns to that dreamy surreal world and finds inspiration in Sandie and the era. Ellie finds more confidence in herself, dies her hair like Sandie, dresses similar to her, and even earns praise in class for her retro fashion designs inspired by the clothes of Sandie.

Over the ensuing nights, it becomes apparent that the neon glitz and glamour of sixties London is not what nostalgia paints it out to be. There is a seedier side to it as Ellie begins to experience more of Sandie’s story as it becomes a dark and seedy nightmare. Jack is not what he seems and her aspiring career as a singer becomes nothing more than becoming a playing for rich old men looking for women. It’s even worse for Ellie as images and scenes from her dream world starts to intrude upon her waking world, causing her, and us, to question her grips on reality and sanity. Is she going insane, or is she really being haunted by the ghosts of London’s nightlife? Of course, her classmates notice her reactions, who almost all think she is losing it. The only one that supports her and cares for her is the potential love interest, John (Michael Ajao).

Last Night in Soho is, without doubt, a technical marvel in both sound and vision. Edgar Wright, with the aid of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, drenches scenes in neon lights and brightly lit color palettes that soak the characters with vibrant hues of reds, blues, and greens. Wright and Chung use many creative shots that employ mirrors to show both Ellie and Sandie in the same shots or even swapping them out. Many of these camera tricks were practical and on set as opposed to digital. This use of mirrors to show the dual natures of Ellie and Sandie becomes a major theme throughout the film.

Edgar Wright uses many creative shots involving mirrors to dramatize Ellie’s story.

You can’t have a movie about the London music scene without the music of the era. The soundtrack may as well be considered a cast member of the film. From the opening scene, we hear Peter & Gordon’s classic “A World Without Love” loudly playing on Ellie’s little phonograph as she dances in her Cornwall home in a dress she made herself. Later we are treated to a bit of Acapella from Anja Taylor-Joy doing a cover version of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” In the case of Last Night in Soho, the music serves as a Greek Chorus for the viewer. Each song is there for a reason, not just to instill pop nostalgia, such as The Kink’s “Starstruck:”

Baby, watch out or else you’ll be ruined
‘Cause once you’re addicted to wine and champagne
It’s gonna drive you insane
Because the world’s not so tame

The cast is strong, but the standouts are the two main leads playing Ellie and Sandie. Thomasin McKenzie really brings Ellie to life with a character that has to go through the wringer of emotions ranging from being an innocent waif to a young woman on the verge of doubting her sanity. As the plot unfolds, her character has to contend with the truth that the world is not black and white and people will often do horrible things to survive. You won’t have any problems rooting for her. Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie graces her opening scenes with assured confidence, but as her story goes on we see her vulnerabilities and feel for her tragic story as we know it will not end well.

A special mention must be made to Dame Diana Rigg for gracing us with a final performance that, though small, is memorable and filled with her natural charm and wit.

Matt Smith seems to be borrowing a page out of David Tennant’s book and relishing in playing a psychopath role after a run in Doctor Who. It really works for him as he is meant to be charming on the surface. But underneath, he is a menace.

The movie does suffer a bit in some areas, most notably with holes in logic. Parts of the plot hinges on mystery, and that mystery centers on names and identity. Without spoilers, an unnecessary sub-plot could have been avoided if Ellie just knew a person’s name, and she is in a particular position that she should at least know that or at least a bit of his history. The mean girls’ clique led by Jocasta is a bit too over the top, though not going into bullying territory, the catty stares and talking behind the back are a bit much.

What Last Night in Soho gets right is style and panache. Edgar Wright channels Hitchcock in maintaining Ellie as a POV character which maintains the feeling that we are whether experiencing her going mad or experiencing a true supernatural horror. Some of the camera tricks involving the use of mirrors are evocative of films like The Eyes of Laura Mars by Irwin Kishner. The staging and colors are reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Last Night in Soho does not fall into any specific genre, not neatly anyway. It is part drama, fantasy, ghost story, Giallo horror, and psychological thriller. It has a message to be careful of nostalgia because the rose tint of it often clouds the realities. And in the case of Ellie, it can be horrifying. The film is a welcome addition to a genre of horror that has become rather stale with gore and slasher films where you root more for villains to kill victims. Highly recommended.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Review: Dune is What Theaters Were Made For

Dune producers are fighting to keep the movie a theatrical release, report  says | TechRadar

A Brief Background to Those Other Dune Films

I, like many teens of the 80s, were first exposed to Dune through the divisive David Lynch directed vehicle. Through it, I ended up reading many of the books that the movie was based on. To this day I am still enthralled by the world building and history that was incredibly complex to my teenage mind at the time. I still have a fondness for the Lynch version of Dune, even for the extended television edit that Lynch refused to have his name attached to(the infamous Alan Smithee cut). The movie certainly has some merits, but it also deserves much of its criticisms for odd deviations from the source material.

Over the years since then, the SyFy Channel made a more book accurate version of the Dune novel and to varying degrees, it worked, but also fell short because of the limitations of a television budget. Also in those years, internet fan editors have made various versions of the David Lynch film using deleted scenes and re-editing footage from the extended and theatrical cut to more closely resemble Lynch’s original ideas for the film. While some do improve, it was still not definitive.

In 2017, it was announced that Denis Villeneuve would tackle Dune. Villeneuve is no stranger to more cerebral science fiction. He had previously directed Blade Runner 2049 and The Arrival, both big budget science fiction films but with not only cerebral themes, but an arthouse feel. Nevertheless, Dune is still a daunting book to tackle. It is incredibly dense in lore and universe building. There are countless characters, thousands of years of history, political wranglings, and plots within plots. All that is just in the first book.

Dune 2021

In the very opening of of the film, it is obvious that this is meant to be a two-part movie as the title card clearly states Dune Part One. There is an opening narration laying out the situation for the planet Arrakis. For hundreds of years, Arrakis had been ruled by an empire that is there to exploit the planet’s only resource, the spice Melange. The spice can prolong life, has psychic mind altering properties, and is key to the abilities of the Guild Navigators to traverse between the stars safely. It is only found on Arrakis, which is also referred to as Dune. The natives of Arrakis, the Fremen are an exploited people, and have been waging an eternal guerilla war against their colonizers. Arrakis is the fiefdom of House Harkonnen, a cruel and oppressive house, from the heavy industrial planet of Geidi Prime. But that rulership abruptly comes to an end and they suddenly leave.

On Planet Caladan, home to House Atreides, Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto, suffers from recurring dreams of a mysterious woman in the desert. The noble house is now given the fiefdom of Arrakis in the stead of the Harkonnens. But no one believes to be a benevolent gesture but a trap. Yet to disobey an imperial order would be…well, not good.

Meanwhile, Paul is beginning to awaken to powers that have been passed on and taught to him from Lady Jessica, his mother and member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, an order that for generations have not only been manipulating houses of powers behind the scenes, but their bloodlines as well. Her having a son was against the order of the sisterhood and may have thrown their entire breeding manipulations into turmoil. The sisterhood also manipulates religion for its own means. Bene Gesserit lay down messianic rumors about the Atreides, in particular, Lady Jessica and Paul.

Denis Villeneuve drops you into a universe that is incredibly immersive. There are not many great scenes of exposition about the universe, other than the planet of Arrakis itself and the Fremen. We, as the audience, are along with the ride. For non-book readers, there may be a perception of little explanation on certain things that there should be. Book readers will spot Mentats and Suk doctors. But if you are not familiar with the source material you may not get a full sense of who these people are or their particular talents. We get some exposition on the Bene Gesserit, and they are both mysterious in appearance and incredibly intimidating. In one way, that adds to the immersive quality. But for some it may be a bit overwhelming, with definitely lingering questions. But we don’t need an explanation that there is such a thing as an Atreides hand signals, but we are shown that detail. We don’t need an explanation of the Bene Gesserit Voice, but a simple demonstration is enough for us to understand. In a sense this is film that definitely shows more than it tells. For better or worse, it adds to that sense of immersion, as if you were dropped into a foreign country without knowing the language. You may feel lost, but the discovery is the beauty of it.

If you are interested in Dune lore and history, Quinn’s Ideas on YouTube is an excellent resource for everything Dune.

Hans Zimmer is on hand to provide a score that may well be one of his best scores ever. I admit to not being one of his biggest fans. But it is clear, like Villeneuve, he has a passion for Dune. It is atmospheric much of the time and unsettling when it needs to be for scenes of tension. Zimmer actually passed on scoring Tenet for long time collaborator, Christopher Nolan to do the score for Dune.

Timothée Chalamet as Paul, may seem poorly developed. But Paul is a character that is being molded by the desert and we won’t see his full character arc until part two. Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica stands out as a not just a mother but as a woman of power within the Atreides house even if she is not married to the Duke. Oscar Isaac as Leto is a commanding presence as the Duke but still carries genuine warmth as Paul’s father. Jason Mamoa brings his unique personality as Duncan Idaho and Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as the gruff Gurney Halleck. Possibly the one actor having the most fun is Stellan Skaarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a role that even bookwise was pure villainy. He brings about cold menace and in some scenes seems to play homage to Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the mad Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, we do not get enough of Zendaya as Chani. Story-wise she will have a larger role to play in the second half of the story. That is certainly something to look forward to.

Frank Herbert’s novel was written in the 60s and was reflective of its time. Even so, the themes he addressed in the book, mass murder of indigenous people, colonialism, the exploitation of resources, and the manipulation of the masses through religious superstition, still ring true for our time. One can’t help but think of Afghanistan’s history against colonialism compared to the Fremen’s eternal insurgency against the Empire. Arrakis has the most precious substance in the universe and a huge empire is willing to wage war and oppress a people to exploit that resource. In the 60s it was a metaphor for oil. It still is in a way. Of course it is not a one to one parallel. Cynics may look at this as a standard hero’s journey, or even as a lone (or white) saviour trope, especially with the messianic lore. But remember, these messianic beliefs were seeded. Paul knows this and is willing to take advantage of it. Hardly something heroic. All other adaptations have ignore this aspect.

Let’s be honest. Dune is not a perfect novel, and neither is the movie. At times the book seemed more enthralled with it’s universe building and lore than of character. Some of the characterizations, particularly the behavior of the villains can come across as cliched. And the movie does fall into those same trappings at times. The disadvantage for the movie is that it is still only part one, whereas the book is complete. If you are interested in the rest of Paul’s journey, you’ll have to refer to the source material or wait until Part Two comes out. And considering the games that Warner Brothers have played with undermining its box-office to boost their HBO-Max subscriptions, we have no guarantee of that yet. With that being said, this is the best interpretation of the book. There could have been less scenes of Paul’s visions, at times it felt a little repetitious.

Dune, as a the book, remains one of the most important works of science fiction literature. In my opinion, Denis Villeneuve has crafted one of the finest science fiction films in a generation. Dune is definitely not a typical science fiction action film. It is a work of art that has action in it. And the action scenes are filled with not just CG and explosions but close-quarter combat of hundreds of troops. It’s not a CG fest of spaceships zipping around in dogfights, it’s dirty gritty knifework, making the action feel genuine. Among those hundreds of troops are the Saudakar, the blades of the Emperor. We are shown their planet of Salusa Secundus where these feared troops genuinely come across as intimidating.

But, of course, the big spectacle that Dune may be best known for is the desert mouse — just kidding. It’s of course the giant sandworms of Arrakis. We’ve already seen them in the trailers, but the scale of these creatures is truly intimidating as they are outright forces of nature that can wreck destruction in their wake. Yet, they are also very much a part of the planet, sometimes seen in the distance. But when they strike, they are feasome.

Villeneuve really takes his time in showing us this universe. Almost every exterior shot is epic in scope, detailing large vistas and landscapes showing enormous scale. It is visually stunning. Make no mistake about it, the universe of Dune created by Frank Herbert is epic in scope. Visually, it is a feast for the eyes. Much of the effects are practical and shooting was filmed on locations such as Jordan and Norway. The Director of Photography, Greg Fraser, is no stranger to big projects, as he has shot Rogue One and The Mandalorian. His compositions and shots of the desert landscapes are stark contrasts to the lush watery shores of Caladan. You almost feel the dust and heat of Arrakis pressing down on you.

Dune: Part One is what movie theaters were made for. If you can, see it on the largest screen possible (if you feel safe during the Age of Covid, that is), such as an Imax theater, or a Dolby Cinema, or XD with a big sound system. I saw it at a screening in a medium sized theater, and felt like I was there in Arrakis. I will definitely be seeing it again in Imax. Let the film take you in for the two and a half hour runtime. Sure, you can watch it day and date on HBO-Max, but you would be doing yourself a disservice. Unless you are incredibly wealthy with an actual movie theater in your home, the experience does not compare to seeing this on the big screen.

Final Score: 9/10

Venom: Let There be Carnage is Gooey Trash

Venom: Let There Be Carnage' Movie Review - Full Circle Cinema

Low Brow and Low Tier

I’m not super familiar with the Venom character in the comics nor have I ever been particularly drawn to it. Sure, that doesn’t belay the fact that Venom is an extremely popular character in Marvel Comics and that its first film (if we ignore Spider-Man 3) was a surprise hit.

The first one was mildly entertaining and had some funny bits. The sequel, Venom: Let There be Carnage continues in that vein. It’s entertaining, has some funny bits. But ultimately it’s dumb, silly, and it’s trash. It’s basically what comic book movies used to be but just better made. It fall short of the mindless cinematic fun of the last few Godzilla films.

When Let There be Carnage begins, we are introduced to a young Cletus Kassady who is voiced by Woody Harrelson, but played by another actor. He and the girl he loves, Francis, are residents of St. Estes Home for Unwanted Children (yes, that really is the name). Frances is being taken away to the Ravencroft Institute because her “mutation” is getting worse. This makes Kassady sad and will later motivate what he does for the rest of the film.

We skip forward to the present to the present day as we see Eddie Brock has not improved himself since the last outing and is engaging in perpetual bickering with his symbiote. He is still an out of work journalist, and not even a very good ne at that. He’s given the opportunity to interview death row inmate Cletus Kassady, a supposedly dangerous serial killer, for no other reason than Cletus asked for him, not because he’s any good. Detective Milligan, of the SFPD thinks, that it would help reveal the location of other bodies. Brock needs the work hoping he can sell the story somewhere, and obviously Cletus is using Eddie to code headlines and quotes as a message to his old flame, who he doesn’t even know is even alive.

There are indeed clues as to where the notorious killer buried other bodies, and in true Hollywood fashion, they are hidden in plain sight for everyone to see. Except it is Venom who is able to piece the clues together, thus allowing Eddie to take the glory. Who these other victims are, and why they were killed, we are not told. Conveniently, after bodies are discovered, the governor lifts the moratorium on the death penalty and good ole Cletus is on a fast track to execution. This upsets him mightily for in a subsequent interview with Eddie, Cletus takes a bite out of Eddie, drawing blood. Yeah, you saw in in the trailer “I have tasted blood before, and that is not it.” So in a sort of reverse vampirism, Cletus has a bit of the symbiote in him. Just as he is near death, the symbiote manifests in him and becomes…CARNAGE. Prison wackiness ensues, including the ability for all the prisoners to just leave their cells for whatever reason. Bodies pie up in a bloodless PG-13 rampage of violence.

Meanwhile, Eddie and Venom’s bickering gets to comical levels as Venom throws Eddie’s things out the window, including his TV, telling him to get out. All the while Eddie saying, this is my home. Yeah, this is the major breakup scene in the movie usually between married couples.

But we know how this goes. Boy meets symbiote, boy and symbiote break up, boy and symbiote gets back together. There is a scene of Venom, in his natural form, going to a costumed rave where people just love his “outfit” and accept him for who he is. The icing on this particular metaphorical cake comes when Venom goes up to the entertainment’s mic and proclaims his “I don’t need that man in my life” moment. And there is much rejoicing.

Kassady makes a deal with the Carnage symbiote. He wants to find his old lover and Carnage wants to kill Venom. They figure it’s a win win situation. They easily find Frances and free her from the institute, not without leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, however. In a PG-13 version of Natural Born Killers, they gleefully make out while killing people.

This could be quite a deadly trio, except that Frances’s “mutation” is a deafening shriek. In fact, that is her character in Marvel comics. But for the symbiotes, loud sounds and fire are their weaknesses. So not exactly a match made in heaven.

There is little to fault the actors. They are simply doing their best with the thin material that they are given. Tom Hardy is a likeable enough Eddie Broke, but Eddie himself is not very smart or good at anything he does. I think Woody Harrelson’s performance as Kassady works only because he pulls his crazy Woody act which we have all seen many times before. The biggest tragedy was the wasted character of Frances “Shriek” Barrison as portrayed by Oscar nominated Naomi Harris. Much of her character is relegated to just being in her cell making menacing eyes at her captors. Michelle Williams as Eddie’s ex girlfriend is given even less of a significant role other than damsel in distress, who really should have been killed several times over if you can believe the villains. Seriously, my favorite character is the corner store owner, Mrs. Chen, played by Peggy Lu. She has some actually funny lines and displays more authentic personality than the rest of the characters.

As with a majority of comic book movies, the last act of the film is an indulgent all you can eat buffet of CGI and loud noise. It is handled as well as could be expected, but also as badly as can be expected. It is many times dark, confusing and extended longer than it needs to be.

The best reason to watch this, unfortunately, is to see the mid-credits scene which made the whole 90 minute runtime worth it as it is a significant twist to…well, everything. But other than that, the movie is a fun romp that is an easy 90 minute distraction for a matinee or rental. The plot is thin, and relies on too many unfunny lines. We really get no sense of any real characters, especially Cletus Kassady who is supposedly some notorious serial killer, but his back story is only given to us in a cartoon form.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Review: Malignant Falls Short of Complete Failure

At least the posters look scary…

I’m a fan of horror movies, of many genres. Movies like the Scream franchise worked because hey were self-aware, yet also had the scares, albeit jump scares. But they were pretty well done. James Wan broke out with the hit Saw, and made it to the big time with the surprising superhero blockbuster, Aquaman. But his roots are in horror and films like Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, which were creative vehicles that launched franchises that varied in quality. His latest film directorial effort, Malignant, however is not only a disappointment, but a near failure in the horror genre. It’s filled with more silliness in plot than tension, let alone scares.

Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is an expectant mother, quickly revealed to have had several miscarriages, and married to an abusive husband. After the latest incident, he is gruesomely murdered in their house, and a shadowlike thing attacks her, causing yet another miscarriage. Detectives find no indication of forced entry and discover that the husband has a history of abuse. So naturally, she is the prime suspect. But nevermind about that as they don’t bother to really question her.

True to horror film tropes, after leaving the hospital, she goes back to her murder house because “It’s my home.” She begins to see visions of grisly murders as if she were there at the crime. Bust she is frozen in terror. As it turns out, these aren’t just visions but actual murders taking place and they are all somehow connected. When she and her younger sister (Maddie Hasson) go to the police, they are met with cynicism. Yet, there are indeed bodies turning up as described by her.

Madison seems to have a connection to this killer and the killer is targeting certain people that are associated with Madison. It is revealed that not only was Madison adopted but adopted from a facility that specializes in child reconstructive surgery. The victims were associated with her stay there.

If you remember the trashy contrived 80s slasher horror films then this should all be familiar territory. Wan is so busy trying to recreate that atmosphere that he forgot to make a decent movie. Yes, the plot reveals are telegraphed a mile away and by the time it’s revealed I no longer cared. There are some scenes that stretch credibility, even for the gere. One such is the sister being able to walk in to an abandoned hospital that looks like Arkham Asylum and recovering her sister’s records without any problems. And it’s a good thing her mother has a working VCR so they can view the video tapes that reveal the, uhm twist.

A few times the music by Joseph Bishara is bombastic and overly dramatic for the most mundane of scenes such as a slow motion shot of police arriving at a crime scene. This is yet another point of unintentional laughter from me.

There is a really well done gory scene inside a police station that is part brutal martial arts and slasher. Bodies quickly pile up in a very well done scene, but if you look at it in hindsight, is pretty silly. There really is no explanation of how this killer is so powerful, unless it really is The Devil, but we never find out. Outside of that, the movie is a slog of uninteresting main characters. The two police officers are the only ones that seem to be any fun. That could be because they act as if what is going on is ridiculous and would rather be somewhere else. That’s probably the most genuine thing in his film.

This is one of those films from Warner Brothers that is day and date in theaters as streaming on HBO-Max. If you have HBO-Max it is already included in your membership for a limited time. I don’t recommend seeing this in the theater. Is it worth streaming? Yeah, sort of. It’s watchable, but doesn’t really stand out as anything other than competently made mediocrity.

Final Score: 4/5

Review: Shang-Chi is a Top Tier MCU Film

Growing up as a young lad in the 70s, The Hands of Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu, was one of my favorite comics to read, more so than Batman or Spider-Man. Yes, I knew it had some racist imagery, but there were no Chinese heroic characters in any comics at all at the time. We took what we could get. The writing by Doug Moench was a bit more mature and the art of greats like Paul Gulacy and the late Gene Day were eye popping. It helped, of course, that that era’s depiction of Shang-Chi was modeled heavily after the likeness of the late Bruce Lee. So it was with great anticipation, hope, and fear when Marvel announced they would be making a Shang-Chi movie. Would they make a cringe inducing cliché of orientalism like Mulan or would they make something that respects culture? Well, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the MCU has expanded their roster of big screen characters and not only added more representation and diversity to their ever growing dramatis personae, but also created a top tier entry into the Marvel movie pantheon of heroes with one of the most if not the most compelling origin stories in years.

Simu Liu, who is best known for his stint on the Canadian series Kim’s Convenience, makes his leading role debut on the big screen as the title character of Shang-Chi (calling himself Shaun in America) where he plays an everyday slacker youth pretty happy at his job as a San Francisco hotel parking attendant (honestly, in San Francisco, that can be pretty decent money). He is content to do his job and hang out with best friend Katy (Akwafina).

That simple contented life is interrupted one day as a random stranger demands the pendant he wears around his neck that was given to him by his late mother. And in the tradition of Jackie Chan, he is forced to defend himself . What follows is an incredible fight scene with choreography by the late Brad Allan, a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. With a judicious blend of practical stunts and effects mixed with some CG, we get the first true action scene that will probably go don as one of the most memorable in MCU history. The influences of Jackie Chan films are very clear as the stakes go higher and Simu Liu plays the reluctant badass fighter.

It is revealed after this that Shaun, came to America to get away from his criminal father and his past. His real name is Shang-Chi and his father is the true criminal mastermind behind the Ten Rings organization that made its first appearance in Iron Man and was given the false face of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Shang-Chi reveals that if the men who attacked him were after his pendant, then they are after his sister’s as well. He decides to travel to Macau to find his sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang. Since Katy is his best friend, she goes along for the ride, because that’s what best buds do.

It doesn’t take long (besides another excellent fight, this time on scaffolding) before we have a full family reunion with their imposing father who is played by Hong Kong cinema’s legendary Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as Xu Wenwu. Against comic book tropes, he is not a villain of pure evil. His history is much more nuanced than that and he knows he has done many bad things in the past in a personal quest for power. He gave all that up when he met their mother, but reverted back to his ways after her death. And in that time trained Shang-Chi to be an instrument of death by training him in every form of martial art.

Revealing much more after that will give away too much plot details. In fact, there is not much wasted in this film and an odd side effect of that is that the not so great trailers were the way they were because showing more would give away too much of the plot. And there is a nice plot going on with some drama and performances that stand out more than is not usually seen in films based on comic books. The family dynamic here is believable, much more than what is portrayed in Black Widow which wavered from fake to just jokes. And much of that believability belongs to Tony Leung, who lends a majestic gravitas to his performance as man who has lived for over a thousand years because of the power granted to him by the Ten Rings. Tony Leung is a legend of an actor and if you have not had a chance to see any of his films, especially ones directed by Wong Kar Wai, I highly recommend you seek them out.

Not content to have only one regal supporting role from Asian cinema’s legends, we also graced with MIchelle Yeoh, who plays the aunt of Shang-Chi and Xialing and who wants to stop Wenwu. As in everything that she has done lately, Michelle Yeoh instantly classes the place up. Whether it’s in the high profile Crazy Rich Asians or the little rom-com Last Christmas she provides an air of legitimacy to the more fantastical elements of the plot latter. Yeoh plays the protector of a village that holds a secret that Wenwu desperately wishes for. As is often the case, be careful what you wish for. Though his motivations are not unsound, his reasonings definitely are relatable.

At one point, the movie has to acknowledge that it’s a Marvel film and, for better or worse, we have the inevitable effects laden last battle that has become not only a mainstay of Marvel movies, but comic book movies on the whole. I would understand those that check out at this point because the movie goes full on fantastical. We are treated to mystical creatures straight out of Chinese mythology and a CGI filled battle between multiple forces that humans and non-humans. But bare with me, what still keeps this interesting is the family conflict between father and son. Shang-Chi must inevitably battle his father and yet there is an emotional honesty between their conflict. Neither wants this but they have to do what they have to do. And it is a testament to Tony Leung power as an actor, who has never been featured in a Hollywood movie, to provide us with a character that is human and sympathetic instead of a two-dimensional villain who merely wants power.

It is both a good and bad thing that this is a Marvel film. It does fit well into the Marvel universe. But unfortunately it also has to be part of that larger narrative and as such the Ten Rings will indeed be very important. We don’t know where they truly come from, only that they are very old and they are very powerful. Don’t bother checking up wiki or YouTube because any explanation of them you’ll find are from the comics and the actual powers are fully explored yet. And of course there is the heavy CG battle that was mentioned previously. For some this may come as a heavy break from the relatively grounded fights from earlier. This, for me, nails the multiple genres of Chinese martial arts films and manages to balance the two of fantasy kung fu with grounded fights. This is a genuine martial arts fantasy that does not render itself into absurdity.

Simu Liu is a true breakout star in this vehicle. His character is not the usual arrogant flippant quip filled protagonist who has to be humbled like a Tony Stark or Stephen Strange. He is pretty much a guy who enjoys his working class life until he has to step up. Now, Awkwafina, who I have been a fan with her performances in Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, is there to not only provide the comic relief but is also there as our anchor from the normal world to this fantastical world of mysticism and martial arts. And against typical trope, she does not serve as the typical love interest for the hero, they are best friends and she is not afraid to call him out for doing something stupid, such as choosing the name Shaun from Shang-Chi to hide from his father. Meng’er Zhang, who has mostly done stage work in China, is another breakout star of the film as Xialing, Shang-Chi’s sister. Fala Chan manages to hold her own against Tony Leung, playing his wife and the mother of Shang-Chi and Xialing. Needless to say, this movie does really well in its portrayal of women who are able to hold their own.

Director, Destin Daniel Cretton makes his big-budget debut with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. His previous film, Just Mercy, featured performances from MCU alums Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson (who was also in Cretton’s Short Term 12). He made a very conscious and rather brave choice to have the actors speak much of their lines in Mandarin and it gives the film an air of authenticity. He also contributed to the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. This is not only the first Marvel film with a predominantly Asian cast, it’s the first one with an Asian director. Chloe Zhao will be Marvel’s first Asian woman, and first Academy Award winning director when The Eternals comes out. Cretton very consciously breaks away from Asian stereotypes yet still manages to add the touches of Asian culture that is authentic, such as what many typical Chinese household have for breakfast.

Yes, representation matters, both in front and behind the camera. Shang-Chi feels Asian in not only it’s the performance off its actors but from the production as well. There are subtle details that add verisimilitude to not only Asians but Asian Americans as well, such as that one point that Wenwu addresses Katy as “American Girl” and asks her if she even knows her own Chinese name. This is actually a big thing about the Chinese and Chinese American experience. Katy is not just the outlet for the outsider to this world, but she is the outsider to the Chinese. Her family is inhabited by three generations, hers, her mother, and her grandmother. The grandmother speaks Mandarin, while the mother speaks slightly accented English. Katy is straight up ABC (American Born Chinese). There’s even a joke when Katy and Shang-Chi meet a character who speaks Mandarin to her, he pauses and says “Don’t worry, I speak ABC.”

I highly recommend this movie, not just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a damn good film that is enjoyable on its own as a martial arts film that genuinely entertains. Forget what you know from the 70s comics and even the modern ones for a bit. You may be feeling a bit of Marvel fatigue, you may be feeling superhero fatigue, but if you pass up seeing this, preferably in a theater, you are missing out on something that is genuinely fun to watch. Yes, see this in the theater if you feel safe to do so. And need I say that you have to stay through the very end as there is a mid credits scene and a post credit scene? Yes, it’s Marvel.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Review: Mulan (2020)

Introduction

I was a huge fan of the Disney animated film Mulan when it came out and was easily drawn into the story that was based on an ancient Chinese folktale. When Disney began making plans for a live action remake of the animated film, it did not take long for strong opinions to emerge. An average sampling of reactions are that it had to not only contain the songs but Mushu the miniature dragon as well. I had been hoping for a more serious take on Mulan. This was one Disney film that could be remade as a grand epic action movie. I was also under the delusion that their live action Beauty and the Beast would not be a scene by scene remake of the cartoon, and I was wrong. The same went with Lion King and Aladdin (which I actually liked). I was all sorts of wrong there.

Chinese and by extension, all Asians, have long been under-represented in Hollywood. And for much of that Hollywood history, Chinese had been relegated to demeaning stereotypes or characters that were humbly subservient to Western male leads. Even as ahead of time and groundbreaking Bruce Lee was, his most famous role in American television was that of Kato, literally the Green Hornet’s valet.

When Mulan came out it was groundbreaking in many aspects. It was a Disney cartoon that featured the heroine being heroic and able to fight as well if not better than her male counterparts. It was through her actions that the day was saved and not that of the male lead. And the romance was not a major goal or theme in the movie. In fact, it could have done away with it without any harm to the narrative.

China made a large scale epic version of their own in 2009. It was a grittier, more grounded version. Though it was entertaining and had a particularly standout performance by star Zhao We, it was uneven and hampered by some clunky pacing. Unfortunately it was not received well at the time.

Mulan and the Curse of 2020

Along comes 2020, and it seems every movie that was supposed to be released for the year suffered the curse of Covid-19. Disney’s live action Mulan was supposed to come out in March. Then a global pandemic forced theatres around the world to shut down. It was delayed until July. Theatres were still shut down. Disney in a move that faced immediate backlash not only decided to finally release the film streaming, but to offer it only on their new Disney Plus service, at a premium cost of $29.99. But if you wanted to wait, it will be freely included for ALL Disney Plus subscribers in December. It would be inline with mass release digitally and physical for all platforms.

But that is the least of Mulan’s controversies. Liu Yifei, the lead actress received pushback for her support of the Chinese government during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations. On top of that, the film was partially filmed at the Xinjiang region of China and thanked in the credits. It is region in China that is documented for it’s repression of its Uyghur Muslim minority, including “re-education” camps.

The least of Mulan’s problem is that it’s a remake of a well loved cartoon from the 90s Disney renaissance. So of course no matter how they approached doing a live action remake, it was going to be criticised for either being just a beat for beat, shot for shot remake, or changing too much. The decision was made to not include musical numbers or have animal mascots like Mushu. Things like this divided fans.

But is the movie any good?

So as it’s own entity, ignore the movies that came before it and it’s political baggage, is the movie any good on its own? It’s complicated.

We are introduced to a young Mulan who practices martial arts in a field, watched over by her father, played by the forever Chinese father figure of Tzi Ma. But Mulan is now of an age where she must give up her wild nature and be the dutiful and honorable daughter. That is marry a good husband and bring honor to the family. In order to do do that, she must give off showing how powerful her chi is.

Meanwhile, on the borders of China, Rouran invaders are attacking, led by Bhori Khan with a shapeshifting witch as his ally.

Meanwhile, on the borders of China, Rouran invaders are attacking, led by Bhori Khan with a shapeshifting witch as an ally. The call goes forth to draftone male from every household to join in the war against the invaders. When it comes to Mulan’s family, her father is the only male and is still determined to fight for his country despite being disabled. Mulan takes it upon herself to take her father’s sword, armor, and conscription letter in the middle of the night and disguise herself as a man to take her father’s place.

Unconvincingly disguised as a man, she joins an army camp and we are treated to obligatory training and bonding montages. She tries to hide her powerful chi from the others at first and trains while holding back her true self, but a moment of anger during training reveals her skill. From then on she is more highly regarded. Because, you know, kick another dude’s ass and you’re all now bros.

Mulan has several great factors going for it. Chief among that is how gorgeous the film looks. The film is awash with vibrant cinematography and costume design. Using locations from New Zealand as well as the aforementioned China locations. the landscape pops with its own personality. The film is dealing with a vague period of time in Chinese history and seems more interested in creating a narrative that is more of a legendary tale as opposed to history or even historical fiction. The Imperial City is vaguely described as being in Central China, as doing otherwise could ascribe a historical perspective. This may not appeal to historical purists. But let’s be honest, tring to make a myth historically accurate is just not as fun.

The cast of characters is a near who’s who of Asian and Asian American entertainment. Tzi Ma is perfect as the father, Rosalind Chao, veteran of Star Trek and The Joy Luck Club plays the mother. Hong Kong martial arts movie legend Cheng Pei Pei has a cameo as the matchmaker. One of the biggest action stars of Asia now, Donnie Yen plays the battalion commander. Jason Scott Lee plays Bhori Khan. Award winning arthouse actress Gong Li plays the shapeshifting witch Xianniang. And Jet Li has a bit role as the Emperor. And yes, there is also a cameo by Ming Na Wen.

This should have been a cinematic triumph. Unfortunately, it falls short of its potential. Sure Mulan may have unleashed her true strength when she shed all pretensions of pretending to be someone she wasn’t, but the film just can’t shed the trappings of it being a Disney movie.

As can be expected from a Disney movie, it is a technically well crafted, good looking, and good sounding film. It also plays everything safely and predictably. Rather than completely upset the fans of the 1998 cartoon, they kept many references to it, and unfortunately many of these callbacks fall flat and hold it down. “I will bring honor to us all,” is a callback to the song. “We are going to make men out of you,” says their trainer, another callback. When the warriors are in their barracks comparing what they are looking for in a woman, it is an obvious reference to the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For.” When the father realizes that Mulan has taken off in the middle of the night, he is next seen in a shrine asking that “ancestors protect her.” This is all baggage that could have been left a at the train station, but the way it is shoehorned in is excessive. And the repetitive emphasis on honor and dishonor becomes tedious after the first five or six times it is mentioned.

Also hampering the movie is the script’s rather oversimplification of how Chi works. George Lucas was influenced by the ideas of Chinese mysticism and Chi and partially based the Force on it. It is as if the writers decided that Lucas’s version was a scholarly treatise on mystical energy and decided to dumb that down even further. Somehow, the power of Chi is the purview of men. Now I know we’re dealing with mystical stuff here so there is no authentic interpretation of Chi, but there is a reason the yin and yang symbols are associated with it. Though Mulan seems to have a spiritual guide in the guise of a Chinese Phoenix, the film doesn’t address the tradition that the phoenix is symbolic of female power and spirit, whereas a dragon is symbolic of male power and spirit.

Though director Niki Caro does a fine job behind the camera, even with the action scenes, they suffer from unquestionably staying safely within the PG-13 rating. The battles seem violent, but as clean as they can be. And we know that none of the supporting characters, let alone the lead, are ever in any real danger.

Now, it sounds like this movie is bad. It’s not. It’s actually good, but definitely not great. Liu Yifei is a very competent actress and she does well in the role, however some lines are delivered a little more wooden than others and that just could be because English is not her native language. Tzi Ma seems to established himself as Hollywood’s Chinese father figure, and he is one of the gems of Mulan. Jet Li as the Emperor is nearly unrecognizable with a beard but bears royalty well. Unfortunately his voice is obviously dubbed in post. Jason Scott Lee, exudes menace as Bhori Khan, which is saying something since there is really not much to the character’s back story.

As I’ve said earlier, the film is gorgeous to look not only with it’s location shots but its set design as well. The Imperial Court interior particularly stands out for its set design. The musical score by Henry Gregson Williams can get epic and while at times it calls back to the songs from the 1998 cartoon, I would have appreciated some references to the magnificent Oscar nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith. The martial arts action uses quite a bit of wirework for many of its fights and they work effectively in this setting.

I don’t know how history will look back on this film, where it will be forgotten or will it achieve a anysort of memorable status. There is indeed much to like about the film, but so much of it tries to be an appeasement to old fans that it drags what could have made the film better. It doesn’t hep that the script is a cursory interpretation of the complexities of Chinese culture. Will this be a breakout hit in China as Disney hopes? Who knows? China is the reason that Transformers and Fast and Furious movies make money. And it’s not like those movies are great movies either. This could have been worse, but it also could have been better.

But if it were made by China in this day and age, I’m sure it would be filled with a lot of nationalistic monologues and propaganda. So it’s lose lose for us.

Final Score: 7.75/10 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Review: Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009)

Amazon.com: Mulan // Rise of a Warrior: *, *: Movies & TV

As an American born Chinese, like may, my first exposure to Mulan was the 90’s Disney animated film. And at the time it was an amazing film. Looking back, some of it is problematic in some of it’s forays into orientalism. but hey, we weren’t used to seeing people that looked like us in anything that came out of Hollywood, let alone Disney in a big role. So Mulan was a major milestone. When I showed it to my mother, in a Cantonese dubbed VCD, she enjoyed it. And of course like all old folks, “back in my day we all knew the story of Mulan.” Funny how I’ve now become like my parents in saying the same thing now.

Flash forward ten years and the Chinese action film Hua Mulan is released in 2009. It is also known as Mulan: Rise of the Warrior, Mulan: Legendary Warrior. I first saw this film on an imported disc from Hong Kong. This review, however will be for the US released Blu-ray disc of Mulan: Rise of a Warrior released by Funimation. It may be out of print or at least difficult to find because of renewed interest in the story and the release of the new live action Disney version. But it is available to stream on Funimation.com.

In 450 AD, the kingdom of Northern Wei (China is not united at this point) suffers multiple invasions by the Rourans, nomadic tribes that raid and pillage, your standard barbarian horde. The call goes out to enlist men to join in the fight to repel the invaders. Retired, and sickly Hua Hu insists that he is able to fight for his country. but in the middle of the night, his daughter, Hua Mulan (Zhao Wei), takes his armor, sword and conscription letter to take his place in the Chinese army.

Hua Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army. She is recognized by a Tiger (Jaycee Chan, and yes, he is Jackie Chan’s son) a friend she grew up with, but is sworn to secrecy. One thing leads to another and eventually one of her commanders, Wentai (Chen Kun) discovers that she is a woman too. Things could go badly for except they are conveniently attacked by Rourans. Mulan and Wentai both distinguish themselves in battle and her secret is safe for now. In fact, her secret is safe for the next 12 years.

Over time, the two eventually both become generals and lead successful battles against the invaders. Meanwhile, Prince Mendu, of the Rourans disagrees with his father’s plan to retreat back because of heavy losses. Mendu does some Game of Thrones shit and proclaims himself the ruler and plans to continue the war.

There are some big battles. Well, at least a lot of extras to make their battles look big. And this Mulan was made at a time when Chinese movies still used practical stunts and the fight staging is very well done. Ultimately, it is a war movie and not so much a martial arts film. Though what there is is done well.

As a period war film, it succeeds for the most part, but as a story it suffers from an uninteresting villain that himself prefers to lay on a mat like Jabba the Hutt and let things happen around him. Really, he’s not cool enough to do that. The movie also suffers from several unnecessary melodramatic tropes, such as the obvious romance between Mulan and Wentai, but which, for variou reasons is doomed.

Even though the film says that a dozen years have passed, it certainly does not look it as all the characters look as if they’ve only been fighting for a few weeks together. And even though there are great shots of thousand of extras in formation, the actual battles become more close and appear to be more like perhaps a hundred stunt performers.

Throughout this, though is the heavy weight put on the shoulders of Zhao Wei, who as Vicky Zhao, is perhaps best remembered as the female lead in Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer. Ironically, this is her second role as a crossdressing warrior. She also disguised herself as a man to infiltrate an enemy camp in John Woo’s grander and better period war epic Red Cliff. Zhao Wei is really the standout in the film as she has the most depth of character as time and war takes a toll on her being the witness to death and loss of so many comrades over time. Unfortunately the low hanging fruit of decision to leave, the big reveal to everyone of who she is, and her reunion with her father were done as merely passing scenes that you’d miss if you blinked.

Director Jingle Ma, is a veteran of Hong Kong Cinema, but it seems he may have hedged his bets when given the chance for a sprawling epic. In the end it is a more compact film than it set out t be with a romance angel that is really not needed. But then again, Asian audience love their melodramas and stories about doomed love.

The vast open locations suffer from a purposeful lack of color. The landscape is fifty shades of brown. And costume design leans to drab grays and black, rendering a near monotone cinematography. It falls in line with the more serious and gritty tone that the filmmakers were going through. Perhaps it was conscious decision to not be compared to the Disney Mulan cartoon. Image quality is fairly sharp though. Though there is violence aplenty, it is still very much PG13 violence. To be fair, I don’t think Chinese censors have allowed bloody R rated type movies since their takeover of Hong Kong and their cinemas.

The musical score stands out, and somehow works considering there are five credited composers. There is ample usage of traditional drums and the Chinese erhu.

But it is uneven editing, a clunky script and an unnecessary character hold the film back from being genuinely great. Mulan was made on a $12 million budget. It’s word box office gross was $1.8 million. That is a shame, even though the movie has issues, it is still entertaining.

Though I do advise watching the film in it’s intended language of Mandarin, the English dub is surprisingly serviceable.

Final Score: 8/10

A Platinum Review: Ghost of Tsushima

As a fan of Asian Cinema, watching samurai films, particularly those of Akira Kurosawa was a big part of my life. There have been a few samurai and ninja based games over the years I’ve played. But most of them could be almost any game re-skinned from another action game. Sucker Punch studio not only made a samurai era game, but made a loving tribute to the genre that is genuinely immersive, not in the historical world of the samurai, but in the legendary world of the samurai. Based on historical events, Ghost of Tsushima is an action stealth game that immediately grabs the player and drops them into a world straight out of samurai cinema. Whether it is the best game of the year will be debated, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful games of the year and also incredibly fun. It is exclusive to Playstation 4 consoles. For now.

Photo mode in Ghost of Tsushima is the best I’ve ever seen.

Historically, in the later part of the thirteenth century, the island of Tsushima was overrun by Mongols who would use the island as a stepping stone towards the invasion of Japan. The Mongols were repelled at Kyushu by the Shogun’s forces and the Mongol fleet was reportedly lost to a typhoon.

In Ghost of Tsushima, a small force of 80 samurai are defeated defending the island against the Mongol invaders. Only a handful survive the battle, one of whom is Lord Shimura, the governing lord of the island. The other, is his nephew Jin Sakai who is will be the game’s main character. Lord Shimura is captured by the leader of the invasion Khoutan Khan, who wants the lord’s surrender and cooperation to quell any insurgency from the rest of the island. Jin was rescued from the battlefield by a peasant woman who is also a thief and sees in him an ally who can help free her captured brother, a talented smith, from Mongol hands. Jin sees her as a useful ally to help in freeing his lord and uncle from the Mongols in the hopes that he may lead the island against the foreign invaders.

Ghost of Tsushima is an open world game with many sidequests and character based quests along the way to a conclusive story that Sucker Punch wants to tell. As opposed to RPG open world games, what you say or do in the game does not effect how the outcome of the game eventually ends. It has a three act structure where you can take your time finishing each act or rush through the main story to finish the act. After each act, another portion of the map will open up for exploring and liberation.

A major theme of Ghost of Tsushima is the transformation of Jin from an upright samurai warrior to become what the peasants will eventually call the “Ghost,” a spirit of vengeance who slays the foreigners without mercy, fading in and out of the shadows. The conflict comes not only with the struggle between Jin and the Mongol invaders but with his principles as a samurai as well. Face your enemies and look them in the eyes, or sneak up on them and put a knife in their backs. You may try your best to stick to the code of the samurai and are welcome to it, but there are definitely some quests and story driven scenes where you compromise your samurai honor. Either way, there really is no deciding choice to play strictly as ghost or samurai. Within the game you can stealthily go into a camp, clean out lookouts and guards and then challenge the last handful or even the commander to a standoff. Or you can go right up to camps and forts like a complete nutter taking on a dozen guards and archers. How you play is up to you. But since you are playing a narrative, you will end up in the same place in the end.

From the opening screen, you are presented with multiple choices in how to play. Besides the difficulty level you are given the choice of English dialog with or without subtitles or Japanese dub with English subtitles. Please note that since the game was motion captured using Asian American actors, the original language spoken on set is English and in my opinion matches the characters and expressions properly. And as a treat for samurai cinema fans, there is a Kurosawa mode which has the game in black and white, with added film grain and even the occasional film scratches. You can change these options in the menu at any time. Kurosawa mode is fun, but then you would be denying yourself some of the colorful and beautiful art direction.

Gameplay in Ghost of Tsushima is very fluid and is based on combinations of light attacks, heavy attacks, dodge or parry. With these simple sword moves, you can switch to different stances on the fly to adapt to different enemies. One stance is effective against sword wielders, another is effective against spear wielders, etc. Within that framework, you also have access to other weapons than your sword, you can switch on the fly to a half bow, and a longbow, each with the option to ar specialised arrows. You’ll also have access to a range of less than honorable throwing weapons at your disposal which you can use either stealthily or in combat.

Throughout the game, you will unlock perks that upgrade your fighting abilities and armor sets. Each armor set has their own perks and buffs. The main weapon that Jin will be using throughout the game will be his katana and tanto (neither of which are historically accurate for the era). The set he has in the beginning will stay with him throughout the game, they can be improved at a smithy. The armor sets, his swords, as well as his bows can be upgraded as well by visiting armorer or bowers. They can all be cosmetically changed by collecting flowers within the game and trading them for dyes at a merchant for different looks.

As is the norm in modern video games, there are many side paths to take and opportunities to pick up collectables. Some of these are not essential like Mongolian artifacts or records, but they do provide historical context to the game. But you will want to pay attention for certain side paths. Following a golden bird will often lead you to points of interest, either an important quest, a piece of armor, a sword skin, or importantly a hot spring bath where you can recover and increase maximum health. Practicing sword strikes at the scattered bamboo sword strike spots in the map is more than just good practice, they increase resolve which is the gauge that empowers powerful attacks.

Visiting Shinto shrines and bowing before them allows Jin to obtain charms that will give many different advantages such as increased attacks, healing, or better stealth. And most importantly, following foxes to a fox shrine will increase those charm slots where you can equip more charms, even stacking them for increases in damage. Most importantly, you can often pet the fox afterward. Sometimes they don’t stick around though, and that distresses me.

A true warrior always pets the fox.

Though there are many side quests in the game, none of them are “fetch quests.” You won’t find yourself looking for someone’s lost pet or carrying a letter from point A to B. There are character based quests that follow the storylines of the game’s supporting characters. Completing their quests will reward you with perks, so do those for sure. You will also encounter what are labeled as Mythic Tales, quests that Jin first hears from a storyteller that is based on Japanese myth but will lead to him learning a legendary attack, armor, or weapon. The end of these quests will usually result in a one on one duel that once won will award you with said reward. These duels are set up like classic samurai films with the tense standoff and the draw of weapons.

While playing Ghost of Tsushima, Jin will often encounter peasants who are under distress and will as for his help in either saving someone or ridding a farm of invaders. Often this doesn’t have a happy ending and you’ll sometimes end up being the bearer of tragic news.

And of course there are also random Mongol patrols to challenge. There is also the opportunity to liberate Mongol forts and camps so that they may be re-occupied by the citizens. Killing leaders will unlock upgrades to Jin’s stances and also learn new ones. So there is very little filler in the game and it doesn’t feel artificially padded out to stretch out the length of the game.

The acting really works well and suits their characters well. Character animation and fine detail may not be on par with that of games such as The Last of Us, though. But don’t let that turn you away as this is an absolutely beautiful game to play, and play with. I’ve spent a great deal of time using photo mode and recording some duels. Sucker Punch really shows off what they can do with particle effects as the screen is often filled with falling leaves or even burning embers from fires. The backgrounds are without a doubt works of art.

The sound design is top notch and in the game’s options you can choose various ways you listen to the game from a soundbar (like me), home theater, headphones, 3D headphones, etc. The music by Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi is award worthy.

Despite that, there are a few things I wished they included in the game. Samurai may be best known for their swords, but they were also supposed to be adept at using the naginata, the Japanese spear. He does not get to use one in the game. And although their are instances of dialog choices, whatever you choose doesn’t effect the game in any way. And as of this writing, there is no New Game Plus mode in it or announced which many online, including me are clamoring for. However, Sucker Punch has announced a free multiplayer element that will incorporate more supernatural elements to the game and will be separate from the main story.

Honestly I was looking forward to the game for some time after seeing the original trailers and picked it up on the day of release. I fell in love with it right away. It is one of the only games I received a platinum trophy (it’s actually not that hard to do) from and even took the extra step of completing every collectable in the game.

Highest Recommendations

Final Score: 9.5/10

Pixar’s Onward

onwardmobcall

Pixar’s Onward had an unfortunate run at the box office, by Pixar standards anyway. There really was no single reason for it to have a low performance. Being an original story and not a sequel may have been part f the reason, poor marketing may have been another. The Covid-19 outbreak was definitely an additional factor as movie theaters began shutting down a couple of weeks after its release. The underwhelming box office does not negate that Onward is an exceptional animated film that is fun and emotional as well. Through it use of fantastical settings, Pixar brings us a film that not just funny but addresses grief as well.

Onward introduces us to a world that may at first seem familiar to genre fans. It is a world filled with fantasy creatures such as elves, unicorns, trolls, etc. Normal life is filled with magic and adventure. But when technology actually happens, that adventure and magic gets forgotten. Who needs wizard fire when one can simply flick a switch for light? Over time, their world now somewhat resembles our current world in terms of technology and culture. Quests of Yore,  is a Dungeons and Dragons equivalent game that is considered history.

Ian Lightfoot is a young elf who has just turned sixteen and is lacking on confidence and has very few friends in high school. His older brother, Barley is obsessed with the game Quests of Yore and practically lives his life by it. Ian never got to meet his father as he died before he was born and Barley has only small memories of him. Their mother, now presents them both with a gift that was supposed to be given to them from their father when Ian turned sixteen. Unwrapping it, the sons discover that it is a wizard’s staff. Barley believes that their father was a wizard, but their mother says, no, he was an accountant. Along with it is a spell that Barley interprets to be able to bring their father back from the dead.

Their mother doesn’t believe any of this, of course and leaves the, on their own. After Barley fails to use the spell, Ian apparently is able to use it and bring back his father. The only problem is that it only half works before the gem in it shatters and they only summon back dad’s lower half.

So now comes the moment that Barley decides that they must go on a quest to get a second gem to bring back their father and time is their biggest enemy as the spell only lasts for twenty four hours. What follows is an adventurous road movie with the two brothers who could not be any more different in personalities than the other.

To those who have lost loved family members, most will have had one last thing that they wanted to say or do with that member, whether it is a mother or in this case a father. This is the opportunity that fate had denied these two young brothers. For Ian, it is an opportunity to meet the father he had never known and for Barley it is perhaps to say the farewell that he never got to say to him.

True to Pixar form, this is not a superficial animated kids road movie, but one centered on characters and how they grow and discover things not only about themselves but each other as well. The road movie formular works especially well with Pixar as can be seen by the tropes laid first laid out by their first animated film, Toy Story. What will tickle  the fancy of nerd fans is it’s constant references to the origins of the fantasy genre that we all love so much, Dungeons and Dragons. And, like me, even if you’ve never rolled a 20-sided die in your lie, you will recognize the influence of the game as the movie references scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and even the Lord of the Rings films which brings the genre full circle.

I’ve sometimes criticized modern films as being too much like video games with fetch-it quests to finish the main quest. And in the case of Onward, that sort of guest with maps leading to other tasks and hurdles is what makes it enjoyable because the structure of it is meant to mirror a game. Even though I’m not a board game player of D&D, I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing video game equivalents of it and had an absolute kick out of the fun tropes and references that the movie pulls off.

Some of the plot points may in fact be predictable to jaded fans of the fantasy genre or even video games. But don’t let that distract you from the fun times it can provide you.

Each of the brothers has a story arc that is told and issues with the loss of their father that they must deal with and by the end, some of  you may even shed a tear. Tom Holland as Ian is practically playing an even dorkier version of his Peter Parker persona here. I hope he isn’t typecast like this forever. He is slated to play the character of Nathan Drake in an upcoming film version of the Uncharted games, but who knows when that will see the light of days as it is one of the most troubled productions in Hollywood right now, even with a worldwide pandemic. Chris Pratt as Barley is basically playing Chris Pratt from almost every other film he’s been in lately but as a late teenager.

Onward was the very last film before my area enacted a shelter in place order which ended up shutting down theaters. But it was already a relatively low performer in the box office anyway. Through an agreement between Disney and the theater chains, it is now available for purchase digitally on all major streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime and Vudu. It is also now currently included if you are a subscriber to the Disney+ service. At this point, since it’s on home video, it is highly recommended and definitely worth checking out.

Final Score: 9/10

Birds of Prey is Actually a Fantabulous Film

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When Warner Brothers and DC announced that Harley Quinn would be getting a solo movie, I was not at all interested. When the trailers started to drop, I was slightly puzzled but curious. The trailers were oddly quirky and seemed to emphasize a lighter tone. When the movie came out, it did not do well in the theaters despite positive reception from critics as well as audiences who did see it. Frankly the film was oddly marketed and I don’t think Warner Brothers knew what they had on their hands. And coming off the heels of the poorly received Suicide Squad, a spin-off already had the odds stacked against it. Having a long confusing name such as Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — yes, that is the full title — certainly added to head scratches of not just movie goers but even comic fans.

With that out of the way I have to admit that Birds of Prey is the most fun I’ve ever had watching a DC film. even more than Shazam. Now bare with me a minute as I must quantify that Birds of Prey is not for everyone nor is it a typical comic book film. It is, however, funny, quirky, self aware, and full of original action sequences that are heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema, and especially Jackie Chan films. And all this is done without an over reliance on computer animation.

It is not necessary to watch Suicide Squad to see Birds of Prey. After a brief animated (Harley did originate as an original character for Batman the Animated Series afterall) montage on the origins of Harley Quinn and how she ended up with Joker, we are told that she finally dumped him.  Well, that’s her version anyway. The rest of Gotham’s underworld, however, does not know that Harley has changed her status from it’s complicated to single. She had been given big leeway because of her relationship with Joker. Too bad she gets drunk and spills the beans at a nightclub owned by narcissistic Roman Sionis. Sionis also happens to be a face-cutting-off bad guy known as Black Mask. And it turns out he is also after a valuable diamond not for the worth of the diamond but because there is a code written on the diamond that will unlock the vast fortunes of a slaughtered crime family.

There is a lot to digest in a movie that is less than two hours long here. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. There is a kid named Cassandra Cain who is a petty pickpocket living in foster care. Living in the same low rent building as Cassandra is Dinah, a singer at Roman’s club and new driver. There is a crossbow killer hunting down criminals in Gotham. There is a cop on the case against Roman (a pillar of the community) that comes right out of an 80s cop movie (really, Harley even tells us this). Cassandra Cain has stolen the diamond from one of Roman’s henchmen without knowing it is more than a diamond. Now she and the diamond become the McGuffin of the movie. Somehow, this all comes together in a wild mixture of comedy and action. And honestly, this movie could have worked if it was actually stretched out maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. I know that sounds unusual for a comic book film but this could have used some extra time for the story and characters to gel.

Despite the ensemble nature of the story, it is without a doubt a Harley Quinn movie. And by extension it is Margo Robbie’s movie. Robbie steps up to the plate, metal bat n hand, and swings mightily for the fences in this vehicle. She clearly shines in this and holds everything together. Ewan McGregor chews up the scenery like as one of the most flamboyant of DC movie villains who doesn’t wear clown makeup.

Backing up Robbie is a cast that includes Rosie Perez as Montoya, a by the gut anti-authority cliched cop.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress, a character with some major revenge issues and is also quite socially awkward. Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain, who happens to be a Bat Girl in the comics, as a streetwise, slightly foul mouthed, orphan at the center of attention from the bad guys. She has the diamond, but well, she swallowed it which means there are pretty much only a couple of ways to get it.

The ensemble doesn’t really come together until the last act where in opposition to an Avengers like assembly where they team up to save the world, they are joining forces to not get killed. It is that last act that the movie realizes its potential. The action set includes an ensemble fight in the funhouse of an abandoned amusement park that packs a creative set pieces similar to some of Jackie Chan’s films such as City Hunter.  There are some fun stunts along the way, including Harley being pulled by a car while wearing roller skates. These action pieces are also evidently done with little to no reliance on computer effects as well. The action direction is uncredited to the director of the John Wick films and are just fun to watch as they are in some ways outrageous. Also of note on the action, like Hong Kong films of yore, it is not filled with quick cuts and shaky camera movement but is filmed so that audiences can actually see the fights.

Cathy Yan handles her directing duties really well considering that this is her first big budget film. She is without a doubt influenced by Asian cinema as can be seen in her action scenes and her sense of comedy. Now this may not sit well with Western audiences, but a lot of Asian Americans will get some of her jokes. The script is by Christina Hodson, who has worked on the critically acclaimed Black Mirror series and is also in on the joke apparently, being half Taiwanese herself. Yes, I am celebrating the fact that along with the inclusion of Ella Jay Basco, Asian representation is strong without pandering.

I was genuinely not interested all that much in this film other than maybe checking it out as a matinee. But after the guys over at the Nerds of Color podcast kept heaping praise on this film I was planning to check it out. But now that practically all movie theaters are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner released Birds of Prey as an early purchase digitally for immediate streaming. That is how I watched it and I have no regrets.

Birds of Prey is definitely not a typical comic book movie. Some may even call it a femme Deadpool lite. But that would be an oversimplification. It certainly does not follow a cookie cutter formula for the genre. It is, however, a fun film that knows not to take itself too seriously and is also self aware of the movie it is. It may not be for everyone, but I think it has the makings of a cult hit that will be more well received as time and people give it a chance.

Final Score: 8.5/10