Pixar’s Onward

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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

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

 

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

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.