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

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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