“Penguin Highway” is a Surreal Anime Delight

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What would you do if one day dozens of Adelie penguins started showing up in your little suburban town for no apparent reason? This becomes the trigger event for a surreal, yet beautiful, coming of age anime from anime film Penguin Highway that is sure to bring some delight to a dull day. And if, like me, you happen to have a love of penguins, you will be in for a joyful animated treat.

Aoyama is an overachieving self admitted genius. He is also in the fourth grade. Yet he keeps extensive notebooks on daily observations in life as his goal is to become a Nobel Prize winning scientist. He has a natural scientific curiosity about everything which is encouraged and cultivated by his parents. But frankly, he’s not as much of a genius as he thinks he is as he is a little clueless in may other areas as will be shown in the film. But he is definitely above average in the class. Fellow classmate, Hamamoto is a girl that he admits just might be smarter than him. His best friend, Uchida serves as the devoted sidekick who tends to states obvious facts that everyone misses such as who has a crush on who.

Aoyama has a fascination with the local dental assistant who is never really named but either addressed as Miss, or Onee-san, the honorific for big sister. We normal people would call it a crush, but he has no clue about that aspect of life. He also has an odd curiosity and fascination with her breasts. Though charming initially, it does become a little creepy as the film continues. Aoyama may be precocious but he is appropriately awkward in the world and sometimes his curiosity gets the better of him as he tries to see how long a person can go without eating.

One seemingly normal school day, penguins are spotted by many people in town and Aoyama decides it is his mission to investigate the phenomenon and solve the mystery of their sudden appearance. He discovers that they are Adelie penguins which are native to the Antarctic and not escaped zoo animals. A Japanese suburb is definitely not their natural habitat. Aoyama discovers that the ones that were rounded up by the local authorities suddenly vanished while in the truck carrying them.The mystery deepens and the game is afoot as Aoyama feels he has to get to the bottom of this enigma. And in true young kids fashion, the film’s Scooby gang is soon on the case.

He is of course teamed up with his classmates and Onee-san in his effort to solve the mystery of the penguins. By using observation and deduction he is determined to get to the truth. This truth will end up leading Aoyama and company on a road filled with surreal penguin appearances and disappearances,  inter-dimensional bubbles, and of course a little young romance.

Penguin Highway is the debut feature film of Hiroyau Ishida, but you would not think so as he deftly handles the story elements of the children with quite a bit of finesse  and never makes them seem annoying in their rambunctiousness as so often happens anime. Based on the novel of the same name by Tomiko Morimi, each of the characters are given their main moments and even the bully character is not really all that bad.

The final act comes together in a literal flood of adorable penguins and a dreamlike town that bends reality like a drug induced vision that is cute, funny and mind bending. Don’t let the fact that I absolutely love penguins and animes that feature them are especially endearing. This is a film that is heartwarming and quint and tells a story that can only be done in animation. On top of that it celebrates intellectual curiosity and the belief in science and the scientific method of evidence gathering.

But the final act may not make a lot of sense to many people and may leave some with more questions than answers while the final credits roll. But perhaps that is a good thing and maybe we’ll have to keep thinking about it later. Of course this is also all the more reason to watch it again.

At its heart, Penguin Highway is as simple a coming of age story as they come — except there’s space-time bending and penguins. It is uplifting and the visuals are absolutely stunning. If you happen to catch it dubbed the young characters are actually played by age appropriate actors. Although in some scenes, their young inexperience in voice work is evident.

I first saw Penguin Highway as an early screening during 2018’s Crunchyroll Expo and was deeply impressed. When it received a theatrical release, it was fairly limited but now it is available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo at all major retailers by Eleven Arts Entertainment and Shout Factory. If you are interested in a Collector’s Edition, it is available to order from RightStuf.com which is probably the largest online retailer of anime and Manga in the world if not America.

Final Score: 9/10

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Review: Blinded by the Light

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There was a certain genre of films back in the mid to late 80s that featured teen characters who felt trapped or stuck in where they were in the world. These circumstances could be because of economics, social status, or even family keeping the main character down from embracing their dreams and aspirations. Movies like Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, even The Last Starfighter had themes of  chasing a dream that others say they can’t achieve or defying your parents who are keeping you down.`

It is perhaps providence that circumstances align for the existence of the uplifting comedy drama Blinded by the Light which not only feels like an 80’s movie but since it is based on a true story, takes place in the 80s. Based on the memoir by Safraz Manzoor, Greetings from Bury Park, Blinded by the Light is a comedic drama that is joyful and heart warming as well.

Javed Khan is is a sixteen-year old Pakistani Muslim living with aspirations of being a writer living in 1987 Luton. Unfortunately for his dreams, his working class father does not see writing as a career and on top of that the family is very traditional Muslim which still believes in arranged marriages and familial piety. In other words, a father’s word is law in the household. And one of those laws is no girls, and graduate college and get a good job as a doctor, or lawyer.

While at Sixth Form College, which is like an advanced placement school before applying for university, Javed begins to take writing classes. He also meets and befriends a Sikh friend that would change his life. While talking over lunch Roops lets him borrow a couple of cassette tapes to listen too. They are two tapes of Bruce Springsteen music who Roops claims speaks to their situation as marginalized kids from Luton.

One night, at a particularly low point of frustration with the world, he puts on the Springsteen tape and listens to The Boss. Almost instantly the raw voice and the lyrics about struggling through in a working class world resonate with him. Not only does the music speak to Javed, it is as if the lyrics of Springsteen become a character itself, floating across the screen as if it were alive.

Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
The dogs on Main Street howl
‘Cause they understand
If I could wrench one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land

Rejuvenated by the music of his new found hero, Javed finds enough confidence in himself to start turning in his poems to his supportive English teacher, played by Hayley Atwell. It also gives him the confidence to start talking to fellow classmate, Eliza.

But not everything is great for Javed as his father is laid off from the local auto plant where his traditionalist father had been working for years. His mother must take on more sewing work all the while preparing for the wedding of his oldest sister. Javed faces increasing pressure to conform to the traditions of his family and obey his father’s wish that he do better than becoming “just another Pakistani cab driver.” His father has no understanding or belief that a writer can actually make a living and scoffs when Javed is given not only an internship at the local newspaper but a front page byline. And music of Bruce Springsteen is definitely not understood by his father, who he calls “that Jewish American singer.”

Yet despite his problems at home, he still finds joy in the company of Roops and Eliza. His budding romance with Eliza is an almost by the numbers teen romance. With the music of Bruce Springsteen blasting through his Walkman leads to an impromptu serenade of “Thunder Road,” comically accompanied by a whole street full of shoppers. There is another semi-musical moment later where Roops and Javed hijack the school radio station to play Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”  Along with Eliza in true 80s montage style, they dance and cavort about the streets of Luton. These scenes are meant for laughs, are absolutely unrealistic, but are also infectiously fun.

Blinded by the Light is, on the surface, a rather trope filled standard comedy drama. But what it does different and does well is tell its story from the unique perspective of an immigrant family amidst the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s England which was a tumultuous time both economically and racially. It can not be ignored that being a Pakistani Muslim during that that time was not easy as Britain’s neo-Nazi National Front party were openly harassing them in the streets. The story is one many of us may already see play out ahead of time with no real surprises. But as with my review of The Farewell, it is the reason that inclusion and representation makes a difference. It is unique because it tells a story of a culture that is often ignored or marginalized. Yes it is a different culture, but the themes about family and working class struggles are universal.

Director Gurinder Chandra weaves everything together and allows us to peer into a family and community that is not shown enough in cinema. Probably best known for directing Bend it Like Beckham, it too dealt with rebelling against traditionalism.

The cast is filled with relatively unknown actors. Viveik Kaira is absolutely charming as Javed and is easy to relate to and empathize with throughout the film. He starts off as the typical awkward kid, shy and hesitant, but when he is in the Springsteen zone, he is a force of exuberance, charm, and confidence.

Kulvinder Ghir deserves special recognition as Javed’s strict traditional father. It can’t be easy being both comedic and dramatic in the same scene as he carries the weight of both deftly, especially when playing opposite Viveik Kaira.

Hayley Atwell may be the best known of the cast but she is literally there as support for Javed. Yet her character is the first one that offers  encouragement to pursue his dream. She channels that one teacher that we all remember that was always there to encourage us.

As a son of immigrants and also Asian, many of the family issues that Javed faces about identity and where one belongs in society resonated with me, especially the desire to be a writer. Blinded by the Light may be a little clichéd, but it has enough working for it from its engaging cast to win you over. And of course the music of Bruce Springsteen helps a lot too.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Movie Review: The Farewell

The Farewell is a small budget film from Lulu Wang set mostly in China with dialogue mostly in Mandarin. It stars an almost all Chinese cast that comes to grips with a family dilemma that many people, not just Asians have to deal with, saying goodbye to a loved one for the last time while that loved one is still alive.

Current rising star, Awkwafina, hot on the heels of her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians, takes on a more serious role as Billi Wang. Billi is an aspiring writer who was received the bad news that she was rejected for a grant. She also receives the news from her parents that her Nai Nai, her paternal grandmother is dying of cancer. With the pretense of a all the family going to China to visit her for the wedding of one of her grandchildren, and Billi’s cousin, the family come to not only pay respects to the matriarch of the family but to also say their goodbyes. It is also decided among family members that the little time she has left she not be told about her condition.

This may sound odd to western audiences, but it is not all that unusual in Asia. Billi is not asked to join her parents as she would be the one most likely to tell Nai Nai the truth. She is also the most westernized of the extended family. Nevertheless, she scrapes up her own money to fly to China as well. While there she reconnects with her extended family and her grandmother. Yet underlying that is the fact that she is back in a China that has changed. her childhood neighborhood is no longer there and her understanding of the family dynamic his different as she had grown up with strained relationships with her own parents.

Yet, Billi has amazing love for her grandmother and internally and with other members is the constant debate on whether to reveal the truth to her grandmother about her condition. To a one, they all believe not to because it would place a burden on her. Whereas the family members take on the burden of her illness so that she may enjoy her last days surrounded by loved ones. And for someone like Nai Nai, she would see herself as a burden on others with her illness.

Being among her family brings out a sparking joy to Nai Nai as she is with her loving family. Billi especially has a rekindling of her bonds with her grandmother and finds the comfort and closeness that she has seemed to have lost with her own parents. And it is through her that she begins to understand her parents more.

The wedding subterfuge is rather interesting as it is for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao, who like her is a transplant, but to Japan. His girlfriend is Japanese which gives just a little bit of cultural tension as she does not speak Mandarin like everyone else. An it is never really stated how much she is in on the deception. Chen Han, as Hao Hao may not have much dialog, but he is always seen in the background feeling the pain of the deception that he must pull off in from of the family matriarch.

Crazy Rich Asians may have been Awkwafina’s breakthrough role, but this is without a doubt her starring breakout. Her comedic talents were a highlight in Crazy Rich Asians, but here where she is the star, she brings a strong dramatic turn as an Asian American caught between the multiple cultures, American, Chinese, and Chinese-American.

Bili’s father is played by Tzi Ma, a veteran Chinese-American actor with one of those faces that like many other Chinese-American actors has popped up in film and television for decades. It is about time he got as meaty a role as he got with The Farewell.

Nai Nai is played wonderfully by Zhao Shuzhen who does not seem to have any other credits to her name according to IMDB, but she turns in such a natural and charming performance that it is as if she embodies all that is good and beloved of everyone’s grandmother.

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In a theatrical field that seems to be flooded these days with big budgeted blockbusters and tent pole titles, it is significant that a film with a $3 million budget is actually one of the best films of the year. We are blessed that films such as The Farewell still exist. It is full of charm, heart, performances that are filled with natural verisimilitude. That natural verisimilitude may be because, as the opening title card says, that the story is based on a real lie. Lulu Wang based the screenplay on her own family experience and relationship with her own Nai Nai.

One of the reasons why representation matters in Hollywood is that even though on the surface, this is a family melodrama, it is from a perspective of Asian and Asian-American culture that much of movie goers in the west may not be familiar with and certainly something that Hollywood has been reluctant to include in their searches for the next big hit. What films like this, Crazy Rich Asians, and Netflix’s Always be my Maybe show is that Asian-Americans can tell their stories just as well as mainstream Hollywood. And because of their diversity they can tell these stories in a unique and original way.

I lost both my parents some years ago and managed t be by their bedsides for their last moments. Unfortunately the circumstances being what they were, neither time were they in a very conscious state and neither of their passings were what the family was prepared for. Lulu Wang’s new film, The Farewell deals with a touchy subject that is handled deftly with both humor and heart-touching drama.

Final Score: 9/10

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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The Poppy War is the debut novel of R.F. Kuang and draws inspiration from Chinese history, myth, and wuxia martial stories. It starts off quite lightly with a heroine that is easy to root for in the beginning. But it turns itself into a grim and dark tale when she must make some devastating choices in the course of a terrifying war. There are some spoilers in this review and I consider it necessary because it may be unsettling to some.

Rin was raised as a war orphan from the previous poppy war against the Mugen Federation. She lives with a family who treat her as nothing more than a servant. They can’t wait to be rid of their imperial obligation, and even plan to marry her off for money. She has other plans. Rin has a knack for learning and decides to train herself for the national entrance exams, which theoretically are not only open to all classes, but give an egalitarian opportunity for upward social and economic mobility by entering a university.

Unfortunately for a girl like Rin, even if she were to pass the exams, she has no money to pay for a university education. Her only chance is to score in the top one percent of the test takers to enter the Imperial War college in the capital city of Sinegard. It doesn’t come easy for her, but she studies and struggles hard enough to make it.

While there however, she finds that the egalitarian idea of the university is not as it seems. She finds herself shunned for her poor background as well as her darker skin. Her only real friend is Kitay, a fellow student, who is from the noble class and has an eidetic memory. Though his memory is photographic, he isn’t necessarily the best student. He is uninterested in martial studies and prefers the comfort of books.

Academy life is not easy for Rin, but she works hard at overcoming the many obstacles that stand in her way, including a Draco Malfoy like figure named Nezha. For her second year it is time for her to become apprenticed to a master to pursue her discipline. Rather than follow the course discipline of  strategy, which she excels at, she chooses the arcane and ridiculed discipline of lore, that is of course taught by the school’s most eccentric instructor. And she is the only student.

School life abruptly takes a dark turn as the Mugen Federation begins a war with her country of Nikan by invading its shores. The relative innocent school life is soon replaced by having to fight for real and not in the practice field.

As I’ve mentioned before, much of The Poppy War is based on real Chinese history and it is quite clear that the Empire of Nikan is analogous to China, and that the Mugen Federation is modeled after Japan. The setting is a cross between the Song Dynasty of the first millennium and the 20th Century’s Second Sino-Japanese War. In the strained history of China and Japan, one of the worst stains in history is the Rape of Nanking. China’s official death toll was 350,000 men, women, and children over a six week period. That atrocity is not often taught outside of China. And it is this bit of genocide that influenced R.F. Kuang to write the book initially.

With that warning out of the way, the chapters that do address the equivalent of the Rape of Nanking are graphic, but they are also related after the fact. It is gory, but compared to the real world equivalent, it is pretty tame.

Rin, the protagonist is no Mary Sue, for sure. All her achievements, as great and hard earned as they are in the academy, are illustrated by the author in an almost montage fashion. Some may find time too compressed at some points as there are passages mentioning that it took her a certain amount of months to get something right. But to me that saves the book, an already 500 plus page novel, becoming even longer with unnecessary exposition. Epic fantasy veterans may have a perception that the novel actually reads like a three books in one. This may come from the fact that there are three major parts to it, with the final third being a definite turn towards a dark resolution that does a better job of showing a person’s turn to the dark side of their nature than the Star Wars prequels.

Rin starts off likable and comes across as an almost stereotypical young adult protagonist. But what she initially shows as spunk and determination, we soon realize is impulsiveness and a hot temper. It will be that anger that eventually drives her forward in the final third of the book, to what may initially seem on the surface as the typical heroic finale, but ends up being a disaster of epic proportions. That temper and tendency to lash out also alienates her from the rest of her fellow students.

Nezha, who is initially Rin’s main antagonist, is himself not villainous and is more of a rival. Their antagonism is a clash of egos and class. Yet there is a reason that Nezha is favored among the teachers, he really is bright and accomplished, despite his arrogance and social status. But he and Rin’s fates will become intertwined as the novel goes on, and not particularly for the better.

Kitay remains the most relatable character, as he has no pretensions about his class or upbringing. He ends up being not only Rin’s best friend, but her only friend. He actually grew up with Nezha and shrugs off his insults, whereas they grate on Rin. His goal in life is just to be an imperial scholar serving the empire.

Kuang greatly impresses with her debut novel, and if you are like me, you will have some fun times trying to look for the references to real life Chinese history and legends. Of course the references to the real Rape of Nanking are no joy, but it really could have been a lot worse in it’s depiction of slaughter. Her characters stand out as multi-dimensional. And in the case of Rin, perhaps that multi-dimensional characterization is to a fault. I found myself rooting for her for much of the early portions of the book, and also found her frustrating later on. All this time, I had to remind myself that she and the rest of her fellow classmates are still students in their late teens forced to confront the horrors of war. She has a particular habit of leaping before looking and not caring about the end results of her actions.

The fact that these characters are in their late teens comes across as genuine. Yes, they are afraid, and they are appalled by the true horrors of war. They often make bad decisions when they are thrust into situations of command. The protagonists are far from perfect tropes and have definite flaws. Alton, former darling and superstar of the Academy in particular will make bad decisions that will have dire repercussions for the entire country.

Rebecca Kuang wrote this novel when she was 19 and coaching debate in China during a gap year. She graduated with a degree in Chinese History from Georgetown University a few days after The Poppy War was released. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Chinese Studies at Cambridge.

The Poppy War was nominated for Best Novel of  2018 for the Nebula Award, Best Novel for the World Fantasy Award, and best new author for the Hugo Awards. It won the Compton Crook Award for best novel from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. She is off to a very impressive start to her career. Her follow-up novel The Dragon Republic was released in August.

Kuang joins a growing list of Asian authors winning accolades and recognition within the science fiction and fantasy genre that bring a fresh perspective with their world creation. The Poppy War certainly is a different fantasy take from standard fantasy tropes cluttering the shelves. Its serious views of war and the aftermath of battle will haunt you. There is no glory or greatness in war, only pain, and death. I am glad to have read this book and look forward to reading more from Ms. Kuang.

Final Score: 8/10

 

Review: Amazon’s “The Boys” is Absolutely Subversive

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Warning: This review will contain and reference graphic violence and language throughout.

If you are undergoing a bit of superhero fatigue because they all seem generic and PG-13 sanitized, the expletive filled and violent Deadpool films may fill that void. If you think those are even a little too sanitized, then The Boys series on Amazon Prime just may be your cup of tea. It out-swears and out-gores Deadpool. It doesn’t just paint superheroes in a bad light, it practically makes them villains.

There are many references to Marvel – and especially DC superheroes in the show. In fact, The Boys started out as a comic published by DC under their Wildstorm imprint, but the comic and label were cancelled. The Boys found its home with Dynamite publishing Now Amazon has adapted it for their Prime service.

Superheroes, commonly referred to as Supes in the show are commonplace personalities in the world, specifically the United States. They are looked up to and admired by the masses. In the opening scene, we see an attempted armored car robbery be foiled by two superheroes who have none too subtle similarities to the looks and abilities to Wonder Woman and Superman.

The very next scene shows us that some fucked up shit is going to be happening from this point on. Hughie (Jack Quaid) works at a Radio Shack like electronics store, not quite happy at his job. But he does have a great relationship with his girlfriend, until the day a superhero speedster known as A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) plows through her, leaving a pile of blood and gore.  Barely stopping he continues on his way.

The Supes are apparently under the umbrella of the Vought Corporation. They market the heroes and hire them out to cities for protection from crime. And they also produce movies staring these supes as well as create theme parks around them. Add toys and other merchandising and it is obvious that this is a huge corporate company with assets worth billions of dollars. And yes, it is probably a purposeful dig at Marvel Studios and Disney.

It is mentioned that there are over 200 heroes in the country but the prime spot for any of these heroes is to be a part of The Seven, a superhero team that is basically the Justice League. After the retirement of a member, a young and relatively naive superhero from Iowa is given the opportunity to join The Seven.

Coming to Hughie’s life is Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who claims to be a Fed, but as Hughie says, he looks like he came out of a porn version of the Matrix. He ostensibly gives Hughie the opportunity to get some payback against the supes and particularly A-Train by planting a bug in their headquarters.  All he has to do is accept the $45,000 offer from the Vought corporation and sign a non-disclosure agreement.

As you can imagine, things don’t go entirely as planned. Hughie’s life is in danger from invisible superhero Translucent. Butcher saves him and the two take Translucent prisoner. It turns out that Butcher is not who he claimed to be but that he is hell bent on exposing the supes for what they are — a bunch of self-serving sociopaths who care nothing for the public other than their polling numbers, their fake personas, and profits from endorsements. Butcher has no compunction killing supes and hates them all for reasons that are revealed in a later episodes.

Spanning eight episodes, there is practically no filler in this lean series. Every episode advances the story forward. The show takes the concept of superheroes and subverts them more than any other media has ever done, perhaps even more than Watchman. And it is very difficult to give an in depth review without too many spoilers. Each episode is a revelation and they are several arcs that encompass the entire first season run.

In any other comic book universe, the members of The Boys which include other members, Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonzso), would be considered super-villains. But in this world, The Boys do not have super powers and they don’t have tons of money. These are working class folks, each with reasons to hate supes.

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But the world loves its superheroes and think that they can do no wrong. Even in a superhero survivors therapy group, there is no real animosity towards them. But because of their larger than life personas and relentless corporate marketing, the heroes are treated like gods. And the biggest face of that pantheon is Homelander, played perfectly by Antony Starr. Homelander is basically a combination of Superman, Captain America and maybe All Might from the My Hero Academia manga and anime. He even has a flag as a cape. Too bad he’s the biggest cunt in the series. Out of the other Seven, he is an the true sociopath.

Possibly the second most popular member of The Seven is Queen Maeve, (Dominique McElligott) a character analogous to DC’s Wonder Woman as personified by Gal Gadot. She’s definitely in on the dirty business of the superhero life but she is also sympathetic to Starlight’s plight as the new girls and shows genuine remorse for some victims that she can not save while, Homelander shrugs it off and seizes it as a PR opportunity.

Underlying the background of these supes is their control by corporate ownership of Vought, which to them not only is their source of fame and money, but their protection from undue scrutiny and lawsuits. It is soon apparent that they have more than a marketing interest in their supes as they push for lawmakers to allow them to serve in the military as weaponized soldiers. Right away, that is a red flag in any movie or television show, even one that is subverting the genre. They also market the idea that supes are blessed by God to protect people.

The Boys does more than subvert the superhero genre, it gives it a big middle finger to its face. It also is a scathing critique of the cult of personality associated with superheros by painting them as egotistical hypocritical figures who think they are above the law. Now, one can’t but help that in real life comic book movies, Marvel ones in particular, are extremely popular. But none of them, not even the dark visions of Zack Snyder, address the day to day implications of having that much power over a population of non powered beings and the ramifications of how much terror they really cause. Yet amidst all this dark subversive storytelling is also dark subversive comedy that dials up the satire to 11.

The cast is full of personality and Karl Urban chews up his scenes with a plethora of cunts and fucks coming out of his mouth, which is supposed to be a British accent, but sounds more Australian (Karl Urban is from New Zealand). Fellow New Zealander, Antony Starr plays Homelander as the perfect all-smiling all-American hero, while underneath, he’s as total bastard, more of the Evil Superman than the kid in Brightburn. Chace Crawford plays The Deep, an unlikable person from the start who is also a joke to the rest of The Seven because his superpower is talking to fish. Though he is not really deserving of our sympathy, his back story is very interesting. Erin Moriarty Starlight serves as the only supe deserving of our sympathy as she serves as the idealistic one from the small town but thrust into the dark fucked up reality of the corporate superhero world where her image is controlled and her popularity is polled daily. Simon Pegg is featured in a couple of episodes as Hughie’s father which is an homage to the comics, since Hughie was modeled after Simon Pegg.

This show is most definitely not for everyone. It can be crass, crude, gory and uncomfortable. But it is also one of the best takes on superheroes up to date. It turns the idea of superheroes on its head and subverts the idealized idea of them. This show would not be possible and probably be as good as it is if it weren’t for how popular the superhero genre is right now. Avengers: Endgame is now the highest grossing film of all time and it was only a matter of time that a film or television series was made as an anti-superhero series. Now I’ve not read the comics that the series is based on but I never at one time felt it was necessary to have read them to get enjoyment out of it. Thankfully, Amazon has already greenlit a second season and I look forward to it as it ended on a massive cliffhanger.

Final Score: 8.5/10

 

 

One Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Fractured Fairy Tale

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I have a great amount of respect for Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker. He is a combination of modern pop culture auteur and big name money-making director. The period of 1969 in Hollywood, was a pivotal period for the town. It would also host one of the most tragic crimes to haunt the city since the Black Dahlia. To this day, the memory of  it is fairly fresh. Tarantino has chosen to address that period and time in a unique way with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The Tate Murders by the Manson Family may seem like a subject of poor taste even, for a Tarantino film, and I must admit to having a minor sense of dread through the first two of the two hour and forty minute running time of the movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton a one time hot property in Hollywood westerns and action films. His glory days were as a 1950’s bounty hunter in a television show called Bounty Law. But since then, he’s been languishing in B movies and guest appearances on other shows as the bad guy of the week. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and his stunt double for many years. Both have found their careers waning in a Hollywood that is changing. Dalton lives right next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the new young faces of Hollywood. It is also a world he doesn’t think he’d ever be a part of. Next door neighbors to one of the hottest directors in Hollywood and he’s never met him or Sharon Tate.

More than any other Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not have an overall plot like the claustrophobic The Hateful Eight, or alt-historical Inglourious Basterds. Most of his films may seem like they lack a plot, but they tended to coalesce in the end to tie everything together. This is a character driven piece that also serves as a love letter to a bygone period in Hollywood glitz and glamour.  Rick’s latest bad guy of the week show is on Lancer, a real television show that ran from 1968-1970. During the filming, it dawns on him that he truly is a has been and is old news.

Cliff has not exactly had a stellar career himself and his reputation is somewhat tainted as he may or may not have killed his wife. The last time Rick managed to talk stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell) into having him on set, he started a fight with Bruce Lee (Michael Moh) and dented the car of of Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell). So most of the time, Cliff spends his days running errands for Rick, driving him around (because Rick had his license suspended after the last DUI), and fixing things around the house.

While driving about Los Angeles, he picks up a hitchhiker who he’s been seeing all over town. He gives her a ride to the Spahn Ranch, which is the historic compound of Charles Manson and his “Family.”  That sense of unease starts to settle in right about here. And as the compound was an old western set, it has a certain tension about it that is evocative of how Sergio Leone would film scenes that were pure tension leading to brief moments of violence.

Interspersed between the stories of Cliff and Rick is Margot Robbie absolutely exuding charm as Sharon Tate. The up and coming starlet spends much of her time having a good time around town, visiting a bookstore in Hollywood and even watching her own film, The Wrecking Crew at a movie theater (single screen, kids). We don’t see much of her for a good portion of the film until the third act where she is very pregnant. And frankly, Tate, as a character just sort of breezes in and out of her scenes like some wisp. Margot Robbie isn’t the only person to get the short straw even though she shares the billing. The women really get little to do. The most significant female role that effects that interacts with the male leads is a child actress played by Julia Butler who gives precocious acting observations and opinions while Rick is on the set of Lancer.

So let us address the elephant in the room. This movie is not about the Manson Family murders. The Manson story and the Tate story is peripheral to Rick and Cliff’s story. And without giving away anything, bare in mind that Tarantino does not make historically accurate films even if they are in historical settings. His point seems to be that Hollywood is at the cusp of change in 1969. Taking place a year after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in a California hotel, as the country seems to have lost its innocence with Kennedy’s death, Hollywood is about to lose its innocence with the horror of the Manson Family. Charles Manson is played by Damon Herriman who has portrayed the infamous cult leader twice now, once in this film and again in the upcoming second season of Mindhunter for Netflix. He’s obviously doing something right since he’s darn creepy in the few scenes and lines given to him.

The Dragon in the room is Bruce Lee. Now Michael Moh portrays Bruce Lee very well but he also plays him as not a person but a caricature of not just Lee but of the Kato character from The Green Hornet. Sure cliff is a total tough guy and can hold his own. But in real life, just like when we were watching the Batman/Green Hornet crossover that Kato would kick Robin’s ass. We all know that Bruce Lee would really kick Cliff Booth’s ass. He’s not only nerfed in his skill but he is also mocked it, which I think is quite disrespectful. Film portrayals never do enough research to figure out hat he fighting style Lee used in his films was not how he sparrerd in real life.

This is unabashedly a love letter to the lost richness of not only Hollywood but old L.A. where extinct icons of late 60s Los Angeles are portrayed in their heyday as we drive along with Cliff in Rick’s Cadillac. And no matter how you may feel about Quentin Tarantino as a director, his movies are without a doubt shot really well. Much respect is due him for still using film in the age of digital. The nostalgic scenes of driving around the city with old Hollywood landmarks still standing were recreations, and not computer generated — another point of praise owed to Tarantino. Older Los Angeles and Californian natives may enjoy that nostalgia like I did, others may not realize how much has changed since then since it is before their time.

But the film is ultimately a collection of character piece scenes that showcase the talents of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. When the dual are on screen together, they are captivating. This may go down as one of the biggest bromances in film history. The two actors have a natural chemistry together as if they have made dozens of films together as opposed to this being their first. But because it it is more character piece than plot driven it can feel dragged out and disjointed. There really is not a plot to speak of and as star studded as the cast is, outside of DiCaprio and Pitt, the rest of the cast is relegated to cameos, even Margot Robbie. Nevertheless, this is some of the best work that DiCaprio and Pitt have ever done.

The tone of the ending and the way it ends is going to be divisive in some ways. Debra Tate, Sharon’s surviving sister, did give the movie her blessing after being reached out to by Quentin Tarantino. But it does seem like a total tonal shift in the way the movie had been coasting through for the last few hours. It’s as if the director felt obligated to insert his signatu7.5re staples and tropes into it. It’s not horrible, but it is unexpected and came across as cartoonish. I was not sure if the laughter in the theater was nervous or cathartic at what it could have been. This film will do well for for history buffs.

In some ways, this is Tarantino’s most accessible work, but it is also uneven plotless film with a collection of character scenes, some of which are brilliant in either the way they are acted or shot, but other scenes bloat running time make the movie feel long. It could run shorter. And in fact, if the whole Manson subplot were eliminated it could have been a fine straight up comedy and avoided an ending that plays loosely with history. But Tarantino is not telling history here, he’s telling a fairy tale. It’s a fractured and flawed fairy tale, though. It also does nothing positive for the women characters considering 1969 was a pivotal period in the Women’s Movement. And like practically all film portrayals of Bruce Lee, it chooses to portray him as a mirror of his on screen personality as opposed to the real him.

Final Score: 7.5/10

Marvel at Comic-con 2019

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I have not gone to San Diego Comic-con in over a decade, and of course not Hall H. I frankly don’t miss all the crowds and the annoying press of people , especially for Hall H where it can get really packed and  bit hot. And it seems that a lot of studios are not going for the big wall to wall presentations anymore like that have done before. Warner Brothers and DC had nothing to bring  to comic con this year. And originally, neither did Marvel. But  Kevin Feige being the smart marketer that he is, realized that this year was the perfect opportunity to dominate the geek news cycle with Marvel news. So on Saturday, July 20th, Feige and Marvel brought the boom to the room.

Since I could not be there personally, I had to rely social media feeds and YouTube streamers who were also watching social media feeds. It was actually kind of fun. The slate of announcements were for many things were already expected. However there were a few surprises such as casting, and a major reveal in the end.

Obviously if you are not up to date on the most recent Marvel films, including Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, there will be spoilers ahead.

The Eternals

I know that most fans know very little to nothing about the Eternals. And I highly doubt that anyone out there were thinking “Yeah! Eternals! This is what I’ve always wanted.” And in the history of Marvel comics, they were not a top tier title,  or middle tier for that matter. But their existence as the early inhabitants of earth feeds into that History Channel Ancient Astronaut itch. Their inclusion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be huge, though. For one thing it is possible this lays down the foundations on why some people become super powered instead of getting killed by, say gamma rays, a radioactive spider, or a super soldier serum.

The Eternals are not exactly a superhero team, they are a race of beings that have existed on earth since the beginning of time. Marvel’s panel introduced audience to the cast: Angelina Jolie will star as Thena alongside Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Lia McHugh as Sprite, and Don Lee as Gilgamesh.

That is a huge stable of talent. And I looks forward to seeing what they do with this. For a more informed take on the significance of The Eternals and what the implications are for the MCU, I recommended Robert Jefferson of Comics Explained to break it down for you.

 

Thor: Love and Thunder

Gracing Hall H were Chris Helmsworth, Tessa Thompson, and Natalie Portman. Now Ms. Portman has had very little to do in the Thor movies since the Dark World and even her scenes in Avengers Endgame was previously shot footage with some post audio recorded by her. That would beg the question on why she is there. Director Taika Waititi was a fan of Jason Aaron’s comic run of The Mighty Thor where Jane Foster assumed the mantle of Lady Thor. I don’t know how they are going to handle the handing over of ther mantle because the circumstances are unique in the comics and the way the MCU is set up now, it doesn’t seem to be going in the same direction. For the film, though, Jane Foster will be known as Mighty Thor.

Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Yeah, I know a lot out there have no clue who Shang Chi is but I have to say I have never been more dreading and excited. I am excited because Shang Chi was one of my favorite comics in the 70s and especially when artist Paul Gullacy was drawing the comics where he straight up modeled Shang Chi after Bruce Lee to the point that Marvel probably told him to cut it out.

Now, Shang Chi comes with some baggage and the big one is of course that he is the son of Fu Manchu which is possibly one of the worst racist Yellow Peril Stereotypes in history. Marvel lost the rights to the Sax Rohmer characters a few years back. And now they have cast Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as the true Mandarin who had been hinted at as a character since Iron Man and did wrong in Iron Man 3. Now the Mandarin is still a problematic character as far as race, but the name doesn’t have the racist baggage that Fu Manchu has.

Newcomer, Simu Liu was introduced as Shang Chi who had only received news that he got the part four days before the panel.  But Mr. Liu is not a stranger to Marvel Studios as he had been campaigning for an Asian superhero before Shang Chi was ever officially announced as a project. He seemed to interact really well with the crowd and has a natural charming personality.

I’ll have more thoughts on Shang Chi in an future post. But Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a lot riding on it that casual fans may not be aware of.

Black Widow

After the events of Endgame, many cynics hve coiced the opinion on why people would want to see a Black Widow movie. Which begs the question of why not? Just because Tony Stark dies in the finale of Endgame does not mean that there is no reason to watch the previous movies with Iron Man. Black Widow is no different. And make no mistake, this is going to be an origin. Joining the cast besides Scarlet Johansson  will be David Harbour as Alexei, the Red Guardian.

This looks to be a more grounded film as well as a spy thriller. Besides the Red Guardian which is essentially Russia’s version of Captain America, will be Taskmaster who is a master mimic of fighting styles, making him very difficult to defeat.

WandaVision

Coming to Disney Plus. When the creators outright say that the show is going to be strange, they probably. It will feature Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, and Vision who we last saw dead in Avengers Infinity War. And it will take place after the events of Avengers endgame.

Now, how they bring Vision back from the dead has not been revealed but there are no shortage of theories as to how this can be done. Most likely it has to do with what Shuri did at the last minute in a scene in Infinity War.

I had also been promised that other MCU characters would make appearances in the show as well. The rumors that the show would take place during the 50’s was a bit off. It will apparently have a 50’s feel to it, whatever that means. But it will explore the nature and powers of Wanda more. That brings us to her joining Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

“Just because Quentin Beck made up lies about the multiverse, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”  Declared Kevin Feige. Director Scott Derrickson promises that this will be the first Marvel Studios horror movie. Benedict Cumberbatch showed up and received a belated happy birthday from the host and audience.

The title itself opens up a lot of possibilities and it has also been confirmed that not only will Benedict Cumberbatch be reprising his role as Strange, but that he will be joined by Elizabeth Olsen reprising her role as Scarlet Witch. My personal theory which is total speculation is that an event will happen within the WandaVision series that will lead up to being resolved in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

And it could all lead to Marvel’s House of M, which would be epic. Robert Jefferson is once again, on hand to give an in depth explanation to one of the major storylines to shape the Marvel Comics universe in his four-part House of M videos. Part 1 is below.

Falcon and Winter Soldier

Coming to Disney Plus in 2020 will be Falcon and Winter Soldier in their own limited series. It’s not Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Let me say why this title really works and just may shot down the nerdy theorist out there. Just because Steve Rogers gave his shield to Falcon does not mean he is Captain America. In my opinion, these things may work in the comics where you have month to month to sell the transition. I may even work as a television series. This series is only supposed to be six episodes, however.

From a storytelling standpoint it makes sense that public wants Wilson to be the new Captain America, and maybe he even tries to assume the mantle for a while. But Sam Wilson is not Steve Rogers and he has to come to terms with his own identity too. This really

What If

For Disney Plus, this has the potential to be the most fun and experimental of any series they have on their table or even their movies. What if? was a comic series that was popular for some time in the 70s through the 80s which were usually one issue speculations such as “What if Conan was in the Modern Age?” “What if Mary Jane were Bitten by the Radioactive Spider?” The comics would start with an introduction by a Watcher who basically served as the Rod Serling of the series.

Jeffrey Wright, who has been seen in such big franchises as The Hunger Games, Westworld, and Boardwalk Empire will be providing the voice of The Watcher.

Hawkeye

Also coming to the Disney Plus streaming service is a Hawkeye series. Apparently it will be focusing on Renner’s Hawkey character training Kate Bishop to be the new Hawkeye. “I get to teach someone else how to be a superhero without super powers.” They used the same graphic as the title graphic for Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye, which Io9 called one of Marvel’s greatest comics. Yes, there will presumably be a female takeover of the Haweye mantle. Cue anti SJW outrage. But I am intrigued.

Loki

So some bloke named Tom Hiddleston showed up for the announcement of a show that was no secret. Loki will be a limited series streaming on Disney Plus although he had died in Avengers Infinity War, he was very much alive in the time travel portion of Avengers Endgame. And we saw that he had an out. And the version of Loki that will be on the show is going to be the evil Loki, not the chaotic good one that we saw at the end of Thor Ragnarok and the beginning of Infinity War.

Blade

Two-time Academy Award winning actor Mahershala Ali came out on stage at the very tail end of the Marvel presentation. At this point, everyone on stage and in the audience were handed Black Widow hats, but Mr. Ali did not have one. WHen Kevin asked him why he did not have a hat on, he said he brought his own. He put it on and it had a newly revamped logo for Marvel’s Blade. Mic drop of the con.

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Blade had a decent following and had some success as a film franchise starring Wesley Snipes. This would mark Marvel Studio’s foray into the darker universe. The original movies were rated R and Bob Iger, CEO of Disney has said in no uncertain terms that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not be rated R. Deadpool would be on his own at Fox. It is not impossible for Blade to be rated PG-13. The original comics were written under the outdated days of the Comics Code.

Nevertheless, the it will be some time before we see Blade on screen as Kevin Feige said after the presentation that it would not be part of Phase 4 but rather Phase 5. So many things can happen behind the scenes. Maybe Bob Iger will change his mind.`

Fantastic Four and More

A reboot of Fantastic Four was essentially name-dropped as the panel was closing as well as mentions that Black Panther 2 and Captain Marvel 2. We know the sequels are coming, but there is no release time frame set but it is inevitable. They were name-dropped as well as Fantastic Four. And like Blade, these sequels look to probably be in Phase 5.

Final thoughts

Now, if you think this is Marvel’s mic drop, remember that their appearance at Comic-Con was a last minute decision. And there is still D23 coming up in August which is the major convention run by Disney which they have been promoting for some time to supplant San Diego. Expect to hear more details on Black Panther’s sequel, Captain Marvel, and expect a team-up film to close out the phase. I am sure Marvel has a lot more news to make and more details on the films already mentioned.

There is going to undoubtedly be some pushback against Marvel for having such a diverse cast of characters in their upcoming phase of movies and it will probably be from the same corner of the internet that were going to boycott Captain Marvel and drive its box office numbers down, you know, the same ones who thought that Black Panther was pandering to minorities and was going to be a box office failure. Well, they are proving themselves to be nothing more than circular group of people echoing each other. And we know that half these people on YouTube making their little screeds could not care less or really even believe in what they say. They do it for the clicks and the views. And the fact that there is supposed outrage over diversity shows exactly why there is a need to have diversity. Now these movies may fail. But it probably won’t be because of diversity or more representation of marginalized people. If they fail, it will fail because they are just bad.

If I made any errors in the announcements, forgive me. I will make corrections in the comment section if needed.