I really enjoyed Siddharth Anand’s War, starring Hrithik Roshan; with its crazy action sequences and wild twists, it felt like a Bollywood version of a Mission: Impossible movie. So I was excited to see the two reunite for Fighter, which looked like it’d be the Bollywood Top Gun. Alas, Fighter is nowhere near as enjoyable as War. Or Top Gun, for that matter. Given that it’s an Indian film, wild tonal shifts are to be expected. Even so, Fighter puts you in a tailspin as it veers between war carnage and brutal terrorism, goofy “buddy film” hijinks, overwrought melodrama, and smoldering romance, with the requisite dance numbers thrown in. (For the record, nobody, and I mean nobody, smolders like Hrithik Roshan, especially when he’s walking in slow motion, which constitutes approximately a fourth of the nearly three-hour film.) What makes Fighter especially eyeroll-inducing, though, is that nearly all of its scenes are slathered in jingoism and over-the-top nationalism that just suck the fun right out of the film. Meanwhile, the surprisingly shoddy CGI and visual effects render the many dogfighting scenes more silly than thrilling.
The arrival of this one took me by surprise, simply because the previous Orphan X novel — The Last Orphan — seemed to end things on a rather definite note. (That, and it was literally titled The Last Orphan.) Would that it had been the final Orphan X novel. Lone Wolf suffers from the same flaws as its predecessor, namely that it spends so many pages diving into the protagonist’s trauma, existential angst, psychological baggage, and (worst of all) experiences with HOA politics, that it becomes surprisingly and frustratingly inert. After all, this is a series of novels about a super-deadly assassin who now loans out his skills to desperate people in desperate situations while trying to stay one step ahead of the people who trained him. Ironically, the more humanity that it protagonist seems to reclaim, the less interesting he becomes as a character.
Mamoru Oshii is best known for directing classic anime films like Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer, Ghost in the Shell, and the Patlabor movies, but he’s also taken his hand at live-action over the years. I loved the Matrix-y Avalon years ago, and with its baroque, CGI-heavy visuals, Garm Wars: The Last Druid is cut from the same stylistic cloth. Which means that it has some occasionally stunning visuals even as it suffers from a bleary, washed out look that makes it look like one long Final Fantasy cutscene. The story’s an interesting-if-convoluted blend of Celtic mythology, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic cyberpunk, but nobody — not even Lance Henriksen — is going to win any awards for their performances. (Kenji Kawai’s score, on the other hand, is lovely.) And after about 90 minutes, the film just sort of peters out, which is ironic given the epic final imagery. In the end, this one’s really just for Oshii diehards.
I started watching Fractale way back in the day on Hulu but never finished it. Still, something about it stuck in my memory. So when Crunchyroll offered the entire series on Blu-ray for $5, I figured “Why not?” and bought a copy. Now I wish I would’ve saved my money. Fractale isn’t terrible, but its story — a young boy living amongst virtual avatars gets caught up in a quasi-religious war over a global VR network — never quite delivers on its (bizarre) premise. Which serves only to highlight its other flaws: fan service; uneven tone; inconsistent artwork and animation (different episodes look like they’re animated by different teams, and even in the same episode, characters will look wildly different between scenes); and a gratuitous subplot involving child sexual assault that feels like it’s only there to make the primary antagonist even more villainous. Combine all those things, and it’s hard to shake the impression that writer/director Yutaka Yamamoto’s sense of ambition simply exceeded his ability to craft a compelling story.
After 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon refused to make another Bourne movie without director Paul Greengrass, so Tony Gilroy — who wrote the first three Bourne movies — hopped into the director’s chair and enlisted Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz, with middling results. That’s no slight on Renner and Weisz, who do the best they can with an inert storyline that verges into the realm of sci-fi with its talk of genetically modified super-soldiers. There are flashes of a more interesting film here and there, and Renner and Weisz share some nice moments. In the end, however, The Bourne Legacy is just a pale imitation of the films that preceded it, from the hectic, rapid-fire editing and elaborate chase sequences to the ever-increasing array of shadowy government projects with boring-yet-ominous codenames.
I often round up a half-star rating if for no other reason than I respect the fact that an artist put something out into the world for us to enjoy. Not so this time, because I’m annoyed that Gareth Edwards’ The Creator isn’t a better film. Much of the film’s hype centered on its visuals, and yes, The Creator contains some truly stunning visuals that evoke Blade Runner, were it set in Southeast Asia rather than dystopic Los Angeles. Impressively, Edwards shot his film for a “mere” $80 million, which just goes to show what’s achievable with a clear concept, good production design, and an expert approach to visual effects. Unfortunately, none of that translates to the storytelling, which is both heavy-handed and lazy, particularly when it comes to the burgeoning relationship between the two protagonists (a disillusioned American soldier and the robotic child super-weapon he’s supposed to kill), a relationship that Edwards really wants you to find moving and affecting. (And don’t get me started on the ham-fisted critique of American imperialism.) There are occasional flashes of brilliance — someone please make a movie that explores the theological ramifications of AI monks — but too much of The Creator feels like a string of gorgeous VFX shots in search of a good story, and ultimately left wanting.
Back in 2009, Michael Jai White wrote and starred in Black Dynamite, an homage/parody to blaxploitation flicks like Black Belt Jones. Though uneven in places, Black Dynamite worked because it leaned hard into nostalgic campiness. I wish Outlaw Johnny Black, White’s homage/parody to spaghetti westerns, had done the same. But Django Unchained and Blazing Saddles this most definitely ain’t. Sure, I laughed several times, and the titular protagonist’s Gospel awakening was an interesting angle, but Outlaw Johnny Black is mostly a squandered opportunity due to its meandering storyline (which isn’t helped by its 2+ hour runtime) and aforementioned dearth of camp. (The shoddy special effects don’t count.) And for all of its racial humor and commentary (e.g., poking fun at Hollywood’s legacy of using non-indigenous actors for Native American roles), the film’s surprisingly toothless. This was clearly a passion project for White, and I’m sure the cast and crew had fun making it, but in this case, none of that resulted in a very good film.
On paper, mixing Batman and H.P. Lovecraft seems like a total no-brainer. And if you set it in the 1920s, and feature the Caped Crusader battling ancient cults and supernatural foes with era-appropriate Bat-gadgets, then so much the better. Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham — which is based on a comic miniseries from the early ’00s — has all of that. Unfortunately, however, it also tries to cram way too much into its 90 minutes, from the never-ending parade of Batman friends and foes (some of whom appear as alternate versions of themselves) to the convoluted retconning of Gotham City’s history to the overwrought dialog filled with old time-y phrases and oodles of Lovecraft references. And that’s to say nothing of the increasingly bizarre final act, which keeps throwing things at you (e.g., body horror, occult magick, more body horror) until it all just kind of falls apart. Note: If you want to watch a supernatural take on Batman, then you may be better served by 2017’s Justice League Dark.
A Wave Blue World’s Maybe Someday is an anthology of sci-fi stories whose purpose is to “inspire readers and restore their belief that a better world is possible.” As you’d expect, most of the stories here are intended to be positive and, if not heartwarming, then at least a nice rejoinder to the stream of bad news and negativity that often floods our news channels, social media feeds, and inboxes. Which is all well and good, but maybe I’m just too much of a cynic because I found most of the stories slight, milquetoast, and underwhelming. There are some interesting ideas here and there, but the only story that really stuck in my head is arguably Maybe Someday’s most downbeat and nihilistic one, as it follows a lonely individual intent on ensuring that Earth’s wildlife thrives in a post-human world.
Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed was one of my very first anime/manga titles back in the early ’90s, and I still have a certain fondness for it. Much of that’s due to Shirow’s mechanical designs (e.g., Briareos’ cyborg body), which have a certain organic-ness to them that still looks really cool to me (especially in the 2004 movie). That said, Hypernotes is very much for Appleseed completists only, with an 80-page story that leaves off right in the middle of the action (hence the low rating). But if I’m being honest, the only reason I checked it out was to thumb through the collection of notes and sketches of Shirow’s various mechanical designs, from the weapons employed by Briareos and Deunan to the Landmates used by Olympus’ ESWAT team.
First, there was 2016’s Shin Godzilla, followed by 2022’s Shin Ultraman. And now with Shin Kamen Rider, Hideaki Anno completes his trilogy of rebooting his childhood favorites. Like Shin Ultraman, Shin Kamen Rider can feel like a tokusatsu parody, albeit by someone who clearly loves the genre. However, Shin Kamen Rider relies on the viewer being familiar with the original franchise to a much greater degree than the other Shin films — and I have very little knowledge of Kamen Rider. Thus, the film felt very abrupt, like it assumed I already knew what was going on and didn’t need to explain itself. (Which sort of makes sense, since it’s remaking the original 1971 Kamen Rider series.) Obviously, your mileage may vary, and if longtime Kamen Rider fans pick up on easter eggs or find themselves laughing knowingly at certain scenes, poses (oh man, are there so many poses), or lines of dialog, then more power to them. I did enjoy the movie’s action, which employed CGI, animation, and more gymnastics than a Summer Olympics. The campiness and over-the-top-ness alike were nice rejoinders to the superhero action we see via the MCU and DCEU (and a lot gorier than I was expecting). This being an Hideaki Anno property, it’s hard not to look for Evangelion-isms, and indeed, the conspiracy our masked hero must fight against had shades of Human Instrumentality, but Shin Kamen Rider isn’t nearly so grim and apocalyptic. And weirdly, the ending reminded me, of all things, of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.
I haven’t been too impressed with Pixar’s recent output. Films like Incredibles 2, Onward, and Turning Red have their moments, but 2015’s Inside Out was their last true masterpiece. Elemental does nothing to break that streak. I went in with low expectations, so I was mildly surprised at times. (The sequence where Ember and Wade travel underwater to see the Vivisteria flowers is quite beautiful while Thomas Newman’s soundtrack has some cool non-Western elements.) However, Elemental suffers from the same issue as the Cars movies: it’s really hard to suspend disbelief with this sort of anthropomorphic storytelling. It just raises too many questions. Elemental does poke fun at that with the chain-link fence gag, but are we really supposed to believe that clouds, trees, and walking puddles built a glass city? Where did the technology come from, especially since fire is treated with suspicion, even outright hostility? And since clouds are water, can air and water elements reincarnate between each state, thus becoming functionally immortal? If I must watch an anthropomorphic tale, I’ll stick with Zootopia, which touches on similar themes but is far more entertaining and well-made, and has a better love story than Ember and Wade’s. (And since I’m already curmudgeonly, I’ll just say it: Wade is arguably the most annoying Pixar protagonist to date.)
I’ve been fascinated by Dean Motter’s Mister X ever since I saw an ad for its CD-ROM in the pages of MacWorld back in the mid ’90s. Considered groundbreaking at the time, Mister X became (in)famous for its oft-delayed publication, behind-the-scenes drama, and revolving door of writers and artists that included the Hernandez brothers (Love and Rockets), Seth, and D’Israeli. Published in 2008 by Dark Horse Comics, The Archives collects the original Mister X run from the ’80s along with some other odds and ends, and it’s a very uneven work, artistically, narratively, and tonally (as you might expect given the aforementioned factors). Motter’s original premise is intriguing: Designed according to the theory of “psychetecture,” Radiant City was supposed to be a utopia. But its very architecture is now driving the citizenry insane, and the enigmatic Mister X — who claims to be Radiant City’s original architect — is desperately trying to save it without going mad himself. The original Mister X run is definitely a case where you can’t judge a book by its cover; the original series’ stunning covers, created by the likes of Dave McKean (The Sandman), Paul Rivoche, and Motter himself, suggest a far stranger and more interesting world and storyline than even the Hernandez brothers (with all of their delightfully detailed work) were able to create.
I went into this knowing nothing about it other than it starred actor/stuntman Alban Lenoir, who previously starred in the Lost Bullet films (which I really enjoyed). Lenoir plays a special agent tasked with infiltrating a vicious gang and flushing out a terrorist leader. Naturally, things get messy when he starts earning the respect of his new comrades and befriends the gangster’s lonely son, which complicates his loyalties and risks compromising his mission. The opening scene made me think that AKA was going to be something along the lines of Extraction — and then a final, shocking twist made it clear that it would be a much darker film. AKA has more on its mind than mindless action sequences — e.g., political corruption, France’s legacy of colonialism — and I appreciate action films that dig a little deeper to explore the tragic, traumatic nature of violence. But AKA is so dour and glum that it’s hard to stay engaged or care about what’s happening even with the heavier themes.
The Saturday morning before the Fourth of July seemed like the perfect time to watch the G.I. Joe movie, and in my pajamas natch. (All I was missing was a bowl or two of Lucky Charms.) As with any nostalgia-inspired viewing, the mileage definitely varies. A lot of the movie’s pretty awful, even beyond the spotty animation (e.g., the various “ethnic” accents and racial stereotypes, the emphasis on completely forgettable new characters). And the revelation that an ancient reptilian civilization called Cobra-La was — surprise! — the force behind Cobra all along is absolutely ridiculous. But also kind of awesome, albeit in a “I still remember what ’80s Saturday morning cartoons were like” sort of way, and I wonder how kids back then reacted to the movie’s Lovecraftian biological monstrosities. (My son was a bit incredulous that my parents would’ve let me watch this when I was his age.) I’m under no illusions, however: if I didn’t have any ongoing interested in the G.I. Joe franchise (thanks, in large part, to the various comics), I never would’ve watched this. That said, it’s still way more entertaining than all of the live-action G.I. Joe movies combined.
You’d think watching Nazis get dispatched in gory, ignominious ways would be its own cinematic reward. But Sisu is very much a case of diminishing returns. It starts out strong, with our grizzled protagonist mining for gold in the wilds of Lapland amidst the chaos of World War II’s final days. The cinematography in these early scenes is striking, with a dark beauty that adds to the movie’s apocalyptic tone. Soon enough, however, Nazis are getting stabbed, shot, blown up by landmines, and crushed by tanks because — surprise! — our boy’s an infamous ex-commando. But that’s when it gets… dare I say… boring. Sisu clearly wants to be fun in a B-movie sort of way as Nazis get picked off one by one in increasingly bloody ways. But it could’ve been a more interesting movie had it stayed gritty and grounded (literally). By the time its final act begins, though, Sisu has devolved into the kind of soulless, CGI-enhanced antics typically associated with the MCU.
This was a real “meh” movie for me. Some of the CGI visuals were impressive and the voice acting was enjoyable enough. (Nobody else but Jack Black could be Bowser, and after seeing the hate that Chris Pratt received, I though his Mario was fine.) But overall, The Super Mario Bros. Movie left me feeling, well, meh. I caught many of the references — e.g., the callbacks to Koji Kondo’s classic soundtrack, Jumpman, Diddy Kong — but that’s really all it was, a series of references. There was nothing bad about the movie, per se, but it felt very safe and by-the-numbers, as if its only concern was checking everything on the “Fans Will Be Pissed Off If They Don’t See This” checklist, and nothing else. (Compare that to the first Sonic the Hedgehog movie, which possessed an irreverent zaniness that made it better than it honestly had any right to be.)
Had I seen Willow when I was twelve, I’m sure it would’ve become one of my favorite films right alongside Flight of the Navigator. Unlike my wife, however, I wasn’t allowed to see Willow as a child, so I have zero nostalgic attachments to this classic ’80s fantasy film from Ron Howard and George Lucas. (By contrast, I have all the nostalgic attachments for Flight of the Navigator.) Which was not to Willow’s advantage. It’s not without its charms — e.g., Warwick Davis’ earnest performance, the Welsh and New Zealand scenery, some of the vintage effects (it was refreshing to see a CGI-less fantasy film) — but overall, Willow is a slog without nostalgia’s rose-colored glasses. Val Kilmer’s clownish-yet-dashing swordsman is far more clownish than dashing (which makes both his battle prowess and his eventual romance with the villain’s warrior daughter all the more eyeroll-inducing) and the less said about Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton’s annoying brownie duo, the better. On a sidenote, I had little interest in watching Disney+‘s Willow series, and now I have zero interest.
Novels like this contain a definite “male wish fulfillment” factor. Eisler’s main character isn’t just a deadly assassin; he’s also wealthy, cultured (as evinced by his taste in jazz and single malt scotches), operates according to a strict code of honor, and of course, sleeps with one or two beautiful women per novel. To his credit, Eisler does try to make John Rain more than just a mindless murderer with a few scenes that find him wrestling with his difficult and bloody past. Unfortunately, these scenes can make Rain seem petulant, self-pitying, and even whiny — which aren’t exactly qualities one looks for in their literary assassins. The book’s ultimate saving grace is Eisler’s descriptions of Tokyo which, due to his having lived there for several years, possess a gritty authenticity. That said, I don’t really feel a need to read any more John Rain novels after this one.
When The Mandalorian debuted back in 2019, it was a delightful space-Western riff on Lone Wolf and Cub. Since then, the series has piled on ideas and lore (e.g., Grogu’s Jedi training, the Empire’s hijinks, the New Republic’s growing pains, Mandalorian history). Some of these ideas, like the rehabilitation of former Imperials, are interesting, but I’m not convinced that The Mandalorian is the best place for them. Not when the results feel as aimless, distracted, and perfunctory as they did this season. And it certainly doesn’t help that The Book of Boba Fett was basically Mandalorian season 2.5, or that we’re all still reeling from the awesomeness that was Andor’s first season. Mind you, the sight of Mandalorian warriors flying through the sky on their jetpacks will never not be cool, and Mando and Grogu’s bond is always cute, but unfortunately, the series as a whole just doesn’t seem to have much of a point or identity any more.