My Cultural Diet (March 2024): 3 Body Problem, Masters of the Air, Road House, Dune

A quick rundown of last month’s cultural experiences.
Dune 2
Paul Atreides and Chani from Dune: Part Two

In order to better track my various cultural experiences (e.g., movies, TV shows, books, restaurants), I’ve created the Cultural Diet. Think of it as my own personal Goodreads, Letterboxd, and Yelp, all rolled into one (more info here). Every month, I recap everything that I watched, read, etc., in the previous month.

  • In the Line of Duty III

    The third In the Line of Duty film is a bit of a downgrade from the first two installments, 1986’s Royal Warriors and 1985’s Yes, Madam!. This time around, a Hong Kong inspector (Cynthia Khan) must track down a pair of Japanese thieves and terrorists while also battling the sexism and bureaucracy of the Hong Kong police department. The storyline is slight — I much prefer Hiroyuki Sanada’s Japanese detective in Royal Warriors to Hiroshi Fujioka’s here — and stylistically, the film is a bit all over the place. But the action scenes are still pretty fun, highlighting Khan’s atheleticism and aerial kicking skills. It was interesting watching this so soon after the new Road House. Both films employ lots of hyperkinetic editing during their action sequences. But whereas Road House’s editing obscures the action, the Hong Kong film’s editing, though considerably rougher (and obviously free of CGI enhancements), is more entertaining and leaves you more impressed with the actors’ (and stunt performers’) abilities.

  • Road House (2024)

    The original Road House is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great film. But it does have plenty of personality and charisma, both of which are in very short supply in this modern remake from Amazon and director Doug Liman. Jake Gyllenhaal is largely wasted here as a former UFC fighter (with some demons in his past, natch) who’s hired as a bouncer by a bar in the Florida Keys that’s terrorized by some thugs. It’s fun to see Gyllenhaal’s character put the arrogant rich boy villain in his place, but the film’s a tonal mess. When Gyllenhaal finally switches into Hulk mode and unleashes his angry side, it’s pretty underwhelming. Ironically, given the film’s premise, the numerous fight scenes are pretty underwhelming, too; they’re edited to within an inch of their lives in an effort to make them look seamless and then “enhanced” with CGI, silly POV shots, and other pointless tricks. Give me Patrick Swayze’s haymakers and roundhouse kicks any day of the week. As for Conor McGregor, his swaggering enforcer does inject some fun into the film, but his novelty also wears off pretty quickly.

  • 3 Body Problem

    If you’ve read Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem, then you know that producers David Benioff, D. B. Weiss and Alexander Woo had their work cut out for them. Cixin’s ambitious novel, which stretches from China’s Cultural Revolution to the modern era, puts an intriguing spin on the “alien invasion” storyline with some pretty heady ideas (e.g., virtual reality, multi-dimensional supercomputers, quantum entanglement, orbital mechanics). As such, the novel seemed unfilmable. To their credit, Benioff, Weiss, and Woo do a decent job of capturing the novel’s ideas and weirdness. (As for the novel’s infamous “boat scene,” it was just as horrific as I expected.) I just wish 3 Body Problem had more interesting characters to go along with those ideas. With the exception of Benedict Wong’s rumpled investigator and Liam Cunningham’s manipulative secret agent, the principle cast is boring, if not annoying. The occasionally ham-fisted dialog about the power of science and the need to understand reality doesn’t do the actors any favors, but humanity seems pretty screwed if the “Oxford Five” are our only hope.

  • House of Ninjas, Season One

    For centuries, the Tawara family has defended Japan from within the shadows. After their beloved son is killed in a mission, though, they abandon the shinobi way and fall into dysfunction. But when a new threat emerges in the form of an increasingly popular cult, can the Tawaras overcome their differences and their grief, reclaim their shinobi skills, and defend the country once again? At its best, House of Ninjas is an enjoyable series about a modern family who just happen to be deadly shadow warriors. To its detriment, though, it never quite makes up its mind whether it’s a quirky comedy or a serious drama. That, and it juggles just a few too many storyline ideas within its eight episodes. But the most frustrating thing about House of Ninjas’ first season is that it ends on a cliffhanger with lots of unresolved questions. Since Netflix has a history of canceling promising series after just one season — I see you, Lockwood & Co. — I’m not holding my breath for season two. But if it happens, I’ll definitely be watching.

  • Royal Warriors

    When two Hong Kong cops (Michelle Yeoh, Michael Wong) and a Japanese detective (Hiroyuki Sanada) kill a couple of terrorists trying to a hijack an airliner, they land in the crosshairs of the terrorists’ comrades — with predictably dire and action-filled results. Given that premise, 1986’s Royal Warriors — the first of the In the Line of Duty films that popularized the “girls with guns” genre in the ’80s and ’90s — is a surprisingly grim movie. I say “surprisingly” because you’d never guess that from the film’s flashy style, ’80s fashion, and jazz-funk soundtrack, as well as Wong’s constant attempts to woo Yeoh even after a terrorist tries to gun them down in the most ’80s nightclub of all time. Royal Warriors is a bit of mess, tone-wise, but the action’s phenomenal. This being a “girls with guns” movie, Yeoh gets top billing, but Sanada — who, for the record, is currently killing it on Shōgun — steals every scene he’s in, playing a haunted family man pushed to the brink of revenge. I’d watch a whole ‘nother movie that was just about his character.

  • Houses with a Story by Seiji Yoshida

    Seiji Yoshida’s Houses with a Story isn’t a graphic novel per se, but more like an architectural survey. Its pages are filled with floor plans and cutaway drawings of imaginary homes and buildings that are delightful, fantastical, and occasionally whimsical. The “World-Weary Astronomer’s Residence” (seen on the cover) is a monastic dwelling perched high atop a rock formation while the “Reserved Mechanic’s Cottage” makes for a pleasantly solitary life on a Montana lake. Located in the Tibetan mountains, the “Library of Lost Books” is a sprawling complex stuffed with tomes and possibly connected to another world while the humble “Clinic in the Woods” blends classic Japanese structures with Western influences. (And those are but four examples.) Yoshida draws inspiration from a variety of cultures and time periods for his designs, each of which is accompanied by lovely paintings, fun notes highlighting all manner of delightful and clever details, and a short intro to the dwellings’ inhabitants that sparks the imagination. Indeed, reading Houses with a Story left me in a constant state of “I want to go to there.”

  • Dragons Forever

    Dragons Forever is not my favorite film starring the legendary “Three Dragons,” aka, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao. (That would be 1984’s Wheels on Meals.) The plot of Dragons Forever is pretty silly, as a lawyer (Chan) representing a big factory tries to prevent a local fishery from suing his client for polluting the environment. He teams up with an arms dealer (Hung) and a criminal (Biao) to discredit the fishery’s owner, only for some romance to complicate things. The comedy is pretty nonsensical, as is the romance. Of course, with Chan, Hung, and Biao on the marquee, you know the film’s action and stunts are going to be the real draw — and on that front, Dragons Forever does deliver, and then some. You just have to wade through a lot to get to the good stuff. The final fight, featuring Benny “The Jet” Urquidez as the big bad, is an all-time classic. As great as Chan and Hung are, though, Biao steals the show with his acrobatics.

  • Masters of the Air

    Apple’s Masters of the Air is an ambitious and stirring series about the 100th Bomb Group and the dangerous missions they flew over Germany. Depicting the brutality of World War II in graphic detail, Masters of the Air doesn’t shy away from the costs paid by those men, which only highlights their bravery. In hindsight, though, it might’ve been too ambitious, trying to cram too much story into just nine episodes. Certain elements — e.g., war’s psychological toll, the Tuskegee Airmen, the dangers faced by pilots shot down behind enemy lines and those helping them, the horrors of the Holocaust — get unfortunately shortchanged and end up feeling tangential. Also, the series’ relatively large cast and steady turnover of “main” characters occasionally makes it difficult to know who to follow, or whose story is actually being told. On the one hand, that makes historical sense; the daytime bombing raids were a meat grinder and the series never diminishes the constant loss of life. On the other hand, that storytelling decision sometimes causes the series to meander — which again, makes me wish there’d been a few more episodes to give it more room to breathe. Even so, Masters of the Air remains worth watching, thanks to solid performances from Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Barry Keoghan, and Nate Mann; impressive visuals and production values; and Blake Neely’s score.

  • Road House (1989)

    Since Amazon Prime is releasing a Road House remake later this month, it seemed like a good idea to rewatch the original 1989 film starring Patrick Swayze in all of his ’80s glory. It’s an enjoyable enough film, an example of prime ’80s cinema that’s all vibe — and feathered hair. It’s also patently ridiculous, be it Swayze’s philosophical, Tai Chi-practicing bouncer (who has a tortured past, of course), the love interest who loves him simply because he’s Patrick Swayze, or the main antagonist, a slimy tycoon played to the hilt by Ben Gazzara whose villainy is so over-the-top that it’s almost laughable. (Y’know, the sort of villain that only exists in ’80s films.) But kudos to Swayze et al. for thoroughly committing themselves to the bit. Road House is at its best when it embraces its “B” movie nature (e.g., when Swayze waxes philosophical while cleaning people’s clocks). As such, it feels wrong when the film’s blues-y soundtrack (via The Jeff Healey Band) is suddenly replaced by a surprisingly conventional-sounding score by Michael Kamen, and during the iconic “I’m gonna kill you the old-fashioned way” scene to boot.

  • Where the Body Was by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

    Another day, another graphic novel from the incomparable duo that is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Where the Body Was feels a bit like a minor work compared to something like The Fade Out. However, its ’80s-set tale of suburban ennui, bored housewives and illicit affairs, young romance and heartache, and — because this is Ed Brubaker we’re talking about — a shocking murder mystery that undoes everyone’s lives (for better or worse) is not without its affecting moments. Particularly when Brubaker has the characters’ older selves break the fourth wall to reflect on that tumultuous period in their lives.

  • The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

    My Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips fandom continues with this journey through the seamy underbelly of post-WW2 Hollywood. The Fade Out’s story of murder, corrupt studio execs, fixers, blacklisted writers, FBI investigations, and desperate starlets is just about as noir as it gets, and thoroughly deconstructs the glitz and glamour that often surrounds our notions of “classic” Tinseltown. There are no heroes in Brubaker and Phillips’ story, just desperate and deeply flawed individuals railing against an implacable system that protects and benefits the rich and powerful. Suffice to say, The Fade Out is a bleak story, maybe even Brubaker and Phillips’ bleakest to date. But it’s executed so well that you feel compelled to keep turning the pages until you arrive at the final, despair-filled panel.

  • Dune: Part Two

    First, some quibbles. Even with its nearly 3-hour runtime, Paul Atreides’ evolution into both Muad’Dib as well as the prophesied Lisan al Gaib felt surprisingly rushed, even disjointed, as did Lady Jessica’s transformation into the conniving Reverend Mother. Heritage and Bene Gesserit training notwithstanding, I had a hard time buying Timothée Chalamet’s Paul as a messianic leader, though to his credit, Chalamet throws himself, heart and soul, into the role. Also, I’m still waiting to see a Guild Navigator. That said, we haven’t experienced epic filmmaking of this caliber since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though this tale of galactic politics, prophecy, fanaticism, and holy war is far darker and more tragic, lingering with me long after leaving the theater. As for the film’s visuals, effects, production design, costumes, etc., I knew they’d be of the highest quality. Even so, I was still blown away by what I saw on the screen (e.g., the Harkonnen homeworld in stark black and white, Paul learning to ride a massive sandworm, the Fremen’s final assault) and of course, Hans Zimmer’s evocative score is one for the ages.

  • Dracula, Motherf**ker by Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson

    I’m not gonna lie; I checked out Dracula, Motherf**ker based on the title alone, because how could I not? This spin on the classic Dracula story moves from 19th century Vienna to Los Angeles circa 1974, where a desperate crime scene photographer finds himself trapped between the vampire lord, his ex-wives, and his new wives. Erica Henderson’s artwork is wonderfully lurid and psychedelic as befitting a ’70s vampire story, and Alex de Campi’s storyline piques the imagination and leave you wanting more — in a good way. (I also appreciated de Campi’s afterward, where she delves a bit more into the book’s feminist themes in light of Trump and Weinstein, her perspective on monsters, and the book’s anime influence.)

  • Bad Weekend by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

    Unlike many of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ other titles, Bad Weekend isn’t a noir-ish, hard-boiled tale of the criminal underworld. Rather, it’s a prickly but heartfelt ode to another kind of underworld: the comic book industry. Hal Crane is a comic book legend. He’s also a drunk, a cynic, and something of an asshole, but he kind of has good reason to be given how publishers have treated him over the years. Which means that babysitting him during a comic book convention is going to be a lot harder than it sounds. On the one hand, Bad Weekend confirms all of your fears of how bad the comic industry can be, filled with backstabbing publishers and artists who work their fingers to the bone for pennies. On the other hand, it’s also a tribute to the art itself, and how even a bitter, manipulative jerk like Hal Crane can create something transcendent.

  • Pulp by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

    Max Winters is a down-on-his-luck author in 1930s New York who specializes in writing pulp stories about cowboys and outlaws in the Wild West. Unbeknownst to anyone else, though, his fanciful adventures aren’t fiction, but rather, draw from his own sordid history. Max’s downtrodden life soon takes an interesting turn, however, when an unexpected figure from his past comes asking for a favor. Despite its short length, Pulp’s storyline caught me by surprise on at least three occasions — a very good thing. I really couldn’t predict how things would turn out for Max and I stayed hooked until the final — and in hindsight, inevitable — panel. I became a fan of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips thanks to their work on Reckless, and Pulp is more of the same: storytelling that’s hard-boiled, nostalgic, and sympathetic all at once.

  • Dune: Part One

    My kids and I watched the first Dune movie to prep ourselves for Part Two, making this my fifth or sixth viewing of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation. And yeah, it’s still a sci-fi masterpiece. What struck me this time around was just how beautiful the movie is, be it the production design (someday, I think I’d like to retire to the Atreides estate on Caladan) or the magnificent desert vistas of Arrakis itself. Even when the story gets a bit turgid, like Paul having his visions of a holy war sweeping across the universe, Dune: Part One still holds your interest. Indeed, it’s nigh-impossible to turn away, it’s so arresting. Also, I think that Oscar Isaac might be the film’s unsung hero. As Duke Leto Atreides, he’s honorable to a fault. His scene with Paul amongst the graves of their ancestors is one of my favorites scenes in the movie, and makes Paul’s sorrow later in the movie deeply felt and believable.

  • The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold

    I’ve been trying to determine why I enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasy novels so much, and I think it’s their romantic nature. Not that they’re romance novels per se — though they do certainly contain plenty of romance — but rather, Bujold’s prose is so lush and evocative. It unfurls in a poetic manner that I don’t often experience with genre novels. That said, it can also get awfully dense, so much so that the story gets lost in the mix. That’s my experience with The Hallowed Hunt, anyway. Set 250 years before The Curse of Chalion (one of my favorite novels of all time), The Hallowed Hunt begins with a murder investigation that soon evolves into something far stranger involving shamans, animal spirits, theological visions, and the lingering effects of a centuries-old religious war. I very much enjoyed the experience of reading the novel and indulging in Bujold’s writing — she pens some truly striking imagery and imaginative concepts, especially when it comes to spirituality and magical systems — but as for the story itself, I never quite felt the actual drama of the protagonists’ plight.

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