PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (2021)

An absolutely baffling Japanese-American neon Western wherein Nicolas Cage is strapped into a bomb suit to rescue a governor’s daughter who has gone missing and maybe ghosts did it or maybe it’s a curse?

There has to be a fascinating story behind the production. This is a hot mess. It’s weird and surreal, disjointed and kind of hilarious, but not entirely clear how much is intentional or how much is the result of some insane catastrophy.

There are no establishing shots so the whole geography of the world feels about a hundred feet from anything else. Things appear and disappear without motivation or explanation.

At one point Nicolas Cage has a ball blown off and screams “MY. TESTICLLLLLLE!!” with the strangest delivery of any line, possibly in any film. This is what you come for in a Nicolas Cage film.

And yet, it’s still wildly boring for long stretches and even its most absurd moments and creative shot work only manage to sporadically elevate it to actually compelling.

Is it good? Almost definitely not.

Was I entertained? Absolutely.

Do I recommend it? Uuuuuh… I don’t know?

SHANG CHI & THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021)

It’s great!

The best fight sequences in the MCU spiced up with a real kind of classical martial arts film flavour. Bucks the usual Marvel first-movie formula and takes a hard right turn in wild Asian mysticism and fantasy in the back half which was a pleasant surprise.

Compelling villain (the legendary Tony Leung!) and a solid emotional through-line. Simu Liu kills it in the title role, Awkwafina brings a great levity without falling into comic movie bathos. There’s some significant deviation from the source material but it’s all for the better.

And I mentioned that the fight scenes are great fun, right? Choreography feels frantic and snappy and the editing doesn’t get in the way. Sure, the climax turns into an insane CGI party, but it feels fitting for the high fantasy turn.

A little bit Hong Kong martial arts flick, a little bit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a little bit classic MCU. Very promising for the future direction of Marvel, they’re setting the bar high for Phase Four.

Recommended!

Whatcha been readin’?

Since the pandemic started I’ve been leaning harder into setting wind-down time in the evening aside specifically for reading, and as a result have made my way through around twenty-seven books in the last eighteenish months. A couple of these were re-reads, but of the new ones I’ve compiled a couple of highlights below:

THE NAME OF THE WIND / THE WISE MAN’S FEAR — Patrick Rothfuss

Wonderfully written “traditional” fantasy with one of the best modern voices in the style, imbued full of wonder, intelligence and a deep love of the genre by its author. The only problem being that the third book is close to a decade past due with no release date in sight so while I highly recommend the first two books they come with the caveat that you’ll be joining the ranks of disappointed fans stuck waiting for a conclusion.

CIBOLA BURN (THE EXPANSE) — James S.A. Corey

The best modern sci-fi series, hands down. I read this, the fourth book, as a refresher for season five of the show last December. Book five will be the same for season six at the end of this year and then I’ll be able to read the last three without fear of spoilers. It’s less complicated than it sounds. I rave about this series a lot, it’s got everything.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE — Kurt Vonnegut

One of my all-time favourite books got a graphic novel adaptation that both serves its source beautifully while also bringing its own flavour and style. Probably better appreciated if you’ve read the original novel, but nonetheless a worthwhile pickup.

THE THREE BODY PROBLEM — Cixin Liu

Heady, cerebral sci-fi that’s both wildly imaginative and coldly mathematical. Considered one of the greatest novels of the modern era and for good reason — a slowly unfolding scope puts its vision on timescales akin to masterwork Foundation while making the human elements much more compelling. Currently reading the sequel, The Dark Forest.

RAYBEARER — Jordan Ifueko

African magical realism via YA, with political intrigue thrown in for good measure. The world is incredibly distinct and well realised, and this is just the first in a series well worth following.

THE DISPOSSESSED — Ursula K LeGuin

An anarchist physicist is brought to a Capitalist society so that he can realise his great unifying theory, but quickly becomes disillusioned with the falsity and exploitive nature of their culture. Hard biting political commentary draped in planetary science-fiction and social satire. It’s dense, but it’s faaaaaaar ahead of its time.

DAWN — Octavia E Butler

After the world ends, aliens abduct a small handful of surviving humans to help them rebreed and repopulate, but this also means intermingling their DNA with their new benefactors. Very strange, and also the first in a trilogy. I plan to come back to see where it goes, this first one was great.

DOCTOR SLEEP — Stephen King

How do you follow up something as iconic as The Shining? With pretty much exactly this book. Explores other creatures from King’s multiverse, while tying it back to the Overlook and the Shine in new and satisfying ways. Adult Danny might not have the same problems as his father but hooboy does he have troubles of his own.

HOUSE OF X / POWERS OF X — Hickman, Larraz, Silva, Gracia

Fantastic recalibration of the X-Men universe by way of a looping time cycle, a living island and multiple possible realities (most of which end in some variation of terrible apocalypse). Makes mutantkind feel fresh and new again, full of big ideas, which is an impressive feat. The main problem is that it immediately sprawls out into half a dozen plotlines so I have no idea how to follow up from this collection, but as a standalone “reboot” of the X-Men this was great.

THE IMMORTAL HULK — Ewing, Bennett, Garbett, Hotz

Similarly, this run takes the concept of the Hulk and turns it into a Cronenbergian body horror nightmare. See, Bruce Banner can die, but the Hulk is immortal and no matter what you do to the man the monster will always come back. It was a brilliant move to take this character and make him terrifying, and the series looks like it’s only getting darker.

JURASSIC PARK / THE LOST WORLD— Michael Crichton

Pulp fiction at its best. I first read these twenty-five years ago and somehow still remembered every detail like I’d read them just last week. Quite a tonal departure from the first film and far more critical of the Capitalist aspects of genetic patenting. The second book and film are almost completely unrelated aside from a few character appearances. Still, easy to understand why they were so popular, I blew through the two of them inside a week.

BRAND NEW CHERRY FLAVOR (2021)

Part Cronenberg body horror, part Lynchian psychological trip, part weirder-bits-of-TrueBlood.

Incredibly well shot and put together with a great specificity of vision that conjures a distinct and uniquely nightmarish take on 90s L.A. drenched in neon and black magic.

Some truly disgusting visuals anchored by a fantastic cast of strange, funny and rich characters.

Not for those with weak stomachs, but horror fans should definitely find a lot to love here.

Wonderfully weird, highly recommended.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)

An abandoned motel straddling the California/Nevada state lines plays host to six strangers with dark pasts.

The cast is inspired, the production design is excellent and the stagecraft is fantastic. Cinematography is creative and makes the whole production feel like an elaborate stage play. Soundtrack is stacked with 50s bops.

Pacing’s a little off and it drags some in the back half, but its style and character performances really elevate it as a solid, well executed Noir thriller.

Recommended.

VIVO (2021)

A colourful celebration of Latin American music, soundtracked by and starring Lin Manuel Miranda as the titular kinkajou.

Skews to a younger crowd, with bright colours and high antics. Some of the designs are honestly pretty ugly but the story has heart and the songs are all original Mirandas, including some great performances from Gloria Estefan.

Good for the kids, but lacking that extra layer of depth that makes an animated film truly great and memorable.

NARCOS (s01-03)

A little late to the party on this one, sure, but better late than never.

The sort of prestige crime drama usually reserved for HBO, it marks a period of Netflix when they were trying especially hard to establish themselves as a viable rival. It really shows.

Usually I avoid discussing plot since I often prefer myself to be able to start watching something without knowing where it’s going, but that approach is kind if moot here since Narcos is explicitly about the burgeoning cocaine trade in Medellín, Colombia during the 1980s and 90s — most notably charting the rise and fall of legendary cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Performances are fantastic. Story is tense, engaging and frequently horrifying as the drug war escalates and corruption seeps into everything. Interests become conflicted, power shifts, lots of innocent people get caught in the crossfire.

A dark and depressing tale, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.

Recommended.

THE TOMORROW WAR (2021)

It’s… fine?

Creature design is fantastic, VFX are A-grade, story is intriguing enough in principle:

A war in the future recruits people from the present to battle an unstoppable alien force. Hijinx ensue.

However, so much of the overlong runtime boils down to characters moving towards an objective while shooting in flat, uninteresting sequences.

Maybe I’ve just crossed my threshold of interest in seeing Chris Pratt as a generic soldier hero bro.

There’s some clever ideas and some great shots mixed in, but overall it doesn’t really cohere to capitalise on an interesting idea and ends up being merely competent.

It’s not bad, it’s just not great.

Probably just watch Edge of Tomorrow again instead, it’s more fun.

THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021)

Absurdly violent, ridiculously silly and very, very entertaining.

The smartest move was definitely to just ignore that they made one of these in 2016 and throw a whole pile of fresh C-list characters into the grinder.

Never once takes itself seriously, yet manages to take enough time to bring an emotional core to each of these assholes to make the stakes stick and the action meaningful.

Soundtrack’s great, characters are fun, story is appropriately bonkers. Most importantly, it’s a good time!

Easily the best DC film, requires zero comic knowledge to enjoy.

Definitely recommended.