Dissing the Sea Peoples

I listened to a podcast on the Sea Peoples, because that’s something I do. And now you must all suffer! In case you were looking for context, it’s here.

Even though Sagas of the Sea Peoples won’t be happening, I remain fascinated with this period in history. I’ll read the occasional new article or listen to a podcast discussing the subject. I think I will stick to recent academic pieces, as I am a bit sick of non-critical acceptance of primary sources, like the inscriptions of Pharaonic Egypt.

I’m not going to name the podcast that set this off. It is generally entertaining and only because I have strong assessments of this period based on some strong scholarship did I find the particular episode on the Sea Peoples annoying. And, frankly, I could very much be wrong. Everybody could be wrong. We have so little actual evidence, how can anyone really know.

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Gunpowder Milkshake, a review

Gunpowder Milkshake seems like another attempt to adapt the John Wick formula outside of Wick-verse (is that a thing?). There is enough fun here for a light recommend. I’d give it 3 stoner van-mounted miniguns out of 5. Karen Gillan plays a credible bad-ass, Lena Heady can kill with a stare, and we need a modern Iron Mask re-telling with Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, and Michelle Yeoh.

Poster for Gunpowder Milkshake including the main characters looking at the camera

The movie is about a woman whose mother—an assassin—abandoned her to a criminal cartel who exploited her greatest natural talent—violence. When I first saw the trailer, I was ready to buy in.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t live up to its potential. It meanders a fair amount, seems unfocused in many parts, and wastes an absolutely stellar cast with a movie that both tries to go to far with violence but doesn’t go far enough with the characters. Even while it has sparks of great fight choreography, it too often mistakes graphic violence for exciting action.

But a strong script with strong characters could have saved it. The cast is absolutely stellar, and was even able to squeeze some emotional investment out of this viewer, but the characters were nowhere near strong enough to balance out the deficits with the story.

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Black Widow, a review

For those not interested in the all the blather, I recommend Black Widow especially to those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A great cast made me believe in the main characters, adding weight to even pedestrian lines. It made the movie immensely watchable. I give it 4 unstoppable machine-like assassins out of 5. I would argue the bombastic action set-pieces detracted from what could have been a very personal movie illuminating Black Widow’s past.

My family and I were able to catch Black Widow this opening weekend. It was at home, which is pretty much the only way that I will ever see a movie on an opening weekend. We’d be seeing this in the theatre if we considered that an option (we’re very careful in regards to the pandemic). In another time, we’d probably have seen it on the third or fourth week, when the initial rush had died down. Even when streaming is still an option, I’d rather put the extra $35 toward a theatre visit.

Black Widow movie poster

Black Widow occurs between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. It follows an “on the run” Natasha Romanoff back to Russia as she seeks to stop the program that created her in the first place. We also glimpse the only family Natasha had before she met Clint Barton and joined the Avengers: a sleeper cell of Soviet agents while she was a child. Natasha learns that the leader of the Red Room project, which turns young girls into mindless assassins, is still alive and operating, and so she sets about to stop him.

This movie has the bones of an espionage thriller, not unlike Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War, so the less said about the various twists and turns the better. In the end, we have three new characters I would like to spend more time with, including Natasha’s sister—likely to be joining the MCU as the new Black Widow—and her father-figure, a hugely flawed but well-meaning Soviet-Captain America known as Red Guardian. Her mother—the brains of the operation—is a hero in her own right, being the one that ultimately is key to Natasha’s fight to stop the Red Room. It helps that all these characters are played by hugely capable actors who effortlessly inhabit their roles and make them likeable even when they are being unlikeable.

That’s what drove the movie for me. I believed in Natasha’s personal investment, in her need to complete her quest. I also believed—even when maybe she did not—in her connection to her fake family.

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The Tomorrow War, a review

My 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime (they keep offering me free trials, even after I’ve cancelled multiple times) gave me a chance to watch The Tomorrow War starring Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, and J. K. Simmons. I’m not going to say it was a total waste of 2+ hours, but it was mighty close.

Too long, didn’t read: I would only recommend The Tomorrow War to people who love Chris Pratt and don’t need their movies to make sense or have cool action scenes. If you just want Chris Pratt to be heroic, here you go. There’re some great J. K. Simmons moments, and the acting is generally good, but the writing is horrible. I give this 2 xenomorphs way smarter than people out of 5. I watched this so you wouldn’t have to.

The Tomorrow War official poster with Chris Pratt looking suitably heroic

Without spoiling too much, in The Tomorrow War, soldiers from the future come back to beg the modern world’s help to fight a war against aliens in the future which humanity is most definitely losing. A worldwide draft is instituted and Chris Pratt’s character—a former soldier and scientist—is conscripted for his seven-day tour of duty.

Yes. Seven. Days.

And that is just the start of the problems with this movie. Without getting into spoilers, it fits six pounds of stupid into a five-pound bag. That might be a bit harsh—though only a bit—but this movie is the ur-example of the idiot plot. This story only works if literally everybody—every. body—is an idiot.

People say “just turn off your brain and enjoy,” but the level of brain disconnect it would take for me to enjoy this movie would leave me comatose at best.

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Without Remorse, but With a Review

My wife and I recently watched Without Remorse. It is a rather pedestrian actioner, elevated by its lead and supporting cast, with acceptable but not innovative action scenes.

Without Remorse poster

Without Remorse takes place in the Tom Clancy-verse (for lack of a better term), or, perhaps more precisely, uses characters and ideas from the Jack Ryan-verse. John Clarke was a major supporting character in a collection of the Jack Ryan novels, and has previously been portrayed on the screen by Willem Dafoe in Clear and Present Danger. I liked Dafoe’s turn as the character, but in that case, he was a grizzled special warfare operator who had spent long years in the covert action community, whereas Without Remorse is an origin story. (I completely forgot about Liev Schreiber as John Clark in the adaptation of Sum of All Fears, and now I need to re-watch that movie, as Schreiber tends to elevate anything he is in)

Michael B. Jordan is the perfect actor to play John Kelly/John Clarke. His physical presence on the screen is magnetic, and his charisma is undeniable. He makes Kelly’s heroics believable, and he projects quiet intensity in every scene. You never forget how driven this character is.

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Zombie Heists

Dark and dour poster for the movie Peninsula

So, I have now seen both Peninsula (Train to Busan 2) and Army of the Dead, both of which are stories of a group sent into zombie-infested territory to secure money. There is very different world-building, different character styles, and different stories, but the premises are the same.

And both were disappointing.

Of the two, I preferred Peninsula. It injected new elements, and some interesting story beats, and more fully realized characters, but the pacing was still off, there were too many clichés, and the general experience didn’t satisfy me. Army of the Dead, on the other hand, I just found poorly written. There were very few redeeming features. And, wow, there was A LOT of fridging the feminine characters.

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Extraction: A Review

This review was first presented on my Patreon.

Extraction is the new Chris Hemsworth action movie released on Netflix.

The summary according to Rotten Tomatoes is:

Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) is a fearless black market mercenary with nothing left to lose when his skills are solicited to rescue the kidnapped son of an imprisoned international crime lord. But in the murky underworld of weapons dealers and drug traffickers, an already deadly mission approaches the impossible, forever altering the lives of Rake and the boy.

The action is outstanding. Hemsworth is physically believable as Rake, and the action choreography leans toward the John Wick school of extreme action. It’s done quite well and this is where the movie shines. Hemsworth has a great alter-ego in the film played by Randeep Hooda. Their two characters cut through the opposition with gritty aplomb, and when they end up opposite each other, it’s a treat.

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Time to Hunt: A Review

This review was first presented on my Patreon.

I had the chance to catch the new South Korean thriller, Time to Hunt, on Netflix this week. 

The plot, as summarized on Rotten Tomatoes is:

In a hopeless dystopian city, Jun-seok (LEE Je-hoon) is released from prison and plans his next step in life in order to start anew with his friends Jang-ho (AHN Jae-hong), Ki-hoon (CHOI Woo-shik) and Sang-soo (PARK Jeong-min). But their excitement for the plan is short-lived as an unknown man chases after them. Can these best friends get away from the hunt?

The story is actually pretty generic when one breaks it down. The “plan” involves the robbery of an illegal casino. Up until then, the most outstanding part of the movie was the setting and atmosphere. This isn’t a science-fiction movie per se, but it’s definitely set at some point in the future. 

The South Korea of this film is hopeless, mostly abandoned, covered in constant smog, and depopulated. I think anyone will be affected by the setting presented in the film, but if you’ve actually lived in South Korea, especially in a major urban centre, the shots of block after block of empty streets and abandoned stores have a very visceral impact.

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My Problem with Far Cry 5 (and New Dawn)

This article was first presented on my Patreon.

I play a lot of first-person shooters, especially open-world FPS RPGs, and I’ve played Far Cry since Far Cry 2. I really like the gameplay of Far Cry 5 and Far Cry: New Dawn, but I have a problem with their stories.

In FC5, the villain is a religious zealot. That is not the problem. The problem is . . .





The problem is that the villain—Joseph Seed—is actually the hero, or at least that the villain has been correct about the end of the world. Given the supernatural powers he exhibits at the end, and the through-line into FC:ND, it’s heavily suggested that he is, in fact, touched by the Christian God.

The guy who supports torture, forced drug dependency, eugenics, and in at least one case, a lieutenant who forces children to engage in cannibalism, he’s the messenger of the Christian God.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that you can’t win. If you fight him, in the end, you lose and become his prisoner. In FC:ND it’s revealed you become his disciple. If you walk away, you turn out to be a Manchurian Candidate and likely murder your friends. You can’t win.

Granted, in FC4, there were no good choices. (SPOILERS FOLLOW) You end up turning your homeland into a narco-terrorist nation, a religious extremist nation, or you leave it in the hands of a murderous dictator. But at least you didn’t become the discipline of the religious extremist, drug kingpin, or murderous dictator. I’m okay with the idea that sometimes there are no good choices. I found FC5 frustrating not because there were no good choices, but because you—as the character—can’t win. The villain always wins.

And he turns out to be the one who is actually right. Not just persuasive or entertaining (like Vaas or Pagan Min) but actually correct—the end of days is upon us and he is the chosen of the Christian God.

Further, it gets worse with FC:ND. In that game, Seed is key to winning the game. He has created a kind of Utopia, and the main character from FC5 becomes a Specialist—one of the Guns for Hire that can accompany the main character—and is a kind of super soldier following Seed. Further, Seed has found some kind of Garden of Eden tree (or maybe the tree is supposed to be the source of Iðunn’s apples from Norse Mythology) and this has given him extended life and provides the main character with super powers as well.

Then there are the villains in FC:ND, two African-American sisters who are warlords following the nuclear apocalypse at the end of FC5. While the white villain of FC5 is touched by God, the sisters are irredeemably evil. Throughout the game, classic rock indicates good guys, and “urban” music denotes villains.

I’m not saying the designers intentionally adapted racist tropes. I am saying they and everyone in the design chain was blind to it. Or am I just hyper-sensitive? I think I was definitely more sensitive after the end of FC5. It was just so jarring. 

Crazy evangelicals that literally torture people to death? Actually doing God’s work.

This really bugs me because I like the gameplay in both games. I especially like FC:ND because it’s got that great post-apocalyptic setting (yes, Fallout fan . . . at least since Fallout 3) and while it doesn’t have the weapon modding system from FC5, I like the various weapons that are available at the different tiers.

So while I love the games, I hate the stories. I’ve played through FC:ND twice and am on my second round of FC5, but the second play-throughs I’m just going to avoid the actual endings. Fuck ‘em.

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Ad Astra: A Review

This review was first presented on my Patreon. Please head over and support me there if you can.

I had a chance to watch a bunch of movies recently, and I’m really not sure which to discuss first. I’m going to go with the one that I had the most hopes for, even though those hopes were (spoilers!) dashed.

Please note: I saw this movie on an airplane, and it was apparently edited. One would not expect that anything key would have been removed or altered, but there it is.

Ad Astra is a science fiction drama starring Brad Pitt and directed by James Gray. It’s about an astronaut sent to find his father who is somehow intertwined with a threat to Earth (and—I think—the solar system). That’s the drama part—the family dynamic. The science fiction part is that the father is part of a mission to find extraterrestrial life and is near or in orbit of Neptune. 

Listen, this is a very beautiful movie. It is made with the utmost craftsmanship, and there is a real weight to the action and the sets in which that story unfold. But for all that, it seems sterile.

I found this very much a quieter homage to Apocalypse Now intertwined with the Partridge-Mackey father-son alienation angle of Magnolia. There is a lot of Apocalypse Now in the style of the story and its forward progress—and I mean that movie rather than Heart of Darkness, as there are a lot of similarities to the style of the movie absent from the novella. And while I like both that movie and the novella on which it is based, I didn’t enjoy Ad Astra.

Pitt’s character is almost completely a cypher in a way that neither Marlow nor Willard ever were. There is an in-story reason for this, but it still created a wall that didn’t allow me to sympathize with his character. And I also never really felt there was a connection between him and his father. With both Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, this is not a problem as Kurtz is a mysterious figure, only partially revealed—even at the climax. But the father is much more Kurtz than the Earl Partridge character in Magnolia. The murkiness of the father’s character and the impenetrability of the son’s left me cold to the very crux of the movie.

And what the heck was with the moon buggy chase? It was like the filmmakers decided they needed some action. The consequences of that scene do not propel the story forward or inject anything of interest, and there is no reference back to it or the situation that created it. It is like it is from a different movie.

My opinions seem to be in the minority, so I may just have been missing something. Pitt’s character is the spine of the movie, and he was inaccessible to me. The other characters that drop in and fall out left no real imprint and seemed much more to be plot devices than actual characters, with odd turns that did not fit with the characters as presented to that point. Even the main character’s motivations—which are very clearly spelt out—ring false given everything else we are presented regarding him.

I do not recommend Ad Astra. I give it 2.5 long, drawn-out shots of beautiful space out of 5. It is a distant, unengaging story with gorgeous visuals. It offered me no emotional connection at all.

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