Anime Movies

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time Opens With a Moving Meditation on Community & Growth

After 9 years of waiting, Neon Genesis Evangelion has ended for a third (and hopefully final) time. Hideaki Anno has released another capstone to the popular series and the fourth and final film in the Rebuild movie series “Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time.” To my surprise, the final movie opens with the most beautiful hour of Evangelion, a slice of life character section that reckons with its theme about mental health and connection better than it ever has before. The series is notorious for being dark and tragic, chock full of moments where characters suffer great physical and mental harm. That doesn’t mean the series isn’t hopeful but it spends the majority of its time depicting the dangers of relationships, abusive behaviors, and what it means to suffer from mental illness. The Rebuild movies have been different though; they cover those topics as well but take a different tact. Starting with “Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance,” the series diverged from the original series’ plot points, character interactions, and narrative focus. That movie made time to have its characters exist outside the moments of mecha action and showed us them processing growing up, dealing with trauma and what it means to have healthy relationships. 3.0+1.01 smartly builds on this with its moving depiction of Shinji learning to trust others and love himself by coexisting through cooperative labor.

The downside to Evangelion’s previous two endings, the tv finale and the follow up “End of Evangelion,” were having Shinji’s growth tied to the more mystical aspects of the series. It’s easy to see Anno slowly iterating on how to depict the central theme of connectedness over the course of 25 years. The TV finale, episodes 25 and 26, are the start of that path but it’s incomplete. The two episodes are known for being a struggle to complete; Anno wavered on how the series should resolve, leading them to run up against deadlines and big budget cuts. The result are two abstract episodes, containing intercut clips, hand drawings and other visual art mediums, diverging from telling a more linear story. They both nonetheless finish on a positive note. Shinji realizes that he needs others and resolves to open himself up and rejects Seele’s Human Instrumentality Project to make all beings be merged together. Even if the plot is hard to parse, the themes are easy enough to understand; people’s individuality makes us special and opening ourselves up to others makes our lives richer, no matter how hard it may be. Fans hated this ending. The original Evangelion series contains a lot of mysteries that are not even close to being resolved by the finales. Not dissimilar to how negative reactions happen today, fans sent death threats to the studio and Anno.

Which eventually led to the two movies, “Death & Rebirth” (recap movie) and “End of Evangelion,” (EoE the promised final ending to replace the controversial TV finales). There’s a metatextual read that a lot of people make with EoE; Anno’s declining mental health, resulting from the fan backlash, led him to make an extremely dark version of the finale. That read has helped me salvage parts of it that I do like, that no matter how cruel people can be to us the path forward is always to keep yourself open. There’s a lot of thematic content about the movie that I really like and I think a darker take could help hammer down Evangelion’s exploration of loneliness. It’s too bad that the movie itself is so vile, almost 90 minutes destruction that starts with Shinji committing sexual assault (the notorious “I’m so fucked up” scene). From that point it’s hard to route for Shinji, who’s more comatose than ever as people are annihilated around him. The uncharitable read is that Anno is making the most negative choices for all of his characters as a response to the fan backlash. Moments like Misato using the promise of sex to motivate Shinji certainly seem like a monkey’s paw for anime fans. I think the more real read is Anno using the template of a classic anime, the stone-cold classic Space Runaway Ideon movie “Be Invoked,” to explore his pain and trauma once again. The result though is mean and gross in a way that doesn’t earn the damage it puts its characters through.

Evangelion 3.0+1.01 Kensuke & Shinji

3.0+1.01 has the exact opposite tone of EoE. It has a strain of positivity running through it that I don’t think has ever existed in any other piece of Evangelion. That all starts with its opening hour with our trio of protagonists in the village. After the beginning action set piece (my favorite action scene in the movie btw), we are reintroduced to Shinji, Asuka, and Alternate Rei walking along the apocalyptic scenery after the end of 3.0. They’re eventually picked up and transported to a small village. This village has started to regain some normalcy; the surrounding environment has recovered and they are able to farm crops and have access to drinking water (thanks to the technology from WILLE shown off in the opening set piece). We’re reintroduced to civilian characters that had disappeared after 2.0; Shinji’s friends and classmates Toji Suzuhara, Hikari Horaki and Kensuke Aida. These characters ground Shinji in a more real world. These characters don’t take part in the grander mythos of Eva having nothing to do with large robots, angels, or Human Instrumentality. As regular civilians they’ve had to deal with the after effects of these battles and learned to adapt to the apocalyptic scenarios the Earth faced. All three characters obliquely reference the hardships they’ve endured to survive, but all display an upbeat attitude. Their attitudes are the exact opposite of Shinji as they were never afforded the luxury to close themselves off. Essentially when their lives were altered they had to grow up fast and have learned to cherish the things in their lives in a way that the protagonists from NERV never did (they’re also the only ones to have physically aged as well). When acts of god are occurring all you can do is soldier on.

Their growth tied to material conditions in the real-world anchors Shinji’s and allows him to change in a way he never has in previous Eva media. He starts in a predictable mode; closed off, feeling a strong mixture of shame, regret, and self pity around how his actions have caused so much harm. Shinji has always had his decisions turn out horribly although that’s less of his fault and is actually from Gendo’s abusive manipulation of him. He still blames himself though and his response is close up almost to the point of being comatose. Being around the village is at first too much for him; he blames himself for how the citizens’ lives ended up and despises that his friends try to take care of him. He moves himself to the outskirts where the old NERV facility used to be like a cat running away to die. Alternate Rei meanwhile has ingratiated herself into the village and takes part in the cooperative labor of harvesting, finding a newfound happiness through the human connections she’s making. She learns how fulfilling being a part of a community feels and decides to help out Shinji. Alternate Rei’s growth is beautiful here but the movie does her a major disservice. You’ll notice I call her Alternate Rei; 3.0+1.01 makes a clear distinction between this genetic copy and the “real” version we last saw in 2.0. While Alternate Rei learns about shared humanity and cooperation, she inevitably gets removed from the movie by reverting her into a goop of LCL.

Evangelion Rei Farming

Before then though, she decides that she’s going to take care of Shinji and bring him food. Her routine of visiting him daily lasts for what seems like weeks in the movie. Eventually she gets through to him enough that he breaks down. He asks her through tears why Alternate Rei and the village continue to help him; she replies with “Because we like you.” It’s a tender moment, where Shinji realizes that even though he feels responsible for their suffering they still find redemption in him. Shinji starts to piece together that he needs to forgive himself first before he can bring himself back into the community of the village. This is the first time where Shinji as a character has been able to make this connection outside of the pivotal climax of Eva. He gets to learn through others actions, not large-scale metaphysical battles, that he’s worthy of human connection. Shinji gets to actually reckon with the abuse he’s suffered at the hands of adults and reckon with the trauma that came with it. After following the series for 13 years, it’s so rewarding seeing him make true connections. Getting to experience Shinji actually building relationships with people was truly gratifying in a way that the mecha action never surpasses.

Evangelion 3.0+1.01 Shinji & Rei

The best part too is that his growth is also grounded in the cooperative nature of the village. His return is marked by contributing to Kensuke’s work. Shinji begins to tag along with him for his daily tech operations to keep the village running and secure. Shinji’s redemption is tied to directly making contributions instead of feeling sorry for himself. He realizes that walling himself off won’t help attone for the shame he feels and that he can find fulfillment in actually helping improve the citizens’ lives. Shinji also realizes that he has a place in the world and that he can be a part of something. He’s been misled and failed in his role as protector before, but he finds a new commitment through working to understand peoples’ conditions. It’s the most open we’ve ever seen Shinji and he actually gets to work through his trauma with others. He’s never been afforded the chance to be part of something that is so spiritually enriching and connecting. Anno seems to finally understand how to illustrate that next step of wanting to connect with others by playing an active role in coexisting with them. Shinji returning the favor to the village by taking care of him grants him a new autonomy over his actions. He finally gets to feel in control of himself. I couldn’t have imagined a better send off for the character.

The remaining hour and half had no hope of reaching the same highs. The other piece of Evangelion needs to be dealt with and we get the return of the mecha action and convoluted lore. The Rebuild movies shift to CGI and ridiculously large-scale fight scenes have left me a little cold and this final one is no different. I’m also not really interested in the ridiculous puzzle pieces of mythology anymore so I got a bit numb to the proper nouns being thrown around (“Eva Imaginary,” “Anti Universe,” and “Black Lilith” to name a few). We also get a huge upswing of the gross “fan service”; lots of boob and ass shots of girls in tight normal suits. While Mari becomes slightly more of a character here (and is weirdly important to the lore?), we are also treated to many shots of her butt and her talking about her big boobs. 

The positivity from that first section is carried all the way through though; I’ve never felt a more powerful resolve in all of the characters before. Shinji himself is more confident throughout as well, knowing who he is and what he has to do. Comparisons to Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks the Return are warranted; Shinji is a character with a purpose. The forgiveness and tenderness Shinji displays to all of the characters he reunites with in the abstract last half hour are really touching. His growth anchors an almost perfect resolution to the series as a whole. The last section of waking up in a real-world Japan analogue is a bit hokey; I would’ve preferred he returned to the village. Regardless, I think the first village section ties a definitive bow on Shinji’s character arc and the Evangelion series as a whole. I don’t think anyone could top that piece of Evangelion and I hope no one tries.


The Original Spider-Man Movies Still Got It

My girlfriend’s Spider-Man is Tom Holland. Even though she’s part of the younger millennial/cusp of gen z generation, she never engaged with the pre-MCU movies more than once. The Sam Raimi trilogy established superhero blockbusters and even the Marc Summer movies were hits but they don’t hold a candle to the force that is the current Marvel universe. She has now seen Tom Holland’s iteration across 5 movies and the Marvel press train now canvases social media as well. My Spider-Man remains Tobey Maguire as those original superhero movies were foundational to my interest in comics and movies. I hadn’t seen them in over a decade so my partner and I decided to watch both Spider-Man 1 & 2. It’s amazing how well they both hold up and also just how different they are from the current movies. It cemented why these movies still seem more essential than the Jon Watts’ versions and the shortcomings that the MCU has as a whole. (Note: I won’t be discussing Spider-Man 3 or the Amazing Spider-Man movies. One there are only two Tom Holland movies and two I just don’t have anything interesting to pull from Marc Summer’s movies. Sorry Andrew Garfield). 

The MCU movies are just straight up comedies. Their aims are much simpler, telling more straightforward stories about Peter’s struggles with high school life while dealing with superhero business. The focus is on Peter growing up but more around establishing his independence and being more open emotionally with people he cares about. Also there are a litany of gags and comedic quips that make the movies much more breezy. There’s not a lot of darkness around Peter’s journey and you know for the most part he’s going to come out ok. He doesn’t really have that many hard decisions to make.

Spider-man Pizza Time
Pizza Time!

Tobey Maguire’s version is fantastical but with more grounded problems. The movies themselves play more like classic cinema (Peter is a nice guy/pushover pining for the girl) with a hero’s arc as he finds the strength to overcome his enemy and solve his personal crisis. Peter also struggles with balancing school/work with being a superhero plus his working class background. The loss of Uncle Ben is meaningful across both movies as his Aunt May struggles to pay bills in what was formerly a two income household. Peter doesn’t have the ability to help out as being Spider-Man means he can’t lock down a typical work gig. Spider-Man 2 opens with a fun sequence where Peter loses his job delivering pizzas and his paltry wage from J Jonah Jameson barely covers his rent. The most fantastical thing about the Raimi movies may be that we never see Peter having to deal with his injuries without having insurance (presumably he’s racking up lifelong health injuries by avoiding the doctor). The Tom Holland movies just aren’t interested in telling this story; he’s working class but has Tony Stark as a father figure. He’s never going to have to worry about money ever again (unlike Sam, perks of being a child superhero).

Spider-man Far From Home

The MCU movies also removed a major point of contention right from the jump; dealing with a secret identity. Spider-Man: Homecoming does have Peter dealing with juggling a secret identity but it’s played more for laughs than actual emotional stakes. Again Tony Stark is there who can more than pave over any inconsistencies that pop up. Peter’s secret identity is a core conflict at the heart of the Sam Raimi movies. He’s all alone trying to pull everything off without the help of his loved ones. He knows that revealing who he is could lead to danger not only from his enemies but anger and worry from his family. Peter justifies his double life as a necessary sacrifice and ends the original Spider-Man on a downer note because of it. It makes Spider-Man 2 so impactful, as he learns to let people in and trust others. The scene where he reveals his involvement with Uncle Ben’s death to Aunt May hits because we see Peter grow. Peter makes the difficult choice to be vulnerable even though he knows it’ll crush Aunt May. It’s so rewarding too to see that their relationship growing stronger directly ties to his relationship with being Spider-Man. Peter understands how he was hiding and using self pity to avoid the struggle that comes with being a superhero. This internal conflict is just something the modern MCU really isn’t interested in. Superheroics isn’t tied to personal identity but rather larger abstract ideas around being a hero. Doing what’s right is usually sufficient enough to dive into action. It’s much more binary; villains are evil because they hurt people and they need to be stopped.

That last point is the real differentiator between the two; engaging villains. The Spider-Man comics are a treasure trove of exciting nemeses. His rogues gallery is probably the best in the business (I’m not an expert though and am happy to be corrected). The MCU has always had a villain problem. They consistently get good actors to deliver negligible monologues and have hazy motivations. Spider-Man: Far From Home’s Mysterio is fun as a pseudo mentor but his turn to villain is less engaging (he just wants to be famous!) it’s even worse when the villains are right. Homecoming has Michael Keaton just absolutely killing it as the Vulture but gives him motivations that in a different movie would make him the hero. He wants to get back at Stark Industries, the giant mega Corp that stole away his business. This is objectively right; Tony Stark is essentially the MCUs villain in plain sight but it’s mostly hand waved away after he stops selling weapons. That Homecoming tips its hand to acknowledge this while also making the working class the bad guys is a poison pill. The MCU has a big problem with politics and usually tries to make villains more empathetic by giving them righteous motivations. If only they didn’t go too far and hurt civilians (see: Falcon and the Winter Soldier). 

Raimi’s movies on the other hand enlists top tier actors, makes the villains empathetic but also gives them clear evil motivations. The director takes his previous horror bonafides and creates monsters out of prideful scientists. The Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus both have no one to blame but themselves and their self righteous missions are what hurt people. Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn is a capitalist but they actually make him evil! He literally just wants more money and not to lose his business. There’s no real threat to him being destitute but rather that he won’t be that movie universe’s Stark analogue. Doctor Octavious meanwhile has well intentioned motivations, to create a sustainable energy source, but he refuses to listen to other people and dabbles in dangerous research. His hubris gets his wife killed and his arms permanently attached to him. He doubles down and decides that he couldn’t be wrong and the test must be run again. If people get hurt in the meantime, that’s just the cost of doing business. Both are clear cut villains and your empathy for them comes from them turning themselves into monsters. They both realize too late just what their actions have wrought. Sam Raimi shoots them both as horror villains and both movies include great grisly scenes.

There’s more to latch onto in those original movies. I don’t want to overstate how deep and complex they both are; all of these details are right on the surface. It’s just that in comparison the MCU counterparts are much more dispensable. Don’t get me wrong I do like them, but I wouldn’t reach to put them on over the originals. They’re more light entertainment, meant to give you just enough rollercoaster entertainment and leave you having had fun. The Raimi movies are much more interested in crafting engaging myths, stories of epic rises and falls and the strength to overcome personal and heroic obstacles.

Movies Video Game Playthroughs

Tokyo Mirage Sessions is Making Me Miss Shows

O hey the new year changed and COVID’s still here. It’s a strange sensation to pass into 2021 and have it feel like an extension of the previous year. I’m not big on NYE celebrations anymore but the relatively anticlimactic turn into January has really shown me how time is societally constructed. Before I knew it, I was back on my work laptop hopping back into projects while the country continued to throw curve balls. January was particularly awful with white supremacists getting a backstage pass into federal buildings which culminated in tech companies finally feeling brave enough to ban accounts that have festered false information and outright evil communication on their platforms for years. Obviously this courage came from the passing of the torch to a new president and a Democratic majority which brings some relief in comparison to the last four years. There are ambitious plans for vaccinating that haven’t really hit the ground running yet but at least the older members of my family are receiving them. That should give me hope but when I watch my state pretend that the problem has already gone away I go back to being furious. The fact that I feel like an outlier when it comes to solving this crisis, lockdown and pay people to stay there, only exacerbates my feelings.

I am very lucky that I’m in the position though. I work remotely and I am not forced to interact with people on a daily basis that care less about my health and more about enjoying a meal outside their home. I don’t want to let the point slip that we’ve already started to backtrack on calling them essential workers to “burger flippers” and ignore the multitude of lessons from this pandemic. I don’t blame people for wanting normalcy (going out on weekends, seeing family and friends) and I’ve been caught up wishing for things to. Before I dive into that, I want to make it abundantly clear that there’s a difference in wanting things to go back to normal and forcing things to go back to normal. Reopening when there barely any ICU beds available versus when numbers have dropped are wildly different.

Concert Image
Classic Concert Stock Image

The number one thing I’ve started to miss lately: concerts. They are also the last thing that will be reinstated after this pandemic. How the hell can you control disease spread amongst a hundred people in a pit? That hasn’t stopped me from reveling in past experiences. I miss being part of a group of people all collectively losing their minds to songs. There is nothing more rejuvenating than a good show. Dancing horribly (in my case) for a few hours to songs that fill my entire body with excitement is exhilarating. Shows can be strangely unifying; a collective consensus amongst everyone in attendance that this is what’s important for the next few hours. I’m present on a show floor in a way that’s hard to replicate elsewhere in my life. People have described dancing to music as meditative and in the best of times it can be. At a good show I can let myself be taken in by the music and it fills my whole body with joy. The past few years I’ve stepped back from attending a lot of shows, a far cry from college when I’d trek down the couple of hours to LA every other weekend to see DJs. There’s still a restorative practice to the infrequent shows. My interest in whatever type of music I saw shoots way up and the positive emotions can carry over for days.

These feelings have all been exacerbated during the past couple of weeks from an unlikely source. Individuals in the music industry have had to find ways to pivot. A lot have turned to live-streaming but I’ve found that hard to want to keep up with when I’m at home (it’s hard to have the energy to dance all night in my apartment). I bought a dj controller to get back into mixing but I haven’t played with it as much as I hoped I would. Shifting energy levels from day to day have made it hard for me to access my excitement for dance music consistently. But I’ve found that when I’m playing Tokyo Mirage Sessions all I want to do is dance at a show.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a RPG dungeon crawler that’s also a crossover between the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) and Fire Emblem universes that was originally released on the Wii U before being ported to Switch last year. SMT games are structured around teens crossing over to an alternate dimension to fight monsters using the powers of avatars or spirits from that alternate world. My experience with SMT is through the Persona games, which balance monster fighting with everyday activities like school and hanging with friends. Those games have you balancing a social calendar (you can only do a few “real world” social activities per in game day) with a time limit for finishing an alternate world dungeon. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is structured the same way albeit without the strict calendar of the Persona games. Instead of creating brand new avatars and boss enemies for our protagonists to fight along/against, Tokyo Mirage Sessions reinterprets classic Fire Emblem characters. Dedicated fans will recognize the long list of Fire Emblem characters they bring over although many of them come from harder to find or lesser played games here in North America (the remastered version of the most referenced one was released quietly last year). My lack of knowledge about Fire Emblem didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the game and I was able to pick up on a few characters that are now in Smash (namely Chrom, the protagonist’s spirit). This is a game with a primarily Japanese audience where Fire Emblem is a much larger cultural franchise. Tokyo Mirage Sessions only has a Japanese language track mainly because the developers wanted to keep the character voice’s inline with their songs. Did I mention the teens are all pop idols?

Maybe my description of everyday teens was a misnomer; these are teens with a following. They’re all part of “Fortuna Entertainment” a talent agency that covers both musical and acting spectrums. The protagonists don’t worry about school and instead are focused on their upcoming concerts, newly released singles, television gigs, or potential film offers. The teens range from pop idols to Tokusatsu actors (live action genre shows or movies, think Ultraman or our American Power Rangers). This filters into the alternate world as they wield microphones as weapons and have special moves corresponding to their field. The special moves are derived from the side story missions, where the protagonist Itsuki Aoi helps them overcome some sort of career or personal stumbling block. Once you finish the commission, you’re treated to a snippet of their show or movie or in the case of the pop idols their concert.

I was struck by two feelings watching the concert cutscenes; wow this is a fun reward and holy shit do I miss these. I didn’t even really attend these types of concerts! Given that their pop idols, the cutscenes show huge arena sized stage shows with intricate performances and special effects. Which is very cool and why you attend those! There’s something particularly inspiring seeing a show that requires so many moving parts being pulled off. The effects and music are jacked up to 11 too so it can fill every part of the gigantic apparatus the audience is in. You’re dwarfed by an outsized wall of lights and music and you have to let it just wash over you.

But wait, how many times has this perfect situation happened? Those shows are ridiculously expensive so you may end up in the stands relatively removed from the energetic pit. The arena seats don’t give much room to maneuver either; you’re sandwiched in a weird aisle that’s meant to only facilitate people getting to their seats and then sitting down. How are you supposed to really dance? Grabbing even a cheap beer is ridiculously expensive and the crowd can be a real mix of people who are engaged vs others who don’t give a shit. I don’t even like pop music that much, so why am I feeling like I miss this? What I really miss is the small club shows. The $10-20 sets hosted a dance floor only venue for at max a couple hundred people. Arriving to a sparsely attended floor and watching it fill up by midnight. Dancing to a dj with a tall beer in my hand and getting lost in the mix. The feeling that this relatively small group of people are on the same page and losing their minds. 

Concert recording I found on my phone of Aurora Halal & Relaxer Live

Yet I play Tokyo Mirage Sessions and I find myself getting this sinking feeling of not being at one of those giant concerts. The lack of live music has broadened my pallet to wanting to see just about anything. My instinct says I would shell out large amounts of money just to have the full concert experience. Being cut off from shows for a year has removed that refreshing experience. I noticed I lost a lot of my connection to music over the past year and there were a few months where I just had no desire to listen to any dance music (by far my most listened to genre). I would refill my cup at those shows and now I’m pining to see just about anything.

Of course concerts are going to be last on the list of any possible reopenings. There is no way to make it risk free, save a bubble concert, and even then I have my reservations. I’m not advocating to push through and pretend like hosting concerts and shows are the way to save businesses even as they cost lives. The music industry (artists, small venues, independent labels) need stimulus from the government and not make it a problem for citizens. Still I can’t help but want that part of normal life to return. I want to plan for a festival even though the logistics of even pre pandemic life make that hard. I’ll continue to play through Tokyo Mirage Sessions and find myself wishing I was losing my mind in the crowd at an anime J pop idol concert.

2020 EOY Movies

2020 Movies: Missed Classics & New Favorites

Movie companies really didn’t have a backup plan for people not seeing films in theaters. The wider movie industry got put in the incredibly weird position of what to do with new releases scheduled for 2020. It seemed like they might slowly roll out movies onto VOD, then the country collectively practiced avoidance and started opening theaters (thanks Nolan), then Warner dropped a grenade and announced that all of their 2021 releases will go straight to streaming (actually thanks Nolan for talking about how this would affect unions). On the one hand I’m extremely excited that I can be safe and watch these movies all for the low cost of my shared HBO Max subscription. On the other hand, I really want places like Alamo Drafthouse to stay in business. The theater model has been slowly teetering since the advent of streaming but it’s tough watching giant corporations take them out at the knees.

As movies slowed down, so did my watching. I found summoning the energy to watch things on my ever growing list harder and harder to do. I had such grand plans to catch up on so many things, but David Lynch’s Dune will have to wait. I was able to do some catch up though and this list mostly reflects that. That said, there were a few 2020 movies that absolutely killed it. Here’s hoping that monopolistic corporate consolidation doesn’t completely kill smaller companies next year:


Emma 2020

Everybody has been talking about Anya Taylor-Joy’s other period piece (for good reason, Queen’s Gambit is great) 2020 started with a different stand out performance. Anya Taylor-Joy gets to play the sheltered spoil heroine of Jane Austen’s novel and knocks it out of the park. Her nonverbal ticks are used instead for Emma’s matchmaking machinations and she absolutely sells the mixture of curiosity and pity in how she treats Harriet. She also encompasses Emma’s deep insecurity and is great when everything falls apart at the seams. This adaptation is extremely funny accompanied by beautiful and eye popping set decoration that’s akin to Wes Anderson. It’s emotional without being too sappy and witty without being too sardonic. 

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey

It’s refreshing to see a “superhero” movie that’s made by and starring women and on a more technical level it’s refreshing to have it mainly have physical stunts. Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad was such an unstoppable cultural juggernaut that it’s great she has such a fun movie behind her. The movie is full of sarcastic and tongue in cheek jokes that never tip over into cheesy or too much. It’s over the top sure but that matches the wild main protagonist or her journey of self discovery (through hyenas and crime mainly). The rest of the Bird of Prey make for a great mismatched crew; special shout out to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress for being cool and impossibly socially awkward (you don’t get out much at secret assassin monasteries). The only couple of drawbacks is that they don’t get together sooner and that Ewan McGregor doesn’t get more to do. When everything starts flying though, it’s a good violent time. 

The Last of Sheila

The Last of Sheila

After watching Knives Out last year, I needed another whodunit to jump into. Luckily Ryan Johnson put together a handy list which led me to The Last of Sheila. This fantastic murder myster from 1973 also stars some verifiable stars: Joan Hackett, Raquel Welch, Ian McShane, Dyan Cannon, and James Coburn as the smug movie producer who brings them all together. The plot centers around a group of movie industry members out on a Mediterranean cruise at the behest of James Coburn. Turns out he has dirt on all of them and is using that to inform a game that he’s put together for them all to play. When someone eventually ends up dead, the guests have to figure out what happened. It definitely scratched a similar itch to Knives Out; namely that all of these people are easy to root against. Everyone is leaning into their characters too as uneasy alliances and sneaky meetings start occurring. The secrets and reveals are satisfying and like the best murder mysteries leaves the clues hidden just enough to keep you guessing.

Palm Springs

Palm Springs

This one surprised me. It’s not that it didn’t get good reviews, I was just expecting to be more middling and pleasant. I was also skeptical of the premise, I mean Groundhog Day is the reference for a reason. The movie twists it just enough and runs with it to tell a completely different story. The smartest move is having two people stuck in a time warp and starting it en media res. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are a great odd couple. Andy Samberg as Nyles is a burnout who wants to lean into the situation while Cristin Milioti as Sarah desperately wants him to snap out of it and get the hell out of this. There’s plenty of hijinks and time paradox bits around all the shit you can get away with when time restarts. Palm Springs like Groundhog Day is interested in redemption and what it takes to change yourself for the better. Palm Springs though looks beyond love as salvation and instead what does it actually mean to forgive yourself. It has a lot of unexpected heart amidst it’s dark humor (although the best part may be the synchronized dance to Patrick Cowley).



Speaking of chemistry this movie was made so we could go and awe at the two stars’ chemistry. It’s also a fun and mostly breezy thriller, a plot full of changing allegiances and murders that’s coupled with Audrey Hepburn wanting to hook up with Cary Grant as soon as humanly possible. The movie twists through beautiful European scenery as our protagonist tries to figure out just what the hell all these men want and where the hell all her money went. The plot moves along at a quick pace meaning your never getting bored and trickles out just enough info to keep you guessing. But really you’re here to watch two amazing actors at the top of their game hit it off.

The Conversation

The Conversation

A paranoid thriller that happened to coincidentally release alongside the Watergate scandal, I had never seen what HBO Max had listed as “Film 101.” It’s a classic for a reason. The movie is all about civilian spy work, what it means to remove people’s privacy and the complicity that comes with being involved in this line of work. Gene Hackman plays our protagonist who finds that his recent job may lead to a couple getting killed. He plays Harry Caul as a paranoid loner, a renowned industry expert who may have earned that lifestyle precisely because he knows how easy it is to breach someone’s privacy. The movie plays out his fears through dreams and daydreams making it hard to tell if his worries are actually founded in reality. The film sticks purely with his point of view so even when it presents a pretty good case on what happened, it’s conclusion leaves a lot questions open. The Conversation has a big interest in the technology that enables Harry’s work so much that even the middle of the movie is dedicated to an industry convention. It’s almost quaint by today’s standards how the tools that they use require so much technical skill and knowledge to operate and a large scale operation to record a whole conversation. Now ads for crock pots are served to me if I do much as mention a slow cooker near my phone.

Stop Making Sense/American Utopia

I’m a relatively recent Talking Heads fan. I never really started listening to them until college. Before I had only really heard Psycho Killer and Once in a Lifetime; great songs but didn’t exactly jump out to me. I heard their cover of Take Me To The River and I was immediately hooked. After almost ten years of listening I had never watched their seminal Stop Making Sense. It meets the lofty expectations and then enthusiastically leaps over it. It’s an hour and a half of finely crafted live versions of their discography, updated to inject more energy through double the amount of band members. It builds perfectly as each subsequent song introduces an additional band member. Once everyone’s on stage the energy never dips. It’s 100% danceable and definitely the greatest concert film I’ve ever seen. I was surprised David Byrne’s giant suit wasn’t even the best part of it. 

Not from the stage show, but you get the idea

American Utopia is a slightly different beast. It’s definitely still energetic and exciting, but with 30 years experience and a lot less cocaine. David Byrne trades sporadic dancing for intricate choreography and it’s amazing watching all of the band dance while playing all of their wireless instruments. It’s something I’ve never seen before and watching every be untethered allows for a more dynamic show. American Utopia is a more affecting show emotionally than Stop Making Sense. David Byrne brings in more of his solo work around interrogating his surroundings. He also takes time in the show to comment on racial justice issues (both with kneeling in front of a picture of Kapernick and covering Janelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout) and wider political issues (reminding the audience the importance of voting globally). I teared up a few times watching it and was so excited to hear Road to Nowhere, a song that was unfortunately predated by Stop Making Sense.

Jupiter Ascending

I had a great Wachowski revival this year. I watched the first two Matrix’s again (both incredible) and revisited Speed Racer with incredible results. I decided to finish off 2020 with Jupiter Ascending, a movie I heard was better than it’s reputation.

This is my favorite movie I watched this year. It’s simultaneously amazing and an absolute mess. You know you’re in for something when the Space Opera has the opening line “I’m an alien” and the character is actually referring to their status as an illegal immigrant in the US. The Wachowski’s put together an incredibly dense universe and fiction filled with stunning ship designs, gothic space castles and greedy intergalactic capitalists. There’s so much detail that every other line is explaining some necessary information for understanding the world. The wider galaxy shown has such amazing structure like Eddie Redmayne’s character Balem’s castle inside of Jupiter and his sister Kalique’s Greek inspired palatial estate on one of Jupiter’s moons. They also put in a clunker of a romance and the plot centers around our protagonist wanting to find true love. They try and cast Jupiter’s (yes that Mila Munis’ characters name) joinery as a rags to riches; she’s literally cleaning houses before she finds out that she’s somehow space royalty. All she wants is romance though and that comes in the form of Channing Tatum as a half wolf man hybrid with jetpack boots named Caine Wise. It’s honestly so hard to pay attention to Jupiter’s earthbound problems when there’s entire plots around harvesting planets for life extending products. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum have zero chemistry but the movie moves so fast it’s hard for it to get bogged down.

I can’t believe the things that happen in this movie. Mila Kunis controls bees! Our crew gets stuck in space bureaucracy! Channing Tatum literally skates in the sky the whole movie! I want more in this universe because it’s so damn captivating. The ship designs are incredible, especially the capital ships that are inspired by sailing vessels and space mechs with wings. I’m flabbergasted that it reviewed so poorly because it’s so much fun. It’s messy and cheesy but there are too many amazing details to count. This movie was unfairly slept on (by myself included) but it has jumped up my favorites list. The Wachowskis have been received poorly since The Matrix; 2021 is the year we cement Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending in the all time great canon.


Speed Racer is the Lone 2008 Blockbuster That Still Holds Up

Not going to lie; I did not like Speed Racer when I first saw it in theaters in 2008. I was a Wachowski acolyte; following the Matrix trilogy I went to see anything that had their name attached (it’s also how I learned the distinction between director, writer, and producer). I distinctly remember loving all of the racing and feeling semi-embarrassed by the rest of it. I was in high school, a time where I was both pretentious and self serious. I wanted things to be about something dammit! I also had a limited knowledge and taste of movies but I wasn’t aware of that fact. My influences were that of the modern blockbusters or higher budget indies of the time. The big movies of 2008 matched my self seriousness; The Dark Knight, Taken, Quantum of Solace, and even Cloverfield we’re “serious” (of the polished and dark variety) takes on their genre. Even the launch of the MCU with Iron Man & the Incredible Hulk delivered something jokes but with a more sarcastic tone that let viewers know not to take the proceedings too serious (a well worn formula by now). Needless to say, there wasn’t really any other $90 million movies that trafficked in cheese like Speed Racer.

I rewatched Speed Racer for the first time; that movie is a homerun. The visuals continue to be impressive and overwhelming at the same time. There’s so much neon detail packed into every scene that it can be a little hard to take in. It’s a distinctive aesthetic though, matching the retro futurism from the original series with the neon excess of the 90s. The races especially all take place on wild biomes that look like realized Hot Wheels racing tracks. The cars are all gorgeously rendered versions of the cartoon archetypes (modeled around snakes, Vikings, and more) all equipped with weapons, springs, shields. The movie also smartly uses neon trails as cars zoom around corners. Even in its most hectic segments, you can coherently keep up with the action on screen (even the movies climatic take on the Willy Wonka rainbow tunnel).

The story also has a lot more going on than I gave it credit for. It’s simple so it’s easy to follow, but it’s also blatantly anti capitalist. There are plenty of thugs but the real villains are corporate CEOs who use race fixing to sell parts. Their main goal is money and they use good racers to acquire that. Speed’s main journey is not necessarily take them down, but to beat them in their own rigged system. The main villain getting arrested is a happy coincidence, perhaps a too tidy ending made for the kids audience. In comparison to other kids movies though, it’s not about self discovery. Speed is capable at the beginning and is capable at the end. Instead, it’s about Speed figuring out how to race and find his calling within a system designed to crush that. The movies politics ring that much truer with the decade rise of mega corporations. Needless to say the leftist adult I am now finds much more meaning in Speed Racer than the conservative high school student. The romance also deserves praise, depicting a trusting partnership between Speed and Trixie. There’s no “winning the girl” here, rather two people who inherently trust one another. A real special shoutout to Trixie as well, the Uber competent pilot and race car driver. The only downside to her story is that we only see her race once. 


Why is this movie now considered an underrated classic? Speed Racer was a commercial and critical failure at the time. My new opinion is largely inline with the view of the movie now. So what changed? We’ve been through a decade of muted tones matching the “serious” aesthetic. The darker hues and muted grays have started to ease up; even the Marvel movies have embraced adding pops of neon color (see Guardians of the Galaxy & Thor Ragnarok). What was genuinely impressive about Speed Racer at the time has become much more unique among the gray palette that followed. 

Speed Racer Desert

Movies continue to rely on CGI, especially in backgrounds, but not to the same effect as Speed Racer. Big budget action movies have largely turned set pieces into messes of CGI, Marvel movies being the main culprit. They now have a reputation for ending with an incoherent glob of visual effects action where superheroes zoom around the screen without much in the way of identifying detail. It’s hard not to feel detached from the action, especially in their biggest movie “Endgame.” When your seeing the protagonists easily beat faceless aliens to a pulp it’s hard to feel any real connection. Speed Racer meanwhile has so much detail poured into every shot with distinct backgrounds for you to take in. The camera stays tight on Speed or between a trio of racers. We see them spin, flip, and jostle with the cars next to them and the tires slide across whatever biome. Even though the physics are wonky they make an inherent sense. Placing the camera on the car allows for a sense of exhilaration even when things are popping off and cars are exploding into cartoon bits.

The politics of 2008 haven’t aged especially well either. Taken embodies white fear as brown sex traffickers. Liam Neeson as a white man taking out violent justice on them is chilling in light of recent comments of his. 2008 also brought us the Clint Eastwood’s “good minority” movie Gran Torino. Clint Eastwood’s racist protagonist learns that POC can be good actually and that not all of them want to be a part of gangs. The movie’s message on understanding one another ends with him baiting the gang members into shooting him so that they can be arrested by the police. He becomes a martyr to free these “oppressed” POC from the terror of the gang. No commentary here on wider systemic racism or politics of skin color. The big superhero movie of 2008, The Dark Knight, has also aged poorly. The climax of Batman hacking into everyone’s phones to find is chilling in our post Snowden world where the government is actively doing so. That’s before we get to the movie’s mixed message of hiding corruption and preserving public officials image for the greater good.

Speed Racer Rules

Speed Racer anti capitalist message rings even truer now. It’s simple; corporations will always act in self interest. The movie portrays that as widespread corruption within the sport and race fixing. We see that happen nowadays all the time and this movie was before the large scale FIFA scandal. That’s not even to mention what companies will do outside of sports. Speed Racers main question then is if you love something but the system is inherently bad, how do you find your place? It’s answer is to reject the corporation buy in and work outside it to bring a spotlight on the injustice. The film’s not incredibly deep, so Speed’s realization to race because he loves it is a tad simplistic. Instructing children distrust in large capitalistic systems though is a worthwhile message. I don’t want to oversell Speed Racer as this deep philosophical work, but what is there is tremendous.

Overall, there’s just a wider understanding and appetite for pulpier and cheesier movies like Speed Racer. It’s got visual flair for days and a solid message for its younger audience. Meanwhile we’ve also realized that the gritty movies of the 2000’s often come with mixed messages and political baggage. Just because something has a serious tone doesn’t make it worthwhile. I’m honestly so glad that Speed Racer was able to be made like this and is a truly unique blockbuster spectacle.

Speed Racer Legacy

Warrior Cops: What Zootopia, the Raid and Dirty Harry all Have in Common

Police are a permanent fixture in the media. There are tons of movies, tv shows, and even some video games that lionize policing. They are so prevalent that it has become normalized; whether it’s procedurals or reality shows the image of cops are heroes of justice is firmly cemented. 

With the death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, there has been a stronger pushback against heroic and sympathetic portrayals of police. Rightly so; these shows normalize an “us vs them” mentality by portraying police as heroes and the communities they serve (usually lower income and multi-racial) as violent or evil. Law & Order (which the name itself implies a firm viewpoint) shows police officers cracking down on their district in order to solve violent crimes. Civilians often act indifferent, unwilling to help our heroes in their search for justice. In the end, the police are usually right and problems are solved by “good” police work. This is all done in a “ripped from the headlines” approach, meaning that it’s meant to mirror real world events even when it’s only showing the sensationalist parts of police work (they certainly aren’t handing out parking tickets). This formula has proven immensely successful; the original show ran for 20 seasons and had 5 spinoff shows, one which is the longest running live-action primetime series (Law & Order: SVU). 

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Sympathetic television portrayals aren’t relegated to the drama genre either. Brooklyn Nine-Nine casts police officers as sitcom caricatures, lovable goofballs cast in the “Parks and Rec” mold. They go through ticketing and arrests like it’s a normal day job, while engaging in regular sitcom shenanigans (friendly rivalries, not wanting to divulge secrets, etc). Police officers are people too, but their job is far from normal. Casting police officers as regular office workers removes the important differentiator between civilians and cops. There’s also a general dismissal of the internal departments militarization. Normalizing their job as “just another 9-5” asks viewers to think uncritically about their job structure, that they are just trying to get by like everyone else and not the civil servants that they actually are. Arrests, investigations, and use of force become “just part of the job” like sending emails or sorting spreadsheets. Make no mistake; they are the ones with the power. 

Dirty Harry

There would be no problem with these portrayals of police if they actually represented the reality. Police also have a severe effect on their communities that goes beyond “catching the bad guys.” We’ve seen over policing and police violence reinforce systemic racism, the prison industrial complex, and kill Black people. Media portrayals soften this image; when they’re shown as the last line of defense against evil their tactics become justified. We see police fire their guns all the time in film and television, usually because the character’s life is on the line. Police in other words embody the “warrior cop” stereotype, going to war against violent communities. In real life, warrior cops kill innocent minorities. I say all this not as someone who is immune to this genre; some of my favorites have been exactly the kinds of portrayals I’m speaking about. All the movies I’m about to list have been favorites of mine, but I’ve given them all passes. I think it’s about time I held myself accountable as well. 

Most police centered media normalize use of force. Dirty Harry is a prime example of this; the character is a good cop held back by bureaucracy. He’s held back by the fact that he doesn’t get to dictate when he can use force. Dirty Harry’s most famous line is an egregious example of him wielding power.

This is often seen as a win, a badass line to end all badass lines. An officer nowadays threatening to blow off a suspect’s head should lead to a suspension and criminal charge. Dirty Harry also emphasizes that individual discretion, when it comes to enacting justice, can be used. Harry Callahan fails to convict the psychopathic Scorpio after he obtains evidence through torturing him. He storms off pissed, a serious blow to get a killer off the streets. The movie’s reprehensible viewpoint comes to fruition when Scorpio hires a man to beat him, so as to appear that he was a victim of police brutality. The message from the film is clear; police should dictate the response needed to save us civilians when villains would abuse the system. Fascism, in other words, is ok when the police deem the threat large enough. The idea that Dirty Harry is a fascistic movie is nothing new, there were protests at the Academy Awards the year it came out. That nasty identifier has done little to curtail its place as a classic however.

The Raid Fight Scene

Modern films are not immune. The Raid, an Indonesian action movie, is one of my favorite movies of all time and one of the best action movies of the past decade. It’s politics however are thoroughly awful. The story is thin but revolves around an elite team of police officers storming a low income housing project to take down the crime lord who lives on the top level. There’s an uncomfortable dissonance between the movie’s text and imagery; namely armed police attacking a poor housing project. The mission goes sideways and the remaining police officers are forced to physically defend themselves against all of the building’s residents. Don’t worry though; this project is full of criminals who serve said crime boss so the excessive violence throughout is justified. The movie’s imagery, whether intentional or not, equates lower income housing residents as criminals and degenerates, something Fox News does o so regularly. Yes the martial arts action is second to none, but it is privileged cops from good neighborhoods breaking peoples’ limbs. We see as much at the beginning of the film, as our hero Rama trains for his mission and kisses his wife goodbye in their beautiful home. The well dressed and civilized police are thus forced to contend with the monstrous criminals. Even Dredd, the 2012 movie that takes a similar premise and transplants it into the source comic book’s bleak futurism, depicted white cops fighting back against evil and multi-racial civilians. It doesn’t help that the main bads of the movie are a Black man and white woman specifically. Judge Dredd usually traffics in some satire about its main characters fascist authority (he is a cop with the power to sentence people on the spot), but this is mostly stripped away in the film.


Even children’s movies are tailored cop propaganda. Zootopia is a recent problematic fave (of mine), taking what seems like a good hearted attempt to make an allegory about race in a wrong headed direction. The world of Zootopia has “predators” and “non-predators” living together but in segregated communities. Don’t expect class discussion though; economic disparity is not one of the film’s talking points. Predators have learned to suppress their carnivorous tendencies and now live side by side with their former meals. This of course leads to worries amongst the prey population that any day predators could rise up and eat them. The story attempts to impart a lesson of treating everyone equally and looking past differences which on the surface semi works. The fact that predators are genetically predisposed to violent tendencies works strongly against that. The police in the film learn to look past this; predators have reformed their criminal ways and are ready to live in polite society. This has very negative connotations when you extrapolate out that predators are supposed to represent minorities in Zootopia’s analogy. Predators in other words must conform to their prey communities if they want to be “one of the good ones.” There may be bad actors, but these predators are ready to be nice and polite now. Add in that police departments literally use the movie as diversity training and it paints a bleak picture of our current justice system.

I don’t say this to point fingers at viewers who loved these movies (I am one of them after all), but we need to be more critical of portrayals of police in the media. We should interrogate the way police interactions are shown especially against poor and minority communities. We should pushback at portrayals of excessive use of force and warrior cops working outside the law. The show “Cops” only just canceled, as people are starting to understand the dehumanizing aspects of this long running program. Police are not equal to civilians; they hold all the power.