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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Cobra Kai at Screen Rant


As a lifelong fan of The Karate Kid and someone who dreamed of being taught by Mr. Miyagi, Cobra Kai is the show I'd waited for most of my life. And now it's not only here - and it's awesome - but I get to write about Cobra Kai for Screen Rant as my job. Here are all my Features about Cobra Kai SENT TO THE INTERNET! Let Daniel LaRusso teach you focus and let Johnny Lawrence teach you the way of the fist.


Monday, September 14, 2020




Hit Me With Your Bloodshot

Bloodshot has a pretty basic premise: What if Wolverine was played by Vin Diesel and his blood was made of nanites, plus he fought cyborgs all the livelong day? Based on the Valiant comic book series (never read 'em) and purportedly the start of a Valiant Cinematic Universe, which was iffy even before the COVID-19 pandemic decimated its box office chances, Bloodshot is a strange, violent, but also strangely interesting sci-fi comic book movie about Wolverine... with nanites. Bloodshot harkens back to the giddy decade of the 2000s when one could count on a Resident Evil or Underworld movie coming out every year. Bloodshot is at that B-movie level but it's also well aware that A-level comic book movies like Logan, Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Endgame exist. In its most feverish, nanite-fueled dreams, Bloodshot wants to be like the best Marvel movies and it's constantly, futilely punching above its weight class. But it's also sort of entertaining to see it try.

Vin Diesel plays former U.S. Marine Ray Garrison, who is never properly introduced and you kind of have to listen closely to the dialogue to patch his full name together. Garrison is a kickass soldier who plays by his own rules but after a successful mission in Africa where he kills all the enemy combatants and saves the hostage by playing his own rules, he gets attacked in his Amalfi Coast hotel room after a night of sexytime with his wife, Gina (Talulah Riley). Both are kidnapped by a guy who loves Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" (too on the nose) named Maxwell Axe (Toby Kebbell). Martin axed Ray a question but Ray didn't know the answer so he executed both Gina and Ray. Immediately after, Ray awakens in a high-tech lab in Kuala Lumpur called Rising Spirit Tech. A scientist named Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce) has rebuilt Ray and made him faster and stronger, thanks to the power of nanites. Nanites have replaced his blood and heal him from any "catastrophic" injury. Ray is now Bloodshot (no one calls him that), the most successful project of the Bloodshot Program (no one calls it that).

Garrison meets RST's other projects, all cyborgs. One dude with robot legs named Dalton (Sam Heughen) seems to fucking hate him for some reason. Another cyborg dude named Tibbs (Alex Hernandez) seems indifferent. The nicest cyborg, and the sexist, is KT (Eiza Gonzalez), who seems very sympathetic to Ray. Dr. Harting himself is a cyborg with a black robot arm, and the fact that his metal appendage looks just like the cyborg limbs of the James Bond villain Dr. No is an immediate tip off of who the real bad guy in all this is. Ray suffers from amnesia but is pretty easy going about the whole waking up as a cyborg made of nanities dealie he's got going on now. But after a shot of whiskey, no less, Ray's memories of how he and Gina were tortured and killed are activated, and he goes off all single-minded and robotic-like to axe Martin Axe a question: Do you want to die? (His answer is no and it's irrelevant.) As Bloodshot, Ray slaughters the soldiers Axe hired to protect him and he learns that even though his nanites can repair the flesh literally blown from his bones, they have limits and must be recharged when they power down to 0%, like a Green Lantern Power Ring. But when he maxes out his nanites, his chest and eyes glow red as he goes full Bloodshot.

Let's cut to the chase: Ray is being lied to and Dr. Harting is the bad guy. Ray has really been dead for five years, his wife Gina has remarried and moved on, and, like the Winter Soldier, Ray gets sent on black ops killing missions and has his mind wiped afterward so he doesn't remember. But Harting is only sending Ray to kill his competitors who want his Bloodshot tech. Otherwise, Ray really is like Wolverine: RST is like the Weapon X program, Harting is like Colonel William Stryker, and the nanites are Bloodshot's substitute for Wolverine's mutant healing factor. However, Ray's nanites let him do other cool shit Wolverine can only dream of, like access the entire Internet in seconds and triangulate a target's location using satellite imagery. The nanites can probably give Ray a cool Spotify playlist and post his kills on TikTok if he asked. (He should have asked.)

When Ray realizes he's been duped all along, naturally, he rebels. In KT, he has a fetching accomplice. She also is sick of being used by Harting, who literally takes her breath away whenever she argues with him and his evil methods. Together with an amusing programmer named Wilford Wigans (Lamorne Morris), who is basically the same character as Don Cheadle's British tech guy, Basher, from the Ocean's Eleven movies, Ray and KT decide to take down Dr. Harting and RST. The action is not bad; there are cool visuals, especially during the cyborg v cyborg fights that are shot to look like gif versions of comic book panels, and Diesel is an old hat at being a stoic, unstoppable action hero so he provides a solid center of gravity during the blistering violence. (Diesel also tries hard at the emotional stuff. Bless him, he is Groot.) Bloodshot has a remarkable cast for the type of thing it is and, overall, the movie is surprisingly, decidedly, un-terrible and a Valiant effort. I would watch another... if only that were possible.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Mulan (2020)

 MULAN (2020)


Loyal. Brave. True.

Director Niki Caro's thrilling and rapturous Mulan is a fable about a young woman in Ancient China who discovers her true potential and - this is really important, especially for the culture and setting of the story - she is allowed to be the person she is without fear of the penalty of death, expulsion, and dishonor to herself and her family. In terms of Disney's live-action adaptations of their own beloved animated catalog, Mulan is first-class and ranks up there (in my book) with Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and Guy Richie's Aladdin. Instead of a shot-for-shot remake of the cartoon, like Jon Favreau's The Lion King, Caro instead adapts the original source material and aims for a more mature vision of the story with an excellent all-Asian cast. (No Eddie Murphy providing the voice of Mushu the dragon, who isn't in this movie). Thankfully, like Mulan's (Yeifei Liu) aim with a bow and arrow, Caro's aim is true. (And loyal. And brave.)

In Mulan's mythology, Hua Mulan is a little like Rey; since she was a little girl, she was gifted with the incredible ability to tap into her chi, which, the film explains, is like the Force in Star Wars. Everyone has chi but only a special few can really harness it to unleash fighting and acrobatic abilities that would make Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan envious. Mulan can do incredible things but she was ordered by her loving father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) to hide her chi. In their culture, daughters must marry to bring honor to their family, and nothing more. Mulan is not a son and cannot be a warrior. But Mulan isn't best suited to be a wife, nor is her father, who is hobbled from an old war injury, suited to become a soldier once again. But when the Emperor (Jet Li) decrees that each family in China must provide one man for the Imperial Army, Hua Zhou has no choice, even if conscription is a death sentence. But instead, Mulan steals Zhou's sword and armor and rides into war in his place. At stake, if Mulan's deception is discovered, is her very life, as well as the honor of her family, including her mother Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) and her little sister Hua Xiu (Xana Tang). But protecting and guiding Mulan is a beautiful phoenix, which is the spirit of her ancestors that, apparently, only Mulan can see. Seriously, can anyone else see that phoenix? It's all over the place.

Meanwhile, China is under attack by an army called the Rourans led by a warlord named Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee). Bori Khan's own father was killed by the Emperor during the last rebellion and he's out to topple the dynasty once and for all. Bori Khan isn't the villain from the animated Mulan, but Caro's film ingeniously creates an even better villain in Xian Lang (Gong Li), a witch who is the broken mirror image of Mulan. Also gifted with incredible chi powers, Xian Lang was banished and has suffered from China's rules all of her life. She joined with Bori Khan because he promised to build a new China where Xian Lang would be accepted - which is a pretty understandable motivation, if you think about it, even though she murders a lot of people. Of course, Xian Lang's interest is piqued when she meets Mulan, who is a lot like Xian Lang but, for some reason, Mulan isn't as hated for who she is. Maybe because Mulan doesn't have freaky bird claws for hands? Just spitballing here.

Not that Mulan has an easy time of it. Indoctrinated into the Imperial Army as a soldier in the Fifth Battalion, Mulan poses as Hua Jun, the son of Hua Zhou, and this even briefly fools the battalion's leader, Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), who served with Mulan's father and takes a shine to his "son". As Hua Jun, Mulan is always on guard with her new friends, terrified that they'll discover he's a she, especially Chen Honghui (Yosun An), the handsome dude who wants to be pals with Hua Jun but finds he's really standoffish for some reason. Mulan is so afraid of being discovered, she goes for weeks without showering, so it says a lot that everyone still likes Hua Jun even though he positively stinks. Mulan is also afraid to show off what she can do but during training, she can't help herself and she lets loose with her chi. But to her surprise, instead of being scorned, everyone thinks she's super awesome. Commander Tung even wants Hua Jun to marry his daughter, which is hilariously awkward, and their relationship is a lot like when Homer Simpson joined the Navy Reserves and Captain Tenille came to love him as the son he never had. (Hua Zhou is the father Mulan never visits.)

But soon, it's time for the Fifth Battalion to go to war against the Rourans and Mulan can hide no longer. Mulan's first confrontation with Xian Lang is electric because as a female with a lotta chi, she knows another when she sees her. It turns out lies poison your chi, which weakens Mulan against Zian Lang. The witch even uses the old, "We're not so different, you and I" supervillain taunt that Green Goblin and Dr. Evil would use on Spider-Man and Austin Powers centuries later. But it's when Xian Lang "kills" Huan Jun that Mulan finally rises, and her arrival as a red robe-clad, acrobatic superhero is worth the wait. Mulan is a revelation on the battlefield and she easily turns the tide and saves her friends in the Fifth Battalion. But when she reveals who she is, Commander Tung expels her from the Army and sends her packing in disgrace, as he must, because rules are rules. Amusingly, Honghui goes to bat for Mulan and so do the rest of their friends. They accept Mulan because, c'mon, dude, she's awesome, does it matter if she's not a dude? Honghui's turn is especially fun since he wastes no time adjusting easily from, "I wish Hua Jun was my buddy" to "Whoa, he's a she, and she's hot. This works even better for me!" (Narrator: It doesn't.)

Accepted by the Fifth Battalion for the badass female she is, of course, Mulan leads them into the Imperial City to save Emperor Jet Li from Bori Khan. Of course, Mulan faces Bori Khan herself and, of course, she wins, but with a little help from the Emperor and Xian Lang, who makes the noble sacrifice in her "far better thing I do than I have ever done" moment. Thing is, Xian Lang didn't really have to do that; she could have helped Mulan and the Emperor would have pardoned her since he turned out to be a great guy despite his crazy eyes. But whatevs, Mulan saves the Dynasty and she is even introduced in court by Ming-Na Wen (the voice of animated Mulan) herself, in probably the most elegant passing of the torch moment of that type I've ever seen. But Mulan turns down a job offer to join the Emperor's Guard so she can go home and reconcile with her family, and surprisingly, the Emperor is cool with that too, as Mulan reaffirms the importance of being true to your family. 

Mulan's reunion with her family is emotional and sweet, and it hammers home how charismatic Yeifei Lui is as Mulan and how well-cast her family (and all of the actors) are in the film. But moments later, Commander Tung arrives with a brand new sword for Mulan and a reiteration of the Emperor's job offer. Unfortunately, despite her elevated status and freedom, Mulan still has lousy career prospects: It's either be a bodyguard or... nothing. But Mulan becomes a revered legend as a great warrior so she probably takes the bodyguard position, and that's better than being a mere wife (poor Honghui). Quibbles aside, Mulan is a shining example of the hero's journey and it's a visually spectacular film with a beautiful cast, heart, soul, and an amazing heroine who loves her family so much, she'll risk her own neck and their disgrace just to keep her daddy alive a few more years. And that's what's important about Mulan: she didn't go to war for her own glory but to keep her father safe. She even kept hiding her abilities just as he told her to. Mulan is reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but despite what she endured, Mulan still had it a lot better than Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who was every bit as powerful as Mulan but her culture wouldn't allow her to express herself, so she became a villain. Mulan is the fairy tale version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where being loyal, brave, and (eventually) true gets you far in life, even in Ancient China. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Teenage Bounty Hunters



When Teenage Bounty Hunters begins, Bowser Jenkins' (Kadeem Hardison) reaction upon meeting fraternal twins Blair (Anjelica Bette Fellini) and Sterling Wesley (Maddie Phillips) is spot-on: "Y'all just weird." The girls somehow collared a skip thanks to Sterling being an uncanny shot and Blair being as fast and fearless as Vin Diesel before Blair proudly announced that Sterling just got laid (for the first time). Weird is one word to describe Sterling and Blair. Others would be endearing, irrepressible, terrific. Thanks to Bowser, who wonders aloud how he became their Obi-Wan Kenobi, Blair and Sterling become Teenage Bounty Hunters, and they, like this surprisingly fantastic Netflix series, are the great Gen Z hope we've been waiting for. We didn't expect that hope to be in the form of Blair and Sterling but now we wonder how we ever got along without them.

Blair and Sterling are holy creations; the daughters of affluent Atlanta white Republicans, they attend Willingham Academy, a private Christian school, and while they love and respect God, they're curiously open-minded, liberal-leaning, social justice-seeking angels. Well, sometimes. Blair, played by The Gifted season 2 scene-stealer Anjelica Bette Fellini, is headstrong, dramatic, and thinks constantly about sex. Sterling, played by Van Helsing scene-stealer Maddie Phillips, describes herself as a nervous person but she's kind, open, patient, and exceptionally bright. In Teenage Bounty Hunters, the two leads don't steal scenes; rather, Fellini and Phillips own every moment they're on screen, together or apart. Meanwhile, for those of us who really haven't seen Kadeem Hardison since he wore flip-up Harry Potter glasses in A Different World, he's a world-weary but good-hearted revelation as Bowser, who takes a shine to the twins even as they baffle and frustrate him.

Teenage Bounty Hunters promised wit and action but there's far more wit in the crackerjack writing and hilarious and insightful dialogue. Blair and Sterling have a deliriously fun banter where the girls effortlessly sell that they've been as one for their entire lives, and the love they feel for each other is palpable even when they are occasionally at loggerheads. While each episode has a case for the teenage bounty hunters to investigate, the real meat of the story happens at Willingham, where Sterling is at odds with her rival since the fifth grade, April Stevens (a remarkable Devon Hales), the mean girl at school who's hiding a secret that she tragically can't share. But Sterling is on a stunning path of self-awakening, which leads her to ditch her sweet but dim-witted boyfriend Luke (Spencer House from The Society), and her evolving relationship with April is delightfully surprising, deftly handled, and heartfelt.

Meanwhile, Blair has her own romance with Miles (Myles Evans), the African-American valet at their exclusive country club who was hiding his own secret. After rebuffing Miles' interest, Blair becomes interested and then obsessed with him, and eventually, Blair genuinely falls in love. With Miles and Blair's dual relationships, Teenage Bounty Hunters cleverly addresses issues of race and class, with an ingenious inversion taking place between the two. Just as Sterling is endearingly angelic, Blair is endearingly the wrecking ball Miley Cyrus described in her song, and the show also has a lot of fun with how terrible Blair is at interrogating people. But Blair's love story with Miles is as emotional, honest, and real as Sterling's is with April. Teenage Bounty Hunters' greatest trick is to lure you in with humor and then smack you in the feels with how deeply substantive it is.

Yet through all of Blair and Sterling's dramas in school and in the field with Bowser - who has his own relationship trials with his bail bondsman, Yolanda (Shirley Rumierk) - Teenage Bounty Hunters plays the long game with a season-long mystery surrounding the twins' parents and a mysterious Wanted poster of a woman who looks exactly like Sterling and Blair's mother Debbie (Virginia Williams). Teenage Bounty Hunters drops clues we don't even notice at first, but like Blair's uncanny Spider-Sense for her parents lying to her, we discover that there's much more going on with Debbie and her well-heeled husband Anderson (Mackenzie Astin) than meets the eye. I won't ruin the shocking revelations but, by the end of Teenage Bounty Hunters season 1, everything Blair and Sterling ever believed explodes in their faces and we're left as aghast as they are. 

There are precious few perfect seasons of television - Veronica Mars season 1 and The Wire season 3 immediately come to mind - but Teenage Bounty Hunters is a perfect show; fully-formed, endlessly surprising, bursting with charm, intelligence, heart, daring, and two of the best young female characters in recent memory. Ending the season with Blair and Sterling's mouths agape (along with mine) while Radiohead's "Idioteque" plays over the credits is a perfect topping on the frozen yogurt.





Friday, July 3, 2020

Hanna Season 2



Hanna season 2 ingeniously reinvents the series about the teenage super-soldier Hanna Petrescu (Esme Creed-Miles) and injects the story about one lone girl searching for purpose into a compelling larger universe of an entire school of teenage assassins looking for a greater purpose. Hanna season 1 was loosely adapted from the 2011 feature film directed by Joe Wright starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role before it veered in a different, and frankly, better direction. With Hanna season 2, showrunner David Farr's soft reboot cleverly forces Hanna to answer the question of where she fits in and what role she will have in this new expanded universe she finds herself at the center of.

Hanna was originally part of Utrax, a clandestine CIA program that began in the early 2000s in Romania. Utrax has a vague, science fiction-y premise of injecting infants with wolf DNA to make them superior soldiers... uh, however that works. Regardless, Hanna and her adoptive father Erik Heller (Joel Kinnaman) shut down Utrax in Hanna season 1, although it cost Erik his life and Hanna fled back to the forest where she grew up with her 'sister' from Utrax, Clara (Yasmin Monet Prince). Hanna season 2 picks up some time after; as Hanna and Clara continue hiding in the Romanian wilderness, Utrax relocated to a Downton Abbey-like English country manor called the Meadows. Utrax's trainees, who were treated like robots in season 1 and are now enhanced synthetically instead of through genetic manipulation, received a serious lifestyle upgrade. Each given fabricated names and histories, the girls of Utrax find themselves living and learning in a boarding school for assassins. Hanna turns season 2 into a cross between Harry Potter and Killing Eve - it's brilliant and it works like gangbusters.

Naturally, Clara is unhappy living in the forest (who can blame her?) and she's obsessed with finding her birth mother (again, hard to blame her). Utrax reacquires Clara and sends her to the Meadows where she's the problem child in the school -- until Hanna arrives to rescue her and Hanna herself becomes the school's even more-of-a-problem child. But the best characters of the show are the girls who are gung-ho to be in Utrax. Hanna's prize pupils are Sandy Phillips (Aine Rose Daly), the blonde, effervescent true believer, and Jules Allen (Gianna Kiehl), the headstrong, independent thinker who figures out pretty early on that she fancies girls more than boys. When Hanna season 2 focuses on the trainees at Utrax, their training, and their attempts to be "normal teenage girls" (wholly sponsored by their CIA overseers), the series really crackles. These girls are being trained to become US Government sanctioned assassins but they're delightful, bright, naive, and incredibly dangerous. No teenage boy is a match for Utrax's trainees and they know it. Placing the girls of Utrax at the heart of the show alongside Hanna is the series' masterstroke.

Meanwhile, there are also adults on this show. Hanna season 2 brings back devious and tough-as-nails Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos), who was relentlessly hunting Hanna in season 1 but they're now on the same side, although Hanna can't bring herself to fully trust Marissa (Erik taught her well). Marissa's real obsession is getting to the bottom of Utrax and her old teacher at the agency, John Carmichael (Dermot Mulroney), who now runs the program for a shadowy section of the CIA called the Pioneer Group. Marissa has a tough season 2; she's beaten up and captured several times (Hanna also hands Wiegler her ass) but she's the smartest person on the show and, eventually, Marissa figures out how to take Utrax over to her own advantage. Another compelling new character is Terri Miller (Cherrelle Skeete), a fresh recruit from the CIA who creates all of the Utrax girls' identities and intimately gets to know them in ways no one else does. Also, Carmichael doesn't seem all that bad for a bad guy. Late in the series, Carmichael gently pats Sandy on the shoulder and tells her "I'm proud of you". This sweet moment was one of the highlights of young Sandy's life.

As entertaining as the Meadows school setting is, the final three episodes of the season highlight the new direction's true potential when Hanna and Jules are deployed to London while Sandy and Clara are sent to Barcelona to take out their targets. Hanna season 2's spy games are a cross between the first Mission: Impossible movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Utrax's girls are trying to acquire a list of future targets but that list sounds suspiciously like Hydra's Project Insight plan - except Utrax will use 18 -year-old female assassins in lieu of Helicarriers. Hanna, Jules, Sandy, and Clara plunged into the real world, and posing as international boarding school students delightfully brings with it all of the requisite coming-of-age thrills of travel, discovery, rebelliousness, and, of course, gun-toting violence. More of this please, Hanna.

If there's a stick-in-the-mud at the Meadows, it's Hanna herself, who can't bring herself to fit in at Utrax, even though it's really where she belongs. Esme Creed-Miles always makes Hanna empathetic, but come on, she's not much fun to be around, is she? It's certainly hard to go to school with Hanna. To her credit, Hanna fundamentally objects to being used as an assassin, which is what makes her a hero, and yet, she simply can't survive in a world where the CIA will continually hunt her. As the Utrax O.G., Hanna is certainly tough, clever, and resourceful but Hanna season 2 does a thorough job of defining her limits. The show doesn't flinch from the harsh realities that Hanna has no options for a happy life of freedom, but Hanna herself, for all of her abilities and life experience her 'sisters' lack, can't see how to make Utrax work for her. This is why the ending of Hanna season 2 is so brilliant: Marissa takes over Utrax from Carmichael and will use them to fight their patrons, the Pioneer Group in season 3. That's a hell of a hook and Hanna season 3 can't come soon enough.