Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Halloween 2019, already?

Time flies when you're busy as all hell.  Case in point: it's already Halloween 2019, or at least mere days away from it.  Well, crap.

I mean, uh, let's celebrate!  Need a last-minute costume idea?  Well, here's my review of the Spirit Halloween product lineup of Ghostbusters gear.  I should probably do a follow-up video to show how the stuff's holding up after a year of con-going.

And let's keep that Halloween theme going with literally every Halloween issue of A25U than I can think of/remember.  The last one is my favourite.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone.

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Sunday, August 4, 2019

Thinking at Length About "Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw" (2019)

Time again for another movie review!  Well, more of a long-ass impression piece with thoughts and rambling, but you'll see what I mean.  This time around, it's the ninth installment (or first spin-off, if you want to get specific) in the long-running adrenaline-fuelled over-the-top action-comedy Fast & Furious franchise.  The Rock and Jason Statham return once again as familiar bald badasses in Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw, which just like every previous movie, requires no knowledge of or affinity for the rest of the brand to enjoy.  (If you WOULD like to know more about the franchise, consider checking out the extensive screen capture gallery with mini-review writeups on the Helix page here.)

Say what you will about the venerable action movie brand, it has always been an exciting product of its time (much like the Bond films), and though they haven't all been good (much like the Bond films), they very much reflect the moods and fears of their eras.  And so, angsty good-looking young adults street racing and hijacking shipments of CRTs and VCRs in 2001 has given way to cyber-futuristic paramilitary corporations using drones, cybernetics, and weaponized viruses to cleanse the human race in 2019.

But rest assured: the F&F brand is still by all means the over-the-top guilty pleasure it has always been.  And even though the things to feel guilty about might have changed over the years, the pleasure is still very much present.  Fans of the franchise will also be glad to see staples of the brand are still in place, such as the concept of the Stunt Position (popularized by the Just Cause series even though its use appeared in the first Fast film in 2001), the judicious use of nitrous oxide, and, naturally, the liberal use of the term "family."  More so than in the previous films (other than possibly 7 and 8), family is a core concept at the heart of this spin-off.

Directed by David Leitch, one of the pair of directors behind John Wick, Hobbs & Shaw tells a new story set in the every-evolving Fast & Furious world, reuniting two of the biggest-name actors in the brand's history.  When a deadly weaponizable virus is stolen by a rogue MI6 agent, who do the CIA spooks send in to save the world from a genocidist's wet dream?

None other than The Rock as Luke Hobbs (introduced in Fast Five), formerly of the American DSS, and Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw (introduced in a mid-credits scene in Furious 6), British ex-military whose lineage hasn't exactly kept its hands clean over the years.  Shaw's brother (played by Welsh gentleman Luke Evans in 6, 7, and 8) does not return, but their overbearing disappointed mother does, once more played by the legendary Dame Helen Mirren, who is utterly perfect in the role.

Both Shaw's and Hobbs' families are expanded in this movie.  The newest Shaw is Deckard's sister Hattie, an MI6 agent framed with killing her team and stealing a deadly virus.  Vanessa Kirby of The Crown fame is outstanding as the sassy and extremely badass Agent Hattie Shaw, and from what a friend tells me, is a great choice to play Dame Helen Mirren's daughter.  Personally, I was hoping to see the lovely Rosamund Pike as the character, but perhaps she might be a bit too classy for the scrappy, dirty-fighting Hattie character.  (But reuniting her and The Rock might've made for a fun line or two referencing their time together in that hilariously-awful DOOM3 movie.)

One of the more fun elements of the F&F brand is the blurring of the lines between characters and actors.  When discussing the films with friends, I often substitute the characters' names for the actors' names, and for good reason.  "Roman Pierce" is pretty much Tyrese Gibson.  The top-notch player-hating of "Tej Parker" sounds like it could be lyrics from a Ludacris album.  And let's not forget the gut-wrenching heartfelt farewell that closed Furious 7, which changes subtly, almost imperceptibly, from the "Dominic Torretto" character talking about the "Brian O'Connor" character to Vin Diesel directly addressing his late friend Paul Walker.

Hobbs & Shaw runs with the idea that you're not here for the rich characters or even that deep, deep F&F lore (which I could go on about at length, if I haven't already).  You watch Hobbs & Shaw to see the familiar faces and antics of big-screen badasses The Rock and Statham, and that's what you get.  Hobbs is so The Rock that not only does he deliver smack talk worthy of a wrestling promo video, but there are scenes of him straight-up working out, his famous eyebrow, and even filling up at a diner on his world-famous Cheat Day.  Man, that is one big-ass stack of pancakes.  And, of course, the final act of the movie has Hobbs (and by extension The Rock) going home to literally reunite with his family.

Statham, similarly, plays The Jason Statham Character, who you'll recognize not just from Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious, but the likes of The Transporter, Crank, The Expendables, and Guy Ritchie movies.  I don't mean any of this in a bad way -- these are familiar, fun, likeable personalities, and even if you haven't seen them trade punches and insults in F7, you can jump right into Hobbs & Shaw.  And make no mistake, the insults they trade this time around are so savage, so close to escalating to punches, that it takes a special-guest-star cameo as an Air Marshal to prevent Statham from getting Rock-Bottomed at 30,000 feet.

As is often the case in the F&F films, the story makes precious little sense or plausibility, but is perfectly serviceable as a reason (if not excuse) to have the heroes travel across the world fighting bad guys.  And what a bad guy do they have to fight against.  A dude so bad enough that in the opening scene, he even simply refers to himself as the "bad guy."  Make no mistake, Idris Elba hams it up as the villainous Brixton, and it is pure ridiculous perfection.

Elba's character humorously refers to himself as "Black Superman," but he's more like "Black Crysis Guy."  Brixton is a genetically- and cybernetically-enhanced super-soldier outfitted with a bulletproof bodysuit and some kind of self-driving shape-shifting motorcycle that feels out of place, like it fell out of those soul-crushing Generic Overdesigned Hollywood Robot flicks that crapped all over a beloved line of toys, comic books, and cartoons.  The high-tech futurism doesn't quite gel with the F&F brand in my opinion, and that includes the Hollywood hacking stuff from 7 and 8.

Brixton works for some kind of transhumanism-focused death cult whose leader is never seen but sounds like Dr. Samuel Hayden from DOOM4.  They want the virus that Hattie Shaw's team died to protect, and that she, her brother, and Hobbs have to travel the world to keep out of enemy hands.  But it seems that despite all of the bad guys' attack drones, futuristic vehicles, and electronically-activated guns, they only have one supersoldier.  I don't know how much it costs to make a supersoldier like Idris Elba's character, but surely a pair of them would be much more effective than just one.

Furthermore, and strangely enough, Augmented Idris Elba's abilities seem quite similar to what Regular-Ass The Rock can do normally.  There are obviously standouts, like Brixton's ocular implants and HUD, but many of Hobbs' feats of strength seem comparable to what the superpowered villain can do.

Travelling the world, fighting bad guys, and dropping some hilarious dialogue along the way, Hobbs & Shaw really delivers, and cyberpunk themes aside, it doesn't feel like that much of a departure from the mainline F&F flicks, absence of the ensemble cast notwithstanding.  The humour is there, the action is intense, the dialogue is right where it needs to be, and the story is suitably nonsensical to string the action scenes together.  But it's not without its faults.

There are a few celebrity cameos that go on way too long and are not consistently funny enough to be worthwhile.  The first one, at the diner, was great -- the others, not so much.  They attempted to work the Air Marshal into the story later, sure, but that doesn't make the character less annoying or the delivery any better.  And I'm surprised with the casting: how'd that guy manage to find the time for an unfunny cameo with his busy schedule of cheating on his wife?

The mid- and post-credits scenes were good for a chuckle, I guess, but felt like more excuses to keep a cameo character around for a bit longer even after overstaying his welcome.  The scenes don't push the brand forward, set anything up, or answer any questions in the way the mid- and post-credits scenes from 1, 5, and 6 did.

Director David Leitch also seems to have regrettably stepped away from one of the decisions that made John Wick as strong as it was: rather than let the audience see the action of the well-choreographed stunts and fight sequences, Hobbs & Shaw is mired in the typical overused big-budget Hollywood shaky-cam effects that Leitch steered clear of in Keanu's quest for revenge.  Why the same couldn't be done here is beyond me.

More standard Hollywood techniques include the movie's handling of computer equipment.  Hackers hacking hackers is nothing new to the brand, but the death cult mercs have electronic safety measures on their firearms that require the weapons' operators to wear some kind of security gloves that authorize the weapons to fire.  No glove, no love.  However, the security tech can be hacked, preventing any firearms from being used.  When the hacking program finishes and the mercs can use their weapons again, would they really just surrender to the Samoan warriors, and not, say, take as many down as possible before falling in glorious combat in the name of The Cause?

Also, the entire final act set in Samoa feels self-indulgent in a way the brand, for all of its flaws, doesn't tend to feel.  The Rock and his brothers plan to use Mad-Max-style weapons and tactics against a cyberpunk death cult armed with what must be the lightest, weakest Black Hawk helicopter ever to go into production?  I don't know, man.  I mentioned the brand often blurring the lines between character and actor, and to be fair, The Rock/Hobbs lead his daughter's sport team in a traditional war dance in F8, but still.

And speaking of The Fate of the Furious, in that movie, Hobbs and Shaw had to grudgingly work together, and in the process, learned to respect each other.  During the scene in the secret government vehicle facility known as Toy Shop, Hobbs reads Shaw's file, learning how Deckard's acts of selfless heroism saved the lives of his military team and earned him a medal.  So how'd Shaw end up a criminal?  The same way Hobbs himself ended up being accused of treason -- the two military men were used up and spat out by their countries.  They're more alike than they want to admit, and Hobbs reacts in anger when Shaw is seemingly killed during the New York battle.  Hobbs and Shaw have put their differences behind them in the previous movie, so this movie pretending their rivalry has somehow escalated even further than it was when they first met doesn't really make sense.  Sure, this movie wouldn't be as much fun without their savage smack-talk, but it feels like something's missing here.

All things considered, they have crafted a thoroughly-enjoyable buddy-action movie with spectacular stunts, some great writing, the right amount of over-the-top hilarity, and the ever-important theme of family.  Both characters of Hobbs and Shaw technically started as villains, and I'm still unhappy about Shaw canonically murdering my favourite F&F character, and even if the movie didn't have the strong writing, pacing, and technical elements that it does, the appeal of The Rock and Statham would still be enough to carry Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw.  As it stands, it's an exhilarating laugh-out-loud action comedy that seriously delivers on the brand's strengths.  It's a shame they couldn't get the entire crew back to make this a proper numbered installment (we'll see what Furious 9 brings), but don't let your enjoyment of or disdain for the Fast brand prevent you from catching this balls-through-the-wall action experience.

I think that's pretty much all I can think to say about it right now.  But, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them, and I'll tell you all about it when I see you again.

Ride or Die, Family.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Still Alive, and a Movie Review: Sam Jackson's "Shaft" (2019)


First, I just want to say that I am still alive, in spite of everything.  Real-life, unfortunately, must come first, and as such, finding the time to dedicate to the animation project is nowhere near as easy as it once was.  How I ever used to be able to finish a 15-minute short film in one summer is beyond me.

Rest assured that at some point, the #400 animated movie will be completed, and I do have other comic content I want to share with you guys, including some Flashbacks, and following that, some choice individual issues from the backlog.  We've been at this a long time, together, after all.

Speaking of movies, here's something you might enjoy:

Now you guys know I'm a big fan of Samuel L. BMF Jackson.  You can see that for yourself if Ages 25 & Up #200 "Dead Figure Storage" is still watchable in your region.  So when I heard that they were making another Sam Jackson Shaft movie, I was ready.

At least, I thought I was.  Then I saw the trailer linked above.  Then I was ready.

Okay, some history for the uninitiated.  In the '70s, actor Richard Roundtree starred in a series of blaxploitation crime movies based on a book about (to quote Issac Hayes' theme song) "the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks," cleaning up the streets.  "Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt," Roundtree defined the black action hero.  Years later, Huey Freeman from the Boondocks comic strip would describe himself as "blacker than Richard Roundtree in Shaft in Africa," which is a bold claim.

But who could possibly be enough of a badass motherfucker to play Shaft today?  Easy.  Sam Jackson.  I mean, he played Shaft 20 years ago in that reboot/relaunch movie (which you don't need to have seen to enjoy this new one).

And how would you even go about making a Shaft movie today?  The answer is simple: Properly.  In the early 2000s, Newsday had this to say about Chappelle's Show, which it hailed as "the best show on TV": "In a world full of over-censorship, it's good to see someone still has the guts to cross the barriers," and I'd say the same is true about 2019's Shaft, which directly makes fun of the contemporary age of self-absorbed over-entitled kids, deals with issues such as racism, masculinity, and the drug trade, and still manages to tell a story about a broken family trying to patch things together again.

2019's Shaft tells the story Sam Jackson's John Shaft, returning from 2000's Shaft, as a private investigator keeping Harlem safe.  An attempt on his life in '89 terrifies his lover, who leaves him in order to keep their son, John Jr., safe.  JJ grows up without knowing his dad and eventually joins the FBI.  But when his best friend dies under mysterious circumstances, JJ will need help to solve the case.

He needs one bad motherfucker named John Shaft.  Because even though it's his name, too, JJ is a wimpy, weak, timid millennial without street smarts or life experience, and if he's going to find out what really happened to his best friend -- or even just survive Harlem -- he'll need to be taken under his father's wing, whether either of them like it or not.  Just don't tell his mom.

Along the way, they'll cross paths with street-level hustlers, pillars of the community whose businesses are fronts, hired guns, and a crime ring story straight out of the '70s (fictionalized in Ridley Scott's American Gangster).  They'll need help on this one.  And who better to turn to than Sam Jackson's Shaft's father, Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft himself.  (A throwaway line connects the 2000 and 2019 movies, and corrects the 2000 one's error.)  Together, three generations of John Shafts will solve the mystery and smack the shit out of those punk-ass criminal motherfuckers.

What does 2019's Shaft do right?  Basically, just about everything.  It opens perfectly, with the right colour palette, the right font (as seen in original Shaft and on Sam Jackson's wallet in Pulp Fiction), and the right music.  The groovy, soulful funk soundtrack is absolutely perfect (though I would have liked if they'd used more of Isaac Hayes' classic theme song), and the late title card even says "Copyright 1972" in Roman numerals.

The writing, dialogue, and delivery are spot on.  The whole theatre was laughing to the hysterical one-liners and outstanding player hating.  Like what you see in the trailer above?  That trailer isn't the best parts of the entire movie -- the best part is the entire movie is consistently that good.

The casting couldn't have been better.  JJ is as much of loser as he needs to be.  Within Sam Jackson's streetwise exterior beats the heart of a man who loves his family, and it does shine through.  The female cast's sass is palpable.  Not recognizing anyone but Sam Jackson and Richard Roundtree helps the cast feel real, I'll admit.

I really liked the fact that my credo of "Oldschool is the best school" is basically the tagline for this movie.  JJ's modern, high-tech, millennial ways are not enough to solve the case, and it takes someone as old-fashioned and oldschool (if not out-of-touch) as Sam Jackson's Shaft (himself a late-'90s take on Roundtree's '70s character) to save the day.  Almost like some kind of blaxploitation Demolition Man, only in a good way.

It's not without faults, though.  There are some messy jump cuts that remind me of those found in comedy TV shows like Reno 911! and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, possibly due to the same reason of being edited together from multiple takes, each slightly different due to hilarious ad-libs and reactions that couldn't be used on-screen.  That one's fairly minor.  The rope-swing stunt seen in the first trailer doesn't really make any sense, but it's a throwback to the '71 Shaft movie, so it doesn't bother me that much, as I see what they did there.

Standard Hollywood conventions apply, such as fantastical magic computer technology (hacking into anything, as you do) and the common presence of bulletproof everyday objects.  Some of the gun elements felt out of place.  The slow-motion shootout felt like it fell out of another movie altogether, and would Richard Roundtree's Old Man Shaft really have a contemporary KSG with a vertical foregrip in his arsenal?  Seems a bit too modern, too tacticool for the OG Shaft, even if Sam Jackson is the one to use it.

2019's Shaft does so much right, especially in today's age of over-entitlement, where exposure to anything that doesn't line up with your worldview causes you to go crying to the internet.  Sam Jackson's Shaft doesn't get offended -- he gets offenders, and stops the criminals even if it means putting his foot up their bitch asses.  Sometimes it takes oldschool thinking to get the job done, or to give the dumbass present a much-needed smack upside the head.  "The seeds of the future lie buried in the past," after all.

Sure, Shaft (2019) is technically an identically-titled sequel to a two-decade-old reboot of a series from the '70s, presumably greenlit in order to "monetize a dormant IP," but it feels like there's some real heart, here.  In an age where Hollywood constantly and consistently shits out oversaturated CGI-filled sequels and entertainment media panders to people who will never consume said media, it is very refreshing to find a big-name blockbuster as over-the-top, as politically incorrect, and as laugh-out-loud funny as this motherfucker is.

A proper blaxploitation action comedy in 2019?  I can most definitely dig it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Numbers' New Year's Newsletter: A 2019 Too Far

[Other years' letters: 2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019 / 2020 / 2021 ]

It is said that "Enough is never enough," that "The more you have, the more you want," and that "The more pure and innocent something is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt it."  Allow me to be the first to tell you, dear friends, that all of these statements are, in fact, the truth.

As you are no doubt aware from my previous years' Newsletters (linked above for your convenience), the past near-decade (zounds; has it truly been that long?) has been a tumultuous one.  My meteoric rise to riches by building an empire out of selling matches to schoolchildren met an asteroidal fall.  It crashed and burned.

But not before I had accumulated enough resources to develop power armour and mechs and defended my homeworld on countless occasions.  My good deeds were not unpunished, as my team of mech warriors and I were lost, on several occasions, through both time and space (plus there was what dimensional episode; details in previous Newsletters).

Such was our predicament following the destruction of the prisoner towing vessel/spacefaring fitness club Brostromo.  My surviving teammates and I found ourselves marooned once more on a planet with some kind of driving-based economy.  It was not a city of handouts, but a city of drifts.  Alas, we had no time to seduce the local drifting waifus -- we had Headquarters to establish.

We set up shop in an old derelict firehouse, sourced an old Cadillac, and soon, we were setting records and winning pinks all over town.  It wasn't long before our Ten-Second Cars appeared on magazine covers, then DVD covers.  Sponsors, and funds, rolled in.  But enough is never enough.

We had the tools and we had the talent.  But if we were going to get enough bank to make it home again, we'd need some plans.  We decided, in secret, to conduct daring, high-stakes, vehicular-themed heists of varying degrees of spectacular, each time selecting our mark from a list of the biggest villains on the planet.

Another saying I keep in mind is "Disregard wenches; acquire currency," and soon enough, Wealth Acquisition lead to Wealth Redistribution, funding the revolutionaries so they might take back their planet.  For a world without a level head needs a disciplined trigger finger.

A breakthrough came when one of my most trusted advisors and dearest friends, a former Admiral who'd earned the codename "Killthunder," unearthed intel that might let him live up to his name.  The biggest criminal on the planet happened to have bought the weather.  The madman's wealth was matched only by his lunacy, and he planned to annihilate some flavour of perceived threat by unleashing an electric storm upon the city.

Rather than heist enough money to build a quantum-space-capable starship, we could harness the power of the storm to simply power a quantum drive mounted to a ground vehicle, allowing us to temporarily rip and tear spacetime itself just long enough for us to drift into a slipgate.  We could "ride the lightning," if you will, to get us back home.  And, as a bonus, if we timed it right, we could parry the lightning, sending the excess electrical energy back into the villain's system, overloading it catastrophically in an explosion he could not survive.

We could save this planet, and return to our own.  If it worked.

It was time to build a Ten-Lightsecond Car.  Having sourced the necessary quantum drive off an internet auction site, we got to work building our car, while tracking the storm.  We needed time to finish the build.  One missing piece, one overlooked detail, and it'd be game over, man.

As our head mechanic slammed the hood shut, we saw the stormclouds gathering in the distance.  Time was running out.  We loaded the vehicle with as much as we could take, moulded PE4 to the already-overtaxed load-bearing members of our firehouse headquarters, and jumped into the ride.  It would appear to the locals that our headquarters was destroyed in the weaponized electrical storm, which would leave the neighbourhood looking like a demilitarized zone, and we would be considered among the casualties.  When in doubt, fake your death -- a perfect escape plan from any predicament or responsibility.

Our driver put his foot down and headed for what intel suggested would be prime targets: the university district, the library, the medical research institutes...  We were not wrong.  The clouds gathered over the university and thunder cracked the sky.  Only we had banked on the library being the first target, since it was closest to the villain's primary hideout, the golf course.

Furiously, our driver shifted through a dozen gears but we still were not going fast enough.  He hit the NOS button, but nothing happened.  A loose connection somewhere?  With only moments to spare, I sprung into the Stunt Position, grabbed onto the beefy bullbars, resting my feet on the sweet chin spoiler, and saw what was the matter: the setup was still in "nitrous purge" mode for those sweet style points.

Quickly solving the matter, I grapple hooked my way back into the car as the driver used some ornate staircase as a ramp.  We rocketed through the air, flames shooting out the back of our car, as the lightning struck us.  Our car's systems grabbed what power it needed for the quantum leap and shot the rest right back towards the villain.  We'll never know if our parrying the lightning connected or whiffed because we jumped right into the slipgate.

And now we're here.  Only we don't know where "here" is.  We crash-landed in some kind of barn.  Or comms are down.  Navigation is down.  We don't know where we are, but we have an idea WHEN we are.


If our calculations were correct (and barring any quantum space turbulence), we should be home.  So where the hell are we?  No one knows for sure, but I intend to find out.

I have just been informed that we have to leave the car behind.  We will salvage what we can, using its precious scrap metal to build exosuits, and head out on foot.

This will not be my final transmission.

- Numbers, Mercenary Philanthropist
Ten-Lightsecond Car Barn Crash Site
January 2019

[Other years' letters: 2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019 / 2020 / 2021 ]

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