God of War (2018)

I preordered God of War, received in timely with its release, played it off-and-on for a few days, and stopped. It wasn’t a bad game. It wasn’t a game I disliked. It just wasn’t what I wanted at the time, nor what I expected. It felt like yet another series turned to the open world dark side. And I love open world games, but I do not love every game being open world.

Thankfully, I finally returned to finish God of War and it wasn’t that open world after all.

2018’s God of War is one of those sequel/reboot things. The Greek Kratos, after slaughtering his way through the Greek Gods in God of War 1-3, returns as an older, gruffer, but milder version of his former self. Now he lives in the forest of Norse mythology alongside his boy, Atreus, after the pair recently lost Faye, Kratos’s offscreen romance and the boys mother. They were tasked by Faye to spread her ashes from the highest peak and that is what they set out to do.

The Norse gods do play a role in the story, but they are mostly absent. In their place is the rich lore of the Nine Realms, cross-realm travel, and some marvelous set pieces using dead giants and the World Serpent, Jormungandr.

Owing to videogames borrowing their names, as a kid, I was fascinating by ancient myths and legends. Games like Final Fantasy extensively reference these figures, most often in the names chosen for their powerful summons. Other games more directly borrow. I enjoyed the original run of God of War games because of my interest in Greek and Roman mythology. I have the same enjoyment with the 2018 version. Norse mythology, by its many contrasts to other pantheons, fascinated me as a kid and still does. God of War plays a bit loose with some of the stories, but does so in an effective way to build its own take.

Having Atreus tag along with Kratos helps. He is a source of both wonder and exposition for the game’s lore. Kratos, being a foreigner, has little to no concept of these new gods and monsters, but Atreus was raised by Faye who has an expansive understanding of her own culture’s cosmology.

Atreus also freshens up the series. He provides a softening for Kratos that, frankly, was necessary after the events of the first trilogy. Kratos softens further over the course of the game as he and his son’s relationship changes and matures. It isn’t a story told as well as Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, but it is a good attempt. It is also a welcome bit of humanization in a story otherwise revolving around immortals murdering one another (and everything else in the world).

Gameplay-wise, this version of God of War continues the series tradition of having excellent action gameplay. This version is a bit more challenging and focuses on fewer but tougher enemies. It is a welcome change from the more arcadey feel of the originals.

With all that in mind, I ultimately thought this God of War was above average but not great. It is definitely a reset from God of War III which hurt this game for me. There are several repeat enemies and the much of the additional boss fights (the Valkyries) that are unique are also optional. The game’s final fight had a big fight feel in comparison to everything else in the game, but I didn’t realize I was so close to finishing the game and it left me feeling a bit hollow. This God of War sets up the rest of the story, but it suffers for it and doesn’t feel like a totally complete arc on its own from a gameplay standpoint. From a story standpoint, the introduction of Atreus and the arc between he and his father is a fantastic and welcome bit of warm to an otherwise edgy and cold series.

In other words, hurry up and give us God of War: Ragnarok already.

Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

Late yesterday, a good friend offered me her ticket for the Sundance Film Festival world premiere of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” later that same evening. The film is directed by Sion Sono, a Japanese director making his English language debut. It stars Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella.

My wife and I were immediately game but also hesitant. Neither of us have seen a Sion Sono film, nor could either of us remember the last Nicolas Cage movie we watched. I still intend to see “Mandy” at some point based solely on the recommendation of a pair of wrestlers I like. By no means are we the target audience of this film.

Then again, who is?

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” follows Nicolas Cage as Hero, a captured bank robber. He is forced by the Governor, a man who speaks with a Southern (U.S.) accent (“Aren’t you a cuss?”), to find his missing “adopted granddaughter”. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella) and she went missing “up the highway” in a place that may or may not be haunted by ghosts.

To guarantee Hero’s cooperation, the Governor outfits him in a black leather suit with selectively placed explosives. Two of these are placed where his testicles are and will trigger if he tries to sully the Governor’s dear Bernice. There are other gimmicks attached, but they are never the focus of the film.

I am going to be up front with you: this movie was weird. I am not sure that at any point any of it made sense. It seems destined for some kind of cult classic status, but for me (and my wife) there was a lot that did not work.

Despite being Sion Sono’s English language debut, much of the film is also in Japanese. In his introduction of the film, Sono talked about moving the production to Japan so I imagine that had a lot to do with it. Given its bilingual nature, the film constantly feels stuck between worlds which, whilst likely the intention and admittedly a cool way to deliver a specific vibe, does contribute to its overall weirdness.

As such, there are a lot of Japanese extras yelling in English. It contributes a sense of madness to the film. It also leads to almost every character but Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella being especially over-the-top. Despite her talents and screen time, Boutella gets almost no lines. Cage gets more screen time but is subdued and often left with little to do by the film’s script.

Now that the negatives are out of the way, let’s talk about the best aspects of “Prisoners of the Ghostland”: its visuals.

From the first second, this is a stunning film to see. There is a strong East-meets-West vibe throughout. Characters are mostly costumed in traditional Japanese garb and the sets feature traditional Japanese architecture, but the fronts of these buildings are setup to resemble the buildings you would see in an American Western. Plus, you get an eclectic mix of samurai and cowboys, a sentence I did not expect to write.

Beyond Samurai Town as described above, the Ghostland sits in stark contrast. It features more muted colors fitting its wasteland vibe. There is junk everywhere (mostly old trucks outlined in flashing lights). Without intending to, the costumes for those in Ghostland give me a similar feel to 1985’s “Return to Oz”. I am unsure why exactly, but there is a sort of junk-meets-acid trip aesthetic that runs through both films.

Visually, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” never bores. The costuming and sets are rich with color when necessary or visual density when color is not needed. The film is also overrun with symbolism. As my wife described it, this is a “show don’t tell” kind of movie, but we both thought to its own detriment.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a hard movie to rate. I feel like I need to see it two or three more times to feel comfortable with any theories I might have about the nature or purpose of its characters and the strange limbo they appear to be stuck in.

At the same time, I question if there is more to it or if this is just a confectionary treat – all sugar-as-style and nothing but empty calories. It lacks enough exposition for someone like me to understand it. The action scenes are too few. There are some fun lines and scenes, but I was mostly glued to its prettiness and trying to unravel whatever the hell was happening.

I doubt I will watch it again, but I may check out more of Sion Sono’s work. He has an interesting eye and I would love to see what he can do in his own language.

Alabama Snake (2020)

“Alabama Snake” is a 2020 documentary film on HBO. It presents Appalachian folklore and religious beliefs through the lens of true crime (with a healthy dose of horror too). The story focuses on a Pentecostal minister convicted of attempted murder of his wife. The weapon of choice?

Snakes. Lots of ’em.

The first half was a bit strange. I kept expecting a true crime experience, but that is not “Alabama Snake”. The details of the case are glossed over quickly. Instead, this is a film about faith that tries to balance believing in those who believe while also taking a critical look at their beliefs from an outsider’s perspective.

I have never been to this part of Alabama (the film focuses on true events in the northeast of the state), but growing up, I had heard of snake handlers in relation to Christianity. There was often an air of disbelief, shame, or wonder when they came up. I, perhaps thankfully, never experienced their particular brand of religious service first hand.

“Alabama Snake” works because it presents the story according to its subjects. We get versions of the truth from both the accused (the aforementioned minister) and his wife. Unlike most true crime documentaries, however, both stories are equally weird. Albeit it seems likely that the minister was correctly convicted, tales of him being demon-possessed by his wife (in the literal sense) do little to aid the truth.

I would recommend watching it for the last 30 seconds alone (where our shared reality undercuts the reality the convicted minister has constructed for himself in comedic fashion).

Score: 1.50 from me and 1.25 from my wife.