Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Emotional Apocalypse

This post will contain spoilers for Sherlock s4e01, The Six Thatchers, straight out the gate. Read on at your own peril.

At this point, I'm inured to the fact that a Moffat show killed/depowered/threw aside a female character as gristle on the angst-mill of a cishet white male lead. I might as well be waving placards at a Michael Bay premiere, rallying against glistening bronzed butts. I knew what I was in for, after half a decade of Moffat shit.

Well no, that's not entirely true. After five years of fans critiquing these very tendencies, the Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner still pulling that old shit does grate.

But if you insist on revisiting such backward patriarchal bullshit, you better do your job properly to make me forgive it. Shane Black reminding me his ex-wife's a bittcchhhhh is at least countermanded by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe doing funny pratfalls.

What is death for a mystery?


The mystery tale dangles clues in front of you, shows you paths through a maze that the attentive viewer/reader/listener might choose, hoping to get at the center of it at the same time as the characters do.

Personally, I don't even mind solving a mystery before the characters do (although, even here, there are limits, of course). No, what a mystery can truly never recover from is the viewer coming up with a path through the maze that leads to the center and is more interesting than the path it actually turns out to be.

Episode writer Mark Gatiss -- a lovely actor, competent writer -- spends the start of Sherlock's return retconning Sherlock's exile and murder of a lecherous blackmailing media magnate at the end of last season. This is stuff that honestly could have been done at the end of that particular season, and a good example of stuff not as cool as something the viewer came up with.

Instead of sending Sherlock into exile for 5 minutes, then immediately retrieving him because Poorly Photoshopped Moriarty Frames were threatening London, Mycroft could have just collected Sherlock and John, expressed disappointment at his little brother, and made the bad press go away in a few lines.

Dark ending? Sherlock knew that he had been outfoxed by a sweaty pervert and forced to resort to common, plebeian murder he knew he could get away with being Mycroft Holmes' younger brother; invoking privilege he tried going through life never having to call upon. Now he had, and Mycroft and John both knew it.

That's all stuff that could have happened last season, freeing up some time for this season's case.

Ah yes, this season's case.

What drew me to Sherlock in the first place were the twists on old tales, where they started with a concept vaguely similar to the old short stories concept, but soon twisted it into modern updates with wholly different outcomes, with the occasional amusing easter egg for Doyle fans (my favorite being the spooky flashlight signals on the moors in the Baskerville episode actually being used by enthusiastic doggers rather than shadowy conspirators).

Last season, however, the focus strongly shifted from detective stories to melodrama and family comedy. At first, I found this rather amusing. From its inception, the show had more than its fair share of fans who didn't much care about the mystery side of things, as much as the possibility of Sherlock and Watson (or Sherlock and Moriarty, or Mycroft and Lestrade, ...) hooking up and being catty gay roomies. It was the emotional interplay that was finding strong fan resonance, with Sherlock's emotionally distant "high-functioning sociopath" gently opened up (haha) by gentle everyman John Watson.

This fan-imagined relationship took place in a non-canonical alternate universe and was dubbed "Johnlock". Moffat even acknowledged the shipping fandom in the first episode of season 3, with a shaking fangirl expressing what she thought happened on that roof between Sherlock and Moriarty during the season 2 finale, culminating in a near-kiss.

The fact that it was a near-kiss is important.

Proving beyond a doubt that the creative team was aware of what the Sherlock fandom craved then, were these two things:

1) moving away from a case-based narrative towards one where main character emotional catharsis was crucial;

2) the "crazy fangirl" gag, seeing homosexual relationships where none existed.

Sure, Moffat and co said. We'll start chasing the feelz if that's what they respond to. But hahaha come now chaps... none of that homo shit... this IS a high profile BBC show...

The introduction of Mary Morstan, Watson's wife from the books, and the updating of her character as a special forces operative didn't especially bother me. Nor did the devotion of an entire episode to "Sherlock being cute and awkward at John and Mary's wedding" -- especially rich since a season is only three episodes.

The characters and melodrama coming to the forefront were essentially fair game in my eyes, since Sherlock, like Batman or Zorro or Dracula, is such a cultural archetype at this point that if your particular spin is "silly sitcom Sherlock", so be it.

The Six Thatchers depleted all my patience reserves.

Constant dramatic declarations, preposterously self-involved speechifying, grimly determined walking away from the camera as symbolic effects are overlaid around a character's face... Unlike Doctor Who, that other Moffat show, however, the fate of the universe is never in the balance. Because it works for Who, though, Moffat & co seem to want to employ it here. What such grandiosity turns a show about two characters into, is self-importance. And it would be hilarious... if it weren't in service of a show that has time and again shown its contempt for an acknowledged queer and female fandom.

We will turn it into a soap opera, as that's what you like, but let us remind you that these two men are what's truly important in it.

Sherlock's characterization as an aspie Mary Sue who may not understand all these human emotions but gosh dangit he will protect his loved ones at all costs... would be ridiculously entertaining if it weren't in the service of such heteronormative pap.

John Watson suffers most of all, as at one point during the episode I wondered "Wait, has Watson actually done anything likeable or funny at all so far?" Mind you, this was before we get to know he has a totally non-suspicious affair. Watson cheating on his wife! Because she lied to him about being a hard ops woman! The affair is not with a man, obviously.

Again, melodrama over detective work doesn't phase me in the least. In fact, it could make for a highly amusing show with the right anything-goes attitude. Unfortunately, only one thing goes: the emotional lives of the two cishet white boyz at the center, and anything else must go.

My most cynical self looks at the status quo at the end of The Six Thatchers and sees another middle finger at the fandom: single parent John and guardian Sherlock in an antagonistic, emotionally fraught relationship, calling to mind the more angsty parts of "Parentlock", an alternate universe conjured by fans in which Sherlock and Watson are, indeed, parents. The son, Hamish, is even sort-of canonically agreed upon to be played by actor Asa Butterfield.

You got all that now, sorta! But none of that homo shit tho. Be reasonable.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Case of the Not Gays: Hollywood's Subtle Othering

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, my partner, idly browsing Netflix, chose to rewatch TROY. It had been over a decade for her, and nearly as long for me. After a few minutes, I decided to stay put and follow along: the broad acting, telegraphing all emotions for the peanut gallery by (mostly) expert thesps proved too tempting a pide bread to lie uneaten.

Any Hollywood movie set in Ancient Greece (or featuring Greeks) always comes with a bit of a disclaimer: it would be a long shot to ask modern audiences to empathize with characters who engage in educational (!) pederasty, or to face the disconnect that the FOUNDERS OF DEMOCRACY were guys who locked their wives up in the house never to be allowed out.

It's not just the Greeks this happens to: any culture from the past sufficiently alien to ours will experience a moral adaptation. Consider the inspiring Aragorn speech Elizabeth Swann gave to an assembled army of pirates regarding FREEDOM in the third PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film. Mel Gibson in THE PATRIOT and his salary-receivin' black employees. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN features a 12th century Christian proclaiming on his deathbed that he repented all his sins but one... his illegitimate son who is also the film's protagonist. My friends, I hope you also howl at the idea of a 12th century man saying "I don't regret all my sins" on his deathbed!

On the one hand, I understand. Hollywood blockbusters aren't history lessons, and people just show up to be entertained. Asking someone to experience a -- to our modern eyes -- morally abhorrent culture and empathize with its people is perhaps a mental exercise too great for a relaxing date night.

However, what shouldn't be too out there for a modern day movie is to reflect the diversity of modern day society. It's hard, it's hard, we know. You gotta sell your movie to the fly-over states, to Russia, to China, to India, ... not exactly the most progressive territories. So ya gotta play it safe!

One of the most insidiously abhorrent ways modern movies "play it safe" is establishing a Case of the Not Gays for its male leads. "A Case of the Not Gays" is a term coined by Red Letter Media in their video review of JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot. In it, they claim the romance between Spock and Uhura is shoehorned into this new continuity so as to dispel any notions that the logical, soft-spoken, page-boy sportin' Spock could possibly be a homosexual. With Kirk, they simply showed him mackin' on a green lady et voilà. Bones? Introduced complaining about his ex-wife! Do not worry my Iowan/Russian/Chinese central government friends... no debauchery here...

JACK REACHER introduces its Reddit fedora hero waking up next to a thong lady. She is an unnamed character who does not appear in the movie further. Reacher is kind of an asexual throughout the rest of it, even refusing sex at some point. But don't worry, he's not, you know...

TROY has Achilles waking up covered in wenches, to reassure everyone that although he's one of them Old Greeks and we're going to lovingly film his semi-naked waxed and oiled torso. But don't worry...

Establishing a Case of the Not Gays is especially evil in my opinion, as it manages the double whammy of objectification of women to serve the purpose of gay erasure. This movie may not feature this character in any sex or romance but believe us buddy he is nothing but straight! Look! A hot chick he just banged that will have no further bearing on the plot!

DR. STRANGE did it masterfully, as all relationships with any story-weight the main character has, are with men. Whoops, better toss in a chick cuz this guy already sorta looks like Liberace!

Like all things patriarchal, Establishing Notgays doesn't just hurt women and queer people, it's bad for cishet young lads as well. By making absolutely sure that every male protagonist in every mainstream movie is not only straight, but also a ladies man, but also monogamous when it "counts" aka when they are with the female lead, perpetuating the bullshit myth that there are "good" women and disposable ones.

Rare is the case where a female character is introduced having sex with an unimportant male character to establish her seduction/libido bonafides (one that comes to mind is Anya Amasova in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME -- that's right, James Bond, of all franchises) without having her be demonized somehow.

The solution? As ever, more women and queer people in decisions of creative power, producing stories where such folk have agency in the plot. But ayyy y'all probably already knew that.

Establishing Notgays: not just funny, actively evil! Please keep this in mind next time you see a movie. Bring it up in conversation. Be obnoxious about it when someone jokes that you're "overanalyzing" things, or you're being politically correct.

Don't back down, my friends.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The harsh light of scrutiny

When I first met my dear friend Travis Kirkland, there was but one conclusion I could draw. I drew it laughing, though with nothing but love in my heart as I did. The inescapable summation of our first encounter was this:

Travis is an American.

His nigh-Gilliamesque accounts of bacchanals at Denny's and Arby's and Wendy's, his encyclopedic knowledge of the Plastic Kingdom of Disney or Jim Henson's Creature Workshop and suchlike are just one side of that equation. His exuberance, his openness, his irreducible enthusiasm, his wonderful sense of humor and his kaiju-sized heart: All of those add up to a person I am honored to know and undeserving to call my friend.  And indeed, a quintessentially American one, no less.

Now, coming from a smug Eurotrash non-binary funny cigarette smokin' socialist, that might mean precious little upon first glance. However, before I became the unbearably ironic internet hipster you all know and love, I was, believe it or not, an earnest child. It's true!

The discovery of World War II narratives around the same time that Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy came out seemed like a cosmic serendipity solely intended to maximize my wide-eyed belief in absolute goodness vanquishing absolute evil. If there was any moral imperative inherent to all mankind, surely it was the duty to oppose hatred wherever it appeared.

And oh man, were Americans ever good at that. Nearly every story I grew up watching, reading, experiencing showed me a good old two-fisted blue-collar Joe with some common sense wisdom and witty banter out to stop the baddies who were just out to ruin everyone's good time and take their shit.

The world was essentially okay, but these assholes? Man, they just wanted to ice-skate uphill. Luckily, 90 minutes later, the Bad Things would more or less be removed from the equation and things would be Good again.

These stories were always outsized and simplistic and hilarious and reductive and awesome and, well, American.

"Esagerazione!" I remember my late grandfather exclaim at a toppling and exploding army truck in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, an altogether fairly small-scale gag in a -- by modern standards -- fairly subdued movie. This was over the top enough to have nonno exclaim "exaggeration"?

 It has always stood in my mind as the perfect juxtaposition of the Old World vs. the New. My European reality vs. the American fantasy: a raspy-voiced old workman expressing disdain at some guileless fireworks, a decadent entertainment far from the comfort of sausages, cigarettes and greasy playing cards. Any wonder young me chose to escape to the fireworks factory whenever possible?

 The 00s and the Iraq War did their damnedest to disabuse me of any notions of American exceptionalism, although I hope that the sheer weight of growing up brought some sense in itself.

In Garth Ennis' comic book Preacher, an old nazi war criminal in hiding in the small town of Salvation, TX says the myth of America is that she would be a place where everyone could shed their old grievances, their ridiculous hates and begin again.

"Under the harsh light of scrutiny, that myth is false. But it is a good myth to live up to."

Last week, America lifted a rock and shone the light of scrutiny upon a bed of diseased roaches who now scurry about in deluded victory, believing they have forever extinguished the light of decency from their shining city upon the hill.

Yesterday, a cancerous amoeba told my friend to "go back to his own country."

I say he's already there.

I say it is people like him, and all those Americans I am honored to know and count among my friends, that make up whatever fiction or collection of ideals made America that odd, irresistible, glorious melting pot people like me fell in love with.

Under the harsh light of scrutiny, the myth of America is false. No nation could withstand such idealism, arbitrary geographical constructs of an aristocratic 18th/19th century elite as they are.

It is only upon individuals that this light may shine and reveal not a stunted, wretched, hateful thing, but a reflection of ideals worthy of conservation.

To Travis, and to all of you, my friends across the pond, thank you for being just that.

Now join a union and hoist a placard.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

Nine Worlds Part IV: Revelations

My yearly pilgrimage to Nine Worlds always seems to come with some manner of personal awakening or development that I’m afraid by 2020 I might possibly have turned into an all-consuming phoenix and absorbed all of humanity in a nirvana-hive of eternal contentment like the climax to an anime that you probably never heard of according to that one friend who always seems to have seen more shit than you. It was a good time.

2016 promised to be my most involved Nine Worlds Geekfest so far. Not only was I going to aid the lovely Andrew Clarke and Kat Iwinski with a live commentary for a mystery movie* on the Friday eve, Saturday afternoon would feature a panel on Kaiju Kavalcade along with my dearest friend Travis Kirkland, whom followers of this blog know well as my counterpart on the years-long running feature about Japanese monsters, and the two subsequent books that followed from it.
But alas! Tragedy struck, and my beloved partner Ella tore a ligament in her right ankle. Now we would certainly be more involved than ever with Nine Worlds, as this would be the first time we’d make use of their Accessibility features. It would be an understatement to say that 9W’s organization fully came through, as we had no problem at any point during the whole weekend to find appropriate seating or navigate the convention space. In fact, door to door from our humble abode in Mechelen, Belgium to the hotel in Hammersmith, everyone from British Airways to Novotel treated us like royalty. Kudos to all involved!

Thursday evening was pretty chill, as we forewent the ice breaker Pub Quiz at 8 (especially since it started at the same time as registrations, which was a bit of a head-scratcher) and just got our things in order and helped Andrew set up the screening room with the proper amount of beanbags and chairs. The midnight movie (DRACULA AD 1972) was one I’d already seen, but one I figured would be a funky good time to revisit and not really feel bad to fall asleep to. Which I (and quite a few others) did on some comfy beanbags!

Friday was a big day, as I got to meet my esteemed co-author for the first time. Not unlike Anakin Skywalker meeting General Grievous, I found him… shorter than I was expecting… but very much like General Grievous he turned out to be a hilarious and fun-filled addition to the saga of my life! Together, we attended panels on**:

  • The Art of Opening Titles: An informative, well-documented talk with a hilarious takedown of the Bond opening credits. COCK! BOOBS!
  • Religion in Horror: An animated look at different portrayals of religious themes in popular horror films from THE WICKER MAN to HELLRAISER.
  •  Philosophy in Dragon Age: A highly satisfying panel, since my side-eye at BioWare at their cowardly portrayal of the Qun as evil was fully justified here. I did have to hide some giggles at the whole room wailing with desperate feelz at Alistair. Let that motherfucker go, he’s an uncooperative asshole!
  • Family Friendly Horror: Unfortunately the content, while decent, felt a bit rattled off from a prepared text on a tablet. The presenter hardly ever took her eyes off it!
  • The Gaming Lounge: for the first time in my four 9W attendances, I actually went to do some gaming. In HOT ANTICIPATION of the next panel, Travis and I did some tabletop gaming and quite enjoyed ourselves with Patchwork, a sort of quilt-making themed Tetris multiplayer strategy game. Thanks to Alex and… Hannah(? Sorry if that’s not your name!) for explaining the rules to us!
  • Consensual Incest Fanfic: a novelty choice for the sheer fucking balls the con had in putting that one on. It was the first time, and it was noticeable. The atmosphere had a lot of justifications and defenses going on, despite the disclaimers there was to be no kink-shaming. Nonetheless, there were some interesting tidbits of trivia and insight to be mined from it. Did you know that in Britain you apparently have to explicitly state you are not blood relatives at your wedding ceremony? How weird is that! Still, the crowd seemed quite game, and I’m sure this’ll be a cracking panel next year now that the nervousness has been worked out. And lest you judge: this room was almost fully female, trans or non-binary!
  • Hell yeah ANACONDA


  •       The Colonisation of Historical Space: a damned fascinating talk by classics professor Nick Lowe about a fannish look at history perhaps being a welcomed one, and how historical fiction based on research findings actually helps create an image of the past that the dry data cannot. Ella had gone off to see an academic lecture on the representation of monsters in classical art. These two lectures combined led to a very interesting discussion in the hotel courtyard on the ungraspable qualities of true recorded history, and the way historiography will always be colored by the writers, so why not make art out of it?
  •       Non-binary Representation in Myth: another great talk by academic Olivia Huntingdon-Stuart about enby figures in mythology, with a focus on Athena; meanwhile, Taylor Driggers made me highly interested in the works of Ursula LeGuin.
  •         The Duke Mitchell Film Club was AMAZING like every year. We attended all their sessions and will probably continue to do so as long as they’ll keep attending. Check out one of the hilarious trailers at the bottom of this post.
  •       Kaiju Kavalcade: An amazing experience where Travis showed himself to be a true showman and amazing performer. The crowd was really into it, the adults and kids alike, and a good amount of laughs was had from the drawing contest (won by a kaiju named UNCLE STEVEN by a little five year old named Vivienne cosplaying as Rey) to the mad libz style enactment of a GODZILLA VS. GAMERA movie (with UNCLE STEVEN as the villain). A real winner of a session that ended in a big dance party with the kids, huzzah!


Being dead fucking tired we didn’t do all that much, but we did go see:

  •             The Limitations of a Strong Female Character: A panel about the pitfalls of “strong” vs. strong female characters. Some good ideas overall, but interesting to note that one of the panelists acknowledged Anita Sarkeesian’s viewpoint that “FURY ROAD isn’t as perfect as we think…” because its strong female characters’ strength was derived from them absorbing male traits, aka they were fighting. While it is true that the feminine is devalued in our society, it was an interesting contrast to the talk by Huntingdon-Stuart who enthusiastically told all about Athena taking on male and female aspects. I’m much more down with this viewpoint that basically goes “screw the binary” than one that goes “no fighting ever!” And I’m a pacifist! I abhor violence!
  •         Problematic Faves (but mostly Whedon): A nice little critical discussion where defensive fannishness never took over.

After some final drinks at the bar with Andrew and Travis, Ella and I were ready to go, but not before Travis gave me a final parting gift which touched my very soul:

Thank you Travis! I hope you found the blue NOTTING HILL door your mom wanted a picture of (or one that looked sufficiently like it that didn’t make you walk thirty minutes)!

I’d like to close off this year’s CON REPORT with a fairly momentous personal realization as well. For years now, I had been experiencing an uncertainty about myself I couldn’t quite place my finger on. A month or so ago I fully realized that I don’t identify as a cisgender male. I had been experimenting with female presentation in the privacy of my own home, but knowing Nine Worlds, I knew it would be the perfect safe space to be my more girly self in public. Donning some converse, black skinny jeans, a cream sleeveless top, eyeliner, mascara and a (dare I say so myself) fairly cute black and pink bob wig, I presented female in public for the first time ever.

I got compliments! This made me really happy!

I heard from several panelists on several different topics that their whole perspective had been changed during previous iterations of Nine Worlds, and this really touched Ella and I. So we weren’t the only ones!

This year, it changed my life even more than I ever thought it possible.

Thank you, Nine Worlds, you magnificent con, you.

*It was ANACONDA, and the audience certainly wanted some. My favorite crowd-sourced laugh of the screening was the following exchange:
“Oh haha, I thought that read “problematic designer”.”
“Like they had a guy that went around on set just saying the n-word all the time.”
“Well yeah… Ice Cube.”

**Before Travis arrived, I attended “How to Nail Self-Publishing,” to inform him of the myriad ways we could expand our empire. When I learned the three authors doing the talk pumped about €800 in each book they released, I nodded in a polite fashion and did not mention the session to Travis at all.

Microfiction Contest Entry: The Consumptive Heroine

This is my entry for a microfiction contest I was made aware of at this year's Nine Worlds Geekfest. My yearly write-up of that event is delayed a bit, as the deadline for this contest is midnight 8/15.

The topic is "Transcending Tropes", and the trope I'm transcending here is that old 19th century chestnut of the consumptive heroine, in which a beautiful white girl suffers from an undisclosed wasting disease that just makes her even whiter and more beautiful and ready to dispense comforting authority-affirming wisdom beyond her years in the face of death.

While I am not exactly in the habit of doing writing in response to tropes, my cold calculatin' exposure seekin' heart won out in this instance. ENJOY these quickly rattled off 300 words!

The limpid morning sun hit her face just so that Sir Cecil Maitland thought he could discern in it no less than the whole of the beauty and wisdom of the angelic host singing the praises of the heavenly Father. Her pallid features and delicate hands wrought within him conflicting emotions. All his masculinity was urging him to kiss her right there, in the solar where she was spending her last remaining days surrounded by her favourite books and childhood toys. It was his paternal instinct that won out, however, as he merely stroked her hands and soothed her suffering with gentle words of devotion.

“Oh Anna… to give you the wedding you deserve! I do not have the means to do so, but I would call myself your husband before you are taken fr—“

Anna weakly raised an alabaster hand to Cecil’s cheek. She turned away her golden-haired head briefly, allowing her cough to dissipate harmlessly in the direction of the window. They both noticed the droplet of blood that stained the chaise Anna was lying in with a scarlet memento of the remainder of their time together.

“Speak no more, dear Cecil. What days we have on this Earth are exactly as many as God allows. If I spent them serving Him, then that is all I need to die happily. Only…”

“What, my love, what?”

“I know it is not proper… but we have so little time indeed...”

“Yes, darling...”

Cecil bent over closer to embrace his Anna. Anna opened her lower mandibles.

Half an hour later, the housekeeper opened the door to the blood-drenched solar.

“Will you be needin’ anything else, Miss?”

Anna, leaning on her formerly ivory palms, burped.

“More suitors, Margaret. Fucking consumption got me consumin.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ursus aka Hercules aka Maciste aka Strong Guy: My First Brush with Peplum

A few months ago, I happened to watch the biblical epic QUO VADIS for the first time. Nothing really jumped out as noteworthy from it, with me ultimately dismissing it as a well-crafted Hollywood blockbuster from an era where audience tastes (not to mention production methods) were quite different from today's. If anything stuck with me from my viewing experience, it was the odd experience of watching something that was meant to be an audience pleaser and a bit of awards bait simultaneously; AVENGERS meets THE KING'S SPEECH, if you will.

One of the elements meant to no doubt placate Sunday school kiddies dragged to a four hour movie was boxer Buddy Baer in a supporting role as the strongman Ursus, a well-oiled bearded barbarian who is... uncomfortable with the peaceful tenets of this Chris Channity. But by Woda-- uh, by Jesus, my lady, I will defend you from these cowardly skirt-wearing Romans! Intermittent rasslin' happens, cue another happy demographic.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago and, holidaying on Sicily, I catch the start of an old-timey epic on the tube. Fascinated by the sound of trumpets and the ever-so-charming use of an ancient tome opening as the movie's intro, I stuck with it. Imagine my surprise when it turned out this wasn't a Roman epic, or even a Medieval adventure -- this was that most shaky of cinematic propositions: a fantasy film.

Its name? URSUS NELLA VALLE DEI LEONI (or, "Ursus in the Valley of Lions").

The 1962 film recounts the origins of Ursus, a foundling raised by lions after the evil King Ajak killed his royal parents and took over the kingdom rightfully his.

Wait, what? Ursus is a KING? Of what country? When did the Romans invade, turn him into a slave and employ him as bodyguard to Deborah Kerr?

Licensing being a fickle thing in those days, and even moreso across continents, the character of Ursus kind of took off, and not exactly in a spin-off the way we understand the term nowadays, either. You see, Ursus in QUO VADIS was an inhabitant of the Roman Empire, and lived through Nero's burning of Rome and the mad emperor's suicide. There's not even a mention of Rome in LEONI. Why? Haha, welcome to Italian filmmaking, my friend!

After the success of the Steve Reeves starrer HERCULES in 1958, crafty Italian producers were on the lookout for any other strongmen from antiquity they could turn into low-risk hi-yield investments: soon the son of Zeus was joined in Italian theaters by biblical tough guys like Samson and Goliath; the alt-version of Hercules, Maciste (an Italicization of Makistios, a Greek sanctum that worshipped Hercules, and one of his pseudonyms); and finally Ursus. These cinematic comic books in antiquity are today known as the "swords 'n sandals" genre, or "peplum films" named after the simple tunics worn by many characters in them.

Ursus is the funniest of these guys to build a franchise around (9 movies!) because the deepest source material you can find for him is the Polish historical adventure novel QUO VADIS was based on. Was this big enough in terms of name recognition? I mean, even if you've never seen the Steve Reeves movie, odds are you know who Hercules is, and in a Catholic country like Italy Samson and Goliath were safe bets as well. Ursus, not so much -- many of his films were exported stateside with names like URSUS, SON OF HERCULES or sometimes even fully converting the character into Hercules when dubbing the feature into English.

But still, nine movies! For a character people were quite iffy on! Gotta admire that. Oh, those nine movies? All made in FOUR YEARS. But don't worry, they weren't straining themselves TOO much, there were about as many production companies and crews involved in this. It truly was a muscleman free-for-all in "Mad Men" times!

LEONI is about as good an introduction to the character you'll get anywhere, I'd say, since it's pretty much an origin story for our ursine-named strongman (how serendipitous he was first portrayed by a man named Baer). The writers of LEONI don't give a shit though, and regale us with the tale of how this beefcake was raised by... lions? Okay!

Ursus is portrayed here by American bodybuilder Ed Fury, in his second turn as the character, the first one being URSUS from 1960. Second turn from Fury, fourth Ursus film in two years overall -- you still following?

The young Ursus is shown cavorting with lions and uttering hearty laughs whenever one does something that amuses him, like rolling around or putting an "aww man" paw over its face. There's also a dog named Argo who cuddles with the lions in a surprisingly modern internet-savvy touch. You won't BELIEVE these two became friends... The main lion friend is called Simba, another amusing quirk for modern-day viewers.

Hilariously, whenever Ursus is on-screen with the lions, his face is never shown, so the close family bond we're supposed to buy is undercut somewhat because it's obviously a trainer (quite a bit less ripped than Ed Fury, even!) play-wrestling with the big cats.

The animals are, in fact, the star of the show here, since there is no real nudity or intense violence to speak of. The animals came courtesy of Circo Orfei, run by Moira Orfei, who also plays the ambitious slave girl Diar. Other animals her circus provided include hyenas who get hilariously mistreated as the handler twirls these obviously frightened barking beasts about and flings them into a dark hole, holding them by one front and one back leg (1:21:06 onward in the enclosed YouTube vid), and elephants who move about in the finale dragging the poor citizens over the hot coals until mighty Ursus beats them back and makes them lie down in a relaxed fashion while making straining noises as he pushes their sides (1:25:09).

Main villain Ajak (Alberto Lupo), meanwhile, gets his deserved comeuppance as Simba viciously licks and cuddles the terrible tyrant to death (1:25:44)!

Besides the obvious cheapness of the production and the simplistic mainstream 60s worldview presented, I have to say I had a fun enough time with LEONI. Certainly moreso than QUO VADIS -- oh, what an 80 minute runtime can accomplish! Would I delve deeper into this near-forgotten subgenre? Sure, okay, whatever!

For all y'all Italian exploitation lovers of the 70s: LEONI also features one of the earliest ever Riz Ortolani scores, the composer who would become world famous in the minds of creepazoids for his music for MONDO CANE, ADDIO ZIO TOM, ADDIO AFRICA and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

A funny side-note: Italian unlicensed hucksterism continues well into the 21st century, even off-screen. While in Sicily, I saw many posters advertising the "Circo Sandra Orfei," an outfit capitalizing on Moira Orfei's name while being entirely unrelated to her.

Monday, July 18, 2016

I Live Near A Cinema: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016)

Mist-borne figures emerge upon a rock strewn plateau. Drums resound across the eerie landscape. A column of soldiers carrying rifles and transporting a mortar edge quietly over this deathly still vista. Among them is a white clad gentleman, wholly out of step with the rest of his filthy, mud-stained entourage. A great and terrible deity carved from the ancient obsidian arises. The soldiers clutch their weapons with sweat-slick hands, muttering and praying.

Unlike his soldiers, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is not afraid.

"Opar..." he whispers. "So it is real..."

My ears perked up. OPAR, fabled city of Queen La, and location of countless Tarzan adventure stories. Would we finally be getting a Tarzan movie that went beyond a "Tarzan vs poachers" or "Tarzan and Jane are from two different worlds" plot?

A spear flies from the mists. Harmlessly, almost comically, it lands on the rocks between Rom and the military commander accompanying him, sending a clattering echo across the valley. The order to fire is given, and the men cut loose with a deadly barrage of bullets and cannonades into the fog.


It is here where our movie-trained brain would suggest that the soldiers walked into an ambush. Frightened men? A single, poorly executed attack from an unseen assailant? Indiscriminate firing into the void?

Director David Yates disagrees. He cuts to a bloodless field of dead Opar warriors in proper Christopher Nolan "never show any impacts" style. Oh, so it's actually the Oparians that are just as frightened of these outsiders as they are of them? Okay, shame about the distractingly bloodless and impact-free cut we made there, but fine.

But no.

War chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and his elite warriors had actually quietly amassed upon the edges of the cliffs surrounding the unfortunate Europeans, and proceed to utterly riddle everyone with spears and arrows. Only Rom manages to survive the onslaught, and slowly stands up from the two shields he'd been using as cover. The warriors have by now descended upon the plateau, and are surrounding him. One man is wearing Rom's hat. This is a joke maybe? He does not seem to be mocking Rom, and simply forms a part of the silent wall of humanity that imposingly stares the European down. It's a bit awkward, really.

Rom tells Mbonga he is here to trade. His king, Leopold II of Belgium, has run up innumerable debts building a railway infrastructure through the Congo, and is now all slaved up with nowhere to go. Rom has been sent to find out if the fabled city of Opar and its untold riches are a myth or cold, hard fact.

Mbonga says he will deliver all the diamonds Rom desires, if he delivers him one man. Who is this man?

What seems like fifteen awkward seconds of silence later, we cut to the title: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN.

Awkward. This is the word I can best use to describe Edgar Rice Burroughs' latest cinematic outing. I respect a lot of things that are there on paper, ideas that are well-conceived updates to the frankly insanely racist original material.

For one, Tarzan isn't really "king of the jungle" as much as he is "socially maladjusted cousin of the jungle." Skarsgard brings us a deeply conflicted Lord Clayton, living in London but suffering from a sort of "continental dysphoria." Although initially conflicted about returning to the Congo because he believes to be in his societally mandated place now, he nonetheless blossoms once he reaches the continent again, culminating in one of the few scenes that fully work: a random encounter with three lionesses he grew up with.

The apes, however, are a mixed bag. Tarzan is constantly getting his ass kicked by them in flashbacks and in the current timeline. Again, on paper that's pretty cool: which superpowerless human could beat a gorilla*? It keeps Tarzan part of a tapestry, rather than the white ruler standing above all the savagery. In practice, it combines with Yates' poor sense of build-up and scene flow to deliver a really soggy middle. In fact, once the third act kicks into gear, I had been so devoid of any emotional connection to what was happening on screen, I was actively surprised that we were so close to the end. Oh dear!

The addition of George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) and his (authentic!) exposing of King Leopold's enslavement of the Congolese into the narrative is another welcome one, keeping the horrors of colonialism at the forefront at all times. Jackson is pretty engaged here, making Waltz the slummin' thesp of choice.

Shame too, because (again in theory), Rom is a pretty interesting villain. Highly dismissive of superstition and apparently personally offended at Tarzan being a figure of legend (the title!), the entrepreneur confides to Jane (a totally wasted Margot Robbie doing the best with what little she has). Wait, I think he was supposed to be an OCD guy as well? None of these quirks and interesting little tics are fleshed out properly. In fact, my friends and I only put these possible character traits together when walking back home after the movie. "I guess they were trying to tell us this...?"

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN was the most frustrating cinematic experience for me since THE WINTER SOLDIER. Unlike TWS, where a competently shot movie couldn't hide the dreadfully dull script, TARZAN has a script with proper ideas and an obvious knowledge of and love of the lore that is completely botched by a director who seemingly couldn't wait to get back on the Harry Potter gravy train where he knew he could just point the camera at charming British actors saying "fluffaluppugamus!!" in dusty rooms and let the CGI guys fill in the blanks. Seriously, just switch up HP directors (Cuaron or even Newell) and this probably would have been a solid movie.

As it is, the most entertaining part of the film was the uncomfortable silences in my theater whenever the characters would lay into those evil dang Belgians. We've had it coming for centuries, buddy! I just wish a better movie called us out.

*Technically, a MANGANI, not a gorilla. Funnily enough, these "Great Apes" were the good guys that raised Tarzan in Burroughs' original books. Gorillas were bloodthirsty monsters akin to orcs who could be killed for laughs and profit without guilt. The film amusingly twists this lore by saying "No, they're Mangani. Gorillas are kind. Mangani are bastards."