Monday, July 27, 2015

Derp Blog Into Darkness #31: TWO WEEKS NOTICE (2002)

In Derp Blog Into Darkness, I take a plunge into the deep with movies I’ve never seen or (in some cases) never even heard of, with the only common thread throughout being that they were purchased by my partner in the years after the break with her religious upbringing. This gives me a wide variation in movies to explore, ranging from mainstream comfort food to more daring, “rebellious” stuff.

Two_weeks_notice_ver2

There is no better way to encapsulate the experience of watching TWO WEEKS NOTICE than to describe its addition to that most hallowed wing of the romcom pantheon, the mad-dash-for-the-lover-you-almost-lost at the end of the film. Billionaire playboy George Wade (Hugh Grant, playing a character I really wish was called Bruce) has just declared his love to his former attorney Lucy Kelson (Sandra Bullock) in the guise of practicing a speech. The disillusioned, fed-up Lucy brushes him off with a muttered “I have work to do”, and George, heart-broken, shuffles off. He isn’t out the door for a minute when Lucy sits down next to two colleagues and asks, “That was actually a pretty perfect speech, wasn’t it?” One of the co-workers (fat, black) responds with “Yup. Hell, I hate the guy and I’m wondering what you’re still doing here!” This of course prompts Lucy to storm out of the office and engage in that age-old ritual of overcoming sudden physical obstructions and a ticking clock to profess her love to the one and only Co-Lead And Thus Perfect Partner Forever.

Only… she kinda bumps into two guys who are moving stuff for a second and then meets up with George about 20 yards down the street. WHATTA CLIMAX! Time for credits!

This low-energy hijinks is not just the movie’s ending fizzling out, it’s the diligent application of an “ehhhh” style of filmmaking prevalent through the entirety of TWO WEEKS TO NOTICE. Grant and Bullock are fine actors, and actually manage to be funny a handful of times, but neither the script nor the direction aid them in any way.

This is the type of movie where young activist lawyer Sandra reminisces on an old community center being torn down in favor of expensive condos set to “don’t it always seem to go / you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

Sandra waltzes into Hugh’s office demanding more appreciation? “R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me!”

Hugh takes Sandra on an impromptu helicopter ride? “Fly me to the mooooonnnn…”

Is Marc Lawrence Zack Snyder’s even more lunkheaded cousin? Signs point to yes!

The two weeks’ notice of the title happens in the middle of the second act, as Sandra decides she’s done with Hugh’s overly needy employer and manages to convince him to search for a replacement during these two weeks.

Now, the movie didn’t actually start out with Sandra as Hugh’s beleagured lawyer/nanny. She’s introduced as an idealistic “shackle yourself to bulldozers” activist who gets hired by Hugh as she’s that rare type… someone who dares to talk back to me… in a classic moment of Hollywood fairy tale bullshit. But that’s fine! That’s why we go to the movies.

Over the course of a montage of months we see Sandra become increasingly exasperated with BIG BABY Hugh’s delirious demands. The final straw? Getting a text about an “emergency” as she stands a bridesmaid at the altar of a friend’s wedding. She of course rushes out of the church in a tight pink dress, getting comments from construction workers and taxi drivers alike, until she finally meets Hugh only to find that… he wants her advice on which jacket and pants to combine. When she angrily says she was at her best friend’s wedding (haha), Hugh seems nonplussed and just says “Well you didn’t have to rush out immediately!”

This is the worst that happens to a social justice activist whose job perks include “giving millions and millions to your favorite charities”. What hell! What torment!

When they’ve found a suitable replacement for Sandra (the aforementioned big black lady in her first appearance of the movie), the scene starts at the end of her interview with everything seemingly in the bag. But OH! Hugh screws up by asking “Oh, and when’s the baby due?” This PROUD black woman don’t need to take any guff like that, so of course she storms out.

This six figure paycheck vacancy with a super undemanding boss is having some serious trouble getting filled! You know a movie is set in coo coo bananas land when a woman of color with a conventionally unpopular body shape leaves a job like that over one ignorant comment.

The position is ultimately filled by a certain June Carver (Alicia Witt) who immediately starts flirting with Hugh and is sort of the TOTAL BITCH antagonist. Only… she’s not? It’s unprofessional that she starts flirting with her boss, true, but Hugh and Sandra do not have a relationship. In fact, Sandra desperately wants to get AWAY from this capitalist monster when the two women first meet. She’s not angling for her job either, since she’s a perfectly legitimate candidate that was chosen to replace Sandra.

Jeeeeez movie, you’re really trying to not make me feel any strong feelings whatsoever here, huh?

If I can give the movie any credit, I suppose I can say that Sandra’s character doesn’t have a man-shaped hole in her life at the beginning of the movie. In fact, she has an off-screen boyfriend who is even more politically active than she is. Obviously, this relationship goes south so she can hook up with Hugh, etc, but at least they attempted to make her character have other longings than romantic ones.

The movie also appears to be actually shot in NY, which was probably a huge boost in late 2001/early 2002 when this was being filmed. Good on you, Sandra (I’m assuming this was all Sandra and otherwise it woulda shot in Toronto or something).

Oh, and Hugh’s character’s brother Howard (played by that awful wax museum owner from Penny Dreadful’s second season) tells Hugh “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the economy isn’t what it once was!” Later, at a party, Donald Trump threatens to steal Alicia Witt from Hugh. HA HA 2002

TWO WEEKS NOTICE is a movie that aims for the middle and easily reaches it, only to find that the middle is a vast grey expanse of nothingness, with at its noisome heart a dilapidated community center hosting senior citizen synchronized swimming courses for none.

Sandra Bullock shits loudly in an RV.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Turtle Talk #3: GAMERA VS. GYAOS (1967)

tumblr_n6t8tjr5p61skdeego1_500

LUCA:

By virtue of not having access to any licenses to the most famous monsters of (American) filmland, Gamera’s career in monster rasslin took a slight detour from the standard Godzilla trajectory. After a black and white solo debut and a first match against a quadruped reptile, GAMERA VS. GYAOS takes us straight to the match against a flying monster, foregoing a clash of icons such as KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Gyaos is no kind and gentle Earth guardian like Mothra, though. He’s not even a rowdy jock like Rodan, even though his design is obviously lifted from the (by that time) decade-old Toho pterodactyl. Gyaos is, for want of a better expression, a big fuckin’ asshole. Now, the meanness in this film doesn’t actually exceed what we saw in BARUGON, but there’s definitely some added weirdness to go along with the cruelty. But let us start at the beginning, friends…

GAMERA VS. GYAOS starts as many a kaiju movie does, with news reports about increased seismological and volcanic activities around the country. What could be the cause and/or result of these? Surely a look at the film’s title and/or poster could not tip us off here! Against the backdrop of this threat of ecological disaster, we meet our little protagonist Eichii Kanemaru (Naoyuki Abe), grandson of village elder Tatsuemon Kanemaru (Kichijiro Ueda), as he lives an idyllic life at the foot of Mt. Fuji. That idyll is disturbed, however, as the dastardly (or is it…?) Express Engineering Corp plans to build a highway through the forest, and wants to buy out all the villagers’ land. Grandfather Tatsuemon is the main spokesperson for the rights of the civilians, and tries to come to a beneficial solution for both parties. However, things take a turn for the bizarre when a laser beam slices a UN survey helicopter clean in half and causes at least one old man surveyor to fall to his death in a hilarious fashion. What could the source of this danger be? What is the mysterious green light emanating from the cave that the laser originated from? Newshound Okabe (Shin Minatsu) convinces lil’ Eichii to be his guide into the mountain. What they uncover might spell stiff-necked doom for all of Japan!

This is all extremely textbook stuff for your average kaiju movie, and as such it took a while for it to really capture my attention. The bisected helicopter with subsequent casualty was my first laugh-out-loud moment, and Okabe and Eichii’s ill-fated expedition into Mt. Fuji was probably the second time it managed to muster some interest. Now, I don’t want to undersell the movie, as it does wind up doing some crazy and entertaining stuff, but I’d hate to cover all the fun stuff before you can have a go, Travis. I’ll instead take the less fun route and enumerate the two biggest failings of the movie: the bland set-up I’ve already gone over. This stuff is what sank the original RODAN! Second, and one might say quite fatal for a movie whose entire purpose rests on it: Gyaos frankly looks like shit. He’s stiff as hell, his eyes are too big and motionless, and his teeth are the purest ivory, indicative of a rushed paint job. Rather amusingly, there’s actually an in-universe explanation given for why Gyaos can’t move his head sideways. You see he has two throats, in order to… create… the laserbeam? And they can’t… touch? Aw hell, Travis, what did you think of the third Gamera film?

TRAVIS:

Yeah, I'll admit too that Gyaos looks pretty cheap. Luca, the description you gave of motionless eyes and a rushed paint job sums up the look of most of the Gamera kaiju. Though we're already dealing with sci-fi monsters, this aesthetic gives the creatures a more cartoony appearance than the ruff & tumble stars of the Godzilla series. Whether you find this as more cheesy goodness or proof of Daiei's shoddiness is up to you. While Gyaos' believability certainly won't fool anyone, he is an interesting kaiju among his peers. I like that his beam acts more as a cutting torch than a standard laser that simply makes things go kablooey. Giving him a vampiric personality with his hunger for blood and vulnerability to sunlight also make him quite unique among Gamera's rogue gallery. In fact, Gyaos would end up as the only recurring opponent in the entire franchise. He racked up two more Showa appearances before becoming the primary antagonist of the Heisei trilogy, and he'd also square off against the big turtle in the opening scene of the Millennium era GAMERA: THE BRAVE. Good on ya, ya tight-necked bloodsucker!

Count Gyaos-cula is also responsible for my favorite guffaw inducing scene of the movie. The military eventually devises a plan to lure the monster out of his cave with gaseous clouds of synthetic blood just before dawn so that the sunrise may destroy him. But how will they keep Gyaos from flying away as soon he sees the sun? Why, by placing the plasma geyser on top of a rotating platform that will spin so fast that he'll become too dizzy and delirious to escape! If you thought the humans' plan to trap Gamera in a rocket and blast him off to Mars in the first film was ridiculous, this one certainly tops it! And so we're treated to a fun two minute sequence of Gyaos keeping high off of blood fumes while he twirls around and around and around and around and around... Basically, if you're looking to find kaiju clips to turn into LOL-worthy GIF files, you've struck gold.

But enough about our monster villain! What about our human villains? In these kaiju flicks, it's typical to paint land developers and businessmen as fools who don't respect the sacred territories and myths of the native people. GYAOS however turns this on its head in a fun way. While the villagers are protesting the construction of the new road, it's not because they care about their homes or the preservation of their history. They're simply being difficult until Express Engineering gives them a high enough price for their land so that they can become rich. What cads! To even further the role reversal, Express Engineering dedicates much of their manpower and time to aid the military in defeating Gyaos while the villagers continue to squabble and argue about their greed. Of course, it also helps that Express has the dashing, heroically handsome Shiro (Kojiro Hongo) as the foreman to lead the attacks on Gyaos. A true nobleman for urbanization, he is! What did you think about this twist, Luca?

LUCA:

I think GAMERA VS. GYAOS must be one of the most morally offensive children’s movies ever made if you have a single environmentalist or leftie bone in your body. Not only do the poor townsfolk mean to milk that gentle billion dollar corporation for all it’s worth – shades of the Simpsons episode “Radioactive Man” where Mickey Rooney scolds the Springfieldians for taking advantage of those kind, naïve Hollywood souls who just wanted to tell a story about a man… a radioactive man. Only in GAMERA VS. GYAOS, there’s no joke! The villagers really are slick hustlers who hold a billion yen enterprise by the balls for personal gain. Not only are the company men hailed as heroic, square-jawed heroes as opposed to the sniveling small-town hucksters, the plans to defeat our winged villain monster range from merely burning down a forest to spraying it with blood. Adding insult to injury doesn’t cover it: that’s some Aslan-shaving shit right there!

Thing is, I honestly have no idea if screenwriter Nisan Takahashi was consciously trying to make “civic minded” children’s entertainment, or if it was just a product of living through years of a post-war reconstructionist Japan where progress, progress, progress was the highest good. If you compare this movie to Toho’s ALL MONSTERS ATTACK, another monster flick specifically aimed at children released around roughly the same time, it’s quite jarring to see that in AMA unchecked industrialization is kind of a background evil, a dehumanizing, distancing force. In GAMERA VS. GYAOS, Express Engineering Corp is pretty much the Justice League! If nothing else, it really makes me appreciate Ishiro Honda’s anthropocentrism, even if it’s buried under layers and layers of re-used footage and shrill children’s songs.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The fact that GAMERA VS. GYAOS (unintentionally?) espouses some politics that I am super not-down with doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. It totally is! In fact, it’s a pretty solid entry for Showa monster movie watching, with a couple of real outlandish gags, a cute kid protag and a short runtime. I won’t even say the movie is fun “despite” its horrible ideology – I’d even say it’s an added bonus. Nothing surer to strike up a conversation with friends than a movie just starting to say/do evil shit like it’s normal, I say! It’s actually interesting that this kind of filmmaking has returned with the rise of China as a global economic power (and movie market). The best recent example would be TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, where the movie inexplicably moves to China for two hours, and the Chinese government is an expert at killing Decepticons, evacuating civilians and saving American asses and being all around good guy badasses. Hey, at least they didn’t have to burn down forests to beat the bad guy!

Capture

TRAVIS:

Oh man, I love that the movie's so pro-business that burning down the entire forest will not only help defeat Gyaos but also give those petty villagers their due comeuppance! Even elder Tatsuemon justifies the action by saying that Gyaos is punishment from their ancient ancestors for their present day greed and that only destroying their land will cleanse them from sin. Remember, kids, don't allow your selfish needs to block the way of progress lest a vampire monster force you to lose your possessions!

Speaking of kids, while Gamera's soft spot for youngsters has occasionally crept up in these first few movies, it's in GYAOS that we see the turtle fully settle in as the friend to all children. Not only do we see him selflessly protect lil’ Eiichi from being gobbled up by Gyaos, but he also flies the child to safety and drops him off at a Ferris wheel to be picked up by rescuers. Wow! Imagine being a kid getting a trip on Gamera's back and having your flight end at an amusement park. What a great day! It helps that Eiichi himself is a charming young lad, a little guy who adores Gamera while luckily not reaching the heights of psychotic idolatry that Toshio from the first GAMERA portrayed. He adores the big turtle while not becoming annoyingly precocious. It's also very amusing to see the military consult Eiichi a couple of times on strategies for defeating Gyaos since the boy's a fan of kaiju and studies their habits for most of his time. This must be the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy for geeks: having the government rely on you and your expert knowledge on your nerdy obsession to save the world.

Gamera already fought a threat from the skies, so now it was time to fight a threat from the seas! I mean, the sea threat technically comes from the skies (outer space to be exact). And I guess Gyaos didn't come from the skies either but from a volcano BUT NEVERMIND! The squid aliens are coming! The squid aliens are coming! Let's hope our hero has the taste for calamari with GAMERA VS. VIRAS!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Turtle Talk #2: GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966)


cf921c7d880463e59b915dea845f46d8

TRAVIS:

Now THIS is what I'm talkin' about.

A mere year after the original black-and-white GAMERA, the tortoise returns in full color for GAMERA VS. BARUGON! We pick up moments from the first movie with Gamera's rocket ship heading towards Mars WHEN SUDDENLY it crashes into a meteorite and the monster is freed. Gamera immediately beelines it back to Earth and destroys the power plant at the Kurobe Dam to suck up some more fire power. Meanwhile in Osaka, a tale of TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE-style twists and betrayals are afoot! WWII veteran Kano has gathered three men (his brother Keisuke, ship officer Kawajiri, and general scumbag Onodera) together to send them on a jewel hunt in the South Pacific. Years ago during the war, Kano discovered a giant opal on a tropical island and hid it in a cave to retrieve later. Now handicapped with a limp, he sends Keisuke, Kawajiri, and Onodera on a mission to travel to that same island and bring the opal back with the promise of fortune and riches. What could go wrong?

The men reach the island and run into the local tribe. Tanned complexions, flower and straw dresses, high energy dance routines.... yep, it's your atypical kaiju flick island tribe! And like all tribes, there's a fatal warning for those who dare upset the spirits. In this case, the men are warned not to venture into the “valley of rainbows” as only death awaits those who disturb it. But our group of mainlanders do not heed this warning and explore the secret cave. They do successfully find the opal, but Onodera pulls the double cross by allowing a deadly scorpion to sting and kill Kawajiri and detonating the cave to leave Keisuke trapped by the falling rocks. Keisuke is rescued by tribeswoman Karen, but both must race back to Japan! Why? Well, that opal Onodera stole is no opal! It's an egg containing the ancient monster Barugon! It soon hatches and Barugon begins his destructive rampage on Osaka!

Now so we don't confuse any novice kaiju fans, we're talking about Barugon from the Daiei Gamera series, not Baragon the burrowing monster from Toho's FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON and GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK. I'll always have a place in my heart for the floppy eared Godzilla sidekick, but Gamera's rainbow villain is pretty fun too! As I said in the previous review, the Gamera films were fun when they embraced the sci-fi silliness, and the powers of Barugon are hilariously great. He's best known for the rainbow death ray that emits from his back, yet he also has a tongue nozzle that shoots freeze spray! Fun times! It's a small detail, but I also liked how he had vertical eye lids, giving him a little unworldly touch any time he blinked. He's definitely a great opponent for Gamera's first versus movie. What did you think of round two with Gamera, Luca?

Capture2

LUCA:

What a wonderful surprise GAMERA VS. BARUGON was, Travis! After the initial disappointment of Gamera's debut, I was a bit fearful as to how enjoyable a series on this monster might be. Luckily, my fears turned out to be unfounded (for the moment). To me this is just an all-timer of a Showa monster movie. You've touched upon how great and imaginative an adversary Barugon is, but let me focus on what dragged the movie kicking and screaming into Top Tier Kaiju for me: the asshole Onodera, as portrayed by Koji Fujiyama. More often than not, kaiju humans are pretty boring filler, meant to pad out scenes in between model city smashing and suit wrestling. Sometimes, however, there'll be a human(oid) villain to conjure up some conflict for our people-protagonists. This'll usually be a greedy businessman or an overly aggressive general or the like. Painted with the same broad brush strokes as our heroes, these antagonists are quite reliably hilarious in their one-dimensional greed/anger/general evil. It must be said, however, that Onodera is a cut above the baddies I've seen in kaiju movies so far. This mercenary's (?) evil is of such a venal, petty, cowardly, violent kind that I felt like I was reading an Elmore Leonard short story rather than a kiddie monster flick. Onodera just wants to get paid, and he doesn't really have a specific plan for that to happen. Instead, he just seizes the moment (like with the scorpion) when it's there or goes to bully people into doing what he wants. Some highlights include beating up a disabled man (not that Kano doesn't give as good as he gets, screaming "Die, you bastard!" in the brawl) and sabotaging the military operation to destroy Barugon because the diamond used to power the weapon is HIS BY RIGHTTTTT which it demonstrably isn't.

With all these great bad guys for the heroes to overcome, there's really no need for the good guys to be super interesting, as the villains have it pretty much covered. That being said, I still had to laugh at how haphazardly Gamera gets pulled into this movie. Oh, a meteor bumped the rocket on a course back to Earth. Oh, he ate a dam and then took off for parts unknown. Oh, he's back now cuz he just can't have Barugon smashing up the place. We've often talked about kaiju monsters being like wrestling matches for kids (well, moreso than usual), and in only his second appearance Gamera has the air of an old pro who has to show up to defend the championship title cuz none of these other guys really move any merchandise and it's just in his contract. I suppose the continuity nerd in me appreciates that the movie bothered to explain why he's back, rather than Toho's patented "Well, here's Godzilla I guess" approach. Still, pretty funny that they're already resorting to grafting their marquee monster on seemingly unrelated scripts two movies in. I at least hope they will keep explaining his presence! If not, okay, fine. I can deal with this now after 30+ of these!

Another tradition (if one can call it that after two movies) that is brought over from the first GAMERA is the strange exoticization of the English language. You have an island tribe full of Japanese actors in brownface, and their beautiful princess is called... Karen? Was she a stranded anglophone scientist's daughter or something and did I merely miss the line of dialogue that mentioned that? I hope not, because it'd be hilarious if the script features a fictitious group of Pacific Islanders where "Karen" is a viable woman's name. More hearty island-laughs: the dire warnings about death and doom that will follow anyone that enters... THE VALLEY OF RAINBOWS!!! I love that they just unabashedly went with that, rather than Barugon Gorge or something slightly more threatening. Now I've been an island adventure mark ever since EBIRAH, but how about you, Travis -- was the tropical or the urban half of the movie more entertaining to you?

Capture1

TRAVIS:

I have to give it to the urban half because that's where all the MONSTA WRASSLIN' happens. However, that half does occasionally drag when the army manages to subdue Barugon (twice!) by dropping artificial rain on him. Both times they're followed by ponderous scenes of the cast figuring out a plan to kill him. You'd think that if they've successfully stopped Barugon in his tracks that they might as well blast him with a bunch of fire hoses or something since water is supposed to be his weakness. Or heck, wouldn't all that artificial rain eventually melt him away? It's implied that the army keeps liquid dusting him for days, so shouldn't he be a little weakened at least?

I guess not, because it takes Gamera to straight up hold Barugon underwater and drown him until he erupts into a purple bloody geyser! One feature of the Gamera series that was distinct from Godzilla was the amount of monster gore that was sprayed and gushed about freely in these supposed kiddie kaiju flicks. What probably made it okay for children was that the bodily fluids were never red colored, and the Gamera monsters generally bled black or purple or some unnatural color. Compare this to later Showa Godzilla entries where the G-man sometimes garishly gushed bright red blood from his wounds, and it's not hard to imagine children being more comfortable with the safe fantasy of Gamera's muted colored violence.

Speaking of children, GAMERA VS. BARUGON is a unique film in the series because it's the only one that lacks a kid protagonist. Yep, even though Gamera's known as a “friend to all children”, it's hard to spot someone under seventeen years old in this film. Though the Showa movies were regarded as kiddie stuff, BARUGON has the most adult tone with its old yarn of treasure hunters and the mistrust between them. Even when the plot gets back to Osaka, serious themes of greed and man's disrespect of nature and myth are prevalent in between the moments of giant turtle vs. rainbow lizard. The filmmakers could've made a serviceable movie about these themes, but hey, that's not why you're watching this flick, right?

Capture

LUCA:

I’m gonna wuss out and say the urban/jungle portions were about equally good for me. One had the kaiju stomping as you say, but the jungle adventure also had the human betrayals escalating to the point of attempted murder (and originating hilariously with Onedara making the other two scrub the deck in their guises as skipper and sailors, respectively). The scenes build quite well, flowing logically from one to the next, with new obstacles popping up and leading to new complications in nearly each of them. That’s basic filmmaking, sure, but you’d be surprised at how rare it is in cheap monster movies like these! Or not, I suppose, considering they’re cheap monster movies. What I’m trying to say though is that the movie actually earns its 100 minute runtime – a real epic in terms of length when it comes to Showa movies, outdoing its predecessor by about half an hour and the distinguished competition at Toho by about twenty minutes. I must say that I didn’t feel this stretched runtime – even though it was (by my estimate) made longer because of the need to graft Gamera onto an already existing screenplay – as badly as I did with some Heisei Godzila films. Lookin’ at you, SPACEGODZILLA!

It was 1966 and the Gamera business was booming – or at least lucrative enough to be cranking them out at a pace to rival Toho’s. After ripping Barugon to shreds at the bottom of a lake like a rainbow lizard version of Jason Voorhees, it would not be long before our turtle friend returned to Japanese theater (and American TV) screens with GAMERA VS. GYAOS. Join us next time as Gamera takes on what appears to be its very own version of Rodan!

Monday, June 15, 2015

TURTLE TALK #1: GAMERA (1965)

 

the-giant-monster-gamera-movie-poster-1965-1020413586

LUCA:

The shadow of Godzilla looms large over Gamera.

Released in 1965, the same year as Godzilla’s sixth outing (that would be INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER), GAMERA’s lack of color immediately reminds viewers they’re watching a cheap cash-in on the giant monster craze of the Showa era. Now, lo-fi movies don’t bother me one bit, as some all-time classics were created on a shoestring budget. I must say though that while color film stock may have been an extravagant luxury that wasn’t in the budget, I did not notice any particularly bad model work – which ultimately is one of the most important things in these movies next to the monster suits themselves. If they had to cut back on the former to make sure they were able to guarantee decent work on the latter, hey, I’m all for it. So how does Gamera look? Decent, for the most part. One of the best things I could say about the suit was that when Gamera opened his mouth, there was something glistening inside, giving you the impression that he had working insides, with saliva glands and all. Great for immersion! Not so great for immersion were the occasional glimpses of the flamethrower’s nozzle you could see when Gamera used his breath weapon. I hope the glisten wasn’t kerosene – poor suit actor!

If there’s one thing we can give GAMERA credit for, it’s the pioneering of a child protagonist in a kaiju movie. Granted, GAMERA is a bit of an ensemble movie like GOJIRA, but Toshio the turtle fanboy (Yoshiro Uchida) is a type that will be immediately recognizable to those versed in big monster movies. Daiei Studios smartly realized the appeal of these movies to young kids and decided to get in on that action right away, as opposed to the decade and change it took Toho. Yes, giant monsters will appeal to kids with or without human actors their own age, but there is definitely a difference in something like GOJIRA as opposed to ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. I’ll give props to GAMERA for yet another different approach – though as to whether or not it’s a good one is questionable – director Noriaki Yuasa says, “Fuck build-up!” and just reveals the mighty fire-breathing turtle in the first five minutes as he crawls out of an arctic chasm after an aerial skirmish between American fighters and planes from “an unidentified country” (haha sure) cause a nuclear detonation. Not only do we get a full view of Gamera right away, we even get fetishistic little close-ups of scales and claws and eyes and teeth over the starting credits. Quite bold, Yuasa-san!

And here we get to the main problem of the movie: what is it actually going for? If you reveal your monster right off the bat, suspense is out the window – unless you construct a specific situation where a well-liked human character is in peril or some other ticking clock involving the monster has to be avoided. GAMERA does neither! After awakening, Gamera just ambles about causing random destruction. When he comes to Toshio’s lighthouse, he swipes the top of the tower away, but saves Toshio from falling to his death. Oh, so this is an IRON GIANT style tale of a misunderstood titan and his special relationship with one outcast little boy? Nope, Gamera fries dozens of innocent bystanders later in the movie with his fire breath! Despite this, Toshio constantly tries to convince the military that “Gamera is just lonely! He needs a friend!” but they sound more like the ravings of a child in need of some counseling than a clever movie tyke who’s gotten a far better grip on the situation than all those short-sighted bully adults. Were you in need of a friend, Travis?

Capture1

TRAVIS:

I'm always willing to be friends with kaiju, Luca, but Gamera's first outing falls pretty flat for me. Like you said, the movie's at odds with what kind of movie it wants to be. I mean, yeah, we're here for the monster smash stuff, but as we've seen with the Godzilla films, there are different approaches and tones you can do. GAMERA falls somewhere between “mythical creature awakened by man” and “kid understands misunderstood monster” without being interesting in either subplot. The most fun I've had with Gamera movies were when they fully embraced the sci-fi pulpiness. It's why the biggest laugh I got out of this particular entry was when the top secret Plan Z that all countries around the world (including Cold War enemies America and the Soviet Union!) collaborated on ended up being just a big ol' rocketship that'll trap the turtle and shoot him into space. You're already dealing with a fire-eating tortoise that came from Atlantis. Embrace the silliness!

The human characters don't help the proceedings either. Toshio's pretty insufferable, and I would've happily seen him shot off to Mars too. I know we're supposed to identify with this lonely outcast of a child, but seeing him continually endangering himself and others just to get closer to Gamera makes you want to smack him upside the head. While Toshio's just annoying, news photographer Aoyagi is a pretty big creep during the whole movie. He stalks and bothers poor Kyoko only because he followed her to the Eskimo camp and was spared from the attack on the ship Chidori Maru that killed everyone else. His “Goddess of Good Luck” is what he labels her. Ewwwwww......

Having not seen GAMERA in a very long while, I was reminded of my old Godzilla-influenced prejudices against the turtle. As ridiculous and stupid as the Godzilla films could be, there's polish to them and a sense that they've been given that Toho stamp of approval that makes them one of a kind among kaiju flicks. I know you didn't have a problem with the miniatures, Luca, but they look rather.... flat to me. Maybe it wasn't the smartest idea to open on the Arctic set with its Styrofoam-looking icebergs and Tinkertoy planes. It just sets this tone of cheapness that clashes with the serious tone of the rest of the movie. Again, it wouldn't be until Gamera fully embraced being that goofy friend to kids that the cheapness would become a signature instead of a blemish. He could be a lot of fun, but his first movie's just a bore. Am I letting my memories from Monster Island get in the way, Luca?

Capture

LUCA:

Maybe it was because the movie hadn’t established a tone yet that I didn’t mind the Styrofoam arctic set with toy jeeps and planes they decided to open with. There’s even more laffs to be found in the ice when Dr. Hidaka converses with a native Alaskan (?) chief, and it’s a poor Japanese actor given phonetic English to recite. I’m sure they didn’t cuz it was hard to tell in black and white anyway, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if the fellow was in brownface! But we shouldn’t be too hard on the guy, since the native English speakers we are treated to only minutes later don’t fare much better either. From a colonel who is holding up reports (but is obviously just reading his lines off the paper) to radio operators who don’t understand how sentences or even subordinate clauses work (“Sir there seems. To be a strange object. On our screens!!!”). These guys are without a doubt the worst actors I’ve ever seen in a kaiju movie. Which is saying something!

I will give GAMERA this though: when Gamera attacks the Chidori Maru, we get a wide shot of the monster, the ship, and at the bottom of the screen people (or at least crude animations of people) fleeing over the ice. Then later there’s some tricky editing/compositing going on as Toshio boards a train that Gamera is pulling towards him. This human/kaiju same-shot interaction was something that was strangely missing from most Zilla movies. In fact, I made special notice of it in the Heisei relaunch that it was odd seeing two people in a collapsing building as they attempted to escape the monster. True, it doesn’t really look very good, but I’ll give them credit for at least trying technically complex things. Some random funny stuff that I also deem positive because it made me experience positive feelings aka laughter: an old grandfather sees the flying form of Gamera hurtling across the night sky. He doesn’t freak out, but rather says “Oh… a will-o’-the-whisp! Or could it be one of those modern YEW EFF OHS people are seeing nowadays? Ohhhh…” Later, as he and his wife read in the newspaper that a monster is terrorizing Japan, he states that “Well grandmother, if one grows old enough, one sees many terrible things.” “Oh aye…” his wife replies. They do no feature in the movie again! I’d also like to point out the line “Ah… a fire-breathing turtle… as described in the writings of Plato…”

You touched upon it already, Travis, but my favorite moment was also the reveal of what Plan Zettu actually was – just lure the damn turtle onto a platform that then snaps shut and is revealed to be the head of a rocket that promptly BLASTS OFF TO MARS. Hell, you’re not gonna pull off another Oxygen Destroyer like in Gojira, so might as well make it someone else’s problem – why not Barsoom’s? Lil’ idiot Toshio then says he’s gonna grow up to be an astronaut so he can go visit Gamera one day, to which Dr. Hidaka gives a great “Yeah sure kid…” response. Travis, I’m starting to think that Lane Pryce on Mad Men wasn’t completely sober when he declared this movie “a very good film!”

Capture2

TRAVIS:

To be fair, Mr. Pryce was most likely enjoying not GAMERA but GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE! Just like how GOJIRA made its way to America as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, World Entertainment Corp. took the original Daiei film and shot new scenes featuring American actors for the US release. Now titled GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE (the extra 'm' was added Gamera's name to clarify the pronunciation), this knockoff of Godzilla was transformed into your standard B-flick from the atomic age of sci-fi. Along with the Japanese characters, we also focus on a group of army generals and U.N. officials as they too contend with the Gamera problem. And by contend, I mean sit around in drab soundstage rooms as they talk about communicating and collaborating with the Japanese government. They pretty much occupy the same role as Raymond Burr in GODZILLA, acting as observers to the crisis and putting up the image that they're actually participating in the action. There's some fun schlock to be had: the dame army secretary being hit on by her superiors, stuffy scientists arguing over the existence of the monster, a blustery senator outraged (OUTRAGED!) that the army isn't following the proper procedure to respond to a giant turtle.... standard B-picture stuff. Heck, I might take a cue from Pryce and watch this version with a stiff drink, because it might be the only way I could tolerate it!

Despite getting the American fix-er-up treatment, GAMERA didn't find theatrical success in the states and remains the only movie in the series to have a US theater run. But while he failed in America, Japan was still on a kaiju kick that required more, more, and more monsters! Don't expect Gamera to land on Barsoom anytime soon, because his course is about to get rerouted into a epic battle of rainbows! We'll find out that diamonds truly are forever in GAMERA VS. BARUGON!

Monday, June 8, 2015

TURTLE TALK #0: Intro

gamera2diagram

LUCA:

Konnichi wa, friends, and welcome to TURTLE TALK!

It was late 2013 when the inimitable Travis Kirkland and myself set off on a path of destruction through half a century of pop culture that started with a certain grim little monster movie from 1954 called GOJIRA. Over the better part of a year, we discussed every movie featuring the titular monster – and some ancillary crap besides (such as the short-lived 1999 animated series and the only album ever that featured both Diddy and Jakob Dylan). If you enjoyed our Kaiju Kavalcade blog series – or even bought the collection “Memories from Monster Island” off Amazon – we hope that our latest endeavor will bring you as much fun. You see, TURTLE TALK will delve into that other great purveyor of city-smashing: the friend to all children – GAMERA himself! Now, our angle on the Godzilla series was that I was the noob going in cold, whereas Travis was the old pro, coming to the movies from a place of rediscovery, ready to face the cold light of an atomic dawn if they didn’t quite hold up. For TURTLE TALK, this contrast has been sanded off a bit, as Travis isn’t quite so well-versed in Gamera lore as he is in Godzilla. Equals, finally? Almost! But I will let him elaborate a bit in a second.

What is my relationship to Gamera? Well, it’s fairly minimal. Even more minimal than my knowledge of Godzilla was when we started with Kaiju Kavalcade, in fact! From my general pop culture osmosis, I had gathered over the years that Gamera was

1.) A turtle
2.) Airborne (possibly robot parts?)
3.) A friend to all children

After the life-transforming/affirming experience that was compiling Memories from Monster Island, I can add another fact to this very short list: he never met Godzilla in any official capacity. With the thoroughness we applied to our Zilla-journey, it would be inconceivable we could have missed such a clash of titans. And isn’t that weird, if you think about it? Even eternal rivals DC and Marvel Comics set their differences aside to produce stuff like Amalgam Comics or that fan favorite one where the Joker teams up with Carnage. But Godzilla and Gamera? No dice! For fifty years, the two iconic monsters stayed completely separate. Just strict business practices, or an irreconcilable stylistic difference in tone and target audience? We hope TURTLE TALK may shed some light on this issue that is no doubt keeping the lot of you awake at night. Travis?

TRAVIS:

Here's a shocking revelation from this lifelong kaiju fan: I hated Gamera.

Yep, this dye-in-the-wool fanatic of giant creatures crushing buildings was definitely not a friend to the big turtle during my formative years. Godzilla, Rodan, Anguirus... all of the Toho monsters became beloved characters to me as I grew up. And yet... Gamera could not impress me at all, no matter how many gravity-defying somersaults he could pull off. This... this fraud... this hack... this RC Cola of a reptile compared to the classic Coke formula of Godzilla. Looking back, it's very odd to me how much I actively rejected Gamera. Sure, he was created by Daiei Film Company as competition for Toho's main G, but I was perfectly happy embracing dueling icons of pop culture. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, Superman and Spider-Man... they all had a welcome place in my fantasy world. But Gamera... if I had my way, I would've left his ass frozen in the Arctic while I enjoyed watching more reputable kaiju like Varan the Unbelievable.

But why? Why was I so prejudiced against the poor monster? Perhaps I wasn't introduced to Gamera in the right context. Instead of a magical late night marathon that transformed me into a Godzilla fan, my first glimpse of Gamera was via the television show MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Five of his movies were roasted by Joel Robinson and his robot pals during the third season, and I happily laughed along as they ripped apart the films' goofy, innocent tone. Stupid turtle. In all fairness though, MST3K also riffed on GODZILLA VS. MEGALON and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER, so the big man of Monster Island wasn't safe either. My blind hatred was also probably due to it being my first brush with geek brand loyalty. How could any monster dare stand up to the rightful popularity of Godzilla?! Heck, if you recall our review of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, I wrote about how outraged I was as a child to see some dumb ol' ape be victorious over my King of the Monsters. An outrage I say!

Many years passed however, and my unwavering allegiance to Godzilla became more relaxed. I eventually came around to watch a few Gamera Showa era movies and was amused the monster's antics. They didn't make me a convert, but I could now see his appeal. He's a flying, fire-breathing turtle who has a soft spot for protecting children. Of course kids would love him! Later on based on strong recommendations, I also checked out the incredibly awesome Gamera Heisei trilogy, headed up by director Shusuke Kaneko (who brought that same kinetic energy to GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK). So where does that leave me before I dive headfirst into the entire Gamera filmography? For me, MEMORIES FROM MONSTER ISLAND was my way of reconnecting with my childhood friend Godzilla to examine our long relationship and how it remains strong to this day. In this sense, TURTLE TALK will be me trying to make peace with an old acquaintance I've unfairly treated all these years. And Gamera, I wouldn't mind calling you my friend at the end of this. So sit tight, readers, because next week we're kicking off our coverage by blasting back to 1955 with (what else?) GAMERA!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: GODZILLA (2014) Hype-Free Viewing

TRAVIS:

When we first reviewed Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA upon its release in 2014, I wrote that it was foolish to argue Godzilla's relevance with this triumphant return to US cinema. One year later, the aftermath of the movie's success can still be felt. IDW Comics has been continuing to support their various G titles, and Bandai recently released a brand new video game featuring G, Mothra, Ghidorah, and the rest of the gang. Right now in Tokyo, Japan, you can spend a night in the recently opened Godzilla hotel featuring themed suites and a towering statue of G peering into the windows! Of course, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are developing GODZILLA 2 for summer 2018, but Toho will also be relaunching G for their own new franchise in his Japanese homeland in 2016. And yet despite all of these accomplishments, the American film itself remains divisive among critics and fans. Some proclaim it a victory for kaiju worldwide while others find it lacking in spite of a few spectacular moments. On the movie's first anniversary, we'll muster our courage and take on GODZILLA to see if it's still the King of the Monsters.

Of all the things that hold up on repeat viewing, the fantastic opening credit sequence is definitely one of the highlights. Those worried that we'd see another long origin story for G should be pleased by the rapid fire montage of images that trace his roots from cave paintings of dinosaurs to tales of mythical sea monsters to classified government footage of G appearing in the 20th century. It's a wonderful encapsulation of his history done in a broad, exciting style. It's also great that even though G is no longer a metaphor for nuclear annihilation in the Legendary franchise that the atomic testing performed by the US is still tied to his past (this time explained as a cover up by the government to kill him). So what is Godzilla if he's been shed of the bomb in this new iteration? Though he's not the gravity defying Showa superhero anymore, he's certainly someone needed for our protection when a threat becomes too large. I think he's more akin to an old samurai, someone who's seen battles and confrontations for most of his life and only takes action when he's direly needed by the powerless. I like that even though he can still put up a good fight that he seems worn out and tired afterwards from years acting as a dominant predator. There may be a lot of mileage behind this version of G, but he's one that I want to follow for more films to come!

Though this current rendition of the character may not have been a problem for audiences, his seemingly short appearance time definitely was! One of the main criticisms against GODZILLA is that Godzilla himself doesn't show up in the majority of the film. In fact, one of the most popular YouTube videos related to GODZILLA actually collects all of G's scenes together and runs a mere eleven minutes compared to the movie's two hour running time. The point seems to be that there's nothing wrong with G; it's just that there's too little of him! However, I think this criticism doesn't actually derive from counting the minutes but from plot focus. In the pre-release marketing, we were being sold a movie that promised apocalyptic disaster from a gigantic monstrosity. Naturally, we assumed that G would be the harbinger of death, and we could guess that those MUTOs we heard about might be tangling up with ol' G. Yet when you examine the plot, it's really the MUTOs that drive most of the action. They cause the nuclear plant accident that widows Bryan Cranston's character and causes him to become a solitary lunatic. They're the threat that the government secretly monitors for years. They're the things that will (as Cranston puts it) “send us right back to the Stone Age” because of their destruction. Pretty much all of the characters except for Ken Watanabe concentrate on how to deal with the MUTOs while Watanabe rambles about G as the one to restore balance to nature (i.e. killing the shit outta some kaiju bugs). In this sense, G really is only a deus ex machina in the story since the humans continually fail to destroy them. Perhaps if G was more integrated into the story (maybe causing the plant meltdown himself) then the criticism of his diminished screen time could've been alleviated. Luca, how was your revisit of big G's return to America?

LUCA:

Well Travis, I’m glad to say that, free from the initial hype, GODZILLA manages to be a thoroughly entertaining movie on its own merits. As you’ve already mentioned, the opening credits are a masterclass in building up hype, be it in production design (oh man, who doesn’t like sinister medieval etchings?), editing and Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful throwback score. Having them end with a literal blast as Godzilla is supposedly defeated by the Bikini Atoll bomb keeps the sense of awe and wonder going apace. The film then segues to 1999, and brings us to the Filipino quarry with its strange finds, followed by the Janjira power plant being attacked – the mystery and tension here are still kept at pretty consistent levels. But alas! Juliette Binoche dies, Bryan Cranston makes that memeface and the movie takes a step back as we jump ahead fifteen years to witness the trials and tribulations of their son, now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. We talked about the boringness of Taylor-Johnson and his in-movie wife Elizabeth Olsen even a year ago, but now as then they didn’t bother me. I mean we can talk about Juliette Binoche getting killed early on and Olsen getting absolutely nothing to do than stare in awe at some monsters sometimes, but this is a problem the movie had a year ago as well.

The death of Bryan Cranston’s character early on (reminiscent of Captain Kirk’s falling off another walkway in STAR TREK: GENERATIONS) is yet another waste of good actors in nothing parts, but at least his absence is somewhat compensated for by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins joining the main story. While the Ford family is inoffensive, their beigeness is only highlighted by Watanabe and Hawkins, the kaiju otaku squad. I don’t know how I could have forgotten the hilarious extent to which these rational scientists praise our man G (“For all intents and purposes… he’s a god…”) and the completely logical solution to all our woes is to let the big radioactive dinosaur fight the flying bug monsters in San Francisco. Again I hope that the sequel focuses on a G-Force team of kooky scientists and military with these two in charge, rather than a bland audience identification character.

Easter egg I didn’t notice the first time: when the 1999 version of blandman goes to show Cranston the lovely banner he made for his birthday, he passes an old-timey Japanese monster movie poster in the style of Showa-Toho… featuring the two MUTOs from this very film! Most kaiju nerds probably noticed the little “Mothra” nametag on the terrarium at the abandoned elementary school, but I feel like this one may have sailed over the heads of many. I mean hell, how meta is that? A movie made about “real-life” monsters that nobody knows about yet. Or is this some clever worldbuilding on the part of Edwards and his screenwriters? Was a certain Japanese movie studio IN ON the existence of these atomic monsters that mess up everything we know about the food chain? Probably not, but hey, let me have this headcanon that nobody will ever bother to counter. Anything that struck you now that didn’t last year, Travis?

TRAVIS:

Watching it on Blu-ray a year later, what struck me most that I hadn't noticed before was Edwards' orchestration of the score and sound effects. No doubt what makes GODZILLA memorable are the monster set pieces, but Edwards is very masterful in what moments need to be underscored with music and when the foley should stand on its own. From what I could observe, Desplat's score is pulled back during moments of discovery and awe. As we search for and await the monsters we take in the silence and perk up when we suddenly hear a noise. Typically the music kicks in when the action gets, yet it still doesn't become more overwhelming than the imagery. The scenes where the music becomes more present than complimentary are the HALO jump (which mixes Ford's breathing with Gyorgy Ligeti's “Requiem”) and Godzilla's triumphant fanfare after his fire breath fatality on the female MUTO.

To talk further about the set pieces, even when viewed at home on TV they remain incredibly exciting to watch. On the Blu-ray special features, Edwards explained that he tried to ground his SFX shots in reality, as though they've been filmed at ground level, on top of a building, or up in a helicopter. To make it even more authentic, he always tried to fit in humans on the screen in those shots so that we understand the immense size and scale of G and the MUTOs. It can be pretentious to call any filmmaker “Spielbergian”, yet I think Edwards really does have that artistic eye for understanding how incredible it can be to watch the fantastic enter our reality in the way that makes Spielberg's work so distinct among popcorn films. As we've said before, the fact this movie still made Godzilla so wondrous and awe-inspiring to see after years of sequels is definitely a credit to Edwards' talent.

What can we expect in the future? Surprisingly, GODZILLA 2 will double down on the returning kaiju by introducing Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah into the mix. The Heisei and Millennium eras slowly integrated those characters into their continuities, so it's kinda funny to see Legendary go DESTROY--I MEAN--INCLUDE ALL MONSTERS and stuff the sequel with them. Heck, if they can recreate the scene from the original GHIDORAH movie where G, Rodan, and Mothra have a civil discussion about friendship, I'm sold. And considering how much Showa adventure there was in the 2014 film, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw some modern day equivalent of Toho monster talk. Even if there isn't, with GODZILLA 2 and Toho's reboot coming soon, I'm definitely looking forward to the future of G. Any other thoughts before we dive back into the San Francisco bay, Luca?

LUCA:

I agree that Edwards' doling out of spectacle and monster madness is judiciously done, even though some have come to criticize the Welsh director's reluctance to get to the fireworks factory. In particular, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) running away from the MUTO and Godzilla into a shelter in the nick of time before an unholy kaiju rumble happens outside. As the doors close, we see G and the MUTO run into each other, but as the camera remains with the refugees, we the audience are denied the spectacle. After cutting away from the first MUTO/Zilla fight in Honolulu (admittedly serving the movie's greatest visual gag as little Sam Brody watches it on TV but is told to shut it off by an inattentive Elle), this seems like monster-hiding overkill. It's not an unfair criticism, to be honest! During this rewatch, however, I noticed that the cut away from the monster fight takes us to the cargo plane that is about to drop Ford and the bomb squad into the ruins San Francisco... right amid the fighting monsters. If Edwards had chosen to intercut Elle fleeing with Ford suiting up for the HALO jump, the shelter doors closing wouldn't have felt so anticlimactic. Instead of "aww man, no monster fight AGAIN" maybe we would have felt "phew, Elle is safe, now to plant that bomb!" -- and it all could have been fixed at no additional cost in the editing room using footage that was already shot!

Regarding the Showa stuff, I wouldn't be surprised! I mean, the movie shows us that at after the fight American news stations dub Godzilla KING OF THE MONSTERS and we hear an entire football stadium cheering like crazy for this big fat lizard monster. I guess America loves an underdog! It's funny how everyone cheering for the Godzilla that just destroyed the city comes across as cute and silly in this, whereas everyone cheering for Superman making out with Lois amid the ashes of ten 9/11s in the background has everyone pulling at their collars in discomfort. I guess we cut big G a lotta slack cuz he's just an ole atomic dinosaur that doesn't know any better.

Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah being confirmed makes me very happy, as you might already guess, and I certainly hope that he relationships they had in the old Showa movies will be kept -- Rodan the rowdy brother, Mothra the caring sister, and King Ghidorah the big bully. Hell, I hope they throw in some good ole "guys with sunglasses who are really aliens or maybe ape men" for good measure. C'mon, Legendary, the public will have had three phases of Marvel by that point, they can take it! All in all, GODZILLA '14 pretty much holds up after a year, or at least its flaws have not become so magnified that I had any more problems with it than I had upon initial viewing. You know what they say in Project Monarch, the foremost kaiju experts of all: "Nature has a way... of restoring balance..." What do you mean, that makes no sense in context? Okay yeah I actually meant LET DEM FITEUHHHH

Free movie right here!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Weedin’ out the Whedon

 

1402664159502

If you hang around certain parts of the internet (and considering you’re deep enough to be reading this blog, you probably do), you’ve almost certainly heard of a little film that came out last week called AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.

Directed by fanboy favorite Joss Whedon, the film details the larger-than-life travails of superhero team the Avengers against the evil robot Ultron, who plans to destroy humanity. What a simple plot! How can this engender controversy? Well dear reader…

One member of this team is Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, a former Russian spy and assassin. We also have Dr. Bruce Banner, a radiation expert who pelted himself with gamma rays and became an uncontrollable, rampaging green monster known as the Hulk.

In AGE OF ULTRON, it is revealed that whenever the team goes on missions, it is Widow’s duty it, on top of killing bad guys, soothe this rampaging rage monster with a carefully programmed series of trigger words.

Later in the film, it is also revealed that Widow is actually attracted to Banner, who soon shows signs of reciprocation, but is hesitant to commit because of the monster inside him. As a counterargument to Banner’s claims that there is no future with him, Widow states that there is no future with her either, as her spy training included forced sterilization.

Even later still, Widow is captured and imprisoned by Ultron and rescued by Banner. The imprisonment doesn’t last long and she is an active participant in the final battle, but it does happen.

The treatment of Black Widow – a character without her own film series – by writer/director Whedon in AOU was met with vocal disapproval from some parts of fandom. They believed developing her character by way of womb-based trauma was a reductive way to treat the only female Avenger. Additionally, having the one female Avenger be captured like a princess in a tower (no matter how briefly) seemed like an odd choice, to say the least.

Defenders of Whedon pointed to in-universe justifications for these story decisions, as well as there being no inherent sexism in the character of Black Widow being bummed out that she will never be able to have kids.

And that pretty much sums up Ultrongate!

My biggest personal gripe with the whole thing is that AOU reverted the Hulk back to a mute, unthinking monster after two movies evolving him to the point of a more in-control Banner and one movie where the most crowd-pleasing fun-time moments were all Hulk-related. Now he’s all “my power, my curse” again, for seemingly no reason?

While the Widow stuff didn’t bother me while watching the movie, I appreciated the critical views that popped up after. In fact, they caused me to further re-evaluate my appreciation of Whedon’s work, a process started after attending a panel discussion of the depiction of sex work in Whedon shows at 2014’s Nine Worlds Geekfest.

I haven’t seen Dollhouse, but aside from that, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all of Whedon’s major output. I identified as quite the Buffy fan as a teenager and, in fact, own all seasons on DVD! So please, if you are reading this, know that this comes from a place of respect and appreciation.

Allow me to make a comic book movie analogy here! Have you ever tried rewatching Bryan Singer’s X-MEN* and X2?

Hailed at the time as the savior of comic book cinema after Joel Schumacher had tried so hard to destroy it for all time only three years previous with 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN, Singer’s tale of mutants fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them was a breath of fresh air back in 2000. X-MEN and X2 took these larger-than-life characters seriously, and grounded them emotionally to an extent that audiences were invested in the success of its protagonists. Whatever else their flaws, I don’t think you can argue that watching those first two X-movies is a completely different experience to watching the campy pantomime of BATMAN & ROBIN.

But in 2015, a time where Iron Man, Thor, Captain America** and the Hulk have shared the screen in two movies, where an adventure comedy with a talking raccoon and his walking tree sidekick was the top grosser of its year, there are other aspects of those initial X-outings that stand out a bit. The fact that Singer chose dark, muted color palettes. Jokes like “What were you expecting, yellow spandex?”. The most celebrated action scene of the two movies being Wolverine vs. a bunch of nameless human soldiers.

I don’t actually dislike either X-MEN or X2. They are handsomely made with some great lead performances by Jackman, Stewart and McKellen. It’s just that a decade and change on, they feel like transitory movies. Welcome gulps of water in the barren wastelands of superhero cinema that were the post-Burton BATMAN 90s.

So, too, I have come to feel, is Joss Whedon’s status as pop-culture’s pre-eminent feminist voice. For years and years, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was basically “the girl power guy” in circles nerdy enough to have vaguely defined archetypes to go with directors and writers nobody knew personally.

In a world with rampant self-publishing, where fanfic is more accepted than ever, where Tumblr and Twitter and whatever social media you fancy make it easier than ever to have your voice heard and your stories told, it is not necessary to just swallow whatever the guy designated “the feminist one” is shoveling down your throat.

Since I am (completely coincidentally!) rewatching Angel at the moment, I am confident in saying Whedon’s work is still funny and entertaining to me. And let’s not forget the fact that he brought a show with an ass-kicking female lead to network TV in the 90s, with many female characters equally competent as the Slayer herself (be it as a fighter or otherwise). Heck, he even brought a gay relationship to network TV! I’ll even go on to say I tip my cap to the strategy of having them kiss on-screen for the first time in the episode where a major character dies, so that it the sensational hook the episode was advertised with was “[x] dies!” and not “these chicks kiss!” And let’s not forget that his sci-fi universe had legalised and highly respected sex workers in its fictional future world! Let us not forget that it had a happy, cheery female character that enjoyed casual sex!

BUT

Let us not forget that Buffy had a sordid affair with a person she didn’t like “just to feel” and to “punish herself”

Let us not forget that the first time Buffy ever had sex it turned the man into a KILL KRAZY monster***

Let us not forget that the gay relationship ended in tragedy, the widowed party going crazy with grief and needing to be talked down by a gentle white straight male ally

Let us not forget that the sci-fi universe with legal and highly respected sex work features one major character in this profession, and she is constantly the butt of “lol u a hoe” jokes by our NotHan Solo cool white straight dude. She is also abused by a client and in need of rescue by NotHan Solo so hmmm maybe this system isn’t so wonderful, eh?

Let us not forget that the happy, cheery female character that enjoys casual sex was threatened with rape (by a black man lol)

What I’m trying to say here is, Whedon can do good, and he can do bad. Some people are annoyed at him doing bad because of how much he purports to be a champion of good. Nobody really cares when there’s a baffling subplot about exactly how legal it is to fuck Nicola Peltz in TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. When you sit at a trough, you expect to eat swill. But when you go for kaiseki at n/naka and one of the courses is carefully laid out vomit with a single hairy wart on top in between a dozen other, perfect meals, you may get angry for shelling out all that money!

You may have seen these t-shirts around:

yhst-78359274419338_2269_87495686

No, he’s not. No creator is. If you enjoy some media, the best thing you can do for it is to be critical of it when it fucks up, or listen to other people who have problems with it. Two things might happen:

1.) you don’t agree, and lay out your reasons for not agreeing, and both parties are exposed to a new point of view. This causes personal growth, however minor.

2.) you do agree, which causes a change of perspective. This causes personal growth, however minor.

If both options seem terrifying to you, perhaps it is time to evaluate exactly why stagnation is the best possible mode of life. But don’t come complaining when your nice little pond is suddenly upset by a lightning strike because

It’s Halle’s fault btw

*Which, ironically, had some Whedon script-doctoring going on.

**Please keep in mind that these three were absolute NOBODIES to the general public ten years ago.

***Hiya, Stephenie Meyer!