Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Ah, that dreadful moment when you step from a Showa kaiju series into a Heisei kaiju series and production values have gone up so substantially that you almost feel the need to drop the kaiju-reviewin’ kurve and judge these movies like you would any other. The Devil’s Envoy is back for a new generation, and he brought some of his classic foes with ‘im! Well, technically just one, but they are legion now! Allow us to explain, gentle reader… Like Godzilla’s darker, harder-edged Heisei reboot, GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE starts with a ship in peril. A plutonium-carrying tanker crashes against an atoll. Drama abounds, as breathing one molecule of this shit is enough to cause cancer. But… nothing is spilled? A true mystery! The mystery gets even more mysterious when the atoll simply vanishes. A research team is sent to the moving rock formation as it approaches Japan, consisting of leader Naoya Kusanagi (Akira Onodera) and first mate of the ship from the opening scene Yoshinari Yonemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara). The island quickly seems to be more than meets the eye: littered with comma-shaped orichalcum amulets and strange etchings, the team comes to the conclusion that something is afoot here. Ya don’t think? While investigating a monolith engraved with Etrurian runes, something goes wrong. A quake – and the atoll takes off once more! The scientists are thrown off, but Yoshi sees a giant (not entirely un-JURASSIC PARK-like) eye… what could this be in this film called GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE?
Meanwhile, in the other plot, ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) is summoned to a distant island where her mentor professor Hirata (nobody) seems to have vanished. The last thing he was able to say in a storm-disturbed phone call was “bird.” If you still have any doubt as to what’s happening here – ornithologist protagonist introduced, the fact that you’re watching a big monster movie, disappeared side character hinting at “bird” – the movie really makes it clear by having Mayumi find a big pile of bird shit containing professor Hirata’s glasses. What a delightfully crude and cruel way to show that we are indeed dealing with a giant, and – fairly rare for the kaiju eiga genre – man-eating bird. That’s right, Gyaos is back from the Showa era to combat our favorite jet-propelled turtle. If this makes you weary since Gyaos was one of the worst looking creatures of that time, fret not! The updated version actually kind of looks amazing, a dark copper-colored creature of malevolent instinct. Its big triangular head with the V-like plate covering its eyes now occasionally bobs up and down quickly as it chews on meat, giving the fantasy-version of a Pterosaur an almost Gremlin-like air of mischief. Heee hee hee we’re gonna eat ya and shit ya out! That’s wonderful!
That element of crude transgression no doubt came from director Shusuke Kaneko, a man Godzilla fans may already know from no doubt the best action and second best horror movie of that franchise, GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK. His run of GAMERA films got him the job working on the original big G, and if this first Heisei Gamera is any indication, you can see why Toho approached him! The creatures’ physicality is at an all-time high, and the decision to make the Gyaos birds actually eat people (and, in one scene sure to distress animal lovers like myself, a poor chained-up dog) is a great one. Seeing the Gyaos chomp down on carcasses, pick off humans, shit them out (!), bleeding their own slime-like blood… well, this is an intense movie, as Kaneko is seemingly wont to make! Have you recovered yet, Travis?
I'm more than recovered, Luca. In fact, this era of Gamera re-vitalizes my kaiju-lovin' spirit! I mentioned in the beginning of this series that I was no fan of him as a child and dismissed his Showa adventures as trifle compared to my beloved Godzilla flicks. It wasn't until my teen years that I could access more Japanese monster movies beyond what I could catch on TV, and the Heisei Gamera films were quite highly regarded among fan communities. With a little hesitation, I finally rented a copy of GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE and was blown away. Though the big turtle is the hero of this trilogy, Kaneko truly is the star. The kinetic energy he brings is a breath of fresh air, and it's not just the action sequences that are livened up. The human scenes where people talk on and on about the monsters' origins and how to defeat them and yada yada are peppered with pull-in close ups, Dutch angles, and even sweeping pan shots. Okay, it doesn't sound that exciting, but when your typical kaiju flicks cut from boring medium shot to boring medium shot when showing folks in lab coats and military uniforms, a little movement is appreciated! It shows that Kaneko cares about the filler stuff and wants to give it enough energetic flow as we go between the monster action.
I'm sure we'll have more to write about Kaneko in the next few reviews, but let's take a quick look at his pre-kaiju career. His indoctrination into the film industry began in the 1980s at the movie studio Nikkatsu. In particular, he found quick work as a screenwriter and assistant director for many of Nikkatsu's Roman Porno films (or “pink films”, the popular Japanese genre of theatrical erotic features). He eventually made his directorial debut with 1984's KOICHIRO UNO'S WET AND SWINGING and would win numerous awards for his pink films until Nikkatsu closed its doors in 1988. Despite this, he continued to direct feature films into the 1990s and even helmed a segment of the American horror anthology NECRONOMICON. He would eventually find his biggest financial and critical success with his Gamera trilogy, which of course lead him to take on Godzilla for 2004's GMK. Though he hasn't returned to the kaiju stuff since GMK, he's remained a busy director, most notably for his live action adaptations of the popular manga DEATH NOTE in 2006 and 2007.
I would happily welcome him back to the monster wrestling world though! One thing I love about his kaiju stuff is the sense of history he gives to the monsters. They're not simply creatures that suddenly appear and wreck shit up, but they have ties to ancient history and civilizations. Just as Godzilla and company were old Japanese spirits of the past in GMK, Gamera's Heisei backstory ties itself to the lost island of Atlantis. In this narrative, the technologically advanced Atlanteans apparently created Gyaos through genetic engineering, but their creation ultimately lead to their extinction when it became too dangerous and wiped them all out. However, in a last ditch effort to protect future civilizations from Gyaos, they also created another hybrid animal to be the guardian of the universe... Gamera! Yep, instead of having these monsters fire laser beams and blast off with rocket boosters for no reason, we're told that the kaiju in this universe are the result of scientific tampering. Which is... kind of a neat idea! I like it because it's an amalgamation of fantastic elements (Atlantis) and plausible science (genetic modification of species). I think it also works because although we've known that Gamera has existed since Atlantean times in his 1965 debut film, there hasn't been a concrete origin for him. Illustrating the minor details we were given in the first GAMERA feature is a fun way of both revamping him while keeping him tied to his Showa past. Anything else strike you in this bold Heisei direction, Luca?
So in our little talk about a new era of Gamera with a new director in which I praise the newly acquired physicality of the monsters, and the grounding of them as real creatures by focusing on all manner of bodily fluids, you inform me that the new director used to do porno? Should I even waste time coming up with a joke here? In all seriousness though, that’s kind of fantastic. In this series and the Godzilla one, I’ve often compared kaiju eiga to both wrestling and porn. The fact that some of its most celebrated entries are from the mind of a man who in fact cut his teeth working on a genre that is basically defined by bodies in motion and interacting with each other should tell you something. While Kaneko’s iconoclastic treatment of some of Toho’s monsters in GMK left me with a slightly bad taste in my mouth (despite it being an excellent kaiju action movie), his extreme reimaginings of classic Showa creatures were essentially perfect. Oh, 60s Gyaos was a big troll? Let’s make him an extreme dog-killer and human-munching troll for our hardcore 90s version. Gamera was an Atlantean monster who was also a friend to all children? Well maybe he was an Atlantean creation that can be communicated with via magical rock! And mayhaps a teenage girl will get a hold of such a rock! It almost feels like what happened in the 80s with the British Invasion of American superhero comics, and the likes of Swamp Thing and Animal Man were not just re-imagined, but actually rebuilt starting from a fresh interpretation of their original concepts.
While those particular runs of the comics are known for their dark and gritty departures from their kid-friendly roots, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE doesn’t so much bring us a “dark” version of ol’ shellhead as a “more visually realistic” one. The gore and slime and physical viscerality of the action don’t really preclude kids from watching this movie, but I would definitely recommend that maybe kids 8 and up watch it, whereas the Showas are totally 6 and up. The shift in audience kid-identification character from boy scout and toddler-age moppets in the Showa movies to this movie’s assertive teen (and monster-controller) Asagi (Ayago Fujitani – the actual daughter of Steven Seagal) certainly indicates this. It’s a bit of a shame that she’s saddled with a run-of-the-mill “why is dad never home” motivation, but it seems par for the course in this more grounded new direction. I’m sure the wackiness in the human scenes will come forth as we proceed in the Heisei era, as it did with the Godzilla movies. I’m not contradicting you in Kaneko’s attempts at bringing some verve in the necessary human scenes, Travis, it’s just that Kazunori Ito’s screenplay brings things back to basics when it comes to these characters, which does not work exceedingly well when binge-watching these movies as we have. Of course, I also acknowledge that this should not really be a concern for any screenwriter ever. Unless you’re commissioned to do a Netflix/Amazon/Hulu show, I suppose!
Any final thoughts on this slimy new porno-take on the friend of all children (but not in that way), Travis?
I think the character of Asagi epitomizes for me the strength of this movie. How long has Gamera been known as “the friend to all children”? Such a label is cute, but it has also been sort of a negative mark, indicating how blatantly kid-friendly the series is. In GUARDIAN, we never hear anyone say the famous moniker, and yet we still understand the strong connection between our monster hero and Asagi. It's this refreshment of cheesy clichés that works incredibly well for me. Of course, let's not forget that this movie's all about a big turtle fighting a big bird, but giving just a little maturation to the broad details of the Gamera series keeps the Heisei entries on a nice balance of grounded reality and kaiju whack-a-doo.
In fact, GUARDIAN won over famous critic Roger Ebert! He was never a fan of silly kaiju stuff, and a glance at his negative reviews for Godzilla movies (GOJIRA only got received one and a half stars!) showed that he had little patience for rubber creatures knocking over buildings. Yet in his printed review for GUARDIAN, he not only gave it three stars, but he also kept praising it over the Hollywood blockbuster AIR FORCE ONE (which had opened a month before GUARDIAN's limited US run in 1997). In his comparison, AIR FORCE ONE was another dour, realistic action film while GUARDIAN was just a fun, goofy time. He writes, “'Gamera' is not a good movie but it is a good moviegoing experience.” He even talks about the possibility that Gamera's rocket powers might actually be supplied by the turtle's own flatulence! Hey, sometimes it's nice to see the co-writer of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS still recognize the trashy pleasures of cinema. Japanese audiences shared in that joy too, as GUARDIAN was a box office hit and signaled the triumphant return of our hero. The Gyaos might have been legion, but a threat from outer space was soon going to be more... uh, legion. And you'll see why in... well, GAMERA: ATTACK OF LEGION!
Sunday, September 13, 2015
You mean the late-period Arnold Schwarzenegger SWAT thriller? The one that’s basically Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” for juggalos?
Warning: if you haven’t seen this relatively recent (2014) film, I will basically spoil everything. Since it’s (nominally) a whodunit, twists actually matter in SABOTAGE’s case.
In film in general, and the action movie in particular, women have historically been second-class citizens. The token woman of the team, the loving/worried/possibly murdered wife, the background titties at the start of act 2… these are the archetypal roles for women in action movies.
Action movie legend Geena Davis is nowadays mostly known for her Gender In Media Research Insitute, which is pretty much the go-to data center for refuting angry fanboys who are upset about female Ghostbusters or something. Here’s a thing she said, as per THR:
It wasn't the lack of female lead characters that first struck me about family films. We all know that's been the case for ages, and we love when movies like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen hit it big. It was the dearth of female characters in the worlds of the stories — the fact that the fictitious villages and jungles and kingdoms and interplanetary civilizations were nearly bereft of female population — that hit me over the head. This being the case, we are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space. Couldn't it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society — Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more — stall out at around 17 percent because that's the ratio we've come to see as the norm?
This is why representation – especially in non-traditional roles – is important. While SABOTAGE is anything but a family film, I believe that its efforts in presenting female lead and supporting characters are to be commended, especially considering that it certainly didn’t need to in order to reach its likely intended target audience.
Besides Ms. Davis’ eloquent plea for equal representation in film, I must also paraphrase a discussion my lovely significant other and myself had a few months ago on female villains. These are usually able to be categorized as the following:
1.) Children’s film villains (such as evil matrons, governesses, etc)
2.) Femme fatales/man-eaters
3.) Scorned women/”crazy bitches”
5.) Broodmother-style monsters
That’s a bunch of shit motivated by men and/or the desire for babies! Very rarely will you find a female Hans Gruber, someone who’s just there to get paid, and will use guns/non-erotic coercion to reach that goal.
Final mini-warning for spoilers!!!
SABOTAGE delivers on this front! A white trash (and Terence Howard) SWAT team steal $10m from the cartels on a raid. Before they can enjoy their ill-gotten gains, however, the money is stolen from them in turn. Soon, someone starts killing them all off. It’s the one female member of the team, pissed off at being robbed of robbed money.
The murders are investigated by a supremely overqualified Olivia Williams, whose Atlanta detective character is pretty much the audience identification character for this story of horrible monsters the government deems worthy of carrying automatic weapons.
During a flashback, a triumphant slo-mo walk down an airport runway escorting a just-captured cartel kingpin is interrupted by a crooked federale blowing a hole in the Big Boss’ head, so as to prevent him from talking to the Americans. This federale is a woman. She immediately drops her gun and goes to her knees, grinning, as she is apprehended by her own colleagues.
In the final shootout, there’s a henchwoman that gets her head blown off by Arnold. Her dress and demeanor is very different from the female sex workers’ in the Mexican bar where the action scene takes place, so she’s quite obviously meant to be a woman with a different profession, rather than a sex worker who’s packing.
The death of Sam Worthington’s bizarrely Fred Durst-looking character (side note: it’s honestly the best performance I’ve ever seen him give) is followed by villain Mireille Enos stuffing him in a refrigerator. That’s too serendipitous for me not to think director David Ayer isn’t at least partially aware of genre fiction’s gender issues.
I went to see SABOTAGE in the theater, and didn’t really like it at the time. Over time, I’ve sort of come to respect it. I went in expecting an Arnold kill-em-all yuckfest, punctuated with “oh god I can’t believe they did that” scenes of jolly Michael Bay sociopathy after reviews had described this film as overly mean-spirited and relentlessly cruel. It certainly is those things, but it’s never really winking about it. David Ayer is VERY SERIOUS about all this shit indeed. Hey, in this day and age of King PG-13 I’ll grudgingly tip my cap at anyone making an action movie as gory and nihilistic as this one.
Why do I say this? Surely a movie’s quality is irrelevant to this discussion! It is, but I believe I had to distance myself from appearing someone trying to defend his fandom of something by mounting a long-winded defense why it’s totally in line with that popular thing, guys!
SABOTAGE is an ugly, mean, gross movie. But I believe it managed to walk the line of “a movie featuring misogynist characters” rather than “a misogynist movie.” Yeah, there are strippers. Yeah, there’s a dead wife. There’s also a clever homicide detective, a badass special forces woman, a corrupt captain, a sicaria, and a dumb donut-munchin’ “huh-buh-whaaaa?” uniformed cop.
Diversity! Sleaze needs it too!
Saturday, August 29, 2015
It is with some trepidation that I present my experiences with Disney’s DESCENDANTS under the banner of my barely existent LOLLEST COMMON DENOMINATOR series. The only other films to be covered as LCDs (hehh) were those of Paul W.S. Anderson’s seminal RESIDENT EVIL saga. Now, you can snigger and eye-roll all you want, but RESIDENT EVIL is a deeply personal auteur’s vision of a dadaist zombie apocalypse. Every one of them is written by the man himself – no committee-written, ever-cheaper cash-in sequels here! It’s just that… well, Paul W.S. Anderson’s vision often coincides with the tastes of ICP-lovin’ teenage multiplex goers.
DESCENDANTS, on the other hand, is definitely a good candidate for the title’s intended purpose. If you have not heard of it, do not worry! A Galadriel-esque voice-over will get you up to speed on this genre mélange within seconds!
A magical storybook opens and an ethereal voice into—HOLD UP HOLD UP RECORD SCRATCH MUTHAFUCKAS
Haha you see, this magical storybook is actually a I TABLET COMPUTER and the Galadriel voice? Forget about it! A snarky teen is at the mic!
Within the space of a few swipes and pinches, she has informed the audience that after Belle and the Beast got married, Beast united all the kingdoms of the land and was elected SUPERKING. The movie does not use the term superking. But all the villains, they were exiled to the dark island of lost souls or whatever.
Now, young prince Ben (son of Belle and Adam/Beast) is doing a thing where… I don’t think I fully understood this. He’s gonna be the new king because…? Neither Adam nor Belle seem to be in ill health. It also doesn’t seem to coincide with his high school graduation or any other milestone. This teen is just gonna be the new king, okay? I guess being elected superking means you can also do away with that stupid “electing superkings” rule. Ya walked right into that one, regular kings!
Before he is king, however, Ben gets to make one Royal Decree for reasons! I mean, I’m pretty sure the action-packed finale is set at his coronation*, so he’s definitely not king yet. Baby’s First Decree is as follows: the children of the exiled villains will be given the chance to attend Auradon High School because they should not be held accountable for the evil deeds of their parents. But is this such a good idea? Let us flash to Darkness Island and see what these kids are up to!
MISCHIEF, I say! Mischief so fucking bad that they declare themselves ROTTEN TO THE CORE in an introductory dance segment. What exactly they do, I’m not sure of. Jay, the son of Jafar, does some rowdy PARKOUR moves. Mal, the daughter of Maleficent, I vaguely remember tagging a shack’s wall? Anyway, they all dance to what my old ears sounded like a dubsteppy pop song that really cracked me up. I had no idea this was a musical and them just barging in with this SAINTS ROW music really had me slappin’ thighs!
Kristin Chenoweth is Maleficent, and she is a proper musical actress. She’s also the source of a couple of the intentional laughs of this movie and the one musical number that actually works unironically – although this particular form of vaudevillian musical theater she was doing is so camp that I don’t know if irony is ever really absent. In all honesty, I’m not really well-versed in musicals, so maybe this was a really bad and OBVIOUS and PANDERING song, but eh, worked for me!
Yeah, there are a couple of intentional laughs in the film, and even a couple of moments that I thought were kinda sweet (these mostly consist of Mal telling Evie – the ditzy daughter of the Evil Queen** from Snow White – that she’s a great person and her sister in spirit, if not blood). I can’t really fault it for not making me laugh, as this is a thing aimed at five year olds in the Midwest. I’ll give ‘em credit for at least doing that “Luca checks in on a network sitcom and the law of averages makes sure he sensibly chuckles a couple times” thing.
While I don’t feel entirely comfortable shitting on the jokesmithery of DESCENDANTS because it is so far from anything remotely aimed at me, I will gladly get on my soapbox about its lazy world-building. Fine, you’re throwing together an assembly of all the Disney characters and tell a tale of their children. Nothing inherently bad with this. But you’re really gonna do nothing more than put ‘em in a high school movie? And I’m talking about a fancy modern day prep school here – this isn’t Disney Channel Hogwarts. The kids are picked up in a regular ass limo, for fuck’s sake!
One of my favorite things in this movie were the “make sure the cheap seats get ‘em” references to Disney characters. A geeky poindexter guy in chemistry class introduces himself to Evie as “Doug… Dopey’s son”. First of all, who the hell did Dopey fuck to get a full human kid? Second, why would Evie be in any way more positively disposed towards him once she found out he was the son of one of the eight bastards who plotted her mom’s downfall? Third, dude, don’t go around telling people you’re Dopey’s kid.
A bit later, a girl called “Lonnie… Mulan’s daughter” introduces herself in Mal and Evie’s dorm room. Whoa whoa whoa, so Mulan also was real in this universe? Superking Adam must be fucking amazing to have a Tang dynasty emperor say “Whoa… guys, I dunno about you but I am quitting this game while I’m ahead. ALL HAIL SUPERKING ADAM”
Speaking of Hogwarts, there also seems to be a brokeass Quidditch approximation happening there. The rules are never explained and the matches take place in montages of under thirty seconds. Well, handsome boys are athletes, so we need a sport, right? But why even bother making up a fairy tale sport that you’re not gonna explain, and like 90% of this school is just a regular ass school anyway. It coulda been football just as easily!
I’m not even inherently opposed to taking famous characters and turning them into kids/teens for a high school romance, but I think what is necessary here is that the characters you’re teenifying have a modicum of gravitas to them. Disney Princesses, and by extension their villains, have already been so commodified into smiling, friendly lunch box covers that there’s nothing to subvert here. Yes, I am basically arguing that WATCHMEN BABIES: V FOR VACATION would have been a better idea than this. Why would a ten year old girl tune in for DESCENDANTS? She could just as easily watch, well, ALADDIN or BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. But hey, gotta keep dat content mill churning.
I’ve never been to a Disney theme park or ever really watched Disney Channel, but I was most struck by how relentlessly artificial everything was. For decades, filmed fantasy fiction has traded in the “used universe” aesthetic, where everything is supposed to look lived in, for a greater and easier sense of immersion on the viewer’s behalf. This is not absolutely necessary, of course, since a heightened world can be equally effective in delivering either visual thrills or bringing a satirical bent to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, DESCENDANTS doesn’t look particularly interesting, nor does it have anything especially biting to say. The heights of its imagination are fancy prep schools, limos, sort-of Catholic looking cathedrals with all the religious imagery scrubbed out and… slums? Yes, the evil villains live on an island that literally just looks like a poor neighborhood. And it’s not just the four evil parents that live there, there seems to be a thriving community with babies and all (Mal steals candy from one in the opening number). Keep in mind that the four villain kids are invited to attend high school as a special mercy from the prince. What does that mean for the other kids on the island?
Damn, Superking… you cold as fuck.
*Did not nap during this film, nor did I partake in any mind-altering substances.
**Evil Queen only ever referred to as Evil Queen.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
In the first GAMERA film, the people of Earth successfully trapped our hero in a rocketship and launched it off to Mars. However, a well-timed meteorite collison set him free, and the big turtle soon made his way back to his home planet for more adventures. Outer space was still a frontier for the franchise to explore, and thus the fourth entry opens as a mysterious spaceship from the planet Viras closes in on Earth. Though we don't initially see the aliens, we can overhear them as they talk about their invasion. But their conversation ends abruptly as Gamera starts wreckin' apart their ship! In what might be one of the series' best title intros, the aliens send a final warning to their home planet before exploding: “We have discovered a terrible creature protecting the Earth. Its name is...” BOOM! The title GAMERA immediately whips up on-screen! Woo! Oh, and so does the rest of the title: VS. VIRAS.
Back on our planet, a troop of Boy Scouts are visiting a local aquarium to check out a cool new invention: a small, two-man submarine that's so easy to use that even a kid can drive it! And where there's fun to be had, naughty lil’ boys will play. Sneaky prankster Scouts Masao (who's Japanese and is a whiz at electronics of course) and Jim (who's American and is a whiz at cowboy lasso tricks of course) take the sub for a ride and discover Gamera hanging out underwater! Of course, the boys shouldn't worry about him since, as Masao puts it, he's “a friend to all children” (the first time the monster's popular moniker is introduced). But the kaiju's soft spot for the young soon becomes his Achilles Heel as a second spaceship from Viras lands on Earth and kidnaps the two boys. Knowing of Gamera's protectiveness of kids, the aliens threaten to kill the boys unless he surrenders. He relents, and the aliens place a mind control device on his head so that he can destroy the Earth under their will. Can Masao and Jim use their electronic know-how and lasso trickery to free themselves and Gamera from the Viras invaders???
There have been some fun films in the series so far, but VIRAS truly is where the template for the typical Gamera flick is set. This is the franchise's first threat from space, but it definitely wouldn't be the last. Most importantly though, here we see Gamera fully embrace the kid audiences. Kids will be our primary protagonists for the rest of the Showa era, and VIRAS will also set the trend of using children of both Japanese and American ethnicities. And not only are we first introduced to Gamera's brand name of “friend to all children”, but this is also the first film featuring that catchy Gamera march song! “Gamera! Gamera! You are so strong, Gamera! You are so strong! You are so strong, GAMM-AH-RAAHHHH!!!!” Did this tune rouse you to your feet, Luca?
I was roused to my feet but then I got a little cramp, so dancing wasn’t on the table anymore. Luckily I had danced on other occasions in my life and used the memories of those instances to really cut loose to the Gamera theme song. Holy squids, Travis! I think I’m not exaggerating that in an 80 minute movie there’s a good 10-12 minutes of re-used footage here. And to think I was even quite on board with the portrayal of the aliens at first: Disembodied voices over images of flickering geometric shapes? Alright, some proper alien-aliens! They want to find out how to defeat Gamera, so they must “travel back to the beginning”? Awesome! Let it be a testament to how much the film had me that I thought they were going to explore the Atlantean beginnings of “the Devil’s Envoy” (as described by Plato, don’tcha know)! But nope, it just meant we were going to get a brief bit of re-used GAMERA footage with a weird purple (?) filter over it, showing how our favorite turtle monster first came out of the ice. Then it just pastes in the two major battles from BARUGON wholesale in an attempt to “find out more about the creature’s battle tactics”. What’s next? Why, if you guessed some fights from GAMERA VS. GYAOS, you win the No-Prize!
What this leaves us with is a stretch of beach and a dockside that everything was filmed at, along with a gaggle of boy and girl scout extras (the scouts are explicitly thanked for their cooperation in the opening credits). That baby submarine was the most expensive thing on screen, I think! Which makes it extra funny that we cut to model shots once we get underwater with it. If nothing else, the flatly presented, center-framed yellow submarine (!) model chugging along the ocean floor reminded me of Wes Anderson’s THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. Coupled with the fact that it’s manned by prankish boy scouts (MOONRISE KINGDOM), one can start to wonder whether or not ole Wes is a Gamera fan. Masao and Jim are really fun protagonists, I feel, in a genre where the human detritus is usually just cheap filler to get to more model-smashing. Maybe it’s that old Dean Jones Disney movie coziness they bring to proceedings. They’re just lookin’ to get into mischief! Oh no, the scoutsmaster is on their trail and he’s steamin’! Masao’s big sister has a Dick Tracy style communications watch to talk to him! It’s all just very obvious little kid pandering and it’s lovely.
Now, Wes Anderson would also certainly be amused at the sudden outbursts of deadpan violence that punctuate this film! From a quintuple decapitation (!!!) to Gamera being completely skewered by Viras, this series is really taking its “horrific violence” quota seriously. Oh, how I’d love to be a fly on the movie theatre wall and see children’s reactions when good friend Gamera just gets impaled all the way through right after a victory lap alongside his buddies Masao and Jim. And, even more bafflingly, he’s completely okay two minutes later! Don’t make it look so horrible if you’re not going to do anything with it, guys! Even Godzilla was only ever shot in the shoulder or something in those rare instances he actually bled, and I imagine that was already traumatizing enough. But hey, that’s my attempt at empathy with actual 1968 young kids who might have watched these movies. In 2015, only internet weirdoes like ourselves would dig these movies up and therefore, the more of such unexpected weirdness, the better. What are your feelings on the tonal shifts, Travis?
Internet weirdoes?! As a rational adult who loves big monsters punching each other, I say that we are perfectly mature in seeing as much kaiju violence as possible! In all seriousness though, you pointed out in our Godzilla book that weird shifts in tone are welcome in these types of movies because, frankly, it breaks their routine nature. We've absorbed such a large volume of Japanese imports that any type of oddness whether it clashes with the film's tone or not is at least interesting. One could surmise that this is typical of Asian cinema as a whole. Though movies from Asia can be straight dramas or comedies or whatever, it may be surprising to American audiences that genres in these films can intertwine in ways that Hollywood pictures don't normally allow. Take for example the 2007 Korean monster movie THE HOST. In the midst of a story about a fractured family coming together to save their young daughter from a subterranean beast, there are both sad moments of family grief and black comedy beats of levity in between tension filled action sequences featuring the monster. What might seem jarring to a US viewer is perfectly in line with Asian culture.
It's a little different when talking about Gamera however. We've talked many times before about kaiju stuff regularly pandered to kids, and we've discussed how early Gamera chased after the young market earlier than Godzilla. In the Godzilla series, you can see Toho obviously add in things to appease the kiddies while trying to maintain that sheen of Godzilla as top tier entertainment. Daiei didn't seem to care as much about that kind of integrity, so they had the Gamera series follow the tastes of their youthful demographic. Kids like outer space? Send that turtle to fight monsters in space! Kids wanna be friends with Gamera? Now kids are the stars of Gamera's adventures! Kids have a blood thirst that cannot be sated? We're gonna have our kaiju spray out body goop like it's EVIL DEAD! As I've said before, you can find this cheesy catering to children annoying or charming, but I generally enjoy my Gamera to be nacho-level cheesy, so I'm happy to chomp it all down!
And heck, I don't even mind seeing GAMERA'S FAMOUS FIGHTS FROM THE PAST even though it's only here to pad out the running time. Most hilariously, most of Gamera's mind-controlled rampage is footage of his Tokyo raid from the first film (still only kinda-sorta color corrected by adding that purple tint to the black & white scenes). We'll continue to see footage re-used again and again in the Showa era, culminating in the ultimate greatest hits montage GAMERA: SUPER MONSTER. If you’re looking for justification of this cheap method of filmmaking, remember that this was a time before movies could be re-watched on TV and video. Movies were exclusively seen at theaters, and if you take that into consideration, what kid wouldn't want to not only see new Gamera adventures but also favorite moments from the series? Of course, in today's on-demand streaming environment, this point has been lost to history, but it's still a curious artifact of yesteryear's viewing habits. Any last words on VIRAS before we rocket-blast off to the skies, Luca?
Something that doesn't come across on the page but was a minor surprise to me while watching the movie was the pronunciation of the name "Viras." I assumed it would be VEE-rus -- turns out it's BAIRAS! Well, they do infect poor Gamera with the ragebairas and a side-order of stockfootageitis, so I suppose it's apt. And, not unlike the bacteria that might traverse a sick monster's bloodstream, the human Viras hosts air-swim through the corridors of their spaceship horizontally on their bellies. This has no bearing on the quality of the film, nor does it illuminate any underlying thematic elements, I just wanted to let people know that some grown ass men jump into corridors and woooshhhh into the next rooms like a really bored bunch of Kal-Els. Speaking of those guys, I liked the curveballs the movie kept throwing at me regarding their nature. Geometric shapes? Cool! Oh, they're just guys and they were off-screen earlier. Dumb! Huh, they've got a weird floating octopus in a cage. Do they trophy hunt on the side or something? Weird! Oh ho ho, the floating octopus is their BOSS! And he's upset with all of them, so he's gonna take down Gamera himself (after decapitating/absorbing his disappointing minions so he can grow into kaiju size). Awesome!
What parting thoughts can I give our readers regarding GAMERA VS. VIRAS? Well, it's colorful and funny, and there's tons of moments that you've already seen, so maybe this 1968 production was simply so far ahead of its time that it just accurately predicted our current social media age of short attention spans. Oh, he's fighting Barugon again? Time to make a sandwich! Oh, he's destroying Kurobe dam again? Maybe I should call my mother... It's an odd duck for sure. If it wasn't for the stock footage extravaganza, I would have no qualms with calling it my favorite Gamera film so far. It just has such positive vibes and that late sixties kid movie cheer. If Lane Pryce on Mad Men was blown away by GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE, I'm sure VIRAS would have been a hit with Bobby and Gene Draper in 1968. Bit too “kiddie” for Sally by that point probably, though!
Friday, August 14, 2015
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.
Oh boy, oh boy! A movie I had literally never heard of in my life! How often do you get to treasure such a moment? I’m not talking about a mystery at the level of “not knowing a plot synopsis” here. When, in 2015, do you start up a movie that you have no preconceived notions of, no idea who the director is or what they did previously, what level of talent/price range the cast is… nothing! Well, good friends, I was quite excited for this CELESTINE PROPHECY!
Luckily, it was only 90 minutes and change.
What I think happened with THE CELESTINE PROPHECY (based upon the world-wide bestselling novel by James Redfield, I’ll have you know – or at least a sticker on the DVD will) is that the book got in the hands of a Starz executive and they were very touched by the NINE INSIGHTS of the titular prophecy. It blew their minds! What if, friends, what if…
I say this because this Starz Home Entertainment presentation actually has pretty substantial production values. For a story that is mostly set in Peru, they managed to get some location filming in, with helicopter shots and everything. A rocket launcher blows up an old school bus at one point!
The film starts with a quote from the First Insight, some sort of fictional in-universe text I innocently assumed at that time. Let it be said that I don’t remember what the opening quote actually was. Maybe something about evolution? Well anyway! History teacher John Woodson (Matthew Settle, the dad on Gossip Girl or, if you will, the killer in I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER) has just been laid off (by Will Smith’s mom from Fresh Prince, no less, in a tiny one-minute role). John is devastated by this because he’s a really cool guy who shoots b-ball hoops with the urban youths!
Dejectedly, he takes one last stroll through the school hallways. What now? What’s… Next? Indeed, he writes “what’s next” in marker on the timeline above his classroom’s blackboard. Big bang… dinosaurs… cavemen… civilization… what’s next INDEED! If you like clumsy symbolism like this you’re in for a treat buddy!
John goes to have a drink with his journalist friend, who, about five minutes into the movie, delivers the first real laugh-out-loud line.
“Oh, have you heard about this ancient prophecy that was found in the Peru recently?”
“Yes, a priest named Father José found eight scrolls with an ancient prophecy on them.”
John is not sarcastic here! He’s politely interested! He doesn’t act like us mere mortals who might say “What the… I just got fired, Charlene! Can you hold off on your crazy person talk for five seconds maybe?”
But no! Quite the opposite, actually – after some open-shirted contemplation*, John takes the first plane to Peru, where he immediately gets caught in a dark yet low-intensity conspiracy with the overqualified Hector Elizondo and the just-about-right qualified Jürgen Prochnow as his antagonists. Elizondo is Cardinal Sebastian, who wants to suppress these heretic documents before they cause chaos, while Prochnow is the evil Jensen, who works for a mysterious cabal of miscreants who do not want the sacred knowledge of the eight scrolls to be spread throughout humanity.
I should also add that John has hilarious high-contrast sugar rush dreams where he is reminded of a past life starring pretty much the entire main cast in Christmas pageant old timey outfits. Best of these is CONQUISTADOR Prochnow with greasy long hair and a curly moustache!
Everyone John meets in Peru basically talks at him about these NINE INSIGHTS that will be revealed to him in time. Most hero’s journey stories have a problem with a blank slate hero for the audience to project themselves onto (what is Luke Skywalker but an empty vessel who just says “ok” to a rotating roster of ever-more-grizzled father figures?) but John Woodson is the real Platonic ideal of a blank slate protagonist we can project ourselves onto. Do not worry friends, you do not need any special skills or talents to be part of the great mystery of life that is THE NINE INSIGHTS.
John reaches the commu—uhhh idyllic hacienda VICIENTE run by Father José thanks to his new friend Will (Thomas Kretschmann pre-ULTRON) and it’s just full of happy white-clad Caucasians massaging plants. Seriously, besides José the only latinos here are waiters and other staff. I’m starting to understand who exactly Mr. Redfield was selling his scam to!
John’s blandness also makes for some hilarious scenes with his female co-lead Marjorie (Prison Break’s Sarah Wayne Callies – what a veritable bevy of network talent here!). One of the tenets of the Celestine cu--- lifestyle is that you shouldn’t impose your views on others… or something? Or you shouldn’t control them? Anyway, the script apparently finds John a pushy control-freak, while Settle’s performance doesn’t pull him out of anything beyond mildly curious milquetoast. The movie has Marjorie storm off about three or four times in the running time, incredibly exasperated at John’s inability to GIVE energy instead of TAKING it. By the second time I was already laughing at this crazy Randy Marsh lady just storming off angrily over nothing!
Oh, and speaking of which, the first time John is being ENERGY TAKING with her, Julia (another lifestyle enthusiast) is observing them and she sees a shitty CGI red aura do-mee-nayt another shitty (yet… peaceful?) blue aura. Friends, I was howling at this sudden and unexpected turn into the Syfy-level supernatural! A bit later in the film, Will is telling John about auras and goes so far as to say “People of great sensitivity throughout history could see them… have you never noticed in the great works of art…” and John has an actual flashback to some renaissance painting that features a halo.
Another hilarious bit of idiocy is when a professor is talking about “the early church”, to which John replies “Franciscan or Jesuit?” The professor is astonished at this amazing knowledge (!), and John smugly asserts “Hehhh… I’m a history teacher.” The church had been around for SOME TIME by the time Jesuits popped up!
It’s also kind of odd that the only custodian of these ancient scrolls that’s ever mentioned is the Catholic Church. Yes, Father Sanchez (not José – played by Joaquin de Almeida of DESPERADO and FAST FIVE) does mention that the incredible knowledge in these sources might help all faiths, but c’mon! You’re having your guy have flashbacks to 1622 Peru and you’re not even gonna invoke some bullshit noble savage tropes? It’s all from the vaults of Rome? South America and its people are literally just a well-off white guy’s adventure’s background here. We need nothing from you but your nice scenery, good folk!
Anyway, if you wanna see a cult recruitment video that is just Movementarians-level amazing, I highly recommend this. I was rolling with laughter several times! It’s 90 minutes long and mostly looks and always sounds nice. Unfortunately, the sequel tease never amounted to anything, but it does leave you on a gentle flamenco high.
I guess I will have to wonder forever what the TENTH insight was…
*John has more shirt changes in this movie than Cindy Crawford had sexy showers in FAIR GAME.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
“Warning: Prolonged exposure to a thing’s fandom can damage your opinion of the thing.”
“We usually don’t have to work at finding an in.”
These are the two great insights I have gained at Nine Worlds Geekfest 2015.
No, come back, gentle friend! This piece is not about calling your interests weird and worthy of scorn! Pull up a beanbag and let us converse…
Since the first edition of the con in 2013, I’ve always come away from it intellectually and socially edified, with new nuggets of wisdom to go out and spread in the subtlest, politest, least obnoxious way possible. If quite a few of your irl acquaintances and some of your irl friends are basically “But isn’t racism/sexism over?” types, this can be rather handy.
This year, however, my #notallmen friends are safe – the revelations were of a personal nature. I had been contemplating my status as an ally over the past year, and the ways in which I could be most useful to the general cause of helping women, PoC and queer people. A good friend opined that sometimes what is best for privileged voices is to just sit back like a parliament bench-filler, wave your pamphlets about and grumble “Hear, hear!” when a woman/PoC/queer person is speaking.
So it was with a humility engendered by previous iterations of Nine Worlds and cultivated by discussion with friends throughout the years that I embarked on this year’s journey. Little did I know, dear reader!
My wife Ella and I arrived early on Thursday, and opted to partake in the 9 Worlds Pub Quiz, an ez-mode trivia contest that was more about forcing you to get to know some new people by limiting the number of teams available than it was about winning any prizes (though I did take home a sweet Mandalorian mug).
Regarding wisdom #1 mentioned at the start of this post: The quiz host posed a Serenity/Firefly question, and made a little “I’m sorry to remind you chaps of this traumatic event!” joke. The crowd then good-naturedly made exaggerated “oh nooo!” sounds. A bit eye-roll inducing, but fine. This then happened two or three times… and the crowd kept going along with it.
I like Firefly/Serenity. I own both on DVD, and when I recommend it to someone, I’m enough of a dork to say they oughta read the Dark Horse comic miniseries “Those Left Behind” after watching the series but before seeing the movie to really get the full experience. I’m also thirty years old, of moderate economic means and living in a first world country. This means there’s more entertainment out there than I can really ever experience in my lifetime. This also means that I’m not really still sad about Firefly’s cancellation. It’s been a decade, and it had a decent run of episodes and, while maybe not a good “movie”, it had a good season finale that just happened to have played in theaters. Besides, I’ve had six seasons of Justified to watch since 2005, which really filled my personal quota of “witty, sarcastic cowboys but not in typical cowboy times”.
I remarked upon the Firefly fandom’s wallowing in victimhood over drinks with Ella, and she said: “It almost seems like it’s become part of the experience.” It is, I realized – and there’s no problem with that. Privilege is busting on people for seeking that communal safe space (which the privileged person may not require), and I ain’t gonna give anyone shit for that. So I apologize for the outrage-inducing opening statement to get you to read on: “damage” should be understood as “alter”. Worked, though, didn’t it?
A big new geek thing I discovered is roller derby. This is apparently a seriously feminist/queer thing, a space of acceptance and openness and opportunity for expressions of power for the disenfranchised. Awesome! Another eye-opener: how Ella and I reacted to roller derby documentary “In the Turn”, following different women and queer people around, detailing their experiences with the sport (which, for all intents and purposes, looks almost exactly like human pod-racing, crashes and explosions included – pretty awesome indeed).
My reaction: “How lovely! I hope those people are all happy.”
Ella’s reaction: “Oh my god it makes me wanna get all tatted up and do my hair in crazy colors and and and”
And here’s where “We usually don’t have to work to find an in” comes… uh, in.
Almost no media I ever consume requires me to do any effort to connect with its protagonists. I found Frozen to be merely okay when it came out. Elsa was an empty icicle of a character to me, a nice deliverer of musical numbers and nothing more. She built an ice palace on the mountain and just sat in it. During the panel “Magical Girls 4-Eva” I learned that the studio was banking on Anna becoming the break-out character people would identify with. I had a vague memory of Disney being unprepared for the huge amount of demand for Frozen merchandise, but that particular detail had eluded me.
Why is it so relevant? In my discussions of Frozen, one of my big pet arguments was always “Come on, Anna was way more fun than Elsa!” … which, it turns out, was exactly what the suits were expecting me (and everyone else) to think. Nobody’s a snowflake with unique individual opinions. If you say “Am I the only one who…?” the answer is probably “no”. Privilege pops up everywhere, even in the simple act of appraising a piece of narrative media. Don’t shit on anyone for wanting to belong. Rather, ask yourself why they want to belong and try to understand the appeal. Maybe it’s not for you – that’s fine. In this case, it’s fine not to have an opinion.
Look, I’ve typed a lot, and it sounds like 9 Worlds is some dour, soul-searching annual retreat, but it’s seriously tons of fun that you can learn from if you let it! Hell, even that introductory pub quiz I got all heavy-handed about was full of laughs and meeting lovely new people. Some other highlights of the year included:
- The Here Be Dragons Silly Film Quiz that required absolutely no film knowledge – including a round on kaiju with “Memories from Monster Island” giveaways (yay)
- A livecast of a commentary for SPECIES with partners in crime Andrew Clarke and Kat Iwinski – I do believe we slayed the room!
- The aforementioned “Magical Girls 4-Eva” panel, with an art historian giving an introductory speech on the feminine mystique in art around the world dating back to prehistory
- A delicious gin tasting with Dr. Anna Brock and Hannah Lanfear (yes an actual BOOZE DOCTOR)
- Christine Ni’s presentation on the women of Shaw Brothers, logically called “Shaw Sisters” exposing me to a whole new subgenre of martial arts films I only had the vaguest knowledge of
- Literally anything the Duke Mitchell film club showed in room 41
- Giving Haribo to Game of Thrones’ Miltos Yerolemou (a jolly chap who was HIGHLY AMUSED at the kaiju clips we showed) and shaking Kerry Ingram’s (the little girl they burned on that very show) hand
- Movie and TV discussions that actually gave me new insights where I was half expecting them to just be circle jerks – big ups to Naomi Alderman (Mad Max) and Chloë (A Song of Ice and Fire)… I don’t remember her last name but she made an excellent Squirrel Girl
I’m sure I did many more awesome things and listened to awesome discussions that I have forgotten to mention here, so forgive me for their omission (I did imbibe quite a bit). You are surely appreciated, if not wholly remembered!
Now let’s get cracking at my 2016 cosplay. Thinking either Lucas Hood or the Tampunisher (that is a regular Punisher outfit but I carry a paper maché fire hydrant with me at all times).
Note: All cosplayer pictures taken with express consent. DM me @servantofdagon if you see yourself and wish me to remove them.