Sunday, November 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't back down, my friends.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The harsh light of scrutiny

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

Travis is an American.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say he's already there.

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

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

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

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

Now join a union and hoist a placard.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

Nine Worlds Part IV: Revelations

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

I got compliments! This made me really happy!

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

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

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

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

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

Microfiction Contest Entry: The Consumptive Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, my love, what?”

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

“Yes, darling...”

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

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

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

Anna, leaning on her formerly ivory palms, burped.

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Turtle Talk #7: GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS (1999)


We round out our adventures in Heisei turtlehood with Shusuke Kaneko’s 1999 opus GAMERA 3: REVENGE OF IRIS. Huh? A monster named Iris? Is it going to attack Gamera with its special budokai knitting needle triple stab attack? Maybe stuff him with sweets after he has long ago tried to communicate that no no, he’s quite full up, thank you? Allow me to allay your fears (hopes?) of this granny monster and inform you that Iris is actually the weirdest, most perverted and disgusting monster I’ve seen in all of my kaiju journeys so far. Grosser than Hedorah? I dare say exactly that! But let’s take this all back to the beginning. Our intrepid heroine Dr. Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) is still trotting the globe in search of Gyaos activity. That’s right, the disgusting troll-birds have been popping up again, and are still miserable piles of meat and slime. As Mayumi’s jeep cuts a path through the South Pacific jungles, another old familiar friend is reintroduced to us: Ko Otani! The maestro of the previous Heisei GAMERA films does wonders for the film – an already pretty good-looking one, at that – and its ability to transport viewers into mankind’s unknown prehistory. His orchestrations reminiscing on Atlantis of old inject some much-needed mystical ambiance in this monster menagerie… and what a menagerie it is!
For those who were skeptical of Iris perhaps being a super-evolved Gyaos, fret not! Even though Mayumi tells us these Gyaos are “evolved” from their previous incarnations, they’re mostly fodder for the first two acts of the movie, indicating that the Earth is changing and the ancient protectors (and, of course, enemies) of mankind don’t quite know what to do with these man-made alterations to the world. Can you smell an allegory coming? Well, you must have very developed olfactory senses then, because this movie certainly isn’t hitting you over the, uh… nostrils with it? No, let’s stop this sarcasm – I actually quite like the movie not being subtle one bit. The sins of the past are coming back to haunt us, in several ways! Climate change in the form of a mana-overload, driving Gamera mad with destructive power? Check! Long-thought-dead Gyaos returning in evolved form? Check! An ancient Atlantean failsafe monster meant to take care of Gamera if this scenario ever happened? Check! A vengeful teenager who is the perfect vessel of bitterness and hatred to nurture this assassin monster until it gets to proper city (and turtle) smashing size? Check, check and check, onii-chan!
This teenager is Ayana Hirasaka (Ai Maeda), a girl who lost both her parents and her cat Iris (oh yeah) to the destruction caused by Gamera and Gyaos in the 1995 events of GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE. In these heady geek times where we all must have strong opinions on whether or not Superman was appropriate in making out with Lois in the wreckage of ten 9/11s in MAN OF STEEL, it is perhaps sobering to reflect that a decade and change before Zack Snyder’s film, Shusuke Kaneko was already exploring the aftermath of city destruction in (still fairly light-hearted!) movies aimed at kids. Laughs are a little bit more sparse in IRIS as opposed to GUARDIAN or LEGION, but it’s perhaps only fitting that things get a bit more dramatic in the closing chapter of a trilogy. I hope you weren’t too bummed out, Travis!


I was not bummed out at all, Luca! This is a rousing finale to Kaneko's splendid Gamera trilogy, and yet we are in for darker times. IRIS really explores how horrifying living in a world of giant monsters would be. Kaiju fights are typically destructive yet inconsequential sequences, but IRIS explicitly cuts to civilians running for their lives or getting crushed or burned to death in the wake of the monsters. There's no shying away from the many people being obliterated as kaiju kollateral damage. It's frankly not hard to see why Ayana would hold such a hard grudge against Gamera. Even the heroic turtle himself is photographed to look more sinister by shrouding him in darkness and shadows and having the lighting highlight his razor teeth and the sharp ridges on his shell. A “go go go!” Gamera march certainly would not be appropriate for these proceedings!
Thank goodness there are some decent humans around to ease all of this. Along with Mayumi, we see also see the return of Asagi (the former teenage companion of Gamera) and Osaka (the cowardly ex-inspector/Kirin warehouse guard, now a hobo with monster PTSD). It's nice to see these returning cast members round out the trilogy, but my favorite performance in IRIS belongs to Toru Tezuka as Shinya Kurata, the mysterious video game designer who claims to be an Atlantean descendant. He doesn't do much in the movie aside from delivering expository whatever, but oh how colorful he is doing it! Clad in black clothes with a limp hand always perched on his face, he gleefully tells our heroes how humanity is pretty much doomed to having monsters use Earth as their battleground in such an entertainingly aloof manner. He understands how macabre this all is and perversely enjoys it. He reminds me of Ernest Thesiger's wonderfully campy Doctor Pretorius from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, who also delighted in dealing with death. Even as falling debris comes hurdling down upon his head, Shinya looks up with a wide smile and says, “Oh! This is really scary!” before he's smashed to smithereens.
Shinya may seem like a bit of a creepy guy, yet the creepiest character in this movie probably is the titular Iris! When the creature first hatches from its gooey egg, it slithers around on its many slimy tentacles, and its head and neck are rather... uhh, flesh colored and resemble a certain part of the male anatomy. Ayana nurtures Iris in its first stage in life, but the bond between girl and kaiju soon becomes a little uncomfortable. At one point, she finds Iris in the forest, laying weak from searching for its human companion. When the feeble Iris starts to nuzzle the young Ayana, its phallic-shaped head and neck start to become.... more erect.... and rigid... and upright standing. In fact Iris's whole body is suddenly awake and glows with new life. Also glowing is the amulet around Ayana's neck that gives her the psychic connection to Iris. She slowly unbuttons up the top of her school-girl uniform shirt and grasps the pulsating object saying, “It's so warm.....” in a hypnotic haze. She then walks into the embrace of Iris as its tentacles surround her and pull her in closer and EWWWWWWWWW! Now keep in mind, we're still in “PG-13 for kids” territory, so it doesn't reach hentai heights, yet a cold shower might be needed to wash away the stench of Pedo Iris! Luca, let's get some clean thoughts in here quick! Any last words on REVENGE OF IRIS or the Heisei Gamera trilogy overall?

Oh wait, Travis, let me just… yeah, get outta there, you shokushu, you!
Filthy pervert Iris is truly the culmination of pink movie director Kaneko sneaking in some of his classic sensibilities. While teenage girls feeling connections to kaiju had been a staple of the genre for ages – a girl being “fused to”/“part of” a giant monster most famously being the main plot of GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE – it had never been quite so… suggestive as it is here! The framing, the actor’s direction, the monster design, you really need to be a kaiju fan in the single digits to not be getting the strong sexual connotations here. And to think that “jokes for parents” in American kids’ movies are just references to celebrities and politicians!
Friggin’ Shinya, man. You know, Travis, you’ve exposed another of my pop cultural blind spots, coincidentally also regarding monsters, although of a wholly different sort. I’ve never seen any of the classic Universal monster movies! Guess I was always just a Hammer Horror kid growing up. Who doesn’t love Technicolor, set design and heaving bosoms? And speaking of big boobs, that dolt Shinya – lacking the Frankensteinian background you possessed – reminded me of video game legend Hideo Kojima, creator of the METAL GEAR SOLID series and all-around weirdo equally known for spouting semi-philosophical crap on his Twitter straight from between his butt cheeks. Shinya’s haughtily amused greaseball remarks highly put me to mind of Kojima-san to the point where I was wondering if this also wasn’t an inside joke, but I guess it’s just a character type. What I loved about this guy was that he indeed just CLAIMED to be an Atlantean descendant, and the movie just kind of accepts his presence (and running commentary). Equally baffling is Senri Yamasaki as Mito Asakura, a sinister lady whose allegiances I couldn’t quite parse, but very much hates Gamera… for reasons! Both her and Shinya are basically just there to spice up the human scenes with weirdness and wacky acting. Speaking of wackiness, IRIS contains one of my favorite dialogue exchanges in any kaiju film I’ve ever seen so far. Miss Nagamine sits down at a meeting of the MONSTER DAMAGE ASSESSMENT COMMITTEE (the government being all official about big monsters is already funny in and of itself) next to a terminally depressed looking bureaucrat. “Which monster are we discussing today?” she asks. In a drawl worthy of Droopy Dog, the man replies: “Does it matter?” Oh, how I laughed!
The gore-levels in IRIS are worthy of any classic Gamera movie as well: of note is the EVIL DEAD 2-reminiscent climax in which Gamera’s hand is ripped off by the big guy himself after Iris grabs hold of it to syphon off the turtle’s life force. On top of that there’s of course impalement, crushing, Gyaos-disintegration, and the forcible removal of Ayana from Iris’ chest by Gamera. All in all, a splattery good time that would surely have parents raise an eyebrow or three at the appropriateness for smaller kids. Gosh, Travis, I thoroughly enjoyed this Heisei Gamera trilogy! Just a monster-filled schlocky good time with wacky characters and inventive set pieces filled to the brim with cool designs and copious splatter. What did you think, o Godzilla loyalist?


As I've said before, I was a die hard Godzilla fan through and through. Seeing Gamera's pandering Showa stuff was merely showing to me how much of a pretender to the throne the big turtle was. It wasn't until the Internet allowed me to explore my kaiju interests that I discovered that much of the Godzilla fan community *GASP!* also liked Gamera! How could they?! That ridiculous flying tortoise with a penchant for hanging with precocious kids?! Relax, fellow G-fans assured me, because he ain't so bad, and in fact, his Heisei movies are quite kick ass! By that time, the only Heisei Godzilla movie I had seen was BIOLLANTE, so I dove into Gamera's 90s era adventures with snobbishly high expectations. Let's see if ol' shellback could outdo the King of the Monsters fighting a big rose plant!
And you know what? I soon became part of the legions of children willing to call Gamera his friend. The Heisei Gamera trilogy truly is a high mark in the pantheon of the kaiju genre. The 1990s was a decade where Hollywood blockbusters became bigger and more bombastic, and they invaded the Japanese box office to much success. The seemingly archaic Godzilla still powered on valiantly, yet when watching his Heisei era output, you can sense a tired dinosaur attempting to fit into today's modern movies. It would only be a matter of time before Godzilla himself would sell his soul to American studio Sony. But Gamera persevered, and perhaps always living in the shadow of the King of the Monsters meant he could forge his own path without being the figurehead of kaiju flicks. GUARDIAN, LEGION, and IRIS are vibrant, kinetic, and bursting with an energy that embraces its past to remain lively in the present. Not enough accolades can be said of Kaneko, who gave us such exciting adventures with that silly turtle that Toho gave him the reins on GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK. Truly a man for all monsters! Again, I was a dye-in-the-wool Godzilla fanatic, but Kaneko's trilogy made me yell GO, GAMERA, GO!
By the way, did we ever mention in these reviews that Ayako Fujitani (who plays teen Gamera companion Asagi) is Steven Seagal's daughter? How friggin' cool is that fact?!
As Sensei himself would say, Travis, we are but mice in the house of the eagle...

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Turtle Talk #6: GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION (1996)


It had been a year since Japan recovered from the rampage of the Gyaos, but outer space decided to rear its ugly head and deliver another destructive force to the Land of the Rising Sun! GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION begins with a meteor zooming down for the stars and crash landing near the city of Sapporo. There aren't many traces left of the invaders at the impact site, yet strange fluctuations in electricity and oxygen levels start occurring. Soon the alien intruders make their appearance, and they're a bunch of creeeeeeepy craaaaaawwwlers! Given the name “Legion” by Col. Watarase (Toshiyuki Nagashima), these one-eyed beetle-like creatures are numerous and begin building giant plant pods in various cities. And of course, there's only one hero big enough to squash this buggy menace.... 

And what a new menace this is! Even though we've already seen the flocks of Gyaos in GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, this is the first enemy in the entire Gamera series to be made up of little (well, little in the kaiju sense) hive-minded parasites. This can sometimes be a detriment in these monster flicks because we're used to our bad guy monsters as big, brutish heels who take on our heroes, so having small armies of critters doesn't necessarily give the audience that fun personality to boo and jeer. Because of that, you'd hope that the filmmakers can make up for it by having the Legion be very unique in their biology. And they are! The building-size Mother Legion that fights Gamera is kinda generic, but the smaller Legion soldiers that menace our human protagonists are pretty interesting. They're silicon-based lifeforms, and they're constantly on the prowl for glass objects to absorb their silicon content. There's not even blood or muscles inside their bodies, only pressurized air that flows through their exoskeleton. In that regard, this might actually be the least gory Gamera film of all time! Not too much flesh wound fluid spilt here... 

However, there's enough Kirin beer in this movie to share with everyone! The company behind the popular brand of Japanese alcohol must've put some dollars in the filmmakers' pockets because Kirin is featured pretty prominently in LEGION. In a very amusing scene, we catch up with poor Osaka (Yukijiro Hotaru), the cowardly detective from GUARDIAN, in his new job as a security guard at a Kirin warehouse. It seems like the stress of dealing with carnivorous bat creatures took a toll on the former cop, and we now see him enjoying a low-stress (and low-monster level) gig of watching cases of beer. But uh oh! Here comes the Legion sneaking into the warehouse and absorbing the glass bottles to Osaka's horror! Will the monsters ever leave him alone? The next morning as Midori (Miki Mizuno) observes the copious amounts of alcohol spread all over the floor, she exclaims, “What a waste of good beer!” Hahahahaha yes, when aliens show no reverence for that precious Kirin, you know they're up to no good! And of course, Gamera at one point crashes into a strategically placed Kirin billboard during one of his fights. Hey, it's not advertising of alcohol to children if he just happens to knock over a sign! Did any of this make you thirsty, Luca? 


Mmmm, goes down smooth… 

Oh, what? A movie? Let me get my notes! 

You know who’s the greatest victim of Gamera’s 90s rampage so far, Travis? Our dearest readers! If Shusuke Kaneko keeps delivering solid movies with excellent monster action and kind of boring human protagonists, we’ll never have anything interesting to write about anymore! In fact, I daresay that with his two decent entries out of three so far, Kaneko is en route to deliver a Heisei series that, in my humble opinion, Godzilla should be envious of. Maybe that’s why the big guy turned Kermit-green in G2K? 

He shouldn’t feel too bad about it however, since GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION is pretty liberal in its borrowing from other films, and in this case – somewhat damningly – an actual GODZILLA movie! This time, our favorite Atlantean rocket turtle faces a foe that is many: the fleet of space bugs called Legion by an overly melodramatic Watarase who witnesses the critters attack Gamera, and promptly recites the oft-overused in genre fiction quote from the book of Mark. “The Bible???” his lieutenant asks, clearly never having seen any horror movies made between 1985 and 2005. Legion is, of course, suspiciously similar to Destoroyah, the horrible monster made up of microbial sea life mutated by Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer from the original 1954 GOJIRA. In a hilarious turn of analogous events, the Legion babies attack citizens as well as military personnel in few scandalously splattery scenes. I thought Gamera movies got away with monster gore cuz it was so outlandish and unrealistic? Not that I’m complaining, mind! What’s hilarious here exactly, is that not only did DESTOROYAH have these scenes as well, the final Godzilla Heisei film really obviously “borrowed” motifs and visual gags from James Cameron’s ALIENS for these man-sized monsters vs. soldiers scenes. ADVENT OF LEGION? Well, if Godzilla’s “homaging” ALIENS, we’ll just do PREDATOR, Kaneko says! Not only is there the slaughter of a subway car full of civilians during a strobe-lit alien attack, we even get some heat-vision POV shots from the Legionnaires, looking just like the familiar viewpoint of our favorite alien hunter. Finally (and this is my favorite), composer Kow Otani kind of nails that very, very familiar Alan Silvestri sound in his score, with a short horn crescendo followed by an outburst of a few notes, upon which the music recedes into anticipatory murmurings again. You can go to YouTube and look for “Predator theme” to hear the sound for yourself, but Silvestri honestly does it in ROGER RABBIT, THE MUMMY, THE 13TH WARRIOR, you name it. In ADVENT OF LEGION, it’s evident from the title card music onward. I can’t get mad at that – it’s so cheeky! 

Even though you’re correct, Travis, that the gaseous innards of the Legion babies don’t make for a very splattery series of encounters, I did love the extremely badass confrontation Watarase has with one near the end of the film where he just walks up to it and pops it two in the dome. “DAYUM that’s gangsta!” a white man thought while watching this but did not say it out loud because that would be embarrassing. This doesn’t kill the critter, of course, necessitating Watarase to keep blasting at different joints until it’s a sad pile of chitinous jerk, steam whistlin’ out of its wounds all the while. And here I am wasting words on a kaiju movie without even getting to the kaiju fights! Well, kaiju-on-kaiju fights that is. What did you think of Gamera vs. Momma Legion, Travis? 


The big monster fights scenes are well-done and exciting per Kaneko's style, yet the generic nature of Momma Legion keeps it a little tempered. Again, the soldier bugs crawling all around town are interesting villains, and they're a different type of threat in the Gamera saga. Plus, they get under my skin a little because of a small phobia I have: creepy eyes. If there's one thing that a monster or villain must have in their design to disturb me, they gotta have weird-looking eyes or an unnerving stare. So by placing the soldier Legion's solo eyeball in the middle of their buggy mandibles, I admit that it gives me the goosebumps! The boss enemy Legion has a fine creature design but doesn't have much personality. And it can shoot a laser because.... kaiju flick. Like I said, it's definitely not a bad antagonist, and its biology is very unique in this series, yet this big baddie is a slight step down from the savagery of the Gyaos. 

You mentioned earlier, Luca, that our human protagonists have been kinda boring. While they're certainly not complex, I do find our group of folks in LEGION to be a little interesting. At the very least, they don't have me reaching for my phone when the non-monster scenes occur. Though they may be a bit bland, I like that we're given just some plain decent people making thoughtful decisions. Watarase is certainly a military badass, yet he's more than willing to listen to Midori and Obitsu (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) when dealing with such an abnormal threat. Heck, even the nerdy Obitsu gets a heroic moment when he dashes off to an electricity plant to overload its circuits and attract the swarms of soldier Legions away from Gamera. We've talked in the past about gender diversity in kaiju stuff, and it's good to see in LEGION that two of the most important characters are Midori (who has insight into the behavior of the Legion) and the returning Asagi (still holding onto her psychic bond with Gamera). In fact, I applaud that the Heisei trilogy has a girl as the youth with a special friendship with Gamera, as the Showa series typically had boys as the turtle's BFF. I know it can be hard in our sarcastic natures to goof on nitpicks in quality monster movies such as these, Luca, but do you have anything else in ya? I believe in you! 


Actually, let me answer that in the form of some hot behind-the-scenes info for all you loyal readers! As we discuss our findings through unofficial channels during our kaiju odysseys, there's the occasional lightbulb moment from either of us, when we come to realize some outrageous viewpoint is being held by the other guy. Coincidentally, the most outrageous one of these was probably when Travis asked me "Are you... are you enjoying the Gamera movies more than the Godzillas?" after which I started sweating, pulled on my collar a bit and jumped out the window. We're not too far away from the end of our second monster journey, and one thing the Gameras certainly have over the Godzillas a bit more is a certain amount of irreverence. The writers/producers/directors generally operate under the assumption that, hey, we're just adding to a series that was a rip-off to begin with, so there's not really a whole heapin' helpin' of legacy that we're supposed to honor, you know? It's a bit difficult to be a sarcastic internet asshole when, in effect, the movie's already doing it for you! 

Take Heisei Godzilla's Miki (Megumi Odaka). Essentially, Heisei Gamera's Asagi is the same damn character as her, kaiju telepathy and all. But, of course, Toho makes near a damn dozen Godzillas in the Heisei period, resulting in Miki not always getting her due as a character, or being shuffled off to the side with stellar lines as "Godzilla coming up on screen!" The two movies I've seen Asagi in, meanwhile, have her as a side-character with some actual shit to do. And here's the big irony, Kaneko's such a good director that even with the script going FRANKLY WE NO CARE and just phoning it the hell in or ripping off characters and sequences wholesale, these Heisei Gameras absolutely can go toe-to-toe with the Heisei Godzillas and, in many cases, even transcend them in sheer monster-fighting entertainment quality. Here's hoping he sticks the landing with GAMERA: RETURN OF IRIS!