Galaxy Lords (2018)

It has been a hectic and horrible couple of weeks, let me tell you. Most of it is extremely boring, unless you’re in my skin, and you don’t want to be in here, it would get too crowded. So let’s talk about movies.

One of the non-horrible pieces of news in this period was the Criterion Channel finally going live. I’ve only had time to look around briefly, but I have loved what I’ve seen. Several films I’ve always meant to track down and watch are now literally at my fingertips. The Spirit of the Beehive, Tokyo Story, Last Hurrah for Chivalry, The 400 Blows. Spectacularly, there’s also Karl Zeman’s Baron Prasil, under its more familiar American title The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. That was my introduction to Zeman, on a laserdisc I found in a cutout bin years ago. I recalled Tim Lucas praising it in the late, lamented Video Watchdog, and it was a dazzling purchase I never regretted. It gives me hope we will see a Zemen set from Criterion at some point. To my fellow subscribers: add that to “My List” right now,  if not watch it right away. It is that much fun.

So, with some of the greatest cinema in the world at my disposal, what did I watch? Galaxy Lords.

To demonstrate the enormity of this disconnect, I should forego my usual practice of putting the trailer after the review, and serve it up to you right now:

Some of you are reacting with appropriate horror. Most of you are thinking, From you, I expect nothing less.

In case you couldn’t figure out the plot from that trailer, here’s the official synopsis from their IndieGoGo campaign:

A mere decade after the Heptigalaxial Cosmic Infinity War, the Kingdom of the Seven Galaxies is once again on the precipice of oblivion. The evil prince ADORASTIUS has escaped his icy incarceration and threatens the universe with the most fantastical yet calamitous power imaginable.

The multiverse cries out in peril, and the beleaguered hero GALACTIC COMMANDER HELIOS must forge a crew of old friends and new allies to defend the sanctity of the cosmos. Still tormented by the shadows of the past, he must once again breathe the air that smells of interstellar combat.

From the tranquil glades of KELVADOR to the perilous crags of GRINDLEBAR, the fate of the history of all existence rests upon the shoulders of the GALAXY LORDS!

To the obvious: this is a tribute to the movies that flooded cinemas after the summer of Star Wars. In a backstory that will itself be exceedingly familiar to anyone who follows low budget movies, it was shot by a group of friends on weekends and holidays over a course of several years. Its reported budget is $15,000, and all that money (all that money – it is to larf) is quite literally on the screen. It is remarkably cheap and cheesy, and that is kind of the point. The costumes (including the wigs and beards) are from thrift stores, with possibly a few leftovers from cosplaying; the armor is literally cardboard, and so is  a lot of the tech and miniatures, along with pieces from the hardware store put together with what the filmmakers say is “a horrifying amount of hot glue”. Every single scene is green-screened with a fabricated background, even the few that probably would have been easier to do in an actual location.

A lot of the reviews I’ve read of Galaxy Lords latches onto the 80s sensibilities and utterly excoriate the movie for its budgetary limitations. I think the primary problem with these reviews is they are deliberately ignoring the cybernetic gorilla in the room, and that is amount of inspiration derived from anime. One look at the meticulously overdone eye makeup on the character Wranthelon (director Von Bilka, who also plays the villain, Adorastius) should clue you in to that. The overwrought angst of our hero Helios (co-writer Dan Underhill, also villainous Chicago-accented sidekick Quazar) is also lifted from any given anime movie/series; and my favorite lift is the very end, when Helios addresses what’s left of his crew in a St. Crispin’s Day speech that promises excitement and high adventure in pursuit of the villain, getting your blood to a fever pitch – and then the movie ends. Not sure how many tapes I saw in the 80s cobbled together from TV episodes that ended that way, but there were enough to scar me.

Visual tropes from anime are present too – good grief, just look at Wafelord Hagglehawk and his immensely impractical warhammer! – and my absolute favorite is when the Lords of the Galaxy finally get back together to help Helios and each one is given their own animated intro with high tech animated backgrounds, double exposures, and a flyby of their ship. This entire flick is like Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars had a sleepover with a bunch of sci-fi anime bootleg tapes and somebody spiked the punch with MDMA. If you miss the tremendous love for anime at also at work here, you’re going to miss a lot of the fun.

The miniature work here (by Nicholas Schwartz), the landscapes, fantastic cities and space battle scenes are gorgeous. With the Lords of the Galaxy you have seven different ships, each different with unique cockpits, controls and weapon arrays. Yes, yes, Battle Beyond the Stars did that, but they had a budget of $2 million. These guys had three fiddy, an out-of-commission GameCube, and an abundance of pluck. This is a labor of love, and it looks great.

The baroque storyline and dialogue is delivered with earnestness – this isn’t a jokey pastiche, but it is an amusing sendup if you’re willing to accept it for what it is, and ride with the archness of the offering. It is about 20 minutes too long – perhaps even as much as 30 – but by golly, they finished it, it looks slick, and I admire them for that.

It’s on Prime Video, even. Go for it.

 

 

Hello Again. Suspirias (1977 & 2018)

This growing old shit is fascinating and terrifying at the same time and not necessarily in the same amounts.

My wife had urged me to talk to our doctor during my scheduled follow-up because “You haven’t been yourself lately” and after the usual battery of questions it was decided to up the dosage of my happy pills (I had been on the starter dosage of the original Mother’s Little Helper), and that took getting used to. I spent a couple of weeks feeling like I was wrapped in styrofoam sheets, like some figurine bought on eBay. This week I actually started feeling like a normal human being again, which was novel. I’ll be digging into my taxes soon, which will likely put an end to that.

I could finally afford an ophthalmologist appointment again, and they tried a new prescription on me and there was no improvement. The upshot of that was not that I needed new glasses, but cataract surgery. Oddly, this doesn’t frighten me or worry me too much – it’s outpatient surgery these days, my insurance should cover it. The major impact will be on my jobs – you know, the fact that I won’t be able to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds or bend over for two weeks (both eyes are shot). Nor can I afford the super deluxe lenses that would correct my astigmatism (not at $1200 a pop), so I’ll still be wearing glasses. Hell, at this point eyeglasses are a part of my character. Finally getting a pair that aren’t absolutely essential to survival, progressive trifocals half an inch thick, or cost an arm, leg and kidney will be a refreshing change of pace.

Still, I haven’t felt a desire to write during all that hoo-rah. A look at my Letterboxd profile reveals I’ve only watched 17 movies so far this entire year, which for me is bizarre. Admittedly, most of my viewing has been TV shows – The Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol, American Gods. I started the video game Battle Chasers: Nightwar for the third time on a third computer and dammit this time I am going to finish it.

But maybe I am back to a point where I can finish this damned piece that I started in, like, February. Wish me luck. Here we go.

Suspiria (1977)

Indulge me for a few minutes. I’m going to delve into a bit of personal history that will eventually land on a point. I’ll try not to vent too much, but once you get a Scorpio rolling…

So way back in the days of The Bad Movie Report I chanced upon an internet article where a guy had actually gone to the various fora available at the time, had folks vote on a ballot ranking the 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time (possibly because the AFI had done something similar?), and eventually published the results. Those results, I seem to recall, relied on maybe a hundred responses, not exactly the sort of sampling that gets you published in the real world, to be sure. I in turn grabbed the results (with a link back to the original article, of course), and critiqued the ranking.  I didn’t agree with a lot of it, but some I did. I’m not a big fan of ranked lists, anyway.

And that, as Maus would say, is where my troubles began.

I was immediately pilloried for the rankings. No matter how many times I pointed out that these choices were not mine, the comments and e-mails most ran to “You should really know more about horror movies before doing something like this” sneers. I finally got tired of it and deleted the whole thing (about a year after the original poster deleted his, come to think of it). At which point the e-mails calling me a coward started.

Welcome to the Internet, I know, I know. Hopefully those folks whose entire lives seemingly depended on belittling me and calling my qualifications into doubt, have moved on and are now enjoying their lives as ICE officers and YouTube pundits with a following of three or less. While you’re here, please check out my Patreon.

To the point: one of my more chill, responsible readers (I do not recall who, I’m sorry, I blame my advanced age) pointed out that in my comments on the rankings, I referred to Suspiria as “a middling horror movie”, and wondered if I still felt that way. I responded that I had mellowed toward the movie with age and experience with Italian WTF cinema. It wasn’t that I had watched it again, I just felt I had a better handle on where Argento was coming from when he filmed. Time passed; Synapse spent four years creating a 4K restoration, and that eventually became available on blu-ray, which added some speed to any inclination to revisit it.  Then Luca Guadagnino’s remake/reboot/rewhateverthehell hit home video, and away we go.

First: The Synapse restoration is magnificent, ravishing to the eye. I am glad I waited for it, it is that breathtaking.

Second: I still feel it’s a middling horror movie.

We’ll bypass the SPOILER ALERTS FOR A FORTY-TWO YEAR OLD MOVIE and move right into the fact that Suspiria is the tale of Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American who has come to study at a dance academy in Freiburg, only to find out that the academy is run by witches. That’s about as much plot as you actually get. There is plenty of weird, wild stuff happening, but past our opening murder setpiece, everything fits into a one-damned-thing-after-another structure so rococo that you’re going to hurt yourself if you try to fit it into a normal movie. That murder – which, like all Argento’s cinematic murders, are among the few that can actually make me physically wince – serves a plot purpose, as the victim (and her unfortunate friend) know too much and must be eliminated. After that…. uhhhhhh…

  • There’s the famous rain of maggots sequence, which is found to have a (sort of) logical explanation. Squidgy and unnerving, which I guess is the point. Serves to set up the revelation that the Academy’s director, Helena Markos, is actually in the building, instead of jet-setting around Europe. And has no bearing on anything else.
  • The architecture inside the Academy makes very little sense, which leads some to speculate that Stanley Kubrick saw this before filming The Shining. Still, keeping a roomful of razorwire in a third floor storeroom seems… a bit much.

These are, however, points with which I thought I had reached a rapprochement, since in the intervening years I had become a fan of Lucio Fulci’s crawling chaos motion pictures, particularly The Gates of Hell and The Beyond, which employ the same dream logic – okay, nightmare logic – to forward their stories. Why something I accept in those is a sticking point for me in Suspiria is annoying, a personal puzzle that I cannot seem to unravel.

  • I’m still all sorts of put out that the Tanz Academy invited Bannion to study there, and then proceeds to drug her into oblivion and plot to kill her, when it would have been much simpler to not invite her to study in the first place.
  • Then, I’m not at all sure why the blind piano player is such a menace to the coven that he has to be driven out and killed, except oops witches are evil.
  • It had been so long since I’d seen it I’d forgotten Udo Kier was in the movie, with the unenviable role of Dr. Plot Dump, which he immediately hands off to an older actor who tells Suzy that witches are evil and Helena Markos was the worst.
  • Dude, I know some witches and I protest this characterization.

It is this overarching question of why that has kept me from placing Suspiria in what I am told is its rightful place in the horror pantheon. There are some king-hell horror movie bits in it, to be sure, but it lacks that little bit of plot pushing it (and me) forward to a satisfactory conclusion. Though – speaking of conclusions – I do appreciate the Roger Corman-esque protagonist escaping from a burning, collapsing edifice of evil that closes Suspiria. Also that you could tell that it was an Argento movie simply through the device of an important clue hidden in muddled memory suddenly made crystal clear at exactly the right moment to land our hero(ine) in a world of trouble.

Really, I had no idea that Germans loved red lights this much. It’s fascinating to me that Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli didn’t use a Technicolor camera, but used the Technicolor developing process for better control of the truly wild colors in the movies’ palette, and is possibly the last movie to use that process. Despite all my kvetching, if you haven’t seen the original Suspiria, you should, and hopefully this restoration is what you watch. It is beautiful, creepy, and the casting is spot on. No small amount of credit is owed Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s muse for several years, who urged him to move from straightforward gialli into the realm of the supernatural and to feature stronger female protagonists, both good things for his oeuvre.

Suspiria (2018)

So then onto the modern Suspiria, or as I prefer to think of it, oh thank christ finally a plot.

First off, there is no playing cute, plot-wise: there it is, first scene of the movie: they’s witches.

  • Overall, the thrust of the narrative in this version is much clearer; Tanz is now a professional dance company, and the coven is somehow feeding off and using the energies of the young members. Susie (Dakota Johnson, who is pretty amazing in the role) is a prodigy who is being primed to be the recipient of Helena Markos’ soul. All my misgivings about the story of the original movie evaporate.
  • For a movie that took place at a dance academy, the original Suspiria had remarkably little dance in it; this newer version corrects that, and it is a wonderful thing. The fact that the witches derive and utilize their powers through dance is like the unmistakable power of song in The Wicker Man. Both were vital to ancient religions, and this aspect of the movie seems reasonable, even logical.
  • I don’t have enough adjectives to adequately praise Tilda Swinton. She is magnificent as Madame Blanc, the head of the company, taking Susie under her wing, and emotionally torn over the girl’s eventual fate. She also plays Helena Markos and the elderly psychiatrist in that first scene, both under tons of prosthetic makeup. I was also pretty sure that she was the Edna Mode-lookalike witch who commits suicide because she foresees how badly Markos’ machinations are going to end up, but I haven’t found anything to verify this.
  • Jessica Harper’s cameo was a shock. Always good to see her, though.

Guadagnino takes pains to distance himself from the original while still acknowledging its existence; there’s no bizarre lighting and Lynchian lingering on mechanical doors in this opening, but we’re still in the German underground and the film’s title appears as a street sign. Gone is the fairytale technicolor, replaced by a wintery palette that renders the occasional color even more striking. The first Suspiria is relatively timeless, but here we are specifically in 1977 Berlin, still separated by a wall, and the news dominated by the German Autumn and hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. The real world insinuates itself regularly into this version of the story. The original intended vessel for Markos (Chloë Grace Moretz) was “more interested in blowing up supermarkets” than learning the craft.

Turns out things like that, things that give some form of signpost into the story’s intentions, are immeasurably helpful to my enjoying that story. The new version is an hour longer than the original, and I didn’t mind, as I was fascinated by the newer subplots, complications, and the chemistry between Swinton and Johnson’s characters. It has its place in the pantheon, is what I am saying.

The only thing I have left to say concerns my bewilderment at the post-theatrical marketing for the new Suspiria. For a movie with so many remarkable, unsettling images (even if you’ve never seen the movie itself, you have almost certainly seen some of those images), the cover of my blu-ray seems rather bland (it’s from a fleeting moment in the movie, and I guess someone found it evocative), and Amazon’s Prime Video ad (remember, it’s “Amazon Studios presents”) seems to cast it as a coming-of-age domestic drama, perhaps Ladybird but with witchcraft this time.

Then, I despair of the current state of such things, and yearn for the return of actual illustrators doing these ad materials, not just somebody with a semester of Photoshop.

I can dream.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Anti-Party

Hey, I see you out there, checking if I’ve updated lately. Honestly! I have checked, and I feel badly about not putting something up here. I’ve been working on a piece about the two Suspirias, and it’s proving one of those bits of writing I’m slogging through. Right now I’m just going to say that I liked the remake/reboot/whatever and there, I’ve probably insured that I’ll never finish it.

Man, February. This month is rough.

Facebook may be a miserable cesspool, but there is one thing it does, via “Your Memories” – it serves as a snapshot of where you were one, two, five, ten years ago. At least, depending on how much you share/overshare. Turns out for the past several years the week of Valentines Day always tries to kill me; besides my day job, there’s always at least one nighttime City Meeting to attend to, three shows (grab those Valentine dollars whilst you may) and other miscellaneous shoots. Something about this time of year makes people want to schedule events that require reportage. I shouldn’t complain, our entire crew -including the Engineer! – was out shooting Saturday, and my co-worker Pebbles (not her real name) was kind enough to take over one of the City Meetings from me. So it was only one City Meeting, four shoots, three stories edited and three nighttime shows for me with associated load in, set-up, tear down and load out.

This shit is a young person’s game, and honestly, this year the load worried me. I usually preface such weeks with a Tweet that says “Just in case this week kills me, remember I love you,” but this time I meant it. But, you know, one day at a time it wasn’t too bad. Dragging myself out of bed Saturday morning to go to the 10:00am shoot was the mightiest summoning of will power I’ve had to perform in quite some time, and christ only knows what that footage looks like. Then, the stories from the Friday shoot and the Sunday shoot have already been edited and okayed, so the odds seem in my favor on that score.

GIMME!!!!

As you know, my job changed back in October (largely for the better), and I am glad to report that my new health insurance kicked in at the beginning of this month, which means yay! I’m medicated again! We’ll see how much difference this makes, whether I will actually be able to watch a movie again or finish that furshlugginer Suspiria review. I’m actually posting on social media again, and hey look, you’re reading something that dribbled from my brain.

Usually in these little pauses in my movie consumption I fasten onto one of my older loves, reading or gaming. Neither of those are lighting a particular fuse this year, but what is keeping my brain afloat is something I’ve been largely ignoring the last, oh let’s say decade or two: music. At the age of 60 I re-discovered Internet Radio (back in the day Dave and I ran a Live365 station that was meant to underscore gameplay in City of Heroes. Ah, those were the days). Dude, there are stations out there that play trance music 24/7. Yes, yes, there are others that play different genres, but go talk about them on your own blog.

I’m wondering if this current passion is kindled because it’s puts me back in a younger mindspace: the mid-70s, when I was starting to pay closer attention to music right about the time that FM radio was beginning to take off. Those long nights spent listening to AOR stations and wondering just what I was listening to, and hoping desperately the DJ would tell me. (Long distance telephone calls cost money in those days, so calls into Houston radio stations were right out. I was living in the shadow of Texas A&M at the time, and the only two FM stations played easy listening music and country) Research was mainly limited to talking with like-minded friends (not many; my music was “too weird”) and Creem magazine. But mainly those off-kilter off-hours DJs in the days before programming analysts and corporate radio.

So many genres! Including… BIBLE?!

So here I am again, hearing the bit of music that really grabs me and wondering “What is that? How can I hear it again?” After Hours FM has a forum which posts playlists, and some of the sets do still have DJs doing the song announcement bit, meaning I’ve bought six songs in the past week (Russian stations like Anima Amoris are not so forthcoming)(Proofreader me points out that Anima’s actual site tells you what track is currently playing, unlike AH. Спасибо, Ivan!). This portion of the passion (with the brew that is true) takes me back to the late 80s, where there were some weekends when I just had to have new music, and would walk a mile or so from my fourplex hovel in Montrose to the Sound Exchange, a wondrous repository of all kinds of music. Both the fourplex and the store have been developed into oblivion, but at least The Sound Exchange still exists, they just found an equally boho neighborhood for a new location. I am going to be forever embittered by the gentrification of Montrose. But now we’re back to the Old Man phase of life, with me shaking my cane at high-rises where my little apartment and favorite dive bar used to live.

Am I back? Is better living through chemistry finally going to allow me to finish that damned Suspiria entry and even watch movies again?

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the little Monkey Dog who would sleep in my lap during movies the past year decided to run away and never come back (guess she’s peeing on someone else’s sofa right now), so drag me up another double shot of antidepressants, cue up some Goa music and kung fu, and I might be able to watch something tonight. I have a rare 24 hours between clocking out and tomorrow’s show with nothing on my calendar. I’d say let’s party, but I am not a partier. Let’s anti-party. Yes, that’s it, let’s anti-party.

Prufrocked Again

Whaddaya know, I finally started that project where I would actually watch good, well-regarded movies. I watched the first one, and really enjoyed it. Still thinking about it, almost two weeks later. The Law of Unintended Consequences being what it is, however, it also means that every time I’ve started another movie since. I’ve turned it off after a few minutes because it just didn’t measure up. Look at what I’ve generally been writing about in the last 1-20 years and you’ll see what a WTF moment this is. I have been infected by quality.

I am sure this will pass.

I had a dream, based on past years, of resurrecting a Letterboxd game called March Movie Madness, which was for those of us who couldn’t care less about any iteration of sportsball. It was an A-Z review challenge, one review a night, to run opposite whatever the hell March Madness entails. I like the A-Z challenges (the fact that I do Hubrisween year after year should prove that); they have a sort of scavenger hunt/game vibe that I appreciate. I did a couple of these review marathons, even in the years they didn’t return on Letterboxd. That was also back when I was limited to part-time hours at my job. I’m full-time now (sigh of relief), but that means a lot less time to watch movies, and especially to write about them. I still intend to do this Quality Thing, but it won’t be concentrated in a month (or 26 linear days). It’ll be spread out. I need to come up with a banner to make them distinct, as if the “LETTER: MOVIE TITLE BEGINNING WITH THAT LETTER” weren’t enough.

Looking back over the master list, I should probably also mention that you shouldn’t expect a train of masterpieces, either. It’s also intended make me finally see movies I have should have watched ages ago but just haven’t, for some reason or another. So The Magnificent Ambersons is on the list, but so is Rasputin the Mad Monk.

I’ve read over my older stuff here, and it seems that February is always a time for introspection and grumbling, and if I’m going to start blaming 40 hours a week for diminished writing, I should also start beating on the elephant in the room, which is my age.

Yep, the movies lied to me AGAIN.

Yeah, I’ve always complained about being older than the average bear. I was 40 years old when I wrote my first online review for The Bad Movie Report on a Fortune Cities free website. I got to bitch about my age because I found myself hanging around with people easily ten years younger, if not more, people much more savvy about the Internet than myself, sitting in my room and futzing about with Adobe Page Mill. The aftereffects of a major car wreck years previous (and some foolishly Lon Chaney-esque escapades on the stage) had me still hobbling about on a cane, sometimes wondering if I was going to wind up with a walker. Exercise has weaned me off the cane (unless I overdo it, as sometimes one must), but there is no denying that I hit the 60 year mark a couple of years ago, and I started finding out everything actual old people kept saying was true.

Next time, buy a one-story house. Fool.

I used to like to game. My reflexes have slowed to the point that I say pfui to these twitchy things that require me to do fifteen things at once, and find solace in solitaire games, and JRPGs with turn-based combat. I definitely get winded faster, and as was proven when we tried to move a futon to my son’s upstairs bedroom lst December, I ain’t as strong as I used to be. (a side query involves who the fuck makes futon frames with wrought iron? Hah?) There are times I wonder what the hell I was thinking, buying a two-story house seventeen years ago. (The answer is it was the only one we could afford that also allowed me a room for my office. My tiny, tiny office now crammed full of books and movies)(Also, I loved the neighborhood and still do)

All of this, really was expected. Everything eventually breaks down, even your body. You shrug, you carry on. But the bad thing, the really Bad Thing, is the Senior Moment.

I’ve had them. The time I sat in the car, frozen, because I forgot, for a moment, how to open a car door. The time I was driving home from the store and cursed because I had forgotten to pick something essential up, and realized two minutes later that I actually had. The time I was leaving the weekly show, dropped my suit bag in a panic because I was suddenly sure I had left the suit bag in The Room. Yes, the suit bag I just dropped. And the one my companion kept pointing to and saying “Isn’t this it?” as I tried to get back into the locked Room.

The worst part is when I can’t get the steam pressure up.

My wife – a lifelong blonde, who claims to do this all the time, all her life – will say “How funny.” It’s not funny, it’s terrifying. I’m not rich, I’m not handsome, all I’ve ever had is my mind, and if I lose my slippery grip on that, I got nothing. Add to that the fact that the thing that keeps killing men in my family is strokes, and I’ve seen the effects of that horror visited upon them – I’m definitely in the midst of an existential crisis.

Probably the best I can do is employ the methods my ancestors have used to deal with existential crises, which involve booze, loud music, and something smothered with cheese, the one concession to the 21st century being the music is Trance and I’m still watching a kaleidoscope app to put myself in an alpha state. My major fear is that I will drop dead before I get to see Avengers: Endgame, and that is at the same time pathetic and extremely hilarious. I should put it on a T-shirt.

Hope to see you next week when the Polar Vortex is back in place and the only horrors in this space are born of whatever movie I plug in tonight. If I can make it through it.

 

 

Best Laid Plans

Well, that was certainly a week. But tonight I’ll finally be able to start watching that list of Good Movies!

(checks mailbox)

Oh God damn it.

Two Generations of Digital Monstrosity

So, how’s that thing where you watch movies of quality again going?

Just fine, thanks.

What have you watched so far?

Er, a couple of Asian monster movies.

That doesn’t sound like we’re talking about the same thing.

Go away, I explain.

Monstrum was a fair box office hit in Korea last year, but dropped behind Searching in its second week of release and never recovered the lead. We’re in that very popular period of Korean history for their genre flicks, the Joseon era, 1527, in this case. King Jung Jong is having a difficult time; his court, led by an ambitious Prime Minister, is actively opposing him, and using a supposed rampage by a monster to make him appear weak and ineffectual. The king tracks down one of his old captains – Yoon Gyeom – who had gone into self-imposed exile years before. He had been present at a massacre of an entire village to contain an epidemic, found one survivor – a baby girl – with no trace of disease, and after excoriating the court for their extreme response, left to raise the girl, along with his faithful lieutenant. Knowing him to be a righteous man, Jung Jong asks him to take his rank back up to investigate the monster situation.

Well, something is killing lots of people in a bloody manner, and there seems to be a resurgence in the disease that led to the massacre years before. Yoon, however, is skeptical; too many of the bodily remains of the supposed monster slaughter bear odd marks that look like rope burns. And, of course, the political maneuvering continues, muddying the waters further.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Okay SPOILER alert here, though it’s pretty much spoiled by the trailer below, anyway: yes, the whole monster thing is a plot by the wicked Prime Minister to overthrow the government and take over. But, goshdarn it, there actually is a Monster, it’s the source of that disease, and the Prime Minister’s machinations serve to not make it royally pissed off, but also manage to bring it right into the Imperial Palace. There is a fair amount of mayhem ensuing.

I’m trying to be fairly circumspect here, because Monstrum is an enjoyable movie and I want you to experience it yourself. What I feared was going to be a rehash of Brotherhood of the Wolf turned out to be a bit more nuanced, and more brutal in execution. I really need to apologize to the actors and filmmakers here, because my aged Western brain is not having much success with parsing the Korean names – which after years of watching Chinese and Japanese movies just feels like a complete personal failure. This is because I want to praise what becomes the core of our good guys; Yoon (Kim Myung-Min) is easy, but I can’t easily pin down his lieutenant (Kim Im-Kwon), the grown girl Yoon rescued (who has become a expert archer and medicine woman)(Lee Hye-Ri), and the young courtier who falls in love with her (Choi Woo-Shik). (Thank God for that trailer! It helped me maintain a small degree of journalistic integrity) The chemistry between these actors is quite good, and though you sense that this story is pretty much a one-off experience, you’d like to see more of them by the movie’s end.

For reasons that will soon be apparent, I followed this up with Moon Over Tao, with which I have a fairly shameful and stupid relationship. This came out on domestic VHS in the late 90s, and I dutifully bought it, and then never watched it. So this was the perfect time, I thought, and now I have to write about it without getting it confused with Monstrum.

Getting old sucks.

Let’s start the confusion early: Suikyou (Toshiyuki Nagashima) returns to his old lord years after leaving his service to become a monk. He returns because he dreamed of an old comrade in trouble. This comrade, we find, was investigating the source of a marvelous sword taken from a captured bandit, and has not returned. To demonstrate, the samurai Hayate (Hiroshi Abe) uses the sword to cut through a sizable rock as if it were paper. Suikyou leaves to find his comrade, but the Lord insists Hayate tag along. Along the way they meet Reika (Reila Aphrodite), a young orphan girl and beekeeper. Then things get complicated.

Reika witnesses the arrival of, and a fight between, three alien women (all played by Yûko Moriyama), who are seeking a biological weapon they call the Makaraga. One of the women throws herself between her two comrades as they fight, and gets mortally wounded for her trouble. While the fight rages on across the countryside, Reika tends to the dying woman, who explains to her the plot and gives her the Tao, a tuning fork-like device that can “seal the Makaraga”.

BOOGA BOOGA!

In the interest of moving things along (and the plot is fairly complex): Suikyou is certain his old acquaintance Kakugyo (Gene Ballard), a monk gone evil, is the source of all problems. Indeed, Kakugyo is the leader of the bandits; he found a meteorite and stripped away its metal exterior to make the invincible swords his men wield, and in the center, a strange globe from which his mystic senses receive what seem to be fragmented memories: it is, of course, the Makaraga, which the alien womens’ race found so terrible they sealed it in metal and buried it on a desolate moon centuries before. Then, doggoneit, the moon blew up and the Makaraga fell to Earth. One of the surviving women wants to use it to foment revolution on their home planet; the other wants to keep it sealed away forever. Movie plots being what they are, Kakugyo is going to stumble upon the way to revive the Makaraga during what should have been the final battle, and that turns out to be a bad thing, as the beastie is not only immortal, it is eternally hungry.

While Moon Over Tao lacks the political intrigue of Monstrum (though there is a bit – Suikyou is there to kill Kakugyo, and is shocked when Hayate tries to negotiate with him for the sale of the swords to his master), it’s a lot more fun. Well, maybe it’s more fun because of that. I’m surprised there aren’t more examples of Japanese sci-fi mixed with chambara – the only other instance I can think of offhand is Orochi the 8-Headed Dragon – but it’s the internet, I’m sure I’ll be reminded of more. Suikyou is a remarkable character – he carries with him a period clipboard so he can paint one-off magic scrolls on the spot, and his battle staff conceals an enormous paintbrush for the same purpose. The magic fights between Suikyou and Kakugyo are creative and kinetic. And the screenplay is full of little bits that become quite significant later, something I always appreciate.

But we’re here to talk about monsters, aren’t we? We love monsters!

Monstrum‘s beastie is almost totally CGI, as you expect for a 2018 flick – I think I spotted a few shots with CGI-sweetened animatronics, but I could also be wrong. It’s actually a pretty good monster, if still a bit hyper-real – that hair is just a little too distinct. It looks like an enormous monkey dog fed on steroids and evil intent, and it has a disturbing bit of humanity about the face, allowing it to show some emotion, while skeeving us out.

Oooooooh dear

The Makaraga is a mix of animatronics and, sadly, 1997 CGI. It’s actually pretty good CGI for 1997, but it evidences a major problem in that era – trying to make the CGI creation look like it has weight. The Makaraga walks and glides too easily in its environments, and the difference between the animation and the real-world constructions that people interact with is all too obvious. The design does feel genuinely alien, though, so high marks for that.

Monstrum and Moon Over Tao feel largely cut from the same cloth, but are different enough to forge their own identities. Monstrum for straight adventure, Moon Over Tao for popcorn pulp. Just don’t watch them practically back to back, as I did, or they will start blending into each other, and you’ll start feeling like a senile fool when you talk about them.

 

The Year Comes for Us

December was kind of weird.

Despite managing to post some reviews from a truncated project, and a Crapfest recap, I was largely off movies for the month. That’s not unusual; Hubrisween – or any similar movie challenge – usually leaves me with a hangover. So I engaged in some other braincell-killing pursuits, until I could bear to watch a movie again. Which is good, because I’m trying to gear up for another challenge in March, one that will ease me none-too-gently back into the world of Movies I Should Have Been Watching. I do really enjoy wallowing in the Cinema of Diminished Expectations, but there are so bloody many conversations I cannot take part in because I was watching Sausage Party instead of A Quiet Place.

Let’s do the non-movie stuff first.

I couldn’t afford a new laptop, but I still needed a portable computing solution, so I got a refurbished Chromebook instead, and I love it (of course, I love it because I’m not using it for its intended purpose). It does everything my phone does, with a larger screen and keyboard. My phone had started to be a transistor radio to me months ago, when I started using Amazon Music to sing me to sleep (their phone app has a sleep timer). I started to explore music podcasts for the same thing, since most podcast apps have a similar timer, or simply stop after an episode finishes. My favorite in this period was Trance Paradise, hosted by Euphoric Nation (yes, I am 61 years old and listen to a lot of Trance). That led me to the Internet radio station After Hours. Now, I sighed, if only I could find a podcast or radio station for my other love, late 60s – early 70s psychedelic rock. Exploring apps on my Chromebook, I find one that has links for Trance stations… and another for largely more electronia, but had the occasional oldies station, so say hello to my other new love, Psychedelicized Radio.

Which is all to the good, as I like music playing while I work, but it wasn’t using the potential of the Chromebook to its fullest. Then, by golly, enter Whizical Digital Imaging and their app, Kaleider. It’s an image-mirroring program that can produce some stunning, moving kaleidoscope images, and though I can find nothing that says it’s triggered by music (it has its own music player) the shifting of the images in time with either of those music stations is often more than can be chalked up to happenstance. This provides an experience that’s closer to meditation than anything I’ve managed in years. If I had this toy back in my heavy acid-dropping days, I would never have come down. I’m reminded of some parts of Ernie Kovacs’ TV show that were simply recordings of classical music with kaleidoscope images. In black and white. This is better.

For instance…

It’s also been fun tracking down images of old black light posters to feed into the program. I briefly considered trying to make a video of Kaleider in unison with some music, but then I realized the reaction would be something along the lines of “Oh, you stoned fool,” and went back to playing Gems of War (something else the Chromebook can do, and my dumpster-diver PC could not).

But what’s this? Christmas, and a number of Amazon gift cards? Hello, suddenly affordable replacement PC! It’s not magnificent, but a very definite step up. (I still can’t play No Man’s Sky, which is something I’ve wanted to do for three goddam years, but hey) What I can do is run Plex, which suddenly put the sneakernet in my house out of business. I had been jealous of my pal Dave’s home networking, and now I don’t have to be! Movies stream like magic to my TV! I feel like I’m finally living in the year 2000!

So. Movies. Let’s do the rare theatrical outings first.

Aquaman: I loved it. The further the DCEU gets from the Snyderverse, the better. As my son Max exclaimed, “There was actual color in this movie!” Strong cast, good director, and the sort of visual overload I once moaned that you could only get from Chinese movies. My major takeaway from The Expendables was “My God, Dolph Lundgren actually learned how to act!” and he is great in Aquaman! I have never been so happy to reassess my opinion of an actor. I’m also impressed that the DCEU hasn’t tried to movie-up their costuming as Marvel did. That didn’t work out so well with Deathstroke in the post-credit scene in Justice League, but damned if they didn’t make the gold-and-green for Aquaman look good. Amber Heard had already proven she could pull off the classic green Mera look. Hell, I didn’t even mind the minor rewrites of Justice League to make the timeline in this movie work.

I know, I know, you’re sick of superhero movies. You’re where I was with slasher movies, romcoms and 80s movies reboots. They’ll fade into the past soon enough. In the meantime, let me have my fun.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: I’m torn. I really, really loved the first one and its videogame-centric worldview. This is a sequel that did everything a sequel should: took our established heroes, gave them new challenges and vistas to explore. The satire is much wider here, but still pretty geeky. Overall, I liked it a lot, I think: the take on the Disney Princesses is pretty funny, and I liked that the animators cared enough that when they’re mucking around the Marvel part of Disney, they included a Stan Lee avatar. I’ll need to watch it again when it hits home video. Also, the post-credit scene was perfectly timed to answer a question that occurred to me.

Speaking of home video…

My local movie resale shop has a deal where if you buy 3, you get the 4th one free, and that is how I went home with Sausage Party (the others were It Follows, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Black Cauldron, if that matters). This is the R-rated version. I understand there is an unrated, unexpurgated version out there, and holy shit, am I not interested. The R-rated version pretty much took me to the limits of where I was willing to go. The world-building was fairly okay; the supermarket as a place where food waits for “Gods” – people – to come and take them to the promised land, and those that sit on the shelf too long are gathered by the “Dark Lord” and taken to the hell of the trash can. You probably already know about the overtly sexual relationship between hot dogs and buns, but you are not ready for the oversexed nature of all food. From there we fall into too-easy racial stereotypes as ethnic foods enter into the story, the discovery that the “Gods” are monsters who will eat our main characters and the eventual war between the two, climaxing – quite literally – in a food orgy, which is at least inclusive of all possible gender combos, and has one impossible act. The question that is going to linger with you is why?

Well, I may have given up on Pixels after five minutes, but I’ve seen Sausage Party all the way through.

Not sure what that proves.

“Complete and unexpurgated” had caught me by nasty surprise recently, too, as I had a copy of the extremely strange Italian movie Nude for Satan that claimed to be this. I had gotten really tired of the “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” thing (jesus, people, I was making that joke years ago), posted “Oh, so I suppose you’re going to tell me Nude for Satan isn’t a Christmas movie” and slapped that thing into the player, thinking this was likely a prime candidate for Crapfest. What I didn’t know was that there was a Dutch version of the movie into which some wily entrepreneur had spliced actual hardcore porn footage. There are few things like being entertainingly puzzled by a demented Italian flick and when your protagonist opens a door and reacts in shock, you are slapped across the face by several minutes of well-lit, enthusiastic fellatio. On Christmas Eve, no less. This would happen over and over again, with only a minimal attempt to actually connect it to the movie surrounding it (and often not even that bare – *snicker* – minimum), rendering the plot even more confusing. Something about Satan trying to switch our two stars with versions of themselves from the past, and lecherous giant spiders and oh yes, more porn.

Obviously the only way to follow that up was by finally watching Venom (please do not inquire about this train of thought). I’m okay with Tom Hardy finally getting his superhero movie, but I’ve never been a Spider-Man fan, nor of any of his morning zoo crew. It’s pretty standard stuff, with crusading reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) finding out that Earth-Sony’s version of a not-stupid Elon Musk (Riz Ahmed) has managed to bring back some alien symbiotes via his own private space program. The symbiotes have to bind with a compatible host to survive in our atmosphere, and most people aren’t strong enough to survive the binding. Brock is, and is soon talking to himself and turning into a whole bunch of shapes as Venom (and biting off a couple of heads). The upshot is that a more powerful symbiote, Riot, has taken over Ahmed, and wants to bring all its symbiote buddies back to Earth to eat us. Venom wants to stop this, which is a character turn that feels entirely unearned, but we agree to let art wash over us. Venom made a ton of money at the cinemas, and I’m not sure why; I don’t regret ceding 90 minutes of my life to it, but it’s not something I’m going to grab people and say “Hey! Watch this!”

Last watch of the year was something I had meant to get to for a while, unsuccessfully: The Night Comes for UsTimo Tjahjanto’s action follow-up to Headshot (preceded by the equally Netflix-produced horror movie May the Devil Take You). Ito (Joe Haslam) is one of the Six Seas, Triad drug lords in charge of keeping the trade efficient and problem-free. When a few members of a village skim the Triad’s profits, Ito and his crew are sent to massacre the entire village as a lesson to others. Ito, however, hits Kill Critical Mass, and instead of letting his men finish off the lone surviving 6 year-old girl, kills them instead, and that is where the problems begin.

Ito’s attempt to leave the country with the girl and start a new life gets very complicated when the other Six Seas want the girl dead to complete their message, and Ito six feet under as well. To do this they call in his childhood buddy Arian (Iko Uwais), as well as the female assassins The Five Lotus Petals. What that really means, though, is this movie is basically one long fight scene, and is already infamous for its brutality. That’s it. Theoretically the movie’s about the different paths Ito and Arian’s lives have taken, but it’s really just a Macguffin surrounded by fight scenes. It’s fun to see Uwais play on his reputation as a good guy.  Julie Estelle (the formidable Hammer Girl of The Raid 2) is on hand as The Operator, an impressively deadly lady whose job is to exterminate the Six Seas. At the end, The Operator, five of the Six Seas and at least two of the Five Lotus Petals are still alive. That’s a sequel I would watch.

You might want to bring plastic sheeting to a viewing, though. Pretend it’s a Gallagher concert.

New Year’s Eve was spent talking myself out of watching The Emoji Movie, on the faulty theory that then 2019 couldn’t possibly do anything worse to me, but I finally decided it was best not to tempt the bastard. Now I suppose I should start thinking about teeing up those movies of (harrumph) quality I was talking about.

Right after The Emoji Movie.