A Critical Mishap

It’s possible that one of the contributing factors to my current paucity of critical writing is an incident that happened years ago (ain’t that always the Freudian way?). Lazy afternoon, the wife and I were watching something on Netflix that was a compilation of 50s-60s horror movie trailers with snarky commentary. The snark frequently bordered on the mean and hateful, and I said so. “They sound like your reviews,” she said. I answered that my reviews started from a basis of affection, but she was having none of it. “Nope. They sound just like you.”

That’s bothered me off and on in the intervening years. The instances of bother seem to coincide with periods of scarcity, like now. Am I contributing anything to the discussion? Or am I simply a low-rent MST3K substitute, available without subscription? And really, isn’t this kind of a pathetic existential crisis?

I suspect this will soon be rendered rear-view mirror material; I have a Crapfest coming up in a couple weeks, and such pearl-clutching will go out the window, where it belongs. I’ve been feeling a slight yearning to return to movie-watching, to that pledge to watch all of Tarkovsky’s movies this year. Some of this may be fueled by a bit of brightness, that the current efforts to take away my health insurance have failed; however, there is also the awareness that when the Death Star explodes, the Empire just builds another one.

So it goes.

So once more it is asked, what exactly are you doing with your evenings?

Guess.

Yes, I wrote about some a few weeks back. I’m still exploring the form. Greg Wilcox told me my price quote of $15.99 was due to a poor sampling (though some of the prices I’ve seen on YouTube have been that bad if not worse. I suspect those were from the heyday of the fad, and the market is cooling); I’ve since seen spinners in the wild recently for $5.99. I continue to get them on a slow boat from China for two to three bucks. The truly dangerous ones I ordered still haven’t arrived, but there is enough to confound and bore you with.

There are a number of Batman forms available, but I went for the more retro curved version, as opposed to the modern, angular and sharp versions. The design’s asymmetry works against it; I like to spin and move the device, enjoying the gyroscopic feel pushing against me. It reminds of that cool-ass toy gyroscope I had when I was a kid. This design, though, doesn’t engender the same smooth force – it creates a clunky, bumpy spin. If you’re poetically-minded, it does sort of recall the flapping of a bat’s wings.

(guitar solo)

I did have to also get in this combined copyright nightmare. This is essentially the former spinner with a rubber Captain America shield plopped in the center disc, no other changes. It did however allow me to post on Instagram:

WE’RE AN AMERICAN BAT
WE’RE COMIN’ TO YOUR TOWN
WE’LL HELP YOU PARTY DOWN
WE’RE AN AMERICAN BAT

With Marvel movies making serious coin in China, you can be sure that there are also spinners of his shield, and here I finally hit a cropper: I knew it would be a disc spinner, which I don’t really care for. It is pretty large and colorful, but, in a departure from most of these spinners (except my beloved Behemoth steampunk spinner), it is entirely plastic. Most spinners also have a version of a skateboard bearing at its center, and this one does not, so it has no spin stamina. Being a cheap bastard, I go for the “Free, Just Pay Shipping” versions where possible – it’s possible if I spent a few more bucks I could get a metal version, but again: I’m not going to use a disc spinner, so why bother?

Putting the lie to that almost immediately is this beast. I love dragons, especially the classical Asian type, so this baby was calling my name. A disc type, but the spines and horns give my middle finger enough purchase to spin it in my preferred style. Heavy and metal, it spins a looooong time, though. If it were a little larger, it would be ideal. Though even at its size, it feels inordinately heavy, so wishing it larger might be some monkey’s paw foolishness.

Also in our last installment, I introduced you to the fidget spinner full of ancient evil, and the spinner filled with ancient pseudoscience. In my increasingly deranged head canon, the ancient evil and astrology spinners teamed up, so I had to get a spinner filled with the power of SCIENCE. Besides the fact that it looks pretty cool (and reminds me of my favorite Silver Age Metamorpho villain, back in the Ramona Fradon days), that design is perfectly balanced (SCIENCE!) and its spin stamina is off the charts. Go, Science!

Now wait, you may say, you keep going on about dangerous spinners, but none of these has seemed particularly damaging, although we are worrying about your mental health in general. I KNOW. All my really lethal spinners have yet to arrive, and I am beginning to suspect customs may be confiscating them against the coming civil war. But I do have one that is proven dangerous:

Hahaaaaa, yes! Come here, you lovely little monster! If you read the article, it’s exactly two of these gizmos that have done the Johnny Storm bit, and it’s because of the same problem that gave us exploding Galaxy Notes: too much battery in too small a space. Well, we are very safety conscious here at Freex Labs, so while charging we placed the spinner in a metal container and did not leave it unattended. There were disappointingly few sparks, flames or explosions. The damn thing didn’t even get hot. It paired to my phone easily and produced quite the light show while streaming music from Pandora – my wife is extremely jealous and I have to lock it up at night.

What caused most of the adverse reactions to this was not so much the exploding part as “a bluetooth spinner?” I grant you, it is puzzling. The music sounds alright, but it would sound so much better from a bluetooth headset or dedicated speaker. Those damned kids! They’re just doing it to be annoying!

So, that’s it until Customs decides I’m not a terrorist looking to cause mass destruction with my questionable spinner purchases. But wait… what’s this?

 

I, um…. I’ll see you later.

IT WAS COMING RIGHT AT ME

Solitaire’s a Game for One

“So, if you’re not currently watching movies almost nightly, what are you doing with your evenings?”

I’m glad you asked, mysterious sock puppet. I’m reading, of course – Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks, and being driven mad by the faux photocopied documents, almost impossible to read on my Kindle. But by and large, I am indulging that infrequently employed category on this blog, Old Men Playing Videogames.

“DANG you, PwnzNoobz666!”

This is where the “Old Man” part becomes a bit more than ironic posturing. I haven’t owned a gaming console in more than a decade, maybe two – that is now the province of my son. You get right down to it, I was never very good at most of them, anyway. My methodology in fighting games was “Flail away in all directions”. The other gaming trend that took over the market for a couple of years was side-scrolling shooters, and I did alright at those, but I found them more frustrating than entertaining. Don’t even talk to me about platformers. My interests were more with the Role Playing Games; the first videogame I ever finished was Legend of Zelda II: Link’s Adventure. I remain one of the only people I know who finished Final Fantasy VII.

So most of my experience with the newer, shinier videogames has been watching my son play or when I visit Dave and he forces me to play whatever Mario is current so he can laugh at my clumsiness. No, I still play what are known as JRPGs, still finding them entertaining until almost inevitably I hit the ridiculously overpowered End Boss and I walk away. Past that, I have largely aged into what is sneeringly referred to as a Casual Gamer.

My game is Solitaire.

“Memmmmmories… light the corners of my miiiiiind…”

It was almost impossible to escape the classic game of Klondike in the early days of home computing – it, like Minesweeper, was there to get people accustomed to using the mouse. There were many games marketed over the years with fancier, even customizable cards, more variations on the game. One of the first shareware games I actually bought – outside DOOM – was Solsuite, which has resided on every hard drive I ever owned. It includes what seems to be every variation of the game ever, and beating German Patience was my quest for several months.

But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m an RPG fan, so I wanted something a little deeper. And game designers stepped up. We’ll take these in (sort of) order played. I’m not going to mention the ones I hated – and there are several. All of these are available on Steam, if you are so interested. All of them employ the basics rules of the Solitaire variation known as Golf, where cards are played one rank higher or lower than than the base card, with no regards to suit. The order loops, so Kings may be played on Aces, and vice versa.

I suppose my modern era of solitaire obsession began with Rainbow Games’ Chronicles of Emerland, which I originally played on an iPad, and was delighted to find on Steam.

Emerland eases the RPG fanatic into it’s world via a tutorial administered by an ancient wizard. In a format with which we will become very familiar, each level consists of ten hands, with an option to immediately replay any hand with less than a happy outcome, and you are going to want to get as much gold as possible from each hand to buy power-ups in the game store – more undo’s per hand, more cards to your deck. Wild cards occasionally show up, and you can hold up to five for when they are needed. Longer strings of cards removed from the board give you bigger bonuses. Between each level is a brief hidden object game to break things up.

When you finish your tutorial level, the Wizard’s old disciple, Seth, shows up and announces he’s going to take over the world, as one does. His plan is to waltz though the four kingdoms, destroy the Amulet each uses for magic protection, and then raise a Lava Golem to dominate them. You – and your cards – have to get through all the obstacles Seth throws in your way, repair the broken Amulets, and defeat the Golem. Along the way you pick up a companion from each of the Kingdoms – a Knight, Elf, Dwarf and Merman. Each has special attacks that prove very helpful in cleaning up the hands where you have an annoying card or two left over.

The artwork is very pretty in Emerland; the characters have some limited animation, and are fully (and pretty well) voiced. I enjoy that the card layouts actually change in form through the various kingdoms. I literally have no idea how many times I’ve played this through.

That obsession was kicked into high gear by Grey Alien Games’ Regency Solitaire, which I had read about on Boing Boing. It’s basically the Masterpiece Theater of solitaire games, as we meet young Bella, whose family fortunes have been squandered away by her foolish brother Edward. He’s been snookered by that awful Mr. Bleakley, the scheming neighbor who hopes, now that her family is practically penniless, that Bella will be forced to marry him. The game will take you though a pretty entertaining story, as Edward gets in deeper and Bella meets Lord Henry Worthington, who is as handsome and decent as Bleakley is odious and treacherous.

No hidden object games here, though each level has three increasingly difficult objectives that must be met or you have to play the level over again. Between each level you can purchase power-ups in the form of decor for Bella’s initially barren ballroom, two of which do stray card cleanup. Regency also allows you to hold up to ten wildcards, and those will be essential for some of the tougher objectives. I haven’t played it as many times as Emerland, but it’s close.

Subsoap’s Faerie Solitaire is the one I’ve currently played the least, but that’s not a comment on its quality – for some reason, on my desktop, the game refuses to be centered in fullscreen mode. It plays just fine on my laptop though. You’re a young man who seems to have a talent for freeing captured faeries (through playing solitaire, of course). Exactly why these poor creatures are being captured has not yet been revealed. The main character has voiceover narration, and my producer’s heart mutters “Couldn’t this just as easily been a girl? Save the cost of the voice work and make it gender neutral?”

The design seems geared toward younger players, with whimsical, simple card designs. The default sounds seem rather loud, clangs and crashes calculated to create youthful laughter (or maybe I’m just old). Though the game claims its version of wildcards are “Rare” I’m finding them pretty frequently. There is no option for immediately replaying less-than-perfect hands, that is apparently in another game mode that has to be (pretty easily) unlocked. Perfect hands allow you to gather eggs for fantasy animals that evolve through other magic items gathered and experience as you play. And who can resist hatching dragons? It’s been fun, though not terribly challenging.

Anawiki Games’ Avalon Legends Solitaire 2 was my sole reason for existing for several days. It begins with a war between King Arthur and an army of goblins, which I guess was the plot for the first game (spoiler: it was not). While Arthur and his knights are off to Goblinland, it’s up to you, a druid with a deck of magic cards, to rebuild war-ravaged Camelot. Clearing cards uncovers gold, food and material, all things you need to create buildings, and depending on which you build, they will create more.

Avalon places each hand as a separate location of a pretty large map. It had been a while since I’d played a game with a manufacturing chain, and I soon realized I was cheating myself by wailing on the replay button immediately after a bad hand. By returning to the main map each time, I collected more material for rebuilding. Playing the hand again doesn’t replace the food or materials, but it allows you to score more gold, and as we all know, gold can solve a lot of problems.

I took the responsibility of rebuilding Camelot very seriously. and spent most every waking hour doing so – it was that much fun. I seem to have completed that about three-quarters of the way through the map, which means now I can afford some of the pricier power-ups in Merlin’s Tower. Wild cards really are rare in this game – you generally have to buy them – but it seems you can replay ANY hand whenever you want.

Let’s wrap up with something completely different, Raging Hammer Games’ Solitairica. Once more you’re up against some megalomaniacal villain – this time it’s Emperor Stuck – using only the power of Golf. Well, not only, as there are some intriguing overlays. You’re still clearing cards largely with no consideration of suits, but this time the suits do matter, because they charge up one of four attributes – Attack, Defense, Agility and Willpower. These power spells that allow you to clear cards faster, make better decisions or, as it says, defend.

This is what I was playing when Avalon Legends 2 sucked me in. The hands each represent a different enemy, and they are not defeated until you clear all the cards from the field. Each enemy is different in both attacks and defense, requiring you to constantly reassess your play style. The first field is eighteen enemies deep, and I don’t know how the game is arranged after that, because I haven’t gotten any farther than that. Challenging game, but highly entertaining. When a defeated enemy calls me a “Hornswoggler!” I know I’m in for a good time.

There’s more I haven’t even started to play yet – including a Day of the Dead-themed one – buuuuuut I’m also pretty sure you stopped reading a couple of games ago. Fine. I’m going to see if I can finally defeat the Sturdy Coin Swarm Expanding Bureaucrat.

Also Available on Amazon:

Chronicles of Emerland

Regency Solitaire

Faerie Solitaire

Avalon Legends 2

 

The Block of the Writer

First off, I’ve had writer’s block before, and this really isn’t it. Writer’s Block is usually a perceptual crisis where nothing seems to fit right and no way forward can be seen, and thus paralysis sets in.

Okay, so maybe what I have is writer’s block. A form of it anyway.

The diet seems to consist mainly of despair these days, and if you don’t understand why this is, you are A) Lucky or B) Not paying attention, or both. Everything is burning or falling apart or getting shot and in an atmosphere like that, you start to wonder if something like watching movies and gassing about them for a thousand words or two actually matters in any way.

This is, I suppose, an existential crisis that all writers – and other artists – go through at some time. “Is there a point to what I am doing?”

Now, I’ve carved out a minor career in examining the pointless, absurd, and disposable – it’s inevitable that I’d eventually consider that career to be pointless, absurd and disposable – because it is. But it’s my piece of the turf. It’s what I do. I keep trying to return to it, but again: it’s currently a grind setting off sparks against a much bigger grind. I don’t expect this to be permanent – it hasn’t the other times it’s happened. But that could also just be the psychic equivalent of thinking that chest pain will go away, because it has every other time.

I do really miss yanking the page out and crumpling it while screaming “GARBAGE! IT’S ALL GARBAGE!”

I’ve had my experiences with depression and this is similar to a worrisome degree; the major difference is this time I’m medicated and able to function better (and in the Paying Attention category, you know there are forces at work trying to take that away from me). And that adds a new wrinkle into the current Block: do my meds dull my creative spark, or whatever the hell it is that drives me to link words together in a semi-coherent and hopefully entertaining manner?

There have been essays about all the great writers who were also addicts in one way or another and think yeaaaaah probably not. Did Hemingway need booze to write? If Coleridge’s doctor had not prescribed Laudanum for rheumatism, would we still have Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Kubla Khan? That one, at least is easy to refute – he wrote both before he became addicted. Writing is a complex, solitary chore – more people choose to not do it than do.

I hit a point recently where I ran out of my happy pills and couldn’t afford the refill (this period is now luckily past) and I found out that one of my other addictions filled in somewhat, and that is the fidget spinner.

Oh, so much digital ink has been spilled on these things! Teachers hate them! Boing Boing loves them! Allow me to fill up some space about them, and maybe bust through this writing blockade.

If you have not yet encountered the fidget spinner, welcome back from Mars, I look forward to seeing your slides. This picture is the most common style: usually three arms spinning around a central base with a bearing. Each arm usually has another bearing, so when you get tired of spinning around the center. there is another way to fiddle with them. There is apparently an entire subset of YouTube tutorials for tricks with them.

These were the big fad in schools last Spring. Teachers I know shared pictures of all the spinners they had confiscated at the end of the year. When I had first heard of them, they were being marketed as an aid to students with autism or ADHD. Whatever else you may call them, that does not cover most of the kids in public schools; so yeah, they’re a distraction in those settings. In my day (*cough cough*) the schoolhouse craze was a lot noisier and more dangerous:

Ladies and gentlemen, that shit could explode on you in a cloud of supposedly high-impact acrylic shrapnel. Spinners at least are quiet and non-explosive. You will recall the autism/ADHD claims; my wife runs a private school for children with learning disabilities (ADHD among them) and used some spinners during testing. The improvement was dramatic – then, this is the actual setting for their intended use.

So. given that the fad has created a famine of the things in local stores, and looking to get a supply for her school, she gets in a package of several from a website that seems to be the Walmart of Chinese vendors, and hands me one and I fall in love.

If you’ve interacted with me for any length of time in fleshspace, you know that I am a thumb-twiddler. It’s something I do while idle without realizing it. That’s one of the reasons I try to avoid clicky-pens – I can get really annoying with the dang things. I run audio for live broadcasts of City meetings, and there is one guy I want to take the pen from and hand him a spinner. Much quieter.

Oh, all right, the website is Wish dot com. It’s not like I get any referral fees or anything. Given that a recent trip to NYC revealed that spinners go for $15.99 or so, waiting a few weeks for a $1 spinner to make it over from China seems reasonable. Because I got really interested in the many forms of the device. Especially the ones that look kinda dangerous.

This is the first one I bought, and still my favorite.  I was wondering about how the gears would interact with the spinning, and the answer is, they don’t. But when you get bored of spinning – it happens – you can turn the gears manually, a variation on spinning from the arms rather than the center. It’s a little bigger and clunkier than most spinners, and feels more comfortable in my hand. Also, most of the spinners I’ve encountered are metallic, and this one is almost entirely plastic.

Now look at this sucker. Just look at it. This is one I simply could not avoid owning. I posted it on Instagram with the caption “My new spinner is here! Unfortunately, it also came with ancient, unrelenting evil.” This is the most dangerous one I own so far, and not just because it looks like a prop from a Full Moon movie. My fidgeting usually takes the form of holding it in my left hand, and my middle finger doing the spinning. Those flanges on the bat wings can hurt, especially since it’s metal and fairly heavy. Also slightly smaller than the steampunk one above, and not as comfortable in my hand.

Next to arrive is this beauty. Instagram caption: “To combat the spinner full of ancient evil, I got one filled with ancient pseudoscience.” My first disc spinner, and I find that form doesn’t jibe with me at all – my usual practice of spinning with the same hand’s middle finger doesn’t work well. It’s a two-handed spinner. But it’s also metal and beautiful. Maybe I can wear it as an oversized medallion or something. Doesn’t bode well for enthusiastic use of the Captain America’s shield spinner that’s on its way, but come on. That purchase was necessary.

And I still haven’t gotten into the really dangerous-looking ones, the ones that are obviously re-purposed shuriken or look like the little brother of the Glaive from Krull.

That was a thousand words on gewgaws that no one will remember existed in ten years. Guess I can still write, after all.

 

The Obligatory Twin Peaks Post

2017 has been a year of more changes than I am comfortable with. I won’t go into the really obvious ones – you’re getting more than enough of that from the news and social media – and will, instead, go into what blogs are supposed to be about – the personal. And one of the most bizarre changes for me is that I now spend so much of my dwindling free time watching television.

I guess it could be argued that the TV I am watching is an entirely different beast from what is usually conjured up when that word is spoken aloud. Any given evening, my wife is downstairs watching more typical fare, like The Bachelorette, Dancing With the Stars, NCIS. She loves those shows, and that’s fine. She works hard, she deserves to be entertained. I have my little space upstairs, where I watch darker, stranger things (though I still have not watched that one. Limited time, folks).

The current obsessions are The Expanse, though I am severely limiting my watching there, as I know season 3 is almost a year away; American Gods, and, of course, the return of Twin Peaks.

I’m not one of the people who re-watched the original series and Fire Walk With Me in preparation for the return. I’ve watched the original so many times – I have multiple copies on VHS, laserdisc, DVD and now blu-ray – it is an old and familiar friend. I do feel badly about not dipping into the deleted and expanded scenes for Fire included in that blu-ray set, but as I said – limited time.

Showtime took the remarkable step of releasing the first four episodes practically simultaneously, so finally – one evening, after far too long a period of scrupulously avoiding anything on the interwebs that even looked like it might be about the show – I turned everything off except the TV, put on my headphones (Lynch soundscapes are important) and sat back for four hours of Lynch.

And got transfixed all over again.

Last week I said I expected something weirder from this iteration than most people were probably expecting, and wow, was I right. Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is still trapped in the Black Lodge, and his evil doppelganger is out committing heinous crimes and generally carrying on the work of Killer Bob under the guise of “Mr. C”.  Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) is tasked – via typically cryptic pronouncements from the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson)’s Log (A Log) – with finding the real Cooper. And yet all this is merely background for what is unfolding. For something called Twin Peaks, there is remarkably little actually happening in Twin Peaks.

In these first four episodes, we’ve had appearances of varying length by characters from the original series where possible, and this is where the series is picking up more than the expected resonances with me. This is something that smacked me upside the head when I first saw The Force Awakens – the return of characters I had known a goodly portion of my life, and they, like me, had aged since I’d last seen them. It’s a phenomenon I’ve also experienced in holiday get-togethers with my college crowd. “Yeah, I’m here for a gathering…” “Well, there’s a bunch of people at that table in back.” “Nah, that’s a bunch of old peopl… oh fuck.”

So it’s actually kind of comforting, in that sad inevitable way, to see it happen to fictional characters that you thought you’d never see again.

The first two episodes bring me back to something I’ve been saying for years – if David Lynch ever decided to hunker down and do a serious horror movie, we would all be screwed. There are always moments of terror in Lynch movies – Blue Velvet is a waking nightmare,  moments in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire will give you the jibbilies – and there are segments in these eps, considered as a two-hour whole, that I will put up against any number of uninspired horror attempts of this decade (and easily ranking among the best). Lynch is one of the few directors who can employ the primal language of dreams correctly, to both good and horrifying effect. The man wrings existential dread out of Roy Orbison songs, for God’s sake.

The two eps also serve as notice that we are in Lynch’s world, bitches, when we meet the Evolution of the Arm, which feels like something Lynch thought was too weird to be put in Eraserhead. We find out that Cooper can’t escape the Red Room unless Mr. C comes back in, something the stars are almost in alignment for (but we will find out Mr. C has set up some sort of Cooperesque homunculus to stave that off). Then the evil doppelganger of the Evolution of the Arm shows up and ejects Cooper from the Red Room anyway.

The third episode involves Cooper’s arrival in the even weirder Purple Room, which is like the most terrifying MYST rip-off game ever. He will eventually work through the point-and-click puzzles – with the help of, oddly enough, what appears to be a grown-up backward-talking Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine). The switcheroo with the homunculus takes place, leaving both Cooper and Mr. C in this world.

(And let me tell you, for several minutes before we found out about C’s fail-safe plan with the homonculus, I thought Lynch had just Lost Highway-ed us again)

However, this causes Mr. C to vomit up all the garmanbozia he’s been gathering for the last 25 years, and he gets captured by the police, alerting Cooper’s old FBI cronies. Meanwhile, as we saw in Fire Walk With Me, a mere two years in the Red Room had rendered Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) incomprehensible; Cooper has been wiped clean by 25 years in there and is walking though life blanker than Chance the Gardener, trying to occupy the life the homunculus had built, which seems to have its own dangers.

This is where we stand now. That bit of largess on Showtime’s part puts us in the odd position of having a skip week and then grumbling, “What, only one episode this week?” But let’s not be facile about this. I was owned, body and soul, as those first few chords of Angelo Badalamenti’s theme played, and I will be back for more on Sunday.

Now, where’s my On The Air reboot?

No need to feel left out. Buy that Twin Peaks Box Set on Amazon

 

Shot by the Bat Merch Gun

If there is one thing that Facebook’s “Memories” function does – besides reminding you of dead friends and beloved pets – is allow you to discern patterns in your life. For me, that’s an unneeded reminder that this time of year is crazy for me.

For example.

Despite the fact that I didn’t go into education like a lot of people thought I would – I always say that it’s because I’m not allowed to shoot a student on the first day to show the others I mean business – my life is nonetheless tied into the academic life cycle. Some people marry into The Church. I married into The School. Besides prepping the technical aspects of the graduation ceremony for my wife’s school, I’m also running audio support for seemingly endless School Board meetings for my Day Job (ironically in the evenings).

This hasn’t left a whole lot of time for watching movies. And what time there was got stolen away by that devil TV. Holy cow, who knew, right? I’ve spent years not visiting the Glass Teat, and here I am sucking down The Expanse and American Gods. Twin Peaks’ first episodes sit on the DVR, and I have no earthly idea when I am going to get the hours together to watch them. I’ve seen David Lynch’s last three movies, and I am not expecting the funhouse mirror of daytime TV that was the first go-round. I am expecting something stranger and darker, and downright weirder. That’s not something I’m going to try to take in a half hour here, a few minutes there. As Dale Cooper once said, you must always pay attention.

But dammit, I managed to watch The Lego Batman Movie, and by God in just the first ten minutes it kicks the living hell out of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. The Lego Movie was a surprise for me back in 2014, and that flick’s meta humor is bat-kicked up to 11 in Lego Batman. I don’t think you have to be a fanboy who’s experienced every single iteration of the character to enjoy the movie, but that certainly enhances it.

Lego Batman does unfortunately preserve a shortcoming of its predecessor in that it feels the need to inject some seriousness in its second half, though that doesn’t annoy me near as much this time – the tone shift isn’t near as drastic. I am also prone to be more forgiving to a movie that not only gives me an Egghead cameo, but also finally allows Billy Dee Williams to play Two-Face, as God and Tim Burton intended.

Yes, you’re right – I am being deliberately coy about the plot. That is because there is so much joy to be found in discovery in this flick, and I want you to have that joy for yourself.

Also, my time is very limited this week, as mentioned earlier. I look forward to some breathing room next week. Then, holy crap, I will likely be braving the scourge of my fellow man (oooh how I despise them) to go to an actual theater to see Wonder Woman (as you may have noticed in the verbiage above, I’ve felt burned by DC movies thus far, but hopes springs eternal and dammit, it’s Diana!), and I am feeling the uncomfortable urge to spring for the 3-D version of Valerian. What have I become?

See you later, fellow nerds.

Buy The Lego Batman Movie on Amazon

I mean look at this, there are colors besides blue and grey in it.

OMG OMG OMG

Hey, That’s MY Mythology!

Well, here it is. The post that was giving me problems. The post that gave me writer’s block for over a month. Let’s see if I can actually finish the sucker. Perhaps being quick and brutal will work?

I honestly do keep intending to get back to the edifying side of cinema, but I still find myself being self-indulgent about my viewing choices, if only to maintain my sanity. The return of the Daily Grindhouse Podcast is partially responsible for that, but I’d be lying if I said escapism wasn’t a major contributing factor. What I am finding is that I really enjoy the latest crop of overblown spectacle movies made possible by advances in CGI technology, and I am eating them like candy. Sweet, sweet over-produced candy. What this says about me as a cinephile, I am not sure. Am I a problem, rather than a solution?

Who cares, I’m enjoying myself.

I’m thinking this started with the two Monkey King movies and was cemented by League of Gods (and bolstered by my previous love affair with Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons). What I am finding is that the Chinese are very good at making this sort of thing, and making them entertaining, but the American movie industry… not so much. There are exceptions, of course, like the Wachowskis and James Gunn, but the important difference there is they are essentially dealing with their own mythologies (Marvel’s, in the case of Gunn), while the two movies setting this column off indulged in cultural appropriation for their mythologies, and bungled it.

From that last sentence, you might assume that we’re starting with the 2013 47 Ronin, and you would be right.

The story of The Loyal 47 Ronin is one of the great tentpoles of Japanese culture; the intro to this movie assures us that “the story of the 47 ronin is the story of Japan,” and to a point, that is correct, if overly general. The trouble is that the movie then proceeds to take that story and alter it so unmercifully and cavalierly that it’s kind of amazing that it didn’t spark off an international incident.

The actual tale of the 47 ronin concerns a clan of samurai whose lord, Asano Naganori, is driven by a venal court official to assault him, and is compelled to commit seppuku for that offense. His clan is dissolved, and those 47 retainers lie in wait for a year to visit their vengeance upon the man responsible for their lord’s downfall. It’s a great story, and there are many, many book, play and movie versions of it – the one I’ve seen is the 1962 Chushingura, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.

And now, with this version, after that Japan-centric intro, we meet Keanu Reeve’s character as a child, leading into the adult Keanu aiding his adoptive father Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) in a hunt for a strange beast straight out of Princess Mononoke. These beginning segments in what we are told is “the story of Japan” seems to me similar to being told that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was “the most faithful adaption of the novel” ever and then sitting through a lengthy pre-credit sequence that occurs nowhere in that novel.

Keanu is Kai, a half-Japanese orphan raised by the Tengu bird demons in a cursed forest. Lord Asano will still be duped into attacking another lord, but this time it’s due to the evil Lord Kira (Tananobu Ason)’s consort, who is a witch (and Rinko Kikuchi, to boot). Lord Asano’s eldest son, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), is thrown into a pit for a year, then released and exiled a week before his sister, Mika (Ko Shibasaki) will be wed to Kira. So that year-long plot to avenge the fallen lord is replaced with a rushed, artificial deadline, and Oishi must find the despised Kai, who was sold to a coastal fight arena before Oishi was thrown into the pit. Because he knows Kai loves Mika and will do anything for her.

Apparently this version of 47 Ronin started as a straight historical drama like, say, Gladiator. But somewhere in the pre-production process, the suits decided they wanted a magical fantasy adventure for some of that sweet, sweet Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings money. And so the torturing of the storyline to accommodate mythical monsters and magic and Keanu Reeves began.

Now, I was a Keanu fan even back when everybody was still making fun of him for Johnny Mnemonic. It is probably his presence that got the project the greenlight. His inclusion as a half-breed alone wouldn’t have derailed the movie too badly. But past that, 47 Ronin stands as a monument to wrong-headed studio interference, with an increasingly chaotic storyline and least one obvious snipping out of a subplot and character (Yorick von Wageningen’s Kapitan, the pirate with the full-body skeleton tattoo who is on the poster for God’s sake) for the sake of more weirdness and at least one battle scene that changes nothing going forward.

In trying to put myself in the place of someone Japanese seeing this Hollywood mangling of my history, the best I could come up with (as a lifelong Texan) is a movie stating that Santa Anna and Sam Houston grew up together and the Battle of the Alamo was all due to a witch’s interference and Davy Crockett was a werewolf. Also for some reason the history books don’t mention the samurai warrior with power armor fighting alongside Jim Bowie. (Hollywood, you still haven’t returned my calls)

There were a few things I liked about 47 Ronin. The Tengu were neat. It was nice to see so many Asian actors in a Hollywood movie. They did not Hollywood-up the ending too much, everybody still had to commit ritual suicide. Those few things are still not enough to warrant a recommendation to any but Keanu completists. I am legendarily forgiving toward movies, but this one is just not very good.

This experience did not exactly make me look forward to seeing Gods of Egypt, even though I found it a superior movie in almost every way. In it, we told the Gods of the title are alien beings with certain powers, golden blood and who are half again as tall as humans. Osiris (Bryan Brown) is handing over the kingly crown to Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), only to be murdered and usurped by Set (Gerard Butler). Set takes Horus’ eyes, the focus of his power, and banishes the blinded god. It is going to take a human thief, Bek (Brenton Thwaites), egged on by his girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton), still faithful to Horus, to get the god back his eyes and overthrow Set, whose main purpose (besides the usual grinding of the faces of the poor) is to assassinate their father, Ra (Geoffrey Rush) and bring eternal darkness to Earth.

Looking at that synopsis and that cast, there is one thing that is going to jump out at you, and that is the major criticism of the movie: its very whiteness. The overwhelmingly Caucasian population of this Cradle of Civilization feels like something out of the 1950s Biblical Epic era.  Ridley Scott, defending the casting in Exodus:God and Kings, rather (in)famously pointed out that the movie would not be financially viable without white actors. There’s a good deal of actual controversy on the actual skin tones of the ancient Egyptians, but the truth of Scott’s statement, though ugly, is inescapable.

The story of Gods of Egypt, past your standard action adventure boilerplate, is strange and exotic enough that I think I could have enjoyed it as much if not more if posited as a tale of some strange fantasy lands, like League of Gods, without the hijacking of another culture’s history and mythology.

Nice job turning humans into hobbits, though.

But if we’re going to talk about hijacking another culture’s history and mythology, though, we’re going to have to continue on to The Great Wall, which I had actually been looking forward to seeing.

Matt Damon plays William, a medieval mercenary who journeys to China, chasing rumors of an explosive black powder that would make his work much easier. What he finds is that titular Wall, and it turns out that the reason it was built is a meteor crash-landed in the nearby mountains, and every few years the inimical life forms that it brought swarm, attack and eat anything in their path. William will immediately throw in his lot with the elite troops trying to turn back this alien horde, and maybe even defeat it for all time.

After the last two movies in this post, one might be forgiven for looking askance at Damon’s role in this movie, but he provides a time-honored device: the audience surrogate, the outsider to whom things must be explained, so the audience gains necessary information somewhat painlessly. William does provide an interesting clue to fighting the monster, correctly interpreted by the Chief Strategist Wang (the always welcome Andy Lau), leading to a master plan that, according to the rules of fiction, requires one last desperate shot at the very last moment, the climax of Star Wars if it involved lots of gunpowder and an alien queen.

It’s the predictability of that plot that is the only thing that truly works against The Great Wall. It’s a well-built story, the characters are interesting, the monsters are pretty unique and well-designed. I love the fact that there is a strong female leading the troops (Jing Tian, looking so beautiful and perfect that whenever she has a close-up, I find myself waiting for the cut scene to end so I can get back to playing Final Fantasy). But the only thing that can be truly called unique in its setup is that the Chinese apparently invented weaponized bungee-jumping.

There are six writers credited overall for The Great Wall, and none of those names are remotely Asian. I suppose that puts us back at my earlier, blasphemous re-telling of the Alamo, with a very important exception: the director is Zhang Yimou, one of best and most prestigious of Chinese directors. Damon isn’t a white savior, he is one cog in a group that comes together to defeat the enemy. There is heart in this movie, and that heart is not overwhelmingly Caucasian.

Though I really would have liked to know Zhang’s thoughts on the movie’s central concept.

In the midst of all this the movie version of Ghost in the Shell came and went, and with it the subsequent furor over the practice of “whitewashing” which was more or less the basis of this column (and one of the Daily Grindhouse podcasts. If you listen, you can hear me grunt a lot, because it was recorded at Jesus o’clock on a Sunday morning). I still haven’t seen it, but I’m told the ghost in Scarlett Johnnson’s shell is actually Asian, but even with that we’re still in Ridley Scott territory. I’ve been too busy with personal drama and my country’s imploding structure to actually keep up with any finger-pointing at the failure of that film at the box office, but my money’s on “action movies with females don’t sell” more than the whitewashing controversy or the very idea that people might not  want to see an Americanized, live-action version of anime. There is a very strong fanbase for anime here in the States, that is undeniable – but that doesn’t mean that fanbase actually wants to see their stories in another medium, or that any other demographic can be bothered to go see it, no matter how many anime-adjacent movies like Pacific Rim are actually successful.

At least this might finally put paid to that Americanized version of Akira. Though, really, I wouldn’t put any money on that. We white folk love our little cultural thieveries.

Buy 47 Ronin on Amazon

Buy Gods of Egypt on Amazon

Buy The Great Wall on Amazon

Buy Ghost in the Shell on Amazon

Crapfest: Flashbacks, Floyd, & Frankenheimer

Hi there. Long time, no see.

April was an especially intense month for me. It tried to sneak in one last blow by not letting me make any money in the last weekend, but I instead flipped Destiny the bird and managed to get everyone to agree to a Crapfest.

All the faithful were there: Host Dave, myself, Alan, Paul, Rick and Erik. Erik had honed his burrito bowl game down to a science, getting everything set up with the alacrity of an 80s action hero strapping weapons to himself. Just as good as last time, if not better; I grazed that buffet all evening and think I somehow still lost weight.

First for some backstory, a flashback, if you will (appropriate, given the “entertainment” on display that evening): in the weeks running up to the fest, a YouTube video gained sudden currency on Facebook:

Rick does not do Facebook, but I made sure this crossed his radar, as he is likely the biggest KISS fan I know. This video led to a lively discussion in our e-mail group, mainly about how much we loved Lynda Carter and yet found this excerpt from her second TV special largely disastrous. Rick found a site that had three of her specials on DVD, and he openly pondered purchasing it.

This led Dave to employ his Satan-spawned abilities to track down a copy of a Lynda Carter variety special and open Crapfest with it. Initially, there was joy and laughter at this development, while Dave and I giggled like the Riddler. Paul opined that even if the music was dreadful, he could get through this simply by looking at her.

Now, if you look up hubris in the dictionary, you will see this picture illustrating it:

Paul opined that even if the music was dreadful, he could get through this simply by looking at her.

This was proved demonstrably false by the special’s halfway mark, when cries of “No, not the blues! You leave the blues alone!!!” echoed through the mancave. As the entire special was sponsored by the Texise Corporation, the endlessly repeated commercials for various sprays and unguents only added to the misery. This was, incidentally, the last of Ms. Carter’s specials, 1984’s Body and Soul, and – the IMDb  informs me – the only one “made without the help of her ex-husband ‘Ron Samuels’.” Afterwards, I showed this clip from an earlier Carter special, where she sucks all the soul out of “Rubberband Man” and replaces it with sweet vanilla syrup:

This was judged to be “100% better” than Body and Soul, and I don’t think that was because of the song – it’s because she’s showing 100% more leg than she did in the entirety of the later special. We are a vulgar and base lot, after all. And we still love you, Ms. Carter, especially if you leave The Blues alone.

I had thought that our gathering could not be any more depressed after my statement that “If this were a Cheri Caffaro movie, this torch song would end with a strip tease,” but Dave would prove me wrong:

This was, once again, for the benefit of Facebook-less Rick – Dave had inflicted it on the world in the previous week. It is definitely the 12″ single version. But the pain of Disco Floyd is alleviated by the fact that at the three minute mark it somehow switches to Soul Train. Since this did not produce the expected agony – more like some bewildered groans – Dave pulled out a trump card, a trump card I had nixed several times before, but now it was time. Mainly, it had been enough years since I had last seen Mesa of Lost Women, and I could finally tolerate watching it again.

Mesa is so packed full of inept B-movie weirdness that for years it was suspected of being a lost Ed Wood movie, but it’s not – it’s an unfinished movie by a madman named Herbert Tevos, finished by Ron Ormond, who is himself no stranger to Crapfest (Please Don’t Touch Me! and If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do). Jackie Coogan is Dr. Aranya (“Aranya! That’s Spanish for spider!”), who is up on the titular Mesa creating indestructible spider women and leering dwarves. And you only wish that was what the movie was actually about.

It all starts with our two “stars” (Oh, all right, Richard Travis and Paula Hill) wandering in from the Muerto Desert (“Muerto! That’s Spanish for Death!”) while Lyle Talbot does his best Orson Welles in a confounding voiceover. Rescued and recovering, Travis will start his story, but then Lyle will inform us that instead we are going have a flashback courtesy of a background character, Pepe (“Pepe! That’s Spanish for Pepe!”). This confoundingly tortured story structure will continue for some time, leading to many debates as to exactly whose flashback we were witnessing at any given moment. AY!There were, in fact, many times throughout the evening that no matter which movie we were watching, we were pretty sure we were still stuck in Pepe’s flashback.

But the real reason Dave wanted to play it was the infernal, maddening guitar soundtrack (which was also employed in Ed Wood’s Jailbait, further inflaming that theory), which he knew would drive Rick insane. Which it did. He can visited most mornings from 9am-11am. Do not bring any sharp objects.

Dave was emboldened to inflict Tarantella and her phantom guitar upon us because Erik was currently involved in moving, and his movies were all packed up, so the entire program was up to us. So Dave pulls out fake Ed Wood, while I, on the other hand, pass out 3-D glasses and play The Three Stooges’ Spooks, because I am the Nice Guy. I can’t hand you some cheap Chinese cardboard glasses, so here, have the one good joke without the red and blue overlay:

It’s surprising how uncomfortable Moe’s slapstick abuse makes me these days. I had found something else for the audience, who, I remind you, is base and vulgar – something called Nude 66. Once again, red-blue anaglyph, a “Playboy digital pictorial” without any connection to that magazine (although Paul, our local Expert On Such Things, did identify one of the ladies as an actual Playmate). In fact all the credited personnel at the end seem to be Japanese, and I have not been able to find out any other information whatsoever about it. It’s 25 minutes of rock-n-roll cover tunes and somewhat artful nudity. That and the 15 minutes of Spooks were about all the 3-D my aged eyes could take, anyway.

Quick, boy! Where are those damned 3-D glasses?

So, having had enough of Being Nice, I slapped in Dangerous Men.

Man, Stan Lee is in EVERYTHING.

Ideally, all you need to know about Dangerous Men is it is produced and directed by John S. Rad. It is also written by John S. Rad, who also wrote the music, edited the movie, and did the sound design. Also, John S. Rad’s real name is Jahangir Salehi, if that matters at all. He started shooting this sometime in the 70s and didn’t finish it until the mid-90s. He finally rented four LA cinemas to play the movie for a week, resulting in total ticket sales of around $2000.

It’s hard to know where exactly to start with Dangerous Men. The first part of the movie is basically a distaff Death Wish, with Melody Wiggins playing a woman whose fiancé is murdered by a biker, causing her to launch a career as an avenger killing such DANGEROUS MEN. There is one attempted rapist she does not kill, but only takes all his clothes and leaves him in the middle of the desert, so we spend the next seven minutes or so with a naked Englishman wandering the desert, endlessly monologing about how humiliated he is. This tells me that during one of the lulls in filming when he ran out of money. John S. Rad saw a Jodorowsky film.

“Who the hell puts an enormous potted plant in a narrow hallway?”

Wiggins’ character suddenly gets arrested at about the halfway mark, and her dead fiancé’s cop brother takes up the reins of the story, tracking down the man responsible for the bikers’ reign of terror, the kingpin Black Pepper, who is about the crappiest Moriarty one could hope for. To accomplish this, he has to knock out a Biker on two separate occasions with the same attack. In the resulting raid on Black Pepper’s stronghold, Black Pepper nearly beats the cop brother to death (in a fight scene that uses the same sound effect over and over, no matter who’s getting hit) and it’s up to The Chief, a character introduced only a half hour before, to wind up the movie, quite suddenly, and at the 90 minute mark. The movie doesn’t end so much as stop.

“Why do I keep hearing men screaming ‘what the fuck’?”

There are all the usual technical bobbles of a one-man operation that either can’t afford or doesn’t want someone else to handle the technical aspects (thankfully, Rad had someone else shoot the movie, it’s at least in focus). The sudden departure of Wiggins’ character was due to her breaking a leg during the shoot and Rad refusing to pay her medical bills; further investigation by the guys at Drafthouse Films alleges that she was paid something like a dollar a day and some MacDonalds for her work. Exactly why the cop brother had to be written out is lost to the ages, but overall, Dangerous Men plays out like Robert Altman had decided to do a gritty crime drama but had also suffered a traumatic head injury.

Ergo, it is highly recommended.

(We almost had Samurai Cop and Dangerous Men back-to-back at the last Crapfest, which would have caused seizures and/or riots, I am sure)

So, back over to Dave, who trots out Claws, a 1977 killer bear movie that manages to rip off two other Jaws rip-offs, Grizzly and Orca. Some hunters shoot and wound a Grizzly, and when he runs off, proceed to kill the female who stayed behind. The wounded bear proceeds to terrorize the forest for the next several years, becoming known as “The Devil Bear” and finally causing some folks to track him seriously, with varying degrees of failure and death. Given that we referred to the beast as “The Stock Footage Bear” for most of the running time and the general tedium as the story unfolded, I was willing to bet that this was a TV movie, but apparently I was wrong (really, my first clue should have been that the damned thing runs an hour and forty minutes). Apparently it ran in some theaters under the rather desperate title Grizzly 2.

I would liked it much more had they gone with the whole Devil Bear concept, and we had found the betrayed bruin had struck up a deal with Old Clootie to get revenge for his murdered mate. Hollywood, call me, you bastards.

The ideal cap to the whole experience was when the movie was over, Dave blinked at the screen and wondered where the scene where the bear attacked the helicopter went. “That’s Grizzly,” I said.

So. Dave made us watch the wrong killer bear movie, and now you just know he is going to make us watch another fucking killer bear movie.

(Then, he might not, when he discovers that Grizzly features his archenemy, Richard Jaeckel)

There don’t seem to be any trailers online, so let’s all go Token noble Indian character, nooooooo!

Back to me, I guess, because the movie was one Rick and Alan had requested, Frankenheimer’s version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This had happened mainly because Rick and I had watched the fascinating Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, a documentary that pretty much lays it all out in it’s title. A movie with a modest budget suddenly signs on two major but difficult names – Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer – budget balloons, stars act up, director gets suddenly replaced.

John Frankenheimer is similarly no stranger to Crapfest, as we had earlier watched his killer bear movie, Prophecy. He took the job only as part of a multi-picture deal, so at least we got Ronin and Reindeer Games, two decent action flicks, out of it. Likely the only scene that remains from Stanley’s concept is when David Thewlis witnesses the birth of one of Moreau’s hybrids – that one still packs a punch. But the rest, bowing to the whims and eccentricities of Brando and Kilmer, settles into typical, bland, expected tropes. Moreau isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just a terribly unnecessary one. The only reason to watch it is Brando’s strange portrayal of Moreau, and once that character is killed – oh yeah, spoiler alert for a twenty year-old movie – there is simply no reason to watch anymore.

(Well, yes, there is the typically excellent makeup effects of Stan Winston, but…)

It was midnight at this point. We had lost Paul at the beginning of Moreau, and Alan left, but we, the hardcore, were not beaten. Into the magic lightning box went The Devil’s Express. 

Devil’s Express is a delicious gumbo of trash film tropes from the 70s. Good old bad old New York, Blaxploitation, stickin’ it to The Man, kung fu and monsters. I’m kind of surprised I hadn’t sneaked this in earlier.

As if all this were not enough, it stars Warhawk Tanzania (who knew that the breakout star of Force Four would be Warhawk Tanzania? My money was on Malachi Lee!) (Also, Crapfest attendees, you are really going to have to piss me off to make me show you Force Four) (Where was I? Are we still in Pepe’s flashback?).

ANYWAY. Warhawk and his student Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan, also in Force Four, but never mind that now) travel to Brooklyn Hong Kong to perfect Warhawk’s kung fu, but the shady Rodan steals an amulet he finds in a pit. Those of us who saw the prelude know that something evil was being kept in check by that amulet, and now it stows away on board a freighter to New York to find the amulet and destroy it.

It does this by possessing some guy and making him wander around with eyes painted on his eyelids. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it does (mainly because the dude with the painted eyelids, Aki Aleong, really sells it) (Tim Lehnerer at Checkpoint Telstar informs me that Aleong also wrote “Shombalor“, so he’s ten times more awesome than I originally suspected). Said monster proceeds to chow down on unwary people on the subway, making this a weird New York underground version of Blood Beach. Meanwhile, Rodan’s drug dealing leads to a minor gang war with a Chinese gang, which allowed the distributors to re-title and re-release this under the title Gang War when The Warriors hit it big.

Your typical wise Chinese gentleman (who is wearing the worst fake Asian makeup ever applied or shot on film, squandering any goodwill from that painted eyelid job), tells Warhawk what’s up, so he can don his gold lame demon-fightin’ overalls and descend into the subway to kill the demon while Brother Theodore distracts the cops.

Oh yeah, that just one more reason to watch The Devil’s Express. Brother Theodore plays a priest who is there to deliver last rites to murder victims (I guess) and who is apparently driven mad by the horror he witnesses, as he starts shouting to the crowd outside a barricaded subway station about “Rrrrrrrrats! PESTILENTIAL rats!” Well, maybe he wasn’t driven mad, maybe he was driven to become Brother Theodore. Maybe this is all a complicated origin story.

ANYWAY. Good times, good times.

At this point, we decided, it was likely best to pack it up. It had been a long day, a day of multiple horrors attacking from all directions, and somehow we had managed to survive it, through dint of good companionship, good humor, and burrito bowls.

We’ve been doing this for ten years, and we’ve still barely scratched the surface.

Sleep well.

(Creaking door slams shut)

Buy Mesa of Lost Women on Amazon

Buy Spooks! on Amazon

Buy Dangerous Men on Amazon

Buy Claws on Amazon

Buy The Island of Dr. Moreau on Amazon

Buy The Devil’s Express on Amazon