December Already

There is an odd perceptual trick that as you get older, time goes by faster. This phenomenon likely has its roots in the crush of past experience pressing up against the present moment, with a constant increase in supposedly adult matters burning away your time. I suppose the current administration was the solution for that, as there were instances when time ground to a maddening crawl, like a perpetual few seconds just before the impact of a car crash. Hurricane Harvey was only three months ago; it feels more like a year.

Life definitely feels like a circus act where you’re pressed up against a board and some idiot with a blindfold keeps throwing knives at you. December’s always hectic, and I doubt it’s going to calm down until the year is nearly over. Maybe not even then.

I think you’re getting at least one more post out of me this year. In the meantime – since I have a few minutes to catch my breath – here’s the few movies I’ve had the chance to watch:

The Limehouse Golem is based on a Peter Ackroyd novel, and delights in moving the timeline back and forth as Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) is a sacrificial detective set up by Scotland Yard to investigate the Limehouse Golem murders, a series of bloody mutilations that predate and outdo Jack the Ripper for sheer ghoulishness. His investigations run counter to the murder trial of music hall star Lizzy Cree (Olivia Cooke), whose poisoned husband seems a very likely suspect for the Golem.

The world of the English music hall wasn’t something I was expecting to be immersed in when I started the movie, and that was a pleasant surprise. Douglas Booth, as music hall superstar Dan Leno, is a continuing thread through the story as it unfolds, enabling the unique story structure. I’ve not read Ackroyd’s novel, but that structure feels uniquely literary, and director Juan Carlos Medina pulls it off well. While I can’t hand it an enthusiastic recommendation, I can still say it’s definitely worth a look. If you’ve not had your fill of Edwardian murder mysteries, you can certainly do far worse.

I finally watched Atomic Blonde, and I’m sort of glad I didn’t get over my animosity toward theaters to see it. It’s a pretty good retro spy movie, taking place just before and during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton, an asskicking troubleshooter for MI5 tasked with finding a wristwatch containing microfilm with the names and records of every agent on both sides of the Cold War, including a double agent known only as Satchel. She meets up with the local handler, Percival (James McAvoy), who has gone native in a big way. She spends most of the movie getting the crap kicked out of her, but you should see the other guy(s). What’s left of them, anyway.

Let’s be frank, Charlize Theron just plain owns me, and has for years. She is incredible as the agent James Bond would rightly be afraid of – except incredible doesn’t really cover it, she is credible in the role. Great supporting cast, too – John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan. Incredible soundtrack. Great editing. Pretty much what you would expect from David Leitch, who was one of the directors of the original John Wick.

My only real complaint is that the movie feels over-extended at nearly two hours, giving me far too much time to figure out the true identity of Satchel. Minor complaint. Some directors would have stretched it out to two and a half hours.

That same day I saw Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal, so I must have been in the mood for a fight. If you dug on the 45 minute long battle scene that ended 13 Assassins, good news! This is basically a movie-length version of that! In the very first segment, Manji (Takiya Kimura) informs a mob of about a hundred lowlife bounty hunters – who just slaughtered a girl for fun – that he is going to kill each and every one of them. And does. As he lays dying from his wounds, he is infected by bloodworms, which will heal any wound, even rejoining severed limbs to his body.

As Blade is based on a long-running manga series, I don’t know if there is ever a good reason given why a mysterious old woman gives Manji this curse/blessing – it still hurts when he gets injured, and the healing is far from instantaneous. He just can’t die from his wounds. He eventually takes up the cause of young Rin (Hana Sugasaki), whose family was killed by a group of rogue martial artists who want to take over the Imperial Guard (a ploy familiar to fans of “rule the world of martial arts” movies). The story gets somewhat involved from there, with plots, counterplots, a bloodworm poison that significantly slows down Manji’s healing, many colorful opponents, and my second two exhausted, bloody combatants still taking each other on fight scene in one day.

Overall, I liked it, but I wanted to love it. Miike’s samurai flicks are really good, though – see it and make your own decisions.

I watched two more movies, but I promised the review for one to Daily Grindhouse, so you’re going to have to be satisfied by closing things out with S&M Hunter.

I’m always downloading movie trailer collections and watching them at my leisure; one group was some movies available from PinkEiga, which specializes in Japanese “Pink” movies – so called because they involve nudity. That’s a subject that has a Wikipedia page all to itself, so I’ll direct you there for the broader picture. Pun definitely not intended, by the way. S&M Hunter caught my eye with its outrageous stylization and definite kinkiness (it’s right there in the title, after all), so I sought it out.

A man comes to “The Pleasure Dungeon” and chooses to whip a submissive dressed (briefly) as a nun until she faints. The Dungeon Master states “You are not a true sadist. I can see it in your eyes.” (Never mind that both men are wearing sunglasses) It turns out that new customer has a massive hate on for women because he’s gay and his lover has been kidnapped by a high school girl gang and is being used as their sex slave. Enter the dungeon’s superhero, S&M Hunter, dressed as a priest with a skull eyepatch, who agrees to rescue the boy. His super power is an amazing – and like all super powers, essentially impossible – mastery of rope tricks and the fact that every woman he is up against gets pleasure from the act of being tied up.

S&M Hunter would be classified in the realm of “Pinkie Violence”, I guess, but the whole setup is so silly and over the top that it comes off as a lighter parody of that genre. S&M Hunter has his own spaghetti western theme song. The Hunter’s archenemy feels it necessary to dress up in a gestapo uniform, complete with Nazi flag. The Dungeon Master has all the good lines. It’s only an hour long.

I was considering this for a Crapfest entry. But. It still remains a sex film, and that’s a level of tawdry I’m not willing to subject the fest to – titillation is fine, but S&M Hunter, while not explicit, still crosses that line. It is a pretty subversive entry in that genre, though, as the only truly loving, normal relationship is the homosexual one. Here, have a censored version of the trailer that sent me on this odd sidetrip:

Things only get busier from here on out. Hope to see you betwixt Christmas and New Years, if some moron doesn’t get us all killed. Happy Holidays, everybody, as possible.

 

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

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

Can You Put Time on an Amazon Wishlist?

There is a confluence of unrelated incidents mucking around with my life right now, and amazingly, most of them are unrelated to the current administration freakshow.

The first is my recent vacation. With no obligations (past a couple of last-minute “hey can you do this tomorrow” gig offers while I was on the road, thanks guys), I watched a bunch of movies on the laptop. So I had a movie hangover when I returned to reality. I find I can’t concentrate on anything longer than the average TV episode, which these days is 40 minutes.

(There was also a severe lack of internet that week. I found one shop with wi-fi who graciously shared their password, which allowed me to clear out e-mail and find out that a company that had responded to my constant resume-sending had noticed my age and would not be pursuing our relationship any further. Again, thanks guys)

Not that I have the time to watch movies. My day job (still part time) insists on getting everything tightly scheduled out to the end of the season; I understand the need, I just resent the constant pressure that engenders. I can only reasonably handle my life one week at a time. It feels like I finally figured out how to juggle five balls at once and my instructor just tossed balls 6, 7 and 8 into the pattern. I’ve picked up some extra meetings – and when I asked the Universe for opportunities to make more money, I did not mean by spending more of my time listening to bureaucrats and politicians bloviate. Two evenings of every week must be reserved for The Show, which is a vital supplement to that part-time job. Please excuse all typos, I’m trying to get this posted before I head to tonight’s show.

The Daily Grindhouse Podcast is a going thing again. And – this is a personal failing, I feel – I find talking about movies easier than writing about them, so why write? It’s certainly faster – an hour or two of my time as opposed to eight to twelve hours crafting a typical column here. We’re casting our nets wider this time, so I find myself watching two or three movies for each episode. Then I come here and stare at a blank page because I haven’t watched anything else. There is a lengthy diatribe I am working on, but that means I have to have a suitable chunk of time to work on it.

Arrow Video was nice enough to send me screeners for their new Arrow Academy line, and I have got to get on those sooner rather than later. In my copious free time.

This besides the other meetings that people call me up for, wanting to pick my brains. Sometimes I even get lunch out of it.

Sleep factors in there somewhere. I’m told.

Better times and content next week, I hope.

 

 

 

Yay, the First Rant of the Year

There is a point somewhere in this post, and I’ll get to it eventually. but first we are going to have to visit an old friend.

battle_of_dragonsWay back in the days of The Bad Movie Report, I reviewed The Magic Serpent, which prompted several “This movie isn’t that bad” e-mails (You may have noticed I’ve moved to much less specific branding in my golden years). It was an AIP-TV import I had first encountered when somebody who was programming Kung Fu Theatre either didn’t know or didn’t care that this wasn’t their typical Chinese chop-socky material. Optimist that I am, I hope that whoever got stuck running control on that weekend thought, “Screw it, I want to see this,” and slapped it in.

The Magic Serpent is not even remotely a martial arts movie; it’s an action fantasy fairy tale, and in these modern times it is possible to track down the movie in its original widescreen format and language, which is when you discover that its real title is Battle of the Dragons. Given that one of the dragons is a fire-breathing toad, you can easily visualize some polyester suit in a projection room grumbling “Dat ain’t no dragon! Dat’s a toad!” and changing the title on behalf of us poor, easily confused Americans.

Basically, villainous Yuuki Daijo (Amatsu Bin) kills the virtuous Lord Ogata with the aid of evil wizard-type Orochi-Maru (Otomo Ryutaro), and takes over his kingdom. Ogata’s son Ikazuchi (Matsukata Hiroki) is rescued by the wizard Dojin (Kaneko Nobuo) and trained to one day return to his rightful position. Naturally, Orochi-Maru was Dojin’s former student gone bad, and he returns to kill his old master and Ikazuchi, succeeding with the former, but not the latter. Ikazuchi will be joined in his quest by a young lady named Sunate (Ogawa Tomoko), who is looking for her long-lost father, and I’m sure you’ve already figured out who that is.

tmserp00010It’s a fun movie. What really attracted me in the first place is its desire to wow the viewer with its fantasy elements, using 1966 technology. Flying people? Don’t use wires, use rear projection. When Ikazuchi wins a fight by getting his head cut off (really) we get to see some really bad matte lines.

There’s lots of camera trickery involving still photos and double exposure, tricks that were being employed up into the 90s. By the time we get to the final battle, between Ikazuchi’s fire-breathing giant toad and Orochi-Maru’s water-breathing dragon, we’re at least into more familiar FX ground, guys in rubber suits trashing miniature buildings. Here’s the TV version:

These are all things critics will decry as “cheesy special effects”. But I was thrilled that Toei even attempted to do something like this, and my thoughts were, “Man, if only the technology and budget were better…”

Well, now it’s 50 years later (like it or not), the technology and budgets are better, and people are still bitching about “cheesy special effects”, even if the FX guys who worked on Battle of the Dragons would have given certain body parts to achieve even one second of what is on display in our next offering, 2016’s League of Gods.

league-of-gods-posterLeague of Gods is based on yet another million-page 16th century novel, The Investiture of the Gods. Like its better-known (in the West, anyway) brother, Journey to the West, it is a work of shenmo, or “gods and demons” literature, and after the success of several Monkey King movies, it was likely thought that a big budget, FX-heavy movie version was a good bet.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on Investiture of the Gods, it is a “romanticised retelling of the overthrow of King Zhòu, the last ruler of the Shang dynasty“. If the accepted author of the novel, Xu Zhonglin, were able to watch this movie, he would claim his version was absolutely realistic in comparison. Now, the Shang Dynasty fell in 1046 BC, but accept that the first image you will see is a flyover of the land, showing mystic floating warships besieging Lord of the Rings-style walled cities. (You’re also going to find out that there are three suns, so there’s a distinct possibility we are not in Kansas anymore).

As in the novel, King Zhou (Tony Leung!) seems unduly influenced by his concubine, Daji (Fan Bingbing) who is in reality the demon Nine-Tailed Fox. In the novel, her true identity was masked from Zhou, but here she is quite open about it, since we will eventually find out that Zhou, as a child king, was so obsessed with owning the world that he allowed himself to be possessed by the Black Dragon. Of a piece with those strange floating warships is Daji’s tails, which seemed to have been made by an ancestor of Dr. Otto Octavius, all sinuous segmented metal, with an eye and rows of teeth at the end.

9tail-foxThen we meet some of our heroes from the opposing city of Xiqi, Lei (Jacky Heung), the last mystic warrior of the Wing Tribe, and Xiqi’s prince Ji Fa (Andy On), riding with their soldiers in a cart drawn by rhinosceri. Their goal is to rescue the last members of another mystic tribe Zhou is attempting to exterminate, The Invisibles. This group of Xiqi guerillas is visited by the wizard Jiang (Jet Li!), who tells them that when the three suns converge, the Black Dragon will descend, causing an era of darkness for the next 18,000 years – and only the Grand Elder of the Invisible Tribe knows how to kill the Black Dragon.

Dudes, this is all in the first seven minutes of the movie. Try to keep up.

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-23h45m27s223Of course, the rescue attempt doesn’t go as planned, winding up in a battle between Jiang and the Nine-Tailed Fox, with the Grand Elder of the Invisibles sacrificing himself so Jiang and the rest can escape – though Jiang is hit with “reverse aging” curse, so that every time he uses his powers, he gets younger. One of the Elder’s eyes holds the secret, though: The Sword of Light must be found, so Lei heads out on a pilgrimage of discovery and hope. Jiang gives him three bags that he will need on his journey, and here is where the movie will lose a lot of people.

Their first alarm bell is going to go off when Jiang summons the first of Lei’s companions from the Pool of Light, and it turns out to be Naza, a greedy magical waif who is also totally CGI. The first bag is for Lei himself, and it contains a magical plant, onion-headed, cyclopic and one of the poorest examples of CGI in the movie. Well, not that poor, I guess, but the choice was made somewhere to make it deliberately cartoonish, which leads to a sequence involving Lei, Naza, the plant and a giant desert centipede which would not be out of place in a Looney Tune.

vlcsnap-2017-01-15-16h44m06s003The second bag is a undersea dragon prince that Naza once kidnapped from his kingdom, and though Naza likes to torment him, he can also breathe a gas at the CGI runt that puts him to sleep and turns him into an adult (the always-welcome Wen Zhang). The second encounter is with a geomancy-hurling warrior named Yang Jian (Huang Xiaoming), the third bag being his long-lost dog, Sky Howler. Naza keeps whinging about his lost fire wheels, Jian splits to find his golden armor, and Lei continues to look for the Sword of Light. Complicating matters is that the villainous General Panther (Louis Koo!) has animated a life-size marionette (Angelababy) to spy on Lei. Panther steals her memory every sunrise, giving Lei an opportunity to help her retain her memory, and thus get this spy on his side.

Naza takes an extended side trip to that undersea kingdom (he’s a CGI baby again at this point), where he once more takes on the undersea kingdom, which is aching for a return match (and the King wants his son back, too). If you made it past the CGI Weed and the Wile E. Coyote Desert Centipede chase, this is the second place where the movie might lose you, played for extremely broad comedy. The breaking point might be where Naza pulls out his ultimate attacks, which involve a near-infinite stream of piss and literally explosive farts. It’s another sequence for the kids in the audience. Be patient, it will soon be over.

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-23h41m42s914All roads lead to Xiqi, as it were; Lei finds the Sword of Light, meets up with Naza and Jian (who both have grudges against Nine-tailed Fox and are spoiling for a fight) as the three suns are beginning to converge, and Zhou’s warships are descending on Xiqi. At this point, Jiang, in attempting to defend his city, has used so much power and gotten so young he forgets all his magic. Big battle scene, especially when the fallen General Panther is resurrected by Fox as a gigantic Macfarlane action figure, and our three superpowered warriors must take him on.

I look at this scene and I think, I would have totally bought those action figures.

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-23h46m36s474Ji Fa activates the power of the Sword of Light, becoming the Golden Dragon, and now it’s time to take the battle to King Zhou!

And then the movie ends.

Or, actually, there is a Marvel-style fancy credit sequence, then a Marvel-style teaser scene, then the final credits.

The first thing I did after the cliffhanger end was to visit IMDb and assure myself that there was a sequel coming – that end, straight out of the Desolation of Smaug playbook, certainly pointed toward it. And that’s when I started seeing the opinions of my fellow amateur critics. The complaining about the CGI. The guy who saw Jet Li had star billing, and was disappointed there was no punchity-punch. This is the guy who in those pre-Internet days would have called up the UHF station during The Magic Serpent to demand they should have run The Master Killer for the third time that month instead.

nazaLeague of Gods has its flaws, but a lack of action is not one of them. If you’re allergic to CGI, stay away – I doubt there is one frame in this movie that is 100% real. It may be one of the most West-friendly Chinese action movies I’ve seen in a while, from the Marvel flourishes to plentiful use of bullet time effects (and I love bullet time). It’s the comedy sections that are going to put your typical action movie bro off. “Oh fuck, it’s Jar Jar, and this time he’s a baby!”

In my About page, I lay out my movie watching philosophy, and it’s pretty simple.

Now, I have a very simple approach to movies. The movie presumes to entertain me, and I agree to be entertained. I don’t necessarily need to be edified, or educated, or uplifted; if those happen, that’s gravy, I appreciate that. But honestly, that’s all I ask: to be entertained. To be taken somewhere else for a while. That’s all. It’s not hard.

I find movies like this, the Monkey King movies, and Jupiter Ascending tremendously entertaining. The so-called “peak visual” movies. These are artistic visions, layered onto the screen, depicting other worlds and possibilities. That we have managed to come to this point technically is astounding and satisfying. There is a reason I chose these two movies for a compare-and-contrast. Motion picture technology has come this far in my lifetime. I won’t be able to see what’s possible in 50 more, but that’s exciting to contemplate. What hasn’t changed in 50 years is people’s attitudes toward these movies. That a scene that doesn’t live up to expectations taints the entire movie. And that dissatisfaction with a movie is somehow equal to the heat death of the universe.

If you don’t like these movies, that’s okay. There plenty of other movies out there for you. But don’t come round here trying to tell me they’re the worst movies ever made. That’s stupid, and only shows you haven’t seen near enough movies.

This is where I’d normally tell you to put some pennies in my pocket
at Amazon to buy the movies, but I guess we just

can’t have nice things.