Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The New Godzilla Trailer...

It doesn't show much, but there's a bit to be mined out of this trailer. The footsteps sound like the drumbeat footsteps from the original Godzilla. And the roar sounds like it was taken directly from the tape for the 1954 Godzilla. It's a great sound, and I miss the metallic grating of the early Godzilla roars. I'll get the new poster up as soon as I can find a good quality picture to pinch. (Update, done.) 2016 is looking good for kaiju fans.

Godzilla: Resurgence

Since this is the beginning of a new series, I wonder if Godzilla will be alone, or will he have something to fight. Either way, I hope it gets an American theatrical release.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Terrible, Wonderful Things

It's out. I have a copy in my hands. My second novel, I Do Terrible Things, published by Thunderstorm Books.

I Do Terrible Things

Cover art by Caroline O'Neal

Here's the back cover blurb, which sums the novel up pretty well:

Donna doesn't know the old man with the sad face and yet there she is, beating him to death with a shovel. Is suppressed rage making her murder people in horrifying ways, or is she some sort of latent psychopath? The more people she kills, the more desperate she becomes to stop herself. Can she find the key before she commits yet another gruesome murder?

Here is is on the back of the book:

I Do Terrible Things

What I really cannot convey in this blog post is the quality of materials. The cover is gorgeous, the hard cover under the dusk jacket is beautiful. The end papers have been printed with metallic ink so thickly that it's textured. Here's a picture, but it certainly doesn't to the book justice.

I Do Terrible Things end papers

This is a gorgeous book, and I am ridiculously proud to have Thunderstorm publish it. I can't believe I wrote something that received such wonderful treatment. But I open it up, and there are my words. Here's the header for Chapter 4: Gas Grill.

I Do Terrible Things: That Chapter that Starts with a Murder

Only 64 copies of the book have been made. And I am proud and humbled and excited that Thunderstorm Books actually put this out. Thank you to the Thunderstorm team who made this a wonderful, quality book.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Armistice Day, once again...

It's Veterans Day. Thank you veterans, for your service, for your sacrifice, for your courage, for the wounds you bear. I hope healing comes soon.

At the same time, I wish to express a profound desire that we make no more combat veterans, wound no more people. That some day soon, we can gaze into the eyes of our war dead and say with a clear conscience, that their lives were not wasted.

The mute, unnumbered war dead, no longer mute, in Arkira Kurosawa's DREAMS

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Heap: Dark Roots

The Heap began as a throw-away encounter in Hillman’s Air Fighters Comic in 1942. From a single appearance, it grew into its own monthly story and continued to be one until Hillman got out of comics in 1953. Finding these appearances would have been hideously expensive, but PS Publishing has put out three beautiful collections of Heap stories, edited by Roy Thomas, long-time Heap fan and comics professional. We will See Thomas's name involved with a number of Heap-related projects.

Roy Thomas and PS Publishing's The Heap, Volume 1 For convenience, I'll be breaking this discussion of the Heap into three sections, each one concerning each of the three volumes. Although the tenor of the stories does not change precisely with each volume, it breaks the stories down into more digestible chunks.

First, it should be said that the Heap is likely a tribute to the Theodore Sturgeon story "It". "It" first appeared in a 1940 issue of Unknown magazine. "It" is an excellent Sturgeon story, and involves a dead man who rises as a plant-like hominid, its intelligence clouded, to wreak havoc on a small backwater town. The main difference between the Heap and It is that the Heap has a specifically WWI flier origin, and It dissolves in water, ending the story. "It" would later be adapted to comics by Roy Thomas in 1972, right at the beginning of the Swamp Monster boom. I'll talk about that in due course.

The Heap started out as a one-off appearance in a Sky Wolf story. Comics in the forties were collections of stories, from eight to sixteen pages, rather than one long story, which is more common now. This allowed an individual issue to appeal to a broader audience. Someone would potentially buy the comic because they followed one of those stories. Fans of Sky Wolf and Airboy would both buy an issue of Air Fighter Comics.

The Origin of the Heap... the first time around The first Heap story, from the third issue of Air Fighter Comics also contains the Heap's origin story, told in four brief panels, of a WWI German pilot. Baron von Emmelmann is shot down over a Polish swamp. His incredible will to live does not let him die, so for unexplained reasons, he becomes a man-shaped plant. Unlike the later Swamp Things, the Heap cannot speak, and only barely remembers its past as von Emmelmann. The amount any given muck monster remembers of its past life varied. This origin is recounted many times, even in this volume of twenty-four initial stories. And a WWI flight nerd notices that Emmelmann is flying a different plane every time the story is recounted, or wonder what a German flier is doing engaging an Eastern-front plane over Poland. Still, this origin remains consistent, and the character is well-defined at this origin. The Heap is inhumanly strong, immune to bullets, and although it cannot think, it has emotional reactions to things from its past. Initially, it is said to get oxygen by sucking the blood of animals, but this falls by the wayside fairly quickly, as do its fangs.

Ho ho ho! They called the pig Adolf! The initial four stories, published between December 1942 and May 1946, ostensibly star Sky Wolf, a rogue Allied flier who flies against the Nazis, and at least once, against the Japanese. The first three stories are war stories, while the fourth seems like a calculated transition to get the Heap to America. After this, Airboy Comics (which changed its name from Air Fighter Comics to reflect its breakout star in December, 1945) would publish one Heap story every issue. These initial stories are less than stellar. The Heap interferes with Iron Ace's plans to capture Sky Wolf, allowing Sky Wolf to escape the Nazi's nefarious clutches. Aside from the Heap, it's a pretty by-the-numbers plot. The second story, from Air Fighter Stories #9 is more less generic. The Heap begins stealing and flying aircraft all over the front, wrecking both Allies and Nazi airbases. Sky Wolf must take care of the problem. But it's strange to see the Heap flying planes.

My sensibilities are conflicted. It is OK top show the murder of a racist caricature? Air Fighter Comics V. 2 #10 contains the third, and perhaps most interesting of the Sky Wolf and Heap stories. The Heap finds its way to occupied China, the art is pretty 1940's racist. The Heap is also brown, for some unknown reason, where it had been white before. With one exception, it would remain brown until 1948, when he would unexpectedly shift to green. There's also a surprising amount of killing. The Heap strangles the evil Japanese commander right before our eyes. Killings would become more commonplace in the Heap, and are still surprising to someone who grew up reading comics that had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority.

The deep core of the Heap's popularity, loneliness and loss. But this story also provides us with our first real taste of pathos. His wife, the Baroness von Emmelman, has been providing humanitarian aid to the Chinese. As is inevitable in this sort of plot, the Heap attempts to protect her, but a bullet intended for him kills her. This is echoed in Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing # 1. And for the first time, a story keys in on the theme that later swamp creatures like Man-Thing and Swamp Thing will possess in abundance, the pathos of loneliness and loss. Similar themes have kept Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in print for nearly two hundred years.

Once the war was over, Sky Wolf faded from the pages of Airboy Comics, but the Heap remained popular. Believing that the audience wouldn't sympathize with the inhuman Heap, or perhaps wishing to provide structure for the stories to come, Hillman's writers invented Rickie Wood, an adolescent whose love of model airplanes enticed the Heap to imprint on him, allowing a tenuous connection with the Airboy Comics' air fighter theme. But the Heap was a regular feature now, one story would appear in every issue of Airboy Comics until Hillman stopped publishing comics in 1953.

Rickie Wood, the Heap's human interest leash. The Rickie Wood stories quickly become the sort of crime comics that proliferated in the forties and fifties, until Wertham and the Comics Code Authority decided comic books should only be used for moral instruction. Gangsters attempt to steal fortunes or murder people, and it always comes down to Ricki and the Heap to set things right. The Heap acts as the avenging hand of God, or the writer's moral sensibility, giving the bad guy his just desserts at the end of the story. The Heap is usually just a little-seen presence in his own story. The crime stories owes a lot to the hard-boiled genre, and contain less of the weird horror sensibility that the character would later display. There are plenty of fedora-wearing gangsters shooting people, and a lot of dames with impressive builds and bare midriffs.

As a fan of weird horror, I find these stories are disappointing. They are often formulaic, and represent cheap pulp work. Rickie's ability to keep the Heap tailing after him grows tired after a few stories, and it's unsatisfying to see the Heap acting as a in Rickie's stead in the final act of the story. And the writers appeared to know this, since the Heap changed directions completely a year later. But they are a step away from the very pulpy war stories, and small steps toward the more Gothic stories to come later.

There are only three Heap stores that include the Roman Goddess Ceres and her rival Ares, but they're very unusual. The Heap's origin is not rewritten, but is given a magical underpinning. The goddess Ceres chose the Heap to be her champion of Nature, an idea that Alan Moore would pick up many years later in his Saga of the Swamp Thing. This is not the most interesting thing about the stories, however. Now cut off from narrative leash Rickie Wood, the Heap roams the globe, and in an unusual move for forties pulp, two of the stories address colonialism in a time when it really wasn’t discussed. The antagonists are white males exercising corrupt authority over native populations (Arab, and an odd sort of African/Polynesian that I find difficult to recognize). Firther, the heap doesn't serve as the direct instrument of comeuppance, beating up or killing the antagonist. Instead it is instrumental in showing the native populations the duplicity of the greedy. The natives are left to their own devices when determining their oppressor's fate.

The deep core of the Heap's popularity, loneliness and loss. The deep core of the Heap's popularity, loneliness and loss. Apparently, these stories did not prove to be popular, because they only lasted three issues. The next stage of the Heap's narrative development kept the world-traveling, but dropped the overtly supernatural figures of Ceres and Ares. These, the last five stories in Volume One, return to the crime themes and ideas of the Rickie Wood era. But they are more interesting. First of all, they lack Rickie Wood, and the bland suburban America that he as a narrative device is tied to. The exotic settings mean that the stories have more freedom to introduce fantastic elements, such as man-eating plants. And again, the Heap does not serve as the violence of justice being served, but instead is more of a plot element that allows the ending to happen in a satisfactory way. This is the approach that Steve Gerber very successfully took when writing Man-Thing. It's a radical and inventive way to tell a comic story, since the Heap is not the protagonist of the story. Instead, it is a catalyst.

The exoticism of the stories also lends them additional interest. The Heap ends up in a South American plantation, where a scheming cousin is attempting to steal the family inheritance from the feisty Estella. The Heap helps a gold prospector escape from a series of double-crosses, his duplicitous partner drowning in quicksand. An Indian story-teller weaves a tale of a Nazi fugitive being brought to justice.

Once the Heap as catalyst had been established as a pattern, the Heap stories begin on the path to the Gothic, and the stories start firing on more cylinders. The later stories, with the man-eating plants, strange storytellers, and snakes mistaken for neckties, synthesized the best of the Ceres stories with the best aspects of the Rickie Wood stories. These stranger tales will be what later muck monster creators will draw their best material from. And if the early Heap stories don't engage me as much as the later two volumes will, the sense of being there at the beginning of the story, watching the experimentation as the Heap begins to find its way, more than makes up for it. The Heap, Volume 2.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

After A Long Silence, Gamera Returns

Gamera is, as promised, back for his 50th anniversary. In his most eye-popping (and -melting) adventure yet. This looks like a touch of Gamera the Brave's structure, as well as Shûsuke Kaneko's plot. Gyaos, Gamera's most popular enemy, is back, and if you watch closely, you can see their breath weapon in the background.

Good for the director for having the foresight to introduce a new monster. This is hopefully a forward-looking entry into the franchise, not a backward-looking one.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Next Project: A History of Swamp Monsters in Comics

Having gone through all the daikaiju films I could, I feel like this blog once again needs a structure so I don't ignore it. So I'm going to work through another list, because I love both lists and textual analysis, and perhaps a bit too much of my own voice, I'm going to be looking at swamp monsters in the comics.

I find superhero comics to be repetitive, characterizations shallow, the constant fights uninteresting. Even as a kid, I was more into the monster and horror comics than Batman or Thor. I was given a stack of early seventies comics by a friend, which included the original Swamp Thing comics numbers nine and ten. And BAM I was hooked. Even after all these years, those two issues (which I still have) remain some of the best comics I have ever read. I drifted away from comics when I was twelve, and returned to them when I was seventeen, purchasing a copy of Swamp Thing # 48, smack dab in the middle of Alan Moore's tenure on the series. Swamp Thing was my gateway to comics, not once but twice. Sadly, the way the art form is used often leaves me cold, both as a reader and a creator of stories. But Swamp Thing, Man Thing, these characters are broad and strange enough that they bring out the author. And, it should be said, they're a pretty select group.

That said, this won't be comprehensive, partially because there are a lot of obscure bog beasts in comics, and some of them are quite expensive. The original appearance of Glob, in The Incredible Hulk #121 sells for about $50. I don't love muck men or my audience that much. Sorry. I've already done a gigantic index of John Constantine appearances. I don't want to do that again. It has become very tiring and I'm cutting down on my comics-related expenses. But I'll hit what I consider the highlights: the original Heap Stories, Gerber's classic Man-Thing, Wein/Wrightson Swamp Thing, Moore's Swamp Thing, Gerber's Sludge, and whatever else I can find that's not just a single appearance in a single book. Likewise, I'm not going to track down all the appearances of Swamp Thing, who has some 286 comics with his own name on them, not including reprints. Man-Thing has more than 262. That's a lot of comics. I've got several chunks of each, generally considered the classic author/artist periods, or just the easily available.

This wouldn't have been possible without the release of Comic Book Creator's SwampMen book. It's got background and some amazing interviews with the creators of many of the best Swamp Men comics, including Wein and Wrightson, Alan Moore, Steves Bissette and Gerber, and many more. If you have any interest in the mucky denizens of superhero universes, this is the book to get.

Comic Book Creator's SWAMP MEN

Also helpful has been the Lonely Geek's Muck Men page, without which I never would have learned about Sludge, or Captain Carrot's opponent Mudd. But part of the appeal of Muck Men in the comics is that individuals can be picked out without being overwhelming. Vampires are everywhere, and often used as stormtroopers, to be knocked off by a superhero simply to get to the other end of the story. Muck Men call back to the Gothic story tradition, and the best of them concentrate on the humanity of the characters, whether supernaturally enhanced of not.

First Up, PS Publishing reprints The Heap's earliest stories.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Post-Traumetic Stress Kaiju: Monsters Dark Continent

Monsters: Dark Continent is the follow-up to Gareth Edward's Monsters. It features none of the original crew, nor the original location. However, it shares a lot of similarities with the previous film in the series.

That's what you're here to see, right?

The film starts off in Detroit. Devastated, post-apocalyptic-looking Detroit. Ruined locations will be the norm for the film. And it's entirely in shaky-cam. Normally, I hate shaky-cam. All of the footage from Monsters: Dark Continent sways gently as if shot by a handheld. In this one case, I think it enhances the film, never allowing the audience to focus on one thing entirely, emphasizing the shifting and slippery nature of action and intent.

Guns, ruins, and a muscle car: the most Detroit picture you will ever see outside of Robocop.

Our protagonist, Parkes, joined the army to get out of Detroit. The army's original mission was to destroy the monsters, but imprecise bombing has turned a segment of the unnamed Middle-Eastern populace against American intervention. Yes the metaphor is pretty transparent, but with fantasy and horror films, it is possible to deal with themes that are too difficult to deal with head-on. Detroit holds no opportunity for Parkes, so he had to look for it elsewhere. But even in America, the monsters are a presence. Parkes shoots at painted images of monsters. He attends a bloodsport pitting a dog against a small version of the monsters. Parkes, winning us some sympathy, is disgusted by the entertainment.

Even with aliens, this is still a very cruel moment.

Parkes ships out with his three best friends, Frankie, Shawn, and Karl. Sadly, we know that Shaun is going to die. His wife just had a baby, he promises to come back, and he's black. His fate could have only been more certain if he'd been about to retire.

Farewell to the brother..

In the desert, things are different from Detroit. Goliaths roam the dry planes in gigantic herds. These seem different from the previous iterations, perhaps due to the environment. But the monsters are no longer the military's main mission. Now, they are mainly concerned with shutting down insurgent activity. While the Goliaths are a threat, they do not set IED traps. And while anyone can identify a Goliath on sight, it's difficult to tell if any given local has hostile intentions. Nothing in this area is as clear as it seems.


We also meet a horse-sized intermediate stage monster. It can run along at a good clip, moving quickly on six legs. It is never made clear if all these different creatures are different species of alien, or of they are all growth stages of the Goliaths.

A galloping whatsit.

Everything turns to shit when they are ambushed. An IED followed by sniping kills the majority of the team, and pushes the protagonists into the hands of insurgents.

A long, dry run across a wasteland.

The plot moves with frenetic brutality. Parkes' friends are killed without warning. We watch Frankie die a slow death, bleeding out from an abdominal wound. The casual interpretation of the film, asking who is the real monster, doesn't really fit. The camera does not judge actions. The script does not punish. The viewer is merely along for the ride, unable to see the next thing coming. Like the monsters, the brutality of humans just is, and the film makes no attempt to explain or justify it. But every major character has a meltdown at one point.

The uncaring, inscrutable eye of a Goliath.

At this point, the film becomes is very similar to the first. Two people, in this case Parkes and Frater, undertake a journey that is impeded by the monsters. They meet local people, and get experience the hospitality of a involved in a culture they do not understand. Parkes wanders out into the night, and watches one of the Goliaths apparently mourning one of its own. The corpse releases spores in a beautiful florescent purple display. Like the people the Goliaths are capable of making something beautiful.

Goliaths are capable of mourning their dead and creating beauty. If only we could communicate with them.

In an interesting closer that parallels the opening, Frater and Parkes come across some kids who are shooting at a wall with a painted Goliath on it. Exactly what Parkes was doing at the beginning of the film.

Set up a wall, and some paint, and you've got a Goliath target.

In the end, Frater becomes untethered because the mission is a failure. The men he is looking for are dead. That's been his focus, the thing that has kept him together through the film. The mission, which Frater has clung to, has failed. He staggers out of town to see an enormous eruption of something fantastically larger than any was have yet seen. And there the film ends.

We're going to need bigger guns.

There's a Cloverfield feel to Monsters: Dark Continent. The film doesn't feel it owes the audience a detailed explanation. In fact, that seems to be the point. The audience is just as much in the dark as to what's going to happen next as the characters are. Frightening things are happening, and it wears on the human characters. The monsters of the film aren't the focus, which was off-putting to a lot of people who were hoping for a movie that dealt more directly with monsters. As it is, I have to agree with Kim Newman's review for Empire, it's a good film that takes on human extremes in a way that a more straightforward film more directly about war would. As alien invasions go, this one is messy and slow, just like real-world invasions.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Do You Even Blog, Bro?

Oh, hi!

It's been one of my blogless seasons. I have a new job, and I have a deadline. So I've basically shoved my head directly into the mincer. But with the news that Ann Hathaway will be starring in a Kaiju film, My Year of Monsters will be around for some time.

It's been difficult to remember what blogging was like before the two years of going through a monster film every Thursday. What the hell else did I talk about? The new job is in a bookstore, and has much less fodder for funny stories, (thank Cthulhu).

My video gaming is down quite a bit, owing to the deadline. I'm back on Rise of Flight, and readers can go here for an accurate summation of what that's like. I really should post some pictures, because posts with pictures always have a better read rate than posts without them. So here's your bandwidth-consuming picture of what I'm doing when I'm not writing.

On fragile digital wings with beautiful planes

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Bitter End: Atlantic Rim

The people at Asylum Productions have embraced the term mockbuster, partially because it keeps them from being labelled rip-off artists. Atlantic Rim is a production intended to ride the coat-tails of Pacific Rim. Watching it, which is a chore, points out how rich in visual language and texture Del Toro's film is. How much depth there is in unspoken backstory, and how much he actually cared about this film. When I watch this, I am reminded of the Full Mon Production films: Kraa and Zarkorr. These were made without love, without a passion for the subject. They're quickies, churned out to make a few bucks, and then on to the next assignment.

Atlantic Rim had a budget of about half a million dollars; the same as Gareth Edwards' Monsters. It is so relentlessly cheap, in script and direction, that it looks cheaper than it is. Even such a cursory glance at kaiju film as the writers and directors took reveals that they know something about Kaiju film. True to its Kaiju roots. Stock footage of carrier groups to pad out the run time? Check. They could have learned a lot from Daiei, if they'd cared to study.

Aliens invade, Mankind fights back.

Like Godzilla, the creatures come from the sea. Because only the sea is large enough to conceal something this big. In this case, apparently, the sea is the Persian Gulf, according go the screen in the minisub. There's an oil rig, and it gets attacked by a giant monster from the sea. The script doesn't get much about 4th grade reading level. "An explosion would have registered on scientific readings." says the science advisor.

SONAR is detecting large landmasses, possibly Africa and Asia Minor.

And there are our pilots. Entirely as unlikable of the characters in Cloverfield. The rogue, Red Watters, is an unpredictable loose cannon who has temper issues, and within three minutes of being introduced, is beating people up in an alley. There's also the girl, Tracey, and the other pilot, Jim, who seems like the only character who has ever seen the word restraint. Their call signs are red, blue, and green, which is the color of the lights in their cockpit. Although like Pacific Rim, they production team only built one cockpit, the only difference in Atlantic Rim is the color of the lights.

A loose cannon who's unpredictable and indispensible.

Yeah she sleeps with both of them.

And the brother doesn't get the LED string.

The plot has no stakes, no consequences. Blue's power goes out during the first dive, and I stare at the screen, really unaware of that this means. After some attempts at lengthening the completely manufactured drama, she gets it back up. This is a little bump in the long and interminable countdown of how deep they're going. It's an amazing six and a half minute sequence in which nothing relating to the plot or of any interest happens on screen. Six and a half minutes.

There's a fight, and it turns out that this wasn't the only monster, shades of Gorgo. The second monster (same model as the first monster) attacks, and the pilots scramble around the small airport, pretending it's a Navy base. They bomb the creature, wounding it. It slithers back into the ocean, everyone celebrates because they think they've destroyed it.

Did  mention the model sizeing is a problem?

Which brings us to a plot problem. If the creatures can be injured and destroyed by conventional weapons, why the hell are they re-deploying the Armada bots? Because the plot. Why does it taken less than a day to upgrade the bots? The plot. Because the bots now have weapons, jet packs, and a neural interface. Why does the creature attack New York when all the other attacks have been on the Gulf Coast? Because King Kong, Q the Winged Serpent, The Beast, Clover, and Godzilla have done it already. It even takes out the flatiron building. A fair portion of the last fight takes place at the George Washington Bridge, like Cloverfield.

Hey! The Flatiron Building!

There's a Colonel who is really into dropping a bomb to destroy the monster. He draws a weapon on the Admiral. With his back to a pair of M-16-holding guards. They are not part of the plot, however, so they do nothing. I mean why didn't they just not put the guards in if they weren't going to do anything?

Hey guys wityh guns? Gonna do anything?

Red throws the monster into outer space, because the suits are escape-capable, and nukes it in orbit. Yay! Plot over.

Like a lot of the newer films, Cloverfield and Monsters, the creatures don't have names. They're just creatures. And unlike Pacific Rim, there's no real exploration as to where it might have come from. Even Cloverfield spend more time and effort on the creature's backstory. On the other hand, we have a lot of shots of Blue flailing around pretending to swing her sword.

Monster goes rawr.

The film lacks charm. Or really any sort of positive characteristic. Full Moon Studios films were at least laughably bad. This film is so bad it's insulting. Asylum doesn't care. Have the chatacters repeat the same phrase four times in less than three minutes? Yeah! Totally irrelevant sideplots that serve no purpose other than eating up time? Shove a couple more in there! It's irritating tho realize that the producers at Asylum think this is a product that should be purchased and watched. I saw it for free, and I still feel ripped off. I don't even recommend it for people who love terrible films.

Hey! The Flatiron Building!

And this is, as the title says, the bitter end. I'm ending the weekly My Year of Monsters after eighty-nine films and nearly two years. I've looked at giant monster films from 1933 to 2014, cheap, good, bad, and historic. It's been fun. There will be other kaiju films, and I'll address them as they come up, adding them to the label. I am anticipating another Gamera project, now that the franchise is 50. The second Host film is due out sometime, and further in the future D-Wars; Mysteries of the Dragon, Skull Island, Toho's next Godzilla film, Pacific Rim 2, Earth Defense Widow, and the second Legendary Godzilla. In addition, there are a couple of films I'm going to go back and look at, such as the Italian cut Cozzilla, the influential Elliot and Rossio script that never got made. But I won't be doing this on a weekly basis any more.

Thanks for reading, I'll write more soon.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What Terry Pratchett Meant to Me...

He never knew it, but Terry Pratchett was a profound influence on me. I admire his brilliance, his cutting insight into the nature of people, and his ability to put profound truths into simple words. For me, reading his books was not abou the funny, although the humor always went down easily. It was his insight.

When I realized that I did not believe in God, I was at a loss. What do we look to for direction in a Godless universe?

"There is no justice, there is just us." He wrote in Reaper Man. Let me unpack what that means to me. What does life without the promise of afterlife leave us with and what does it leave us without? If there is no God, then there is no final justice. After death, the virtuous will not be rewarded, unjust not punished. There will be no justice meeted out by something that is not human. There is only us. Only we can make the justice we seek. Only we can be the kindness we see in the world. No one else is responsible. We are.

In THUD! he wrote: "Beating people up in little rooms . . . he knew where that led. And if you did it for a good reason, you’d do it for a bad one. You couldn’t say “we’re the good guys” and do bad-guy things.". This is the most succinct critique of the two-faced side of American (and I assume other countries) politics. In the wake of 9/11, we justified outselves with the unspoken conclusion that our enemy was a savage, and that they would only understand savagery. That we were justified in breaking our own laws, and using ridiculously convoluted logic to demonstrate that we it was the right thing to do, convincing only those that wanted to be convinced. But Pratchett is of course, right. You can't call yourself the good guy and do the things you say only the bad guy does. Especially when those actions have been known for a long time to be ineffective in eliciting correct information. Further, the 'end justified the means' logic is corrosive. Once a person does something terrible for a good reason, it's easier for them to do again, even for a reason that is less pressing, or noble.

In Carpe Jugulum: "And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself." Treating people not as people is, of course, bad. And we do it every day. In my current job, I am often treated as a barrier between the person and the money they deserve, regardless of the condition of the item they wish to sell. They do not see me as John Goodrich, author, blogger, reader of books, the guy who cries at the Sarah McLaughlan song in Toy Story 2. They see me as an ATM that is failing to dispensing money. And in turn, I see them as junkheaps who are trying to pawn off crap because they are hard up for money. And this does neither of us any good, and does nobody any credit. It is easy to dismiss people, but everyone has an inner life, a sense of who they are, people they love, dreams and goals. When we do not treat each other as such, there is always friction.

In The Wee Free Men: "If you trust in yourself ... and believe in your dreams...and follow your'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy." This is somthing I incorporate into every novel I write. Being creative is work. Nobody is actually Cinderella or Luke Skywalker, or Neo, chosen from birth to be awesome. Everything worth doing is work, and art is hard work.

The Egyptians built themselves gigantic tombs, hoping they would not be forgotten. Terry Pratchett labored long and hard to build momuments in peoples hearts. And in me, at least, he succeeded. Farewell.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Return of Nikkatsu: Death Kappa

The last time Japanese film studio Nikkatsu ventured into the kaiju business, it was to release Gappa the Triphidian Monster in 1967. Nikkatsu is primarly a producer of soft-core films. But I will say that Shûsuke Kaneko, director of the Heisei Gamera films and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, got started in the genre. And so finally, Nikkiatsu makes another kaiju outing with the 2010 film Death Kappa.

The film starts with a cheesey fifties-era discussion of the Kappa. Many early Godzilla films start this way as a way of preparing the audience to watch something from another culture. In the background, however, we hear the cries of obscure Kaiju. Titanosaurus from Ishiro Honda's Terror of Mechagodzilla is clearly heard, and I'm pretty sure Gigan is in there, too. So we know that this is a film aware of its kaiju roots, and this is borne out by the film itself.

Let me talk to you about Kappa and Cucumbers.

The plot is fairly basic. Kanako returns from Tokyo because she could not make it as a singer. Her home village, of course, holds Lovecraftian deformed people, reckless kids, mystical countryside secrets, such as a kappa. Oh, and a secret ultra-nationalst Japanese base.

People not from Tokyo are creepy.

Grandma, who tends the Kappa shrine, is hit and killed by the reckless teenagers, so it's left to our lonely city girl to tend the shrine. The kappa starts off as just another spirit of justice. Human-sized, it takes care of the four in the car who killed Gran'ma, and dutifully eats the offered cucumbers. But our heroine Kanako's pop songs enchant it.

Kappa, mischevious but not malevolent spirit

Kaneko is captured by the Ultra-nationalists, (again, shades of Ishiro Honda's Atragon) who dress a lot like Nazis. They are breeding a superior soldier from captured women and kappa. The project is being run by Yuriko, his sexy leather-and-boot clad granddaughter, who runs Grandpa's corpse around in a wheelchair everywhere she goes. Yeah, she's crazy. And she wears a teddy and garters under her lab coat.

Total crazypants.

A lot of the scenes go on too long. How much do we need to see Yuriko pushing her grandfather around while Kanako tells her she's crazy? How long do we really need to see Yuriko spraying the underground base with machine-gun fire?

Total crazypants with machine gun.

Anyway, Yuriko sets off a nuclear bomb which wipes the secret base out (thankfully) but also mutates something into a giant, city-wrecking monster. Hangyolas is blue, scaly, and reptilian. It also has a colorful red and yellow crest running down its back, clearly derived from Godzilla. The snout is shorter than Godzilla's, and it also has red spines or whiskers.

Enter Hangyolas.

There are, of course, modern twists. A pair of guys on the street take a selfie with the monster behind them. We get the giant footprint, but this time, like 1933 King Kong, it (bloodlessly) squashes people. The Japanese cabinet, for reasons unknown, decides to name the monster Hangyolas. Still, at least we know what to call it.

Be4cause the footprint thing is still cool.

The Ultra-nationalists may have had a point. Although the military is deployed, they all lack the courage to actually open fire at the gigantic monstrosity. Ishiro Honda usually portrayed the military as there for show, rather than effectiveness, and Death Kappa takes that a step further, making them incapable of effective action. The aircraft deployed are F 104 Starfighers, last seen in Gamera vs Gyaos and Yonggary. Which is strange, because the tanks are modern, so it's just possible this is a subtle joke. Overall, the miniatures work is pretty good. The film makers are even confident enough to poke some fun at their own mniature work by showing us several shots where the wire holding up aircraft can be clearly seen. And of course Hangyolas has a fiery breath weapon. Because kaiju have breath weapons.

Look at those wires.

Although the miniatures scenes go on too long, clearly stretching the run time, this sequence I didn't mind. Hangyolas is an interesting-looking monster, the miniatures are well done. This is what I came to see. Although we don't see Hangyokas smash any buildings, possibly due to budgetary reasons. But the military has a secret weapon: an imitation of Eiji Tsuburaya's maser gun, the Gorgon Death Ray. It has a long neck and a projector that remains parallel to the ground. It's effective until Hangyolas fires its devastating breath weapon, and it all goes up in smoke and flame.


Luckily for humanity, The kappa has also been enlarged, presubaly by the radiation, and also has his own Godzilla-style breath weapon. It stops Hangyolas in an off-screen appearance very reimiscent of a scene in Godzilla vs Hedorah. And the monster wrestling begins. Death Kappa pulls off Hangyolas' tail, but the fight continues. I wonder if that's where Del Toro got the idea to cut off Otachi's tail and keep the fight going in Pacific Rim.

Ready? FIGHT!

Once Hangyolas is defeated, Death Kappa begins its own rampage. It can only be stopped by Kaneko , who has apparently survived the nuclear detonation of th Ultra-nationalist base. She sings to it, and it calms down. Death Kappa then retreats to the ocean.

Enter Hangyolas.

Death Kappa is best described as adolescent. The women in it are needlessly sexualized; the bad girls all show up in bikinis, Yuriko wears what looks like an uncomfortable teddy and stockings under her lab coat. The jokes are broad, the plot pretty flimsy. It feels similar to Monster X Strikes Back, an affectionate ribbing of the Kaiju genre. But the monster action, although heavily derived from wrestling, is pretty good, and the last major film to use suitmation. Hangyolas is a much more interesting monster than the Death Kappa, but it also has a lot more screen time. Death Kappa is also the last kaiju film made until Pacific Rim was released.

Enter Hangyolas.

Next week, the last of my weekly kaiju reviews. And it's a stinker.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Kaiju Road Trip: Monsters

Gareth Edwards is better known for the not-terrible 2014 American Godzilla reboot. But he got the job with a film that is the polar opposite. Monsters is a 2010 film, written and directed by Edwards, on a budget of less than a million dollars. As more films are made with kaiju, other and newer approaches are being taken with them. Genre tropes are swapped. Monsters is fully a kaiju film, but like Demeking, it owes a lot more to another genre, in this case, the road trip film. Sam and Andrew are thrown together in Mexico and must overcome the difficulties on the road to their destination. Which that includes the northern section of Mexico which is now an 'infected zone' loaded with giant monsters.

Into the Infected Zone we go.

The film is shot in a very cinema verite style, similar to Cloverfield, and like Cloverfield, it concentrates on the humans in the midst of giant monsters. It does not, however, have the infamous shaky cam. Andrew is a photographer, and has been assigned to get Sam out of Mexico and back to the US by her father, Andrew's employer. She's engaged to someone else, and the two initially seem to have very little in common. An interesting note is that the stars, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, got married shortly after the film was shot.

The human protagonists, ladies and gentlemen.

An unspoken co-stars of the film is the Central American countryside. It's beautiful, and because the film was made guerilla-style, a portion of the commentary is the crew reminiscing about the fascnating places they had visited, including Copper Canyon. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, and nicely textured.

A beautiful morning in the Infected Zone.

The subtle twist is that this is six yerars after the initial invasion. The monsters, unnamed in the film, are not new. They are a known quantity. Where usually we watch the monster trash buildings, in Monsters, we see the buildings already trashed. And some of these have been left damaged, and the people nearby make do or avoid them,. But there isn't enough money or political will to even tear then down. This establishes the atmosphere of the film beautifully, a future, not of despair, but where such things are accepted. This is not the hopeful Pacific Rim where humanity is fighting valiantly against the invaders. This is the future where we make a holding action, and try not to talk about it. But wherever there's a televisdion in the background, there's a news bulletin about the monsters. So while the monsters, which are never named, are not seen throughout most of the film, they are a constant presence.

I live here. Where else will I go?

Of course, the always-present television.

Once Sam and Andrew are in the Infected Zone, the tenor of the film changes. The creatures are constant menace. They are heard, the evidence of their presence is everywhere. Ruined buildings dot the countryside. Strange noises boom across the landscape. America has build a wall to keep the monsters out, an idea picked up by Pacific Rim and as effective as it is in that film.

The oh-so-effective wall.

We also learn about the behavior of the creatures. They leave some sort of spoor, a form of reproduction, on the local trees. These light up, and give a beautifully otherworldly impression.

Extra magical mushrooms.

Of course, we don't get a good look at them until the end. In some ways, they are like Godzilla's MUTOs; they are large, and they are lookning to mate. Unlike the MUTOs, however, they seem ambibuous. The MUTOs are large and do not care about what they tread on. These creatures, on the other hand, do not. We do not see them trash any buildings. They carefully step around a gas station in the final sequence of the film. Is it possible that they are attacked only because they are large and frightening. In his commentary, Gareth states thast if you want to overanalyze the film (which is what I do), you can read into the film that the constant media barrage makes the creatures more aggressive than they are.

Of course, being scared is a logical conclusion.

Still, the creatures are very cool looking, large internally bio-luminescent land octopi.

Hey sexy mama, wanna kill all humans?

Monsters is kind of light, but the performances are intersting, and the direction is interesting. Monsters is not the standard kaiju film, but it is an interesting meditation on kaiju-human relations.

One of my favorite images from Gareth Edwards' Monsters.

A sequel, Monsters 2 will be out this year, and it seems to be getting mixed reviews. The creatures seem different, so perhaps they are adapting in differnt locations. Hopefully, it will have a wide enough release that I'll get to see it in the theater. Next week, back to Japan!