Saturday, May 24, 2014

Time Travel Time #5: I saw the Uncanny Days of Future Past

I saw the Uncanny X-Men, contained in "Days of Future Past", and in that the movie deals with time-travel, I've decided to mesh my "I saw..." category with "Time Travel Time", with the latter being the overriding label. On the other hand, I suppose, thematically, there's as much an alternate-reality element to the film to have justified a post dealing exclusively with that concern, but be that as it may.

Directed by the perpetually competent Bryan Singer, who held the reins on the first and second X-Men movies, "Days" is based on the '81 Marvel adventure created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne (which was then adapted for the '90s animated series), but title-wise is perhaps best known as a classic, progressive-rock album by the Moody Blues. 

The yarn's obvious novelty is how it presents younger versions of the mutants (previously seen in "First Class") with their later versions (last seen in "Last Stand"). However, to make this all work, it's up to Logan, the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, again expertly taking his performance to the virile hilt), who becomes a most determined mutant-with-a-cause, as he "quantum leaps" back into his early '70s persona, courtesy of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page)'s mystical powers. Wolverine is, in essence, the anchor of this weird tale, around whom the entire escapade revolves. 

As with the original comic-book story, Simon Kinberg's script initially focuses on the near future, where both the human and mutant populations have been virtually terminated by an army of giant, dictatorial robots: the Sentinels. These lethal automatons were designed by famed scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter "Game of Thrones" Dinklage) in '73, as a proposal to President Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho), after the enticing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, in all of her naked, blue glory) tires to assassinate him. (It should be noted that the movie also references how Trask was, in fact, already slain by Mystique in another timeline, but it's in the primary track we behold that he applies her morphing ability to his prized machines.) Through all of this, Wolverine has the arduous task of convincing the past principle characters that an attempt on Trask's life by a mutant will surely launch the Sentinels' monstrous rise. 

On the lighter side, it's fun to see how the characters resolve the confounding situation, whether via the futuristic Professor Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) or their younger counterparts (James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender). Other legendary characters, whether in current or old form, like Beast (Nicholas Hault); Bishop (Omar Sy); Colossus (Daniel Cudmore); Iceman (Shawn Ashmore); Storm (Halle Berry); and the scene-stealing Quicksilver (Evan Peters)--to name but a few!--move effectively among these interludes, while the ever observant William Stryker (Josh Helman) faithfully lurks on the sidelines.

In truth, watching old and new intermingle, or bounce between time lines, is probably "Days" most complex aspect. It also gives the various classic counterparts a chance to see through different lenses (much as they did in "X-Men United"). In this regard, the story's real conflict isn't so much how the mutants will erase the Sentinels, but rather how Xavier and Magneto, in particular, can come to terms with their own fears, prejudices and sacred believes to accomplish that monumental task.   

"Days" also makes one ponder how other alternate-reality installments, whether "First Class" (or for that matter, any of the X-men jaunts), "Planet of the Apes", "Star Trek", "Watchmen" or the recent smash, "Winter Soldier", fit into the grand scheme of existence. Into which does our own reality fit among such, and if in none (as seems clearly the case), are we merely seated spectators to these never-ending sprees, or in some elusive way, participants?

That's a pretty thick notion to chew upon, and "Days" does a deft job at making it nice and juicy. It will be fascinating to see how this X-Men chapter impacts those that follow, but just based on this entry's thought-provoking aspects alone, don't be surprised if "Days" turns out to be the most influential in this enduring series. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Flask of Eyes Update #1

Hello, folks! Just wanted to give you an update on my trippy, monster team-up/alternate-reality novel, "Flask of Eyes". 

Damnation Books assigned a very conscientious and gracious editor, Trevor Donaldson, to work with me on the brush-ups. The third-round edit was completed about a week ago, and the manuscript is now back at Damnation for further review. 

The cover has yet to be designed, but I thought I'd share the above image, which I "borrowed" from an eyeball gallery, if only to mark the fact that things are moving along. 

I'll keep you posted on developments as they emerge!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

I saw Godzilla (2014)...

Gojira, better known on the English-tongued front as Godzilla, is back in a sprawling Legendary Films 2014 reboot; not that I really need to remind you of this. The behemoth's return is evident through every facet of the media, which naturally goes to reason. The Toho Studios brainchild is a sentimental favorite: a monster most of us have joyously grown up with. 

This particular retelling (directed by Gareth "Monsters" Edwards and story lined by Max Borenstein and David Callahem) initially presents the great one as a metaphor for an unstoppable force of nature. I suppose it only goes to reason that Hollywood would use that angle, which alas, is predictably tired. How many times must we be told that humankind is solely to blame for Earth's otherwise natural disasters, including Godzilla's emergence? Thank goodness, the concept isn't beaten into the ground for very long and eventually even gets turned on its head.

In truth, Bryan Cranston makes the latter easier to swallow, even if his character is prominent only in the picture's first half, but considering the plot's circumstances, that's where he's probably most needed. 

He plays Dr. Joe Brody, a physicist desperate to reveal a government cover-up: that radioactive monsters do roam the planet. He is obsessively lonely (especially in the wake of his wife's untimely death) and above all, sad and mad, offering a nice brush of "Breaking Bad", while also welcoming us to see through is eyes. Yes, the poor guy is significantly on edge, and even pulls his gallant son (Aaron "Kick-Ass" Taylor-Johnson), a Naval lieutenant and explosives expert, into his tormented zeal, but still for all intents and purposes, he could be you or me, giving the tale (while the compassionate moment lasts) a lovely, empathetic flow.

There are also other characters who eventually grab the reins from father and son, portrayed by the likes of Ken Wantanabe as the insightful Dr. Ishiro Scrizawa, David Straithairn as the level-headed Admiral William Stenz and Elizabeth Olsen as Lieutenant Brody's worried wife: all more than competent within the story's context, but let's face it, it's Godzilla we've come to see, even if he's again redesigned; but hey, that's a tradition we've happily embraced for six decades. Why the hell stop now?

At any rate, the military intrepidly swoops in to investigate (and hopefully halt) an ongoing string of monster-sprung disasters; and unlike in similar creature epics, the Armed Forces actually come across as refreshingly and realistically competent here. Also, as the destruction escalates, we experience Godzilla's steadier exposure, watching him become (as we have experienced in so many Toho classics) by no means our curse, but rather our grand defender. The let-down is, his presence is mostly insinuated and never consistently seen: a disenchanting minus, if ever there was one. 

To compensate for Godzilla's lack of visibility, it's his adversaries who enter the forefront. They're called the Mutos (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms): a duo of fiery-eyed, spidery "Cloverfield"-like things, of both genders, that have transformed from once existing monsters into more ghastly ones; one crawls, the other flies. (Pre-production sketches actually inspired some to speculate that the film's primary foe might be Godzilla's old, Cyclopean adversary, Gigan, albeit it heavily revamped, but more recent reports promptly squashed such fervid anticipation.)

Just as Godzilla is radiation's spawn, the Mutos actually feed off such; and though they are ultimately destined to be passionately embraced by die-hard, kaiju fans, they are, in truth, despicable, ruthless things: behemoth terrorists that won't--and shouldn't--gain an iota of sympathy for their destructive deeds, even though it seems they only wish to mate (but oh, what horrid consequences such would bring if left unattended).

Anyway, with the gigantic villains firmly established, most would naturally expect Godzilla to readily crush his foes, but just remember, the great lizard lost to Kong, Mothra's offspring and even when teamed with Rodan (another Toho favorite fans were hoping to grace this epic), kissed defeat via the evil, three-headed "Monster Zero" (aka, Ghidrah/Ghidorah). Simply put, in Godzilla lore, no outcome is ever assured. 

Regardless of the combative result (and I'm just trying to mount some suspense for those who haven't seen the film yet), Godzilla nonetheless spitefully rises as the yarn's stalwart hero: a legend still to be loved and admired. Yep, the enduring sentiment can't be ignored in this outing, even through all the hazy, special-effects jammed glory and unfortunate brevity of his screen time. Despite it all--Hallelujah!--our childhood buddy has returned once more, and by the time the end credits roll, only self-denying grumps will likely walk away dissatisfied. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #14: Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster

For those in my age range, Robert Gaffney's 1965 "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster" (aka, "Duel of the Space Monsters", "Mars Attacks Puerto Rico", et al) was a familiar sight back in the day, frequently viewed at weekend matinees, drive-in theaters and as the '70s rolled around, on UHF stations. (In fact, it was through the latter that I discovered it as an impressionable youth, one rainy Sunday afternoon.)

Also in its time, the movie came across as rather hip in style and theme, particularly with the Frankenstein Monster, wherein the Shelley homage, played by Robert Reilly, isn't the creation we generally think of, but actually a cyborg: composed of donated organs and lots of circuit-laced metal.

In fact, this Frankenstein has been specifically designed for NASA, to be sent on mission to Mars: an endeavor otherwise considered too risky for real astronauts, or so his creator, Dr. Adam Steele (James "Return of the Living Dead" Karen), claims. In any event, Steele's Frankenstein goes by the official name, Colonel Frank Saunders, and beyond growing abruptly catatonic at a press conference, he appears essentially normal, even graced by a calm, logical demeanor.

When Frank is launched into space, the Martians are coincidentally heading toward Earth, in hopes of capturing women for mating purposes, since the consequences of an atomic war have left their female population virtually extinct.

The Martians shoot down the cyborg's craft, which crashes in Puerto Rico. Poor Frank is then pursued and wounded by the invaders, leaving one side of his face a grid of exposed circuitry and his "brain" a nonsensical mess. This unfortunately leads him to kill anyone who crosses his path. The Martians, meanwhile, continue to round up Earth beauties, having no qualms disintegrating one fellow for simply standing between them and his bikini-clad girlfriend.

The actual masterminds behind such sadistic stunts are Marcuzan (actress/Playmate Marilyn Hanold), a veritable Princess of Mars, and Nadir (Lou Cutell), her bald, pointy eared, right-hand man (whom the other male Martians resemble). The insidious duo do a fine job of stealing many a scene as they tenaciously plot and scheme.

As the mayhem continues, Steele and his lovely assistant (Nancy Marshall) track Frank down and reprogram him, while the military boldly intervenes, bombing the Martian's quasi-saucer. Frank soon forges ahead, unwittingly ending up on the ship and is ultimately able to release the women the Martians have gathered. It is then that Frank encounters a large, hairy beast (acclaimed character actor, Bruce Glover, who also plays a Martian henchmen). The creature is called the Mull and is apparently part of the invader's back-up task force.

The inevitable monster brawl is punch-filled and eerily smoke-veiled, building adequate tension as Frank gradually makes his way toward the diabolical Marcuzan and Nadir and a sad but satisfying conclusion. 

The space monster suit is a particular stand-out, far more effective than most CGI specimens could hope to be, and Frank, once deformed, proves a most chilling, lumbering sight, thanks to Reilly's performance, while Karen punctuates the story with a likable determination. Cutell, however, may be the most memorable presence, with his rolling eyes, salacious leers and Jon Lovitz-type delivery, flavoring scenes with just the right dose of tongue-in-cheek.

With this said, "Frank Meets Space Monster" never truly takes itself seriously, but never dares to turn insipidly silly, either. Additionally, it's worth noting that the film's Florida and Puerto Rico exterior shots (of which there are many) give the adventure an exotic warmth (and all magnificently captured in crisp black-and-white). Also, one fun scene features the same poolside setting used in Arch Hall's caveman epic, "Eegah": a nice nod that discerning fans will surely relish.

Arguably on the downside, the movie is a tad padded with stock footage, but it's all nicely edited and accompanied generally by cool, mod-music, which will likely stay in one's head long after the credits have rolled.

Some will say it's good that frivolity like "Frank Meets Space Monster" is rarely produced these days, but I say, it's a shame there aren't more movies made in this unpretentious vein. This one was clearly constructed by folks who knew how to do it right, and for would-be, low-budget movie makers, it should be eagerly embraced as a proverbial blueprint.

Friday, May 9, 2014

I saw the new Boy Wonder...

Based on Grant Morrison's DC story line, the recently released, animated feature, "Son of Batman" is a sleek, hard-hitting romp, detailing the rise of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul's offspring, Damian: fated to become the next Robin.

After Wayne is introduced to his son, he nobly accepts the incredibly skilled lad into his clandestine affairs, just as he had with Dick Grayson, Jason Todd and Timothy Drake, but the youth's impulsive nature--and his insatiable need to avenge the death of his grandfather, the infamous Ra's al Ghul (who in this instance, is too far gone for resurrection via the Lazarus Pit)--leads to inevitable dissent at stately Wayne Manor.

As should come as no surprise, the League of Shadows/Assassins is, therefore, amply represented in this offering, its conflicting sides influencing events with their strange, ironic duality: a form of evil to thwart evil. The League's creed also parallels young Wayne's dilemma: should he act as ruthlessly as his enemy to attain justice?

The main antagonist is Batman's modern, masked rival, Slade Wilson, ersatz Deathstroke, and keeping true to his deceitful, terminating form, proves most heartless in his pursuits. He even kidnaps Talia (after she fails to slay him), happily threatening to kill her when young Wayne, in full Robin gear, swings into vengeful action.

"Son" is often violently grim: in this regard, a worthy companion piece to "Under the Red Hood", though in the end, not as disturbing or weirdly bittersweet as the latter animated adaptation. Still, "Son" offers a fulfilling journey, sprinkled by moments of dry levity (particularly between the Neo-Boy Wonder and Alfred Pennyworth) and above all, eye-catching animation: Talia being especially well rendered. The film also features Dick Grayson as Night Wing, Commissioner Jim Gordon, Killer Croc, "Kirk" Langstrom and his manic Man-Bat colony, just to hit the right spots in the hearts of Cape Crusader fans.

For Batman/Robin devotees, this is definitely worth obtaining and should sustain one's interest on repeated viewings, of which there are destined to be many.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Collectible Time #7: Monarch's Gorgo

At long last, Monarch has released its Aurora-styled model kit tribute to one of the greatest giant-monster films of all time: GORGO!!! Gosh, in some respects, the colorful box artwork (by either artist you choose) is worth the price of the kit alone, if I may be so bold to say. (I got the kit, incidentally, at Z&Z Hobbies: referenced in earlier "Collectible Time" posts.)

Anyway, for those shockingly unfamiliar with the 1961 British blockbuster, it's directed by Eugene Lourie, who gave us such awe-inspiring hits as "Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", "Giant Behemoth" and "Colossus of New York". It also stars Bill Travers and William Sylvester, who each add credibility and sophistication to the adventurous yarn. Additionally, "Gorgo" is full of splendor, thrills, a great Angelo Francesco Lavagnino score and before it's over, a surprisingly, heartfelt outcome.

Anyway, the kit will certainly appeal to anyone who has even a passing interest in those glorious, man-in-suit dinosaurs of old, and this one is surely a dandy to rival 'em all. I mean, just take a gander at those wondrous, finned ears!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

I saw Spidey (in damn love)...

I saw Spider-man, in Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-man 2", the high-voltage, though often quite campy, sequel to his mega hit reboot of two years prior.

As with Webb's first sling, Andrew Garfield deftly takes the reins from Tobey McGuire, giving his Peter Parker a more "complicated" edge. Emma Stone also returns as Gwen Stacy, but as with the initial chapter, where precious time was stolen from the Spidey/Lizard story line, this outing's romance level is even more annoyingly pronounced, consistently interfering with both action sequences and character development. Fortunately, our hero somehow finds the time to do what he does best--fight the bad guys. 

With this said, there are, indeed, bad guys aplenty, from the mounting menace of Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan)--sorry folks, but the original Green Goblin, Norman (portrayed by Chris Cooper), dies before he can even don a costume; the luminous, though initially bumbling, Max Dillan/Electro (Jamie Foxx); and Aleksei Sytsevich/the Rhino (Paul Giamatti) in an extended cameo.

The script (written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner) presents a continuation of secrets-to-be-revealed, particularly regarding Parker's defunct dad, who holds a mysterious link to the powerful Oscorp. Just as the Lizard rose from the consequences of such secrecy, Electro does much the same (while ripping an obsessive page from the Jim Carrey/Riddler playbook), emerging wide-eyed, ominously glowing and successfully, if not confusedly, terrorizing Times Square.

Can Spidey set things back on proper track? Well, of course, he can, at least well enough to pave the way for the third chapter, but what empowers "Spidey 2" (even if such is only occasionally allowed to cut through the unnecessary mush) is its unpretentious view of opposing forces: relegating the tale to a noble philosophy embraced by Spidey's co-creator, Steve Ditko, where good and bad are indisputably distinguished. For example, unlike in Sam Raimi's "Spider-man 3", where sympathy was generously granted to the murderous Sandman, no such forgiveness is dispatched by Garfield's superhero, even when it comes to his childhood, goblin-turned pal. However, he does appear oddly lax when he should otherwise be unraveling Electro's manifestation.. 

To add to the mix, Felicia Hardy/the Black Cat (Felicity Jones) is introduced, but her presence is, like the Rhino's, but a fleeting set-up for a future entry, which is too bad since the character would have been a welcome sight in full gear this time out, acting as a lovely counterpart to "Winter Soldier'"s enticing Black Widow.

Unfortunately, famed Daily Bugle honcho, J. Jonah Jameson, though referenced, is conspicuously absent yet again. It was rumored that J.K. Simmons might possibly reprise his role from the Raimi trilogy, but even a basic recasting failed to occur here. Hopefully, the character will surface in an upcoming installment, for his presence is relevant, considering the current, Orwellian scheme of things. (For now, one can only assume that ol' Jameson is toiling behind the scenes, diligently burying Benghazi details for HYDRA--whoops, I mean, CNN.)

Beyond those essential characters present and missed, "Spidey 2" is full of solid, supporting players, like Sally Field, reprising her heartfelt Aunt May role, and the ever versatile Giamatti gives the Rhino a nice, disgruntled edge, even if his screen time is disappointingly brief. 

Among the primary players, Foxx especially rises to the occasion (at least when fully transformed), energizing Electro with the panache the character needs and deserves. DeHann, on the other hand, is more subtly impressive as the evolving Goblin, giving Osborn ample psychotic insinuations, before becoming a high-flying version of "Fright Night'"s original Evil Ed.

Though no ground breaker, and embarrassingly hindered by its amorous content and hapless attempts at being funny, "Spidey 2" is still rather uplifting in the end. Like the recent (and far superior) Cap America blockbuster, it ballyhoos the importance for us all to do right, stand on principle, go out on a limb to fight the good fight. On this basis alone, the movie admirably mirrors its founding Marvel mythology; and in this day and age when snubbing tradition seems all the rage, that's pretty damn impressive.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #13: Monster Brawl

When watching Jesse Cook's "Monster Brawl", I couldn't help but think of Stephen Apostolof/Ed Wood's "Orgy of the Dead". If  you're an exploitation film fan, you'll surely remember that one: a young couple ends up in a cemetery where Criswell and his Vampira-like companion (accompanied by a mummy and werewolf) force near-naked women to perform long, sultry dances, as an implied means of tongue-in-cheek punishment.

"Monster Brawl" structurally reflects the same basic simplicity, but with the emphasis on monster wrestling matches, much along the lines of MTV's claymation, "Celebrity Death Match".

Two fetching, scantily clad women (in the "Orgy" vein, though a trifle more attired) join Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart to assist a Cosell-styled announcer (Dave Foley) and a former pro-wrestler (Art Hindle) to relay the grisly details, sprinkled by mystical interjections from Lance Henriksen's commanding, disembodied voice. The proceedings are apparently televised, though without an immediate audience present for safety reasons, since the monsters might prove too dangerous if they were to leap into the seats: a compassionate nod by a self-proclaimed geek (Jason Deline), who in an interview with Jimmy Hart, also explains how he ingeniously organized the fantastic event.

Unfortunately, there's not much logic to how the monsters are teamed, particularly in weight class. For example, it seems most unlikely that the seemingly frail Witch Bitch (the otherwise alluring wrestler, Courtney Rush,) would be anything but a feather-weight and yet she's pitted against a considerably larger, male opponent, Cyclops (Jason David Brown), despite ample encouragement from her promoter "troll" (Chris Rutte) that she can easily win.

In addition to Cyclops and Witch Bitch, we're treated to the Mummy (RJ Skinner) against Lady Vampire (Kelly Couture); the Werewolf (again Skinner) against Swamp Gut (again Brown); Frankenstein's Monster (Robert Maillet: WWE's Kurrgan), joined by his paternal mad scientist, Dr. Igoria (Ari Millen) against Zombie Man (Rico Montana), managed by the towering Colonel Crookshanks (legendary Kevin Nash). Ultimately, Frankenstein and Werewolf go at it, in what develops into the most energetically vicious "Frank Meets Wolf" melee ever filmed.

Indeed, "Monster Brawl" isn't heavy on plot, but unlike similar endeavors, this one doesn't drag, mostly because the narrative actually spurs the momentum, despite the lack of crowd cheering or musical intros.

To further seal our interest, we're offered background interludes on the opponents, some playing in the standard style (Frankenstein, Werewolf and Lady Vamp), with Swamp Gut's story a cross between the "Boggy Creek" legend and Man-thing/Swamp Thing mythology. Zombie Man stems exclusively from George Romero/John Russo lore and is even exported from Pittsburgh for the fight. Cyclops, on the other hand, is perhaps the most intriguing, if not baffling entity, with a "cursed" twist characterizing his genesis, while Witch Bitch initially comes across as sympathetic due to the persecution she faces from town folk. In the end, though, Frankenstein victoriously steals the show, perhaps due to his imposing stature and quirky, nuanced gestures.

Have fun with this one. It's really not supposed to inspire much else, but like the old Apostolof/Wood concoction, it more than delivers the appropriate, exploitative slam!