Friday, June 28, 2019

Classic Songs: The Unforgiven

Almost literally six years ago today, I wrote what accidentally wound up a one-off piece in my collection of article "sub-series" here on Retro Revelations. I typically write about movies, cartoons/animation, or video games the most often. Once in awhile I'll throw out a bit on comics or toys or something like that. But this time, pressed for time and wanting something I could just talk about fairly quickly, I decided to write an article about music. For the record, I had fully intended this to also be an ongoing sub-series, but for whatever reasons over these many years since, I've just never gotten back to it, till today. And ironically enough, it's largely for the same basic reason: I'm pressed for time to get a June article out, and wanted something I could write a "simpler" piece about.

The original "Classic Songs" article, was about what is basically my favorite song of all time, "Dust in the Wind" by the progressive rock band Kansas. That song is a timeless masterpiece, and in my mind one of the very best songs written, in any era, period. The song I'm here today to talk about, I would also personally include in that company, as I also feel that it is one of the best written, most emotionally powerful songs ever made. It just so happens that the band who made it, Metallica, is my favorite band of all time. But it also just so happens, that while I love and adore "Dust in the Wind", the song "The Unforgiven", for me, carries a lot more personal weight and meaning.

A band that would come to mean a whole lot to me in my teens.

For a bit of personal background, as I've mentioned in past articles, my childhood was not an easy one. In point of fact, it was fairly dark and lonely in a lot of ways. When my grandmother passed away when I was nearly 14 years old, in the fall of 1995, I felt at the time, like I was finally "free", meaning that I no longer had to live under her far too often very controlling, and sometimes downright scary proverbial thumb. I was not explicitly glad that she died, by any means. But I was glad that, in my mind, I was finally free to, within the limits of a young teen boy, live how I wanted, without having to walk on eggshells and constantly live up to the demands or expectations of someone else. In that, I was partially right. I certainly was more free from age 14 onward than I had ever been beforehand. And I never quite had to live under anyone's direct, overbearing control again. But that did not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that my teen years wound up being as fun and fancy free as I naively thought they would be at the time.

Unfortunately for yours truly, while free from my grandmother, and allowed far more autonomy and agency in my young life as a result, my teen years would bring with them brand new flavors of struggle and suffering. As a child, and especially as a pre-teen, I had to deal with abuse, and fear, and psychological warfare, and loneliness, and frustration, and anger, etc. But during those young years, most of that came from one source. As I drifted further into my teens, and more specifically once I started high school in the fall of 1996, as many teens discover, no matter how good and stable their home life may be, the world began to shift for me quite a bit. I spent most of my childhood, and even junior high school, being home-schooled. I voluntarily chose to go to public high school, because I earnestly wanted to give it a try, but also because I wanted to go to the same school as my friend Brandon. I had sugarplum visions dancing in my 14 year old mind, of us super-best-pals having a bunch of classes together, and how totally sweet that was going to be. Not only did that not happen (we had exactly zero classes together), but as I would gradually come to learn the hardest way possible, I honestly should have kept my ass back in home-school.

Such a classic, ominous album cover.

My freshman year was somewhat rough, but manageable. I was merely a somewhat "nerdy" (though I didn't really look the part) social outcast, who didn't have much in the way of in-school friends. Though I did have a couple I had made, in addition to actual friends who didn't go to my school, like Harold. But for one thing, my pal Brandon, who at the time I was very close with, had to move out of state half-way through the year, around Christmas in fact, due to his dad's work. And during the spring semester, while nothing major happened socially at school, my home life started getting worse, and I had my first real drama with a girl I liked. Sufficed to say, the pain and anger that already existed in me from my childhood and pre-teen years, those fires began getting stoked towards the end of my Freshman year of high school. If I had been smarter, I would have chosen to go back to home school after that. But instead, for no especially good reason at all, I decided to stick it out, which I would come to regret immensely.

But one positive that did stick out during that latter part of my Freshman year, was that a school friend let me borrow Metallica's self-titled album "Metallica", otherwise known by fans and music aficionados as "The Black Album" (a play on the 1968 Beatles self-titled "White Album"). I had heard Metallica before, at least their biggest hit "Enter Sandman", and likely a couple of songs from their 1996 album "Load", such as "Until It Sleeps" and "Hero of the Day", on the radio. But I had yet to get super into them, or heavy metal in general. That all rapidly changed when I started listening to "The Black Album", as it instantly became, at the time, my favorite album ever.

To be fair, it's an epic work, with so many truly great songs. But on a more personal level, I felt like in my teen years it became something of a "Bible" to me, especially at age 15/16. So many of the songs really spoke to me, and resonated with me, about my life, about my own feelings and growing darkness within. I found that the fury and anger that a lot of heavy metal music possesses, I could not only relate to, but it also served to (at least temporarily) sooth the fury and anger I felt in myself. Songs like "Sad But True", "Holier Than Thou", "Wherever I May Roam", and even the beautiful ballad "Nothing Else Matters", really affected teenage me. But no song resonated with me more, for all the right AND wrong reasons, for all the most awesome, and most sad reasons, than "The Unforgiven".

"So I Dub Thee Unforgiven"

As for the song itself, while it bears no lyrical connection, both the title and the opening (reversed) horn in the song, are from the 1960 film The Unforgiven, a western which starred Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn. The song also starts out with a haunting, melancholy acoustic riff, that does carry a bit of "western" flavor. But then just when that opening has set the mood, the chorus storms in with a heaviness that absolutely belies the anger, frustration and bitterness that the song's character feels. Lyrically, the song tells the story of an unnamed boy, who is someone constantly being manipulated and controlled and oppressed/suppressed as he grows up. A child who doesn't get to be the person he wants or do the things or live the life he wants to, as he grows into a man.

Even if you 're unfamiliar with the song, knowing what little details I've shared about my own childhood, I'd imagine you can easily see how this song "spoke" to me. In a lot of mostly sad ways, it really felt like the song was telling the story of my own life. A feeling that I'm sure many who have heard it and cherished it over the years have shared. The song's verses are fairly heavy and angry, while the chorus is an alternately light and mournful refrain. James Hetfield, the frontman/singer and main lyricist of Metallica, did this deliberately, as he wanted to make a "ballad" that was against type (many rock/metal ballads, especially Metallica's, had soft verses and a heavy chorus). And on an emotional level, it is super effective, as the shift in tones from the angry verses to the lamenting chorus, really do help tell the song's story.

The story of a man who has struggled his entire life to be who he wants to be, while outside forces constantly try to subdue him and "keep him in line". Ultimately, he grows up to become what sadly far too many children in modern society do: hollow shells of their childhood selves, bitter and burnt out from being told to "grow up" and cast aside their dreams and passions. As an old man, the song's protagonist is too tired to struggle anymore, and he quietly, pitifully gives up and dies. Certainly not happy subject matter, but it wasn't meant to be. And given the progressive nature of the song's story, going from childhood to young adulthood, to middle age and finally old age and death, it is something that people of any age can relate to and identify with, even if for sad, shitty life reasons.

From left to right: Jason Newsted, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, and James Hetfield.

As a complete entity, "The Unforgiven", to me, is a fairly perfect song. It "fires on all cylinders," so to speak, and it really does hit all the right notes. both literally and figuratively. It has a perfect mix of heaviness and softness. It has an emotional resonance in the smooth marriage of instrumentals and lyrics, that both feels genuine, and is so easy to resonate with. It has a very strong storytelling quality, it's a song with a definitive story to tell, not just a bunch of slapped together lyrics that happen to rhyme. That is, as an aside, something I feel James Hetfield got better and better at as he got older, was being a storyteller with his lyrics. Instrumentally speaking, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, with the prompting of producer Bob Rock, was pushed to record arguably his best solo for this song. Most of Hammett's solos, and to be perfectly fair, most of ALL rock/metal solos, are more or less just the musician showing off, shredding and noodling their way through something that more often than not, doesn't actually fit the context or story of the song much. But Kirk's solo on "The Unforgiven" is near flawless, in both its execution, but also it fully fits the story and tone of the song, and feels like it actually adds to the song, instead of just being part of it.

Metallica would actually go on to make two "sequel" songs to this. The first, coming two albums later, on 1997's "ReLoad", was "Unforgiven II". Musically it was purposefully this song's opposite, starting with a heavier intro, and then sliding into softer verses, then picking up the heaviness again for the chorus. Lyrically, it was more of a love song, speaking more about the struggles within a relationship, though ultimately being a bit more hopeful than the original song's rather dire story. It even borrowed a few similar lyrical refrains, which I felt was a nice touch. Then many years later, on 2008's "Death Magnetic", they did "Unforgiven III". This song has a similar heavy verse, softer chorus vibe to the original, but it starts out with a very nice symphonic bit, led by melancholy piano. Lyrically, "Unforgiven III" tells more of a metaphorical story, of a man "lost at sea", lost in his own life, always out searching for that elusive "gold", while ignoring the perils and details of his real life. I like both songs a lot, though I like U3 better. In fact it's my favorite song off of "Death Magnetic". But I'll always love the original the most.

Metallica live.

Ultimately, as I foreshadowed, my choice to remain in public high school for my Sophomore year, was a massive and even tragic mistake on my part. My personal home life, and strained relationship with a mother who hadn't raised me, continued to get progressively worse, especially as 1997 turned into 1998. And at school, in some kind of teenage way to reflect my shitty life, and how it made me feel inside, I started wearing mostly all black, and eventually even got a (pretty sweet) London Fog trench coat, and black boots, and started painting my nails black sometimes, etc. In other words, while I was more of a "metal kid", for whatever that's worth, I still made the social mistake of gravitating towards the resident "Goth kids" at school, who I naively thought might be "my people" and would understand me, etc. Not only did that turn out to not really be true, but looking even mildly (and trust me it was mild by comparison) "Goth", wound up earning me a completely undeserved shit-ton of harassment and straight up bullying, on what would become a near-daily basis. I found no peace at school, no peace at home, and often enough even just being out walking in public, or somewhere like downtown or the mall, I would even find myself the victim of harassment purely over my vaguely "Goth" looks. Once someone even threw a full "Big Gulp" cup from 7-11 at me while I was walking somewhere.

It was a really brutal, painful, and difficult time in my young life, being only 16 by then, and even after I made the wise decision to (finally) go back to home school for my Junior year, the rest of my teens were still no picnic. I dealt with a lot of anger and bitterness and loneliness and depression. I was often suicidal, or at least thought quite a lot about dying. And one of the only things that helped me on any meaningful level, not friends, certainly not "family", was music. And more than any other band or artist, Metallica's music helped me quite a lot. It helped me deal with all the bullshit and pain, it gave me some small kind of outlet. It helped me to get by, to survive. And perhaps no song helped me, or certainly spoke to me more, than "The Unforgiven". Not to be too much of a bummer, but I'm sorry to report that even in my now basically late 30s, the song's story still resonates with me far too much. But I am still bound and determined, as I was as a headstrong teenager, to not let the song's final verse and ending, be mine. One of these days, hopefully sooner than later (it's been too long coming), I am hopeful that my life will finally fully diverge from the song's path. But I guess until that day finally comes, as far as "songs that tell my life story", I could do a hell of a lot worse.


Whether you've heard the song before or haven't, I'll leave you with the lyrics, and a link to the song itself.

New blood joins this Earth,
And quickly he's subdued.
Through constant pained disgrace,

The young boy learns their rules.

With time the child draws in,
This whipping boy done wrong.
Deprived of all his thoughts, 

The young man struggles on and on, he's known.
A vow unto his own, that never from this day,

His will they'll take away.

They dedicate their lives,
To running all of his.
He tries to please them all,
This bitter man he is.

Throughout his life the same,
He's battled constantly.
This fight he cannot win,
A tired man they see no longer cares.
The old man then prepares,

To die regretfully.
That old man there is me.

What I've felt, what I've known,
Never shine through in what I've shown.

Never be, never see,
Won't see what might have been.

What I've felt, what I've known,
Never shine through in what I've shown.
Never free, never me,
So I dub thee Unforgiven.

You label me, so I'll label you,
And I dub thee Unforgiven.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Godzilla Chronicles: Son of Godzilla

It's time once again, for another installment of the Godzilla Chronicles! Last time around, I talked about what was very possibly the first Godzilla film I ever saw, and one of my top personal favorites: Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, also known as Ebirah, Horror of the Deep! That film was directed by one Jun Fukuda, and he would go on to direct the following installment in the series, and the subject of today's article, Son of Godzilla. He would later have a second stretch as the main Godzilla director in the 70s, for three future movies.

This mid-60s period represented a slight change in the "Godzilla Team" at Toho Studios. The creator of Godzilla and "Suitmation" in general, and Toho's top special effects man, Eiji Tsuburaya, had started his own company, Tsuburaya Productions, who made "Tokusatsu" or special effects shows for television, aimed at younger audiences. Their first creations were a trilogy of shows with the "Ultra" heading, starting with Ultra Q in 1965, and being followed by the more famous Ultraman and Ultra 7 in 1966 and 1967. The basis of these shows, was largely similar to the sci-fi and monster fare that he had worked on for Toho for years, dealing with strange occurrences and giant monster battles. Ultraman would of course go on to become a long-running franchise of its own, long after Tsuburaya's death. Meanwhile, while he still supervised the special effects for Sea Monster and Son, Tsuburaya was stepping away from being THE special effects guy at Toho, leaving it to younger men who he had trained.

Godzilla looks much more bad ass in this art than he does in the film.

For his part, frequent Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube didn't do the scores for Sea Monster or Son either. He did, however, continue working with Godzilla godfather, director Ishiro Honda, on the 1966 and '67 films War of the Gargantuas, and King Kong Escapes. Ishiro Honda himself during these years was taking a break from the series, though clearly he didn't stop making monster movies. Gargantuas was a follow-up to the bizarre but great Frankenstein Conquers the World (aka Frankenstein vs. Baragon), from 1965. And Escapes of course, saw Toho once again making use of the American King Kong license, this time in his own independent film, which itself was a loose spin-off of the Rankin-Bass produced cartoon The King Kong Show. Escapes featured on similarity with Son specifically, that I'll get into a bit later. Honda and Ifukube would both return to the series in 1968, in what at the time was somewhat intended to be the final bow for the Godzilla franchise, Destroy All Monsters.

Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla share many similarities, which I doubt are fully coincidence. For one thing, they both feature smaller scale stories, which take place on islands, moving away from the more epic, world-saving nature of Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster and Invasion of the Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero). The tone and style of the films was also distinctly different from Honda's films, having a somewhat lighter, more "fun" atmosphere to them. Part of this was due to lighter, more contemporary "60s" sounding scores, by composer Masaru Sato. It was also partly the subject matter of the stories, moving away from monsters invading Japan or alien attempts at conquest. Sea Monster was clearly inspired by James Bond in tone, dealing with a secret terrorist organization. Meanwhile, Son of Godzilla dealt with something as simple as a scientific weather experiment, which I'll elaborate on momentarily.

Derp Sr.

Derp Jr.

But first, the proverbial elephant in the room, needs to be addressed. In my opinion, Son of Godzilla features the worst Godzilla suit in original Showa series, and arguably the entire franchise, by far. Mainly on account of how absolutely silly and, to be non-Politically Correct for a moment, "half-retarded", they made poor Godzilla's face look in this. Tsuburaya Productions had co-opted the previous Godzilla suit, my personal favorite, used in Monster Zero and Sea Monster, and repurposed it as a new monster for Ultraman. And whoever designed the face of this new suit, thankfully only used for this one film, should have been slapped. Subsequently, the design, especially the face, for King Kong in his own '67 film Escapes, looked equally "Derpy", with goofy eyes and a dumb-as-fuck, snaggle-toothed mouth. Something was going on in 1967 at Toho Studios, and I'm not sure I want to know what.

The titular "Son" of Godzilla, who would later be referred to both as Minya and Minilla (depending on versions of the movies), also happens to look extraordinarily goofy, and also "half-retarded". But that is a bit more acceptable, considering he's supposed to be a "cute", goofy, clumsy child-monster, who is also the film's comedy relief. In general, in the mid-60s, Toho was moving the Godzilla series away from its scary "monster smashes everything" roots, and more towards a "monster smashes some things, but means well" tone. Godzilla was making the transition from force of nature sent to remind arrogant humans who's boss, to more of a "heroic" character who defended the Earth from threats other than mankind. But for the love of God, why did they design his face in this to look SO stupid? Mind you, I don't HATE it. But it still doesn't look good, at all. And I WOULD have told you it was possibly the worst look for Godzilla ever, that is, before 2016's "Shin Godzilla" came out. THAT thing, which I refuse to call "Godzilla", is the worst/dumbest looking thing Toho has ever created. So "Musuko-Goji"? You're off the hook, bro.

You can't make an omelet...

So back to the actual film itself. Son of Godzilla, previously stated, features a fairly small-scale plot, centering around a team of scientists who are carrying out top-secret, but hardly sinister experiments on a remote island. The island, called Solgell Island, is the chosen location of the Japanese government, to carry out weather-manipulating experiments, in the hopes of improving agriculture for a growing world population. These experiments were going alright, until the day that a stereotypically nosy ass and "do anything for a story" reporter comes to the island. If you ask me, getting that big "scoop" is certainly not worth having yourself transported all the way to some remote island, just to snoop around a team of scientists. But that reporter would learn a thing or two, as not long after his arrival, the creatures that you see pictured above, gigantic praying mantises called "Kamacuras" show up, and start wreaking havoc with the camp.

Not only that, but they also manage to unearth a giant egg (though not quite Mothra giant), which they immediately start attacking, trying to make themselves the world's largest omelet. And thus enter Godzilla, who I suppose has some kind of mystical Sixth Sense about his kid being in trouble, because he hauls ass out of nowhere, swimming to the island just in time to save the "so ugly he's cute" Baby G from certain doom. Now, Godzilla fighting giant bugs, especially ones that are significantly smaller than him, isn't exactly threatening, nor does it make for terribly long fight scenes. That is something else that Sea Monster and Son have in common, aside from tone and taking place on islands: the fact that Godzilla faces, shall we say, a lesser caliber of opponent. But at least with Sea Monster, the titular creature, Ebirah the giant lobster is huge, about as big as the Big G himself, and in those fights, Ebirah arguably had the advantage of being a natural sea creature. Seeing Godzilla trash big mantises with little trouble is funny, but also sad. But as the audience will soon learn, this film isn't really about Godzilla and him fighting things.

Teaching the boy how to breath thermonuclear radiation.

A dad's work is never really done.

The actual meat and potatoes, so to speak, of Son of Godzilla, as I myself would learn when first watching it as a teenage rental, is all in the title of the film. It's centered around the alleged "son" of Godzilla, and the relationship between him and pops. Godzilla, at least at first, is full of what is generally referred to as "tough love", and even smacks the kid around a little, trying to teach him the hard way how to be a proper rompin', stompin', rampaging giant monster. The little guy has trouble from the outset, living up to Big G's legend. For one thing, he can't breath radioactive flaming breath worth a single shit, instead puffing out embarrassing "smoke rings". It turns out that little Minilla can't roar worth a damn as well, instead emitting what can best be described as goofy ass "donkey noises". He also, all in all, just isn't that tough, as it turns out even infant Godzillas are kinda weak. Godzilla eventually manages to get the kid, who also doesn't like fighting, to pops' dismay, to confront the bully mantises that were gonna fry him for dinner, and he does manage to turn the tables on them. With some help from dad, of course.

One thing of note to mention, is the very nature of Minilla himself. Where did he come from? Is he truly a baby Godzilla? Is he actually related to Godzilla, much less his actual son? None of this is ever really addressed, here or elsewhere. But it is generally accepted by most fans that yes, Baby G is in fact Big G's kid. Which of course lends itself to more questions, such as where is Mama G then? One possible answer I came up with for this, years ago, is the idea that most of these super-gigantic monsters, are so big and so terrible, that perhaps they simply don't reproduce much. And I thought, what if many of them, even Godzilla, similar to Mothra, are technically "Asexual" in the sense that they simple lay an egg when it's time, by themselves. In that way, Godzilla "gives birth" to the next Godzilla, eventually. An extention of this private theory of mine, led to the idea that the Godzilla we see in the rest of the Showa films, past the first where the original Godzilla dies, must be the "Son" of that Godzilla. And thus maybe Minilla is the "Son" of THAT Godzilla. Which led to the more disconnected private fancy, that maybe the Godzilla featured in the Hesei era films, is actually Minilla grown up (with a radically different disposition no less). And thus maybe "Godzilla Jr." that shows up in the Hesei series, grows up to be the Godzilla featured in the totally-disconnected 2000s "Millennium" movies.  The idea doesn't quite work, of course, but it's still a neat idea.

Cue hawt island jungle girl.

Much like Sea Monster, Son also features a cute but tough island girl, though this time around the "island girl" is actually a Japanese girl named Saeko, whose scientist father had died on Solgell Island years before the research team showed up. At first hiding from the team, and nosy reporter Goro, she eventually reveals herself to them after trying to steal their clothes, and later still, she helps them by letting them stay in her cave after Godzilla careless steps all over their camp. Ultimately, she even winds up saving their lives, as the entire science team conveniently falls victim to a tropical illness, one which she knows the cure for. Unfortunately for everyone involved, even the Godzillas, in procuring said cure, she and Goro also accidentally wake up the island's true secret terror.

Spiders are scary, even to giant monsters!

While the Kamacuras are certainly a minor threat, at least to Godzilla Jr., they are not the true villain of the movie. As it turns out in the final act, the TRUE threat of Solgell Island, is ginormous, scary ass spider called Kumonga. It seems ol' Kumi had been sleeping, hidden under dirt and rock, for who knows how long. When the human kids woke his ass up, he was both grumpy, and hungry, so he wanted some human snacks. The girl, Saeko, who had formed a bond with Little G, feeding him fruit and such, managed to call to him when they were in trouble, and so he and his dad came stomping in. It was then that Kumonga realized he had a much bigger dinner available, and went to work.

Unlike the mantises, a giant spider actually proved to be a problem for Godzilla. It spews webbing, very similar to larva Mothra's cocoon silk, which has the same basic effect on Godzilla (and son). Being very stick, it somewhat immobilizes him, giving Kumonga the advantage. But of course, SPOILERS, in the end, with a bit of his son's help no less, the Big G manages to trash the spider, and all is well. Or is it?

Baby it's cold outside.

Major SPOILERS here, but in the end, the science team's experiments are too much of a success, creating an extreme winter on the island, which the team themselves must escape from. As for Godzilla and Son, they just kinda huddle up, and prepare to go into hibernation, I guess, turning into a lovely winter yard ornament. If I had been able to see this movie as a kid, this ending would have been, to me, extremely sad, and would have left me unsatisfied with the movie as a whole. Because as a kid, I took everything in movies at face value. Hell, 9 year old me took a film like Plan 9 From Outer Space dead serious.

Speaking of which, as I mentioned earlier in the article,  I didn't get to see this movie until my teens. I'm pretty sure that it was one of a handful of Showa Era G-films that didn't play on TNT's MonsterVision, or wasn't available on VHS at the local Wal-Mart, that I later rented in my teens. Others of this nature would include Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster. As for Son of Godzilla, I'm sure when I first saw it, given my disposition in my teens especially, while I didn't HATE it, I probably wasn't terribly impressed. To be honest, this is one of the weaker Showa films. Godzilla's look is uncharacteristically goofball, the plot is arguably thin (by kaiju film standards), and the enemy monsters, while cool looking, aren't very threatening.This is a movie, while I wouldn't have loved the ending, that I wish I had seen as a kid instead.

In fact I wish I had been able to see ALL of the Showa Era Toho monster movies as a kid (probably not Matango), because not only was that 9-13 year old era my most fanatical when it came to Godzilla. But in general, kids are just more open and experience everything fuller, bigger, more raw if you will. I know that was certainly the case for me. There are a shit-ton of older movies, even 80s and early 90s movies I missed out on as a kid, that I wish I had been able to see when I was more innocent, less beaten by the world and jaded, etc. Son of Godzilla is one of those, because I know I would have overall gotten more out of it, and enjoyed it more as a child. As it is, as an adult, I have come to have a greater appreciation for the film, and do enjoy it now, for what it is.

While it's hardly my favorite classic Godzilla movie, and it wouldn't be on my Top 5, or perhaps even Top 10 recommendations of Showa Kaiju films to watch, I'd still recommend it. It's easily one of the "cheesiest" of the bunch, a term I don't really like to use when referring to old movies with older special effects (and typically low budgets). But it's a fun, oddly heartwarming movie in it's own weird way. So if you're ever in the mood for some "corny" fun one evening, give it a spin!


Seeing how this is now the ninth entry in my Godzilla Chronicles sub-series, and seeing as how the new American production "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" just released in theaters, I thought I'd take the time to lay out the previous articles in chronological order thus far, for your reading enjoyment:

1. The Beginning

2. Gojira (aka Godzilla: King of the Monsters)

3. Godzilla Raids Again

4. King Kong vs. Godzilla

5. Mothra vs. Godzilla

6. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster

7. Invasion of the Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)

8. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Forgotten Gems: Flying Warriors

As a poor kid in the early 90s, having not even gotten my NES until fall 1990, while I did get games from time to time from somewhere like, say, Walmart (for example the incredible Monster in My Pocket game), a lot of games I managed to get, I got because of major sales. Specifically, and sadly, "Going Out of Business" type sales. In the town I lived in, there was an old Woolworth's store, which was one of the older department store chains in the US. At some point in the early 90s, after I had gotten my NES, the one in our town finally went out of business, and thanks to their own "Going Out of Business" sale, I was able to get several NES games that I otherwise likely wouldn't have gotten. Later on, I'm going to say a year or two later, the local K-Mart store also went out of business, and again I was able to get several games (and from that sale also a pile of old Nintendo Power magazines).

One of my sales "gems".

Among the games gleaned from these two sales, at least so far as I can remember, I was able to pick up such NES gems (and not so gems) as: Tiny Toon Adventures, Final Fantasy, Wall Street Kid, Solar Jetman, Orb 3D, Flying Dragon and Flying Warriors. As I recall, I do believe I got Flying Warriors, which actually was a later follow-up, first, from the Woolworth's sale. Then later, I got its spiritual predecessor, Flying Dragon, from the K-Mart sale. Seen above is the US box art for this game (though I've seen alternate art), the cover I got as a kid.

Now, it needs to be said, that at this early 90s time, I was directly in the throes of my obsession with the then new (released in 1991) arcade mega-hit, which basically gave birth to the modern one-on-one fighting game genre (it certainly refined it), Street Fighter II. SFII was essentially my introduction into martial arts stuff, for the most part, as I had not been really allowed to watch things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And it was specifically because of SFII, that I became not only obsessed with that game itself (though I rarely ever got to play it, which only fueled my obsession, making it like my Holy Grail), but with fighting games and the idea of martial arts in general. So when I was able to get games for my little NES that actually featured martial arts and tournament type fighting (a miracle in itself that my grandmother actually bought me these games in the first place), regardless of quality, I was enthralled!

What you see is what I got.

So, if my memory is correct, it is fairly easy to see how I could have been more than a bit disappointed when I got Flying Dragon from K-Mart, after having already owned and played the vastly superior "sequel" Flying Warriors. Released in the US in 1989, Flying Dragon was technically the second in the Hiyru no Ken (basically "Fist of the Flying Dragon") series. The first was known as Shanghai Kid, an arcade game which originated the fighting system the later games would use, and as such an early (and clunky) example of the one-on-one fighting genre that Street Fighter would later perfect. As you can see above, compared to its 1985 arcade cousin, Flying Dragon is actually pretty ambitious, not only adapting the in-ring tournament fighter aspect of Shanghai Kid, but fleshing the experience out by adding a side-scrolling element as well.

Unfortunately, while it's not a BAD game by any means, Flying Dragon is still fairly limited, and very rough around the edges. While a neat inclusion, and certainly lengthening the playability of the game, the side scrolling stages actually consist of looping levels. Meaning that you go through an area, fighting the same enemies and mini-bosses over and over, until you get all of the items that allow you to unlock a gate, beating the stage. Once you beat one of these stages, you got to a tournament fight, and have to battle one of your opponents in the "World Tournament of Contact Sports". The character, Ryuhi, has entered this tournament to avenge his master Juan's murder by the hands of mysterious Tusk Soldiers, and to retrieve the Secret Scrolls they stole.

The Tournament fights.

Keeping with what many games did around this mid-to-late 80s era, you cannot get the true ending of the game by beating it just once. Much like Ghosts n Goblins, or my own beloved Arkista's Ring, you have to beat it multiple times. In this specific case, the first time around, you have to collect all six of the Secret Scrolls the first time through to get the ending. The SECOND time through, you have to get not only the six scrolls, but also four mystic crystal balls. And if you DON'T get all of these items on the second (harder) playthrough, you won't get to see the game's true ending. I don't mind the idea of having a second, harder game to give players more to do after they've beaten a game. Hell, Mario and Zelda did that. But I DO mind the idea of not being able to actually see a game's ending until you beat it more than once. That's really kinda bullshit.

Overall, as I said, Flying Dragon is not a BAD game. It's just primitive and unrefined. Much as I did with most games I owned or rented as a kid, I still played it a lot, and tried my best to beat it (which I do believe I eventually did). But I simply did not find the story, nor far more repetitive gameplay (and having to beat it twice didn't help), as interesting, or fun, as I did the game that I'm REALLY here to talk about...

Cue Heroic Fanfare!

Released in 1991 in the US, the game known as Flying Warriors is an interesting case. It is actually made up of two Japan-only Famicom releases, the "sequels" to Flying Dragon, Hiryu no Ken 2 and 3. Apparently the game borrows elements from both games, while adding in some content of its own, which is a fairly unusual case when it comes to game localization. For whatever reasons, the developer, Culture Brain, decided when making this game for a western audience, to transform it into more of a "Saturday Morning Super Hero" type of deal. It still retained the mystic and martial arts elements (it would be pretty hard to remove those), but instead of transforming into armored mystic warriors, the heroes in this game transform into costumed super heroes. Culture Brain even went so far as to pay for multi-page, multi-part comic book style advertisements in North America, really selling the game as a comic book type of affair. Naturally, being big-time into the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman cartoons of the early 90s, this made the game a huge draw for me.

Pretty bad ass.

I actually remember seeing these ads in classic gaming magazines like Game Pro, and these mini-comics really were pretty awesome. As for the game itself, aesthetically, even from the moment you power up the game, you are hit with a swell of super heroic-ness. The opening title theme is, in all seriousness, a pretty great piece of music, which you can listen to here. It definitely has a John Williams Superman type of vibe, and it does a good job helping to get you in the kind of mood for at least the tone the developers were trying for.

Takes a bit of learning.

As for the tone the game actually has? Well, it likely would have taken a lot of work to truly change what the game at its core was/is all about, which is the foundation of the Hiryu no Ken series: the martial arts theme and their fighting engine. The game starts you off as Rick Stalker (SUPER American name), who is in the mountains training with Kung Fu master who raised him, Gen Lao-Tsu. In fairly short order, after a quick tutorial session and a deadly walk through the hills, you learn that more is afoot than you would first suspect. Long ago some demon dude named Demonyx, of the Dark Dimension, tried to invade and rule the Light Dimension (where we live). He was repelled by a righteous warrior of Light called the Dragonlord. and sealed away with the pieces of the Mandara Talisman. But Demonyx warned that he would return when an Evil Red Star filled the sky. And now, naturally, it's up to Rick to FIND the pieces of this Talisman, and get ready to fight that SOB, to defend the Light Dimension again!

Just your average, quiet, demon-filled jog.

As you can see above, the game is more complex, graphically and otherwise, than its predecessor. The gameplay is still divided into side-scrolling levels, full of, quite frankly, a bit too much platforming for their own good (more on that later), and the one-on-one style fights. At first, these fights are with monks, to test your skill. But eventually, much like in Flying Dragon, you set off to take part in full blown martial art tournaments.

It was no Street Fighter, but it was what I had.

Now, hearkening back to my mention of Street Fighter II, as I stated before, I didn't get to play the game in arcades much, because my grandmother thought it was a waste of money. I DID get to play arcades sometimes, but far too rarely for my taste, and SFII itself super rarely. So in that sense it really was my "Holy Grail" at the time. I studied up on it, I read everything I could about the game and strategies for playing in magazines, I watched other kids play it every chance I got, etc. I would literally sit and think about what I would do in fights if I was able to play. And of course in practice, the rare times I DID get to play the game, I usually didn't last very long, only beating maybe one or two people before losing, because I obviously didn't have much practice.

So to me, only owning an NES, I took what little I could get when it came to a SFII-like experience, even if it was actually nothing close. With Flying Warriors, I had a game centered around martial arts, that even had a separate "Tournament Mode", which focused solely on this aspect. I played that mode by itself plenty, trying my best to pretend that it actually was some epic Street Fighter style affair. But really, poor-man's fighting game aside, at that age, Flying Warriors seemed like the perfect package for me. It had fighting, it had super heroes, mysticism, cool magic powers, etc. But there WAS one major flaw that held the whole thing back from being truly great...

Not all gameplay elements are created equal.

Not all too dissimilar from the Double Dragon or even Battletoads games, Flying Warriors is a game with its core in the fighting action. So much so, that this engine still shapes the gameplay on side-scrolling stages. Even though they try to throw in what can often be a copious amount of platforming, the way the mechanics in the game work, the jumping is stiff and often not precise enough for what they want you to do. It's not AS bad as the jumping in Double Dragon, but it's still a case of a non-platforming game trying to make you do platforming. I can recall one especially frustrating part a ways into the games, as you're making your way to the first tournament, and the game wants to you jump across this huge, gaping pit, Mario style. With moving platforms, and asshole enemies flying at you, and everything. Except UNLIKE Mario, your jumping controls and physics aren't built for that kind of action. So what happens? You can very easily wind up falling down the pit, a lot. And that kind of speed-bump in an otherwise decent game, can really sour the experience.

It's Morphin' Time!

Crappy jumping aside, the rest of the game's parts work well enough. As for the story, as you can see, Rick eventually picks up some allies as his journey moves along. Rick is joined by Mary Lynn, Hayato Go, Greg Cummings, and late in the game, Jimmy Culter Jr. (don't ask me where they picked those names), and together, as you might have guessed, they form the titular Flying Warriors. As the story progresses, you learn that forces from the Dark Dimension are at work, including a group of dark warriors who are your shadowy reflection, known as the Moonlight Warriors. If this all sounds like it should have been an anime or American cartoon series, well it's because it SHOULD have.

Ultimately, after fighting the Moonlight Warriors more than once, you finally encounter the big bad himself, Demonyx, and it all comes down to a final, epic battle. Which also brings up the last gameplay style this game presents you with. For BIG boss fights, but mainly for Demonyx himself, the fighting switches to a turn-based RPG style, with command menus and everything!

You might even call it, your Final Fantasy!

In fact, throughout the game you have a sort of "RPG Lite" system going on, as you gradually gain levels, and health, and the damage you can deal out goes up, etc. You not only need to "level grind" a bit if you want to get anywhere against Demonyx, but naturally, you also need all the pieces of the Talisman so you can seal his ass back up! Now the one area where I failed a bit as a kid when playing this, is that the upon beating the game normally, you are told that to get the TRUE ending (or somesuch), you have to beat the game on hard. And even as a kid, after working to beat an ALREADY fairly difficult game, I was like "Nah I'm good". I mean, I wanted to see the full ending, but I also didn't really feel like going through all of that again, but even harder. So I have, to date, never gotten the "True Ending" myself. I know, the shame.

All in all, Flying Warriors is a unique game, and an oddball mish-mash of parts. It isn't perfect, by any means, as the frustrating platforming can attest to. But it IS still a pretty solid game, and one worth checking out. I don't have the kind of patience and dedication to beat even crappy or hard-as-nails games that I had when I was young, but I'd still like to beat this game again someday. Though probably not on hard. I'm too old for that shit.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Unpopular Movies That I Like Pt. 3

So if you've been following along, I kicked 2019 off by talking about so-called "Unpopular Movies" that I actually like, and think are good movies. I've endeavored to point out why they're NOT actually bad films, and why I enjoy them. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 here. So now, let's finish this project off (for now at least), with Part 3!

Film: Super Mario Bros.
Year: 1993
Director: Rocky Morton/Annabel Jankel

This is one of my many films I didn't get to see during my childhood, even though being a massive Super Mario addict at that young age, I would have loved to. I did get to see it a bit later though, and even though I surely noted all of the inconsistencies with the games, and sheer weirdness of the film itself, I still earnestly liked it. Obviously, I must've said to myself "This isn't how the Super Mario Bros. are", yet still didn't hate it. And considering the fact that I REALLY loved Mario in general at the time, that's saying something.

This movie is fairly notorious for being a "Bad Film", both because its production was a total mess, and because it is a very bizarre live action adaptation of a beloved video games franchise. The thing is though, just right out of the gate, I don't personally believe that ANY live action adaptation of Super Mario Bros. was ever going to really work. It's already bizarre source material, what with a couple of plumbers from Brooklyn, being transported to a magical land of "Mushroom People", and black magick Koopas, and floating blocks, and golden coins everywhere, etc. With THAT kind of set-up, I'm really unsure what people honestly thought a live action movie was going to be. To be fair, what got made was something no one really could have guessed at, but still. A cartoon movie, more akin to my beloved Super Mario Bros. Super Show, would have been the only way to truly adapt the games well.

Bob Hoskins makes a pretty good Mario.

The movie itself, was directed by the duo of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who had already been known previously for the bizarre creation Max Headroom, and had together directed the neo-noir film D.O.A. Already, I think given the pair's background and penchant for "out there" material, the studio should have known what they might be in for. If they wanted something more "played straight", they might have wanted to pick someone else. As it was, the film went through a lot of rewrites, and suffered from a lot of script changes and battling between the studio and the directors. All of this lent itself to a very chaotic filming production, and it even led star Bob Hoskins to later claim this was the film of his that he hated the most, because he hated making it at the time.

Aside from Hoskins as the infamous Mario, the film stars comedian John Leguizamo as Mario's younger brother Luigi, and the ever-gorgeous Samantha Mathis as Princess Daisy (in the U.S. Princess Toadstool didn't yet have a name other than that, so they decided to lift the name Daisy from the Game Boy hit Super Mario Land). In the villain roles, they had Dennis Hopper as King Koopa, and Fisher Stevens of Short Circuit fame and Richard Edson as his "nephews" and lackeys, Iggy and Spike. All in all, a decent, albeit appropriately oddball cast.

The Super Scope is a dangerous weapon!

Now, admittedly, the movie is an incredibly weird, even surreal creation. Which, again, given the directors, isn't surprising. As seen above, King Koopa, instead of being a huge magical Turtle Dragon creature (aka Koopa), is a man. In the film's canon, when the meteor that (possibly) killed the dinosaurs hit, it ripped a hole in the fabric of space, and created a parallel dimension where the surviving dinosaurs, along with apparently fungus, evolved into very human-like people, with their own civilization and everything. Obviously, quite a far cry from the actual Mario storyline. And if you look above, you can also see what they did with the "Goombas" and "Koopas" of the film, transforming them from cute mushroom and turtle-ish monsters, into giant "devolved", tiny-headed things. For the "Mushroom Kingdom", the directors created a very near late 80s vibe, with a dark grimy city, almost like a Bizarro World New York. All things that, again, made it scream "Not really Mario!" Oddly enough, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, was once quoted as saying that he "appreciated the effort put into the film, but felt they tried to stick TOO close to the source material."

And it didn't help that the production was such a clusterfuck, as that certainly hampered the film from being all it could have been (as so often happens in Hollywood). BUT, while the movie certainly is a crazy mish-mash, I think it deserves to be said that considering HOW ridiculous the production was, the final product turned out FAR better, really, than it had any right being. In fact, of course going with the theme of these articles, I would not even call this so-called "Super Mario Bros." a bad movie, at all! It's a shame, to me, that Hoskins (and Dennis Hopper) hated this movie, and regretted being involved in it, because honestly, it's a very memorable and very entertaining work, on its own merits. Perhaps it was a completely happy accident that it turned out as good as it actually is, but that doesn't change the fact that, simply put, it IS actually rather good. that you?

 I would say that I was certainly a BIT disappointed upon seeing it at 12 or whatever years old, for the obvious Mario/canon reasons. But I would also say that I have come to appreciate the film more and more for what it is, as an adult. Disregarding the gory details of the film's production, the movie has a lot going for it. It has a coherent, though certainly surreal, plot. It has a good cast of actors who gave surprisingly heartfelt performances. The movie has a nice deliberate pace, and actually flows very well. And perhaps most importantly, it absolutely carries a distinct style and personality, all its own. I don't think there is a single other film quite like this one.

As far as I'm concerned, the people who "hate" this movie, or dump on it for being "bad", are mostly your pretentious film snob types. That doesn't mean there AREN'T valid reasons to dislike it, I suppose. But as I've happily pointed out, for many years, I think if you took this exact same film, but removed any Mario title or names or references, so that it WASN'T supposed to be an adaptation of anything, but was STILL the same lovably weird movie, it would likely have a far better reputation. In fact, I think it would unquestionably be a "Cult Classic", on the same kind of level as something like Buckaroo Banzai or Big Trouble in Little China. This "Mario" movie is a curious creature indeed, but I think it is overdue for a sincere second look by movie fans. 

Best Thing(s) About Super Mario Bros.: The chemistry and relationship between the Mario Bros., and their new friend Princess Daisy. And the overall oddball style/tone of the film.

Worst Thing About Super Mario Bros.: All that weird, slimy goddamn fungus everywhere! I think they took the whole "Mushroom Kingdom" thing a bit too literally.

Film: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Year: 1989
Director: William Shatner

To many, this is considered the "Worst Star Trek Film Ever Made". I would strongly debate that purely on how bad some of the later "Next Generation", and in my opinion ALL of the more recent "reboot" films have been. Compared to those, I think this is a masterpiece! But to back up for a second, the history of Star Trek V is an interesting one. After the late 80s hit (though notably odd) Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the original classic Trek crew found new life in the 80s, with four films during the decade. Two of those, The Search for Spock and my personal favorite, The Voyage Home, were directed by Spock actor Leonard Nemoy, who himself would find later directorial success with such films as the American adaptation of Three Men and a Baby. Shatner, feeling perhaps a bit left out, or maybe just wanting to stretch his own creative wings, wanted to direct the next film, and was allowed to. What followed, was easily the weirdest of the original movie series, and the final product, as noted, is considered by many to be "the worst".

A Vulcan with a BEARD? Nuts!

In addition to directing, Shatner also co-wrote the story concept of the movie. In it, the now-revealed older half-brother of Spock, named Sybok, has turned away from traditional Vulcan culture, which enforced logic over suppressed emotions, to instead embrace his emotions and passions, which include, as it turns out, trying to find the very nature of "God" itself. As I understand it, this plot point right away, for some Trek fans, "doesn't sit well", because it's a VERY spiritual overtone, in a traditionally science fiction series. But for one thing, it isn't as if the original series didn't at least somewhat touch on spirituality and the concept of "gods", and for another, the Vulcan people themselves, while highly logical and deeply pursuant of scientific exploration, also happen to be established as a very spiritual people, in their own way, as well. Hell, for that matter, the previous films in the movie series put MAJOR focus on Vulcan spirituality, shining specific spotlight on the concept of the "Katra", literally a piece of one's soul. So not only is it not out of place in the Trek universe, but it's actually a pretty interesting idea: a renegade "hippy" Vulcan, traveling the universe "In Search of God".

On top of looking for "God", Sybok also seems to have developed the distinctly unique ability, to somehow use his Vulcan empathic talent to "take people's pain away". By mind-melding with them, he somehow makes them feel freed from their inner demons and sorrows, by "sharing their pain", which leaves them feeling freed and euphoric. With this power, he amasses himself an army of loyal followers, who support his quest. In all honesty, I think that Sybok is one of the more interesting characters, and sympathetic villains, in the entire franchise. He employs some terrorist methods such as forcibly commandeering the starship Enterprise, yes, but he ultimately doesn't really want to hurt, let alone kill, people. In his skewed view of things, he wants to "enlighten" them and set them free. And beyond all that, actor Laurence Luckinbill, I think, does a fantastic job as the misguided spiritual crusader.

The heart of the story.

All in all, Star Trek V has an awful lot going for it. The classic cast, an interesting villain, and to me, most importantly, at its core are arguably THE best scenes in the entire series, of the relationship between the three principle Star Trek characters, Captain James T. Kirk, Spock, and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. Throughout the film, there are some really great, bonding and character building moments between these already beloved characters. For someone like me, who grew up on reruns of the original show and even the 70s cartoon, as well as these movies, that carries a lot of weight. I think that as a director, Shatner handled the plot and these more personal touches and moments very well. I'd say he does a fairly strong job overall, actually, as the movie is well-filmed, well-paced, and very professionally done. Even a co-star who he had a rocky relationship with, like George Takei, later gave him credit for doing an admirable job.

If anything, I'd say the fact that the studio actively sabotaged and undermined the budget and time he had to work with, effected it more than anything. Paramount was apparently too cheap to want to pay for Industrial Light & Magic to do the kinds of ambitious effects scenes Shatner envisioned, instead opting to take a lesser route. The studio, in yet another such case, also interfered a bit during the production, beyond cutting the budget. Perhaps the biggest criticism levied at this film, beyond the "spiritual" plot, is what many consider to be the anti-climactic climax. In Shatner's original vision, due to the being that Sybok leads them to, which turns out to most certainly NOT be "God", there was to be an epic final battle between the principle characters and stone giants brought to life from the planet itself. Instead, what he got to work with, was a floating glowy head that shoots deadly eye-beams, most of which he wound up cutting out because it looked sub-par.

One can only imagine what the film could have been, if Shatner had been allowed to fully make the movie he wanted to make. But even with Paramount's BS undermining him, I still think he turned in a classy finished product. All of the main original cast get their moments to shine, the scenes with Kirk/Spock/Bones are especially stellar, and if nothing else, the plot is very original and even a-typical. Many Trek fans shit on this film for being "Bad", but again, I'd not only argue that it's actually quite good, upon further reflection, I would personally say that it might very well be my second favorite of the classic movie series, behind Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. For a long time, the following and final classic Trek film, The Undiscovered Country, held that distinction for me, and in some ways I guess it still does. But I think the more personal scenes between the principle three characters, for me, might be what puts Star Trek V over the top.

Best Thing About Star Trek V: Easily the expanded/strengthened relationship between Kirk, Spock and Bones. Those scenes are gold.

Worst Thing About Star Trek V: Easily the shitty "God" head being at the end. The film, and Shatner himself, deserved more from the studio than that.

Film: Lethal Weapon 4
Year: 1998
Director: Richard Donner

I've mentioned before how 1998 was a hell of a year for movies. It is the year I saw THE most films in theater, topping 40 easily. Movies like Lost in Space, Dark City, Fallen, The Wedding Singer, My Giant, Almost Heroes, The Truman Show, Ever After, What Dreams May Come, etc., it was a year stuffed with decent to great films, and a wide variety between them to boot. And of course Lethal Weapon 4 was no exception. Directed by Richard Donner, hot off the heels of one of his best films, 1997's Conspiracy Theory, this would be the fourth and final installment of his famous action series. But I was surprised to recently learn, thanks to social media no less, that apparently some people consider it a "bad film". Out of all of the movies I've talked about in this series, just short of perhaps Die Hard With a Vengeance, none do I find more baffling to have such a designation than this one.

The only real criticisms I seem to have picked up on for Lethal Weapon 4, is that it's "overstuffed" and "too busy". So do these same people have the same criticism then for something like, say, Avengers: Infinity War? Because THAT was absolutely overstuffed and too busy, far more than this, for sure. The series added new characters over the course of each film, yes, such as Joe Pesci's ex-money launderer turned wannabe private detective, Leo Getz ("Whatever you need, Leo Getz!"), and Renee Russo's police officer Lorna Cole. And this movie added yet another character, Chris Rock's Detective Lee Butters, a new cop on the force who also just so happens to "secretly" be Roger Murtaugh's (Danny Glover's) new son-in-law. But that happens over the course of a series, you introduce new characters to keep things fresh and keep them from getting stale. So I'm not sure how valid of a criticism that even is.

Jet Li's first American film.

Otherwise, honestly, I don't know what the hell people who dislike this film or consider it "bad", especially if they're fans of the rest of the series, even want or expect out of it. As far as I'm concerned, it has a much stronger plot and is a better film, overall, than Lethal Weapon 3. It doesn't hurt that it was the only entry of the series that I saw in theaters. It also doesn't hurt that not only was it Jet Li's first American film, it was also MY first time seeing a Jet Li film, period. And it was quite an introduction, let me tell you! Li, who generally dislikes playing villains, is an excellent villain here, the "strong, silent" badass enforcer of the Chinese Triad, he is very effective, and naturally has great fighting scenes.

In addition to that, Chris Rock, just entering the hot period of his own film career at this point, is in classic form, and especially his interaction with Joe Pesci, adds a lot of humor. The relationship of Riggs and Murtaugh continues to deepen, and the sub-plot of both Riggs' girlfriend (Russo) and Murtaugh's daughter being pregnant, adds a deeper family element to the story. Is the plot busy and fast paced? Sure. But that goes for the entire series, even though I'd say that LW3 was perhaps the "slowest", having a smaller-scale plot involving the impacts of gang violence, etc. But seeing as how this entry was the final one, they clearly went out with an appropriate bang, and to me, it works really well.

The Captains.

The story involves criminals crafting an intricate plot to illegally gain money, which isn't too terribly different from the plot of any entry in the series, of course. But the twist of the Chinese Triad trying to move in on the American underground, is a fresh spin on things. And Jet Li being more of a martial arts bad ass, adds a fresh element versus simply more "bad guys with guns". Seeing this movie in theaters back in '98, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and looking at it now, while my opinion has fluctuated over the years, it might be my favorite of the Lethal Weapon films. There was a time when the second film was my favorite, but older me seems to find part four to be more entertaining now, over it's far-darker predecessor. And I suppose, perhaps, that is another reason people who dislike this film might use, is that it's absolutely the "lightest" film in the series. But again, I hardly find that a terribly valid criticism, as it still has its share of "dark" and serious moments, along with more touching, personal ones.

Overall, I think it's a great movie, and a fitting end to the franchise. For years, I had actually been somewhat hoping they'd make a fifth film. But thinking about it now, regardless of the actors' ages and the two decades it has been since this released, I just don't think there really is any call for another entry. I think this movie capped things off pretty well for all characters involved, which it really kinda feels like that was Donner's intention. The character of Martin Riggs (Gibson), has really grown and come full circle, from the borderline suicidal psycho that poor Murtaugh gets stuck with in the original movie, to now about to become a father and finally learning to move on from his past pain a bit. Even Leo Getz, while they still razz him and play jokes on him, finds himself being more accepted into the extended "family" that they've all become. And I think ultimately, that was the theme of this film, and perhaps WHY it's a bit lighter in tone: the bonds of family.

Best Thing About Lethal Weapon 4: Jet Li's bad ass antagonist.

Worst Thing About Lethal Weapon 4: I could always use some more Leo Getz. That's the biggest "negative" I could really come up with.


And that, as they say, is that, folks! I hope you've enjoyed my trip through the land of "Unpopular" movies, and I hope that perhaps I've helped turn some of you around on some of these fine films. I may return somewhere down the road with another installment, but for now, I feel like I've achieved what I set out to do. If you've never seen these movies, or even if you feel like giving them a second chance, please do see some of them. Or ALL of them! What the hell, right? Until next time.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Unpopular Movies That I Like Pt. 2

So last time I began talking about movies that are generally considered (by some, or many), to be "bad movies", a stance in their cases I disagree with and dispute. And now, it's time to talk about some MORE such films, because there are several, trust me. And away we go!

Film: The Wizard
Year: 1989
Director:Todd Holland

Another late 80s gem that is often the butt of jokes, The Wizard, much like Mac and Me, is also accused of basically being a 90 minute commercial. In this particular case, for the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (Nintendo's first major console) in general. But also, for the extended preview, more or less, of their at-the-time upcoming new hit game, Super Mario Bros. 3, featured in the climax of the movie. And much like Mac and Me, that isn't a completely untrue or unfair assertion, as this game was in fact licensed and endorsed by Nintendo themselves, who hoped the film would further raise the profile of their system and games. But is it a BAD movie? Let's take a deeper look.

Directed by Todd Holland, a director mostly known for television, this film was the result of happenstance, with Nintendo agreeing to a proposal by Universal Studios to make a movie based on their games, as they wanted to keep momentum of their popular console going, in the face of some delayed game releases. The story features Fred Savage of The Wonder Years fame as Corey Woods, a boy whose seemingly autistic younger brother Jimmy, has remained very withdrawn from the world after the accidental drowning of his twin sister two years prior. Jimmy keeps trying to run away from home, so it would seem, and their mother and new step-father, want to put Jimmy in a home, as they feel they can't meet his needs. Not wanting to see his brother "locked away", young Corey takes his brother and really does run away, which kicks off the strange road trip the movie takes us on.

Underage gambling, by proxy.

The brothers soon meet up with a pretty young redhead named Haley, who thanks to traveling a lot with her trucker dad, is far more road-wise than they are. Together, Corey and Haley also soon discover that, as it turns out, somewhat like a so-called "Savant", Jimmy seems to be incredibly good at video games. Haley sees an ad in a gaming magazine, for the "Video Armageddon" tournament, held at Universal Studios (where else?), in Los Angeles. Not only does this align with Haley's desire for money, but it also aligns perfectly with Jimmy's own repeated desire to go to California. Meanwhile, not only are Corey and Jimmy's father Sam and older brother Nick (played by Beau Bridges and Christian Slater, respectively) out on the road looking for them, but so is a sleazy "runaway catcher" who their step-father has hired. And thus the movie is not only a road trip story, but also a race to get to California.

Childhood dreams.

The idea for the "Video Armageddon" tournament was based on the real life gaming tournaments Nintendo themselves had just begun doing, starting with a Canadian event called the Nintendo Challenge Championship, and later evolving into the much more famous 1990 Nintendo World Championship. For my part, as a kid in the late 80s, I was completely unaware of such events, but I was aware of Super Mario Bros 3. I saw this movie (like anything else) as a home rental, probably in 1990 or 1991, long after this film had released. But I had experienced Mario 3 (already becoming addicted to the original at a friend's house), very briefly, at my aunt's house at a family gathering. And regardless of whether I finally saw this movie before I got a copy of the game myself for Christmas 1990, or after, once I finally saw this movie, I was still excited by the whole reveal and set-up of the tournament. In fact I found the entire movie to be very fun and entertaining, not at all hindered by my growing love of/childhood obsession with video games. Just to name a few, games shown in this film include Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden, Zelda II, Rad Racer, and more, and to a kid who loves video games, just seeing all those in a single film was pretty damn cool.

The thing is, I still find this movie fun and entertaining today, in my 30s. Part of it is nostalgia, both for the movie and for old video games on my part, yes. But I also think as films go, it is a perfectly decent, even fairly well made little movie. It certainly doesn't lack for acting, with the likes of Bridges, Slater, Savage, and even a cameo by the great Frank McRae. In fact as much as I like Mac and Me, and think it isn't at all a poorly made film, I can easily say that The Wizard is, all around, a better written, better acted, and more grounded movie. The story of the bond between brothers, their new friendship with Haley, the journey of their dad and brother chasing after them, the excitement of Jimmy's gaming skills and the looming tournament, even the memorable "villains" of kid catcher Mr. Putnam and the arrogant rival gamer Lucas (who loves the Power Glove). All of these elements combine to make what I think is actually a really great movie, for what it is. It tells an endearing story, and though this is a major *SPOILER*, the bit at the end where it turns out Jimmy wanted to go to California this whole time, to take mementos of his sister to one of the last places they were happy together, the famous Cabazon Dinosaurs (of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure fame), is a really nice, emotional touch.

Best Thing About The Wizard: To a childhood Nintendo nut like me, the games. In general, it's a good story about family and friendship. Centered around awesome games.

Worst Thing About The Wizard: The Power Glove. Lucas makes it look awesome, but anyone who's ever used the thing, knows that it barely works.

Film: The Avengers
Year: 1998
Director:  Jeremiah S. Chechik

As I've described before, perhaps partially as a means of making up for all the childhood years that I wasn't able to see movies in theaters, in my teens from 1996 through 1999 especially, I legitimately saw an average of around 30 films per year. But the other side of that, was that in all blunt honesty, in the mid-to-late 90s, there were just a lot more films coming out that I actually WANTED to see in theaters. Not everything I went to see was great, granted, some even outright stunk. But I'd also say that it is not hyperbole to state that Hollywood was quite simply pumping out a LOT better movies back then. Compared to, say, the last 10+ years, where I'm lucky if there are 5 or 6 films I want to see in theaters, per year.

Well, in the summer of 1998, at the very height of my theater going days, a now lesser-known film hit theaters, based on an old TV show I had never seen (or barely even heard of for that matter), called The Avengers. Nope, not THOSE Avengers, but rather, a duo of British super spies, secret agents, who were something of a campy send-up of James Bond and the like that was very popular in the 1960s. Not only did the 1998 Avengers movie not do terribly well at the box office, but it also seemingly wasn't overly well liked by critics. I have also heard that many fans of the original show hate it, as with many Hollywood adaptations, they simply deviated too much (unnecessarily) from the source material. That is something I can relate to and sympathize with, as I myself am more often than not a firm believer in sticking to source material, and I myself often hate it when Hollywood makes changes to adaptations for no good reason. But for me, a 16 year old in the late 90s, a young man really starting to come into my own as a person, and someone who had never seen the original show so I had nothing to compare it to, quite frankly, I absolutely loved this movie!

The stars of the film.

The Avengers is directed by Jeremiah Chechick, whose first film was actually none other than National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, one of my favorite holiday films and comedies of all time. As such, while I'm sure the original show had its own brand of humor as well, this film is not without its comedic elements, which I personally felt worked quite well. The stars of the show, as seen above, are Ralph Fiennes (of Harry Potter fame) as Ministry Agent John Steed, and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel, a scientist who also starts working for the Ministry. In fact, the Harry Potter connections don't end there, as the primary Ministry bosses in the story, "Mother" (a man) and "Father" (a woman), are played by HP actors Jim Broadbent and Fiona Shaw. And last but most certainly not least, the main villain of the film, and a delightfully mad turn of a villain as well, is the great Sean Connery as Sir August De Wynter, a scientist obsessed with the weather.

The core of the plot, is that Project Prospero, an ill-conceived attempt at manipulating weather patterns, has been sabotaged, and video evidence seems to show Emma Peel herself, former head of the project, committing the crime. Both to clear her good name, and to help get this power out of possible terrorist hands, Ms. Peel agrees to aid Steed and the Ministry in their investigation. As they go to meet De Wynter, and the plot begins to unfold, it is revealed that Sir August himself is the man behind the the sabotage, and he has what appears to be a clone of Emma Peel working for him. He has taken control of Prospero because he wishes to use it to threaten the world with massive, catastrophic weather if they don't pay him a huge amount of money. You know, typical maniacal villain stuff.

The film's odd style and quirky sense of charm on display.

Believe it or not, this is yet another movie to be included on a list of so-called "Worst Films Ever Made". A list which I hold in little regard, in part because it is a high form of film snobbery, but also because looking at many of the movies, such as this, put on it, while also considering the exclusion of an awful lot of ACTUALLY bad films, it just doesn't deserve much regard. Lists like those, like all opinions, are of course incredibly subjective. Even so, the very notion to me, regardless of box office performance, that this movie could possibly be considered, with any degree of seriousness, one of THE worst films ever made? Again, I'll echo what I said in Part 1 of this enterprise, that I have myself seen a LOT of movies in my life, and a LOT of really, earnestly shitty movies at that. Not only does this not even come close, but I really don't see where people would get off calling this "Bad" in the first place. Personal tastes aside, objectively, it is fairly well written, well acted with a pretty strong main cast, it has excellent flow and pacing, it tells an interesting story, and at the end of the day, it is a fun action flick with an above-average sense of wit and wordplay.

Me personally, upon seeing it for the first time in August 1998, sitting in that theater by myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. I was immediately taken by the film's playful sense of British humor, and general tone and style. I loved the way they played up the stereotypical British politeness and focus on good manners, no matter the situation, even from the villains. Ralph Fiennes does a fantastically suave and charming job as John Steed, including pulling off some very well-executed and convincing action/fight scenes. And Uma Thurman, who depending on the film I am not always a huge fan of, does an equally charming job as the mysterious and potentially villainous Emma Peel. The show is stolen, of course, in my humble opinion, by Sean Connery, as it so often is. To me, this is one of his most entertaining roles, as he rarely plays villains, and he absolutely owns the eccentric madness of the character. Not too over the top, but Shakespearean enough, in its own way, to make a truly memorably bad guy. This was during the mid-to-late-90s period where I was just beginning to fully discover Mr. Connery, in movies like Highlander, Medicine Man, First Knight, Dragonheart, and The Rock. I had previously seen him as a kid in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, but this was one of many films during this time that really cemented him as one of my favorite actors.

I liked The Avengers so much that I saw it one or two more times, at the very least dragging a friend to go see it with me a second time. He also wound up loving it. Looking at a list just now, that I had previously made of movies I saw by year, it would seem in 1998 I actually saw over 40 movies, probably more than any other year in my movie-going life. And that year was full of many really great films I loved, including What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, Fallen, Dark City, The Truman Show, etc. But I have no reservations whatsoever about including this movie among them, as it was one of the movies, from a year of great movies, that I got the most enjoyment from seeing. Overall, again personal tastes aside, I think many films that "bomb" in theaters, not making money, get unfairly seen as "bad films", regardless of their actual quality. And this is one I am confident in stating, if you've never seen it (or even if you have), that no, objectively speaking, it is in no meaningful way a "bad" movie. And that is even in light of the fact that Warner Bros, as idiotic studio executives often do, ordered the film to be cut down and altered. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that and being a "bad film" are two entirely different things, as could be said for just about every movie I'm here to discuss.

Best Thing About The Avengers: Aside from Sean Connery's awesome turn as August De Wynter, I would say the overall tone and "British Charm" of the film. It was just an incredibly pleasant, fun movie to watch.

Worst Thing About The Avengers: The entire sub-plot about Emma Peel's clone is never fully expounded upon, and is a bit flimsy and ridiculous. But it's also not super important, and doesn't really detract from the rest of the story.

Film: Die Hard With a Vengeance (Die Hard 3)
Year: 1995
Director:  John McTiernan

While I was vaguely aware that some people disliked this movie, thanks to a snarky conversation by co-workers overheard many years ago, I was not aware until more recently that some people actually seem to consider Die Hard With a Vengeance a "Bad" film. I myself didn't see this movie when it came out, as it was on the cusp of when I was able to start going to theaters at 13 years old starting slowly in the summer of 1995, but I did see it later on, likely in 1996 or early 1997, on VHS. It was actually the first Die Hard movie I ever saw, in fact, and one of the first Bruce Willis films I saw in general. But while I clearly am defending every movie on this ongoing list of mine as being a good film, I'm about to take a much stronger stance than that.

Released in May 1995, this film was directed by John McTiernan, who in addition to directing the original Die Hard, had also previously directed Predator, The Hunt For Red October, and Medicine Man, all movies I like. The writer, Jonathan Hensleigh, also has quite a resume, as while this was his first major film, he would go on to write Jumanji, The Rock, Con Air, The Saint, and Armageddon. Not only was this movie probably my first major exposure to Bruce Willis, but outside of his smaller side-role in Jurassic Park, this was also my first major exposure to Samuel L. Jackson. For what it's worth, it was also the second-highest grossing film of 1995, behind only Toy Story, and beating out the likes of Apollo 13, Goldeneye, Pocahontas and Batman Forever.

John McClain, looking as haggard as ever.

The set-up of this particular Die Hard, I feel, is actually fairly unique. Where the first two films essentially saw similar plots where a group of terrorists were laying siege to or holding hostage a specific place, this movie is more of a "wild goose chase", in a pretty literal sense. While the villains are once again a group of terrorists, the plot this time sees hero Detective John McClain back in his native New York City, and the main terrorist, "Simon", is literally messing with McClain, leading him around on a game of "Simon Says". He accomplishes this via the threat of bombing various NYC targets, such as schools. In that sense alone, "Die Hard 3" is a much more psychological story, as the villain seems to have a personal vendetta against McClain, and his machinations are more than merely trying to gain money, etc.

For his part, Jackson's character of Zeus Carver, is just an "Average Joe" civilian who owns his own shop, and he gets involved by happenstance. "Simon" instructs McClain to go to a predominantly black neighborhood, forced to wear a sign with the racist slogan "I Hate N******", as a means of messing with him and deliberately putting him in harms way. Thinking he's just some crazy asshole who's going to get himself killed by the local gangbangers, Zeus interjects to save his life. Watching the entire thing from afar, "Simon" demands that Zeus accompany McClain for the duration of his mad game. Fair warning about *SPOILERS*, but in an interesting twist, the villain turns out to be Simon Gruber, the brother of Hans Gruber, the terrorist leader that McClain killed in the first film.

 The Odd Couple.

Now I'm really not 100% clear on what issues precisely that some people seem to have with this film. The original 1988 movie is considered a classic of the action genre, which I agree with, though I personally contend the notion that it is a "Christmas Movie", let alone that it's one of the "Best Christmas Movies Ever". But that's besides the point. To me, the sequel, Die Hard 2, while a decent film, is a bit of a let down from the first, and I certainly wouldn't personally consider it a better movie than "Die Hard 3", by any stretch of the imagination. But I really struggle to think of the reasons people would consider this a "bad" film compared to the first two. In point of fact, when I said that I would take a stronger stance than merely pointing out that this is a genuinely GOOD film, it's because, at least in my opinion, I think this is the BEST of the Die Hard franchise. Yes, best. Why?

Because while the first movie is a classic, and a very entertaining action/thriller, to me the entire setup of sending the heroes all over New York City, having them do whatever crazy, dangerous shit you can think of, as a cover for the REAL crime you're committing right under their noses? All of this also being personal revenge against McClain? It's just a far more exciting and interesting plot, to me, than terrorists holding a corporate Christmas party hostage for money. Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson have great chemistry, in that "odd couple thrown together" kind of way, and this was actually the movie that made me both a Willis and Jackson fan. Jeremy Irons makes a great villain as Simon Gruber, and his motivations and schemes are more complex than his brother's (played by the late Alan Rickman). The stakes are obviously far higher, with terrorists threatening to blow up schools full of innocent children, etc., versus one room full of yuppy corporate partiers (even though one of them WAS McClain's wife). In general, I think this movie is every bit as classic an action flick as the first, and I would contend that overall it has more going for it, and going on within it, than it's predecessors do.

Best Thing About Die Hard 3: The teaming of Willis and Jackson, the more complex villain, and the more intricate, psychological plot.

Worst Thing About Die Hard 3: The fact that McClain is once again estranged from his wife, who he had seemed to have reconciled with in the first two films. I'm a sucker for good, lasting relationships, and I hate to see them fall apart (especially for no good reason other than plot convenience).


Well that's it for now. I'll be back with at least one more installment of this series, and a few more heavy hitters to discuss. Until then, go watch these movies, because they're actually pretty good!