Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Seven Samurai (1954)

I just recently watched Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece.  What's that?  All of Kurosawa's films are considered masterpieces?  I shall be more specific then.  I just recently watched Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece 'Seven Samurai'.  Seven Samurai is probably the closest of Kurosawa's films to being a household name in the USA, even among people who aren't film geeks.  There are so many adaptions and remakes that even if you haven't watched the original you've probably seen something that was at least heavily inspired by Seven Samurai.

The reason I finally knuckled and watched this is because I'd just seen the 2016 'Magnificent Seven' with friends.  I'd also seen the 1960 Magnificent Seven, the 2004 anime series 'Samurai 7' and the 1980 Roger Corman B-movie 'Battle Beyond the Stars'.  I wanted to talk about some of the differences between adaptions, and figured I had to go back to the original source to do that right.

So, why HADN'T I watched Seven Samurai all this time?  Other than 'Foreign films are expensive,' which isn't a good reason, because I had seen it available for free at my local public library and just didn't get it out.  My big reasons where A: The run-time is about 3 and a half hours, and B: That's 3 and a half hours worth of subtitles and I'm not really a fast reader.  My concerns were insignificant.  There's an intermission and the 2 hour mark, so you can easily watch the movie over two nights.  The intermission is a pretty good stopping place, particularly if you're already a little familiar with the story.  As for the subtitles, well, most of the Kurosawa movies that I've seen are pretty minimalist when it comes to dialog.  There were about two places where I had to rewind and hit 'pause' to finish reading the subtitle, but for the most part I was able to keep up pretty well.

Once upon a time in Feudal Japan a group of bandits ride up to a small farming village with the intent of pillaging and plundering and putting big hickeys on all the fair damsels (Ray Stevens: Erik the Awful.  Look it up).  They decide to hold off their attack until after the harvest.  The bandits are overheard by one of the farmers, who warns all the other villagers of the oncoming attack.

The impoverished farmers are distraught.  There's no way they'll survive the year without the harvest.  After consulting the village elders they decide to hire Samurai to ward off the attack.  As they have nothing to offer the Samurai other than rice they are advised to find 'Hungry Samurai'.

So a group of volunteers go into the city to find Samurai.  Just throwing this out there, one of the major themes in this movie is class differences.  I don't fully understand the social system of Feudal Japan, but it's made pretty clear that protecting the lowly farmer is not worth the time of the mighty warrior class.  The farmers are treated like dirt by all of the Samurai that they meet.  They're just about ready to give up and go home when they witness a Samurai performing a selfless act.  A bandit has taken a young farm boy hostage and is hiding out in the barn.  The Samurai we'll come to know as Kambei shaves off his topknot and disguises himself as a monk taking food to the boy, and quickly takes out the thief.

The village people (No, not THOSE village people) decide that they want THIS Samurai to defend their village, so they hurry after him.  But before they can approach him another individual beats them to the punch.  Enter Katsushirō, a young Samurai who wants to be the Luke Skywalker to Kambei's Obi Wan Kenobi.  Kambei is all 'Aw, guys, this is to much,' to about all this attention.  He's nothing special.  He's reluctant to train Katsushirō, but agrees to let the youth travel with him.  He's also reluctant to help the farmers, not because he's not sympathetic to their plight, but because he's never been on the winning side of a war.

Kambei is eventually convinced to help, and after hearing the lay-out of the village decides it would take at least seven samurai to defend.  So they go about recruiting Samurai.  They eventually scrounge together six, plus a loud and clumsy town drunk with a Katana who goes by the name of Kikuchiyo.  He's a real Samurai, just like the rest of these guys, and he has a family tree to prove it!  Kambei isn't convinced, but he's unable to keep Kikuchiyo from tagging along.  And so, they become the Six Samurai + This Guy!

 The seven arrive in the village and...discover it's basically deserted.  All of the villages have gone into hiding, completely terrified of the warriors they've hired to protect them.  Kikuchiyo gets the idea to sound the alarm and all the villagers come running, thinking the bandits have arrived.  Kikuchiyo ridicules the townsfolk for begging the Samurai that they're terrified of to save them from the imaginary attackers.  The six decide that Kikuchiyo is useful after all as a moderator between the farmers and Samurai.  They have now truly become...the Six Samurai + This Guy!  Wait, what?  They even make a battle flag with six circles and a triangle, just to show that they're the Six Samurai + This Guy!

 Some of the farmers begin to develop private reasons to resent the Samurai.  One, fearing for the safety of his daughter, forces her to cut her hair and disguise herself as a boy.  Several of the villagers live on the opposite side of a bridge that Kambei intends to destroy to help fortify the town.  Odds are good they'll lose their homes in the coming attack.  And then there's the fact that, because of the class difference the Samurai are allowed to treat the farmers like dirt.  Interestingly, even with the class difference, the Samurai treat the village elders with the utmost respect.

Katsushirō discovers the disguised Shino, and the fact that she's a girl, and the two fall in love behind her father's back.  The seven train the villagers for the upcoming attack, and Kambei is busy with strategy and fortifications.  We learn that Kikuchiyo was actually raised as a farmer, and that's why he's such a good moderator between the villagers and warriors.

After a few skirmishes, the bandits attack for real.  Thanks to Kambei's strategy they're able to pick off the bandits a few at a time.  Unfortunately, the bandits have the Samurai outmatched in firepower.  One of the Samurai, Kyūzō, sneaks into the enemy's camp to steal on of their matchlock guns.  Katsushirō gets a bad case of hero-worship over Kyūzō's bravery, and Kikuchiyo gets it in his head that if HE gets another gun then maybe the others would start to respect him.  So he leaves his guard duty in the hands of one of the villagers and sneaks off to steal a gun.  Unfortunately this plan backfires.  Some of the bandits break into the camp because Kikuchiyo shirked his duties.  One of the Samurai is killed in the attack, and of course Kikuchiyo blames himself.

Having picked off a good number of the bandits, the Samurai prepare for a final battle.  They plan to allow all of the remaining bandits to break through there defenses and then trap them in the village to finish them off.  Unfortunately the bandit leader breaks away from the others, and finds his way into the hut where the women and children have barricaded themselves.  He has a matchlock, and he starts picking off the Samurai one by one.  In a scene that mirror's Kambei's introduction, Kikuchiyo fights his way into the hut and takes out the bandit leader, but at the cost of his own life.

Kikuchiyo is buried with the other Samurai.  The completion of his story arc is that he's finally shown the honor that he craved the for the entire movie.  He fought and died and was buried with his comrades.  This is the part of the story that really resonates with me, and it's a part of the story that most remakes, with the exception of the anime series Samurai 7, fail to capture.  And that's why you should watch the original Seven Samurai.  I've enjoyed both the 1960 and the 2016 versions of 'The Magnificent Seven,' but each version strays further and further from the source material.

If you want to get into Akira Kurosawa movies and don't know which one to start with I'd recommend starting with Seven Samurai.  I personally found it more accessible than the others I've seen - 'Rashomon' and 'The Hidden Fortress' - because I was already familiar with the story.

I'd like to follow this up with some thoughts on the remakes, but we all know how good I am at finishing series of posts that I start.  See you next time.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On the 'No Kill' Superhero policy...

A hot button topic in modern superhero movies - particularly DC movies directed by Zack Snyder - is the 'No kill' policy: that idea that certain characters draw a moral line in the sand that they will never under any circumstances cross.

In general I prefer stories in which the protagonist isn't a cold blooded killer.  That said, I enjoy mindless action pictures like James Bond and Indiana Jones.  That type of movie tends to have a high body count.  So I don't tend to loose my mind if an action movie has a bit of carnage and the protagonist is the one responsible.

The 2013 film 'Man of Steel' is quite controversial largely due to the fact that Superman - all American boy-scout - is shown to take a life.  And from hearing disillusioned fans talk about it, they made it sound like a straight up act of murder.  Superman taking out General Zod the way he did is an inexcusable act.  But when I saw the movie for myself I had to ask: did I even watch the same movie as these fans?  Yes, Supes snapped Zod's neck like it was a twig.  He did it to save a bunch of kids.  No, it wasn't a decision he was happy with.  Yes, it was the only option in that scenario, other than to 'just let people die' when there was something he could do to prevent it.

Fast-forward to 2016.  'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' is in theaters, and audience response is mixed at best.  One significant complaint is that Zack Snyder's interpretation of Batman doesn't have a no kill policy.  In the months since the movie's release this has become one of the first things to come up when people state there reasons for hating the movie.  Personally, I didn't even notice that Batman killed anyone.  It wasn't until watching compilation videos such as this one that it became evident to me that, yeah, Batman is responsible for a good bit of carnage in downtown Metropolis.  However, I'm not quite sure why this is the one thing fans fixated on?

Granted, Batman's no kill policy in the comics is pretty much the only reason Joker is still alive.  There are fans who think that it's inconsistent to have Joker - who has murdered one of the Robins in this continuity - running around Gotham and have Batman be ready and willing to take out Superman 'If there's even a 1% chance' that he's a threat.  There's much more than a 1% chance that Joker is a threat.

However, the 'Batman never kills rule' has never been a set rule in the movies.  Particularly not in the Tim Burton movies.  Even in the climax of Christopher Nolan's 'Batman Begins' there's that bit between Batman and Ra's al Ghul - 'I won't kill you...But I don't have to save you!'  Morally speaking having the ability to save an individual's life, but standing back and allowing them to die...well at the very least it's obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit.

But lets take a look at the MCU for a sec.  The fun loving kid friendly Marvel movies.  In the context of the movies, does it make sense for The Avengers to have a no kill policy?  ...Not really?  And they don't seem to.  Let's take a look at Captain America.  He is by definition a Super-Soldier.  From WW2.  He's seen action.  In 'The First Avenger' you see him chuck a live grenade down the open hatch of an occupied tank.  He also casually tosses Hydra agents out of an airplane.  Cap doesn't seem to have a no kill policy, and in the context of a soldier in an action movie, he probably shouldn't.

Thor.  Thor is basically Conan the Barbarian, but with a bigger vocabulary.  He's a mighty warrior.  True, usually when he does battle it's with Frost Giants or some other mythic entity, but these are still sentient beings, right?

Iron Man.  Let's see,  Tony Stark starts out his heroic journey as the head of a weapons manufacturing company.  Series villains Obadiah Stain, Whiplash, and Aldrich Killian all fail to live through the climaxes of their respective movies.

Black Widow.  She's an ex-assassin and a super-spy.  Need I say more?

Back to BvS:  It looks like most of the times Batman 'kills' it's usually more public endangerment and property damage rather than intentional homicide.  A car chase in a James Bond movie would have the same type of body count.  Ol' Bats should probably have his drivers license revoked.  The other main 'Batman is a murderer!' scene is the one where Batman is beating up Lex Luthor's thugs in a warehouse.  And while this fight scene is rather brutal, how is it different than Captain America or Thor on the battlefield?

It's fine with me if you don't like Batman v Superman.  I jut wish people would either say that they don't like it because they just don't like it, or give a better thought out reason than 'Batman doesn't kill people!'  I feel like the superhero 'no kill policy' is an odd thing to fixate on in a summer blockbuster style action movie.

One of the best on-screen adaptions of the superhero no kill policy is the Netflix Daredevil series.  And the reason it works is that the no kill policy is highlighted and shown to be a big deal.  It's a major issue that Matt Murdock is wrestling with.  It's a line that he comes dangerously close to crossing multiple times over the course of the first season.  Because of this the last couple of episodes are really intense because you are aware that Matt is capable of killing and at this point you really really don't want him to.  And this is the way it should be done.  If you are going to bother with a no kill policy you should have something to say with it.  Otherwise what's the point? 

The no kill policy isn't something that is addressed in most of the Marvel movies because that's not the story they're trying to tell.  I personally don't think it's the story Zack Snyder was trying to tell in BvS either.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Alligator People (1959)

Most people wouldn't consider this a good movie.  You've probably noticed by now that the ol' Geekboy isn't most people.  I know 'The Alligator People' left an impression on me when I first saw it, but I forgot just how much I liked it until I re-watched it for review purposes.

What's so great about this movie?  Firstly, it's set in the swamps of Louisiana, and you can't go wrong with the spooky and exotic atmosphere that come with setting your movie in the swamps of Louisiana.  Secondly, for the first half of the movie, the story is equal parts Mystery and Horror.  Thirdly, the one doing all the detective work is our Heroine who has a lot of actual purpose and stake in the story in a genre that usually reduces the female lead to someone who trips, screams, and gets carried off by the monster.

The story starts with a frame story.  The frame beginning and ending is actually my least favorite part, as it strains credibility and doesn't serve much purpose other that to give our heroine some occasional first person detective narration.  We start in a Psychologist's office who has been experimenting with hypnosis and accidentally uncovers repressed memories while performing an experiment with his assistant, Jane Marvin (played by Beverly Garland).  Under hypnosis she reveals that she lived a tragic past life under the name Joyce Webster.

Now that we have that cheesy (and pointless?) intro out of the way, we get to the cool stuff.  Joyce is a newlywed ex-army nurse on her honeymoon.  Her husband, Paul, had been horrifically disfigured in a plane crash, but is now mysteriously as good as new.  However Paul gets an urgent telegram and leaves the train at the next stop is a state of panic, and the train leaves without him.  Paul has disappeared, and Joyce discovers that she doesn't know that much about her new husband.  She does some detective work and follows his trail to a desolate train-station in the middle of the swamps.

She talks a hook-handed local - played by the one and only Lon Chaney Jr. - into driving her to the nearby Plantation house which is also the last know address of her husband.  Chaney is the town drunk with a vendetta against alligators because one took his hand.  He seems like a harmless eccentric at first, but he proves himself dangerous later on.

So she arrives at the Plantation which is owned by the secretive and disagreeable Mrs. Hawthorne.  Mrs. Hawthorne claims to have never heard of Paul and wants Joyce out of her house as soon a possible, but as there won't be another train until the next day, she allows Joyce to stay the night so long as she doesn't leave her room under any circumstances.   After hearing spooky night noises Joyce discovers that she is LOCKED in her room (Southern Hospitality, am-I-right?) but manages to snitch the skeleton key from under the maid's nose.

In the middle of the night she hears the sound of a lonely piano downstairs, and she can't help but investigate.  She discovers a figure in shadows hunched over the keys.  He flees into the night at the sight of her and she is left with just a glimpse of his scale-covered face.

Mrs. Hawthorne is not to happy that Joyce was out of her room that night, and she's even less happy when she discovers that Joyce has no intention of leaving by the morning train.  Joyce needs answers and she's willing to out-stubborn Mrs. Hawthorn to get them.

Mrs. Hawthorn reveals that the piano player was in fact Paul, and that she is secretly his mother.  That's a great way to meat you in-laws.  So, Joyce waits up to see Paul again that night, and once again he flees at the sight of her.  This time she chases him out into the swamps.  It's raining buckets, and she's menaced by alligators and snakes, and she loses her way.  But she's 'rescued' by Lon Chaney's character.  He's drunk, and starts hitting on her.  She is rescued by Paul who barges into the little cabin and attacks Chaney.  Paul carries her off after she is knocked unconscious - so we can have that shot of the monster carrying the pretty girl that all these movies have to have - and Chaney drunkenly swears revenge on the 'two legged alligator'.

It is revealed that Paul is turning into a reptile due to an experimental medical procedure that involves combining human DNA with that of a regenerating reptile.  This is what had saved his life after the plane crash, but an unfortunate side effect is that all the test subjects are turning into - wait for it - ALLIGATOR PEOPLE!  The telegram on the train was from the doctor who did the procedure warning Paul of the side effect, and he left because he didn't want Joyce to see him like this.

The doctor has been working on some sort of death-ray type device that's supposed to reverse the side effects.  Paul insists that they try it out on him so that he and Joyce can be together again.  The doctor warns that they have no way of knowing what will happen if there is an overdose of the radiation.  So they start the procedure, and of course, our hook-handed villain bursts in just then to get his revenge on Paul.  Because of the distraction Paul gets an overdose of the ray, and is transformed into an Alligator person.  Meaning the actor had the pleasure of wearing what looks like an alligator puppet on his head.  Prior to this, we just had the scale makeup on the face and hands, which isn't great, but it's a passable monster movie costume.  The alligator puppet?  Not so much.

Lon Chaney's character is electrocuted when he gets his hook tangled in some wires, Joyce screams at the sight of Paul, and he once again runs off into the swamp.  Joyce runs after him, but after seeing his reflection in the water and realizing how monstrous (or silly) he has become, he wanders into the quicksand and is never seen again.

We cut back to the psychologists' office, and Jane/Joyce has no memory of her past now that she's out of the hypnotic trance.  The doctor decides that this is for the best as she happier this way.  So I guess they tacked on the frame story to make the ending less of a downer?  Still seems a bit silly to me.

If the story of scientists using reptilian DNA to regenerate human tissue and inadvertently creating a monster sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the Spiderman villain Dr. Kurt Connors AKA 'The Lizard'.  The Lizard first appeared in 1963, four years after the release of 'The Alligator People'.  I don't think it's too big of a stretch to say this movie may have influenced the creation of the Spiderman villain.

Most people probably haven't heard of this monster movie, but it's worth watching in my opinion.  The swamp scenes have great atmosphere, Beverly Garland is compelling as the female lead and Lon Chaney Jr. is always fun to watch.  Only things I hold against 'The Alligator People' is the repressed memory plot device and a couple of less than stunning effects, like the alligator costume.  First and foremost I like the way the story unfolds like a mystery.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Why You Should Read: Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D.

Hey, Happy New Year.  Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas.  Personally my Christmas was so merry I spent most of last week recovering.  You may have noticed I took a week off from posting, and I think I needed the break.  I could have easily given myself THIS week off too.  I don't know about you guys, but taking two weeks off from something you do every week can easily turn into three weeks.  You get the picture right?  If I don't post right here and now I'd probably never post again.  So this is me.  Writing a blog post.

Today I'd like to talk about what I think is THE BEST SILVER AGE SCIENCE FICTION COMIC OF ALL TIME.  Now, I'm not really a comic expert or historian.  I can only compare this to the few other silver age books on my shelf.  I'm talking about the original 'Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D.' series created by Russ Manning in 1963 and published by Gold Key Comics.

Welcome to the year 4000 A.D.  The place is the continent sized city North AM.  Humanity has become soft as benevolent Robots do all the work in the future.  These robots take cues from Isaac Asimov's rules of robotics (never harm humans or allow humans to come to harm, and so on).  Unfortunately some of the robots follow the rules of robotics better than others.  Some have been corrupted and reject their programming.  Humanity has grown too weak to fight against these evil robots.  Enter Magnus, an individual who has been raised separately from the rest of society by one of the first and few remaining GOOD robots.  He has trained all his life and has gained a superhuman strength.  In addition he has a cyborg implant in his brain so he listen in to the telepathic speech of the robots.

Magnus is joined on his crusade by Leeja Clane and her father Senator Clane.  Leeja is very much a product of her time, but I feel like she's a bit less of a cardboard cutout than most comic book heroines of the silver age.

Although each issue is basically in the monster of the week format, the people of North AM are all 'Oh look, there's a new robot threat! Who will save us?' and Magnus is like, 'I will! Watch me punch robots in the face!' there is a greater sense of continuity than most comics that I've read from the same time period.  For example: In the first issue of Magnus and Leeja come across a group of people who have been captured by evil robots.  The captives are put in stasis and their brains are used to power a supercomputer.  These individuals reappear in a later issue, and because their brains were all connected for so long they developed powerful telepathic abilities.

As well as having a loose sense of continuity the world building in 'Magnus Robot Fighter' is pretty well thought out.  For example: As North Am is a continent sized city the book answers questions like 'How do these people grow food?'  Answer: They have underwater farms!

One thing 'Magnus' has going for him over other silver age comics like 'Adam Strange' for example, is that the stories take time to breathe.  The average Adam Strange story is only 10 to 15 pages long.  The Magnus comics are all 27 pages in length.  Magnus, although it's a bit cheesy when viewed through a modern lens, is also a much harder science fiction then other silver age comics I've read.  While Magnus is asking what would happen if machines one day became masters over their creators 'Adam Strange' features aliens who suck people up with Vacuum Cleaners.

I've yammered on about the story so long I haven't even touched on the artwork!  You can forget about the story, Magnus is worth reading for the art alone.  It fluctuates between highly detailed and minimalism in style.  One panel you'll have an incredible futuristic city skyline in the background and the next you'll have flat color.  I think this is done strategically.  Russ Manning is guiding your focus, either to the incredible world he's created in the detailed panels or to the characters and the action of the fight scenes in the minimal panels.  And of course, every issue features a ton of retro robots, flying cars, and wacky retro futuristic fashion design.

Dark Horse comics has collected the classic 'Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. in 3 volumes, in both Hardcover and Trade Paperback.  I recommend that you give it a try if you haven't already.  In a way, the question of 'Do we rely to much on technology?' is just as relevant - if not more so - in this digital age.  'Magnus' may be a little cheesy and a little dated, but I personally think it's a few notches above other comics from the same time period.