Thursday, March 30, 2017

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Guyver (1991)

When I was a little kid, I remember watching The Guyver on the Sci-Fi Channel and even renting it from the video store. The whole purpose of the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is to see if beloved childhood films still hold up and although I remember enjoying the movie when I was a kid, I was also in elementary school, a lot of movies I've watched for Myopia haven't stood the test of time.

So how did it hold up? Here's the podcast. And now for my review..

The Plot

The sinister Chronos Corporation headed by Fulton Balcus (David Gale) is experimenting with turning people into Zoanoids, shape-shifting warriors of alien origin who had apparently lived among humans for centuries and spawned the myths of werewolves, vampires, etc. Dr. Tetsu Segawa (Greg Paik) attempts to flee Chronos with the Guyver Unit, a set of alien powered armor, to give to CIA agent Max Reed (Mark Hamill), but treachery leads to his death. College student Sean Baker (Jack Armstrong), who is friends with if not romantically involved with Dr. Segawa's daughter Mizki (Vivian Wu), stumbles across the Guyver and bonds with the unit, doing battle with a gang of Zoanoids who want it back.

And Balcus is much, much more than he seems...

(Or, if you want a more irreverent summary, "In which a mediocre martial-arts student bonds with alien powered armor and fights mutant monster gang-bangers in Los Angeles.")

The Good

*Although my cohorts on the podcast made fun of the film's fight choreography, the fact the fighting comes off as rather incompetent might actually have a good story reason. Sean is, early on, depicted as a mediocre martial-arts student, while most of the Zoanoids are street criminals Chronos has transformed into alien warriors. None of them, with the exception of chief thug Lisker (Michael Berryman), really have any idea of what they're doing with their enhanced abilities, and Sean doesn't know the full extent of his armor's capabilities or how to actually use them. See the trope How Do I Shot Web for more details.

*To that end, in a scene where some gang members try to mug Sean, they avoid the Mook Chivalry trope. Instead of engaging Sean, who has at least some hand-to-hand combat ability, individually, they just mob him and bring him down in seconds.

*Sean finding the Guyver and bonding with it came off as pretty natural and realistic. It didn't seem forced at all.

*The film has some genuinely funny moments, including a scene where rapper-Zoanoid M.C. Striker (Jimmie Walker) stumbles into a film shoot and is mistaken for a man in a monster suit. Striker himself is pretty funny, although I can understand how others might interpret him as being grating or even a racist stereotype. There's also a scene where a Zoanoid that looks like an obese midget dinosaur pursues two characters through a lab that could be something out of Benny Hill. All it needed was the Yakety-Sax.

*Jimmie Walker's most well-known role is on the show Good Times, which spun off Maude, which spun off All In The Family. Some of Striker's lines are a homage to that role, which film enthusiasts might appreciate.

The Bad

*There's an opening text-crawl like Star Wars--except it has a voice-over. There are several things wrong with this picture--for starters, it would be much more interesting if they started out with Dr. Segawa running from some thugs and then people just started turning into monsters. That would grab the viewers' attention. Secondly, there was no need for the voice-over when the information is provided by the text. Star Wars never had a voice-over in its openings. Finally, the actual text comes off like a badly-translated anime with the "Zoanoids" and especially the "Zoalord." Yes, the movie is based on a manga, but translation problems are still translation problems.

*The acting is, for the most part, not very good. Armstrong does a decent job when he's just playing an ordinary college student, but whenever he has to stretch himself or deliver powerful or moving lines, he's just plain awful. No wonder they replaced him in the sequel. Although the fact some of these lines are ridiculous isn't his fault, his delivery is poor. Armstrong's mediocre acting also tied in with how the movie was marketed--the posters strongly imply Mark Hamill plays the Guyver, not Armstrong.

(Hamill does an okay job and in one scene conveys genuine agony far better than he did in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father after losing his hand. But if he's the best actor, you know the movie has problems.)

Gale as Balcus has this weird staccato delivery, especially at the beginning when he's enraged at Lisker. Berryman comes off as kind of brain-damaged most of the time--although the actor has an actual medical condition, that doesn't affect him mentally. His delivery is more natural when he leads the Zoanoids into battle, but it's really stilted elsewhere. Wu's role as Mizki is poorly written--she spends most of the time as a passive hostage of the Zoanoids and is only active when the plot requires it--but her accent is bad. I don't remember her speaking like that in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3, so either her English improved or she was trying to speak English like someone whose native language was Japanese and didn't pull it off.

*Striker speaks pretty much entirely in rap and I can definitely understand why people might view him as a racial stereotype. Given how he's the most inept of the Zoanoids and the scene where he invades the movie set and tries to calm down a woman he thinks is terrified of him, he could have been developed as someone who isn't really evil at heart (as opposed to the thuggish Lisker or the domineering, kind of perverted Balcus) and is trying to impress his superiors. The filmmakers give Lisker some development by depicting him in a relationship with a female Zoanoid, so it's not like they couldn't have developed Striker more.

*In one scene, it's clearly morning and Sean offers to get him and Mizki some food. It's nighttime when he returns. Is Los Angeles traffic that bad? And then when the Zoanoids pursue Sean, Mizki, and Max onto the film set, it's night but it's clearly supposed to be daytime, since the director is talking about lunch.

(If overnight shoots provide a mid-shoot meal and call it "lunch" that might actually be clever, but those who aren't familiar with film industry practices won't know that.)

*There's a missed opportunity for Balcus to guilt-trip our heroes over a character's death. It'd show him as more devious and having obviously debriefed Lisker about how a previous fight went. It'd also be a good example of psychological warfare, in the vein of STAR WARS' Dun Moch battle technique.

*A character's death comes off as really silly--they get blasted through a door into another room, come to a stop, and then EXPLODE.

The Verdict

Might be worth watching once. Maybe. 5 out of 10. It had a good concept, but an inept execution. Michael Bay really should give it a $100 million reboot.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

My WALKING DEAD Theory: Negan Is Sterile

One of the shows I watch when I have time is The Walking Dead. It's not my favorite show (I like Game of Thrones better), but it's a good chance to hang out with my church friends after services and dinner. And lately I've developed an interest in the character Negan, the current Big Bad who introduces himself by killing Abraham and Glenn and, for a time at least, forcing Rick and his crew under his thumb.

One thing that stuck out about Negan from the comics (I've only read a little of them) is the weird paternal thing he has going with Carl. In the comics and in the show, Carl attempts to assassinate Negan, but rather than kill him, Negan takes him on a tour of the Sanctuary and when forcing him to reveal his empty eye socket makes him cry, Negan actually feels guilty and apologizes. And in the television show, rather than merely returning him to Rick, Negan comes to Rick's house, teaches Carl how to shave, makes him and baby Judith dinner, and sits there with both kids waiting for Rick to return.

The prequel comic "Here's Negan" revealed that before the zombie apocalypse Negan was a high school gym coach, so Carl is about the right age to have been one of his students. However, the teaching him to shave, making dinner, dandling and kissing baby Judith, etc. goes beyond being a teacher into being outright paternal.

Furthermore, in "Here's Negan," Negan and his wife don't seem to have any children. And in polygamous societies, the dominant men with many wives tend to have lots of kids. Murad III, one of the more lusty Ottoman sultans, had over 100 children from many concubines. I remember an illustrated kid version of the Guinness Book of World Records depicting a tired-looking Moroccan sultan who had over 500 children. It turns out there might have been much more than that. However, even with his much smaller harem, Negan has no children at all. It could be that Negan is dousing them all with birth control to avoid the complications of children (especially since many of them, like Sherry, are other men's wives or partners he's keeping as hostages), but no children whatsoever seems significant.

(Lori and Maggie managed to get pregnant after all, despite much more trying circumstances.)

So here's my theory. Negan is sterile. He can't have any children. The harem thing, the prominence of a baseball bat (phallic symbol) as his signature weapon, his attempts to usurp Rick as Carl and Judith's father, the very tight pants a female friend pointed out, his obsession with sex (he's even turned on when Olivia slaps him for making fun of her weight), they're all attempts to compensate psychologically for his shooting blanks.

(I'd theorized his attempt to claim Maggie after Glenn's death was an attempt to usurp Glenn as little Herschel's father, but friends more familiar with the show have told me he has no way to know she's pregnant. I watched the clip on YouTube and his comments about wanting to see Maggie seem totally driven by sex, without any reference to her being pregnant.)

Of course, there might be other reasons he does these things. The harem thing is intended to control and degrade possible rival males (in the comics, Negan admits his treatment of Sherry was intended to neutralize Dwight), his waiting for Rick with Carl and Judith was clearly an attempt to screw with Rick, and Maggie would have been another hostage to control Alexandria. However, someone can have more than one reason for doing something, especially a more complex character like Negan.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Book Review: Red Right Hand (2016)

For a long time I've been interested in the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, creator of such entities as Cthulhu, the Deep Ones, etc. In high school I read collections of his work at the library and even purchased the film Dagon, an adaptation of his story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." In college I wrote "The Beast of the Bosporus," a Lovecraft tale set in the Ottoman Empire that is now in the capable hands of Digital Fiction Publishing.

So when my friend James R. Tuck brought a Lovecraftian tale of his own to our writing group, I was quite interested. It came out last year (under a pseudonym) and although real life has kept me busy, I finished it earlier this week. Now it's time for the review...

The Plot

Charlotte "Charlie" Moore is on the way back from visiting her friend and possible love interest Daniel Langford--a visit that took an unpleasant turn when some old traumas surfaced--when she's set upon by a trio of skinless, homicidal hounds. She in turn is rescued by none other than the sinister Nylarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, an evil god-like being who seeks to recruit her for his war against his kindred gods. He claims that he's protecting humankind from an eventual invasion of our world and to ensure Charlie cooperates, he enthralls Daniel too.

So in a supernatural version of the film Collateral (in which hit man Tom Cruise forces Jamie Foxx to accompany him on jobs), Charlie assists Nylarlathotep in his mission, but soon finds out that he's even more malign than he seems.

The Good

*The book grabs the reader from the very beginning and doesn't let go. Charlie meets the skinhounds within a few pages. It's very, VERY good at getting the reader's attention and keeping it.

*The book has some incredibly vivid descriptions. An elder goddess appears as a crack whore in a rather disgusting scene, while another deity manifests through the cancers of dozens of hospital patients. Of particular awesomeness is how the descriptions of Nylarlathotep capture the Uncanny Valley effect. In his human form he's obviously, well, human but there's a whole lot about him that's just off--his teeth, his tongue, his facial structure. It's very well-done.

That is easily one of the best things about the book and reason enough to get it. Seriously, I had full-blown sleep-paralysis nightmares one night after reading a few chapters in the book. That hasn't happened to me in years.

*On the matter of Nylarlathotep himself, he's always been one of the most...human...of the Eldritch Abominations and it shows here. Rarely do Horrors From Beyond get really witty lines. As James said in an interview, the Man in Black was fun to write.

*The book moves along very quickly. It took me a long time to read it after I bought it because of real-life obligations, but once I buckled down to finish it, it took me only a few nights. If it were an e-book I could read on my phone or on a tablet at the gym, I would have probably finished it even faster.

*The book tells a complete story (Charlie's arc from a victim to a victor and dealing with the past trauma), but sets up a sequel and in fact a whole universe in which many stories can be told. Nothing is left hanging, but it's clear we have more adventures coming. I look forward to reading them.

*The novel meshes Lovecraft's philosophy of a naturalistic universe indifferent to the fates of both men and gods and a Judeo-Christian worldview in a potentially quite interesting way. Nylarlathotep, in a lengthy discussion about how he admires humanity, describes how at one point mankind was reduced to eight people in an ark of wood built by a drunk who had never seen the ocean. For those of us less than knowledgeable about the Bible, that's the story of Noah.

Part of Lovecraft's overall philosophy was that the universe was fundamentally indifferent to humanity, and the horrors beyond could wipe us out without affecting overall reality one whit. Even in the times where human triumphed over the eldritch abominations, it was because the universe was just as indifferent to the Great Old Ones as it is to mankind. The Judeo-Christian worldview holds that the universe has a Creator who cares about what happens and that justice will ultimately prevail. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the arc of history bent toward justice, something that isn't possible in a purely naturalistic, indifferent universe. It could be explored further, but this is, after all, the first book in a series.

*The cover art is really well-done. Seriously. Charlie is well-captured, while Nylarlathotep is represented stylistically to avoid spoiling just how cool he's depicted. James describes how the cover art came together here.

*Charlie's back-story involves rape and the novel touches on issues dealing with rape, the difficulties prosecuting it, etc., but the book never gets preachy, becomes "a very special episode," etc. It's another part of Charlie's character, and a very big part, but it doesn't engulf the entire storyline.

The Bad

This next part deals with the topic of rape and might upset people. If that's something that will cause you stress, you might want to skip the next couple paragraphs.

*The wicked men who raped Charlie never got justice for it, something that is, unfortunately, quite common. I cannot fault the book for highlighting a grave problem with our society. However, one reason most rapes go unreported, let alone un-prosecuted, is that most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, not strangers lurking in alleys. And most rapes don't result in injuries to the victim (beyond, well, the obvious), which discourages prosecution. After all, a huge percentage of them involve the victim impaired by alcohol, not threatened into submission or physically battered. Our legal system is supposed to prevent innocent people from being prosecuted (see this quote from Benjamin Franklin about better a hundred guilty men go free rather than one innocent be condemned), but that has unfortunate side effects.

Charlie's attack put her in the hospital with internal and external injuries, including a broken jaw. It apparently did go to trial (something that doesn't always happen), but the perpetrators were found not guilty based on their lawyers' highlighting how Charlie had drunk alcohol (not much), worn a skirt (a long one), and didn't say "no" (even though she did say "stop"). See this article here (it's long) about how unpleasant defense attorneys for accused rapists can get. However, between the extreme violence of the attack and no indication of any factor like Charlie having dated one of them in the past or her even knowing them, the perpetrators getting away with it as easily as skeevy frat boys who get naive freshmen drunk at parties doesn't seem believable. Ariel Castro, Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, the Carr brothers, and this band of scumbags from Knoxville got nailed to the wall, and this article here states that it's easier to prosecute a stranger attack (like those I just listed) than a date rape.

If I were writing it I would have toned down the violence (making it purely a case of Charlie being incapacitated by drugs or alcohol) so a good lawyer could spin it as a drunken hookup and not an assault, or something that was initially consensual and quickly went awry (like this case here, in which no charges were filed despite an account so damning that the players dropped their defense of their teammates upon reading it). Or, if making the attack as violent as it was was necessary for the story (someone isn't going to spend years taking martial-arts classes to avoid being roofied), I would have made it so Charlie was bullied into not pressing charges by powerful friends of the perpetrators (football coaches, school officials, the town sheriff) like how Kobe Bryant's accuser refused to testify after being harassed by his fans. Or, to keep the fact that it did go to trial in the plot, make it take place in some football-loving small town where the chance of beloved athletes getting convicted is essentially nil.

*Related to the above issue, when the perpetrators have a very final and well-deserved meeting with Nylarlathotep, none other than the FBI (which would probably have not gotten involved with a local criminal matter in the first place) contacts Charlie the next day, assuming she had something to do with it. Given how the perpetrators had all gone their separate ways (with one living in another city and another being so marginalized to the point nobody would notice him), they'd have to be reported missing, someone would need to make the connection between them, etc. It would probably be days if not weeks before the police investigated Charlie, not the next day.

Something That Has Potential

*Black's incorporation of Judeo-Christian religious themes could have been explored further. Is the God of Abraham a Lovecraftian being of some sort? He could be one that genuinely cares about humanity or, like the Ally in F. Paul Wilson's Adversary Cycle (which "collects" worlds rather than consuming them) or August Derleth's Elder Gods (who simply oppose the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones), an entity that isn't a friend of humanity per se but is still beneficial. Exploring how one might mesh a personal god with the notion of a universe indifferent to the ultimate fates of men, other sentient beings like the Mi-Go or Deep Ones, and even gods themselves could be interesting. Since this is the first book in a series and not a stand-alone, there's plenty of room to go deeper later.

*Per my concern about the FBI coming into Charlie's life so quickly, could there be some kind of anti-occult agency in the Bureau? The Deacon Chalk series that James wrote under his real name depicts an FBI agent involved in investigating supernatural episodes, after all. If Nylarlathotep seeks someone related by blood to H.P. Lovecraft for his shenanigans, perhaps ALL of his relatives are being watched just in case.

The Verdict

Go read it, especially if you like Lovecraft. 9.0 out of 10.