Sunday, March 26, 2017

Unsung Heroes of the Wilds

The names of certain hunters, explorers, trappers, soldiers and frontiersmen continue popping up whenever you read about the wild lands. Jim Bridger, Courtney Selous,  Lawrence of Arabia, Samuel Baker, and countless others. Innumerable men cast in these molds braved dangers and feats of bravery that most civilized men of today can scarcely credit as being real. These men live in immortality through not just oral tradition, but through the gift of writing. Some wrote of their exploits, others had their stories written by scribes who wished to preserve their deeds, all of which have been passed down through decades or even centuries.

In reading many of these I found gems of knowledge tucked away in dusty pages that might have otherwise faded from memory. These men were armed with the gift of writing, and allowed themselves to be remembered. However, many of those they encountered did not. African tribesmen, warriors of the American West, local villagers in the remote villages of India, nomadic aborigines in Australia, none of these men had the writing systems or access to distribution that the white explorers had, and sadly many of their own heroes have faded into obscurity. But to my delight many of these explorers shared the same love of heroes that many of us today do and took great pains to document and retell the exploits of lesser known men who might otherwise never be known.

It is here that I hope to recount some amazing feats and tales of these children of nature. Some were wily warriors. Others were simple men but possessed of incalculable bravery.

These explorers found kindred spirits amongst some of these men and women of distant lands and found them worthy of recording. I am eternally thankful that they did, for now in this age of the internet we can honor these heroes better than ever before!

This marks the start of a new series of articles I will be doing: Documenting these lesser known people for us all to remember and enjoy!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Samurai Jack Is Back!

Not many kids cartoons, or even adult shows, can compare to the amazing Cartoon Network original Samurai Jack. Almost unrivaled in imagination and creativity, it has stood proudly among cartoons as one of the most lasting and beloved series out there. It had humor, drama, horror, spectacular action and some serious heavyweight characters. Jack himself is a quintessential pulp character, a jack of all trades adventurer traveling the span and scope of a bizarre world to return to the past. His arch nemesis, Aku, voiced by the legendary Mako, stands as one of the coolest villains ever. With his hacksaw laugh, flaming eyebrows and surprisingly wide array of emotions and abilities, he is a worthy adversary and a hugely fun baddie. He runs the gamut from being a terrifying villain unleashing horrible destruction upon the realm of mortals to being a petty trickster, content to simply taunt and humiliate. He is scary and funny all at the same time.

The scope of the world here is some of the most diverse I have ever seen in any form of fiction. The artists and creators seemingly were given a carte blanche and told to go wild on whatever they wanted. Working on this setting must have been a creator's wet dream. There are seemingly no limits. There is magic, demonic entities, cyborgs, scifi, steampunk, western elements, aliens, robots, monsters, and everything in between. It has more diversity and imagination than a miniature golf course and much more action. While simplistic the art style is very vivid and distinct. It can't be mistaken for anything else. In fact, it was so good that the makers were drafted by Lucas for some of the Clone Wars cartoons, and it shows.

Sadly, even that couldn't save it from cancellation after four seasons. It was never truly finished. Until now. From the grave Samurai Jack has been resurrected, giving us a chance at finishing the epic that was started so long ago. We are now granted a steady stream of episodes, and we may finally see the climax of the running saga.

Sadly the original voice actor of Aku has passed, and it will be difficult to find a truly worthy replacement. It also seems to be taking a more consistent dark tone, as Jack is now haunted by visions of his family and homeland. It's been fifty years and yet age does not tell on his body. His mind however seems to be bending under the weight of constant fighting and failure. And a dazzling array of new enemies are now set before him, most notably The Daughters of Aku, a cultish sect of women dedicated to the evil shapeshifter.

Will the story at last be brought to a close? Will it match its earlier works? I don't know but I'm ecstatic to find out! Check the link below to see the first episode!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

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It's no secret that I'm a fan of King Kong. I watched the original 33 movie dozens of times as a kid and fell absolutely in love with it. It explains a lot about how I turned out. So one may have guessed my reaction upon seeing the trailer for the newest movie, and last Friday I hied myself down to the local cinema and gave it a watch.

First off, this is sort of in strange territory in terms of category. It's obviously not a remake. But it's also definitely not a sequel or a soft reboot. It is purely doing its own thing. In fact, it doesn't even reference the original or the Jackson incarnation! I admit, in this day and age where movie makers are terrified of originality and use their ancestry as a form of merit more often than Tolkien characters, this was rather shocking. Maybe they snuck a reference in there, but if they did I didn't see it. This is far from a bad thing however. For once, a movie actually feels rather fresh and not like it's masquerading as an old friend.

Also refreshing is that this one isn't taking place in modern times. Honestly, it irks me when movies forget that they can exist in other time periods. References to modern stuff rubs me the wrong way. This movie is sandwiched nicely between the old 30's and modern times, just at the early 70's. Techy enough to have some fun gear but retro enough to give it a fresh feeling.

With that out of the way, onto the actual meat of the movie. Within the first five minutes this movie lets you know that realism is not a priority. An American pilot and Japanese pilot fall onto Skull Island in World War 2, fail to shoot each other and get into a melee. The American pilot catches a katana thrust at his stomach with his bare hands and doesn't lose a single finger. First off, ouch. Second off, not happening. I guess this Japanese pilot had a training model and never sharpened it. That should really prep you for what kind of movie you're in for.

Fast forward about twenty years and we're just where the Vietnam War ends and John Goodman is playing... I forget his name honestly. Sorry. But he somehow swindles a senator into giving them the green light to investigate this island. Okay, second thing about this movie. The writing and characters are not the strong points. This is NOT a smart movie. Honestly, I started getting scared pretty early on, because I thought I was in for a crapfest where they had one writer paid in Cheetos and would focus everything on the action. But in hindsight it's more like they realized that it was pointless trying to make this a smart movie, and just want to get you to the island as soon as possible and get the fun going. If so... well, they almost made the right choice, because once they do get there it actually gets ridiculously fun. Honesty, I've spent more time on the first act then the movie did. This is NOT the Jackson movie, where it takes an hour to get to the effing island. I suppose the makers, who also did the most recent Godzilla movie, were paying attention to what people said about those two and tried to correct their mistakes, but ended up over-correcting, so we end up with almost no build up or character and tons of action.

Sorry if I'm not giving much detail on the first act, but honestly there is very little to tell. I think we get to the island within 25 minutes. The scenes race by fast! They rush us into the second act like our lives depend on it. And once we do get to the island, we see Kong within five minutes and you see half of the clips from the trailer. Kong rocks in and begins smashing Hueys out of the air like they're staying still. And that's... awesome actually. Far fetched, but awesome. Honestly, this movie is wonderfully cinematic. It makes brilliant use of motion, shots, framing slow motion and all that jazz. It has rapid bursts of violence punctuated by a few seconds of slow tension with a gorgeous visual to really let things sink in. I wish all action movies showed this level of clarity with their fighting. You're never confused about what's going on, unlike a Bay movie. I thought that this first action scene was a huge mistake. I thought that they showed their hand early and wouldn't be able to top it. I'm glad to say I was wrong.

Kong looks frigging fantastic. They've gone from the giant silverback gorilla look in the Jackson movie to a more erect and solid Sasquatch appearance. Honestly, it works. It's still Kong, but another incarnation. Yet I was still blown away by how expressive his face was. He still looks like a real animal, showing a range of primitive yet palpable emotions. His surly frowning and raging roars will chill you in your seat, yet he sometimes gives way to looks of eerie calm and even pained concern. The movie makes a lot more sense if you treat Kong as the main character. Also, he is a frigging ninja in this flick. He pops up everywhere unnoticed and without making a sound. But like his cinematic rival, Godzilla, he has a presence that is impossible to ignore and when he shows up on screen you are basking in his epic glory.

As for the human characters... I'm sorry. For the life of me I can't remember the names of any. Not the soldiers, not the scientists, not anyone. Yet almost all of them have an identity that I remember. Weird, right? I think the script was a fail because they put in every character's name a grand total of three times, which isn't enough for me to memorize them. It's strange, because the characters are actually kind of memorable, albeit not amazing. Loki for example doesn't feel bad, but he does feel like he wasn't used to his full potential, which is a shame. The same goes for Jackson's character. I feel like he could have been utilized far better. Oddly enough, the best character is the one I was afraid of the most. You know the curly haired guy from Talladega Nights and all those other awful Will Farrell comedies? He is the American pilot from the intro, still alive on the island. I guess my perception was stained from other performances, because I groaned when I saw him. Honestly though he works. Being stranded for so long he feels a bit kookie, but still sane. Comedic but sympathetic. He even managed to pull off holding a katana and whispering "Death before dishonor" in Japanese. Man, I wouldn't have believed that last one, but he sold me on it. He is used for comedic relief, but he actually does have a lot of sympathy going for him. So yay on that.

As for plot, it's your run of the mill stranded on a dangerous island and have to escape story. I was actually reminded of Jurassic Park 3 in how it felt very contrived to get them stranded so quickly. A lot of things feel contrived in this movie, but not to the point that it made me angry. More like lightly annoyed. And in fairness, once they are stranded, the movie is pretty fun. I just had trouble buying that all of these helicopters, at least ten, got knocked down by Kong inside of five minutes. Good grief.

All that stuff being said, I absolutely love when we get to see the local tribe from the trailer. We meet our WW2 friend with them and we thankfully avoid more cultural conflict, and actually get a deep and fascinating look into their society. The scene is almost pure exposition, but I actually ate it up. I guess because I'm a sucker for lost civilizations and stuff. But wow I loved it. We see their beliefs and mythology, the history of the island, and while it doesn't line up with the prior movies, it still feels very believable and unique. Everything from their look and feel is excellent and I sincerely enjoyed their scenes.

Also worthy of note is John Goodman's sidekick, a young African American scientist who jumps on for the ride. Spoiler alert, and to the shock of everyone, he doesn't die. But more importantly, he's one of the more interesting guys and has some of the most fascinating stuff to say in the entire movie. What does he talk about? Hollow Earth Theory. He elaborates on his theory regarding the planet being hollow or having isolated pockets within the Earth's crust which contain isolated ecosystems. Turns out Skull Island is one of these! They don't show it, but they discover through seismic tests that the entire island is hollow with an entire ecosystem underneath. Now, being a lover of Journey to the Center of The Earth and At the Earth's Core, I absolutely devoured this stuff and was delighted that they took the time and effort to put it in. This actually sets itself up very well for a sequel in which we can see what else is going on beneath the already terrifying surface of Skull Island. I guess this also made me really like this character, since he was one of the few who sounded perfectly rational and aware of the absurdity of their situation. Also of credit to him is that they didn't make him a complete pansy. When they get stranded he's shouldering a pump action shotgun. It's a very small detail, but it made me enjoy the cast a lot more in that they weren't all helpless and dependent solely on Loki for protection, even if they weren't proficient. By the by, he's flanked by a young Asian scientist, and while I never learned her name either, I will grant that she gave me enough through her performance to hope that she too made it out alive.

Speaking of firearms, I'm delighted to say that all the weapons in the movie are period accurate and used with more reason and restraint than Hollywood usually exhibits. Again, small detail, but I appreciated it.

As for the island itself, we are greeted with a delightful variety of horrible creepy crawlies that try to kill our characters in a wide number of equally hideous ways. Kong fights some of them, the characters others, and each of these fights are good. Remember the giant spider in the trailer? The characters actually use smarts to kill it, rather than just screaming and shooting. It was sufficiently horrifying that I was actually really tense during that scene. These are really the meat of the movie. As a pleasant change of pace, not every critter on Skull Island is programmed to kill humans on sight. We actually see a few more mundane animals like axis dear. Or in a scene I really appreciated, a giant bovine the size of an elephant and a horn boss that would have required a warehouse to have a wall big enough to hang from lurches up out of the swamp, but it doesn't attack the characters. There is a period of tension as it rises from this pool and confronts them, and several of them are terrified and on the verge of opening fire, but Loki recognizes the body language and gets them to calm down, resulting in the giant buff going on its merry way. I appreciated this, as it gave Loki more bush cred and showed that not all of these animals were mindless monsters.

And, to my surprise, we get another turn of events that gave us much more of a plot besides simply escaping. Remember that underground bubble I mentioned? Well the things living in there have woken up, and now they are coming up to say hi. These reptilian horrors are frigging awesome. It's revealed that Kong is the only thing standing between these scaly critters and overrunning the island with their terror, and thus he is needed to preserve the balance of nature. I was not expecting this! This actually makes Kong a lot more like Godzilla now. He is a terrifying and destructive force of nature that threatens human lives with his mere presence, but he is also a primal guardian that protects us from other far greater threats. This gives him a very heroic edge even as he presents a threat to the protagonists.

Also, thank Odin, there is no stupid tacked on love story. Just brothers in arms trying to save one another.

The overall action of this movie is truly a spectacle, and time after time I was amazed at the ingenuity shown to make each fight unique and engaging. In fact, the final fight between Kong and the king of these reptile monsters has a finishing move is so brutal and grotesque that my jaw dropped. It was worthy of Mortal Combat. Truly, the fights are the meat of this movie.

Without going over every single detail, I'd say Kong: Skull Island is a very fun popcorn movie that is fully worth the experience of seeing in theaters. It isn't a thinking movie or character driven. It is however an adventure that will spoil you with the intensity of its action and suck you into a world that feels like you can enter. For that I think it's worth watching. I wish they had a better setup for the plot and more fleshed out characters, and they do stand out to me, but it's hard for me to notice them when I think of the bloody action. It had all the fights we didn't get in Godzilla.

It doesn't cower and lurk in the shadow of its predecessors. It stands proudly and unapologetically as it's own thing. It isn't afraid to be different and thus lacks the edge of fear that other movies do. While definitely flawed and won't win any awards, it has a glorious fun time with its epic shots and pulse pounding action.

Also, I think this is building up for a Kong vs Godzilla movie. They directly mention Operation Monarch from the last Godzilla movie and the attempts to nuke him. It's also mentioned that Kong keeps growing and won't stop. He's already huge, but still not quite big enough to take on Godzilla. Hmmm. Will he be big enough by 2019? Could be! If they do plan on doing that movie, and they keep this brand of action going, I'm all for it. It would be a brawl for the frigging century.