Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Fiction: The Adventures of Sidekick Carl, Part 16!

It's middle of the off week, and I decided on another installment of Sidekick Carl to wrap up the cliffhanger. As usual, here's the first and previous installments, and how about a link for the Big Red (Robotech) Guy?

Constructor carried Carl in his arms as they emerged from the burning building. It was clear that Carl was grievously wounded. A tear in his suit ran from the neck gasket to the hip. The edges rippled as the nanites struggled to make repairs, but every time the rip started to close, it came open again. “We did it,” Carl said. “We won. We beat Baskiliskus.”

“Yes,” Constructor said. “We beat him, for now. We need to get you help.”

Carl shook his head. “No, it’s… too late. Besides, you have… a new partner now.” Constructor looked to their companion, a clean-shaven man dressed as he was, complete with a silvery construction helmet. “Constructor… meet Constructor.” And the music swelled… until a ricochet destroyed the TV set.

* * *

Agent John Carter rushed toward the convention center, leading a team that had accompanied him to investigate a possible sniper five blocks away. “Talk to me, Lauren,” he said. “What’s happening, and how did we miss it?”

The voice that answered was his wife, who had volunteered to mingle as an invited wedding guest. “We have a superhuman Class 5 or higher, possibly cybernetically based, armed with an advanced plasma weapon,” she said. “The subject made a strong-arm entry, probably after coming down from the roof. We have Heavy teams coming from the south end.”

“Why didn’t we have a Heavy team at the other end?” Carter fumed.

“Because somebody said only a lunatic would come from the north end, and somebody else agreed with her! And we weren’t wrong!”

“Yeah,” Carter said, “that was my fault.” As he spoke, the west side of the convention center came into view. He and his team quickly found cover. “What’s the casualty count?”

“No fatalities… yet,” Lauren said somberly. “Big Red’s down, if you can believe that. Captain Thunder took a hit, too. There’s more that are hurt. Badly. We need a med team, John. Quick.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “I love you.”

* * *


Inside the chapel door, now blocked by a blast shield, Dana finally turned to Carl and spoke. “Is this someone else you know?”

Carl just shook his head. “I don’t know… well, I’m not sure,” he said. “Law of averages, really, it would be somebody from the old days. I can think of one, except I wasn’t even there. I just heard about it, after.”

He looked around. There were at least a dozen others in the chapel, including the prime minister of Bessarabia and his guards. His gaze turned toward the stained-glass window. On examination, it was abnormally narrow, barely wider than his own chest. All the other windows were little more than slits. If you looked through any of them, the view would be cloudy or distorted. If you pointed advanced sensors at one, the readings would be a hopeless jumble, and you would probably set off an alarm. “Whoever’s out there, he would have looked at the window first. Or she, I wondered, and if it’s who I think, so did Constructor. It could have worked, if you didn’t care about hitting anyone else…” He dived to one side as a plasma bolt came through the window.

* * *


The would-be assassin stood amid a scene of chaos and devastation. Flame retardants poured down from the ceiling, adding to a dingy mist that already shrouded the room. Tables lay smashed and smoldering. Guards lay wounded, mostly groaning. Captain Thunder still twitched, with Audrey’s kits gathered keening at his side. A Latin man cursed bilingually from his hover chair. Audrey herself peered out from under her table, growling and occasionally hissing. Her red-pelted mate crouched beside her. Her other mate lay to one side of the chapel door, half his torso seemingly one smoldering wound. That he had a torso at all might have been owed to the remnants of a serving tray almost as large as he was, clutched in one hand. In all likelihood, he owed more to the state of the assassin’s weapon, which had gone from launching fist-sized bolts of plasma to wobbling clouds of gas and sparks. That, in turn, could be accounted for by the sparks and occasional puffs of vaporized fluid that came from a hose that connected the assassin’s weapon to some kind of backpack.

The assassin’s head turned toward a single kit mere feet away, cowering inside a dropped salad bowl. Audrey snarled. The attacker instead leveled a forearm at an emboldened agent and fired one of several visible pods. It launched a spray of tiny, evidently non-lethal darts which sent him sprawling, thrashing and cursing too violently to be fatally wounded.

“We have the whole center on lockdown,” Lauren called out from what remained of a security perimeter facing the chapel door. “Surrender now, and you won’t be harmed.” As she spoke, the assassin turned again, to see the 12-foot-tall battle mech known as Big Red sit up in the outdoor dining area. A coating of melted glass dropped from the sensor array that could be considered his face. There was an almost musical metallic sound as he raised a bright orange scimitar six feet long.

Another man emerged, not tall but stocky and very muscular. His hair was brown, and his eyes were a piercing blue. The slender women named Dana Shelton followed close behind. At his appearance, the assassin’s head cocked attentively. “You had your shot,” he said authoritatively. “It might have worked; that’s luck of the draw. Now, you can shoot it out here, or take your chances outside. But you aren’t getting through that door.”


In answer, the assassin finally slung the weapon. At a twitch of a gloved hand, a glowing upper breastplate dropped to the floor. It broke apart on impact, and set the carpet ablaze. The backpack came off in one hand. The attacker held it up as an unmistakable warning, given more urgency by a visible fluid leak and an assortment of flashing warning lights. Lauren and the agents backed up. That was when a blurred shape literally sent the attacker flying.

All eyes turned to the blur, which resolved itself into the Latin in the hover chair. He held up the backpack, gripped with a bulky metal gauntlet that covered his forearm. “Soy Hombre Acero,” he said through gritted teeth. “Puedo hacer, tonto.”

That was when Audrey rushed to her mate’s side. “You idiot!” she snarled, her words barely recognizable. “You took a plasma ball for Sidekick Carl!!!”

* * *


The bolt hit the chapel ceiling, confirming that the shooter was outside. The window was almost 6 feet off the ground, low enough to look through but too high to leap or vault through, assuming, of course, that the assassin’s abilities were on the level of a human. Carl and Dana huddled together at the sound of metallic scraping. They both looked up in relief as a form did appear in the window. “It was this way or through a wall,” John Carter said. Behind him, Big Red loped past, headed north. “Come through, quickly.”

With Carl’s help, Dana vaulted through the window, carrying her shoes in one hand. “Get to your RV, the path is clear,” John Carter said. As Carl followed, he added, “Get to her, then drive.” Carl only shook his head.

Agent Carter and his team cautiously rounded the corner to the north end. Outside the atrium entrance, at least a dozen agents surrounded the assassin. The intruder was bound in several heavy nets. For good measure, Big Red was applying the force of his right foot, or half of it. Some might have assumed the massive damage was from the battle, but Carl knew it from of old. The mech had never given an account of it in his limited communications, and forensic examination confirmed only that it had been made by something with teeth. Beyond the circle, med teams were evacuating the wounded. He followed a hyperbaric pod that held Audrey’s mate, with Audrey crouched on top. Her eyes met his for a piercing moment before the pod disappeared into the hold of a quad-fan hopper.

Lauren turned as her husband approached. “We secured the subject as best we could,” she said. She tensed but did not comment as Carl passed her. “The Heavies laid down the nets when a command to remove the helmet was refused. I talked them out of taking it off. We might have a tentative ID, but then I’m guessing he can tell you about that…”

Carl took one look, albeit a long one, and nodded. “Borgus,” he said. “Appeared about 12 years ago, got on the map for retiring the fourth Hombre Acero. Ran into a few other supers and one of  the Raven’s crews over the next 8 months. Disappeared after fighting Constructor to a draw. Most people figured it was an out-of-towner who went home. Constructor wasn’t so sure.”

The helmeted head turned as he drew nearer and knelt. There was no sign of anxiety, nor any further effort to escape. “What do you think?” John Carter said. “Can we take that helmet off?”

“I wouldn’t,” Carl said. “It might kill her.” He rose and turned to walk away.

“Then who is `she’?” Carter called out irritably.

“I don’t know `who’, but I’m pretty sure `what’,” Carl said. “It’s another patient of Dr. Hydro’s.” And with that, he did walk away.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Super Movies 2-Parter! The one with Arnold


Title: Conan the Barbarian

What Year?: 1982

Classification: Irreproducible Oddity/ Mashup

Rating: What The Hell??? (2/4)


As I write this, it’s now just over a year since I started this feature, and I’m once again thinking about what I still want to do before ending it. That brought me to a larger project I have considered for a long time, and I decided it was time. This will be not one but two reviews, of a series I have dealt with before (including a soundtrack review). It is worth further note as a property that was never “officially” based on a comic, but attracted a great deal of suspicion then and since. I present the first part, none other than Conan the Barbarian, and this is the one that kept me from doing this for so long.

Our story begins with the forging of a sword, by a technique that has enraged blacksmiths for decades. We then meet a tribe that worships steel and the strange god Crom, who in short order are massacred by invaders bearing the sign of twin snakes. The sole survivor is a boy who goes from slavery to mercenary to a thief in the splendid cities of the Hyborian Age. In the course of his adventures, he gathers a band of rogues including a lady named Valeria, who quickly becomes his lover. He also runs afoul of the cult of Set, the same snake-worshippers who killed his family, and their leader, a charismatic sorcerer named Thulsa Doom. When a king reveals that his own daughter has joined the cult, Conan accepts a mission to bring back the wayward princess. But the quest will carry a terrible price, leaving Conan with the ungrateful rescuee in tow and the raiders of Thulsa Doom in pursuit. When the rogues make their final stand in an ancient burial ground, even Conan may be outmatched- unless the dead come to his aid!

Conan the Barbarian was a 1982 “sword and sorcery” film produced by the Dino De Laurentiis operation (see… Maximum Overdrive?), directed by John Milius from a script cowritten with Oliver Stone. The film was based on the character and stories created by Robert E. Howard for the horror/ fantasy pulp Weird Tales. Many believed it was influenced directly by the Marvel comics Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan. The film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as the title character and Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, with James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom. Other cast included Mako as the wizard, Max Von Sydow (see FlashGordon) as King Osric and Valerie Quennessen as the princess. Basil Poledouris scored the film, and the sequel Conan the Destroyer. The composer also scored the. The film was released around the middle of a wave of fantasy films of the early to mid-1980s, which also included Dragonslayer,Krull and The Black Cauldron. Unlike many such films, it was inarguably profitable, earning up to $79.1 million against a $20M budget. Schwarzenegger and Mako returned for Conan the Destroyer, which otherwise had little overlap with the first movie. Quennessen became best known for Conan and the romantic comedy Summer Lovers, also scored by Poledouris, released the same year. The actress died in a traffic accident in 1989 at age 31.

For my experiences, my strongest memory of the franchise is that I saw Conan the Destroyer, or the end of it, on 1990s TV, which I will get to. To my further recollections, I finally watched the movies in full around the time I was really discovering Howard. What came to my mind during the viewings for this review is that the first movie in particular is very much like Howard, yet quite different from the Conan stories or any other incarnation of the character. Particularly noteworthy is the grim, almost humorless mood, in many ways closer to the strange saga of Kull than anything else. (Of course I know that’s where Thulsa Doom came from.) Also noteworthy is the quite limited role of monsters, magic and other fantasy shenanigans, which almost puts this on the vein of otherwise “straight” Howard adventures like “By This Axe I Rule!” The problem, at least for me, is that the final product feels ponderous if not pompous rather than epic, ultimately belying even the “so bad it’s good” reputation of the film. I can’t say it’s bad, but I don’t get it, and there’s way too much material here that I do like for that to be just me.

Moving forward, most of the easy targets here involve the origin story given for Conan, which is one thing Howard never did with any of his major characters. In fact, it actually does pretty well at introducing the characters and the assumed world. The one thing that is jarring is the introduction of Jones, which isn’t help by the fact that the makeup and lighting seem chosen to make him look as “white” as possible. We also get completely surreal moments like the encounter with a literal witch, and some monster action with a giant snake in the temple of Set. The movie gets in gear as the cult comes to the front, with homages to several of the finest Conan stories, especially “Queen of the Black Coast” and “A Witch Shall Be Born”. There’s also an underrated arc with the princess, which I will admit I didn’t notice before the current viewing. Quennessen provides impressive screen presence in the role even without much to do, especially in the temple scene where she first appears. I personally took enough notice to do much of the research here by the time the credits ran.

On the “con” side, I’ve already done the best I can to explain the issues I find with the movie. If there’s one “obvious” issue I haven’t gotten to yet, it’s that the movie is so long, almost half an hour longer than Conan the Destroyer. What makes matters far worse is the strange pacing and the further absence of a coherent message or theme. There’s plenty of movies at least as long that “work”, particularly Apocalypse Now, which the present film in fact seems to try to emulate in long stretches, and Aliens. But this movie doesn’t have the thematic complexity of Coppola’s film, and it certainly doesn’t have the fast-paced action of James Cameron. Indeed, the action scenes that do occur are as oddly static as an actual comic book, with only the palace free-for-all mustering sustained energy. As for any ambitions of “message”, the closest we get to a payoff is the simple contrast between the fanaticism of the cult and Conan’s pragmatic view of his own indifferent god Crom. (Now that I think about it, this must have had a little influence on my own character Carlos Wrzniewski.) It all culminates in the not quite comical prayer before the final battle, which really does sound like something Howard would have written for the character.

Now for the “one scene”, I had to go with one that has Jones onscreen. After Conan’s first attempt to infiltrate the cult, he is captured by Thulsa Doom, and the two characters have their one extended exchange. Thulsa Doom vents about Conan’s depredations, concluding with hilarious inflection, “You killed my snake.” Conan furiously accuses the sorcerer of killing his tribe, to which Doom merely muses that he valued weaponry in his youth. He continues with a discourse on the power of human flesh and spirit. In the middle of it all, he calls out to one of his followers far above, in a soft and fatherly tone. What follows could have been played as comical or terrifying, but instead, we get the film’s deadpan film as the camera follows the cultist’s fate, complete with a shot of the resulting hole in the floor. It’s a bizarre moment in a very odd film, and on this occasion, it really works.

In closing, I come as usual to the rating. I honestly considered giving this film a lower rating than I have. If not for certain better points, especially the Poledouris music (see my Starship Troopers soundtrack review for comparison), I might have. After a fresh and somewhat more careful viewing, I’m satisfied that the middle is where it belongs. What continues to baffle me isn’t that so many people clearly like this movie better than I do, but that few if any talk about just so odd it is.  It is ultimately the weird factor that keeps me from coming down harder than I have. I don’t get it, but it gets my respect. With that, I’m done with this one, and I’m actually looking forward to what’s next.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Animation Defenestration: The one with Woody Allen as an ant


Title: Antz

What Year?: 1998

Classification: Runnerup

Rating: What The Hell??? (2/4)


In planning out this feature, something that quickly came home is that if I really got back into this, I would be dealing with a much wider field than I have with any other feature, and a lot of potential for pure random even by my standards. With this review, I have a case in point. I had planned a weekend review to hit the milestone of 180 reviews, and watched a movie I had thought about for a long time to fill the slot. Then I got something completely different as an incoming disc from my subscription queue, one I really hadn’t planned to do this soon if at all even though I had already referenced it before. In a further first, it happens to represent a “runnerup” to a movie I already classified as such, with a possibly even more convoluted backstory. And with that, I present our exhibit, Antz, a movie that hit theaters at the same time as A Bug’s Life.

Our story begins with a cutaway view of the world underneath a grassy park, which brings us to an anthropomorphic ant talking to his psychiatrist. As he complains about being dwarfed by the colony around him, the doctor succinctly comments, “You are insignificant!” As the story proceeds, we get to know our familiar-looking character, a worker named Z. His fortunes seem to change when an attractive female named Bala dances with him, but he then discovers that the new girl is a royal heir slumming it. To get another chance with the princess, he switches places with his soldier ant friend, only to be sent by the commander General Mandible, the lady’s actual fiancĂ©, into a massacre at the hands of a rival termite colony.  When Z returns as the sole survivor, the general allows him to appear as a hero, but quickly decides to eliminate him as a threat to his own unfolding schemes. To survive, Z has to flee with Bala in tow, toward a rumored paradise called Insectopia. Together, they must navigate the strange hazards of the surface world and the giants who dominate it. Then their final trial will be the choice between their newfound freedom or returning to the colony- before General Mandible destroys it!

Antz was a CGI animated film by SKG Dreamworks, released in 1998 shortly before the Disney/ Pixar film A Bug’s Life. The film was believed to have been based on a proposed story “Army Ants”, originally presented to Disney prior to Dreamworks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s departure from the company.  The animation was created by Pacific Data Images, a company that had previously worked on Terminator 2, Star Trek 6 and Sleepwalkers (can’t win them all). The high-profile voice cast was led by Woody Allen as Z and Sharon Stone as Bala, with Gene Hackman (see… Superman 4?) as General Mandible. Sylvester Stallone (see Judge Dredd) and Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon were featured as the soldier ants Weaver and Baratas. Both Antz and A Bug’s Life both attracted controversy for their similarities to each other. Critics ultimately noted substantial differences in theme, tone and potential audience, with Gene Siskel favoring Antz as a superior film. An ACAP award was given to the score by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. The movie earned a box office of $171 million against a budget estimated at up to $105 million. It remains available on home video, including streaming.

For my experiences, this is a movie I remember seeing in the theater, and at absolutely no time since before a viewing for this review. What really stands out is that I had no trouble piecing together the story and many of the scenes in advance, with ease and clarity even by my world’s-worst-superpower standards. (Have I mentioned lately that I found Krull?) That right there can serve as an encapsulation of the movie’s strengths and weaknesses: It is by all means memorable, yet not the kind of movie you hold onto or seek out. I had further experienced that myself a few years back when I saw this movie for a ludicrous price at a library sale, but still passed on buying it. When I finally decided to come back to it, what interested me most was simply assessing whether this was really any different than A Bug’s Life, or simply a film with even less luck. After viewing it, the only answer I can see is what I was ready to say from memory alone: One film tried to be timeless, the other tried to be trendy, and that made all the difference.

Moving forward, the first thing to note is that Antz is in many ways superior in animation, and I already commented at length what a high mark A Bug’s Life set. However, this quickly becomes “part of the problem”, and I find myself distracted trying to account for why. The easy and obvious answer is the sheer “uncanny valley” factor, and that is certainly here. It shows especially in the modeled faces of the ants, which for all the hype sometimes fail even at matching the actor; Bala in particular looks almost androgynous. Yet, I cannot accept this as the whole answer, especially with Pixar’s contemporary work factored in. To me, the deeper answer is that the animation fails to keep the viewer interested and invested in the world it portrays; the unhelpful phrase “sense of wonder” definitely comes into play. On this vein, the most telling sequences are those where the ants come in contact with humans. It should be eerie and terrifying to see ourselves through the eyes of a far smaller creature, and we get glimpses of that, like a magnifying glass that decimates the bugs like the Independence Day death ray. But there simply isn’t enough here to sustain the kind of mood that would reward the effort. I find it all the more telling that I personally found it noteworthy that A Bug’s Life never portrays humans at all.

That still leaves the issues of the characters and story. To me, there’s answer enough in Hackman’s character, which I count as the single reason I rate the movie as low as I have. Here, the unavoidable impression I get is that the film is referencing sources it does not understand. As far as we can speak of an anti-war genre (traceable in animation to “Peace On Earth” at least), the best examples dictate that there doesn’t have to be a conventional “villain” at all.  We can see this with Hackman himself in Crimson Tide; whether you take him as sympathetic or a sadist, his lines are clearly drawn at disloyalty to the leaders of the state. Here, we have a character who could be in the right or at least have a fair point, especially if his plan was limited to overthrowing the colony’s monarch. All we get, however, is eugenics-style muttering that ignores the actual biology of the ants, while his actual scheme is sheer lunacy on the level of Dr. Strangelove. The worst part is that the straight-up crazy angle could certainly have worked, if it was offered and developed, but we never get anywhere near the self-evident insanity of General Ripper (who still isn’t quite as crazy as Megavolt!). What we really end up with is a character whose actions are dictated by the story’s point rather than the character or the narrative, which greatly weakens the moral itself. As I think over all the other issues I could point out, I find very few that do not come back to the exact same problem.

That leaves the “one scene”, and there never were any that stood above the one I remembered from the theater. As we go into the middle act, Z marches with the soldier ants to battle. As they march, the bugs sing an almost comically grim version of “The Ants Go Marching One By One” that stuck in my mind stronger than anything else in the film. What works just as well, if not quite as memorably, is the dialogue between Z and Baratas, voiced superbly by Glover. (That reminds me, I need to find an excuse to review Predator 2.) As Z nervously asks about the enemy termites’ capabilities, the seasoned warrior casually gives a description worthy of the Starship Troopers space bugs. When Z starts to question their mission, Baratas merely remarks  “I like you, you have a sense of humor!” It’s a funny yet introspective scene that feels like it belongs in a 1960s/ ‘70s “protest” film, so of course, there’s nothing in the film that follows it up.

In closing, I find myself coming back not to the rating but to the classification. This movie perfectly embodies what I always thought of as a “runnerup”, with A Bug’s Life as the obvious counterpart. What’s unique, of course, is that I actually reviewed the “mainstream” movie first, and also classified it as a runnerup. To me, it really wasn’t counterintuitive that two films could count as “runnerups” to each other. It just never previously happened that any two such movies had otherwise comparable “profiles”, especially at the time of their release. What I really had in mind, however, was the extent to which even A Bug’s Life ended up in the shadows of other movies before and since. It may be a “raw deal”, but it’s typical for any time and place where circumstances see the creation not just of a new genre but of a virtually new medium. Time may move on, yet those who were there will remember, which is exactly where people like me step in. And with that, I’m done for another day.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Fiction: The Adventures of Sidekick Carl, Part 15!

 It's the holiday, and I decided to go with Sidekick Carl. This is a scene I've had in mind literally for months, long enough anyone who has been with me so far might have forgotten several of the characters. For what it's worth, here's links for the first and previous chapters, and the one where I introduced most of the cast here. As a bonus, you have the pic above of the originals of most of them. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

The cartoon showed a man in a blue jumpsuit with a lightning bolt logo, with long hair apparently shellacked into an immobile helmet. Lightning shot from his fingers, joining a salvo fired by Hombre Acero. Their fire converged on a wheeled metal dragon. Constructor joined in with a slash of his shovel, tearing through the wires and hoses of its neck. “You are finished, Galaxarian,” the armored man said in subtitled Spanish. Another shot severed the head entirely.

“So are you, Iron Nuts,” the dragon said. “I have activated my self-destruct mechanism. The blast radius will be 5 kilometers. The EMP effect range will be 50. It will detonate in 30 seconds.”

Hombre Acero turned to the other heroes. “Save yourselves,” he said.

“No,” Constructor said. “We stay together. Podamos hacer!”

The Toxo Warriors looked from the screen to the head on their work table. “We’re almost done,” said the one who always made the plans. “We just need a little more time.”

“No matter,” the dragon said. “There will be time enough.”

“We wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have without the new… partner,” the other Toxo Warrior added. “We might even get Sidekick Carl out of the way.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” the dragon said. “We have come far enough to finish what we began, and when it is done, there will be none who can stop us.” Its unmoving mouth shimmered with laughter. It was still shimmering as the Toxo Warriors threw a tarp over it.

* * *


When the service was done, Carl, Dana and the rest of the wedding party moved to an adjoining atrium where tables and a small buffet had been laid out. As they exited, Handel’s Water Music played. A gathered group of well-wishers and curiosity seekers cheered from behind a cordon of agents. The gentleman in the hover chair who had once been Hombre Acero waved, and the cheers grew louder. Carl nodded and sighed.

The newly married couple were quickly seated in a table in one corner. Carl instinctively surveyed their surroundings. The chapel and atrium were part of the short leg of the convention center’s roughly L-shaped floor plan. Immediately outside was a parking area, normally used by delivery trucks, where more chairs and tables had been set up. Dana’s RV was parked on the other side of the lot, effectively shielding them from prying or hostile eyes. Anyone wanting to cause trouble would have also had to reckon with the battle mech known as Big Red, who knelt at one of the outdoor tables. One of Dana’s triplet bridesmaids cuddled under one arm. That made Carl shake his head. Dana saw his reaction, and laughed. “They’ve been together three years,” she said. “Everybody has their type.”

As she spoke, one of Audrey’s kits ran by on all fours. His former enemy sat with her mates in the opposite corner, one a piebald with patches of black on a white pelt and the other red-gold like a fox. She waved at him, and her teeth briefly glinted. At a twitch of her ear, her piebald mate rose to chase down the kit. When he turned back, he saw Captain Thunder approaching. He gave a nod to a server, who set out an extra chair for the hero. He folded his hands nervously as he settled in the seat.

“So, I just wanted to say, I’m happy to be here,” he said. “And I’m happy for you, of course. I know I’ve given you crap a lot of times, but we both know I’ve got my own troubles. You made better choices than I dd. I know you will be happy together.”

“Thanks,” Carl said. He was looking again at the other side of the room. About two-thirds was a glass entryway. The rese was a medium-sized conference room. Beyond that, he knew there was a maintenance stairwell that only opened onto the ground floor and the roof.

Captain Thunder followed his gaze. “Come on, man,” he said. “If you’re gonna live, you gotta live in the moment.” Carl nodded, and then genuinely relaxed, right until he saw someone lined up at the cordon.

“Damn,” he said instinctively. He quickly added, “It’s Andy.”

“Wait,” Dana said, “who is he? Wait… do you mean…?”

“Yeah,” Carl said. As he watched, the daughter of his former partner spoke to the cordon guards. Captain Thunder made his way over. By the time he reached the cordon, the guards had already grudgingly parted to admit a strangely stocky man who looked to be about middle age. “It’s the other Constructor. The first one’s real partner.”

And that was when the black-clad figure walked straight through the glass doors.

As Carl turned his head yet again, the first bolt came through the air, with a sound like an overloaded amplifier. It looked like a miniature comet; the tail was in fact the blur of its motion. It was Dana who pulled him to one side. The bolt struck the wall behind him, burning a fist-sized hole that did not quite break through to the chapel on the other side. Carl kicked over the table, spilling about two-thirds of their meal onto the floor. Two more plasma bolts blew the table in half.

There were shouts and shots as the guards regrouped, including several who had discretely mingled with the guests. Somehow, the sound of the kits could be heard over it all, seemingly a single shriek that continued to rise. Captain Thunder shouted, “Get behind me!” The crescendo broke into squeals and yelps as the kits piled into the corner behind him. Meanwhile, Hombre Acero’s partner struggled to steer him toward the cordon. Captain Thunder rose from a crouch, just high enough to aim over Audrey’s table. He extended both pointer fingers like a child imitating a gunslinger, complete with a sneer that curled his upper lip. He was clearly as surprised as anyone. He shook his right hand, and a single blue-white spark finally lobbed upward. It came down in the middle of the table, where a water glass detonated in a cloud of shards and steam.

Carl finally got a glimpse of the attacker. The figure was tall and slim, clad in a theatrical leathery suit that was practically run-of-the-mill for a convention. There were enough solid pieces to shield the chest, the legs, and the forearms, plus the nearly spherical helmet. The weapon was an angular object that looked almost like a flashlight, with grips in front and back. He ducked at a flicker of motion in his peripheral vision. Everyone else also dived for whatever cover they could find; it was the only natural or rational response when Big Red’s silhouette filled the opposite entryway.

The atrium had a ceiling high enough that Red could actually have walked upright, albeit possibly at the cost of any light fixtures in his path. The doors, however, were too low by almost a third. To engage the attacker, he simply punched through the left double door and then thrust his revolver/ grenade launcher through the hole. The load in the cylinder was five nominally non-lethal polymer slugs. He fired three of them; the intruder staggered, while a guard just recovering his nerves was literally knocked off his feet. A return shot from the intruder hit the other door. The glass was in fact an ablative material developed as heat shielding for space craft. It did its work well enough that the bolt left a glowing ring on Red’s breastplate rather than a crater, while the remains of the door slowly sagged to the floor. A second bolt hit the glass at the level of Red’s face, spraying a layer of molten silica over his black sensor array. Two more sent the revolver flying from his hand. All this happened within 30 seconds of the intruder’s entry.

“We have to move, now,” Carl said. He pulled Dana to her feet as the attacker swiveled to survey the damage. At that moment, Captain Thunder rose with a triumphant cry. His right hand cupped a crackling spere of energy, much like the bolts of the assailant’s weapon. The enemy snapped off a shot just as the ball launched from his hand. Both took the other’s shot in the chest. Captain Thunder sank down, shuddering as arcs of energy ran up and down his body. The assailant only turned back, just in time to see Carl and Dana reach the chapel door.

Carl looked over his shoulder for a moment. That moment seemed like hours. The silhouette of the figure was now light instead of shadow, the whole upper body glowing white with heat. He could hear pinging as the breastplate began to crack. The slightly ovoid ignition chamber was almost as bright, and it seemed that he looked straight down the muzzle. He heard a scream like that of the kits, louder and even higher-pitched. He guessed that it was Audrey, though he could not comprehend why she would make such a cry for him. Then her piebald mate leaped into view, just as the muzzle flashed. That was when Dana finally pulled him through the chapel door. The last thing he heard was a pitiful yelp, cut off as the doors slammed shut.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Featured Creature: The one where Godzilla turns environmentalist


Title: Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster aka Godzilla vs Hedorah

What Year?: 1971 (Japanese release)/ 1972 (US theatrical release)

Classification: Weird Sequel/ Mashup

Rating: What The Hell??? (2/4)


As I write this, I’m reaching 10 reviews for this feature, and almost up to 180 for this blog. I decided it was time for something a bit different, and to that end, I looked at a few different movies. That brought me to a whole genre I have somehow missed, the Godzilla/ kaiju movies. That still left me with a few choices, including some good ones within the 1980s-‘90s timeframe I have mostly adhered to so far. But the one that had been at the top of the pile since long before I started this feature was from further back, at the transitional period of the very early 1970s. Here is Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster, and this is one time you want the English dub, just for the hysterical opening musical number.

Our story begins, after a cheery montage of scenes of pollution, with a child playing with his Godzilla toy. This isn’t “meta”, however, as both the boy and the adult authority figures refer to the big guy in the factual present tense. Meanwhile, scientists discover strange tadpole-like creatures that appear to be generated spontaneously from polluted water. Inevitably, these congregate into one kaiju-sized mess referred to as Hedorah. This entity proves to be able to change its shape, mostly alternating between a vaguely humanoid form and a sort of flying saucer of muck. The people of Tokyo are terrorized more graphically than usual as the creature smashes ships and sprays the city with a gas that reduces people to skeletons. Even Godzilla is unable to score a decisive victory over the slime monster. It’s a fatherly scientist, injured in an earlier attack, who makes a breakthrough, demonstrating that the creature can be dried with an energy weapon. The military sets up the superweapon for a last stand, in defense of an encampment of hippies who definitely deserve to be eaten. It just might be the army who saves the day, but only if Godzilla can keep Hedorah from smashing their machine first!

Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster was a 1971 film from Toho, the 11th to feature the title character Godzilla. The film was directed and co-written by the late Yoshimitsu Banno, as what he maintained to be a return to the serious environmental themes of the original film Godzilla King of the Monsters. The film featured veteran Haruo Nakajima (d. 2017) in his second-to-last outing as Godzilla and Kenpachiro Satsuma as Hedorah, with Akira Yamanouchi as Dr. Toru Yano. It was released in Japan in 1971 and in the US by AIP (see Futureworld, Meteor, etc.) under its given title in 1972. The AIP version included a new theme song “Save The Earth!”, consisting of English lyrics set to the music of the Japanese theme “Give Back The Sun!”. While the film was evidently profitable, it drew negative reactions from critics, fans, and Toho management, leading to Banno’s dismissal from the studio. Michael and Harry Medved included the film in their 1978 book The 50 Worst Films of All Time. Banno and Satsuma would return for the 1980s incarnation of Godzilla. Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster remains reasonably available on DVD and Blu Ray, featuring a Toho dub with the original theme song in Japanese only.

For my experiences, I have already written plenty about my conflicted experiences with Godzilla in my toy blogs (see especially the patchisaurs and generic Godzilla). It will suffice to say that I loved Godzilla as an idea through my childhood, but on the few occasions I was able to watch the movies, I was either confused or underwhelmed. It was only in my adulthood that I really got a look at a representative sample of Godzilla/ Toho/ kaiju movies, which quickly convinced me that the best of the genre were the ones that didn’t have the big guy. (At one point, I traded in a copy of Godzilla Vs. Biollante, a tragedy I may recount at another time.) As for the present film, I certainly knew of its notoriety, but I didn’t watch it or look for it until I happened to find it on the used shelves. It immediately struck me not as better or worse than other kaiju movies, but as wildly weird even by genre standards. It’s certainly not the worst Godzilla movie (I have other candidates in mind for that), but it could very well be the strangest.

Going on to the movie, what’s noteworthy is that how much of the strangeness has little if anything to do with the monsters. The obvious and egregious example are the animated sequences, in hindsight a preview of the traumatizing weirdness of House. On the same vein, there’s the montage of TV-screen images literally bombarding the viewer, until the transformation to a cartoon comes as a relief. Then there are the musical numbers, somehow more bizarre in the US cut, and the overlapping the “party” sequences, which are so laughably tame nobody bothers to tell the kid to leave, yet still as freaked out as the real deal. To me, the most incongruous moment is the previously noted presence of a Godzilla toy. I’m sure nobody really thought this through further than convincing kids to buy more toys. Still, having Godzilla merchandise in the monster’s own assumed universe is a level of fourth-wall irony that western media didn’t get to until far more recently. There’s an extra odd yet poignant note in the familiarity with which the kid treats the toy, pushing it down the slide no differently than a flesh-and-blood friend. It’s just enough to wonder about the reality of what follows, without the pretentiousness that such subtexts often bring.

Meanwhile, what’s front and center is Hedorah, and it is truly nightmarish as well as nauseating. Things get off to a good start with the tadpole stage, with an extra cringey moment when the doctor handles one with his bare hands instead of a remote-control robot claw. Once they assemble, the resulting creature is easily among the most formidable on record. What’s especially unsettling is that the monster doesn’t seem to pay much attention to humans except as a source of the pollutants it feeds on (see also The Green Slime), raising the indignity as it decimates the population with what amount to excretory byproducts. Only Godzilla appears to register as a threat, ultimately distracting the creature from the humans’ belated response. The most surreal part is that the two opponents are legitimately well-matched. While Godzilla is hard-pressed to do more than temporarily disable the sludge creature, it takes visible effort for it to do any harm to him. What makes or breaks the whole setup is our default hero’s clear disgust at his adversary’s oozy attacks. The overall feel is like Rocky fighting a hobo with an unidentified skin disease; Big G can hold his own when he puts in the effort, but what he really wants is to deal with the amalgamation at arm’s length. It all builds to the film’s most effective moments, as Godzilla first tries to fling the whole mess away, then ends by wading into its desiccated mass to stamp out any remnants of life.

That leaves the “one scene”, and while there’s a lot to choose from, there’s one sequence that’s strikingly random even for this movie. After the first round or so between Godzilla and the slime monster, the youth of Tokyo gather in a nightclub you know is hip because the kid actually isn’t present as far as I can tell. Someone projects Jackson Pollack splatters on the walls while a woman in a skintight suit sings the theme song. Many of the patrons wear fish masks as they dance along, for reasons that might well make sense if you know any Japanese. In the middle of it all, one of our protagonists sits and broods. He becomes anxious, or else realizes how weird this really is. Meanwhile, a stream of ooze flows stealthily down the stairs. When someone finally notices, the sludge comes down faster, without overtaking any of the partygoers. Our gallant hero puts himself between the singer and the slime. Just when there’s real tension, the slime retreats as quickly as it came. Then we see the one actual victim, a sodden kitten still mewing pitifully. Where did it come from? Why is it even alive? Like almost everything else, it makes no sense, and works nevertheless.

 In conclusion, the one thing still lingering in my mind is the Medved brothers’ book. Now, it is itself an easy target of ridicule, particularly in light of Michael Medved’s subsequent politics. What I have repeatedly pointed out (see my own Plan 9 review) is that even in the 1990s, it was quite difficult to access older movies, and harder still to get a good sampling of movies from another country. With regards to this movie in particular, what I distinctly recall is that the Medveds presented it as no more or less than an “egregious” example of its genre, and that’s still a quite reasonable assessment. With the resources of the age of the internet, it’s easy to see that there are both better and far worse movies from Godzilla, Toho, and Japanese cinema in general. What this movie offers in spades are the things that made the series and genre memorable, for better or worse, and on the whole, it’s fun even if you’re just looking for things to laugh at. That’s enough to keep a space on my shelves, and a passing grade. With that, I’m done.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Rogues' Roundup: 1980s super tank toys


I'm aiming for a full lineup this week, and I decided it was time to cover another of my minor collections. We've already seen how the action figure boom pushed army men and other smaller toys to the edges of the market. But it wasn't all gloom and doom for small-scale toys, as Micro Machines hit the market in the late 1980s, and at least a few other manufacturers looked at competing products. The present lineup is perhaps the pinnacle of the minor trend, a line that used the small scale for very big ideas. Here's a pic of the first specimen I acquired of Mega Force.

This all started in perhaps 2015 when I found this at collectibles shop that's long since closed (also where I found the Imperial rubber dragon). It's a plastic tank a bit bigger than a tow car, with a spring-loaded missile and a smaller vehicle that fits in a sort of bay in the front. I quickly figured out that it was from a line called Mega Force (see Super Toy Archive). This particular entry is called Brimstone, further described as a "Tactical Missile Carrier". A schematic card describes its payload as "900 shaped charges each with effective radius of 1000 m". (Surely I don't need to point out that shaped charges are built to bore holes in things rather than area effect.) It's also stated that the little tank, apparently smaller than certain others, is an antiaircraft vehicle, with the ability to stand on its tail to no practical benefit. It belongs to a faction called the V-Rocs, one of two that are posited apparently without any accompanying mythology to settle who would be the "good guys". Here's a few more pics.

What stood out about this was that, behind the gimmicks and the bright colors of the missile, this is a pretty sensible vehicle. It looks to come out at maybe 50 feet long, about twice as long as most tanks. The secondary tank is clearly styled as a light vehicle (borne out by others from the line that I've seen but don't have), probably more suited to reconnaissance than actual defense. What's debatable is the lack of any secondary armament. If you're carrying a primary weapon like that missile, staying 10 kilometers or even 50 behind the front lines won't matter. (The stats give the range as 100 km, which is very conservative.) On the other hand, you certainly have the room for enough armament to repel or slow down an enemy advance. A lot would depend on whether that launcher could fire any smaller munitions. What it really looks like is a greatly magnified version of the infamous Davy Crockett, which turned a relatively conventional recoilless artillery piece into a nuclear spigot mortar. For further perspective, here it is with a model of a Karl self-propelled mortar (actual length 36 feet), almost certainly the largest and heaviest vehicle ever used in real-world combat.

Next up is my recent acquisition, called the Crossbolt, representing the opposing force known as Triax. In a common denominator for this line, it doesn't exactly "look" like anything. Still, it's built on reasonably functional lines, at least from the outside... and as we'll see momentarily, the inside is another matter entirely. Here's some pics.

The posited purpose of this contraption is to launch aircraft, a concept that just about reaches the benchmark of remotely sane. Per my research, it would have originally come with a helicopter; this one has a jump-jet that would serve equally well. The trouble is the launch method, which is exactly the kind of play gimmick that would make no real sense even if the thing didn't weigh 1,000 tons minimum.

Yeah, the tank would be crushed, but it makes more sense than anything else.

And here's a lineup of the vehicles viewed from below.

That brings us to the last of the lineup, which I picked up after the first one but still a while ago, a combination sort of thing where the parts work, but don't quite add up to a whole. It's called Strikemaster, and also belongs to Triax, which seems to be winning the super-vehicle arms race. It's a launch platform for a shuttle with berths for two vehicles. As it turns out, the shuttle holds the tank better that the missile platform ever did (the square socket in the bottom matches the clamps in the shuttle bay), but I just couldn't make it work with the jump jet. Here's the lineup of pics I took.


Wait, what???


Nope, not getting in there.

And rather than labor the point, how about a little mixing and matching? I'm embarrassed how much more sense this makes.

And now it's time to wrap this up. It will suffice to say that Mega Force didn't last past 1989. Despite the short lifespan, they still don't command high prices.  In further hindsight, it was a product for a market that didn't yet exist, one that would aim at adult collectors as much as kids. It was at least a worthy effort from a great company, which just might have done better at a later date. That's all for now, more to come!

Monday, November 22, 2021

Animation Defenestration: The one that could have killed Disney


Title: The Black Cauldron

What Year?: 1985

Classification: Runnerup/ Irreproducible Oddity

Rating: For Crying Out Loud!!! (1/4)


As of this writing, the big development has been that I’m working on a “worst” movie feature. As a further consequence, I have several times had to make a judgment call what belongs in that feature as opposed to elsewhere. With the present review, I have a movie that’s a case and point. It’s exactly the kind of movie I meant to cover when I started this feature, from the heart of the strange doldrums that were the 1980s animation “Dark Age”. On the other hand, it’s also one of the most notorious failures in the history of the medium, and still controversial at best and heavily criticized at worst. I debated where it would go right through an actual viewing which just left me more ambivalent. Nevertheless, I’m forging ahead, under the feature that first led me to consider it. Here is The Black Cauldron, a movie based on a beloved YA fantasy series that became the biggest money loser in Disney’s history.

Our story begins with an introduction to Taran, a boy apprenticed to a magician whose main need is someone to take care of a magical pig named Hen Wen with the ability to predict the future (which mostly made sense in the books). Naturally, Taran dreams of being a warrior, and he gets his chance when the prophetic porker is captured by the Horned King, a possibly undead warlord with a face as threatening as a Halloween mask. With no particular effort, he infiltrates the Horned King’s castle and frees the pig, only to be captured himself. In the dungeons, he meets up with a bumbling minstrel, a standard-issue spunky princess, and an annoying half-sentient creature who followed him in. Together, they stage a jailbreak, freely using a magic sword that nobody can draw in the books, but discover a much greater threat: The Horned King is after an artifact called the Black Cauldron, which can resurrect the dead as invincible skeleton warriors. After losing the Cauldron themselves through every fault of their own, they must go on another daring raid to destroy it once and for all. But to do it, one of them must give up his life!

The Black Cauldron was an animated adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s series The Chronicles of Prydain, mainly The Book of Three and the following novel of the same name, made by Walt Disney in collaboration with Silver Screen Partners II. The movie was made mainly from 1980 to 1984, following preproduction as early as 1973, with the involvement of such personalities as Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Ted Berman, the last of whom was ultimately named as director. The production budget reached an estimated $44 million, making it the most expensive animated film up to that time, far exceeding the $9.3M budget of Heavy Metal. The film’s voice cast included John Hurt (see The Plague Dogs) as the Horned King, Nigel Davenport as Fflewddur Fflam and Freddie Jones of Krull as the magician Dallben. The soundtrack was composed by Elmer Bernstein. The film fared poorly at the box office, earning an estimated $22M, potentially due in part to declining interest in fantasy films. It has remained available on home video, and is currently included in the Disney Plus library.

For my experiences, what stands out strongest in hindsight is that I read two of the Prydain books as a kid, but knew virtually nothing about the movie beyond its existence. Meanwhile, I got my first impressions of the movie reading the books of Thomas and Johnson, both of whom were friends of my extended family, and their very unfavorable view of the film in The Disney Villain. Eventually, I read the full series in college (and concluded the ones I read back one were the ones worth reading), but it was still many years before I saw the film. My immediate reaction was merely baffled. When I got back to it for this review, however, after trying to sort out what I could remember of the books, I very quickly got angry.

Moving forward, what this movie represent first and foremost is an egregious case where mediocrity is far more frustrating than “bad”. At one time or another, I’ve covered a good part of the 1970s-‘80s fantasy boom, and I would be the first to concede that there were many that are no better than this. Yet, even the most ridiculed examples (Krull and Conan the Destroyer are right up there) are far more original and entertaining than this. The most exasperating part is that this film was in production long enough that it’s very likely other animated and/ or fantasy films were greenlit just to meet the expected competition, but it still came in last and least. Then the overriding common denominator is everything is made generic, toned down and tame even factoring in significant censorship I’m well aware of. If anything, I take far more issue with what’s added or overplayed, especially the “comic relief” characters. In the novels, the likes of Fflam and Gurgi serve to lighten the quite serious tone, but here, even the outright lethal witches are played for laughs (with virtually misogynistic crudeness at that). The end result isn’t even “Disneyfied”, but a moral guardian’s selective memory of older and better Disney films that endured precisely because they were allowed to be “dark”.

Even with that rant out of the way, there are still severe problems with how the movie handles the source material. It’s bad enough that whole arcs are mangled or ignored, conspicuously the challenge of drawing the magic sword. What’s far more problematic is the consolidation of several major and minor villains into the figure of the Horned King. A lot of further controversy has centered on the character, whom Frank and Ollie considered “as ordinary as the leader of a street gang”. I can muster a better opinion, mainly in light of Hurt’s fine voice work. On the other hand, I find the skeletal face and especially the clearly mobile jaw simply distracting; it makes it clear he is not meant to be human, without making him any more threatening. But the most fundamental issue is that the single villain takes away the most fascinating aspect of the books. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the series is that most of the characters have their own angle. Those who are neutral or “dark” can still unwaveringly oppose the main villains, while those who start among the good guys can become a menace if they recognize an opportunity (a major plot point of The Black Cauldron in particular). It was a gritty, morally ambiguous world of a quite different character than the usual youth-oriented fantasy, in some lights even exceeding Tolkien, and the film all but willfully insults it.

That leaves the “one scene”, and there is truly one that pushed me over the edge. Around the middle act, Taran and his party discover the Fair Folk, which I didn’t remember being in the book or not. After reading a synopsis or so, I confirmed that they are present, in the same form most common in actual lore (and the occasional “sighting”!): Human-like entities shorter or more slender than mortals, still within “normal” human size. Of course, what appear are tiny winged pixies of the type Disney helped popularize far beyond their importance in authentic folklore. We get some sense of individual personalities as we see children and grouchy bearded elders, every one in psychedelically bright colors. Then, just when you might be thinking this could be interesting (see Wizards, and how is that the good example???), they assemble into a friendly swarm to amuse the princess. It’s truly a defining moment for the movie, turning a complex work based on ancient folklore into a clichĂ© of other cliches. And it might have gotten this movie on my “worst” list, because that would have given me the option to quit watching and write about it anyway.

In closing, I come back to a question I was tempted to tackle earlier: Is this the “worst” Disney movie? And if not, what is? I was already considering that question when I reviewed A Bug’s Life, which made this review a continuation of the same train of thought. My verdict is that this was definitely on the “short” list, and perhaps even the worst I have personally seen. I still have to say it probably doesn’t belong in the top spot, simply because it is still reasonably well-known. By comparison, I had no trouble coming up with plenty more contenders that most people would probably say they never even heard of, even if they came out well within my and their lifetime. To investigate those leads can wait for another day. For now, the present movie will do well enough as proof that Disney can fail hard, and that on the whole, they are better for it.