Friday, June 22, 2012

Men In Black 3

The opening shot is a woman’s tattoo that says Boris. She’s carrying a cake that turns out to be a flesh-eating alien to Boris The Animal on a moon prison. Boris himself is an equally terrifying monster, played somewhat comically by Jemaine Clement. He kills everyone in the moon prison, and jumps through a time rift back to 1969 to kill the man who imprisoned him. Agent K of the Men In Black. He’s a big ugly guy from a planet of conquerors who can shoot out those face hugger-type aliens from his body. This movie does have pretty good alien designs, but so many of them just look like people that it felt like some potential went to waste.

Will Smith as usual provides great comic relief as he erases memories, time-travels in a goofy manner, (not spoiled here.) and acts as the hero; however most of the gags in this MIB come from the fact that Agent K isn’t a grumpy guy in the 60s. In fact, he is pretty cool, and has loads of youthful wisdom. He eats pie when he needs to think. How cool is that? He’s played masterfully by Josh Brolin, who is so close to Tommy Lee Jones I had to do a double-take.

Also pretty cool is Bill Hader as a satirical Andy Warhol; Agent W, of the MIB. (Which makes sense when you consider Warhol’s clients. I‘m a fan of Warhol’s actual work, and I think Hader is hilarious here.) As you can guess, much of the humor is based around ’60s culture and technology. The neuralizers are huge instead of the little hand-held tubes. The communications net of the ’60s MIB is ’90s dial-up internet. Lots of jokes at the hippie era’s expense.

At Warhol’s Factory, they meet a psychic alien (read: guy in a beanie.) who will help them install a defense system from Boris and his conquerors, but only if they can get it to the stars, which means they have to go to the moon launch. Here they meet the moon launch security, and Boris. One of the security guards eventually reveals a deeper relationship between Agents J and K that was deeply satisfying. And it makes sense until you consider that Agent J is time-traveling. But, no matter. Maybe when he time-travels back, the timeline restores itself back to the way it should have been. But then again, it would raise questions of what happened to Boris. Time paradoxes are so tricky. Probably best to let it go!

There’s some great sci-fi tropes here: alien hunting, time travel, moon prisons, and it returns to sci-fi as a method of social commentary, which was all but gone from the rest of the series. It reveals a kind of optimism about culture and technology that people might take for granted now. Like Agent K, we either seemed to be blinded by this optimist attitude or torn down by our cynicism. Agent K has to learn to deal realistically with the two.

At its heart, it’s a wacky comedy about the good and bad effects of nostalgia. With good aliens showing humans our good times, and the bad ones like Boris showing us a life full of regret and cynicism. I like a good alien-hunting flick, and I’m no stranger to satire, so I thought it was well done, and is worth seeing; especially in developing the characters. If you expect it to be an absolute screwball comedy like Ghostbusters (which I love!) prepare be dazed and confused.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

X-MEN: ANIMATED SERIES


                                                   


After the death of Jean Gray/Phoenix, the X-men (consisting of Cyclops, Beast, Wolverine, Storm, and Professor X) discover a telepathic dead zone around Northern Japan, and yet a significant increase in the X-Gene’s appearance. When a Japanese girl named Hisako Ichiki goes missing around the dead zone, the X-men follow her trail and unravel the mutant kidnappings in the land of the rising sun. The 12-episode Marvel anime gets everything right, and explores new territory.

The question in cross-cultural translation is always how much familiarity to preserve, and how much surprise to introduce. In this sense, it gets X-men right; for both Japan and America. The essence of the American characters is there in behavior, and the setting is Japanese, though there are episodes that do take place in America. There are at least 1 or 2 big action scenes every episode with new villains, monsters, and of course overpowered Japanese robots, so it’s never boring. Two new members join the X-men: a former enemy Emma Frost, as well as the Japanese girl (who can make a impenetrable barrier of energy; she's code-named Armor.) This is great for showing the Japanese audiences how the X-men learn to use their powers for good at the Xavier Institute.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, the X-men battle the U-Men, who have been collecting data on mutants, and harvesting their organs to make an army. Some really great battle scenes take place at the U-Men’s base, with gigantic robots and killer mutants. The U-Men can counter the X-men’s special abilities with their data, so they all have to hit them with everything, which is truly fantastic to watch, and in true Japanese form. Finally, someone from Professor X’s past returns to haunt him. I should add that his disability does play a role in the revelation.

One of the great things about this show is how well the action is translated. The Brotherhood has its own Japanese variation, (The Inner Circle) as does the Friends of Humanity (Basically, the U-Men.) Familiar designs with Japanese settings. The action is well-translated, but I noticed that sometimes the English audio did not match the English subtitles. Even though I speak English and German, not Japanese, it was fun to watch with both on so I could pick out little subtleties. For example, once Wolverine says “Where do you take a dump?” but the subtitles say, “Where do you wash yourself?” also Wolverine’s “Grow a pair!” is subtitled as “You must harden yourself! As X-men, such is our fate!”

A note on the character of Wolverine. Since the events here take place after Jean’s death, he and Cyclops are still dealing with their grief. This gives the animators an excuse for Cyclops to act like a loose laser cannon for most of the series. That’s traditionally Wolverine’s role, but here he often acts as a stabilizer to Cyclops, even though he’s still gruff and rude; he is the only other X-man who has been to Japan, understands its customs, and feels at home there. So, the two X-men temporarily switch roles. This serves to introduce Japanese audiences to American character dynamics, (Wolverine quips “When I’m the steady rock and you’re the wild man, you know something’s wrong.") but takes advantage of Wolverine’s experience to provide a crossover to Japanese audiences. Truly brilliant intercultural communication.

The design of the show is beautiful. Detailed art and action scenes, beautiful landscapes, and even the openings and credits are fantastic. The credits show events from the X-men Universe (first in traditional 80s outfits then up to the 00s style outfits.) as a traditional Japanese wall scroll moving vertically with the credits. In the first episode, they wear the 80s outfits, although that time is referred to as “a year ago.” So, maybe in the X-men Universe, the old costumes were a year ago; whatever makes the story make sense. But, Magneto is referred to as in a plastic bubble prison. So, to me, that hints pretty well that this X-men Universe, which is shortly after Jean Gray’s death, is set in the same continuity as the 00s movies.

In conclusion, the series is true to the X-men, and puts them up against new villains for a new adventure. The visuals are fantastic, and the action and scenery are beautiful. In the special features, you see the Marvel writers talking to the Japanese animators and explaining how to keep it American (Action scenes, and USA settings) while showing Japanese audiences what the X-men are all about. The Japanese animators (some of whom had never heard of The X-men.) put it best: “This [X-Men] deals with the question of ‘How can they work together?’ Likewise, how do we think about what Americans like, and keep it Japanese?” I can say it looks like the animators got it, and presented a distinctly cross-cultural version of X-men all through visual art!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Captain America: Forever Allies



                                                        
                                                       

I seem to have a “classic” theme going on lately, so I could think of no better way to throw us back into modern times, and further into sci-fi than with this graphic novel that pays tribute to Captain America’s past and future! The story begins by explaining that Steve Rogers is dead, and his sidekick Bucky Barnes visits his grave, inheriting the costume and title of “Captain America”, a title Bucky doesn’t want at first.

Bucky remembers back to his days in the “Young Allies” (Issue #1 Summer 1941.) and decides to visit his old war buddies to see if they think he made the right decision. The comic flashes back from the ’40s to modern times, 2011. The scenes in the ’40s are beautiful and have a Jack Kirby feel, but done by modern artists. The modern era scenes are darker as well. But, before they’ve decided if Bucky made the right decision, he discovers (at Cap’s viewing.) that The Dragon Lady (who you might remember from Milton Caniff!) is still alive, and out looking for an ancient mind-control gem. Concerned, Bucky calls up his old buddy Texas Jack, and asks to keep track of her.

Bucky shoots at her plane with a tracking bug, and of course, she thinks she escaped him, and laughs at him. Flashback to 1941, where the Dragon Lady takes over a Hollywood movie set with actors dressed as Nazis. She mind-controls them with the gem, and talks about how superior the Japanese are (The original Dragon Lady was Chinese, but no matter. Perhaps she was cooperating with Japanese propaganda.) while Bucky and the Young Allies are called in to take her out. It looks like the bad guys are going down, but she mind-controls Bucky, and it haunts him to this day.

After the flashback, we see The Dragon Lady in a South American mine, looking for the gem, which has apparently been the secret to her non-aging process. She’s barking orders, and confident Captain America will not appear, nor will his impostor. After all, she knows the “real” Captain America is dead. Next, we see Captain America parachute into the mine. By this time, she has the gem, and an army of mind-controlled miners. Cap fights them off, and even throws his shield at The Dragon Lady, to proclaim that he’s come back to stop her, but she isn’t fooled and knows he’s Bucky of the Young Allies.

The Dragon Lady plays along for a bit, and then releases the gem on him. After that, she commands Bucky crush himself with the large pillar where they found the gem. But then, he reveals that he was just playing along and shielded his eyes the entire time, stepping out of the way of the pillar. A great comic that takes advantage of adventure comic knowledge past and present, with the ol‘ switcheroo motif!

Following the “Forever Allies” story, there are reprints of Jack Kirby’s Young Allies # 1, and a Stan Lee story “Unsolved Mysteries” with the Young Allies. The first story is so horribly blackface racist I couldn’t finish it. Not recommended. But, the “Forever Allies” is a good story that brings it up to modern times, and re-introduces The Dragon Lady as a villainess quite well. If you want the best of both worlds, this is a great “passing-the-torch” tale.
  
 Overall, I give it 3 stars. A good quick guide to bridge the old and new stories of Captain America; though these stories already feel dated because of the wonderful job Chris Evans does with Steve Rogers, who is Captain America in the movies. The old is new again!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Robin Hood by Phillip J. Hickman at Schiller Park

                              
Today, we take a trip into fantasy and onto a stage play. Robin Hood is one of my favorite childhood stories, and although it was well-acted here, I have to say I barely recognized the plot. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Robin Hood? For me, it’s maybe a bow and arrow, and robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Well, he uses the bow once, and robs someone once, but spends the rest of the play proving his innocence, (WHY?) and arguing with MAID MARIAN, (Who is not here a damsel in distress.) about leadership.

In the end, when Robin Hood fights the Prince’s men it is Maid Marian who comes in with a bow and arrow and shoots the sheriff’s men. Also, King Richard the Lion-hearted never returns from the Crusades. In this version, Prince John’s mother, the Queen of France, shows up and shames the prince into giving Robin back his title and land. The playbill informs us that this is a play about leadership, and that Robin Hood starts off as a “snotty rich kid”. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of Robin Hood interpretations from Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner to Disney and Mel Brooks, even my own first grade writings… but never have I seen versions where for example, Little John’s wife beats the Prince’s men as happened here. I suppose my main complaint is I didn’t see Robin’s development as a hero, and when I did it was in the form of advice from Maid Marian, who could fight off her captors. If you’re going to name the play Robin Hood, than at least make Maid Marian need the hero. Make her as independent as you like, and feminist, but she can’t wear both the bow AND the pants.

The actors did well, complaints aside. One of the benefits of stage plays is that you can be totally immersed in the action, because there’s no removal as there is with a TV or movie screen. The actors thrive from applause, the reactions are genuine and in real time, and you can sort of people watch, and scope out the people’s reactions. At best though, I’d say it reminded me of high school, where all the fight scenes come from the “William Shatner school of fighting” (as I explained to my mother in the park.) and you just sort of toss people around, and make no contact. All fairness to Robin Hood and James T. Kirk, I considered it nostalgic and funny, and I like being able to be outside AND right there with the actors.

All things considered, I liked the play. I found parts of it unfamiliar, but I enjoyed its dramatic flare, and the actors (Who I assume are acting students from OSU.) all got a kick out of it. It’s that feeling of being center stage and watching all these things happen that’s different from TV. There’s a different atmosphere; all kinds of people came to watch and lie on blankets. Some people brought their dogs. All in all, a pleasant evening out in Schiller Park, but not for a tale of leadership. If this was Robin Hood’s heroic story, I didn’t see it! Why does Marian need Robin Hood again? Oh, yeah! He’s supposed to be the hero. With the bow! For the love of Pete, at least give him the bow, Marian!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

GANTZ



GANTZ:


Okay, so when you die, what happens? Odds are, you wouldn’t think you end up in an alien hunting ground where if you kill 100 aliens, you come back to life. Or are you really dead? Or just abducted by sadistic aliens that make you hunt for entertainment in high-tech battle suits? But, you keep flashing back to high school. And there they think you’re dead. This is Gantz, and it’s a 26 episode anime with more plot twists then I just described and plenty of over-the-top action.

Kuruno gets hit by a subway train after school trying to save a bum from the tracks. Everybody thinks he’s dead, including Kuruno himself. But he awakes in a strange hotel full of people who’ve just died. There’s a big black ball in the room that calls itself Gantz. Gantz tells them that their lives are over, and what they do with their new lives is up to him. The fun starts when Gantz shows them all pictures of “Target aliens” and gives them all strange guns and battle suits. And explains nothing. Kuruno and his friends have to piece together what’s going on all alone. Yes, lots of people die. Or are they already dead?

As with most adult-oriented anime, everything is over-the-top as to be almost laughable. Gallons over blood are spilled in one shot, the language is filthy (but incredibly realistic.) the alien battles are fantastical (I wouldn’t be giving anything away by saying one actually turns out to be a giant ghost chicken.) and the romantic encounters are not for the squeamish. All this adds to a heightened emotional experience, as the crew battles aliens, struggles with life and death, and deals with high school problems. I loved the flashbacks as much as the hunting!

Along the way, Kuruno and his assorted teammates try to figure out what’s going on and why this keeps happening; and are they dead? Who is Gantz anyway? Oh, crap! Here comes a giant monster made out of green onions! Bam! Wait, how does this gun work? As soon as one question is answered, another one comes up or an alien pops out. They can never get too comfortable. They have to survive the game to get to the next one: maybe even to live again.

For me, the action is Gantz is fantastic, and it does attempt to answer philosophical and cultural questions (But, does it matter anyway? Aren’t we dead? Let‘s kill some aliens!) interspersed with over the top alien battles and crazy situations. So, I recommend Gantz to anyone who likes crazy animation, and heavy sci-fi like I do! But, don’t get too comfortable. An alien is just around the corner! Just get on to the next game.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

TERRY AND THE PIRATES BY MILTON CANIFF



TERRY AND THE PIRATES BY MILTON CANIFF



Milton Caniff was an influential comic book/strip artist that wrote and illustrated American adventure stories throughout the 30s and 40s. His work inspired such acts as Flash Gordon, other adventures, and wrote essentially the first comic book villainess The Dragon Lady. When he died in 1988, he willed his entire collection of stories to the then-new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library at OSU. So, today I decided to take a look at where, in a sense, all the great sci-fi American hero stories began: An adventure strip called Terry and The Pirates, at the Cartoon Library. Today, I read about a year’s worth of that strip, from 1934-1935.

The plot is somewhat archetypal in American adventure stories. A rough sailor, Pat Ryan, and a boy board a ship for Shanghai. The boy sidekick motif was later replicated in Batman & Robin, for example. It was there to provide a means for the hero to escape, and to attract the children of the day. But, the real hero seems to be the sailor Pat Ryan. So, Pat and Terry are off to China. (Representing some unknown land.) On the way, they are attacked by Chinese pirates, at first led by The Dragon Lady. The shrewd Americans are able to outwit and outmuscle their captors, by pretending to cooperate, and then Pat punches them out. Meanwhile, the Dragon Lady tries to poison Terry with tea, but he remembers the story of Lady Borgia (The Italian noblewoman) who poisoned drinks and doesn’t drink. American ingenuity wins again!

Later, the ship is attacked by a rival pirate, Fang. I am almost positive he was an inspiration for Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless. Terry devises a plan to signal a British ship to come help using the Dragon Lady’s mirror, and she helps him. In return, she offers to take Terry and Pat to her secret treasure, so she’s not all that bad.

The sort of action, Americans save the day through muscle and know-how, fending off ugly stupid barbarians in faraway primitive lands, replicates itself over time from what I saw, but the action is good and the caricatures of the foreigners (however evil and bumbling they are portrayed.) allow this to be the first true American adventure comic, showing Americans as tough, smart, and ready in a battle of Good vs. Evil, and a force of civilization. (The British sailors were portrayed this way too, though as cowards, not wanting to hurt their men in battle.) Later, The Dragon Lady takes Terry and Pat to get her treasure, to find it is already being taken by a villain named The Skull, who wears such a mask. This made me think of Captain America’s Nazi villain, The Red Skull, who would be created for WWII.

Despite all its antiquated racism, Terry and the Pirates remains the basic template for other American action comics, such as the use of vernacular language by Terry (“Luvva Pete! We’ve been kidnapped by a woman!”) and although it is constrained by the prejudices of the ‘30s with often racist dialogue, it sets the American hero story in motion. We are Good, Tough, and Civilized, the Pirates are the opposite. Over the years, the template would be adapted to sci-fi (the new unknown land.) in the form of Flash Gordon, Star Wars and others, with more nuanced messages about the virtues of democracy and spirituality etc. as told by later generations of Americans.

My overall experience of the Cartoon Library was very impressive. The librarian Susan led me straight to Terry and the Pirates vol. 1 when I asked for it. For the American Hero Story, I decided to go to the source, and I’d heard about the Milton Caniff collection. But that wasn’t all that caught my eye. The library was huge, with full rows of manga/anime as well as reference guides to American comics, like Marvel and DC. (Comic Book Buyer’s Guide, Draw! Magazine, The DC Universe Encyclopedia, The New Yorker, etc.) But, if you had a time machine, and went back in the history of American adventure comics, this would be the formation of the Earth’s crust, the roots of it all, exploring the American hero through comics. Soon, Shanghai would be in space, and our monsters would be aliens and scientists.