Monday, February 20, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget - Talking 'bout My Generation


Love the colors and sweep of this fan art for
Robotech: The Macross Saga.
I’ve always been an animation fan. Animation allows the creators full freedom with they’re imagination, bringing almost anything to life. When animation is used to maximum effect it can present fantastic worlds and truly bring dynamic visuals to the screen without having to worry about budget limits for special effects. One of the places where this is most apparent is in Japanese animation or anime. Unfortunately much of the recent stock of anime has been suffering the same issues we see in Hollywood entertainment – a fear of moving beyond what is established as a money earner. This has lead to endless sequels and pale imitations of older series and movies.

I won't say that there isn't anything new or exciting going on in anime these days, mostly because I'm not following it with the same passion I had for the medium back in the mid 1990s and early 2000s. But one of the reasons I stopped following it was because it was starting to feel a bit stale. I have a lot of fond memories of being a huge anime fan and I’ve written about work like Ghost in the Shell and Millennium Actress. But what got me into anime in the first place? That seed got planted quite a long time ago, back in the mid 1980s with a little show called Robotech.

Let me set the stage a bit for you. It was the Reagan era of cartoons. There was plenty of concern about too much violence in cartoons impacting kids. So there was an effort to tone down violence and have clear consequences for doing bad deeds. In some ways it was like the Hayes Code but for children's entertainment. At the time I wasn't aware of such things, but it was obviously impacting a lot of the kids animation of the early 80s.

Probably about as violent as it got.
Stuff like Care BearsSmurfs and evan the goofy Pac-man cartoon didn't have your typical Looney Tunes level of violence. In fact all you really had were characters shoving each other or making threats to shove them. Even when George Lucas decided to bring his Star Wars universe to the small screen the scripts to the Droids animated series was severely edited because it was too Star Warsy with people getting shot at by blasters and injured.

But I'm a bit off topic here. This was the landscape of cartoons that I experienced up to that point. Oh sure I watched Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo as well as The Superfriends which all had various levels of violence, but also had a very light feel to them overall. Besides they were from older decades. And like any kid I was looking for something that I could call my own.

By 1985 some of the draconian oversight had mellowed and shows like Transformers, He-man and the Masters of the Universe were bringing some action, fantasy and sci-fi to the small screens after school. But most of those shows were simple one-off stories. Characters reset at the end of the episode and things started over again in the next episode.

Skull Leader blazing away at enemies.
I think this was the main reason Robotech blew me away. Within the first couple episodes the Zentraedi attack and the devastation is real. Buildings aren't reset in the next episode, they are in ruins. Fighters were destroyed with pilots inside, unlike G.I. Joe where everyone seemed to eject from cockpits at the last possible moment. There were consequences in Robotech.

I was also not used to actual romance building across episodes. Rick and Minmei's romantic antics were a big part of the show. At the time, my grandmother lived with us and I swear she was just as into Robotech as I was. She was also a big General Hospital fan, so the soapier aspects of this anime series appealed to her, especially when the love triangle between Rick, Minmei and Lisa started to develop.


Roy: The man, the myth, the hair!
The only trouble with this serial story format was that I ended up missing episodes. Sometimes I had too much homework and didn't finish it in time to watch an episode. Other times a friend came over to play and he wasn't a fan, so I missed quite a few episodes that way. My favorite character was the lead pilot for the Skull squadron, Roy Fokker. I missed a few episodes and when I come back he was no where to be seen. I asked a friend at school who was also watching the show and he says, "Oh yeah, Roy died. I think that green haired girl killed him."

That blew my mind.

Sure the nameless characters had been getting killed, but no one with lines. No one who had actual backstory. No one who was in a relationship (and yeah it was bizarre to me at the time to see an animated show featuring an interracial couple so prominently). And Roy had just died, and Rick Hunter took over Skull Squadron. And then Rick's buddy Ben dies. I could understand how Rick felt, because I was just as dumbfounded and disturbed by his death as well.
Wait a minute? Who the hell is this? You're tearing me
apart Robotech!

Yeah, the cartoon character was changing because of his actions and the world around him. This never happened in Inspector Gadget. In some ways, I think this kind of soured me on the show after that. I wasn't a big fan of Rick in the first place and he was getting all mopey. Much to my grandmother's annoyance I stopped tuning in regularly for Robotech.

It was part of my regular after school viewing block. I believe Star Trek followed it, and my grandmother loved Star Trek, so we never missed an episode of that show. That meant we'd catch the odd episode of Robotech. It got even stranger. Suddenly the episode had a new intro with new faces, robots and vehicles racing across the screen to the same opening title music. There was this blonde woman riding around on a tank and point a gun at me. What was going on? Well, I missed the first few episodes of The Masters saga, so it took me a little bit to realize that Dana was Max and Miriya's kid! I was a bit intrigued by that turn of events, but was still pretty lost trying to pick up the story threads in the middle. 


Didn't see this too often in any show in 1985.
But I want to point out something that I don't think Robotech (and its source anime series) gets enough credit for. It was a surprise to be watching an animated series where the main character was a woman who was tough, resourceful and brave to a fault. She was the leader of the brigade and by the end of the series had the full respect of her men. You just didn't see that back in 1985. You also did see a black character in such a prominent role as Bowie in this series. It was a real surprise to me back then. I think that says much about the times as it does the innovative approach to animation that was being taken in Japan. These series had a global feel to them, and it worked with the planetary invasion plot line. But it also gave kids watching a good message about everyone working together, no matter what race or gender you were. Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that Robotech was on right before Star Trek in my neck of the woods.


Competing with Jem for most awesome 80s act,
One day Robotech comes on and the opening credits were different again! They changed for each new storyline. Suddenly I'm seeing a new group of characters riding these bad ass looking motorcycles that turn into body armor. The earth is completely devastated and as the main characters travel through it, the people they meet are desperate and dangerous. I'd never seen anything like this in any animated series. I was actually pulled into this storyline a bit more, and caught quite a few episodes of it. I thought Annie was a cutie and really was surprised to find out that Yellow Dancer and Lancer were the same. I can't confirm or deny if it was a Crying Game moment. But yeah it kinda was.

I do remember seeing the last episode of Robotech and being a bit confused (because I had probably missed most of the key episodes featuring Ariel who plays an important part in the ending). But the action was intense and there was a real feeling of closure to the episode. It had this kind of bittersweet triumph - yeah the Invid were repulsed, but the Earth was in bad shape. Could humanity ever come back? 
Max should have been my hero. He wore
glasses like me, but didn't die first and got a hot
alien wife. Talk about inspiring!

I assumed the series was just going to continue. But the next day it started over again with The Macross Saga. Instead of being excited to watch the whole thing again and maybe catch some episodes I missed, I skipped it. 

Skipped it, but never forgot it. 

In some ways I think it became something more mysterious because I never did see the whole thing. My mind would drift back to it and I would remember the intensity of the action, the ways the characters changed over the course of the story and the depth that the world seemed to have. It was this shining beacon of originality in my memories.

A little over a decade later I got into Japanese anime for many of the same reasons. Here was animation that was not afraid. They could tell any kind of story. They let their imaginations run wild. Anime was storytelling in a way I had never really imagined.


Dana rushing to get to the tanks and start defending earth.
Except that I had experienced it (in a way) before. I started to run into other people my age, and we all had the same story. We remembered Robotech and it was our gateway drug into this "new" medium. The internet was just really taking off and I was connecting with all these people across the country that were fans. Some of the older fans had other gateway shows: Speed Racer, Astroboy and Starblazers. But my anime generation was the Robotech generation of anime fans. After us would be the Sailor Moon generation, the Pokemon generation and of course the Toonami generation. 

For a while, when anime fandom was still a unique thing, this was a badge you wore. It helped connect you with other fans. But these days anime has become ubiquitous. It is everywhere you look, and no one really thinks twice about it. Hell, I don't have to explain what anime is to most people, unlike the 1990s when you got strange looks for watching foreign cartoons. I don't hear too much talk about the anime generations any more, and I think that is probably a good thing. I'm sure I show my age too much anyway blogging at length about Robotech.

So it is easy to say that Robotech was the perfect show at the perfect time for a lot of sci-fi/adventure fans out there. Almost everyone I know who managed to get pulled into it back in 1985 has fond memories of the show and talking about (or playing) it with their friends. 
Great bit of fan art showcasing the Macross Saga.

When I saw it appear on Netflix download, I added it to the cue immediately. But I waited. I was afraid to take the journey again. Would it be as I remembered/imagined it? Probably not. But I was curious.

The first episode started and that great opening title music kicked in and it was 1985 all over again. Wow, talk about a nostalgia trip. I watched all of The Macross Saga, and then took a break to catch up with some other shows. When I went back, Netflix had dropped the show. I was sad, because I was really curious to see how The Masters Saga played out.

Nearly five years later it came back to Netflix download, and I didn't waste time. I finished the series. I may be part of the Robotech generation, but in 2017 I finally watched the complete series. Better later than never.

Revised 2/2/2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Anime Archive - Robotech

Introduction

There is a certain generation of anime fans that were pulled into Japanese animation by a show called Robotech. The series has recently returned to Netflix download and I gave it a full viewing. This inspired me to write a few posts about it. As happened in the case of Urusei Yatsura and Lupin III I realized I was spending a bunch of time on history, plot and characters of the series instead of what I wanted to say specifically. So that means it is time for another anime primer.

Robotech is a strange case, because it is actually three different anime series that were edited together, rescripted and dubbed to create a unified story. Why take three perfectly good shows and smash them together? At the time (1985) you needed to have at least 65 half hour episodes for your show to get syndicated. So the company behind this, Harmony Gold, found three anime series from Tatsunoko productions that had a similar look and feel to them for the project.

The SDF - 1 flying into adventure.
The first was the 1982 series called Super Dimension Fortress Macross which focused on an alien invasion of earth and the mecha pilots of transforming fighter planes who attempt to stop it, with some help from a pop idol of course. The series was a big success in Japan and created its own spin offs including the very entertaining Macross Plus which features one of my favorite homicidal virtual idols - Sharon Apple. But I digress.

The middle series came from Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross made in 1984. This series deals with human colony on a distant world dealing with an incursion by aliens who use clones to further their technology. Our heroes pilot transforming tanks and find themselves battling aliens who seem obsessed with obtaining a bioluminescent flower.

The third series used to make Robotech is Genesis Climber Mospeada (and no I'm not making these names up). This one takes place on a post apocalyptic earth. Alien beings have invaded the planet and enslaved humans. The human colony on Mars tries to help, but only one soldier makes to Earth. He gathers a rag tag group (is there any other kind of group in a post-apcolyptic story) to find out why the aliens are on Earth and the best way to stop them. You've got transforming planes in this one, but the real highlight are the motorcycles that transform into cool body armor.

When Dana has her helmet on,
she is all business.
Harmony Gold took these three series and turned them into a single saga spanning three generations. This required some editing of the actual episodes. For example the planet in Southern Cross has two moons and scenes showing those moons had to be snipped or modified to make it appear that the action was happening on earth. Carl Macek, a founder of one of the first American anime distributors back in the 80s, worked on the overall script and concept for Robotech. This makes him loved by fans of the series and grumbled at by anime purists.

In many ways this was an innovative undertaking. I can't think of any animated series at the time (in North America at least) that had one continuous story that spanned 85 episodes. And yeah, if you missed an episode or two (especially of the first series) you would end up pretty lost.

Robotech aired in March of 1985 and for most of us who grew up with the series, it was like nothing we had ever seen before.

The Story

The first series of  Robotech is called The Macross Saga and sticks pretty close to its source material. An alien ship crashes into earth near Macross island. Humanity researches the vessel and discovers an amazingly advanced technology called Robotech inside. They also discover that the aliens who piloted this vessel her war-like giants called the Zentraedi.

Fearing that the Zentraedi will come looking for the downed vessel, humanity bands together to create new weapons to defend earth combining this alien technology with human ingenuity. The result are amazing transforming fighter jets and mecha war machines. But the crowning achievement is to refit the downed alien vessel into the SDF - 1, a massive space going battle fortress that also transforms and has an enormous cannon that can cause massive destruction.

All too soon the Zentraedi arrive and begin to wage war with earth. As the story progresses we discover they are looking for something called proto-culture. Turns out the Zentraedi are a warrior race being used by beings called the Robotech Masters who are after proto-culture for their own purposes.

Human resistance is spearheaded by the brave crew of the SDF -1 and brash mecha pilot Rick Hunter. But surprisingly the best weapon is actually pop singer Lynn Minmei. Her music has charms to sooth the savage Zentraedi. But just when he battle seems to be turning in earth's favor some extremely passionate Zentraedi unleash a final attack on earth. Many sacrifices are made and much of the earth is laid waste, but the Zentraedi are defeated. The series ends with Rick Hunter leaving earth with the surviving SDF -1 crew to find out more about the Robotech Masters and proto-culture.

Series two picks up with the next generation of heroes and is known as The Masters Saga. Humanity is attempting to survive on the rocky harsh world the earth has become. They also have developed Robotechnology with proto-culture to create new and more powerful weapons. This include amazing transforming tanks and hover bikes.

Once again earth is invaded by a massive fleet of warships. This time it is the Robotech Masters who have arrived looking for proto-culture. Turns out they are running low on their sources, and need it to keep their civilization from dying. They are desperate especially since they are being pursued by an infamous group of aliens called the Invid, who are out to wipe out all other users of proto-culture.

The Masters come in with guns blazing and humanity answers in kind. Soon all out war erupts between the two factions. Earth forces have Dana Sterling on their side. She's an fearless and brave commander of the Southern Cross brigade, but she is also reckless and hot tempered. This gets her and her crew into all kinds of trouble outside of the battle field.

The two forces get closer and closer to destroying each other, when a mysterious Flower of Life is found on earth. It opens up and dispenses proto-culture all across the earth. The Masters know this is the end of them, because that will cause the Invid to attack earth. The Masters are defeated, but humanity is so weakened from the endless war, that they are easy pickings for the new alien threat.

Sure enough the Invid arrive in the third series called The New Generation. The weakened Robotech forces are no match for the powerful Invid, and soon enough humanity on earth is enslaved. But a colony on Mars still exists, and Rick Hunter returns from his galactic tour with fresh weapons and equipment. They launch an all out attack on the Invid on earth.

And it fails pretty spectacularly, but one heroic soldier Scott Bernard makes it to earth with a clear objective, find and destroy the home base of the Invid on earth, called Reflex Point. Scott starts on his mission and brings with him a group of misfits with various skills that come in very handy. Nearly all of them can pilot transforming mecha too, so that helps.

Along the way to Reflex Point they have all kinds of adventures and mishaps. This post-apocalyptic world is dangerous enough, but the Invid pursuit is relentless. It also becomes obvious that the Invid are using proto-culture for some unique purpose - to further their evolution into an ultimate life form. Can Scott and his team stop the Invid before they become unbeatable and all hope for humanity is lost?

Characters

With a series this sprawling it would be silly of me to cover all the characters. I'm going to focus on the key ones for each series and ones that were pretty innovative for 80s television marketed to kids.

The Macross Saga

Rick Hunter
Your typical young rash hero, Rick started out as a skilled pilot who ended up behind the controls of a mecha fighter by accident. He took to it quickly and rises up the ranks of the Robotech forces. Rick actually evolves as a character, starting out brash and impatient. As the series continues the war's devastating impact on the lives of those around him causes him to grow up a bit. While he isn't the greatest pilot in the fleet (Max Sterling takes that prize) Rick is the natural leader. His heroics and planning help save many lives by the end of the story. Rick is also the center of a love triangle with Minmei and Lisa. Can't have an epic without one of those, right?

Lynn Minmei
Cute as a button but always managing to get into some kind of trouble Lynn Minmei wins Rick's heart early in the show. She also has some singing talent, and quickly becomes a pop idol for all of Macross and the crew of the SDF - 1. Minmei's popularity starts to create some problems for her relationship with Rick and things get more complicated when Rick realizes that he is falling for Lisa. Through it all Minmei feels herself trapped between what she wants and what life as a pop star demand. This becomes critical when it turns out there Minmei's songs have an unforeseen impact on the alien invaders - who have never experienced emotion expressed through song before. Is Minmei the secret weapon Earth needs?

Lisa Hayes
Lisa is the voice of the bridge crew of the SDF -1, relaying critical information from the bridge to the forces supporting the SDF -1. She is no-nonsense, loyal to her duty, a strategic thinker and determined to ensure the safety of earth. She takes everything pretty darn seriously, so when hot head Rick Hunter shows up they take an immediate dislike to each other. But things change a bit when the two are captured by the alien invaders and spend some time together. At one point they use a kiss to distract the aliens (the aliens have never seen kissing before and it horrifies them). Well this seems to kindle some kind of chemistry between the two, because they start to fall for each other. But Rick seems enamored with Minmei, so Lisa shifts her focus on her career in the military instead... at least she keeps telling herself that.

Captain Gloval
Global is the stoic but brave commander of the SDF - 1. His iron will leads the Robotech forces in many victories, but also sees them through some of the darkest times Earth faces. He is the kind of commander you want at the head of a super powerful battle fortress. He uses tactics and daring to pull off some very dangerous missions. But for each victory, humans lose more and more lives. He begins to look for a way to stop the war before everything goes out of control. Gloval ends up being a mentor to several of the characters in this series. During the climactic battle for the fate of earth Gloval makes the ultimate sacrifice to save as much of earth as he can.

Miriya
The invading aliens have some pretty interesting characters on their side to. But the fan favorite has to be Miriya, the piloting ace working for the Zentraedi. Once she appears on the scene she starts to outmaneuver the Robotech forces tactically and in the air. No pilot stands a chance facing her down, and she takes pride in it. Until the Robotech ace Max Sterling shows up one day and nearly kills her. This causes Miriya to obsess over this human who defeated her. She eventually is shrunk to human size and infiltrates Macross city to find Max. It doesn't take long for hate to turn into love and the two fall head over heels for each other. They actually marry and this causes both civilizations to stop and wonder if they are so different after all. Miriya takes to the skies along side her husband against her own people as the war moves into its final stages.

The Masters Saga

Dana Sterling
The daughter of Max Sterling and Miriya, Dana is half Zentraedi, and seems to have retained the battle hungry nature of her mother. Instead of piloting flying mecha, Dana is the leader of a tank brigade, the Southern Cross. They defend the war scarred earth from any further invasions. Wouldn't you know it, the Zentraedi's bosses show up in huge warships and attack. So Dana and her team are thrown into the fray. Dana is brash, impulsive and has no problem telling you exactly what is on her mind. She can come across as flaky at times, but when she's at the controls of her tank she is nearly unstoppable. She is also fearless, and will stop at nothing to ensure earth doesn't fall to The Robotech Masters and their army of bioroids.

Bowie Grant
The youngest member of the Southern Cross team, Bowie is a musician at heart. He joined the army because his godfather expected him to. But also because he grew up with Dana and as her best friend he figured he might as follow her lead. Probably not the best reason to do anything and as the series progresses Bowie starts to regret his decision. He's not a fighter and the pressure gets worse as the war rages on. He eventually encountered a lovely alien musician aboard one of the Robotech Masters' ship and realizes that these invaders may not be as different as everyone thinks. Can this connection with music ease tensions in the war, as it did in the previous generations?

Zor
A mysterious man found on the battlefield with severe memory loss. What memories he does have point to him being at the site of an attack by the Robotech Masters. But it becomes clear that he is a manufactured being that somehow escaped from the Masters. The Robotech forces feel he could be the key to discover a weakness to the new threat. They allow him to join Dana's brigade and his skills as a warrior and pilot are impressive. Dana also thinks he's hot, so there is that. But the rest of the brigades doesn't trust Zor and it is soon revealed that he may be a puppet to the Robotech Masters who are just waiting for the right moment to reactivate Zor for their own purposes.

The Masters
This alien race pioneered Robotechnology and the use of proto-culture to power their technology and civilization. But as they used up all their resources they started to spread into the universe searching for new sources. This lead them into direct conflict with The Invid who also use proto-culture and are determined to destroy everyone who would take it from them. The Masters found themselves outmatched and fled after nearly being destroyed by the Invid. This leads them to earth in the hope they can obtain enough proto-culture to face and destroy the Invid once and for all. But these stupid humans keep getting in the way, first destroying their Zentraedi army and now refusing to be beat down in the second war. The Masters clone themselves in trios and their whole civilization seems focused on maintaining order through threes. They don't put stock in emotions and see it as a taint that starts to infect their clones the further the war rages. The Masters are desperate to win and this could end up costing both civilizations dearly in the end.

The New Generation

Scott Bernard
A member of the forces under Admiral Rick Hunter that returned to earth to set it free from The Invid. Scott is a fearless pilot and natural leader. But his single mindedness often leads him to conflict with others on his team. Since Scott was born and raised in space and under the military command, he is often at a loss when it comes to dealing with people on earth who experienced constant invasions, war and two doses of apocalypse. Scott is a excellent pilot of the flying mecha as well as the transforming motorcycles called Cyclones. He can be hard to get along with, but he loosens up as the series progresses and he comes to realize how hard life on Earth has become and how battered its people are.

Lancer (aka Yellow Dancer)
Originally part of the military forces that attempted to wrest the earth from the grip of the Invid,  Lancer was the only surviver of a massive attack, and to escape undetected he dressed as a woman. He leveraged this female identity and turned it into a popular idol singer, Yellow Dancer. She has a growing fan base across the war torn earth. Few people know that Yellow Dancer is a) a man and b) a freedom fighter. Lancer joins Scott in his attempt to liberate the earth, and can often get them access to areas as Yellow Dancer. Lancer is a hell of a fighter in both types of mecha as well. He also finds himself drawn to one of the Invid mutations named Sera. Will their connection be a key to stopping the war?

Annie (aka Mint)
A kid who has grown up under Invid attack and occupation. She's a big fan of peppermint candy and seems obsessed with finding a cute guy to marry. Annie is a bit silly but is braver than most of the adults they run into. She want to see Earth freed and finds comfort with her new friends, who treat her a bit like the team mascot. But Annie is constant reminder of what is at stake in this war. When she first shows up in the series, you pretty much sigh and roll your eyes. But as we get to know more about her life and see how much the team means to her, she really becomes a character that you connect with. She also has red hair, is an orphan and has a hat that says E.T. on it, so that makes her so 80s it hurts.

Ariel (aka Marlene)
Like the Zentraedi and Masters before them, the Invid are disturbed but intrigued by humans. They feel the best way to understand them is to make one of their own. The Invid are masters of physical mutation and are able to warp their very being into new forms. The first experiment is Ariel, an Invid that has a human female form. She was supposed to collect data and bring it back to the main Invid force, but some twists of fate caused her end up with Scott and his team. She can't remember her name, so they dub her Marlene after Scott's old fiancé. This is just asking for romance to happen, and so Scott starts to fall for Marlene, not knowing she isn't human. But Marlene doesn't know she's Invid and things start to spiral out of control as the series nears the conclusion. Marlene is a demonstration of the Invid's power as well as their desire to perfect their bodies into a ultimate life form. But is love between a human and Invid even be possible?

Conclusion
They are still making detailed
models of the mecha for
current fans.
This show started out as a way to sell some very cool transforming robot toys to kids, essentially a way to jump on the Transformers and G.I. Joe bandwagon. But by creating this sprawling epic it did something else. It introduced the concept of a long running science fiction story to a bunch of kids who had never seen anything like it before. These kids would grow up looking to Japanese animation to continue that tradition. Beyond that there are a lot of Robotech fans who are now creating their own work and let that inspiration peek through. It isn't any wonder why there is a group of anime fandom who considers themselves part of The Robotech Generation.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Anime Juke Box - Main Title - Robotech

Back when I first saw Robotech in 1985, it was part of the after school cartoon line up. This included cartoons like Inspector Gadget, He-man and the Masters of the Universe, Transformers and G.I. Joe. All those shows had something in common.  Their opening title songs were actual songs - with lyrics. Sure they were usually simple lyrics using the title of the show over and over again.  This way it was easy to remember what toys to ask for when your birthday came around.

Then Robotech came on and the main title was heroic, majestic and orchestral. Composed by Ulpio Minucci it sounds a bit like John Williams Superman main title. It is certainly going for a more majestic sound than "Doo doo doo doo doo Inspector Gadget." Not only was this theme used for the opening credits, a slightly different version played during the end credits.  And if one of the heroes did something really awesome, this theme usually kicked in. Needless to say, this tune was pretty much hardwired into the brain of anyone who grew up with the show. Just hearing it makes me want to jump into a Veritech fighter and blow up some alien starships.




Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Movie Music Musings: The Goldsmith Award 2015

Time to give another Goldsmith award. The first nominee who leapt to mind was Michael Giacchino. He tackled four films in 2015. He had two hits and two big misses. But I already blogged about his work, and while I think his score for Jupiter Ascending may be my favorite score for a bad movie in 2015, I wanted to shake things up a bit. If you are curious, his score to Tomorrowland, which also bombed pretty hard is really a great throwback to full orchestral adventure scores of the 1990s.

Anyway that left two other very good scores for very poor movies. First up is Pan, yet another telling of the Peter Pan story. I don't think anyone was clamoring for that, but we got it anyway. The score was composed by John Powell, a very talented composer we don't hear much from these days. He was very active in the 2000s and gave us some wonderful scores. My favorites are his one-two punch of How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel. His work in Pan was nearly as fun as those two and well worth seeking out. But ignore the songs for this film... they hurt.

You've also got Victor Frankenstein another reinterpretation that no one was begging studios for. Craig Armstrong stepped up to deliver a knockout score full of gothic darkness and plenty of excitement. Armstrong is another composer who usually delivers and has a very good working relationship with Baz Luhrmann. So even though this film bombed, I'm sure Baz will still bring him along for his next project.

Of the two, I have to give the award to Pan. It has a bit more of the swashbuckling attitude that enjoy in my scores and Powell certainly delivers. Check out Kidnapped/Galleon Dog Fight which starts off nice and sweet before diving into a percussive action track packed with fun moments and plenty of classic swashbuckling energy with a modern twist.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Gunslinger (1956) – MST3K Review

Summary:

Welcome to the Old West! Or at least Roger Corman’s version of the Old West. In a small town Rose (Beverly Garland) is happily married to the marshal of these parts. But when her husband is gunned down in cold blood, Rose decides to take the law into her own hands, literally. She demands that the mayor make her the marshal until the new one arrives.

With this power, Rose starts tracking down the men that killed her husband. But she also suspects that the sultry, sneaky saloon owner Erica Page (Allison Hayes) is the real power behind the crime wave. Turns out she is right! Erica hires infamous killer Cane Miro (John Ireland) to kill Rose. But Cane takes a shine to the firebrand marshal. Erica is never one to put all her eggs in one basket, and begins to weave a web to destroy this lady Gunslinger and might take the whole town with it.

Movie Review:

"Do you think Corman is still filming us?"
No, this is not an adaptation of the first novel in Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga. It is a western written and directed by Roger Corman - Reading those words you kind of know what you are in for, don’t you? Well yes and no. Lots of the typical issues that arise from Corman’s low budgets and rushed production schedules are present but the film has some good elements too. The final result is a movie that doesn’t ever fire on all cylinders.

Let’s take a look at the good points first. Corman and his crew mostly filmed this on location. There were plenty of Western sets still in use when Corman tackled the movie. In fact many of the locations look like old Paramount Ranch, which appeared in plenty of movies and television series including Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman. In any case, the dusty trails, rolling hills, chaparral, and twisted oaks give Gunslinger a classic western feel.

Most of the indoor sets work well too, including the Red Dog Saloon and the marshal’s office. The only bits that doesn’t quite convince are the hotel rooms where Erica and Cane plot. As Joel and the bots point out, doors to hotel rooms don’t usually open out, nor do they have numbers facing the inside of the rooms. This leads to some very funny riffs about having trysts in the hallway of the hotel.

Erica doubts the veracity of your claim.
The other aspect that works reasonably well is the acting. Beverly Garland is really good as the no nonsense, tough talking, sharp shooting marshal. Her scenes with Erica and Cane give her plenty to work with. Rose comes across as not only confident and dangerous, but also clever. She also has a strong sense of needing to uphold the law, even if that means waiting until he has Erica caught in the act before she can bring the hammer down.

Speaking of Erica, Allison Hayes is just as good playing the deceitful antagonist in Gunslinger. She has an alluring way to her, and you can see why Cane and Little Man (Jonathan Haze) are attracted to her. But she also reveals a steely determination that matches Rose. Of course Erica is out for herself, looking to cash in on a huge property scheme. It is a delightfully devilish performance, only hampered by the clumsy dialogue she has to deliver.

Ireland plays Cane Miro as a typical tough guy who has a dark past. We get to know why he turned into a gunman for hire, and all around criminal (from Tombstone no less). When he’s playing up the cold killer aspects of the character, Ireland makes it work. But the scenes where Cane and Rose start falling for each other never really click. I don’t think the two have much chemistry, and it makes that portion of the film feel a little flat. But all in all, Ireland gives a solid performance.

"Breakfast any time? Well I'm ready for flapjacks!"
I like the supporting cast too. If you’ve seen enough of Corman’s films (or MST3K episodes) then you’ll recognize many of them. Jonathon Haze really comes through as Little Man. He is Erica’s slimy henchman who is a bit feeble minded and obviously in love with her. Haze really sells the role and may be one of the most pathetic characters I’ve seen in a MST3k film. You feel bad for the little loser by the end of the movie. Jonathan Haze is very good in many of the films he’s in. He usually goes for the part full bore and can play just about any type of character he needs to. I also like Martin Kingsley as the blowhard mayor. He won’t stop talking about the good old days during the Civil War. But when push comes to shove he shows his true colors. His story arc works well because his performance is believable.

The story at the heart of Gunslinger has a lot of potential. The idea of a marshal’s wife watching her husband getting gunned down and then taking up the star herself is full of potential. I especially like the idea of two powerful, confident women waging a battle against each other in this small frontier town. Each one doing what she thinks she has to do. In the middle of this is Cane Miro, a man that has a past with Erica and starts to fall for Rose. He becomes a key piece in the chess game, but who will end up controlling him? Executed with skill, Gunslinger could be considered well ahead of its time.

Alas this is a Roger Corman film. It just wasn’t going to happen.

N
She switched his coffee for flavor crystals.
Lets see if he notices.
ow, I know Corman is admired in many circles. I will say that when he made some good movies in his time. But I will also say that he showed potential in many films, including Gunslinger, that I think he had a real knack for selecting and writing interesting story concepts. But the execution of those stories, from the script level especially isn’t strong enough to build a really great movie on.

Knowing Corman, the actual script for Gunslinger was hashed out in a matter of days (or even hours). The result is an unfocused script that muddles itself far too often. Not that the film is confusing or complex, but it loses track of what it is trying to deliver.

A simple example is how they handle the killers who targeted Rose’s husband. Rose manages to shoot one of the men as they two ride away. And then the other guy shows up at the funeral of the man he just killed! Who does that? Rose spots him and guns him down right there. The silliness of that scene aside, it would have made for a more compelling film to leave one or both killers alive, and focus on Rose putting together the pieces of the plot and hunting them down. We could see her skills as a detective, work in some action, and build up Erica at the same time. Erica would obviously be watching Rose work with rising concern and then send out for Cane Muro who would arrive in the middle of the film after Rose takes out the last of her husband’s killers.

I just came up with that solution, and it works much better than what we ended up with. The movie is filled with script opportunities like that.

Make out session in the hallway and Wormy
isn't pleased.
The script ends up with these aimless montage scenes where Rose and her deputy Joshua (Chris Acaide) stop a crime wave with relative ease. These montages are so badly executed you have to laugh. In one scene it looks like Joshua just walks into a bank robber as he makes his escape and is able to punch him out right there.

Cane Muro suffers the most. The idea of the lone wolf in the thrall of two women has plenty of story potential. But, as I mentioned, the chemistry between Ireland and Garland just isn’t there. Those scenes fall flat. But they could be avoided by having Muro admire Rose’s tenacity and skills. It doesn’t have to be love, but respect that increases as the movie goes along. He could even realize near the end that he is outmatched and outwitted by both women, and become a tragic figure in this. His final shootout with Rose could be a more desperate one, as he realizes that she’s just a better Gunslinger and his number is up. That would have made an even more edgy film, especially for 1956.

The final shooting script has too many silly lines, meandering conversations, and unclear character motivations, or moments that run contrary to what we think the characters are after. It’s a mess, and it impacts the acting too. I get the feeling that several members of the cast were just not sure how they were supposed to play certain scenes.

"Mayor, you got to get them to stop calling  me Wormy!"
This also impacts the pacing. All the strange pointless conversations end up dragging the film down. A well-tuned script could have made this a crisp exciting film. But we get stuck in the mire one to many times. Surprisingly this movie isn’t padded with walking scenes, something Corman is notorious for. He even manages some decent action sequences, including a full blown bar brawl. But these bright moments get drowned in yet another conversation between Erica and Cane that doesn’t give us any new character or plot information.

Gunslinger isn’t a horrible film. But with a little more time, a little more care, it could have been a fondly remembered classic that was ahead of its time. Hell, Beverly Garland could have become one of the greats of the genre if given a chance. She does ride off into the sunset at the end of this film. I bet she could have appeared in a follow up or two. Alas, we get a sluggish mess that in some ways is more frustrating than an out and out bad movie. But it provides Joel and the bots with plenty of material.

Episode Review:

"Love what you're riding. Pinto?"
For the most part Mystery Science Theater 3000 tackled science fiction, horror and fantasy films. But every once in a while they would tackle a different genre and seem to have a blast with it. I Accuse My Parents is a melodrama that you wouldn’t think would make a great episode, and yet it is a fan favorite. Pumaman is a hilarious episode that makes me with they tackled the super hero genre more frequently. Danger! Death Ray is a hilariously bad 60s spy flick that MS3K turned into gold. So how do they do with their first Western?

In all honesty Gunslinger is one of those episodes that I have to be in the right mood to appreciate. It all comes down to the pacing of Corman’s movie. It is deadly dull in spots. If you are not prepared to be bored by aimless dialogue than getting through the film can be difficult. But if you are ready to take is nice and slow, this is really a well-riffed episode.

His only crime was making too many beans.
This episode comes in the middle of Season Five, one of the best seasons of the Comedy Central years. The writers were really experienced with pacing and timing. The riffing in general seemed a bit crisper and more rapid. It helps compensate with the movie’s slow pacing and dreary tone. You also get the feeling that they are just jazzed about tackling a Western, even if it is one as turgid as this one.

A lot of the riffing comes at the expense of the poor editing and some of the budgetary seams that start showing up all over the place. There is a hilarious moment where the camera pans to the right, and you can clearly see two riders waiting for their cue. Tom yells, “Action!” and they start riding “into frame”. A similar moment happens where the scene starts with Alison Hayes obviously waiting for her cue, and the start of the scene. Joel and bots just crack up and Crow sighs, “Corman!” with incredulity.

They are so naughty. Naughty they are.
I also get a chuckle out of the scenes that are shot day for night using an obvious filter. Tom comments “It is looking rather blue tonight”. Garland and Ireland are having a heart to heart discussion, but the lighting is so bizarre. It reminds Tom of 2001: A Space Odyssey. So he starts singing the monolith music whenever the camera cuts back to the spooky looking Garland.

The Red Dog Saloon is a source of a lot of jokes. Erica keeps insisting that “The Red Dog Saloon is open 24 hours,” to which Crow chimes in, “Breakfast any time.” Whenever the can-can dancers appear on the screen, Tom offers numerous back-to-back riffs on their routine including helpful choreography tips such as “Spank and spank and spank and you’ve been bad in the tushy.”

They also have a lot of fun with Jonathon Haze’s character, who they dub “wormy”. When he tries to show Erica how he can take out Rose with a rifle, pretending his broom is the firearm, Crow chides, “Wormy, that’s an O Cedar!” And when Haze attempts to mount a horse for a secret mission, Joel provides the voice of the horse grumbling, “Oh no, not Wormy. Have some mercy!”

The pacing does present a challenge, as do some of the longer talking scenes between Erica and Cane in the hotel/hallway. But the boys do a pretty good job overall.

Pony express... or Gypsy express?
The host segments come in different flavors and most of them are amusing. The episode opens with Tom’s head replace by a balloon inspired by the game Kaboom! Crow can’t wait to blow up Tom’s head! For the invention exchange the Mads have created a manual to blow up people’s heads like the film Scanners. The result is pretty hilarious. Joel becomes obsessed with the whiffle ball and wants to turn everything into whiffle: including whiffle hat, whiffle cup and my favorite whiffle cheese (which is Swiss cheese, “natures own whiffle”). At the first break, Joel and bots lie in caskets and imagine their own funerals. Tom wants elephants, lots of them! When we join them again, Tom uses the pony express (Crow riding on Gypsy) to send a message to Joel. It goes really poorly and takes forever. The next break has Crow and Joel trying to figure out how John Ireland kept teleporting all around the town during a chase scene. Joel thinks its because the town is made up of false fronts. Tom proves that John Ireland can warp time and space using quantum linear super position. It all ends up with  Tom demonstrating and warping time and space like Doctor Who. After the movie ends Joel and the bots compare and contrast the 1870s and the 1970s. Frank seems to have had his head scanned into a million pieces, or maybe he just watched Gunslinger.

For me, this episode is a fun one, not a favorite, but one that I usually enjoy when I revisit it. If you are a fan of westerns, Beverly Garland or even Roger Corman, you’ll probably get a bigger kick out of it than I do. Still this is a Season Five episode and most of those are in the top tier of the series, so you can’t really go wrong here.

I give it three wormy-guys out of five.


This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Vol 6 and by itself.


Wormy auditions for "The Rifleman".

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Introduction:

So when you see Joel and Ethan Coen with writing and directing credits for a movie, you can assume the film is going to be quirky. I can almost say it would be guaranteed. But you know what, I like their kind of quirky. Films like O' Brother Where Art Thou and HudsuckerProxy get regular views around here. So is this flick going to join those quirky favorites?

Summary:

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the man who can fix anything at the studio. Need someone to get the right actor for the drama directed by sophisticated director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes)? Need someone to find the big star Baird Witlock (George Clooney) after he disappears from a set? Need someone to find out why the sexy starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is less than happy with her current role? Eddie can do it all.

But things start to get complicated when it looks like Witlock may have been kidnapped. Is it a rival studio trying to crash the latest big budget biblical epic? Is it a scheme hatched by the notorious gossip columnist Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton)? Or is it a communist plot? Eddie’s got a lot on his plate, but he isn’t going to let that slow him down. By the end of the night he’s going to make sure the film, Hail, Caesar!, gets its lead actor back.

Good Points:
  • Josh Brolin gives an excellent performance
  • Lots of fun moments for fans of classic Golden age films
  • Makes for a fun game of spot the actress/actor

Bad Points:
  • The tone of the film is all over the place
  • Feels like it was a longer movie that got edited down
  • If you don’t like golden age Hollywood films or don’t know much about how they were made, this movie may not click for you

Overall:

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. If you know about the Hollywood studio system of the 50s then you’ll find lots of satirical fun at hand. But the tone of the film careens from silly, to serious and back again. Combined with scenes that feel like they were trimmed down, and you get a movie that is a bit of an uneven ride. Recommended to folks who enjoy TCM.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.


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