5/24/10

So blogger wants to be wordpress

That's actually a good thing. It's at least better than Facebook trying to be Twitter.

I've added one of those obnoxious "about me" pages, a list of things that I'm trying to hunt down, and a big list of links to sites that I read as static pages. Unfortunately, the static pages don't seem to allow comments. God knows why. I might add a review index.

Actually, it's kind of nice and I'm liking the new features for the layout.

5/22/10

Magic of Spell (Chui Chung-Hing, 1988)

In case you were wondering, the sequel to Child of Peach is even weirder than its predecessor.
Yes, the title is misspelled on the Fortune Star VCD

I well know that some people consider remarks about the strangeness of children’s fantasy movies from the eighties, particularly when one comes to them as an outsider, useless or trivial or redundant when much of the strangeness is played for laughs. But come on. Child of Peach really was weird and Magic of Spell outdoes it, likely intentionally. Really, how can anyone not make note of weirdness in a movie that provides an opportunity to contemplate the morality of an anthropomorphized Peach eating an anthropomorphized Ginseng root? Does it still count as cannibalism if the characters involved are technically magical fruit and magical root?

Even though Peach Boy defeated the demons on their island at the end of the first film, they’re back, with a new plan to subjugate the world by rejuvenating their demon leader with the blood of children and feeding him magical thousand year old ginseng which manifests itself as a little kid in a funky ginseng costume. This means that Peach Boy must interrupt his busy life of benevolently saving cute little bunnies from hunters to save innocent children from getting murdered for their undead-rejuvenating virginal blood.

The first half of the movie dedicates itself to slapstick while the second is all action, but the slapstick is so wildly exaggerated and driven by physicality and the action so relentlessly absurd that the transition between the two is probably smoother than it sounds. In the first film, director Chan Jun-Leung set a record for the most representations of urine and urination in a single movie. Magic of Spell’s director, Chui Chung-Hing, doesn’t challenge that record. He was the action director for the first film, and taking command of the second (along with not following a preset narrative) apparently allowed him to show off even more bizarre fight choreography than in Child of Peach. Magic of Spell is actually filled with even more action, wire work and animated effects.

The film also bears Chui Chung-Hing’s visual style, as seen in Heroic Fight and Twelve Animals (and to a lesser extent, his early, Yuen clan style fantasy kung fu movie, Exciting Dragon). Chui favors wide angles and a mostly static camera. Since cinematographer Chong Yan-Gin worked on most of Chui Chung-Hing’s films but doesn’t utilize those visual elements to any great degree in the other films he worked on, I’m assuming that the preference is Chui’s.
It’s difficult to explain the appeal of a cheap, stupid movie like Magic of Spell. Like fart and pee jokes? This has lots of them. Like long action scenes? The last twenty minutes are just one long fight scene. Like well defined characters and coherent plotting? Well...

But it ought not be necessary to explain a movie’s appeal. Part of the joy of a movie like Magic of Spell is taking all of its uninhibited, goofy imagination at face value. One of the worst habits of current action film makers is trying to explain the fantastical elements of their stories when suspension of disbelief depends on the maintenance of a paradox (it's easier to believe when less is explained). Some fantasy makes less sense the more it is explained and interpolated. Magic of Spell certainly doesn’t do that.

5/17/10

Pretty Woman (Yeung Chi-Gin, 1991)

It’s hard to believe that such a movie exists, but it must, because I actually own the Ocean Shores DVD.
Back before Movie Trading Company became all boring and corporate, it wasn’t unusual to find import and bootleg dvds on their shelves, including some movies that could actually be called obscure. I found Pretty Woman there years ago and bought it because I figured that, at three dollars, it couldn’t be that much of a waste. Granted, I didn’t know at the time that it was a CAT III remake of the mind-numbing Julia Roberts film of the same name. I’m not sure if that would have put me off or increased my interests had I known before I bought it.
It’s a remake in the loosest sense; its plot is quite different and it doesn’t really contain any similar scenes. Rather, the script makes a half-hearted gesture towards Mimin, the titular woman, receiving a fresh start through a relationship with Lin Cha-Sin, a corporate stooge like Richard Gere in the American film. Rather, the Hong Kong Pretty Woman starts with a creep named George (Ken Tong) fantasizing about his attractive co-worker, Yin-Hsin (Veronica Yip) during a late night at the office, and deciding to rape her. Unfortunately, he accidently kills her in the process, and burns her body. By the invisible hand of fortuitous narrative coincidence, he happens across a hostess named Mimin (also Veronica Yip) in a club that looks exactly like the murdered Yin Hsin. So George asks her to go to the office and hand in a resignation letter. She agrees to do so for a price, but while she’s there, she recognizes Lin Cha-Sin (Alex Fong), a major officer within the company, is actually a man who once saved her from an attempted rape. She fancies him, and decides to replace Yin-Hsin at the company rather than turn in her resignation letter.
This enrages George, who threatens to expose Mimin and attempts to slander Cha-Sin but seems to spend most of the rest of his time having sex with one of his other coworkers (consensual, this time). It eventually leads up to the truth coming out, and Cha-Sin learning that his girlfriend is a prostitute. And you can figure out where it goes from there.
It’s not a good movie by any definition unless “good” is defined by perverts and maybe Veronica Yip admirers. Pretty Woman apparently earned a reputation by virtue of its (ahem) climax: a ludicrous ten minute long shower scene. Apparently done with the sole purpose of shooting its starlet at every possible angle, it borders on being really creepy when it ends with her breaking down and crying over the mess she’s caused. Emotional distress is not sexy unless you’re really effed up. It doesn’t help that Veronica Yip can actually act (watch Scarred Memory) and sells grief pretty well.
There are other elements that are rather endemic to movies with the CAT III classification. The office atmosphere is rather, shall we say, ribald. The male employees regularly grope the female employees and gamble on the color of their undergarments. And Wu Ma makes the obligatory “what is that actor doing here” cameo appearance as a more or less senile CEO.
Am I critiquing this as entertainment? No. I don’t find it entertaining in the way it’s meant to be. The comedy isn’t that funny; the sex is not arousing, even though Veronica Yip is a babe; and the action scenes are out of place. What I find so interesting about Pretty Woman is its cinematography. It’s not good either, but there’s something about how bleak and ugly everything looks that is almost compelling. Outdoor photography is uniformly against darkened skies -- I don’t think I ever saw a hint of blue in the horizon. The indoor scenes take place in cramped apartments and hotel rooms with shabby d├ęcor that’s at least a few years behind what one would see in an American film from the same time. The camera picks up light diffused against graying drywall while the actors perform in a shadowy foreground.
These visuals subvert -- quite accidentally, I’m sure -- all attempts to make the actual content of the movie go down easy (although not nearly so much as Yip’s crying during the infamous shower sequence). The actors might be pretending that what they’re doing is all in good fun, but there’s an ominous, almost nervous quality to the visuals that adds yet another incongruous lair to a madcap-erotic-comedy/martial-arts-action/corporate espionage exploitation remake of a vapid Hollywood film that was (at least at one point) a slumber party staple. Only in 1990's Hong Kong, my friends.
It’s a small thing on which I compliment this movie, and probably an accidental one too. The movie might look like this because it was shot on the cheap and the print degraded and the Ocean Shores DVD is pan-and-scanned to the point that the movie looks constantly claustrophobic. But it was effective enough to make me note it as I watched. I’m not really into smut unless it’s funny, like Sex and Chopsticks, so don’t take my ambivalence towards this movie as an objective reaction. My observations are probably only as good as the movie. I find it less offensive than that crap with Julia Roberts, though. Honest.

5/12/10

The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner (Ken Russell, 1990)

What’s Ken Russell’s best known movie? Lair of the White Worm? Altered States? Women in Love? That one was nominated for an Oscar and it’s an adaptation of a novel by D. H. Lawrence. Maybe it’s Tommy, the visualization of an album by The Who. I don’t bring this up rhetorically, I ask because I really don’t know. The only Ken Russell movies I had watched before The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner were Lair of the White Worm and Mahler, the latter of which, like Anton Bruckner, is an unusual sort of biopic about an Austrian/German classical composer.
The strange affliction mentioned in the title is an obsession with numbers. Russell portrays Bruckner as something like an obsessive compulsive. The movie begins with Bruckner arriving at a country home where a man and a woman in a nurse’s uniform await him. He has counted the spokes and the rotations of the wheel and tells his new acquaintances. He counts the letters in their names when they introduce themselves. He is then dunked repeatedly in an ice bath. Bruckner has been sent to receive mental health treatment without his consent, but is more upset that that his wards chose to dunk him four times. It’s not a good number.

And so the movie goes, comprised of vignettes punctuated by treatment, which mostly seems to be lots of ice baths and warm broth fed to him by pretty nurse Grete. Anton’s days seem to be spent walking outdoors, communing with nature and counting various parts of it, although on an early sojourn his caretakers bring him to confession, where the priest is clearly nonplussed by Bruckner’s whole person, particularly his funny definition of the term “self-abuse” (Bruckner means that he was abusing himself by reading the music to one of his critically reviled symphonies; by the same words the priest intends something rather different). The priest pronounces his penance: to play Bach’s Fugue in D Minor. Anton walks out of the confessional, to the church organ, and does exactly that.

The real Bruckner was indeed a gifted organist, and a very devout man, as well as a lonely one. In his mind he linked spiritual purity to youth so concretely that as a music teacher he often found himself longing for his teenaged female students. He even proposed to many of them, although none of them ever accepted and by all accounts he likely died chaste and unhappy over it. These details figure into the movie, as do other stories and rumors about the historical figure.

Still, I do not think I’ve ever read that Bruckner was hospitalized for mental illness, although I confess that I’ve only read a short biography many years ago. Accept the fiction. Russell is making a film about the character of Bruckner the musician. The strange affliction, as regimented and earthly as anything can be, finally breaks down against the wonder of infinity, the nearly dissonant, polyphonic nature of God’s creation as represented by the millions of stars or the hairs on a woman’s body. These things cannot be quantifiably counted, and to even attempt would cheapen them. Bruckner’s affliction stands in contrast to that.

The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner was shot on a low budget for British television and so is both brief and less visually bizarre than the other Ken Russell films I had watched. Russell has a knack for evocative shooting, apparently finding locations around the English countryside in which to film, although the interior sets are rather sparse in decoration and furnishings. It is still a very handsome television movie in spite of its origin, and the casting is wonderful. In an interview that played before the movie, Russell claimed that the Anton Bruckner didn’t look like a composer and so nobody took him seriously like Wagner; Bruckner looked like a farmer. One would probably believe so given Peter Mackriel’s performance. And Catherine Nielson as Grete is just terribly winsome. A natural beauty.
I think I might have been A Ken Russell fan all along and not known it.

5/6/10

Dynasty Warriors: Stikeforce - Game Review

Dynasty Warriors is one of the more enduring franchises started from the last console generation and one of my favorites. Lightwing23, RockmanXZ24, Pilgrim and I would hole up during the weekends and usually Dynasty Warriors 2-4 or Samurai Warriors would show up on the agenda between watching Kung Pow: Enter the Fist and marathon sessions of Starcraft, Phantasy Star Online (MY MESETA!) and other games and movies by whose mention I might express our abject nerdiness. In fact, Koei, previously known mostly for turn based strategy/management games based on Chinese history and historical literature, now publishes at least a couple of “Warriors” titles every year, developer Omega Force having branched out into licensed games like Dynasty Warriors: Gundam. The obvious reason for its success: Dynasty Warriors is easy to play and fun to watch. Bandit Kings of Ancient China, for example, is neither.

It’s really amazing that the series remains so popular when each sequel, spin off, and tie-in is basically the same game. The player’s character runs about a large field, fulfilling objectives -- usually no more complicated than, “go there!” or “kill this guy, quick!” -- likely killing literally hundreds of foot soldiers in the way. Each subsequent game since Dynasty Warriors 2 (Dynasty Warriors for the Playstation was actually a fighting game unrelated to the rest of the series outside of its setting and publisher) adds systems for customization or strategy on top of the basic gameplay, and the series also boasts secrets hidden so well or requiring such strict conditions that a lot of players probably won’t find them without the help of FAQs. But the game is basically built on the fun of your lone general killing hundreds of grunts. Most of the games even display a prominent on screen kill counter.

But since a good portion of the game’s audience felt the formula had grown stale, Omega Force tried to update it in between developing licensed anime themed iterations of its only theme. Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce was once a PSP exclusive (Xbox360 and PS3 ports are currently available) and is actually a step in the direction that the series probably ought to go, if only in terms of the customization system that it employs.

Part of what separates Strikeforce from its predecessors is its unusually complicated customization system. The player’s general levels up, and can equip two different weapons, four “chi skills,” musou skills, and items, along with usable items that can restore health, etc. The equippable character upgrades are bought at shops, which themselves are upgradable through generals that join the cause in between missions. Upgrading the shops also costs money and materials collected on the battlefield. Character customization actually plays a relatively large role in strategy unless the player intends to grind until the major fights are easy (the option is there). It’s not Armored Core, but it isn’t a simple skill tree or inventory system either.
But mechanics are a dull subject, and honestly, who cares? The Warriors games are really about being an ancient Chinese badass who kills enough people to dam the Yangtze. What Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce does is to fully embrace the over-the-top disregard for anything resembling verisimilitude that other games in the series flirt with. Not only are the musou attacks ridiculous, the characters can go super-saiyin when at full musou.

I think the moment that I knew that something had changed for good came during the final mission of the campaign against the Yellow Turbans. The Yellow Turban rebellion in history was a politically active apocalyptic cult that, much like the later Boxer and Taiping rebels, caused havoc for a brief period of time before actual military force dismantled them in an extraordinarily easy, bloody fashion. In Strikeforce, the Zhang Jiao battles your general of choice in an infinitely tall, lightning generator tower with floating platforms and magic missiles. I am playing as Guan Yu. I go into his awakened mode, in which his beard can only be described as Biblical. It takes a while, but after using all of my items, Zhang Jiao is dead. My next major mission is Hu Lao gate. It’s guarded by a giant stone tiger that shoots lasers.
Okay, yeah. Omega Force always put stuff like that in their games. Zhuge Liang has been shooting lasers from his war fan for years. I think maybe they’ve finally went a tad far afield with this one. That’s not to say it’s a bad game. If I have any complaint, it would be that the later missions seem to really want the player to tackle them multiplayer, and going solo is going to eat up items and time. Otherwise, Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce is a fun game that I hope will remain a spin-off. It would be a shame if the series from which my friends and I gleaned most of our knowledge of Han dynasty military conflicts ended up becoming more ridiculous than its own Warriors Orochi spinoff.

5/2/10

Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson is one of those giants in the SF/F field whose work I have not sampled at length and did not really intend to until I was told that this was an influence on Gene Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series. Three Hearts and Three Lions was actually more of an influence on Gary Gygax and “Dungeons and Dragons” than Wolfe. But it isn’t just an inspiration for Gygax; Anderson also inspired the law vs. chaos themes in Michael Moorecock’s Eternal Champion stories. Three Hearts and Three Lions was first published in serialized form in 1953, making it officially fantasy before the Rings.

It is also a prime example of fantasy as wish-fulfillment. The hero, Holger Carlson, goes to his native Denmark to fight the Nazis during WWII after a successful career as an engineer in the United States, where he also proves himself a great football player who could have his pick of the local women were he not so shy. During a botched mission to transport a British spy out of Denmark, Holger is knocked unconscious, finding himself no longer in the midst of battle upon awakening, but lying naked in a forest with a powerful steed and knightly gear specially fitted for his robust physique awaiting him. Taking what he fears are not his own possessions, Holger sets off to find his way back home, finding himself in unusually good command of medieval arms and making friends with magical creatures, like Hugi, a well-humored dwarf who speaks in questionable Scottish brogue, and Alianora, a pretty young girl who can magically transmogriphy into a swan and speaks in a yet more questionable Scottish brogue.

If one guesses that Hoger will become a hero of renown -- that he will kill powerful foes and outwit monsters and have some really awesome sex -- he would be mostly correct. Holger receives special dispensation, one assumes, from God, although he is not the only character so blessed. He is both an ideal paladin and an engineer, divining the laws that govern the seeming magic of the world in which he finds himself as well as utilizing his knowledge of physics for practical means against a pursuing dragon and a seductive nixie. He is every bit the everyman hero, except that women throw themselves at him. Alianora, the spunky, cute young girl who turns into a swan, fights over his affections with prim, mature, curvaceous Morgan La Fey. So, yeah: wish fulfillment at its most 1950’s.

Only, it isn’t just about male wish-fulfillment. I get the impression that Anderson is too knowing to write anything so blunt. In fact, much of Holger’s internal narration is rather pointed. When Alianora, whose tiny, feathered dress is what allows her to morph into a swan, seems to warm up to a fellow traveler after he recites some corny poetry and compliments her beauty, Holger storms off to have a hissy fit. “Doesn’t that hillbilly swan wench know what she’s doing to me, parading around half naked? Satan take all women, anyway. They’ve only got exactly one purpose in this world.” I’ve done this. Admit it, guys, we’ve all done this. Only we’re lucky in that water sprites are not then given the opportunity to eat our livers as we drown.

And there is the other part of what makes Three Hearts and Three Lions more than much of what it inspired. The world created by Anderson is a recreation of that described by the medieval romances, a worldview in which the medieval writers unquestionably believed. Christianity exists, juxtaposed to the wild realm of Faerie, to provide law to a world that would otherwise fall into entropy, spurred by the whims of magical creatures for whom such a world would be tolerable, if not enjoyable to live in indefinitely. Anderson does not seek to show chaos as wholly savage, evil, or meretricious. Chaos in Three Hearts and Three Lions defines itself by the modern thaumaturgist’s governing principle, “do what thou wilt,” and it is in this sense that Anderson sees chaos in the regimented, fetishistic organization of the Third Reich, which ignores all reasonable morality and ethics in pursuit of its goals. “Kant be not proud,” and all, but there are some things that simply ain’t right.

Three Hearts and Three Lions is not vicarious ego wank, per se. In fact, Anderson surely intended what Tolkien and Wolfe intended with their fantasies: a challenge to his readers to see themselves as an heir to Western civilization, a defender of law against a world where nobody questions that might makes right. The reader should see Holger as an analogue for him or herself, but in no way that resembles narcissistic escapism.

Anderson is also a lovely writer. Broad characterization and quick pacing make for a fast read; Anderson’s world builds itself in the margins of description and dialogue rather than in large bulks of text. There are certainly imaginative sequences, particularly a fight against a regenerating troll which will be familiar to D&D fans. Three Hearts and Three Lions is never less than humorous, warm, and good natured. If certain fantasy authors had as much wit and imagination as Poul Anderson, the genre would be far less embarrassing and comprised of much shorter books.

I think I’m going to adopt “big women have no business acting kittenish” into my cache of quotable locutions.