Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Year in Movies 2017 Part 2 - Martial Arts, Monsters and Superheroes

          This might be the easiest section to write because these are the easiest movies for me to turn on and enjoy. The past few years have been good for new monster and superhero adventures with Marvel and the new lives of Godzilla and King Kong, and I am thankful that I never seem to run out of older cult classics, giant monsters, and superheroics despite how passionately and quickly I jump at the chance to see them most of the time.

The Dragon Lives Again

          This was the first movie of the year that really hit me. The Dragon Lives Again is the epitome of exploitation (specifically "Brucesploitation") with a plot that is all over the place and a cast that cashes in on enough classic movies to make your head spin. Bruce Lee has died and gone to the underworld, where he makes both friend and foe of some of the biggest names in film from Michael Corleone to Dracula to the One-Armed Swordsman to "The Exorcist" to Popeye. Yes, "The Exorcist" (that's what they call him) and Popeye. I could talk about this movie at length, but I will let this little clip speak for itself:

This movie is so insane that I watched it three times and hosted it as a livetweet for #MondayActionMovie, and it was guaranteed a mention in this year-end review before the opening credits finished rolling. Of course, all of the famous faces and characters were in name and costume only, but that did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of this crazy story. For a fun slapstick martial arts double-feature, watch this one with Jackie Chan's City Hunter, which was also on my first-time viewings list for this year for no other reason than to see Jackie Chan dressed up as Chun-Li.

Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare

          The second entry of the Yokai Monsters trilogy and, quite possibly, the best. I have not gotten around to the third installment yet, but this was a fun story about different spirits and creatures in cultural folklore crossing paths. Rather than pranking or taking revenge on evil humans who desecrate sacred lands and totems, this time the Yokai such as the turtle-like Kappa and the snake-necked woman discover that many of the humans around them have been overtaken by an invading vampire from a far-away land. There is a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor that the Japanese Yokai themselves consult an encyclopedia of their own kind and can, in turn, research creatures and ghosts from other lands and countries to find out just what their adversary is. This vampire is so ancient that it bears no resemblance to the likes of Dracula, but most of the classic rules of blood-drinking and possession apply. The humans are powerless against this ancient evil, and even the Yokai themselves are no match for the vampire's power until they realize that they have strength in numbers. Other than The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, at the moment I can not think of any other movies that took different mythologies and blended them together. Even if I am missing a few, there are not enough of them out there.

Wonder Woman

          I have been hesitant to see anything of the DC Cinematic Universe since Batman v Superman, but Wonder Woman was a necessity, not just for me but for us all. I tried to like BvS. Honest. I really did try (, but BvS was a hurried attempt to catch up to everything that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done already and too dark a take on DC's greatest heroes. I grew up watching Lynda Carter's incarnation of the Amazon heroine, and Gal Gadot's Diana was virtually the only good thing I could glean from Dawn of Justice. And, once and for all, the shift between BvS to Wonder Woman to Justice League is perhaps the best example that we need to stop letting men direct female superheroes. Have you read Joss Whedon's Wonder Woman script? And he might get to direct a Batgirl movie? Great Caesar's ghost...

Marvel Cinematic Universe

          In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn does it again. The Guardians remain one of the shining examples of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Gunn's stories continue to elicit every emotion from laughter to heavy tears. Taika Waititi essentially threw a white glove of challenge on the field with Thor: Ragnarok, and I expected nothing less from the What We Do in the Shadows director. This double dose of Marvel Cosmic took me back to my late teens and early twenties. At the time, I was more likely to read stories involving the Silver Surfer and Jim Starlin's tales of Adam Warlock, Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet than I was to plant my feet on Marvel's Earth with the Avengers or the Fantastic Four. Space was the place, and Thor and the Guardians have done a fine job setting the stage for Thanos' arrival.

          Say what you will about Spider-Man reboot after Spider-Man reboot, but I have been on board for them all the way down the line. I even have a tailored Spider-Man shirt that I have worn to every Marvel superhero movie premiere since Sam Raimi's first outing. I have gotten a little big in the gut and can no longer button it up, but I have a couple of very nice Marvel Superheroes t-shirts that enhance the look quite nicely underneath. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a delightful return to Peter Parker's roots with a little modern-day comics mythology mixed in. The MCU needed Spider-Man, and I am glad they got him. I miss Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy, and Homecoming was the perfect palate cleanser for the abysmal handling of Amazing Spider-Man 2. One thing I particularly loved about the plot was that the writers threw a curve ball at long-time fans. We hear a lot of first names and come to assume that they are certain people, but even an encyclopedic knowledge of the Spider-Verse can be a red herring. I was a little put-off to see Miles Morales' best friend Ganke stolen away from Ultimate Spider-Man for this story, but he was a welcome addition. I said it early in the casting stage, but I would have loved to see Michael Keaton play Mysterio. He can play anything to perfection and was great as the Vulture, but a character like Mysterio seemed tailor-made for his personality.

Love & Peace (2015)

          Another instant holiday favorite for me. It would be a spoiler to explain why this is a Christmas movie, but it is most definitely a Christmas movie. This is a story of magic, living toys, talking animals, and wishes coming to life, and when it revealed its Christmas secret, I cried like a baby. I am getting a little choked up just thinking about it. It was an overdose of hope and holiday spirit. I walked into it for one specific reason: I love giant monsters and Gamera movies, and Love & Peace boasted a giant turtle of its own. It took some very strange twists and turns, but it did not disappoint with a little city-stomping. Love & Peace is not widely available yet, but I hope that it receives a domestic US release sometime in the near future.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Warning: contains spoilers)

          Another instant annual holiday tradition for me. I suspect that I will be watching this and Love & Peace every December for the rest of my years. This is a perfect Christmas horror movie, and I would argue that it is good for the whole family despite the many penises present near the end. No one ever listens to the children in a horror movie, but our story's young hero is not one to leave it at that. He holds within him the true meaning of Christmas: a sense of honor, honesty, generosity and self-sacrifice, but the evil incarnation of Santa Claus in this story is blind to anything short of being good for goodness' sake. I have officially traded in my childhood dream to ride on Falkor from The Neverending Story and would rather hitch a ride on a helicopter net full of frightened Finnish children in burlap sacks.

          Only one aspect of Rare Exports disappointed me, but this is my bias as a fan of giant monster movies. I was a little upset that we did not get to see a gigantic Santa demon thaw from his ice block and lead to a climactic effort to put him back in his tomb, but it took a more heartwarming and Christmasy direction to have a wonderful ending with our young hero willing to put his own life at risk to save everyone else.

Colossal (Warning: contains spoilers)

          I was not sure what to expect from this one, but it was a lot more satisfying than I expected. This was not so much a kaiju movie as a tale of dysfunctional relationships and selfishness with the metaphor brought to life that a monster can live within any of us. If you are among those to count this as a kaiju movie at all, then it was certainly one of the weirdest ones. It is hard not to love Anne Hathaway in virtually everything she does, and Jason Sudeikis is easy to hate in this type of role. I have been a fan of "hating" Sudeikis since his days on Saturday Night Live. He can make me laugh and infuriate me at the same time because he is so good at playing the kind of straight-faced jerk that he plays here. It takes a special kind of talent for a comedian to play a psychopath so well. Given the cast and the small dose of mentions I saw about the movie in various places, I assumed wrongly that this would play out as a comedy or, at the very least, a romance, and I was about as far away from the mark as Seoul is from New York. Those last thirty minutes are an emotional gut-punch when you begin to realize the story is taking a dark turn, and Sudeikis shifts dramatically from "nice guy" to "he seemed like a nice guy AT FIRST." Hathaway is a hot mess, but she begins to find some of her own inner strength when she starts to see just how pathetic and hateful Sudeikis is and always has been. The supporting cast is the first red flag to illustrate how imposing Sudeikis is in his character and how much power he manages to hold over them, and they stand virtually helpless on the sidelines like tiny human spectators in a traditional kaiju movie. This becomes the major charm of Colossal. The kaiju scenes are minimal, but the emotional tone of the human scenes is no different than two giant beasts laying waste to everything around them.

Sector 7 and Train To Busan

          I remember hearing about Sector 7 when it was about to be released, but it slipped my mind until I found it by accident this year. It is an unabashed love letter to some of the greatest action horror movies of all time. Nonstop action, top-notch effects, likable characters working the site of a besieged oil rig, and an assortment of visual nods to the likes of Aliens and other classics. Highly recommended, and very little I could say would do it proper justice. If you enjoy movies like The Host, then this is a must.

          I thought I was going to pass up Train To Busan entirely, but I am glad that I changed my mind. A top five favorite for the year, no contest. Zombie movie fatigue has been heavy for several years for me, and I dropped out of the sub-genre almost entirely after The Walking Dead hit its second season on television (around the same time the comics introduced Negan). Train To Busan is another of my top ten favorites of the year, and I am not sure which movie made me ugly cry harder: Train To Busan or Logan. I was a wreck afterward, and this story provides the essence of survival horror.

3 Dev Adam (Three Mighty Men AKA Turkish Captain America and El Santo vs. Spider-Man)

          I had this in my possession for several years before I finally got around to it, and it did not disappoint. The world of Turkish "adaptation" cinema is a strange one, indeed, and there is no end to Turkish versions of Hollywood classics. Similar to The Dragon Lives Again, this is another instance of famous characters in name only, but the plot makes some effort to convince you that Captain America and El Santo live in a shared universe and have come together to thwart an evil plot that goes beyond their own borders. The wild card, of course, is the villainous "Spider-Man," and the traditional Spider-Man, if he exists in this universe, is nowhere to be seen. His bushy eyebrows suggest that he might be J. Jonah Jameson underneath the mask until you realize that the eyebrows are part of the mask. Less a superhero movie, this is an all-in-good-fun foreign spy action thriller to the tune of Diabolik or Batwoman.

Kong: Skull Island and Logan

          Shamefully far down the list beginning at #62, these are the first two movies I saw in theater for 2017. I still draw a blank trying to remember the last time I went to the theater to see two movies in one day. It had to be in the 1990s at least, but I broke that unknown streak of twenty-some-odd years this year to treat myself to a double feature of Logan and Kong: Skull Island. My nephew skipped out of town on that opening weekend for Kong to visit extended family with his mother, leaving me high and dry on a birthday movie outing that had been postponed for two months already. We were supposed to see some rare Ultraman screenings in January, but everything seemed to fall through for us at the beginning of this year. We did not get to see a movie together in theater this year at all until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but I was not going to miss my favorite giant ape on the big screen. If I had a gun to my head right now and was forced to choose between Godzilla and Kong, I think a lot of long-time friends and acquaintances would stop speaking to me. I choose Kong. I do not like to choose between them and spend far much more of my time watching Godzilla movies over and over again than Kong movies, but I have a thing for a long list of famous apes in general. Spectreman's Dr. Gori and Karas, Mighty Joe Young, the original King Kong and Son of Kong, and Planet of the Apes are among my all-time favorites, and Koko had a huge impact on me as a kid. This puts Kong in a special category as a beast not far removed from humanity. Godzilla is a force of nature. Kong is a force of emotion, and he is the giant monster originator of the 20th century. Although the final line of Godzilla 2000 states that we can see a little of ourselves in Godzilla, we can see even more of ourselves in Kong. Kong: Skull Island was solid giant monster fun, and I look forward to seeing the direction the new Legendary Monsterverse takes. Mostly, I just hope they pronounce Ghidorah's name right. If you're not saying it like Nick Adams in Monster Zero, then you're wrong.

          Logan is easily in my top five movies for 2017. Like the DC movies, I have avoided the X-Men franchise ever since The Last Stand and have only seen Deadpool and the last half-hour of First Class when I caught it on a cable channelI enjoyed Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, but even he never drew me to see any of the solo Wolverine movies until Logan came along. I have been a huge fan of What If...?Elseworlds, The End stories, and parallel universe/future stories because they can play around with canon. Logan was the Marvel MAX of superhero movies, and it was long overdue for a comic-based movie to pack this kind of an emotional punch. It was a Marvel superhero version of a gritty samurai tale, specifically Lone Wolf and Cub with the introduction of X-23, and there was a good dose of The Road Warrior mixed in for good measure. It is a shame that the franchise did not risk taking Wolverine in this direction much sooner. I have followed a great many Wolverine stories in the comics over the years, and the biggest mistake that the X-Men movie franchise made was to glamorize him, but a faithful visual depiction of Logan probably would not sell tickets. Hugh Jackman is too good for the role in every sense of the word... until Logan. Logan does not glamorize Logan. Logan is Logan. Finally, Wolverine can be seen as the long-traveled, weathered, and tortured soul he has been, and we see more clearly his struggle with the animal inside.

          Cross audiences tend to dismiss some of these movies and bring up the "fatigue" argument, but one point to remember about the superhero sub-genre is that it can be formulaic and non-formulaic at the same time. The presence of superheroes is a backdrop. What we are seeing now with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a grander fashion, is a rebirth of theatrical serials not unlike the 1940s adventures of Batman and Robin, Captain America, Captain Marvel, and other classics like The Crimson Ghost. The only problem, the real "fatigue" involved, is that this is no longer the 25-cent all-day kiddie matinee and that each new superhero movie is not broken down into 15-minute chunks that always end with an explosion or someone going over a cliff to entice you back to see the next chapter. Imagine being expected to go to a theater in 1949 and to see all 264 minutes of Batman and Robin in one sitting as a complete story. At the same time, I wonder what it might have been like to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe broken down into installments to revive that old theatrical tradition. Theatrical presentations of a few television shows have become a thing, but I would like to imagine having the option of going to a local theater every week to see the next episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. instead of tuning in at home. That volume of material, however, is a large part of the "fatigue" of the superhero movie of today more than anything else, and this is where Logan and Deadpool come in. They break away from the formula in just the right way. It is a shame that the X-Men could not share the same studio with the Avengers, but Logan and Deadpool had the right people involved in the project, making their stories more like a comic series that did its own thing instead of diverting away from a solid story for the company-wide crossover event of the week. It will be interesting to see how the MCU translates this concept in Infinity War.

Up next in part three, I revisit a chunk of my Halloween highlights to talk about what I call the new breed of universal (lowercase) monsters taking shape in the footsteps of the classic Universal (uppercase) Monsters. Speaking of shapes, come Hell or high water, I intend to see The Shape of Water as my first new movie of 2018 before it leaves my local theater. I have little doubt that I can incorporate it into the discussion.

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