Monday, November 28, 2016

Creed (2015)

Lately, it seems I've been on passing the torch theme.

In Kevin Smith's Green Hornet, it's from father to son.

In Project Superpowers, it's the same characters taken out of commission magically and brought to the present day where they are sorely needed.

In Creed, it's the illegitimate son of professional boxer Apollo Creed coming of age and seeking out a mentor who knew his father in a way that only professional fighters would as Adonis Johnson Creed gains tutelage under the skillful hands and eyes of none other than Rocky Balboa, whom Creed affectionately calls "Unc."

The young Creed does a great job of being both outcast and silver spoon child. His youth finds him in a prison center for children separated from others for his continuous fighting. In walks Mary Anne, wife of Apollo Creed, and offers to take in the youth.

For those, like me, who've forgotten, Mary Anne is Apollo's wife. Adonis is not her son. It turns out Apollo had an affair and this son was born after Apollo died.

Mary Anne raises Johnson in style, providing him with a good life. Life much better than Rocky himself enjoyed at the end due to those issues he suffered in Rocky V. Still, Johnson isn't happy with a desk job and spends time fighting in Mexico where his record is 15-0 with those 15 victories being knockouts.

Quitting his day job, he seeks out Rocky for "real" mentoring. Rocky's reluctance to enter the ring in any guise again quickly folds under the determination and spirit he sees in Johnson. Soon the two are working as one with Johnson gaining greater skill under his teacher's watchful eye.

The impressive thing here is how Stallone pushes himself into the background. If you've seen Stallone's other recent movies, you know that despite his age, he's in fantastic shape. In Creed, there's none of that. He's well hidden and concealed behind layers and layers of clothes. This allows actor Michael B. Jordan to shine as Creed.

After bonding with the training, the opportunity comes for young Creed to start his professional career. Boxing is, after all, a business. Adonis claims another KO victory. This prompts more attention onto him, especially when people learn that he is the son of Apollo Creed. He'd been fighting under Adonis Johnson up to that point.

His "rival" in this instance has some build up. One of the professionals that Adonis fought early in the film laid him out soundly. That professional in turn was knocked out at a weight in by the fighter that now Creed has the opportunity to fight: Pretty Colan.

I've mentioned before how showcasing the strength of an enemy can be done by destroying a formerly shown strong rival to the hero? Yeah, hook, line, and sinker here. Colan's so strong he breaks the other guy's jaw at a weigh in. Scary right?

But Colan is going to jail for gun possession. To earn extra money, a fight with a "Creed", even if he is young and untested in the professional ring, is seen as a sure thing.

And this leads into more training!

Now on some levels, there are obvious callbacks to the original Rocky movie. The unknown against the great champ. The theme of "going the distance." The idea of mentors and their values. The numerous training montages. These are all solid devices.

But the film goes a little further in character development. Adonis is no Rocky. He's had a different life. While there has been the struggle, especially in acceptance of never getting to talk to his real father, he later young life was a breeze in comparison. His training under the legendary Rocky is no small thing either.

But the film pushes further. Rocky becomes a sort of father figure for young Creed. But is also diagnosed with Cancer and after seeing the treatments fail to help his wife, Rocky declines them, prepared for death.

Adonis and Rocky decide they will fight together! It's an interesting choice as they don't shy too much from the effects of chemo and the damage it causes to both the physical aspects of a person, or the appetites of a person. Especially telling when it's an Italian who's been shown to enjoy eating rich food.

Creed has some technical bits that were off when I viewed it. The use of Green Screen is blatantly obvious in the last fight where the two boxers are clearly the only thing in the actual room and everything else has been added afterward.

But that's a minor complaint in all. I suspect as the screens get better, especially with Ultra Definition or HD 4 or whatever professionals are calling it now, those flaws in old movies will only be more obvious. It'll be like watching DVDs of old 50's horror movies and laughing at how obvious it all seems.

I'm not a sports fan but Creed is a worthy addition to the Rocky series and sets up things to move forward with or without Rocky as a contributing cast member. If you've enjoyed the original Rocky and the recent version of it where Rocky is older but still fighting, Creed is in that vein.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Project Superpowers

Project Superpowers is a collection that updates numerous super heroes from an older time and generation to the "now". It's renown for it's covers provided by Alex Ross, whose painted realistic style is highly appealing to many fans.

Jim Krueger and Alex Ross worked on the storyline. The interior illustrations are provided by Doug Klauba and Stephen Sadowski in the initial issue, while Carlos Paul takes over for the rest of the series.

Project Superpowers is an interesting take on the super hero world. Unlike say, Marvel or DC, as it's a separate setting, it doesn't have to worry about setting continuity. It doesn't have to worry about looking like "the real world."

And it doesn't.

While there are superficial resemblances, wars are fought by animated undead soldiers. Some of the most popular and powerful people of the time, are actually robots. A whole city is coopted by a mystic and his connection to nature that allows him to turn the city into a new green paradise that the Swamp Thing could only dream about.

All told, it does the job well. It manages to modernize the heros through the use of Pandora's Chest. See, there were rumors that evil would be captured in the chest, but only if you captured the good with it.

So one of the heroes "nobly" captures all of his friends and comrades into the "Chest". Not everyone went into the chest. Some are assumed dead. In the time between the "chest" and the current era, other heroes have risen using technology.

Skip decades ahead to the modern times where hey, the world is still filled with evil and there are still bad things happening.

So the chest is opened again and those who emerge from it,  do so in different locations with different abilities in this modern world.

It's a good "time skip" cheat that works here because this is it's own setting. Doing something like this with save, all the popular characters of a particular setting might reek or bad plotting in a larger or more involved setting.

If you're a fan of Alex Ross, the series is worth looking over just for the covers. If you're a fan of the Golden Age Heroes, many of those that are in the public domain make their modern entrance here. It's a fun done in one style story that can provide a lot of ideas on how to bring characters from the past into the current setting.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kevin Smith's Green Hornet

One thing you can say about Dynamite is that they're not afraid to try different things in their story line. Kevin Smith's Green Hornet, also known as Green Hornet Legacy, is proof of that.

First, it makes the Green Hornet story a multi-generational one. It takes the hero out of his pulp legacy era. The original Green Hornet, Britt Reid Sr, makes a major crime bust destroying the last of the "big gangs" that inhabited the city. Britt decides to settle down with his wife and young son and continue working at the paper.

His son, Britt Reid Jr., spoiled and wanting nothing, does nothing with his life. Britt Reid would be suffering from what Malcolm Gladwell would call the bottom of the reversed U-shaped effect of parenting in David Vs Goliath.

Until an aging politician on the outs makes a deal with the devil resulting in a new villain, the Black Hornet, emerging and killing Britt Reid Sr.

Motivated unto action, at last, Britt Reid Jr becomes... yeah, the Green Hornet.

The original Kato has a daughter, Mulan. She not only becomes the new Kato,  but she also becomes the new driver of the Black Beauty. Her design and introduction has fans and haters.

The introduction of a female minority lesbian character should be all thumbs up to some, but then, of course, it's a comic book so...

The new duo then goes on to fight crime much as the original pair.

Sounds simple enough right?

But Kevin makes it a little more intelligent than that.

The 'villains' of the piece, Oni Juuma and his son, Hirohito Juuma, play up many of the traditional roles against trope. The attack against the original Green Hornet? The introduction of the Black Hornet? The "criminal" elements put into place?

All if it merely a sideshow for the capture of a powerful military weapon to be sold on the black market. The whole elaborate "revenge" bit only done ot get attention. To have people looking at one place instead of another.

Now Kevin does fall into a bit of a rut in the magical thinking routine. When Oni Juuma at the end notes his rage at having his deal fall apart because the Green Hornet has cost him millions, it harkens back to Austin Powers.

In Austin Powers, there's a scene where a newly awoken Dr. Evil demands "one million dollars" only to learn his corporation makes over nine billion dollars a year.

While the military jet and it's value and indeed impressive, Hirohito is the head of a game company that just made over three hundred million dollars and is set to produce another game which would probably go even further. So... if it's ALL about the money, all about the sleight of hand to get the money, why bother with the jet in the first place?

There's also a distinct lack of mothers. While Reid Jr does have a mother, she makes a handful of appearances and dies offstage of cancer. The Black Hornet? Kato? Wives or mothers? What? Nah. Skip all that.

Kevin's might be a little aware of it, though. After all, Hirohito, the son, the one who goes out as "The Black Hornet" is more about the "personal" satisfaction bit. How the Green Hornet took from him, from his family, and how that needs avenging.  The clash of emotional carthasis versus the need for cash is powerful.

Kevin Smith's original run of the Green Hornet is great. It's complete in it's telling. If you're looking to see examples of how pulp heroes of yesteryear can change to modern times, you could do worse than Kevin Smith's Green Hornet.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)

With the  Criterion Collection leaving Hulu, I wanted to get a last peak (on the streaming service at least) of the Samurai Trilogy. Based on the samurai Musashi the trilogy follows the samurai from his youth as a glory hungry strong man to a wandering ronin committed to mastering the soul of a samurai itself.

The first movie, Musashi Miyamoto, is in its way, the first steps of the "origin" story. As a young man, Takezo is strong and dreams of acknowledgment by his peers in the village. He is proud, headstrong, and known as the "wild one" by his family. He talks his friend Matahachi into going with him into "the Great Battle."

His side loses.

Takezo and Matahachi recover with the aid of a widow and her daughter. Romantic inclinations don't work as anticipated and the widow takes off with her daughter and Matahachi.

Takezo goes through a long route of pain and suffering to let Matahachi's mother and betrothed know that Matahachi is alive but will not be coming back. This leads to Otsu, the former betrothed, falling in love with Takezo.

The problem is that to get to the mother and Otsu; Takezo did numerous illegal things of which he eventually is held accountable for. This results in him spending three years in a castle against his will in what would be a flashback scene today, because, at the end of that time, Takezo is now Musashi and is ready to walk the warrior's road on training.

The second movie, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, follows Musashi as he becomes more refined. At first, a monk sees him in a duel and notes that Musashi is "too strong." While we see Musashi's work, Sasaki Kojiro is also introduced. Another noted samurai, another noted sword saint. Their paths follow separate but similar roads.

Musashi's testing of his mettle leads him against the Yoshioka school. The students there seek to protect their master, to ensure the good name of the school. It goes badly for them. Musashi cuts through their ranks until the ending where the leader of the Yoshioka school, Seijuro, manages to meet Musashi for their agreed upon duel.

Mushashi easily overcomes Seijuro but leaves him alive, recalling the earlier observations about being "too strong".

When we get to the third movie, Duel at Ganryu Island, Musashi is a changed man. Still a slave to his passion for sword mastery but no longer interested in the material wealth or the social status aspect of that mastery. Meanwhile, Sasaki Kojiro has risen in the social sphere and his own swordwork remains peerless.

Which leads to a final confrontation with Musashi.

The movies today would be different in numerous ways. First, the action sequences would be far more bloody. Part of the "entertainment" value of these old films for me is watching all of the people "killed" and falling dead while the blows that struck them such clearly didn't touch.

Another thing that would be different is the dialogue. For a three movie set, there is surprisingly little dialog.

If you're a fan of the actor Toshiro Mifune, no study of the actor is complete without this old classic. If you're a fan of Usagi Yojimbo, you'll note some familiar names like the squire Jotaro, or the themes of wandering ronin testing their skills against an established school. You'll note the treatment of a samurai's sword as if it were the samurai's soul.

The Samurai Trilogy isn't the best set of films in the genre. It's not going to surpass Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, or numerous others. But it is a solid gem of the genre and it's also an excellent showcase of how films were made at the time.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Stagecoach (1939)

Continuing my Criterion Collection viewing before they leave +Hulu , next up was Stagecoach. It's not a movie I would have picked originally as while I do enjoy westerns, my enjoyment of the Criterion Collection is usually through their Samurai films.

But I'd heard rave reviews for years about Stagecoach and decided to pop it in.

What a rewarding experience.

First, if you're a young person, you should occasionally throw on an old movie, and I don't mean from the 80s, I mean from the 50s, 40s 30s or earlier. You should do this just to see what life was like in the days and times. The vernacular, the clothing, the attitudes, no matter what the people on stage are trying to portray, are the elements of the time the films were made.

Stagecoach provides the viewer with a brief meeting with nine individuals and their travels aboard a stagecoach. Each one with their own motivations for being on it. Each time they board it, they are in a dangerous territory and the resources protecting them grow fainter and fainter until they are all alone.

There is a lot going on and most of the characters get several moments to shine.

Much of it would still be relevant in today's society. For example, When Doc Boone tells Peacock that he served as a doctor in the Union Army during the "War of the Rebellion," Hatfield quickly uses a Southern term, the "War for the Southern Confederacy." The "wounds" of the war were still relatively fresh when this movie was made. You look around today and it seems nothing has changed.

The banker, Henry Gatewood, tells everyone how everything should be done. Loud and boisterous in demeanor acting as if his words were the words of the people. Until it's revealed that he's a thief, and unlike modern bankers, goes to jail. Well, I suppose modern bankers who, like he did, steal from the bank, would still go to jail... It's a huge flag of the hypocrisy of "I'm better than  you." even though, you know, he's not.

Another citizen, Dallas, is a prostitute who's been driven out of the city by a collection of righteous women under the organization "Law and Order League". So smug and satisfied with themselves that they can't wait for her to leave. 

The culture clashes abound as Dallas finds some sympathy with Ringo, played by a very young John Wayne here. As an escaped outlaw, Ringo's use for social classes is negligible. He treats everyone like people, responding to aggression with aggression for example.

And there are other bits. For example, Geronimo. His name holds sway over the entire trip like a powerful harbinger of terror. His mere name alone enough to cause men to tremble.

The variety of nationalities is present too, as when in one town, a Mexican is married to a Native American and notes that it's safer for him than for the others as he's already in the "family". Doesn't work out too well for him when his wife leaves and takes his possessions, including his prized horse who, it turns out, he loves and values more than his wife!

With the tricks of the trade in filming today, Stagecoach is ripe for a modern day remake. A full-color version that could capture the rocky plains, that could capture the rocky buttes , the isolation between towns and that last seat clenching battle as the Apaches and the Stagecoach riders fight tooth and nail against one another for survival.

Stagecoach has a variety of great characters that make great models. It has a variety of great scenery that can be inspiring. It has cultures clashing and numerous viewpoints coming together and falling apart in waves with no clear resolution.

Catch it before it leaves Hulu or on Blu-ray.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Cronos (1993)

With the Criterion Collection leaving +Hulu soon, I'm catching up on movies I haven't seen in years or haven't seen at all.

Cronos, a film by Guillermo del Toro, better known for Hellboy and other "weirdness", was next on that list.

Short review? Set in the modern era, an old man, Jesus Gris, in charge of a shop buys an old statue that contains an odd device. The device belonged to an ancient alchemist who'd crafted the device to grant eternal life. Unfortunately for the alchemist, that didn't include being crushed and vital organs pierced! Hence the alchemist items wind up for sale and this statue winds up in the old man's shop.

The story follows what happens when someone else seeks out the item and what happens when you play with ancient secrets without the instructions. It's not Guillermo's strongest work but it's a solid film and is worth viewing.

For role playing games, it brought to mind two bits.

1) Jane Stop This Crazy Thing! Jesus initial exposure to the device was accidental. Future exposures were deliberate. He does this without knowing what exactly he's doing and he suffers quite a bit for it. In post-apocalyptic settings or fantasy settings with their share of weird technology, don't be afraid to throw negative side effects into the game when players don't' bother trying to learn how to use an item.

2)Origin of the Species: The villain of the piece, the recluse and wealthy De La Guardia, notes how wonderful insects are. How versatile they are. He compares the miracles of Jesus to those of insects. But the device itself? The one crafted by the alchemist? Well, it grants you immortality, aging wise at least, by forcing the immortal to drink human blood.

It's a wonderful play off of the vampire origin and could be a fantastic way to do things in a role playing game. Forget getting bit by a vampire. Forget necromancers and their rites. It's a bug. A huge weird bug that lives in symbiosis with the user.

Keep an open mind when you're watching movies, reading books, looking at comics, and listening to others. Inspiration for thing different strikes when you least expect it.

For those readers with Hulu, any recommendations on the Criterion Collection? Any favorites? Any to avoid at all costs?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Criterion Collection is leaving +Hulu . The Halloween season is upon us.

So The Seventh Seal seemed an appropriate movie.

For those who've never seen it, you should. Highly recommended.

It's one of Ingmar Berman's masterpieces. A crusader, Antonius Block, returning home from 10 years of war in the Crusades, during the time of the Black Death, is weary of spirit and sees a personification of Death who has come for him. Here we see perhaps the first use of Death playing a game to delay the inevitable.

This methodology was put to great comedic effect in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. I'd forgotten when I saw Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, that they cribbed even the look of Death from The Seventh Seal.

As a personification, Death here is, well, mild. He knows he has all the time in the world. He plays with Antonius and is in turned "played" by the crusader, but the viewer never knows if those plays by Antonius are successful or just Death allowing them to appear such.

As a personification, it could be "higher" than the Gods in a standard fantasy campaign. It doesn't need to be malicious like Bhaal or other Death Gods tend to be in the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. It's just something that happens.

Antonius Block is an interesting character if one were to look for inspiration for role-playing traits and motivations.

The later leads into the former.

Antonius is tired of NOT hearing God. He's always questioning. He's always seeking that big truth. He seeks it from Death, who remains silent on the matter. He seeks it from the Church, which provides no answers. He seeks it from fellow pilgrims and travelers. He is always questioning the overall purpose and arc of life itself, of his life itself. This questioning provides a tragic frame to Antonius, much like Warlock from Marvel Comics or Elric, seeking to fight his nature but being trapped in the world, must eventually yield to it.

His squire, Jons, is a man of the real world. He knows what life is and it's not happy. Described as a nihilist, he nonetheless isn't evil. He saves a woman from being raped and killed for example. He sees evil being done and would rise against it to another woman condemned to die as a witch. He merely sees things the way he thinks they are and is frank about it. This stoic nature makes him a great contrast to his seeking master.

There's also the setting. The Black Plague is everywhere. People die from it frequently. It's referenced as the end of the world. It sets the stage for a death that cannot be reasoned with. Cannot be bargained with. A death that strikes noble knight and lowly leper with equal ease.

Then there's the background of where the knight's coming from, the Crusades and 10 years of war. During the trip back to the knight's manor, Jon finds the priest who convinced his master to go to the Crusades in the middle of stealing from the dead and about to rape and murder a servant girl. Jon is not happy. His master's demeanor changed by the horrors of war and he lets the fallen priest know, should they meet again, Jon will mark the priest so others know what a liar and fiend he is.

These huge events, the Black Plague, and the Crusade, showcase how vast and uncaring the world is. There can be several things going on in your campaign at the same time and they should all have an impact to those that must experience them.

There is no raising one's hands and begging enough. There is no exception for already having suffered from one calamity. There is just life and the events that must be endured.

This is a movie I could watch again and again. The black and white filming, the nature of the questor and his stoic squire, the background characters, the threat of plague, the damnation of a man spent 10 years in war... it's all powerful stuff and well told.