Saturday, February 27, 2010

Star Wars Episodes VII, VIII, and IX

Hello, Space Monkees!

You know its inevitable.  Its going to happen, one day, and there's nothing you or me can hope to do about it.  George Lucas might claim that his Star Wars saga is, and always has been, six movies, two trilogies, but you know he's full of shit.  Every interview, every comment, every word he's said about his work, its all bullshit.  You can never trust a creator; they'll always tell you a white lie to make their story seem more artistic and elemental.  "The idea came to me in a dream."  "I found the historical records and a scarlet letter A in my attic."  So if Lucas says to you one (imagine you're meeting George Lucas for a second) that the Star Wars films are supposed to just be the complete tale of Anakin Skywalker*, give him a good laugh in his face for me.  Also if he tells you that everything was planned from the beginning:  Darth Vader was always Luke's father, Leia was always his sister, and that the Prequels did not create any plot holes with the Original Trilogy at all, just walk away and find somebody else to talk to.

Its going to happen even if George Lucas fights until his dieing day against it.  You know that already there are forcing in LucasFilm counting up the profits of the six films and imagining just how much many more billions this series has to offer if you throw a few more films into the market.  "Star Wars: Clone Wars" proved that even if you go out of your way to make the worst movie you can, it will still turn a profit.  All you need is that Star Wars logo.  I know if I were in ol' Georgie's place I could never ignore the riches to be won.  I mean, the series has already made 4 billion dollars in box office returns alone, that's not even counting the ever greater millions to be made on cloths, toys, Monopoly sets, video games, bubblegum, and flamethrowers.  So it might take ten years, or might take a century, but there will be more Star Wars movies.  The only thing that could stop more Star Wars is the end of film as a media altogether or the destruction of western civilization (personally I think both of those events are one and the same).  Forget art, forget storytelling, forget even quality, money beats them all.  Just know that one day either you or your children or maybe even your children's children will one day be sitting in a darkened theatre, eating popcorn, and watching Jedi Knights fight evil with their droid buddies.

But, imagining a Star Wars VII, VIII, and IX, do these movies have to be terrible?  Looking at LucasFilm's record over the last decade, one would assume so based on pattern analysis.  Let's review:  "Star Wars Episode I" - terrible, "Star Wars Episode II" - equally terrible, "Star Wars Episode III" - less terrible, but still not good, and "Star Wars Clone Wars" - therapy-inducing nightmare.  Throw the original series in and you have three good movies for every four terrible ones.  I mean, that's a better record than Michael Bay or Richard Kelly, but it isn't anything you can take pride in.  Though honestly, I'm of the opinion that any movie can be good if done right.  Yeah, I even have the slightest bit of hope for "Transformers 3" - it isn't much hope, but its there.  So I'm sure that somewhere, out there, maybe in another galaxy, there must be a chosen one.  There must be a Director Jedi who take take the Sequel Trilogy and make it as good or even better than the original movies.

Unfortunately, more likely than not, that Chosen One will never be found, and instead the Sequel Trilogy will be terrible.  I, and millions of other fans will complain - a lot - and proclaim that we'll never watch any more Star Wars films.  But then when X, XI, and XII come around, we'll just repeat the cycle.

But let's try to imagine what this magical perfect Sequel Trilogy could be like.  Let's undergo a little mental exercise and try to figure out what can be done further with this story, the right way.  Yeah, its probably impossible, but this is my blog and I can make anything happen!  This is my world!  Look, over there, its a chicken with a watermelon for a head.  My powers here are unlimited!  So I'll just make this up as I go here, and I'm sure by the end we'll reach something golden.  Or maybe not.  Who knows?  Who cares?  On we go:

(Note:  I'm just going to ignore the entire Extended Universe nonsense for this.  As far as I'm concerned, the only thing that's canon in Star Wars is the movies and that awesome N64 game "Shadows of the Empire".  Already about eight billion authors** have written novels about a post "Return of the Jedi" Star Wars universe, and the entire universe has become so complicated that Wookiepedia, a Wikipedia just for Star Wars has seventy-four thousand articles.  It would take a team of people, eight strong, to fill themselves through all that information and it would truly be impossible to make films on it all and still be "canon" with the rest of it.  And having read a few of those books myself, like the Thrawn Trilogy, I can say that they're um...  bad.  So I'll just throw it all out and start from a fully blank slate.)

The biggest problem with continuing the Star Wars story is how complete of an ending "Return of the Jedi" left us with.  Luke has completed his Hero's Journey, saved his father, destroyed the Empire, and brought peace and justice to the galaxy forever.  Where can you possibly expand upon this?  There are no missing threads, no plot threads left to expand upon.  Certainly Luke cannot be the central character of this trilogy, as his character has reached enlightened Jedi-ness.  Maybe he could use a love interest, but the other films have stated more or less that Jedis are asexual.  The only love interest Luke has ever had is Leia and thanks to a last minute retcon by Lucas in "Return of the Jedi", that idea is best summed up this onomatopoeia:  "BLUUUUCCHHH!!!"  So basically unless Luke is playing the mentor this time around, he isn't going to have much to do.  And my love of the character makes just killing him off a huge problem.  You can't just drop a bridge on inconvenient characters this immortal.

I suppose that I could simply start the story off many decades after the end of the Original Series, when all the major characters have already died in peace.  But if I did that, then it wouldn't really be much of a sequel, now would it?  Of course there need to be new characters for a Sequel Trilogy, but you can't just create a whole new cast and plot.  Why even bother calling it Star Wars then?  It could simply be my own original space opera Intellectual Property without the problems of living up to any standards of "the spirit of Star Wars" or whatever.  Clearly a true Sequel Trilogy would have to focus on the same characters left over from the original movies, just with a new problem to overcome.

Ultimately the only open plot point in the Original Trilogy that I can find is Leia.  Yoda in "Empire Strikes Back" mentions that "there is another" - another soul who can bring balance to the force.  The entire "other" plot point was just a trick used by Lucas during the original films to add a bit of tension to Luke's mortality.  Normally he would be immortal for a story like this, but when that "other" means he can die and be replace by the surprise extra Jedi.  Beyond that, the entire idea has been left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.  The sequel to that movie revealed that it was Leia, who supposedly had the same Skywalker Force powers that Luke and Vader have...  only she never really shows any signs of them except for one extremely minor instance (for you Star Wars fans, consider this a trivia question).  Leia, still needing to learn to the ways of the Force, would most likely be our best candidate for a heroine of the Sequel Trilogy.

Only one problem:  she's pretty well-adjusted too.  Leia seems pretty happy romantically with Han Solo, she's most likely the leader of the New Republic being a princess of something or other, and there doesn't seem to be much of a hole in her life that can be filled with Force training.  So what can be done here to boil up some classic problems?  Could I kill off Han Solo to build up emotional tension?  My God, what a prospect!  Murdering one of my favorite supporting characters ever!  I think by now we've demonstrated that there are not going to be any easy answers for this hypothetical Sequel Trilogy.  Unless something drastic is done in the very first Episode, nobody is going take this entire story seriously.  The worst thing we could do is rehash the entire Original Trilogy, leaving the audience to find the entire thing to be a superfluous supplement to steal more money (like it actually is, but that's just a secret between you and me).  What can Han really do here in the first place?  He only ever was the lovable rouge, a counterpoint to Luke's straight heroics.  In fact, he didn't have anything to do in all of "Return of the Jedi" either when you get right down to it***.  So honestly, I think that unless you drop the guillotine early and kill somebody who isn't going to have much to do anyway, and lead Leia onto a journey herself.

Look what trying to make a Sequel Trilogy has done to me so far:  I killed Han!  I can't believe myself right now.  Well, its either going to be Han or Luke.  Somebody major is going down.  Luke is just too powerful and Jedi-ish to be wiped out, even heroically, in the first movie.

Anyway, that leads me to the villains.  Who could possibly be a threat when you've already defeated a Galactic Empire run by Sith?  Once again, this is not easy.  A lot of the - terrible - Star Wars novels have detailed the threat of an Imperial remnant, which I find to be a frankly presumptuous notion.  The Empire is evil!  When the Emperor was killed, the entire galaxy threw off the Empire in a single grand celebration of freedom.  You can't complicate matters by leaving a few characters here and there who honestly believed in the promise of Empire.  The only Imperials you can have are purely evil sniveling cretins, preferably British and Peter Cushing.  Palpatine should not come either for that matter.  If he were to have survived his fall in "Return of the Jedi", Darth Vader's entire redemption would be cheapened.  Whatever threat there might be would most likely have to be extra-galactic.  Maybe a Sith army that's been hiding for some thousand years or so.  Maybe an expansionist Universal Empire!  Whatever it is, it has to be much more powerful than the Galactic Empire, as every sequel must push the tension up to eleven.  An army of Death Stars?  Maybe a space ship with the power to destroy a Star?  Something with the power to destroy a galaxy???  Gotta make it hard core!

Anyway, my personal theory about this entire story is that it should be one of fall and redemption.  Leia might flirt with the Dark Side, perhaps even become a fully-fledged Sith in her own right.  Hey, I'm desperate for ideas, okay?  Luke, having that special twin Force bond or whatever, will have to redeem her, through combat, kinda like a replay or Anakin vs. Obi Wan from "Revenge of the Jedi".  Only that things work out this time (I really don't want Star Wars to end in an unhappy way).  Then together, the Skywalkers defeat whatever new enemies have popped up, and bring true peace and justice and low low prices to the galaxy.


Okay, it isn't perfect.  In fact, its fairly terrible....  Alright I give!  You can't possibly do a Star Wars Sequel Trilogy properly.  Its impossible!  Even if something like this were done, and I honestly believe this would be the best way to do it, fanboys would still bitch until their teeth fell out.  Its hopeless.  You can never make them happy.  And if you don't do anything in a few more years they'll be bitching that you never made a Sequel Trilogy.  Ahhhh...  What's the point?  Even if you find a perfect storyline, you still would have to recast all the classic parts.  Can you imagine a Han Solo without Harrison Ford?  Man, this entire line of thought is just a waste of time.

Lucas, you can do your Sequel Trilogy yourself.  Count me out of it.


On the other hand, I do like money.  Yeah, count me in, screw the fans.  There's nothing that could be made that possibly could be worse than "Clone Wars", after all.  Just give me a call, and send the sacks of money.  I'm sure it'll be any day now.  Yup, any day now.

* One of the strangely less-vocalized complaints about the Star Wars prequels (its easy to miss something considering how much is wrong with those movies) is that they throw Luke into the background, and push Darth Vader as the central character of the series.  Having grown up with Luke and his Hero's Journey, I find this idea to be strange and even offensive.  Darth Vader makes for a good villain - nay, the BEST villain - but when he's trying to be the protagonist, well...  you know the results.  It isn't pretty, needless to say.  Preferably a sequel trilogy would push Anakin/Darth back into a secondary role.

** As you can imagine, quite a lot of writing talent has been wasted on this series.  Its truly unfortunate that some authors cannot come up with original stories and must instead leech off the work of somebody else.  As for myself, I'll keep my own Fanwanks to these very short blog posts, instead of putting any real energy into them.  Unless of course, Lucas, you want somebody to create VII, VIII, and IX for you.  I'll be there then.

*** I think the only reason Han was kept alive was purely do to fanservice.  If Han has in fact been killed during the course of the Original Trilogy, people would grow to resent Luke, seeing him as a far less interesting hero than everybody's favorite Scruffy-Headed Nurf Herder.  Dear me, this is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Hey, Space Monkees!

You know, this major divide between "serious" political discussion and nerdy commentaries on - typically Japanese - stuff, has lead me to wonder if perhaps I should make an entirely new blog so as to keep the tone consistent around here.  I really don't know, since currently my readership is so puny that I sometimes ponder if it justifies the effort I put into one blog, let alone two.  We'll just have to wait and see what happens.

As is typical, I cannot understand the thoughts of a large segment of my peers.  Or maybe I can understand but the truth would require such a cynical explanation that I refuse to accept it.  This time my confusion is about the hottest conspiracy theory to hit America:  the idea that Barack Obama was not actually born in the United States.

The "Birthers", despite sounding like a benevolent organization advocating human reproduction, is actually a group of some seriously ignorant people.  Despite conclusive documentary and State Department evidence that the 44th President of the United States was in fact born in Hawaii, these people continue to insist that in fact he was born in Kenya, or perhaps Indonesia.  The actual birthplace is unimportant, just as long as Obama is sufficiently proven to be Constitutionally disqualified to be President.  And then, I guess, they think that somehow the United States will be saved from a socialist tyrant and return to a proper Christian nation.  Its total nonsense, like every conspiracy theory, and I'm not going to get into the specifics of each detail proving Obama's citizenship - that's a job already done.

Instead, let's perform a little thought experiment.  Let's pretend that Barack Obama really was born in Kenya, and really is unable to be President by the Constitution.  What happens then?  The Constitution states that he cannot become President, but the problem is that he already is in Office.  This revelation would begin the largest Constitutional crisis this country has seen since the Civil War.  Impeachment is the only instrument in the government that can be used to remove the President from office, but what High Crimes and Misdemeanors has Obama committed?  The Birthers assume, as an article of faith as incredible as their entire conspiracy theory, that Obama knew of his birthplace and so falsified the past so that he could con his way into office, so perhaps you could use Fraud to remove him from the Presidency.  I would assume that Biden would become President then, being the VP, but what number would he take?  Would Obama be President "#44*" and Biden the real #44, or would Biden just be the 45th President?  Is the entire 2008 election even valid anymore?  Would a special emergency election have to be held during the meantime?  Who would be running the Executive Branch of government during this election?  Ultimately what the Birthers want to happen is nothing less than mass governmental chaos and confusion that may last years, which unfortunately would take place during a time period where America needs a leader more than ever.  Somehow the Birthers think that this scenario is somehow far better than Obama serving out his four to eight year term peacefully.

But there is more to the Birther beliefs, something much more sinister.  You see, behind all of these conspiracy theories is that basic assumption:  somebody who isn't born in this country are not true Americans.  Even if Obama was born in Kenya, he still would have lived his entire conscious life here as a citizen of this country like everybody else.  Does spending your first few weeks as a baby in another country mean that you are a person who should not be allowed to serve as the President of the United States?  The Birthers take it even further, with a prejudice that not only is Barack Obama not eligible to be President, but that he also isn't an American.  Forget growing up here, forget starting a family here, forget spending your entire adult life serving Americans in politics, just the very act of not being born here means that you aren't one of us.  You're an outsider; you don't belong here.

Obviously the best way to solve this entire issue is to simply remove the Constitutional restriction upon foreign-born people being elected President.  However, the Birthers, seeing this as their only way to remove Obama, would certainly oppose this measure with as much passion as they defend impossible theories.  Obviously just not being a Natural-Born citizen does not mean you do not wish or are physical or mentally unable to perform this country's highest office to the best of your abilities.  That should be obvious.  The Natural-Born restriction is an anachronistic relic made for a world far less globalized then the one we live in today.  The Constitution needs to be amended* on this issue.

Unfortunately, it is very telling that the very first Black President of this country is also the very first one to suffer mass-doubts over whether he truly is an American.  One cannot help but see the very unfortunate tropes of racial fears.  "That Obama:  he isn't a good White Christian, he's some foreign African."  Not only do these people have these thoughts, they purposefully believe impossible things to prove that their thoughts are justified.  Somehow I'm certain that the same people who think that Barack Obama is a foreigner are the same ones who are joining Pastor Drake in praying for his death.  Insanity attracts insanity.

Future generations are going back at this period and have a good chuckle about how hopelessly moronic so many of us were.

* Personally I feel that a President of this country should still be a person who has lived most of their lives here.  You should be a citizen of this country to be its leader, and you should have lived here for most of your life (twenty years one such length of time proposed).  America should be lead by an American, after all.  However the Birthers have a very prejudiced idea of what an "American" actually is.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

New Layout

No, your link isn't broken - this still is the Tales From the Q?. 

As you can tell, Space Monkees, I've gone ahead and reformatted the entire blog layout.  I was bored of the old white dullness and decided to shift over to something a tad bit more dynamic.  I'm also hoping to make a custom title card at the top this weekend, but we'll just have to wait and see how that turns out.

By the way, thanks for reading and commenting, you've been a good audience so far.  Tell your friends!  Eventually I want the entire Internet to weep up the yoke of the Q?!!  HAHAHAHAHAHA!!  (But seriously, its always nice to have more company.)  Thanks, Space Monkees.

Your friend, BlueHighwind (Eric).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

After War Gundam X

I'm sorry, Space Monkees, but right now I'm going to use you to blow off some nerdy steam.

I hate "Gundam X".

Okay, that's a tad bit too dramatic and offensive a way to start a commentary, but I'm personally so annoyed with this show right not now that I can't think of a better way to start this that those three words.  I really am beyond disappointed with this show.  It had so promise:  its Gundam, for one, that's always awesome.  I mean, come on, how can giant robots fighting each other with frickin' lightsabers ever fail to be cool??  How?  Well, "After War Gundam X" has the answer.

The Gundam franchise is based largely upon various different universes, all differentiated by their calendars.  The "main" franchise, which is the setting of "Mobile Suit Gundam", "0083", and several others, is the "Universal Century (UC)", while other universes are "After Colony" ("Gundam Wing", my first and personal favorite), "Cosmic Era" ("Gundam SEED"), and even our own world with "Anno Domini" ("Gundam 00").  They each about as much to do with each other as Star Wars has to do with Star Trek plot wise.  You'll just see basic plot elements recycled:  space opera Sci-Fi, serious war plots, realistic character deaths, giant Space Colonies floating around the Earth, and of course, giant robots called "Gundams".

"Gundam X" despite its plot background and pornographic title, is actually quite boring.  You'd be surprised, considering the kind of world they imagined here.  Fifteen years ago a war broke between the Earthlings and those living on the Space Colonies.  Things went from bad to worse to serious shit hitting the fan when the Colonists, desperate to win, decided to drop tons of the Colonies on the Earth, completely destroying civilization and the entire climate.  Such a profound impact (pun not intended) did the war leave that the entire calendar has been remade, with years counted as "After War".  From a population of ten billion, the human race is down to ninety-eight million souls.  What's left of the population tries its best to scrounge a meager living, while fearing for their lives while the ghosts of the war, the weapons left behind by the destroyed combatants, falling into the hands of bandits and terrorists.  Doesn't that sound great?  Well, it isn't.  My God, it isn't.

You see, this isn't a post-apocalyptic world.  The show claims that it is, but it clearly isn't.  Things basically seem just about the same as they are now:  people have cars, jobs, homes, and futures.  Everybody is so cheerful, so ambivalent to the massive destruction that has gone on all around them.  What happened to everything you ever knew being completely destroyed before you very eyes?  I can understand the young protagonists, they're orphans who don't remember the pre-war world, but everybody else, they're lack of emotional scars boarders on sociopathy.  I mean, its nice to see everybody working together, but they shouldn't be working together.  They should be scared, they should have no idea what the future might hold, they should be fighting against the evil forces tearing the world apart.  Instead they're happily wandering the globe on a cool ship with cool robots looking for "Newtypes" (who anybody who watched the original should be familiar with), telekinetics whose powers border on magic.  There are battles, but they're so regional and unimportant that I keep on asking "why should I care?".

Worse than just being inappropriate for a post-apocalyptic world, the characters in this show are quite simply uninteresting.  It might be due to the fact that this show is Japanese-only, meaning I have to watch it in subtitles.  The Japanese language, at least to me, is very unpleasant to listen to, if I must be totally honest.  The voice actors here sound terrible, and I find myself unable to really connect with them due to the language barrier on some level.  You can subtitle live action and have no problem, but animation needs a direct human contact I think.  Anyway, despite my inexperience with Japanese voice actors, these - I hope - are not the best that Japan has to offer, because they sound horrible.  Everybody is either overacting or sound like they just don't care.  But even beyond the acting, when you get right down to it, there isn't much to any of these people.  The characters are all stock:  ditzy blond, silent elder badass guy with a dark past, silent mysterious magical love-interest*, flirtatious support character, loud Ash Ketchum-style hero, etc.  Nobody is considerable interesting, not even the snake-like villains whose unknown motivations are supposed to keep me watching.

Ultimately you figure out that there is no danger to this world to any of the main characters.  Despite the fact that they're fighting tooth and nail every episode, instead of there being any real threat, the combat is more a learning experience for the hero.  Every episode I was hoping that finally, maybe something big would finally happen.  Maybe one of the disposable extras tagging along would actually get disposed of.  But no, nothing really happens.  Instead its a "villain of the 3-5 episode arc" system, where events of one arc would be settled happily ever after, and I die a little more inside.  You know I'm not enjoying myself when I'm hoping that something terrible will happen just so that the plot can finally get some teeth.  Come on!  Even "G Gundam" for all its silliness, had a few plot twists that got my interest!

After awhile I realized that this was definitely not a mature show at all.  Nobody making this had anything deep to say, or even wanted to say it.  Maybe this would be a good show for little kids who just want to watch boys fight with their robots, but I'd at least want something a bit more.  Usually Gundam has more to offer than this, even if it is a poorly thought-out basic pacifism message.  At least they try.  "Gundam Wing" tried, "Gundam X" is nothing more than a kid's show.  It has all the depth of "Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" or any other stupid kid's cartoon show from way before my time.  I guess that means that Michael Bay will soon be doing an adaptation of "Gundam X" starring Shia LaBeouf, right?  Honestly, even Michael Bay would be an improvement.

So by this point I was struggling to even come up with a reason to keep on watching, something to justify the hours I wasted watching half the series so far.  There was nothing.  I decided that, screw it, I'll spoil the ending just to see if anything interesting happens in the end.  It doesn't.  So I stopped watching, got really pissed-off, and wrote this.  What a completely waste of time.  I'm sorry to have even started watching this.  So that's that.  I'm leaving this show behind, unfinished, and without regrets.  Onto something good, hopefully.

You know, I never did really watch anything more than bits and pieces of "Eureka 7" when it was on Adult Swim...  Maybe I can correct that...

EDIT:  You know, what I just said about Japanese voice actors was probably not altogether the most well-thought comment I've said on this blog.  "Ghost Hound", another anime I'm following right now, has an excellent voice cast despite it being in Japanese.  So "Gundam X" was just even more unusually horrible than I imagined.  And "Eureka Seven" is awesome so far.

* I really don't want to meet the kind of person who finds quiet, and inactive women to be an ideal or even attractive at all.  What kind of a personality must a person like that have?  Do you even want to imagine such a person?

Monday, February 15, 2010

What Would Jesus Do?

Hello, Space Monkees.

Yeah, this is going to be one of those serious ones.  I'm always inclined to apologize for these, since they're so out of tone with the rest of this blog.  But on the other hand it does have a lot more substance than say, a review of "The Wolfman" or some anime I've been watching online.  So I guess this has its place here.

(For this entire commentary I'm going to assume that everything in the New Testament of the Bible actually happened exactly how its said.  So the Pharisees will just be the foolish opponents of Jesus as they are shown in the Bible, instead of the honorable scholars and precursors of modern Judaism and the Rabbinic culture that they actually were.  Whoever wrote the Gospels was extremely biased against these men for some reason or another.  However, I'm of the opinion that you can find some eternal truth in any story - even ones completely fictional, and since many believe that there is eternal truth in the Gospels, I'll just follow the mode of thinking.)

Jesus, as a symbolic figure, was a nice guy.  I think we all have to admit that at some point.  You may not believe he was the Son of God and a member of the Holy Trinity and all that jazz, like me, but you can at least find good life lessons in his ministry.  He was generally a very good person*, healed the sick, taught a bizarrely egalitarian message for his day, and believed in the good will of men.  I don't know how far his philosophy of everybody giving everything to the less fortunate might work as a society maker, but the saddest part is that nobody has ever really tried (except perhaps some Medieval monastic orders, debatable due to their isolation).   Today, more people call themselves "worshipers of Christ" than any other religious group.  I'm not saying that these people are not generally good people who look to the Son of Man for guidance every so often.  The vast majority of Christians are people who believe in right and wrong, good and evil, and are driven by their belief system to generally do what is right and just.  That alone makes the entire Christian faith something that should be commended, not despised.

And yet, the tragic part of this story is just how many people have such a warped sense of what Christ was about.  Jesus did not say that homosexuals were evil (he's silent on the subject in every Gospel), and he most certainly did not believe that they were to be hated or killed.  I mentioned earlier that Jesus's philosophy was egalitarian, meaning that he treated all people equally, no matter who they were, what they did, or how "unclean" they were seen in the eyes of the Hebrew culture.  This is why he walked amongst lepers and prostitutes.  If Christ were to appear today, he would be walking the streets of the inner cities, washing the feet** of every group this society hates or chooses to ignore:  the homeless, illegal immigrants, AIDs victims, etc.  And all these people would go to the Kingdom of Heaven long before our modern-day Pharisees.

The Pharisees were an ancient religious society during the time of the New Testament, and the chief opponents of Jesus's teachings during this time. They repeatedly come into conflict with the Son of Man, due to their strong beliefs in the letter of God's commandments, not the spirit.  These were the ones who were grievously offended by the idea of a Messiah cavorting with prostitutes and tax collectors***.  To the Pharisees, the chief concern was not to include, but to exclude:  to hate the unclean and sinful rather than try to help them or lead them to a more virtuous status.  More important to them was that Peter and the Apostles wash their hands before eating bread, rather than any true love of God or good works.  There was no love to their dogma, only empty rules and self-righteousness.

Is this sounding familiar yet?

I've alluded previously that there is a very large segment of the American population whose entire value system is very alien to me.  They call themselves Christians, and yet their key concerns seem to be with the most frivolous aspects of the religion.  So instead of feeding the hunger or clothing the homeless, they'll make donations to ludicrous "museums" (and I do use that word lightly) which attempt to put together a "scientific" (I'm using a lot of words lightly) basis for creationism/intelligent design.  Its an obsessive, militant call of "all or nothing" which somehow forces the entire religion to defend itself at every front, or else it will all collapse like a deck of cards.  If you were to listen to these folks, you would come away with the idea that Christianity's main concerns are to:  A) evangelize, B) hate 99% of the world, basically anybody who thinks, looks, or acts differently - especially homosexuals, C) abortion, and D) wait for the Apocalypse when all the sinful fools who didn't believe what they believe are burned in a glorious bit of fire and brimstone.

So there we are:  from "love thy neighbors" to "fear thy neighbors because their not like us and wait for God to punish all the sinners in the soon-to-come End of Days".  I don't know how it happened, but its there, and you have to face it.  Oh yeah, they'll try to help you through conversions, hoping that through a complete change of what you love and find true you can join them in Heaven once the end comes, but that's about it.  If you're starving on the street and are forced to pitifully beg, you won't get a dollar - you'll get a religious tract.  Though one should remember not to be hateful of these people.  They're not evil - purely by intentions they are doing a good work - but they are severely misguided, in some cases dangerously so.

Ultimately, I have to blame the leaders of these people, who I truly do hope are just charlatans leeching off their congregations.  Several must be, using the new mass-market Evangelical Christianity to get huge profits.  Yet others are quite simply deranged individuals.  Pastor Wily Drake, of the First Southern Baptist Church in California - I am not making this up - launched a campaign last June to pray for the death of Barack Obama.  Seriously.  And he continued his campaign today just in time for President's Day.  Dear me, what would this guy have said if atheistic Presidents like Jefferson or Lincoln were in office?  This man, supposedly of the same Jesus Christ I described earlier, wants the President of the United States to die, and for God to do it.  Obama isn't just misguided in Drake's eyes, no, he's so evil that he needs to die.  Forgot about the long Christian tradition of repentance or conversion, Obama is beyond saving.  Worse is that this isn't just the most lunatic of the lunatic fringes, Drake has a large following, and was even a third-party candidate for Vice President back in 2008.  He also protested Disney back in 1996 for "promoting homosexuality over family values" (perhaps the good Pastor didn't like Nathan Lane's character in "The Lion King", and damn him for not appreciating Timon!).

To be a little more topical, let's look at Pat Robertson's comments about the recent disaster in Haiti.  In a feat of extreme historical ignorance and hateful insensitivity, Robertson implied that the earthquake, and all of Haiti's tragic history, was caused thanks to a "pact with the Devil" during the Haitian Revolution.  He was met with almost universal derision even from most of the Evangelical Right, but the comment itself is still telling.  Similar statements were made about Katrina and New Orleans back in 2006, from none other than (and I am not exaggerating this) the Most Evil Man in America, Fred Phelps.  Fred Phelps and Pat Robertson would probably want nothing to do with each other, one is a respected newscaster in at least one fringe section of this country and the other is a crackpot who protests military funerals and gloats over natural disasters because he are tolerant of homosexuals in this country and leads an incestuous cult in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas.  But they both come from the same tradition, the same strain of religious thought.  We are better than Them, They will die in Armageddon, We will Triumph with God - all extremely unchristian thoughts.  The real Christ loved everybody, Fred Phelps' God "hates Fags"... and Jews, and Catholics, and Sweden, and Ireland, and pretty much all six billion people on this planet except for the seventy-one poor souls who follow pastor Phelps around****.

How did a religion of love manage to create so much hate?  Its truly stunning.  Though at the very least, one can remember fondly that most of the two billion Christians are good, honest people working to the best of their ability to make their lives and the lives of others better.  The rest... well, Jesus still loves you, I imagine, despite how embarrassed you must make him every day.  Just try to remember, before declaring that God hates so-and-so, What Would Jesus Do?

* Interestingly, though not without sin, a claim that goes only to the Madonna, Mary, Mother of God, the only person to be born Immaculate, without Original Sin.

** Washing feet was an extremely symbolic gesture, completely out of character for one who claimed to be the Son of God and a great King.  In those times, most travel was done on feet, totally barefoot.  You can only imagine what the Apostles' feet must have looked like after a long day's travel through the harsh Palestinian Sun.  Washing feet was the something the Son of God would have done to him; a servant's task.  There was no depth Jesus was not willing to sink to in order to save our souls.

*** Tax collectors were back then, as today, extremely hated members of society.  If you pay attention to just whom the taxes were going to, Rome, the hated occupiers of Israel, you'll know why the Pharisees were so annoyed by seeing Christ sitting down at a dinner table with them.  No liberation leader should be sitting down with the agents of the enemy!   This is but one of many contradictions of Christ that I find so fascinating in the man.

**** By the way, Great Britain knows exactly how to deal with people like Phelps:  bar him entry into the country.  He's one of the sixteen people who are officially and publicly banned for entering the country due to being "considered to be engaging in unacceptable behaviour [American sic] by fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the United Kingdom".  Way to go, UK!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Castlevania Series

Hello, Space Monkees!

As per every video game article I write, for some reason this series is 100% Japanese.  Will there come a day when I finally find an American game interesting enough to write to necessitate writing something about it?  Probably.  But until that day, most I'll just ignore them all since most western games are needlessly violent and gritty, horrifically ugly thanks to a foolish goal of photorealism, and shooters of some kind or another (I hate shooters).  So instead, here's a Japanese series.

At the very least, this isn't Square Enix or Nintendo.  Instead its Konami!

Back in the era when Nintendo ruled the universe, Konami made a series of very popular and excruciatingly hard games based in the lore of classic Universal horror movies called "Demon Castle Dracula".  But we Americans, knowing better, renamed the franchise to the much cooler-sounding title, "Castlevania".  The early games were crude, you ran around with a whip and beat the shit out of Dracula at the end of his side-scroller castle (which I assume is called "Castlevania", none of the games have ever answered that).  The action was good, but your character was... fragile.  And slow.  And couldn't step in water.  And really got messed-up on the stairs.  Luckily I was born many years after this period ended, and so I missed the nearly entire thing, save for one remake.

Instead, I ignored the franchise until, oh... last August.  My story with this series begins back in E3 2009, when I was watching the trailers following the conference looking for some Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda stuff.  One of those trailers was the most awesome trailer ever.  (Watch it, seriously.  It has Patrick Stewart!)  My mind was literally blown right out the back of my skull from how awesome that trailer was.  Following cleaning my wall of brain bits of neural fluid, I decided to look the series up a bit more.  Previously, all my Castlevania experience was from the Angry Video Game Nerd's first review, and that didn't paint a pretty picture.  Somewhere within my searching, I found a series of artworks for Castlevania's "Dissida", a game called "Castlevania Judgment".  This time I had the exact opposite reaction.  If the trailer for "Lords of Shadow" was the most awesome thing ever made by man, the artwork for Judgment was by far the worst.  They were awful.  They were abmoninations.  They were a mockery of every single standard of aesthetic beauty from cave paintings to the present day.  Please, do yourself a favor and do not look them up.  You'll be a saner person for it*.  So at this point I was very intrigued.  How could one series provoke such opposite reactions of joy and horror in me and not be Final Fantasy?  I had to play one of these games.

Lucky for me, this latest generation of handhelds has seen no less than four Castlevania game releases.  So not only could I explore a brand new series, but I could also do with the cheap convenience of the DS and PSP.  My first step was "Symphony of the Night" since the Internet people say its the best of the series.  As a general rule, I always try to start a series with whatever is considered its finest achievement, that's probably a good tip right there.  Anyway, the problem was that my Symphony was bundled with another game called "Dracula X Chronicles" a 2.5 remake of some old-style Castlevania game made God-knows-what-system back God-knows-when.  So before I could reach the cream of the crop, I'd have to play through this game.  ("Symphony of the Night" is a hidden unlockable that will take you days to find - or you use GameFAQs.)

"Dracula X" was not such a great game at first.  Its a level-based sidescroller that would be entirely linear if not for a few alternate paths here and there "Star Fox 64" style.  You start out with a dude named Richter Belmont, who is easily the slowest and most pathetic video game character I've had to play as since... well, ever.  This isn't the NES, people!  Richter only has a whip, and he doesn't attack all too quickly.  He also can't run.  So while eighty zombies are tearing me to shreds, Richter will just do a leisurely stroll through the level like nothing is wrong.  He has no double-jump, instead just this terrible black flip thing.  I was ready to throw the game out and abandon Castlevania altogether until GameFAQs told me of another way:  Maria Renard.  Maria is a little girl you can rescue in one of the early levels, and then she becomes an alternate playable character.  And she is fucking gold compared to Richter.  She runs for one thing.  Also she has a double-jump, and a nice slide dash move, and she can attack about three times as fast and with twice the range as that worthless Richter dude.  The only downside I can see is that Maria fights with owls, which is a little weird.  But she's the only way to play that game, trust me.  "Dracula X" is hard, one of the hardest games I've ever played.  Dracula himself took me three days to beat.  Even so, with cute little Maria, this game is actually not bad.  I don't know what kind of people play this game with Richter, and I really don't want to meet them.  They're obviously deranged.

So that leads me to "Symphony of the Night".  This game is actually a direct sequel to "Dracula X", but this time neither Maria or Richter are central characters, though they do show (Maria is now grown-up and little fetching in a new outfit).  Instead its Dracula's own son, Alucard.  And no, not the happy fun "Hellsing" laughing Alucard, instead its somebody completely different.  Alucard is pissed-off at his father for something that happened in "Castlevania 3" I think, it doesn't really matter.  Since Castlevania has risen once again, Alucard is going to run in and kick some serious ass.  This game was at the time of its PS1 release, completely different from the older games in the series.  Its still side-scrolling, but instead of levels you explore the entire massive castle in a labyrinth of rooms, boss fights, and items to uncover.  The exploration is what I really love above everything else in this game.  The castle is alive, and there's so much to find, its just wonderful.  I love the feeling of wandering deep into the maze without knowing if you'll ever find a Save Point.  There actually is a system behind the battles this time, with RPG mechanics hiding in the background.  So Alucard will find new weapons and armor to equip and gain levels with killing enemies.  Its all not particularly complicated, which is good.  Kill things, gain EXP, numbers go up.  That's all you ever needed, wasn't it?  The game is actually really good looking for 2D.  Alucard's sprite is probably the most beautiful bit of spriting ever done for a video game.  He's animated in a brilliant way that makes his actions seem fluid and realistic.  You don't need 3D for characters to come to life, "Symphony" taught me that**.  But with this transition to a new style of gameplay, the difficultly was not at all limited.  Bosses in this game are real challenges, and coming up with strategies to defeat them are what make this game come alive.  I never could find a good way to beat Galamoth, so instead I just bought tons of Potions and threw everything I had at him until I won... somehow.  This was a load of fun, and one of the best games I've ever played.  The plot isn't Shakespeare, but the action is where its at.  And the horrible voice acting of the PS1 version has been replaced, thankfully.

After that, I was in love.  So in rapid succession over the last five months or so I bought all three DS Castlevania games.  They all were good, but none of them seemed to live up to "Symphony"'s standard, and I don't just mean graphics.  This is probably because Konami doesn't actually make new Castlevania games.  Its the same game, over and over again.  No, I don't mean like the old Zelda joke that every game is just a rehash of the last one.  Its the same game.  Literaly, you'll run into the same enemies, with the same sprites that were used ten years ago o n the PlayStation.  As an example, in "Symphony of the Night", you'll run into an enemy that is nothing but a giant ball filled with zombies that shoots lasers.  Its a freaky, awesome boss.  But by the third time I fought it a few games later... things weren't so cool anymore.  They don't even come up with much new music (the music is awesome), they just remix old songs.  Bloody Tears, a super-cool song from "Castlevania 2" has been remixed like eight times now.  These DS games are pretty much rehashes of "Symphony" just with different layouts and weirder battle systems.  For example, "Dawn of Sorrow" requires that you steal enemy souls to get new weapons and learn skills, which changes nothing to the game.  All that is changed is that you spend hours killing the same enemy over and over again trying to get their soul to get the next sword upgrade.  The later "Portrait of Ruin", which was a step-up, just has two playable characters.  That's it.  Two characters.  Also forget about any kind of continuity to this series.  Its actually worse than Zelda because Konami keeps on saying some games aren't canon, but then they are again.  Who knows?  Who cares?  I've killed Dracula like five times now, it doesn't matter to me.

Don't get me wrong, these are still great games and they're all worth playing (except "Dawn of Sorrow", that you can skip).  But still, can we have a little variety to these handheld games?

I would play the console games, but I've heard nothing but bad things about them.  And as for "Judgment", don't make me laugh!  Interestingly, the artwork for that game is even more offensive now since I know who these characters are.  Poor Maria, why did they turn you into a lolicon Vietnamese sex slave and cage your owl inside a staff?  Why?

But then there's "Order of Ecclesia", my personal favorite out of the entire series.  You play as Shanoa, a witch who never wears a back to her outfits.  She runs around trying to find Albus, the Balthier-clone on the picture up there who has gone insane and is trying to become Dracula.  The big change this time is that you don't spend the entire game inside Castlevania.  Instead you can wander around a World Map and visit a town.  This minor change gives a much greater feeling of freedom to the games, I think.  Alucard might be cool, but Shanoa is a far prettier character to play as.  I'm also a big fan of the battle system, where basically everything is a spell.  You don't have a sword, you summon one to kill enemies with.  It plays about the same, but somehow this system makes it work with a faster pace and a deeper system.  However, this is all my opinion.

So there we are.  Its been a nice ride with this series so far, despite some bumps.  It seems that the "Symphony" style of gameplay is coming to an end, however.  For now, the series is moving into its future... which is with Patrick Stewart with the certain-to-be-awesome "Lords of Shadow".  I'm realistic about that game, its certain to be a linear adventure game without any of the exploration that I fell in love with.  But it has Patrick Stewart!  Make it so, Konami.  I'll be there.

* For example, I've seen all those artworks and now I run for the hills every time somebody says the word "Boojum".  AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

** Unfortunatly very few games seem to have reached that level.  "Chrono Trigger" came close, that's about it.  And since 2D is basically dead now, nobody will ever try.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

For the Snark Was a Boojum, You See

Hey, Space Monkees.

Here's a cautionary tale of what awful effect staying up to 4 AM can have on an overly superstitious mind:

One night, while I was happily in bed, staying up needlessly late for no particular reason.  By this point midnight had long since passed and I was now knee-deep into the true dead of night.  I went over to the Anime Network to watch another episode of the delightfully bizarre psychological cartoon called "Ghost Hound", which regrettably is only available in English subtitles.  Before the episode even began it gave the title.  Typically the title is completely harmless: just references to cutting-edge psychological concepts.  Looking them up makes for very interesting reads.  But this time... it was different.  The title was especially long: "For the Snark Was a Boojum, You See".  Immediately chilling horror poured straight into my veins.

On the surface, it does not seem so scary.  Weird, admitted, but nothing much.  Yet, these words struck some kind of elemental cord straight inside me.  What in God's name was a "Snark" or a "Boojum"?  I did not know, but I could tell these were monsters, either physical of allegorical.  Snarks did not sound like particularly pleasant, yet I would certainly rather see fifty of them over a Boojum.  That word, "Boojum"... It didn't sound frighteningly, actually more silly.  And yet...  Yes, there was something much more sinister about it.  I could envision myself drowning in laughter and suffocating on my own glee if I were to run into it.  Whatever torture was this monster's specialty, it would be enough to make me wish for death before it was over.  No, I would wish I had never been at all.  This was no monster, it was something much worse.  The awful sights that Dante envisioned might be enough to scare chruchmen into piety, but a Boojum would send God himself fleeing into the night.  What an awful thing.

Somehow though, I could see no form for the Boojum or the Snark (though I was certain they were monsters and I would be able to recognize them by sight).  In fact, even though a Snark might occupy physical space, the Boogum was far more eternal.  Perhaps I could escape a Snark, but if it were a Boojum...  Nothing could save me.

No!  These were ridiculous thoughts, the product of a mind with far too much time on its hands.  I needed to see that I was just inventing nonsense, some sign that no such things as a Snark or a Boojum ever could be.  My fears eventually drove me to the computer.  Even though the walk was a short one, I was filled with fear.  It was a cold, dark night.  The only light came from the uncaring glow of the computer and television, making crooked shadows all through the house.  Finally I reached the computer, but I immediately regretted the move.  If only I could have just snuggled up with my blanket and gone to bed, then all this Boojum business could pass, harmlessly.  In my extremely tired feverish mind, for some reason my blanket and its warmth took on a mystical quality.  If only I could just wrap myself up, just maybe I could escape the Boojum's alien powers.  But it was too late, if the Boojum wanted me, I would already be gone before I could reach sanctuary.  All that was left was to learn more.

As I typed in the words into the Google searchbar, I prayed that no result would come up.  I hoped beyond hope that maybe I just misread the episode title and perhaps there was no Boojum or Snark.  It was all to nothing, however.  Before I was done typing the third word of the phrase "the snark was a boojum you see" and then the entire phrase was filled so suddenly I almost fell out of my chair.  The results were not a good sign.  The first was a link to a Wikipedia page of where "Ghost Hound" got the idea:  a Lewis Carroll poem called "The Hunting of the Snark".  If anybody could have tapped into some sort of unconscious current of immortal horror, it was suspected pedophile Victorian poet and mathematician Lewis Carroll.  The man wrote "Jabberwocky" - I was doomed.  The second link was to a PDF document that read out in screaming letters "THE SNARK WAS A BOOJUM!".  In my mind I saw a mind like my own.  Some poor victim of the Boojum's power that had been driven completely insane; now nothing but a lunatic shouting and raving across the Internet.

I was too frightened to open either link.  My God, what sort of evil had I uncovered here?  If I were to read more, the horror would just get worse.  Carroll had found something elemental here, and I did not want to know anything else.  All I wanted was to return to my bed and go to sleep; hoping that the morning light would keep away the demons and Boojums.  Perhaps when I was more awake and my mind less mossy, I could convince myself this entire thing was just some insane trail of thought I conjured up out of an out-of-control imagination and lack of sleep.  But unfortunately, there was one major problem...  I had to go to the bathroom.

Around every corner I imagined the Boojum waiting there for me.  Even though I could imagine no form for it (for nothing was horrible enough to justify this fear), I could still see it waiting there, ready to feed on my soul.  Oh lord, how had things progressed to this point?  What terror!  Though my fear might have been great, the biological imperative to empty my bladder was greater.  I would rather be torn apart by an abstract fear than live up to embarrassment of wetting my bed.  And I went on to the bathroom, once again cursing my fragile human body.  I knew that one day it was going to get me killed... or in this case driven mad by the Boojum.

By the time I flushed the toilet I realized I had made a huge mistake.  Closing the door out of an automatic habit of modesty was certainly not the smartest move.  The Boojum, seizing the opportunity to corner me thanks to my fatal blunder was certainly standing there right behind the thin wooden door.  Its eyes (now I was certain it had eyes, maybe not a face or a head, but there were eyes) were fixed solidly at the bathroom; waiting feindishly for me to move out and then rip me to pieces.  No... I would not be ripped to pieces, this was no beast - it was far worse.  It did not have claws or fangs or poison barbs, no tentacles or armor or breath.  It was far too elemental to be just a mere monster.  I could not even say that it was evil, no this thing surpassed evil.  The Boojum was the most horrible thing ever devised.  The entire universe, all meaning, everything was in the mercy of this creature.

Words cannot describe the despair I felt as I opened that door.  Soon it would all be over.  The only thought that came into my mind was "would I even get a scream out before it finished me off?"  Somehow I prayed that I would at least get that mercy, that at least some little tangible sign of my evisceration could escape and reach everybody else in the house so they would know that a terrible fate had befallen me.  Otherwise, there would be nothing left.  The Boojum would lick my blood off the bathroom tiles, leaving no trace of my demise for my loved ones to find.

And now came the moment of my judgment.  There was nothing left, I left myself up to fate.  But then, behind the door, there was--

...nothing!  Not a thing at all but an empty wall.  If anybody or anything had been there, even if it were my own mother, I would have gone mad from fright.  But instead it seems that the Boojum and the Snark it was pretending to be instead had other plans for me.  They had decided to give mercy to me, why I had no idea.  So I did not tempt fate by doing anything else that night.  I went straight to bed, and forced myself to sleep.  Despite my brush with mortality, the sleep came easily, and there were no dreams.

By morning, the entire incident seemed very silly to me.  "What kind of lunatic must I be, coming up with such a wild story based upon a single line?  There was no Snark, and no Boojum.  If there were such things, they certainly weren't forces of pure malevolence from another dimension, or whatever I was imagining them to be that night."  I had a good laugh about it, feeling invincible now that the Sun was up, forcing away all paranoid delusions.  But yet, curiosity still nagged at me.  There was a Lewis Carroll poem to read!  Its never a bad decision to enjoy some work from my old friend Carroll.  The poem was okay, as silly and incomprehensible as the more famous "Jabberwocky".  Even so, something still felt a little different about this work.  Something a tad bit off...

Then the fear came crashing back to me like an anvil smashing into the head of Wile E. Coyote.  I read the final verse, and knew that all my fears were very real.  The Boojum was real, and just as awful as I imagined:

"In the midst of the word he was trying to say
         In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away
         For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."

I could not stop screaming.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Solution to America's Problems

Hello, Space Monkees!

The United States of America, largely by the random draw of fate, just so happens to be my homeland.  It isn't a perfect country, but its certainly not a bad one.  (There are certain parts, like Detroit and the South, that are very unpleasant, I will admit.)  It has really everything I could need:  McDonalds, Disney World, movie theatres, the kick-ass ice cream of Magic Fountain at 907 Broadway Bayonne, New Jersey, and a colorful political scene that will keep me entertained for many years.  Also it has, you know, my entire family and all my friends and pretty much everybody I've ever cared for... that too, I guess.  What I'm trying to say is that I'm rather fond of this polity.  Ah, who am I kidding?  I love the big lovable goof!  Oh, America, you might trip a lot because China keeps tying your shoelaces together, but I'll still be laughing--with you, of course, not at you.

However, if I were going to say that things are going particularly well lately, I'd be a liar.  We're stuck in two wars, the buying power of the middle class is constantly shrinking, and the government can't seem to ever get its affairs in order.  The standard of living has declined in this country, that's a fact.  Back in the 50s, families could buy a new model car every year, and that's on the income of only one working parent.  Today, with both parents in the work force thanks to economic necessity, you'll be lucky to get a new car every decade.  And it won't be a nice one.  I know we now have Obama Magic to back us up, but what can you do against a trend like that?  People have been bemoaning the fall of this country's greatness for an entire generation, and not without a basis to their fears.  Obviously a radical solution is in order.  Yes, we need something drastic.

And I think I have the solution:  sugar, spice, and everything nice.  Plus one extra ingredient:  chemical X.

(bump, bump, ba-bump-a-bump)

Yes its the Powerpuff Girls!  Just what the doctor ordered!

Clearly only the superpowers of three little girls with no noses, fingers, and freakish bug-eyes are what America needs to become great again.  In an age of supervillains (which is exactly what Osama Bin Ladin is) we need to counteract the problem with superheroes.  And what superheroes are more powerful than the Powerpuffs?  They have all the powers of Superman, without actually being Superman - which is perfect!  I hate Superman!  In a single flash of superpowers, these perfect little girls can defeat Al Queda, balance the budget, bring back our manufacturing sector, and stop pretentious, nihilistic crap like "the Reader" from getting nominated Best Picture.  Plus, they can defeat any giant fish monsters that come out of the oceans to defeat us.

Yup, we definitely need you girls, wherever you are.  Please come back to us, Powerpuff Girls.  The day needs to be saved, once again.

(Or if they're not available, we can always Dial M for Monkey.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are

Hello, Space Monkees.

I knew a certain day was coming.  The day that I would review a movie for the Q? that I absolutely hated.  Its an inevitability of being a critic, even if you are the most unprofessional one in the entire Internet (I'm not, but I'm in the running).  I feared it more than anything else, not knowing exactly how I could handle it if such a foe appeared.

But that is not this day!

Here's a story from my childhood that I think is one that everybody has experienced at some point.  You're a little kid, its getting late.  Your parents make you put on your pajamas and put you to bed.  But not really being tired (despite the yawns that escape without you even noticing) you immediately begin to scheme for ways to keep them in the room.  You ask for your teddy, who was in my case a little blue bear in a stripped nightgown named "Goodnight Bear"*.  Then you throw him to the ground so they can pick him up again.  Anything for just a few more minutes of being awake.  Eventually you ask for a bedtime story, and your Mom or Dad picks out of a little pile of children's picture books a little book with a forest on it, "Where the Wild Things Are".  Oh, how you loved that story.  You'd even ask for Mommy or Daddy to read it again.  And then again.  And somewhere in the ten sentences that composed that little story, you nodded off to sleep.

I think the tale of the bad little boy Max who wanders off to the land of Wild Things in his imagination is one that we all know.  In fact, the book is so old and timeless, that my own Mom was read the story by my Grandma.  What surprising is that despite the book being written in 1963, it took this classic tale nearly fifty years to finally be adapted to the screen**.  Though after seeing Spike Jonze's very original re-imagining of the story, I can tell you that there will be many more surprises along the way in this review.  This is a movie that has really caught the critics off guard.  They expected just another Disney-standard children's film like the excellent and silly "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" from a few months earlier.  What they got was something completely different, something far more frightening.

A good place to start would be purely in art style.  If I were to imagine a "Where the Wild Things Are" movie, I would think it to be a cartoon with an art style similar to that of the book.  Instead, Spike Jonze gives us something unique.  Its live action mixed with CG, but in a new way.  Rather than having the human actors (well, actor) interact with a ball on a string while the boys at Industrial Light & Magic fill in the character, instead most of the Wild Things are made by performers in massive costumes, or animatronics.  Only the faces are CG animated.  It makes the creatures seem like giant stuffed animals, yet somehow far more real than even the impressive effects that "Avatar" supplied.  Despite the live action, you can still recognize the creatures from the original drawings.  Its an ingenious way to bring these characters to life, and something the movie really deserves credit for.  The world around them is just the natural majesty of our own world, in all its own magic.  The film is strikingly beautiful visually, though what isn't these days?  I fear that with so many gorgeous films and unique are going to spoil us eventually.  Adding to the brilliant atmosphere is the soundtrack, which is largely vocal and sung by what sounds to be an actually little boy (its actually Karen O, Jonze's ex).

Being an adaptation of a story that is, as I mentioned earlier, ten sentences long (I counted), the plot of this movie would naturally have to be expanded.  But how do you go about it?  Do you, like "the Grinch", focus on the title character and let Jim Carry make a fool of himself for two hours?  Do you just make up an entirely new story with the same basic elements like "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"?  Or do you simply fail miserably in every way like "Cat in the Hat"?  Well, Spike Jonze had his own answer to the question, an answer so different from what anybody was expecting that the studio heads shuddered to even release this movie.

Like in the book, Max leaves home and goes to the faraway land, and becomes the king of the Wild Things.  More or less, the general patterns of the story remain intact.  The monsters don't get sent to bed without supper, but you get the idea.  This time when Max finds the monsters, you'd be hard-pressed to differentiate this movie from a horror tale.  The Wild Things are bitterly unhappy and divided, just over-sized children like Max himself.  In order to avoid getting eaten, Max claims himself to be a mighty king and becomes their ruler.  However no title can prepare him for the job.  He is still just a child, and he cannot possibly lead these Wild Things.  From the start, you can see a tragic ending careening right into these characters.  Throughout most of the movie, I was extremely frightened for Max himself.  In a world this dark, what will keep him from getting eaten once the Wild Things figure out that he is just a boy?

Each of the monsters are expanded and given personalities, an inevitability of expanding this tiny story into a feature film.  The most central Wild Thing is Carol, voice by James Gandolfini, from here on referred to as "Monster Tony Soprano".  Monster Tony Soprano ultimately just wants everybody to live together in a great city where they can be happy.  But its all falling apart around him.  His beloved K.W., voiced by Lauren Ambrose, here on referred to as "Monster Claire Fisher", is tired of all the fighting and is teetering on leaving for good.  MTS believes strongly that Max is a great king who will solve every problem, so much so that any expressed doubts reveal that furious Soprano temper we HBO viewers remember so well.

The movie manages to range very well from happy fun childhood adventuring to the worst of primeval terror during its 101 minute run.  At one point everybody will be lying together happily in a big pile, and at another moment they're ready to kill each other***.  Ultimately it all comes out looking less like the original story and more like "Lord of the Flies" with twelve-foot Wild Things.  I think what Spike Jonze was going for was not so much a movie for children, but a movie about childhood, using the monsters as living metaphors for the various child-like personalities people may have had or still have (in my foolish way I've been all seven at one point or another).  Max is taught the difficulties of parenthood, and just how immature he truly is.  This job is beyond him, and slowly but surely this truth is made clear to him.  He leaves the island with a much greater appreciation for the difficulties that his mother goes through, herself not being a perfect person, while raising him.

For that alone, I think this is a truly brilliant movie, easily one of the best of 2009.  However, the question that I think many people have asked still remains a difficult one:  is this movie for kids?  I hate to be the kind of person who would ever make the distinction between what a person should or should not see, but honestly I do not think they would understand the movie's real message.  Most would grasp the moral on some level, but they would be more confused as to what made the monsters so unhappy in the first place.  Why be so sad in a place that's so fantastic?  Since I can't recommend this movie for my own little relatives, I can't say this movie is a kid's movie at all.  And honestly, you can't fault this movie for being that way.

And so, the only way I think can end this review is an eternal truth that I think we can all understand:

"Wild Thing! You Make My Heart Sing!"

* The years have not been good to Goodnight Bear.  His nose has fallen off, and his hat is warped and stained with drool from where I chewed on it for nights on end.  His fur is dirty and caked with cat puke in a few places.  And worse, he only has one eye left, and the stuffing is sticking out of the socket.  Yet I can't find myself to throw it out.  I love him too much.

** Its been in Development Hell for nearly thirty years now.  Back in the early 80s, the development team that eventually became Pixar attempted to adapt the book with digital backgrounds mixed with 2D character animation.  What little they made was well...  not so great.  Another attempt came along with "the Grinch" with a brief teaser trailer being all that was made.  Spike Jonze's own version has been in the works for nearly half a decade, and its been a hard battle for him to get his vision onto the screen.  For that alone he deserves some credit.

*** SPOILER ALERT:  I'm referring to a moment where MTS ripped another monster's arm off!  "Hey, that was my favorite arm!"  And... we never gets it back!  My God!  Instead, for the rest of the movie the Wild Thing walks around with a pathetic twig sticking out of his shoulder that kinda looks like a hand.  Easily the most disturbing thing I've seen this side of Tim Burton...