Sunday, August 29, 2010

Distractions and Other...What?

Sometimes, I'm easily distracted. It was a sleepy morning, so I figured I'd make a pot of coffee. I was about to start things going when the cats yowled at me for not feeding them early enough, so I set the coffee aside and fed the cats, which reminded me their litter boxes needed cleaning, so I did that, which reminded me there was laundry to be done, so I did that, which reminded me I needed to change the linens on the bed, so I did that, which reminded me the bathroom needed cleaning, so I did that, which reminded me that the living room needed dusting and vacuuming, so I did that, which reminded me the yard needed mowing, so I did that. By then it was lunchtime, so I figured I'd fix some tea. That's when I discovered the coffee that had never been started.

At least the house is in reasonable condition.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pandora's Box


Another superb geocaching adventure today, courtesy of Chris "Vortexecho" Whittemore, over yonder in Durham—a 5-difficulty/5-terrain (the "5" rating being the most difficult) extravaganza called Pandora's Box. It features quite a few stages over a distance of several miles, and each stage presents its own physical challenge and/or brain-numbing puzzle to solve. Went out this morning, bright and early, with a group of twelve, four of whom were armed with "keys" that had been previously found, all of which are necessary to unlock the container that's hidden at the final stage. Without giving too much away, some of the highlights included going into tunnels under the highway; clambering over (and into) a large, abandoned, and singularly distasteful structure; climbing way up into trees; crossing rivers on fallen timber; and sorting out puzzles of various kinds, each of which required participation by the entire group.

Most refreshing was to get together with a number of people, most of whom didn't know each other well (if at all), and having a common objective, which required working as a team to achieve. We had males and females, young (8 to 10) and...uh...mature (50s), and even a Ranger Fox who, perhaps affected by a certain rather toxic stage, wanted to eat people's brains. There was nary a slacker in the bunch—everyone made a valuable contribution to the team—and in the end, after spending the better part of the day on the trail, we were able to claim the final cache. By the time I got home, I looked (and felt) as if I'd been dragged through a sewer, lacerated with briers and barbed wire, and eaten up by mosquitoes whose disregard for DEET bordered on the fanatical...and that shower was more welcome (slightly) than the post-cache martini.

Another first-class job by Vortexecho, who accompanied us on the journey, no doubt to make sure at least most of us got out of the woods with our brains.


Getting ready to rock


Assembled


One of the few easy passages


The Dark Water Passage
Ms. 3 Eagles High: "Hey, did you hear that? The sound of millions of souls, trapped for all eternity, screaming in unutterable torment?"
Little Eaglet: Yeah! Cool!"



"Absolutely NOTHING to see here. Move along."


Old man Rodan wonders...will we all survive?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Gamera, Absolute Guardian of the Incomplete Struggle for the Awakening of the Revenge of Iris


Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (Gamera 3: Jyashin Irisu Kakusei, 1999)

DVD Description:
Released by ADV, 2003; additional material: interview with SPFX director Shinji Higuchi, press conferences, behind-the-scenes documentary, promo events, trailers, TV spots

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

Starring: Ai Maeda, Ayako Fujitani, Yukijiro Hotaru, Shinobu Nakayama, Hirotaro Honda, Toru Tezuka, Senri Yamazaki

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Yes, Gamera 3 has a crapload of aliases; The Awakening of Iris; The Incomplete Struggle; The Absolute Guardian of the Universe. Revenge of Iris is the official U.S. release title, so for our purposes, we'll go with that.

This film seems to be the fan favorite of the Heisei series, and not without good reason (although I marginally prefer both of the other films in the series, as noted in their respective reviews). It's true that the monster battle scenes boast some of the finest special effects ever to appear in a daikaiju flick, and the sense of actually being in the middle of a giant monster attack may be the most authentic ever. No complaints there, at all. Where the film falls short is in the backstory department, which—very much like Kaneko's GMK
relies on the trappings of pseudo-mythology, and it's all very muddled and superficial. It does become clear that the Gamera of the Heisei films is but one of a number that were created in ancient days by a highly developed but extinct civilization (possibly Atlantis), for a graveyard of "beta version" Gameras is discovered under the sea.

The film begins with a young Ayana Hirasaka (Ai Maeda) remembering Gamera's first battle with Gyaos (from Gamera, Guardian of the Universe), during which Gamera apparently kills her parents and beloved cat, Iris. She and her younger brother go to a small village in the mountains to live with relatives, who keep them only reluctantly. Ayana's hatred of Gamera is at odds with most of those around her, who believe Gamera is the planet's protector. She discovers that the villagers believe in a mythological monster that lives in a cave, and she goes to explore it. In the cave, she finds a giant egg, and in short order, it hatches, releasing a monster that is obviously related to Gyaos but is far more evolved. It bonds with Ayana as if she is its mother, and she names the monster Iris, after her cat, vowing that this monster will destroy Gamera.

A Gyaos appears over Tokyo, pursued by Gamera, who sends it crashing to earth in flames, killing many hapless citizens. Ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) discovers that the Gyaos are rapidly evolving to become bigger, stronger, and more prolific. Soon, Iris reveals itself, now gigantic—and sharing a psychic bond with Ayana. Nagamine enlists the aid of Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani), who had shared a bond with Gamera, to break Iris's hold on Ayana, but to no avail. Now, Gamera returns to battle Iris, decimating a large part of Kyoto in the process. During the battle, Ayana experiences Iris's memories, which include killing her own relatives in the village. Beyond that, she also discovers that it was Gyaos, not Gamera, that killed her parents and her cat. She feels completely lost, but Gamera finally prevails over Iris and saves her life. However, as the film ends, a massive horde of Gyaos monsters is seen careening through the sky, heading for Japan.

There is a rather unsatisfactory subplot involving government official Mito Asakura (Senri Yamasaki) and the eccentric Shinya Kurata (Toru Tezuka), who believe that the Gyaos—and Iris, as the ultimate Gyaos monster—are destined to destroy humanity, and they actively work to expedite the process. In the end, Iris destroys both of them, fulfilling their own prophecies of doom.

For what it's worth, the more fantasy-oriented plot works better in context than it does in GMK, Kaneko's next daikaiju entry. Gamera, in the Showa series, became known as a friend to humankind, particularly children; in the Heisei series, Gamera is less a friend than simply an entity whose purposes occasionally coincide with humanity's, though with little or no consideration of the devastation it wreaks. Still, the film's backstory reveals to some degree Gamera's motivation for destroying its enemies.

As the final film of the Heisei Gamera trilogy, The Revenge of Iris offers an unprecedented giant monster spectacle, and ends by setting the stage for what could have been an even larger scale epic, had that ever been Kaneko's plan. As it is, one can only infer that the outcome, whether Gamera might win or lose, would be the ultimate daikaiju cataclysm.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Caching for Cthulhu


Geocaching is always an adventure, for you never know where it's going to take you — high up into trees, up rocky cliffs, into storm drains, caverns, graveyards, Devils' Tramping Grounds, abandoned towers...even Cthulhu's lair. Yesterday, on a trip to Chapel Hill, I had great fun with a cache called Yuggoth V: The Great Cthulhu, which required obtaining information from certain eldritch books to fill in missing coordinates to the cache. Happiest for me is the fact that one of those books, The Azathoth Cycle, includes my story, "The Pit of Shoggoths" (a.k.a. "S"). By the grace of Yog, I managed to find the cache and even retain my sanity. Oh, I did too, so STFU.

One of the caches I found was hidden at a tiny graveyard in a shadowy corner of an otherwise bright residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Carrboro, a little community of no little character which adjoins Chapel Hill to the west. The graves go as far back as the early 19th century, and buried here are many slaves who later became free men and were among the founding fathers of Carrboro itself. Chalk up another educational and exhilarating experience while out caching.

The trip included some excellent dining at The Spotted Dog in downtown Carrboro and shopping for a few not-so-dark delicacies at A Southern Season and Trader Joe's, which — if there were any mercy — would have stores here in Greensboro.

There are several other caches in the Yuggoth series, courtesy of The Mad Cacher Maingray, which I'm sure would have made Chapel Hill's late, great master of darkness, Karl Edward Wagner, quite proud. I'll be heading back to hunt them as soon as my near-shattered inner reserves have recovered....

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Attack of Legion


Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (Gamera: Legion Shūrai, 1996)

DVD Description:
Released by ADV (2003); additional material: trailers, TV spots, interviews, short film

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

Starring Toshiyuki Nagashima, Miki Mizuno, Tamotsu Ishibashi, Mitsuro Fukikoshi, Ayako Fujitani, Yusuke Kawazu, Yukijirô Hotaru

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The second of the Heisei Gamera series advances another step in bringing a semblance of stark reality to daikaiju films, despite its vivid element of fantasy and the more complex—and distinctly alien—countenance of Gamera's newest threat. Some comparisons between The Advent of Legion and Godzilla vs. Destroyer, made the previous year, seem inevitable, since both movies feature relatively small insect-like creatures, which swarm the respective title monsters in both films, as well as huge counterparts that engage the title beasts in battle. In the technical department, Legion outshines Destroyer in almost every respect, though it lacks the emotional heart that tends to make the Godzilla film more endearing.

Legion begins a year after the climax of the previous Gamera film, with Japan still licking its wounds after the assaults by Gyaos. In northern Japan, a meteor crashes to earth; shortly thereafter, strange, insect-like creatures that consume all forms of silicon begin to appear in and around the city of Sapporo. A gigantic, flower-like structure appears in the city, which scientists realize is a type of biological launchpad, meant to scatter the "seeds" of the insect-like creatures, which are named Legion, all over the planet. Before the eruption can occur, Gamera arrives on the scene and destroys the flower. A gigantic "queen" Legion attacks Gamera and wounds it, then flies off to construct a new flower in the city of Sendai. This one erupts, utterly annihilating the city and by all appearances destroying Gamera as well.

The military learns that Legion is attracted by electromagnetic energy and constructs a grid of electrical towers to draw it away from the cities. Asagi Kusanagi, who is psychically linked to Gamera, realizes that Gamera is not dead and uses her mental energy to revive the creature. Gamera returns to engage Legion in battle, and is again seriously wounded. But drawing on a previously unknown power (which is further explored in the following film, The Revenge of Irys), Gamera destroys Legion and then vanishes, leaving humanity to ponder the incredible power that might one day be turned against them.

Advent of Legion benefits largely from the prevalent atmosphere of physical darkness, from its eerie, nighttime opening in the snow-covered mountains of Japan, to the well-staged nighttime attacks of the queen Legion later in the film. The sense of urgency is palpable as the clock counts down to the explosion of the second flower in Sendai, and the destruction of the city is portrayed as a true, horrific tragedy, far more serious in tone than the devastation typically wrought in your average giant monster movie. Once again, director Shusuke Kaneko and special effects director Shinji Higuchi pair up to present the existence of giant monsters to be as believable as any destructive force of nature. With essentially the same team that made Gamera, Guardian of the Universe, Legion is the logical next step, with a strong story and visuals that improve on the already impressive work from the previous film.

Kow Otani again provides an atmospheric score, of essentially the same caliber as the previous film's — more than adequate, yet less distinctive than his best work (Toho's Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack in 2001). Cast-wise, a few key characters from Gamera I, such as
Yukijirô Hotaru as former-inspector-now-security-guard Osako and Ayako Fujitani as Asagi Kusanagi return to provide continuity; Miki Mizuno, daughter of popular daikaiju-film actress Kumi Mizuno, also joins to cast in a lead role as scientist Midori Honame.

Although the ending feels rather contrived, Legion rates, overall, as possibly the best of the Heisei Gamera films, with all the dramatic and technical elements coming together to make a consistently superior monster movie. It does suffer the inevitable curse of being the middle film of a trilogy, with much of the fanfare going to the first and final installments — which is not to say the fanfare is not well deserved. Gamera, Guardian of the Universe is a novelty for the giant steps it takes in presenting an all-new, high-quality Gamera film, and Gamera: Revenge of Irys takes the special effects of the series to even greater heights. Dramatically, I don't believe Irys is quite as solid as Legion, suffering some of the very same shortcomings as GMK, which relate to the "mythologized" aspects of the monsters' origins, the one area of storytelling where Kaneko seems to fall a bit short.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

No More Mister Nice Gyaos


Gamera, Guardian of the Universe (Gamera Daikaijû Kuchu Kessen, 1995)

DVD Description: Released by ADV (2003); additional material: trailers, TV spots, interviews, press conference, behind-the-scenes featurette

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

Starring: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Akira Onodera, Shinobu Nakayama, Ayako Fujitani, Yukijirô Hotaru, Hatsunori Hasegawa, Hirotarô Honda, Akira Kubo, Kojiro Hongo, Takashi Matsuo

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Not that the Showa-era Gyaos was particularly nice, but the Heisei version, which makes its first appearance in this film, is quite the nasty critter indeed. And there's more than one of them.

For the Heisei Gamera series, the big turtle's origin has been completely reworked; no longer merely a prehistoric giant resurrected by a nuclear bomb, Gamera is the genetically engineered product of an advanced but extinct race that lived 10,000 years ago—a counterforce against the Gyaos, which were previously created by the same race to devour environmental pollution but which evolved into a carnivorous, aggressive menace. In the present, three of the pterosaur-like Gyaos appear in the South Pacific and make their way to Japan. In the meantime, a ship carrying plutonium collides with a floating "atoll", which turns out to be...you guessed it...Gamera itself. Attached to Gamera are a number of amulet-like artifacts, and a young girl named Asagi Kusanagi (Ayako Fujitani) discovers that, through one of them, she and Gamera become psychically linked.
When Gamera is wounded, she shares its pain; conversely, she is able to provide strength to monster so it will rapidly recover.

The military lures the three Gyaos monsters to the covered stadium in Fukuoka, so that scientists may study them; however, one of the creatures escapes, only to be destroyed by Gamera. The other two, growing rapidly larger, also escape and attack Gamera, who kills a second one with his fire beam. The remaining Gyaos makes a nest amid the wreckage of Tokyo Tower while Gamera retreats to licks its wounds. Eventually, the two monsters come together again; Gamera prevails and returns to the sea till the next time it is needed (the following year, Gamera vs. Legion).

Except for Gamera vs. Barugon—and to some extent the original Giant Monster Gamera—the Showa-era Gamera films catered to a juvenile audience and devolved further into absurdity with each successive film. This newer incarnation, with director Shusuke Kaneko and effects director Shinji Higuchi at the helm, forsakes all previously established history and presents a "guardian" that has little interest in humankind per se, but a fierce loyalty to the planet Earth itself. In its battle with the Gyaos, Gamera racks up some serious collateral damage (and in subsequent films, Gamera's disregard for humanity increases, peaking in the Heisei series' final entry, Gamera III: The Awakening of Irys, where its single-minded focus on defeating its foe results in some graphically depicted death and destruction). In this film, several of the more graphic scenes of carnage exceed most of the depictions of human suffering in the wake of a monster attack up to that time. This element of verisimilitude brings the fantasy closer to the realm of reality, and the staging of the monster attacks gives one the impression that, yeah, if giant monsters existed, they would be like this.

While some scenes featuring Gyaos fail to disguise the fact that they're puppets, most of the monster action succeeds to a remarkable degree in the realism department. Higuchi's effects work excels on virtually every count, particularly in shots of the monsters from low camera angles with realistic scenery in the foreground. The shot of the last remaining Gyaos perched in its "nest" amid the toppled Tokyo Tower, silhouetted by a blazing sunset, is one of the most memorable images in daikaiju history. Despite the advances in CGI over the years, I still prefer good, old-fashioned miniature SPFX, especially when the finished product works as convincingly as so much of this film.

Composer Kow Otani provides a fairly atmospheric musical score, similar in tone to his score for Toho's Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah: All-Out Monster Attack, though considerably less distinctive. Most of the music leans toward the subtle, underscoring the action effectively enough, but rarely coming forth to establish a clear musical identity. In fact, on my first viewing of the film, I found the music altogether underwhelming; when it comes to Gamera, I'm rather partial to the scores by Tadashi Yamauchi (the original Gamera and Gamera vs. Gyaos) and Chuji Kinoshita (Gamera vs. Barugon). I do enjoy Otani's work in GMK, but while I've warmed to his Gamera compositions as used in the films, they're not particularly impressive as stand-alone experiences.

The cast boasts a few standout performers—Shinobu Nakayama as ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine,
Ayako Fujitani (daughter of actor Steven Seagall) as the psychic Asagi Kusanagi, and Yukijiro Hotaru as the beleaguered Inspector Otaru, all of whom reprise their roles in subsequent Gamera films. Veteran daikaiju actor Akira Kubo makes a welcome, if brief, appearance as the captain of the Kairyu Maru, the ship that runs aground on the mysterious floating "atoll."

While not perfect, Gamera, Guardian of the Universe succeeds better than most any of the Heisei Godzilla films, largely due to the filmmakers' attention to detail, innovative cinematography, and serious treatment of the monsters. It certainly starts the Heisei Gamera series off on a high note, and happily, the subsequent films maintain—and even surpass—the high standards of quality set by director Kaneko and his team on this landmark monster movie.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hootin' and Hollerin'


What a wretched weekend! Friday night, headed up to Martinsville and found a few caches on the way; undertook a late-night walk through my old stomping grounds in the company of some bourbon and ginger ale; on Saturday morning, played guitar and sang with my friend Kim at the Martinsville Farmers' Market (which was nicely written up in the Martinsville Bulletin), followed by a first-rate lunch at El Norteño; placed three geocaches on the newest extension of the Martinsville "Dick & Willie" Rail Trail; went to an excellent wine tasting party at some good friends' place; and spent a fair amount of quality time with Mum and our friend Mary Clifton. Coming back to Greensboro today, found several new caches, including one that led us on a tour of Reidsville's extensive and quite old Greenview Cemetery.

Wait. Did I say "wretched" up yonder? Hmm. I might have goofed....

Photo by Rita Johnston Smith

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

If At First You Don't Succeed, Triphibian


Gappa, the Triphibian Monster, a.k.a. Monster From a Prehistoric Planet (Daikyojū Gappa, 1967)

DVD Description: Released by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock (2000); additional material: none

Directed by Haruyasu Noguchi

Starring: Tamio Kawaji, Yôko Yamamoto, Yuji Okada, Kôji Wada, Tatsuya Fuji, Keisuke Inoue

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The president of Playmate enterprises, Mr. Funazu (Keisuke Inoue), sends an expedition to Obelisk Island in the South Pacific to gather tropical flora and fauna for Playmate Land, the latest amusement park in Japan. The expedition finds a native village, complete with resident natives; a big old cave; and a monster-sized egg. The egg hatches, and out pops a strange, birdlike reptile, which—according to the natives—is a baby Gappa, their most revered deity. The expedition returns to Japan, taking the creature with them, but mom and pop Gappa emerge from the cave and head to Japan to bring the little one home. Much urban destruction results, but at the end of it all, the more level-headed team members endeavor to return the baby to its parents. The three monsters take to the air and fly back to Obelisk Island to live in peace—perhaps to chow down on more natives, assuming the critters have left a few survivors.

In the mid 1960s, the now-defunct Nikkatsu Productions endeavored to capitalize on the daikaiju craze, which was at its height, with something of a satire. Gappa takes most of the clichéd elements of the standard giant monster film—an exotic South Pacific setting, a greedy exploiter who wants to capitalize on the discovery of the critter, major city destruction, and all-out efforts by the military to stop the monsters—and delivers a package that mostly succeeds, both as send-up and as traditional daikaiju fare. Particularly noteworthy are the special effects by Akira Watanabe, who was a protegé of renowned special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. While certainly a couple of notches beneath Tsuburaya's, the effects work is a darn sight better than many of the film's contemporaries, including some of Toho's own. The Gappas themselves resemble gigantic gargoyles, with birdlike beaks; leathery bat wings; and scaly, reptilian hide. The effects cinematography is colorful and often atmospheric, particularly during the extensive scenes of city destruction. One noteworthy effects scene is the toppling of the Obelisk natives' stone totem that guards the Gappas' cave entrance, which is 100% convincing.

The cast is an ensemble typical of so many daikaiju offerings from the Showa era; one can just envision a group of Toho regulars, such as Akira Kubo, Kenji Sahara, Tadao Takashima, Kumi Mizuno, and Yu Fujiki, taking on the roles of the expedition members. Not to demean the cast members of the film itself; they're quite adequate in the roles they play, though—as one might imagine—none of the parts in this film were apt to propel the actors to stardom.

The score by Seitaro Omori is adequate, with a handful of distinctive themes that make the soundtrack listenable on its own. However, having grown up with the U.S. version (Monster From a Prehistoric Planet, released by AIP-TV), when I watched the Japanese version, I found it rather jarring to be hit with the bizarre and supremely obnoxious title track ("GAPPA! GAPPA! GAPPA!") rather than the more familiar, traditional orchestral composition of the U.S. release, which is actually pretty good. There's also a song at the end of the Japanese version, happily excised from the U.S. release, which is apt to shake your teeth loose. Interestingly, many scenes during the monsters' attack are devoid of any scoring whatsoever, which actually works on a more serious level, accentuating the scope of the destruction being wrought.

No question, Gappa is a mixed bag; a mediocre story, a bunch of non-memorable people scenes, and some decently rendered monster action. But even its dramatic failings have their amusing moments—which the hellish English dubbing often accentuates; thus, given the fine DVD presentation by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock (their first tokusatsu release), which includes both the Japanese and U.S. versions in wide-screen, I give Gappa an unabashed recommendation. It's not a great film, or even necessarily good, but it really is a lot of fun, particularly if watching detailed miniature cities receiving a thorough trouncing makes your day worthwhile.