When I wrote my review for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, two years ago (already?), I took the path of the self-indulgent and rambled-on for a whopping ten whole pages, mostly recounting my praise and defense of George Lucas’ maligned but secretly brilliant prequels.
For the sake of not repeating myself, I skipped reviewing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a film I liked much better (although heavily considered reviewing Michael Giaccino’s excellent soundtrack). Although I got some likes on Facebook for my TFA review, not one person commented on a single thing that I wrote or, any one opinion I expressed in it.
I suspect the article was just too much and what few readers mostly took to it skimmed through it as opposed to reading it word-for-word. Anyone reading this I may now refer to that article to know where I stand on most of this saga, and here, I can contain myself to reviewing this single film, these introductory paragraphs notwithstanding!
Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (TLJ hereafter) begins, intriguingly, mere days after the events of the previous film. Finn is just awakening from his severe wounding and the Resistance, still led by General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, looking appropriately frail throughout), is fleeing planet Q’Dar following a heavy attack from The First Order. Hotshot pilot Poe Daemeron (Oscar Isaacs) taunts one-dimensional General Khar-Twoon Baudguy (oh, uh, I meant Hux, as still played by Domhall Gleeson) and, through a single, very humorous exchange, both characters are instantly developed far more than they ever were in the previous film.
We are also introduced to a wonderful supporting new character, Rose Tico, earnestly played by the adorable Kelly Marie Tran. She is mourning her sister; a character we are shown heroically going down in action during the first bombing raids against the First Order’s dreadnaught Star Destroyers.
Then, for the first time ever in the saga (that I can recall), we flashback to earlier story events with Rey (still the gleaming, radiant, resplendent miracle of Daisy Ridley) handing Luke Skywalker (still the gleaming, radiant, resplendent miracle of Mark Hamill) his lightsaber from the ending of TFA. What he does with it, I will not spoil, but it is absolutely hilarious and for a moment, it seems as if we have the Monty Python and the Holy Grail of Star Wars movies. Well, we have precisely that, but in a good way - the best way possible - and I even might be tempted to equate the adorable (read: merchandise) creatures, the porgs, with the Killer Bunny of that film. Just when you think Disney would never let a Star Wars film to get so graphic Chewbacca (now quite noticeably not played by Peter Mayhew) roasts one up and tries to eat it!
Force Awakens was a fairly even-split film, and for all of its faults (mostly in the plotting, dialogue and flip-flopping character motivations) that I pointed towards, it did not skimp on the humor. Many licensees forget that humor was a major element of these films, even at their grimmest, (both The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith feature excellent humorous asides) and a lot of the expanded universe novels, comics or games suffer for a lack of it and from taking themselves too seriously. (Wizards of the Coast, I’m farting in the general direction of your roleplaying game products). Clone Wars and Rebels, the animated series often get it right, although both can sometimes suffer from the pretension of Jedi mysticism.
I still cannot believe that The First Order took over the entire galaxy so easily, even if by redressing and retrofitting most of The Empire’s old fleets and vehicles (although this new film suggests most of their equipment is newly constructed for the sake of economics, but why would a group calling itself The ‘First’ Order just redesign the Imperial aesthetic? Shouldn’t they call themselves The ‘Second’ Order?).
Yet, as we’ve seen in the real world, a group like ISIS did come to sufficient power right under the noses of many political and military polities around the region, including the US troops that are still in Afghanistan after more than fifteen godless years of “The War on Terror”.
In both TFA and here in TLJ, we see so little of “The Galaxy” (at least the parts of it that we knew from previous works) so maybe it was more that they took over only a “slice” of it. They seem to have no presence on the gambling world of Canto Bright, for instance, just as they didn’t on Tokadana in TFA, at least not before Han, Rey and Finn arrived there. But what of worlds like Tatooine, Naboo or Bespin? Are the First Order troopers plowing over the citizens of these worlds? It is, in the films, nowhere mentioned or talked about (I do know the newer novels get into that, but...…let’s just stick to what we get in the movies).
Most of the plot of The Last Jedi is focused on Rey’s training at the hands of a somewhat daffy Luke Skywalker, intercut with scenes of The First Order slowly destroying the Resistance fleet (although they are often referred to as Rebels just as much). Rey is also, in the words of the LA Times’ review, “Forcetiming,” with First Order henchman Kylo Ren. Rey believes she can pull him back to the Light Side of the Force, but even trying to might lead her down a darker path. Kylo Ren is still brooding, still outstandingly portrayed by Adam Driver. His charisma level is such that we, the audience, want him to turn back to the light, because it would be the reverse of Darth Vader’s story, and we have yet to see that happen to anyone after nearly ten pictures in the saga. (On the other hand there is that whole, killing off the coolest actor in one of his major signature roles thing).
There is also critically divisive sub plot, but one which I found rather nifty, in which Finn (a very subdued John Boyega) and Rose go to the aforementioned gambling world of Canto Bright and have, to my mind, more than a few rousing escapades there. I felt it was some of the series best scenes in quite a while and featured more of the surprises and imagination (and humanity) I’ve come to expect from the franchise. They are looking for a fabled code-breaker, someone who can help them infiltrate The First Order’s Mega-Mega-Mega Quad-Super-Duper-Scooper Star Destroyer (yeah, see?) and take out a device that helps them track the Resistance fleet even through hyperspace.
(Many have pointed out that Rogue One sets up this tech ability when Jyn Erso is sifting through various Imperial files on Scarif; although I didn’t pick up on this myself I do recall Harry Knowles pointing it out in his review of TFA that The First Order tracked the Resistance this way back to Q’Dar, so I’m confused about where it came from first).
In any case, Finn and Rose instead wind up with a slippery fella’ played with his usual delirium by Benicio Del Toro, who leads them right back to The First Order! Some fans and critics have accused this subplot of being a meandering mess that goes nowhere. They are wrong! Those paying close attention will notice that these are actually some of the most important, the most fun, and among some of the best scenes in the entire movie!
Director Rian Johnson does a fantastic job juggling these many elements, and it's shocking just how much he is allowed to subvert our expectations and turn entire Star Wars tropes on their heads. We're never quite sure which characters are good, which are bad, or who is murdering whom. The action might not have been as visceral as J.J. Abrams’ TFA, but it is certainly much more artistically expressed: slow motion shots and still imagery are quite a breath of fresh air for this brand!
Overall the dialogue, humor and character development is so much improved over The Force Awakens. Mark Hamill, arguably, gives the film its best performance as a grizzled and kooky Luke, which bristled many other original series fans expecting him to be more heroic. But that just wouldn’t have fit the style and story developments inherent in both this and previously in TFA.
Overall, I think I like this film better than both Force Awakens and Rogue One put together, and considering how much I liked Rogue One, that is saying a lot. Heck, I thought I’d seen the best movie, sci fi or otherwise, in Blade Runner 2049 only a few months ago. I was wrong. The Last Jedi is this year’s truest, boldest masterpiece!
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Seasons One through Five
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
Star Wars: Rebels Seasons One through Four
Star Wars: Droids (animated series)
Star Wars: Clone Wars The Macro Series (animated series)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars - A Galaxy Divided
Ewoks: Battle for Endor
Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure
Star Wars: Ewoks (animated series)
The Star Wars Holiday Special (because obviously)
Ten Years of Disheartening TRANSFORMERS Movies - Where Does The Brand Stand Now? A retrospective by the SCOTT BOT
I just sat through the unbelievably awful, Transformers: The Last Knight and for the fifth time in a decade, I left the movie theater with a heavy heart. This multi-media, toy-driven brand has become phenomenally huge, and I’ve been a fan of (most) of its branching, multi-continuity presentations from the start, in particular the original comics, which taught me more about writing - good or bad - more than any classroom ever did.
But as far as I am concerned, there has only ever been one good film about the robots in disguise and that would be, The Transformers: The Movie, from 1986. An independently released animated feature that tied specifically into the contemporaneous cartoon series (admittedly also of fevered highs and lows in quality) whose chronology is sandwiched between seasons two and three. Unfortunately, expected knowledge of that series is also key to enjoying The Transformers: The Movie, so don’t rush out to watch it just because I endorsed it here! On the other hand, many fans express that exposure to that film is also what drew them into the brand to begin with, so, there you go.
Now to be fair to Paramount Pictures, the monolithic studio that releases the live action (yet more animated than ever) Transformers movies (and also counts the Star Trek franchise as their other major tent pole series; but I must point out that Hasbro Entertainment Group are the toy makers that actually own this brand) I did, begrudgingly, find some enjoyment in Michael Bay’s inaugural take on the franchise, 2007’s Transformers. It was not the first time they dropped the definite article; but I nominally refer to the parts of the brand that I enjoy as "The Transformers" in a vain attempt to differentiate from these cinematic popcorn puke inducers.
Transformers was skillfully made and, despite a bumbling storyline and annoying human-centric sequences (here’s farting in the general direction of Agent Simmons’ wacky misadventures with robot lubrication), featured some spectacular visuals, special effects that were indeed special (that hold up even now), a genuine sense of sci-fi mystery and wonder and highly elevated adrenaline pumping action scenes. And who couldn’t get enough of pre-psychopathic Shia LeBouf?
It wasn’t my Robots In Disguise (apart from Peter Cullen being brought back to the franchise since the first time it was launched to reprise his iconic voice work for the hero, Optimus Prime). It did mangle the mythology of the brand in bizarre directions (the Allspark Cube? WTF?) yet, even I would acquiesce that the brand must transform itself for the sake of remaining contemporary and relevant to modern sensibilities; but enough pseudo-intellectualism (something the brand has never required from anyone), it was fun.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen released two years later and despite a writer’s strike that dampened it at the screenplay level, it did, and this was honestly to director Michael Bay’s credit, feature more of what made the first film work - too much more according to most critics and some fans. I dunno’, I still find it the best entry in the series. I thought the action was tighter and more cohesive and I was happy about improvements made to the design and presentation of the robot characters (with the exception of the universally reviled Autobot twins; why does anyone still complain about Jar-Jar after they’ve seen this?). I also felt the storyline was, however in minutia quantities, improved over the first film. There was still a lot of problems, including the vague mythos of the titular villain. Perhaps I was just being hopeful that this sub-franchise (it still barely resembled The Transformers as I know and love it) was at least heading in the right direction.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon was next at bat, like clockwork, in another two years’ time (2011, for those keeping track). Once more directed by Bay, this film featured a storyline...no, cobbling of disparate elements...that ran in direct contradiction to everything we learned about the titular alien robot species in those first two films (how did The Fallen not detect Sentinel Prime on the moon? Oh, right, because Michael Bay thinks we all suck).
Indeed, the nearly hour-long climactic battle in Chicago seemed designed to detract us from the nearly incomprehensible mish-mash of shoe-horned-in storylines present as pure filler in the first half of the film. (Even worse, screenwriter Ehren Krueger raped two of the best episodes of the original cartoon for ideas). If there were ever a film to cite “writer’s strike” as precedent for its storytelling failures, it’s this one. But also, rote acting citations must be handed out to the entire cast. Right about here, most brand fans started referring to these films as Bayformers to differentiate it from the real franchise.
As a franchise, The Transformers had indeed been robust and active since the radical reinvention brought by 1996’s Beast Wars: Transformers animated series (still one of television’s most surprisingly intelligent, deeply philosophical, poignant and sophisticated science fiction triumphs)! If nothing else, the multi-million dollars world-wide success of Bayformers secured the strength of the franchise as a whole:
Obsessive fans (obviously, myself included) still have contemporary G1 comics and novels to enjoy, continuous cyclic cartoon series of varying qualites, several videogames of far greater visual and storytelling sophistication than any one of the live action films (these include War for Cybertron, Fall of Cybertron and more recently the G1 cartoon throwback Devastation), and, as always, the ever present toys, which resource through multiple brandings such as Classics, Generations and Masterpiece to give us the characters we really want as we really love them!
Transformers: Age of Extinction, in 2014, was touted as a soft reboot for the Bayformers, and was yet another slap-shod, incoherent Michael Bay directed, “things done blown up real good” movie (because, despite their faults, all of these films have turned over a gajillion dollars in profits)! Although better than the previous film, it is neither by much nor really saying anything positive about it. It turns out all of that hyperbole meant was, “We fired the old cast, but buckle up for more of the same.” Indeed many of the action scenes here were entirely inter-changeable with scenes from the first three films!
Transformers: The Last Knight is now upon us. Like a plot point from the film itself it is a giant succubus here to drain the audience of intelligence, wit or energy. Why did I go to view it? Posterity, completest or sadomasochist? You remember that scene from Casino Royale where James Bond is stripped and strapped to a chair, then proceeds to get his scrotum demolished by the bad guy? That’s exactly what it’s like to watch this film! You, the viewers are Bond, and Michael Bay is LeChiffre, dangling a knotted rope in hand. As a hardcore 007 fan, I was a bit let down by SPECTRE, but it may as well be Goldfinger compared with this! Fuck, I just watched Power Rangers on Blu-Ray and it may as well have been Goldfinger compared with this (Rita Repulsa did love her some gold, as it happens).
Last Knight plays as if even Michael Bay was as detached from the material as the rest of us (perhaps even more than indulgent fans, for sure). It is missing many of his trademark visuals, including loving, slow motion shots of the American flag flapping proudly in the wind, or the slow-mo “dodge the explosions while firing back at the enemy while protecting the humans while flipping around really bad ass and cool” shots. Let THIS be your yardstick: Optimus transforms into truck-mode only once in this entire movie, and we don’t get to see it, or his conversion back to robot, onscreen.
The sheer buffoonery it makes of British folklore and myth…and in the same year that Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur was one of the most notorious cinematic piles of dog-pooh ever smeared across a silver screen. In a Transfomers film, this could have amounted to intriguing if it weren’t brushed aside as nothing more than, “Yes, it was the Transformers all along.” The way poor Mark Wahlberg phones in anything that isn’t a physically challenging action scene (and we know his talent level from other films, even here he barely resembles the same Cade Yeager he played in the previous film). My Lord, the indignities suffered upon Anthony Hopkins spouting lines like, “At last - it is time!” among those noted by professional critics.
The third act is hard to describe, not least which is because it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever - not the ending anticlimax, mind you, but the entire third act! It is, without question, one of the most baffling, nuttiest things you will ever see in any film for a long, long time afterwards, however forgettable. Was there even a climax to this film? Beats me. All I know is it ends with Optimus spouting the exact same clap-trap that he did in the four films previous (I swear it's just a reuse of Revenge of the Fallen's final monologue) and sets up yet another sequel which can’t possibly wrap up this film’s plot...no, bizarre fever dream concoctions into any satisfying resolution.
I have to wonder if Michael Bay himself wasn’t just looking for an “out” and so made this to be as messy and listless as possible, just hoping it will bomb and that he would be forced away from the franchise. It begs the question: can the franchise survive it? Really, when I got home, I just about felt like chucking my thirty three years’ worth of collected Transformers comics, games, DVDs and very expensive toys....err, adult collectibles into the garbage! Not one of the four previous films inspired such a feeling in me!
Mercifully, my next visit to Target allowed me to pick up two classic G1 triple-changers (Blitzwing and Octane [as “Octone” for bizarre trademark reasons]), as well as two legends scale figures (Seaspray and Cosmos) under the Titans Return (Generations) banner and assuaged my interests in this franchise. Shortly afterward, at a Walmart, I also found Titans Return Perceptor, one of a handful of my favorite G1 Autobots! Mercifully, none of these characters were ever translated into the Bayformers universe.
Where does the brand go from here? Dear Hasbro/Paramount - hard reboot - please, I'm begging you!
The next film, we know, will sidestep Bayformners entirely by focusing on Bumblebee in a “solo” story. There will be other TF characters in the film, but the main focus will be one of ‘Bee’s adventures in the 1980’s, and, reportedly, he will be sporting his classic VW-bug car mode visage. Let’s hope this goes for all of the robots in the film!
Sadly, I don’t know of any new console videogames (or new novels) in development, but on mobile platforms both Earth Wars and Forged to Fight are doing very well. I’m not yet a fan of mobile games, so I don’t know if I will get into them.
The IDW comics are chugging along, and as long as writer James Roberts is involved, I’ll be interested. As one would expect with such a long running book, its quality sometimes flags, and now that they are mucking about with constructing a Hasbro/IDW connected universe (TF/GI Joe/MASK/etc, etc.)...yeah...cash grab.
(BTW I just recently met TF artist extraordinaire Livio Ramondelli at the Amazing Las Vegas Comic Con. Great guy)!
I was not impressed with the last few cartoon series (Transformers: Prime had some interesting episodes, but overall was just kind of blasé and I had even less love for the aesthetic of Robots in Disguise 2015 - – both have had their own cadre of loyalist fans so I’ll try and remain open minded about whatever comes next).
Even a web-series inspired by Combiner Wars (the first part of the Power of the Primes trilogy) was rather dull. For my money, Transformers: Animated (2008-2011) still remains the benchmark of a quality series that both honored the old and brought something new at the same time.
On a more exciting front, as always, the toys themselves. Titans Return will soon morph into a new subline (and yet still be part of the Generations flagship) as Power of the Primes. We are not yet sure exactly what this will entail, but there is a rumor that it will be the first time Hasbro will make action figures of all thirteen members of the original Primes (only recently revealed in the overall mythos) that came before Optimus Prime. As less than half of them have been made into figures before, this is interesting to me, so count me in for that.
Thanks to Combiner Wars, Titans Return, and soon Power of the Primes, I will now have most of the contemporary G1 characters, with even a few surprises (Misfire?), that I ever wanted in my collection. Soon, I will have the massive, new Titan scaled Trypticon (the TF universes’ version of Godzilla!); then, most of the characters on my checklist (yes, I do have one) will be ticked off. Masterpiece is only just getting started with Beast Wars characters (in celebration of its 20th anniversary) and once then I can pick and choose from the various lines as needed.
So, while The Last Knight was alternately difficult to digest yet easy to forget - the brand is healthy. Even with the film being a reported bust (it hasn't bombed, but did fall way short of expectations in both the USA and China - two of it's most dominant markets) all the various other media remains in place and strong. Unless the next film makes the grave mistake of actually trying to follow up on it.
ULTRAMAN GINGA S: THE MOVIE and ULTRAMAN X: THE MOVIE - Double Feature Review by Scott "Bot" Burkhart (c) 2017
I got a nice surprise at the tail end of last year when the Japanese import, SHIN GODZILLA, actually played in a Las Vegas cinema, and so I was able to review it for this blog. Despite a glowing recommendation, I didn’t praise it nearly enough - flaws though it may have it is without question a modern cinematic masterpiece of haunting visuals paired with a beautiful music score that have just stuck with me for months after having seen it. I will be happy to update that review upon the film’s eventual Blu Ray release (Where the heck is it? In the meantime I look forward to the first ever Godzilla anime film, Godzilla: Kaiju Planet; Toho should have that complete by December 2017).
Imagine my delight a few months ago when I found out that there would be an equally limited engagement (one night only, bizarrely enough, on Super Bowl Sunday) of two of the more recent theatrical features in the Japanese produced Ultraman franchise. Both Ultraman Ginga S: The Movie and Ultraman X: The Movie had been dubbed - for better or worse - into English by William Winckler Productions. I’d gained familiarity with Winckler’s dub work from some super-robot mecha-anime, in particular DVD theatrical versions of Gai King, and Danguard Ace, which are Toei Animation TV series that precede Beast King Golion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV (those, in 1984, were combined to become Voltron: Defender of the Universe here in the states). They were sincere and faithful dubs, but ultimately kind of bad dubs that included voices from sci-fi writers David Gerrold and Donald F. Glut among their cast, as opposed to professional voice-actors, so I was very nervous about this. (If you are not aware of the work of Donald F. Glut, I’m not sure we can still be friends).
Regardless, it’s not every day that Ultraman features get screened in the West - in fact, almost never - however these features were being screened at Las Vegas’s newly opened Eclipse Theaters: a deluxe, adult’s only movie house that offers a full open bar, a lounge area, and a kitchen that serves you even as you watch your movies. While it’s fairly exquisite and caters to independent, hard to find productions, I didn’t find it to be quite as worthy of its deluxe, adults only prices! Cool idea, though.
I was also well aware of this before proceeding: the Ultraman franchise, wholly unfortunately, has been in a creative rut since around the mid 2000’s, as facing stiff competition from both Kamen Rider and the Power Rangers/Super Sentai franchises, have forced creator-franchise owners Tsuburaya Productions to gear the Ultraman TV shows and their theatrical feature tie-ins ever more towards the kiddie-set crowds. (Of course, revenue from toys and merchandising create far greater profit than advertising during the actual programs or theatrical ticket sales do. It didn’t help that some of their adult oriented product, in particular the Ultraman Nexus TV series and the Ultra Seven X experimental webisode series, were both failures in finding excited audiences).
Now, even as an adult fan of this franchise, reaching all the way back to seeing the original English dub of Ultraman on TV in 1979, it should say something that even I had little interest in either the Ginga or Ultraman X TV series iterations. I couldn’t be sure if I would be able to follow these films, as they are intrinsically tied into their respective TV series. (Confusingly, all three, Ginga, Ginga S, and X are mere miniseries with only eleven to thirteen episodes each; I am not even sure what that is about, then).
That said, I knew of the dreadful concept behind the Ginga/Ginga S series, and the reason I avoided it like a plague: the Ultra heroes and even some of the famous kaiju (Japanese for supernatural monsters) had all been imprisoned as “spark dolls” (read: actual action figures used in the series) that the hero would have to collect and connect to his transformation device in order to free them or borrow their powers! Naturally, toy partners Bandai, despite an overwhelming marketplace of various Ultraman figure types already on the market, created an entire “spark dolls” toy line that could be used to connect with a role-play transformation device so that kids would have “catch ‘em all!”. Gag. To make matters worse, even trying to read the backstory/mythos of this particular series is one convoluted concept after the next. All this in 26 episodes? Gag and barf.
I initially had higher hopes for Ultraman X, which featured some excellent design work in all areas, including some design influence from the recent excellent Ultraman manga, except for the ridiculous modular science patrol mecha vehicles (these are usually pretty odd in any given series anyway, so I could look past it). However, this series took a similar approach and replaced the “spark dolls” concept with “cyber cards”, which allow the science team to cyber-enhance classic series kaiju with armor, or even Ultraman X himself (whose suit is already bad-ass as it is, but looks cumbersome when weighed down with the cyber armor). Naturally, in the real world, kids MUST actually try and collect all of the real cyber-cards and slot them into a toy version of the X-tablet through which the titular character regularly converses with his science team.
I know - I just lost most of you already.
But, damn, it’s not every day that I have a chance to even see Ultraman productions anymore, as Tsuburaya keeps a tight control over the releases of the franchise, due to fears of copyright violations they normally won’t even allow for DVD or Blu-Ray imports into the U.S.; even where English language tracks have been available before! And to be able to see them on the big screen? At a deluxe theater? Where I can order sliders and eat like a pig (and did) while watching the features? Sign me up!
And lo, I was actually giddy with excitement as Ultraman Ginga S: The Movie started. There was an explosion of color and hi-def visuals, this movie dropped all of its pretensions and got right down to brass tacks: it opened on a lush, alien-jungle world with Ultraman Cosmos doing battle with a seijin (alien) kaiju, Etelgar, who can cross time and dimensions to battle Ultramen of various multiverses; neat because you’ll need only that nugget of info to realize why there are so many of the freakin’ Ultra-series heroes that show up in this here one dang movie! Cosmos’ appearance was a delight to me as the Ultraman Cosmos TV series was the last Ultra-series that I actually watched, and even actor Taiyo Sugiura returned to his role as Musashi Haruno, the human form of Cosmos. It was a thrill to see that he’d actually gained some age and now supported a more mature visage (he looked barely older than a teenager in the original series!).
So, you see, this seijin kaiju Etelgar had attacked some planet with a princess on it but lied to her and convinced her that the Ultramen were evil and were desperately using their powers to try and convince her Etelgar himself was bad…- never mind Etelgar’s big scary, skeletal face! Now she uses some of her own magic powers to attack the science team of Ultraman Ginga’s world, and fend off defenses beset by some other Ultramen. Ultraman Zero shows up and helps the human forms of both Ginga and Ultraman Victory (also of the Ginga series) realize they have to fight together, literally, as one. For some unexplained reason only this will defeat their enemy. Also, Ultraman Zero is a huge prick.
There’s some more Ultra Crusaders that show up, all recognizable from various iterations of the series, and there are about a thousand fights and flips and laser beams and big giant explosions to behold from the science team members to the giant Ultra heroes and kaiju and…well it just kind of goes on and on and on like that!
I know - its kiddy garbage and I just lost the remainder of you whom had made it this far!
My only source of joy in this mess came from trying to identify all of the Ultra heroes, which becomes difficult as with the recent series they change forms three or four times (gotta’ push as many of those action figures as possible)! And get this, in the most homo-erotic plot-point ever, the human forms of Ginga and Victory, already both acting and looking very gay throughout many scenes in this film (not that there’s anything wrong with that) actually merge their consciousness into yet another new hero form for Ginga, fusing him with the ability to recreate Zero’s crossbow-made-of-light weapon (I can’t keep up with all the fancy terminology the Japanese give to these things) with which to destroy their enemy.
Yeah, I was constantly reminded of the late, great Roger Ebert’s line in his review of the very first Power Ranger’s movie, “It’s as close as you can have to absolutely nothing and still have a product to project up on the screen.”
By the end of it I had a headache and wanted a drink, but I couldn’t bring myself to pony up the 13 dollar asking price at this “deluxe” theater.
Fortunately, Ultraman X: The Movie; as it is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the ULTRAMAN franchise; proved to be a lot better, if only lightly so. For one thing, it plays upon and tries to answer a mystery that has been bugging franchise fans for, well, 50 years! This film ties in directly to an episode of the original Ultraman entitled, “The Blue Stone of Bahradi”. In brief, this episode takes place in a fictional Arabian country of Bahradi and shows that they (the very Japanese looking Arabians of Bahradi) harbor and worship a statue of another member of the Ultraman species, one that visited Earth in the distant past and then left them with the titular Blue Stone to protect themselves of impending kaiju attacks (and yes, imagine that: as the Science Team investigates, one kaiju, Antlar, actually does! Go figure!). So just who the heck was this other, earlier Ultraman represented by the statue? Never quite answered.
The Ultra-series phenom lost some of it’s luster throughout the early 1980’s, and attempts to revive the series throughout the early 90’s were projects that fizzled because - too put it mildly - they were just awful. It wasn’t until 1996 when Tsuburarya Productions were pretty much on the ropes and backed into the corner they were forced to radically rethink their concept and created Ultraman Tiga. It was in this series that anime-influenced design came into the picture, coating everything from the hero to the Science Patrol team uniforms, weapons and vehicles that gave everything a fresh, new, enticing look. All of the kaiju costumes that appeared in this series were superbly designed and executed. The scripts, while throwing back to many concepts directly from both Ultraman (1966) and the highly regarded Ultra Seven (1967), were excellently structured and tight in their suspense; also excellently updated for a contemporary setting. The miniature work in the series was also especially superb, matching the live action locations in exacting detail! It was a series so good that it even came over to the US dubbed, poorly in goofy comical voices, and aired on Fox Kids TV in 2001! (Fortunately, the DVD release of the series removed the dub entirely and included faithful subtitles for the more grounded, sometimes somber Japanese dialogue).
And the hero, Ultraman Tiga, wasn’t just red and silver this time out: he was multicolored and lively in all aspects of appearance. Indeed, Ultraman Tiga started the whole multi-form hero concept by switching his colors from blue and silver (for speed and agility) to the classic red and silver (for strength and endurance) or his natural form which combined both. This both surprised many fans of the original shows, but they responded with positive excitement, and it delighted children, who now needed three different action figures with which to recreate their hero’s battles! In brief, in the pilot episode, it was shown that Tiga had been lying dormant within in a pyramid in the wilds of Japan’s forests, but also trapped within the form of a stone statue – one that looked, probably unintentionally at the time, similar to the statue shown in “The Blue Stone of Bahradi”!
And yet, there was no way to tie them together, as Tiga’s series starts an entirely fresh timeline in a world in which no other Ultra heroes are even known of. (Note, too, two other Ultra beings in statue form are completely destroyed in that Tiga pilot episode - who were they, then?). Tiga gets the extra article in his nomenclature because he was discovered in the (ahem) “Tiga region” of Japan! Much later in the series, there is an amusing episode where Daigo (Tiga’s human host) travels into another dimension to find that the original Ultraman TV show was “just a show” based on an incident that creator Eiji Tsuburaya (the FX genius who was directly responsible for Gojira/Godzilla) supposedly actually witnessed: Tiga and original Ultraman teamed up to fight that episode’s seijin kaiju!
And I’ll be honest here; I am not sure if I could follow enough in the dubbing - or if my desire for a good hard stiff drink was clouding my ability to pay attention - I am not sure that Ultraman X: The Movie answers any of these questions, or just makes further unnecessary connections. It does, however prove to be a mildly enjoyable romp; subdued and more subtle when compared against the previous engagement!
In Ultraman X: The Movie, a flamboyant archaeologist with a viral internet sensation show is about to, with his crew in tow, enter a recently discovered ruin in the forests of - yes, you guessed it - Japan! A female archaeologist who originally unearthed the tomb and her young son are also in the area trying to prevent him from desecrating the site without any formal study of what they might actually discover within. He cares only about the viewership of his show, and proceeds, where he eventually discovers a mysterious blue stone. Taking the stone from the site, of course, is a bad idea, despite all the dire hieroglyphic warnings around, and it leads to the appearance of two classic Ultra series kaiju, one of which is Antlar from the “Blue Stone of Bahradi” (a terrifically designed cross between an ant and a beetle) and Golza, the kaiju from the pilot episode of Ultraman Tiga).
Naturally, the young son is familiar with the science team of the Ultraman X TV series, and he helps them whip up cyber cards to create the exact two heroes needed to defeat these nemesis, original Ultraman and Ultraman Tiga (it says a lot for Tiga’s continued popularity that he is still such an iconic Ultraman hero even 20 years since his series aired). Simply enough, the two heroes join Ultraman X in the battle to use the powers of the blue stone to defeat these kaiju, while the science team continually amps them up with powers and weapons from various other Ultra heroes series via these cyber-cards. For all of this convoluted goofiness, it is also kinda’ neat!
Ultraman X: The Movie is a lot more compact and focused more on its human characters; this proves to be key in enjoying it. At one point, the mom becomes trapped under debris and only the TV archaeologist can save her. Will he do it, or will his own selfish sense of self-preservation allow him to leave her behind? I liked this film much better than Ginga S: The Movie, but it was still just great seeing all of this Ultra action on a big screen! And yet, for as much as I still have love of the Ultra series and its concepts and want to collect them and keep up, it is kids-only appeal in productions such as these that prevent me from doing that. There is nothing I can gain from these series that I don’t already get in both the Transformers and Godzilla franchises, which offer higher quality and sophistication, fused with much darker themes and imagery.
Ultraman Ginga S: The Movie [one star]Ž - Good production values, but the special FX weren’t anything better than what we get in the regular TV shows; story is just plain wacky and I didn’t care about any of the characters; I also hate - with a passion - seeing the human forms interacting inside the Ultra-heroes consciousness!
Ultraman X: The Movie ŽŽ[two and a half stars] - Less convoluted and more humanistic story; special FX were okay but not spectacular; having only three Ultra heroes means more time spent on dynamic kaiju battle choreography.
by Scott Burkhart © 2017
Today, 2.26.17, I was hit with news like a suckerpunch to the gut: actor, filmmaker, and one of the greatest of them, Bill Paxton, died unexpectedly of complications from heart-related surgery.
The first time I put a name and face to Bill Paxton was the preview for the upcoming Predator 2, (1990). The movie was clearly making a bragging right out of his being in the cast, and as I was highly anticipating this film, I was going to have to figure out just who he was…and fast! Back then, there was no “world wide web” and just barely such a thing as the “internet”, so this was no easy task. I didn’t even own my own home computer at the time!
It wasn’t long before I figured out he was previously mostly known as the gung-ho but panicky marine, “Hudson,” in James Cameron’s much beloved Aliens (1986); the very one whose machismo disappears the minute everything goes to hell and, in one of the single greatest, funniest line readings in cinema history, he bemoans, “Game over, man! Game over!”
Before these he had put in small but quirky and memorable appearances in many other films, first as a street punk in The Terminator (1984; dir. James Cameron) and then, completely underrated as older brother Chet in Weird Science (1985; dir: John Hughes). On repeated viewings, he’s quickly revealed as that film’s funniest character!
Paxton’s role in Predator 2 might not have made much impression on average critics or audience members, but he’s a solid supporting member of an already solid cast all the same; he’s one of the few screen presences that, by design, enters the scene as monstrously annoying and slowly gains our sympathy throughout the rest of the film. In a genre movie like this, that in itself is pretty unusual and, unlike his Aliens marine, he even heroically sacrifices himself so that his partner may make an escape with her life. He was quickly turning himself into an actor of note.
Just only a year later, Paxton gained much wider recognition and proper critical acclaim in a starring role in One False Move, a noir-ish crime thriller that featured a heart breaking performance by costar Cynda Williams, and an excellent supporting performance by co-writer Billy Bob Thornton, pre-Slingblade. It remains a most underappreciated film and the two make a great double feature together.
As emerging fans, my friends and I quickly sought out some more of Paxton's earlier and lesser recognized performances, even dropping them into our "movie night" marathons. These included a twisted, morose comedy, The Dark Backward (1991), in which washed up 1980’s actor Judd Nelson aptly portrays a talent-less stand-up comic who is only notable for his unusual physical abnormality; he has a third arm growing out of his back. Paxton plays his best friend from their garbage collecting day job; he provides musical backdrop via accordian and who likes to party with overweight groupies and the occasional dead body found at the dump - yep, that ages-old Hollywood chestnut!
Another was the film, Brain Dead (1990), not really notable in itself; it was produced by B-cinema legend Roger Corman. However, it was an early pairing of Paxton with another similar character actor, Bill Pullman (the President from 1996’s Independence Day), whom the two are often confused with each other by less discerning fans!
And yet another was Paxton’s stand-out performance amongst yet another ensemble cast in Kathryn Bigelow’s vampires-on-the-rampage thriller, Near Dark (1987).
Much later, by total happenstance, I caught Next of Kin (1988) an unexpectedly lively action movie in which Patrick Swayze and Liam Neeson play country hicks from the Appalachians avenging the big city death of their youngest brother, Bill Paxton!
Throughout the 1990’s Paxton kept busy and racking up credits that served him well. He had a starring turn in the nearly forgotten hip-hop themed heist-action movie, Trespass (with William Sadler, Ice T and Ice Cube). In 1995 he appeared as the youngest brother to Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, a movie that featured everybody who was anybody at that time! In the same year he had a similar fourth-billed role in the disappointingly shallow Apollo 13 (dir. Ron Howard; starring Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise and Kevin Bacon).
Easily his two biggest films were 1996’s gleefully stupid disaster film, Twister, and, the following year, Paxton appeared in the contemporary set framing story in Cameron’s Titanic (uh, heard of it?). By this time, he was just popular enough to host an episode of SNL and spoof himself in a Titanic themed skit.
He had really, finally made it, and my friends and I were happy to have seen it all happen for him.
In countless interviews with other celebrities and articles throughout many cinema devotee magazines, I kept hearing the same thing over and over: forget his acting skills, Paxton is one seriously, seriously nice guy. I even heard this more directly from cult-actor king Bruce Campbell when I met him at his book-signing and I had inquired why they hadn’t yet worked together.
“Oh, I’d love to do a movie with him,” Campbell said, “I’ve heard nothing but stories that he’s a really good guy; very nice!”
“You guys rose through the ranks together,” I said, “I can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet!”
At one point, this seemed like an inevitability; Paxton and Thornton reunited in the excellent and underappreciated A Simple Plan (1998) for Campbell’s usual director of choice, Sam Raimi. (Though Campbell’s usual comedy cameos in Raimi’s work would hardly have been appropriate to such a somber film)! Though A Simple Plan was well received by critics it was not a big hit, and the same could be said for the same year’s Mighty Joe Young, Disney’s remake of the semi-classic 1947 film that co-starred Paxton and Charleze Theron, both taking a back seat to the special effects that create the sympathetic, cinematic nephew to King Kong.
It didn’t matter; Paxton had amassed a reputation for dependability that went well with his good looks and easy going nature and enough skill for versatility; he could be your leading man, your comedy sidekick (one might argue that Paxton was the ONLY good thing about 1996’s True Lies) or your villain, as in the more recent 2 Guns (2013).
I didn’t get to follow much of Paxton’s later work, where he seemed to acquiesce to sparser screen time in film and taking a starring role in HBO’s “Big Love” (2006-2011; where he finally earned some awards nominations, even if they were only Emmys). That said, I did manage to catch his directorial debut, the wholly disturbing Frailty (2001), in which he plays a devoutly religious father grinding people he views as “demons” to bits with an axe! He employs his kids to help dispense with the bodies! If you haven't seen this - you MUST - if only once.
I had only recently heard that he had taken the part in the network TV adaptation of “Training Day”. He must have just been bored.
Alas, I feel a tremendous sadness with news of his passing; so unexpected, so sudden, so young still at 61. Though we all age, though we will all fall to time, it just seems like there are those among us who just never should (e.g. Robin Williams, Carrie Fisher). Bill Paxton was certainly among them.
Game over indeed.