Monday, March 29, 2010

Women Warriors, Part Three: MICHELLE YEOH

I've already talked about Yukari Oshima, the actress who was my most prominent inspiration for "Hell Knight" and its main character, Yuki Hinomoto. I've spoken of the actress who co-starred with Yukari often, the supercute and uber-tough Moon Lee. It's inevitable that I talk about the undisputed queen of the classic 'Girls With Guns' films of the 80's...Michelle Yeoh.

Not long after the decade started, Michelle won the title of Miss Malaysia. To be a beauty queen is often a sure ticket for future fame and stardom in Far East countries, and she gravitated to Hong Kong. After meeting filmmaker and actor Sammo Hung, Michelle wanted to follow the lead of actors like him and Jackie Chan and dive into action films. She was given the chance by headlining the actioner "Yes, Madam!", which Sammo produced in 1985. Like Moon Lee, in spite of the fact she wasn't formally trained in martial arts, Michelle's dance background gave her the solid foundation she needed to at least be able to learn bone-busting moves quickly as she went along...fight choreography also wasn't much different from staging a dance sequence.

"Yes, Madam!" was something revolutionary...even in a film market where women had taken leading action roles before, some still needed to be convinced. With the support of her co-star, American actress and martial artist Cynthia Rothrock, this film convinced in truly spectacular fashion. The ladies could kick ass, and this film started the trend that exploded in popularity only two years later with Yukari Oshima and Moon Lee's "Angel". Yep, "Yes, Madam!" started the 'Girls With Guns' subgenre of Hong Kong action films!

Barely a handful of high-quality films later, however, Michelle retired from films after marrying businessman and film financier Dickson Poon. (Ah-ah, no jokes! I'm sure you thought of plenty funny to say about a name like 'Dickson Poon', anyway!) For better or worse, the marriage lasted only three years, and Michelle returned to action films with a bang by co-starring with the legendary Jackie Chan in "Police Story 3: Supercop". Fans couldn't have been happier to see her back, even though it must be said that doing her own fighting and stunts in action movies (especially in Hong Kong) can be hazardous to anyone's health. Michelle was subjected to a nearly crippling injury, in fact, during the shooting of one film, "Ah Kam".

In spite of pitfalls and pain, Michelle continued to ascend until she achieved international recognition. She received acclaim for films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", and even became a certified Bond Girl in "Tomorrow Never Dies". In more ways than I can say, Michelle Yeoh earned her title not simply as queen of the 'Girls With Guns' movies, but perhaps of all action a truly fine wine, she's only gotten better and more beautiful with the passage of time. :)

Friday, March 26, 2010

The coming clash...

I've stated before I've come to disdain Hollywood's trend of churning out remakes. I refuse to talk about it until I'm blue in the face -- or type until my fingers turn the same color -- because how much can I say about it? Okay, I can say PLENTY about it! My concerns about Tinseltown's lack of creativity are starting to build again. Yep, another remake is coming. But for me and a lot of movie lovers, it isn't just any remake.

In 1981, I went with my family to see "Clash of the Titans" at the movie house. I didn't know much about it, being a young spud. I knew I loved certain kinds of movies, though, and what I did know about this film got me excited. Stop-motion animation, and call it 'antiquated' if you want, was IT back in the days before computers. I had seen the legendary "King Kong" on syndicated TV by then, as well as classics featuring the effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen, like "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad". I just saw "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" again recently, and you really have to think about it to appreciate how much time and effort went into such truly special effects.

It showed how much effort went into "Clash of the Titans"...even today, if you let a kid of fairly competent memory retention see it with mindful parents (there's nudity in a couple of scenes, a first for a film like this!), they and their parents would be impressed by the visuals of the majestic Pegasus, fearsome Medusa, and the almighty crap-yo-pants sea monster called the Kraken. The Kraken itself was the centerpiece of the effects of the film, as much a payoff in this film as the T-Rex was in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park". However, it could also be called KINO (Kraken In Name Only) yet not in a derogatory way, because it sure as hell didn't look like an oversized octopus as its name implied. It looked BETTER! And fans of the film like me can't kid the uninitiated: the special effects overpower the story and very nearly the actors, even with the likes of the late, great Sir Lawrence Olivier and Burgess Merideth, Harry Hamlin, and Maggie Smith in the cast. One can even say that the story was written exactly so Harryhausen and the filmmakers could make it one of the biggest films to feature stop-motion ever.

The film was indeed big...some critics weren't high on "Clash of the Titans", but audiences loved it. Ever since, it went on to legitimate 'classic' status among films. In this day and age of supposedly seamless computer imagery and effects (you still gotta suspend your disbelief, kids), this film was made in a day and age when physical props and sets were still in vogue and built by hand, and the feeling of seeing the ancient world come to life is more keenly felt here than in a more recent movie, like "300". For better or worse, however, since "Clash of the Titans" is a classic and its appreciation has been passed to younger fans since, it was almost inevitable it go through the potentially painful process of being remade.

And the time for that remake, whether we like it or not, is approaching fast. However, to its credit, "Clash of the Titans" is promising to be a very different animal from its inspiration. The creative forces behind the film, which include director Louis Leterrier, have affirmed themselves as having nothing but love for the original film. They even went to the legendary Ray Harryhausen himself for his input, which shows at least they have respect for their source material and those responsible for it. We've still got Perseus, illegitimate son of Zeus, leading the hero's charge, along with characters like Andromeda, Calibos and Cassiopeia. We know that monsters from the original, like giant scorpions and Medusa, will be back. So will the Kraken...and this Kraken is as different from the original beast as the 1981 version was from an ocotpus. Hades is the new villain, and the whole thing promises to be a bit darker in comparison to the original, even though the story is close to the same.

Nothing will change my love of the original "Clash of the Titans". The forces behind its remake seem to know they're in the shadow of something that fans across the world haven't stopped loving even could say that the Fantasy film might always have a place in films, just like Westerns. (As long as they're done right!) BUT! I've got my doubts. My biggest one is of the guy who plays Perseus...a good friend of mine, Momiji, said that Sam Worthington is pure crap as an actor, and nearly ruined another little film he was in. You might have heard of it, it's called "Avatar"? I haven't seen it yet, but I don't doubt my friend's judgment...he isn't the only one who thinks the guy can't act for shit. That's something I have to see for myself, but I don't doubt it's true. We've already been subjected to Keanu Reeves, and Sam might be following in his talent-lacking footsteps.

Regardless, I want to believe Leterrier and those behind the coming remake have the respect and creativity necessary to dodge the hurdles and pitfalls other filmmakers have all but ignored when it comes to making a good remake. Will this be the first good remake we've seen in a while? Even if it isn't, we've still got the classic to watch again, and it'll always be with us. The fact it's been remade period is proof.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Is there such a thing as a 'better' zombie?

Those who have a love for certain things like to obsess about the little details OF that thing at times. I must admit I'm one of them. Some things I enjoy are horror films and novels, and one of the most potent sub-genres of horror (especially in films) has been stories with zombies. You know. People back from the dead with attitudes that make Oscar the Grouch look like Emily Post, decaying every second after they've climbed through the earth from their graves, and with that very special jones for eating the flesh of the living. "When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth." Zombies aren't just the ultimate agents of death, looking to take as many lives as possible and worse, infect them with the never-quite-explained virus to make the living join the undead ranks...such monsters are as much a metaphor for Death itself as the unstoppable serial killers of cinematic legend like Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers.

I've loved zombie yarns since Roger Corman's classic "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), even though I'd fire a blast of double-ought from a shotgun into the face of any undead that might appear for real and have me as a midnight snack. That would never happen in reality, naturally. I hope! Although "Night of the Living Dead" set the standard rules all zombie films followed since, I'll be the first to admit that some of those rules required some explanation. The undead only go after living or just-killed flesh? How long can the bastards shamble around, anyway? And why does destroying their brains -- preferably from long-range with a bullet -- put them down like a stake in a vampire's heart? Their brain cells have to be dead already! I did put a little logic to zombie lore in my short story, "Mother's Day". (Which you'll also find here in my blog. Shameless self-promotion done!) I placed a more definitive cause to the effect of a possible undead plague, and exactly why such creatures like living human flesh so much. Hey, would YOU wanna take a bite out of rotting flesh? Zombies sure wouldn't, and there you are! But unless there's a supernatural element to the story that keeps dead flesh well-preserved, logic can only go so far in stories about the undead. For one thing, if there were a zombie apocalypse, it would be pretty damn short considering that necrosis is a fact of both life and death. Given enough time, a zombie would dessicate into a heap of goo and bones...if the living could hold out in shelters and defend themselves long enough, the problem would literally take care of itself.

Some have done their best to redefine zombies -- or, well, make them scarier as time has passed horror stories, though, especially in films. It started small with 1985's "Return of the Living Dead" in which some of the undead -- those recently taken from life only to, er, 'wake up' to a more animalistic existence and prey on the living -- as not quite being as slow and decrepid as a rotting zombie that just broke from the graveyard dirt. Yep, zombies as fast as a human, and that is scary as hell. Zack Snyder took that same tactic portraying the newly-zombified in his remake of the classic "Dawn of the Dead" in fact, as time passed in the narrative, the undead looked worse and got slower as decay set in and their muscles, joints and more fell to rot along with the rest of their bodies. But it was filmmaker Danny Boyle who honestly DID redefine what it meant to be an animalistic flesh-eater.

In "28 Days Later", Boyle took prevailing concerns of a future pandemic and combined it with the tropes of zombie films. The result? The 'undead' of his horror epic weren't dead at all: they were normal (is there such a thing?) everyday people who got infected by a bloodborne virus of pure, total rage. Think about that, and what happens to a normal person who gets infected by a bite. One moment you're okay, and the next you feel like your blood is literally burning and everything you are, your very identity, what makes you you is eradicated and replaced by a rage that makes you as pleasant as a tiger infected with rabies. All that is left in the mind is pure animal drive...the very worst parts of that drive, in fact. It's the demolition of society, morality, and civilization itself by the ultimate of the uncivilized. Those aren't zombies that hunt in packs at night looking for the living to feast on...they're wolves with zero conscience, and those who have still have logic and soul in them can feel sorry for the infected, but they'd better stay the HELL behind barricaded doors and armed for bear or one of those packs will find and batter, rend, and yes, even eat them alive. "28 Days Later" not only provided much-needed food for thought about viruses but rewrote the rules for zombie films even though again, technically, it ain't a film about the undead. It can be called a zombie film, though, since those subjected to the Rage Virus are no different from zombies...except they're alive and their primal drive makes them what I like to call fast-movers.

As a gamer, I've seen both kinds of zombies in video games. In games from "Resident Evil" to "Dead Rising", the undead are indeed that, brought back to life by genetic engineering or other mysterious ways. Other games have followed the example of Danny Boyle, like "Left 4 Dead" and its sequel, where the survivors must fight off the animalistically infected by tooth, claw, and shotgun. And pills! :D (Those who know and love "Left 4 Dead" will understand that last bit of humor!)

But is there such a thing as a 'better' zombie as time continues to pass? At the heart of the religion and the mythology most know of voodoo and zombies in real life, they are those brought back from the dead to act as servants of the living. In our popular culture, from books to movies to games, the undead serve only their own primal, savage hunger at the expense of those still alive. There has even been a sea change to what actually makes a zombie, all to make that kind of monster more frightening, as the more supernatural and shambling flesh-eaters seem to be giving way to a trend to create the fast-moving infected of a terrible plague that could burn the civilized world down. Which kind do I prefer? Whether they make me think or not, as long as the zombies are scary, fans like me won't get enough of them and the heroes who try to keep themselves from becoming snacks to monstrous appetites!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Favorites of a Video Game Geek #2: Firepower

This will otherwise be known as the blog where I assure, "Nope, I'm not dead!"

I know it SEEMED that way since I've been away from making an entry for so long, especially after I made my promise of more entries here this year. :( But! I am back, I was never dead, and I will be here more often. Seriously. Stop laughing! >:(

What can I say? It wasn't just the case crap got in the way, I had a general malaise from writing. (I have been writing for my book and researching every chance I could...the blog fell to the wayside as a result, tragically.) Again, though, I'm back. :)

Let's talk shooters.

No, not the kind you drink, buddy. First-Person Shooters. In the world of video games, the FPS has been subject to great criticism and moral outrage by non-gamers for their violence. Gamers like me, meanwhile, know the FPS as a genre of video game that has enjoyed dramatic evolution since "Wolfenstein 3D" (which I've talked about before) and has generally raised the bar for quality for the industry in general. These games put you INTO the game and help create both connection and immersion into the game's characters and environment. You'd have to play some bonafide classics like the "Half Life" series to understand what I'm talking about. I feel the desire to share with you two more recent examples of the FPS that knocked me on my duff, and in a good way...and both are for the Xbox 360. And no, I won't be paid for my testimonial, either. Dammit!

(What I have to say is also from the perspective of the single player experience...I don't make enough money or have the time to play any games online with others. Yes, I know I'm missing out on a lot. Don't give me any shit!)

First was "Halo 3", appropriately enough the first game I played for the 360. Appropriate because that out of an already-considerable library of titles, this one embodies the console the most in the hearts and minds of gamers. The fact the previous two installments of the series were the highly praised and best selling standard-bearers of the 360's black and blocky predecessor helped a lot. "Halo 3" continued the trend and concluded the story of the Earth-Covenant War, the Master Chief aka Spartan-117 -- the John Wayne of future gunslingers -- his search and rescue of Cortana, and the mystery of the Forerunners and the Halo ringworlds (it doesn't answer EVERY question to the mystery, though...that's what more sequels are for!), and the conclusion is as bittersweet as it is triumphant only because it had to have an ending. Every moment of this game is damned pretty. Not in a anorexic model kind of way, but a "Holy crap, that's awesome!" kind of way. The action is relentless and pauses only for a few seconds here and the gamer can catch their breath, I suspect. On more than one occasion before my brother and I split for the console a couple of months ago, I had to wonder: couldn't "Halo 3" have been made for the original Xbox? Not long after I started playing, even without delving into its multiplayer, I realized the answer was a very big 'no'.

Strangely enough, the general structural blueprint for how one progresses through this game isn't far removed from the previous games. This IS 'combat evolved', but outside of driving and flying and blasting Brutes to dust with a tank (fun, fun, fun!), you don't get to do...well, more. Think I'm kidding? SLIGHT SPOILER IN THE NEXT SENTENCE...YOU WERE WARNED! The final stage of the game is where you drive a Warthog to beat the doomsday clock, just like the original "Halo"! Could this game have been made for the Xbox, anyway? Again, big 'no'. It's safe to say Bungie and Microsoft said 'nay' to changing anything about the control and gameplay mechanics, which were pitch-perfect in the first two games, and are again here. I enjoyed this game and will play it again, without a doubt. But maybe any real evolution to the games will come in the next true sequel to the series? We'll have to see.

"Bioshock", fittingly enough, is also something of an evolution, but in a direction that confirms that the uninitiated have no idea how creative video game makers can be. Ah, what a long, strange, dark and thoroughly satisfying trip this was! I can't go too much into the story, which is what drives this game, only because it's best you not be prepared for the stunning turns it takes. The general premise can be best described as this: literally drop into an undersea city unknown to the rest of the world to experience Darwinism at a frightening, genetically-engineered level. The law of the jungle meets Frankenstein. Part of the lure of this game is you can be as nice or as ruthless as you want, like "Grand Theft Auto", in the unique gameplay dynamic between the player and the Little Sisters, sweet little girls who are essentially small storehouses for a unique substance you need to survive. If you're a teddy bear like me and you'd never hurt a little girl, you'll become emotionally invested toward the need to help them instead of 'harvesting' them to build yourself up.

HOWEVER! In order to get to a Little Sister, you've got to bop your way through the most jaw-droppingly scary mini-boss ever created for any kind of game: the Big Daddy, a lumbering DNAgent who looks like a deep sea diver...FROM HELL! The initial reaction you'll have to the first time you run into one of the Bouncer types of Big Daddies as he escorts a Little Sister will be, "Pfft! What a slow-walkin' ox! And is that a drill he's got instead of a right hand? I've gotta be faster than he is, and I can blast the guy from long range! There has to be a catch...?" Even if you're careful, NOTHING will prepare you for how damned ferocious this guy is when you piss him off. Seriously, my first reaction to this behemoth when I tried my luck was, "What the...! Oh, no way...HOLY SHIT!" Then I was dead. When I realized every Little Sister I had to find had one of these brutal guardian angels at their sides, I knew I was in for a wild ride. With solid control and unique gameplay mechanics involving both weapons and Plasmids, graphics even better than "Halo 3" (the water alone is a thoroughly amazing achievement...yes, I said water!), scares that easily rival "Resident Evil" and even "Silent Hill", a truly compelling and twisting story, and a gothic world that looks like Steampunk mixed heavily with an Art Deco afficionado's nightmare, with a chilling musical score and mood to match, "Bioshock" is a game that truly sucks you in like a whirlpool to the ocean depths. Yes, there's already a sequel out. And yes, I'm gonna buy it when it drops in price!

A nerd more famous than me, Adam Sessler, once said that video games are more fun than people. He was kidding, of course...I think? I'm no introvert, I do get out into the sun often, and I like people. When they're not stupid. But I'm tempted to say that truly great games like "Halo 3" and "Bioshock", along with other examples of the compelling First-Person Shooter genre, are serious competition.