Monday, August 16, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: MAZES AND MONSTERS, 1982, Starring Tom Hanks, written by Tom Lazarus from the novel by Rona Jaffe, Directed by Steven H. Stern

Mazes and Monsters is a fantasy role playing game enjoyed mostly by high school and college students. Players take on the roles of barbarian warriors, thieves, powerful wizards, and maybe even pirates. People gather in dorm rooms and living rooms to play, using game maps, handwritten character sheets, and embroidered velvet bags filled with dice.

But the most important element is the imagination of the players themselves. It's kind of like improvisational theatre, but with less movement. People sit around a table, pushing character markers around maps representing dungeons, castles, mazes, and there are other markers that represent goblins, orks, dragons, monsters, etc.

One of the players is assigned the role of "Maze Master." The Maze Master is the referee, and he also conceives of the overall scenario that the other players tune into, and the players do their level best to sort of perform or embody the characters they've created. This performance or embodiment usually consists of the players putting on funny voices, stilted, vaguely Britishy accents, and declaiming spells, oaths, curses, and other brave sounding things. The Maze Master obliges the players by doing the voices and noises of the various monsters and dastardly villains. This usually consists of fakey sounding roars and growls and stilted, vaguely Britishy accents.

But sometimes all these conventions about how to play, and what's appropriate, and where performance ends and real life begins--for some people it just ain't enough.

Sometimes, the real ketchup's gotta flow.
Sometimes, a dudeman has to take matters into his OWN chain-mailed hands.
Sometimes, the mazes and the monstes gotta come to life . . .

Something like that happens to Tom Hanks's character, Robbie, in this made-for-TV movie derived from a novel of the same title by Rona Jaffe. Robbie is a college student with a troubled past, transferring to a new school at the beginning of this sordid saga. At first glance, he seems normal. He seems about like the Tom Hanks characters in movies like Big or Bachelor Party. But something more twisted and complex lurks beneath the surface . . .

See, long ago, Robbie's brother Hall disappeared under inexplicable circumstances. Robbie's mom is a lush, his father is a pushy asshole, and Robbie just tries to go along to get along. He's seemingly taken on an unreasonable amount of guilt over his brother's disappearance, and his only real outlet to express himself is by playing Mazes and Monsters, and immersing himself in the role of a holy cleric, Pardeux. But, at his first college, Robbie got so wrapped up in his character that his grades suffered, and he was forced to drop out. After an unspecified stretch of time, Robbie has given up the game, gotten some therapy, and is ready to rejoin the academic rat race.

Or is he? Once a player, always a player?

Robbie falls in with a group of Mazes and Monsters enthusiasts. They want him to play. Robbie resists . . . but not too hard. Soon, the players are upping the ante: instead of just sitting around a table using hand drawn maps and fakey accents to excuse sedentary performances they will take the game live into a possibly dangerous network of tunnels not far off campus. Now, they will wear full, handmade costumes, and they will wield prop weapons cribbed from the theatre department to supplement their fakey, vaguely Britishy accents--evil ensues!!

Well, sort of . . .

Robbie goes into the tunnels and encounters something, a Gorvil, which is a kind of half-dragon, half-man, and Robbie loses his marbles. He kills the beast, but his sanity is mortally wounded in the process. Robbie, from this point onwards, goes from being similar to other Tom Hanks characters in other early Tom Hanks films, to being like a member of a cult . . . a cult of one!

He swears off sex, dumps his girlfriend, and begins to draw mysterious maps and diagrams. Robbie, now Pardeux, is tormented by nightmares where a godlike voice commands him to go on a journey, a journey that might lead him to his doom in the dangerous network of tunnels.

Robbie's friends are concerned. They set out to solve the mystery of Robbie's transformation . . .

. . . This movie grew out of the early 1980s hysteria over Dungeons and Dragons, and rumors that players were taking their characters waaaaay too seriously and sacrificing cats and dogs and babies to Satan and voting for Jimmy Carter--all things deeply offensive to the Moral Majority and others who saw D&D as a recruiting packet for the Armies of Lucifer and his Communist allies.

The tone of the film is a strange mixture of matter-of-fact and melodramatic. There's even a faint strain of satire. Some of the dialogue of the parental characters in the movie hint at a pervasive mood of stress, of a pervasive fear of change, of how the growing pressure to succeed at all costs in the New Reagan America is driving people to novelty and distraction--is Robbie's saga a parable of all Americans? Is his lost brother Hall symbolic of America's lost innocence?

Probably not. Let's just blame it on a game that engages the imagination and encourages collaboration and sharing amongst young Americans--no doubt the precursors to total Communist takeover!!

Actually, the movie sticks close to the story of Robbie and his trauma. It also makes good use of location shooting. It looks like they actually shot this movie at a real college campus, in actual dorm rooms, restaurants, and some other locations I will not reveal.

As ludicrous as the notion is that a pen-and-paper RPG could be a catalyst for insanity is, the movie tells a pretty good story, and Tom Hanks handles the material pretty well. His journey becomes an interesting journey, even a half-clever psychodrama. It's also laugh-out-loud funny.

Look for an early appearance by Kevin Peter Hall as the monstrous Gorvil. Hall would later go onto fame as the Predator in the first two Predator films.

Recommended.



MOVIE REVIEW: PAYDAY, 1972, Starring Rip Torn, written by Don Carpenter, Directed by Daryl Duke

Rip Torn plays Maury Dann, a country singer who is the stuff of VH1 Legends. He boozes, pops pills, and treats women like property. Disposable property. He mostly lives on the road, in the back of his low-rent limo, flanked by his long-time girlfriend on one side and a new pick-up on the other: a young woman who works as a store clerk in some podunk town he and the band played a couple jumps back. Maury isn't too big on names. Of places or people.

He's a decent musician. But this isn't a concert movie. Mostly this movie just observes Maury's behavior towards the people around him. He's a bit of a despicable douchebag, but he has talent. Rip Torn performs a couple of times in this movie: once, at the beginning, for a crowd at an anonymous shitkicker bar, and again, later, by himself. Both times he acquits himself well. The later performance is especially poignant, as it is the only time you get to see him working on his music, which is presumably his passion. He's all by himself in a hotel room, swilling Coca-Cola to jazz himself out of an alcholic funk, and strumming on his acoustic guitar. He consults legal pads with lyrics scribbled on them. There's a closeup of his face, as he plays, eyes closed, his ragged voice barely stage worthy. Is the music an escape from his pain? Maybe his pain is an escape from the music.

There are other people in his caravan: a slick, reptilian, hard-driving agent from the big city, who tries to keep Maury on task; fellow musicians; Maury's deranged mother; a youngblood wannabee musician who begs Maury to let him join the band; and later on we even get to meet the wife and kids Maury abandoned.

The movie presents a damaged character, in thrall to his addictions, his appetites, and does not water down his vile attitudes towards women, or his profound, dangerous immaturity. Rip Torn doesn't so much perform the character, as embody him. His approach is rather low key, which is also the approach of the movie: not a lot of yelling, or soul-searching speeches, just behavior, keenly observed. It's all in how Maury gets up in the morning. It's in his diet of fried chicken, Coca-Cola, amphetamines, whiskey, and the occasional marijuana joint. It's the way Maury carries himself, like the pain is never far from the surface. It's in how, even when he sleeps, he never seems to get any rest.

The movie seems to suggest that a guy like Maury is constantly on the road because he needs the sensation of constant movement. The music really does seem like an afterthought at times, though Maury plays very well. Maybe he feels he has to live the Life in order to be authentic to the fans. Maybe it's something else.

The movie gives a realistic sense of what it was like in the 1960s and 1970s to be a country western band on the road, and all the shit work and drudgery that goes into being on tour: negotiating the nightly wage from the venue manager, popping in for a guest appearance on local radio stations, partying and playing poker all night in ratty motel rooms, etc. But at the heart of it all is Maury Dann, and the revelation of his tormented character.

Highly recommened.


ANIME REVIEW: HEAT GUY J, 2002, Creator/Director Kazuki Akane, Character Design Nobuteru Yuuki, Music Try Force

Heat Guy J tells the story of the city state of Judoh, one of seven cities managed by a high tech cadre known as the Celestials. In the future, war and other largescale conflicts between nation states have been eliminated by careful management of high tech human societies. Judoh and the other city states have all the amenities and many of the problems of real world cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or London: pollution, traffic jams, crime, racketeering, and poverty, but the affliction of disease and the threat of open warfare and imperialistic aggression have all been curbed.

How?

Control of technology. The Celestials are the only human group with the know-how to maintain the machinery and sophisticated computer architecture that allows Judoh and the other six city states to continue to function. The know-how to build firearms, armored vehicles, mechs, nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction has been excised from public knowledge.

Some people opt out of this system. Outside the boundaries of Judoh is the wilderness of Sieberbia, where people go to live in seemingly Edenic tribal bliss, growing their own organic food, living in open air huts, and dressing like San from Princess Mononoke. Others live in the subterranean Underworld of the city state, a kind of managed zone of illegality where people in the know go to cut loose, deal in contraband technologies, and operate businesses outside of the offical tax structure.

But, as is almost always the case in anime, all is not well in the perfectly engineered future. War has been eliminated, but human desire has not. And human desire for greater power and control over fellow humans still exists.

Heat Guy J starts out as a conventional episodic police procedural in a sci-fi setting: brash young hero-cop Daisuke Aurora and his hulking android partner J. battle the mafia, led by the psychotic Clair Leonelli. Clair has inherited the leadership post known as "Vampire" for the Vita Corporation, which is the respectable, tax-filing face of the Leonelli mob. Clair has inherited the position from his newly-deceased father. He shows up at dad's funeral with a grenade, and the intent to hurl it in after his father's coffin, in lieu of flowers I suppose.

Daisuke and J, along with their office manager Kyoko, form the Special Services Bureau, a kind of anti-organzied crime task force under the direction of Shun Aurora, Daisuke's brother. Daisuke is in his early twenties and is the classic hotshot cop. J is a towering, Gigantor-like robot who acts both as Daisuke's protector and as the young man's conscience. J is constantly spouting pre-programed axiomatic statements relating to the nature of manhood, duty, and justice, however, as the series goes on, it seems that his AI begins to pick up on things and formulate standards of ethical behavior on his own. Kyoko is mostly stuck in the office, but her verbal sparring with Daisuke provides humor and counterpoint to Daisuke's playboy nature. Later, Daisuke and J meet Kyoko's unusual family . . .

One of the amusing elements of the series is how it plays with cop show conventions. Daisuke is cast as a kind of hotshot cop, and yet he is only allowed three bullets for his gun on any given assignment. And he has to ask permission in advance from office manager Kyoko, who is the only one with access to the combination safe where the bullets are stored. Sometimes, he doesn't have any bullets. This forces him to rely on the superhuman speed and strength of J., but even then the problems they face aren't necessarily resolvable through brute force.

Almost all of the characters in the course of the series reveal something unexpected in their natures and this in turn illuminates some complex facet of the fictional world they inhabit. Daisuke's constant wrangling with Kyoko over ammunition ties into the dilemma of illegal arms smuggling in Judoh: who's bringing in the weapons? how are they being manufactured? Why? Daisuke's high tech gun also has various kinds of high tech ammo: stun rounds, high explosive rounds, traditional ballistics, etc. Is the solution to crime to let the hero bring heavier artillery to bear on the perps, or is it a matter of eliminating the presence of deadly weapons altogether? Is it possible to wholly eliminate arms in human society? What about self-defense? If you are being threatened what is the appropriate amount of force to bring to bear in self-defense? How does technological innovation tie into all this?

The notions of defense, control, and technology on both an individual and societal level permeate the series as it shifts gears from cop show situations to the larger world-political situation in which the cop show elements are but one piece of the puzzle.

What's life like in other city states? This question is addressed in part by the character of Boma, a fearsome, lycanthropic swordsman who shows up as a kind of sword for hire in the Underworld. In other nation states, criminals are punished with genetic tampering which causes them to grow animal heads and exhibit feral qualities. Is this what's happened to Boma? Boma's situation and the revelations surrounding his character make for one of the most interesting developments in this series.

Other important supporting characters include hard-boiled homicide detective Edmundo, who seems like an anime version of Columbo; Dr. Bellucci, the beautiful roboticist who helps maintain J in working order; Monica a ten-year old street urchin who takes pictures of tourists and whose best friend is a donkey named Parsley; and the prostitutes Cynthia, Janis, and Vivian, whom Daisuke hangs out with for information gathering purposes much to Kyoko's consternation . . .

The characters, major, minor, supporting, are all interesting and have simple, but memorable designs. In many ways, Heat Guy J could be interpreted as a reincarnation of Escaflowne, and this would not be too far off. Kazuki Akane was involved with Escaflowne as was character designer Nobuteru Yuuki. Fans of Escaflowne, such as myself, might also be intrigued by many of the parallels between the two series. On the surface, Heat Guy J is a kind of high tech cop show, and Escaflowne is a high fantasy swords and sorcery type deal, but both series deal with the complexities of human conflict and schemes of control and oppression in intriguing ways.

Highly recommended.



Monday, August 2, 2010