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Thoughts on SHIN GODZILLA (Spoilers)

October 24, 2016 1 comment

That’s right, kaiju fans, I’ve seen the new Godzilla movie! I was fortunate that Funimation’s limited release of the Japanese Godzilla reboot Shin Gojira — which was originally going to be released in the US as Godzilla: Resurgence but was instead released as Shin Godzilla — happened to be showing at a theater just half an hour’s drive from me this past weekend (actually right by the place I took my car when its odometer broke down a while back). I was also fortunate that they decided to extend the run after I missed my chance last week, and that they included a Saturday matinee showing so I didn’t have to drive in unfamiliar territory after dark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Japanese Godzilla film in the theater before — certainly not uncut and undubbed — so it was good to get the chance. Though I was a bit late getting started and I made the mistake of taking the shortest route rather than the faster but more circuitous freeway routes, so I just barely got into the theater in time for the opening Toho sunburst.

This movie is written and “executive directed,” whatever that is, by Hideaki Anno, creator of the acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I’ve been curious about but haven’t actually seen as of this writing. The other director, also the director of visual effects, is Shinji Higuchi, who was the effects director on the superb Gamera trilogy in the ’90s. That’s some impressive talent.

Shin Gojira means “New Godzilla” or “True Godzilla,” with a bit of a wordplay suggesting “Divine Godzilla.” It’s something unprecedented since the 1954 original: A Japanese Godzilla film that isn’t a sequel to that original, but a complete reboot in which Godzilla is something never before encountered. Indeed, that’s arguably unprecedented even if you count the two American attempts. The creature in the 1998 TriStar version was newly evolved, but named in reference to an existing Japanese legend called Gojira, which could conceivably have been the actual creature (and the 2002 GMK did imply that the TriStar movie happened in its continuity); and the Godzilla in the 2014 Legendary Pictures reboot had been secretly known to the military and governments since 1954. Even in the original movie, Gojira was known and worshipped as a sea god by the native tribe of Oto Island.

When I first heard that this, the seventh continuity reboot in Toho’s Godzilla series, would break with the tradition of making every reboot a parallel sequel to the ’54 original, I was disappointed. But as it turns out, this is a film whose story depends on Godzilla being a black swan event, a totally unprecedented problem that catches everyone in authority completely unprepared. It couldn’t really have been told any other way. “New Godzilla” indeed. (And perhaps it explains why the Resurgence title was dropped. It would’ve been false advertising.)

The film opens found-footage style with a Coast Guard investigation of an abandoned boat, the Glory-Maru, which is destroyed by a mysterious steam eruption at the same time an auto tunnel below Tokyo Bay is flooded. Opening with an abandoned boat is no doubt meant to evoke the ill-fated boats that opened both the ’54 original and the ’84 Heisei reboot, but remember it — there’s more to it than that.

The opening minutes are somewhat dry and tedious as the vast government bureaucracy moves from meeting to meeting and clumsily tries to figure out what to do, but it soon begins to become clear that the tediousness is the point, highlighting the inefficiency of a bureaucracy so top-heavy and complacent that it can’t react promptly to a crisis. The lead character, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), is a young government official who chafes at the inefficiency and bureaucracy, and once the scope of the crisis becomes clear, he takes charge of a task force of nerds and rebels (by Japanese standards) who operate informally and free of hierarchy, working as a team to figure out the nature of the creature and how to fight it. But they still have to contend with the rest of the government, not to mention the Americans and other world governments, playing politics as usual.

Yaguchi is eventually contacted by Kayoco Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), supposedly a third-generation Japanese-American whose grandmother came to the states after WWII and whose father is a U.S. senator. The odd spelling of her given name (seen printed in her file) is perhaps meant to be an Americanization of “Kayoko.” Unfortunately, Ishihara speaks English with a very heavy Japanese accent, so she’s unconvincing as a U.S. native. (She is gorgeous as hell, though.) Kayoco brings Yaguchi the files of Goro Maki, a missing scientist who owned the Glory-Maru and who shares his name with the protagonists of both 1967’s Son of Godzilla and the ’84 reboot. Maki’s notes confirm that the creature chowed down on nuclear waste dumped on the ocean floor, presumably mutating it. Kayoco also establishes the creature’s name, and it’s odd how it’s explained in the film: The American code name Godzilla is introduced first, explained as a variant of Maki’s coinage Gojira, meaning something like “wrath of God” in the language of Maki’s native Ohdo (or Oto) Island, with the American spelling thus influenced by the word “God.” It seems convoluted, but I suppose it’s necessary to justify the “Godzilla” spelling in a modern context. That spelling is based on a romanization scheme that was preferred in the ’50s (in which it would be Gozila or Godzila) but has since fallen out of use in favor of the scheme that romanizes the same name as Gojira.

When Godzilla first appears, it seems oddly comical, a snake-headed, fish-eyed juvenile form that galumphs clumsily on all fours, ill-suited to movement on land. But it quickly gets less comical as we see the sheer size of it and the destruction it wreaks, and it soon visibly mutates into a second, upright form better adapted to land. As with prior reboots, this one has evolved the concept of Godzilla, adding something new to the mythos. Originally, Godzilla was just a surviving dinosaur species turned radioactive by nuclear testing. The Heisei series retconned him into a therapod dinosaur mutated to giant size by radiation. The Millennium series introduced his super-healing ability, allowing Godzilla to regenerate from near-total destruction if any part of him remained (an idea cribbed from Toho’s ’60s Frankenstein films). Now, Godzilla’s gained the ability to evolve into new forms at will — reminiscent of Iris in the Heisei Gamera trilogy, although it also kind of makes Godzilla a Pokemon now, or a Digimon. As with those franchises, it seems the sort of thing designed to let them sell lots of Godzilla toys by giving him various different forms.

Another idea this film shares with the Gamera trilogy: The Self-Defense Force is initially hampered in fighting the kaiju because the treaty only allows it to use force if fired upon first by an aggressor. They figure out they can make an exception for “pest control,” so the helicopters are sent in, but when it turns out a few civilians remain in the area, the Prime Minister chokes and refuses to give the fire order, allowing the creature to retreat to the sea.

Godzilla’s eventual mature form is more than twice its previous size (and taller than any previous Godzilla, in a bit of one-upmanship on Legendary Pictures, the previous record-holder), and it heads for Tokyo for unclear reasons (except, well, where else would Godzilla go?). Yaguchi’s team and the SDF have had time to organize a systematic attack, but none of their weapons leave a scratch, and it takes some American stealth bombers dropping bunker-buster bombs to pierce Goji’s hide. But that injury just prompts its next mutation, and it unleashes a devastating fire breath that then becomes an even more devastating atomic ray, and that’s just the start of a sequence of truly massive devastation on a scale beyond what we’ve ever seen in a Godzilla film, destroying three whole wards of Tokyo in moments and killing the Prime Minister and much of the government. Its energies depleted, Godzilla then freezes in place to recharge.

Yaguchi and half his team manage to survive (including all the speaking characters therein) and try to pick up the pieces. They have a plan: They’ve figured out that Godzilla’s nuclear reactor is blood-cooled, and they intend to use a coagulant to shut down his metabolism and force a “scram” (i.e. an emergency reactor shutdown). But the U.S. plans to nuke Godzilla — and Tokyo — to prevent it from evolving into a form that can reproduce and spread worldwide. Naturally, the prospect of America nuking a third Japanese city evokes a lot of pain and soul-searching from the characters. Yaguchi’s team has to race against time and pull every official and back-channel string they can to get the time to finish the coagulant, and the appointed replacement Prime Minister, who initially seemed like a flake, rises to the occasion and helps them get the time they need. Along the way, they figure out — this is a little unclear — that Goro Maki was somehow responsible for unleashing and possibly even creating Godzilla, perhaps as vengeance on Japan for his wife’s death, or perhaps a test of humanity’s worth to survive. If they are saying that Godzilla was a genetically engineered organism, it would be another parallel with the Gamera trilogy, and the first time that idea has ever been applied to Godzilla, although there was an unmade 1994 American remake that would’ve explained Godzilla as the creation of aliens.

The final battle with Godzilla is actually rather anticlimactic, since it’s basically just a matter of pinning Godzilla down and spraying the coagulant into its mouth, and the plan succeeds a bit too easily. Kayoco reminds Yaguchi that the nuclear countdown is only on hold as long as Godzilla remains dormant. But there’s a final shot showing… well, I’m not quite sure what it shows, but it may be a hint that this is not the only Godzilla out there.

Even though this is a total reboot, the film has a lot of references to the history of the franchise. I’ve mentioned many of them already. The score, by Evangelion composer Shiro Sagisu, makes use of a number of Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla motifs and military marches at appropriate points, while also basing a number of original cues on a 6-note ostinato prominent in his Evangelion scores. (Some sources say he reused the actual cue from NGE, but I listened to the tracks on YouTube and they have distinct melodies, sharing only the ostinato underneath.)

Shin Godzilla is certainly the most serious, dark, and allegorical Godzilla film since at least GMK. It’s also very much a rumination on the state of Japan as a society, perhaps because it’s in some ways a reaction to the new American Godzilla franchise. Although using Godzilla as a metaphor for the contemporary zeitgeist of Japan itself is something done by many of the most effective Godzilla films — and some of the less effective ones. The original film was a protest of American nuclear testing and its unconsidered impact on Japan, and a rumination on the ethics of weapons of mass destruction from the perspective of a nation still healing the wounds from their recent use. The 1984 reboot took a critical look at the US-Soviet Cold War from the perspective of one of the smaller nations caught in the middle, with Japan’s history giving it a unique moral authority to take a stand against the superpowers’ nuclear gameplaying. The problematical Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was a jingoistic celebration of Japan’s Imperial history and its rise as an economic superpower in the ’80s and ’90s. Conversely, GMK a decade later was an indictment of that same Imperial history and the way the modern generation had chosen to forget the nation’s past crimes and horrors. Following those precedents, Shin Godzilla is a commentary on the state of Japan in the post-Fukushima era, an expression of frustration at the governmental bloat and inefficiency that hampers the protection of the public against disasters, and at the way Japan’s political and military autonomy is still restricted even generations after WWII, a period of penance and dependence that seems like it may never end. While GMK criticized the Japanese for forgetting the lessons of their forebears’ misdeeds, this film makes the counterargument that the current generation doesn’t deserve to keep being punished for them, not if it inhibits Japan’s ability to defend itself and stand as an independent nation rather than a client state. Still, it’s more nuanced than the rah-rah pro-imperialist politics of GvKG, making a case for Japan as an equal partner among cooperating nations.

Still, as somber as it gets, I feel there’s a certain superficiality to it, due to its unrelenting focus on government officials. Aside from the early found-footage scenes, there’s little sense of ordinary people’s reactions to the disaster. The action scenes are mostly quite bloodless, with the population largely or fully evacuated before the battles, and with little in the way of onscreen death or the loss of established characters other than the first Prime Minister. This is actually pretty typical for Godzilla films, but it kind of belies the publicity saying that this was going back to the spirit of the original film, because that film focused heavily on the human cost, the terror of the victims and the suffering of the survivors. That was what made it so powerful and poignant. Similarly with the Shibuya sequence in Gamera 3 — what made it horrifying was not all the buildings the kaiju destroyed, but the focus on all the civilians fleeing and dying underfoot. The Tokyo cataclysm here is visually and stylistically potent, beautifully made and striking, but a bit sterile in contrast, because it’s a mostly empty city being destroyed and there’s little sense of a human cost aside from the loss of the PM. Other Godzilla films may rarely feature as much onscreen death as the original, but there are usually at least some civilian characters to offer a more street-level perspective.

Still, from a stylistic standpoint, it’s a well-made and effective film. The VFX, done mostly with CGI, are quite good overall, although the “baby” Godzilla doesn’t look quite as solid and real as the later models. The music is used fairly deftly; at first, in the dry, documentary-like opening minutes, there is no music, but a score finally begins to emerge once the proto-Godzilla makes landfall, and the Ifukube themes kick in once the mature creature appears. The editing is quite fast-paced, sometimes maybe a bit too much so, but it helps keep the energy up even in all the scenes of meetings and dialogue. There are captions everywhere, identifying characters by name and government title (including several captions for Yaguchi as he’s promoted to more and more responsibility) and the various offices and task forces and even military vehicles, and it’s hard to pay attention to the subtitle translations of both dialogue and captions at the same time. I’m glad I was sitting toward the back of the theater so that I could at least fit both sets of captions into my field of view. Still, watching this movie with subtitles might be more rewarding on home video with freeze-frame capability.

All in all, I’d call it one of the better Godzilla movies. I think the film it most reminds me of is the ’84 reboot — also a rumination on Japan’s relationship with nuclear superpowers, and the last time that a Japanese Godzilla film was strictly about Godzilla vs. humanity, with no other monsters or giant mechas involved. It does a good job feeling grounded and naturalistic, even if it is a bit sterile. It’s certainly raised the effects game to a new level, perhaps even enough to compete with Legendary’s efforts. Apparently it’s been quite a critical and box-office success, the best-attended Godzilla theatrical release in Japan in 50 years, and its limited US run has done better than expected. I’d say that means the prospects of a sequel are pretty good, although the next announced Godzilla project from Japan is, surprisingly, a CGI anime film slated for 2017. If there is a sequel in the Shin continuity, hopefully we’ll get a bit more explanation of Goro Maki’s role in unleashing Godzilla. I’m sure we’ll get further mutations of Godzilla as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a rival monster or two. It’d be nice to have an ongoing continuity again, although next time I’d like to see the perspective broaden beyond the government.

And I’m probably not the only one wondering if there’s a way to do a Shin Godzilla vs. Legendary Godzilla crossover…

New Trek project: DTI: SHIELD OF THE GODS

October 19, 2016 1 comment

Sorry I haven’t been posting — I’ve been kind of preoccupied lately. Anyway, Amazon has revealed the title of the third Department of Temporal Investigations e-novella, Shield of the Gods. That’s right, there’s a third one, something that probably won’t come as a surprise to readers of the second one, Time Lock, which had a sort of “To Be Continued” ending. I basically approached these novellas (at least the last two) as a trilogy. They collectively add up to the length of a novel, and I’ve structured them so that they could sort of work as a novel-length story in three parts, with each installment growing out of the events of the previous one. Although I don’t know if there’s any realistic prospect of them ever being collected that way, so don’t get your hopes up. Would be nice, though.

Mythology buffs may recognize the title as a reference to the Aegis — the name that Howard Weinstein coined in DC’s Trek comics for the employers of Gary Seven in TOS: “Assignment: Earth,” an organization that played a role in DTI: Watching the Clock as well as several of Greg Cox’s and Dayton Ward’s novels about Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln. This isn’t a Gary/Roberta story, though; rather, I want to examine the Aegis from another perspective and address some questions I’ve wondered about.

According to Amazon, the release is scheduled for June 19, 2017. I’ll post more info as it becomes available. And hopefully I’ll have news about some other projects soon.

“Twilight’s Captives” will be in the Jan/Feb 2017 ANALOG

As visitors to my home page may have already noticed, I’ve learned that my upcoming novelette “Twilight’s Captives” will be appearing in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Since the October 2016 issue seems to be the current one on sale, I guess that means it should be out before the end of this year. That’s roughly the same time that my Star Trek: The Original Series novel The Face of the Unknown will be out, so that’ll be a big month for me.

Given that it’s been only six weeks since I sold the story, and given that it took nearly a year for my previous Analog story to see print, I’m surprised that it’s moving so fast. Two stories in Analog only 7 months apart is a new record for me; my previous record was 9 months between “The Hub of the Matter” and “Home is Where the Hub Is.” And that makes this only the second time I’ve had two Analog stories separated by under two years. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

I’ve already proofread the story’s galleys, which is how I know the publication date, so I know that this story will have an illustration — though I don’t know what it will look like or who the artist will be. I have my own design sketches for the featured aliens, which I’ll post with the story notes on publication, but Analog‘s artist may well take them in a different direction. This will be my fifth illustrated Analog story; the only ones without artwork are “The Hub of the Matter” and “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” (although the former got a nifty illustration when it was republished in the Russian Esli magazine).

Okay, I finally saw BATMAN V SUPERMAN… (Spoilers)

September 15, 2016 3 comments

The library finally came through with my requested DVD of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a film I refused to see in the theater, because the climax of Zack Snyder’s previous Superman film, Man of Steel, was such an endless, tedious, gratuitous sensory barrage that it almost drove me out of the theater. I read in the reviews that this film’s action sequences were even more noisy and excessive, so I chose to wait until I could see it on a smaller screen and be able to set the volume to my comfort level, as well as take breaks as appropriate.

As you can tell from the title of the above-linked MoS review, there was a lot I really liked about that film, but the stuff I hated was so awful that it ruined the rest for me. As for BvS… Well, I can’t really add much to all that’s been said about it in the months since its release. It’s a mess. I had much the same reaction as I had to X-Men Origins: Wolverine — that it felt like a highlight reel from a significantly longer movie that we weren’t seeing. (Which is somewhat literally the case here, since it’s heavily cut down from a longer version available on Blu-Ray, but the library only had the DVD of the theatrical version.) But it’s more than just brevity. Even within scenes, bits of dialogue follow each other without rhyme or reason. Character actions and reactions appear in a void, without the background to set them up. Too much stuff is crammed in and hardly any of it is given enough attention to make it feel justified.

Character-wise, Clark/Superman and Lois are relative ciphers. We don’t see enough of them to learn much about their personalities or thoughts, and what we get is disjointed because too much is left out. Henry Cavill was a high point of MoS, the first actor since Christopher Reeve that I really believed as Superman. But he’s terrible in this one. Which is probably because he has so little to work with, and it’s just so incoherent. He gets no reaction at all when Congress blows up around him, and he doesn’t even get to speak a word in that entire scene. And his words to Lois afterward are nonsense. Superman is the dream of a Kansas farmer? He’s been living as his father wanted? No. Nuh-uh. MoS made it clear that this version of Clark became a hero despite Jonathan Kent. He had to reject everything Jonathan taught him in order to become a hero. So they’ve thrown out a key part of Clark’s characterization from the first film and replaced it with a detached, unfeeling cipher who speaks in disjointed platitudes. Meanwhile, Amy Adams is probably the blandest Lois Lane in the history of the character. (Even given the existence of Kate Bosworth. She wasn’t exactly bland, just completely miscast.)

Perry White comes off even worse, getting character-assassinated as badly as Clark’s other human father figure, Jonathan Kent, was in MoS. Traditionally, Perry White is the archetypal loud, grouchy boss, but he’s also always been portrayed as a paragon of journalistic integrity, the moral center of the Daily Planet as much as Clark himself was. Here, he’s a caricature of a shallow, sleazy tabloid editor, unrecognizable as Perry White and a total waste of Lawrence Fishburne’s talents. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor isn’t as annoying as I feared at first, but he gets more annoying when he just keeps on talking and talking and talking while Superman or Lois barely get a word in. (And both characters suffer from having the writers force them to deliver overly on-the-nose bits of foreshadowing, like “This is someone you don’t want to pick a fight with” or “No one cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman.”)

As for Bruce/Batman, it’s not a completely untenable idea to set him up as opposed to Superman because of what happened in Metropolis, and it’s certainly a good idea to try to make up for the staggering disregard for life in that whole climactic sequence, but I can’t say it works well. Having Bruce pretend to Alfred that he was going after some “dirty bomb” unconnected to Superman serves no purpose, and undermines the momentum of the story by making Batman’s early actions seem disconnected to the plot and thus rather boring. The film was already disjointed enough without that. Moreover, Batman’s casual killing is unpleasant, though Michael Keaton’s Batman was just as murderous (and I’m not at all a fan of those movies either). I’ve heard behind-the-scenes handwaves about how this is an older, more bitter Bruce who’s crossed that line, but I don’t think there’s anything in the movie establishing that, so it just comes off as gratuitous.

Overall, the character’s actions make little sense. Clark and Lois don’t do much investigating beyond having clues fall in their laps. Batman’s actions don’t follow any sort of logic. When he’s going after the kryptonite, he puts a tracking device on the truck… and then chases after it at close range and gets into a big firefight and crashes and explosions and whatnot, which was all absolutely unnecessary because he put a freaking tracking device on the truck!!! After that whole overlong sequence, he just went back to the Batcave and found where the truck was anyway, proving that there was no reason for the chase in the first place. This is Snyder’s problem. Not only does he care more about cool images and moments than he does about story, but he doesn’t even care enough to come up with coherent justifications for his cool images and moments. It made zero sense for the firing of the tracking device and the up-close car chase to be in the same sequence of events. They directly contradict each other. But Snyder didn’t care, because he just wanted a succession of cool-looking moments.

Others have written about how incoherent and overcomplicated Lex Luthor’s plan is here, so I’ll just say that the fact that Lex had to force Superman and Batman into arbitrary conflict reflects the filmmakers doing the exact same thing. They started with the title, the decision that this would be a movie about them fighting, and everything else had to be about contriving an excuse for that to happen. They couldn’t even come up with a good excuse. They tried to set something up with Clark getting fired up about Batman as a threat that needed to be stopped, but then totally abandoned that and went with Lex threatening Clark’s mother. Why? Just because someone thought it’d be cute to point out that Bruce’s mom had the same name? (Which might not have been quite so ludicrous if they hadn’t made such a huge dramatic moment of it, complete with a recap of the frame-by-frame imitation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns Wayne-murder scene that already opened the film. Not only does Snyder slavishly copy old comic-book pages, now he’s copying his own copy.)

And then we get a whole other completely unrelated story about Doomsday, just so Snyder can indulge in more disaster porn — though they make a forced, clunky point of how abandoned and evacuated everything is this time. This is just a random monster fight out of nowhere, and the character decisions are as random and unsupported as most everything else. Why does the president default to ordering a nuke before it’s even been sufficiently demonstrated that Doomsday is a threat that Superman can’t contain? Far more inexplicably, how does Lois psychically intuit that she needs to go back for the spear? She has no way of knowing that, unless super-hearing is contagious. And why didn’t Superman just give the spear to Diana?

Still, while the climax here was just another self-indulgent CGI-fest, it was more watchable than the MoS climax. It was less repetitive, less crassly exploitative of 9/11 imagery (though we got a ton of that in the opening), a bit more fun with the banter among the three heroes (what little there was). Plus — and this is particularly important for me — the music was actually fairly engaging this time, not just endless monotonous blaring. It was a reasonably good screen debut for Wonder Woman, allowing for how tacked-on her presence was in this film — which doesn’t really stand out given that pretty much every other plot thread was just as cursorily tacked on. Although I’m not crazy about the modern trend to fixate on the idea of Diana as the ultimate warrior, which runs counter to her traditional role as a champion of peace. Hopefully her upcoming solo film will balance her two sides better. Overall, I agree with the consensus that Diana is the one element of the film that really works, and that’s almost entirely due to Gal Gadot’s presence and charisma rather than the flimsy storyline the script gave her.

So… This was bad. Not potentially great but critically flawed like MoS — just plain bad, a clutter of disparate pieces pretending to be a narrative. It had some ideas that had promise but were ineptly or fitfully explored or simply mentioned in passing and forgotten. It had a few scattered lines of good dialogue amidst a word salad of pretentiousness and random subject changes. It had some interesting imagery, but dwelled too heavily on a lot of it. It had… well, it had some good actors, but I can’t say anything positive about the characters, since they were little more than devices to advance the fragments of what passed for a plot. And it was trying too hard to be a promo for future films. This wasn’t a story, it was a corporately mandated piece of connective tissue between other movies. It’s pretty at times, but virtually brainless and utterly soulless. It doesn’t even make me angry like the horrible climax of MoS did. Nothing about it has enough weight to evoke that kind of emotion. At most, it evokes a weary frustration at the Hollywood system that puts such huge amounts of time and money and labor into these elaborate, beautifully made productions but perennially fails to understand that it’s all a waste without the foundation of a strong story and script.

Another ANALOG story coming — “Twilight’s Captives”

This is threatening to become a regular thing — I’ve sold my seventh story to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Called “Twilight’s Captives,” it’s a novelette about an interspecies diplomatic crisis in which a tense hostage situation, created and complicated by a fundamental clash of human and alien values, threatens to spark an interstellar war.

Like my previous Analog story, “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad,” this tale is in my main original-SF universe; but it’s centuries further in the future and delves into humanity’s FTL interstellar era, a period that to date has only been peripherally glimpsed in my Buzzy Mag story “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing” (and foreshadowed in my long-out-of-print “The Weight of Silence”). This is also only my second published story in that universe to feature sapient aliens, the first being my professional debut, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” way back in 1998. I’ve developed a number of alien races for my default universe over the years, putting a lot of thought into their evolution and culture and history, but somehow I’ve almost never managed to sell any stories that featured them (in part because I was saving the main ones for novels — a strategy I’ve been reassessing lately). But “Twilight’s Captives” introduces aliens of three distinct types, belonging to two major astropolitical unions. I’m glad I’m finally getting the chance to flesh out this underutilized aspect of my future history.

Like “Cislunar” and “Butterfly’s,” this is actually an older, unsold story that I recently took another stab at, emboldened by my success with those two. But this one required surprisingly little reworking to make the grade — just a little streamlining here and there and a stronger opening paragraph. Which goes to show how important a good beginning is.

The publication date hasn’t been set yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.

DTI: TIME LOCK cover is out

I just found out that The Trek Collective posted the cover to Department of Temporal Investigations: Time Lock on Friday:

DTI Time Lock cover

It’s kind of abstract, but so were the previous covers. And this one’s based on an idea that’s hard to visualize. Another clock face would’ve been a bit repetitive, even though this is a story for which a ticking clock would be appropriate. Anyway, the blue is a nice change of pace from the red-orange of previous covers.

Here’s the blurb again:

The dedicated agents of the Federation Department of Temporal Investigations have their work cut out for them protecting the course of history from the dangers of time travel. But the galaxy is littered with artifacts that, in the wrong hands, could threaten reality. One of the DTI’s most crucial jobs is to track down these objects and lock them safely away in the Federation’s most secret and secure facility. As it happens, Agent Gariff Lucsly and his supervisor, DTI director Laarin Andos, are charged with handling a mysterious space-time portal device discovered by Starfleet. But this device turns out to be a Trojan horse, linking to a pocket dimension and a dangerous group of raiders determined to steal some of the most powerful temporal artifacts ever known…

Time Lock will be released about a week from now, around September 5. You can find preorder links here at Simon & Schuster’s Time Lock page, and international links in the Trek Collective page linked above.

Marx Brothers rewatch thoughts

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been binge-rewatching my Marx Brothers DVD sets, and I thought I’d post some brief thoughts on them all. There are 12 “proper” Marx Brothers movies — five from Paramount from 1929-33, five from MGM from 1935-41, one from RKO Radio Pictures in 1938, and one from United Artists in 1946. There’s also a borderline case from UA in 1949. Through the vagaries of film library rights transfers, the Paramount films are on a set from Universal Home Video and the MGM and other films are on a set from Warner Home Video.

The Cocoanuts (1929): This was adapted from a Marx Brothers stage show, and it feels like it. Not their best film by any means, but it sets the template for both the Paramount films and the MGM films (and is closer to the latter’s plot structure in some ways). It establishes the basic roles that carry throughout the films. Groucho is an unlikely authority figure and something of a grifter, in this case a broke hotel manager trying to make money any way he can. Chico and Harpo are pickpockets and thieves, but Chico gets a comedic piano solo and Harpo gets a straight harp solo. (I love these parts. Seeing the zany Harpo become so serious and focused on his beautiful harp playing is such a striking contrast.) Zeppo, the straight man, is barely there as the desk clerk. Margaret Dumont is the rich widow Groucho tries to woo, and the mother of the young female romantic lead, who wants to marry working-class male lead Bob, but Dumont wants her to marry the upper-class villain, who’s conspiring with the vamp to steal Dumont’s necklace and frame Bob for it. It presages the MGM formula where the Marx boys end up helping the young couple win out, but doesn’t really develop it well, since Chico and Harpo barely interact with Bob before they end up randomly saving him in the last act. Notable for a couple of reasonably good Irving Berlin songs and the Groucho-Chico “Why a duck?” sketch that sets the template for their later routines.

Animal Crackers (’30): One of the best and most famous Marx films. Groucho is Captain Spaulding, the African explorer — the first of several Groucho characters that are inexplicably revered despite acting like, well, Groucho. As usual, he’s trying to marry Margaret Dumont(‘s money) yet insulting her constantly. Chico and Harpo are musicians and con artists, recruited by the young romantic leads to help them swap out a painting that the villains intend to steal to humiliate Dumont. Zeppo is Spaulding’s secretary, getting his most notable comic scene when he takes a letter. Lots of classic songs and sketches here, like Spaulding’s account of his adventures, Groucho and Chico’s banter, and the surreal three-way flirtation scene with random Eugene O’Neill strange interludes. But Harpo’s a bit too belligerent here with his aggressive girl-chasing and a bridge-playing scene where he gets kind of violent with Dumont (although what he does when he finally catches a girl is completely innocent).

Monkey Business (’31): My least favorite of the Paramount films, because the Marxes have no identities or character motivations in this one and just feel randomly shoved into what passes for its story. They’re just four anonymous passenger-ship stowaways who spend the first reel dodging the crew before stumbling into a feud between gangsters. It’s less interesting without the tension between Groucho as the faux-authority figure subverting the establishment from within and Chico and Harpo as the ruffians subverting it from without, and the weird adversary/ally relationship that results between them. But it’s probably the best showing for Zeppo, who gets to be the romantic/action lead this time, wooing the daughter of the reformed gangster. The climax doesn’t work too well, since the daughter gets kidnapped and the brothers inexplicably take the lead in going to her rescue, yet all of them but Zeppo are cavalier and unconcerned about rescuing the kidnap victim, or about helping Zeppo as he fights the abductor. So a sequence that would’ve been funny with less dangerous stakes instead feels kind of inappropriate and callous. It has its moments, like all the Marx Brothers films do, but it’s forgettable to me.

Horse Feathers (’32): This fortunately reverts to the standard formula, with Groucho as a supposedly great dean brought in to save a struggling college. But his son — Zeppo, again as the romantic lead — convinces him that what the college needs is a winning football team. Chico and Harpo are bootleggers that Groucho mistakenly recruits as football players, while the actual players become ringers for the rival team and serve as the film’s villains. (In an oddly intellectual in-joke, Groucho’s college is Huxley and the rival is Darwin.) Notable for Groucho’s famous song “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” the speakeasy password scene with Groucho and Chico, and the climactic slapstick football scene, which establishes the tradition of Harpo using his cartoon-character powers to save the day. A reasonably good one.

Duck Soup (’33): The absolute best of the Paramount films if not the entire Marx canon. None of the others had me laughing this constantly. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, appointed dictator of tiny, cash-strapped Freedonia at the insistence of Dumont. Chico and Harpo are inept spies for the ambassador from Sylvania, who’s trying to take over the country by stealth. They somehow end up as both allies and adversaries to Firefly, who’s his and Freedonia’s own worst enemy, constantly digging the country into a deeper hole through his impulsiveness. Under cover as a peanut vendor, Harpo also gets into a rivalry with a lemonade vendor played by well-known “slow burn” comedian Edgar Kennedy, which adds a funny new dynamic. Zeppo is back to the secretary role and largely irrelevant. Notable for the utterly classic mirror scene where Harpo pretends to be Groucho’s reflection, for Chico’s trial scene, and for the unrelenting slapstick in the climactic war sequence. The one real deficiency, aside from the randomness with which Chico and Harpo switch allegiances, is that it lacks their piano and harp solos. (Though I wonder if a piano scene for Chico was cut, because in one shot he’s standing by Dumont’s piano, and a few seconds later he’s gone.) It’s also the only Marx film without a pair of young lovers in the cast.

A Night at the Opera (’35): The first of the big-budget MGM films that established a new formula, brainstormed by producer Irving Thalberg. While the Paramount films had been set in farcical worlds where the Marxes could get away with anything, MGM’s films put them in a more grounded world with more coherent storytelling, as well as making them more sympathetic by directing their antics more toward helping the young lovers and confounding the villains. Groucho is Margaret Dumont’s business manager and wooer, and he’s helping her invest in an opera company run by the obnoxious Gottlieb (Sig Ruman). Harpo is the villainous tenor’s abused dresser, shown sympathy by female lead Kitty Carlisle, who’s pursued by the villain but only has eyes for a less famous singer played by Allan Jones. Jones is old friends with Chico, who convinces Groucho to sign him in the classic contract scene, featuring one of the all-time great punchlines. The movie handles the steamship/stowaway plot much better than Monkey Business did. Jones and Carlisle are strong singers and actors and effective leads, and MGM pulls out all the stops on the big production numbers and the action climax. (The Chico and Harpo musical solos are back with a vengeance.) But the highlight is the famous crowded-stateroom scene. The best of the MGM films, and competitive with Duck Soup as their best ever.

A Day at the Races (’36): The last film Thalberg was involved with, because he died during production. Brings back Allan Jones as the romantic lead, but this time opposite Maureen O’Sullivan (best known as Jane in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films), who’s wonderfully classy and elegant here, though she doesn’t sing. She’s the owner of a sanitarium whose survival depends on the generosity of Dumont, a hypochondriac patient who wants Groucho’s Dr. Hackenbush to run the establishment. But Hackenbush is actually a horse doctor. This is a new twist, in that Groucho is no longer unquestioningly accepted, but is overtly a con man in danger of being found out by the villains, including Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille), the abusive former owner of Jones’s race horse and the man who wants to tear down the sanitarium. This one has weaker humor in the first half, though there’s better stuff later on. I’m not that fond of the racetrack-tout sketch where Chico cons Groucho, because it make Groucho look too naive; I prefer the older formula where Groucho’s the smart one but is confounded by Chico’s linguistic misunderstandings, or where they’re both conning each other equally. The movie also debuts a sketch where Harpo tries to give Chico an important message through charades, a routine they’d reuse in later films. The musical sequences are hit-and-miss, including a musically impressive African-American slum sequence that was probably considered racially inclusive for the time but has some problematical elements by modern standards.

Room Service (’38): An odd sidebar in which the Marxes were loaned out to RKO to adapt a play that wasn’t written for them. (The deal was made by Zeppo, now working as the brothers’ agent.) It’s about a broke theater-troupe manager (Groucho) using various cons to avoid getting thrown out of a hotel. It’s not very funny, and the young male romantic lead is annoying. The funniest bit is a wordless, slapstick meal sequence with the Brothers, probably added for the film. Notable for featuring Lucille Ball as the female lead, though she’s wasted in the role. (Though she’d get something out of it, since she and Desi Arnaz later bought RKO and renamed it Desilu. Which is the first tenuous connection between the Marx Brothers and Star Trek, aside from both of them being Paramount franchises at one time or another.) Not worth it unless you’re a completist.

At the Circus (’39): Back to MGM and its established formula, as circus employee Chico hires private detective Groucho to help save a circus owned by Margaret Dumont’s rebellious son, so that he can marry his lady love. Naturally, villains are out to take the circus away by any means necessary. Harpo is again the abused assistant of the secondary villain, a strongman who oddly wears the same kind of curly wig as Harpo. Eve Arden plays the vamp working with the villains. Notable for introducing the Groucho song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” This isn’t as well-received as the previous two MGM films, but I found it a lot funnier than A Day at the Races. Maybe it was just in contrast to the dullness of Room Service, but I really liked this one. All three brothers are in fine comic form, though Groucho’s toupee is unfortunate.

Go West (’40): These titles are starting to sound rather prosaic, but keep in mind that the posters showed them underneath “GROUCHO – CHICO – HARPO – MARX BROS.,” so it’s basically like saying The Marx Brothers at the Circus or The Marx Brothers Go West. Anyway, this is their only period piece, set in 1870, as the brothers go out west to dig for gold (more figuratively in Groucho’s case) and end up helping the romantic couple hold onto a valuable deed to land that the railroad wants to buy and the villains want to steal. Probably the first Marx Bros. film with onscreen killing (it is a Western, after all). Notable for the sketch where Chico and Harpo con Groucho into giving them change for the same $10 bill over and over — it’s a bit like the racetrack routine I mentioned before, but Groucho holds his own better because he’s trying to con them too. The big train-chase climax is fairly fun, though these climaxes are getting more over-the-top and slapstick-driven. This film has my least favorite harp solo, because it has Harpo very unconvincingly turn a rug loom in a Native American village into a makeshift harp, with the harp music dubbed in, rather spoiling the illusion.

The Big Store (’41): The final MGM film, with Groucho again playing a detective, hired by Dumont to protect her singer nephew from second-time villain Douglass Dumbrille, who wants to kill him to take possession of the high-end department store he owns. (These movies are getting more violent!) Harpo is Groucho’s man Friday, the first time he’s started out teamed with Groucho rather than Chico. Some good gags here and there, but a couple are too labored, like the extended “novelty beds” sequence with all sorts of weird beds coming out of the walls, and the overly long slapstick climax. But it has a couple of noteworthy musical sequences. The big production number “Sing While You Sell” is rather good and features a cameo solo by singer Virginia O’Brien, known for her trademark deadpan singing style, staring ahead unblinkingly and expressionlessly while singing otherwise normally, which is oddly compelling and slightly creepy. Chico and Harpo did their only four-handed piano duet, bringing fresh interest and comedy to the routine. (They also get a brief piano-harp duet during the otherwise clumsy “Tenement Symphony” production number.) And Harpo has his most glorious harp scene ever, a fantasy sequence where he plays Mozart’s Sonata in C Major while dressed in fancy clothes and a powdered wig and forms a trio with his reflections in a pair of ornate mirrors. An inconsistent film, but I like it.

A Night in Casablanca (’46): This reunion film from United Artists, a riff on Casablanca and similar films, follows the MGM formula pretty closely. Groucho comes full circle to play a hotel manager again, in danger from disguised Nazi Sig Ruman (his second turn as a primary villain, his third appearance overall), since there’s hidden Nazi treasure in the hotel and Ruman wants to take it over in order to find it. All the usual MGM tropes are there. (The romantic male lead is Charles Drake, who two decades later would play Commodore Stocker in Star Trek: “The Deadly Years,” our second connection.) There are a number of good comedy sequences — Harpo messing around with Ruman and his henchmen, Chico and Harpo packing the restaurant with tables to clean up on bribes from aspiring customers, Groucho and the vamp moving from room to room as Chico tries to interrupt the seduction, and the trio driving Ruman crazy by secretly unpacking his clothes while he packs them, to delay his escape. Not a bad swan song for the trio.

Although… there is one more film that should arguably be counted, though the Brothers themselves preferred to ignore it. It’s not on my DVD sets, but I found it on YouTube.

Love Happy (’49): Not quite a Marx Brothers movie — more a Harpo movie with Chico co-starring and Groucho tacked on as a “narrator” who barely participates in the story, since that was the only way Harpo could get financing for what he intended as a solo vehicle. Otherwise, it follows the familiar formula, with Harpo and Chico helping a pair of young lovers trying to keep a cash-strapped theater troupe afloat. Harpo ends up in possession of a stolen necklace that the villain (Ilona Massey) is trying to find, with help of henchmen including Raymond Burr. There’s some decent comedy from Harpo, and he carries a lot of the film with his endearing persona, but it’s weak overall, and has some ill-conceived bits involving a brutal offscreen beating and a “comedy” musical number that makes light of child abuse. The Harpo-Chico material relies too heavily on the familiar “charades” routine. And it’s the only time Groucho is almost completely unfunny, because his material stinks and he hardly has anyone to play off. (The best-known aspect of this film is a random, brief walk-on by Marilyn Monroe in one of her first screen roles. It was before she went platinum blonde and adopted her infantile persona, so it’s the only film in which I find her at all sexy.) The three brothers never appear together except in one shot where they don’t interact. Worth it for Harpo fans, but a slog otherwise. (And it has more Trek connections — Fred Phillips did the makeup and Howard Anderson did the visual effects.)

There was one more film that featured Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, Irwin Allen’s unfunny comedy epic The Story of Mankind in 1957, but the three brothers appeared in separate, brief sketches and never interacted, so it can hardly be considered a Marx Brothers film. It’s not worth reviewing here, but I talked about it in a few posts on the TrekBBS a few years ago, starting here.

So… Overall, a pretty good run, with only a couple of real duds. Even the weaker Paramount and MGM films had a lot of memorable material. Hard to say which era I prefer. The Brothers did get a little more domesticated and inhibited in the MGM era, and they had to share more screen time with non-comedic romantic leads; plus the MGM movies were quite formulaic, all variations on the same pattern. But the Brothers were also more sympathetic in the MGM films. Their personalities were basically the same, but tempered by more compassion. And I don’t mind Chico and Harpo being tamer and sweeter, because they were both really good at it. The edgier Paramount stuff was fun, but Harpo’s early antics were sometimes too edgy and aggressive. Harpo was really very charming, and the MGM era brought that out more fully. As for Groucho, his evolution from Paramount to MGM reminds me of Bugs Bunny’s evolution from the early Tex Avery days to the later Chuck Jones days — initially just a wise guy making trouble for fun, but eventually becoming more a comic hero and defender of the helpless. But post-Paramount Groucho was often more the butt of the joke than the perpetrator — often willingly letting himself be led astray by the vamp, or suspecting that Chico is conning him but not quite catching on. But that fallibility made him a more effective hero, since it introduced the risk of failure.

I don’t think I can really decide which era I prefer. I think both are essential to the whole. And I’m glad I have the complete set, though now I know there are a couple I can skip in the future.

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