Keep Your Neutrons Flowin'

This is a blog about all the nerdy crap we love but are afraid to admit in public.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Killer Kaiju!!!

As a student of film of all kinds, I often feel it necessary to watch movies I don't especially have a yen to see. Recently, I decided it was high time I did some learnin' about the giant monster movies from Japan. Did you know that giant monsters that attack buildings are called Kaiju? Well now you do! I wasn't expecting much from the movies, I had seen a few of the many Godzilla films prior. "Godzilla vs. Megalon" is one of the more ridiculous ones, featuring Godzilla fighting a number of silly creatures, eventually being aided by a robot named Jet Jaguar, who was invented just to sell little Japanese kids merchandise and eventually get his own set of movies. He never appeared again. But the movie did end with a nifty song about him. Listen to the Jet Jaguar song!

But I figured I'd go back to the beginning and check out not only Godzilla, but some of his contemporaries. I was pleased to discover that they didn't start out very dumb at all. In fact, they were done very seriously and actually well for the time period. The thing that was most amazing is the care that was given to the model work. Obviously, the conceit of these films is that there's a guy in a rubber suit marauding a mini version of Tokyo (or whatever city it happens to be) and to do so, there needs to be a mock-up of the city. The models look really fantastic and they're shot well. You can tell they're fake, but they're the most realistic kind of fake you can have. Reminds me of when I was a kid watching Thomas the Tank Engine. Remember how elaborate those sets were that the toy trains were driven around on? It's just like that, only with big guys in suits destroying everything.

The first film in the cycle, the first Kaiju film ever, is "Gojira" (1954). This is actually a super suspenseful movie, and, like "Jaws" after it, much is done to keep the giant lizard hidden for the better part of the movie. It's black and white, which aids this, and the majority of the attacks take place at night. Practically, this is also a way to keep the effects from being noticeable. A few of the closeup shots in this film are actually done with a hand puppet, which went by the wayside later on. The story is pretty simple: nuclear bombing has caused mutations in a dinosaur creature living on a remote island. He gets enormous and attacks Japan, and it's up to scientists and the military to destroy him before the country is decimated. True of the first few of this movement, "Gojira" actually develops its characters realistically and there's even a tragic love story. The film is also a obvious allusion to the horror of nuclear warfare that befell Japan only a few years before. There's a portion of this movie where displaced women and children huddle together in a makeshift shelter and wail at the loss of their homes and husbands. It's a much darker moment than one would expect from a giant monster movie, and was completely cut out of the American release.

After that came the immediate sequel, "Godzilla Raids Again," (1955). This movie suffered from sequel syndrome and things didn't make a whole lot of sense. It also lacked the direction of Ishiro Hondo, who would become synonymous with Kaiju films until his final entry, "The Terror of Godzilla" in 1975. In "Raids Again," Godzilla fights a big ol' Ankylosaurus called Anguirius. The version I saw was dubbed into English, and badly. I wouldn't suggest watching this one unless you're like me and doing a retrospective on them. There's a cool fight by an ancient-looking temple and that's about it.

The first break from Godzilla came in the form of "Rodan" (1956). Rodan is, apparently, one of the big three in Kaiju, and is a big pteranodon. The interesting thing about this movie is that it's only 75 minutes long and Rodan is only present for the final 15. The bulk of the movie depicts a group of miners who are digging far into the Earth's crust only to discover a clutch of giant, prehistoric insects called "Meganulon." They're about the size of a horse and attack and kill a number of people in the small mining community. These beasts turn out to be nothing more than food for the two Rodans who hatch from giant eggs and attack the entire world. The last 15 minutes of this movie, though, are almost worth the rest. Again, great effects, and watching a big dinosaur fly around and crash through buildings and shit was pretty spectacular.

Next up was "Mothra," (1961) and is possibly my favorite of the bunch. It follows the exploration of an irradiated island and the discovery of a primitive culture thereupon. Among the strange peoples, the explorers find tiny little twins who sing. Not like midgets, but indeed twin miniature Japanese women. And did I mention they sing? Well they do. What do they sing about? Well, Mothra of course. When thhe rich and greedy Nelson, the financier of the exploration, kidnaps the sisters to exploit them for monetary gain, the sisters sing their Mothra song and summon, you guessed it, Mothra, a massive caterpillar-like creature who hatches from a big-ass egg and makes a swimming b-line to the sisters in Japan in order to save them. A scientist, a reporter, and a photographer who were on the mission take it upon themselves to try to free the twins before Mothra destroys everything. It takes them a long, long time, enough time for Mothra to create a cocoon around itself and metamorphose into the flying insect creature we expected from the name. It continues destroying everything in its search for the girls until they're finally delivered by the good guys. Then everyone waves as Mothra takes them back to the island. No hard feelings I guess. MOTHRA SONG!!!

Really no hard feelings, since the next film is "Mothra vs. Godzilla," (1964). A similar storyline to the first film with the exception of Godzilla added to muck things up. A giant egg is washed ashore and examined by a slew of people. Turns out the egg belongs to Mothra and the tiny twins reappear to warn everyone to give the egg back, lest the feel Mothra's wrath, but of course they are immediately ignore, cuz they're little, and again enslaved for theatrical purposes. After getting freed by the same collection of good guy jobs as before, the girls return to their island. Good thing too, as that is the exact moment Godzilla decides to rise from under the ground and attack the city. Luckily, Mothra has come to claim her egg and in a considerable show of niceness, decides to fight Godzilla, but gets killed. The egg then hatches and two Mothra larvae are born and do battle with Godzilla. This movie, while not as entertaining as the first Mothra, is still fun and it is the last film to feature Godzilla as an all-out bad guy.

The final film I decided to watch was "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster," (1964). The plot to this film is SUPER convoluted and involves a princess who may or may not be from Venus warning the people of Japan that King Ghidorah, the horrible three-headed monster is coming to decimate them. What exactly he's king of is anyone's guess. While this is all happening, Godzilla and Rodan appear and decide to fight each other, to the detriment of the surrounding cities. Larvae Mothra arrives with the twins to convince the other two evil things to help it fight Ghidorah. Theres's a whole sequence where the three beasts speak to each other in their respective growls and chirps with translation provided by the tiny twins. That's the moment I knew that I was done watching these movies and they'd passed irreparably to the realm of hokeyness. The three good creatures fight the bad creature with the three heads and then it's over. Good production value and typically fun, this movie is marred by too many Kaiju and a nearly incomprehensible plot for the human actors to be involved with.

There are a plethora of other Kaiju films, like "Gamera," (1965) the giant turtle creature movie produced by a rival company to Godzilla's Toho, but I decided to stop there. Before they got TOO silly. But, just to let you know, Gamera is filled with turtle meat. It says so in the song.

Watch these movies for good fun happy times.

You're welcome.



My friend Lincoln Hayes, the other half of the semi-defunct Eclectic Films, just made a new short film. You should watch it. It's funny and good. Good job, Lincoln. Way to make it SEMI-defunct.

You're welcome


Top 6: Movies Made Before 1960

I watch a lot of old movies and I love them, but I feel like a great many people today don't give old movies a chance because they're, well, old. Black and white scares people who're used to the HD-CG-3D bollocks that've saturated the market. So here, for the uninitiated, are my six favorite movies made before 1960. Just my opinion, as always.

Considered by many to be the last official entry in the Film Noir cycle, Orson Welles' bleak masterpiece still shocks and astonishes today. It's a gritty, grimy adventure that follows Mexican-American prosecutor Miguel "Mike" Vargas (inexplicably played by Charlton Heston) and his whiter-than-white wife Susie played by Janet Leigh as they cross the border late one night. The sleepy border town is rocked when a car bomb explodes in the opening minute (one of the greatest tracking shots in history) and from there we're introduced to sleazy and corrupt police veteran Captain Hank Quinlan, played for all its worth by Welles himself. The plot gets very muddled, but it's not really about that. It's about these characters and specifically how a once-great man can fall so very far. Three different versions of the film exist due to Welles never getting final cut, but I personally prefer the restoration version that Walter Murch oversaw in the 90s to get as close as possible to the grand auteur's lost vision.

It's very hard to put only one Hitchcock movie on this list, as he made so many that were just perfect. I decided to put this one on the list because it's the Master Of Suspense at his most sinister. It follows the chance meeting on a train bound for Washington, DC of tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and millionaire mama's boy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Bruno is a gossip hound and knows far too much about the famous athlete's personal woes, including his estrangement from his shrewish wife and illicit relationship with a senator's daughter. Bruno wagers that Guy would do anything to have his wife gone because he feels the same way about his own father. He proposes a trade, criss-cross. Bruno would kill Guy's wife if Guy kills Bruno's father. Guy laughs this off; Bruno would never be crazy enough to do it. Would he? Hitchcock is known for his set pieces and there's plenty of them here, making two of the most wholesome activities in America two of the most menacing: a carnival and a tennis match. Also watch for the brilliant shot of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Chilling.

This one's in color, and boy is it ever! One of the earliest uses of grand 3-strip Technicolor, this film also saw the birth of Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling superstar. This is what big budget adventures should be today. The sets are elaborate, the costumes are lush, and the stunt work is stellar even by today's standards. It's well acted, beautifully directed, and the score is thrilling. What more can I say? This movie just makes me feel good when I watch it, and that's what movie watching is all about.

One of the earliest "talkies," this German movie may as well be silent. Made by Carl Theodor Dreyer, who also made "Passion of Joan of Arc," "Vampyr" is a surreal, dreamlike depiction of the otherworldly. Allan Grey (Julian West), a traveler obsessed with the supernatural, visits a creepy old inn and discovers evidence of vampires. This film employs a cadre of camera tricks used to induce a general sense of unease, from shadows on the wall disappearing suddenly, to a man digging a grave in reverse, and even Allan Grey himself being buried and his ghost rising from his body. It may seem like kids stuff today, but let's remember this film was made in 1932. It's scary and at times funny but always interesting. Give it a chance, if you dare.

In a time when people were making World War II films like they were on sale at Macy's, a young Stanley Kubrick decided to make his war film about World War I, and have it be about the French. Not a single American character is featured, though most of the actors are, notably its star Kirk Douglas. Its anti-war theme still rings true today as the soldiers on the front line are not only set upon by the enemy only a few hundred yards away, but also the beaurocracy of the officer class, tucked away in their enormous mansion villas. The bulk of the story finds Douglas' Col. Dax having to defend three randomly chosen soldiers on charges of treason and cowardice for refusing to fight in an unwinnable battle. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Douglas gives a wonderful performance as do the three condemned men, who portray all the emotions of the horror of two kinds of war. Early Kubrick is still 150 times better than most everyone in their prime. Kurbick's prime was everthing he made after his first film and before his last film.

I - THE THIRD MAN (1949)
My second favorite movie of all time. This is simply one of the finest films ever made, by a vastly under-appreciated artist, director Carol Reed. Reed was working 22 hour days and became addicted to pills (and possibly other stuff) during the making of this movie, and it shows in the frenzy and paranoia of the third act. It follows hack pulp author Holly Martens (perfectly played by Joseph Cotten) as he travels to post-War Vienna to visit his old friend Harry Lime. Too bad Lime has just died. He was hit by a car in front of two friends who moved his body off the road. Martens almost leaves immediately after the funeral, except for two things: Harry's girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and a porter's claim that there were indeed THREE men who moved Harry's body. Holly then gets embroiled in Harry's seedy past and the post-war politics of Vienna, which has been cut into four zones, each controlled by the US, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union. The British zone's commanding officer, Major Calloway, is perhaps the best part of the film played by Trevor Howard. He tries to convince Holly to leave while giving him little glimpses of the man he knew as Harry Lime. Also great is the ever-present zither music which is oddly fitting in a creepy way. If you haven't seen this movie, watch it now.

I'm happy with this list, but even as I was writing it I thought of at least ten others I maybe should put on the list. After all, it seems criminal to exclude the works of Billy Wilder, or David Lean, or even the rest of Alfred Hitchcock. And lets not forget Akira Kurosawa. Crap. Maybe soon I'll have to go back and make another list. Start with these, though. They're excellent. Old movies are fun!

You're welcome

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Torchwood: Because I had to.


As a fan of all things Doctor Who, I felt it was time I turned my attention to the spinoff series Torchwood. Now I had actually seen an episode of TW before I saw a single Doctor Who episode, and I didn't like it. To be fair, it was the final part of a five-part mini-series and I didn't know who any of the characters were, save one, and I didn't fully understand the stakes. All this in mind, I still thought it was a bit melodramatic and ended on an extremely dark note. But, again, I'm a completist and I like the crap out of DW, so after a few months, I thought I'd give it another chance. Luckily, all of Torchwood is available for instant play on Netflix. God. Bless. Netflix.

First some context. In the first season of the revived Doctor Who, a character was introduced in the last five episodes. His name was Capt. Jack Harkness and he at first appears to be a normal WWII American Air Force pilot on loan to the British. He is quickly revealed to be a 51st Century Time Agent-cum-Con Artist. He's a roguish character, the Han Solo of the series. He's morally ambiguous and a bit of a loose cannon, but never the less a loyal companion to The Doctor. Capt. Jack is played by openly gay actor John Barrowman, which I'm sure aided in the decision to make the character Omnisexual (men, women, aliens, monsters, etc.) and added yet another layer to his already colorful personality. The showrunner of the updated series was Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk, and I think in general it was a very brave awesome thing to do to introduce a main character on a "family" show who is GLBT. At the end of the season, Capt. Jack is killed by a Dalek only to be brought back to life by the energy of time. He is, however, stranded in the far future, seemingly forever. That isn't the case, however.

During Doctor Who's second season, there are multiple references to the Torchwood Institute, a secret organization started by Queen Victoria as a means of protecting the Crown against alien threats, the Doctor among them. In that season' finale, Torchwood reveals that it takes and adapts alien technology for service to the the United Kingdom, but they are all but destroyed. Or, the LONDON part of Torchwood was destroyed. Torchwood 3 is working just fine over in Cardiff, Wales.

And that's where Torchwood season 1 picks up. In Cardiff, as is explained in a Doctor Who episode, there is a temporal rift allowing time and space matter to travel between dimensions, making it a hotspot for alien phenomenon. This follows the Buffy model of having all the action take place around a single area that happens to attract the paranormal. Makes it easy to keep the location shots cheap. Since both Doctor Who and Torchwood are BBC Wales productions, all they have to do is go outside. When series one begins, Captain Jack is the leader of a small team consisting of medic Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), tech-savvy Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), and stuffy paper-pusher Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). In the very first episode, they are more or less discovered by Police Constable Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) who helps solve the case and is inducted into the world. Blah blah blah, heard it all before.

It took me about five months to get passed the first four episodes. Torchwood was a "post-watershed" series, which in Britain, given the limited number of television station, is the designation of a show that airs later at night and can have much more adult content, including graphic violence, sexual content, and bad language. I am always up for heaping helpings of all of these, except when they aren't handled well. It felt to me that the writers didn't know how to make a show of this nature and as such put in huge amounts of sex unnecessarily, or just because they could. In many cases, the sex didn't have anything to do with the story and was really more just titillation for the sake of it. Sci-fi writers generally don't know how to deal with sex. Gwen, who is dating blue collar Rhys (Kai Owen) has an affair with Owen which is neither interesting nor very important to their characters. There was also, amongst the sex, a fair amount of homosexual activity. One episode finds Toshiko (a female, the name's not a giveaway to anyone outside of Japan) in a relationship with a mysterious blonde woman who ends up being an alien, wouldn't ya know it? Another ends with a sweeping, 360-degree camera sweep around Capt. Jack passionately kissing goodbye to a young military man of the same name. I definitely applaud the show for going there and that much doesn't distract, it's just used in such a sensationalized way.

One bit I did enjoy about the season is just how deeply damaged all the characters are. Gwen struggles with her personal life and her work life, Owen hates himself and wants to die, Tosh is crippled with insecurity about everything, and Ianto, a straight man, grapples with his growing romantic feelings toward Jack. We also learn little bits about what happened to Jack after he was stranded in the 24th century. Turns out the time energy that brought him back to life left him immortal, or more accurately, left him with the ability to come back to life after getting killed. He is shot, stabbed, strangled, smothered, and other means of dispatch not beginning with S only to eventually gasp back to life. We also learn that he somehow got sent back to the late 1800s and has to live through the whole 20th century waiting for the off-chance the Doctor will come find him.

Because of the not-so-great writing and sometimes way dramatic acting, I'd say I actually liked 2 and a half episodes of the 13. But I kept watching because I heard it got better. At the end of Torchwood season 1, Jack goes off to find the Doctor leaving his team without a leader. That storyline picks up in the last three episodes of Doctor Who season 3 where Jack does indeed find The Doctor and travels with him and his new companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). A whole mess of stuff happens that I won't get in to if you ever want to watch it, but at the end of it, Jack decides he misses his team and working for and with Torchwood and leaves The Doctor to return to them.

But when he does, at the beginning of Torchwood season 2, he finds a team that is at once happy to have him back and resentful that he left in the first place. During this season, the writer's calmed down a bit and found their own rhythm. They introduced a few character's from Jack's past (which is our future... wibbly wobbly timey wimey) and strengthened the character relationships. Gwen is engaged to her boyfriend Rhys and eventually tells him about her job. Toshiko tries to confess her feelings to Owen, who just doesn't get it. Ianto embarks on a romantic relationship with Jack that is allowed to develop naturally. My favorite arc occurs in the middle of the season where Martha, now an agent of UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce) comes to Torchwood to help. During this time, Owen is killed and Jack tries to bring him back to life. It half works. Owen is animated again, but he's still technically dead. None of his bodily functions are operating, his heart isn't beating, he doesn't get tired, he can't drink or have sex. If he's injured, it won't heal. So he has to deal with being the living dead, which doesn't go too well.

Season two had uniformly better writing and acting, but it was still far too "monster-of-the-week" and often those monsters were uninteresting. The season ends with Owen being disintegrated and Tosh is killed by the bad guy, leaving Torchwood severely diminished. The next time we see Jack, Gwen, and Ianto is during the finale of Doctor Who season 4, where every character who ever existed reappears. It's a pretty ridiculous finale. But after THAT, is the five-part miniseries "Children of Earth" which is pretty damn amazing, I must admit. It's basically a sci-fi version of 24, which I also loved. The writing is top notch as are the guest stars. I could try to describe what it's about, but I wouldn't want to spoil any part of it. If you like sci-fi at all and think I have good taste in anything, give "Children of Earth" a watch. It's on instant play on Netflix and it's only five episodes. What's stopping you!?!?!

For a whole calendar year, there's been no new Torchwood, but in the recent weeks it has been announced that BBC, BBC Worldwide, and Starz Entertainment are teaming up to produce a fourth season of Torchwood, starring the remaining cast, and adding new people. This version will also travel beyond Cardiff for an "international flavor." I won't say I'm excited, but I have tempered optimism. The show improved every time it came back, and if it ups the ante of CoE, then we're in for some excellent crap.

Man, I do go on.

You're welcome.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Top 6: Ways Sci-Fi Movies Lied To Us

The 1961 film, "The Phantom Planet" begins with a narrator telling us that since the splitting of the atom, Mankind has triumphed in breaking through the atmosphere and is now exploring the vastness of space. It depicts rocket launches occurring from the moon and artificial gravity inside the oddly Hobbit-sized rocket ship. It's a vision of a future we know little about, but we should. The story is set in 1980. None of that shit happened. What a load of bollocks. (See for yourself. The whole movie, which is pretty hysterical, can be watched on Hulu) Ever since people started writing fiction with science in front of it, we've been given hypothetical potentialities for futures that, at the time, seemed so far away and yet, we've more or less passed all of them. It's to the point where thinking about it is laughable for having missed the mark so badly. Here are the 6 most egregious errors committed by science fiction.

To say nothing of time travel, which is excluded because it's not depicted as a universal thing, Back to the Future part II shows us all the crazy, and really unnecessary, bits of technology we have to look forward to in five years (the movie takes place in 2015). For example, food hydrators preparing pizza in seconds, a weather service that can accurately predict a rainstorm to the second, and holographic movie adds that pretend to bite you in half. But the most glaring lie is the fact that cars can fly, or "hover" as they say in the movie. Now, hovercrafts we have; they're about two inches off the ground. These things fly, through the air, and have traffic lights and taxi cabs up there. Doc Brown mentions that he got the Delorean hover-converted in the early 21st Century, which would seem to allude to sometime within the first decade and unless we're gonna hover-convert the shit out of our cars this year, BTTF2's claim in just plain phony.

V - Manhattan Island is a maximum security prison (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK)
The conceit of this 1981 movie is that the crime rate in the United States gets so bad in the future that there wasn't any more room in the prisons. The solutions was to move every criminal in the entire country to a fenced off and patrolled Manhattan where they could roam freely and do whatever they wanted to each other. The trouble is, this was all supposed to happen in 1997. I'm damn skippy that didn't happen. In 1997, Bill Clinton began his second term, arguably the most prosperous time in America for a long-ass while, the crime rate was the lowest it had been in 20 years, and the New York Yankees had just won the World Series. As much as I love this movie, it could not have been more wrong.

IV - Aliens live among us relatively peacefully (ALIEN NATION)
In one of the more audacious examples of counting your chickens before they hatch, the film Alien Nation was released in 1988 about a world three years after an alien 1988. Yes, the filmmakers so wanted to date their film, they made the initial landing of alien Newcomers just a few months after its release. That's about as "near" as the "near-future" can possibly be. The bulk of the action takes place in 1991 where the Newcomers have become part of the society and are discriminated against in a thinly veiled nod to race relations. People watching this movie when it initially came out on video were already in a world where this couldn't possibly be real, since aliens did not indeed land and gentrify the nation in 1988. Couldn't they have even waited until 1990 for the landing? At least give people a little time to pretend. We all know it's fiction, but that seemed destined to fail from day one. That'd be like if I wrote a thing about giant rocket powered flamingos that took place the day after I wrote it. Anyone reading it would go, "Okay, well this didn't happen."

III - Nuclear Holocaust caused by sentient computer (TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY)
This is something I feared for a long time, and in many ways still continue to fear. Ever since I saw the 70s tv movie "The Day After," I have been scared to death of the end of the world via nuclear annihilation. So, when I first saw Terminator 2 when I was 14 and it actually gave a date to this horrible event, 29 August 1997, I was petrified. Until I remembered that it was six months earlier. Yes, James Cameron's best film is still considered among the top ten sci-fi and action movies ever made, and in 1991 when it was released, it could still be seen as visionary. Skynet, the insanely smart computer thing, is going to become self-aware in 1997, and it's up to the Connor clan and a re-programmed T-800 to see that it doesn't happen. Or, they could just not do anything, cuz it fucking didn't become self-aware at all. We were not vaporized by atomic explosions, nor have huge mechanoids started marching up and down the streets, destroying anyone they see. I never understood why it becoming self-aware was such a bad thing. I know a fair amount of people who could benefit from being a little more self-aware.

II - We have colonized Mars (BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL, et al)
According to these movies, and some others too, we took off from Earth, terraformed our nearest celestial neighbor, and began building a population. Blade Runner takes place in 2019, and although the action is entirely on Earth, there's much talk of replicants being used for labor on Mars. Total Recall takes place in 2084, but we've already had a colony on Mars for sometime in that film. Gonna get a little scientific on your asses now; here's why we can't do that. 1) GRAVITY: The surface gravity of Mars is just a little over 1/3 that of Earth's. 2) COLD-ASS: The average surface temperature of Mars is -63 degrees Celsius (-81.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The coldest it's ever been on Earth was in Antarctica where it bottomed out at -84 degrees C, whereas Mars routinely falls to -140 degrees C. 3) WATER: There's no fucking water on Mars. 4) PRESSURE: The atmospheric pressure on Mars is ~6 mbar, and in its current condition, is well below the Armstrong Limit, 61.8 mbar for people to survive without pressure suits. Since terraforming cannot be expected as a near-term solution, habitable structures on Mars would need to be constructed with pressure vessels similar to spacecraft, capable of containing a pressure between a third and a whole bar. 5) MONEY: No one on Earth is going to give money for colonization of Mars when they could easily spend it on the new Miley Cyrus album or the Shake Weight. In short, we're never going to Mars, apologies to Philip K. Dick.

I - Space Odyssey? (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY)
I was really looking forward to this and here we are nearly a decade later and we've not had a single space odyssey. There is no regular transportation from the Earth to the moon, there is no artificial gravity, super computers have not reached sentience (see number III) and we've found no enormous slabs of black granite anywhere that inexplicably turn us into giant, glowing, omniscient babies. This is probably one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and yet I still can't get passed how wrong it was. Granted, it was made in 1968, a full year before Man set foot on the moon, so it had very little to work with, but come on! In the aftermath of Kennedy's great "New Frontier" speech, the world seemed to be bursting at the seems to go live in space, but we just never got there. Too many worldly concerns got in our way, technology didn't advance as fast as films had promised, and the world lost interest. This might also be the first example of a film AND its sequel being proved wrong. Part two of this saga, 2010: The Year We Make Contact is happening right now. Again, we're not living in space, and we haven't made contact with any alien life forms.

So to sum up: Nothing cool will ever happen. People nowadays are far too jaded to actually believe in the hope of ever breaching the atmosphere, and with the economy in trouble, NASA has just taken a huge budget cut, effectively putting the kibosh on even the smallest celestial glimmer. It seems that we as a people are too self-centered and small-minded, myself included, to realistically go into space or even develop "space-age" gadgetry without an app being involved. Unfortunately, it seems, even our visions of the future are behind the times.

You're welcome

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Top 6: Romero-Free Zombie Movies

As a fan of horror, and specifically the zombie sub-genre, it's hard not to be a fan of George A. Romero. He not only breathed new life into an already-passed-its-prime monster, but gave it the lore and rules that are still being followed to this day. His first three entries into the cycle work not only as gorefests, but as sophisticated satires of a society bent on self-destruction long before the dead started rising. Unfortunately, since the first three, Romero has made three other films bearing "of the Dead" that few could deem sophisticated. With his latest, the totally nonsensically-titled "Survival of the Dead," getting panned across the board, I thought I'd mention some of the entries into the genre that don't bear Romero's name or myth at all. These are the Top 6 Romero-Free Zombie Movies.

This Spanish/Italian film from the pre-Dawn era of undead flesh-eaters is an under-appreciated gem. It tells the story of long-haired hippie George (Italian heartthrob Ray Lovelock) accompanying pretty Londoner Edna (Spanish actress Cristina Galbo) through the countryside in her tiny little English car. Along the way they are attacked by people who just plain don't look right. It's probably because they're reanimated corpses. Obviously. Unfortunately, when the youngsters go to the police, they are immediately suspected of the grisly murders themselves by the youth-hating Inspector (Arthur Kennedy). The Manson murders had just recently been committed so this movie definitely sought to point out the backlash the counterculture felt shortly thereafter, and to offer some kind of revenge against the squares. This movie is noteworthy also for having a number of completely unrelated titles. The original Italian title is "Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti" or "Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead," which no one on screen really does, nor is that the reason they rise. Another title is "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie," which, again, is not something anyone is disagreeing with. I think George and Edna would have happily left the dead fuckers alone the whole time. The most absurd one is "Don't Open the Window," despite there not being a single instance in the film where someone befalls any harm after opening a window. Nor is there a scene where someone opens a window. Nor is there a scene where there's a window. The best title is the "Manchester Morgue" one, even though the main end fight takes place in the Manchester hospital and not its morgue.

This movie is, to put it mildly, one of the weirdest fucking movies I've ever seen. Long before he made "Porky's," and "Baby Geniuses," director Bob Clark used to make interesting horror movies. The year after this, he made both the slasher archetype "Black Christmas" and another zombie movie "Dead of Night" (aka "Deathdream) about a boy killed in Vietnam who returns home as an decaying bloodsucker. Both are interesting in their own right, but it's his first that is the most notable in my book. It follows an irritating theatre troupe as their leader tries to raise a dead body. They go to a cemetery and play pranks on each other and argue for most of the film as they dig up a body, named Orville, and say some phony magic words. A little over two-thirds of the way into the movie, something unprecedented happens: the other dead bodies in the graveyard begin to rise. The rest of the movie is a genuinely scary and bleak zombies-attacking-a-house story where the annoying people get their comeuppance and Orville has a "coming out party." A remake was in the works until Bob Clark's untimely death from a car accident in 2007.

Director Jean Rollin was known for pornographic vampire films in his native France when he was approached by producer Claude Geudj to make what became this film. It began as a desire to cash in on the American disaster movies like "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno," but when finances proved prohibited, they decided to modify the format of a group of people hindered in travelling from point A to point B by various problems (every four minutes) into the horror oeuvre Rollin was used to. The premise is what makes this movie interesting. A certain vineyard is using a hazardous pesticide on its crops which gets made into wine. But instead of just making people sick, drinkers of the vino made from the Grapes of Death start to rot from the inside out, making them mindless and bloodthirsty ghouls who stalk the French countryside. Displaying a good amount of a gore, and even R-rated versions of Rollin's X-rated roots, Les Raisins de le mort is a worthy entry to the non-Romero group.

It's rare to find an understated horror-comedy in any capacity, least of all one from the zombie ilk, but this Italian outing manages to be just that. It's a film full of romance and heartache as well as misunderstandings and silliness, but there's also a fair amount of head shooting and throat-tearing. It's the story of Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) who is the proprietor of the local mortuary/cemetery. This particular cemetery seems to bring people back to life, so on top of all his normal duties, Francesco also has to put the residents back down once they get up. He falls in love with a young widow and in a particularly ill-conceived instance, has sex with her on her husband's grave. Go figure, he gets up and is pretty pissed about this whole thing and bites his wife, forcing Francesco to shoot her before she becomes an undead creature herself. Of course, she didn't die from the bite and he shot her when she was alive. Francesco is wracked with guilt and starts killing the townsfolk BEFORE they die to save him the trouble of dealing with them later. The film ends with probably the bleakest and most existential of finales proving that there really isn't nothing out there but our own little worlds.

Part "Frankenstein," part "Braindead," Stuart Gordon's 80s monster classic "Re-Animator" is the perfect mix of grossness and hilarity. One of the themes of these movies I've chosen (with the exception of the previous one) is that the zombification is explained as opposed to the Romero model of having zombies appear due to God knows what. In "Re-Animator," it's all there in the name. This guy, Dr. Herbert West, is TRYING to raise the dead, and breaks all kinds of ethics laws to do it, even resorting to murder. That's how you get the freshest specimens after all. Full of black humor and memorable lines, "Re-Animator" also has one of the most shocking images in all of horror, where a dead body holding its own decapitated head attempts to perform oral sex on a kidnapped co-ed. It's so insane that you wonder why no one thought of it sooner.

I - SHIVERS (1975)
David Cronenberg is often hailed as the king of body horror, which started early with this Canadian horror classic. In "Shivers," also known as "They Came From Within," a semi-mad scientist is experimenting with parasites in an attempt to aid in transplants (?) but really he thinks people have lost touch with their instincts and flesh, so the parasite is actually part aphrodisiac and part venereal disease. He infects his teenage mistress and sets her loose in an enormous ultra-modern apartment complex in Montreal. The effect of the parasite on the host is to create a sex-crazed maniac, hell-bent on spreading the disease to everyone in the vicinity. It's up to a physician and his assistant to stop it before the city is lost to mindless lust. Some of the images from this film were copied by Romero in "Dawn of the Dead," and even though the premise sounds like a porno version of a zombie movie, "Shivers" actually works as a pitch-perfect allegory to the AIDS epidemic, which was just in its infancy back in the 70s.

One of my goals with these lists is not only to entertain but to educate and I would definitely recommend all of these movies to anyone who hasn't yet seen them. You might also notice I didn't include "Return of the Living Dead," which is in many ways the anti-Romero film. The reason is simple. I fucking hate that movie. Don't watch it, it's awful. Happy viewing!

You're welcome.


Monday, May 24, 2010

It's Over!: A Musing on TV Finales

So many shows are ending this year, by choice or otherwise, that I felt it necessary to address the nature of series finales and how often they are less than satisfying to the fan. Specifically, I'll be like everyone in the known universe and talk about "LOST" because I just watched it.

In this day and age, it's amazing that shows even get a "planned" ending. More often than not, the show gets axed by the network brass after the last episode gets filmed and there's never a proper (or even a rushed) sendoff. It just ends. Take "Firefly," which didn't even get to air all of the episodes it had filmed before getting the boot. Yes, the show was revived for a really good spinoff movie, but one wonders how much more the characters could have accomplished if the series was allowed to progress. Then there are those shows, the bulk of them, that barely get time to develop a fan base before shuffling off to Buffalo. So when a show gets the opportunity to end its own way, on its own terms, it's a pretty special thing.

But it's a double-edged sword. The longer a show goes on and remains popular, it becomes increasingly difficult to end things with the proper amount of gravitas and make all the fans happy AND end the narrative naturally. You also don't want to overstay your welcome. Look at "Heroes." "Heroes" had the opportunity to be one of the best tv-experiences ever. A fantastic 23 episodes and out, but instead it got to big for its own britches and went on for three more awful seasons. It's hard to sustain even the best of concepts. I won't go so far as to say it can be a burden to have a successful and popular show, but it's definitely a tricky place to be in.

Even shows that remain popular and have great finales, like "M*A*S*H" for instance, run the risk of overstaying their welcome. "M*A*S*H" actually lasted longer than the Korean war it was depicting. I almost have more respect for a show that chooses to end while the getting's good. The show might not have as big a cultural impact that way, but it sure as hell would have a bigger thematic impact. It's easier to craft a complete narrative over three seasons than it is over eight.

"LOST" decided its sixth season would be the last, giving it finality and time to craft a proper ending. Now, people will argue forever as to whether it was a "proper" ending, but it was an ending, a definite one. It was ambiguous, granted. But some of the best shows, especially genre shows, end in such a manor and they're talked about still. "St. Elsewhere" ended with the entire series existing within the mind of an autistic boy with a snow globe. "Battlestar Galactica" ended with some kind of parable about how present day Earth is what happened after thousands of years of humans and cylons mating and then we better watch out because we make robots too...or something like that. "Battlestar" is a lot more heavy-handed than it probably could or should have been, but essentially it was effective. Possibly the best, "The Prisoner" ends with our hero, the titular Prisoner, unmasking the fabled "No. 1" to reveal first an ape mask and then his own maniacally cackling face.

"LOST" ended with two storylines, one in the real world and one in the weird sideways universe (which we finally learn the nature of at the end). This satisfies both halves of Campbell's hero's journey. In the Island World, Jack travels the external path, encountering monsters, a cave, certain doom, and his own mortality. In the Sideways World, he's on the internal path, dealing with his father issues and his own faith and issues of failure. This is pretty textbook storytelling, albeit with some curve balls thrown in along the way.

Both journeys end triumphantly, which should satisfy everyone, right? Well, there are also about 900 mysteries the show brings up that don't get addressed, but to be honest, all of that stuff is window dressing when you get down to it. The characters are what mattered. We found out WHAT was happening, we don't really need to know the HOW or the WHY.

This is not to say it was perfect. The episode ended more or less without conflict. Once the ____ _____ was defeated and Jack put the ____ back in the ____, there was next to nothing left to worry about. It sort of felt like the end of summer camp. A lot of buildup to not much fanfare. We all go home and remember the fun we had, but it's basically all too fleeting. In the annals of television, I still think "LOST" will go down as a great sci-fi show with a pretty okay ending. And that's as good as you can hope for from a finale these days.

You're welcome.