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.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Doctor Who: The Colin Baker Years

When we last left the Doctor, he was dying from spectrox toxemia in the end of "The Caves of Androzani." It was 1984 and Peter Davison had decided his third season in the role would be his last. The question again became who would play the eponymous time lord. Producer John Nathan-Turner decided to cast character actor Colin Baker, who had actually played a supporting role in an earlier Peter Davison story. The thinking behind the regeneration this time 'round was to give the fans an entire story at the end of season 21 to get to know Colin Baker before the season break. Thus began arguably the most turbulent time in the show's history.

The idea was to make the sixth incarnation of the character a sharp contrast to the amiable, fatherly, and all-around likable fifth; to make Baker's Doctor one that audiences, and other characters, weren't sure about and then eventually, over the years and years he'd play the part, peel away the outer layers until he becomes more or less what people were used to. The story, titled "The Twin Dilemma," introduced audiences to an arrogant, bi-polar, and ultimately unstable lead character, an attribute given within the narrative as a regenerative crisis. The instability of the character was expressed visually be a loud, clashing costume that is by all accounts the least attractive piece of clothing ever worn on a human.

The rest of the story follows this post-regeneration weirdness, and at one point The Doctor actually physically attacks his companion Peri, only to become aghast at himself when he sees his reflection in a mirror. He then decides to exile himself, and Peri as a result, to a distant rock planet to atone for his ways. The rest of the story is unimportant and frankly pretty bad, as it has something to do with twin boy geniuses who are brainwashed into helping a giant slug move the planet into the path of another planet... and it just goes downhill from there. It is the coupling of the sub-par script with the shocking new direction of the lead character that have caused many to deem this one of the worst episodes in the series' history. In fact, in the Doctor Who Magazine poll of the 200 stories broadcast to that point, "Caves of Androzani," as I mentioned last time, ranked as number 1, "The Twin Dilemma" which immediately follows is ranked 200.

The first full season with Baker 2 saw a change in format, going from four 25-minute episodes to two 45-minute episodes comprising each story. While this difference did offer a great deal more time to develop individual characters or ideas, it cut down the episode-ending cliffhangers which had been a staple of the series since its inception. Another change was that the level of violence was upped considerably. Blood was actually shown in a few scenes, which was very limited prior, and The Doctor himself actually causing the demise of some enemies. This fit the new characterization Baker was employing, with a much more passionate Doctor often leaping before he looked, but this did garner even more concern from censorship groups claiming that the show was too scary for children and should no longer be allowed to be so.

This season also saw a marked lowering in both production cost and quality of scripts. John Nathan-Turner continued his decree that established Who or sci-fi writers should not be commissioned and new, fresh writers be given a chance, much to the chagrin of script editor Eric Saward who had been with the show since Davison began. A show always known for its low-budget effects was now at its lowest which, even to fans of the show and the genre, makes it increasingly hard to stay committed to the premise. Saward tried everything to make the season worth watching, bringing back old favorite villains like the Cybermen and the Daleks, and even an appearance by second Doctor Patrick Troughton. Even so, the ratings started to slip slightly, and the network brass desired to make new programs. So, despite still being quite popular, the BBC decided to cancel Doctor Who at the end of season 22 in 1985.

That is until JNT and the fans started petitions to keep the show around, leading to the eventual agreement that the show be placed on an 18 month hiatus, after which time it would return to its 25-minute format and the number of episodes be cut from the usual 26 (or 13 longer episodes) to 14 episodes, making it the shortest season of Doctor Who ever. The shakeup more or less stopped for the moment, though, as neither Saward nor Nathan-Turner, nor any of the cast, were fired or replaced. This very much seemed like a short reprieve rather than a full pardon, and Saward and company decided to depict the show being on trial for its life with a season-long saga of the Doctor on trial himself.

"Trial of a Time Lord" ran the length of season 23 and consisted of a frame story wherein the Doctor is taken out of time by his people, the Time Lords, and put on trial as a menace. The story-proper was split into three with each normal adventure being played as evidence at the trial. The final two episodes would tie up the trial storyline and wrap up the season. Longtime Who writer and script editor during the best period in the show's history, Robert Holmes, was brought on to write the first four episodes and help Saward write the last two. Unfortunately, Holmes took ill before the script for the final episode could be written. John Nathan-Turner did not agree with Holmes' idea of ending the season with a cliff-hanger and forced Saward to change it. As he was very good friends with Robert Holmes, who actually passed away during the skirmish, Eric Saward refused to change anything and subsequently left the series in a huff of bad blood. Nathan-Turner asked husband-and-wife team of Pip and Jane Baker to write the last episode, having just written the third story of the season.

The ending wrapped up the season in a lovely little bow and ensured Doctor Who would remain on the tv schedule at least for another year. However, the BBC decreed that Colin Baker should not return to the role for a third season. It was believed that much of the backlash the series had received over the passed two years was due directly to Baker, which is unfair to my mind. While he isn't my favorite Doctor, he does grow on you and he is quite good at playing the arrogant yet honorable blow-hard the character became. I thought full-well before I started that Colin Baker would be my least favorite Doctor, and while he doesn't rate nearly as highly as Davison or Pertwee, he served the purpose necessary and did so admirably.

As stated, the Colin Baker years were pretty light on good stories, in fact only one was ranked in the top 100 in the DWM poll, but still I will recommend three with the caveat that they are not probably for people unfamiliar with the show. Watch some Davison first, then check these out.

First, "Vengeance on Varos," wherein the Doctor and Peri arrive in a cave-world on which the people vote for everything by watching television. They vote whether political prisoners should live or die, and indeed if the president proposes new legislation, he is himself executed via public electrocution if he is voted down. It hearkens back to Roman times with gladiators subject to the whim of the people, and public shows of violence were common entertainment. There's also a really great villain in the form of Sil, a small reptilian slug creature who has the real control of the city.

Second, "The Two Doctors," the only three-part story of the bunch. It features the return of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor and his longtime companion Jamie McCrimmond, played again by Frazier Hines. While the actual story is a bit thin here, with genetic reassignment and alien conquerers, it's great to see Troughton again as the Doctor. He's a personal favorite of mine and I will discuss the Second Doctor at length in my next "Who-Review."

The third, and best of the bunch, is "Revelation of the Daleks," written by Eric Saward himself. It is a twisty story that sees two rival factions of Daleks, one ruled by the Dalek Emperor, the other by their mad-scientist creator Davros. The Doctor actually takes more of a secondary role in this story as there are many many side characters, including a pair of assassins, an all-seeing DJ, and the dastardly proprietor of a funeral home. The plot is pretty hard to describe without going on for awhile, but needless to say, it's good fun with the Daleks and probably the best writing of the entirety of C. Baker's run.

Poor Colin Baker was in the role for such a short time that all of his episodes have been released on dvd. "The Trial of a Time Lord" set includes some really great commentaries and documentaries that both enlighten and entertain.

Next up for me with Doctor Who... I don't know. The Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, has barely any stories released and I don't feel it prudent to write a review based on having not seen everything available. So, next we're going back to the Second Doctor, who also saw some unfortunate happenings with his output, though not in the same fashion as the Sixth. Until next time.

You're welcome.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Hi all, just writing to let everyone know that there are going to be some exciting new things here on the ol' Embrace Your Nerd blog. Still getting the details worked out, but the site will be expanding and bringing in new factors. Vague enough for you? Just a taste for now. Get psyched!

You're welcome.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Top 6: Remakes That Don't Suck

Without question, I think remakes are awful. Not necessarily the quality of the film itself, but the sheer audacity, NAY!, the balls to deem it prudent to remake a movie that is already good. Especially nowadays, no movie made since the invention of cinema is safe from the money-hungry clutches of the uncreative. I am not looking forward to this weekend's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," despite enjoying the remakes of "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th." The reason is, most remakes just pale in comparison, I'm looking at you, Gus Van Sant's "Psycho." This all being said, there have been a few examples of the remake being as good (if not better) than the original. These are the top six remakes that are okay.

VI - 3:10 TO YUMA (2007)
Fifty years after Delmer Daves' minor classic, James Mangold did a slam-bang action-rich version of the story of a poor farmer charged with transporting a wanted criminal to a station to make sure he boards the eponymous train. Starring famous angry men, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, the 2007 remake of 3:10 succeeds in making a western that speaks to modern audiences. Not since "Unforgiven" has there been such an enjoyable entry to the genre. It upholds the western film trope of honor among men, even enemies, while still having fairly raucous action sequences that the original didn't attempt. Mangold does pretty drastically change the ending, for good or bad, that makes the film an interesting counterpoint to its source material.

Most people probably didn't know that the Oscar winner was a remake of a Hong Kong think-piece when it came out, but it is. I actually saw the original, "Infernal Affairs" long before "The Departed" came out, picking it up at Blockbuster when I was in the throes of my John Woo-inspired Asian action phase. I was slightly disappointed as it wasn't a double-pistoler, but it definitely had something about it, as the two lead characters, a cop posing as a criminal and a criminal posing as a cop, face their moral, professional, and personal dilemmas. Martin Scorsese's fantastic redo has the same amount of pathos, but what makes it better in my opinion is that it fleshes out all of the supporting characters into much more memorable and indelible figures, specifically Jack Nicholson's mob boss character who is present in the Chinese film, but is much less defined. I went to see "The Departed" three times in the theaters, so yeah, I like it.

IV - THE THING (1982)
John Carpenter's favorite filmmaker is Howard Hawkes and has actually remade two Hawkes films: "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976) is essentially a remake of "Rio Bravo" (1959) and this film which is a remake of Hawkes' production "The Thing From Another World" (1951). Carpenter dropped a reference to the first "Thing" in "Halloween" and a few years later was given the opportunity to mount a remake. As fun as the earlier film is, Carpenter's film eclipses it by heightening the sense of isolation, the paranoia, and of course the viscera. The special effects by Rob Bottin absolutely make the film what it is. The creature can look like anything and can assimilate anyone, evidenced at the end when it manifests as six people and pieces of a couple dogs. Compare that with James Arness in a head application from the original. Also, Kurt Russell is a badass. Nuff said.

The samurai genre from Japan is very closely tied to America's wild west. They both depict men of action displaying their own codes of moral conduct in a relatively lawless environment. I was tempted to put "A Fistful of Dollars" which remade "Yojimbo" on here, but I decided to go with the earliest example. "Seven Samurai" is one of the greatest movies ever made. It's an epic by every definition of the word. It's also 3hrs 27min long. John Sturges' western is not as fantastic a movie as its predecessor, but it's very accessible and it's a great deal of fun. It is also one of the first examples of a heroic team. Up to this point, the western hero was a loner and an outsider who has to save a town/woman/family/horse/whatever, but "Magnificent Seven" gives you seven such characters to choose from, each with their own backstory and personality. It starred Yul Brynner and started the careers of universal cool guys Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn.

The idea of this seemed blasphemous. George A. Romero made a modern classic in 1978 with his adventurous satire against consumer culture and for some unknown music video director (Zack Snyder) to touch it went against everything I held dear. And then I saw it. While not as thoughtful or profound as the original, Snyder did a phenomenal job of taking Romero's original concept and making it about family and friendship, as well as making it a horrifying ride. For me, the film works best as an action movie that happens to be about zombies, rather than a "scary" horror film. It's full of gun fights, explosions, chases, and running around. It's a fun romp through a post-apocalyptic America. Plus, it turned me on to Richard Cheese's brand of lounge covers of metal and rap songs. So thanks.

You might think such an old film couldn't possibly be a remake, but you'd be wrong. John Huston's classic noir flick (arguably the first in the movement) that stars Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade was actually the third attempt at making Dashiell Hammett's novel to the screen, made once in 1931 and again in 1936. Both were disappointments, but the last one was an unqualified success. I haven't actually seen the first two so I can't compare all of them, but I will say that this is the instance where remaking something works best. Why should GOOD movies be remade? Why not remake ones that suck or fail for one reason or another? Maybe one day there'll be a remake of "Howard the Duck" or "Teen Wolf" that improves upon the underwhelming performances of the originals? I'd be all right with that. Let "Maltese Falcon" be the model; if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but if it is broke, fix the shit out of it until it's good.

You're welcome.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cigarette Burn Pictures

Hey all, do you like independent film, silly videos, new content every week, and essays about the inner workings of a soon-to-be-huge production company?

If you do, (and really who doesn't?) head on over to Cigarette Burn Pictures site and say hi to Rob, Monty, and Steve, three of the best, most stand-up guys you'd ever want to know.

Check out their latest masterpiece, "Son of a Beach."

You're welcome


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Defending "Victory of the Daleks" - aka Another Doctor Who post no one will read

I'm a huge nerd and have been keeping up with the UK transmission schedule of the new Doctor Who season so I'm about two weeks ahead of anyone who just watched "The Eleventh Hour" premiere last night on BBC America. If you've seen episode 3, "Victory of the Daleks," read on. If not, I'd suggest waiting until you've seen it.

It’s sort of disheartening to hear how several podcasters didn’t think much of this episode, in particular I refer to Tom’s recent review for Two-Minute Time Lord. This is crushing to me as I felt it was a great episode, certainly much better than last week’s “The Beast Below.” What I liked so much about it is that is was FUN. When’s the last time we’ve honestly had any fun with a Dalek episode? Yes, I realize they’re the scourge of the universe, the Doctor’s sworn enemy, the annihilators of Gallifrey, but they’re just so darn stuffy. Even “Dalek” which we can all agree is the best new series Dalek episode, and arguably one of the best ever, is awfully dour. With each subsequent appearance since then, my interest in the Daleks has gone down exponentially. “Victory” is the first one since “Dalek,” where they haven’t been portrayed as a nigh-omnipotent plague and I haven’t then rolled my eyes at the very sight of them. Each and every time they show up, it’s an all-out melodrama, complete with Captain Jack proclaiming “We’re dead” and cowering behind something in Torchwood. The Daleks stopped being menacing. The reverence we’re meant to have for them was gone. By that point, they were no longer a threat in my eyes. How many times can they be destroyed en masse just to come back as large and in charge as ever?

But this one is different. The Daleks are running scared. Their numbers have dwindled. There are only three at the beginning, and even after the upgrade and cleansing of the impure, there are only five. And the “end of the world” aspect, the Bracewell bomb, is really just a means for them to get away. They are victorious, but they succeed by retreating. THAT’s the kind of villain I want. They’re wily and opportunistic as well as being unfeeling and ruthless. Say what you will about the new Dalek design, but like everything about the Moffat era thus far, it’s a bold move. The Daleks have been different every single time you see them in one shape or another. Here they have again evolved but there isn’t a human-hybrid or a Davros’ head in the bunch. They’re just plain old Daleks again, if a little beefier. They have cleansed their race, a further allusion to the Third Reich.

One criticism I completely disagreed with is that this episode wasn’t “Doctor Who” as it was back in the day. Now, I wasn’t there from the beginning. I’m 25 years old. I was born two months after the last episode of the Twin Dilemma was transmitted, AND I’m American, so admittedly, I don’t have the history with the show that a great many fans have. But over the passed year since I discovered the series, I’ve been watching as many adventures, both new and old, as Netflix will allow and what’s great about it for me is that, it’s ALL new. Every time I watch an adventure, it’s new Doctor Who. It’s all happening now. Victory of the Daleks is 100% in line with the classic series and the bulk of the new series. It’s everything between Turn Left and End of Time that seems incongruous. It’s like we’ve forgotten that the Doctor is a HERO and not always a TRAGIC hero. Tragic’s overdone.

Was it a perfect episode? Absolutely not. For starters, the stuff with the professor didn’t really work for me. While the performance of Bill Patterson was very good, I wasn’t ever sold on the ramifications of his coming to terms with not being human. Sadly that’s the bit that was too long. I think there needed to be greater build up to the Doctor’s near-frothy blowup at the Dalek. I would have liked to have seen more of them being “helpful,” beforehand. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t there talk that this was supposed to be a 65 minute episode? Clearly a lot was cut out of the beginning. The Doctor ended up on the Dalek saucer way too soon. This could have easily benefitted from a few extra minutes if not a whole second part for development’s sake. Like “The Beast Below” before it, “Victory of the Daleks,” suffered the most from poor direction on the part of Andrew Gunn. The camera was almost never where it needed to be. The Doctor/Dalek confrontation would have been excellent if we could have seen it properly. Also the pacing of the two episodes, especially last week’s, was very off.

That all notwithstanding, “Victory of the Daleks” did come away as a victory for me. It’s an adventure, it’s a swashbuckling, Flash-Gordon-y throwback to a simpler era. I think if we can glean anything from the first three episodes of Steven Moffat’s era, it’s a deliberate attempt to reconnect with the 1960s, down to the TARDIS’ control panel which looks to me like what science fiction films of that decade thought the future would be like. If this whole season were in black-and-white, I don’t think it would feel the least bit out of place. Like the WWII era movie serials on which its clearly based, this episode stands as a rip-roaring, high-flying good time that possessed wide-eyed kidness that the latter RTD years sorely lacked.

You're welcome

Top 6 Returns!

I saw Kick-Ass today, which is a film about people becoming real-life comic book heroes, except instead of having super powers, they shoot and stab people to death. This is not going to be a review of that film, though I did quite like it. What it did get me thinking about is how unfun it would actually be to do all that stuff, realistically. Even in a movie depicting "real" superheroics, there are a huge number of liberties taken into the "That'd never happen" category. So here the "triumphant" return of the top six will be - FANFARE -

The Top 6 Reasons It's Stupid To Try To Be A For-Reals Superhero

VI - The Idiotic Costumes
Have you ever worn spandex? Does it look good? Even if you're super hot, it's unlikely spandex is flattering to your every nook and cranny. Have a particular part of yourself you'd rather others not focus on? Too bad! Everyone's gonna see it now that you've become a super hero. And you're going to get laughed at. Hardcore. There's always the scene in every hero movie, and particularly in Kick-Ass, that depicts the bad guys ridiculing the good guy the first time they see him/her. Your weakness better not be the sound of laughter or you're fairly well sunk.

V - No Downtime
In order to find crimes you either need a series of security cameras feeding directly into your secret hideout that depict what's happening throughout the city (or whatever your chosen turf is) or you need to spend all your time walking around looking for crimes to stop. Crime doesn't stop because you're tired or bored. Patrolling has to be the most annoying part of a superhero's day. Street crime happens so fast, how can you be sure you're in the exact spot at the right time? It involves an enormous amount of coincidence, which I'm sure most of us don't have the patience for. Logistically, given constant movement, you'd probably stop one crime every two months. And that crime would probably just be a pick-pocketing

IV - Lack of Fightable Crime
Superheroism depends and awful lot on criminals who are stupid enough to commit their crimes out in the open. Most crimes nowadays are either internet or fraud-based and don't actually include much dark alley shenanigans. And why are old women always walking home at night through dark alleys in the first place? Don't they know that's where jackbooted thugs amass and take turns playing the murder game? Anyone who'd fall prey to that type of stupidity is probably going to do it again even if you save their life. Then, all things being equal, not saving them is really just helping Darwin along.

III - Lookie-Loos
If I know anything it's that people are two things: Discourteous to retail employees, and nosy as hell. Even if you're a "stick-to-the-shadows"-type hero, you'll probably get a lot of people looking at you and wondering what the hell you're doing. You lose the entire element of surprise if you get a group of passersby pointing at you as you lie in wait for the unsuspecting criminal. If I were a bad guy, which I am not, I'd surely want to steer clear of any large congregation of citizenry. I'd probably go around them or turn around and walk the other direction. Even now, if there's ever a massing of people looking at something, I'll go somewhere else. For all I know there's a superhero just around the corner waiting to punch me in the face. I don't want to get punched in the face.

II - Physical stamina and lack thereof
To say nothing of agility, speed, and strength, the sheer amount of fighting you'd have to do would put a tremendous strain on your body. Most professional fighters train for months at a time to ensure they're in peak physical form before getting into the ring, or octagon, and slug it out. And usually they're wrecked afterwards. Imagine going out night after night and, perfect conditions applied, stopping two crimes a night. Just two! You'd be battered and bloody and probably get a concussion before having to sit in a bathtub for six hours so you can do it all again. Your utility belt would have to be full of Icy Hot and 5-Hour Energy. Exhaustion would set in long before your heroic vow was fulfilled.

I - Death
You would die. Flat out, die. Probably by getting shot, but possibly also stabbed, bludgeoned, impaled, strangled, crushed, or devoured by angry guard dogs. But mostly shot. Oh baby, would you die. Probably the first day, too. You'd be all, "I'm Action Guy, and I want you to leave that young Episcopalian alone," and they'd be all, "Just walk away, freak show." Then you'd do the Adam West chuckle and say something witty and strike a fighting stance. And that's when the guy would pull his gun and shoot you in the chest. And you'd be dead. If you happen to be "Getting Shot Man," then you'll probably be used to stuff like this happening, but that doesn't necessarily mean you won't still die when they throw a grenade, or drop a piano, or suggest you read "Twilight" so you can pick up all the Nazi references, confusing you long enough for them to poison you with a strychnine-laced crossbow bolt fired from across the street.

Basically, don't be a superhero.

You're welcome.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

This is why these movies suck

I have absolutely no affiliation with this guy or his site, he just has the best reviewing style I've ever heard. Enjoy.

You're welcome.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

From One Extreme to the Other

First of all, I ask you all to read this.

As I've stated in my very recent WonderCon blog, I am a fan of Kevin Smith, but I've been less enchanted with his recent filmic output. That all being said, I'm always prepared to give Mr. Smith the benefit of the doubt and usually side with him. This argument, however, I not only totally disagree with, but it actually has angered me to the point where I needed to blog while at work.

The function of film criticism is to provide an educated evaluation of a film product on either an entertainment or culturally relevant level, sometimes both, while giving a nod to the proficiency by which the film is executed, technically or otherwise. I have always been a firm believer in the profession of film criticism as viable in and of itself. Some of my favorite DVD audio commentaries are by critics providing an intellectual and historical context for the film. Listening to Roger Ebert discuss "Citizen Kane," Stephen Prince dissect "The Seven Samurai," or especially Sir Christopher Frayling speaking in minute detail on the films of Sergio Leone, was not only interesting and entertaining but greatly enhanced my enjoyment of those films in subsequent viewing.

Ever since I started watching films as art and not just entertainment, I've turned to film critics for analysis on a deeper level. Not every movie, but many of them, the ones I wanted to know more about. This is the part of Kevin Smith's argument that might have the most validity. Mindless movies don't really need to judged through the same microscope as ones trying to make a point or are particularly stunning. But I've read plenty of reviews of "stupid" movies that actually say things like "It doesn't break new ground but it's enjoyable," which is the first thing a film should do. If it doesn't educate or amaze, it should at least entertain.

Kevin Smith is upset that the same criticism used for the weighty movies was used on his film "Cop Out," saying it wasn't "Schindler's List." Obviously not, that's ridiculous. No one went to see "Cop Out" and thought it was going to be anything like "Schindler's List," but it still needs to fulfill one of the those three tenets I mentioned: educate, amaze, or entertain. "Cop Out," if you're to believe the critics, didn't really do any of them, the third being the most important, but should those critics be barred from sharing their opinions because it's just a movie called "Cop Out." If so, it's up to the studio or filmmaker to inform us that the movie is not good enough to warrant proper criticism. Until filmmakers start going on record to say they've made a stupid movie but we should go see it anyway, it's up to the critical community to do so.

Smith also makes the point that if critics aren't going to pay to see the films, they shouldn't be allowed to give their opinion on it and affect the box office returns. He says 500 random Twitter followers should be given the same opportunity and that their opinions are just as valid. I submit there is a world of difference between an opinion and an EDUCATED opinion. In a perfect world, everyone would have the same level of film knowledge or ignorance as everyone else and their opinions would hold the same amount of water. Only in math and science can we use the "all things being equal" scenario and not in real life. People come from different backgrounds and experiences that temper their views of everything, film included. Personally, I'd rather hear what educated film experts think than someone who watches "The Hills" and "Jersey Shore." If the movie caters to that crowd, then chances are they don't listen to or read reviews anyway.

To my mind this all comes down to Kevin Smith not taking rejection of any kind well and being overly sensitive. A bad review isn't always a personal attack on the filmmaker, in fact usually it isn't. Critics were very divided on Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island," but no one who gave it a bad review said anything about Scorsese either as a man or as a renowned director. If Smith is as proud of "Cop Out" as he claims, and it indeed was the highest grossing film he's ever made, then it shouldn't matter that the film only received a 19% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, right? Smith has famously had a love-hate relationship with critics over the years, but that hasn't stopped him from giving bad reviews himself publicly of both Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," and Woody Allen's film, "Scoop," the latter a guest hosting stint for Roger Ebert on "At the Movies" a few years ago. He might have paid for those movies, granted, but he's still giving a public review based on his years of filmmaking and watching experience.

In 2008, "Zach and Miri Make a Porno," was poised to be Smith's highest grossing film and was getting mixed but largely favorable reviews. It ended up with a 65% rating on RT, garnering it a "Fresh" certificate, and was getting very good buzz from studio people. Then the movie came out and was indeed his most financially successful film of all time, though not as much as he and people around him were hoping. Some might call that a success, but Kevin Smith didn't. I listened to an entire episode of SModcast, the podcast Smith does with his friend and frequent producer Scott Mosier, where he spent the entire time lamenting how awful it was that the film didn't perform better and basically how he fell into a deep depression because of it. So what makes this guy happy? He's up in arms when critics don't like his movie but the public at-large does, and when the critics mostly like it, and indeed a lot of non-critics do too, he's depressed because it didn't make AS MUCH money as he wanted. Disappointment is a natural reaction, but to expect a critical and monetary hit every time out is not only naive, it's unrealistic. For the record, I spent the money, being a fan, and I didn't like it. So my opinion on this should therefore be more valid than all the critics who saw it for free and praised it.

I really like Kevin Smith and will continue to do so, but all of this serves to show that he's been surrounded by fans for far too long. If all he wants is for people in his community to have an opinion on the work he does, then he shouldn't be working in Hollywood.

Smith finishes his rant by saying:

Just my observation based on 15yrs of doing this and a decision to change the way I approach it from now on. Not trying to burn it all down; I just feel, from now on, I'll be going another way. The people who're criticizing me the loudest are easily 10, 15 yrs my junior with less experience writing about film than I have making 'em.

I've got longevity on my side now. I've been doing this since 93: so 17 years. I'm a veteran of the film biz. And as a veteran - not just some spectator with an opinion - I think I know what's better for me & my career than total strangers whose Google-able history proves they've NEVER had my best interests at heart. So I'm gonna listen to THOSE people? Nyet. Listening to me, not them, has gotten me THIS far.

It's not the job of the film critic to have the filmmaker's best interests at heart. That's why they just comment on movies and not advise careers. It's their job to have the movie-going community's best interest at heart and take their expertise and put forth a concise reading of the film and offer a recommendation or a warning. Only that. It's up to the viewer or reader to decide if that review has changed their mind, good or bad, about the movie and make the choice based on that. And speaking as one of the youngsters 10-15 years his junior who don't know nearly as much about film as he does, I can say that it's us who were and in many cases still are his biggest fans and want to see Smith's output go back to the edginess and realism that his early films had.

So I'll finish by saying this to Kevin Smith: You are always going to be one of the fathers of my love of film and I will follow your career until it ends, but if you don't want critics to give negative reviews, stop spending all your time on Twitter and make a good movie again.

You're welcome.