Keep Your Neutrons Flowin'

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

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Top 6: Sidekicks

The hero gets the girl, kills the baddie, and saves the day. So what? The sidekick gets the best lines. Every hero or heroine worth his or her salt has a best friend who stands next to them through thick and thin and does his/her best to make them look good. Flatly put, these are the top 6 best friends anyone could have in a life or death situation.

Jay is annoying, ignorant, sexist, morally reprehensible, and never shuts up. That's why it's such a boon to find a guy who is the exact opposite of that and still wants to hang out. Spanning six films, a cartoon series, a brace of comic books, and merchandise everywhere, Jay and Silent Bob have had more than their fair share of adventures. They've fought demons, run from security guards, sabotaged convenience stores, and of course sold copious amounts of marijuana. While Jay spends the entire story swearing like a sailor and making lewd comments, Silent Bob remains quiet and supportive until he pipes up to drop some philosophy on one of the many hapless heroes. Played by writer/director Kevin Smith, Silent Bob was originally supposed to be completely mute, but last minute had to deliver a line meant for Jay that Jason Mewes couldn't get right. Thus began a spate of him speaking the moral of the story. Only in a Kevin Smith movie would a guy named SILENT Bob still talk quite a bit.

Lets be honest: Robin is lame. Batman can do just as well, if not better, without Robin around. But the Green Hornet would get his masquerading ass kicked if not for the prowess of his faithful butler/chauffeur/life saver Kato. He didn't say a whole heap, but Kato was a master of Kung Fu and would regularly show up in the nick of time to save GH from some nefarious criminal plot. And you know why he was so cool? He was played by Bruce friggin' Lee! Before he Entered the Dragon, Bruce Lee played second fiddle to Van Williams (who?) as the eponymous hero, but really Kato was the reason people watched the program. In fact, in Lee's native Hong Kong, the show was marketed as "The Kato Show." What I'm saying is, if Kato has your back, you could basically talk shit to Chuck Norris.

When taking on slow-moving zombies, it might not seem smart to bring along a loud, fat guy who's always making things difficult for you, but one wonders how far Shaun would have gotten without Ed by his side. He knows more than anyone about the zed word, fire arms, car driving, hog lumps, and molotov cocktails. That type of knowledge is indispensable. One of the many themes that run through the film is that of friendship and loyalty, and Ed is at all times characterized by the lapdog-like way he hangs at Shaun's side, as evidenced by blindly joining the Mexican standoff in the pub toward the end of the film. Conversely, Shaun is always defending Ed to the others who call him "dead weight" or "a fucking idiot." I can think of no sadder moment in any movie than Ed dying only to be replaced by odd glee when we find out that even in undeath, Ed remains Shaun's favorite Player 2.

Every crime-solving, cocaine-addicted, violin-playing, half-insane genius needs a level-headed live-in physician. I think it was a law in Victorian England. As good intellectual sidekicks should do, Dr. Watson question Holmes and allowed him to come up with his best deductions, the ordinary man against the brilliant, emotionally-detached analytical machine. Watson was a smart and capable man in his own right, but it was his work assisting Holmes that brought about the best in both men. Without him, the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson," would just be "Elementary, my dear," which is kind of condescending.

Falling into the same category as Kato, Chewbacca acted as the insurance policy for Han Solo's smart-ass mouth. Designed by George Lucas to act as a sentient dog, Chewie was the muscle Han needed to take on whoever needed on-taking in their smuggling activity. It didn't hurt that he could rip people's arms out of their socket and fix anything mechanical in the galaxy. It's also very convenient that Chewie can understand humans and Han can understand Wookie while never learning how to speak the other's language. Chewie was willing to be tortured, sold into slavery, and face possibly being eaten by a sinkhole with teeth to save his buddy's life, which is about as loyal as loyal can be, you know. Walking carpet or not, Chewbacca is the best co-pilot a scruffy looking nerf herder could hope to find.

Going all the way back to the beginning for this one. Don Quixote's squire is considered by many to be the first official sidekick in literary history. Nothing more than a poor neighbor of the wacky knight, Sancho rode with Quixote during his most famous adventures, like fighting windmills, astride his noble donkey. Portrayed as quite dimwitted, Sancho represented the Spanish everyman who would comment on the state of the country and Europe in general while off on his master's imagined quests. When Don Quixote is finally disenchanted and realizes his quest was meaningless, falling into a deep despair, Sancho is the one to try to revive his sense of wonder, saying he would gladly become a pastoral shepherd again, thus becoming "Quixotized" himself. Knowing absolutely nothing but still doing what's right by his friend and master and influencing sidekicks the world over puts Sancho Panza at the top of this list.

Next week's Top 6 will surely have something to do with WonderCon which I am going to in San Francisco this weekend. Hope to see you there. What sidekicks did I omit? Tell me in the comments below.

You're welcome.

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years

That didn't take long, now did it? After combing through the seven years of Tom Baker, I found it rather a breeze to traverse the three seasons of "Doctor Who" with Peter Davison, 1982-1984. Unlike Tom Baker, I had seen a fair amount of Peter Davison's "Who" prior to starting the chronological journey and consider him one of my favorites straight through to the end. Before delving into the episodes, here's a little backstory.

John Nathan-Turner took over as producer in 1981 and would drastically revamp the series to become more in touch with the new decade, changes that would remain until the show's cancellation in 1989. Nathan-Turner was a young, first time producer with a great many ideas for the direction the show should go, including filling the show with young companions and steering away from the silliness the series had reached in the Douglas Adams days in favor of hard science-fiction. These decisions put him at odds right away with the established Baker and it was decided that the show's 18th season would be the last for the Fourth Doctor.

Another decision that put Nathan-Turner apart from his predecessors was not to cast another unknown in the part of The Doctor as Tom Baker had been and instead he cast Peter Davison who was currently a regular on three other series (the product of such short seasons in Britain) in the role. Davison was the youngest Doctor to date at just 29 when he took over and some worried his age and good looks might distract from the already well-established character.

In order to fight against these trepidations, John Nathan-Turner loaded the last few Tom Baker stories with new regular companions as holdovers to take the audience into the new era. Among them were Adric, a mathematics whiz kid, Nyssa, orphaned scientific genius, and Tegan, a mouthy Australian flight attendant. The precedent was set early in the show's history, as the First Doctor began his travels with three companions, though after so many years of one regular sidekick, the writers had to work to give each character their due and often come across as one dimensional. In the three seasons, the Doctor saw six different companions, later including devious alien Turlough, a robot called Kamelion, and finally a young American girl named Peri Brown. It is this era of the show that is often cited as "The Crowded TARDIS."

During the Davison era, the show saw a reinvigoration in the fans as well, with ratings returning to upwards of 7 million viewers and even reaching the 10 million point for some of the 19th season episodes. Despite its success, Davison had made his decision to do only three seasons on the advice of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton. Both Jon Pertwee (5 seasons) and Tom Baker (7 seasons) found it difficult to be separated from the role and get non-Doctorish work. Troughton before them had only appeared in three seasons and had almost immediately returned to steady work as a character actor. So the Fifth Doctor's time was limited to three seasons, and while there are fewer standout stories than in Baker's time, Davison's stories held together as a continuing saga and his performance was much more accessible and grounded, and to my mind more likable.

There are definitely five great stories in the Davison bunch which I will discuss now. The first is 1982's penultimate adventure "Earthshock." This serial saw the Doctor and his crew land in a cave in Earth's future only to be accused of murdering a team of scientists by some military types. Who really murdered the scientists turns out to be old foes the Cybermen, who are basically people enslaved to become large monstrous robots. The Cybermen are secretly operating out of the scientists' own freighter orbiting the planet. The original plan was disrupt a peace accord between the Earth's dignitaries, but eventually they decide to just crash the nuclear freighter into the Earth itself, destroying all life on it. The Cybermen are excellent villains and display a deviousness in this story not seen before. This story is also notable as it saw the death of a regular cast member, Adric played by Matthew Waterhouse. While an annoying character, no one likes to see a good guy blow up.

The next one for you is "Enlightenment" from the series' 20th season. It is the end of the three-story arc known as "The Black Guardian Trilogy" in which the evil Black Guardian tries to force new companion Turlough (Mark Strickson) to kill the Doctor for foiling his plans some years ago (see: The Key to Time). This is easily the best of the three, in which the TARDIS lands under mysterious circumstances aboard an Edwardian sailing ship, apparently in the middle of some kind of race. The ship's officers are definitely a little off and the crew have no idea when they boarded or when or where the race began. We eventually find out that this ship is not in the water at all, but is a space ship designed to perfectly mirror its historical counterpart by strange beings called Eternals. The race, between ships from all different historical periods, is for "enlightenment," though exactly what that is is not known. This offers some of the best sets and costumes of the whole of Davison's era and the idea of sailing through space plays very well.

Thirdly we have "The Five Doctors" which was a 90-minute special that took place between seasons to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the show. Much like the tenth anniversary special, "The Three Doctors," "The Five Doctors" saw all the previous incarnations of the Doctor working together to stop a great evil. Someone or something is pulling the Doctor's various selves out of their respective timelines and into a strange land where they must reach a massive tower or be destroyed, rewriting history and ending the whole show right there. Obviously they weren't about to let that happen. Tom Baker refused to take part in the special as he had only recently left the program and was still very proprietorial of the part, so his appearance was limited to footage from an unfinished story from season 17. Also unable to appear was First Doctor William Hartnell as he died in 1975, so for the purposes of the special, the original version of the character was played by Richard Hurndall, who did an okay job considering. Second Doctor Patrick Troughton and Third Doctor Jon Pertwee did appear along with some companions from each of the eras, as did villains The Master, The Cybermen, and a Dalek for good measure. While the storyline doesn't make a whole lot of sense, it is great to see so many versions of the character all in one place. This story will always hold a special place for me as it was the first Classic Who I had ever watched.

Speaking of Daleks, we have 1984's excellent "Resurrection of the Daleks," which has the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough getting trapped in a time corridor only to be spat out on present-day Earth. The nature of the time corridor turns out to be caused by the oldest of foes, the Daleks, who are kidnapping people in authority positions around the world and replacing them with clones who will do their bidding. Also reappearing is the Dalek's creator Davros, who is thawed out of suspended animation to replenish the dwindling population of the mechanical mutant species. Davros and the Dalek Emperor do not see eye to eye and are soon at odds with each other over who should rule. This was a surprisingly dark story that saw something like 43 onscreen deaths, not including Daleks. After "Destiny of the Daleks" from Douglas Adams' season as script editor, which was stupid and ridiculous, it's nice to see a return to form for the pepperpots. This also was the last appearance of Tegan (Janet Fielding) who was the Doctor's longest-running companion. She doesn't die though, so don't worry.

The last and absolute hands-down best story from the Peter Davison age was in fact his final story. By the time "The Caves of Androzani" was being filmed in 1984, it was already well-established that Davison would be leaving, so John Nathan-Turner decided to make the changeover as easy as possible, again, by having the Doctor lose his companions, first Tegan in the aforementioned "Resurrection of the Daleks" and then Turlough in the following story, "Planet of Fire." In the latter story, which I have not seen as it isn't released yet, the Doctor picks up a young American girl named Peri Brown, played by English actress Nicola Bryant, to be the upcoming Sixth Doctor's regular consort. It's the fact that he barely knows his new companion that makes the story all the more fantastic.

The Doctor and Peri land on the rocky, cavernous planet of Androzani Minor, which serves as a mining planet for the people of the twin planet of Androzani Major. What is being mined is the strange elixir called spectrox which gives the drinker an unnaturally long and youthful life. As you might expect, such a drug is in very high demand and is therefore the most expensive thing in the universe. After venturing into a cave to explore, Peri falls into a strange webby hive thing which the Doctor then touches to get her free. They develop rashes and blisters where they touched the stuff, which they find out is the first symptom of spectrox toxemia, a disease contracted from touching raw spectrox. The only cure for this is the milk of a rare bat which lives in the caves (not kidding), otherwise they will die.

Before they can even attempt to retrieve it, they become embroiled in a war with three rival factions: the military under employment of cruel businessman Morgus who owns all the spectrox mines, androids controlled by the mysterious masked Sharaz Jek who has commandeered a stockpile of spectrox for ransom, and a group of ruthless mercenaries lead by Stotz, who are playing on both sides. Jek has a score to settle with Morgus who caused his disfiguration. He kidnaps the lovely young Peri, who is dying of toxemia, and the Doctor is taken aboard the mercs' ship for questioning by Morgus. The Doctor, despite slowly dying himself, escapes his shackles and crashes the ship back into Androzani Minor, saying "I owe it to my friend to try to save her." This is Davison's Doctor to a T. He might not even know the person that well, but he would risk everything to see that no harm comes to them, no matter the odds. From the first, to his very last, the Fifth Doctor is the selfless hero. "The Caves of Androzani" stands as one of the best written, directed, and certainly acted stories in all of "Doctor Who." Davison himself has said several times that if he got more scripts like "Caves," he might have stayed on for a fourth season. In 2009, after the 200th story of the show was broadcast, a poll was held for fans to rank all the stories, and "The Caves of Androzani" came in at No. 1, beating out the much loved David Tennant episode "Blink."

And that's what I know about the reign of Peter Davison. I will soon (after a trip to San Francisco for WonderCon) be starting the stories of Sixth Doctor Colin Baker. I have never seen a single Sixth Doctor story and I've heard the quality starts to go downhill during this time, but I will see for myself.

You're welcome.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Top 6: Stupid Superheroes

All of the Top 6s up to this point have been movie related, so I thought I'd give a nod to comics. Nowadays, every comic under the sun is being turned into a major motion picture, but over the long and varied history of the medium, there have been plenty of additions that should never have a movie made of them ever. EVER. Here you have the top 6 lamest superheroes of all time.

Appearing in the 1940s in "Hit Comics #1" the Red Bee was basically your powerless vigilante type character. However instead of wearing a cool costume like Batman or the Shadow, the Red Bee opted for a red pirate shirt with pink puffy sleeves and red and yellow striped tights. Truly frightening only to epileptic villains. However, what made the Red Bee especially lame wasn't just his gaudy, vomitous costume, but the fact that he fought crime with the aid of a single trained bee. That's right, friends. A trained bumble bee named Michael that lived in a compartment in the Red Bee's belt buckle. Seriously, I'm not joking. A friggin' trained bumble bee... named Michael! Not even a swarm, just one. So unless the Red Bee's villains were deathly allergic to the combined sight of creatures that shouldn't physically be able to fly and grown men dressing like color blind buccaneers, he wasn't much good.

The name Matter Eater Lad does not roll off the tongue very easily and certainly doesn't strike fear into many a villain's heart. In the 1960s the writers at DC comics were always looking for new and strange powers for their quickly growing cast of teenage futuristic heroes. However, though it seemed like they'd hit their all time low with Bouncing Boy, it turned out they could sink even lower with Matter Eater Lad. As you might have guessed, Matter Eater Lad's power was the ability to eat through any substance. So if you locked your keys in your car, instead of calling a locksmith, you could just have Matter Eater Lad devour the door handle. Matter Eater Lad wasn't into cannibalism, though, so he never actually chowed down on any bad guys, completely missing what could have been a useful power.

Dogwelder was a character from Garth Ennis' "Hitman" series. Dogwelder was part of a superhero team known as Section Eight which was a band of these crazy guys that fought crime in rather inane ways. Dogwelder was a name that really stuck out to me, and like most of these on the list, that's where the bulk of the ridiculousness comes from. He's this madman in a silver welder's outfit that basically just goes around welding stray dogs to villains' faces. That's it. That's how he fought crime. Welding dogs to people. It certainly wouldn't be fun to be on the receiving end of that. You try to rob a bank and you end up with a Lhasa Apso welded to your face, yapping for eternity. It's really just more an irritation than a fighting style and relies too heavily on the cooperation of the weldee.

Just like "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," you know exactly what you're getting with this guy. Arm Fall Off Boy is an oddity all his own because although he only made one appearance in a comic book ever (Secret Origins #46 [1989]), his appearance was so memorable that he has a cult following to this day. Arm Fall Off Boy made an apperance at a Legion of Superheroes recruitment drive where he displayed his "astounding" power to some of the more legitimate heroes. His power? To detach his left arm from his body and use it as a club. Arm Fall Off Boy was surprised when the Legion let him know that his talents weren't quite right for their organization, though I can't imagine why. A better super hero would have been Arm Made Of Razor Blades Guy or Arm That Doubles As A Thing That Kills People Fellow. Or even just Guy With Two Fully Functioning Arms Capable Of Wielding Big Giant Swords.

One of Marvel's earliest superhero creations, The Whizzer's powers have nothing to do with peeing, despite what his costume might suggest. Like many Marvel superhero characters, The Whizzer was a rip off of a DC character, The Flash in this case, and as such, he was super fast. How did he get that way, you ask? Well let's see what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
The origin of the Golden Age character begins while Robert Frank is on a trip to Africa with his father, Dr. Emil Frank, where Robert is bitten by a cobra. Dr. Frank saves Robert by a transfusion of mongoose blood, and soon discovers that he has developed super-speed.
That's actually real. Mongoose blood. Apparently in the '40s it wasn't such a big deal to put a completely different species' DNA into your system, mongoosian AIDS be damned.

If you hop in the way-back machine and think of the amazingly awesome cartoon "Superfriends," you'll probably remember the two-tone purple clad Half-Asian duo The Wonder Twins with their Beatles hairdos and blue monkey in a cape, Gleek. You might also remember that when the Twins put their rings together and said "Wonder Twin powers ACTIVATE," they could transform into stuff. Jayna could become any animal of her choosing. Quite a good power. What did brother Zan have? The ability to turn into anything water-based. How exactly do those two powers go together? You'd get all kinds of adventures where Jayna would turn into a bear or a lion or something and Zan would turn into a puddle or... yeah, that's it, just a puddle. Although, to his credit, he could turn into a refreshing glass of Kool Aid AND the ice cubes with which to cool it. Nevermind, he isn't useless at all.

And there you have it, friends. Remember these guys the next time you think about mocking Aquaman.

You're welcome.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Doctor Who: The Tom Baker Years

I've been watching Doctor Who for the last six months or so and today did a tally wherein I realized I've seen less than half of the available stories. That's slightly depressing, but the show has been on for 30 seasons. I recently completed watching the tenure of the longest-serving Doctor, Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor who played the character from 1974-1981.

Tom Baker was a relative nobody when he took over the role from Jon Pertwee. While Pertwee's Doctor was a suave, sophisticated man of action, Baker played the Doctor with more outward weirdness, a deliberate attempt to make the character more alien. He would often switch from silly to serious at the drop of a hat, making him seem pretty bipolar. It was during Tom Baker's run that the show was at its most popular, being essential viewing for families every Saturday night. When the series was syndicated to America, it was Baker's episodes that most people saw, making him the most recognizable actor to play the role around the world. He is known primarily for his big, toothy grin, curly hair, and ridiculously long, striped scarf.

As one might expect, such a long run has its ups and down, with the middle bit being less than stellar to my mind. Of the Fourth Doctor's 173 episodes comprising 40 stories, I've seen all except the 12 stories that haven't been released on DVD in the U.S. Thanks to Netflix, it only took about six weeks. Seven years of television in six weeks. Amazing. As I'm not about to review everything I've watched, as it would be a waste of everyone's time, I decided to talk briefly about my five favorite stories from Tom Baker's era, five that I recommend to the casual viewer.

Probably the best one to start with is 1979's "City of Death," a four-parter which sees the Doctor and his companion, Romana (Lalla Ward) on vacation that ends up being far less than restful. Set mainly in Paris in 1979, the plot concerns a scheme by an alien, Scaroth, to steal the Mona Lisa to finance experiments in time travel in the hope of averting the accident that marooned him on Earth four hundred million years previously, the furthest back in history the show ever dares tread. The fourth episode was watched by over sixteen million viewers, the highest audience ever attained by an episode of Doctor Who. Writer David Fisher's original script was heavily re-written by script editor Douglas Adams (of Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) and the story benefits from Adams' weird brand of humor. Look for John Cleese's cameo as an art critic at the Louvre, commenting on the blue police box as a fine piece of post-modern art right before The Doctor and Romana casually enter and dematerialize.

The early Tom Baker era was known for its emphasis on Gothic horror-themed stories and one of the best examples of this is the horribly underrated "The Brain of Morbius" from 1976. Essentially a reworking of Frankenstein, this serial follows the Doctor and my favorite companion, Sarah Jane Smith (played by Elisabeth Sladen) as they land on a strange planet littered with wrecked spaceships and dismembered alien bodies. They soon come to a castle atop a hill where the mysterious scientist Solon and his disfigured assistant Condo welcome them with all-too-open arms. We soon learn that Solon is a disciple of the evil Time Lord, Morbius, who was destroyed many years ago, save for his brain. Solon is making a body for Morbius out of the alien remains, but has yet to find a suitable head. Enter the Doctor. This story got a lot of flack for it's overt depiction of violence, and is generally thought of as nothing special, but for my money it ranks as among the best of the era. As far as horror-themed science fiction, you can get no better than the hulking monstrosity of Morbius' new body stalking a temporarily blinded Sarah Jane.

Speaking of horror, I would like to point you in the direction of "Horror of Fang Rock," from 1977. The last of its kind before the show transitioned from tension-driven horror to mind-numbing silliness, where it lingered for the next three years. The action takes place entirely on or around a Southern English lighthouse in the early 20th Century. In a thick fog, three different vessels become stranded on the small island called Fang Rock: a rich man's sailing yacht, the Doctor's TARDIS, and a mysterious and hostile force. The story plays out like a modern-day slasher film with characters showing up and getting bumped off one by one by the unseen alien and if anyone's going to survive, they're going to have to trust the Doctor, something no one ever seems to be able to do. It's like an Agatha Christie mystery with aliens. It also gives some good moments to the supporting cast, all of which are fully fleshed-out characters with faults and treacheries of their own.

For some straight sci-fi, I direct your attention to 1976's "The Deadly Assassin." This is a notable story as it is the only story in the classic run where the Doctor does not have a proper companion, something that was a consolation to Baker who maintained he didn't need a sidekick. It's an interesting experiment, but he really does need someone to bandy ideas off of, otherwise there's a lot of the Doctor talking to himself, spouting exposition. The Doctor is summoned to his homeworld of Gallifrey under strange circumstances. He soon gets rolled up in the assassination of the Time Lord President and has to clear his own name while trying to catch the guilty party. Before I mention this next bit, I want you to remember this is 1976. The Doctor connects his brain to computers and enters the data network known as The Matrix, where the villain is controlling everything, and inside it is a construct where the Doctor and his adversary must battle in a totally virtual realm. Way to rip off "Doctor Who," Wachowski Bros. It's even CALLED The Matrix. Part political thriller, part mind fuck, "The Deadly Assassin" is an anomaly in the "Who" canon that really stands up.

My last pick, and my hands-down favorite in the era, is 1975's "Genesis of the Daleks." Since the second story of the entire series all the way back in 1963, the Doctor's greatest enemies have been the tank-like killing machines known as The Daleks. They can't be reasoned with, they can't be bargained with; all they want is to subjugate or exterminate all beings that are imperfect (meaning anything that isn't a Dalek). This story takes us all the way back to their creation. The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and military medic Harry Sullivan are intercepted by the Time Lords to travel to the planet Skaro at a time before the Daleks existed with the goal of stopping to altering their creation, sparing the universe of their evil. Our three heroes are soon embroiled in the bloody war between Skaro's two humanoid races, the Kaleds and the Thals. Neither side is willing to lose and their methods of warfare have been getting more and more nasty over the years, resulting in a huge portion of the populations of both races mutating thanks to all the chemical weapons. The Doctor learns that the leader of the Kaleds, the deformed and crippled Davros, has been experimenting on his own people in hopes of creating the ultimate being, taking away their physical form and their free will until they are ultra-loyal, single-minded death machines. This story has very overt allusions to Nazi Germany and also tackles some deep moral debates, like whether someone has the right to commit murder to prevent genocide. This is a six-part story, which in some stories can be a detriment, but this one never loses momentum or focus. I would absolutely recommend this one to anyone who enjoys things.

While he isn't my favorite Doctor, Tom Baker and his corresponding episodes are definitely entertaining, memorable, and worth a look. If you can get passed the sometimes laughably low-budget special effects you'll get to see some interesting and fun stories (and some stupid and bad ones, but only toward the end). I'm moving right along to the Fifth Doctor, check back in a few short weeks for another Doctor Who report.

You're welcome.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Top 6: Trilogies Worthy of a Sunday Marathon

For the last several weekends, my brother and mother in snowy Colorado have been having movie marathons wherein they watch all three parts of selected trilogies (i.e. ones they have) and it got me thinking, as most things do. There are a great many trilogies out there these days, but only a few of them are uniformly good. Take for instance, Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" saga: the first movie is excellent, the second movie is even better, and the third movie is a pile of undigested goat meat. It's so bad in fact, it nearly taints the other two films, which is sad. "Indiana Jones" has the same problem, with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Last Crusade" actually being quite good movies, and "Temple of Doom," however enjoyable I now find it after the smoking turd that was "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," is very obviously the weak link. A grip of other trilogies may be enjoyable throughout, but only one part could actually be considered "good," in the classic movie sense, such as "The Matrix," where the first movie is the game changer, or "X-Men," when the second part stands head and shoulders above the others.

It seems it truly is difficult to find a series of movies where all three are actually worth watching over and over, but I'mma gonna find six and list them for you below. These are the Top 6 trilogies worthy of a Sunday marathon.

Despite the second two parts having a different director (Paul Greengrass) than the first (Doug Liman), the spy actioners starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne are surprisingly consistent. All three employ frenetic editing and camera movement (some would argue nauseatingly so) and all three have plots that both make sense and are easily followable, within reason. It seems there's no limit to the depths Jason Bourne has to dig to learn what a bastard he was before he lost his memory, nor how much worse those who employed him were. All three were based on books by Robert Ludlum, whose entire canon have similar titles employing "The" followed by the name of someone or something and ending with an impersonal noun. Such as, "The Osterman Weekend," "The Rhinemann Exchange," "The Holcroft Covenant," and "The Scorpio Illusion." These movies are like more believable James Bond adventures, though admittedly without some of the fun, and they are all as exciting as the last. Just take some Dramamine and enjoy.

I wore the tape out of these movies when I was a kid and made me want a Delorian to this very day. Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly who thanks to his friend, the inventor Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown, travels through time and changes his family history and eventually future, all in the course of a week. He starts in 1985, travels to 1955, heads to 2015, to a tangential 1985, back to 1955, and then to 1885 before finally returning home. The more I learn about the theory of time travel makes this far less plausible (like how if he traveled back to 1955, then he will have always been in 1955 and his future couldn't possibly have changed...wrap your head around that) but no less enjoyable. Also, why is Marty seemingly a loser and a cool guy at the same time? And why does he hang out with an crazy, white haired guy in the first place? That all aside, these movies have plenty of humor and Alan Silvestri's score is a gold standard for film themes. I actually saw Back to the Future 2 in the theater and remember being scared to death of the big Jaws thing and completely confused by what "Son of a Bitch" could mean. Ahh, good times.

You could not have three less similar horror movies, and yet, thanks to Bruce Campbell's shrieking and silly portrayal as Ash, they hang together very nicely. Like all of these movies so far, they all depict a lead character put in a strange and dire situation mostly through bad luck, and no one is less lucky or less equipped to fight the legions of evil than Ash. The first film plays like a melodrama which leads to all out gory terror as a cabin-in-the-woods weekend goes from kind of okay to the worst thing ever to happen to anyone ever. Ash's friends are slowly picked off and possessed by Kandarian Demons leaving him to fight them off and dismember them. The second one is somehow scary while being purposely sillier. It's often been described as a demonic Warner Bros. cartoon, which is very fitting. "Evil Dead II" is my favorite of the series and is not, I repeat NOT, a remake of "The Evil Dead" as many have claimed. The first ten minutes or so are a rehash because Raimi & Co couldn't get the rights to show clips from their first film, so they had to make do. They changed Ash a bit to make him more in line with who he'd be in the new film, and instead of four friends, it's just Ash's girlfriend who gets possessed. The third film, "Army of Darkness," is a complete departure. After being sucked into a time portal (like ya do) Ash and his Oldsmobile Delta 88 end up in England in the middle-ages being proclaimed as the savior from the Deadites. "Army" forsakes most of the horror for swashbuckling and is really like a low budget Ray Harryhausen movie. I've watched this trilogy many many times and it's always a good one for a large group.

All one really needs to make a trilogy is a strong central character, and Sergio Leone certainly got that with Clint Eastwood in these films. Eastwood's "Man With No Name" as he was dubbed in the States is a drifter and works as a mythical trickster character, getting involved in the action for his own gain while also helping a few people along the way. His character does have a name, in fact a different one in all three films. He is called "Joe" in "A Fistful of Dollars," where he enters a town beset with two criminal families and plays the sides against each other until he is the only man standing. In the sequel, aptly titled "For a Few Dollars More," he is a bounty hunter chasing an escaped bandit with a tentative partnership with an older rival and is called "Manco," (essentially "Lefty"), and in the best movie of all time, "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly," he is throughout referred to as "Blondie." It could be easy to claim these are not related films at all and are just all westerns starring Clint Eastwood, but Leone does the interesting thing of letting visuals connect the films and not overt narrative. At the end of the first movie, Eastwood's hand is crushed and stomped on, in the entire second film, he wears a brace on it that is eventually a giveaway to the baddies that he is who he is. The third film, we find out, is really a prequel for two reasons. Firstly, it takes place during the Civil War, which is very much finished in the first two films, and second Eastwood starts the movie in a completely different costume and as the movie moves along, picks up the various pieces of his familiar garb until the very end he is the man with the poncho and the brown hat. Three of the best movies of all time and I can watch all of them at any point in my life, though I tend to watch the last one the least because it's my favorite and I want to savor it.

You have to get up very early in the morning to watch all of these movies in one day and be prepared to dedicate the next 14 hours of your life to it, if you watch the extended editions as I do. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote this as one giant tome and the publisher is the one who split it up into different volumes, thinking no one would want to sit down and read an 1150 page book in one go. Yet in the case of both the books and the movies, that's exactly what people do. These movies are the Alpha and Omega of the sword and sorcery genre and despite being close to ten years old, still benefit from extremely believable visual effects. Many fans of the book complained about certain changes and the removal of some characters and events, and even though I can spend hours on how irritating it is when people deride movies for not being page-for-page depictions of the books, I think the films are nigh-on perfect to maintaining the heart of the novels while making them easier for a film crowd to digest. Each movie has a memorable battle scene (or nine) and are chock-a-block of lush landscapes, miraculous sets, and fantastic makeup. One feels like they really are in a different world from a different time. As far as watching them in one day, it's easy to hit the Rings Wall, but if you make sure you have plenty of Lembas bread you should be able to make the journey.

Not the fucking prequels, okay? The TRILOGY. There are trilogies today, in such ridiculous numbers, due almost entirely to these movies. The sense of wonder that one gets when first watching these movies cannot be underplayed. You can sit any child down with "Star Wars" and they'll have the best time ever and want to be jedi or rebels or what have you. George Lucas seems dead set on tinkering with these movies to be more in line with the prequels, but why doesn't he change the prequels to make them more in line with the originals? They're the ones everybody likes after all. And even with the unnecessary additions and CGI replacements, "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back," and "Return of the Jedi," remain indelible pieces of pop culture and film history. They had heart, character, awe, and fun. Good movies are not made by having the newest special effects or the greatest amount of crap moving in the background, good movies are made by having a universal story and memorable characters you care about. It's easy to forget that the first "Star Wars" was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won six of them, and if not for "Annie Hall" would probably have won all of them. I can't overstate this enough, a bigger budget does not mean it's a better film. Take a year or three to let the stink of Episodes I-III wear off and then go watch the originals again and try to recall the day when "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" was just called "Star Wars."

And there you have it, friends. Let me know which are your favorite movie trilogies in the comments below.

You're welcome.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, And How It Probably Can’t Destroy The World

"The Heisenberg Uncertainty Over-ride taps into a limitless pool of destructive energy," Owlman says in Crisis on Two Earths, describing his evil world-destruction plan. But what is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? And could overcoming it really end in explosions?

The one sentence description of the Uncertainty Principle is as follows: Scientists can know the position of a particle, or the velocity of a particle, but not both at the same time.

The Uncertainty Principle has been described as the idea that it is impossible to observe a situation without changing it. There are a hundred documentaries about how, for example, sharks behave. Yet even the most naïve of television watchers will suspect that the shark filmed attacking a diving cage might not behave the same way if it weren't swimming through huge chunks of rotten fish only to run into a guy waving a camera at it. The idea that even a careful scientist influences the outcome of an experiment is easily understood.

That's not the Uncertainty Principle.

The Uncertainty Principle is also often explained by an illustration of why we have such trouble with small particles in general. Human sight is the brain's interpretation of photons that have bounced off other materials. When the materials are large compared to the photons, there isn't much difficulty. Consider mapping out a room using ping-pong balls. Each time a ball bounces back, it would tell the thrower how close the wall is, whether the wall is angled towards or away from the thrower, and if there were any objects on it. It wouldn't be an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, but it would be possible to form an accurate picture.

Now consider using that technique to map out a human hand. An apple. Another ping-pong ball. Each diminution of scale and weight would result in fewer and fewer details being known. When the ball hits something its own size and weight, the impact itself changes the position and momentum of the object it hits. An accurate picture is impossible.

That's also not technically the Uncertainty Principle, although it comes closer.

The Uncertainty Principle is not a practical problem. Practical problems can be resolved. A camera can be made small and unobtrusive enough not to bother a shark, and the only problem with the mapping experiment is the lack of smaller balls. We can't know both the velocity and the position of, say, an electron because particles on that scale do not behave the way objects on our scale behave.

The heart of the principle is the fact that light is both a particle and a wave. A good way to demonstrate it is by using that most useful of all io9 fascinations; the laser.

Imagine shining a laser through an open doorway. What would the result be? Since the only thing used to measure the position of the photons is a doorway (three feet by six-and-a-half feet), they march through in an orderly fashion and their velocity is predictable. They are confined to a red dot on the opposite wall.

But what if the measurements got more precise than the space of a doorway? Try narrowing the doorway - either with conventional sliding doors, or one of those cool sliding stone exits that always nearly kills Indiana Jones. At first, the result is predictable. The laser beam is cut off on both sides by the narrowing doorway. The space that the remaining photons travel through gets smaller, our knowledge of their position at one point in time gets more precise. And the red spot on the wall will get slimmer. The more the doorway closes, the slimmer the spot on the wall will get.

Until the space between the sides of the doorway reaches a certain point. Then, instead of a tiny dot on the wall, the laser light will branch out, and look like this:

Notice how there are peaks and valleys to the brightness of the light. That is the wave part of the particle-wave duality. It is what makes it impossible to know both the position and the velocity of a photon. Once the slit becomes small enough for an observer to know, to a certain degree, where the photons passing through it are, the velocity of the photons becomes less predictable. The photons aren't traveling dutifully towards a single dot on the wall. Each one could be going towards any of a number of spots. While researchers can predict the likelihood of a photon ending up in any of those bright spots, they cannot say for certain where the photon will hit.

This isn't a failure of experimentation, or precision. This is an intrinsic property of the photons themselves. This is the reason behind the Uncertainty Principle.

What does that mean for a James-Woods-voiced vigilante with a heart of purest lead, intent on destroying all of mankind?

That depends on how one views the Uncertainty Principle. Einstein famously said, "God does not play dice with the universe." If he was correct, then the Uncertainty Principle is merely a function of our current understanding of the universe. It can be changed as we undertand more, or view things in a different way. Still, the idea that one can ‘tap into a pool of destructive energy' just by knowing where an electron is and where it's going at the same time stretches credibility. It would earn Owlman a Nobel prize, though.

The other possibility is that Owlman's device would change the way quantum particles behaved. It might collapse either the wave or the particle property of an elementary particle. Should he be able to collapse the particle part, the earth wouldn't explode, but since light waves wouldn't travel through a vacuum any more than sound waves would, it would get a bit chilly. The sun's rays wouldn't travel to the earth. The biggest source of energy in the world would be gone. In space, no one can hear you freeze to death.

Taking away the wave part of a photon doesn't seem as disastrous. At first it just seems to make make the laser experiment a lot less fun. The absence of a wave state may, though, make it impossible for the photon to be a massless particle. This would in turn change the speed of light. It might even put an end to the conservation of energy. Which, again, would most likely kill everything on earth by freezing us to death, or starving us to death, or both.

Probably for the best that he failed, even in fiction.

This taken from

You're welcome

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Top 6: Badasses

Tonight was the Oscars and if Avatar had won any of the big awards, I probably would have done a top 6 about how utterly preposterous that is and what a travesty our industry is. But it didn't win so I can put away my four letter words and do the top six cinematic badasses. What makes a badass should be self-evident, but for this here list I'm going to boil it down to three criteria: 1) Ability to overcome obstacles using guile and cunning as well as force, 2) durability in the face of overwhelming odds, 3) Swagger to laugh, or smirk, at whatever situation presents itself. There are plenty of characters that I've left off the list by simple fact that they are hot heads, so guys like Indiana Jones or Martin Riggs are suitably awesome, but lose their cool too often to be considered for this list. Get it? Let us begin.

VI - Walker in POINT BLANK (1967)
One of the many adaptations of Jim Thompson's novel "The Hunter," in which a man is imprisoned and his money stolen by his so-called friends. He wants his money, no more, no less. As far as single-minded characters go, Walker is probably the best. Played by the always solid Lee Marvin in his gruff and sturdy prime as evidenced by the scene in which Angie Dickinson beats on him as hard as she possibly can and he not only doesn't get hurt, he doesn't even move. Walker is the kind of character we know will kill you if you get in his way. The scene most exemplifying his badassery comes when he calmly dangles, then drops, his former friend Mal Reese off of a balcony, then just as icily leaves the scene of the crime before anyone notices.

V - Sanjuro in YOJIMBO (1961)
A masterless samurai walks into a gang-ravaged town with nothing but a sword and a sneer and leaves with a pile of bodies behind him. Toshiro Mifune, in a role that would be his calling card, displays subtlety and nuance behind his rock-hard glare and solemn face. "Yojimbo," one of Akira Kurosawa's very best, is one of the first movies to depict the hero getting the snot beaten out of him only to have him pick himself up, dust himself off, and kill every last fucker he's ever seen. The iconic, and famously ripped off, scene where he's just sliced two guys to death and hacked the arm off another. Sanjuro calmly walks to the cooper and says, "Two coffins. No, maybe three."

IV - John McClane in DIE HARD (1988)
This is the role that took Bruce Willis from comedy tv actor to full on action god. John McClane embodies wrong place at the wrong time motif, but where some characters might just stay quiet and let the proper authorities handle it, he dives in head first and pretty much single-handedly kills every terrorist-cum-thief in the entire Nakatomi Plaza. He also pioneered the Jack Bauer trope of fighting back a man-cry during a particularly heavy and dire situation. His crowning achievement, of course, comes when he coined the immortal phrase "Yippee-Ki-Yay, Motherfucker," which he has said in all four films. For a moment that is specifically "Die Hard 1," though, we turn to the scene in which he jumps of a roof, barefoot, his feet cut up with glass, tethered by a fire hose and slams full boor into a plexi-glass window, which he then shoots and falls into. Talk about risking life and limb.

III - Jules Winnfield in PULP FICTION (1994)
In Quentin Tarantino's canon of badassery at all costs, Jules, played by the monstrously badass Samuel L. Jackson, is his crowning glory. For not being in the movie quite as much as John Travolta or Bruce Willis, Jackson is easily the most memorable part of the whole shebang. From his bravura show of force at the beginning of the film to his quiet realization of the value of life at the end of the film, Jules easily has the largest arc. Basically the only character in the movie to come out more or less unscathed, his transformation is the lynch pin holding all the others together. His piece de resistance comes during the ending diner heist where he ponders the futility of life, death, and his role in them while spouting bible verses and participating in one of the zig-zaggiest Mexican standoffs in all of filmdom. He's trying real hard to be the shepherd.

II - James Bond in any James Bond movie
There are few literary characters in the last 100 years that have as famous a surname as Bond. The name immediately evokes cool. Ian Fleming envisioned his super spy as nothing more than a paper-pusher who kills, a government stooge. Little did he know that his blunt instrument would become one of the most popular and enduring figures in Western culture, appearing (officially) in 22 films between 1962 and 2008. Bond is always there to foil some evil, and often ridiculous, plot to destroy or hold ransom the entire population of Earth and he always does it with a twinkle in his eye, a shit-eating grin, and the ability to bed anything with a vagina. It's almost impossible to nail down just one of the great Bond moments over the years, but one of my favorites has to be in "From Russia With Love," (1963) when he has a shootout with a helicopter and comes out the victor. After shooting it down with a small sniper rifle, and the ensuing glorious explosion, Bond merely quips, "I'd say one of their aircraft is missing."

I - The Man With No Name in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966)
Sure, I may be a little bias given the film is my number one favorite of all time, but it's hard to argue with Clint Eastwood's gravitas in the badass department. What makes TMWNN so different is that he's a trickster character who is truly only in it for the money and is always scheming for the best position to get it. His skills as a gunman are unmatched, but it's his brain that gets him out of most situations in this film. He always makes sure he has the upper hand, even when it looks like a surefire demise. This is the third film to feature Clint as this character and though he has the fewest lines of the three leads, he makes the most of them. Every line he utters is memorable, as is every gunshot. The entire movie builds to his ultimate ascension to badass royalty, culminating in the greatest showdown in Western movie history and one of the best lines ever: "There are two types of people in this world, my friend: those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig." He's not a very nice guy, but there's definitely a reason he's called "The Good."

And there you have it. Go rent some movies and enjoy some badassitute.

You're welcome.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Legend of Quatermass

Anyone who knows me, or has read some previous blog entries, will know I'm enamored with British popular culture. It's just better than ours in many ways. To say nothing of their music, which I also find brilliant, I think their storytelling ability is second to none. In the last few years, my appreciation for it has moved passed "Monty Python" and "Spaced" and hit upon some of the action-adventure and sci-fi telly from the 1960s, "The Prisoner" and "Doctor Who." Very different shows, while still being staunchly British. In my research (and I am a research machine) I found that both series, and indeed most science fiction as we know it, owe a great deal to a 1950s creation entitled "The Quatermass Experiment." I, being a holistic fan of reference, decided I needed to see this. First, the facts.

In the summer of 1953, a six-part series called "The Quatermass Experiment" was broadcast on the BBC between July 18th and August 22nd. It was the first science-fiction themed program aimed at an adult audience. Conceived and written by Nigel Kneale and starring Reginald Tate in the title role, "Experiment" told the story of the first manned flight into space, overseen by Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group. When the spaceship that carried the first successful crew returns to Earth, two of the three astronauts are missing, and the third is behaving strangely. It becomes clear that an alien presence entered the ship during its flight, and Quatermass and his associates must prevent the alien from destroying the world.

The unexpected success of "The Quatermass Experiment" led to the production of a second set of six episodes in the autumn of 1955. Nigel Kneale aptly named this series, "Quatermass 2," and it replaced Reginald Tate, who had passed away, with John Robinson. The serial sees Professor Bernard Quatermass being asked to examine strange meteorite showers. His investigations lead to his uncovering a conspiracy involving alien infiltration at the highest levels of the British Government. As even some of Quatermass's closest colleagues fall victim to the alien influence, he is forced to use his own unsafe rocket prototype, which recently caused a nuclear disaster at an Australian testing range, to prevent the aliens from taking over mankind. This serial is often credited with inspiring, among other things, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and praised for its allegorical concerns of the damaging effects of industrialisation and the corruption of governments by big business.

The final Quatermass serial, "Quatermass and the Pit," was broadcast between December and January 1958-1959. Again, the lead character was recast, this time with Andre Morrell. The series continues the loose chronology of the Quatermass adventures, and begins with Professor Bernard Quatermass being forced out of his role at the British Experimental Rocket Group, with the organisation being passed into military control by the British Government. Quatermass and his new colleague, Colonel Breen, become involved in the discovery of a bizarre object at an archaeological dig in Knightsbridge, London. As the serial progresses, Quatermass and his associates find that the contents of the object have a horrific influence over many of those who come into contact with it. As this influence increases, affecting Quatermass himself, darker implications are revealed about the entire nature and origins of mankind. This serial was voted one of the top 100 British Television Programmes by the British Film Institute and has been cited as an influence by both Stephen King and John Carpenter.

So great. These sound amazing, but they aren't available in the States. What's a guy like me to do? Luckily, my old pals at Hammer Films decided to adapt these into films. Bad news, these films are also not available in the United States. They are, however, definitely available via bootlegs purchased on ebay. For a measly $15, I got all three. The first two on one disc and third on another one. Before I popped them in, I wanted to know what I was getting myself into.

Around the time "Quatermass 2" was being produced for the Beeb, Hammer Films were in the process of turning the first serial into a film. Directed by Val Guest, "The Quatermass Xperiment" was co-written by Guest and Richard Landau. The title was a reference to the fact that the film was given an X certificate in the UK. As the film would be a United States co-production, it was decided that a known American actor be brought in to play the story's lead. They decided upon tough guy actor Brian Donlevy who'd earned an Oscar nomination for Beau Geste in 1939 but was otherwise known for westerns or light comedy. Not exactly the kind of person you'd expect to play a brilliant rocket scientist. The character's creator, Nigel Kneale agreed, quoted as saying, "Donlevy played him as a mechanic, a creature with a completely closed mind."

Despite the writer's misgivings, the film was successful enough to warrant adapting "Quatermass 2" to "Quatermass II" in 1957. This time, Kneale himself co-wrote the script with returning director Val Guest, though Donlevy also returned, making him the only actor to play the role twice. The third film didn't come around until 1967, directed by Hammer contract director Roy Ward Baker with a script entirely written by Kneale, unsurprisingly extremely close to his original television version, with whole scenes and chunks of dialogue remaining essentially untouched. Replacing Brian Donlevy as Quatermass was Scottish actor Andrew Keir. In contrast to Donlevy, Keir's performance as Quatermass has been very well-received down the years, and the film is generally felt to be the most faithful of the three cinematic adaptations, although it was not as commercially successful as its predecessors.

So this morning, I embarked on my own Quatermass Experiment, watching all three films back to back. Easy to do since they're only about 85 minutes a piece. The first film was not my favorite. Despite the cool beginning with the rocket crashing, the middle bit slows down quite a lot as Quatermass and his colleague, Dr. Briscoe, do a lot of experimenting. Brian Donlevy by and large does not fit the role as I understand it. Half the time he's like a cop, the other half he's whining. Still the movie's all right and has a good ending.

"Quatermass II" is a much better film, which I'm sure has something to do with having over double the budget of "Xperiment." There's much more scope and the story is more interesting. It ends with a kind of quasi-zombie showdown between townsfolk and alien-infected military in a natural gas plant. The downside to this one is that Brian Donlevy's performance actually is weaker than he was previously. I've read he only took part in these movies for the paycheck and it really shows. Still, the story and direction make up for him in a lot of ways.

The third film is superior in almost every way. First, it's in color, and while I love black & white, there's something about the way Hammer movies looked in the mid-60s that just makes me happy. Second, the story is absolutely phenomenal, regarding ancient alien locusts who may be behind the way humans developed. Nigel Kneale's script is taut, interesting, and at times quite frightening. Thirdly, and most importantly, Andrew Keir as Professor Quatermass is exactly the way he should be. Steadfast and strong, with a little bit of the sense of wonder that any man of the future should have. And it also didn't hurt that the transfer on this bootleg was infinitely better than the first two. "The Quatermass Xperiment" was taped off of Turner Classic Movies and transferred to disc, evident by the TCM logo that would appear in the lower right corner every so often.

If you get a chance to watch any of these films, please take it. These are some of the most involving, innovative stories of aliens from outer space I've ever seen. Until the day we can watch the television serials here in this country, these bootlegs will have to be sufficient to understand the legacy of Quatermass. As a character, he represents all that is possible in science, always looking ahead to the next big discovery. Much the same way I will continue my search for great, overlooked gems in the realm of British sci-fi and horror and tell you more than you ever thought you'd want to know.

You're welcome.