Saturday, November 28, 2009

Film Friday: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

This film is the greatest film of all time. You must see this film. Indeed, they should force school children to watch it. Forget the original, the new The Day The Earth Stood Still, staring Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, imparts just the kinds of values we need in this horrible, capitalist world.

** spoiler alert **

The Day The Earth Stood Still begins when the fascist pigs grab Demi Moore... er, Jennifer Connelly. Connelly plays a scientist, but the good kind. She doesn’t make weapons or work for the military industrial complex or for evil corporations, she works at a nice northeastern university. And her students love her! Oh she’s wonderful. She’s a liberal who speaks her mind. She speaks truth to power, she drives a Prius (actually it’s a Honda but it looks like a Prius), and she’s raising a little African-American child (his father died in one of George Bush’s wars).

What? Oh no no, he wasn’t that kind of soldier, Dr. Jennifer never would have married that kind of soldier. He was an engineer. He went “over there to build” stuff. And while they don’t specifically tell us what he was building, I’m sure it was schools, not roads or power plants or oil refiners or other environmentally unfriendly structures.

Anyway, the kid. . . I don’t recall his name, but it doesn’t matter. He’s so gosh darn cute! He’s like a young Obama! The moment I saw him, I said, man I hope he saves us all. But, as I said, before we get to little Obama, the film begins with the fascists. After the fascists grab Dr. Jennifer, we learn that a spaceship is headed straight for New York City. In addition to Dr. Jennifer, the fascists have grabbed a rainbow coalition of scientists. I think the fascists are trying to kill this rainbow coalition because they're taking them to New York City and we're told the spacecraft is moving so fast it will wipe out New York City. So when the evil military claims it wants these scientists to “observe” the million megaton-explosion from the air. . . a few hundred feet above the city, I can only assume this is a complex attempt to kill these scientist. Isn't that just like the military?

Anyway, the ship turns out to be a huge glowing marble. From the marble comes a creature. And just as Dr. Jennifer walks up to it to speak to it, an evil soldier shoots the creature. Long story short, it turns out to be Al Gore. OMG he plays this role perfectly -- he wanders around like a wooden robot saying amazing things so prophetic I honestly had a hard time understanding them. I felt I learned so much watching him in this film. Al Gore wants to speak to our leaders at the United Nations, but Hillary Clinton won’t let him. She's the Secretary of Defense and she's rotten. She's no Dick Cheney, but she's no Obama either.

Dr. Jennifer helps Al Gore escape and they ride around the country in her Prius. Al Gore meets some old Chinese dude who turns out to be one of Al Gore’s people. He says we’re an evil race and we can’t change, so while he loves us, we need to be exterminated. Al Gore agrees. Al Gore then goes to a swamp in New Jersey where he finds a glowing bubble that isn’t radioactive waste. When he touches it, some of the animals on the planet get transported into space. Al Gore then explains that the world has reached a tipping point and evil humans are on the verge of permanently destroying the planet. So he’s come to wipe us out to protect the Earth, because it’s one of the few planets in the universe that can sustain life.

Meanwhile, there’s this evil general or colonel. I’m not sure which. He’s got a moustache which reminds me of the old West, or that guy from the Village People, and I think he keeps yelling “yee haw!” and “kill it” but that could be my imagination. He tries several times to blow up Al Gore’s marble in New York because that's exactly what the military would do -- try to destroy an alien race for no reason whatsoever! I hate them so much.

In the process of trying to destroy a robot that came with Al Gore, the military unleashes a killer storm of metallic insects from inside the robot that eat everything. Al Gore explains to Dr. Jennifer (after a quick visit with Dr. John Cleese), that there is nothing he can do. And then the miracle happens. The fascists capture Dr. Jennifer, leaving Al Gore with little Obama. Little Obama explains that while he originally wanted to kill Al Gore when he first saw him, because he thought Al Gore was a danger, he no longer wants to kill Al Gore now that he realizes that Al Gore means us no harm and has no choice but to kill us.

Weeeeeellll, this little admission was all it took for Al Gore to see the error of his ways. He now decides not to destroy the human race. At first, I felt let down by this. But then Al Gore promised there would be a price! Long story short, Al Gore stops the insects and saves us all. But to do so, he wipes out all of mankind’s evil mechanical creations. No more cars, no more machines, no loud ambulances or fire trucks, no more trains or ships delivering "goods" and "food" to evil consumers. I don’t know what happened to the airplanes, but I guess they all landed ok.

In the end, you can’t help but feel hopeful for the future! This was an environmentalist dream come true, a super race come to save the planet from us and show us a better way! Dare I say, it almost felt enviro-pornographic! Oh, it was beautiful.

Wait a minute. . .

While it is true there would be no Starbucks anymore, there also wouldn’t be any food staples. Hmm. Mass starvation is no big deal, I guess. After all, they’re only humans. But those hungry humans are going to eat every animal they can find. And without all of the machinery to help them, they’re going to need a lot more farmland to survive. Shoot. That means they’re going to cut down the forests. . . at least those that are left after they cut down all the trees for firewood. Wow, that’s a lot of carbon that’s going to be released. I’ll bet they won’t even worry about the delta smelt! And what about nationalized health care? There really won’t be any health care. Even things like antibiotics will only be available to the lucky few who know the right kind of doctor that they can barter with.

That sucks.

You know what? Now that I think about it, this film sucked too. Wooden acting (if you can call it acting), a pathetic plot that made little sense, constant blasting of the same liberal bullsh*t message, indifferent sets, effects and costuming, contradictions galore, and it will bore you to tears.

Up yours Al Gore.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

TV Review: The Prisoner (2009)

As I said last week, I’m not sure I like the original The Prisoner, but it is compelling. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Patrick McGoohan demonstrated a good deal of genius in creating it. Not so the remake (our first 9/11 fable). Indeed, the remake of The Prisoner shows the danger of letting small minds try to recreate something genius. They tried to remake the Venus de Milo and ended up with a department store mannequin. Sad.

** spoiler alert **

Let’s get the reviewy stuff out of the way. The acting was good. The set was acceptable. The story moved along, but kept losing my interest. The director kept hinting at wanting to do interesting things, but then abandoned them so quickly that I honestly felt that he was more a coward than a hack. The story meandered and was not nearly as deep as they hoped it would be. Do I recommend it? Not really. Did I hate it? No, but I don’t respect it either.

Here’s the problem. They lost everything good about the original: its intensity, its sense of mystery, its thematic clarity, and its willingness to take risks.

Let’s start with risk taking. The primary reason the original stood out from the television crowd was its willingness to do strange things. As I said before, you had episodes that made no sense or that seemed to be from different shows, moments that the audience would not understand until an hour later, and critical information you were never told. Most interestingly, you were never let into either side’s mind, neither Number 2 nor Number 6, so you had to wait for the story to unfold before you could fully grasp what was going on and who was winning.

In the remake, what you see is what you get. This is very standard modern story telling. It is more akin to an X-Files episode than a Prisoner episode. If there is mystery, it is simply in that they haven’t revealed a motive, a method, or a key player yet. There is no deeper mystery here. And there is nothing that one would consider surreal. . . at least that hasn’t been explained as the chemical manipulation of Number 6’s mind. Yawn.

Let me take that back. There is nothing surreal until you get to the last twenty minutes of the final episode. But what happens then is little more than trickery. Intentionally created confusion masquerading as depth or meaning, with issues appearing out of the blue, tacked onto the story like a long, lost twin appearing in the final ten pages of a bad mystery novel. Indeed, most of what happens in the final twenty minutes has little to do with the prior three hours, and it seems mostly intended to inject an undeserved sense of mystery or surreality to hide the fact that the show really doesn't have a point or an interesting explanation for the village.

The intensity is gone too. And that’s my biggest beef. In the original, Number 6 was a man of action. He was a spy, a type A personality, who had been brought to the village to be broken. And true to his character, rather than merely accept being broken, he set about breaking the men (and women) who tried to break him. This made for a very intense show with sharp acting, sharp dialog, and a cat and mouse aspect that kept you on the edge of your seat. It was a chess game of the highest order.

In the remake, Number 6 is a loser. He’s the kind of guy who plays in a grunge band and whines about how hard it is to be him. He didn’t like his job, so he quit. He kind of wants to leave the village, but not enough to really try. He thinks everyone’s lying to him, but he doubts himself. He has done little to fight back. And unlike the original Number 6, who was alone and had to make his own chances, the new Number 6 seems content to let others take care of things for him. Yawn. . . oh, excuse me.

Even worse, they’ve made Number 2 bland. In the original, Number 2’s job was to break Number 6. It became an obsession for most of them. And when they failed, they would be severely punished, usually with execution. The new Number 2 doesn’t really want anything from Number 6. Indeed, Number 2, rather than being a manipulator par excellence with a mission, has been made into a petty tyrant who simply enjoys bossing people around and making them bend to his will. He has been remade into a combination Mad Hatter and Erich Honecker -- and indeed, the village is a fair approximation of East Germany.

In fact, we’re told that “Number 2” isn’t even an indication of a more sinister Number 1, but instead represents a title chosen from humility, to let everyone know that Number 2 could be Number 1 except that he is a humble man. Snore. . . oh, sorry, I must be tired.

Moreover, the focus of the show has shifted largely from Number 6 to Number 2. Rather than watching Number 2 struggle to escape (because he’s not), we are treated to the mysterious home life of Number 2 and his strangely drugged wife and closeted-homosexual son. They should have renamed this As The Village Turns.

Would it surprise you that Number 2 is misunderstood?

And that brings me to the weak and muddled message. The new Prisoner is the first 9/11 fable. The imagery is inescapable: two ephemeral glass towers that look like the World Trade Center towers, terrorism in New York, a seagull turning into a passenger plane, and then repeated talk about people giving up their freedoms and privacy in exchange for safety, read: Patriot Act. They even point to how governments use placebos (the passing out of hogs to prevent atmospheric disturbances) to make people feel that they are being protected. And the message. . . wait for it. . . is that we are giving up our freedoms and our privacy in exchange for these false promises of security, and it’s changing us. Yeah, ok, I agree. But that’s not earth shattering, yet the writer seems to think he’s the first to stumble upon this issue.

Further, the writer seems incapable of sticking with a single theme. In addition to the above, he delves into the family life of Number 2. He points out that people abuse power, and that no one (not even family) is safe from those with power. He worries about the nature of love. He makes points about the use of propaganda or manipulation of people through brainwashing or chemicals. What is real, what is imaged? How to deal with loss. Etc. He makes so many points (and discards them so quickly) that you begin to wonder if you aren’t watching his manifesto and if you shouldn’t slip some aluminum foil on your head during a commercial break.

In any event, the clarity of the original, despite its unanswered conundrum aspect, gave it strength. You knew what was at stake. The muddied shotgun style approach of the remake exposes its biggest weakness -- it talks a lot, but says nothing, and there’s no reason for us to care.

Finally, we come to the real bad guy: the modern day, generic, all purpose bad guy that lazy and untalented writers love to use. . . the faceless corporation. Corporations are the poor writer’s crutch. They are large and rich and involved in many activities (and apparently all have military divisions, right?), so there is no need to explain how they got their hands on henchmen, military weaponry, and super-secret technology and drugs unknown to man. But even better, they can be made out as evil without the writer ever having to point their finger at any person, ethnic group, race, religion or actual ideology. It’s the perfect bad guy for a writer who is unable to come up with a realistic bad guy. And that’s what we have here, a writer who wants to talk about society but doesn’t know how, so he made an evil corporation the bad guy and assigned them all of our sins. Pathetic.

The Prisoner is not a remake of The Prisoner, it is a weak X-Files movie. It treads no new ground. It has no real mysteries. It has little to say and is afraid to say what it does. And the ending. . . will not surprise you.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

TV Review: The Prisoner (1967-1968)

With a remake of The Prisoner starting Sunday night on AMC (starring James Caviezel and Ian McKellen), I thought I’d take a chance to talk about the original before we review the remake.

Egad!

** spoiler alert **

The Prisoner is a 17-episode British television series created by, and starring, Patrick McGoohan (a one time candidate to play James Bond). At its core, it’s a sort of spy story on crack (though I guess LSD would be more appropriate). In many ways, The Prisoner highlights the best and worst aspects of the 1960’s postmodern film culture. For example, while it is both very creative and willing to take huge risks, it can also be nonsensical and esoteric. Allow me to explain.

The opening sequence of The Prisoner has become iconic. As the intro music blares, you see Patrick McGoohan, a British spy, angrily resign. He rants and he raves to his boss, though, we don’t know what he’s saying. As he storms out of the building, we see a vast computer network process his retirement. He returns home and begins to pack. But a man dressed as an undertaker shoots gas through the keyhole of his home and knocks him out. When he wakes up, he finds himself in what appears to be a resort. This is the village.

He has been assigned a number, Number 6, in place of a name. You then hear the following famous exchange done as a voice over, while you watch McGoohan try to escape the village:
McGoohan: Where am I?
Number 2: In the village.
McGoohan: What do you want?
Number 2: Information.
McGoohan: Whose side are you on?
Number 2: That would be telling. . . We want information. . . information . . . INFORMATION!
McGoohan: You won’t get it!
Number 2: By hook or by crook, we will.
McGoohan: Who are you?
Number 2: The new Number Two.
McGoohan: Who is Number One?
Number 2: You are Number Six.
McGoohan: I am not a number, I am a free man!
Number 2: (laughs)

At the end of this exchange, McGoohan is knocked out. He awakes within his new home within the village, and the episode begins.

Over The Prisoner’s seventeen episode run, a succession of Number Twos (the most memorable being Leo McKern and Alexis Kanner) and Angelo Muscat, the omnipresent midget butler, do their best to break McGoohan, while McGoohan does his best to escape the village. It’s a battle of wills between an unbreakable man and an Orwellian government intent on breaking him.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to tell you more. Not that I can’t give you specific details, it’s just that they don’t make much sense. The Prisoner was very surreal and very experimental. You get episodes that make no sense. Episodes that inexplicably start as westerns or in Napoleonic garb. One or two go black and white. Some episodes start straight forward enough, only to get stranger and stranger until you find out at the end it was all a story being told by one person to another. Sometimes, you’re wondering if you’re on the wrong channel.

Yet, it's surprisingly compelling. It’s a puzzle without enough pieces to let you figure out what the image is, but with just enough to give you some good guesses, and that keeps you hungry for more.

I must admit that, having seen the ending several times, I still don’t understand what was really going on. I can give you some interpretations, but I don’t know. I suppose McGoohan might have imagined the entire village, that this was simply a view into the insanity taking place within his mind as he struggled to give meaning to a life that suddenly no longer had meaning? I suppose we could take it at face value that it’s just a village designed to isolate important people when they’ve outlived their usefulness. . . people who know too much to remain free or people who need to be broken to satisfy the curiosity of an Orwellian government? It could be that the undertaker killed him, and this is his own personal hell? Or it could all mean nothing at all. I don’t know, but I do know that it’s sufficiently memorable and puzzling that I’ve been thinking about it (off and on) for years.

Frustratingly, McGoohan has remained silent on the show’s meaning: “If one gives answers to a conundrum it is no longer a conundrum.” Yeah, I was afraid he’d say that.

In the end, The Prisoner is one of the strangest shows I’ve ever seen. I don’t know that I like it, but I find it incredibly compelling.

Will Sunday night’s remake live up to the original?

That would be telling. . .

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Film Friday: Dark City (1998)

Today we take a look at an amazing and underrated science fiction flim: Dark City. Written and directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, I, Robot), Dark City is a combination film-noir crime story and creepy, shocking science fiction story, which explores what makes us who we are. If you haven’t seen Dark City, you should. You should also check out Roger Ebert's commentary on the DVD -- it will give you a whole new level of respect for the film, for filmmaking as a craft, and even for Ebert's knowledge of films.

** spoiler alert **

One of the things that makes science fiction so great compared to other genres is its ability to ask truly deep philosophical questions without becoming a dry dissertation. Indeed, unlike most genres, science fiction can weave these questions seamlessly into storylines and use fantastic devices, creatures, or environments to play out the possibilities without ever losing the story element that people expect in entertainment. Dark City does this expertly. It also has a first rate plot, characters, and sets, plus its story moves quickly and surprisingly, and it keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish.
The Plot
Have you ever woken up next to the body of a dead hooker? John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) has. But did he kill her? As he struggles to wake up, the phone rings. He answers it. He is warned to run as men are coming for him. He flees. But Murdoch can’t remember who he is, and he’s haunted by images of a beach. We soon meet Murdoch’s wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and police detective Bumstead (William Hurt), who is tracking Murdoch. But things are not right with them either. This case doesn't add up to Bumstead, but he can’t put his finger on why. The detective who worked the case before him has gone insane.

As the story unfolds, we learn that the world is not what it seems. It is always night. At midnight, everyone falls asleep -- except for Murdoch and the very strange Dr. Schreber (Keifer Sutherland), the man who warned John to flee. While they sleep, the city changes around them. Buildings expand or shrink. And a group of dark leather clad albinos (the Strangers) roam the city, and with the help of Schreber, inject people with a strange mixture. When the people awake, they have new lives -- new jobs, new families, new memories.

We soon learn the city is a sort of lab. The Strangers are manipulating people’s lives in an attempt to understand the human soul. To that end, they are mixing people’s personalities, their emotions, and their lives, and monitoring the results. Murdoch, who seems to have some of the powers possessed by the Strangers, is the only one who can stop them.
Are We Ourselves?
Beyond the plot itself, Dark City explores the question of what makes us who we are? Most of us think we know who we are, but do we really? Are we the product of our memories or are we something more? Are you sure? What would happen if the next time you woke up, you no longer had your memories, would you be the same person or would someone new emerge? What if rather than having no memories, you had someone else’s memories? Would you become that person?

Dark City delves into this question head on. Night after night, the Strangers mix people’s memories, adding a little of this to a little to that. One day you’re a bank President, the next you’re a cop. One day you have a family, the next you’ve always been single. This process is called “imprinting.” As the story develops, Murdoch and Bumstead learn about the imprinting. They realize that nothing they know is true, i.e. all their memories are fake. Indeed, they know nothing at all. They don’t know where they are, what year it is, or who they are. Even their families are not really their families.

Bumstead is a cop. . . or is he? He has no idea who he was the day before last, or the one before that, or before that. And now that he knows this, is he still a cop just because he was a cop when he realized the truth? He acts that way. In fact, despite suddenly realizing that the whole world is fake, he continues to act in the exact way he's been programmed. Perhaps that's the only way for him to remain sane? Murdoch wakes up next to the dead hooker, holding a bloody knife. Did he kill her? He doesn't actually know. But does it matter since he was given the motivation to kill her? Does that make him a killer or just a tool? And is there a difference?

Interestingly, when Murdoch learns that his memories have all been implanted, he consciously rejects those memories because he knows they are fake. BUT, he clings to one memory in particular from “his” youth. This memory, of a beach, obsesses him -- even though he has no way to know if it’s any more real than the other memories (and likely isn’t). He also finds himself drawn to Emma, even though she is not really his wife. Thus, on the one hand, he consciously rejects the idea that he has become what the Strangers made him, i.e. he rejects the idea that his memories make him who he is and he claims to have the power to define himself, BUT he ultimately builds his new life upon foundations that the Strangers put in place and thereby proves that he remains a prisoner of those memories.

And that gets us to the take away question from the film. Are we simply a collection of the things we've learned and experienced, or are we something separate and apart? If you took away those memories and experiences would we still be us or would be become someone new? Oh, and lest you think this question is just a theoretical musing, it is worth noting that science is catching up to science fiction. Not only has it become apparent that you can plant memories in people, but science developed a pill that wipes out specific memories.

Perhaps the world of Dark City isn’t as far off as it seems?

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Film Friday: Halloween (1978)

I enjoy Halloween. I like Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis, and I enjoy John Carpenter’s style. The story is good enough, if you switch your brain to “off” before starting the film. And it’s just creepy enough to enjoy. So why do I have so much ill will for this film? Because Halloween gave birth to the modern slasher flick, and it established every one of the genre’s stupidest conventions.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Halloween is the story of Michael Myers. He kills people. Why? Because they were there? The film doesn’t know why and doesn’t really care. As the film opens, Myers escapes from fifteen years of custody and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois, where he apparently intends to kill anyone who appears on film. His sister, Jamie Lee Curtis, appears on camera. So does Donald Pleasence, who is ostensibly hunting Michael Myers, though really he seems more interested in running around town proclaiming that he is "too late" to do whatever it was he was planning. For the next 91 minutes, Myers kills everyone except Curtis and Pleasence. Roll the credits.
So What’s The Problem?
My problem with Halloween stems from the total nonsense Carpenter uses to create his villain and the fact this nonsense became the template for slasher flicks. For example:
• We begin with Myers’ character. He has no personality or emotions and he does not speak. He is, for lack of a better word, functionally catatonic. Yet, he's also somehow a genius who can plot revenge, track people down, and do things he never learned to do (like drive) with little or no difficulty.

• Moreover, despite being effectively catatonic, Myers has the moves of a hyper-trained special forces operative. . . maybe even a Hollywood-style ninja. How?

• He's stronger than ten people, even though he’s never worked out in his life, and he cannot be brought down by mere physical injury. Indeed, no matter how much you wound him, he shows no signs of being wounded. Nor can he be killed because he’s crazy and crazy makes to invulnerable to bullets. Yeah, that makes sense.

• Strangely, Myers has the ability to know where characters will be in the next scene. Indeed, somehow he manages to place himself perfectly to surprise any character that separates from the others.

• He also has the ability to hide in plain sight, to hide behind objects that are too small to conceal his body, and to appear and disappear through closed doors and windows without making a sound. He's ultra swift and super silent.

• He also can move vast distances instantly, e.g. between houses on different blocks. Not to mention he can find the home of the person a character is talking to on the phone. . . as if he has callee id.
Does any of this make any sense? No. But for Carpenter it didn’t have to. Carpenter wasn’t making a movie with a complete story. He was making a series of murderous vignettes, which he then strung together to form a movie. We accept the lack of coherence between the vignettes because Carpenter has enough talent as a filmmaker to disguise those problems and because he gives us a strange enough villain that we spend more time pondering what he is doing rather than trying to determine how he's doing it.

The whole film is gibberish. But that wouldn't bother me if this has just been a one-off film. But it didn't stay a one-off. The formula escaped and became the template for every stupid slasher flick that followed over the next thirty years. Ug.
So What Does Halloween Mean?
Halloween has no meaning. Some have suggested Halloween is a social critique of the immorality of young people in the 1970s. They point out that Myers’ victims were all sexually active and abusing alcohol or pot when they were killed. By comparison, the lone survivor, Curtis, was chaste and innocent. . . except for that scene where she was smoking pot. So scratch that one.

More interestingly, the film may have been intended to include a feminist message. The producer, Debra Hill, was a feminist. And she and Carpenter often included “strong roles” for women in Carpenter’s horror movies. The role of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is cited as being one of these roles because Curtis survives and she does so with her own wits. But if that’s true, then the fact that Halloween became the template for the ensuing wave of slasher flicks should come as a special disappointment to feminists. Indeed, modern slasher flicks are often about as misogynistic as rap videos -- using heavy doses of T&A to put a lot male A's in the seats.

In the end, I think that it’s impossible to get any meaning out of Halloween because the movie makes no sense when you break it down. The truth is this film is nothing but exploitation. Carpenter set out to create a film based entirely on shock rather than horror, a film with no intellectual pretenses, a film that would scare you simply by shouting “boo” over and over again, and he succeeded beyond measure. Indeed, the $320,000 they spent on this film turned into $55,000,000 in gross revenue. But that's about all the depth you'll really find.
The Nature of Evil -- The Anti-Liberal Evil
So what does this film tell us about the nature of evil? Not a whole heck of a lot, with one exception. I would argue Myers’ character is a response to the prior two decades of liberalism. How’s that for unexpected!

In the 1960s and 1970s, liberals constantly whined about root causes "making" people into criminals. Everyone had to have a reason, something that pushed them to become evil. Liberals just would not admit that some people were simply rotten. Myers is one of the first human character in many years (probably since In Cold Blood (1967)) who was evil because that was his nature. He wasn’t rebelling. He wasn’t backed into a corner or exploited. He wasn’t abused as a child. He wasn’t drugged or programmed by the government. He was just evil. In fact, the biggest disappointment of the remake in 2007, directed by Rob Zombie, other than the dreadful quality of the film, was that Zombie explained Myers’ evil as being the result of his coming from a broken home and being bullied in school. Boo hoo.

So in the end, Halloween was an ok movie that should have slowly faded into movie history. Sadly, it didn’t. Instead, it became a template for slasher flicks. And slowly, but surely, this template has come to dominate the horror genre because it takes no talent to write or direct a knock-off of this film. And that’s Michael Myers’ greatest evil.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Film Friday: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a seminal movie in the horror genre. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. Not only was this one of the first horror movies to lift the genre from kiddie fare to more adult horror, but it is one of the few horror movies that achieved the intellectual potential normally associated with top notch science fiction. Plus, it's a really good movie.

** spoiler alert **

Filmed on a $114,000 budget by a Pittsburgh-based advertising man with no prior experience in the movie industry, Night of the Living Dead became one of the all time classic horror movies. It’s grossed more than $42 million ($690 million in 2008 dollars), spawned numerous sequels and given birth the horror sub-genre of zombie movies.
The Plot
Night of the Living Dead begins in a cemetery where two young people have come to visit the grave of their father. As they return to their car, a small number of individuals stumble and meander toward them. Barbara (Judith O’Dea), the sister, is spooked by this. Her brother Johnny is not, and he teases her with the now famous line: “they’re coming to get you Barbara.” And they do. Soon Johnny is dead and Barbara is running for her life. Barbara stumbles upon a seemingly deserted house. When she finds a corpse inside, she attempts to flee the house, but is stopped by Ben (Duane Jones), a black man. Ben warns her of more zombies outside the house and begins boarding up the entire house. Soon they are joined by others, including a couple that is hiding their sick daughter in the basement -- she’s been bitten. The rest of the movie involves this group of people trying to decide what to do now that the dead have risen and are walking the earth.
The Movie’s Place In History
Night of the Living Dead deserves its place in history. The movie is creepy, even by modern standards, and well acted -- even though the actors improvised most of the dialog. It was also ultra cutting edge. Indeed, at the time, horror movies were essentially aimed at children. The monsters were fake, there was no gore, the heroes acted like dime store John Waynes, and the government swooped in to the rescue in the nick of time. This one was different. The gore (though practically non-existent by modern standards) was harshly criticized at the time. The monsters were real. The danger was real. The theme was harsh, and the acting dramatic rather than melodramatic. This was the stuff of nightmares and the end result was a movie that was not suitable for children -- and many critics were outraged.

The movie also took a huge risk in making Duane Jones the hero. Indeed, Jones was one of the first blacks to play a lead role as a hero in a movie aimed at white audiences. It was not at all clear that white audience would accept a black hero, except in movies that specifically addressed race -- like In The Heat Of The Night. But they did. In fact, in many ways, this movie expressed Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” sentiment better than other movies of the era because the other characters did not make Ben’s race an issue, i.e. they simply accepted him as a person. Interestingly, Jones bears most of the credit for creating the role because he refused to play the character in the way it had originally been conceived, which had been of a much lower class.

This movie also deserves its place in history because it created the zombie movie genre, which continues to turn out a near-copy of Night of the Living Dead each year.
Why Zombies Are Terrifying?
So what makes zombies terrifying? For one thing, they present a high level of danger. They are difficult to spot in a crowd, because they appear basically human. They are relentless, they do not need sleep or rest like we do. Simply wounding them won’t stop them and they only need to bite (or scratch) you to defeat you. And they have math on their side because their numbers increase exponentially. This puts the entire human race in danger once you have one zombie. (Also, while we used to find comfort in their slow speeds, 28 Days Later took that away from us when it introduced fast-twitch zombies.)

But more fundamentally, zombies frighten us because they represent the destruction of the thing we cherish the most -- our individuality. Being self-aware, the one thing in the universe of which we are absolutely certain is our own existence. Along with this comes the sense that we are unique, something we prize highly -- even people who follow the herd in all aspects of their lives still think of themselves as unique individuals. Further, we believe that we are more than the sum of our parts and that this extra bit -- call it a soul or spirit or simply "I" -- will live on after our bodies fail. The prospect that this might not be true terrifies us. And this is where zombies strike. One bite from a zombie can take this all away, it can destroy the very thing that makes us what we are. That terrifies us because it represents a kind of total and permanent death that we fear more than anything else, i.e. zombies destroy the part of us we thought could not be destroyed, and make us face the prospect of non-existence.
Nature of Evil
Finally we come to the nature of evil question. Are zombies evil? Actually, no. The force that created them can be evil, but the zombies themselves are not evil by most moral definitions because they don’t have free will and they lack any intent to do evil. Instead, they are acting purely on instinct, like sharks or the alien in Alien. We may not like what they do, but we really can’t call them evil.

Interestingly, zombie movies are not actually about zombies, they are about the relationships of the people who are running from the zombies. That makes zombie movies rather unique in the horror movie world. That’s also what keeps zombie movies fresh (or should): the fact that any number of dramas or social commentaries can be played out within a zombie movie. For example, The Night of The Living Dead has been said to be about either racism or the Vietnam War (though I don't actually buy into either theory). Shaun of the Dead, apart from being parody, is also a social statement about the zombie-like state of modern culture. And if you want an example of something that is essentially a zombie story, but hardly qualifies as horror, look to the Borg episodes (pre-Borg Queen) in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies seem to have been created by a natural force, i.e. there is no evil mastermind behind their rampage. None of the characters really qualify as evil either. But collectively, they manage to achieve some evil things. Indeed, it is rather clear that the humans have a tremendous advantage over the zombies. They are smarter and faster and they are securely locked in. The zombies have no ability to break down doors or walls, to use tools or fire, or to trick the humans outside. Thus, if the humans worked together, they could make the house secure until help arrived or other arrangements could be made. But they don’t work together because a raft of human emotions get in the way. Some are afraid, others are angry. One guy doesn’t like taking orders even though he clearly lacks the sense needed to pull through this crisis with his own faculties. And when the characters get angry or scared, they start sacrificing or endangering each other to protect themselves. Thus, the evil here is what happens to normal people when they find themselves under extreme pressure, i.e. when society breaks down. In effect, we become the monsters.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Film Friday: Prince of Darkness (1987)

Continuing our discussion of the nature of evil, today we turn to John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. This relatively unknown movie is one of my favorite horror movies and is possibly Carpenter’s best. What separates this movie from the pack is the clever manipulation of our emotions to generate fear and the use of intellectual horror to create a terrifying movie. In essence, it inspires helplessness.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
As an old priest dies, the last member of a forgotten order -- the Brotherhood of Sleep, Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is sent to wrap up his affairs. Pleasence discovers something in the basement of the closed church where the old priest lived as a caretaker: a glass cylinder containing a swirling green fluid. Pleasence calls upon Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong), an expert in subatomic physics. Wong agrees to bring a group of students from several scientific disciplines to examine the cylinder. This group includes Jameson Parker (Simon and Simon) and his love-interest Catherine (Lisa Blount).

As they begin their investigation, they learn the object does not obey the normal laws of physics, and it's locked from the inside. They also begin to experience the same dream whenever anyone takes a nap. This dream purports to be a warning from the future of something evil that emerges from the church. Meanwhile, Pleasence and Wong study the diary of the old priest, which identifies the green fluid as the Antichrist. And it’s alive.
What Sets This Movie Apart
What sets Prince of Darkness apart from other horror movies is that Carpenter seeks to generate emotional and intellectual terror rather than shock to drive this film.
Emotional Terror
To create emotional terror, Carpenter uses our fear of helplessness against us. He does this by putting the characters into a creepy setting, exposing them to danger of which we are aware, and then making them oblivious until it is too late.

Carpenter starts with a truly creepy setting: an old church. But, interestingly, he doesn’t cheat to make it creepy, as so many other horror movies do -- think about how many horror movies take place in decaying castles with rooms that scream “fire damage” or spaceships, e.g. the Event Horizon, decorated with black walls and random spikes sticking from the walls. Indeed, the church is exactly what you would expect. Its room are the right size and shape. The walls are painted like you would expect for an old church. The floors are made of wood and the furniture fits the decor. You wouldn’t want to live there, but you wouldn’t run for your life either. This is the kind of building we’ve all been in and can relate to and that gives the movie an instant authenticity that so many horror movies sacrifice in trying to create their ambiance.

Carpenter then makes the church feel claustrophobic by making us feel trapped. When the scientists arrive at the church, we see homeless people gathering outside. As the movie runs, more and more gather, and soon we realize there will be no escaping the church. Yet, we recognize the danger long before the characters do. This not only triggers our fear of being trapped, but it also triggers our natural instinct to help others. But since we cannot help them, we feel helpless, which brings on a sense of fear.

Carpenter then plays on our fear of being alone, our fear of losing our identities, and our fear of betrayal. As the thing in the basement begins to take people over one at a time, we find ourselves terrified as we helplessly watch unsuspecting students and scientists milling around as the possessed people approach them. There is little more terrifying than watching a monster slowly walking toward an unsuspecting character. What’s worse, everything that happens is avoidable if only the characters could put all of their knowledge together, but they cannot -- only we can, and we cannot help them. This fills each scene with terror as we can see the danger standing there in plain sight, but the characters simply cannot see it for themselves. Thus, the film fills us with a sense of helplessness in the face of this terror.

Also, the entire time, Carpenter cleverly uses the soundtrack to manipulate us. The music sits entirely in the background and you barely notice it. Yet, Carpenter uses the bass to drive your heart rate -- just as sitcoms use laugh tracks to trigger laughter. In this way, he expertly controls the tension of each scene without the audience even realizing it.
Intellectual Horror
In addition to playing on our emotions, Carpenter offers genuine intellectual horror -- something increasingly rare in horror movies. Intellectual horror comes not from shock, but from finding something that terrifies the audience deeply and putting them into a state of mind where their deepest fears could be realized. In this regard, Carpenter aims right at the heart of our belief system: be it religion or science.

What Pleasence discovers in the diary of the dead priest is fascinating and terrifying. Pleasence discovers that Christ was real, though he was merely an advanced being, not the son of God. His purpose in coming to Earth was to warn mankind that an evil creature, a sort of Anti-God, was trying to break into the universe. To help this Anti-God achieve that goal, there was an Antichrist (the son of the Anti-God) who would open a doorway. But Jesus trapped the Antichrist in the cylinder and gave the cylinder to the human race to guard.

This discovery causes Pleasence to lose his faith. He realizes this Anti-God is real evil, and it horrifies him that the church decided mankind wasn't ready for this knowledge and decided instead to treat evil as a theoretical concept to be found within each of us. Consequently, not only is his theology premised on a lie, but mankind has failed to heed the warning of Jesus and now stands unprepared to combat this evil.

But, at the same time, the movie tells us that science is wrong as well. Not only are the rational scientists given undeniable proof of the supernatural, but they are confronted with the realization that everything they thought was true about the universe is false, and the laws of physics which they thought controlled the universe are in fact meaningless. Indeed, this creature obeys no laws of physics. Interestingly, this is essentially how science would define “evil” if it were asked -- a lack of order or structure to the universe.

Accordingly, we are confronted with a world in which the things we rely upon to explain the world -- religion and science -- are suddenly shown to be false. Intellectually, there can be little more terrifying than realizing that nothing we know is true. Not to mention that we now know there is something nightmarish waiting to break into our universe and there are fates worse than death.

In the middle of this, Carpenter raises questions of self-sacrifice. What would you do to save the world? And to what could you condemn another person to save the world? Moreover, Carpenter smartly lets the characters engage in discussions of theology and scientific theory throughout the film. Thus, he puts the audience into the right mindset to consider these issues as they arise -- unlike most horror movies which simply dump these questions on the audience unexpectedly at the end.
The Dream
Finally, we must mention the dream, which Carpenter uses expertly. First, by having everyone have the same dream, we grasp that the dream must be something other than everyone just having nightmares, i.e. it is a real warning. Secondly, by letting the dream unfold in pieces, Carpenter gives the audience time to speculate as to its meaning and how it will finish. When you let the audience fill in the blanks, as Carpenter does, they will always find something more terrifying than you can present because they will fill in with the things that scare them personally. But most importantly, Carpenter uses the dream to raise the odds the characters face. In a normal horror movie, good will defeat evil unless evil achieves some goal. But here, we know from the dream that a future exists where evil has prevailed. Thus, rather than fighting to prevent something that is in doubt, these characters are struggling to overturn something that appears inevitable. Intellectually, this raises the level of the challenge significantly. And since we’ve been told that neither science nor religion has the answer, we have no idea how we can fight this thing, i.e. we are left intellectually helpless. Thus, the audience spends the movie struggling to find the answer to avoid a nightmare that seems inevitable. That is intellectual terror.

Try finding that in a slasher flick!

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Monday, October 5, 2009

TV Review: Stargate Universe (2009 - 2011)

I’m a big fan of Stargate SG-1. I wasn’t always. There was something about the look of the show that kept me away for years; it felt cheaply made. But one day I gave it chance. The first season was weak, but soon I was hooked. With great characters, a fantastic sense of humor, and writers who dealt with the standard sci-fi themes and clich├ęs in ways that were truly innovative and much deeper than anything I’d seen on other shows, SG-1 became one of my favorite shows.

As a pleasant aside, SG-1 always displayed very conservative values, and it never preached the liberalism that poisons so much modern sci-fi, but that’s for another review.

Then came Stargate Atlantis. I liked Stargate Atlantis, though it always felt like a lazy rip-off of SG-1. The Wraith (a sort of vampire-like race) were much more menacing bad guys than the Goa’uld from SG-1, but the characters were copies of the SG-1 originals and the plot lines were by and large similar -- though, toward the end of the series, they produced some incredibly well done episodes.

So when I heard about Stargate Universe (a.k.a. SG-U) I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I certainly wouldn’t mind more Stargate on the old tube. But on the other hand, I figured it would be even more derivative.

Well, color me impressed!

** spoiler alert **

The first thing I noticed about SG-U was that it had a completely different look and feel to the originals. Gone were the obvious sound stages and in came a dynamic, realistic set. The lighting had changed, the camera angles changed, the editing changed and the pacing. It looked and felt a LOT like the new Battlestar Galactica, only not as dark (lighting-wise or theme-wise).

The next thing I noticed was the total absence of the knock-off characters. There was no Jack O’Neill, no Daniel Jackson, no Samantha Carter and no Teal’c. Instead, we were given Dr. Nicholas Rush, played by the very talented Robert Carlyle who I first noticed as Begbie in Trainspotting. What makes Rush so unique is that he’s an ass and a liar, and while he’s quite brilliant, he doesn’t know everything. Most interestingly, he’s not very likable and he doesn’t seem to care about the other people he’s stranded with him.

Now I know that most modern shows suffer from character drift, where the writers and actors consciously or subconsciously conspire to eventually turn every character into the sole-tortured, reluctant hero, but I get the feeling that Rush will be different. Carlyle does not strike me as an actor who needs to be loved. And if he keeps playing this character according to character, rather than trying to make him loved, this could be a fascinating show. He could become the most complex science fiction “hero” since the nihilistic Avon in Blake’s Seven.

The rest of the cast is acceptable, though some of the “drama” they’ve set up appears to be standard, requisite modern sci-fi drama: (1) the young, unprepared military guy suddenly thrown into a position of command -- who is conveniently the same age as “the hot chick,” (2) the angry chick who is going to buck the command structure, (3) the civilians v. the military control debate, and so on. But all in all, the show seems really fresh out of the gates.

The story line is fascinating too, though I wonder if you need a working knowledge of the first two series to get everything out of it? The person I watched the show with had not seen the first two series and, while they understood what was going on, they missed the really cool nuances and revelations that were being imparted.

For the uninitiated, the storyline went like this: a group of scientists and military-types are trying to use a device known as a stargate to go somewhere unknown. The stargate is a big ring with symbols on it that works like a phone -- you dial a number using the symbols and a wormhole appears, letting you travel instantly to the gate you’ve dialed. This group is aware of a gate address that uses nine symbols (chevrons), rather than the normal seven or eight, but does not know where it goes or quite how to dial that address. As they are experimenting, the base is attacked. Rush gets the gate to open to the nine chevron address and they have no choice but to evacuate the base to that address. The address turns out to be a many million year old spaceship (the Destiny) that is traveling across the universe. The ship is falling apart, and they can’t get back. Cue the series.

But what the uninitiated missed. . . First, you see every member of SG-1 except Teal’c. Jack O’Neill recruits Eli (the whiz kid). Daniel Jackson narrates the videotape that explains to Eli what is going on. Samantha Carter commands the spaceship defending the base when it is attacked. (A host of other appeared too.) The base is attacked by the Lucian Alliance, a ruthless dictatorship that appeared in the final two seasons of SG-1. The communication devices Rush claims to use were the subject of a several episode story arc that introduced the Ori (the last big bad guys -- a thinly-veiled reference to militant Islam) to the series. It also wasn’t explained what was so neat about finding a nine chevron address. Seven chevrons lets you move around the galaxy. After much trouble, SG-1 discovered that you could use an eighth chevron to move between galaxies -- though they only found an address for the Pegasus address. But all that is just flavor.

What was really interesting was that the show added a major piece to the show’s mythology: it explained how the Ancients built the stargate system. The Ancients are the first human-like race in the universe. The vanished long before we humans came along. The Ancients built the stargate system, but it was never explained how they got the gates around the universe. Now we know. They sent automated ships out across the universe to spot potentially habitable planets and plant stargates. Then they sent ships like the Destiny to go investigate those gates. The Destiny is automated, though it has a stargate on board (also a new idea -- a mobile gate) that would allow the Ancients to visit the ship. Though, with the ancients long gone, the ship has been abandoned for millions of years. Tre cool!

At this point, the show looks like it’s going to be quite good. Great effects, creative writing, fresh characters and new storylines. I’d recommend checking this one out. It’s on Friday nights on the Sci-Fi Channel.

You can also see the pilot here: Click Me.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Film Friday: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

“October is a rare month for boys.” It’s also one of my favorite months. And nothing says October more than leaves changing colors and horror movies. So let’s spend October looking at different horror movies and contemplating the nature of evil, beginning with an October classic that contains both horror and changing foliage: Something Wicked This Way Comes.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Based on a Ray Bradbury novel of the same name, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of Will Halloway, his friend Jim Nightshade and his father Charles Halloway (Jason Robards). Will is thirteen years old and it’s October. On a stormy night, Will and Jim see a spectral train roll into town. With it comes a mysterious carnival, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

The next day, strange and evil things begin to happen to the townsfolk. Their teacher, the elderly Ms. Foley is made young again. The one legged barkeeper is given a new leg and the vision of himself as a star football player. And so on. But none of these gifts come without a price, and the man holding the ticket is Mr. Dark (played by a then-unknown Jonathan Pryce). Dark is not human, though what he is we do not know. What we do know is that he is but one of the evil things behind the carnival (watch for Pam Grier as the Dust Witch), and they are here to feed. What do they feed upon? They feed upon our negative emotions. They feed upon greed and pride and vanity and regret. And the man in town with the biggest regret is Will’s father.

To overcome Dark, they must overcome their own negative emotions. This sets up a fascinating struggle, a battle of wills, between Dark and Will and Will’s father. Indeed, the scene in the library, where Dark tempts Will's father, is so incredibly well done that the scene alone makes it worth your time to see the movie. But there is much more to the movie as well.

In the end, the movie is not ingenious, it’s not terrifying (its effects are about equivalent to Tron, another Disney product of the era), and it did poorly at the box office ($19 million worldwide). Nevertheless, this is a wonderfully enjoyable movie. It is a movie oozing with childhood memories, both of friends, times and places long gone, and it speaks so well to the relationship between young boys and their fathers, and between fathers and their sons. It is the kind of movie that makes you wish you hadn’t wasted so much of your youth and makes you wonder if you aren’t wasting too much now. Roger Ebert, very accurately, called it “a horror movie with elegance.”
The Nature of Evil
Since we’re talking about the nature of evil this month, let’s see what Something Wicked has to say on the topic, shall we? Unlike modern horror movies where the evil character often is evil simply because that’s what the plot calls for and where the evil is merely sadism attendant to murder, Something Wicked offers something more.

Something Wicked presents the idea that evil is powerless against you unless you give it power over you. Dark has a physical body and he displays magical powers, and it would seem he could roam the city doing as much evil as he desired. Yet, he doesn’t. Indeed, as the movie progresses, it become clear he can’t. He only has power over those who have accepted his gifts.

And why would someone accept his gifts? Because they let their negative emotions control them. Ms. Foley longs desperately to be young and beautiful again. She accepts the gift of youth. The barkeeper longs to have both legs again and become a great football star. He accepts the gift of being made whole. The barber longs to have women desire him. He accepts the gift of virility. Each of these people surrender to their vanity, their lust, their regret and make themselves vulnerable. Each of them longs for something they knew they could never get, and each of them longs for it so much their own desires blind them to the evil of what is being offered. In other words, they want it so much they can't see it's too good to be true. And once they accept the gift, Dark has them in his power and they are lost.

But those who do not succumb, like Will and his father, remain protected from Dark. The are beyond his power. Indeed, as mentioned before, there is an incredible scene in the library where Dark comes to find the boys and to temp Will’s father. Will’s father deeply regrets he hasn’t been a stronger father figure for Will. When Will was young, Will fell into the river, but Will’s father was unable to save him because he couldn't swim. Another man saved Will. From that moment on, Will’s father has regretted his weakness and has lived in fear that Will views him as weak. That regret has caused him to waste many of the best years of Will’s life, hidden away in the safety of his library.

It is that regret, that allows Dark to temp Will’s father. But at the same time, in a scene played to perfection by an increasingly agitated Pryce, we see that Dark can tempt, but he cannot take. He has no power over Will’s father unless he accepts the gifts Dark offers. We see the same thing at other times in the film when Dark cannot temp lightening rod salesman Tom Fury and in the failure of Dark's efforts to force Fury to reveal critical information to Dark.

In this message, we find both hope and a warning. We find hope because we are told the power to protect ourselves from evil lies within ourselves. If we do not give in to our darker emotions, evil cannot touch us. But there is also a warning, in that many of the emotions we feel regularly can make us vulnerable (who hasn’t felt regret over something they did or did not do).

Further, there is another fascinating aspect about the evil presented in Something Wicked, which adds to this warning. Unlike so many evil characters today, Dark has an actual motivation -- in other words, he’s not evil merely to give the hero something to overcome or because the director wanted to present a sadistic character. As Pryce himself tells us, the carnival travels the world, only staying in any location until they are chased away by the coming storm that always follows them. During the short time they have in any location, they feed on the negative emotions of the locals. Indeed, it is those negative emotions that call them in the first place.

Thus, Something Wicked warns us that not only do we make ourselves vulnerable to evil if we surrender to our worst emotions, but we make ourselves a beacon for those who would exploit us. And in many ways, this is great advice for the real world. Would you fall for the snake oil salesmen you see on television -- everything from fake weight loss products, to phony impotence cures, to beer that promises to make you attractive to the opposite sex -- if you didn't let your regrets and desires weigh on your mind to the point where they could overwhelm your better judgment? Would you fall for a political demagogue if you didn't succumb to your own envy, your irrational fears or your hatreds? And isn't the fact that we do succumb what keeps these evil creatures coming after us.

That message is what makes Something Wicked a fascinating first shot for our October examination of the nature of evil. Not only does our own surrender to our own weaknesses make us vulnerable to evil, but it is that very vulnerability that gives evil fertile ground in which to grow. In effect, we create our own monsters.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Film Friday: The Game (1997)

The Game is an intelligent noir-style psychological thriller directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and staring a super talented cast led by Michael Douglas, Deborah Unger and Sean Penn. It is a fascinating character study hidden beneath the veneer of a twisty-puzzle movie. I recommend this movie highly, though for reason that I’ll explain, you might not “like” it.

** heavy spoiler alert **
Plot
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a high powered, ultra-rich, cynical, cold-hearted bastard investment banker. As the story begins, Van Orton’s brother Conrad (Sean Penn) arrives to give Van Orton a birthday gift -- a ticket to participate in a game. This is a personally-tailored, “experiential” game. Van Orton decides to give the game a try, but after an extensive application process, his application is rejected. Yet, no sooner does he receive this news than the game mysteriously begins and a series of strange events start. At first these are merely annoying and inconvenient, but soon Van Orton discovers this may be more than a game -- it may be a criminal scheme. Beyond that, I cannot give you any details except to say the twists and turns are stunning and the ending is fairly spectacular.
Why Does This Film Work?
The Game is an intelligent and ambitious movie which works on two levels: (1) as a big puzzle involving a series of twists that occur to Van Orton and (2) as a fascinating character study of Nicholas Van Orton.
The Game As A Puzzle
On the surface, The Game works well as a puzzle movie. The movie challenges the viewer to solve what is really happening to Van Orton as he moves from event to event. Is it just a game? Is it something more? What do they want with him? Who else is involved?

The movie is well shot and well written. The director creates a fascinating world in which the viewer is easily immersed. It is full of fascinating locations -- from wealthy mansions to rarely used streets of San Francisco. The characters are richly drawn, and the movie is packed with talented actors who are not stars, but should be quite familiar to you on sight, e.g. James Rebhorn (Independence Day, My Cousin Vinny), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Thirteenth Floor, West Wing), Tommy Flannigan (Smoking Aces, Gladiator), and dozens more.

The story is efficient and fast paced, and includes many interesting twists and turns. Twists have become all the rage in Hollywood. In fact, you’ll hear most movies advertised now as having a twist. The problem with twist movies, however, is that most twists are simply gimmicks, i.e. they aren’t organic to the story. In other words, there is little to no evidence in the story to support the twist until it happens, and there is no particular reason in the story that the twist must happen. The classic example of this comes from movies where we suddenly learn, right after the bad guy is defeated, that the hero’s boss or best friend is the real bad guy. There is nothing in the story to make this apparent during the movie and often you get the feeling that the director flipped a coin when he hit the point where he had to reveal who the real bad guy really was. . . heads, it’s the friend; tails, it’s the boss. This is just a gimmick designed to give an otherwise dull movie some depth.

But not all twists are cynically gimmicks. Indeed, some movies use twists to expertly add a second layer to the film -- like The Sixth Sense or The Matrix. The twists in these movies entirely change the motivations of the characters. Other excellent uses for twists include movies where the twist(s) is used to present the viewer with pieces to solve the puzzle presented by the movie. The Game is such a movie. Indeed, the twists here flow naturally from the actions of the characters as they move about their purposes. And this is one of those rare twist movies where you probably won’t see the twists coming, even though the evidence for them can be found as you go along.

However, there are two things the viewer needs to realize before the actions of the characters will make sense: (1) Nicholas Van Orton is not an average man, and (2) this is not a normal game:
• Van Orton is brilliant. He is highly capable and his mind makes connections easily. So when, for example, he recalls a particular character eating Chinese food, what follows is not a plot convenience, but is instead the type of investigation a particularly observant person would undertake. He is also incapable of passing up a challenge. He will not admit defeat. Thus, whereas a typical person might try to quit the game once it starts because it starts unpleasantly, Van Orton would rather fight than quit, which he would see as surrendering.

To help the viewer understand this, the director cleverly puts Van Orton through an application process for the game. In that five minute segment, the audience sees Van Orton insulted, tested, and challenged, and they get to see how his responses reveal his character. They see that he is precise, uptight and always in control, and that he will never admit defeat. They also see how the game people use their new-found knowledge of him against him to hook him firmly into the game by telling him that his application was rejected -- thus turning something he was only curious about into an obsession -- and to manipulate him.

• The viewer also must realize that this game is like no game any of us has ever played. Sure they employ dozens of helpers and spent a ton of money making the game work, but they are also charging Van Orton seven figures to play the game. And while some complain that Van Orton’s conduct is often too perfect for what the game controller need, the viewer should keep in mind there is always someone nearby to guide Van Orton should he go astray -- as multiple characters will admit during the film. What some would call coincidental was in fact the product of well-planned manipulation.
If you understand this, then The Game presents an interesting and entertaining ride.

Yet, many complain that they did not like the feel of the movie or that they disliked Van Orton.

The film is indeed starkly shot. Everything is dark, and everywhere are the trappings of extreme wealth, from the high class restaurants, to living rooms that look like steak houses, to the expensive cars, but nothing in the movie appears particularly comfortable. But this was a conscious choice by the director to use the scenery to echo the coldness of Van Orton’s personality. Indeed, the happier characters around him do not occupy such stark settings, and even Van Orton’s settings change throughout the movie. If one is simply looking for a chase movie then this will be disconcerting, but this isn’t just a chase movie.

Similarly, complaints that Van Orton is unlikable miss the fact that this movie is intended, in part, as a character study. If Van Orton was not cold-hearted and cynical, there wouldn’t be much for him to overcome. Let’s look at the character study aspect.
The Game As A Character Study
As noted above, The Game tells the story of Nicholas Van Orton, a high powered, cynical, cold-hearted bastard investment banker. Van Orton lives alone in a mansion, divorced his wife, estranged himself from his drug addict, never-do-well brother Conrad, and is making life miserable for anyone who crosses his path. He is not sadistic, he just lacks even a trace of compassion and tolerance. His world is orderly and he is unchallenged.

However, his character is really quite nuanced. Beneath the surface, Van Orton is haunted by the suicide of his father, who killed himself on Van Orton’s birthday as a child. The movie begins on Van Orton’s birthday. He has turned the same age as his father, when his father killed himself. And everyone seems to want to compare him to his father and to mention the suicide. But rather that trouble Van Orton, this only seems to annoy him. Clearly, he wants to believe that he is over the suicide, but is he really? It is possible that his need to stay in control at all times is an outgrowth of this?

Also, if he is such a rotten man, then why are we given clues that others love him and care deeply about him. And if that’s true, then what happened to change him?

As the movie goes on, Van Orton finds his life starting to spin out of control. Annoying things happen to him at first, then dangerous things. Soon the game is interfering with his work and making him question reality. He starts coming apart at the seams. And then things really start to go wrong.

That is the moment that the real Van Orton must shine through. Is he a petty tyrant who makes everyone around him fear him to get what he wants, or is he really a skilled, intelligent, capable man who can overcome challenges that face him? Can he preserver or will he give up? These are all questions that he must answer. As he does, we see his character slowly revealed and begin to change. Slowly, but surely, we see if he can become a better man as he is pushed to the edge.

And Michael Douglas is the perfect actor to pull this off. Not only do we easily believe the cold-hearted bastard that he portrays at the beginning of the film (sort of a humorless Gordon Gekko), but Douglas has the acting ability to make us feel the character’s growth, and to really feel for him as he finally swallows his pride and does things that are surprising.
Conclusion
All told, The Game is not the most pleasant movie, but it is an intelligent, entertaining and surprising movie. It has a great story and great characters. It is interestingly shot and full of depth, and it creates a fascinating world in which one can easily get immersed. I highly recommend it.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Scooby Doo Exposes The Politically Correct

I’m a huge fan of Scooby Doo. No doubt, you are as well. I mean seriously, how can you not love a talking dog? But Scooby Doo has been changing of late, and not for the better. Scooby Doo has become politically correct. Interestingly, these changes tell us a lot about the true nature of political correctness.

Political Correctness Is About Victimization And Thought Crime

We all know what political correctness means. The term “politically correct” was coined to describe the left’s attempts to force people to accept identify-politics by making it a thought crime to express any view that upsets the victimization cult. This cult, consisting of various self-anointed identity groups (e.g. black groups, women’s groups, disability advocates, homosexual activists, etc.), would challenge anyone who expressed a politically incorrect thought and would demand that they be sent to sensitivity training to “correct” their thinking. If they persisted, cult members would shout the person down and seek to have them fired from their jobs. The idea, as with all thought crimes, was that if people could be kept from expressing ideas, they would stop having those ideas. Stupid.

Well, as the minions of political correctness made their whiny ways into the real world, most found themselves slapped down hard by reality. But some found comfort among the fruits and nuts of academia, or in the weak-willed halls of corporate “human resource” departments, or in Hollywood, where the need to be worshiped mixes with leftwing politics like a nauseous potion. And having found a place where they could revel in their victimhood, they set about inserting that victimhood into films. . . and cartoons.

But a “strange” thing happened when these victims began spewing their idiocy onto celluloid -- they showed themselves to be hypocrites. Rather than being mere victims trying to end the oppression of others, they proved to be expert victimizers and hatemongers. Imagine that! Who could have guessed that a group of people that wants to control the thoughts of others and will happily destroy anyone who does not submit, could somehow turn out to be nasty, vindictive sh..ts?

And nothing exposes their hypocrisy better than what they’ve done to Scooby Doo.

Classic Scooby Doo

Before we can show how Scooby Doo has changed, let us first establish a baseline by describing what classic Scooby Doo was.

Scooby Doo is the story of four friends and their dog, who solve apparently supernatural mysteries. These friends include Fred, the well dressed preppy, athlete type. Daphne the hottie. Velma the nerd. Shaggy the sort of hippie. And Scooby, their talking dog.

Now the first thing to realize is that this is not a normal pairing of high school kids. They represent a cross section of school cliques that would typically despise each other. But instead, this group really were fast friends. They cared about each other, they were intensely loyal, they worked together extremely well, and they treated each other with respect. In that regard, Scooby Doo presented a hopeful vision of the future, of a time when even high schoolers would stop forming cliques and would all just get along.

Moreover, none of these characters fit the well known stereotypes. Fred, despite being handsome and athletic, was also very intelligent and friendly. He was brave and loyal, and he treated his friends with respect. Velma, the nerd, was actually the co-leader of the group. She was smart, clever and brave, as well. Daphne, the hottie, was stylish and personally attractive, and she also was smart, brave and capable. She was at times clumsy, earning her the nickname “Dangerprone Daphne” but she could hardly be called helpless. Shaggy was a gymnast and a track star, but he’s also a bit of an early hippie. He is much more easily frightened than the others, but he too proves himself brave time and time again. And of course, there was Scooby.

Classic Scooby Doo also had a positive, simple message. Don’t be afraid. All the ghosts and monsters they encountered always proved to be a guy in a costume. Thus, the message was obvious, don’t fall for crazy, paranoid or supernatural explanations and never let your fears control you. There was also a strong undercurrent of trusting your friends and that, by working together as a group, one can overcome all obstacles.

But all that’s changed. . . now that they’ve made it “better.”

How Political Correctness Warped Scooby Doo

Somewhere along the way, angry feminists got their hands on Scooby Doo. And they warped this show beyond recognition. But what they did gives us an interesting mirror into their thinking.

First, they hated Fred. The idea that a handsome, athletic male would lead this group was enough to cause their little, hate-filled hearts to burst. Clearly, this was old-school male oppression, and it was keeping little girls everywhere down. So they changed Fred. Did they make him more egalitarian? No. They made him into a barely competent fool. None of Fred’s ideas make sense any more, and everyone ridicules them. He is seen as muscle, when needed, comic relief when not -- he can't even drive well. And every time he comes up with a plan, the others need to demand to know why he thinks he’s the leader.

They also like to make Fred out as sexist (when they aren’t suggesting that he’s gay). See, in the original series, whenever he wanted the group to separate to find clues, he always chose to take Daphne and leave the ugly girl (Velma) to go with Shaggy and Scooby, right? Hence, sexism!!! Boo hoo hoo. Actually, no.

In the original series, they rarely broke the group up this way. Usually, Shaggy would take Scooby in one group and the other three would go in the other group. Moreover, what the feminists miss, is that Velma is the second leader of the group. Thus, forming groups around Fred and Velma would be natural. Third, there was a suggestion that Fred and Daphne were dating, which again would be a reason for them to stay together. But because the feminists can’t see past their victimology, they assume this pairing (which rarely happened) had to be sexism. So now every new cartoon or live action movie has to include a scene where Fred proposes to break the group up and he selects Daphne, only to be harshly slapped down by Daphne and Velma for being sexist.

But Fred wasn’t the only victim of politically correct hate. Daphne’s character has suffered as well. Because she’s attractive, the same people who made Fred incompetent decided that she needed to be made vapid and vain. After all, we can’t have little girls believing that good looking people might be anything other than shallow, because then they would feel oppressed by the good looking. Consequently, hardly a new Scooby Doo movie goes by without Daphne obsessing about her make up, her hair or her clothes.

But there was the inescapable problem that Daphne, being female, also needed to be a role model. So they set about forcing her to act out the feminist obsession with being good at all things men can do, and being independent from men in the process. Despite her obsession with beauty she is now made to reject any hint that she’s interested in men -- she’s not a lesbian, she’s just become anti-sexual (“frigid” in the ancient parlance). She is also required to have an independent career, and to engage in whatever masculine hobbies fit the plot. And she must always be seen to be better than everyone around her, except when she’s being vapid. The message to little girls, you better become better than boys if you want to succeed.

Velma too has suffered, and in the strangest way of all. Of all the characters, you would have expected Velma to have undergone the best transformation at the hands of the politically correct. Are we not told that we should not judge people according to their looks? Apparently, that’s a myth. First, the politically correct stripped Velma of her leadership role. She’s now a full-on modern nerd, which apparently includes confused thinking and social insecurity. . . but not leadership. In the latest incarnation, they’ve even gone so far as to cast an Asian girl to play her -- reinforcing the stereotype of Asians as tech savvy nerds. What’s more, they’ve made Velma into the only sexually active character. In movie after movie, she now lusts after some male (always a geek, of course, because looks do matter and you don’t want to encourage ugly girls to go for attractive males). But even more insulting, she remains flummoxed by the experience of lusting after boys until Daphne steps in and teaches her the art of seduction, which always includes make up, new hair, tight clothes and a scene where she stumbles around learning to walk in high heels.

And what makes this really sick is the fact that the people who have done this, honestly believe that little girls are influenced by the girls they see on cartoons. Think about that. What that means is that these are conscious choices. And yet, rather than offering two different yet intelligent and capable female characters (as they were in classic Scooby Doo), they’re now offering a frigid, vapid, neurotic loner with a chip on her shoulder, and a nerd girl who needs to learn to mimic the vapid chick to get the attention of boys.

Moreover, as a consequence of these changes, these “friends” are no longer really friends. They fight and argue and act out petty jealousies. Daphne is obsessed with showing she can be independent. Velma is obsessed with proving she’s smart and satisfying her nerd lust. Fred sulks for his lost masculinity. Only the relationship between Shaggy and Scooby remains unscathed.

Of all the characters, Shaggy actually escapes with the least harm. Shaggy’s lost his core, particularly his hidden bravery, but he’s little changed otherwise -- having gone from proto-hippie to quasi-stoner. Apparently, stoners love their dogs.

And It’s Not Just The Characters That Have Changed

In addition to the dramatic and disturbing changes in the characters, there have been two other dramatic changes wrought by political correctness. First, each new cartoon is crawling with politically correct information. Rather than just solving mysteries, we now learn about global warming. We learn how Wicca is a religion, not just something for goth kids to jerk themselves with, and that all witches were wrongly accused. We learn that greedy American developers are destroying wonderful third world paradises like Mexico. And so on.

Secondly, the monsters are now real. That’s right. The monsters and ghosts are now genuine. This is truly despicable because it replaces the comforting and rational message of “don’t be afraid” with the disturbing message of “fear the dark, for there be monsters in it.”

Conclusion

Look what political correctness has wrought upon Scooby Doo! Gone is the show about a group of kids, who have shattered stereotypes and ignored peer pressure to become friends, and who work diligently as a team, using the best virtues of mankind to solve mysteries and expose to children that there is truly nothing to fear. In its place, we have a group of highly stereotypical, self-centered unpleasant people who barely get along and who prove time and time again that monsters are real.

This is the fruit of political correctness. The self-appointed victims of oppression have not shown us a world free of victimization as they promised, they just victimized those they don’t like. And in their anger, they have shown a startling jealousy. Could it be that political correctness is not about correcting injustice so much as it is about getting even with those who make us feel inadequate?

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