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.


** 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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