Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Scott's Links May 2012

Scott roams the internet far and wide to ply his trade as a link dealer. Fortunately, Scott provides links free to us. Check these out. . . share your thoughts! And away we go. . .

Top 10 conservative Daily Show segments

One of my favorite segments (from when I used to watch the show) features correspondent Rob Riggle covering Berkeley's response to the opening of a Marine recruitment center. One protestor mentions his Constitutional right to free speech and Riggle - a Marine Corps Reserve officer - asks, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if there was a group of people whose job it was to protect that right?"

One of the best analyses of a movie I've ever read

The movie... Ghostbusters. The writer... a film school grad not much older than myself who also enjoys 80s pop culture. Like many people who write in-depth pieces on movies, this guy reaches a bit here and there but he makes some good points. He refers to the film as not "anti-government" but "anti-institution." (I don't expect any comments about this one - it takes a while to read!)

Are we being too hard on movie trailers?

A great movie trailer is a work of art in and of itself. On the other hand, too many trailers give out important plot points and I hate this new trend of teasers for new trailers. Has anyone seen one of these? "Coming this Friday... the trailer!" I am content to wait till Friday; I don't need the fanfare.

The two ways science fiction is slowly destroying itself

In short, too much time travel and too much dystopia. I don't have a problem with either but, to paraphrase Captain Kirk, "Too much of anything isn't necessarily a good thing!" Even Popular Mechanics has gotten into the dystopia issue, stating that we need big, bold (and optimistic!) science fiction to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

When good movies are bad news

The author makes a good point: thanks to endless sequels, spinoffs, etc. actors like Robert Downey Jr. are tied up for years. If he wasn't Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, one wonders what other movies he might've done instead.

The classic origins of today's Hollywood design

While I'm no expert, I'm a big fan of "retrofuturism" which is a design aesthetic that pays homage to pre-1960 visions of the future. Thanks to films like Captain America and Men in Black 3, we're seeing more of this influence on the big screen and I think that's a good thing.

Drug doubles: what actors actually toke, smoke, and snort on camera

Interesting. The idea of snorting anything, even if it's fake, disgusts me. Incidentally, on the Scarface DVD documentary, Al Pacino refuses to say what he actually snorted. "Don't get high on your own supply" indeed!

Revisiting the legendary flop Ishtar

I've never seen the film and a DVD/Blu-Ray release was announced and then delayed. Surely it can't be as bad as its reputation suggests? Writer/director Elaine May (along with her old partner Mike Nichols) might be too, uh, intellectual for me at times but I enjoyed her in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks.

A father's plea: stop supporting bad films "for the children"

Amen! Parents, please stop taking your kids to see crappy movies just because they're "for kids." It has nothing to do with objectionable content and everything to do with the bar being set too low. And the more money these movies make, the faster the studios will rush out the sequels.

The definitive history of Animaniacs

I watched this show as a kid. I had actually forgotten how risque some of the material was. But I will always remember Yakko singing the countries of the world. And who doesn't love Pinky and the Brain?!

What we've learned from audio commentaries

I've sent these articles to Big Hollywood individually over the months but here they are in one shot. A good commentary can be like film school and the guys at Film School Rejects have taken the best bits and presented them for all to see.

What I learned about pregnancy from the movies

"When you’re pregnant, you won’t know until some hilarious or uncomfortable thing alerts you to the fact." Yeah, sounds about right!

Last night's listening:

Danny Elfman's score for Batman Returns, Tim Burton's 1992 follow-up to the enormously successful Batman. I don't care what anyone says... I love this movie. Is it faithful to the comics? No, but I'm not a fanatic when it comes to that stuff. To lure Burton back into the fold, Warner Bros. basically told him, "Forget Batman. Make a Tim Burton movie!" Needless to say, he did. La-La Land Records released the complete, remastered score for the film in 2010 and it sounds great. You get all the usual Burton/Elfman ideas: clown music, a chorus, etc. It's all very Gothic.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 15

Sometimes, things sound better on paper than they do in reality. . . like communism or the Penrose stairs. But people try these things anyway, and Star Trek is no exception.

Question: "What is the goofiest idea used by Star Trek TNG?"

Andrew’s Answer: This one is a toss up for me. It’s either having children on board a ship they knew will go into combat periodically or it’s the entire bridge crew leaving the bridge during times of crisis to go chat around the Captain’s table in his distinctly-unready room. But in the end, I will choose the chat sessions. Seriously, what’s happening on the bridge while they are chatting with each other? Is the ship just in park? Did they call a time out? Better hope you don’t need to raise shields or return fire or keep track of whoever might be beaming over or joining the battle or leaving the battle while you’re sipping your coffee. And why do they need to do this anyway? Except for Worf, they’re all already sitting. They can all hear each other. And their seats swivel. Why not just hold these coffee klatches on the bridge. . . where they could still run the ship? Idiots.

Scott's Answer: From what I've heard, even some of the writers would agree with you about having children aboard the ship! For me, there are many small issues that are endemic to TV sci-fi in general (sound in space, ships facing each other on the same spatial plane, etc.)... however, I would have to say my problem is the away teams. Why do the away teams always consist of senior officers? Are there no field specialists? Even in the original series, we would occasionally meet the ship's anthropology expert or something. But on TNG, the away teams usually consisted of Riker, Worf, LaForge, and Data. I can understand bringing Data along but LaForge? Aren't there any field engineers who could beam down and report back? Same with Worf... are there any other security officers? And why did they always wear the same uniforms? Whether it was an ice planet or a forest planet, they never wore jackets or any kind of protective gear.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day Open Thread

Folks, we're taking the weekend off for Memorial Day, and we'll be back Tuesday. In the meantime, leave some thoughts here on news you saw, recent films you've seen, about your favorite war films for Memorial Day, or just your thoughts about Memorial Day!

"Courage is being scared to death... and saddling up anyway."

-- John Wayne
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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is Superman Going Gay?

According to the publishers of DC Comics, they are about to reveal that one of their “most recognizable” and “iconic” superheroes is gay, and will be coming out of the closet in June. Everyone seems pretty sure it will be Superman, which makes sense. DC claims they are doing this because their views have evolved like Barack Obama’s (I guess Biden gets around), but this reeks of desperation to me.

Comic book sales have been falling steadily for decades and have suffered considerably since 2007. In 2011, DC Comics managed to turn that around and make a 1% increase in sales by re-launching all 52 of their properties, but odds are this isn’t enough to stem the time. So they need something else. Enter the oldest and dumbest trick in the book: revealing a shocking secret.

Making Superman (or Batman or some else) gay is nothing more than an attempt to upset conservatives and fans, and to get them to give the series a publicity boost. In effect, it’s the same lousy cynical strategy reboots try when they do something offensive to the characters people love just to get the audience angry and buzzing about the series. The hope is this will cause people to return to the series. But this stinks as a marketing strategy. Sure, you may get a couple of lost readers to return for an issue or two, but what happens after that? The slump continues plus you lose the people who don’t like the idea. If you really want to win fans, you need to offer them stories which they can’t resist, not try to trick them into buying an issue to see how big of a jerk you were.

And make no mistake, this is disrespectful to the legion of fans who grew up worshiping these heroes. Changing the fundamental natures of these characters is akin to desecrating a national symbol or historical figure by claiming that person or symbol for your own political beliefs. Hitler did that with Roman symbols like the swastika and racists have done it with the flags of the Confederacy and Great Britain.

In the end, I suspect this will make big news and might sell a few more copies of the edition where he comes out. After that, I expect the downward trend to accelerate.

Would this make any of you more likely to buy a comic book?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 14

Some people believe in reincarnation. Television actors are particularly prone to this because it keep happening to them, like how they are one character one week and then someone else another. And sometimes, if they are lucky, they reincarnate into a recurring character. . . like Bill Clinton.

"Who is your favorite recurring Star Trek guest star?"

Andrew's Answer: My first instinct is to name John Colicos, the original Count Baltar from Battlestar Galactica. He's been all over the Klingon empire as Kor. In fact, he was the first Klingon ever introduced in the series in the episode "Errand of Mercy" and he kept right on being Kor up through the later series and the spinoffs. But there is an actor I like better: Marc Alaimo. You know Alaimo mainly as Gul Dukat, which I think makes him Turkish. As Gul Dukat he had the interesting job of walking a tightrope between doing his job right and knowing it probably wasn't the right thing to do, and then going fricken nuts with power. Well done, sir.

Scott's Answer: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arguably had the best stock company of recurring actors. Of those, I would have to say Jeffrey Combs wins by a hair. He actually played several roles over the course of the series, including multiple clones of Weyoun; an alien named Tiron in the otherwise forgettable episode "Meridian;" and Brunt, liquidator for the Ferengi Commerce Authority and a constant thorn in Quark's side. He also appeared in an episode of Voyager as an alien named Penk, and multiple episodes of Enterprise as Shran, Captain Archer's Andorian adversary turned ally. He also appeared as a Ferengi in another Enterprise episode. Honorable mention goes to Andrew Robinson, who was pitch-perfect as "plain, simple Garak."

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 39

Natural abhors a vacuum, but it's pretty cool otherwise. And there are some great places caught on film.

What film has your favorite natural scenery?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

There are many great examples to choose from, but frankly nothing beats The Lord of the Rings. I could not believe how beautiful the cinematography was in those films. Every single scene is stunning. This put films like Lawrence of Arabia to shame!

Panelist: BevfromNYC

A River Runs Through It – there was nothing more beautiful than the fly-fishing scenes.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Last of the Mohicans, particularly Grandfather Mountain. Runners up - K2 & Vertical Limit (both awesome in HD on a big screen!)

Panelist: ScottDS

Barry Lyndon. Director Stanley Kubrick was inspired by the paintings of Watteau and Gainsborough and most of the film's exteriors were shot in Ireland which also doubled for England and Prussia during the Seven Years' War. To quote an article from The Telegraph: "...the film is consciously a museum piece."

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Film Friday: The Thirteenth Floor (1999)

The Thirteenth Floor is a film I should like more than I do. It’s thoughtful and is premised on a truly inspired science fiction idea. And that should easily vault it above most of the garbage that is out there. But The Thirteenth Floor isn’t all that great, and while I recommend seeing it, my recommendation is lukewarm.

** spoiler alert **

On the surface, The Thirteenth Floor is about the murder of Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of a billion-dollar computer company which has created a virtual reality simulation of 1937 Los Angeles. But in reality, this is a science fiction story of a world within a world within a world. The story follows Fuller’s protégé, Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko), who is the prime suspect in Fuller’s death, as he investigates the murder in both the world of 1990’s Los Angeles and the virtual reality world of 1937 Los Angeles. In the process, he runs across the same people in each world and he learns a shocking secret.

If you just look at the concept of this film, this film should be fantastic. Not only does it promise the always fascinating idea of multiple realities overlapping, but it involves intrigue which spans each world in the form of a killer on the loose. This should be a nearly can’t-miss prospect. But it does miss.

The first reason this film misses is the acting. I like Armin Mueller- Stahl and Vincent D’Onofrio, and they are fine as always. But after that, things get dicey. Gretchen Mol plays Fuller’s daughter and Bierko’s sort-of love-interest, but there’s no point where you get the sense she cares about anything. Even when she’s confronted by the killer, she just stands there and hopes the scene works out. All-State Insurance Rep. Dennis Haysbert plays the detective who is investigating the murder. He doesn’t care either. He doesn’t even seem to care when he learns about the multiple worlds and that people are traveling back and forth. The worst offender, however, is Bierko who plays the protégé. He also never cares about anything, which is problematic when he needs to project wonder and terror at his discoveries. And at times, it almost seems like he thinks he’s in a parody (fyi, he was the lead in Scary Movie 4 and his acting there is indistinguishable from here).

The sets are bad too (except the fantastic effect of 1937 Los Angeles), and that’s problematic. The payoff of the film is that you’re supposed to wonder if we might not be inside a machine right now and not know it. But the world the film presents as real never feels like a real world. It feels like a movie with people who don’t change clothes, don’t have homes or friends, and spend their lives in smoky dramatic shadows. There are no personal effects anywhere and no sets that look like anywhere we work or live. This makes it hard to see ourselves in this world.

The dialog is bad too because it lacks grace, subtlety and cleverness. The film starts with Descartes’ quote “I think, therefore I am.” This is a bad omen because this quote is THE generic quote about the nature of existence. It’s so generic it’s almost cartoon-level. And this foreshadows the level of what is to come as throughout the film you get quotes like: “what is real?” and “maybe we’ve met before in another life?” This is the sledgehammer approach to dialog. This is like lovers saying, “I love you” or killers saying, “I am going to kill you.” Also, there is no wit anywhere in this film. And the characters never discuss the philosophy of what is going on -- a glaring omission for a film premised on a philosophical point. Essentially, the dialog in this film is blunt plot and nothing more.

There are also deeper problems. The murder which is meant to keep you interested until the reveal is little more than a pretext. There is no motive for the audience to latch onto until the end and the investigation is little more than a collection of scenes that don’t logically relate to anything. For example, Bierko runs around meeting people but we have no idea where he got their names or why these people matter. The cops don’t seem to follow up on leads. There’s also no sense of urgency. You’re never told the cops are closing in or that the killer is planning to strike again. It seems that Bierko has as long as he needs to solve this.

The machine they are using makes no sense either. They have created an independent simulation of another time and place for no apparent reason. In fact, when the detective asks why they’ve done this, Bierko tells him that is a company secret and he can’t share that information. While that’s a valid answer at that moment, the problem is it leaves the audience with a machine that does nothing except drive the plot. Even when the characters in the simulation discover the truth and demand to know why they created the simulated world, Bierko still has no answer.

The reveal is problematic as well. For one thing, the idea that there’s another world comes from out of the blue, and the idea that characters can somehow move up a level to the real world seems like deus ex machina as it is never explained and seems like a cheat to resolve the plot. Also, the way the movie ends makes everything we’ve seen irrelevant. But worst of all, the ending ties in poorly with the rest. Yes, it explains the murders, but it’s not something anyone could have guessed and really is better at explaining “how” the murders happened than “why” they happened. Indeed, there is a disconnect here because there is nothing happening in the real world which would force the murderer to come commit the murders. That makes the ending feel entirely random.

Finally, where this movie really fails is its utter lack of consideration of the psychological aspects. For a film like this to work, i.e. a film based on the confusion of multiple realities, there must be a sense that the realities really are blurring and that the character we are meant to follow is losing their grip on reality -- you can’t just occasionally have a supporting character ask, “what is real.” None of that happens here. Only the Vincent D’Onofrio character ever seems to grasp the sense of confusion at finding out his world is not real. Bierko and the others remain perfectly clear throughout and it never takes them more than a moment to realize when someone is being inhabited by someone from another reality. Because of this, it’s impossible to wonder, as the film hopes we do at that end, if our world might not be fake as well.

I also wonder if another problem with this film isn’t the concept itself? Perhaps the idea of a simulated world within a world has been done so often that audiences are just too wise to the clues and have seen it all before?

Despite these problems, the film is worth seeing. It presents an interesting take on the idea of a world within a world and it has some clever moments. For example, how people come to realize they are in a simulation is well thought out. And the mystery is enough to keep you wondering, though it’s ultimately disappointing.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

TV Review: The Newsroom (1996-1997, 2003-2005)

By ScottDS
While HBO is getting ready to premiere Aaron Sorkin’s new TV series, titled The Newsroom, I thought now might be a good time to take a look back at another TV series with the same name. This series is a Canadian production that aired on the CBC. Originally intended as a one-season show, the network eventually brought it back as a TV movie and later produced two more seasons. While it would be considered a dark comedy, many of the episodes take a turn for the surreal.

Series creator/writer/director Ken Finkleman plays George Findlay, the news director at an unnamed TV news station. Finkleman had toiled in Hollywood on such unremarkable films as Grease II and Head Office before returning to his native Canada where he found success producing multiple TV shows featuring Findlay as a linking character. Findlay is egotistical, vain, petty, and his sole concern seems to be his place within the network bureaucracy. He’s afraid of his mother, might be constipated (early episodes feature bran muffins as a running gag), and compares the employees at his BMW dealer to Nazis. He refuses to hire a black anchor (for arbitrary economic reasons), he asks a Middle Eastern intern if he’s a terrorist (after going through his web browser history), and is constantly trying to hit on female guests and other network employees. Findlay/Finkleman has been compared to Larry David on more than one occasion.

The two constant supporting characters are news anchor Jim Walcott (Peter Keleghan) and segment producer Karen Mitchell (Karen Hines). Walcott is an idiot and has been accused of sexual harassment multiple times. He refuses to read or watch the news and admits he might’ve been the last person to know about 9/11. In one episode, he’s reporting in the Middle East, gets kidnapped, and annoys his captors so much that they lower the ransom demand from two million US$ to 1700 C$. Karen is a hard-working intellectual who refuses to dumb herself down for her co-workers. She appears to be the only one to take the news seriously and Findlay believes she’s a lesbian.

I know this is common today but one element of the show I don’t like is the lack of formal character introductions. People show up for a few episodes, then leave. Rarely is this ever pointed out. I don’t even know all of the characters’ last names. Findlay has a couple of interns throughout the show – the most interesting being Audrey, played by Tanya Allen – as well as a handful of yes-men segment producers. Some of them get good moments while others are complete non-entities. Early episodes feature an insecure weatherman (Bruce, played by David Hubband) while we also meet a few of Findlay’s superiors at the network – all strong, intimidating women. The show also features many guest appearances by public figures, though I only recognized David Cronenberg.

I mentioned above that the show takes a turn for the surreal. While many episodes feature your standard workplace sitcom tropes (budget problems, romantic mix-ups, etc.), other episodes do the complete opposite, specifically the three season finales. Personally, I find these episodes rather pretentious, the same way I find Woody Allen’s melodramas somewhat pretentious, though I can’t fault a guy for trying to branch out and do something different. The season 1 finale is a three-part episode about a potential nuclear disaster. Findlay doesn’t think it’s a big enough story and instead goes about casting actresses who look like Jane Fonda so he can present it just like The China Syndrome. (A highlight is Findlay coming up with an animated intro for the story.) Several characters tell Findlay that he’s afraid of confronting his own mortality and the third episode finds him dressed in black just like Marcello Mastroianni in 8 ½ as he encounters all the women from his past who tell him what they really think of him.

The season 2 finale features segment producer Alex, played by Jody Racicot, feeling suicidal after being dumped by a woman (George’s reply: “You sure this can't wait until tomorrow?”). He fabricates a news story and George tries to make a book deal about the entire incident. Meanwhile, a crowd has gathered at a Taco Bell where they believe they see the image of the Virgin Mary on a wall. At one point, George is smoking pot and an angel (or the Virgin Mary?) appears to tell him his liberal politics are all wrong. At the episode’s end, Findlay is convinced his politics are correct but that network news might be the most destructive thing of all. The season 3 finale is even weirder: an animated tale narrated by Findlay about a movie director who encounters a mysterious woman who can fly. I still don’t completely understand this one, though it is pretty to look at.

The second season features a death in almost every episode. One thing I like about the show is that they don’t worry about the execution of certain gags. For example, in the span of one scene, we’ll cut from “So here’s what’s happening tonight...” to “So, about last night…” with nothing in between. We hear ridiculous events described only in dialogue and our imaginations fill in the rest. There’s also a bizarre sense of self-awareness on display. The best example would be the episode “One Dumb Idea” where they do a news story on the obscene amounts of money made by TV producers so Findlay and his yes-men decide to create a TV show – all they need is one dumb idea. One producer suggests a TV series about a group of newsmen who try coming up with an idea for a TV show, only to see it fail as everyone tries to claim credit. By episode’s end, this is exactly what happens. Another episode leaves a subplot hanging and we see backstage as Finkleman and his producers wonder what to do next.

While I believe the show is ahead of its time (it predates both Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office), it’s not for everyone. The politics might be a little off-putting (they are in Canada, after all) but they usually take a backseat to the neuroses and insecurities that are simply part and parcel of the newsroom. Some characters are more likeable than others and even Findlay is interesting in his own way. I have no interest in watching Sorkin’s show but I get the feeling he’ll portray network news as a noble enterprise (“We’re the truth tellers,” etc.) whereas Finkleman’s show is more like Network in that regard, portraying the news as a corrupt operation populated with egotistical fools who are only looking out for themselves. As for Finkleman, I guess I’m a fan though I wonder about the thought process that led to him inserting himself into his TV shows, as the same character no less. Is this an artist who’s interested in exploring the human condition in a seriocomic way, or a hack using the medium of TV as his own therapy session?

As of 2012, George Findlay has returned, this time as the news director at a conservative network. The title is, appropriately, Good God.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 13

It seems the future will be dominated by uniforms and jumpsuits. Presumably function matters, but what about style? Star Trek seemed to go back and forth on this issue.

What makes a great science fiction uniform and which series/film had the best uniforms?

Scott's Answer: When we're talking about uniforms (or ships for that matter), I think we're really talking about two different things: how do they look/function within the Trek universe... and how do they appear to us, the 21st century TV viewer? In the real world, form follows function. But for films/TV shows, this doesn't always apply since the uniforms have to be visually interesting and stand up to scrutiny by obsessive geeks [cough]. I love the naval-style maroon jackets that were introduced in Star Trek II through they're rather impractical and all the decorations are a bit much. I like Kirk's admiral uniform in the first film and even the two-piece tunics aren't bad but there are too many variations, the colors are too dull, and I hate the one-piece jumpsuits, which hide nothing. Having said that, I also dislike the uniforms used in TNG in the first two seasons. Once they made the uniforms two-piece tunics with collars, they looked a little better and less like pajamas. The best variation of those uniforms were introduced in Star Trek: First Contact with a gray upper area and colored undershirt.

Andrew's Answer: What makes a good science fiction uniform? Hmm. A science fiction uniform should stand out. You represent a star empire and you want to impress the locals, so your threads need to project that you are something special. Stormtrooper uniforms are pretty good in that regard. So are the viper pilots in the original Battlestar Galactica. I would say the best uniforms are those like Napoleonic Era uniforms, only modernized. So turning to Star Trek, the closest we find are the red uniforms by the original cast in the films. These are decorative, cool looking, and yet practical too as the jacket gives you warmth but you can remove the jacket to do whatever labor you need. By comparison, the uniforms from the original series work well in California, but would be pretty miserable in Minnesotaworld. The jumpsuits from the Next Generation look like they would be fine, as functional jumpsuits always impress the ladies, but they don’t seem very comfortable as all the characters kept tugging at them, trying to make them fit. Plus, where do you keep your change? Not to mention, they are hardly impressive. . . oh look, Team Pajama is here to offer their usual surrender. So yeah, I’m going with the red-jacket look from the films.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 38

Are you holding out for a hero? That won't help you. Not if you have a dirty job you need done dirt cheap. Then you need an anti-hero!

Who is your favorite film anti-hero?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (the original, not the remake, since I’ve not be able to bring myself to see the remake). He is everything an anti-hero should be. He’s gruff, mean, lazy, but he was relentless when on the trail of bad men. He wasn’t afraid of anything gunfire.

Panelist: T-Rav

I really like Clive Owen as "Mr. Smith" in Shoot 'Em Up, as a violent criminal and a loner who winds up having to protect a baby (with the help of a prostitute), which is an interesting combination, to say the least. He's very good at playing tough bruisers like that.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Why Dirty Harry Callahan, natch ;-)

Panelist: ScottDS

Malcolm Reynolds. I haven't sat down to watch Firefly in a while but I'd say he fits the bill: tough as nails with a heart of gold (or silver, at least). And he aims to misbehave. "Love keeps her in the air. . ."

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing. I know this is a remake of a remake of a remake, but this film is just cool and Willis is the ultimate anti-hero. He’s in it for the money and he doesn’t care who gets hurt. . . until his conscience kicks in. Then it’s time to usher in a little death with extreme prejudice.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Film Friday: Triangle (2009)

This film is brilliant. It’s tense, it’s incredibly well-written and well-directed, and it’s thought provoking. Unfortunately, non-spaceship science fiction films have a hard time finding audiences. Plus, the whole Bermuda Triangle angle has been saturated by a bevy of lousy films. But this one deserves to be noticed and you should see it.

Triangle is a science fiction, suspense movie about a group of people who find themselves on an abandoned cruise ship, the Aeolus, when their sailboat overturns during a freak storm. Once onboard the Aeolus, they quickly come under attack from an unknown enemy, a crewman who is wearing a bag over his head. Up that point, this is a fairly straight forward Bermuda Triangle film. But then the film takes an incredible turn into the unexpected as each of the survivors is killed except a young mother named Jess. Jess manages to kill the attacker just in time to see the survivors board the Aeolus again. . . including herself. Soon, events repeat from an entirely different perspective.

Why This Is A Brilliant Film

This film is brilliant on so many levels. For one thing, the twist of finding Jess repeating events rather than simply finding a creepy ghost ship presents something not seen before in Bermuda Triangle films. Ditto on her observing the loop as an outside witness rather than just being aware she is personally repeating events. The ending is also genius. And even more importantly, this film never cheats.

When I finished watching this film the first time, the ending blew me away. It was like The Sixth Sense in the way it fundamentally changed the nature of the story and I immediately started the film over again just to see if the director had included any clues, because I never saw the ending coming. Imagine my surprise to find that not only is all the evidence there, but the film keeps pounding you in the face with the clues. . . yet you never see them!

** MAJOR spoiler alert, I am about to discuss everything **

Before I can continue, I have to lay out the ending and the twists. When the survivors first board the Aeolus, they are attacked by what appears to be a rogue crewman, a man wearing workman’s clothes and a sack over his head. Jess eventually kills him by pushing him over the side of the ship. That’s when events begin repeating. As they do, Jess first tries to help the other survivors, but then decides she must kill them so she can complete the loop and return home to save her son. That’s when you learn that she was in fact the mysterious crewman all along. She is eventually killed the same way she killed her other self before, and she wakes up on the shore. Once there, she rushes home to her son expecting a happy ending. Only she sees another version of herself with her son. She kills this other self and claims her son, but the trauma of seeing his mother killed by his mother upsets the boy and they fight. This causes an accident, which kills her son. That’s when she realizes that the only way to save her son is to go to the marina and start the loop over. Essentially, she voluntarily re-enters the loop with the intent of killing her friends so she can return and save her son. Wow!

But does the beginning of the movie hold up to these new facts? Actually, it does. When Jess first shows up, she seems stunned, hesitant and upset. We are told something is wrong with her and that her story about her son being at school is lie. But we quickly dismiss this because we’re told she has an autistic son who could well be in school on Saturday and her being stunned could be the result of a fight with her son and with the cold reception she gets from her new boyfriend’s (Greg) friends.

Interestingly, the opening is crawling with double meanings. For example, she’s asked several times if she feels “guilty” about her son. Without knowing the ending, this sounds like her guilt is about leaving him at home while she’s having fun. Knowing the ending, this is a much more pointed comment. She’s also asked how her son is and she responds: “The same, every day is the same, if I do one thing differently, I lose him.” Again, this could be a mother struggling with an autistic child, but it’s also a clear description of the plot as it points to both the time loop and her need to complete the loop to save him.

Once they board the Aeolus, the clues become much more blatant. Jess says several times that she feels like she’s been on this ship before. Further, you learn that Aeolus was the father of Sisyphus, who cheated death and was cursed by the gods to push a boulder up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down, just as Jess is repeating events every day. There’s even a record player which keeps repeating the same few notes over and over (caused by Jess). These are major clues. Not to mention they find her keys, an impossibility, her watch alone is set to ship time, and the other survivors immediately begin swearing that Jess told them things we never saw her do, suggesting a double. The other characters also tell her several times that “this is all just in your mind” and they suggest that she’s in “her own world” at the moment and not reality.

There’s also one more major give away. We assume the crewman who is trying to kill them is a man because it looks like a man in the work clothes and with the bag over his head. But it turns out to be Jess. And when we learn this, we notice something incongruous about the crewman image: her shoes. Indeed, it’s blatantly obvious from her shoes at that point that this is Jess, and one of the characters even identifies her that way. But the viewer never notices this key clue until after the crewman is revealed to be Jess. So did the director cheat and not show us her feet before? Actually, no. They are clearly visible three times before you know this is Jess, but the director uses the action to pull your eyes toward other parts of the screen at those moments and you never notice. Once you know to look for them, it’s obvious, but until then, this major clue really is hidden in plain sight. Amazing.

Moreover, once events begin repeating and we watch Jess watching the loops, only certain portions of the original dialog get repeated -- the biggest clues as to what is going on. So you are constantly hit with these clues throughout.

All of this dangles before our eyes. We know something traumatic happened to Jess before she boarded the sailboat and it relates to her son, that she feels guilty about it, that she is doomed to repeat this day like a mythical figure who tried to cheat death, that she believes she must kill everyone to “save” her son (who we didn’t know needed saving), that she’s done this hundreds of times already, and that she is the attacker. She even tells us this is about her son, “if I do one thing differently, I lose him” and “I have to get back to save him.” And these things get repeated over and over. Essentially, the writer shows us his cards and dares us to solve the riddle. Yet we never notice any of this because the writer gives us other possible explanations which we accept because they are less fantastic, e.g. her behavior being the result of her autistic son. That’s great writing.

Finally, I want to comment on the ending, which is truly brilliant. One problem with time loop stories is that it’s usually easy to break the loop, so there’s often an unwritten rule in these films that everyone will agree to ignore that possibility. Here, you don’t need to. Early on, when she wants to break the loop, but her every attempt is frustrated by a later version of her. This tells us that the option of breaking the loop just isn’t available to her because the other hers will make it happen.

Then she decides she must complete the loop when she pieces together why all the other versions of her want to kill the other survivors. They are doing this because it’s the only way to get home and save her son. This means she actively wants to complete the loop, just as she wants to restart the loop after her son is killed. This is a fascinating twist that the looped character actually wants to complete the loop, and this eliminates the usual questions of why the loop character isn’t smarter.

The one complaint I have with the film is that her knowledge of her son’s death seems to leave her after she gets some sleep on the sailing boat. It’s possible she suddenly thinks this whole thing is a dream, or it’s possible the loop works that way and she needs to re-learn events once she’s in it. Either way I’m not sure and that’s one area where this film could have been stronger -- if she had simply bought into the need to finish the loop at all times. But in any event, this is truly thought-provoking, creepy, and exciting film. I highly recommend this one.

[+]

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Guest Review: Kill Bill (2003)

By T-Rav

In discussing Pulp Fiction last year, several of us remarked that Inglourious Basterds was our least favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s movies (as opposed to Pulp Fiction being perhaps our favorite), for several reasons but mainly having to do with its glorification of mindless violence. The two Kill Bill movies, which I shall treat here as a single entity, fall somewhere between those other works of his. They’re fascinating films and a lot of fun, but there’s a certain emptiness to them, and I’m not sure if this was intentional or unintentional.

** spoiler alert **

Kill Bill is the story of Beatrix Kiddo, aka “The Bride” (Uma Thurman). Kiddo is an assassin for a man we only know as Bill (David Carradine), a powerful and vicious crime lord. Upon learning she is pregnant with Bill’s daughter, Kiddo tries to flee, but he puts a bullet in her head and leaves her in a coma. Upon awakening from that coma four years later, and believing she has lost the baby, Kiddo embarks on a path of vengeance against Bill’s henchmen (or rather, his henchpersons), and finally against Bill himself. But there’s a small wrinkle: Their daughter, B.B., did in fact survive, and is now being raised by Bill, who seems to be a very doting father. This twist radically alters the way in which we view the movie.

Much of what made Tarantino’s early work so captivating is repeated to great effect here. As with Pulp Fiction, the story is told out of order, with extended flashbacks throughout and jumping from the middle of Kiddo’s rampage back to the beginning. In this case, it’s not so clear whether this was done to make a point or to have a dramatic fight when necessary, but either way, it works. Another critical strength is the amount of time devoted to character development.

The people we meet in Kill Bill are not your typical gangsters or hit men. They all give the appearance of being well-educated, can be frequently found philosophizing about various matters, and while they’re frequently in fights to the death, there’s no sense that they and their opponents hate each other. We see a lot of superficial courtesy and even respect. For instance, Bill allows Kiddo to find him at his hacienda, not only so she can meet their daughter, but because it’s nobler to have a face-to-face confrontation than to try to pick her off with a sniper or a car bomb. The use of flashbacks also allows us to see how these characters began and matured over time, and as the story is revealed piece by piece, we get drawn to these people. In fact, I would venture to say that these are some of the best-drawn characters in any work by Tarantino.

Another feature repeated and made into a great strength is the unexpected quality of the showdowns. We get some mesmerizing swordfights and brutal martial-arts violence, but we also get some surprise endings to these battles. For instance, in her fight with fellow assassin Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), everything suggests Kiddo will have to chop off her head or run her through with her sword to stop her. Instead, she suddenly plucks out Driver’s eye and crushes it. As her other eye was plucked out in the past, this leaves Driver blind and helpless; Kiddo leaves her to thrash about in a rage. And in her final confrontation with Bill, she kills him not with a weapon but by poking the pressure points on his heart, causing it to explode—but only after he’s had time to button his coat and walk out onto his lawn, thus allowing the father of her child a dignified, “clean” death.

These are all positive qualities. But there’s something wrong with the movie nonetheless, which I attribute to the lack of a moral center.

Now, it might seem that Kiddo is the logical moral center/protagonist, since the movie revolves around her, and she’s seeking revenge against the people who left her for dead and (so she believes) caused her baby to die. While this does inspire a lot of sympathy, consider some of her actions along the way. The very first person we see Kiddo in battle with is another of her would-be killers, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), who she manages to kill—in front of Green’s young daughter. This, after Green expressed remorse for her actions and in vain asked Kiddo’s forgiveness. It doesn’t seem to matter to Beatrix whether or not her attackers are sorry or trying to turn over a new leaf (and not all of them are); they deserve to be punished, and she’ll carry that punishment out regardless. In the finale, she doesn’t hesitate to kill Bill even after finding out her daughter is alive and that Bill, whatever his crimes, has been a loving father to her.

To be fair, this story would probably end the same if everyone’s roles were reversed. But that’s precisely the problem—the “hero” and the “villains” have virtually identical moral traits. Theoretically, Kiddo could easily have been involved in someone else’s cold-blooded assassination and become the object of someone else’s revenge. To be fair, the whole point of her leaving “the life” is to give her daughter something better; otherwise, though, there’s nothing about her that sets her apart from her enemies, and when you don’t have that kind of clear-cut difference, it’s hard to root for the protagonist.

Moreover, consider how the movie ends, and what Kiddo’s wrath has left in its wake. She has her daughter back, sure, but she’s also deprived poor B.B. (who doesn’t really know her) of her father, and killed others left and right. Nor does she show any regret for her actions, telling Green’s now-motherless daughter, “I’m not sorry. . . Grow up, and if you still feel like killing me for what I’ve done, I guess I’ll see you then.” Pretty callous, not to mention nihilistic. I suppose it’s possible that Tarantino was trying to subtly criticizing this sort of behavior; early on, one of Kiddo’s trainers warns her that “Revenge is not a straight line—it’s a forest,” one it can become impossible to find your way out of. But given the movie’s efforts to make her the heroine, it’s hard to tell what he was going for here.

Kill Bill is a fun movie to watch, and in its details it’s very well made. But thematically, it’s definitely weaker than Tarantino’s early films, thanks to its lack of a clear protagonist and its glorification of violence for violence’s sake. And anarchy is hard to celebrate.

[+]

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Politics of Trek: “A Taste of Armageddon”

Today’s episode is my favorite conservative episode. In addition to a bunch of other conservative ideas, this episode cuts to THE key difference between how liberals and conservatives view human nature. Let’s talk about episode No. 23, A Taste of Armageddon.
The Plot
As the episode begins, the Enterprise is en route to star cluster NGC 321 to open relations with the locals. The Federation wants a space port in this sector because the lack of facilities has cost thousands of lives over the years. As the Enterprise approaches, it is warned away by the planet Eminiar VII. Kirk, however, is forced to continue his approach by a Federation diplomat. When Kirk beams down, he discovers that Eminiar VII is at war with neighboring planet Vendikar. However, this war is fought by computer simulation with casualties accounted for in suicide booths. And while Kirk speaks with Anan 7, the leader of Eminiar VII, the Enterprise is “destroyed” in one of these simulated attacks. Now the locals want the Enterprise crew to beam down and kill themselves. Before everything’s over, Kirk destroys the computers that are fighting the war, risking a return to real war.
Why It’s Conservative
This episode starts with several conservative themes. First, Kirk rejects the idea that the Federation is the universe’s policeman. We see this when Kirk makes it clear he believes the planet’s wishes to be left alone should be honored and when he makes no attempt to jump in and stop their war. This is consistent with the conservative belief that one person or society should not impose themselves on another, and it fits the conservative foreign policy view that we should not get entangled in the affairs of others except where our interests are directly involved. Liberals, on the other hand, have no qualms about trying to control countries just like they have no qualms about the government trying to control the lives of citizens, and they believe a benign superpower or similar organization (like the UN) should force peace upon smaller countries for their own good.

Next, Kirk rejects out of hand the idea that some members of society should be killed so the rest of society may continue. This oft-repeated Star Trek idea is expressed here:
MEA: Don't you understand? Our duty--
KIRK: Your duty doesn't include stepping into a disintegrator and disappearing.
MEA: I'm afraid mine does. . . Don't you see? If I refuse to report, and others refuse, then Vendikar would have no choice but to launch real weapons. We would have to do the same to defend ourselves. More than people would die then. A whole civilization would be destroyed. Surely you can see that ours is a better way.
KIRK: No, I don't see that at all.
This goes back to the conservative respect for the sanctity of the individual and individual life. Conservatives simply do not believe that the collective should be allowed to decide who lives and dies for the benefit of the collective. Liberals, on the other hand, do think it is appropriate to let the government (or individuals by proxy) make such decisions. That is why they favor abortion and euthanasia, and why their support for those issues is premised on the idea that the unwanted child or adult would be a burden on society.

Kirk also rejects the idea that Eminiar VII can impose itself on his crew: “My people are not responsible for your agreements.” Kirk is staking out the very conservative position that people can only be punished for their own individual actions, i.e. human beings do not bear group guilt or group responsibility. Compare this with liberals who support group punishments, like reverse-discrimination against innocent whites/males to atone for the prior discrimination of other whites/males, or the banning of speech or guns for all because of the crimes of the few, etc.

But the real conservative homerun in this episode comes after Kirk destroys the computers which are waging the war:
ANAN: You realize what you have done?
KIRK: Yes, I do. I've given you back the horrors of war. The Vendikans now assume that you've broken your agreement and that you're preparing to wage real war with real weapons. They'll want do the same. Only the next attack they launch will do a lot more than count up numbers in a computer. They'll destroy cities, devastate your planet. You of course will want to retaliate. If I were you, I'd start making bombs. Yes, Councilman, you have a real war on your hands. You can either wage it with real weapons, or you might consider an alternative. Put an end to it. Make peace.
ANAN: There can be no peace. Don't you see? We've admitted it to ourselves. We're a killer species. It's instinctive. . .
KIRK: All right. It's instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes. Knowing that we won't kill today. Contact Vendikar. I think you'll find that they're just as terrified, appalled, horrified as you are, that they'll do anything to avoid the alternative I've given you. Peace or utter destruction. It's up to you.
Kirk has outlined the conservative view of human nature: our nature cannot change, but we are not slaves to it. Indeed, notice that he says that killing is instinctive, i.e. part of human nature, and it has been that way for “a million savage years.” Conservatives believe that, liberals don’t. Liberals believe that humans are malleable and human nature can change with education. This is the fundamental flaw in socialism, that it relied on the idea that humans could be taught not to covet, not to want. Conservatives know better, and Kirk makes this clear. Had this been Picard instead, he would have lectured Anan 7 how advanced the Federation is now that humans have evolved beyond violence. His solution would be to reeducate themselves to lose their violent instincts (an impossibility). Kirk’s solution is to use their brains and simply decide to ignore the instinct (very doable).

This is a key difference in how liberals and conservatives see humanity. This is why liberals believe in reeducation, because they think they can brainwash away your worst traits. Conservatives know better. They know those traits can only be controlled. That’s why they advocate laws to contain those traits or make them unprofitable.

And Kirk goes further too. He notes that despite human nature not changing, it can be controlled: “We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today”. . . the coolest quote in the whole series. This is again a highly conservative understanding of human nature. Conservatives understand that all of our actions require conscious effort before we can take them. In that moment, we have the power to overcome what our instincts tell us and to act rationally. . . “that’s all it takes.”

Liberals actually don’t believe this. They believe that our instincts are taught to us by our experiences and, once learned, they overwhelm us and force us to act. That’s why they speak of cycles of violence and root causes and why they consider those excuses to crimes, i.e. because they think it is beyond our control. In other words, if you were beaten as a child, then you will be forced to beat your child by your instincts, and we should not hold you responsible because it was beyond your control. Conservatives reject this because we understand that humans are perfectly capable of controlling their actions.

There you have it, a highly conservative message: human nature cannot change, but it can be controlled, and we are all responsible for our own actions, but none of us should be responsible for the actions of others. Every piece of that is fundamentally conservative and complete anathema to liberals. Indeed, this belief is the very building block from which all other conservative ideas will sprout. And that makes this my favorite conservative episode.

[+]

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 37

Everybody loves toons. They make you laugh, they teach you about life, and you can drop a piano on them without killing them. What else could you ask for in a friend?

Who is your favorite cartoon character?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Okay, I love the South Park kids. Matt Stone and Trey Parker create some of the most brilliant political and social satire of our time. If you can get passed the filthy language and some issues that are just so beyond the pale (like “Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo”). It is really entertaining and enlightening. And the good news is that they don’t leave any group –liberal, conservative, religious, atheist- untouched. How can you not like “ManBearPig” or the “smug”?

Panelist: T-Rav

If we're talking just any cartoon characters, then it has to be Charlie Brown. I've loved the whole Peanuts gang ever since I was a little kid, including the comic strips, TV shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas, and movies like You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. I guess I like Charlie Brown in particular because I can relate to him; I was an introvert with a bit of a loner streak (who also really liked baseball), and I felt like I shared in many of his disappointments and failures. And through it all, he remained an optimist. That's kind of inspiring.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Loved his battles with the Beagle Boys.

Panelist: ScottDS

Hands down, Daffy Duck! I suppose in some weird way, he represents my id: he's greedy, materialistic, combative, manipulative, and completely uncontrollable. He first appeared in a 1937 Porky Pig short titled Porky's Duck Hunt and was voiced by Mel Blanc. The famous Merrie Melodies cartoon Duck Amuck is one of my favorites.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Hands down, Scooby Doo. Not only is Scooby man's best friend, a truly loyal companion, but he can kind of talk and he solves crime. The relationship between Scooby and Shaggy is one of the greatest friendships in television and film history.

Comments? Thoughts?

[+]

Friday, May 4, 2012

Film Friday: The Black Hole (1979) v. Event Horizon (1997)

Disney’s The Black Hole and Paul Anderson’s Event Horizon don’t seem to have much in common. Black Hole is classic science fiction with robots and mad scientists and questions about the meaning of life. Event Horizon is a slasher film set in space. So why compare them? Because they’re actually the same movie.

** spoiler alert **

Black Hole has a fascinating history. It was the first Disney film not classified as suitable for all ages and it made $36 million at the box office and another $25 million in rentals on a $20 million budget. This success led Disney to experiment with more adult-oriented films, which led to the creation of Touchstone Pictures.

Black Hole is the story of the crew of the USS Palomino, whose mission is to search the universe for signs of life. In the process, they discover a derelict ship hovering on the edge of a black hole. This is the USS Cygnus, captained by Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). After boarding the ship, they discover that Reinhardt is still alive. He’s surrounded by robots -- drones, security troops and a sinister robot called Maximilian. Reinhardt claims the original human crew abandoned ship when the Cygnus was damaged. He stayed aboard hoping to save the ship and continue his research. In the twenty years since the ship went missing, he has perfected an anti-gravity drive and he now plans to use that to take the Cygnus into the black hole itself. Soon, Reinhardt’s story starts to unravel and the Palomino crew discover that the Cygnus crew never left, they have been turned into these drones. Reinhardt tries to kill them and a running battle ensues. During this battle, the Cygnus enters the black hole, which we learn is a gateway to both Heaven and Hell.

Despite surface differences, Event Horizon is rather similar. In Event Horizon, the crew of the Lewis and Clark are dispatched to investigate and rescue a derelict ship. That ship is the Event Horizon, which vanished seven years prior. It vanished because it was using a gravity drive which harnesses the power of a man-made black hole. When the original crew operated the gravity drive, that drive sucked them to Hell. It then returned the ship after the crew slaughtered each other in an orgy of blood. Like Black Hole, there is a mad scientist in the person of Sam Neill, who designed the Event Horizon and is a passenger on the Lewis and Clark. The return of the ship pushes him over the edge of sanity and he eventually tries to kill the crew of the Lewis and Clark, and that’s the whole plot. This film was a bust making only $26 million on a budget of $60 million.

So consider this: both stories involve derelict ships found by rescuers. They are derelict because of black holes, which become the cause of the plot. Both black holes lead to Hell. Both films involve killer mad scientists as the villains. Both films have someone on the rescue ship who lost a family member when the derelict disappeared. Both rescue ships get destroyed, as do the derelicts, and both crews escape in lifepods. That’s pretty similar. Yet, Event Horizon stunk whereas Black Hole is truly an under-appreciate gem. Here’s why.

Event Horizon is one of those films with lots of promise which never pays off, which is typical of Paul Anderson films because they lack substance. Look at the characters for example. Despite having a solid cast (Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill and Jason Isaacs), you never care about the characters because they’re all the same. They all have the identical motivations and personalities. You could literally swap their names and jobs halfway through the film and no one could tell. Black Hole, by comparison, has inferior actors, but vastly superior characters. Each characters has their own strengths and weaknesses which make them relevant and memorable. Captain Holland is smart and cautious. Lt. Pizer is reckless and brave. Booth (Ernest Borgnine) is cowardly. Dr. Durant (Anthony Perkins) is easily awed and becomes torn between the crew and Reinhardt. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) has ESP, and VINCENT (Roddy McDowall) is the feisty, brave and motherly floating robot sidekick. The Black Hole crew are interesting and unique, with each guaranteed to have their good and bad moments in the story. The Event Horizon crew are just bodies to be fed into the special-effects grinder at regular intervals.

Now consider the villains. In Event Horizon the villain is ostensibly the ship, only the real villain is Sam Neill. And while I normally like Neill, here he just plays the standard “appears out of nowhere, says something evil, slaughters crew” type villain. You can’t remember a single line or moment. By comparison, Black Hole has three layers of villains, plus a surprise villain in Borgnine. The first layer is the security robots, who are easy to evade unless they appear in great numbers. Then you have Reinhardt who is crawling with complex motivations. He’s upset the world hasn’t recognized his genius and he’s obsessed with entering the black hole. He’s also gone mad living alone and fears Maximilian. Finally, you have Maximilian, who is a silent mechanical killing machine, like an early terminator, who becomes the personification of Satan. This affords the heroes in Black Hole a much greater and more interesting challenge.

Interestingly, Black Hole also becomes the more effective horror film, even though it’s not a horror film. And no, I’m not kidding. Black Hole means to be science fiction, not horror, but it has a tension which ratchets up repeatedly and leaves you with chilling psychological questions. The film begins with the discovery of the seeming ghost ship, the Cygnus. The ambiance is eerie because it is the kind of environment you can easily imagine where people once occupied the ship and now they are gone to some unexplained fate. It’s like being in an abandoned building where you know something evil happened, and it plays on our fear of being alone, fear of being hunted, and fear of the unknown. Then the Palomino crew discover that the drones are what is left of the original crew, who now live in a desiccated, zombie-like living-death existence. The terror of being imprisoned as the walking dead within your own body for the last twenty years suddenly hits the audience. Finally, the fight for survival begins.

Event Horizon offers no such mid-level tension, it just proceeds from creepy arrival to bloodbath. The ship is dark and ugly and unrealistic, and the plot is entirely watching these people get blown up and sliced apart in an orgy of blood. It’s all very gross and very generic. Yawn. The difference is this: Black Hole touches upon things that scare us and leaves you with several disturbing thoughts to consider when the film is over, Event Horizon leaves you with some ugly pictures you soon forget. Supplementing this, Black Hole has a masterful John Barry soundtrack which has a dizzying effect and supplements the emotional triggers of the film. Event Horizon has a forgettable heavy-metal soundtrack.

The endings are substantively different as well. Black Hole poses the interesting question of what lies beyond the event horizon of a black hole, and it answers that Heaven and Hell are there. It then suggests a view of both, with Hell involving fire, perpetual slavery, and loneliness. Event Horizon sets up the same premise that black holes are gateways to Hell, but it never really explains anything except to say that this somehow caused the crew to butcher each other. . . for some reason. That’s hardly contemplative.

Both Event Horizon and Black Hole have become cult classics, but there’s really no comparison. Black Hole is a well-designed movie which steps up the tension bit by bit, creates a solid eerie atmosphere, gives you lively and unique characters, and finishes with some memorable and thought-provoking ideas. Event Horizon is a bloodbath and nothing more. Its characters are carbon copies, its plot is minimal, it relies on cheap tricks to shock you rather than scare you, and it’s entirely forgettable.

It’s fascinating that two films with virtually identical premises can turn out so differently. I would love to see what a Ridley Scott could do with this concept.

[+]

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guest Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

Do you remember those old movie posters proclaiming “Youʼve read the book, now see the movie”? The trouble is, more often than not, people who see films after reading books on which they are based exit the theater disappointed. There are plenty of reasons underlying the phenomenon. Movies must condense the story to a time frame acceptable for modern cinema, often glossing over important characters or plot developments. Just as often, readers already set in their mindʼs eye what the characters look, sound, and act like, leading to an automatic rejection of the cast in the film version. In worst case scenarios, screenwriters make wholesale changes to the story for any number of reasons.

But sometimes, a film based on a best selling book gets it just right. And, once in a very great while, a story comes along that is so nuanced and complex, the old adage actually gets turned around: “If you do plan to see the movie, you better read the book first!” Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is just such a film and novel. Letʼs review why that is the case.

** spoiler alert **

This film, released in September 2011, is based upon the best selling novel of the same name by former British spy David Cornwell under his pen name, John LeCarre. The novel is his fictionalized account of the greatest scandal in the history of the British Secret Intelligence Service (a.k.a. The Circus) which occurred in the late 1950ʼs when several individuals within the service were exposed as Soviet moles. They became collectively known as the “Cambridge Five.” The highest placed, Kim Philby, somehow managed to escape detection during the initial scandal, eventually defecting to the Soviet Union in 1964. Cornwell (a.k.a. LeCarre) had been employed by both MI-5 and MI-6 and says he was forced out after his identity had been revealed to the Soviets by Philby. It was at this juncture he started his career as a novelist, creating the ongoing character George Smiley, an intelligence official who has appeared in at least ten books. The antithesis of the service as portrayed by novelist Ian Fleming and his protagonist James Bond, Le-Carreʼs Smiley books are considered by many to be the best and most authentic espionage books ever written.

The title is taken from some of the words to an old British nursery rhyme, and used as code names for senior advisors to the head of S.I.S., Control (John Hurt). They include Bill Hayden, “Tailor” (Colin Firth), Roy Bland, “Soldier” (Cirian Hinds), Toby Esterhase, “Poorman” (David Dencik), Percy Alleline, “Tinker” (Toby Jones), and George Smiley “Beggarman” (Gary Oldman).

Plot - The events in the film are set in the 1970ʼs rather than the 50ʼs and 60ʼs. We first view Control sending an agent named Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to speak with a Military General who has offered to share intelligence. The mission goes awry, Prideaux is shot in the back and captured. Control and his ally and chief lieutenant Smiley are forced out as a result of the political fallout, and Controlʼs chief rival, Alleline becomes the new head of S.I.S. Control, already old and in poor health soon dies. However, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), civilian overseer of S.I.S. brings Smiley out of retirement. He wants Smiley to investigate old rumors that “Karla” the head of Soviet Intelligence (known as “Moscow Center”) has a highly placed mole in S.I.S. code named “Gerald.” Alleline rose to power as a result of what appears to be high quality intelligence from a soviet mole he is running in an operation code named “witchcraft.” He appoints his ally and former London station chief Bill Hayden as his chief deputy and right hand man. His hope is to use the “witchcraft” intelligence to regain the confidence of the American “cousins” and entice them to once again share their own intelligence.

Smiley enlists young intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to assist with his investigation. Other key characters include Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) as the agent who originally uncovers the potential existence of “Gerald”, and Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) chief soviet analyst. She was also sacked after the Hungarian operation for accusing the Soviet cultural attache of being an agent, without being able to prove it. What follows is very realistic, if conventional, investigative work. Eventually, Smiley uncovers enough evidence to strongly suspect the identity of “Gerald” and lays a trap for him. There will be no revelation here as to which senior official turns out to be “Gerald” (the fictional version of Kim Philby.)

What Works Really, Really Well - the film is incredibly well photographed, and is stunning in 1080p. Most interior shots are all polished wood and somewhat dimly lit. Direction is superb in terms of cinematography and set up of scenes. While I donʼt know exactly how the master was filmed, it does have an extremely nice but cool feel to it. Acting is uniformly excellent throughout, a tribute to the casting director. Special mention must be given to Gary Oldman in the lead role. He follows Sir Alec Guinness in playing Smiley. Guinness did so in a BBC mini-series adaptions of two of the three novels that make up the so-called “Karla Trilogy” pitting Smiley against Karla. In my view, Oldman need not take a back seat. He was nominated for the oscar for leading actor, losing to Jean Dujardin.

Everything about this film seems real, and that stems from the story itself as well as the screenplay adaption (which was also nominated for an oscar). The characters are credible and believable, perhaps not surprising considering LeCarreʼs “insider” status.

What Doesnʼt Work - The novel is a lengthy, complex tale. Even the author was concerned that it could not be condensed down to feature film length. The original adaption with Guinness was, after all, split into a seven episode mini-series. That is a valid criticism, although the film makers do a reasonable job of retaining the essence of the novel. Other critics complained that given the necessary condensation (or in spite of it), viewers unfamiliar with LeCarreʼs book would be unable to follow the story. In this criticism, I wholeheartedly concur. There are so many characters with unfamiliar names to keep track of, and the dialogue is loaded with “insider” terminology.

Other LeCarre fans insisted trying to pair down the story to feature film length sacrifices the very depth of character development for which the books are justifiably famous. I also believe the very realism that is overall a strength, makes for a very slow developing film. Thereʼs not much in the way of physical action here, and certainly no colorful villains like “Odd Job” or even “Red Grant”.

The Bottom Line - I must be honest and say I have not read all the John LeCarre Smiley books as I have with Ian Flemingʼs Bond stories. They can be a bit of a slog, and are probably not for everyone. But I do understand the allure of LeCarre and Smiley as the “connoisseursʼ” espionage stories. As such, the film will work immensely better if you are familiar with Smiley and his longer term development. I think it would be a shame to miss this film, but if you do plan to see it, this is one time I recommend you “read the book” before screening it. At the very least, check out a good plot synopsis or summary of which several are available on-line. While it will give away the ending, it may just allow you to appreciate better how good, in many respects, this film really is.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 12

James T. Kirk does everything right, always. Well, ok, not always. He has made a couple mistakes. Today, Andrew points out one of these rare failures.

Question from Scott: Andrew, name an episode where you felt Kirk made the wrong moral choice.

Andrew’s Answer: I am troubled by Kirk’s actions in the episode Errand of Mercy. Errand of Mercy is the episode which introduces the Klingons. As the story begins, the Federation and the Klingons are on the verge of war. Kirk has been sent to Organia, a non-aligned planet on the border, which the Federation believes the Klingons will try to grab. Kirk beams down to convince the Organian council to accept Federation protection, but discovers they wish to remain neutral. As he argues with them, the Klingons invade the planet. The Organians refuse to fight back. That’s when things go wrong. Kirk takes it upon himself to start a guerrilla resistance with Spock against the wishes of the Organians. He is captured and the Organians free him. As punishment, the Klingons execute two hundred Organians. Then the two fleets meet above the planet.

At that point, the Organians reveal themselves to be energy creatures and they use their powers to prevent the Klingons and Federation from fighting. Kirk and Commander Kor are furious and scream about the Organians having no right to stop them from fighting. Eventually, they see how stupid it is to whine about someone else stopping their war and both sides go home. Kirk is then ashamed of himself for wanting war.

Here’s what troubles me. First, I am a firm believer that when you are at war, you fight back with all means at your disposal. BUT it troubles me that Kirk would begin a guerrilla war on someone else’s territory when they have declared their neutrality. That strikes me not only as “world’s policeman” stuff, which I oppose, but it also strikes me as Kirk imposing his beliefs upon the Organians. That’s the same impetus which lets liberals think they have the right to force laws upon countries or tell parents how to raise their kids.

Further, I don’t like the conclusion at all. For one thing, Kirk doesn’t espouse genuine principles, as he normally does. Instead, he’s given this childish “if we want to kill each other, then you have no right to stop us” speech. That’s not really fitting of the character. Kirk’s role in the series is to problem-solve his way through moral dilemmas and to come to the right conclusion himself, not to whine as a solution is imposed upon him. Moreover, Kirk was actually set up here by the writer because the war itself is a strawman because we’re never told at any point in the episode why they are really fighting. Thus, we have no idea if Kirk is justified in wanting it or not. Consequently, Kirk’s entire speech about having a right to fight is meaningless because we don’t even know why he’s fighting. As far as we are concerned, he’s basically a war monger because he wants to fight for no other reason than to fight.

Then Kirk realizes he’s being childish about the Organians stopping the war and he agrees that the Organians were morally right to separate the Klingons and the Federation and interfere in their business. Wrong. That’s not the Jim Kirk I know, the one who believes in self-determination. What Kirk should have done is make a very clear statement about how morally incorrect it is for more powerful countries to decide to manage the affairs of less powerful countries and to outline the importance of people being allowed to live their own lives and make their own mistakes. Then, he should have found a way to prevent the war with the Klingons -- though that is impossible because this war has no actual cause other than the writer wanting it. I find this frustrating.

Scott’s Response: Watching the episode again, it's not bad, though I felt it went a bit off the rails in the last five minutes or so (when we find out the true nature of the Organians). You can't say Kirk isn't pro-active, though I disagree that he went about imposing his beliefs - to me, it seemed to be a simple matter of self-preservation. (Star Trek has always been inconsistent in this area anyway.) Regarding the "world's policeman" concept, it would be interesting to see what other conservatives think, given that some are more agreeable to that concept. I also disagree about Kirk admitting the Organians are right: he still reminds them that, while no one wants war, "People have a right to handle their own affairs." While he later admits that he's embarrassed for underestimating the Organians, that's not the same as admitting they were right. Lastly, this episode might be rather unique in the canon: we rarely ever had a Star Trek character arguing for the right to wage war.

Andrew's Reply: It wasn't really self preservation because Kirk could have simply sat out the war in hiding as an Organian. Instead, he set about blowing up a munitions dump, and thereby forcing the Organians into it on the Federation side. On the other point, you are right that Kirk does say that people have a right to settle their own affairs, but I see that as face saving really because Kirk abandons the point rather than arguing it till he wins. All in all, it feels like an endorsement of big powers controlling small countries for their own good to me, especially when Kirk then admits that he feels ashamed of being angry at them stopping the war he wanted (another un-Kirk-like thing). Either way, this is not one of Kirk's prouder moments.

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