Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Scott's Links October 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. . .

The Force will be with us again!

I read the news during class and almost blurted out an expletive. Disney has purchased Lucasfilm for the (rather cheap) price of $4 billion. Not only that, we WILL be getting a new trilogy starting in 2015. This is Earth-shaking news and as of this writing (8:00 PM 10/30/12) there are literally a hundred questions out there with no answers. Will the original edits of the films be released? Who knows?

The revenge of the irony-free sitcom

I actually don't watch any of these shows - The Middle, Up All Night, etc. - and while there seems to be a thin line between sincerity and schmaltzy, the writers of these shows know where that line is. And as much as I try to spread the word about darker shows I enjoy like Louie, I admit it's heartening to know that the family sitcom still survives, and without any of the manipulative "Very Special Episode" cliches that we all remember and cringe at.

Film culture isn't really dead or democratized

It seems we have two scenarios: 1.) film culture is dead, or 2.) film culture is not dead but simply doesn't belong to the proper culture anymore. This article postulates a third scenario: everything is fine. "Film as an art form has gotten more popular over the past century, some individual movies have stood out to reach the larger masses, and filmmaking itself has changed in some profound ways. Some big conversation pieces have been pure spectacle, others thought-provoking. So it goes. The Internet may have democratized filmmaking, but the only thing it’s done for fans is to give us greater access, which is something to never stop celebrating."

Taken 2 and the spy movie problem

The idea that a spy agency could have both good and sinister intentions is an old one - some folks have a hard time believing that the organizations mandated to protect us are all on the level. On the other hand, with great ambiguity comes great drama: "Art and culture, including popular entertainment, is often where a society’s doubts about itself can be most freely expressed, and from its very beginnings the spy thriller has often presented espionage as, at best, a morally dubious affair."

Celebrating 50 years of The Jetsons

The Jetsons aired on Nickelodeon during my elementary school years so I'm quite familiar with it. What's interesting is that it only ran for one year, which means all those episodes we grew up watching... it was just a couple dozen that aired over and over again for decades! This article comes to use courtesy of Matt Novak who blogs about a subject I'm interested in: retro-futurism - the future as envisioned by people who lived in the past. Hopefully that sense of wonder and optimism will come back one day. But even more importantly, where is my flying car?!

A look back at Starlog and pre-Internet movie rumors

Ah, Starlog. I'm thankful I grew up at a time when these magazines were still around. And I know I've said it before but mine was the last generation to know life before the Internet which meant I had to get my news about the series finale of Star Trek: TNG from actual printed matter. In a store! As much as I love the instant gratification the Internet brings us, there was something to be said for the "quest" - the physical act of seeking out information and sharing it with people in the flesh. Or maybe I'm over-analyzing it. [smile]

Abraham Lincoln's Pop Culture Legacy

On the eve of Steven Spielberg's new film, this article takes a look at our 16th president's appearances in film and television, for better and worse. Not only was he a hero to Captain Kirk, he also gave some sound advice to the students of San Dimas High School: "Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes!" (Whenever the subject of Lincoln comes up, the voice I hear in my head is the actor who played him in that film.) Hell, I might just write in his name when I go to vote next week!

10 archetypes TV needs to get over

"The rogue good guy" is always a dependable stand-by but I can't disagree with most of the others, especially "the Jersey girl." I'm somewhat sympathetic to "the man-child" but it depends on the execution: he could steal the show or make you want to destroy your TV. And I'm sure in another 10 or 15 years, we'll have a whole new set of archetypes to complain about.

Firefly and lessons in contract law

Andrew, this one's for you. And who says you can't learn anything from TV? Apparently, there is much to take away from Captain Mal's various business dealings and the shady characters he always managed to piss off. In fact, the purpose of this blog is to analyze sci-fi from a legal point of view. Interesting stuff and it's too bad we didn't think of it first!

Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 25

Yes, I know I linked to a similar story last month but this one is special on a personal level and is best summed up by the following: "When you're a skinny 13-year-old who's scared a third of the time and bored another third, the idea of roaming the constellations with Captain Picard, whom adventure follows like a shadow and who always knows what to do, will obviously have a certain appeal."

The craziest myths tackled by the Mythbusters

I should really start watching this show, and not just because I think Kari is hot. This article looks at some of the more insane myths these guys busted (or tried to bust), including but not limited to: escaping from a sinking car, impregnation via musket ball, and surfing with a rocket-powered surf board. You don't need eye or ear protection to read this article. (Yeah, that's as "cutesy" as I get!)

The ripoff factory known as The Asylum

Have you ever noticed that, whenever a big blockbuster is out in theaters, there's usually a similarly-titled imitation available the next week on Netflix and Amazon? Me too, and these films are the work of a production company called Asylum. They see themselves as simply part of the release of the other film and not a detractor and they don't consider what they do deceitful. On the other hand, I admit I feel bad for the person who purchased Transmorphers thinking it was Transformers. Or Battle of Los Angeles thinking it was Battle: Los Angeles.

Last night's listening:

Nothing. I have two albums on order, Film Score Monthly should be announcing their last title before the year is out, and La-La Land Records will be announcing their Black Friday releases in a few weeks. My wallet and I wait for the dawn.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 31

We asked about the funniest moment in the films, and there were many. But what about the series? Was there anything funny in the series?

Question: "What was the funniest moment in any Star Trek series?"

Scott's Answer: "The Trouble with Tribbles" is probably Trek at its funniest, but it's also just an extremely well-written episode. Memorable dialogue, fun character moments (I love Kirk's "Storage compartments? Storage compartments?!"), and everyone gets a moment to shine, including the entire cast - sans George Takei who was shooting a movie - and a half-dozen guest stars. Not bad for 23-year old David Gerrold - this was his first script sale! TNG had many funny moments, including Riker giving a Ferengi some purposely-confusing technobabble, the various misadventures of Lt. Barclay, Q posing as a delivery man asking for "a Jean Luck Pickerd," and a bizarre dinner party with Troi's mother in which Data utters the immortal line, "Could you please continue the petty bickering?"

Andrew's Answer: I had a real problem with the humor in The Next Generation. It all felt faked to me and I never found it funny. I did laugh a good deal at the humor in the original series however. I suppose "The Trouble With Tribbles" is the Holy Grail on that. And I think the funniest moment was when Scotty emphatically said he didn't start the fight with the Klingons because they insulted Kirk, but he did start swinging when they called the Enterprise a "garbage scow." Kirk has this hilarious look on his face which just makes you laugh.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 59

There are good films, then there are great films, and then there are films that blow your mind. . . like Ernest Goes To Jail!

What film “blew your mind” and why?

Panelist: T-Rav

Depending on how you define the term "blew your mind," I'll cautiously go with The Matrix. If you go into movies without significant prior knowledge of their plot (harder and harder to do nowadays), I think it was maybe the last one that would have completely thrown you a curveball, gone in directions you never expected, and combined that with revolutionary visuals and special effects. It's that WHOA reaction.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Blew My Mind?: The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. When I first started working, there was an older gentleman who was a marketing rep. Heavy alcoholic from the Mad Men school of bourbon drinkers. At the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I saw him honored in the paper as a first waver at Omaha. That film brought home the kind of real combat fear as nothing else I've ever seen.

Panelist: ScottDS

There Will Be Blood, which is an American masterpiece that my friend and I saw, not knowing what we were getting into. Neither of us see movies like this in the theater that often but when the credits began to roll, all we could do was sit there in unblinking silence.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I'm going with recent find Triangle. I expected total schlock and found something truly inspired. I have seen the film about a dozen times now and still can't figure it all out. This is a film with layer up layer of philosophy and paradox. Bravo!

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Schindler’s List – About twenty minutes into the film I almost left. I just could not take what was happening or what I knew was going to happen. But a little voice inside my head said that I must stay because these people suffered for years and the least I could do was suffer for two hours. I did not know until the end with the visit to Schindler’s grave that many were still alive.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Film Friday: The Village (2004)

I wanted to like The Village so much. After The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and even Signs, M. Night Shyamalan had won me over, even if his films weren’t as well received by the public as they should have been. But The Village never worked. It started well, but it fell apart quickly and it just kept getting worse.

** heavy spoiler alert **
The Plot
The Village is an odd story about a group of people who live in a village surrounded by a vast forest. The film appears to take place in the 1880s or in a world where humanity has been reduced to the technological and cultural level of the 1880s. Indeed, these people have no modern machinery, no cars, no electricity and no modern medicine. They also dress like Mennonite farmers and they talk like caricatures of the 1880s. The story centers around Ivy Elizabeth Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), who can best be described as Tom Sawyer in a dress. Ivy is the daughter of the village leader Edward Walker (William Hurt), and she is blind.
As the story begins, we are told that the forest is controlled by evil creatures the villagers call “Those We Do Not Speak Of.” These creatures wear red cloaks and look something like wild boars. And apparently, there is some truce which involves the villagers staying out of the forest so the monsters won’t raid the village. But then there is an attack. In the meantime, a love story has arisen between Ivy and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix). Lucius wants to brave the forest to get medicine from some nearby town to stop children from dying from common illnesses. The village elders forbid this. But then Lucius gets stabbed by Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), a retarded man. He is dying. So the elders decide to let Ivy venture to the town to get medicine to save him. That’s when the “big” secret gets revealed.
The Problems
Like I said, I wanted to like this film a lot. And the beginning of the film has a neat vibe to it that does present you with an interesting world that pulls you into the story, even if the dialog feels oddly stilted. Soon, however, the plot falls off the rails. And the reason it does this is because Shyamalan couldn’t decide what he really wanted to make. Did he want a horror movie? A romance? A tale of evil? A psychological thriller? Yeah, sort of.

The ultimate problem with The Village is that Shyamalan never picks a single genre which will drive the film. Instead, the film meanders between genres. By failing to pick a dominant genre, Shyamalan ends up creating a film which dabbles in several genres but never does any of them effectively. For example, the idea of the creatures in the woods is truly terrifying. And when they first appear, you really do get the makings of a heck of a horror movie. But that idea resolves itself without ever delivering a real bang. The romance between Ivy and Lucius starts well enough as well. You like both characters and you see how their relationship will ultimately prove to be satisfying once they overcome the obstacles in their path. This is a classic romantic premise and you feel like you are on your way to an exceptional romance. But that never goes anywhere either.

Both of these storylines basically stop when Lucius gets stabbed. At that point, a new storyline begins which asks whether or not the people who created the village have done something truly evil to the kids who are stuck in the village. But frustratingly, the film never delves into that either. It sets it up and it spends a few minutes batting the idea back and forth, but before this issue can be explored to any degree, the film shifts to Ivy walking through the woods to save Lucius.

This is a storytelling disaster. At each phase, you are presented with a story that you instinctively know has been very well setup and could be a great story – a horror film, a romance, and psychological thriller/tale of evil. But each time, right after the setup, the film cuts off that storyline and starts a new one. Thus, you get a horror film which becomes a romance before it unleashes any horror, and the romance becomes a psychological thriller before it give you any romantic payoff, and the psychological thriller morphs into “blind girl walking through the woods” before the issues are even fully established. This is highly frustrating.
For one thing, this wastes all the investment in the horror and romance storylines because they prove meaningless to the story. For another, the blind girl walking through the woods is the weakest storyline, so focusing on that is a huge mistake. Moreover, if anything in this film could be called a common theme, it is the storyline questioning whether or not the adults have been justified in their deceptions. That is the only storyline that really is relevant in each part of the film. BUT, once their deception is revealed, i.e. right when you expect the payoff to this story, the film shifts to blind girl walks through the woods, and all the questions that were raised by the actions of the adults get dropped, if they even got asked. This is like watching the first two thirds of a Twilight Zone only to have the last third be replaced by something from another drama. It’s completely unsatisfying.

Further, this structure undermines the big twist Shyamalan drops at the end. When the blind girl makes it through the forest, we suddenly learn the BIG secret about the adults. This secret is meant to shock the audience and to cast everything the audience has seen in a new light. But because this relates to the storyline which was already dropped by the time the secret is revealed, it lacks punch. A twist simply won’t work when it doesn’t relate to the story that is on people’s minds at the moment, and when this twist arises, the only thing the audience is left with is “girl walking through the woods.” Each of the other stories ended by that point.
Mixing genres is one of the hardest things to do in storytelling. Unless you really are an expert in both genres and you are a talented enough storyteller to bring those two storylines together seamlessly, then what you end up with is a story that is neither fish nor fowl and satisfies no one. Shyamalan’s problem is in the mixing. Indeed, his problem isn’t that he couldn’t have told a horror story, a romance, or a psychological thriller. Clearly he could, as each of these started quite promisingly. But rather than weave them together to create one overall film, he just runs them in series and cuts them off when he needs to start the next one. Thus, you end up with three partial stories and one complete story, none of which satisfy. Had Shyamalan actually brought them all together, The Village might have been his best film. Instead, it was just another Shyamalan film that didn’t live up to the hype.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Politics of Star Trek vol. 1

Rather than doing a typical Star Trek article this week, I'm instead going to announce the release of the first edition of The Politics of Star Trek volume one.

This is the first in what I expect to be seven books that will cover the entire original series. The format is similar to the series we've done here at the site, though each episode is covered in a little more depth. Volume one also has an introduction which talks about the nature of Star Trek and how it came to be conservative. So this is a bit more than you'll get at the blog if you're interested.

The image above is the cover, which was done by our own tryanmax. He also provided eight more illustrations for the book.

Here are the episodes that are covered in volume one:
Episode 3: “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
Episode 50: “Patterns of Force”
Episode 14: “Balance of Terror”
Episode 48: “A Private Little War”
Episode 28: “The City on the Edge of Forever”
Episode 13: “The Conscience of the King”
Episode 75: “The Way To Eden”
Episode 24: “This Side of Paradise”
Episode 5: “The Enemy Within”
Episode 23: “A Taste of Armageddon”
I'm hoping to get future additions out every couple of months.

If you're interested in the book or if you know someone who would be, you can find it at Amazon (LINK). Please leave a review!

And hopefully, the Conservative Guide to Films will be ready within a couple weeks as well.

So tell me, what is your favorite conservative moment from Star Trek?
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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hollywood: The Political Weathervane

We’ve talked about this before in the comments, but I think it’s worth elevating this to article status. There have been a number of celebrities who have recently “come out” as Republicans by endorsing Romney or by flat-out saying they are Republicans. And many of these are minorities, like Stacy Dash and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. I think this is significant.

Everybody already knew about Drew Carey, Dennis Miller, Adam Sandler, Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer. And don’t forget Tom Selleck, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Stephen Baldwin, Clint Eastwood, Scott Baio, Gary Sinise, Gene Simmons, Jerry Bruckheimer, and a few dozen more. But they’re all old, right? So how about Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey? Sarah Michelle Gellar?

Anyway, here’s where it gets interesting to me. In recent months, Kim Kardashian has come out as a Republican. So has Stacy Dash and Lindsey Lohan. At the same time, the ones who have come out are being much more vocal in going to the convention, campaigning for Romney, and generally expressing their views everywhere.

In 2008, for any of these people to declare that they are a Republican would have been career suicide. After 8 years of Bush, the Republican brand had become toxic. And these people depend on getting the nation’s youth, i.e. the brainless slacker demographic, to buy their films, shows or songs. The slacker demographic is notoriously groupthink in their outlook and simply cannot stomach liking the wrong things. Thus, declaring yourself a Republican in 2008 would likely have led to these celebrities losing the very audiences they rely upon. Not to mention that they work in an industry where the power-that-be are all doctrinaire liberals, and not just doctrinaire liberals, but obnoxiously anti-conservative liberals. . . the kinds of people who blacklist those with whom they disagree.

But now they are coming out and waving the flag. This is significant.

What this tells me is that the Republican brand is no longer toxic. But even more than that, it tells me that the Democratic brand has lost its luster and is no longer preferred in the culture. Otherwise, these people would still pretend to be Democrats or would remain silent. Indeed, if Kim “the Butt” Kardashian believed that her fans, who are core slackers, were Democrats, then she would never have declared herself a Republican because she knows her audience would have abandoned her. Ditto on Jessica Simpson, Stacy Dash, Nick Lachey, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Lindsay Lohan. And if the rest thought the public still saw Republicanism as some sort of disease, they certainly wouldn’t be openly campaigning. Don’t forget, in 2008, most conservatives in Hollywood were calling themselves “libertarians” or “independents,” and even well-known-conservative Kelsey Grammer was saying that his political views were not something he wanted to talk about. Now he’s trumpeting them.

How this plays out exactly remains to be seen, but I think it tells us that the cultural pendulum is swinging back. These celebrities are a weathervane for the culture, and they clearly think that average Americans are abandoning the Democrats and embracing the Republicans. Making this belief even stronger is the fact that many of these new “outies” are young women, the one demographic on which the Democrats hold an iron grip. Don’t underestimate the significance of this, this has the potential to change places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 30

A couple weeks ago we asked about Captain Kirk's best qualities, but no man is perfect... except maybe me. :) So maybe we should flip that around?

Question: "What is Capt. James T. Kirk's worst quality as a leader?"

Scott's Answer: I struggled with this one. I really did. An exhaustive Google search came up with all sorts of articles with titles like "Captain Kirk's Best Qualities" but with no mention of his flaws. At the end of the day, I'd say that he could come across as arrogant now and then. Not all the time, mind you, but it was there. On one hand, I suppose a touch of arrogance is required to attain a position like his. On the other hand, sometimes you just want to say, "Dude, you don't know everything!" [smile]

Andrew's Answer: Kirk has flaws? Who knew? Actually, I don't think he does, at least not in the series. In the films, sure, but that's not the real Kirk. So I'm going to go a little philosophical on this one. I think Kirk's biggest problem is that he makes no room in his life for a family. Kirk focuses so excessively on his duty that he's become rather one-dimensional and I that while this makes him an incredible leader, it also will deprive him of the things that are most important in life. It makes me feel sad for him.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 58


What film was your most pleasant surprise?

Panelist: T-Rav

Rat Race, the 90s comedy with Jon Lovitz and company. It sounded really stupid and cheap when I heard of it--and frankly, it is kind of cheap--but then I watched it two or three times in a row when our dorm was snowed in once, and a lot of it was very, very funny. They say that's why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but this was a movie, not a book, so I don't know about that.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Probably The Usual Suspects. I mean who could see that one coming? More recently Winter's Bone - Jennifer Lawrence takes a very bleak depressing situation and keeps you glued to your chair rooting for her grit.

Panelist: ScottDS

A friend of mine showed me Joe vs. the Volcano a few years ago. I had heard of it but I didn't know what to expect. I loved it. I loved every second of it. I couldn't believe I had gone that far in life without seeing it! Simply a beautiful movie and one that I needed at that point in my life.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Jed and T-Rav both stole my answers. :( So I'm going to say Ninth Gate. I went in expecting just another cheap horror movie and I found a truly smart, psychological thriller with layer upon layer of depth. OR... Pirates of the Caribbean, which I thought would totally suck and turned out to be an excellent film!

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Film Friday: Alien (1979)

Alien is one of my favorite horror movies. It’s also one of my favorite science fiction movies. This is a film which does everything right in both genres, and that’s really impressive. It’s also really rare. And what makes this film work is what Ridley Scott doesn’t show us. Let’s talk about this classic film.

Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien is the story of the crew of the commercial towing vessel Nostromo. They are returning to Earth with a cargo of twenty million tons of ore. As the film begins, the crew is awoken from stasis when the ship detects lifesigns on a nearby uninhabitable planet. They are required to investigate. On the planet, one member of the crew has an alien creature break through his helmet and attach itself to his face. It appears to die, but as the crew is about to find out, they now have an alien problem.
The Perfect Horror Movie
What makes a film the perfect horror movie? The obvious answer is that it scares you. But there’s more to it than that because there are three different types of fear. The first is shock, such as when something jumps out at you. Horror movies need this to give the film a pulse. Alien does this extremely well. In fact, Alien is full of surprises and Ridley Scott often manipulates the level of surprise by teasing the audience with false tension, which he releases right before landing the real surprise. This catches the audience right after they’ve let their guard down and makes these shocks all the more effective.

The second is akin to dread or instinctual fear. This is achieved by putting the audience in a position where our natural instincts cause us to feel uneasy. Examples of this include our fear of the dark, fear of being in tight spaces or being trapped, fear of being in spaces that are too large for us to monitor and control, and fear of the unknown. These are harder to achieve on film because it requires pulling the audience into the film. But once again, Alien does this perfectly. In fact, the ship is perfectly designed for this. It is far too vast for the crew to monitor and control, yet at the same time, wherever the crew is at the moment feels confined, with no easy escapes. What’s more, Scott was smart enough to never show you enough of the creature to take away the mystery or to let you get accustomed to it. Thus, the full extent of the threat itself remains unknown, and that scares us.
The third is a true sense of terror. This is the kind of thing that sticks with you and makes you shiver days later. This is the Holy Grail of horror and few films achieve it, with Jaws and The Exorcist being notable examples. One would think Alien couldn’t really achieve this because its subject matter isn’t something to which we can related. Indeed, while any of us can imagine being eaten by a shark or possessed by something demonic, few of us think we’re going to end up fighting aliens in deep space. But Alien cleverly gets around this problem by giving the audience moments to which they can relate. For example, having the alien burst out of Kane’s chest is something humans can imagine because it fits right in with any number of urban legends about creatures laying eggs inside someone. This lets the audience relate to the horror, and the strength of this vision has been proven by the fact everyone continues to talk about that moment thirty years later.

This is why Alien is such a phenomenal horror movie, because it hits on all three types of fear. Few films manage to achieve this, and those that do tend to be remembered as classics. Alien is one of these elite few.
The Perfect Science Fiction Movie
Not only is Alien the perfect horror movie, but it’s also the perfect science fiction film. The most critical aspect of any science fiction film is that it presents a world the audience can believe is real. Too often, the worlds presented are shallow or make no sense. They include technological changes that would remake society, yet society hasn’t been remade. They present a world without laborers and people who own no personal effects. They talk about the elimination of money, yet still show people having jobs. And sometimes, they’re just dated, where our own society is now more advanced. Alien falls into none of these traps.
Despite the entire film taking place on only one ship and involving only seven people, Alien gives us an incredibly rich and detailed glimpse of their universe. Indeed, Alien tells us everything we need to know about their society. They have blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, and bosses. The interaction between the computer and the crew tells us that society very much remains a society which humans run, it is not automated. The suits at corporate still run the world. The crew worry about money and their contracts. They talk about food and grouse about work. They still think about sex and haven’t been “pair bonded” or some crap like that. The Nostromo is crawling with personal knickknacks. Their clothes are dirty. Their equipment is used. This is a real world, and we can visualize it, and these are real people with real lives, not science fiction prop-people.

Moreover, we get tantalizing glimpses of the rest of the universe. We see there are aliens in this universe, as we see two species – the alien itself and the alien corpse on the ship where they find the alien. We discover there are robots, and they look just like people. We know from the Nostromo that the universe is crawling with advanced spaceships. How do we know? To us, the Nostromo would be stunningly fantastic, but to her crew, the Nostromo is a piece of junk. It is a tired, common workhorse of a spaceship. That tells us there must be larger, more modern vessels ferrying people, exploring space, or even defending worlds. We know all these things without ever seeing them.

And that is the key point: what makes Alien such great science fiction is actually not what Ridley Scott shows us, it’s what he doesn’t show us. He shows us the usual things every science fiction film shows us: aliens, computers, and spaceships, but he never shows us too much.
We see enough of the alien to understand its more terrifying aspects, such as its acid blood, its murderous instincts, and its being impervious to extreme atmospheres. We are even given a hint of its life cycle. That makes this creature very real to us. But beyond that, we really only get glimpses and little real knowledge. That make the creature real and yet simultaneously keeps it a mystery. This results in a very satisfying creature because we feel we know it, yet we don’t know enough about it to disbelieve it. To the contrary, we know just enough to leave us hungry for more.

The Nostromo is the same. Spaceships often feel fake because they are designed for the sleek visual or built like mazes to accommodate the horror plot. . . cough cough Event Horizon. The Nostromo isn’t. It is built for a genuine task and its design is ergonomic. The part where the crew lives is bright and well lit. Its style and shape make sense. All of this makes the ship real to us because this is very much a ship that real people would take into space. Yet, at the same time, we know nothing about the ship’s size, shape or technology. This lack of knowledge actually helps us believe the ship is real because we don’t have anything to criticize and thus we can’t poke holes in the design.
This lack of knowledge also keeps the film from feeling dated. Consider the computer. While the computer interface feels somewhat dated, Scott does enough to make us think we aren’t seeing “the whole picture,” so we never get a chance to compare the supposed capabilities of this computer with our own. Moreover, since the Nostromo is a piece of junk, we know the computer is not the high end. All of this prevents us from laughing at the film when our own technological achievements surpass those in the film. Had Scott tried to show off how great this computer was, the film probably would be dated by now.

These were brilliant choices. By focusing on the personal relationships of the crew, while only teasing us with glimpses of the science fiction and leaving the rest to our imaginations, Scott lets the audience fill in the blanks and build the world in their heads. This makes the film remarkably adaptable because everything outside of the story itself can change with tastes and time. Thus, it will never grow stale and it will never grow old. This is a perfect formula and it’s amazing so few science fiction (or horror) films have grasped what Scott does here. And the key to what Scott has done is to give us just enough to make everything seem real, but absolutely nothing more.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Offer: The Conservative Guide To Films

Folks, The Conservative Guide To Films is almost done. It's a rather extensive book with a ton of information that you will find incredibly useful. And I have a deal to offer you. I need reviews of my current two books. (LINK) Anyone who reviews both of those books will get a free copy of the conservative film guide as soon as it's available. The reviews don't need to be long and you can give them any rating you want. No strings attached. I need your help on this!
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012


October is all about Halloween and that means it's horror movie month. Everyone is doing horror festivals all month and I'm enjoying it all. I've already mentioned a couple of obscure favorites (LINK) which you should catch if they happen to come on -- led by Pontypool and Prince of Darkness in particular -- but why don't you tell us what to watch out for? What are some of your favorite horror films. . . bonus points for obscure horror films.
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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 29

A Vulcan, an android and a Romulan walk into a bar owned by a talking parrot. Stay with me here. . .

Question: "What was the funniest moment in the Star Trek films?"

Scott's Answer: If you had asked me this question when I was 11 years old, I might've said Data's various emotion chip scenes in Star Trek Generations . His first drink, the "lifeforms" song, and even his brief use of profanity... but today, I find those moments more cloying than anything else. Having said that, I love the scene in Star Trek IV in Gillian's truck, which includes the famous "Yes"/"No" exchange between Kirk and Spock regarding their love of Italian food, along with one of my favorite bits, when Kirk says to Gillian, "You're not exactly catching us at our best" to which Spock interjects "That much is certain." I also love this exchange between Bones and Spock in The Motion Picture: "Spock, you haven't changed a bit. You're just as warm and sociable as ever." "Nor have you, Doctor, as your continued predilection for irrelevancy demonstrates."

Andrew's Answer: Good question! The films had a lot of hilarious moments. Spock not knowing how to swear in Star Trek IV, Kirk and his "double-dumbass on you." Then there's the "Earth, Hilter, 1938" moment in The Undiscovered Country. From First Contact you've got, "You didn't tell him about the statue?" But my favorite moment is actually in Star Trek III, when McCoy says of Spock putting his consciousness inside McCoy, "This is his revenge for all those arguments he lost!" LOL!

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 57

Many of you have asked for this, so here it comes. Let's talk about music today.

Who is your favorite soundtrack/score composer?

Panelist: T-Rav

I don't care if it is kind of an obvious choice, I have to give it to John Williams. He's done every George Lucas/Steven Spielberg movie I can think of, and his themes are so iconic--Star Wars, of course, and Indiana Jones, through Jurassic Park to lesser known stuff like Catch Me If You Can, and every score seems to encapsulate the theme of the movie perfectly. I think he's probably done more lasting and successful work than anyone else in Hollywood over the past generation.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Thomas Newman of the famous Newman family. Absolutely love his piano scores in Road to Perdition, Shawshank, American Beauty, Cinderella Man just to name a few. His style is beginning to get overdone, though.

Panelist: ScottDS

Jerry Goldsmith, whom I was lucky to see in concert in 2001, three years before he passed away. A cursory glance at his filmography reveals an eclectic list, featuring classic films and bombs best forgotten, orchestral powerhouses and small ensembles, traditional pieces and synthesized experiments. At film school, I managed to pay homage to him by including a short snippet of the Patton theme in my (otherwise crappy) student film.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

John Williams would be the obvious choice for me because I've liked everything he's done. His work is also incredibly memorable. But I'm not going with Williams. I'm going with John Barry because of the James Bond Theme and his amazing work on The Black Hole.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Max Steiner and/or John Williams! Okay, I really don’t know many of the composers who score movies. This is ScottDS’s forte.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Film Friday: The Ninth Gate (1999)

Hollywood loves evil. . . cartoon evil. From sulking cannibalistic serial killers to Al Pacino’s devil screaming about being a lawyer, all of Hollywood’s evil characters display uncontrollable sadism and megalomania. They yell and scream and prance around shooting their underlings or kicking puppies so the audience knows they are evil. And every once in a while, a truly sinister one whispers ominously. . . and then prances around shooting his underlings and kicking puppies. The Ninth Gate rejects that. The Ninth Gate is an indictment of Hollywood’s version of evil. It is a warning that we have been so blinded by the glitz of Hollywood evil, that we can no longer recognize the real thing.

** heavy spoiler alert **
The Plot
Directed by Roman Polanski, The Ninth Gate is the story of Dean Corso (played perfectly by Johnny Depp). Corso is an odious little man who acquires rare books for well paying clients. We first meet Corso as he tricks a young couple out of a rare copy of "Don Quixote." Soon Corso is summoned by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a collector of books about the devil. Balkan has acquired a copy of the “Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows” by Aristide Torchia. This rare book (only three exist) supposedly will allow the reader to summon the devil. Balkan suspects his version is a forgery and pays Corso to inspect the other two copies. Corso is told to obtain an original, non-forgery by any means possible. Thus begins Corso’s journey.
When Corso begins comparing the books, he discovers that Torchia hid a secret in all three books as a kind of puzzle. Each book contains nine supposedly-identical engravings. But Corso realizes that three of the engravings in each book contain subtle differences and that the engravings with those differences are signed “LCF” (meaning Lucifer).

As Corso examines the books, people around him start dying. He is also chased by a sadistic woman named Liana Telfer who wants Balkan’s copy of the book (Balkan took it from her husband). Telfer belongs to a cult and intends to use the book as part of a Satanic ritual. Corso also meets the Baroness Kessler, who claims to have seen the devil in her youth, and who has since dedicated her life to writing about the devil. Telfer eventually steals the book from Corso, and Balkan kills her to reclaim it. He then uses the book himself to attempt to conjure the devil. But the final engraving is a forgery. Thus, when Balkan sets himself on fire, much to his surprise, he burns. As he burns, Corso shoots him. Corso then retrieves the real engraving, which reveals the location of the ninth gate. As the story ends, we see Corso walking through the ninth gate.
The Message
The Ninth Gate is about real evil, and that evil is Corso. Corso systematically abandons God by engaging in each of the seven deadly sins and ultimately declares allegiance to the devil and voluntarily pass through the ninth gate. But can the audience see this?

To test the audience, Polanski does more than just tell us the story of Dean Corso. Indeed, he attempts to distract us with the over-the-top, pro-forma Hollywood evil of Balkan and Telfer. Polanski knows that we are so accustomed to Hollywood evil and Hollywood formula that we will see these two as “the” evil and we will dismiss Corso’s own evil. Indeed, like Pavlov’s dogs, we’ve come to expect that all evil is larger-than-life and that where there is an evil character there must be an opposing good character. Thus, we are conditioned to see Corso as “the good guy” and we cheer him on, no matter how evil he becomes. And evil he does become.

Throughout the movie, Corso’s evil continues to ratchet up notch after notch and Polanski turns each of these notches into a test for the audience. In each instance, as Corso undertakes his relentless, remorseless journey of evil, we are offered a justification for his conduct. But we are also shown why that justification is not valid. Can we recognize the truth? For example, Corso drinks and smokes to excess. Sure, it’s gluttony, but we all do it. He pushes away two beggars, but they didn’t seem very likeable. He steals from a dead man, but we’re told “he’s dead, why worry about him.” When Corso defrauds the couple of the "Don Quixote," we don’t mind because they are shown to be greedy people hoping to profit off their father’s stroke. Yet, we’re also shown that the father suffers when he see Corso’s actions but is powerless to stop him. Thus, our excuse that only bad people will suffer from his conduct is shown to be false.

Corso accepts Balkan’s assignment to do “whatever it takes,” which we know to be wrong, but we understand his motivation because Balkan offers him a tremendous amount of money. Indeed, our greed blinds us to the truth. When his best friend is killed because of this assignment, we nevertheless want him to continue -- after all, he’s dead, why worry about him. Corso sleeps with Liana Telfer under false pretenses, but we don’t mind because she’s evil and she was trying to use him. Later on, he even kills Telfer’s henchman, but it’s all in self-defense, right? Actually no. Corso kills the henchman after he knocks him unconscious. Corso could have simply escaped, but he was angry so he chose to kill the man. Anger, by the way, was once considered the worst of all sins.
And let’s not forget that Corso also kills a second time. He kills Balkan after Balkan sets himself on fire. But that was a mercy killing, right? He didn’t want Balkan to suffer in the fire, right? Actually, look again. Corso watches Balkan burn with more than a hint of satisfaction on his face. It is only near the end, as Balkan is about to die from his burns that Corso shoots him, to satisfy his own vengeance.

Further, consider the young woman with no name. She is the devil. How do we know this? We are never told who she is, but we are given clues -- like the rest of the film, her identity is a puzzle to be solved. Of all the characters, she is the only one with supernatural powers (she floats on air in one scene and changes her form in an airport in another). Also, her’s is the face of the woman riding the beast in the final engraving, and when she and Corso finally have sex, her eyes glow as the flames build behind them, making her physically appear as the devil might.

As the devil, Hollywood tells us she would be interested in Balkan or Telfer, but she’s not. She wants Corso because unlike the fake evil of Balkan or Telfer, Corso offers real evil. Indeed, interestingly, despite obsessing over the devil their entire lives, neither Balkan or Telfer ever realize that she is the devil -- even though she is standing right before their eyes. She is simply not what they expect, she’s not grandiose. Continuing this theme, Balkan even has a painting of the location of the ninth gate in his library at the beginning of the film, but never grasps its meaning. Polanski’s point in this, is that evil stands before us all the time, but we don’t see it because we are looking for something too grandiose.

With regard to Corso, the young woman renders her verdict when Corso kills the henchmen. She watches the murder with glee and then says with admiration, “I didn’t know you had it in you.” He has passed the test.
Finally, Polanski gives us huge hints from Corso’s own mouth. When he first deals with Balkan, Corso says to Balkan “my god” and refers to him on the phone as “his master’s voice.” While these could be viewed as nothing more than expressions or clever turns-of-phrase, they are instead meant to alert the reader that Corso worships the man who pays him. He has no other allegiance. When Corso discovers the puzzle within the three books, he says, “I’ll be damned,” as indeed he will. And when he finally decides he no longer cares about Balkan’s money, but instead wants to solve the puzzle and conjure the devil himself, he says to the young woman, “my god” -- effectively declaring a new allegiance to the devil. These are clues into the nature of Corso’s soul.

Each of these clues combine to show us that Corso is the true evil in this movie. He is the one the devil considers most compelling. That we lose sight of Corso’s evil because it is not over-the-top like Balkan is Polanski’s point. We the viewers cheer Corso along in his journey. We fail to see the evil in his acts, we justify what evil we do see, and we happily share his fate. That is the message of this film. It is no coincidence that the only two people to see the devil for who he/she really is are Corso and us.
Irony Gone Wild: The Critics
Let me finish with a bit of irony regarding film critics. As you know, film critics like to think of themselves as a nuanced and insightful group. They routinely claim to see a hundred shades of meaning in every hamburger and they love to complain that Hollywood never produces intelligent films. So what did they say about the very thoughtful and nuanced The Ninth Gate?

According to Roger Ebert, Johnny Depp played Corso “too odiously” to be the hero. Hmmm, sounds like someone didn’t understand that Corso’s surrender to evil was the point of the movie. The NYT said the movie wasn’t sufficiently scary. Of course, I hear that’s a common complaint about Socrates as well. Entertainment Weekly didn’t think the ending was spectacular enough. . . maybe Depp should have kicked a puppy?

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Guest Review: The Nude Bomb a.k.a. The Return of Maxwell Smart (1980)

By ScottDS
When the original Get Smart series premiered on Nick at Night in 1991, I was eight years old and at the urging of my mother, I decided to check it out. Five minutes later, I was a die-hard fan. I’ve since seen every episode multiple times… as well as the various spinoffs. Sadly, none of those spinoffs were nearly as good as the series that spawned them. Today, we’re going to take a look at the 1980 box-office flop The Nude Bomb (re-titled The Return of Maxwell Smart for TV).

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the synopsis. KAOS threatens to detonate the titular “nude bomb” which will destroy the fabrics of the world and Maxwell Smart - Agent 86 - is called in to foil the plot. Assisting him on his mission are a trio of female agents (36, 22, and 34) along with series veterans Larabee and Agent 13. After side trips to New York City, the Universal Studios backlot (playing itself for once), and Austria, and a car/desk (!) chase, Max and 22 discover the location of the villain’s hideout and confront KAOS designer Norman Saint Sauvage who plans to clothe the world in his own image. In a twist, it’s revealed that Sauvage never existed and is, in fact, a clone of a KAOS scientist named Nino Salvatore Sebastiani, whom Sauvage had killed off earlier. The bizarre climax involves multiple clones of Max and Nino/Sauvage fighting as the nude bombs go off. Eventually, Max kills Nino and escapes with 22. The last shot features them, sans clothes, as they run to the rescue chopper (in a wide shot, thank God).
I enjoyed this movie when I was younger but I watched it again a few years ago (in HD, looking much better than it should) and it doesn’t hold up at all! It’s nice to see the late, great Don Adams back in action again but he can’t save this film. The catchphrases and gags are still there, but many of them aren’t executed very well. While the script is credited to original series writers Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan, as well as Don Adam’s old writing partner Bill Dana (who also appears in the film), according to Stern in later years, they were not welcome on the set and the studio seemingly had no interest in doing anything related to the show. Director Clive Donner was known for smaller character-driven films and brings nothing to the proceedings. (He wasn’t known for his sense of humor either, according to Don Adams.) The film has a dull TV movie look to it and the editing in some scenes is amateurish at best.

When I say the studio wanted little to no association with the series, I’m serious. Max doesn’t even work for CONTROL; instead, he works for PITS, which stands for Provisional Intelligence Tactical Service. The chief is played by Dana Elcar (Ed Platt had passed away) who does what he can with the material. Agent 99 isn’t mentioned, nor is Max and 99’s marriage, or their twins. Barbara Feldon declined to be involved with the film - she chose... wisely. Robert Karvelas (Don Adams’ cousin in real life) returns as Larabee. He’s in fine form here, as he was on the show where he was the chief’s dim-witted assistant and the only character dumber than Max. Agent 13 (a.k.a. the agent who hides in unusual places) is now played by Joey Forman, who had appeared in the series as the Hawaiian detective Harry Hoo. He’s alright, I guess, though a gag featuring him hiding inside the page of a magazine is just... weird!
The aforementioned female agents (36, 22, and 34) are played by Pamela Hensley, Andrea Howard, and Sylvia Kristel. Hensley is best known for playing Princess Ardala in the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century while Kristel is best known for playing the title character in the Emmanuelle movies (she keeps her clothes on this time). I have no idea what Howard is best known for. She plays Agent 22 and has no chemistry with Don Adams whatsoever. There’s an awkward romance that’s forced into the screenplay – it literally comes out of nowhere. 86 is leery of 22 at first, then admits they can’t fool around on the job (he just assumes she’s interested), and then 22 is jealous when she thinks Max is fooling around with 36 (he isn’t). None of this works. At all. And 34 is in one scene – a glorified cameo, no doubt made by Kristel during her lunch break on Emmanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land.

It’s obvious the studio was trying to fit Max into the James Bond template but they failed miserably. Hell, this was one year after Moonraker. The bar had been lowered - they didn’t have to try that hard! Even the title sequence, featuring the phrase “Would You Believe?” in large letters, is done in the style of a James Bond title sequence… if that title sequence was designed by fifth graders. There’s even a cheesy song, “You’re Always There (When I Need You),” sung by Merry Clayton with music and lyrics by Lalo Schifrin and Don Black, respectively, both of whom have done much better work elsewhere.

There’s another element to this film that I missed when I was younger since the only copy I had was taped from network television. There’s some light profanity in this film as well as some cheap sexual innuendos (and a gratuitous wet t-shirt shot). I have no problem with any of these things but they don’t belong in Get Smart! Max is an innocent – he doesn’t curse! The wet t-shirt gag takes place during a sequence at Universal Studios where Max and 22 are following a lead and quickly find themselves smack-dab in the middle of a shameless promotion for the studio tram tour. It’s neat to see the old Battlestar Galactica attraction but I’m wondering if this was some sort of publicity thing, or if they simply ran out of money and decided to incorporate the lot into the film, as opposed to building a new set or dressing up part of the lot as something else.

Lest you think otherwise, there are one or two highlights in the film. The late Vittorio Gassman plays both Sebastiani and Sauvage and he’s actually pretty good… better than this movie deserves. The part of Carruthers (the Q of this movie) is played by veteran character actor Norman Lloyd, who’s still alive at the young age of 97! For some reason (bad writing), Max takes an instant disliking to Carruthers, but Lloyd gives as good as he gets. He has some great deadpan reactions and I love his slimy delivery when Max asks if his stapler phone can also work as a stapler. Lloyd just glares at him and answers, “No!” I know it’s sad when “No!” is one of the funnier parts of the film. He outfits Max’ apartments with the usual spy gadgets, including a doorbell that’s actually a door knocker, a door knocker that’s actually a doorbell, a wall that’s a door, a door that’s a wall, and a filing cabinet with enough room for Agent 13 to hide in. Coolest of all, Max gets a desk that can be driven like a car. This comes in handy later and I’d love to see something like this in another (better) movie one day. Max is amazed when Carruthers says the desk runs on ink. Unfortunately, the ink comes from the Middle East!

So that’s The Nude Bomb, but it wasn’t the end of the Get Smart franchise. In 1989, the surviving cast members reunited for an ABC TV movie titled Get Smart, Again! Max, 99, Hymie the Robot, Larabee, Agent 13, Siegfried, and Shtarker all return for more of the same. Max and his team are reactivated after KAOS threatens the world with a weather machine. The late Kenneth Mars plays the chief of the generically-named United States Intelligence Agency and there’s a bizarre scene inside a room known as the Hall of Hush where spoken words actually form in mid-air. This time, thankfully, the series is actually acknowledged and Max and 99 are happily married, with the events of The Nude Bomb being ignored completely. This movie is worth watching once and it’s nice to see the whole gang back together but it doesn’t really hold up. One highlight is the opening title sequence in which Max’ trip through the hallway of doors is recreated.
In 1995, Fox aired a short-lived Get Smart sequel series, with Don Adams, Andy Dick, Elaine Hendrix, and, on occasion, Barbara Feldon. 86 is now the chief of Control, 99 is now a Congresswoman (Max still calls her 99), Andy Dick plays their bumbling son Zach (the other Smart twin isn’t seen), and Hendrix is Zach’s partner, Agent 66. The main problem with this show was that, with 86 and Zach as the leads, there was no straight man. The other problem, if I recall, was the constant pre-emption due to football. I don’t remember much from this show, other than the “modernized” title sequence. Bernie Kopell and Dave Ketchum showed up again as Siegfried and Agent 13, respectively, and they even managed to reference Kopell’s role as Doc on The Love Boat. One genius idea was the character of Agent 0, a master of disguise played by a different actor in every episode. (I had forgotten about the canned laughter and cheap production value but after watching a clip on YouTube... yikes!) This show lasted seven episodes

The only thing I have to say about the 2008 Steve Carell movie is that, while walking out of the theater, I managed to tell my friend, “That was surprisingly not terrible.” I have no interest in watching it again – if I did, I’d probably think it was terrible. If Hollywood ever tries to make another Get Smart movie, they’d be wise to hire Alan Spencer, the creator of the 80s TV series Sledge Hammer. On the other hand, after watching his recent IFC series Bullet in the Face, it’s obvious Spencer needs someone to rein him in.

It would seem I just pulled the old “review one movie and throw in two mini-reviews at the end” trick!

(P.S. I always use original poster artwork for my reviews but the poster for The Nude Bomb is so bad that I used the old VHS box art instead!)

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 28

When it comes to leadership, there's nobody like Captain James T. Kirk. He's the best. . . unless you happen to be wearing a red shirt.

Question: "What is Capt. James T. Kirk's best quality as a leader?"

Andrew's Answer: Kirk does the one thing all great leaders do. . . the one thing poor leaders are incapable of doing: he constantly re-assesses his beliefs. When confronted with a problem, most people dig through their existing beliefs, look for the solution that they settled upon long ago, and run with it. If it works, great. If not, they double down. Not Kirk. Kirk does what real leaders do, he constantly questions and tests his beliefs and if he finds that he is wrong, he's got the fortitude to change his beliefs. That makes him the ultimate decision maker because he is devoid of prejudice. That's impressive.

Scott's Answer: Kirk does something that I wish more people (cough, politicians) would do: he surrounds himself with people of different worldviews and didn't hesitate to consult with them, despite their often diametrically-opposed opinions. Allow me to quote Alex Knapp of Forbes: "Weak leaders surround themselves with yes men who are afraid to argue with them. That fosters an organizational culture that stifles creativity and innovation, and leaves members of the organization afraid to speak up. [...] Historically, this has led to some serious disasters, such as The Phantom Menace. Organizations that allow for differences of opinion are better at developing innovation, better at solving problems, and better at avoiding groupthink."

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 56

Every once in a while, a film contains a character you just can't figure out. What the heck were they thinking?

Name a film character who perplexed you and tell us what one question would you ask them?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

In a word, I'd ask the HAL 9000 "why?" I'd love to know the answer to that. Was it really some conflict in his programming as 2010 suggests? Did he develop some form of emotion or humanity and turn against the humans out of fear? I need to know, man!

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Any character in a horror film who goes into the dark basement to investigate a noise while carrying a only candle and nothing else after hearing the house shouts “Get out!!”. My question would be “Why on earth did you do that?? Don’t you know that when the house says “Get out”, you should leave??”

Panelist: T-Rav

Blade Runner's Roy Batty. I would ask him, "Soooo....what was going through your head, like, the last half of the movie?" Because now that I've seen it, I really have no idea.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

What character perplexed you and what would I ask them: Edward Norton as Aaron in Primal Fear --"how did you learn to impersonate split personalities so well?"

Panelist: ScottDS

I'd love to ask all those Bond villains why they didn't just kill Bond when they had the chance! [smile]

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Film Friday: Fright Night (1985) & (2011)

Remakes are all the rage these days because they come with a built-in audience. You take a film property with an existing fan base, you repeat the story with some twist to make the film feel fresh, you use new special effects or new story-telling techniques, and you’re guaranteed at least a minor hit. Add in a top-named actor like Colin Farrell and you should be looking at quite a moneymaker. That is unless you really screw it up. Welcome to Fright Night 2011!

** spoiler alert **

Release in 1985, the original Fright Night proved to be quite a hit. It starred William Ragsdale as Charley Brewster, a fan of horror films, who discovers that his neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is an actual vampire. Naturally, no one believes him, not his mother, his best friend or his girlfriend. He finally seeks out Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a washed up actor who plays a vampire hunter in horror movies and has his own local show hosting classic horror movies. Vincent doesn’t believe him either and thinks he’s a crazed fan. But Vincent soon discovers the truth and then he and Charlie set out to hunt down Sarandon and to free Charley’s girlfriend.

All in all, this film wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but it was original and it was entertaining. It also became a surprise hit, out-earning every other horror film of that year. What made the film work was the characters. Charley was likable as the determined teen who intends to protect his family even if they can’t see the danger. Vincent was enjoyable as the washed up cynic, who rises to the challenge of a fight with something he never truly believed existed. And Chris Sarandon was smarmy, condescending and so unlikable that you really couldn’t wait to see him get his comeuppance. This drew you in and made you pull for the heroes to get their act together to take out the bad guy that you had personally come to despise.
In 2011, Fright Night was remade. This time Colin Farrell took the place of Chris Sarandon, Doctor Who’s David Tennant took the place of Roddy McDowall, and some other people replaced the other actors. And that’s kind of where the problem begin with the remake. William Ragsdale is not a good actor. But he came across as a genuine teen who was both out of his league and yet determined to prevail. His replacement, Anton Yelchin, comes across as a very smooth actor who reads his lines with the right amount of emotion but with no believability that he is this person you see on screen. Amanda Bearse, who plays Charlie’s girlfriend in the original, is not attractive nor is she slavishly devoted to Charlie, and that makes her a very real girl for the type of woman who would date Charlie. Her replacement, Imogen Poots, is too attractive and too compliant with Charlie’s script needs.
David Tennant is a poor replacement for Roddy McDowall as well, though more in the writing than in acting ability. McDowall’s Vincent was washed up and tired. He didn’t believe in vampires and when he found out the truth, he was overcome with fear. Watching him get up the courage to fight was rather inspiring. Tennant’s Vincent, by comparison, knows the vampires are real and is basically just a coward and a waster. He’s comic relief as an unlikeable drunken womanizer who runs from danger in an almost melodramatic way. McDowall was someone you could look up to eventually, Tennant is a joke you want gone.
Then there are Sarandon and Farrell. Normally, I’m impressed with Farrell, but not here. Sarandon played the vampire as a true bad guy. You loathed his smugness and you genuinely worried that his power was too strong for the good guys to overcome. Indeed, even though you knew how the film would end, you never felt really sure. And as his victories built up, you worried that he might actually win. Farrell, on the other hand, plays an annoyance. There is nothing about him to suggest an all-powerful creature, he’s more like an animal. And he doesn’t get under your skin like the smug Sarandon, he annoys you more like a skateboarder who won’t leave your driveway. Moreover, there seems to be no real plan for Farrell. When you try to imagine him winning the film, it’s never clear what his victory would even look like. So he’s just never menacing.
So the film starts poorly in the area that matters most – the characters. And it goes downhill from there. Indeed, this film fails dramatically in something that any remake should be able to achieve: it doesn’t live up to the story of the original. The original story moved confidently from plot point to plot point, with each building on the prior plot points. The order of the action made sense, the characters’ actions made sense, and the story became progressively more tense. The remake doesn’t. The remake seems like a jumble of uninteresting moments until the lengthy fight scene at the end. There is little continuity and no tension. Not to mention, the entire film is so dark in the way it’s filmed and the effects so dull that it's hard to follow.

What makes this worse is that the film lacks any sort of intermediate level of danger. In other words, throughout the original, there were many bad things which could happen at any moment, but the remake only offers two results: dead or survives. Thus, since you know the movie isn’t over, you know that Charlie will survive each scene to make it unscathed to the next, and that means there is no tension. By comparison, you were never sure what could happen in any scene in the original because there were so many more alternatives.

Beyond this, there is nothing you could call a twist or a new slant on the original. There is no unexpected revelation, no attempt to make the story bigger or take it in new directions, and nothing to give you a fresh look at the story.

In effect, this remake failed on all levels. It offered less story than the original, its effects were worse, it had no interesting take on the original, and its characters lost all the quirkiness which made the originals so interesting to watch. That’s why this bombed and why the original out-earned it domestically by about a third on a much smaller budget. The moral here is simple. Even if you’re going to remake a film, you still have to make a good film.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Toon-arama: Coraline (2009)

by tryanmax

The month of October is upon us, meaning it is time for ghost stories, trick-or-treats, and horror movies! And, yes, there are even a few scary cartoons to be seen. Among them, the stop-animation film Coraline is perhaps one of the most authentic animated horror films, meaning it actually aims to frighten rather than simply borrowing horror elements to place in a comic or adventure setting. The film’s themes and events are remarkably mature and sufficiently disturbing to rank well within the genre. Additionally, the film is a feast for the eyes with the traits of a Halloween classic.

** spoiler alert **

The story begins typically enough with our heroine and her family moving into a new home, a dilapidated old Victorian conversion called the Pink Palace Apartments. It is evident that this was a move of necessity, and Coraline finds everything about her new surroundings completely dismal. It doesn’t help that her parents, both writers, are too wrapped up in their work to pay her much attention. Worse, the only other kid around is the landlady’s grandson, a strange boy named Wybie who Coraline finds instantly annoying.
Left with nothing to do, Coraline sets about exploring the old mansion. She discovers a small door that has been papered over. She uncovers and opens it, but is disappointed to find that it has been bricked up. That night, Coraline dreams that she follows a mouse to the doorway, but instead of it being bricked up, it opens on a tunnel leading to an identical door in an identical house. In fact, everything from the real world is duplicated in this “other” place, even the people except here, everything and everyone is vibrant and cheerful. Even her “other mother” and “other father” are there and they are far more attentive to Coraline.
So, night after night Coraline returns to the dream world, and day after day the real world seems duller and duller. As she encounters the apartment’s other odd tenants by day, they each make appearances in the other world by night. Every aspect of the other world seems made especially to please Coraline, but it isn’t until she finds a way through the door without first falling asleep that she discovers the sinister nature of her other mother. Coraline can stay with her other family in the other world for forever, but she must agree to have buttons sewn over her eyes.
With the dream now twisted into nightmare, Coraline learns to her horror that she can no longer simply wake up!

The premise is built upon some pretty well-heeled horror tropes but the story is nonetheless strong. The idea of wishing for “better” parents is something everyone who has been a child can relate to, and the lesson of being careful what one wishes for is timeless, to be sure. The story has a better share of twists and surprises than the average live-action horror which would more likely rely on pop-scares. None of those here. Rather, the viewer is treated to a nicely layered narrative with just enough weirdness to keep the mood always a bit unsettled.

Among the strong suits of the script is the rather limited cast. Stop-motion in general seems prone to teeming with all manner and shape of characters, but this rather intimate collection of individuals feels close like a blanket. (Recommended for late-night viewing, by the way.) Neither is the story weighed-down by awkward explanations. There are some plausible hints and conjecture among the characters as to what motivates the other mother, but the uncertainty about her actions makes her seem more real and, thus, more threatening. This also keeps the pacing crisp and the dialogue relevant to the action.
Still, none of this would be particularly remarkable if it weren’t for the sheer splendor of the film itself. This is no Ranklin-Bass production, and the level of detail and effect outstrips the visually comparable The Nightmare Before Christmas. According to the DVD extras, the miniature sweaters were hand knitted using wire-thin knitting needles, and all other aspects of production were equally painstaking. To put it mildly, it pays off onscreen. There is, of course, a notable stop-motion quality to the movement of everything though it is much more fluid than what is typical and, frankly, the distinct “twitchiness” is part of the technique’s charm.

Moreover, it is through visuals that the film achieves most of its impact. The story takes place in two worlds that are distinguished primarily through light and color. However, the dreary days don’t always contrast so sharply against the clear nights. Acrobatic action sequences defy one to believe that these are mere puppets on screen. As the story turns dark, their twisted forms and macabre movements become increasingly disturbing. Finally, the films iconic visual, the doll-like black button eyes on seemingly human characters is not only unsettling in itself, but it also displays a degree of self-awareness from the picture that makes the message seem all the more direct.

Fear not, though enjoyable to adults the film is built for a juvenile audience so it won’t send you ducking under the covers. On the other hand, it might have you looking twice at toy dolls to see if those button eyes are looking back at you.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Linkable Trek

Scott roams the internet far and wide to ply his trade as a link dealer. Fortunately, Scott provides links free to us. Today, he's specializing in Trek links you might like. Share your thoughts and add anything we missed!

Celebrating 25 years of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered 25 years ago last week and its influence on pop culture and genre television cannot be underestimated. Looking back on it now, it's amazing to see how successful it was, sometimes beating even Monday Night Football in the ratings. And of course, it's influence on my life has been... immeasurable. This is my 20th year of being a fan and [raises glass] here's to 20 more!

Walter Koenig gets a star on the Walk of Fame

I don't know how much this stuff means to people but it's always a nice gesture and fans love taking photos of their favorite stars', uh, stars. (I may or may not have a picture of Pee-Wee Herman's star!) Anyway, the surviving cast members (sans Shatner) turned out to show their love and support for Walter Koenig who finally received his star. (I'm still getting used to seeing Koenig without his toupee.)

Leonard Nimoy greets the space shuttle Enterprise

Sadly, the space shuttle fleet was retired last year. The space shuttle Enterprise was actually a test orbiter and never made it into space. However, that hasn't stopped NASA from celebrating its accomplishments as she finds a new home at the (awesome) Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. Leonard Nimoy was on hand to welcome it as only a Vulcan could.

Could we build the Starship Enterprise?

With the aforementioned shuttle retirement, many Americans are asking, "Why can't we dream big anymore?" Well, one guy has a dream: he wants to build the Enterprise... for real: "Built in space, the ship would never visit the surface of any moon or planet, and so would never need to reach the high speeds necessary to escape surface gravity. The engines would be powered by nuclear reactors onboard the ship, and use argon rather than xenon for propellant, saving a few hundred billion dollars in cost."

Remembering William Windom and "The Doomsday Machine"

Character actor William Windom passed away last month and, among many other things, he played Commodore Decker in "The Doomsday Machine." This article pays tribute to both him and the episode, which is constantly ranked as one of Star Trek's best. "They say there's no devil, Jim, but there is. Right out of Hell, I saw it!"

Malcolm McDowell (Dr. Soran) regrets Captain Kirk's death

At this point, I think everyone involved with Star Trek Generations wishes they hadn't killed Captain Kirk - it would've saved them a lot of trouble and fan whining in subsequent years! The always-entertaining Malcolm McDowell speaks for many when he says Kirk deserved a better sendoff.

10 things you probably didn't know about Deep Space Nine

While TNG was my first, DS9 was probably the best of the modern day Treks. This piece points out some interesting trivia, including the fact that the original concept for the show had it take place on a planet... sort of a Fort Laramie in the future. Only later did the creators shift gears and set it in space.

Aircraft carriers in space

This fascinating article looks at how sci-fi (specifically Trek and Battlestar Galactica) has portrayed various elements of naval warfare. "Interestingly, the sci-fi authors of the 1950s were better at thinking it though. It was a time when everyone was talking about how a hydroponics section would be needed to provide food on a starship. Maybe nowadays you can say you have a magic power source, or nanotech to produce the materials you need."

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