Monday, July 28, 2014

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

“Let them be helpless like children because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing.  When a man is born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it is tender and pliant. But when it is dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being, because what has hardened will never win.”

Stalker (1979)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Trailer

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Outré Intro: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981)

Airing on NBC-TV as the Star Wars craze went into full swing, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) updated the legendary Nowlan character (originally featured in Amazing Stories in 1928, and then in newspaper comic strips) for the disco decade. The series starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Wilma Deering and Tim O'Connor as Doctor Huer, and ran for two seasons and over thirty episodes.

The introductory montage for the series was altered slightly for its second season to comport with cast changes, but many images remained the same as those featured below (culled from the series' first year).  

The Buck Rogers montage commences with a brand of information age or high-tech overload: a composition featuring three split-screens simultaneously. 

And like the opening montage of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973 -1978), the images chart a technological, space-age mishap, and the ramifications of that mishap on one human being.  In both cases, this human being impacted is a pilot/astronaut.

Specifically, as the narrator (William Conrad in season one) informs us, in the year 1987, America launched Ranger 3, the last of its "deep space probes."  The craft is piloted by William "Buck" Rogers.

The next series of images (still split-screen), showcase Buck's shuttle, Ranger 3, approaching some kind of anomaly or distortion in space which freezes his life support systems, and hurtles him into a wider which does not return him to Earth for 500 years.  The images of the distortion/phenomenon overtake the images of technological accomplishment.

The next images depart completely from the technological sheen of the earlier split screen compositions documenting mission failure.

Now, we see an unconscious Buck Rogers superimposed over a kind of mystical or cosmic vortex -- representing Time Itself -- as he sleeps for five hundred years in a fast-frozen state.  The time meter at the bottom of the screen -- heretofore steady at 1987 -- begins to tick rapidly, as Buck sleeps well into the distant future.

As Buck continues to sleep, we see him passing or descending through concentric "rings" of futuristic imagery, rings that represent images of his journey into a new time period.  I have always thought of these rings as being like those of a tree interior, charting a time-line or life.  Only in this case, the rings show not age, but a journey ahead.

Specifically, the imagery shows us a space ship (Ardala's yacht), a starfighter launch corridor, the post-Holocaust ruins of Chicago (called Anarchia), and finally, the metropolis of New Chicago.

In the next images, we get our title screen, as the time meter stops at the year 2491.

Below the title screen, we meet our cast members inside the concentric rings or circles, images which represent both Buck's journey through time and the shape, incidentally, of his computerized friend, Dr. Theopolis.

Finally a shot of our likable and charming hero, now fully ensconced in his new life in the 25th century.

You can see the montage in living color below, though it is from the second season of the series and features a different narrator.

Below that video, you can see South Park's rendition of this famous opening montage.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "The Taking of Thistledown 123"

In “The Taking of Thistledown 123,” a visiting galactic ambassador suggests that New Texas needs no marshal, and that no threat exists from the planet’s bandits such as Tex Hex. In fact, the alien ambassador would very much like to end BraveStarr’s tenure on the planet.

But when Tex Hex captures Thistledown 123, the largest Kerium freighter in the galaxy, and kidnaps the ambassador, the diplomat has cause to reconsider his point-of view.  As the alien’s atmosphere supply runs low, BraveStarr and his friends plot a daring rescue.

As is plain from the episode’s title, “The Taking of Thistledown 123” harks back to the 1974 Joseph Sargent film, The Taking of Pelham 123, which concerned criminals taking over a busy New York City subway and demanding ransom for the passengers.

In this case, the story has been translated to the future and another world all together, but some key aspects of the narrative remain.  We have the commandeered vehicle and hostages in danger, specifically.

BraveStarr also seems to have inherited Star Trek’s (1966 – 1969) intense and frequent dislike of diplomats, and in almost knee-jerk fashion. 

In episodes such as “A Taste of Armageddon” and “Mark of Gideon” in original Trek, diplomats proved so irritating that even the calm and cool Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) disliked and verbally upbraided them.  Similarly, the ambassador in “Thistledown” is obviously not thinking straight when he plans to remove BraveStarr from service on this dangerous frontier planet. 

Unfortunately, the ambassador’s plans are not borne out by facts or by reason. A quick review of Fort Kerium’s arrest records would reveal, in detail, just why a lawman is a necessity on this dangerous world.  

But the ambassador is present in this BraveStarr episode to create drama and conflict, and ultimately admit that BraveStarr is “The right man for the job.” It’s all a little facile, even for a kid’s show.  Kids know that the series isn’t going to relocate the Marshall, or get rid of him, since he is the main character.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of this BraveStarr story is the fact that the alien ambassador is endangered by his own life-support requirements.  He breathes an atmosphere different from the humanoid beings on New Texas, and so if BraveStarr can’t rescue him in time, he will run low on atmosphere and die.  This idea adds some nice “countdown”-type tension to the story.

In terms of artist design, "The Taking of Thistledown 123" is a mixed bag, in my estimation.  The Kerium freighter looks great, but the ambassador is a bit too fanciful looking for my taste.

The "lesson" of the week in the episode's post-script is about working together, or "teamwork."

Next week: “No Drums, No Trumpets.”

Saturday Morning Cult-Blogging: Godzilla (1978): The Earth Eater"

In “The Earth Eater,” the second episode of the Hanna-Barbera/Toho Godzilla cartoon collaboration for NBC, San Francisco is falling into the Earth.  Even the Golden Gate Bridge is imperiled.

Before long, the Calico arrives in the city because Dr. Darrien is scheduled to speak at a scientist convention there. 

When the ship arrives, the crew sees that the city is being evacuated, and that people are leaving it en masse. Godzilla arrives to shore up the bridge and save the refugees.

Meanwhile, Quinn and the crew note that some city blocks look normal, while others are now huge sinkholes. Quinn concludes that the city is being devoured one block at a time.

Godzooky and Pete go down into a sink-hole and find out that a light-sensitive goliath -- an “earth eater” -- is the monster responsible for all the destruction.

When the crew loses the Godzilla distress button, it’s up to Godzooky to call to him…and bring the monster to do combat with this new enemy.

“The Earth Eater” is set in San Francisco (not entirely unlike a game-play arena in Godzilla Unleashed, the 2007 video game…) and the most interesting part of the episode, perhaps, is seeing Godzilla stomp around in these particular American environs.  The episode features views not only of the Golden Gate Bridge, but Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Transamerica Pyramid building.  The city's trademark cable cars also make an appearance as a handy escape vehicle.

As seems typical of the series, there’s no explanation offered why the Earth Eater exists, or why he should appear at this juncture of modern history.  A key aspect of Godzilla’ legend, of course, is that he is an avatar for modern atomic warfare or power.

If the monsters in this cartoon series had similar origins, based on modern life, it would have been far more intriguing and worthwhile.  Today, the Earth Eater could be a byproduct of fracking, for instance, though in 1978, perhaps just irresponsible or aggressive mining.  At least such a story would have a point, a context beyond monsters appearing, and Godzilla pinch-hitting for the imperiled human race.

But the cartoon series never strives to offer much contextualization, even though Saturday morning, at that time period in history, often included didactic messages about the environment or appropriate moral/social behavior (see: Land of the Lost).  Here the monsters merely show up, and Godzilla battles them to a stand-still, and then defeat.

The exact nature of the Earth Eater threat is uncertain too.  The creature can shoot beams from his antennae that resemble those telepathic rings that emanate from Aqua Man on The Super Friends.  These beams -- which pulp buildings -- which goes unexplained. 

But weirder still than that touch is the fact that “water” is described as The Earth Eater's “natural enemy.”  When the Earth Eater goes into the bay, it is destroyed…transformed into a big mud-slick.  

So what does the creature drink, if not water? How does it hydrate itself?  The episode doesn’t do that much thinking about its central threat, and that seems a shame since the series heroes are mostly scientists, who show a curiosity for the world around them.

Finally, a weird adult joke, right under the surface: At one point, Godzilla battles the Earth Eater in front of a sign that reads Butz Root Beer.  Butz?


Friday, July 25, 2014

At Flashbak: Road Rage - The 5 Most Evil Vehicles in Horror Movie History

Now posted at Flashbak is my look at cinematic evil vehicles.

Here's a snippet and the url:

"In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote that the modern automobile has become “the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell of urban and suburban man.” 

In horror movies, cars and trucks have become even more than that. They have become, in fact, a physical manifestation of man’s dark side, and vehicles for the furtherance of Evil.

When broaching horror movies about evil vehicles, the big question is: how could our beloved machines turn on us, their owners and creators?  In some cases vehicles -- having acquired sentience -- simply know better than we do, and they assert their control.

In other cases, our tools -- perhaps sensing some inadequacies -- have switched to a more powerful owner: the Devil himself.

Below are my choices for the five most diabolical vehicles in the horror cinema, listed in chronological order.  You may notice that all of these vehicles appeared on our screens during the 1970s and 1980s, an era defined by affluence and conspicuous consumption."

Cult-Movie Review: The Conspiracy (2014)

[The following review contains spoilers, so proceed accordingly.]

We live in an age of conspiracy theories run amok, and thus the new found footage horror film, The Conspiracy (2014) has arrived at just the right time in terms of the Zeitgeist.

I suppose one could argue that conspiracy theories thrive today because of the Internet, and the ease of instantaneously transmitting information, but there’s a psychological reason underlining their existence and popularity too.

I submit that conspiracy theories are simultaneously ego-boosting and blame-deflecting. 

First: only *you* are smart enough to see how the puzzle pieces fit together and understand the larger picture.

The most powerful people in the world are aligned against you and your continued freedom, but clever you and a few others with the same viewpoint see through these byzantine schemes nonetheless. Thus conspiracy theories are in a way, very flattering, even self-affirming. You’re an important member in an exclusive club!

And secondly, the reason *you* aren’t succeeding (at work, politically, at home, even) is because a sinister cabal is running things, transforming us all into slaves.

In other words, someone is keeping *you* down for some dark purpose. Therefore, you are absolved of all guilt or culpability for your own situation and success, or lack thereof. 

How can you succeed with Big Brother putting his socialist/corporate heel to your throat at every turn?

The Conspiracy deals with such ideas in an exceedingly intelligent fashion.

Actually, in terms of found-footage horror films, The Conspiracy reminded me strongly of The Bay (2012), another horror film of the same genre that had environmental concerns vying for supremacy with the horror scenes. 

That’s also how The Conspiracy plays. The horror aspects only really arrive in force during the tense last act, and it is the observations about the conspiracy mind-set that take center stage instead.  The film is a strong paranoia trip, and a psychological thriller that only descends into effective terror during one harrowing set-piece.

The result of all the pent-up paranoia -- and the catharsis of the final horror sequence -- is a smart, well-made film and one that will make you think seriously about the reasons why so many people cling to conspiracies even in the face of contradictory information. 

What I really appreciate about the film is that it creates -- during its last moments -- a new conspiracy-theory, and then allows the viewer to make up his or her mind about the “truth” of the particular situation. In short, it’s a perfect microcosm for conspiracy-style thinking, and it crystallizes all of The Conspiracy’s themes in one shining moment.

“If you stare at it long enough, you are going to see what you want to see.”

Two documentary filmmakers, Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert) decide to make a film about Terrance G., a conspiracy theorist who seeks to connect every world event from the sinking of the Lusitania to 9/11 to a sinister cabal.  He believes that we are all being prepared for one world government…and slavery.

After spending several days with Terrance G., Aaron and Jim come to respect him, if not all of his views. 
But then, suddenly…he disappears without a trace. 

Jim and Aaron begin to research Terrance G.s work, and learn that all the terrible events of the world, including the JFK assassination, tie back to a mysterious organization known as The Tarsus Club.

The filmmakers track down a reporter, Mark Tucker, who once wrote an article about The Tarsus Club for Time Magazine, but then went into perpetual hiding, for fear of his life. Tucker reports that The Tarsus Group worships an ancient deity called Mithras, and that he can get the two men into a Tarsus Club initiation, which will involve the hunting of a bull.

Jim is reluctant to go any further because he has a family to protect, but Aaron -- who dreams of living off the grid in a commune -- feels that they must proceed, if only to discover what happened to Terrance G.

The two men make arrangements for a rendezvous if they are separated, and then infiltrate a Tarsus Club meeting…

“I wish we had never listened to a thing he said.”

First things first: I’ve waded into the waters of conspiracy theories, myself.

I did so while I was researching Horror Films of the 1990s (2011), because many films of the 1990s (Blade, Eyes Wide Shut, The X-Files: Fight the Future, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation) traded on conspiracies as a key aspect of the genre.

At some point during my brief flirtation with conspiracy theories -- perhaps at the point that I learned George W. Bush and President Obama were actually child-molesting Satanists -- I realized the sad fact that there’s always another theory, another rabbit-hole, and another time-suck conspiracy to delve into…yet mysteriously no evil plans for world domination ever seem to come to fruition. The world just doesn’t change in a meaningful way.

Bill Clinton didn’t stay in office by declaring Martial Law after Y2K, as Pat Robertson warned us he would.

President Bush didn’t incarcerate democrats for exercising free speech during the Iraq War,

And President Obama has not incarcerated or re-educated our precious young in FEMA prison camps, while also handing over U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. and taking all our guns away.  

Frankly, if we are being run by some secret cabal for the purposes of “New World Order” and “One World Government,” it is doing a “heckuva” job, at least by Michael Brown standards. 

My biggest question is: What on Earth is taking the illuminati so damn long? Why such slow and incremental change?

If the cabal is so powerful and so connected, and in such firm control of the population through surveillance and intimidation, why does it suck so hard at getting anything meaningful accomplished?

The conspirators have had a century for their mastermind social engineering and yet we still have nationalistic borders, sovereignty, and elections.  What gives?

And in a way, that’s The Conspiracy’s point.

At various junctures, the film suggests that there really is no need for a dark conspiracy in today’s globalized, over-corporate world. Big Banks, social media gurus, and media conglomerates are pretty open and up front about their intentions for financial domination. They are conspiring to take our money, our votes and our Internet, yes…but they are doing so in plain sight.

It’s only a secret conspiracy if you aren’t paying attention.

At the end of the film, a representative from Tarsus speaks directly to the camera and tells us, in no uncertain terms, that his group has plans. The leaders have an agenda. They meet to discuss strategy. They meet to execute initiatives.

If that is a conspiracy, he says then he pleads guilty.

Secondly, the film makes what in my estimation is a pretty bullet-proof argument about real life. If the cabal is so powerful and has been in power so long -- for over a hundred years -- then we have lived, essentially, under conspiratorial rule for a century, as Jim points out.

And you know what?

We’re just fine. 

*They* have been in power, *they* are in power, and *they* will be in power, and yet we still have our families, our home, and our freedoms. If it has always been this way -- longer than you or I have been breathing air on this Earth -- and we’ve just come through the triumphant American Century too, what’s the problem again?

Jim points this out to Aaron, but by that point, Aaron is too far gone to stop, and is not hearing reason.

The Conspiracy deals with that issue too.

It details quite ably how a conspiracy-minded person becomes trapped in self-fulfilling beliefs, lodged inside a bubble that allows no light, no reason, and no contradictory facts to penetrate it.  As Jim notes: “if you stare at it” (conspiracy theory) “long enough you are going to see what you want to see.”

I believe that The Conspiracy’s greatest moment arises in its very satisfying, if incredibly ambiguous climax. 
We are confronted with a scene of terrible violence against Aaron, and then an interview which denies the violence occurred…even though we “saw it” with our own eyes.  

Aaron is nowhere to be seen now.  But it was all a trick -- a joke -- to keep conspiracy theorists away, a PR man for Tarsus explains. He isn’t really dead.

If that’s the case, where is he?  Why isn’t he seen on-camera again?

Now here is the test for you as a viewer, which The Conspiracy presents well. 

Is Aaron dead and gone, a fact that explains his absence, while the conspiracy continues? 

Earlier in the film, Mark Tucker explained to the filmmakers that it behooves the Tarsus Club to go public occasionally, so it doesn’t look too mysterious. But that it will only put out the information it wants public during these rare PR jaunts.

So is the representative’s appearance at the end, alongside Jim -- and the explanation about Aaron’s fate -- that “harmless” appearance that Tucker predicted the group would make?

Or contrarily, as Jim and the Tarsus Group flak explain, has Aaron simply gone off the grid to his commune, as we saw him planning to do early in the film, perhaps out of embarrassment for the humiliation at the bull hunt?

If you believe in deadly conspiracies, you will no doubt believe that Aaron has been executed by Tarsus, and Jim co-opted (because his family is in danger).

If you don’t believe in conspiracies, you will see the point of all those scenes early in the film with Aaron contemplating a future in the commune, far away from a society he fears.  At least twice, we see him gazing at the commune’s web page, promising freedom from the technological surveillance state. 

What is the truth? 

The fact is, we can only speculate, and not draw any factual conclusions, because we don’t have all the information.

All we can do is speculate, I wrote above and yet here’s the rub. By speculating we insert our own psychologies into a mystery that, frankly, doesn’t involve our psychologies. We therefore shade the answers with our temperament, our predilections, and our deepest fears. 

Do conspiracy theories thrive, therefore, because human beings must -- for peace of mind -- have answers to the big questions, answers that make sense and allow them to continue with their lives? 

Few of us were lucky enough to know JFK, but he was beloved as President, and killed in his prime. 

How do you get past that horror, except to attempt to impose some kind of order on the tragic event? 

Is it worse to believe his death was the result of some random madman, or the result of a plot against him? 

The plot against him suggests a kind of order to the world, at least: Kennedy was killed because of his beliefs, his dislike of the CIA, his pursuit of the mob, or his bungling of Cuba.  Each of those “answers” suggests order in a way that a random killing simply does not.

A conspiracy thus fills in a psychological gap, and makes us feel that we have control in our lives, and that events happen for reasons that we can understand and process. This may be a more sympathetic explanation of conspiracy theories than the one I enumerated at the start of the review, noting the self-affirming and blame-deflecting aspect of them. Perhaps, in some way, we concoct conspiracy theories because they are necessary to our continued peace of mind.

The Conspiracy is a clever and even-handed horror film because it contemplates -- and makes the viewer contemplate -- both sides of the conspiracy equation.

The film blends real-life footage of the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 with its fictional narrative, and is so paranoia-provoking that it makes a mere hand-shake look positively menacing.  There’s also a clip of Ronald Reagan saying “we’re going to turn the bull loose,” to tie the government into the (malevolent) Mithras Cult…and you’ll be convinced the Gipper was in on the conspiracy too.

There’s even some under-cover humor here. All the conspirators are -- naturally -- old white men…the very group in danger of losing generations-long privilege in an ever more diverse America.

I’ve written before that I believe it is the greatest responsibility of the horror film -- as an outsider’s genre -- to tell us something meaningful about the times that we live in. The Conspiracy passes that test, and will unsettle you in the process.

Movie Trailer: The Conspiracy (2014)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Memory Bank: Alien (1979) vs. Prophecy (1979)

To this day, I boast a very distinct memory of being in a Ben Franklin-type store with my parents and sister in the year 1979, and sneaking over alone to the book rack to steal a look at two "scary" literary titles: Prophecy by David Seltzer and Alien by Alan Dean Foster.  

Of course, both books were based on film screenplays, and I remember thinking --- as a fourth grader -- that both seemed absolutely terrifying.  

I also remember feeling amazed and kind of free, maybe even giddy, that I could turn to any page in either book and read something that would torment my imagination for days and weeks to come.

And then I tried to imagine how scary the movies would actually be.  I had to imagine that factor because my parents are good ones, and they would never have let me see R-rated movies at the tender age of nine.  So if I was going to *know* about these horror stories...I had to read the books.

I didn't see either film until I was older, though I did read and enjoy Foster's Alien first.  Seltzer's Prophecy is also better than the movie, I think.

Today we know, of course, which of the two films has better stood the test of time: Ridley Scott's Alien over John Frankenheimer's Prophecy.

The former is a celebrated classic, and the latter is a kind of...hoot, a camp-classic. 

But interestingly, both films came out in the same year, and in very broad terms boast a few similarities. Both films involve reproduction, and a threat to human reproduction, in the form of something unknown and homicidal

And both films also involve a gigantic nemesis whose form is not immediately known or understood.  Prophecy draws its life force from American history and the American past, while Alien draws its energy from the future, and cosmic unknowns.

The advertising from both films, as you can see from images above and below (in the trailers), highlight images of eggs, and something evil growing inside an egg.  I think that was probably the key scare factor for me at age 9.  Something horrible was going to hatch in both stories. 

In terms of how it succeeds or fails Prophecy -- sometimes grandiosely termed "the monster movie" -- is really about the "past" of horror movie-making in 1979 terms: about a cinematic story scuttled by a ridiculous and unconvincing monster suit.  In contrast, Alien represents the defining line in modern horror  film where monsters became believable, even when shown on-screen for a long duration. 

Similarly, Prophecy is earthbound, while Alien looks to the stars.  

I know it probably seems odd, but today when I think of one film, I inevitably think of the other  one because of that experience in the book store, I suppose.  I'm sure this linkage has to do with where I was in my development at that time, gaining an awareness of books and movies that I wanted to see, but which I also knew would likely scare me.  I remember very vividly seeing commercials for both films on television and feeling truly conflicted.  Like I had to see both movies, and yet was afraid to see both movies.

At the age of nine, I couldn't have predicted that Prophecy would be a bust in terms or scares, or that Alien would generate approximately one million and one imitations.

I just knew that, for some reason, Hollywood was giving us two horror movies at the same time that seemed to have a broadly similar appeal: Evil Eggs.