Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Films of 2016: Green Room

Green Room (2016) is a terrifying and incredibly gory horror movie of the savage cinema persuasion. It’s a spiritual update -- at least in some ways -- to 1971’s Straw Dogs (from director Sam Peckinpah).

In both (brutal) films, for example, protagonists learn something about themselves -- and their human nature -- while contending with personalities who regularly use violence to dominate others. 

Both films depict fish-out-of-water stories in a sense too, and ones about cultural differences.

However, Green Room boasts a very modern spin. 

Today, the greatest horror we imagine does not involve going to a different country and running afoul of the locals and their “alien” customs there. 

Instead, the great fear of this decade of the 2st century is wandering into “cross-burning territory” here in the homeland, as one character puts it; about crossing the divide from tolerant modernity into hateful, backward nativism.

The cultures at war here are the mainstream, diverse, moral one, which strives towards egalitarianism and justice, and the resentful, backward one, still clinging to racism and race resentment like precious heirlooms from a past generation.

Specifically, Green Room involves irreverent clueless millennials -- and punk rockers -- running afoul of dangerous, militant white supremacists in the Pacific Northwest.

At first, the millennials don’t recognize the danger they are in, despite the fact that all the signs -- literal signs, hanging on walls -- are there.

I call these characters clueless, because despite their hard-driving, anti-establishment musical catalog, they possess “tolerant,” modern beliefs. And they don’t seem to understand that some people, and organizations, have been ginning up race hatred for years and they aren’t about to change. 

And worse, these monsters still exist, still thrive.

Once upon a time, horror films were about traveling to Transylvania, and encountering an exotic monster like Dracula there. By the 1970s, that concept had begun to change. With films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977), monsters were not ensconced in castles, across oceans. or beyond mountain ranges. 

Instead, they were just one wrong turn away, on a road trip gone sour.  They were here. They are here. With us.

Green Room duly follows this example, suggesting that even in 2016, civilization doesn’t extend as far and wide in America as many of us might fervently wish to believe.

Given what we have endured in terms of politics this year (wherein we’ve seen a white supremacist candidate support a major party candidate), the concept of Green Room isn't really fantasy at all. As we move into a better, more just future, there are forces of violence, ignorance, and hatred determined to drag us backward.

Green Room shows us just what happens when innocent kids wander into that battle, and must, ultimately, settle the conflict on the terms of the “monsters.” 

“This is a movement, not a party.”

A punk rock band called the Ain’t Rights, travels from gig to gig, not making much money.

After one gig falls through, and the band plays at a Mexican restaurant -- with members making just seven dollars a-piece -- it is suggested that the band could visit a club in the middle of nowhere. They could make a good haul there…so long as they don’t talk politics.

The Ain’t Rights -- consisting of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) -- decide to take a chance for the money  They drive the club, in the middle of the forest, and find it is a heavily populated skin-head club.

To troll their nativist audience, the band plays a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”

It doesn’t go over well, but the band makes it through its set.

But before the Ain’t Rights can collect its money and leave, however, the band mates burst in on a murder in the club’s green room.  The band then holds up in the room while the club owner’s, a malevolent, older neo-Nazi named Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), attempts to lure the group out.

The scene soon descends into bloody violence, as the skinheads release pit bulls into the club to kill the interlopers.

“They knew real war. And they played real war.”

From the first shot of the film (an overhead view of the band’s van in a cornfield), Green Room thrives on the idea of a wrong turn into terror. The Ain’t Rights members live a modest existence, moving from cheap gig to cheap gig. They fancy themselves punks.

At one point, we see the band members siphoning gas from another vehicle, in an attempt to get to the next job.  The idea here is that the band lives off the radar, mostly.

But there’s off the radar and then there’s off the radar, if you know what I mean.

These “babes in the woods,” literally, soon find themselves at a club that not just promotes, but broadcasts race hatred.

There’s a bumper sticker on a car parked at the club that reads: “save our white race.”  There is graffiti on the wall that shouts “KKK.”  On and on, viewers will register signs and symbols of race hatred including the Nazi Gestapo insignia (SS) and the Confederate flag. 

There is also, in the club, a white power flag, and a sign that reads “white pride, worldwide.”

This is a place where people not only hate, but where they are proud of their hate. Hate is broadcast to all comers, a badge of honor.

Most frighteningly of all is the report that this hatred is not a political party, but a “movement.”

At least here, skinheads are ascendant.

The Ain’t Rights, who have made a point of skirting the law, are obviously out of their depth. They are used to thumbing their nose at authority figures, and so play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” During the song, people in the club spit beer at them.  The band is playing with fire, and it doesn’t realize it.  All the skin-head iconography should give them pause, but there’s the sense that the band -- dismissive of the law and authority -- feels there is nothing to fear by rejecting any establishment.  They suspect that in modern America, they are safe. Just a phone call from police help.

That belief is erroneous.  Instead, the band must hunker down in the green room as it falls under siege from the enemy. This is a change, as the band, thus far in the film, has been defined by its nomadic life-style.  Suddenly, the band must wait, and wait, and wait, as the skinheads try to break in, and execute various strategies to kill them.

As Pat (Yelchin) comes to realize after receiving a catastrophic injury, the only way to beat the skinheads is to go to war with them. With the survivors of his band, and a woman (Imogene Poots) who has left the Neo-Nazis, he launches a counter campaign that is clever, and vicious. At last, he embodies the ideals of “punk” music, one might conclude. 

I mentioned Pat’s injury. I watched this film shortly after the death of Anton Yelchin, and I won’t lie: the scene made me want to throw up. Not because it was gory, but because I knew what had happened to the actor in real life. This is an impact the film certainly could not have predicted, but as a responsible reviewer, I feel it my responsibility to warn you that Yelchin’s character does not emerge from the carnage unscathed, and it may raise unpleasant resonances of his death for some viewers.

Again, I don’t blame Green Room at all. It’s an unintended effect.  But the movie’s many clashes between the band and the skinheads are ultra-violent, and indeed quite gory.  For the most part, these scenes are highly effective, if in a fatalistic kind of way.  Once the siege on the green room has begun -- and the pit bulls have gotten into the picture -- a sense of creeping dread and anxiety blankets the film.

You just know it’s not going to “end well,” as Darcy notes.

The color canvas for Green Room is often a squalid, sickly lime green, and that seems entirely appropriate to the action, as the film presents a world populated by sick, monstrous people. Patrick Stewart is effective as the skinhead leader. The actor crafts here an individual of cunning and intelligence, but absolutely no empathy whatsoever.  That’s the real terror of skinheads, or racists in general, isn’t it?  They are often clever, even well-read individuals, and yet that intelligence and cunning is directed entirely towards hate, resentment, and bitterness.  It is intelligence they boast, but intelligence twisted -- and wasted -- by grotesque ugliness.

How else can I describe the mood and content of the film?

Well, consider this: the Ain’t Rights are in a punk band.  Punk rock is about death and irreverence.  Through the action of the film, the band members are revealed to be poseurs, essentially, who sing punk songs, but know nothing about death at all.  And their cheeky irreverence cannot compete with the fully formed -- if evil -- system of belief they encounter. This idea is reflected in a recurring subplot regarding band members’ choice of a desert isle band.

Each one ends up, finally, choosing not punk rock, but rather an artist outside the genre. These selections unwittingly telegraph their “softness” and innocence, despite their presentation as hipster punk rockers.

I watch horror movies to be challenged; to be frightened. And Green Room is challenging, frightening, and incredibly intense.  Like Straw Dogs it raises questions about violence, and about human nature.  In this case, we are left to wonder at the lost innocence of the Ain’t Rights. These young millennials can never quite believe the nature of the battle they are asked to fight. They can never quite believe that in 2016, there are still such atavistic hatred and forces at work, and in power, in the United States. They say they are “punk,” but they are really coddled innocents. Their eyes are opened in a most unpleasant way.

The tide only turns for the band when the survivors do embody punk ideals, and bring the fight to the skinheads. But even at that point, there are moral questions raised by the film.

When is it right to end the fight?

When one’s safety is secured? 

Or, only when all your enemies are dead?

Green Room’s desert isle movie is likely Straw Dogs, so that may give you the answer you need.

Movie Trailer: Green Room (2016)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Disneyland Record and Book: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Comic Book of the Week: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Classics Illustrated)

Model Kit of the Week: The Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

Pop Art: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Life Magazine Edition; 1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea GAF Viewmaster

Board Game of the Week: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Game (Walt Disney World)

Movie Trailer: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Changeling" (September 29, 1967)

Stardate: 3541.9

The Enterprise visits the Malurian Star System, previously inhabited by 4 billion life-forms, to find all life destroyed. 

The starship soon encounters the destroyer of such life, a powerful space probe, Nomad, which believes that its mission is to seek out and “sterilize” imperfect life.

When Nomad mistakes Captain Kirk (William Shatner) for its creator or father, scientist and 21st century Earthman Jackson Roykirk, Kirk orders the probe brought aboard the Enterprise for further analysis.

The wolf in the fold, however, causes great damage.  Nomad wipes Lt. Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichols) memory, and murders Engineer Scott (James Doohan).  

Fortunately, Lt. Uhura can be re-educated, and Nomad restores Scotty to life.

Spock attempts a mind-meld, and learns that Nomad is actually a hybrid, or changeling.  At some point after launch from Earth, the device collided with an alien probe, the “other” called Tan-Ru, and assimilated its power, as well as portions of its mission (to sterilize plant samples).

Nomad seeks more information about the biological units infesting Enterprise before setting a course to “sterilize” planet Earth, and now Kirk must out-think the machine, convincing Nomad that it is imperfect and must also be sterilized…

It is no secret that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is often referred to, not entirely positively, as “Where Nomad Has Gone Before” because of its similarities to “The Changeling,” an early second season episode of the original series.

The similarities are telling. 

Both Nomad and The Motion Picture’s V’Ger are connected with “The Creator,” a personality of some importance. V’Ger believes his Creator is on Earth.  Nomad believes, erroneously, that Kirk is his creator, Jackson Roykirk.

Both Nomad and V’Ger are also, in some way, hybrids. Following an accident, Nomad fused or joined with “The Other,” an alien probe, Tan Ru, which altered its programming and made it super-powerful. 

By comparison, V’ger fell into a black hole, emerged on the far side of the galaxy was made part of a giant spaceship by the denizens of a machine planet, in order to fulfill its programming.

Both Nomad and V’Ger similarly consider humans (carbon based life forms) to be pesky infestations, not true life forms.  

And both Nomad and V’ger also communicate at a rate of speed not immediately detectable by the Enterprise. In both adventures, Spock must modify rate of communication for the Enterprise’s friendship messages to be fully understood. His efforts occur as the Enterprise comes under fire from terrifying weaponry, and its shields begin to buckle.

Of course, both V’Ger and Nomad possess that incredible destructive power mentioned above, which they wield on their long journey to Earth. Nomad destroys 4 billion lives in the Malurian system.  V’Ger destroys three Klingon battle cruisers, and the Epsilon 9 outposts.

Lastly, Spock conducts a mind-meld in both “The Changeling” and The Motion Picture, and the information he gleans from it proves crucial in understanding and “defusing” their opponent.

The Motion Picture is much better visualized, certainly, and features a visual/thematic subtext of birth, or rebirth.  The Enterprise, entering the V’ger cloud and spaceship, is basically the corollary for a sperm moving through the birth canal of a human female. That sperm is delivered (in the person of the Creator; Decker), and a new life-form is born, a hybrid of V’Ger and humanity.  This concept is literalized at the end of the film, when McCoy muses upon how it’s been a long time since he “delivered a baby.”  But really, The Motion Picture is (beautifully) about the conception of that baby. 

Notably, the Enterprise/sperm also carries the foibles of humanity/carbon-based life-forms, which turns out to be the very thing V’Ger requires. We see Kirk’s obsession with the Enterprise, and the drive to “overcome” it.  We see Spock, cold and sterile, after attempting “Kolinahr” (the ritual to purge emotions) beginning his journey to embrace humanity and emotions.

Personally, I feel that Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while erected from familiar pieces (namely, the ingredients of “The Changeling”) is nonetheless one of the most beautiful and rewarding science fiction films of the late 1970s. It is also a very fulfilling Star Trek movie because the main characters, particularly Spock, grow in life-altering, humanity-affirming ways. I feel that the visuals and themes involving the Enterprise delivering genetic material, essentially, for the birth of a new life form, is handled in a remarkable fashion.

Although lacking that feeling of apotheosis, “The Changeling” is a compelling and ambitious episode in conception, especially considering the nature of Nomad. 

The small probe (parodied to perfection in The Mystery Science Theater 3000 [1989-1999] episode “Laserblast) is not a typical guest star, and I can’t even imagine how difficult this episode must have been to shoot, with the floating Nomad moving and hovering under its own power, through doorways, into turbo-lifts, and so forth.

However, in the final analysis, “The Changeling” is not much more than another episode in which Kirk talks to death a conflicted, evil computer (see also: “Return of the Archons,” “The Ultimate Computer.”)  

Worse, some of the details of the story, namely Uhura’s re-education, leave much to be desired.

Specifically, Lt. Uhura has her mind wiped when Nomad attempts to understand “singing.” McCoy and Chapel (Majel Barrett) attempt to re-educate her.  By the following week''s episode, however, Uhura was normal and no one ever brought up the fact that she had to be re-educated in a period of weeks. 

If Uhura can be back to college level of education in just weeks, why does it take years for students to graduate from the Academy?  

Here, the scenes with Uhura speaking Swahili and learning to read vacillate between charming and risible, moment to moment.

Also, Uhura's subplot involves another "sixties sexist" moment. When Nomad reports that Uhura's brain is a mass of conflicting data, Spock notes that, well, she is a woman.


Scotty also gets killed and revived in “The Changeling” making him the second Star Trek character, beyond Mr. Spock, who has really “gone where no man has gone before,” into the undiscovered country (death).  I always laugh when long-time fans complain about Khan’s magic blood and how it has cured death in Star Trek: Into Darkness’s (2013) Kelvin universe.  

“The Changeling” has also conquered death in the prime universe.  

All you need is a house-call from Dr. Nomad, M.D.

Additionally, it seems vaguely inappropriate, perhaps even obscene, for Kirk to be joking about his son (Nomad) the “doctor” mere hours/days after 4 billion intelligent life-forms have been eradicated in the Malurian System.  

This is one of those TV stories in which you are expected, at the end of the story, to forget what happened at the beginning of the story.  

Instead, we just get a pat, happy ending, with Kirk and Spock bantering lightly on the bridge.

Finally “The Changeling” fits in with what I see as one of the key weaknesses of Star Trek Season Two: it attempts to create drama by forging huge, galaxy-spanning threats. In the span of one season, The Enterprise vanquishes Nomad (a killer of 4 billion life forms…), a giant killer space amoeba in “The Immunity Syndrome,” a space faring cloud vampire about to reproduce in “Obsession,” and the planet killer in “The Doomsday Machine.”  

Of all those episodes, only “The Doomsday Machine” qualifies as a great hour, and that’s because of the human stakes, involving Decker and his feelings of guilt/anger/revenge.  

By this time in the series history, and in regards to Season Two, there seem to be three types of stories the series is focused on: parallel Earths (“Patterns of Force,” “A Piece of the Action,” “Bread and Circuses,” and “The Omega Glory”), giant galactic threats (“The Changeling,” “Obsession,” “The Immunity Syndrome” and “The Doomsday Machine”) and Kirk vs. Intelligent Machines (“The Apple,” “The Changeling” and “The Ultimate Computer.”) 

Some of those individual episodes are quite good, even classic, and yet one can clearly see that the second season is more formulaic, in a sense, than the first season was.  

Many of the stand-out episodes of the second season include those that exist outside the formula, notably, presented by those three types: “Amok Time,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “The Deadly Years,” and forth.

“The Changeling isn’t a bad episode, and, in fact, I consider it a great “dry run” for the superior The Motion Picture

That Robert Wise film features important character growth for the series’ protagonists, and parallels their development and maturation with V’Ger’s own.  “The Changeling” is an imperfect first try at such material.

Next Week: “Mirror, Mirror.”