Saturday, September 27, 2008

Tribute: Paul Newman (1925-2008)

From Yahoo News: "WESTPORT, Conn. - Paul Newman, the Academy-Award winning superstar who personified cool as an activist, race car driver, popcorn impresario and the anti-hero of such films as "Hud," "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Color of Money," has died. He was 83."

Paul Newman wasn't just Cool Hand Luke (in one of my favorite movies of all-time), but also Butch Cassidy (in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid [1969]. And Henry Gondorff (in The Sting [1973]), as well as Fast Eddie Felson (in The Hustler [1961].

Newman's brilliant work went far beyond the sixties and seventies, though his later work (excluding The Color of Money) is often less celebrated in the pop culture. In the 1980s, however, the actor offered remarkable performances in underrated efforts such as Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), Absence of Malice (1981), and The Verdict (1982).

Personally, I'll always remember Paul Newman as he was in the iconic freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- guns blazing, fighting to the last. And when I recall his laconic screen persona, I'll forever hear the tune of Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head...

My condolences to Mr. Newman's family. We lost an icon today.

CULT TV REVIEW: Genesis II (1973)

In the early 1970s, Great Bird of the Galaxy and Star Trek revered creator Gene Roddenberry attempted to launch a new science fiction TV series entitled Genesis II. Today, this program is something of a legend to thirty-something genre buffs. Myself included. I for one have often wished that a clever producer would inherit this promising property and remake it today as a new series.

For those whose memory banks have failed, the Genesis II pilot basically filled in a period of Earth "future" history, post 20th-century (and post-World War III, or in Genesis II terminology, "The Great Conflict") but pre-Star Trek Age. In other words, the series would have depicted Earth's adolescent struggles as man emerged from a deadly childhood (consisting of war and lust...) and became -- in the words of of Gene Roddenberry's teleplay -- a "grown up."

Gene Roddenberry commissioned twenty hour-long scripts for Genesis II, and they're all still out there: a veritable first season worth of adventures ready to produce right now. One of those stories, by Alan Dean Foster ("Robot's Return") even became the basis for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and "V'Ger."

Despite a library of twenty scripts ready to produce, despite a fascinating premise about future Earth's evolution, CBS passed on Genesis II in favor of a TV version of Planet of the Apes (1974). Refusing to surrender, Roddenberry re-fashioned elements of the Genesis II premise and produced a second (more colorful and action-packed) version of the material called Planet Earth. (Also to be featured here soon!). If you're a fan of the recent outer space series Andromeda, you may also recall that certain elements of that Kevin Sorbo series (including the name of the Genesis II hero, Dylan Hunt), were incorporated.

Genesis II commences in the late 1970s with a Buck Rogers-style premise. American scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) takes part in a suspended animation experiment deep inside a NASA facility inside Carlsbad Caverns (and adjacent to the Continental Defense Command). As Dylan is put to sleep in a pressure chamber, there is an inconveniently-timed rock fall and the facility is permanently buried, destroyed. Hunt is left for dead. Abandoned.

In voice-over narration, Hunt reports "My name is Dylan Hunt...and my story begins the day on which I died." He then reports (accompanied by flashbacks...) how he served as the chief of the suspended animation project (known as Ganymede) since 1979, and how he arrived at the Carlsbad facility (from Washington DC) on a highly-advanced "sub-shuttle" which could travel 1135 kilometers an hour. The plan was to connect every nation in the world with these sub-shuttles, thus "bridging" continents. The sub-shuttles were necessary because surface and air travel had grown too vulnerable to attack (apparently, according to the prescient dialogue, China was on blazing ascent).

In the year 2133 AD -- some 154 years after the cavern accident -- Dylan Hunt is awakened by team members of an organization called PAX (Latin for "peace.") Pax's leader is a stoic, impressive black man, Primus Kimbridge (Percy Rodrigues), and he is accompanied on the rescue mission by a feisty human woman named Harper-Smythe (Lynne Marta) and a gorgeous half-Tyranian mutant, Lyra-a (the foxy Mariette Hartley).

In a scene demonstrating Gene Roddenberry's finely-developed penchant for kinkiness, Dylan Hunt's physiological revival nearly fails (his skin has actually turned blue...). To survive, Hunt's body needs to "want to live." Yes -- as Dylan reveals in voice over -- there is apparently a deep connection between "the will to survive" and "the need to reproduce." It is that connection that spurs metabolic revival post-suspension. Cutting thru the techno-jargon, what this means simply is that Lyra-a must make love to Dylan to restore the twentieth-century scientist to health.

And did I mention that Lyra-a has two belly buttons?

So, from the haze of a half-coma, Dylan begs Lyra-a: "make me want to live." She happily obliges. Note to self: if I am ever in suspended animation for 154 years, I would like Lyra-a to be present to revive me.

Anyway, cut to sometime later (*ahem*) and Lyra-a is still nursing the recuperating Dylan Hunt back to health. She promptly asks if Dylan remembers how she "cared" for him and then strips down to a bikini and shows off her double-belly button. Okay: best post-apocalyptic TV pilot. EVER.

As Lyra-a flaunts her fetching twin navels, she also provides some critical story exposition. Tyranians are apparently mutants with two hearts, and vastly superior strength. And they need Dylan's help because their nuclear reactor is malfunctioning. Lyra-a also claims that the people of PAX are militaristic plunderers (looting various civilizations for ancient treasures), descendants of the very soldiers responsible for the "Great Conflict" in the first place.

Lyra-a helps Dylan escape from PAX in a still-functioning sub-shuttle and escorts him to the grand Tyranian metropolis (located in old Arizona). There, Dylan learns the truth: Tyranians practice deceit as "a virtue" and believe that "self-interest is the natural order of life." (Oh no, they're Republicans!). The Tyranians also enslave human beings, whom they euphemistically refer to as "Our Helpers."

Furthermore, the Tyranians control human beings with technological wands called "stims," devices which can deliver eight degrees of pain...or eight degrees of pleasure. Again, this is incredibly kinky when put in practice (what with all the wand touching and all...), but frankly, that's the patented Roddenberrian touch I missed most in the snoozy Star Trek: The Next Generation and all modern incarnations of the Trek franchise. Bring on the double-belly buttons and the pleasure sticks. Please.

The remainder of the episode involves Dylan learning that PAX is actually a noble organization, one committed to "preserving the best of the past" and "letting the worst of it be forgotten." With the help of a PAX team, including a Native American named Isiah (Ted Cassidy), Dylan stages an insurrection to free the Tyranians' human slaves. He also learns why Lyra-a really brought him to the city: they have a nuclear missile aimed at PAX's headquarters, and need Dylan's help making it functional.

Genesis II ends with a nuclear detonation at the Tyranian nuclear facility (far from the city). Dylan has double-crossed the Tyranians and removed their weapons of mass destruction permanently. Interestingly, the pilot then ends on a strongly pacifist, philosophical note. The men and women of PAX, though facing annihilation, are angry that Hunt has killed Tyranians. "Did you take lives?" They ask with disapproval. Of course, he has ("I saved everyone!" he says), but the people of PAX believe his choice was immoral, and don't just talk the talk. They walk the walk. "You must swear to give your life rather than to take another," they insist. In other words, in a world ruined by war, the greatest wrong imaginable is killing...even the "justifiable" killing of an enemy. If the human race is to grow up, it must eschew violence totally. The people of PAX will not sacrifice their ideals for security; not murder other people in the name of "peace."

"I hope I'm up to it," says Hunt, committing to a bold, and perhaps difficult future.

I've written above, perhaps a bit too snarkily, about the sexual aspects of Genesis II, but in fairness, this pilot also boasts Roddenberry's penchant for intelligent social commentary. Not merely in terms of the anti-war, pro-peace message, either, but in terms of gender and race equality. For instance, the attentive viewer will notice immediately the "unisex" and integrated nature of PAX. Blacks, and whites, men and women, hold the title "Primus" and work together to build the future. There's also great (and highly-amusing) scene here in which Harper-Smythe complains bitterly that the world was destroyed by "lust" (lust between the sexes, lust for property, lust for power...), and it rings true enough that we recognize the concern.

And even though Genesis II occurs post-holocaust, there is room for hope (or Roddenberry's famous, trademark optimism) in this troubled world. The Earth survives, and has been gifted with "a second chance." On the other hand, this message is muddled by some of the visuals. For instance, much of Genesis II occurs underground, in dark, unpleasant caves. True, some caves are decorated with art; and there's also a garden in evidence, but the visual reveals the truth: the peaceful (good) people of PAX have been relegated to living in a basement. They wear rags that look like potato sacks. Though the citizenry are idealistic, though they have hope, their "home" looks pretty grim. This is one element that is changed in Planet Earth. It infuses PAX's world with spiffy uniforms (like Star Trek!) and vibrant, upbeat-colors (more Star Trek). Genesis II is probably more intellectually honest about what a post-apocalyptic state would look like; but Planet Earth is definitely more palatable in terms of visuals.

Other visuals are a mixed bag on Genesis II. The Tyranian City is a perfect example. It is depicted with a great matte painting (from a distance.) But up close, the city looks just like your friendly neighborhood community college campus. Likewise, some exterior vistas are impressive (like Hunt's first view of the outside world), while other locations look suspiciously like Southern California ranches. And, there's some clumsy insertion of stock footage here too. When Lyra-a and Dylan ride to the Tyranian city, the episode cuts to stock material of squirrels and raccoons gallivanting.

So, how is one to assess the pilot overall? Well, the climactic action in Genesis II is pretty darn uninspiring, truth be told, and the overall tone lacks Star Trek's joie-de-vivre. Also, there's little sense of esprit-de-corps between the protagonists. (Again, this is understandable, given the grave circumstances...) However, the set-up of the series (it's just one sub-shuttle ride to new civilizations and new life forms...) and the powerful ideals of the PAX characters (their evolved view towards violence and war) certainly held great potential. Also, the idea of a man like Hunt - who embodies both the best and worst of the 20th century - dealing with a "brave new world" seemed to promise so much.

I still think this would have been a great series and I mourn the decision not to greenlight it. The pilot offers the Roddenberry touch (and his writing style) in spades, and is immensely entertaining. Also, you can't deny Genesis II was ahead of its time. Just a few years later, the short-lived Logan's Run TV series would adopt a familiar formula. That series involved hover-craft (not sub-shuttle) trips to various post-apocalyptic cultures-of-the-week.

If you think about it, Roddenberry nearly accomplished the impossible here: he excavated a second great series formula, one that held for the possibility of so many exciting and diverse stories. I don't know that there is any Mr. Spock-style break out character in Genesis II, but Lyra-a, with her philosophy of "self-interest" and her inability to "feel love" as humans "understand" it, could have made for some very interesting moments and dynamic character interaction. Also, the idea of Earth getting a new beginning - a second genesis - is one of enormous optimism, something that -- over time (and some brighter photography...) -- might have resonated with audiences the way Star Trek's spirit of universal brotherhood did.

So why isn't anybody remaking this? At the very least, could we please get an official DVD release?

Friday, September 26, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: High Tension (2005)

Today, in reviewing the controversial horror film High Tension (2005), I find it necessary to write a little bit about my preference and bias as a critic, particularly in relation to the genre.

Specifically, this is my relevant axiom: the shattering of movie decorum represents the highest aesthetic achievement of the horror movie format.

Furthermore, said shattering of silver screen taboos must be internally consistent; and it must be intellectually honest.

What I mean to express with this thesis is two-fold. First, the way a movie scares us -- the manner in which form reflects content - is paramount for me in determining the artistic supremacy of a horror film. (Again, that's my bias).

Secondly, the best way to accomplish this high-minded goal is to manipulate the form to one exemplary end; to deploy film grammar to shatter our long-established expectations; to shatter over-a-century of accepted movie decorum.

Why? Well, the (impressive) result when cinematic form transgresses right alongside cinematic content is something of a miraculous alchemy, an unequaled frisson. What you get, simply, is an audience held in breathless fear; an audience unnerved; an audience squeezed tight in the fist of a skilled director.

Because if you can't count on a lifetime of established movie convention to protect you, you are - literally - "at risk" as you watch a horror film, and therefore wholly susceptible to shock, suspense and surprise. You are putty...readily molded and easily squeezed because you have lost the bearings of your previous movie-going experience.

I bring to the table two examples in support of my axiom.

First, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (1960), which shattered expectations in a most singular fashion. Specifically, Psycho left an earlier generation of movie audiences absolutely shaken by the wanton killing off of the lead character, the protagonist (Marion Crane) just part way through the film.

The audience - conditioned to expect the survival of the lead character (and a star to boot, in the form of Janet Leigh) - suddenly felt rudderless because their "heroine" was murdered in the shower. Suddenly, it seemed that nothing was off-limits and audiences were authentically terrified because no one could count-on what was coming next. The ensuing terror resulted not only because of the exceptional technique of shock editing in the shower murder sequence (which was, obviously, unimpeachable), but because the audience had invested Marion with all their trusts and hopes; they had powerfully identified with her. When she was gone, nobody in the audience knew what to expect.

The Janet Leigh "trick" was, put simply, a brilliant and historic transgression of form that shattered all previous established criterion of movie decorum. After pulling this trick, Hitchcock could, yes indeed, play the audience like a piano.

The second example is perhaps less well-revered, but no less worth championing. I refer to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a trail-blazing horror film which raised the bar in the horror genre by the none-too-simple act of denying the audience one important thing: the critical act of learning.

Ponder this for a moment. Learning is an essential component in the understanding of a film's narrative, and an audience usually learns important facts from the story structure, or through expositional dialogue offered by the dramatis personae. The narrative of a typical horror film even provides important clues as protagonists expire (revealing a killer's attire, or suggesting a motive).

The act of learning universally continues as a film's plot marches forward through the comfortable, familiar three-act structure. To bring up Psycho again, Janet Leigh's character dies - yes - but along came Martin Balsam's character Arbogast, who probed Norman Bates' story and continued to develop the points of the plot. When Arbogast was killed, a man named Loomis (Marion's lover) picked up the trail and the act of learning about the Bates mystery was transferred once more, to a new lead character. Janet Leigh was long gone, but the narrative developed and climaxed with reason, rationality and explanation.

By contrast, there is no learning whatsoever in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre...which is why it remains such a potent horror film. Knowledge does not pass from one protagonist to the next, and none of the film's violent acts are explained, let alone rationalized. Pam, Kirk, Jerry and Franklin - four of the five main characters - are murdered by Leatherface's chainsaw without even knowing who they are dealing with, actually. They are killed without learning -- and without warning their friends of the danger -- and so the audience does not learn anything either. Because there is no learning, the plot never advances - it stalls in murderous rage (like Leatherface's silver kitchen door slammed repeatedly in our faces) -- and Sally is left in a state of siege and panic, right along with the viewing audience. We're hooked. Hooper''s got us!

As Wes Craven once said of Tobe Hooper in relation to the director's first film, Hooper "can convince you you're really at risk in a theater;" meaning that by shattering decorum (the three act structure), Hooper has made us in Chainsaw feel intensely vulnerable (and therefore susceptible to the film's horror). Playwright L.M. Kit Carson said it another way, but also well: "Hooper was a scare-director who was methodically unsafe, who the audience (you) finally just couldn't trust."
There have been many good horror films made in the last few years, but few authentically great ones, and part of the reason why this is so, I submit, is that few modern directors are able (or willing) to legitimately shatter decorum and transgress in a bold fashion that is both a.) internally consistent and b.)intellectually honest. Few directors are able to build on Hitchcock's success the way Hooper did. Few have pinpointed that "new way" to cross a line that has previously gone uncrossed.

Off the top of my head, I can readily think of two horror films of recent vintage that have indeed made that very attempt - even if the results weren't always stellar. Those films are Wolf Creek (2005) and -- no surprise here -- High Tension. Both of these admirable films, whatever their specific and particular drawbacks, at least made the noble attempt to dramatize a horror story in a new and transgressive fashion. I applaud both of them for making this attempt, for at least trying. Yes, it's my "A" for effort theory of reviewing movies: I can see what both these films were attempting to achieve, and -- as I wrote in my opening paragraph -- they were seeking the highest aesthetic achievement in horror. Good for them. They went for broke.

Now, onto the specifics of High Tension. And yes, I'm a wordy bastard, but to understand High Tension (and my criticism of it), I think you need to comprehend exactly where I'm coming from. If you haven't seen High Tension, go see it, and then come back and read the rest of this review, all right? Cuz I'm going to talk specifics. A lot of specifics.

Still here?

Okay. High Tension, directed by Alexandre Aja, is the story of an attractive young woman named Marie (Cecile De France) who retires to the family farmhouse of a lovely friend, Alex (Maiwenn) to cram for finals. We see the women on their car trip to the rural estate, and Marie awakes from a disturbing dream while Alex drives on the lonely road. "It was me," Marie explains the nightmare. "I was running from me..."

At the farmhouse, Marie meets Alex's nice family (parents and a young brother), but is brooding about the fact that Alex recently slept with a womanizing boyfriend. From several non-verbal hints, we learn pretty clearly that Marie is a lesbian, and one highly-attracted to her roommate. She is in love with Alex. But Alex is icily -- even callously -- oblivious to her affections.

At the end of a long day, Marie rests in the upstairs bedroom and -- after inadvertently spying Alex naked in the shower -- begins to masturbate. Simultaneously, a grotesque, dirty man drives up to the idyllic farmhouse in a filthy old truck. The headlights of his truck cast a harsh, ugly light across the house. A beacon of danger to come. Very quickly, the man gains entrance to the house and violently murders Alex's family members. He decapitates Alex's dad, slits the mom's throat, and shoots the little brother in the back. Then the male killer abducts Alex herself. Marie has managed to stay hidden throughout the terrifying massacre, and steals away into the back of the truck, where she attempts to comfort Alex. The killer is driving Alex somewhere to kill her, and Marie hopes to save her...

A night of deep terror ensues, as Marie battles the stranger near a greenhouse. Late in the game, however, Marie comes to realizes something shocking. She realizes that she is -- in fact -- the murderer herself! The "man" is an alter-ego of sorts -- not real -- and she is clearly stark raving insane. The film then reveals flashbacks of the farmhouse massacre and instead of seeing the madman commit the crimes this time, we now see it was Marie all along.

High Tension is a brutal, pacey and effectively-directed horror movie. It looks terrific, it involves you in the protagonist's plight, and it makes you feel entirely uneasy throughout the first hour (or about 68 minutes). However, my concern with High Tension remains the fact that the brazen twist, the act here that shatters movie decorum -- that Marie is actually the mad killer -- is not, in my opinion, either a.) internally consistent with the preceding hour, or b.) intellectually honest.

Before I go into the reasons why I think the final act of the film does not play fair with the audience, allow me to explain the reasons I do admire aspects of the film a great deal. First and foremost, I can detect what the clever filmmakers are doing with High Tension, and I commend them for attempting to make the next great transgressive horror film.

The film they sought to make, I believe, is one in which we witness the ultimate evolution (or perhaps punctuation) of the popular 1980s slasher paradigm. After all, this is the film that firmly places the Final Girl and the Mad Killer - formerly dedicated opponents, always at odds -- in the same physical body. In other words, High Tension is very much like seeing Michael Myers unmasked only to reveal Jamie Lee Curtis (or Laurie Strode) beneath the Shatner mask.

This development has been a long time coming in the genre: the Norman-Bates-ification of the feminine/masculine Final Girl archetype. In thirty years, the Final Girl has gone from damsel-in-distress and lucky survivor (Halloween), to resourceful fighter and combatant (Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street with her home-made booby traps), to maternal/sisterly defender (Ripley in Aliens; Kirsty in Hellraiser 2; Regina in Night of the Comet) to the ultimate savior of the world itself (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

With no more "outer" worlds to conquer, the Final Girl turns inward in High Tension, confronting a roiling, resentful, splintered psychology. The monster is no longer an "outside" force but rather one determinedly located inside. In High Tension, we are clearly meant to understand that Marie's sexual desire for Alex is the root cause of her murderous other-persona.

Again, this aspect of the film is very true to horror movie lineage: repression never stays down in the genre; it bolts back up -- like a killer from the dead -- as psychological symptoms...or as murderous action. Here, Marie's repression has created a rampaging monster. One who is, rather significantly, a physically-ugly male.

If the Final Girl has often represented virginity and virtue in the horror genre; the killer has many times represented, the opposite. The (male) killer is often dirty (like Freddy) or simultaneously repellent/attractive (like Pinhead). And he is usually depicted "penetrating" something...usually nubile flesh. The male killer is thus the catalyst that activates the Final Girl. Whether with a drill, a machete or a chain saw, it is the killer who instigates. When Marie is driven to murderous rage in High Tension, her insanity configures itself as an ugly man to commit the untoward deeds...the dirtiest, filthiest man imaginable. The Final Girl is left merely as a witness, a bystander, as part of her exorcises this boogeyman-side.

Frankly, this is a terrific and thoughtful conceit, and I respect and admire High Tension for executing so inventive a notion: the killer and his quarry being one-in-the-same biologically, but divided psychologically. Where I fault High Tension, however, is in cheating the specifics of this "twist" (this movie-decorum shattering situation). The form of the twist doesn't ring true. It doesn't smell right; even if thematically we can see the validity of it.

Again, I must be clear: High Tension builds a strong thematic case for the splintering of Marie's psyche, first by the opening dream about her "running" from herself; and secondly by linking the arrival of the killer with Marie's unfulfilled sexual desire, specifically the masturbation sequence. Gut wise, we can believe this. The character motive seems right, or at least believable.

But visually? In terms of film grammar? I submit that High Tension fails the smell test rather egregiously on this front. Film is primarily a visual art term, and we watch in High Tension, as Marie witnesses the brutal massacre of Alex's family. At one point, we even adopt Marie's point of view (film grammar lingo for her perspective: the first person subjective shot) inside a closet -- through slats, no less -- as Mom gets her throat slit. So if the High Tension twist is to be believed...this shot is a lie. We were not seeing through Marie's eyes at all. She was never even in the closet. She was outside the closet, doing the killing.

I might be willing to accept this (depending on whether I've been drinking...) but there are more egregious issues of internal inconsistency too. We see Alex and Marie arrive at the house in a car. We see the killer arrive separately in a truck (and his headlights cast blue illumination on the family pets [a dog and a parrot]). Now, realistically, only one of these realities can be true. If Marie is actually the only visitor to the farm (the murderer being a figment of her sexual jealousy and rage) then there can only be either a car or a truck, but not both. If the truck, like the male killer, is only a figment of Marie's psyche -- her murderous imagination -- then how come the light reflects on the animals? Non-existent head-lights don't cast light on real life objects, do they?

But the incongruity goes further. The killer (the male) throws Alex into the truck and drives away. If there is no truck in reality, then where is Alex...actually kept during this spell of the movie? Regardless of whom is actually chasing her, a male killer or Marie acting as the male killer, Alex has to physically be somewhere at all times. If the truck doesn't exist, then where is Alex while Marie confronts the male killer? The film's final chase finds Marie grabbing a circular saw device from the truck and chasing down Alex with it. The saw came from inside the truck.

But there is no truck, right? It's all in Marie's mind. So what is Marie really chasing Alex with, and where did she get it? The saw may be family, but it can't come out of nowhere.

See my problem here? Again and again, High Tension confronts the audience with events that represent physical impossibilities. Marie can't have arrived in the farmhouse in both a car (with Alex driving) and in a truck. If she didn't come in the truck (just the car), then how does she take a saw out of the truck (that was never there?) If she followed Alex later, in the truck (not in the car), then her dream (about chasing herself) didn't happen; and she never actually even met Alex's family. She never saw Alex showering then, either, and thus her anger was never stoked (hence activating her alter ego).

Even the details of the family massacre don't stand up to scrutiny. The Dad hears the doorbell ring and walks down the stairs to the front door. He lets (the male killer) in. At this point, Marie is upstairs. If Marie actually did the killing (as the explanatory flashback at the denouement reveals), she wouldn't have had to come from the outside of the house at all...she was already inside.. And if she didn't come from outside, the father wouldn't have walked down the stairs in response to the sound of the doorbell (which, as audience members, we hear). So who rang the doorbell? Doorbells don't ring themselves, and neither do angry psyches.

The two realities that are depicted visually for us in High Tension do not fit together -- they are not internally consistent with one another. More to the point, they actually contradict each other. For the film to work, we would have to believe that objects (like the circular saw, or the truck) appear out of nowhere...and then go back to nowhere. The only answer that allows for the possibility of both versions of reality is that the entire film consists of a fever dream; a fantasy.

Marie's early nightmare and awakening might be a reason for favoring this dream interpretation. Also, if I'm not mistaken, in the killer's first scene, the severed head he tosses on the ground (from his truck) belongs to Alex (a character not as yet dead in the film, in either version of reality). So perhaps everything in High Tension is a fantasy, the lunatic thoughts of a mad, jealous woman. Perhaps we are seeing the whole film from inside Marie's mind.

I guess would buy that (for a dollar!) but I don't like it, and I already have buyer's remorse. If everything that we see -- or that seems -- is but a dream within a dream, then nothing in High Tension matters. Nothing at all. It might as well be set on Mars, because there really are no rules. Pigs could fly out of Marie's butt in one scene, for instance, and that too would fit "the dream." The dream explanation covers a plethora of trespasses, but it also castrates the movie.

Because for a scary movie to succeed in scaring us...we must relate to it. We must identify with the characters. We must believe the characters are in danger. We must believe that the threat of the killer is real, even if the identity of the killer is a secret or a surprise. We must fear for the heroine, even if the heroine has a secret. But if High Tension is all a dream, as we must conclude, there is nothing at stake. And so nothing is frightening. Nothing is scary.

In a way, High Tension looks a lot like what some people accuse M. Night Shymalan films of being: poorly-constructed plots that hinge on a stupid twist ending. High Tension even invokes the oft-derided (in Shymalan films) explanatory flashback, revealing Marie killing Alex's family and a convenience store clerk.

For me, this flashback scene is a bridge too far. High Tension stages the initial murder scenes with both the male killer and Marie in the same proximate space (often just feet from each other). But then it goes back and says that no, only Marie was there doing the killing, therefore undercutting the dream interpretation I mentioned; the only interpretation that could possibly make sense of the proceedings. In other words, the movie tries to have it both ways.

Let me put it another way. How would you feel if in Psycho, you really saw Mother Bates killing Marion in the shower, and during the attack, Norman came in and tried to wrestle the knife from Dear Old Mum. Only later - in a flashback -- you found out that there was no Mother there at all. Thus nobody for whom Norman to wrestle. Thus the earlier scene was a lie.

You'd feel cheated, wouldn't you? You'd feel tricked. And that is why, in addition to being internally inconsistent, High Tension is intellectually dishonest. Could it have been a different way? Yes, it could have, and that's one of the most frustrating things about the film. This movie could have been effectively streamlined to remain more or less consistnet. You could have removed the truck all together, the circular saw too, and other elements to boot. In doing so, you could have told entirely the same story, but in a way that was more believable, and internally consistent. What if there was just one vehicle, and the weapon of choice was something from the farmhouse? That would eliminate this sort of chicken-and-egg argument, wouldn't it? What if -- at times- -- Marie blacked out, and during those times, we saw the male killer commiting murders? Then -- again, there would be some wiggle room for the ending to feel intellectually honest. And the final explanatory flashback would have been a humdinger instead a WTF moment.

Roger Ebert awarded High Tension one paltry star, but not on the basis of its impossibilities, rather on the brutal nature of the piece (and the bad dubbing). Despite all my reservations, I would still say the film is worthy of at least two-and-a-half stars (out of four) for style. Still, the final act "surprise" disqualifies the film from earning a strong recommendation from me. I've watched the film twice now, because viewers I respect like the film, and buy the twist, seemingly hook, line and circular saw. On the second viewing, even Kathryn said yeah, she would buy it -- as Marie's long, unending delusion. Maybe I'm stubborn. I still don't think the movie plays fair.

Bottom line: Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took the genre ball and ran with it; evolving the horror movie format in the process and reaching their goal line. High Tension gets the ball, runs forward a bit, and then fumbles it. By forcing viewers to accept physical impossibilities or even countenance the idea that the entire movie is a dream, High Tension becomes less scary, less horrific, less involving. We step back and withold disbelief instead of becoming absorbed. We distance ourselves from the material instead of embracing it. And that dilutes the terror.

Overall, it was a good game, but that last act -- it's a flag on the play.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

TV REVIEW: Fringe: "The Ghost Network"

On week three, the new Fox genre series Fringe continues to lurch wildly from one X-Files-type narrative to another in search of some defining style or plotting. Worse, it keeps coming up short in the actual science department. The coup de grace, however is that this week's episode, "The Ghost Network," reveals a format "hardening-of-the-arteries" as well. Just three installments in on this new series and the attentive viewer can already detect and chart a repeating, predictable and tiresome formula, or "pattern," if you will.

Let's start with the X-Files riff that informs the subject matter (because that's always fun, and sadly, obvious). "The Ghost Network" deals with a man who is experiencing psychic visions of terrorist attacks. He is actually receiving information mentally about the crime, via a psychic wavelength that Dr. Bishop terms "The Ghost Network." For X-Files episodes in which people inexplicably experience strange psychic visions of the latest and most dangerous crimes (including child abduction or murder), I refer you just off the top of my head to "Oubliette," "Blind" and the latest feature film, "I Want To Believe."

Yet in fairness, Fringe utilizes the idea of a psychic connection a little differently than these examples; it attempts to explain, specifically, that the psychic visions are merely communications signals on a different wave-length; one utilized by the secret Conspiracy. Where the X-Files often endowed loners, losers and misfits with psychic powers, thus examining their "outsider" status in our society, Fringe begins with this tack (in a scene at St. Ames Cathedral in which the psychic confesses to a fear that the Devil is sending him dreams), but then drops that tangent like a hot potato in favor of a conspiracy-oriented tale. Honestly, this is the least rip-offish of the first three Fringe episodes. It starts out familiar, then takes a turn. So give it a pass there. It's not like Teliko's stealing pituitary glands this week, at least.

The problem is that Fringe only skims the surface of an interesting idea, and comes up short on the actual science on display. Let me point out two basic goofs. Early on, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) rattles off the names of a few drugs that his father, Dr. Bishop is concocting at the lab for self-medication. Peter terms them "psychotics." The drug names he rattles off, however, are the generics for Xanax and Paxil, if I caught them right. Those aren't psychotics. A genius with a 190 IQ wouldn't make that simple a mistake, would he? I mean, I caught the error and my IQ is a lot lower. (A lot lower...).

Secondly, while conducting brain surgery with a drill (and we see a pool of blood flowing as the drill cuts), Dr. Bishop fails to administer a local anesthetic to his patient. Remarkably, the patient doesn't even wince as the drill whirs deep into his skull. Bishop administers a sedative, mind you, but that's not the same thing. What is this, Awake?

When Fringe fails to convey accurate information on routine subjects such as psychiatric drugs and surgical procedure, you have to wonder about the integrity of the series. And seriously, this episode is muddled beyond belief. Are we to believe that the people behind the Pattern are using "The Ghost Network" to communicate about terrorist attacks and the like? If that's the case, have they wired all their cell phones to operate on "The Ghost Network." (Can you hear me now?)

I mean, we see the psychic man reporting cell phone conversations at a station miles away, and are told he has accessed the Ghost Network that could only means that the perpetrators have Ghost-tuned their cell phones. Correct? Perhaps I'm missing something, but this just seems...silly to me. Fringe establishes that there is a ghost communications network, and that the psychic is tuning into it, but this episode doesn't make clear who is actually using the network and how they do it, except that they're bad and behind some kind of technology exchange. But what mechanism are they using? Adapted cell phones? Do both sides (people) in the exchange have these new phones, or just one? Again, the ideas are superficial that they don't bear up under the slightest scrutiny.

My biggest concern about "The Ghost Network" -- by far -- is that it seems to indicate a creative rut. Here's the outline of Fringe episodes so far:

1. There is a strange and/or horrific attack in shocking prologue. (Plane attack in pilot; motel room fertilization in "The Same Old Story," bus attack in "Ghost Network")

2. Dr. Bishop has cutsie-poo insane moment (here over pancakes and pianos; last week over car seat heaters)

3. Mystery clue dropped as to Peter's background (here in a diner; last week in a comment by Dr. Bishop)

4. Olivia investigates case and ties it to "the pattern," after making mention of her relationship with Agent Scott and how she feels betrayed (on a park bench last week; here at a funeral).

5. The case of the week involves something paranormal or "fringe" Dr. Bishop worked on once directly (but because of his cutsie-poo insanity has conveniently forgotten about, until it comes up in this new context). Also conveniently, Bishop knows of a functional device built just for solving this case. Last week ("The Same Old Story"), it was a machine that could read images from retinas. This week, the good doctor happens to have a kind of helmet stored away in his old house that can adjust brainwaves. By far, this is the worst element of the show so far: the deus ex machina of the week.

6. Case leads back to Massive Dynamic. Always.

7. Olivia interviews Blair Brown at Massive Dynamic, and she "denies all knowledge." Why doesn't Olivia just arrest this evasive exec? She's now been tied circumstantially to three cases. How about haulin' her ass down to HQ for questioning?

8. The case of the week is solved, but many questions remain about Massive Dynamic and the conspiracy/Pattern , so we can have future episodes that tell us just as little.

9. Epilogue: something's going on with John Scott(Mark Valley), the dead FBI agent, at Massive Dynamic.

I look forward to episode four, when I'm sure that this creative rut will be destroyed, and Fringe will go in a new, exciting direction and not rely on the same plot. Right? Right?

Seriously, to re-mediate itself, Fringe need only fix one or two of these elements next week. How about Dr. Bishop not have a miracle device (or know of a miracle device) at the ready? How about a crime of the week not involve Massive Dynamic or the Pattern? How about Olivia investigating a case that is new to Dr. Bishop, not an old case he's forgotten about (then conveniently remembered)?

Okay, I'm sure people are going to say that I'm picking on Fringe. So I do want to say something nice. Joshua Jackson is doing a more-than credible job in this series. He's getting better at delivering one-liners, and has developed a nice way of puncturing the mock-profundity with his funny dialogue delivery. Seriously -- and this may merely be a symptom of how bad Fringe is -- Joshua Jackson is the bright spot of every episode so far. He makes the show watchable, and occasionally amusing.

Fringe reveals so little improvement over the last two weeks that I may have to impose my old Supernatural rule: I will stay tuned for five weeks, and if things don't get better after that spell, I'm outta there!

So Fringe gets two more times up at bat as far as I'm concerned. Oh heck, I'm a nice guy. I'll set the bar even lower. If the fourth episode next week does not involve an old case of Dr. Bishop and the old man actually has to invent something instead of relying on old research, I'll double my watching duration to ten weeks.

That's a challenge, Fringe. Break the pattern!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Theme Song of the Week #28: Airwolf (1984-1986)

Music from the Studio at the End of the Universe, Part Two

By Mateo Latosa

Library Music

John's original intent was to score THB with library music, as he didn't have a composer. Once Cesar and I came on board, he dropped that idea and used our music exclusively (except for the occasional trailer). By the time THB 2.0 rolled around, John not only had all my new cues to use, but had our entire set of cues from season one to use as library music.

That is one reason why our credit remained the same in season two. Cesar's contributions to season one were ever-present in season two. In fact some cues recorded for season one went unused there, until finally being placed in season two. Also, we'd made a decision early on to credit all our THB compositions as Gallegos/Latosa. This decision continued into season two, with all THB cues copyrighted to both of us.

Into the Black

As THB 2.0 aired, it became increasingly difficult to schedule studio time that worked for all three of us. John became worried that I wouldn't have time to compose and record the music for the final scene--the consumption of the house (by dark matter) until all that's left is a single room with the remaining characters crowded in the doorway looking out into the black.

He was right to worry. That last recording session never took place. But, unbelievably, I had recorded an extra piece that I called, "Into Darkness and Awareness," that I had sent to John weeks before. He had downloaded it, unzipped it, filed it and forgotten about it--UNHEARD!

When I told him that the final session wasn't going to happen, he was bummed out to say the least. Then I mentioned that, for the Into the Black sequence, I had planned to do a longer version of "Into Darkness and Awareness". He didn't remember that piece and asked its exact length. It took a few minutes, but he found it and heard it for the first time...and amazingly the piece fit perfectly. And with that bit of luck, my work for THB 2.0 was finished

From The House Between to Under the Eagle and Back Again!

During the scoring of THB 2.0, I was asked to score some transitions between scene changes for the London engagement of the "Under the Eagle," the new work from playwright, Andrew Cartmel. I chose to expand upon a short theme I'd written for THB 2.0 called "Evil Bill". It was a cue that was just begging for development.

I recorded three new versions: one with synth and piano, one with just synth, and one with just acoustic guitar. I sent these to London, but due to their late arrival they went unused. So I sent them to John for use in THB 2.0. Full circle!

FINAL NOTE: The Long-Distance Crew Members

Cesar and I are often asked what it was like to be on the crew of The House Between. The question usually implies that we know the actors and other crewmembers. Sadly, we really don't. We have never been on the set--or in North Carolina for that matter! Someday we hope to meet everyone who was involved in this unique, dare I say brazen, production. It's been an honor and a lot of fun. See you in THB 3.0!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The House Between Fan Appreciation Page

Hey everybody, The House Between now has a fan appreciation page. Whoo-hoo!

Check it out to read about a House Between chronology, or the similarities between my crazy little show and...The Wizard of Oz?

The site will soon be re-broadcasting the series from the beginning (in anticipation of the upcoming third season), and commenting on each episode. Outstanding! Can't wait!

Come on Sci-Fi Channel, isn't it time to pick us up? We work cheap. Seriously...

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 79: Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century Game (TSR; 1988)

In 1988, TSR (the company behind the mega-popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons) released an expansive and fun strategy board game based on the classic Dille character Buck Rogers. The game (which is for 2 to 6 players, ages 10 and up) was not related to the 1979 NBC-TV series (starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray). Rather, in some sense, it sought to make the BR universe a bit more believable (and less campy). All the familiar characters were here, but made a little more "serious." There was no sign of Twiki (bi-di-bi-di...) anywhere.

"The fate of the solar system is in your hands!" the back of the box shouted. And looking at all the various and sundry pieces of the game (including spaceships, killer satellites and industrial factories), it seems like you do have an entire solar system at your command.

In all, there were over 360 playing pieces, 54 playing cards, over 200 heavy cardboard counters, 50 plastic chips, five 10-sided dice and 2 rule books. In other words, if you were to get a few of your friends together with this game, you'd be assured of hours (perhaps days...) of geek glory. Break open the Doritos...

Here's the set-up for the game: "It is the 25th century. A fierce war of colonization and Imperial conquest has thrown the Inner Planets of Our Solar System into Chaos." Specifically, warships "scream across the blackness of space, cutting swaths of destruction" throughout out solar system.

Into this world comes "Buck Rogers - a man of the 20th century," to fight injustice. "In this game, you pick sides; you control vast armies and one of several heroes (or villains)...The onslaught is coming."

Opposing you as Buck Rogers were space pirates "led by Black Barney" and "would-be conquerers, Killer Kane and Ardala."

Sounds fun, doesn't it? Sadly, I never really got to play this terrific-looking game with any buddies. By 1988, I was away at college and off on other things (namely, shooting no-budget movies with titles such as Slaves of the Succubus and Intruder). I *think* this game came into my possession for about a dollar sometime in the early nineties (courtesy of a flea market). But it sure as hell looks fun, doesn't it? Anyone out there remember it?

I'm saving this game for Joel (who turns 2 soon). Of course, by the time he's ready for it, we'll all be playing games like this on virtual reality head sets...