Friday, November 28, 2008

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"You'd sell your soul to find the great truth. Well, human life doesn't have great truths. We're born in doubt, we spend our lives persuading ourselves we're alive, and once we do that, we love each other like I love you."

-Emily (Blair Brown) to Dr. Edward Jessup (William Hurt) in Altered States (1980)

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Hello, Readers!

Here's hoping that you and yours have a happy and safe holiday today.

Back when I was a kid (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...), I had a unique tradition on Turkey Day. Every Thanksgiving I would excuse myself from the visiting relatives after dessert and hop down into the basement playroom at 7 Clinton Road in Glen Ridge to watch a giant ape marathon on TV: King Kong, Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, King Kong Escapes and King Kong vs. Godzilla. My memory today is such that I can't recall if it was WPIX or WWOR that aired the marathon...but the station did it each and every year throughout the 1980s.

Anyway, it was one hell of a way to spend the holiday: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and the eighth wonder of the world. (And on Fridays, the same station aired a Godzilla movie marathon!)

Damn, those were the days...

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More on The Horror Top 50

Yesterday, I linked to Vault of Horror's new list of The Cyber-Elite's 50 Greatest Horror Films of All Time. I believe the list is pretty darn great, but I did notice some comments under the post suggesting that, perhaps, the participants had shorted "new" horror films (say from the year 2000 - present). Gazing at the titles that made the list, it's difficult to deny that's the case. Yet there are good reasons. And I'm not talking about the relative quality (or lack thereof) of 21st century age horror, either.

In weighing and determining the best horror films of all time, there are many important factors to consider. Among those:

1. Was the film scary at the time of the original release, and does it continue to be scary today (in other words, does it stand the test of time?) Gazing at the list quickly, I would judge that Halloween, Blair Witch Project, The Haunting and many others meet that benchmark with flying colors in 2008, even years and in some cases, many decades after the initial theatrical release. I know that I steadfastly refuse to watch either Halloween or The Exorcist when I'm alone in the house.

2. Can the film in question be interpreted in more than one way, meaning that -- again -- it survives beyond the original context or time period? If you study a few examples, say Halloween, The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary's Baby or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (original), you can see that they all spur various interpretations. Is Chain Saw merely surreal savage cinema, or a statement on vegetarianism? In Halloween, is Michael Myers the Bogeyman, or physical externalization of Laurie Strode's repressed id? Is there any witch present at all in The Blair Witch Project? Alternate readings of these films mean that they are more than merely scary...they are timeless. They float above the original context and become...universal.

3. A great horror film not only reveals something important (social or economic) about the context in which it was created, it can actually come to embody that time period...and become a touchstone. Consider Night of the Living Dead (1968), which perfectly captures the Vietnam War Age, or Cronenberg's The Fly, which was released just as America's awareness of AIDS was growing and taking shape. You can't talk about horrors of the 1960s or 1980s without mentioning these films.

My point, I suppose, is simply that the horror films of relatively recent vintage may or may not stand the test of time. We just don't know yet. Therefore, to praise them on points 1, 2, 3 and is, perhaps, premature. I have very, very high regard for recent examples of the genre including The Ring, Hostel, Silent Hill, The Descent, The Strangers, Cloverfield, Vacancy...even, to some degree, The Ruins.

But since we are still locked in the 2000s; since we are still entrenched in the Bush Era Mindset (at least for a few months...), it's near-impossible to stand back and objectively look at these films as touchstones or time-capsules of the era. Because we don't really know, ultimately, what we will carry out of this turbulent era. Maybe it'll be Snakes on a Plane. We need distance to rightly assess these recent works beyond the value of these questions: "does it scare me now?"; and does it relate to how I see the "today" right now?

The fact of the matter is that time can also wash away the tidal wave of bad reviews for fascinating, individual, quirky, yet much-maligned films like Ghosts of Mars, The Happening or X-Files: I Want to Believe. It is entirely possible that is one of those films -- the ones which most critics hated or missed the boat on (historically, think The Exorcist...) -- that will emerge as the "new classic" of the age. Perhaps the real value of these films will be excavated. Who knows, perhaps the new classic horror film is the very one I missed the boat on, such as Diary of the Dead, or High Tension.

Only time will tell...and that's the reason those films didn't make the list, in my opinion. It's just too soon.

Theme Song of the Week # 35: Monsters (1988 - 1991)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The 50 Greatest Horror Films of All Time?

Vault of Horror has organized a list of the 50 greatest horror movies of all time, tallying the input of the Internet's most well-known horror critics (myself included, along with the likes of Final Girl's Stacie Ponder, Horror Film's Magazine's Wes Fierce, and John W. Morehead of Theofantastique, just for starters.)

I don't want to spoil the list here -- which is damned good by my estimation -- so go take a long peek at it. I'll just "tease" the results here with some of the "stats" on the list that Vault of Horror has assembled.

No movie in the top 12 was made in the last 25 years.
No movie in the top 14 was made in the last 10 years.
Only one movie in the top 26 was made in the last 20 years.
Four of the top 10, and 3 of the top 5, were made in the 1970s.
Directors listed most times: John Carpenter & Tobe Hooper (3).
Three silent films.
One TV movie.
Two non-feature length films.

Two great films that didn't make this top fifty list but which I esteem rather highly are Don't Look Now (1973) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). But I just don't see much to quibble with here. (Except number 38 on the list, which I must disavow: I didn't vote for it...)

Regardless, it was a great honor to be involved in the polling on this list, and I applaud all the effort, time and energy that Vault of Horror put into wrangling it!

Monday, November 24, 2008

History is Replete With Turning Points

Jason Bennion, over at the award-winning blog Simple Tricks & Nonsense, reacts to the new Star Trek movie trailer:

My initial reaction was reflexively negative, simply because of what it is. But now after a cooling-off period, I can see that it has a lot going for it. It's exciting, in that jittery, over-caffeinated, fast-cut style that The Damn Kids seem to like these days. It contains a number of striking images, including some that remind me of commercial illustrations that caught my eye as a kid and have stayed with me over the years...

Bennion also considers the gap between our two opinions of the trailer:

I guess the bottom line here is that the trailer has left me ambivalent. I'm not entirely dismissive of the project, but I'm not sold on it either. John Kenneth Muir...points out that this Star Trek isn't really for people like me, not for the Boomers and Gen-Xers who grew up with ST 1.0, and that "even if the new Star Trek is a great movie, my generation is going to have a tough time living with it." That sums up my feelings pretty concisely. The big difference between he and I, though, is that he's more confident it will be a great movie, and I am not. Moreover, he wants Star Trek to continue. I was perfectly content with the idea that it was over...

Jason is right about this. I really do want Star Trek to continue. And gazing inside, I wonder why that's so important. Why do I feel so invested in the continuation of a franchise? I mean, I'll always have Paris, right? I've got three TV seasons, an animated series and six movies, all just waiting for another re-visit.

One possible answer: I've always felt that Star Trek represents a pretty good lens for viewing the world, a philosophy. I would like my young Joel to have ready access to this world as he navigates growing up. But, of course, -- again -- I can just pop the classic series DVD in the blu ray player I haven't bought yet, and he can soak up all the wisdom there.

If he's even interested in Star Trek. To coin a phrase, it's probably "highly illogical" of me to assume Joel will be interested in Star Trek. With my luck, he'll like the new Battlestar Galactica.

Spock reminded us that "all things end," yet Jason Bennion is right in his interpretation -- I cling stubbornly to Star Trek. I don't want it to end, because I believe it has been and always shall be a positive force in what is largely a negative world. Star Trek reminds us that human beings at their best can be clever, compassionate, inventive, and capable of solving problems. It reminds us that we can overcome racism, sexism, and even species-ism (!). It's also daring in the best sense of the word: the next vista is never enough. Star Trek reminds us that we can go further...that there's always another vista, another adventure just over the horizon.

Star Wars could end today and I would shed no tears. I'd remember it fondly for the special place it held in my youth.

But if Star Trek ended today, I'd miss it. This is an object lesson for what happens when someone grows up with TV instead of organized religion, I suppose. The tenets of Star Trek are that important to me....akin to a belief system. All of which makes me a weirdo, for sure, optimistic weirdo.

I don't know. Star Trek just isn't done with us yet. Kirk and Spock and Bones have more life in 'em. More to tell us. More to teach us.

If the new movie stinks, no one will be more disappointed than me. (And nobody will be quicker to write -- in agonizing detail -- about the failures of the enterprise). On the other hand, I cling to the belief that Star Trek can survive this turning point. I believe that Star Trek -- even sexed up, jazzed-up, and likely dumbed down -- can be relevant and important today.

Historical example tells us this is so. Remember, the original pilot "The Cage" was rejected by NBC as too cerebral. So Roddenberry tried a second time -- only this time eschewing big concepts for fist fights, false gods, and ripped tunics. The result of that "dumb
ed down" second pilot was the beginning of a forty-two year legend.

Maybe J.J. Abrams can re-start the franchise now with the same success.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

To quote Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky (a.k.a. The Abomination): "I'm pissed off and ready for round three...."

And that's so because this cinematic Incredible Hulk -- Round Two for the film franchise -- isn't much of an improvement over Round One; the ponderous 2003 Ang Lee model.

You remember that movie, right? The one with the mutant poodles...and Nick Nolte.

Sure, the visual effects are moderately improved in this re-vamp of a re-imagination, but the titular green behemoth -- rendered by CGI once more -- still looks like a weightless cartoon at worst, and a very advanced video game avatar at best.

Yet unconvincing special effects aren't even the central problem. At least not until The Incredible Hulk's dreary third act, wherein inferior special effects remain all the bored audience is left with.

No, the problems here are much more insidious, fatally interspersed throughout the movie's DNA like pulsating gamma radiation. Specifically, Louis Leterrier's sequel boasts dramatic lapses in performance, tone, and narrative logic. These numerous failures render the film a bad B movie writ large; a weak script lacquered with a big budget gloss. Ed Norton takes over for Eric Bana in the central role, and in theory there should be no problem believing that his Banner leads a double life. After all, we carry with us the memory of another memorable Norton schizophrenic, Tyler Durden. Unfortunately, Norton sleepwalks through his leading role here, adequately registering an interior life, but never allowing the audience to really excavate it. In short, Norton acts like he's slumming.

And given the overall quality of the enterprise, perhaps he is. One cannot help but compare Norton's sleepy performance in The Incredible Hulk with Robert Downey's kinetic, vibrant Iron Man performance. Different characters, of course, but Norton's Banner comes off as a cipher. Bill Bixby was never a cipher...

The Incredible Hulk actually begins promisingly, with a well-paced, interesting sequence set in Brazil. It's 158 days since Bruce Banner's (Edward Norton's) last hulk-out, and he's busy trying to discover a cure for his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde syndrome.

Simultaneously, Banner is participating in meditation and breathing exercises to help control his anger, the very trigger that spurs the transformation into the not-very-jolly green giant. Meanwhile, our hero wastes his brilliant mind toiling away in a local bottling factory. But one day there's an accident in the factory, and Banner's blood is spilled...

Before long, General Ross (William Hurt) and his minions -- among them Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) -- trace Banner to Brazil and attempt to catch him there. There's an exciting chase.

Banner transforms into the Hulk and evades his hunters for good (brushing off bullets like they're mosquitoes...). Banner then returns to the United States, to Culver University in Virginia, and encounters the love of his life, Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Naturally, she still loves him, and wants to help him. There's a droll scene here in which the long-suffering, long-separated couple almost makes love, but Banner fears a premature...transformation...and begs off. I guess it happens to the best of us...

Meanwhile, the dogged but unrealistically-reckless General Ross realizes he requires a super soldier to capture the Hulk, and begins injecting Blonsky with a dangerous serum that will improve the aging grunt's speed, dexterity and strength. There's a battle on campus, but the Hulk escapes. Again.

Afterwards, Bruce and Betty race for New York City, where the mysterious Dr. Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) might have a cure.

But then General Ross tries to capture Banner again (see a trend developing here?) Then -- injected with Hulk blood -- Blonsky transforms into the monstrous Abomination and inexplicably starts attacking his former brethren in the Army. And, well, it takes a monster to beat a monster. So Banner is dropped (literally...) into the battle zone. Cue the special effects...

And, well, that's it. That's everything. The Incredible Hulk is structured as a series of increasingly witless chases and escapes leading up to a rather underwhelming final battle. Chase. Attack. Escape. Rinse and repeat.

Director Louis Leterrier has apparently studied the contemporary superhero movie playbook, and he adheres closely to it here, with precious little deviation or ingenuity. So we get the touching-if-stale doomed love affair scenario (Banner and Ross), familiar to us from Spider-Man (2002), Batman Begins (2005) and every other superhero movie since the dawn of time. Here, there are also echoes of the King Kong, beauty-and-the- beast syndrome (evident as well in Hellboy).

We also get the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo (see: Iron Man, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, etc.). There's even the familiar villain who wants to utilize the hero (or his technology) as a devastating weapon (see: Iron Man).

There's even the by-now de rigueur "Superhero Triumphant" shot which virtually closes out film. You know how the Dark Knight struts like a gargoyle atop Gotham's noir-ish skyscrapers? Or how Spider-Man swings through Manhattan's glass and steel valleys? Or how Superman orbits the Earth after a day's work? Well here, The Incredible Hulk lumbers from NYC rooftop to rooftop, until the picture fades out into glorious sunlight.

Yawn. When the film was finally over, I agreed with The Abomination, who -- during the final battle -- asked the Incredible Hulk a pertinent question. "Is that all you've got?"

Movie, is that all you've got?

But I suppose this brand of faux-angsty, solemn phantasmagoria is precisely what the majority of franchise fans desire. A superhero movie that plays it relentlessly safe and doesn't rock the boat or reach for artistic heights. What seems obvious here is that producers Hurd and Arad learned their lesson from Ang Lee's ambitious failure and learned it hard. They decided not to commit one daring or original idea to celluloid in this sequel. Better to make a movie of extended chases and monster wrestling matches than something interesting about the human condition, about the "rage" we all control. Underneath everything else in this movie is the barely audible, frightened whisper:

Don't make fanboys angry. You wouldn't like your box office receipts when they're angry...

So what you get in The Incredible Hulk is a reflexive pandering to the base demographic so obvious and desperate it would make even a serial panderer like Sarah Palin blush with embarrassment. Thus we get endless in-jokes and references to the comic-book and TV show. Look, there's Bill Bixby (in footage from The Courtship of Eddie's Father)! Look, there's Lou Ferrigno! Listen, they just mentioned reporter Jack McGee! Why, we even get a franchise cross-over scene with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and General Ross that forecasts an Avengers movie! One meant, no doubt, to cause spontaneous fan orgasms. Man, this movie is such a bad-ass mo fo! Isn't it cool that the whole Marvel movie universe is connected?

Sure. But it would have been cooler if The Incredible Hulk was...good.

To my shock, film critics largely praised this sub-par effort. In doing so, they failed to mention the egregious lapses in tone, particularly during the cringe-inducing moment wherein Banner and Ross arrive in NYC. They promptly and ridiculously term the Big Apple "the most aggressive" city on Earth (Gimme a break! They should see the Wal-Mart in Monroe on a Saturday night...). They then take an exaggerated and dangerous ride in a cab. Betty gets mad and screams at the negligent cab driver, prompting an embarrassed-looking Norton to note that he knows some techniques for anger management. This scene is so ridiculous, so campy, so piped-in from another planet, that you just wince with discomfort. It's so bad you can't believe your eyes and ears.

Soon after, it's the audience's anger-management that's tested as Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Stern) delivers one of the worst supporting performances I've seen in a superhero film since Lambert Wilson in Catwoman (2004). He plays Stern like a crazy, hyper-active clown. Maybe he was inspired by the 1960s Batman, but regardless his performance sticks out like a sore thumb. Every trace of believability seeps out of the picture when he's on-screen mugging.

Also, if you delve at all into the details of The Incredible Hulk, the story doesn't make any sense. For one thing, General Ross appears to be the highest ranking, most powerful general in the United States, because he launches full-scale attacks (replete with roaring gunships and sonic cannons...) on an American college campus with no blow-back either from the Army or the President himself. The attack makes the nightly news (and the Hulk is even recorded on a civilian phone camera). But nobody in the U.S. government seems to take notice. Nobody panics. Nobody makes a statement. General Ross apparently just has carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wants, including the conspicuous war waging on American soil.

And why does Blonsky immediately turn against his former allies in Armed Forces once he becomes the Abomination? The movie establishes that as the Hulk, Banner remains true, at least somewhat, to his human character. He remembers Betty and is gentle with her; protective. So a career army officer like Blonsky -- one who has fought with these men in the trenches literally all his life -- becomes a hulkish monster and turns instantly on them? That one's never explained either.

But more to the point, the film's narrative largely invalidates Banner's point of view. He is on the run (and in hiding) because he doesn't want the American military to create a league of super soldiers. Well, first off, Ross already has a different (non Hulk variety...) super soldier serum. It works, and he uses it on Blonsky.

And secondly, when the Abomination runs wild, Banner is dropped into the fight essentially as -- yep -- a super soldier, to defeat him; thus proving the validity of the program. The whole "creating super soldier" thing is out of the bag, whether Banner is a conscientious objecter or not. If Banner is willing to transform into the Hulk to fight a monster in New York (the most aggressive city on Earth!), isn't it kind of selfish that he wouldn't let the American military develop a Hulk in the event that -- for example -- Iran developed an Islamic Hulk and went nuts with it on the streets of Baghdad?

Yep, this Bruce Banner is a flip-flopper. He was against super-soldiers before he was for them.

I find it highly ironic that the most popular screen version of the Hulk remains the Bixby/Ferrigno TV series, which ran on American television for four years (from 1978-1982). That 30-year old Kenneth Johnson series had little money and no computer technology, but the stories had one crucial element: heart.

They concerned things like loss, obsession, redemption and shame, and Banner -- despite his curse -- made a difference in the life of ordinary people. that's what the show as about, The Hulk coming to the rescue of the little guy; the exploited, the weak, the poor, even the abused.

Today, The Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) boast big stars and big special effects, yet concern nothing human. They are monstrous in the worst sense of the word, obsessed with big digital juggernauts duking it out. Our emotions are never engaged, and therefore watching this film's, finale is a bit like watching someone else play a video game while you wait your turn at the joystick.

Every once and while, there's a fancy move that earns your admiration, but otherwise, you're not really involved.

I know it's not easy being green, but come on ...strike two, Hulk. Bring on Round Three.