Saturday, April 02, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Turkey Shoot (1981)

A wicked blast of unadulterated exploitation film making, the Australian 1981 flick Turkey Shoot saw release in the United States in 1983 as Escape 2000.  

But no matter the title the movie travels under, Turkey Shoot remains a high-energy and gonzo roller-coaster ride.  If it isn't exactly quality entertainment (and it isn't), Turkey Shoot nonetheless remains that  cherished brand of  movie you can't take your eyes off of, for fear of missing the next over-the-top, bad taste moment. 

Directed capably by Brian Trenchard-Smith, Turkey Shoot stars Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey as death camp denizens dwelling  in a futuristic, fascist version of Australia.  Over the opening credits, the film utilizes stock footage of urban riots, looting, and protests (in split-screen, no less) to transmit the idea of a Nazi-like take-over of Down Under.  Turkey Shoot is thus a dystopian film about a modern totalitarian state, one replete with intense surveillance, plus "re-education" and "behavior modification" for those who don't conform to society.

The last half of the film involves the titular turkey shoot as a death camp warden -- named after a certain former British prime minister --- and several Nazi-like VIPs hunt down the film's imperiled heroes in the wild. As the hunt ensues, no sensibilities are spared, and the film lovingly showcases intense gore and violence, all with tongue-planted firmly in cheek. 

The first act of  Turkey Shoot, a cavalcade of human rights indignities set inside the death camp, is actually far superior to the film's last half involving the hunt, and it lovingly layers outrage upon outrage.  In short, the events at the death camp successfully capture the attention (and blood lust) as "deviants" and "traitors" attempt to steer clear of the sadistic guards and their cretinous ilk. 

Though splendidly and colorfully photographed, the last half of the film settles into a more repetitive action groove, and except for the high impact moments of gory violence, fails to live up to Turkey Shoot's intriguing premise.  The movie even cops out with an unbelievable, happy ending (and a pro-revolution quotation from H.G. Wells), although it is clear from the action involved that the dissidents would not survive the day in this particular culture

"The Ultimate Solution: Kill them all!"

As Turkey Shoot begins, the film cuts to a black van as it pulls into Death Camp 47, and leaves behind three new arrivals.

First there's Paul (Railsback), a freedom radio talker who believes that "we have the right to be ourselves.

Then there's lovely Rita Daniels (Lynda Stoner), who stands accused of being a "whore." 

And finally, we meet the demure Christie Walters (Hussey), arrested after a misunderstanding with an officer in a jewelry store.  We understand quickly that Chris will have to toughen up if she is to endure life in the camp, and Rita gives her this exact advice.

Soon, Campmaster Thatcher (Michael Craig) greets the new inmates and relates to them the rules and mottos of this "Great Society:"  

"Freedom is obedience," he insists, "Obedience is work.  And work is life." 

It is Thatcher's job to make certain of the imprisoned denizens' "unquestioning acceptance of every order given by the State."  He will stop at nothing to break his wards, and return to them to the Great Society as model citizens.

After a scene set in the co-ed showers (ahem.), and then the near-rape of Chris, Thatcher asks his very important camp guests, the effete Mallory (Noel Ferrier), the Alexis-Carrington look-alike and dress-alike, Jennifer (Carmen Duncan), and the sadistic Tito (Michael Petrovitch) to choose their quarry for the upcoming turkey shoot.  Mallory chooses Chris; Jennifer chooses Rita; Tito chooses a rat-like inmate, Dodge (John Ley) and Thatcher selects his two most worrisome inmates, the hulking Griff (Bill Young) and the unbreakable Paul.

One at a time, the selected inmates are let loose into the wild, and then pursued, relentlessly, by their personal hunters.  In the end, the hunt goes awry, and one hunter and several guards are killed.  Paul and Chris take over a hunting vehicle and return to Camp 47 to free the inmates.

Little do they know that the Australian Air Force has orders to destroy the entire Camp should it fall into enemy hands...

'Disobedience is treason, treason is a crime, crime will be punished!'

Turkey Shoot isn't exactly a serious, artistic statement about how it feels to live in a neo-Nazi-styled totalitarian state.  Rather, the film is about grossing out and debauching the audience as much as possible via a series of bloody confrontations and violent set-pieces.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, really. 

Accordingly then, Turkey Shoot's villains are all played as hissable, two-dimensional Nazi movie stereotypes: as elitist, scoffing murderers who take extreme joy in lording it over and humiliating other human beings.   One inventive, if horrible scene involves the giant prison guards using an inmate and two tanks of gasoline for an impromptu game of soccer.

In short order the film also nearly forces fellatio upon poor Hussey's character, then sees her almost raped by a vicious guard...until she angrily zips up his manhood in his pants zipper.

After these egregious and unsavory moments, the film inexplicably introduces a WTF character named Alph (Steve Rackman), a mentally-impaired, inhuman monster who looks like the unholy love child of Mr. Hyde and Dr. Moreau's humanimals and who obeys all of Tito's commands without question. 

Now remember, this is supposed to be a dystopian film about a fascist Australia and a "most dangerous game"-style hunt, not a strange fantasy featuring mutants and other fanciful creatures.  But whatever, the monstrous, hirsute Alph shows up on the scene and, eventually, gets bisected by a bulldozer bucket (but not before he dines on one of Dodge's amputated toes).

The hits just keep on coming in Turkey Shoot as Chris slices off a guard's hands with a machete, and Paul shoots one of the evil hunters in the testicle before leaving him to be burned alive in a rural field. 

Finally, in perhaps the film's most surprising and nutty moment, we get to Jennifer, a hunter who prefers to use explosive bows and arrows in her games.  Jennifer attacks Rita as the beautiful inmate is frolicking in a river, and then reveals her true nature.  Jennifer is not just a sadistic hunter, you see...but a sadistic lesbian hunter!  She rolls her tongue promisingly at Rita, and then the movie cuts to quickly another scene.

Again and again, Turkey Shoot goes boldly for broke, makes distinctly odd creative choices, and proves itself absolutely entertaining in a very lowbrow kind of way.  The film really falters in that last act, however.  There is a scene of impressive, all-out warfare at the camp, with explosions popping every minute.  But then the planes are scrambled, and you expect the film to have a dark ending, in keeping with its premise and execution.

But nope, the planes depart, the prisoners are freed, and Railsback and Hussey share a sentimental hug, and then a climactic freeze frame, to the above-mentioned Wells quote.  How long, after that valedictory freeze-frame, one wonders, will the rebels survive?  It's a cheesy and dishonest ending to an otherwise very droll, very wicked, very bloody exploitation piece.

But for the first half of the film, Turkey Shoot doesn't hit a single wrong, or tasteful note.  The dialogue is sharp, and occasionally laugh-out loud funny.  For instance, one Nazi villain observes that watching the Camp surveillance monitors "beats the hell out of network television."

Another comment by these happy fascists also bears repeating: "Excess is what makes life worth living."

I'd amend that quote only slightly in assessing Turkey Shoot.  "Excessive movies also (and only sometimes) make life worth living."

Friday, April 01, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Quintet (1979)


In the year 1979, director Robert Altman (1925-2006) teamed with star Paul Newman (1925-2008) to present one of the bleakest post-apocalyptic and dystopian cinematic visions ever forged, the wintry Quintet. 

Set well into a fictional future ice age of devastating "global cooling," Quintet was not received warmly by either film critics or audiences at the time of the film's theatrical release, and that perception has remained largely unchanged today.  Indeed, Quintet is not an easy or particularly fun film to experience.  The narrative moves at an almost glacial pace and the action features long periods of bracing, uncomfortable silence. 

In addition to these qualities, Altman's feature boasts a kind of overt "icy" visual palette, with out-of-focus "cold" atmosphere encroaching visibly on the four corners of the frame.  This unique, misty canvas is actually an ideal reflection of the film's existential crisis: that mankind is being suffocated spiritually and physically by the re-glaciation of all corners of the planet.

For some viewers, this misty, frost-bitten visual presentation will add immeasurably to the creeping sense of bleakness and claustrophobia Altman toils so assiduously to generate.  For others, the effect may only serve to annoy or even distance one from the action on-screen.

Yet Quintet is a film worthy of patience, one crafted with real dedication, and with seemingly no consideration for commercial interests.  The film is not merely bleak, it is intentionally, irrevocably hopeless.  It goes out of its way, actually, to kill off "hope" in the first act.   With cutthroat efficiency, Quintet depicts a world where the word "friend" has been replaced with the word "alliance," and then goes even further than that.  In most post-apocalyptic movies, there is some opportunity for characters to escape, locate a sanctuary, or carve out at least some slice of small happiness. But without apology or explanation, Quintet asks audiences to countenance a future world in which there is no escape route, and each new day is just one cycle closer to inevitable extinction.

Another way to describe this artistic but difficult genre film: it's an intriguing place to visit, but you certainly would not want to live there.

"I Broke No Rules!"

As Quintet commences, a middle-aged seal hunter, Essex (Newman) and his young companion, the pregnant, innocent Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), make for a northern city, one of the last hubs of human civilization following a global cooling phenomenon that has turned all the Earth to inhospitable ice. 

Essex seeks out his long-estranged brother, Francha (Thomas Hill) inside the ruined city, and learns that he is involved in a "Tournament," a game of Quintet, but with a few interesting and deadly additions. 

In the traditional game of Quintet, five players attempt to move their pieces across a five-sided board and to finish off the other four players, following a "killing order" list.  When four competitors are vanquished, the survivor then must fight "the sixth man," another player who has been waiting the duration of the game in "limbo," the space between the sides.  

This extremely popular board game fits in with a new philosophical view, a quasi-religion that has gained adherents in this post-apocalyptic world without sustenance, without meaningful work, and without purpose.  In particular, the five sides of the Quintet board represent the five stages of life: the pain of birth, the labor of maturing, the guilt of living, the terror of aging, and the finality of death. 

But in the space between these five sides -- in the limbo -- there is a sixth stage of existence.  It is an empty, black void that represents "total madness" and the awareness of a consuming nothingness.  A preacher inside the city, St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman) calls this sixth space the void that both precedes human life and the void that succeeds such life. 

By understanding and accepting this void, he suggests, the people who dwell in this New Ice Age should "cherish the interruption;" cherish the icy misery they face each and every day.  In other words, a slow death in an icy hell is infinitely preferable to the eternity of oblivion that book-ends our existence.  At least in the frozen new Ice Age, man can feel and think and breathe.

When an overly-competitive Quintet player named Redstone  rolls a deadly explosive into Francha's home quarters and murders both Essex's brother and the delightful, youthful, Vivia, Essex realizes that the players in this Quintet tournament have forsaken the niceties of the board.  This is now a game played with real lives, and in the real five sectors of this old, half-destroyed metropolis.  Each of five players (plus a shadowy sixth man...) are attempting to kill each other and thus "win" the tournament.

Angry and confused, Essex joins the game, posing as Redstone.  He checks into the  Hotel Electra and soon meets the referee for the tournament, the flamboyant Grigor (Fernando Rey).  Grigor wishes he could play in the tournament himself rather than merely "interpreting" the rules for the other players.  He sees Essex -- an impostor -- as one fresh way to spice up the tournament, and therefore allows Essex to move freely about, encountering the other "players:" the foolish Goldstar (David Langton), the ambitious Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt), and the seemingly helpful, if remote, Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson). 

It is Ambrosia who warns Essex that the most dangerous opponent in the game is actually St. Christopher, a man who runs a religious mission espousing his world view and who believes wholeheartedly in the philosophy of Quintet. 

As the players begin to die -- murdered by one another -- Essex seeks to understand the game even as his very existence is threatened.  He is, perhaps, taken aback when he learns the identity of the invisible "sixth man" in this particular game...

I am not here to help or regard.  I am here to interpret the rules.

The underlying idea for Quintet's post-apocalyptic world arises out of the scientific and media history of the 1970s. 

In the early years of the disco decade, scientists began to become aware of a cooling trend on Earth, one that existed between the years 1945 and 1975, roughly.  Popular news outlets jumped on the idea that a new ice age could be dawning, replete with a re-glaciation of the planet. 

In summer of 1974, TIME magazine featured an article called "Another Ice Age," and worried about a "global climactic upheaval" as the "interglacial period" that had nurtured and nourished mankind for all his history came to an abrupt end.  In 1975, Newsweek followed-up with an equally alarming article called "The Cooling World."  A hot seller at book-vendors in the same era was called The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of a New Ice Age.

Quintet is set in a world where Mother Nature herself has literally turned a cold shoulder to mankind, and our cities, roads, railroads and grassy fields are buried under un-ending layers of frigid ice.  Altman's film opens and closes with exterior views of white-on-white eternity as human figures wander into and out of view, respectively.  The white-on-white opening and closing shots of the film mirror the existentialist, nihilistic philosophy of the Quintet board game: the film's action occurs in the "interlude" between the twin abysses, before-birth, and after-death.

Enhancing the sense of grim, unrelenting hopelessness, Quintet introduces us to the character of Vivia, a charming, child-like girl who approaches every new vista in the half-buried city with a sense of innocent wonder.  Vivia is younger than any other survivor, perhaps the youngest of all the humans left alive on Earth, and she is pregnant.  Her pregnancy -- like her very personhood -- carries our one hope for the future; that mankind can somehow carry on and survive in the face of an enveloping Ice Age.  Even Vivia's name suggests life itself, derived from the Latin verb, vivere, meaning "to live."

When Vivia -- life herself -- is wantonly murdered in Quintet's first act, all hope for a positive future is utterly destroyed.  Essex may survive for a time, but it is not accurate to suggest that he really "lives."  His life becomes devoted to Quintet; towards understanding the brand of death that took away his companion and his child; and the very future itself. 

The murderer, Redstone, who killed both Vivia and her unborn child has no moral response to Essex's pursuit.  After killing a room-ful of innocents as well as his quarry (Francha), Redstone can only offer the worthless, pitiful caveat, "I broke no rules."  If life and death are just part of a game, and murder is part of the rules, then perhaps he's right.

Virtually every character Altman introduces audiences to in Quintet clearly lives with the expectation that the world is coming to an end for the human race.  "Hope is an obsolete word," one character notes truthfully.  Even the film's final punctuation, Grigor's explanation about the "prize" if you win the Quintet Tournament, is woefully grim.  Specifically, there is no cash reward, no cache of food, not even a warm jacket at the end of this game of death. 

No, the winning "prize" to this death game is that you live to fight another day; you survive in a hopeless world for one more cycle, at least.  That's the apotheosis of spirituality that these humans strive to achieve: one more day of misery, alive, before inevitably returning to the abyss of nothingness. 

At the end of the film, Essex pointedly attempts to refute this kind of nihilist thinking, saying he prefers to hope for something better up north.  But even this forced, vocal expression of hope is a sham.  The next shot -- Quintet's final, lingering image -- finds Essex marching away into the white-on-white, snow-covered distance. He eventually disappears, gone in the haze, and the end credits roll.  Essex may believe he has hope; but the abyss nonetheless swallows him in the end; as it swallows everyone.

In depicting a future world where there is as little humanity as there is warmth, Quintet ultimately proves distancing on an emotional level.   Paul Newman plays his character's emotions close-to-the-vest, going for a minimalist approach that denies us any significant level of understanding or sympathy.  We want to watch him fall apart; to mourn with him over the death of the future.  We want to watch him get even; watch him kill his enemies.  But Newman's impressive, balanced performance permits no such easy solace; Essex carries his pain inside.

Even the murder and chase scenes in Quintet lack suspense (as critic Vincent Canby noted in The New York Times), but again, that seems to -- oddly -- fit the film's tenor. This world is so miserable and the character motivations so opaque, that we feel no thrill at either Essex's victory, or at St. Christopher's defeat.  Our blood has run as cold as the landscape.  The chill is so strong that while watching Quintet we begin to lose our capacity to feel for the characters, just as they have lost the capacity to empathize or sympathize with their fellow man.

The most human and affecting moment in Quintet occurs shortly after Vivia's death.  By this point, Altman has staged multiple shots of dog packs eating human corpses, unbothered by the city goers.  The dogs hungrily lick spilled blood out of the ice, and not a single human being attempts to stop the animals from feasting on such remains. 

But the grieving Essex returns to his brother's quarters and takes the corpse of his companion, Vivia (who was also carrying his child) and at great physical labor carries her  body across the vast, open ice plain.  The dog packs nip at his heels the whole way, but  Essex finally reaches a freezing river, and disposes of Vivia's corpse there.  We watch as her body disappears beneath the placid surface, and recognize this is an infinitely preferable end than the one society would otherwise have granted  for her, as -- again literally -- dog food.  And again, we don't see Essex break down or cry, or swear vengeance. 

He just watches the body sink, and moves on.

It's tough -- and yes, uncomfortable -- to buy into a world where human life means so little that the bodies of loved ones are regularly left as food for scavengers, yet Quintet proves impressive on at least an intellectual level, perhaps because of its uncompromising nature.  The bleak film plays in some ways like a bizarre Western, with a stranger arriving in a frontier town and becoming involved in a shoot-out contest, or some such thing, should such a comparison serve to contextualize the film for the wary. 

So it's a challenge to "enjoy" Quintet, but as one character in the film trenchantly notes, "you never understand the scheme until you are part of the scheme."    In other words, if you hunker down and truly commit to Altman's uncompromising vision for Quintet, you may come, in some cerebral fashion at least, to appreciate the terrifying and lonely world he shows you here.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week:



"It's not so much staying alive, it's staying human that's important. What counts is that we don't betray each other."

- 1984 (1984) 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 131: Ultraman (1966 - 1967): "The Blue Stone of Baraji"

My four year old son's latest video entertainment obsession, following a three-month long Ben 10 marathon, is the 1966-1967 monster/superhero series from Japan, called Ultraman

Created by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya of Godzilla fame, this early incarnation of Ultraman originally aired from July 1966 to April 1967 on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and came to include some thirty-nine half-hour installments.

Set in the future world of the 1990s, Ultraman centers around the activities of the high-tech "Science Patrol" organization, particularly the branch operating in and around Japan.  

The Patrol roster consists of no-nonsense Captain Mura (Akiji Kobayashi), deputy commander Shin Hayata (Susumu Kurobe), and communications/radio specialist Fuji (Hiruko Sakurai), the group's only female. 

Providing comic relief (and occasionally breaking the fourth wall) is accident-prone engineer Ito (Masanari Nihei).  Also included in this stalwart group is the ubiquitous child mascot, Hoshino (Akhilde Tsuzawa), and Ito's occasional partner in mischief, Arashi (Sandayu Dokumamushi).

The members of the Science Patrol zip about, to and fro, in fancy, futuristic aircraft, and always adorn orange and white, Star Trek-like uniforms (but with ties) and air-force-styled helmets.  The Patrol's communicators -- worn on their chests -- forecast the communicator models of The Next Generation as many other reviewers have also pointed out.  In Ultraman, the commbadges are shaped like a star upon a rocket nose, and feature tiny antennae that activate when the device is in use. 

The job of the Science Patrol is to defend Japan, and indeed, other nations as well from rampaging monsters of extra-terrestrial origin.  These monsters are almost universally depicted by men in elaborate and creative monster suits, in the fashion of a Godzilla or Gamera film.

In the first episode of Ultraman, the Science Patrol is called into action to stop the dinosaur-like Bemlar, a colossal reptilian menace who can shoot heat rays from his mouth. 

While battling the beast, Hayata's airplane collides with the spherical alien craft belonging to another alien being called Ultraman, a law enforcement official from Nebula M78. 

Rather than let Hayata die from the accident, Ultraman shares his life force with the human, and grants Hayata the power to transform into Ultraman in times of crisis.  Hayata can usher in this transformation by utilizing a tube-like device known as a "beta capsule."  In various episodes, tension is wrought from Hayata's ownership (or loss) of the beta capsule. In one episode, he drops it off a roof accidentally and it lands on a ledge many feet below, where he must retrieve it.

But even the great Ultraman -- a red and silver costumed titan with glowing eyes -- is not invincible.  On his chest is a round power indicator.  When the indicator blinks, the light is a "warning" and should it go dark entirely, "Ultraman will never rise again." 

In other words, Ultraman can only fight the bad guys for a short time, or he will die.  This is another near-constant source of tension in the half-hour episodes, as prolonged battles drain Ultraman ever faster.

In various episodes of Series One, the Science Patrol and Ultraman are called upon to battle the monster or menace of the week.  And this is where the series really proves itself fun and infinitely imaginative.  The "monster of the week" may be universally taller than skyscrapers, but each one is highly individual and inventive in appearance, and boasts different capabilities or powers so as to challenge our hero. 

For instance, in the second episode, "Blast the Invaders," Ultraman must battle the bug-eyed Baltan aliens, who boast mammoth pincers for hands, and who can freeze their enemies in their tracks.  More uniquely, the alien Baltan can project visual decoys, so it is difficult to detect and kill the "real" alien. 

Another monster, in the third episode is called "Neronga" and he is -- at least for a while -- invisible.  These monsters are really great, and it is a lot of fun to start each episode and wonder what brand of monster is going to endanger the Earth this time.  It could be something from space, something long-buried beneath the Earth's surface, or even something living at the bottom of the sea.

Each episode of Ultraman usually begins with just such a threat or mystery emerging  from space.  In "The Ruffian from Outer Space," for instance, a group of Japanese school children find an unusual object fallen from the sky that can transform into any shape that someone wishes for.  The device is stolen (in a very droll, ingenious sequence)  by a criminal mastermind who wishes for it destroy everything. 

Before you know it, the device morphs into a giant monster, Gango, that appears to possess rotating satellite dishes for ears.  

In another episode, "Passport to Infinity," two meteors crash on Earth, and -- when fused together -- form a time and space warping leviathan.  Before the monster forms, the episode has a great deal of fun with the meteor's time and space twisting capabilities.  Ito runs up a staircase to nowhere, and two scientist find themselves unexpectedly walking on the ceiling of Science Patrol HQ.  Once formed, the strange, shell-like monster extends weaponry that transports attacking planes in flight from the air to the ground; and then does the opposite to a trio of tanks.

After the threat of the week is introduced each week, the Science Patrol attempts to stop the ensuing invasion, but the human technology proves ever ineffective.  In the last five or so minutes of each half-hour, Hayata finally realizes Ultraman is needed, and presses his beta capsule at the moment of highest drama. 

In short order, Ultraman appears and wrestles, then defeats the enemy.  Finally, in a regurgitation of the Superman premise, Hayata returns to his mild-mannered self and nobody in the Science Patrol realizes that Ultraman and Hayata are never seen together at the same time.

One impressive episode from the first Ultraman series is called "The Blue Stone of Baraji."  Here, the Science Patrol travels to the Middle East with an American patrol member, Adam Jeffers, to investigate an apparent meteor crash in the desert, near Afghanistan and Turkey.  The Science Patrol's jet goes down, however, after encountering a strange atmospheric disturbance, a ray of magnetic energy.

After surviving a harrowing crash landing, the Science Patrol is shocked to see a huge monster -- Antlar -- pulp their plane. 

Antlar looks like a giant terrestrial insect with a hard exo-skeleton, and his mandibles fire the very light/magnetic beam that brought the Patrol down in the first place.  

Seeking help and sanctuary, the Patrol members make their way to a lost city that stands in the shadow of Mount Ararat. 

There, a beautiful princess with the power of telepathy ("a gift of the Gods"), tells them of the city's long, storied history.  It was once a busy metropolis, the capitol of the desert, but soon traders began to disappear into the desert, victims of Antlar, the monster who has hidden beneath the sand for centuries.  The city survives only because Antlar is afraid of "Ultra" -- Ultraman, himself -- and the blue stone or "good luck charm" he once wielded.

When Antlar follows the patrol and lays siege to the ancient city, Hayata uses the beta capsule. Soon, Ultraman and Antlar duke it out, but Antlar's magnetic powers are too strong for Ultraman to resist.  The blue gem, finally, is the key to destroying Antlar, and it is removed from a stone statue of Ultraman in the city's temple.  When the gem is thrown at Antalr, the beast is finally destroyed.

With their job complete, the Science Patrol leaves the cityand the Princess says she prefers to keep the city lost, "far from wars and the like."

Intriguingly, this episode of Ultraman gives some nice back story about the super-sized hero from space.  It turns out Ultraman has come to Earth many times before his initial meeting with Hayata in episode one, "Ultra Operation Number One." 

In fact, he has been protecting this city from harm for generations, and there is that mysterious statue of Ultraman in the temple.  The statue and Ultraman's involvement in human affairs, protecting the city of Baraji, make the viewer aware that Ultraman and his enemies are not a new phenomenon, but rather part of the planet's very history...and even mythology.  It's a nice contextual touch that adds to the legend of the hero from another planet.

What is particularly enjoyable about "The Blue Stone of Baraji" is the shift in setting away from urban, futuristic Tokyo to the wide open desert.  This episode also includes a plane crash (rendered in miniature), an impressive giant monster, a lost city, and a pitched battle between evenly-matched titans.  I grew up with movies such as Godzilla, War of the Gargantuas and Rodan, among others, and Ultraman (called a "kaiju" in Japan) is a perfect, 23-minute extension of that world, featuring carefully-crafted miniatures (which are nonetheless instantly recognizable as miniatures), fantastic monster suits, and a lot of heart. 

For Joel, I know the thrill here is seeing Ultraman fight the monster of the week, and he often grows impatient with Hayata's perpetual dithering.  As soon as the monster appears, Joel is ready for Ultraman to beat it back to space.  But before that can happen, a few things are certain to occur first: hijinks with Ito, (who gives himself a black eye in one episode by falling out of his bunk bed), and Hoshino and Fuji invariably find themselves in need of rescuing.

The Ultraman format is repetitive and predictable, but also a hell of a lot of fun.  And that goes for the whole 1966-1967 series, really.  It's so good-hearted, thrilling and fantastic you just might find it impossible to resist, whether you're four years old or forty-one.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Skyline (2010)

Purportedly the first in a sci-fi film franchise by the Brothers Strause (AVP: Requiem [2007]), the 2010 alien invasion movie Skyline (2010) is literally a wonder to behold. 

Unfortunately, I mean that description in both the positive and negative senses. 

The film's amazing special effects sequences re-define "shock and awe" ably, with Los Angeles falling under siege from impressive alien ships for most of the film's running time.   Without reservation, I can state that the Brothers Strause execute some jaw-dropping, gorgeous  shots of extra-terrestrial attack in the film, and more importantly get across some authentically powerful ideas about what it might feel like for the average Earther to suddenly awaken to, well, planetary regime change.

Yet for each great effect, and each great concept featured in Skyline, there's also the undeniable sense that the movie's narrative is developmentally arrested.  In particular, the film's first half-hour is a long, slow haul through screenwriter hell as shallow rich people talk about nothing, argue about nothing, and generally act like narcissistic reality-tv show personalities. 

If human life in 2010 is really this inconsequential, really this petty, really this shallow, then go ahead and bring on the brain eating aliens; that's all I can say.

When the going gets tough, the tough just get indecisive in Skyline, and the not-very-likable young characters endlessly argue the merits of staying in one place to hide, or making a run for it in broad daylight.  It's this terminally uninteresting and extended case of -- cue The Clash -- "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" that makes the film feel not only enormously frustrating for the viewer, but which makes the storyline feel terminally stalled.  An alien invasion is happening outside a high rise apartment, and for much of the film, the protagonists just hide in their room, peeking out timidly and arguing the same point. Stay or go?  Go or stay?  

 After awhile, you just want the characters to do something, anything, to move the plot forward.

Don't You Get it? We're at War

In Skyline, Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his girlfriend, Elaine (Scottie Thompson) visit Jarrod's friend, Terry (Donald Faison) in Los Angeles after he has become a success in the movie industry, specifically in special effects. 

Meanwhile, Terry is cheating on his girlfriend, Candice (Brittany Daniel) with his assistant, Denise (Crystal Reed).  At the same time, Jarrod and Elaine argue because Terry has offered Jarrod a job there in California, and she doesn't like L.A.  Elaine is also "late" and informs Jarrod that she is pregnant with his child.

After a night of celebration, the group awakes at 4:27 am to witness a blinding blue light outside the windows of Terry's high-rise apartment building.   Anyone who looks at the light is mesmerized by it, and "sucked" outside.  Jarrod narrowly survives this fate when Terry pulls him back from the precipice. 

Some time near dawn, Terry and Jarrod head to the roof to see what is happening outside, and learn that the blue flares are present all over the city.  Worse, at every instance of the unearthly illumination, unsuspecting humans are being drawn high up into the air, into the bellies of strange, bio-mechanoid spaceships.

An escape attempt goes wrong as aliens invade the city, and Terry is abducted by one of the invaders.  Later, the survivors join up with the apartment manager, Oliver (David Zayas), and watch from Terry's apartment, as the U .S. Air Force engages the alien ships in combat.  The battle ends with the U.S. forces decimated, and an alien ship nuked.  Unfortunately, the extra-terrestrial ship rises triumphantly from the mushroom cloud and begins to re-assemble and regenerate itself.

Jarrod, who is feeling strange effects from his first encounter with the blue light, leads Elaine to the roof, in hopes that an Army helicopter they witnessed earlier will return and rescue them.  After another pitched battle, Elaine and Jarrod are captured by the aliens as well.  As they are sucked up into the sky, they share a tender, final kiss.

Meanwhile, all over the world, the human race falls to the alien blitzkrieg.  Aboard one ship, Elaine watches as the strange aliens remove and then absorb human brains.   But there's something different about Jarrod's brain...

They're not dead.  They're just really pissed off.

Skyline has received really terrible reviews from most film critics, and certainly there are reasons why that's been the case.  But before I delve into the film's many valleys in quality, allow me to take a moment to examine the film's creative summits.

First of all, Skyline does a surprisingly effective job of introducing and maintaining the mystery of the extra-terrestrial incursion on Earth.  Many War of the Worlds-type films open with alien saucers and war machines arriving, and then decimating the Earth with energy beams that we recognize as variants of lasers; variants of our technology.  Then, the aliens send in the ground troops (Battle LA, which I haven't seen), and combat on terra firma ensues.

Here, the Brothers Strause go another, more intriguing route.  They introduce alien technology that feels, well, legitimately alien, or at least unfamiliar to us.  The blue light that comes down to hypnotize and catch humans is actually a pretty creepy device, and tremendously powerful in forging terror in a surreal, nightmarish fashion.  As one character rightly notes, "who wouldn't want to look at something so beautiful?"  The idea is that the blue light suffuses an area of the City, and curious humans -- by their very nature -- are drawn to gaze at it.  Of course, if that happens, it's too late and the aliens have you.

The second part of the alien attack equation, also splendidly visualized, involves human bodies being drawn upwards into the underbelly of the mecha-organic spaceships.  At least early on, the film doesn't over-do this view or special effect and again, real terror is generated.  We catch two or three glimpses of hundreds of human beings -- seeming to defy gravity -- pulled up through the air in a terrible cluster.  It's an odd, incongruous and disturbing inverse image of what our nation witnessed on that horrible day, September 11, 2001.    There, bodies plummeted down to the ground from the heights of the World Trade Center.  But this opposite image -- with bodies sucked skyward by some alien force -- nonetheless resonates.  It seems both frighteningly recognizable and absolutely, horrrifyingly un-real.  It is a defiance of the Laws of Physics as we understand them; but that's just fine because the source is alien. 

My point here is that any alien force with the high technology to get to Earth from another solar system would also likely possess weapons of invasion far in advance of anything we could accurately imagine or comprehend.  They wouldn't come with bullets and missiles and machine guns.  Instead, the alien arsenal would likely be terrifying, extremely efficient and wholly alien to us.  For all of its myriad flaws in storytelling, Skyline really broadcasts this idea dramatically.

The alien ships themselves -- in all their various and sundry iterations -- are a wonder to behold too.  They seem to be an unholy combination of machine, squid and insect, literally swimming through our skies, seeking out prey.  Once more, the special effects are downright amazing; so much so that the reality of alien siege is immediately and viscerally established.  Looking at the alien tech, you can readily believe that these beings and their machines could dominate our world in a mere three days.

And even here -- in the pitting of alien tech against human tech -- Skyline gets a few things right.  About mid-way through the film there's an extraordinary battle between our unarmed drones and the alien ships.  There's a stealth bomber, armed with nukes, in the mix as well.  In most alien movies, an aerial attack like this would be a total rout, with the Earth forces repelled and destroyed, and nuclear missiles rendered ineffective immediately.  Skyline treads a more original path, and really gives the audience hope that the human counter-attack is going to work.  The drones and the Stealth bomber acquit themselves well, and the nuclear missile takes down the alien ship, smashing it to pieces.

And then -- again -- we see something really alien occur.  The vessel starts to regenerate itself; literally pulling pieces back together from the scattered debris.  In alien invasion movies such as this, we're accustomed to invisible force fields that protect alien saucers or such, but here, just a little twist, a ship picking itself up and re-assembling, gives the impression of something new, that we haven't seen a dozen times.

I can't fault the Brothers Strause for their imagination or execution of the aliens featured in the film; they do a terrific job in this arena.  I just wish that these skilled special effects experts had devoted as much energy and imagination to the human and narrative elements of Skyline.  

For instance, as Skyline reveals, the giant monsters from outer space are here to rip out our brains and, well, eat them up.   That is an incredibly hoary idea, and one you couldn't get published with in this century.  But more to the point, it doesn't make a lot of sense.  The aliens come to our planet to steal and use our brains as a power source (think of the A.I. in The Matrix [1999] co-opting our bodies as batteries...), but how does a culture from somewhere in a solar system or galaxy far, far away design and build its tech around something found, ostensibly, only right here on Earth? 

Before they got here to eat our brains, how did they move their incredible machinery from their planet to ours? I appreciate the idea that the aliens are here on Earth to rob a precious resource, but  the whole brain angle plays as pulpy, simplistic, and unconvincing. 

Also irritating is the fact that probably nine-tenths of the human race in Skyline go through exactly the same process as Jarrod, and yet he is the only person who begins to develop, ahem, alien powers that come in handy during the finale.  We see Elaine go through the same procedure in the film as well -- the blue light -- but she isn't changed or altered as Jarrod is.  So is he just a fluke, or -- again like The Matrix -- is he The Chosen One?  The guy with the power to save all our brains?!

Someone might note at this point that all these questions could be answered handily in the inevitable sequel.  That may be true; but as a standalone Skyline still plays as a bit...stupid.  And the sentimental, senselessly romantic moment in which Jarrod and Elaine share an intimate kiss inside the alien light stream (as they are hundreds of feet in the air...) adds to the feeling of general dopiness.

That grandiose, romantic kiss in mid-air isn't earned by Skyline because the characters mostly come across as petty and mercurial, capricious and arbitrary in their concerns.  In the first half-hour, they argue over nothing of consequence.  Elaine is angry that Jarrod is offered a job in L.A.  Is that his fault?  He could still turn it down.  But she's needlessly mopey and hostile about it.   When he asks her why she didn't tell him she is pregnant, she replies that she didn't want to ruin his trip to California?  Really?  Then why has she been such a bitter pill to deal with since setting foot on the tarmac?

Later in the film, Elaine is malleable and changeable to the point of comic absurdity.  Elaine argues that the survivors should stay and hide in the apartment, but lets herself be dragged outside by Jarrod, and disaster ensues.  Later, she continues to argue that it is best to stay inside for the time being.  At this juncture, Jarrod's eyes turn milky and his blood vessels turn dark -- a telltale sign of the alien influence -- and he argues again that they should go outside and attempt to rendezvous with an army chopper.    Jarrod and Oliver fight, and Jarrod says that he is not leaving his "family" behind.

This alien/emotional outburst miraculously changes Elaine's mind, and she willingly goes outside, to the roof, with Jarrod when she was just arguing the opposite course of action.  So tell me: if your significant other began evidencing signs of physical alien takeover, would this make you more or less likely to follow his lead?  Would you change your mind or stick to your guns?

So much of Skyline plays like that bizarre moment.  The screenplay is not merely nonsensical, it's anti-sensical, if that's a word.  For instance, early in the film Jarrod notes that the aliens aren't hovering over the marina, so they should get out on the water pronto.  All the sudden, I had visions of Signs (2002), and water-fearing alien invaders.  But here, the idea is left entirely undeveloped.  Why aren't there any ships over the water?  Is it a coincidence?  Or is Jarrod actually onto something?  The movie never, ever decides; it just sort of floats the idea of water as a sanctuary, so the survivors have something to further argue about before dying.

Another difficult to swallow plot element involves Elaine's pregnancy. While carrying a child in her womb, Elaine gets exposed to alien takeover light, gets grabbed and squeezed by an alien bio-mechanoid arm, and is contaminated by the fall-out of a nuclear bomb in close proximity.  All this occurs before she is air-lifted and yanked hundreds of feet and sucked into an alien spaceship. 

That's one tough baby she's still carrying in the film's last scene, let me tell you.

Moment by moment, scene-by-scene, Skyline piles absurdity and frustration upon absurdity and frustration.  People look directly at nuclear blasts and don't go blind.  Nor, in close range, do they get radiation sickness.  Alien probes can climb stairs to reach the roof, but  don't stop to check individual rooms where the survivors are hiding.  A lighter doesn't light at a crucial moment, and then, at another crucial moments does light.  A character named Oliver lectures Jarrod about survival ("The city's a vacant lot...we need to survive") and then turns around and commits suicide when he could have just run out of the room and escaped an alien threat entirely.

Again, not just nonsense, but vehemently, proudly, courageously anti-sense.  That's Skyline in a nutshell.

Still, "beggars can't be choosers," as one character in the film notes.  At least in Skyline you can actually see the action, which differentiates it from the Strause Bros.' previous, horrible outing, AVP: Requiem.  That movie was so dramatically under-lit, you just kind of gave up half way through.

On the other hand, actually seeing the impressive action in Skyline gets one's hopes up that the movie's storyline is going to prove as powerful and affecting as the awe-inspiring special effects.  And the Strause Bros. just don't pull it off.  After we finished watching the film, my wife was silent and I asked her what she thought.

Her answer was a quote from the movie's hilariously bad dialogue: "I'm not dead, I'm just really pissed off."

That made two of us.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Remember when I said "less is more?"...

...I lied.

So anyway, I didn't blog yesterday because I spent the whole bloomin' day re-organizing my home office and finally organizing my display-able toy collection.  It was a colossal task that took me about fifteen hours, but now I've finally got this home office in good shape...for the moment. 

And yes, I retract my former statement that less is more.

In terms of home office toy collections, more is clearly more.