Saturday, July 05, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Bravestarr (1987-1989): "The Day the Town was Taken"

In “The Day the Town was Taken,” Dingo Bandits attack a strato-coach on the desert plains of New Texas, and BraveStarr and his friends race to the rescue.  

But the strato-coach incident is all a diversion planned by the villainous outlaw, Tex Hex.

With its law enforcement officials away on a mission, Tex Hex steals into Fort Kerium , seals it up tight, and locks out BraveStarr.  

Now BraveStarr must depend on the diminutive elf-people living in Kerium -- Fuzz and Wuzzell -- to get him back inside the town before Tex Hex can make off with a haul of valuable ore.

“The Day the Town Was Taken” introduces Tex Hex, BraveStarr’s recurring villain, a blue-faced, white-haired cackling nightmare. He returns again and again to menace to BraveStarr during the run of the show, and according to some reports was actually the first character developed for the series.  He's pretty terrifying looking (though perhaps derived visual from Skeletor...), but at least here we don't get a motivation for his evil nature.

The most exciting aspect of the "The Day the Town was Taken" involves the (great) setting of Fort Kerium.  

This desert town is constructed in a circle, it seems -- almost like Old West wagons in a circle -- and when the town goes into lock-down, the buildings retract into a protective posture…circling the metaphorical wagons as it were.  

I love the visuals of For Kerium, and in some way the design makes logical sense as well.  The town “ring” is impenetrable from the outside because of the walls, and there is still usable outdoor space at its center.

This episode’s message -- ham-handedly delivered as usual -- is that you shouldn’t judge a person by his or her size.  

In this case, Fuzz and Wuzzell are tiny Hobbit-like beings, and yet they prove to be the key to winning back Fort Kerium.  I know it is a necessity that children’s programming carry important social messages, but I’ve always felt that these post-scripts are too on the nose, even for kids.  The message comes across in the story just fine without the reinforcement.  Still, I love Filmation.  Even in the age when it was deemed okay to make children's programming that served, essentially as commercials for toys, Filmation and Lou Scheimer kept the focus on kids, and what it means to be a good citizen.

Next week: “Brother’s Keeper.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad (1976): "Lawrence of Moravia"

In “Lawrence of Moravia,” an Arab super-criminal -- the aforementioned Lawrence (Joseph Masoli) --plans to steal a famous pearl the size of a basket-ball from the Belgravian Embassy. 

The Monster Squad attempts to stop the villain, but Frankenstein and the Wolf Man are captured and locked inside a vat of boiling oil…

It’s not always so great to go back and revisit a TV series that you enjoyed as a kid. 

For one thing, as a kid (with relatively little viewing experience…) you don’t notice bad performances or lousy production design, or a campy tone so much.

And for another thing, as a kid, you aren’t necessarily aware of social stereotyping or other bothersome factors.

Watching Monster Squad (1976) today, in 2014, is a weird and uncomfortable reminder of how bad kid’s TV could be in the 1970s.

Fortunately, that awareness is balanced by knowledge that other Saturday morning series were far superior to this one. 

The general lousiness of Monster Squad thus serves to remind us that Sid and Marty Krofft (Land of the Lost) and Filmation (Ark II, Jason of Star Command, Space Academy) deserve some credits for not actively attempting to insult our intelligence.  Their programs are filled with great concepts, and don’t talk down to kids.

And in terms of social stereotypes, a Monster Squad episode like “Lawrence of Moravia” just doesn’t hold up by today’s standards.  Lawrence -- an Arab super-villain – is accompanied by two henchman who are clearly Caucasians painted in swarthy make-up.  Yikes. I hate political correctness as much as the next guy, but there's a difference between being politically incorrect and being offensive.

And at the end of the episode, Walt has occasion to speak with Officer McMacMac, the Irish night-watchman at the Wax Museum.

Naturally, McMacMac speaks in a thick Irish brogue, and in his own way is as bigoted a portrayal of the Irish as Lawrence is of Arabs. We all know that cops are always Irish, right?

McMacMac also looks and sounds like a direct knock-off of Batman’s Chief O’Hara.

Of course, the seventies were a different time, with different standards and different mores.  It’s important to remember that. Accordingly, I don’t believe anybody was setting out to depict Arabs or Irishmen in stereotypical terms.   But it still happened.

Both characters prove my point, simply, that you can’t go home again.  You can’t re-visit Monster Squad now without seeing and register some overt flaws, or without acknowledging that time has passed it by.

To wit, the series’ approach to superheroes -- high camp -- is insulting.  And the sense of humor is pretty antique. In episodes like “Lawrence of Moravia” and “No Face” (with Chief Runny Nose…) the humor is borderline insulting.

Next week: the last episode of Monster Squad: “Albert/Alberta.” 

Friday, July 04, 2014

At Flashbak: 5 Most Underrated Stephen King Movies

Flashbak, a new spin-off of Anorak, has posted my new article, which concerns underrated films based on the canon of Stephen King.

Here's a snippet (and here's the url:

Hollywood filmmakers have been adapting the literary works of horror maestro Stephen King since 1976, and often with tremendous financial and critical success. 

De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Romero’s Creepshow (1982) and Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983) are just a few memorable titles from the first wave of silver screen adaptations, but other, later successes include Misery (1990) and The Mist (2008).

With a canon that includes over fifty films at this point, it’s only natural that some efforts should be forgotten or not quite given their due as works of art.

That idea in mind, below are listed, in chronological order, five of the most underrated films based on the genre works of Stephen King.

Cult-Movie Review: Independence Day (1996)

"In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. "Mankind." That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night!" We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day! "

- President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) delivers an historic address in Independence Day (1996).

Independence Day (1996) remains one of the big “event” movies of the 1990s, a sci-fi blockbuster of monumental, almost unimaginable proportions.  The crowd-pleasing film successfully tapped into the decade’s unending fascination with aliens and UFOs (The X-Files, for example) and significantly augmented that interest too, resulting in a slew of further alien films and TV programs from Dark Skies (1996) to Men in Black (1997).

As an inside-the-industry cautionary tale, Independence Day also represented the (unfortunate) cementing of the Emmerich/Devlin blockbuster “formula” -- a revival of 1970s disaster film tropes.  This format would meet its Waterloo in 1998’s Godzilla, but nonetheless continues right into this decade with films such as the dreadful 2012 (2010).

Of all the Emmerich genre fare, I’m most fond of 1994’s Stargate, as it seems to strike the right balance between spectacle and intelligence.  After that film’s release, the scales in further efforts kept tipping towards spectacle and away from brains, and so the ensuing films suffer mightily for the imbalance. 

That established, I was certainly part of the enthusiastic audience for Independence Day upon its summer release, and I still remember how great the film looked on the big screen.  A recent re-watch confirms how terrific the miniature effects remain.  The scenes of awesome alien saucers lumbering to position over major world cities -- though obviously reminiscent of Kenneth Johnson’s V (1984) -- remain downright staggering.

What ages Independence Day most significantly, instead, is the pervasive shtick and the schmaltzy, sentimentality-drenched characters. At every step of the way during its narrative, Independence Day punctures its end-of-the-world majesty and gravitas with low humor and over-the-top sentimentality, qualities which today render the whole affair close to camp. 

Science fiction fans, of course, experienced conniption fits over Independence Day’s unlikely finale: a third act which sees an Earth-produced computer virus successfully uploaded to an alien computer aboard a mother-ship, thus giving humans the opportunity to strike back…on July 4th, no less. 

The movie doesn’t pay even lip service to the idea that aliens from another solar system might have developed anti-virus software (!), let alone computer systems totally incompatible with our 20th century Earth technology. 

Given how badly things go for Earth in the first hour of Independence Day, it’s difficult to countenance the film’s final veer into outright fantasy as every heroic campaign – with split-second timing – comes together perfectly.

Despite my misgivings about the film’s humor, sentimentality, and narrative resolution, however, I still find the grave, apocalyptic, anxiety-provoking tone of Independence Day’s first hour worthwhile, especially the President’s grim choice to deploy nuclear weapons in an American city to drive off the aliens.   

It would be absolutely foolish to deny, too, that some of Independence Day’s imagery has become iconic in the annals of cinema history.  We all remember that portentous shot of hovering saucer pulping the White House for instance.  Thus -- even while criticizing this over-sized beast -- I've got to give the Devil his due for getting matters right on a visual terms

In terms of theme, Independence Day works overtime to remind all of us that although we are separated by oceans and other Earthly partitions, we are all nonetheless citizens of the same planet. It’s a laudable message in an age of hyper-partisanship to be certain, even if delivered with little nuance or subtlety.  This through-line in the film is consistently and well-conveyed, both in terms of incident and in the make-up of the diverse dramatis personae.  Who would have imagined our precious Earth could be saved by a war veteran, a drunk crop-duster, a Jewish cable repairman and an African-American fighter pilot?

Movie critics were understandably divided on Independence Day.  At The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: “Guess what: "Independence Day" lives up to expectations in a rush of gleeful, audience-friendly exhilaration, with inspiring notions of bravery that depart nicely from the macho cynicism of this movie season. Its innocence and enthusiasm are so welcome that this new spin on "Star Wars" is likely to wreak worldwide box-office havoc, the kind that will make the space aliens' onscreen antics look like small change.

Writing for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley opined: "Independence Day" is primarily a $70 million kid's toy, a star-spangled excess of Roman candles and commando games designed to draw repeat business from 9- to 12-year-old boys. Little girls won't find any role models among the barnstormers, though a plucky exotic dancer is featured among the heroines. Even with the end of the world in sight, she shakes her booty. It's for her kid. No, really.  Maybe the moviemakers' mission was to boldly go where everyone in Hollywood has gone before: the bank.

Honestly, I can see both sides of the critical equation in this case. Independence Day is such dumb fun, and yet fun nonetheless.

“A the end of the world.”

The people of planet Earth watch with anxiety and wonder as three-dozen alien saucers descend from orbital space to take up positions over cities around the globe.  President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former jet pilot in Desert Storm, advises calm, but new information from genius cable repair man David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) suggests the alien ships have initiated a countdown and are preparing a coordinated attack.

As the countdown ends, Levinson’s suspicions are confirmed, and the alien ships destroy Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York and other population hubs. President Whitmore survives the attack on the Oval Office and escapes by Air Force One.  He promptly orders a retaliatory strike.  Pilot, top-gun, and would-be astronaut Steven Hiller (Will Smith) downs an alien ship during battle, and captures one of the fearsome aliens for study.  The rest of the fight, however, is a rout, and the U.S. jets are unable to penetrate alien shields.  Humanity stands upon the edge of extinction.

The President visits the secret military base at Area 51, and learns there that scientists there have been experimenting with an alien ship for close to fifty years.  When Hiller arrives, the President attempts to communicate with Hiller's captured alien, but finds the being implacably hostile.  The aliens, he soon learns, are like locusts.  They travel from solar system to solar system using up planetary systems and then moving on…leaving only carnage and waste in their wake.

After nuclear weapons prove ineffective against the aliens, President Whitmore is at a loss how to save the planet, or the human race.  But David comes through again.  He believes he can take the captured alien ship at Area 51 to the mother-ship and upload a computer virus there, thus bringing down alien shields…at least for a few minutes.  When Steven volunteers to fly that risky mission, it’s up to the President himself to coordinate and lead a huge aerial attack against the alien saucers, both in America, and world-wide…

It's a fine line between standing behind a principle and hiding behind one. You can tolerate a little compromise, if you're actually managing to get something accomplished.

For a film about such a terrifying topic – an alien invasion – Independence Day frequently plays thing...light.  At least a half-dozen major supporting characters in the film are defined by their shtick. Judd Hirsch plays a nagging Jewish Dad, Julius Levinson, and his lines and delivery are pure Borscht Belt ham-bone.   Harvey Fierstein plays another kitschy character, Marty, who hams it up and makes jokes about his therapist and his (presumably overbearing...) mother.  Harry Connick Jr. portrays a cocksure pilot who provides the film at least one dopey gay joke.

But the worst character is likely Randy Quaid’s Russell Casse, a drunken crop-duster (and alien abductee) who joins the air battle against the aliens during the film's denouement.  Quaid’s dialogue is so incredibly dreadful that it has become the stuff of legend and MST3K fodder.  “I picked the wrong day to stop drinking,” springs immediately to mind. 

Among all these actors hamming it up and stealing time, Brent Spiner likely fares the best as aging ex-hippie and scientist Dr. Okun. Spiner comes off as weird and eccentric, but not so dreadfully hammy that you want to turn away from the screen in shame for watching.  His last scene -- played with alien tentacles pressing against his larynx -- is also genuinely unsettling.

Why do I have a problem with the film's pervasive moments of low humor?  Well, Independence Day already boasts Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith continually cracking wise in leading roles.  Their dialogue is dreadful too, from "Welcome to Earth" to "Now that's what I call a close encounter!"  Given all this material from our leads, do we really need Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein, Harry Connick Jr., Randy Quaid and even Brent Spiner dishing out lame one liners too?  The ubiquitous nature of these characters makes Independence Day, at times, resemble an overblown sitcom.  Maybe if the material were stronger, these characters would not seem so objectionable. I guess what I'm saying, is that these moments are rarely actually funny.

Another weak character is Secretary of Defense Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), a man who in one scene advises the full scale nuking of many American cities, but in a later scene argues against a “risky” maneuver to attack the alien mother-ship and upload the virus.  His objections to the (ultimately) successful plan make no sense, and aren’t consistent with the “war hawk” image he projects in the film all along; a guy who advises going to Def-Con 2 before the President has made his final decision.  Instead, Nimzicki is contradictory simply so the audience can boo at him, and the President can dress him down…thus appearing tough and resolute. 

While I have real disdain for much of the writing and characterization in Independence Day, I do feel that the film's visuals often still shock, and often still carry real emotional resonance.  One shot, set on July 3rd, reveals the Statue of Liberty toppled, face down in the harbor...a massive saucer hovering low in the sky.  Colored in autumnal browns,  this is a terrifying composition of American culture annihilated.  

It’s tough indeed to compete with the amazing Statue of Liberty imagery of Planet of the Apes, yet this moment in Independence Day remains quite upsetting.    The film is also anxiety-provoking in the way it reveals American military might crushed before a more technologically-advanced enemy.  The battle sequences, the nuclear option, and other heavy moments are all deeply scary because one realizes that if America can’t save the world…the world ain’t getting saved.  Indeed, Independence Day plays up the alien threat so successfully in terms of spectacular visuals and special effects that there’s almost no way the scripted, climactic victory can ring true.  It’s like we’ve slipped into an alternate movie or something.

The first half of Independence Day is undeniably the strongest, as alien saucers push through storm and cloud fronts, and emerge over our cities, casting dark shadows upon bewildered and amazed populations.  These moments continue to impress, and pack an almost visceral gut punch.  We’ve all wondered if, one day, we’ll wake up to something like this imagery…a new dawn in which we learn definitively we are no longer alone.   As much as I deride Independence Day’s silly humor and bad dialogue, I have no quibbles whatsoever with the way that these scenes of “arrival” are vetted.  As I said in my introduction, many of these scenes still carry a staggering punch.

From its first shots to its final ones, Independence Day also makes an interesting point about mankind being unified by a threat from the outside.  The film opens with imagery of a plaque on the moon which reads “We came in peace for all mankind.”  That’s a wonderful thought, the movie seems to suggest, but then the filmmakers set up a paradigm by which that hopeful expression of common cause is tested.  Suddenly, all mankind must work together to defeat the alien threat, putting competition and petty differences aside.  This idea is expressed through scenes set in Iraq, the location of America’s most recent war (Gulf War I).  There, in the desert, British and Iraqi soldiers join the battle against the mother ships.  The implication of such scenes is that mankind is indeed capable of working together.

The same idea is presented in the film in the (positive) character of President Whitmore.  Before the alien crisis, he is viewed not as a warrior, but as a “wimp.”  He can’t even get his Crime Bill passed by a hostile Congress.  Whitmore laments that “it’s just not simple, anymore” and that people don’t seem to understand that compromise is the only path towards moving everyone ahead, together.  He then works with the nations of the world to defeat the aliens, and in the process transforms an American holiday into an Earth holiday.   Again, the message implicit in Independence Day is that we can apply ourselves to solve big problems, not just alien invasions.  Why can’t we all band together to keep our neighbors and our neighbors' children from starving?  Or to eliminate poverty?  Once we acknowledge our common humanity, petty partisan differences shouldn’t really matter, should they?

In this sense, Independence Day -- set in part on July 4th -- acknowledges a new, evolved brand of patriotism.  It is a patriotism not merely to party or to one nation, but to all of humanity.  As a fan of Star Trek and a person who believes we can achieve great things if we sometimes accept compromise, I appreciate the film’s ultimate message of hope about human nature.  This consistently-applied theme almost mollifies my concerns about the film’s ridiculous and ill-conceived conclusion, and the surfeit of characters who spew cliché after cliché, bad joke after bad joke.  Almost, but not quite.    Still, I know I'm spitting in the wind against an 800 million dollar blockbuster, a veritable entertainment machine.

So am I a hopeless sentimental for recognizing Independence Day’s entertainment and social value, even amidst so many stupid groaners and moments of cynical, calculated humor?  

Or, like Randy Quaid's character...did I just pick the wrong day to stop drinking?

Movie Trailer: Independence Day (1996)

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director Quentin Tarantino may have intentionally mangled the English language with the misspelled title of his cinematic effort Inglourious Basterds (2009), but this prodigious talent speaks the language of film with a perfect accent. 

Although Tarantino's production shares a title (sort of...) with 1978's The Inglorious Bastards (from director Enzo G. Castellari) there's not actually much similarity between the two efforts. Both films are set during World War II, and both films concern an important mission behind enemy lines.

After that, leave your expectations at the door. The 1978 film is a low-budget exploitation actioner (with Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson), but Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino's trademark specialty: art-house exploitation.

In other words, Tarantino doesn't craft anything remotely like an action yarn here. Instead, Inglourious Basterds is an almost sedentary, deliberately-paced film about personal warfare, not the international, global variety we've come to expect from the WWII film. 

This isn't Saving Private Ryan (1998). No beaches are stormed. No wartime platitudes are reinforced.

"Looks like the shoe's on the other foot," The Powerful and the Powerless in Inglourious Basterds

The backdrop for this 2009 drama is indeed the war effort in general, and a group of American soldiers behind enemy lines, but the guts of the narrative involve feelings of personal disquiet: the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness engendered by the Nazi Regime, and the Basterds' dedicated attempts to give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Some scholars and pundits have suggested that the film is morally facile, a simple revenge picture that makes the American Basterds (Jewish-American soldiers...) as reprehensible as the Nazis they fight in Europe; but that doesn't seem legitimately the case.

Tarantino's focus isn't necessarily on brutal, bloody violence, but on power, and how it feels to be the party without it. 

The Basterds in the film, as well as a Jewish cinema owner named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), exact violent retribution against the Nazis, it is true. But, oddly -- in almost every situation -- it feels not like eye-for-an-eye Draconian violence, but rather an assertion or re-assertion of self, or self-actualization, if that's possible.

This is why, I suspect, the film's fiery final sequence quotes extensively from De Palma's Carrie (1976) and the famous sequence at the high school prom. Both movies concern the victimized pushed too far, taking back the power for themselves in an apocalyptic showdown.

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, however. Inglourious Basterds is a film consisting of five separate or episodic chapters. The first chapter "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" goes a long way towards establishing the feelings of personal powerlessness the Nazis so ruthlessly exploit.

A dairy farmer who is hiding Jewish refugees in his house is visited on his remote farm by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who is nicknamed "The Jew Hunter." Landa gains entry to the house, enjoys a glass of milk, switches the conversation from French to English, and then -- without even verbally leveling much of a threat -- makes the weeping farmer, LaPadite, surrender his hidden wards. The refugees are then brutally shot down, and only 18-year old Shoshanna escapes the massacre.

The conversation between Landa and LaPadite is lengthy. It goes on and on, and Tarantino holds the scene for a duration approaching twenty minutes. 

The aspect of this scene that makes it work so splendidly and which makes it increasingly suspenseful as it continues is the very thing that remains determinedly unspoken: Landa's total and complete domination of the poor farmer. LaPadite has no options; no recourse; nowhere even to lodge a complaint. He can't fight, or he will sacrifice his family. He can't bargain, either. There's absolutely nothing to be done. Landa comes into his home, is unfailingly polite and courteous...and is completely in control. The Nazi has no need to flex his muscles (or twirl his metaphorical mustache), to assert his authority. His authority simply...goes without saying.

This powerful and frightening idea recurs in Chapter Three, "German Night in Paris." Shoshanna -- now a cinema owner in France hiding under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux (think Yvette Mimieux) -- unexpectedly meets Nazi sniper and war hero Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). He is starring in Goebbel's latest propaganda film, Nation's Pride, and he quickly devises the notion that Shoshanna's cinema should host the film's premiere.

Again: she is not asked about this. Her counsel is not sought. Shoshanna is not given an out so she can politely demure. Instead, she is escorted to a nearby restaurant and introduced to Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who immediately and unquestioningly assumes her total and complete cooperation. 

Like Landa in Chapter One, the Nazis here are not over-the-top schemers or brutal torturers for us to sneer at. Instead, they are so confident in their total authority that there's no need for showy demonstrations, as we would no doubt see in lesser films.

In the most dramatic example of Shoshanna's utter powerlessness in the face of the Nazi domination, Hans Landa even gets to dictate to the cinema owner when she should eat her strudel. She is about to take a bite, but he has forgotten to order whip cream. 

"Wait for the cream," he utters with a wolfish smile.

It isn't a request. It's an order.

Thus -- in albeit strange and unconventional fashion -- the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are more frightening than almost any you've seen depicted in a movie before. They appear courteous and civil, but that's only because their domination is unchallenged; unquestioned. These men walk the Earth as Gods: every demand met, every order followed, every desire sated.

From the predicaments of the farmer and Shosanna in their respective chapters, the audience quickly detects how the basic human freedom of choice (even the choice when to eat your dessert) has been removed from those living in territory occupied by the Germans.

Tarantino's selections (in actors; in tone; in holding on a particular scene) all play this idea out adroitly. The scene set in the Tavern is not much different: an S.S. officer strides onto the scene and expects to have his demands for attention met, without question.

The eminently just punchline comes in the film's valedictory scene and composition. The leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) has been forced to cede authority to Landa. Landa thinks that -- as usual -- he is totally in command. 

He has become used to his unlimited, unspoken power. And with one powerful, if small act, Raines questions that assumption....with a knife. It's not just revenge for the sake of revenge; it's not bloody for the sake of gore. It's a lesson, actually, in what freedom represents; and the fear that people feel when that freedom is stolen from them. 

When Aldo carves swastikas on the foreheads of his enemies, he is questioning what the Nazis believe is unquestionable; their total authority and superiority. Aldo does not kill, but he makes the Nazis experience fear -- and powerlessness -- for the first time.

"We're going to make a film. Just for the Nazis." Homage and Tribute in Tarantino's Film

Inglourious Basterds also proves intriguing in much the same the fashion as Tarantino's other films do. In other words, the movie functions as a dedicated homage to other war films, and as a tribute to the culture of movies itself.  We see this in Death Proof (2007) as well: the notion of a universe built from other movies, and allusions to other movies.

In ways simple (Aldo Raines = Aldo Ray) and ways complex, Tarantino gets in some edgy commentary here about the power of images; about the power of the medium itself.

Even casting is vitally important. For instance, horror director Eli Roth plays the "golem" nicknamed "The Bear Jew," the Basterd who brandishes a baseball bat against recalcitrant Nazis.

We already associate Roth with scenes of extreme violence and gore thanks to his role directing (the masterpiece...) Hostel (2005), and so the actor's participation in what promises to be the film's most violent scene works commendably to the movie's advantage. 

Here comes Eli Roth doing what Eli Roth does best...or so we think.

But Inglourious Basterds is a movie about movies in deeper, more meaningful ways too. 

A propaganda film, like Goebbel's "Nation's Pride,could conceivably galvanize a demoralized nation, we are meant to understand. It could literally turn around the war, and that's something that can't be allowed to happen. How Shoshanna subverts Zoller's film is one of the film's highlights; especially since her "phantom edit" plays to what is literally a captive audience.

Likewise, a movie critic like Hicox (Michael Fassbender) could conceivably boast the knowledge to make for an effective undercover agent in France, although a hand signal (not entirely unlike "thumbs up" or "thumbs down") could also doom him.

And finally, as Inglourious Basterds trenchantly reminds us, a film can be an instrument of propaganda or an instrument of justice. Film might even be, literally, a weapon. Film reels  literally double as the bomb that kills Hitler in the film's denouement.

And there's another thing about movies that Tarantino tells us here.

Movies  have no overriding responsibility to be true to the historical record. I mean...we all know how World War II ended, but Tarantino provides us a more satisfying, fairy tale, movie ending: one in which the powerful are given a lesson in powerlessness, and those without freedom find -- even for an instant -- liberty's power.

Inglorious Basterds
 is not the place to seek historical accuracy; it's a place to ponder the ways that movies -- as propaganda or vehicles of justice/vengeance -- can satisfy and offer emotional closure regarding a whole variety of issues. 

Isn't it better than history, really, that a Jewish woman victimized by the Third Reich should bring it down?

If we could write our own endings, isn't this the dramatic, poetic one we would desire? The underdog has her day, and the scales of justice are righted. 

Since this isn't real life, why not?

"I think this just might be my masterpiece." Or "That's a Bingo."

Given the importance of movie history and film in Inglorious Basterds, I find it fascinating that the last act in the film quotes so heavily from the work of my all-time favorite director: Brian De Palma.

I mentioned Carrie at the Prom vs. Shoshanna at the Premiere, but it's much more than that too.

Notice, for instance, that the interior of Shoshanna's cinema is colored and designed to resemble the palatial interior of Tony Montana's Miami home in Scarface. There are staircases bracketing both sides of the central hall, with a ledge above -- on the second floor -- and, finally, a room (in the center of the frame...) leading back to a private domain (office or auditorium).

In Scarface, this grand hall is where Tony goes out in a blaze of glory ("Say Hello to My Little Friend..."). In a very real way, that's also Shoshanna's fate.

Both characters also share something else in common: they went from being powerless, to possessing all the power. 

Only in Tony's case, he misused and abused that power (through a drug haze). By contrast, our sympathies remain with Shoshanna throughout Inglourious Basterds. She is setting things right (and ending the war...), not committing a cocaine-addled suicide.

Why quote De Palma so extensively here? 

Well, we know that Carrie is in Tarantino's top five favorite film list (at least last time I checked). But the images and compositions that recall De Palma are well picked for reasons of theme and recognition too. 

Both Carrie at the Prom -- the victim taking out the victimizers -- and Tony's last stand -- a staccato suicide by machine gun -- embody an important part of our contemporary pop culture lexicon. 

Carrie is about the effect that cruelty has on a person, even a good person. And Scarface is about power corrupting, absolutely. So Shoshanna may be Carrie; and Hitler may be Tony Montana, in some sense..

One of the qualities that I admire most about Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's manner of making the intimate seem epic. This movie is about a big topic indeed (World War II) but it features almost no scenes of battle or any traditional war scenes, for that matter. 

The film consists mostly of a scene in a farm, in a tavern basement, and, finally, in a cinema. We see no tanks, no infantries on the move, and no impending air strikes.

Instead, Tarantino hammers home his theme of the powerful versus the powerless, and does so with just a handful of very intriguing, very human characters. The drama is entirely intimate though, in typical Tarantino fashion, the human behavior is also a bit exaggerated in some cases. In the case of Aldo Raines, I would argue it's almost cartoonish. But even he reflects something vitally important.

Sometimes you need bravado in the face of a powerful enemy. Inglourious Basterds reveals that Raines has that bravado in spades, but even more so, that the film's director does.  

Cult-Movie Trailer: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

At Anorak: The Day of the Animals - The Five Strangest Revenge of Nature Movies of the 1970s

My latest article is posted at Anorak, and it remembers the revenge of nature horror cycle of the 1970s.

IT’S not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

In the seventies, science fiction and horror filmmakers were certain that mankind was going to soon face his comeuppance for polluting and over-populating Mother Earth. And more so, that this comeuppance was going to be delivered at the paws, claws, talons, webbed fingers, and teeth of our former friends: the animals.

Call it the Circle of Death.

Between 1970 and 1979, more than a dozen genre films involved Mother Nature striking back against man for his mis-use of pesticides, his damage of the ozone layer, and for polluting previously unspoiled terrain.

Among these movies were titles such as The Bug (1975), Food of the Gods (1976), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), and Empire of the Ants (1977).

From a certain perspective, even blockbuster films such as Jaws (1975) — which saw a great white shark attack a beach town’s economy virtually forty years to the day that atom bombs were dropped on Japan — and Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong (1976) — in which the noble ape was exploited by an Exxon-like oil company — tread into this then-popular “revenge-of-nature” territory.

So with that prologue in mind, here is a look back at five of the most bizarre Revenge of Nature films of the 1970s.

The Visitors are Coming: V: The Series: "The Betrayal" (January 18, 1985)

In “The Betrayal,” Willie (Robert Englund) is wounded while attempting to contact another Fifth Columnist, Simon, and Diana (Jane Badler) presses her case for John (Bruce Davison) to impregnate Robin Mawell (Blair Tefkin) for the purpose of creating a second Star Child.

While the Resistance attempts to abduct a Visitor doctor to help Willie, Kyle (Jeff Yagher) learns that Chiang (Aki Aleong) is the real power in Los Angeles now, standing-in for his terminally-wounded father, Nathan Bates (Lane Smith). 

After Nathan is killed in a confrontation at Science Frontiers, and Robin learns she is not pregnant, all-out war comes to the once “Open City.”  

Accordingly, Ham (Michael Ironsides) and Robin makes plans to leave Los Angeles.

The cast massacre that commenced with Elias (Michael Wright) in “The Hero” culminates in “The Betrayal,” as the series loses three main characters and actors: Lane Smith’s Nathan Bates, Blair Tefkin’s Robin Maxwell, and most devastating of all, Michael Ironside’s Ham Tyler.

It’s fascinating that all the “pain” lands on the human side of the equation, but it would have been unthinkable to remove Diana, or Lydia from the format.  Badler's Diana is a series lynchpin (and the break-out character).  And without Lydia (and June Chadwick) the great Jane Badler would have had no one of consequence to play against.

It’s not difficult, perhaps, to see why Tefkin’s Robin gets cut.  She is not a fighter or a doctor, like Julie, and does not possess a unique set of abilities like Elizabeth.  Furthermore, she is not involved in any sort of romantic duo.  

Furthermore, writers have done her character no favors, especially in her last, brutal space in the spotlight.  She is nearly impregnated by a Visitor for a second time in "The Betrayal, and there’s an old saying: fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice…shame on me.  Robin doesn't transmit as either especially likable or especially smart.  She is no longer fits the "Anne Frank" character-type of the mini-series.

The loss of Nathan Bates occurs, I suspect, for pure cost-cutting reasons. I wonder if the producers knew the series was going to be canceled at this point, and so it was necessary to prune the cast.  If the Open City concept was done, there is simply no reason for the unaligned Nathan Bates to be involved in the series.  

The most grievous loss here, is, of course, Ham Tyler: one of the most popular and beloved characters in the V franchise.  

For me, Ham is a dramatic necessity because he often adds a sense of realism to the episode conflicts.  He’s not an idealist, he’s not a hero, and he's not a romantic lead.  He’s just a guy getting things done the best way he can, and trying to avoid layers of moral conflict.

I suspect Tyler was cut loose at this juncture because if you just look at the characters from a distance, he and Kyle serve what could be mistaken for the same purpose.  They each play the role of the guy reluctant to join the group.  If this is your viewpoint then Ham is redundant, especially given Kyle’s importance to Elizabeth.

What’s missed, largely, by the brutal cast/crew massacre of V’s mid-season is that every-time you remove a character of interest, like the morally-ambiguous but dedicated Ham, or the suburban girl grown up and trying to make her way, or the businessman just looking out for his bottom line, you start to subtract from the reality of the program, and often substantially.  Since we also lose Howard K. Smith of the "Freedom Network" in this episode as well, that's another net-minus.  His short news briefs made it feel that there was more to the world war than the action in Los Angeles.

So now -- suddenly -- you have two male action leads, a female lead, the resident alien, and the comic relief…and that’s it.  You don’t even have a person of color, anymore, among the human resistance.  

And so V’s resistance looks a lot less like real America, and more like a traditional Hollywood B-movie.

By subtracting these characters, the producers also removed the sources of almost all inter-character conflict.  Although the Robin-Kyle-Elizabeth love triangle was dropped long before “The Hero” and “The Betrayal,” losing morally ambiguous characters like Nathan Bates, Ham Tyler, and even to a degree Elias, means suddenly that the surviving characters have no one to rub up against, or chafe against.  Kyle can''t battle -- for form alliances with his father.  And Mike and Julie can''t argue a course of action with Ham.

At this point in V: The Series, the dramatic interest and initiative clearly moves to The Visitors, especially in terms of the next several episodes (“The Rescue,” and “The Champion,” especially).  Now the conflicts on the Mothership involving Diana’s ousting from power and (arranged) marriage to Charles become far more compelling than anything that happens on Earth, where everything is sort of…vanilla.

Other than the scenes involving Diana, Lydia and the Visitors, the final episodes of V are generally poor.  The L.A. Resistance seems to consist of five characters riding around Southern California in a van, and that’s it.  It’s just very underwhelming.

In a sense “The Betrayal” is really a betrayal because what V: The Series gains in terms of economy (and in terms of cut-throat drama…) it loses in terms of realism and interesting characters.

And yet this is undeniably a strong episode in context, and one followed by an even stronger one: “The Rescue.”  

The series has short term success here for the next few weeks, and then all the cast/character/budget cuts start to really hurt V in a dramatic fashion.

Next week: The unforgettable marriage of Charles and Diana in “The Rescue."