Monday, December 31, 2012

Remembering 2012 on the Blog, and Looking Ahead to 2013...

Well, 2012 ends today.  Thankfully, the Mayan Calendar worries proved to be as big a catastrophe as Y2K...meaning none at all.

Here on the blog, Reflections registered its biggest year yet in terms of readership and by a considerable margin too.   There were also more posts here, as I hope you noticed. 

Last year: 383 posts. This year: over 1090.  

In terms of specifics, we had Saturdays with Sinbad and a retrospective of the Jurassic Park films to start things out.  I also reviewed the Star Wars Original Trilogy, and the first four Superman films.

In 2012, we also celebrated Breakaway Day, Buck Rogers Day, and Star Trek: The Next Generation Day for its 25th anniversary.  We also had many Savage Cinema Fridays and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of James Bond at the movies.

We also remembered the Films of 1982, and began a survey of the Films of 1983, which will continue in 2013.  I initiated the new feature “Ask JKM a Question” and to my delight we had more than fifty-nine questions from readers.  I love answering these terrific questions, and still have several more in the queue that I'm working through.   

We also went through a handful of cult-TV series together, including The Fantastic Journey (1977), Otherworld (1985), Ark II (1976), Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1973 – 1974), Land of the Lost Season Two (1975) and Season Three, Jason of Star Command (1979), and Brimstone (1998 – 1999).  We're currently in the thick of The Starlost (1973-1974).

For Thanksgiving, we had a monster-thon with King Kong and Godzilla, and my most widely-read, quoted, and talked about review of 2012 was, by far, for Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

I plan to have as active and exciting a year on the blog in 2013, so I hope you’ll all be back for more "reflections" on film and television too. 

Two things definitely in the cards: We’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993 – 2002), and I hope to review at least one-episode-a-week, picking my fifty favorite episodes or thereabouts.   Similarly, 2013 is the fiftieth anniversary of the original Doctor Who, so I'll also be looking back at some my favorite serials there.  Plus, we'll see the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Man of Steel.

As I always like to say at the end of each year, the best is yet to come.  

Thank you for your readership in 2012, and for your continued support.  This place would be nothing without your energy and commentary.

Television and Cinema Verities #51

“Reality is incredibly larger, infinitely more exciting, than the flesh and blood vehicle we travel in here. If you read science fiction, the more you read it the more you realize that you and the universe are part of the same thing. Science knows still practically nothing about the real nature of matter, energy, dimension, or time; and even less about those remarkable things called life and thought. But whatever the meaning and purpose of this universe, you are a legitimate part of it. And since you are part of the all that is, part of its purpose, there is more to you than just this brief speck of existence. You  are just a visitor here in this time and this place, a traveler through it.” 

- Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tribute Gallery 2012

Michael Clarke Duncan (1957 - 2012)

Neil Armstrong (1930 - 2012)

Tony Scott (1944 - 2012)

William Windom (1923 - 2012)

Carlo Rambaldi (1925 - 2012)

Sally Ride (1951 - 2012)

R.G. Armstrong (1917 - 2012)

Jonathan Frid (1924 - 2012)

Ralph McQuarrie (1929 - 2012)

Davy Jones (1945 - 2012)

Ernest Borgnine (1917 - 2012)

Larry Hagman (1931 - 2012)

Dolores Mantez (1938 - 2012)

Gary Collins (1938 -2012)

Jack Klugman (1922 - 2012)

 Charles Durning (1923 - 2012)

Gerry Anderson (1929 - 2012)

Lee Hansen (1968 - 2012), star of my web series, The House Between and beloved friend.

If I failed to include any movie/cult-tv luminaries in this list I culled from the blog in 2012, I apologize wholeheartedly for the oversight. No slight or insult is intended.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and memories regarding these personalities -- or  any others who passed away in 2012 -- in the comments section, below, if you would like.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Medusa" (October 9, 1976)

The fifth episode of the third (and final) season of the NBC Saturday morning series highlights the mythological Medusa -- snake-haired Gorgon (sister in myth to Euryale and Stheno) -- as the villain of the week.

And indeed, if you are familiar with this bicentennial-era series, it may sound like a real stretch that the Gorgon Medusa would appear in the "closed" pocket-universe of the Land of the Lost. But 1976 was a year of significant format alterations for this series, as we've seen in the preceding weeks.

Specifically, star Spencer Milligan -- playing Dad, Rick Marshall -- left the program. On screen, Ron Harper (Planet of the Apes) took the lead as Uncle Jack, and behind the scenes, Sam Roeca, a veteran of CBS's animated Valley of the Dinosaurs, came aboard as writer and story editor. Also, writer/producer Jon Kubichan joined up.

"The first thing that Sam and I did was watch all the episodes," Kubichan reported when I interviewed him for Filmfax. "I wanted the series to be more fun, and to do something in every episode that was instructive in terms of science."

Roeca was on the same page in these desires and shared a mutual enthusiasm for mythology with Kubichan. 

Together, the new team sought to present in each third season installment "something from the past, from some literature or children's narrative."

This shift in narrative/imaginative focus resulted in a controversial third season that saw the Marshalls grapple with mythological creatures and beings such as The Flying Dutchman, a unicorn, a fire-breathing dragon, the Yeti...and Medusa.

"Medusa wound her way into the Land of the Lost because that actress is my wife," Kubichan joked with me.

"A writer that I knew came in, Greg Strangis, and came up with his story. He said, 'How'd you like to do a Medusa story?' and I thought it was a good idea. He went home, worked out a story, and I made some changes. He re-wrote a little, and that was that."

One reason that humanoid mythological creations like Medusa appeared on the show so frequently in the third season involved matters of schedule and budget. "It was very difficult to do anything with the dinosaurs," Kubichan informed me. "It took a long time to shoot that stuff, so you can't have it done in a couple of days. It takes weeks..."

In "Medusa," Holly (Kathy Coleman), Will (Wesley Eure) and Cha-Ka (Philip Paley) are busy preparing a sort of emergency canoe on the river that the Marshalls explored in first season's "Downstream." Holly boards the craft, and when a dam down-river breaks, she end ups hurtling away from the others. She is rescued by a mysterious woman named "Meddie" (Marion Thompson), and escorted to Meddie's "Garden of Eternity."

There, in the Garden, Holly sees several very life-like statues, including a statue of one Jefferson Davis Collies, the Civil War soldier that Holly encountered with her Dad and Will in the aforementioned "Downstream."

Now, this is a really splendid and entirely unexpected bit of continuity in the series; a direct reference to a program two years previous. The statue of Collies is even seen with his beloved cannon, Sarah.

After Holly learns that "Meddie" has also turned the land's resident triceratops, Spike, to stone, she begins to suspect that she's in some real trouble. Meddie attempts to entice Holly to stay in the Garden by offering her a new, beautiful dress..

Elsewhere, Uncle Jack, Will and Cha-Ka, attempt to rescue Holly from Meddie -- Medusa -- but most grapple with the Gorgon's sentient mirror (!) and the ambulatory, crushing vines that crawl all over the Garden of Eternity. In the end, Jack defeats Medusa by forcing the monster to gaze upon her own horrifying reflection...

Today, Land of the Lost's dedicated sense of creative imagination and fantasy far outstrips the production's prehistoric special effects, which have not aged gracefully. The series is still incredibly enjoyable (the effects are no worse than Dr. Who's; or Blake's 7, for instance...), but "Medusa" is nonetheless hampered by some poor visualizations. 

For instance, when "Meddie" turns into the Gorgon, it's clear that the snakes in her hair are just rubbery, inanimate, life-less things. And her gray, monstrous face make-up doesn't extend fully down her neck. In other words, you can see clearly where the make-up stops and real flesh color begin.

But again, Land of the Lost remains a really terrific Saturday morning's kid show because it is so endlessly imaginative, and because many episodes tend to concern great concepts, whether from science fiction (like time-loops, for instance) or from mythology. Greg Strangis's fantasy story is actually grounded in reality too, and has two very notable themes.

In a very real way -- and this is probably why this episode was so frightening to children at the time -- the episode concerns our childhood fear of strangers. 

Here, Holly is alone and taken in by an apparently kind adult, but one with secret motives. She tries and tries to get away, but the adult is both demanding and apparently friendly simultaneously, and, well, it's hard for kids to go against the wishes of an adult. Here, the stranger is indeed a monster, and Holly must plot her escape carefully. So the story here, in veiled terms, is -- watch out for strangers.

The other sub-text in "Medusa" surely concerns vanity. "Meddie" is ultimately undone by her narcissistic obsession with her physical beauty. According to the teleplay, it is actually "ugly" to be too concerned with one's self. As Holly notes at the end, the problem with vanity is that you might -- like Medusa -- get "trapped" by it.

As a six-year old kid, Land of the Lost's "Medusa" terrified me to my core, but it wasn't just the Gorgon's appearance and frightening ability to turn people to stone that was so powerful; it was the idea that she was a dishonest, untrustworthy adult who was planning to do monstrous things to an innocent child. that's disturbing in a real life way; a way that, well, dinosaurs or Sleestak are not.

Today, it's probably hard to conceive that an innocuous Land of the Lost from the disco decade was ever something that was legitimately "scary." But even today, you can detect how the series always attempted to ambitiously present a lot on a very small budget. 

For instance, "Medusa" features one or two very impressive high angle shots of Medusa's lair. These difficult-to-stage angles get across the atmosphere of danger and dread in a powerful way. A kid's show in a hurry likely wouldn't have found the time to pick out the right angle in moments like these, but Land of the Lost remains powerful (especially to the young-at-heart...) because its stories were conveyed with care both on the page and on the stage.

"Medusa" is a strong entry for the third season, which has been some rough sailing thus far.  It's imaginative and scary, even if certain questions about it persist.  Like, for instance how did Medusa get into the Land of the Lost, and how has she so long eluded the notice of the Marshalls (or the Sleestak, for that matter?)

Next week: "Cornered."

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 at the Movies #12: Skyfall

It’s unofficial, of course, but if you scrape just beneath the surface of Skyfall (2012) -- the new James Bond thriller -- the designation “M” clearly stands for “Mother” or “Mom.”

Unconventionally, this twenty-third Bond film is a modern action movie concerning a mature woman (played by Judi Dench) who has -- perhaps not fully realizing it -- become the only parent to two grown and needy (or maladjusted…) sons. 

One son, a man called Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), has rebelled against his mother for her sins, choosing to reject all of her lessons because he feels unloved and abandoned.

The other son, James Bond (Daniel Craig), realizes that this powerful mother figure is responsible for giving his life some sense of purpose, and thus goes to extreme, life-and-death measures to protect her from his enraged “brother.”

Also -- and please make no mistake about this fact – the new Bond Girl of Skyfall is clearly M, not Naomie Harris’s Eve, Severine (Berenice Marlohe), or anyone else, for that matter. 

For the first time in Bond history then, the primary Bond/female relationship does not concern sex or romance, but the maternal, mother-son relationship.

On these relatively startling grounds alone, Skyfall distinguishes itself from the twenty-two previous cinematic installments in the James Bond series. 

Delightfully, however, Skyfall also thoroughly re-invents Bond’s place in the world, lamenting the 21st century reliance on computers and unmanned drones over “human intelligence” in the dangerous game of espionage.  The film thereby forges the (the Luddite?) argument that sometimes the old ways -- like a knife in the back -- still get the job done best.

Skyfall also celebrates fifty years of James Bond movie traditions and history.  Therefore, one can readily gaze at this prominently-featured Luddite argument as a rationalization, as a self-justification, in some sense, for the continuation of the long-running franchise in the second decade of the 21st century. 

Even today, in the age or push-button soldiers, we need 007. 

This argument about the primacy of human values in the Remote Control Age is so exhilaratingly presented that Skyfall often feels like a grand revelation.  Everything “old” is new again, and this Bond film brilliantly sends Agent 007 into a brave new world, even while re-establishing all the old characters (like Q and Moneypenny) and old genre gimmicks we’ve come to expect (like the Aston Martin’s ejector seat).

It’s quite a deft balancing act, and Skyfall is at once cheeky and legitimately sentimental in tone.  It would be easy to term so exciting and revelatory a Bond film the best series installment in years, but Casino Royale -- just six years in the past -- must still earn high marks for resetting the series, grounding Bond, and introducing Craig.  Without those accomplishments, the highs of Skyfall might not have been conceivable.

Instead, the arrival of Skyfall forces long-time Bond fans to concretely reckon with the once-impossible-seeming notion that the Sean Connery Era has, at long-last, been surpassed 

Bond is back and -- no hyperbole -- he’s better than ever.

Mommy was very bad.” 

Skyfall opens in Turkey, as James Bond, 007 (Craig) and an operative named Eve (Harris) attempt to recover a stolen hard-drive that contains the files of every undercover NATO operative working in terrorist organizations. 

Eve is ordered by M (Dench) to take a difficult shot against the possessor of the drive, the evil Patrice (Ola Rapace). But Eve hits Bond instead, thereby losing the drive and an agent.

Some months later, Bond -- who is believed dead -- resurfaces when the MI6 building in London is bombed.  M escapes the attack, but feels political pressure from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to explain the loss of the hard-drive, and now a terrorist attack on British soil.

Although he is not yet physically or psychologically ready to return to duty, M nonetheless sends Bond out to track Patrice.  The trail leads Bond to Raoul Silva (Bardem) a vengeful former MI6 agent eager to make M “think on her sins.”   

With Silva launching one terrorist attack after another -- all aimed at killing M -- Bond decides to take his superior off the grid, and back to his family’s long-abandoned country estate in Scotland, called Skyfall.

“Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement.”

As I wrote above in my introduction, Skyfall primarily concerns a family dynamic.  In this unusual family, M is the mother, Raoul is one son, and Bond -- believed dead but actually out carousing on the beach -- is the Prodigal Son.

Bond finally returns to save his mother’s life after Raoul enters the picture.   Apparently, Raoul has interpreted M’s dedication to duty as a personal statement against him, a mirror of Bond’s situation.  Silva, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that he was the one who first transgressed on a mission to Hong Kong some years earlier.

Given this family dynamic, Skyfall also concerns -- in a strange way -- the value of forgiveness.  Bond is able to remember that M’s stewardship provided him a home and a purpose, and he forgives her for ordering Eve to take a shot that nearly results in his death. 

M is similarly able to forgive Bond’s trespasses and welcome back the Prodigal Son, the boy who went out into the world with the inheritance of responsibility and purpose and squandered that inheritance on booze, sex, and scorpions.

By contrast, Raoul Silva -- who evidently still loves M (or Mom…) -- can’t see his path to forgiveness, and remains consumed by overwhelming hatred because of Mom’s abandonment.

This family dynamic plays out in Skyfall even in terms of setting and locations. Bond -- a boy forever in search of the parents he tragically lost in childhood -- brings M back to his family estate, Skyfall to play house, after a fashion.  There, 007 also re-connects with an old friend and mentor Kincade (Albert Finney), a surrogate father figure.

The three characters -- working and living together at Skyfall -- are, briefly, a family, replete with a home and a hearth.  Bond thus recreates the family home he never had in his youth.  Raoul arrives and destroys that home, refusing to forgive Mom and rejoin the family.

In exploring this dynamic, Skyfall is perhaps the most human and personal of all the Bond films.  It explores not only the elements of Bond’s tragic and lonely past, but excavates the nature of his (violent) life in terms of how he sees his connections to others.  For Bond, M and Kincade are the only family he can count on when the chips are down, though there is the suggestion that Mallory may become a father figure as well. 

Outside this dramatic through-line, Skyfall establishes a roiling tension and competition between 21st century espionage and Bondian-style espionage, which came of age during the Cold War of the 1960s. 

This tension is expressed best in the quips back and forth between the mid-life Bond and his young, new Q (or Quartermaster), played by Billie Whishaw.  Q tells Bond that “age is no guarantee of efficiency,” and Bond’s response is that “youth is no guarantee of innovation.” 

In other words, a person with experience and expertise still has something to offer in the world of espionage.

Q also comments explicitly on a painting in an art gallery where he first meets 007.  The painting depicts a warship’s decommissioning. 

It always makes me feel a bit melancholy,” Q opines. “Grand old war ship…being ignominiously haunted away to scrap... The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see?

What Bond sees, of course, is that he is that old warship, and the one succumbing to the inevitability of time.  

He isn’t as young as he once was, and he faces the possibility that he will soon be obsolete, outmoded in the Remote Control Age.  But the events of Skyfall prove otherwise.  There is still room in the world for Bond’s brand of “human” intelligence.

Even M gets into the act of discussing the present and the past by quoting Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses at a critical dramatic juncture:

“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

This is Bond’s gift to the world, and perhaps England’s as well.  Bond and England no longer dictate the movement of Heaven and Earth, but their wills remain strong, and when threatened, they will not yield.  They are, as they have been….heroic hearts.

The emotionally-delivered Tennyson quotation above thus permits Skyfall to proudly re-assert Bond’s importance in the cinema, and even Bond’s place in the world. Jason Bournes and Ethan Hunts of the world be damned, there’s still a place for Bond, James Bond in the 21st Century.

The battle between Silva and Bond is not merely one of brothers, but of belief-systems, the film cleverly reminds us.  Silva is the high-tech terrorist hiding behind anonymous servers and diabolical hacks. Meanwhile, Bond is the old-world dinosaur who still enjoys his Aston Martin’s ejector seat, and takes M off the grid, to a brick-and-mortar home he hasn’t seen in years. 

It’s digital vs. analog…and analog carries the day.

The amazing thing is that in our convenient and robust Web 2.0 Age, we root in Skyfall for analog to win. 

We long for the romance and sheer individuality of a character like James Bond.  He calls not upon gadgets, tools, or software to win the day, but some deep internal reservoir of individual will and discipline.  We may be constantly perfecting our tools and gadgets, but Bond has perfected his human mechanism, and in reminding us of that, Skyfall has perfected the Bond formula.

It’s appropriate that the last act of Skyfall involves an all-out siege which is more Peckinpah and Straw Dogs (1971) than Ian Fleming, because the analog world does feel, at times, under siege, doesn’t it?  The Old Guard seems to be crumbling, a brick at a time, and some people view this shift as the End of History, and not as the beginning of Something New, perhaps Something Great. 

In an age of irrational exuberance about gadgets, apps, and computerized military capabilities, James Bond and Skyfall remind us that a reliance on humanity -- on our experience and wisdom -- can be the most potent weapon of all.

Here’s to another fifty years of James Bond and his heroic heart.

2012 at the Movies #11: Silent House

There is a genuine, palpable terror mined in Silent House (2012), a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan horror film, which, in turn, was based on a ‘true story.’ 

This American remake, directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, consists of a handful of ten-minute segments stitched together almost seamlessly, so that it appears as though the film consists of only one, long, continuous shot. 

Thus, as the ads trumpet, Silent House represents horror in “real time,” depicting eighty-eight or so grueling minutes in the life of a frantic, terrified young woman named Sarah.  

There are virtually no lulls in the film, and it is paced expertly and efficiently.  The absence of quick cutting, and indeed, cuts of any type, means that the space “around” Sarah is charted thoroughly, and so fear boasts the opportunity -- like a flower -- to grow, and grow until it reaches full, malevolent blossom.

Some audiences have reportedly felt “ripped off” by Silent House because:

a.) It isn’t actually one continuous shot, but several.


b.) There is no supernatural entity in the film, which is how some folks reportedly “interpreted” the ads and trailers, specifically the presence of a young specter-like girl in a nightgown.

When I screened Silent House I was aware of neither viewer complaint, and simply experienced the film as it was “happening” to me.  I had no pre-conceived notions, in other words, and no expectations.  I must honestly report that I felt while watching, at times, an almost overwhelming sense of fear and claustrophobia.  

By revealing to us a single character trapped in one place, for eighty unrelenting minutes, Silent House distills the horror experience down to an impressively pure crucible.  

In short, Silent House concerns the feelings of being trapped alone in a house with a killer, and trying to find some way -- any way -- to escape.  In many important ways, it plays like a nightmare you can't awake from.  All escape attempts end with a return to entrapment, and the chase by the Bogeyman never ceases, even when reality itself seems to break down.

In specific narrative terms, Silent House revolves around poor Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), who is visiting an old family house in the country with her father and uncle.  The house is to be sold off, and the family members are there to clean it out and pack up their belongings before it goes on the market.

As evening approaches, Sarah is surprised to be visited by an old friend from the neighborhood, one who clearly remembers her, but whom she does not recall at all.  As Sarah points out, she has some gaps in her memory.

Her uncle leaves the house for a while, as the sun goes down, and then Sarah’s father disappears too, leaving the young woman alone in a dark, upstairs room.  She hears strange noises, and then suddenly comes under relentless, non-stop attack by a strange assailant. Sarah hides throughout the house, and finally escapes through the maze-like basement, but the killer is always close-by. 

After she escapes the grounds, Sarah runs into the returning uncle, who brings her right back to the house so they can find her father together. 

Not surprisingly, the killer is still there, and before you know it, Sarah is all alone once more, trying to figure out what is happening to her, and how to stay alive.  In short order, the house itself seems to conspire to keep her a prisoner there…

Silent House tells a very simple, very lean story, and aside from some serious lighting issues at critical junctures, the directors do a fine job of landing us in Sarah’s shoes and generating almost non-stop suspense.  

Olsen’s committed, all-in performance maintains the film’s focus so that when the final revelation occurs, it doesn’t feel like a cheat.  It may not be a total surprise for those of us very experienced with watching horror movies, but nor is it a cheat.

Read no further if you wish to know what’s really going on here.

Still here?

All right, then.

Silent House operates by a very simple, if intriguing premise. The house where Sarah is trapped is, metaphorically-speaking, one of her own making; one of her own mind. 

Returning to this childhood house, she begins to experience unpleasant memories from her childhood, memories that she has kept blocked out and denied for a very long time.  They concern child sexual abuse.

As Sarah navigates the labyrinth of the country house, she is also running through a kind of subjective reality, an experience what can only be described as a psychotic break.  Accordingly, the rooms eventually become twisted manifestations of her fears, changing shape and form in horrifying ways.  One room suddenly explodes with outbreaks of multiplying mold, a literalization of the idea that Sarah somehow feels soiled and ruined by the acts of the abusers.

There are well-placed clues regarding the “truth” about Sarah throughout Silent House, from the odd presence of Sarah’s childhood friend, to the fact that three times during the film, Sarah hides under furniture and is yanked into the open by a stranger’s hand.  This hiding place and pose evokes memories of a “game” she was forced to endure as a little girl. 

And then, of course, there are the photographs that her uncle and father don’t want her to see, which are strewn about…

The only thing that matters is that, in the end, it all tracks.

And the complaints about Silent House? I have a rule about reviewing movies that goes approximately like this:  You can’t review a movie on the basis of what it isn’t.  You have to discuss what it is.  

I’m sorry some viewers felt disappointed that there were no supernatural entities involved here, but I’ve watched the trailer several times, and am not sure why these folks ever believed the film was going to be Paranormal Activity 5 or something of the kind.

And who cares whether the film consists of one shot or ten shots?  If the story is vetted well (and it is), that matters more than whether or not it is crafted in a single continuous take.  Even Hitchcock's Rope wasn't actually a single take, but a few.

In terms of the story it tells, Silent House assembles the pieces relentlessly, until the full, accurate picture of Sarah's suffering forms by movie’s end.  More than that, the (near) continuous nature of the film builds an inescapable, merciless sense of suspense.  Coupled with Olsen’s bravura performance, Silent House really and truly proves terrifying.  I watched the film on streaming (Time Warner Cable) and had some visual problems, because of under-lighting at points.  But I gladly endured such moments because of the feelings of intense fear and entrapment the movie successfully provokes.

Silent House also boasts at least two scenes that I found extremely effective, and even terrifying.  In the first, Sarah realizes there is somebody else in the house, and tries to escape through the basement, a terrain that goes further and further down, almost beyond reality.  She finally arrives at a dead-end -- and a bedroom for squatters -- when her assailant shows up.  In the second extraordinarily suspenseful sequence, Sarah sits alone in her uncle's SUV, and watches in the rear view mirror as the hatch-back door keeps lifting open, apparently of its own volition.  Then, she sees someone climbing into the back seats...

Long story short: Don’t go into Silent House expecting a ghost story, and don’t go just looking for the “seams” in the long takes.  Instead, allow the movie’s immersing techniques and Olsen’s amazing, accomplished performance work their considerable magic, and you’ll find that Silent House is a relatively rare treat: a horror movie that really and truly scares you.

2012 at the Movies #10: Battleship

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.…If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
-Stephen Hawking

Hollywood certainly has squeezed a lot of creative mileage lately from that quote excerpted above, and rightly so.  The idea of malevolent aliens raping and pillaging the Earth -- and wiping us out in the process -- is a powerful and frightening one indeed. 

It works so easily in our current global context, I suspect, because we seem to be developing new and powerful technologies daily, while our wisdom hasn’t necessarily gone hand-in-hand with the “improvements.”  It’s not difficult to imagine a race of desperate, resource-starved aliens casting their eyes upon our beautiful home world, and deciding that we’re ripe for the plucking.  It’s their survival or ours.

To one extent or another, films including Skyline (2011), Battle: LA (2011), and even The Darkest Hour (2011) have all been informed by this notion of alien imperialists looting our beloved Mother Earth and committing genocide against mankind.

This summer’s Battleship -- based on the famous game by Hasbro -- utilizes the same inspiration to generally positive effect.  Here, a distant planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” of its star system sends an advanced military scout team of five ships to assess our planet for invasion and/or colonization.  But its communications’ ship is destroyed in orbit, meaning that the aliens must harness our own satellite technology against us.

Cue the U.S. Navy, which by happenstance is undergoing a battle exercise in the Pacific just as the alien force set-up camp in the ocean. 

With only three naval vessels inside the aliens’ force field bubble and able to intervene in the crisis on humanity’s behalf, the Navy must stop the aliens from sending home a message indicating that the coast is clear for all-out invasion.

Leading the surviving Navy ship -- and quite unexpectedly so -- is untested Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a slack, rule-breaking officer who is about to be drummed out of the service for conduct unbecoming an officer.    

Does this insubordinate, unserious loser have what it takes to save the Earth and all-of-the human race?
In broad strokes, that’s Battleship’s narrative. 

And in short, this movie is big, dumb, and, well, fun.  The film’s first few establishing scenes, with a “Burrito Girl” booty run are so breathtakingly stupid you may be tempted to turn off the film at once and watch something else.  But try to hold on.

Because after an egregiously rough first act, Battleship picks itself up, dusts itself off, and offers a compelling tale of human vs. alien combat on the open sea.  Going in, one should understand that Battleship is a generic “blockbuster”-type film, not prone to subtlety or nuance.  But the special effects are extraordinary, and the cat-and-mouse battle between the denizens of Earth and the evil aliens grows increasingly tense and desperate.

Battleship is thus a movie you can fall in love with for at least one night. You may hate yourself the next morning. 

But gee whiz, what a night…

Directed by Peter Berg -- who brought television one of its best dramatic series ever in Friday Night Lights -- Battleship really goes for the gusto here, plucking every string in its overwrought, manipulative arsenal to prime entertainment effect.  There’s an East/West rapprochement (at Pearl Harbor, no less), a paean to soldiers wounded in war, and a twenty-one gun salute to the Greatest Generation.

I must admit, I indeed felt a lump form in my throat form while watching the eighty-year old veterans of World War II take the battleship U.S.S. Missouri out of mothballs to save freedom…one last time.  It’s cheesy as all Hell, but it works. By the time of the Missouri’s up-fit for battle against the evil aliens, I knew the movie had me in its grip.

Treading a bit deeper, Battleship features two qualities that help it land a cut above the Michael Bay Transformers movies.  These are: the depiction of the aliens as only slightly more advanced humanoids than us, and the nature of the decision-making during the crisis.

On the former front, the film -- again like Battle: LA -- pits man against aliens who are just a little bit ahead of us in terms of their technology.  They have a big advantage, but it isn’t necessarily a decisive one.  Once we learn their weaknesses, it’s game on.  Again, one must consider this dynamic a metaphor for the Iraq War.  There, our forces romped easily to Baghdad, but then had to face a homegrown insurgency.  I enjoy how the aliens are presented in Battleship because they seem like authentic soldiers, not just hissable movie villains.  They’re here to do a specific job, not engage in unnecessary brutality, and they are close enough to us in terms of physicality that we can recognize their motives.   They’re completing a mission they've been tasked with; nothing more.

On the latter front, Battleship puts its Navy personnel through the wringer, and again and again asks Hopper to choose between two equally unenviable and difficult options.  At some point, the discussion of the crew surviving the day is off the table. It all comes down to one question: how do we leverage whatever advantage we have to save the planet?  For all its shallow and generic qualities, Battleship asks its main characters to make some pretty tough calls.

I suspect the readership here already knows exactly what kind of film Battleship is.  It’s a film where handicapped soldiers get-up on their (prosthetic) feet and triumphantly walk, where cowardly scientists find the ability to stand up and fight, and where loveable losers step up and accept the mantel of responsibility.  It’s really just a re-purposed collection of all our old familiar war clichés.  And yet, somehow, the movie manages to be entertaining and engaging moment-to-moment, scene-to-scene.

Perhaps part of the reason Battleship succeeds as ably as it does involves lead actor Taylor Kitsch.  Unlike a lot of young actors today, he possesses a unique ability to simultaneously be in the action and comment on the action.  He’s nearly Harrison Ford-esque in this quality.

In other words, Kitsch manages to convey some sense of self and character outside the specifics of the script, thus making some of the (groan-worthy) dialogue somehow less important.  Kitsch effortlessly carried John Carter (2012) this summer, which -- pound-for-pound -- is a much better film, but he performs the same task ably here.  Don’t believe all those stories in the press about Kitsch being in two major bombs this summer and the catastrophe it means for his film career.  This guy is going places (and I fervently wish one of those places happened to be John Carter 2).

As for Battleship2: Sub Search, I don’t think we’ll be getting that sequel anytime soon, and that’s perfectly okay with me.  Battleship is a legitimately entertaining “blockbuster”-type sci-fi film with some downright rousing moments. But not every sci-fi blockbuster needs to be part of a never-ending franchise.

Battleship stays afloat, but I don’t think it would be sea worthy for more than this shakedown cruise.

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