Saturday, August 15, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Torch" (December 21, 1974)

In “Torch,” the Tamoor – the Camel People – prepare to invade the lands of Gorak’s people in the village. These raiders have come frequently, stealing and attacking by nightfall.  Always, before, Gorak’s people have let them succeed in their campaigns because there are so many of them.

John Butler, however, has a different idea this time.  The Tamoor will have to pass through a narrow canyon path, one where he has set up a natural gas drilling platform.  If he can strike natural gas, a fire will block the Camel People’s path to the village.

The Villagers are reluctant to take on the Tamoor, but Gorak realizes John’s plan is the only way.  

But before the Tamoor can be stopped, the Butlers and Gorak must tame a baby styracosaurus to turn their over-sized drill.

The final episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974), the CBS Saturday morning cartoon, introduces another enemy of Gorak’s people. A few episodes back, we were introduced to the nomads, interlopers who would come in and steal food and supplies (as well as tools). This week, we meet the “Tamoor,” proto-Viking, Conan-the-Barbarian-esque warriors who invade the Villagers’ territory, and so astride camels.  They seem significantly more advanced than Gorak’s culture.

Once more, the Butlers come to the rescue.  

John has conveniently been working on a drilling rig in the very canyon that the Tamoor must traverse so as to conquer Gorak’s land.  He still needs a drill bit, however, and the episode suggests that the Valley of the Dinosaurs is rich in “akara” stones, which we know as diamonds.  

Of course, diamonds are worthless as currency or wealth in this land, but very valuable as a resource for the drill.

“Torch” ends happily -- exactly as the nomad episode did -- with the Tamoors agreeing to make peace with the Villagers, and stop their evil, conquering ways.  Again, one must wonder how long such an accommodation will last. The Tamoor must be aggressive and violent because they lack something vital, food or land.  Declaring friendship without redressing those needs is not a long-term solution.  

But heck, it’s a kid’s show, right?

Next week, I’ll look at an episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s The Lost Saucer (1975).

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: ElectraWoman and DynaGirl: "Return of the Pharaoh"

In “The Return of the Pharaoh,” the villainous Pharaoh (Peter Mark Richman) and Cleopatra (Jane Elliott) plan to steal a relic called the Coptic Eye that is hidden in King Tut’s pyramid.

Lori (Deidre Hall) and Judy (Judy Strangis) must cut short an interview at that very pyramid (which has been moved brick-by-brick to the United States from Egypt...) to stop him. 

Meanwhile, Frank (Norman Alden) is at the Electra-Base and has come up with a new app for the Electra-Comps to help the superheroes stop the Pharaoh: Electra-vision, good for night tracking.

The Pharaoh traps ElectraWoman and DynaGirl in the pyramid and nearly drops a twenty-ton stone on them.

Later, he tries to stop them with his mummification spray, and Cleopatra threatens the heroines with her asps.

It’s campy business as usual in the final episode of the Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning series (run on The Krofft Supershow omnibus): ElectraWoman and DynaGirl (1976).

The inspiration that the series so clearly draws from Batman (1966-1968) is at its greatest here, with the return of a King Tut (Victor Buono) knock-off villain, the inclusion of the weekly cliff-hanger before a commercial break, and the villain’s inexplicable fondness for alliteration.

On the last front, the Pharaoh calls ElectraWoman and DynaGirl “despicable damsels of decency,” for example.

Perhaps realizing that the idea of a superhero-turned-villain worked so well on an earlier episode (“Ali Baba,”) this episode sees ElectraWoman hypnotized by the Coptic Eye, becoming a servant of the Pharaoh. She even paralyzes DynaGirl while under the influence.

Also (and again, like “Ali Baba,”) Frank proves helpful by acting quickly at the ElectraBase during a crisis.  He turns off ElectraWoman’s Electra-Comp. 

I have to say, it is very cool that these things have a “kill switch,” which is a function still not available on our smart phones.

Next week, I’ll begin a short stint reviewing episodes of Dr. Shrinker (1976), a series that also aired on The Krofft Supershow, alongside ElectraWoman and DynaGirl. 

Only four or so episodes are available for viewing (courtesy of YouTube), but I’ll watch and review those.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Ghoul (2015)

[Beware of spoilers!]

Ghoul (2015) is a sort of “been-there, done-that” found footage horror film of contemporary vintage.  The Czech film from director Petr Jaki involves an America documentary film crew in the Ukraine attempting to shoot the pilot for a TV series called “Cannibals of the 20th Century.” In doing so, this film crew becomes involved in a terrifying supernatural possession.

Like many found footage films (such as Devil’s Pass [2012], for example), Ghoul blends some historical fact with its horror fiction. Namely, the film’s malevolent spirit is Andrei Chikatilo (1936-1994), a real individual known in the press as “The Butcher of Rostov” and “The Red Ripper.”  

Chikatilo killed approximately fifty-five people in the Soviet Union between the years of 1978 and 1990, and sometimes practiced cannibalism, biting off the tongues of his victims and chewing (and then discarding…) their genitalia. After his capture in the early 1990s, Chikatilo was executed in 1994.

Ghoul provides much background information on Chikatilo, and the details conform to known fact/theories about the killer, which is certainly a plus in terms of verisimilitude. These connections to reality give the film a boost in the categories of both plausibility and overall creepiness.

Also, the film’s plot-line might broadly summarized as an “Americans Abroad” type horror, which is 
a sub-genre I enjoy.  In this brand of film (think: Daughters of Satan [1971] Beyond Evil [1980], The House Where Evil Dwells [1982], or The Grudge [2003]), foolish, disrespectful or simply ignorant Americans transgress against the beliefs of their host country, failing to understand that reality doesn’t necessarily conform to their Western mores. That description fits Ghoul to a tee.

Despite such welcome touches, Ghoul’s narrative is still hopelessly confounding at times, zig-zagging from idea to idea in only quasi-coherent fashion. And although some scenes in Ghoul are genuinely scary, others -- like those in the woods, or in subterranean tunnels -- feel overly-familiar at this point.  Other found-footage films have handled these tropes better, and without so much narrative hemming and hawing.  

So Ghoul is a well-made, competent horror film with some fascinating and gruesome historical flourishes, but in the end, it doesn’t really blaze any new paths for the genre, or even, truly, distinguish itself from the found-footage pack.

“If it keeps going this way, it’s going to end up on YouTube like all my other crap.”

Three American filmmakers, Jenny (Jennifer Armour), Ethan (Jeremy Isabella) and Rayn (Paul S. Tracey) travel to the Ukraine to shoot the pilot for their proposed series: Cannibals of the 20th Century.

Rayn’s father has financed the shoot, and Rayne knows the production is his last shot at success in the movie-making business.

The Americans meet a Russian guide, Valentine, a beautiful translator, Katarina (Alina Golovlyova), and a Ukrainian witch, Inna (Inna Belikova).  Together, they will visit the house of a local cannibal named Boris. There, they plan to interview him about his ghoulish crimes.

When they arrive at his house, however, there is no sign of Boris.

Instead, the filmmakers find a kitchen table with weird markings on it: a hand-made witch-board.  On their first night in the house, they attempt to summon or invoke the spirits, with Inna’s assistance, but show disrespect for the process and the spirits themselves.

The next morning, Valentine has disappeared, and strange events begin to occur in the house. The filmmakers now have gaps in their memories, and footage they can’t explain, and don’t remember shooting. 

In the filling of those gaps, the filmmakers learn the horrifying story of one of Boris’s victims, Stepan Chikatilo, brother to famed serial killer and cannibal Andrei Chikatilo.

“Did they eat you raw, or did they deep fry your ass?”

Ghoul achieves much of its atmosphere from the real life milieu of 1940s Ukraine, particularly the town of Yabluchne. As the filmmakers point out, it suffered terribly under Josef Stalin’s rule, and endured a terrible famine for years. 

That is the historical context in which the real life Andrei Chikatilo grew up. As a child he faced starvation on a regular basis, and according to some accounts, his brother Stepan was cannibalized by neighbors at age four.

It’s a gruesome story, and yet importantly, it concerns very real human evil.  We see that evil both in terms of the famine (which Stalin orchestrated) and the murder of a child.  Did those evils result in Andrei becoming evil too?  It’s a question worth pondering.

In Ghoul, the historical Andrei is resurrected as a villainous, all-powerful boogeyman, a spirit (or demon) looking to be reborn, but the film provides many accurate details about the criminal’s real life and activities.

Ghoul also works moderately well-because it follows the pattern of transgression/retribution familiar in many horror movies. The documentary filmmakers are disrespectful to Inna and her beliefs, and dismiss the possibility of the supernatural until, finally, it is upon them, determining their destiny. For example, when the documentary crew tries to contact Stepan via a séance, one of the men jokes about the boy’s death and deep frying his “ass.” It’s an ugly side to these Americans: a kind of preening sense of superiority that hasn’t been earned. They soon learn the hard way that they are not immune to the dark powers that Inna detects.

But Ghoul, while under 90 minutes, often feels overlong, and not fully developed.  There are all sorts of weird twists and turns in the action.  For example, there’s the case of the black cat that can materialize and de-materialize at will, and move across vast differences instantaneously. When it first appears, it seems to be a Schrodinger’s Cat in reverse: disappearing after it is first perceived visually by the film crew (in a box in the attic).  Later, the cat attacks Ethan by the nearby barn, but shows up a second later disemboweled.  It was not clear -- at least to me -- how the feline fits into the overall story.

Similarly, the ghostly Chikatilo possesses incredible powers.  As a spirit, he can cause spontaneous bleeding injury in the American film crew when it attempts to escape Boris’s house.  He can selectively erase human memory too.  Andrei can also possess people without their knowledge, remotely shut down cameras in different locations at precisely the same instant.  Why, Chikatilo can even re-arrange matter, re-burying an entrance to a deep cavern and tunnel system, and so on. 

And yet the film asks us to believe that all the terror comes about because Chikatilo wishes to be re-born as a human.  My question -- as always -- in films of this type is, simply why?  If you could control people and the forces of nature as a spirit, why go back to being a mere human? 

Just to feed on living flesh again? 

Well, if that is the answer, it’s pretty clear from the film’s finale that Chikatilo can eat flesh as a spirit, when he possesses the living.  Indeed, this seems to explain Boris’s activities in the tunnels during the film’s climax.

As Ghoul winds its way towards a grotesque conclusion, all the plot elements should come together, but don’t quite.  We do realize the purpose of the scars that appear on Jennifer and Katarina’s bodies, and we realize why Chikatilo’s spirit has kept two victims alive for this long. We realize what purpose each serves.  But so much of what has come before doesn’t really come to anything significant, like the supernatural cat.  Or Katarina’s friend who is going to drive the filmmakers home, but mysteriously never shows up.

In short, the film’s plot seems over-girded with incidents that confuse or muddy the story’s point, which is surely Chikatilo’s resurrection attempt.

I’ve watched many bad found footage movies, and I don’t want to give the impression that Ghoul is one of them.  It is well-made, thoughtful, and careful about the history it uses to depict its supernatural story.  It’s just a little too loaded down with ideas that don’t come off, and with over-familiar imagery. 

By this time, being lost in the woods is a cliché (The Blair Witch Project [1999], Evil Things [2012]), as is the claustrophobic, subterranean tunnel experience (Mr. Jones [2013], As Above, So Below [2014], Final Prayer [2014]). And -- let’s face it -- we have met enough documentary film crews to last us a life time. (Frankenstein Theory [2013], The Taking of Deborah Logan [2014])

So Ghoul “cannibalizes” a lot of tropes, but doesn’t gain much power from them.  Instead, the movie works well-enough in the moment, but in the long-term doesn’t have much bite.

Movie Trailer: Ghoul (2015)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Every teenager believes that the world revolves around him or her, and if you consider it, there’s some truth in this belief. 

After all, as human beings, we see and understand the world through the prism of our own eyes, and when we die, the world we have created, seen, and experienced also dies with us.   The end of the world is, literally, an individual death. 

Given this fact, the world ends for millions of people every single day.  Every moment, every instant, another apocalypse occurs, and a whole universe dies out, going down in flames of annihilation.

The 2001 cult film Donnie Darko remembers this basic human truth regarding teenagers and makes it hauntingly literal.

The film’s ambivalent hero, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaall) reckons with the impending end of the world in twenty-eight days due to the unexpected creation of a dangerous “Tangent Universe.”  It’s a catastrophic ending of the cosmos itself that only Donnie can prevent because he’s at the center of the paradox that created that universe in the first place.  He can escape his teenage “tunnel vision” and save the world, or he can die -- along with everyone else -- a prisoner of anger and fear.

Donnie Darko also concerns the universal loneliness of adolescence, and Donnie’s fear that, in death, that loneliness will persist and linger for eternity.   He doesn’t want to be alone, and at the same time he doesn’t fully understand how to connect with others.  

The universe itself, or in the film’s lingo, “God’s Channel,” must help Donnie understand the paradox if it is to continue to exist at all.  The Richard Kelly film thus takes an anti-social kid on a strange journey of self-discovery and, in the end, transforms him into a superhero of sorts (as witnessed by his alliterative name…); one who eventually embraces life and connection…right before it all ends, at least for him.

In seeing his world end, however, Donnie experiences an epiphany.  He comes to finally recognize that “destruction is a form of creation,” to quote the film.  His ending -- his death -- creates a new beginning for his family, his girlfriend, and the whole of the human race.  He laughs madly immediately preceding his death, because only at the end does he recognize God’s plan for him.

Byzantine, mysterious, and hypnotic, Donnie Darko is a masterpiece in so many ways. It is unnervingly creepy, especially in the seemingly sinister presence of Doomsday’s Herald, a giant robot bunny-thing called Frank. 

The film is also unfailingly funny in its observations about human life especially in the countenancing of the fact that many people, like Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) thrive not by understanding life in all its glorious complexity, but by reducing it to easy-to-digest platitudes, like a lifeline with “fear” on one end of the spectrum and “love” on the other.  All shades of gray apparently fall on distinct points between.

But I submit that Donnie Darko deserves serious consideration as a great work of art because the film dwells in that expressive world of the Tangent Universe, a world where the “manipulated living” and the “manipulated dead” -- and even the foundations of reality itself -- conspire to lead Donnie towards his heroic apotheosis.  This universe of influences and messages is presented in the film through representative symbols that viewers must translate and interpret.  This task fosters engagement in the story, and sympathy for Donnie.

These visual representations, from movie marquees to allusions to great literature, conform to my highest aesthetic criteria in terms of film criticism.  Their presence means that the form’s visual content reflects its narrative content, and augments that content, enhancing meaning.

Donnie Darko is about what it means to grow up and to leave childish things behind, in the truest sense of that phrase.  And primary among those childish things is the tunnel vision of ego, the desire to always put one’s self first.  Overcoming this tunnel-vision is not easy, as I noted above, because we all see the world through our own individual prism. 

In reckoning with this idea, Donnie Darko concerns not just a time paradox, but the human paradox.

Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit? 

In October of 1988 as the Presidential race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis nears its end, a troubled Virginia teenager, Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) narrowly escapes a strange death when a jet engine falls from the sky and destroys his bedroom.  Fortunately, Donnie was sleep-walking at the time of the accident, and survives unscathed.

The jet engine, however, is a mystery. It seems to have no origin, and has actually created a time paradox, a new “Tangent Universe” that if not repaired, will consume the prime universe in twenty-eight days.  Only Donnie’s death -- which should have occurred to begin with -- will set the universe right, a fact he increasingly becomes aware of, in part through a strange book written by a neighbor, “Grandma Death,” called The Philosophy of Time Travel.

In the twenty-eight days until the end of the world, Donnie encounters a self-help guru and charlatan, Jim Cunningham (Swayze), learns from a pair of kindly teachers (Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle), and falls in love with a beautiful girl who has just relocated to Virginia, named Gretchen (Jena Malone).  He is also visited periodically by a creepy cyborg bunny man, Frank (James Duval), who seems to have knowledge of the future, and Donnie’s fate.

Working with a psychologist, Donnie must determine who is he, and what kind of future he wants for the world.

Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?

At one point in Donnie Darko, Donnie and his teacher (Wyle) debate the basics of fate, free will and God’s plan.  Donnie has rejected religion and God because of his fear that “every living creature on Earth dies alone.”  Given this fact, he says the search for God is nothing less than “absurd.”

However, Donnie also makes the observation that man may possess free will to a degree within“God’s Channel,” and the movie implies that God’s channel actually involves this tangent, apparently accidental universe. 

In other words, Donnie is bestowed a grace period of 28 days to fall in love, reconcile his “emotional problems” with his family, and overcome his fear of isolation and death.  He was meant by design and predestination to die when the jet engine crashed in his room.  That death still occurs, only later.  But Donnie is able to finally, in the end, face it with a sense of grace and purpose because of this interval and what he learns during it..  God (or the universe, perhaps), grants Donnie a chance to settle the outstanding issues of his life before he leaves the mortal coil.

The forces of nature (or God) surrounding Donnie -- which desire to continue existing -- thus spend 28 days sending Donnie the signals and messages he needs to accept and embrace his fate. 

Grandma Death’s time travel book calls this messaging “the “ensurance [sic] trap,” but it isn’t exactly a trap.  The manipulated living and the manipulated dead want to survive, and want Donnie to sacrifice himself so that the universe continues to exist, but it isn’t a malevolent or diabolical kind of trap.

Instead, in Donnie’s case, the messages must reverse and heal his paranoid schizophrenia, his “increased detachment” from the world, and replace it with a psyche that sees and recognizes the beauty in human life and connection, and is willing to sacrifice itself for the species, indeed for all creation, everywhere.

Donnie’s journey is expressed through a number of symbols throughout the film.  These symbols represent messages.  

In one of these, Frank writes and presents a poem to his English class in which he envisions himself as the savior of children everywhere during an approaching storm.  In one sense, this is an allusion to Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s 1951 novel in which another teen protagonist, Holden Caulfield, imagined himself a savior of innocence.  In a much more literal sense, the poem represents Donnie’s subconscious understanding of his role in preserving life on Earth. 

The film also deliberately positions Donnie, intriguingly, as a Christ figure.  A theater marquee pictured on-screen at one point shows a unique double bill: The Evil Dead (1983) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Those films seem very different, indeed, yet they represent the totality of Donnie’s journey.  That odyssey begins with all kinds of fear.  There is fear of the returning dead -- embodied by the herald, Frank -- and fear of death. But the journey ascends to an apex in which Donnie willingly lays down his life for all of mankind, even though it is sinful life (as clearly embodied by Cunningham, Frank, and others). 

Christ’s temptation by Satan in the Scorsese film involved the Devil showing him the mortal life and pleasures he would miss by selecting death on the cross.  That mortal life included love, lust, and other earthbound wonders.  What remains so interesting about Donnie Darko is that Donnie, like Christ, actually increases his connection to humanity by experiencing in a kind of vision all those things he will later miss. 

What I’m saying is that a personal epiphany of vision of love, brotherhood, human connection, and sex doesn’t force either Christ or Donnie to make the wrong choice.  Rather, it emboldens each to see the beauty in all life, and wish to preserve it for others.  Again, this realization comes back to the idea that Donnie exists within, not outside, God’s channel.  God gives him twenty-eight days to see the beauty of life, and therefore the desire to preserve it, even if he can’t share in its beauty beyond that span.

But the theater marquee represents a visual book-ending of the journey. Life can be like The Evil Dead, where friends and lovers become enemies, and there is only ugliness and death.  Or it can be like The Last Temptation of Christ, where the beauty of life leads one to make a sacrifice for others.

Donnie Darko explicitly discusses this concept when Barrymore’s English teacher describes the God Machine, the Deus Ex Machina.   This discussion raises our awareness that God has set this plan for Donnie into motion.  Everything is pre-determined, though as Donnie debates, there is some room for free-will within that channel of pre-determination.

I admire films that adopt a standpoint about humanity and our existence, and Donnie Darko offers a fairly complex, if spiritual reading of it.  There is such a thing as free will, states the filmmaker, but it involves movement only within a tunnel of certain possibilities.  Donnie’s understanding of this, ironically, comes from Cunningham’s ridiculous self-help life line, which simplifies the world to two axes, “fear” and “love.”  Donnie responds angrily to the life-line that “life isn’t that simple,” and yet in a way…it is.  Donnie explicitly moves from fear to love in the 28 days of the Tangent Universe, but the important thing is that he does so under the auspices of his own intellect.  He learns how to maneuver, individually, through that “channel.” 

Some might assert that’s the key to leading a good life.

Donnie Darko also seems absolutely obsessed with the Bush/Dukakis electoral battle of 1988.  We see the two candidates debate on television screens, and there is also mention of Dukakis on the radio.  Donnie’s sister, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) declares that she is voting for Dukakis, over her parents’ objections, at the family dinner table, and the legend “vote Dukakis” appears on the Darko refrigerator in the Tangent Universe.  These moments amount to more than establishing the film’s time period or setting (October 1988).  All the allusions to the presidential election seem more important than that. 

An election, in essence, is a choice between possible futures, between possible universes.  When an election ends, one of those universes -- a tangent universe?  -- collapses while the other universe continues, unabated.  If Donnie Darko doesn’t comment overtly on the specific candidates and their attributes, it certainly comments on the nature of choice and free will.

For every affirmative choice we make, a whole universe is destroyed.  When we pick Bush, the Dukakis universe dies.  Again, this goes back to the film’s paradigm that even in destruction, there is creation.

In the film, Donnie’s parents ask Elizabeth something along the lines of: “do you really think that Dukakis can keep this country safe?”  It’s a question that might very well be asked of Donnie at this juncture too.  Can a horny, self-obsessed teenage boy save the world? 

The point is that people will never know if Dukakis would have been a good president and kept the country safe, just as, following the fall of the Tangent Universe, nobody knows of Donnie’s sacrifice for humanity. 

Again, I’m not suggesting a pro-Dukakis slant on the part of the filmmakers, only the idea that universes are born and die every day, and we never know where the path not taken might lead.  The doorway to tangent universes closes, and moves outside God’s (narrow?) channel of options.

I wrote recently, in regards to the Lance Henriksen, Joseph Maddrey, Tom Mandrake comic-book To Hell You Ride, about the idea of messages and messengers.  They arrive in our reality, it seems, and we either decide to note them and heed them, or we choose not to.   Given all I’ve described above, Donnie Darko is a film filled with messages, often conveyed in writing and broadcast notably within the confines of the frame.

These messages include “Vote Dukakis,” which I interpret as a message about saving the universe that people don’t see, and having faith that even untested, disliked people will do the right thing (like Donnie does the right thing when given the chance).

The messages include the theater marquee, advertising “Evil Dead,” and “Last Temptation of Christ,” a duality which explains Donnie’s journey from psychological torture and fear to self-sacrifice and redemption.
Another message is “cellar door,” a legend which appears on the blackboard in Donnie’s English class, and paves the way for Donnie to understand how to proceed at a critical juncture. 

Jim Cunningham’s life-line, showing the “fear”/ “love” continuum is another on-screen message, literally spelled-out.  The recognition of "Poetry Day," when Donnie reads his story about saving children from the story might be considered another.  There's even the signage "His Name is Frank" which validates Donnie's belief in his phantasm of the Bunny.

All these words -- these messages -- appear on screen in the film, and we are asked to consider them and interpret their meanings, at the same time Donnie must do the same.  The film thus allows us to learn with Donnie at the same time he learns, and therefore to sympathize with his journey.

At the end of the film, Donnie must decide if a world that creates weird kiddie entertainment like Sparkle Motion should continue to exist.  

Or if a world that allows men like sexual predator Jim Cunningham to become successful and admired should be allowed to continue.  

Or if a world that bans quality books in favor of self-help pabulum deserves a second chance.

The answer, of course, is that despite all the confusion and ugliness, this is the same (mad…) world that offers unconventional beauty, as we see in Cherita’s talent show dance. 

It’s the same world that allows Donnie to connect with the wounded Gretchen. 

It’s the same world that can make a superhero -- or savior -- out of a confused teenager who likes to masturbate a lot.

In it all, there is a plan…and beauty too,

Donnie’s journey – and the film’s view of life, is best expressed in the lyrics to the song, “Mad World,” which accompany the film’s final, elegiac montage.  The lyrics assert: “And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad, that the dream in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had…”

Donnie’s last twenty eight days -- a waking dream from which he finally does not awake – represent the best part of his life; the span in which he stopped being an “anger prisoner” and instead began to see life in all its multi-faceted complexity, a complexity that involved both ugliness and beauty. 

We sometimes miss just how beautiful life really is.  We “run in circles” instead of paying attention to the things that matter.  Donnie Darko is like a teacher explaining this “lesson.”   The film is thus one part English Lit, one part spooky horror film, one part Quantum Physics, and one part spiritual passion play.

Personally speaking, all those qualities make Donnie Darko one of my all-time favorite films.

Movie Trailer: Donnie Darko (2001)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (HG Toys)

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl Puzzler

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl GAF Viewmster

Board Game of the Week: Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (Ideal)

Lunch Box of the Week: Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (The Krofft Supershow)

Theme Song of the Week: Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Wild Adventure" (September 21, 1966)

In “Wild Adventure,” the Jupiter 2 travels through space on a course that will take it very near to Earth. 

Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) pesters Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) about returning home, despite the fact that Robinson wants to continue on the original mission to Alpha Centuri.

But Robinson relents and sets a course for Earth, making very careful to avoid a trajectory that will take the ship through the Sun.

Meanwhile, a strange green alien woman floats outside the Jupiter 2 and beckons Smith to join her there.  This woman Lorelei, is a space vampire of sorts, one who eats atomic fuel.

Dr. Smith dons a spacesuit and leaves through the airlock to meet Lorelei, unaware that his actions could jeopardize the ship’s return to Earth, and safe passage near the sun.

Although this is only my second review of Lost in Space, Season Two, I have actually watched four episodes at this point.

As you know, I’ve written some positive things about the series in the past.  I like the moody black-and-white photography of the first season.  I enjoy the fairy tale “parable” aspect of stories such as “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” and “The Magic Mirror.”  I also champion the horror touches of such episodes as “Attack of the Monster Plants” and “The Ghost of Space.”

But the only word I can use to describe the second season so far is…dire.

The stories are dire, and the execution of the stories is even worse.  This week, Smith wants to get back to Earth, but is lured into space by a green alien siren just at the moment when he could fulfill his dream and return home. 

Hypnotized by this space personality, he misses Earth all together, and once more the Jupiter 2 is Lost in Space.

I should also add, this episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) actually commits the error that Space:1999 (1975 – 1977) is always accused of (but didn’t actually make). 

Specifically, it confuses star systems and galaxies. In the last act of “Wild Adventure,” the Jupiter 2 bypasses the Earth’s solar system (and a close-call with the Sun), only to find itself leaving the galaxy.  We know the Jupiter 2 doesn’t possess a hyperspace or star drive, so there is no explanation for how the ship goes from near Earth space to another galaxy in an instant.  Clearly, the writers have no notion about distances in space, or the hierarchy of solar systems/galaxies.  You can’t leave the galaxy from a point near Sol, unless you are traveling at incredible velocity.  But the exact line of dialogue in the episode reads: “Leaving Earth and departing the galaxy.”


Other issues of credibility, scientific and otherwise also abound in “Wild Adventure,” like the fact that Smith can hear the space woman of “the Green Mist,” Lorelei (Vitina Marcus), even though she is outside the ship.  A simple notation that she is communicating via telepathy would ameliorate this concern.  

Secondly, why does Lorelei make herself known to Smith, but not the other men? Smith is an odd choice to attempt to arouse, isn’t he?

But, of course, there are mythic underpinnings here to consider that impact Lorelei’s nature. “Wild Adventure” is a variation on the Siren story, from Homer’s The Odyssey.  There, the Sirens sing an enticing song, but represent danger to the men of Odysseus’s ship. Lorelei represents the same qualities here.  She is a dangerous beauty; someone alluring who hides a monstrous or evil desire (in this case, to eat atomic fuel).

In sci-fi TV history, other series have also featured siren-like characters. On Space: 1999, “The Guardian of Piri” is a siren story of sorts.  And on Star Trek: The Animated Series, “The Lorelei Signal” involves a siren song calling the men of the Enterprise to a planetary surface.

It’s true that Lost in Space often takes mythic stories and puts a space age spin on them. We’ve already seen a variation on the King Midas story, for example, “All that Glitters.”  But “Wild Adventure” makes pretty wretched use of the siren trope, and is one of the worst episodes thus far in the canon.

I judge the episode so bad, in part because Smith’s bad behavior is again the motivator of most of the episode’s action.  He accidentally dumps the Jupiter 2’s fuel supply, for instance, thus making the ship unable to take long trips (though, as I noted above, it can still leave the galaxy…). His space-walk, similarly, is the thing that causes the Robinsons to miss a rendezvous with Earth.  He is not just a terrible person, and a constant thorn in the side.  …Smith is a crutch for the series writers too.  He is used to extend the series premise (of being Lost in Space) through his bad behavior. In story, or in universe, there’s no reason, at this point, for the Robinsons to tolerate his behavior.

The best part of the episode is the Jupiter 2's docking at a refueling station built by Earth technology. It's always cool to see other examples of Earth's space-age tech.

I was really looking forward to some Lost in Space adventures set in space, with the Robinsons and company encountering new alien life-forms.  But I didn’t expect anything as half-assed in conception and execution as this; as “Wild Adventure.”

Next week: “The Ghost Planet.”

Cult-Movie Review: Dawn of the Dead (2004)

More than ten years after its theatrical release, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) is widely regarded as a remake that doesn’t suck. 

I won’t quibble with that assessment. 

This remake is successful to such a degree because it adapts basic settings, lines of dialogue and the general premise of George A. Romero’s 1978 masterpiece, but then spins these element in a new and original direction. 

Importantly, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead does not feature the same main characters undertaking the same horrific adventure. 

This change leaves room for the remake to prosper; to create new personalities, and to explore different aspects of the zombie apocalypse. This film could actually be considered a “side-quel” as much as a remake if not for a few significant changes in the zombie nature, and mode of zombie virus transmission.

The memory of the original Dawn of the Dead is honored with some well-placed in-jokes (like the department story, Gaylen Ross), and brief cameos from originals stars Scott Reineger, Tom Savini, and Ken Foree, but the central occupation of this film is neither fan service, nor homage. 

Instead, Snyder updates the zombie formula with scenes of epic, spectacular destruction, and frenetic, bone-jangling action scenes.

Such jaw-dropping moments would not function adequately, however, if the characters did not matter.

Fortunately, they do.

Dawn of the Dead adopts from Romero its focus on people, on human beings, and the diverse responses to crisis that different people might legitimately have during an absolute breakdown of society.

This movie concerns, more anything else, questions about how people define morality in times of chaos. 

When is the right time to kill someone who might be a threat? 

When is the right time to realize that you, too, represent a similar threat?

Culturally speaking, this is not a small issue. In 2003, an America still grieving after 9/11 launched a pre-emptive war against Iraq because that foreign country could one day metastasize as a threat to our nation. 

Similarly, today, there are those of us who want to wage a similar war against Iran on the possibility of what might, one day, be a threat.

It is abundantly true that this Dawn of the Dead does not satirize conspicuous consumption, the social preoccupation of Romero’s Carter-Era work of art.  Yet that fact, does not mean it is devoid of commentary on humanity.  

In the immediate post-9/11 age, when Iraq was starting to turn towards chaos, this Dawn of the Dead could have focused on many ideas roiling the culture.  But what Snyder’s remake seems to concern most deeply is the idea that we don’t remain “human” if we surrender our morality for the possibility of security, if we see in other people only eventual threats to our own survival.

This Dawn of the Dead makes note that in a real crisis (forecasting Hurricane Katrina, to some extent), the U.S. government and/or military simply can’t come to the rescue for everyone, and many people will have to rely on their own abilities, and relationships, to survive the dawn. 

Here, one character, C.J. notes that “America always sorts its shit out.”  But that bumper sticker slogan falls by the wayside when rescue helicopters don’t come to the rescue, but just fly on past the mall.

As the film’s characters reckon with the fact that their previous lifestyle can no longer be sustained -- “I wanted a mocha latte with cream!” complains one character -- a new order must be erected from the ruins of the old. 

The problem, of course, is that the zombies represent a competing social order, and one of numerical superiority.

None of these points are lingered on to the exclusion of thrills or entertainment, and this version of Dawn of the Dead succeeds admirably on the basis of its characters, for its dramatic twists and turns, and for its dedication to scaring the audience silly. 

There are some good horror remakes out there.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), and The Blob (1988) jump to mind.

Dawn of the Dead (2004) earns a slot on that list.

“There are some things worse than death, and one of them is sitting here, waiting to die.”

A nurse, Ana (Sarah Polley) gets off duty after a busy shift, goes home to her loving husband, and falls asleep, like she would on any normal day.

But this is not a normal day.

Ana awakes to blood-curdling terror as her husband is killed, and the zombie apocalypse begins.

Ana flees her neighborhood, and joins up with a tough police officer, Kenneth (Ving Rhames), Michael (Jake Weber), a criminal, Andre (Mekhi Phifer), and his very pregnant wife, Luda (Inna Korabkina). 

Desperate for sanctuary, they hide in Crossroads Mall, but meet up with a Mall security team led by C.J. (Michael Kelly). 

An uneasy peace is forged, but the zombies are gathering outside the mall, and the end of the world is nigh…

“You want every single second.”

In some ways, the most significant character in Dawn of the Dead (2004) is Michael, played by Jake Weber. He is an average sort of guy.  He’s worked a lot of jobs, been married, and is generally a reasonable fellow. He prefers building consensus. He doesn’t like confrontation. 

But when injured -- meaning bitten -- people arrive at the mall requiring medical aid, Michael changes from wanting to help others to wanting to immediately kill Frank (Matt Frewer), a man who will, because of a bite, eventually become a zombie.

For the moment, Frank is fine, however.  

He is a father to Nicole (Lindy Booth), and wholly reasonable. He doesn’t want to be a danger to anyone. Yet Michael decides, pre-emptively, that he must be killed, and furthermore killed right now.

On one hand, his view-point seems reasonable. Infection always ends in zombification, no exceptions. Frank will be a threat, and will attempt to kill the survivors. 

On the other hand, to pre-emptively kill a human being -- one with feelings, relationships, and a soul -- on the basis entirely of future danger, is representative of a kind of harsh, bunker mentality.

Precautions can be taken instead. Frank can be contained, and pre-emptive murder is not actually necessary, or preferable.

Indeed, this is what occurs in the film.  Frank is given his life, and Kenneth watches over him, in a locked mall shop, as death comes. Because of this, Frank is given the opportunity to say a tender farewell to his daughter.

Later in the film, Michael is himself bitten by a zombie -- in a heart-wrenching scene n-- and realizes that he has no place in the future, either. He doesn’t travel with the survivors to their destination, a distant island, but rather remains behind to watch “the sunrise.”  He shoots himself in the head before he can become a monster and imperil those he loves.

But the important thing is that in this case, Michael chooses.  He makes the choice that, earlier, he would have expressly denied Frank.  

Nobody pre-emptively kills Michael. No one pre-emptively puts a bullet in his skull. His own choice, though heart-breaking is respected by the others.

Dawn of the Dead is not specifically about the Iraq War of course. But it is about morality, and the mind-set -- the bunker mentality -- that permits pre-emptive strike to be considered a valid option.

Even during a zombie apocalypse, the film tells us, we can’t make choices based on a possibility of what might occur. 

Why? We’re all going to die one day, but in the meantime, we want “every single second,” as Frank notes, of life, on his death-bed. We want that last sunrise, the very one Michael affords himself.

Andre’s subplot also plays into this philosophy, this debate about the morality of a pre-emptive strike.  Andre fears that the others will kill Luda and his unborn child, because Luda is infected.  So, quite dangerously, he hides the truth from the group.  If Andre did not fear the pre-emptive murder of his family, Luda and the pregnancy could have been watched -- as Frank was watched – and Andre and Norma (Jayne Eastwood) need not have died. 

So Andre’s fear of a pre-emptive attack on his wife and unborn child is, actually, the thing that led to so many deaths. Both the group, and Andre himself would have been safer with a policy of containment.

This Dawn of the Dead also features a leitmotif about the limits of military power, also an appropriate topic given the quagmire in Iraq, and the failure to get Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora. 

Initially, the survivors hold out hope that they will be rescued, and that all will be well. This interruption in their life-style is just temporary until the cavalry rides in.  Or so they believe. They are disabused of that notion when a rescue helicopter flies by, and doesn’t even acknowledge their presence.

All zombie movies are, in some sense, about the breakdown of infrastructure and an acknowledgement of government, military limits. This Dawn of the Dead takes that thought to its logical conclusion, however. In a time of total disaster, there is no rescue. People must fend for themselves because of the scale of the problem.

And Dawn of the Dead does a remarkable job exploring the scale of the problem.  

Snyder has been afforded technology and a budget that Romero never had.  He can thus show-case zombie multitudes, the likes of which have never been seen (at least until World War Z [2013]).  He artfully creates these sweeping long shots revealing the scope of the “invasion,” and the damage to neighborhoods and cities.  

It’s a stunning new take on the zombie apocalypse that makes it feel “real” in visual terms.  One of the film’s most amazing and resonant shots reveals two trucks in the dark of night, pummeled by an ocean of zombies that extends as far as the camera’s range.

The film also lingers on long, overhead shots which first show us a satellite’s view of normality, and then show us that “normality” turned to utter chaos.

In some ways, these visual compositions help the audience see why Dawn of the Dead benefits from a remake. Horror movies of this type can now depict an apocalypse with frightening reality; terms that the low-budget Romero films simply can’t compete with. 

That doesn’t mean they aren’t great (or that I don’t love them), only that the 21st century gives filmmakers the opportunity to take on the zombie apocalypse from a new perspective. An update is warranted, because filmmakers have realized a new way the story can be told.

I realize that, a decade ago, there was this huge debate among horror aficionados about "slow" zombies vs. "fast" zombies.  I think, today, it matters not a whit.  With the right director at the helm, zombies can be terrifying in either mode, and the zombie hordes in this move fit the bill.

But all of Dawn of the Dead’s remarkable visuals would not mean a thing if the drama among the characters did not work so well.  I view these particular characters as very 2004 in a way, divided by the press and politicians in their beliefs on about every hot-button topic in American life.  Still, they are willing -- finally -- to put all that nonsense away for the common good.  The TV evangelist played by Foree attempts to take wedge issues -- abortion, gay marriage and so forth -- and use them to divide people.  The zombie apocalypse is God’s punishment for those “evils," and so forth. He is a stand in for the media, and the political campaigns of the day, I believe.
Yet the films’ characters don’t stay divided for long, despite racial, ethnic, and even sexual orientation differences. To wit, one quality I love about the film is the way the C.J. character develops. He begins as an obnoxious, condescending asshole -- a kind of stand-in for Night of the Living Dead’s (1968) Mr. Cooper -- but eventually he gets on board with the program, joins the community, and proves himself a courageous and even noble fighter.  In real life I probably wouldn't like C.J. at first, either, bu by the film's end, I was hoping and praying he would survive the crisis. The filmmakers made him more than a redneck stereotype, and so, in the end, we root for him.

Similarly, Michael, goes from being reasonable to unreasonable to reasonable again, in a very realistic, very human way.  For a while, his fear gets the better of him.  There are few of us for whom that wouldn’t be the case, considering the circumstances.

The only truly cardboard character in the film is Steve Marcus (Ty Burrell), a guy who doesn’t realize that the old order is shattered, and that he has to live in a new way. He is rich, indulged, entitled and obnoxious, and he can’t ever seem to get over that, as the 1%, he’s the most important person in the room.  Or any room.

For me, the only thing that diminishes Dawn of the Dead a bit is the post-credits sequence, which reveals the group’s catastrophic arrival at the island.  I don’t feel it is necessary to see this attack of the zombies, when it could have been left entirely to our imagination what happened to Ana, Kenneth, Terry, and Nicole. 

It’s true that Night of the Living Dead features an absolutely cynical ending, with the death of Ben, so it is possible to interpret this Dawn’s ending as being right in tune with the Romero aesthetic.

I don’t object to the fact that these characters might die, I just object to the fact that the film feels it needs to show us what happens. The important aspect of the narrative is life in the mall, and the escape from the mall…the hope for something better out there.  

As in life, there may be nothing better out there, but again, that idea doesn’t need to be made concrete. 

I would have rather been left wondering about the fates of the characters of Dawn of the Dead, then spoon-fed the answer about the end of the world, and the presence of the zombies on that island.