Friday, July 31, 2009

Opening Credits Sequence Theater: Crash (1996)

Yes, it's that time again.

David Cronenberg's always had some interesting stuff done with credits sequences- he once described them as a vestibule into the movie, and this is a great example. This strange car-crash-sex drama from a J. G. Ballard novel came with plenty of controversy and repulsion attached, and the opening helps amplify a feeling of dread- we're in alien territory, with Howard Shore's brilliantly orchestrated score and a cold steel title treatment which reflects the film's overall visual style. The vague discomfort sits for pretty much the entire picture.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth

Link to Children of Earth on DVD at
My relationship with TORCHWOOD is a troubled one. On the one hand, as DOCTOR WHO’s “adult” cousin, it reflects a trend I hate about TV drama: the need to be dark, and grim, and existentialist, and to kill familiar characters to “raise the stakes”. (I’ve long since given up any hope of the Empire Strikes Back Fallacy gaining any memetic traction, but I haven’t looked up the TVTropes equivalent yet so I don’t know what to call it.) The show’s always vacillated between camp and Serious Drama, with varying results on either end. On the other, the characters are strangely likable no matter what they do and the ramshackle nature of Torchwood itself has a charm of its own. I barely if ever rewatch episodes, but it’s been good enough to catch now and again.

CHILDREN OF EARTH is the show’s abbreviated-even-by-British-standards third series, aired over five nights early this month in the UK and now in the US, arriving on R1 DVD this coming Tuesday. It’s been hailed as the show at its best, and I agree; forced to stick to one plotline for five hours, showrunner Russel T. Davies and company have come up with an intense science fiction thriller that works as gritty drama without completely sacrificing that special quirkiness that made the inconsistent earlier years worth watching. There’s the odd bit here and there that doesn’t work, but what does is brilliant.

The plot revolves around the return of an alien force, known only as the 456, who announce that they are coming back through the world’s children, making them stand in place and repeat the message over and over, to the distress of millions and millions of parents. As the 456’s arrival draws nearer, forces within the government move to take out Torchwood, destroying the Hub and blowing Captain Jack to smithereens, though that just sort of inconveniences him. As it happens, the 456’s last visit ended with them abducting 12 children in exchange for a flu cure; now, they want 10% of the children of Earth (hey, title!) and don’t really promise anything in return. Afraid of the big scary alien force they know nothing about, the government doesn’t want to risk anything pissing them off, which is partly why Torchwood is under fire, but also because Jack helped make the original bargain.

CHILDREN OF EARTH is really not about the aliens (who are barely seen and talk sparingly), but humanity’s reaction to their presence and to the devil’s bargain they propose. Part of that reaction is a lot of black ops/conspiracy business involving teams of men with guns running around under the supervision of an enigmatic agent (Liz May Brice), going after Torchwood and anyone who knows them, including Jack’s now-grown daughter and young grandson. At times the espionage business threatens to get repetitive, padding out the story when what we want to know more about is what the 456 are and want. The actual revelation of what the aliens are after is almost comical, but it also makes perfect sense.

Back to the people. At heart, the ethical questions raised by the story involve the sacrifices we are willing to ask of others. When the bargain is raised, the Prime Minister’s cabinet debates how they would choose the 10%. Of course, those with children won’t dare risk a random system, and suggest instead taking from the asylum seekers, the lowest performing schools, and others that “won’t be missed.” It’s a devastating scene that argues that, as much lip service as we give to the concept of all human beings having equal rights, there is still a hierarchy. It also taps into the fundamental selfishness that parents are obligated to feel- they must prioritize their children over others, but at what point is that no longer morally defensible? The actions ultimately taken by the characters are the kind of brutal hard choices that we’re always promised when a show is promoted as gritty drama, and though one character mysteriously escapes any kind of retribution or consequence for no reason that makes sense within the plot, otherwise it’s satisfying.

When this show has worked, it’s been because of its characters, and in the context of a solid story they resonate stronger than ever. In the past, Eve Myles as Gwen had a tendency to overplay the dramatic moments, but she honestly doesn’t miss a beat here, and her banter with husband Rhys (Kai Owen) is often endearing, providing much needed humor in the midst of the grimdark. John Barrowman as Captain Jack, similarly, is stronger than he usually is, and similarly his relationship with Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) is effectively played. That said, the show is nearly completely stolen by Peter Capaldi as John Frobisher, the civil servant drafted to be on the front lines of this close encounter and thus responsible for the Torchwood pogrom as well. He is never wholly unsympathetic despite doing unspeakable things, and Capaldi’s performance is beautifully textured. Cush Jumbo makes a strong impression as secretary Lois Habiba, who may be in the running for a series regular if/when the next season comes along.

The arc is not completely without its flaws; parts of the story seem stretched to fill five hours, but the climactic action seems to come along too quickly, and while it’s dramatically appropriate it’s not really clear why nobody thought of this before. As for the one decision that has the Internet in an uproar... well, like I said, I’m not a big fan of that particular approach to storytelling (in serial fiction, anyway), but it’s become the way TORCHWOOD works and it’s handled well. And accusing Russel T. Davies of homophobia when he introduced pop culture’s first openly pansexual space hero AND put a gay relationship close to front-and-center of this very series (for the sake of argument we can leave out his own being a homosexual) seems a bit much. This is simply a show where nothing lasts very long, and though that can make it hard to stick with, that I think adds to the accomplishment when the drama is compelling enough to pull one along anyway.

And that’s what CHILDREN OF EARTH does. It’s a very compelling story that kept me glued to the TV for five nights almost against my will (one of the few blessings of summer reruns is that you have less to keep up with), and after last season I was genuinely uncertain that I’d have any interest in TORCHWOOD. (I still miss Tosh, okay?) It’s well worth seeing, though I have yet to make up my mind as to whether I’d ever want to see it again.

Written by Russel T. Davies, John Fay, and James Moran
Directed by Euros Lyn

Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Random Movie Report #68: Phase IV

Phase IV DVD Amazon Link
It’s weird how movies connect. PHASE IV, the only feature film directed by editor, title artist, and general cool guy Saul Bass, is like a keystone that, when you see it, locks several other movies together. Made in 1974, it connects past and future. Like all nature’s revenge films, it owes a bit to THE BIRDS. Parts of it also seem to derive from Robert Wise’s sci-fi thriller THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (based on a book by Michael Crichton, who would also direct WESTWORLD, which was sequelized as FUTUREWORLD, which was co-written by Mayo Simon, this film’s screenwriter.) Despite not being a terribly prominent or popular film, it seems to have been a noticeable influence on two other killer-arthropod ventures, BUG and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, both reviewed here. Which, in turn- this gets complicated, and for reasons I will never, ever understand myself, I produced the following:

The desperate scrawlings of a madman
For those who’ve never used Inspiration- it may not be a good idea to start, especially if you have Asperger’s.

All that aside, PHASE IV is a pretty provocative film in its own right. Saul Bass brings a measured and largely unsensational tone to what could be pure camp in the wrong hands; instead it’s a fascinating exploration of contact and conflict between two species. Definitely the most intellectual film of the “animals start killing people” bunch, PHASE IV suffers from a certain obtuseness at times, but there’s some remarkable beauty on display as well. Sort of the genre’s 2001. And yes, I’m aware I did not put that on the chart.

After a vaguely described solar event (a lunar eclipse, I think, though those are pretty common), Earth’s ants start behaving differently. Different colonies and species no longer war with each other, and common predators start disappearing. So far the event seems to be localized in a small US desert area, and scientist Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), concerned about the population explosion of the insects, sets up an experiment/assault base in the problem area, bringing along mathematical analyst James R. Lesko (Michael Murphy.) They find the ants have been eating away at the crops of a nearby farm in a downright UFO-esque pattern, and soon they graduate to attacks on the farmhouse and the truck that the lab uses as an outside generator. The farm owner, his wife, and a field hand are killed due to inadvertent pesticide exposure as Dr. Hubbs begins his war on the insects, but a young, shy, standoffish girl named Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives and is taken into the base, having nowhere else to go.

The ants evolve quickly to tolerate Hubbs’ multihued pesticides, and begin laying siege to the fort, building large structures that reflect sunlight onto the metallic dome and raise the temperature. Hubbs, suffering an insect bite, starts to go a little mad, while Lesko works on a way of communicating with the insects. Needless to say, it soon becomes a question of who is experimenting on whom.

Throughout this, we see the ants in remarkable detail thanks to some amazing miniature photography by Ken Middleham; real ants seem to have been used almost entirely throughout, with some stop-motion and time-lapse sequences. Like KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, it’s clear that a number of arthropods gave their lives on camera, and there’s no notice that anyone monitored the animal action. (I wonder if it was the glut of killer-animal movies that made animal welfare groups start agitating that this stuff be regulated. I’ve not seen a single such notice in a 70s film.) It’s a genuine wonder how some shots were managed, and the scenes help both to establish the ants in a role beyond the movie monster and to lend the film a strange, cosmic vibe.

The human interaction is less meaty than it should be, though all three principals do a solid job. Reportedly, Saul Bass was not happy with how the studio treated the film, and the cut on DVD has at least 9 minutes missing. Some plot points aren’t entirely clear, but the general action is simple and direct enough that this isn’t a problem. This is very much a plot driven picture, but the plot is fascinating, and Bass’s visuals have an elegant simplicity that adds to the sense of unearthliness and unease.

This is a movie I’d heard about and read about for years, and to finally get around to seeing something like this is a unique experience. It’s more fascinating than frightening, even approaching a sense of wonder in a perverse way. A delicate and strange picture, which in its obscurity somehow ties a corner of the cinematic world together. Go figure.

Written by Mayo Simon
Directed by Saul Bass

Grade: B+

Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy Moon Day!

40 years ago today, the human race did the most awesome thing it has done to date. Some very brave people went further than anyone ever had, and placed their feet on the surface of somewhere that was not Earth. That we haven't gone further since is disappointing, but I hope we will in my lifetime, because exploration is just something we do, and this world won't hold all of us forever.

Commenters beware: conspiracy theorists will be sent to Mr. Aldrin.

(Also one of our better moments.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Comics Page #24: Blackest Night #1

Blackest Night #1 Cover
I’m not entirely sure reviewing BLACKEST NIGHT #1 is a good idea. The event is just starting up (albeit after an irritatingly prolonged runup) and just the first part doesn’t offer as much to chew on as the full series will once it’s finished (in theory.) Also, I usually review things on which I have a strong opinion, and that’s just the thing- at this stage, I am very fervently of the impression that BLACKEST NIGHT #1 is undoubtedly, unquestionably, without question, a comic book.

Seriously, this thing has been polarizing. And it’s surprising, because it’s so... adequate. The art is nice. The dialogue is solid. The pace isn’t too bad. The story makes sense. It’s not a spectacular misfire, but that’s because it doesn’t try anything. It is, thusfar, what you would expect from Geoff Johns writing what’s effectively DC ZOMBIES without the humor.

So, you’ll notice that in the past few years, the casualty rate in the DC universe has gotten a little ridiculous. Second-stringers, supporting cast members, even what is technically the original Superman, all piled up like firewood. Of course, there have been a lot of resurrections too, from Hal Jordan to Barry Allen to Conner Kent and Ice. Most of the issue is just going through the casualty rate, as explained through the inner monologues of various characters on a national day of remembrance for fallen superheroes and the ones who’ve come back.

But all is about to change. You see, a few competitors to the Green Lantern Corps- the willpower-driven space police force, have sprung up- you’ve got, let me see if I can recall this, the fear-driven Yellow Lanterns or Sinestro Corps, the hope-driven Blue Lanterns, the rage-vomiting Red Lanterns (and that’s not a metaphor), the love-driven Star Sapphire Corps who are sorta pinkish and all hot chicks for some reason, there are Orange dudes who represent greed, Indigo is compassion which seems to overlap a bit... anyway, motivated by some unseen force and aided somehow by Black Hand digging up Bruce Wayne’s grave, a bunch of Black power rings appear, slip themselves on the fingers of various corpses and turn them into superpowered zombies whose basic mission is to kill everyone.

I’m starting to move towards the side that says this isn’t very good.

Now, that’s not fair. This story has potential, and it’s a follow-up to the extremely well-done SINESTRO CORPS WAR, which was much better than anyone expected. And who knows? This could go somewhere. Most of this issue is exposition, and in theory it’s not a bad idea to fill everyone in on the state of play. Granted, if your plot requires this much backstory you may want to prune it down a bit, but the exposition is handled relatively painlessly. And it’s not all that happens. We see the zombies start to rise, we find out that the JLA has been keeping the bodies of supervillains in a giant morgue and there is no way that could possibly backfire, and there is a major death.

Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to be spoiled.

So, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, who we thought maybe died in FINAL CRISIS but didn’t because editorial said so I think, are lounging about somewhere and talking about how they always seem to die just after they admit their feelings for each other (which is kind of weird since I have it on good word that they were married in the Silver Age). Needless to say, Hawkgirl is on the very cusp of telling Hawkman he loves him, when- they are attacked and murdered by the zombies of Ralph and Sue Dibny.

This is supposed to be very shocking. It’s something that Johns likes to do a lot, have a gruesome death at what should be a happy occasion, as when he had Nazi supervillains murder an entire family reunion picnic in JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA #3 (which, coincidentally, was the third and last issue of the series that I read.) And though I’ve complained about this kind of Romero-esque carnage in superhero comics before, here I was not offended. I was not shocked. The killing is telegraphed for several pages, drawn out for a few more, and is so in line with every horrible ironic death in the DC Universe that it completely fails to register. It’s a bad scene, not because it’ll destroy your childhood or anything, but because it just kind of sucks.

The major difference between this and MARVEL ZOMBIES, apart from being in-continuity, is that, as far as I can tell, this has no sense of humor whatsoever. The concept is ludicrous, but Johns handles it with utter solemnity, which is something that bugs me about him as a writer- he comes across as afraid of the genre’s sillier side, and tries to shore up its serious nature with blood and entrails and sad ironic deaths. Where the SINESTRO CORPS event was an exciting action adventure, this is marking itself as dark and grim from the start, and though this can be made to work, this is not an inspiring direction. It’s not bad, but...

You know what? I just noticed that in one of the big splash panels, one of the Black Lanterns is Ch’p. The cartoon squirrel Green Lantern who used to antagonize Salaak and got run over by a car for not being serious enough.

That does it. This is not a good comic. It’s not horrible, but there’s just nothing in it that leaps out at me. There is nothing that says, “This is a great comic story that will thrill you at every turn.” There is nothing that says, “This will make you weep, first with sadness, then with joy.” There is nothing that says, “You will gladly pay $4 for this every month.” I can see others finding something that interests them, but I’m not sure why the praise thusfar is so effusive. Even if you’re a big Geoff Johns fan- and the man has done good work, do not get me wrong- this is pretty average for him. The art by Ivan Reis and Oclair Albert is pretty solid, but again I don’t see how it stands out from the pack.

It is a superhero comic that kicks off a big event, and, well, that’s it. Not the worst thing in the world, but I see no reason to stick with it.

Grade: C

Sunday, July 12, 2009

In Theaters: Moon

Moon poster and IMPAwards link
MOON is the latest attempt at what’s dubbed “serious” science-fiction; if I sound a little flip it’s because the subgenre seems to be more about being grim, depressing, and monochromatic, the line of thinking apparently being that bright futures and good cheer are for the dumb summer blockbusters. Okay, I’ve vented that, but I was still interested in this picture and made a point to catch it when I found out it hit Kansas City. It’s actually pretty damned good, my apprehension notwithstanding; as arty and subtly psychological as it is, it’s a solid story buoyed by good acting and a low-key attitude. This is partly a puzzle movie, and I will spoil a small part of it, but fortunately it has value beyond simply working out what’s going on.

Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell (must have been confusing), the sole worker on a large lunar mining facility that churns up Helium-3 from moon rocks and sends the gas to Earth, to be used as a source of clean, cheap energy. He’s been up there for three long, lonely years and is about to be sent home, but when looking after one of the massive machines that churns the satellite’s surface, he crashes his rover and loses consciousness. He comes to in the medical bay, with no clear idea of how he got there. When he goes out again to the crashed rover, he finds... himself, barely alive. The two Sams aren’t quite the same, but neither of them knows which one is really supposed to be there.

And I think I’ll stop there; it’s hard to know just how much is spoiling the plot, because the way this unfolds is very gradual and strangely logical. It’s not the kind of thriller that arbitrarily twists things for shock value and ceases to make sense the instant you leave the theater; the apparent inconsistencies of the story start to work themselves out, and become part of the answer. The answer isn’t the end of the story, either, as there’s still at least one man to deal with, and the company has decided to send a rescue team to help repair the damaged equipment, and they won’t be too happy seeing two Sams walking around.

Needless to say, this is Rockwell’s picture- he has to not only carry the entire film, but do so twice. He does an excellent job, particularly in differentiating between the mannerisms of the two Sams, showing how they’ve been differently affected by their situation. You always know which is which, quite an accomplishment. (The effects putting them both on screen almost seem to get better as the film goes on- at first they’re rarely in the same shot, but then it becomes commonplace.) There are other actors, but seen only in transmissions from Earth. Kevin Spacey provides the voice of GERTY, a robotic waldo system that assists Sam, and amusingly “emotes” via a smiley face on his monitor; it’s a nice twist on the old HAL 9000 bit, and the character becomes fairly sympathetic. Seeing DARKPLACE’s Matt Berry in a serious role is disarming, though.

For a low budget picture, the film looks great; the visual style is obviously hearkening back to 2001 and ALIEN, and at times the sets seem almost too similar, but the chunky aesthetic is downright comforting at times. It keeps the action grounded, and the effects work is strong. At times the miniatures do betray their scale, but it’s an odd thing to evaluate, because the moon does have low gravity and seemingly heavy objects are going to sort of rattle and bounce.

The story inevitably drags just a little once the major revelations have been made; other elements fall into place, but a lack of urgency hangs over the proceedings for a short time. Fortunately, it ramps up to an excellent climax, one which treats the characters as more important than another twist or some grand philosophical point.

MOON’s a great picture, an attempt at small-scale sci-fi that, though it continues in the dark, low-color, and somewhat male-centric tradition of other art-house sf productions, works enough on those terms to make them unobtrusive. The film’s doing a slow rollout, so keep an ear to the ground, because it deserves to do well. It’s a pleasant little surprise in between blockbusters.

Story by Duncan Jones
Screenplay by Nathan Parker
Directed by Duncan Jones

Grade: A-