Friday, August 31, 2012

A Preview

Message From Space poster

Random Movie Report #110: Planet of the Vampires

Planet of the Vampires DVD cover and Amazon link

Science fiction films of the 1960s were as much influenced by the pop art and psychedelic movements as they were by the actual space race. Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires is a good example of the strange, stagey unreality that many genre films of the time embraced, but also an engaging thriller in its own right and a clear influence on Alien. Plotwise it suffers one or two of the maladies that plagued European genre cinema of the time, but it's moody enough to power through.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Frasierquest 5.3: Halloween

Roz as O.

Roz: Even the best protection is only effective ninety-nine out of a hundred times. I can't beat those odds!

I've been lax with Frasierquest over the summer, seemingly too busy to watch 25 minutes of television, but as August starts to wind down I think I'm ready to really dive into the fifth season, and into the start of the biggest plot arc the show has attempted so far. Big changes are afoot in "Halloween" and what's notable is how deftly the show navigates a revelation that can be fatally clich├ęd. It does this by making the plot point in question the impetus for a classic misread behavior story, playing on multiple character relationships on top of Roz's own dilemma.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Random Movie Report #109: Gog

Gog DVD cover and Amazon link

Brian Aldiss once said, "Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts." While good stories can come from an attention to real-world science and its details, they can't afford to neglect human emotions and plain old visceral appeal. Gog, an obscure sci-fi techno-thriller from 1954, is a cautionary tale of what happens when the human factor is forgotten. It's admirably smart and slickly produced, but it plays like the screenwriter vomited the contents of an issue of Popular Mechanics onto the page. Like many science fiction movies from this era it's interesting as a portrait of a time when the scientific-industrial complex was moving boldly forward whether we liked it or not, but a potentially good story gets buried under all that exposition.

The film is set at a top secret underground research facility located in the desert. Two scientists studying cryogenic freezing are mysteriously killed when their equipment malfunctions, and government agent Dr. David Sheppard (Richard Egan) is sent to investigate. Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling), an old flame of his, leads him on a grand tour of the facility, which is aimed at sending up the first space station, and to that end is researching deep freezing, crude solar power (focusing the sun's rays on a boiler to heat water to spin a turbine), weightlessness, atomic energy, and robotics. The very German Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) is in charge of the base's NOVAC supercomputer and two multifunctional robots named Gog and Magog. While Sheppard is on the tour, mysterious sounds start coming in from an object flying over the base, and the killings begin again.

I would like to point out that it is in fact over halfway into the movie before the killings begin again and Sheppard finishes his tour. The bulk of what I imagine would be "Act One" is composed of demonstration after demonstration of scientific wonders, and it's about as thrilling as you'd imagine. From what I can tell most of it has at least some basis in fact (the facts that we knew, anyway), but it insists on making its point long after actually doing so. To use just one example, to show how powerful the solar ray is, the scientists use it to heat a piece of metal, then melt a bar of steel, then set fire to a model city, and [i]then[/i] to boil a model lake away into nothing, all in far more time than it takes for those things to stop being fun. The weightlessness simulation is similarly agonizing, with two leotard-clad test subjects performing some mildly impressive gymnastic moves before eventually the fake wirework takes over and they unconvincingly levitate a little. (Throughout the male scientists make leering 50s talk about the female gymnast, which is kind of funny because her outfit is a combination of unrevealing tights and what appears to be chain mail.) The demonstration of NOVAC and the robots is seemingly as slow as computers back then actually worked, and while there's a certain retro value to see everything programmed in via punchcards, this too loses its flavor.

Then again, maybe it's not the scientific rambling that's the problem. Even the parts of the movie where things actually happen are staged in an odd, repetitive, methodical manner. The killings are all very slow indeed, the mysterious sounds threaten to blow up the station by gradually increasing in pitch and making a bunch of tuning forks vibrate, and even at the climax, when the film has finally started to pick up some kind of steam, the filmmakers' steadfast refusal to use any kind of narrative shorthand keeps the action from getting too exciting. It's like a film made by the kind of people who complain about continuity errors in comic books; we see everything happen so that there can be no dispute over what just happened.

As I mentioned earlier the film looks really nice, with a clean modernist design and believable technology. The robots are as clunky and inhuman as makes practical sense- they're bundles of appendages, like the actual probes we've ended up sending into space- but have a certain personality too (enough to get star billing, at least.) And when the plot is finally moving, there is some genuine suspense as well as some surprise in the mystery unfolding.

In the end I'm thinking this probably would have made a really good short film or radio play. The consistently slow pace of the picture makes me think there was padding involved getting this to feature length, or else it was simply a question of nobody being ruthless enough in rewrites or the editing room. It demonstrates a lot of the qualities of "Golden Age" science fiction, but the bad aspects of this, notably an emphasis on technology over people and some relentless cheerleading for the March of American Scientific Progress, overwhelm the good. And really, considering the title, the robots need way more screen time. They're more alive than half the characters.

Story by Ivan Tors
Screenplay by Tom Taggart with Additional Dialogue by Richard G. Taylor
Directed by Herbert L. Strock

Grade: C

Monday, August 27, 2012

Academy of the Underrated: Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash Gordon poster and Amazon link

Of Hollywoods' attempts to jump back into the sci-fi game in the late 70s and early 80s, none is quite so endearingly crazy as Dino de Laurentiis' feature film Flash Gordon. It was misguided from the start, a throwback to the deliberate camp of 60s films like Barbarella rather than believable fantasy worlds, but while it was a recipe for commercial disappointment it's become an utterly charming cult film. With a gorgeous candy-colored visual style, wonderfully over the top actors, and a hilarious rock score with songs by Queen, it was the Speed Racer of its day, and it has everything you could want apart from a good lead performance. Oh, well, you can't have it all.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Favorite Movies: Videodrome

Videodrome Blu-Ray cover and Amazon link

I grew up in the video age. I have never known a time when it wasn't possible to preserve and disseminate audio/visual media with relative ease, and it's easy to take for granted the impact this has had on our society and culture. This may be the reason Videodrome speaks to me as much as it does. David Cronenberg's landmark film is a brutal, intense, and cunningly crafted nightmare, and on every viewing it reveals new details and new avenues of thought. The film not only shows its filmmaker's unique vision of the world, but is a brilliant encapsulation of its time. And it tackles the issue of the media's influence on our lives with the complexity and ambiguity that nonfiction writers too often pretend isn't there.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

In Theaters: The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight Rises poster
Poster via IMPAwards.com

At this point there's no shortage of opinions about The Dark Knight Rises; even mentioning that it's the last in director Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Batman pictures is just saying what most people know already. But it's been just polarizing enough that I feel like weighing in. No, it's not as good as The Dark Knight. It's long and it does take a while to get going. But the payoff is remarkable in its scope and complexity; it's a memorable portrait of social breakdown that touches on issues of the day without feeling confined by them. And it provides the Batman story with an ending that, in a way, is as fitting as Frank Miller's legendary The Dark Knight Returns.