Saturday, July 26, 2014

Flash Gordon

I have been enjoying a nostalgic rage over the last few weeks regarding music and movies.  Fortunately for you, I do not review music.  Unfortunately for you, I do review films.  Particularly campy science fiction favorites from my youth best kept to myself.  So have aged well, some have not.  Flash Gordon is that is every bit as cheesy and disturbing as it was during its release 34 years ago, but that makes it so much fun to watch again.
 
Ming the Merciless, played marvelously over the top by Max von Sydow, is the cruel ruler of Mongo.  Ming has recently discovered earth and has been having fun tormenting our beleaguered world by slowly drawing the moon towards it.  A former NASA scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov, is the only one on earth who believes the strange natural disasters Earth is suffering are an alien attack.  He plans to use a personal space ship--just go with it, folks--to find the source of the attack.  Zarkov is played by Topol, who visibly spends the entire film wondering how he could have fallen so far from starring in Fiddler on the Roof a few years prior.
 
During an unpredicted eclipse/bombardment of natural space debris, Zarkov’s assistant chickens out on taking the flight with him.  Fortunately, the bombardment causes a commuter plane to crash into Zarkov’s observatory.  The plane is carrying Flash Gordon, New York Jets’ quart back, and dale Arden, a travel agent.  The two are played by Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson.  The characters survive the crash unscathed.  Their careers do not survive the film, however.  Zarkov shanghais the two into his ship.  Off to Mongo they go.
 
Thus begins one of the strangest combinations of silliness and inappropriate subject matter to which I have ever bore witness.  Hardly anything can be taken seriously. From Zarkov building his on space ship to Flash utilizing football plays to battle Ming’s minions, the film is simply absurd fun.  The silliness to which I have just referred does not include the psychodelic backgrounds, uneven production values, or the fact Dale is considered the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen even though she looks like your average fourth grade teacher from Nebraska.  
 
Then there is the inappropriate elements.  I am certain I do not have to remind anyone of the famous scene in which Ming’s daughter, Aura, endures a bareback whipping for interrogation while her father eats popcorn and gleefully watches.  This scene, along with Princess leia chained to a giant slug while wearing a metal bikini, created an entire generation of perverts with terribly warped views on women.  Speaking of terribly warped, there is also plenty of other instances of light bondage, implied sexual slavery, and even the presumably unintended hint of an incestuous relationship between aura and Prince Barin, who becomes Ming’s successor because he is the ‘rightful” heir.  Tell me that does not mean he is Ming’s son! 
 
Aside from the kink, there is plenty of cringing moments of terror.  We witness Zarkov’s birth from a first person perspective during a torturous memory drain.  If you are eager to know what it is like to be shot out a birth canal, look no further.  If you have ever had a fear of reaching into a dark hole and being bitten by some nasty critter, they have that covered, as well as an attack from a giant, under the ground dwelling spider.  You might not sleep too well for a while after watching this film.
   
Amd all the bondage, weird sexual situations, and bad acid trip sequences, flash manages to untie the princes of Mongo against Ming, save the earth, and win dale’s heart.  All this in spite of his room temperature IQ.  I suspect he has been playing football without his helmet.

 I am not down on Flash Gordon.   It is a guilty pleasure favorite I must watch every few years solely to remind myself someone thought it was a good idea to make the crazy thing.  Hiring queen to record the score only adds to the fun.  The band definitely came up with some stirring music.  I defy you to keep the theme some from rattling around your mind after you have heard it. 

Rating: *** (out of 5) 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Steve Carell is one funny guy, but he has had a terrible time finding the right material.  The Incredible Burt Wonderstone comes about as close to fitting the bill as any film Carell has made in the last ten years.  However, I have to say most of the laughs are from the antics of the rest of the cast, but those laughs are enough to make the film worth watching.

Carell plays the title character, a longtime Las Vegas magician who has lost sight of how much performing magic excited him in his younger days.  Part of the problem is the world of professional magicians has passed him by in favor of performers like Steve Gray, played hilariously by Jim Carrey, who have turned magic into a performance art of self-abuse.   In spite of encouragement from his partner Anton and assistant Janue, played by Steve Buscemi and Olivia Wilde, respectively, Wonderstone cannot get it all together until he meets his original inspiration in a nursing home.
  
 I do not care to spoil much of the story.  Anyone can probably fill in the blanks regardless.  Yes, it is predictable Wonderstone gets his groove back and wins out over the self-torturing for attention magicians and wins the girl.  It is not the story that makes the film worth watching.  It is a half dozen or so gags from the supporting cast.   I would like to single out Carrey.  I am not a huge fan of his, but I can appreciate how he is willing to forego top billing in order to play a character well suited to his talents.  His Steve Gray is a definite highlight right until the end when his act catches up with him.
   
Wilde is lovely as ever.  Her character is the heart of the film.  Can she carry a movie herself?  I could see her as the leading lady in a romantic comedy.
   
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is not a great film.  It is not even a laugh riot.  But the characters, save for Wonderstone, are charming   but it is a big problem when the title character is least interesting.   Watch for Buscemi doing his thing as the put upon Anton.  Watch for Carrey putting his sugar high comedic delivery to good use for once in a blue moon.  Watch for Wilde as a sweetheart who can play a role without showing off skin.  The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is not a classic, but it is frivolous entertainment worth seeing at least once.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Head

It has been a long time since I have written any movie reviews.  I never intended for Apocalypse Cinema to die off, but life often gets in the way of such things.  I probably still will not update that regularly, but at least there will be new content added at some interval.  Not that anyone is reading at this point regardless.
  
It is a real shame I chose Head to kick off the end of the blog hiatus.  It is an even bigger shame I gave into a masochistic whim and watched this acid trip of a film again after twenty years or so.  I was one of those kids who got hooked on the Monkees when MTV aired their television series in a couple of weekend marathons back in the mid-'80's.  I had no idea until much later the Pre-Fab Four hated the goofiness of their show wanted to be more edgy, so they made a movie to show off all the creative talent stymied by television and record producers.  The result is less than stellar.
  
Six screenwriters are credited.  Such a large number usually means myriad rewrites, but in this case, it means a wild weekend of the Monkees smoking pot with producer Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson--yes, that Jack Nicholson--while banging out a script.  It shows, too.  I suspect one is required to be high in order to appreciate the disjointed narrative--such that it is--and psychodelic imagery.  Maybe if you are one who cranes his neck to look at the aftermath of car wrecks, you can fund some enjoyment in it.
  
The big question is whether the Monkees succeeded in proving they have something of value to say on their own.    The answer is no.  There is the typical anti-war propaganda typical of hippie rock in the late ‘60’s.  I can even give some credit for likening the American view of war as a sporting event.  But having Peter Tork repeatedly tackled but a football player in a battlefield trench is too much for me.   Ditto for Micky Dolenz using a tank to blast an out of order drink machine in the middle of the desert.  Thankfully, you do not have to dwell on the absurdity of these scenes too long before long sequences of half naked girls gyrating to loud music offer a distraction.
 
If there is any discernible theme throughout Head, it is the Monkees struggling to assert their identities as free artists against corporate control.  The film is a stream of consciousness bounce between various movie themes--war, western, sports, etc.  During each, the Monkees break out through the fourth wall only to find themselves back in a film under the director’s control.  Peter finally figures out what is going on--breaking out of his television persona as the dumb one--but the others find his assertion that the mind cannot distinguish between reality and a shared fantasy is dismissed as rambling Eastern philosophy.  With no way to free themselves, the Monkees do the only thing they can--commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.  But even this is a trap.  The Monkees land in an aquarium being driven by the director so the band can be storeed for future movies.
  
Thankfully, that never happened.  The general failure of Head is often attributed to a misleading marketing campaign that did not capitalize on the Monkees’ fame.  But I think fans are grasping at straws with that one.  The fact is the movie is simply not that good.  The Monkees are trying to be edgy rather than actually being edgy.  You cannot fake that sort of thing.  The Monkees are a bubblegum pop band.  They just cannot pull of artsy. 
  
 I am generally down on the film, but every Monkees fan ought to see it at least once.  If for no other reason, watch it to know why the monkees faded away so fast when they decided they were serious artists who needed to do their own thing.  They may have believed they were constrained by commercialization, but they were actually propped up by it instead.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Superman Returns

It has been a while since I reviewed the other big budget Superman films. With a new one on the verge of release, it is time to bite the bullet and watch 2006’s Superman Returns. I am a huge fan of comic books. Even though I am a Marvel Zombie rather than a DC…whatever nickname they have, I am just now getting over the notion that I should support any and all comic book characters who reach the silver screen. That was a common opinion among fans who wanted to see better super hero films hitting the big screen, but in hindsight, it backfired. Only over the last ecade or so have comic book based films come into their own because the creative powers beind them are comic book fan themselves. Respect for the source material, folk. The rise of the comic book films has had its turbulence, however, and Superman Returns is a prime example.

It probably is not fair to bring up the Development Hell period the Superman film endured, but the film’s tumultuous journey may shed some light on the lackluster feel of Superman Returns. Abandoned scripts were written by self-professed comic book fanatic Kevin Smith and Lost creator J. J. Abrams. The former’s script was canne by the powers that be for being too deep for the popcoen munching summer blockbuster they needed to seel action figures and fast food premiums. The latter famously leaked to Harry Knowles, who promptly lead a fan charge to have it canne because there were no elements of the Superman mythos within. Superman Returns finally got rolling with Brian Singer. The end result makes one wonder if superman ought to have been kept off the big screen a lot while longer.

I will give singer some props for two points. One, he is ambitious in scope. There is a lot of Superman as christ imagery throughout the film. The comparison even begins back with the leaked trailer in which Marlon Brando’s booming voice explains why Jor El sent his only begotten son to Earth to be man’s salvation. The allegory is often over the top and gaudy, but it tickles my rebellion against the Bob Jones University influenced education I suffered as a tyke. Back then, anything in popular entertainment was satanic, but especially when secular offerings featured religious undertones. Blasphemy, as they say. The second point is Superman Returns pretends the latter two film in the series do not exist. What a coincidence. So do I.

The film begins with Superman, after promising to never abandon Earth after defeating Zod, having abandoned Earth to search for the remains of Krupton. He apparently said goodbye to no one, because they have spent the last five years miffed at him. Lois lane in particular. She wrote an Pulitzer Prize winning article entitled Why We Don’t Need Superman and had a son. She regrets the former when Superman shows back up for a dramatic rescue. He spends much of the rest of the film rekindling his relationship and battling another wild real estate scheme from Lex Luthor.

When I say much of the rest of the film, I am referring to nearly two and a half hours of tedium. You would think with an action oriented director like Singer at the helm and modern special effects, there would be wall to wall action spectacle. You would be wrong. Very little happens. What few action sequences there are ten to be an excuse to turn the volume up in case you have fallen asleep between them. Not even Kevin spacey hamming it up--the poor guy looks like he knows he is carrying the film solely on his shouldrrs--cannot brighten things up. Superman Returns is simply no fun.

The problem is the usual suspects. The script is lackluster. It is completely devoid of any memorable moments. The plot is lame. Why is Luthor going back to a variation of his real estate scheme from the first film? Homage, or lack of imaginatoon on behalf of the screenwriter? I am going with the latter, even though I believe e was aiming for the former. I am unimpressed with the cast, as well. Spacey is one of my favorite actors, so it is painful to watch him slog through a film he should have never been in. Kate Bosworth is not my idea of Lois lane. Most importantly, Brandon Routh is completely bland as Superman. I swear he is only playing the role because bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve. Tobey Macguire put more personality into Spiderman when covered head to toe in costume than Routh can with superman. ‘Tis a very bad sign.

Superman Returns is for the die hard Superman fans only. There are still some of you out there, right? Even the comic book fanatics who used to support any and all comic book based films should avoid it. There are too many other good choices out there to waste time on such a poor effort like this film. The new Superman film about to be released has only been made to keep the rights in place. Otherwise, Superman Returns rightly would have killed off the feanchise.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Escape from New York

I was looking for an appropriate film to review on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and Escape from New York feels like the obvious choice. The film features a famous, though now dated with poor special effects, of Snake Plissken landing a glider on top the World Trade Center in the far flung future of 1997 when New York City has become an island prison for the worst American has to offer. The film broke director John Carpenter out of the horror film genre he had been working in for the previous four years with solid results.

Escape from New York is set in a dystopian future America in which the crime rote rose to 400% in the aftermath of a brutal war. New York City has been walled off from the rest of the United States to serve as a prison for all sorts of vicious psychos. Air force One happens to crash in the heart of the city on its way to an important summit meeting with the soviet Union and China. Snake Plisskwn, a former soldier sentenced to NYC, is given 24 hours to fin the president in exchange for a pardon.

You have to get passed a lot of shallow plotting to enjoy Escape from New York. It sounds ridiculous enough to wall of the capital of the world as a prison. If the world truly is dystopian, taking New York City out of the picture is probably the biggest factor. Why is Air Force One flying over the largest population of entrapped cut throats on the planet? Criminals holding the president hostage in exchange for their freedom is not all that creative, either. Nevertheless, the film works because of the tension it manages to build up and the cynical tone throughout.

Shot on a paltry $ 6 million, Escape from New York is effectively dark and minimalist. The special effects are often lacking, with many scenes being obvious miniatures. But I really like the atmosphere. Carpenter does a lot with very little. New york has become a place of destitution and depravity. How bright and lush can you expect the place to be?

It is the cast that truly makes the film. In particular, Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Plissken as a cynical man of few words, but much ’80’s action hero cliché is the best aspect of the film. Curvy Adrienne Barbeau at the height of her sex appeal runs a close second. One feels a certain disappointment at how the quality of the remainder of the cast is underutilized. Donald Pleasance is just sort of there as the president. Lee Van Cleef spends most of the film scurrying between computer screens as the Police Commissioner. The film spens so much time setting up the Duke of New York as the ultimate fearsome crime lord that it is a severe let down when even Isaac Hayes cannot generate any menace playing the role. Throw in Harry Dean Stanton and wonder how a cast like that cannot make Escape from New York shine. Even the best are only as good as the material with which they have to work.

I am not as down on Escape from New York as I may seem. It is still a good movie in spite of its flaws. Carpenter pulls of the combination of science fiction/action film with enough ‘80’s social commentary--high crime in New York City , late Cold War militarization--with being shlocky with the former or preachy with the latter. Neither of the points is to say Escape from New York is a deep film. It most certainly is not. The material is holding back a stellar cast as far as these kinds of films go. But overlook some bad plotting and weak script points, and you can enjoy one of the first film in the ’80’s action film mold that Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Arnnuld would go on to perfect.

As far as I am concerned, Carpenter has not hit his stride by 1981. He had mostly worked in the horror genre, of which I am not a huge fan, but his paring with Russell is magic. They will work together again with better results, but Escape from new York possess many of the latent chocolate and peanut butter combination of Carpenter and Russell.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Blob

I am on a ‘50’s science fiction kick as of late. The Blob may very well have temporarily ended my interest in the subject. For a film that is considered at least a minor classic in the science fiction canon, not to mention starring a young Steve McQueen, The Blob is surprisingly uninteresting.

There are only three points I found amusing. One, the Cold War allegory is great, although one is admittedly beaten over the head with it. A gelatinous, constantly growing red blob consuming small town America? All the blob needs is a yellow hammer and cycle on its side to make the point unmistakably obvious. Two, the soecial effects, while weak by today’s standards, are not as cheap as I feared they would be. Finally, I had never seen before, so I had no idea Stephen King’s ’The Lonesome Death of Jordy Virril” from Creepshow was a parody. Creepshow remains my favorite horror film, so your mileage may vary.

One suspects The Blob is the source of frequent parody because of how many trappings of teenager in peril horror movies are present. The film begins with Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) parked at Lover’s lane for some smooch smooch with his girlfriend when they witness a meteor fall to Earth. An old man finds a meteor on his property and, after inadvertently breaking it open with a stick, becomes infected by a red goo from inside. Here is the Jordy Virril part. Yes, I did shout ‘Meteor sh*t!” when I saw it, I substitute a less offensive synonym for the latter word. I am a class act that way.

The Blob eventually consumes the old man after Steve and his girlfriend take him to the doctor. The Blob inevitably eats more people as it becomes exponentially larger. The excitement level never really builds up, however. There is an improvement during the panicked climax, but I cannot see why The Blob is considered a fine example of this sort of monster on the loose film. I do not think I feel that way because I am jaded. I have seen a ton of films in the genre, certainly, but The blob truly is B-movie shlock. I am disappointed to learn this.

Nevertheless, the three points I mentioned above as being great are still valid. I am a sucker for Cold War allegory. The special effects are impressive for the time. You can determine your own feelings about the Stephen King parody from Creepshow. Then there is the novelty of Steve McQueen starring. The Blob is not his best film by any stretch of the imagination, but he does play the All-American hero to the hilt. You do not have to look too hard to see the Steve McQueen of the future lurking in the teenager desperate to get the adults around him to listen to his warnings.

I would not make much effort to seek The Blob out. It is a film you atop and watch when flipping cannels on a sleepless night or bored Saturday afternoon. It is a novelty piece for the hard core science fiction fans and b-movie fanatics only.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

This Island Earth

Universal Studios is far more famous--and deservedly so--for its classic monster films, but it is a shame science fiction fans often overlook it genre films of the 1950’s. Certainly, they are steeped in dated cold war paranoia and goofy flying saucers, ray guns, and rubber suit monsters, but there are some gems in there if you are in the right mindset for them. One of the best of the lot is This Island Earth.

This Island Earth introduces us to Dr. Cal Meacham, brilliant scientist and all around American hero. He receives some instructions on how to gather parts and put them together to create some unknown device. Being the curious sort, Meacham follows through. The device turns out to be a communicator in which Meacham can talk with an odd fellow name Exeter. Exeter has an enlarged forehead which gives him an obviously inhuman appearance, but Meacham appears to not notice as he agrees to join a secret laboratory In Georgia to work on a project for Exeter.

At the laboratory, he meets up again with an old flame named Dr. Ruth Adams. The two grow suspicious the laboratory is not being straight with them. When they have finally had enough, they try to escape, but are captured by Exeter. He destroys the facility and carts the pair off in his flying saucer for the planet Metaluna.

Everything I just described takes up the first half of the film. It is a lot of set up paced painfully slowly, but once Meacham and adams have been kidnapped, the fun begins. Exeter’s planet is at war with the Zagons. The Zagons have been throwing planetoids guided by spaceships at Metaluna. The attacks have been highly effective. Metaluna is on the verge of destruction. The need to build a shield to surround the planet as a defense, but they lsck the uranium to power. Meacham is tasked with creating uranium for them.

The plot of This Island Earth is not deep or impressive. There is not even a prominent anti-nuclear war message you might expect from a film from the heart of the Atomic Age even though the visual effects of the planetoids striking Mtaluna are clearly meant to resemble the mushroom clouds resulting from nuclear detonations. This Island Earth is far more escapism than a preachy message about man destroying itself.

Indeed, This Island Earth is unique for this era of science fiction in that humans are the superior beings. Exeter, though difficult to pin down early in the film, is a bad guy who is more than willing to kill Meacham’s colleagues and kidnap him to do his dirty work for him. There are no aliens lecturing humans about their evil ways, but the film also avoids the Gene Roddenberry staple that morally superior humans need to set the evil aliens unto the straight and narrow. Meacham and adams only have one priority--getting the heck out of Dodge.

If is famous for anything, it is the Metaluna mutant pictured above. You can sometimes see it thrown in there with the Universal Monsters in promotional items. The Metaluna mutant is probably the only science fiction critter you will see there. The Metaluna mutant still holds up today in every facet. While it is the typical man in suit monster, the manner in which it stalks our heroes is incredibly scary. The critter ought to be considered right up there with some of the reats of the genre, if you ask me.

Are there flaws? Most definitely. The most laughable is Meacham’s failure to think anything is od about Exeter. I woul not expect Meacham to automatically assume Exeter is an alien, but some comment on his deformed appearance for a normal human is in order. Exter has a forehead you could screen How the West Was Won upon. Another biggie is the character of Adams. She starts out as a strong, brilliant woman becomes the screaming amsel in distress in a snap once she and Meacham have been kidnapped. I understand the situation is jarring for her, but she makes too drastic a chance. These are small problems quickly overshadowed by the nifty elements of the latter half of the film’s exciting events on Metaluna.

This Island Earth ia not deep enough to be on anyone’s list of best science fiction films. It is no cautionary tale about nuclear war. It is standard humans v. aliens and monsters flick. But that is okay. Because it is a good umans v. aliens and monsters flick that has been forever relegated to the lower ecelons because it received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. If you can look passed the mocking and enjoy the film for what it is, you are going to have a good time.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Forbidden Planet

I am currently reviewing Stargate Atlantis over at Eye of Polyphemus. the current episode is the second season’s “Epiphany,” an episode which features a monster created from the negative emotions of a small settlement. What better time to pull out the Dvd of Forbidden Planet and review the film from which the plot element was likely lifted?

Forbidden Planet is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in space. The film follows a military crew set out to discover the fate of the ship Bellerophon, which disappeared twenty years ago. In mythology, Bellerophon killed the monster Chimera. In Forbidden Planet, the monster kills all but two people, Dr. Morbius and his teenage daughter, Altaira. Captain Adams, the allegedly swashbuckling hero of the film, woos Altaira while unraveling the mystery, such that it is, of the id monster’s identity. We cannot forget Morbius’ robot assistant, Robby, who has become a staple of science fiction since his debut here.

Watching Forbidden Planet is like taking the World of Tomorrow tour at Disney World wit a vicious, invisible monster on the loose. One minute you are being introduced to a retro idea of a future appliance, and in the next someone is being torn apart by some critter no one can identity. Contemporary audiences would not have the patience for this sort of thing. They would demand a quick set up in order to get to the monster attacks. Even I think the pace could be picked up, but as a history buff, I enjoy the vision of the future filmmakers envisioned back in 1956 enough to not count the instructional video aspects as much of a detriment.

Oh, do not get me wrong…Morbius drones on and on about everything from his house to what happened to his ship to Robby to the Kell and all their technology. Forbidden Planet is very much high on exposition rather than visuals. It is an interesting point when you consider the movie was nominated for an oscar in special effects, but lost to The Ten Commandments. Deservedly so, in my opinion. While I will often gripe good science fiction films rarely earn critical recognition beyond their technical aspects, even special effects were superior. Forbidden Planet was released in the wrong year, folks.

The major flaw with Forbidden Planet is the lack of mystery. There is no possibility anyone could be responsible for the death of every on the Bellerophon but Morbius. Altaira would have been too young. The wife is a possibility for the Bellerophone deaths, Robby was created after Morbius arrived on the planet. It is very clear from the beginning Morbius is responsible. A red herring or two would enhance the mystery greatly. By enhance, I mean actually create some. The revelation the monster is a projection of Morbius’ id is not much of a reveal, but I will grant the climactic sequence with morbius and adams with the id monster banging on the walls is highly effective even today.

I must mention, too, what I suspected might not work, but did. Adams is played by a young Leslie Nielsen. I do not recall exactly when I first saw Forbidden Planet--too young to appreciate it, I am certain--but it was certainly after watching the absurd comedies of Nielsen’s later career. The guy carried around a gag device which simulated flatulence to use during interviews, for heaven’s sake! I am not even certain I made the connection between Adams and The Naked Gun cop back then, but Nielsen was at one time considered a dramatic actor. I assume Viva Knievel! ruined all that. Adams strikes me as too much of a rigid military officer who cannot make any decision without consulting his superiors rather than the pre-James T. Kirk he is supposed to be, but I am too impressed Nielsen can play the role at all to complain.

Forbidden Planet stands the test of time for any true science fiction fan and/or cinema buff who can appreciate the style of films made in various eras. Forbidden Planet is ’50’s science fiction to the core. Could anyone get away with an Earth space ship being a flying saucer these days? Doubtful. The Daleks can pull it off, but who is going to dare question them? Daleks have no concept of elegance.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

Friday, September 7, 2012

WarGames

I am a sucker for doomsday films that possess plausibility in them that I can wrap my mind around the scenario becoming reality. One of the big reasons I am is because I watched WarGames at a young age. The other is being tainted by a Bob Jones influenced education wherein identifying the apocalypse is a favorite fundamentalist Christian hobby. The latter reason is ripe with stories for my personal blog. We shall mercifully deal with the former reason here.

WarGames is my generation’s--that is, the one that grew up in the ’80’s--dire warning of nuclear annihilation. It is our film because it main theme of late col War paranoia and fear of advanced technology running away out of control is wrapped around the conflict of kids versus adults. It is a kid,, David Lightman, (Matthew Broerick) who inadvertently sets the world down the path of nuclear destruction because of adult frailty in decision making it is young Lightman who comes up with a solution to the problem, not the least of which is youthful optimism breaking down a despondent pessimism, and a kid’s game of tic tac toe which saves the day. It is not the adults in charge who save the future.

WarGames is about hacker/slacker Lightman. He is a shiftless techno whiz who constantly cuts school, but uses his computer skills to award himself high grades anyway. Lightman believes he has hacked into a software developers batch of unreleased games when he begins playing Global Thermo Nuclear War, but he has actually hscked into a new AI at NORAD called WOPR. Because of his “gameplay,” NORAD believes the Soviet union is mobilizing against the United States and makes preparations for a first strike that will initiate World War III.

WOPR was put in place, as is established in a long, tedious opening sequence about the humdrum daily routine at NORAd, when one of the men in charge of launching the missiles refuses to do so when given the order. The decision is then handed over to WOPR in order to take human emotion and doubt out of the equation. But as the film establishes, it is human emotion that eventually saves the day.

Lightman is arrested by the FBI. Upon learning what he has inadvertently done, he escapes to fin the creater of WOPR. He is Dr. Stephen Falken, now living under an assuming name as a completely despondent reclusive. His wife and son have recently been killed, and believing the human race is inevitably on the path to killing itself, says the world can burn. Lightman and his girlfriend, played by Ally Sheedy back when she and Molly Ringwald took turns in such roles, convince Falken he can change things. World War III is averted whenWOPR is convinced to play tic tac toe against itself. After numerous draws, WOPR learns the concept of futility. The only way to win the game is to not play.

I was afraid with all the advancements in technology over the last 29 years, WarGames would be laughably dated. Maybe a viewer more tech savvy than I am thinks it is. But from my perspective, the technology takesa back seat to the personal themes involved. WarGames is a human drama about how advancing technology created supposedly to better our lives--in this case, eliminate human error to ensure survival in a nuclear war--can get away from us by removing the human factor. In this day and age when everyone everywhere is texting and the average teenager spends four hours a day online, the question of who is really in charge when it comes to technology is still an apt one.

I will grant you a lot of my positive feelings towards WarGames have to do with nostalgia. It has left a big impact on my entertainment choices when it comes to science fiction and war stories. WarGames is definitely a product of its time. If you did not grow up in the ’80’s, the Cold War threat of the bomb dropping any day now probably seems silly. Nevertheless, the central message of WarGames is still worth hearing. The film itself stands the test of time.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane, frequently touted as the greatest movie of all time by people who make movies for a living, is celebrating its 71st birthday in 2012. It is one of my all time favorite films, both because it is a beautifully crafted film and because it is a thinly veiled biography of yellow journalist William Randolph Hearts, with whom I have had a fascination since first learning the origins of the Spanish-American War.

Citizen Kane is the story of Charles foster Kane, a megalomaniacal journalism magnate who rapidly loses his idealism as his power grows. To be more accurate, as he grows larger than life, he loses everything in his life. Although he dies fabulously wealthy surrounded by objets d’ art, he dies alone after having alienated everyone in his life he ever loved. Or at least thought he loved. Kane seems incapable of basic human relationships.

There are many technical eye catching aspects of Citizen Kane. One is that the story is told largely in flashbacks. While that is not unusual today--I might go so far as to say the technique is frequently abused-- it was innovative in 1941. The film begins at the announcement of Kane’s death. We see a newsreel recap of his life before meeting a reporter who is attempting to uncover the meaning of Kane’s final word--”Rosebud.” The second striking aspect is the directing. While Welles was a brilliant actor who was able to bring kane to life in all his arrogant splendor, he carefully used camera angles to emphasize Kane in relation to everyone with whom he interacted. Whenever we are looking at Kane onscreen, we are looking up at him. If he is talking to another person, we are always looking down at him or her from the same perspective as Kane. It is a brilliant method for establishing Kane’s staus.

The film itself has aged well because virtually every element is perfect. The acting and directing, with Welles both playing Kane and directing the film, are incomparable. Equally amazing is Citizen Kane was Welles’ debut. There are few film these days that can handle a narrative in flashbacks quite like , and one must appreciate the film virtually originated the idea for film use.

Kane would probably not be such a controversial figure these days when someone like Rupert Murdoch has allegedly been involved in phone tapping and Donald Trump has done everything from wear a chicken suit on Saturday Night Live to use President Barack Obama of being born in Kenya with loads of embarrassing personal revelations along the way. It is hard to believe there was a time when Hearst was so incensed by Citizen Kane, he forbade his newspapers to write about it. Nevertheless, the emotional impact of the film is not lost in these jaded times. It is still the timeless story of a man who destroys everything worthwhile in life during his pursuit of money and power, only to discover too late the really important things in life are like times spent as a child playing on his sled, Rosebud.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)