Saturday, December 6, 2014

Happy Birthday Kurt Russell! (And BA Thoughts)


Yesterday was Kurt Russell's 60th birthday, and that's worthy of note, because Kurt Russell is awesome. He was born on St. Patty's Day, for one, he married Goldie Hawn, for another, and he is the all-but-biological father of Kate Hudson, which is cool, if you forget Hudson's rom-com career.

I really do love Kurt Russell, not least of all because he is the star of my all-time favorite horror movie The Thing (1982), and that, ladies and gents, is my lead-in for discussing my BA thesis, which is indeed all about The Thing.

I have just completed the first draft of my BA thesis, and now the hard part begins. With editing, all the momentum of drafting is gone. No longer am I making big, bold claims for the betterment of film -- I am arguing with Microsoft Word about restrictive clauses and digging for sources which state common knowledge, simply because I need a citation. Still, the groundwork has been laid, and if even the paper itself isn't stellar (I've never been good at academic writing), the ideas in it are really fascinating, IMHO.

My main claim is that The Thing is a robust cinematic allegory for early the 1980s Cold War fears pervading American culture at the time, and that it takes the union of both psychoanalytical and historical interpretations in order to suss out all that symbolism.

Case in point: protagonist R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) devises a blood test in order to determine who in the group has and has not been copied and replaced by a malevolent alien, a test which closely mirrors America's obsession with national identity and border defense in the early 1980s. That works, doesn't it?

^----Yeah, you wish you partied this hard----^

Another case in point: MacReady is suspected of being infected and so the others try to kill him for the safety of the group. They point flamethrowers at him and prepare to fire, but MacReady grabs a bundle of dynamite and tells them that if anybody attacks anyone now, the whole station goes. This is, in what I think is the gnarliest claim of my BA thesis, almost exactly how Russia and America used their nuclear arsenals to deter attack during the Cold War through the perceived threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. In the early 1980s in particular, recently-elected Ronald Reagan was against the concessions of detente and significantly increased the visibility of America's nuclear arsenal (citation needed, besides simply asking anyone who was alive back then).

The final bit of my BA is a close reading of the first act of the film (just the first act, because it ran eleven pages) looking for how director John Carpenter fosters feelings of paranoia in the audience. Generally speaking, he does it in four different ways: the paranoia evident in the plot, "floating eye" tracking shots which heighten the fear of off-screen space, the graphic presentation of violence, and a near-constant breaking of visual continuity.

That's my BA, in a nutshell. They tell me I need more citations. The intro rambles way too much and the conclusion is only a paragraph long. Some of my language can be tightened up, and my central claim is a little weak by academic-writing standards. The body of my thesis is a little disorganized.

But all of that aside: isn't Kurt Russell awesome?

Some Movie News to Ponder This Weekend


--Andrew Garfield has been cast as Peter Parker in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot. And what surprises most people is that he hasn't been in hardly anything. What makes me so excited is that I actually met this guy a few years ago during a screening of Lions for Lambs (2007). He was born in Los Angeles but grew up in England, and I think he's a much more inspired choice than all the other options they were considering. Yes, he looks like a terrible hipster, but he's actually pretty cool, at least in Q&A sessions.

--Twilight Eclipse made $68.5 million on its opening Wednesday, which is the second-biggest opening day gross in history. The number one record is held by Twilight New Moon. As if the news couldn't get more facepalmy, Eclipse indeed knocked The Dark Knight back to third. For the record, though, whenever June 30th lands on a Wednesday and July 4th on a Sunday, a box-office record gets set. No joke: Spider-Man 2 did it in 2002.

--According to the critics, Shyamalan still sucks. The Last Airbender (2010) is getting awful reviews, with one critic going so far as to suggest that this proves Shyamalan made a deal with the devil to make The Sixth Sense (1999).

--Mel Gibson is still racist and sexist, if the reports (and audiotapes) are to be believed. The specifics don't matter, but people are now wondering if Gibson's brief comeback in the not-horribly-received The Edge of Darkness (2009) was way too prematurely announced. Last years hottest spec script, about a man who talks to a beaver-puppet which remains forever attached to his hand (shows you how desperate the studios are for good spec scripts), which Mel Gibson is currently shooting, has been pronounced dead-on-arrival by many a critic. Me? I wasn't gonna see it because of the logline, not the lead.

--Don't ever trust a headline that ends in a question mark.

See? That wasn't so painful. Next week we get Predators, and then the Friday after that comes the big mac-daddy of the summer: Inception *BRAAAAAMH* That was the sound of the epic bass, which must accompany any mention of Inception *BRAAAAAMH*

PS3 Review: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2


I have no hard feelings for this game. It's got a good technical presentation and it's fairly fun to play, with varied mission objectives and well-designed levels. For what more could you ask from a first-person shooter?

There's one problem, though. One big problem. When you look down your scope, for some reason, your targeting reticle automatically snaps onto the nearest target. When you're done pumping one enemy full of lead, you simply zoom out then back in, and the crosshairs automatically snap to the next target. What's a first-person shooter without aiming?

I've never encountered this feature in other FPSs... are all the other kids doing it? What think-tank decided that a shooter would benefit from the removal of aiming? It's like Assassin's Creed; they call it a platformer but there's no jump-button. I don't know if it's what automatically happens when money gets dumped into a popular project, but the games, they start to play themselves. So no matter how fun Modern Warfare 2 is to play, it's still just a lazy Saturday afternoon at best. Even Tetris made your mind feel worked.

I'd be remissed if I didn't mention an optional level in Modern Warfare 2 that the game-designers decided was so controversial, you're given the option of skipping it if you find it too extreme. The level sees your character, deep deep undercover with the Russian mob, walking through a public airport mowing down innocent civilians. I believe the level shouldn't have been included simply because it's boring. You walk through an airport with a tommy-gun from room to room until everyone in the airport is dead. They tried for edgy, they delivered blah.

And then the whole false-solemnity of giving the player the option to play the level or not. Honestly, I don't think killing innocent civilians in a game has anything to do with, you know, reality, so I think the developer should've stuck to its guns (*groan*) and either forced the player to play, or not included the level at all. This false-solemnity nonsense is also in Assassin's Creed, which begins with a message which lets the audience know that the game was developed by a staff of varied ethnic and religious backgrounds. They included this, because, as we all know, whenever someone says the word "Muslim," a kitten dies.

So, yeah. I don't know what all the fuss is over this game. It's technically proficient (though the graphics all have that plastic cartoony look this franchise is known for), but it plays itself. Maybe these problems disappear with multiplayer-- I didn't spend too long in multiplayer, but that was because I couldn't tell any of the teams apart.

Award-Giving Time: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 gets the "I'll Have Everything on the Dollar Menu To Go" award-- sure, it feels good, but do you really want something so fast, cheap, and easy? ...And yes, I had originally typed the "drunk prom date award," but kids can find this blog, so....

PS3 Review: Bioshock


Here's to a review three years late. *clinks sarsaparilla bottle*

Bioshock is awesome, but it needs to grow on you. I played a demo of it when it first came out and hated it. I then became a fan of Ayn Rand, read a little about Bioshock's storyline, and then finally ventured back into the waters of Rapture to see what everybody was talking about, and I wasn't disappointed.

That initial hatred no doubt stems from the fact that combat makes you feel a little ineffectual in Bioshock. You hit opponents with your arsenal of conventional weapons and your gene-enhanced abilities, and they don't seem to take very much damage. They certainly don't react to any of your hits until they're dead, and besides a tiny blood-spatter animation, the only way to tell you're even hitting them is to pay close attention to their life-meter. In short, I would unload on even the most basic enemies and they'd just keep coming at me. I guess I was used to the character-animations in HALO, where, as you unload a clip into the face of an Elite, they would stagger back more and more until they finally crapped out. Not so in Bioshock. They're all on PCP.

I said you should stick with it, though, and that's because, once you finally notice that enemies are being killed by your fancy footwork and on-the-fly weapon-switching, taking them down will feel that much more rewarding. And don't even get me started on the Big Daddy fights.

I should mention the story. It's great. Even the box-art suggests some deep world you're about to insert yourself into. What is that honking-huge diving-bell dude, and why is he protecting that little girl? The year is 1960, and you've crash-landed in the middle of the Atlantic. Luckily (perhaps a little too luckily), there's a bathysphere nearby and it takes you down to the underwater city of Rapture, which used to be populated by the world's brightest minds, but now houses a bunch of souped-up genetically-engineered junkies who hunt the chemical ADAM like it was their next fix. Those little girls? They can sniff the stuff out like bloodhounds. Their Big Daddy protectors? Really like their ADAM fixes.

So are you intrigued yet? There's more to the story and more than a few big emotional surprises in store, so when you combine that with rewarding FPS mechanics, fantastic graphics, and a surprisingly lengthy campagin (took me about 20 hours to beat), you've got one of the best FPSs for the system.

Award-Giving Time: Bioshock gets the Fine Red Wine award. I didn't like it at first, but that's because I was young and uncultured, and it only gets better as time goes by.

Top Ten Tuesdays: Television Shows



Credit the three and a half seasons of 24 I have devoured on Netflix in the past three weeks for my sudden renewed interest and faith in television.

There are some conditions for this list: I have not yet gotten around to seeing any of The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, The West Wing, The Unit, Family Guy, South Park, That 70s Show, ER, M*A*S*H, Sex and the City, The X-Files, Happy Days, or most anything from the 50s, 60s, and 70s like The Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver, All in the Family, or I Love Lucy. I'm leaving out talk shows, news shows, game shows, and obviously... reality tv. Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live both suck, and I'm not much of a Simpsons fan.

10. Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962)-- Hitchcock himself hosted and occasionally directed the suspenseful (or at least ironic) shorts presented in every episode of this seminal series. If you're having trouble understanding what makes this show so awesome, let me repeat: Hitchcock presenting short films every week for seven years!

9. Invader Zim (2001-2003)-- An amazingly unique blending of careful plotting and total irreverence. And it's an animated cartoon! There's no joke in lazy juxtaposition (I'm looking at you, Stewie!), so what Zim gives us is a gleefully insane set of characters with clear-cut motivations working towards exciting but inevitable conclusions. Did I mention sidekick Gir?

8. Arrested Development (2003-2006)-- Again, really, really tight plotting which sets the stage for big surprises. This show suffers for only being half an hour, as a lot of the emotional check-points whiz by. You can also either love or hate the fact that everyone, basically, everyone, in this show is morally reprehensible. Anybody notice how well the characters in AD synch up with the whole family in The Godfather? Michael/Michael, Buster/Fredo, Gob/Sonny, the list goes on....

7. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)-- This show makes the list because it starts off just as clever and well-written as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and then it adds sci-fi!

6. Lost (2004-2010)-- The finale told us that the point of the show was never figuring out the answers to all the mysteries of the island, but figuring out the people involved. In all fairness, if you need to know the meaning and purpose of there being a polar bear on the island, beyond knowing that it was some genetic experiment, and an effective first-episode act-break shocker, then this show is probably not for you.

5. Veronica Mars (2004-2007)-- Gender doesn't matter, unless an antagonist makes it an issue. Try being a top-notch female private-eye sometime and you'll find you're peerless in your field but the boys will be second-guessing you every step of the way. A CSI for people with hearts, there's a reason why the show is named after a character, and not a department. On a separate list, Veronica Mars would be one of my favorite television characters of all time.

4. House (2004-present)-- A roller-coaster of quality from season-to-season, I am currently singing this show's praises because it's last season ended stronger than any other. Everyone's favorite misanthropic doctor is finally growing a heart, and going out with Cuddy! What an arc this poor fella has gone through-- from being the most haphazard misfit to almost exactly who we all want him to be.

3. 24 (2001-2010)-- I've only seen half of this show, but so far it is a mucking fasterpiece. The easiest thing to talk about would be the real-time nature of the show (when I first heard about this show at the age of 12, I thought there was no way they could do that, as he'd need to go to sleep sometime), which keeps the tension sky-high, which is perfectly suited to the subject-matter of the show. And who knew torture could be made to look so agreeable?!

2. Mad Men (2007-present)-- Biologically speaking, males philander in order to distribute their genetic material as widely as possible, and females play coy in order to draw protective males to them. Men will give money to get sex, and women will give sex to get money. Not on any other show is this dynamic explored as thoroughly as on Mad Men, all from within a subtle, hyper-accurate depiction of the 1960s advertising world.

1. Firefly (2002-2003)-- The great martyr of the medium. Cancelled after only 13 episodes and briefly resurrected in Serenity (2005) for some well-foought closure, this show was pitched as "What if Han Solo never joined the Rebellion?" Thus, we get Captain Malcolm Reynolds and company, all with troubled pasts and even more troubled futures, despite the captain's mantra that he just wants to keep flyin'.

Dear Lord, They've Invented a Lightsaber


No, not actually a lightsaber, as the beam of super-hot death-light doesn't actually return to the hilt, but for $197.97, you can purchase your very-own hand-held portable laser which has enough power to instantly blind and burn through skin. Youtube in fact is filled with demonstrative videos. You hear me? For less than the price of a PS3, you can buy a potentially-fatal laser which emanates from a device which looks so similar to an actual lightsaber handle that Lucasfilm is threatening a lawsuit.

The company's website, down at the time of this posting, wickedlasers.com, dedicates an entire paragraph to the various things you should never do with this laser, including operating it without proper eye-wear or aiming it at anything either flammable or possessing nerve-endings. What I find fishy is that the site makes no mention as to what you should use the laser for. Cats of the world, consider yourselves forewarned.



--Serge

PS: The laser in the video, you will note, is not the Wicked Laser Spyder III Arctic Pro, but rather a homemade version with double the reported power of the Spyder III. So we can all rest easy there-- it will take five seconds for the Spyder III to burn through a CD case, instead of about two, and only slightly longer than instantly to set fire to a match. Whew!

Movie-Link Madness: "Wall-E" and "The General"



For those of you who've followed this blog from the beginning, you might know my undying love for Buster Keaton's 1926 masterpiece The General, and my ire for the popularity surrounding Pixar's worst yet most-lauded film Wall-E (2008).

Everybody says the same thing when I ask them why they like Wall-E: "Oh, for them to evoke so much emotion without saying anything is nothing short of remarkable!" This is a quote for people who have never tried writing a screenplay. And a quote for people who haven't met Old Stone Face.

Old Stone Face is the affectionate nickname for Buster Keaton, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in The General, a 1926 silent romantic comedy about a disgraced train engineer who must thwart the entire Union army in order to rescue his beloved Annabel Lee. Keaton narrowly escapes death in one gleefully elaborate set-piece after another, and the film culminates in a climactic train-derailment, and of course, the reunion of the two sweethearts. And there are no words.

Sounds a lot like Wall-E, except nobody praises The General because it's silent. Now, first pet-peeve: Wall-E is not silent. It's filled with pontificating talking heads who beat into our terribly deflated skulls that being green is good and being fat is bad! Second pet-peeve: Pixar is supposed to be the studio that doesn't fill its films with pop-culture references and therefore instantly date its films, unlike their rival DreamWorks, but make no mistake-- Wall-E is a proud product of the environmentally-obsessed wanning years of the Bush administration. I agree, Wall-E is adorable, but they should've left out all of the humans. Oh, and he shouldn't have magically come back to life with a kiss at the end of the film. That's ok in Sleeping Beauty, where you're clearly within the realms of fantasy, but Wall-E begged us to take it as serious sci-fi.

But I digress. Where was I? Old Stone Face. Buster Keaton got his nickname in the vaudeville business, when he realized that he got bigger laughs when he didn't guffaw at his own jokes. When he transfered to film, his weary, determined, super-serious visage never changed, and he's all the more hilarious for it.

No, wait, that wasn't the point, either. Oh, yes, now I remember. People don't praise The General for its being silent because everybody who should know something about making movies knows that its never the dialogue which pulls on the audience's heartstrings. Ever! Your favorite rom-com does not get you to love it by talking. A movie is (or at least should be) a series of scenes in which characters do, and in order to make it more realistic, they usually need to talk. To take away dialogue and remain emotionally weighty is not to do something extraordinary. In fact, it tends to clarify one's narrative vision. The best films can still be understood when muted.

So. The unstoppable freight-train of unlicensed praise for Wall-E rolls on while The General remains unpraised (or rather unknown) by contemporary audiences. If you're still reading, I'm sure you're either nodding your head in agreement or sharpening your axe.