Monday, November 27, 2006

ULTRAVIOLET (2006)


Sometimes I see a movie and I know it’s not any good but I like it any way. Often it’s hard to explain what makes me like a terrible film but I think I have this one nailed down. ULTRAVIOLET strives very hard to be a ‘comic book’ film. I put quotation marks around ‘comic book’ because the writer/director has a very simple (one might even say simplistic) view of what a comic book is. For Kurt Wimmer a comic book is obviously about super powered beings that must overcome incredible odds to save the world. Period. Comic books are not about character, plot, intrigue, humor or even coherency- at least for Mr. Wimmer. Comic books are uncomplicated black & white stories in which the good guys kick ass and the bad guys are pure evil. Nuance is unknown and reflection is for wussies. As deep as a mud puddle, as logical as a hypocritical rationalization and as dumb as a clubbed puppy ULTRAVIOLET understands only one thing- ACTION! Mindlessly colorful action revved up to unbelievable levels and rammed right down the audience’s throat.

I think the only real reason this film exists at all is to fashion blindingly fast action scenes that attempt to show its intended jaded audience something it hasn’t seen before. And here is where it commits one of the cardinal sins of Hollywood Science Fiction cinema. It wants to do impossible things onscreen so it uses the catch-all ‘it’s the future’ idea to get away with completely ridiculous things. “We want our main character to run along a room’s ceiling shooting the Bad Guys ® on the floor so we’ll just throw out some pathetic techno-babble to ‘explain’ it.” With this sad method many filmmakers have put their poorly thought out ideas on the screen for folks like me to scoff at. And scoff I have!

Like any sci-fi geek worth my saltpeter I’ve spent hours cringing over the stupidity in even good science fiction movies to say nothing of crap like the STAR WARS prequels. So why did I like this film while turning my nose up at others? I guess it was because of the sheer audacity of Wimmer. I’ve been angered over and over by sad-ass screenplays that seem written by people that no longer read books. Indeed I think the reason so many films these days suck in the way they do is that most of the folks writing them NO LONGER READ. Anything. So when I realized that Wimmer was making nothing more and nothing less than a film version of a 90s Marvel comic I just laughed and went along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong- it’s DUMB! But at least it showed that the writer had read something even if what he read was terrible. And damned if I didn’t find myself enjoying it the same way I’ve enjoyed bad Marvel comics from the 90s- as slickly drawn bits of fluff with nary an original idea or concept in its overpriced pages. Just sheer forward thrust coming right at ya! Don’t think- just hang on!

So it’s a bad movie. Maybe even an epic bad movie if caught in the wrong frame of mind. But for me it was like seeing a crappy 25 cent tale done with $50 million and that was entertaining all by itself. But I do wish Wimmer would aim a bit higher with his next movie. I’m not asking for Dostoyevsky but he could do much better than Tom DeFalco. Much, much better.

Monday, November 20, 2006

THE OUTER LIMITS- Soldier

A soldier from 1800 years in Earth’s future is caught between two explosive rays and somehow catapulted back to our time. (Or, more accurately, the early 1960s). Grown in mass incubators and raised only to know war he is completely unable to understand this new world. Captured by police and placed in a padded cell his only contact is a linguist brought in to try to decipher his language. Eventually discovering the soldier speaks a version of English he is able to communicate but can’t seem to change his simple view of the world. For our time traveler there are only Us and Them and the enemy must be killed. Still, the linguist is able to make some progress while keeping the military folks at bay until another future soldier caught in the same accident arrives in our time and tracks his ‘enemy’ down.

The first of two episodes written by enfant terrible Harlan Ellison it’s also one of the best the show ever produced. Well written, well paced, well directed and wonderfully acted by a fine cast this is The Outer Limits at the top of its game. When the only complaint I can muster up is that the Soldier should have been afforded at least one change of clothes in the weeks he was confined you know things are good.

I can’t pretend to have a vast knowledge of TV directors of any era but I do know Gerd Oswald’s name. I noticed in my youth as I watched (over and over) the original Star Trek episodes that he was responsible for some for the better ones. When I saw his credit at the beginning of this show I was confident I was in good hands. Smooth and clean seems to be Mr. Oswald’s trademarks as a director. I noticed there are many scenes in which he would use a single set-up for a two or three character scene where the norm would be multiple shots. One of the best here is a three shot that has the linguist in the foreground with his back to the camera. He’s facing his wife and daughter who are framed to his right. Once the daughter’s part of the scene is over the camera pushes in to a two shot at just the right moment to emphasize the emotional exchange between the couple. It’s brilliant direction and completely seamless. Also Oswald seems to love putting the camera near the floor and shooting up at the actors. This appears to have necessitated the addition of higher than normal walls and partial ceilings for some of the sets- very different for television at the time but adding a great sense of confinement for the confused soldier. Even smaller details like the linguist’s son adapting the Soldier’s slang are well done where in less capable hands they might have felt forced. This is great science fiction TV and exactly what I look for from this series.

While it is a little creaky at the climax this is a near perfect episode that holds up to repeat viewings. It shows its age but, as with any good story, it can still delight an attentive audience.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

THE OUTER LIMITS- The Brain of Colonel Barham

The second season episode ‘The Brain of Colonel Barham’ is not one of the best the series has to offer. It’s not completely terrible but it’s not very good either, squandering a potentially great idea.

In the near future the military is planning for their first mission to Mars. The leaders of the project have decided that the first craft to venture there will be robotic. But to handle all the unforeseeable possible problems the robot needs to be controlled by a human mind. Top notch astronaut Colonel Alec Barham is slowly dying of a disease that ravages his body but leaves his brain untouched. It’s proposed to him to implant his mind in a machine and send him to the red planet. The egocentric Barham at first refuses but the idea of living forever finally sways him. Disregarding his wife’s feelings (much as he has for years) he agrees to the experiment over the objections of the project’s psychological expert Dr.McKinnon. The doctor fears that a man already so self-centered is a poor choice to use in such an experiment. As he predicted Barham begins to grow more arrogant and becomes able to control others. Somehow able to increase his brain mass he continues to gain power he becoming more dangerous until finally a confrontation takes place as our now mad brain attempts to kill his wife and Dr. McKinnon.

There are some interesting ideas floating around in this episode but none of them really come together well. The dis-embodied brain becoming all powerful is an old sci-fi staple but nothing great is done with it. I think that if we had simply gotten a speech or two from Barham that showed his gradual shift from man to madman we might have had a chilling show. It would have been nice to have some insight into his goals and his thinking as he made his attempt to control those around him. As it stands we have a half-baked story about a spurned husband lashing out at his wife over very little. And the relationship between the doctor and Mrs. Barham is poorly scripted as well with neither actor seeming to know what to do in their scenes together.

There are moments of clear and strong storytelling but they are few. The show starts well, introducing the scenario and remains good through the scene when the idea is proposed to Barham. The dialog here is good and the performances fine with the scene ending brilliantly as the presiding General verbally smacks Barham down. This opening segment shows us all we need to know about our main character perfectly even getting across the fact of his numerous marital infidelities with ease.

The second stand out moment is near the end when the General decides to talk to the now mad Barham to determine if he really is dangerous. The no nonsense ‘This crap is over’ attitude he presents is just what the flagging story needs right then. Of course, from there it limps home in a pretty obvious way but for a minute it seems like better things are coming.

This one is in the bottom third of Outer Limits shows and is probably best skipped unless you’re a completist- like me.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

THE EVIL (1978)


I've been going through the second volume of trailers from Synapse called 42nd STREET FOREVER: THE DEUCE. It's another great collection of rare and fantastic previews with the rarities really pushing my buttons this time. The standout is the amazing trailer for THE EVIL. Starring Richard Crenna in a shaggy beard and a few other actors I recognize it appears to be a full strength haunted house movie with all kinds of supernatural goings on. It really looks like a creepy ride and soME quick research has turned up Phil Hardy's review calling it better than THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE! Now I've got to see this thing! Even if Hardy is wrong (as he frequently is) that kind of recommendation is reason enough to check it out.

It apparently was released on VHS in the 80s and I've found a copy of the tape going for too much on eBay here. I'd like to get it but more than $16 for a video tape just hurts to think about.

Still.....I gotta see this film. Maybe there are better options out there. I'd better get to hunting.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

THE OUTER LIMITS- The Human Factor

On an American military base in Greenland army psychiatrist Dr. Hamilton has created a machine that enables him to tune directly into another person’s thoughts. He uses it on Major Brothers, a dangerous guilt ridden paranoid who had been brought to him because he insists the base is about to be invaded by aliens. But while the doctor and Brothers are linked mentally through the machine an accident occurs that switches their minds from one body to the other. The psychiatrist’s body now possesses the brain of Major Brothers and he is intent on blowing up the base with an atomic bomb to stop his possibly imagined aliens. Major Brothers' body now contains the doctor’s brain, but is placed in a medical cell under sedation and is unable to make anyone believe the truth. In the doctor’s body Brothers’ moves quickly to gain access to a weapon and destroy both the base and his feared invasion.

Not a great episode but not a bad one either THE HUMAN FACTOR falls somewhere in the middle. The paranoid visions Brothers has of the alien monster reaching towards him out of the snow storm is the only ‘bear’ in the show and their final explanation is good, wrapping the tale up well. The story is well developed and flows well & logically from one point to the next. This episode benefits greatly from some good pacing and strong performances from Harry Gardino (Brothers), Gary Merril (Dr. Hamilton) and Sally Kellerman as the doctor’s secretary and lab assistant. All three actors are good with the standard TV close-ups really showing off their skills at complex emotions. Each of them has at least one scene requiring them to convey conflicting feelings with no dialog and they succeed every time. Good stuff!

The first successful use of the mind melding machine is between the Doc and his secretary. During their close contact her feelings for her boss become known. She loves Hamilton but also knows he doesn’t feel the same for her. Wrapped up in his work he has never thought about that part of his life. But with Miss Kellerman around he’d have to be a eunuch to not feel something! Her feelings for the Doctor and her familiarity with his mannerisms (as well as some notes made before the experiment went bad) allow her to see through the switch and help Hamilton escape his cell. It become s a race to see if the good Doctor can find a way to switch the bad Major back to his own body before Brothers can get access to a bomb and kill everyone on the base. As the title suggests it’s the human factor that both causes the problem (guilt over a death) and solves it (love conquers logic). It’s the Human Factor that makes us our own worst enemies as well as our only saviors. Hopefully.

A good mid-range episode with some above average elements.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

THE OUTER LIMITS- The Invisible Enemy

I’ve had a great love for the original OUTER LIMITS series since my childhood. I was only able to catch a few episodes from time to time as a kid but each one was wonderful. Since the show came out on DVD I’ve been going through the whole run kind of randomly and have decided to blog my impressions. For no good reason I’m starting in the middle of the second season but will be jumping around later.

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After the first manned Mars mission ends in catastrophe a second team is sent three years later. Unsure of what caused the destruction of the first mission the four man crew is very cautious. But when a crewman disappears screaming in agony as soon as he’s out of sight of the other astronauts they begin to fear an invisible killer lurks on the red planet. Gradually the men discover what we lucky viewers have known all along- that the nearby expanse of sand is a sea in which a vicious clawed monster lives. Drawn to movement or the smell of blood this shark-like beast is clearly enjoying its tasty new snacks from another world!

Rewatching THE INVISIBLE ENEMY last night I was happy to find it stood up very well to my memories of it as a top flight episode. It’s not one of the best but it’s very solid. I really enjoy this one and have found myself thinking of it often over the years. As with many Outer Limits episodes the most memorable element is the ‘bear’ or monster and this one is no exception. I’m sure many will find the sand creature laughably fake looking with the composite shots putting it in frame with the actors being a low point. But I still feel that same sense of wonder I felt as a kid during these scenes. When the monster rises out of the sticky looking sand I’m spellbound and creeped out even as I see that there is no life in the obvious puppet’s eyes. It’s this twin feeling of being caught up in the story and knowing that its unreal that makes revisiting so many older science fiction shows appealing to me. For instance, THE INVISIBLE ENEMY had me from its beautiful opening shot of the Martian landscape as the classic old style rocket made its descent. The wonderfully detailed matte painting and crude but effective landing effects immediately pulled me in putting a smile on my face. This is comfort television. Black & white visions of a future never to be, almost out of date before they could be broadcast and imprinted on young minds. Those same young minds longing for the adventure of space travel even as they feared the unknowns repeatedly pointed out in such tales. This is wonderful stuff and truly inspiring.

Of course, the show isn’t perfect. The biggest flaw is the inclusion of one of my most hated clichés of 50s & early 60s filmed science fiction, the rascal team member. You know the rascal team member, don’t you? The guy who’s obviously too cool to be bothered with worry, too clever to be concerned and just enough of an arrogant dumbass to get himself and others killed. You know- a punk. You can spot these idiot characters immediately as they usually have sharp hair and lean against walls. I hate this stupid character type and can never understand why there is one in these kinds of stories more often than not. I guess they’re there to jump start the drama as they always do something incredible short sighted and brain-dead just in time to screw everything up. Then they play the ‘I’m so sorry. I’ll make it up SOMEHOW’ card as they nearly weep in self-disgust. And these bastards never die! They always live to the end credits no matter how much they deserve to be barbequed alive for their asinine actions. I hate these morons! As plot devices they piss me off and they smack of lazy writing. A pox on them all!

But still, this is a good episode –even with the moron punk character. I expect I’ll be watching it again pretty soon.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON (1973)


Over the past few days I’ve watched a number of horror films as Halloween approached. One of the nice things about the fall is that everyone seems to try to put out new DVDs of old horror movies and this year the new line of Elvira discs was a welcome addition to the market. Giving you the option of watching the full uncut movie with or without the hostess adding her two cents worth these DVDs are a cheap way to see pretty good copies of some rarer flicks.

So it is today that I sat down to watch WEREWOLF IN WASHINGTON (1973) starring Dean Stockwell as a presidential aide afflicted with lycanthropy. I’d heard about this one years ago but this was my first viewing and it was a doozy! By the halfway point I was laughing my ass off and simply stunned at the plain stupidity of the film! I’m assured this is an uncut print so I have to assume that at some point the producers stopped filming to save money. This is the only explanation for that fact that there seem to be whole scenes missing. I lost count of the number of times the screen would go to black after a scene and then the next sequence would begin hilariously in the middle of events. For instance- our wolf boy feels the onset of a transformation and locks himself in a bathroom in the White House. Cut to the next scene with him in full fuzzy face makeup clinging to the car roof of his intended victim! How did he get out of the White House? How did he get onto the top of the car without the driver knowing he was there? I was holding my sides with merriment and then the car stops at a strangely deserted gas station in the middle of the city. WTF! Since when?

I can’t decide if this was shot as a comedy or not. There are some really silly things but it’s played so straight that I would swear it seems to have been done strictly as a horror film. But the scene of Stockwell getting his hand stuck in a bowling ball while talking to the President couldn’t possibly be meant to be taken seriously. Could it?

Writer/director/editor Milton Moses Ginsberg would be the man to blame for this one I guess. He’s apparently still alive according to the Internet Movie Database so maybe someone can get hold of him for an interview. I’d pay good money to hear some reminiscing about this odd turd.

I’m still wondering what the funniest thing in the film is. Is it Stockwell crawling around on the floor trying to eat a rug with the cameraman’s shadow plainly visible in the shot? Is it the scene that shows us a pay phone booth on the steps of the Capitol building? Or perhaps the sight of the President of the United States on his knees trying to open a stuck bathroom stall door? Or the idea that a midget mad scientist named Dr. Kiss has a laboratory set up under the White House? Or maybe it’s the Werewolf vs. POTUS battle sequence near the end?

Come to think of it this must be a comedy. It’s just a really bad one. Man! Someone please interview Mr. Ginsberg about this mess! What the Hell was he thinking?