Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Walking Dead: Episode 2 (Guts)

Spoiler Warning! This post contains spoilers for episode 2 of The Walking Dead.

Episode Synopsis: Having reached Atlanta, which now belongs to the dead, Rick Grimes is rescued by a group of scavengers. He helps them escape the city and get back to their survivor camp where, unbeknownst to Rick, his wife and son are living.

Discussion: Please welcome my friend Scott, who is joining me for a discussion of the episode.

Q: What were some of the highlights of the episode, in your opinion?

zharth: Obviously, when Rick and Glenn snuck through the throng of zombies, covered in decaying flesh. That was a clever idea; I don't think I've ever seen somebody try that before. And nerve-racking. The rain seemed a little too (in)convenient, though - but I'm not complaining.

Scott: It's not quite a highlight, but I thought it was neat when Rick took out the zombie's wallet and had a brief eulogy for the man before they chopped him up. It went a long way toward building him up as a strong, decent man in a terrible situation. It also shows how "new" he is to the world, since he just woke up; everyone else is numbed and used to the fact that these "geeks" are just zombies, dead bodies walking around. They're obstacles to be put down.

To Rick, though, they're unfortunate corpses that were once people, and this scene shows that very effectively.

zharth: Yes, and I liked it particularly when they mentioned that their unfortunate volunteer was an organ donor.

Q: What do you think of the scavenger group's treatment of Merle - was it justified, or should they have done something differently?

zharth: I think it's unfortunate the way things turned out, but I can't blame anyone for it. Merle was definitely acting irresponsibly to begin with. Though it's a high-tension situation, and you can't expect everyone to remain calm, I can't blame Rick for taking control of the situation by handcuffing Merle. And I really can't blame T-Dog for dropping the key. I think it's clear that that was a mistake, and it says a lot about him that he wanted to go back and help Merle even though Merle assaulted him (and might very well do it again, if freed). I don't think Merle deserved to be left behind, but it wasn't directly anyone's fault - it was an extreme situation, and I don't think the remaining survivors had an obligation to risk their own safety (or that of the entire group) - by botching the escape mission for one downed member.

Scott: Rick's treatment of Merle was absolutely justified. Merle was a loose cannon and couldn't be trusted; that was a situation where everyone would have to work together to survive and Merle just wasn't going to do it. Not only was he constantly insulting and picking fights with another member of the group, but he was wasting ammunition dangerously and directly threatening the well-being of everyone else within range. Rick was right to take Merle out of the equation.

I think it was unfortunate, though, that they left him on the roof rather than taking him downstairs and tying him securely. The instant T-Dog tripped over the tools and dropped the key, though, I knew what was going to happen. I absolutely saw it coming and it horrified me. This is a problem with the show, honestly; horror's become such a popular genre recently that there are a lot of tropes that were once horrifying but are now overdone, and you can see it coming from miles away.

There's a movie called Moon that did a fantastic job of turning a classic sci-fi trope on its head, and I keep hoping to see that happen here, as well.

Conclusion: Thanks for joining me, Scott! Stay tuned for our discussion of episode 3 of The Walking Dead!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Walking Dead: Episode 1 (Days Gone Bye)

Spoiler Warning! This post contains spoilers for episode 1 of The Walking Dead.

Episode Synopsis: Sheriff Rick Grimes awakens in the hospital after being shot on-duty to discover that the world has succumbed to a zombie apocalypse while he was unconscious. He meets up with a local father/son team who teach him the basics of survival before heading to Atlanta in hopeful search of his wife and his own son.

Discussion: Please welcome my friend Scott, who is joining me for a discussion of the episode.

Q: What were some of the highlights of the episode, in your opinion?

zharth: I liked the intro, with our main character shooting a little girl in the head. Of course, she was a zombie, but it's still a horrifying image to start off the series - thus effectively setting the mood. Then, at the end, when Rick was seconds away from killing himself to avoid being taken by the zombies, before noticing the lower entrance to the tank - that was harrowing. It really seemed like he was a goner.

Scott: I didn't like it at first, but the whole fever dream sequence was a great way of putting the audience in Rick's shoes. You went from an intense police shootout on the job to the hospital, with a strange, blurry dream... and then when everything snaps to, you don't know what's going on. You have no clue how much time has passed and barely any clue about what's going on. We all know it's a zombie show, but Rick -- he's just woken up, he's weak, semi-delirious, was just dreaming and talking to someone who wasn't even there... and now he's in a busted-up hospital. As far as he knows, it could just be another terrible dream.

He wasn't being very smart for most of the first episode and it was driving me nuts, as much as I wanted to chalk it up to delirium and shock. Walking around barefoot, going into a dark stairwell, staring at a zombie corpse on the ground... these are not things that I would do at all. But really, I feel like Rick spent most of the episode in a dream and only really snapped out of it when he met Morgan and his son. He was waiting for the "kick" that would boot him out of the dream and into the real world, but it never ever came.

Q: Near the end of the episode, Morgan tries to put his zombie-wife out of her misery, but seems unable to bring himself to do it. Hypothetically, if you were in his situation, would you be able to go through with it?

zharth: I was thinking to myself during that scene, "just do it, Morgan, get it over with! The longer you put it off, the more you and her both have to suffer." I'd like to think I'd be able to do what's necessary in that situation, but short of finding myself there, it's hard to imagine just how difficult that would be. So though I dearly wanted Morgan to get it over with, I can't judge him for having a hard time with it.

Scott: It would be hard, but I would do it. I'd have to do it. I don't know how I could stand to see my (zombie) wife roaming the streets every night looking for living food. Would I be able to go on, knowing that she might be killing innocent people? Knowing that my son would have to live with that knowledge? I don't think I would ever be able to forgive myself if I passed up the chance to put her out of her misery. If I passed up that chance and she went away, she'd become my Moby Dick and that would just tear me apart.

There's no mistaking that it's a hard, cruel task that nobody should ever have to put up with... but I would try to do it. I'd cheat -- I'd try to do it when her back was turned, or when it was dark. Persuade myself that I wasn't really shooting my wife, but some shambler that I didn't know. The hard part would be waking up in the morning and having to go clean up the mess. I don't know if I could do that.

I have to admit, though: when this scene came on and Morgan was alone upstairs, his son alone downstairs... there's a quick shot where his wife is in the scope and looking down. I was 100% -- one, hundred, percent -- sure that his son had given in and tried to go outside to see his mother again. I was absolutely certain that Morgan would look through the scope and see his wife eating his son. That's when I decided that I would have to put her out of her misery; there's absolutely no way I would let there be a chance of anything like that happening. Ever.

Conclusion: Thanks for joining me, Scott! Stay tuned for our discussion of episode 2 of The Walking Dead!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway

This is the book that inspired last spring's rock biopic, The Runaways, starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. The Runaways were the all-girl teenage rock band that launched Joan Jett's music career in the 1970s; and Neon Angel is the story as told by the lead singer, Cherie Currie (the Cherry Bomb herself). It's amazing how much Cherie went through - even for a girl who exploded into rock stardom practically overnight, at the ripe young age of 15. This is without a doubt the most exciting rock biography I have ever read. I don't know how much Cherie exaggerated for narrative effect, if at all, but if she did, I can't blame her. It makes for a really captivating story. I won't spoil the details, but just about anything you can imagine a teenage girl thrown into the seedy world of music business would have to deal with - Cherie endured it. And survived. A Highly recommended read.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Walking Dead (An Introduction)

There is a new zomdrom (zombie drama) currently airing on AMC television called The Walking Dead. I first heard about it on Exfanding Your Horizons. Despite being a horror junkie with an interest in good zombie apocalypse stories (and there are plenty of zombie stories out there, though not all of them good), I wasn't originally going to catch this new series on AMC. Why not? Well, it was premiering on Halloween, and I already had plans for a movie marathon that day. And above all, I'm not a huge fan of television. I don't watch a lot of TV because the commercials are annoying, and like Nathaniel described in a recent Exfanding post, unlike other media, with TV, you have to plan your schedule around when your show is on, instead of watching it whenever you're good and ready.

But despite all that, I ended up deciding at the last moment to watch it. I had read an article in the newspaper (of all places) earlier that week that really hyped up the series, making it out to be more than just another run of the mill zombie story. And when the hallowed day came, I happened to be on a break between movies (for my marathon) when The Walking Dead came on, so I sat down and watched it. And I liked it. Enough to come back the following week. Did it live up to the hype? I'm probably spoiled by all the gory zombie features I've seen in my day, so it wasn't any scarier - or any gorier - than what I expect from a good zombie story. I hear people talk about how extreme it is, and I have to think to myself, yeah, I guess if you watch a lot of TV rather than a lot of horror movies - and this series seems to be getting a lot of notice in TV Town (to the extent that I can tell from my perch over here on Movie Mountain) - then this must be pretty extreme. After all, the gore I'm used to in the theater isn't exactly standard fare on the smaller screen, even for late night television. And I have to admit, the concept of a zombie series on TV of all places is not conventional - but very exciting.

So is it a good show? Yes. It's a good zombie story. As I mentioned, I came back, and I plan to continue coming back, to see where the story goes. The gore and scares may not set this series apart from other zombie stories, but I don't think that's really its claim to fame, is it? This story does have something unique, and it's the drama - the human drama. Which, I guess, makes it a prime suspect for a TV series. The Walking Dead puts the heart back into the decaying corpse of zombie horror. As scary as the zombies are, they're just walking bags of flesh. Sure, they pose a very real threat to anyone still living. But it is the living who have to deal with the feelings - fear, and anxiety, and desperation - that the unfeeling zombies instill. The Walking Dead is not really about the dead, it's about those who are still alive.

Join me and my friend Scott as we watch the series, and discuss it episode by episode. Stay tuned for our discussion of the first episode, coming soon!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

Please welcome our guest poster, Scott, with his review of the modern remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still:

I have to introduce this review by saying that I've never seen the original movie, outside of some fuzzy stills showing the giant robot. I pretty much went into the movie blind; I knew Keanu Reeves was in it, but that was it.

The basic premise of the movie is that an alien comes to Earth to save it because it's a planet capable of sustaining complex life -- something that's apparently quite rare. Humans are killing it and in the grand scheme of things, one species versus all of the species on earth is a no-brainer. So the alien decides to destroy all humans.

It's a chilling concept, honestly; as a science fiction fan, I'm used to all kinds of justification for human behavior: we're more evolved, we're smarter, we're self-conscious, we have souls, we have love, we have courage... but here, the alien, named Klaatu, makes quite a reasonable argument. Humans are killing the Earth. If the Earth dies, everything dies; if humans die, everything lives. Humanity isn't the good guy here... and it's hard to find any argument for us being the good guy other than the urge to root for the home team.

The movie certainly doesn't make that much of a case for us, either; the instant Klaatu lands, we shoot him. Then when he asks to talk to someone, we try to drug and imprison him. I couldn't help but wonder if this was for two reasons -- one, to make us look critically at humanity and what we've become post-9-11, and two, to criticize everything going on in the real world as a reaction to 9-11. A character in the movie discusses the preparation for what they think is an asteroid strike and even claims that it's all "theater," a word often used to describe airport security. It's all a charade designed to make us feel better.

In a way, the movie could be read as saying, "Here's the situation. The world is dying. You're doing it. You're ignoring it for entertainment."

There are a few other bits in the movie that contribute to the image of ruthless humanity: a thief in the airport, a fight with a man that ends with him on the ground with a heart attack (though the people who try to help him are conveniently ignored), a ruthless Defense Secretary, a violent president, a ruthless politician who condemns a man to death, a trigger-happy colonel in the Army... there are plenty of examples. Like I said before, the movie isn't trying to make humanity out to be the good guy.

The movie does a splendid job in building atmosphere between the color, the music, and the tones the actors use. It's almost enough to make me want to like the movie, but unfortunately there are too many plot holes for me to give in.

The first one is the most jarring one; the spaceship is originally believed to be a large object heading for the Earth and scientists are assembled to deal with the aftermath of the impact, which is supposed to be in Manhattan. This is fair enough; I can believe an emergency response team. What I can't believe is the idea that the government would make a response team, toss it on a chopper, and then send that chopper to the estimated impact site.

What's the point of that? You want to plan for mass devastation from an asteroid impact and then you put your planners at the impact site?

Not only that, but so close that they can see the object come down?

As long as you don't think about it too much, it's convenient for moving the story along, since the main character is right there when the spaceship lands.

Interpersonal relationships also suffer a lot; people come and go without any real sense of relation or background. You learn pretty quickly that the two main characters, a scientist named Helen and her step-son, have issues. The main characters come out and read some of those back issues for you. Nothing's hidden -- they just bring everything out and put on a parade, sledgehammer-style. The boy's father died, and so did his mother, so he's living with a step-mother and has lots of problems. There's a good scientist who shows up when he's needed, a decent politician motivated by fear who does what she thinks is right, a trigger-happy Army man... pretty much all of the stereotypes you need for a movie like this. There's even an alien who's been on the planet long enough to come to love the human race, as flawed as it is. Aww.

What we don't get, though, is a story.

The idea is that Klaatu sees the human capability for self-sacrifice and love in the face of danger and stops armageddon with a sacrifice of his own. I can buy that; it's something that's been done well a few times. Unfortunately, this isn't one of those times!

Helen and her step-son fight for the entire movie, and she pleads for his life in the end. That's about the whole of the story arc there.

The alien is resigned to destroying humanity for the entire movie, then makes a sudden reversal in the end. That's about the whole of the story arc there.

So ultimately, the movie wasn't all that effective. I felt like there were a lot of scenes cut for length that might have made it a better, smoother movie. There was a lot that could have been done with this movie to turn it into a more allegorical tale, considering the time it came out (2008). It would have been very easy to turn the alien(s) into an allegory for America -- coming in, doing what they think is right because they think someone else is wrong, using force to stop violence.

Perhaps it was really meant that way and it just didn't come through clearly enough.

This movie has a lot of unfulfilled promise and could have been a lot more interesting. As it is, it's worth watching over dinner, but hardly fodder for longer discussions.

Final Score: A Sour Note

Final note: John Cleese with a moustache has a very uncanny (and eerie) resemblance to a skinny James Doohan.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

7 Days (2010)

French Title: Les 7 jours du talion

So, I had a chance to watch this movie, but it was lacking any subtitles, and the language is in French. Normally, I would have waited for an opportunity to get subtitles, but I had already settled in to watch the film, and I said "to hell with it". As it turns out, the film was pretty easy to follow anyway. I may have missed the subtler points of the plot, but the basic outline, and the emotions (and motivations) of the characters were all pretty straightforward, particularly considering the basic premise - father of a murdered child abducts the murderer and subjects him to 7 days of brutal revenge torture.

It's a very tense and disturbing film. I don't know what part of it had to do with the fact that I wasn't paying much attention to the dialogue (since I couldn't understand most of it), but I spent a lot of the movie thinking about what I was seeing, the implications of the plot that was being handed to me, and ended up typing up some thoughts during viewing, which I'll share with you here in lieu of a standard review. These thoughts largely deal with the ramifications a movie such as this one has in the larger cultural environment, an issue that leaves me feeling a little cold with movies like this in general, and this one in particular. The film claims not to judge its characters' actions, and this seems to be true, but this is unsettling, because with this kind of behavior, you're left thinking that something ought to be said about it...

Let's begin.

Scene: Residential home. Two parents are speaking with the police. Their young daughter has just gone unexpectedly missing.

This is a terrifying situation. A happy family instantly plunged into anxiety and - if their greatest fears are realized - despair. Worst of all, the missing person is a young girl, a beautiful treasure, a child with her whole life ahead of her. To think of that life taken away, and what's more, to think of what that innocent child may be made to suffer before that, is enough to drive one to madness.

This is a terrifying situation. A nightmare. As an observer, the most reasonable reaction is fear. A strong feeling of repulsion. We must not let this happen. We must do everything in our power to prevent this possibility in our own lives - to our own children. We must protect them - even to the point of stifling them - because, think of the alternative!

This is a reasonable reaction. However, this type of occurrence is fortunately extremely rare. Yes, it is terrible, and exposing ourselves to it can help us learn to take certain precautions to reduce its probability, and better prepare ourselves to deal with it should the worst happen. But dwelling on it, and feeding the fear without restraint, is also dangerous. It is not healthy to live in fear constantly, nor is it healthy to stifle a child's natural growth - and their expanding measure of independence - for fear of what could happen.

When the worst does happen, we think, "what could I have done to prevent it? I should have been more careful." But there's no way to be 100% safe - there is always a risk. When the terrible happens, it is incredibly unfortunate, but it is a sad fact of life that life is not fair. Restricting our freedoms little by little is not a solution. We must learn to take the necessary precautions, yet also learn to know when so-called protections are doing more harm than good.

Scenario: The worst case. Young girl, 8, is abducted. She is raped. And she is killed.

This is a truly heinous crime. This girl was pretty. She was full of life. It sickens me that somebody could do this sort of thing. To anyone, let alone to a child. But what also sickens me is how anyone could think that this sort of thing had anything at all to do with love (the father's revenge seems to suggest this possibility, of love inspiring brutality, and that contributes to my condemnation of his actions - if true, he is as sick as the killer). Or even that it was primarily motivated by sex. Sex does not presuppose violence. The sex drive does not activate a willingness to rape, much less kill. Only a truly twisted individual could commit a crime like this, or an individual affected by extreme circumstances. Granted, a person who seeks out children will have no outlet, and may be driven to desperate actions, but even then, a very small minority will resort to such a perversion of love as this. And those types were bound to be dangerous from the start.

On the other hand, someone for whom children brightens his life, would want to preserve the life of a child, not destroy it. Contribute to her happiness, not her pain. To call this guy a "pedophile rapist" is to miss the boat. This guy is a serial killer, pure and simple. He makes pedophiles look bad, he even makes rapists look bad - most rapists don't kill their victims. You could describe him as a rapist because he rapes his victims, and you could describe him as a pedophile to indicate that the victims he rapes and then kills are children (assuming he picks children to be his victims due to their sexual desirability - otherwise he wouldn't be a "pedophile rapist" but simply a "child rapist"), but it's not the fact that he's a pedophile that sets him apart from the rest of civilized society. It's the fact that he kidnaps, tortures, rapes, and kills children, that makes him a truly loathsome character.

Consider: Vigilantism.

When you take the law into your own hands, you are no longer acting in accordance with the law. You become one with the criminal. We have fair trials because guilt is difficult to ascertain, and because we understand that human emotion does not wait for reason - but that it can be wrong. This is why we do not shoot first, and ask questions later.

I can understand the anger. But I cannot understand the desire to continue the cycle of hatred. To continue the cycle of violence, of sadism, of torture. There is punishment, and then there is wallowing in the very evil that has destroyed you. This is not rising above, this is becoming what you hate and what you fear. This is not vanquishing evil, this is propagating it. For one who has been so hurt by evil, how could you allow it to continue - spurred on by your own hands!

It is one thing to wish, to sentence, to condemn, but another to become the very agent of destruction. There are healthier ways to vent anger.

This is a very sadistic film. Well made, and it successfully transmits the sense of pain, but I cannot recommend it to anyone, it is just too sadistic. Except, perhaps, those who may find themselves in such a situation where they are considering such vigilante action, or feel the need to vent related frustrations. Hopefully, this film will turn you off of any idea of putting such plans into action. And if it doesn't, then I really fear for your well-being (and that of those you may turn your hatred toward). I understand the pain, but there is no justification for sadism of this level. If we allow this sort of thing to occur, no matter how "warranted" we might think it is, then we are no better than the original criminals, and thus we have given up our claim to righteous authority. It is a no-win path to follow. No win for any of us, including those of us who have not yet been victimized. If not for yourself, then for the decency of better humanity. The moment you become one of them, you tip the balance ever so slightly in their favor.

Consider: Violence for entertainment.

This film is torture porn. The popular comparison is the Hostel films. But the Hostel films didn't disturb me as much as this film does. Why? What was Hostel's goal: to disturb, or to entertain? In the case of violence as entertainment - particularly on the gore/horror extreme end of the spectrum (in contrast to PG-rated action movie violence) - the distinction may be vague. In the gorror realm, being disturbed is entertainment. But something about the violence in this movie feels fundamentally more unsettling. It feels more real. It feels more...violent. The violence is deplorable, it is disgusting, there isn't even a fantasy side of me that thinks it is in some way deserving, or in any way pleasing.

In a different story, a major character is tortured to within inches of his life, with the sadistic torturer gaining pleasure from his ability to keep the victim alive, in order to allow maximum savoring of the pain. Then, it was entertainment, a brilliant plot point. Delightfully devilish. Here, it is repulsive.

There, it was a plot point. Here, you are a participant in the torture. The torture is not a device to amplify the cruelty of the villain, it is not a test of endurance for the hero, here it instead amplifies the cruelty of the man you are supposed to be identifying with, and supporting. The man you are supposed to be able to feel sympathy for. And this is truly unsettling.

What is the responsibility for violence in films? There is an argument that desensitization to fantasy violence is a bad thing. Real life violence is horrendous compared to movie violence. Do we have a social responsibility to depict violence as it really is, so that people are truly disgusted by it, and do not glorify it instead? I think there is a place for sensational fantasy violence. I like violence that is more stylistic than realistic. It has an aesthetic quality, and I suppose it's further removed from real violence which is in no way appealing. But what is the purpose of depicting realistic violence in movies? What is the purpose of being disgusted as entertainment? If there is an argument to be made for people being turned off of violence via realistic violence in movies, perhaps this movie is a prime candidate.

I would be at least a little concerned about anyone who enjoyed the violence in this movie. (While still allowing for the fact that it is a fantasy, and not real.)

I don't know what you could possibly do to soothe the grief, other than wait, and be patient. But I know that torturing another human being sadistically, whether they've got it coming or not, is not the answer.

Closing comments:

So, yeah, the guy couldn't stop the girl's injuries from bleeding (in his mind), no matter how many times he tried to wash them. Though, considering his treatment of the other guy, he's not the best guy to go to to stop any kind of pain. You think? And that deer just keeps coming back. Yeah. Revenge doesn't get you anywhere. You're just wallowing in the despair and contributing to the madness. It doesn't help.

And the people who defend the torture in this film. Those are the people that really sicken me. It's amazing, but there are people who defend this man's actions to the letter. I only hope to god their bark is worse than their bite. Or else this is an even darker world than I thought. The irony of it all doesn't make it any easier to swallow.

I just can't rate this. It's a powerful film, but I'm not sure what its intent was, and I can't really recommend it to anyone.

Oh, what the hell.

Rating: For sadists (and emotional masochists) only.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Rockin' Out with Neil Young

Slightly belated, but since today was Neil Young's birthday, I figured it was worth celebrating. I felt it instinctively in my heart, but I didn't know it objectively until the middle of the day. I knew there was a reason I felt that November was a "Neil Young kind of month" - it's because the man's birthday is in November! Happy birthday, Neil!

Neil is one of the few artists I know that has mastered both the art of acoustic and the art of electric music. And me being more the type to be interested in electric music, I figure I'll celebrate by picking out Neil's ten(ish) best electric guitar-driven rock songs, from throughout his career. Let's get started.

Stop #1 - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, from 1969. This was Neil's second solo record, and the first with his most frequent backing band, Crazy Horse, fashioned from a bar band previously titled The Rockets. The album itself is top material, one of the best in the history of rock, but the two standout tracks from an electric guitar perspective are the jammy Down By The River, and the epic Cowgirl in the Sand.

Stop #2 - After The Gold Rush, from 1970. Not as strong an album, from start to finish, as the previous one (Everybody Knows...), but it features the song Southern Man, which is a powerful and (not always the case) radio-friendly rocker that's endured through the years.

Stop #3 - Ohio, from 1970. Released as a single and recorded with the supergroup Crosby Stills Nash & Young, this song features a biting electric riff, and heavily emotional political commentary. Rumor has it, David Crosby broke down in tears immediately after this song was recorded. Like Southern Man, it still receives a fair bit of radio play even today.

Stop #4 - Harvest, from 1972. This is widely acclaimed to be one of Neil Young's greatest albums, if not the greatest - and it is a good acoustic album, but the highlight is the closing track - Words (Between the Lines of Age) - which is a meandering electric epic.

Stop #5 - Zuma, from 1975. This is Neil's second official and full album with Crazy Horse, and is more consistently electric than Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, if not, overall, as flawless. But it features an inspired piece that contains what I would argue is Neil's most hauntingly sublime electric lead ever committed to record - that piece is Cortez The Killer.

Stop #6 - American Stars N' Bars, from 1977. This was not a Crazy Horse album, but the standout track, Like A Hurricane, was recorded with Crazy Horse. Hurricane is, suitably, an electric powerhouse that reaches almost unbelievable heights of guitar wizardry. Live versions are consistently interesting.

Stop #7 - Rust Never Sleeps, from 1979. If Harvest is Neil's greatest acoustic album, this could be argued as his best "hybrid" album - combining both the acoustic and electric halves of his muse. It is also a Crazy Horse album (at least for those songs not performed solo by Neil). The track most worth mentioning is Hey Hey, My My (the electric version of the song), which is a marauding beast that foams distortion at the mouth. A bit subtler (relatively speaking), but also of note, is the track Powderfinger.

Stop #8 - Freedom, from 1989. We jump ahead to the end of Neil's experimental period, which doesn't get as much exposure as the rest of his catalog. Freedom introduced the world to the electric anthem (also providing an acoustic version) Rockin' In The Free World.

Stop #9 - Ragged Glory, from 1990. Another Crazy Horse album, and quite possibly Neil's finest fully electric album. There is no shortage of good, heavily distorted rock grooving on this album. In fact, it's hard to pick a single favorite, but the fight is between the two 10+ minute epics - Love To Burn, and Love And Only Love.

Stop #10 - Greendale, from 2003. Greendale is a fascinating rock opera that, despite featuring Crazy Horse, manages to stay focused on the story instead of wandering off too far into the realm of jamming. This makes for a more coherent and captivating conceptual album experience, but the highlight for me is still the jamming on Carmichael, which is exquisite. But the closing piece, Be The Rain, has a powerful driving riff, and a perhaps more radio-friendly structure (hint hint), in spite of its length (coming in at almost 10 minutes).

Honorable Mentions (because Neil's got way too much good music to try to contain within any boundaries): Last Dance from 1973's Time Fades Away (still unreleased on CD), an angry electric jam; and the title track from 1974's On The Beach, which is rather subdued for an electric song, but quite beautiful. And there's so many more less popular songs that I haven't even touched on...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (PS2)

Shattered Memories is a different kind of Silent Hill experience. To start with, the only monsters in the game show up during the periodic "nightmare" sequences, and you can't fight them (there isn't a single weapon in the game), you have to run. Those sequences do get your adrenaline pumping, but overall the game is not as scary as previous installments in the series. However, it does have some unique qualities going for it.

When you start the game, you are treated to a "psychology warning", which informs you that the game will psychologically profile you as you play, catering its nightmares to your specific fears and personality flaws. It says that the game plays you, as much as you play it. This is certainly a fascinating (and terrifying) concept. Though I do question just how effective it is in practice.

The structure of the game is such: the backbone of the experience is your visit with a therapist (hence the profiling), who asks you various questions that I presume shape your gaming experience. Between these sections of the game, you have to live through what appear to be memory sequences, punctuated by nightmare scenarios in which the whole town freezes over and gets creepy (and populated by monsters). The memory sequences involve your character, Harry Mason, exploring Silent Hill after a car crash in which you lose track of your 7-year-old daughter, Cheryl.

Of course, there comes a point in every Silent Hill game (and I should really know better by now), when it slowly becomes clear that you didn't just crash your car and lose track of your daughter, but something far more serious is going on, except you're not quite sure what it is until the end. But nobody who finds their way to Silent Hill is innocent. At the risk of spoiling, I'll say that I really enjoyed the twist at the end. I probably should have seen it coming, but I was so distracted by my fear of the game figuring me out, that it caught me by surprise, and I loved it.

One of the unique aspects of this game is the cell phone. Your character, Harry, carries a cell phone on him, which has a number of functions (including allowing you to save your game). Everything you need is on your phone, except the flashlight which is separate. You can save your game, view the map, take pictures of your environment, and call people, or receive calls.

Throughout the game, you'll come across certain areas where an electronic disturbance will alert you to a lingering memory attached to an object. As you approach, you will receive a text or voicemail, seemingly lost in time, and not necessarily addressed to your character, explaining the significance of that object or location. It's like your phone is responding to the ghosts of lost memories. Many of these messages do not seem to be directly related to the plot, except insofar as they relate to the themes of the game and set the mood. Though I've spent a lot of time wondering if they might not carry more significance than that.

There are also certain areas in the game where a different kind of disturbance will indicate an actual ghost that you can only see through your camera phone. The camera is a very interesting addition to the game. When you take a picture, you can choose to save it to your gallery or discard it. I'm not sure if there's any use to saving the pictures you take (and there appears to be a limit on the amount you can save), other than being able to look at a scene later in the game. For example, you could take a picture of a poster with a phone number on it, and then have that phone number later in the game (though I have yet to find an instance where this practice is actually useful).

The phone is another interesting aspect to the game. There are phone numbers all over the town, and you can call each one. So, for example, if you see a phone number scribbled on the stall in the restroom, you can call it and hear the annoyed girl complain about the people always calling her. Some phone calls are more useful than others - a few are essential to the plot - but most of them either provide some information about the town, or help set the mood, like the text messages and voicemails you periodically receive.

One other interactive aspect of the game is that you can control where you look while you're conversing with the various people you encounter throughout the game. I'm not sure what effect staring at a character's boobs instead of her face while she talks to you might have, since I haven't had the nerve to try it, but I know there's at least one place where you can get into big trouble if you don't watch where you're looking.

But all of this helps add to the paranoia of playing - not knowing how the game is monitoring and judging you, and how it might affect play. For example, you could choose to look through somebody's purse while she's in the next room, or leave it alone. When you play video games, you're used to going through people's things and not being penalized for it - in fact, it's often necessary to advance the game. But here, you have to balance your curiosity and the possibility of finding something with the potential penalty the game may charge you with. And you just don't know how it will turn out one way or another.

There are mementos hidden throughout the game, that you can collect. They fit into the theme of "shattered memories", along with the ghost messages, but I'm not sure what direct significance they have. I feel that way about a lot of the game. I suppose it must all go into the psychological profile you get when you finish the game, but I wonder about the specific dynamics. It seems less transparent, and that's unsettling, because I like control. Ha, maybe the game really is profiling me after all! The game does have replay value, what with all the choices you can make, and indeed, the first time I beat it, it directly encouraged me to try again, and to apply all the information I had learned to a second play-through.

Addendum: After playing through the game several more times, two thoughts come to mind. One is that, the way in which the game profiles you and changes accordingly is fascinating, but the system is unsurprisingly limited. Of course, the more choices you have, the more work has to go into the game, but a more freedom-rich environment could create vastly different gaming experiences catered to individual players' personalities (although this game is already something of a nightmare for completionists). Also, the added ways you can interact with the environment almost make the game like one of those old text adventures, except with extremely limited options - limited, in fact, to only those items whose interactions bear specific fruit in the course of the game. Also, keys are, without exception, located in the same room with the locked door, and require very little creativity (if any at all) to find. Although mixing that up would ramp the challenge up considerably, it would be a much more interesting (and thorough) gaming experience to change that up a bit.

The other thing I think of is how much I miss the old Silent Hill experience. This one is certainly a fun and interesting experiment, but it's rather linear, and the lack of combat totally changes the playing dynamic (and, of course, reduces the scare factor considerably). There's no real time spent getting to know each environment, and working out how to go from A to B (usually involving passing between real world and demon world repeatedly), while avoiding and/or fighting demons along the way (and generally getting your pants scared off) - you just kinda plow through each section, completely devoid of threat (excepting the Nightmare sequences, which require even more of a plow-through mentality).

So anyway, what I'm getting at is that this is a very unique Silent Hill, recommended for the merits it certainly has, but I'm not about to rate it as one of the best titles in the franchise, nor would I use it as an example of what classic Silent Hill is like - the type of Silent Hill that makes the series the scariest name in horror gaming. (For that, you'll have to look to the first two titles in the series).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Session 9 (2001)

I only knew two things about Session 9 before watching it: that it has received high praise among cult horror fans; and that its premise involves an asbestos removal crew working in an abandoned mental hospital. This is rather clever, as it actually gives the characters a legitimate reason for being in an abandoned mental hospital. And while I won't fault other movies for less plausible setups (I myself would explore an abandoned mental hospital for no other reason than curiosity), there's an air of authenticity that comes from feeling like the characters in the movie are doing something natural, and not being forced into situations just for the sake of scaring them (and the audience).

And this film manages to construct a very tense, foreboding atmosphere, largely inspired by the intrinsic creepiness of the set itself: an impressively large, and suitably dilapidated, insane asylum. As far as the plot goes, I was hoping for more of a supernatural scare (there are elements of that), but instead, we get a tale of insanity. The crew workers are affected - in more and less subtle ways - by the legacy of a former patient, with multiple personalities, who had repressed her memory of a terrible thing that happened when she was a child. There is enough ambiguity in what happens in order to provide evidence for various interpretations of the story. But I think the supernatural/demonic elements effectively work as symbolism for the evil that exists in the hearts of every man (and lucky for us, lies dormant in most).

There is some really creepy imagery in this movie, most of it subtle - except maybe the few shots of spiders thrown in. But some of it very effective. Most horror movies don't actually "scare" me, but this one did (though not on the same level as Paranormal Activity - another reason why I hoped for a more supernatural scare). Overall, this is a really well-made film. The premise, while familiar, contains an original twist, and the filmmakers know how to create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Highly recommended for serious and sophisticated horror fans.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Serbian Film (2010)

I didn't go looking for this film, but when it was pointed out to me, I knew I had to see it. I'm drawn to controversy. And I'm interested in the way that cultures depict the extremes of human civilization. Not purely for entertainment value, though there may be some of that too, but for the intellectual fascination it provides. We talk about normality all the time, but the way we talk about the monsters and demons and specters among us is what really tells us who we are.

A quick look at the plot synopsis reveals that this movie is about a retired porn star who takes one last job for an art film that turns out to actually be a snuff film, allegedly involving elements of necrophilia and pedophilia. But the most shocking thing (and considering the plot keywords, that's saying a lot) is that it's actually a good movie! Judging from its description, I thought it was going to be trash, but I figured it was worth seeing to find out what, if anything, it had to say about the extremes of human nature, and because the idea of a film revolving around a porn star happens to interest me.

But get this: it's a good story. The characters are believable, and are acted well. And while a large portion of the movie depends on shock & gore, even that part maintains a sense of mystery - putting the pieces together, leaving you wondering just where it will all end. And before we get to that part, the suspense is palpable. From reading the description, you know you're in for a wild ride, but it starts out slow. You get the sense of, "I don't know what's going to happen, but it could be anything", and that's really creepy in a movie. When you don't know just how far the director is willing to go, there's a sense of uncertainty, and a lack of control. With most films, you can expect a certain level of intensity. Other films surprise you with something you hadn't anticipated. With a film like this, you know it's going to get rough, but you can only imagine what's in store.

The characterization of the porn star is very respectable, which earns points in my book. He's not stigmatized by what he does (not by the people close to him at least), his wife isn't jealous, and he has an honest but considerate approach towards his young son's questions about his work. The art director, who turns out to be undeniably insane, starts out rather reasonable, with some great insights about art, and how pornography can be lifted to an art form. (It's too bad he has such little concern, or rather, such intense enthusiasm, for the suffering of others). And the porn star's reactions to the shady art director's offer are very believable. He's suspicious, but he needs the money. He proceeds cautiously, and when things get too sketchy, he tries to back out. Unfortunately for him, he's already in too deep.

My favorite part of the film is the first couple days of the shoot for the art film. The major stipulation of the deal is that the porn star is to know nothing about the shoot - he must simply show up, follow instructions, and do his porn star best. So there's a whole lot of mystery. What will he be asked to do, and how will he react to it? Since the character has been humanized, you can empathize with him, and you know his reactions will be humane and likely on par with yours. The first day, they start shooting at an orphanage. Instantly, you feel uneasy. What are they doing there, of all places? There are a couple of women - a nurse, and a mother - plus a young girl. You feel concern at where the narrative is headed. Things get more and more uncomfortable. The suspense here is intense. Then the shit hits the fan and all hell breaks loose.

With all the suspense and the hype (yes, one person saying "this looks intense" counts as hype to me), I was wondering if the film would deliver the horror in the end, and I must say, it most certainly did. Very psychologically damaging, above all the gore and violent sex. And a very depressing ending. I do not know much about Serbia, but I've read that this film is something of an allegorical tale about its history. Something about its people being forced to do heinous things, and treated in kind. I knew nothing of this while watching the film, and still enjoyed the film immensely. Knowing this after the fact increases my appreciation for the film - that there is symbolism and meaning behind it, that there is a point for the extreme nature of it.

I cannot recommend this film to just anyone, simply for its graphic nature, which I know not everyone will be able to stomach. But neither would I advise nobody to see it (which in my case only attracts my curiosity), as I have seen others do. You must be able to get over the extreme nature of the film - specifically, the graphic sexual violence (and make no mistake, the sexual perversion in this film - a topic I have quite a bit of interest in - has little to do with anything other than brutal sadism, both physically and psychologically). But if you can, this is a very competent piece of film-making. Among other exploitation and shock-gorror flicks, this is a film of quality that stands out.

Friday, November 5, 2010

THX 1138 (1971)

THX 1138 is George Lucas' first film, and is a sci-fi dystopian story. It is a future where people are sedated by drugs, policed by androids, and instructed to consume for happiness. "Buy more, buy more now - buy, and be happy." It's not an exciting, action-packed film - it actually does a good job of sedating the viewer, to an extent; the bored, disjointed atmosphere kind of creeps into you. Some of it may be confusing, and further reading (of discussions) can help - one comment by a fan that helped my appreciation for the film is that it's like a foreign film, in terms of it being a futuristic film that doesn't go out of its way to explain itself to modern day viewers. You might not fully understand all of the rituals, and some of the terminology may be unfamiliar, but you can get a gist of what's going on. And the vision, the vision of this bland, sterile future, is executed well. All in all, it's an interesting story of one man's attempt to escape to freedom from this passively oppressive society, after becoming awakened to his basic humanity due to an illegal reduction in his pill-taking responsibilities. Not a flawless film, but an inspired production worth taking a look at, if you're a film buff or a sci-fi geek, or just a dedicated fan of George Lucas (this film is a world away from Star Wars).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

They Live (1988)

I had AMC's Fear Fest on television in the background over Halloween weekend, and I stumbled upon this little gem of a movie. The first thing I saw was a scene of a guy in a city, who put on a pair of dark sunglasses that allowed him to see the truth behind the oppressive capitalist domination of the American public. With the glasses on, billboards transformed from flashy advertisements to their true messages: OBEY, or MARRY AND REPRODUCE. Shops in store fronts urged NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT, and CONSUME. Flipping the magazines on the racks revealed messages of DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY, HONOR APATHY, STAY ASLEEP, and the like. And a wad of money displayed the phrase THIS IS YOUR GOD. I was entranced. A movie that reveals the totalitarianism of modern consumer society? Fantastic!

The film - by John Carpenter - is part political commentary, part science fiction, and part action flick, as it turns out. The planet has actually been taken over by aliens disguised as humans, and the protagonist has discovered the resistance movement, consisting of the few humans that are conscious of the aliens' presence and plan for keeping the humans as unknowing slaves. It's a pretty neatly contained little tale, that does have a bit of a b movie flavor, like when the protagonist walks into a bank with the weapons he just stole off a couple of cops, and proclaims, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum" - a line that Duke Nukem copped to excellent effect.

I don't think the political premise is followed deeply enough to satisfy me, and the alien invasion twist renders it more symbolic than literal (though we may not be at the mercy of an alien invasion, the points still apply). However, it's a great theme to see in a movie, and it's an entertaining film to watch.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Halloween II (2009)

I was surprised to learn that Rob Zombie has already created a sequel to the Halloween remake. Though it's possible that I heard about it, and then promptly forgot. But since I just watched Halloween, I figured it's a good time to catch the sequel, too. Especially considering that, at least with the originals, the second movie picks up immediately after the first, which kind of ends on a cliffhanger. Well, Rob Zombie's Halloween II does that, but there's a twist, and it's kind of a red herring. He eventually goes off into his own territory, and unlike the back story in the first one, this material is much less effective. I was really impressed with Rob Zombie's Halloween - really impressed - but his Halloween II is a near unwatchable abomination.

It's a shame, because after being so impressed with the first, I had high hopes for the sequel. And the cinematography is frequently beautiful. The hospital chase scene is very tense and chilling, but it suffers from gratuitous gore (and if you know me, I rarely fault things for being gratuitous), and the fact that a lot of it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Although that's kind of explained away, you're left feeling cheated. But the entire film suffers from this strange white horse symbolism, which manifests as some kind of hallucination by our killer, Michael Myers (now a bearded, hooded drifter). The result, which could have been interesting, is some bizarre music video-esque aesthetic that confuses and distracts from the fact that this is a Halloween film, and not an unrelated Rob Zombie horror movie.

Now let's talk about characters for a moment. There is an early scene with young Michael, but the actor from the first film, who was a convincing psychotic, is replaced by some charming boy who is a lot prettier and a lot happier, and that just completely ruins Michael's believability as a mentally disturbed sadist. Completely ruins it. In the first movie, I was concerned that having Scout Taylor-Compton in the role of lead protagonist Laurie Strode would cause me to think of Lita Ford (the annoying role she played in The Runaways movie) every time I looked at her, but she was wearing glasses and acting cheerful and it wasn't a problem at all. But in this movie, she's lost the glasses, and the traumatic experiences from the first have turned her into a whiny bitch. In other words, Lita Fucking Ford is back... One other character I'll mention is Sam Loomis, who was good in the first, but in this one, he's incredibly arrogant and obnoxious - more concerned with his own career than Michael's killer rampages - and it ruins what is supposed to be a likable character. In general, everybody in this movie overacts to a frequently annoying degree.

The film is not complete rubbish, and a person with different tastes might find more in it to love, but while it does have a few redeeming qualities, I had a hard time staying interested, and am going to have to rate it a waste of time. You'll be better suited just watching Zombie's first Halloween and skipping the sequel.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I'm gonna start with some major plot spoilers. Skip to paragraph three below if you don't want to know about Freddy's [new] past, and the moral dilemma that this film conjures.

Picture this: a gardener at a preschool becomes the focus of a satanic ritual abuse scare. The parents of the children attending the preschool - in the interest of protecting their children (or is it avenging the death of their children's innocence?) - choose to forego the usual process of justice and apprehend the gardener (reasonably fleeing in fear for his own safety) with no evidence beyond hearsay (after all, it's too risky to consider the possibility that he might be innocent), and kill him in a rather gruesome manner, by burning him alive while trapped in an old building.

Shall we talk about society creating monsters? I of course won't justify the murder of innocents under any context, but is there not some sense of justice in the accused seeking revenge against the children of those who judged and executed him before the eyes of god? After all, he's already paid the ultimate price for his crimes - if he hasn't already committed them, is he not somewhat entitled to by this point? Those parents condemned their children - and they did it with the purest of intentions. And even if their hunches were correct, as they may well have been, brutality is paid with brutality, and in continuing the cycle they have again condemned their children to their fate. And if the crimes were nonviolent in nature? Then the parents themselves are responsible for entering bloodlust into the equation.

(End spoilers)

Among the classic slasher series, A Nightmare on Elm Street stands out as being rather unique, in that the killer's preferred venue is his victims' dreams. This opens the door for some really spectacular - and really terrifying - scenes. Nightmares don't have to make sense, and terror is so much more visceral in the dream world. Plus, there is the troubling questions of whether or not to believe that the monster tormenting you is real, how to get others to believe you, and the fact that the symptoms of the fear are exacerbated by your natural reaction to it - avoiding sleep.

I have mixed feelings about the remake; the movie is flawed, but the source material is so rich. The nightmares were exciting. But I felt like there wasn't enough establishment of the characters - this is something the original accomplished in spades. The one character in particular, Kris, gave off a kind of a Taylor Swift vibe - in that she looked like a 25 year old pretending to be a 15 year old. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I think the role called for a high schooler, not a career woman pretending to be a high schooler. I liked Nancy in this film, but there's just no way she can hold a candle to the original Nancy, who was unforgettable - one of the all-time great protagonists from a slasher film.

This film introduced two ideas I don't remember being specifically outlined in the original, that really enhanced the terror. First is the recounted fact that after the heart dies, the brain lives on for a number of minutes - meaning that if Freddy kills you by stopping your heart, you've got that many minutes left to endure his torture before you can finally die. The other idea is the details of sleep deprivation - that if you stay awake long enough, you'll start to experience "micro naps", and begin to dream with your eyes open. The film capitalizes on this by effectively blurring the line between the waking and dreaming worlds. Furthermore, if you stay awake long enough, your brain will instinctively snap into a coma - thus, no matter how hard you try to keep from falling sleep, you're moving inevitably towards that result, in which you'll be trapped in the nightmare indefinitely!

The concept behind A Nightmare on Elm Street is so good (and the realm of dreams so rich for exploration), that it's hard to watch any movie like this and feel like the depths were adequately explored. But, I think this movie was good and scary. Jackie Earle Haley put in a good turn as Freddy Krueger, and reflected the rather dark nature of the rest of the film, but not without retaining little flashes of the character's trademark black humor. The original film is just so good though, that I can't say this one matches it. Also, the sensational kills of the original can never be topped. But the infamous bathtub scene is reprised. ;-)