Friday, December 30, 2011

Music Haul (2011)

CDs are a great Christmas gift - certainly for a music fan. They're cheap, you can never have too many (I've been collecting for years and am still nowhere near done), and each one is a potentially exciting musical discovery waiting to happen. The only trick is finding the ones a person is going to like (much easier if they tell you which those are). It is true that the digital revolution is changing the way we consume all sorts of media - not limited to music - but I have yet to outgrow the CD format (it's scary to think that the day is fast approaching - if it's not here already - when kids will view CDs in the same antiquated light as I learned to view vinyl records (albeit I've always given them the reverence due a well respected elder format)). So, it doesn't take a stretch of belief to hear that my most numerous Christmas gift is that of the CD album. I shall now list those CDs I received this year, and give a short review of each:

Iron Maiden - Edward The Great (2002)
Black Sabbath - Heaven And Hell (1980)
Rush - Feedback [EP] (2004)
Fleetwood Mac - Kiln House (1970)
Journey - Look Into The Future (1976)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show [Soundtrack] (1975)
Jethro Tull - Aqualung (1971)
Explosions In The Sky - How Strange, Innocence (2000)
The Rolling Stones - The Brussels Affair (Live, 1973)
Lance Lopez - Live (2007)
Michael Bloomfield - Live At Bill Graham's Fillmore West (1969)
Gary Moore - Blues For Greeny (1995)

Black Country Communion - Live Over Europe [DVD] (2011)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 Movie Releases (In Review)

At the end of last year, I posted a summary of the movies that had been released throughout the year that I got to see in the theaters, followed by a discussion of: the movies released that year that I saw outside the theaters; the movies that were released that year that I wanted to see, but didn't get around to; and what I was looking forward to seeing in the next year. I thought it was a fun idea, so I decided to revive it for 2011!

Actually, it's a couple weeks early yet, but I don't know of any movies coming out between now and the New Year that I'm probably going to rush out to the theater for, so I figured I'd go ahead and take a look back while it's on my mind.

It turns out 2011 was a much leaner year for [new] movies, for me, than 2010 was, probably largely because of my financial and transportational condition. I only saw four movies in the theater this year, and the one movie I mentioned that I was looking forward to (Red Riding Hood), I ended up skipping - although I did get a chance to see it at home later in the year. Here are links to my reviews of those five movies:

Super 8 - a great nostalgia piece/sci-fi action flick from the minds of J. J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, and starring Elle Fanning (conveniently released during my period of obsession with her sister's filmography) that I described as The Goonies of the 21st century.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - the continuation of the previous December's release and the final installment in the Harry Potter film series.

Paranormal Activity 3 - a second sequel to the movie I rated as the scariest movie I'd seen in my adult life (although unfortunately not entirely living up to its predecessors' accomplishments).

The Thing - a prequel disguised as a remake to John Carpenter's best movie (confusingly, with the same title), which was itself the best remake ever done, and one of my favorite movies of all time (though the prequel expectedly does not quite live up to the previous movie's reputation).

Red Riding Hood - the movie I described as Little Red Riding Hood adapted for the Twilight generation. As a fantasy and an erotic thriller, it leaves much to be desired, but Amanda Seyfried looks fantastic, and it's a curious gothic romance.

Now for movies released in 2011 that I missed! There were three in particular that I heard about and wanted to go see, only to find out they weren't playing anywhere near me. Those were Trust, Texas Killing Fields, and Shame. As for the rest, I'm going to browse through a list of movie releases in 2011 to refresh my memory of what came out...

* I had heard good things about The King's Speech, even if it doesn't look like the sort of film I'd be drawn to. But I ended up not seeing it.

* Hanna looks good, but I don't remember hearing anything about it.

* Soul Surfer is one that somehow slipped under my radar.

* I considered seeing Your Highness due to its pervertedness, but ultimately decided against it as "sexy" comedies are frequently disappointing in the erotic department.

* The Tree of Life intrigued me when I saw trailers for it - not enough to get me out to the theater, but I'd still like to watch it sometime.

* I'll probably watch X-Men: First Class some day, but my feelings for the X-Men movies are lukewarm.

* Bad Teacher appeals to me at least to the extent that I like teachers that do not conform to the industry code on how kids are supposed to be indoctrinated (although it is, unfortunately, only a comedy).

* Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one I would have liked to have seen. You know, if I had had more enthusiasm to get out and spend money.

* I was this close to going out to see the Don't Be Afraid of the Dark remake, but I ended up sating myself with the original.

* I'll admit that Shark Night (3D?) caught my attention, but I'm not sure it's good enough to live up to its premise (shark attacks on girls in bikinis). It could be a totally cool exploitation flick, but I have a feeling it's more likely to be on the level of a cheap sci/fi (sorry, syfy :p) channel monster movie. I guess I'd actually have to watch it to find out...

* Contagion sounds interesting. Makes me think of Outbreak, which I liked.

* I really want to see Red State. A guy I met at the Horror Realm Con really hyped it up for me. I wouldn't have expected Kevin Smith (see: Clerks) to do a good horror movie, but that's the word on it, and it sounds good. Plus, it's supposedly about religious intolerance!

* Dirty Girl looks intriguing, but would be a lot more...interesting...with an actual teenager. :-\

* No comment on The Human Centipede 2. :p

Alright, that's enough. I think the moral of this story is that there are more movies out there than I have the time (and the money) to watch, and that's not even taking into account the decades of movies past that I have yet to see!

But as for next year, I think The Dark Knight Rises is the big one to look out for. There's also a lot of excitement for The Hunger Games - I think I'm going to probably read the book(s) first, and then we'll see how excited I get. I'm also looking forward to seeing The Perks of Being a Wallflower when it comes out (featuring Emma Watson in her first post-Harry Potter role). And it looks like The Hobbit (part 1) might be coming out next December? I guess we'll have to wait and see!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

SRV - Slow Blues

Legendary British blues guitarist Peter Green (the man who formed Fleetwood Mac, and penned Santana's hit Black Magic Woman) once differentiated between the two styles of the blues, saying that he considered all the faster songs to be rock n roll, with the slower ones being the true blues. And while there is a long history of upbeat blues, this comment has always resonated with me, as it's the downbeat blues that have always spoken to me on a deeper level. In my mind there is a significant distinction between that style of up tempo blues that has a good rocking beat, that gets you jumping and moving, as if to dance your blues away, and the down tempo blues that seems to wallow and revel in sadness and despair. Both approaches have merit, and I do indeed enjoy both of them immensely for their separate appeals, but as a bit of a darker, more melancholic, inwardly directed person, it's the Slow Blues that truly calls to me.

So I took some time to dig through Stevie Ray Vaughan's discography recently. SRV is undoubtedly one of the greatest blues guitarists to ever grace this planet, and is probably my favorite artist whose career is situated primarily in the decade of the '80s. One of the most fascinating aspects about Stevie is his seemingly effortless combination of talent and popularity. Many pop artists rely on hooks to draw audiences in to their music, while many highly talented instrumentalists garner only a fraction of their popularity. It was more common in past decades, in my experience, for pop artists to be accomplished musicians, but Stevie Ray Vaughan is uniquely talented, even while being widely regarded and capable of writing a very good pop tune that demonstrates, rather than obfuscates, his mastery of the guitar.

But with my previous discussion of slow blues in mind, I have gone through Stevie's discography, skipping over those accomplished pop rockers (many of the ones you hear on the radio frequently), even [reluctantly] ignoring those tracks (several of them instrumentals) that showcase SRV's awesome guitar abilties, to focus in on the slow blues numbers that Stevie has recorded. As a result, I have compiled a nice, tight playlist of Stevie Ray Vaughan songs that emphasize the melancholy of the blues, the kind of songs that wallow in despair, the sort you might like to listen to on those days when you feel depressed, and you don't have a lot of energy, you're not ready to start feeling good again just yet - you just want to sit up in your room, as Son House once described it, and cry a while. Here's the tracklist:

1. Texas Flood
2. Dirty Pool
3. The Things (That) I Used To Do
4. Tin Pan Alley (aka The Roughest Place In Town)
5. Ain't Gone 'N' Give Up On Love
6. Life Without You
7. May I Have A Talk With You
8. Leave My Girl Alone
9. The Sky Is Crying

Friday, December 16, 2011

Notes on The Deathly Hallows (book version)

Warning: Harry Potter spoilers!

Just barely over a year since I became interested in the Harry Potter series and started watching the movies, I have now finished reading the books!

And this time, I finally decided to write down notes as they came to mind while reading the story, instead of waiting till the end to pull my thoughts together.

* I'm surprised that Dudley redeemed himself, in the end. I guess that makes him a less pathetic character than Draco?

* While not unattractive in the movies (though she is inevitably overshadowed by Emma Watson's Hermione Granger), judging from the chapter illustrations, Ginny is a lot prettier in the books. Hence, I mind Harry pairing up with her (instead of Hermione) less than I do when I watch the movies (which are filled with great Harry x Hermione moments).

* Wow, I just discovered that some people ship Tom/Ginny (like from Chamber of Secrets), and I think that's fantastic. (Okay, that note wasn't actually related to this story)...

* Much clearer antagonism between Harry and Scrimgeour in the books. He practically grills them like a police investigator during the reading of Dumbledore's will!

* Even with the Deathly Hallows movie split into two parts, it's amazing what didn't make it into the movies. Like how Regulus got that locket, and Grindelwald's association with the titular Deathly Hallows. This is good stuff we're talking about.

* It's fascinating that with Kreacher, we're given a nice middle ground for how to treat house elves. You don't have to forcibly deny them their lifeblood, the work they are proud of doing, you just have to treat them with fairness and respect. It might be tempting to have a slave who is forced to do your bidding, but considering that elves have some nice tricks up their sleeves, it's probably better to get them to help you because they like you, not simply because they have to. Anyway, it's better for your conscience, and it shows what kind of a person you are, the way you treat your slaves.

* Rather convenient that Harry's starting to see into Voldemort's mind again. Not that I'm complaining, those bits of exposition are both exciting and integral.

* Dumbledore really was pretty distant. I guess I could understand if he didn't like to talk about his family, but there was more he could have told Harry, at least as much as using the sword to defeat the Horcruxes. I know he trusted Harry to be able to figure it out on his own and all, and he was an extremely busy man, but Harry had always seemed to be resentful of Dumbledore's distance. I would have thought, apart from wanting to protect Harry from the truth, that maybe his admiration of Harry would have led to more of a connection between them. Although I can't really fault Dumbledore for not treating Harry with respect (like few else do), even back when he was just eleven.

* Wow, after Harry and Hermione visit Godric's Hollow, it's such a low point, even more than I remember it being in the movie. With Ron gone, and Harry's wand broken, they didn't find the sword, almost got killed by Voldemort (who himself actually showed up!), and most incredibly of all, Harry inadvertently helped Voldemort discover who the wand thief was that he's been looking for! And when Harry re-experienced Voldemort's attack on his parents, it's amazing the confusion between Harry and Voldemort, that you can't even really tell if it's the one or the other...

* Amazing that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were friends. Even so, I don't think Dumbledore's letter was as damning as it was supposed to be. I've had plenty of discussions like that in my own youth. I'm sure it was a difference of interpretation, that led Grindelwald to become a powerful dark wizard, and Dumbledore to be the icon of respect that he was. Just because he thought Muggles could stand to benefit from the powers of wizards doesn't mean he wanted to enslave them or kill them on a whim or anything of the sort. Even so, I do agree that Dumbledore should have told Harry much more than he did. It's to a point that I've lost a lot of my respect for him. On the other hand, his current actions (noble and not) may be an attempt to make up for what transgressions he may have committed in the past. If anything, it seems that Dumbledore, immensely talented though he was, is not perfect (maybe not even close), even though he may have been right about Snape all along (the one thing that seemed to be the most obvious evidence of his flaws).

* Xenophilius (awesome name) strikes me as something of a cryptozoologist. With the Lovegoods, you have to wonder if they're outright crazy, or if there's some merit to their mysteries. Take Luna. She was one of the few in Harry's group who could also see the Thestrals, ironically "proving" that Harry wasn't crazy in seeing them. And she believed Harry's story about Voldemort's return before most. So you want to believe there's something to her ability to discern truth in the world, and you begin to wonder if the crazy things she talks about aren't true, after all. And Xeno, he knew all about the Deathly Hallows - it makes you think they have inside knowledge on things. But then again, maybe it's just that they're so gullible that they're the first ones to believe those things in the world that are true, but are so improbable that most others don't believe them. On the other hand, it seemed like Xenophilius knew that Erumpent horn wasn't really a Crumple-Horned Snorkack's horn, and he was going to use it to trick the people that took Luna. Yet he insisted (as he must, to keep up appearances, so that the trick would work) that it was indeed the horn of a Crumple-Horned Snorkack. Was this just an unusual circumstance, or is he not as sincere about other things as he makes himself out to be? It's all quite a mystery. No doubt, though, that Luna is unusually sincere, loyal, and a good friend.

* The chapter "The Deathly Hallows" is clearly a turning point, but it's also gotta be one of the most expository-rich chapters in the entire Harry Potter series. I'm so used to getting mere glimpses of exposition here and there, being served with more questions than answers, all throughout the series, which is frequently frustrating. But here in this chapter, we get so much. It's thrilling! I'm glad the group acknowledged that they have one of the Hallows already (the Invisibility Cloak), which went entirely unmentioned in the movie, even though I had been left with the conclusion that it was not unique (other members of the Order were using other invisibility cloaks, unlike in the movies where the cloak was unique). Also exciting to think of Harry being a descendant of the three brothers in the original story (although, wouldn't that also, frighteningly, mean that he's related to Voldemort? And wouldn't that mean that he's also descended from Salazar Slytherin?). And shocking that Harry suspects the Resurrection Stone is inside the golden snitch so early in the story. I love that Harry is so possessed with the idea of collecting the Deathly Hallows and the power/protection it will bring him. Maybe it's immodest or whatever, but he is fighting at a disadvantage, after all, and it's a very exciting goal to have in a fantasy story. I didn't feel as much emphasis on the Hallows in the movie, they were almost incidental, like some trinkets they happened to come across (except maybe the wand, which Voldemort [was allowed to, as a dark and proud wizard] make a big deal about) in the course of their journey.

* Wandlore is fascinating. If I were a wizard, I think I would be tempted to become a wandmaker.

* How the hell is Aberforth the Hog's Head's barman? In the movie, it looked like he was hiding in some underground bunker or something. Did anybody know who he was? He's supposed to be this big mystery, and now it feels like he's been hiding in plain sight all this time...

* The Deathly Hallows is definitely shaping up to be the best book in the series, with all that goes on. Breaking into Gringotts, the Horcruxes and the Hallows, on the run from the Death Eaters, and of course the great concluding battle against Voldemort. Plus it's totally awesome to finally get a look inside the Ravenclaw common room (I love that the password is answering a question!). ;-)

* When Voldemort kills Snape, I can't help thinking (and I had the same thought when I watched the movie), that his method of killing is highly suspect. I mean, it's pretty darn convenient that he kills Snape in a way that leaves him alone and conscious for the last few moments of his life, for Harry to slip in and take his memory. I don't suppose Voldemort knew Harry was hanging around, but considering the meaning behind his killing of Snape (re: the Elder Wand) I would have thought he'd stick around to make sure Snape was dead, as well as to kill him with his own hands. Is he so proud and overconfident as to overlook the surety of a nice, quick Avada Kedavra curse, which he's used so many times before? I mean, honestly, even if Voldemort was right about the wand passing into the hands of the one who killed its previous owner, then even by that logic, the wand would be Nagini's, not Voldemort's...

* Speaking of, I always thought it was curious that Avada Kedavra is so reminiscent of the antiquated magical spell "Abra Cadabra". Plus the "Kedavra" part seems to suggest "cadaver", which the spell can be said to create. The spell names are actually really well done in this series, often foreign-sounding but subtly suggestive of their effects. Like the Cruciatus Curse which subjects a victim to excruciating pain.

* Snape is a tough nut to crack, there's no two ways about it. I guess that's what makes him such an effective spy. I think Snape was a generally unpleasant person, with a genuine interest in the Dark Arts, who nevertheless had sincere feelings for Lily. It wasn't enough to change him into the kind of person Lily would have liked (I would argue that such a thing is impossible - we are who we are), but it was strong enough that he never wavered in his devotion to her. [Incidentally, I knew (with the benefit of foresight) that when Snape called Lily a Mudblood in that one memory Harry spied on during Occlumency lessons, it was something he regretted; I figured that even more than his humiliation at James' hands, it was that outburst against Lily that made that memory one of his lowest and most shameful].

So when Voldemort threatened Lily's life, Snape was forced to make a decision, and his devotion to Lily was stronger than his devotion to the Dark Arts. So he pledged his allegiance to Dumbledore, and even though they couldn't protect Lily, Dumbledore convinced him not to let Lily's death be in vain. I think from that point forward, Snape was genuinely good, if still a generally unpleasant person who was still interested in the Dark Arts. (And his attitude towards Harry was complicated by the combination of his hatred of James Potter and his desire to honor Lily's memory). Voldemort never believed Dumbledore's claim that love was the strongest kind of magic, and I think that's the reason why he trusted Snape, even to the end (and I do believe Voldemort trusted Snape, even at the moment when he killed him). He had to know about Snape's feelings for Lily, since Snape begged him to spare her, but he probably shrugged it off, not thinking that love could possibly override one's devotion to the Dark Arts (especially one as dark and unpleasant as Snape - who could imagine that one like him could feel love?). Yet another personal failing that led to Voldemort's fall.

But the most poignant aspect of Snape's most personal memories, in my opinion, is the point at which Snape implores Dumbledore never to reveal his devotion to Lily, to which Dumbledore responds, "My word, Severus, that I will never reveal the best of you?" I think that, right there, is Severus Snape in a nutshell.

* More answers when Harry "dies" and gets to talk with Dumbledore once more. I think that better explains Dumbledore's plan to die at Snape's hand, since he was dying anyway since foolishly putting on the ring/Horcrux (tempted by the Resurrection Stone - another detail left out of the movies). Dumbledore (and many of the characters) seems more human in the books, which have more time for exposition and characterization than the movies. He's also less perfect. I really like and respect him a lot, but after everything that's happened in this last book, I don't know that I revere him quite as much as I used to. He's less of an untouchable role model, and more of a flawed person, albeit an uncommonly respectable one. Maybe that's for the better.

I like that this series is full of complexity, and you have flawed characters like Dumbledore, who has dirty secrets despite being so well-loved, and Snape, who is a courageous hero in spite of his slimy personality and dubious proclivities. And the stance against trusting both the media and politicians throughout the series is very refreshing. After Dumbledore's parting speech, though, I really wanted Harry to gather the Deathly Hallows, even after it's been explained about how dangerous coveting them is - he was the one who deserved them in the end. I guess maybe I'm not as mature yet as Harry is at the end of the book. :p I guess this series is more than just an entertaining fantasy, but something of a life lesson, too, in certain ways.

I minded Harry coming back to life less in the book than I did in the movies, but I'm not sure if it's because, knowing what's supposed to happen this time around, I'm less committed to the seductive thought of Harry Potter dying at the end of the series, or if it's because the added exposition given by the books makes it seem less like cheating. Perhaps it's a combination of the two.

* Harry and Voldemort's duel was a lot more exciting in the book. The movie seemed to focus on the flash of the spells, whereas in the book, the verbal confrontation between the two wizards was emphasized, and that made it feel more personal, and more satisfying - Voldemort being defeated not just as a wizard, but as a person. And ultimately, it felt less like Harry winning by a "wand technicality", like it did in the movie, and more that he truly earned his victory.

* The Afterthought (er, Epilogue) actually bothered me less in the book. It was actually kind of touching, with the kids hopping around, the excitement of heading off to Hogwarts fresh in the air, recalling back to Harry's first trip on the Hogwarts Express all those years ago. A fitting coda to the series, I think. And I can't help noticing that Harry's son, Albus Severus Potter, if you take his initials, they spell out ASP, which is a type of snake...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Walking Dead: Season 2 Episode 7 (Pretty Much Dead Already)

Spoiler Warning!

Episode 7 is the mid-season 2 finale of The Walking Dead. The series will, allegedly, continue in February. I have to say, the finale left me speechless. Not just speechless, but with tears streaming down my face, and my throat dry from hyperventilation. I want to say that it couldn't really have ended any other way, and yet it still hit me like a ton of bricks, because I really didn't want to believe it. But even aside from that, the showdown was really intense. And not because the group was in any real threat, but because of what it meant. Because of Hershel's insistence that the walkers are people, the requirement that they adopt this view if they want to stay on the farm ("my farm, my barn, my rules"), and Shane's aggressive agitation which, though undeniably destructive, seemed in the end to finally restore some sense of cohesion to the group, and shake them - especially Rick - out of their idealistic reverie.

It's remarkable looking at Hershel, how much respect he continues to have for the dead, compared to Rick, who is being forced in the other direction, despite remembering that that's how Rick himself started out. The thing about him that made him so unique is that he respected the walkers. He wasn't afraid to kill them, but he paid his respect to their living memory. And Rick, in the first season, was the guy who could make anything work out - even the most cockamamie plan. He made it work because he could make the right decisions, and was always able to pull through. And now, from Shane's perspective, his softness and indecisiveness is seen as a threat to the group. He's putting the group in unnecessary danger to cater to the whims of a man (Hershel) who is not in touch with the reality of the danger that's out there in the world.

On the other hand, it's remarkable that Hershel has managed to survive so long, if his approach to the walkers is unnecessarily dangerous. It's a wonder that the farm is such a safe place, they hardly ever seem to get any walkers roaming in, that they don't even really need to defend themselves. Undoubtedly, that's why Rick and the gang likes the place so much, but I'm curious why it's so uncharacteristically safe. What makes it different from the other farms, and all the other places the group has thus far been, that it doesn't attract walkers?

The scene between Lori and Shane after Rick told Shane that Lori's pregnant (thank god - as Glenn rightly says, enough with secrets, secrets get you killed) confirmed my suspicion that Lori isn't as sure that the baby is Rick's as she would like to pretend. There's definitely going to be some conflict, because Lori doesn't want Shane interfering with her little family with Rick. But if Shane sticks around, and the kid is his, he's bound to have some influence on him. Even if the kid's not his - he's already got some influence on Carl, and Lori is resenting that. I guess this is another case of a romantic drama situation that would be easily solved by a threesome.

It seems that what this series is about, at least from the perspective of Rick, who is more or less the main protagonist, is transformation. From the day he woke up in that hospital, he's had to come to terms, as everyone does in their own way, to the shape of the world and what it takes to survive in it. But the confrontation between Shane and Dale in the swamp is unsettling. Shane undoubtedly has the skills to survive, but is it worth the cost of his humanity? His civility? His heart and soul? Is that the path Rick must follow if he is to be able to keep his family alive? Or is there some kind of compromise? No question, hard decisions have to be made at times, and maybe the only tenable solution was to disavow Hershel of his illusions about the walkers. Yet that's the sort of thing Rick doesn't like to do - he's too nice, and accommodating, which is what makes him a sympathetic character. Shane, on the other hand, who can do the dirty work, is a live gun, who is not above threatening the lives of his own group members. If the two could only work together in a more compatible fashion, without being either too tough or too soft to threaten the group...

But by god, it stopped me dead in my tracks when Sophia shambled out of that barn. Well, I was sitting in a chair in front of the television, but it put me in no less of a shock and a stupor than it did the entire cast. Even after gunning down a whole mess of walkers, what to do? I thought this might drive home Hershel's point that these are people - people we once cared about. But the harsh truth is that they're not people anymore, they're walking corpses, and they're dangerous. I knew somebody was going to have to do her in, and I wondered who it was gonna be. And then I saw Rick take control of the situation and I knew it was down to him. The man who took responsibility on himself for having lost Sophia in the first place, and couldn't bear to give up searching for her. If anything is going to seal off his sentimental emotions this would be just the sort of thing. I can't wait to see what happens next, how Hershel will deal with this devastation, and how the group will handle the fallout...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998)

I first saw Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County several years ago - presumably during its original run on UPN. The broadcast version consisted of clips from the offending tape (that depicts a family's standoff against an extraterrestrial home invasion), interspersed with interviews and opinions with experts in a variety of fields, discussing whether the tapes were genuine or a hoax, and the implications of either. I imagine that was more or less around the time when I was at the height of my alien abduction paranoia (as was most of our culture, I bet), and probably not far removed from my late born obsession with The X-Files. When I saw Incident in Lake County on TV, I honestly didn't know whether it was real or fake, and it scared the shit out of me. Mesmerized, I ordered the VHS tape of the broadcast, and it still sits in a drawer in my room to this day (though I'm not sure I still have a working VCR).

Lately, my attention has turned to the title again, and I was reminded of the uncut original footage from which were drawn the clips that appear in the television broadcast. Having never seen the entirety of the original tape, I tracked it down (an infinitely easier task with the modern power of the internet at my fingertips) for viewing, to get myself prepped for Thanksgiving dinner. You see, in the tape, the McPherson family (who would allegedly go missing by the end of the night) is just about to sit down to their own Thanksgiving dinner before things start to get really frightening. Tommy McPherson is a young guy who aspires to be a director (though you wouldn't know it from his 'home movie' approach to recording the night - unless, that is, he intends to be a documentary filmmaker), and he records with enthusiasm what starts out as a family holiday gathering, but ends up as a document that could prove not only that extraterrestrial life exists and has come to earth, but that they apparently don't have much concern for the value of human life.

The fun starts when an unexpected flash of lightning (on a dry night) knocks out the power. But when a few of the men in the family head out to investigate the nearby power converter, they find something unbelievable - what appears to be an alien spacecraft landed in the woods, and there are alien beings wandering nearby, performing some kind of experiment on a cow with a red laser. The aliens spot the curious McPhersons, and turn their heat ray on them, prompting them to run screaming back to the house. The rest of the family doesn't believe their story at first - until they rewind Tommy's tape. But things only get worse from there, as the aliens - whose motivations we can only guess at, but one might suppose that they don't like being interrupted during their chupacabra routine - lay siege to the McPherson's farmhouse, one of them even crawling in through an upstairs window, and torture them psychologically via an array of fear tactics before ultimately taking them away to a fate Tommy's camera does not record.

It's a wonder that Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County is scary at all, because it's so obviously fake. The acting is terrible, and the fx are frequently laughable. When I was younger, the fact that the abduction scenario played out subtly differently than what we'd seen in other pop culture depictions, yet while covering all the expected bases, contributed to my suspicion that it could be real. After all, everything else we'd seen was a dramatization - maybe this was what it really looked like. Now, with the benefit of experience and insight, I can tell that the tape is so obviously faked, and I actually think it would be more effective if it took a few less liberties, seeing as the liberties it takes come most often in the form of really cheap effects, rather than clever changes to the formula. On the other hand, I do enjoy the more aggressive approach of these aliens, who seem to prefer besieging an entire family while awake to picking off individuals in their sleep without, in many cases, leaving much of a lasting memory (at least not until years later, after undergoing hypnosis). It may be less stereotypically alien behavior, but it is at least fresh.

But as I said, Incident in Lake County is a wonder, because it still manages to be scary, in spite of the aliens dressed like cat burglars, whose primary weapon seems to be a flashlight with red cellophane stretched over the bulb. This is one of those cases where the fear of the unknown exceeds the terror of the thing one fears. The aliens are more menacing at a distance, or lurking in the shadows, shuffling quickly past windows in the background, than when they take center stage. The whole of Alien Abduction plays on a very conceptual fear, and the ideas that it invokes are far scarier than the scenes that it renders, which is probably why it's so effective in spite of its low-fi fx. The scariest scene - the scene in the bedroom - had my skin crawling thinking about it before it happened (and it's got my skin crawling again just thinking about it again) so much that I was actually afraid to watch it and momentarily considered shutting the tape off to avoid it. Seriously, watching a film like this one just doesn't feel safe, like 99% of movies are. But when it actually happened - though it's still a pretty scary scene, and probably one of the more effective on the tape - it wasn't a fraction as terrifying as I was anticipating. Strange how that works, that the anticipation will affect you more than the experience itself. Proof that your mind is your most intimidating enemy after all?

So as a found footage film, Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County - the full tape and not the television broadcast - works pretty well, in the sense that it's very low budget and not particularly sophisticated, but that it effectively plays on some very visceral fears. I'm sure not everyone will agree, just as some people don't find Paranormal Activity the least bit scary, though I consider it one of the scariest films I have ever seen. If the concept of a found footage alien abduction movie doesn't particularly disturb you, then you might simply see it as a low quality, laughably bad flop. I wonder how I would feel if this were a similar quality movie about a different subject - say, a science experiment to resurrect an extinct carnivorous dinosaur. Hey, it might still have some merit. ;-)

Anyway, now I have other matters to attend to. I'm going to try my hardest not to think about aliens as I climb into bed (a futile task, I know), lest I get no sleep at all to prepare me for this year's turkey dinner. Happy Thanksgiving, loyal readers. :p

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver is such a good film. I wish I could tell you why it's a good film, but frankly, I don't know what it is that makes it so good. Is it Paul Schrader's deeply personal script? Martin Scorsese's inspired directing? The acting talent of a young and fresh Robert De Niro? Or the rest of the talented cast, including Jodie Foster's impressive and iconic performance as a 12 year old hooker? Is it because the characters are so real, and the dialogue so honest? And why is the gritty climax still so haunting, even after years of overexposure to ultraviolence in movies? I suspect it's a combination of many elements, where everything just seemed to go right. But it has to count for something that the primary filmmakers believed in this project, and had a real passion for it. Rather than a blockbuster engineered for superficial enjoyment, Taxi Driver is a serious film that makes you think and feel, and that is so much more rewarding.


Ex-Marine Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is having some trouble adapting to modern life in the city. He has few prospects, doesn't relate well to people, and spends his nights awake, wandering disinterestedly between porno theaters. So he decides to become a taxi driver, working the night shift. This puts him in contact with all the scum that walks the street at night - prostitutes, junkies, criminals of all stripes - and it quickly begins to wear on him. Then he meets an angel, in the form of the ravishing beauty Betsy (Cybill Shepherd, looking absolutely scrumptious), who works on the campaign for a hopeful future presidential candidate. Travis doesn't really follow politics, but he goes out on a limb and asks Betsy out on a date. She seems intrigued by his unusual demeanor, and decides to take a risk on him. But when Travis absentmindedly takes her to a porno theater on their second date (not even seeming to realize his faux pas), that's the end of it.

Travis is left to wallow in his loneliness, as his increasing misanthropy pushes him further from sanity. In a misdirected desire to bring some meaning to his life, he begins a serious exercise regimen, and arms himself to the teeth with illegal firearms. Cleaning the scum off the streets of New York is never far from his mind, but he lacks a plan. Then he runs into Iris (Jodie Foster, a major player despite her minor status), a 12-year-old prostitute selling her body on the street. As an inverted parallel of his introduction of Betsy to the sleazy underground of the city, he hatches a plan to rescue Iris from her trashy lifestyle - but she seems less than enthusiastic about being dragged back to the parents she ran away from. Travis intends to make a name for himself somehow though, and he has to take his frustration with life out on someone - and his opinion seems to be that whatever he decides on, his own survival isn't a requirement.


If you've seen the film, then you know all about the brutal climax, in which Travis - refashioned with an intimidating mohawk - shoots Iris' pimp, guns down her mafioso client in the middle of a job, and then splatters her treasurer's brains all over the wall as she sits nearby on the couch cowering in fear. Suicide is ruled out when Travis finds his guns have run dry, so he sits and waits for the authorities to arrive and take over. Iris is presumably scared straight (as opposed to just being scared?), and Travis is lauded as a hero in the newspapers, for ridding the streets of a few more criminals - gangsters and traffickers in the human flesh trade. Iris' parents treat him like a saint for "saving" their daughter from a life of sin and vice, and he even seems to receive forgiveness from Betsy, whose opinion of him has improved. Happy ending, right?

Not quite. What of the fact that Travis Bickle is a disturbed man, who just murdered three people in cold blood (never mind that they were criminals), without so much as a slap on the wrist - in fact, he's been commended for his actions! - and might do it again, maybe to less deserving victims next time? Should we really forgive him his violent and antisocial outburst just because the targets of his frustration were persons involved in prostitution, specifically of underage girls? We have the justice system to deal with criminals - not vigilantes. Who is he to judge a person's guilt, and then decide their punishment? And yet, throughout the film, he is a largely sympathetic character, and because we have a hard time relating to junkies and prostitutes, we don't seem to want to count their lives very highly (and we consider Iris to be better off at home, even if she wouldn't agree). I think that may contribute to the sense of horror that we feel in that climax, that we have sympathized (and perhaps continue to do so) with someone who is capable of doing something so gruesome - and that despite viewing the victims as lowlifes, we see the violence perpetrated against them in a stark, unyielding light.

"You looking for some action?"

And that is another part of the brilliance of this film. Though we sympathize with Travis, every person that gets in his way is a fully-fledged character with desires and motivations of their own. They're real people, not just obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, without any moral complexity. Even Iris' character is based on a real life teenage prostitute (in fact, she's in the movie - she's the girl that Iris hangs out with on the streets). It would be so easy to make Iris the caricature of a lost girl dragged against her will into the lurid world of urban prostitution - and then, there would be no question that what Travis does is right. But instead, she actually defends her lifestyle - rather convincingly if you ask me (no, Travis, I'm afraid you're the one who's square). No, it's not glamorous, but it's not as sensationally evil as the headlines (and our imaginations) are inclined to make it, either. And that makes it harder for us to condone Travis' actions in the end. Because even though we might relate to his good intentions - rescuing a young girl off the streets of New York, and cleaning those streets of criminals and thugs - we realize that in the end Travis' self-serving saintly aspirations result in the gruesome murder of at least three people, and a likely traumatic scarring for the girl he intended to save. This is not the work of a divine avenger, but of a troubled and confused psychopath!

If this film has a flaw, it's that it supports the stereotype of the antisocial loner who is just a ticking time bomb. But it's a testament to the quality of the film that I still like it very much despite this - as well as the moral stance our protagonist takes against those who choose to live in sin and vice (which are often confused with crime - partly because many vices are wrongly classified as crimes). Although, I derive great satisfaction from the fact that our supposed representative of a "moral guardian" is a racist, porn-watching, black market gun-toting murderer. His victims may have been lowlifes, but what makes Travis so high and mighty? Hypocrisy kinda puts a damper on a man's virtue of integrity. This is a complex story about complex characters, so to make broad generalizations about people from it is a grave misstep. Critics may argue that movies like it inspires (if not also glorifies) violence, but as screenwriter Paul Schrader confirms, it's a study of a character - a very real character - who will exist regardless of whether or not we shine the light on him. And studying him may yet yield some positive results, if nothing else, to get to know ourselves better, and identify the commonalities that run at the base of the human condition.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Notes on The Half-Blood Prince (book version)

Warning: Harry Potter spoilers!

* I noticed in the earlier books that the author used a strictly limited third person point of view focusing on Harry, such that we, the readers, were not privy to any scenes where Harry was not present. We learned about Voldemort's resurrection - as the rest of the wizarding world did - because Harry was there when it happened. This was particularly apparent in the last book, as Harry's sharing of Voldemort's dreams/feelings felt almost like an excuse (though a good one) for us, the readers, to be able to know what Voldemort was up to without leaving Harry's presence.

Knowing that The Half-Blood Prince opens with a scene far removed from Harry - when Snape makes the Unbreakable Vow (and then the official introduction of the new Minister) - I was wondering if the book would deviate from Harry's perspective for that. I don't know if it's the first time the series has done so, but I thought it was interesting enough to be worth mentioning. Indeed, now that Voldemort is back and threatening the world outside Hogwarts, there are things of importance happening even beyond Harry's scope of knowledge!

* And speaking of Snape... Knowing what I do, having already finished the series in movie form, I can't help looking at Snape as a good guy. But Bellatrix's interrogation (due to her rightful distrust of him) reveals an important point - that Voldemort, a highly skilled Legilimens, grilled Snape on his involvement with Dumbledore at Hogwarts, and not only did not kill him, but decided to retain his services as a Death Eater/spy.

There are only two explanations for this - either Snape was able to convince Voldemort that he's bad, or Voldemort believed that he still has use to him despite his lack of total allegiance. In the first case, we are led to believe that Snape really is bad (and since the series' conclusion seems to contradict this view, I think it's possible that he legitimately "swings both ways", and can't conclusively decide between good or evil, which is why he can convincingly fool both Voldemort and Dumbledore) - unless...I suppose Snape could have extracted his most sensitive memories before meeting with Voldemort - like he did before Harry's Occlumency lessons in the last book. Presumably (judging how the magic is allegedly supposed to work) Voldemort can't read Snape's thoughts that aren't currently in his head at the time of reading.

In the second case, it's possible that Voldemort knew Snape's true loyalties lie elsewhere, but nevertheless had reason to believe that retaining his services could be beneficial to him in the long run. Considering that Snape's involvement is crucial in Voldemort's plan to assassinate Dumbledore, this is plausible. So plausible, in fact, that I'm beginning to wonder exactly how much use Dumbledore's brilliant plan to let Snape kill him to earn the Dark Lord's trust really was. What did they gain after all? Thinking back (to the movies), it might have something to do with tricking Voldemort into not understanding how Dumbledore's wand works. Didn't he also have something to do with giving Bellatrix a fake sword of Gryffindor? Yeah, wasn't he the one who showed Harry where the real sword is, which is of course integral to the destruction of the Horcruxes?

At any rate, it's complicated, and I'll have to wait and see what happens in the final book.

* I have to admit, I don't understand why Slughorn was so resistant to giving Dumbledore his memory. I know that he was ashamed of giving Tom Riddle the information he needed to create his Horcruxes, but as in the end Harry assures him, giving up the memory is the best and only way to make up for that, and is (in Dumbledore's opinion), crucial to fighting back and ultimately defeating Voldemort. I don't care how ashamed he was, and how much he might have been implemented in aiding the Dark Lord's rise to near immortality, but withholding that memory is nothing short of active resistance to the Order [of the Phoenix], and outright protection of the Dark Lord. Then again, he was head of Slytherin, not Gryffindor, so I guess I shouldn't expect noble actions of him where self-serving deeds could suffice.

* I love that the book delves deeper into Tom Riddle's life history, as well as the significance of the Horcuxes, than the movies did. It makes a lot of sense that the plan to defeat Voldemort would require diving into his mindset, and looking at the kind of person he is and was, in order to locate and take advantage of his weaknesses. The very fact of knowing about the Horcruxes is evidence of that - how important it is to understand Voldemort in order to defeat him - but I think the movies underplayed that fact.

And the Horcruxes themselves were regrettably glossed over in the movies. I think the idea of the Horcruxes is wonderfully fascinating - not just the idea of using items to harbor portions of your soul, as if they were extra lives, but the fact that they are treasures! I love treasures, and especially collectible treasures that form a set. But it's more effective if you know something about why those treasures are valuable, and the trouble it took to acquire them. I don't recall the movies ever mentioning that the ring was Voldemort's grandfather's ring, that the locket was his mother's, and that both were family heirlooms that presumably belonged to Salazar Slytherin himself! And I also like the idea of collecting trinkets from each of the founders of Hogwarts. It really is too bad the movie didn't include the scene where Voldemort asks Dumbledore for a teaching job at Hogwarts; it seems to me like that's a perfect scene to illustrate the transition between the curious Tom Riddle, and the malevolent Dark Lord.

* Dobby is less annoying in the books, because since he appears more often, he has more chances to demonstrate how helpful he is. Whereas, in the movies, he shows up in The Deathly Hallows and all you've got to remember him by is the crap he pulled in The Chamber of Secrets.

* I'm less annoyed by the Hermione and Ron pairing in the books, I think partially because I see Hermione more as a brilliant nerd, than the brilliant gorgeous nerd that Emma Watson makes. I still think she deserves better - namely, Harry - but what can you say if Harry simply doesn't have those feelings for her? Regardless, I thought Harry and Ginny's kiss (finally, towards the end of the book), was charmingly sweet. Even though it directly preceded the very terrible events of the book's conclusion, quickly destroying the happy feeling it created. The whole scene in the cave was very creepy and suspenseful.

"It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more."

* The "ghosts are transparent" exchange between Snape and Harry was hilarious! Snape is an off and on character - he was downright pathetic at the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban, but when he's on, he's really cool. The scene where Harry unknowingly uses Snape's spell to put Draco in the hospital - wow, what a scene, with Snape chastising Harry for using "very Dark magic", and one of his own spells, at that. At the end of the book, during the chase to escape Hogwarts, when he yells at Harry to stop calling him a coward - that was real. It has to take courage to be sneaky enough to double-cross the Dark Lord, and presuming Dumbledore's trust is founded, for him to agree to kill a truly great wizard that he respected and who treated him well (the sort of treatment I get the impression he hasn't received much of throughout his life) in order to do so. But so few people know enough about him to understand (and not knowing is precisely why they distrust him). He's a tragic character, that's for sure.

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Red Riding Hood is, basically, The Little Red Riding Hood adapted for the Twilight generation. It's not a bad movie, but it's not a terribly good movie either. As a fantasy, it's not very convincing. As a drama, it's not very believable. It's too smooth to be very scary, although it works decently as a thriller. But the CG is distractingly obvious - horror requires grit and substance.

The film works best as a mystery - indeed, I was compelled to continue watching largely to find out who turns out to be the wolf. I don't know that it's a good mystery, because though there were many legitimate candidates for wolfhood (Red Riding Hood not excluded, with the woodsman ironically being the most visibly suggestive candidate), I wasn't invested enough in the fantasy world to care about following all the clues and making note of the 'rules' (assuming they're consistent), so I don't know whether it's actually intelligent or just lazy. But it is a mystery that wants solving, even if the paranoid atmosphere recalls much better films that have gone the "killer among us" route.

However, in spite of how it turns out, I'd be just as willing to believe that Father Solomon was running a racket, tricking villages into submission by introducing werewolves that only he knows how to effectively fight. I guess that shows you how unconvincing the characters were, that I'd just as soon believe them to be something else, rather than what the script apparently intends. I find it amusing in a not necessarily constructive manner that this is not the first film in which Gary Oldman has played a character who fights werewolves (harking back to Sirius Black in The Prisoner of Azkaban).

If not effective, it is a pretty film, helped in no small part by the luscious features of Amanda Seyfried as not-so-little Red herself. Although she is gorgeous, and has a more childlike demeanor than most women her age, I couldn't help noticing that she's not as young as her character is portrayed. Though she's not supposed to be a child, as she is in the prologue, when the narration jumps ten years into the future, it looks more like twenty years have passed. And I have a hard time believing that in this [admittedly make-believe] pre-modern era, one's parents would wait until a girl is twenty-five to arrange her marriage, and that, being as beautiful as she evidently is, noone else would have made arrangements of their own long before that time.

Now, I have no problem with an 'adult' telling of Red Riding Hood (actually, the original version is said to have been pretty gruesome already), but I've seen it done better before; and if you're going to make it 'adult', you might as well make it gritty. Red Riding Hood is sensual and romantic, but it's not sexy. It's mysterious and thrilling, but it's not really frightening. And most unfortunate of all, it tends to drag in the way that you feel like somebody had the idea to put their own spin on the story, but it's something that would have been better accomplished in a shorter format (or else with a better script) - here, the less-than-satisfying filling brings down those elements of the story that might actually be clever and/or original.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Walking Dead: Season 2 Episode 6 (Secrets)

Spoiler Warning!

It looks like things are finally coming to a head on the farm, as the secrets fly in episode 6 of The Walking Dead's second season. My respect for Glenn is increasing - he's always been a likable character, but now he really seems to be coming into his own. I can really relate to the way Maggie sees him - as an intelligent guy who has a good sense for what the 'right' thing to do is (for example, his advice to Lori - he refrained from trying to make her decision for him, like Dale did, but stressed the importance of consulting Rick first before choosing), but is too soft-spoken to actually step up and put his opinions across to the rest of the group. Yes, he gave away two big secrets in this episode, but they're the type of secrets that shouldn't have been kept in the first place.

"I suck at lying. I can't even play poker, it's too much like lying!"

Dale was at least clever about bringing up the issue with the barn full of walkers to Hershel, in a way that didn't implement Glenn (although I think Hershel may have picked up on that anyway, given the attention Maggie's been giving him). The explanation for that barn full of walkers turns to make a whole lot more sense than the wild theories I originally had - Hershel's just too darn sentimental, and thinks the walkers are still people, and should be treated with respect. He almost has a point, except that Maggie's close call in the pharmacy demonstrates just exactly why the walkers are so dangerous and must be treated as foes and not simply sick friends.

If anything, though Hershel is still intent on kicking out the group (and getting eager now that Carl is in good condition), he seems to at least partially be warming up, at least in allowing his people to attend Rick and Shane's shooting practice. I'm glad Carl's parents are allowing him to learn how to shoot. Lori's arguments are heartfelt, but it's the hard truth that they're living in a dangerous world, and Carl's better off knowing how to use a gun safely - at least he's got well-trained instructors in his sheriff dad and partner.

And on the gun front, it turns out Andrea is a natural. She had some trouble with the moving targets at first, but after a single live trial, she's taken to it like a fish to water. The look in her eyes, I fully believe she's found her new reason to live - to kill as many walkers as possible. But though I respect her for that, I fear having another ultra-cocky member of the group, like Shane. After all, her eagerness to kill walkers almost got Daryl killed! And Shane, well damn, his threatening Dale was fierce and scary. Dale's obviously jealous that Andrea's beginning to like Shane more and more. I don't think Shane will act rashly unless he's pushed into a corner, but this does not bode well for the cohesion of the group.

But thank god, Lori has finally come clean with Rick. About her being pregnant, and her time with Shane when she thought Rick was dead. Although the ending cut out a little quick, before we could tell that Rick understands and forgives her for that (like I think he should), as much as he seems to want to. The decision about Lori's baby-to-be, though, should definitely have been discussed with Rick. I don't care what your motivations or rationalizations are - that's a 'together' decision. It may be a hard decision, but it's one you endure together. And Lori has a lot of nerve to berate Rick for not telling her that Hershel expects them to leave the farm, when she has been keeping so much from him.

But as for the baby's prospects, indeed they look dim; but hard though life may sometimes be, it's not true that there can be no joy found, even in a post-apocalyptic world infested with cannibalistic corpses. If anything, a child born in such a world won't have anything better to compare it to, and while s/he won't have those good times to look back on, s/he may be more quick to come to terms with the world as it is, and have a better perspective on it, and how to be happy in it, not knowing anything else. However, it's true that survival will be tougher with a baby to take of, and for that, the group would fare much better if they could wrangle a deal with Hershel to stay at the farm. I've become kind of intimidated by Hershel, but maybe he's open to a compromise after all.

I just wonder what's going to happen when Shane finds out about Lori's pregnancy. She's convinced that the baby's Rick's, but I'm not sure I believe her. And whether she's right or wrong, as long as there's a possibility that it's Shane's, I have no doubt that he'll stop at nothing to see that that baby is safe. Nothing, even if it means the destruction of the rest of the group. I'm anticipating some real shit hitting the fan very soon.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Communion (1989)

Two years ago, Paranormal Activity was released to theaters. It proved to be the scariest film I had seen in my adult life, largely because it tapped into a fear that is very personal to me - poltergeist-style hauntings - and because that fear was depicted, via the found footage conceit, in a very plausible rather than sensational manner. A month later saw the release of The Fourth Kind, a film that taps into another of my deep personal fears - the alien abduction phenomenon. It was very frightening - though not on the level of Paranormal Activity, and was ultimately not entirely satisfying.

My favorite alien abduction movie remains the unrivaled Fire In The Sky, which I saw in theaters as a child, and which I have suspicions may be the cause of my deep-seated fear of alien abductions. I can't have been more than ten at the time, and that was several years before I began to watch (and subsequently become a huge fan of) The X-Files on television. My latest viewing of Fire In The Sky (a few years ago now, borrowed from the "evidence room" during an overnight stay at the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada, just over the mountains from the purported location of Area 51) confirmed once again my impression of the movie. But seeing The Fourth Kind renewed my appetite, and I wanted to know if there were any other good alien abduction movies out there that I had not yet seen.

That's how I came upon Taken, a television miniseries presented by Steven Spielberg, which proved to be entertaining, if not altogether terrifying. This is not too surprising, though, considering Spielberg's treatment of aliens in both E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - there the balance is undoubtedly tipped in favor of science-fiction, if not completely devoid of the horror elements I am more fond of. But I also found a movie called Communion, which is based on a book that describes the allegedly autobiographical accounts of a writer named Whitley Strieber, who claims to have been repeatedly abducted by aliens. Dramatization aside, this would seem to be, as they say, a story of alien abduction straight from the horse's mouth. And it's just about as crazy as you could imagine.

The movie opens on a rather ominous scene - an aerial view of the twin towers (which takes on new significance in the 21st century) backed with an eerie instrumental that has a haunting guitar lead that caught my attention even before the name "Eric Clapton" flashed up on the screen during the opening credits. Christopher Walken plays Whitley Strieber, and he imbues the role with a certain quirkiness that either drives or perfectly complements (depending on the source material) the bizarreness of the alien encounters. But before getting that far, the encounters start out rather frightening, and when Whitley freaks out upon seeing a children's Halloween mask (because it reminds him of something else he's seen), you know that something truly disturbing is going on.

It's amazing to me how subjective people's fears can be. Just the sight of a spider can send one person's skin crawling, whereas another might look at it with mild disinterest (and some, even admiration). Communion manages to get my skin crawling with something as simple as transitioning from a cheerful party scene to a little boy entering his shadowy bedroom, with a clear look on his face that something isn't right. In any other movie - a slasher, for example, where I might be expecting a serial killer or an undead monster to be hiding in the closet - I wouldn't be scared on as visceral a level (if at all) as I am when I'm expecting to be confronted at any moment by the iconic type of alien that likes to abduct helpless people from their beds to conduct sadistic medical experiments on them.

Said alien doesn't even have to be present in any real physical sense to be threatening - an indication of its almost supernatural powers (comparisons to poltergeist activity would not be inappropriate here), thanks to their super-advanced technology, and the largely psychological nature of the abduction experience (if there is one thing you can't protect yourself from, it is the mutiny of your own mind). However, the almond-eyed grey is one of the few images that is so terrifying to me that looking at it is scarier than imagining it hiding in the shadows. This is an exception to the general rule that the more you see a creature in a horror movie, the less scary it gets - which, however, this film is not immune to, as the creature effects are rather basic, almost to the point of being humorous when you finally get a good hard look at them. Yet, one thing this movie has the ability to do, is to make even the silly scary just out of sheer illogic. Many of the dreamlike contact experiences are not simply frightening, but also surreal and disconcerting, sometimes in a wacky sort of way that is reminiscent of something you might see in a music video.

And that exemplifies the position that this film strives toward. It goes beyond the horror of the abduction experience, and tries to find some kind of [intuitive, not logical] meaning behind it. Strieber is reluctant to admit that anything is happening at first, but over time it becomes impossible to ignore. He quite naturally worries that he might be losing his mind, a possibility that the doctors seem to rule out, but I don't. But when his therapist turns out to be something of a new age spiritualist, enthusiastic practitioner of hypnotherapy, and host of a peer support group for abductees, he begins to wonder if resisting the aliens is futile, and that maybe by accepting their interference in his life, he may be able to gain some creative benefit (he is a writer, remember) from the experience. And so it goes, and it seems that the aliens become considerably less menacing after he welcomes them into his life.

But as imaginatively inspiring as the alien presence is, I have to admit that it doesn't make any logical sense. Yes, of course, you could argue that alien logic - not unlike God's - is incomprehensible to man, but I feel that's rather more of a cop-out. And so I cling firmly to my belief that this is a psychological phenomenon (while not undermining its creative benefits, even were it proven to be the symptom of some kind of disorder) - also suspicious is the fact that the aliens often come for their previous abductees' children, which could suggest that the condition has a genetic origin. I wonder, now that alien abduction has passed largely out of the pop culture mindset, whether these repeated abductees are still enduring their experiences, and what the latest scientific discoveries may have to say about it.

Communion is really a rather unique alien abduction story, more well-rounded than say Fire In The Sky, which focuses on the horror of a single abduction - though I still prefer the latter approach. It is unfortunately a bit dated due not just to the nature of the theme, but that it is steeped in the culture of the late eighties during which it takes place (amazing that fashion was that bad only just over two decades ago). The acting at times feels a little choppy, and the stress between Whitley and his wife, while a significant source of drama for the story, is a bit strained - especially when their conflict is due to a simple lack of communication. I know it's hard to make sense of being abducted by aliens. Dealing with it means coming to terms with the fact that you're either going insane, or there are inhuman beings taking you from your bed at night to perform experiments on you so terrifying your mind is trying really hard not to remember them. And if the latter, everyone else is going to think you're insane, anyway. But it's something you have to figure out together, with your significant other and/or loved ones - not something you should try to hide and ignore, pretending like nothing is happening.

In the end, there are relatively few stories about the alien abduction experience, and while most of them claim to be based on true stories (not unlike the majority of exorcism movies), precious few are as close to the source material as Communion presumably is. So though it's a bit of a head-scratcher at times, it is however also genuinely frightening at others, and while it doesn't provide any of the answers you weren't expecting to get anyway (because nobody really has them), it does try to contextualize the abduction phenomenon in a way that attempts to make it significant, rather than merely curious and scary. It may not actually make a whole lot of sense, but it ends up feeling meaningful. Even if you still wouldn't want it happening to you in a million years.

Monday, November 14, 2011

District 9 (2009)

District 9 is surreal. It's unlike any other movie I've ever seen. And it's one of the most original and intelligent sci-fi movies ever filmed. Right from the outset, a barrage of news clips constructs - rather plausibly, via a pseudo-documentary style - a world much like our own, but for one significant difference: extraterrestrial life has made contact with Earth. But one of District 9's greatest strengths is that that contact doesn't play out in any sort of way we've seen before. The aliens are neither aggressive nor diplomatic; they are instead mostly helpless, and it seems that they've come to Earth not with a plan so much as by accident. And while communication between the species is eventually possible, they seem to have no leader and little organization, and not much more clue how to operate their advanced technology than the humans do. So they are brought from their spaceship hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa (as opposed to a more diplomatically sensible location, such as Washington, D.C., or any of the world's other prominent capitals), to live as refugees among the city. But their customs and natural instincts prove rather destructive to the humans living in the city, so the aliens are confined to a slum designated District 9.

(Warning: General plot spoilers to follow.)

Twenty years later, human toleration of the aliens' presence is wearing exceedingly thin, even as a small pocket of humanitarians protest for the aliens' rights. District 9 has become little more than a hive of criminal activity, and an elaborate scheme is concocted to displace the aliens to an internment camp farther from the city. There is undoubtedly a racial subtext to this film, and it's pretty clear the way the aliens are treated by the humans is mostly abhorrent, even accounting for the inevitable difficulties inherent in the culture clash. The company leading the research into the aliens' technology - that, frustratingly, is designed to be inoperable by humans (or anyone not possessing the aliens' genetic identification) - is also charged with serving the aliens' their eviction notices before their displacement. However, this is mostly a public relations scheme (and to satisfy minimum legal requirements), seeing as the aliens are, on the one hand, unlikely to comply, but on the other, just as unlikely to understand what the humans are on about.

Naturally, as you might predict, this diplomatic raid turns into a debacle as pockets of violence erupt, as much due to confusion and the humans' deplorable treatment of the aliens than to any organized resistance. But just as we are ready to conclude that the entire refuged population of aliens consists of simplistic individuals with mostly animalian instincts, we discover that one particularly intelligent alien has been salvaging fuel from scrapped alien technology over the last twenty years, in a hopeful attempt to reactivate the mothership. But the crucial implement in his plan is confiscated even as it infects the man in charge of the raids, merging his DNA with the aliens' and initiating a gradual transformation not unlike the one Seth Brundle has to endure in The Fly. Of course, once the research division finds out, they want to sacrifice him for science, and his search for a cure leads him to reluctantly assist (as the audience ramps up their support for) the aliens.

From there, the movie shifts into action mode, but it's exciting action, with some very cool alien weapons. The whole movie runs at a brisk pace, and before you know it, it's over. The door is wide open for a sequel, and this is one of those cases where I have conflicting feelings - I would really enjoy seeing a sequel that continues the story, but lightning rarely strikes twice, and the chances are slim that another title could be as good or as effective as this one was. Nevertheless, what we have here is a very impressive sci-fi film that is hardly rivaled, let alone equaled, by anything dealing with this theme in the last decade, if not longer. I get the sense that it's the kind of film Independence Day wants to be when it grows up and matures a little.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Walking Dead: Season 2 Episode 5 (Chupacabra)

Spoiler Warning!

In episode 5, the search for Sophia continues, as the atmosphere grows tenser and more volatile with every day the group spends on the farm. The series seems to be making a habit of showing flashes back to earlier periods of the group's sojourn, before we joined up with Rick in that hospital back in the first episode. This time, we see Lori and Shane stopped on a highway that looks a lot like the one the season opened on - except with people still alive (which threw me off). They bump into Carol and Ed, and Carl befriends Sophia, just before we see Atlanta (I presume) napalmed into oblivion.

Back in present time, Rick and Shane have a little disagreement about the wisdom of continuing the search for Sophia. Shane cares only about keeping Lori and Carl safe, and he views their rescue mission as a liability when they should be focused on staying together and keeping themselves safe. Rick, of course, feels he has a duty to find Sophia, and is too honorable to just leave her behind. But, he seems to be slowly succumbing to Shane's perspective - further doubting his approach, and whether he's being too soft in a hard world, and that his values, the values that have made him such a unique and compelling character, are out of date in this post-apocalyptic world.

Daryl continues to make the most headway in tracking Sophia down, although he's always a step behind. Though this time he almost loses his life falling down a ravine. In the episode preview, I was shocked to see Merle back, but it turned out to be more of a fever dream that actually worked quite well, which helped pull Daryl to his senses and survive the backtrack to camp after injuring himself in the fall. On the other hand, his hallucinatory meeting with his missing brother may have been just what was needed to turn him against Rick and the rest of the group. I've really come to like and respect Daryl, I almost hate to see him become an enemy of the group.

Now when he made it back to camp, it was huge when Andrea unknowingly shot him, thinking he was a walker. I'm kind of disappointed that the bullet only grazed him and that he's okay, because when the show cut to commercial, I was thinking how amazing that was, that they'd just kill him like that, and the consequences of it. Andrea may have saved the group, if Daryl was determined to attack Rick, but he was shot before he had a chance to do anything, so the rest of the group wouldn't have known that, and would only view Andrea as having mistakenly killed one of their own. What's more, with the doll tucked in Daryl's belt, for all they could have known, he might have found Sophia, but he'd never be able to tell them where to look if he were dead. But then, he wasn't dead, only mildly injured (on top of his earlier injury), and it's almost like nothing came of all the potential drama. Except that we're no longer sure if Daryl can be trusted.

Hershel seems to be characterizing himself as more and more of a dictator within the farming household. I resent his strictness and his rules, not necessarily because they're a bad idea, but because he refuses to explain them to our group. It makes me not want to trust him, all the more with Glenn's revelation at the very end of the episode. It's not clear what that barn full of walkers is for (I still don't believe they wouldn't have made any noise, such that noone would have figured it out already), but it's ominous at best. My first inclination is that Hershel plans to kill his new guests for some gain, although I don't see what that is. A more optimistic guess is that maybe he's studying the walkers somehow in the hopes of finding a cure. In any case, the group has been doing nothing but getting on Hershel's bad side lately, and I feel very strongly that something big is about to go down. I also kind of hope it does, because it's beginning to feel like we've lingered at this farm just a bit too long, and it's about time to move on.

With or without Sophia, although I really would like to see her safe and sound...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Walking Dead: Season 2 Episode 4 (Cherokee Rose)

Spoiler Warning!

This episode represents a break in the action - to the extent that our group can get any respite in this broken world. The group is holing up at the farm, Carl is slowly recovering, and they have the means to conduct a more thorough search for Sophia. But, as ever, danger looms on the horizon, and chaos can strike at any moment.

My respect for the old man farmer is beginning to wane. I like how he treated the group's arrival, and everything he did to save Carl's life, but he may yet prove to stand at odds with the group. He doesn't want them sticking around too long - as it's their policy not to take in strangers, but Rick is desperate for a place to spread his roots, and this farm is as safe as any he's yet come across. In fact, it's surprising that the farm is so isolated from the zombie threat, I start getting suspicious about why that is. And the rule about them not carrying any guns on the property - though it doesn't seem like they need them - is there more to this story? I have a feeling that as much as Rick wants to honor the farm group's rules, his own group may end up coming into conflict with them, resulting in trouble ahead.

The farmer is also a religious man. I thought his exchange with Rick on the hill was pretty telling. Rick is right that the last time he asked God for a favor, God saw to it that his son was shot and nearly killed. Of course, the farmer prefers to focus on the good things, and wonders why Rick doesn't see God in the fact that he woke from that coma, was able to find his family, and that despite getting shot, his son was able to survive. But the God thing itself is purely extraneous. The difference of opinion here is between focusing on the good things that happen to you in a bad world (the farmer's approach), and focusing on all the bad things that happen to make the world such a bad place. But God has absolutely nothing to do with any of that. It's merely a difference of interpretation - God's presence is entirely absent. And while there might be a psychological benefit to focusing on the good things, it's not honest to posit God as the cause for them, especially considering that the cognitive dissonance required to reconcile God's ability to make good things happen, with his seeming pleasure in making even more bad things happen - or his inability to stop them, take your pick - is enough to screw with your head. Rick's absolutely right on one thing - if God does exist, he's got a twisted sense of humor.

I'm rather surprised that the farm group hadn't realized there was a zombie (a "swimmer") in their backup well. All this time, and they never once heard him moaning or splashing around? I don't believe he would have been that quiet. I guess maybe the pumping could have 'woken' him up, but then, farm girl said they used that well for their cows (I guess it's convenient that the zombie infection doesn't pass between species). But I'll tell you what, the whole, "let's not shoot him in the head because if he hasn't contaminated the water yet just by sleeping and shitting in it - which he probably has - then we don't want to ruin it by splattering his guts all over the well," was stupid, stupid, stupid - and this series is too smart to make that mistake. Yeah, it was tense lowering Glenn into that well, but it was a completely unnecessary risk. I expect more than that.

I loved, however, Glenn's moment in the drug store. He was embarrassingly awkward when he accidentally picked up those condoms, but when the farm girl said she'd have sex with him and then just started getting undressed in the middle of the drug store - totally hot. I guess that's one often overlooked advantage to a post-apocalyptic wasteland - you can have sex out in the open and in all sorts of places you would get in trouble for in a regular world where there are lots of people constantly milling about. Well, I think that's an advantage anyway. Provided you've got someone to do it with - farm girl was right, it's slim pickings when most of the population is [un]dead.

Also, 'protection' may (or may not) be hard to come by, and you don't want to go and get the wrong girl pregnant. Which is, finally, where we find Lori. And Glenn knows. And Rick knows, if it's right that that's what Dr. Jenner told him, except Lori doesn't yet know that Rick knows, and Rick doesn't know yet that Lori knows. I actually thought she was going to tell him during that scene at the end, before she headed out to the woods. I was sure she'd have known already by then, and I got freaked out when she headed away from the tents with a knife - I thought she was going to go ahead and give herself an abortion, just to eliminate the problems that this baby is going to cause. It's definitely Shane's, or at least it's going to bring out the conflict between Rick and Shane's claim on Lori. This is going to be huge when it breaks. And Shane has no idea yet.

Wow, Shane almost confessed to Andrea about Otis there, when he was teaching her about shooting. But it didn't seem like she caught on. He did a pretty good job covering his ass at the funeral. I can just tell this is all leading towards what might prove to be a major splintering of the group. But in better news, I'm convinced Daryl found evidence that Sophia's okay in that old house. I started to wonder, what if my suspicions when she ran away were true, and she doesn't want to be found? The whole thing with Daryl and the flower leaves me guessing. Did he find her, and was she dead, or can he tell that she doesn't want to come back? I guess we'll get some clues based on whether or not he tells the group about that old house - I'm surprised he hasn't mentioned it yet. I have a feeling there's a trick to it that we'll find out more about soon.