Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Insanometer: Hell of the Living Dead

At this point, I'm beginning to feel like I owe you folks a little bit of an accelerated posting schedule for a while. After all, I did skip a post...or two...it wasn't any more than two, right? In any event, I'll try to speed things up a little for a while, give you some extra bang for your free. Today, it's another test run of the Insanometer as we run it over a good old-fashioned Italian zombie flick from 1980, "Hell of the Living Dead"! (Also known as "Zombie Creeping Flesh", "Zombie Inferno", "Cannibal Virus", "Night of the Zombies", and "Zombi 2: Ultimate Nightmare", on the grounds that you might actually see it six times if you thought it was six different movies.)

Of course, this might be a film from the year 1980, but it looks easily a decade older. The production values on this weren't high to begin with, and most of them went towards gore; decent cameras, films, crowds, actors, and everything else weren't high on the list. In fact, they weren't on the list at all. This is a movie that looks like it was made somewhere around the dawn of color, and that's the remastered version.

The story, though, is a pure aping of whatever was topical and interesting at the time. So we have a zombie crisis ("Dawn of the Dead"), a group of Chuck Norris-esque tough-guy commandos (although they look more like Barry Bostwick in "Megaforce") and a sinister government conspiracy...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The movie opens with a toxic spill on what looks to be a disused oil rig, but which is actually...um, either intended to be a disused oil rig repurposed as a top-secret lab, or a top-secret lab that the film-makers tried to represent on their budget by filming it on a disused oil rig. The spill creates a bunch of zombies, but destroys a bunch of tension later, because the whole movie is about a journalist teaming up with a group of commandos to find out what's behind the epidemic of zombie flesh-eaters in Papua New Guinea. Since we know from the beginning that it's ooze seeping off of the oil rig/lab, the film is really just an exercise in them getting to what we already know.

Oh, and in watching some of the most spectacular over-acting ever committed to celluloid. The commandos aren't just hard-bitten and gritty, they're borderline psychotic snarling maniacs who are "the best of the best of the best"...and yet do things like charging into a mob of flesh-eating zombies spitting ammunition at random and hoping for the best. Even so, they drop at a plot-required pace, in order of their degree of sympathetic character...um...ness.

They have to contend with zombies, terrorists, and unfriendly natives (the journalist wins over the natives by showing her familiarity with tribal customs. By stripping naked and putting on body paint. My reaction at the time was simply, "Well played, movie. Well played.") Meanwhile, back in New York City, the representative of Papua New Guinea pleads for aid for his beleaguered country to what has to be the most under-attended session of the United Nations ever. They clearly had the budget to rent a big auditorium, but not to get any extras. He's declaiming to maybe five people, tops.

Finally, after much gore and death and violence and blood and deathy bloody violent gory death, they reach the oil rig and find out the chemical was actually doing close to exactly what it was intended to do--apparently, rich people were looking for something to curb over-population, and their solution was a chemical that made poor people eat each other. It's a little bit over-enthusiastic, as seen in an epilogue where New Yorkers are consumed by sinister zombie hordes, but it's a genuine attempt to a solution to a real problem, and I feel like they deserve credit for it.

The plot summary probably makes this sound a little less insane than it is--much of the sheer craziness factor comes from the presentation--but it's still enough for a solid six on the Insanometer. There's a little more "bad" than "crazy" here, but there's plenty of "crazy" for your viewing dollar.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Trouble With Soccer

So we're now...what, fifteen days after the end of the World Cup? And once again, Americans have said to the rest of the world, "Thank you very much for showing us your crazy foreign sport, now shush. Football season's about to start." And they haven't even noticed the bitter irony that the rest of the world thinks they're actually talking about the sport they're dismissing.

Why? What exactly is the deal with soccer (for purposes of clarity, I'll use that term for the rest of the column) that makes it so hard to catch on in America? I'm aware that to some people, it's simple enough; soccer doesn't have time for many ad breaks, which makes it hard to televise, which makes it hard to sell to America. But I don't buy that. It's part of it, sure, but soccer does get airtime, and it doesn't get viewers. It remains the unofficial "fifth sport" of American sports, despite attempt after attempt after attempt to shove it down our throats. (Anyone remember the Minnesota Kicks? I do...)

The problem, I think, lies in two major areas: tempo and scoring. Everyone generally talks about the second first, and overlooks the first completely, but I think the two are related in a way that makes them both worth discussing. Sure, soccer's a low-scoring game, but football can end in a score of 7-3 and baseball can end in 1-0. Yet both are vastly more popular than soccer.

Why? Because they have a recognizable, discernable tempo to the game. In football, you can build anticipation for a potential score. When a team crosses the 50-yard-line, the average fan puts down their drink, and the conversation in the room starts to quiet. By the time they've crossed the twenty, fans are leaning forward in their seats, wondering what's going to happen. Even if that drive ends in an interception or a missed field goal, a football fan has a sense of mounting tension that keeps them in their seat for a low-scoring game. (The same is, of course, true of baseball. Two out, bases loaded, count is at 0-2...that inning might end with nobody scoring, but try to get a baseball fan to walk away right then.) In soccer, you can spend twenty-five minutes ten feet away from the goal and nothing will happen...or someone will kick it from half-way across the field and score in five seconds. You can't judge the pace of a game. Hockey and basketball suffer from similar tempo problems to soccer, of course, but basketball is high-scoring, and hockey...well, there's a reason hockey's a distant fourth.

Because hockey also shares another problem with soccer, one that makes both sports relative pariahs in the professional sports world. The Dreaded Tie. Soccer's not just low-scoring, it can be no-scoring. There's nothing in the world more likely to frustrate a fan more than spending 90+ minutes watching a game, only to have it end in a scoreless tie. It's like nothing happened at all. Football? SUDDEN DEATH overtime. Sure, it might not be that fair (although that'll change this year) but you're almost never going to walk away with a tie. Baseball? Extra innings. They go until it's done. Basketball? Overtime until someone wins. Even hockey has taken steps to eliminate the irritating tie, with sudden death shootouts and rules to open up scoring.

As long as soccer stays a low-scoring, erratically paced game, it's probably not going to penetrate the American market. Which probably suits a lot of people just fine, of course; as far as they're concerned, it's our loss if we don't want to watch the game. After all, it'd be a boring world if everyone liked the same thing. (Even so, I bet nobody could watch last year's Saints/Vikings playoff game without becoming a football fan...)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I Miss the Giant Bugs

I've been sorting through some MST3K episodes lately, and it got me thinking about the Golden Age of Killer Animal Movies. Does anyone other than me miss those? Sure, they were almost without exception terrible, both in effects and in acting. Sure, they all had almost exactly the same plot (authority figures stumble onto scene of mysterious carnage, scientist tells them that it must have been caused by giant/swarming animals...but that's impossible!, scientist investigates and winds up narrowly escaping from said animals, authorities don't believe scientist until animals attack en masse, scientist comes up with technobabble solution.) But I miss them, nonetheless.

The genre's not gone, of course. Every once in a while, you'll see an "Eight-Legged Freaks" or a "Lake Placid" or a "Deep Blue Sea" pop up...but the era when every third sci-fi movie featured giant insects/gila monsters/bunny rabbits seems to be gone. Me, I blame "Star Wars". (Yes, I know, this is a common theme in fandom. Trust me, I can justify it.) When "Star Wars" came out, the standard for special effects changed. It wasn't enough to suggest the idea of giant grasshoppers attacking Chicago through the cunning use of close-up camera trickery and miniature sets. Nobody believed it, not after seeing starships dogfight over a battle station the size of a moon in detail so realistic you'd swear you were watching a documentary. Film-makers suddenly needed high-quality special effects they couldn't deliver.

With the advent of and improvements to CGI, we're hopefully beginning to see a resurgence of cheesy killer animal movies. "Piranha 3-D" doesn't have realistic-looking fish, exactly, but it has killer fish eating people. Who knows, we could get to the point where it's dirt-cheap to fill the screen with dozens of giant killer frogs that look photo-realistic! Then it's just a matter of filling the cast out with washed-up TV has-beens to get eaten, one by one. I wonder what Scott Baio's doing these days?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

This Outpouring of Toxic Bile Brought to You by: Comics!

Yay! Scott Pilgrim Volume Six finally comes out today!

That means it's over, and I can finally stop hearing about how awesome the comic is about the unlikeable cheating douchebag who finds true love with a horrible manipulative woman, seemingly on no other basis than "it's got lotsa videogame references!" and "it's manga-inspired!" and "oh, after about four volumes, he finally grows up enough to dump the high-school girl he's been two-timing, so that makes it a story about personal growth!"

...oh, crap. There's still a movie coming out, isn't there? *sigh* Maybe someday.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Games Past: Eternal Darkness

Yes, technically speaking the "Games Past" series has been about board and card games. But sometimes, you just have to speak out of pure love of something beautiful, and "Eternal Darkness"...if this was a painting, it'd be in the Louvre. If this was a movie, it'd be on the AFI Top 100. If there's an argument to be made that video games are art...this is a twisted, dark, sinister thing of sheer beauty that is well-remembered even after almost a decade.

"Eternal Darkness" is a wonderful Lovecraftian horror story about a young woman who travels to New England to investigate the mysterious death of her uncle (he was found in a locked room, with his head missing.) She finds a secret room in her uncle's house with a book called the Tome of Eternal Darkness...and on reading it, she experiences the lives of everyone else who's read the book in its long history. She discovers an ancient conspiracy to bring an Elder God of primal darkness into our reality, she learns of the realities of magic and the struggles against the Elder God...and she goes rapidly insane.

Because that's the beauty of this game. As you progress through each chapter, taking on the roles of different people in different ages and learning about their struggle against the Elder Gods, you have a sanity meter for every character. Each time your character encounters something creepy and terrible and outside of this reality, your sanity dips. When your sanity is low enough, you start hallucinating.

The hallucinations are sheer brilliance. Your character can walk into a room and find himself on the ceiling, or stumble into a room full of zombies and get the message "Your controller has been disconnected," or see your TV mute itself. Flies crawl on the inside of the screen, walls drip blood, and at one absolutely perfect moment you hallucinate that the game will be continued in a sequel. You find yourself playing the game with the goal of triggering hallucinations, just to see all the neat effects.

And the story is perfectly structured. Every chapter teaches you a new skill, a new spell, something that your main character learns when she returns to the present that helps her find another chapter of the book to read another story to learn another skill. By the time the game is over, you're a bad-ass super-sorcerous gunslinging swordfighter, and then the game gives you a final battle worthy of the person you've become. This game is like a book you want to read again and again. (If for no other reason than you can end it by shooting an ancient lich with an enchanted shotgun.)

Rumor has it that there'll be a sequel, someday, but in the meanwhile, it's worth tracking this game down used and playing it on your Wii. It's an experience worth every minute...oh, and one hallucination will make you scream at your TV screen. I won't say which, but you'll know it when it happens.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Under the Hood: The Wicker Man

Been a while since I've done one of these ("Under the Hood" columns, not blog entries, although I am aware that I've inexcusably missed an entire entry this week. I'll try to make it up next week, I promise...) Basically, the idea is simple--take a movie that failed on the script level, look at the basic premise, and try to make it all work better. This week, let's look at 'The Wicker Man'.

Not the original with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, which was an excellent piece of dark and twisted cinema. (If a bit insensitive to sincere pagans--I don't think it meant to slight the pagan faith, but I know a few people who felt that it was clumsy enough to be insulting.) I mean the genuinely stunningly batshit insane remake with Nicholas Cage, which failed on every possible level. Why, and how can it be improved?

First, you need to understand that the reason the original made use of paganism as the religion of its villain. It wasn't because the screenwriter thought that pagans were evil, it was because paganism is inextricably intertwined with British farming culture, and the film was playing on that fear of being somewhere isolated, well away from "civilization" and its rules, and unable to get in touch with Authority (in whatever form.) Woodward's character isn't faced with creepy pagans, he's faced with people who still follow the Old Ways of the founders of their village the way they always have, and don't have any intention of changing things on behalf of some outsider...even if he does have a badge.

So if you're going to transplant this to America, keeping the pagan thing doesn't make sense. America doesn't have a strong rural pagan tradition. The further out into the country you go, the more Christian you get. So what you'd want is a community that's gone back to the Old Testament, where God demands sacrifice from His people to win His favors...only because these are people, and people can get a little crazy, they've perverted the Old Testament to claim that God wants human sacrifices even more than animal sacrifices. (Yes, this is obviously not supported by scripture. The craziness is not in the faith, it's in the people practicing it, just like the original.)

The community would be in the American Southwest, for two reasons. One, it fits in with the idea from the original that this is a community that lives in marginal farmland, and the "magical thinking" that leads them to sacrifice people to ensure good harvests comes from their inability to control said good harvests. Two, there's less cell phone coverage in the Southwest, and you're going to need that to explain why the cop doesn't just call for back-up.

From there, things unfold pretty straightforwardly. The cop drives out to the middle of nowhere to investigate a mysterious letter about a missing girl. His car runs out of gas, and he can't refill it--the townsfolk don't use modern conveniences like motor vehicles. His concerns go from the girl, to being stranded, to being trapped, to being the potential human sacrifice in a re-enactment of Abraham and Isaac. (Perhaps the girl never even existed in this version--the photograph of her is almost a mystic "artifact" to them, to be kept carefully preserved and used to bring the Lord's bounty to them once again in times of tribulation.) The ending, of course, doesn't go well for the officer.

Probably wouldn't be High Art, but then again, neither was the original. But it has the potential for an effective thriller that wouldn't become legendary for its sheer comical badness, and isn't that something?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Getting People Involved

I've been spending the weekend at CONvergence in the Twin Cities (which is why this Thursday blog post is taking place Sunday night) and geeking out about a variety of TV shows with a variety of people. And one of the things that occurred to me was the reason I don't seem to be interested in watching "Hustle".

Keep in mind, I'm a big "Leverage" fan. I have been told through multiple sources (technically as many as six) that "Hustle" is the perfect next step for "Leverage" fans, and that I totally need to watch it. And yet, somehow the effect seems to be just the opposite--the more I hear, "You HAVE to see 'Hustle'", the lower it gets on my list of priorities.

I think the reason for this is the words, "You have to see". Telling people about a great series/movie/book/whatever makes it into a chore, a task that they have to check off before they can get on to the other things they need to do. But sitting down and watching it with someone...that makes it into a shared experience. It's a lot better to share your passions than to inflict them on someone, and you know the old saying about catching more flies with honey...

So when it comes to getting people interested in your geek passion, presentation is everything. Do it with them if you can; if you can't, entice them with interesting descriptions instead of making demands. You'll find that you get a lot more new fans that way...assuming what you watch/hear/read is actually any good. "Twilight" fans might not have so much luck in that regard.