Saying Uncle

As a James Bond fan, I’ve always preferred my spy thrillers to be both humorous and thrilling. Having spent the war in Naval Intelligence, Ian Fleming understood that actual spy craft is a 90/10 mix of tedium and excitement and that for entertainment’s purposes, it’s best to boil the story down to the funny and somewhat plausible anecdotes rather than to belabor the months of intricate work and plans that got you there.

Cold War era television was fertile ground for this kind of show and I loved them all. Danger Man, The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Saint and, of course, The Man From UNCLE. In Napoleon Solo, the US finally had a spy as suave as James Bond and, as a bonus, who wouldn’t want a cold blooded Soviet assassin as a sidekick? Plus, we got to see the major cold war powers working together against groups we both felt were even more dangerous than each other.

Having established my Fangoria cred for The Man from UNCLE, let’s change channels to Guy Ritchie. I’m a fan. I loved both versions of Snatch. I also loved RocknRolla and his takes on Sherlock Holmes. I’ve even found it in my heart to forgive him for Swept Away. And I’m a former film student who was in love with Lina Wertmuller. I blame that misstep on Madonna. I’ve never cared for her. She turned music videos into Cats.

He has a visually arresting cinematic style. In a way, it’s kind of cubist. He’s fascinated by the interior workings of things that happen too fast to see with the naked eye. He knows how to fill a frame without making it too artsy-sparse or cramming it to the edges — something that only Wes Anderson can really get away with. Best of all, he tells a fast story. You do not have time to go out for a ciggie once GR takes the reins.

He knows color, composition and dramatic punctuation. AND he has a good sense of humor. All these things are on tap in Man From UNCLE, a movie that has a 76 percent fan rating on RT and a 7.4 on IMDB. Why do I have such a chip on my shoulder for a movie that made over a hundred million dollars in theaters? Because those are pity tickets.

The Man From UNCLE should have made five times that much. A hundred million bucks only accounts for people who loved the old show, Guy Ritchie fans, Henry Caville fans, people who are still rooting for Armie Hammer to hit a home run, and people who couldn’t get a ticket for some other show that was sold out.

It’s a funny movie. It’s a classic buddy cop story. It’s a sexy crime thriller. it’s a perfect date movie. It’s got something for everyone. The trailer was enticing and clever and the film paid off on the trailer. So why did no one come to see it?

Man, if I knew that, I’d be the king of Hollywood. I predict it will do very well on DVD/Demand/Streaming. Quality has a way of seeking its own level.

Do yourself a favor, go watch it.

 

Krampus

The Horror-Comedy-Christmas film is a very narrow sub-genre for good reason: It’s always a losing proposition. Horror-Comedy films are something of a misnomer anyway. In fact, they’re just comedies with the trappings of horror to drive the action. Is there a moment in Shaun of the Dead when you feel truly horrified? No. There are a few moments of pathos, but none of the characters are likable enough for us to care if they are imperiled.

That’s why that movie works. We’re given early signs that we don’t have to care about any character other than one whose name is in the title. They’re all a bunch of kooky shits, some of them you’re actually rooting to be eaten. It’s a romp from end to end, it absolutely works and it does so because it knows it’s a comedy.

On the other hand we have something like Gremlins. I hate this movie. I was there the week it opened. I saw the house full of little kids come to see the cuddly Mogwai and I covered my ears as their cries of joy turned to shrieks of terror. Not only is this awful movie responsible for the execrable PG-13 rating that has done so much damage to quality film making, but it just doesn’t work. It’s uneven, it doesn’t know what it is, it’s not scary to grownups and it’s not funny to anyone.

Why it’s so popular, I have no idea, but it’s one of the first great examples of the Horror-Comedy-Christmas movie being a no win situation. Krampus is another one – with a twist.

Spoiler alert: The twist is a combination of beer, pizza and the knowledge that the movie is going to have to cheat to win. Yes, seeing Krampus (or any movie for that matter) at the Alamo Drafthouse hedges your bet with really good pizza and really cold beer. It’s hard to hate anything that happens while your eating pizza and drinking beer. That’s just a scientifically proven fact.

Okay, REAL SPOILERS follow.

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Space Station 76

This is one of those movies where a thumbs up/down review doesn’t work at all. Not because the movie is uneven but because it’s complex. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I truly understood the limitations of rating systems like stars and thumbs and tomatoes until I sat down to watch this story unfold in all its perfect 1970s glory.

I’m convinced that in an earlier era Patrick Wilson would have been an Alan Ladd level movie star (especially after his turn in the second season of Fargo) and he doesn’t disappoint as the deeply closeted captain of 1970s era space station.

Liv Tyler, whom I adore, turns in her usual emotional performance, empathy high beams on the whole time. The space station sets look like they were lifted from Space 1999 and the casual sexism and irresponsible drug use is right on the mark for the time period.

But I wonder if it’s something one has to be of a certain age to truly enjoy. Unlike Spaceballs (a movie I truly despise as being unfunny and boring) which is just prat falls and fart jokes wrapped up in Star Wars costumes, most of the jokes in Space Station 76 hinge on or are enhanced by knowledge of the era it depicts.

Also, because the movie is an emotional roller coaster, it’s hard to give it a simple thumbs up. Parts are very funny, other parts are deeply troubling. The characters are at once fully fleshed out but also 1970s stereotypes. Experiencing this, you get the feeling you’re watching something much more important than it is and that leaves you with a somewhat confused reaction when it’s over.

But I guess a review of any kind boils down to one question: Was it worth watching. My answer to that is emphatically yes.

Blame

Look around at the world today and ask yourself where the pervading sense of ignorance, dystopia and lurking apocalypse comes from. What gives the fear mongers at Fox the ammunition to cow 48 percent of the nation that won World War II all by itself*? What makes people turn away from rational thought and try to place an age on the planet that isn’t even mentioned in the Bible?

Scientists. I blame scientists. Those psychopaths in white lab coats who want to appease aliens, create radioactive monsters, fifty foot tall women and men, set off bombs that make all manner of insects and animals grow to enormously destructive size. Those bastards who should have been put in prison long before they were given the keys to the atomic kingdom.

I mean, why wouldn’t Republicans shun climate change science after seeing the exact same guys in white coats inadvertently create giant grasshoppers with their “science” experiments? Why wouldn’t fundamentalist primitives try to infiltrate the school board to keep that kind of reckless thinking out of textbooks? Who wants our kids learning out to create giant spiders in school?

Who wanted to make a deal with the vicious vegetable from The Thing? The scientist. Who wanted to let the giant artichoke take over the world in the aptly titled “it Conquered The World.”? The scientist. Who tried to pave the way for the pod people to take over the world in both Invasions of the Body Snatchers? Okay, well, he was a psychologist and that’s a “soft” science, but you could say he was a science type guy.

Who created the first monster? Frankenstein. The original guy in the white lab coat.

Decades of widely publicized fuckups by these guys have served as a warning to people and corporations who would prefer not to believe in expensive stuff like climate change and the pointlessness of declaring war on an inanimate object like drugs.

I mean, is it the fault of corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen that we opted to create nuclear reactors based on a design that was widely known to be flawed and dangerous? No! It was the fault of the scientists. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are plainly the fault of the scientists who warned us not to build those reactors.

And now we’re finally free of those malignant bastards. Rational thought has been defeated and we’re free once again to believe in superstition and unfounded theories based on anecdotal and apocryphal information.

I feel better already.

* Based on rigorous study of John Wayne movies

The Clone Wars

I’m convinced that every word written in the Star Wars universe since Episode IV is one gigantic retcon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the Wars, but has anyone ever mined a single throwaway line like, “I fought with your father in the Clone Wars” for more material than this?

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Night Terrors

There were two things from my childhood of TV reruns and Saturday Night Creature Features that were so striking in their visual wrongness that the feeling of icky dread haunts me to this day — and neither thing was intended to be scary.

The first thing was a recurring image from the original Thunderbirds TV series – probably still playing in reruns on one of the upper, upper cable channels — a show in which puppets stand in for the actors. Think Team America: World Police. It was as dumb as it sounds, even for a kid, but there was this one thing they would do that… well, just thinking about it gives me the creeps.

A character would reach its puppet hand toward a knob on some control board and then they would cut to a closeup of an actual human hand turning the knob. I know that doesn’t sound like it should be as psychologically scarring as Megatron’s death but it was.

Very off putting.

The other thing was a similar image from Night Gallery. It was a short piece they used for filler when the main stories didn’t run long enough. A couple in bed, a baby crying, the father gets up and goes down the hall to the baby’s room and turns on the light. In the bed is a full sized Frankenstein’s monster (Karloff style) making the crying baby sound. That’s it. Again, not bad enough to cause permanent damage but it did.

Probably because the root of horror is revulsion which comes from the violation of expectation. Mixing those two things by setting the viewer up to expect one thing and giving them something grossly different may not affect many people the way it did me, but I’m special. My mom had me tested and everything.

 

Honest Ant Man

I nearly coughed out my Lucky Charms when I saw this.

Dawn of Justice

I could just as well have called this post, “How A Truly Great Trailer Is More Important Than The Actual Movie” but that was too long, almost as long as the title of the movie I’m going to talk about.

I have said before that I am more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy and that, really, the only DC character that holds my interest is Batman. That’s because everybody else either has silly super powers (Can shoot an arrow, can run fast, can hold breath forever) or is invincible (Superman.)

I know, Superman, baseball, apple pie… and on and on but drama is made of conflict and when your hero is nigh indestructible it’s hard to make you really worry about him. Yes, yes kryptonite, I get it. The way that Smallville made it work was to have the conflict come from Clark instead of Superman, to have his teen angst and feeling of being an outsider drive the show instead of giving into weirdo bad guys in costumes.

Until they did give into weirdo bad guys in costumes and that’s when the show went downhill in a hurry.

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Litmus Test

First of all, never be stupid enough to use a litmus test for the people in your life. I know you wouldn’t cross the street to spit on a member of the opposing political party if their guts were on fire, but try to remember this: There are republicans who are pro-choice and there are democrats who are pro-gun. A litmus test is a reductive tool that diminishes the complexity of all people to whom it’s applied.

Now, having said that, let me expound on my litmus test. It consists of just two movies: Big Trouble In Little China and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Why these two? Why not Belle de Jour or The Bride Wore Black or Once Upon A Time In The West?

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Mr. Robot

“How does he have so much time to watch television and go to movies?” Is that what you’re thinking? Well, I just finished a two year death march to produce the first five episodes of Dangerous Thoughts. My brain is fried from overuse of its creative faculties. It’s time to take someone else’s energy in.

Luckily for me, there is a ton of good stuff out there now that we live in the World of Niche.

Mr. Robot is unique among cyber-oriented TV shows in that it doesn’t actively offend my every sense every time someone opens their mouth or starts typing on a keyboard. Or in the case of NCIS, two people typing on the same keyboard because that’s obviously twice as fast.

As a programmer, I get a little twitchy when characters start blathering techno-speak as fast as they can, hoping to simply numb the minds of those watching so they’ll believe the bullshit came from a real bull. But Mr. Robot’s writers, or more likely their technical consultants from Anonymous, know more about hacking than I do so it all comes off as relatively plausible to my ear.

Even the one thing that first hit me as bad, Hollywood-style logic, later turned to make the most sense.

Everything about the show is surprising and spoilery so I’m going to drop a spoiler bar right here and continue out of sight of those who haven’t watched this excellent show yet.

SPOILERS & THEORIES

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