Sunday Night Movie: Seconds

The third in director’s John Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy, the previous two films being The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, Seconds turns the attention from external threats to questions of identity and conformity.

The main character of the story is Arthur Hamilton an upper middle-aged man, white, Protestant, wealthy, and entirely dissatisfied with his life. Mysterious communication from a ‘deceased’ friend leads him to a company that services men as himself, creating for them new identities, new lives, in younger, stronger bodies. Arthur undergoes the processes and is reborn as Tony Wilson, now played by leading man actor Rock Hudson. Arthur, living as Tony, is relocated to California and given a life that is designed to fulfill those emotional voids from his previous ones, but they do not. Despite a reignited sexual drive and capacity, a young exciting woman professing her love, and absolute freedom, Arthur/tony remains deeply unhappy. Questioning his choices and seeking solutions puts Arthur/Tony on a disastrous course that he may never recovery from.

There is no doubt that Seconds is a science-fiction story without the intense and complex procedure to take an old man and transform him into a young one the story simply falls apart. The movie is tough, brutal, and disturbing. By brutal I do not a bloody festival of violence, but rather that the handling of the characters and their issues are not softened by sentimentality. Arthur Hamilton is not a particularly likeable man and his transformation does not change this aspect but his journey is intellectually challenging and emotionally wringing which I found compelling and fascinating. The philosophical questions raised, by the film and left unanswered I might add, concerning the conflict between the individual and what society expects of an individual, are deep and powerful. This is an SF movies with a point, it is not a pretty film, it is not a feel good film, and it is not an adventure film, but it is an adult film with adult problems and an adult resolution, Filmed with techniques that were terribly difficult before the advent of SteadyCam, and with distorting lenses, Seconds can be difficult to watch and perhaps even physically uncomfortable for those susceptible to motion sickness.

This was the first time I watched Seconds and with the benefit of historical knowledge Rock Hudson’s performance takes on greater depth, meaning, and nuance, In 1966 Rock Hudson was at the top of his game as a leading man in Hollywood. Young, tall, and handsome he played vigorous, virtuous, and virile men that reflected back to America and the world the illusion of the man that men should strive to be and he did this while living a deeply closeted life. Normally I do not consider an actor personal life or orientation when watching their performance but in this case I think it transforms the acting into a sublime achievement. Taking on the role of ‘Tony Wilson’ Hudson plays a man who is hiding his core identity, who is living a lie, Hudson gives a performance that is layered with its own hidden truth. Frankenheimer wisely doesn’t spoil the subtlety of the Hudson’s acting with cheap close-up of things like a single tear, but lets many of the scenes play out in uncomfortable long takes

Produced when science-fiction cinema was truly becoming an adult art form Seconds is about as far from escapism as a move can get. It is a story unconcerned with heroic gestures, preening villains, or simplistic clashes of good and evil but rather it attempt to plumb the depth of the human soul and what it finds is deeply unsettling. It is a classic film from a master filmmaker, but by far it is not for everyone.

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Classic Movie Review: The Creature Walks Among Us

Sunday night I was in the mood from something from the classic period of SF monster movies but also for a movie that I have not seen a dozen times. Years back I purchased the Legacy Collections of the Universal Horror movies including The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Creature did not spawn as many sequels as either Frankenstein or Dracula with just two follow-up films, Revenge of the Creature and Sunday’s movie The Creature Walks Among Us.

This franchise demonstrates the usual cycle of a hit film and it’s usually poorly thought-out sequels. Creature is a well-made film with a fairly sharp script, interesting characters, and wholly contained story of a small expedition trapped and in a battle for their lives against a strange and unknown creature. With excellent 3-D effects and the truly new monster from universal in some time the original was a smash hit. Of course a sequel had to be made. For the second movie they pretty much repeated the first except instead of having a cast that was trapped with the monster is a lost lagoon now the creature, transported to an ocean themed park in Florida is ravaging in humanity’s world. However the core elements are repeats from the original film; a scientifically oriented female lead that the creature is drawn to, pseudo-science in ‘studying’ the creature, and a climax of rescuing the girl from the amorous monster. Having repeated themselves in the second film the third simply ignore the core elements and tried to tell a wholly new story and graft onto it the gill-man from the first two movies.

The Creature Walks Among Us divides into three sub-stories hunting and capturing the creature in the swamps of Florida. In his capture the creature is badly burned and the scientists use surgery to change the gill-man into a land creature. The middle of the movie is taken up with melodrama about the expedition leader, his crumbling marriage, and dreary debates about Nature versus Nurture, this is meant as the thematic heart of the film and that are interesting ideas here but they are not answers to questions raised by the earlier movies. the final sub-story takes place at the ranch where they are going to study the creature. The melodrama’s sexual tensions boil over, a man is murdered, and the murders big plan is to frame the creature for the killing. Apparently the creature didn’t like the idea of taking the fall and goes on a rampage against the real murdered and then escapes. The movie ends with the creature returning to the sea, unaware that he will now drown.

Deviating wildly from the original themes and premises killed the franchise but the Creature movies captures the challenges and dangers of a series of stories. Keep too close to the first rendition and all you produce is a less original copy, (for example Terminator 2: Judgment Day) ignore those elements and you end up with a film that satisfies no one as it is unlike what fans of the franchise want and is unable to attract a new audience. Universal would be wise to pay heed to its own history as it attempts to re-booth this series.

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Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

From Luc Besson, Director of such varied films as Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element comes a movie that was reportedly one of his personal passion projects Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets. Adapted from a long-running French comic Valerian is an expansive space opera set in a universe with a vast number of alien species fantastic technology and a complete lack of any sort of engaging characters. The title character Valerian is an officer for the Federation of Human Worlds. Along with his partner, Sgt. Laureline he is effective a galactic cop, chasing down bad guys and enforcing the law. His character is supposed to be a ‘bad boy’ the sort of rogue that women can’t resist and who infuriates his superiors. We know this because he tells us so in one of the movies many ‘as you know, Bob’ moments of infodumping.

I am avoiding describing the plot not because of spoilers, though that is always a consideration in my reviews, but because at its heart the plot is a mess of clich├ęs and overly-predictable plot twists; Valerian is a plot driven story with a terribly plot doing the driving. Where a plot driven movie like Dunkirk establishes in the very first scene what the plot is, (surrounded by the enemy and needing to escape), Valerian tries to make their a mystery and only end up making a mess. The characters bounce chaotically from one situation to another bumbling their way through with the very nature of their personalities changing in a futile attempt to create drama. Obstacles in this story are overcome by either a James Bond-like reliance on gadgets that unlike a Bond film are not established before the save the day, convenient friendly aliens with supplying exactly the skill sets needed at the time they are needed, or by daring and do that takes place in front a green screen. (Digital stunts are the most boring of all ‘action.’)

In addition to and numerous writing failures present in the film the lead actors, who are barely adequate for their jobs (And I may be overly generous there), share no chemistry on screen, either as partners or lovers.

I was utterly bored watching this film, checking my watch often to compare the ‘progress’ of then plot against the running time, and when the exposition heavy ending finally arrived I was relieved.

This is a movie I cannot recommend.

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What is it About the Genre Movies of the 1950s?

If you are a fan of genre films, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror there a better than even bet that no matter your age the movies produced during the decade of the 50s holds a special place in your heart.

While Universal Horror started in the 1930s with Frankenstein and Dracula by the 1940s they were already being seen as kids movies with their stories becoming more simple and more focused on spectacle. Remember the first ‘shared universe’ of movie is the Universal Horror franchise as the monsters frequently were thrown into the same movie for bigger and bigger fights and thrills.

However once we get to the 50s there is change in the movies. There still were not ‘prestige’ pictures. These productions did not boast A list stars, they struggled with budgets that were too small, and were rarely taken seriously by the critics. And yet these films are ones we still watched more than half a century later. These are the films, beloved and respected, that soulless corporate executives, produced from business universities and without creative artistic drive, that are rebooted, reimagined, and recreated into tent-pole films without the heart, soul, or intelligence of the originals. But why do we love those originals so much? What makes them so different from the bigger budget, more star-driven, and more elaborate movies of later decades? After all how many 70s SF movies, a prolific decade even before the KT Impact of Star Wars, are still being rediscovered today?

I think the answer lies in cynicism, or rather the lack of that bitter philosophy. When we left the 50s behind America entered a period of profound cynicism. The 60’s brought the Vietnam War, civil strife, televised police brutality, and a collapse of established social conventions. The 70’s grew darker with awareness of global pollution, economic shocks, military defeat, and of course Watergate. Distrust of government and nearly all institutions infected nearly ever aspect of our culture including cinema. All our films, including genre ones, took a dark turn surrendering to nihilism and cynicism that masqueraded as wisdom. The 80’s brought us the summer blockbuster, technically born in the 70’s The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, but it took the studios several years to begin chasing them in earnest. Light summer fare that ignored both the cynicism of the 60s and 70s but avoided serious thoughtful stories instead providing adventure as escape.

It’s now surprise that the movies of the 1950s appeal to an idealism that has been absent for far too long. Now we have to be honest and recognize that the 50s were not the idyllic American Summer. It was a period of repression, conformity, and suppressed individuality, but the lure of simplicity is powerful. Against that social conformity genre films of the 50s expressed not only an optimism stripped away in the follow years, but through movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, and many others they critiqued the culture and ourselves. How could such films not last the ages and not continue to find new and wider audiences?

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Is The Doctor still The Doctor?

Toady the new lead actor for the BBC’s long running fantasy series Doctor Who was announced and for the first time a woman will be playing the eccentric Time Lord; Jodie Whittaker will be replacing Peter Capaldi. I have very little impression of Ms. Whittaker and so I will be approaching her performance free of expectations. (I was a Capaldi fan before he became The Doctor and knew he was going to give it a terribly good twist. He will be missed.) Given that every time The Doctor ‘regenerates’ into their new form it carries with it a new personality for the Time Lord, and that we have seen Time Lords flip sexes before, I have no issue with this coming incarnation. I am more excited by the change in show-runners. Moffitt has also been hot and cold for me and I am hoping that the new series will be more consistent in what I want from the show.

This new casting has brought to mind an age-old question about writing. Are men and women so distinctly different as to be two utterly separate types of people?

I know people, smart talented people, who insist that no man can adequately writing a woman’s character. The underlying premise in that view is that men and women are distinctly different, existing as unique categories. That is not my opinion but it is one held by a great many people and as a matter of opinion it is not subject to proof and objective truth.

However, if you believe that women and men are so different that they might as well be alien to one another and that their characteristics do not overlap, then when a Time Lord flips sexes they must cease to be the person that they were before. This is not a minor alteration in the matrix of their personality. Not a matter of being a little more silly, a little more jaded, a little more deceitful, a little more noble or any of that, but a change of a foundational nature as to make them alien to their previous self.

So, Is the Doctor still the Doctor or do we have a person with The Doctor’s talents, memories, and skills calling themselves by that title but is in fact an impersonation?

I think women can write men and men can write women and as such while the person may change somewhat, this is still the Doctor, but I wonder how someone with that other world-view reconciles the new Doctor against the Old.

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Setting vs Genre

At a fellow writer’s Facebook wall we’re discussion the elements required for a story to be noir. Because we are SF writers the conversation naturally revolves about the intersection of noir and science-fiction. This has gotten me thinking and those and a few other terms and I’ve come to the conclusion, probably not original, that there is a difference between Setting and Genre

In this concept Science-Fiction is a setting, it has particular rules that govern its use and violation of those rules can lead to some and even most people excluding a piece from the setting definition, but it seems to me that genre is more about what is the intended or likely emotion reaction of the reader and as such is independent of the setting.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor was, according the author, written as an SF/Romance. The setting is science-fiction, the far future, humanity spread out among the stars broken into new nationalities. The genre is romance, the story of two people divided by their warring cultures and yet who fall in love.

Alien is Science-Fiction/Horror the setting is clearly sf, a spaceship deep into space. The genre is horror as the characters, trapped aboard their isolated spaceship, contend with a monstrous being.

Back to the Future is science-Fiction comedy the science-fiction elements, a lone scientist, time travel, are clear while the story is a farce about the clash of perception versus reality when it comes to one’s own parents.

All three of these works are Science-Fiction but looking at them simply through the lens of their setting tells us very little and nothing at all about if these are stories we want to experience. It is only when we examine to the mood intent of the piece, romantic, horrific, or hilarious that we can gather these disparate works into recognizable useful categories.

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And a New Novel is Started

Today I begin writing my next novel. Not outlining, not world-building, no engaging in character creation and study, words in a row, prose production, actually writing the book.

This may effect my productivity here on the blog but I am going to struggle to keep that interference to a minimum.

My production goal is 1500 words per day minimum with a stretch goal of 2000 words. I am shooting at a 90,000 to 100,000 word size for the book so it should not take too long.

For those in the know this is another Seth Jackson novel, about an American serving in the European Union’s Starforces. Set in a future where America took a wrong turn early in the 21st century and ended up a third rate power and humanity has expanded into the local stellar area still shackled by their bickering nationalities.

The first book in the series landed me an offer of representation and I look forward to spending time again with these characters.

 

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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Middle films are difficult beasts. When you are part of a larger franchise, particularly with the experiment in printing money called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pulling off a satisfying film that takes place during an unresolved arc can be challenging. It is a challenge that many fell George Lucas failed at with The Empire Strikes Back but that Peter Jackson succeeded with in making The Two Towers. James Gunn has succeeded with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Since the Guardians are going to be playing a major role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars the sequel to their own hit movie was sort of trapped running in place, unable to invest in major changes of the sort Marvel’s did with Captain America: Civil War. Gunn’s solution to this problem is a terrific one; Focus On Character.

The heart and theme to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is family; the family that we can’t choose and the family that chooses us. Major unresolved threads from the first film, principally the identity and nature of Peter Quill’s father sort as the engine moving the narrative along, but every character is explored through the lens of family. It is a testament to the writing that when reveals are exposed we can see that Nebula’s hatred for her sister Gamora is not entirely unfounded.

Another aspect of the scrip that displays true craftsmanship is the proper implementation of Chekov’s Gun. This is not a reference to the Enterprise’s humorous nationalistic navigator but the esteemed Russian playwright who famously advised that of there is a gun on the mantle in the first act it must be fired by the last. There are plenty of writers who competently place those guns on the mantel, fired them diligently, and then drop them to the side, forgotten. The best writers not only put the gun there, but use it again and again through the story, drawing a tight weave of elements making it so that the gun is not there simply for that one shot, but is a legitimate part of the world’s texture. Elements in Guardians are established, play their part, and then return to play further parts, driving the narrative forward with a relentless sense of inevitability that heightens the resolutions.

This film would be fun to watch on its own, but as a further exploration of these quirky characters and their tangled relationships, it’s a sheer joy. I fully endorse anyone going out and seeing it.

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Movie Review: Colossal

This morning I finally found the time to drive into Hillcrest to one of our local Landmark theaters and catch the Anne Hathaway Kaiju flick Colossal. Now those are words you really should not have expected to go together. In addition to being a giant monster movie, Colossal is also a comedy and a dramatic take on addiction and poisonous relationships.

Very fitting for this film the word Kaiju is actually Japanese for ‘strange beast’ and the story is a wonderfully weird and strange beast.

Ann Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman whose life due to alcoholism is spinning out of control. She loses her home, her relationship, and has lost job. Without resources or money she returns to her childhood home where she reconnects with a childhood friend Oscar played by Jason Sudeikis and continues her self-destructive drinking and behavior.. Things take a strange turn when an enormous monster appears in Soul South Korea. Gloria possesses an unexplained connection to the monster, one that in the end brings to a head all her unresolved issues.

Written and Directed by Nacho Vigalondo Colossal is an example of something I mentioned in an earlier essay, a movie with a message that is not a message movie. Vigalondo, like Joss Whedon, understand that comedy is best frontloaded, but one serious stakes are raised, the light-hearted approach gives way to drama, character, and real consequences.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film, it has very nicely written characters that are well realized by the cast. Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are terrific, particularly Sudeikis who manages a twist that feel organic without creating a sense of falsehood. The story moves along at a good pace but without sacrificing the essential moments that develop and reveal character. The resolution is organic and emotionally satisfying. Colossal has gotten a limited ‘art house’ release so it may not be showing in your area but if you can see it do so.

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Stealth Science-Fiction Films

It’s pretty easy to know an SF movie when you see one. Most are pretty upfront about the genre that they are intending to occupy, but a few films are secretly living a science-fiction life.

Most often you’ll find these movies an stories sold as some sort of action genre. Spy movies, and not just James Bonds films, are particularly ripe with this. The classic cold war movie Ice Station Zebra turns entirely on the technological triumph is a new lens and a new film that makes the picture in the wayward spy satellite so valuable to both the USSR and the USA. Another example, one that spawned a whole sub-genre was The Hunt for Red October. The ‘caterpillar’ drive was a product of imagination, pure science-fiction, yet that film is rarely cataloged with the rest of the genre but rather gets called a ‘techno-thriller.’

My personal favorite of the stealth SF movies is . (I am of course speaking of the original and not the mindless idiotic remake.) Spoilers follow for the film but considering it is more than 50 years old if you really wanted to see it unspoiled you have had your chance.

In the movie Raymond Shaw, a rather brisk and unlikeable character, wins a Medal of Honor for his actions under fire during the Korean War. His mother, a strident anti-communist married to a rising star of a senator, tries to use Raymond’s service to help her husband climb to the vice-presidency as this is an election year. However it turns out that Raymond has been brain washed by the communists and is in fact a perfect assassin who operates without any recollection of his actions. This is all part of a larger plot that threatens the very foundations of our republic. I have left out a few of the really big twists and reveals because this is a hell of a movie and if you have not seen it, you should.

That bit of brainwashing is pure fiction, that level of conditioning is beyond any actual psychological theory or practice, thus this story is clearly SF. The advance in science/technology s critical to the plot and if removed the story cannot stand.

If you poke around in the corners of film you can find all sorts of stealth SF hiding for you like treasures.

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