Archive for the Science Category

Ape Crisis Centre

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by dcairns

Sorry for the tacky title, but somebody already reviewed KONG: SKULL ISLAND with the tagline I LOVE THE SMELL OF APE PALM IN THE MORNING, better than which it is impossible to do. It wasn’t the famous Anonymous Wag, it was somebody real with a name, I just can’t recall who and can’t be bothered checking. but well done, Nonymous Wag.

I didn’t see KK:SI but I did see WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, slightly dragged by Fiona, and it has just probably as many APOC NOW refs as the big gorilla one. There’s even a graffita reading APE-POCALYPSE NOW, so I couldn’t use that as my header either. The Vietnam stuff is a little heavy-handed and dumb, though in a war with the apes Americans surely WOULD call their enemy “the Kong” so I have to grant them that one. (They called their enemy that in ‘Nam, too — I know you know that, but did you know it was actually a made-up name? There was no such group as the “Viet Cong,” the US made the name up because they wanted something that sounded cool and sinister. NOTE: see correction in comments section.)

So, I was glad I saw this in the end — we’d seen  films one and two in the trilogy, and this one does its best to actually be a concluding episode, though I’m sure there’ll be pressure to do more — a reboot, or some kind of sequel that also serves as a remake of the original Chuckles Heston apetacular (still the best in the series/serieses).

DIGITALLY RENDER UNTO CAESAR

The first half hour is nicely directed, though the 3D didn’t add as much as I expected — maybe because the sinuously moving camera does all the 3D’s work for it. But I wasn’t really engrossed dramatically. Caesar (Andy Serkis and his army of animators) is quite chatty in this one, despite Noam Chomsky’s firm stance on ape language, but he apparently has never learned to use contractions. So talks like Data from Star Trek, or like a man in a biblical epic. This is obviously as deliberate as the ‘Nam refs, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. (Notice how Data’s robospeak gradually infected the rest of ST:TNG‘s cast as the writers forgot how people talk).

I guess the biblical epic aspect has always been there, from the casting of Heston to all the talk of a “Lawgiver,” echoing Heston’s role as Moses and eventually embodied by John Huston, director of THE BIBLE (and portrayer of Noah, another man who conserved species from an environmental disaster) in BATTLE FOR, the last of the original series. That movie is referenced here just enough (a single teardrop!), and there are lots of other clever harkenings to the earlier films, which the reboot has always been nicely respectful of.

But the first half hour is also terribly uninvolving. No effort is made to remind us of the personalities of the lead apes from the previous installments. One fellow only gets a little character grace note five minutes before being offed, which retroactively makes said grace note seem like a cynical plant. Inexplicably, the film’s baddie, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson as Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz with a side order of Robert Duvall’s Kilgore) shows up out of nowhere to kill some apes and set Caesar on a mission of revenge, then vanishes back to his hideaway — Caesar falls off a waterfall, very dramatically, but in the next scene is back in his (compromised, unsafe) base camp, making plans. It feels muddled, and the emotion is dampened by confusion.

Fiona points out that the film is still afraid of female apes: none of them talk in this film, and they don’t fight, contrary to nature. They don’t have big purple behinds, so the movie resorts to having them wear little hair braids so we know who’s a girl. They make little feminine grunts, the way real apes don’t. I think the rot set in with Tim Burton’s appalling POTA movie, with Helena Bonham Carter and Lisa-Marie as sexy ape-babes. Ugh. That’s the only bit of wrongheadedness from that abomination which has kind of survived and mutated, as if exposed to an experimental gas canister (Burton is getting to resemble an experimental gas canister more and more).

BAD TIME FOR BONZO

There’s also, I would say, a problem with the first half’s post-apocalyptic landscape. Unlike the crumbling cities of DAWN OF, there’s nothing specially evocative about, say, a Snow Cat lying abandoned in a snowy forest. It looks like quite a normal site. I love post-man settings in the same way I love empty set photographs — I’m all about the defining absence, me. So this was disappointing.

But it was in the midst of the snowy rural stuff where the film is aiming to be THE SEARCHERS with even more sign language that it starts to get good. There’s a quite brilliant scene of Maurice the orang (Karin Kanoval and her animators) and a silent little girl (Amiah Miller) which is LOOONG, wordless, quiet, tender and hypnotic. Really unexpected in a summer blockbuster. And the film starts improving right now.

Next we meet Steve Zahn (and his Zahnimators) as the comedy relief chimp (his “Oh nooo…” sounds very Scottish, somehow). Comedy relief characters are primarily needed by films with no sense of humour, or films afraid that a sense of humour will deflate the pomposity that sustains them. Both certainly factors here — any film with a lead who can’t use contractions must be afraid of humour. Get it safely contained in one character and you’ve quarantined it. But Zahn & co create a rather adorable figure here. So appealing, I worried he was being set up for a moving death scene. But the film doesn’t ALWAYS do what you expect.

EMOTION CAPTURED

Now the movie becomes a prison camp flick, and the Colonel shows semblances of another of his rank, Saito in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. But it’s a wall he’s building. Yes, this feels like the first anti-Trump blockbuster (or the first I’ve seen — I don’t see many). And it will feature an ape swinging from a Stars and Stripes which is also inscribed Alpha Omega and is also on fire. An image for our times. (Also prefigured by John Huston, this time in WINTER KILLS.)

Science fiction films never accurately predict the future (except BRAZIL, which has all come true) but one hopes this does, just so we can have Don Jr. lose the power of speech and his dad shoot him. Oh, come on. It’d be interesting.

But the movie isn’t as dark and vengeful as that, after all. It has a much more nuanced take on vengeance than, say THE REVENANT, which proved remarkably dumb and unsophisticated. And it even redeems the somewhat fascistic ending of RISE DAWN, which had Caesar depriving his enemy of apehood so he could kill him without breaking the “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” rule. That climax, which seemed like it was meant to be just cool and bad-ass, is back-engineered to seem genuinely proto-fascist, something that must be atoned for and which leaves trauma for the perpetrator, or maybe this was always part of their plan (the writers of the first film are execs on this, granting a sense of cohesion and trilogic world-building). Caesar feels guilt for killing Toby Kebbell as Koba the bonobo (I just like writing that) and gets a chance to act differently this time.

APE PLURIBUS UNUM

So maybe because I like apes or because I don’t like concentration camps, this movie got quite emotional for me. I seemed to continually have something in my eye (mayve it was the 3D). It wasn’t profoundly moving, because torturing animals always gets a reaction (my friend Alex makes fun of the bit in RISE OF where Malfoy shows up with girlfriends to abuse apes — “No matter how evil you are, it’s unlikely you’d think that torturing chimps would be a good way to impress the girls,” — but in fact, animal abuse is a staple of entertainment, since drama depends on a good bit of unpleasantness to work its magic). Arguably, it was all too easy. But it worked. And it didn’t become so manipulative and Von Trieresque that I resented its effect.

It’s nice to get a proper trilogy. The middle one is the darkest. The first and third are the best. This is as it should be.

 

Advertisements

The Monday Matinee, episode 12: The End of Murania

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Science with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by dcairns

It was over too soon! All really terrible things must come to an end. So, for the last time, the oddly stressful theme music plays, and we get a confusing recap of fragments of the previous instalments. For the first time, the Cowboy Comedy Sidekicks (CCSs) rate a mention, since they were directly responsible for last week’s cliffhanger ~

Also, a misplaced apostrophe. Now read on.

The two nitwits manage to get Murania’s central control room malfunctioning, then throw themselves down a trapdoor which leads to where Gene Autry is getting his head disintegrated (see last week — it’s complicated). This bit of narrative retro-fitting ought to allow for a rescue, though given these nitwits’ past form, Gene might easily wind up even more disintegrated than he would have been naturally. He’s already A BIT disintegrated — he’s making a pained face and tugging at his kerchief as if overheated — that’s the first sign that you may be being disintegrated. If you have those symptoms, see a doctor.

The sidekicks drag Gene from the death ray, taking care to expose themselves to it thoroughly in the process, which surprisingly causes them no distress whatsoever, almost as if it were merely a spotlight.

Queen Tika enters, brought by two guards who had intended to disintegrate her. The CCSs immediately attack the guards in the best Iraqi style, taking off their boots and striking the unbelievers about the head.

“We must get Her Majesty back to the Control Room,” opines Gene, the second he recovers. It’s the kind of thing one feels he WOULD say in such a situation — testament to the skills of the serial’s writing staff, Wallace McDonald, Gerald Gerachty, H Freedman, John Rathmell and Ernest Schaeffer. He doesn’t look a bit disintegrated, although I guess he might be completely hollowed out on the inside. It’s hard to tell. I’m going to study Gene’s performance closely in search of suggestions that this may be the case.

The villainous Argo enters, with his pestilential science gang, and Gene promptly targets them with their own disintegrator ray, which was still ON last we saw. The burly baritone somehow backs his foes into a corner with the unwieldy weapon, and everybody legs it. Now we get to find out if Queen Tika is as good at running as she is at watching television. Let me tell you, the two talents are not always found in one person.

But we never do find out, as the serial uncharacteristically cuts from the chase, leaving the bad guys locked in the disintegrator room (their cunning escape plan: face the locked metal door and shove each other). The CCSs deal with the “heavily armed” guards at the control room (two pasty guys with spears) by shoving robots at them, leading to a strange, cramped, irritating fight. Everybody looks really hot and bothered. Although, oddly, the guards don’t notice the robots until they’re quite literally about three inches away. This makes for intense, close-quarters action.

Muranian myrmidons do seem oddly myopic. Once in the throne room, the CCSs push their dumb robots clatteringly right past a patrolling guard who doesn’t notice anything until he reaches the far wall and turns around. Then Gene fells him with a gigantic punch, flubs his line (“Hurry, we’ll… get to the control room.”) and the Control Room is gained! Queen Tika immediately wants to watch television. She discovers that Argo’s rebels are melting the door with the Disintegrator Atom Smashing Machine. The impudent dogs!

Argo, impatient at the slow rate of door disintegration, turns the volume up, impatient of Rab’s panicky warnings that his Smashing Machine might get “out of control again.” Again? He’s right to be cautious, it seems — the big ray gun immediately starts wobbling randomly around the room, forcing the rebel scientists to run about like headless chickens. “Turn it off! Turn it off!” yells Rab. “Turn it off! Turn it — off!” Nobody thinks to unplug it. Everybody dies. Although they don’t disintegrate, that I can see.

“It will eat its way through the empire!” declares Queen Tika. She suggests Gene gets out, and he suggests she come too. “To the mad world above?” she sneers, regally, harping on her favourite theme. “It would be a living death!” Still nobody thinks of maybe unplugging the Smashing Machine. Queen Tika seems tickled to death about the prospect of being disintegrated along with her people. “It is better than an invasion from the surface world.” Seemingly she’s fixated on the idea that on the surface she would be forced to drive race cars or bum cigarettes. (The fact that she would be unable to breathe seems like a more sound reason for staying below ground.) Still, one notices that the Queen’s role in her plan consists entirely of watching television again.

Entertaining shots of melting Murania! Only Gene and his two idiots think of using the elevator — everyone else is fleeing straight into the holocaust, apart from the robots who merely plod doggedly towards it.

Gene and his pals join up with Frankie and Betsy, and they find exactly the right number of horses in the Muranian stables. But then they remember all the other horses, and rescue them. The Muranian PEOPLE can go whistle. All this is shown to us on Queen Tika’s television, making it TWICE AS EXCITING.

Queen Tika staggers regally over to the big knife switch that opens the garage door to the surface, then ascends to her throne one last time as her world literally crumbles around her, a moment that could have been powerfully moving were it not totally obscured by smoke. Finally, the melting models (a cheap optical effect) are replaced by a melting Queen, and the disintegrator at last disintegrates itself.

And with one bound our heroes are free, having contributed substantially to the destruction of an entire civilisation. “But it was worth it,” says Frankie, “I learned a lot of new scientific things.” Betsy is upbeat: “I’m going back to Murania someday, and see what’s left,” she beams. The disgusting ghoul. “I’m afraid there isn’t very much left of the city,” says Gene, dampening her youthful spirits, “But we’ll probably find enough radium to make us all rich.”

When Mike Hodges made his FLASH GORDON, he saw it as a slight satire of American interventionist foreign policy, which never quite convinced me as a valid allegory. But had he instead made THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, he’d have had a pretty solid footing, it seems to me.

Until now, the serial had seemed in danger of neglecting its subplot about the tricky Professor Beetson and his cronies, and Gene’s false murder rap, and his radio show, but now these come to the fore with a truly heroic sense of anticlimax. Gene blows up a city then sorts out his legal difficulties! I suppose we’ll end with him reordering his record collection.

Meanwhile… in a cavern… in a canyon… excavating for a mine… Professor Beetson deals with a labour dispute from his miners. The excitement just keeps building! But it actually does, since rather than going through some kind of ombudsman, he opts to shoot them down like dogs. You could do that then, before they introduced all this red tape. trump is going to bring this kind of thing back, and everyone will be happier.

Gene finds one of the dying men and attends to the poor fellow, shaking him violently by the collar. “Who shot yuh? Yuh might as well tell me!” he says, compassionately. Mistaking these words for the supreme unction, the bullet-ridden miner promptly expires.

Meanwhile — will Gene make it back in time to do his radio broadcast? Given that he’s now a radium millionaire, we probably shouldn’t be concerned, but we are EXTREMELY concerned — this obviously matters more than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muranians.

The broadcast is a typically exciting one — Gene attempts to reveal Beetson’s perfidies live on air, and gets his hat shot off. Exciting chase! Song! Punch-up! That’s like the four food groups of western entertainment. Beetson incriminates himself on an imitation Muranian television screen cobbled together by Frankie Darro ina  spare forty seconds, and this is witnessed by the sheriff.

Gene “plays us out” (what does that MEAN?) with his moronic “owls go hoo” song which I now realise concerns Noah’s ark. A clear thematic bond is f0rmed with the survivors of a lost civilisation whom this serial has so ably extirpated. Then Gene does some yodeling, which doesn’t seem to connect to the main premise as neatly, and the thing is over.

 

The Monday Matinee, Episode 9: Prisoners of the Ray

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by dcairns

As Lisa Simpson once said, “I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense.” She was speaking of an archive shot of a cinema marquee saying YAHOO SERIOUS FILM FESTIVAL. I am speaking, as always, of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE.

Last we saw, crooning endomorph Gene Autry was engaged in a daring act of child endangerment, which apparently did not end well ~

Now read on ~

Gene unwisely uses the approach to a deep gorge as his runway — young Frankie and Betsy leap from the moving vehicle and escape unscathed, but Gene pilots his aircraft straight down the crevasse.

Cut to Queen Tkia clasping her bosom in alarm as she watches on her awkwardly placed circular floor-television. Could it be the stern-faced termagant monarch is sweet on the pudgy country singer? The television operator shoots her a cynical glance, but I don’t see what he has to be superior about: he has both spikes and bat wings on his helmet. When every fashion expert knows it’s one or the other, not both.

Seconds later, however, the Queen is gesturing with satisfaction at the smouldering plane, and declaring “That is the end of Gene Autry.” She’s a deep one.

The evil Professor Beetson and his hench-scientists find Gene, still alive, amid the wreckage, and realise from his Muranian garb that he can tell them where the entrance to Murania is hid. This is a fairly sophisticated use of dramatic irony: the scientists’ logic is that Gene’s tunic proves he has been in the underground city. But, as regular viewers and Shadowplayers, we all know Gene donned this disguise BEFORE he was abducted underground. And yet he really DOES know where the secret entrance is concealed. Wheels within wheels!

Frankie and Betsy are transported by tube-elevator at three miles a minute down, down, remorselessly down to the thirty-third level of Murania. I can’t wait to see them presented to the Queen. I anticipate some kind of perfect story of bad acting, non-acting and un-acting, between three figures who have nothing to say to each other and nothing to achieve by meeting. Dramatic fireworks are sure to ignite.

Every step of the journey to the Queen’s palace is lovingly documented, as always: the subterranean stables; the elevator, with its confusing dial; the shelf where the Thunder Guard stack their breathing helmets; the walkway past the model backdrop with the caped pedestrians and random robot. Though the palace seems to be without anterooms, the front door leading directly to the throne room so far as we can tell.

Betsy King Ross is an illiterate. She compares the Queen to the “ugly Duchess” from Alice in Wonderland then quotes the Queen of Hearts’ “Off with their heads.” Inexcusable. When Tika condemns the “insolent offspring of savage surface men to a lifetime of confinement in the lower dungeon” I cheered.

(Betsy may be America’s greatest trick rider, but the serial allows her to perform only ONE bit of fancy riding, in episode one. The rest of the time, it’s dialogue she has to handle, and is not the greatest at that, though I enjoy her earnest stilted whine.)

But the kids are soon free — Frankie does what I was waiting for, observing the button-press procedure for disarming guard robots and using it to make a dash for freedom. Now we’re running around what seems like a large bank or a small town hall, the only bit of Murania represented by location footage. (The sound of footsteps on actual stone gives it away.)

The unconscious Gene is being kept by Prof Beetson in the cavern, in the canyon, where he has been excavating for a radium mine. Gene’s inane comic sidekicks, whose tiresome scenes I don’t usually bother to mention, show up and effect a rescue, though Beetson himself is absent and so escapes having his skull fractured with a log. Rather than alerting the proper authorities, Gene joins the Junior Thunder Riders (a bunch of horseback kids with buckets on their heads) and rides off to bust into Murania on a vigilante basis.

Fearing discovery, the Muranians remove the big “electric eye” from the rock face in which their garage door is embedded. The big chunky lens staring out of the scenery always did seem a bit of a giveaway. Gene arrives with his posse and is perplexed by the eye’s absence. Somebody asks him, “What’s an electric eye?” and he gives a detailed and wholly redundant explanation, leaning forward in his saddle and yelling carefully in the boy’s face: “When your reflection appears in it, the eye, by means of a photo-electric cell, operates whatever you want it to.” The effect is reminiscent of Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks.

More technobabble underground: the Muranians set a deadly radium beam to guard the door switch — our young heroes miss that part of the exposition, and rush in to open the doors to the surface. A light starts flashing on and off and they stagger about, evidently victims of the deadly beam.

Radium was a big talking point at the time: Marie Curie had just died. The factory girls poisoned by radium won their court case in the twenties but the story was still alive enough to form the background to NOTHING SACRED in 1937.

Tune in next week to admire the teenagers’ glowing corpses! To be continued…