Friday, September 18, 2009

"I'm going away for awhile"

I'm training in Germany for the next three weeks. Don't know how much I'll actually be able to see of Germany, but it should be fun. Thanks to everyone who have been reading so far, I'm still trying to get in a groove with this blog and find the right spots in my tight schedule for posting. See everyone in about a month.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Victims of superstition

There are some movies that constantly gnaw at me -- in the back of my mind whispering about how I need to watch them again. When I'm trying to suppress my Arrogant Classic Horror Fan mode (which tried to rear its head in Army training whenever some 19-year-old mentioned the brilliance of WHITE NOISE), one of these whispers becomes a roar, and it says KILL, BABY ... KILL!. I'm someone who's continually frustrated and disappointed with modern horror movies, and at the same time fascinated by the genre's masterpieces and how sharply they contrast with what's produced today. KBK represents one of my top five favorites of said masterpieces, and I now believe it's director Mario Bava's best film. Revisiting it recently, I found it to be even better than what my memory told me.

Like other Bava horrors, KBK brings us to a world of witchcraft, murder and intoxicating Italian beauty. We start out immediately with the grusome death of a young girl, who appeared to jump down a bell tower against her will. After the title card flashes, we get our first glimpses of the film's frightful centerpiece: a young girl in her Sunday best. In response to this death, Dr. Eswai comes to the small Italian village from the city, determined to find truth in a myth that has plagued the area and apparently claimed many lives. The myth has such a chokehold on the town that no one will talk about it, for fear of their own lives. As the doctor probes deeper, he finds the myth is terrifyingly real, and that a ghost of a young girl will appear to anyone who speaks of it and force them to commit suicide.

There is very little more to the plot than the preceding paragraph, but I'll leave it at that for those who haven't seen the movie. It's a simple story with really no side plots, and this helps KBK rise above other Bava horrors with a slow creaky mid-section (BLACK SUNDAY, BARON BLOOD to name a couple). KBK is able to grow from creeping dread to full-on horror partly because the true details of the myth aren't laid out until near the end, allowing the viewer to wonder with the protagonists just what the hell this ghost girl is all about.

The ghost, Melissa, is presented as a spectre who loves to keep the villagers' nerves frayed, and always makes good on her mythical threat. One famous shot of Melissa playing on a swing alone in the dark (beginning from her viewpoint), shows that her murders are not enough to satisfy her vengeance -- her presence will always torment the town. Melissa doesn't benefit from any special effects to enhance her other-wordly quality, but Bava has his own ways of contrasting her from the more physical characters. We never really see Melissa move, her youthful dress makes her stand out from others (as there are no other children her age in the town), and Bava shows uses other symbols to represent her (the grave, the painting, the ball, etc.).

Adding to the creepiness on screen is perhaps the best musical score for any Bava horror (with Ennio Morricone's swinging funky dream of a score for DANGER: DIABOLIK being the best among all Bava movies). Composed by Carlo Rustichelli (who did the same for Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY, under the name "Jim Murphy"), the music is low-key but supports the images wonderfully, with a mysterious theme that keeps popping up whenever we suspect Melissa might be watching. The score, and how it is used, is a perfect example for me for how horror has evolved for the worst. A frightmaster like Bava can create a movie full of chills by constructing a dreadful atmosphere that takes the viewer out of their comfort zone, while maintaining a credibility that he's merely leading you by the hand through this awful place. There's no need for cheap scare tactics or unbelievable villains.

But maybe it's the spoiled modern film fan in me who's still a bit disappointed by the ending. After all the buildup with investigating the cause beyond Melissa's terror, the solution to it isn't given much weight, it's like "okay, that should do it, bye!" I've always thought a better ending would make this solution more ambiguous, like if Dr. Eswai himself saw Melissa on his way out of town. But then again, there was a time when not every movie ended with a super twisty-ambiguous-maybe-we-can-do-a-sequel ending.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wherever the danger takes him

Ross sipped his coffee and looked at the computer screen with eyes that have had a little bit too much coffee. Ross liked coffee, and he liked being called "Ross." He once had a first name, but no one can really remember what it was. Ever since he started reading Lee Child books, Ross dropped the first name, explaining it as "that's what Reacher would do." Reacher. Jack Reacher. Though commonly known as "Reacher." The lead character in a series of novels by Lee Child. You might describe Reacher as curt. He gets things done, in the quickest way possible. Lee Child could also be described as curt. He likes short sentences, and doesn't go on too long about anything. Except when describing simple objects, like a crow bar -- the kind with seven coats of black paint on it, except on the tips because it's been used hundreds of times over the years, to break through locks and open crates, probably crates containing exotic guns. See that? I could only get a few lines about that crow bar, but old Lee could go on for paragraphs about it...

My wife calls Reacher books "Army porn," and I partially agree with that. Part of what makes Reacher such an interesting lead character is how he spent his whole life in the military (his father was a Marine, and Reacher left the Army as an MP major), thus giving him little understanding of the civilian world. Reacher now spends his life getting roped into kidnap and assassination schemes, while also finding the time to get accidentally involved with tough, achingly gorgeous and athletic women who also happen to be single. It's a life.
But that doesn't mean you have to be in the military to enjoy the books. My wife can't stop making fun of how ridiculous the Reacher books are, yet she's read more of them than I have. My father and one of my uncles have read every book in the series, neither of whom were in the military. But if you have a military background, it makes Reacher books nearly impossible to put down. Lee Child himself -- born and raised in the U.K. -- appears to have no military background, yet he exhibits a fascinating knowledge of the U.S. Army, as well as international military history.

Reacher novels tend to hook you from page one. Like Reacher himself, the books don't have time to get fancy or wordy, the action usually starts on that first page -- or in the prologue. Since Reacher left the Army, he spends his time as a professional drifter, and the first chapter spends a little time updating you on where he's found himself. This is always my favorite part, as Child's writing is a bit more loose and jovial before he gets down to business about whatever predicament Reacher gets involved in. Of the four Reacher novels I've read, Tripwire is my favorite, and has a great opening chapter describing what Reacher's up to in Key West:
[...] and now he was headed for his evening job, which was something
else he got paid for that most men would gladly do for free. He was the
bouncer at the nude bar Costello had mentioned. On Duval. He sat in there all
night with no shirt on, looking tough, drinking free drinks and making sure the
naked women didn't get hassled. Then somebody gave him fifty bucks for

"It's a chore," he said. "But somebody's got to do it, I guess."

There are 14 Reacher novels, and Child makes sure they all have a personality of their own. Some of them are written in the first person, and at least one takes place in the distant past, when Reacher was still in the Army. For a prolific writer, Child became a novelist fairly recently (1997) and all of his books are about Reacher. I bring this up because it's interesting to see his growth as a writer. His second book, Die Trying, reads like the script to a 7-hour action miniseries on TNT. It's almost 100 percent action, with wall-to-wall broken necks, explosions and pinpoint sniper shots. His tenth Reacher novel, The Hard Way, saves all the action for the last couple chapters and is comprised almost entirely of hard-nosed detective work and information gathering. It's also much more interesting and exciting than Die Trying.

My favorite Reacher novel is Tripwire, an enthralling story told masterfully from two fronts that converge at the very end. Separating it distinctly from other Reacher novels is its terrifying villain, "Hook" Hobie, a relentless, terrible man with burns on half his face and a hook for a hand. He also makes a point of introducing himself with "I'm Hook Hobie" the instant he meets anyone, friend or foe. Child's writing style makes it easy to read 30-40 pages before you notice, he's a master of introducing new characters and telling you just enough about them without slowing the action down at all. He is also fond of ending a chapter with a one line paragraph introducing a juicy plot development, which makes it hard to stop reading.

If there's an easy complaint about Reacher as a fictional character, it's that he's a little too much like Batman. Batman in the sense that solutions to problems can come to him a bit too easily, not to mention that he's 6-5 230 and walks away unscathed from just about every fight (and there are plenty of fights for him). Child balances this problem by giving Reacher some worthy advesaries, like seperatist groups and off-their-rocker ex-military.

Reacher novels aren't going to win any Pulitzers, but if you find yourself with some hours to spare at Denver International Airport, head over to that revolving paperback rack and look for Child, Lee. And thank me later.

Friday, August 21, 2009

On vomiting

We live in a film age where nothing is impossible, where almost anything a director can dream up can be created through digital special effects and what not. Yes, I said almost anything. For there is an action that is still pitifully recreated in film, and is no more realistic now than 30 years ago -- an action which for some people is an every-weekend occurence! I am speaking, of course, of the human vomit.

It's tough to say when the first vomit was depicted on screen, but it's safe to say that for decades it was tabboo to have a character in your movie vomit -- I mean, in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE James Stewart can't even bring himself to utter the word "pregnant," much less have ounces of bile shoot out of his mouth! But I would think this troubled Hollywood, because the act of vomiting held great comedic and dramatic potential.

It may not have even been a question of morals, but execution -- if an actor could not be convinced to throw up, could it be faked? At some point, it was agreed for an actor to fill their mouth with disgusting fluids, and then spit it out -- hoping the audience would buy it as an actual vomit. The disappointing thing is, vomit special effects have only made inches of progress (if that), since whenever that first on-screen vomit was.

There is little written about the history of movie vomit, but I think we can agree that three movies stand above the rest, in terms of vomit significance: STAND BY ME, ALIENS and THE EXORCIST. How did these movies do it? They broke the mold, because the old vomit vanguard would not have worked. In STAND BY ME, the movie needed to convince the audience that a person was emitting five blueberry pies from their mouth, and simply spitting out a mouthful of pie would have been pathetic. The solution was old fashioned and practical: place a hose to shoot out fake vomit on the opposite side of the actor's head. While this successfully created the illusion of tremendous amounts of vomit, it was limited in that the actor had to stand perfectly still, and in most of the shots, it's obvious the liquid is not coming out of their mouth. I think it ends up working for the most part.

Director James Cameron is a master of outside-the-box practical special effects, and his android bile eruption from Lance Henrikson is no different. The ALIENS scene appears to be a mix of old and new school wizardry, seamlessly cutting from Henrikson spewing out a mouthful of white goo, to a mold of Henrikson where much more is being mechanically forced out. The transition works so well you never have time to wonder if you're looking at a foam rubber Henrikson. (Note: this scene is also one of my rare quibbles with ALIENS, in a movie where the bar is set so high for special effects, it's one of the rare instances when the illusion fails, if only slightly. When the Queen Alien rips Bishop in two, her hands barely touch him. It's the one time where you think "Hey Martha, that's no alien, that's a puppet!").

THE EXORCIST appears to use this same technique, and it works perfectly because Regan is sitting upright in her bed, a pose easily mirrored by a foam rubber dummy.

These are the exceptions, because in nearly every other instance, Hollywood would like us to believe that the act of vomiting is a quick and nearly painless exercise where a shotglass worth of stuff is ejected from the body. Will there ever be an instance where the actor simply says "I got this one," and donates his God-given special effects to the movie? A great opportunity for this would have been APOLLO 13, where Bill Paxton gives us the first zero-gravity fake vomit. I say great opportunity because the zero-gravity scenes were filmed in the so-called Vomit Comet, where you would think such a feat would come easily. I'm sure the Apollo 13 crew laughed at the movie's pitiful take on zero-gravity vomit, "yeah, we wish Fred Haise only coughed that much up!" This brings to mind how awful it would be trying to dodge a cloud of cosmic vomit -- and how memorable a scene it would have been.

So what's the point with all the vomit talk? Am I really complaining? I just find it interesting that movies inflate every other bodily function to ridiculous hyperbole (bleeding, belching, farting, exploding heads, lost limbs), yet one of the human body's most fantastic displays is reduced to almost nothing in almost every example. Will there ever be a special effects breakthrough? Is Hollywood even trying any more? It makes me want to puke.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Scenes from a dog's funeral

If you followed my last blog, then you're probably familiar with the above creature. He used to grace my profile picture, and though he was seen by many, fewer knew his name or anything about him. His name was Mick, and he's no longer with us, which explains why I'm in mourning (did you notice the black I'm now wearing?). Mick was at my side for hundreds of movies, usually at the end of the couch, like in this picture, or anywhere else where he could stretch out. Mick demanded little and gave only slightly more, but he was never forgotten by anyone who met him.

When our son was born almost two years ago, my wife and I decided to give Mick a new home since he wasn't getting along so well with the baby. My mother-in-law was one of Mick's biggest fans, and happily took him home to Portland. I had always meant to visit Mick in Portland, but something always came up. He lived a long life -- possibly 16 human years -- and the difficult decision was made recently to put him down. We all decided that Mick deserved only the best for his funeral, but perhaps our plans were a bit grandiose. For those unable to make it, here are some highlights from the ceremony.

We decided Mick would have been insulted to rest in a dog-sized coffin.

"What do you think you're doing, is that a dog in there?!"

"You can't bury a dog here, this is a veterans cemetary!"

"Mick was a veteran of many things -- sleeping, yawning, vomiting..."

"He will not rest here, it's illegal and frankly an insult to--"

"He will not rest because he is not dead ... to me. And he will not die because he willed himself not to die, just like he willed himself to sleep 19 hours a day."

"Is his will stronger than the Coroner General's?"

"This is the will of Mick, in his words: "yip yip yap, woof, yip, yap."

"Is that supposed to mean something?"

"It means whatever the hell you want it to mean!"

"In that case let it be the last words of a man who was thrown in federal prison for vandalizing a national cemetary!"

"I think Mick and I will be leaving now. It would be a pity to ruin such a perfectly nice Thursday morning."

Friday, August 14, 2009

First post, Special Collector's Edition

Excerpt from my Basic Training journal, Feb. 22, 2009: seems like I've been here much longer than 5 weeks. I feel like I've been doing this routine and seeing the same faces for much longer than a month. I think it's because I haven't seen anyone else or done anything other than Basic Combat Training.

If you're wondering what happened to me and DVD Panache since January, that's it. I joined the Army, and am now stationed at Ft. Bliss, Texas with my family. What do I do? The exact thing I joined the Army for, and probably the coolest job available, a broadcast journalist. I'm trained to shoot and edit video, write stories for air and even work a soundboard and act as a radio D.J. On my first day at Ft. Bliss I interviewed a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On my second day I interviewed the current Sergeant Major of the Army. I've been enjoying myself.

Of course, it wasn't always that way. Basic training was hell, but not for the reasons you may think. The training itself wasn't that bad, it was the complete lack of any stimulation and hours and hours of waiting and repetition that gets to you. There usually wasn't any talking, and the only reading material afforded you was an Army study guide I read through so many times I had to put duct tape on the binding. In need of some -- any -- kind of stimulation, I took up the habit of writing things down. I wrote a lot of things in a small notebook I kept with me at all times: movie quotes, movies I wanted to see after I graduated, names of Twilight Zone episodes, memorable movie credits.

That final one kept me occupied for many hours. I found that since it had been weeks and weeks since I had actually seen a movie, my gallery of mental images slowly faded away. But what still burned strong were the credits, since they can be written down, and jog your memory much more easily. I filled pages with credits that were memorable for me in one way or another, trying to get a good assortment beyond just directors and stars. And through it all I told myself that when I got back I would post screengrabs of these credits.

Well, I'm back. I still have the notebook and grabbed stills of what credits I could. Welcome to my new blog, glad to be here.