- Creature from the Black Lagoon (trailer)
- The Lagoon Creature's Name (Robot Chicken)
- The Shape of Water (trailer)
- Revenge of the Creature - Another trip to the Amazon, another encounter with the Creature. This time, the Gillman is captured and transported back to a water-themed amusement park, presumably to be trained in dumb show tricks like jumping through hoops and kicking footbals or something. Naturally, the experiments go poorly and the Gillman escapes for the inevitable rampage. Lots of underwater photography (I want to say more than the original, though its been awhile since I watched it) and the Creature hiself looks as good as ever.
- The Monster Squad (trailer)
- Creature Nightlife (Robot Chicken)
- The Host (X-Files)
- The Creature Walks Among Us - Another expedition, this time to the everglades, where they quickly find the creature but accidentally light him on fire. The third degree burns have mostly burned off the Gillman's scales, revealing what appears to be human skin, prompting questions about biological transformation and evolution. Credit where credit is due - this is not a tired retread of the previous two films, and indeed, it makes some interesting choices. In fact, the Gillman is notably less aggressive in this film, especially after his transformation (this despite appearing to be surprisingly jacked in his more human form).
In the midst of preparations for the 1978 Project, I noticed one such pair of films, this time concerning killer bees. Combining the 70s penchant for disaster films with the general fascination and panic around the Africanized Honey Bee, these are only two examples of many others tackling the vaunted killer bee (there's even another one from 1978, a TV movie called Terror Out of the Sky). I'm guessing they were also trying to capitalize on the When Animals Attack trend ignited by Jaws and its many imitators. But wait! There's more! The 70s also saw the rise of the eco-thriller, and these movies certainly glommed onto that trend as well..
- Nicolas Cage: No, not the bees! (clip)
- Animals Attack Trailers
- A Message from the Bees (Robot Chicken)
- The Bees - As killer bees migrate through South America and eventually reach the United States, researchers seek to understand and end the threat before the swarms attack high population cities. But the bees are changing, becoming more intelligent. Will our intrepid heroes figure out a way to defeat the vicious, unstoppable bees and their blasphemous hive minds? This one has a really poor reputation, but it showed up on Shudder last year and I caught the end of it, which made me want to revisit it this year. It's... not a good movie, but I suspect its blatant anti-corporatism and eco-thriller elements would go over reasonably well with certain audiences these days. I mean, this is some truly hamfisted stuff, but it sorta rockets past unbelievable and pedantic into so-bad-it's-good territory. Genre mainstay John Saxon (Black Christmas, Nightmare on Elm Street, Enter the Dragon) anchors the cast, delivering his hammy lines with the proper amount of authority. John Carradine lends some gravitas to the proceedings as well, and Angel Tompkins holds her own too (though at first, she's saddled with an... unlikely relationship partner). The plot gets more ridiculous as it goes on, mostly reserving its ire for greedy corporate types but also putting the United Nations and general governmental bureaucracy on full blast. By the time Saxon figures out the mutated hive mind's hyper-intelligent plans and starts relating it to the United Nations, it's almost laughable, though again, I feel like today's general climate of environmental advocacy might actually get an earnest kick out of this sort of wish fulfillment. Of the two movies in this post, this is clearly the lower budget take. Apparently it was completed first, but Warner Bros. paid the distributor to postpone the release to allow more room for The Swarm... I don't think that has any real impact on the legacy of either film, really, but it's interesting and does prove the Twin Movie theory (some things labeled as Twin Movies have more dubious connections). **
- Does God Hate Bees? (Robot Chicken)
- The Killer Bees: Home Invasion (SNL)
- The Burns and the Bees (The Simpsons)
- The Swarm - Producer/Director Irwin Allen led the charge on disaster films in the 1970s. After his initial successes, he announced a slew of projects, including this one, which lingered for years and eventually came out in 1978. It flopped hard and pretty much signaled the end of the disaster movie era. It's a lavish production though, featuring a star studded cast (including Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, amongst many others), lots of special effects and explosions. But it's also incredibly bloated and sloppy, with a sprawling but rather silly narrative about a scientist overseeing a military effort to combat the bees (this is basically the same thing as the other movie - deadly new strains of Africanized honey bees are coming to America and must be stopped!) Caine is always fun and does his best with poor material here, quickly flying off the handle every time he has to justify himself to the military. There's some pure entertainment value here in terms of spectacle, and the higher budget definitely helps, but the overlong running time really sinks this one. Both of these killer bee movies have a degree of sensationalism and panic about them that is fun, but the svelt 90 minute The Bees never really overstays its welcome the way that The Swarm does... *1/2
Given my general distaste for sequels, I naturally decided to spend all weekend watching sequels to utter classics that couldn't possibly live up to the expectations set by their predecessors. By most accounts, these... are not great movies. I may not have thought this through.
- The Omen (trailer)
- Lucy, Daughter of the Devil (short)
- Horror Movie Daycare (short)
- Damien: Omen II - The antichrist is growing up! Now thirteen years old, living with his aunt and uncle, and attending a military school. Occasionally, someone will catch on that Damien is evil... and then they fall prey to some sort of crazy accidental death (or, at least, one that appears to be so). And that's pretty much it for the plot here. Basically a retread of the first film, but this time Damien's innocence and vulnerability are lessened. There's a nugget of a cool idea here, which is a sorta coming of age story for the antichrist, but the film does not go into a lot of detail about that. A couple of times, I thought they would have Damien struggle a little more to come to terms with his destiny, but it's mostly just surface material. The accidents are more over-the-top (with the exception of the beheading in the first film) here, with the most notable set piece being a most excellent elevator gag.
- Psycho (trailer)
- Here's Your Problem... (Robot Chicken)
- American Psycho - Hip to be Square (clip)
- Psycho II - 22 years after the events of the first movie, and Norman Bates is being released from the mental institution. He moves back to his infamous motel and takes a job at the local diner. Nothing could go wrong here! Soon, a coworker moves in and he starts to get mysterious phone calls from what appears to be his long dead mother. Is Norman Bates still crazy!?
- The Exorcist (amazing banned/unreleased trailer)
- Repossessed (trailer)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XXVIII: The Exor-Sis
- Exorcist II: The Heretic - Four years later, Regan MacNeil doesn't remember the events of the original film, but she does have disturbing dreams that indicate her exorcism may not hold. A Vatican investigator and a hypnotic research specialist team up to see if they can free Regan from the demon Pazuzu once and for all. As a sequel to The Exorcist, well, it's bad. Taken in context of director John Boorman's filmography (nestled between Deliverance, Zardoz, and Excalibur), it looks better. There's some really bizarre choices on display here, and a lot of the film centers on weird shared-hypnosis effects and, um, locusts. Martin Scorsese, though even he admits that the execution is lacking) and has garnered a bit of a cult following, and I can kinda see it, though it's not a cult I'll be joining anytime soon and the general reception remains one of profound disappointment. I can appreciate some of what's going on here, but it ultimately doesn't work. **
I was pleasantly surprised by what is now referred to as It: Chapter One a couple of years ago. That film arrived in the midst of a semi-revival of Stephen King adaptations and its success (currently the highest grossing horror film of all time, though Jaws might take it if you adjust for inflation) guaranteed more King and, of course, the exciting conclusion to the It story, It Chapter Two. Unfortunately, by "exciting conclusion", what I actually mean is... "repetitive slog".
I have not read Stephen King's novel, but as I understand it, part of its power comes from its structure. Basically, he's telling the same story twice, in parallel, with the occasional interlude from Derry's history to break things up. The dual narrative concerns a group of kids confronting a demonic clown, and the grown up versions of same, fighting same. The first movie broke out of that mold by necessity, and it was probably the right decision. However, in the process of doing so, they were setting the sequel up for failure. I suppose the writers of this could have really strayed far from the source material to provide something more original, but it's not like that sort of approach is guaranteed either. And let's not forget that King's reputation for great setups leading to bad endings (actually a pretty good recurring meta-gag in It: Chapter Two, including a cameo from King himself). It's not that King's lazy or just couldn't think up a better ending; he seems to genuinely write himself into corners. Whatever the case, the filmmakers opted for a more straightforward adaptation of the Losers as adults returning to Derry to face off against Pennywise, so it's quite repetitive.
Like the first installment, this is a slick movie with great production value, fabulous casting, and generally good performances. Unlike the first movie, the scares here feel muted and perfunctory. The problem is that the kids at the end of the first movie figured out the trick to defeating Pennywise, so all the scares in this second installment are just going through the motions. The first movie relied a little too heavy on jump scares, audio stingers, and CGI, but ultimately worked because of the approach and good execution. This second movie leaned into all of those things people didn't like, but the approach isn't novel anymore and the execution is sporadic, so it all sorta falls flat.
The child actors in the first movie had a great chemistry together, and it really felt like you saw the bonding experience as it happened onscreen. In the second movie, all of that is gone, explained away by the conceit that when you move away from Derry you "forget" what happened there. What's more, it takes forever for the characters to get back on the same page, and the plot quickly separates the characters before they can reestablish any rhythm. The whole approach reminded me a little of a video game sequel where your once powerful protagonist has to start over and rebuild all their strengths and abilities. The second act of this movie is essentially a fetch quest, with each character going off on their own to find some sort of talisman, which naturally leads to encounters with Pennywise (which, again, generally feel muted because we've seen all this sort of thing before). Some of these segments are more successful (Bev's visit to her old apartment) than others (the one bizarrely goofy needle drop during what I think was supposed to be a jump scare?), but they take up way too much time and don't get us where we need to be.
The actors are all doing their best, but the material is holding them back. Bill Hader's deadpan humor is great. James McAvoy could have chewed up the scenery with his character's stutter, but wisely kept those hammy impulses in check. Jessica Chastain is always fantastic, but again, she's not given much to do here. Bill Skarsgård's portrayal of Pennywise is still a highlight of the film... when they're not CGIing him to death (and honestly, he's pretty good even then). The other actors are all doing good work here too, but the structure of the film is letting them down. They never manage to reestablish the chemistry present in the first film, and when the film really tries to do that at the end, it somehow feels rushed and incongruous. The film does feature lots of flashbacks to the characters as kids, which you'd think would help given the aforementioned chemistry and bonding, but it only serves to further highlight the flaws in the current day portions of the film.
The plot also includes a few other encounters with Pennywise that are experienced by folks around town. Some of these are straight from the book, such as the gay couple getting attacked by local homophobes and then literally becoming a meal for Pennywise. Others I'm not sure about. While some of this stuff is well done (and better executed than the stuff featuring the adult Losers, perhaps because these other characters don't know what they're up against), it's all completely superfluous. In a movie that's nearly three hours long, that sort of thing should have probably been minimized in favor of keeping the story moving.
Then there's the plan to defeat Pennywise. Despite having already figured out the secret to fighting Pennywise in the first film, the crew devises this elaborate scheme based on an old Native American ritual... that makes no sense. One of the Losers has done a bunch of research on the town and discovered this ritual that was used to fight Pennywise when he first arrived a couple hundred years ago... but no one seems to point out the obvious, which is: if this is what they used to fight Pennywise before, but Pennywise is still around, then the ritual clearly doesn't work. Again, the crew has already fought Pennywise as kids and figured out the secret (Pennywise ran away at the end, so I guess that wasn't entirely successful, but they figured out what was needed). The writers further rush the Losers into the confrontation in a way that feels contrived and clunky.
Speaking of Pennywise, one of the minor complaints from the first movie was that the extent and degree of his powers were unclear at best. This movie only further leans into this lack of clarity, which is part of what drives the lack of genuine scares in the film, and also makes the ending feel facile and unconvincing. On the other hand, the ending does kinda sorta make sense. I mean, it's essentially the same as the first film and I don't know why we had to wander through three hours of film to get to essentially the same place, but it works better than, say, a giant space turtle saving them (a probably exaggerated paraphrase of the book's ending, which, again, I have not read).
Perhaps I am being too hard on this movie. It's indulgent, bloated, and overlong, but it didn't feel like three hours either? There's some weird contradictory feelings this movie brings out in me. It's clearly too long, but it also feels like there's stuff missing? This is a repetitive story, but it doesn't work here while it did in the first movie? Ultimately, I did not particularly like this film. I'm always tough on sequels to start with, and this one was primed to annoy me with its inherently repetitious plot and general sense of just going-through-the-motions. None of this is a particular surprise, but while the first movie would up greatly exceeding my low expectations, this one couldn't even manage to clear the low expectation bar. Count me interested in whatever director Andy Muschietti tackles next though. The guy's got some chops, for sure, and to be fair, this second It movie may have been an insurmountable challenge to start with... Anyway, stay tuned, for on Sunday, we're going to post about more (probably disappointing) sequels to good movies.
This year's marathon starts off with a trio of silent horror movies. I tend to find these movies a tad staid, but it's always an interesting experience and often illustrates a direct line of influence to current horror trends. The excessive focus on visuals over all can also lead to indelible imagery that can't quite be replicated by sound films (not that they don't have their own visual impressiveness, it's just different). Don't worry, we've got plenty of time to descend into the more schlocky gore and so-bad-it's-good zaniness. But for now, let's strap on our monacle and observe some historically important cinema!
- Don't (fake trailer)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror: Bad Dream House
- The Cabin in the Woods (trailer)
- The Bat - A violent criminal dressed up like a giant bat terrorizes a family renting an old mansion in search of a banker's hidden loot. Or something like that. Despite mostly taking place in one location, the plot is sometimes a bit hard to follow. Adapted from a play (which was itself adapted from a book), it's clear that the silent era constraints on this one were insurmountable (director Roland West would later remake the film as a talkie in 1930; apparently a more refined take, and there's also a 1959 remake starring none other than Vincent Price). That being said, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. The transfer I watched wasn't great quality, but the visuals were well done and memorable. It doesn't quite capture the the extreme angular German expressionism of the era (typified by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), but some of those elements are well represented nonetheless. The intertitles (while perhaps not up to the task of encapsulating the plot) are mostly on point and even quotable (the winner:"For twenty years I've stood by you through Socialism, Theosophism and Rheumatism - but I draw the line at Spookism!") It's an early example of the "old dark house" tale (though The Cat and the Canary did it better just a year later), complete with all the requisite tropes: dark shadows, silhouettes, mistaken identities, hidden passageways, red herrings galore, a screaming, slapstick maidservant, a racist portrayal of a Japanese manservant, a sassy, drunken aunt, and a dude running around in some sort of elaborate costume. In this case a bat, which apparently was one of the inspirations for Batman (indeed, there's even a sequence with a bat-signal). Giallos, Krimis, etc...) The visuals do create a nice atmosphere, but it's not especially scary. Some of the humor works well enough, but it's also quite broad and sometimes incongruous with the generally dark tone (I kinda loved the whole bear trap gag though). All of which is to say that, while interesting, there's not much here that hasn't been done better elsewhere, even if this may have done some things first. Worth it for students of cinema to see how it influenced later works, it's not really a movie for the normals. Still, I got a kick out of seeing all the tropes in their larval form. **
- The Phantom (Robot Chicken)
- The Phantom of the Opera's Girl Problems (short)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1962) (trailer)
- The Phantom of the Opera - I've obviously seen the famous reveal from this film and countless imitations and remakes and parodies over the years, but this is the first time I've watched this one from start to finish. Set at the famous Paris Opera House, allegedly haunted by a Phantom who leaves notes making demands of the new owners about who should be performing what and when. The Phantom clearly has a thing for one of the ingénues and promises her fame and fortune, whilst sabotaging her competition. Watching this one made me realize that the pacing of The Bat was actually pretty good, as it's much slower here. The shots are static and longer lasting, even the intertiles stay up on the screen for a beat or two longer (to my modern, continuous partial attention addled brain, it's a bit much). On the other hand, the clarity of what's going on is much better here, and of course there's some all-time classic moments. Notably the aforementioned reveal of the Phantom without his mask, which really is something, even today.
- The Grimmest Reaper (Robot Chicken)
- The Chickening (short)
- Final Destination 2 (trailer)
- The Phantom Carriage - In Swedish folklore, there's a legend that the last person to die on New Year's Eve, if they've lead a wicked life, is doomed to drive a spectral carriage, collecting the souls of the dead for a whole year. This film opens with a Salvation Army nurse on her deathbed, asking for a local drunk she'd been working to reform. Said local drunk is hiding out in a cemetery. When he refuses to visit the ailing nurse, his friends beat him up and leave him for dead, whereupon the Phantom Carriage arrives. There's a real Dickensian feel to the whole affair, as the drunk reflects on his life and bad decisions, and spoiler alert, what at first seems like it will be a really dark ending turns saccharine as the drunk repents and goes through a Scrooge-like transformation. It feels a bit rushed, I guess, but considering that this is a 1921 film, I'll cut it some slack. The whole holiday redemption theme works well enough, and it's got some great visual moments, including the spectral Phantom Carriage, which shows up translucent on screen and features the unsettling and now iconic image of the grim reaper, wearing a hooded robe and carrying a scythe. The Seventh Seal, amongst countless other films (notably including Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which directly homaged the shot of a man chopping through a wooden door with an axe). Really glad I caught up with this one, and the Criterion Collection presentation is great. ***
- 90 Branzinos Later: The Story Behind The Amazing Spider-Man’s Awkward Dinner - The amount of work that goes into a single shot of a bad movie is still pretty amazing (and far more impressive than most criticism of said bad movies, including mine).
Consider the branzino. The Spider-Man scene originally called for Peter to be unnerved by the fish’s eye staring back up at him — something that’s not possible with the real-life dish, where the eyes melt in the oven. White found himself having to painstakingly remove one eye from each raw fish, then place it back in a roasted socket. The scene also needed one of Gwen’s little brothers to expertly debone the fish for Peter, a task that had to be as easy as possible for the child actor. White took a pair of scissors and made a few tiny, imperceptible cuts that allowed the kid to pull the bone out as if he were a Michelin-starred chef. He did this for every fish, for every take, alongside cooking the entrees for everyone else’s plate, as well. Sadly, neither moment made the final cut.To repeat, it's not even in the film. Crazy. See also: The Problem Solving of Filmmaking (linked in the previous Link Dump)
- The Day the World Didn’t End - You may have heard of the story about the Soviet officer who got a missile launch warning but basically saved the world by not acting on it; this is a more detailed account of that story, with context usually missing from the story.
- How To Make the Perfect Burger - Pretty much the platonic ideal of a How To Basic video. Perfect amount of innocuous content before it gets... weird. Wait for it. (I hope you like pickles.)
- The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge - An almost absurd story:
Over the next four years, the law professor would be drawn into a “campaign of fraud, extortion, and false accusations,” as one of his lawyers would later say in legal proceedings. At one point, Hay’s family would be left suddenly homeless. At another, owing to what his lawyer has described as the “weaponiz[ation] of the university’s Title IX machinery against Hay,” he would find himself indefinitely suspended from his job. He would accrue over $300,000 in legal bills with no end to the litigation in sight. “Maria-Pia and Mischa want money,” Hay told me last summer, “but only for the sake of squeezing it out of people — it’s the exertion of power.”
- Very specific ways I eat snacks - Relatable.
- Yoba Skywalker Starwars goes to infinity and beyond | Monster Factory - You wouldn't think that two dorks making a custom character in Star Trek online would be great, but then, you'd be wrong.
- Steamed Hams But It's Directed By Quentin Tarantino - Goes on longer than you'd expect; gotta respect the committment to the bit.
- Quentin Tarantino's Best Scene Has Almost No Words and Just Nine Shots - Speaking of Tarantino, this deep dive into the opening shots of Jackie Brown is very good.
- The Shout - Hazy thriller in which an itinerant man (Alan Bates) injects himself into the lives of an experimental musician (John Hurt) and his wife (Suzannah York). Bates claims to have mystic aboriginal powers, notably the titular "Shout", which he says has the power to kill anyone who hears it. Hurt, being a musician, becomes enamored with this idea, but Bates is sorta using it to disrupt Hurt's marriage and you know what? The plot here is almost beside the point.
- The Last Waltz - Canadian-American rock group The Band ended their touring career with a spectacular blowout in 1976, featuring numerous celebrity guests including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, and plenty of others. None other than Martin Scorsese filmed the concert and incorporated some interviews with The Band, releasing the whole package in this concert documentary. Generally, there's not a whole lot to do with a concert-based film, and while the interviews interspersed throughout are fine, they don't really sell the movie. The music itself is the real standout, and boy is it a spectacular series of guest appearances. I didn't really know what I was getting into with this, and half expected it to be a sorta talking-heads documentary where a bunch of famous musicians opined on The Band's influence, etc... But it turns out that they actually just join The Band onstage and play songs. And it's great! Scorsese clearly knows what he's doing and it it looks good too, but again, its not really the formal filmmaking that makes the movie; it's the sheer number of huge stars that show up at this show that makes the whole thing worthwhile. I really enjoyed it much more than I thought I would and I'm glad that someone of Scorsese's caliber was around to document it... but it's clearly a document and not an actual "experience". Of course, what document could ever really capture what this experience must have been like? ***
- Eyes of Laura Mars - A provocative fashion photographer (Faye Dunaway as the titular Laura Mars) begins having visions of murders seen through the eyes of a serial killer. The killer is orbiting Mars' life, killing those involved in her work. A young Tommy Lee Jones (sporting a bitchin' black turtleneck and jet black mane of hair) plays the police detective on the case. Rene Auberjonois and a larval Brad Dourif have worthy supporting roles. Tons of red herrings, approaching a sorta schlocky American take on Giallos, but not quite getting there, opting for more restraint and soft edges. It's got small doses of sleaze, but not enough to really catapult it into competition with Exploitation or Giallo (and by this, I don't mean that the film is any less valuable, and indeed it seems better received than it would have been if it really leaned into those elements). The final twist isn't that hard to see coming, but also somehow feels a little off, like it doesn't quite fit (that, at least, is very Giallo). Thematically, there's some exploration of art and influence in culture, both explicitly in the text (Laura Mars' work touches on the intersection between violence and sexuality in ways that are controversial) and implicitly in the way the story is told. The pacing drags for a while in the middle and I'm not entirely sure it sticks the landing, but it's still a fascinating little slice of 70s filmmaking. **1/2
- Game of Death - Bruce Lee's final film, he died during filming, leading filmmakers scrambling to assemble something usable from available footage. To accomplish this, the filmmakers use every trick in the book, ranging from mildly clever to face-palmingly dumb to breathtakingly tasteless. This is a movie that actually contains an actual shot of Bruce Lee's actual corpse. That's... disgusting. As a result of all this, the plot is disjointed at best, and Lee isn't in lots of the movie, or is shrouded in shadows or some other trick used to get around the lack of footage. All of which is a real shame because the films finale, set in a pagoda, features some great action setpieces.
Basically a series of boss fights where Lee dons the famous yellow jumpsuit (homaged by Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Vol. 1) and fights his way through several henchmen, including the, uh, much, much taller Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Ultimately the film is more interesting as the result of a historical trainwreck than as a film by itself. It's an ethically and morally corrupt attempt to cash-in on a dead movie star, but there are some transcendent moments in the film too. This makes traditional ratings here kinda hard, but let's just go **
- Xenogenesis (short) - A 12 minute short film co-directed by James Cameron and Randall Frakes, this is the sort of thing that fans of Cameron would get a kick out of. Some of his most famous ideas from The Terminator and Aliens have their roots here. It's also pretty clearly inspired by Star Wars (which came out the year before). As a piece of filmmaking, it's pretty clunky, starting with a big chunk of voiceover exposition laid over still shots of artwork, then moving to a live action encounter between a pair of explorers and a spaceship security robot thing. Some of the visuals are striking (sometimes approaching a sorta proto-TRONlook), and the technique on display is pretty good considering the shoestring budget. You'll recognize the robot as a similar design to the Hunter Killer tanks from The Terminator and the idea of a woman in an exoskeleton saving the day was clearly repurposed in Aliens. It's short and it works fine, but it's really only of interest to Cameron completists (but if you are one of those, then you'll enjoy this). **
- Snake in the Eagle's Shadow - After trying (and failing) to make Jackie Chan the next Bruce Lee, the studios let Chan do his own thing, which basically meant incorporating more comedic elements into his films. This movie is Chan's breakout effort, teaming up with legendary fight choreographer and director Woo-Ping Yuen (normal Americans probably know him best for his work on The Matrix, but he's huge in Martial Arts cinema). Chan plays an orphan adopted by a man who runs a martial arts school. Chan's character is a lovable, good-natured punching bag who is picked on by the rest of the school. One day he runs into an old man being attacked and rushes to help. Grateful, the old man teaches Chan the Snakefist style. Chan is then able to stand up to the bullies at his school, but then learns that adherents to the Eagle's Claw style are attempting to wipe out all the Snakefist masters, including his old friend. the greatest death scene in all of cinema history. Good stuff and maybe my favorite discovery yet. ***
- Drunken Master - Jackie Chan followed up his success by reteaming with both Woo-Ping Yuen and Siu-Tien Yuen for what might be his most famous early work, the one that really catapulted him into stardom. However, Chan's character is a bit less likable here, playing the spoiled son of a famous Kung Fu instructor. He causes trouble everywhere, in some cases justified (as when he defects a local merchant from another spoiled brat), and in others emphatically not (as when he tricks a girl into hugging and kissing him, though at least in this case the girl's mother kicks the crap out of him in a great scene). Fed up with his kids antics, the father sends him off to train with his great uncle, a teacher notorious for strict training methods and discipline. Eventually, Chan's character starts to wise up, learns his new teacher's secret style of "Drunken Boxing" and uses it to help defend the family clan from an assassin. Like Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, this is a very well executed martial arts movie. The trio of Jackie Chan, Woo-Ping Yuen, and Siu-Tien Yuen work really well together and that chemistry shows up onscreen. Filled with more of Chan's patented slapstick and intricate fight choreography, including the creative and entertaining Drunken Boxing style, this is another film with a high density of action sequences, and they're all fun to watch. Chan's character is a bit of a dolt, but it is fun watching him get beat up for it. It's funny, there was a recent story about how The Rock and Jason Statham have lines in their contract about how they can't lose a fight in a movie, the number of punches they can take, etc... Meanwhile, in the two Jackie Chan movies covered in this post, Chan is getting his butt kicked pretty consistently, which of course allows him an arc to grow and fight back. There's a few sequels to this movie, but I honestly enjoyed this one the best. Indeed, I'm not sure which of these I like better... ***
Obviously, I've already seen quite a few films from 1978 (as of right now 32, though some of those are included below because I only watched them recently), but there are tons of movies I have yet to see or maybe should revisit. So here's the current watchlist, broken out into small categories, because why not?
- Martial Arts - Game of Death, Drunken Master, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow
- Music/Musical - Grease, The Last Waltz
- Arthouse Auteurs - Days of Heaven, Autumn Sonata
- Crime & Punishment - Midnight Express, Blue Collar, The Boys from Brazil, Straight Time, The Silent Partner
- Horror Auteurs - The Fury, Someone's Watching Me!
- The Six Weeks of Halloween - Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, Damien: Omen II, It Lives Again, Eyes of Laura Mars, Long Weekend, Faces of Death, The Evil, The Mafu Cage
- Mystery - Death on the Nile, Coma, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting
- Girl Power - Girlfriends, I Wanna Hold Your Hand
- Fantasy and Science Fiction - Heaven Can Wait, The Lord of the Rings, Message from Space
- Italian Trash - Starcrash, The Inglorious Bastards, Slave of the Cannibal God
- Exploitation - Death Force
- Killer Bees - The Swarm, The Bees
When I was a teenager, I once picked up a copy of Paradise Lost and immediately bounced right the hell off of it. Something about the blank verse or Milton's particular style was just impenetrable to me. As Samuel Johnson once quipped: "Paradise Lost is a book that, once put down, is very hard to pick up again." And lo, I did not pick it back up again. As such, when news of Neal Stephenson's new novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, pitched the story as "a high-tech retelling of PARADISE LOST featuring some characters from REAMDE" or "Paradise Lost by way of Phillip K. Dick", I was a little apprehensive. Was my hesitation warranted? Maybe! Despite some serious gripes, I ultimately enjoyed the book.
As Fall starts, we center on the titular Richard "Dodge" Forthrast (a character from Stephenson's earlier thriller, Reamde, though Fall could easily be read as a standalone) as he goes about a routine day leading up to a minor medical procedure... that results in his death. Spoilers, I guess, but this is at the start of the book. As it turns out, when video-game magnate Dodge came into money a while back, he signed a will dictating that his body be frozen after death, with the assumption that future technologies would be able to revive him. As his niece Zula and friend Corvallis (both also from Reamde) parse through the will and manage the estate, they come to the conclusion that the state of the art is not to freeze the meat, but to preserve the brain's connectome. Eventually, this leads to a high resolution scan of Dodge's brain, which is then uploaded into a computer, wherein it becomes aware and starts doing... stuff. The process is not perfect, and thus things like memory and identity aren't fully resolved in the uploaded system, but the disembodied mind of Dodge, seeking qualia, is able to construct a body for himself as well as a virtual landform to exist upon. As time goes on, more brains are uploaded and must coexist. Naturally, some conflicts break out in the uploaded bitworld, and hijinks ensue.
The book is essentially told in two parts. First is the real world, where Zula and a cast of familiar characters from Reamde as well as other Stephenson works (including the Waterhouse clan and Enoch Root from Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle) deal with the legal implications of Dodge's death and complicated estate (he's obscenely wealthy, so there's a lot to do there) over the course of decades. Second is in the bitworld, which eventually evolves into a sorta Biblical-flavored high fantasy story. The novel starts in the real world, then starts to interleave chapters in the bitworld, which eventually takes over the narrative completely until a brief interlude in the real world at the end.
The real world portions of the novel are fantastic. Stephenson's usual digressions are present in full force here, but are as cogent and relevant as ever. Which, naturally, means that some of them maybe feel misplaced or extraneous, but are interesting in their own right (for example, the opening of the book is likely to garner some side-eye, as it features Dodge ruminating about lots of seemingly irrelevant topics like alarm clocks and soap bubbles and whatnot). The initial explorations of the will's legal implications and the notion of preservation moving from meat to connectome is handled in detail, but with Stephenson's usual wit.
As the story progresses, we get some jumps in time which allow Stephenson to extrapolate on some of our current day woes. For instance, relatively early on, there's an elaborate hoax that spreads like wildfire on the internet, despite being rather quickly debunked. The whole event is eye opening and tense; Stephenson captures the unfolding drama and the way in which it's received perfectly. The notion of people creating neat little echo chambers for themselves on the internet has always been a concern, but the rise of social media seems to have accelerated some of the complications, and Stephenson does a great job encapsulating the problem and hypothesize the consequences. Some of this might veer too far into hyperbole (the short trip into Ameristan is a good example of that - entertaining and interesting for sure, but a little strained in terms of plausibility), but other aspects are absolutely dead-on. The notion that the internet will become so embedded into daily life and yet so untrustworthy that we'll have to hire full time personal editors to keep things straight is interesting and fraught with dilemmas (only a tiny fraction of which are dealt with here, but done well enough that the reader can generalize). Some of the wrangling around the philosophy of the brain processes that are running on computers are also well rendered in this side of the story, and the conflicts generated on this side of the divide feel real enough.
The uploaded world portions of the novel are... less successful. At their best, they take on an archetypal, mythic quality that lives up to the billing as a "retelling of Paradise Lost". At their worst, though, they're just dull as as spoon. A lot of time is spent, for instance, describing geographic features in unnecessary detail. While this might be expected as Dodge generates the landform, it is still present much later in the story (which is a little strange, as the book contains several detailed maps, as required by Fantasy literature law). And there's plenty of stuff inbetween. When Dodge first regains consciousness and must figure out how to exist again, it's not exactly thrilling, but it holds at least some interest.
It doesn't help that these uploaded brains don't really resemble their real world personas, except in vague ways. As the novel progresses, many of the characters we know in the real world die and get uploaded... but the processes of scanning and uploading are lossy at best, and the world they inhabit is oddly limited by Dodge's initial choices (amongst lots of other constraints that are not very clearly laid out). As a result, the characters in bitworld feel like regressions of their original selves. There are a number of newly introduced characters that don't really connect well, and all the interactions in bitworld can't help but feel a little flighty and airless.
On a thematic level, there's plenty to chew on, but again, since bitworld is so aimless, it's hard to really attribute any real depth or meaning to the happenings there. Sometimes it works better than others, but it ultimately can't help but mute the themes. You might expect that a novel influenced by Paradise Lost would feature a moral component, and this certainly does... but again, the very nature of bitworld mutes any morality here. The parallels are not exact, to be sure, with Dodge kinda personified as both God and Satan at various times, which does bear thought.
Stephenson's stated intention here was to embed a high fantasy within a more conventional SF or techno-thriller narrative, so maybe some of my complaints are nitpicks, but the interaction between bitworld and the real world seems ripe for exploration that Stephenson almost completely ignores. One would think that someone whose beloved relative has died and been uploaded into bitworld would, you know, want to reconnect with their dead relative. There is a brief mention of some sort of method developed by the villain of the piece that allows some form of communication from bitworld back to the real world, but it's just a passing reference that isn't mentioned again. What's more, the bright folks in the real world quickly realized that a lot of the activity in bitworld resembled a physics simulation and were able to create a landform visualization tool that allowed people to watch what was happening in bitworld. Once you have that, it seems almost trivial to devise a way to open up communications between the two worlds. I can think of, like, five different ways off the top of my head. Sure, some of these are rudimentary at best, but that's all you'd need at first. As it is, the book covers almost a century of real world time, but somehow, while real world folks can watch bitworld, the information flow is only in that one direction and no one seems that interested in expanding that flow (yet people have started to change their real world behaviors to make sure their brain can be uploaded once they die, despite knowing squat about what happens there). Plus, well, the bitworld doesn't seem like much of an afterlife.
As the bitworld portions progress, they do managed to pick up some steam and by the time the final quest and showdown arrives, it's chugging along well. Assuming you're able to get past some of the bitworld's shortcomings, it's got a reasonably satisfying ending (though given Stephenson's reputation for endings, I don't think this would be a particularly good rebuke to the haters). As a whole, the narrative comes off a bit disjointed, though much of that is intentional. There's a bunch of time jumps and corresponding new characters, which can sometimes be disorienting, and a little weird when, say, Dodge himself disappears from the story for several hundred pages.
Once the narrative shifts to the bitworld, most of the real world stuff still remains great. Some of it provides needed context to the happenings in bitworld, some of it is just further ruminations on existential themes, and some of it is really quite tantalizing. At one point, Stephenson casually approaches the notion that the "real world" portions are also a simulation. That all of existence might be a Turtles All The Way Down series of simulations within simulations (this might even help explain what's up with Enoch Root). He wisely keeps this idea vague, something that might bother me in other contexts, but which feels well calibrated here. Lots of food for thought in this book.
Samuel Johnson also said of Paradise Lost that "None ever wished it longer than it is." I suspect the same could be said of Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, which does clock in at a hefty 883 pages. About par for the Stephenson course, to be sure, but it does feel like the bitworld portions could be streamlined, which could make for better pacing. Ultimately, I enjoyed this novel for what it was, and while I don't think the bitworld fantasy is entirely successful, I have to admire the ambition. But then, I'm a total sucker for Stephenson, so your mileage may vary. Still, while this novel probably works as a standalone, I don't think I'd recommend it as a starting place for Stephenson. Reamde might actually be a pretty good choice for that, given its more mainstream techno-thriller bent (it's sole difficulty on this front is its 1000+ page length). Still, it was nice checking in with Dodge and Zula and characters from other Stephenson books. I remain intrigued by pretty much anything Stephenson writes, and am already looking forward to his next story, whatever it may be (sadly probably a few years out).
- The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal won best novel, which isn't exactly surprising (it's already won the Nebula and Locus awards), but I must confess, wasn't really my thing. This makes four years in a row where my least favorite novel wins the award. Perhaps more of a statement of preferences and taste than anything else. My preferred pick, Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver came in a relatively close second place, so there is that. As expected, Space Opera came in dead last but clearly had some ardent defenders (this seems like the sort of novel that performs poorly in instant-runoff votes).
- Martha Wells' Murderbot takes home the novella award for the second year in a row with Artificial Condition winning. Of note in the nomination stats is that the other two Murderbot Novellas released last year could also have made the ballot, but Wells must have declined nominations for those. This speaks to the popularity of this series, which is very much my jam. I did not have time to read all the novella finalists, but I suspect this would have been at or near the top of my ballot. Alas, we'll have to wait for 2020 for the next Murderbot story, which will be a novel that seems like a shoe-in for another nomination.
- “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow wins the short story award, and was also my choice.
- Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series wins for Best Series, further cementing how weird this particular award is. I think there's a place for rewarding longrunning series, but the devil is in the details and the results thusfar have been rather strange. This, for example, is a series consisting of three novels, two of which have been nominated for Best Novel already. I thought the point was the recognize stuff like The Wheel of Time - something immensely popular, but which never made it onto the Novel ballot. Weirdly, Wayfarers doesn't seem particularly popular, though obviously popular enough that it could beat out The Laundry Files and October Daye, amongst others. I still remain opposed to this award due to the logistical complications around the award, most notably the near impossibility of reading all the nominated work in the time allotted.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wins for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. It was also my pick and certainly the best of the nominated works, but I remain vexed by this award, which almost always gravitates towards the most mainstream choices possible, while interesting stuff like Upgrade and The Endless don't even make the longlist (though the latter may be disqualified due to potentially being viewed as a 2017 release). That being said, if you're in the market for interesting SF movies, you should check those out. They're great, and more worthy of recognition than, say, The Avengers.
- Of the other awards, one winner stands out, which is "Archive of Our Own" for Best Related Work. I haven't kept up with this category or the debate around this particular nomination, but I gather some controversy surrounds this site, which is essentially a Fan Fiction portal. Again, I don't especially have any thoughts either way, but I'm expecting some bonkers takes on this award win.
- The 1944 Retro Hugo Winners were also announced recently. I didn't read extensively, but I was happy to see “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” by Lewis Padgett take the rocket, and Heaven Can Wait is the clear winner of Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. The Short Form award went to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which I do find surprising. I was expecting Bugs Bunny to run away with that one, but I guess not. I don't think they've released the detailed stats yet, but hey, at least Batman didn't win...