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Sunday, September 30, 2012

6WH: Week 2 - The German Krimi Film
One of the more obscure sub-genres of film is the German Krimi, which translates to "crime" or "mystery thriller". Interestingly, these movies all had their origin in the crime novels of ridiculously prolific British author Edgar Wallace (dude wrote somewhere on the order of 175 books). I had never heard of these movies before, but J.A. Kerswell devoted a short chapter to this movement in his Slasher Movie Book.
...the krimi was at its height of popularity from the end of the 1950s to the mid-1960s (although it was still being made into the early 1970s). Mostly filmed in Germany, the krimi films fetishized England and presented a decidedly Germanic idea of Englishness, which produced an otherworldly, alternative reality. ...These krimis are typically peopled by dastardly villains in outlandish costumes - featuring everything from a green skeleton in a cape to a whip-grasping monk in a red habit and pointy hat.

Increasingly flirting with the horror genre, the krimi satisfied the conventions of the crime caper as well as Teutonic farce.
By today's standards, these are pretty tame films, and as the description above might imply, they're not out-and-out horror, though they have leanings in that direction. There are some key horror conventions on display here though, including POV shots, macabre mad scientists, masked killers, and, strangely, a lot of throwing knives. I'm glad I tracked these down, but the overwhelming reaction I had to all of these movies was that they had some interesting ideas that weren't quite fully developed. This was perhaps due to the time they were made, but hey, if you're looking to remake movies, these seem like great candidates to me. Anywho, let's get this party started:
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide To Murder (short)
  • Night of the Lepus (trailer)
  • Frogs (trailer)
  • Fellowship of the Frog (aka Face of the Frog) - Adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels were produced as early as the 1920s, but the heydey of the krimi began in 1959 with the release of this film about a mysterious criminal mastermind known only as "the Frog", who peppers his daring heists and robberies with the occasional murder. Hot on the Frog's tail is Scotland yard, with an assist from an amateur American detective (and his British butler). The Frog's costume, featuring a mask with gigantic glass eyes (lending the impression of a frog), is actually somewhat effective, if a little on the outlandish side.
    The Frog
    The Frog
    His dastardly scheme winds up being pretty silly though, and I'm not quite sure I really understood what he was getting at with his plan. Basically, he wants to win the affection of a pretty lady... by terrorizing her brother and father? There's a nice Scooby-villain unmasking at the end of the movie too. There's a lot of neat elements here, but nothing to really pull it together into a great film. I actually really enjoyed the amateur American detective guy, he's kinda like Batman without the costume: embarrassingly wealthy, fights crime in his spare time, has a British butler, fancy car, and wacky gadgets. And the Frog has the makings of a great villain. He leaves a neat little calling card after each heist, and he brands his loyal minions with a little frog symbol too. Cool elements, but alas, the film settles for something less than satisfactory. I'm glad I watched it, but it's not a particularly accomplished film. **
  • Final Destination 2 (trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XIV: Reaper Madness
  • The Life of Death by Clive Barker (short story from Cabal)
  • The Mad Executioners - This film was made a few years later, while the krimi was enjoying great popularity, and the story here fares much better than Frog, though there are still some odd components (which we'll get to in a bit). The story begins with a mysterious hooded society passing judgement on a criminal who thought they had gotten away with their crime. We later find out that there's been a series of executions by this society, each victim a criminal who was "beyond the reach of the law" (shades of Dexter here, perhaps this movie was an influence?) Each body is found with a file detailing all the evidence, and the victims are hanged with an infamous hangman's rope, stolen from a museum. Soon, we see copycat societies taking up the cause, and a mysterious rash of gruesome beheadings has claimed the sister of our heroic Scotland Yard detective.
    The Frog
    A Mad Scientist
    This movie is an improvement over Frog, but some of these elements don't quite fit together. In particular, the side-story about the mad scientist experimenting on decapitated heads seems kinda tacked on, like it was from another movie or something. On the other hand, there's a lot of red herrings, which always kept me guessing, and while the tale may be a bit disjointed, both of the main threads are intriguing enough on their own... It all comes together in the end, and I found it a reasonably enjoyable experience, but again, it feels like these ideas could be more fully developed. **1/2
  • Stephen King's It (trailer)
  • The X-Files: "Humbug" (tv show)
  • Tales from the Crypt: "Dig That Cat...He's Real Gone" (tv show)
  • Circus of Fear (aka Psycho-Circus) - This film was made as the krimi was winding down, but it's also probably the best of the films covered in this post. The movie opens with an extremely well filmed heist. I particularly enjoyed the way director John Llewellyn Moxey cut between the various groups of criminals by employing imagery of watches and clocks. Anywho, the heist doesn't go quite as well as planned, and a guard gets shot. This leads the crooks to split up, one of whom heads towards a creepy circus, where he quickly runs into the business end of a throwing knife.
    POV Shot
    POV Shot
    Other crooks become suspicious and start looking for the body and money he was carrying. The film is actually populated by well-respected actors of the likes of Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski, and some nice dynamics at the circus keep things interesting. Of course, Scotland Yard is also on the case and as the bodies start to pile up, the suspects seem to be piling up. There's lots of fun to be had here, including a masked lion tamer and a scheming little person. Once again, I don't know that the movie fully delivers on its various ideas, but I found it to be the most enjoyable of the three, and the most visually interesting as well. **1/2
Apparently latter krimi pictures were coproduced in Italy and released as giallos there... Italian Giallo films had emerged and evolved alongside the krimi, but quickly overtook the German sub-genre in terms of visual style, violence, and mayhem. I found this to be an interesting exercise, but I'm a much bigger fan of Giallos and quite frankly, these aren't really horror films. There are some horror elements, but for the most part, they're probably, at best, thrillers.
Posted by Mark on September 30, 2012 at 07:56 PM .: link :.

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #9: Abbey Dubbel
I think I've mentioned this style as a potential next batch after, well, most of my previous beers. Well, I've finally pulled the trigger. This one doesn't come from a kit or even a clone recipe, though I did look at clones for St. Bernardus 8 and Ommegang Abbey Ale (two of my favorite dubbels). The real key resource was Brew Like a Monk, by Stan Hieronymus. Abbey Dubbels are generally dark beers, though that color comes more from dark sugars (usually candi syrup or rocks) than from roasty malts, meaning that these beers usually surprise folks who think they "don't like dark beers." The dubbel has Trappist origins, and they generally keep things simple. As such, what I ended up with wasn't particularly complex from a recipe perspective. I don't think I'll be able to replicate Trappist attenuation rates (which reach into the mid or even high 80% range), but I'm better at temperature control than I used to be, so I guess we'll see what happens. Here's the recipe:

Beer #9: Abbey Dubbel
September 29, 2012

1 lb. Aromatic Malt (specialty grain)
0.5 lb. CaraMunich Malt (specialty grain)
0.5 lb. Special B (specialty grain)
7 lb. Briess Golden Light DME
1 lb. Dark Belgian Candi Syrup (90° L)
1.5 oz. Hallertauer (4.3% AA, bittering)
0.5 oz. Hallertauer (flavor)
1 oz. Saaz (aroma)
1 tsp. Irish Moss
Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity Yeast

Again, nothing super complex here. Trappists apparently don't use quite as much in the way of specialty grains, but the ones I'm using are not uncommon (especially the Special B, which is a key component for a lot of commercial beers). I get the impression that they use more sugar as well, though they're careful about additions and temperature control, something I have little control over. But for the most part, this seems like a solid, middle of the road recipe.
Homebrew Ingredients
I started by bringing 2 gallons of water to around 150°F - 155°F, then I steeped the specialty grains for about 25-30 minutes. Removed grains, sparged with another gaollon of warm water, bringing the amount in the pot to around 3 gallons. Added all of the malt extract and candi syrup. This is the first time I used candi syrup, and I have to say, it's much easier to work with than the typical candi "rocks". After that, I covered and settled in for the boil, which took about 40 minutes (stupid electric stovetop). Once at boiling, I added the bittering hops and started the timer. The Hallertauer hops I got came in at a lower alpha acid percentage than I had planned on, so I had to do a little audible here and add an extra half ounce. Hopefully this will be enough... According to my little calculator thingy, this beer will come out at around 23 IBU, which should be plenty...

With 15 minutes remaining, I add the flavor hops and Irish moss. I had originally planned a full 1 ounce addition of Hallertauer here, but I had repurposed some of that for bittering, and from what I can tell, a lot of recipes eschew flavor hop additions entirely, so this should be fine. With 5 minutes remaining, I hadd the Saaz aroma hops. When finished, I plop the pot in my little ice bath, and wait for the temperature to get down to the 80°-90° range. Strained the wort into the bucket, and topped off with about 2 gallons of cold water (bringing the temperature down to a more appropriate 70° or so).

For the yeast, I went with Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity Yeast (packaged 8/28/12), which is apparently derived from the Westmalle strain (and since they make some of my favorite Trappist beers, I think that'll work for me). This yeast also has a high attenuation range and is apparently more tolerant of higher temperatures (ideal range 64°-78°). Since it's fall, temperatures are dropping, but the ambient temperature inside my house is still around 70°-75°, so I wanted to make sure the yeast would tolerate that. I've managed to keep the ambient temperature on the lower end of that range for the start, so here's to hoping things go well.

Original Gravity: 1.079 (around 19°Bx). Yeah, so this came in a little higher than I was going for (which was 1.076), but I don't think it's a major cause for concern. The target ABV is now around 7.6% (assuming around 75% attenuation), though that could easily grow to be around 8% if I get more attenuation out of the yeast. My only real concern here is that I have enough bittering hops, though this is a malty style, so I think I should be fine.

I plan to bottle in 3 weeks time (could probably go shorter, but I want to make sure the attenuation maxes out here, and my previous experience with Belgian yeast makes me want to make sure I don't bottle too early). I'm not sure what will be next in my brewing adventures. I've been thinking about some sort of highly hopped imperial red ale, but I'm also considering a big ol' American Barleywine (perhaps finally getting myself a secondary fermenter and doing some bourbon oak aging). I'm also out of the IPA I made last year, and I'm definitely going to make more of that stuff at some point. And I'm not sure what I want to do about a Christmas beer this year either. Should I replicate last year's recipe (which was perfect)? Or try something new? So many beers, so little time! Stay tuned.

(Cross posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on September 30, 2012 at 11:47 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

6WH: The Slasher Movie Book
I like slasher movies. There, I said it. Of course, longtime readers of the site (all 5 of you!) already knew that, as slashers tend to comprise an inordinate proportion of movies watched during the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon I do every year. As sub-genres go, it's not particularly well respected, but again, I like them. I've written about this before, so I'll just say that I find them comforting, like curling up under the sheets on a cold autumn night. Oh sure, they're all working from a relatively limited and predictable formula, but sometimes that works and I'm a big fan of folks who are able to find new and interesting ways to think inside the box.

The Slasher Movie BookDespite all the slasher movies I've seen, I'm far from an expert. Enter The Slasher Movie Book. I didn't realize this, but the book was written by J.A. Kerswell, who runs Hysteria Lives! website as well as the Hysteria Continues podcast I mentioned recently.

Having read the book, I think it's safe to say that Kerswell is indeed an expert, and not just on slasher movies. Indeed, the first several chapters of the book cover broad swaths of horror movie history. He's mostly focusing on proto-slashers, but it's clear that Kerswell has broad expertise in the rest of the genre as well. As most horror movie histories begin, this one starts with the Grand Guignol (a theater in Paris that specialized in short plays featuring graphically portrayed acts of torture, murder, and general mayhem), but quickly transitions into silent horror films (which have guided my recent viewings).

From there Kerswell spends a chapter on German "Krimi" (translates roughly to "Crime" or "Mystery Thriller") films, a sub-sub-genre originating in the 1950s that I'd never even heard of before (as such, I will be devoting this coming weekend to some Krimi films I was able to wrangle from Netflix, tune in Sunday to see the results!), then moves on to the Italian Giallo movement (which is a sub-genre I've enjoyed greatly) and other similar proto-slashers from the 60s and 70s.

But the bulk of the book focuses on the Golden Age of the Slasher film, those hallowed years between 1978 and 1984 when slashers were formally codified and replicated ad nauseam. Starting with Halloween and basically ending with A Nightmare on Elm Street, there were seemingly hundreds of slashers made and released in that era. And Kerswell's seemingly seen every last one of them. I mean, I know I said I'm not an expert, but this dude outstripped my knowledge on just about every page. The book is nearly comprehensive, especially in the Golden Age portions. Unfortunately, that breadth of film knowledge comes at the expense of depth. Most films warrant little more than a sentence or two. The classics of the sub-genre obviously get more attention, though even these portions are not exhaustive. But really, how could they be? There are probably a thousand movies mentioned in the book; going into meticulous detail on every single one would be tedious and boring.

Instead, Kurswell does a pretty deft job and summarizing the ebbs and flows of the genre, from the origins of various conventions in early films to the progression of said conventions through the Golden Age. He traces the genre's roots as they move from gritty realism to a reliance on the supernatural to the self-reflexive parodies that kept it alive. He's identified the trends and movements within the genre while cataloging examples to demonstrate. This is a book I assumed would bog down in repetition or simple regurgitation, like that part in the Bible where Jeremiah begat Jededia, Jededia begat Jebediah and so on, for like 10 pages. But this never really reached that kind of boring territory for me. Of course, I'm kinda obsessive about this stuff, so this book fed me a steady stream of new and unknown movies, all contextualized with stuff that I was already familiar with. It worked well.

The book rounds things out with a look at International slashing, the dark days of slashers, "Video Hell", the reinvigoration of the sub-genre at the hands of Scream, and a survey of latter day horror.

I found out about the book from Brian Collins, the guy who runs the estimable Horror Movie A Day website, and I think his review is pretty spot on, and he's qualified to make statements like this too:
...there's enough evidence throughout the book to suggest that I won't always see eye to eye with him, as he refers to New Year's Evil as "dull" (no movie with a killer name-dropping Erik Estrada can be considered as such, in my opinion) and considers the (IMO) rather bland House On Sorority Row to be a top-tier slasher on the same level as My Bloody Valentine. But I have to remember that everyone has their own favorites; the book's introduction explains that Halloween II was his first slasher and thus he has a soft spot for it, though he's thankfully honest about its shortcomings in the text itself. And he's on the right (meaning: MY) side for some other underrated flicks, such as the 2005 House of Wax, and he also (correctly) refers to Cold Prey II as one of the best post-Scream slashers, a bit of a surprise given his affection for Halloween II, which it was clearly aping.

I'd never judge a book of this type on a few opposing views of some low-rent slasher films, however - it's meticulously researched and the occasional flubs are likely due to typographical error, not ignorance (though he seems to suggest Wes Craven directed Hills Have Eyes 2 AFTER Nightmare On Elm Street, when in reality they were just released that way). But I'd have to stop just shy of calling it "exhaustive," as there are some puzzling oversights. No mention is made of 1991's Popcorn, for example - strange given the fact that it was one of precious few slashers of that time (and fairly well regarded to boot), and Craven's Shocker is also missing, odd considering that the "death" of the slasher cycle of the '80s could probably best be exemplified by one of the genre's founding fathers trying and failing to create a new slasher icon. No Dr. Giggles either, another "too late" attempt to revive the sub-genre. I wouldn't consider this odd in a typical book that just covered the marquee titles (Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc), but come on - there's two paragraphs on To All A Goodnight but not even a passing reference to Horace Pinker? For shame...
Brian is dead on (read: he agrees with me) about New Years Evil and House On Sorority Row, and some of his omissions are good calls to... One omission I would mention is Alice Sweet Alice - Kurswell does mention it in passing under it's original title (Communion), but I would have expected more info on what I thought was one of the clear proto-slashers (I mean, not even a picture of that creepy mask? Come on!) You can't please everyone, I guess. As mentioned above, Kurswell needed to walk a fine line here. Too much info and the book gets cumbersome and boring, too little information and doofuses like me whine about it on the internets. Again, this book is about as good as it gets when it comes to breadth of information.

It's also a very pretty book. Paperback, but all in color, with oodles of gorgeous poster art and stills. I'm not one of them poster art curators that seek out foreign lobby cards and obscure movie art, but I can appreciate that sort of thing when I see it, and if that's your bag, you'll love this. Tons of goofy stuff, along with genuinely effective imagery.

It's a fun book for fans of the sub-genre. Kurswell seems genuinely enthusiastic about the subject and treats it with a respect that few do. As a result, I've come away with dozens of movies I want to track down (if not, uh, hundreds). But don't worry, I'm only planning on spending one week on out-and-out slashers (probably next week).
Posted by Mark on September 26, 2012 at 10:18 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Six Weeks of Halloween 2012: Week 1 - Silent Horror
The leaves are turning, the wind is gusting, little plastic corpses and bite sized candy are showing up in grocery stores, along with graveyard themed decorations and mutilated pumpkins. It's my favorite time of the year, and as usual, it's time to celebrate the season by watching lots of horror movies. As usual, Kernunrex has gotten the festivities started off in style, and gives as good an introduction to the concept as one could hope for:
Halloween, the high holiday for horror geeks, has no equal. When is the science fiction fest? Which day do comedy kooks celebrate? Would there ever be a spaghetti western wingding? No, horror is special; it's primal and emotional, tapping into the deepest parts of our psychology and yanking at those uncomfortable pieces we normally pretend do not exist. Something this unique deserves more than a mere day of honor at the end of October. I say: let Halloweentime last for six weeks!
Hell yes! Six weeks of horror movies and pumpkin beer, let's get this party started. Stock the Netflix queues, batten down the hatches, it's gonna be a bumpy ride. Every year, I start off the season thinking to myself: self, you should probably become more familiar with silent-era filmmaking, why not spend a week doing so? Then I promptly forget as I tear through a bunch of trashy slasher movies or Giallos or what have you. Well not this year!

My experience with silent horror films is pretty much limited to a viewing of Nosferatu not that long ago. I guess you could also consider Hitchcock's silent film The Lodger as horror too. The silent era of film is a bit of a blind spot in general, so it's definitely something I should be making myself more familiar with, and this provided a good excuse. So it was a quiet weekend, if you take my meaning. Let's see how much choices were:
  • Grindhouse: Don't (fake trailer)
  • The Haunting (trailer)
  • The Others (trailer)
  • The Cat and the Canary - The original tale of relatives brought together in a haunted house for the reading of a will, this thing seemingly presages, well, every horror movie ever made. Haunted house, check. Escaped lunatic, check. Prowling POV shots from the killer's perspective, check. Scooby-like plot to manipulate the will, check. Goofy, incompetent cop, check. Creepy housemaid, check. Indeed, the cat-and-canary analogy itself could describe the way killers stalk their victims in countless horror films (though I guess it's more frequently referred to as cat-and-mouse).
    Not a monster
    The atmosphere of this film is quite effective, but the creaky old manor, filled with cobwebs and secret passages, is yet another horror staple that we've all seen dozens of times. As with most of my experience with silent films, this one moves a tad slow and the acting style of the era was one of overemphasized motions and theatrical gyrations. As visual storytelling goes, though, this one is actually one of the better examples that I've seen. A must watch for students of horror, but perhaps not something that would thrill general viewers. ***
  • Shining (fake trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
  • The Shining (trailer)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - This is another movie that sorta foreshadows a lot of the genre that would come later. In particular, a case could be made that this is the first slasher, though the film also seems to have been a major influence on Noir films as well. In terms of it's visual style, it's a most striking example of the German Expressionism style, with a set design that is very angular and thus somewhat unsettling. Expressionistic films are not usually this overt or bold, but this film really does get in your face with that sort of distortion of reality. The story itself is somewhat pedestrian. Dr. Caligari sets up shop in a local carnival to exhibit a Somnambulist, a man he claims has been asleep for decades, but who walks and talks in his sleep. The Somnambulist is kept in a coffin (aka the titular cabinet), and Caligari breaks him out and has the crowd ask questions. One unfortunate soul asks "When will I die?" and the Somnambulist's reply is "At first dawn!" Sure enough, the next morning at dawn, the man is found dead.
    Stabby stabby
    More hijinks ensue, and there's a few reversals and twists towards the end, but the thing that really sets this movie apart are its visuals. Really, it's just the set design, with it's discordant, angular lines, that is most memorable here. There is basically no camera movement at all, apparently the result of a low budget. This makes the overtness of the film's expressionism a little more explainable, as that's how they sought to make the movie visually interesting. Alas, the film has a preponderance of intertitles, making this rather textually heavy despite its silent origin. Again we get slow pacing and melodramatic acting histrionics. It's another influential and important movie, but I liked The Cat and the Canary much better... **1/2
  • Monster Realty (Robot Chicken)
  • House Of Wax (1953, trailer)
  • House Of Wax (2005, trailer)
  • Waxworks - Perhaps the least horror-like movie of the bunch, this nonetheless has some unsettling, weird elements that at least go in the right direction. The story concerns a writer hired by a wax museum to create backstories for the various wax figures. This makes the film into a sorta anthology as the writer concocts tales for three figurines. Harun al Raschid is a Caliph who gets caught up in a squabble between a baker and his wife. Ivan the Terrible thwarts attempts at his life, only to go mad when he thinks that one has succeeded. And Spring-Heeled Jack seemingly threatens the writer in the wax museum! Each story is shorter than the last, though, making this a somewhat lopsided affair, with the grand majority of screen time focused on Harun al Raschid and Ivan the Terrible. Fortunately, all three tales are worthy and interesting, even sometimes incorporating surprise twists. There's a cleverness here not really present in the other two films I watched this weekend, and despite not being horrific, it's still pretty entertaining. That being said, it's got the same pacing and acting ticks that I notice in most silent films. It's a fun film, well worth checking out for film buffs... ***
Well there you have it. I still can't say as though I'm in love with the silent era, but I do find some of these movies fascinating, if only because of their influence and historical value. Next week, I shall return with some proto-slashers, including a German Krimi film and whatever else I can scare up.

Update: Rex posted some thoughts on The Cat and the Canary.

Again Update: Bonehead XL is also writing about The Cat and the Canary. It's all Cat and Canary, all the time on the internet! You should watch it too! Ok fine, he's got a bunch of other reviews too and his site promises to be another 6 weeks of Halloweeny fun.
Posted by Mark on September 23, 2012 at 07:20 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

More X-Files Episodes
In what's sure to be an anticlimactic post, I'm going to list out a few of my favorite X-Files standalone monster-of-the-week episodes. Apologies for the lateness of this post, as my host apparently experienced some "hardware failures" over the weekend. All is well right now, though I had skipped the Sunday entry (first miss in years, so cut me some slack, Jack) and I even lost some Beer Blog stuff (though regular posting has resumed there as well). But I digress. Where was I? Ah yes, X-Files. A couple weeks ago, I revisited the series in general and listed out some of the most popular episodes. Today, I'm going to list some of my personal favorites, which may or may not be episodes that frequently show up in best-of lists. It will be earth-shattering to you all, I'm sure. Here goes:
  • Bad Blood (Season 5, Episode 12) - This has always been one of my favorite episodes, but it's also probably the one entry on this list that will also show up frequently in discussions of best episodes. It's another Vince Gilligan penned episode, so once again, I feel like its stock has risen as Gilligan's career has flourished. The story is all about vampires, and it's actually the second episode to tackle that classic monster (I guess it's worth noting that vamps weren't quite as hot a commodity as they are today). The first episode, 3, did not fare to well. Overly morose, obtuse, and kinda boring. Bad Blood, on the other hand, captures that goofy spirit the X-Files strayed to rather often, ultimately resulting in a much more satisfying story. But it's the Rashomon-like (update: according to Wikipedia, it's an homage to a specific episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show) structure of the plot that makes this noteworthy, as much of the story is told in flashback, first from the perspective of Scully, then from Mulder's perspective. Naturally, this yields two very different tales, further mining the chemistry of Mulder and Scully's relationship (one of the shows big strengths and something sorely lacking in the previous vampire episode). The two stories then converge into one, with an unlikely, but satisfying conclusion. Also of note, a great multi-faceted guest performance from Luke Wilson as the town Sheriff (who, of course, appears completely differently in the two different accounts).
  • Darkness Falls (Season 1, Episode 20) - Series creator Chris Carter wrote this episode about disappearing loggers in a remote Washington state forest. This one showed up towards the end of the first season, and I remember being enthralled by this story, cementing this as a show I would pay attention to... Unlike a lot of the episodes discussed thus far, this one is less of a goofy tale and more of a tension-filled, almost horror episode. Lots of great touches, from the nature of the threat (which came from chopping down a 500-1000 year old tree or something) to the dynamics between the agents, the logging company guy, the forest ranger, and a wacky environmentalist. There are these great scenes where the camera lingers on the power generator and the light bulb in the cabin they're staying in (this is notable, as the tiny buglike creatures they're facing are afraid of the light). Revisiting the episode recently, I'd say there are some aspects that don't hold up entirely well, particularly the ending, but it all fits with the show's themes and aesthetic. It's not a direct reference, but I kinda like the government conspiracy angle in the final moments of the episode. Very Raiders of the Lost Ark, I'm surprised the dude didn't use the exact words "Top Men". Still, this is certainly an episode worth your time.
  • Ice (Season 1, Episode 8) - Written by the duo of Glen Morgan and James Wong, this one is actually an entertaining retelling of the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, which is the same source material for the more well-known movie incarnations like The Thing. There are some small tweaks that keep things interesting, but this is clearly a derivitive episode, and you'll recognize a lot of it, from the Arctic research station to the paranoia and so on. It's a solid episode, and it actually shares a lot of traits with the aforementioned Darkness Falls, though the latter episode clearly had a more original feel to it. Despite its derivative origins, it's still a great episode, well worth watching.
  • Die Hand Die Verletzt (Season 2, Episode 14) - Another Glen Morgan and James Wong script, this one featuring one of the more terrifying monsters in the early seasons. I will not spoil who or why, but I like the show's take on that old hoary satanist trope. If one were so inclined, the episode also has something to say about organized religion in general, and it does so in a clever way.
  • Je Souhaite (Season 7, Episode 21) - Another of those goofy later season episodes written by Vince Gilligan, this one doesn't seem to get as much attention, but I do love the episode, which is very funny and tightly plotted, with a surprisingly upbeat ending. It's playing all the typical Genie tropes, and it's kinda sad/goofy at first, but it builds steam as it goes, and I think it's one of the unsung episodes of the series...
  • Honorable Mentions: War of the Coprophages, Small Potatoes, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, Monday, Arcadia, The Goldberg Variation, Hollywood A.D. (an average episode, but worth watching for the split screen bubble bath scene alone, and it's nice to see Skinner used to comedic effect), and ok fine, this was a fool's errand, there are tons of great X-Files episodes and most of these honorable mentions are just as good as any episode listed thus far.
So there you have it. I should note that I haven't really delved into seasons 8 and 9 (aka the years when David Duchovny gradually left the show, leading to new partners for Scully, etc...) There's actually some surprisingly good stuff in those seasons, but I don't think I watched them on their initial run and thus am less familiar with them. Hey, perhaps I can milk a third post out of this...
Posted by Mark on September 19, 2012 at 09:58 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Podcasts are weird. I often find myself buried under hours of great podcastery, I can barely keep up. But then every once in a while, like this past weekend, I abruptly run out of things to listen to. Oh sure, there are plenty of backup things or middling podcasts that I can fall back on, but I like to look forward to stuff too. Here are some recent podcasts that I've checked out, some great, some I'm not so sure about.
  • Radio Free Echo Rift - This has quickly joined the highest ranks of the regular rotation. Full disclosure, Mike and Don are real life friends, but they've actually put together a really well crafted podcast. They talk about comic books and movies and such, but even when they're talking about something I'm not familiar with, I find I'm usually still interested (I mean, I'm not a big comic book guy, but I still find their talks in that realm interesting). Recent highlights include a podcast discussing the typical three act structure of films, then applying that to a remake of an old semi-obscure Disney movie. Two half-hour episodes a week so far, and they also make their own comics (though none are available right now). Oh, and I'm told they'll be discussing a voicemail from me in today's podcast, so hop to it.
  • Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit (SVU) - Filmspotting Original Recipe has long been a Kaedrin favorite, and this spinoff podcast focuses on movies available on online streaming services. The hosts are Alison Willmore and Matt Singer, whom you may recognize as the hosts of the long-defunct IFC News podcast. The format generally consists of a long review (which, since this is streaming, is never a new release and often easy to play along with), some picks to complement that movie (whether it be a genre or director or whatever), and some other streaming picks. They also do this thing where they give each other a number, and they have to tell the other what movie is that number in their Netflix Instant queue. Awesome. This is a bi-weekly podcast, but it's a solid addition to the regular rotation.
  • The Hysteria Continues - It's getting to be that time of year again - time to fire up some horror movie focused podcasts, and this one seems heavily focused on slasher films. However, these shows are enormous. Most shows are over two hours long, some even hitting three hours. Most of it isn't a discussion of the movie of the week, and I do feel like there's a little dead weight in the show, but this time of year, I'm totally down for podcasts like this.
Well, that's all for now. Happy listening. I think we'll be returning to X-Files land on Sunday (would have done so tonight, but blogging software woes over the past couple days have drained the time available)...
Posted by Mark on September 12, 2012 at 09:51 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Revisiting The X-Files
I'm not a big TV person, but as it turns out, this is less a result of quality than it is of convenience. I think it's the broadcast model that really grinds my gears, but in this age of DVRs and Streaming services, I find myself gravitating towards a lot of television shows that are fully available. This includes a lot of discoveries, but I also value the ability to go back and revisit a show I once loved. As you might guess, I've been watching a lot of The X-Files lately (the whole series is available and easy-to-mainline on Netflix Instant).

Clocking in a 9 seasons and 200+ episodes, it's not a series that lends itself to a single blog post, but it's still worth talking about. There were, of course, two main threads in the series: a continuity of alien/government conspiracy plot-based episodes (though not the first series that attempted such long-term storytelling - Twin Peaks and Wiseguy come to mind - it was still quite ahead of the curve in this respect), and a series of one-off creature of the week type episodes. The continuity episodes established an elaborate mythology that quickly became too dense and nonsensical to me. I'm not sure if that's just because I missed the occasional episode (and thus had no idea what was going on), or if it was because the overarching conspiracy just made no sense, but the general consensus is that the overall storyline went on a little too long, was drawn out over too many seasons, and just got overly complicated and downright silly in the process.

I was always more interested in the one-off standalone episodes though, and they're the ones I keep returning to... Some are memorable favorites, some are new discoveries, things I'd never seen before. One thing that strikes me now is that the series really did consist of an eclectic mixture of elements that worked surprisingly well. There are stoic episodes consisting of deadly serious tragic figures, or lighthearted comedic takes on normally staid subjects. There were a lot of horror or science fiction tropes thrown out there, but also more realistic takes that only feinted towards the paranormal (in particular, there were some serial killer episodes that had little to no supernatural elements). The series was one of the few that could scare you like a good horror movie, instill suspense like a Hitchcockian thriller, impart that expansive sense of wonder that's the hallmark of great science fiction, or just plain make you laugh with expertly crafted comedic episodes.

I haven't really revisited any of the mythology episodes, but the standalone stuff has held up remarkably well. Monsters, aliens, psychics, freaks, serial killers, urban legends, claustrophobia, disease, the series took on quite a broad set of topics. In addition to the subject matter, the series is notable for its production values. In particular, I think the series had great cinematography. Sure, it sometimes gets a little too dark and the special effects are certainly showing their age, but for a TV show made in the 1990s, it's remarkable. Most television of that era had a sorta "flat" feel to it, but the X-Files always seemed to have qualities more closely related to film. That's not particularly rare in contemporary television (especially with the rise of pay cable network television like HBO), but back in the day, watching television that had filmic qualities was quite an eye opener, and as the series progressed, they managed to push boundaries and play with conventions more than most shows of the era. Take, for example, the episode Triangle, which consisted of four continuous shots (there were actually a few more than that, but clever editing made each segment seem continuous, with only commercials breaking up the action).

I had originally planned to list out my favorite episodes that were also somewhat obscure - the ones you don't hear much about - but perhaps it would be good to quickly revisit the series' regularly accepted best episodes (and save the obscure ones for their own post). Unlike a lot of series, I find that my favorite episodes are pretty well represented among the typical best-of lists out there, so here they are:
  • Jose Chung's From Outer Space (Season 3, Episode 20) - Darin Morgan only wrote 5 episodes of the series, but his influence is clearly felt in the entire show. In particular, he brought an offbeat, humorous perspective to a show that could easily have become mired in alienation and despair. To be fair, those were certainly themes of the series, but thanks to writers like Morgan, they were not overbearing themes. This particular episode is one of the rare alien-focused episodes that doesn't connect with the series' mythology (and thus, one of the rare alien episodes that I enjoyed!) The episode is structured around a series of flashbacks and interviews, highlighting several different points-of-view and numerous unreliable narrators. This structure is leveraged for all it's worth, often emphasizing the humor, but also just plain weirdness inherent in the premise. Jose Chung is an author is seeking to write a book about alien abduction and thus he gloms onto Mulder and Scully. It's an interesting and fun episode.
  • Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (Season 3, Episode 4) - Another Darin Morgan penned episode, this one retains much of the goofy humor that Morgan is known for, but also infusing a tragic poignancy in the form of Clyde Bruckman, a psychic who can predict the circumstances of peoples' death. There's an interesting serial killer story going on in the background here, but this is really about playing the agents against Bruckman. In particular, I like the way this episode plays with skepticism among Mulder and Scully. Apparently actor Peter Boyle won an Emmy for his role here, and it's easy to see why. Morgan won an Emmy for writing as well, and again, it's easy to see why.
  • The Post-Modern Prometheus (Season 5, Episode 5) - This one's written by series-creator Chris Carter, and represents one of those broadening episodes that tried to break through typical formulas for the show by varying the style considerably. It's filmed in black and white and features a modern take on the Frankenstein story - a goofy homage to Universal's famous monster movies, with some comic book tropes thrown in for good measure. It's a really weird, surprisingly light-hearted episode, with lots of quirky details (in particular, the monster Mutato's love of Cher music has always stuck with me as a memorable quirky element here). Definitely one of the series more adventurous episodes.
  • Drive (Season 6, Episode 2) - I'm not sure this one would have made the list a few years ago, but because writer Vince Gilligan and actor Bryan Cranston were both involved in this episode, many have revisited this one in light of their later work on Breaking Bad (another series I'm trying to catch up on). Gilligan is actually responsible for a lot of great X-Files episodes (including another called Pusher that often makes best-of lists) and you really can see his style in both these episodes and his later work on critical darling Breaking Bad. Gilligan was one of the few to successfully pick up the goofy humor once Darin Morgan left the series, but this particular episode features very little in the way of humor. It's actually once of the tenser affairs in the series. There's a government conspiracy angle that fits with the series themes, though it's still standalone. A lot of tension is ratcheted into the premise by working with a sorta counting-clock mixed with geographical limitations, and the unrelenting pace is matched by a rather dark and depressing ending. There's a lot of haunting moments here, though I do think that Gilligan tends to rely on certain crutches in his storytelling, particularly with respect to characters not explaining themselves (something I've noticed in Breaking Bad as well). In any case, this is a very well crafted, if disturbing, episode.
  • Home (Season 4, episode 2) - Generally considered to be the best of the standalone episodes, this one featured a script by James Wong and Glen Morgan (brother of the aforementioned Darin Morgan). It's also probably the most graphic and disturbing episode of the series. While many of the series' horror beats relied on "boo" moments of monsters jumping out of the dark screen, this one relied on a slow burning story concerning a terrifying clan of inbred backwoods hillbillies, calling to mind an entire subgenre of horror that, quite frankly, this episode pretty much outclasses (with maybe one notably exception of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Some of the most terrifying, disquieting moments of the series are contained within, and this is a must watch episode for any horror fan (or fan of the series). It's actually one that I missed upon its initial run, but which I discovered years later in an eye-opening experience.
There are, of course, lots of other regularly praised episodes, but I'll save them for a later post, along with some of my personal favorites.

The X-Files has a clear legacy, but few shows that followed have really captured what made this show great. The broader legacy includes all of the shows writers and directors, who've gone on to write and direct shows like Lost and Breaking Bad. There have been a few recent heirs to the series, though none has really approached the versatility or depth of the X-Files. Still, shows like Warehouse 13 (a sorta mashup of X-Files and that wacky Friday the 13th series) and Fringe do their best, and even succeed in some limited degrees. At this point, I'm guessing there won't be another series like The X-Files, and maybe that's ok.
Posted by Mark on September 09, 2012 at 06:53 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Link Dump
Yet more links from the depths of the internets:
  • Batman Gazette - Hilarious posters spoofing the Nolan Batman films.
  • A Critic's Manifesto: The Intersection of Expertise and Taste - An interesting article on what it means to be a critic:
    For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in—a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book—hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.
    I may have more to say on this in the future, but to me, the general idea of criticism boils down to context (which, I suppose, could also be termed Knowledge). Critics put a given work of art in context, whether that being the context of the society in which it was produced/released, or the context of other films that have tackled the same themes, and so on...
  • Stereotypical 80's Movie Gangs - They're only kinda scary. And bigoted.
  • Star Wars Propaganda Posters - Have I issued a moratorium on Star Wars links yet? No? Good, then I can post this.
  • The Dark Knight Rises Epilogue: Wayne Enterprises Fire Sale - Have I issued a moratorium on Batman links yet? No? Good, then I can post this.
  • The Slow Death of Netflix - Shamus does a good job detailing what is bad about Netflix's Watch Instantly feature. Namely, that nothing I ever want to watch is available on instant.
    I want to stress that I’m not cherry-picking here. I really am looking for a movie and I really am getting bupkis for every single attempt. There are good movies here, but not many, and I’ve pretty much seen them all by this point.

    I’ll go for a couple of weeks without checking Netflix. Then when I come back I’ll check out the “what’s new” lineup and find it almost unchanged. As far as I can tell, their library of streaming content is shrinking.
    I can think of exactly two occasions when I've decided that I wanted to watch a movie, checked Netflix, and found that it was actually available on streaming. One was Groundhog Day (which was actually unavailable for a while, but came back recently) and the other was Gambit, a movie that was specifically recommended because it was available, but which is no longer available at all (even on DVD). Of course, this ultimately has less to do with Netflix than it does with the Studios, who are so hellbent on defeating pirates that they don't want to make movies conveniently available for anyone (thus creating more pirates). Someday, someone will figure out how to make streaming work with a wide selection, and it will be glorious. Alas, I don't think that will happen anytime soon. Ten years? Maybe. But probably not.
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on September 05, 2012 at 08:56 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Book Queue, 2012 Update
Back in January, I posted a list of eleven books I wanted to read in 2012. In March, I added another 5 to the list. That's sixteen books listed, and I've read eleven of those. In fairness, of the remaining five, one has not come out yet, and I'm not going to read another of them until its sequel comes out. Also, I have read a lot more than has been listed, 34 books so far in 2012 (though a couple of those are short stories or novellas). So I'm making good progress, but I think it's time to load up again.

The remaining books from previous queues...
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: Been on the list for a long time, and I'm probably not going to tackle this one for this year. It's a very long (1000+ pages), dense text filled with philosophy and mathematics. I've been doing pretty well this year in terms of quantity of books, so I don't want to bog myself down with a book like this. However, I do think I'm going to focus on "long" books next year, so this will definitely be on tap for that book queue. More details on that project to follow!
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: My status on this book is unchanged: I still want to read this (a continuation of Vinge's loosely linked Zones of Thought books), but initial reviews of this book seem to indicate that it ends on a cliffhanger and that another novel is forthcoming. I thus won't be reading this until I know more about when the presumed conclusion to the story will be available...
  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris - Another long non-fiction book that I'll probably tackle next year. Again, just want to preserve the momentum I've built up this year.
  • The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others - This is just something I haven't gotten around to... but apparently a second volume is forthcoming, so I should probably hop to it. I've actually been waiting for my Amazon Prime book lending thingy to reset so I can get this one for free. Score.
  • Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (releases 11/6/12) - Hasn't come out yet, but I am going to read this one as soon as I possibly can. It will actually be perfect timing for me, just after the Halloween rush. Apparently you can buy a pre-release galley of this book or something, but I figure I'll just wait until the final version comes out.
New Stuff
In no particular order:
  • Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday The 13th by Peter M. Bracke - I went a little nuts trying to find this a few years ago, and when I finally got my hands on a copy, I kinda forgot about it and haven't picked it up since. I figure it will make a good read during the six weeks of Halloween this year.
  • Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale - Lansdale's second in a series of Texas crime novels featuring the unlikely duo of Hap Collins and Leonard Pine (the first, which I enjoyed even if it was a little on the predictable side, was on my previous book queue.)
  • Morning Glories, Vol. 1: For a Better Future by Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma - Yeah, so this one is a comic book omnibus recommended to me by my buddies Mike and Don over at Radio Free Echo Rift (an excellent podcast for all you comics fans out there and heck, I like it, and I don't even read much in the way of comics.) I have pretty much no idea what it's about (apparently a school is involved), but I'm pretty much just taking Mike and Don's word for it.
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester - One of those books that frequently pops up on best SF novel lists, something I've been trying to wittle down for a while now.
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts - Only recently released, but for some reason, not available on the Kindle. I suppose it's got to be available in ebook format somewhere though, and I do want to read this book, supposedly a mashup of locked-room mysteries and crime tropes with golden age SF.
  • The Gift of Fire / On the Head of a Pin: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion by Walter Mosley - Two interesting sounding stories in one book. I don't remember where I heard of this, but I'm glad I stuck it in the queue, as it sounds pretty interesting.
  • Red, White, and Blood by Christopher Farnsworth - The third in a series of trashy vampire spy novels that I've come to enjoy.
  • The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold - Since I've mostly exhausted Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, I figured I should probably start hitting up her fantasy novels too.
  • Among Others by Jo Walton - Just won the 2012 Hugo Award for best novel. A little surprising, actually, as smart money was on the China Mieville or George R.R. Martin books, but not having read any of the nominees, I can't say for sure. Still, the annual bitching about nominees seemed to indicate that Walton's book was actually a worthy nominee but that it would probably not win because it was not as fancy as other noms, so it's nice to see that it actually did win.
So there you have it, lots of books to read, and so little time. I'm hoping to knock most of this new stuff out before the end of the year. As mentioned above, some of the holdovers will probably have to wait for next year, but at least a couple will probably be checked off the list this year too...

Update: Just added Among Others to the list.
Posted by Mark on September 02, 2012 at 08:30 PM .: link :.

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