Saturday, 31 October 2015

Review – “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

SHARMAN, Jim (Dir.), "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Michael White Productions, 1975.

Let me set the record straight right from the get-go: I’m not one of the “Don’t Dream It - Be It” crowd. Not for me the fishnets and suspenders, nor the bustier and eyeshadow. I’m quite happy tapping my toe along to the soundtrack, but as to being a sweet Transvestite from Transexual in Transylvania – I’m not feeling it. Not that I don’t get it: the message is clear. It’s just not mine.

With Hallowe’en around the corner, the Mount Vic. Flicks people decided to hold a special event screening of this cult favourite. Running into Don from Afternoonified – our local store for all things steampunk – he asked me if I was interested in coming along. I had a sudden flash of the last time I went to one of these back in the 80s and hesitated; but then I said “yes; yes I will”, because my new mantra is to say “yes” to things social, and since the word ‘horror’ appears in the title of the film, I thought that would make it worthy of blogging about. I downloaded my ticket and discovered from it that I was assigned the role of “Criminologist”, so I spent a day and a bit organising a costume in order to attend. The result was mixed; the hardest object to acquire was a pipe, or cigarette holder, (which I thought the role required) but I think I pulled it off.

Once I was suitably in drag, I drove out to Mt. Victoria, which is the last village in the Blue Mountains as you head west. This place has enough actual scariness to make it worthy of avoiding on a dark and fogbound night, but I figured the attendees would be of significant quantity to provide the sort of herd safety that buffalo generate. Seriously: this village is the nexus of a nasty little inbred cult and once while at a cafe there, I was told without a trace of irony that they “didn’t take to that fancy EFTPOS stuff around here”, but that Bert at the pub would spot me a fifty across the bar. Brrr! Nevertheless, the Mt. Vic. Flicks people do a great job of bringing cult and arthouse movies to the public and I was keen to support their efforts with my presence and my hard-earned.

(I’m not kidding about the fog either: just before Katoomba it walloped down like a son-of-a-bitch and didn’t let up except for the hundred metres or so in front of the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath – I figure they must pay some excess on their rates for that kind of weather exemption.)

I got to the cinema with a quarter-hour to spare and made my way inside. Riff-Raff was handing out equipment bags and a couple of Magentas were distributing champagne-analogue. I shuffled inside and discovered that our seats were right down in front, which gave me a moment’s pause: I enjoy going to see comedians but I have learnt from experience that the front row is where most of the mayhem occurs and is best avoided. I had a presentiment that high-jinks would be the order of the day at this screening, and so I became wary. As it turned out, apart from momentary contact with rubber-encased buttocks, I was shielded by some guardian angel from the worst of the front row engagements.

The champagne-analogue was a clue. These types of events require that participants get into the swing by dropping their inhibitions and so booze is distributed largesse in order to facilitate this. Sitting, as I was, up front, I saw exactly how many bottles of this evil fruit juice were being pressed upon the gagging audience, most of whom had already been lowering their inhibitions at the local pub, and it was thoroughly sobering.

Our equipment bags were “Rocky Horror-lite” in that they covered the most obvious bases without going the whole hog. There was confetti to be divided between the opening wedding scene and the unholy wedding of Frank ‘n’ Rocky; a sheet of newspaper to be worn during the rain scene; a glowstick to wave during the “There’s a Light” number; a rubber glove to snap; a party noisemaker to blow during the “Animation Sequence”; a Party Popper™ to fire before the “Honeymoon Suite” scene; and a party hat to wear at the dinner scene. I’ve been to screenings where toast and rice and water pistols have been the order of the day, along with regimented responses to the dialogue – this was not one of those screenings. On the whole, it was preferable.

Once everyone was in situ, the film got underway. We were surrounded by some vaguely-acquainted individuals who were drunk when they arrived and drunker when the opening credits rolled. It transpired that they were all school teachers on a team-building exercise and every time someone took a photo with their ‘phone the words “I hope this never gets to the school website!” rang out en clair. Given their ensuing semi-pornographic antics, I just assumed that one of these images would be ringing down the end of someone’s career within a few days: there’s protesting and then there’s protesting too much.

The film kicked off and I was surprised at the quantity of words that I still retained in my memory. This print of the film had the words of the songs printed in sub-title, but I was able to sing along with a bare acknowledgement of their presence; usefully, I was able to clear up some minor issues I have with the text where the exact words were unknown to me. Interestingly, the versions of the words in my head were better than the actual words, so I think I’ll stick with those.

During “Sweet Transvestite” a paid performer appeared and over-sang the lyrics while parading his rubber underwear. I was kind of annoyed by this because Tim Curry simply can’t be outdone in belting out this tune, so the live performance was invasive and pointless. My attention became white-hot focussed during his rendition only because he and a tribe of Magentas converged on my vicinity: thankfully, they manhandled the school-teacher next to me and dragged him away into the ladies’ toilets: thank-you guardian angels!

After this, we snapped rubber gloves and blew party favours. At the point where Rocky is manifested in his bandages, the unfortunate school teacher re-appeared wrapped in toilet paper and was dragged through several rows of viewers who got to strip him of his coverings. He struggled back to his seat next to me clad in his own underwear (jocks and singlet), gold lamé undies stuffed to bursting with two tea towels, and a blonde wig. He complained about how cold it was for the rest of the event; I was impressed that he didn’t complain about what had been done to him by the enthusiastic organisers!

Just before the appearance of Eddie, there was an Intermission. This was a bad idea: the last act of the film is weak, weak, weak, and enthusiasm tapers off dramatically. There was a costume competition (won by a woman breast-feeding her baby and a guy Dr. Scott-ing in a wheelchair) and way more champagne-analogue: I’m wondering if anyone in the audience even remembers the second half.

Eventually, we hit the betrayal moment where Riff-raff and Magenta bite the hand that feeds them, and the house Transvestite re-appeared to perform the songs that Tim Curry was already more than adequately crooning. There was a moment when he perched himself rather uncomfortably on my lap but I’ve blanked it from my memory – obviously, my guardian angels were working overtime; I can’t fault them for letting one misdemeanour through. The Floorshow saw the unfortunate and frozen school-teacher and the breast-feeding mother dragged forward to bumble the lyrics and then it was an inevitable slide towards the end credits. I can’t say that I wasn’t happy to get out of there: seriously, I could have slapped on my DVD of this film at home and had a better time with it. It was atmospheric; I had a night out; that was it. It was a case of building life experience: there are things I’ve seen tonight that I will not forget for awhile, despite efforts to the contrary; but on balance I wouldn’t have missed it.

Now: the film itself. It’s hard to criticise this effort; the music is catchy, subversive and full of hooks, so you find yourself singing along regardless. However, the music is one of the best things about this film. As far as the plot is concerned, it’s a dog’s breakfast. This is a tent-pole script: it has a number of points that it has to attain and it gets there by the most obtuse approaches possible: get the hero and heroine to the castle; get the monster animated; get the government agent involved; get everyone compromised; get the betrayal done; wrap things up. The ludicrous ways that the actors and writers get across these anchors is what makes the film a cult classic and are the things which stick with the fans. If the music was less engaging and the performers less adept, the whole project would have fallen flat (see: “Shock Treatment”).

My interest is that the film transverses two segments: a horror-story mode and a science-fiction tale. The set-up is pure horror: the young lovers are sent out into the dark and stormy night, only to experience an accident and then back-track to the lair of the nightmare antagonist. This has the ring of urban myth to it: if Riff-raff was scraping his hook-hand on the roof of Brad’s car it couldn’t be more perfect.

The scene in the lab is the transition moment. This is the genre side-step: horror is a body stitched together from mis-matched parts; science fiction is the re-animation of those parts by scientific means. From here on in we are in sci-fi central, where everything has an alien rationale. Generically-speaking, the movie falls into these two halves: B-grade horror followed by B-grade sci-fi. It’s right there in the title song.

Performances make this film. It’s inconceivable now that anyone else could undertake these roles; it’s a moment of perfect casting. Tim Curry is Frank’n’furter; Susan Sarandon is Janet; no-one else does any of the movie’s roles better, and I’m sorry to all those stage performers who belt it out periodically live on stage. It’s one of the things that ensures that this piece of fluff hasn’t faded into the background – perfect songs; perfect casting.

The scripting is something less stellar. As this special event tonight has shown, the third act of this movie is clunky and fudged; not sure of where it’s going. It ends, but not satisfactorily. The unsatisfactory conclusion is covered by more – counterintuitive - stellar song-writing, but it feels lazy around about this point, as if all personnel were just wanting to get home and forget the depredations of the daily grind. I think it’s an empathic thing: having seen Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon stand around for two-thirds of the film in their underwear, it seems only charitable to let them go home and get some warm clothes on.

Do I find this film enjoyable? Yes; occasionally. Do I think it’s art? No: not at all. It’s fun; that’s all. I enjoy the artistic references and the songs; the impeccable performances. It’s not “worthy” or “art”: it is what it is and I’ll probably go again next year.

Are you listening, Mt. Vic. Flicks?

Three-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors.

Zombie-Fighting Strategies!

For something a bit different, I would like to focus upon the other thing upon which I waste my time: “Plants vs. Zombies”. For those of you who are clueless as to what this might be – very few of you I’m thinking – it’s a computer game where you plant all kinds of vegetation, each of which has its own specific means of inflicting mayhem, in order to repel advancing waves of ever more menacing undead shufflers, aka. zombies. I started playing this game awhile ago and was completely hooked. I’ve played the whole adventure through a couple of times and now have much of the tactical basics down pat. It’s a deceptively easy-looking game (enhanced by the cutesy characters) and you have to have cool nerves and strategic nous to win clear of an undead mauling. Explaining all of the technicalities would take weeks of blog updates so I would just like to focus on one of the mini-games that comes with the software and which are designed to hone your mad botanical combat skillz.

The mini-game in question is “ZomBotany”. This comes across as a standard frame of zombie-blasting but it has a twist: in this version, the zombies’ heads are replaced by two of the more useful plant types – an unholy blending of undead flesh and vegetable matter. In this iteration, the two types of zombies to be faced are a standard zombie with a Peashooter head and a standard zombie with a Wall-nut head. This means that one type of zombie shoots back at your plants, while the other is hugely resistant to your attacks. The Peashooter zombies are in the majority as well, forming a 4:1 ratio of encounters.

What this means in terms of strategy is that, whatever you plant, you are going to come under retaliatory fire. Your plants are going to take damage and will need to be replaced frequently. As well, every now and then, a nut-headed walker is going to stroll through your defences largely unhindered. This is bad, but not insurmountable. All you need to do is to select plants that can’t be hit by zombie artillery and direct the undead horde where you want it to go, rather than letting it choose its own path. You need to select the following plants at the start of the game:

As you can see, you need to have a handful of ‘one-shot killers’ which are useful in establishing your floral emplacement – the Potato Mine, the Squash and the Jalapeño. It goes without saying that you need Sunflowers – you can’t just rely on the energy streaming down from above! The two backbones to this strategy however are the Garlic bulb and the Spikeweed (along with its power-up version, the Spikerock). For return-fire, your best bet is the Threepeater and the Snow Pea: the Threepeater can fire on the enemy without being in their line of fire, and the Snow Pea makes your Spikeweed much more effective, although you are going to have to replace them a lot. For the last slot, take the Twin Sunflower – by the end of this engagement you will need all the sun you can get!

The game teaches you to plant all of your vegetable friends in neat vertical columns. This is something that becomes heavily inculcated in the new player, however for this mini-game, you need to break your conditioning. For this battle, you want to create ‘kill zones’ into which you will direct the undead so that you can pick them off. The best way to do this is to plant Garlic. A Garlic bulb at the start of a row will divert the oncoming zombie to the row immediately above or below the garlic-protected row. If you plant Garlic at the start of the top row, at the start of the middle row, and at the start of the bottom row, then immediately, all of the walkers have no choice but to shuffle into the two remaining rows: these are your killing fields. You will need to “double Garlic” your rows, that is plant two Garlic bulbs at the start of these rows, because zombies eventually chew past the Garlic and win free of the blockades. Double-Garlic-ing gives you time to concentrate on other aspects of the battle. Remember though, that you will need to constantly replace your Garlic; fail to do so, and the zombies will swarm!

Reserve the top and bottom rows for Sunflowers and evolve them into double-headed hybrids as the option becomes available. The Garlic will keep them safe by absorbing most of the enemy Peashooter fire and by diverting the zombies away. Leave the other end of the row clear of plants at the beginning: when it becomes available, plant a Snow Pea in the most left-hand square of these three rows. This means that any zombies who munch your Garlic will be frozen for their trouble. The middle row has another function: it too, needs two Garlics at the right-hand end, and a Snow Pea to the extreme left, but your goal here is to fill this lane with Threepeaters, working left to right. The benefit of the Threepeater is that it can cover all the killing field lanes as well as pinging any zombies who nibble its protective Garlic, without taking any return fire. Cunning, huh?

That leaves us with the killing fields. Plant these lanes entirely with Spikeweed except for the far left squares at each end. At the beginning of the encounter, you will need to plant Potato Mines on the last (left-most) square of these lanes: these guys represent your last line of defense before the lawnmowers go into action. At the start of the action, you will be using the Squash and – later – the Jalapeño to eliminate pesky undead strays who get too close to your house, but by the end, very few zombies will make it even halfway. Just remember to place your Squash right in front of the zombies that you want to take out – if you put them down too far away, the Peashooter zombie will shoot them up before they have a chance to go to work. In front of the Potato Mines, plant a Snow Pea: these guys will take a pounding and will have to be replaced regularly, but they will make your “dance floor” that much more effective.

What’s a “dance floor”, I hear you ask? Simply put, it’s a thoroughfare covered in Spikeweed over which zombies have no other choice but to pass. I love Spikeweed – zombies can’t touch it and they kill themselves by walking on it. No muss, no fuss. Fill the rest of these lanes with the stuff and watch the walkers fall to pieces. When the option becomes available, upgrade your ‘Weed to Spikerocks and Bob’s the relative of your choice. Remember though: at the start of this mini-game, zombies cannot walk over two complete Spikeweed squares; soon however, they toughen up and it will take three squares to do them in. No Peashooter zombie can endure four Spikeweed squares. The Wall-nut Zombies are a different issue.

No matter how much Spikeweed you lay down, a Wall-nut zombie will make it all the way to your Potato Mine and blow up. You need to retaliate against them by upgrading your Spikeweed, planting Snow Peas and then planting Threepeaters. When frozen, zombies take longer to move off the Spikeweed, making it more effective, and the more projectiles you throw at these Wall-nut guys, the more of their armour you destroy. Just be prepared, in the game’s initial stages, to rely on your Squash and Jalapeño to take these guys down if they get too close for comfort.

Basically, your lawn should look like this:

If you upgrade your Spikeweed starting from the right-hand end of the lawn, you eliminate the shooter zombies more quickly: this lessens the devastation to your plants. As you can see, the Garlic bulb at I5 has been nibbled upon: they develop less of a sunny disposition as they wear out, so keep an eye on them and be ready to use the shovel to replace them (or just plant more when they’re completely eaten; personally, I try to remove and replace them rather than sending them to the Big Compost Bin in the Sky, but that’s just me). The Snow Peas at B2 and B4 are also going to take some punishment and will need to be replaced regularly. A variation you can try is to do without Snow Peas entirely and select the Tall-nut instead, planting those at these two locations: it’s amusing to watch zombies being chewed apart by Spikeweed while trying to tunnel through a stoic Tall-nut.

This is a sure-fire way to survive this evil iteration of the standard game. After trying this, you will think quite differently about the humble Garlic in future!

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

In Deep - 20: Tennis Anyone?

As I skipped up the stairs of the Gilman House Hotel the door swung open and I met Ned Pierce coming out. He wore a determined look on his face (marred only by the bandage on his nose) and he carried a rifle in both hands. A day or so ago I would have baulked at his sudden appearance; now I raised a hand in greeting.

‘Hey Ned,’ I remarked, ‘sorry about the nose.’

He shook his head in dismissal. ‘Had worse,’ he said. ‘We’ve got the place locked down: we saw the creep come in but he’s vanished somewhere inside.’

I looked upwards at the beetling facade of the building while I lit a cigarette. ‘He’s probably got more tunnels through this place than the termites,’ I observed. ‘Alright Ned: As long as we keep the exits pinned down he can hide as long as he wants. He’s got to surface for air at some point.’

‘Elijah Southwark is going room-to-room with some of his buddies, starting at the top. Hopefully they’ll flush him out.’

‘I hope they’re armed...’

Ned grinned. ‘Those kids? Loaded for bear and spoiling for a fight! I just hope there’ll be something left for Stan to poke at.’

‘Huh,’ I chuckled, ‘Kids these days.’ I flapped my match out and flicked it into the darkness.

Behind Ned, the glass door swung open. ‘Hey you guys!’ Sherman Sargent stuck out his head; ‘Gilman’s been spotted out on the tennis lawn!’

We hefted our weapons and raced indoors.

The lobby was a blur of dark-coated enforcers and surprised guests. Coen Bros. started to voice an objection to the blatant display of weaponry from behind the Reception Desk but I gave him a stern glare and he decided to clam up. We went straight through to the restaurant and out onto the tennis lawn beyond. Here the Gilman House revealed itself to be a three-sided structure, the two rear-extending ells containing a grey-green rectangle of struggling grass, bordered by an overgrown garden and walkway, nominally designated a tennis court. A trellis wall beyond, sagging beneath cancerously overgrown rosebushes, shielded a view out to the ocean, and we arrived to see Winston duck through a gateway set in the middle of this, lugging a cumbersome stone in both arms. Ned cocked his rifle and we swarmed after him in pursuit.

Halfway across the dying lawn, a door slammed open at the base of the wing to our left and a loud gong shattered the atmosphere, reverberating off the surrounding walls. Bustling out of the building came a score or more of short athletic men in martial arts get-up, coloured black with flourishes of red, orange and yellow. They were armed with myriad different kinds of outlandish kung-fu weaponry, which they displayed with evident eagerness. Pushing through from the centre of this throng, draped in an oversized silk robe and carrying a huge gong with its striker, I recognised the crazy, butterfly-headed form of Madame Klopp.

‘There he is!’ she shrilled, pointing at me with her gong stick, ‘The one who seeks the stone!’ She broke off, screaming in some staccato language which clearly registered as “attack!” to her surrounding buddies. They surged forward keenly and one or two of them instantly burst out of their karate gear, transforming into huge rubbery creatures with whippy, sucker-tipped fingers.

I put my face in my palm. ‘Oh my god...’ I muttered.

Then Ned was by my side. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘we’ve got this. You go get Winston.’ I nodded and hurried away from the melee as gunfire and shrill screams rang out in my wake.

I was only a couple of paces away from the trellis gate when the air convulsed in front of me, wobbled and disgorged a hideous flying creature that leered dangerously at me. I hauled on the brakes and threw myself to one side to avoid its swiping paw. Landing heavily on the brown grass I looked upwards in time to see a second horror appear. They were vaguely insectoid and kind of like birds, with a distinctly reptilian cast; mostly though, they looked like they’d died a few weeks previous but had forgotten to lie down and be still. When they flapped their wings, a reek of something harsh, like ozone, swirled around them. They screeched evilly and began closing the gap between us.

I sneaked a glance back at the kung fu crowd and noticed that our side wasn’t doing too well: Madame Klopp had that “all my Christmases come at once” look on her face indicating that she was particularly pleased that the two beasties had shown up to swell her ranks. Ned was calling for ammo and Sherman Sargent was having trouble with a rubbery monstrosity that seemed to be trying to drain his blood though the toothy orifices on its fingertips.

I ducked a fistful of claws and stuck my hand in my pocket for my gun. Drawing forth my hand I realised I’d grabbed the wrong metallic object and held up the slightly curved, pointy stick with the flat top. The warning words of Alphonse filled my head as I rolled sharply away from a two-fisted assault.

‘Screw it,’ I said, and plunged the spike into the lawn.

A pulse shot through the atmosphere, as if the sky had just rippled. In its wake a momentary silence hovered and the light grew pale like the first light of dawn; things seemed to move in slow motion around me. Then everything slapped back into place: thunder boomed, wind roared and the ground beneath me began to heave strongly upwards.

I rolled beneath the flapping horrors and threw my back against the trellis, which was sagging more than ever beneath the thrashing rosebushes. A huge split rent the tennis lawn and massive tentacles oozed upwards from out of the dirt below. Tapering and twirling, they started thin like garden hoses but quickly grew to the heft of tree trunks. Rising ever upwards, these coiling members met finally at ropey body which still rose up out of the earth: many hideous fanged maws appeared, snapping and drooling, and I realised that I had seen one of these things before, at Rodney’s shack. It stood almost as tall as the Hotel’s sixth floor. The assembled combatants had all thrown themselves out of the way during this emergence and now stood goggling at the behemoth before them.

Suddenly, Madame Klopp screamed angrily in her alien pidgin and pointed her gong striker at the terror; in response, the newcomer roared in equal rage and then some, bellowing from multiple monstrous throats, and it shuffled massively over to join combat.

The flying dead things swooped, were caught in circling tentacles, crushed and then chewed to nothing in toothy maws; the kung fu crew fired guns and threw spears, but beat a hasty retreat back into the Hotel. Undeterred, the juggernaut slammed straight into the side of the building and burst through it in an explosion of timber and stonework. In its wake the Gilman House’s north wing slumped down into rubble.

Ned and the rest of our team quickly gathered themselves together, reloading, recovering and slicing Sherman free of the slug-thing that wanted his ichor. I straightened my hat and helped myself to a smoke.

‘Well,’ I said to no-one in particular, ‘that seemed to work.’

I turned and kicked open the trellis door. Time to find Winston.

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Review - "Jurassic World"

TREVORROW, Colin (Dir.), “Jurassic World”, Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment/Legendary Pictures Inc., 2015.

Beware the second head of Science, Arthur – it bites!”
-The Tick vs. Dinosaur Neil

The way I remember all the movies in this franchise goes something like this: there’s the one with the two annoying brats; the one with the irritating (yet strangely effective) brat (in which Richard Schiff gets unfairly disposed of); and the one with the brat with the even more annoying parents. It seems that, Ourobouros-like, we’ve arrived back at the beginning, and I will now have to think of this instalment as “the other one with the two annoying brats”. Irritating, poorly-behaved children, it seems, is what Spielberg does best, and the only point on which I’d cut these infants any slack is that their adult mentors are no better behaved.

It’s a truism on either Isla Nublar, or Isla Sorna, that if someone says “do as I say”, or “do as you’re told”, the imperative is to do the exact opposite. In any other franchise, the moment someone disobeys a direct order, that’s when they pay the piper. Not in this series. Here, bad behaviour pays dividends. It’s a crap lesson and it bugs the hell out of me.

The two brats in this show are a case in point. One of them – you’ll be devastated to know – is the little upstart urchin from “Iron Man 3” and unbelievably, between that show and this, no-one has bothered to give him a haircut. Is it just me? This fellow is the oddest-looking moppet I’ve seen on film in recent years. Every time he’s required to plaster on an expression of wonder or amazement, I have Mythos flashbacks: seriously, the next time he mugs for the camera in this way, freeze-frame and pull out your copy of Chaosium’s “The Complete Dreamlands”. Compare and contrast the kid with Geier’s illustration of the Haemophore with its odd, W-shaped mouth - you’ll see what I mean.

His brother, the social butterfly Zach, is hardly better. Seriously, did we learn nothing after Freddy Prinze Jr.? This child is a sleazy, lacklustre, wannabe-Lothario who, we’re explicitly told, indulges in acts of emotional cruelty against his younger brother, Gray (the afore-mentioned moppet). It’s hardly surprising that he takes the movie’s implicit championing of the ill-behaved and runs a mile with it. Unfortunately, he gets away with everything. Moving on.

Our heroes for this instalment (because, as we’ll see, there’s always a conflict of ideals versus expediency in these flicks and both sides need advocates) are the brats’ aunt Claire and her potential new boyfriend Owen “Dances with Raptors” Grady. She’s the Executive Officer on deck at Jurassic World, wheeling and dealing with Big Industry for endorsement of the latest attractions and managing the daily throughput of over 20,000 visitors to the toothy theme park. He is a touchy-feely ex-Navy Velociraptor handler trying to communicate with a pod of these carnivores – a “Dinosaur Whisperer” if you will. She calls the monsters “assets”; he champions their right to be treated with respect as living beings. We’re told early on that these two went out on a date at one point but clearly things did not work out. It’s easy to see why.

Claire (no last name – there’s a reason) is presented to us visually as an unearthly being. This is partly because Bryce Dallas Howard is a somewhat elfin-looking woman anyway, but she spends the entirety of this film doing battle with wardrobe and makeup to try and appear halfway normal. In most of the scenes her face looks weirdly skull-like, or flushed, which – along with the helmet-hair – makes her look like another botched side project of Hydra’s super-soldier efforts. The rest of the time she vaguely resembles the robot lady from “Metropolis”. Don’t even get me started on the fact that, in Costa Rica, she’s wearing hosiery for the entire film. In previous instalments, the lead women have all been practical and no-nonsense; this character is a glaring exception to that rule.

Which brings us to Chris Pratt. I’ve tried to like this guy; I’ve not seen his televisual efforts, but I genuinely tried to like him in “Guardians of the Galaxy” - I found him wanting. Every time he walks on stage I hear Jimmy Buffett playing “Margaritaville” in the background. No matter what he’s overtly wearing, he’s always got an implicit Hawaiian shirt and a pair of boardies on underneath. It’s not that he’s ineffective in his roles, it’s just that he’s not credible. No matter how ‘Clint Eastwood squinty’ he gets, he’s still a stoner goofball. And, like Claire, his character in this film is a departure from the template which the other films established.

In the previous movies, tough guys with guns get nowhere; victory comes to the brainy dudes who can think their way around the obstacles. Here we see the opposite of that: both Claire and Owen win through by grabbing big guns and turning to the ‘kill switch’ technology. Owen, as Zach notes, is a “badass”, and this makes him the hero. Our brainy tech characters are relegated to second-string (if they aren’t active baddies) whereas before, they were lovable saints. I wonder, with Spielberg the Executive Producer of these movies, why the template has been allowed to buckle so dramatically? After all, if it isn’t broken, as they say – and these films are serious bread-and-butter rent-payers for Spielberg – why mess with it? Peculiar.

There’s another way to read this movie too, which is probably incidental, but I found it interesting. Those people who have only one name are the “good guys”, in that they are single-focus beings with no hidden agendas; those whose single name is a surname are baddies with an overt negative agenda. Thus we have “Claire” and “Zach” and “Gray” and their parents (“Karen” and “Thingummy”) as the dyed-in-the-wool innocents and Vincent d’Onofrio’s “Hoskins” as the ‘let’s breed dinosaurs for military purposes’ bad guy - did he not watch the “Aliens” movies? “Barry”, Owen’s partner in ‘raptor-training is also a good guy (although every time he said “merde!” and the sub-titles translated this as “[speaks French]” I had an inadvertent chuckle). Those characters with two names are compromised and cross over the moral boundaries: thus “Owen Grady” is compromised because his Velociraptor project is funded by Hoskins’ InGen cronies with military financing; “Frank Lowery” the goofy tech-head is cynically wise to Jurassic World’s deep issues and must be prodded to rise to heroism; “Simon Masrani”, the billionaire owner of the park and inheritor of Hammond’s vision, shoots himself in the foot by asking for “thrills” in dino-development rather than being content with “wonder”; and “Henry Wu” (B.D. Wong, whom I always fondly remember from the X-Files’ “Hell Money”) is the geneticist who compromises safety with expediency in the race to create more exciting monsters. This pattern falls down in spots (“Zara” the British P.A. for instance), but it’s concrete enough to give a sense that this signalling system is what they’re going for.

This entire franchise has been – for me at least – a kind of Chinese puzzle in terms of screenplay writing. It feels as if there were so many good ideas that were thrown into the writing of the first film that no-one was willing to cut anything out, or to truly let anything go. It feels as if the intention all along was to make sequels, and that anything that couldn’t be squeezed into one film would fall handily into the next. Thus, we couldn’t have a Pteranodon encounter in the first film along with all the rest of the mayhem, despite the fact that there’s that shot of a flock of them flying away from the island at the end. Don’t worry, their presence is explained in film three. In film two, Julianne Moore’s character has a “lucky backpack” which serves no coherent purpose; never mind, it’s a crucial prop in film three and there’s an echo of it in the fourth instalment too, as Gray has a “dork bag” with him, stuffed full of all sorts of useful things, like matches. On a writing level, it seems that nothing is ever really cut from the scripts which these screenwriters come up with – it all just gets relegated to the next blockbuster. I wonder if there are any more McGuffins, plotlines, set pieces, or favourite dinosaurs left in the tool-box? Personally I was grateful to see the Ankylosaurs at last – a favourite dino of mine.

Echoes are a big part of this film: every so often we get a spoken reference or a visual cue to previous episodes, in particular a set piece in the abandoned original visitors’ centre from the first movie. Unlike Peter Jackson’s heavy-handed “Hobbit” hark-backs, these are elegantly handled and work fairly well, although I still feel that they short-change an inexperienced audience. Maybe this old set was still standing somewhere and needed to be trashed, kind of like King Kong’s wall getting burnt down as part of Atlanta in “Gone with the Wind”? Perhaps the presence of such material signals the end of the goodies in the Jurassic tool-box?
The premise of this film is that, in order to secure more funding and thrills for paying attendees, new dinosaurs are being cobbled together through hybridisation and gene-splicing. The ethics of this work is discussed at length, as is the decision to treat such creatures as commodities rather than as entities. Again, we learn the price of “playing God” when the fabricated Indominus Rex gets loose and goes on a rampage. It’s a T-Rex/Velociraptor mash-up built with chameleon genes - to allow it to camouflage itself – and tree frog DNA – which allows it to thermo-regulate, thus bypassing infrared detection. I found suspension of disbelief being somewhat stretched as these revelations fell into place: who would’ve thought that any of this was a Good Idea? And having built this horror, how would it be remotely possible to put it on display for the punters? Obviously the boffins at Jurassic World are clever, just not very smart.

Towards the end of the flick the dino-aviary gets trashed (again!) and the Birdie-saurs all get loose. I had to wonder why – once the glass cage broke – did all of these beasties go on a rampage, chewing up the tourists (for other than the obvious reasons)? I mean, if they were so hungry, wouldn’t they just have eaten each other while still in their gilded cage? Hmmm. It’s hard to get too worked up about the logic blips though – these films are here for one purpose and the movie adequately lives up to its raison-d’être. With the Mosasaurus getting a moment in the spotlight however – ticking off the box of aquatic dinosaurs that the Spinosaurus aegypticus only inadequately accomplished – I’m left wondering if there will be a “Jurassic Park V”.

At the end of the film, as in all of the others, we are shown that dinosaurs cannot be effectively put in a box and displayed to a paying public. It is demonstrated adequately that ethical science is the only way forward and that we mustn’t traffic with hubris in our grand designs. Most of all, in the final analysis, it’s good to bask in the power that dinosaurs have to heal family rifts, to strengthen bonds of human feeling, and to make better people of us all.

(Puke now.)

Two-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors.

Monday, 12 October 2015

In Deep - 19: Ms Hepplethwaite

After these revelations, to say that my feelings were somewhat mixed would be a huge understatement. I was relieved that I was off the hook as far as the Order was concerned; then again, Abner Gilman was still dead by a treacherous hand, and – now that I had the luxury - I took that hard. I helped shoulder the casket with the other Temple Elders and we made our slow, mournful way down to the sea.

There were some initial prayers and responses – which I won’t go into – and then we hauled the coffin down to the water’s edge. The fitful rain let up momentarily as we waded out beyond the breakers, floating the body between us. The slate grey of the sky and the black cold water suited our collective mood. Stan croaked out a word of welcome and it was answered faintly from beyond the spray. With a final heave we pushed the casket over the breaking edge of an incoming wave and it rolled away towards the distant Reef.

Suddenly, Barney began to yawp once more, but there was an urgency to it this time, a different note. Initially, we thought that he was just having one of his turns, but then he began ripping off his mourner’s black and stripping down to his scales, uttering a constant barrage of croaks and barks as he did so. Then he sprang over the next wave and plunged into the ocean. The last we saw of him was his head and arm steering Abner’s coffin out to Devil Reef, accompanied by distant croaking.

‘Well, I’ll be,’ said Stan shaking his head, ‘I knew he was about ready, but I didn’t figger it’d be today. At least Abner has a steady hand at the helm.’

I didn’t say anything; I was too choked up. Instead, I clapped Stan on the shoulder and started wading back to shore, dragging my trenchcoat through the foam.

We gathered on the sand, wringing seawater out of our jackets and pants, shaking hands and offering condolences. Stan extended an invitation to re-convene at his house, where the women-folk had prepared something to eat. As the rain started to fall once more, I thanked him but begged off: I had to square things with Winston.

‘What I need, Stan,’ I said, ‘is a look at what’s inside the Temple Vault.’

Stan blinked at me; that should tell you how shocked he was. ‘But, I ain’t got the key,’ he said, ‘When we first found Abner, it was the first thing I looked fer...’

‘Even money says that Winston took it,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter that you don’t have it: I just need to see the Vault.’

Stan considered this. ‘Well sure,’ he said, ‘I can take you there, but then I have to get to this wake...’

‘I’d be mighty obliged, Stan’

He spent some time seeing off his buddies and reassuring them that he wouldn’t be long. Then we started up the beach, heading toward the centre of town – spiritual if not actual.

The Temple is an unprepossessing structure. It used to be an old Masonic hall back in the day, but time and Obed Marsh put paid to that. The fundamental architecture is still the same, but the needs of the future have had their way. The original structure is a typical Palladian confection with a dome and columns, but new administration offices of smart sandstone now wrap around the outside. On the outside, the building reflects the typical Innsmouth tendency towards decay; inside, the accoutrements of worship are top-shelf, with the finest of design and technological augmentation. We’ve had folk who’ve pillaged the Temple a few times; let’s just say that they lived to regret it.

The offices are strictly pedestrian: as mild and bureaucratic as you’d expect. The main part of the structure houses a massive safe wherein are kept all of the vestments used in the Temple services and those valuables I mentioned earlier, taken from those busy-bodies who stuck their noses in where they were unwelcome. I had seen the Vault only a couple of times before; I’d never seen it open.

Stan rushed forward when he saw the gaping door: he deftly grabbed the key from the lock and slipped it in his pocket. By that time I was flashing my torch through the doorway, looking at the mess within. The floor was covered with banknotes and golden jewellery, highlighted by SLR cameras and iPads. There were more substantial things further in but nothing resembling what I would expect by way of The Stone.

‘Godsdamnit!’ spat Stan, ‘what a frickin’ mess!’

‘You kiss your wife with that mouth Stan?’

He looked a bit sheepish and was about to say something, but the sound of a shotgun loading cut him short.

We turned slowly to see Remora approaching from behind, aiming her shotgun low and blowing a pink balloon with her bubble-gum. She oiled her way forward until she stood in the light of a curved window. Her aviator sunglasses made reading her intentions tricky. Her gum popped.

‘Stick ‘em up shamus,’ she purred.

I chose to do as ordered, nudging Stan to do likewise. ‘Remora,’ I said, drawing fire, ‘still pushing all of the wrong buttons I see.’

She waggled the shotgun. ‘That’s why I chose the direct approach this time,’ she snarled, ‘solid shot; no soft pedal.’

‘I stand corrected’ I said. ‘I suppose Winston is making off with the stone while we twiddle our thumbs here. What’s your angle on this? What do you get out of it?’

‘What else, shamus?’ She smirked, ‘cash: cold and hard and lots of it. ‘Got my eye on a coastal farm up in Newfoundland, where I can lay my clutch and bring them up right.’

‘I see,’ I winced, ‘the logic of pregnancy. Can’t you see that Winston’s playing you sweetheart?’

‘Don’t call me that!’ she spat, raising the gun, ‘You don’t know anything about me or what I need.’

‘I know that you’re the kind of talent that the Order would bankroll to Hell and beyond, if you’d just ask. Whatever Winston’s offering, you could get from us with no hassle. Am I right, Stan?’

Stan nodded furiously; I was hoping he wasn’t about to have any camp flashbacks.

She looked momentarily confused. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Winston said that you were opposed to us exotics; that you would force us out; that we weren’t mainstream enough for you...’

‘Remora! He killed his own grandpa! The pillar of our community! What sort of guy do you think he really is? Do you think he really cares about you and your brood?’

She pulled the sunglasses from her face; what I could see was still unreadable.

‘I can’t...’ she choked, ‘My spawn...I have’s what I have to do...’ the sunglasses clattered to the ground and she raised the gun.

‘Get behind me, Stan’ I said, pulling him against my back.

The window shattered: a muscled arm, big around as a beer barrel flashed into the room, accompanied by ringing glass and the hand on the end of it enfolded Remora in a death grip. The shotgun burst and showed red; Remora screamed; then she was dragged out into the rainy beyond. I covered Stan as screams and yells erupted from outside: I heard horrible pounding and the sickening pop of a bursting swim bladder. Then all was still.

I scrambled up, showering broken glass everywhere. Stan nodded that he was okay, so I walked hesitantly across to the window. Outside, Remora lay still across a patch of well-trimmed lawn; a hulking figure moved back from her and turned her face up to me.

‘Pah-loo-kah?’ she said.

‘I’m fine, Doreen’ I said. My heart swelled deep in my chest. ‘You’re a sight for sore eyes.’

‘Miss you,’ she breathed through bloodied teeth.

I held out my hand and her monstrous paw enfolded mine. ‘Me too,’ I said.

‘ go,’ she said, her lower lip quivering.

‘Baby, you do what you need to,’ I said. ‘I’ll be there before you know it.’’

‘I know.’

‘Wait...for you.’

I teared up. I sniffled over her claws like a love-struck kid: she was my everything and I was hers. Our gift was an eternity of life and she was promising me an unending life with her. It was what I wanted; all I wished for. How could I refuse?

Her hand pulled away from mine. She looked back once as she walked away: she took a bee-line to the beach.

I picked up the shotgun that lay next to Remora’s cooling corpse. There was an unspent round within.

Stan stepped up behind me. ‘I always thought you two would get together eventually,’ he said.

‘We weren’t ever apart, Stan,’ I said, ‘It’s just the timing that was wrong.’

‘What are you going to do now?’ he said.

‘Me and Winston have to have a conversation,’ I said.

Stan’s non-existent jaw clenched and he gave me a hard look. ‘You be careful ‘round that piranha,’ he said, ‘he had us all fooled about what he was up to, and I figger he ain’t gonna give up without a fight.’

I leaned in close and showed my teeth. ‘Stan, I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

I turned and strode away, lighting up a cigarette as I did so...

To Be Continued...

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Review: “The Ruins”

SMITH, Carter (Dir.), “The Ruins”, Spyglass Entertainment/DreamWorks Pictures/Warner Bros., 2008.

There is a code to these types of movies. Not a hidden message that will lead you to the Holy Grail, or the burial place of Christ, but a structure of signs and meanings that tells you exactly what’s going on and what will happen next. This film follows The Code pretty much all the way down the line, which is why I wanted to talk about it.

Horror movies of late tend to be funded – like most films - because they will attract a degree of box-office return. Most horror movies are targeted at people aged between 16 and 24 years of age; the reason being that young folk enjoy being scared because, going through the motions of calming and reassuring a frightened party, leads to various bonding consequences. On top of this, these movies tread a strict, prurient line of educating youth on ‘proper behaviour’: The “I Know What You Did Last Summer” series, for example, is all about the consequences of naughtiness done by young-uns who should know better. The Code lets young men know when to slink an arm around their date’s shoulder to reassure her, and lets everyone prudishly acknowledge that the horrible demise depicted onscreen is justly deserved.

Because of this, there is very little of merit with these movies. The artistry lies entirely with the special effects, set and audio design, and the camera work and lighting. The script is pretty much just a colour-by-numbers exercise while ‘acting’ is simply a matter of scream intensity and six-packs. There are two reasons why I would recommend this film (other than the opportunity to see The Code in action), and I’ll come to those later.

The story involves four handsome young Americans on holiday in Mexico, who meet with a young German fellow whose brother has wandered into the jungle with a local archaeologist to see the eponymous ruins – an old Mayan pyramid. He invites the two couples along with him to see the place and also embroils a trio of young Greek holidayers. Overnight, before the trek the following day, partying occurs: the Greeks get blitzed; the brunette drinks too much and makes an inappropriate pass at the German fellow, after her boyfriend leaves to go to bed; the blonde couple agree not to mention this faux pas to the brunette partner. After this, the party winds down and everyone turns in.

At this stage, following the precepts of The Code and before anything horrific has taken place (apart from the attitudes of entitlement displayed by the American youths and the quality of the acting), we know exactly who survives and who doesn’t. Or, at least, in what order they’re going to be finished off, if it’s that kind of flick. It breaks down like this: you need to keep an eye on the characters who attract blame. First, the German guy goes, because he embroils the rest in the mayhem to follow; i.e., it’s his fault that everyone else dies. Next, the Greeks go: they are unnamed and they don’t speak English, so they’re cannon-fodder for the horror to come. That leaves the two couples. The blonde duo die: this is because “blondes have more fun” so they deserve to get their come-uppance; they also tacitly agree to hide the brunette’s indiscretion from her boyfriend, so – guilty. This same boyfriend is also doomed, because, if he’d been a better boyfriend, his girl would not have felt compelled to come on to the only other single guy standing at the party’s end (also he shouldn’t have left her there alone). So, the brunette is going to be the sole survivor of the carnage to come. Q.E.D.

It should be quite obvious to any thinking adult that this process is completely f**ked up. This notion of ‘blame and consequence’ is based on the most puerile of sensibilities, and would never stand up in any court of reason. However, this is the shorthand that is used to communicate a moral code to the audience in these types of situations. It’s just that the moral centre of this code is guided by a wonky compass.

As the movie progresses all of these deaths come to pass. The group comes to the ruins and the Greek guy (the other two remained behind, passed-out on the beach) gets blown away minutes after their arrival by some strangely agitated locals who, conveniently, don’t speak English or Spanish (or Greek or German). The tourists are forced to ascend to the top of a vine-covered stepped pyramid which comprises the ruins of our tale. The brunette guy (who, we learn, is moments away from earning his medical degree) takes charge, ordering a search of the pyramid’s summit where signs of the German guy’s brother are evident, in order to scrape together what food and water they might find. During this search, the sound of a mobile telephone is heard at the bottom of a well which opens at the flat area atop the structure. The group decides that the German guy’s brother must be down there and prepare for a descent.

Of course, the rope breaks and our German friend falls into darkness. The blonde girl is chosen to descend in order to help him: she jumps down to the bottom of the shaft (because the rope is now too short to go the distance) and slices open her knee. The German guy has broken his back and is paralysed: the others build a back brace and send it down with the brunette girl and they contrive to haul everyone back upstairs. During this moment, there’s some indecision about how to move a victim with such an injury and the frightened blonde girl takes charge, insisting on manhandling the guy inappropriately: if he wasn’t paralysed before, he sure is now. Here’s where she scores another piece of blame: not only did she not mention her friend’s indiscretion from the night before, and then give her boyfriend oral sex the next morning, but she also callously mistreats an injured person while in a state of panic. By now she’s doomed. Oh, and we also learn that the vines covering pyramid inside and out, are capable of mimicry and have been faking the sound of the mobile ‘phone.

Time passes. The brunette couple try to reason with the natives who have surrounded the pyramid and are making sure the tourists stay put. They prove intractable, and the brunette girl throws a handful of vines at them, striking a seven-year-old boy by mistake. The boy’s grandfather shoots the kid, who was completely unharmed by the attack, and his body is given a wide berth. The brunettes start to work out that something irrational is occurring. By nightfall the party is unnerved, but expecting folks back at the hotel to begin searching for them in order to deal with their absence. An investigation of the German guy finds him overgrown with vines, the plants seeming to sprout out of his legs, and the blonde girl has a similar experience in which her boyfriend pulls a vine out of the wound in her knee. Gangrene becomes German guy’s greatest threat, so the other two guys decide to amputate his legs. This accomplished, he dies and the vines descend upon the patient and the removed limbs, dragging them away into the foliage.

Next morning, blonde girl starts acting strange and an examination reveals that the vines are growing inside her, especially in her brain. She grabs a knife and begins trying to cut the plants out of her body. Blonde guy tries to stop her and gets stabbed in the chest for his efforts. Blondie keeps on cutting...then there were two.

Finally, the brunettes decide to make a break for the Jeep parked nearby, which belonged to German guy’s brother. Brunette guy fakes out the Indians (and gets peppered with arrows for his trouble) while brunette girl flees into the jungle and makes for the vehicle. The last scene is of her screaming and driving away into the distance.

Thus, The Code is fulfilled in every particular: cannon-fodder wiped out? Check. Those guilty of wrongs punished? Check. All those marked for death are dead and the ‘blameless’ go free. It’s interesting that the brunette girl escapes: brunettes are, according to The Code, the ‘everywoman’ characters whom the girls in the audience are supposed to relate to; blondes, or overtly trashy women, are always victims because they are perceived as being somehow ‘morally inferior’. Agreeing to have sex, or showing your breasts, is a clear identifier of imminent death, and our blonde girl in this instance does both. It’s not even that the brunette in this case is somehow superior: she whines, she disses her boyfriend, she gets blotto and makes a pass at a stranger; after that, she throws up the next morning and continues bitching about everything, from the weather, to the walk in the jungle, to the distance she has to cover in her flip-flops (as if no-one mentioned to her that they were taking a HIKE, through a JUNGLE). But The Code lets her go, and this proves just how twisted The Code truly is.

Now that I’ve rolled out the plot (so-called) of this picture, there’s no real reason why you should waste any time on it; however, I did mention that there were two reasons to recommend it. The first is that the premise is a great one to base a Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game upon, and, if you know your Mythos, there’s a perfect stand-in for the mysterious vine, ready to hand. It’s the Black Lotus (see my earlier post about this creature at this blog). Dig up the mimicking vine and replace it with a healthy growth of Nelumbo tenebrarum and you have a Mythos adventure good to go. Those Indians can be swapped out for Tcho-tcho guardians and Bob’s your uncle. The Lotus has a million ways to mislead, fool and entrap its victims and this film is a good springboard for ideas as to how the story should progress, without – of course – any reference to The Code.

The other reason to see this movie – and it’s a completely parochial one, I agree – is that it was completely shot in Australia, somewhere in Queensland, and the scenery is spectacular. Who knew that Banana Bender territory could stand in for Mexico so well?

Two tentacled horrors.