Random thoughts from nowhere in particular

Alien vs… We were watching Alien vs. Predator the other day – review to follow in due course, but basically: “don’t bother” – and noticed the presence of Reiko Aylesworth, who plays Michelle Dessler on 24. In lieu of anything the movie provided, we entertained ourselves by speculating on how much more fun it would be if the next movie was Jack Bauer vs. Predator. Or, as an alternative, get Jennifer Garner back in the show that made her a star, and go for Alien vs. Alias.

The Last Waltz. Been on a bit of a classical music kick over the past week, thanks to, of all things, Die Hard, which got me pulling out a bit of the old Ludwig Van and his Ode to Joy. From there, I drifted across to Johann Strauss – or rather, both of them, father and son, though the former is probably better, in my entirely uninformed opinion. But has any composer ever written songs that are quite as hummable? Obviously, everyone knows The Blue Danube, but there’s a lot more than that. 150 years later, songs such as Rosen aus dem Süden (son) and Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (father) are as infectious as anthrax.

The curious appeal of Deal or No Deal. I’d probably do OK on most US game shows, only up until, there was a question on presidents or American football: even something known by every native, like “Who did Joe Namath play for?” would trip me up badly. Which may explain the appeal of Deal or No Deal, as it requires no knowledge or special skill beyond basic probability. It’s fascinating to see the decision making at work, not least because the offer made to the contestant is always below the expected statistical value. They’re being asked to exchange a certain amount of cash for certainty. Play the flash version here.

Where did the week go? I took three days off work, which combined with the Thanksgiving break, means I have had nine days off – my longest break, outside of self- or un-employment, since coming to America. It went past in a flash. I do feel somewhat accomplished, having done a lot of work on v2.0 of the Trash City beads site [in serious need of a re-vamp!], but still… However, the Tivo has largely been emptied, and I have eaten more honey-baked ham than is good for me – something of a Thanksgiving tradition – so that’s good.

Snowbird place like home. Winter in Arizona is plagued by an infestation of visitors from other, usually northerly places – the snowbirds – who can’t hack the cold back home, so bail for here (or Florida), during the months of the year when it’s pleasant to live in this state. They clog up the restaurants and are unaware of the fact than in Arizona, speed-limits are only a general guideline. The only comfort is they’ll be gone again as soon as the mercury hits 100.

Speaking of speed-limits. The state has now installed a lot of speed cameras on the highways here. This is supposedly a safety measure, but is far more a case of them milking an easy cash cow, at $150 per flash or thereabouts. I also note that the national 55 mph limit was enacted by Congress not in reaction to safety concerns, but due to the 1973 oil crisis, to save gas. The concept of a singular speed limit is nonsensical: what’s “safe” in rush hour traffic is totally different from what’s safe on an open freeway at 3am on Monday morning.

Eight more years… Finally, Thanksgiving also marked the eighth anniversary of me coming out to America as a permanent resident. Eight years which, incidentally, had always been under a President named Bush, up until Obama’s historic win. Not that I got to vote, of course – I cling onto my British citizenship with tenacity, and as a potential bolt-hole, just in case America turns into the Marxist dictatorship feared by Chris’s sister [I blame talk radio]. His victory was inevitable after the financial implosion, a dire crisis unlike anything I’ve lived through since becoming an adult. I guess the only thing even slightly comparable was the 1972 miner’s strike in Britain which led to nationwide blackouts and a compulsory three-day week. If Obama can fix the current situation by 2012, re-election seems certain.

24: Redemption

Dir: John Cassar
Star: Kiefer Sutherland, Cherry Jones, Colm Feore, Robert Carlyle

Ah, Jack Bauer; how much we have missed you. If it seems like a long time since the last episode, that’s because it has been: due to the writer’s strike, this inter-series special premiered almost eighteen months to the day after Season Six ended with Jack recovering the nukes and preventing war with Russia. Just an average day for our favourite counter-terrorist. Unfortunately, even he was able to do nothing about the writers’ strike, which began in October 2007. Although eight episodes of the seventh series were already in the can, the producers opted to postpone the show. Redemption was chosen to bridge the gap; an early draft of the story for Season Seven had Bauer in Africa, getting caught up in things there, Black Hawk Down style, but the costs of filming an entire 24-episode season there proved prohibitive.

The idea was transformed into Redemption; a two-hour special which explains what happened after the end of the previous series, and sets up the new one, introducing us to a number of new characters. In a significant diversion, Jack (Sutherland) is no longer part of CTU: he has been travelling the work, but seems to have found some measure of peace working at a school in the fictional country of Sangala, alongside another veteran, Carl Benton (Carlyle). However, peace is temporary, as a military coup led by General Juma (Tony Todd) threatens to turn the pupils into unwilling soldiers.

It’s up to Bauer and Benton to get the kids to the American embassy, through the fighting, so they can be sent to asylum in the States. Meanwhile, in the US, a new President, Senator Allison Taylor (Jones), has been elected and is about to be inaugurated. The choice of a woman is interesting; 24 had a fictional black president, David Palmer, six years before the nation elected one, so this must give Hilary Clinton hope for 2016 or thereabouts, even though she seems to be a Republican [assuming the one she replaces President Daniels was a Democrat, as he assumed power after Wayne Palmer – David’s brother, who became President too – was incapacitated by a bomb-blast in Season Six]. Barack Obama, however, will be hoping life is not imitating art, since both black Presidents in the show have met untimely fates.

A friend of her son stumbles across evidence implicating Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight) in the coup, though this thread is clearly designed for much greater exploration in Season Seven. Similarly, more of a scene-setter than anything else, is the angle that Bauer is now wanted for questioning before a Congressional committee, to answer accusations of torture and other un-American activities. He initially has no intention of complying with such a request, but as ever in 24, things have a nasty habit of changing in a flash. I don’t think it’s giving away much to say that Season Seven will find him back on American soil, not entirely at liberty, though I doubt that situation will remain the case for long.

Perhaps as significant as what was in Redemption, was what not in it, most obviously, CTU. This may have been something of a reaction to the sixth series, where it seemed that the writers couldn’t come up with any new threads for the agency [frankly, it seems they ran out of ideas for the show entirely, after the suitcase nukes were recovered, around hour 16] and the department has been disbanded. Fortunately, not all the characters were written out, with abrasive tech goddess Chloe O’Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub), among the most memorable of the program’s subsidiary characters, still taking part in Season Seven.

So, is Redemption any good? Yes, with some qualifiers: being a reboot of the franchise as much as it is a continuation, it takes quite some time to get going, having to establish an entirely new set of characters and situations: Bauer and outgoing President Daniels (Powers Boothe) are almost the only person you’ve seen before [unless you count Todd, since he played a cop in Series Three!]. It’s almost forty minutes before Jack Bauer kills anyone, f’heavens sake – given the tally was about fifty, one way or another, in Season Six. Normal service is, however, swiftly resumed as he takes out a number of insurgents as they attack the school; while eventually, even Jacks has to succumb to being out-numbered, this is merely a pause in activities, before Bauer takes someone out with the back of his knee. That’s how hardcore a man he is. Chuck Norris wears Jack Bauer pyjamas, as the saying goes.

From there, the film continues in the style to which we have become accustomed; in real time, with cutting between Bauer and the other characters, to cover moments when nothing much is happening. Obviously, in two hours, there isn’t the same scope for plot complexity as in a normal series, and the sequences in the United States are almost irrelevant, little more than place setting for things to come. Their purpose mostly seems to be to allow for some rather heavy-handed product-placement on behalf of sponsoring companies such as Cisco, Nextel and Hyundai – a little harder to do in the African bush, where Jack is stuck, without the ability to reposition satellites or call in backup at a moment’s notice.

Still, that makes for a lean, stripped-down Bauer, who admirably demonstrates that his own resources are more than up to the task. These scenes play somewhere between The Wild Geese and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, as the hero has to guide his young charges through unfriendly countryside, enemy forces, bureaucratic obstruction and land-mines. [Fortunately, there are no mountain lions to be seen… 🙂 Sorry, inside fan jole] The UN certainly doesn’t come out of this looking very effective: their official is, at best a coward, prompting Jack to taunt him as the soldiers approach the school, “Why don’t you go hide in the shelter with the rest of the children?” He doesn’t get much more impressive from there: meanwhile, the program featured an advert in which Kiefer Sutherland urges you to stop malaria, and the DVD has a documentary on the plight of child soldiers. Hmm. I’m prepared to bet the UN have done more in these areas than CTU ever did.

Mixed messages aside, it might not count as the best 24 ever, but it is still an improvement on 90% of the television out there, and whetted our appetite nicely for the long-delayed Season Seven, finally scheduled to start on January 11. With both Bond and Batman having benefited from a reboot of their franchise, a third B seems intent on joining them. “It’s been a while… It’s worth the wait,” proclaims the trailer below. Having been following Jack’s adventures since all the way back in Series One, let’s hope so. I’ll bring the popcorn.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Lifeforce

Dir: Tobe Hooper
Star:
Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay

The player will show in this paragraph

Lifeforce trailer [NSFW!] Never mind films,
they don’t even make trailers like this any more.

This 1987 adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires was famously disastrous, taking less than half its budget at the US box-office, even after being edited down by fifteen minutes, and was one of a series of flops that pushed Cannon Films to the brink of bankruptcy. At the time, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “About 30 seconds into Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, two things become clear: that this film is going to make no sense, and that Mr. Hooper’s directorial work on Poltergeist may indeed have been heavily influenced by Steven Spielberg.” And when Wilson saw what Cannon had done with his book, he was unimpressed, famously saying: “John Fowles had once told me that the film of The Magus was the worst movie ever made. After seeing Lifeforce I sent him a postcard telling him that I had gone one better.”

That’s being harsh: Lifeforce is by no means a disaster and time has been kind to it; you’ll find a lot of positive reviews online these days. The IMDB currently gives it a score of 5.8 out of ten, which ranks it third-best among the fifteen features Hooper has directed [trailing only Texas Chainsaw and Poltergeist, obviously enough]. Even allowing for Tobe’s often-wretched output, that isn’t bad. It is a classic B-movie romp of aliens, who inspired the vampire legend, and are brought back to the Earth to wreak further havoc on modern-day civilization. Steve Railsback, chewing scenery to good effect, is astronaut Steve Carlsen, the man responsible for bringing the menace back from Halley’s Comet on the spaceship Churchill, and it’s up to him and SAS Colonel Caine (Firth) to stop them, before NATO does a spot of nuclear sanitary work on London.

It feels much like a Hammer film with a budget ($25m, a huge amount at the time) increased enormously from that studio’s norm, and would have worked particularly well as a Professor Quatermass film. I can easily envisage Messrs. Cushing and Lee playing two central characters, albeit ones perhaps more academic and, in Carlsen’s case, less hysterical. It is terribly British in many aspects, with cups of tea and stiff upper lips abounding, even as the capital collapses into anarchy and chaos.

In this setting, Railsback is somewhat of a sore thumb; it may be that his unrestrained looniness, the only American character of significance, was in part responsible for the film’s failures at the box-office there. Firth is admirably tongue-in-cheek, even when faced with Carlsen beating up a nurse believed to be hosting one of the vampires: recommended to leave the room, his po-faced response is “I’m a natural voyeur.” Similarly, the supporting cast, as with Hammer, is full of faces you should recognize, for example Home Secretary Sir Percy Heseltine, played by Aubrey Morris – he was Alex’s parole officer in A Clockwork Orange. Chief among these is probably Patrick Stewart, in his pre-Picard days, as the head of an asylum for the criminally insane. It’s somewhat creepy to see Carlsen impelled to kiss him, though it probably would have been even worse had the role, as originally planned, gone to Sir John Gielgud. Nicholas (Hazell) Ball and Michael Gothard, a villainous henchman from For Your Eyes Only, can also be seen.

And then there’s Mathilda May, who was clearly no bother at all to the costume department for the entire first half of the film, being unencumbered by any clothes at all. This prompts Dr Fallada (Finlay, a role originally offered to Klaus Kinski) to proclaim, with what turns out to be misplaced confidence, “Don’t worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex.” She doesn’t so much perform as exist, and gives perhaps the finest portrayal of a nekkid space vampire in cinematic history: In a long ago printed edition of TC, I made a very complimentary comment about Ms. May’s breasts. Chris, with her superior breasts, has not let me forget this, and nor will I will make that same mistake twice. Though, for the curious, I will point out that if you click on the pic attached to this paragraph, you get the very NSFW version. And we’ll move rapidly on, shall we?

The special effects are a mixed bag. John Dykstra’s outer-space miniature work is impeccable, but some of the body casts on view are less than convincing. There’s one of Stewart which is so bad, it’s difficult to see how it could ever have passed muster, even more than twenty years ago. However, the epic scale of the film really works in its favour towards the finale, when London has been taken over. The feel here is more like a zombie film (co-writer O’Bannon helmed Return of the Living Dead the same year), with Hooper doing a fine job of capturing the anarchy and chaos as Carlsen and Caine try to track down the vampires’ lair. Though, it has to be said, the F-sized beam of light shooting into the sky should probably have given them something of a clue.

The story logic does leave a little to be desired: as Chris pointed out, if vampire victims automatically resurrect themselves two hours after death, why did this apparently not happen in the month or more it took the Churchill to return to Earth? And I can’t say the vampires’ plan makes a great deal of sense, either, sending one of their number off up to Yorkshire, to hide out in the asylum mentioned above, for reasons best described as murky. Still, as a loony slice of eighties apocalyptic sci-fi horror, it’s probably among the best, and this has to go down as one of the masterpieces of Cannon Films – albeit that both of those are somewhat small fields in number. Hooper certainly hasn’t done anything better since, either. I’ll close with this immortal exchange between Col. Caine and Dr. Fallada:

Colonel Colin Caine: You mean life after death?
Dr. Hans Fallada
: Yes.
Colonel Colin Caine: Is there?
Dr. Hans Fallada
: What?
Colonel Colin Caine: Life after death?
Dr. Hans Fallada: Do you really want to know?
Colonel Colin Caine
: No.
Dr. Hans Fallada
: Well, to answer your question, yes…

B
[November 2008]

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Twilight’s Last Gleaming

The film only opened on Friday, but I have already had it up to here with the cinematic incarnation of Stephenie Meyer’s massively-selling doses of what should probably be called “teen fangst”. I can’t honestly claim to have read the entire book on which the movie is based, but I’ve read enough – for reasons which I’ll get to shortly – to be able to label it as sub-Anne Rice hokum, aimed at undiscerning teenagers with no literary taste, in search of something undemanding to read in between updating their MySpace profiles and writing really bad poetry. It’s not “bad”, per se: though quotes such as “He unleashed the full, devastating power of his eyes on me, as if trying to communicate something crucial,” might make you think otherwise. But it’s just phenomenally mediocre.

Which may explain its popularity. Cinema can be phenomenally successful without sacrificing art: Lord of the Rings would be a great example there, and if you look at other winners over the past twenty years, they include such box-office successes as Gladiator, Forrest Gump, Titanic, Dances With Wolves and Silence of the Lambs. However, the list of best-selling books over the same period is basically Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code. While I confess to enjoying the former [and even the latter, to a certain extent], any similarity they may have to Great Literature is purely coincidental. Even further down the list, where you find things like The Bridges of Madison County or The Lovely Bones, you won’t find Nobel or Booker Prize wnners.

I will admit that a copy of Twilight can be found in TC Towers. It was bought for a curious Chris earlier in the year, and she did read it, though doesn’t like being reminded of the fact, and pulls unpleasant faces whenever the author’s name comes up. It’s particularly galling to her, I think, that the idea is one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ones. Not that vampires at high-school is exactly ground-breaking. Josh Whedon would be quick to remind you, he took the whole “high-school as hell” metaphor to its literal interpretation, beginning with the movie in 1992. All Meyer has really done is take the Buffy-Angel scenario seriously, and beef up the drooling adjective count by several orders of magnitude.

It has some local resonance too, as Meyer lives her in Phoenix – just up the road in Cave Creek, actually – and went to the same high school as our kids. But perhaps most irritating is the fact that she’s a Mormon. Not that I have anything against Mormons, as such. But there seems something sacrilegious about one of God’s chosen people using the undead to make serious bank. Though it is easy to see the parallels between Edward and Bella, and the restraint they have to show in their relationship and the sexual restraint preached by the church. The irony is that Meyer was inspired to write the books by a dream – just as Joseph Smith was inspired to start the religious faith by a dream…er, divine vision. Why can I get to have dreams that generate quite the same level of revenue?

Typically, it was Trey Parker and Matt Stone who provide the most fitting commentary on the current fad. In the latest episode of South Park, the local Goths get upset at all the vampire wannabes that start showing up in school because it’s become cool. They abduct the leader of the vampire cult, and send him off to the most horrible, and miserable place on Earth.” That would be, according to the response, Scottsdale. Living in 85254 [Scottsdale zip-code, but legally in Phoenix] I am not inclined to argue. In the end – and I hope I am not spoiling this for anyone – they destroy the wannabes by burning down their lair. Or ‘Hot Topic’ as you or I might know it.

Still, in protest at the dumbing-down of the vampire to PG-13 sexlessness, we will be watching an example of the genre tonight – and one about as far from Twilight as can be imagined…

Screw you, Stephenie Meyer!