Monday, May 21, 2007


*Cue Vangelis music*
I'm still not sure if it was fortuitous or ruinous to my life that I missed the original run of Cosmos in 1980 when it ran on PBS. Considering how wrapped up in the subject matter of the show I was at the time, I do wonder how and why I missed it (if the answer was as simple as "it was on at the same time as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," then I deserve to be dragged before a tribunal). One thing is for certain, though: I get the feeling from seeing it now that if I had made the time to watch it then, I might have ventured down a completely different career path and wound up in a very different place than I am now for better or worse.

Like anyone else, I went through a lot of "interest phases" in childhood: times when I was utterly locked in fascination over one subject or another for an indeterminate period before wandering across another field of study (by accident or design) to focus upon for another few months and so on. Amongst these countless flirtations over those years, the two biggest (read: longest-lasting) escapes for my imagination during those years were the fields of paleontology and astronomy.

Oh, I wish I had a way to reacquire some of those Eisenhower-era reference tomes that I would check out continually from the Southfield Public Library during that stretch, if only to compare just how much previously-accepted knowledge has changed (if not completely upended as is almost certainly the case with the old dinosaur books I'd pore over for hours) from the time they were written! To illustrate, I grew up in a time when all of the available books on paleontology envisioned dinosaurs as sluggish, thuggish, cold-blooded reptiles, some of which were so enormous that they were forced to spend most of their lives in the shallows of lakes and rivers to keep from crushing themselves under their own mass. With regards to astronomy, this was also the time when there was no Hubble Space Telescope, Pluto had no moon (and was itself still considered a planet), Saturn was the only planet with rings, and we had never seen close-up pictures of any planets beyond the "inner solar system" (Mercury, Venus, Mars and our own). The last few decades have added much to our knowledge since then, and in quite a few cases old theories have been rewritten, revised, or just thrown out the window based on what we've learned and seen.

One thing that's clear to me now is that it was the unimaginable scale of these subjects that had seized my imagination. Pretty much everything that had to do with the study of paleontology is centered on time and deduction: how we could dig up fossilized skeletal remains of beings separated from our modern world by vast, unimaginable oceans of ages and infer (correctly or not) what kind of beasts these were or what kind of world they inhabited. If that was too much to handle, few kids could deny the romance of envisioning the beasts themselves: I've spent many an afternoon imagining what it must have been like to come across a titanic Brachiosaurus feasting on greens from its swampy home, or perhaps watching a huge horse-like Indricotherium wandering the forests of the Miocene epoch, lunching idly on the leaves of trees.

With astronomy, everything got exponentially bigger and time was doubled up with physical distances so great that they left your mind spinning wheels helplessly in an attempt to grasp just how huge everything is. The sheer unimaginable scale of the universe is something that still stirs me deeply on the rare occasions when I am somewhere that allows you to actually see it: I remember very clearly looking up at the skies, nearly breathless with wonder as I lay on my back in a windswept campground clearing on the shores of Lake Superior and looked straight up at the glowing Milky Way stretching all the way across a night sky totally unspoiled by city lights. What I was seeing in that sky looked limitless (the light I was seeing from the center of the Milky Way had taken 30,000 years to travel to my little spot on the road), but even that endless sprawl of suns, gas and time was only a literal drop in a bucket, a single grid of reference in itself in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

I'd always had a pretty healthy respect for Carl Sagan, dating back to when I was given a copy of the hardcover edition of Cosmos one Christmas probably just after the series had aired. I have to admit that I didn't make a huge effort to read the book cover to cover as my head was in the fantastical clouds as far as literature was concerned (at that time, I had moved beyond science into science fiction, where those pesky laws of physics that wouldn't let you go anywhere beyond this solar system didn't apply), but I'd derived much enjoyment from the pictures and paintings of exotic alien worlds and beautiful galaxies lying randomly about the great expanse. It wasn't until I'd read his novel Contact (not to mention a truly transformative experience reading The Cold And The Dark around tenth grade or so), that Sagan had begin to reach a position of some prominence with me, though by early 1986, music had consumed my interest so completely that there was probably very little that the good Doctor could do to pry me away from the more seductive charms of Eurowave at that point (save for getting me a ride on the next space shuttle, perhaps). Thus, on the days when Mr. Thompson would play back part of an episode during Astronomy class, I was almost certainly tuned out to whatever was on my Walkman that morning instead of bothering to listen to the guy in the red turtleneck shirt and tweed jacket on the TV screen halfway across the planetarium from me. My loss.

Watching Cosmos now, however, has been nothing short of a revelation: what an incredibly entertaining, enlightening and ultimately moving presentation this is. We then are shown the entire history of the universe in the framework of a twelve month calendar; we visit the great lost Library of Alexandria, and experience what it would be like to travel near the speed of light on a bicycle path in Italy. We also visit the planets of Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and Mars up close, discuss the likelihood of God, the possibility of our own self-destruction in our "technological adolescence" and travel to the farthest imaginable reaches of space and time in our "Spaceship of the Imagination." While only occasionally showing its age through its live-action production values (or the aforementioned clothing style then preferred by its host), Cosmos holds up remarkably well nearly three decades from its first airing. What few gaps or revisions that are necessary to the show are supplied afterward as a few moments are taken after nearly every episode that update us on new innovations or discoveries in the episodes subject matter current to the mid-1990s.

As the sole host and narrator of Cosmos, Sagan is a faultless guide through this thirteen hour tour of discovery and curiosity that takes us from the picturesque shores of modern Earth back to the time of the "Big Bang" itself. Engaging, enthusiastic, playfully sardonic, and completely unafraid to wax poetic while illustrating his obvious affection for the subject, Sagan's personality is as infectious as the flu and powers the entire presentation. Perhaps most valuably, he possesses the ability to make the audience understand the often mind-boggling ideas and concepts that drive the modern study of the universe. Thus, Cosmos serves as a wonderfully fitting and lasting tribute to the man and drives home just how great our loss was when he died in 1996.

The master at work

Friday, May 18, 2007

Wow, Life Is Good Again...

About the only blemish on my existence these days is work (though in my field this should hardly be a surprise anymore). There is no use kidding ourselves: we are looking at a flat 2007 at best if the next, say, six to ten weeks can at least stop the bleeding we've been experiencing over the last four-and-a-half months. We're not quite far enough off of last year's pace to guarantee our first down year since 2001 just yet, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that we're in danger of reaching a Point Of No Return if things don't start to stabilize soon.

On the brighter side of this, while our figures are off a noticeable percentage from last year's pace, we are still far above the truly dismal state of industry Music sales going down...down down down down down...sales as a whole. I can't compare the current climate to the post-disco crash that leveled the industry in 1979 since I wasn't around to see it firsthand, but sales of physical product are disappearing faster than Itunes and their ilk is growing, and costs are being cut (and people let go) at a disturbing pace that makes me wonder sometimes if we're about to see a repeat of the artificially-accelerated demise of the vinyl LP. Yes, this sounds paranoid and I tell myself that this idea is suicidal nonsense, but then again I've been witnessing seventeen consecutive years of Really Bad Ideas from a ringside seat and nothing is out of the question anymore.

Perhaps what affects me the most in this situation is the fact that salespeople we have known for years and were in this business because they truly loved it as we do are being dropped like hot potatoes while the lawyers and bean counters who helped turn this industry into the soulless, litigious, facile factory of mediocrity that it is are still sitting pretty behind the wheel. Most of our old intermediaries are now gone, two of our more important contacts in the last two months alone: our Universal sales rep was let go in April, and nearly the entire Midwestern sales staff of WEA (including our longtime rep, with no replacement for us to deal with save for a 1-800 number) got the axe just last week. These are the times that try men's souls ...

Getting away from that funk, pretty much everything else is coming up roses these days. Health wise, all is copacetic (read: the kidneys are well-behaved and comfy), and I'm still being a good boy: as I write this, it has now been almost five months since I quit the cigs. Huzzah! This pretty much beats my old record to a pulp, and while abstaining hasn't always been a breeze (the warmer weather in the evenings lately seems to give me The Jones from time to time for whatever reason), and I've had my "short and terse" days, we're still steady-as-she goes.

With the on-again, off-again spring weather that seems to show up every week or so around here lately, I've been dragging the bike out of the garage nightly in an attempt to burn off some of the spare tire I grew over the wintertime (much of it due to kicking the cigs, I'd imagine). It's been interesting getting my wind back slowly but surely and trying to increase my endurance by alternating 4 minute "cruises" with 30 second "sprints" on the streets around our complex. As of right now, I'm still in a regimen of four sprints per night: the first two are a breeze, the third one is pretty draining, the fourth is damn near torture. By the time I return to the condo after a few minutes of coasting and cooling down, I am misted over in sweat and burning from the waist down, but it's not an unpleasant feeling at all ... at least until I climb the stairs, heh heh.

While we're on this health kick, I was also hit by a Great News Bombshell this past week that I'd never dared to hope for: Hillcrest settled on my bill. I nearly fell out of my chair when I called the Billing department to follow up on my application for financial assistance and was told that everything had been taken care of and my account balance was zero. After thanking the operator for the news, I hung up and nearly danced down the street with joy. At the very best, I'd been preparing for a resolution similar to LakeWest's offer from last summer (I paid half the bill amount in one shot and we called it even), and instead I now have a nice little safety cushion in the bank for dealing with future car repairs, or putting towards a desperately-needed new vacuum cleaner, or any host of future possibilities. Kick ass.

This is not an iPodTo help with new biking regimen (and as a celebration for the great news from the hospital), I finally made the Great Leap Backwards in audio entertainment quality and picked up a cute little mp3 player while out and about with Sarah. Since I would only be using it for exercise (be it biking or walking), I didn't feel the need to buy a 60-gig iPod and instead opted for a 2 gig Creative Audio Zen V Plus. The sound quality is about what I expected: even with the little EQ interface set up to my liking and "bass boost" pumping up the signal into the little ear buds, the music still sounds only marginally better than a transistor radio broadcast. Then again, high fidelity wasn't really the point of getting this thing as much as having a way to listen to music while timing my bike exercises. For that alone, I'm pretty happy with my new little toy, and here's hoping it pays back by helping me take a few strategic inches off my waist.

I have to admit, these little players are nifty little gadgets that almost make me consider getting a similarly-outfitted cell phone, much as I despise the things on all other counts. Really, this Zen V is a sexier looking USB drive with a headphone jack and a video screen when you get down to the heart of the matter. I loaded a couple dozen four-minute songs onto it and a few video clips for the hell of it (you never know when I might have to kill 25 minutes waiting for something or someone, so why not spend the time watching Pink Floyd's Live8 set), and then ordered an elastic arm band and a little protective case in order to stabilize the thing and thus keep myself from constantly worrying that it's going to fall out of my pocket while I'm cycling.

And now a bit of "Modern Movie Time," if you will: Sarah and I checked out Spider-Man 3 last Sunday. The critics were right: there was far too much going on here to be resolved in a satisfactory fashion, and you wonder why Sam Raimi didn't just settle with a story about Venom while leaving Sandman (and the always-irritating "Goblin Jr." for that matter) for another time and movie. Instead of having a memorable villain who makes a lasting impression on us like Dr. Octopus, the three baddies here have to make the most of their limited screen time, and we barely get to know them at all, thus there is no sense of victory when the inevitable Big Rumble is all said and done (this is especially true of Venom, who is not only never referred to by name but us is effectively given little more than a cameo appearance before being handed his ass on plate by our troubled hero). This is not to say that I was ever bored with Spider-Man 3: I was certainly entertained by it all as it was happening, but it was also nowhere near as good as 2, which I consider the best of the series (and one of the best superhero films I've seen, period).

People in a tunnel, running.Lastly, Brian came up the other night and the three of us took in another summer sequel: 28 Weeks Later. Thinking back on it now, I guess this movie offered about as much entertainment as Spider-Man 3, though "entertaining" seems the wrong word to use here: perhaps "being punched repeatedly in the face at odd times" is a better way to describe the experience.

As the title indicates, 28 Weeks Later takes place a beyond the events of the first film and really has nothing at all to do with it outside of the country it's set in and the disease ravaging it. There is a "Green Zone" (subtle!) maintained and patrolled by U.S.-led N.A.T.O. forces on the Isle Of Dogs where the residents of ol' Blighty are being flown back in as the first step to the reclamation and reconstruction of the country. Happily, there aren't any more infected people racing about: the last of them died of starvation months before), but there is an absolutely massive and horrendous cleanup job to be done, and it is in the middle of this commotion that that a typically twitchy Robert Carlyle (who survived an attack of infected folks by deserting his wife) is reunited at last with his two children Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots (I am not making these names up), who were out of the country and thus missed all the mayhem.

I'll leave the rest of the plot for y'all to find out on your own: though I greatly doubt that you'll be surprised to hear that the proverbial shit soon hits the fan, and the second half of 28 Weeks Later becomes as strongly reminiscent of Aliens as the first one was of Day Of The Dead. A couple of military characters (most notably a bored sniper played by Jeremy Renner) figure prominently once all Hell breaks loose and try to lead a band of survivors to safety before the brass decides to wipe the board clean and start over again.

Evil Otto. A super being you do NOT want to fuck with.Now comes the rub: while the way the Rage virus rears its ugly head once again is a pretty basic and believable idea, exactly how we reach this point demands a satisfactory explanation that we are never given. Worse, the sequence of events that follows strains even "zombie movie" credulity to the snapping point (and I won't even get into a certain character's inexplicable habit of crashing enough scenes afterward that you start to wonder if the survivors are being menaced by a Rage-infected zombie or Evil Otto from Berzerk).

Even for those who can perform the mental calisthenics to keep them from hurling their popcorn box at the screen in exasperation once the Rage virus gets out in the wild again may still have issues with discerning what happens afterward as near-stroboscopic editing work takes over from that point onwards. If parts of 28 Days Later made you feel prone to seizures, be warned that 28 Weeks Later is sheer visual chaos at several points, and your ability to suss out exactly what in the flying Hell is going on (and to whom it's happening) is severely compromised to progressively irritating effect. In fact, during two key points in the second half of this movie where a main character is in mortal danger of infection or death, it is absolutely impossible to tell if they lived or died until you move on to the next scene.

Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that unlike its predecessor, there is a much different, almost viciously nihilist tone to 28 Weeks Later that occasionally makes for some supremely unpleasant viewing: scenes of mass immolation, mass murder, and a whole bunch of infected folks being instantly converted to cold cuts are par for the course here. All of that, however, pales next to a pivotal scene where an infected character spends a couple of minutes pounding a screaming, helpless medical patient into raw hamburger before deciding to engage in some festive eye-gouging for a lark. Plenty of agonized and screams and bodily fluids flying about willy-nilly for all. Yeee-ha.

Spider-Man 3 rating: 3/5

28 Weeks Later rating: 3/5

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Great, The Lame, And The Ugly

In an effort to get caught up with the massive backlog of DVDs and DVD-Rs stacking up in a silently mocking fashion in the office and on the shelves downstairs, I am attempting to start watching one movie a night for as long as is feasible and writing about the ones I feel are worth passing along. Perhaps this way I'll keep myself writing and hopefully lose this nagging feeling that I am unwittingly turning this condo into a museum full of pretty silver discs. I'll also try to keep the spoilers to a minimum. Promise.

This isn't going to be pretty: some of the titles being discussed here rank among the most hysterically lame movies ever conceived, so I'd better start with the good stuff and we'll head down to the basement from there.

BarakaThere aren't many movies that knocked my socks off the way Baraka did when I first saw it sometime in the middle of 1996 (if memory serves). I'm not even sure how I first became aware of this movie, though I suspect it might have had something to do with the opening portion of the Dead Can Dance concert movie Toward The Within (which, as it happened, was the work of Baraka producer Mark Magidson). The beginning of Toward The Within was basically a striking and hypnotic music video for the song "Yulunga" and was comprised entirely of clips from Baraka, after which the film switched over to its advertised live concert setting.

It was a year or so later (most likely during the summer I was working part-time at Suncoast) that I came across a VHS copy of Baraka and decided to give it a whirl. Almost instantly, it became one of my all-time favorite movies, and it was one of the first films I upgraded to DVD after Sarah and I finally made the digital transition after Christmas, 2000.

Completely unencumbered of dialogue or any kind of plot (but putting forth an overall theme of man's relationship to the Earth), Baraka is nothing but wondrous, breathtaking imagery set to music ... a kind of feature-length video album, if you will. One thing that becomes immediately apparent while watching this film is that it was not shot on the cheap: using high-definition 70mm film and traveling the entirety of the civilized world for source material, Baraka continually astounds with sights from locales as diverse as the Galapagos islands, the (burning) oil fields of Kuwait, the city streets of Bangkok, and (in the movie's most chilling sequence), an abandoned "re-education center" in the backwaters of Cambodia.

While researching this post, I also made the joyous discovery that director Ron Fricke is presently working on a sequel to Baraka, titled Samsara, which is slated for release possibly this year. Count that as one film I'll definitely be sure to catch on the big screen.

Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes. Robbed at the Oscars the following year.At some point waaay back in the early days of our first family VCR, my parents rented out the 1978 cult classic Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes. I clearly remember watching this with some other friends one evening not knowing what to expect and we wound up having a grand old time. Billed even back then as one of the worst movies ever, I can definitely assert a quarter century later that Attack... falls pretty short in that particular category. Seeing this film again recently, I am happy to report that many of its gleefully cheesy charms have remained intact over time: some of them almost certainly enhanced thanks to all of the period clothes and hair on display, not to mention some of the less-than-PC dialogue between the principals.

So, uh, what exactly happens in this movie? Do you even have to ask? Oh, very well ... for reasons unknown, humanity is at war with tomatoes. These little red fruits roll and leap about in a blindly murderous rage, while a crack team of undercover agents race against time to find some way to stop the menace once and for all. Intrigue, treachery and ham-fisted satire are served up in spades as our "heroes" run into a host of obstacles standing between them and the salvation of mankind.

Timecop: There is no substitute. Insert retort here.From a movie that was born to be bad, we'll move along to films that aren't really intended to suck, but wind up doing so anyway. Under this category we'll find the entire oeuvre of Mr. Jean Claude Van Damme, and in particular his sci-fi masterpiece (cough) Timecop.

One thing about science-fiction films that are set in the future is that the events shown during many of these movies are by now in our past, which tends to make you consider just how wildly wrong-headed these visions of the 21st century really were (especially when hardly anyone predicted the rise of the World Wide Web in any form). In this category, Timecop packs a few very amusing futuristic "sights" indeed such as near-windowless cars that apparently drive themselves (and look like a cross between a station wagon and a battleship), people from the 21st century using MiniDiscs for music playback (gawd, they barely did this in the twentieth century, for crissakes) and a secret sect of police that patrol the space-time continuum looking for "ripples" that are caused by bad guys heading back in time and attempting to alter the future, usually by holding up gold shipments during the Civil War or buying up lots of stocks in 1929.

Don't even ask how these temporal "ripples" are detected by computers since theoretically any successful operation that alters the present would be utterly un-noticeable to anyone in the here and now (not to mention how it's possible that anyone aside from the police are able to travel back in time): Timecop is one of those movies that doesn't reward analytical thought. However, if you simply have the need to turn your brain off for an hour and a half while watching The Muscles From Brussels kicking ass and taking names, then step right up for some cheaply-composited CGI, typically soft-boiled action-movie dialogue and plotting, and a fair amount of hulking bad guys getting themselves beaten into hamburger. You can do a lot worse.

The nadir of 1970s science fiction television in the flesh.Finally, we arrive at 1979's Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, which launched one of the most howlingly bad post-Star Wars sci-fi TV shows to date. What can I say? I was young and didn't know any better: my beloved Battlestar Galactica was killed by ABC in only six months while this dated NBC romp ran for two years. I had to get my space fantasy fix from somewhere, damn it.

With a likable enough Gil Gerard doing his best Han Solo impersonation in the title role, the original theatrical release of Buck Rogers is basically a retelling of the hoary old Trojan Horse fable set on a desolate post-war Earth of the future where the recently-arrived Air Force Captain (and astronaut) has wound up after being frozen alive in his spacecraft in a freak accident way back in 1987. Found drifting in space by the evil Draconian Empire and their skanky princess Pamela Hensley, Rogers is released and sent home with a homing beacon hidden on his spacecraft that will reveal to the Draconians the secret route through the Earth's defense shield. Once back home (where he receives the shock of his life when he is informed of what happened while he was away), Rogers must then overcome the suspicions of the Directorate Of Earth, keep himself from being executed as a spy and also find out what happened to his family and to the old world he left centuries ago.

Admittedly, Buck Rogers... could have been pretty good in the right hands, but instead the presentation winds up aping the worst aspects of Roger Moore-era James Bond with comic assists from a midget in a robot suit voiced by a slumming Mel Blanc. That said, there are some positive aspects to this movie: while the Earth may very well indeed become an inhospitable radioactive desert by the year 2491 if current events keep up, we can at least look forward to the ladies of the 25th century to be walking around in skin-tight blue catsuits (bonjour, Erin Gray!) when not in similarly form-fitting alabaster white military uniforms. Of course, we'll also have those irritating little silver "drones" toddling about underfoot as well, carrying the leaders of our terrestrial government on their chest looking for all the world like flashing Lite-Brites on silver dinner plates.

Now, I do have the complete run of the subsequent TV series on DVD (hey, when the manufacturer drops the lost price to $24.98 for a 5 DVD set, how can I refuse?) in case I feel the weird urge to sit through them all someday. That said, if my memory is correct and the series went nowhere but downhill from this point onward, I'll be having some serious second thoughts with that idea.

Seacrest out.

Baraka rating 5/5

Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes rating 3/5

Timecop rating 3/5

Buck Rogers In The 25th Century rating 2/5