Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 3 – Frankenstein

If Dracula is the King of Monsters, monster royalty as it were, then Frankenstein is the People’s Monster, the Monster of the Proletariat.  Everything about him is working class.  He is outsized and strong to make him an able worker.  His clothing is a workman’s suit.  He is dull, brutish, inarticulate and ugly.  He recognizes beauty and strives after it but is rejected by the beautiful people and chased away.  He is the ultimate step-son.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein’s creation as the ultimate act of human hubris, to pretend to be God.  And the Monster punishes Dr. Frankenstein for putting him through Hell.

Okay, so that’s the meta-story, now let’s talk about the movie.

Universal released Frankenstein in 1931.  The cast is mostly contract character actors who appeared in most of the B-movies at Universal.  Even Dr. Frankenstein was played by a minor star Colin Clive.  And of course, the real star, the Monster is an anonymous question mark (?) in the opening credits.  Boris Karloff made his name with this movie.  And as opposed to Bela Lugosi’s eternal submergence into the part of Dracula, Karloff prospered as the go to monster player at Universal.

The story follows Dr. Frankenstein, first as he creates the Monster and later as the Monster attempts to destroy him.  During this we meet the doctor’s fiancée and his aged father “The Baron.”  And, of course, there is his lab assistant and part time grave robber Fritz.  The hunch-backed sadist (played by Dwight Frye, the same actor who was Renfield in Dracula by the way) is the archetype for every Igor act-alike henchman in every monster movie that ever followed.  And there are all those other memorable characters, the Burgomaster, little Maria the girl drowned in the pond, Maria’s father and of course Doctor Waldman played by Edward Van Sloan.  If you read the previous post in this series you may remember Van Sloan as the brilliant Dr. Van Helsing the scientist and vampire hunter.  In this movie unfortunately, he’s not quite as successful at monster eradication.  In perhaps the most inept example of obsessive compulsive behavior ever filmed, we witness Dr. Waldman bungle the job of monster euthanasia.  In the preceding scene the Monster, tired of being tormented by Fritz, hangs the hunch-back with a length of chain.  Drs. Waldman and Frankenstein immediately suss out the necessity of subduing the Monster before he carries forward this new policy of interpersonal simplification on them.  Working together they barely manage to tranquilize the Monster with a hypodermic before he could finish throttling Dr. Frankenstein with his bare hands.

Dr. Frankenstein, now convinced that his creature is too dangerous to live wants to put him down himself but his father and his fiancée arrive in time to interrupt the program.  Dr. Waldman convinces him to leave and assures him that the deed will be performed without delay.  So far so good, capable older scientist and biologist will dispatch the Monster with a good swift stroke to the carotid or the aorta or whatever, right?  Wrong.  We are about to witness film history.

The next scene opens on Dr. Waldman in operating room garb standing over the Monster lying on an operating table, seemingly unconscious.  Dr. Waldman fiddles with some scalpels, checks the Monster’s vitals and turns aside to make an entry in his journal!  I can’t recall the exact words but the paraphrase is something like, “sedation is becoming less and less effective, I must quickly euthanize him before he regains consciousness.”  Of course, as soon as he finishes this diary entry and turns back to the job at hand, the Monster awakes and breaks the good doctor’s neck.  What the hell!  I mean, come on!  Forget medical school, how did this guy get through middle school without a body guard?  Instead of putting him in charge of monster execution he should have been assigned to spittoon polishing back at the baronial estate of Papa Frankenstein.  What a loser.

Well, the story proceeds with the monster going on a killing spree that inexplicably leads him to Dr. Frankenstein’s location.  The Monster arrives just in time to disrupt the wedding and harass but for some unknown reason not kill the doctor’s fiancée.  Roused by this threat to his planned for wedded bliss, Dr. Frankenstein joins the village mob and follows the Monster’s trail back to the obligatory windmill.  Here the tables turn and the Monster kicks his creator’s butt and tosses him off the top of the windmill.  One of the windmill’s vanes breaks his fall and he is transported back to the manor.  The incensed mob sets fire to the mill and the last we see of the Monster he is trapped under a falling beam and surrounded by flame.

Miraculously the doctor makes a complete recovery and in the last scene the household staff are drinking a toast with the Baron to “a Son of the House of Frankenstein.”  Looking at sequels as children, this toast seems to have been amply fulfilled.

So, what’s my conclusion?  It’s incredible fun.  With so many semi-comical characters it’s hard not to take the movie for what it’s meant to be a wild fantasy.  And in that guise, it succeeds.  It even somehow cobbles together a happy ending which completely ignores the actual ending of the book.  The fact that the main characters are obviously British but are supposed to be a German noble family is inexplicable.  The fact that there are no legal or personal repercussions from the Doctor’s creation murdering so many friends and neighbors is equally unexplained.  But taken as a fairy tale it works.  Silly, yes.  Enjoyable, sure.  See it if you haven’t already.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 2 – Dracula

Dracula is the King of Monsters.  He is obviously royalty.  He has all the trappings.  His castle, his formal evening attire, even his diction and good manners.  He is called Count Dracula in the Universal film but his legend descends from a real prince.  Vlad III (the Impaler) was ruler of Wallachia in present day Romania.  He was called Dracul (Dragon) for his defense of Christians against the Turks but his cruelty against just about anyone he came in contact with was legendary.  The legend of the vampire (nosferatu) is central European in origin and goes back very far into the imagination of primitive people huddling in the dimly lit hovels and fearing the long winter nights for all the real and imagined terrors that lurked right at their doorsteps.

Bram Stoker took this legacy and created a gothic novel that followed the conventions of his time and populated it with upper class British characters right down to the damsel in distress and the square jawed leading man ready to save her from a fate literally worse than death.  It cried out for a stage adaption and of course it got it.  And then some.  Several productions were launched and in 1927 a company opened the play in the United States.  And interestingly enough three of the lead male parts reprised their roles in the Universal film, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Edward van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing and Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward.

Let’s now look at the film.  What are its chief characteristics?  It’s an early talkie.  The sound is not perfect.  Whether an artifact of the age of the prints used or of the original production there is considerable background noise.  The sets for the most part are the studio versions of city streets and upper class drawing rooms.  The sets used for the village and castle in Transylvania are unconvincing but highly evocative.  My one pet peeve with Castle Dracula is that while showing all the creatures crawling around in the cellar we are given a good look at some armadillos.  These are New World creatures and what they would be doing in central Europe is very hard to imagine.  The set for Carfax Abbey is equally entertaining and in fact is probably built on the set for Castle Dracula used earlier.

With respect to the actors, they are exaggeratedly and understandably stagey.  After all, most of them were stage actors.  They exaggerate their words and gestures to such an extent that sometimes it appears to a modern audience as parody.  This is probably the result of both the stage and silent film legacy of most of the cast.  Probably the most entertaining performance is given by the Cockney Orderly who watches over the madman Renfield.  He is an exaggerated lower-class everyman who adds comic relief and a really terrible accent to the film.

And finally the special effects.  At one point, Renfield looks out the window of the stage coach he is travelling in to Castle Dracula and sees a bat flying above the horses.  It is hard to minimize how laughably pathetic it looks to anyone used to the magic that CGI can perform today.  I think the strings are actually visible, but maybe it was just my scornful imagination.  There is at least one more bat flyby in the film and it doesn’t improve over the first.  ‘Nuff said.

Okay, now I’ve run down everything about the film.  It sounds like a hot steaming mess.


Well, it is and it isn’t.  All that I’ve said is true.  But it still remains an entertaining experience.  It is a time capsule of what our great grandparents looked on as theater.  The British basis of what was considered civilized and urbane is on display.  And you can see the tension between reason and science on the one hand and the instinctual and irrational forces at work in the universe.  And it’s interesting to note how young women are the weak point in the rational structure being undermined by the powers of darkness.  Really the story isn’t that different from our own morality tales about the dissolution of the world of light into the abyss.  It’s only different in that it has a happy ending.  Today the forces of darkness would win and we would cheer them because of how cool they dress.  And the characters get to mouth some very entertaining lines.  In one exchange between the main protagonists Dracula declares in his best Transylvanian English, “You are wise for one who has not lived even one lifetime, Van Helsing.”  For me that’s worth the price of admittance right there.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 1

A friend of mine at work is a movie fan.  But being a Gen X aged guy he hasn’t been exposed to the full gamut of classic Hollywood films from the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Recently he’s begun a systematic review of these films.  For instance, he just finished up an exhaustive viewing of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films in chronological order.  He even watched the early silent films Hitchcock made.  Now that is dedication.  On the whole he seemed impressed by Hitchcock’s body of work.  While he recognized weaker efforts he also felt that Hitchcock was an extremely competent craftsman who produced quality work.  And he noted that Hitchcock innovated over the course of his career and broke new ground in several ways.  He did chide him for birthing the slasher films with Psycho.  But all in all he was a great director.

This month he started on a smaller project.  He’s watching the Universal Classic Monster films.  He just finished up on Dracula, Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein.  When I spoke to him he was surprised and disappointed at what he judged a lack of quality.  I told him I predicted he’d really be shocked once he’d watched the Wolfman.  He is soldiering on but I could see he was let down.

After my comment, my friend questioned whether I disliked the Universal series.  I told him I have a fondness for them but have no illusions about the artistry they represent.  My exact words were, “Peter, they were made to scare children and simple people.  They were wildly successful at doing this.  And if you watch them in the right frame of mind they still can entertain.”  I’m not sure if I convinced him but it got me thinking about what those movies could say to an audience today.

First off, let’s see how they do with today’s kids.  I have a 13-year-old grandson who has been fed a steady dose of these films from about the time he was five.  Now, they may have become tame fare for him now but he still likes watching them.  He probably recognizes the relation to such modern fixtures as the Count on Sesame Street and Hotel Transylvania.  And basically kids are still kids and monsters are great fun for kids.  So, one audience still exists for these movies.

For those of us who grew up watching these movies their charm although thinned by use still survives.  They’re like old relations who diminish in importance as we grow up but still are fondly regarded and maintain an association in our minds with the happiness of childhood (if your childhood was happy).  This audience is shrinking but is still a large population.

And finally, there are those who are fans of all things fantastic.  If you are a SF&F fan then how can you not, at least, have a curiosity about the origin of all those First Blood and Underworld stories?  Sure, the 1930’s models were vastly less cool, what with their crosses and holy water, but even if just from an historical perspective, they should be viewed and discussed.

Being solidly in the second and third camps I feel entitled to give my opinion.  And that’s what I’ll do.  I’ll plow through the canon and give the pluses and minuses as honestly and objectively as I can.  It should be fun.  Stay tuned.

Watching All Three Extended Versions of the Lord of the Rings Movies in One Weekend – Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this review, it really isn’t advisable to watch all three extended versions back to back.  However, that is probably the best way to judge the entire series as a unified work.  And that is why I wrote this post.  I wanted to judge the entire work.

I’ll start with the things that I think Peter Jackson got wrong.  I’ll follow with what he did very well.

The Elves.

As I stated earlier, Galadriel and Celeborn are awful.  Some kind of other-worldly or ethereal quality is being portrayed that just comes off as weird.  I do not believe it matches the intent of the books at all.  In the book, when Galadriel talks to Frodo about taking the Ring she does give him the image of herself amplified to some terrible queen.  But at the end she shrinks back down and assumes a normal form and speech pattern.

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

“I pass the test”, she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”

In the book, in her dealings with Frodo, Galadriel displays a totally normal human personality.  In the movie, many of the elves, but Galadriel especially, are these weird non-human things.  This is a failing.  Galadriel is a major character.  Her kinship to Arwen and friendship with Aragorn are important points.  If elves are not human in their emotional make-up then the love of Aragorn and Arwen makes very little sense.

Luckily, Legolas is given a human personality.  His differences are portrayed as largely super-human physical abilities.  His banter with Gimli and his good-natured behavior toward most of the characters strikes the viewer as completely natural and not as some inhuman personality.  At most he displays a sort of noblesse oblige.  Which considering his greater age is completely reasonable.

The Siege of Minas Tirith

Several problems crop up here.  One I’ve mentioned, is the characterization of Denethor.  He is portrayed as a base individual.  In the scene where Faramir was forced by his father to attack the orc army on the Pelennor Fields we are forced to watch Denethor eat a meal of grape tomatoes and chicken.  His inability to keep the food from dribbling onto his chin and the noises he makes eating are obviously meant to give us the impression that he is a slob.  His cowardice during the initial attack and Gandalf’s cavalier assault on the Steward’s person is completely at odds with the book.  Denethor is a noble and honorable individual.  The misfortune to his sons and the disheartening images he has seen in the Palantir have driven him to despair.  But he is not the evil character that the movie portrays.

The other major problem of the Siege is the meeting of Gandalf and the Witch King.  In the book, they meet at the point where the Gate has been breached with Grond.  At this point they are face to face and the Witch King taunts saying that the moment belongs to him.  At this point the Horns of the Rohirrim are heard and the duel is interrupted.  In the movie, the meeting is not at the gate but during the ongoing retreat upward in the city.  And in fact, the Witch King shatters Gandalf’s staff, much the way Gandalf did to Saruman’s staff.  This seems to be too much.  I could see Gandalf overwhelmed by thousands of orcs and Trolls with the Winged Nazgul providing aerial reinforcement.  But if Gandalf the Grey could destroy a Balrog, how could a Ringwraith, even one who was perhaps super-charged with Sauron’s spirit during the attack so easily take him down now that he was Gandalf the White?  Seems wrong.

And finally, the scene between Eowyn and the Witch King.  The scene is still very, very good.  But it should have more exactly followed the book’s lead.  It should have been from Merry’s point of view.  And Eowyn, should have revealed herself as a woman before the fight and in exactly the words printed.  The dramatic force of the scene was perfect in the book.  But the scene is still very good.

Frodo and Sam

This is the most difficult fault to describe.  Sam for the most part seems fairly close to the intent of the book.  He’s a simple village boy caught up in the chaos.  Frodo is some kind of invalid from start to finish.  It’s not at all apparent why he is a reasonable ring bearer.  It seems altogether more reasonable to have given the Ring to Sam.  Granted Frodo’s personality is not completely at odds with the portrayal in the book.  Frodo is always a problematic personality.  But I believe this tendency has been brought much too far.  There’s not much more that can be said other than I think it harms that aspect of the story severely.

Alright, I’ve laid the bad stuff on you first.  So now I’ll tell you what I did like.


The portrayal of Aragorn is just about perfect.  He is a kingly man who also has the common touch.  He interacts with the other characters and always improves the scene.  He displays humor, mercy, gallantry, wisdom and each when it is needed.  All of this and yet he always appears human and in the moment.  He isn’t a superman.  He’s a hero.

Boromir and Faramir

I believe in the scene where Faramir is remembering the day when Boromir recaptured Osgiliath, I think the movie outdoes the book.  Boromir and Faramir are shown as brothers in the best sense of the word.  Their good qualities as men and soldiers are on display.  We get a scene that defines both characters and their relationship.  Unfortunately, this was outside the scope of the book.  Kudos to Jackson for inventing it.  And here it can be seen how the danger of the ring is thrust on Boromir who, as a man of action is least able to resist it.  The type of man who would see it as a solution to the enemy at Gondor’s gate.  It is an explanation for why he was both a good man and tempted by the Ring.

And the other great scene for Boromir is of course, his defense of the hobbits against the Uruk-hai.  You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel admiration and sorrow watching Boromir battle on as each arrow pierces his body.  It is perhaps, the best acting scene anyone gets in the movie.  Then his dying speech with Aragorn is equally poignant.  He shows his love of his people and nobility toward his rival Aragorn.  It’s a fantastic sequence.

The Ride of the Rohirrim

This in my mind is the high point of the movie.  When Theoden’s army overlooks the apparent destruction of Minas Tirith and he leads the stirring charge against the enemy’s main force it is electric.  And after they break the siege and see the Haradrim and the elephants approaching it is stirring and finally when the Witch King smashes Theoden and Snowmane to the ground we get Eowyn’s moment.  I have stated that the book’s portrayal is better.  It is.  But the movie version is still great.  And although Theoden’s farewell to Eowyn isn’t in the book it is still very affecting and natural.

The Black Gate

This scene differs in several particulars from the book.  The killing of the Mouth of Sauron is notable but not critical.  In general, I would say it was very well done.  And in one particular it exceeded the book.  Aragorn’s rallying speech to his troops before the battle is stirring.  And does not occur in the book.  The other effect that the movie added over the book was the sight of Barad-dur in the background and the line of sight to it allowing Sauron to call to Aragorn right before he started the battle charge.



So there is the bad and the good.  Over all, any real fan of the Lord of the Rings has to recognize Jackson’s movies as a great achievement that brings most of Tolkien’s wonderful story to life.  Maybe someday the story will be done again and improved on.  But what we have is a great work and something to be enjoyed.

Watching All Three Extended Versions of the Lord of the Rings Movies in One Weekend – Part 1


As I mentioned last week, my two older grandsons (grammar school and middle school vintage) stayed over last Saturday to watch the trilogy in one sitting. We were gonna sit back and relax and be catered to by their grandmother (Camera Girl) while the War of the Ring unfolded on the big flat screen.

First observation, that’s a hell of a lot of movie watching time. Even breaking it up for snacks, bathroom breaks and meals, that’s a long time.  Even young people started to show the strain of sitting there and watching this epic.  It’s a solid eleven hours of Tolkienian viewing.  At one point I started to lose consciousness and was forced to splash cold water on my face (a la Sam Gamgee in Ithilien) and down a mug of strong coffee.  I think the roughest stretch was the Ents.  Their slow monotonous voices lulled me into a stupor.  But with caffeine and sugar we were able to persevere and win our way through.

Alright, how did the movies do on representing the main characters? Aragorn is excellent.  Boromir and Faramir are very, very good.  Theoden starts out a little weak but finishes off very strong.  The Charge of the Rohirrim is one of, if not the high point of the movie.  Eowyn and Eomer are very good.  I especially liked Eowyn’s Dirge for her cousin Theodred.  I read afterward that it was sung in Old English.  I found it a very stirring lament without even understanding a word of it.  Eowyn’s attraction to Aragorn was handled extremely well.  It was neither exaggerated nor played down.  It worked.  Gandalf was mostly very well done.  Only a few scenes weren’t spot on and those were still fine.  Legolas and Gimli were played for laughs quite a bit.  Maybe sometimes that was overdone.  But the characters were enjoyable and added a good deal to the action.  The overuse of Arwen (e.g., substituting her for Glorfindel in the Ride to the River) was sometimes annoying but the love story between her and Aragorn was on the whole a positive element of the plot.  Elrond was pretty good.  Galadriel and Celeborn were awful.  Treebeard was pretty good.  Denethor was a travesty.  They turned him into a crass vindictive petty man.  He was not that in the story.  Sam was good.  So were Merry and Pippin.  Saruman was pretty good.  But the substitution of his death at Orthanc to the Scouring of the Shire was disappointing.

And then there’s Frodo. Frodo was way too lame.  My recollection from reading the books is that his behavior was weak and subdued, especially after the Ring began to get a grip on him.  But in the movie he’s in a constant state of stupefied depression.  With the exception of the scene in Moria where he gets skewered fighting the Troll he is practically a basket case most of the time.  Also the scene of Frodo waking up in Minas Tirith after being rescued by the Eagles is embarrassing to watch.  The rest of the Hobbits and the Fellowship are reasonably emotional at the meeting but the expressions that Sam and Frodo exhibit when Sam enters the room are down-right creepy.  Granted the hobbits are somewhat childlike in their demeanor and behavior, but this bordered on feminine.  Not good.

In the next part of this review I’ll go into what I thought worked well in the movies and what didn’t.

Anime and Me – Part 1 -Ghost in the Shell 2.0

I had heard that Firefly might have been based on an anime series called Cowboy Bebop.  So being a fan I rented it.  And as I noted elsewhere, I tend to agree that Whedon borrowed many thematic and visual elements from Cowboy Bebop.  This being the case I was intrigued by the idea that I might be missing a whole undiscovered land of creative stuff.  I decided to try something else that was recommended by people who had liked Cowboy Bebop.  I rented Ghost in the Shell 2.0.

I’ll put down my impressions and explain my preferences.  First off, the beginning of the story is an introduction to the protagonist.  She is a woman who for obvious reasons is mostly topless.  This while she is jumping off buildings and murdering bad guys with her bare hands.  She’s a cyborg who works for a government agency (I think).  After this intro, there is an about 10-minute sequence of very intricate graphics of the heroine being assembled from molecular components all the way up to her synthetic skin being applied.  So basically 10 minutes of naked girl.

After that we go through the plot and meet her co-workers who are also mostly cyborgs and follow them as they track down bad people and fight them with guns and cyborg fists.  There are all kinds of factions inside and outside the government agencies that are involved in the story line and I’m not really sure who I was supposed to be rooting for.  By the end of the movie all the main characters have been smashed and or dismembered pretty thoroughly but since they can be sent back to the factory for demand and periodic maintenance I guess it’s all in a day’s work for your friendly neighborhood cyborg spy.

I guess I haven’t been subtle enough to leave you guessing which way my thumb is pointing.  This was not a winner.  Pretty girl with no clothes on is not a bad thing.  But to what purpose?  The graphics are well done and the action is occasionally interesting.  But I didn’t care about the characters or the plot at all.  I think it was the flatness of the characters and the lack of humor.  This is in contrast to Cowboy Bebop which includes lots of humor.  Granted some of it is silly and not all of it seems relevant to the story line sometimes, but a certain style builds up which on the whole works pretty well.  And the characters have some personality.  You find yourself sorting out your favorites and enjoying the silly interactions that the crew go through together.  Sometimes it’s closer to Gilligan’s Island than The Odyssey but it has charm.

I will read some more reviews and see if any other anime movies sound like fun.  But so far it looks like Cowboy Bebop has no cousins I want to meet.  If anyone has any suggestions please leave them in the comments and I’ll give it a shot.  But for now the jury is still out.

Cowboy Bebop – A Sci-Fi TV Review – Part 3

I have now finished off all the Cowboy Bebop (CB) available as DVDs on Netflix (Discs 4 and 6 are permanently unavailable).  This includes the 2-hour movie which I watched last night.  And I think that’s sufficient to allow me to make a definitive judgement on the series vis-à-vis my taste.

It’s good.

It has some weaknesses from my point of view.  There is a silliness that can be annoying for me.  The crazy adolescent girl Edward can be a bit much.  Some of the episodes are pretty thin on plot.  And some of the space battle scenes seem (not surprisingly) cartoonish.  I think most of this can be chalked up to the standard cartoon sci-fi conventions.  Things are simplified and standardized to allow economic production of the animation product.  And to be fair, since I have never been a comic book or movie consumer, I’m not their primary audience.  To an anime consume, CB is probably well to the right side of the standard deviation curve with respect to production values, plot and characterization.

I like the quality of the animation especially the scenes in outer space.  Some of it is strikingly well done.  I liked the scenario of independent contractors moving in and out of the legitimate world acting as bounty hunters while they themselves are not without a certain air of criminality.  And obviously here are the similarities with Firefly.  After viewing the majority of CB I’ll state that I’m convinced that Whedon borrowed heavily from it when making Firefly.  But I’m sure CB borrowed from earlier anime for some of its ideas so I don’t think it’s a big deal.  But I will say that at this point I’d much prefer a big screen (or big budget tv) version of CB were made rather than of Firefly.  Whedon is such an SJW that he’d probably have Serenity going back in time just to battle Donald Trump.   My only hedge on having CB instead of Firefly is that is I’d like to see Jet Black played by Adam Baldwin.  He would be damn near perfect for the part.

Anyway, I would say that the CB movie demonstrates how a longer treatment of the material improves it.  More characterization shows through and there is more scope for interesting story telling.  Also, the animation of the city in the movie was extremely well done.  It looked like whole sections of New York City were digitized to make the action possible in the chase scenes.  And speaking of the chase scenes, one of the flying chases was a little too long.  Although intricate and well laid out it eventually started to drag on.  The fight scenes between the protagonist Spike and his nemesis were very good and enjoyable.  Most of the minor characters were fairly well utilized.  Surprisingly, the seemingly superfluous presence of the welsh corgi dog on the space ship actually felt like a positive addition to me.  But maybe I just like dogs.

So, bottom line, Cowboy Bebop is good sci-fi anime.  If you don’t particularly like anime you still might enjoy it.  It has piqued my interest in the genre enough that I’m going to give another anime movie (Ghosts in the Shell 2.0) a look-see and find out if this was just a one off or not.

See you Space Cowboy!

Snowpiercer: A Sci-Fi Movie Review

Back at the beginning of the summer one of my relatives recommended this movie to me.  He’s a sci-fi fan but of course tastes vary.  Well anyway, I watched it last week and it was bizarre.  The premise of the movie is basically ridiculous.  As a way to combat global warming, humans treat the atmosphere of earth with a chemical that ends up plunging them into an ice age.  The temperature drop is so severe that all human life is destroyed except for a tiny remnant that lives on a train that constantly circles the planet.  This is the eponymous “Snowpiercer.”  So, this is the first problem with the movie.  If the earth was becoming cold and uninhabitable would you build a train as a refuge?  I would think that an insulated bunker somewhere near the equator would make sense.  Or something under the ocean would remain warm for centuries.  It’s just a ridiculous idea.

Put the inconceivable nature of the premise aside and let’s look at the story.  The train has a population that is stratified by position on the train.  The back cars of the train are inhabited by the wretched refuse who are crowded into cattle cars and fed protein concentrate bars that look like sludge.  Moving forward the environment and the inhabitants become progressively more fortunate until by the front few cars we have the elite who live in luxury and eat delicacies like sushi and fresh fruit.  The proles in the rear are controlled by armed guards and punished for infractions with barbaric violence.  When a man whose child is taken away by one of the rulers throws his shoe at her we see an example of this.  For this offense, his arm is exposed through a gasketed aperture in the side of the train to the frigid gale whipping past the train.  After eleven minutes, his arm is brought back in and struck with a sledge hammer.  The arm shatters like one of those rubber balls that’s been dipped in liquid nitrogen and bounced off the floor.  That’ll teach him!

The majority of the movie is the chronicle of the revolt of the proles and their battle to reach the front of the train and conquer their overlords.  Along the way we see details of how the ecosystem of the Snowpiercer works.  The prole food is revoltingly produced while the elite have whole car lengths of aquariums full of rare fish and rain forests of plant life to produce food and purify the water.  We also get some of the back story to explain how the proles became so downtrodden and the greater horrors that transpired when they first entered into the train.  The details are horrific and make you wonder why these people even bothered to keep struggling.

And finally, the climax occurs when the proles reach the engine.  At this point we learn the answer to how this train maintains the balance between life and death.  And we meet the engineer, Ed Harris, who charms us into seeing his point of view.  And of course, the movie ends on a catastrophic reversal that resolves the whole thing.

So, is it any good?  Parts of it are interesting and some of the characters are fun to watch.  I especially enjoy Tilda Swinton as the schoolmarmish sadist who has the man’s armed frozen off.  She’s quite demented fun.  But I’d say as a movie it’s just too jumbled a mixture of action, sci-fi and human drama to recommend.  It’s just too nuts.  But maybe there is an audience out there for this.  But it’s not me.

Forbidden Planet – The Quintessential Sci-Fi Movie? – OCF Classic Movie Reviews

A lot of stuff has been said about what makes Forbidden Planet such an important sci-fi movie.  The ground-breaking special effects, the plot element of a human military vessel exploring space that would spawn the endless iterations of the Star Ship Enterprise.  And of course, there’s the classical angle.  Supposedly the plot is an update of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

So, there’s all that good stuff.  But to my mind the real reason can be summed up in two words, Anne Francis.  When the angelic face of Miss Francis first appears on screen I began to see the movie in the correct light.  This was an epic adventure story that rivalled the Odyssey of Homer for timelessness and meaning.  Now the fact that I was a sixteen-year old boy at the time probably colored my thought processes to some extent and the skimpiness of her costumes might even have had something to do with it.  But let’s face it, giant ants can only get you so far.  If you want to keep the natives from getting restless you have to appeal to their most powerful motivations and if a blonde-haired, blue eyed creature with a very pretty face and extremely long shapely unclad legs is brought center stage, suddenly even the acting skills of Leslie Nielsen seem greatly enhanced and worth a fair hearing.

But now that I’m in my dotage and no longer as easily swayed by a pretty face, I’ve had a chance to re-evaluate the movie.  Surprisingly, I’m still a big fan.  And this is despite the obvious weaknesses that are extremely evident in such an old film.  The dialog has some extremely cliché-ridden exchanges including:

  • The captain tells off the young woman because her uninhibited interest in the young men in his crew will be a distraction from military discipline.
  • Morbius displays the stereotypical arrogance of the academic intellectual toward the practical military authorities.
  • The banter provided by the ship’s cook is the comic relief that would seem right at home in an Abbott and Costello movie.

So what makes it good?  Well, the humans are mostly likeable and admirable.  The plot unwinds in a manner that allows for the gradual reveal of the mystery.  Of course, the who of the question is answered long before the why and how of the problem.  But the details provide reinforcement of the underlying lesson to learn.  We are reminded that smarter isn’t the same as perfect.

And the special effects are still pretty good.  The animation of the Krell infrastructure impresses the viewer with the gargantuan scope of the installation.  The humans walking through it literally look like ants at one point.

And finally, the interaction between the isolated inhabitants of this dream world and the crew of the no-nonsense military vessel is classic.  It reminds you of the stories that portray the first contact between Europeans and the South Sea Islands.  The sailors always have a feeling they have somehow discovered paradise with its idyllic climate, scantily clad, friendly women and tropical fruit. The military men are enthralled with how favorably it compares to the boring, spartan existence of their all-male naval vessel.

Are there problems with the story?  Yes.  Morbius seems a little too dense for a brilliant scientist.  The resolution of the crisis at the end is a little jarring.  The solution is quite heavy handed.  But all in all, it’s a pretty neat story.  I think it indicates why the Star Trek series was so popular.  But I think it also shows why the later tv series were less interesting.  The adventure and discovery aspects became less of a focus as the Enterprise became less of a military/exploration vessel and more of a social worker/nanny vehicle to the stars.

The Edge of Tomorrow – A Short Movie Review

Last night I watched the Tom Cruise movie “Edge of Tomorrow.”  The first thing that strikes me is that it is a sort of mixture of things.

First off, it’s a mil sci-fi movie.  It tells the story of aliens invading and battling humans.  Almost the entire movie takes place within the confines of a single battlefield.  And because it’s a big budget movie with a big star that part is done rather professionally.  The special effects and sets are very good looking.  The action takes place in England and France and Germany so there is the interest of seeing The Louvre and London engulfed in military paraphernalia and smashed by battle.  So, there’s all that.

Next, it’s a time travel story.  The gimmick is that Tom Cruise has been caught up in the gears of the aliens’ ability to alter the future.  Because of a chain of events involving his lucky killing of a high level alien, Cruise is effected in such a way that every time he gets killed in battle, it resets time back to the start of the day of the battle he’s in.  But when he returns to that day he remembers each of these past lives.  It’s sort of like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog’s Day.  So, even though he’s a complete neophyte to combat, he can learn from what happened to him on the previous incarnations.  Comically, after countless iterations he can effortlessly step through the battlefield performing a choreographed dance with death.  Of course, this means to keep advancing his progress on the battlefield he has to keep dying over and over again.

So, in a way, it’s also a metaphor for, or even a parody of someone playing a first-person shooter video game.  You keep playing the game and increasing your knowledge and skills.  You also have to die over and over and over.  And for anyone who has spent a lot of time playing one particular game you understand the psychologically painful experience of building up the necessary muscle memory and rote memorization of the endless sequences of motions and thought processes needed to wend your way to the next level.  That’s the feel this movie provides.

I’ll have to say it’s a mixed experience.  It’s both stimulating to sense the iterative advancement and at the same time irritating.  There’s one particular sequence that occurs almost endlessly during the movie.  It’s when he’s awakened by a sergeant screaming abuse into his face.  It must happen at least two dozen times.  By the end of the movie I’m genuinely hoping Cruise just clocks him in the face, just to shut him up.

So, does the movie work?  Yes, it does.  The initial introduction to Cruise’s character presents him as an unlikeable jerk.  By the end of the movie he has had to grow.  There’s even, believe it or not, the elements of a love story in the tale.  And, Lord help me, I know how ridiculous that seems in the context of a war movie.

Who is this movie for?  If you’re a Tom Cruise fan and you liked him in War of the Worlds and Minority Report you’ll probably like this movie a lot.  If you’re a mil sci-fi fan I think you’ll probably enjoy it.  If you don’t like science fiction or war movies you will hate this.  And if you’re neutral on Tom Cruise, sci-fi and war movies I think it’s 50/50.  It’s a good sci-fi movie and provides solid entertainment.  But it isn’t “Gone with the Wind” so if you’re looking for highly cerebral or morally meaningful move on.