Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Bob’s Sci-Fi Meditations’ Category

By Bob Clark

Classic science-fiction has done a great job of looking forward into the future and predicting many of the major and minor concerns that we find as we move forward in time ourselves– granted, much of the time they really shouldn’t be called “predictions” as much as “suggestions”, the position of any great sci-fi work being a little like the scientist who winds up unconsciously affecting the outcome of an experiment by merely observing it in the first place. From our own minor vaunts into the baby-step realm of outer space, or growing anxieties of how we may render our world into a post-apocalyptic waste by the slow erosion of climate change or the flashbang of war (if it’s even an either/or proposition), all the way to big shifts and small miracles on any number of technological fronts, the way that sci-fi can throw off any number of pre-concieved notions and offer up imaginative speculation gives it an almost automatic thrill of curiosity that most other genres have to work a little harder for. As with so much of sci-fi, however, it’s often best for such speculation to take place in something of a void, some field of science that hasn’t been fully tested or explored. This is true in a number of ways, chief among them being the novelty of the frontier sentiment, giving the creator enough freedom to come up with what they like without pesky reality getting in the way. The more is known, the more a sci-fi story is bound to be scrutinized, and sometimes the very technology that the genre can anticipate can again poison the conversation before it’s even started in earnest– in other words, the Internet.

Restricting ourselves to cinema for the moment, how many classics of the genre would’ve been nitpicked to death right out of the gate, had instant mass-media communication been around at the time? Some masterpieces like Metropolis or Blade Runner already suffered savaging even in the time of print– it’s tempting to believe that wider audiences might’ve found each other online and rescued the films’ reputation during their initial release, but who’s to say that the atmosphere might not’ve gotten worse? How many old-school post-war flicks might’ve been given heavier doses of criticism and snark if there were websites, message boards and blogs waiting to tear them to pieces? Plenty of what are recognized today as classics of the period rest upon at least a handful of fairly major technical limitations, thematic decisions and overall storytelling hiccups that might’ve derailed them to more media-savvy viewers. We remember the beautiful surrealism and dream-logic of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars, but forget how much of the movie’s running time is bloated by stock-footage padding and the occasional moment where even the master designer’s imagination went a little too far into the ridiculous. We remember the spectacular design and effects of Forbidden Planet and the novel way it appropriates The Tempest for a new genre, but can forget how so much of the script and acting veers towards the stiff and wooden– the only really natural performance probably comes from Robby the Robot. As such, when new sci-fi finds itself under an online critical assault long before it’s even screened for the public, I find it wise to take it with a grain of salt and tie a string ’round a finger to remind myself to keep an open mind, though if one keeps tying strings like that every warning sign, you’d likely cut off circulation when dealing with a movie from M. Night Shyamalan.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

By Bob Clark

Mamoru Oshii’s career throughout the 70′s and 80′s is interesting to consider when looking at his rise to notoreity as a feature director in the 90′s and 00′s. Like many animators in Japan, he got his start behind the scenes on television series based on popular manga, and for a time had a good deal of success with Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura. At first glance, the popular harem-comedy wouldn’t appear to have much in common with the more mature stabs at politics and philosophy that permeate through the director’s later, better known works, but even in his handling of the show and subsequent features based on the manga he found ways to inject his own personal themes into the characters. The series’ second feature film Beautiful Dreamer stands as a savvy precursor both to the surreal dream-narrative adventures in the heart of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, and to the existentialist dilemmas of Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, right down to the shared imagery of a protagonist confronting their own reflection in the underside of a body of water, struggling to breath and wake up out of their suffocating dreams.

Over time, however, Takahashi didn’t approve of the deviations that Oshii took from her celebrated manga, and the director eventually left to pursue his own projects, like the pure art-house animation Angel’s Egg, while his team from Urusei Yatsura moved onto less highbrow, but in a way more creatively successful works like the soft-core hentai turned mainstream satire film Project A-ko. But he wasn’t the only one who eventually left the Takahashi series to follow a newer creative direction– screenwriter Kazunori Ito would go on to work alongside Oshii on the live-action feature The Red Spectacles, a part of the director’s Kerberos cycle of films, animation and manga, and would eventually script his first Ghost in the Shell film before moving on to join the .hack franchise. But before either of those endeavors the two of them created the Patlabor series, best known in America for the second feature film and recognized as a precursor of sorts for the same ambitious blend of groundbreaking digital hybrid action animation and serious subject matters that the Ghost in the Shell films would later represent. Yet in ways both obvious and subtle, those features were merely building up from the established themes and subjects already present in the first incarnation of the franchise, as an Original Video Animation, and perhaps the best thing that can be said about Patlabor: The Mobile Police as an OVA is that, no matter what you think or know of the series or Oshii’s career from their feature incarnations, it represents something of a surprise.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

By Bob Clark

Though it began and broke new conceptual and thematic ground on television, and wound up thriving in spin-off after spin-off years later, the Star Trek franchise only really took hold and proved itself as something viable once it channeled its creative energy onto the big screen. That’s not to say that The Motion Picture was a resounding success– despite the talent and pedigree of director Robert Wise, special-effects guru Douglass Trumbull and of course the entire returning cast of the television series, that first film venture proved itself just a little too remote for most audiences. Amounting to something of a high-concept, somewhat more linear cousin of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie has quite a lot going for it if you want a piece of hard science-fiction that could stand tall with any of the speculative episodes that came before it on television (its script began as a pilot for a return to the small-screen, which wouldn’t happen until The Next Generation). But it was a little too slow for the mainstream crowd, and even a little trying on the patience of fans, who missed the adventurous, swashbuckling style that William Shatner cut on television as Captain Kirk, and that’s what they got in droves in The Wrath of Khan, perhaps the one movie perhaps that lives up to its reputation as a sequel that doesn’t just match the original, but handily outpaces it.

Since then, it seems that nearly every succeeding Star Trek theatrical venture has tried to imbue itself with at least some of the swaggering manner of Khan, or even pattern itself after its basic structure of space warfare and revenge storylines, this in a series that began as a vision of mankind coming together from all differences to reach a better society, free of hatred or conflict of any kind. In a sense, it’s only natural that the franchise should rely upon it as a standard narrative, as it provides a very nice way to contrast the high-minded social themes and concerns inherent in Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful look into the future with more personal motives, allowing an audience to better appreciate the sometimes more distant utopian aspects. The fact that the film also married this with the killer sci-fi MacGuffin of the Genesis device, capable of bringing life to a dead planet or wiping out the existing natural order of an inhabited world, and was moreover willing to take real chances with the status-quo of the series and add legitimate life-or-death stakes to the mix helps it stand above even the better imitators in the franchise. First Contact places a worthy, if distant second, mostly thanks to Patrick Stewart’s commanding lead and the genuine menace of the Borg, as well as a nifty inversion of the Captain Ahab tropes, but it’s by no means the only Trek film that attempts to resurrect the vengeance-themed goalpost of Khan, most of which have been middling affairs. But none have been so direct in their appropriation or as epic in their failure as Star Trek Into Darkness.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

By Bob Clark

Though it came out in the same summer as the critically lauded box-office smash of The Dark Knight, the  first Iron Man film has come to be one of the most important and influential of the past decade or so’s worth of blockbuster entertainment, the opening volley in Marvel’s steady domination of the summer season with one series of hit-fest superhero flicks after another. Even if it weren’t literally the lynchpin of an evolving brand of tentpole franchise filmmaking– setting up the dominoes for subsequent Hulk, Thor and Captain America films to topple over in the lead-up to the almost chemical inevitability of The Avengers‘ chain-reaction climax– the upbeat and colorful movie would’ve easily been one of the stand-out comic-book based movies in recent memory, if for no other reason than the fact that it was able to deliver a super-powered hero who could be taken at least nominally seriously without any aggressive layers of angst or camp. The fact that it was bouyed by Robert Downey, Jr.’s cocky, pleasure-seeking performance as Tony Stark and so effectively relaunched his career into the stratosphere after more than a decade of being a tabloid punchline and occasional art-house redemption story at best helped lend a patina of reality to all of the histrionic explosiveness on-screen. We’ll probably never see Marvel or Disney let Demon in a Bottle out and unfurl the hero’s struggle with alcoholism onto the screen, but thanks to casting any viewer old enough to appreciate that aspect of the character can pretty much fill in the blanks themselves.

And though Downey does as good a job of carrying this blockbuster franchise, and to a certain extent all of the films connected to it, the way that director Jon Favreau built the visual world and terms that Iron Man and the surrounding Marvel films on cannot be underestimated– between all of the shared designs, action set-piece mechanics and even camera angles (nobody’s come up with a better solution to show Tony in the suit than cutting to those holographic-HUD filled close-ups, and probably nobody will), he practically seems owed a co-director credit on Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Perhaps the very best thing that can be said of Iron Man 3 is that, despite all that it owes to the past films in its and sibling franchises, it feels as close as you’re going to get to somebody deviating from the Marvel house-style, at least until the studio gets X-Men and Spider-Man back into its corporate cinematic fold. As co-scripted and directed by Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang bad-boy Shane Black, there’s a genuine sense of novelty to be seen in somebody outside the fold of the typical choices for superhero-film directors– even Captain America‘s Joe Johnston and Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh seemed to fit all-too easily into the genre forms they were handed in those films, with all the gee-whiz razzle-dazzle of the former’s The Rocketeer and even the high-speech and visual spectacle seen the latter’s Shakespeare movies comfortable precursors to the mantle of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

By Bob Clark

For the past thirty-odd years or so, we’ve seen a great many directors rise to feature filmmaking through the gruelling creative workshops of making commercials and music-videos, and a couple of these directors have even been good. The obvious examples that spring to mind are Ridley Scott and David Fincher, guys who cut their teeth on television and special-effects in background roles before rising to the lead position on ads for computers and luxury cars and shorts for MTV, the necessary quick editing and flashy imagery of those bite-sized units of visual information becoming vital instruments in their gradual assimilation into theatrical cinema, both of them becoming pioneering figures of world-building and digital filmmaking. As directors, they benefited greatly from the periods they rose up in– Scott coming to prominence in the 70′s and 80′s when so many of the polished production genre and period pictures he gravitated to were still fairly novel and open to interpretation (Alien and Blade Runner have both proven at least as influential to the longstanding trends in science-fiction as any big or small-screen franchise with the word “star” in its title), and Fincher coming of cinematic age in the strange confluence of independent and studio-driven hard-R sensationalism of the 90′s (it’s hard to imagine as willfully antagonistic of audience expectations as Se7en even being conceived of, let alone greenlit, in the gore-drenched, but thematically rote horror cinema of today).

We’ve seen more migrate from the short forms on the small screen since then, the ones with the highest profiles mostly coming up with middling results– in many cases it’s sad to observe that oftentimes a director’s best work might be a mere commercial (Michael Bay’s Got Milk? ad) or music-video (Madonna’s Bedtime Stories, courtesy of Mark Romaneck). And though most of these directors have climbed into the major leagues during the same era as Fincher, they’ve achieved more of their successes during subsequent periods in which studios have shown less and less courage and imagination in the projects they push through the system– it’s truly depressing when you can look at projects as creatively barren and philosophically offensive as Armageddon or Bad Boys and see them as relative high-water marks in the overall career of a filmmaker which includes The Island and three Transformers movies (and counting). A sad truth for any director looking to work in high end productions is that much of their output is not truly going to be representative of their talent or personal choices as a whole, but instead will also at least partly be reflective of the commercial landscape that they come to bear in (one of the reasons the Movie Brats were able to get away with as much as they did in the 70′s is thanks to studios being bought by corporate types who didn’t yet know how movies really got made, and therefore didn’t know to get in the way). As such, it’s necessary to look at a director like Joseph Kosinski and be mindful of his position as a filmmaker in the second decade of the 21st century, especially when looking at his sophomore effort, Oblivion.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

By Bob Clark

The films of Danny Boyle always seem to represent an almost perfect condition for me as a filmgoer, each of them offering something of a genuine pleasant surprise, without exception. I was never terribly aware of little modern gems like Sunshine or 28 Days Later before they came into theaters, even though they both hit squarely in my favorite mode of science-fiction, but that only meant that I never had to build up any of the hopes and excitement whose tendency to be met with histrionic disappointment seems to be a hallmark of this current generation of cinephiles. Perhaps one of the reasons that Boyle’s films can avoid this particular hype-boobytrap is because of his position as a consumate genre chameleon, turning on a dime from horrors and thrillers to rom-coms and true-life stories, always looking for fresh narrative material to mine his particular cockeyed directorial vision. And as oddball and strained as his aesthetics can sometimes feel (The Beach feels particularly calibrated to alienate any segment of the audience at any given moment, though perhaps that’s by design, inheriting Leonardo DiCaprio fresh off his heartthrob death on Titanic), he’s usually been able to unite the disparate parts of his chosen scripts and unusual visual sensations to create movies that beg for skepticism just as hard as they try to then win it over.

The unlikely awards-sensation of Slumdog Millionaire may represent his greatest, yet at the same time most dubious success yet– a movie that thrives on old-school movie charm and modernist realism and panache, yet in a way that over time only goes to underline the deeply troubling third-world exploitation both dwelled upon by the film’s story and sadly represented in the behind-the-scenes drama of its making (were those kids ever paid?). Even 127 Hours was able to win me over with its visual ingenuity and dramatic focus, even in spite of featuring a central performance from one of my least favorite actors of this generation (in fact, no– I think I can safely say James Franco is definitively the bottom of the barrel for me). If nothing he’s done has managed to match the sensational one-two punch of material, cast and visual dynamism that Trainspotting representing, the very least one can say of Boyle is that he’s never stopped trying as hard as any one director can (or several of them at once, for that matter) to pour all of his creative resources and faculties into each project. Putting his all into every project can sometimes lead to uneven results– even personal favorites like Sunshine and 28 Days Later are full of script problems that Boyle is never able to quite fix on the set, and indeed sometimes seem exacerbated by his unrestrained visual style– but there’s something psychologically appealing about a filmmaker running free of any kind of censoring quality-control, and it’s easy to see how the hypnosis-thriller story of Trance could appeal to that “all in” sensibility.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Two reasons to rerun this article this year– both the second anniversary of the devastating crises in Japan that began March 11, 2011, and a rare American television broadcast of Hideaki Anno’s magnum opus in the form of  Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone. The film will be showing on Cartoon Network this Sunday at 1am during its Toonami block. Anyone in the States with basic cable, there’s no excuse to miss it. Not even Church in the morning.

By Bob Clark

After the recent devastations of earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear meltdown struck Japan, there were many comparisons made to the nation’s many imagined instances of various science-fiction disasters, from Godzilla rampaging through the streets of Tokyo to the apocalyptic wasteland of Neo-Tokyo from Katsuhuiro Otomo’s Akira. These, and so many other one-note similes, were rather tasteless ones, to my mind. They ignored not only the root-inspiration for all those horrifying kaiju and anime calamities in the usage of American atomic weapons on the civilian towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and furthermore ignored the untold losses of life and livelihood presented by the new disasters, ones which continue to threaten the safety and security of an entire nation that already knows all too well the cost of nuclear fall-out, with the largest and potentially most deadly radiation event since the days of Chernobyl. However, in the midst of all these pop-cultural associations, there has been one that rings true, when an energy-conservation effort to help the besieged TEPCO power plant was unofficially dubbed “Operation Yashima”, quickly spreading as an internet-meme and gaining popular support throughout Japan as a rallying-cause to help solve the nationwide crisis through personal sacrifice for the good of everyone.

But what is “Operation Yashima”, and what does it have to do with cinema or science-fiction? In short, it represents the climax of the first six-episode arc of Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the modern classics of contemporary Japanese animation, in which the entire electrical supply of Japan is used to destroy a monstrous alien invader bent on destroying mankind. Channeled into a high-powered positron cannon built by the Strategic Self-Defense Force, used as an immense sniper-rifle by the clandestine United Nations organization NERV, the requisitioned power is the only hope of beating the bizarre attacker, known as an “Angel”, but requires a nationwide outage for the duration of the assault. As the operation begins, the lights go out throughout the entire country, putting everyone in the same position, huddling together and waiting in the dark for news of victory or defeat. By the end of the battle there will be immense destruction, both in the wakes of the surreal attack and NERV’s epically desperate attempts to fend it off, but our attention as viewers will not be to the catastrophic fields of destruction or the untold millions of lives hanging in the balance throughout Japan, much less billions throughout a world that is already suffering from a near-apocalyptic contact with the Angels fifteen years ago.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

By Bob Clark

Note– This piece is rerunning on the occasion of this film’s appearing this weekend in the New York International Children’s Film Festival again, this time in an English dub. Anyone with an interest in animation in the New York area can check showtimes and locations for this film and others at– http://gkids.tv/intheaters.cfm

When I was a very young child, there was nothing I liked better than to spend an afternoon at the planetarium. Whether it was the Hayden in Central Park, made famous on film by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s escape into its confines from the rain to stare at metorites on display in Manhattan– thus preserving it in pristine black-and-white before its modern conversion into the Museum of Natural History’s Rose space center– or the more humble atmosphere of the local Hudson Planetarium in Yonkers, there was very little in my early childhood that was quite as thrilling as the experience of sitting in the dark and watching wondrous projections of shadow and light upon those huge domed ceilings, and allowing one’s self to be transported into the far-flung reaches of our Solar System’s farthest limits and beyond. In many ways, a planetarium offered the most immersive kind of cinematic experience possible, envoloping one’s total sphere of direct and peripheral vision with a 360 degree panorama of light-shows, especially when I was a small enough to have to stand up in my seat to get a clear vantage of the interstellar display. Even if all that was shown was a series of static starscapes and superimpositions of classical constellations, there was enough magic in all the wondrous presentation of all those magic-lantern marvels to stoke the fires of my budding imagination– I’d cover my eyes and hide whenever the image of Perseus carrying the head of Medusa was projected on the planetarium’s false-sky, for fear that I’d be turned into stone just like Ray Harryhausen’s monsters in Clash of the Titans. Listening to a loudspeaker narration describing the endless void of the vaccum and watching an infinite of stars and planets expanding as far as my little eyes could see, I came far closer to experiencing the religious awe of a holy moment in there than I ever did at Church, made aware of how small I, everyone I knew and everyone on our blue-green ball of surf and turf were in the limitless expanse of space. It could be a frightening idea to wrap your head around at the pre-school age (hell, it’s not too comforting to think about even in maturity), but it was also awfully exciting, too.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

By Bob Clark

Note: In hindsight I should’ve rerun this last weekend and saved the Picnic at Hanging Rock for now, but I expected to be writing up some noirs playing locally that turned out cancelled due to inclimate weather in the Tri-State region. Whatever– Phil was stuck in Punxatawney for well over a week due in no small part to another blizzard, to say nothing of perfect storms in time and space. So we’ll just go for this for now.

Late in Peter Weir’s underrated Fearless, there’s a scene where Jeff Bridges, newly transformed from a mild-mannered San Francisco architect into a passionate bon vivant by the divine intervention of a catastrophic airline crash, violently unplugs his son’s video-game system (a TurboGrafx-16, if memory serves), protesting the cavalier attitude that the boy’s game (Splatterhouse, I think) puts forward about death. In real life, Bridges insists, there are no such things as “continues” or “extra-lives”– just one great big “game over” for the rest of forever. It’s a funny and meaningful scene for any number of reasons, not the least of which being how Bridges himself played a game designer turned video-warrior in Steven Lisberger’s Tron, but mostly for how it exposes the central fallacy of mainstream gaming in its depiction of life-or-death adventures. Because like it or not, the man is right– in real life, there are no second chances, and not just from the big stuff like death. Indeed, most of us would probably write off the consequences of life’s end if we were given just one opportunity to go back and redo some smaller, more intimate moment of our time on Earth. Whether it’s the girl that got away, that job you never got or even that ball you couldn’t hit like Casey at the bat, there’s no shortage of regrets built up over a lifetime’s worth of pruning at our own personal gardens of decision trees.

The problem with games of any ilk, digital or otherwise, is that you can always find a way to erase your past mistakes in ways that just aren’t possible in life– all you have to do is reload a past quicksave, use that last 1-up, or just call “mulligan”. That’s the problem with games, but that’s also the magic, as well. Some of the best video-games have known how to explore this territory, in their own odd ways. Sometimes they introduce crucial decisions into the matrix that can’t be so easily overwritten during the course of gameplay– whether it’s Solid Snake unable to withstand Revolver Ocelot’s torture and save the captive Meryl or Andrew Ryan’s ill-begotten offspring giving into the temptation of harvesting a Little Sister in the underwater dystopia of Rapture, there are plenty of games whose designers cleverly structure savepoints and moral choices in rather uncomfortable ways, forcing the player to live with their actions rather than going back in time and editing their mistakes, like so many Marty McFlys or Docs Brown. Sometimes, however, we see games that do not so much avoid the fallacy of gaming-revisionism as they do embrace it, making the player’s natural instinct to rewrite the past not just a feature of the game but a central tenant of its design, itself. Probably the best example of this (or at least the most well-known) would be from the experimental Legend of Zelda entry Majora’s Mask, released in 2000, which put Shigeru Miyamoto’s iconic Link on a three-day mission to save a parallel world from impending destruction, in which he must constantly travel back in time and relive the same three days in order to accomplish his quest within the limited time-span. Upon its release (and lukewarm reception), the game was often compared in the gaming press to Groundhog Day, which had only been around for seven years but had already gained a surprising popular embrace from moviegoers, film critics, philosophers and religious leaders around the world for being something more than just a mere comedy. It became one of those rare catchphrase movies were merely stating the title would be enough for people to understand its premise, and more importantly a movie with a premise that was worth embedding into pop-cultural ubiquity to begin with.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

by Bob Clark

Of all the early pioneers of animation in Hollywood, perhaps none have gone so unduly forgotten as Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. The crucial part they played in the genesis in many of the first great cartoon characters has been largely overlooked nowadays. Few remember the work they did in the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” shorts alongside Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, and how their designs paved the way for the likes of Mickey Mouse. A few more may remember the role they played in the foundation of Warner Bros.’ landmark animation studios, which would go on to spawn characters including Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. But when modern-day critics recall their collaborations on with the Looney Tune and Merrie Melodies series, it is rarely with the same appreciation that later talents like Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones would be granted, men who elevated the art of animation to comedic heights that can stand alongside the works of Mark Twain as first-rate works of American satire.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 273 other followers