Archive for August, 2016

(53) Akira


Bob Clark

Today, we reach one of the definitive anime experiences of the past 30 years, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Along with that, some musings on what it means to predict the future, and what we’re best left looking forward to in all tomorrow’s apocalypses.


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Screen capture from “Hell or High Water,” one of the best films of 2016

by Sam Juliano

One more week and we’ll be scraping our shoes on the foot mat of September, with the Labor Day weekend to follow shortly thereafter.  Seems like it all flew by us in record-breaking fashion, but conventional belief has always asserted that the older you get the faster things move forward.  The temperatures have been high, typical of late August, though the past week has been marginally cooler than those it preceeded.

The science-fiction countdown is just about half way completed and that too is rather amazing when you consider it seems we just launched it.  The essays have been simply superlative and a small but reliable group of commenters have been carrying their weight in some terrific comment threads.  Many thanks to all especially John Grant, Jamie Uhler, Bob Clark and Robert Hornak for their vigorous participation.  But others have been wonderful in that capacity as well.  We are now reaching the stage of the countdown (the upper half) where all the real fun should begin.

Lucille and I have been out and around the past week, though I have continued a torrid pace of home viewing, if not quite as intense as the past four.  We took in an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in a grungy and oppressively hot Manhattan back-room theater on Saturday night, and it turned out to be hugely problematic for so many reasons, but since I know those who brought it to fruition I’ll refrain from any other commentary.  I’ll leave Miller himself to turn in his grave.  This is the seventh time I have attended this play on the stage in my lifetime, and even taught it once to high school juniors. (more…)

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ET - 1

by Robert Hornak

Note/confession: E.T. is one of my favorite films of all time, and not just from a nostalgic point of view, though that is indeed an unquenchable part of it, but from a pure cinema, pure demonstration of skill point of view… and yet, for all that love, I won’t at all be giving it the loving treatment here that it deserves. This will not be an essay equal to my respect for the movie – let’s just say today I’ll be working without storyboards. Trouble is, I’ve had a terrible week time-wise, with unexpected responsibilities and a tectonic shift in my usual schedule. This isn’t a plea for sympathy (unless you just want to give me some), rather a set up to suggest that this is exactly the right time to see, think about, and say a few words about the movie: I believe it’s a story about childhood for adults who are overwhelmed by adulthood and who too often forget what it was like to yearn so purely. When I watch the movie, it stunts and expands in equal measure – an emotional projection of the squashy guy’s bizarro stretchy-neck. It stunts because every time I see it, I’m right back to being 11 and seeing it for the first time – it simply hasn’t lost any of the power of its first run for me. It’s so densely of its time (in terms of mise-en-scène and in terms of its ubiquitous grip on/embodiment of whatever the ’80s were), that I sink right back into its world from the moment Williams’ quiet, weirdly-hollow music plays over the thumb-scrawled title, and I’m with it right through to the still-teary end. But it expands by my life experience since that first viewing, by the fact that I’ve got the baggage of all the hundreds (conservative estimate) of times I’ve lost somebody, was disappointed by a negated desire, got sideswiped by a sudden change of life plans, or simply sank into sadness over a friend long gone by proximity or worse. It’s my movie (and everyone has one or more of these) that lets me be young again and grows into something more meaningful as time extracts its years, precisely because those years are passing. (more…)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The line between science fiction and horror is often breached because humanity’s fear of the unknown has proven fertile soil for the fevered imaginations of scifi writers and filmmakers. The 1950s, of course, produced a slew of Atomic Age nightmares, as the science fact of massively destructive weapons merged with the paranoias of the time. Some forget that this period in human and movie history also was awash in psychoanalysis—the science of the mind—with Freudian theories all the rage in films of all types.

The 1957 scifi/horror classic The Incredible Shrinking Man from director Jack Arnold is firmly rooted in these socioscientific concerns. The plot is propelled by environmental horrors. A radioactive cloud floats toward the boat where the title character, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are relaxing and coats him with a stardust sheen. Scott doesn’t start shrinking, however, until he is exposed to insecticide after they return home. While there is plenty of frightening action ahead, it is in the aftermath of these initial events that the film takes on more psychological and philosophical shading, and makes a pointed critique of a society slipping a straitjacket of conformity and wholesomeness over its citizens following the chaos and lingering malaise of World War II.

Scott asserts his privilege as a white man in a white-male-dominated society in the very first scene by ordering his wife to go below deck to get him a beer: “To the galley, wench.

Fetch me a flagon of beer,” he jests. Unwittingly, he did the manly thing by saving her from getting dusted, but because his rescue was unintentional and unconscious, we know we are in Freud’s realm of the uncanny. Freud said, “The uncanny is anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of earlier psychic stages, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive experience of the human species.” (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

August 15, 1986. 96 minutes. Written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz.

Director David Cronenberg’s reworking of the 1950s B-classic, The Fly, is a tale for the times, at once a straight body horror, yet infused with themes that are very modern. There is a sense of isolation, of dread, and infection, which is ever present. The story is about a man who loses his humanity because of his obsession, because of a plot in which an advanced genetic experiment goes very wrong. The film, as it unfolds, appears to at first be a morality play about not messing with the delicate balance of nature, but is instead a meditation on choice, consequence and chance. In this sense, it can be viewed as a warning, or an examination, about behaviors, in particular, sexual conduct.

The film itself is technically superb, with the makeup being a legendary achievement which has lost none of its potency in now thirty years of release. The acting is very effective, with Goldblum perfecting the role he has continued to play for the rest of his career. He was never better than this film. Neither was Geena Davis, who runs the emotional gamut, as does John Getz as Stathis Borans, Veronica’s ex. A note must also be made of the sets, in particular the telepods, Seth Brundles’s invention, which have an almost amniotic sac shape, merged with the design of a honey dipper. The photography is kept dark but not poorly lit, a world of shadows that never lacks clarity, with the film almost all in medium range. When the film changes to close-ups or long shots, it is very noticeable. What this achieves is a sense of a very controlled yet dangerous world. (more…)

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by Stephen Mullen

The Island of Lost Souls is another of those films that might be more horror and adventure yarn than science fiction, though it is certainly science fiction. The basic plot is SF – a mad scientist in his lair, short-cutting evolution with surgery and cellular manipulation, creating monsters to roam the world – though none of this is given a lot of weight. Dr. Moreau’s fictional science is treated as the given of the story, and they move on from there. But the film is also science fiction at a more significant level. The horror themes (monsters, body horror, the slippages of identity and so on) run alongside themes more associated with science fiction: man vs. nature; science’s attempts to control nature, with mixed results; the question of progress, whether progress is necessarily an improvement, whether it is reversible, and so on. These themes run all through the film, they are embedded in its style as much as its story; the story, the film, present a microcosm of dystopia, and a dystopia very much made by human attempts at science. Its science fiction is wrapped around its horror tropes and vice versa – working very well at both.

Criterion’s edition of the film contains an interview with Gerry Casales and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, taking about the film’s influence on their ideas and music, its relevance to 1970s Akron, and so on. What did they see in it? They talk about Ghoulardi (who showed it on late night television); they talk about Kent State (where they were students at the time of the shootings); they talk about de-evolution, about the film and its look (its masks, shadows, monsters) and its themes, and what it meant to them. They mention a strange fact – how this film set on a lost jungle island in the south seas looks like what’s outside their doors – 5 o’clock at the Goodyear plant, says Mothersbaugh. It’s true – the film has a strong dose of German expressionism in its veins, and the beast men emerging from one of Moreau’s stone doors and passing a wall where their shadows loom as they shuffle out of the shot, bent knees and backs, look like factory workers shuffling out after their shifts. The same image turns up in another 70s era rust belt song, Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness”: “Image object illusion, go down to the corner, where none of the faces fit a human form, nothing I see there isn’t deformed, maybe in a secret lab works Dr. Moreau” – it’s less the images of deformity that catch you, than the beginning – go down to the corner – this is what it looks like, now, today, Cleveland in the 70s.



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58. Ex-Machina (2015)


by Adam Ferenz

January/April 2015, 108 minutes. written and directed by Alex Garland. Starring: Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson.

Ex Machina is a film which takes one quite by surprise. This is territory which seems to have already been covered by the giants of the Cyberpunk field, such as Dick and Gibson. Even a touch of Asimov, and his I, Robot work. Yet, this is an altogether more original and tightly wound tale than it first appears. The focus is on a seemingly reclusive genius, the employee he brings to a woodland laboratory and the humanoid creation that they begin testing.The humanoid is known as Ava, and she is the result of years of experiments by Nathan Batemen, who has brought Caleb Smith to his woodland retreat-also a high security laboratory-for an indefinite period of testing the responses of Caleb and Ava to one another. This, Caleb recognizes, is part of the Turing Test, which in part holds that true artificial intelligence will only be achieved when a human being fails to recognize an AI as an AI.

In the laboratory is one other, a silent Asian woman, Kyoko. As the film progresses, we discover that she is an earlier experiment by Batemen. As the film unfolds, Caleb and Batemen come to be suspicious of one another, with Ava seemingly in danger of being turned into spare parts following this stage of evolution, which involves a liquid gel brain and realistic skin over an advanced, non-biological, frame. A frame which, Batemen lets Caleb know, includes a working vagina. This is important, because Caleb does indeed become interested in, even aroused, by Ava, and discovers that Nathan has had intercourse with his creations. (more…)

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© 2016 by James Clark

As an adage, “Never underestimate a filmmaker’s first feature,” may be overrated. (Think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s disaster, Story of a Love Affair [1950].) But, in the case of Jim Jarmusch, I think anyone who wants to measure what’s up with him and his work can’t spend enough time on Stranger than Paradise (1984). (Jarmusch did produce a student project, Permanent Vacation, in 1980; but here we want to see what happens when school’s out.)

Proximity to college film studies (even after an extended trip to Paris) could be limiting or liberating—it all depends on what the novice brings to the cultural/ academic poker table. Where, then, did he come across that beat generation testament, Pull My Daisy (1959); and how did he run with it? Pull My Daisy, a film by Robert Frank from a screenplay by Jack Kerouac, brings to collision course a stuffy bishop and his stuffy wife (invited by the wife of a railway brakeman-cum-writer) with uninvited bohemian friends of the man of the house. (The locals include Allen Ginsberg and, more interestingly, Delphine Seyrig, as the lady of the house.) This self-consciously overkill insurrection, by those self-assured to be hipster legends on having charmed the pants off Gotham’s media, for the sake of ridiculing the whole sweep of American life, shows that update of the Marx Brothers implicitly feeling entitled to the keys of the planet on the basis of their self-satisfaction with their acuity and virtue. (more…)

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by Robert Hornak

Opening note: More so and forever a fantasy-adventure film before it’s a science fiction film, I can still find a way to live with it on this list if I think hard about its theme of modern technology (of the time, gas bombs and biplanes) overtaking the absolute epitome of natural strength – that is, for the movie to be science fiction, it has to be seen as nature’s final bow at the hands of what is the unstoppable wave of the future. But that’s difficult for me. As you’ll see, I’m beyond emotionally ensnared by this film, and as long as the movie’s had its grip around me, I’ve only ever enjoyed it as the greatest of all monster-on-the-loose films, many of which are clearly science fiction, but this one’s not so obvious. I happily invite anyone in the comments to describe the movie’s relation to the genre at hand – I want to learn – but this paragraph will have to count as my only nod to that branch of the discussion.


King Kong, the debated but still perversely entertaining 1976 remake, is the only movie that I can’t remember not knowing about. Meaning, one of my earliest memories of life is seeing a TV commercial for its theatrical release when I was a little squib of 5 years old. The cracking trees, the writhing woman bound to posts, and the horrible animal scream of the giant gorilla had me so irrevocably hooked on the idea of a giant gorilla that it’s never left my brain. I must’ve thrown a fit, cause my parents actually took me with them to see it. I still have a sort of chest flutter/muscle memory sort of feeling when I think about seeing that huge creature on that huge screen. After that, I drew gorillas incessantly. I imagined I was a gorilla, loping around the house, an action figure in my hand (or maybe my sister’s Barbie). I used to climb on top of fire hydrants and roar while swiping at invisible aircraft. I think I stopped doing that about my sophomore year of college. A year or so after the movie, though unrelated to the movie (so I thought), I bought my first book with “my own money”: Jeff Rovin’s 1977 From the Land Beyond Beyond, detailing all of Willis O’Brien’s work and all of Ray Harryhausen’s stuff up to his then-most-current movie, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (with a quick sentence-long teaser for something in the works called Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head). Of course, I got the book because of the monsters I saw on every page, unaware at first that one of those movies was a very different version of my beloved King Kong. I essentially learned to read so I could read that book. When I finally understood it, over the next few years, I got to love stop-motion with a depth eclipsed by nothing else. (more…)

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Nausicaa - 5 closer

by John Grant

Originally titled Kaze no Tani no Naushika
vt Nausicaä; cut vt Warriors of the Wind
Japan / 117 minutes / color / Topcraft, Toei Dir & Scr: Hayao Miyazaki Pr: Isao Takahata Story: Kaze no Tani no Naushika (1982 onward manga) by Hayao Miyazaki Cine: Yasuhiro Shimizu, Kôji Shiragami, Yukitomo Shudo, Mamoru Sugiura Voice cast: Sumi Shimamoto (Nausicaä), Yoshiko Sakakibara (Kushana), Yôji Matsuda (Asbel), Gorô Naya (Lord Yupa), Ichirô Nagai (Old Mito), Iemasa Kayumi (Kurotawa). Hisako Kyôda (Oh-Baba), Rihoko Yoshida (Teto), Mahito Tsujimura (Jhil), Kôhei Miyauchi (Goru), Jôji Yanami (Gikkuri), Minoru Yada (Niga), Mîna Tominaga (Lastel).

Sometime in the 1990s a friend of mine, the anime expert Andrew Osmond, suggested I should watch Nausicaä. I was skeptical. Although I knew something of Western animation—I’d written my book on Disney animation by then—I’d been unimpressed by the little anime I’d seen, which seemed to rely on cheesy, 1940s-pulp-style SF clichés and upskirt shots of giggling schoolgirls to cater to the onanistic pedophile market. (There are some upskirt shots in Nausicaä; they’re the one element I really dislike about the movie. Later Miyazaki would learn better, and abandon that particular anime tradition.)

You have to remember that the home video explosion was only just beginning, so it was very much harder to achieve the scope of movie watching that we enjoy today. Even so, thanks to a local video library I was able to lay hands on a not particularly stretched VHS of the movie, and settled in with my metaphorical popcorn.

Nausicaä was an eye-opener for me. In technical terms the animation came nowhere close to the standards of the features that I was accustomed to by Disney, Don Bluth et al., but by way of compensation many of the backgrounds were astonishingly beautiful; more than that, the visualization of Princess Nausicaä’s future world was quite stunning.

Nausicaa - 13 A vision of the time that the Ohma stampeded


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