Theatre 625:The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

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Settle down folks! “An American View” hasn’t suddenly shifted into a smut site or anything, although I predict that this article title will bring lots of the WRONG sort of internet traffic here. No worries, I just decided to take another plunge into the fine world of public domain BBC TV stuff by Nigel Kneale (as found on YouTube)! This week, we’re taking a look at the audaciously named TV movie The Year of the Sex Olympics, part of an anthology show called Theatre 625. Theatre 625 had some big hits including a remake of Kneale’s 1954 teleplay of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four in 1965. The Year of the Sex Olympics is particularly notable because it basically predicts our current media culture and the advent of reality television.

With an opening card proclaiming “Sooner than you think” one can see that Nigel Kneale was really worried about the issues lampooned here. Kneale had to have seen the advent of lowest common denominator programming like so-called “reality TV”, but I can’t find any articles or interviews with him on the issue of a TV genre that he accidentally created all those years ago. His death, in 2006, did bring some comments from others about it, such as the following snippet of a Guardian interview by Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Clone, Doctor Who, Sherlock): “When Big Brother began on Channel 4 in 2000, I took a principled stand against it. “Don’t they know what they’re doing?” I screamed at the TV. “It’s The Year of the Sex Olympics! Nigel Kneale was right!””

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Kneale was apparently influenced to create The Year of the Sex Olympics due to his own concerns about overpopulation, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the societal effects of television. To most, this comes as no surprise as Kneale can be seen as a “cranky old man” that saw anything youth-related as evil in some way. To put this on perspective, Kneale was the very same man that cast “hippies” as the antagonists of his fourth Quatermass serial (something I will review soon) and routinely made it seem like anyone under the age of forty was in some way morally deficient in his writings.

This isn’t a bad thing by any means, just a sign of the times. Britain was in turmoil during this time, and many of the “Greatest Generation” (using an American term) had no idea why “Baby-Boomers” were always so pissed off. I’m part of “Generation Y”, and routinely get irritated with my parent’s generation and how they treat us, and reading up on stuff like this makes me see that they had it the very same way.

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The Year of the Sex Olympics depicts a world of the future where a small elite class (people called Hi-Drives) control the media and government. In order to keep power, these Hi-Drives keep the lower classes (Low-Drives) docile by broadcasting a constant stream of “entertainment” designed specifically to remove any ambition to act and to relieve all stress. Essentially, the Hi-Drives pull this off by concentrating on constant and total immersion into a world of reality TV. This includes mind-numbing programs including one baffling example involving rotund men with no shirts on hurling whipped cream at each-other, and various themed “sex shows” that masquerade as sports and arts, but are really just pornography.

One Hi-Drive, Nat Mender (Tony Vogel), believes that the media should be used to educate the low-drives, and not simply allow them to rot away. He has become disillusioned by his peers and society itself due to social norms forbidding him from having any real connection to his lover Deanie (Suzanne Neve) or his own daughter, Keten (Lesley Roach). For a while, Nat’s “boss”, Co-Ordinator Ugo Priest (Leonard Rossiter), tries a lot of different things to illicit new responses from his audience, one of which being old-fashioned slapstick comedy. Anything seen as traditional or old-fashioned is generally frowned upon by this society, so this doesn’t go over well. After the accidental death of a renegade artist gets a massive audience response of laughter due to it being broadcast live on-air, Ugo Priest decides to commission a new style of entertainment: reality television.

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The flagship show in this initiative is called “The Live Life Show”, and stars Nat’s family. They have been stranded on a remote Scottish island while the low-drive audience watches. This is pretty monotonous and boring until “reality” gets “spiced up” by Lasar Opie (Brian Cox), Nat’s former co-worker and one of the big-wigs that runs a lot of the TV production. The producers introduce a psychopath named Grels (George Murcell) to the island, and lets him loose on a murderous rampage.

Some of the Hi-Drives such as one named Misch are incredibly annoying, showing how awful their society is in the grand scheme of things. This isn’t annoying in the “this actor sucks” sort of way, but the “man, these characters are horrible people” sort of way. Their language has degenerated into a juvenile mixture of jumbled sentences full of missing words and slang, and constant whining. Anything that isn’t in some way pleasurable gets an awful response usually involving a temper tantrum.

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Comparing these people to something modern is easy, as she reminds me of some of the inhabitants of “the Capital” in the Hunger Games series based on their complete separation from reality and vapid personalities. It’s like someone took the trashy, almost mindless essence of your modern “famous for being famous” “celeb-utant” like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian and ramped it up to an insane degree.

A great example of their speech patterns happens to be one of the first scenes in the show itself, and has Misch utter the following, as she is the host of the most popular sex show, Sportsex:

“Here we go again, bubbies and coddies! Comfy and cosy are you all? Tonight, we got lots of real super-king talent for you all, so keep your eyes with us! Stay looking! First we got those two top lovers, Cara Little and Stewart Tenderleigh! Hello there, Stewart and Cara! Been on this show a jumbo lot of times. Winners of the Kama Sutra Prize last year. Now in training for the Sex Olympics.”

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One thing of note that could be both good or bad depending on how you look at it, is that this serial is in black and white. This is due to the color versions being lost like many TV programs of the time due to “junking”. One can see that everyone is wearing seizure-inducing colorful patterned clothes and heavy bodypaint in such high quantities that the whole thing would probably look laughably outdated and silly. I feel that this sort of ”masks” the garishness of the future clothes to the point where they aren’t so bad. On one hand the show is incomplete, on the other it seems more “important” this way, somehow.

One can watch The Year of the Sex Olympics and immediately feel bad, because an over-the-top fear that a man had in the sixties has basically come true. Most television watchers consume shows just like Live Life Show on a daily basis, with the same camera angles, boring dialog, and manufactured turmoil to “spice” the reality up a bit. It’s an almost eye-opening experience to watch this, and really shows you how far our culture has been diluted in some ways. I’m not going to go for the hyperbolic statement that we are the Hi-Drives and Low-Drives, but it’s pretty close. People speak in annoying short-hand “text speak”, dress like Lady Gaga, and gawk at the exploits of those more wealthy than ourselves. Just give it a few years and we’ll have shows about fat guys that throw whipped cream at each other.

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The Stone Tape (1972)

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I’ve looked at a few Nigel Kneale teleplays from the 1950’s this year, and I thought it would be a nice change of pace to find one of his later works to review for this very blog. I truly believe that Nigel Kneale is one of the often overlooked grandfathers of science fiction, as you can see his fingerprints on tons of modern genre TV (especially Doctor Who). That’s the main reason I’ve been slowly digging through all the Quatermass material I could get my hands on – to hopefully build some awareness if I can.

Today, I ultimately settled on The Stone Tape, mostly because I had never heard of it before this viewing. This was Kneale’s last accepted BBC script before he ultimately got fed up with them and jumped ship to ITV. After years of what he perceived to be meddling and broken promises by the BBC, Kneale took his rejected fourth Quatermass script, among others, and ran. Luckily The Stone Tape doesn’t shed any light on his professional troubles, and seamlessly blends sci-fi, horror, and drama into one cohesive film that was so well received that it helped establish a paranormal theory – the stone tape theory.

As Wikipedia states “The Stone Tape theory is a paranormal hypothesis that was proposed in the 1970s as a possible explanation for ghosts. It speculates that inanimate materials can absorb some form of energy from living beings; the hypothesis speculates that this “recording” happens especially during moments of high tension, such as murder, or during intense moments of someone’s life. This stored energy can be released, resulting in a display of the recorded activity. According to this hypothesis, ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie. Paranormal investigators commonly consider such phenomena as residual hauntings.”

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In an effort to gain market share on his Japanese competitors, the head of the R&D department of Ryan Electronics, Peter Brock, has been struggling to develop a new recording medium that can revolutionize the industry. His team have set up shop in a new facility within an old Victorian mansion called the Taskerlands, a property that seems to have some unwanted lab assistants. Jane Asher (See my review of A for Andromeda for more of her) stars as the weak-willed computer programmer Jill Greeley. Jill spends the first few minutes of the film paralyzed by fear for a handful of different reasons: first a near miss car accident, then a ghostly sighting within the mansion. To Jill’s horror, a young woman can be seen committing suicide within a room that workers refuse to renovate.

After asking around, the team learns that The Taskerlands is, in fact, notorious for the death of a maid some one hundred years prior. Brock puts two and two together and realizes that this “haunted room” has somehow recorded the death of this poor girl. This phenomena, dubbed “stone tape”, could be the very breakthrough that the team is looking for, just as long as they can somehow harness it. As you can imagine, there are setbacks and all manner of paranormal incidents going on at the Taskerlands, and not everyone makes it out in one piece.

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The Stone Tape vaguely reminds me of a handful of serialized TV shows such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits for some reason. It’s not because it has a big moral at the end of the story or anything, unless that moral is science is bad, but the way it ends is one of those abrupt shock endings you get used to with that sort of show. The Stone Tape definitely has a better budget than those sorts of shows, but fans of that genre might be interested.

As with anything from the 1970’s, there is quite a bit of “culture shock” to get through when watching something almost 40 years after the fact. The entire plot hinges on the fact that everyone at Ryan Electronics fears that Japan will soon be taking over their entire country in just about every way, and finding a way to edge them out is the only way to stop it. This reeks of the general xenophobic mindset of the time, something that manifests itself with casual racism and “yellow peril” / Fu Manchu impressions from a few characters. These scenes made me cringe a bit, but luckily they weren’t glamorized, one man thankfully gets told to shut up. Seeing this, one has to wonder how poorly anything modern, full of the casual anti-Islamic sentiment we see in TV, will look forty years from now? I bet my grandchildren will be just as embarrassed as I am today.

My main quibble with this drama is something I brought up earlier, and another cultural relic from a long time ago. Jill is a laughably weak character, seemingly breaking down into fits of madness whenever anything bad happens. She’s like one of those stock “old-timey” female characters that has to be slapped whenever they go into fits for some reason. Granted, I’ve been in a few car accidents, so I know they can mess up your mental state. I can’t imagine someone being so indisposed afterwords that everyone around has to baby the person in question for weeks on end. Jill reminds me of the old stereotype that Doctor Who used to suffer in regards to it’s female companions, as she is seemingly only there to scream, fall down, and look weak. This does a great service of making most of the male cast look dashing and heroic in comparison, at the cost of making Jill unlikable.

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As with many productions of the time, this movie has little in the way of special effects. In fact, the only sequences that really have these sorts of shots involve camera tricks to achieve ghostly images, pretty much on par with any other 1970’s BBC sci-fi or horror shows. The horror that builds in many scenes is usually achieved with lighting and sound in place of flashy visuals. These effects include, but are not limited to: Perhaps a blood-curdling scream, flickering lights, or a horrible noise. In many ways, this helps the production, as a cheesy guy in a suit could have ruined any tension that is achieved without it.

Personally I’m more of a fan of this sort of horror film than what most people like, that’s why I usually tell people “I don’t like horror movies”. I have grown tired of “gore porn” films that over-saturate the market today, as they are not scary to me whatsoever. What things such as The Stone Tape have over them is that they can build real tension without resorting to jump scares and blood to make the viewer squirm. I’m not saying it’s the best thing ever, or that I’m now super into horror, but it’s a step in the right direction for me.

The Stone Tape is pretty good despite the flaws it has. It’s by no means the best thing Nigel Kneale ever wrote, but it’s pretty good as a horror /sci-fi program. I will say that some cultural relics from the early 70’s including casual racism and borderline misogyny made me a bit uncomfortable, but neither ruined anything for me. If anything, they made me think of how we act today, and how that will look in the future. If you have a few hours to kill, and want to see an old-school horror movie with a sci-fi splash, you might like watching this, but finding it might not be easy. It was on DVD over a decade ago,but is out of print pretty much everywhere. I was able to find it in its entirety on YouTube, so that should be the place for you to look as well!

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Short Film Tuesday – Factory Farmed (2008)

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A new feature I decided to do was a series of micro reviews for notable short films produced by fledgling directors. Just about everybody writes about the latest episode of Doctor Who or Red Dwarf, but I don’t see too many taking up the “indie” mantle. Some of my favorite science fiction directors began with groundbreaking shorts under their belts. Neil Blomkamp, for instance, created a series of amazing shorts that eventually got him a Hollywood deal.

Today we are going to be looking at a short called Factory Farmed directed by Gareth Edwards. Edwards gained a fair amount of fame a number of years ago when he released a film called Monsters, a film that eventually led to his name being placed on the newest Godzilla film due out in 2014. Factory Farmed was created in 2008 as an entry in the “The SCI FI LONDON 48 HOUR FILM CHALLENGE 2008”, a challenge that gives crews a prop, a single line of dialog, and two days to produce a film.

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Factory Farmed is a minimalist affair that is both haunting and perplexing. The sombre tone of the film owes a lot to its solid film score that fills every moment with dark pessimistic tones. We aren’t given much to go on plot-wise and there is only a few lines of dialog towards the end of the film. What we do get is the sense of hopelessness and despair of a man on the brink of mankind’s ruin. There has been some sort of catastrophe involving humans and a clone sub-class. We are mostly shown the plot through flashbacks of a hospital from the viewpoint of a small child. In the present, our protagonist wanders the wasteland looking for anyone else alive. He doesn’t want to save them, meet them, help them or any other cliché. He wants to….well….you should watch the film.

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Seeing this short means that I need to get around to finally watching Monsters in order to get pumped up for Godzilla. Being a big fan of “kaiju movies” (Japanese monster films), and seeing this short makes me really excited. Here’s hoping that they take the franchise back to it’s roots, when it wasn’t all about flash and had substance. If this is any indication, the franchise is in good hands.

Here is the film, Enjoy!

 

 

 

The World’s End (2013)

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Before I get to my review of this film, I’d like to share a little story of persistence paying off for once. The World’s End came to select theaters nearly two months ago, leaving me in an annoying predicament. I live about one hour and a half (minimum) away from a theater that would carry a limited release movie, and with gas prices in late August pretty high, I was dreading the extra trip. A few days before we were planning on driving up to a participating theater, I was involved in a car accident that destroyed my car and mildly injured my arm and ribs; needless to say – we didn’t go. This is also the reason I haven’t blogged on here for a bit, sorry about that to anyone that wondered where I disappeared to.

Pretty soon, I had a new car and was feeling better, just in time to discover that the limited release we were annoyed by, was even more limited and only one theater in the whole city carried it, and it was smack dab in the middle of a high-traffic shopping district that was taken over by a week-long art fair. I made my peace about waiting for the eventual DVD release and let the whole thing slip my mind. That was until I received an email that made my day. You see, I had forgotten the fact that I sent an email to my local theater essentially asking them to attempt to get the movie in a late run,but assumed I’d never hear back. Here is the exchange:

From me:

“A few years back, this theater did not get a movie called ‘Hot Fuzz‘ on release day, but acquired it on a limited basis a few months later. I was wondering if a new movie by the same studio/cast/director ‘The World’s End’ would get the same treatment? I really do not want to drive two hours to see this film, and would prefer supporting you guys. So, I implore you, please get this movie for at least a few days since this is a college town and I think it will do well.”

and here was the response:

“Hi Stephen, The distributor of World’s End, Focus Features released their film very limited. I’m presently trying to secure the film to open in [your town] on October 4. Please keep an eye on our website for showtimes. Thank you for contacting [Carmike Cinemas] “

I have to hand it to Carmike Cinemas, they actually took the time to look into my query, answer me, and I was able to see my movie in my own town. Yeah it was late, but I was there. So anyway, moral of the story is, it never hurts to ask sometimes, and in my case it worked out. Now the question is, did I enjoy the movie?

I’ve been a big fan of pretty much everything that Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, And Nick Frost have done for quite a while. Ever since I reluctantly rented Shaun of the Dead nearly a decade ago, I’ve been hooked. I think what draws me to their material is that they may look like typical genre films on the surface “oh look it’s ANOTHER zombie film”. But upon further watching, one will notice heart that few comedies have. These aren’t just vague genre parodies like that dead horse that the Wayans Brothers and company keep beating (Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Meet The Spartans etc.) these are deep films that just happen to be funny.

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Fans have dubbed these genre-busting films as the “Blood and Ice cream Trilogy” or “The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” either way, these are solid in every way. Shaun of the Dead was their take on the horror genre, and while it dished out the gory zombie action in spades, the film was more about what it means to grow up and be a man. Their spiritual sequel Hot Fuzz followed suit and took the action / buddy-cop film skeleton and placed what was essentially an unconventional love story between two friends into the mix. So what about The World’s End? At first glance it looks like a science fiction film, but is really about the dangers of nostalgia and how one really can’t ever go home again.

The film centers around an estranged group of high-school friends that have slipped out of touch with each other in the twenty years since graduation. Their paths separated after an ill-fated contest called “The Golden Mile” in their old stomping grounds, Newton Haven. The idea was to stop at all twelve pubs on a tourist list and drink at least one pint at each one. Sadly this was not meant to be, and the night went sour. They got into fights, had to escape said fight, and even lost one of their own in the scuffle. Their “leader”, a man named Gary King (Simon Pegg) has decided to get the whole gang back together, but a lot has changed since the early 1990’s. They return to their hometown to find it different, and everyone acting like robots. And as you guessed, that’s because they are robots.

Simon Pegg portrays Gary King, the aforementioned “leader” of the group. He has changed very little since high school, and seems to be at a perpetual state of adolescence. He wears the same clothes, has the same car, and even the same cassette tapes he enjoyed as a youth. This fact saddens everyone else, because it is immediately obvious that he never moved on from his younger days. He’s very untrustworthy, and somewhat careless in personal business and external relationships. This is a nice change of pace for Pegg, as the last two movies showed him as the “straight man” or “hero” and Nick Frost occupying the bumbling friend role.

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In fact, Frost portrays what could be possibly seen as the straight laced man of action in this movie with Andy Knightly. He is the least fond of Gary, now that they are older, because of an “incident” that occurred when they were younger. You do eventually find out why there is tension between the two, but that’s later in the film and has importance to the plot. Andy is fun because he is pretty boring until the villainous robots appear, and a few drinks make him into their “incredible Hulk”.

The cast is rounded out by more “Cornetto Trilogy” mainstays: Paddy Considine plays Steven Prince, someone that could be considered Gary’s Rival from school. They seem to get along fairly well despite this fact. Martin Freeman plays Oliver Chamberlain, the brother of Gary’s high school fling Sam (as played by Rosamund Pike). Finally, Eddie Marsan plays Peter Page, who was fairly meek in his youth and was bullied a lot.

Since this is a science fiction film about invading robots, one would assume that there are some cool special effects involved, and that person is correct. About twenty minutes into the film, Gary gets into an altercation with a young man in a pub restroom resulting in the man’s head popping off and a thick blue liquid spraying everywhere. From this moment on, we are treated to some really brutal and exciting fight scenes. Being a wrestling fan, I was pleasantly surprised to see everyone’s fighting abilities were seemingly based on professional wrestling moves. Gary delivers a killer “Rock Bottom” popularized by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson when he was in WWE. We also saw elbow drops, suplexes and even an “atomic drop”. As you can imagine, an assault such as this will result in limbs being ripped off, chests exploding and even heads being lopped off. It’s okay though, they’re just robots.

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The fun of the cast and the hilarious battles doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. We seem a few quite dramatic scenes in the film, and especially one featuring Peter Page. At the pub where the robots finally show themselves, Peter runs into an old school bully – one that ruined his life back then. The man seemingly ignores Peter, not recognizing him at all. Peter slips into an abyss of depression since this man did more to hurt him than he can imagine, and yet doesn’t even remember him. There are even more scenes like this peppered throughout the film, that show the actors’ dramatic chops and make this film stand out against other comedies.

Longtime fans of these movies will be pleased to see tons of cameos from people from previous films and TV shows. These cameos aren’t too obtrusive and usually result in someone with a small role like Mark Heap who worked with the guys in Spaced. Other callbacks include references to the “wall gag” that appears in all three films, the Cornetto ice cream reference, and even the classic epilogue that usually only exists on the DVD special features. I did hear people whining that Bill Nighy was not involved, but they need to listen closer. He was the voice of a VERY important character at the end of the film.

I loved The World’s End and am glad I got to see it in theaters after such a long wait. I can’t really say how it ranks with the other two films as I basically like them equally and for entirely different reasons. I am glad to see the characters shifted around from the norms seen in the last few films. Showing that Nick Frost isn’t just a wacky one-trick pony sidekick was awesome, and I’m glad to see him in a more dramatic role. Here’s hoping that this “trilogy” isn’t over and all these guys work together again at some point. Maybe after Ant Man, Edgar Wright will need another excuse to hang out with his buddies and entertain us once again.

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As a bonus here is Gary’s favorite band, Sisters of Mercy, with the song that constantly pops up in the movie. Enjoy!

Threads (1984)

“In an urban society everything connects, each person’s needs are feed by the skills for many others, our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable”

 

A while back, I reviewed a 1965 faux documentary called The War Game that really creeped me out. I’m usually immune to the most brutal of all horror films as I seem unable to take the subject matter seriously, but the way The War Game was done got to me. The visceral bleakness of the subject matter and the realistic portrayals of human suffering put me in a similar mood as to when I originally watched Schindler’s List years ago. When I checked my comment box later on, I noticed a common thread (no pun intended) in most comments – I had to see a later film called Threads, because it also hits you like a ton of bricks. I’m no masochist when it comes to movies, so watching something just to make myself feel bad was out of the question, but I did want to see this. With all the North Korean sabre rattling as of late, I think I’ve been getting a taste of the uneasiness and fear felt during the worst parts of the cold war. In a weird way, I feel that watching stuff like this can “educate me” on what not to do, how bad people will act, and who you can trust.

While The War Game was essentially a strict documentary styled production, Threads actually has some semblance of a dramatic narrative in place. The plot focuses on ordinary people living in the city of Sheffield, and more specifically on a couple of young lovers that find themselves at the gateway of real adulthood. With an unplanned pregnancy looming, Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and her boyfriend Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) decide to get married, get a house, and all of the other things responsible people do in that situation. Their happiness is cut short as a crisis looms in the Middle East.

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In a fairly realistic manner, the news leading up to the impending disaster is shown slowly in the background with nobody really paying too much attention until it’s honestly too late. The signs are all there that the world is on the brink of utter collapse, but it’s just sort of washed over. People go about daily activities with the news on, glance at newspapers, and listen to the radio albeit only passively. Let’s face it; Jimmy and Ruth have bigger things to deal with in their immediate lives than world events. They have to deal with family pressures such as questions on whether they should get an abortion and if they can support a child. The news is the last thing they care about.

This peppering in of plot progression is done with fake archival news footage and other reports shown to set the scene. If one pays attention, the crisis escalates as Iran falls to a military coup, only to have Russia capitalize on the situation. Due to the complex web of alliances with other countries, places like America get dragged in early on. American bombers try to help fend off the Russian threat, inadvertently causing nuclear war to erupt. Russia first attacks the aforementioned bombers, and then gets hit with a retaliatory attack on an occupied air base. Russia launches an EMP attack over the North Sea, and follows it up with a barrage of strikes on key tactical points in all NATO countries with Sheffield being one of the targets.

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So that’s how the mess really starts, but that isn’t the real point of the film – now we get to see how messed up everything gets on a human level. Before the bombs go off protests ravage the streets of Sheffield as people from government positions try to calm the tension with claims of prosperity due to industrial growth – but this is Sheffield, one of the places hit worst by Margaret Thatcher’s mining industry clamp-down. Full-on riots erupt in East Germany and a mass exodus of large population centers commences. People go crazy to stock up on food, water and other basic necessities until the bombs hit. And boy do they hit. They hit hard, and not even Jimmy comes out alive.

I won’t spoil anymore of the plot here, but all I will say is simply that things get bad – really bad. And when you think you have seen the gloomiest, most depressing thing in Threads, they throw another fast ball at you. Scenes such as a Husband-less Ruth having to cut the umbilical cord of her own child with her teeth are the worst. One really gets a sense of despair and pain in this movie that you usually don’t end up with in other films. That’s why I compared this to a horror film earlier, as guys like Freddy Krueger don’t scare me. There is not a real-life demon killing random people in their dreams, but the stuff in this movie – it could happen. Threads is the ultimate disaster movie, and possibly one of the most depressing movies I’ve seen.

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Would I recommend Threads? Possibly, but only if you can handle this kind of movie. While it doesn’t exist as some kind of gore-filled exploitation movie, the plot is so bleak that I doubt my own wife could watch it without exploding into a fountain of tears. It reminded me of things such as the whipping scene in The Passion of the Christ, not really that bad in comparison to other movies, but so emotionally intense that it’s hard to sit through. While The War Game was shocking in the sixties, Threads has escalated the shock value to a level that I don’t think has been matched by another disaster film. Most films in this genre of speculative fiction turn into heroic action tales of a hero kicking a volcano’s ass or a scientist that saves everyone from a storm, Threads is watching the human race shrivel up and die.

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BBC Sunday Night Theatre: George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1954)

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.

–          From George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four

 

In our modern world, any perceived intrusion of privacy (Google Glass for instance) is met with accusations of threatening an “Orwellian Nightmare”, or statements like “here comes big brother!”, but most miss the point entirely. George Orwell was not talking about the latest entertainment product fad, but the very real threats that he saw himself in countries like Spain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. While traveling around and living as a much less wealthy man that he actually was, Orwell did some research in order to write one of his first books and a handful of essays. Purposely clad in cheap rags and “squatting” in slums with other destitute people, Orwell had witnessed the danger of absolute political authority in an age of advanced technology first hand, especially during the Spanish Civil War. This “in your face” reporting style colored his very way of life and his political views to such a degree that he lashed out at a problem he could foresee taking over the world – totalitarianism. Nineteen-Eighty-Four was the result, a book that was feared for its perceived subversive nature by all governments alike.

 

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The BBC was fairly quick to create a version of the masterpiece for the fledgling television medium all the way back in 1954, just four years after the release of the novel. They commissioned an adaptation by the legendary Nigel Kneale to air live on a Sunday night. This was hugely controversial, as one could imagine, because the nationalistic post-war government was less than happy to see people in their same line of work “demonized” in such a manner; they even went as far as to attempt to ban similar programs from TV with legislature loaded with phrases such as: “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes”. BBC had previously produced a radio version with fewer problems, so the overreaction is a tad comical. Other companies, such as the American CBS, produced other adaptations for film, radio, and TV, but I have only seen this and the film respectively. Hopefully I can watch/listen to some other adaptations in the future – something that will pop up on here if it comes to fruition.

george-orwells-1984-peter-cushing-bbc-ignorance-is-strength

It’s a miracle that I was able to watch this version (for free in the public domain no-less!) as they didn’t really record too many shows then. Much like an earlier Kneale penned show that I talked about during “Quatermass Week”, the original Quatermass serial, they only had a tape of it because they recorded a monitor during the live broadcast. With no home video market, or other infrastructure for a secondary market to speak of, it’s awesome that this didn’t become lost like so many other TV gems. Aside from the Kneale pedigree, this version of Nineteen-Eighty-Four is notable in that it stars a young Peter Cushing in one of his first big roles. Cushing would later go on to become a mainstay in Hammer Films, The theatrical Doctor Who films, and eventually Star Wars.

George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four is the cautionary tale of a man named Winston Smith. Smith is a low-ranking editor for the government’s “Ministry of Truth”, a thankless job that employs him to alter historical records for the benefit of the ruling party. The people of his home country, Oceania, live in constant fear of impending war and internal upheaval due to a strict regimen of brainwashing via propaganda and fear-mongering. Everywhere Winston goes, even his own home, the Party monitors his every move, one step out of line could mean death, or worse. But when it gets rough, he is supposed to be reassured by the heroic face plastered all over everything – that is the face of the Party’s seemingly omniscient leader, a figure known only as Big Brother. Winston slowly starts to defy his country by reading, thinking non-sanctioned thoughts, being an individual, and other horrible crimes! Big Brother will have none of that!

bbc-1984-winstons-illegal-diary

The acting in this production is very top notch. I always feel that it is fun to see Peter Cushing play the “good guy” in anything as he is usually known for playing scowl-faced villains such as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. As we watch Winston Smith start to relish his new found spectrum of emotions rolling further down the slippery slope of thought crime, Cushing does a fine job of realizing this. There are moments where he breaks down in fits, shows passion when kissing the love interest, and anger while at rallies that shows his acting quality is really deep. I wasn’t really a fan of him as Dr. Who in those Dalek films made a few years later, but I can honestly say he can do a fine job as the leading man. I’d even go out on the limb to say that this this is my favorite role of his. Yvonne Mitchell also does a fine job as Winston’s lady-friend Julia, a role that probably set off the censors back in the day – all that kissing and such!

One thing that I immediately enjoyed about this adaptation of the novel is that it unlike the film I briefly mentioned earlier (produced in 1984 starring John Hurt), this TV drama has a lot more dialog and featured characters from the book; in fact one could say that it’s “truer” to the book. Since this version of the piece was shown live, and was produced as a stage play, it is far less cinematic than film. That isn’t to say that it’s all just people talking in drab rooms like other TV productions of the time as they do employ a handful of pre-filmed segments (such as exterior shots) which really make it feel bigger than it is. This same technique was later used in Quatermass II resulting in the same great mix of live action and filmed segues, a choice used to make scenes transition easier. I think that this “total package” is to an advantage when comparing the two as the Hollywood film felt hollow for some reason despite the striking visuals and amazing actors, and this feels both terrifying and engaging all the same.

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The technical aspects of the home medium of the film are a mixed bag as one would assume from something like this. Since this film is in public domain, I do not believe there is a cleaned-up DVD re-master of it anywhere. The version that I watched (The one I have posted on the bottom of this very review) is obviously from a popular video sharing site, and has mediocre quality. I think it was ripped from a VHS tape to add insult to injury. If there is a better version out there, I was unaware of it, so I make any criticisms based on what I had at hand.  Just like Quatermass, one can tell this was filmed from a camera pointed towards a TV monitor as there is a black haze around the outside of the picture. While this is to ne real detriment to the movie, it does make it look far older than it actually is and makes certain scenes blocked in a weird way. There is also a lot of ‘ghosting” of the images, and weird changes in contrast and light – both due to the recording process as well.

BBC Sunday Night Theatre: George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four is a solid adaptation of the original book. While there are problems with the off-air recording and how it has aged all these years, the play is still very watchable, and is the better of the two adaptations I’ve seen. As I stated before, this video, as well as other Nigel Kneale classics are in the public domain, and can be found easily on video sharing sites such as Youtube. In the political climate we live in, many have a hard time knowing what goes on in a totalitarian regime. The odd documentary on World War II may suffice for some, maybe a few North Korean news stories or videos will work for others, but for me George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four is the closest we’ll get into a look at what goes on in these places. Whenever someone tries to change history, or whenever they try to outlaw free thought we need to heed Orwell’s warning. If we don’t Big Brother could be watching us.

1984-bbc-peter-cushing

 

Clone (2008)

We have had a large number of “snow days” here in my neck of the woods lately. A typical winter storm here is usually no more than three inches at max; so having the sky rip open and dump two servings of nearly two feet each is unheard of. Needless to say, my state was declared a federal “disaster area”, and my work has been closed. What a better time to get some new material up for this very blog! Since I can’t leave the house at all, I was browsing Hulu’s “BBC” section and noticed something I had not heard of tucked away that could be useful for this blog. The show in question is a 2008 BBC3 production starring Jonathan Pryce, Mark Gatiss, Fiona Glascott, Oliver Maltman and Stuart Mcloughlin as the titular character – Clone.

Clone is the story of a secretive Army program to create a bloodthirsty killing machine for use in war. Since this is a comedy show with a science fiction lean and not a Universal Soldier film, one can immediately guess that this test went horribly wrong rendering the clone about as menacing as a kitten playing with a ball of yarn. Mark Gatiss (of Sherlock and League of Gentlemen fame) plays Colonel Black, a seemingly crazy and borderline psychopathic man put in charge of MI7, and ultimately the clone program as a whole. When the clone, Albert, is “born” his scientist “father” Dr. Victor Blenkinsop (as played by Brazil and Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jonathan Pryce) has his reputation shattered, and takes Albert away to a small village to protect him and hopefully “fix” his warrior programming. It seems Col. Black wants Albert dead and any involved in the failed experiment reprimanded. The duo spend their time hiding in a tiny pub and attempting to convince a math genius (Rose, as played by Fiona Glascott) to help them out.

BBC3 Clone 2008

With the all-star cast involved, one would imagine that Clone would have been a runaway smash hit of epic proportions. Sadly, while not terrible, the show does have some noticeable problems and only ran a paltry six episodes. The show itself was created in the midst of a rebranding of sorts within BBC3, a venture where big-wigs there decided to start targeting a younger demographic than it normally does. All of the actors involved are pretty good, and aside from some superior league scenery chewing by Mark Gatiss, most play things pretty well. I’m not digging on Gatiss, but the way he portrays Colonel Black is reminiscent of Doctor Evil from the Austin Powers films. A character as such would be brilliant in a skit comedy, but here it’s a bit silly. Equally over-the-top is Albert the clone. Just about everything he does is a situation of not understanding human conventions and culture, but not in a subtle way like other “fish out of water” comedies. One notable early scene shows Albert urinating all over a desert table full of éclairs and danishes, you know classy highbrow humor.

I think that is the real problem with this show is who it is targeting. On one hand it is written in such a way that it reminds me of another quirky BBC comedy called My Hero. That show was a story of an alien that came to Earth and became a superhero despite his complete inability to understand humans. Like Mork and Mindy, My Hero dealt with the adult relationships this alien obtained and how he became more human. Sadly Clone seems to not be written for adults at all, and had it not been for a bit of adult humor within, I would assume this was a kid’s show. It bounces from situation to situation where Albert does something shocking like staring into someone’s window while they are intimate with no clothes on, then him getting scolded about it. It’s like a raunchy version of Curious George. This identity crisis within the script keeps it hard to pin down and ultimately keeps it as nothing more than low budget filler television.

All in all, Clone is fine if you have some free time and want a humorous show to waste some time on. Stuart Mcloughlin is a good comedy clown, and would work really well in similar shows. Sadly the rest of the cast is severely underutilized and seemingly out of place to the point where you may wonder why an actor such as Pryce, or even Gatiss for that matter, bothered with such a show. I didn’t hate Clone, but I can see the spark it holds, the potential to be great show that was ultimately wasted for an audience that probably wouldn’t even like the show.

Mark Gatiss in Clone, a BBC3 comedy

X: The Unknown (1956)

… or The Quatermass film that wasn’t…

 

After the successful release of The Quatermass Xperiment essentially re-launched Hammer Films, they attempted to get another slice of the proverbial pie, by doing a sequel the very next year. Hammer had a huge stumbling block in the way as Nigel Kneale, the man behind the original BBC dramas, wanted nothing to do with this. The BBC had sold the film rights to Quatermass out from under him for the first installment, a fact that soured him towards both companies completely. This coupled with the casting choices of the first film, changes to plot compared to the TV version, and his lack of monetary compensation meant that Hammer was not allowed to use his character for a sequel. Hammer decided to keep the silly “X-rated” promotional tactics going and created what essentially amounts to a “ripoff” of their own film franchise. X: The Unknown starred Dean Jagger as Dr. Adam Royston, a character that seems to essentially be a stand in for Quatermass had this been a true sequel.

Title Card
Title Card

Aside from the problems associated with Kneale, this film had another huge controversy that put this production into jeopardy. The film’s first director was An American film director by the name of Joseph Losey (credited as Joseph Walton at the time). Losey had basically fled Hollywood to make films in Europe as he was added to the infamous “Hollywood Blacklist” that denied work to communist sympathizers in the industry. Everything was running smooth until Jagger, an American actor himself, refused to work with Losey. This resulted in Losey’s departure from the film two days into production due to “illness”. Since Hammer had spent the majority of the budget acquiring such a renowned actor as Jagger, it seems that it was a situation of “either he goes or I go” with Jagger winning out. The job went to Leslie Norman soon after.

"you smell something?"
“you smell something?”

The plot of X: The Unknown follows Dr. Royston, a scientist from an Atomic Energy Laboratory at Lochmouth, as he investigates a troubling situation involving a threat to the human race. The British Army has been conducting radioactive material detection drills at a remote Scottish base in what appears to be a mud pit. These seemingly harmless training exercises (they involve a game of “hide and seek” with a Geiger counter) somehow attract a creature from a subterranean lair, leaving two severely radiation-burned soldiers in its wake. This creature can apparently vanish and feeds on radiation. It then goes on a rampage and grows larger and larger in a similar fashion to the creature in The Blob. In fact, this movie was so much like The Blob, that I assumed it was a direct copy, only to find out that X: the Unknown was actually made two years earlier! Sadly, due to production issues, a squandered budget, and other issues, this movie remains quite obscure, and The Blob became of classic of it’s time.

"That's enough playing in the mud for today!"
“That’s enough playing in the mud for today!”

I mentioned that Royston was a stand-in for Quatermass, but that’s not completely true. Thankfully the production team came up with a slightly different take on the lead character – making him an atomic energy specialist rather than a rocket scientist. Jagger takes on this role in an entirely different manner than Brian Donlevy in Quatermass, acting a bit softer, even eccentric to a degree. When we first see Royston, he gets in trouble for wasting time on an amateur made experiment seemingly made from Meccano model sets. He allows his subordinates to do his real work, the work he’s getting paid for, while he tests radiation’s effect on radio waves, something dubbed an “anti-radiation device”. The fact that they show this scene for so long, makes you realize that this will be important later on, maybe this “frivolous” experiment won’t be so “frivolous” after all (wink wink!). I really liked the character of Dr. Royston, and almost wish they did more with the character.

Sadly, I was not a huge fan of this film for many reasons, but most notably the cast. Dean Jagger is easily one of the best actors in this film, and had he been surrounded by a great cast, things could have been different. There are a few people that simply made the whole production seem like a cheesy “monster of the week” flick. The acting in some places reminded me of just about every 1980’s “slasher film” – overacting in every scene and actors being a caricature of a real person. All the tired tropes you can imagine like the dumb soldier, the slutty nurse, and the jerky government official are in place, and none of these seemed like a fleshed out character – more like a prop of some sort. I commented how I liked the “realism” of the original Quatermass TV serial and the subsequent movie. There is really none of that here, as the writing, acting, and plot seems exactly like any other B-movie of the time. While I can’t really commend his acting here, this film is notable for the inclusion of a VERY young Frazer Hines playing a kid named Ian. Frazer later went on to play one of the most beloved “companions” in Doctor Who – Jamie McCrimmon!

Frazer Hines as Ian
Frazer Hines as Ian

One can immediately tell that this film has a small budget, but the effects, what little of them there are, are at least competently done. For around half the movie we barely see anything other than burn make-up on someone’s back. It’s pretty good makeup, but we’re comparing it to the mutating man in Quatermass, so there really is no contest. The majority of the movie has no real scenes that warrant the X-rating the movie got. That was until the aforementioned “slutty nurse” and “horndog doctor” come into play, making out with no cares in the world like they are in a Jason Vorhees movie. The monster attacks the doctor leading to a rather silly close-up shot of the doctor yelling:

"ahhhhhhhhhh!"
“ahhhhhhhhhh!”

 

Followed by a wax head melting to show a skull underneath – pretty grisly for a 1950’s movie!

 

Remember kids: don't open the Ark of the Covenant!
Remember kids: don’t open the Ark of the Covenant!

But for every good effect like this one in place, there are ones not quite there. They aren’t bad, like dressing a dog up like a dinosaur, but they involve the monster so it’s really unfortunate. I honestly thought that there would never be a monster reveal and would find out that it was invisible all along. When the movie FINALLY reveals the creature one hour into the 72 minute film, it is a blobby stop motion creature. I’m not saying that it was the worst thing I’ve seen, but it’s underwhelming after all the hype. They do some decent shots of it placed into the background of scenes and oozing over fences, but small-scale model shots of it up close aren’t as good.

don't leave kids unattended in monster attacks!
don’t leave kids unattended in monster attacks!

All in all, I felt that X: the Unknown was not as good as it could have been.  After the numerous problems behind the scenes and a script that wasn’t really there, what is left is a film desperately trying to play “catch-up” with its predecessor. Much of the plot is largely the same, except with a larger body count this time around and a slightly different monster. We never find out what the monster is, and the whole movie ends with Dr. Royston using his “anti-radiation” experiment to kill the creature, something you see miles away. This really goes to show how special the right script and director can be in a film like this, and I can see why it was set right for the eventual return of Quatermass. Hammer wised up and got Kneale to work with them, hired the original director, and some of the actors from the first film. They basically pretend that X: The Unknown never existed.

I think we can sum the whole thing up with a bit of dialog from the end of the film:

Elliott: “what was that?!”
Royston: “I don’t know, but it shouldn’t have happened…”

Movie Poster
Movie Poster

 

The War Game (1965)

There is nothing more terrifying than watching a “what-if?” film about a nuclear holocaust. If done correctly, such programs can really stir fear in one’s heart and make anyone think about the ramifications of such an event to their lives. I particularly remember watching the American TV movie The Day After some years ago, and while not acted in the best manner, it was disturbing in many ways. First of all it was filmed in my home state, using buildings and town names that I’m used to, and it showed what could happen after a nuclear bomb falls. I can only imagine how messed up it would have been had they had done it as a faux documentary rather than a drama, it would most likely have ended up like BBC’s The War Gamea far superior film, and much more scary. A film like this is only as powerful as the time we live in, and today much like the sixties, we live in fear of idiots flaunting their missiles all over the world. This short black-and-white film was recently added to Netflix instant streaming, so I figured that it would be interesting, little did I know it would also be amazing.

Produced in manner similar to a documentary-styled magazine program, The War Game tells the story of a nuclear crisis in the “near future” of the 1960’s Britain. The whole mess starts when China invades South Vietnam, an act that America sees fitting to retaliate for with a decree of nuclear intentions. This idea angers all of the Communist nations leading to a small-scale nuclear war in Berlin between the two German halves and a handful of allies on either side. Eventually, it all escalates into an all-out World War with Britain getting hammered with over sixty bombs.

This film shows everything thereafter including the collapse of society, sick people, and mental traumas resulting from the bombings. What follows is a scathing look at how the director, Peter Watkins, sees Britain’s preparedness for such an event. All that “stiff upper lip” stoic nature from the blitz goes out the window in this documentary, and everyone turns into animals once things get bad. All Civil service agencies are lampooned as well as church elders, but this is not humorous satire, this is the stuff of nightmares.

One of the most unnerving segments in this film was a series of black cards with white lettering read by the narrator. Throughout the film, these cards come up to show facts, news quotes, maps, and other tidbits that really help this to look like a news show. The most poignant ones were statements from officials such as government workers, press agents, and other high up big-wigs. The card that creeped me out the most concerns the manner in which the church took notice of the bombings, coming together to issue the following odd statement:

“The church must tell the faithful that they should learn to live with, though not love, the nuclear bomb, provided that it is ‘clean’ and of a good family.”

And later:

“During a recent meeting of the Ecumenical Council at The Vatican – a bishop told the press that he was sure “our nuclear weapons will be used with wisdom.”

With how “out of reality” the church tends to be these days, I’m not too convinced that something like this wouldn’t leave the lips of a spokesman at the Vatican today! I’m not sure whether to take stuff like this as black comedy much on the same way that Dr. Strangelove handled such things, or a hard condemnation on how stupid and/or heartless people can be. With our politicians today, I think the latter is most fitting.

The written content found within isn’t the only thing that makes this film so dark. It’s also filmed in a manner reminiscent of actual news footage – meaning that they created staged building collapses and deaths, and filmed it all with a handheld camera to make it far more realistic than many movies of the time. This was Cloverfield, only forty years early. For the 1960’s, these special effects are amazing and would honestly look great if used in a modern production. This isn’t a cardboard walls Doctor Who budget, this was made to look as real as it could to strike fear. I think the only effect that was sort of “iffy” was the way in which they depicted nuclear blasts. Since they didn’t have computer generated effects back then, and stock footage is tiresome, we didn’t see any mushroom clouds. Usually somebody would be outside and the screen would flash white for a moment, leading the actor to cover their eyes and scream. While not great, this effect does its job, and doesn’t look unrealistic, just uninspiring. It was like hearing the sound effects from an off-screen battle in a Lord of the Rings movie, some of the impact is taken away if you can’t see it.

Gritty scenes such as one featuring a group policemen being forced to employ mercy killings on people so severely injured that doctors could not help them seems so out of place for any film made in the 1960’s. I can see why this film was immediately hated by higher-ups at the BBC, as it basically mocked authority on all levels. Also, if people used to call in to complain about things in Doctor Who in the 1970’s being “too scary” this would have given these same people heart attacks. I cannot stress how much this seems like a modern film in terms of tone and nature. The War Game didn’t actually get shown on any TV network until the mid-1980’s, and I’m thankful it didn’t meet the same fate as other 1960’s BBC productions –wiped and junked. It was deemed too dark, it made the British infrastructure look bad, it belittled civil servants, and it stood in the face of over-zealous national pride –things that weren’t cool forty years ago. At least now we can watch it, and enjoy it without any censorship involved.

Another scene that really struck me, on a deja vu level, was one that was used much later for a plotline in a David Tennant era Doctor Who episode called Turn Left. In The War Game, threats of an imminent nuclear strike force the evacuation of millions of people to the country-side. The streets run foul with protests and uncertainty as many households were forced to take in and feed as many as eight guests for the duration of the events. People caught on camera include many that act very selfish; this includes people trying to hoard resources and even bigots. One woman interviewed remarked that she hoped her new lodgers “weren’t colored” as was the norm back in the sixties.

The aforementioned Doctor Who version of this happened in a similar manner. In Turn Left, the Earth fell to utter ruin when the titular character died in an alternate reality. His companion at the time, Donna as played by Catherine Tate, was forced to board with other people when London is totally destroyed in a nuclear accident. The racial sentiment is still jarring now as it was in the sixties, and it really shows that accidents and other catastrophes bring out the worst in people. I’m really surprised that there haven’t been a lot of people that have picked up on this connection between the two shows accidental or intended– then again this movie may be pretty obscure due to its age and its banned status.

If you want to see a great disaster movie that doesn’t resort to over-the-top special effects in lieu of drama, please check this out. For a film that I assumed would be schlocky 1960’s faire, The War Game was awesome. This movie is so dark, violent, pessimistic, and edgy, that one would assume that it came from the brain of a modern director. Since it was shelved so long ago, I feel that many have not seen a true speculative fiction classic. I know this kind of film is not for everyone, it’s sort of depressing, and makes you feel bad. But that shouldn’t stand in the way of the punch in the gut you get watching it.

Here is an excerpt from the film:

Outcasts (2011) Episode 2

The main point of my previous review was that episode one of Outcasts was utterly depressing, so depressing that it seemed like a worthy companion to all those shows about compulsive hoarding. In one episode, the producers and writers played multiple games of bait and switch on us, leading me to have no idea who the main character was. “oh look, I better pay attention to these guys” DEAD! “wait, maybe that person will be important later in the sh..” DEAD! “What about…” DEAD! I know some shows start killing off hoards of characters for dramatic effect throughout a story to build drama, but leaving half of the initial introduced cast in the first episode either dead or mortally wounded? Onward to episode two, I guess.

Episode two thankfully does what episode one should have done- it introduces us to things like backstory, character development, and gives the viewer a firmer grasp on the setting. In the previous episode, I really had no idea what the planet of Carpathia was like. At first I was lead to believe it was a desert planet based on a random sandstorm that happened, and the presence of dunes, only to find out it had vegetation and rocky hillsides. Confusing things like this made the first episode seem weird and disjointed, and not in a mysterious Lost sort of way.

This episode also introduces us to another group of people on the planet, a group of “Outcasts” who I assume are going to be the main antagonists of the citizens of Forthaven. We find out that Forthaven once had far more people than it currently does, and a virus outbreak drove them away. More specifically, they were slated to be executed, but were let go. These people resent the settlers, and want revenge.

Sadly, while there is character development present, nobody really breaks the archetypical mold they are set into, and as a result we have a cast of one-dimensional characters doing utterly predictable things. Present are characters like the wise captain, the motherly older woman, the hot-headed military man, the snake in the grass, the punk teenager, and many more. It is because of this that most of the characters feel like chess pieces created to achieve the goal of a story rather than fleshed out humans in a real world. For me, the character of Cass was the only character that I cared about in episode one. I thought he was going to be the comic relief character at first, only to find out that he’s much more valuable to the story. With the introduction of a super-creepy guy like Julius to throw disarray into the camp, I can see a glimmer of hope for later episodes.

While I didn’t hate episode two of Outcasts, It isn’t out of my doghouse quite yet. It seems that it has finally found its footing on the teetering platform of watchability, and is pretty close to being entertaining. As long as they don’t kill of these good characters I like, and people start doing things outside of their archetype I think this show could be salvageable.

Dirk Gently (2012) Season 1, Episode 1

While everyone may be enjoying the infrequent adventures of a certain pair of detectives from 221b Baker Street, there is another duo of private eyes on the loose at the BBC. What? You have no idea who I’m talking about! Does Douglas Adams ring a bell? How about an unreliable brown British Leyland Princess? Of course, I’m talking about Dirk Gently and MacDuff of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and their quest to understand the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things”. As with the pilot episode, in which I did a write up for a while ago (HERE), Dirk Gently isn’t mainly a science fiction show, and teeters closer to being a straight comedy show. The source material was written by Douglas Adams and has some sci-fi elements like robots, time travel and such; this keeps it on topic enough for me.

I’m glad that the BBC decided to pick the series up for some further adventures after 2010’s pilot episode, as I felt that the show had a ton of potential, despite a miniscule budget. The three part nature of this series makes me hope there is more after these initial stories. I guess the Sherlock similarities continue in that regard; just when you want more of the show, you realize that there is a miniscule amount of episodes available with a long space in between seasons.

This new series has the same cast from the pilot episode including Stephen Mangan as the titular holistic detective and Darren Boyd as Richard Macduff (Watson to Gently’s Sherlock as it were). For those totally new to the character, one can imagine Gently as the complete antithesis to Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is amazingly clever, makes light of every miniscule detail that mere mortals would never pay attention to, and makes everyone look foolish just by his sheer presence, Gently does none of these. He makes ridiculous leaps of logic, mutters about an esoteric philosophy that only he subscribes to, comes to the wrong conclusions, ends at a result that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and yet is somehow correct every time. His randomness and eagerness to make a quick buck makes him look like a total con-man in just about every way, and everyone hates him for his incompetent manner in which he works.

This episode contains two seemingly separate storylines that, as anyone who has seen the pilot or read the books, will come together in the end. Dirk’s whole theory is that everything in the entire world is somehow intertwined, so things that seem totally unrelated end up being just the opposite. One of these plotlines involves the death of a conspiracy theorist that believes the Pentagon is out to get him; the other is a man that takes horoscopes far too seriously. In fact, all of the supposed red herrings that we see in the show coalesce into one large and absurdly convoluted mystery.

Sadly, while I loved the pilot, and felt that it came together very well, I felt that this episode fell a tiny bit short. There were some hilarious gags, great dialog, and enough of a mystery to keep one guessing the whole way through, but something was off. I think it just seemed rushed or something, like they tried to put way too much into one story and ended up with something incomplete as a whole. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad episode; it’s just the weaker of the two that I’ve seen. Hopefully the next two pick it up for me.

Two shadows loom over this production, both of which are unnecessary in my opinion. Some fans will be sad that these stories are not literal versions of the original books, yet borrow heavily from the source material. This has caused the whole production to be unfairly “pooped on” by many people, the irony being that Adams hated for his stuff to stay the same whenever he produced it. The Hitchhikers Guide series was originally a radio show, it was re-written as a book, and then further changed to be a 1981 TV series, all under the direct supervision of Adams. He even helped write the script for the 2005 movie, but sadly died before it could be finished. Whining about any changes in plot are silly, and aren’t in the spirit of the material.

Our second shadow happens to be the aforementioned Steven Moffat helmed Sherlock craze. While I agree that Sherlock is a superior show in every way, I don’t feel that people should compare the two as they have little in common. The reason I keep mentioning Holmes and Watson when relating to the show in this review, is that the pairing has basically become a character archetype and anything similar can naturally be elaborated on as such. And while Gently may not be as “cool” as Sherlock, the show still stands as a great piece of light entertainment for weekend viewing.

In conclusion, episode one of this new series of Dirk Gently is pretty decent, if not a bit underwhelming compared to the pilot. The promise of the show and the strong acting keeps me coming back, and makes me love the show even more. If they can capture the magic ratio of mystery to jokes that we’ve seen before, I think this could go down as one of my favorite comedies of the year, if not it could be a huge disappointment. Only time will tell….

Outcasts (2011) Episode 1

I was strolling through Netflix’s new release list for streaming movies, and noticed that the eight part BBC science fiction drama Outcasts had been added. I originally heard about this particular show by way of commercials for BBC America’s weekend sci-fi block, but never got around to watching it for some reason. To be honest another new show called Bedlam sort of scared me away from the block for a while. This program is definitely closer to “hard science fiction” than the material I usually look at on here, in that it has very little “fantasy” elements in it. The story centers around a colony on Planet Carpathia, a planet five years travel time from Earth. The residents of Carpathia, mostly located in a settlement called Forthaven, escaped Earth to run away from a pending nuclear holocaust.

While I’m not familiar with a lot of the cast of this show, I did recognize a few people. Within the first few minutes we meet Cass Cromwell, as played by Daniel Mays. Mays also played Jim Keats in Ashes to Ashes and Alex in A Doctor Who episode called “Night Terrors”. I also recognized Liam Cunningham who plays President Richard Tate from tons of movies and TV shows, I think most recently from Harry Brown.  Cunningham is also in Games of Thrones, but I haven’t seen any of that show to vouch for how substantial his role is.

My first impression of Outcasts is that it is cut from the same cloth as far more popular shows like Battlestar Galactica (2004), Stargate Universe (2009), and even Earth 2 (1994) in that it relies far much more on drama than the actual science fiction elements involved. One episode in, and this show could have honestly been set on Earth with very little difference in the plot. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s a bit drab (in both setting and plot), but it’s pretty close to how I feel.

My first problem is that the planet is a bit uninspired; it’s basically just a desert-like mountainous region somewhere (I think they filmed in South Africa). Nothing really jumps out and says *ALIEN PLANET!* Even guys behind shows with terrible budgets such as Hyperdrive had the sense to make the sky red or something. I know I have dealt with things like the endless Canadian deciduous forest planets in Stargate SG1, or the many rock quarry planets in the old Doctor Who, but at least they had creepy aliens in them to suspend disbelief. The production on this show basically stuck some plasma screen TV’s in a few rooms of a desert colony, and BOOM –finished.

If episode one is any indication, this show is going to be depressing. It pulls no punches at all with people going crazy, people getting killed, and a multitude of other bleak situations. I wasn’t a fan of the recent Battlestar Galactica for this very reason, and really hope that this isn’t the norm from here on out. While the show has promise, I feel that this introductory episode tried way too hard to be as dramatic as it could be, as if it saw all the dramatic elements from other shows and decided to use them all at once. This episode introduced too many characters at once, did a poor job of fleshing out the world, and sandbags the viewer with enough bad stuff to make one of those sad Sarah McLaughlin commercials look tame. I’m going to hang in there, and watch more, but Outcasts really needs to kick it up a notch.

A for Andromeda (2006)

I first heard about A for Andromeda in an unlikely, although not surprising, place. I had never heard of the original 1961 television series for two reasons, first, one can blame the fact that I am American and was born in 1982, secondly, one can look to the loss of most of the original program via the old BBC “who gives a crap” archival policy on filmed material. This was the very same policy that destroyed countless old Doctor Who episodes and many other historically important shows. There was a Documentary on a DVD set called Lost in Time, in which orphaned Doctor Who episodes were pulled together so that they could be released in some way. This documentary filled me in on this “junking” situation and mentioned more things lost forever, including a show called A for Andromeda, touted as being one of the first BBC science fiction programs. I must have gone to Wikipedia or some such, as I had quickly discovered that a remake was out there….and here we are.

The serial opens with a “zooming in on the earth” shot eerily similar to the one from Rose, a 2005 episode of the resurrected Doctor Who. This shot was re-used on that show, and its spinoffs, countless times in the last few years; this really makes me wonder if the BBC had to keep using it for some reason. Like maybe the BBC spent a ton of money for it and needed to make ends meet by using it hundreds of times? Maybe a test group rated it the best part of the program so that drove its implementation on every show? I think it’ll be one of the great mysteries of our time.

Much like 2005’s Quatermass Experiment (which I need to review as well), A for Andromeda has an inexpensive look and feel, and yet stays away from a “cheap” appearance. Shows like Hyperdrive go the opposite route and try to look “BIG!” on a budget, and end up looking incredibly dated and cheap in the process. The use of “shaky cams” and small sets gives it a far less cinematic vibe than Doctor Who, but makes each scene interesting. In many cases the camera is right in the middle of dialog, as if you are somehow part of a conversation taking place. This makes the production remind me of an independent film, and makes it more charming in many ways. If you’re one of those people reading this and asking “why should I watch a six-year-old TV special that looks like an indie film?” there might be something of interest here. The main character, John Fleming, is played by none other than a pre-muscular Tom Hardy. It’s almost comical seeing him play a scrawny scientist considering his “tough guy” roles he has been getting lately. This show really proves that he is a very versatile actor, and could easily become a superstar in the future.

The story of A for Andromeda follows a group of scientists that discover a microwave signal coming from the Andromeda Galaxy. Once decoded, this signal is turned into a computer program that could be a huge breakthrough for all mankind – or be its undoing. The plot is a fairly hard science fiction (as in scientifically sound) story without all the bells and whistles that decorate many modern productions. Most British science fiction relies on concepts and dialog rather than sheer spectacle, and I believe this very program is a good case for this distinction between British sci-fi and US sci-fi. While this story is one of the productions biggest strengths, it is also a huge fault in the grand scheme of things.

Hard sci-fi relies on realistic takes on the genre, so one would imagine dialog and concepts that show great care in “keeping it real”. Instead we get material in a similar vein to all those procedural crime dramas on U.S. TV. A scientist pounds on the keyboard, says some technobabble, and *boom* something amazing happens that is truly unrealistic to modern science. It is in this way that while A for Andromeda tries to be “hard sci-fi” it’s really more of a drama – Like sci-fi for the CSI crowd.

I really liked this show despite its over-simplification of things, and it’s resemblance to a type of TV that I really do not enjoy. The acting is great, the direction is good considering the budget, and the actors involved all do a great job. For me, the highlight really was seeing Tom Hardy playing something different from a gangster or assassin, and fans of his should really check this out.

Frankenstein by National Theater Live

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were able to attend a showing of The National Theater’s Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  Being fans of Cumberbatch from the BBC show Sherlock, we jumped at the chance to attend and luckily have some like minded friends that would take us on a road trip.  Before anyone gets the impression that we have somehow made our way over to England or something, what we saw was a screening of the play filmed as a movie in St. Louis.  This new initiative, Called National Theater Live, is designed to get folks from all sorts of cities all around the world a chance to see a play normally just shown in London.  The play was directed by Danny Boyle, the guy behind the hugely popular film Slumdog Millionaire, and relied on an intriguing premise: on each night the two prominent actors (Miller and Cumberbatch) would switch roles, one night Miller would play Victor, the next he would play The Creature.  It’s a novel idea, but I still can’t stop thinking of a skit from That Mitchell and Webb Look:

As a young boy I had read the actual book, Frankenstein, and loved its dark science fiction elements far more than the Universal Pictures movie of the same name.  What always bugged me about the film was that they removed all the substance from the character of The Creature.  They literally took his voice away and made him well …. crappy.  This is no jab at Boris Karloff, but that film just isn’t my cup of tea.  Since then, I have seen a handful of films and TV miniseries that try to take the actual story seriously, all of which have fallen flat.  It was a great pleasure to finally see a version of the story true to the book in all its vile twisted glory!

The version we watched had Miller as Victor and Cumberbatch as the Creature, we only found out that the St. Louis Tivoli Theater was planning to show the later version a few days ago, but another trip to the other side of the state is largely out of the question this month.

The acting was, above all, top notch. Cumberbatch played the role of The Creature almost as if he based it on someone with a severe learning disability.  while immensely intelligent, the creature lacked any sort of social skills to exist in human society, not to mention his abnormal looks.  Miller was equally great as Victor, portraying him as a truly detestable man, someone that takes no responsibility for his actions whatsoever.  There were also appearances by a handful of actors that I’ve seen on other things including Karl Johnson, the guy who played the old man police constable in Hot Fuzz.

One felt true anguish watching the monster get beaten down and mistreated when what he really needed was nurturing and help.  This lead to horror when the creature, taking cues from a society that he sees as evil, does the most evil deeds one can imagine.  When you have Victor acting like an arrogant jerk as he does in this play, the question really becomes – who is the “bad guy” in all of this?  Once leaving the theater we felt emotionally drained and pissed off (at the world not the production), emotions that one should feel when watching something like this.

My only gripe with the play was a small problem with the otherwise awesome production. Towards the beginning of the play we were treated to a bit of interpretative dance as the Creature is hurled into the streets for the first time after being rejected by his creator.  A “steam locomotive” made up of dancers then pulls up and a weird Andrew Lloyd Weber-esque song and dance scene occurs.  This scene was very beautiful visually but sticks out as doing nothing more than dragging out the beginning of the play.  I’ve heard that the actual dance scene is something like twenty minutes long, thank God all we got was the edited down version.

If this ever comes out on DVD or is your city is holding a showing, I would greatly recommend seeing this, as it made for the highlight of a long road trip.

TV Review – Dirk Gently

Douglas Adams is one of those writers that never really gets enough credit here in America.  His books are pretty popular, especially in the nerdy science fiction fan sub-culture, yet most here don’t know his name.  I remember partaking in “bring a towel day” or somesuch when we went to see the Hollywood big budget version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and utterly baffled people.  Its commonplace top see kids dressed up as vampires and Jedi out in front of the theater, but towels got us all weird looks and things like “did you guys just come back from the pool?”

Not too long ago, I was browsing around a Douglas Adams entry on Wikipedia, and noticed that BBC4 was going to air a pilot for a proposed TV show called Dirk Gently, obviously based on Adam’s own Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.  I’ve actually never had a chance to read all of my copy of this book as it is included in a very large leather-bound edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide that I have.  I do know that they have toned down the zaniness of the book a tad, and re-adapted it for TV.  This is something that I’m fine with, as Adams was always adamant that his stories be changed around whenever they are re-made as TV shows, radio etc…

The story kicks off with an introduction to some of the eccentricities of Dirk Gently.  We find him interviewing an older lady asking questions on a missing person that he will be looking for if he takes the case.  He explains that he believes in the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things”, and that the bill he has footed her for a new refrigerator is definitely pertinent to the case at hand due to this.  This is a great first look into the character as the TV writers have shown just how he operates.  He is not only eccentric, but comes across as some sort of a con-man trying to prey on people that need him the most.  We soon find out that the case is, in fact to find a missing cat rather than a person.  A fitting case for this “poor man’s Sherlock Holmes”.

Bits and pieces of the original plot of the book are here, but a lot of side characters are left out.  The overlying plot of this episode is actually only part of the full story.  I can only hope that this gets picked up for a season and we get to see versions of characters such as “The Electric Monk”.  They did downplay the science fiction elements to a large degree except for one really big thing that exists as the lynchpin of the whole case.  I can’t spoil it too much as it would ruin the story!

The casting and location chosen for this production is very good for the budget at hand.  One can tell with a scarce amount of special effects and long scenes of dialog that this is a very low budget affair, and yet it never really looks “cheap”.  The few scenes we have that involve any CGI at all, namely a warehouse explosion. look pretty good.  I’m really glad they didn’t go too crazy as other shows with a small budget, most notably Hyperdrive, try too hard to look “big budget” and end up looking like a student film because of the terrible CGI.

I can’t wait to see if this gets picked up for a full run, but even if it does not this would be a fitting addition to any Douglas Adams fan’s collection.  Let’s just hope it get put out on DVD here at some point.

My Rating 4 out of 5