Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Nov 16, 2008

In commemoration of PopMatters’ look at the 40th Anniversary of The Beatles “White” album, Short Ends and Leader looks back at our review from November 2007 of the Fab Four’s farcical masterwork, Help!

1965 was a transitional year for international icons The Beatles. It would see the release of their artistic “breakthrough” album, the pot-inspired mostly acoustic gem Rubber Soul. It marked their turn from pop music phenoms into actual artists, dispensing with the cover songs and collective cutesy routine that made up the majority of their marketability. In its place was a growing sense of self, a realization that the mania began on their little British Isle was spreading, unabated, across every aspect of popular culture. And it was the year they reluctantly starred in their second feature film, Help!   Hoping to capitalize on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester kept the eccentric English humor intact. Gone, however, was the carefree innocence that seemed to spark their first foray into film. In its place was a workmanship and ethic that, while winning, provided portents of careering things to come.


After receiving a ring from an adoring fan, Beatles drummer Ringo finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with the notorious Kaili worshipping cult. Seems the piece of jewelry is one of their sacred ornaments, and whoever wears it will end up a human sacrifice to their god. Trying to avoid the murderous motives of High Priest Clang and his henchman, the boys seek help from a jeweler, the employees of an Indian Restaurant, and a crazed scientist named Foot and his bumbling assistant Algernon. Unfortunately, the only person able to help is fellow cult member Ahme. She seems sweet on Paul, and wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. With the help of Scotland Yard, the band records under heavy military guard, travels to Switzerland to avoid the thugs, and winds up confronting the perplexingly persistent fanatics on the shores of the Bahamas.


It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output—the maddening Magical Mystery Tour, the next to no involvement in the decent Yellow Submarine, the dark and bitter aura of Let It Be - it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve it. Fault it all you want for being a refashioned farce (the script was originally meant for someone else) or a marijuana soaked semi-spectacle, but the film contains some of the best onscreen work the band ever accomplished. It also features some of their most astounding songs of the pre-psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper period.


Help! is actually a hard movie to hate. The Beatles may be a tad dispirited here, less hyper and more humbled by what was rapidly becoming a cultural cocoon trapping them within their own fame (the next year—1966—would mark their decision to stop touring and concentrate on writing and recording only), but they make a perfect proto-punk Marx Brothers. While Ringo is the supposed star, perhaps because of the glowing notices he received from Night, it’s actually the entire foursome that truly shines. The reconfigured screenplay gives every member a standout sequence, from Paul’s amazing adventure ‘on the floor’ to John’s constant taunting of every authority figure in the film. The main narrative still centers on the emblematic drummer with the tendency toward ostentaceous jewelry and a large neb, but the other three turn in delightfully deadpan performances as well. It helps sell the rather clumsy, crackpot concept.


Equally endearing is the superb supporting cast. Made up of many then UK luminaries, Leo McKern and Eleanor Brom are excellent as opposing sides of the killer cult. Handling the pigeon English elements of his role with class and creativity, the future Rumpole of the Bailey never registers a single false note. Brom, on the other hand, is a strange choice for a romantic lead. Dark, imposing and very focused, she is a million miles from the hippy dippy flower children that were coming to mark the midpoint of the ‘60s. Returning to the Beatles camp for a second cinematic go round, Victor Spinetti is the perfect nonsense spewing mad scientist. Along with soon to be inseparable sidekick Roy Kinnear (the two became synonymous because of their brilliant chemistry here) they literally light up the screen. The sequence where they put Ringo into a metal expanding machine is a classic of screwball science shtick. In fact, there is a wonderful balance between physical and intellectual comedy here, something that definitely differentiates Help! from Night’s more normative approach.


And then there’s the music. While different entities love to claim the title of “Originator of the Music Video”, the Beatles will always remain the format’s grandest champions. Unlike Night, which used a performance based paradigm almost exclusively to showcase the songs, Help! creates little mini musical montages that form the foundation for everything MTV would do two decades later. While the title track purposely recalls the previous film, the next number, the fabulous pop tone “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sets the new standard for such presentations. Playing in a dimly lit studio, their silhouettes barely visible through the fog of cigarette (?) smoke, the boys bang out one of Lennon’s best, a catchy little number with a tantalizingly tough lyrical line. Indeed, most of the songs in Help! would avoid the June/Moon/Spoon musings of their Tin Pan Alley take on rock and roll to enter into realms that are dark, confrontational, and dismissive.



With titles like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a nice nod to new buddy Bob Dylan), “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, The Beatles were proving that they’d matured, and indeed, one of the main reasons some fans don’t like this glorified goofball lark is that it posits grown men, ready to explore the mysteries both inside and outside their insular world as juvenile jokesters. Many of the gags are aimed at the lowest levels of wit, and even some of the smarter material is offset by a clear cut cartoonish ideal. Still, there are incredibly clever moments (the opening sequence where we see the boys’ fictional living quarters, the police inspector’s spot-on Ringo impression) when the group’s inherent intelligence shines through. In fact, aside from the standard action film finish which finds the gang involved in car chases and foot races, the verbal humor is on par with anything Night had to offer.


As part of the long awaited DVD presentation from Capital Records and Apple Corps, we learn about the difficulty director Richard Lester had in coming up with another Beatles project. Popularity was demanding the boys’ return to the big screen, but since another mock documentary about their career was out of the question, something slightly more surreal had to be created. On the second disc of added content (sadly, sans current input of the remaining band members) we hear stories about the infamous amount of ganja on set, the description of a disastrous sequence that didn’t make the final cut, and confirm what many at the time were already quite aware of—the Beatles were chaffing at their continued closed-off existence. It was almost impossible for them to travel anywhere—even on set—without crowds of screaming fans isolating them. It’s clear that what seemed exciting in A Hard Day’s Night was becoming more and more unbearable by Help!


This is perhaps why the film feels strained to some. The madcap mop tops who captured everyone’s hearts a year before had become slightly dampened slaves to their incalculable success. The notion that they were now international trend setters, mocked and mimicked by every group looking to ride the cresting British Invasion must have manifested itself in ways that, subconsciously, snuck onto the celluloid. It is clear that the fun loving blokes we see cascading down the Alps to the glorious sounds of John Lennon’s classic “Ticket To Ride” would soon become introspective—and independent—parts of an unique whole. They would go on to make albums that transcended the medium, offering timeless examples of composition as art. But Help! remains a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface.   



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Nov 8, 2008

Has it really been 20 years? Was it really just two decades ago when a local Minnesota UHF station, desperate for some cheap weekend programming, hired a few provisional stand-ups and gave them access to a few minutes of programming and their b-grade matinee movie archives? And was it really the tale end of the Reagan era when Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu, and behind the scenes studio technicians Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon, got together with some hastily cobbled together puppets and a crappy piece of schlock and made the practice of talking back to a bad movie screen cool? Indeed, the KTMA phase of Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on 24 November, 1988, and the rest is, how they say, basic pay cable channel history.


It’s definitely been an unusual and uneasy legacy: A few station switches; a cult phenomenon; a rumored acrimonious breakup between the original partners; the ascension of head writer Mike Nelson into the show’s new star, critical acclaim; the final gasp of Sci-Fi fandom; the rebirth as competing entities Riff Trax and Cinematic Titanic; a few DVD releases. Indeed, for anyone who has worshipped the efforts of what used to be known as Best Brains (or a close collective facsimile thereof), keeping track of all the continuing comedy has been a chore in and of itself. While Nelson, Murphy, and current co-conspirator Bill Corbett deconstruct every new release in their audio only format, Hodgson, Weinstein, Beaulieu have recruited Mary Jo Pehl and (TV’s) Frank Conniff to jumpstart the silhouetted satire routine.


And with its fourth independent installment, the lamentably awful Legacy of Blood, Cinematic Titanic finally finds its groove. Previously, the quintet battled between reverence to the past and placating the present. Fans wanted backstory, clear indications of what the group were doing and why they were returning to familiar territory. What was the Time Tube, and why the weird warning light “skits” in the middle of the movies. Well, all those who wondered about the internal workings of the CT situation, pay attention. Before the horrific thriller from 1971 unravels, the collective have a conversation with the crew which may fill in many of the blanks. While not 100% satisfying, it sets us up for all the underground bunker commentary to come.


As for Legacy, it’s beyond horrific, the kind of And Then There Were None rip-off that made Agatha Christie cry in her Mousetrap. When the patriarch of the rotten Dean family dies, the siblings all show up for the reading - or in this case, the listening - of his will. They are joined by their respective spouses, repressed memories, and the most unhelpful set of servants ever. Naturally, the dead man’s estate stipulates that they all must spend a week at his home, and that if any of them should die, the other’s split the money evenly. Before you can say “Miss Jane Marple”, relatives are reeling, freshly killed corpses pushing up the alcohol fueled daises. Eventually, one remaining Dean is left, and when the murderer is finally revealed, we get a strange sense of cinematic déjà vu. Or maybe it’s just gas.


Like an episode of Dynasty gone gangrenous, Legacy of Blood uses a freakish family, the standard story set up legalese, and a bountiful collection of closeted skeletons to turn something supposedly shocking and scandalous into 90 minutes of mindnumbing dullness. Director Carl Munson was clearly a fan of the Method style of acting. He lets every member of his ‘Where Are They Now’ cast crow and carry on like mourners at a New Orleans wake. And then they REALLY start to overact. As part of the onscreen interpersonal dynamic, we get a sister incestually obsessed with her practically porcine brother, a psychiatrist in-law whose constantly on the make for the clan’s over the hill matron, a cowardly couple whose ratty little dog takes a lethal swan dive into the cement pond, and a tank of piranhas just waiting for a human body part to munch on.


Instead of terror however, Legacy of Blood is all talk.  Characters here just gab and gab away, hoping that their lengthy conversations overloaded with suggestions and sordidness will make our skin crawl. Sadly, they just make our eyes droop. Naturally, this makes for perfect Cinematic Titanic fodder. The gang can’t ignore the unctuous sexual sleaze pouring out of every character, and their quips about said horniness are classic. Sure, some of the material crosses over into the more “adult” oriented element of their demographic, but it’s nice to hear some borderline blue humor from the gang. Equally funny are the fill-in bits, with Trace offering up a goofy game show were Josh must guess which item WON’T kill him, while Frank is busted for that most heinous of show etiquette violations - gum chewing!


But it’s the back and forth between cast and celluloid that keeps the Cinematic Titanic series fresh and fun. The sequence where the chauffer character Frank is seen lounging among his collection of Nazi paraphernalia (including a lamp made of human skin - yikes!) is one of the series’ best, and nothing says ‘stupidity’ like the bad indecipherable accent attempted by Munson pal (and exploitation titan) Buck Kartalian. While most of Legacy of Blood - a retitle from the original Blood Legacy, go figure - is antiquated e- performers pitching fits of hopeless thespian histrionics, there are small moments which remind us of why films like this are just asking for a sassy dressing down.


With 20 years comes a lot of history - of missed opportunities, of unofficial classics, of times when it seemed the subject and the subjected meshed in perfect comedy clarity. Cinematic Titanic provides glimpses of such splendor. It reminds us of the reasons we fell in love with Hodgson’s homespun experiment in the first place. It’s the kind of entertainment that speaks to a specific ideal, that angers some purists while pleasing those with a much smaller motion picture axe to grind.  As they continue to create their own unique revamp of the pristine MST format, there will probably be stumbles and struggles along the way. And anytime you take on the distribution yourself, you’re bound to get lost in the self-produced melee. But fans both young and old understand that there’s nothing better than the original. With Cinematic Titanic, and Legacy of Blood, you get the closest of reproductions.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Nov 7, 2008

If you ask Guillermo Del Toro what his most personal films are, the answer seems obvious - at first. The Devil’s Backbone was a chance for the Mexican moviemaker to discuss the impact of Spanish Civil War on his ancestral homeland. It combined a Gothic ghost story with a strong political agenda. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth extended the meditation to the Franquist repression during the Franco regime. Again, we got a mixture of history, heritage, honor, and horror. The third choice, however, is the oddest overall. While no one expects Blade 2 or Mimic to join the others, both Cronos and the original Hellboy were close to his humble geek heart.


Yet, oddly enough, it’s the sequel to his 2004 comic book hero epic that sits closest to the man’s soul. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation (new from Universal) of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, we hear Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.


You see, long ago, when the Earth was green, humanity and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could be let loose. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections.  Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic demon with a decent heart named Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.


Clearly, the connection to Mike Mignola’s comic and character is now very loose, to say the least. In fact, Del Toro reveals as part of his discussion, that when he first heard the idea for a follow-up film, Hellboy’s daddy was distraught. He didn’t like or appreciate much about the follow-up. But leave it to the likable Latino with the mind of an ADD amplified arrested adolescent to bring him around. The Golden Army is indeed great. It is two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.


Del Toro has always been the biggest of genre mavens, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling over his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.


Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film. 


Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.


All of these underlying themes and subtle subtexts are further explored in the DVDs bonus features (by the way, the final disc is just a digital copy of the film). We learn how the Troll Market reflects Del Toro’s views on good and evil. We see deleted scenes meant to strength the bonds between the characters. As part of the Director’s Notebooks, Del Toro discusses how Pan’s Labyrinth and the difficulty of said shoot allowed him to escape into the world of The Golden Army. And all throughout the added content, form and design, shape and approach are dissected and described, Del Toro’s unique idea for the film fleshed out by artisan’s able to fully realize his aims.


That’s why this movie is one of 2008’s best. Del Toro describes it best when he says that it’s the kind of film that, if he had seen it when he was an eager 11 year old, he would have obsessed on it for months. That’s because, instead of pulling back, this director unleashes the full force of his creative power - and the results are ridiculously resplendent.  It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat.


So we really shouldn’t be surprised to see a gentle giant with Satan’s skin standing right alongside the real world characters caught between war and remembrance in Del Toro’s canon. To dismiss Hellboy II: The Golden Army as nothing more than a pleasant popcorn experience is to underestimate the power in this filmmaker’s soul. Of all the foreign voices finding a way in mainstream genre moviemaking, Guillermo Del Toro is truly one of the best. It will be interesting to see what he does when given the canvas crafted by Peter Jackson and the universe inhabited by the equally endemic characters of JRR Tolkien. If it’s anything like this amazing masterwork, the two-part Hobbit will be another item in Del Toro’s list of favorites. And what an impressive collection it is.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Nov 2, 2008

In Troma’s world, it takes all types. Where once the mighty Manhattan madhouse of independent art used to simply shuttle out its own perplexing pictures for a VCR hungry fanbase, the last two decades has seen more outside the offices distribution than direct creative contributions. Of course, there’s no real reason to complain about such a business model. As a result, we were treated to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s classic Cannibal: The Musical, Giuseppe Andrews’ Trailer Town, and Jenna Fischer’s Lollilove. After a while in the commercial morass, concentrating on the luminous epic Poultrygeist, Troma is back bringing the unsung and uncelebrated to the masses. In the case of the two DVDs discussed, both fall firmly into the company’s corporate ideology while reestablishing Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Hertz as the most important names in indie filmmaking today. 


In the case of our first film, it’s sometimes safe to say that most moviemakers are just plain nuts. They look around at the rest of the breed, making cinema about important subjects or personal obsessions, and they just go ape crap. It’s not enough to make a plain old comedy or a standard horror flick. No, for them, it’s a process of tapping into the darkest, most disturbed resources of the cerebral cortex and pulling out a plumb peculiar motion picture pie. This is clearly what happened when writers/directors Adam Deyoe and Eric Gosselin decided to express themselves, cinematically. Responsible for such odd sounding fare as The Mental Dead and Street Team Massacre, the art-oriented schlock meisters at Troma are treating us to their gay Bigfoot epic Yeti: A Love Story.


That’s right - Sasquatch is a homosexual and worshiped by a cult run by ex-monk Raymond. Sending out his pretty young members to lure fresh man meat to his compound, he offers up sexual sacrifices to the beast in exchange for…well, that’s never really clear. Anyway, when a group of local college kids head out into the woods for a combination camping trip/sarcasm-fest, they run smack dab into Raymond’s ridiculous sect. Adam becomes the Yeti’s longtime companion, while Dick is seduced by a horny faction member. Soon, a local priest lets Emily know that she is the chosen one, able to bring down Raymond and his gang with a crossbow. Oh yeah, and a bumpkin named Sex Piss is hounding these ‘city slickers’ from one side of the boondocks to the other.



With dialogue that sounds like it was made up by morons making fun of other idiots, and an alternative lifestyles theme that is simultaneously both provocative and retarded, Yeti: A Love Story is an undeniably unsane treat. It lilts along on ambitions so outsized it can never succeed, and yet finds a fresh and often funny way of trying to make it happen. The script by co-directors Adam Deyoe and Eric Gooselin (with some help from Jim Martin and Moses Roth) offers up such tasty bon mots as “Yetis are a myth, like leprechauns…or tomatoes” and “A fraternity is not a ‘frat’. After all, you don’t call a country a…”, but befuddled quips aren’t the movie’s only madness. Along the way toward the eventual interspecies erotica, we visit Tentacle Boy, a side show attraction, watch as one lost camper runs head on into every escape cliché in the book, and scratch our skulls over the massive paperwork required by local law enforcement. 



Certainly we are in the presence of regressive genius, or intellectualized inbreeding. Deyoe and Gosselin may not have a solid cinematic sense (this is point-and-shoot camcorder creativity at its best), but what they lack in lame mise-en-scene, they make up for in bad-ass weirdness. Yeti: A Love Story is the kind of unassuming entertainment experience that catches you off guard time and time again. Just when you think you’ve figured everything out, a couple of characters will battle to the pseudo-death in a police station bathroom, organs and blood flowing as the notion of false finales plays over and over. Similarly, the gay undercurrent is given a riotous RomCom sheen, our man/monster dynamic sounding suspiciously like Hollywood’s typical treacle processed between a guy and some goon in a gorilla costume. Funny, freakish, and often foaming at the frame, Yeti: A Love Story is like a case of motion picture rabies. Only several shots to the solar plexus will cure you.



Speaking of Tinsel Town tripe, the insider satire has always been one of the artform’s greatest gravy train derailers. Nothing sets studio suits ablaze quicker than talent that tries to bite the hand that mishandles it. Making fun of the movie business itself is like shooting fish on a firing range, or mocking Britney Spears’ lack of panties. It seems simple enough, until you look the concept squarely in the short hairs. Cyxork 7, a bizarre-o gob in the face of all that film production stands for, looks initially like a sharp stick in the lens by longtime industry insider John Huff. But after looking over our co-writer/directors IMDb credits, he appears awfully worked up over a few episodes of The Night Stalker, and an extended stay on CHiPs.  Still, whatever crawled up his keister and cranked him over, the results are a hilarious and often insightful directorial dressing down.


The latest installment of the sci-fi franchise Cyxork 7 has decided on some cinematic gimmickry to make the series profitable again. First time feature filmmaker Angela LaSalle is in way over her head, and with a looming earthquake predicted, she hopes to wrap her efforts to take advantage of the natural ‘production value’. Of course, she is having an impossible time with her cast and crew including an angry German cinematographer, a boyfriend/assistant who keeps rewriting the script, a pair of fanatical web-heads who are responsible for the original screenplay, various ancillary a-holes, and the ever-loaming presence of b-movie maverick Clever Bill Emory. But it’s Kommander 88 himself, Rex Anderson, who is causing the most concern. Thanks to his harpy of a wife, he refuses to follow LaSalle’s artistic vision. It’s enough to destroy the project before Mother Nature has a chance to do it herself. 



With a wonderful cast perfectly in tune with his tirade, and a subtext that suggests the chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out aspects of celebrity, Cyxork 7 is something quite unexpected. While Troma can treat us to movies that are entertaining and unusual, ‘thoughtful’ isn’t a word often used in connection with Lloyd Kaufman and company. This is not to say that all of their output is single digit IQ oriented, by Huff’s Hollywood hatful of hate is smart, daring, and as acerbic as a retired film critic. Jaded isn’t a strong enough term for this film’s view of the business, and the media as depicted has become so cynical, it aims lower than the lowest common denominator. From the moment we see the raised middle finger of a CNN style corporate logo, we know exactly where Huff is coming from.



This is a dense, determined indictment of an artform that’s lost its way. Nothing is sacred: the Internet geek goon squads are portrayed as whiny slackers that think they know better but actually end up more misguided than the moviemakers; Infotainment TV is portrayed as a series of shock value soundbites mixed in with “why aren’t I famous” snatches of self loathing; movie stars are made out to be self-centered and insecure while everyone around their periphery - from the DP and F/X crew to a pregnant spouse - thinks they can direct. Perhaps the best moment arrives when young gun executive Clever Bill Emory arrives to blow up the production. His dialogue, a combination of schlock horror successes and nonsequitor admonitions, is so inspired you wish he was onscreen more than a single scene.



A lot of Cyxork 7 plays this way. When overwhelmed documentarian Angela LaSalle sits down to dinner with her leading man Anderson and his shrewish wife, the emotions registered on her defeated face are simply stunning. Similarly, when star Ray Wise goes into full smarm mode, he makes Bruce Campbell’s clueless chutzpah look like chinbone child’s play. As with any look at a corrupt business from the inside out, Huff (with script help from Andreas Kossak) tends to forget that we, the audience, aren’t as familiar with his farcical targets as he is. And when the last act disaster actually happens, the film can’t help but turn over into something standard and formulaic. But that’s only five minutes out of an otherwise blistering 90 minute beat down. While you may not always laugh out loud at what Cyxork is saying, the skewered sentiments are always crystal clear. 


As with all Troma DVDs, these two films are fleshed out with some wonderful added content. Both offer up insightful full length audio commentaries (Cyxork, naturally enough, being far more serious than Yeti‘s), and massive Making-of featurettes. With the Bigfoot gang, we are treated to nearly a dozen short films and trailers, while on the sci-fi side of things, there’s a wonder selection of interviews and festival appearances. Naturally, our corporate sponsor has to get into the act and offer up a collection of their own merchandising come-ons. Yet by supplementing each entry the way they do, Troma teaches us about the fine (and seemingly dwindling) art of true independent filmmaking. It takes all kinds, and all temperaments, to turn out even the oddest piece of celluloid.


In the next few months, we will be treated to a literal treasure trove of new digital distractions. Old favorites like Combat Shock will get a much needed technological make-over, while advertised treats like Coons: Night of the Bandits of the Night threaten yet another trip into the tried and true toilet and trash motifs that made Troma a three decade old icon. And the best bit? Who knows what new classic the company will unleash on an unsuspecting fanbase. Where once it seemed dark and desolate, the future looks bright for Uncle Lloyd and his lunatic fringe. It’s safe to say that Troma is back - not that it really went anywhere in the first place.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Nov 1, 2008

It holds a sacred place in the science fiction fan’s heart. It’s also the source of much engorged geek consternation. Science aside, the narrative joys and plotpoint illogic of time travel has fueled a great deal of future shock cinema. From assassin androids traveling to the “past” to erase the human responsible for their eventual destruction to present practitioners running through history rewriting the record book, the notion of messing with space and chronology has delivered a fair amount of speculative sturm and drang. For many, one of the best examples of the genre is The Final Countdown. It’s ‘world at war’ storyline seems to avoid many of the pitfalls while supplying a good amount of realistic revisionism.


While on maneuvers in the Pacific, Captain Matthew Yelland receives civilian observer Warren Lasky on his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Under strict orders from his boss, Mr. Tideman, Lasky is supposed to observe, then report back to the mysterious man responsible for the vessel’s design. This bothers Air Wing Commander Richard Owens a great deal. After passing through a freak storm, the Nimitz suddenly finds itself lost in time. The year is 1941, and the world is in chaos. In fact, the date is December 6th, one day before the Japanese attacks and destroys Pearl Harbor. Thus, a quandary is created. Does the Nimitz and its crew prevent the surprise ambush, thereby rewriting history? Or do they let events play out, recognizing that any interference could condemn their own existence? Over much onboard handwringing, a surviving Senator and his daughter may also play an important part of the overall equation.


A prime example of enthusiast devotion circumventing some dated cinematic approaches, The Final Countdown is one of the best examples of the “what if” genre ever attempted. And because of its subject matter, it’s also one of the most frustrating. For those with a knowledge of America’s battle-weary past, the concept of a modern aircraft carrier arriving in the Pacific in time to stop the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is just too good to be true. A whole set of futuristic free associations come from the juxtaposition of contemporary technology with 1940s fighting power. Once the Japanese had been defeated, would Germany have been far behind? Would we have needed the A-bomb and millions of deaths to finally stop the Axis rampage, or could a group of misplaced modern warriors wipe out war once and for all? Or maybe, interference would have aided in a Nazi triumph?


It’s this sort of speculation that makes movies like The Final Countdown work, and for a while at least, actor turned director Don Taylor indulges them. A true Tinsel Town journeymen, the filmmaker responsible for everything from a musical version of Tom Sawyer to the first Omen sequel has a wonderful way with actors. He brings out the best in such top flight talent as Kirk Douglas (Yelland), Martin Sheen (Lasky), James Farentino (Owens), Charles Durning (the Senator), and Soon-Teck Oh (an enemy prisoner). Their seriousness and sense of purpose really drives the authenticity of what could have been contrived and rather unrealistic. For those who like action and effects however, The Final Countdown is sort of a let-down. Indeed, in those pre-CG days of 1980, the aerial dogfights and ship to shore spectacle can feel a tad…antiquated?


But thanks to the cooperation of the US Navy, which went out of its way to help the production, and Taylor’s no nonsense cinematic approach, The Final Countdown succeeds. It may be more provocative than thrilling, and does raise questions that the otherwise solid script (a group effort by four separate writers) fails to fully address, but it’s the internal mechanisms, the ability to wonder about the effect on history - and consequentially, our current global situation - that really sell the situations. Tempers may flare and scenery might occasionally get chewed (with Douglas, Sheen, and Farentino around, that’s a given), but Taylor’s matter of fact filmmaking keeps everything comparatively in check. That’s why fans keep coming back to it even after nearly three decades. 


All of which makes this, the first blu-ray release from exploitation experts Blue Underground, both completely understandable and a tad curious. With a huge stockpile of material to draw on, The Final Countdown seems like a surreal choice for the fledgling format. Indeed, when one thinks of high definition releases, a movie from 28 years ago doesn’t typically draw one’s immediate attention. Sure, fans will celebrate, but getting the uninitiated interested will take something more than definitive technical specs. Luckily, the updated transfer is truly excellent. As part of the HD process, the 1080dp image is very strong. The colors are smooth and there is a decent amount of grain. There are nice black levels, a strong sense of detail, and an impressive “modern” feel to the filmmaking.


As for the aural aspects of the release, the lossless 7.1 DTS HD Master is excellent. The speakers get a real workout during the infrequent but effective battle scenes. There is also a 7.1 TrueHD and a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround mix. The DTS is the best. When it comes to added features, however, the Big Blue U grabs a few extras from previous standard DVD releases and makes them available here. The full length audio commentary is interesting, but since we are only getting the limited purview of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (no other member of the cast or crew participates), it can be very dry at time. On the other hand, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (who acted as Associate Producer and played a small cameo role) gets a chance to vent about his ‘horrific’ experience on the film. The pilots involved in the production also get a 30 minute featurette that is quite fun.


Sure, some will argue that the movie is nothing more than a dolled-up propaganda film for the US Navy, the magic hour shots of planes circling the Nimitz inspiring enough jingoistic joy to get even the most sensible citizen oiled up and aiming for their nearest recruitment center. And then there’s the whole space/time continuum argument, a bubbling brain buster than can have even the most learned MIT graduate crying cinematic “Uncle”. Still, for all its specious sci-fi friction and old school stuntwork, The Final Countdown is actually quite entertaining. It may not satisfy those still smarting from their own time travel trauma, but it does meet with the genre’s provisional motion picture aims. And on the new digital format, it’s never looked better.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.