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Monday, September 26, 2016

Westworld (1973) - Review

Long before he was resurrecting dinosaurs to hunt mankind author Michael Crichton took a shot at directing a science fiction adventure thriller, and that result was the movie Westworld. As a first time director the studio wasn’t keen on giving him much in the way of a budget; so with just over a million dollars to spend it’s actually quite impressive on how good the film looks, and it certainly made MGM happy as it was their biggest hit that year, but just how good is it?

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Survival Tip #1 Do not vacation at any park designed by Michael Crichton.

 The movie Westworld is about a futuristic park where tourist can visit and live out their fantasies in either the Wild West, Medieval Europe, or the decadent palaces of Ancient Rome. For a mere thousand dollars a day guests can enter a completely immersive and realistic version of eras long gone by, all in complete safety as nothing can possibly go wrong. The movie’s primary protagonists are John Blane (James Brolin) and his best friend Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin); Blane has visited the park before but this is Peter’s first time, and it’s along with Peter that we learn how the park works. As he’s a repeat visitor Blane works as the film’s exposition machine as he constantly explains how the park works to his friend. In fact I doubt Peter even read a brochure before agreeing to this vacation as he appears to have no clue as to how this “Robot World” functions. He continually asks Blane if so and so is real or a robot, and he wonders how safe is it shooting at people with what looks like fully function guns. Peter is apparently a lawyer so you’d think he would have done some research before plunking down the kind of cash this park is asking for.

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Survival Tip #2 Pissing off robot Yul Brynner is not a good idea.

Peter and Blane have loads of fun shooting up the town, performing jail breaks, and repeatedly killing The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner). They even get laid at the local saloon by some robot prostitutes, which according to Blane is more fun than thwarting a bank robbery. When after one night of particular raucous bar brawling the two find themselves facing off against The Gunslinger for a third time, because Peter had killed the dude the previous two times Blane decides it’s his turn. This turns out to be a big mistake as The Gunslinger mercilessly guns him down. This is of course a tad shocking as we’ve been repeatedly told how safe the park is. Turns out some nasty computer virus has infected the machines and now all three areas of the park are full of murderous robots.

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Survival Tip #3 Do not take a job that includes airtight rooms.

The technicians who run and maintain the park do everything they can to shut down the rampaging attractions, but all they manage to do is cut the power to the doors and thus trapping themselves in a room with a dwindling supply of oxygen. This leaves poor Peter on his own against an armed and relentless murder machine, and to make matters worse The Gunslinger recently received upgrades that included infrared vision and increased audio capabilities. I’m not sure why these features were added as I can’t see how this could affect a guest's enjoyment as these robot gunfighters are supposed to lose in a fight, so giving a robot that big of an advantage over a guest seems counterproductive, but as the man said, “We spared no expense.

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Survival Tip #4 Acid and fire will solve most problems.

After being stalked across the deserts of Westworld, through carnage of Roman World, and into the stone hallways of Medieval World, our protagonist is finally able to triumph over the mechanical menace by splashing sulfuric acid in his face, and then setting him on fire with a torch. It’s after the credits role that we can assume Peter’s real skills come to the fore as he sues the living hell out of everyone involved.

Westworld is a fun science fiction thriller, and it was a nice spin on the genre to have the rough and tough James Brolin killed off and the nebbish nerd Richard Benjamin turning out to be the hero, but to fully enjoy the film you really can’t think too hard about how the park works, because it makes no fucking sense. So now that we’ve watched the movie let’s take a more scrutinizing look at how these three parks function.

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Which one is Epcot Center, again?

Problem One: The Delos Corporation created three large theme park attractions that couldn’t possibly house enough guests to make it financially feasible. I know a thousand dollars a day seems like a lot of money but just how many guests could each park accommodate at one time? The town we see in Westworld looks to have about a hundred residents, and the bulk of them must be robots. I can’t see guests signing up to be hotel clerks or schoolmarms, but because even our heroes can’t tell who is a robot we can never know for sure what the ratio of guest to robot is.  The only ones we know for sure are actual guest in this town, and not robots, would be James Brolin, Richard Benjamin, and Dick Van Patten, who gets the job of Sheriff after Brolin kills the robot one. We see four other people get out of the stagecoach with our two leads, so we can assume they are also guests, but that means this area of the park is getting roughly six thousand dollars a day in revenue. Even if we assume that there may be a few guests already on site I still can’t see this park taking in enough money to cover operating expenses

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One wooden railing: $120.00 Exciting bar brawl...priceless.

In just the three days we see the town having multiple shoot outs, a bank robbery, a jail break, and a barroom brawl, all causing extensive damage to the robots and their surroundings. How much does a brick jailhouse cost to rebuild if it’s blown up weekly? The price of replacing broken windows and furniture after every fight must certainly add up. Then when you take into consideration the repair work on the robots the costs really start to skyrocket. Every night during “repair time” a team of workers head out into the streets of Westworld to collect damaged robots, because the guns in this park shoot actually bullets and do blow holes in the robot, and that’s got to be bloody expensive.

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And just look at the staff required to fix them.

There looks to be a team of technicians working on each and every robot brought in, and these are people versed in robotics so one can assume they aren’t being paid minimum wage. This isn’t even taking into account the staff that has to monitor the goings on in the park 24/7. Sure some of the menial labour such as janitors and tour guide could be robots, but the salary budget would still be astronomical to keep three parks functioning with the support facilities needed to run them. Speaking of “Repair Time” just how is this done without destroying the illusion of this being the real Wild West? We see Blane and Peter getting into bar fights and screwing saloon girls late into the night, so exactly when do the repair teams have time to sneak out and pick up the broken robots? Worse is the fact that all robots shutdown is at a pre-determined time in the night, which means at one point Dick Van Patten was in bed with a “dead” saloon girl. Do technicians monitor each robot so they don't accidentally shut it down during a sex act?  And just how good can sex be with these robots if they don't have human body temperature?  Why they don't have a proper body temperature will be explained shortly.

Also for this illusion to be maintained all the guests must go to bed by a certain time and not wake up and decide to wander through town or they'd spot the clean-up crew, and as we see that when the robots are turned back on in the morning its full daylight we have to assume there are no early risers among the guests either.

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Maybe the guests are drugged during the clean-up process.

Problem Two: Let’s talk about park safety. For this we will ignore the computer virus that turned the robots into death dealers and just deal with how the park is supposed to function normally, if all goes according to plan. Blane explained to his friend that the guns in Westworld that are issued to the park guests have temperature sensors that prevent them from shooting humans, or anything with a high body temperature, but allow them to 'kill' the cold-blooded androids. The late Brandon Lee can attest to just how dangerous even guns loaded with blanks can be let alone ones that fire real bullets. Even if the guns will only fire on things with a high body temperature that’s not going to stop a bullet from ricocheting off something and then imbedding itself into a guest’s head. And what about the barroom fights? Exactly how does a guest not get injured when he is being hit by a chair or tossed over a bar? I’m pretty sure punching a robot in the jaw could easily result in a broken hand. The problem becomes even worse if you take Medieval World into consideration; how do you rig temperature sensors on a sword? This leads to the next problem; how can you tell your fellow guests from the robots?

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“Don’t shoot, I’m Dick Van Patten.”

Problem Three: Not knowing who the other guests are. We learn that the only way to tell a robot from a human is that the creators of the robots haven’t quite perfected the hands, they have goofy ridges across their palms, but unless you are inspecting every person you meet for this defect you will not have a clue as to who is a fellow guest or who is a robot. Say you aim your gun at the Sheriff, you pull the trigger and then nothing happens because it turns out that now the Sheriff is being played by a guest and not a red paint spraying robot. Once again that pretty much destroys the illusion this park is trying to maintain, unless you are in Medieval World and then you’ve probably just murdered a fellow guest.

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“Don’t worry folks, it’s all part of the show.”

Problem Four: Who would pay this kind of money for a Westworld vacation?  We’ve already established that a thousand dollars a day fee would require many more guests checking in for this park to be economically viable, but if they did get enough people what would they all do?  In the opening promo a Delos employee is seen interviewing guests as they leave the park and one of the guest’s states, “I’ve just been the Sheriff of Westworld for the past two weeks.”  First this means he spent fourteen thousand dollars on this vacation, which seems rather excessive, and that he spent all of that time in the Westworld park.  Just how exciting and fun could that be for two whole weeks?  When I’ve visited Disney World Frontierland was just the place you walked through on your way from Adventureland to Fantasyland.  It’s certainly not my number one destination, and I certainly couldn’t see spending a whole day let alone two weeks there no matter how realistic it was.

But say being a sheriff of a Wild West town is your ultimate fantasy, and well worth fourteen thousand dollars to you, what if some other guests had that same fantasy?  Do you draw straws to see who gets to be sheriff, or if someone was there first are you stuck playing the deputy or the possibly the barkeep?

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“I’m paying a thousand dollars a day to serve you drinks.”

So if you manage not to be injured or killed during your stay you still have to worry about being bored to death.  Medieval World and Roman World would at least have a few more fun activities than what you’d get in Westworld, but after a few tournaments or an orgy or two you’d probably be ready to go home, or at least visit one of the other parks.  Staying two weeks in only one park doesn’t seem that attractive to me, even if the sexbots are superbly well programmed.

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This robot does seem to capture the despair of a real 19th Century prostitute.

Westworld is a fun movie but as an actual park attraction it makes the safety parameters of the Star Trek Holodecks look exemplary. Even without the computer malfunction we see in this move the park would be seeing lawsuits due to guest injuries on a daily basis. What if a guest of Roman World tried to rape a slave girl who just so happened to be another guest? How could jousting in Medieval World not result in multiple fatalities? What if a guest of Westworld mistook a real rattlesnake for a robot one and let it bite him? With the park’s immense operating costs, it’s proportionally low revenue stream, and the multiple lawsuits they’d be trying to settle out of court each day, this park would be out of business within the first year if not sooner.

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“Where’s my refund?”

Michael Crichton certainly created an interesting world with this movie, but one that is not all that realistic, even by science fiction standards, so it will be interesting to see what the HBO series starring Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris will be like and how they address the problems inherent with the concept.

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Coming Soon!

Futureworld (1976) – Review

In 1973 a small little science fiction film was released by MGM called Westworld, then three years later American International Pictures made a sequel, and it kind of sucked. The original movie was written and directed by science fiction author Michael Crichton, and as I mentioned in my review of that movie it was cool high concept idea, executed very well but was best watched without giving too much though into how this park would actually run. In the case of director Richard T. Heffron’s Futureworld you have a film with half a good concept but very poor execution. So what exactly went wrong with Futureworld?

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The film’s primary protagonist is newspaper reporter Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda), who apparently wrote the expose on the disaster at Westworld, and now a with a tip from a murdered source he wants to investigate what the Delos Corporation is up to now. He’s partnered up with TV reporter Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) who was to be sent on a publicity junket to check out the new park, and she’s too not happy about being stuck shotgunning with print journalist Chuck. It’s kind of cool seeing a futuristic 70s movie where one character claims that "print is dead" and that, “No one reads anymore.” Of all the stuff in this movie the filmmakers try to pass off as “futuristic” that is really the only one that was rather prescient.  Of course this antagonism is more about providing sexual tension than anything else.

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“Print journalism is dead, and I don’t like you. So sex later?”

Tracy Ballard would be right at home at Fox News; she's constantly criticizing Chuck for being suspicious, and is worried that their hosts will cancel her television special if they get caught actually investigating stuff. The fact that two years ago a park run by Delos resulted in the death of over 50 guests, as well 95 of their own technicians being killed or wounded, is more than reason enough to want to do a thorough investigation of this new park, no matter how much money they tell you they spent on upgrading their tech. Dr. Duffy (Arthur Hill), one of Delos’s head honchos, explains how Delos has spent over 1.5 billion dollars rebuilding their equipment and that, “Not only is new Delos the most fantastic resort in human history, it is also failsafe.” And how exactly do back up this claim that not only is Futureworld the “Happiest Place on Earth” but also the safest? Well Dr. Schneider (John Ryan) reveals that all the monitoring technicians for the park are now robots, sighting human error the cause of the Westworld disaster.  Dr. Schneider apparently likes to rewrite history as it was clearly established in the last film that it was a computer virus, caused by programs that were designed by computers themselves, that was the real culprit.

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“Guys, haven’t you heard about the dangers of a technological singularity?”

For those of you not up on your computer sciences the technological singularity is the hypothesis that the invention of an artificial super-intelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. Whether this will result in a utopia or a robopocalypse is the big question. This film will not try and answer that question. Instead this film wastes countless minutes showing us the wonders of this park; where guests can drink from the fountain of youth in Spa-World, joust with nights in Medieval World and in Futureworld they can indulge in holographic chess, robot boxing, or skiing on Mars.

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Apparently in the future we’ll be wearing brightly coloured mattress covers.

When we aren’t being subjected of lame comedic moments like the Japanese dignitary Mr. Takaguchi (John Fujioka) sneaking a camera into Medieval World (Get it? He's Japanese and always has a camera) or a game show winner going on and on about having sex with a robot, “Once you make it with a robot chick you’ll never want anything else,” we are subjected to watching Chuck and Tracy wander up and down an endless amounts of maintenance corridors. Not only are these scenes tedious but it only goes to showcase what an inept investigative journalist Chuck is.  At one point they find a bank of machines and he just starts throwing switches at random, and when Tracy questions what he’s doing his response is, “Don’t bother me, I’ve got an instinct for these things.” Sadly his “instinct” fails him and instead he turns on a machine that generates three samurai warriors. It’s at this point that we realize we aren’t watching a science fiction movie anymore but one that is leaning more towards science fantasy. Luckily our “heroes” are saved by a mechanic named Harry (Stuart Margolin), who just so happens to have been friends with the dead tipster that brought Chuck here in the first place. It’s with Harry’s help that the two finally uncover what is really going on in Delos.

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Our heroes take a break to meet Harry’s robot pal Clark.

This movie does give us a nice surprise as it is soon revealed to us that this movie isn’t just a retread of Westworld, a computer malfunction isn’t causing robots to kill, it’s much more insidious than that, it turns out that world leaders and captains of industry are being invited to this park so that they can be replaced by clones that are controlled by Delos. While at the park targeted guests are drugged, and while asleep they are spirited away to a lab where they are scanned both physically and mentally so that the duplicates will be so good that even the creators can’t tell them apart.

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I sense a small problem with that last bit.

This leads to evil clone Chuck facing off against good Chuck atop a Futureworld launch tower while Tracy gets into a gun duel with her evil clone amongst the ruins of old Westworld. It gets a little interesting here as the clones have all the knowledge and memories of the original so that they are able to guess where their opponents will run and what they’ll try to do. That’s all well and good but if I was programming evil clones I’d have added martial arts and marksmanship to give my creations an edge. But just who is behind this nefarious plan? Could it be one of Blofeld’s plots for world domination? What about Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom?

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Or is it creepy Dr. Schneider?

And this is where the movie completely falls apart. While trying to escape Chuck and Tracy are confronted by Duffy, who proceeds to tell Chuck that, “The human being is a very unstable, irrational, violent animal. All our probabilities studies indicate that if left alone you’ll destroy much of this planet before the end of the decade. We at Delos are determined that this doesn’t happen. We don’t intend to be destroyed by your mistakes.” Chuck is told that the duplicates of the world leaders are programed to first think of the welfare of Delos and accept their instructions. Tracy and Chuck were chosen to be replaced so that Delos could use them fabricate good publicity, which in turn would draw more world leaders to Delos to be replaced. So Delos is kind of a passive aggressive Skynet.

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And Duffy turns out to be a bargain basement T-800.

This is not intrinsically a bad idea, and if the film had sprung this on us a little earlier it could have worked, but instead we get this revelation dumped on us with but fifteen minutes to go, without enough time to wrap things up properly. We never learn if this actually a case of artificial intelligence deciding we aren’t bright enough to run the planet and that a computer mind is better suited to the job, or if there still a human mad scientist behind it all? When Chuck and Tracy exit Delos, while pretending to be their evil counterparts, they leave without finding out if Dr. Schneider is also a robot or just your standard evil human villain. The film ends abruptly with the Chuck explaining to Tracy that he’d managed to call his editor, who is even now running the exposé on Delos, and that the whole world will know what they are up to. Nice that the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to give us that scene. Then the two exit Delos under the watchful eyes of Dr. Schneider, who believes them to be his evil duplicates, just as the not quite dead Tracy Clone staggers up to reveal that he’s letting the wrong ones go. Chuck turns and gives Schneider a salute as they leave.

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Is he flipping off Dr. Schneider or us the viewer?

Where Westworld was a fun and somewhat goofy science fiction thriller Futureworld tried to go with a more serious conspiracy theory aspect, and it never quite gels with the science fiction theme. One of the film’s biggest missteps is maybe going too far with the futuristic science; in Westworld we were introduced to a park that had lifelike robots, something we’ve already had a taste of in reality with the Disney parks, but in Futureworld they’ve got machines that can just generate Japanese samurai right out of thin air. At one point in the film Tracy is given a chance to try out a machine that well let others see what you are dreaming; not only is this a bit of fanciful science fiction but it’s also a terrible idea. You have no control over what you dream and now complete strangers can watch, how is that a good idea? This scene is also where they ham-fistedly stuff in a cameo of Yul Brynner who played the killer robot gunslinger from the original film. In Tracy’s dream she is at first stalked by the Gunslinger, but then she is saved by him, and then has sex with him?

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Tracy has some really strange fantasies.

It’s a bizarre scene, and as dreams don’t always make sense it's probably the most realistic moment in this movie, but it also served no real purpose other than giving us that cameo. Too much of the film’s hour and forty-five minute runtime is this kind of padding, and we never really get a sense that our heroes are in danger. The trick to a good science fiction thriller is to keep the believability factor as high as possible, because if you don’t you are in danger of creating a disconnect with the audience and they will quickly lose interest. There is some interesting ideas presented in Futureworld, replacing world leaders with clones is pretty ingenious, but the filmmakers don’t bother to really explore any of these ideas, instead it becomes your standard thriller with a completely telegraphed “button” ending. If you happen to catch it late one night while surfing channels give it a look, but if you want to watch a good movie about replacing people with doubles your better off watching The Stepford Wives.

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Delos does make nice models though.

Beyond Westworld (1980) – Review

Basing a television show on a successful movie has almost become common place now, but at the time of Beyond Westworld not only was it uncommon but they were also basing their series after one successful movie and one dud. What were they thinking? Only five episodes were ever produced, and only three of those saw air, solidifying this show’s position as a notorious “Crash and Burn” series. With HBO's reimagining airing now I thought it’d be nice to take a look back and see what caused this show to be cancelled so damn fast.

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Beyond Westworld was basically a sequel to Westworld while completely ignoring the events of the theatrical sequel Futureworld, though some thematic elements taken from it. Where Delos became the evil corporation in Futureworld for this series it’s now the heroic company trying to stop a disgruntled employee from taking over the world. This is why a company needs a good HR department to cut these kind of problems in the nub.

Note: In this series there is no reference to Medieval World, Roman World or Futureworld yet according to a poster in the Delos Company office the movie Westworld apparently exists.

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"What do you mean Yul Brynner isn't returning my calls?

Turns out the computer virus that we were told caused the robots to go crazy in Westworld was not caused by computer programs designing their own software and going nuts, but in fact it was all planned and orchestrated by one man, Simon Quaid (James Wainwright), a robotics designer who believed that the robots they were creating should be used for the benefit of mankind and not as theme park attractions. (It's never made clear if he put any of this in the company's suggestion box) This resulted in Quaid turning the robots lose on the park guests, causing death and destruction, and then he escaped with a couple hundred more robots for his own nefarious purposes.

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And we can assume his headquarters is in a volcano lair.

The head of Delos, and former boss of Quaid, is Joseph Oppenheimer (William Jordan), who is clearly named after J. Robert Oppenheimer the father of the atomic bomb, a man most known for the famous quote. “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” So this television show attempted to equate the creation of nuclear weapons with this dudes theme park robots.  In better hands this may have worked but the results here don’t quite meet that goal. Now Joseph Oppenheimer is not the star of this show, he’s more the Oscar Goldman type from The Six Million Dollar Man, the lead character is Delos security expert and top trouble shooter John Moore (Jim McMullan). He’s teamed up with Laura Garvey (Judith Chapman) to track down Quaid and put an end to the robot threat.

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John Moore vows to check under every woman’s shirt.

In the pilot episode they learn that Quaid has managed to get one of his robot duplicates aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine and so Moore and Garvey are sent to discover what member of the crew is the robot, and to find out what Quaid’s plan is. The show’s biggest problem rears its head right in the very first episode; these duplicates are robots and not the genetically perfect clones that we saw in Futureworld, so discovering who is and who is not a robot should be relatively easy. If a fridge magnet sticks to the forehead of person’s forehead they are most likely a robot. Now in the last episode “Takeover” a blood sample was used to confirm someone wasn’t a robot, but in that case it turned out that Quaid had stuck a computer control chip into the poor dude’s head. This was the one and only time in the five episodes that our heroes thought to medically check out a suspect.  For top gun trouble shooters they aren't all that bright.

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Could this man be a robot?

The show’s basic structure becomes Delos learning about Quaid taking an interest in something; whether it be an oil company, a football team, a supply of uranium, or a stock car race, and then sending Moore and Pamela Williams (Connie Sellecca), who replaced Judith Chapman after the pilot, to go undercover and investigate any robot shenanigans. Now this sounds like a sensible formula for an adventure/mystery show except for one small thing; Quaid is on a first name basis with both Moore and Williams, and thus he knows what they look like. Pamela even worked for Quaid before transferring to security work. So these two idiots go undercover to find out who could be a robot, all while the robot they are supposedly hunting for are completely aware of who's the goodguys are. Or heroes don’t even bring weapons to combat these killer robots, but instead have to learn each particular robot’s weakness.

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This one’s Achilles heel is a letter opener to the gut.

That some robots are incapacitated by water while others have weak eyes or access ports was clearly set up to add some variety to the show, and give our heroes something to figure out instead of just simply blowing them away with an EMP pulse or something, but it makes Quaid about the dumbest mad scientist to ever walk the Earth. One of the robots becomes incapacitated when Moore takes of its sunglasses; that’s not a weakness that’s an incredibly bad design flaw. Quaid also succumbs to the standard super villain shtick where he has the heroes in his clutches and then leaves him alone so he can escape the apparent deathtrap, but Quaid goes one step further in the cocky egomaniacal villain mode; in the pilot he captures Moore, has him placed in a straitjacket that doubles as a lie detector and torture device, then after interrogating him he releases a robot rattlesnake to kill Moore. What is beyond the pale of stupidity is that before leaving Quaid he bloody well removes Moore’s straitjacket!  Is he all about fair play and a man bound fighting a snake just isn’t cricket? Later he gets the Professor from Gilligan’s Island to help come up with even dumber plans.

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“You’d be amazed at what I can build with just bamboo and coconuts.”

Simon Quaid could have made for an interesting villain; his motivation is to save mankind from itself by placing robots in all positions of power, with him a silent puppeteer controlling the world’s strings, seems reasonable in a evil crackpot way, but instead we get a white collar criminal with delusions of grandeur. None of his plots seem all that impressive; getting a hold of a fuel efficient car engine doesn’t seem all the dastardly, but his inability to pull off even the simplest job left me confident that if up against Inspector Gadget Penny’s help would not be required to take him out.

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Have you seen my white cat?

But the real failure for this show isn’t the moronic plots or incompetent villains, it’s the fact that John Moore is colossally boring as a hero. I’m surprised that the robots he’s up against didn’t just self-terminate to escape his incessant droning. Connie Sellecca seems to be having a good time, and she is a delight in most of her scenes, but Jim McMullan looks to be sleepwalking through most of his, and with the apparent desire to put us to sleep as well. Steve Austin or Michael Knight he is not.

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He’s wearing a sweater vest for Christ sake.

Beyond Westworld being cancelled was inevitable, that they aired three of them before pulling the plug is the real puzzler here, but I guess in the early 80s there wasn’t as much competition out there. The repetitive nature of the concept “find robot and pull his plug” would have been tough to sustain for a full season, let alone a multiple season run, so it’s best that this show died in the crib. Let’s hope that HBO has a better idea for making a Westworld spin-off work.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Oakdale Affair: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

oakdale affair blue bookOriginally under the working title Bridge and the Oskaloosa Kid this book is one of the few contemporary thrillers by Burroughs, a partial sequel to the much loved The Mucker, and was published in Blue Book Magazine in March of 1918.  It’s the character of Bridge, the tramp with a heart gold, who connects these two stories together, but other than his appearance in both they are quite standalone stories. This entry is much shorter than its predecessor and though it’s billed as a mystery crime thriller there really isn’t much of a “Who dunnit” element to this story as there is a  “Who are these people” element.

The book begins with a young and inexperienced burglar breaking into home of Jonas Prim, president of the First National Bank of Oakdale. The young crook heads directly, but not so stealthily, to the room belonging to Prim’s daughter Abigail, easily finds the hidden safe and concealed gun, then slips out of the house and into the night. While skulking about our burglar had overheard Jonas Prim and his wife discussing their daughter, and how she has left town to visit the family of the man she will soon be announcing an engagement to. We quickly ascertain that the young Abigail is not all that keen on marrying this man who is older and balder than her ideal version of a husband.

While out on the dark streets the young burglar quickly becomes drawn to human companionship, even just this brief foray into the night as unnerved the thief, and soon The Kid comes upon a group of hoboes hiding out in a farmer’s barn. They at first turn away this young interloper but once they see the diamonds and pearls bulging out of the thief’s pockets they decide to let him stay. The thief lets them believe he is the Oskaloosa Kid but this group could care less about who he claims to be as they are about relieving him of his spoils. The Kid’s sleep is soon interrupted when one of the hoboes plunges a knife into him, but lucky for the kid the knife hit the concealed gun. The Kid shoots and wings one of the hoboes, and flees into the night.

It’s while on the run through a stormy that The Kid runs into Bridge, a strangely educated tramp, and explains the horrors he’s gone through, he also confesses to being a thief and the notorious Oskaloosa Kid. Bridge happens to be well acquainted with the real Oskaloosa Kid and this young boy is certainly not the pug nosed thug he’s encountered in the past. Bridge doesn’t let The Kid in on his knowledge which is kind of the theme of this story. Who is exactly who?

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Meanwhile back in Oakdale the town is in an uproar; not only was the Prim home been burgled but notable town member John Baggs was assaulted and robbed in his home, and not expected to live, and local bon vivant Reginald Paynter was murdered and thrown from a car. Worse is that the Prim's daughter is missing and witnesses claim that Abigail was in that car.

The Kid and Bridge end up riding out the storm in the old deserted Scribs farmhouse, or as most know it “The Murder House” and The Kid is at first against going into this supposedly haunted house, but when a car roars by, with the sound of a gunshot piercing the night, and young woman is thrown from the speeding automobile, it’s up to our two heroes to take the unconscious woman to the “safety” of the farmhouse. Soon after entering the darkened abode The Kid trips over a corpse which event is shortly followed by the sounds of a heavy body, dragging a chain, ascending the cellar stairs. They flee upstairs and barricade themselves into one of the back rooms. Later they are joined by two of the hoboes that were pursuing The Kid, who had also found themselves chased upstairs by the mysterious creature.

If you happen to have seen the Frank Frazetta cover of The Oakdale Affair the mystery of the chain rattling creature is no mystery at all…it’s a bear.

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What follows are numerous close calls with the authorities, Jonas Prim had hired a private detective to find his missing daughter, and the meeting up with a young gypsy girl (it’s her bear), and more encounters with those dangerous hoboes. Bridge is at odds with himself as he can’t understand why he’s become so protective of this young criminal, as he himself has a reputation of never straying from the path of law and order, and yet he is constantly helping this admitted thief stay one step ahead of the law. Even the young woman they found, who refuses to divulge her name but all assume that she’s the missing Abigail, if not up to no good has been involved with people of less than virtuous actions.

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I will not get into spoiler territory for this review as the final reveal of who is exactly who is too fun to spoil here; let’s just say if you guess it before the final act reveal you did better than me. Overall this is excellent and very quick read; the characters are interesting and Bridge is a quintessential example of pulp hero. The book has some great comic bits as a local farm boy, with dreams of rewards and becoming a detective, keeps running into our poor suffering heroes and causing no end of problems. For those who only know Burroughs from his Tarzan or Mars books this is one worth checking out.

Note: The Oakdale Affair was adapted to the screen in 1919.  Sadly this is one of those films that has been lost to time.  Hopefully one day a studio intern will uncover a can of film reels and this movie will be restored.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Before I Wake (2016) – Review

We’ve all woken up at one time or another from a dream where for the briefest of moments we’re not sure what was real and what as a dream, and if it was a nightmare you were escaping it can be quite disturbing. It’s in the film Before I Wake that director Mike Flanagan explores this line between the waking world and the dreaming world, blending the fantasy and horror genres so as to give us all nightmares while also exploring aspects of loss and healing; a noble goal that he comes close to achieving.

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The movie centers on Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) Hobson, a couple who had recently loss their son Sean (Antonio Romero) in a tragic bathtub drowning incident. They aren’t doing that well in the coping with tragedy category as Jessie is still attending support groups while Mark is slowly pulling away, but they somehow come to the conclusion that their marriage can be saved if they foster a child. This idea is unhealthy to say the least. Enter Cody (Jacob Tremblay) an eight year old boy who lost his mother when he was three and has bounced from on foster home to the other ever since. That one foster parent is in a mental home while the last couple abandoned Cody, or so the authorities assume, should give one pause, but as Cody is a very quiet, resilient and self-reliant child the Hobsons thinks he’s just what the doctor ordered. Maybe if the doctor was Joseph Mengele.

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“I’m a nice kid, but my emotional baggage will kill you...literally.”

Cody really is a sweet kid, he’s no Damien from The Omen movies, but he does have one little quirk, when he sleeps his dreams manifest themselves in the real world. Cody does his best to stop this from happening by drinking as much caffeine laced beverages as he can smuggle into his room, but eventually sleep will win out and the dreams begin. At first the Hobsons are enchanted with this miraculous “gift” as they find their home filled with beautifully dreamlike butterflies. A bit of magical whimsy is something these two could definitely use, but we in the audience eagerly wait for the inevitable other shoe to drop.

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No one informed them they weren’t in a Disney flick.

In the Hobson home the couple had taken down all the pictures of them and their recently deceased child, all but one, and this one picture is enough to spark a dream version of Sean to wander into the living room. Having no children of my own I have no idea how I’d handle the sudden appearance of a dead one, but as horror movies are my bread and butter I’m betting I’d handle it with a lot more running and screaming and less hugging than these two do.

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They don’t even once consider calling the Ghostbusters.

It’s at this point Jesse and Mark find themselves with vastly differing opinions on how to handle this amazing situation; Jesse shows Cody home movies of their late son so that the dream version can talk and better interact with them, while Mark thinks this is verging on abuse as they are using Cody, a boy they are currently responsible for, as a walking home theater projector. Jesse claims this will help with the healing process but Mark knows this has nothing to do with healing and more to do with never letting go. Unfortunately for Mark he never really gets a chance to say, “I told you so.

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Enter The Kankerman.

You see it’s not just dreams that manifest when Cody is asleep but his nightmares as well and the chief product of these nightmares is a spindly creature he calls The Kankerman, a being that whisper into his sleeping ear that, “I’ll always be with you.” The real problem for all involved is that these aren’t some holographic images Cody has created but beings with a very physical presence, as long as he is asleep that is.

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Naptime at school becomes a deadly event.

Before I Wake does have some good scares, and the perquisite annoying jumps scares, but the CGI monster stuff needed a bit more work and though not a complete let down they do the movie no favors. The film sports a good cast and deals with some very heartfelt issues but sadly when the film reaches its startling climax, after Jesse has investigated and discovered the truth behind The Kankerman, the film continues on with an overlong and unnecessary coda. Instead of being a taught 83 minute horror/fantasy movie we get a 96 minute one that kind of peters out during the last ten minutes until the end credits eventually roll. The film’s weak ending isn’t enough for me not to recommend the film, as the performance by Jacob Tremblay is easily worth the time, but a tighter script could have made this movie as effective as Andrés Muschietti’s horror film Mama, a movie that Before I Wake is desperately trying to emulate. Where the ghostly abilities of the villain in Mama was clearly defined those of Cody in this film are left rather vague.

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We needed Charles Xavier to show up and explain Cody's mutant powers.

I don’t need to have everything spelled out for me, a little ambiguity can go a long way, but one question kept hounding me through out this film, in the five years he’s been bouncing in and out of orphanages and foster homes how has no one discovered what is going on with this kid? Sure we meet one foster dad who is a nut house after claiming Cody’s dream monster ate his wife, but with the amount of death and carnage we see in just these few days only a massive government cover-up could possibly keep Cody’s abilities secret. Unless we are supposed to believe that Code can stay awake for years at a time. The blending of fantasy and horror, along with the exploration of dreams and how we use them to process information, all make for some heady subject matter, and though this film fails slightly in the execution it is still well worth checking out.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Train to Busan (2016) – Review

Do you know what’s worse than snakes on a plane? Zombies on a train, that’s what. It’s in this film that South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho brings true to horror to commuting, even more so than that time a guy with terrible body odor sat next to you on the subway, but what Train to Busan does bring is a fresh take on the walking or should we say running dead.

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It’s clear that we are still living during a zombie renaissance; just flip the channels a few times and you’ll most likely stumble across three or more television shows about zombies, and because unlike your average superhero flick you don’t need a massive special effects budget and thus more varied artists are allowed a crack at them. Then there is the fact that some of the best horror movies of the last decade or so have come from foreign shores; Australia had one of the most original zombie movies in the form of Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead as well as the creepy psychological horror film Goodnight Mommy, and South Korea delivered a bizarre twist on the vampire genre with Thirst, so it should be a surprise to no one that one of the best zombies out there wouldn’t be from Hollywood.

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What is surprising is how well Train to Busan works when it’s basically just a straight survival story littered with overused tropes and caricatures, and if there is one character trope I’d like to see retired it would be the dad who “Works to much and thus neglects his family” as if working hard to put food on the table is some heinous crime. This movie not only has the main character being a workaholic dad but the company he works for is at least partially responsible for the zombie outbreak, and he’s also a bit of a selfish asshole with terrible people skills. Yet somehow writer/director Yeon Sang-ho manages to build and explore facets of society through this jerk, all while dealing with a flesh eating mob of zombies, which puts him on the path of the hero's journey.

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And he’s a hedge fund manager just to make us hate him more.

The movie starts simple enough with a bitching truck driver being let through a road block set up because of some kind of chemical spill, and while “distracted driving” the guy hits a deer, but what he doesn’t notice, as he drives away like the callous bastard he is, was the deer getting back up all zombified. We then spend the next little while getting to know our cast of victims…I mean fellow passengers; first there is Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo), the workaholic dad who had missed his daughter Soo-an’s (Kim Su-an) school recital (he also bought her a Wii for her birthday completely forgetting he'd already bought one for her last year) which results in this train trip to visit his ex-wife/her mother to make up for him being a forgetful dick, then we have two elderly sisters In-gil (Ye Soo-jung) and Jon-gil (Park Myung-sin) who argue that one can be too nice at times, next we have a blue collar worker named Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Sung Gyeong (Yu-mi Jeong) who haven't decided on a name for their unborn child, there's a high school baseball team and a cheerleader to add some youth to the mix, and last but not least we have CEO Yon-suk (Eui-sung Kim), whose apparent job in this movie is to be a bigger dick than the hero is. This is your standard disaster movie opening, we've seen it in every Irwin Allen flick, but at least the director here manages to handled it economically. The movie then kicks into high gear when an injured, and clearly infected, young woman boards the train just as it leaves the station.

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“I wouldn’t ask to see her ticket if I was you.”

The zombies of Train to Busan are not the shambling monsters of the Romero movies; they are more akin to Danny Boyle’s rage fueled creatures of 28 Days Later with a liberal dose of World War Z.  In fact the basic premise of this movie makes me think that Yeon Sang-ho may have seen that terrific zombie scene aboard the airliner in World War Z and then decided that particular sequence could actually make for a good two hour movie. Strangely enough, he was right.

We are riveted as our cast of characters must fight car by car to find safety in world that is clearly far from safe; outnumbered in a matter of minutes by the newly undead, who pop up within seconds of dying to leap and gnash at their prey, and unlike most zombie films there is nary a gun in sight. Instead our heroes must fight through the hordes of undead with either baseball bats or their bare hands.  Which doesn’t seem like the best idea when even one bite is death sentence.

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Wrapping your forearms in tape doesn’t seem all that safe of a measure.

I do love when a filmmaker is able to add new rule to a genre; in Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead it was that zombies are slow and shambling monsters during the day but can run like a bat out of a hell at night, and in this movie our heroes discover that the undead have terrible vision, that whenever the train enters a tunnel they lose track of where their prey is in the dark. This leads to some fantastically tense scenes with the survivors trying to quietly make it passed the ravenous hordes, and it also taught me that apparently there are a lot of very long tunnels in South Korea.

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And when the light comes back, don’t make a sound.

Train to Busan isn’t just a zombie film; much like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead it provides a smart commentary on society. Seok-Woo, the self-centred workaholic dad, who at one point in the movie slams the door in the face of the man and his pregnant wife, thus trapping the pair in with the approaching zombies, comes to the conclusion that if you leave the weak behind you will find yourself alone and vulnerable in more ways the one. In one particular scene the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall” is bloodily illustrated, and our cast of characters have to listen on in horror as people are torn apart. This all results in a zombie film that though full of tropes and clichés, if the selfish CEO was any more two dimensional he could hide from the zombies by turning sideways, it miraculously comes together like a breath of fresh air in what is a pretty much played out genre by now.

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Note: The film does include some CGI zombie hordes ala World War Z.

Overall Train to Busan is immensely fun horror/action flick; we get acts of despicable cowardice as well as moments of true heroism and self-sacrifice, all within a claustrophobic setting that will keep you at the edge of your seat. If you are a fan of zombie film this is a must see, and even if zombies aren’t your bag there is still a lot to offer here as the action is spellbinding and the performances are stellar. Get your boarding pass today.