Friday, June 20, 2014

Cinema in the Dark: Double-Feature
Reviews by Anthony Servante

Featuring "How to Train Your Dragon 2" (2014) and "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014)

Film #1: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Director: Dean DeBlois

Cast: Jay Baruchel Hiccup, Gerard Butler Stoick, America Ferrera Astrid, Cate Blanchett Valka.

Summary: Five years have passed since Hiccup and Toothless united the dragons and Vikings of Berk. Now, they spend their time charting the island's unmapped territories. During one of their adventures, the pair discover a secret cave that houses hundreds of wild dragons -- and a mysterious dragon rider who turns out to be Hiccup's long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett) . Hiccup and Toothless then find themselves at the center of a battle to protect Berk from a power-hungry warrior named Drago.

Review: I sang the praises of "How to Train Your Dragon" (2010). Great protagonist in Hiccup and a great villain in that super dragon in the fantastic battle finale. The old cast is back, only now we have Hiccup's mother Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett) and two villains: a super dragon and a dragon "herder" for lack of a better word. In the original movie, the tension lay between father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) and son Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the former a warrior, the latter an inventor, but in Dragon 2, the tension has shifted to Hiccup's refusal to take over his father's role as chieftain of the tribe.

As Hiccup avoids his father by mapping the surrounding country and sea, courtesy of his flying dragon Toothless, he encounters his long lost mother, who was spirited away by dragons when he was but a wee baby in the crib. He also finds that his mother has become the Jane Goodall of dragons, so it is no surprise when we learn that Hiccup takes after his mother.

Enter the bad guys. Dragon hunters, who work for the villain Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou). He plans to conquer Hiccup's tribe by trapping and controlling all the village's dragons. And yes, he does have the means to control the dragons. So you thought the giant dragon in the first movie was big; wait till you see the two, yes, two, giants battling for alpha status over all the dragons. Godzilla is a Chihuahua compared to these behemoths.

So, all the ingredients are there for me to love this movie as much as the first film. What happened? For one, the supporting cast, the youngsters, were relegated to cheerleaders for Hiccup rather than fellow warriors. They were also given one too many jokes to tell the kids in the audience. Why is it that only Hiccup can grow older without acting the buffoon?! I mean, these characters have grown five years older, yet they still behave like preteens on a sugar-rush. Another thing: Valka, when we first meet her, is a kick-ass dragon rider who outmaneuvers Hiccup and Toothless. By the second half of the movie, she becomes a damsel in distress. What gives? I thought Ripley in the movie Alien (1979) left that stereotype behind; she showed women can be heroes and created the model for movie heroines to follow (including Sarah Conners from Terminator Two).  But these are minor annoyances, and most fans of the movie probably won't even notice them.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 was lots of fun, but the laughs were forced this time out. (I did like the joke about the old woman of the village surrounded by little dragons like the cat lady from The Simpsons). The action, however, makes up for the bad jokes as there are some dragon battles that alone are worth the price of admission. I gave the first film a grade of A, so I'd put an A- on the second Dragon. And with Dragon 3 on its way, I can only hope that the trilogy ends with an A+.

Film #2: Edge of Tomorrow

Director: Doug Liman

Cast: Tom Cruise Lt. Col. Bill Cage, Emily Blunt Rita Vrataski

Summary:  Lt. Col. Bill Cage is an officer who has never seen a day of combat when he is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage now finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop - forcing him to live out the same brutal combat over and over, fighting and dying again - and again. But with each battle, Cage becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill, alongside Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski. And, as Cage and Rita take the fight to the aliens, each repeated encounter gets them one step closer to defeating the enemy.

Review: In The Outer Limits, the original series, there was an episode called "Controlled Experiment", wherein two aliens with a time machine replay a murder scene over and over trying to understand this brutal human act. It is one of my least favorite episodes. It plays the same scene so many times, in slow-motion, in fast-forward, rewind, and freeze-frame, that it becomes monotonous. The story made murder boring. Part of the problem was the technology in the 1960s was very modest and the special effects amounted to the same functions we would later have on a basic VHS player. 

Then came "Groundhog Day (1993). The Bill Murray film used the basic premise of a recurring event, only the hero, newsman Phil Conners, can alter the turnout of circumstances as the same day starts anew. This extension of the premise allowed Phil to change himself until the day was in harmony with his new character. Then a new day begins and time moves forward. 

In "Edge of Tomorrow", the repeating day premise goes way beyond Groundhog Day. Now only must Bill Cage find the perfect balance with the day's events, he must destroy an alien enemy, called mimics, that has the same power he has: They can repeat the day as well in order to anticipate their foe's strengths and plans and defeat the humans who believe this is old-fashioned warfare. Little do they realize the aliens have changed the paradigm of war and the humans are doomed to failure. Thus, when Cage acquires the aliens' ability to replay time, he becomes the humans' only hope to stop the aliens. Too bad as each day repeats itself, no one believes him.

This is where the movie picks up the pace from a Groundhog Day repetition. Cage finds a soldier (Emily Blunt) who had and lost the same power he now has, and she must help him finish what she couldn't finish: the mission to destroy the aliens at their own game. 

What we have instead of montage after montage of training are twists in the plot. Each day is like a piece in a game of chess between Cage and the mimics. The key for the alien creatures is to stop Cage, and the mission for Cage changes so many times that he realizes that this might be a game that he can't win. 

The fun aspect of the movie is that to reset the day Cage must die. Vrataski understands this and constantly kills Cage in order to advance his training. But as I said, the training isn't enough to sustain the plot. Cage must gather an army for the final invasion. The endgame is do or die. So pay attention to every detail, every character, for they'll play a role later in that endgame, a battle that is a perfect denouement for this search for the perfect day when the humans are down to one chance to win.

Edge of Tomorrow is the best movie out there this year, and I can't see any movie topping it for sheer originality and intelligence. This is not the Avengers banging you over the head with Thor's hammer. This is a film that can be added proudly to the time travel genre, but as a movie overall, I can't imagine anything coming out soon that will be half as entertaining and thought-provoking. Even if you could reset the day. 

Thank you, readers, for joining us for our double-feature. Whether you pick one or the other to watch, or both if you have the time and inclination, you will have one grand time that only the cinema darkness can deliver. See you next time. 

Off Kilter TV: Where Horror Rears Its Ugly Head on Family Television
by Anthony Servante

(Reprinted from The Black Glove Horror Ezine 9-4-2011)

When we watch family television, we have certain expectations about our favorite programs past and present: In our comedies, like I Love Lucy, we expect Lucy to get into and out of trouble and make us laugh in the process; in our supernatural shows, like X-Files, we expect other-worldly creatures, science fiction dilemmas, and unexplained phenomena. What we don’t expect is Lucy taking on monsters or Mulder and Scully stealing John Wayne’s cement footprints from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But sometimes a show will surprise our expectations. These unexpected TV shows are what I call Off Kilter TV. We find them on all types of TV shows, from comedy to drama to supernatural, from the Golden Age of TV to today. Every other month or so, I will present to you readers some of my favorite OKTV shows. I welcome comments and suggestions about Off Kilter shows you like as well.

In today’s column, I give you the hit western TV show "Bonanza" and an episode called "Twilight Town", Season 5, Episode 138. The first sign that this episode will be different from our usual western fare is that the story was written by Cy Chermak, who would later go on to produce "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and write for "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

The story begins with Little Joe headed home with a large sum of money only to be bushwhacked by a highwayman who makes off with Joe’s horse and money. With a head injury Joe stumbles into the town of Martinville, a ghost town inhabited by tumbleweeds. There he collapses.

When he wakes, he is surrounded by townsfolk who are all staring at him. Next we see Joe being nursed by a young girl Louise Corman (with a nod to Roger Corman, perhaps) and her father. Joe still can’t believe these townsfolk are real and grabs Louise by the wrist. He is surprised to hold a solid wrist and releases it. Meanwhile, Mr. Corman talks to the town leaders and informs them that Joe has a gun. The others are skeptical, that a young man with a gun may not be enough.

It seems that the town leaders, in fact, the entire townsfolk, are seeking a person to replace the Sheriff, who we learn from his widow was gunned down by outlaws who will return to the town once more that very day. But not only do the residents of Martinville seek a Sheriff, they need someone who can stand up to the outlaws or they will keep returning to the town time and time again to wreak havoc.

Joe is nursed back to health and then forced to become the Sheriff. There are no horses anywhere in the town. The absence of livestock is blamed on the outlaws. Without a means to leave town, except on foot, Joe reluctantly accepts the law enforcer’s badge and confronts the outlaws, who warn that they will leave for now but when they return they will kill everyone in the town.

With the help of the men folk, Joe builds a barricade and organizes the men with weapons to fend off the outlaws. The ex-sheriff’s widow warns Joe that this isn’t the first time the townsfolk have tried to stand up to the outlaws, but when the outlaws appeared, the residents disappeared in fear, leaving the sheriff alone to face the dozen or so gunfighters and be gunned down. She also warns Joe that he isn’t the first since the death of her husband to be picked by the townsfolk to fight off the outlaws and that the townsfolk always abandon the person they pick when the outlaws arrive.

At first, the townsfolk do try to retreat, but Joe chastises them and leads them in an attack on the outlaws hiding behind some boulders. Both sides suffer losses. Joe confronts the leader of the outlaws, kills him, but is grazed by a bullet to the head and falls unconscious. His father, Ben Cartwright, and his two brothers, Adam and Hoss, revive him. They turn the dead outlaw leader over and it is the highwayman who bushwhacked Joe at the beginning of the episode. Martinville and the townsfolk have disappeared. The tumbleweeds have returned to the empty street of the town. Joe pleads with his family to believe him that he was not alone. Ben tells him that when a man knows something in his heart, he doesn’t have to convince anyone that it’s true. They ride home, but Joe takes a look back at the ghost town and sees Louise standing there emotionless and still for a second before vanishing.

Here’s why this episode is supernatural with horrific overtones in the big picture. This is basic metonymy 101, which means that by looking at a single puzzle piece, one can picture the entire puzzle. One day in Martinville for the TV viewer is the one piece to see the whole puzzle, that a gang of outlaws came to Martinville many, many years ago. They terrorized the town. The Sheriff gathered the men folk and planned to stand up to the gang. But they ran off in fear at the last second. When the outlaws arrived, the lawman faced them alone and was killed. To punish the town people for their futile attempt at defiance, the gang killed every man, then each man’s family, killing wives then children, in that order; before killing Louise, the gang leader raped her. Before the Sheriff’s wife was killed, she put a curse on the townsfolk to relive their moment of cowardice and its bloody consequences over and over again in a kind of Groundhog’s Day purgatory until a true leader came and risked his own life to turn these cowards to men. 

As Martinville became a ghost town, the townsfolk became ghosts, time shadows of that one fateful day. Men who passed by the ghost town who were capable of leading the town against the outlaws were able to see the ghosts as flesh and blood. Not one of these men survived the bullets of the phantom outlaws. Before Joe arrived, the ghosts of the residents of Martinville became flesh and blood again and again and relived this horrific day thousands and thousands of times: The rape, the murders of women and children and the deaths of the cowardly men (and also the livestock of the town). It was Joe who risked his life for them and ended their time warp in purgatory.

For Bonanza, this supernatural aspect to the episode Twilight Town is no doubt a wink to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. Cy Chermak doesn’t need to show us the gruesome details of the massacre. They are woven in the dialogue, the unfinished sentences, and the pregnant pauses. Even though we never see kids or horses in Martinville, there are several references by both outlaw and townsfolk referring to the killing of the children and livestock. We never see the killings, but we unweave the description of the cycle of murder, death, rebirth, and so forth as we relive the last day of their curse. Behind this story of heroism lies a chilling tale of supernatural revenge. Hallucination or haunting? Clearly, Twilight Town is the latter.

Click here to watch a collage of Bonanza Twilight Town.

Off Kilter TV will see you readers soon. Don’t forget to leave the TV on before you go to sleep.