Saturday, February 28, 2009

Movie Reviews: It's Scary Because It Totally Happened For Real

[REC] (2007) **Hecho en EspaƱa**
Directors: Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza
Writers: Jaume Balaguero, Luis Berdejo, and Paco Plaza
Starring: a bunch of Spanish actors you've never heard of


Quarantine (2008) **Made in the U.S.A.!**
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Writers: John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle (and the Spanish guys)

Jennifer Carpenter (from Dexter, I've never seen the show)
Greg Germann (TV actor, used to be on Ally McBeal)
Rade Serbedzija (all-purpose seedy Eastern European)

Horror, more than most genres, depends on the audience's suspension of disbelief. If viewers don't believe in the monster, if they're not invested in the characters, then no amount of clever editing or special effects will scare them. To draw viewers into their reality, horror films have constantly searched for new methods of creating verisimilitude, whether it be realistic gore, naturalistic dialogue, or by exploiting real-life tragedies. In the age of Youtube and cell phone cameras, the obvious next step was the use of "amateur" footage. Even when dealing with absurd ideas like zombies or monsters, the qualities that define amateur video - grainy visuals, shakiness, the complete lack of editing - create the illusion of "real" in a way that even the most jaded Youtuber can get sucked into.

The first film to embrace the amateur footage conceit wholeheartedly was The Blair Witch Project, all the way back in 1999. Despite the film's phenomenal success, it took a surprisingly long time for imitators to emerge. Even the sequel eschewed the amateur documentary style in preference for a more traditional narrative format. But over the past two years, there's been a slow but steady trickle of horror films that maintain the pretense of being amateur videos. For example, George Romero's Diary of the Dead is yet another sequel in his zombie franchise, but it is the first to be "recorded" by characters actually trapped in a zombie apocalypse. And the nausea-inducing Cloverfield tapped into our collective memories of 9/11 while an amateur cameraman filmed a giant monster destroying New York City.

With the stage set, enter the Spanish. For a country with a tiny film industry, Spain has produced a large number of excellent horror films. So perhaps it's not surprising that Spanish filmmakers would revive the Blair Witch gimick and make a movie that's actually scary. [REC] is, of course, a reference to the 'record' function of a video camera, and the film pretends to be an unscripted recording by a cameraman for a TV program that covers nighttime jobs. The unseen cameraman is named Pablo, which is rather amusing considering that the actual cinematographer is Pablo Rosso, who I guess plays himself. He and the show's attractive host, Angela (played by Manuela Velasco), follow a pair of firemen as they respond to an emergency at an apartment. Apparently, an old woman is screaming and scaring the hell out of her neighbors. Unfortunately for Angela and Pablo, the old woman isn't just crazy; she's infected with a terrible disease that's turned her into a rabid killer, and one bite is all it takes to pass it on to another. Even more unfortunate for the duo, the Spanish government decides to deal with the problem by sealing off the entire building and trapping them inside.

Having apparently milked Japanese horror for all its worth, Hollywood turned to Spain, and [REC] got remade with a bigger budget and a better looking cast. The American version is, however, remarkably faithful to its source. It retains the "real" video conceit, using several tricks such as shaky camerawork and hiding the edits through abrupt interruptions in the video. The plot is also basically the same, and several scenes from the Spanish original are copied in perfect detail.

There are differences between the two versions, and most favor the Spanish. Hollywood films always have a certain glitz and polish to them, no matter how "realistic" they're supposed to be. This isn't always a problem, but when a movie is pretending to be actual amateur footage, the illusion quickly breaks down when the hot Latina from Heroes shows up. The American version also can't resist standard horror lighting, where everything is dark except for some convenient illumination around the actors. The Spanish original stuck to light sources that would actually be available to the characters, so everything and everyone kind of looks like crap (though the need for lighting leads to one bizarre foul-up, where we clearly see the light of day coming through some windows in a story that's supposed to take place entirely at night!). Also, [REC] is a much leaner movie, at less than an hour and a half. My favorite bit from the Spanish version, however, is that the cameraman never appears on camera (except for his shoes). The Pablo "character" is little more than a voyeur with just enough courage to walk down a dark hall: in effect, he's the avatar for the viewer, and this effectively makes the viewer a character in the film. The American version fouls this up completely, and turns the cameraman into just another whiny jerk trapped in the apartment building.

If you don't suffer from motion sickness and you're looking for a decent scare, give [REC] a try. It's a well-crafted little flick and it's worth it to put up with subtitles. But if you're the type who really hates to read, then I suppose you could do worse than Quarantine.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Comics Reading List

Rex Mundi v.2 #16 (Dark Horse)
Writer: Arvid Nelson
Artist: Juan Ferreyra

To make one thing clear up front, this is not a jumping in point, especially considering that the book is ending in a couple issues. But for those who've been following Rex Mundi since back in the day when it was still at Image, there's quite a bit of plot progression, and multiple surprise deaths. Apparently, the solicitations stupidly gave one of them away, but this book still packs its fair share of "holy shit!" moments. The last few pages left me wondering how the Duke of Lorraine will be stopped absent God Himself intervening.

Ferreyra's art is fairly typical for mainstream American comics, but he does very nice facial expressions, and the colors seem to enhance the pencil work rather than muddle it.

Hack/Slash #20 (Devil's Due Publishing)
Writer: Tim Seeley
Artist: Kevin Mellon

Another title that merits a warning that this is not a jumping in point. Seeley continues to explore several ongoing subplots, including the relationship tensions between Cassie, Georgia, and Vlad. Cassie also faces trouble with the law, because she's been wrongly accused of murdering multiple slasher victims, thanks to the machinations of a certain slasher who can manipulate people's dreams. This issue also introduces a new group of villains known as the Black Lamp Society. Altogether a busy issue that sets up some interesting new directions for the comic.

But there is one big problem with this book: Mellon's artwork is simply terrible. Ugly faces, unappealing cheesecake, confusing layouts, washed-out colors. The writing in a comic should never have to struggle to rise above the art. The wildly uneven quality of the art from one issue to the next has been a major drawback of this title.

Dynamo 5 #20 (Image)
Writer: Jay Faerber
Artist: Mahmud A. Asrar

This issue works well as one of those filler stories where the superhero team takes some downtime while the writer sets up future plotlines. However, Faerber is savvy enough to throw in a some nice character moments and plenty of action. Visionary, the youngest member of the team, gets a date with the cute heroine Firebird, while the other team members are either re-settling or dealing with their own romantic problems. In the B-plot, a ditzy super-villain couple gets into a lover's spat that tears up downtown Tower City, and Dynamo 5 intervenes. In yet another plot, an old enemy of team (but not that old, since the team hasn't exactly been around that long) is ready to get some payback. None of this is going to revolutionize comics or the superhero genre, but Dynamo 5 remains consistently solid entertainment, and that's all too rare in the comics industry.

Asrar's traditional, superheroic art goes well with Faerber's scripts, and he adds some nice touches like amusing facial expressions and cheesecake that's actually fun to look at.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Achievement Addiction

My functioning (for the time being) Xbox 360 turned me into an achievement junkie. I kept telling myself I didn't have a problem. But when I looked back and realized that I'd spent most of the weekend buying fake real estate in a fake universe solely to get another achievement in Fables 2, I felt dirty. I'm gonna quit now, before this thing takes over my life ... or at least until the additional content for Fallout 3 comes out. Then I can level up and get that achievement for killing all the super mutant behemoths. Just one last fix, then I'll stop. I swear.

I Hope the Movie Doesn't Suck...

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe (Oni)
Writer/Artist: Bryan Lee O'Malley

There's a certain futility in reviewing the fifth book in a series of six. Presumably, everyone has already made up their mind as to whether or not they like Scott Pilgrim and its mix of action, melodrama, and liberal references to Claremont era X-Men and 80's video games. While it's a bit much to call it a zeitgeist comic, it unquestionably captures the spirit of the ascendant geek culture, and you're either part of that culture or you're not.

Setting all the in-crowd stuff aside, this is the best book yet in an already outstanding series. As usual, Scott must do battle with Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends (twins, this time), but the real action involves how the core characters are growing up as individuals, even as they grow apart as a group. Other reviewers have noted that O'Malley's story went much darker in this installment. But what makes this book so impressive is that it follows through on the experiences of its characters in a natural and logical fashion. Everything that happens to the characters in this chapter feels earned, and O'Malley has perfectly captured the messiness of growing up.

The bar has been set very high for the next and final book.

TV Viewing (2/15 - 2/21)

24: 4:00 - 5:00 pm

I haven't seen it yet, due to the President's speech throwing off my DVR. The Fox TV website wants to install some crappy media player on my system, so I'll probably have to wait to find a decent torrent of this episode.

House: The Softer Side

The medical mystery of the week involves a priest who's lost his faith. Naturally, he bonds with House over their mutual atheism. And Cuddy is being wishy-washy over whether to invite House to a Jewish naming ceremony. But there must always be an annoying subplot, and once again it involves Foreman and Thirteen. Dr. House apparently agrees with the viewers that the Foreman-Thirteen relationship sucks, as he tries to force them to break up. He rightly points out that being with Thirteen turns Foreman into an idiot willing to throw away his entire career.

As usual for this season, the episode is two-thirds decent, with some nice interaction between House and the patient. The Cuddy portions are a bit annoying, as she acts more immature and indecisive than usual, but the actors manage to bring out some genuine emotions from a shaky script. If you ignore the banal Foreman-Thirteen subplot, House remains one of the best procedurals on TV.

Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock

I'm a bit torn on this episode. There's some great character moments, especially for Baltar, and the acting is superb, as always. But the central conflict of the episode, whether the Cylons and humans can successfully blend their societies, is beaten like a dead horse that's then set on fire.

Adama is pissed that Galactica is being repaired with living Cylon goop. The Cylons want to take off and abandon the fleet. And the civilians are getting restless and angry because they're starving while Adama makes nice with the Cylons. Any one of these plot threads can lead to interesting drama, but this episode plays them all at once, necessitating a great deal of manufactured conflict and out-of-left-field behavior.

What ultimately saves this episode is the human drama involving Ellen (recently returned to the fleet), Tigh, and Caprica Six. There's a fascinating and tragic love triangle here, and Michael Hogan and Tricia Helfer act the hell out of every scene they're in. Only four episodes to go...

Monday, February 16, 2009

TV Review (2/8 - 2/14)

I simply couldn't find the time last week to watch much TV, so I didn't bother to do a write-up this weekend. Instead, I'm gonna write down short phrases that best encapsulate the two shows I did manage to watch.

24: 3:00 - 4:00 pm
Under the right circumstances, even baby torture is justified.
Being the First Gentleman of the United States sucks.

Battlestar Galactica: No Exit
In lieu of actually planning things out, simply dumping a lot of information on the viewers and calling it a revelation will suffice. If viewers start to complain, distract them with the "I'm a PC" guy.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday the 13th: This Review is Not a Remake

Friday the 13th (2009)
Director: Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake)
Producer: Michael Bay (he's very rich, because there is no God)
Writers: Hah!

Jared Padelecki (on some show called Supernatural)
Derek Mears (this dude is scary-looking without the hockey mask)
And bunch of "actors" picked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog

Marcus Nispel is a director of limited ability. I suppose he's directed enough commercials and music videos so that he understands the basics of filmmaking. What he lacks is any real vision or ambition to do anything beyond delivering a competent entertainment product on time. His limitations were readily apparent in the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The original was as much dark satire as it was horror, and its grainy film school quality gave it the illusion of authenticity. Nispel's remake was a slick, thoughtless mess that failed to capture anything that made the original film so memorable.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise that the remake of Friday the 13th is really good. Now don't get me wrong: it isn't actually good. It's dumb, and sleazy, and completely dependent on the conventions which drive the slasher genre. What makes it so good is that it's unapologetically dumb, and sleazy, and revels in the conventions of the slasher genre. Nispel is a director who prefers making cookie-cutter films, and Friday the 13th is the granddaddy of cookie-cutter slasher films. It's a match made in heaven, if heaven were filled with death, tits, and pot.

I'm going to spoil the entire movie for you:
Teenagers come to Crystal Lake to smoke pot and have sex. Jason kills them. 6 months later ... another group of teenagers comes to Crystal Lake. Jason kills them.

Actually, there's a tiny bit more going on, but Nispel wisely doesn't waste much time on backstory. The opening 5 minutes essentially recap the events of the original Friday the 13th, where the killer turned out to be (spoiler alert!) Jason's mother. Jason was a deformed, retarded child who apparently drowned at Camp Crystal Lake in 1980. Mom went berserk and started killing the camp counselors, but she got decapitated by the Final Girl. Jason, who apparently hadn't drowned and was living in the woods as a wild child (why not?), witnessed his mother's death and vowed vengeance on all sexy co-eds.

Skipping ahead to the present, a bunch of teens wander into the woods surrounding Crystal Lake looking for their secret marijuana field. The original Friday the 13th had a rather conservative morality that punished teens for drug use and sexual promiscuity. The remake is clearly self-aware enough to toy with the nonsensical connection between weed, sex, and death, but it never makes the vain attempt to rise above its source material. After Jason does his thing, the film jumps ahead 6 months, and another group of teens heads up to a lake cabin for some good clean fun, which includes topless wakeboarding. This group is also slightly more diverse, as it includes the Token Black and the Token Asian (spoiler: of course they both die horribly). At the same time, Jared Padelecki is driving around Crystal Lake looking for his missing sister, who was part of the first set of ill-fated teens.

A major part of producing a decent slasher flick is finding the right balance between sympathetic victims and thrilling kills. If the victims are too sympathetic, then the movie starts to feel unpleasant, or worse, so much focus on the cannon fodder makes the movie dull. But if the victims aren't sympathetic at all, then the movie can't deliver any of the cheap thrills that the audience expects. By sticking closely to formula, Nispel and company avoid the extremes. The teens are all stock characters, so it's easy to tell who to root for: there's the preppy jerk, the cool slacker, the stoner, the slut, the good girl. The characters are amusing enough, but they're never so sympathetic that you don't want to see how Jason offs them.

And Jason does off them in some creative ways. While the machete remains the weapon of choice, Jason also uses axes, screw drivers, fire pokers, bow and arrows, bear traps, wall-mounted antlers, and death-by-campfire.

Halfway into the final act, it became clear that Friday the 13th is not so much a horror film as a sadistic comedy. The audience I went to see it with laughed and cheered more often than the audiences I was with when I saw Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Far more than any mere superhero, Jason truly is the ultimate empowerment fantasy. Stripped of any pretense of morality, Jason gets to indulge his most violent impulses, and the audience gets to indulge in vicarious sadism. As creepy as it is to say, there's some part of our (or at least my) primordial ape brain that finds this violent fantasy to be a lot more entertaining than entitled billionaires pontificating about social responsibility.

On one last note, having blogged about Doomsday recently, here's another movie where the lasting influence of 28 Days Later is evident. That film threw out the hoary, old convention of the shuffling zombie and introduced the fast zombie. In the original Friday the 13th franchise, Jason may not have been a zombie (at first), but he always managed to catch his victims despite never moving faster than a brisk walk. Remake Jason runs after people like Usain Bolt with a machete. With a hulk like Derek Mears behind the mask, the visual is startlingly effective.

Comics Reading List: Better Late Than Never

The Walking Dead #58 (Image)
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Charlie Adlard

In recent years, zombies have become as overplayed as superheroes in comics. But both genres still have a few quality titles that, while not reinventing the game, at least manage to tell a decent story with interesting characters every month. The Walking Dead is the old gray man of zombie comics, but it continues to be an entertaining read, especially now that Kirkman has teased the reader with the possibility that we'll learn where the zombies came from. This issue, however, follows multiple digressions as we learn a bit more about the new character Abraham, we're reintroduced to a character who last appeared nearly 5 years ago, and establish new tensions that might split the survivors. Also, Adlard's art retains its distinctive, black-and-white bleakness.

At this late stage, the comic isn't terribly welcoming for new readers, but those trades are available at your local bookstore.

Batman #686 (DC)
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Pencils: Andy Kubert

Having lost interest in Batman for most of R.I.P., I felt like jumping back in after Batman's big "death" in Final Crisis. This is the first half of a two part aftermath storyline dubbed "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" There's a lot going in this comic, and Gaiman clearly has no intention of writing another Batman beats up bad guy story. We see Batman's funeral, or an interpretation of what his funeral would be like if everyone, even the villains, were invited. And we see a version of Catwoman and a version of Alfred reminisce over events that never took place in any Batman comic I know of. I think I'll hold off saying anymore until after the second half comes out.

I still don't see why so many people love Kubert's artwork. Sure, it effectively conveys the story, and several of the panels have a lot of nice detail. But it's still basically the standard superhero style a reader would expect from DC. But, it's worth mentioning that Kubert is far superior to the terrible Tony Daniels.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

TV: What's Worth Watching? (2/1 - 2/7)

Spoilers below...

2:00 - 3:00 pm

Quick summary: shoot, shoot, kill, explosion, shoot, explosion, kill.

Dubaku uses the MacGuffin device to implausibly start a build-up of dangerous gases in an Ohioan chemical plant. A brave, mid-Western man sacrifices himself to save America (or a small piece of it anyway) while the FBI flails about uselessly, as usual. Jack, Tony, and Bill Buchanan takes matters into their own hands and kill 90% of the bad guys in a bravura gun battle. The MacGuffin device is destroyed, and the nonsensical computer threat is over. However, Dubaku escapes and kidnaps the still alive First Gentleman (which is a dumb title, shouldn't he at least be the First Lord? Isn't Lord the masculine counterpart to Lady?).

On the one hand, this episode was action-packed, and there's just something inherently amusing about this team of vigilantes going around and doing the government's job for it. On the other hand, it's usually at this point, when the bad guys switch from their A-plot to their backup plan, that the season goes off the rails. This season seems to be slightly better scripted than previous ones, since the backup plan isn't some insane B-plot that could only happen if every tiny thing fell perfectly into place for the bad guy. Rather, the bad guys seem to be improvising with what they have given that their original plan is fucked. Of course, the usual qualifications that there's no way all this stuff would happen in a 24-hour period still apply, but if you're still watching the show, you've made your piece with its formula.

House: The Greater Good

The patient of the week is a talented doctor who quit her job so she could enjoy her remaining years with frivolous pursuits. Karma catches up with her in the form of a truly crazy ailment. Unlike prior episodes, the writers manage to tie the sub-plots together using the unifying theme of personal pleasure vs. professional fulfillment. Taub is professionally fulfilled, but starts to consider having a baby. Cuddy is still trying to balance the job she loves and her new baby. Foreman is placed in a position where he might have to choose between his girlfriend and his career.

Unfortunately, all these plots gel together only with a lot of bizarre behavior coming from various characters. Cuddy displays her anger at House for "forcing" her to come back to work by performing a bunch of juvenile pranks, which ultimately amount to nothing. House, uncharacteristically as well, doesn't prank her back. Foreman is unusually dumb this episode, and nearly throws away his medical career.

It doesn't help matters either that this is yet another episode that focuses heavily on Thirteen, a character who's gone from being the writers' pet to being the undeclared co-lead of House.

Burn Notice: Seek and Destroy

This episode depresses me, because it highlights what Burn Notice could have been if the writers hadn't chosen to stick with the predictable formula of Michael Weston helps out the sad-sack of the week. The episode actually starts off with an interesting plot where Michael is drawn into the world of art dealing and corporate espionage. It seems like an interesting job, and it actually pays real money, but the writers ultimately turn it into a conventional murder storyline, complete with pretty, grieving daughter.

The long-term plot involving the bomber who tried to kill Michael plays a little better, and we get to see Michael use some very nifty shotguns armed with water balloons. But even that plot is bogged down a bit with a tired, will-they-won't-they subplot involving Michael and Fee. It also doesn't help that Michael is forced to team up with the dumbest arms dealer in the world, a character who is clearly intended as comic relief, and is therefore completely unfunny.

I'm starting to think I'm over this series. I still enjoy the spy stuff, but the rest of the show feels tired and repetitive.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood on the Scales

The writers of this series have clearly embraced Shakespeare's approach to plot resolution. When in doubt, start killing off everyone. It's a testament to the quality of the writing (with the bonus that the show is wrapping up) that any character, even the leads, are potentially fair game. Zarek and Gaeta attempt to cement their coup with a few kangeroo court trials and mass murders. It all falls apart, as these things do, when the coup plotters discover that an underling willing to betray one master is more than capable of doing so again.

There are some nice character moments, including a wonderful exchange between Tyrol and a heretofore minor character, as well as the return of Head-Six, action hero Rollo Lampkin, and some great scenes with Gaeta and Adama.

But my favorite scenes involved Rosslyn on the Cylon baseship. Tory, true to her self-serving nature, convinces the other Cylons to run away before the mutineers turn against them. It takes Rosslyn all of about two minutes to bully the Cylons into doing whatever she wants, and from that point on you have a very pissed off woman commanding a very large warship.

This show continues to be outstanding, and I can't wait to see how it all ends.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Comics Reading Time

Another light week for me, though I may pick up "Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe" when I have more free time.

Possible spoilers below...

Jonah Hex #40
Writers: Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: David Michael Beck

I have little attachment to DC's line of superhero comics right now, but Jonah Hex continues to be a must-read for me every month. While this comic tends to tell complete stories in every issue, this issue differs in that it's the first half of a two-parter, and has a surprise cameo by a character who was introduced earlier in the series. The story is decent, with Hex being hired to track down a serial killer who is a 19th century knockoff of the real-life Josef Mengele. Unfortunately, there's a somewhat hackneyed plot twist that leaves Hex in a tough spot, but the next issue looks promising. The realistic art by Beck is very attractive, though the colors can get a bit muddy.

Dynamo 5 #19 (Image)
Writer: Jay Faerber
Artist: Mahmud A. Asrar

This issue completes a storyline that feels like it began years ago, thanks to the book's erratic publication. For those unfamiliar with the title, Dynamo 5 is a high concept series that asks the question, "what if Superman was a philanderer who had five bastards running around the U.S.?" Each of Captain Dynamo's (the Superman knockoff of this book) lucky accidents inherited one of his powers, and after he was murdered, his widowed wife found the children and put them together as a team.

The appeal of a high concept never lasts long, but Faerber can write the type of competent, entertaining adventure that seems so scarce at DC and Marvel. Issue #19 wraps up a plotline where the team had broken up. It's barely a spoiler to mention that the team gets back together by the end of the issue, but Faerber manages to keep things action-packed while working in a few nice character beats. At this stage, though, it's a little disconcerting that only about half the cast seem to have defined personalities.

Asrar's artwork is in the conventional style of superhero comics, with muscular men and busty women. But it's worth noting that his designs are clean and, forgive the pun, dynamic, and the layout makes the narrative easy to follow.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Underappreciated Apocalypse

Doomsday (unrated)
Directed and Written by Neil Marshall

Rhona Mitra (hottie)
Bob Hoskins (that guy from Who Framed Roger Rabbit)
Alexander Siddig (Bashir from Deep Space 9)
David O'Hara (hey its that guy!)
Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Caligula, etc. etc.)

Most movies are not original works of art. I'm not talking about the endless remakes or sequels that Hollywood keeps churning out. I mean that even films that exist in their own little universe tend to be heavily influenced by what came before. Genre conventions are established over time as more and more movies copy their predecessors' best ideas. Is this creative? Not really, though I wouldn't go so far as to call it plagiarism. The reason genre conventions arise to begin with is because those ideas, visuals, or character-types resonate with the audience. More importantly, genre conventions serve as a quick and easy way to communicate ideas without wasting precious screen time explaining the "rules" of the film universe. When you make a vampire movie, you don't need to explain why vampires drink blood. They just do, and the audience is presumably savvy enough to know this.

Doomsday belongs to that particular fusion of horror and sci-fi known as the post-apocalyptic genre. People are both scared and fascinated by the breakdown of civilization, but they're even more interested in what happens next. The post-apocalyptic adventure serves as a window into a world turned upside-down, where might-makes-right, and even the most taboo behavior becomes normal. Yet it also comforts the audience with the knowledge that strong, heroic individuals will eventually restore law and order. The conventions of this genre are well-established. Without government, people WILL become cannibals, wear shoulder pads, and ride around on motorbikes. The protagonist is always an anti-hero, and is often only slightly less violent than the bad guys.

The apocalypse in Doomsday is localized on Scotland, which suffered an epidemic outbreak of a terrible disease dubbed the Reaper virus. The British government responded in a perfectly sensible manner; by sealing off Scotland with a naval blockade, a no-fly zone, and a reconstructed Hadrian's Wall (complete with automated turrets). As a history major, that last part pretty much guaranteed that I would love this film, even if the rest of it sucked.

Thankfully, the rest of Doomsday doesn't suck. Flash-forward 20 years, Britain is a mess and London has become one gigantic ghetto. The main character, Eden Sinclair, who escaped from Scotland as a child, has now grown up to be a pretty badass police officer and a total hottie. She also has one fake eye, which she can remove and use as a portable video camera. When the Reaper virus reappears in London, Sinclair is dispatched north of the Wall with the usual mix of soldiers and scientists to try and discover a cure. Apparently, humanity has survived in Scotland, but they're not exactly friendly. The rest of film consists of Sinclair and her ever-dwindling team fighting off punk cannibals and neo-Medieval warriors, with a decent helping shootouts, sword-fights, car chases, and plenty of ultra-violence.

If any of this sounds familiar, that's because Doomsday makes no effort to hide its influences. Instead, Neil Marshall offers an homage to every post-apocalyptic story that came before. The idea of a virus wiping out Britain is obviously stolen from 28 Days Later. Urban cannibals come from Richard Matheson's novel, "I Am Legend," which was recently made into a (terrible) movie. A society reverting to Medieval technology and culture has been explored in a number of novels, including S.M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire" series. Eden Sinclair, the one-eyed hero sent into a post-apocalyptic nightmare, is clearly based on Snake Plisskin from Escape from New York. But the most significant influence comes from George Miller's Mad Max films, particularly The Road Warrior. The punk aesthetic of the cannibals, the over-the-top violence, and the climactic car chase at the end of the film are all deeply indebted to Miller's cult classic.

Put simply, Doomsday doesn't break any new ground. It faithfully follows the standard script of a post-apocalyptic adventure and hits all the notes that a viewer would expect. Cannibals? Check. Car chase? check. At least one decapitation? Check plus. But as I mentioned before, genre conventions exist for a reason: they work. Doomsday may not be original, but the film is remarkably entertaining from start to finish. And it doesn't just utilize the conventions of the post-apocalyptic genre, it celebrates them with such conviction and glee that it's impossible not to get caught up in the filmmakers' enthusiasm. From the scene where a man gets char-broiled for hungry punks, to the scene where a Bentley is driven through a bus, it's obvious that everyone involved in this movie wanted to make a worthy entry into the genre.

Doomsday came and went in American theaters without much notice. The unrated cut is now available on DVD or Blue Ray (though the the latter is devoid of extras). If you're the type of person who likes seeing civilization get blown up, gives this movie a try.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Solving National Debt: Hard Choices Are For Quitters

According to the Congressional Budget Office (requires Acrobat Reader), the federal debt has already surpassed $10 trillion, and unless current policies are changed, the 2009 budget deficit will be the biggest in history. Some so-called economists say that the only way to deal with the problem is to raise taxes and/or cut public spending. I say we need to think outside-the-box. Here are three ways to reduce the debt that will let us have our cake and eat it too!

1. Tribute: why suffer the indignity of paying our bills when we can get other countries to do it for us? Tribute, like democracy and pederasty, is a time-honored tradition dating back to Classical Athens. The leaders of Athens understood that the costs of lavish public spending should fall on everyone but the people who voted you into office. President Obama could politely ask Canada to share its excess wealth, and then send the military to Ottawa to make sure the money is safely transferred to the states.

2. Logan's Run: much of the debt arises from entitlement spending on Social Security and Medicare. We provide these services because we would feel bad if the elderly had to spend their twilight years in poverty and ill health. If we can't get rid of these services in good conscience, then let's get rid of the elderly! If nobody is old, then funding SS and Medicare becomes easy. I say that whenever someone reaches retirement age, a little gizmo in their hand activates to let the authorities know that it's time to take grandpa out to the woods "to set him free."

3. Voodoo Economics: maybe turning the elderly into Soylent Green isn't acceptable to the far left. But we still need to address the problem of a growing number of retirees versus working-aged adults. How do we keep those old folks working and paying taxes for as long as possible? The answer: voodoo. America is second only to Jamaica in zombification, and there's no reason a person should stop working just because they're clinically dead. Black magic is an emerging industry that will keep America competitive in the 21st century.


Bill Gates Hates Me

"Or the Xbox 360 is a shitty product that breaks all the time"

When I first bought an Xbox 360 all the way back in 2006, my console had a bad hard drive, so I had to return it and get a new one. My second Xbox actually worked for about 6 months, until I got the red lights of death, and I had to mail it in to get it repaired. When I got it back, it managed to keep working for another year and a half (an impressive feat for a Microsoft product) until the disc drive broke. So I returned it and got a new unit, which had a firmware problem that caused every game I played to crash. So I shipped it back to be repaired/replaced for the third time. Xbox 360 is a shitty product.

Though to their credit, Microsoft gave me expedited shipping on this last repair. Third time's the charm I guess.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Quick Thoughts on the Superbowl

On the one hand, it became an exciting game in the fourth quarter, with the Cardinals coming close to stealing the game from the Steelers. On the other hand, it was an ugly game throughout, with way too many personal fouls.

But the highlight was still James Harrison, a linebacker, intercepting the ball and running the length of the field.

Everybody Loves TV!

Spoilers below...

1:00 pm to 2:00 pm
Every season, there's at least one episode of 24 where the show actually lives up to the promise of constant tension. There are 3 substantial plot threads going on at once: Tony and Jack are forced to kill Emmerson but must still convince Pres. Motobu to go ahead and turn himself in to Dubaku so that they can find out where Dubaku is hiding. Needless to say, Motobu will probably be dead in an hour, just like everyone else who relied on Jack for their survival. In another plot, the evil Secret Service agent murders Carly Pope, and then prepares to stage a murder-suicide involving Carly and the incapacitated First Husband. Apparently, the evil agent takes a lot of bathroom breaks, since it takes him the better part of an hour to get everything ready, and by the time he's done the First Husband has recovered enough to get some revenge.

In the least entertaining plot, the President refuses to give in to Dubaku's threats, and orders the military to invade Sangala despite the promise of further attacks on Americans. So apparently, she's unwilling to delay an invasion for a few hours, which would almost certainly save American lives and give her agents more time to find Dubaku. I know the writers are all Bush-lovers, but their defense of neo-con interventionism has become completely absurd. No American president would risk American lives for a purely humanitarian intervention in Africa. And while not negotiating with terrorists makes sense as a general policy, being President is about making hard choices that go against your instincts. Of course, the politics of this show being what it is, the President will be proven right.

House: Big Baby
In the patient-of-the-week plot, an obnoxiously upbeat special-needs teacher starts coughing up blood. Needless to say, House hates her. To make matters worse for him, Cuddy takes some time off and puts Cameron in charge, while she tries and tries to bond with her ugly baby. In the second b-plot, Foreman considers ruining a drug trial so that Thirteen can get the real meds rather than the placebo.

As per usual, House gets his way. Cameron develops a backbone for all of three seconds, but ultimately caves in to House, much like Cuddy always does. After being vomited on by Cuddy's kid, House eventually figures out that the patient has a weird genetic defect in her heart. Things work out for Cuddy too, who has a miracle bonding experience with the child after making an absurd call to House in the middle of a surgery. Meanwhile, Foreman switches drug samples for Thirteen's sake, and almost certainly sets himself up to get fired, and possibly lose his medical license.

I was a little hesitant about the Cuddy-as-Mommy plot, but it is actually starting to shape up as a good development for the character. And while I still think the Foreman-Thirteen relationship is boring, I can't help but be curious what the consequences for Foreman will be.

Burn Notice: Hot Spot
Michael Weston's case-of-the-week involves a protective older brother who is now being hunted by a local gang. As usual, rather than simply kill the gangster, Michael develops a convoluted scheme that involves tricking the gangster into thinking that a rival syndicate is moving in on his car theft ring. Eventually, Michael tricks the gangster's boss into killing the thug for him. As with last week's episode, this tactic has been used by Michael before in at least two episodes that I can remember. This show has always had its formula, but at this point it is starting to repeat specific plot points from past episodes.

Slightly better is the b-plot involving Carla and the search for the man who planted the bomb in Michael's loft. While throwing Carla off the trail, Michael and Fee identify the bomber, but Fee almost gets burned alive for her trouble. This leads Michael to decide to hook up with Fee again, but next morning Carla shows up, offering a none-to-veiled threat. The episode ends on an interesting note that leaves me hopeful for next week.

Battlestar Galactica: The Oath
Gaeta and Zarek stage their insurrection, and in short order Zarek is in charge on Colonial One again, half the main cast is thrown in the brig, and Rosslyn and Baltar are fleeing to the Cylon baseship. This episode is practically all action, with plenty of human-on-human violence over whether to form an alliance with the Cylon rebels. Having done little but brood for the last two episodes, Kara finally gets to commit violence again and goes not a little gun-crazy.

My only issue with this episode involves the final scene. After Gaeta declares mutiny, Adama and Ty are led to the brig. They manage to escape from custody and work their way to the same storage bay as Rosslyn. However, rather than escape from Galactica with Rosslyn, they hold the fort to ensure that her shuttle escapes. While this sounds heroic on paper, there's nothing in the scene that indicates that Gaeta or his marines had any real way of preventing the shuttle from escaping. Instead, the scene exists solely to set up a silly cliffhanger that was already ruined by the previews for next week.

Nitpicks aside, I can't even imagine how the writers will resolve this conflict without killing half the cast, or if that is what they actually plan to do in the remaining episodes. That sort of uncertainty is why I love this show.