Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sci-Fi Geekery in American History

A few weeks ago, the Mrs. and I took a few friends to the National Mall in Washington DC to look around some of the museums. While each of the museums have their own sci-fi geek-friendly content, I was suprised to see quite a few references to 20th century sci-fi movies and TV shows in the National Museum of American History--both in the main hall and elsewhere. Click below to see a my photo gallery of federally recognized historical nerdity.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Campy, Kooky Commercials Worth Watching: Roaches and Ferrets Gone Wild!

In our modern era of online video downloads, online DVD rentals and digital video recording, I find myself blessed to have so many options to avoid watching commercials (that is, except for when I show up early at the movie theater--who'da thunk that?). Yet in spite of these options, I still find myself catching a commercial here and there on TV and believe it or not, some of them are still worth watching. In particular, I'm talking about this Orkin commercial, as pictured above.

Yes, I know that Orkin has been using human-sized, talking bugs as part of their recent ad campaign, which draws heavy visual influences from the classic movie Them! and David Cronenberg's hallucinatory adaptation of The Naked Lunch (yes, a film about an exterminator who gets high from pesticide chemicals is used as stylistic inspiration for an ad campaign for an extermination service), and that this particular commercial has been on the air for months. Being the big bug movie fan that I am, I think that the special effects in these commercials are amazing and it makes me wonder why we aren't seeing more big bug movies on the big screen these days because they would look so amazing.

What makes this commercial stand out from the other Orkin commercials is how it's edited. The giant roach, complete with a towel wrapped around his, er, waist, approaches a romantic couple in a hot tub and asks if he can join them. That alone is pretty weird and funny. But then the roach drops his towel and the scene cuts away to a reaction shot of the couple as they watch the roach reveal his full, uncovered insect self. In this shot, you only see the roach's feet and falling towel, as if to briefly shield our sensitive eyes from the sudden appearance of full-frontal cockroach nudity. (Completely unclothed, he then asks the couple if they're "dipping skinny".) This always makes me chuckle. It's one of the most creative and ridiculous parodies of nudity on television that I've ever seen, and it's in a pest removal commercial of all things.

Still, as oddball commercial humor goes, I have yet to find one that tops my all-time favorite: a Diet Mountain Dew commercial that features an unusually aggressive ferret. Believe it or not, this commercial is available in both edited and uncut versions(!), just like many modern horror movies, thus making it the perfect 30 second horror movie parody.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ass Kicking and Kid Sidekicks

A few days ago I watched the DVD releases of Kick-Ass and Batman: Under the Red Hood. Kick-Ass is the big screen adaptation of the comic book series of the same name by Mark Millar, who also did Wanted. Batman: Under the Red Hood is the animated adaptation by DC of the recent comic book storyline about the death and resurrection of one of Batman’s sidekicks, Jason Todd (formerly known as the dead Robin, now known as the Robin gone bad). Of the two movies, Kick-Ass is the better film, with a great script, great cast and great direction by Matthew Vaughn. On the other hand, Red Hood has above-average animation, moody atmosphere, thrilling fight scenes and an excellent voice cast, but the story gets lost in a convoluted series of plot twists and inconsistent character development arcs that fail to build to a satisfying conclusion. Indeed, the story of a mysterious masked figure who arrives in Gotham City to murder several gangsters culminating in a final showdown with Batman that somehow involves the Joker was already done much better in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Of the two titles, Kick-Ass is a vicious parody of superheroes--particularly those of the costumed, non-super powered vigilante variety--that’s not meant to be taken seriously at all. What sets Kick-Ass apart from others of its type is its approach to lampooning its subject matter. While most superhero parodies use the inherently bizarre nature of the superhero genre to provide humor (parodies such as The Tick, Sky High, the upcoming Megamind, etc.), Kick-Ass’s approach reflects the Grand Guignol school of humor, alternating between overtly absurd situations and bloody, nasty violence to heighten the humorous effect.

Of the many superhero clich├ęs and conventions at which Kick-Ass takes aim, the one that steals the spotlight was that of the kid sidekick in the form of Hit Girl. Hit Girl is the 10-year-old sidekick of Big Daddy, a heavily armed vigilante who wears a costume which bears a more than passing resemblance to Batman’s. In keeping with movie’s style of violent humor, Hit Girl is the outrageously deadly sidekick for the outrageously violent world of Kick-Ass: she swears like a sailor, she kills with swift efficiency, and she is loyal to Big Daddy to the bitter end. Many film critics were aghast that Kick-Ass would choose to place a pre-pubescent killing machine in a heroic role, but they were missing the superhero comic book in-joke. Kick-Ass isn’t just a satire of superheroes in general; it’s a satire of the violent, “gritty” superhero narratives that became very popular during the 1980s and have since become a staple of the superhero comic book industry. This post will look at the significance of Kick-Ass and Hit Girl in relation to the character of Robin in the Batman franchise in general and the Red Hood movie in particular. Read on ...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Attack of the Giant Lawn Ornament, Part 2: Revenge of Survivor!

When we last left the big bug lawn ornament in Stoystown, PA, I posted a bunch of pictures on this blog to give you a clear picture of what this 9 foot tall fiberglass mantis looks like. Since then, I've been able to speak directly to the bug's owners at the Second Time Around shop, and they provided plenty of extra information to me about this unique display:

  • The big bug's official name is "Survivor", which was selected as part of a fundraising contest for Easter Seals.
  • Before arriving at Second Time Around, Survivor's previous owner was the proprietor of the Roof Garden Gift Shop in Boswell, PA, which burned down in 1984. The owner purchased Survivor somewhere in Virginia in 1964, along with a companion piece: a large brontosaurus, which is now located in Altoona, PA. (Imagine what kind of spectacular monster movie that would be--Giant Bronto vs. Mega-Mantis!)
  • The owners of Second Time Around regularly dress up Survivor for various events and holidays, such as Halloween and Christmas. 
  • Over the years, Survivor has been shot, vandalized, and stolen--a pretty tough life for a giant insect predator. As the pic above demonstrates, Survivor is no stranger to dismemberment.
Click the link below to see more pictures and articles about Survivor, courtesy of Second Time Around.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Attack of the Giant Lawn Ornament, Part 1 (Updated)

If you have ever lost a lawn ornament--say, a pink flamingo or a garden gnome--my guess is that they were probably eaten by this guy:

I found this 9 foot tall mammoth mantis near Second Time Around, a second hand store in Stoystown, while wandering around the back roads of southwestern Pennsylvania. So, I thought I'd snap a few pics of it for my photo collection of the odd and kitschy. Click the link below for the full gallery.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Remake Double Take: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

I can't help but to feel sorry for the horror genre of movies these days. Of all of the other genres out there, horror seems to be the one that is most likely to be subjected to remakes, reboots or "reimaginings". Often, these are remakes of movies that didn't need to be remade at all: The Haunting, Carnival of Souls, Psycho, Halloween, The Omen, Amityville Horror, Black Christmas, The Stepford Wives, Prom Night, Nightmare on Elm Street, the list goes on and on with no end in sight.

In my opinion, remakes are only worthwhile if they do one of two things: either they bring something different to the story that's distinct but is still faithful to the original narrative's internal logic, or they redo a movie that had potential to be great but for whatever reason didn't completely succeed in its initial cinematic incarnation. In the first category, there are remakes such as The Thing, The Fly and The Blob, each based on classic films but are different and effective enough to stand on their own. The other category is much harder to pin down, because movie companies are far more likely to remake classics due to name recognition and built-in fan bases than to remake an obscure film that not many people liked in the first place. There are many flawed but intriguing movies that I would like to see given a second chance as better movies (Phase IV, Looker and Trancers immediately come to mind) but the odds of that happening range from slim to impossible.

Somewhere in between these two categories is Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, an upcoming remake produced by Guillermo del Toro of a 1973 TV movie that has a devoted cult following. Click here to see the initial preview trailer, which looks very promising. Being familiar with the original movie, I'd like to share a few thoughts about this remake, about what might make this film either a worthy update to a cult classic or yet another title to add to the growing list of ambitious but misguided horror remakes. Read on ...

Friday, August 6, 2010

Great Moments in Movie Spoiler History: The Empire Strikes Back

Being the pack rat that I am, I was digging through my old Star Wars print paraphernalia the other day when I found issue 41 of Prevue magazine from 1980 that was devoted to the then-upcoming release of the eagerly anticipated Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. This Prevue issue featured interviews with director Irvin Kershner, production designer Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars creator George Lucas, and Al Williamson, the artist who worked on Marvel Comics' adaptation of Empire. The issue also had a fantastic wrap-around cover by graphic artist Jim Steranko, who was also the editor of Prevue. (Sadly, because I was just a wee lad when I got this issue, I didn't think to protect this super-awesome cover from the ravages of time.) To view and/or download images of this issue's cover and interviews, continue reading past the jump.

Yet what really makes this issue a treasure for Star Wars fans is not just the magazine's content, but a tantalizing bit from Prevue's letters to the editor. While I didn't understand it at the time due to my very young, innocent age, it appears that the plot developments and major relevations in Empire--particularly Han Solo's capture and Darth Vader's true identity as Luke Skywalker's father--were in the process of being spoiled for the public at the time of this issue's publication. Read on...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jaws: The Interactive Experience

In the modern era of interactive entertainment, movie fans of all stripes have plenty of opportunities to immerse themselves within their favorite cinematic adventures, either through amusement park rides with cutting-edge technology or through video games with high-definition, three-dimensional graphics. Unfortunately, one of my favorite movies, Jaws, hasn't found the proper interactive niche to provide the uneasiness and shocks that a true immersive monster shark attack simulation should provide.

So far, the Jaws video games have been a bust. The 1987 Jaws game for the Nintendo Entertainment System had the dual drawbacks of being based on Jaws: The Revenge and having game play that was somewhat reminiscent of Activision's very scare-less Seaquest for the Atari 2600. Jaws Unleashed, for all of its vicarious violence and delightful destruction, featured no scares at all because you play as the shark. (In the game's defense, the levels of Jaws Unleashed which were based on scenes and scenarios in Jaws 3 were actually better than Jaws 3 itself.)

Of the Jaws rides at the Universal Studios Theme Parks, I've only been to the one in Florida and it's not that great of an interactive experience (unless you're unlucky enough to fall into the ride itself, at which point the ride becomes inappropriately interactive). When the shark finally appears in the ride, it's not much more than a series of fiberglass sharks, mounted on pistons and rails on both sides of the rail-guided "boat" which launch out of the water at pre-set times--not very suspenseful. (Then again, if one of those toothy shark heads would suddenly emerge out of the water next to me while I'm swimming, either in the ocean or in a pool, I can guarantee that I would lose control of at least one bodily function.)

Yes, even in this era of interactive entertainment, Jaws has remained without a successful interactive experience ... until now. Enter the Ultimate Jaws Floating Roadshow by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Last weekend, the Alamo Drafthouse team not only held three late night showings of Jaws on an outdoor screen, but they arranged it so that the audience of the film was floating on inner tubes (supplied by Alamo Drafthouse) on Lake Travis in Windy Point Park in Austin, Texas. As part of this aquatic viewing experience, they also provided their own shark--sort of. Keep reading past the jump for the rest of the story, including pictures.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mini-Review of Despicable Me

In keeping with my trend of reviewing movies weeks after their initial release, here are my thoughts on one of this summer's CGI cartoon releases, Despicable Me. I had some hesitations going into this movie, because all of the previews made it appear that the plot of Despicable Me was yet another one of those young-waifs-melt-the-heart-of-a-chronic-scrooge-making-him/her-a-lovable-softie exercises that Hollywood loves to churn out to earn a quick buck from the PG-rated crowd. It turned out that I was right--that is the basic plot of Despicable Me. Yet what I wasn't expecting was to see this plot fueled by a series of sight gags and absurd comic sequences that riotously send up the cinematic staples of mad scientists and James Bond-esque megalomaniacal villains. Indeed, if you like your scientists crazy and your villains gadget-savvy and globe-trotting, then Despicable Me is the summer comedy for you. Also worthy of note is that the humor in Despicable Me successfully evokes the oddball, madcap spirit of Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes shorts from the golden age of cinema, a feat I haven't seen in a feature-length cartoon since Disney's The Emperor's New Groove.

That said, I don't care what Roger Ebert says--if you decide to see Despicable Me, be sure to see it in 3-D. There are several scenes (especially those in the end credits) that aren't nearly as effective in 2-D as they are in 3-D. You've been warned.