Wednesday, July 23, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #3!!! (Machete Kills/Monsters)

For this week's double-feature we jump forward from the era of my birth to the (approximate) present day, with 2013's Machete Kills and 2010's Monsters. Technically neither of them is a Summer Movie, since both were released in October, but they both have the feel of classic dog-days drive-ins to them, grindhouse and creature features and whatnot. Go ahead and Google "summer blockbuster is dead" for further evidence as to whether or not release date means all that much anymore. (Spoiler: it doesn't. Also, spoilers ahead!)

Machete Kills is of course the sequel to Robert Rodriguez's Machete, which was a flick I watched as part of last year's SMOAT, an experience which made my end-of-year superlatives list and which had me very eager for the continuation. Unfortunately, I must admit that Machete Kills was somewhat disappointing as a follow-up. In and of itself, on its own (dubious) merits, I probably would have liked it a bit more. But it definitely suffers in comparison to the original.

Machete is a fairly ridiculous movie, and Machete Kills is an egregiously ridiculous movie. Both feature copious amounts of bloodletting but somehow Machete manages to maintain a tenuous connection to reality, which makes the enhanced hyperviolence pop in spite of how unreal (or surreal) it all is. Machete Kills abandons anything remotely associated with realism, leaving behind the grit of cop-on-a-vengeance-trip thrillers referenced in the first movie and jumping headfirst into borrowing tropes at will from super-spy and science fiction traditions. Master-of-disguise characters literally portrayed by multiple actors (and an actress), clone characters, psychic characters, and futuristic technology galore all piling up on-screen to create an utter fantasy world where the violence feels somehow less visceral, more Looney Tunes. Lest I be accused of being a cranky scold, I will say I get it - Rodriguez is having fun, making a big-budget movie as if he were a kid playing make-believe in the backyard, doing Star Wars pastiche simply because it's a blast. And there's an arguably humorous meta-joke inherent in taking the scowling no-guff-taking character of Machete and putting him through the paces of a story that gets more and more impossible and insane as it goes along. I grok all of that, I really do. But, again, Machete kept itself under control and its intermittent bursts of madness were exhilarating. Machete Kills is like watching a ten-year-old totally spaz out: amusing here and there, but very wearying after a while.

If there is ever a third Machete movie, will I spare a couple of commuting hours to see it? Most def. "Not as good as the original" isn't the same as "bad", and my obsessive completism makes me more tolerant than most of diminishing returns. Besides, with my expectations appropriately adjusted, I might enjoy Machete Kills Again ... In Space that much more.

I will say this about one stellar turn in Machete Kills: the stunt casting of Charlie Sheen (aka Carlos Estevez) as President Rathcock pays off big time. I'm about as sick as anyone at this point of Sheen's antics and attitude towards fame, his industry, and the world he considers himself so exalted above. BUT. In the initial scene in which Machete meets the President, Charlie kills it. And "it" is a dead-on perfect impression of his father, Martin Sheen, specifically as he embodied President Jed Bartlett on the West Wing. The Sorkinesque cadence, the world-weary gravel in his elder statesman throat, everything, so on-point I wanted to stand up and applaud. I never would have guessed there would be a big overlap between Machete franchise fans and a network political drama that was in its heyday over a decade ago, but I learn something new every day. If Rodriguez just went for the homage because, like everything else in the flick, it simply amused him to do so, then this is one example of the tendency I can totally get behind.

Moving on ... Monsters was recommended to me by an old college buddy of mine, whom I saw in New York a couple months ago, meeting up for beers after my wife and I caught the Hedwig show. We talked a little bit about this summer's Godzilla reboot, which my friend found disappointing, mainly because he had expected so much more out of Gareth Edwards based on Monsters. I admitted that while Monsters looked/sounded interesting, I hadn't seen it yet. My friend urged me to catch up with it soon, and so I did.

And I agree that Monsters is a charming, fascinating movie, one that straddles the line between sci-fi special effects and human drama, coming down far more frequently on the latter side (as you might expect from a no-budget indie film). The titular extraterrestrials are extremely interesting, visually, but Edwards wisely shows very little of them early on, doling out more and more clear shots until the biggest reveals in the final moments of the film. Mostly the aliens are simply part of the backdrop, shading around the edges of a story about what regular people do when their backs are against the wall, and how they come to realize what is most important to them.

The story is set mostly in Mexico, which is not an accident at all, and the movie aims to raise a certain awareness in the audience about issues associated with immigration, the policies enacted to control it and the real fallout and consequences of those programs. Anyone hoping for a straightforward us-against-the-xenotypes shoot-em-up is bound to come away disappointed. In fact, I'd posit that the strangely beautiful ending sequence is intended to challenge the very desire to see such stories play out at all. So it's an impressively sharp-looking movie for being shot on a wing and a prayer, and thought-provoking to boot, which is no small feat. Clearly, though, those virtues are the exact opposite of what big-studio producers would want to wring out of a brand spanking new Godzilla flick, so it's little surprise that very little of Edwards' special, deft touches made it into the most recent would be King of the Monster Movies. I'm honestly not sure how my friend could have expected it to be otherwise.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Next week, more 21st-century sci-fi!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Don't want to be a richer man (The Magnificent Ambersons)

It's 1001 Movies Blog Club time! And yet again, it’s all my fault, as it was my turn to pick and I reached way back for Orson Welles’ 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.

Never let it be said that Welles was not a gifted filmmaker. It’s almost a shame that many people no doubt think of either “War of the Worlds” or “Rosebud” when they hear his name, and not much more. But the man really knew how to make the most of the possibilities inherent in the motion picture artform, which is all the more impressive considering that he entered the field in its earliest era, with very few others illuminating the way ahead for him. There are technical elements of The Magnificent Ambersons which are extremely striking: long, unbroken tracking shots, mood-evoking lighting that ranges from bright outdoor sunlight on a city street in the morning to the shadows of a kitchen late at night. And there are also more subtle elements which lend a novelistic feeling to the film, such as the fades to and from scenes of the townspeople of Indianapolis talking about the Ambersons, breaking up the chapters of the movie and creating the feeling of depth and background that a novel usually provides. The Magnificent Ambersons could fairly be held up as an example to be followed, or at the very least referenced, for adapting prose to the screen.

And yet … the story itself which Welles took the time to adapt was, I must admit, not my cup of tea. Tales of the declining fortunes of once prosperous aristocratic families do little if anything for me. I find it hard to summon up much sympathy, empathy, or anything else positive for characters who grew up privileged due to what was handed down to them, and suddenly find that either the world is changing around them in ways which do not enrich them, or that they have become impoverished by either their own active incompetence or passive indifference. I also find it hard to become emotionally invested in love stories in which two characters pine for one another and yet are kept forever apart due to artificial constructs such as societal expectations and the like. The Magnificent Ambersons is a double-barreled shot of both of those types of stories, and in its own way, it seems self-aware of it. Arguably the narrative spine consists of the origins, rise, and completely telegraphed comeuppance of George Amberson Minafer, and George is highly unlikable, not because Welles (or Tarkington, for that matter) tried and failed to make him the hero, but because that’s the point of his character, to represent and embody the worst traits of entitlement and arrogance. Watching and waiting for his comeuppance is like sitting through a largely incident-free revenge movie wrapped in turn-of-the-previous-century manners. As I say, not my cup of tea.

And (as Neil Gaiman once said of the ill-advised revisions to Shakespeare which flourished in the late 18th C.) the idiots have given it a happy ending. George contributes to and causes most if not all of his own ruin, but is ultimately forgiven and loved. His family fortune is gone, but it belonged to another world which, by the end of the elegiac film, is gone as well. And that may be the most fascinating aspect of The Magnificent Ambersons, from my point of view: a novel written in 1918 about the 1890’s and 1900’s had a certain amount of perspective through which to view the era of the setting, and a movie based on the novel filmed in 1941 added its own perspective, and watching that movie in 2014 layers on even more perspective still. It makes the movie as a historical artifact an intriguing multi-faceted time capsule, however a mixed bag the movie as a pure work of art might be.

Monday, July 21, 2014


As of late last week, one of the major things I'm dealing with at work is the fact that one of the servers utilized by one of our applications has been taken offline. I wasn't consulted whenever the server was under consideration for decommissioning, nor was I properly informed when it actually happened. I just tried to use the application one day and realized it wasn't behaving exactly as it should, and I started poking around and troubleshooting, and eventually got to the point where I had exhausted all of my own (limited by design) options and had to call the helpdesk. Usually these calls result in someone rebooting the troublesome server, which takes care of things. Surely I could reboot the server myself, if that's all it takes? Yes, except that I'm expressly forbidden from doing that, and I have neither the physical nor virtual access to even attempt to circumvent that protocol in any case. This is life as a contractor fulfilling a vaguely technical role that piggy-backs on the DoD's existing technical infrastructure: many responsibilities, no authorization.

This time, instead of being notified that the server had been rebooted, I was informed that the server was gone, which was a bit of a shock. And thus I have entered a protracted round of exchanging information with a helpdesk representative who is authorized to track down the old server and migrate the data from it that I need to some new server, and then re-establish the proper connections my application would need with the new server, &c. &c. and again it's all stuff I could do and get done quickly by giving it my full and undivided attention, but that's not the way it works.

The extra layer of frustration for me in this scenario is that the helpdesk person has a lot of questions which I feel all boil down to the person saying to me "tell me how to do my job". I've been working this contract for just about five years now, so I learned the ropes of the applications long ago. But apparently the helpdesk has much higher turnover, so the people I learned the ropes from are long gone and now new people have taken their place, new people with no idea how my applications were set up or why they were set up that way. I've already had at least one conversation that started to stumble down that path and I had to politely yet emphatically remind the person I was talking to that I am forbidden to do anything or even know too much about how the servers are configured, and if I was told five years ago I would be using servers X, Y, and 37, and at the time I said "thanks very much" because everything worked as needed at that point, it's not exactly fair to demand that I explain the why's and wherefore's of how part of my application ended up on server 37. I wasn't told and I didn't ask. I understand if it's part of the reason why I'm in the non-functioning predicament I'm in now, but it's not as though I specifically requested that arrangement. You may have a very valid point, helpdesk person, that your predecessor never should have set things up that way, but said point validity in no way implicates me. I don't care how or why it got set up badly/lazily the first time, and I trust you to set it up better this time (not that i have any choice but to trust you) but instead of dwelling on the past let's go ahead and put things right going forward so I can get back to using my applications as normal, all right?

Every time I go through an upgrade or migration or generalized system failure like this, I tell myself that I'm going to first survive it, then turn all the questions around on the helpdesk tech after the fact, particularly the ones they raised which I wasn't able to answer due to my own enforced ignorance, and I'm going to document everything so that the next time it happens it will be that much easier to turn the entire knowledge base over to whomever is manning the helpdesk at that point somewhere down the road. I tell myself this, and yet I never quite manage to follow through on it. Well, maybe this time.

Friday, July 18, 2014

An oldie but a goodie

Looking back, probably the most important thing I ever learned in high school was that whenever someone asks "Do you have the time?" you should always reply with a knowing smile and a question of your own: "Do you have the energy?"

Unfortunately, today I have neither the time nor the energy for any kind of blog post of substance. But there's always next week. See you then.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Unspilled milk

Last night, the little guy got himself some milk. The mere thought of such a quotidian act barely seems to clear the bar for any kind of remark, unless said remarking is going to go on at great length. (Which, I mean, of course it is.)

On the nights when my wife works and I feed the kids dinner, what often happens is that I plop the bino in the highchair and lock in the tray, and I cajole his big sister and brother to come and sit at the table, and I start doling out the food. The bigger kids get their dinner all at once, while the bino has to have it rationed, or else he finds the full portions too overwhelming and starts picking them up and throwing them at the dogs. (To be fair, the dogs don’t mind this at all, but it strikes me and my wife as excessive.) Sometimes the bigger kids want seconds, and sometimes they want to take their courtesy bites of what was prepared and then switch to yogurt, so there’s a fair amount of running back and forth between the stove/counters and the dining table. Which means I don’t usually bother sitting down, especially since there’s no other adult to have a conversation with or otherwise model proper table manners. I stand at the island (or peninsula, as we call it, since it’s anchored to one wall) and eat my own dinner upright, watching the kids and dishing up food or providing replacement utensils as needed. Or fetching drinks.

So in and of itself, the little guy getting up and getting his own drink instead of asking me for it was at least a little bit noteworthy. But also consider all of the steps involved, as if you had to program a robot to perform the same task:

- open the fridge - get out the gallon jug of milk without dropping it - set the milk on the counter beside the fridge, which is at about eye-level for a five-year-old - get a cup and set it on the counter as well - open the milk and set aside the cap - pour milk into the cup without spilling - return the milk jug to the counter - twist the milk cap closed, without jostling the cup of milk - return the milk jug to the fridge - return to the table with the cup of milk

I can enumerate all of these steps not because (or not only because) my day job is computer programming and I tend to think that way by default, but because that is often the way my wife and I have to approach getting the little guy to do just about anything. He is easily distracted and a bit on the scattered side, and we have learned through long, hard trial and error over the years that saying something like “go upstairs and get dressed” rarely works out. Too many opportunities for his thoughts to be diverted, or for him to forget what he was in the middle of doing and what’s supposed to come next. If we stay close, and say out loud each and every action he’s supposed to take, he can stay on task, but if not … we may end up hearing later about an amazing adventure that a dragon, an astronaut and wonder Woman went on, but we will be hearing it from a child who is naked except for one sock.

And on the one hand we’ve come to accept this quirkiness of the little guy’s, while on the other hand we are working with him on it because in certain arenas (school, mostly) it’s simply not going to work out well for him if he wanders off constantly and never finishes anything on his own. So I have to admit it was extremely gratifying to see him complete a 10-step task without incident. He even avoided the pitfall I myself am prone to succumb to to this day, which is filling the cup entirely too full in step 6. He did everything the right way and in the right order, and it’s a minor, minor thing but still fairly encouraging. Reason to smile, at the very least.

It’s certainly not the watershed moment after which everything will change, I know that. He’s still inherently resistant to giving things full and necessary attention, unless it’s something he really wants for himself. (He must have been jonesing something fierce for milk.) Some time, I don’t know, a couple-few months ago I started encouraging, and then insisting on, him washing himself in the tub. And now, it’s still something where I have to verbally walk him through it, so it’s hardly saving me any time (it probably takes longer this way) but it just seems age-apprpriate for him, and so. But just the other night, he looked at me with profound (manufactured) sadness and said, “My life was better when you used to wash me.” Which got him in response a slightly (but only slightly) more sympathetic version of “too bad, suck it up”. So, he has a way to go towards proper autonomy, and I will actually consider it a significant victory for both of us when and if he gets there, and if he never ever 100% does, I will not be utterly shocked. Some people always need a little smidge of extra looking after. Hopefully they have other virtues that outweigh this fact.

The funny thing is that the little girl seems to be racing for autonomy with much less, if any, prompting. (Which is in itself delightfully recursive.) She can wash herself in the tub just fine, and only needed to be offered the opportunity to demonstrate such ability, rather than a steady campaign of gently escalating insistence. I worry a great deal of the time about her as the only girl sibling and the middle child and every other tough luck circumstance she’s been dealt, but every now and then I think it might all work out for the best, because she’ll be the kind of person who rises to the challenge and overcomes the adversity rather than allowing herself to be held back by it. And more power to her.

Of course every coin has two sides, and in the case of my daughter that means that her determination and independent spirit apply to everything, not just the things that make my and my wife’s lives easier. All well and good if we want her to do something on her own which she also wants to do on her own, but if we butt heads, dang that girl has some battle-tested horns.

So as always our own children gives us plenty of potent reminders that we should be careful what we wish for. If we have to micromanage them, at least we always know what they’re doing. If we have to rein them in from remaking the entire world (or at least large sections of our house) in their own image, at least we can sometimes channel that energy in productive directions. It’s a mixed bag, and every day is an adventure. Plus some day my wife and I will be old, and we will no doubt both butt heads with our kids and need them to help us get through the simple things they take for granted. So what goes around comes around, at that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #2!!! (Westworld/Death Race 2000)

More and more lately, I have been thinking that if I were ever to try to write some kind of popcult-inflected memoir about what was on the airwaves and in the multiplexes when I was a kid and how it influenced me personally along with wide swaths of my generation, the title of said work would probably be "On the Brink of Dystopia". The trope of the terrible yet plausible future of human society felt like it was everywhere when I was growing up. When I heard firehouse sirens, I thought about incoming nuclear warheads. When I saw helicopters in the sky, I thought about fascist police states. I'm well aware now that dystopian fiction has been around since long before I was born and persists as a (highly lucrative, see Divergent, Hunger Games, etc.) sub-genre to this day, but I feel like there was a big peak for the notion in the 70's and 80's. Then again, maybe everything evergreen always seems to hit its highest highs during any given individual's formative years, thanks to the subjectivity of personal memory.

In any case, the double-feature at hand this week would slot in nicely in the memoir I proposed above: 1973's Westworld and 1975's Death Race 2000. It is by no means coincidence that the flicks happen to bracket the year of my birth. As I was coming into the world, there was no shortage of differing views on what that world would look like once I was a young adult.

Westworld is the latest entry in the long line of entertainments that I've taken the time to actually, belatedly experience firsthand after spending most of my life at least being aware of what they signify, what the elemental iconography they contribute is, and so on. Everyone knows that Westworld is about tourists to a futuristic theme park populated by lifelike robots, who end up terrorized by a mechanized gunslinger, played by Yul Brynner, whose programming goes rogue. I can confidently say now that if that is all you know about Westworld, you're good. There's more to it, of course, but not necessarily anything worth the investment of time to gain insight into.

I have been evolving a scale for gauging the quality of a movie based on its inherent compulsive watchability, which is greatly facilitated by my habit of watching movies on a portable dvd player as I commute to and fro on the VRE (which puts the T in SMOAT, after all). I can only watch about 50 minutes at a time, which is generally enough time to watch an entire feature-length film in a single day, the first half in the morning and the second half in the afternoon. Because I'm forced to take an eight or nine hour intermission at the midpoint of the movie, I'm able to evaluate how eager I am to keep going and/or return to the movie as soon as possible. For a middle-of-the-road movie, I'll get on the homebound train and settle into my seat and maybe check a few internet destinations on my phone while the signal is good before firing up the dvd player. The better the movie, the quicker I'll switch on the player, which for some movies means I actually resume watching on the train platform and semi-awkwardly climb into the vestibule and make my way down the aisle with one eye on my fellow commuters I'm trying not to bump and one eye on the screen. The worse the movie, the less of a hurry, and sometimes half the commute home goes by before I flip to movie mode. Westworld proved to be in the "no particular hurry" category.

The movie is, for the most part, incredibly slow, verging on boring. On the one hand, that's a symptom of a certain commitment to verisimilitude. In order to facilitate the suspension of disbelief, the behind-the-scenes goings on for Westworld (and Medievalworld, and Romanworld, which we'll get back to) are shown in numerous scenes, scenes which remind me of being at work: lots of dorky engineers sitting around in windowless, soulless rooms going through the repetitive tasks of their respective job duties. To a certain extent it does make Westworld seem like a real place and not just magical sci-fi, but it's all so mundane.

The scenes in Westworld themselves aren't that much more interesting. There's a glimmer of an idea about exaggerating modern angst and projecting it into a future where amusements like Westworld would be possible. Richard Benjamin plays Peter Martin as a sensitive new-age guy who is still hurting over a recent divorce, while James Brolin plays his best friend John Blane as a happy, laid-back bechelor. On the plane trip to Westworld Peter is full of questions that give away how excited he is to experience the place for the first time, while John is too cool for school, having been there before. After they arrive, they switch attitudes somewhat, with peter having a hard time getting into the spirit and John becoming more enthusiastic.

But Peter seems to have it right, because what exactly is the point of Westworld? That was the question I kept returning to in my mind as I slogged through the movie. It's basically a sanitized, Disney-fied version of the Old West, where the clothing is vaguely period-accurate but also immaculately clean, and where everyone is given a "real" six-shooter but those irons have advanced computer sensors which prevent them from being fired at human targets. That's where the robots come in: if you want to get into a shootout in Westworld, you can only shoot at the lifelike machines. (Similarly, if you want to have sex with a lady of the evening, she'll be a robot too, which is presumed by the movie to be "fun" even though I thought it would be creepy as anything. But this never gets explored.) Yul Brynner's gunslinger picks a fight with Peter, and peter shoots the robot "dead". But overnight the technicians repair the robot and he is back among the "living" the next day, whereupon he goes after ... John, for some reason, giving Peter the opportunity to come to John's rescue. Then Peter is arrested for "killing" the gunslinger, giving John the opportunity to break Peter out of prison. Later, the two buddies get into a prolonged, cartoonish barroom brawl with some other robots, with real punches thrown and real furniture broken, which leaves both peter and John unconscious on the saloon floor for the night.

Perhaps you begin to see the fundamental disconnect in the core concept here. Westworld is billed in the story world as an "authentic" experience, but everything about it is fake and resets in the morning. It's a lot like LARPing, or playing a virtual reality video game, though, for all the consequences. Until the consequences start becoming all too real, as when the gunslinger returns yet again and shoots John dead, then proceeds to hunt Peter down. Due to some defect, which even the technicians don't understand because their own robots were created with computer-assisted design and no human being "really" understands how they work, the gunslinger is able to override its programming prohibitions against killing humans. OK, except why in the world did the gunslinger ever have a real gun and real bullets??? Why not give everyone, guests and robots alike, perfect replica light guns or something else essentially harmless?

Again, there's a glimmer of an idea buried in here somewhere. Take the barroom brawl: is a good barroom brawl fun to watch, in a western? Absolutely it is. Would it be fun to take part in one, one in which you were actually getting physically assaulted with minimal regard to your physical safety, one in which you ended up cold knocked out? With all due respect to Chuck Palahniuk, I think not! Is it more fun to have a fake shootout with a robot that can't hurt you, knowing the robot is still nevertheless inexplicably packing actual heat? Again, I think not, but then again I don't have a death wish or strong self-destructive desires. If the movie had gotten into the psychology a little more deeply, of why exactly people would want to escape from polite society and enter a manufactured world of violence and lawlessness, I think the movie could have offered a lot more. But we never really see the world outside the resorts, the way that people who can't afford thousand-dollar-a-day vacations live. Instead it's just a bunch of privileged nonsense, and not even enough nonsense to be confined to a single theme park. Romanworld and Medievalworld seem to exist solely to pad out the running time, to show other nerfed historical reenactments and the people playing around in them, before the robots go all murderous on everyone.

Ultimately the story lost me when the gunslinger at one point has Peter dead to rights, almost at point blank range, and misses his shot. So Peter is able to run away again and stumble onto a scientist who delivers some extremely convenient info about robot weaknesses, which gives Peter a fighting chance to take down the gunslinger. The climax of the movie plays out like a bad slasher flick, where Peter runs, the gunslinger pursues, Peter fights back, the gunslinger proves unstoppable, over and over and over until the gunslinger's ultimate destruction, which of course turns out to be the penultimate destruction just before one last jump scare reappearance just before the real, ultimate destruction. It all takes the fundamental question "what if an unstoppable machine designed to be a harmless antagonist suddenly became an actual antagonist" and answers it in the dullest way possible: "well you'd have to outrun it for a while and keep throwing acid at it or setting it on fire until you finally broke it enough that you stopped it." The end.

For a movie with such a reputation of being cool, and presenting Yul Brynner as such a badass, it's fairly disappointing to actually sit down and watch Westworld trying so hard to be serious and meaningful only to wind up dreary and meaningless. If you want to see Yul as an awesome cowboy, watch The Magnificent Seven.

Death Race 2000 has multiple elements in common with Westworld in addition to its near-future setting. Both lean heavily on violence for its own sake, and examine the potential entertainment value of such violence. As a result, both have a lot of the same special effects of the era, including fake blood that looks nothing like blood, but rather has the color and consistency of primary red tempera paint. Both make unapologetic use of character archetypes to leave more room for advancing the plot, trusting the audience to bring with them everything they need to know about a "brooding divorcee" or a "stoic man of mystery". Having said all that, the two movies could not be more different, nor could my separate viewing experiences. After watching the first 65% or so of Death Race 2000 on the way to work one morning, I actually took my half-hour lunch in the park across the street so I could watch the rest of it as soon as possible. Granted, there was another factor at play as well, namely that Death Race 2000 is a gratuitous shockfest and I didn't want to offend the sensibilities of whomever I ended up seated next to on the way home. But it was not what I would call a slog.

The premise of Death Race 2000 is gloriously simple: once a year the United States holds a cross-country automobile race, with the champion earning a certain amount of wealth and celebrity, and the people of the U.S. appeased in their bloodlust for another year. The race consists of five drivers, each with a navigator/mechanic, and the winner of the race is determined by points, with some assigned for finishing the race first (or at all, as the drivers are essentially encouraged to take one another out en route) and some assigned for running down and killing pedestrians. Complicating matters in the race in the year 2000 is the fact that a growing resistance to the reign of Mr. President has developed, and they have infiltrated the race with one of their own, a pretty blonde girl named Annie, as the navigator/mechanic for the most popular driver and favorite to win, Frankenstein.

If that sounds stupid, I assure you it is supposed to. This is a movie that glories in its own stupidity, presenting itself as nothing less than live-action Looney Tunes with the "adult" sensibilities of a stunted adolescent. The very beginning of the movie shows a stadium full of screaming fans, as the drivers are introduced one by one. First is Calamity Jane, driving a car decorated to look like a bull, complete with longhorns suitable for stabbing the unwary. (All of the cars are small open-top sportsters like Fiat Spiders and VW Karmann-Ghias, all of which I simply thought of as "modified Mach V from Speed Racer" models, because again, this is all very cartoon-like.) Next is Matilda the Hun, bedecked in Nazi regalia (Time Ghost Alert: Death Race 2000 was made closer to WWII than to today), and I smiled a bit at the wordplay. Next up is Nero the Hero in his lion-shaped car, and holy crap it's the guy who plays the evil dojo master in The Karate Kid! He's followed by Chicago gangster Joe Viterbo and HOLY CRAP IT'S SYLVESTER STALLONE!!! His car is black with a knife blade in the middle of the grille and machine guns in place of headlights. Finally, Frankenstein arrives in his monster car, a Vette which Wikipedia says is supposed to be styled like an alligator, although the teeth and scales look more creature feature than nature documentary.

And after the intros they're off, and the orgy of vehicular mayhem commences, totally and intentionally and unapologetically over the top. This is a Roger Corman-produced film, after all. Unlike Westworld, which got bogged down in minutiae and ponderousness, Death Race 2000 goes from punchline to punchline with pitch black humor. The question of when and how Frankenstein's new co-pilot is going to betray him in fulfilling her mission to assassinate the president is of course answered by having the two fall in love, and revealing that Frankenstein is as much a victim of the system as anyone, with his own plan to assassinate the President. Frankenstein and Annie win (read: are the lone survivors of) the race, kill the President, Frankenstein is elected new President and restores liberty, he and Annie get married, and everyone lives happily ever after. That last sentence plays out over about the last three to five minutes of the movie. Everything before that coda is non-stop sex and violence and burning rubber.

And yet, for all its juvenile presentation, Death Race manages to come across as smarter than Westworld, too. It's a scathing satire of government and sports and social issues, and how the media covers those things while serving or being outright controlled by them. The movie has a point of view, which is a fairly cynical estimation of the human condition as a mindless mob howling for ever-escalating spectacle, but a point of view nonetheless. And as hilariously breathless as the coda is, it at least acknowledges that not all hope for civilization is lost, that change is possible and we can be ruled by our better natures. Westworld, by contrast, is a bone-dry examination of a high concept that challenges few assumptions: out-of-control technology is dangerous, no kidding. Death Race 2000 doesn't just get its hands dirty, it wallows around in filth, but at least its provocations land a few good shots against worthy targets.

Once again I seem to have written far more about what I didn't like about a mediocre movie than what I did like about a highly entertaining one. It's easier to be a critic than a fan, I suppose, though I keep trying to balance the two.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A brief baseball check-in

So we have reached the All-Star Break, and the Orioles of Baltimore are sitting on a respectable lead atop the American League East. If the season were to end today and head into the playoffs, the Yankees wouldn't even be close to the wild card. In point of fact, both wild card teams would come out of the AL West, and one of those two, the Angels, have a significantly better record than the O's, never mind the Yanks, while the other, Seattle, is barely a game, game and a half behind Baltimore's record. The A's, with the best record in baseball, are just ridiculous this year.

But the playoffs don't start any time soon, and we are actually only halfway through the season. Well, a little more than halfway through. Eighty-one games make up half a regular season, and as of today every club has played somewhere between ninety-one and ninety-seven games. Apparently there's been an unusually high number of weather-related postponements. So it's a downhill race from here, seventy-one or sixty-something contests remaining to see who will stay at the top of the heap, who will rally for a last-minute surge, and who will collapse down the stretch.

My wife, as is her custom, refuses to get excited about the Orioles' post-season chances. If the topic comes up, she very quickly asserts that the O's will choke in late August, because that's what they always do. As always, it's hard to sort through the complex and dynamic layers of superstition at play here. Is she really managing her own expectations, shielding herself from disappointment and heartbreak by expecting the worst? Is she trying to appease the gods of baseball by not exhibiting New York-esque (or even Bostonian) hubris which would be swiftly and summarily punished? Bracing herself, or playing a reverse-psychology bluffing game with Fate?

And by bringing all of this up, calling it out and naming it, am I undoing whatever voodoo she is doing, jinxing her team by proxy? Does that even work? If it did work, am I the kind of person who would do such a thing deliberately?

I guess we'll have to wait and see come end of August. If my strangled body washes up on some barrier island, I probably had it coming.