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Theater On The Edge

Let’s say “Giant Meteor – 2020” wins. What then? Sure, you have an underground lab stocked with food and Kotex and bottled water. You’ve lured a female into the lab, and somehow you spawn a child even though she hates you and you just might be playing for the wrong team. Will that save mankind? Or does Earth need another 65 million years to re-evolve MTV and polyester TWA stewardess outfits? I vote “re-evolve”.

The Theater on the Edge team has a rep for gut punching hard-assed dramas, and this may be there first actual comedy. We laughed, we cried, and we wondered: what is going on here? This is my take: Jules (Minossora) is a fish-ologist who predicts earth is about to be hit by a continent destroying asteroid. Or comet. Or plot point. He stockpiles what he can, attempts to impregnate Jo(Raitano), and instead turns her off on sex. His heart is in the right place, but not his junk. Overseeing this Tableau Fantastique we have 65,000,00th century girl Barbara (Quinn), she operates an exhibit at one of those “educational” tourist attractions. It’s like hoping to improve your kids’ science grades via tee shirt purchased at a theme park.

Amazingly, in 65 million years, personal department policies remain constant, and when Barbara gets fired she claims a revenge. Sure, it’s a brutal nihilistic “end of the world” story but it has more laughs than I thought TOtE could put on stage. I see commentary on dating, rape and sexual choice, but I also see a wonderfully funny sci-fi that works un stage, and never condescends. Put on your silver space suit and see how life remains the same, no matter what era, eon, epoch you are lucky to live in.

theaterontheedge.org

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Screen Reviews

Alien 2 on Earth

Alien 2 on Earth

directed by Ciro Ippolito

starring Belinda Mayne, Mark Bodin, Roberto Barrese, Benny Aldrich, Michele Soavi, Judy Perrin

Midnight Legacy

You’ve got to love the Italian exploitation industry. When westerns were big, they’d churn out westerns. When Star Wars was big, they’d churn out Star Wars rip-offs. When barbarian movies were big, they’d churn out barbarian movies. They’d make them all quickly, adding tons of gore, nudity, violence, and other delights for the discriminating movie goer. After production, the movies would be cleverly titled in an attempt to sucker in audiences. Not only was Zombi 2 named to suggest a sequel to Zombi, Dawn of the Dead’s Italian title, but there were also about 30 spaghetti westerns featuring Django in the title, even if the character wasn’t in the movie at all.

So when Alien was a hit, naturally the Italians named a movie about some cave explorers dealing with rock monsters Alien 2 on Earth.

Early in the movie there’s talk about some astronauts disappearing from their spacecraft, and some NASA stock footage is employed to show the gravity of the situation. Then we move to San Diego where a little girl finds a blue meteorite on the beach which ends up ripping her face off. Did these meteorites cause the astronauts’ disappearance? That’s never really explained.

Then a group of varying sizes embarks to explore a cave, where the blue meteorites start to pulsate and reveal nasty surprises. Who will survive the cave? Are the monsters from the rocks from Earth or outer space? And seriously, did the meteorites kill those astronauts or what?

There are a few scenes of genuine suspense in Alien 2 on Earth, which might have a lot to do with the ominous Jaws-style music employed. And while a good portion of the movie is fairly slow moving, there are some nice old-school gore effects, like the alien launching out of an eyeball or the exploding head or the little girl’s creepy hamburger face. These generally appear right after some cool alien shoots straight at the camera — scenes which will have the viewer wishing for an upgraded 3D television.

There is also an effective scene at the end where the lone survivor runs through the deserted San Diego streets. Director Ciro Ippolito evokes a haunting last man on Earth feeling, reminiscent of the best Italian zombie movies, like 1980’s really-needs-to-be-seen Cannibal Apocalypse.

While not the strongest lost Italian exploitation film saved to DVD, Alien 2 on Earth is worth a watch for fans of the Italians’ cheap, yet over the top productions. The movie looks amazing, and just the fact that it has resurfaced after 30 years makes it worth a look. Be warned however, you never will find out if the meteorites have anything to do with the astronauts, if they really were meteorites at all, or exactly how many people are in the cave. It’s best to just accept these things and move on.

Midnight Legacy: midnightlegacy.com

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Print Reviews

Flash Gordon, Vol. 7

Flash Gordon, Vol. 7

by Alex Raymond

Checker Books

Man, the first thing that hit me about this volume of Flash Gordon reprints (from 1943-1944 to be exact) is the art. Flash Gordon creator/writer/penciller Alex Raymond (also the brains behind the peerless detective/spy noir of Secret Agent X-9 – reprint that next!) was one of the finest artists to come out of that “Golden Age” period of comics, alongside Lou Fine, Reed Crandall, and Milt Caniff, without peer in terms of rendering golden-god superheroics. Unlike the darkling mysteries of Batman or the Spectre or the twisted whimsy of Plastic Man and Green Lantern, this was the realm of men who took a sweeping, cinematic view of the four-color format. Heroes were bigger, villains were badder, backgrounds were lush and lifelike, attention was lavished on small details like folds of clothing, stone walls, the leer of a brute henchman, the diaphonous skirt of a gypsy princess – what? With Raymond’s fine, confident lines, draftsman’s eye for detail, and sweeping imagination, he made this unlikely future seem bizarrely lifelike and plausible.

In this volume, Flash deposes a tyrant, befriends the king of thieves, shoots everything in sight, fights a giant spider, fights a giant snake, goes on a rocket boat chase, dances with a seductress, kisses loads of strange women, and runs through a room full of falling spears (!) – that’s what the comics page was made for! Imagine reading that over your morning coffee. Beat that, For Better Or For Worse!

Characterization is pretty black-and-white, as you’d expect. Men fall into two categories – slightly lunkheaded but noble do-gooders (like Flash, for instance) and cowardly dissemblers (everyone who’s not on Flash’s side). Women, ditto – there’s heroic (Dale) or seductive shrews (everyone else who’s currently vying for Flash’s heart), though both archetypes are prey to debilitating jealousy. I found it interesting on rereading these strips that Dale Arden, despite gratuitous forays into the “Oh Flash, I’m just a woman” gobbledygook, tends to kick quite a bit of ass more often than not. She’s shooting guns, flying rockets, knocking out baddies, catfighting, and following Flash into the direst of situations. One character outside of all this is the enigmatic Dr. Zarkov – the guy who brought Flash to the future lurks in the background until exactly the point when he’s needed, and doesn’t seem to have much feeling about anything – hmmm, I wonder if anyone’s written a paper on him yet?

The choice of formatting for these reprint volumes is a fascinating one. They’re basically the size and scale of a children’s hardbound picture book, instead of your typical graphic novel/omnibus format. So what this means is, you don’t get as much crammed-together content for your buck as you would with, say, a Marvel Masterworks or those Dick Tracy reprints from years back, but… this format is VERY, very friendly to Alex Raymond’s gorgeous illustrations (both in terms of size and detail), which was the whole point of the strip, dammit. I can’t help but wonder if this will give it more crossover appeal to children (it reads like a big, splashy kiddy book), pop art fans (man, why didn’t Lichtenstein steal this guy’s panels, they’re beautiful) and graphic design enthusiasts. And putting one strip per page preserves, in some way, the episodic nature of the series. Using glossy pages and full-color illustrations gets a thumbs-up from me as well. The panels jump out at you with this sort of square-jawed, optimistic Technicolor futurism that one moment dazzles you with the mysteries and alien wonders of times-yet-to-come, and the next minute pats you on the back to let you know that it’ll all be okay, since there’s a little Flash Gordon in all of us. And that was the point, all along, wasn’t it?

My biggest complaint? I didn’t get any Ming the Merciless in my volume! Come on, man! “Bloody” Brazor and Ardo are poor substitutes.

To the future…..

Checker Books: www.checkerbpg.com

Categories
Print Reviews

The Near Future

The Near Future

by Joe Ashby Porter

Turtle Point Press

Here’s an odd little novel about old people in Florida garnished with a slight and unexploited science fiction bent. The scattershot story contains an assemblage of events lacking tension, but filled with eccentric characters and even more eccentric writing.

Vince and Lillian live in one of those fast disappearing trail retirement communities, and have split up over infidelity or pickles or some other item that oldsters worry about. His daughter Denise and her lover Tink arrive, intent on doing some sort of mail fraud somewhere in the Sunshine State. Nothing unusual about that, it happens every day down here. Vince and his kids and his current girlfriend take off on a road trip to Key West, work some fraud, and eventually come home to Manatee, a little worse for wear. Along the way they explore Santeria, Ernest Hemingway, and the meaning of grandchildren.

So what’s going on here? I could never get a grip on why the story was set in a slightly near future, with a few unusual technical advances hanging around the edges but never really driving or explaining any actions. Sure, a computer-generated woman shoots up the Hemingway Look-Alike contest, but that doesn’t justify many of the unused ideas seeded here and there.

Writer Porter has a penchant for very long sentences with some very experimental use of commas. His sentences are often convoluted, splattered with $10 words. I like new words, but had to look up peplum, flaneurs, pinnate, and quite a few more. There are more than a few dead-end trails here, with action and people introduced who seem like they ought to reappear to wrap something up, but never do. Overall, the book reads like a promising draft in need of more organization and polish. However, it will expand your vocabulary, and there is a really neat Paint by Number flamingo scene on the cover. All in all, a book perfectly acceptable for beach reading this summer.

Turtle Point Press: www.turtlepoint.com

Categories
Screen Reviews

Solaris

Solaris

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis

“Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.” – Dylan Thomas

Solaris is one of those movies that I love getting the chance to write about. The kind that most people won’t like, because they were expecting something else; the kind of film that leaves the young teenage couple in front of you complaining, quite eruditely, at film’s end: “That was total crap,” while the old age couple behind you ponder out loud if this was an actual movie or some shared hallucination from an overdose of vitamin pills before the show.

Which is to say, of course, that I absolutely loved every second of it. And while it is true that Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is one of the longest 98 minute films you will probably ever see in your lifetime — owing to its hypnotically slow pacing — it is also true that is one of the greatest 98 minute films you will ever see.

But — and this is important — you have to be open to it; you have to engage with it. This is not a movie here to spoon-feed you answers. Don’t come in with any preconceived notions — even if you’ve read the book or seen the original Andrei Tarkovsky version of the film — leave all of it at the door. Except for the notion that the studio has worked quite hard to get into your head, that notion being the one wherein you see George Clooney’s butt in the movie. If that is the preconceived notion you have going into the film, then you will be satisfied. If that is the main reason you paid to see this film, however, you most definitely will not.

Steven Soderbergh’s career has been a series of risks, and perhaps none has ever been greater than his choice to adapt Solaris, a book revered by science fiction enthusiasts and a Russian film already adored by cinephiles the world over. One might question why Soderbergh decided to make such a film, but for any kind of true answer to that question, one must see it on screen to realize the point of this updated version. This new Solaris is definitely not completely faithful to either the seminal book or the earlier film version — instead, Soderbergh uses the basic framework and plot of both, then proceeds to parse out bits and pieces that he can use to weave into his ultimate themes for the movie, which are quite different than either original novelist Stanislaw Lem’s or Tarkosky’s.

Soderbergh, like Tarkovsky before him, is attempting to make a film that is a meditation, but whereas Tarkovsky was more concerned with God, life, death, Communism and the sort, Soderbergh seems to have one overriding theme that ultimately trumps them all: love. What it means to be in love, what love involves, what death can do to love, and how far one is willing to go for another chance at love (and forgiveness).

Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a broken man when first we see him. He looks to be carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders as he moves monotonously through his day. He is a grief counselor, and quite a good one we are led to believe, but he is still haunted by the suicide of his wife Rheya a few years ago, still feels the guilt and pain of it all. It’s a sadness that wears itself upon Clooney’s brow and in the lines around his face. Clooney does an amazing job of turning off his considerable movie star charisma and charm — a task no doubt harder than it may sound — and quickly draws us in to this beaten but breathing man.

Early in the film, Kelvin is summoned to a NASA-like place where he views a message from an old friend who is imploring that he come aboard the space station hovering around the planet Solaris, and attempt to help them fix what is happening to the astronauts on board. Something very bizarre is occurring and they need help fast — and the doctor thinks Kelvin is the best possible man, “because of his experiences” to come quickly on board. Kelvin agrees to help out. By the time he reaches the ship, his friend is dead. He committed suicide.

The next stretch of the film is the biggest litmus test for audiences, as Clooney slowly, gradually, cautiously explores the rest of the ship. There is no dialogue and precious little music. There is nothing popping out of anywhere to scare anybody. In essence, there is little here for most thrill-seeking, opening-weekend-at-the-mall audiences — a complaint which you will no doubt hear countless times about this film.

Eventually, he meets up with Snow (in a fascinating performance by Jeremy Davies) who gives stuttered, stoned, mysterious answers to nearly all of Kelvin’s questions, none more important than his remark: “I could tell you what’s been going on here, but I don’t know if that would tell you what’s going on here.” He also advises him to sleep with his door locked. Kelvin then meets Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), who is scared and determined to beat whatever it is that is happening all at once. But for the moment, she can’t even come out of her room.

Kelvin is both intrigued and perplexed. He is assured by the crew that he will not be able to fully understand until “it” has happened to him. As Kelvin falls asleep that first night, and begins to dream about his first meeting with his wife, “it” happens to him — and Solaris begins to narrow in on its main focus. You see, somehow Solaris is able to read one’s mind and bring back to them the one person from their past that has meant the most to them, good or bad. Thus when Kelvin wakes up, he finds his wife Rheya alive, and right beside him in the bed.

But, of course, it’s not really her, it’s merely a facsimile of her, constructed (we eventually find out) entirely of Kelvin’s own memories of her. Weaving the current “copy” Rheya in with flashbacks to their life on earth together, we see the discrepancies — and the wonderful love that existed between Kelvin and Rheya once upon a time. However, being a carbon copy construct of his memories of her, she is bound to repeat what had happened in her previous life. (“I am suicidal because you remember me as suicidal!” she screams to him at one point.) And for sure, this is quite confusing to an audience, as it is to Kelvin himself. But if you’re waiting around for an answer — and many in the audience didn’t even bother to wait, leaving before the film’s end — you’re not going to get one. Instead, you’ll get something much more valuable: ideas, philosophical quandaries, theories of identity and the role love plays in all of our lives. I would pay to watch this film a thousand times, back to back, before I would spend one penny on most other recent films.

Solaris is a masterpiece, and I don’t mind saying so. If it takes the rest of the country ten or so years to figure that out, those of us who champion it today will still be around, welcoming you with open arms. It’s a film that offers questions and rewards in abundance, tackles issues that are hardly box-office fodder, and dares (in the age of Michael Bay and MTV style editing) to take its precious time. And every single minute is, in the film’s near perfect end, completely worth it.

http://www.solaristhemovie.com

Categories
Screen Reviews

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko

Directed by Richard Kelly

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle

What does one get when they cross the philosophies of time travel, paranoid delusions, the trappings of private school, and an adult-size bunny with a demonic head predicting the end of the world? I’m still scratching my head over it, but all these bizarre, seemingly unrelated circumstances intertwine in Donnie Darko, perhaps one of the most overlooked, standout achievements in filmmaking of the last year.

Donnie Darko wakes up on October 2nd to hear this overgrown bunny named Frank warn him that his world will come to a screeching halt on October 31st. Moments after, a piece of an airplane comes crashing through the roof of his parents’ house, setting of a chain of perplexing events and vignettes that only coalesce once the film ends. If David Lynch cared a little bit more about character development and more cohesive narrative, Donnie Darko just might have been the result. Only the man responsible is first-time writer/director Richard Kelly, a 26 year-old who weaves an intricate story supported by elements of horror, dark comedy, tinges of sci-fi and teen drama subplot.

Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is our protagonist, and portrays the role with such a steady, calculating veneer, he completely consumes the part by the middle of the film. Patrick Swayze leaps back from obscurity to play a Tony Robbins-like motivational speaker with a dark secret, while Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore play less prevalent roles as teachers in Darko’s school.

The film follows the events of the crash with Donnie slowly falling in love with a broken home case (Jena Malone), while spiraling into delusional madness, or is he? Gradually, time travel enters the fray, with Darko becoming obsessed with a book on its philosophies and how to stop his impending fate, only the book is written by a woman everyone considers to be the town nut. Kelly’s script allows us to see the characters interact in a reality-based environment, while perfectly mixing in the supernatural so as no to make one overshadow the other. The viewer is only snapped back out of the mindwarp when the present date and how much time left to Armageddon intermittently appears. But it isn’t until the last half-hour that this thriller boils over with suspense, only you probably won’t fully get it until it’s over.

Richard Kelly has proven that you can make a subconscious-rattling movie focusing on teens without carelessly showering it with gags, cliched dialogue and vapid, obnoxious characters. Donnie Darko not only entertains, but makes statements about the puritanism that still exists in our educational system, the debate of science versus religion, and that some bunnies don’t just provide us the service of eggs. Gyllenhaal is obviously the driving force of the film, having redeemed himself after starring in the dreadful Bubble Boy. Choosing his scripts more carefully, I only wish he could teach American Pie‘s Jason Biggs to do the same thing. For a more unique deviation from your routine film viewing, don’t be afraid of Donnie Darko.

http://www.donniedarko.com

Categories
Features

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Great Beyond

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Great Beyond

A Tribute to Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams died of a heart attack May 11, 2001, at age 49.

Sci-fi is deadly serious stuff. Nuclear winter, laser death rays, faster than light space ships, third world galaxies to exploit, perhaps mutant women with breasts larger than even J. T. Kirk imagined — all important, life changing concepts to discuss. Douglas Adams added a new slant to the genre, the idea that sci-fi might be a vehicle for broad humor rather than the unintentional yucks it used to generate. By 1977, Star Wars had revitalized the moribund business of guessing the future and selling it to the public with out the need to include all that tiresome physics. Any humor up to that point had been of the rubber monster suit and Dialog Depot type, as Mystery Science Theater 3000 mercilessly exploited. Adams had the brilliant idea of aiming the characters and situations at the funny bone, and letting the technology and adventure fall where it might. Along with collaborator Simon Brett, he convinced the BBC Light Comedy Division (I’m serious — they really have such a thing) to air a radio drama based on the adventures of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect as they thumb about the universe after the Vogons bulldoze earth for a hyperspace bypass. Like all comedy, the plot description is far less important than the execution, and the execution was flawless and unexpectedly successful.

Arthur knew you can’t fight city hall, but soon learns you have even less of a chance with Vogon Destructor ships. Arthur finds the Earth will be wiped out, and he missed his chance to attend the hearing since the notice was only posted in a locked office on Alpha Centari. Arthur also discovers that his best friend Ford Prefect is an alien. Not just any alien, but a freelance writer for that smash publication, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book essential to bumming your way around the stars on less than 30 Alterian Dollars a day. Ford was researching Earth, a minor backwater planet that warranted the minimalist entry “Mostly Harmless.” Their adventures with Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android and Slartibartfast culminate with the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. The answer is 42. There. Now you know.

The radio drama represents pinnacle of Adams’ professional career, but he milked the heck out it. The story became a series of novels, a television series, and a computer game. A screenplay was in the works when he died. There were several other novels along the way, including the successful Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but none captured the imagination the way HHGTTG does.

Did Adams change the world? Possibly. Comedy is a much larger part of sci-fi than before, as witnessed by MST3K, Red Dwarf, Galaxy Quest, Mars Attacks!, and that sort of story purists disdain. He did write one immensely successful series of books, and that’s better than writing a dozen that no one reads or remembers. Adams always seemed to enjoy himself, and people enjoyed being around him. It seems good enough for me.

Addition information on Douglas Adams and his work may be found at http://www.douglasadams.com and http://www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~nhughes/dna/faqs/ .