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ILM-War-of-the-Worlds-After-092310-PSSeminal sci-fi invasion fiction, legendarily terrifying — and really quite wonderful – radio play that launched Orson Welles’ career, War of the Worlds has crossed mediums, but never has it had a solid movie adaption. Steven Spielberg’s incredibly 9/11-y, starring Tom Cruise at the height of his weirdness version is a very frustrating example. Not because it’s a total wash, mind you, but because it’s incredible in spots, and then goes off a big cliff.

In April, Lindsay Ellis, your Nostalgia Chick (who is always a fun reviewer), correctly describes the movie’s gorgeous design, its kick-ass tripods (which Roger Ebert hated! But he’s wrong, damn it!) as well as its myriad flaws, as well as by contrast the mysteriously wonderful quality of the thousand-fold cheesier Independence Day. The latter movie has more character arc and more things actually change, it’s rather odd.

and part two:

Now some film-dorks are too cool for Spielberg, but I never understood that. (J.J. Abrams, on the other hand, is cold, derivative Spielberg and I hate him!). I also am incredibly susceptible to alien paranoia. I was scared of both The Blob and Mars Attacks! as a child, I watched and then cowered at The X-Files (still do in fact!), and I am only slightly ashamed of being 15 and scared to death of Signs when I saw it in the theater. (I shrieked out loud in one spot. I don’t believe I have done that before or since, and certainly not in a crowded theater.) So for all that, plus my fondness for the book and radio play, plus my undying love for Jurassic Park to this day, it seems like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds should be perfect. It is not.

This 2005 War of the Worlds, like the also watchable 1953 one, is incomplete as an adaptation of the book, first and foremost because it has been modernized and turned American. But the book is a rambling narrative itself. Our nameless describer of the horrors even swaps places with his brother for a time for no clear reason beyond faux-journalistic reasons that to describe, one must be there. Those scenes are only memorable because one of the two women with whom the brother flees is bracingly competent for 1898 fiction.

The famous ending is anti-climactic, because, well, the common cold does the invaders in. The whole thing is both early sci-fi, and invasion literature (a fascinating subgenre that seems really, really of the time and that time was like 50 years up to WWI and that’s all) and extremely anti-imperialist. Which is awesome. But big budget Hollywood alien pictures don’t want to end with germs saving the day. Spielberg, to his credit, gives us the classic ending without any final, tacked-on, grand battle.

I do wildly disagree with Spielberg about whether a movie set when the book was written would be boring. (Hell, such a version is on my secret list of movies I would make if money, skill, time, and nationality, were no object.) Nevertheless, though Spielberg’s WotW goes off a cliff I would say exactly when the annoying teenage son says “you’ve got to let me go, Dad” and then hits the ground and smashes into a fiery wreck when Tim Robbins appears to gnaw on the scenery, it’s worth watching and including in my Tuesday Apocalypse list. It is extremely flawed, but has just enough to it that I have rewatched it more than once, and am likely to be entranced (at least for a time) if it is on TV. And when I watch, I rant about how it could have been so good.

Why? Well, Ellis covers it aptly in her reviews above, but some of the scenes in Spielberg’s WotW are just so fucking good you want to pause the movie and just revel in their awfulness. I’ve previously mentioned in Tuesday Apocalypse, that the j nes se quoi dread is what makes a good apocalypse piece, be it cinema or book. Call it dread-porn, or something else, it needs to actually frighten me and it needs to be just so. I know it when I see or hear it.

The radio WoTW’s highest caliber moments of that are its use of dead air interrupting frantic, Herb Morrison-esque “reporting.” Spielberg’s opening shot when the tripods arise is as fantastic as Ellis says and has an element of this searched for quality. So do the scenes of grim panic when Cruise and the kids are carjacked (which is rare, since the humans are your enemy aspect is always least interesting in this kind of fiction, at least to optimist me). Hell, the pulling back camera shot of bodies floating downstream, and particularly the shot of an out of control train entirely ablaze are worth the price of admission (this is an expression we used to use in the pre-piracy days, children).

On the opposite side of that, the completely dull aliens themselves are not scary, even in the claustrophobic, derivative of the raptors chasing the kids in the kitchen in Jurassic Park scenes. How much less frightening they are in design, and in auditory exclamation than the tripods themselves, which look menacing and sound worse!

In spite of his couch-jumping, glib-accusing ways, the acting from Cruise circa 2004 is the most solid of the three characters that matter. Maybe I have a soft spot for jerk-dads, but Cruise is such a believable one here. My father is nicer than Cruise is portrayed as being, but he’s also not some softy, or some Alpha Hero. Desperate, flailing, terrified Cruise has no idea how to help his kids at the start of all this madness. But he never abandons them or freezes, he simply reacts in a human manner to completely insane happenings the best way he can. Later, post movie-cliff, he becomes a hair too action hero, but never completely. I believe him, is the main point. And that is rare in any end of the world fiction, particularly the alien invasion movie types. Most people are much too calm, and much too heroic, unless the are of the screaming, teaming masses.

Some downsides, or at least some oddly dated moments: the 9/11 nods are not subtle. There are missing flyers covering walls. There are (fair) questions from screeching Dakota Fanning asking whether the invaders are terrorists. There’s an alarming downed plane in our heroes’ yard (I can’t do plane crashes in movies, cannot do it). And most effectively disturbing of all is how Cruise is covered in dust as he staggers back into the house after the aliens first appear. His clueless children are clueless, and grab his arm and he flips out, then does so again when he stares shellshocked in the mirror and realizes that the gray matter that covers him must be made from people.

Now, as Ellis points out in her review, the worst, most hamfisted 9/11isms in the film are the teenage son’s desire to “get back at” the alien invaders. Which is a fair impulse, except, well, why would he have that need so desperately compared to any other character? Is he just a teenage moron? Why doesn’t he have the self-preservation to run the other way instead? He doesn’t because 2005 war in Afghanistan and Iraq parallels demand he doesn’t. His motivation is not clear, neither is his loathing of his father. Cruise is the only one with strong characterization, but even he doesn’t change much over the course of the movie. He starts off jerk-dad, and gets a little nicer and a little braver. But even jerk-dad never faltered in trying to rescue his kids.

Spielberg’s WoTW is worth a watch for some stunning scenes — the look and sound of the tripods, the tipping boat scene, the burning train, the morose darkness in shots that works, instead of making you wonder what happened to the color correction! – but it does remain oddly unsatisfying for how fabulously it begins.

And I still want my serious period piece with aliens, dammit.

258c9a567fba3fc64abf3573d93b0db1Okay maybe guest blogger Todd Seavey didn’t stick to the Tuesday Apocalypse theme, but if we can’t go off theme at a libertarian/anarchist blog, what good is having an anarchist/libertarian blog? Seavey is a great writer, so we let him go on a nerd journey about some of the new X-Men films. The Stag Blog welcomes submissions on any and all subjects — including delicious nerdery. Check out below for links to some of Seavey’s other works. — LS

Word is that 2016 will bring the film X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the 1980s and featuring the centuries-old, conflict-creating, villainous, Egyptian mutant named Apocalypse (and perhaps a teenage version of X-Men team member Storm, back in her days as a street thief in Cairo?). This is just one of several reasons I can confidently predict that this year, in the film X-Men: Days of Future Past, the X-Men timeline will be rebooted (a la J.J. Abrams’ relaunch of Star Trek). Every X-Men film you’ve seen except for 2011’s X-Men: First Class will be erased from the fictional timeline at a theatre near you one month from now, mark my words.

But why? Well, when Star Trek, Star Wars, and Tolkien all went the prequel-film route, those franchises got worse. X-Men, by contrast, arguably gave us the best entry in the whole series with the swingin’, James Bond-influenced X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbinder were as engaging, in their own way, portraying the 1960s versions of heroic Professor X and anti-heroic Magneto as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen had been in portraying the aged, present-day versions of the characters in the other ensemble X-Men films. More important: McAvoy and Fassbinder’s contracts weren’t about to expire, as are the contracts of many of the Stewart/McKellen ensemble.

Rumor has it that Fox had long had its doubts about whether the unwieldy, megastar-filled cast of the main trilogy of X-Men film was worth the trouble of paying and scheduling, especially given what a small portion of the general film-going audience can keep track of all those mutant characters. The tortured one-on-one relationship of McAvoy and Fassbinder is easier to do — and Mystique, the shapeshifter mutant for whose loyalty they’ve battled, is played by Jennifer Lawrence, suddenly a big star in her own right. Why not focus on these three?

But first: this year brings X-Men: Days of Future Past, with a great built-in excuse for starting from scratch at film’s end. The whole plot (which was not conjured up just for the strategic purposes I’m describing here but was genuinely derived from a classic story in the original comic books) revolves around the Stewart/McKellen versions of the characters using time travel to prevent an apocalyptic war between mutants and humans circa 2023 — by teaching their younger selves (McAvoy and Fassbinder) to be peacemakers instead of warriors. Clearly, it’s easiest to end this film with a clean slate, back in the 1970s, and just proceed with McAvoy, Fassbinder, Lawrence, and whatever fresh, young actors we choose, leaving Halle Berry and other potentially-pricey old cast members to exit with dignity.

The fact that 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse takes place in the 1980s, then, strongly suggests that from here on out we’ll just keep moving forward from the newly-improved 1970s. That means Stewart et al — and the five films in which those actors appeared — will no longer be the foregone conclusion to which the franchise is leading. From here, it’s just First Class (which took place in the ’60s, remember) and forward. New viewers looking to save time can skip all the rest. It makes everything so easy! (Though admittedly having a major film franchise stuck in the fictional 1980s is a bit odd — not that you’ll hear any complaints from this Duran Duran fan).

The fresh start would also make it easy to ignore/erase the multiple continuity errors that the series has accumulated by skipping around to different eras (even before the time travel-themed film comes out on May 23), nitpickily cataloged by io9 here (though I don’t think any of those are impossible to reconcile). To avoid creating new continuity errors, though, let us just hope they remember in X-Men: Days of Future Past to show the 1960s Wolverine with bone claws, since he didn’t get laced with metallic adamantium until 1979 (as depicted in mediocre X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

 That’s a cold, hard fact, and you can’t just go changing facts willy-nilly.

You can catch guest blogger Todd Seavey talking about similarly nerdy things on this YouTube channel, his personal blog, the libertarian pop culture site LibertyIsland, and, on April 18, 2014, live and in person onstage in New York City as part of a comedic panel discussion (details of which will be announced on the aforementioned blog shortly).

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times in movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we will also branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries about alien invasion.

Today I wrote four mini reviews of two books and two movies  — they cover nuclear war, alien invasion, a vampire plague, and a comet. All four of them are worth three out of five stars, worth reading or watching, but ultimately sort of unsatisfying. Post your howls of outrage in the comments.

61aUlQj4PSLI Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954):

Though I am a good Twilight Zone fan and Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, I learned about the ending in the original novel through a Cracked.com list. This, contrary to the half-assed 2007 Will Smith movie (which started quite good), is that (spoilers) Robert Neville, the vampire slayer hero of our story has turned into an ironic villain once he is the new minority, and vampires begin their new society. One of the novel’s many high points is that Neville is well aware of how darkly amusing that is, and even dwells on it before he dies.

Though the novel has good details of the zombie-vampire plague, and describes the monotony of Neville’s life so well that it is almost a fault (it becomes a bit monotonous to read), something about it remains unsatisfying. Its scope is so limited, and every chapter and section seems to end with Neville getting smashed, then restraining himself from running outside to feed himself to the vampires. The whole thing is clearly influential in terms of both vampire, zombie, and post-apocalyptic fiction, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done better in later works. And apparently the various loose movie adaptions all changed Neville to a scientist. That would make his autodidactic solving of the plague’s mystery a lot more believable. As it stands in the book, I can’t quite buy it when Neville seems to have begun his task with no scientific knowledge at all.

Oddly enough — if only because this feels very Hollywood — the most emotionally powerful bit is when Neville finds the stray dog, and when he loses it again. His desperate hope and his careful patience in building up the dog’s trust, only for it all to go to hell at the end, is one of those perfect apocalypse fiction moments. Neville’s tiny interactions with the dog are more moving than the destruction of the whole damn world.

51NVOjbTQJL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (2013):

This is a YA (that is to say, for teens more or less) novel that starts off feeling new and terrifying, but gradually goes downhill once the plot starts moving. This is the story of Cassie Sullivan, a 16-year-old who is alone and surviving on an earth that is nearly extinct of real humans. An alien invasion has brought “waves” of attack that began with an EMP attack that disabled all electronics, and has culminated in extraterrestrials who look a lot like humans roaming the countryside. The final twist — the title reference — is that aliens have managed to trick the survivors into picking each other off through paramilitary training.

The opening scenes are phenomenal in their bleakness; Cassie and her father walking home from school after the EMP, the plague that kills her mother, the mysterious army of apparent survivors who move in to eliminate a refugee camp, the simple fact that the alien ships spends a week in utter silence, lurking above the earth, when they first arrive — there is some great stuff here. I read it all with an unpleasant feeling in my spine, which is all I ever want in such works.

And that it goes all YA-ish. As a character, Cassie has to walk a careful line between credible teenager that was pre-invasion and current grim survivor now in a new world. And she does more or less. But the mandatory trimmings of a love triangle and an attractive young man who isn’t who he seems don’t pack the same weight as the opening chapters of horror did. The plot really gets going when Cassie begins her quest to free her little brother from alien captivity, and though there is no reason to believe that the aliens would be flawlessly competent, it seems like they should be able to counter Cassie and friends’ revolutionary actions a bit better. The book also drags when it leaves her head and enters that of the other two members of her unfortunate triangle.

Things pick up in tension after a draggy second third, but I was almost disappointed to learn this was just part one of a planned trilogy. I rather liked things ending with a moment of quiet relief for our survivors, but with the overriding knowledge that humans are completely fucked.

MV5BMTkwMzEzMTI4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDc5Nzk1MDE@._V1_SX214_Ladybug, Ladybug directed by Frank Perry (1963):

This small Cold War panic film waffles between righteous antiwar flick and precious propaganda. The plot is simple: an alarm is tripped at a country school (filmed in Pennsylvania) and a few phone calls by teachers and the principal (played by Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, FYI fellow-millennials) suggest this may not be a drill. The teachers are told to walk the students home in groups, and that’s the whole thing. Some of the kids are unafraid. Some are deadly seriously and slightly too well-spoken. A female teacher stuck in heels for the long walk is not comforting; the fear in her eyes shows. The groups get smaller and smaller as kids go home to tell their doubting parents what happened.

The cinematography is lovely and menacing. The acting is occasionally a bit theatrical and 60s-earnest, but everyone (the kids are mostly amateurs) carries it as well as could be expected. The dialogue is hard to trust as really realistic, except when I remember how everyone claims kids during the Cold War used to say “if I grow up” not “when.” (Remind me to check on the realness of that.)

A highlight is the completely heart-breaking moment when a little girl runs home to tell her mother about the alarm, and she just doesn’t believe her. She is a completely believable harried, old-school mother; her daughter is a believably desperate little kid who just wants the older people to understand what is happening. It’s a basic, banal conflict, except that the stakes are apocalyptically high.

Things peter out a bit when the alarm is revealed to be a mistake (probably). The moody conversations during the students’ long walk don’t have the same terror then. The confusing and ambiguous ending is also unsatisfying. I like question mark endings in terms of Lost in Translation or Jim Jarmusch pictures of humanity that leave people after spending a while with them. But I prefer to know whether a nuke was dropped on some children or not.

MV5BMjE4NDE3MjA1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQxMDM5._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_Deep Impact directed by Mimi Leder (1998):

Oh, the warring comet movies of 1998. In some ways I should just embrace Armageddon for its unsubtle, Aerosmith-sountracked picture of Bruce Willis saving the earth. But Deep Impact is better and worse of a film, in that it manages to provoke some human feelings, but it still wallows in disaster movie absurdities.

Ever since I was little, I was disturbed by scenes of panicked masses in movies. Even in movies I knew were cheesy, I was troubled by the unhinged hysteria and the general trampling each other bits of humanity. Deep Impact has those action-packed scenes, but it has something worse, it has waiting. In fact, most of the movie is about waiting for the end. And that is the most disturbing part about the apocalypse, trying to figure how to live while it inches closer (this is why On the Beach is so good).

The movie follows three main stories: Elijah Wood as the youth who first spots the comet; Tea Leoni as the reporter who breaks the story (this is the only film in which I have ever liked her, maybe because with a bob and a character profession as a cable news reporter, her stiffness magically changes into hey, she’s my old journalism adviser who used to work for CNN!); and finally and the least interesting, the team of astronauts who are going to save us all from doom. The movie also includes the gravitas-tastic Morgan Freeman as the president and some other side characters.

I don’t know that I could defend the whole movie — certainly not Elijah Woods’ last minute, highly bullshit efforts to rescue his ladylove Leelee Sobieski. Except that the moment where Sobieski’s parents put her on Woods’ motorcycle, pass her her little sibling, and basically pry her fingers away as she hysterically says “I’ll see you soon” is lovely and gets me in the gut every single time. As is the moment when the parents, instead of fleeing in vain from the comet-made tidal wave just turn and smile at each other at the end.

Less effective, but still powerful is Leoni’s characters’ end. And there are the visuals — the last-minute helicopters in the sky over New York City; the crowds of hysterical people trying to enter the sanctuary of the caves (though in real life I think there would be a lot more soldiers machine-gunning people)… and they all work too well for something so popcornish. And they have no business working in what is still a cheesy, impossible action movie. But they are like the extras and the secondary characters in Titanic who act circles round the main characters and the tedious love story plot. They give heart and stomach-churning anxiety to what may be a crap movie in the end.

Half-good movies are more frustrating than entirely awful ones. But halfway good movies can still raise a chill and make me think about how people spend their last moments before the end of either their world or the world entire. Deep Impact does this, and that’s not bad for a summer thriller.

Photo by Alan Cleaver

Photo by Alan Cleaver

Finally, the song of the day can only be the best Christmas song ever, which can thankfully also be enjoyed every other day of the year:

Merry Christmas, all.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, the subject is the new movie How I Live Now, and the 2004 young adult novel upon which it is based. It is a story of war, moving to a new country, and why sometimes you just need to sex up those relatives who catch your eye.

Apocalypse cinema or television (or even books) lives for the money shot — be it grand destruction of a famous monument, or a more humble bit of well-written or captured horror. The movie How I Live Now has two types of sequences, the bleak and the bucolic. It does them both very well, but in the end, though it’s better than the Meg Rosoff YA novel upon which it is based, the movie falls apart for similar reasons. It’s as flimsy as its anorexic, neurotic heroine, and though it tries to find a hard-ass center, there just isn’t much to it.

In each medium, 15-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a cold New Yorker. She is sent to  her cousins’ in England to get her out of the way of her father and stepmother. She killed her mother at birth, and therefore has issues. Meanwhile, war is looming, not that any teens give a shit. Upon arrival (in the book), she drops her American ‘tude approximately four minutes after meeting her wood sprite cousins. In the movie, this include annoying Issac who precociously drives at 14, scrappy Piper, sevinish and a bit of a Mary Sue, and Edmond, the dreamy, disturbingly attractive cousin. Yes, Daisy and Eddie hook up. Yes, it’s a little weird. But it wasn’t the dealbreaker for me that it was for, say, this io9 writer. It just isn’t enough to be the whole heart of the story, except, too bad, it is.

Daisy has a relatively endearing run-off sentence style in the book. But her narrow eye becomes less appealing — and much more contrived — after the fourth time she conveniently decides to ignore an adult’s explanation for what exactly the fuck is going on with this war business. Her obsessive focus, useful in surviving, if not contextualizing, is turned into an acknowledged character trait in the movie (basically OCD), but anything from her view still feels shallow and myopic.

The book just rakes on the cliches of the faeryland of England. There are more cousins there, and the cliches are divided up between them. Eddie has the mysteriously telepathic powers. He just gets Daisy, man. His twin, melded into him for the movie, is the obligatory strong, silent, and Dickon-esque type. And yes, I could choose to see this as so deliberate an homage to The Secret Garden that it is acceptable. But I can’t. If only because all that English shit was so appealing to me as a tween, I can’t. Edmond has a falcon, for fuck’s sake. I can’t stand it. He speaks to cows. The Secret Garden plus nukes sounds great. Why don’t I buy it?

The movie initially seems more promising — tightening things, and letting the loving, but not syrupy shots set the scene. And the English cottage is falling down, and there are dishes in the sink. Piper is a dirty-faced, solemn, kind, but human ginger, not a pixie making every soldier fall in love with her. The war situation is not treated quite as much as an excuse for playing Lost Boys as it is in the book. And the moment when we know something is wrong is treated with the gravity required . The paradise of a day at the swimming hole, during which Daisy begins to accept her God damned magical surroundings, is stopped by a rush of wind, darkening skies, and falling ash. We don’t even see the mushroom cloud. Little Piper, of course, calls it snow. It gives the necessary chill down the spine, and it gave me false hope that the movie was going to get away from the book more than it did. But again, if you want your doom and gloom money shots (and I do), the movie does come with that.

They survive. And still have a good time for a bit. Daisy burns her pass to go back to America because Eddie is now her whole world. But soon enough, scary soldiers (still British, though) come to separate the two boys and two girls. And that’s it for the plot, really. It’s all Daisy and Piper being shoved away into a creepy old English house, being sent to sort potatoes on a farm, and planning their escape back to their home. In some ways, the movie’s choice to ignore some of the details of the book make it better, or at least less maddening that Daisy has no questions about what the hell happened to her new country. The shots of wrecked countryside seen flickering through her window when she and Piper are taken are effective, showing enough for horror, but not enough for clarity or contrivance that she doesn’t see the whole picture.

But it’s still too little. There’s an enemy, at one point they “take [a] checkpoint.” A neighbor boy is shot, in the head, and is actually show still alive on the ground for a few seconds, groping in the mud. Same with the eerie details of a downed plane — the first object Daisy and Piper see is of an oxygen mask lying in the woods. Shudder. And the same with the moment when Daisy has to dig through a pile of bodies to make sure it’s not her cousins. It’s flawlessly-crafted, in the vein of the opening of the pilot for The Walking Dead, but much starker. Yet, it’s still just a nightmare moodpiece. (This is a problem for apocalyptic fiction — that dread is unsustainable — and why it so often delves into survivors sniping. And why the fiction that doesn’t do that is something special.)

Too many sad pop songs over beautiful landscape. Too many montages. How I Live Now doesn’t commit the unforgivable sin of putting conspicuous music over its worst bits, but the filler feels like all music sometimes. The frantic, whispered voices in Daisy’s head that were supposed to represent her OCD and anorexia worked better than I would think. I appreciate that she didn’t warm up and become hero mom figure to Piper like she did in the book, but some sign of caring about the red-headed moppet wouldn’t have been amiss. Ronan is good, the Brits are all decent. Nobody is stilted, but nobody is exceptional.

And though the lovely cinematography of the movie makes the book’s flimsy plot seem more substantial, it had the same endless problem. I want to know more about the war. And I want more than a teenager falling in love with a place and her cousin, then being taken away, and having to walk back for a week over broken landscape. Piper and Daisy seem exhausted, in book and movie, but I still want to say, dammit, have you not seen Rabbit-Proof Fence? You pansies think a week of walking in England is bad? Somehow, again in both mediums, the characters treat the situation too heavily and too lightly. And nobody ever asks what’s going on. I don’t care how hot your cousin is, I don’t care you much you miss him, you take the time to fucking ask an adult who nuked London.

165341)  Cigarette Smoking Man (The X-Files)

Strangely calm — maybe it was the Canadian accent — and occasionally vulnerable (seemingly) in later seasons, there was something compelling about this guy. We seem him as the top villain for Mulder, but then we see that he is just a part of the much bigger conspiracy. He’s the guy they go to for clean-up and it has cost him a normal human existence. His centric episodes are never dull. (Always wondered why he didn’t just take out Mulder, though.) He smokes not like a villain trying to intimidate someone, but like a man with all the time in the world, who isn’t even thinking about any of it.

2) Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Iconic, duh. Think of him in the first movie when he’s the terrifying cyborg, but is beneath Grand Moff Tarkin. And he has that strange commitment to this mysterious religion. We learn more about him. He blows up a whole planet. He can choke people with his hand. He is willing to get into a TIE Fighter and fight — albeit, not very well. And though people usually mock Mark Hamill’s acting when he discovers the terrifying truth about his parentage, well, think how you would feel. Look at Luke Skywalker’s reaction and realize, it’s serious, horrifying stuff to be the son of this man.

3) The Joker (The Dark Knight)

The late Heath Ledger really did deserve those accolades, regardless of their inevitability after his tragic death. Ledger plays the Joker in a transformative, uncomfortable, annoying (those fucking sounds he makes, aaaugh!) disturbing way. It’s such good acting that it’s fun to watch. He’s the best part of the movie, and is on my short list of highly praised things that are not remotely overrated. The greater meaning of the anarchic character isn’t important. Just fucking watch him act.

4) Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones TV show)

Not the sadistic King Joffrey? Not the real power, Tywin Lannister? Nope. Give me Cersei, because we see her struggling to be a villain. She’s a woman, she’s maybe not as smart as she thinks she is, but she’s wily enough to fight hard for what she thinks is hers. She’s funny as hell. And she loves her scary-ass son, because he is just about all she has, but she knows he’s sick. She knows how women gain power, but she still yearns to be playing at the big kids table. You see her when her villainous swagger is on, and you see her being completely dismissed by her father and intellectually trailing behind her brother. She’s fascinating. And she has the world’s most flawless bitch face.

5) O’Brien (1984) and The Operative (Serenity)

Like all good top villains in a dystopia, O’Brien knows all the counter-arguments with which our hero has struggled. He knows them all and can beat them with authority, charm, conviction, and the terrifying certainty of his position. He inflicts the pain, and he is someone to whom Winston Smith can finally speak freely. He knows what he does and he does it because power exists to keep itself alive. No grand motives. Just keeping the system going.

The Operative sees even more clearly than O’Brien does that he does terrible things. But he thinks he is doing them to build something better. Yet, he also thinks there is no place in that world for people like him with so much innocent blood on their hands. He’s the mechanism for improvement at a terrible price, but he has no illusions about being warmly invited into into the new society. Strange character. Very human for a villain, but very frightening.

6) Angelus (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

God damn was he a better monster than a hero. Bland, self-hating (understandable, but still), earnest, when he had a soul, he was playfully sadistic without one. He tortured a woman into insanity, he toyed with a lovesick Giles (best character) after killing his ladyfriend. The contrast between that guy and the guy trying to do right makes even the dull fellow more interesting, just because we know what nastiness is inside of him.

What are some of your favorites, dear readers?

Miracletheatrical

A terrible poster and tagline. Please ignore.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and and people’s memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear war fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

Our first entry is the 1988 film Miracle Mile, starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham. It’s got some of the genre’s — or subgenre — conventions, but it’s got a different feel to it than many hyper-realistic movies dealing with Cold War terror. 

It’s hard to know how Miracle Mile would play out in the daytime. The majority of the movies takes place at night, and not just night, but the bleary-eyed, dead hours of 4 a.m. to just-about-dawn. And that’s the time to watch it, and let its atmosphere of dread and panic and strangeness take you over.

Romantic everyman and trumpet player Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets his dream girl Julie (Mare Winningham) at the museum. They have a date over ill-advised narration and a dreamy, synthy ’80s score. They make a plan to meet up at midnight after her shift at a diner. But Harry’s power goes out and he oversleeps, so he rushes to the diner at 4 a.m. There’s a cast of promisingly odd characters having their very early breakfasts, men who tell dirty jokes, a transvestite, a stewardess, and a 1980s businesswoman in a power suit. There’s also the cook/owner and another waitress. Harry calls and leaves a message of apology for Julie, and then the payphone rings. It’s a young, frantic-voiced man named Chip who thinks he is speaking to his father. He’s in North Dakota in a missile silo, and he’s trying to tell his father that the big one is happening. Nuclear war. The US will strike first, and then the Soviets will return it in 70 minutes.

The acting here is perfect. Harry has a quaver in his voice, but isn’t yet convinced. The voice on the phone is exactly right in its unhinged terror — a lot of post-50s and ’60s nuclear war fiction doesn’t have enough hysteria. (Even the hero should have a moment or two of terror, before they’re stoic again.) Chip realizes he has dialed the right number, but the wrong area code. He begs Harry to tell his dad he’s sorry for something unclear. Then a voice in the background, gunfire, and then, like a horror movie, the military man comes on the line and offers no apologizes for the hoax, no confusion over what’s happening, no gotcha!, just “forget everything you heard and go back to sleep.”

So begins the nightmare. Harry is so shellshocked he smacks his face into the diner door. At the counter, his food has arrived, and he stares at it as blood drips from his nose onto his overeasy eggs. After a few minutes of wondering if it could be true, he decides it is. He tells the other diner goers what has happened. A few minutes of argument later, a phonecall by the powersuit woman on her enormous, 1980s cellphone confirms that a mysteriously large number of important people in Washington are just now in South America.

Already, the understated, quiet dread that I am particularly partial towards in movies is leaving. Part of me wanted to stay in the cinematic possibilities of the 1987, 4 a.m. diner and its promising case of weirdos. But we’re going a different way. Everyone in the diner climbs into the owner’s van, while the competent woman — Landa — pulls in every favor possible, trying to charter a flight to Antarctica. Already, you, the viewer, should be thinking of the time and knowing it’s impossible that anyone will make it, but you’re caught up in the exhilaration of that slim possibility of survival.

Instead of sticking with the group, though, Harry needs to go and find his new love Julie. He’s on his own with that. But the diner owner won’t even slow down, though. He’s advised to tuck and roll and he does, taking the diner owner’s gun. Alone on an overpass, now with a cut head, Harry stops to tell himself this must be a dream. He fires the diner owner’s gun into the air and confirms that weight and heat of it, and no, it’s real. But alone, bleeding, carrying a gun, standing on a highway with the knowledge that it’s supposed to be an hour until nuclear holocaust. If that’s not a nightmare, what is?

Harry reluctantly highjacks a car driven by Wilson, who offers stolen stereos in exchange for his life. And so begins the part of the story where if Harry somehow is wrong about the call — well, some mistakes cannot be undone. They drive fast. They pull into a cabs-only gas station and bribe the owner for fuel. A cop car pulls up and demands that they lie on the ground because the gas station man has an illegal shotgun. Wilson squirts gas from the pump onto the female cop. She’s blinded and fires her gun. She catches fire. The fire spreads. The other cop burns. Harry and the criminal speed away in the LAPD cruiser as the gas station blows up. This is the first completely surreal moment. It should be cheesy. It somehow isn’t. They drive on.

Wilson drives off when Harry goes to get Julie. He manages to reunite her estranged grandparents in the process, and those two drive off to share a last breakfast together. Wilson is seen again, he crashes the cop car through a mall window. He is mortally wounded beside his girlfriend or wife who is already dead. Harry and Julie run in. At one point the Wilson his love and tries to walk up a down escalator. It’s still not funny, just troubling.  Even later when Harry frantically runs into an early morning gym searching for someone who can fly a helicopter isn’t funny. The bizarre ’80s workout clothes add to the surrealness, and you just feel a bit sick instead of amused.

“It was all a dream” is an awful cliche that nobody will dare use for another 50 years. But to say Miracle Mile is a nightmare isn’t to say there should be a moment of Harry waking up in bed, realizing he’s safe. There was supposed to be such a moment back when the screenplay was a hot item in Hollywood, and was going to be part of The Twilight Zone movie. Director and writer Steve De Jarnatt refused to include the relief of waking. He wanted it to be real.

The pacing goes deeper into a nightmare, with half a dozen versions of your worst one ever offered: there’s being chased — first by the police, then by a crazed man into a sewer; there’s hysterically trying to make someone else understand, trying to find someone who will help you; the fear that it was all a mistake, and now you’ve done terrible things and caused deaths for nothing; finding yourself the bad guy with the gun, yelling orders; the lonely panic of being the only one who knows the truth turning into the blind, crazed horror of the masses trampling each other in an orgy of fear, and the worst part, the clock ticking away and there isn’t enough time — there never really was enough time. The only hope of anything beyond Lovecraftian indifference and panic is the love Harry has found in Julie. But she’s only just been found, and being “the girlfriend” she never really has a compelling personality. (Maybe that doesn’t matter). All of this, though, may be less of a nightmare, and more of an insomniac’s waking, dazed horror while the whole world goes wrong around him and he must be getting it wrong, it can’t be real.

I won’t say how it ends, only that the uneasy pacing works, even when the quiet turns into the screaming, teeming mob in the morning. Instead of the myriad other versions of nuclear doom in movies, compare Miracle Mile to Signs. Signs isn’t necessarily unreal, or a metaphor for losing faith, or any of the other suggestions offered for the controversial/cop-out ending. But it has a quality of another world that isn’t quite our own. It doesn’t matter if Miracle Mile is “real” or even “realistic” in its portrayal of facing the end. Its lurching horror makes it a worthwhile and troubling watch — it feels more personal and more queasy in the guts than stern generals in war rooms ordering strikes against the enemy.

Tune in next Tuesday for what happens after those generals order those strikes in On the Beach, the huge downer of a movie that began my fascination with nuclear terrors. 

4657776_l21) TitanicOnce I would have said that James Cameron’s teen sensation blockbuster should be trimmed to a tight 45 minutes, but I am softening in my old age. Just trim every single piece of Cameron-penned dialogue. Remove scene-chewer Billy Zane entirely. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet can stay for the one lifeboat scene which demonstrates some acceptable eye acting. Kill all romance and implication that a making out couple distracted every single British sailor on deck watch right before they hit the burg. Edit out the tiresome Bill Paxton learns to love something more than mysterious lost diamonds subplot.

Oh hell, never mind. Just stick to the sinking. Pretend it’s the story of the myriad killer secondary characters and extras who make those scenes gut-wrenching. They are the reason I can’t fully advocate for tossing out Cameron’s film and going for A Night to Remember. The latter is much better overall, but Kenneth Moore is all too chipper as Second Officer Lightoller. It doesn’t hit the gut in the same way at all.

On a side note, someone British please, please, please make an epic miniseries about Lightoller. His life was one of those impossible adventure stories that you make a movie about if they happen once. His happened endlessly. The Titanic was just a fraction of a life that included an island shipwreck on a sailing ship, a diversion into nearly dying in the Klondike, and a late middle age moment of personally taking his beloved yacht across the channel to fetch 168 British troop badly in need of getting the fuck out of France before the Nazis caught them.

On a final side note, my two instances of what could loosely be described as fan fiction were about Charles Lightoller and  Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley. I resented fanfiction.net for making me file them under the movie Titanic.

2) Straight to HellThere’s no way to edit a coherent plot into Alex Cox’s punk rock spaghetti Western parody, but editing out co-stars Dick Rude and Courtney Love and their method-whine acting would be a great start. Sy Richardson, some of the weird ’80s hotties Joe Strumer macks upon, Shane MacGowan, Elvis Costello, and director Jim Jarmusch in their bit parts can stay; definitely keep the off-kilter everything — like bad pacing that becomes funny — as well as the gory ending gun battle. But, just, trim off the annoying bits and focus more on sweaty, dusty Joe Strummer in a suit.

(Also, I find Jim Jarmusch, one of my hipster weaknesses if I must call it that, to be weirdly attractive. He can definitely stay. Also, the worst thing about his Coffee and Cigarettes is that he never got around to filming a vignette with Strummer!)

Turns out in 2010, Alex Cox released a new version of the movie, but they’ve only added five minutes of footage, some technical tinkering, and some CGI gore, so the above dream remains unfulfilled.

This is a terrible movie that I knew was terrible, even after searching Dormont’s (outside of Pittsburgh) Incredibly Strange Video for a VHS of it to rent (this is circa 2003). But either its humor holds up in spite of the no-plot plot, or sweaty Joe Strummer in a desert-covered suit is just that compelling.

3) The Towering Inferno: It’s been a while, but this movie was always completely dull for the first half hour. Cut to the fire — never mind the corruption and cost-cutting and bad villain — and cut out most everyone except Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Sweaty Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are good for America.

I really want to share a sort of spoiler. Okay, are you ready? You have been warned — I used to say I knew this movie was awful because you could predict that at the end OJ Simpson would hand Fred Astaire a cat. But when I think about now, this movie is great because you can predict that at the end OJ Simpson will hand Fred Astaire a cat.

4) On the BeachThere’s no way to edit in even attempted Australian accents or radiation sickness, so let’s stick with just editing out the God-awful, over the top Ernest Gold score. Not so disturbing (or good) as the Nevil Shute novel on which it is based, this 1959 picture about the last remnants of humanity waiting to die after a worldwide nuclear war is still pretty damn bleak for its time. But whenever you start to feel that existential stomachache, the score aggressively demands your attention and heartbreak and sorrow, and then it’s all gone. Because it’s of course just a movie.

5) Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg: Maybe a pet peeve of mine, but I disliked this Swedish film’s choice of beginning with an attempt at a motivation for Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s beyond-heroic efforts in saving 100,000 Hungarian Jews. The movie has to show Wallenberg witnessing the bodies of Jews being thrown from a train in order to explain his decision to accept the diplomatic post in Budapest. Why? I seem to recall that Wallenberg met some Jews who had fled to Palestine in the 1930s, but crimes against humanity in the cinematic way wasn’t why he went to Budapest. The man was looking for some purpose in life and he found it. And he was really, really good at it. By all accounts, he got a certain rush out of some of his audacious actions — at least before the actual battle for Budapest began. The movie mostly focuses on those rough, later days, which is an interesting choice — his triumphs where he pulled people off of trains and saved them from death marches are seen briefly at the start — to spend the most amount of time with our hero when he’s reached his limit.

This is a good film, but I have never found its way of telling the story quite satisfying. You want your perfect Hollywood man, with an arc from would-be profiteer to savior? That’s what Oscar Schindler is for. Wallenberg was less obviously interesting, more of a cipher, but that makes him all the more a superhero. Superman versus Batman, maybe.

6) Signs: My dad forgives any old movie not filmed on a studio lot. I forgive any terrible ending when a movie has done such a kick-ass job building an atmosphere of subtle, claustrophobic terror. And aliens just speak to me in a, I am technically 15 years old but I cannot sleep right now, way. The part where Joaquin Phoenix is watching the news in the closet and it is supposedly home video from a Brazilian birthday party, and then you see the alien for a second — I have never before or since made an involuntary and loud noise of alarm in a theater. Also, Abigail Breslin is so great. The Culkin kid is Culkinish, but Breslin always strikes me as such a believable little girl.

The edits I would make? The ending — spoilers! — with the water. Maybe it’s a metaphor, maybe it’s fluoride or minerals or something beyond H2o, but people just couldn’t abide that aliens could be killed by a substance that covers 70-odd percent of the planet. And I get that. The whole everything was meant to be and leading up to saving the Culkin bit was so purposefully unsubtle that I never fully minded, because it seems like a picture of a different world than the one in which we all reside. But as much as I find this movie a net good, the fact is that it deserved something better. The set-up is funny, scary, well-acted, and eerie. The idea of a man who has lost his faith in God having to face (potentially-allegorical) extraterrestrials is terrific. I am not sure how I wanted Signs to end. But like many a Russell T. Davies-penned Dr. Who finale, the lead-up was so great that the ending had to be a disappointment — but it didn’t have to be quite that cheesy.

Have any of your own suggestions? Lay ’em on me in the comments or wherever you like.