Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Invasion of the Mind Snatchers

Well, I did it. I finally finished my marathon viewing of all movie iterations of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Actually, I did most of this a couple of years ago. I put them on my Netflix queue when The Invasion first came out. I thought I'd be through them just in time for its DVD release. Then I heard how bad the most recent version was, so I just stopped after the first three. Well, my friend Dale said that didn't count. I had to watch them all. Ugh. So I reluctantly queued it up again and sat myself down for some pain. At first, it wasn't that bad, but then... well, I'll save that for the end of this post. Even though it is definitely the freshest in my mind, I think it's probably important to go through these chronologically.

By the way, if you've never seen any of these movies (or haven't figured out the plots just from their titles), here is my obligatory spoiler warning.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The original. The classic? I'm not sure. I definitely liked it, but it's still a cheesy B-movie. The whole story is told in flashback (which is easy to forget during the movie). Our narrator first appears to be a crazed maniac, but we quickly see that he wasn't always that way. Alien plants landed in his small home town and slowly started replacing people with mindless duplicates. Although mindless isn't exactly the right word. They still talk and act, but they've been completely brainwashed and act like they've just taken a big dose of Valium.

The beauty of this film is almost all tied into the setting into which is was released. Fear and paranoia were starting to erode the post-WWII elation. Fear of communism, McCarthyism, and witch hunts; fear of atomic weapons, bomb shelters, and "Duck and Cover." This film plays right into all of that. Could you tell if your neighbor was a pod person? Could you tell if he were a Commie? Fear of the unknown-- is it safe to explore space? Fear of the outsider-- why isn't Bob acting like all the rest of us?

The key, of course, is not to fall asleep. They can only duplicate you when you sleep, so just stay awake. What a fantastic device! Not only is a great metaphor for complacency vs. vigilance, it also leads to the natural mind games brought on by sleep deprivation. Did that really happen, or does he just thinks it happened because he hasn't slept in five days?

I'll give this one five stars. Probably it only deserves three, but I'll bump it up a couple for its period, campiness, and originality.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
This is the first remake with Donald Sutherland. It actually manages to have a fairly nice surprise at the end, which has since been ruined by an internet meme. The plot is still the same: alien plants, mindless duplicates, don't fall asleep. But this time they spend a little more time focusing on the how of it.

I really love how this movie is also a reflection of the times in which is was released. Not only did it have more special effects (which was all the rage in Hollywood after Star Wars), but it also had an interesting view of science. Leonard Nimoy plays a hipster, book-promoting psychologist (I think?), and it's hard to tell if we're supposed to "grok" him or distrust him.

And that leads me to the weird part-- what's the fear? In the original, most see it as an allegory about communism, but couldn't it also be supporting individualism? Here, we're in the '70's, the Me Generation. They already threw down "the man" in the '60's, man, now it's time to boogie. One of the things I like about this one is that the characters all seem so arrogant, even in the face of an alien plague. Maybe the movie was trying to say that we're all just as doomed if we only look out for ourselves. Not a condemnation of individuality, necessarily, but of selfishness.

I give this one three stars. I'd recommend it, and it's definitely entertaining, but the dated-ness of the '70's isn't nearly as charming as the dated-ness of the '50's.

Body Snatchers (1993)
The lesser known remake. I'm having a bit of trouble remembering the details about this one, but I do remember I liked it. They took the original story and made many tweaks to it, making it feel completely new. Sure, there's still alien pods and duplicates, but the trappings are different.

First of all, instead of a middle aged man as a protagonist, we get a teenage girl. And rather than a small town or large city, she's stuck on a military base. This is especially interesting because the whole point of the military is to break down individuals and remake them into cohesive units. But also, being on a military base introduces something that was pretty absent in the previous two: weapons. This film has much more action and 'splosions than the other two.

But what was there to fear in the '90's? The obvious theme is increased militarism from the Reagan era, but I think that's secondary. Despite the more dramatic setting, I think this one is actually more personal. I think it deals best with the conflicting ideas of being an individual versus being an outsider. In the first film, they don't believe the narrator because he's acting like a loon. Here, they don't believe her because she's just a kid, something we can all partly identify with.

I'll give this one four stars. It's a good action movie, a good horror movie, and an overlooked film.

The Invasion (2007)
Ugh. Again, same plot. Like the first sequel, more time spent "explaining" the problem, more pointless special effects. Protagonist is a female looking out for her child. The film starts in medias res, just so we can flashback a few days and watch it lead to those same scenes (which are played again). I really, really hate this trope. I am so sick of movies and/or TV shows that show something, then have a title card with "Three days earlier" or whatever. It is a complete waste, and very poor storytelling. Okay, off soapbox, back to movie.

The interesting thing about this movie, and what made me think I was enjoying it part way through it, was the perceived target of the fear. Communism, then individualism, then militarism; in this one, I think they're attacking indifference. At the beginning of the movie, there are many shots of hundreds of people walking the streets of DC, completely oblivious to everyone around them. After the pods get a hold of them, they are much more quiet. They stand still. They pay attention. As in the other films, the heroes try to "pass" as converted. It's interesting what advice she is given here: "Don't show emotion," "Make direct eye contact." As the pods take over, the ones who can't fake it scream and plead for help, while everyone around them ignores them (whether they're pod-people or not). That's pretty scary, and pretty normal in our modern world.

But instead of being intellectually stimulating or offering more social commentary, this movie devolves into an action movie. You see, it's just a disease. Science can cure it. Her son is immune, so he can be used to save the world! We're finally treated to a high speed chase, in which Nicole Kidman's goal is literally to "GET HIM TO ZEE CHOPPAH!!!" So sad. I think this one really had some possibilities, and it just totally blew it.

One star. It's terrible. Don't be suckered into having your own marathon, this one really isn't worth it.

Well, I suppose if I were a professional blog writer, I would have done a lot more research, thorough analysis, and structured organization of my thoughts. Unfortunately for you, I didn't. I just kind of scrambled together my thoughts and put them out there. Maybe as I get more regular at this, I'll do a better a job at putting up more polished posts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dog Tired

There are 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in a minute, yet we divide seconds into hundredths. Does that seem strange to you?

These are some of the random thoughts I have while running. I don't like to listen to my iPod when I run, so I'm stuck with my own inner soundtrack. Sometimes this can be a good thing; other times, my thoughts get in a rut thinking the same thoughts over and over (just like a bad song). I really should listen to some of the many podcasts I have trouble finding time for, but I just don't like running with artificial sound. I'd rather be alert to my surroundings, not to mention my own labored breathing.

I like my running route, for now. I leave the house, run to (and around) the park, then back. It totals 1.5 miles. Usually, I take Flower with me for the first lap, then drop her off at home so I can have a little peace for my second lap. When I feel like a longer run, I can just add a lap or two.

This morning I ran 3.0 miles in 25:34, which is about an 8:30 mile. I'm very pleased, especially since I wasn't particularly trying to increase my pace. Our dog, Flower, helps a lot in that regard. She's always raring to go, and could easily outrun me if it weren't for the leash. By the way, I haven't been keeping up with her kill stats lately, so I apologize. She's taken out five squirrels now. However, she suffered a serious injury to her armpit while jumping up against the fence a couple of months ago, so I'm going to put the score at 5-1.

That's about all I have to report. I'm trying to do a little better about posting more frequently instead of just throwing out huge posts. I still have two that are churning around in my brain, so hopefully at least one of them will make it out this week.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Why Iron Man 2 Doesn't Work

I liked the first Iron Man. I thought it was fun with simple good vs. evil and dazzling effects. I thought it was good, but not great. I had low expectations for the second film. I only hoped to be as entertained as I was the first time. Instead, I was actually quite disappointed. It was okay, but not good. Sure, the effects were again pretty amazing, and there were lots of 'splosions, but something about it was just wrong. Recently, I think I discovered why-- the screenplay doesn't match the directing.

I only listen to two podcasts about film: Filmspotting and Creative Screenwriting. I love them both for completely different reasons, but I highly recommend them. In FS episode #301, they talk about Iron Man 2. I won't bother to rehash everything they said (besides, it's far too entertaining to listen to it straight from the source), but in the end they were disappointed as well. They mentioned things like not caring about the characters and the dialog being too flippant.

Just this past week I was catching up with old CS podcasts, and I came across this quote from Jon Favreau (the director) at an Iron Man 2 round table discussion:
We looked at the successful film sequels that we liked ... The two that we liked the most... were Wrath of Khan and Empire Strikes Back. Those are the two that we said, "They did it right. Now let's look at what they did right."
Although he didn't say so, I have no doubt that Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight were also on their radar.

What do those films have in common? Aside from generally being the fan favorites of the series, they're also considered the most dark. That admission from Mr. Favreau is what made it all click for me in my head.

When the reviews for Iron Man came out, a lot of the positive buzz mentioned that it was "light" and "fun" (especially when compared to Dark Knight). It was a great way to start off the summer blockbuster season. But the interesting thing to me is that it actually contains several dark elements:
  • Tony Stark kidnapped and tortured
  • Multiple deaths and violence due to war
  • An over-the-top evil father-figure who not only uses a neural paralysis device, but also attempts to kill Tony by ripping his heart out.
All of these are pretty serious. And they're handled seriously in the film. But surrounding those elements, we have Tony learning to fly, neat computer graphics, a cool suit, and generally good times. The audience doesn't dwell on the negatives, because there are more positives to uplift.

Now let's look at some of the dark themes in IM2:
  • Government trying to confiscate the suit
  • Dangerous alcoholism by Tony
  • Tony's best friend Roady betrays him and steals an earlier suit in order to weaponize it.
  • A mad Russian has not only duplicated the technology, but is also trying to kill Tony...
  • ...because it turns out that Tony's dad (in addition to being John Slattery/Walt Disney) was a crook who cut out the Russian's father's participation in creating the device.
Those are some pretty dark and serious themes, and the list doesn't even include the rival arms manufacturer who commissions super robots that terrorize civilians at the public expo!

So, why doesn't it work? Because the serious elements of the story are brushed away, discussed flippantly, or just plain ignored. It is okay to have both dramatic and comedic elements in the same film. In fact, I would argue that the best films (of both types) almost always have a degree of both. The first Iron Man was able to pull it off. The problem here is that the director seemed to be addressing the dramatic themes with a light-hearted, comedic style. And that just doesn't work.

I'm not a big Favreau fan, but I believe he is a competent director. His decisions here really confuse me. When Whiplash is terrorizing the Monaco Gran Prix, literally slicing cars in half in his attempt to exact revenge on Tony, why did he interject the chauffeur (played by Favreau) speeding on the track with Pepper? Is it comic relief to see them dodging head on traffic? Are we supposed to be laughing when Tony gets smashed at his party and abuses the suit to entertain his guests? He contemplates the betrayal of his friend by hanging out in a giant donut? What is going on here?

I blame the director here because he sets the tone on the set. He tells the actors what sort of mood he is looking for. It is great for a movie to have ups and downs, an emotional roller coaster. But it is not good for it to do both at the same time, in which case you get a merry-go-round-- flat, uneventful, going nowhere with no surprises.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Houston Heights 5K

Last Saturday, I ran another 5K. Just like last year, the Houston Heights Fun Run fell on the weekend after the Astros Race for the Pennant. I kinda like having two races on consecutive weekends. It's like having a second chance when you don't feel like you did well the first time.

My stats this time were a definite improvement over last week's run:
  • Time: 26:18 Pace: 8:30/mile
  • Overall position: 266 out of 858 (top 31%)
  • Men's 40-44 position: 27 out of 53 (51%)
However, that time is only about 15 seconds better than last year's time. If I can get back to my habit of running five times a week, I think I'll have a better chance of improving my time.

When I hit the first mile marker, my pace was actually a minute faster than usual. But instead of continuing on like that, I decided to slow it down to make sure I didn't burn out too fast. It was really hot and humid (shocking for Houston, I know), but the course is very flat and shaded. It's a nice out-and-back route down the main street of one of the older neighborhoods. It's really a nice little run.
The big deal this year, however, was that for the first time ever my wife Karen joined me. We have a "couple" friends who have been trying to run for a while, and they encouraged her to join us. It made it a lot more fun. I was very proud of her for doing the race, and at a pretty decent pace as well.

Even though they all run at a much slower pace than me, it was great to be there to cheer them on when they made it to the end. It's also nice to have people to hang out with afterward. Usually, I'm by myself so I just grab a banana and head on back home.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Race for the Pennant 5K

This past weekend I ran my second 5K for this year, and I wasn't too pleased with the results. They're not bad, I know, but they weren't as good as I was expecting.

The Race for the Pennant is the laughable title of this run, since it is co-sponsored by the Houston Astros and finishes inside Minute Maid Park. Since the Astros seem to be already eliminated from the real pennant, I wasn't too worried about winning this one either.

My stats:
  • Time: 27:36 Pace: 8:55/mile
  • Overall position: 676 out of 2437
  • Men's 40-44 position: 55 out of 123
Compared to my last run, my time is only one second different, but my placement is completely different. My overall position is about 100 spots higher than the total runners in that last one.

I'm also disappointed that my time this year is about 16 seconds slower than it was for the same race last year. That isn't a big difference by any means, but during the run I really felt like my time would be better.

I have another run coming up this weekend, so we'll see how I do on that one. It's a flat course in the shade, so that should help. I'm also planning to really push myself more training this week than I usually do.

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