Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse Wow Part III - Don't Panic

Darkness falls across the land.  The midnight hour is close at hand.

...wait a minute, that's not the heralding of the end of the world, that's the Vincent Price part of Thriller.  That was 2 months ago.

...and wait a minute, nothing's happening.  Not even a mild inconvenience.  Well that was somewhat anticlimactic (...and just watch, by saying this, I'll have screwed us all.  Sorry folks.)

Well, screwed or bored, the fact is, I still watched the final week of apocalypse-themed films for this theme, and damned if I'm gonna let 'em go to waste!

Well, that takes care of those vampires.  Now to go break Burgess Meredith's glasses!

12/15    Last Man on Earth

OK, so you guys are still getting some Vincent Price fix here as we come to the third, and chronologically first attempt at adapting Matheson's I Am Legend.  In a break from the later two going for a bit more of an action-scientist vibe in their leads, this first version cast Vincent Price in the role (in this version named Robert Morgan.)  The story...OK, it's been three times now, do we really need to go over this again? Well, to be fair, we kind of do since each does take its own versions of the events.  Strangely enough, this version WAS also partially worked on by Matheson, though he was dissatisfied with the end results and had his name changed in the credits.

As an adaptation, despite the author's dissatisfaction, it's actually the closest in keeping with the book.  It's still not perfect, but it does line up the events closest of the three.  Most importantly, this one actually does maintain the ending (which, given how the book ends, I consider to be a considerable plus.)

As a movie, overall, I'd put it around the same level as the other two adaptations.  It's another interesting exploration of the idea of well, the title says it best.  I rather like how each of the three actors playing the lead took it in a different direction - in this case, rather than simply running and hiding, Price's Morgan actively hunts his vampiric enemies and kills them in their sleep.  He still searches for a cure, but it's also a more proactive quest to assert his survival.  This movie's take on the isolation theme becomes less a matter of fraying sanity and more a matter of desperation.  Morgan isn't talking to people who aren't there and hearing things, but when he sees the possibility for being able to be with someone that isn't one of his enemies, he is eager to make the connection last.  It becomes sad in a different sort of way.

All in all, it's a pretty solid attempt to bring the story to the screen.  I wouldn't call it one of Price's best movies (though reportedly he did like it among his works,) but I also wouldn't call it one of his worst by any stretch.  It's decent is about the best way I can put it.  It has some strong elements to add to the table, but there are also parts that sadly don't hold as well.  That said, I do have to admit, of the three endings, I actually found this one to be the most memorable.

Those dark days recovering from Hudson Hawk will forever be remembered as a low point in Bruce Willis's life.

12/16    12 Monkeys

This movie has a special place in my heart even before going into this rewatch.  This is the movie that really got me into Terry Gilliam as a filmmaker.  Prior to this, I mainly just knew him for being the guy that did the Monty Python animations.  So when I caught this movie one night on one of the networks, I was surprised to see his name in the credits.

I was also surprised to find I really, really liked this movie.  Admittedly, I can't call it his finest (cliche as this is to say, there's a reason Brazil is his most lauded,) but damned if this isn't high up there for him.  It's actually rather surprising to see Gilliam embrace his bleak side quite as much as parts of this movie do - the visions of the future we see are distanced from the comically grim world of Brazil, and rather are a much grimmer vision of things to come (though a bit of that Gilliam style does make itself known through the courtroom scenes.)  The story, loosely based on the French short La Jetée, actually presents an interesting conundrum from the initial short and builds on it - in a future devastated by a lethal virus outbreak, the leaders of humanity have started a risky program sending prisoners back in time to try and find a cure.  This actually leads to one of the things that really hooks me on this movie - time travel as a genuinely dangerous notion.  Not just for the so-titled butterfly effect, but also for the fact that being flung into another time with knowledge of the future can, and does, effect the psyche of the film's protagonist James Cole (played by Bruce Willis.)  When playing in his past/our present, what Gilliam isn't allowed to show in visual aesthetic, he makes up for in directorial style, such as scenes when Cole is put in a mental hospital, with the film's maybe-maybe-not antagonist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt in the role that actually made me start to respect him as an actor.)

Alongside Willis and Pitt, the cast all prove more than up to the task, with the other two standouts being Madeleine Stowe as the doctor who gets involved in Cole's quest to try and save the future, and David Morse in a role I can't go into without giving anything away.  The script does a surprisingly good job of keeping all the loose ends tied, which is an utter bitch to do when you play with time travel, really.  I'm actually rather surprised this movie is so often overlooked when people start firing off classic twist endings for spoilers because honestly, this IS a surprisingly well handled one.  Yes, there are some clues for it, but even with those, the film never tips its hand too soon, and the final payoff is actually somewhat haunting the way Gilliam shoots it.  It's a rather curious film to realize the man worked on - while it has some of his style and even some traces of his dark comedy, this is among his bleaker titles out there.   As a final note I'd actually add this to the list of the few, the proud, the good remakes that surprisingly do exist from time to time.

"Look to the what?  Nah, I don't start advocating that for another two years..."

12/17    The Rapture

Oh man...this one.  Well, this one actually didn't give me the 'punch in the gut' feeling some of the other titles on this list did.  At the same time though, I needed to sit down and sort this film out after I got done watching it.  As it stands, I don't mind saying it's easily one of the most unique titles to make this list.

Now, bearing in mind before I begin, my initially stated proviso regarding the Rapture notion, I went into this film wondering just how it would handle the idea.  To my surprise, this wasn't like A Thief in the Night where it tried to warn of the dangers of the Rapture.  Rather, in this case, the Rapture serves as a part of a larger storyline involving Sharon, a phone operator (Mimi Rogers) going through varying degrees of a crisis of faith.  That element of faith is actually part of what really surprised me about this movie.  Michael Tolkin's script genuinely feels like it's trying to explore as many possible angles as it can on the matter.  We see how faith allows Sharon to clean up her life from when we first see her engaging in partying and swinging.  For a time, we now see her happily married and with a kid (the father played in a smaller role by David Duchovny in that post-Twin Peaks, pre-X-Files phase with longer hair that looks a bit odd at first.)  Then various things, including suspicious omens heralding the coming Rapture start to test her faith.

Surprisingly, rather than go the 'stay the course and be rewarded' route that could have made this just feel like a bit of a propaganda piece (for lack of a better word) Tolkin chooses to explore the idea of instead falling.  Sharon, her faith shaking with lack of proof, makes an irredeemable choice that, between Tolkin's directing and Rogers's acting is painful to watch unfold (and I mean painful in the good way here... ...GOD, that sounds wrong.)  The last act of the film is arguably the most surprising and where the movie takes its biggest risks - both in terms of the overarcing story and Sharon's character arc, though to be fair, the latter really IS the basis of the film.  Yes, the Rapture does play a part in the story overall, but it's still largely a secondary thread as much of the film is more about Sharon and her crises of faith.  It's a rather curious character piece with some striking individual scenes, some nice performances, and enough ambition to make it worth giving a watch to see what you think.  Personally, I'm still rather surprised by it.  While I'm not sure I'd call it one of the greatest ever, still a fascinating movie and I'd be happy to see more films take some of the chances this one did.

    "Well, I was going to welcome you to salvation among the forces of good...but since you just HAD to yell 'Freebird' you can sit and spin with all the damned for all I care!"

12/18    The Stand (parts 1 and 2)

Well, we started this theme off with one of the more wonderfully terrible Stephen King adaptations ever.  Somehow, it seems fitting that we come back to him in the last week.  Looking back though, there's a part of me that's actually a little surprised to realize this movie exists.  I mean, when you consider the book it's coming from, it's actually a bit of a surprise that anyone was willing to take the chance on adapting it into a movie . I understand it, they've talked of trying it again. I dunno guys, it worked once, but still...

That said, let me just start by saying kudos to Mick Garris for making the shot - of the King adaptations, this is still easily one of the most ambitious, and with a few exceptions, he manages to make it pay off surprisingly well for the tools he's got to play with.  It's also a little fitting this comes in the timeline where it does, given the movie is essentially King's own retake on the Biblical apocalypse - replacing the ascension into Heaven with most of the world's population being felled by a superflu and then leaving the survivors to be pitted against one another by the forces of good (lead by a Ruby Dee in a spot-on turn as Mother Abigail) and evil (Jamey Sheridan doing a pretty good job as the enigmatic Randall Flagg.  I have to give him credit here, because Flagg's very character makes him trick to pull off.  For his part, he makes more than a decent go of it.)  Like the original novel, the movie has an ensemble cast to work with, and it's really hard to pick out strong least, as far as just the first two parts are concerned (the second half writeup may be shorter simply because a lot of points will already be touched on here.)  For a made-for-TV movie, it's a pretty all star cast: among the names, Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Ray Walston*, Ossie Davis, Laura San Giacomo, and Matt Frewer.  Alongside these, the first part sneaks in a couple of further surprise guests stars (Kathy Bates as a radio DJ that gets on the wrong side of the military, and Ed Harris as the unfortunate commander who has the plague break out on his watch.)  Most of the casting is actually pretty well chosen, though I have to admit on a rewatch I'm a bit shaky on Ringwald.  She's trying, I'll give her that, but she really does feel like an odd pick for the role, mainly because she looks far too old to play Frannie.

*Who, for an odd piece of trivia, is pretty much exactly who I'd pictured when I first encountered the Glen Bateman in the book.  So seeing him play the role in the miniseries was a small "...damn." moment.

In terms of how the first two nights handle the story, I am actually rather surprised at how well Garris makes his time and budget work here.  Though I do have to say - not as a dig at the rest of the miniseries, because it is good - honestly, the single best part of this entire series is in the very beginning.  The rest is largely good, don't get me wrong, but the series never quite tops part 1's  well set up sequence as we follow security camera footage of the scientists dead from the outbreak while Blue Oyster Cult's 'Don't Fear the Reaper' plays in the background.  It's a simple, effective, and downright haunting sequence to watch, and easily one of the high points of the whole series.  For the rest, the story actually survives in a lot better shape than I would have expected.  A few parts are folded into one another, and some plotlines are cut out, but by and large, for what was a 1000+ novel, Garris and his team have managed to keep a lot more of it in than they had to remove.

With these first two parts, the board is set and everyone is in their places for the chaos to come in the second half.

As they say it best on the Internet, 'This guy looks legit!'

12/19    The Stand (parts 3 and 4)

In accordance with our warning above, this entry is gonna be kind of short.  This is because, as a miniseries, a lot of the things that were good in the first two parts are consistently carrying over to these the final installments of this rather ambitious miniseries.

Though there are a few things to say for these later pieces for both good and ill.  On the good side of things, Garris does continue to keep up the pacing and doing a surprisingly good job keeping King's apocalyptic epic as intact as time and network restraints will allow for.  Further, two of the cast members in particular really come into their own in these final parts - San Giacomo as the doomed Nadine Cross, who makes a nicely understated go of her descent into insanity when she finally loses herself to evil, and Matt Frewer as the rather unhinged Trashchan Man, a pyromaniac who devotes himself to Flagg's cause.  Where Nadine is a subtle decline, Frewer plays Trash's madness with full blown crazy, and he is actually pretty creepy to watch as a result of it.

The biggest grievance I have with this miniseries overall...come to think of it, this is really the only full-on complaint, but it IS a big one, lies in the ending.  Anyone who has already seen this likely knows which part I'm referring to.  Which is a bit of a shame since the scenes building up to the scene in question are actually pretty well done.  In particular the acting really hits home some of the emotion in the confrontation to come.  Which is why it hurts when the film's made-for-TV budget comes in and ultimately derails some of the surprising emotional buildup the film had managed to score up to that point.  Now, I'll grant part of that is Garris working with what King wrote, but the fact is, it's an ending that just doesn't work well on a TV budget, and sadly hurts what could have been a great finale.

As it is, it's still on the better end of King's adaptations, with some good performances and some high ambitions going for it.  I wouldn't call it among the very best, but it's still pretty recommendable for filmed versions of his work.


12/20    The Day After

OK, remember how I'd used the phrase 'punch in the gut' earlier this week?  As the apocalypse films on this list go, this one was the first to do that for me.  I still remember the first time I ever saw this (no, it wasn't the original broadcast.  I wasn't even alive at that point.)  It was about a decade back when Sci-Fi Channel (back when they were still called that) was replaying it with some surprising fanfare.  Without knowing fully what to expect, went ahead with watching it. was THAT a surprise.

Made back in 1983, this film was, and in many ways still is, a rather frank look at the risks of nuclear war.  Like some of the earlier features on this list, it opts to do so on a larger scale, looking at an ensemble cast of survivors caught up in this disaster (among those cast here are Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, and a young Jon Lithgow.)

It says something that, even after the rewatch, the part of this that immediately comes to mind is still the film's famous bombing sequence.  Doing the best they could to properly simulate what a nuclear strike would look like, director Nicholas Meyer took ABC's budget to its utmost.  The resulting scene has actually aged surprisingly well and is still fairly chilling to watch.  It feels odd to say even after having just rewatched it, but this moment so dominates the first section of the movie that it almost seems to overshadow some of the memory of the buildup to it (though the final scenes leading up to the impact are also pretty well handled tension.)

and in the generosity of the season, now you too can see the famous nuclear attack sequence that legitimately freaked the Hell out of viewers in 1983.

With much of the second half, we now meet our 'lucky' survivors as they get to deal with all the joys that come after surviving the blast - fallout and breakdown of law and order, yay!
...OK, that was just wrong, but you get the idea.  Where the bombing is shocking, this is more sobering as it, again, handles the aftermath rather directly.  Radiation sickness is treated as a legitimate concern and more seriously than many films tend to be with it.  It's also in this later half that the acting really pays off, as these dire situations really get some painful emotions out of the actors.  Probably one of the single best moments for this, and actually the final scene of the movie, comes from Robards on returning home to find drifters squatting in the charred remains of his house.  Looking them square in the eye, he tries to tell them to get out of his house.  When they don't leave, it slowly sinks in to him that there is no going back.  As it settles in, the squatters come out to console him.  It's a simple moment, but also surprisingly powerful, and really caps off the film's style well.  It delivers a potent message without going too heavy-handed with it (though it did get a LOT of promotion and discussion to go along with it when it first aired.)  While the Cold War itself is no longer the issue it was when this was made, the film's message about why these weapons should be kept a close eye on is still pretty damned powerful even today.

Second only to the downhill racer building, post-apocalypse survival is one of the most prominent father-son bonding activities according to most experts.

12/21    The Road

...and so we come to the end of our trip with a heartwarming father-son roadtrip movi--


...Never mind.

Actually, as apocalypse films go, I honestly couldn't have asked for a better movie to end this list on.  In part because this film, like Last Night, actually opts to forego a singular scenario (we never actually learn what happened to the world, though people have proffered theories.)  Rather, this movie, faithfully based on the book by Cormac McCarthy plops us right into the Hell the world has become, only showing us glimpses of the past in flashbacks by the father (played by a great Viggo Mortensen.)  All that's really shown to us otherwise is that the world is essentially on its last legs.  In this world, as we fast learn, humanity has likewise gone to Hell.  Cannibalism and brutality run rampant as people will gladly resort to anything and everything for survival.  This is one of those elements where I really have to commend John Hillcoat's direction of the movie - these horrors are dealt with without subterfuge or hinting.  This is the world this father and son live in, and it is unforgiving.  Probably one of the most intense moments of the movie actually makes this clear when we see the father is actually willing to execute his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) rather than let him fall prey to some of the other people that are wandering the ruined world.  The fact this is the merciful act in this world says a lot.

Of course, the film isn't completely grim savagery.  While that is the mainstay of the world, there are also a few moments of quiet where we get to see Mortensen and Smit-McPhee simply be a father and son.  These moments are almost necessary in the film, really.  As the two look for supplies in an abandoned building, we get brief glimpses of their connection beyond survival.  They're simply touching moments that really strengthen the core bond that makes up the movie.  So much so that it actually winds up making the last act all the more shock and later heartwrenching for reasons I won't go into for people who haven't seen it yet.  I will simply leave it as a reminder within the film of the importance of trying to maintain some of your humanity in such a world where too much of that can get you killed.

The one other thing I have to hand to this movie alongside its strong acting (including supporting roles by Robert Duvall and Charlize Theron,) is the cinematography.  Javier Aguirresarobe paints a truly grim and desolate view of the final days of the world, and even without the human brutality, some of the shots of the barren landscape are still downright sobering in their own regard.

Yet, after how grim I've told you guys this movie is, I still have to say I'm glad it was the last one on the list.  Sure, it's depressing and at times even quite disturbing, but it does also manage to maintain that necessary ounce of humanity. And on top of that, as I said above, it's a really powerful movie on several levels.

As an additional note, because yes, I AM that kind of horrible person, I decided to do a running talley on how each of these 21 movies decided to completely cornhole the planet to see what the leading form was.

I am pleased to report the results as follows.
    Plague - ***** (bearing in mind, in some cases this is man-made, so there's a spectrum)
    Nuclear War - ****
    Unknown - **
    Biblical Rapture - **    Geological Cataclysm *
    Machine Revolution - *
    Human Instrumentality - *
    Mass Infertility - *
    Pollution - *
    Meteor - *
    Chemical warfare (sort of) - *
So everyone, break out your gas masks and Howard Hughes it up, cause it looks like the outbreaks JUST outdid nuclear weaponry.
I'd congratulate the winners, but they're just gonna try and kill us all anyway.

Well, unless we get hat-tricked in the next few hours, it appears the Mayans really aren't coming back after all.  As such, I'll be delivering the next phase of the holiday goods to you guys over this weekend, with something else to come on Christmas.

Clock is ticking, Mayans.  No pressure.

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