Westworld (Cont.)

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Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s take on Westworld has wrapped its first season, and it was glorious. Possibly the headiest and heated first season for any television show, it took great pains to create a meticulously detailed world, only to have it set for utter destruction by the end of its run. Mind you, I may be spoilering a bit here (but no more than I need to), so if you have yet to see the show you may not want to read any further (but you just might).

The biggest mind-blower was the fact that the show, from the first episode, was running in three different concurrent timelines. This was not revealed immediately but was slyly hinted at in details presented onscreen. The casual viewer will be dissuaded by clever editing and writing, but even this was done for a sincere reason — to invest ourselves in the characters, and their motivations. Had we known for certain what we were watching in a more linear manner would have simply made things terse and wanting, the given method truly involved the viewer as an active participant, should the many reddit threads and youtube videos prove to be self-evident.

Secondly, the character arcs were genuinely satisfying. There were relatively few of them who didn’t go through a considerable metamorphosis, albeit some had begun a passage that will probably continue into the next season. This includes humans as well as the aforementioned android “hosts”, with the overall effect being a balancing of the board, so to speak — and an open wake for things to come.

Lastly, I want to point out the magnificent performances of the cast. Jeffrey Wright is simply amazing. I cannot go on enough about what an incredible actor he is, able to take the most subtle and transient emotions his character(s — SPOILERS) surmount and ingest throughout this telling season. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, but he really has been given a role worthy of his finesse with Westworld. Evan Rachel Wood is a revelation. The entire show impinges on her character, and she carries the weight with an even stride. Her performance is effortless and evocative, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next. Thandie Newton is an absolute delight, and Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris do their usual brilliant takes on their given characters. I’ll have to admit that my favorite character is Ingrid Bolsø Berdal’s Armistice — she is so goddamn foxy, missing an arm or not (SPOILERS) — and I hope to see more of her in the upcoming season.

Westworld.

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Way back in 1973, science fiction author Michael Crichton (who had already had cinematic success with Robert Wise’s adaptation of his novel The Andromeda Strain) apparently finagled enough leeway in Hollywood to create a film that he would both write and direct — Westworld.

While not the greatest of films, Westworld had a number of fascinating concepts — many of which Crichton would carry over some twenty years later to his novel (and screenplay) Jurassic Park. Both were based on visions of far-flung amusement parks, places filled with a number of random elements which would end up subjugating their visitors. As Jurassic Park had dinosaurs that “found a way” to mate, mutate and rise against their surroundings, Westworld had android “hosts” that interacted with guests, with some of them becoming independent of their programmed scripts, much to the regret of their human victims.

Again, the film (while a huge fave of mine, ever since I saw it on TV on the CBS Late Night Movie as a kid) was only enough of a success to warrant a dismal sequel, Futureworld (which Crichton had nothing to do with), in 1976, it died a quiet death in the shadow of the Jurassic franchise (which is still ongoing, with the upcoming Jurassic World II). Leave it to Jonathan Nolan, best known for co-writing such amazing films as the Dark Knight series, The Prestige and the source of the film Memento with his brother, director Christopher Nolan, to find a new path in Crichton’s pre-Jurassic footsteps.

Along with co-author Lisa Joy, and fellow producer J. J. Abrams, Nolan has brought a much darker take on Crichton’s concepts. Given our greater understanding of such things as computer programs and Massively Multiplayer Online games (which Westworld is the ultimate iteration of — *SPOILER* in particular Ed Harris’ “Man in Black” could be seen as the ultimate “griefer”), Nolan runs with the given status of Crichton’s original and proceeds to warp and wend it to many new and fascinating ways. The echoes of Blade Runner and Moore and Eick’s brilliant take on Battlestar Galactica are informed here as well, with many new potential insights hinted at from the first episode. This new Westworld is gonna be a barnstormer (and I’m not only referring to what Harris does with Evan Rachel Wood), hopefully for seasons to come.

Night Flight, or Late-Night Guerrilla Culture.

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From the Do You Remember When? Dept.: Let’s rewind the clock all the way back to 1981. Long before the Internet had pervaded our collective consciousness, the prime focus of the 20th century culture had been television — and by the ’80s, it had evolved a considerable step further with the advent of cable television. Instead of three network channels and whatever blurry UHF offerings could be received by the ongoing ornate direction of antennae on your television set (please refer to this entry for a little more background), cable offered a brand new vista of multiple channels from across the nation, as well as premium channels (such as Home Box Office and Showtime) which actually allowed you to watch unedited movies in your home. That alone blew my then thirteen-year-old mind. I couldn’t wait for the little HBO booklet to arrive in the mail every month, and preview what features would be showing on the channel (which included such succulent offerings as the Cronenberg classics Scanners and The Brood, as well as Phantasm and the Satanic bitch godmother of them all, The Exorcist — which I snuck and listened to before I was allowed to watch; I was almost relieved when I finally got to see it and it wasn’t nearly as horrible as I had imagined). My entire family must’ve watched Jaws at least ten or twelve times as a group (usually on Sunday nights, after dinner), and honestly never tired of it.

Mind you, we only had cable on two sets in the house at that time, the family set in the den, and my parents’ in their bedroom. This meant that many a late Friday or Saturday night I would stealthily slide down the stairs into a waiting pool of wanton excess, usually fueled by whatever snacks I had foraged from the kitchen pantry on the way. After ABC’s Fridays and NBC’s Saturday Night Live had closed their doors for the night, I would find myself scouring premium channels for some bit of delicious charnel, and would often end up with something amazing like Patrick (1978) or the wonderfully whacked-out The Manitou (which I eventually shared with my mom, it has since become one of our favorite bad movies). It was on one of those off nights when the premium channels were less giving that I finally discovered what quickly became my weekend addiction — USA Network’s Night Flight.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, MTV began broadcasting the same year, and sure, the advent of music videos was a huge thing. But back then, that was all they did — and often played the same videos over and over. And it wasn’t like I didn’t rabidly watch during the day. What Night Flight did every Friday and Saturday night was show music videos exploring some theme or another (they would “Take Off” to a given topic, often including interview segments and film clips), often involving a greater variety of musical genres than even MTV did in its heyday (read: early to mid 1980s; once they started all that “reality show” crap in the 90s it was all downhill). Night Flight would take things even further with concert films featuring Genesis and Yes, or features like The Kentucky Fried Movie or Fantastic Planet (La Planète Sauvage), which either tickled me pink or blew my fragile mind. Throw in the likes of the Church of the Sub-Genius’ video barrages (segmented as a series on Night Flight titled Love That BOB) and all kinds of Cold War era footage, and one had a sumptuous feast on the menu every weekend. To relate the two in terms of the other only prominent venues of the time, MTV was to Night Flight what the ’80s era Rolling Stone was to SPIN magazine, or maybe even Heavy Metal.

Each “episode” of Night Flight would consist of a four-hour block of programming which was repeated immediately after, this coming in handy if one had been out with friends before relocating to someone’s or one’s own home in time to see the second airing. Of course, VCRs often came to the rescue (and still do, in the case of a lot of existing Night Flight footage still available online) in such cases. The show was a mainstay of my own weekly viewing habits until 1988. After that, the already tired programming of MTV had managed to outstay the more innovative and explorative show. Sigh.

Today, as mentioned above, Night Flight still exists to a small extent on the internet, just search for it on YouTube and a number of clips can be found. Albeit it may be underwhelming in light of what can currently be covered otherwise via the information superhighway (or a lot of its ideas were copied or adopted by other cable programming in later years, such as Comedy Central or Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim), for its time it was an exciting jaunt into the netherworld of media, a glide across the dark underbelly of social consciousness, or a — a Night Flight.

 

 

Rick Baker: Monster Maker.

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Three days ago (Thursday, the 28th), Rick Baker announced his retirement. If there ever was an “end to an era” moment in the realm of fantastic cinema, this was one of them. I just found out yesterday, seeing as how Thursday I was out seeing the new Mad Max movie (OMG go see it, BTW. Don’t really want to blog about it since most reviews out there currently are spot-on) and have been back to work since. But this to me is like the steam engine bowing its head to internal combustion. “First of all,” says the man himself, “the CG stuff definitely took away the animatronics part of what I do. It’s also starting to take away the makeup part. The time is right, I am 64 years old, and the business is crazy right now. I like to do things right, and they wanted cheap and fast. That is not what I want to do, so I just decided it is basically time to get out. I would consider designing and consulting on something, but I don’t think I will have a huge working studio anymore.” Just as his mentor Dick Smith passed earlier last year (July 30th, at the age of 92), I’m sure Baker noted a change in the technological wind. Insert heavy sigh here.

Rick Baker started out like most of his generation, raised on Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, along with the likes of John Landis (who Baker would later collaborate with on Schlock and An American Werewolf In London), Dan O’Bannon (AlienReturn of the Living Dead), Joe Dante (PiranhaThe HowlingGremlins), not to mention a little guy from Georgia who caught the monster bug from his cousin Eddie and has been a rabid fan ever since. A book published by the magazine, Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook, sent the young Baker (not to mention future protege Rob Bottin and current The Walking Dead producer and director Greg Nicotero) off and running. At the tender age of 10, “Rick Baker Monster-Maker (a title he has lovingly embraced ever since)” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

At age 18 Baker would later write a letter to Smith about his own work (photographs included), and their initial long-distance conversation would lead to Baker assisting Smith on The Exorcist, the film that would forever change the conceptions of cinematic horror. Before then Baker had worked on the forgettable Octaman and Landis’ Schlock, one of my all-time faves:

After winning accolades for his work on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (with future Aliens and Jurassic Park maestro Stan Winston) and King Kong (1976, with Carlo Rimbaldi), not to mention a journeyman stint on a little flick about a galaxy far, far away:

Baker would reunite with Landis to break new ground in the fields of animatronic and prosthetic effects (and win the first ever Academy Award for Best Makeup) with An American Werewolf In London:

From there he would create such myriad effects as the “living” television sets in David Cronenberg’s surreal media barrage Videodrome:

And a host of creepy monsters (including those portrayed by Jackson himself) suitable for Landis’ video (read: film short) for Michael Jackson’s landmark pop hit Thriller (Baker guest stars as the zombie opening the mausoleum door after the first graveyard shot):

Baker would best be known for his love of great apes, gorillas in particular. Beginning properly with Schlock, he initially sought out any work involving them, such as King Kong (where he would get to portray the eighth wonder himself) and The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), where he starred as Sydney the Gorilla. It was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) which would allow Baker and his crew to begin thinking outside the boundaries of the traditional ape suit. Harry and the Hendersons (1987) would further the advances of Baker’s animatronic puppetry, but with 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist, Michael Apted’s biopic about Dian Fossey’s time with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, Baker’s creations truly stepped forward as supporting characters in a story. Along with the remake of my personal fave “ape amok” flick  Mighty Joe Young (1998) and amazing prosthetic work in Tim Burton’s otherwise misguided remake of Planet of the Apes (2001) Baker’s position as the definitive simian progenitor in current cinematic history has been founded.

Baker was also best known towards the latter end of his career for his relationship with comedian Eddie Murphy, beginning with the John Landis film (and my personal favorite Murphy film) Coming to America (1988):

With the Men in Black movies, Hellboy and, ultimately the Wolfman remake (where his makeup effects were the only highlight, and a tribute to the late, great Jack Pierce), Baker saw his role in modern film effects shrinking. While computer animation has given us such wonders as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and the truly amazing simian characters of the current Apes film series (thanks due in no small part to actors like Andy Serkis), the involvement of practical effects is now an afterthought, at best. While no less an artistic endeavor, the digital realization of creatures, while certainly expanded in scope and variety, has been removed from the immediate realm of experience. While technology continues to be developed to emulate realism (such as WETA Digital’s Tissue system and Manuka rendering engine), the days of practical artistry in special effects are seeing their last days.

Baker, ever the polite gentleman, bids this all with a tip of his hat and a bow. While I’m sure his influence, whether personal or inspirational, will continue to be a part of the coming era, he has now taken a seat from the active stage. To paraphrase Stephen King, gone are the days where you could be assured the monster would have a zipper down its back.

 

 

Robin Williams (1951-2014).

Along with everyone else in the world, I was shocked to hear about Robin Williams’ death last night. Shocked, but not surprised. Williams had fought depression — which for many is a condition, not an illness — for the majority of his adult life. It is perhaps because of that condition that he also was one of the greatest comedic talents known, a man possessed who raged against fear and personal doubt with before unimagined heights of manic genius. Comedians who ranked as contemporaries, such as Steve Martin and John Belushi, were like the Jimmy Pages and Eric Claptons of comedy — but Williams was Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, wrenching every last note and primal sound out of his instrument before setting it aflame. He among a generation of voices fashioned a new age of comedic commentary, one that was daringly political, surreal and disturbingly intimate.

I won’t go into detail about his career, other than to say many of his roles onscreen showed what the man behind the mania was like — a sensitive, poetic soul with a chillingly dark edge. Like the greatest of actors, one had an understanding when seeing him take on certain aspects of character that he knew them all too well. Most others were simply frail containers set up to fall away and let him fly free, like some sort of berserker warrior who is set into the fray of battle.

Those moments showed what Williams did best — furiously improvise and embody the most abstract of concepts in a way that made them both immediately familiar and hilariously obvious. The greatest of comedians are those who manage to reveal the human condition for what it is — a series of blunders and happenstance punctuated with fleeting moments of genius and beauty. That exposed truth is what makes us laugh, even if we never realized it before. And Robin Williams, a Joycean whirling dervish of a man, did that more than most.

Harold Ramis (1944-2014).

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People often talk about “generation gaps” and “culture clashes”, and when it is brought up most often is when they decide to dissect what is funny. The older folks talk about how guys like Sid Caesar (who also recently passed at the spectacular age of 91, God bless him and his immaculate insanity) and Milton Berle (who, honestly, I always saw as something of a hack) revolutionized comedy in the early days of television, those after them point to the likes of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor as the vanguards of comedy (and very rightly so), and still others mention the likes of Steve Martin, Robin Williams and of course Eddie Murphy. Nowadays the “greats” are the late Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks — without a doubt brilliant men — while guys like Chris Rock, (the unfortunately also late) Mitch Hedberg, Louis CK, Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart dominate most people’s lists currently. And no, I’m not forgetting the women who were (and still are) just as prominent, like Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett (my personal all-time fave), Gilda Radner and Tina Fey.

But for me the “Golden Age” of comedy for began in the early 1970’s, with the advent to two major channels: Saturday Night (before and somewhat after it was Live), and the National Lampoon (the magazine and eventual films). Honestly, most of what I found (and continue to find) to be funny came from those avenues. From the first ever sketch with John Belushi and Michael O’Donoghue “feeding their feengertips to the wolvereens” to Murphy’s “Buckwheat Sings”, SNL was a weird and hilarious late-night underground, populated with short-tempered samurai, aliens from “France” and of course, Mr. Bill. The Lampoon had illustrious beginnings, being an offshoot from the Harvard Lampoon which first published in 1876 (whao). Founded by Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman in 1969, the National Lampoon created a strong font of absurdist humor and pointed political and social satire, my fave pieces including “Our White Heritage”, which states that Jesus Christ was “technically” a white person — but was still on the fence about Jews in general; “Beat the Meatles”, an imagined celebrity interview with the Beatles and Yoko Ono, and my all-time favorite, the “1980 United States Census”. No, really.

I’m sure at this point you may be wondering if I’ve forgotten the subject of this entry — let me assure you, Patient Reader, that I’ve only been building up to his significance. Harold Ramis was born in Chicago, Illinois, his early heroes being Groucho and Harpo Marx: “Groucho using his wit as a weapon against the upper classes, and of Harpo’s antic charm and the fact that he was oddly sexy — he grabs women, pulls their skirts off, and gets away with it”. He later famously worked for a mental institution in St. Louis, which “prepared me well for when I went out to Hollywood to work with actors. People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It’s knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that’s connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors. But if I were a businessman, I’d probably be applying those same principles to that line of work.”

He later studied and performed with the Second City comedy troupe, which included Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Joe Flaherty. With future SNL alums Belushi and Murray, Ramis worked on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which was created by the aforementioned Michael O’Donoghue (a mainstay of the Lampoon magazine and the initial seasons of SNL).   Along with Candy and Flaherty he performed and was head writer of SCTV (Second City Television; my fave Ramis portrayals were of Officer Friendly and Leonard Nimoy), a Canadian counterpart to SNL. He was later offered a slot as a writer at SNL, but declined.

Ramis’ first film project was with Lampoon co-founder Kenney and “Beat the Meatles” author Chris Miller, that being the comedic milestone National Lampoon’s Animal House, which starred Belushi as the manic-depressive Bluto and Kenney as “The Stork”. For the unwashed, the film broke box office records after its release in 1978, and basically set the tone for the many (and mostly inferior) comedies that have issued since. Ramis then turned to his friend (and most frequent collaborator) Bill Murray with the classic Meatballs, which cemented Murray as a box office draw and Ramis as an established writer. Next up was his second collaboration with Kenney — and his first directorial stint — Caddyshack (which famously starred Murray and his estranged SNL co-star Chevy Chase). He and Murray would also star in the film Stripes, along with fellow SCTV alum John Candy. Beginning in 1984, Ramis collaborated with Aykroyd on the script for Ghostbusters, which would star them both and Murray (and Ernie Hudson, who deserves his own blog entry here. Don’t get me started on Leviathan). It’s all starting to make sense now, isn’t it?

Ghostbusters and its sequel would catapult Ramis to superstardom, which he would further ascend with his masterpiece, Groundhog Day — a film so wedged in the cultural consciousness that the title has since become a reference to any uncomfortable situation that seems to endlessly repeat itself.  My personal fave of his directorial work is The Ice Harvest, a wonderfully funny film noir starring John “Hoops” Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

Ramis was — without a doubt, and certainly in my mind — one of the founders of modern comedy. He brought a good-natured, yet sharply defined poke in the ribs to American culture. Noone else could ever be so simultaneously smug-yet-sincere, so warm-yet-satirical. In a statement after his passing, Bill Murray said of Ramis: “He earned his keep on this planet.” If only the rest of us could do so well.

Hannibal.

I was one of the first people who, when seeing the first promo for NBC’s new show Hannibal, to say “Oh no, not again.” I mean Hannibal Rising (a.k.a. The Young Hannibal Adventures, as I prefer to call it) was enough, right? Surely to God a TV series is not even required. Well, when I found out that Mads Mikkelsen (of Casino Royale and Valhalla Rising fame) was turning down film roles right and left to work on the show, I became intrigued. And when I found out David Slade (of 30 Days of Night fame) was involved, I became interested. After the first episode, I was thrilled.

For those who don’t know, the show takes place before Silence of the Lambs, and even before Red Dragon (or Michael Mann’s superior Manhunter, based on the same Thomas Harris novel), when Will Graham and Lecter first work together, with the fun being that we, as the audience, know how things will work out. But do we?

Based on the first two episodes I’ve watched, the show weighs heavily on Graham (wonderfully played by Brit Hugh Dancy), as it should — but wavers a bit more towards Lecter than it should. Let’s hope NBC (who has done a wonderful job of bringing such a dark and grisly show to air otherwise) has things well in hand.