All posts by andy armageddon

► SCENE POINT BLANK ► MUsickSTUFFS As seen on TV, literally, as I now produce closed captions for the hearing impaired (or people who don't wanna/can't listen to media), play vintage vidya games, and occasionally watch old movies and listen to quality music.

An Imperfect but Captivating Look at the Final Days of WWII: JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY

JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY


(4/5)

Pros:  Fascinating from a historical perspective; strong acting and directorial style


Cons: Introduces literally hundreds of characters, making it difficult to follow the unfolding storyline

Released to mark the 35th anniversary of the famed Toho Studios, 1967’s Japan’s Longest Day (a.k.a. Nihon no ichiban nagai hi) details the events from late July 1945 until the official Japanese surrender on August 15 of that year. The story begins just before the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, as Japanese bureaucrats argue about whether they should agree to the demands of the Pottsdam Declaration, which laid out conditions for an unconditional surrender. The deployment of “the bomb” has little effect on the tone of these arguments, but while the politicians continue to bicker over wording in the Declaration which suggests Japan would be “subject to” the command of the Allies, Nagasaki is destroyed, prompting Japanese Emperor Hirohito to step in and declare that he wants to end the war as quickly as possible. Many Japanese find unconditional surrender to be an unacceptable, dishonorable way to exit the war – the Declaration establishes Japan as a “subordinate” nation, and most of the country’s military leaders prefer to fight to the last man – a situation which would likely lead to an incredibly costly American and Soviet invasion of the home islands. Disagreeing with the Emperor however is simply not an option, so even the most reluctant of the military leaders finally accepts the Allies’s terms.

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All of the above action, presented in an almost documentary-like manner replete with actual wartime footage and a narrator who explains and provides context to the events, takes place in the first twenty or so minutes of this 167-minute film – the opening titles only show up around the twenty-one minute mark. This might seem strange since it would appear that the main conflict in the story has been resolved with Hirohito’s explanation that he wants his military leadership to agree to surrender. In truth, writer Shinobu Hashimoto’s script (from a story by Soichi Oya) is just getting started, since it’s at this point that Japan’s Longest Day truly gets into its groove, presenting an incredibly detailed, chronological timeline of the events of August 14th and 15th, 1945. As Hirohito records a speech to be broadcast over the radio, telling his nation that he has agreed to surrender, a group of lower-ranking military men and a rogue civilian military battalion choose to march in anger against the Prime Minister and the Emperor himself. It’s the LP recording of the surrender address itself that the rebelling military men are most interested in capturing since they can effectively prolong the war by ensuring that the speech isn’t broadcast.

220px-Hirohito_in_dress_uniformInterestingly, though Emperor Hirohito (pictured here) figures prominently in the film, the audience never sees his face and he exists as an almost mystical figure.


Given the lengthy running time, it might not be surprising that Japan’s Longest Day is very talky – particularly during its first half. There’s precious little of what most viewers would consider action during this opening section, which presents a very dramatic portrait of a proud nation in severe pain as it comes to terms with its first major military defeat. Though the prolonged dialogue scenes only reinforce my belief that the film would have a limited audience, with those interested in Japanese history or World War II perhaps having the most to gain by watching it, these moments are nonetheless fascinating to watch from an American perspective. Until very recently, there’s been almost no effort made to present the “other side” of the World War II story: the war is often (still) viewed as an “US versus them” affair, with the Japanese clearly being the “bad guys.” Japan’s Longest Day obviously shows a much different side of the war, but also is rather eye-opening since it shows happens when an ultra-nationalistic country is put in its place so to speak after an extended, far-reaching conflict. One can only imagine what would happen in the United States should it face a similar situation.

japans-longest-dayThough it’s long and slow-going at first, the film gets plenty tense down the stretch.

Around the halfway point, just as a narrator explains that only half of Japan’s longest day had elapsed, the film makes a sudden turn into more action-oriented territory. Following a moment pulled straight out of ultra-violent samurai cinema, momentum in the film slowly starts to build and dramatic tension gradually increases, reaching a literal fever pitch by the conclusion. Honestly, I was a bit surprised by this abrupt shift in mood: while captivating in its own way, Japan’s Longest Day seemed all-too willing to simply continue on with its dialogue-heavy presentation. The violent action that eventually turns up is made all the more thrilling simply due to the fact that a viewer who stuck with it had probably grown accustomed to the film’s (up to that point) languishing pace.

002be1c1_mediumOutstanding shot composition is one of the best things about the movie.

Director Kihachi Okamoto (who was primarily known before this film for samurai pictures such as Samurai Assassin, , and Kill!) does a masterful job of juggling concurrent events . Often, footage showing the most mundane of tasks (discussions about the exact wording of the surrender address that the Emperor will deliver, for instance ) are juxtaposed against scenes of violent struggle taking place in other locations at the same time. The editing work here is really slick, obviously designed for maximum impact, and I especially appreciated the varied choice of camera angles and perspectives as well as the framing in those shots. Directing cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, Okamoto is able to create numerous striking moments: all the hyper-violent scenes are quite shocking in the way they’re related to the camera, but the way Okamoto is able to express the feelings of his characters without dialogue is equally impressive. The film frequently alternates between tight close-ups showing the pained expressions on the actors’s faces and long shots which establish the ways in which their characters are drifting apart ideologically, and I especially liked a scene in which the grief-stricken Emperor is shown clutching a handkerchief in his hand in the foreground while the bitter Minister of War sits stoically in the background.

hJmUr4Jkb8v8Fq5rsUWpStJ3vYdA statue-like Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese War Minister.


Consistent with American-made war epics like The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge, or Tora! Tora! Tora! to name but a few, Japan’s Longest Day is an all-star film if there ever was one. Virtually every actor I’ve ever seen in a Toho sci-fi flick (of which the Godzilla films are the most well known) shows up here, and it was a treat for me to see what they could do with quality material.  That being said, it’s Toshiro Mifune, never a player in a Toho monster mash, who appears as the obvious main character, playing Minister of War, General Korechika Anami. Mifune says more with just his eyes than many actors could in pages of dialogue, but later in the film, he also handles a moving speech about how the young people in Japan have to carry on after the war, working to improve the nation. His final scene in the picture is absolutely stunning, complimented by one of Okamoto’s best directorial flourishes. In a smaller role, Takashi Shimura is his usual, stately self playing Information Bureau Director Hiroshi Shimomura, but it’s Toshio Kurosawa who arguably turns in the most genuinely memorable performance, playing a major who decides to take matters into his own hands in an effort to prolong the war and achieve a “glorious” final battle. Generally, I found the acting in this film to be very strong and full of an appropriate level of both anguish and fervor.

japan-s-longest-day-1967-re-10Many regulars from Toho’s sci-fi flicks turn up here, and do a surprisingly good job tackling more dramatic and serious material.

Finishing up with a batch of hard-hitting and absolutely astounding stats (some 3,000,000 wartime casualties) and a cautionary statement about how Japan must never experience another 24 hours like the one depicted in the film, Japan’s Longest Day wound up being quite a different film than I would have expected. In all honesty, many American viewers would have no interest in watching this black-and-white, subtitled foreign film in the first place, but the fact that so many characters (identified through use of onscreen text) are thrown at the viewer makes it very difficult to keep track of the ongoing action. At a certain point, I fully expected this to be a sort of endurance test to watch, with strong acting but little action; imagine my surprise then when director Okamoto made sure it went off with a bang during its back half. Confusing though the narrative may be, the observant non-Japanese viewer gets enough of the gist of what’s happening to follow the unfolding events, and in terms of its historical value, I’d have to call this picture important. It definitely provides insight into a time and place that’s not-often (if ever) discussed in America, and I would certainly recommend this challenging but entirely worthwhile film to patient viewers willing to stick with it.

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5/10 : Just when you think this movie’s going to be all talk, it lets loose with some blood-spurting violence.


0/10 : No profanity, lots of hard-hitting dialogue.



0/10 : Nada.

3/10 : Will undoubtedly impress history buffs, but many will be turned off by an incredibly talky first half and a story that’s difficult to get a handle on.

“You’re still thinking in terms of success or failure…will it preserve our nation or destroy it?”

PBS’s Comprehensive and Illuminating Examination of THE BOMB

THE BOMB

on PBS

(5/5)

Pros: Detailed and immensely provocative, with plenty of moments both comical and sobering

Cons: This documentary asks the hard questions and is quite provocative: itt’s not the flag-waving piece some viewers might desire

Timed for broadcast to roughly coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the concluding events of World War II, the two-hour PBS documentary titled simply The Bomb tells the chronological history of nuclear weapons and their effects on world history. Beginning with the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission in pre-WWII Germany, the film’s first half goes on to chronicle the whole of the Manhattan Project that saw the United States develop the first true weapons of mass destruction. During this segment, The Bomb covers nearly identical territory as Discovery Channel’s How We Built the Bomb, yet the PBS show is a tidier production, presenting a more wide-reaching examination of the topic in a fraction of the time. I’d almost say that PBS’s straight-forward documentary is the ideal companion piece to Discovery’s more movie-like program, sinceThe Bomb attaches actual faces to its explanation of the story.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 65th Anniversary

From here, The Bomb continues to discuss what happened after this initial display of power, tackling the subjects of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction that, while absolutely preposterous and more than a bit maniacal, probably kept the human race from destroying itself.   The main body of the program more or less ends with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the cessation of US nuclear testing in 1992, but features an epilogue of sorts that cautions about how these weapons will forever remain a threat – particularly as more and more foreign nations develop their own nuclear programs.

Consistent with typically outstanding PBS shows like Nova and American Experience, The Bomb is a straight-forward production consisting of interviews with former military personnel, scientists, and political figures as well as historians and researchers well-versed in the subjects being discussed. The program makes use of an extensive collection of archival footage, a surprising amount of which is in striking color and much of which was restored specifically for inclusion here. A sort of teaser which pops up before the film begins shows a before and after comparison revealing how effective this restoration was, and the story is held together by a well-written narration.

While there are some carefree moments scattered about – such as a sequence when public fascination with all things atomic during the late ‘40s, including the development of the bikini swimsuit, is investigated – the overall tone of the documentary is more frequently serious if not ominous and menacing. It seems like the producers went out of their way to find the most awe-inspiring and inevitably unsettling images of atomic explosions. There is a frankly unbelievable amount of actual film footage of these events (some from tests that I’d never even heard of), and the program starts to border on being downright scary when covering the era of McCarthyism or showing efforts during the ‘50s on the part of America and the Soviets to construct almost inconceivably powerful thermonuclear devices. Also frightening (though darkly humorous in a way) are segments which focus on the ideas of being prepared for potential nuclear strikes – including the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon.

Considering the controversial subject at the heart of the documentary, it might not be surprising that The Bomb could be declared “thought-provoking” for making a viewer really examine and question the situations being discussed, but I think the program’s strongest aspect is its challenging nature. The Bomb purposely avoids notions of patriotism often attached to discussions about atomic weapons, and instead actually forces the viewer to confront cold hard about the actualities of nuclear war. Footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows unfortunate victims of those blasts and their horrific wounds, and while the historians interviewed during the production acknowledge the scientific accomplishment that the development of the bomb was, they are equally as likely to point out the “most extraordinary insanity” on the part of humanity that the nuclear arms race represented. In hindsight, it becomes very difficult to view the arms race as anything but a pissing contest: after all, what “piece of mind” did having some 31,000 nuclear weapons (as the US did at its peak in 1967) really provide – especially when, as they were attempting to convince the public that a nuclear attack was somehow survivable, the government was also striving to create ever-more powerful weapons?

Ultimately, a viewer is left with a deep understanding of how many if not all world events in the latter half of the twentieth century played out under the shadow of the atomic bomb. While many documentaries have covered topics related to nuclear weapons with varying degrees of success (among the better ones are this year’s aforementioned How We Built the Bomb and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which compiles educational and government-produced short programs into an alternately amusing and deadly serious collage), I’m not sure that any provide a better, more altogether comprehensive examination of the subject than this program does. As such, The Bomb is almost essential viewing that would be perfect for usage in an educational setting. This is the sort of program that makes PBS stand out among the so-called educational channels, and I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.

 

The documentary at the PBS website.

“…now I am become death…the destroyer of worlds:” HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

on Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros:  Accessible, captivating,  and informative, with a wealth of astounding archival footage

Cons:  Actual interviews not included

Made for the Discovery Channel networks and first broadcast in mid 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Trinity Test, How We Built the Bomb takes the form of a dramatized documentary that tells the story of the American atomic program from start to finish. The program (two hours with commercials) begins with the now-famous letter written by Albert Einstein warning American president Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany may in fact be working on a “superbomb” that would be powered not by conventional explosives, but by splitting the atom. As America enters World War II in the coming years, a priority is placed on unlocking the secrets of nuclear fission and developing a uranium or plutonium based explosive device (referred to by scientists as “the gadget”) before the Germans did. This involved a large and incredibly secretive operation across several states, with the main research and development facility located in a remote section of the New Mexican desert.

scanned: May 2001 by Image Delivery Systems LLCSome of the many personnel involved in the Manhattan Project whose viewpoints are told in the documentary through re-imagined interviews.

Lacking a traditional narration, How We Built the Bomb (written by David Broodell) is told from the perspective of the people who worked on the so-called “Manhattan Project,” but instead of using actual archival interviews, the production is based around an extended series of recreated interviews with actors portraying the various scientists, military and support personnel, and others who found themselves involved in some way with this tremendous undertaking. At first, this approach seems awkward and maybe even reprehensible since the ongoing dialogue is fictionalized to an arguably large extent. As the program wore on however, I grew more and more absorbed in the unfolding story being told and found the format of the documentary to be less detrimental than I would have originally thought.

A billboard at the Oak Ridge FacilityDespite the government’s best efforts, security among project personnel was compromised on several occasions.

Along with these dramatized interviews, the program also presents a rather large amount of home movies and film footage taken by residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico (for all intents and purposes, the center of the R&D division of the Manhattan Project) during this era. When combined with the speakers, this footage goes a long way in not only telling a detailed history of the nuclear program, but also explaining what life was like for the scientists, spouses, military personnel and support staff who found themselves working on an underground project in a top secret location. Much of the program (rightfully) focuses on efforts to come to grips with the physics behind fission and put such theories into practice, but How We Built the Bomb also includes some rather humorous observations about the ways in which project personnel unwound after long hours in the lab. I found myself chuckling at explanations of what went into the highly alcoholic “tech area punch” that scientists consumed during their off hours and was similarly amused by one military man’s frustration at the fact that some eighty babies were born at the facility in 1944, indicating another method of stress relief practiced by the town’s residents.

nextgov-mediumSite of the Trinity Test, viewed after the first detonation in July, 1945.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary starts to ratchet up the tension level down the stretch when scientific theory doesn’t quite match up with actual experimental results and it becomes apparent that a new method of detonation must be sought. By this point in 1944, though the war in Europe is nearing its conclusion, a long, drawn-out and very costly invasion of Japan is imminent unless the bomb can be used to precipitate a quick end to the conflict. Accompanied by almost psychedelic music cues, the segment dealing with the initial Trinity Test, the world’s first detonation of an atomic weapon, is very deliberate in its construction which maximizes the impact of the event on a viewer. I should also state that while the program does chronicle the period up to and including the unconditional surrender of the Japanese following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these events are only briefly touched on; the documentary is clearly more focused on the actual development of the atom bomb, not its deployment.

One of the strongest aspects of the documentary is the way in which it breaks down complicated physics in a way that can be understood by viewers who in all likelihood don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the processes involved. Even if the interview subjects do on occasion go into lengthy and extremely complicated explanations of the mathematics involved in solving the problems of nuclear fission, they subsequently reveal what they were trying to accomplish in “layman’s terms.” An offscreen “interviewer” character (who a viewer is never truly introduced to) acts as the voice of the viewer at times, prompting the speakers to answer questions in a more straight-forward manner. Visuals and graphics that accompany these segments also aid in a viewer’s understanding of the concepts being discussed: I got a kick out of the now almost humorous vintage educational film footage utilized during certain segments, and nifty special effects attempt to visualize what actually happens when fission starts to take place in a nuclear device.

atomic_bomb_end_of_worldIt’s kind of scary that none of the scientists working on the project quite knew what would happen when an atomic detonation occurred – some feared that the blast would actually ignite the atmosphere.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the nuclear program was the fact that the scientists involved in making the atom bomb faced serious moral dilemmas. Truly, at the time it was only these scientists who fully comprehended what effect these weapons would have should they be used against enemy forces – or civilians – and many were vehemently opposed to the military deployment of “the gadget.” How We Built the Bomb deals with this issue about as well as one would expect or hope for in a program of this nature, prompting the viewer to question whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were genuinely necessary. It’s worth noting that it was Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency of the United States after the death of FDR and only found out about the Manhattan Project after he had been sworn in, that actually authorized these attacks. One has to wonder if he was aware of what the consequences of this action would be, and in a modern society that’s gotten all-too-used to the idea of nuclear threat, it’s worth remembering that the United States is still the only nation that has ever used an atomic device against other human beings.

3241909-einstein-after-an-atom-bomb-test

When viewing this program, one is left with a sense of awe – not only with the power of the atomic bomb itself, a power which is hammered home time and again throughout the film, but with the fact that such a seemingly impossible scientific undertaking as to make such a device was accomplished in a short time under rather adverse conditions. No matter what one’s feelings are about nuclear weapons, it’s pretty amazing that scientists were able not only to understand how the fission process worked but also how it can be harnessed and (at least partially) controlled. Edited in a very capable manner with a quietly effective music score provided by Brendan Anderegg, How We Built the Bomb ultimately celebrates the tremendous scientific achievement that the bomb was the end result of. Although to an extent it makes the scientists involved out to be heroic figures, to its credit the program doesn’t necessarily present the bombing of Japan as a moment of triumph or jubilation, ending instead on a somber and even ominous note, with various blurbs from political speeches and news broadcasts reminding the viewer how fundamentally the world was changed with the advent of the bomb. I think that’s about as appropriate an end statement that could be made, and would whole-heartedly recommend this documentary to any interested viewer.

 

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“The Question is, What’s Going On…” MISSING IN ALASKA

MISSING IN ALASKA

on History Channel

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(2/5)

Pros: Interesting basis for the episodes…

Cons: …but the conclusions drawn seem like a stretch

“This dramatized program is inspired by eyewitness reports and legends and may contain certain sensationalized and/or controversial content. The personal opinions and theories expressed are not endorsed by the network.

Viewer discretion is advised.

There are currently 738,000 people living in Alaska. In the past 20 years…more than 60,000 have been reported missing. Some believe a number of these cases…stem from mysterious phenomena.”

alaskan-bermuda-triangle-1a

So reads the intro of History Channel’s latest supposed documentary Missing in Alaska, which premiered in July 2015 and follows the exploits of a three man team – former police officer and apparent skeptic Jeremy “Jax” Atwell, folklorist Tommy Joseph, and “specialist in strange phenomena” Ken Gerhard, who’s been featured in many vaguely similar programs and doesn’t go anywhere without his trusty curved cowboy hat – whose goal it is to explain some of those many disappearances. Appropriately enough, this show airs just after the now-almost-parodical Ancient Aliens and on the one hand, I’ve got to give the producers credit for at least acknowledging that what’s covered in their “dramatized” show might be “sensationalized and/or controversial” – right there, they’ve already been more honest with their viewers than any number of the typical “monster hunt” programs, of which Destination America’s Alaska Monsters may be the most flat-out absurd. Of course the disclaimer does leave the door open for everything discussed in Missing in Alaska to be utter hogwash, so the question then becomes why anyone would want to watch such malarkey…

BRAND_H2_MSGA_162202_TVE_000_2398_60_20150722_000_HD_still_624x352The MiA team on the hunt…

Initially, Missing in Alaska seems fairly straight-faced. Each episode tackles one possible cause that would explain people vanishing in the so-called “Alaska Triangle.” The program’s first episode deals with the sudden disappearance of a C-54 military transport carrying some 44 persons in January 1950. Numerous planes go missing in Alaska but the majority of these cases can probably be blamed on unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns. The particular incident covered in the show is noteworthy not only for the amount of people who were lost, but also because a massive military search operation didn’t yield a single clue as to what actually happened. Gerhard, being of sound mind, believes that the so-called “vile vortices” may be to blame, thus making a connection to the blatantly phony Devil’s Graveyards mockumentary. Episode two likewise travels through familiar territory, covering the team’s search for the so-called “Hairy Man,” a Sasquatch-like creature prowling the Alaskan wilderness that is rumored to be both larger and more aggressive than the typical “Bigfoot.”

Missing_In_Alaska_Tommy_Joseph_Bio-E“Expert on Alaskan legends” Tommy Joseph posing with supposed Hairy Man nest.  Yeah, I’m not buying it either.

After a narration provides some backstory for each episode (and to be fair, there’s legitimate historical basis for at least some of the subjects tackled here), the MiA team sets out on a quest not only to find experts and witnesses who may shine some light on the case they’re investigating, but also to have some first-hand experiences for themselves. Invariably (and in some cases most inexplicably), the team’s research leads them to conduct some sort of nighttime investigation, which may be about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard – is it really a good idea to go lurking around after dark in remote areas where five out of every thousand people disappears, knowing full well that bears may be lurking just out of camera range? Even if I can accept that the investigation of the “Hairy Man” might turn up something in the nocturnal hours, what could possibly be learned by prowling around at night in search of vile vortices? Regardless, these segments do wind up providing the almost mandatory infrared and night vision sequences along with a multitude of declarations like “did you hear that?” or “there’s definitely something out there!”

29EA0EB600000578-0-image-a-11_1435136401617Landscape photograph in the show is, as might be expected, outstanding.

Like many other modern “speculative documentaries,” Missing in Alaska does a reasonable job of appearing to represent authentic events and situations. Similar to a program like America Unearthed, Missing in Alaska incorporates some subtle reality TV moments: to an extent, the show is more about what happens during the team’s investigation rather than the underlying topic being examined. The documentary-like approach is also pretty solid, boasting some stunning photography of the breathtaking Alaskan landscape, but the illusion of verisimilitude collapses or is at least severely strained at times. Episode one features a moment where the team utilizes an aerial drone to try and get a wide-range view of a snow-covered valley. The drone is quickly lost during a sudden change in weather, but “miraculously” appears – with its tracking beacon and scientific gear still functioning – later on during the episode’s climax. Much as I like to keep an open mind, I don’t at all believe the nudge-nudge-wink-wink assertions that this drone actually went through one of the vortices the team was searching for and then apparently jumped ahead in time and space – that notion just pushes my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. Similarly, episode two’s conclusion of a shadowy figure knocking a trail cam around seems highly suspect – it’s simply too convenient and frankly unbelievable that this team would randomly stumble upon an unknown hominid during the course of a few day film shoot.

ken_gerhard.1322040_stdKen Gerhard – specialist in strange phenomena.  And owl wrangler.

Given the sketchiness of the show, I was somewhat shocked that Gerhard, a somewhat respected (?) figure in the world of cryptozoology and the paranormal, would appear in something like this. Maybe the guy’s looking for acting gigs nowadays, for that surely is more what Missing in Alaska seems: I would hope that most viewers would take any of the “factual” information here – at least that which the research team stumbles across – with a grain of salt. There are strange things occurring in the Alaskan wilderness and the number of missing persons in the state is undeniably alarming, making the real life aspects and historical incidents depicted in Missing in Alaska quite fascinating. To instantly jump to the “mysteries and monsters” conclusion with regard to explaining these disappearances however seems not only illogical but irresponsible. As a “documentary” then, though Missing in Alaska is not quite as utterly reprehensible as what I’ve come to expect from the genre of ghost/monster/unknown-related programming, it’s still highly questionable. As entertainment however, it does exactly what it’s supposed to, raising numerous questions and getting a viewer thinking about the infinite possibilities that are/may be out there. This isn’t must-see TV by any stretch, but those who enjoy shows dealing with the paranormal will probably get a kick out of it.

 

Incomprehensible, Incompetent, Intolerable: THE CULLING

THE CULLING

(1/5)

Pros: Umm…sound design is pretty cool

Cons: Most everything about this film is abhorrent, and the characters?  “They’re idiots!”

Dealing with a group of absolutely moronic, astonishingly unlikable characters who stumble upon evil spirits at a remote homestead, writer/director Rustam Branaman’s The Culling began shooting in 2011, sitting on the shelf for nearly four years before it finally saw the light of day and was released in 2015.  Having now seen the film, I’m frankly amazed that it was released at all – The Culling stands as one of the most genuinely awful movies I’ve seen in quite some time, one that disregards common conventions of cinema and doesn’t even bother to attempt a coherent story. Events in the script are rendered inconsequential by Branaman’s misguided, pointless direction and the piece boasts some of the most crushingly ludicrous dialogue I’ve ever sat through in a straight-faced feature. In short, this is precisely the sort of flick that gives modern horror a bad rap.

The-Culling-Amanda-Linsey-Godfrey-Haunted-HomeAnd what’s behind door number three?   More ill logic and sprit-destroying dialogue!

The Culling follows a group of five young adults on their way to the South by South West Festival (perhaps this is some sort of gag – many film makers dream of taking their films to this event, but sadly – or is it fortunately? – there’s no way in the world that Branaman’s would be selected). After stopping at a cafe out in the sticks, this gang of buffoons discover a young girl named Lucy crying in the parking lot and offer to take her back to her home – which winds up being an expansive mansion in the middle of nowhere. As might be expected, this turns out to be a bad move: not only is this girl some sort of demon, but her parents are homicidal occultists who’ve apparently made some sort of deal with the devil that requires them not only to kill anyone who ventures onto their property, but also construct (??) some sort of army of monster children. Oh, and there’s also the occasional shadow person /smoky apparition / unknown growling, snarling beast prowling the property.

culling7Oh this guy?  Forget about him – he’ll be gone and forgotten in three seconds.

Hopefully that synopsis provides some idea of how much of a haphazard mess this flick is, but any description I could write doesn’t do justice to the abysmal Culling. The lack of coherency, frequent references to marijuana and sex, and gratuitous pop culture references might lead one to think this was written by (at best) a college student, but sadly that’s not the case – a middle-aged man, failing miserably in his attempt to sound “hip” and appeal to young audiences, is to blame. In the mood for some verbal diarrhea? You’re in luck, since the mind-numbing chatter between characters in Branaman’s script is appalling, with many conversations playing out as repeating loops. People have similar back-and-forth exchanges one right after another (can anyone in the film even comprehend or make sense of the English language?), and the film concludes most every one of its instances of bickering between various characters with stubborn declarations of “Fine!” or “That’s Enough!”

The-Culling-Brett-Davern-StillThis group of characters makes the typical Friday the 13th film appear to be populated by rocket scientists.

Furthermore, there’s virtually no explanation provided for any of the events in the film: things simply happen and a viewer is left to try and figure out what the hell is going on. A rambling and thoroughly incomprehensible monologue near the end does about nothing to shed light on what is a confusing and downright sloppy plot. I almost could live with the lack of sense being made in the film – after all, horror flicks aren’t known for their sound logic – but the amount of loose ends left at the end of The Culling is staggering. Ideas are thrown in as if they’ll figure heavily into the ongoing events, then are completely forgotten within seconds. To make matters worse, as the “story” is going full bore towards what one would hope to be a smashing finale, Branaman suddenly yanks the emergency brake and the end credit scroll begins out of nowhere. This hasty ending might as well scream “yeah…we just ran out of money,” making what was already a problematic film all the more frustrating and disappointing. One might hope that Branaman would never work again for how positively incompetent his handling of The Culling is – it boggles the mind to consider the monumental waste of time, energy, effort, and money this film represents.

maxresdefaultNumero uno y numero dos on my list of characters I desperately wanted to die…painfully…as soon as possible.

Bad as the script is, it’s in some ways the characters that push The Culling over the top. I’ve seen many a lousy horror flick in which I hoped the characters would be killed quickly so that I wouldn’t be annoyed by them any longer, but Branaman’s film may have established a new record for how quickly I desperately wanted everyone onscreen to die. This film presents a “who’s who” of cliched horror film personalities in the group of prospective victims: Tyler and Emily, the couple who are attempting to patch things up after a rough patch in their relationship; perennial douchebag Sean, who spends the majority of the film smoking weed or drinking Bud Light; wisenheimer Hank, who actually might have been amusing if he’d been placed alongside other, more obviously likable characters; and Amanda, the girl who just got out of drug rehab. Essentially, none of these people are remotely likable and beyond that, they’re moronic to the point that the killers in this film could probably be considered to be doing a public service by removing them from the breeding pool.

Elizabeth-Di-Prinzio-The-CullingElizabeth Di Prinzio spends the final few minutes of the film running around in just her bra.  Hey, at least it’s something…

Even if none of the actors playing these roles do an especially good job – and many are genuinely horrible in their performances – it’s hard for me to really hold them accountable considering the obnoxious and reprehensible material they were given to work with. The best thing I could say about Elizabeth Di Prinzio (playing Emily who winds up as the semi-heroine of the piece), Jeremy Sumpter (as her would-be boyfriend whose main job after a certain point is to threaten everyone and anyone with a rifle), and Brett Davern (as Hank) is that they weren’t quite as overwhelmingly abrasive as either Chris Coy (as the unbelievably irritating Sean) or Linsey Godfrey (too hysterical as Amanda). Johnathon Schaech as Lucy’s murderous father Wayne easily fares the best in the film, at least partially because he actually has some acting ability but also because he tackles the role of the villain with enthusiasm, and Harley Graham as Lucy ranges from being cute and innocent to fairly creepy.

the-culling-horror-movie-news-4One can only imagine the haunted house tale that could be spun using this location, but the structure is woefully underutilized.

From a technical standpoint, I can say that the outdoor, nighttime photography is accomplished fairly well, with especially good lighting adding a much-needed element of eeriness to the picture. I also rather liked the sound design which was often overrun with ominous groans, rumbles, and growls. Even with the near-constant unsettling audio however, The Culling takes forever to get going, and even then suffers from a serious lack of genuine suspense or scariness – possibly because a viewer has so little regard for them, it’s actually a relief when the “protagonist” characters meet their dooms, which virtually eliminates any semblance of tension from the film. The misguided sense of spatial dynamics doesn’t help matters either: there are numerous instances where it’s nearly impossible to discern what is being seen and why one should even care. Surprisingly, director Branaman doesn’t even rely on the usual overload of gore to sustain audience interest: there really is nothing here to keep one involved in the proceedings and it’s therefore no surprise that the production seems utterly ineffectual in the end. I honestly have no clue why anyone would want to sit through this disaster of a movie: this isn’t so bad it’s good, it’s so entirely awful as to come across as a pathetic excuse for “entertainment.” I’d advise potential viewers to find any excuse not to suffer through this flick: it really is best forgotten.

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5/10: Some violent scenes and isolated instances of gore, but the film is a massive letdown in terms of its overall scariness and intensity.
5/10: A few curse words; this film contains quite a bit of casual drug and alcohol use.
2/10: Some sexual innuendo and references, but sadly, no nudity.
3/10: A pretty poor excuse for a feature film, but one that doesn’t even come across as an enjoyably bad movie.
“There’s just no limit to what these reality shows are gonna exploit. I mean, people shouldn’t mess with the occult…”

ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN Get the Found Footage Treatment: DEVIL’S DUE

DEVIL’S DUE

(2/5)

Pros: Sense of ambiguity and mystery; first half of the film isn’t bad

Cons: Ending is a disappointment; too many cheap thrills, not enough genuine tension

With the ghost story formula of Poltergeist and numerous other films tackled using first-person perspective in 2007’s Paranormal Activity and even The Exorcist getting the discovered footage/mockumentary treatment in 2015’s The Atticus Institute, why wouldn’t horror film fans expect a found footage variation of Rosemary’s Baby and/or The Omen to pop up at some point? Abandoning any attempt to justify that formatting, 2014’s Devil’s Due presents the story of newlywed couple Zach and Samantha McCall who, after a honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, start to suspect that something is very fishy about their subsequent unplanned pregnancy. With shadowy figures and pseudoreligious symbolism appearing all around them, it would appear that Samantha is about to give birth to the antichrist, but husband Zach doesn’t seem willing to write off his unborn child just yet.

Devil’s-Due-(2014)-HollywoodInsert John Williams’s Jaws Theme here…

Told by way of any number of handheld and closed-circuit security cameras which seem to capture any and every aspect of the McCall’s everyday life, there’s not so much as a hint of authenticity to this film. I suppose in a way it’s advantageous that filmmakers have decided that the found footage gimmick can be used just because (some) audiences enjoy it: there doesn’t really have to be any effort made to make these films seem believable anymore since no one would in the first place. As such, Devil’s Due writer Lindsay Devlin and co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett can concentrate on telling their story in the best way possible, without any concern for upholding the illusion of the film portraying real events. Unfortunately, the film they’ve delivered becomes ever more goofy as it goes along – in the lousy way these “scary” moments are crafted onscreen, I half expected comic-book style balloon descriptors to intrude, accentuating the film’s action (BOOM! BANG! POW!) but more importantly pointing out exactly how the writer and directors wanted the audience to react (GASP! SHIVER!).

devils-due-mainNot quite normal behavior from a pregnant woman…

In dealing with a story like this, it’s almost inevitable that the fear of pregnancy itself is the most frightening notion being dealt with. Devlin’s script might not be the most logical thing in the world, but it does a satisfactory job of capturing the anxiety of the prospective parents. Cast members Allison Miller and Zach Gilford handle this material fairly capably, and there are some genuinely uncomfortable moments in a first half or so that’s much more reliant on subtle, eerie elements and a palpable sense of dread rather than obvious cheap thrills. I could even buy into the obligatory dark ritual which resulted in Sam being impregnated: related to the camera in a protracted, very mysterious manner, I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing, but it was appropriately spooky and bizarre – even more so when placed alongside joyous images taken during the couple’s honeymoon.

The film has some downright uncomfortable moments early on relating to the fear of pregnancy.

Down the stretch though, Devlin throws any notion of subtlety out the window and revels in the same sort of basic ingredients found in virtually every supernatural-related horror flick – people and objects being tossed around by unknown forces, a group of zombie-like fiends seemingly pulled straight out of John Carpenter’s under-appreciated Prince of Darkness, a priest making desperate exclamations about the end times. It was at this point that Devil’s Due started to lose me…and eventually made the transition into being more funny than scary. It’s been quite a while since I chuckled at a straight horror movie as much as I did at the final third of Devil’s Due. At a certain point, Devlin goes completely overboard in an attempt to give what had been a slow-burner of a creepy movie a wopbop-a-loobop-a-lopbamboom conclusion. Making up for lost time in an appeal to the ADHD generation, this loud finale went against everything that had occurred earlier and wound up turning this fairly typical but nonetheless watchable flick into a mostly ludicrous hunk of cheese.

devils-due-zack-wallNicely executed?  Sure, but slick visuals can’t make up for a script that runs out of ideas.

As was the case in The Atticus Institute, Devil’s Due suffers from a lack of legitimate tension – the film actually lets the viewer off the hook precisely when one would expect the suspense level to be nearly unbearable. Honestly, the only moment in which I was truly unnerved was during a child’s “hide and go seek” game – this scene had been featured in the advertisements for the film and I was a bit apprehensive awaiting the inevitable jump scare that I was sure would occur very shortly. Imagine my massive disappointment when even this scene didn’t offer up that much of a jolt in the end – the suspense was mostly in my mind. Perhaps that notion suggests the most damning thing about this film: it shows too much to viewer. Movies like The Blair Witch Project, the original Paranormal Activity, and even Jaws for that matter worked as well as they did because they more often than not forced a viewer to imagine the monstrous entity at their center: as has been proven time and again, the human mind is capable of visualizing much more disturbing and unsettling imagery and ideas than what any crack team of special effects artists can create. By simply allowing its more fantastic scenes to play out on screen, Devil’s Due actually becomes less effective as a horror film even though the effects themselves aren’t bad.

maxresdefaultEnjoy it – the only really creeped-out moment in the film.

Eventually, all the smoke and mirrors in the world can’t save Devil’s Due from seeming like anything other than a run-of-the-mill found footage flick that picks up ideas from various classics of the horror genre and mashes them together into tiresome hodgepodge. The film is capably made, and has some clever (if rather familiar) moments, especially early on. I also rather liked the sense of ambiguity that seeps into the film during certain stretches, although many viewers take a more negative view of events not being explained thoroughly. By the time the story heads into the home stretch however, the fresh ideas have clearly been exhausted and a viewer is left to trudge through a gory but mostly ineffectual and unsatisfying final act. To be honest, Devil’s Due isn’t as truly abysmal as I thought it would be, but it’s hardly something that I’d urge people (even those who enjoy b-grade or found footage horror) to see – if you do enjoy this sort of movie and have an hour and a half to kill, knock yourself out…but don’t expect greatness.

Rest assured – this publicity stunt is much more clever than anything in the film:

 


6/10: Though relatively bloodless early on, it unleashes a torrent of gore by its conclusion.

7/10: Fairly regular use of profanity, including numerous f-bombs.

1/10: Extremely brief nudity shot from a distance and some mild sexual references.

6/10: A rather ambiguous found footage Omen that has its moments but is ultimately disappointing.

“Children, it is the last hour / and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming / so now many antichrists will come / Therefore we know that it is the last hour…”

Well-Made but Unexceptional Document of the LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

(3.5/5)

Pros: Comprehensive and factual, with a nice selection of archival film footage

Cons: Quite dry – it plays like a television documentary, not a feature film

Telling the story of the events of April 1975, which saw thousands of American military personnel – and many more thousands of South Vietnamese citizens – trying to scramble out of the country as the communist military closed in on Saigon, the 2014 documentary Last Days in Vietnam is a competent but somewhat uninspired production. Appropriately enough, the film was picked up for distribution by PBS’s American Experience Films, but I found that this program existed in the same realm as 2005’s March of the Penguins. Like that film, Last Days is comprehensive with regard to its subject and perfectly fine to watch, painting a detailed portrait of a rather unfortunate period in American and world history. That said, it’s virtually the same sort of thing that plays on PBS on any given evening, neither better nor worse than the typical television documentary. I guess I just wasn’t impressed enough by Last Days to feel that either an Oscar Nomination or an elevated level of attention was really warranted: it just really didn’t strike me as being all that special.

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM - 2014 FILM STILL - A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees on an Air America helicopter the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half--milefrom the U.S. Embassy. April 29, 1975 - Photo Credit: Bettmann/Corbis/ Drafthouse Cinema

The program begins with a crash course examination of the latter stages of American involvement in Vietnam. By 1973, with public opinion firmly against any further action in Southeast Asia, American president Richard Nixon announced that a cease-fire agreement had been signed in Paris, allowing for the vast US military force in the region to start exiting the combat theater. A year later, Nixon left office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and in late 1974, the North Vietnamese leadership tested the ever-waning resolve of the United States by initiating a full-scale invasion of the South. As they likely anticipated, American leadership (namely, new president Gerald Ford) mostly sat by as communist forces tore through the country, virtually obliterating the under-equipped and increasingly desperate South Vietnamese army. By April 1975, all seemed lost in Vietnam, and despite American ambassador Graham Martin’s reluctance to accept the hopelessness of the situation, evacuation plans were being put in place and carried out – with or without official clearance.

Last_Days_in_Vietnam_2Directed by Rory Kennedy(daughter of the late Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy), Last Days in Vietnam is told mostly from the mouths of various people who were in the midst of this evacuation process. First priority was to get any and every American out of the country, but there also was a heroic attempt made to rescue as many South Vietnamese citizens as possible. Many of these Vietnamese had worked with the Americans during previous combat operations and were likely to be executed or imprisoned if they were captured by the communists. Several concurrent stories are told during the documentary: some of the interview subjects reveal the situation in and around the American embassy in Saigon (which became an absolute mob of people trying to flee the country), while other interviewees explain an operation to take several boatloads of personnel from an outpost in Can Tho downriver to the South China Sea or discuss what was happening on board the vessels offshore which had to accept an absolute deluge of refugees. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reveals what was going on in the mind of the President and his staff. The cuts to black which mark the transition between these various stories are somewhat awkward, but listening to the first-hand recollections of the events makes the picture more poignant – especially when it comes time for the last helicopter to leave the embassy despite the fact that some 400-plus individuals were still awaiting rescue.

148873_origAccompanying the interviews is a truly remarkable collection of archival footage which captures most every major event mentioned. Many of the images associated with the fall of Saigon have become iconic: helicopters picking up passengers lined up on rooftops, choppers being pushed into the sea to make way for more refugees on the nearby ships, crowds of people scrambling to vault the fence or storm the gates of the American embassy. Indeed, it’s the stories relating to these images that get the most screen time during the film, but I was more impressed by the material which documented the other, less widely-known events taking place during the evacuation (especially noteworthy are audio tapes made during 1975 by a sailor stationed just off the Vietnamese coast). Edited together exceptionally well, the program makes use of appropriately somber and often quite dramatic music by Gary Lionell as well as computer graphics which identify and establish the various locations discussed. These rudimentary animated sequences aren’t flashy, but they nevertheless do a fine job of allowing the viewer to get a sense of what the ongoing operations involved in terms of logistics and strategy.

maxresdefaultHonestly, there’s nothing especially wrong with Last Days in Vietnam, but it may not be the production that some viewers might be expecting. Though its title seems to suggest a more far-reaching examination of the end of the Vietnam War, Last Days actually focuses almost singularly on the evacuation process. There’s very limited commentary about the Vietnam War as a whole; I actually found that Kennedy’s documentary almost assumes the viewer has some working knowledge about the conflict going in, and a viewer is unlikely to gain much far-reaching understanding about this conflict based solely on this particular film. Maybe I’m just too used to documentary filmmakers getting on their soapbox anymore, but I was a bit surprised that Kennedy didn’t take the chance to point out the extremely obvious parallels between the war in Vietnam and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. This sort of commentary may have stretched the boundaries of what a PBS documentary was expected to do, but I think some provocative content would have been beneficial in a film that walked the straight and narrow almost to a fault.

p02wr6d3In some ways, it’s to the film’s credit that Last Days in Vietnam does stay so focused on the task at hand and keep its eye on the prize.  Still, this documentary seemed a bit dry to me – certainly, it covers its subject quite well, but the film’s payoff seemed rather meager since there wasn’t a big message or obvious point that revealed itself in its final moments. Additionally, the lack of much directorial flair or pizazz made this play like a typical made-for-TV piece and it didn’t at all strike me as something entirely worthy of a theatrical release. If anything, I might say that Kennedy’s film is noticeably plain and entirely ordinary, a film that’s watchable because of the compelling stories being told by its interview subjects, not because it’s a masterpiece of cinema. Without doubt, Last Days in Vietnam is a well-made, informative, and interesting documentary, but it won’t hold much appeal to those not already interested in the subject. Though it’s worthwhile, I’d give it only a moderate recommendation.

la-et-turan-last-days-in-vietnam-20140918

3/10 : Isolated glimpses of combat violence and related fatalities, though not overly graphic

2/10: A couple instances of minor profanity.

0/10: Nada

2/10: A straight-forward, PBS-style documentary.

“The end of April of 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm.  Promises made in good faith; promises broken.  People being hurt because we didn’t get our act together.  The whole Vietnam War is a story that kinda sounds like that…”

More Brains! MALFORMED: FORGOTTEN BRAINS OF THE TEXAS STATE MENTAL HOSPITAL

MALFORMED: FORGOTTEN BRAINS OF THE TEXAS STATE  MENTAL HOSPITAL

by Adam Vorhees and Alex Hannaford

(4.5/5)

Pros: Full of amazing photography and compelling supplemental material

Cons: Some will find this book to be grotesque and downright gross

Published in late 2014, Malformed: The Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Hospital combines eye-opening photographs with text to tell the story of a collection of around one hundred human brains taken from former patients at the Texas Lunatic Asylum (later known as the Texas State Hospital). Housed in large glass jars full of formalin (a mixture of formaldehyde and methyl alcohol) and assembled during a period from the early 1950s to mid ’70s, these brains exhibit a wide variety of abnormalities – presumably, they were preserved in order to hopefully shed new light on the various conditions suffered by the patients. In 1986, when it became apparent that Hospital could no longer care for the specimens, a “battle of the brains” ensued in which various institutions made a case for why they should acquire them. Eventually, the brains were transferred to the University of Texas at Austin’s Animal Resources Center where they’ve been used as teaching aids and research material.

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One of the most astounding (and potentially disturbing) aspects of this book is the selection of crisp photographs included. Taken by Austin-based still-life photographer Adam Voorhees, these pictures are eerily beautiful, documenting many individual specimens of the collection, and the (sometimes, rather negligible) condition that they are in. Typically, the photos show an entire brain set against an almost disturbingly nondescript background, but various abstracts showing close-ups of either the brains themselves or the jars they are housed in are also included. A number of the collection’s specimens have been dissected in some manner and a handful of “teaching specimens” are also glimpsed in the pages of the book – these allow for more careful observation of the structure of the human brain, and many are dyed so that their different parts stand out. Among the more downright gross parts of the collection are jars in which various organs are included along with the brain, and a few in which portions of the scalp and cranial cavity have been preserved in their entirety.

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Though indisputably macabre, the images here are also quite fascinating. It’s possible for a reader of this book to make note of how some brains are different from others: these subtle inconsistencies usually meant severe debilitation for the various patients from whom the specimens came. The majority of the brains in the collection are labeled with Latin descriptions of the afflictions suffered by the patients, and an observant reader will start to note certain characteristics relating to these conditions – for instance, dark coloration in the lobes reflects that the patient may have suffered a hemorrhage of some type. A few specimens are wildly asymmetrical, and one was almost smooth, suffering from a condition where the folds failed to develop. Perhaps one of the most interesting and somewhat tragic things about these specimens is that their descriptions sometimes reveal that the patients suffered from conditions that are much better understood and in some cases, actually treatable today. A remarkable number of these brains are identified as having come from persons with Down syndrome, and there’s no doubt this condition is handled much differently now than it was in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

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Along with the photographs, Malformed includes several chapters of text by writer Alex Hannaford discussing the history of not only the collection, but also the Texas State Lunatic Asylum. This facility was constructed in the mid-1800s, accepting its first patient in 1864. Built on an idyllic stretch of land a few miles from (what was then) downtown Austin, the asylum was virtually self-sustaining, with crops, animals, and by the turn of the century, even its own power source on site. Hannaford relates various anecdotes about the hospital, drawing articles from the local newspaper to give credence to some of the stories, and I found this section of the text to be the most interesting since it inevitably chronicled the way in which societal views about mental illness and how it should be treated have changed over the decades. Later in the text, Hannaford examines the notion that nearly half of the collection – including the brain of UT sniper Charles Whitman – has disappeared. This is extremely unfortunate and largely mysterious, but even more troubling is the fact that the medical records of the patients whose brains are in the collection have also been lost. This makes in-depth study of the specimens difficult, but advancing technology would make up for this to some extent. The text concludes with a chapter that theorizes about how the brains will be used in the future, and the amount of knowledge that can be gained from them is virtually unlimited.

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Roughly 180 pages in length, the book is very sharp-looking though the font size here is quite small. Regardless, I found Malformed to be easy to read since it never becomes overrun with scientific and medical jargon, and I think there’s a nice balance between the amount of text and number of images. One would think it would be easy to write an almost ghoulish, sensational text to go along with these photographs, but Hannaford’s writing is quite tasteful, emphasizing the more intriguing aspects of the collection and spurring the reader’s imagination. Clearly, the subject matter would limit this book’s appeal to mainstream readers, but there’s definitely a crowd out there who would find it fascinating – I was filled with a sense of wonder while reading and looking through it. In any case, Malformed: The Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Hospital has to be among the more unusual and esoteric coffee table books one would ever come across: it wouldn’t be to everyone’s liking, but I’d highly recommend it.

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Fascinating True Story of the Man Behind the LSD No-Hitter: NO NO – A DOCKUMENTARY

NO-NO: A DOCKUMENTARY

(4/5)

Pros: Outstanding selection of archival footage; everyone likes a story of redemption right?

Cons: Doesn’t stray much from the typical trajectory of these sorts of stories

On Friday, June 12, 1970, professional baseball player Dock Ellis pitched a(n admittedly ugly) no-hitter in a game between his Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. This is an accomplishment in its own right, but it’s made even more astonishing by the fact that Ellis was under the influence of LSD while playing. Unable to clearly see the opposing batters, Ellis had to rely on reflective tape around the catcher’s fingers to determine the signals being called. At one point during the game, he even recalled hallucinating Richard Nixon working the plate as umpire and imagined rocker Jimi Hendrix swinging his guitar instead of a Padres player ready to bat. Needless to say, while there’s been some dispute about the veracity of the account, the game has gone down in pro sports history, serving as the starting point for 2014’s No No: A Dockumentary, which chronicles the colorful life of the Ellis himself.

Starting off with a trippy intro that relates this most famous story about Ellis, No No continues on by following the man’s career from his early days playing ball around his California neighborhood through various minor league assignments. In the 1960s, the world of professional baseball was quite a different place then it is today – particularly for black players assigned to teams based in the American south. Though he was, for the first time, faced with discrimination, Ellis didn’t stop standing up for his beliefs, and by the time he broke into the majors in 1968 playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was an outspoken proponent of African-American rights (eventually being dubbed the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” due to his attention-grabbing antics). This caused some problems throughout his playing career, since Ellis frequently got into disputes with team management who didn’t particularly appreciate his challenges to their authority. Still, Ellis won the World Series with the Pirates in 1971, and his solid numbers ensured that he was able to find a home in pro ball, spending time with both New York teams, Oakland and Texas before retiring after the 1979 season.

dockellisposter-e1409184510151-228x300Ellis during his playing career, with trademark hair curlers.

On thing a viewer clearly takes away from this Dockumentary is that Ellis was a bit of a hothead and troublemaker, though for the most part, he seemed to not only know what he was doing, but why he was doing it. One of the key moments in the film occurs when Ellis himself, recorded in the mid-2000s, reads a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson. This letter essentially thanked Ellis for continuing the fight for equal rights for minority players in the world of pro sports, but also warned him about the toll that this fight might have on him. Ellis gets quite emotional while reading the letter, and it’s immediately clear how much the letter and the sentiments it echoed meant to him.

207981_001It’s cool that the filmmakers were able to secure actual interview footage in which Ellis tells his own story; he passed away in 2008 at the age of 63.

This emotional moment comes as a bit of a surprise during the film however since a good deal of No No details the wild lifestyle and heavy drug use that accompanied Ellis’s playing career. In the years after his retirement, Ellis admitted that he never played a game without some sort of drugs – whether they be amphetamines, cocaine, or even LSD – in his system, and one sidepoint in the film is to detail how rampant drugs were in the MLB of the 1970s. Former players interviewed here attest to the fact that uppers like Dexamyl were used by an estimated sixty percent or more of pro ball players because it gave them an edge that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and even after the so-called “greenies” were banned, underground usage continued virtually unabated. Ellis’s substance problems didn’t stop on the field however, and his rampant abuse of alcohol would eventually ruin several of his marriages.

DSCF4591Ellis, center, living it up with teammates.

To be honest, much of the material contained in No No could be taken from any number of athlete or celebrity profiles: many of these folks go down the road to substance abuse when they acquire large amounts of money and have the free time to use it. Some of these stories don’t end up so well, but for every tragic outcome, there’s a positive one and Ellis’s story certainly worked out quiet nicely. Following his retirement, Ellis got clean and began telling his story to audiences who would most be in need of it. Aside from working for the betterment of up-and-coming athletes, Ellis spent a great deal of time working with inmates, and it’s obvious from interviews seen in the film that he viewed his accomplishments in the field of counseling as some of his greatest.

dockellis_large-294x375Always the flashy – and provocative- dresser.

While one could argue that the basic story of redemption contained in No No is pretty familiar, the film certainly benefits from the fact that the person at its heart is an incredibly fascinating character. The various anecdotes revealed in the film are sometimes quite amusing, occasionally cringe-inducing, but always captivating, and a viewer winds up getting a sense that Ellis always fought the good fight even if he went about it in ways that were somewhat unsavory. Directed by Jeff Radice, the film is as wild and colorful as its subject in terms of its look, making nice use of period-flavor music. There’s splendid use of a large quotient of archival footage, including film taken of various games which Ellis participated in, and I was also rather stunned by the amount of candid and press photographs assembled for use here. It’s true that No No contains the usual amount of talking head interviews with former teammates and players, family members, and sports journalists, but I found the film to be more varied in its presentation than many vaguely similar productions, even including animated sequences such as one which relates the story of Ellis’s showdown with opposing player Reggie Jackson.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-10-at-5-02-51-PMPart of the animated sequence from the film, showing Ellis staring down an opposing batter.

It might go without saying that baseball fans will probably enjoy this film the most, but I don’t necessarily think an appreciation of the sport is absolutely required – No No to some extent works equally as well as a chronicle of the ways in which society was changing in the late ‘60s and 1970s. Director Radice does a fine job of framing the events in the events of the film with what was happening outside of pro baseball, a fact which ultimately emphasizes the ways in which Ellis helped draw attention to the plight of minority players and initiate change – for instance, the 1971 Pirates team was the first time that a major league team used an all-black starting lineup in a game. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that No No: A Dockumentary plays out similarly to other films and stories dealing with characters who fall from grace only to pick themselves back up later on: Ellis’s story is virtually identical to the one told by hockey documentary The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson that just premiered earlier this year on cable. Still, I think there are enough unique and original elements to Dock Ellis’s story to make this slick-looking Dockumentary worthwhile. Check it out if you get the chance.

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2/10: A few accounts of aggressive domestic violence; no onscreen blood.

5/10: Isolated instances of profanity, including the f-bomb.

1/10: Glimpses of scantily clad ladies and some brief innuendo.

5/10: The whole LSD no-hitter thing may give this some appeal to the drug crowd, but it’s more a fairly typical but well-done sports documentary.

“I’m not one of those guys that won 300 games and the Cy Young Award, but I was a guy that was personable, I was controversial, my entire career I was an angry black man. Although I was there playing a dream of a lot of people, but I was angry.”

A Found Footage EXORCIST: THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE

THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE

(2/5)

Pros: Not terribly bad as a mockumentary horror flick

Cons: Story covers familiar territory and the ending is a letdown

“Dr. Henry West founded the Atticus Institute to study telekinesis, clairvoyance, and other psi-related phenomena. Thousands of subjects were tested using the scientific method, many of whom expressed supernatural abilities that defied explanation by known physical laws. The small parapsychology lab operated for nearly a decade until it was mysteriously shut down in November 1976 by the US government.”

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So reads the introduction to 2015’s The Atticus Institute, which plays out in the manner of a documentary examining the history of the titular establishment. We’re initially introduced to Dr. West, whose goal it is to prove once and for all that wild and bizarre psychic powers are indeed real. To this end, West opens his facility in Pennsylvania and begins to screen various unique individuals to determine their level of extra-sensory abilities. Though there are some promising findings, the credibility of the lab is thrown into doubt when members of the scientific community uncover a gimmick used by one supposedly psychically-gifted experimental subject. Just when it seems that any further research is futile, Dr. West and his team are introduced to a middle-aged woman named Judith Winstead whose psychic abilities are far beyond what any of the researchers had encountered before. When it becomes clear that the facility is unprepared to handle such a person, government officials are called in, eventually becoming interested in using Winstead’s powers for military purposes. As everyone involved soon discovers however, messing around with supernatural powers has its consequences…

the-atticus-institute-official-trailer-640x360Appropriately washed out images make the archival footage appear to have been filmed in the mid-70s.

To a large extent, The Atticus Institute resembles a found footage movie since the story is told mostly through “archival footage” which depicts events that happened in the 1970s. This material is complimented by interviews with various personnel involved in the events, including the researchers who worked at the facility as well as various family members and even government officials. The finished film then winds up not be so dissimilar to those Discovery Channel faux-documentaries that have been popping up over the past few years. I’ve often said that if things like the Megalodon or Russian Yeti program were marketed as B-horror movies, they’d find an audience who was willing to be entertained by them. The Atticus Institute establishes the fact that there is indeed a market for these types of films, but broadcasting them on “educational” cable channels just doesn’t seem to be the proper way to get them out there.

11228_1Unsurprisingly, the experiments depicted in the film start to get out of control once the government gets involved.

Consistent with the aforementioned mockumentaries, The Atticus Institute actually does a pretty solid job of selling the authenticity of its content – at least for a while. Archival footage and photographs seen in the film look appropriately washed out and sometimes shows evidence of deterioration – this is exactly what I would expect from materials produced some forty years ago. Viewers unaccustomed to really analyzing the images they’re seeing from a filmmaking standpoint might have a hard time distinguishing that this footage was actually staged, and it’s only fairly late in the going that a viewer’s suspension of disbelief is pushed to the breaking point. Eventually, one becomes aware that it would be highly unlikely that seemingly inconsequential personnel meetings and each and every detail about the ongoing experiments would be recorded – to say nothing of the fact that the camera operators seem to know things about to happen before they actually do (hell, maybe the researchers should have focused attention on their camera crew). Additionally, while the main story being told here takes place in the mid ‘70s, the Atticus Institute is virtually blanketed in CCTV coverage – this despite the fact that we’re told the lab was woefully underfunded.

atticus-1Well there’s something ya don’t see everyday – a priest in a gas mask.

In a way, it’s mostly beside the point to criticize this film strictly on the grounds that it doesn’t quite maintain authenticity: most viewers would know very well going into this film that it’s entirely fictional. What is more problematic in my book is the fact that, while the film does cover some interesting topics – namely, US government experiments related to supernatural abilities (research that actually took place) – it gets caught up in the usual type of paranormal movie content, becoming increasingly tiresome once it starts to do so.

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Rya Kihlstedt as Judith gets to act like a crazy woman, but she actually seems strangely underutilized.

Early on, it’s kind of neat to watch as Winstead’s astonishing abilities start to manifest themselves in somewhat small-scale, subtle ways – there are several nicely-executed sequences in which objects are manipulated through telekinesis in the background of shots while more pressing action occurs in the foreground. As the film drags on however, The Atticus Institute becomes a sort of poor-man’s Exorcist, with Winstead now being declared to be “possessed” by some unknown force that the government seems quite interested in not only controlling but also exploiting. This “possession” tag of course means that Winstead now proceeds to speak in “animal-like” voices, vomit a black tar-like substance, and generally contort wildly while growling at anyone who comes close to her. This is the sort of ho-hum material seen in just about every demonic possession film ever made, and even the slight variation in how this particular film operates can’t excuse the fact that most everything in director/writer Chris Sparling’s script has been seen before.

Scary moments here are few and far between.

A further problem with the film is that, although it’s occasionally loud and flashy, with glitchy camerawork that seems designed to amp up a viewer, it frankly isn’t very scary. As might be expected, Atticus Institute has a few jump scares achieved by having something pop up suddenly in front of the camera, and I actually really did like a sequence in which the viewer watches as a series of CCTV camera perspectives are cycled through, waiting with building suspense to see what’s happening in one of the rooms being monitored. Still, partially because of the predictability of the script and partially due to the lousy execution of various sequences, there’s never a prolonged buildup of tension – I’ve seen numerous TV shows filmed in “haunted” abandoned locations that are much more creepy than anything here. A minor subplot in the picture deals with Dr. West’s increasingly fragile mental condition, a situation made worse by his dealings with the ever-more erratic Winstead, but there’s never any point to this story arc and it comes across as being pure filler. Furthermore, the film’s “big climax” is especially lackadaisical and disappointing, with an ambiguous ending taken directly out of the Paranormal Activity playbook. Ultimately, even if the film isn’t dull, it never quite satisfies on the level viewers would want it to.

The somewhat spotty CGI effects make it fairly obvious that The Atticus Institute was put together on a relatively low budget; that being considered, I have to give director Sparling some credit for turning in a film that’s fairly entertaining despite its imperfections and limitations. As mentioned, the faux-documentary structuring works out pretty well, and I thought the cast for this film (particularly the actors portraying the interview subjects) were much better than is the norm for this type of production. It’s nevertheless curious that Rya Kihlstedt playing the (one would think) pivotal role of Judith Winstead is actually given precious little to do most of the time: I’d almost say that she’s wasted in the part. When all is said and done, The Atticus Institute doesn’t wind up as a classic of the genre – even in the undeniably iffy genre of found footage-type movies – but a viewer is left with a watchable and perfectly tolerable time waster. I probably wouldn’t flat-out recommend this movie, but those who enjoy found footage horror flicks will probably get a kick out of it.

 


5/10: Not so much gory as somewhat disturbing in its imagery and story.

1/10: Maybe one or two instances of minor profanity.

0/10: Documentary-like format doesn’t allow for any salacious content.

6/10: It doesn’t break new ground, but The Atticus Institute is actually kind of fun for what it is.

“You don’t get to play games with the devil, and if you do, you damn sure don’t get to make the rules…”