The World’s Oldest Profession…?

Absolutely fascinating -and reasonably brief- article by Forrest Wickman presented on Slate Magazine concerning, yes, the “world’s oldest profession”:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/03/is_prostitution_really_the_world_s_oldest_profession_.html

What truly blew me away, apart from the interesting information regarding prostitution throughout the various eras (and who it was that coined the phrase “the most ancient profession”, which over time became the more familiar “world’s oldest profession”), was the information regarding the exchange of sexual favors for items in the animal kingdom, specifically in monkeys and penguins (!).

Amazing bit of information that once again suggests that we as human beings are not as far removed from our animal “cousins” as we may think.

Again, fascinating, fascinating piece.

Grosse Point Blank (1997) a (belated) review

I’m not a big fan of romantic comedies, mainly because they tend to operate under a story “formula” that, to my eyes, has become all too predictable.

To begin, we have our main two characters (male and female). They meet, they fall in love with each other, sometimes right away, sometimes over a few minutes of screen time.  Sometimes, they hate each other on the outset, but that’s only delaying the inevitable.  They will fall in love with each other.

But there are complications. One of them, for example, may be engaged.  Perhaps to the other’s best friend.  Or maybe their meeting and love is some kind of con. Perhaps one of them was looking for a rich score, or trying to prove they could seduce anyone.  In the end, they (say it all together now) truly fall in love. In the movie’s later acts, the truth of this deception comes out and it looks like the young lovers are destined to go their separate ways. Then, in the film’s final act, one or the other or both realize their love is true and they make up and live happily ever after.

The End.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to the 1997 film Grosse Point Blank.  As I mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of romantic comedies.  But like many things in life, there are exceptions.  If there’s one romantic comedy that I can sit through multiple times, it is this film.

I’ve seen it several times, most recently over the weekend, and still get a chuckle out of it.  Yes, the film follows the typical romantic comedy plot, but it is the unusual elements brought into the more standard ones that makes this film work so well.

To begin with, we’re not dealing with your typical protagonists.  John Cusack is Martin Blank, hired killer, who is currently on a losing skid.  We first meet him on one job where he’s hired to protect someone from a killer.  He succeeds in his assignment…temporarily.  His next job, a killing in Miami meant to look like a heart attack, is instead  botched.  He is forced to kill his target by far bloodier means.  We further find that Blank is burned out with the job.  He sees a (justifiably terrified) psychologist (Alan Arkin in what amounts to a cameo role, yet he is quite hilarious in his sparse scenes) and is being pressured by a psychotic fellow killer (Dan Aykroyd, also very funny in a someone bigger cameo role) to join his union…all while watching out that he doesn’t shoot him in the back.

Added to this mess is the fact that because of his botched jobs, Blank is being pressured to take on a “make up” job in Detroit, where he happens to have his 10th year High School Reunion coming up.  Did I mention that Blank is obsessed with Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver, quite excellent as the grounded Yin to Blank’s highly eccentric Yang), a woman he abandoned on the night of their prom ten years before?

So the elements are all there for a truly oddball (and bloody!) romantic comedy.  Old flames return to each other while Blank has to hide (in plain sight!) his job while avoiding assassins and CIA agents tasked to take him out, all while trying to set things right with the one time love of his life.

Grosse Point Blank isn’t Casablanca or Citizen Kane, but then again, very few films are.  What this movie is is a funny and ultimately very satisfying variation on the romantic comedy formula.  Sure, the elements outlined above are still there.  But it is the outrageous outliers (the hired killers) that make this film strand out from so many in the pack.  Recommended.

 

The New Fortress of Solitude…

Fascinating article by T. R. Witcher for Salon.com regarding more recent examples of a cinematic hero’s “home”, and what it means in the context of the movie:

http://www.salon.com/2012/03/02/the_heros_new_fortress_of_solitude/singleton/

I find articles like this incredibly fascinating.  Shining a light on elements within a movie and what they mean in the context of the story being told, especially when those elements may be visible enough to register yet subtle enough for the average moviegoer to (perhaps) not quite realize…this is the sort of stuff that makes for fascinating movie discourse.

In this case, the idea of how a hero or villain’s “home” is presented in a movie, especially now, may be a reflection on our own times.

Again, fascinating, fascinating stuff.

Top 10 David Bowie Lost Tracks

Ok, so I said I would leave the topic of David Bowie and his music for a while, but I found this website that presented author Paul Sinclair’s Top 10 David Bowie Lost Tracks and simply couldn’t resist:

http://www.superdeluxeedition.com/feature/david-bowie-top-10-lost-tracks/

Mr. Sinclair must have a similar taste to me, as he puts the “Demo” or “Alternate” version of Candidate as his #1 unreleased or lost track.  While there are many, many songs that Mr. Bowie never formally released on any of his albums, of the ones I’ve heard (and I don’t even pretend to have heard them all!) the alternate Candidate is indeed my favorite and to this day I can’t believe it was essentially forgotten until the Rykodisc reissues of the 1990’s revealed the song.

Of the stuff I haven’t heard, I’m most intrigued with the unreleased material from the album 1. Outside.  Mr. Bowie himself has stated that there were some twenty hours of material recorded for that album, which I still consider his single best work of his most recent “era”.

Maybe one day…

Dinosaur fleas…

If you have a pet dog or cat, one of the biggest nuisances you probably face are fleas and ticks.  Thankfully, the fleas we have to deal with nowadays aren’t anywhere near as fearsome as those that existed back in the age of dinosaurs!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/29/dinosaur-fleas-giant-bugs-wielded-saw-like-pointed-nose-_n_1310784.html

Given the information on these prehistoric fleas, I’m reminded of the mosquito joke in The Land of the Lost.

 

The Dead (2010) a (mildly) belated review

The ingredients that make a successful film versus an unsuccessful film are diverse.  The most successful films, in my opinion, grab you from the very beginning, building from scene to scene and delivering a dynamic and unforgettable conclusion.

Unsuccessful films, too, are composed of varied ingredients…often resulting in something less than memorable.  An unsuccessful film, for example, can have good acting voided by a weak script, or a good script hurt by bad acting.  The direction could be pedestrian…the effects unimpressive or, worse, laughable.  Then there are those films that are firmly average.  They may be good enough to entertain you while you’re watching them, but the moment they’re done, so too is your interest in them.

Then there are those in between films.  Movies that are “near misses”, containing so very many great features yet…yet don’t quite successfully cross the finish line.

The Dead (2010), as it turns out, is to me a pretty good example of just such a near miss.  A very near miss.

The Dead is, yes, another exercise in the seemingly endless zombie genre (they’re everywhere, from TV to movies to apps to video games).  The most unique element of this particular movie, however, is the setting: Africa.

In brief:  The last flight of white foreigners leaving Africa after the zombie plague began crash lands.  One of the very few survivors of the flight, Lt. Murphy (Rob Freeman), a mechanic/mercenary, tries to reach civilization alone.  He eventually runs across another survivor, Sgt. Dembele (Prince David Oseia), an African military officer who abandoned his post and is searching for his son.  Together, the two try to find some hope in this hopeless new world.

Again, there is plenty to like here, even if the plot is far from earth-shatteringly original.  The zombie plague is presented in a harrowing way…the dead are quite literally everywhere, and one must not only fight them, but also the harsh African elements if there is any hope to survive.  The cinematography and setting is at times breathtaking.  This is territory we’ve rarely seen in film.  Further, the effects and acting are also quite good.  For those into gory effects, there’s plenty of it to see here, along with some great scares.

However, despite all the good, to me the film simply runs out of gas as it nears its end.  I don’t want to give away any too many details, but in general I’ve found that zombie plague stories tend to end in one of two ways:  1) depressingly, as demonstrated in the original zombie plague film, Night of the Living Dead, wherein the entire cast is wiped out and we’re left with the feeling that civilization is very much doomed or 2) depressingly but with at least one ray of hope, as presented in the sequel to that film and perhaps greatest zombie plague film of them all, the original Dawn of the Dead.  In that movie’s case, while most of the cast does wind up dead, the movie concludes with a feeling that the very few that have survived can and will fight on.

The Dead follows this formula.  However, in this instance it felt like the ending was too “artsy” and symbolic.  It was, unfortunately, my impression that the filmmakers, talented though they were, had a great idea for a story and had all these intriguing sequences they wanted to put into it, but were simply unclear on how they would wrap it all up.  So they went for the formula ending but in this case, it just didn’t work.

However, having said all that, if you’re a fan of the zombie plague genre and are looking to kill a few hours watching just that, you’d do a lot worse than give The Dead a try.  For all others, you may be better off going to the original two George A. Romero directed classics.

Most Overrated Best Picture Winners…

…at least according to Entertainment Weekly:

http://www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20311937_20572218,00.html

What I like about this list is that they offer you the winning Oscar motion picture and then note which films it beat out.  I tend to agree for all the mentioned films.

This, of course, puts me in the mind of something I posted a little while back (Oscar talk is slowly but surely building as we close in on the event) wherein Slate magazine offered ways to fix the Oscars, in this case Lowen Liu felt we should have a 10 year “re-vote”:

http://ertorre.com/randomthoughts/2012/02/15/how-do-we-make-the-oscars-better/

As I mentioned back then, the Oscar awards should be looked at as what they are:  A snapshot of personal tastes at that time.  Often, we may watch a film and have a reaction to it but, as time goes by, we may re-examined and revisit it and form a completely different opinion, to the better or to the worse, about what we’ve seen.  As is the case with many of the films listed in the first link, while successful when first released, the films simply don’t stand the test of time.

On the other hand, one of the more delightful things that could happen is that you see a film you don’t like and over time you come to understand it and it becomes a favorite.  This has happened to me on at least two occasions and both with horror films:  Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  I can’t deny it, when I first saw both films (the former during a television airing and the later when it was first released to theaters) I didn’t like them.  At all.

I found The Birds, frankly, dull and pointless, building to a bizarre, equally pointless ending.  I was especially disappointed because I was a fan of Mr. Hitchcock’s work and wondered how audiences could have viewed this film as anything approaching “good”.  Or so I felt then.  One day, I happened to see it on TV once again and gave it another try.  And for some reason, that second attempt did the trick.  While watching it I understood exactly what Mr. Hitchcock was up to.  He was doing his version of those almost endless “creature feature” films of the 1950’s, but he was turning the genre completely on its head.  Instead of an attack of some huge bird/fish/octopus/grasshopper(!)/spider/etc. etc., Mr. Hitchcock has a town attacked by birds.  Ordinary, common birds.  And in those 50’s creature feature films, where the horror is usually caused by some kind of nuclear or scientific accident, there are no answers given.  Nature has simply run amok.  The ending, too, made perfect sense.  In the creature films, a brilliant scientist and the military through diligent work come up with a way to defeat the menace.  In The Birds, we are the ones that are ultimately defeated.

As for The Shining, as mentioned I saw it in theaters when it was first released and I really, really didn’t like it.  As with The Birds, I thought it was pointless, not all that scary, and way, waaaay too long.  And then the movie started appearing on TV and I’d catch glimpses of it here and there.  Then more.  Then more.  Gradually, perhaps over a period of a few years, I “got it”.  To this day, I think this is one of the best horror films every made, a brilliant piece that literally transports you to a world of darkness and isolation, a place where there is nowhere to run.

Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

 

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) an (incredibly) belated review

The first and last time, until now, I saw The Town That Dreaded Sundown was probably shortly after its original release back in 1976.  This means I was way, waaaay too young to see what amounts to a prototype of the “slasher” film, one that shares some interesting parallels with what is considered by many (incorrectly!) the first of this genre, 1978’s Halloween.

Based on the true story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946, the movie is an interesting attempt to present the “facts” of the case, even though there are considerable digressions and some very clumsy attempts to bring in humor.  And, yes, even a car chase/crash.  Even that.

The film’s story revolves around the unsolved serial killings and assaults our antagonist was (perhaps) responsible for.  In the end, the man responsible for this rampage was blamed for assaulting eight people in total and of those, killing five of them.

The impressions I most recall of the only time I saw this film was the killer himself, presented as a tall, strong, and merciless force.  He wore a cloth bag over his face with eye-holes cut into it and his eyes were a very deep, deep blue.  When he breathed, the bag covering his face would ebb and flow, violently.  This effect was creepy and remains so.  Given the fact that the actor’s face is almost completely covered, its amazing how those intense blue eyes and the very heavy breathing successfully conveyed the savagery of his character.  The second most lasting impression to my mind was his final attack, wherein he assaults a housewife and her husband in a pretty gory fashion.  The husband is killed, the wife almost falls victim to him.

The wife, as it turned out, was played by -of all people!- Dawn Wells, who is best known as Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.  Given the fact that this film was made less than ten years after that show ended, she looks remarkably unchanged, and that adds a whole other layer of creepiness to see her become a bloody victim to this seemingly unstoppable killer.  However, her role is ultimately quite minimal, occupying maybe five or so minutes of film time.

The movie itself shows signs of its age.  While today’s horror films are not adverse to showing considerable amounts of gore, what gore is presented here amounts to nothing more than 1970’s era bright red blood.  Nonetheless, despite this lack of gore, the film is quite harrowing at times.  The attacks are often uncomfortably long and presented at times in a near documentary style.  This adds to the horror. The victims are not presented as movie-style caricatures (ie, the horny teen, the stoner teen, etc.), but rather “real” people.  Again, very uncomfortable to watch.

Where the film fails is in that the filmmakers didn’t appear to have a very good grasp of the story they were trying to tell.  Between the killings, obviously, they had to present some kind of story.  They chose logically, focusing on the police’s attempts to apprehend the killer.  However, even this might not have been enough and padding is evident, particularly when we’re shown some very awkward -and downright stupid- “humor” sequences involving an incompetent deputy driver.  This attempt at humor culminates in an out of left field car chase that results in a police car flying into a shallow lake.  Needless to say, this sequence looked like it belonged in another movie.

Nonetheless, I found it interesting to revisit this very early example of a “slasher” film.  While I’m not a particularly big fan of this horror sub-genre, it is nonetheless a popular genre to many.  To those, you may be curious to give the film a look.

Last Flight of the Argus ebook available free through Amazon.com

Starting on tuesday the 21st and concluding on 2/22, the following day, an ebook copy of my novel The Last Flight of the Argus will be available for free via Amazon.com.  (Note: I mistakenly posted this offer would begin today, Feb 20. My apologies for any confusion caused by this error)

The Last Flight of the Argus represents the second part of the Corrosive Knights series, which also includes Mechanic and Chameleon.  The novel is a space opera that explores the many mysteries behind the abrupt end of a potentially devastating intergalactic war.

To me, the most interesting part of the Corrosive Knights series is that these three initial books can be read in any order.  The stories in the books are self-contained and feature unique individuals, situations, and eras (Chameleon is set mostly in the present, Mechanic is set 250 or so years into the future, and The Last Flight of the Argus is set some 3000 years into the future).  Currently, I’m very hard at work on the next book in the series.  I’m hoping to have it done in the next couple of months.  That book, I promise, will start to tie the loose plot threads within the first three books together.

Upon reading The Last Flight of the Argus, good friend and professional artist Steve Scott said it was his favorite work of fiction, behind only the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Considering my own love of the works of Mr. Doyle (something Mr. Scott didn’t know at the time!), his praise was truly an honor.

I hope everyone out there takes advantage of the free ebook offer.  And those that do, I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I did writing it.

The Blog of E. R. Torre

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