Category Archives: Armageddon

Happy End of the World: Top 10 Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2017)

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Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock (with midnight representing Armageddon). Last January, they moved the hands to 3 minutes to midnight.

Those geeks in the white lab coats didn’t mince any words, either:

Today, unchecked climate change and a nuclear arms race resulting from modernization of huge arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity. And world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of leadership endanger every person on Earth.

So how do things look for 2017? The latest word from their website is not encouraging:

“It is still Three Minutes to Midnight […] that probability has not been reduced. The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act—immediately.”

In a 2011 Hullabaloo post about the ever-sobering Hiroshima anniversary, I wrote:

So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? […] there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred of ‘em rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us all rad-free.

In just under two weeks, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the President of the United States. As they said: The clock ticks. Global danger looms…and the Master of 3am Tweets will have the nuclear codes. That in mind, here are my picks for the top 10 cautionary films to watch before…we all go together (when we go). In alphabetical order:

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The Atomic Café- Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!). In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear. Others deal directly with survivors (known in Japan as hibakusha films). One of the top hibakusha films is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura, a relatively simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially when one takes the deep complexities of Japanese society under consideration). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up. It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians. Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful pacing (and trademark knack for bringing out the best in his actors), Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman. There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but lots of suspense. The film’s final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way. The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand – An early effort from eclectic filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era. Through circumstance, four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I confess that I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for years, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 made-for-TV film, The Missiles of October would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the Oval Office scenes between the brothers). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he demonstrates a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will). According to a tidbit posted on the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similar Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Mick Jackson directs with an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year that tackled the same scenario) look like a Teletubbies episode. The story takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail. It’s stark and affecting.

Both of these productions make it very clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were fucking dead.

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UPDATE 1/26/17 – Oh boy. This seems like an important addendum:

 

“It is [now] two and a half minutes to midnight
The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done—reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president
only a matter of days.”
That’s today’s update from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Read on, if you dare…
h/t Digby

Blu-ray reissue: The Quiet Earth ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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The Quiet Earth Film Movement Classics Blu-ray

In the realm of “end of the world” movies, there are two genre entries in particular, both from the mid-80s, that I have become emotionally attached to (for whatever reason). One of them is Miracle Mile (my review), and the other is this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a huge cult following.

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris).

Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek. Film Movement’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 2k transfer, and a commentary track by critic Odie Henderson and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (although-even Tyson can’t explain that ending!).

Blu-ray reissue: Miracle Mile ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Miracle Mile – Kino Lorber Blu-ray

“Someone” (in this case, Kino Lorber) finally has seen fit to release a properly formatted HD edition of this 1988 sleeper (previously available only as MGM’s dismal “pan and scan” DVD). Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way. The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000, which also made its Blu-ray debut this year courtesy of Kino Lorber). Extras include a commentary track by film critic Walter Chaw, along with the director.

One froggy evening: Yakuza Apocalypse **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2015)

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If you were to put Van Helsing, Highlander, Forbidden Zone, Godzilla and Youth of the Beast into a blender, and then splash the puree onto a blank movie screen Jackson Pollack style, you would end up with something resembling Takeshi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse.

Near as I could figure, the “story” centers on a yakuza boss who is magnanimous toward, and beloved by, the “civilians” of the (Neighborhood? City?) he lords over; as for his rivals in the criminal underworld…not so much. Oh, did I mention that he’s also a vampire? As this can give one an enormous advantage over one’s enemies (being already dead tends to make you immune to assassination), he’s been the top dog for a long time.

However, this dog’s about to have his day. I mean, any vampire yakuza boss with half a brain will tell you that you’re in deep shit when a guy who dresses like a pilgrim blows into town with a mini-coffin strapped to his back and a blunderbuss in his sash, announcing himself as an emissary of the actual underworld and cryptically warning anyone who will listen that “he” is coming. And so the boss finally meets his doom (don’t ask), but not before biting his most trusted lieutenant on the neck, thereby passing on his awesome vampire powers. The freshly anointed boss has his work cut out for him; according to a “kappa goblin” (a guy with a beak, chronic halitosis, and a turtle shell growing out of his back), his town is about to have a visitation from the “world’s toughest terrorist”, a badass dude with an agenda that is “…so chilling, you gotta laugh.”

Are you following all of this so far? Shall I go on?

Fret not; for I shan’t, because from this point onward, it gets sort of hazy. There’s something about the end of the world, and a magic ring, but otherwise it’s just yelling, shape-shifting and martial arts shenanigans. There’s also too many superfluous characters jamming up an already needlessly busy storyline. I’ll admit that I got a few chuckles watching the “world’s toughest terrorist” deliver roundhouse kicks in his Teletubbie suit (that can’t be easy), and “Gander all you want at my kappa-ness,” may turn out to be my favorite movie line of the year. And someday, some way, I will fully understand the significance of the knitting class in the basement, with all the students in leg irons. And on that glorious day, I will know that I have finally found the path to true enlightenment.

Move over, Smaug: Ragnarok **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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According to my exhaustive research on Norse mythology (OK…one-clicking to Wikipedia), “Ragnarok” was the Viking version of Armageddon; warning of an apocalypse that culminates in a worldwide flood, after which all begins anew (not to be confused with “Raga-rock”, which was a sub-genre of wild, far-out hippie music that Grandpa used to zone out to after a hit of Windowpane).

In the context of Norwegian director Mikkel Braenne Sandemose’s eponymous new film, it’s a major concern to a harried, recently defunded archaeologist widower (Pal Sverre Hagen) who specializes in Viking artifacts. He’s been attempting to translate mysterious runes found amongst remains of an ancient shipwreck.

When he and a fellow researcher (Nicolai Cleve Broch) become convinced that Ragnarok may 1) not in fact be a myth, and 2) be imminent, he grabs his teen daughter and young son and heads north to an uninhabited part of Finnmark, where he and his colleague hope to find the missing pieces of the puzzle. After adding a sexy-tough love interest…I mean, assistant researcher (Sofia Helin) and a crusty yet benign guide to the team, the expedition is afoot.

While what ensues in Sandemose’s film can be called out as a shamelessly derivative mash-up of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, it’s still kind of fun, in a contentedly mindless way. Actually, amid all of the typically big, dumb, loud and over-produced action-adventure summer fare currently flooding the multiplexes, it stands out as a refreshingly old-fashioned yarn. The story clips along without unnecessary padding, most of the violence is (thankfully) off-screen, and it says everything it needs to say in 94 minutes.

Blu-ray reissue: The Day the Earth Caught Fire ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire – BFI Blu-ray (Region “B” )

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) has always been a personal favorite of mine. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling narrative. Co-starring the great Leo McKern (who steals every scene he’s in). The releasing studio is BFI, a UK-based reissue outfit that employs the same grade of high standards that Criterion has become known for here in the U.S., with meticulously restored prints and extras geared toward the film buff. Please note that this review is based on the region “B” release, so it requires a region-free Blu-ray player.

Viral videos: 10 movies you never want to catch

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 19, 2013)

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According to a disconcerting report that aired on ABC earlier this week, in spite of the fact that the U.S. is in the midst of a particularly virulent flu season, an estimated 69 million Americans remain unmoved by strident advisories from public health officials and medical professionals that everybody should get vaccinated ASAP.

Apparently the predominant excuse is a surprisingly common misconception that getting a shot will literally give you  flu (it would be fun to find out what percentage of these refuseniks  see flu shots as another form of government tyranny…you know, Obama’s secret collusion with the CDC to slip them a Mickey and seize their guns). Whatever the excuse, I have one question for these folks: Are you nuts? Have you ever had the flu? It’s not exactly a romp in the fields. Anyway, I was vaccinated in October, and so far, so good.

With that in mind, here’s some of Hollywood’s catchiest titles; my “Top 10 Viral Videos” (the theory being, if I can’t convince you to practice preventive medicine, maybe watching one of these flicks will?) As per usual, in alphabetical order…

The Andromeda Strain– What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Michael Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (the scientists are essentially trapped in a sealed environment until they can find a way to destroy the microbial intruder) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel.

Black Death– It is a time of pestilence, monarchs, serfs, and sociopolitical turmoil, ruled by widespread ignorance and superstition. No, I’m not referring to America in 2013…but 1348, when the first wave of bubonic plague swept across Europe. That’s the cheery backdrop for this dark period piece from UK director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.

Eddie Redmayne stars as a young monk who, at the behest of his bishop, throws in with a “religious” knight (Sean Bean) and his dubious band of mercenaries on an a quest to investigate why all the residents of a particular village seem  immune to the “black death” (the Church suspects “witchcraft”). Screenwriter Dario Poloni has some fun blurring the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. And whether one places their faith and hope into an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, perhaps it is the most simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.

Contagion– Steven Soderbergh has taken the network narrative/pseudo-cinema verite formula that propelled Traffic and applied it to similar effect in this cautionary tale that envisions profound sociopolitical upheaval in the wake of a major killer pandemic. Patient Zero is an American (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning to the U.S. from a Hong Kong business trip, who at first appears to be only developing a slight cold as she kills time at an airport lounge.

However, Soderbergh’s camera begins to linger on seemingly inconsequential items, just enough to pique our interest. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand, as she pays her tab. Ominous cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, who have all suddenly taken deathly ill, deliver a creeping sense of dread, which only warms you up for the harrowing, all-too plausible globe-spanning nightmare scenario that ensues. By reining in his powerhouse cast, and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that largely eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it real (if clinical at times), resulting in a sobering and thought-provoking exercise.

The Killer That Stalked New York-Despite some dated trappings, Earl McEvoy’s low-budget 1951 film noir (based on a real-life New York City smallpox outbreak in 1947 thwarted by fast-acting city health officials and a cooperative public) still makes for a gripping disease thriller. Patient Zero (a visiting Mexican businessman in the actual incident) is a diamond smuggler (Evelyn Keyes) who has just returned from Cuba. Unbeknownst to her, there’s a Fed hot on her trail; unbeknownst to both of them (initially), she is also carrying the smallpox virus. With its pseudo-documentary approach and heavy use of location filming, the movie recalls The Naked City. A montage depicting how city officials set about administering the “Big Scratch” to every New Yorker proves how some things will never change (when a  health department worker offers a vaccination, one distrustful citizen vows that “Ain’t nobody stickin’ a joim in my arm!”).

The Omega Man-This 1971 Boris Sagal film was the second screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (the 1964 Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth was the first, book-ended by I Am Legend in 2007). While all three adaptations have their strengths and weaknesses, I have a soft spot for this one, with the ever-hammy Charlton Heston as a military scientist battling mutated albino plague victims in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the locale was switched to New York City in the 2007 version).

In the wake of a deadly pandemic attributed to biological warfare fallout from a Sino-Soviet war, Heston injects himself with an experimental vaccine that appears to work. However, the main threat to his health is not so much the virus, but the rabid lynch mob of pissed-off albino freaks who storm his heavily fortified apartment building every night, led by a messianic ex-TV news anchor (Anthony Zerbe, chewing the scenery like a zombie Howard Beale). Rosalind Cash is a hoot as a bad ass mama in the Pam Grier mold.

Panic in the Streets– While this is yet another film noir mixing documentary-style police procedural with disease thriller tropes (released in August of 1950, it actually precedes The Killer That Stalked New York by 5 months), it does differ in a few significant ways. For one, the locale is New Orleans. This is also a much slicker production, with a prestige director at the helm (Elia Kazan, who made another New Orleans based story the following year-little film you may have heard of called A Streetcar Named Desire).

Noir icon Richard Widmark is the “good guy” in this one-a Navy doctor working for the health department, who has 48 hours to track down the killers of a murder victim who is  carrying the Pneumonic Plague. This puts him at loggerheads with the police, who aren’t crazy about the deadline pressure. The deadly virus, of course, won’t wait, which gives the narrative its tension. This is one of Kazan’s most stylistically accomplished films, full of Wellesian tracking shots (and great cinematography by Joseph McDonald). Look for Zero Mostel in an early role (and Jack Palance in his debut).

Perfect Sense– David Mackenzie’s post-apocalyptic drama tackles that age-old question: Can a chef and an epidemiologist find meaningful, lasting love in the wake of a pandemic that is insidiously and systematically robbing every human on Earth of their five senses? This is a malady with a relatively leisurely incubation period. The afflicted have a certain (if indeterminate) amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit, so it isn’t necessarily what one would consider as being a “death sentence”.

The outbreak brings an epidemiologist (Eva Green) to a Glasgow lab to analyze data as cases escalate. Fate and circumstance conspire to place her and a local chef (Ewan McGregor) together on the particular evening wherein they both suffer the first warning sign: a sudden, inexplicable emotional breakdown. As they have both “taken leave” of their senses, they begin (naturally) to fall in love (plenty of room for metaphor in this narrative). That’s what makes Mackenzie’s film a unique entry in an already overcrowded genre; while there’s still a sense of urgency to find a “cure”, the question is not so much “can the human race be saved?” as “can the human race make lemonade out of this lemon it’s been handed?”

Restoration- Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his most underrated performances in Michael Hoffman’s lusty, richly textured and visually sumptuous recreation of 17th-Century England during the reign of Charles II. Downey plays a young physician whose burgeoning medical career is put on hold after he “saves the life” of the King’s most beloved spaniel. The grateful Charles invites him into his inner circle, encouraging the doctor to fully avail himself of the perks at his disposal (they didn’t call Charles II the “Merrie Monarch” for nothing).

However, all good things must come to an end; court politics eventually put the doc in the King’s disfavor, and his life takes fascinating twists and turns, ultimately putting him back in London during the Great Plague, where he finds his true mojo as a dedicated physician. The verisimilitude on the part of the filmmakers regarding the recreation of London during the era (in all its filthy glory) really gives one a sense of what it must have been like living with the horror and heartbreak of the Plague.

Twelve Monkeys-Another wild ride from the overactive imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite. Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of the human race. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation (this guy just can’t seem to catch a break in any era), where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in a truly demented performance). I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he what the psychiatrist is telling him-a delusional schizophrenic actually living in 1996? There are many surprises up Gilliam’s sleeve here.

28 Days Later-Director Danny Boyle’s in-your-face, speed freak-in-a-telephone booth style of film making has rarely been so perfectly matched up with subject matter than it is in this unsettling shocker from 2002. Although some might argue that this selection would be a more appropriate candidate for a “Top 10 Zombie Apocalypse Movie” list, I would say that, well…that’s like, your opinion, man.

In a memorable opening sequence reminiscent of The Omega Man (see above), a man (Cillian Murphy) wanders alone through the streets of adeserted metropolis (London). He finds out soon enough that he is actually far from “alone”, and that the folks he runs into are far from human (although they started that way). The malady is a highly contagious “rage virus”; unleashed by rampaging lab monkeys that have been liberated by unsuspecting animal rights activists. Murphy bands together with others who have managed to avoid contact with the affected, and they head out of the city in desperate search of sanctuary. Somehow, Boyle’s disparate mishmash of disease thriller, popcorn zombie chiller and “conspiracy a-go-go” coalesces. At once gross and engrossing, it is not for the squeamish.

VHS only: One Night Stand ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2012)

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An early effort from eclectic filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era. Through circumstance, four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

 

Facebookopalypse now: Summer Wars ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 5, 2011)

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Don’t be misled by the title of Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it has drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a bucolic family estate. Maybe- Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the better animes of recent years.

The film opens with echoes of Weird Science, as we are introduced to a couple of nerdy teenagers, geeking out in the virtual world of “Oz”, a global cyber network where all users (from individuals to governments) communicate and conduct business via avatars. Kenji (voiced by Michael Sinterniklass) and his pal have part time jobs working for the network (something techie…it’s all big magic to me).

Anyway, the boys are pretty sharp at what they do; Kenji is also a math whiz. When it comes to relating to the opposite sex, however, they are relatively clueless. Kenji has a crush on of their classmates, Natsuki (Brina Palencia), but has no idea as to where to take it from there. Imagine his surprise when Natsuki invites him along on a visit to see grandma out at her family’s sprawling country estate, where the clan is gathering to celebrate the spry matriarch’s 90th birthday.

Kenji is hit with an even bigger surprise when Natsuki introduces him to her family as her “fiancee”. Flustered at first, Kenji decides (correctly) that he should probably play along. After apologizing for springing this on him, Naksuki begs Kenji to go along with the ruse for the duration of their visit; she just wants to avoid getting hounded by nosy relatives on the subject of matrimony. This actually gives the socially awkward Kenji an instant entree with the eccentric but loving clan. He has some consternation when Natsuki’s “first crush” suddenly shows up-her brooding, James Dean-ish uncle (J. Michael Tatum), who is the long-estranged black sheep of the family.

Late one evening, Kenji receives a cryptic text message, challenging him to crack a complex equation (which is like catnip to a math nerd). After pulling an all-niter, he solves it. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that he has been duped; by solving the math problem, he has unwittingly enabled a malicious AI program to hack into the Oz network-and sees his photo plastered all over the TV news as a wanted cyber-criminal (much to his newly adopted family’s chagrin).

As the virus begins to methodically assimilate the avatars belonging to millions of users, it exponentially gains more control over the grid, wreaking increasingly insidious infrastructural havoc worldwide as its power grows. Soon the stakes become even higher-and in true anime tradition, the mantle of saving the earth falls on upon the diminutive shoulders of our geeky hero and his friends (with unexpected help from grandma, who proves that in times of crisis, it’s those old school social networking skills that really count).

Although a number of the narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s script will feel  familiar to anime fans, it’s the humanistic touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the films by the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that make this such a worthwhile and satisfying entertainment. Director Hosoda began his career in the genre back in the early 90s, working at Japan’s highly respected Toei Animation studio as an animator. This is only the second feature-length anime he has overseen; his first was the outstanding 2007 fantasy-adventure, The Girl Who Leapt through Time. Judging by these two films, he has a very promising career ahead of him.

Ah-CHOO! Oh, crap: Contagion ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  September 17, 2011)

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So you say you don’t have enough nightmarish fodder for those racing thoughts that keep you tossing and turning on sweat-soaked sheets every night…what with the economy, the Teabaggers, the pending demise of entitlement programs, the Teabaggers, the rising costs of healthcare, and the Teabaggers? Are you prone to health anxiety? Do you spend hours on wrongdiagnosis.com in a dogged search to confirm your worst fears that your hangnail is surely a symptom of some horrible wasting disease? And there’s no way in hell I can convince you the glass is half-full, not half-empty?

Bubbeleh, have I got a movie for you.

Steven Soderbergh has taken the network narrative formula that drove Traffic, his 2000 Oscar winner about the ‘war’ on drugs, and used it to similar effect in Contagion, a cautionary tale envisioning socio-political upheaval in the wake of a killer pandemic (which epidemiological experts concur is not a matter of “if”, but of “when”).

In an opening montage (entitled “Day 2”), the camera tails the person we assume to be Patient Zero, an American businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from an overseas trip, as she kills time at a Chicago airport lounge. She appears to be developing a slight cold. Soderbergh’s camera begins to focus on benign items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand as she pays her tab. A creeping sense of dread arises. The scenario becomes more troubling when Soderbergh ominously cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London who have all suddenly taken extremely ill.

Whatever they have, it works fast. By the time Paltrow is reunited with her kids and her husband (Matt Damon, as the Everyman of the piece), we’ve watched several of the overseas victims collapse and die horribly; in the meantime her sniffles and sore throat escalates to fever, weakness and ultimately a grand mal seizure. Within moments of her arrival at the ER, it’s Mystery Virus 1, Doctors 0. It’s only the beginning of the nightmare. An exponential increase in deaths quickly catches the attention of the authorities, which in turn saddles us with a bevy of new characters to keep track of.

There are the CDC investigators in the U.S. (Kate Winslet is in the field, while her boss Laurence Fishburne holds meddlesome politicos at bay) and Marion Cotillard as a doctor enlisted by the W.H.O. to look into Hong Kong as  possible ground zero. There are the front line researchers doing the lab work to isolate the virus and develop a vaccine (Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin and Elliott Gould).

Even Homeland Security gets into the act; Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is a liaison who suggests possible terrorist scenarios (could this be a “weaponized” virus?). Jude Law portrays a popular activist blogger who claims there is an existing vaccine that works, but that the CDC is withholding distribution for nefarious reasons (something to do with Big Pharma; certainly feasible). Law is also the recipient of a zinger print journalists will be falling over each other to quote : “A blog isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”

There are many threads to keep track of; fortunately, Soderbergh brings all the ingredients to a gently rolling boil by the film’s denouement without overcooking the ham, as it were. By reining in his powerhouse cast, and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it real (if a tad clinical), resulting in an effective and thought-provoking ensemble piece (by contrast, Wolfgang Peterson’s star-studded, similarly-themed 1995 thriller Outbreak plays more like a live action cartoon).

In fact, I can’t help but wonder how many of the  folks who flocked to theaters last weekend (and helped make Contagion #1 at the box office ) were disappointed by Soderbergh’s unadorned approach . Historically, Soderbergh tends to deliver either sure-fire populist ‘product’ (Out of Sight, Erin Brokovich, Oceans 11 and its sequels), or obscure experiments aimed squarely at the art house hipster crowd (Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble). On occasion, he finds the sweet spot (Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Limey, Traffic, and now…Contagion).

Conceptually, Contagion is actually a closer cousin to The War Game, the 1965 film from director Peter Watkins that depicted, in a very stark and realistic manner, what might happen in a ‘typical’ medium-sized British city immediately following a nuclear strike. While the root cause of the respective civic crises in the two films differs, the resulting impact on the everyday populace is quite similar, and serves as a grim reminder that no matter how “civilized” we fancy ourselves to be, we are but one such catastrophic event away from complete societal breakdown.

Soderbergh’s film raises interesting questions, like, are we prepared for an event like this? If the virus is a new strain, how long would it take  to develop a vaccine? How much longer to manufacture 300 million doses? Surely, not in time to save millions of lives. And speaking of piles of corpses, how do you dispose of them, with one eye on public safety? Who’s first in line to receive the first batch of vaccine? Who decides? And, outside of Soderbergh’s narrative), the CDC isn’t one of those government agencies currently targeted for budget cuts by our Republican and Teabagger buds in Congress…is it? I wish I could reassure fellow hypochondriacs with “It’s only a movie.”  But the best I can do for now is: A gezunt Dir in Pupik!