Thursday, May 17, 2012

Recent Viewings

This is a mixed bag of recent DVDs I've watched in the past few weeks.  Some were disappointments while others surprised me.  One was a dramatization based on a short story that greatly expanded on the short story, adding a new element, along with the usual special effects, that reminded me of another film.



Casablanca had to be one of the two best films I've seen recently.  It is the classic with Bogart, Bergman, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid and everybody's favorite German officer, Conrad Veidt.  It has a great cast, a great script, and a story that has everything--romance, adventure, danger, and patriotism.  The specific reason for seeing it this time was a fear that a recent viewing of the Neil Simon effort, The Cheap Detective, spoiled the film for me.  Sometimes images from a pastiche can interfere with the original.  In this case, there was no problem.

If you haven't seen it, go see it.  If it's been awhile, see it again. 


The Maltese Falcon

The other film which occupied the top spot was The Maltese Falcon, which was the second part of Neil  Simon's The Cheap Detective, in which the Peter Falk character played the role of Bogart's Sam Spade who occasionally wandered onto the set of Casablanca.   Like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon also had a great cast:  Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre, Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, and Elisha Cook, Jr., in the only role I can remember him, as the Gunsel or the Kid.  The weak link was Mary Astor, as Brigid O'Shaughnessy.  The specific reason for watching this film is the same as for Casablanca.  I was curious to see if I could watch it and not have my enjoyment spoiled by Simon's pastiche.  Again, I found no problems. 

My recommendation is the same as for Casablanca--see it soon.


Aftermath: Population Zero

Aftermath:  Population Zero is a very different film.  It is a National Geographic special that predicts what would happen on Earth if the human race suddenly vanished.  It doesn't explain why or how this happened, just that all humans vanished at the same time.  The immediate effect was a lot of auto crashes and eventually plane crashes.  It took a bit longer for ships to collide or run aground or just lose power and become just another bit of flotsam.

The period of time covered in the film went from one minute after the disappearance to twenty-five thousand years in the future when another ice age completely destroyed any remaining signs of human existence on Earth.  Ironically, the only signs that humans existed were the astronauts' footprints and discarded materials on the moon.  They might last for hundreds of thousands of years.  What surprised me the most was the speed at which the power grid shut down--a few days at most.  This of course resulted in various other failures, one of the most serious was at nuclear power plants when the cooling systems shut down and caused meltdowns.  I thought that the estimate of the damage was minimized.

The film naturally had spectacular graphics of the destruction of many buildings and landmarks.    I also found interesting the speculations regarding the fate/future of various animals which had been pets (dogs, cats, exotic birds) or domestic animals (cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, chickens) or most interesting, animals in zoos, assuming they could get out of their cages or habitats.

If you're curious about what would happen if we all disappeared one day, give this one a viewing.  I found it absorbing and enlightening.  


Nostradamus:  2012

Hoping to get some real information, free from the hype of those with an axe to grind and from those who just wanted to exploit the topic, I chose to watch The History Channel's film on Nostradamus, Nostradamus: 2012, which presumably would cover Nostradamus' predictions and the Mayan prophecies regarding events on Dec. 21, 2012.

I hadn't watched many of the offerings of this channel, so I had high expectations for the level of discussion.  I was disappointed.  It turned out to be just another exploitation film with all the usual tricks that show up.  Much of the narrative consisted of questions that later on were assumed to be answered.  Speculations later became facts.  Claims were made by "experts,"  who were never named.  These claims were followed by a statement from one or more authors who testified mostly that those statements or prophecies really existed, but nothing about the legitimacy of the prophecies.  Nothing was ever said about Nostradamus, that his prophecies had been used by numerous seers and preachers who pointed out  the relevance of those prophecies to events in every century or even almost every decade since his death in 1566, almost four hundred and fifty years ago.

The conclusion?  One of the most prominent authors on the program told us in a very confidential voice that he really didn't think that anything dramatic was going to happen on December 21, 2012--no earthquakes, no super-volcanic eruptions, no super storms .  .  .  It was going to be a normal day, just like any other day.  In other words, he just discounted everything that had just been told us.  However, forty years in the future in a world that has eliminated pollution, overpopulation, poverty, disease,  famine, war, etc., we would be able to look back and say that it all began on December 21, 2012.

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The Box

The Box is a recent film based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button."   If you are not familiar with his writings, then you should take a look at his SF novel  I Am Legend, which has been made into several mediocre films.  It's a reverse spin on the traditional vampire legend.   In this tale, a normal human is seen as a monster (for good reasons) which vampire parents use to scare their children.

In "Button, Button,"  a financially struggling young couple receive a package one day.  Upon opening it, they find a box with a button on top, all covered by a plastic shield.  Later, they receive a visitor who tells them that by pushing the button they will receive fifty thousand dollars.  In addition, someone they don't know will die.  They can get the money only at the expense of someone's life. 

We then see the discussion between the husband and wife.  They need the money.  But, at the cost of a human life?  Is this a hoax?   The button is pushed, but at a price neither expected.

It's clear this is too slight of a story to be turned into a feature length film.  It was dramatized on Twilight Zone in the 80s, a version which I haven't seen.  I suspect, though, that  it would do well in a short format.

In 2009, the feature film version came out--The Box, which was loosely based on the story.  In the film, a young couple with financial problems receive a package containing a box with a button on top and covered with a plastic shield.  A visitor later that day tells that by pushing the button they will get one million dollars: 
obvious inflation here as we've gone from $50,000 in 1970 when the story was first published  to $1,000,000 in 2009.  This is followed by the discussion between the husband and the wife, and eventually the button is pushed.  In both the short story and the film, the husband is opposed to pushing the button and he leaves for work.  While he is gone, she pushes the button.

Spoiler warning:  I have brought out some significant plot elements here.

Up to this point, the film has been very close to the story, but once the button is pushed, the short story is forgotten.  All sort of special effects and strange events take place.  There is a group behind the box who seem to be running some sort of experiment.  In the back ground are aliens who have come to test humanity for the virtues of compassion and empathy.  If humanity loses, it will be destroyed--a bit reminiscent of a much earlier classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.  In addition, at the end the husband is forced to choose between his son and his wife.  This is a reversal of sorts of the end of the short story.

Recommendation:  give it a viewing.  I doubt if it will be a classic, but it does pose some questions regarding morality which are frequently ignored in many SF films.   And, these questions should also be turned back on the aliens as well.

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