Saturday, March 28, 2009

Off Topic: The Day My Xbox Finally Died

I thought I was smart by waiting for the HDMI equipped, supposedly Red Ring of Death free Xbox 360s when I got mine. It turns out that Microsoft improving their products is like dividing by zero: it'll just take longer to die and/or will do it in new and unusual ways.

This is also a cautionary tale about putting all your eggs in one basket, as the 'box was responsible for about 90% of the pretty pictures that my TV produces. Beyond videogames, of which (you may have noticed) I am a fan, it streamed video off my computer, played instant Netflix, had an HD DVD player, (damn I'm lame) and was my most reliable DVD player. (My fancy-shmancy Oppo is possessed by demons.)

Thank goodness for Roku, or I'd have to watch reality TV right now.... or worse.... think.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Body Melt (1993)

In 81 short minutes, the Austrailian bizarro gore flick Body Melt managed to unravel all the goodwill towards the land down under that Young Einstein, Crocodile Dundee, and The Road Warrior had struggled so hard to create. Great job.

I first learned of its existence from the long since castrated Wikipedia page for "body horror" (old version here). Body horror is one of those vaguely defined subgenres like 'grindhouse' cinema, anything with the -punk suffix (except cyberpunk), or my own personal coinage: cyborgsploitation. Having only wisps of scattered scholarly exploration, these micro-genres are apparently the bane of the wiki-editor's existence. (That's what you get for obsessively following your 'rules,' jerk.) Without the long established tropes of the Western or the big tent of regular, adjective free Horror, the defining boundaries remain fluid and nebulous. The only thing that has been definitely agreed upon (according to our wiki-overlords at least) is that the core of the genre is early to mid-period Cronenberg.

In case you aren't familiar, David Cronenberg is, in addition to being both my favorite Canadian and filmmaker, one of the preeminent voices in sci-fi horror. At least he was in the '80s, before he figured out that he was a really good director of crime and psychological thrillers. Whether about rape-slugs, super rabies, mind controlling stomach VCRs, or virtual reality games made from genetically engineered amphibian parts and controlled via clitorises, (Does anyone else think that the plural of clitoris should be clitori?) there is always the abjection of the human body as a common thread. Horror films long ago figured out that people could be grossed out by slicing up Achilles tendons or gouging eyeballs, but in Body Horror, the violation of human forms is removed from the traditional backdrops of war and violence. Mutation, genetic engineering, and self mutilation replace guns, bombs, and psycho killers. Often, as in Cronenberg's The Fly, the horrific bodily changes arise as side effects or misuse of technology created with positive applications in mind.

In Body Melt the positive application is giving people perfect health and minor superhuman powers, but comparing it to the oeuvre of the man behind Videodrome and Dead Ringers is a bit like comparing a single White Castle slider to an entire Wagyu cow.

Then it's not just a clever name.

It seems an unethical pharmaceutical company (is there any other kind in horror movies) has begun testing its latest super-vitamins on the unsuspecting citizens of a brightly colored, tree free, suburban cul-de-sac. A soon to be former researcher develops a conscience and decides to warn them, but is secretly injected with a mega-dose. (Note to the whistleblowers of the world: don't sleep with your boss the same night you decide to blow said whistle and make your escape.)

Don't try this at home, kids.

Thanks to the timely chugging of dish detergent, he manages to crash his car in the test subjects' neighborhood. Unfortunately, it is too late to warn anyone, and he surcumbs to stage three of the drug's killing process: Body Melt.

In Soviet Union, spaghetti eats you.

In case you're wondering, the first stage is "hallucinogenic" and the second is "glandular." This makes for a fair setup to a wacked-out gore film: bumbling cops slowly investigate the evil company while the townspeople trip balls and turn into nasty puddles on the floor.

If only things were that simple. Body Melt's story appears to have been written by a chronic sufferer of attention deficit disorder. Instead of a 'plot' composed of 'characters' who act out 'scenes' that further the 'narrative,' it boasts 'a bunch of crazy shit that happens and may or may not have any connection to the other shit that just happened or is about to happen.'

First of all, two slackers with Italian names and curry stained jerseys head off to the evil pharmaceutical giant's evil health spa for... um... sperm donation. The only problem is, their windshield gets smashed and they end up (for no apparent reason) in the Outback equivalent of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

I was gonna make a "rejects from Mad Max" joke,
but the dude on the right was actually in Mad Max.

Okay, so the movie has made a complete 180; it'll all get tied together in the end right? Sort of, I guess. For now, marvel at how now matter how much time seems to pass in the "A-story," the hillbilly subplot always takes place in mid-afternoon. (Seriously, did they cross a couple time zones? At one point it is fucking night back in the cul-de-sac while the slackers kill the afternoon paling around with stereotyped mongoloids.)

A word of advice to anyone who ends up trapped with crazy mutant rednecks: don't (I repeat: do not) take up the least mutant looking one up on her offer of a quick BJ in the barn. That's wrong on so many levels even before she chomps captain howdy off. Come on kids, this is a horror movie, not Tobacco Road.

Wasn't there supposed to be body melting in this movie? Back in the suburbs, the local bachelor is suffering from phase one after taking evil, neon green vitamin supplements. It is also notable that he is the only person to experience the hallucinatory phase; an obviously calculated move by the brilliant writers to shave off some run time for more pointless changes in scenery. The visions take the form of a mysterious battered woman who talks him into letting her squat at his place, disappears, then reappears in unbattered form to steal one of his rib-bones for some sort of pagan ritual.

Are you following this? Because I sure couldn't, and I've seen it twice. My current theory is that the inscrutable plotting is an intentional ploy to keep the viewer off guard for the melting sequences. They are certainly more effective when you are sitting alone, tears streaming down your face as you plead with the television, "what is happening? I don't un-d-d-d-erstaaaaaand.

WAE: Worst Acronym Ever

Eventually the film comes to its main event/slash reason for existing. A young couple in the cul-de-sac is having a baby, and a few doses of VIMUVILLE causes the woman to go into premature labor and plorp out her placenta before the baby.

But this is no ordinary pre-birth super placenta, it is sentient and pissed off as well. At this point my hopes went up on the possibility that the rest of the movie would be a Trilogy of Terror rip off with the hapless woman playing a tense game of cat and mouse with the angry afterbirth. No dice: the husband comes home and plays facehugger victim to the evil ephemeral organ while his wife's stomach explodes in a massive belch of steam. (Talk about sound and fury signifying nothing: the womb turns out to be empty.)

Meanwhile, the neighboring family heads out to the evil spa, and the hallucinating bachelor across from them is creepily standing in the exact same position we last saw him in. The local general practitioner, who is naturally one of the drug's creators, shows up to play damage control, subduing the last active victims and, in a brilliant turn of events, shows up at the doorstep of the creepy rednecks for some emergency exposition.

Wouldn't you know it, the hillbilly patriarch was one of the form dissolution drug's inventors. The evil doctor/conspirator, who I guess is a main character now, confronts him to learn that a crucial component of the medication is missing. Without it, the patients can't control their bodies' new abilities, causing the eponymous anatomical deliquescing.

Losing characters almost as fast as it loses its marbles, the movie heads back to the health spa, where the last remaining characters (along with a handful of fresh red-shirts) get their physique dissolving on.

Damn, I have officially run out of synonyms for 'body' and 'melt.'

I'm not sure that counts as "melting"

If you read my "Traumatic Film Experiences" list, you'll know that Body Melt has the dubious honor of being number 6. Not due to its gross out makeup effects, of which I have seen better (or worse if you are a gore prude), or its constant, binary switching between boring and bizarre, but because of just one scene. The head of Pebble Court's last surviving family, whose '90s dayglow tracksuits previously sinned against my eyeballs and must therefore be burned for the good of us all, feasts on VIMMUVILLE laced food, causing his sinuses to go into snot production overload. After a while, he literally drowns in his own mucus.

As a massive nerd, I naturally suffer from allergies, so the thought of drowning in snot has, for me, a special terror. It made me gag a little seeing the above for the first time, and it remains unpleasant to say the least, and I just sat through Tokyo Gore Police without so much as batting an eye. Also, it is not a place where horror often goes, even when dealing with illness and disease. Exploding pustules and general melting tend to take precedence.

Yeah. Like that.

It seems the pharma-conspirators have been getting high on their own supply, causing meltage, murder, and violently exploding penises. (No, they're not exploding in the porn sense, before you ask.) For nearly five whole minutes the viewer is treated to some semblance of coherance, as a hitherto little seen Final Girl tries to save her family from cellular destruction to no avail. Confronted with a quickly melting spa director, she attempts, for some reason, to help the woman by slapping her. Meanwhile, her little brother randomly dies in a rollerblading accident on a half-pipe, and the creepy, musclebound orderlies all suffer terrible... um... romantic tragedies.

Pornography addiction kills.

The doctor shows up with his potential cure, but the bumbling cops have arrived as well, so he gets promptly arrested. The final girl's mother passes on at the doctor's, and they are never seen again. The cops return to the station as the killer placenta's victim vomiting Boomer Bile, but he just dies. Also, it turns out that VIMMUVILLE vitamins have already made it to store shelves.

Movie over. What just happened?

I feel a little bad for saying this, but Body Melt, is a significantly worse film than it's elder cousin in the genre of "people melting randomly" films, Street Trash. They are both quirky genre films made by first (and last) time directors, involve a cast of eccentrics melting, and were basically made as special makeup effect showcases. But while Body Melt is chock full to its gills with Austrailian soap-opera stars (mostly from the Patrick McGoohan free Aussie staple Prisoner) Street Trash has a sweet Repo Man mise-en-scène and an honest-to-god plot. (Albeit one that is merely parallel to the melting.)

Google Street View circa 1993... for robots.

Indie genre filmmakers of the world, heed these words: come up with a story before you start planning the makeup effects. I don't care how good the makeup effects guy you already hired is or how much coin you snagged from those suckers at the Australian artist grant center. You risk becoming nothing more than "that bad movie with the killer placenta." At best a curious artifact of a specific time and place. (Seriously, what were we thinking with all that day-glow and rollerblading. If it wasn't for parachute pants, I'd be ready to write off the whole first half of the decade.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

I Come in Peace (1990)

William Burroughs once said something along the lines that the only thing truly dangerous about illegal drugs is the tendency of prohibitionists to take big steaming dumps all over everyones civil rights in the mad quest to stop people from getting high. Sadly, the last few decades have offered no refutations of his adage. Stuck between the immovable object of our demand for mind altering substances and the unstoppable force of the War on Drugs, the only things that ever give are the freedom of us little guys and occasionally the souls of various drug dealers and warriors. The sad inevitabilities surrounding drug use and the quixotic quest to eradicate it have made piles upon piles fascinating material for writers and filmmakers. From Shakespearian tragedies to bleach-bypassed action fests, people getting high makes for some solid drama. But what if instead of the people getting high, there are forces that want to get high off the people? (Whoa)

Another slice of fried VHS gold, I Come in Peace (or Dark Angel, as the opening credits would have you believe) tells the simple, wholesome story of an intergalactic drug dealer who comes to Earth to harvest human endorphins, which are a highly sought controlled substance on his home planet. Since people don't just walk around barfing up endorphins (or "brain-happy-juice" for the lay folk) he has a brilliant plan for creating some: steal a metric shitload of premo-smack from some terrestrial pushers, then start randomly shooting up strangers. Their mind-factories then kick the endorphin production lines into high gear, and he's free to extract. (With extreme prejudice, natch.)
Step #3: Profit

Another wrinkle in the plan is that drug dealers, whether from Andromeda or the East side, don't just hand over their suitcases of heroin. Luckily, the white haired/eyed/blooded xeno-dealer is loaded for bear. He boasts super strength and speed, electromagnetically powered, razor edged flying CDs, and the staple of early '90s sci-fi action films: a gun that shoots explosions. Also, his drug cooking tools (a Scorpion style flying spear to shoot people up, and a big spike to ram into people's brains afterward) make decent backup weaponry.
He's from space. That's why.

Sure his planet's equivalent of a DEA agent is hot on his tail, but we the audience know that there is truly only one man up to the job: Dolph Lundgren, the prognathic neanderthal forever saddled with the misfortune of being one notch under the likes of Segal and Van Damme. (Note to Dolph: If I even meet you, I promise to do the best I possibly can not to say "I must break you." Just give me a hard look and I'll shut up right quick.) When Dolph's partner has his cover blown and is executed by drug dealers it becomes personal, but when those dealers are in turn massacred by killer flying CDs from space, it becomes... less personal. He gets saddled with a "by the book" cliché partner played by Brian BenBen, whose family must not have been very creative about changing their name when getting off the boat.
If by now you have formulated some idea of how the plot of this movie will play out, you are already at least 90% correct. (The other 10% reserved for various plot threads that don't actually go anywhere, such as the FBI conspiracy to cover up the aliens' existence.) To put it bluntly, Predator 2 and 48 Hours made sweaty love to each other, and this is their cross-eyed, bow-legged hellspawn. No "buddy cop" or "killer alien vs. cop" maxim is too trite, nor is any one liner too eye-roll inducing to not be used. Just take a look at the trailer:

Notice how, spoilers be damned, they show the hero's final quip before vaporizing the enemy. (In a scene that "cleverly" mirrors the finale of the film mainly responsible for such cliche wisecrackery, Commando.) That is a brave choice in trailer editing, but a calculated one, as the target audience is clearly less interested in plot than seeing Dolph kick people and use automatic space pistols that shoot explosions.What makes I Come in Peace fascinating beyond its creaky plotting and so-so everything else, is the completely unhinged "world building" that goes on, despite the film ostensibly taking place in a regular, non-bizarro version of 1990 Houston. For instance, the drug peddling gang that finds itself caught in the middle of the alien/Dolph conflict is known as "The White Boys" and rather than being a biker gang or offshoot of the Aryan Nation, they are a described as a "Yuppie Gang." This apparently means that they are a gang of guys who wear nothing but business attire, drives only Ferraris, and have corporate style meetings in a posh downtown office building. Its the themed gangs of The Warriors taken to an extreme so absurd that they are almost completely indistinguishable from the archetype which inspired their costumes. That or a real corporate board went collectively mad and decided to start bringing guns to work and dealing drugs. Whatever the case, Dolph (and by extension the audience) simply accepts this at face value.On top of that, much of the supporting cast is operating at the peak of weirdness. When Dolph and his new partner are in need of leads, they decide to "pump Boner" (Boner being played by Michael J. Pollard) by jamming a pistol in his crotch, alternately terrifying and arousing him. (At least that's what it looks like.)When faced with the scientific dilemma of examining the dangerous killer CD, Dolph turns to Bruce the scientist (Mark Lowenthal), whose twitchy, hyperactive performance suggests he thinks he is in a different movie. He does get the movie's best line, as seen in the above trailer: "It's like turning your radio dial to K I L L." Perhaps these long stretches of exposition seemed flat to the director, prompting him to tell the actors to dial the craziness up to 11.As far as the aliens themselves, they kind of look like Siegfried & Roy possessed by the Necronomicon after hitting the 'roids something fierce.
Click for Formulaic Detail

The evil one can be spotted by his distinctive white hair and ability to withstand multiple direct hits from both space and regular guns. The good one contrasts this with dark hair, pattern baldness, knowledge of more English phrases than "I come in peace," and the inability to survive even a near miss from a space gun. He is also filled with delicious looking marshmallow goo.
Stay Puft SpaceMan

I Come in Peace is quite possibly the worlds most predictable film. When the mortally wounded non-evil spaceman sneaks into the back of Dolph's sweet ride to pass on the explosion-gun and the grim task of saving the Earth, I made a wisecrack about his corpse exploding in order to deprive the heroes of solid proof of his existence. A moment later, he promptly vaporized. Next I made a joke about the movie providing me with winning lottery numbers, but I guess it was too much to ask.

With that said, it is awfully hard not to like the movie a little bit. With the villain's slasher style picking of random victims, the supporting cast's gonzo gusto, and the explosions punctuating every other scene, (not to mention the cheesy early '90s rap) it makes for interesting background noise at the very least. It almost seems intentionally calibrated to the TBS/Sci-Fi Channel purgatory in which it will forever reside. TV commercials are often mixed louder (and pumped up with dynamic range compression) to make sure that viewers will still be able to hear them during the inevitable trips to the bathroom or kitchen. I Come in Peace applies the same philosophy to its writing, acting, and pacing; the viewer may only be half paying attention, they may have tuned in fifteen minutes after it started, and they might tune out a half hour before the end credits roll, but in that gossamer sliver of time, they will at least be partially engaged by the overacting, alien drug murders, and explody space pistols. It's just a shame that they'll have to miss out on the establishing shots in the strip club scene.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Get Your Killface On!

The delightful Arbogast on Film recently posted another of his hilarious recurring series Get Your Kill Face On, and while I'm stealing awesome big people words like "prognathic" from him, I might as well contribute the the following, care of tomorrow's review of I Come in Peace:

Outer Space Ultra Kill Face!

Head for the Hills! The Zombie Invasion Starts Soon!

io9 has a hilarious comparison of Avon's new marketing campaign with some of the viral(ish) teasers from Resident Evil Apocalypse. (Now if only the studio had hired filmmakers of the same caliber as the marketing team; then I wouldn't have to squint and cover my ears in order to pretend I'm watching a good zombie movie.)

I recently saw a big print ad for this somewhere (Target I believe) and had to stare at it for a little while and wonder about the sanity and cultural awareness of the Avon marketing department. Being commander cynical, my next thought was that it represented some sort of synergistic ploy on the parts of Capcom and Avon to cross promote their respective products... but that makes little to no sense considering the vast gulfs between the target markets of zombie fans and gracelessly aging women. I guess said gulfs are so vast that they never expected the RE market to even notice, or (more likely) the gulf is so big that they don't even know what the T-Virus is and it is all a big, goofy coincidence.

Once again, Occam's Razor sucks all the fun out of things.

Also, to the women who actually buy these things, resulting in the massive explosion of "wrinkle cure" banner advertising that has plagued the interwebs in recent years: we all get old and uggo eventually. The only thing that can really help is staying fit, eating right, and not overdoing your skin's exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Most everything else is just going to shrink your wallet and/or make you look like a waxen, inhuman corpse brought to life.... much like the T-Virus.

Okay, now I get it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Eulogy for Experimental Film

Read this excellent essay by CS Leigh. I agree with the characterization of Harmony Korine as the new face of "post-cinematic cinema," even if I do blame him for indirectly leading to the rise of the interminable Mumblecore genre. It's Dogme 95 meets Web 2.0 slacker navel-gazing, and it inherits the most annoying aspects of both. Kids, it doesn't count as creativity inducing artificial limitations when they are imposed by budget and talent rather than arbitrarily.

It's a brave new world folks; one that has sacrificed mystery and danger upon the alter of almighty convenience. On the other hand, it is also a paradise for the lazy fan of obscure genre films.

Slashers, Shooters, and Racists

It's Friday the 13th again already, and the mini horror deluge begins anew. The Last House on the Left remake is attempting to fill the slasher void with predictably middling reviews and 'torture porn' rants. I'd like to rise up to its defense, but it will almost certainly be terrible--not to mention painfully derivative by even the low standards of 21st century horror remakes. For a gander at the film's dubious pedigree, check my flowchart of its predecessors.

Today's other big release is the controversial (to say the least) action-horror videogame, Resident Evil 5. I really wish they would revert to the Japanese title, Biohazard, as their hasn't been anything particularly 'residential' about the series since the first title. It's a big release, certain to make sick piles of cash monies, but their are two very loud factions of detractors: people upset by the series' legacy controls, and people upset by the perceived racist imagery.

Early RE games were played on static, prerendered backdrops that acted like dramatic camera angles, giving the series a cinematic feel, enhancing its claustrophobic nature, and generally frustrating casual gamers to no end. The sublime fourth entry shook things up by cross breeding with a third person shooter to make the mutant hybrid known as 'stop-n-pop.' (Similar to the backwoods restroom technique: stoop-n-poop.) This retreat-position-aim-repeat gameplay, combined with its emphasis on self contained action setpieces, proved so popular that it has been the blueprint for a large cross-section of this generation's most entertaining games. Without RE4 there would certainly be no Gears of War or Dead Space.

Of course, now their are legions of gamers who are more familiar with permutations of Resident Evil 4 gameplay than the game itself, and when confronted with a game similar to GoW or Dead Space, only minus the ability to maneuver, they will freak out. Personally, the mere idea of RE4 style anything in HD releases a mass of endorphins into my cortex, and as strange as it might be moving back a generation control-wise, it only took two playthroughs of the demo to get back into the swing of things. Besides, in Dead Space (not so much in Gears, which leans further into the third person shooter realm) I never found myself relying on moving while shooting that much, anyway. The RE quickturn would have been preferable in many situations, too.

The other aspect of RE5 that is causing spastic freakouts and moral panics (in case you have been on Mars for the last few months) is the allegation of racism. Hackles are raised on both sides of the issues, and so many flame wars have begun on the topic that the entire internet is in danger of burning to the ground. I'm still waiting for my collector's edition of the game to arrive from Amazon, (fingers crossed for tomorrow) so I can't make any sort of final judgment, but here is what I've gathered so far:

-There is a 0% chance that this game will be intentionally racist. When the racism kerfuffle first reared its head, I commented to interested friends that it would be almost certain that the player would have an African sidekick of some sort or at least do some explicit rescuing of uninfected Africans. Sure enough, a few trailers later the makers introduced a black co-op partner, Sheva. Her light skinned appearance will certainly be made an issue of, but along with the fact that the villagers are obviously affected by one or more of the many viruses and parasites from the RE mythos, this should let some of the air out of the perception that the game is about killing Africans for the sake of killing Africans.

-On the other hand, if you are one of the many fanboys who get agitated at the very mention of racism, you are probably being willfully ignorant. The early trailers, showing white, musclebound Chris Redfield walking around a sinister African village, getting attacked by the townspeople, then beating the living shit out of said townspeople, are more than troubling without the proper context. This is the kind of imagery that David Duke wanks-off to, kiddies, and if the Resident Evil series wasn't so tightly bound to their B-movie narratives, it would not be a stretch for the remaining racists in our society to fire up the game in order to play make-believe racewar. (This is assuming that your average racist has enough imagination for such a task, but they did manage to pump out The Turner Diaries.)

The problem here is not the game itself or the decision to set it in Africa, but in Capcom's ill-thought out marketing campaign that released highly questionable imagery without the proper context. Fans of the series could easily guess at what the designers were going for (responding with uncomfortable facepalms or reflexive defensiveness) but anyone not familiar with the tropes of the series could easily be horrified. Judging from the mini media circuses that sprang up on the web with every early trailer, people obviously were.

Now that the game is out (USPS don't fail me now) everyone can play it for themselves, realize that the game is more interested with demonizing Wesker than the people of Africa, and chill the heck out.

Once again, sorry for the lack of substantial updates around here. I promise that the following will be coming soon: Body Melt, I Come in Peace, Class of 1999, an exploration of the films of BBC teleplay writer Nigel Kneale, and much, much more. In fact, I have a massive stockpile of films in desperate need of review, but no damn time to give them my usual "massive information dump" treatment.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Peeing in the Mainstream with Digital Dongs

It's a bit of a ghost town in here this week. Sorry. I'm in the final stages of buying a house, but things will be back to normal and firing with both barrels in a couple weeks.

Anywho, I finally made it out to Watchmen at the IMAX Monday, and it was pretty much what I expected. Visually spectacular, great casting, "Pruit Igoe," live action Rorschach; it was about as good as it could theoretically be, but still never gave a compelling case for its own existence outside of being an extension of the comic. I only know one person so far who has seen it without having read the source material, and he... didn't get it at all.

One area in which the movie is undeniably groundbreaking is in its use (or overuse depending on who you ask) of the rapidly emerging field of computer generated wangs. Let's take a look at the pioneers of this art:

1. Irréversible

It's a pretty safe bet that this movie will somehow make it onto every list I come up with. For the uninitiated, it is a chronologically backward faux-single take festival of human misery. (Check the above linked list for more details.) It also boasts the first ever digitally added penis. Obscuring genitalia has been old hat for the film & video world for a long time, and digital technology has facilitated that, but never before (that I know of) had a filmmaker needed to use the magic of CGI to insert a penis into a shot in which it was lacking.

The digi-dong occurs at the tail end of the film's infamous 10 minute, single take rape scene. Since actually raping Monica Bellucci would be an even more henous crime than forcing audiences to squirm through the disturbingly acurate simulation, the attacker's wang remained safely behind underwear. When he pulls out upon finishing, the director was forced to add a shadow covered dinky to maintain the scene's searing hyperreality. Because when you're attempting to psychologically damage people, you simply can't have them notice little things like that.

2. Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned

Never a game to shy away from controversy, Rockstar Games needed to come up with a new trick to upset its legions of moralistic foes. Blowing up police helicopters, running down hookers, swearing, and drug use simply are not enough to upset people these days. So they decided to offend outside the box with full frontal male nudity of the virtual kind.

The player character, a surly biker working odd jobs around the Liberty City underworld, gets a new provider of missions midway through: a corrupt politician who spends their first meeting buck ass naked. Knowing that rumors of the digi-wang would begin flying immediately, they decided to (um) tease the player for the majority of the cutscene by keeping said wang tastefully off camera. Just when you start to think that the internets have lied to you, they cut to a less tasteful medium close-up; pubes and all.

Think about it for a second. Someone had to make those scrotum textures. Someone had to design it in Maya. This isn't a shadowy silhouette penis; it is presented anatomically correct, in full detail.

On a related note: why must I keep falling for the cruel trick that is Grand Theft Auto multiplayer? Deathmatch is never fun, the team games are always empty, and everyone just does the races, which are fun for a minute before you realize that no one stands a chance in hell of getting within half a lap of the guy in first because of the brutal melee going on between third and fourth. It's the exact opposite of Mario Kart; not a rubber band, but a slingshot.

3. Watchmen

Yup. That is a big blue dingaling. ....and there it is again.Can someone get the Smurf-god a towel, please?

So, what say you? Anyone know of any other examples? How about female genitalia? Digi-boobs are practically the norm by now, which definitely says something about our culture, but as an appreciator of the incredible advances in videogame jiggle-physics I'm not going to complain.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Joys of Corrupt Digital Video

Back in my art school days I was absolutely fascinated by the strange artifacts caused by imperfections in digital video. While old fashioned celluloid has the advantage of existing as 24 discreet frames a second, the digital world has to be much more frugal. 30 full resolution stills take up far more space than one second of video, so in order to fit all the delicious content into your DVD and YouTube sandwiches, the programmers have to get creative.

Rather than diving into the technical end of things, lets just say that the various video compression algorithms out there have lots of very complicated ways of extrapolating your favorite hardcore porns and Sesame Street episodes from as little video information as possible.

In this way, digital video is more like human memory than an actual recording. The skeleton of the video is there, but the rest is being filled in by the codec as you play back. When something goes wrong, the error can cascade throughout the rest of the image like Sunny-Delight dumped into a river.

Back in 2006, I discovered this amazing use of intentional video corruption by a German multimedia artist.

Facinated, I eventually tracked the guy down and, via a series of poorly translated e-mails, talked him into revealing his secrets. Unfortunately, while the effect was easily duplicatable, Quicktime was unwilling to export the final product, rendering it ephemeral. The solution ended up being a complicated and unwieldy series of scripts dedicated to taking screen captures of the corruption in progress.

So for the last couple of years, the project has basically been shelved. Cue 2009, and it looks like everyone has beaten me to the punch. (That'll show me.)

One caveat of this effect is that much of the detail is lost when changing resolutions or recompressing for the web, so rather than embedding the next videos, I'll let you check out their HD versions on YouTube.

Here is a music video for "Evident Utensil" by Chairlift. This is the basic effect that I had been going for, only in an art film context rather than a music video. Check the YT uploader's page for instructions on how to do this yourself. His process is infinitely simpler and shorter than mine, but with somewhat less control. (Not that you have much to begin with. My experience with the effect was mostly "This shot/movement/transition might look cool. Let's see what happens.") Also, he calls it Datamoshing, which sounds really stupid.

Like a trend vampire waiting to pounce, here is Kanye West with a more subdued take. On the funny side, there are now legions of confused YouTube comments wondering why the video is "messed up."

Ultimately I am extremely torn by this turn of events. On one hand, the new corruption technique could save me a lot of time if I wanted to start the project back up. Also, I could watch the Evident Utensil video over and over and over, despite the aggravating male vocal that periodically rears its goofy head. On the other hand, why bother making an art film now that the effect has made it into rap videos -- isn't that a universal sign of something being played out?

More Corrupting Mashups!

An unintentional, unguided glitch.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hardware (1990)

After freebasing crappy genre films for long enough, it becomes pretty easy to predict what a new flick will provide. In fact, the vast majority of B-pictures are downright predictable to a fault. (Drinking Game Alert: rent the most obscure '80s slasher you can find, make predictions with your friends about the order of character deaths, then drink when you are proven correct. Drink more when you aren't.)

After tracking down a copy of the obscure, early '90s, post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk picture, Hardware, (also known as M.A.R.K. 13) I made a lot of assumptions about it during the first act. All I knew about it was that it is about a killer robot, and it was never given an official DVD release. That's a pre-qualification for Video Updates right there, so I never bothered to do any research. Turns out, nearly everything I assumed about the movie was completely bass-akwards. I don't know if that is the fault of the filmmakers' "world building" or my own close-mindedness, but it certainly lead to a motherload of the slack-jawed WTF moments that Video Updates is all about.

The film opens with a post apocalyptic desert and an intense blast of the color orange, who should probably get an associate producer credit. There is plenty of black, and some occasional browns and reds; once, near the end I spotted some blue, but for the most part all you'll see is orange. The sandy backdrop is disrupted by a nomad with a sweet gas mask and cowboy hat combo. He stumbles upon the scattered remains of some sort of robot and begins scavenging, unaware of the occasional twitch in the machine's hand.

Assumption #1: This will be a post-societal desert movie like The Road Warrior or Tank Girl.

Assumption wrong. A few scenes later and we're in a Blade Runner-esque, futuristic L.A. shithole, and far from roving bands of isolated survivors, there is a massive overpopulation problem. The desert is just a neighboring "forbidden zone," where our hero, played by a young Dylan McDermott, has been searching for old junk to give to his artist girlfriend. (Stacy Travis) Wait; not only has society not collapsed, it has a thriving art community? What kind of dystopia is this?

It's strange seeing McDermott in this sort of role. Actually it is strange seeing Dylan McDermott at all. Period. We don't normally run in the same moving picture circles, so I basically only know him from half remembered snippets of TV ads for The Practice. The guy is the most bland, generic "leading man" type I've ever seen; so much so that I'm fairly certain he was constructed (or grown) in a top secret lab of some sort.

Thought Experiment: write down words that physically describe McDermott, Jason Patric, and Keanu Reeves. (Example: beady, soulless eyes.) Now try to find something that couldn't apply to any of the three. Nothing? I thought so.

Okay, so he's no Bruce Campbell; let's not judge him too harshly. (Starting...... now) After buying the previously mentioned robo-wreakage from the wasteland scavenger, he gets a taxi-boat ride through (presumably) radioactive sewage care of an essential Lemmy cameo as the driver.

Rolling in with his wingman, Shades, (John Lynch, recently seen in Isolation) who is thus named because of his penchant for wearing... um... shades all the time, McDermott makes his way through the throngs of stairwell squatters to the blast doors of his lady's place. They arrive; there's tension in their relationship; he gives her the roboskull; blah blah blah.

Assumption #2: The robot will somehow reactivate and go kill crazy.

Assumption (eventually) correct! After, painting a gonzo American flag on it and welding it into a mural of cool looking metal shit, the machine promptly reactivates, steals electricity from nearby appliances, and starts reconstructing itself with various nearby artworks. Armed with various blugeons, buzzsaws, and a curiously dick-shaped drill, it is totally ready for the oncoming kill-craziness. Also, its glowing eyes and droopy, spiky lower-jaw give it more than a passing resemblance to your basic necromorph.

Assumption #3: (also #0) This will be a fairly straightforward killer robot movie.

Assumption so very naive and wrong. Why waste the budget on lots of sets and location shooting when you can confine the killbot to a large apartment for most of the movie? Okay, so it's an Alfred Hitchcock Presents style postapocalyptic dystopian killer robot movie, I can dig it. What I can't dig is the characters referring to the robot as a goddamn cyborg.

Attention early '90s sci-fi filmmakers: 'cyborg' is a portmanteau of 'cybernetic' and 'organism,' meaning a robot with people parts or a people with robot parts. It is not a synonym for robot. Every time you use the terms interchangeably, a nerd who might have gone on to cure cancer suffers a fatal aneurysm.

While his special someone plays cat and mouse with a disgruntled toaster, our hero discovers his dangerous junk from the wasteland dealer has been assassinated by the killbot's hand. Fortunately, the dude was recording his findings about the machine when it offed him, so everyone gets a convenient exposition dump. It turns out that the machine is a prototype model of the totalitarian state's upcoming population control program: killing people with badass robots. Programmed for maximum mean motherfuckery when subjects try to resist, the MARK 13 biblical-proportions killing unit is generally more humane in its work than other deathbots. It's ultimate weapon is an internal stockpile of potent neurotoxin that provides its victims with an intense feeling of euphoria and generally makes them trip balls for a bit before passing into the next world.

Back in the apartment, the damsel in distress has more to worry about than killer robots. It seems the massive perv spying on her from an adjacent building has picked this evening to make his big move. (Why he does this after clearly spying the killbot with his high-powered optics, or why he immediately forgets about it once he arrives will remain mysteries for the ages.) To make matters worse, the unit's huge blast door goes on the fritz, and only Creepy McPervyson knows how to get it open. Take a wild guess what happens to him.

Luckily, this particular killer robot has some obvious weaknesses. One that is unnecessarily telegraphed early on is water. (Dur. I saw Westworld, I know what happens when you splash water on your mechanical Roman concubine.) The other is that its vision is infrared, Predator style. As it closes in on our heroine, she uses this fact to her advantage by hiding in the fridge--with the door open. Neither her nor the filmmakers seem to be aware of how this would make her more visible rather than less, so it ends up working.

Much like The Rats will make your children too dumb to survive an outbreak of killer rats, Hardware should be avoided on the grounds of robotic uprising survival misinformation. We can't have our descendants responding to the activation of Skynet by suffocating themselves in refrigerators.

So while the guys are trying to force open her blast doors (hehe), the damsel decides to take matters into her own hands and, after a frantic struggle, cranks the gas on and blows up her entire kitchen.

Assumption #4: Having exploded its robot, the movie is over.

Assumption wrong. I know they mentioned Mark 13's aversion to moisture earlier, but there is something very climactic about destroying half your apartment in order to blow up the evil robot trying to saw you a new one. Not climactic enough, apparently; a quick check of the run time reveals that we're just starting act 3. What on earth could Hardware have in store for us in the next half hour?

Total batshit insanity, apparently. Dylan and the building's security guys go nuts with auto-shotguns, somebody gets chopped in half by the blast door, Mark 13 gets his chainsaw-wang wet, everybody falls out a window and pretends they're in Blade Runner, and our poor hero gets injected with happy-fun-time euthanasia serum, resulting in at least fifteen solid minutes of him tripping balls, and giving the filmmakers an excuse to completely stop making sense. For instance, the not tech-savvy whatsoever heroine suddenly gains the ability to hack into the robot's CPU remotely (dystopian WiFi perhaps?) from her giant door opening telephone console. Also, everyone constantly forgets about the robot when it isn't on screen. Poor thing probably just wants some attention.

The death trip warrants special attention for both its randomness and intensity. The flickering lights, woozy camera, and wide angle lenses are reminicent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, only with more fractals.

Eventually they manage to take Mark 13 out once and for all by shooting it point blank in the face with a Desert Eagle while giving it a relaxing hot shower. Ah H20, the kryptonite of the destructo-bot world. Someone should have told Dave Bowman that all he had to do was spill his drink on HAL.

Hardware is a goofy little chunk of cinema, but like many films unavailable on DVD, it raises the question: "Why is this floating in the either of obscurity while so much blindingly awful drek manages to make the digital transition?" Especially considering this was an early Weinstein Bros. production with enough clout for Lemmy and Iggy Pop to make cameos. (Oh wait.) After doing a little research, I discovered that there is a pretty obvious reason that Hardware languishes in release limbo: Richard Stanley, the "writer" & director, ripped the whole thing off from a 2000 AD comic, which you can read in its entirety here. Needless to say, the comic's creators sued the pants off of someone (probably lots of someones), got themselves full writing credits, and probably created a massive legal clusterfuck around the film's ownership and distribution rights. It's likely that no one wants to (or will ever want to) do the necessary courtroom throwing down required to get this strange little slice of 1990 into your region 1 DVD player.

And what a slice it is. I will never tire of watching cyberpunk films that predate the rise of the internet. In the future, it seems everyone will communicate with giant consoles cobbled together from miscellaneous conduits and snowy, buzzing cathode ray tubes. Noirish blinds will be all the rage, and we will all make love in the shower to the soothing sounds of Public Image Ltd. without first removing our robo-hands. Oh yeah, and killer robots sporting American flag paintjobs will cull the population with neurotoxins that smell like apple pie and get you totally high... in addition to killing you.