Thursday, March 26, 2020

REIGN OF FIRE (2002): THE TRUE COVID-19 "SHELTER-IN-PLACE" FILM, ... LEMME EXPLAIN! - by CEJ



________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!



REIGN OF FIRE 

Dir. by - Rob Bowman 
Prod. by - Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck, 
Roger Birnbaum, 
Gary Barber,  
Screenplay - Matt Greenberg, 
Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka 
Director of Photography - 
Adrian Biddle
Edited by - Declan McGrath, Thom Noble 
Production Design - 
Wolf Kroeger
Music - Edward Shearmur
Run Time: 102 mins.  
Release: 7/12/2002

Production Companies - Touchstone, Spyglass Entertainment, The Zanuck Co.
Dist. by - Buena Vista Pictures

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)


_______ "Knowledge is the only weapon we've got left. 
In the beginning it was ignorance which destroyed us" _______ 



     In recent days countless millions around the globe forced to “shelter in place” at home due to the spreading coronavirus have not only found themselves rediscovering old fave pleasures like family meal times, reading, and tossing the ball around the backyard with the kids, but also, perhaps unsurprisingly, enjoying one which in less restrictive times might have been considered a lazy and irresponsible betrayal of adulthood, ... or at the very least the last Jay & Silent Bob-like refuge of the perenially "blunted"  - bingeing on movies for days at a time. Who’d a thunk it, huh? And among the most popular filmic subjects have been (no drum roll because ultimately it's “No duh!”, right?) those dealing with pandemics and global disasters. Netflix recently reported that on Friday March 20, 2020 alone the docu-series PANDEMIC: HOW TO PREVENT AN OUTBREAK, the CW mini-series CONTAINMENT, and the feature films OUTBREAK (1995) and CONTAGION (2011) topped it’s charts, with flicks like 2012 and WORLD WAR Z following closely behind.

Margaret Atwood / Rod Serling

     “No duh?” because this is not only what art does, but (more importantly) this is what art / the arts were always intended to do. It is the very reason for art's existence in all of it's facets. Yes, including the one-legged, buck-toothed, "bastard son of a thousand maniacs" offshoot of the family - film. Former Smithsonian / Renwick Gallery director Elizabeth Broun once oh-so-accurately stated that “Art is not always about pretty things; it’s about who we are, what happened to us, and how are lives are affected”. Rod Serling famously acknowledged that “… with THE TWILIGHT ZONE I knew I could get away with Martians saying things Republicans and Democrats couldn’t”, and in a 2018 interview with The Guardian, THE HANDMAID’S TALE author Margaret Atwood - commenting on the eerie contemporary prescience of her 1985 novel in conjunction with the rising #MeToo movement - set things very straight, stating …


     “I’m not a prophet, let’s get rid of that idea right now. ‘Prophecies’ are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have". And about THE HANDMAID'S TALE in particular she added, "Sorry to have been so right”. OUCH!

     Speaking as a writer / screenwriter myself (and I believe for others too), we often stare out the window wondering what makes something genuinely scary, funny, sexy or whatever. And the answer to that question is usually what happens to be occurring outside that window on any given day. It’s all about context: how what was once not considered scary or “effective”, “deep” or “pertinent”, and what may have previously been written off as little more than “fanciful” or any number of other dismissive terms, can - in one instant / with one event - suddenly find itself pivoting on the dime into the exact opposite; and, not unlike Atwood’s HANDMAID‘S TALE, becoming “prophetic“, “observant“ or “perceptive“. Of course the “vice versa“ version of that holds true as well. And forgive one more example, but it’s the best of ‘em of all - a personal one Stephen King relates in his sprawling 1981 non-fiction look at culture, pop culture and more (it’s also perceptively funny as f**k too!) DANSE MACABRE.

Stephen King

     In one reminiscence the Maestro Of Horror relates how at age ten he and a group of friends eagerly piled into a local theater to see Ray Harryhausen’s EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. And they were enjoying the hell out of it’s escapist thrills - what with those awesome-to-this-day stop motion animated flying saucers descending from the clouds to obliterate Washington, D.C. - something to which Roland Emmerich’s INDEPENDENCE DAY would tip it’s hat in far more grand fashion forty years later.

     Anyway, it was simple escapist fun until smack dab in the middle of said great death ray obliteration the film stopped, the house lights came up, and the manager took the stage with a grim look on his face, gulped and - feeling it was of the utmost importance and duty to do so - informed everyone that the Russians had just launched Sputnik into orbit, beating America into space, and that the satellite was most likely passing over the U.S. at that very moment. After the announcement the lights went back down, the film resumed, … and suddenly the idea of America being attacked from space was no longer innocent escapist “fun”. For little Stephen and his posse of Saturday afternoon movie hommies, in an instant EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS had morphed from a fanciful sci fi flick into a wholly unintended yet now very effective horror film. And it was all based upon context - on what was going on outside the proverbial window at that particular moment. 

TOP: Sputnik 1 launches (Oct. 4, 1957);
BOTTOM: EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS debuts (June 13, 1956) 

     Now, with that understood, I’ve never felt (and especially in the last few weeks) that films like OUTBREAK or CONTAGION, … or even earlier techno thrillers like 1971’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN or 1965’s THE SATAN BUG were the most accurate “pandemic” films. Don't get me wrong, they’re all phenomenal. But they tend to focus more on the inanimate “outbreak” itself; and this is fine. But I’ve always found to be more prescient, engrossing, perceptive or “spot on” (choose your term) the less obvious film examinations. Those which - like Rod Serling’s Martians - create a timeless “McGuffin”-esque stand-in. Those which don’t focus on the “pandemic” as the antagonist per se as much as on how the pandemic merely serves as a catalyst to the real contagion which is the reaction of the populace (large or small / microcosmic or macrocosmic) to the introduction of that strain, bio-invader, etc.


     As such, films I find to now be the most accurate, and by extension perhaps more "COVID-19 cathartic" in the sense of allowing us to exorcise certain unspoken (not just medical and scientific, but socially interactive) anxieties, are those such as John Carpenter’s THE THING, Frank Darabont’s THE MIST, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, and perhaps one of the most underrated, somewhat forgotten and, in retrospect, most eerily spot-on-the-money - Rob Bowman’s 2002 (what wiki amusingly categorizes as) “post apocalyptic science fantasy film” REIGN OF FIRE.


_______ "The only thing worse than a dragon ... . Americans!" _______


     If for the sake of arguing you want to talk non-genre films which effectively mine the "group psychology reaction to a pandemic or crisis" theme, you can very much toss those close-quartered Agatha Christie whodunnits into the pot - among them MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, DEATH ON THE NILE and TEN LITTLE INDIANS - where the unknown mystery murderer is the "pathogen". And you can surely superimpose John Ford’s FORT APACHE, and especially Ed Zwick’s 1998, pre 9/11 drama THE SIEGE (both where so-called / so believed socio-ethnic "outsiders" become the inciting catalyst for group paranoia and an examination of self) onto the paradigm as well.


     Hell, just substitute today‘s “forced to shelter-in-place” edict and a spreading virus scenario in place of APACHE’s “Little Bighorn”-inspired attack; and do the same for THE SIEGE’s inciting terrorist incidents in the Big Apple, and you've plainly got within these "old movies" versions of everything “today" and fascinatingly "up-to-the-minute reactionary” - from Donald Trump’s daily press conferences, to civilians rushing to horde goods, to a populace perhaps more keen on finding a scapegoat than a solution, and even the singling out of one ethnic group upon which to unleash a larger collective’s sense of fear, paranoia and pent-up hostility.

     It’s as surely evident in those aforementioned non-genre films as is Atwood’s “theocratic HANDMAID'S TALE nightmare” coming to all-too-accurate near fruition every night on our evening news. And, hey, recognizing these (I don’t think I risk disagreement from anyone in calling them) "societal warts" isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not if we can observe and - as the arts allows us to do - study and learn more about ourselves from our cinematic avatars / alter egos under those filmic “lab”-like conditions in the hope of avoiding the mistakes the fictional versions of ourselves make. Ultimately it is those mistakes which we alternately find dramatic, scary, funny and more. At any rate, in regards to their genre counterparts ...


     I’ve always felt science fiction, fantasy and horror to be an even more accurate representation / barometer of contemporary social anxieties because by the very nature of genre - wherein a larger-than-life and often surreal scenario is created in order to not necessarily address those anxieties directly - they ironically allow for both a more sub-consciously honest discussion of those anxieties by the film makers, and a more sub-consciously honest (though usually unspoken) response to them by the audience. In a certain way audiences and individuals are able to enter into a sub-conscious cinematic “dream state” where fears, hang-ups and non-verbalized trauma can be parsed out, sifted through and dealt with. This whereas a more direct addressing of those same traumas, et al can - and frequently is - met with an insistent denial that the trauma even actually exists.


     For support / proof of this notion refer to the various forms of present day art therapy - the roots of which can be traced back to aspects of Freud’s THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS. And note how said therapy today is consistently and successfully used in the treatment and recovery of those suffering from war induced PTSD, sexual assault posttraumatic stress disorder and other deep psychological traumas. If that's all just a bit too heavy, okay. Then consider a more user friendly “simply cool-assed movie” example of the same, ... though on a national scale. Think back on the films of late 2001 and early '02, and of the dwindling box office in the days after 9/11 when many in the U.S. stayed home in fear; this fear and uncertainty not only driving an icy cold economic dagger into the heart of the film industry, but into that of the American consumer economy in general as well.

September 11, 2001

     Then think of one film in particular, Sam Raimi’s original SPIDER-MAN - the first major studio post 9/11 release (in May 2002) which featured a New York City under siege by a terroristic entity (here in the form of the Green Goblin), but which in the end - with the help of a masked representative of the common man and woman - emerges as a city which survives, overcomes and triumphs. This not unlike the film itself which became the top box-office grosser of the year, financially besting even the eagerly anticipated STAR WARS: ATTACK OF THE CLONES until later that Christmas when nudged from the #1 spot by the second HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS entries. That first SPIDER-MAN film also rewrote the concept of the modern day summer blockbuster.

SPIDER-MAN (2002)

     It’s always been my belief that Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN provided an “eager to deal with the trauma” American public a masked (no pun intended) means of parsing out arguably it's most deeply ceded nationally traumatic nightmare since the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a mass scale emotional catharsis which more direct “terrorism on domestic soil” films (and damned good ones too!) like Andrew Davis’ COLLATERAL DAMAGE (released Feb. ’02) and the Tom Clancy adaptation THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (May ’02) didn’t allow because the public just wasn’t yet ready to deal directly and specifically with that subject. All of which brings us to REIGN OF FIRE. 

_______ "We can do this easy, ... or we can do this real easy" _______


     I’ve always loved REIGN OF FIRE, but admittedly originally it was more in that Stephen King-like EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS / “10-yr.-old-boy-who’ll-never-grow-up”-gee-whiz!-I-love-the-smashing-together-of-genres-in-this-bad-assed-manner" sort of way.  Also not unlike the "Stephen King / EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS thing", however, my perception of the film changed (though with me over the years as opposed to a few moments caused by Sputnik) as I came to discover it's more (let’s call it) ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE / PLANET OF THE APES / TWILIGHT ZONE-like ability to cleverly, wittily (and now even disturbingly) exemplify a socio-political subtext which may have always been there, but which never had the catalyst applied (the “just add water” element if you will) which would make that subtext more obviously pronounced. I love when a film does this, ... and when we allow a film to do this, ... rather than placing it in a forever impenetrable and immovable bottle of preconceived, narrow-minded opinion.

REIGN OF FIRE dir. Rob Bowman

     Written by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg, and directed by Rob Bowman (best known at the time for multiple episodes of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, X-FILES and CASTLE, as well as the feature film X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE), 2002’s REIGN OF FIRE opens in (then) contemporary London where, during a renovation project deep within the bowels of the city’s Underground rail system, an ancient cave is breached and a dragon in uber hibernation is awakened and loosed upon the world.

     Yeah, this is straight-ahead pulp-type material of the QUATERMASS sort if there ever was. But, as with the best pulp material, it sets up a wonderful tabula rasa onto which any number of subtextual elements can be emblazoned.


     A montage of images, clippings and narration fills us in on later discovered facts: namely how long ago the dragon's kind, after exterminating dinosaurs on earth and thereby exhausting their food source, went into hibernation until a new source arose - mankind. Then, after that London Underground incident, and being unleashed once again upon the earth, they expanded from continent to continent like a rapidly growing viral plague and repopulated the planet. By 2020 when the rest of the film takes place (interesting date, huh?) - aided and abetted by mankind nearly wiping itself off the globe by using nuclear weapons in it’s war against the creatures - the dragons became the dominant species while small pockets of humanity learned to shelter-in-place in hidden communities, fearful and adhering to strict quarantines and martial law policies which if breached run the chance of exposing the remaining survivors to the plague that is the hungry hunter dragons.


     Responsible for such a hidden community in a retrofitted Northumberland castle is Quinn Abercromby (THE DARK KNIGHT’s Christian Bale) - who as a child watched his mother die in that Underground construction site that fateful day, and his trusted brother-like companion Creedy (300’s Gerard Butler). Within that quarantined community all is far from well, however, as a philosophical conflict has been growing over the years between those who feel the safest and wisest continued course of action is to remain in place, while others - mostly a younger generation tired of seclusion - seeks to break containment. Early in the narrative a small group of “containment breakers” rebelliously leave camp, and in so doing tragically gives away the position of the castle. The dragons, aware of a new and plentiful food source, then launch a series of nocturnal attacks on the increasingly beleaguered Northumberland battlements.


     But as if that weren't enough, the philosophical conflict between the Brits becomes worse - turning into a clash of national cultures when a small military unit of Americans who call themselves the “Kentucky Irregulars”, lead by the half-mad Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) and his second in command Alex Jensen (GOLDENEYE’s Izabella Scorupco), arrive with a tank, helicopters and a Lockheed Galaxy battle cruiser aircraft, claiming that they’ve killed dragons around the world, and have now tracked the species Queen to her layer in London. Van Zan seeks to recruit Quinn’s people for what he believes will be the final battle between man and dragon. This while Quinn resists, ... and as Creedy finds himself emotionally and philosophically torn between the two leaders and their diametrically opposed courses of action.

     To call this a wild and woolly yarn is an understatement.


     Perhaps REIGN OF FIRE was a bit too wild and woolly for the box office. Not a financial success upon initial release, it wasn't helped by mixed reviews from critics - most of whom comfortably settled upon the notion that it was “well wrought yet mindless fun” and little else. But I’ve always disagreed. Perhaps not to the same degree, but in similar fashion to how long before the Columbine and other school mass shootings occurred I’d always interpreted Stephen King’s CARRIE as a thinly veiled (genre safe?) examination of the uncomfortable (and mostly then un-discussed) topics of school bullying and resultant exponential school violence, so had I always seen and interpreted Bowman’s “military vs. dragons” yarn as trafficking in that same "group psychology during a siege" territory as had the earlier mentioned John Carpenter’s THE THING, King’s THE MIST, and Scott’s ALIEN - all where a “pathogen” of some kind is introduced into a small community, and it’s presence causes the unleashing of long repressed and unacknowledged fears, prejudices and more within that community where it's residents had previously been (for the most part) “peacefully” coexisting within the boundaries of polite society and law.

Sheltering in Place - Top to bottom: THE THING (1982) / THE MIST (2007) /
TWILIGHT ZONE "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" (1960)

     Bringing Rod Serling back into the mix, if there's anything the three aforementioned films all have in common ... . If there's a similar substance running through their thematic central nervous systems, it's a very pronounced  "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" aspect. Their narrative, character and thematic DNA all harken back to the now iconic Serling-scripted 1960 TWILIGHT ZONE episode wherein, after the introduction of an alien "pathogen" element into the OZZIE & HARRIET-like suburban hamlet of Maple Street, trust and law becomes supplanted by fear, a so-called survival of the fittest mindset, paranoia, mistrust and a questioning (for better and for worse) of long-held beliefs. This same narrative-thematic virus (sorry, couldn't help it!) runs through the platelets of Bowman's great big, hairy-chested, dragon-ized, rip roaring pulp yarn cum social allegory. And it's never been as pronounced till now. Till glancing out the window, then viewing it yet again in light of the current "shelter-in-place" COVID-19 crisis where it almost becomes an entirely new film.


     Hmmm? Am I reading more into REIGN OF FIRE than is actually there? To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I guess I have to acknowledge that it's possible. But I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I honestly don’t think I’m giving the film more cred than it deserves. There’s a good way to find out for sure, though. Judge for yourself. During the coming weeks - or however long the “shelter-in-place” edict continues to exists in many areas here and abroad ... . Y'know, during one of those movie binge days, evenings or weekends, rustle up REIGN OF FIRE On Demand or via any one of the many streaming outlets where it’s readily available. I've even seen DVD copies in various department store cheapie bins for three or so bucks. And, hey, over the years it has managed to attain a rather fervent cult following.


     Give it a look-see, or if you've seen it before ... another look-see in light of recent events. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how clever, canny and (especially nowadays) how human-nature-perceptive it genuinely is.

     Stay safe all.

     “Ooh Rah!”



                                                                                                              CEJ

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

STAR TREK: PICARD (HEARTBREAK, BEAUTY, HISTORY AND) "ABSOLUTE CANDOR" / Ep.#4 - by CEJ



________________________________________________

VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!



STAR TREK: PICARD 
"ABSOLUTE CANDOR" 

Directed by - Jonathan Frakes 
Produced by - 
Akiva Goldsman,
Michael Chabon, 
Alex Kurtzman, 
Jenny Lumet, Patrick Stewart, Rod Roddenberry, Trevor Roth
Written by - Michael Chabon
Based Upon - 
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION - created by Gene Roddenberry 
Dir. of Photography - 
Darran Tieran
Editor - Sarah C. Reeves 
Music - Jeff Russo
(ST: THE MOTION PICTURE
Theme - Jerry Goldsmith)

Run Time: 44 mins. 
Release (2/13/20) 



Production Companies - Secret Hideout / Weed Road Pictures / Escapist Fare / Roddenberry Entertainment / CBS Television Studios 

Dist. - CBS Television Dist. / CBS All Access  
GullCottage rating (***** on a scale of 1-5)

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     Only watched the most recent episode (# 4) of STAR TREK: PICARD, "Absolute Candor", tonight. Well, early A.M. actually. And, directed by "No. 1" himself - Jonathan Frakes, and written by Pulitzer Prize winning author (and PICARD co-show runner) Michael Chabon, I honestly don't think it's a stretch to call it the best entry thus far, ... which is saying something as all the episodes in this - one of the best of the TREK universe reboots - have been damned phenomenal. Back in the 1960s a number of French cinema journalists (some of whom later became legendary film makers themselves) coined the phrase "Testament Film" wherein one film in essence "summed up" what a particular filmmaker was (for lack of a better term) "all about". 


     Along those lines many agree that CITIZEN KANE is Orson Welles' Testament Film, that VERTIGO is Hitchcock's, and so forth. Nowadays, of course, film fans love to argue these things with debates flipping from E.T. to SCHINDLER'S LIST as Spielberg's, BLADE RUNNER vs. ALIEN with Ridley Scott (though I'd personally go with LEGEND - as the term denotes "most indicative", and not necessarily "best", popular or most acclaimed), and BRAZIL / THE FISHER KING in regards to Terry Gilliam, etc. Anyway, all of that to say (for me at least), if there's such a thing as a "Testament Episode" for a series, I'd chalk up "Absolute Candor" as STAR TREK: PICARD's thus far. 

     What I'm loving about this series (and specifically about this particular entry) is - of course - what it does, but also what it doesn't do. It would be far too easy to (and other TREK series have made the mistake of) retreading / revisiting / redoing favorite 'ol STAR TREK tropes. But as such, I mean, c'mon, how many times can you blow up the Enterprise (or other beloved vessel), defy Starfleet and go renegade because of one's conscience, get out of a jam by creating a nifty / radical / "foolish" military maneuver, et al and expect to get the same thrill or emotional tug from the audience? Hey, this may be a "left field" analogy, but bear with me and think of how some of the most intriguing musical scores in a given popular series of films have been those which don't lean upon beloved (and sometimes overused) themes. 


     John Williams' INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, Hans Zimmer's INFERNO, and David Arnold's CASINO ROYALE kind of choose to not (as Spielberg once referred to it) rely upon the emotional shortcut of "pressing the musical thrill button" of familiarity every time we have an action sequence. And as such when a familiar / beloved theme is eventually used - such as when Daniel Craig finally says at the end of CASINO ROYALE "My name is Bond, James Bond", and we hear "The James Bond Theme" for the first time in all it's uninterrupted big brass and twangy guitar glory, it really means something. Anyway,  STAR TREK: PICARD as a series - and "Absolute Candor" specifically - similarly interpolates various characters, cultures, themes and more from previous TREK films and series, but it doesn't retread or rely upon them. 

Ep. #1 - "Remembrance" (debut 1/23/20)

     Those references (and at times fan saavy Easter Eggs) are more like a sprinkling of seasoning there to add to an impressively elegant meal combo of narrative, character and thematics - already tasty in it's own right. And this rather than used to cover up a lack of quality or originality - y'know, the narrative, character and thematic version of "leaving something in the oven too long, scorching the hell out of it, then desperately trying to cover things up before the guests arrive". Like I said, maybe a "left field" analogy, but you totally get where I'm coming from, yes? As for that aforementioned quality and originality (and trenchant emotional and contemporary socio-political resonance) exemplified in what the series does and doesn't do ...

Hannelle M. Cooper / dir. - Ep.#1: "Remembrance" (1/23/20),
Ep.#2: "Maps And Legends (1/30/20)

     PICARD (and this most recent episode) are kinda / sorta big time liars ... in the very best way. In the trailers we get all of the "thrill button" stuff. And, yeah, that's fun. But the series itself is pleasantly / surprisingly much more literate. In fact it often narratively unfolds in a (more common to novels; less common with film and TV) non chronological / non-linear manner. For example in Episode #1 - "Remembrance" (directed by CRIMINAL MINDS and GRIMM's Hanelle Culpepper; and scripted by Akiva Goldsman & James Duff from a story by Goldsman, Chabon, Kirsten Beyer and Alex Kurtzman) we learn of a years ago plan by the Federation to relocate the Romulan population after a horrific supernova, and how that plan was aborted in the proverbial 11th hour - thus leaving many Romulans stranded (or abandoned and betrayed - take your pick of terminology!) in mid relocation by Starfleet after the outbreak of a war on Mars lead by a group of rouge "synthetics" (androids) threw the monkeywrench of fear into Federation Command.


     Fast forward to now, and the opening moments of "Absolute Candor", where details are filled in with a flashback to 14 years prior when Picard shared the trust of much of the Romulan refugee population, and the particular admiration of a young orphaned Romulan boy to whom the retired Admiral served as something of a surrogate father figure. After the Federation abandonment, however (deliberately reminiscent of the plight of Cuba's "Boat People" in the mid 1990s, and the infamous fate of Jewish refugees aboard the ocean liner St. Louis in 1939 - which was the inspiration for the 1977 film VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED), not only has Picard quit / retired from Starfleet in protest of said abandonment. But he's now thought of as a traitor to justice by many Romulans - some of whom have since "merely" become racially embittered (the "Romulans Only" sign in front of the cafe / bar is a stinging historical jab), and others who have become terrorists.

     Among those who felt most personally betrayed is the young boy - Picard's "surrogate son" if you will - now grown into an adult with formidable combat skills. At any rate this is how PICARD thus far puts character above the "thrill button" material, ... but which, yes, still always manages to give us at least one (and sometimes two) well realized "thrill button" sequences per episode.


     As for characterizations I'm absolutely enamored at how the series takes certain (let's be nice and call them) cinema tropes and turns them slightly on their ear. Santiago Cabrera as Cristóbal Rios - Captain of the "ship for hire" ... which is, ehhh, ... "leased" by Picard for his personal mission - is a nifty twist on the "former military man become a pirate" cliche'. At first we expect but another "Han Solo"-type knockoff. But by episode #4 we come to realize Rios is a rather cultured and complex individual who (among other things) loves old fashioned "paper reading material" (aka - books) and opera; and is, not unlike Picard, dealing with his own bulging closet full of personal demons from his past.

Jonathan Frakes / dir. - Ep.#4: "Absolute Candor" (2/13/20),
Ep.#5 "Stardust City Rag" (2/20/20)

     Rios' emotionally divided nature (which back in the days of Disney's PINOCCHIO was visually exemplified by Jiminy Cricket on the puppet boy's shoulder as he attempted to be the better part of his conscience) is here rather wittily visually represented via his ship's various "EH" (Emergency Hologram) crew members - each neural based A.I. unit patterned (psychologically "cloned" - if you will) after Rios' own brain engrams, but at the same time with distinct personalities of their own which often verbally argues / debates with the war scarred former soldier.


     In a more modern (and earthy) depiction of a TREK crew's "Number 1" officer, LAW & ORDER: SVU's Michelle Hurd portrays Raffi Musiker - once Picard's right hand during the ultimately abandoned Romulan evacuation. While Picard dealt with the tragedy by disappearing into his family vineyard back in France, Raffi over the years sank into a life of substance abuse which she is battling when Picard re-enters her life and asks her for help.

Ep. #2 - "Maps And Legends" (1/30/20)

     It would have been easy (and lazy) to make the fish-out-of-water Dr. Agnes Jurati - portrayed by CONFESSION OF A TEENAGE DRAMA QUEEN and THE BOOK OF DANIEL's Allison Pill - the (these days now cliche'd) "hip female nerd" scientist, not unlike Pauley Parrette's Abby from NCIS, and Kirsten Vangsness' Penelope Garcia from CRIMINAL MINDS, and / or to play such a character for laughs. But Pill's Jurati - the foremost expert in "Advanced Synthetic Research" at the Daystrom Institute (and see the 1968 TREK episode "The Ultimate Computer" as a reference to where said institute's name originates - heh! heh!) - emerges as not only intelligent but (most importantly) very real and afraid, ... but more afraid to not listen to her conscience, even if doing so comes at the cost of her career and maybe even her life.


     In some respects she becomes the series "touchstone" character in that she's the most normal (at least in the TREK world) and identifiable to the audience at large, and therefore kind of comes to represent us as we might be if we found ourselves tumbled through the looking glass into a similar sci fi scenario.


     In a nutshell with PICARD we've got some of the most beautifully and realistically realized characters in any TREK incarnation ever! Not to mention perhaps one of the hands-down most multi-layered and fascinating looks at any of the canon's alien cultures - here depicting the Romulans as we've never seen them before. And, oh yeah, while - in keeping with the "less is more" philosophy - the manner in which Jerry Goldsmith's original STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE theme (which also became the theme to THE NEXT GENERATION) is sparingly used by series composer Jeff Russo is nothing short of brilliant and at times extremely subtly touching. I'd be shocked if this episode doesn't net him an Emmy nomination next year - especially considering that heartstoppingly beautiful "mini ballet" piece heard during a short romantic "ice skating" interlude.

Ep. #3 - "The End Is The Beginning" (2/6/20)

     One more thing too. And it may be my imagination, but did I hear a very faint reference in "Absolute Candor" to Michael Giacchino's "Romulan Theme" from J.J. Abrams' 2009 STAR TREK film? Like I said, it may be my imagination only hearing what it wants to hear. But it may not be! I'll give a more close listen during the rewatch. And, hey, that next episode, "Stardust City Rag" looks like sheer bad-assery-ness and fun! Just as how the original series every now and then took a nice break every few episodes to give the audience a relief from heavy drama, heady sci fi and social commentary, etc., and just took us on a rollicking old-school action adventure ride, so does "Star City Rag", featuring the return of Jeri Ryan as former Borg drone "Seven Of Nine", seem to fit that bill.

Ep. #5 - "Stardust City Rag" (2/20/20)

     It's no exaggeration to say that STAR TREK: PICARD is presently doling out some of the best television presently being produced. And if "Absolute Candor" is truly a testament of more to come, all I can say is "Hell yes, ... 

     ... make it so!".

                                                       CEJ

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Vaulted Treasures is part of The GullCottage / Sandlot - a film blog, 
cinema magazine, growing reference library and online network 
"Celebrating The Art of Cinema, ... And Cinema As Art"

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

MOVIE-BLAST SAMURAI!: "THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN" CUTS TO THE GENRE QUICK - by CEJ



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VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!



THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN 

Directed by - 
Kevin McTurk 
Produced by - 
Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki,
Heather Henson, 
Lisa Henson, 
Elias Savada, 
Jason Speer
Written by 
Tab Murphy
Story by - 
Tab Murphy 
& Kevin McTurk
Dir. of Photography - 
Bennett Cerf
Editor - 
Michael Fallavollita 
Music - Will Thomas


Run Time: 16 mins. / Release: Sept. 2019 (Portugal / France) Fall / Winter 2019 - 2020 (Festival Circuit) / Production Company - The Spirit Cabinet

GullCottage rating
(***** on a scale of 1-5)

__________ “I have seen horrors no mortal ever should” __________


     In medieval Japan a lone ronin (masterless samurai) swordsman forces the cursed severed head of an undead warrior to lead him to the mountaintop lair of “The Black Monk” - a supernatural oracle whom the swordsman believes possesses information which will allow him to hunt down and destroy the powerful soul-eating demon who slaughtered his shogun master as part of a plan to raise an army of the dead to conquer the world. Before reaching the Monk, however, the swordsman must hack his way through a gauntlet of bloodthirsty monstrosities including a cadaverous witch with mind-bending abilities, a colossus-like gatekeeper who seems to feel no pain, and - most terrifyingly - his own sense of guilt, remorse and failure. Oh yeah, this epic tale is told in 16 minutes, … and with puppets! 


     I was fortunate enough to catch the bunraku-style puppet-animated short THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN, and … . Nah, that’s not entirely accurate. I was fortunate enough to be efffin' blown away! by THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN. Yeah, that's more-like-it right. Scripted with old-school brio by Tab Murphy (of GORILLAS IN THE MIST, LAST OF THE DOGMEN and Disney’s HUNCHBACK, ATLANTIS and TARZAN), and directed with the stylish grimoire gloom of a kaidan ghost story (by way of a jidaigeki actioner) by Stan Winston Studios alum Kevin McTurk, the crowdsourced HAUNTED SWORDSMAN proves that less is more as it elicits more grins, chills and grindhouse-style viewer shouts (at least from me!) during it’s brief running time than many studio tentpole blockbusters dole out in a self-importantly stretched out three hours. 


     What are some famous quotes about brevity? “The more you say, the less people remember”. “If I’m to speak ten minutes I need a week to prepare; but if for an hour I can speak right now” (hold onto that one, we’ll come back to it). There’s Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the soul of wit”. And of course that chestnut from junior high English.  Remember, when you had to get up in front of the class to deliver a book report? - and your teacher reminded you “If it can’t be said in five minutes, it can’t be said”. BOOM! Well, one can argue (or at least I will) that the filmic equivalent of brevity is even more important than it‘s printed prose counterpart because when reading, one’s more subjective “personal mental movie screen” will subconsciously speed up or slow down things as it sees fit. But when committed to the more objective medium of film, where every audience member is forced to experience everything at the same exact pace, what may be “leisurely” and “involving” to one audience member can be downright boring to another. 

     And for this reason, sorry, but as much as we all want our money’s worth when shelling out jacked-up dollars for IMAX-type screens, most films - especially lighter genre fare - just don’t need to clock in at near 3 hours. Okay, we’ll let ENDGAME slide because it was the summation to what essentially was a ten year Republic cliffhanger serial. And THE LORD OF THE RINGS … . Well, they’re the THE LORD OF THE RINGS - taken from three sprawling literary tomes. THE HOBBIT films though? Nah, you definitely felt the padding there. And this is why the narrative short film is an artform unto itself.  

Director Kevin McTurk (left) and Screenwriter Tab Murphy (right)

     Far too many filmmakers make the mistake of (and, yeah, actually win awards) following the erroneous “creative” edict that the narrative short is simply the READER’S DIGEST CONDENSED BOOKS version of a feature length film. And as such many tend to just “lop off” the time consuming ends of a story by easy-peasy front-loading too much info via voiceover narration, falling back on excessive STAR WARS-like backstory text, or the all-too-obvious “Hail Mary” trope of too damned many flashbacks at the most narratively inopportune moments with the result of grinding things to a halt like a series of stop signs every half-mile on the autobahn. With THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN, however, the film version of “If I’m to speak ten minutes I need a week to prepare ...” (oh, and that was Woodrow Wilson who said that, by the way) is in full evidence as Tab Murphy’s “reveal one narrative and character layer of the onion every few minutes” script obviously took more than a little time to craft. 

 __________ “Come closer, Samurai” __________ 


     THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN opens with a bang - visually and viscerally blasting us into an entirely “other” dreamscape setting via a widescreen, multi-plane animated zoom through a high peak mountain range underscored by poundingly bad-assed taiko drums thundering across the soundtrack. Within seconds we find ourselves accompanying The Swordsman (voiced by DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY’s Jason Scott Lee) as he does a Tom Cruise MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2-like free climb ascent towards the cavernous lair of The Black Monk - all the while the caged and constantly chattering cursed head of The Navigator (voice of the irrepressible James Hong of BLADE RUNNER and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) swings back and forth in a basket slung over his shoulder. Speaking of voice work … . 

(The cast, clockwise from top) Jason Scott Lee - The Swordsman, James Hong - The Navigator,
Christopher Lloyd - The Black Monk, Franka Potente - The Onibaba Witch

     Any director worth his or her salt knows the perfect cast can work narrative miracles with and for an audience. John Huston’s casting of Sean Connery & Michael Caine in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975), DePalma’s selection of Costner, Connery, Garcia and Martin-Smith for THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), and Walter Hill’s bringing together Nick Nolte & Eddie Murphy in 48HRS. (1982) made the audience forget how information-heavy the plots of those films actually were as the performers made the viewer feel more like they were eavesdropping in on random and naturalistic conversation, and less like they were (in reality) being spoon-fed narratively necessarily plot “breadcrumbs“ which lead them from one scene to the next and the next. 

     Director McTurk carries off a similar act of subtle “plot compression” with a dynamite cast of voice talents smoothing over even more the already sleek and streamline script. This they accomplish by tossing themselves headlong (without any of that cloying “wink wink” / “nod nod” crap to the audience) into their characterizations. And in this regard, in addition to the aforementioned Lee and Hong, sit back and dig RUN NOLA RUN and THE BOURNE IDENTITY’s Franka Potente as “The Onibaba Witch”, and BACK TO FUTURE and TAXI’s Christopher Lloyd as “The Black Monk”. Fun is contagious. It infects the viewer. And it’s obvious here that Lee, Hong, Potente and Lloyd are having a grand 'ol time with these characters. The same can be said for THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN’s creative crew. 

     __________ “We have work to do” __________ 

"The Witch" preproduction concept designs

     From a technical standpoint the puppetry, similar in it’s bunraku style execution to McTurk’s previous short, the Lovecraftian / Hammer-style THE MILL AT CALDER’S END (2015), is so smooth and “non puppet”-like it actually takes a couple of minutes at the beginning of the film for the eye to determine exactly how the characters are being realized. Look closely enough and you’ll find the physical craftsmanship of McTurk’s mini-epic so minutely detailed that the Swordsman’s face has fine skin blemishes, the background foliage wafts in an apparently random breeze, and the campfire light actually flickers across the faces of our hero and his severed head companion. While most likely achieved via a “color wheel” - not unlike what Ray Harryhausen and associates used during the “Pegasus escape” and “Medusa” sequences of 1981’s CLASH OF THE TITANS - the intervening years of advanced technology, digital cameras and more have here made the classic animation lighting technique practically indistinguishable from that of live action. 


       Kudos to McTurk’s HAUNTED SWORDSMAN creative team which includes Production Designer Guy Davis (of CRIMSON PEAK, THE SHAPE OF WATER and Dark Horse Comics’ THE MARQUIS), Puppet Sculptors Arjen Tuiten (PAN’S LABYRINTH), Paul Komodo (a former associate of the legendary H.R. Giger) and Mitch Devane (who worked on BRAM’S STOKER’S DRACULA and THE RING); Puppeteers Ron Binion (CRANK YANKERS, DISNEY'S THE BOOK OF POOH) and Eli Presser (THE MILL AT CALDER’S END); Animatronic Designer Peter Abrahamson (MEN IN BLACK 2, HELLBOY), Designer Luke Khanlian (STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE GREEN MILE), Painters Jim Gore (THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, LADY IN THE WATER) and Miyo Nakamura (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, THE THING); and Mike Elizalde’s Spectral Motion crew - the gang responsible for many of the visual wonders of PACIFIC RIM and STRANGER THINGS. 


     A huge shout-out too to composer (and former Roger Eno collaborator) Will Thomas, whose bellicose score conjures musical memories of past epics like Jarre’s SHOGUN and TAI PAN, Zimmer’s THE LAST SAMURAI, and Hayasaka’s Akira Kurosawa classics. And the entire filmic endeavor is tightly threaded together by the producing team of Elias Savada, Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki, and Heather Henson & Lisa Henson. Yes, of that Henson family of legendary puppeteers. 


     Grand in thematic scope and visual splendor, yet intimate in characterization, THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN has been wowing audiences the last few months on the festival circuit - where it recently stopped off in Austin to snag honors at Alamo Drafthouse / Ain’t it Cool News’ FANTASTIC FEST 2019. Keep an eye peeled for when it swings it’s way into your neck ’o the woods. And be sure to make a bee-line, and Bogart yourself a fifth row center seat in front of the biggest damned screen you can find.  Kinda / sorta feeling like the fourth chapter of an ongoing weekly adventure serial, when THE HAUNTED SWORDSMAN ends … as all good things must … there’s a 12 year old part of you just a'Jonesin’ for the next installment so we can learn what the hell happens next. 

    If successful enough McTurk and Murphy promise us more. Please, oh, please, let it be so! 

     Hai! 

                                                                                                   
                                                                                          CEJ    

________________________________________________

Vaulted Treasures is part of The GullCottage / Sandlot - a film blog, 
cinema magazine, growing reference library and online network 
"Celebrating The Art of Cinema, ... And Cinema As Art"

Explore The GullCottage / Sandlot @