Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part II: Red Zone Cuba (1966)

You'd think that a film called Red Zone Cuba would mostly feature something happening in Cuba, maybe an invasion of Cuba, an invasion by Cuba, or perhaps espionage involving Cuba. Well, this movie shows a truly pathetic invasion of and escape from Cuba, but that's merely a subplot to the main story. The main story is, of course, horrendously boring.

The movie opens with a completely pointless appearance by relatively famous actor John Carradine as a railroad worker. A reporter asks Carradine's character about three criminals who hopped his train several years before. How Carradine would know anything about this is a mystery since the criminals don't seem to interact with anybody when they hop the train later in the movie. Carradine doesn't appear in the movie again until he wraps up his story.

Escaped convict Griffin (director, writer, and producer Coleman Francis) comes across two sympathetic ex-cons. The three eventually find out that they can make quick money by signing up for some sort of military training. The training turns out to be in preparation for an invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs (I'm pretty sure we all know how this one turns out). Our "heroes" make poor soldiers considering that Griffin is rather portly and the two ex-cons are past their prime. When the promised up-front money doesn't materialize, the three try to go AWOL but are quickly discovered and returned to the training camp.

The thoroughly disappointing invasion of Cuba consists of less than a dozen ersatz soldiers (the real invasion involved hundreds) who are captured within about 100 yards of the beach. They are put in a prison camp and are executed one-by-one by firing squad. While awaiting execution, our three stooges find out from their wounded superior officer that his family has a mine back home. The three overpower the guard, abandon the officer, and make their way to an airstrip where they steal a small airplane. And thus ends anything directly related to "Red Zone" Cuba. I can't imagine this takes up much more than 30 to 45 minutes of a 90 minute movie.

Warning: Spoilers ahead (although I don't know if it's possible to spoil such a dull, aimless film)

Griffin and company commit several crimes to get to the mine, where they convince the officer's wife that they're friends of the officer and are there to help. However, the law eventually finds them, the movie proves that it's possible to make a shootout boring and perfunctory, and Griffin is killed. The officer, who we last saw injured and waiting for execution in Cuba, arrives home alive. The best part of the movie then follows when John Carradine finishes his story and the blessed words "The End" appear.

The man playing Griffin, Coleman Francis, was also guilty of writing and directing two other movies on my list of the worst movies I've ever seen. I'll get to those later.

Next up: The Wild World of Batwoman (it does have a "Batwoman" in it, but it's not exactly wild).

Why do you hate moviegoers so much, Mr. Francis?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part I: The Blood Waters of Dr. Z (1975)

I've already mentioned The Blood Waters of Dr. Z in a previous post. You'd think that a movie in which a deranged scientist turns himself into a toxic gillman would be great. What could possibly go wrong with this concept? Well, I'll tell you; it can have annoying narration, a plot that makes little sense, and can be deathly boring, even when the monster is on screen.

As I described this monstrosity in my prior post:
Dr. Leopold creates a chemical intended to mutate sea life into his own personal army to "take over the Universe" (with mutant fish? Do these people even know what the Universe is?). The only apparent effect of the stuff seems to be that it makes fish able to breathe out of water and walk on land. This makes them a nuisance, not a menace. In the meantime, Leopold transforms himself into an ersatz Creature from the Black Lagoon and goes on a distinctly lackluster rampage. Mostly he's trying to transform a human female into a monstrous mate for himself. The end is pointless and confusing, the movie's characters are utterly lifeless, obscene amounts of time are spent watching characters drive around, and the monster suit is downright embarrassing.
This movie is obscure enough that there's really no other way to find it nowadays except on Volume XVII of MST3K. With Mike and the 'bots making wisecracks throughout, the film is merely intolerable. Without them, I think it could actually induce insanity.

Next up: Red Zone Cuba (one of three movies on this list that can be blamed on Coleman Francis).

Not even the guys in the front row can save this one

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cinematic Pain

I've been a b-movie enthusiast for several years now. I deliberately seek out obscure, bizarre, or just plain bad films in the hopes of finding something as entertaining as Fiend Without a Face (1958), Carnival of Souls (1962), or Bride of the Monster (1955). It doesn't matter if the movie's entertaining because it's really good (e.g., Carnival of Souls) or because it's an utter cinematic disaster and is "so bad it's good" (e.g., Bride of the Monster). Because I've seen so many movies from the low end of the quality scale, I'm generally forgiving of most movies' flaws and can still find them at least moderately enjoyable. However, as anyone who shares this particular hobby knows, you will occasionally find a movie that is so bad (boring, confusing, cheesy, moronic, etc.) that it has no entertainment value. These are movies that even Mike/Joel and the 'bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 can't save.

I believe there are three types of movie viewers: normal people who will consciously avoid b-movies, casual b-movie fans who don't actually watch b-movies but instead watch classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) that many viewers misidentify as b-movies, and true b-movie fans. The true b-movie fan, who often suffers from self-loathing and masochism, will watch a horrendous film just to say that he watched it. And no matter how bad it is, he will suffer through to the very end of the movie. He may yell at the screen or swear eternal vengeance against the film's director or producer, but he will still watch the entire accursed thing. And then, because most masochists also have a touch of sadism in them, they will recommend the movie to a like-minded friend.

This week I will be covering six films that only the true b-movie fan can survive, although not without questioning his hobby. Even though I saw all six with the benefit of the MST3K gang's company, each one of them was a trial of endurance. Three of them are from the same writer/producer/director, against whom I intend to wreak a terrible vengeance (even though he died in 1973). These are truly awful movies; films that are so bad they're... well, just bad.

First up: The Blood Waters of Dr. Z (great title, lousy movie).

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Political Dialogue

Facebook has an interesting feature called "Questions" in which users can ask a question and receive answers from others in the Facebook community. In October the following questions was asked:
What can we do to improve the state of dialog across the political spectrum in the US? At this point it seems hopeless! [sic]
This is a question I've heard repeatedly. At the time the question was asked on Facebook, I had read up to the pre-Civil War period in Schweikart's and Allen's excellent book A Patriot's History of the United States. Among other things, A Patriot's History provides an excellent overview of the conflict between the various parties that have existed throughout our history.

It's obvious from even a cursory review of US history that "dialogue across the political spectrum" has always been poor. Although George Washington is now revered, while he was president his Federalist administration was constantly under attack by Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. These attacks were often vicious and occasionally slanderous. This motivated Washington's warning about the danger of political parties in his Farewell Address. During John Adams' administration, Democratic-Republican attacks on the Federalists became such a nuisance that the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts; blatantly unconstitutional legislation that resulted in fines and/or jail time for those who were deemed guilty of "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government.

Political dialogue only got worse from there, reaching a low point just prior to the Civil War. One of the most infamous breakdowns in civility in the history of the United States Congress occurred on May 22, 1856 when Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC) beat Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) with a cane in response to Sumner's heated anti-slavery speech from a couple days before. Since Preston broke the cane while beating Sumner, his constituents sent him new ones and encouraged Preston to "hit him again".

Considering that people have been asking why the political parties can't get along since George Washington's time, I find questions about why political dialogue is currently so poor to be naive. Why is it so bad? Because human beings don't always agree and often hold very strong opinions. Is this a new phenomenon? No, it has always been bad, and has often been worse than it is today. The worst we have now are ad hominem attacks and mudslinging ads. In the 18th and 19th centuries you could find congressmen beating each other with canes or challenging each other to a duel.

But is it really a bad thing that we've divided into political parties and disagree on almost everything? Washington's contemporary and Father of the Constitution James Madison thought that political parties were a necessary component of a democratic system. He believed that the tension created by opposing parties would reduce the chance that any person or group of people could obtain an oppressive or tyrannical degree of power. I have to agree with Madison given what has happened in the recent past when a single party has achieved control of both the White House and Congress; e.g., the insane spending and power-grabbing legislation of Obama and the Democratic congress or the ever increasing fiscal irresponsibility of Bush and the Republican congress before them. Is congressional deadlock really that bad? Professor de la Paz of Robert Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress would argue that since laws tend to represent a curbing of personal freedom to one degree or another, it would be preferable to see the government stuck in endless debate and accomplishing nothing. "What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing."

Anyway, I answered the Facebook question as follows:
The state of dialog will not improve. The relationship between political parties in the U.S. has been bad since there were political parties. The Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans were at each other's throats in the late 18th century, with the Federalists going as far as passing the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence their political opponents. In the Civil War the Unionists were composed of Republicans and so-called War Democrats and the Confederates were composed of Democrats. Ironically, the relationship between the political parties right now is better than it has been historically. At least we haven't resorted to widespread politically motivated violence yet.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Best Part About Winter

I was raised in Southern California, so you'd think that I would hate Idaho winters. Well, I'm not overly fond of the cold, but I do like to watch the snow fall. However, the best part about winter is the silence. I've mentioned before that I can't tolerate noise. This past summer and early fall has been the absolute worst for me thanks to motor-happy neighbors and one particular house in our neighborhood.

It seems that this past year has seen more motorcyclists and drivers revving their engines and roaring down the major road a few blocks away from our home than before. Most nights, around 10:30 PM (when I usually go to bed) one neighbor would leave his truck to idle while playing loud music. Even after he left I could still hear the constant drone of dozens, if not hundreds of cars. Now that there's snow on the ground and a lot of ice on the roads, motorcyclists aren't out anymore and most drivers are limiting their speed and slowing their acceleration. No more roaring or revving engines.

The other annoyance this year has been a neighbor who decided to put large speakers in his backyard. For several months I had been driven insane by a thudding base that would play into the night and, during weekends, well into the morning. The worst part of it was that my wife thought it was all in my head because she couldn't hear the music (curse my excellent hearing!). I eventually traced the source of the noise to a home about a block away. This person had set up the kind of tents you see at airshows or other public events in his yard and apparently liked to listen to loud music there during all hours of the day and night. I really don't know how his immediate neighbors tolerated it. Since I'm not a confrontational person, I never talked to him or reported the noise. Thankfully, with the cold weather and snow he's taken down his tents and doesn't listen to his music outside anymore.

In previous years I've looked forward to the coming of warm weather. Since warm weather is now likely to mean the return of constant, maddening noise, winter may not last long enough.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Giant Claw and Creature with the Atom Brain

Once again I have to admit that I love Netflix. It allows me to watch movies that I would never actually buy and can't find in your average video rental store. This time I watched two films from the Sam Katzman "Icons of Horror Collection": The Giant Claw (1957) and Creature with the Atom Brain (1955).

The Giant Claw is notorious for it's bizarrely uneven handling of science (how do you correctly describe a muonic atom while mangling just about every other scientific aspect?), inept use of stock footage (a flight of F-80s turn into F-84s, F-86s, and F-102s, all of which look very different), and the hysterically bad execution of the titular creature (a giant space vulture with anti-matter shields). In order to save money, produce Sam Katzman had the creature made by a model-maker in Mexico City; none of the actors ever saw it before the film's premier. The movie's lead actor was apparently so embarrassed by the final film that he walked out on opening night. Behold the awesome terror of THE GIANT CLAW:

The giant space puppet bird comes to earth to lay eggs and eat random things: airplanes, cars, trains, buildings, etc. Mitch MacAfee (regular b-movie actor Jeff Morrow), an electronics engineer working for the Air Force, and mathematician Sally Caldwell (the attractive Mara Corday, who is the best thing about this movie) have to figure out how to stop the googly-eyed peril before it destroys the world. This film falls firmly into the "so bad it's good" category.
A- (for entertainment value and Mara Corday), D- (for just about everything else)

Creature with the Atom Brain is a significantly better movie. The creature (creatures, actually, since there are nearly a dozen of them) are corpses that are reanimated with radioactivity and are remotely controlled by a convicted mob boss and a German scientist. The superhumanly strong automatons start killing those who helped to convict the mob boss, leaving behind strong traces of radioactivity. Police scientist Chet Walker (Richard Denning, whose justly deserved fate in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) caused my girls to cheer) quickly figures out what's going on. Of course, he faces an uphill battle in convincing others of his theory.

The filmmakers' grasp of the physics of radiation and radioactivity is poor, but the movie is actually pretty good. The only real misstep is the mid-movie creature rampage, in which the monsters supposedly cause a number of disasters such as train crashes and airplane explosions. The scene is composed of stock footage mayhem and superimposed footage of the creatures from the film's climax (a fight between the creatures, soldiers, and the police). The stock and reused footage, as well as the fact that the creatures were explicitly said to be small in number and limited in how long they can function (their brains tend to fail after a few days) make me think that this was a last minute addition to make the creatures seem more threatening.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Unexpected Day Off

Each work day I leave the house about about 5 AM and walk a mile to my bus stop. Well, I left the house this morning and the weather proved to be a bit less hospitable than usual.

I went out into the snow anyway and arrived at the bus stop to find one of my fellow employees. He said that he had called the facility's weather line around 5 AM and that the recording said that our buses were expected to be running but that he should check back later. The wind having picked up, we decided to use my cell phone to call the line again. At some point while I had been trudging through the snow with a 25 MPH wind and a 16 degree wind chill factor, they had decided that no buses were going to be running. Apparently they didn't want hundreds of people in the middle of the Idaho High Desert during a blizzard. As happy as I was to have an unexpected vacation day, I didn't look forward to the walk back; not only was the wind even worse than when I left home but this time it was in my face the whole way back.

What's funny about this is that, up until recently, we've been having an unusually warm fall. The Saturday before last I was mowing the lawn. This Saturday I was shoveling the driveway. It sure isn't like my childhood home in San Diego, where they don't actually have weather, just climate. Here in southeast Idaho we can see a larger range in temperature in one day than San Diego might see between summer and winter. Even then, I still prefer living in Idaho.

Fellow employees brave the elements trying to get to work

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Christmas Tradition

Today we took the family to the mall to fulfill an annual Christmas tradition. We went to the Hallmark store where we each bought a Christmas tree ornament. Okay, so I got two, but I paid for one from my own allowance. As per tradition, I bought a Star Wars and a Star Trek ornament.

The tradition started years ago when my Grandma surprised me with a small Christmas tree covered in Star Wars and a Star Trek ornaments (Grandma has always known what I like). Since that Christmas she has added at least one ornament to my collection each year. I have significantly enlarged the collection with previous years' ornaments I found on eBay as well as my own annual purchases. Every year the collection goes up on "Daddy's tree"; a Christmas tree we keep in the basement living room just for my ornaments. The family tree (i.e., the tree we're willing to let normal people see) is kept upstairs.

This year I got Captain Kirk; the first in a promised set (I assume Spock and McCoy will follow in the next couple years). I also got Luke Skywalker in his snowspeeder flight suit. Interesting how both are shown in an action pose with a futuristic weapon in his hand. Christmas just isn't Christmas without some sort of raygun, I guess. The girls got various Disney or Barbie ornaments (I think I'll stick with my rayguns) while Son of Atomic Spud got Superman. Since Dad has his Star Wars/Star Trek theme, Mom decided the boy should have a superhero theme. I tried to convince her that he would want Star Wars and Star Trek too, but I think my motivations were too obvious. Superheroes are a good second choice, though.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I've previously mentioned Dan Simmons' Hyperion on day 12 of my 31 Monsters of October marathon. I recently finished Hyperion, which made up the first half of Hyperion Cantos; the long out of print combination of Hyperion and its immediate sequel The Fall of Hyperion that I found at the used book store for less than $10. These books are the first two of a four book saga.

Seven hundred years in the future mankind is dispersed throughout the galaxy. Old Earth is long gone, the victim of an unfortunate incident involving a miniature black hole. The core of the Hegemony, the government of most of humanity, consists of the WorldWeb; planets that are connected by instantaneous transportation devices called farcasters. Planets that are not yet connected by farcasters must be reached by starship. Although most starships are equipped with faster-than-light Hawking drives, travel between the stars still requires a significant amount of time.

The story centers around the colonial planet of Hyperion; a backwater world outside of the WorldWeb. The planet is well known for the mysterious "Time Tombs" that are surrounded by an anti-entropic force field (which actually causes the Time Tombs to move backward through time) and the creature known as the Shrike. The Shrike is a horrifying four-armed monstrosity that has glowing crystalline eyes and is covered in metallic blades and thorns. The Shrike has been limited to the area immediately around the Time Tombs for centuries but has recently begun to range farther and farther from them. The creature is worshiped by the powerful Church of the Shrike, which believes that the Shrike will be instrumental in the end of mankind. Until recently the Church had sponsored pilgrimages to the Time Tombs. Many of these pilgrimages ended without any survivors.

In addition to the Shrike, the Hegemony now finds itself threatened by the Ousters; a lost branch of mankind. As humanity left the doomed Earth for other inhabitable worlds, the Ousters decided to cut all ties with the rest of humanity and to dwell between the stars in vast fleets. With the Ousters moving against Hyperion, and with the Shrike's newfound mobility indicating that it may finally begin the Apocalypse, the pilgrimage that comprises most of the book may very well be the last.

Unlike prior pilgrimages, none of the current group of seven pilgrims is a member of the Shrike Church, although all have some connection to Hyperion or to the Shrike. Like the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, each pilgrim tells his or her story. The stories are what make Hyperion really interesting. Some are told in the first person while others are told in the third person. One is told as a series of journal entries while another is told according to a person's stream of consciousness. Some of the stories are filled with action, a couple are more horrific, and a couple are heartbreaking. The stories build on each other, gradually revealing more and more about the nature of the Hegemony and about the role of Hyperion and the Shrike in the fate of humanity. Additionally, the motive and character of each pilgrim is exposed as his or her story is told. The reader eventually sympathizes with characters that were initially unlikeable.

The story is grand in its scope and Simmons' worldbuilding is some of the best I've encountered. To top it off, Simmons doesn't forget to give the reader a cast of interesting, fully fleshed out people. I've read too many science fiction novels written by authors that were so fascinated by the fictional worlds they created that they forgot to give us a plot or characters that we'll care about (e.g., Greg Bear's Eon).

I only have two complaints. First, there are a few characters that regularly employ fairly strong language. Although this is how some people are in reality (and I often work with people who swear just as frequently), it was still enough to bother me. Fortunately the whole book isn't laced with obscenities since Simmons uses this as a particular character trait. Second, the book contains a significant amount of sexuality that is described with a bit too much detail for my comfort. Although I wholeheartedly recommend this book to readers of science fiction, I can only recommend this book to mature adults who are not easily offended.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Trying a New Approach

As I've mentioned before, I have been suffering from temporal mandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder or TMD) for several years now. Because I constantly clench my teeth, both while I'm sleeping as well as when I'm awake, the right-side joint of my jaw has been damaged. It grinds and clicks when I work my jaw and causes a lot of pain in my face and head. Since many of the nerves that control the face can be affected by TMJ problems, on my worst days I have sharp pain radiating into my teeth, nose, throat, and tongue.

In addtion to the TMJ-related problems, I've also had tension headaches, which feel like a band around the head, for about a year. Although not particularly painful, these often started in the morning and would last all day. However, when the headaches started getting more frequent and stopped responding to the Excedrin I was taking on a regular basis, I went to our favorite doctor; i.e., the Internet. It turns out that Excedrin is a common cause of rebound or medicine-caused headaches. Apparently, if you take pain-killers like Excedrin more than twice a week (I was taking them more than that a day), you can actually cause headaches. About two weeks ago I stopped taking Excedrin and anything with caffeine (another culprit in rebound headaches). Although I had horrible withdrawal headaches for a few days, within a week my tension headaches were effectively gone.

Of course, with the tension headaches gone, another irritation will step in to take its place. Since the right side of my jaw doesn't work right, it was only a matter of time before it started to affect the other side. Recently the symptoms have started to appear on the left side of my jaw and head. I can tolerate the pain on one side, but not on both. I therefore bought an inexpensive bite guard on Amazon.com. Without anything between the upper and lower teeth, the jaw will tend to clench with a lot of force; bite guards short-circuit the jaw's tendency to do this. The bite guard I bought tells you not to use it for TMJ problems, but I assume that this is because it's not FDA approved for such usage. I'm sure that this is the reason why this bite guard cost about $10 and the slightly more customized (but FDA approved!) dentist-produced ones cost about $200.

I wore the bite guard last night and, amazingly, I woke up without the usual tired jaw muscles and related pain. Unfortunately I also clench my teeth during the day, so the pain has since come back. At least I got a brief reprieve this morning.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Back to Normal Blogging

It was a lot easier to blog when I was doing the Halloween monster countdown. I had a predetermined topic and a specific goal in mind. Most of the posts were prepared two days to a week in advance. Now I actually have to come up with new topics.

This Halloween season was pretty good. We were invited to a costume party with friends the Friday night before Halloween. Although I dislike nearly all social events, this party was actually quite fun. The food was good, the company was agreeable, and the games were enjoyable. The wife and I dressed up as radioactive zombies using yellow jumpsuits we bought on eBay for a very reasonable cost and then marked with the nuclear trefoil. Green makeup, fake blood, and peeling latex skin completed the outfits.

Halloween being on Sunday, and this being Idaho, it was the accepted practice to go Trick-Or-Treating on Saturday night. Just like last year we dressed the family in Star Wars costumes and went around the immediate neighborhood in the early evening. We were in disbelief when we returned home and found that the bowl of candy we had left on the doorstep with the sign saying "take two only" actually still had candy in it. It's refreshing when people are honest.

We gave out candy until the groups of kids thinned out and the teens and pre-teens started to come out. Since we have little patience for teenagers who generally don't even bother to wear real costumes, we closed up for the night by blowing out the Jack-O'-Lanterns (mine was a Stormtrooper) turning out all the houselights, and watching TV in the dark. This is our yearly tradition and is about 96% effective at letting the teenagers know that we don't really want to answer the door anymore.

We made sure we had some candy left for any kids that might come by on Sunday night. All we got was a single cluster of parents with a few toddlers in tow.


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