Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Epic Mickey

I usually don't buy video games at full price, preferring to wait until they've been discounted. However, my wife specifically requested the game Epic Mickey for Christmas. Since I'm usually lousy at giving gifts, I ignored the price and bought it for her.

Although the game was technically a gift for my wife, I think I've played it more than she has. The plot appeals to a geek like me who loves nearly anything from the Golden Age of animation. References to classic cartoons and characters fill the game and Mickey is presented with his late-1930s look.

In Epic Mickey, a pre-Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse goes through the looking glass into the wizard Yen Sid's workshop. There, Yen Sid has used paint, thinner, and a magical brush to create a miniature Disneyland-esque paradise. Mickey, out of curiosity, begins to play with the brush, but accidentally creates an evil creature called the Shadow Blot. Mickey attempts to destroy it using a bottle of thinner, but instead ruins Yen Sid's world when he spills the bottle. Not realizing what he's done, Mickey returns to his own world through the mirror and goes on to a successful career, forgetting all about his little adventure.

However, it turns out that the miniature world had been home to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and a host of other forgotten or scrapped Disney cartoon characters. By creating the Blot and spilling the thinner, Mickey had turned the world into Wasteland; a sinister mirror version of Disneyland. Oswald, who had already been cast into Mickey's shadow, has become even more bitter. When the Shadow Blot drags Mickey into Wasteland, Mickey has to find his way home while making up for the damage he's done.

The game is a puzzle/adventure game with a good amount of RPG elements thrown in. The gameplay is fun while the Wasteland is a thoroughly entertaining place that turns Disneyland on its head. Buildings are warped by the effects of the thinner, Oswald imagery has replaced all Mickey imagery (most notably in the famous statue of Walt Disney holding Mickey's hand), and toxic thinner is everywhere. Having never liked the It's a Small World ride, I especially appreciated the game's demented doppelganger.

Maybe people will want to ride It's a Small World now

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

In a day and age when people and organizations seem to be embarrassed or mortified to mention the holiday that we're about to celebrate, or tend to practice a 'don't ask don't tell' policy with regards to the celebration that occurs on December 25th, the Atomic Spud wishes everyone a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Starship Troopers

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

Starship TroopersStarship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the future Earth is governed by the Terran Federation. The Terran Federation is very similar to modern democracies with one major exception: full citizenship (e.g., the right to vote, to serve on a jury, to hold political office) is given only to those who have completed at least two years of Federal Service. The Federal Service is usually synonymous with military service, but there are positions available for anybody who's willing to volunteer, regardless of physical or mental ability. Against his family's wishes, Johnnie Rico joins the mobile infantry where he learns to fight in a suit of powered armor. After extensive training, Johnnie finds himself at the front lines of the war with an alien species called the Arachnids.

A few pages into Heinlein's Starship Troopers I had to check the original publishing date. I was amazed when I saw that it was first published in 1959. The description of the mobile infantry's powered armor and its onboard sensors and displays sounds like technology featured in a current issue of Popular Mechanics, not something from a novel written in the '50s. The combat sequences, from the orbital drops to the battles on the ground, are excellent. They're exciting while still conveying some of the horrors of war.

Although the battles are a highlight of the novel, much of the story actually focuses on training and on the motivation of the trainees in entering the war. The theme that individual sacrifice is necessary for a citizen to be responsible is pervasive. The requirement that full citizenship be available only to those who have completed a term of Federal Service was in response to the collapse of Earth's early democracies, whose citizens "had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears." The only other science fiction novel that has made me really think about the ideas presented by the author was Heinlein's own The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

Starship Troopers is an excellent novel for any science fiction fan. I would list it as one of my top ten favorite novels.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen BombDark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Richard Rhodes' previous work, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, the title Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb doesn't begin to describe the shear amount of information in the book. The greatest difference between Dark Sun and Atomic Bomb is that this book spends much of its time on political maneuverings, Soviet espionage, and the Soviet effort to build an atomic bomb.

While the basic operational principles of thermonuclear weapons are covered, there is not as much detail as was found in The Making of the Atomic Bomb; the physics of hydrogen bombs are more complex and are still surrounded by a significant amount of secrecy. Rhodes eventually gets to the Ivy Mike test (the first test of a hydrogen bomb) but first revisits the Manhattan Project. That World War II program saw the origin of the theories behind thermonuclear weapons and was the subject of a significant Soviet espionage effort that allowed Russian scientists to develop an atomic bomb years ahead of schedule.

It's possible that Soviet spies and scientists get the most attention in Dark Sun. This is apparently because the development and detonation of the Soviet A-bomb, Joe I, created the nuclear arms race. It was in response to the successful Russian test that President Truman officially began the crash program to develop the H-bomb. Like Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun spends a significant amount of time with the scientists and politicians who made the bomb possible. In fact, their personalities and opposing ideologies (the conflict between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller in particular) take up a larger percentage of Dark Sun than they did in the previous book.

Although an excellent book, Rhodes' extensive coverage of Soviet espionage, the Russian atomic bomb program, and nuclear politics seems somewhat tangential to the actual making of the hydrogen bomb. While I understand the importance of these things to the history of thermonuclear weapons, I had hoped for a more focused narrative like that of The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

View all my reviews

Do You Read Me, HAL?

It all started out with a spreadsheet that wouldn't open. Open Office would hang each time I tried to open it, blaming the problem on spoolsv.exe. I thought it odd that a program that manages document printing would prevent me from opening a file in the first place, but apparently it could. Thinking that spoolsv.exe might have been corrupted, I tried to replace it with a copy from my wife's computer. When that didn't work, I turned to Google. Someone mentioned something about printer drivers being the cause of the problem. However, when I tried to open the Devices and Printers window to access my printer properties, the window failed to open. Apparently problems with the Devices and Printers window are common, but the typical solution didn't work for me.

I downloaded a new copy of the printer driver from HP, hoping to force a reinstallation of the driver, but the installation hung. No matter what I did, it seemed like I couldn't uninstall or reinstall the printer or its drivers. With some help from Google, and a little experimentation, I found that by stopping print spooler in the Services window and then restarting it I could regain some function (I could access Devices and Printers again). However, once I rebooted the problem reappeared. It seemed that the more things I tried, the more problems I had. After a while explorer.exe started crashing because of this ridiculous printer problem.

Eventually I was able to uninstall and then reinstall the printer and its drivers by starting and stopping print spooler repeatedly. I had to stop it to open the Devices and Printers window, start it to uninstall the printer, stop and restart it to run the HP driver uninstall, and then stop it again for the driver uninstall to finish. It was all very frustrating. Once the accursed things were uninstalled, I rebooted the computer, it recognized the printer, and the needed drivers were installed automatically. I must have wasted at least three hours trying to figure the problem out.

My current computer, which has actually been very well behaved overall, is named HAL after my first computer. Every time I have computer problems, though, I'm reminded that I got the name from the murderously dysfunctional computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

The Making of the Atomic BombThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title of Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb is inadequate. He doesn't just cover the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb; he gives the reader a history of the discovery of the atom, the early studies of radioactivity and radiation, the discovery of nuclear fission, and the politics behind the decision to develop the bomb. Once the reader finally gets to the Manhattan Project, Rhodes' presents a detailed account of uranium enrichment, plutonium breeding, the development of the implosion principle, the fission initiator at the heart of the bomb, etc.

If The Making of the Atomic Bomb has any flaw, it may be the sheer amount of information and history that Rhodes provides. The actual atomic bomb doesn't make an appearance until well after the halfway mark, reflecting the decades of study, discovery, and effort needed to eventually produce the weapon. By the time Rhodes gets to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki they almost seem like an epilogue after the vast amount of effort preceding them. Despite this, I think most readers who are willing to wade through the amount of detail found in this book will find Rhodes' writing to be engaging.

Although he fills the narrative with technical details, Rhodes doesn't forget the human aspects of the bomb's creation. The author spends a significant amount of time with the people that made controlled nuclear fission and nuclear weapons possible. Fascinating characters such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and Enrico Fermi are given a generous amount of attention. The personalities, conflicts, and motivations of these brilliant scientists give life to what could have otherwise been a thorough but dry review of atomic physics.

It should be noted that, although the author discusses several complex topics, he simplifies his explanations enough so that non-specialists can understand them. Despite these simplification, I don't think I would recommend this book to someone who doesn't have at least a passing interest in science. Rhodes' discussion of concepts such as neutron moderation or neutron cross-section is liable to confuse or frustrate those who aren't at least somewhat physics-minded. For those who work in the nuclear field or who are interested in it, The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a must-read.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Animal Farm

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

Animal FarmAnimal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tired of what they see as farmer Jones' tyranny, and inspired by the vision of a boar named Old Major, the animals of an English farm finally decide to rid themselves of the farmer. Although the revolution goes well, the hoped-for equality of animals quickly breaks down. Under the guidance of a pig named Napoleon, the pigs place themselves in leadership positions, claiming to govern for the rest of the animals. Over time, the rule of Napoleon seems to be harsher than that of farmer Jones.

This book is an excellent commentary on the excesses and dangers of socialism. Orwell was actually a socialist himself, but he despised the tyranny of the Soviet Union. If you're familiar with the Bolshevik Revolution, you'll recognize the book's analogs of Czar Nicholas (farmer Jones), Marx/Lenin (Old Major), Trotsky (Snowball), and Stalin (Napoleon). The hypocrisy of the pigs, who represent the Soviet Party leaders, the creation of official "enemies of the Revolution", and the pigs' eventual use of violence against other animals closely mirrors the path of real communist dictatorships. Unfortunately, this story may be utterly lost on readers who are unfamiliar with or apathetic toward history, as most of my high school class was.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nineteen Eighty-Four

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the definitive dystopian novel and one that everybody should read. Big Brother and the Party rule Oceania, a supernation composed of the former United States and Britain. Citizens are constantly being watched for signs of incorrect thought or "thoughtcrime". The official truth is revised on a regular basis and, since human thought is based on language, the Party is subtly trying to alter citizens' minds by gradually replacing English with the highly limited "Newspeak". Truth is defined as what the government says; it is never objective or independent. Anyone who has a problem with this just might find himself confronted by the Thought Police and taken to the dreaded "Ministry of Love".

Winston, a worker in the Ministry of Truth (i.e., the propaganda ministry), begins to question the status quo and starts to seek out the resistance movement that the Party constantly vilifies. But is the resistance movement real or is it another one of the Party's "truths"? And with 24/7 surveillance, can Winston hide his thoughtcrimes from Big Brother?

Orwell, a socialist who nonetheless opposed communism as practiced by the Stalinist Soviet Union, deftly conveys his idea of a degenerate and tyrannical communist society. The bleakness of Oceania and the hopelessness of the society of Nineteen Eighty-Four is palpable. The reader is made to sympathize with Winston's desperate attempts to quietly defy Big Brother and the Party. However, from early on in the story it seems unlikely that there can be a happy ending in Winston's future.

Although we don't face the brutality of Oceania, many may notice similarities between Orwell's concept of thoughtcrime and modern-day political correctness or the ever-shifting definition of hate crime.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is the bass guitarist in a band in Ontario, Canada. Although dating 17 year old high school student Knives Chau, he meets the girl of his dreams in Ramona Flowers. However, dating Ramona introduces a few complications. Not only does he have to break up with Knives, but he also has to battle the League of Evil Exes; six boyfriends and one girlfriend that Ramona has broken up with over the years.

The movie begins as a relatively straight-forward slacker comedy, with a few visual oddities such as animated hearts surrounding a kiss or the word "Ring" accompanying the ringing of a phone. These effects increase throughout the movie, reaching their peaks during the fights with the exes. The fights are filmed as if they were part of a video game; each fight begins with the opponents on opposite sides of the screen and a "vs." superimposed between them. Points are awarded during the fight and the loser disintegrates in a shower of coins.

Micheal Cera's Scott is a very sympathetic character whose slight build and geeky persona make the fight scenes even more fun. Scott and the exes dish out and receive punishment that you can only find in a video game or a superhero movie. The noticeable lack of blood or bruises only adds to the movie's surrealism. Like the bosses at the end of a video game level, each ex has a different ability or style. One fight even involves a literal battle of the bands. Although no one in the movie behaves as if such events are normal occurrences, they quickly shrug off the weirdness.

Unfortunately, like the hilarious animated show Futurama, the weirdness may be Scott Pilgrim's greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength. Futurama is a perfect spoof of the science fiction genre, with references to sources as popular as Star Wars and as obscure as Metropolis (1927). While extremely clever to those who are familiar with sci-fi (I still think it's funny that every door in Futurama uses the sound effect from the doors in the original Star Trek series), the humor turned out to be too arcane for most viewers. The show flirted with cancellation until its fourth season when Fox finally gave it the ax. The show was resurrect by Comedy Central this year, seven years after Fox originally canceled it.

Similarly, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World spoofs martial arts movies, video games (particularly the fighting games that were first made popular by Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Combat), comic books, anime, and (in a very brief segment) Bollywood films. It does all of this in a completely serious manner. This is likely to endear the movie to a certain subset of geeks while alienating a significant number of potential viewers.

I happen to be in the targeted subset and very much enjoyed the movie. Compare this to my wife's unamused reaction when I showed her a single five minute scene. She was very glad that I didn't subject her to the whole film.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

17761776 by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title is a bit of a misnomer since it starts in late 1775 and ends in 1777. This can be forgiven, however, since the events of 1776 don't make much sense unless you know the American situation at the end of the previous year, and since the events at the end of 1776 carry over into the subsequent year.

David McCullough focuses primarily on the military aspects of the first full year of the American Revolution in this excellent book. The actual signing of the Declaration of Independence is presented as an aside compared to detailed studies of George Washington, King George III, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and General Howe. Most of the narrative consists of the battles of Dorchester Heights, Long Island, and Trenton, where the young nation of the United States of America met with a mix of minor victories and significant defeats.

McCullough synthesizes hundreds of documents into a brilliant story about one of the most vital years of the American Revolution. Most of the story shows that independence was far from certain in the earliest years of the American Revolution, with the Continental Army suffering from inexperience, treachery, disorganization, and inadequate supplies. At the same time, resourceful and diligent commanders like Washington, Greene, and Knox emerged as potential saviors of the foundering nation.

This book is as entertaining as it is informative. I look forward to reading some of McCullough's other books.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

This Day In History: The Attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941 has forever become the "date which will live in infamy". Aircraft launched from six Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Although the American carriers were not in port at the time, the attack was devastating. Four battleships were sunk, several other ships were damaged or sunk, and 2,402 military personnel were killed. The Japanese lost only 29 aircraft in the surprise attack.

In devising the attack, Japan had hoped to eliminate the threat of the U.S. Pacific Fleet to the Empire's plans of expansion in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. However, by failing to destroy the Pacific Fleet's carriers, and by angering a nation with unsurpassed production capability, the Empire of Japan guaranteed its own eventual defeat less than four years later on September 2, 1945.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Facebook Slacktivism

For the past few weeks, the latest fad on Facebook has been the following:
Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood! The goal is to not see a human face on Facebook till Monday, December 6th. JOIN THE FIGHT AGAINST CHILD ABUSE! Copy & paste this message to your status to invite all your friends to do the same.
My wife and I have indeed changed our respective profile pictures (I'm now Brain from Pinky and the Brain), but we didn't repeat the above message, nor did we change our pictures for the above reason.

Why didn't we "JOIN THE FIGHT AGAINST CHILD ABUSE" as we were exhorted? The answer is simple; changing our profile pictures will do absolutely nothing about child abuse. Several of my Facebook friends have asked what good this trend will do, to which I've responded:
The wife and I adopted cartoon characters because it's fun, not because of the fantasy that it will actually do any good. I sometimes think that such efforts may actually do harm because they fool people into thinking they're doing some good while nothing is actually accomplished.

It's like the pink ribbon campaign; you can wear a pink ribbon all you want, but unless you're contributing to a cure for breast cancer (whether as a researcher or through donations) you're feeling good for doing essentially nothing.

The ever-popular "awareness" meme is bunk since people are usually already aware of whatever problem we're being made "aware" of.
I've always been annoyed by those self-righteous individuals who go around "raising awareness" about some cause or another. Yes, I am aware of [insert cause here] and if I a) agreed with you, b) cared enough, and c) had the ability to change it I would do something about it. But you go ahead and make yourself feel good by performing the social equivalent of using a bucket to bail out the Titanic or trying to pay down the national debt with your pocket change.

This do-nothing form of problem solving has been going on for some time now. It's even been given a name: slacktivism. Wikipedia defines slacktivism as "a pejorative term that describes 'feel-good' measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to dilute awareness campaigns and require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist."

Wikipedia also gives examples of this practice, one of which is exactly what's happening on Facebook right now:
Examples of activities labeled as "slacktivist" include signing internet petitions, the wearing of awareness ribbons or awareness bracelets with political messages, putting a ribbon magnet on a vehicle, joining a Facebook group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, altering one's personal data or avatar on social network services, or taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day or Earth Hour.
The excellent urban legend busting site snopes.com specifically addresses Internet petitions as a form of slacktivism:
E-petitions are the latest manifestation of slacktivism, the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society's rescue without having had to actually get one's hands dirty or open one's wallet. It's slacktivism that prompts us to forward appeals for business cards on behalf of a dying child intent upon having his name recorded in the Guinness World Book of Records or exhortations to others to continue circulating a particular e-mail because some big company has supposedly promised that every forward will generate monies for the care of a particular dying child. Likewise, it's slacktivism that promps us to want to join a boycott of designated gas companies or eschew buying gasoline on a particular day rather than reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels by driving less and taking the bus more often.
In short, if you want to do something about child abuse, keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms in your neighborhood and avoid risky situations such as having a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend (who are statistically more likely to be the abuser). And if you have a Facebook account, go ahead and change your avatar, but do it because it's fun and not because you think you're actually doing something useful.

Different Tastes

We've set up our Netflix account to receive three DVDs at a time. Typically we arrange our queue to receive one movie for me, one for my wife, and one for both of us or for the entire family. Since my wife's movie choices rarely interest me, and vice versa, we often find ourselves in separate rooms of the house (her in the living room and me in the office) watching totally different films. Usually she's watching some sort of semi-current romantic comedy and I'm watching an off the wall sci-fi movie made fifty years ago. The sad thing is that my wife is often disappointed by the movie she chose while I have a blast.

Just over a week ago Mrs. Atomic Spud started watching Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008). I believe the plot of Miss Pettigrew involves some British governess who gets fired and finds a new job as the secretary of an American actress, blah, blah, blah. I decided to spend my time on something good instead, so I watched Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) in the office. My movie, having significantly more radioactive zombies than my wife's, was therefore the superior film. At about the halfway point the wife realized she had little tolerance for Miss Pettigrew and turned it off. One advantage of Netflix is that you pay a monthly fee so you don't feel like you've wasted too much money when you just don't like a film.

Tonight Mrs. A-Spud watched Failure to Launch (2006). Contrary to the title, the movie doesn't involve a ship or a rocket or anything else that is actually launched. Like Miss Pettigrew, it's yet another chick flick with an almost completely non-descriptive title that some filmmaker thought would be clever. Anyway, Failure is apparently about an overgrown child who lives with his parents. The parents eventually hire an "interventionist" to try to get him to go out on his own. Per the formula, the two fall in love, etc. In other words, it's another movie whose plot description translates to "blah, blah, blah" for me. I, on the other hand, watched another piece of fine cinema; i.e., The Brain that Wouldn't Die (a.k.a. The Head that Wouldn't Die) (1962). The wife got through all of Failure, but she didn't much care for it. In contrast, I got pretty much what I asked for; a psychic head that wouldn't die, mad science gone wrong, a corrupted scientist's desperate search for a suitable replacement for the head's ruined body, as much gore as you could get away with in a film made in the 1950s (but not released until the early '60s), etc.

I'm not sure I entirely understand my wife; she keeps giving chick flicks a chance despite being disappointed much of the time. Maybe it's to compensate for the fact that many of the movies she actually enjoys have more violence, spaceships, aliens, monsters, robots, magic, or superheroes than the films that women are supposed to like. Unfortunately, I just can't get her into any of the older and more arcane films that I like so much. If I could then maybe she would dump movies like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day from our Netflix queue and replace them with something good like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part VI: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

I asked in my review of The Blood Waters of Dr. Z how you could ruin a movie in which a deranged scientist turns himself into a toxic gillman. And somehow Monster A Go-Go was tremendously boring despite the presence of a giant radioactive monster. A similar statement could be made about The Beast of Yucca Flats; how do you ruin a movie in which a Russian scientist is turned into a murderous radioactive beast by an a-bomb test? Especially when that monster is played by Tor Johnson. Ed Wood was able to make entertaining movies with Tor Johnson, for heaven's sake! Of course, Wood's movies were unintentionally humorous, but at least they were entertaining.

The movie begins with a woman killed in her home shortly after getting out of the shower. This makes no sense in the context of the rest of the film. Presumably it was the Beast that killed her, but at no time does he leave the general vicinity of where the a-bomb test occurred (i.e., the middle of nowhere). This scene, which was obviously inserted after the initial filming, constitutes 25% of the total body count. That's right; in a movie involving a murderous radioactive monster, there are four whole deaths, and one of them is the monster himself (oops, spoilers).

With that pointless sequence (which is not the first event of the movie, chronologically), we're introduced to defecting Soviet scientist Joseph Javorsky. Not long after his arrival in the United States, Javorsky and his American contacts end up in a very boring shootout with KGB agents. In his escape, Javorsky wanders into a nuclear testing area (great security there, guys) and is exposed to the radiation of an ill-timed test. He is thus turned into the titular Beast (i.e., Tor Johnson with some very rudimentary latex "radiation burns").

Shortly thereafter, the Beast kills a couple in their car. This attracts the attention of the grotesquely irresponsible and inept local police. The police, searching for the killer from a small airplane, actually open fire on a vacationing father who is out looking for his lost sons. Now, the reason the police were using an airplane was supposedly because of the inaccessibility of the flats where the monster was. The whole inaccessibility issue is then forgotten and the police end up reaching the flats on foot. Considering that the lumbering Tor Johnson was apparently able to scale the flats (while using a stick for support!), you would think that these two desert patrol officers shouldn't have had any trouble.

The police eventually search for the Beast on foot... for a very long time. The Beast wanders around the desert... for a very long time. This is a 54 minute movie and the majority of it is watching people wander around. The climax shows the Beast menacing the lost boys while they hide in a cave. The cops show up and shoot the Beast. As Javorsky lays dying, a rabbit hops up to him and nuzzles his face (no, I don't know what that's about).

Coleman Francis not only gives us a slow, minimally threatening monster and uninteresting protagonists, but he also throws in some technical incompetence as well. Throughout the movie, the narrator pipes in to ironically proclaim that the creation of the Beast and the subsequent tragedy are the results of "progress" ("the whirlwind of Progress", "the wheels of Progress", etc.). The narrator makes several declarations that are meant to be profound but are actually nonsensical and/or stupid. This is annoying. Second, to save money the movie was filmed without synchronized sound; sound effects and voices were all recorded after the fact. Francis made sure that you could never clearly see the faces of people while they were talking so that the actors dubbing the voices wouldn't have to try to match up with the mouth movements. People hold conversations with their backs to the camera, in the dark, while standing behind a car, etc. The director's attempt to hide the actors' mouths is very obvious and very annoying. At least Francis' other disasters, Red Zone Cuba and The Skydivers, had sound.

Tor wants out of this movie as much as we do.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part V: Monster A Go-Go (1965)

Despite the ridiculous name, Monster A Go-Go is actually intended to be a serious movie with a "thought provoking" ending. The thoughts provoked involve the filmmakers and liberal application of medieval instruments of torture.

During his return to Earth, astronaut Frank Douglas disappears from his ludicrously undersized space capsule. The astronaut turns out to have been transformed into a horribly scarred and embiggened radioactive creature. Why was he transformed into said monster? Because he was given a dosage of a new type of untested "radiation repellent". This alone gives Monster A Go-Go the dubious distinction of being one of the most ignorant films with regards to radiation and radioactivity that I've ever seen.

The authorities spend the movie looking for the monster while the atomic astronaut commits several unexciting killings. This is all very boring and poorly executed. At one point the monster is apparently captured, but it escapes. I say "apparently" because none of this sequence is shown (that might have been entertaining). The movie reaches its "climax" after a very slow and time consuming chase through the sewers.

Warning: Spoilers ahead (assuming you ever want to see this abomination)

Just when it looks like the authorities will have the long-awaited showdown with the monster, the film pulls the most infuriating bait-and-switch ending ever. Upon being cornered, the monster disappears completely. A telegram is soon received reporting that the astronaut has been found in a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean; un-scarred, un-embiggened, and non-radioactive. To add insult to injury, the narrator has the gall to leave us with this little thought:
As if a switch had been turned, as if an eye had been blinked, as if some phantom force in the universe had made a move eons beyond our comprehension, suddenly, there was no trail! There was no giant, no monster, no thing called "Douglas" to be followed. There was nothing in the tunnel but the puzzled men of courage, who suddenly found themselves alone with shadows and darkness! With the telegram, one cloud lifts, and another descends. Astronaut Frank Douglas, rescued, alive, well, and of normal size, some eight thousand miles away in a lifeboat, with no memory of where he has been, or how he was separated from his capsule! Then who, or what, has landed here? Is it here yet? Or has the cosmic switch been pulled? Case in point: the line between science fiction and science fact is microscopically thin! You have witnessed the line being shaved even thinner! But is the menace with us? Or is the monster gone?
This movie was featured in season four of MST3K. Apparently, they said that it was the worst movie they had seen up to that point.

Next up: The Beast of Yucca Flats (another movie in Coleman Francis' trilogy of dreck).

How do you make a giant radioactive monster boring?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part IV: The Skydivers (1963)

Like The Blood Waters of Dr. Z, I've already mentioned Coleman Francis' bore-fest The Skydivers in a previous post:
The title says it all. Really. Well, I guess there's some sort of plot going on. A couple having marital problems runs a small airport and makes a living by giving skydiving lessons. There's an unfortunate death when one of their regular students violates the rules and tries to open his parachute below the required altitude. Scratch one minor character. Then the husband's jilted mistress teams up with a disgruntled former employee to put acid in the husband's parachute just before the big public demonstration. Scratch one major character. As the murderers flee by car, the cops follow by light aircraft, shooting at them along the way. Although I don't remember the villains carrying guns, the cops shoot them down during the foot chase anyway. Scratch the two most interesting characters in the movie.

Unfortunately, most of this movie is padding (much of it stock footage of skydiving) with the murder plot taking up only the last 15 minutes or so.
I had forgotten to mention the overlong dance sequence that seems to have been included to add some humor to the movie (it doesn't), as well as the fact that the husband is played by an actor who is incapable expressing any form of emotion. This man would make a Vulcan proud. Finally, not only is the plot paper-thin, but you also have to deal with the film's very poor sound quality. The only thing worse than boring, stilted dialogue is boring, stilted dialogue that you have to strain to hear.

Next up: Monster A Go-Go (the first movie I ever yelled at).

Thrill to the coffee-pouring action of The Skydivers!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part III: The Wild World of Batwoman (1966)

No, this Batwoman has nothing to do with Batman. Writer/director/producer Jerry Warren noticed the popularity of the Adam West Batman series and produced his own bat-themed superhero movie. This led to a lawsuit, which Warren won. However, he decided to re-release the film under the less controversial title She Was a Hippy Vampire. This title makes no sense; with the exception of the opening scene, which has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, neither Batwoman nor her Batgirls behave like vampires, talk about vampires, or call themselves vampires. I suspect the opening scene, which shows an extremely mild sorority-esque initiation ceremony, was inserted later to justify the new title.

Apparently in her "wild world", Batwoman is a well known superheroine. However, most of the legwork is done by her Batgirls; a squad of twenty-something year old girls sworn to aid Batwoman in her fight against crime. Every day they renew this pledge, with one of their number leading the rest in the oath. These scenes serve to make the viewer embarrassed for the young actresses.

The Batgirls don't wear disguises, or nifty costumes, nor are they discrete about who they are. That's why it's not surprising when one of their number is drugged at a club and kidnapped. The kidnappers work for Batwoman's lame arch-nemesis, Rat Fink. Rat Fink informs Batwoman that he will let the girl go if she steals an atomic hearing aid for him. Instead, Batwoman shows up at the villains' lair and takes advantage of the fact that the villains are complete idiots. The girl is rescued without any excitement or entertainment occurring (whew, that was close!).

We eventually discover that Rat Fink wants the hearing aid because it can be made to explode if exposed to cobalt. Batwoman and the bat-sorority are enlisted to protect the hearing aid but are thwarted when they eat soup tainted with the villains' Happy Pill (the pill makes people dance stupidly).

After padding out the running time a bit more, Batwoman sends the Batgirls out to find Rat Fink's lair, the entrance to which is carved into a cliff near the ocean. The Batgirls, being idiots, walk along the cliff face in a single file line and out of sight of each other. They are thus captured one by one and locked in Rat Fink's laboratory. Batwoman finally gets off her bat-fanny and attacks the villains' lair. This leads to a truly embarrassing sequence in which Batwoman and the Batgirls literally chase the villains in circles around a table trying to get the atomic hearing aid away from them. I half expected to see the Three Stooges take part in the scene (at least then it would be funny). An explosion ensues but nobody is hurt. The end.

Not only are the plot, writing, and acting horrible, but the set design and costuming leave much to be desired. Batwoman's lair is an ordinary home (I wouldn't be surprised if it was Jerry Warren's) with amateurish paintings of bats on the living room walls. That the home is Batwoman's isn't even a secret. Batwoman dresses like the madame of a particularly eccentric brothel rather than a superhero. Her relationship with the Batgirls and their loyalty to her only strengthens the notion.

Unlike some of the other movies on my list, this movie isn't necessarily bad because it's boring so much as because it's stupid. It looks like something an untalented and budget-strapped high school drama club would throw together. Although I've heard that the film is supposed to be a comedy, it's so poorly done that I can't tell if it's supposed to be a farce or not. It looks like Jerry Warren saw the popularity of the 1960s Batman television show, thought that the source of this popularity was the bat-themed superhero (I think it was actually the over the top supervillains), and then built his own insipid story around that.

Next up: The Skydivers (Coleman Francis manages to make skydiving utterly boring).

Batwoman calls her agent, attempting to get out of this film


Related Posts with Thumbnails