DocuMondays – Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth



Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth (2008, dir. Erik Nelson)
Featuring Harlan Ellison, Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Peter David, Ronald D. Moore

One of the first things you learn about Ellison in this documentary is that once he was so pissed with a television executive that he boxed up a dead groundhog and mailed it to the man. Ellison made sure that he paid the cheapest postage possibly so that it would take upwards of a week to reach the man and be sufficiently bloated and rotting. This is tempered with his friend Neil Gaiman saying that Ellison’s entire life’s work is one large piece of performance art. That it is not about his 1000+ short stories or numerous award-winning teleplays, but its about the cultivation of this quick-witted curmudgeonly persona.

For those of you not in the know, Harlan Ellison is an acclaimed author of literature both of the science fiction genre and not. He’s actually famous for calling the “sci-fi” abbreviation a “hideous neologism” that “sounds like crickets fucking”. Needless to say, he is a very opinionated man and any attempt to make a documentary about him is going to be caught up in his fiery and impassioned rantful nature. Ellison was responsible for the classic “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of the original Star Trek, “Demon With a Glass Hand” episode of The Outer Limits (which he sued James Cameron for ripping off to make The Terminator), and for much script work on Babylon 5.

The film focuses on exploring the history and personal philosophy of Ellison. It is near impossible to get the experience of prose across on screen, though the film attempts it by having Ellison recite a few passages from his more famous work against the backdrop of incredibly shitty lava lamp-esque green screen backgrounds. The more interesting pieces are of Ellison expounding on his personal beliefs. He his passionate about writers not being treated like second class citizens by the studios. Ellison tells of how he received a call from woman who told him that on an upcoming Babylon 5 DVD they were wanting to make an extending interview with him a special feature and he agreed, with the stipulation that he receive a paycheck. She replied that everyone else just said yes and did it for free, resulting in a verbal lashing from Ellison about how she and the others in the business side of things wouldn’t work for a second if they weren’t getting paid.

The documentary suffers due to the absence of any counter to Ellison. He is infamous for public spats and lawsuits and it would have given a interesting balance to the film to have a group of people who disliked the man. Instead all we get is fawning praise and admiration from people who grew up reading his work. Ellison’s writing is wonderful, and he is one of the best writers of the late 20th century. The film just hurts from not having those voices to temper Ellison’s oft loud and bombastic one.

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Cinematic Television – Science Fiction & Fantasy

One of the television genres to really rise to the level of cinematic programming are those based around science fiction and fantasy. Television is full of shows that either go the hard sci-fi route (Stargate, Battlestar Galactica) or incorporate their elements more subtly (Lost).



Twin Peaks (1990 -1991, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost)
Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Sherilyn Fenn, Madchen Amick, Sheryl Lee, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jack Nance, Grace Zabriskie, Ray Wise

There had never been a show like, and probably never will be another show like, Twin Peaks. The series was a perfect combination of the avant-garde sensibilities of filmmaker David Lynch and primetime soap producer Mark Frost. The show is at moment high camp and melodrama, then switching to tense neo-noir thriller, and over to creep-infused cinematic horror. The premise is incredibly simple: Young girl’s body washes up on the shores of her small Washington state town, FBI eventually called in to investigate. Out of this premise rises one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled on the small screen. Kyle MacLachlan plays Special Agent Dale Cooper, an investigator the likes of which you have never seen. He doesn’t put much stock in typical detective work, but rather relies on Eastern philosophy and his enigmatic dreams to guide the case. The series will introduce you to the wonders of the Log Lady, the Backwards Talking and Dancing Midget, The One-Armed Shoe Salesman, and a coffee percolator with a trout inside. You’ll never have coffee and pie the same way again. Though the series lacks horribly in the middle of its second season (Lynch was away from the series to work on a film), it is still light years better than anything you’ve ever seen on TV.



Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009, created by Glen A. Larson, Ronald Moore, and David Eick)
Starring James Edward Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katie Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Michael Hogan, Tamoh Penikett, Aaron Douglas

When I first heard they were doing a remake of the cheesy Star Wars knock-off Battlestar Galactica I was a bit suspect. It wasn’t till 2006 that I actually sat down and began to work my way through the first two seasons of the series and was amazingly surprised. The names were the same, and original premise was fairly intact (Cylons destroy the Twelve Colonies, forcing a small fleet of ships to begin searching for a new home), but the themes and tone of the remake was startlingly fresh. What was done so well in BSG was that is stayed true to the great science fiction trope of being more about our present society and context, much more than any future environs. The series manages to capture a lot of tension in post-9/11 America, with characters finding it easy to dehumanize their enemies, debating if authority has the right to seize power in the midst of crisis, and approaching issues of religious conflict. Despite the first half of the third season being one of the most brilliant things ever, the show begins to crumble in the second half and never recovers during the final season. The show’s focus began to get tied up in trying to explain its overly dense mythology and characters behaved in erratic ways. The series is definitely one of the best science fiction series ever aired and spawned a spin-off prequel series, Caprica.



Lost (2004 – 2010, created by Jeffery Lieber, JJ Abrams, Damon Lindeloff, and Carleton Cuse)
Starring Matthew Fox, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson, Josh Holloway, Evangeline Lilly, Jorge Garcia, Daniel Dae-Kim, Yunjin Kim, Naveen Andrews, Henry Ian Cusick

I must admit my bias. Lost is one of my favorite things ever. EVER! I was less than interested when I watched the premiere during its original airing, but returned to the series when my roommate ‘s obsession pulled me back in at the start of the 2nd season. I have been hooked ever since. What makes Lost great is that it took its time to get to its big mysteries. The entire first season is all character based, with slight touches of mystery sprinkled throughout. Because we have an emotional investment in these people when the trouble goes down, we feel it more. The production values of the series are astonishing. Every episode features beautiful cinematography, gorgeous music, and writing that is very clever and knows how to dole out pieces of a mystery perfectly. The show has a dragging point in the first half of season three, but quickly recovers and hasn’t let up since. The current and final season has been carefully pulling the layers of the onion back before the full reveal is made. The creators of the series have an apparent love of classic crazy sci-fi TV, particularly the shows of Irwin Allen (Land of the Giants, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel). That is mixed with some fascinating spiritual themes and literary references, that make the show enjoyable if you want to simply watch for fun or mine it for all its thematic richness.



True Blood (2008 – present, created by Charlaine Harris and Alan Ball)
Starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Sam Trammel, Ryan Kwanten, Rutina Wesley, Chris Bauer, Nelsan Ellis, Todd Lowe, Carrie Preston

If Tennessee Williams wrote a vampire novel, this would be what was produced. The accents are garish, the acting sickeningly melodramatic, and the plots are over the top. But I can’t stop watching it! Set in the fictional hamlet of Bon Temps, Lousiana, True Blood focuses on Sookie Stackhouse, a dive bar waitress with psychic powers and in love with a Civil War era vampire, Bill. In the world of the series, vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are attempting to become integrated into modern society. The impetus behind this is that scientists have managed to synthesize blood, meaning vampires can crack open a cold one rather than gnawing on a warm one. However, there are certain vampires who see this as selling out to the establishment, and there are humans who have fetishized being the playthings of the living dead. The heart of the show are not the leading romantic pair, but all the supporting citizens of Bon Temps. The short order cook is secretly dealing “V”, vampire blood used to trip like acid but better. His replacement is an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. The bar’s owner vanishes on certain nights, showing up naked in the middle of nowhere. A voodoo priestess lives in a trailer just outside of town performing exorcisms. This is not for people looking for Mad Men, though you can enjoy both shows. If you like some supernatural insanity then definitely check this one out.

I’d like to know what dramas, comedies, and sci-fi/fantasy series YOU are watching that I haven’t included and you believe should be. Reply to the comments here or e-mail me at huckabees@gmail.com

Maybe Sundays – I’m Here



I’m Here (2010, dir. Spike Jonze)
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sienna Guillory

I’m Here is available to watch at http://www.imheremovie.com/
I would recommend you go here instead: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TQuzRCbpsY

Brief note on the presentation of the film, before I get into my review: The film is sponsored by Absolut Vodka, who decided to offer the film to online audiences in one of the stupidest ways possible. The film has scheduled showings, forcing you to wait in a queue to watch it. There’s no reason why this should be, as plenty of other video media is offered on demand. This seems to have been a move on the marketing department, and who knows how many countless viewers they will lose because of this nonsensical wait time. Onto the review:

Spike Jonze knows how to work with very little, and create a lot. Here he employs his trademark marriage of low-tech and high tech to create a very fleshed out world in just about 30 minutes. The story is a science fiction one, but a sort of retro-futuristic Los Angeles. Humans and robots live together, the robots appear to be built of those unattractive beige computer cases from the 90s. The only CG employed are in the eyes and mouths of the characters, and that is done in a subtle way.

The story follows Sheldon, a librarian robot who is introverted and nervous, returning to his apartment every evening, plugging into the wall recharger and sitting alone. One day he happens to meet Francesca, a female robot who is driving a car, something robots are not allowed in this world. The two hit it off and a romance develops. During a concert, the crowd gets a little rough and Francesca loses her arm. In an act of love, Sheldon unscrews his own and gives it to her. As their relationship continues, it becomes apparent a larger sacrifice will be made. The film is an interesting mix of heartbreaking and unsettling. A lot of the choices made in this relationship appear to be one sided, and it can be read as an act of unconditional love or of a selfishness. Definitely worth a watch and a beautiful looking film from director Jonze.

Maybe Sundays – The Crazies (2010)


The Crazies (2010, dir. Breck Eisner)
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Danielle Panabaker, Joe Anderson

The Crazies is only a zombie film by default. It’s “monsters” aren’t the walking dead at all, but people infected by viral weapons designed by the United States military. And one could easily debate if the villains in the film are the townsfolk or the emergency response military troops that come to kill them all. Based on a 1973 George Romero cult flick, this film follows the same premise but with some modern tweaks and a lot better character development than the original.
The story begins with Ogden Marsh Sheriff David Dutton attending the opening game of the high school baseball season. A town farmer arrives on the field, behaving strangely and brandishing a shotgun. David to shoot and kill the man when he draws his weapon on the crowd. Over the next day, more cases of similar behavior surface causing David and his doctor wife, Judy to suspect something sinister is at work. In the middle of the night military forces show up in Ogden Marsh, rounding up citizens in makeshift internment camps.
It’s obvious the film is expanding on the anti-government paranoia of the 1970s with a post 9-11 spin. What I picked up on most was that almost every infected townsperson is a familiar face that we’re allowed to pick up some details about before they become a monster in the film. With the military, we only see one soldier’s face. The rest are constantly wearing hazmat suits or full fatigues with gas masks securely planted over their faces. This conceit causes the military to come off as much more of the mysterious evil force than the infected. In fact, the greatest horror of the film is performed by the military in the film’s finale.
Despite this, the film falls into the most cliched of cliches in the horror business. There was an inordinate number of times where we were given a cheap jump scare from someone being touched on the shoulder. And I counted at least twice where a scare was revealed by the camera simply panning to the right to reveal an infected in the room. It’s these easy paint-by-the-numbers techniques that take a film, which could have been interesting and tapped into some interesting zeitgeist, and turn it into a $5 DVD bin flick for Wal-Mart.

Wild Card Tuesday – Gentlemen Broncos


Gentlemen Broncos (2009, dir. Jard Hess)
Starring Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell, Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, Halley Feiffer, Hector Jimenez

In 2006, after he had been hired to develop the score for Nacho Libre, singer-songwriter Beck said of director Jared Hess, “No filmmaker since Fellini has had such an eye for amazing characters”. That’s a pretty strong statement to make about a filmmaker who had only released one feature film at the time. And while Nacho Libre left me wanting for the disjointed narrative of Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos has shown me exactly what Beck was seeing.
It may come as no surprise at how much I loved Broncos as it definitely hit me where I live. The film’s protagonist, Benjamin Purvis (Angarano) is a homeschooled, amateur science fiction writer who has developed a novel based on his late father. He attends a young writers conference with a group of fellow homeschooled students from his co-op and meets his idol, Ronald Chevalier (Clement) who proceeds to steal Benjamin’s story and change key details to hide the theft. Simultaneously, Benjamin sells the film rights of his novel to an incredibly amateur filmmaking duo, one of whom has romantic intentions on Ben.
The level of the theatrical grotesque in this film is so incredibly over the top. As bizarre as this world is, it feels so familiar and fleshed out. There are so many rich details and background pieces of minutiae that part of me didn’t want to leave this universe. Added to all of this are dramatized excerpts from both Benjamin and Chevalier’s versions of Yeast Lords (the name of the stolen novel). In both versions Sam Rockwell plays the protagonist and proves once again why he is one of the most talented actors working today. In Benjamin’s version he plays the hero as a gruff, Southern accented redneck and in Chevalier’s is a lisping, albino.
Aside from Rockwell, there were many great performances, in particular Hector Jimenz (also in Nacho Libre). I have no idea what sort of acting choices Jimenez made for his role as Lonnie Donaho, the auteur responsible for making over 80 films (most of them trailers he tells us) but they result in one of the strangest characters I have ever seen on the big screen. The moment I knew Lonnie would be one of my favorite characters to pop up in the film comes early on. He and Tabitha (Fieffer), Benjamin’s love interest, take a seat next to Ben on the bus heading to the writers conference. Tabitha asks Ben to give her a hand massage, and as he does Lonnie proceeds to blow in Tabitha’s ear with a sound resembling a clogged vacuum cleaner.
Jared Hess, and his wife and writing partner Jerusha, have renewed my hope in their work. They come across as a combination of the clean, crisp filmmaking of Wes Anderson and the love of the mundanely bizarre of Tim & Eric. I think Nacho Libre’s flaws came from having a third party intervene and make rewrites to make the film more “palatable” for mainstream audiences. Hess isn’t built to make mainstream cinema and the more freedom he is allowed to pursue his skewed vision of middle America the better.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part Two

SPOILERS BELOW, if you haven’t seen the Alien films and being surprised is important to you don’t read.


Alien3 (1992, dir. David Fincher)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite
When we last left Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens, she had defeated the Alien Queen and was back in cryosleep with her makeshift family (Hicks, Newt, Bishop). However, a couple months later a fire breaks out on board the space marine vessel Sulaco and the sleeping travelers are emergency ejected in a small capsule. The capsule ends up on the prison planet Fiorina 161. Sadly, all but Ripley are dead and she has an emotional collapse at this realization.
Alien3 is a great film is you like Ripley, but not necessarily if you like the xenomorph creature. The picture plays fast and loose with some of the franchise’s established rules with the creatures and moves at a much slower pace then the action-oriented Aliens. But, as I said above if you are interested in the evolution of the Ripley character then the film is quite interesting. I have to say, that after going back and re-watching this one I enjoyed it more than Aliens. It has a stronger story and I’m a big fan of when horror films take pacing seriously.
Ellen Ripley develops a love interest in the film, the prison doctor Clemens and I liked how the relationship played out atypically from most relationships in films. Ripley never takes a passive, traditionally feminine role and in fact behaves in a fairly masculine way with Clemens. Clemens doesn’t become passive either so it makes for a kind of relationship not seen much on screen. Ripley also undergoes her most severe trauma. She discovers that the fire on board the Sulaco was caused by two facehugging egg aliens (one of whom is responsible for the creature running around in the film). Ripley also learns she has been implanted with a queen. The realization that the species would have died off with the destruction of their planet in Aliens, convinces Ripley that she must make the greatest sacrifice.
If we play out the sexual/pregnancy/rape subtext of the first Alien film this makes it the pain Ripley’s situation even greater. The one violation she has fought off for decades has now happened. Sigourney Weaver plays the devastation of Ripley amazingly. The film comes to a climactic finale as Ripley races to destroy herself and Weyland-Utani rushes to Fiorina to try and claim the creature inside her for R & D purposes. In the end, Ripley makes a metaphoric fall backwards into a vat of molten lead, arms extended in an explicitly Christ-like manner, saving the universe from the xenomorph species.

Alien: Resurrection (1997, dir. Jean Pierre-Jeunet)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dany Hedaya, Brad Dourif, Dominque Pinon
Probably wondering how a fourth film starring Sigourney Weaver could be possible after the last one. Joss Whedon was brought on board to pen this truly final installment in Ripley’s story and sets the picture hundreds of years into the future. Blood samples taken in the infirmary on Fiorina 161 are gathered up by Weyland-Utani. Centuries later, the company has been absorbed as part of a bizarre government/corporate ruling body that presides over Earth. Ripley has been cloned for the sole purpose of harvesting the queen from her and in turn producing eggs and more xenos. The goal? To somehow train the creatures to become weapons in the corporate military.
Weaver plays Ripley 8, the eight and successful attempt to clone Ellen . Because of the mixing of blood, Ripley 8 also contains traces of xenomorph DNA, enabling her to have heightened sense and the trademark acidic blood. Because this character does not have the memory of the original, all the experiences and trauma are discarded. Ripley 8 is kept in a special chamber and watched over by the scientists whom are also trying to condition the xenos. This Ripley is a much less interesting character than Ellen Ripley. She fits a prototypical action hero mode, with no real emotional reaction or understanding of the consequences of her actions.
In essence, it feels like Whedon simply in enamored with the kick ass chick archetype and imposes it onto Ripley. If Buffy or River Tam is your thing, no prob, but to place that template onto the Alien franchise doesn’t feel like a natural fit. My personal preference was that having a mature, more adult figure like Ripley made for such a unique character in science fiction. The original Ellen Ripley felt like a real human being, truly scarred by her trauma with the xenomorphs yet not allowing to cripple her with fear. Her reactions felt real, she lashed out without thinking through completely, but from a purely survival perspective.
This last entry, serves as a disappointing capstone, despite having such a talented cast and crew behind it. I’m of the belief that director Jeunet decided to make a parody of all the action pictures he saw coming out of Hollywood, and if that’s true he nails it on the head. The gore is over the top to the point of being absurd and the dialogue has that clunky, smarmy style you see in any C-grade action flick. I also noticed a trend of European directors having characters in American action films cursing way too much, and has led me to believe they think this is an essential trait for blockbuster action cinema in this country.

The Alien Quadrilogy – The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part One

Over the holidays, while I was in Puerto Rico, I decided to download the four films in the Alien franchise after finding out Ariana had never seen them. While not all of them are quite masterpieces they do present a unique form of franchise. Typically in franchises, studios pick journeyman filmmakers to direct, guys who know how to simply shoot a film. They aren’t bad directors but they will probably never be considered visionaries. With the Alien franchise, you have Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). These are definitely directors who have signature flourishes they bring to their work. This makes each of the Alien films drastically different in their tone and look. And central to all the films is Sigourney Weaver as the first lady of action films, Ellen Ripley. In this two part essay I want to look at how Ripley was developed into one of the more believable action heroes in cinema.


Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright

In the first entry into the Alien franchise, Ellen Ripley is not necessarily identified as the main character until the last 45-30 mins of the film. Instead, the film cleverly fakes out the audience by focusing on Tom Skerritt’s captain of the mining ship the Nostromo as the hero. If you haven’t seen Alien, you are missing one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. In the wake of Star Wars, but still firmly entrenched in classic psychological sci-fi cinema, Alien takes its time to introduce its title baddie.
Character development isn’t a core component of this first film. Director Scott appears to take a more aloof, documentary style on the material, using lots of handheld camera work and realistic conversations between characters. Ellen Ripley is a warrant officer for the Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose specialty is as a pilot. She’s also second in command to Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Because of her rank in the military like structure of the corporation, we don’t see her take command until some bad things befall poor Dallas. Once she does assume command, she faces dissension from the ship’s science officer (Holm) and the contracted mining crew who is already disgruntled about their small percentage from the mission they are returning from. It’s very interesting that at such an early time in the history of the blockbuster movie, there was already a female action hero whose gender never played a role in her interactions with fellow crew members.
There is also a subtext that is commonly read into Alien that makes it fitting that a female character would take center stage. The entire process in which a person is implanted with a xenomorph (the name of the Alien species) embryo is akin to rape. A spider-like creature bursts from an egg, affixing itself to a host species’ face, then inserts a tube down into the stomach of the host where the egg is planted. The emergence of the xeno is also a dark commentary on childbirth. The larval creature bursts from the host’s chest, screaming and crying in a twisted variation on the birth-cries of an infant, and skitters away leaving the host for dead. While I’m sure the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and Ridley Scott don’t believe childbirth is evil, they are making an interesting comment on what a violent and brutal process it is. If you were to step back and observe, it is quite odd that mothers are expected to immediately love and bond with something that has literally torn them apart.
By the end of the film, Ripley has managed to escape the ship and fights of the xenomorph once more, defeating it and placing herself in cryosleep, expecting to wake up in a few weeks back at the space port.

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton
Well, Ripley’s escape ship drifted much longer than she planned, in fact she was out in the emptiness of space for 57 years. She’s found by scavengers and delivered to Weyland-Utani where she learns that her daughter (in a deleted scene from the director’s cut), who was 9 when Ripley left for the mining mission, has died at the age of 66 two years ago. This devastates Ripley, and it is apparent that she is also suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the massacre that took place on board the Nostromo. Ripley attempts to assimilate back into life on Earth, but is called back into duty when the planetoid the xenos where originally found on has been colonized and the colonists appear to have been wiped out.
Where in the first film, Ripley is goes into action only when she is pushed, this Ripley appears to have developed a much tougher skin as a result of her experiences. Her job on Earth is working a loader mechsuit (see the big robo suits from Avatar) and moving cargo around for shipment. Once she amongst the space marine platoon headed to kill the alien hordes, she is intent on proving herself just as tough as them, but with a clear head and much more intelligence than many of the grunts around her. When the unit lands and everything falls apart fairly quickly, with xenos mauling the troops, it is Ripley, not the unit commander that takes action and pulls the still living soldiers out. For the rest of the film, Ripley is the one calling the shots. She orchestrates a way of remotely calling a rescue ship from the marine vessel in the planetoid’s orbit and successfully defeats the xenos pretty much single handedly.
This film expands on Ripley’s maternal nature but introducing Newt, the child of colonists who has been severely traumatized by seeing her family devoured and used as living incubators. Ripley takes up the care of Newt without missing a beat, she knows how to speak to the child and comfort her so that she believes she is safe with Ripley no matter what. Ripley has a foil in the form of the Alien Queen, the one responsible for the those creepy, mucousy eggs that cause so much trouble. The finale of the film is two mothers fighting to death to protect their children. Something that is so visceral and ultimately feels like more organic action that most male-centric action films. There is an instinctual protective nature in mothers of all species, so much of the over the top action that occurs feels honest.
Aliens ends the same as the first: Ripley going in cryosleep, hoping that the next time she wakes this nightmare will be a memory. Too bad she has two more films to go.