ANNOUNCEMENT: I finished Big Pharma!

I just finished writing the novel, “Big Pharma,” which I’ve been working on (And mostly fighting my anxieties about) for a bit over a year.

About a year and a half ago, maybe a little under, my friend James Stephen Graham told me he was dying. He’d written several space adventure novels in an ongoing series, and there was one that he was about 4/5ths done with, which he’d obviously be unable to finish. He asked me if I’d do it for him. I said, sure, of course, I’d be glad to.

Since then I have taken a *SHAMEFULLY* long time finishing the manuscript. (And, as I said, mostly fighting my own anxieties about doing justice to my late friend’s work). I read and re-read his other books, took extensive notes, wrote, got frustrated that I wasn’t really capturing his voice, started over again, got frustrated. It wasn’t hard work, all the details and outlines I could need were given to me, but I was basically fighting myself. I do that a lot.

Anyway, the manuscript is done. Now I need a British friend of mine to translate my portions from American to British (You know, spelling, weirdo quotation marks, etc) so it’s not a jarring transition for the reader. Then a quick formatting edit, and then it’s online.

This also ends my self-imposed exile from writing.

To all Jim’s fans, and his wife Vivien, I truely, deeply apologize for the delays.

You can find Jim’s other books here https://www.amazon.com/…/B0…/ref=bseries_auth_1_B006OM9GX0_1

MOVIE REVIEW: “Pokemon: I Choose You” (2017)

This is a gorgeous movie. I really wish I’d been able to see it on the big screen.

Much to my surprise, that actually was an option. They hadn’t released a Pokemon movie theatrically in the US sine 2001, which was, like sixteen movies ago. Turns out that since this is the twentieth anniversary film in the franchise (And the twentieth film total – yikes!), it went into limited release, whereas the others have always been dumped on Cartoon Network or DVD or wherever. Believe it or not, it actually played in my dinky-assed market (Tampa) but only for two days, and in a really bad neighborhood (University Square Mall) which I just kinda didn’t want to chance after dark. I’m uneasy in that place during the day. There’s only like 6 or 7 stores still open, and it’s mostly gangs and pushers and hookers wandering around. Which is a shame because they blew a lot of money building that new food court.

But I digress…

Pokemon movies are always much better looking than you’d expect. Yeah, they’re generally disappointing, and the stories are frequently meh and the scripts don’t really feel fully-cooked, presumably because they’re cranking out one of these a year. Even so, they’re way, way better animated than the shows, and the shorts before the film are adorable, so even if it’s a terrible flick you can just zone out and enjoy it for how pretty it is. Except for “Genesect and the Legend Awakened.” That one sucked.

But I’m not digressing this time: This movie is absolutely far-and-away the most gorgeous Pokemon film ever. It’s nearly Studio Ghibli quality in some parts. They really pulled out all the stops for this one as part of the “Wow, can you believe it’s been two decades and we’re still going strong?” celebration.

Of course even coming up with a concept for a movie like this is difficult. What can you give the fans that they haven’t already seen a dozen times before? You can’t just dump another “Jirachi The Wishmaker,” on them. They need something new and different. At the same time, it needs to be a celebration of the past of the franchise. What do you do? What do you do?

The solution was pretty brilliant: Do an alternate-world version of the start of Ash’s adventures. I admit I thought this was pretty dodgy when I first heard of it, but, yeah, it really was clever.

The first 10 minutes are basically a remake of the first episode of the entire series in compressed form. Ash gets Pikachu, who doesn’t like him, they head off on their Pokemon Journey. They get in trouble, Ash risks his life and gets injured saving Pikachu, and they’re best friends from then on. At the end of the episode they see Ho-Oh, one of the legendary Pokemon. There’s no real significance to this, it’s just an omen of a bright future for him. In the next episode he meets his companion Misty, and an episode after that he meets Brock, and that’s your basic lineup for the next six years.

In this version of things, Ho-Oh happens to drop a feather while flying overhead. Ash catches it, and as a result he goes off on a different course. He turns left instead of right, basically. As a result he never meets Misty or Brock, and he’s on his own a lot longer. This results in him being less successful as a trainer, but more self-reliant than we’re used to seeing him. We see all this mostly in montage, but eventually he meets up with two never-before-heard-of companions: A girl named Verity and Sorrel, a wiser, more intellectually curious trainer.

They quickly recognize the importance of the feather, and the three of them spend the rest of the movie on a side-quest, finding their way to Ho-Oh, rescuing Charmander from an abusive trainer, and having repeated run-ins with the trainer, who’s the closest thing this movie has to a big bad.

Eventually they meet Ho-Oh in the climax, the bad guy is defeated and is somewhat repentant, Ash and his new pals go their separate ways, “And the journey continues.”

What makes this brilliant? Well, we do get to see Classic Ash again (And Pikachu is even somewhat redesigned to look midway between his current appearance and the older “90s Chu” version. We get to revisit a bunch of stuff from the first year of the show and yet it all feels new because it’s fundamentally not retreading the same old ground.

It’s also interesting because the stakes aren’t so high. We’ve already seen Ash save the world 6 or 7 times in 20 films, and save cities at least as many. (Honestly, Ash seems chosen of the Pokegods to be their fixer) This time out nothing much is at risk, other than an evil ghost type trying to corrupt the feather which…will be bad for some reason I never quite understood. It’s a personal story. It looks in instead of out, and that’s really what they needed to do here.

The relationship between Pikachu and Ash is pretty heartwarming. They have always been close, of course, but here it’s more like father and child or big brother and little brother. We see a lot of scenes of them just playing, and there’s no other way to say it, it’s just cute as hell. We also find out the reason for the twenty-year mystery as to why Pikachu refuses to go into his pokeball. A lot of people have complained about that scene, and the answer honestly doesn’t entirely make sense, but if it doesn’t make you tear up a little bit, then you just don’t have a heart. Pikachu’s reaction when Ash dies is also pretty gut-wrenching, though undercut a bit because we know he won’t stay dead. (Ash is very death-prone, but he always resurrects. Again: Chosen of the pokegods)

The B-story about Charmander and his evil trainer is good, too. The first scene is Ash walking along in the woods in the rain. He sees a Charmander sitting on a rock, looking like an abandoned baby, which, of course he is. This is a near-recreation of the same sequence from the show, but in THIS version, when Charmander’s master comes out of the woods, Charmander jumps up and runs towards him with his arms outstretched like a scared toddler (Which he is) and hugs his leg, and the trainer just kicks him away. Again, if this doesn’t put a lump in your throat then you’re probably just not a good person.

There’s also some trippy sequences like the one where Ash hallucinates our world, the real world, and doesn’t even remember Pokemon exist.

Reviews for this movie have not been very good. That’s fair. I’ll be honest: Some of this stuff lands and some of it doesn’t. I get why they did what they did. They took some chances. The story lacks urgency given the absence of a threat, which probably put some people off. The character of Verity doesn’t make much of an impression. Sorrell is a little on the bland side, but a really harrowing flashback to him as a kid more than makes up for that (Again: Lump-in-the-throat time. If it doesn’t affect you, you should probably seek counseling). There’s no real reason for Team Rocket to keep showing up. I get them turning up in a cameo or something, but their repeated appearances through the film add nothing and simply aren’t funny.  Ash’s brief time in the world of the dead is cool looking (And eerily similar to his pokemon-free dream sequence earlier on), but it lacks payoff. It feels like he should have done something there, something that he wasn’t able to do when alive, though I have no idea what that might be. And, yes, they didn’t explore the alternate timeline as thoroughly as they could have.

Just the same…this whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It took a big chance, unlike the others, and is flat-out gorgeous, and is the only Pokemovie that ever raised any real emotions in me. Strongly reccomended.

The Creation of Man: Greek Style

My son was just discussing the Prometheus legend with me, and it struck me that it’s one of those things everyone has vaguely heard of (“Don’t tamper in the gods’ domain, or they’ll kick your ass”), but most people don’t really know. So here’s the deal:

Titans outrank gods. The Titans ruled the universe. They were pretty awful, though, so the gods rebelled and overthrew the Titans and took over the universe. Several of the Titans recognized that this was for the best, so during the course of the war, they abandoned their own kind and joined the gods.

Among these turncoats were Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus. Their names mean “Forethought” and “Afterthought,” respectively, but I prefer to think of them as “Jerkass” and “Dumbass,” as as Prometheus was a trickster, and Epimethius was, well, dumb.

(“Tricksters” are like Anansi in African mythology, or Loki in Norse mythology [which has nothing to do with the depiction of him in Marvel]. They’re not evil, they’re frequently chaotic and always unpredictable. Think of Prometheus as Daffy Duck.)

Because they’d been allies in the war, the brothers were allowed to live in Olympus. Prometheus was a little paranoid of the gods because they’d just overthrown their more-or-less rightful leaders, and also because they were notoriously fickle. As Epimetheus was kind of a dope, they said, “You there! Go down to earth and do something to make it pretty so we have nice views. We really don’t care what.” Epimetheus then created nature. (Up to this point, earth was just a rock with occasional water)

Prometheus saw this and thought, “Cool! I want to try!” As his brother had already created animals, he decided to make the best animal ever: Man. Mostly he did this to piss off the gods.

The gods were super-pissed, and were looking at wiping us all out, but eventually they realized we were useful insofar as we made the whole ‘offerings’ thing easier. How were offerings done before there were people? Who the crap knows. It’s mythology. It’s drunken and sloppy at the best of times. So the gods allowed us to live, but they refused to let the brothers back into Olympus as punishment. Also, humans were limited to not being immortal, nor having any supernatural powers.

Time passes, and Prometheus has grown kind of fond of his practical joke, so he decides to give them something that will lift them above being mere animals. He sneaks into Olympus, steals fire from the gods, and gives it to man, thus starting civilization. Yay! This was not entirely humanitarian, though. He was still in large part motivated by a desire to piss off the gods.

Which he did. They chained him to a rock, while a giant monster bird would peck his liver out of his body every day and eat it. Prometheus’ liver would grow back every day, and get eaten out again. Because the gods are jerks. This, by the way, is where earthquakes come from: Prometheus convulsing and yanking on his unbreakable chains.

The story continues: Civilization is starting, and while he’s a dim bulb by divine standards, he’s a bright light to cavemen everywhere. The gods decide to punish the thing Epimetheus loved, rather than him directly. They created Pandora from scratch, specifically designing her to be curious. Then they sent her down with her jar full of plague and disease and said, “Don’t open it. Yo! Epimetheus! Marry this chick!” “Gosh, thanks, Zeus!” “Don’t mention it, kid.”

So of course she opened the jar (It’s not a box, it’s an amphora) and let out just every awful thing on earth, torturing humanity for all existence.

The funky thing about this is that Prometheus was a prophecy god. He did all this *knowing* full well what would happen. Talk about committing to a gag! And we’re left to think that even with all the plauges and crap, mankind was still better off than it was before we had fire.

Amnesty International has been protesting for several years, trying to get Prometheus released, but thus far nothing has come of it.

Patrick and Curi and why I suck at Closure.

Recently I sent out two “Goodbye forever, please don’t write me back” letters to two of my once-and-former best friends. They didn’t do anything wrong or cross me or anything, I just needed to end stuff, and I also need closure because I’m 50, and that’s what fat, middle-aged overdramatic crazy people entering the third act of their lives do. I guess. I’m new at this.
 
The impetus was simply that I’ve had a lot of death in my life lately. Since the start of the year I’ve lost three people, plus a fourth who died a while back and I just found out about it this year. Plus a fifth who’s still alive, but is dead to me. I realize that’s melodramatic, he’s not really dead, but emotionally he went on that same pile.
 
Now, both of these people were folks I was really close to, and who were really important to me at some stage in my life. Patrick “Bad News” Hughes basically transformed me from a humorless, scared-of-girls, fanatical kid who got frightened by hearing “American Pie” on the radio, decided all popular music was satanic, and stopped listening, into, well, *me.* Then he disappeared for a long time, and turned up again around 2001, and we hit it off immediately.
 
Curi was a super-smart teenaged girl who started college at 16 and needed some positive reinforcement from a big brother figure who didn’t actually want anything from her. She inspired me to get back into music again, after many years away.
 
So these folks drifted away over time, to the point where I’d send out my rambling, hilariously profane Christmas letters, and that was about it. Every other year or so, I’d drop another letter on Patrick, just to see if he’d email me or whatever. He never did. Curi would send the occasional “I want you to know I always read everything you send,” comment, and nothing more. You never know how to take that. Is it “I like hearing from you,” or is it “My flesh crawls when I read your letters?” In any event, there was never any other follow up from her.
 
After a while, writing letters to people who never write you back begins to seem creepy and stalkerish. I hadn’t realized it, but I haven’t heard from Patrick in EIGHT years! I decided I needed to say goodbye, and have a period at the end of that sentence. Not because they’d done anything wrong, just because it was important to close out those files in my head, you know?
 
Then Patrick’s letter got returned as “undeliverable,” and I felt cheated. If I had to keep one of ’em, I’d keep Curi, who’s a loveable kid sister. Patrick is an accurately self-described asshole who is no end of fun and challenges me to try new things, then gets pissed off at me for whatever reason, and disappears.
 
So, yeah, the better of the two probably thinks I hate her and the worse of the two probably thinks I’m still pinin’ away for him to drop me a line.
 
Typically my attempts at closure end with guilt (Curi) and an absence of closure (Patrick)

Mentally Ill Relative Freakout (Diary. Day 18,505)

I’ve written before about how difficult it is to take care of a mentally ill relative. I don’t recall if I mentioned that I, myself, am mentally ill as well, but if not, big surprise: I’m nuts.  As you can imagine this exacerbates matters considerably.

One of these is that it’s very easy to spiral out of control. You have to keep a very tight rein on yourself, stay stoical, don’t get engaged. Don’t get happy when the person in your charge praises you, don’t get unhappy when they curse you, because both will happen a lot.

If you let yourself get up, you will sure as shooting get bitchslapped down, it it will hurt twice as bad because you fell twice as far. If you let yourself feel anything when they attack you, or attack people you love, then you just have to have thick skin about it. Distract them, or find an excuse to leave without being too obvious about it, or go to a secret dreamland that you’ve developed. (In my case it’s a domed version of Progress City on the planet Venus. I like Venus. It’s more interesting than Mars, and gets no love)

The hardest part is when they attack people you love, particularly if they’re prone to perseverating on it. “That thing they did,” comes up again and again and again, and if you ask them not to talk about it, they talk about it twice as much and accuse you of never wanting to talk about stuff, about trying to hide things, about how your loved one is going behind your back and doing stuff that you don’t know about, they talk about things that happened fifteen years ago as if they happened yesterday.

It’s all paranoid bullshit, but whereas you can take attacks on yourself on the chin and come back for more, your every instinct is to protect the ones you love. Those attacks hurt three times as bad, so it’s hard not to give in to rage.

The black joke of all this is that if you do give in, if it just accumulates, and you snap, the mentally ill person won’t understand it at all. You can scream and shout and cry and their perspective is so completely skewed that they will not be able to attach effect to cause. They can’t tie your anger/hysteria/sadness/tears to anything they’ve done.

And if you cite bad things they did in the past, odds are they don’t remember it. Let’s say someone used to beat you up 45 years ago, but they’re nuts and have had many nervous breakdownds and are very ego-centonic, they just don’t remember it. Or they remember it in some skewed fashion. Confronting them about it brings you nothing, no peace, no resolution, no apologies.

You may have been hiding under your bed while they stomped around threatening to beat the shit out of you and then throw you out of the house, or terrified when they abandoned you in a parking lot, and because you were a little kid it was the most traumatic, horrible thing in the world. To them it was just another Tuesday, though, nothing remarkable to stick in their mind. If they’ve got a for-shit memory to begin with, it’s even worse. So why bring it up? Why bring anything up? Why get mad? It simply scares them and accomplishes nothing because they’re fucking nuts, and can’t understand even normal things.

I’ve been caring for a mentally ill relative for six years now, and last night I snapped. It’s my fault. I let myself get elated. I took the lid off my Bipolar Disorder and let it boil over, because I was happy and excited about something,  and then it all got slapped away and I fell, and I was very depressed. Then the crazy person started attacking one of my loved ones, the same damn thing that had been said a million times before, and I just snapped.

I screamed, I cursed, I used very foul language, I shook my finger, I fell to the ground crying, I lost it. The dam burst. All the vile, black stuff in me came out in one big flood that horrified me, and merely confused them. Occasionally they grasped enough of it to understand it was a criticism, and then did the big baby defense move of “Well, if I’m saying the wrong thing, then you just never need to worry about me talking again, because clearly I can’t talk,” or whatever “Woe is me” move they think will make them seem like the victim instead of the instigator. Their apologies are mostly just to shut you up, and they don’t know what they’re apologizing for in the first place. It’s circular.

And I suppose at some point you *are* attacking. At some point it probably becomes mean. I never hit anyone in my life, I back away from arguments, I didn’t hit or threaten anyone last night, but at some point in the torrent you want to make them feel as badly as you do. They did this to you, after all. It’s only fair that they should feel the despair and hopelessness and crushing weight that comes from caring for them every day for two thousand one hundred and ninety one days, sometimes driving down to their house three times a day for several days in a row, suffering abuse and just the weight of having someone who’s constantly sick, constantly complaining, constantly finding something miserable to complain about, someone with little or no empahty, who’s driven away all their own friend and relatives, so that there is literally *no one* but yourself for them to rely on.

It wears down your empathy. You still love them, but it gets harder and harder to care about them. And you look forward and see no end in sight. They could live another ten years, fifteen, and it will never be normal. It’ll never stop. It will never, never, never stop. It’s very exhausting physically and emotionally and spiritually and psychologically, and stressful. Oh boy is it stressful. I have a diagnosis of PTSD. I got that from caring for this relative. Entirely from that. Rapid Cycling Manic Depressive guy with PTSD. That’s a winning combination, right?

If that’s not bad enough, there’s a spillover effect on your family. They see you miserable all the time, and they get to feeling bad, too. You’re away from home for hours a day taking care of the lunatic, which means less time to spend with the people you love. They get sad, they miss you. It fucks up their lives as well. If you’re self-loathing, like I am, then that’s a huge burden as well, and it hurts the people you love.

But what can you do? You can’t abandon the crazy relative. That would be cruel. So you just keep taking it on the chin, and packing down all your anger and resentment in a little ball, fighting to keep it from getting out. And then, every few years it does. And then you spend the next six months trying to fix it.

So that was my friday night. How’s by you guys?

I just realized why I only write short stories

I had an interesting realization this morning.

As my readers probably know, I work very fast. Inspiration hits, I start writing, and I don’t stop until the story is done. I might type for eight or ten hours straight, because if I stop for anything longer than a trip to the can, I’ll lose the holy fire of inspiration, and the story will die on the vine.

It’s really not a great way to run a railroad, I’ll be the first to admit. It limits me to short stories, rather than longer work, and undoubtedly it’s responsible for my giddy-yet-somewhat-unhinged style. It’s not bad, it’s kind of unique, but it’s also limiting.

I had always assumed this was the result of my fairly short attention span, but I just realized this morning that it’s really my anxieties.

No, seriously: I take a half hour off to get lunch, and I begin to dread going back to it. I think, “This is terrible, no one’s going to read it anyway, why am I doing this?” I begin to dread how much of the work still lies ahead of me. I put it off. I question myself. I berate my talent. (I know I have talent objectively, but the longer I postpone things, the more I begin to doubt it emotionally). I take the night off, and it’s almost a guarantee that the story will be abandoned.

That’s why, I think, I only do short stories: That’s as much as I can manage before my inherent “Randy can’t do anything” feelings grow too big to be ignored. If I do it the moment the inspiration hits, I can maybe manage to bang a story out before my subconscious notices and paralyzes me. If I delay, then I’m dead before I can do anything at all.

That’s my suspicion this week, anyway.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (1964)

[THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON A DIFFERENT WEBSITE IN 2010]

Merry Christmas.

I have a strange affinity for this movie. When I was a kid, periodically, our teachers would herd us all into the cafeteria twice a year while we waited for our parents to come and pick us up rather than have us ride the buses like normal. They’d have us watch one of two movies – “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” and a more-or-less-forgotten Disney film called “Melody Time.” (1948) I never quite figured out why they did this, but I suspect it was so that we’d be out from underfoot while our parents were Christmas shopping or whatever, since it always happened on the last day of school before Christmas break. I never really figured out why they had us watch the Disney flick, it must have been tied to something, but I don’t know what, or why. Oh, and now that I think on it, they used to show us the old “Ichabod Crane” Disney cartoon before Halloween. For whatever reason, I must have seen this movie three or four times in as many years.

I didn’t remember too much about it – the only bit I remembered in any detail was the kids mistaking a robot on the horizon for Santa’s workship, and some little green martian kids having no clue what Christmas or presents were. I always looked forward to it. I liked the movie. I was an addlepated kid, evidently. Years later, in high school and college, when the subject of truly horrible films came up, no one could ever believe that I’d seen this film, much less that I’d seen it multiple times, and kinda’ liked it.

PLAY BY PLAY

Right off the bat, we’re treated/tortured with a hopelessly happy-awful song. If you’re a guy like me who doesn’t really like Christmas, and if the cloying faux sentimentality of Old Saint Nick mostly just makes you want to punch someone, you’re gonna’ find this all a little much to bear:

What I find particularly hateful about this is the way these New Yawk children keep calling Santa “Santy” (Which rhymes with women’s underwear.) I don’t know why that sets me off, but it does. It’s cootish, like the way you’d expect people to say his name back when people still called policemen “Bulls” and Teddy Roosevelt was contemplating a third term.

A couple Martian children on Mars are watching a news broadcast from earth about Santa, featuring a man interviewing Santa (Who’s real) at the North pole, in his workshop staffed by three midgets. (There woulda’ been more, I guess, but the Fairlyland Creatures Union Local #207 decided to strike. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) On Mars, the children are acting weirdly (for Martians), so Kemar calls a meeting of the Martian Council, and they meet up in the spooky valley to get advice from the 800-year-old wizard of overacting, who chews the scenery for a bit in this odd sequence:

Sorry for the MST3k bit, it was the only clip I could find. The Martian council decide ‘hey, screw all our governmental duties, let’s head to earth and kidnap a mythical being!’ This they then do. Now, the Martians have cloaking device technology, but they just don’t bother to turn it on until Earth (Read: The United States) has already noticed them. Then they turn it on, but nothing happens. A quick inspection of the “Radar Box” shows that the malfunction was caused by Dropo, Kemar’s idiot butler, who stowed away inside a piece of equipment. We’re given a couple minutes of stock footage of the US Armed Forces scrambling as if for nuclear attack to check out the UFO. Then the Cloak kicks in, and Dr. Werner von Green (heavy sigh) says it was probably just a meteor or something.

Cut to: two blandly cute kids on earth, one of whom is Pia Zadora. The other one isn’t Pia Zadora, and that’s really all he’s got going for him. The Martians kidnap them, and Voldar – who has a fake mustache – attempts to be mean to them, but Kemar is an enlightened despot who forbids such things. The two of them go off to do Martian things, while Dropo takes the kids on a tour of the control room. The bosses are coming back, so he stashes the kids in the Radar Box, and leaves. The Martians discuss their nefarious plan to kidnap Santa. Once the ship lands at The North Pole (Magnetic or Geographic? This is just one of the many thorny theological quandaries this film refuses to tackle), the kids disable the Cloaking Device, escape the ship and run away. Kemar and Krew head off to bag Santa, while Voldar heads off to kill the kids, or maybe just beat them up real bad, which always cheers him up when he’s sitting around being depressed by how unconvincing his mustache is. (I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) The kids are hidden in a cave, but before Voldar can kill them or give them a stern talking to, or whatever it is he has planned, a man in a polar bear costume shows up and scares him away. (Just for clarity’s sake, he’s not *supposed* to be a man in a polar bear suit. I think he’s supposed to be a real polar bear, but I have a sharper eye than most, and I spotted it. Those of you less experienced that I may have a harder time with this.)

The kids go looking for Santa’s worship and we come to the one scene in this movie that I remember clearly in which Pia Zadora says she sees the windows all lit up in the distance. These turn out to be the glowing eyes of a hokey robot that grabs the kids while they stand around like idiots, rather than running away because the set is too small for them to run anyway. Voldar tells the robot to kill them or hug them to death or something, but Kemar has the robot programmed to only obey him, so no dice.

From there, the plot lumbers over to Santa’s Worship, where the Robot is supposed to grab the old fat dude (who also has a fake mustache, *and* a fake beard), but immediately shuts down and becomes a toy when in his presence. Kemar and Voldar bust in and grab the guy, and in the process we learn that Mrs. Claus (Who’s actually named “Mary Christmas” – she’s a liberated chick who kept her maiden name, y’see. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) is a bit of a harpie, evidently.

So on to the ship everyone goes, and – zang – off to Mars. Of course the Cloak isn’t working, so we see stock footage of the armed forces going to kick the Martian’s green butts yet again, and then a quick interview with Werner von Green (Who also has a fake mustache) telling how they’re launching astronauts to rescue Santa and the two kids. How they’ve figured out Santa and two kids are gone is really anyone’s guess, the authorities just seem to instantly know this kind of thing, which implies a kind of Orwellian police state, but obviously that can’t be what they were going for because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film. We see a lot of stock footage of a rocket launching, and one of the Martians says they’re being followed, but of course nothing comes of this.

Meanwhile, Voldar attempts to off Santa and the kids in the airlock, but if a fat tub of geriatric guts like Santa can fit through a chimney, he sure as shooting can fit through an air vent. It’s kinda’ like that X-files episode with the guy who can throw his entire body out of joint to crawl through tiny spaces, and then he eats people. Remember that? Not that that happens in this film because that would be interesting, and as you may have already recognized, there’s a bit of a thematic motif in this film which prevents anything interesting from happening.

So on Mars, Kemar takes Santa and the kids to meet his kids, and a whole lot of fake laughter ensues. No one talks, mind you, they just laugh for something like three minutes, because nothing pads out a film like pointless mirth. Really there’s a whole heck of a lot of pointless fake laughter in this film.

[PLEASE NOTE: The original clip I linked to is no longer on YouTube. Sorry]

The particular scene in question takes place at about 1:12 in the clip. It’s disquieting. Seriously, just listen to that montage – maybe play it on a loop – and it’s impossible to imagine yourself walking around inside your house doing anything apart from sinking knives in the walls for no good reason. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Punk movement was rebelling against, and, I suspect, exactly the kind of thing the hippie movement secretly wanted more of, then got all pissy and self-indulgent when they realized they couldn’t have it, so they just took drugs and had lots of sex and caught crabs instead. I assume. It’s hard to really understand what filthy hippies want.

Soooooooooooooooooooo anyway, as best I can figure, they decide to have a Martian Christmas, and they set up an automated toy factory staffed by child labor, rather than midgets because Mars evidently has fairly lax laws on the subject. Voldar, meanwhile, for no adequately explained reason, is hiding in a fake looking cave outside of town. Evidently he’s an outcast, on the run, turned out by polite society, though I’m not sure why. I presume it had something to do with him trying to murder three people – one of them mythical, the other one Pia Zadora, who might also be mythical – but I really don’t know. The copy I was watching was kind of sketchy and had clearly been re-spliced a couple times. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a scene missing. Or maybe I just nodded off there for a minute. That wouldn’t surprise me much, either.

So Voldar decides they can’t just kill Santa (For no explained reason), instead they sneak into the toy factory and sabotage it. While there, Dropo walks in dressed like Santa because Dropo is an idiot. Voldar’s an idiot too, and doesn’t realize it’s not Santa, despite the fact that he’s green and has the same kind of stupid helmet everyone else on Mars wears.

Santa discovers the machine has been sabotaged, meanwhile Voldar tells Kemar that Santa (It’s actually Dropo, don’t be frightened kids. Whereas everyone loves Santa, pretty much everyone wants to see Dropo get hurt.) is a hostage, and will be released if Kemar accedes to his demands. Voldar’s demands, that is, not Santa’s. Or Dropo’s. Of course Kemar’s the closest thing to a non-idiot on Mars, and he just beats the crap out of the two of them, shoves ’em in a closet, and begins to interrogate them. The bad guy get the drop on him, however, and beat the crap out of him, and escape the closet…but can they escape the hall it’s attached to? Seriously, they just stand around for like ten minutes in a six-by-six set, it’s claustrophobic *AND* visually uninteresting.

Back in the fake cave of fakeness, Dropo acts out of character and figures a way to escape, and makes his way back to the city or…house…or…really wherever it is that the “Action” is taking place. Voldar attacks the kids, but they hold him off using toys, after which Kemar comes to and arrests the guy. He’s crying, and his fake mustache is all soggy and even faker-looking.

Santa decides that Dropo would make a good Martian Santa, and then heads back to Earth with Pia Zadora and the kid who isn’t Pia Zadora.

Cue closing credits, annnnnnnd the end. What? Oh? Still running a bit short? Ok…uhm…run the lyrics to the song after the credits, as if it’s a singalong…………annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd…

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Despite all my snark, this is a perfectly tolerable kids movie. The SF trappings are probably intended as mild parody of the crappy SF TV shows of the 50s, and frankly things aren’t terribly much faker than episodes of “Tom Corbet, Space Cadet” and “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.” I mean, how else are we to make sense of the clearly-joking “Food Pills” stuff? Yeah, it’s a belabored running gag that isn’t remotely funny, but clearly it’s *supposed* to be funny, clearly they’re making fun of the tired old food-pill trope that had been showing up in literary SF for a generation, and in film SF for a decade or so. (For instance, it figures prominently in “Conquest of Space.”

Production values are worlds higher than “Forbidden Zone,” which is the yardstick I use for these things, and bear in mind that this is a film that’s intended for really young kids. I *loved* this movie in first and second grade, and probably third as well. All my little friends loved it, too, and I don’t remember anyone talking trash about it back in the day. It’s perfectly acceptable for kids in the same way that Barney the Purple Dinosaur and Romper Room are entirely acceptable for kids. They see and experience things differently than we do, so it’s kind of disingenuous to complain about the movie because it doesn’t have gore and knife fights and gory knife fights and a heavy metal soundtrack and whatnot because obviously those things aren’t age appropriate.

Unlike most of the people who run SF fansites, I have no real pretension. I’m an idiot, and I admit that freely. Rather than try to hide my mistakes, I draw attention to them, fess up, and move on. Case in point: I wrote this whole review assuming the little blonde girl was Pia Zadora. In fact, she’s not. She’s Donna Confortini, who never did anything in film apart form this movie. Pa Zadora is “Girmar,” the little Martian girl. Wow! What a huge mistake to make! Now, a lesser man than me would go through the review and fix that, trying to cover his tracks, but not me: I’m just honest and lazy enough to leave it the way I wrote it. Pia would have been about 10 when this movie was made. Despite being a bit old for that sort of thing by then, Pia would go on to have a minor career playing a sex kitten in movies that were essentially cheap sexed-up uncredited remakes of other movies: “Butterfly” (1982) was a slutty version of “Lolita” (1961), and “The Lonely Lady” (1983) was an even more slutty version of “The Oscar” (1966).

From an adult perspective, Dropo is the absolute worst kind of character in a film – a guy who’s not even remotely funny, but whom we’re *told* is a scream. We’re subjected to a lot of pointless mugging of the camera. He’s really so bad that I feel kind of embarrassed for him, I kind of don’t want to give his real name or talk about his career. He seems kind of vulnerable. “Voldar” was played by character actor Vincent Beck, who was on a jillion shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Apart from that, really no one in this movie ever went on to do anything of note.

It’s interesting to me that during the course of the movie, no one ever mentions how all those poor kids back on earth will be shafted because Santa’s trapped on Mars. Also, did the Astronauts get back to Earth? Did they land on Mars nine months later, guns a-blazing and kill everyone they met? What happened next? I think there’s a fine concept for a sequel there that no one ever really explored.

The Martians are, frankly, embarrassing. Guys in green tights and makeup. They all wear motorcycle helmets with the goggles turned upside down so the nose part is pointing up, all spray painted green, with some flexi-pipe on one side, and some TV Rabbit Ears attached. It’s sad, really.

The brief shots of the spaceship in flight are actually kinda’ cool. I found myself wondering if they’d been stolen from some other film.

Ok, I’m tired of typing. Suffice it to say that this is a really, really, really bad film that is bad in the exactly specific kind of way that makes you kind of sad for everyone in the film, you know? They just wanted to make something nice for the kids, and in a lot of ways they succeeded, but the movie is so cheap, so shoddy, so poorly acted, so badly thought out that it’s hard to overlook that.

It’s like when you’re ten and your mom tries to make you a cake for your birthday, only she can’t cook, and ends up with this amorphous disaster, swathed in way too much icing to hide the deformities: Yeah, it’s terrible, but you can’t actually complain to her, can you? I mean, she tried, right? And she already knows she failed – I mean, you saw her crying quietly to herself in the kitchen, right? Would it be any better if you pointed out to her what a bad job she did? No, obviously not. She’s got a hard life, getting harder all the time, and let’s face it, you’re no picnic, kiddo. So you just sit there, pretending the burned, rock-hard flinders drowned in icing are tasty, and that you don’t notice how bad it is, and she just sits there, knowing you know, and feeling bad that you’re having to put the effort into hiding your feelings, which makes her feel worse, and of course you feel bad because (A) you didn’t get a good cake and (B) you don’t even get to feel bad about it because your mom is obviously in a bad way and (C )your every effort to make your mom feel better makes her feel worse in that spooky grownup way that no 10-year-old understands, and (D) the damn bowling game you got is making you upset because everyone at the party is better at it than you, thus everything everyone does makes the both of you feel worse, and you hurt for everyone at pretty much every turn.

This *WHOLE* movie is like that.

I want to hate it, but these people are so inept, so clearly out of their depth that you kind of feel bad for them. I mean, most of them never went on to do anything, and one of them grew up to be Pia Zadora, which is obviously punishment enough. The whole thing just makes me sad on so many different levels. There’s my empathy for the people who made this thing, there’s my nostalgia for the kid I once was, who was so vastly different from the adult I now am that he actually enjoyed this film, and there’s my sadness that I can no longer enjoy it.

As I said at the outset, I’m not a Christmasy kind of guy. I don’t like it. Too much stress, too many out of pocket expenses, too much cloying tripe. It’s been decades since I felt anything other than dread at Christmas, certainly any sense of the sacred was long ago washed out of it by Madison avenue and my own childhood greed. There’s nothing I look forward to about it, I’m just numb.

On that level, this movie is a success, in that normally I feel nothing, but this film makes me sad in a very Christmas kind of way.

This film is in public domain, which means you can legally watch it free online in several locations.

MST3K did it, and I’m told Starship Titanic did a version of it, too. If you’d like another view on this one, which is different from my own, yet strangely similar, check out this one here

And that’s about it. Merry Christmas. Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Pass that bottle, would ya? Thanks. Hey, who does a guy have to kill to get a slice of lime around here?

MOVIE REVIEW: “Silent Running” (1972)

It is the future! The year 2008! In this far distant tomorrow which took place nine years ago, the earth has been completely defoliated. Such nature as remains has been relegated to some habitats on six huge American Airlines space freighters, orbiting Saturn. It’s an amazingly expensive, horribly boring undertaking, so fortunately all of that takes place offscreen before the movie begins. The bad news? Joan Baez sings.

Once that unpleasantness is out of the way (Seriously: why did anyone anywhere ever like Joan?) we find ourselves on the Valley Forge, one of the freighters in the fleet. These ships are operating on a sub-skeleton crew of just four people, rotated through in six-month shifts. Twitchy self-righteous hippie Bruce Dern has done sixteen straight hitches! He’s an environmentalist, you see, and he’s taken it upon himself to preserve the last forests. The crew – blue collar types – ride him kind of hard because of his eccentricities, but one of them actually kind of stands up for him a little bit. Dern doesn’t really seem to notice this kindness much.

The word comes through from earth: the program has been cancelled. The crews are to eject the domes, blow ‘em up with thermos-sized nukes (“Termos-nuclear weapons?” Huh? Huh?), and return their ships to commercial service. This they then do. There’s lots of shots of cute, happy little bunnies that are about to be atomized intercut with them setting up the bombs and cutting the domes loose. It’s hardly subtle.

Bruce wigs out and kills the guy who was nice to him with a shovel, then he launches and nukes another of the domes with the remaining crew members aboard. He has the neat little robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie, no, really!) chuck a bunch of supplies out one of the airlocks, and sends of a fake panicky message to the rest of the fleet, babbling about an explosion and the rest of the crew is dead, and blah blah blah. He fires the engines, and the Valley Forge moves through the umbra of Saturn.

The other ships aren’t close enough to rescue him – of course they don’t realize he doesn’t want to be rescued – and they point out that his course will take him through the rings, whereupon his ship will probably be destroyed.

Anderson: “These ships weren’t meant to shoot the rapids. There’s no way to reach you before that happens. Your name is Lowell, is it?”

Dern: “Yes.”

Anderson: “Lowell, you might want to think about…”

Dern: “Taking my own life?”

Anderson: “Yes.”

Dern: “Oh, no sir, I don’t think I could ever do a thing like that.”

Anderson: [long pause] “You’re a very brave American, Lowell.”

Dern: “Thank you, sir. [turns off radio] I think I am.”

Having gotten messed up in the fight to kill the only guy on the crew who was nice to him, Dern reprograms the “Drones” to perform surgery on him. It’s a mildly freaky scene. Afterwards they hit the rings, and one of the drones is lost to space.

From this point in, the movie is pretty dull. Fairly clever in places, but pretty dull just the same. We get a lot of scenes of Dern teaching the surviving drones to take care of the plants in the one remaining dome, playing cards with them (They cheat), and trying to interact with them on a friendly level, though this is clearly shown to be a dead end: they simply aren’t human, though they appear to be mostly sapient.

Dern struggles with flashbacks and guilt during all this, and has the drones bury the body of the guy he killed with the shovel – he can’t bear to do it himself. He attempts to say a prayer/give a eulogy for the guy before they throw him in the hole (Dern can’t bear to say “put him in the hole” either), but he makes a totally ineffectual hash of this as well, and kind of breaks down. It’s a fairly raw scene, and genuinely kind of moving. It’s one of two truly “Bruce Dern” scenes in the film, if you know what I mean.

Eventually he hits one of the remaining drones with a dune buggy while tear-assing around the cargo bay (It’s a BIG ship!) and cripples it. There’s a kind of neat, kind of touching scene of him trying to repair it – again, ineffectually – while the other drone looks on.

The forest starts to die, and Lowell can’t figure it out, though it’s obviously because they’re so far away from the sun that the plants can’t photosynthesize (Stupid hippie!). One of the other ships from the cargo fleet contacts him and tells him they’re a rescue party. Lowell’s been on his own for months at this point, maybe a year. The absolute best-acted scene in the movie is when the rescue ship attempts to contact him on the radio, and he literally can not comprehend what’s going on. This is the other truly “Bruce Dern” scene.

He realizes that he’s screwed – though of course he never really had a plan anyway, he’s just been reacting all along – but he (Finally) figures out the light thing, and sets the dome up with a bunch of billion-watt bulbs, and has the remaining unscathed drone take care of it in perpetuity. Speaking to the crippled drone, he says “When I was a kid I put my name and address in a bottle and threw it into the sea. I never knew if anyone found it.“ He ejects the dome, and as it rockets away from the freighter, Dern blows up the Valley Forge with some leftover nukes.

The final scene is the dome floating through space, tended by the lone remaining drone, while Joan Baez sings.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

This one didn’t really hold up as well in reality as it did in my memories. I was fascinated by this movie long before I actually saw it, mainly for the radical spaceship design and the cool clunky, functional look of the technology on it, as seen in stills in various magazines and books. When I finally watched it, I was a bit disappointed. The message was fairly obvious, but on the bright side the morality is somewhat more ambiguous than you’d get if this film were made today. Interestingly so, really.

For starters, Lowell is a mess. He kills three guys in cold blood – one of whom they make a point of showing us was married, and had a kid – hijacks a ship, and runs away into the night. He feels really badly about this, of course, but pushes that aside mostly and considers himself to be an American hero. He’s very out of touch with reality. He’s been on these ships for eight years, and when word comes in that there’s some big news coming up, he’s convinced they’re going to bring the forests back to earth, even when everyone else knows full well it’s going to be budget cuts. He won’t listen. He’s monomaniacal. He’s not all that bright. He can reprogram a droid and pilot a freighter, but he can’t figure out that plants need light to live.

I can not stress that enough: He’s an environmentalist who can’t figure out that plants need light to live!

He has more of an emotional relationship with three robots – which the movie shows us again and again is a dead end – than he did with the humans on the crew. He has all this advanced technology and robot slave labor, and he can’t think of anything to do with it apart from teach the drones how to play cards.

Most tellingly, he rails on early in the movie about how awful earth is now that nature is gone: Everywhere you go on earth, it’s 75 degrees. There’s no more poverty, everyone has a job, no one goes hungry anymore. He says these things as though they’re bad. I’ll grant the thin description we get sounds a bit like living in a shopping mall, but, hey, I’m a geek: that’s kind of a dream of mine anyway. That or a World’s Fair. (Preferably the 1967 World’s Fair. That’d be sweet!) My point being that while the utter destruction of nature is clearly a bad thing, the whole ‘full employment/no poverty/no hunger’ thing sounds pretty good. Curiously, he never makes any scientific arguments – presumably because he doesn’t know any – and bases his whole righteously indignant argument on emotionalism and nostalgia.

I think this is deliberate. I think we’re supposed to identify with Lowell, but I don’t think we’re really supposed to like him all that much. I mean, they hired Bruce Dern to play him, a guy who was primarily known for playing twitchy psychopaths up to that point. (Arguably he does that again here.) I think the script is deliberately addressing the human cost of the story: four people and two drones ultimately die, and Lowell is a pretty sad excuse for a hero. At no point does he ever have a clue about what he’ll do next. In fact, rather than rallying on earth trying to gain support for re-forestation, which might have accomplished something, he’s been hiding out in space for nearly a decade, dreaming his dreamy little dreams…the more you look at the movie, the more of a wreck you realize the guy is.

Bruce Dern plays this well. He’s effectively onscreen alone for 45 minutes, and while some scenes (Such as playing cards with the crew, or playing cards with the Drones) are stagey and ring false, the scenes of him retreating into himself, and daydreaming of living on a verdant earth that must never have existed in his lifetime are very well done. There are face actors like, say, Tom Hanks or Patrick Stewart, where you can kind of see what’s going on inside their heads. With Lowell, it’s clear that there really isn’t much going on behind his face, and what there is he’s trying to suppress.

It’s an interesting choice. Today they’d make it all jingoistic and “Oooh-Rah! Nature! Yeah!” It’s kind of ballsy to have a protagonist who’s clearly a bad man doing a good thing in a very bad way.

The visuals aren’t as good as I remembered, though this film provides a very obvious ‘missing link’ in the evolution of special effects. 2001 (Douglas Trumble)–> Silent Running (Trumble, John Dykstra) –> Star Wars (Dykstra). You can see very strong elements of those two other films in this one. If these ships look familiar, it’s because stock footage of them turned up in Battlestar Galactica (1978) as the “Agro Ships” that provided all the Rag Tag Fleet’s food. The design is beautifully ugly, no Star Trek sleekness here.

There are six ships, by the way: The Yellowstone, the Arcadia, the Blue Ridge, the Mohave, the Berkshire, and the Valley Forge. The Berkshire is clearly the flagship of the fleet.

In the beginning of the film, we hear a voice over by the American President delivering an address, “In this first year of a new century” explaining sending the forests off into space. We’re later told the program’s been running eight years, which makes it 2008 or early 2009. It’s never stated, but it’s pretty obvious that the program is being cancelled as a consequence of a presidential election back home. This is a very American movie. Everyone in the film is a yank. There’s not even any token internationalism (I find that oddly refreshing). It’s implied – but again, unstated – that the other nations of earth didn’t even attempt to save anything when they deforested.

Logically, not much of this makes sense: Why ship the forests off to Saturn? Why not just plunk ‘em in Earth Orbit, or, failing that, somewhere closer to the sun? Why do they need the freighters anyway? The domes have their own life support and gravity, and they evidently can operate indefinitely on their own, so why not just cut ‘em loose? (Though to be fair, Lowell thinks this is a solution, but he’s hardly the most sane knife in the fountain) Why was the whole world deforested? Dialog implies a massive environmental re-engineering project that was clearly successful, but they say there’s not so much as a blade of grass left on earth, and I think we’re supposed to take that literally. Why? Presumably this is overpopulation nonsense, but then there’s a lot of muddy thinking in the ecolologicalism of this movie.

There’s some interesting implications in the movie that they never develop: these freighters are HUGE, and there’s six of ‘em, probably more in commercial service elsewhere. How big of a space industry to you need to justify ships this large, and this many of ‘em? There must have been MASSIVE offworld colonies!

Is 2008 too early for this movie? In hindsight, yeah, but at the time, Apollo was still going on, and people took space colonization to be a fait acompli. I mean, look at the massive space stations and lunar cities of 2001 (1968)!

The ship scenes were filmed on a World War II Essex-Class aircraft carrier that had been decommissioned, and was waiting for a trip to the breakers. Just a month after filming ended, the ship no longer existed. That said, we don’t really see much of it – five or six rooms, one hallway, the hangar deck. They give a sense of massive size, but they don’t utilize it much. They had this giant ship at their disposal, but they didn’t have enough budget to really utilize it, I presume.

In the original script, the ship wasn’t called the “Valley Forge.” When the Navy gave ‘em permission to film on the carrier – the USS Valley Forge (CV-45) they decided to rename it in the script.

I once read an interview in Starlog with Douglas Trumble who talked about the original script for this movie. Initially it wasn’t even remotely intended to be an ecological fable, but rather was a first contact tale: the ship is about to be retired and scrapped, and the captain is about to be put out to pasture. He steals the ship and heads off into space, hanging out with his three robot buddies and gradually going a bit nuts. Eventually he receives a signal that he realizes is from aliens. The ship’s owners, meanwhile, are chasing him, and he goes into ‘silent running mode’ (like on a sub) to make it hard to find him. The rest of the movie is a race against time to contact the aliens before his own people get him. Ultimately, he sends one of the drones out in a pod on a course to intercept the aliens, and he’ll communicate with them through the robot. The cops bust in and kill him with a flamethrower, however, so the little Drone, not knowing what to do, just pulls out a snapshot of itself with the other two ‘bots and the captain – a ‘family photo.’ The aliens are confused and don’t know what to make of this, though it’s obviously rather poignant. For some reason.

The End.

Growing up, my more Right Wing friends disliked this movie for obvious reason. However he more I watched it, the more I realized this isn’t quite the propaganda it’s purported as. Rather, it’s an entirely different kind of propaganda. It’s not “Freeman Lowell is an ecological messiah who dies to save nature itself,” but rather “Things have come to a sorry pass when we have to rely on ineffectual losers like this.” The movie is interesting because it isn’t about the war to save the biosphere – that war was lost long before the movie even starts – this is just the shouting that takes place afterwards. This isn’t a terribly pro-green movie, it’s more like a criticism of the environmental movement of the 1960s/70s.

If you go at it from that angle, it’s pretty interesting, if a bit dull. If you go at it from the straight-ahead angle that pretty much everyone, left or right or indifferent, takes on it, it’s really just dull.