Friday, October 16, 2015

White Noise

Year 7, Day 289 - 10/16/15 - Movie #2,175

BEFORE: It's really a thematic link from "Dragonfly" to "White Noise", two films with men receiving messages from their dead wives.  But let's see if I can find an actor link anyway, because I know I had one in mind when I set up this chain.  First try - Kevin Costner links to Michael Keaton through "Night Shift", because Costner had a small cameo as a frat boy in that film.  I'm not sure that counts, because that was even before "The Big Chill" and nobody knew who Kevin Costner even was.  Ron Rifkin links to Keaton through a 1978 film called "Rabbit Test", so let's just say there's a link to Michael Keaton (last seen in "Birdman") in there somewhere.

THE PLOT:  An architect's desire to speak with his wife from beyond the grave, becomes an obsession with supernatural repercussions. 

AFTER: Apparently this EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) is a real thing - people scan through static from TV and radio signals, looking for messages from beyond.  I can think of many, many better ways to spend my time - but we've got another widower main character in this film, and he gets obsessed with the possibility of receiving a message from his dead wife.  So he buys a bunch of TVs, and he spends all of his late-night hours watching random things, hoping to discern some kind of pattern to it all.  Man, I know that feeling...

But, really, isn't this just more junk science?  While some might regard this as some kind of paranormal science (which should really count as an oxymoron), others believe that people listening to static or white noise hear the messages that they want to hear, which really just puts this on a level with old-timey seances and that Long Island Medium.  Harry Houdini famously stated that if it were truly possible to send a message back to the living after his death that he would, and he and his wife agreed on a secret coded message.  Many seances were performed any many people claimed to have received messages from the magician, but none of the messages contained the proper code words.

Of course, we have to wonder, if there is an afterlife, and if dead people can send messages to the living, why aren't the messages more clear?  Why are they hard to decipher, or hard to understand, or why are they sent on that weird frequency between TV stations, the one I used to tune into as a young teen, hoping to catch a glimpse of something lurid on scrambled porn stations?  I probably ruined a few TVs, messing with the horizontal hold just to make those images a little less jumpy - I had no idea that by the time I became an adult, we'd have this internet thing and smut would be a lot easier to find.  

Anyway, our protagonist tonight starts believing that messages are coming to him from his dead wife, and that she is giving him information to help other people, who are about to die.  Again, one wonders why she can tell him who to save, but can't just give him exact addresses or anything.  And sometimes he gets the messages from the dead people before they're even dead, and that doesn't even seem to make any sense.  Why didn't they just call him on the phone, if they were still alive?  Or are the messages from the other side going back in time somehow, so they can be more effective?  It's all very unclear.  

It's also junk science, once again.  What frequency is he tuned to?  What software is he using to remove the static and hear the voices?  How did he even figure out how to do that?  And with everyone these days having access to cable TV and satellite, how does he even GET static in the first place?  When I was a kid we had the UHF dial with like 50 channels, but only three or four of them had shows on them (25, 38, 56 and 64 in the Boston area) and the rest were static - but with cable this isn't even a thing any more.  

There's a whole wave of these "found footage" films, like the "Paranormal Activity" series, and a bunch of TV shows about ghost hunting, and I don't believe a bit of it.  Like how do all these video-cameras and devices record sights and sounds that we're not seeing?  It's all a bunch of contrivances to use special effects to try and scare the bejeesus out of people.  And then you've got this film, which tries to tie EVP to ghosts, serial killers, missing people and using predictions to change fate.  That's a lot to expect from a bunch of static.  

But yes, there are positive messages that come in through the TV, along with a lot of negative ones.  Evil forces are at work - in the form of infomercials, reality TV stars, televangelists and Kardashians.   Those all scare me much more than dead people.  I've got two more weeks of horror movies to go, and I'm hoping that they'll start getting better soon.  There are three or four that appear on that list of "1,001 Movies to See Before You Die", so I've got high hopes that things will improve next week.  If they don't, well at least I'll have cleared this category, so maybe I won't have to watch horror films any more.

Also starring Deborah Kara Unger (last seen in "Payback"), Ian McNeice (last seen in "A Life Less Ordinary"), Chandra West (last seen in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), Sarah Strange, Mitchell Kosterman, Keegan Connor Tracy.

RATING: 4 out of 10 blueprints

Thursday, October 15, 2015


Year 7, Day 288 - 10/15/15 - Movie #2,174

BEFORE: October's nearly half over, and by now it seems like every channel has switched over to round-the-clock horror programming. So there are a wealth of choices for me out there as I sift through the daily movie listings. Everything from "The Conjuring" and "The Purge" to "The House on Haunted Hill" and "What Lies Beneath" - but I'm going to stay the course and take care of what's already on my list, because I've got a chance at clearing out this whole category, and I'll worry about next October later on.

Blair Brown from "Altered States" was also in "The Astronaut's Wife", which I watched earlier this year, with Joe Morton.  And I'm back to doctors getting messages from beyond the grave, which was also the theme (sort of) in "Flatliners".  

THE PLOT:  A grieving doctor is being contacted by his late wife through his patients' near-death experiences.  

AFTER: While not overtly religious, this film is about a non-believer coming to terms with the possibility of life after death, once he starts receiving messages that could only be coming from his dead wife.  She collected things with dragonflies on them, so every time he sees that insect, or an object with that thing on it appears to have moved across the room, he takes that as a sign.  And then there's the mysterious closet that packs itself.  But rather than a blatant creepy ghost story, there are symbols and messages that he needs to decode.  

He even tells a woman who attempted suicide that she shouldn't try it again, because there's no world after this one, so she'd be wasting her time trying to get there.  Which I think is an interesting point - if so many people think heaven is so fantastic, why aren't they all trying to get there as soon as they can?  I suspect that the Christian religion (and other faiths as well) wanted to use heaven as a motivator to influence behavior, but also wanted its followers to stick around and keep supporting the church.  And there's that sticking point about suicide being a sin, so if you try to cheat the system and get to heaven early, then you won't deserve to get in.

But there are a lot of contrivances here - the main character's job as a doctor puts him in touch with a lot of dead bodies, plus kids in a cancer ward who have had near-death experiences, and these are the conduits for the messages from his late wife.  If his character had been a lawyer or a plumber, no doubt she would have had a much more difficult time contacting him.  And it just so happens that there's a nun who also visited the sick kids, who seems to know a lot more about human unconsciousness than even medical people do, another contrivance.  Don't even get me started on his plans for the whitewater rafting trip, or the medical situation at the beginning that foreshadows the ending.  

An ending which you may see coming from miles away - all of the details are important, and when you put them together that's really the only way the film could have ended.  If you expected more, or even less, than you didn't put the pieces together properly.  

NITPICK POINT: The vast majority of airlines would never allow a woman who's seven months pregnant to get on a plane in the first place.  I appreciate that she wanted to bring medical aid to the natives of South America, but this plan was ill-advised.  Another huge contrivance, but also way out of line with practical medical advice.  

Also starring Kevin Costner (last seen in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Pursuit"), Susanna Thompson (last seen in "Random Hearts"), Kathy Bates (last seen in "Failure to Launch"), Ron Rifkin (last seen in "Keeping the Faith"), Linda Hunt (last heard in "Pocahontas"), Jay Thomas (last seen in "Legal Eagles"), Matt Craven (last seen in "White House Down"), Justina Machado (last seen in "The Call"), Jacob Vargas (last seen in "Jarhead").

RATING: 4 out of 10 wiggly crosses

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Altered States

Year 7, Day 287 - 10/14/15 - Movie #2,173

BEFORE: I set up this order months ago, and now I have to remember what the linking justification was for putting this film after "Flatliners" - I think it was that Julia Roberts was in "The Mexican" with Bob Balaban (last seen in "The Monuments Men").  This one may not be that Halloween-ish - at least "Flatliners" showed kids trick-or-treating - but I'll get there soon enough.

I also could have gone from Kiefer Sutherland through "Dark City" to William Hurt, or from Kevin Bacon through "Loverboy" to Blair Brown - I had options, anyway.  I sure don't want to break the chain now after so much time.

THE PLOT:  A Harvard scientist conducts experiments on himself with a hallucinatory drug and an isolation chamber that may be causing him to regress genetically.

AFTER: Well, if you thought it was weird that college kids in the 1990's got together and played their little suicide games, wait until you hear what the fads were in the 1980's.  I swear this is true, there used to be these things called sensory deprivation tanks, which were these metal tanks full of water, and people would go in there and float in darkness, removing all sensory input so they could meditate or whatever.  I think this film really kicked that practice into high gear, but I doubt that the average person had any type of experience that came close to unlocking the secrets of the universe - more likely everyone just got really pruney. 

There was also this belief in past lives back then, Buddhists and Shirley MacLaine sort of got together and figured out that if people underwent hypnosis or had some dream or vision where they were Napoleon, that meant that they were the reincarnation of Napoleon.  And it was always someone like Napoleon or George Washington that people remembered being, nobody ever remembered being the person who cleaned up after George Washington's horse.  

The film "Altered States" sort of stuck these two bits of junk science together, since scientifically you can't create or destroy matter, that means there are just as many atoms in the universe as they were millions of years ago, so the atoms that make up your body were once part of stars, then rocks and then maybe like a fish or a lizard or something.  And your body is constantly creating cells from the food you eat and, umm, disposing of cells in various ways, so logically we're all part of the vast ecosystem of the cosmos.  What if, by floating in a sensory deprivation tank, and ingesting various, umm, let's say herbal substances, one could get in touch with the "memory" of one's DNA?  What could possibly go wrong?

A whole hell of a lot, it turns out.  Once again, a scientist uses himself as a test subject, testing the limits of his own body.  (But where's the control in the experiment?)  He hangs out with a bunch of Native Americans in Mexico, and drinks or smokes something that makes him go a little cuckoo, and then once he gets in the tank again, there are signs that he's devolving into some kind of simian.  Or, is he just imagining it?  It's difficult to tell.  Perhaps the whole second half of this film is not meant to be taken at face value, and it's all just one big acid trip.  

How else do you explain that a man goes into the tank, and a caveman comes out?  And is he responsible for the damage he does, running around the streets of Boston at night, breaking into the zoo and getting all freaky with the animals?  What about the people who try to catch him, and he knocks them out while defending himself?  Is this all really happening?  

The main problem, as with "Unforgettable" and "Flatliners", is that no real science was applied to the situations seen in the film.  Atoms don't have memories, they just form molecules and stuff.  And DNA doesn't have a memory either, it just knows how to replicate itself, and occasionally mutate.  Memories are a bunch of neurons firing in the brain, the truth is that we don't really know much about how the brain stores memories, except that when the brain dies, those memories are gone.  

The special effects used near the end of the film were ground-breaking at the time, but 35 years later, they just don't hold up - they toggle between terrible and laughable.  But this might be a great movie to watch while on psychedelic drugs, much like "Naked Lunch", otherwise, I say give it a pass.  And I can assure you, absolutely nobody in the 1980's was involved in recreational mutation like this.

Also starring William Hurt (last seen in "Eyewitness"), Blair Brown (last seen in "The Astronaut's Wife"), Charles Haid (last seen in "Pollock"), Thaao Penghlis, with cameos from Drew Barrymore (last seen in "Cat's Eye"), George Gaynes, John Larroquette.

RATING: 2 out of 10 eyes on a goat-headed Jesus

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


Year 7, Day 286 - 10/13/15 - Movie #2,172

BEFORE: Well, I'm back from New York Comic-Con.  I didn't really go anywhere, I stayed in New York, but since it took up 5 days of my time, nearly sun-up to sundown, it feels a bit like I was away.  When you factor in the load-in, a lot of walking around, a lot of sitting in a booth, and then the load-out, I got enough of a workout that I'm now worn out.  I feel like I need to sleep for three days straight, but I'm not going to get a chance to do that.  Instead I allowed myself two nights just to relax and catch up on some TV, but I've got to get back to starting the Halloween chain, because there are just 19 days left in October, and I've got 19 films, so there's no more room for slacking off.  OK, maybe one, because I think I can go one day into November and still be culturally appropriate - I'll explain on November 1. 

It's also my wife's birthday today, so we're going out to dinner tomorrow and seeing a Broadway show on Friday, so maybe I'll take Friday off from movie-watching as well.  It'll be a late night when we get back from the theatre.  

Kiefer Sutherland carries over from "Pompeii" - I could have gone with "The Lost Boys", I suppose, but I don't have a copy of that film.  Maybe next year.  "Pompeii" is a good lead-in, because nearly everyone in that city died from volcano-related injuries, and my first few horror films are about death or death-like states.  Later I'll get into gremlins, zombies, vampires and demons, and sort of a more general category about things invading our bodies, and not in a good way.  Let the countdown to Halloween begin...

THE PLOT:  Four medical students experiment on "near death" experiences that involve past tragedies until the dark consequences begin to jeopardize their lives.

AFTER: Well, if "Pompeii" was clearly pitched as "Titanic" meets "Braveheart", you can almost assume that this one was pitched as a revamp of "Frankenstein", only there are 5 young Dr. Frankensteins, and they all play the monster as well.  In "Frankenstein", a doctor took dead bodies, spliced them together, added chemicals and electricity, and brought the dead back to life.  In this film, 5 doctors allow themselves to die, then add chemicals and electricity (in the form of a defibrillator) to bring themselves back.  The point of the experiment is slightly different, here these five brave souls are attempting to answer the eternal question over whether there is anything after death, hoping to experience it, come back, and remember what they've seen.  

The trouble is, we don't know a lot about what happens when people die - those who've had near-death experiences, or who have been clinically dead for a period, tend to talk about seeing that long tunnel with the bright light at the end, but couldn't that just be a result of the brain or the optic nerve shutting down?  People talk about their lives flashing before their eyes, or seeing deceased loved ones again, or experiencing a feeling of warmth, peace or acceptance - again, all possible side effects of the human brain getting ready to close up shop.  Anything experienced during that period should perhaps not be taken at face value.  

In this film, the five - no, wait, it's really four because one guy never gets to undergo the procedure, so really, he's a completely superfluous character - people who flirt with the big dirt-nap have dreams (or visions, or after-life experiences) that are connected to their pasts, reminding them of their misdeeds.  The first guy remembers a boy who he bullied in grade school, the second has visions of the women he's been secretly taping during sexual encounters, and the third remembers a girl he bullied in school, because clearly someone couldn't think of a third thing, so they just put a spin on the first one.  The lady doctor who insists on also undergoing the procedure, because it worked out SO well for the first three who tried it, has memories of her father's suicide - yeah, good times.  I bet she's glad she demanded to be part of the experiment.  

Once brought back to life, the doctors start experiencing hallucinations of the kids they bullied or the women they've wronged, and it becomes harder and harder for them to tell what's real.  One gets beat up by the kid he bullied so badly that it causes him real injuries - but wait, how is that possible?  Did they really bring evil entities back into the world with them when they came back from the afterlife?  Do they feel so guilty over their sins that they're inflicting damage on themselves while hallucinating?  It's really not clear - so I guess you can take it whichever way you want, but that's sort of a narrative cop-out, isn't it? 

What's most annoying is that they spend the first third of the film arguing over how much of a bad idea this is, allowing each other to die, even under medical supervision.  OK, well if you think it's such a bad idea, then don't do it, don't even argue about it, just leave the room!  And then even once the experiments have started, all they do is bicker.  And whisper.  And bicker-whisper.  Why are you all whispering, there's no one else in the lab, or the cafeteria, or whatever strange campus meeting hall you're essentially killing each other in.  

There are rumblings about plans for a remake of this film, because everything from the 80's and 90's is fair game now, but they could probably find a film that's less silly to update.  Because playing around with near-death experience was one of the worst fads of the early 1990's, along with Furbys and Tamagotchis and listening to Hanson.

Also starring Kevin Bacon (last seen in "Novocaine"), Julia Roberts (last seen in "My Best Friend's Wedding"), William Baldwin, Oliver Platt (last seen in "Ready to Rumble"), Hope Davis (last seen in "Arlington Road"), Kimberly Scott.

RATING: 3 out of 10 refrigerated blankets