The Men Who Stare At Goats

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In his bizarre non-fiction book The Men Who Stare At Goats, Jon Ronson details official US Government projects to develop the use of psychic abilities as part of the military’s Intelligence arsenal. He reveals the significant budgets allocated to research into such talents as remote viewing, invisibility and psychic goat abuse. Remote viewing is a way of using human consciousness to engage in long-distance espionage, getting information about the Enemy and his activities without using physical technology. Sounds like a bizarre thing for a “respectable” government to be getting up to, right? Does that surprise you?

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Official Synopsis of Book:

In 1979 a secret unit was established by the most gifted minds within the US Army. Defying all known accepted military practice – and indeed, the laws of physics – they believed that a soldier could adopt the cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring at them. Entrusted with defending America from all known adversaries, they were the First Earth Battalion. And they really weren’t joking. What’s more, they’re back and fighting the War on Terror. The Men Who Stare at Goats reveals extraordinary — and very nutty — national secrets at the core of George W. Bush’s War on Terror.

With first-hand access to the leading players in the story, Ronson traces the evolution of these bizarre activities over the past three decades, and sees how it is alive today within US Homeland Security and post-war Iraq. Why are they blasting Iraqi prisoners-of-war with the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur? Why have 100 de-bleated goats been secretly placed inside the Special Forces command centre at Fort Bragg, North Carolina? How was the US Military associated with the mysterious mass-suicide of a strange cult from San Diego? The Men Who Stare at Goats answers these, and many more, questions. (Author’s website)

Now the non-fiction (which is strange enough to be fiction) has been made into a movie by BBC Films, Smoke House and Winchester Capital Partners, directed by Grant Heslov and starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, J.K. Simmons, and Robert Patrick.

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The Men Who Stare At Goats (UK/US-2009; dir. Grant Heslov)

Synopsis:

A reporter, trying to lose himself in the romance of war after his marriage fails, gets more than he bargains for when he meets a special forces agent who reveals the existence of a secret, psychic military unit whose goal is to end war as we know it. The founder of the unit has gone missing and the trail leads to another psychic soldier who has distorted the mission to serve his own ends. (IMDb)

All the above mentioned actors do such great deadpan absurdist comedy — and the idea is so open to surreal absurdity — that it’s hard not to be amused in anticipation.

The film is set to premiere on 6 November in the US.

Images:

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Jeff Bridges: psychic training

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George Clooney and Ewan McGregor: desert contemplation

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Kevin Spacey and Hippy Clooney: long-distance pat-a-cake?

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Ewan, George and director Grant Heslov on location

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George and Goat: killing me softly

Trailer:

Sources: Official website; IMDb

Posted in Film, News, Preview, Trailers, Weird stuff | 1 Comment

Flying Saucers Over Godzilla

You may recall that kaiju artist Todd Tennant has been creating, for everyone’s fannish pleasure,  a graphic novel rendition of the original script for a US Godzilla film — a script written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Initial planning for the film began in 1994, undertaken by director Jan Le Bont and production designers and SFX people Ricardo Delgado, Carlos Huante, Stan Winston and David Russell. This version was, of course, scraped for budgetary reasons before migrating into Roland Emmerich’s hands some years later. Todd has so far rendered 67 pages — a substantial investment in time and effort by anyone’s standard. Now the work is moving more slowly as Todd has paying projects to consider, but he comments:

If I ever get back to finishing this (fan-based/online) graphic novel, I’m adding this appearance of the long, lost descendants of “the Kyrill”, the alien race who bio-engineered the original American GODZILLA as Earth’s protector from alien Kaiju like the Gryphon.

  • Source: Todd Tennant
Posted in Animation, Flying Saucers, Godzilla, Graphic novels, Todd Tennant | Leave a comment

The Moleman Cometh!

Beats me why Americans have basements. There’s always something nasty living down there and you just know there’s gonna be trouble sooner or later. The basement — as the “underground” area of a house or building — becomes a metaphorical repository of our terror of mortality, of chthonian secrets and repressed fears — a sort of domestic “hell”.

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The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue (US-2010; dir. Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy) is an independently made horror/comedy feature film that explores this ageless trope. It is being shot and produced entirely in Chicago, IL. by Big Tree Productions, in association with Copper Road LLC and Zombie Army Productions. Principal shooting has just wrapped.

To quote from the press release:

It’s not every day you hear about a film being made by co- writers, co- producers, and co- directors who are also co- starring in over sixty percent of their own film, a monster movie comedy titled The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue, which finished production late in July. But then again John Laflamboy and Mike Bradecich are not your everyday filmmakers, they’ve been making short films and music videos together for years and come from very rich theater and improv backgrounds, which anyone will tell you are founded in trust and creative collaboration.

The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue is quite possibly the first feature length narrative film of late to draw so extensively from Chicago’s rich pool of improv comedy actors…

According to Associate Producer Jamie Joyce The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue will be “like The Goonies for adults”. Bradecich and LeFlamboy have managed to get Robert Englund to star in the film (along with themselves), bringing all his horror-film expertise and iconic stature with him. This is a man who, if not slaughtering teenagers in their dreams (A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise), is leading the dead residents of small-town America in slaughtering tourists (2001 Maniacs),  swinging from bloodied chandeliers and slaughtering opera goers (The Phantom of the Opera [1989]), or fostering the talents of a bunch of sexy zombies (Zombie Strippers). If that’s not real horror cred, I don’t know what is.

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Synopsis:

Marion and Jarmon Mugg have never had to work very hard. They’ve never had much responsibility, and no one has ever put any expectations on them to perform or achieve, well… anything.

But two years ago their mother died, leaving them the brownstone apartment building that has been in the family since its days as a speakeasy during Prohibition. In that short time, their slacker ways have run the building into the ground. The tenants are moving out, no one but them and their friends drinks at the bar on the ground floor, and the building’s pets are going missing. If all that isn’t enough to make them sit up and take notice, there’s also a good chance that a monster is living in the basement.

The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue is a horror/ comedy that explores what happens when a terrible situation is dropped into the laps of the two people least equipped to deal with it. The Brothers Mugg can either step up to the plate and finally grow up, or they can wait and clean up the mess as a mysterious creature eats every living thing in the building, one by one.

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Robert Englund shows his stature

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Directors/producers/writers Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy
as the Mugg brothers in battle mode

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Between takes

Gallery:

Sources/Further information: Jayme Joyce of Big Tree Productions via Avery

Posted in Film, Horror, Humour, Independent film, News | Leave a comment

More Raiga Pictures

At this juncture it seems entirely possible that before too long we’ll be able to join up all the pictures of Shinkaijû Raiga [aka Deep Sea Monster Raiga] (Japan, 2009; dir. Shinpei Hayashiya) that have been released and pre-construct a working copy of the much anticipated new Godzilla-surrogate daikaiju eiga in its entirety.

Okay, I exaggerate. But with some regularity Kaiju Search-Robot Avery has managed to turn up with another gallery of pics of Raiga (and his kaiju enemy) in action. Here’s the latest set:

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Gallery:

Posted in Daikaiju, Film, Giant Monsters, Preview, Where's the Film? | 1 Comment

Plan 9 is launched — Again!

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A while back, director John Johnson announced that he would be remaking “one of the worst films ever made”, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (US-1959; dir. Edward D. Wood Jr.), in which invading aliens resurrect the dead to form an army of zombies. The film is pretty bad, though the exuberance and cinematic self-delusion of Wood has become so iconic, thanks in some measure to Tim Burton’s excellent biopic, Ed Wood (US-1994; dir. Tim Burton), that the film is now considered a cult classic and still garners new fans as the years roll by.

As part of the original film’s 50th anniversary, Johnson and his production company, Darkstone Entertainment, are in the process of filming Plan 9 — “a serious-minded retelling of the original story, paying homage to the spirit of Wood’s film without resorting to camp or parody” (Official website). Johnson says that Wood’s intention was to make “a very scary sci-fi horror film” and that is his aim in doing the remake. As part of his “homage”, he has cast Conrad Brooks in his remake. Brooks is the sole surviving member of the original cast and crew.

From the look of the teaser trailer, Johnson’s remake takes on board developments in cinematic zombie lore that we’ve seen over the past 50 years, as his “zombies” are much more part of the whole Romeresque zombie apocalypse meme than anything Wood could have imagined, let alone realised on film. I’ve never been a fan of the original, always feeling sadness rather than any sort of elation while watching it — sad for Wood and the vast discrepancy that existed between his passion and his ability, and sad for Bela Lugosi and what he had been reduced to by the end of his life.

But it’s good that people are still being driven by the desire to pay homage to Ed Wood. Thankfully — at least from the high-quality appearance of the trailer — Johnson’s “homage” doesn’t include reproducing Wood’s sadly-wanting filmmaking techniques.

Johnson is unsure if his film will receive a cinema release when it is completed — that is presumably still under negotiation — but at least we can look forward to the eventual DVD in 2010.

Trailer:

Just for comparison, here is the trailer for the original Plan 9 From Outer Space:

Posted in Film, Horror, Independent film, News, Zombies | 3 Comments

Review: Transmorphers: Fall of Man

Transmorphers: Fall of Man (US-2009; dir. Scott Wheeler)

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Somewhere midway along the continuum between “Good” and “Bad” in the subgenre where giant robots are depicted as alien invaders lies the 2009 Asylum film Transmorphers: Fall of Man. Shadowing Bay’s Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in its title and the (limited) transformational qualities of the alien mechanoids, the film also manages to echo elements of the Terminator films, as an ex-soldier becomes, John Connor-like, the leader of an underground group of survivors.

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Transmorphers: Fall of Man stars Bruce Boxleitner of Babylon 5 fame, here playing an ordinary cop who gets caught up in a fight against invading hunks of animated metal. Boxleitner brings a certain professionalism to the proceedings, though his performance is largely unexciting — which isn’t inappropriate as before too long his “lead” status is overtaken by Shane Van Dyke’s ex-soldier — an unlikely “world expert” in drones and robotic warfare, we’re told. Jennifer Rubin gives an eccentric performance as Dr Jo Summer, in a role that keeps drifting off into irrelevance. Other actors, especially Alana DiMaria as the cop’s noticably pink daughter Madison, do a serviceable job with limited potential. The actors aren’t really a problem.

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Ostensibly, Transmorphers: Fall of Man paints a vast, apocalytptic panorama as the alien robots descend from space, cripple human communication networks, defeat the military, destroy cities and crush humanity, reducing it (in a largely undramatised fashion) to groups of ragtag resistance fighters hiding in the tunnels beneath an urban wasteland — this being the future depicted in the first Transmorphers film. I say, “ostensibly”, because the final result doesn’t feel apocalyptic.

For me the real problem is Shane Van Dyke’s script, which never properly adapts itself to deal with the discrepancies of scale left in the wake of the inevitable lack of funds that is the base line of most Asylum blockbuster-style films. Though some critics of The Asylum see the company’s films as cynical — exploitation of the worst kind — more often their chief problem is the inability to fully reconcile ambition with budget. Yet ambition in itself is a honourable thing, surely.

The film begins promisingly as a series of small-scale incidents with larger implications. There’s an effective sequence in which a character who persists in using her cellphone while driving is killed by the mysteriously morphing object itself — unexpectedly proving the maxim that using your phone while driving is a Bad Idea. Similar is the moment where an obnoxious driver is thrown from his car by the suddenly sentient vehicle. An effective car chase sequence between the cop and the self-motivated car leads to the first revelation of What Is Going On for many of the less perceptive characters. Thereafter alien robots begin plummeting to Earth, people die and those who realise what’s going on are considered crazy until it all comes into the open in a vaguely apocalyptic fashion.

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After that, however, things get patchy. In the earlier scenes director Wheeler shows what can be done on a small budget, creating a sense of growing doom and offering a visual expansiveness that at times looks quite classy. There’s even some relatively telling CGI that is enhanced by the small-scale perspective of the storyline at this point. What is harder to do on a small budget is directly create a convincing sense of large-scale action. As our heroes are forced to fight back and the apocalypse spreads, credibility becomes strained beyond breaking point. We can’t help but notice that the military of the world’s mightiest nation seems to be represented by maybe a dozen soldiers with guns and that the destruction is rather minimal. Even the appearance of a very big robot is spoilt by lack of perspective given to it as we mostly see it outlined against a blank sky — not, during its much of its main rampage, in relation to the buildings or the humans. On top of that, the world is curiously devoid of the masses even before the robots get a chance to wipe them out. There’s no panic, no effective visualisation of the inevitable chaos and destruction. From this point on, the “apocalypse” becomes something we’re told happened and we don’t get to convincingly see.

It seems to me that if you have a limited budget you must adjust the script to accommodate it. You don’t tell the story of those who are supposedly at the centre of the action. You tell the story of folk who are, say, on the edge of the conflict, so that you can suggest what you can’t afford to show. When your characters are supposed to be in the thick of things suggesting those things just doesn’t work. Instead conviction is destroyed and the audience’s critical faculties take over.

It’s also a good idea to have a tightly unified plot. The dramatic focus of Van Dyke’s narrative through-line for Transmorphers: Fall of Man is all over the place, changing direction three or four times before leaping from the climactic moment when the heroes save the day to an immediate “humanity is doomed” scenario that seems to come out of nowhere. The classical unities — of action, place and time — were espoused by Aristotle long ago as essential for creating effective drama. His tenets may not work in the context of blockbuster Hollywood films (not without severe modification anyway), but they are certainly worth remembering as limited budgets make restrictions inevitable.

So, no, Transmorphers: Fall of Man isn’t what I’d call a successful film. I wasn’t bored by it and it is pretty good by low-budget standard, but it could have been so much better if it had managed to contain its ambition within a carefully constructed storyline instead of trying to fudge its way past limitations hoping that no one would notice. Not a complete failure, though, it comes over as much glossier and more expansive than its predecessor, with good production high-points rising up from among the low ones. But those who found Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen overblown and indulgent are unlikely to see Transmorphers: Fall of Man‘s pared-back apocalypse as an effective alternative.

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Addendum 1: The Origins of Giant Robot Cinema

Robots form a significant subset of the giant monster genre, from the first giant-rampaging-robot flick, The Mechanical Man [aka L’Uomo Meccanico] (Italy-1921; dir. André Deed), in which the mad-scientist’s robot wasn’t all that big — through to this year’s blockbuster Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (US-2009; dir. Michael Bay), where the alien robotic lifeforms get more and more massive as the plot disappears. Leaving aside the primacy of Karel Čapek’s 1921 play  R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), where the term “robot” was first coined, a major component of the giant robot subgenre is Japanese mecha, which in turn was influenced by the Martian machines of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and (possibly) assorted science fiction stories from the heyday of the pulps, including Robert A. Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers (with its descriptions of piloted battle armour). Most significantly, however, it can trace its direct origins to Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s 1956 manga Tetsujin 28-go [later incarnated as Gigantor] and to the work of Go Nagai.

In full-blown mecha, the huge machines are controlled by biological pilots. Animator Go Nagai, whose work helped define the genre, once commented:

I wanted to create something different, and I thought it would be interesting to have a robot that you could drive, like a car. (Wikipedia entry)

The result was the hugely influential Mazinger Z.

Later, of course, the alien robots of Transformers would abandon the idea of a pilot by becoming independent lifeforms but would retain the car part of the equation by spending a fair amount of time disguised as vehicles of various kinds.

Addendum 2: An Example of the Giant Robot as Daikaiju

Another significant early film in the giant-robot-as-giant-monster subgenre is Kronos: Destroyer of Planets (US-1957; dir. Kurt Neumann). In this scifi exploitation flick a huge, non-humanoid machine arrives from outer space and begins pounding its way across the cities of the world, consuming the world’s energy. Neumann didn’t have the budget for full-on daikaiju eiga [giant monster film], but he certainly had the vision. Kronos is like a skyscraper-sized animated box with pretensions to being Godzilla, trashing its way through city-scapes with considerable mechanical, and metaphorical, glee. Somehow the inadequacies of the city-smashing SFX of Kronos don’t undermine the sense of apocalyptic danger conveyed by the film as a whole. Odd that, and maybe worthy of study by contemporary low-budget filmmakers.

Posted in Apocalypse, Review, Robots | 2 Comments

Weekend Fright Flick: Skeleton Dance, La Bicha, Miracle Fish

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Undead Backbrain’s Weekend Fright Flick.

First off, a cartoon. “The Skeleton Dance” (1929) was directed by Walt Disney but created by Ub Iwerks as chief animator. Iwerks was a frequent associate of Walt Disney who is also responsible for one of my favourite cartoons, “Balloon Land” (1935), featuring the very sinister Pincushion Man. “The Skeleton Dance” was the first of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies”.

Synopsis:

The clock strikes midnight, the bats fly from the belfry, a dog howls at the full moon, and two black cats fight in the cemetery: a perfect time for four skeletons to come out and dance a bit.

bichaNext, a faux trailer for a film titled La Bicha (Spain-2006; short [1:47 min]; dir. Paco Rocha), which works as a short film in its own right.  It was nominated for Jury Award for Best Animation Short Film at ’06 Edition of “Notodofilmfest, Festival Jameson de Cine Destilado”. Script is by Juan Fernando García and Paco Rocha, based on and idea from J. F. García and Paco Villanueva, with sound, editing and post-production by Juanjo de Latorre.

Synopsis:

The trailer for a 1968 Spanish movie based upon the dropped atom bomb incident two years before on the Palomares Coast. Born of the radiation, a giant reptile rises from the sea.

Our main feature this week is Miracle Fish (Australia-2009; short [17:42 min]; dir. Luke Doolan). It has won several awards, including the BAFTA/LA Award for Excellence.

Synopsis:

Eight-year-old Joe has a birthday he will never forget. After friends tease him, he sneaks off to the sick bay, wishing everyone in the world would go away. He wakes up to find his dream may have become a reality.

Posted in Animation, Cartoon, Giant Monsters, Weekend Fright Flick | 2 Comments

Evangelion Re-Build

Like many, I became rather obsessed with the ultimate mecha-kaiju crossover series Neon Genesis Evangelion in its multiple incarnations and offshoots (including its still-running manga version by artist Yoshiyuki Sadamoto), as its creators (especially writer/director Hideaki Anno) fought with inadequate funding in a Quixotic desire to get the ambitious story to where they wanted it to be. Despite funding limitations and some corner-cutting, the metaphorically (and metaphysically) complex show worked, the limitations were arguably used as stylistic and thematic drivers, and offered a unique and profound experience that was like nothing else.

Luckily, whether viewers understood what was happening or not, the show was a great success, especially in retrospect, which allowed Anno and colleagues to progressively toy with it.

Now, of course, the story of  Shinji Ikari, Asuka Langley Soryu, Rei Ayanami and the other members of Nerv — as they struggle against an invasion of monstrous “Angels” using huge bio-mechanical “fighting machines” called EVAs — is being re-build. The story is being re-produced as a series of better-funded films, two of which have appeared so far: Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone [aka Evangerion shin gekijôban: Jo] (Japan-2007; dir. Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Hideaki Anno) and Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance [aka Evangerion shin gekijôban: Ha] (Japan-2009; dir. Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki). More are imminent.

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I’ve been waiting for the first film to appear on DVD in the West, and though initially advertised as available quite some time ago, it never actually appeared then. I assume this delay was caused by a change of plans in the marketing department or some such thing, as it was subsequently given a cinema release (albeit limited) in the States. It opened on July 17. Anyway, here is the trailer for English language North American release version:

The DVD release is due on November 17, 2009. I think this will be one I want on Blu-Ray.

Meanwhile, for the record, here is the trailer for Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance:

Posted in Animation, Apocalypse, Daikaiju, Giant Monsters, Mecha, Robots, Update | 2 Comments

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Recon 2023: The Gauda Prime Conspiracy

I haven’t heard of this one before, but it has a giant monster in it — a giant monster with large chicken feet. Could it be the Giant Space Chicken himself?

Um, no …. probably not.

Recon 2023: The Gauda Prime Conspiracy (Canada-2009; dir. Christian Viel)

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Synopsis:

After 23 years of a grueling intergalactic war, humanity is about to launch the biggest coordinated attack of its history in order to take a final stand against the Ma’hars invaders. But in order for that mission to succeed, the Ma’hars main weapon must be destroyed. Dispatched to the treacherous deserts of Gauda Prime, forced to team up with a crack team of android commandos, Lieutenant Sharp and his team must seek and destroy the Ma’har weapon before the attack is launched or all is lost.

Political intrigues and manipulations will prove as challenging as the wild fauna populating Gauda Prime but Sharp and his team are determined to provide humanity a fighting chance against the deadly Ma’har armada.

It appears to be a sequel to Recon 2020: The Caprini Massacre [aka Power Corps] (2004) and Recon 2022: The Mezzo Incident (2007), both by the same director. The latter features a city of cyborgs.

Posted in Film, Giant Monsters, News, Science Fiction | 1 Comment