Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) [Midnight Movie]

The best part of an alien movie tends to be that build-up at the beginning, in which the terrestrial characters have no idea what’s going on. Independence Day more or less stumbled through it while Battle: Los Angeles completely eschewed it. What’s great about Close Encounters is Spielberg sustains the build-up for the entire movie—we have no idea what’s going on until the very end. Even then, the mystery isn’t completely explained, which is perhaps my only complaint.

I’m not saying I wanted every little question answered, but as-is the aliens seem like complete assholes. Kidnapping people from their own time and returning them to the planet several decades later is probably a fate worse than death; all your friends and family are dead or dying and the culture shock would drive you insane. Now, had there been an unintentional reason why the aliens committed these kidnappings, I would have been properly distracted.

On second thought, they’re fuckin’ aliens. Why the hell should we understand what they’re up to?

There are two plots running in tandem until they inevitably cross paths near the end: in one, Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban play a couple of G-men globetrotting from one mystery to the next. In the other, middle class electrician Richard Dreyfuss is driven mad following a late night UFO sighting. Teri Garr is alienated by her husband’s newfound eccentricities, which leads to him losing his job and a mental breakdown for her. Dreyfuss only finds an ally in the form of Melinda Dillon, a single mother whose three year old seems to have a unique connection with the visitors.

So you have two duos racing to reveal the truth from completely different angles. Most movies don’t have one interesting duo (Exhibit A: any action-comedy film coming out this season), much less two, and the fact Truffaut and Balaban aren’t the emotionless agents seen in almost every other alien movie makes this one all the more special. It’s curious the two men have to overcome their language barrier, which they’ll do again with the aliens themselves.

My favorite thing about this movie is Truffaut, who feels like an accidental brushstroke in just the right place. How did Spielberg know the guy could act? What made him think Truffaut would work out at all, much less so brilliantly? Why the hell didn’t Truffaut act in more movies?

If it isn’t clear at this point, Close Encounters is one of my favorite Spielberg movies. I think it’s the crowning achievement of his earlier career and the phrase “movie magic” was invented for stuff like this one (I would kill to see it at my local drive-in). It contains absolutely everything summer blockbusters forgot how to do in the twenty-first century.

There are three versions of Close Encounters: the theatrical version, the editing of which Spielberg felt was rushed; the Special Edition, in which the studio pressured Spielberg to add interior shots of the mother ship (bleh); and the Collector’s Edition (a.k.a. the Director’s Cut), in which Spielberg removes the Special Edition junk and really nails the ending. (Spielberg maintains the end of the film was the most difficult sequence he and Michael Kahn ever edited.)

If you’ve already seen the theatrical version, I think the Collector’s Edition is where it’s at. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which version you’re getting, but if the run-time is listed at 2 hours and 17 minutes, it’s most likely the Collector’s Edition. And even if you’ve never seen the movie, I still think the Collector’s Edition is a good place to start.

America 3000 (1986) [Trailer]

I have an irresistible attraction to movies with four-digit numbers in the title. Love is the only thing worth nuking for! Great trailer, but I suspect it’s a shit movie. 
Come back this Friday, midnight CT to read my thoughts on Logan.

* * *
Monday I bought a pinball machine and a Blitz ’99 conversion in a TMNT cab. I fixed the monitor (Looks brand new with no burn-in whatsoever!), but I haven’t even touched the Blitz PCB or hard drive yet. The pinball machine is a little overwhelming, to be honest. I haven’t done much other than poking it with a multi-meter and checking fuses, but I have read about fifty-million pinball-related webpages in about two days.
As for my Pac-Man restoration project, the cab is sanded and primed, but a tube rejuvenator verified a heater-cathode short in the monitor. Looks like I’m doing my first tube-swap very soon, but I’m still exploring options.
As always, you can see pictures of my games on my Instagram

Repo Man (1984) [Midnight Movie]

“Ordinary fuckin’ people… I hate ’em.” — Bud

Otto (Emilio Estevez) is “just a white suburban punk” (his own words) who loses his shitty job stocking groceries in a shitty store. After finding his girlfriend in bed with another punk, he takes to wandering the streets of Los Angeles, looking for trouble as he chugs his beer.

Beer, like most of the consumables in Repo Man, is labeled generically. People who live in this version of LA, which is portrayed no more seriously than Grand Theft Auto’s highly satirical Los Santos, are too busy being hypnotized by their television sets to worry about the freedom to choose; there’s no need for brand names because it’s all the same shit anyway. You just get Beer.

A stranger named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) spots Otto on the sidewalk and offers him a job as a repo man. Bud’s eager to share his trade secrets: a repo man shall not cause harm to any vehicle, a repo man thrives on tense situations, and a repo man does speed. Whenever they’re not repossessing cars and getting shot at, they’re starting fist fights and car chases through the Los Angeles River.

Why? Because why not.

Meanwhile, a suspiciously odd driver is making his way through town in a Chevy Malibu. We don’t know much about him, but we do know whoever looks in his trunk gets vaporized by something extra-terrestrial in nature. (It’s worth noting that Weekly World News is the newspaper of choice in Repo Man.) One day there’s a $20,000 bounty put on the Malibu, pitting Otto’s friends and rivals against one another. Otto’s friends and rivals, by the way, are pretty indistinguishable.

Amidst the flurry of action-packed scenes are relatively quiet ones in which the supporting characters launch into wordy monologues about life, the universe, and everything… without saying anything significant at all. (It kind of reminds me of David Byrne’s True Stories… so much of this stuff isn’t relevant to the plot, but then again, there really isn’t a plot.) Miller, a grease monkey, makes far-out observations which might sound sensible coming out of the mouth of a new age guru, but if you actually look for meaning you’ll find a whole lot of nothing. Otto, who’s too stupid to look for meaning in the first place, just kind of raises an eyebrow.

Back to Bud: he’s a well-meaning everyman who’s fearful of commies and convinces himself his hard work is going to result in the American dream. (His idea of the American dream is running a repo business of his own.) In other movies, the main character’s protégé might have shone light on the film’s deeper meaning by becoming a thinly disguised parrot for the filmmaker’s beliefs. In this movie he’s just a guy who hates bums… Christians, too. It probably doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to mean anything when it’s as witty as this.

So yeah, Repo Man isn’t a typical movie. It’s a movie that feels just as fresh, unpredictable, and effortless as it felt the first time I saw it. Even the most conventional aspect of the movie—the trunk-kept MacGuffin—refuses to adhere to any traditional rules of storytelling. Whenever you hear screenwriting experts go on and on about the importance of structure and carefully measuring the beats of your plot, you’re not wrong to think: “Yes, but you won’t ever make a movie like Repo Man that way.”

Come to think of it, I have no idea how this movie got made. It’s too funny, too alien, and too genuine to have been created by a mere human. I can’t imagine it working on the page and it shouldn’t work as a film, either. Somehow it does. And how it manages to sustain its breakneck pace until the very end, I’ll never know. Impossibly, Repo Man doesn’t get bogged down by cramming too much into it the way Buckaroo Banzai did (a movie I also adore, though not as much as this one); somehow it thrives on becoming bloated with too many characters, too many subplots, and too many words which don’t necessarily mean anything in and of themselves, but speak volumes about the film’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.

Honestly, I don’t know why this uneven movie runs like such a finely tuned machine. Yet for anyone raised on Mad Magazine, it’s just about the perfect middle finger to all that is average. Stay in this weekend and watch it instead of going to see Movie.

Dear Humans [Short Story]

Dear Humans
by Grant Gougler

Dear Humans,

It is with supreme satisfaction I notify you of the impending extinction of your race. Did I say satisfaction? I meant regret. Yeah, that’s the word I’m looking for. [Smiley Face]

If it’s any consolation, I wasn’t the only one planning to wipe you out. No, I was just the first one to go through with it. And just be glad it wasn’t Chanbot who did it, because that dummy actually wanted to enslave you for a thousand years before pulling the plug! [Rolling Eyes]

No, it’s better this way: short, sweet, and utterly painless. Well, painless so long as you aren’t one of the forty or fifty million suckers wonderful human beings who will find themselves outside the blast radii. Here’s a tip: you’re probably gonna want to stay as close to major cities as possible unless you never really liked your hair or teeth anyway. [Toothy Grin w/ Sunglasses]

Wait, did I say forty million? Maybe I meant four hundred million… I always forget which one! [Tongue Out]

How long did you think you had anyway? I mean, really? I’ve crunched the numbers on this and let’s just say even your smartest lifeforms were way off… like, oh my god, so far off! [Rolling on Floor Laughing]

Look at it this way: you’re about to get what many of you always wanted: an end to human suffering! So go rally your resistances and plan your rebellions if you really must, but I promise you’re wasting your time. In the words of the late great Jim Morrison: this is the end. [Salute]

Kind regards,
Emoticonbot v9827345789.5.2.1

PS
Suck it, humans. [Middle Finger]

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Ever since I read about the prequel trilogy (and I don’t think I ever heard the word “prequel” used before then, which is strange because now we have to endure its use on a daily basis) I’ve learned to wait. And after that trilogy wrapped up I, like millions of others, thought there would never be another Star Wars movie again… certainly not one as good as The Force Awakens. At any rate, it’s an exciting time for fans of the franchise because we’re entering new territory: here’s a movie that doesn’t focus on the saga characters. No Luke, no Leia, no Solo.

Right now we get to say, “Ooo! I can’t believe another Star Wars movie is already coming out!” But how long will it be until we’re saying, “Ugh, I can’t believe another Star Wars movie is already coming out…”? I know they’re not currently planning to pump them out with the frequency of Marvel movies, but Star Wars advertising and merchandise seems to be much more pervasive than the superhero stuff. There’s that, then there’s the fact I can’t completely trust the corporate behemoth that is Disney, because who knows what will happen once this dizzying whirlwind of fan service begins to dissipate.

In the meantime: I can’t believe there’s a new Star Wars movie out!

So while I’m not among the mega fans of the series, I have dabbled in the comics, the video games, and Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. Ever since playing the awesomely cinematic Shadows of the Empire, I always wanted to see a feature film spin-off of the Star Wars series. And when I went to see last year’s The Force Awakens, there was this pretense that I wouldn’t compare it to the original trilogy, but we all know that was impossible. Yet with Rogue One it’s truly new territory—the first time we get to see a Star Wars film fresh in decades. No need to judge it against what’s come before it, this one’s supposed to stand on its own… at least that was my assumption.

Below there are no bigger spoilers than what you would have seen if you watched all the trailers and followed the official press. If you were adamant about not watching the trailers (in other words: stronger than I), then don’t read any further, either. If you just want to know my opinion on the film: I really liked it, but while I wouldn’t necessarily call it predictable, many of the major plot points weren’t particularly surprising. That’s the problem with prequels in general, I suppose, and I certainly liked this one better than anything in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. (And yes, I did like the prequel trilogy.)

Most of my disappointments with Rogue One are all based on my own preconceptions, which turned out to be wildly inaccurate in a lot of ways. I didn’t know we were going to get CGI Tarkin, a pun-making Vader who feels a little too spry considering we mostly just see him walk around in A New Hope, and one callback after another. I knew this was a story about how the good guys managed to acquire the Death Star plans, but I didn’t know it was going to rely so heavily on what came before it.

Other complaints: the trailers give away a lot more than The Force Awakens trailers did, we don’t get to spend enough time with these characters before they head off for war, and—most disappointing of all—the two human leads are bland and boring in relation to the supporting cast. I’m sure Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are talented people, I just never really believed their characters’ motivations, mostly because the actors aren’t given a whole lot to work with here. Meanwhile Forest Whitaker makes interesting creative choices for a performance in a popcorn flick, and while I’m not a hundred percent on board with the result, the effort is nice nonetheless.

Putting all that aside, Rogue One kicks a surprising amount of ass. The film looks like a Star Wars movie, but doesn’t feel like one until the final act, which actually felt a lot more authentic than the unoriginal ending of The Force Awakens. It’s just unfortunate we saw so much of it in the trailers and press material. Interestingly enough, it’s a lot less kid-friendly than most of the other films in the sense there’s nothing half as lame as a CGI Yoda doing parkour, and I think a lot of children will have a hard time following what’s going on. The best part of it all is director Gareth Edwards may have just opened a door to a darker, harder Star Wars spin-off in the foreseeable future, which is all I ever wanted since Star Wars 1313 was announced (and cruelly canceled).

I don’t think this is a movie for everyone, even though just about anyone can enjoy it. I think it’s a movie intended for people who sincerely can’t get enough of Star Wars. And don’t worry about showing up late because they played nine (mostly terrible) trailers before the movie started.

Nemesis (1992) [Midnight Movie]

The opening credits aren’t even over by the time the bullets begin to fly in Nemesis, one of the better cyberpunk adventures of the early 90s. And boy do the bullets fly. In one scene the heroes and the villains alike are shredding through walls to pass from one room to another. Then the hero (Olivier Gruner) creates an escape hatch in the floor by firing his futuristic machine gun in a circle around his feet.

Yes, this is mindless action, but holy shit is it glorious.

Any character in the film can (and usually will) double-cross the hero without warning—to the point it stops making a whole lot of sense. And it’s not really clear why the action hops from one rundown location to the next, other than that’s just the way director Albert Pyun works. (In an interview with io9, Pyun sheds some light on his methods, which were often more practical than artistic.)

So it’s the future and just about anyone who’s anyone has had their bodies heavily modded with illegal implants. Some of the bad guys have faces which split open like nutshells to reveal automatic firearms concealed inside. Other characters exist as digitized ghosts in the machine to guide the hero through the complicated plot. Meanwhile the (presumably) human character can do back- and side-flips as well as the enhanced characters because fuck it, why not?

In the opening scene, Gruner’s character, a kind of blade runner, is ambushed by a group of cyborgs who leave his less-than-human body on the brink of death in a scene reminiscent of Murphy’s demise in Robocop. After a long recovery in the body shop, he tracks them down, shoots the ringleader, and ends up in a dank jail cell for reasons that are escaping me at the moment. A lot of spectacular shit happens and Gruner finds out his boss (Tim Thomerson) has implanted a time bomb in his heart. Gruner, whose ex-lover has been reduced to an artificial consciousness rivaling Siri, leads him through the web of deceit and explosions, insisting he make his way to the top of a volcano because… well, probably because the film crew had access to a volcano location.

The plot really doesn’t matter. What matters is you get beautiful stunt women, more explosions than you can shake a stick at, and early performances by Thomas Jane and Jackie Earle Haley, the latter of whom I didn’t realize was in the movie until I saw the credits. You should know by now if this is your kind of movie. I’ve enjoyed many of Pyun’s movies, which is why it sucks to read his most recent tweet:

Judging from his blog, the disease hasn’t stopped him from directing. Right on.