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Film Review: Stalker (1979)


A while back I reviewed Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic science fiction film Solaris. However, of the various films in Tarkovsky’s filmography, while Solaris was and is extremely well regarded, it’s a film that hasn’t built quite the same following behind it as Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker. While Solaris got a highly regarded remake approaching 30 years later from director Steven Soderbergh, Stalker has gotten a series of games that draws more, visually, from the film than from the novel that inspired it.

Stalker effectively follows three characters, the titular Stalker, and his two charges, known only as Professor and Writer, as they travel into The Zone – a geographical area where weird stuff has started happening after a meteor landed. Inside the zone is The Room – where whoever enters will receive their heart’s desire. As they travel through The Zone, the three talk about their personal philosophies, and why they chose to travel to the Zone.

To be frank, in the various axis of Science Fiction that I brought up in my review of Solaris, this is a film that uses Science Fiction purely for set dressing. This could just as easily be a film about two people accompanying a lay-priest through a hazardous journey to reach a shrine that has a holy relic that is said can work miracles. This is especially case when it comes to the subject matter of the film.

With Solaris, both with the source material, and with the interpretation of the book’s themes by Gorenshteyn and Tartakovsky, they made the film about interpersonal connections, both among humans and the potential between the human and the inhuman.

Stalker, on the other hand, is about faith and belief. The Stalker is a true believer. He knows what The Zone can do. He’s traveled this route many times before, and he understands. He has internalized his belief in the Zone’s power, and the faith in what it can do. It’s a part of him, possibly not only in terms of his identity.

On the other hand, the Writer and the Professor are more pragmatic. The Professor respects the Stalkers judgement and with one exception, respects his instructions. The Professor breaks from the Stalker’s instructions only when he realizes that he has forgotten his rucksack and must return to get it (as the contents of his bag also related to his Desire). Ultimately, when the trio reaches The Room, the Professor reveals that it his intent to destroy the room, and possibly the Zone itself, with a portable atomic bomb that he’s snuck into the Zone – as he believes that The Room’s power is too dangerous to be trusted by people, that people are not worthy of its power – that the unholy cannot be trusted with the holy.

By contrast, the Writer is a complete skeptic. He frequently scoffs at the rules put forward by the Stalker, chafes at his instructions, and when he encounters potential peril, he turns on the Stalker. Meanwhile, while talking about his own career as a writer, he frequently puts blame for his lack of success on others – that Editors, Critics, and Publishers don’t properly understand his work. He complains about their appetites – not only material appetites, but appetites for reading, cloud their mind to his brilliance. Only briefly does he admit any personal failing – claiming that he’s lost inspiration – before dismissing his earlier remarks later. He fits perfectly into the archetype of the creator who attacks any and all critics of their work, taking the view that if you don’t like their work, then you don’t understand their work.

There’s also the character of the Stalker’s daughter, “Monkey” – who was born without the use of her legs, due to the Stalker’s trips in and out of the Zone. In the film, scenes shot outside the zone are filmed in a sepia monochrome, while scenes within the zone are in color, much like with The Wizard of Oz. The exception is scenes from the implied point of view of Monkey, which are always in color – and the end of the film reveals that she has some telekinetic abilities, implying that there is a little of the Zone within her.

I’ve had to think a lot about what makes this film something that would be science fiction – why the earlier narrative framework I suggested wouldn’t work just as well if not better. The best answer that comes to mind is that this is a story that, possibly like Tarkovsky’s earlier film Andrei Rublev (which I admit I have not seen), which confronts the topic of faith, but unlike Rublev, is dependant on having characters with a more modern, and in particular more Soviet take on skepticism and religion.

If I had one complaint about this film, it’s that I think the contrast would have been stronger had the scenes within the Zone been in a 16:9 aspect ratio, with the scenes outside staying in monochrome and 4:3. However, going from the documentary material on the film, the movie was a tremendously troubled production, in particular with the developers ruining the negative from the first round of filming.

The film also has one thing in common with the John Wayne film The Conqueror – it was filmed in a tremendously toxic environment. While the environment of the Zone is very beautiful, it’s also toxic as hell, with industrial pollution in the environment giving much of the cast and crew cancer, including Tarkovsky himself.

As with Solaris, this is a film I absolutely recommend watching, though I admit I may be completely off base when it comes to the themes of faith in the film – I’ll let someone more versed than I get into that (and if I do find a good essay on the topic, I’ll pass it along).

The film is available from Amazon.com on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you buy the film through those links, I’ll get a small commission on the size of that order, which will help support my work. Also, please consider backing my Patreon.

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Anime (Video) Review: Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works (2014-2015)


I’ve previously reviewed the first two Fate anime. Now it’s time to review the third – Ufotable’s adaptation of the second route – Unlimited Blade Works.

Footage Property of Aniplex and the Unlimited Blade Works Production Committee – used under fair use for purposes of criticism.

Fate/Stay Night Review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewDl1Eob1Ho
Fate/Zero Review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-E84C2lFqk

Please support my Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/countzeroor
Member of The Console Xplosion Network: http://www.theconsolexplosion.com/
Watch my Live-Streams on http://twitch.tv/countzeroor/

Film Review: The Beatles – Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years


A while back I reviewed Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, a documentary on one of the more prominent albums to come out of the second part of the career of The Beatles studio-only era. A little before that documentary came out, Ron Howard came out with his own documentary on the Beatles, covering their touring years, from when they got big in the UK, to their US tours, and finally becoming dissatisfied with touring.

Some of these stories aren’t entirely new – a lot of this is covered through a lot of histories of Pop Music, Rock Music, and the Beatles themselves. What makes this documentary different is the extensive interviews of the surviving Beatles in the documentary. Additionally, when it comes to the reaction of fans, and the experience of going to these concerts, the documentary also gives time to minority voices, to African American fans who were able to go to their concerts in the South because the Beatles required that the audience be integrated, along with fans in the North (specifically New York)

That said, there are some things that were omitted that I wish had more coverage. There isn’t much discussion of the Beatles Cavern Club years, outside of a mention that a concert promoter spotted them at the club and brought them to play a few gigs in Hamburg. And there isn’t much discussion of the point where The Beatles switched from playing smaller venues to more… conventional audiences, to crowds of girls screaming so loud that they couldn’t hear themselves play.

This last is something of a bummer because there’d never been anything quite like that before, and I don’t think there’s been anything quite the same since. Not even the Boy Bands of the ’90s and 2000s got the same reaction as the Beatles did. The documentary also doesn’t give a sense of the pace – a switch is slipped and all of a sudden everything has changed. Even if this did happen overnight, somebody had to have looked into why this happened overnight. This is the kind of thing that people write doctoral dissertations about – in music, in business, and in human psychology.

It’s not like John Lennon went to bed one night, and then woke up the next morning with hordes of screaming teenage girls outside his window like in Life of Brian (though that is an amusing mental picture). In the same way, it’s not like the Beatles only toured for 2-3 years before retiring. Of their 7-8 year career, they toured for half of it, so the transition of the audience reaction is important, and if it really was an overnight thing, where one day you’re playing to what is basically an ordinary crowd reaction, and the next the audience is in full Beatlemania and sustains that fever pitch for 4 years, that speaks volumes. The same thing if there was something of a build-up to that.

The documentary is still worth watching, but that’s something to keep in mind.

The film is available from Amazon.com – if you do pick this up through that link, I get a referral from whatever you pick up on that purchase.

Anime Review: New Game!! (Season 2)


I really liked Season 1 of New Game, as a fan of seeing stories told about creative people being creative in their field or fields. When that review came up, I had already started watching the show’s second season, and I stuck with it throughout that season.

As with Season 1, New Game!! sticks with Eagle Jump games, with all of the previous season’s cast returning, along with a few new characters joining the cast. The story for season 2 follows the same pattern as Shirobako did. Season 1 of Shirobako started with an anime series already in the midst of production, and then went through the entire production process for an anime adaptation of an existing work. In the same way, season 1 of New Game had protagonist Aoba Suzukaze coming onboard with an existing game, season 2 takes us through the entire process of designing a game, writing it, and sending it out into the world.

As part of the shifts in this season, our protagonists have new responsibilities. Aoba’s childhood friend Nene Sakura has come onboard at Eagle Jump as a fledgling programmer, and almost terminally shy (but getting better) character designer Hifumi Takimoto has become the lead character designer on the new game and now has to manage and motivate the team, including new member Momiji Mochizuki (or Momo), who has decided to become Aoba’s rival.

Aside from the new explorations of the software development and marketing process, we also get much more exploration of the personalities of the supporting cast, including the new characters. This season also almost cuts out most of the fanservice from last season. Unfortunately, perhaps in anticipation of the reduced amount of shots Kou in her underwear, we end up getting a shot in the first episode of the season with Kou’s butt in the center of the frame as she gets comfortable again under the desk for approximately 5-6 seconds. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but considering that when you film something in animation you do it on purpose, and considering the posterior in question is not stationary, but moving, it’s a excessive.

Otherwise, it’s a great season, and if you watched season 1, it’s definitely worth moving on to season 2.

As of this writing – New Game!! Season 2 is not available for pre-order for a home DVD release, but is currently available for streaming on Crunchyroll, and from Funimation with a dub.

Anime Review: Himouto – Umaru Chan (Season 1)


Anime has an interesting relationship with the “Otaku” lifestyle. There’s an undeniable appeal to lounging around the house or apartment playing video games and/or watching TV (especially for an Otaku), but that’s not particularly a healthy way to live your life – so we get a variety of anime that romanticize the Otaku lifestyle in a manner both congratulating and self-depreciating, like Genshiken and Otaku no Video.

Himouto Umaru-Chan has an interesting take on this. The main character of the show is Umaru – a die-hard Otaku who is currently attending high school and who is also living with her brother Taihei, a salaryman who handles the cooking and cleaning. However, her public identity is not that of being an Otaku, but instead as one of the most popular girls in school, proficient in most sports, and who gets As in all her classes. On returning home, she undergoes a seemingly physical transformation into a chibi version of herself, with a radically different personality and wearing a hamster hood. The difference is dramatic enough that it’s something of a running joke that people who don’t already know can’t tell that Umaru’s public and private personas are the same person.

From there, the humor of the show comes from juggling the silliness of Umaru’s behavior (and with it the split between her public and private personas) and how Taihei responds to her behavior, along with other characters reactions to the two personas when encountered on their own. The writing for the humor here works very well. It’s helped by the fact that unlike far too many anime of late, this anime writes a brother-sister relationship that stays on the familial level, instead of stepping into the romantic level like like Oreimo and Eromanga-Sensei did. Nor does it get heavily into risque fanservice, keeping the show from getting skeevy.

It makes for a comedy series that isn’t particularly ambitious, and not particularly deep, but is fun and makes for good light viewing.

Himouto! Umaru-Chan is currently available from Amazon.com (Blu-Ray, DVD), and RightStuf.com (Blu-Ray, DVD).

Film Review: Dawn of the Dead (1978)


There are a few films that other people really like that I have completely bounced off of. I bounced off of Fight Club due to how the film handles mental health issues – and particular its discussion of support groups – using support groups as the negative avenue which Tyler Durden uses to put together Project Mayhem, and ignoring or dismissing the helpful elements support groups have (though, having organized a support group, I admit that I bring some distinct baggage to the table).

The same way, I bounced off of Dawn of the Dead – the most beloved film in George Romero’s Dead series, the same way. The first time I watched it, it turned me off the wagon of the entire Zombie genre. That was almost 10 years ago, so I thought with 10 more years of life experience, maybe I’d be able to roll with the story it’s trying to tell.

Nope.

I bounced off this like Sonic the Hedgehog spin-dashing into a spring in the Green Hill Zone.

I think fundamentally, the reason why this doesn’t work for me is that I’m not particularly nihilistic. I am pessimistic – I try to prepare for the worst so I’m not surprised by it, but I’m never really nihilistic – I never expect and actively hope for the worst.

That’s the problem for me – Dawn of the Dead is a very nihilistic film. It assumes and believes that humanity truly is the worst, and that the best possible outcome for the world is that humanity is wiped out and rendered extinct – that nothing good can come from or for humanity, and that belief is represented clearly by the film’s originally planned (but never shot) ending, where after the protagonists home is destroyed not by the encroaching force-of-nature undead (as with Night of the Living Dead), but by greedy selfish humans – leading one protagonist being killed, one wounded – the remaining two survivors kill themselves – one eating a bullet, the other by decapitation by helicopter blade.

According to my research, that ending wasn’t used not because George Romero thought it was a bit much – but because the audience would have thought it was a bit much.

In the world of Dawn of the Dead, while our handful of protagonists seem okay – or at least are not the garbage humans that are part of the SWAT team, or the project dwellers who are saving their dead even though they are clearly turning into zombies, or the network executive who wants to keep out of date evacuation center information on of the air for the sake of ratings, or the bikers from the film’s conclusion – they are clearly the minority compared to the rest of the world. As that previous run-on sentence makes clear, the rest of the characters in this film are generally crap. We’re not supposed to have empathy for them. We’re supposed to either not care if they live or die, or be okay with them being chewed on by walkers – and that’s the problem.

Horror works best, at least for me, when there are good people in the film who we don’t want bad things to happen to – and for there to be a possibility for the horror to end. With Romero’s Dead series – the source of the horror doesn’t end. The Zombies aren’t going anywhere – and any attempt to rebuild or make any sort of safe place free of the horror will be destroyed by the Assholes.

That said, I can roll with a Worst Ending style apocalypse, but those work for me when it’s a clearly telegraphed uncontrollable situation – the alien from The Thing, The Ancient Evil from In The Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness, that sort of thing. In Dawn of the Dead the apocalypse persists because people are inherently assholes so attempts at reconstruction aren’t worth it or automatically tainted.

My original intent was

Film Review: The Dark Half (1993)


Once upon a time (I can’t find the original post), I reviewed the 2004 miniseries version of Salem’s Lot, starring Rob Lowe. The miniseries was pretty good, and was able to successfully tell a horror story in about 3 hours – when by comparison most horror films tend to work better in the 90 minute range. So, I was looking forward to checking out The Dark Half, as it was adapted by legendary director George Romero, and with several actors who I’ve come to really enjoy – Timothy Hutton and Michael Rooker. Continue reading → Film Review: The Dark Half (1993)

Film Review: Silent Running (1972)


Silent Running is a weird film to talk about. It’s clearly a film that wants to be a response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, made in the 1970s in the wake of auteur films like Easy Rider.  It’s also very clearly a film with something to say, which is cool as I really like science fiction that engages in social commentary. However, there is a bunch about Silent Running that doesn’t quite work. Continue reading → Film Review: Silent Running (1972)

Movie Review: Royal Warriors (1986)


I’m a fan of the films of Michelle Yeoh – I generally thought she was super-cool back when I first saw her in Tomorrow Never Dies when I was in High School, but unfortunately very few of her movies had become particularly accessible in the US. Supercop got a wide release, as did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but the rest of her filmography required hunting online, requiring you to hunt down DVDs through Amazon or other services.

Netflix made some of those films accessible on disks, but as those disks fell out of print (and were not returned to Netflix), it became harder to find some of those films. Thankfully, some of those movies have become available again through streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix Instant, such as the film I’m reviewing this time, Royal Warriors. Continue reading → Movie Review: Royal Warriors (1986)

Anime Review: New Game!


As I mentioned way back in my review of Shirobako, I’m a fan of works about the making of stuff, going all the way back to reading Aliki’s How A Book Is Made and Digging Up Dinosaurs when I was a little kid. Consequently, when I learned about the anime series New Game!, it went on my watch list. I’ve finished watching that, and while the second season is currently airing I figured I might as well give my thoughts on the first season. Continue reading → Anime Review: New Game!