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War of the Worlds (1988)
Very much a mixed bag!
I was often surprised how the War of the Worlds series could often reach such level of perfect tongue-in-cheek black humor and satire, and also fall prey to utterly clichéd stories and poorly thought out escapades! Some suspension of disbelief was easy in that this was a small-budgeted show which was about a global invasion by aliens. The creators seemed to enjoy the quirky dialog and dark atmosphere without taking the whole premise too seriously. Drs Blackwood (especially) and McCullough did well as unusually nerdy heroic leads... although Drake and Ironhorse were saddled with far more corny lines and stereotypical characters. The writing and acting were wildly uneven. But fortunately this happened to swing the quality between entertainingly good and entertainingly bad, only once in a while pausing in boring mediocrity. Of course one of the biggest logical flaws is that the US government admits to three scientists that they do believe the world is being threatened by invasion from a superior alien threat, but that the only resources they can spare to help stop it are in the form of one annoying Army colonel! Of course this is absurd, but due to the small scale of the series they were acting more as investigators.
In my opinion, the best things about this series were the eccentric Dr Blackwood, the interesting dialog, and the alien threat. The aliens allowed the the creators of the show to indulge in some quite surreal and at times macabre set pieces. They were stranded from the famous invasion of the original story and 1953 movie. The invasion failed and these aliens were written off for dead. Now invading "on the cheap", they infiltrate human bodies and try to amass the technological means to contact the rest of their people in space to get reinforcements, which would effectively resume the invasion. Meanwhile, they try to learn about the humans while recovering hibernating aliens and tech. Kind of like a cross between terrorist cells and bodysnatchers. This was a clever way to build the story up from modest resources and present a threat of invasion which was gradual, but with high stakes. The aliens were not used as allegory for communists, yuppies, etc - their motives were, as I recall, not easily understood. The effects of watching "assimilated" humans constructing Rube Goldberg gadgets out of garbage while babbling to each other with scrambled, pitch- shifted speech is hilariously weird!
As has been remarked upon, the second season of the show is a huge departure from the first. Unlike the 1st season, which I have watched recently, it has been almost 20 years since I've seen these. They were worth watching, but in a different way. Everything fast-forwards to a near future where the aliens have all but taken over the Earth. Dr Blackwood has buckled down to a weary guerrilla resistance leader, his old team killed. The larger scale and darker tone of the second series were welcome, but since it was the product of a completely different creative team, there were many inconsistencies. Mostly in retconning of the aliens. Some of these ideas worked, others did not. It worked more like a sci-fi version of Vichy/ Maquis France in World War 2.
Not a great series, in many ways, but a worthwhile and entertaining effort.
Wild Palms (1993)
Chickie! No!!! - or - Rave New World starts in 5 minutes
I remember when Wild Palms was originally shown amid much hype in 1993, but have only seen it now that it comes to DVD.
Imagine an adventure of cyberpunk intrigue which takes place in a near future world where VR ("Virtual Reality", for those too young or old to have assimilated the 90's buzzword for telepresence) is hitting the media mainstream; all in an environment of weird religious cults and treacherous politics. A cutting-edge commentary on the effects of new media.
But in reality, there was very little of this! It seems to me that the writers were worried that these heady concepts were not quite ready for prime-time acceptance, and took pains to dilute them quite a bit. The production looks great for its time, and some of the actors fit their roles quite well - especially Robert Loggia and Angie Dickenson. In the six sprawling episodes of the miniseries, not a lot really happens. There is not a lot of character development. Many of the actors could have handled more substantial roles - Belushi, Bebe Neuwirth, especially David Warner and Brad Dourif come to mind. Rather than a well crafted mystery, there is mostly conceit that something sinister is going on which the main character is unaware of, explanations of which are spooned to us in small portions. The dialogue was often quite good, if sparse. The cult and VR aspects really struck me as being pretty superfluous, the "media manipulation of social reality" idea didn't bring anything which couldn't have been explained in terms of newspapers or television - apart from the fact that people interacting with "holograms" (while on designer drugs, no less!) afforded a few opportunities for fun photographic trickery.
Wild Palms seems to me very much a product of its time. In the US at least everybody was jumping onto the internet bandwagon, techno music hit the mainstream, immersive VR became practical, the little-understood prefix "cyber-" became linked to countless names, just as "electro-" and "astro-" had been hyped decades before. I'd recommend Wild Palms to those who may never have thought about this sort of scenario before, as a bit of an introduction. More than ten years earlier, the film "Network" covered many of the same ideas in much less time, more memorably, and with far more style. For better examples of watered-down cyberpunk fiction for television I'd rather recommend ABC's short-lived series "Max Headroom" and the recent animated series "Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex". It is not a bad show, but where Wild Palms falls short is in the promise of revealing how combining new media with the older routines of people's obsessions and ideas of self- interest can result in interesting shifts in society, and in the societal consensus of reality itself. Too little, too late, I'd say.
And what was the deal with that cameo of William Gibson?
Amazingly creative multi-media work
Chronopolis has awed me more than most any animated production I have ever seen. There is currently little information available about this and Piotr Kamler's other films. There have been showings at several festivals and events, but Kamler's work is quite difficult to find. A small company in Boston had released Chronopolis on VHS for a short while in the late 1980's or so, and I was fortunate enough to get to see a decent transfer of it.
Chronopolis was a French-Polish co-production with a story by Kamler and music from Luc Ferrari of the INA/GRM electroacoustic studios. The story is fascinating, and the style in which it is told remarkable. There is no dialog to explain what happens, just some brief opening narration to set the scene (I missed this, as I know little French). There is an obsessed mountain climber. And elsewhere, a city with enigmatic inhabitants who control matter. The apparently omniscient Chronopolitans are able to see this mountain climber in his world, deciding to contact him to reveal their hidden existence. To do so, they manipulate basic matter though a sort of alchemy, culminating in an intelligent sphere which departs to meet the man. The interactions between the sphere and the man are mostly jovial, but trying to meet the inhabitants of Chronopolis themselves is not so simple.
The story is indeed told entirely through pictures and music. This is much a process of sharing the discoveries of the characters with them, and so does require some patience. The film might appear to move slowly to a person hoping for dialog or a more conventional film narrative, but I expect that those who can appreciate the attention to detail here will relish it. Most movies which use 3D animation use it in a more cartoonish, "claymation" effect, whereas the sculpture here tends towards a less exaggerated appearance. In many ways, the city of Chronopolis is the main character itself. How the place is depicted is a fine balance between organic fluidity and grown technology, with the larger than life grandeur of an abandoned city from a lost Earth civilization, such as those from Egypt and Central America. The Chronopolitans may appear to be a refined culture, with vast knowledge and abilities, but is their contact ultimately nothing more than a time capsule from a dead (or closed) culture? Or is this perhaps a land of mythology, with different characteristics and rules than ordinary life, where they are in a unique position to comment on our world?
The amount of thought and effort which must have gone into this production is astonishing. The locations and characters are mostly realized in clay, or some other kind of 3D sculpture, augmented by some occasional illustrated details. Luc Ferrari's soundtrack is tasteful, the relatively subdued nature suiting the quiet locations and introspective tone of many scenes. The sound palette ranges from what sounds like treated minimal piano, to rhythmic concrete noises.
Seeing Chronopolis makes me wonder why Kamler's animation is not more readily available for viewing, I would really love to see some of his other work. Not easy to track down, but if you are in the mood to see some thoughtful animation which is a bit different than those from, for instance, Svankmajer and Quay; then perhaps you should try to find Chronopolis.
EDIT: It appears that the print I saw was the original, longer version. Kamler doesn't allow this version to be shown any longer, preferring instead a shorter version edited for less repetition. I prefer the longer version. As other reviewers have noted, this is not a spoon-fed story. It is hypnotic and repetitive, which affords it a rhythm which is more like music than narrative film. And it is definitely not, in my opinion, a children's movie! Unless your children are patient and have a taste for the esoteric.
Surprisingly charming and insightful
I saw this film on television in the late 1980's, probably on A&E if I recall correctly. In fact, I am fairly certain that the full title was "With Orson Welles: Stories from a Life in Film". It was made by Peter Bogdanovich a few years prior to being released, and is now quite scarce. Indeed, there is little information about this documentary on the web, and it appears to not yet be released on tape or DVD. I had taped it on my first viewing and enjoyed seeing it subsequently, although my taped copy was lost in the 1990's.
Basically, this film is an interview with Welles conducted by Bogdanovich, with additional background narration over key clips from Welles' work, and rare still photos of his theatrical productions. Also, precious interviews with actors and friends of Welles provide quite a bit of perspective on the events being covered, at times providing comments which Orson was being too tactful to state himself. The documentary is long, but paced well and quite engaging.
The legacy of Orson Welles' work is curious; beginning with inspired interpretations for radio and theater, to being instantly regarded as one of the best directors of film in history - to being shut out of Hollywood, relegated to voice-overs and odd cameos. It should be no secret that Hollywood can be a difficult place for a person with much artistic integrity. To his credit, Welles knew that his vision was not appreciated by the studios of his day, so he had as much fun with his alienation from that system as possible. Rather than wade through endless academic debates of how creative he really was/wasn't, it is wonderful to finally hear Welles' sides of these many stories. This film is as much a biography as it is about creative output. Rather than focus in the legendary success of Citizen Kane, there is coverage of Welles' bluffing his way into theater, his Mercury Theater, his first studio-backed films, his more independently financed and shot period in Europe, right through to the ingenious and witty "F for Fake" - as well as his several unfinished projects.
The interviews with Bogdanovich, Jean Moreau, Anthony Perkins, Charleton Heston, Robert Wise, and others are excellent glimpses to Orson Welles' personality and creative processes. Also wonderful is getting to finally hear a master storyteller tell his own story.