A Bad Day Down Mexico Way


This is a grouping that could, just as easily include the Tarantino/Rodriguez joint, From Dusk 'til Dawn.  It has monsters in Mexico, Americans in trouble over their heads, and what the hell, an ancient pyramid.  So do these films, except unlike From Dusk 'Til Dawn, which I now consider a modern classic, you're much less likely to have heard of either of these, and that's where I step in.  I am, after all, here to help.

The Ruins - 2008
Written by Scott B Smith
Directed by Carter Smith

The Ruins is, in many ways, a fairly typical horror movie.  Take a group of not-particularly-likeable college students on vacation and kill them off in an isolated location.  What makes it a little scarier and a little more interesting than that formula usually is are a few little twists and variations along the way.

Things start out not-very-promisingly, with two college couples vacationing in a fairly secure and homogenized Mexican resort.  I've never been able to figure out whether horror movies deliberately make these characters unpleasant so that we won't care when they start getting killed off, or if they're simply trying to present members of their target viewing demographic in an identifiable way, and it's merely high school and college-aged human beings that suck in a more general sense.  Nevertheless, we get to meet them and learn that they're spoiled and arrogant.  They meet Matthias, a German traveler who's less frivolous, but no more charismatic.  He's planning to join his brother at an archaeological dig at a previously unknown pyramid in the jungle and invites them to get away from the resort and see something real.  And thus our stage is set, although, frankly, not very intriguingly so far.

The next day (after some interpersonal drama), their little group has to overpay a driver to take them anywhere near the site, then hike the rest of the way in.  They find a pyramid covered with vines, and no apparent sign of Matthias' brother and associates.  The moment they approach the pyramid, they're surrounded by a group of natives, waving guns and arrows, and shouting at them in their tribal tongue, so their intentions are difficult to ascertain under the circumstances, but clearly all is not what it appears.  Misunderstandings go from bad to worse, and someone ends up getting shot.  The vacationers retreat up the pyramid, where the natives are unable, or unwilling to follow.

So, obviously there is something about the pyramid that scares the natives, and we have a group of young people who are destined to get killed off one by one.  We, as film-goers, have been here before.  But it's in the how that things get interesting, but that's also where the secrets are.  It's ordinarily my practice to spoil movies as little as possible.  Unfortunately, with The Ruins, to explain what's good about it requires me to spoil that a little bit, so this is your fair warning; skip the rest of the article if you don't want spoilers.

Atop the pyramid, our group of imperiled white kids find signs that Matthias' brother and team have been there, but disappeared, and probably in a hurry.  Deep inside a shaft in the pyramid, they can hear the occasional ringing of a cell phone, despite the fact that none of the rest of them have been able to get service.  What becomes evident to us long before it becomes obvious to the characters is what kind of threat the pyramid contains.

Going into the movie, I had no idea what the menace was, and I feared that it might be a giant snake.  It's not a giant snake.  It's not an alligator.  It's not a cult or a mummy or a ghost, although up until their descent into the pyramid, it could have been almost anything.  What it is, instead, is the vines themselves.  They're aggressive, but most terrifyingly, they act as a contagion, getting into human bodies and growing rapidly beneath the skin.  This gives The Ruins its most disturbing element, because it's not a matter of vines jumping out and simply strangling their victims, but infecting them, and leaving the humans living in terror and desperately struggling to find a way out of their grisly fate.  It's far more gruesome to try to extract a vine growing under your friend's skin -- or your own -- than to merely be strangled by one.  That's where The Ruins becomes something cleverer than it initially represented itself to be.  If the writer had actually bothered to flesh out his plot and characters more deeply, this could have been a truly great horror movie rather than merely a surprisingly decent one.

There now, I didn't spoil as much as I thought I'd have to.  So, The Ruins doesn't have good characters.  That may not matter in ways, because you get to look forward to them dying.  However, if they had been better characters, the horror of what they go through would be even harder hitting.  The story isn't remotely original (vacationing young people get picked off), and while that might be semi-unavoidable given the conventions of the genre, a little bit of cleverness could have gone a long way here.  Why did they have to be vacuous college kids (other than that also being the film's key demographic)?  Why not the initial archeological team, or urban Mexicans enjoying their own country, or missionaries, or smugglers, or Hondurans emigrating to America, or, or OR...?  The fact is, they could have come up with a hundred different back stories (and yes, I know the real reason they're all pretty young white people) for their leads, but instead they offered us an effortless reprise of what we've seen over and over already.  Perhaps I'm being too hard on them here, given that The Ruins came out before The Cabin in the Woods, which did a pretty good job of stripping down the "5 isolated young people get killed" horror movie trope.  What The Ruins did RIGHT, however, was the fear, the desperation, the skin-crawling dread and the deeply unnerving viscera, and for that, it definitely deserves a nod, because after all, it IS a horror movie.

Monsters - 2010
Written & Directed by Gareth Edwards

Monsters is a small story set against a big backdrop.

The backdrop is pure sci-fi, in which a meteor has fallen to Earth, giving rise to a plague of giant monsters (think massive glowing octopods that can walk on land) throughout northern Mexico.  Due to this "infection," the United States has bombed the area heavily, and built a "border fence" that would be the stuff of conservatives' wettest dreams.

The small story is about a photojournalist in Central America trying to get some money shots of the monsters and otherwise chronicling this crazy new chapter of the human experience.  His rich and powerful publisher obliges him to get the publisher's bleeding heart, do-gooder daughter home to America.  We follow them through the difficulties of bureaucracy and the unregulated marketplace as they attempt to make their way home past the Infected Zone, discovering new truths about life in a war zone, the nature of monsters, themselves and each other.

Like Cloverfield, Monsters attempts to focus on the human side of a giant monster situation.  However, unlike Cloverfield, it doesn't devolve into a jump-scare exercise in killing off cast members.  What we get instead is the experience of two people, who initially start out with a bad impressions, getting to know each other and developing the beginnings of credible feelings for the other.  In many ways, it bears a closer resemblance to old fashioned romance movies than, say, Godzilla.  That shouldn't be a turn-off, however, if it's something a little bigger that you're looking for.  There's still plenty of tension and high adventure at work here.  They still have to survive the dangers of the Infected Zone and the American borderlands beyond The Wall.

I realize that I'm being kind of non-specific about the things that they go through, and I'll be honest with you, the story is pretty uncomplicated.  As I understand it, the story was outlined, and the scenes themselves are heavily improvised.  This really puts the moments of humanity in the spotlight, with all the fear and danger feeding those moments, rather than being fed by them per our ordinary expectations for a monster movie.

Speaking of other giant monster movies, writer & director Gareth Edwards was hired off of Monsters to direct 2014's revival of Godzilla, with two-hundred times the budget.  In addition to writing and directing Monsters, Edwards also served as his own Director of Photography, Production Designer and Visual Effects artist, using a store bought laptop and retail effects software.  Well, the film is gorgeous, and the effects are used sparingly, in service to the narrative.  Adolescent cases looking for mass destruction are going to feel betrayed by Monsters.  Then they're going to get angry and better when they realize that Monsters is better than them.  But that's not you, is it?  You, my friend, appreciate a thoughtful tale of humanity and the beauty of well-photographed wilds and ruination with a high-concept wrinkle that both evokes and eschews obvious allegory.  For all the grand scale of its premise, perhaps the biggest surprise of Monsters is what a well-made and beautifully small film that it is.

Jumped out of the Jelly into a Jam


This is another song I made with Beaterator.  Ever since I dabbled in DJing, I've wanted to play a set that was wall-to-wall soul clap, like 120 minutes of the Soul Train stroll.  So when I decided I was finally going to do something in Beaterator, soul clap beats were my first destination, so this is my first song ever, Soul Clap #1.

Funky and Free!


In honor of Independence Day (or merely serendipitously), I thought I'd share with you a song that I made with Rockstar Games' BEATERATOR.  This one is inspired by the cop show theme songs of the 1970s, and as such, is called Cop Song.  I hope that you will enjoy it, and don't catch anything but bad guys.

Is There a Problem with the Fantastic Four's Racial Casting?

Yes, but it's not the one you might think.

The internet was momentarily distracted a few months ago (you know, for a change) over the casting decisions for the upcoming reboot of Marvel's Fantastic Four film franchise.  The specific item which attracted the most attention was the casting of Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.  Jordan, you see, is an actor who happens to be black, while Johnny Storm has historically been a white character.  Predictably, The Worst People on the Internet lost their little minds.  Like clockwork, the racists cried their petty tears about having to see a black person, and the rage-nerds (who swear they're not racist; they're just saying) rent their clothing and wore ashes over tradition and things taken away.  We're not here to talk about them.

And yet there IS a problem here; it's just not that problem.  First, let's talk about who the Fantastic Four are...

Reed Richards was a college science professor doing research into cosmic rays and other next-next level cosmological studies.  He designed a rocket so he and his team could breach outer space and study the effects of these rays.  The rockets shielding was inadequate, and the team was exposed to the cosmic radiation, causing each of them to manifest strange and unique powers.  Reed became super-elastic, and was dubbed Mister Fantastic.

His pilot, Ben Grimm turned into an orange rocky mass with incredible strength, and was thus called The Thing. Ben is unable to revert to human form, and Reed goes through bouts of guilt where he tries to "cure" his condition.  These attempts have always had little to no success, owing to the needs of an ongoing comic franchise, and it gives The Thing a certain tragic gravitas.

Reed's student, Sue Storm gains the ability to turn invisible through the conscious application of a force field, which she will later learn to expand and use as a shield, weapon and means of transportation.  She gets labelled Invisible Girl, later changed to Invisible Woman after she marries Reed and they have a child together.

Sue's kid brother, Johnny Storm goes along for the ride because, well, it was the 60s and who doesn't want a teenager on their first space flight?  Johnny can control fire, including wrapping himself in flame, shooting it from his hands, and using it to fly.  He becomes The Human Torch.

All of these characters were originally white, being creations of the early 60s, though they did play host to one of Marvel's first high-profile black characters, The Black Panther.  So what's the problem with making one of them black?  Nothing, really, except that the choice of WHICH one reveals all kinds of problems, and they all lead back to crass and callow tokenism of the most antiquated fashion.

Why not Reed?  Reed is the team leader, and as the last 6 years have demonstrated abundantly, there are far too many Americans who are pathologically incapable of accepting a black man in a leadership role.  The furor would have been many times bigger had Reed been black instead of Johnny.  There's change and then there's Change, and some people can't handle either.

Why not Ben?  Ben turns into a creature of orange rock.  Casting him as black would have been a moot point and we might forget to pat the producers on the back for their brave heroism.

Why not Sue?  Ahh, now we're getting somewhere.  Why NOT Sue?  Sue and Johnny are sister and brother.  For them to have made Johnny black and not Sue will require some nudge to their story where Johnny was adopted or (most likely) taken in by the family (aww, that was mighty white of them).  While not a big deal on its own, it draws attention to the fact that they specifically wanted Sue to remain white.  Why?  Because Sue marries Reed.  We don't care that a college professor with graying temples marries his former student, but AW HAIL NAW can they be an interracial couple.

In other words, the producers want to be seen as brave challengers of convention, they just don't want to take the chance of actually being brave challengers of convention.  Troublemakers don't set opening weekend sales records.

So why Johnny?  Johnny is the young one of the group that everyone tolerates but rolls their eyes at.  He's seen as a hothead who's always the first to "flame on" in a situation of conflict, and as such, everyone talks down to him and tells him how he should behave.  He's the show-boater.  Hm.  I'm not saying that's why they chose him because I don't really think that it is (offering them the benefit of the doubt) but I find it... interesting that that's what they found palatable.  They chose Johnny because, as illustrated above, the couldn't chose anyone else.  So the REAL reason they chose him was because they decided from the start that someone had to be black, simply as a political response to the Amazing Spider-Man situation, where they (a different production company, mind you) could (and should) have cast Donald Glover and instead chickened out and cast pasty/annoying Andrew Garfield.

As such, it was neither a bold move, nor a creative one.  It was pure business.  Feign sympathy to the rising call for diversity, while at the same time coddling the intolerance and inflexibility of racists and rage-nerds.  What we're left with is a craven act of hollow value.  I appreciate that it might allow the next generation of black children to feel a little more included, but just a little -- let's not get uppity here.

The Funkiest TV Theme Songs of the 70s


If you were a white kid in the 1970s, chances are that your earliest exposure to funk music came from TV theme songs and children's educational programming.  As I WAS one of those white kids, who now has an abiding love for funk & soul (not to mention children's educational programming), I'd like to share this tribute to these evocative themes from the days when theme songs were theme songs, and the city streets were for hustlas.

The Rockford Files
 by Mike Post & Pete Carpenter

Soul Train '76 from Soul Train (1976-1978)
by The Soul Train Gang

The White Shadow
by Mike Post

Good Times
by Dave Grusin and Alan & Marilyn Bergman

Barney Miller
by Jack Elliot & Allyn Ferguson

One of the fattest bass lines EVER, courtesy of Chuck Berghofer

Movin' On Up from The Jeffersons
by Jeff Barry & Ja'net Dubois

The Sound Of Philadelphia from Soul Train (1973-75)
by Gamble & Huff

Soul Train actually had several theme songs over the years, which probably shouldn't come as a surprise given the nature of the show.  This one, however, outfunks them all.

Shaft (TV series)
by Isaac Hayes; arranged by Johnny Pate

I'm sure someone could make the argument that the Shaft theme was largely responsible for kicking off the funky cop theme trend.  I'm not going to, but I bet someone could.  I had completely forgotten that there was a TV series, but hearing Pate's abbreviated version of Hayes' Oscar winning theme really strips it down to the elements that would so inspire your Mike Posts and and Dave Grusins.

Streets of San Francisco
by Pat Williams

The version from the show, with its wakka-wakka guitar line, plays much funkier than the single, which comes off jazzier, but features some madman drumming.  Take your pick, you can't go wrong.  Just keep your trout out of the milk.

by Grusin & Ames; Performed by El Chicano

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids
by Bill Cosby

by Barry DeVorzon; performed by Rhythm Heritage

The Streetbeater from Sanford & Son
by Quincy Jones

Sesame Street - Funky Chimes ClosingOriginal theme by Joe Raposo

Didn't see that coming, did you?  This version of the Sesame Street theme played behind the sponsorship and grant announcements at the end of the show in the later 70s and into the 80s, and it's a stone groove.