and a few more films

Cosmos (1980)

Streaming free at Internet Archive

"How did the universe arise? What was around before that?"

Here's the answer to that question, and other things you've wondered about while high.

Carl Sagan was arguably the best-known scientist and skeptic of the last half of the 20th century, and wrote numerous non-fiction best-sellers, explaining scientific concepts to ordinary people.

His best 'splaining came with this 13-part public television series, aired on America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1980. With then-state of the art special effects, Sagan takes poetic strolls through time and space, and asks big philosophical questions. The answers draw on astronomy, biology, history, mathematics, physics, and more, and add up to a college-level introduction to cosmology.

#251  [archive]
MAR. 3, 2024

It's heady stuff, with Sagan discussing countless scientific concepts, but he covers it all from scratch so you won't get lost, and with limitless enthusiasm that'll pull you in.

Written by Sagan with his future wife, Ann Druyan, every one of the lessons over all these hours is fascinating, even if you already understand what he's explaining. And admit it, you don't.

For years, I've been watching and re-watching random episodes of Cosmos — sometimes as serious entertainment, sometimes as a 1AM bedtime story. It works as either.

Cosmos was and remains the most widely-seen show from PBS, and it added Sagan's much-parodied but genuinely awe-filled catchphrase "billions and billions" to the worldwide vocabulary. 

More than 40 years later, if you're looking for visual effects, Cosmos looks more than 40 years old. If you're looking for brain food, it holds up very, very well. It's always curiously optimistic, and the music by Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner) is exactly what's needed, like guacamole in a good burrito. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

I've heard rumors of something called Cosmos on Fox a few years ago, with commercials but without Sagan. Never saw it. The original didn't need a remake.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Countdown to Looking Glass (1984)

Streaming free at YouTube

There's a crisis in the Middle East, covered live on TV as it builds toward a nuclear confrontation between America and Russia. Of course, there's always a crisis in the Middle East, and we're always moments or at best days from the end of the world, but we take it for granted.

Countdown holds your attention well, mostly as a series of TV news bulletins, juiced up with stock footage of tanks, fighter jets, bombers, protests, etc, and a few 'off-camera' scenes behind-the-scenes.

The believability is bolstered by analysis from real TV commentators you might remember, Nancy Dickerson and Eric Sevareid. Most (possibly all) of the talking heads interviewed are alleged experts of the 1980s, playing themselves — retired military officers and university professors, etc.

For warmongering, the newscasters talk to Newt Gingrich, and for peacemongering there's Eugene McCarthy. In keeping with the film's general aura of reality, Gingrich is on screen repeatedly, always given paragraphs of air time to argue for nuclear war, while McCarthy is seen once, and allowed about five sentences before being cut off.

Everything here seems so genuine, the presence of movie stars Scott Glenn, Michael Murphy, and Helen Shaver feels out of place, and the movie might've been better with less famous faces in those roles.

Countdown to Looking Glass is quite good, though. As CNN and Fox have noticed, people love watching "breaking news" coverage of horrible things.

Unfortunately, the film has never been released to video, so the only copy I could find is a blurry VHS uploaded to YouTube.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Crime Wave (1985)
a/k/a Broken Hearts and Broken Noses
a/k/a Crimewave

Streaming free at YouTube

Like a noir classic, this opens with a death row convict's slow walk to the electric chair, and the film is a feature-length flashback telling how he got there.

Unlike noir, this is in color, plays like a cartoon, and is really, really stupid, but on purpose. It was written by Joel and Ethan Coen with Sam Raimi, who directs, and the stupidity of it all is the joke, but you'll need to dial back your IQ or get roaring stoned.

Crime Wave has a few laughs, but not enough to justify sitting through it. Blame the studio, not the Coens or Raimi — all three had only indy films between them, the Coens' Blood Simple and Raimi's The Evil Dead, and nobody upstairs believed in the project.

The first thing Columbia Pictures did was boot Bruce Campbell from the lead. He's demoted to an amusing supporting role, while the star is an unknown zilch named Reed Birney, who makes the movie vanish in a cloud of boredom whenever he's on screen.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Crime Wave (1985)
a/k/a The Big Crime Wave

Streaming free at YouTube

This is an enthusiastically bizarre and funny film, written, produced, and directed by someone I'd never heard of, John Paizs. He also stars as wanna-be "color crime" moviemaker Steven Penny — but never says a word in the entire film.

Steven is an awkward and introverted loner, renting a room above the garage in a painfully normal Canadian family's home. He's trying to write the script for his first movie, but he's plagued with writer's block, which is certainly not Paizs's problem — Crime Wave is written with ginormous gobs of low-budget imagination. 

The family's daughter is fascinated by Steven, but she's about ten years old so it's not a romance, more like a demented Shane. She collects Steven’s discarded scripts from the trash, and arranges for him to meet Dr Jolly, a script doctor who wanders in from another movie, possibly Friday the 13th. The girl (she never did another film) cheerily narrates much of Crime Wave, which is set in a chirping-bird suburbia borrowed from the 1950s. 

In an interview I've lost the link for, Paizs said that he knew he wasn't a good enough actor to carry a film loaded with dialogue, so he wrote himself wordless. It takes a smart person to know your limitations, and Paizs not only knew his, but made it into an asset — watching the movie, you gotta love this guy who has nothing to say.

He comes to a costume party dressed as a suicide bomber, and stays in character all night, wondering why everyone's uncomfortable around him. Plot twists are signaled when the word "twists" appears in a window, and later Steven becomes a streetlamp.

Not everything here is awesome, but it's entirely original, made from scratch and served as fresh as insanity. I'm adding everything Paizs has done to my watchlist.

It was never released in theaters, but this is the finest movie named Crime Wave made in 1985. Homemade weird beats the hell out of big-budget weird.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •      

Crime without Passion (1934)
The Crying Game (1992)
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

 ... plus sometimes,

schlock, shorts, and surprises

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. There are very few people who inhabit this planet for a while who actually change it, but in Carl Sagan's brief 62 years he managed to pull it off. He managed to change the structure and priorities of exobiology, the techniques of various searches for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the way science itself is explained to us non-scientists. He did more, including curating the golden record, which involved a dozen fields of science including the politics of music. So when I heard he was bringing his well-spoken roadshow to PBS, I tuned in, expecting television. Turned out he changed that too: he set the bar high for astrophysicists to explain their craft, and, perhaps, only Philip Morrison has come close to that bar in the 40 years that have passed since Cosmos first appeared on our flickering boxes and challenged us to think differently about what's out there.


    1. By the way, where the hell are they?


    2. You were expecting television! Me too, the first night I watched Cosmos, but you're right that it transcends the boob tube. I watched with a buddy, the kind of guy who'd elbow you with wisecracks during a funeral, and we said nothing until it was over, and he started the conversation with, "Wow."

      Sagan meant a lot to me, and I haven't read much sciency non-fiction since he died.

      Haven't read any of Moirrison's books, and I'm sure he was a sweetheart, and if he was alive and well I'd wish him no I'll, but, you know, there's the whole atomic bomb thing. He spent his life making up for it, and I seriously have respect coming out the blowhole for that, but it's hard to forgive and forget a couple hundred thousand times over.

      > By the way, where the hell are they?

      Where the hell are who?

    3. I don't think you've reviewed Contact (1997)?

    4. I've certainly viewed it and re-viewed it, but yeah, guess I've never reviewed Contact. I love it, and it's one of those movies I often re-watch, so I'll add it to the list.

      Pretty good novel, too.

    5. > Where the hell are who?

      Doug, I read a little light astrophysics and understand little of it. In 1947, flying saucers were spotted near Mt. Rainier. Within days, there was a flying saucer craze that has only diminished with time. In 1950, four astrophysicists were walking to lunch and Enrico Fermi asked "Where are they?" No one had asked a question or made a statement, but the other three astrophysicists immediately understood what Fermi was asking and they all started laughing, mostly because they remarkably understood the context of the question.

      In astrophysics circles, this became the Fermi Paradox: If life occurs on some planets, and some of that life survives its nuclear age, why haven't we been visited? 74 years later, the paradox survives Fermi and the other three astrophysicists who were present.

      Carl Sagan spent part of his career chasing the Fermi Paradox through his peripheral participation in Project Ozma, primarily through its founder Frank Drake (both taught at Cornell). Project Ozma was an offshoot of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project.

      So I'm like three steps removed from whatever the original conversation was. I wasn't trying to be smart or clever. The question conked me on the head when I was thinking about the astrophysicists involved in the previous discussion.

      For more context, here's an esoteric link to the original Where Are They. Don't take it. It'll just piss you off.

      But I wonder where they are.


    6. Sorry, here's the link:



    7. "Where are they?"

      In the mashed potatoes, man.

    8. A very interesting article, thanks.

      I will always believe there's intelligent life out there, but where's everybody? We won't need a big parking lot. The odds against life are astronomical, and the odds against *intelligent* like are exponentially astronomical. but space is kinda big. There's room for the unlikely to play out.

      Anyway, we're too damned unimpressive to be the pinnacle of anything but unimpressiveness.

      Odd trivia: From books read when I was educating myself on the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear power, I first knew Fermi as three reactors. Only learned about the man some years later, and the paradox some years after that. It's almost a paradox itself.

    9. "I hate these mashed potatoes. There's a dead fly in my mashed potatoes."

  2. Big, huge fan of the '80s nuclear TV movie, which I guess is a unique generational thing?

    "Special Bulletin" is unique, because it was intended to look like an artifact of its time it will never age poorly: it's supposed to look like an ad hoc '80s broadcast. Some of the moments are a little lame (the director and editor's techniques for getting "live cameras" to show what is happening is pretty contrived at times) but it really does hold up in spite of that. I've recommended it to a couple of people fairly recently and they both said they gasped at the end.


    1. Special Bulletin is one of the best, similar to but better than Countdown to Looking Glass. I love the genre like you do, and I always wondered, why the 1980s?

      We've been under threat of instant armageddon since the late 1940s, right? And we still are. There were 6-8 great movies on the topic (collect them all) in the 1980s, but before and after it really hasn't been a recurring genre. I guess only the first generation of people who grew up with this bullshit wanted to make movies about it. After that, we've just gotten used to it.

    2. Whatever doesn't kill us defines us.

      I just gotta get to sleep earlier.


    3. I dunno. Jello doesn't kill me. Hockey doesn't kill me. But I can't define myself with jello and hockey.

    4. Shoulda had quote marks. I think she was talking about things that actively try to kill us, not random, passive things, although about 20,000 people a year suffer reportable injuries playing hockey, and an intentional attempt to seriously injure another player can land the potential felon in the penalty box for up to five minutes.

      Good movie though.


    5. What about the dangers of jello, man?
      Bill Cosby notwithstanding.

  3. I'm curious about that too. Boomers taking over in entertainment? I hadn't thought about that, but it seems right. Nuke films often seemed to be about survival before this, fighting zombies and mutants, etc. These were mostly about futility, insanity and mutually assured destruction.

    Actually I think Carl Sagan played a role too. He spent a considerable amount of his cred to popularize the "nuclear winter" theory in the early 1980s and the unlikelihood of society surviving a nuclear war by storing lots of canned peas in the basement and crawling out after a few weeks.

    1. Well, what am I gonna do with all these peas?

    2. Some people thought Sagan wasted his credibility on nuclear winter, or that he let his politics color his judgment.

      I have done some slight reading on the topic, and judge it credible. Here's my take, since no-one asked. The key scientific quibble is about the model used for determining how much smoke and soot would be in the air after a large-scale nuclear attack, how long it would remain there, how it would interact with the sun, etc. Some of the science suggests it would be "scrubbed" out of the atmosphere by rain and wind quickly enough that agriculture might be viable, while other evidence suggests smoke/soot would stay above us, reflecting large amounts of sunlight, leading to temperature decreases that could take years or even decades to return to normal.

      Which is correct? I don't know. Let's not find out.

  4. My calendar must be on the fritz, because it looks like it's really Monday again. This week, all four songs are written and performed by Jefferson Airplane, one of my early loves.

    We start with Comin' Back to Me, written and sung by Marty Balin, with the band behind him and Grace Slick featured on recorder.


    And here is Lather, written and sung by Grace Slick with the band behind her, some on odd instruments.


    Next is We Can Be Together, written by Paul Kantner and featuring Slick, Balin, and Kantner on vocals and the whole band behind them. They also sang this song on national TV on the Dick Cavett Show the day after Woodstock and included the motherfucker. It was a less nervous time.


    Good Shepherd is a traditional song, arranged for the Airplane by Jorma Kaukonan who sings lead with contributions from Grace Slick and Paul Kantner. The whole band plays.


    . . . and a bonus track because it's under two minutes long: Embryonic Journey written and performed by Jorma Kaukonan.


    See you on the radio.


    1. All good and appreciated, John.

      Lather — I like the lyrics and singing, got annoyed by the background crazy sounds.

      We Can Be Together — Always thought this one rocked, but I'd forgotten it and hadn't heard it in decades, thank you. Goes on the playlist, definitely. Great combination of sound and lyrics.

      Embryonic Journey — Whoa. Spacy and lovely. Another I hadn't heard in ages, and will hear more often.


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