In movies and shows from the 50s/60s, the standard handwavium explanation for how the superhero got his powers was “nuclear radiation”. Around 2000, it became “genetic engineering”. But in the 80s and 90s, it was “vat of toxic waste.”

As a kid, I kind of assumed that there were barrels of green goo lying around all over the place, and that if I fell into one my life would radically change. I probably wasn’t wrong.

The “green goo” trope is found everywhere, from The Killing Joke to The Toxic Avenger to CHUD. It even worked its way to children’s shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Secret Life of Alex Mack. Pick three random Goosebumps titles: at least one will have green goo on the cover. Nickelodeon game shows traditionally ended with the loser getting “slimed”. The most cliche’d videogame baddie – facing stiff competition from the Spider(tm), the Bat(tm), and the Skeleton(tm) – was the Sentient Pile of Green Slime(c)(tm)(r).

Usually we weren’t told what the green goo actually was. Medical waste? Phlegm? Minced-up Dubliners? The true answer was always “a barrel full of glowing green Plot Device”, and attempts to be more specific always backfired. Andy Sidaris’s 1987 shlockfest Hard Ticket to Hawaii involved a snake “infected with deadly toxins from cancer-infested rats.” That’s a real line from the movie.

In truth, if you see a barrel of green chemical waste, it’s probably hexavalent chromium.

Also, you now have cancer.

Hexavalent chromium is one of the worst substances on Earth. It’s toxic and carcinogenic in almost any quantity, and through any route of absorption. You cannot drink it, breathe it, or get it on your skin. It causes blindness, asthma and cancer; ulcerates mucus membranes and skin; and damages germline DNA, so have fun reproducing.

A common gag in cartoons is that the supervillain throws the hero into a laughably overkill deathtrap (like a lake of boiling lava filled with spikes and flame-retardant sharks). Hexavalent chromium is the chemical version of that deathtrap: no matter how dead you are, you are still not dead enough for chromium-6.

From the British Health and Safety Executive:

Chromium (VI) can enter the body by:

  • Breathing in dust, fumes or mist
  • skin contact with solutions or solids
  • Swallowing it, through handling food when you have chromium dust on your hands
  • Health hazards:

Single exposure to hexavalent chromium compounds can cause:

  • irritation and inflammation of the nose and upper respiratory tract if such compounds are in the air;
  • irritation of the skin with skin contact – and for chromic acid, burns to the skin, possibly leading to ulcers;
  • eye damage from splashes.

Repeated exposure to hexavalent chromium compounds can cause:

  • damage to the nose, including ulcers and holes in the flap of tissue separating the nostrils (the nasal septum);
  • inflammation of the lungs;
  • allergic reactions in the skin and respiratory tract;
  • kidney damage;
  • cancer of the lung;
  • based on experimental data, concerns about potential effects on reproduction, in both male fertility and the development of unborn babies.

I don’t recommend bathing in hexavalent chromium. Consider using one of the many other fine elements on the periodic table instead (like lead or mercury). The HSE fact sheet doesn’t say whether you can boof hexavalent chromium, but that’s likely a bad idea too.

Chemically, it’s chromium in a highly oxidized +6 valence state. Its highly reactive nature makes it helpful for certain industrial applications, such as electroplating, anodising, and dye production. It can be alloyed with steel to increase its hardness. Mixed with sulphuric acid, it’s a powerful cleansing agent, but disposal of hexavalent chromium is so difficult that it’s typically not used for this purpose.

The aerospace sector is a big consumer of the stuff, proving the truth of the aviator’s aphorism: “if it’s good for the airplane, it’s bad for you.” Aluminium by nature corrodes easily, and hexavalent chromium (in conversion coatings and primers) is known as a “sacrificial anode” – essentially, a super-reactive skin that oxidises instead of the aluminium underneath. However, increasing regulations mean that “chrome-free paint” is now something of a selling point.

Everywhere in every industry, hexavalent chromium is being phased out wherever an even slightly viable alternative exists. It used to be far bigger. Tens of thousands of tons of it were manufactured per year in the 80s, and fortunately, many of those tons were disposed of correctly and legally. When they aren’t, things start to read like a Simpsons episode.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — — Alberta Tillman stepped into her basement one day last November and discovered 1 1/2 feet of water. She flicked on the light and noticed that the water practically glowed a fluorescent yellow-green. Like many residents of this gritty industrial town across the Hudson River from New York City, Tillman learned only recently that, for more than four decades, she, her husband and their neighbors have been living next door to, down the street from or, in some cases, on top of toxic chromium waste.


“We called them chemical mountains,” said Thomas Burke, a Jersey City native and deputy commissioner of the state’s department of health. “I remember as a kid playing on them and jumping on them.” Companies discovered that they could dispose of the chromium slag by using it as landfill and in building foundations. The city and state did not object because chromium residue cost nothing, and state officials marveled at how it killed troublesome rodents.

Infectious, deadly toxins from chromium-infested rats.

Hexavalent chromium was the waste at issue in the famous Erin Brockovich case. Due to its extreme horribleness, chromium-6 leaks are associated with immense fines, and corporate decisionmakerrs going to prison. I have a new goal in life, by the way: to not ever be described as the “‘green ooze’ company chief” in a news article.

Incidentally, hexavalent chromium is not really green. It forms compounds that range in hue from lemon-yellow to orange to dark red. When waste is a dramatic neon green color, it usually means that the EPA is tracing a leak.

As a plot device, the green ooze is like radiation and genetic editing: lazy shorthand that says something about our cultural anxieties. But often, the anxiety is justified. Those Nickelodeon “sliming” shows always seemed pretty unfair. But believe me, if you were covered in green slime, you would richly deserve social ostracism. That stuff just isn’t it.

No Comments »

Luca Turilli is an Italian “shred” guitarist known for playing symphonic power metal: a fact you might not guess from reading his Wikipedia page.

Having always declared to love music at 360 degrees, Turilli has dedicated himself to multiple musical genres, ranging from trance and electronic music of his first compositions to symphonic metal inspired by the world of soundtracks and also to modern pop and piano compositions of his current productions.

I like how you find, quietly inserted in the middle, the thing that encompasses 95% of his work and the reason he’s famous. It’s like describing GW Bush as an “artist, author, philanthropist, public speaker, bicyclist, politician, and dog-lover”. There’s burying the lede, then there’s putting it in a lead-lined coffin. I respect not wanting be constrained by expectations, but give me a break: nobody hears “Luca Turilli” and thinks “trance music.”

Turilli isn’t the only power metal musician to enroll himself in the witness protection program (heard anything good from “heavy rock” artist Jorn Lande lately?). It’s an uncool style of music to make or listen to, particularly Rhapsody of Fire’s brand of it. Look at it this way: they have fourteen albums, which have a total of eleven dragons on the covers. That’s just too many dragons. Their Dragon-to-Cover ratio is 11/14, or 0.785, one of the highest ever reported.

Rhapsody of Fire was a great band, but also a punching bag. To many, their songs symbolized all the worst traditions of European power metal: riffless, orchestra-layered “conceptual” cheeseballs about a cave troll called Trarg. Luca Turilli was definitely the bandmember who chafed the most under the “flower metal” designation (as well as the D&D fantasy-style marketing enforced by their various  labels), and when he became a solo artist he couldn’t throw that stuff in the trash fast enough. Luca Turilli has seven solo albums, zero of which have dragons on the cover, giving him a D-t-C ratio of 0/1 and 0%.

But that’s what I find interesting about Turilli: the fact that such an important pillar of the power metal scene does not particularly like power metal. Maybe that’s the reason I enjoy him: he’s not Hammerfall or Dream Evil, turning the crank, producing bland genre worship until the day he dies. He wants more. He wants to progress.

Prophet of the Last Eclipse is a solo record he recorded in 2002. It’s possibly his masterpiece. It’s wildly original, filled with hooks, imagination, and a sense of wonder. There’s nothing wrong with it. The musicianshp

The electronic and film score elements are the first thing. Carmin Burura meets The Matrix vocals of “Aenigma,” or the pulsating glitched-up take on Italian operatic pop (?!) found in “Zephyr Skies Theme”. Nothing sounded like this in 2002.

Most of the album is fast, with “Rider of the Astral Fire”, and “Age of Mystic Ice”, and “New Century Tarantella” rampaging along like Rhapsody of Fire in full speed mode. Even here, there’s curveballs. “Rider of the Astral Fire” has a comical a-capella vocal section that sounds like a Danny Elfman soundtrack, and “New Century Tarantella” does for Italian folk music what Angra did for Brazilian tribal music.

Those are the worst songs on the album, by the way.

“War of the Universe” is an arresting and immediate opening track, with great melodies and a propulsive feel. Turilli likes writing epics, but he never goes wrong when he writes for the 4:00 minute mark, either.

“Demonheart” is savage and corroded, almost industrial metal in places, but with tons of speed and an addictive chorus. Olaf Hayer turns in another great vocal performance here.

“Prince of the Starlight” is the fastest song, and the second most formally elaborate. Helloween-style dual harmonies exist alongside Baroque cadences, electronic flutters, and a progressive jazz-sounding piano part. Often, Luca’s guitar parts are treated with phaser effects, and seem to needle and drill like laser beams bracketing a target. Alien-sounding, yet accessible.

But none of these are the greatest composition Prophet has to offer. That would be the 11-minute long closing track, “Prophet of the Last Eclipse”. After an eerie vocal intro, Turilli hits the afterburners hard, with fragments of shouted Latin (in mezzo-soprano and tenor vocal parts) swirling like leaves in the wake of drummer Robert Hunecke-Rizzo’s double-bass blast. The song is relentlessly heavy and crushing, delivering agitated verses and an immense chorus, before an extended guitar solo section, and then a final implosion into neotonal free-time music. I don’t know if this is the best song Turilli ever wrote. I do know that no better one came to my mind before I finished this paragraph. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis. 

The limited edition of the album from Limb Music is worth getting. “Caprice in A Minor” is just filler – cool if you’re into classical music, I guess.  “Autumn’s Last Whisper” is an Icelandic neofolk ballad (with vocals from Rannveig Sif Sigurðardóttir) that sounds like it wandered in from a CD in a totally different aisle. But then there’s “Dark Comet’s Reign”, which is a monster of a track. It could have easily swapped places with one of the lesser uptempo songs on the main album release.

If you’re in the “power metal fan who’s becoming bored and jaded” group, this is (and has) everything you could possibly want. It’s over two decades old but still sounds fresh and forward looking. It’s as monumental and as well-constructed as an aircraft carrier: even in the lesser songs you’ll marvel at how tight and punchy the snare is, for example. I find this album infinitely more interesting than the post-Luca Rhapsody albums, or horrendous ripoff bands like Twilight Force. Who knew that trance musician Luca Turilli was capable of something like this?


No Comments »

This film was preceded in 2000 by hype: it was a smart sci-fi horror film that would revolutionize a stale etc.

Movies are often preceded by hype – have you ever noticed this? Whenever a big budget film arrives, countless advertisements appear, all of them telling you to see it. How convenient. Almost as though someone’s being paid off. The human race sickens me. Anyway, I rewatched The Cell to see if it was as good as I remembered. Then I realized I’d never watched it in the first place.

It’s about a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) who performs virtual-reality based therapy on coma patients, entering their minds and speaking to them inside Plato’s cave. After a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) lapses into a coma while in police custody, she jacks into his mind to learn the location of his latest victim.

It’s indeed a “did I watch this?” kind of film. The story blurs into other “smart” serial killer movies like Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector, and Se7en. Even the title seems designed to be forgotten. The surrealist moments are great but the real-world scenes are thuddingly generic: how many shots of grizzled detectives standing and shaking their heads around crime scenes do we need?

Ignore the cop show crap and you have an oblique, arty film set in the disturbed (and disturbing) psyche of a sociopath. D’Onofrio’s mental landscape is basically a Saatchi exhibit on a bad batch of PCP, and J-Lo sees creepy dolls, mutilated animals, bondage equipment, and so on in her quest to finally understand why Private Pyle stole that jelly donut.

Some sequences are almost brilliant enough to redeem the film. When Lopez enters the throne room and encounters the King (and a driving, one-note stab of brass ratchets up the tension)…well, I was hooked. It was beautiful and frightening. It would have been even better if something had happened, but Lopez leaves the dream without payoff.

A recurrent problem with The Cell is that it doesn’t know what to do with its visuals. They’re strangely unmotivated, just hanging in the air without connection to the story. The surrealist stage dressing produces horror and awe, but it doesn’t build, it only exists. Much of the film’s imagery cannot be explained except as a show-offy director demonstrating knowledge of Very Important contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Ermin, and Sarah Lucas. Remember those three women, staring open-mouthed at heaven? Does this relate to the story or characters in some way? Nope, it’s an Odd Nerdrum painting. Name-dropping done on a 33 million dollar budget.

It’s frustrating to watch genuinely inspired scenes (suspended in a glass cube floating in space, Lopez pushes her way out of the top…and discovers it’s actually the bottom!) squandered amid “quotations” and “references” to whatever the YBAs and the New Contemporaries were doing that year. Who cares? I don’t like that stuff to begin with, and why not make your own art instead of regurgitating someone else’s?

Would the mind of a serial killer really look like a disturbing Alice in Wonderland mindfuck, as movies perennially portray it? I don’t know. When I read the Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto I was amazed at how dull and flat he seemed. More like a line drawing than an actual human. He wanted to be cool – that was his only ambition. When skateboarding became popular at school, he skated. When hackeysack became popular, he kicked a little bag around.

Like the film’s director, he spent a lot of effort imitating cooler kids, and when he saw behavior he couldn’t copy (boys having romantic encounters with girls), jealousy and frustration drove him to kill. Delving into his mind was somewhat interesting, but it wasn’t a Hieronymous Bosch painting. If you want a vivid mental landscape, mindjack a furry. That’s where the action’s happening.

The Cell is the first film of Tarsem Singh, previously (and afterward) known as a music video director. The pipeline from there to directing feature films is a troubled one. Music video directors tend to make films that focus on sets, sets, and more sets, with plenty of open space for a nonexistent rockstar to cavort around in. Movies need to be more than stage dressing.

Singh is obviously talented, with a good visual eye. I enjoyed a lot of the shots and costuming, and so on. But again, he’s mostly dropping names, not making a movie. The most famous scene in The Cell is the horse guillotine…

In the comments, various people offer analysis (“this boy’s mind had a morbid fascination with dissecting everything and seeing on the inside, not afraid to see the blood and guts. At the same time doing it in precise surgical fashion – each segment equidistant”), as if it’s not just ripping off Damien Hirst’s Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.

Did I say ripping off? I meant quoting. Art builds on art – everyone knows this. It’s the highest form of appreciation to just put a famous work of art in your movie, unaltered, with no commentary or context. You’re quoting. Quoting is good.

What isn’t good is The Cell’s casting. Maybe don’t cast a massively famous sex symbol your quiet, mousy psychologist: Jennifer Lopez hasn’t a prayer of inhabiting the role written for her. Vincent D’Onofrio is a good actor, but he’s very wrong in this. He’s a blue-collar truck driver who comes off as a dangerous, slack-jawed idiot. We don’t believe for a second that a man like him would have an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary art, or be hip to the London YBA scene. His pudgy, brutal face is impossible to feel sympathy for, which sours all the smarmy crap at the end. The killer was abused as a child! All he needed was a hug! Spare me.

The film, like its characters, fails to handle the distance between dream and day. Time and time again, the movie pulls us out of surreal fantasy and into its own stupid version of reality, so the usual Hollywood cliches can appear (the ticking clock, the generic FBI agents, etc).

The Cell is a disappointment of the worst sort: a bad movie that could have been a good one. It sends phantasmal imagery soaring into the air…and then shackles it to millstones of literalism and pretentiousness, sending it plummeting to the ground. I wanted something more or new. Not flashbacks to a tearful child being yelled at by his dad. I’ve seen all that before, and I don’t care.

Here’s an idea: why not reveal at the end that everything we thought we knew about D’Onofrio’s childhood was fake?

We’re in the mind of an unhinged lunatic, after all. Are his memories reliable? D’Onofrio has every incentive to distort the facts to create sympathy for himself – couldn’t his shallow redemption arc at the end be yet another trap for Lopez? Why wouldn’t a man capable of murder also be capable of deceit?

No Comments »