Wednesday, November 30, 2005

TV REVIEW: Catching up with Medium: "Still Life" and "Reckoning"

The 3-D promotion on NBC's Medium last week finally brought me into the Medium fold for good. I watched the series last year a couple of times and liked it just fine, but somehow didn't carve out the time to keep up with it. After watching the last two episodes, I'm changing that. This is a good show, featuring well-drawn characters, solid acting, and interesting stories. And so it should be --since Medium comes to us from creator Glenn Gordon Caron, the talent who brought us Moonlighting and one of my cult favorites, Now & Again (1999).

I liked the 3-D show, "Still Life," (directed by Voyager's Tom Paris, Robert Duncan McNeill!) quite a bit, though I probably could have done without the introduction by the late Rod Serling. Though it was nice to pay homage to this brilliant early TV artist, I could tell he had been given a CGI mouth, and whoever was doing the vocal impression simply wasn't very good. I guess that for the general masses, this black-and-white intro would have passed muster, but for those of us who watch Night Gallery and Twilight Zone obsessively (me, me!) you could tell the diction and enunciation wasn't Serling's. "Your next stop, The Medium Zone," just doesn't really cut it as a lead-in, either. I didn't mind 3-D as a gimmick, but maybe the Serling intro was just too gimmicky...

Still, the drama that followed the Serling introduction was quite a lot of fun. Watching "Still Life", I was struck with the (obvious) notion that this is essentially the same show as Ghost Whisperer on CBS... only without all the quality scientifically extracted. Instead, both episodes of Medium that I watched (on tape) featured strong third-act twists, (in other words, good writing...) and didn't resort to pat messages about the afterlife. Ghost Whisperer amuses me because spirits come back from the dead just to say pat things like "I forgive you," or "I love you." My theory on that is that we have our whole life span to share with our loved ones these very messages, and if we don't manage to do it during that time, I doubt very much that the universe is going to give us a second chance.

Wisely, Medium features much more substantial mysteries about spirits, ESP and the afterlife. In "Still Life," the mystery leads back to the genetic heritage of a guest character, the son of John Shea (late of Mutant X and Lois & Clark), and it was cleverly vetted. I also liked that Medium's producers aren't afraid to permit the show to dwell on the darker side. There's a murder "flashback" set in a kitchen in "Still Life." In it, a maid is brutally attacked with a butcher's cleaver. The weapon is hurled at the screen/camera (in 3-D) and I loved it!!! Then, there was a scene of creepy imagery involving a gnarled old tree - one where sneakers dangle mysteriously from high branches, hanging on by their laces. Beneath the tree trunk, a murder with a shovel occurs, and again, the series pulls no punches in depicting it. To me, this approach makes the show much more watchable than the treacly and essentially harmless Ghost Whisperer.

To continue that comparison, I also prefer the relationship between Allison DuBois (Arquette) and her husband, Joe (Jake Weber of American Gothic!) to the spousal relationship featured on Ghost Whisperer, which is cheesy and forced. Allison isn't histrionic about her powers (like Love Hewitt's character...), but rather more melancholy, and I enjoy watching Joe's attempts to keep her grounded and her chin up. It also helps, I must say that these characters are nearing 40. They aren't your typical "young" supermodels, and there's something between the lines here...a world-weariness, humanity and reality that is entirely missing from Ghost Whisperer. Life doesn't resemble a movie back-lot on Medium, and I appreciate that. For instance, I like how Joe and Allison play with each other, gently prodding and pushing one another with sarcasm and a love that borders on irritation. I like that they share "brewskies" together after a tough day, and I like the fact that their house looks like one a middle-class family could actually afford; again, unlike the over-designed, unrealistic Ghost Whisperer. It's amazing how two shows can share such similar premises but one is so strong, the other so weak.

But that's an argument for another post, I suppose. "Reckoning," Monday's episode of Medium involved a hit and run "accident" and the year-long fall-out that followed. A 15-year old girl, Melanie Davenport was killed while chasing her dog into the street, and the perpetrator, James Massey, has kept it a secret ever since. It's driven his wife to suicide (he was the driver!) but now her spirit is back...

This episode had several twists (particularly in the third act), and a truly appalling (but fascinating) sequence involving James' police interrogation, wherein he puts all the blame on his dead wife. Wow, that's particularly shameless. The episode also featured a great line from Joe that I'm sure I'll steal: "Mediocre minds think alike."

In the "scare" category, "Reckoning" also featured a solid, eerie moment. Hit-and-run driver James stands in his kitchen smoking by the oven when a face materializes behind him in a wisp of his cigarette smoke. Yikes! The ending also featured a great twist, a sense of "cosmic justice" that was more worthy of a Twilight Zone narration than the Serling intro in "Still Life."

Both of these episodes of Medium were very enjoyable, and kept me entertained...even wanting more at the end. So I guess I'm hooked. Anyone out there watch this show regularly? Fill me in! What have I been missing?

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY # 5: An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith

This week, I'm plugging another one of my books (oh, not again!) This time, it's my first project for Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith (2002)

I had a terrific time writing this book, in part because the subject matter is so much fun, in part because the talents I was able to interview for the text were some of the most delightful people I've ever had the good-fortune to talk with. Jason Mewes was an interview I'll never forget, and he even kindly agreed to speak with my wife, Kathryn...who has an eternal, undying crush on him. Jeff Anderson and Brian O'Halloran (Randal and Dante, respectively), were funny, informative and quite kind...and their comments about the Clerks Animated Series had me in stitches. Dwight Ewell (from Chasing Amy) was a delight, Jennifer Schwalbach (Mr. Smith's lovely voice), was candid, wickedly funny and accommodating during a difficult time (a move to California...), and the great John Pierson (author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes) was informative and thoughtful, and he really helped me put matters into perspective. And so on.

I'll repeat my thesis here: Kevin Smith is to Generation X what Woody Allen is to the Baby Boomers. I realize that some folk have a problem with me making that comparison. Sorry...I speak the truth. This is a director who "gets" our lives, and is able to transfer that understanding to film with acerbic wit, humanity and pathos. Sure, his humor can be outrageous (like Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) but it can also be brutally truthful, as in the case of Chasing Amy, one of my favorite films.

Anyway, here's what the critics had to say about my book, An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith:

"Muir makes solid points, proving the artistic validity of Kevin Smith's films...As a critic, Muir is acute in his analysis, and as a writer he is easy to read. ASKEW VIEW is a real page turner...how many books of intense film criticism can say that?...[T]he book can be unhesitatingly recommended to all thinking fans of Smith, as well as film fans in general." - Chris Wyatt, Associate Editor, CINESCAPE ONLINE, 11/12/2002.

"This is not a 'movie' book, this is a legitimate film book, written by an accomplished film journalist with numerous other volumes under his belt. Not only does AN ASKEW VIEW contain interviews with the usual cast of characters...it is meticulously researched with copious sources referenced...[An] excellent look at Smith's work. Grade: A." - Jack Abramowitz, COMIC BUYER's GUIDE #1535, 4/18/03.

"Muir's latest offering is a guided tour of the iconic New Jersey filmmaker's cinematic oeuvre...Muir creates a compelling - and somewhat inspirational - portrait of Smith...Muir does an admirable job of capturing in print the appeal of Smith's films, and some of the stories...are both telling and hilarious....Smith's legions of fans...especially those in film school...will enjoy this effort."-PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, 09/23/02.

"Muir gives Kevin Smith a rip-roaring tribute...Muir makes a good case for the distinctive cinematic voice of a Generation X'er...this is a well-written, engaging, and informative book..."-LIBRARY JOURNAL, 10/05/02.

"An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith by film and television expert John Kenneth Muir is an insightful commentary...this fascinating companion book...is highly recommended reading for students of filmmaking, as well as the legions of Kevin Smith fans."-MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW 12/2002

"This is an excellent book for either diehard fans of the New Jersey filmmaker or anyone who is only a partial fan of his movies. Muir...is able to capture the versatility and genius that is Kevin Smith...If you enjoy his [Smith's] movies and want to know more about them, then pick up this light-hearted book for an interesting read."-EAGLE ONLINE.

"Beginning with the genesis of Smith's ill-fated stint in a Vancouver film school and his initial meeting with future producer Scott Mosier, Muir goes to great length to chronicle Smith's entire body of work in often meticulous detail. Often drawing literary analogy to the likes of Shakespeare, Dante and others, AN ASKEW VIEW not only dissects Smith's films, but gives the works greater context in the realm of film and literature. Muir, an author of other works dealing with the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, the Doctor Who television series and the horror genre of film, again flexes his pop culture chops on AN ASKEW VIEW...engaging and entertaining."- @Magazine, 2003.

"In the first ever book-length study of the films of Kevin Smith, author John Kenneth Muir thoroughly examines the young director's controversial oeuvre...Fans of this unique auteur will be thrilled with this detailed, behind the scenes look at the cinema of Kevin Smith."-THEATRE BOOKS.

"The commentary from the actors and production staff help bring each chapter to life...The commentary in the book also includes insight from Muir himself who has a vast knowledge of film and has written eleven books prior to Askew View..."-Zack Bridges, THE ENQUIRER-JOURNAL, 06/05/03.


And here's an excerpt from the book's introduction:

"He [Smith] takes his own real life experiences, but just like Janet Maslin wrote in that Clerks review from New Directors," says John Pierson "he spins straw into gold. To me, the essence of him spinning straw into gold is taking actual experience that he knows oh so well, and somehow, both on the comedic side and on the emotional heartfelt side, making it transcendent."

Just like
Chasing Amy.

And that's one reason why, when searching for historical antecedents, it's a no brainer to compare Kevin Smith to Woody Allen. As Pierson considers, "they're both writers first," movie directors second, and both use life experience as a platform to reveal stories about human nature.

Sure, Smith's films routinely reference Superman, Lucas and Spielberg rather than Fassbinder, Bergman, or Wagner, but that's merely a generational quirk. In common, Allen and Smith share a common "style of slightly exaggerated comedy" and the propensity to resort to slapstic antics and crude humor amidst their witty comedic word play. But that's the universality of the human condition too, as Smith has often remarked. "We all have sex, and we all take dumps."

Smith is the Woody Allen for Generation X in the sense that he seems to be the only young writer-director working today who asks the deeper questions about love, religion, and sex in a way that makes audiences laugh. The countless Scooby Doo, Planet of the Apes, The X-Files, Jaws and B.J. and the Bear references in his films are merely touchstones for viewers to understand that, when all is said and done, Smith is one of us and speaks our language. Those TV shows and films represent a shorthand not only to coolness, but a shared heritage growing up in the 1970s. Smith is a director who, impressively, writes A-style personal material yet utilizes allusions to B-style productions as a hook to grab an audience weaned on television.

That's my generation, and Smith is undeniably a role model. Not coincidentally, his films have shadowed the progress of Gen X'ers every step of the way during our maturation process: through our post-college slump and ambivalence (Clerks), our professional blossoming and relationship blues (Chasing Amy) and even or our skeptical but seemingly optimistic stance about religion (Dogma)...

So that's it! And may I add, Snootchie Bootchies! An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith is available today!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

VIDEO GAME BLOGGING: From Russia with Love

My wife gave me an early birthday gift yesterday, after we spent much of the weekend doing our winter cleaning, decorating the house for the holidays and raking the yard (yes, it was a busy weekend...)

That gift? EA's From Russia with Love for the Nintendo GameCube. I've been dying to play this game ever since I learned Sean Connery would be voicing the character of 007, James Bond, and that the game would be set in the 1960s, just like the movie (which happens to be one of my all-time favorite Bond movies.) I love this era - musically, technologically, cinematically, you name it, so I had great anticipation.

Well, after about 90 minutes of play-time, I must say that I'm not disappointed. The game commences with that famous James Bond theme song and gun barrel imagery (and it's the one of Connery wearing the hat, from the early days of the franchise...). The game then moves into a splendid and spectacular "pre-title" sequences like those we've grown accustomed to in the series. A group of soldiers attempt to kidnap the Prime Minister's daughter at a cocktail party, in London, but Bond is there (in white dinner jacket, naturally) and takes 'em on. From there, we're into high-action mode as Bond heads to the roof (through many machine-gun armed soldiers) and must use a rocket-pack (like the one seen in Thunderball) to take to the sky. When the PM's daughter is forced aboard a helicopter, Bond must wage aerial combat (around Big Ben...) with the larger craft, to rescue her. All I can say is...this sequence rocks.

After the opening theme song (From Russia with Love...) and Bond-ish title-credits and visuals (including some attractive ladies...), the game proper begins. There's a set-piece at the hedgemaze of SPECTRE headquarters, where an ex-KGB officer recruits assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw in the movie) to orchestrate a humiliating death for Mr. Bond, not to mention heat up the Cold War between the West and the East.

From there, it's off to the headquarters of M16, where Bond flirts with Moneypenny and receives a briefing from M about his mission (which is the same as the movie: retrieve the Russian decoder, known as a LEKTOR). After the usual pleasantries, Bond heads down to Q-branch to get some gadgets (including a laser equipped watch and a remote-controlled flying device called a Q-copter...) and additional training.

It's at that point that comes one of the coolest early sequences so far. Bond arrives in Turkey and drives his specially equipped Aston Martin (from Goldfinger) to a spy station. Of course, he meets some bad guys on the road...and finds use for machine guns, tire wreckers and other devices.

That's about as far as I got before the evening ended and we had to race to the TV to watch Surface, Prison Break and Medium (whew!) But anyway, this game is really ultra-cool. It has a wicked sense of humor (two technicians at MI6 joke about a day when everybody will have computers on desktops...), is faithful (mostly...) to the plot of the movie (so far...) and is beautifully designed to evoke the world of the mid-1960s. And of course, you have Connery's voice leading you on, which is cool beyond measure.

I'm having a blast playing this game. Too bad I have so little time to do it. Deadlines coming up...fast! If I get time to return to it, I'll blog more about From Russia with Love in the days ahead, as I assume once more the mantle of '00' and get into more espionage trouble. I hope EA does a Roger Moore era Bond adventure soon. I'd love to play a game based on For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy or Live and Let Die...

Sci-Fi TV's Wisdom of the Week # 3

"Maybe they were right, Zaius. Maybe the world would be better if no creature controlled another. If all worked together, as equals..." - Galen (Roddy McDowall) in Planet of the Apes: The Series, "Escape from Tomorrow."

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 10

Surface keeps getting better and better, and more intense to boot. Last night, it was crisis time as Miles nearly died after being attacked by the sea creatures in the shallows. Worse, it looks as though Nim has been killed by a security guard (though my wife insists the little guy will pop up off the table, just as his dissection begins...). But before Nim went, he also demonstrated that his lizardly-kind possesses some sort of incredible healing power, and (apparently) cured Miles.

I really hope Nim isn't dead, because I'm an animal lover (see: Catnaps!) and because he's a cute little sea-monster. We'll see if he rises from the dead, or if he really sacrificed himself to save Miles. I'm still believing in my heart-of-hearts that the last episode of Surface will feature a grown-up Nim helping his kind to understand the human race rather than destroy it. We'll see...

Meanwhile, Rich and Laura spent a lot of time in the ocean freezing and trying to keep their heads above water...literally. They escaped (barely...) their sinking submersible, and ended up in a rubber raft with a leak. My favorite moment in the episode occurred when the temperature dropped (at night), and Rich suggested to Laura that they "spoon." Given the circumstances, his wife wouldn't mind, Rich assured her. Well, heck yeah! Spoon that gorgeous marine biologist! It's a matter of life and death! I was hoping the scene would go a little further, even, but hey - this is the 8:00 o'clock family hour, and all that. Guess I just have a dirty mind...

I was relieved too, that Laura and Rich managed to retrieve their video camera and keep it dry. I had a fit during the climax last week when it appeared that the duo would abandon their sub and leave all of their research and other materials behind. At least the series didn't go there, so we'll see how this video footage pans out in the coming weeks. Of course, the sea monsters could have just "pulsed" the bloomin' thing again, like they did a few weeks ago. So what's the deal with TV shows and EM pulses this year, anyway? I don't think one's occurred on Invasion yet, but I'm waiting...

Other good moments last night? Well, it was really disgusting (in a good way...) when Rich and Laura floated through a patch of sea monster eggs. Gross. Also, I loved the moment wherein one of the big critters leapt out of the sea and snapped at the rescue helicopter. All revealed from a high-angle. Very Jurassic Park/Godzilla-ish, but heck, that's why I'm watching this show; for the giant monster action! Can't wait till a school of these beasties reaches Tokyo...

What wasn't so good? Much of the Laura and Rich subplot was filmed from a woefully tight angle, apparently because it was shot in a studio tank. I felt like this limitation was apparent at times, despite the bobbing and weaving camera-work, and was taken out of the reality of their situation from time-to-time. This was also the second time this season we saw a shark circling a raft (the first being Lost's "Adrift"). Ultimately, the shark wasn't much of a threat...

So when people ask me in the years to come, what I recall of the 2005-2006 TV season, I'll say EMPs and shark attacks...

CBS Shelves Threshold

Last Tuesday, Threshold took a drubbing in its new Tuesday time-slot. Looks like CBS doesn't want to grant this Carla Gugino series a second chance. Tonight, an episode of Criminal Minds will air in its place. Although the news is technically that Threshold has been "shelved," look for an official cancellation notice soon. Why? Well, Threshold was already on shaky ground before the time switch, and after last week's debacle...well, let's just say matters are grim. CBS only ordered additional scripts anyway, so this isn't anything sudden. The network has been hedging its bets on the series for a while now.

Thus Threshold is the first of network TV's alien invasion troika (which also includes Surface and Invasion) to leave the airwaves. Personally, I think if any of these three series had to go, it should be Threshold. The series' concept was fine, but the execution leaved much to be desired. Virtually every episode featured the same plot, boasted a Star Trek-like deus ex machina ending ("let's pulse the city of Miami!"), and had little if any significant character development. That said, I did enjoy watching Brent Spiner and Robert Benedict. Carla Gugino is a hottie -- and talented, to be sure -- but she seemed strait-jacketed in this role.

I hope Surface and Invasion survive, but I'm not holding my breath. Now Night Stalker, Alias and Threshold are all casualties of the 2005-2006 fall season!


Funny, Supernatural will most likely get renewed over on the WB, even though it has not--sogreat numbers in terms of the larger networks. It's a matter of scope here. Supernatural's numbers are good for the WB, but wouldn't warrant survival on any of the big three. So Threshold, Surface and Invasion are playing in a different and much more difficult league. Had Threshold aired on WB or UPN or the Sci-Fi Channel (like Battlestar Galactica...), it might have lasted five years!

Catnap Tuesday # 20: Lily in the Sink



For some reason, my youngest cat, Lily, likes to get her drinking water directly from the kitchen sink. Don't ask me why. She's seen her big sister, Lila, do this same thing several times, so maybe she's just emulating her. Whenever I try to get Lily to stop, she just runs away, so now we let her do it and don't mess with her. I snapped these pictures on the digital camera before she tore ass out of the kitchen.

Crunching the Numbers on Rent

Rent debuted in fifth place at the box office this weekend, grossing 10.1 million over the weekend, for a total of 17 million in the bank so far. Although many industry insiders assess this figure is pretty weak, the same folk were saying the same thing about another musical, Phantom of the Opera, last year at this time. Phantom cost 60 million to make, grossed 51.2 million at the American box office, 18 in Europe and 3 in Australia. On Video/DVD is has tallied up at least another 23.5 million as of late summer 2005. So, everything else aside (including considerations about quality), Phantom of the Opera was not the bomb suggested by the industry, but on the contrary, remains a modest hit.

Now, Rent cost 20 million dollars less than Phantom (with a budget of 40 million), and has already in a 7 day period grossed 17 million. Like Phantom, it still has a chance to get out of the red and well into the black. Assume it makes the same amount in DVD/VHS revenue as Joel Schumacher's 2004 movie, and it will just cross the 40 million threshold (though you still have to factor in advertising costs, production, etcetera). But then there are those other territories to consider too (Europe, Australia). Even if Rent leaves theatres in America having grossed 25 or 30 million, that will be enough to make it profitable assuming it does okay across the globe and that "Rentheads" show up to buy it on the ancillary market.

I'm writing about this because the movie musical is held to a stringent standard that few other genres are. Every time a new movie musical comes out, people ask "is the movie musical dead?" We don't ask this, you will note, when a superhero movies fails (Catwoman), or an action-flick (Stealth). Only the musical is held to this rigorous standard that every single one made must be a hit, or the ENTIRE GENRE is dead.

So I was looking at some reports today about how Rent fared over the weekend, and was surprised to see insiders saying the results are "low" or even disastrous. I disagree. Rent did respectably, and could still emerge a hit at the end of the day.

I mean, two films that I absolutely love, Serenity and Land of the Dead, had about the same opening weekend grosses that Rent did (10.1 million and 10.2 million, respectively), so why don't I hear people saying that "space adventure" is dead, or that "zombie movies" are moribund?

The fact is, we just have to wait and see. Rent may get the rent paid for the movie musical after all. No, it did not outgross Harry Potter. But anyone who expected it to is flat-out nuts.

Monday, November 28, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Dragonslayer (1981)

Matthew Robbins' early-1980s fantasy film, Dragonslayer, is another one of those cinematic gems that tends to get overlooked in the rush to canonize the new. Especially these days, in the shadow of the CGI Lord of the Rings saga.

And yet, here's another twenty-five year old genre film that remains, even today, a beautifully-crafted effort (like Outland, Hangar 18, or Dark Crystal). In toto, Dragonslayer is a film of breathtaking visuals, terrific action, and it features a great "villain" in the form of a fire-breathing dragon...an effect which still convinces, even today. So yeah, I'd say this film is a classic.

Dragonslayer dramatizes the story of young Galen (Peter MacNicol), the apprentice to a wise but aged wizard named Ulrich (Ralph Richardson). One day, a delegation from Urland arrives at Ulrich's keep, and petitions his service to dispatch a terrible dragon that is tyrannizing the village. Seems that this dragon once laid waste to Urland with unbridled wrath, but then the new King (Peter Eyre) came to an accord: Twice a year, he would conduct a town-wide lottery, and in the end, the two virgins selected would serve as both a sacrifice and appeasement to the horrible dragon (described in the film as both "pitiable" and "spiteful.") But some of the Urlanders know that this lottery is a devil's bargain, including Valerian (Caitlin Clark), a young girl who has disguised herself as a man since childhood to avoid being chosen as a human sacrifice.

When Ulrich unexpectedly dies in a test of his power, young and inexperienced Galen assumes control of his master's magical amulet and takes on Ulrich's final task himself: the matter of slaying a dragon. But he must contend with corruption in Urland, and face one of the King's more evil minions, Tyrian (John Hallam) as well as his own fears about battling the fire-breathing demon...

Dragonslayer is an exquisitely-crafted fantasy, and as such, it features many of the qualities that dominated that genre in 1980s cinema. There's the death of a wise master (also featured in Dark Crystal, Tron and Return of the Jedi), and also the ascent of an apprentice (ditto). But perhaps Dragonslayer is better for the things that it does differently than those similarities to other genre flicks. For instance, for a film in a "romantic" genre, the movie is distinctly anti-romantic. Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), for instance, is a noble and beautiful character who willingly submits herself to the lottery when she learns that her father has kept her out of it all her life. What does this noble woman get for her troubles and pure morals? Well, the last we see of her, hungry baby dragons are snacking on her bloody, severed body parts. That's not the typical fate of a princess in these films...

Likewise, I admired how the film had a melancholy feel of time's passage, of an era ending as another begins. There's a recognition in Dragonslayer that the time of magic was ending and the era of Christianity was taking its place. "Magic...magicians...it's all fading out from the world," one character states, "and that means the dragon will die too." And sure enough, when the battle is won and the dragon is dead, we see a Christian priest standing over the splattered (and gooey...) corpse (on a hill), ignoring the real hero, Galen, and instead commenting that "We thank the Lord for this deliverance," as though Jesus himself had slain the winged-beast. In other words, one religion has been substituted for another.

Dragonslayer also focuses on human corruption as the second dragon that Galen must slay to ascend to true hero-dom. The King of Urland accepts bribes to keep the daughters of the wealthy (including Elspeth) from the lottery...meaning that the town's "sacrifice" falls only on the poor, the wretched, those without power. Anyway, the king is also more interested in the power of the amulet (and to holding on to his own power) than defeating the dragon, and that's why he's made a coward's bargain with it. "You can't make a shameful peace with dragons," Galen protests, but that is precisely what has occurred in Urland. It has a leader who would rather let a few suffer for the many, while he obsesses on ways to turn lead into gold.

In the final analysis, the success of any fantasy film rests on the efficacy and success of its visuals, and it is here that Dragonslayer truly excels. The ghoulish shot of the baby dragons feeding on lovely Elspeth is a magnificently grim moment in the film, and there are others of pure awe. For instance, when the the dragon's lair is revealed for the first time, the camera pans from the opening of a high cave down into a river of fire (where the dragon awaits...). There is a magnificent pullback, and then a lengthy pan across the breadth of this hellish domain, and, well -- you'll believe a man can fry. Like the beast it hides, the cave is a terrifying place, and one understands immediately Galen's jeopardy

Then there's another great shot near the climax, with the imposing dragon landing magnificently upon a high pinnacle of rock, during an eclipse...clouds racing behind him. It's a shot, I hasten to add, with no CGI elements. Instead, it's a combination of stop-motion animation, matte work and miniatures. It's really quite amazing to behold the craftsmanship of such a shot, and much of the film works because the dragon - once revealed - is a tangible and evil presence with his glistening skin, slithering tail, and cracked, scaly talons.

Dragonslayer came out of the British cinema (and Pinewood Studios) in the early 1980s, and it succeeds where so many other "sword and sorcery" flicks have failed, I believe, because the entire enterprise is vetted with such attention to detail and period design. There is a total lack of artificiality or theatricality in this film. The characters sometimes appear with mud and grime on their faces. They bleed. Chambers are literally packed with period details, and we hardly have time to take them all in.

Fantasy should be high-flying, wonderful and "unreal" in the sense that there are different rules (like magic) in these world, but really, humanity shouldn't change in a good fantasy film. Human kind can be venal and corrupt, but also heroic, noble and wonderful, and in the final analysis, Dragonslayer is a memorable fantasy film because it showcases all the colors of mankind's heart. Some of us greet tragedy and suffering with more tragedy and suffering, but some of us -- idealistic young people like Galen and Valerian -- just know that the world can be a better place, and that they can be the ones to make it so. Even amidst the boiling caves, the fiery dragon's breath and all the swirling magical forces, Dragonslayer grounds itself in the universal truths of human nature and human life.

Alias Axed!

Well, another ABC series bites the dust -- the Jennifer Garner spy drama, Alias. It has been announced that this year - the program's fifth season - will be the last for Sidney Bristow and her Dad.

Can't say as I'm terribly surprised. I stopped watching the series shortly after the second year, when SD-66 got taken down. It just seemed like everything else was going to be anti-climax. But I know a lot of folk who love this show, and will be disappointed by the news.

I do understand from some viewers that the fifth season hasn't been so good (at least thus far.) I wonder if this news of cancellation means ABC has made a strategic choice: will it save Invasion and let Alias slip away? (I had read that Alias would soon take Invasion's time slot following Lost on Wednesday nights, but that hardly seems to make sense now that Alias is terminated...)

Sunday, November 27, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Hangar 18 (1980)

"In spite of official denials, rumors have continued to surface about what the government has been concealing from the American public at a secret Air Force Hangar. But now, with the help of a few brave eyewitnesses who have stepped forward to share knowledge of these events, the story can finally be told..."

That's the opening card of another cult movie I love, 1980's Hangar 18. I actually saw this low-budget sci-fi thriller from Sunn Classics in a theater with my parents when I was eleven years-old, and it has stayed with me ever since; powerfully so. I also have a personal connection to it: My grandmother was born and raised in Big Spring, Texas, where the film was shot. Today she lives in Midland, which isn't far from Big Spring...or Hangar 18!

Anyway, this action-thriller arrived in the post-Watergate environment, and is one of the first "government conspiracy" movies involved with outer space, NASA, and the like (the other title I can think of, off hand, is Capricorn One [1978]).

Hangar 18 is also a fascinating forerunner to The X-Files, featuring such story elements as alien abductions, alien colonization and government cover-ups. There's even a stylistic similarity: Hangar 18 features many of those on-screen data blurbs that provide facts on settings, on the time and place events occur (like Bannon, Arizona, 11:20 pm, for example) -- just like The X-Files. Of course, I love the film too because Darren McGavin - the original Carl Kolchak - stars as Harry Forbes, a key protagonist. It even looks like he's wearing Kolchak's white running shoes...

Hangar 18 tells the tale of two NASA astronauts, Lou Price (James Hampton) and Captain Steven Bancroft (Gary Collins). A shuttle mission to launch a military satellite goes horribly wrong when a UFO interferes in the mission. Lou and Bancroft return to Earth after the death of a comrade, Colonel Gates, only to discover that the government is pinning his death (and the failure of the mission...) on them. The government is systematically erasing all evidence that the UFO existed, and behind this effort is the Karl Rove of his day, White House Chief of Staff, Gordon Keen (Robert Vaughn), who is concerned about President Tyler's tough re-election battle in two weeks.

While the two astronauts attempt to locate evidence of their fantastic story about the UFO, in secret the military has actually taken possession of the downed saucer, and moved it to a military base in West Texas, to a lunar receiving facility called Hangar 18. There, a group of scientists, led by Harry Forbes (McGavin) attempts to unlock its myriad secrets. What they find inside the craft is astonishing: an alien abductee, alien transmissions revealing "designated landing sites" on Earth, and even -- ultimately -- the secret origin of mankind.

But when the astronauts get too close to the truth and as election day draws near, Gordon Keen decides it's time to destroy the evidence of the cover-up, once and for all.

Recently, I had the chance to discuss Hangar 18 with its director, James L. Conway. In the 1980s Mr. Conway also directed another cult classic of the horror genre, The Boogens, and recently he's been Star Trek's go-to-man for important "event" episodes. He's helmed many Star Treks, including Deep Space Nine's fourth season premiere "The Way of the Warrior," which served as a re-introduction of the series and incorporated the Worf character. He also directed "Broken Bow," Enterprise's pilot, and today serves as executive producer for the WB's Charmed.

When we spoke, I just had to ask Mr. Conway about his experiences directing Hangar 18. He remembers working for Sunn Classics, and producer Charles Sellier in Park City, Utah, where the company was headquartered:

"We sold Grizzly Adams to NBC as a TV series," Conway sets the scene "and we shot it in Park City. It was so beautiful there that we said 'instead of living in L.A., let's base out there.' So we did, and from 1976 until I left in 1981, we lived in Park City. We did Grizzly Adams, and we also made a deal with NBC for thirteen movies of the week. While we were there we did The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Last of the Mohicans and a number of things."

"This was a non-union company in the middle of Utah. Everybody in it was in their twenties. Most of us didn't have any real Hollywood experience, and it was 'learn as you go.' Everything from Bible Stories to Westerns to science fiction...there was nothing we thought we couldn't do. It was a great learning experience for all of us."

"At the same time," the director continues, "if you remember Sunn Classics, they also did a lot of docudramas. They did In Search of Historic Jesus, In Search of Noah's Ark, and Beyond and Back: The Bermuda Triangle. It was a film distribution company as well as a TV production company, and we wanted to get into more dramatic films, instead of docudramas, so we made Hangar 18."

For a low-budget science fiction film that's 25-years old, Hangar 18 holds up remarkably well in 2005, especially in terms of its ambitious visualizations. For instance, the special effects are all quite good for the time (particularly the miniature of the space shuttle), and I also noticed that there was more than a nod to accuracy (particularly in the use of retro rockets, the angle of the shuttle's planetary re-entry, and the use of archival footage of the test orbiter Enterprise.) According to Mr. Conway, this was no coincidence.

"The space shuttle had not yet flown," he recalls "so we went down to Cape Kennedy, and NASA was very open and wonderful with us. We went into the prototype they had, and they spent a lot of time with us. The visual effects were very primitive by today's standards, but at the time, they were pretty darn good. I see that movie now and I wish it could have been made today instead of then, because visual effects being what they are today, it could have been such a movie..."

Of course, for those of us who love films from the late 1970s/early 1980s Hangar 18 is quite a movie. It captures perfectly the prevailing Zeitgeist of the time, particularly with its bent on Nixonian government plotting. "Obviously, the government was the bad guy in Hangar 18," says Conway. "There were little political things involved there because it was post-Watergate and nobody trusted the government."

I particular, I admire this film and its makers because it is so ambitious from a visual standpoint. There's not only a climactic chase (and stunts and explosions...) with a tanker truck in the film, but a solid grounding in film grammar, and Conway reveals things in an interesting fashion. For instance, there's a (ghoulish) shot early in the film that is just terrific in its staging. The decapitated body and severed head of Colonel Gates floats weightless towards the camera, and as it goes by in the foreground, the shuttle is revealed in space, in the distance (background). An effects shot of this depth is a surprise enough in a low-budget movie, but I love the macabre touch of the helmeted head floating weightless side-by-side with the body. It's gross, but great.

Hangar 18 also boasts a number of great "jolts." At least three, actually. There's a scene aboard the captured spaceship wherein a storage closet bursts opens and an alien pressure suit lunges forward suddenly. Then there's the moment when the alien pilots (dead) are revealed in their chairs, their inhuman eyes glaring at the camera. To this day, I also remember my Mother jumping out of her seat in the theater during the well-orchestrated sequence involving an ambulance, and an alien abductee suddenly awaking. In all, it's a highly effective and interesting mix.

Another aspect I've always appreciated about Hangar 18 is the production design, particularly the highly detailed alien saucer. There's something about it that just seems - I dunno - believable, from the monitoring system to the laboratory to the alien language (based on ancient Mexican heiroglyphs). In 1980, I wascertain this is exactly what a flying saucer would look like.

"We did a full-scale mock-up of that," Conway remembers. "We shot the picture in Big Spring, Texas, which had a closed air base. It was in the middle of nowhere, and it was really a pretty bleak space to spend three months. But [production designer] Paul Staley built a full-size spaceship, which we put in the middle of this big hangar..."

But if Big Spring was a bleak place to make a movie (and it is...there's nothing there!), Conway nonetheless made the most of the experience, and enjoyed working with his cast, which includes Robert Vaughn, James Hampton, Gary Collins, Darren McGavin, Stuart Pankin and Joseph Campanella.

"I loved Darren McGavin," Conway explains. "He is one of the greatest guys, and I was a big fan of The Night Stalker, and working with him was a thrill. He was full of energy, and had a lot of great ideas. It was a wonderful cast all the way around. A lot of the people in that show I had worked with on other Sunn Classic Pictures, so we were very much like a family. We made so many movies and TV shows that if someone worked with us and we liked them, we would just cast them again and again."

Interestingly, director Conway would one day discover that his time spent on "aliens" landing in the desert was not over. "Ironically, many years later, I directed a Deep Space Nine called "Little Green Men," and in that episode, some of the characters came down and were involved in the same sort of incident. It was the Roswell story, and they were arrested and all this wonderful stuff happened, and it was really fun for me to do the story all over again, at least from a Star Trek point of view."

Today, you can find Hangar 18 on VHS, but not yet on DVD.

"When Sunn Classics was bought by another company, it was then bought by another company," Conway sheds some light on the complicated situation. "I sort of lost track of who owns what. When I came to Los Angeles to work for Aaron Spelling full-time in 1996 and I started digging around, I found that Spelling owned all of the Sunn Classic titles, because one of the companies they bought had owned them. So I got in touch with the people there, and I got them to release The Boogens and Hangar 18 on VHS, and now I work for Paramount, and it's all owned by Paramount...so Paramount owns Spelling. So I'm trying to talk to these people and see if we can get both titles to come out on DVD. But the rights don't become available till the end of the year or so..."

Anyone who grew up with The Boogens and Hangar 18 realizes there's an audience out there for these titles on DVD, so we can hope that the situation gets ironed out soon, and we can enjoy our DVD widescreen version of these films.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "The Rocks of Janus"

Probably just about every outer space show of the late 1960s and 1970s (and even some in the 1980s...) featured dramas revolving around the silicon life-form; or rather "the living rock." On Star Trek, of course, "Devil in the Dark" set the pace as probably the best of all these programs. But Space:1999 also did a version in Year Two called "All That Glisters," and as late as Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Home Soil" in 1988, the story of a silicon life-form discovered by space-going carbon-based folks (humans...us) has been a serviceable one for the genre.

"The Rocks of Janus" is Space Academy's contribution to this time-worn but trusty genre convention. If you recall, "Janus" was also the name of the Horta's planet in "Devil in the Dark," so you have to wonder if Space Academy scribe Samuel Peeples was paying some homage where homage was due.

Anyway, this episode of the 1970s Saturday morning kid's show finds the Academy in orbit of a giant planet, but two comets are fast approaching -- on a collision course with the space academy planetoid. Commander Gampu sends Blue Team in a Seeker to activate explosive charges and destroy the comets before they hit. But on the comet's surface, Laura and Chris and the others (including Peepo) find veins and arteries, and when one of the cadets attempts to hack off a sample, the rocks bleed. Turns out the whole comet is alive, a sick fella named Ergo. Peepo communicates with him and Ergo (in perfect English) tells the cadets "I forgive you...for chopping off pieces of me." Nice fella, this Ergo...

But Ergo is the least of the Academy's problems. Turns out that the other living rock (the other comet) is named "Targ." Targ is a criminal and wants to destroy everything, including the Academy and the seekere. Ergo would be able to stop him if he were at full strength, unfortunately he used the last of his free energy to enter the galaxy, and then the cadets started carving off samples. Fortunately, the cadets are able to strengthen Ergo by feeding him "magnetic flux," and at the end of the day, Targ is defeated and Ergo is taken back to the Academy to be healed.

"The Rocks of Janus" doesn't add much to the "silicon life-form" sci-fi TV convention. Like "Home Soil" (which came much later), the life form isn't detected until after humans have injured it. Like "All that Glisters," the good guys (in this case, from the Academy) seek to help out and do right after committing (an accidental). Otherwise, it's a familiar tale.

What else happens in this episode of Space Academy? Not much. Peepo yelps at one point, and sounds just like Michael Jackson. And we find out exactly what the Academy slang "Oraco!" means. "Order Received And Carried Out!"

Thursday, November 24, 2005

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 18: Eagle 1 Spaceship (1976)




Simply stated, I have never loved a toy more than I love this one. On December 3, 1976 -- my seventh birthday -- my parents gave me this incredible, large-scale ("over 2 1/2 feet long!") replica of the workhouse spaceship from my favorite TV show, Gerry & Sylvia Anderson's Space:1999 starring Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.

The toy you see photographed here is the one I have carried with me from New Jersey to Virginia to my current home in North Carolina, for nearly 30 years. Today, it sits proudly on my new glass desk.

This Eagle 1 Spaceship toy is just so much fun, I don't know where to begin. Let's start with the box copy: "It's a space vehicle, it's a headquarters and living quarters on Moonbase Alpha! With three 3" TV characters." Wow. Very fun. And I love the box art too. Brings back a whole era of futurism that doesn't exist anymore. Not grungy (like Star Wars); not pulpy (like Flash Gordon) and not technology unchained (like Star Trek). This is a utilitarian design from a believable extrapolation of the future. Or so it looked in 1975. Just one step beyond the Apollo program, so I hoped.

The greatest thing about this Eagle is that it was really all kitted up, to use a phrase I picked up from Blake's 7. This means that the cockpit "hatch" opens to reveal the pilot seats inside. This means that the two side doors open to reveal a cleverly constructed ship interior with a winch, a gun rack, and two chairs. This means that the space-suited figures of Commander John Koenig, Dr. Helena Russell and Professor Bergman came fully equipped with removable back-pack/chest packs, space helmets, and laser rifles and pistols. There is also a hatch on the floor of the compartment, through which you can lower your people into a "world beyond belief."

And if you longed to play with a different style craft, you could even take this Eagle apart, and make a smaller scout ship, or a "mini-space ship" as the box suggested.

Produced by Mattel, this toy is simply a beautiful design, and fairly faithful to the TV series. My old Eagle is showing its age these days with peeling stickers and yellowed glue marks, but for me, it will always represent my childhood, hours of fun, and "the future!" I used to take this thing out into the back yard at my house in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, or up into the trails nearby. My Moonbase Alpha team would encounter all kinds of adventures. In particular, I always re-created in miniature the scary episode "Dragon's Domain," concerning a cyclopean, tentacled beast which would kill astronauts (and spit their steaming bones out...). I even remember to this day that I used a giant squid from an old-fashioned (large-sized) G.I. Joe submarine playset as my tentacled space monster. Unfortunately, I didn't keep that!

Can't believe the year 1999 actually passed six years ago. For me, this Eagle will always be "the future" and I will always consider this toy the cat's meow. I intend to be buried with it, when the day comes...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy 30th Anniversary, Dr. Madblood!

Hey, here's something really cool. If you live anywhere near Virginia (or get Sky 4 or DirecTV), be on the look-out for a very special genre program airing soon. Yes, the ghoulish and garish Dr. Madblood "presents history" on Saturday, November 26, 2005 at 8:00 pm (est) with the shocking behind-the-scenes documentary: Madblood: Thirty Frightening Years"

Here's a clip from the press release:

In this special two-hour documentary by Madblood director Rachel C. Hunter, cast members Jerry Harrell, Mike Arlo, Penny Palen, Craig T. Adams and Carter Perry narrate and tell stories about the local institution that is the Doctor Madblood show. Covering the entire thirty-year history of the doctor's exploits in Pungo and beyond was a daunting undertaking, but the result is a program as unique and entertaining as Doctor Madblood himself. There are interviews with crew members and longtime viewers, a tour of the current set with its array of one-of-a-kind props and custom-made bric-a-brac, and, of course, choice clips from past and present episodes, some of which have not seen the light of day since they first aired. This is an event not to be missed!

Don't know who the esteemed Dr. Madblood is? Then you don't know what you're missing! Check out his site here (the good doctor also pod-casts, so check that out!).

Anyway, straight from the Muir movie/tv blog to Dr. Madblood himself: Happy 30th Anniversary!

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Outland (1981)

This was a movie that got trounced at the box office when it was first released in 1981. Despite that fact, it remains one of my favorite genre films from the decade, and I can pop it in the laserdisc player anytime and enjoy it all over again.

Outland stars Sean Connery as Marshal O'Niel, a cop who has just been assigned to the Con-Am 27 installation on Io, the third moon of Jupiter. Seventy hours from the the nearest space station, this mine boasts a population of 2,144 workers, and a supply shuttle visits once a week.

While O'Niel deals with his wife's (Kika Markham's) choice to take their son and leave the grim installation, there's also a rash of worker suicides. One miner rips open his atmosphere suit while on the surface, convinced that he is being attacked by spiders. Another worker walks into the airlock and mining elevator with no suit whatsoever...and leaves behind a boiling, bloody mess.

O'Niel is curious - perhaps even suspicious - about these deaths, and learns from the post's dissolute doctor, named Lazarus (an outstanding Frances Sternhagen...) that there have been 24 such "suicides" in the past six months. O'Niel doesn't buy that explanation (for one thing, neither miner left a note...) and learns that the station's administrator, Sheppard (Peter Boyle) is actually running an illegal drug operation. He is using two workers, Spota and Yario to pass the drugs about the population. The synthetic narcotic, an amphetamine, makes workers do their jobs much more quickly: 14 hours of work in 6 hours. Of course, this means a higher quota; which means the business is more profitable for Sheppard and his bosses. but there's a down side, the drug also "fries the brain" and turns normal men psychotic.

O'Niel interferes with the drug-running operation, but learns he was given the assignment as Federal District Marshal because it was expected he wouldn't rock the boat. He doesn't like that arrangement, and so confronts Sheppard. Sheppard responds by sending professional assassins to kill the meddling O'Niel. Unfortunately, this frontier world is a place where nobody wants to stick their neck out, so O'Niel must face the killers alone...and the next shuttle is arriving soon!

Outland is a perfect example of just how important production design remains in the crafting of an effective and intelligent science fiction film. Here, the moviemakers take special pains to create a tangible sense of place, a futuristic frontier town that, according to Sheppard "is just like any other mining town." Only here, the frontier is even more dangerous than one can imagine, and we see several gory de-pressurizations in the movie. But more importantly, the environs of this futuristic outpost on Io are completely and totally believable in virtually aspect. Since space (and atmosphere...) are at a premium, miners sleep in little compartments stacked several high and rows deep. These compartments are not much larger than a casket...

Likewise, every detail, down to the hookers in the Leisure Club and Sheppard's spacious office, reveal to the audience something important about this location, and how it affects the human psyche. And delightfully, this is all visual, not some expositional dialogue. I remember the ad-line for Superman: The Movie. It was You'll Believe a Man Can Fly. The ad-line for Outland could have very well been "You'll Believe We Can Live in Space..."

At about the fifty minute point of Outland, director Peter Hyams ramps up the pace and directs an exquisite and sustained action sequence that sees O'Niel in pursuit of Spota. Lensed in long shot (and with few cuts, at least at first), this chase is not only exhilarating, it lends reality to the locale. We see Connery chase his prey from locker room to sleeping quarters, to cafeteria to kitchen with precious few cuts. Thus a sense of space is preserved, and again -- we believe this is all real. There in the kitchen, the fight ends brutally (with a butcher knife and a pot of boiling water), and you're on the edge of your seat. In many ways, this chase/fight is the film's high point, a crazed, accelerated tour of a futuristic installation that is utilitarian, depressing, and completely believable as an extrapolation of future technology.

One of the things I admire most about Outland is that it concerns human vice. So many stories set on other worlds view humans as perfect (like Star Trek), focus on confrontations with monstrous extra-terrestrials (like Alien) or deal with a giant scope, like a galactic war (Star Wars). All of those franchises are great, and I love them all dearly, but I also appreciate the uniqueness of Outland: that it concerns human characters in space, not phantasmagoria. It's makers didn't feel the need to include any other fantasy elements, and the film is all the stronger for its singularity of focus. It is what is is: a personal confrontation on a frontier, and that's why so many critics at the time compared it to the Western genre. There's even a ticking clock here, right out of High Noon.

I always like to point this out in great science fiction or fantasy films, but everything about Outland had to be created from scratch. Every set had to be built from the ground up. A believable world had to be imagined, and then erected with a fine eye towards detail. The resulting film is immersive and tense and involving, (in no small part because of Connery's performance, either), and that just means that the production designers and art directors did a magnificent job.

I'm old enough to remember how shabbily Outland was received by critics both in and out of the genre. Today, most of those complaints don't really hold up. For instance, I remember one prominent science fiction author of the day expressing disappointment that the film ends with O'Niel simply punching out his enemy, Sheppard. This critic complained that it was an anti-climax, and sorely disappointing not to have Sheppard murdered by the hero. Well, all I can say is that this writer must have taken a potty-break in the film, or not paid attention. Because when Sheppard contacts his bosses to acquire assassins, they warn him in no uncertain terms that "the next guy coming for someone will be coming for you." In other words, by defeating Sheppard's assassins and exposing the drug ring, O'Niel has already beaten his enemy. Sheppard's own allies are going to kill him, so O'Niel doesn't need to. I find this resolution a much more elegant climax, rather than simply having O'Niel blast Sheppard with a shotgun. Why? O'Niel could have done that at any point in the story. This isn't really a story about O'Niel committing murder; it's a story about O'Niel's redemption, and his individual method for beating "City Hall." Better, I think, to leave Sheppard dangling on the hook, waiting to be offed by the very people he conspired with.

"Even in space, the ultimate enemy is still man," shouted the ad-copy for Outland, and today, I wanted to champion a film from the 1980s that is entertaining, funny, and created with an eye towards exquisite detail. The greatest thing about Outland is just what I noted above -- you can tune it in and immerse yourself in the futuristic, grimy and grubby "vibe" for 100 minutes, and feel that you've really and truly visited the future.

Blade Runner
gets championed all the time for its texture and futuristic sense of "reality," but in its own unique way, Outland equals the glories of that (undeniably great) film.

TV REVIEW: Threshold: "Progeny"

Threshold returned to prime-time last night, fleeing from CBS's Friday night schedule to make room there for CBS's Close to Home. This episode, "Progeny" concerned yet another method by which those pesky aliens can infiltrate and enslave humanity: fertility clinics! Seems that one of the crew (a fella named Sanford) from the infected ship is also a regular sperm donor. His alien-contaminated semen has been used to inseminate three normal women; transforming them into loyal soldiers to the cause.

One of the women infected this week was Showgirls' star Elizabeth Berkeley. That alone made the episode worth watching. That, and Carla Gugino in a red party dress.

It does seem a waste, however, to feature Berkeley in an episode about artificial insemination. It would have been much better if she had been having a hot, torrid illicit affair with the alien-infected guy. Which brings us to this point: You're an alien hoping to infect as many people as possible as quickly as possible, okay? You find out that you can pass the bio-altering signal by sexual transmission. So which course do you take: become a sperm donor (and risk that doctors could find your genetic abnormality and rule you out...) or just go on a rape bender instead? I mean, I'm certainly not advocating rape, but I'm thinking logically here. Imagine how much damage six infected men could do if they just went around raping "Earth women," rather than depending on being sperm donors? They would transform people a lot quicker, methinks! This is where Threshold always loses me: the plots don't hold up if you think about them for more than six seconds. Each story manages to grab defeat from the jaws of victory...

But seriously, Threshold is still just treading water. The aliens have now tried to get their bio-altering signal to the masses through the Internet, cell phones and ATMs, driftwood(!) and fertility clinics. In every case, the Threshold team has stopped the plan cold; sometimes using quite extreme measures (an electromagnetic pulse; a guided missile; and in this episode, fire...) So are the aliens just plain stupid or what? Why are they too dumb to try the Internet angle again? Why are they so ineffective that they resort to donating sperm rather than merely impregnating Earth woman?

But no matter the details of the alien-plan-of-the-week, the big flaw in this series is that the main characters don't develop at all from episode to episode; and every story so far is virtually the same. In your typical episode, we begin with an "outbreak" as Molly calls it; an alien-infection inspired incident (here, it's a series of three incidents: a decapitation, an exploding woman at a hot dog stand, and Berkeley punching through a bank teller's window glass). Then the team finds out about it, organizes, and after your typical second-act difficulties, then eliminates the threat using some pretty serious means (after imitating Department of Homeland Security Officers). Oh, and Brent Spiner puts in a guest appearance, gets the best lines, and effectively steals every scene he's in.

So, Threshold, when do we get a new plot? When will the characters get a chance to do something different? Although as a horror fan, I must say I enjoyed the blood and guts from "Progeny" (including that decapitation and exploding woman...), I found precious little else to enjoy here. I am curious to see what will become of the alien-infected "fetus," however. That's something that I assume we will see paid off, if the series survives much longer...

Again, however, I've got to criticize Threshold on the grounds that it feels like a Star Trek series transplanted to modern day. Every episode spends 40 minutes on threat; 5 minutes on pat wrap-up and resolution. Each team member has a "special ability" that comes in handy (just like on an Away Team!) and the good guys always win. Again, I accept the deus ex machina endings and two-dimensional characters on Star Trek because of the rules of that universe. I don't accept these flaws in a drama like Threshold, set in our world. The series just shouldn't feel so contrived.

I read somewhere online(?) about a three-season plan for Threshold, involving the aliens eventually taking over the planet, and the team members of Threshold having to fight to stay alive. I must admit, that sounds incredibly cool. But if Threshold is to feature a story-arc, the writers better get started. We've already seen the same story too many times now, and I don't know how long a leash CBS has given the show. The network has ordered three more scripts, but that isn't exactly promising.

Threshold
needs to show us what it's got; and it needs to do so in a hurry.

MOVIE MUSINGS: Rent : Will It Succeed?

Today Rent opens in theaters, and it's been getting some pretty solid reviews. A.O. Scott, over at The New York Times, terms the film "occasionally silly, often melodramatic and never subtle," as well as "openhearted to a fault."

Just a few months ago, my book about the modern movie musical and the current "re-birth" was released, Singing a New Tune: The Rebirth of the Modern Film Musical, From Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond. So naturally, I have a few reflections about the arrival of this Chris Columbus adaptation of the popular Jonathan Larson 1996 theatrical venture, and its chances at the national box office. Let's lay out the arguments pro and con. Starting with con.

Rent is the ultimate "blue state" stage musical, I'd say (and I did say it, in The New York Post.) That's a distinctly double-edged sword in our divided culture. Because it concerns topics such as AIDS, drug addiction and sexual orientation, any movie adaptation of Rent is automatically going to frighten away Red State Grannies at the same time it speaks trenchantly to Blue State-rs. That's a problem for the studio suits and accounting bean counters, because it is many of those Red State Grannies who represent a chunk of the audience for movie musicals of old, having grown up with classics such as Singin' in the Rain, Oklahoma, South Pacific and the like. What will they think of a musical involving AIDs?

On stage, Rent is extremely popular in cities such as New York and Chicago because it speaks directly to the modern (or at least 1990s...) problems of a group of young adult urbanites in a context that has meaning and relevance for that specific audience. The play is about art, selling out, the future (or lack thereof -- "no day but today")...in short, the human experience. But to put it bluntly, what's immensely popular on Broadway isn't necessarily going to play well in Peoria, and I think that's probably the biggest concern so far as Rent's subject matter. .

Also, as I'm learning from a few the reviews of my book (!), Rent also has much to worry about from the vocal musical theater fans...the dreaded purists. In my book, these elitists objected to the fact that I liked De-Lovely, for instance. Why! How could I? Modern singers (like Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrissette) singing Cole Porter?!! Nah, we have to slam that down! So from a purist point of view, you always have to be concerned. Purists are by definition, hardcore. They're never going to be happy with any changes from the original stage show, especially if the original cast isn't involved in a significant capacity. So Rent has to navigate that tightrope too. Since the film does feature most of the original cast, the purists might hold their fire on this occasion.

For an example of the purists on the war path, look at how negatively many of them received Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera last year. They objected to Gerard Butler in the lead role -- in particular because of his lack of singing experience. But most of their objections don't really take into account that film is an entirely different medium from theatre. Film requires different things, and therefore you have to judge it differently. Purists tend to forget that. They want a one-for-one translation, but that's just an impossibility considering how different stage and screen remain.

Consider the following: In theatre, you're enjoying an individual live performance; in film, you're seeing something that's been edited, looped, maybe even dubbed. At the very least, it's canned; recorded, not something original to the "moment."

In theatre, you're dealing with the limitations of that proscenium arch, whereas you have the capacity on film to go anywhere and show anything. Indeed, the expectation is that cinema will "open up" a story that seems limited or confined on the stage.

Finally, a theatrical production can essentially cater to a smaller more focused audience: theatre-goers in NYC, for example. A film is expected to play successfully across a vast swath of mainstream America - preferably all on one (opening...) weekend - and that means some rough edges will be polished away to appeal to more folk. But, the moment you do that, the purists go nuts and you risk losing your core demographic. See the problem?

Now let's look at the opposite side of the coin. Here are some reasons why I think Rent may have a good shot at succeeding in cinemas:

It is based on a brand name (a stage show; like Evita, or Chicago or Phantom of the Opera) and has a theme relevant to the experience of many American moviegoers. The cast album was enormously popular and successful, so there is some familiarity with the play's signature tunes too. More to the point, the purists will be encouraged that many original cast members have been retained for the film adaptation.

Also, Rent has already entered the pop culture lexicon after a fashion. As recently as last year, we saw Team America spoof the play with a production called "Lease," which featured the tune "Everybody has AIDS." You can't buy publicity like that; especially with the non-musical-theatre crowd (of which I used to count myself...)

Finally, there's timing. Rent arrives in the same season that saw Evita succeed (the holidays). It's a time when summer is behind us and audiences are looking for quality, for something a little different.

Closing thoughts on Rent and its chances:

Let's face it, audiences today demand more and more realism from their cinema, more naturalism, down to the use of shaky cams and the like. For the movie musical to survive today, what is essentially a "theatrical" form has to adjust and be seen as more realistic, more natural. Rent actually does boast a realistic aspect -- life just isn't all perfect and wondrous and painted Parisian backgrounds. On the contrary, the problems of the dramatis personae are problems we relate to as audience members. So Rent can be darker, which is undeniably the trend in movie musicals now. Earlier musicals such as Dancer in the Dark, The Singing Detective and Todd Graff's Camp - which addressed gay bashing - were willing to embrace this "darkness" we associate with a more realistic and contemporary cinema, so I think the audience may be primed for Rent.

But The Producers is still an easier sell, in my opinion. Audiences will be more easily enticed to a musical that has big laughs in it, that's for sure.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 9

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea! Kinda...

This week on NBC's Surface, Rich and Laura spent most of the time running out of air on the ocean floor in their make-shift submersible while outside, those giant sea critters laid tons of eggs. "You're looking at the new top of the food chain," Laura warned. Wow, that's a scary thought...

By the end of the show, this intrepid undersea duo had managed to get back to the surface (thanks to Jackson's emergency raft device...) but it really irritated me that Laura would immediately open the sub's hatch (into the open sea...) before at least taking the precaution of protecting some of their very important research. Sure, I know she was in desperate need of fresh air, but she could have taken a few seconds to protect her work. I mean, the government bad guy Lee has now found the "boneyard" where they were working, so he's got all those papers and disks. And now it looks like Laura's going to lose the video she shot and everything else on the submarine. I guess this plot development "happened" so the writers could see to it that the government can continue its plausible deniability for a while, but I think that a researcher and scientist as thorough as Laura would certainly have taken some steps to save her work before exposing it to the sea water.

Elsewhere, in Wilmington, North Carolina, Miles fears that little Nim is in trouble and has murdered a fisherman. Turns out instead that a bunch of the little critters are living in the shallows, near an appetizing electrical cable (which the creatures seem to feed on). And, because I'm a sucker for these people/pet relationships (see my Catnap posts!) I was touched by the reunion of Nim and Miles. I hated seeing fishermen kicking and hitting and otherwise abusing the wee beastie, and I appreciated Miles' discussion about knowing "how to talk to tigers," and the fact that he recognized his pet from the others. That's a very accurate touch. Pets may all look the same to non-owners, but owners know. There's a bond there. Even with electrical, sea-going lizard monsters. Very touching.

Otherwise last night's episode just didn't seem quite as exciting or interesting as the last few episodes. (Unlike last night's Prison Break, which was intense...). I hope Surface isn't sinking. It looks like next week we're going to get an update of the movie Lifeboat, with Laura and Rich sharing an inflatable raft during a storm, and sharks circling.

Catnap Tuesday # 19: Bedtime for Lila




Every night, my sweet Lila disappears from the family room around 8:00 or 9:00 pm. Turns out she's just getting a head start on a good night sleep. You see, we discovered Lila has a spot she absolutely loves on the end of our bed (upstairs), and she settles down there as the evening gets late. When Kathryn and I head upstairs to go to sleep, we often find her right here on the end of the bed (on the small blanket that once belonged to our cat who passed away in 2003, Lulu). As you see, Lila's well on her way to dreamland...

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Muir in The New York Post!

Today's New York Post features an article called "Risky Business" by reporter Barbara Hoffman. It's a piece about the movie musical art form, and the current difficulties it has winning audiences (and profits...) in the cinema. Ms. Hoffman interviewed me for the article, and I get a few good quotes in it. Between the New York Daily News last week and The New York Post today, I'm really gettin' around these days...and I have the arrival of Rent to thank for it.

Here's a snippet of the article:

Just like actual Broadway productions, film musicals are costly to mount, making them dicey propositions. Plus, the singing cowboys of "Oklahoma!" and the swinging gamblers of "Guys and Dolls" are a hard sell to a generation bred on reality TV.

"In this day and age, we don't accept the old convention that people just burst into song," says John Kenneth Muir, author of "Singing a New Tune." "You have to have a canny director to find the right film translation..."

Check it out at The New York Post, though I think you have to register to read it...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

New BOOK REVIEW Post up at NCFLIX



My latest book review (of Peter Dendle's seminal Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, Robert Cettl's An Analytical Filmography: Serial Killer Cinema, and Alec Worley's Empires of the Imagination) is now up at NCFLIX.

Check it out!

TV REVIEW: A Haunting: "Cursed"

A Haunting's fourth installment, "Cursed," may be the most intriguing episode of this "true-to-life" Discovery Channel series yet aired. As I wrote last week, I'm regarding this show not as a truthful documentary, but rather as a horror anthology like One Step Beyond or Tales from the Darkside, one that manipulates the tools of the documentary format to augment the scare quotient. My review is based on that perception, so don't ask me to vouch for any of the "truth" in these scenarios. I won't go there.

Okay, leaving that explanation behind for the time-being, here's the story of "Cursed": Romi and Fernando, a couple living in Tucson, Arizona with four young children, go house-hunting, and during one expedition, Romi becomes obsessed with the purchase of an abandoned, ramshackle place. The family eventually moves in, but according to the voice-over narration, the house proves to a be a "trial of sanity,"(!) as well as a "gateway" both into the world of ghosts and into the dark recesses of Romi's mind. Yikes!

Let me just say that I get a kick out of these deadpan, ominous opening narrations, which state matters so dramatically, and with such portentous certainty. Wouldn't you love to have that deep-voiced narrator record your answering machine message? "John is not HOME at the TIME BEING. HE is AWAY....from his desk. BUT leave a MESSAGE at the beep. HE WILL return your call. EVENTUALLY..."

Anyway, I wrote last week about the ironclad story-structure (thus far) of A Haunting, and my concern that it would grow tiresome if repeated too frequently. To recap, here are the four stages of each story: The Honeymoon (find a house cheap, fix it up and move in!), The Uncertainty Stage (there's something weird going on here...), The Recognition Stage (this place is haunted, we better bring in a priest and/or paranormal investigator!) and the Let's All Take A Deep Breath Conclusion (in which everything is resolved, and order is restored in the universe). Okay, that's fine. This episode closely adheres to this established pattern. But - and this is a big but - "Cursed" distinguishes itself nicely from the other episodes by offering a different, and much more personal perspective on a haunting.

We've had fine protagonists in other installments, but nothing on the scale of how Romi is portrayed this week. "Cursed" is all about her; and about her very individual manner of "haunting." In fact, this whole story, in just about every aspect, involves Romi: her past, and what we come to learn about her. This viewpoint is more than enough of a "focus" shift to make the episode feel fresh, and it's a good move for the series to tweak the approach.

Romi is interesting. She has experienced recurring nightmares all her life (involving a hose spigot pouring water into a skeleton's mouth...) and feels herself "being pulled towards something" when she first spots the house in question. Once settled in there, Romi becomes the target of the supernatural forces, and suffers the attacks alone because she loves the house and never wants to leave it. Her children and husband are safe, so she believes she's the target of the "entity" and determines to secretly endure "the restless nights." The years pass, and Romi manages, but when she has a grandchild, Alec, the ghosts return more powerfully than before, and now the stakes are much higher -- she has something to fight for besides herself. Finally, in the end, Romi realizes that she is the source of the paranormal activity...her mind is creating the very poltergeist that is terrorizing everybody. The answer - as it has always been - lays within her very psyche. (And since my wife is a therapist, I enjoyed the post-script of the story, which recommended therapy for people like Romi who are suffering and need to talk about it...)

The story of Romi, my friends, works as a fully developed character arc. A good one too, in part because we haven't yet seen it on A Haunting before. So the particulars of "Cursed" nicely overcome the formulaic outline of the plot.

Some other twists got thrown into the mix this week too. In virtually every installment thus far, we've seen a Priest or some other Man of God bless the haunted house (usually without positive result...), yet this week, the Deacon is one of the people who is actually interviewed by the production. So instead of just seeing such a character in a re-enactment, we actually get this particular man's point of view about a haunting experience. Again, this is something I want to see explored on the show. I want perspectives outside the family's and the investigators. Someone a little further removed.

Above, I wrote about not caring whether or not these stories are true. You see, I have a different standard for judging A Haunting, and it's the same one I applied to One Step Beyond. I don't expect these shows to convince me that ghosts are real, but I do expect them to accurately reflect the current thinking in the study of the paranormal. This week, I was happy to see that A Haunting did not just copy the Hollywood idea of a "poltergeist" (like from the Tobe Hooper movie...) but rather adhered to the research on this phenomenon. In other words, "Cursed" reports accurately on poltergeist activity. Poltergeists are (according to research) not discarnate spirits at all, but the result of a living person with unusual (and usually subconscious...) abilities. Often, it is adolescents - kids going through puberty - who manifest poltergeist-like activity, but I don't find it a stretch at all to believe that Romi could be the source of such manifestations. It works, and it's true to research. Another aspect of the tale, regarding the location of the house between TV towers and the proximity of heightened electromagnetic fields, is also - believe it or don't - a frequently reported aspect of paranormal cases.

My biggest concern with "Cursed" is that the episode never really gets to the bottom of what's eating Romi. What does her dream (which we see visualized at least twice) mean? Are these images related to a trauma in childhood? The "real" Romi says in an interview that she has had this dream all her life, and so I must wonder what she thinks it means. I would have liked to see the dream and its significance explained more fully, especially since this episode focuses on this character so much. But the fact that I was left wanting to know more (and not less, like Ghost Whisperer) only means that A Haunting is getting the job done: telling interesting human stories based on reported paranormal happenings.

So I'm still watching; and still enjoying.

UFO: "The Cat with Ten Lives"

In "The Cat with Ten Lives," three UFOs approach the moon, but retreat once interceptors approach. Three more UFOs appear i...