Saturday, September 17, 2005

Passing of a Film Legend: Robert Wise (1914-2005)

Director Robert Wise died of heart failure in Los Angeles this week, on September 14, 2005. His long career was both an amazing and valuable one, and in many senses, underrated. His name never seemed to have the cachet of a Hitchcock, Kubrick or John Ford, and yet there was nothing that this versatile director could not accomplish. He worked in a variety of genres, and inevitably created a masterwork.

In the horror field, Robert Wise gave the world the (still) finest and scariest haunted house movie ever made, 1963's The Haunting. In 1977, he presented Audrey Rose, a sensitive horror picture blending courtroom drama and supernatural themes, a precursor to the similarly named and themed number #1 box office attraction from last weekend, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. William K. Everson, writing in Films in Review, Volume XXVIII, Number 6, June-July 1977, wrote that Wise's film was made "with such taste and pride in craftsmanship," and indeed, those could very well be the hallmarks and legacy of Mr. Wise.

Mr. Wise also gave the world a number of fine science fiction films, from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) starring Michael Rennie and featuring Gort the Robot, to 1971's The Andromeda Strain, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, to the vastly underrated and superior Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. A hallmark of all these films is their bent for realism; their concentration on technology; their absolute believability. Writing about The Andromeda Strain, a 1970s classic, critic and historian Jeff Rovin comments (in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films, Citadel Press, 1975, page 93) that Wise "didn't miss a trick," and noted that the film is "gripping, intelligent and frightening." This is how I describe the director's handiwork in one critical Andromeda Strain moment in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland, 2002):

"The Andromeda Strain
works so well as an indictment of man, and as a horror film, because Robert Wise is a splendid visual storyteller. Early in the film, there is a striking scene that establishes just how lethal Andromeda is. In their protective suits, Stone and Hall scan the carnage in Piedmont. These towns-people, cut down in mid-stride, are revealed dead in shot after disturbing shot. In fact, Wise provides a kind of rapid-fire montage of the carnage, showing corpse after corpse in a series of split screens. The searchers are depicted in the left frame, the dead in the right, and a kind of seer/seen dynamic is established. It is a striking and horrific scene that shows, straight-faced, how a new "bug" or virus could threaten our population."

In addition to editing two landmark Orson Welles films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Robert Wise has been celebrated for his work in the movie musical genre, in particular, his two blockbusters: West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). In an age where the movie musical was losing its popularity, Wise re-ignited the moribund genre with increased naturalism, utilizing real locations (rather than studio lots...) to make the format feel more immediate and less theatrical or artificial. The efficacy of his technique is immediately apparent in West Side Story, with an overhead shot peering directly down into New York City and its landmarks, or in Sound of Music, where the camera swoops down below the clouds, onto a hill, to find Julie Andrews spinning and singing "the Hills are alive...."

Regarding the first famous shot of West Side Story, Robert Wise told interviewer Harry Kreisler at UC Berkley in 1998 that he "knew he had to deliver New York some way...And I started to wonder what the city would look like from a helicopter just straight down." What he discovered from that vantage point was a brilliant visualization, as I write in my new release from Applause, Singing a New Tune: The Re-Birth of the Modern Film Musical, From Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond:

"Wise's curiosity resulted in the film's famous opening sequence of New York's urban landscape, and served as the realistic preamble before a full-on leap into musical convention, with tough gang members strutting their stuff at street level. The first five minutes of the film are quite extraordinary as, for the first time in history, the musical format blends with graffiti, alleys, fire escapes and other settings that would not have been utilized in the 1930s...The effect is a total immersion in this new world."

The list of Robert Wise achievements just goes on and on. He also directed the riveting submarine drama Run Silent Run Deep (1954); he also has the distinction of being the only director who was able to grant a Star Trek movie a genuine sense of cinematic scope (remember that prologue in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with those three Klingon cruisers bearing down on the V'ger Cloud?). Robert Wise provided the world with hours of cinematic joy, and was a true master. The film genre will miss him for his skill and taste; the movie viewer will miss his craft and intelligence, and I grieve with his family for the loss of this humble but incredibly talented artist.

TV Review: The WB's Supernatural

The WB Network's Supernatural, airing on Tuesdays at 9/8c is essentially The X-Files, only without brains...or scares. This new horrorTV series, which has been described by Tom Shales at The Washington Post as "Essentially the Hardy Boys Go Ghostbusting," and by USA Today as "Route 66 meets The X-Files and Star Wars at a truck stop," is - at least in its pilot episode - an utter disappointment.

Supernatural
follows the adventures of the hunky Winchester brothers - Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) - as they go - in their words - "hunting" for the spooky otherworldly forces that murdered their mother over two decades earlier. They are also hot on the heels of their missing father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who has made this hunt his life's mission, and who has disappeared, leaving behind coordinates for his sons to follow. In the pilot episode, Sam and Dean imitate Federal Marshals and investigate a town where a manifestation called a "Woman in White" (i.e. a "Lady in White") has been luring unfaithful men to their deaths. The second adventure, "Wendigo," airs this Tuesday, and involves the brothers coming to the aid of campers under attack from this Native American manifestation of evil.

Supernatural starts off strongly. Following in the tradition of many great horror films, it begins with "the deadly preamble," or "the crime in the past," in this case the unusual and terrifying murder of the Winchester Mom. Here, the show is at its creepy best. Mom awakens in the middle of darkest night when she hears young Sam crying on the baby monitor. When she goes to his crib, she spots a shadowy figure (that she mistakes for her husband...) standing over it - one who hushes her, urging her to be silent. She nods sleepily and heads downstairs, only to realize that her husband is asleep in front of the TV...and that the dark figure upstairs is an intruder...or something worse. She runs upstairs to confront it, and well, the rest is history. It's a terrifying, effective way to commence a horror series, and watching it, I felt goosebumps. Right then, in that instant, I had high hopes for the show. David Nutter, director of the show, earned his stripes on The X-Files and knows how to make a vignette like this utterly fascinating and frightening.

Unfortunately, the story that follows in "Pilot" involves not even the slightest additional shiver. The boys follow their father to the small town of the "Lady in White," and almost immediately- and routinely - encounter her. She appears full-on in the frame; right in front of the camera; and since the boys have explained who she is and why she exists, this spectral manifestation isn't terrifying in even the smallest degree. Unlike The X-Files, where alternate possibilities are raised (science vs. the paranormal) and debated through the twin philosophies/world views of Mulder and Scully, here we know from the beginning that the supernatural is real, and the episode consequently has no sense of mystery. Instead, the boys find their father's research and immediately pick up where he left off, saving us the trouble of learning about the Lady in White for ourselves. It's as if someone just Fed-Exed the info the Winchester boys needed to help them solve a supernatural crime, and it's an absolutely underwhelming approach. Perhaps it's just as well, though - I have a hard time seeing either of these jock-like, WB-stereotyped characters as effective researchers.

Supernatural boasts all the flaws of your typical WB fare (meaning the misery that is called Charmed...). It attempts a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style banter and patter, and fails miserably(where's Joss Whedon when you need him?), it casts callow but extremely good-looking youths in the critical roles, when a more-experienced, less photogenic cast could bring some resonance to the show; and it even seems designed as a merchandising ploy for teen girls, replete with tie-ins to upcoming music cds by Dave Matthews and the like. ("You heard it on Supernatural, now get the Dave Matthews cd!"). Even the series' special effects are ultimately derivative, that herky-jerky style of "ghostly" movement we've seen in everything from The Ring and The Grudge to White Noise. It's a combination of fast-motion, digital imagery and the like and...sorry...it just ain't scary. It ain't even PG-13 scary, and that's depressing, especially when one considers that The X-Files was so terrifying that it kept a generation of horror movie fans at home on Friday nights. Somehow, I don't think that will be the case here.

Executive producer Eric Kripke has stated that his goal for Supernatural is "to scare the hell out of you." Odd then that the "Pilot" should have no scares beyond the first minutes. Worse, for a show that is supposed to capture a blend of X-Files and Route 66, there is no sense or feeling of "the road." No sense of being trapped in a car on the highway, road hypnosis, sleepiness, trying to find an obscure place on a map, being in a strange location trying to get bearings. Nothing like that. For a show that should be rich in atmosphere, Supernatural is strangely lacking. The boys reach the town immediately; and then when they vanquish the Lady in White, return home instantly. They might as well have beamed down to the town for all the "road atmosphere" included in the show.

The "supernatural" side of Supernatural is also sadly uninspiring. We've seen "Women in White" or their ilk so many times before (In One Step Beyond's "If You See Sally," for instance) that the episode holds little surprise for the experienced horror fan. (But then again, I maintain that this show is tailor-made for the 16 year old girl, so perhaps this isn't to be considered a deficit).

More disappointingly, the depiction of the Winchester Mother-murdering dark force makes the paranormal seem like something as mundane and earthbound as the mafia, and that's tough to forgive. Obviously, some dark supernatural force has put out a "hit" on the Winchester family, killing the Mom, and then Sam's girlfriend in exactly the same ceiling-hugging, flame-out fashion. How very orderly and considerate of it. This way, viewers will be hit over the head with the connection: "Oh, whatever killed their Mother also killed his girlfriend!" The X-Files was never this obvious or heavy-handed. Here's a lesson for the producers: scares are generated by uncertainty; by ambiguity; by the not-knowing; by the failure to comprehend something that seems beyond the lives we live everyday; something half-seen in the shadows; in the blink of an eye. You can't treat the supernatural as an organized, consistent bad force no more ambiguous than Al Qaeda. Sorry.

I'm always reluctant to review a series based on a first episode, because things often change and develop for the better over time, as cast and crew get their bearings. This was certainly the case with Tru Calling, which ultimately developed into something fascinating and thought-provoking after a rocky start. Let's hope this is the case with Supernatural. I'm giving it precisely five more episodes to show me something new and notable; something that is worthy of comparison to The X-Files. The show needs to work more on building that critical atmosphere of uncertainty (the supernatural can't just automatically be the solution every week, or this will get real boring...); the characters need to be smarter, more diverse (less interchangeable) and more resourceful (less like underwear models...) and the stories need some kind of fresh angle. Supernatural's "pilot" could have appeared on any episode of Poltergeist: the Legacy almost a decade ago, with virtually no variation. I'm certainly on board with Kripke's stated mission: we do need a scary new X-Files; we need a supernatural series that will show us something fresh, and with a different attitude and world view. But if Supernatural is merely content to recycle Japanese horror imagery, WB character stereotypes, and stories older than The Twilight Zone, it will fail.

Let's hope the Winchester brothers get better and smarter the further they drive from Hollywood central casting and story stereotypes. The terror of the supernatural should be something to wipe the smiles off their cocksure, youthful faces, not simply a straw man for boys with toys.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Link of the Week: Planet Fandom

On this site, I've often featured interviews with filmmakers outside the mainstream, so I want to draw everybody's attention to this great site that I just learned about. It's called Planet Fandom and it features all kinds of news and updates about the world of fan-created films on the Internet and beyond. I think this is a really interesting phenomenon of our times: talented fans acting in and producing Star Trek and Star Wars-related films with incredible special effects. I saw one at the FantaSci convention in Chesapeake, VA recently, and I was blown away. It was a Star Wars film filled with light-saber battles that looked the equal to anything seen in Revenge of the Sith. Lest we forget, fans can be extraordinarily resourceful, and these movies prove just that.

When I was in high school - way back in the late 1980s - I founded Z-Grade Studios and began producing, writing, editing and directing a string of independent, low-budget films with titles like
Rock'n'Roll Vampires From Hell, The Exchange Student, The Solaris Enigma, Slaves of the Succubus, Intruder, Hit & Run, and Salvation's Eclipse, but today my beloved movies (filmed on old-fashioned VHS camcorders...) look like artifacts from another civilization, especially in the era of digital filming, computer-generated effects and the like, so this is a really interesting new development to me. I'm always just one step away from making my new film, and my bio - until 2002, when I had to stop to focus exclusively on writing - listed me as an "independent filmmaker" in my own right.

This personal experience making films gives me an understanding of the "fan film world." Many of my own movies were made in a similar vein, as "homages" (that means "rip-offs') of movies that somehow inspired me. Slaves of the Succubus was originally Halloween 5.5, a way of explaining what the hell the ending of Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers was about, but then I changed it to a more original storyline and took out all connections to the Haddonfield mythos. but the fans who produce new episodes of Star Trek (accurate to the original series down-to-the-last-detail) or Stargate are inspired by their favorite series and have created true labors of love with accurate props, realistic costumes, action and more.

Okay, here's a challenge: who is going to make Space:1999 - The Next Generation? And where can I sign up to write the first episode?

Planet Fandom is my blog's recommended "link of the week," because it provides critical information on upcoming fan "releases" and reminds us that an appreciation of Star Trek/Star Wars is actually often a critical first step into the Hollywood moviemaking world. Which of these artists, inspired by sci-fi, will make something truly daring and original next? We shall see.

So check out Planet Fandom!

Taping "Saturday Night at the Movies"/"The Interviews"

On Tuesday, September 13, 2005 at 10:00 am, I had my appointment in Downtown Toronto to tape a segment for TVOntario's long-running series "Saturday Night at the Movies," and its acclaimed "The Interviews" segment. A little background on this: Saturday Night at the Movies airs on TVOntario (Canada's public education network), and has broadcast more than 1,500 movies since it first premiered back in 1974. The longest running show on Canadian TV, "Saturday Night at the Movies" is an immensely popular TV series that explores classic Hollywood films.

I was interviewed on-camera by Thom Ernst, a knowledgeable and friendly film writer, researcher and scholar, and he came thoroughly prepared for the taping with a list of great questions.

Relating to my book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest & Company, we discussed the film-making style of Mr. Guest, both the documentary-style comedies and the more traditional narratives like The Big Picture. We had a good time discussing rock-n-roll and This is Spinal Tap, and Thom's questions were thoughtful and really illuminated the interesting characteristics of Mr. Guest's unusual canon.

Following this discussion, we moved into a talk on another favorite topic of mine: horror movies. In particular, we discussed the 1950s classic, The Bad Seed, starring Patty McCormack and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. The free-flowing conversation covered everything from "nature vs. nurture," to theatrical vs. realistic film.

Finally, Thom and I discussed the current re-birth of the movie musical, the topic of my latest book, Singing a New Tune. In all, I felt at ease (after fumbling through my first question), and I put that "ease" down to Thom's skill as an interviewer.

The program on Christopher Guest's film work features interviews also with Harry Shearer and Fred Willard, and is scheduled to air on October 15. The Halloween "Horror" Show - which will feature a double whammy: The Bad Seed and the Peter Jackson film, Heavenly Creatures, will air on October 29, 2005.

So if you have Satellite Television, you'll get to see both installments of this long-running show, and see how I did. The musical show will air sometime later, and has yet to be scheduled.

Anyway, I had a stimulating, fast morning with Thom and his terrific crew. Murray Battle, the director and producer of the segment was also great fun to be with, and even took photos for me on his digital camera that are featured here on the bloog. Thom, Murray and everybody immediately made me feel at home, offered me good advice (on posture/rolling up sleeves, on the speed of my answers) and encouraged me in my responses. It was a great experience being there, and Kathryn and I had a good time. I'll be excited to see the show...

Being with these movie lovers for the morning, and taping this segment, really made the trip to Toronto a memorable one for us.

Return from Toronto!

Thanks to the efforts of the wonderful Kay Radtke and all the great people at Applause Theatre and Cinema Books (especially my friend, editor and publisher, Michael Messina), I just spent three glorious days in Toronto. I was there to tape three (count 'em, three!) segments for TVOntario's popular "Saturday Night at the Movies," and that part of the trip went very well.

This was my first visit to Toronto, and an incredible experience all together. It's one lovely town, and a city you can walk easily, so my wife Kathryn and I spent a lot of time on our feet, hoofing around the metropolis. We ate at great restaurants, visited the Kensington and St. Lawrence Markets, spent time at the Toronto Film Festival, and even got to take in a few flicks. It was a great time.

But, of course, pictures tell the story better than words, so I'm posting a few views of Toronto from our trip.

Above: two glimpses of the Toronto Skyline, and in particular, (in the distance...) the impressive CN Tower, Canada's National Tower and a "Wonder of the Modern World." This construction, "The World's Tallest Building" stands an amazing 1,815 ft and 5 inches high (or 553.33 metres, to get all Canadian with you.). It's beautiful isn't it?



Above (Left): Kathryn stands in front of the University of Toronto, on College Street. The sprawling campus was just a few short blocks from where we stayed (near Carlton and Yonge), and we loved the "college" vibe of the town. Lots of attractive young people bustling back and forth. Above (center): A view of the St. Lawrence Market on Jarvis Street, this is a fantastic, two-story shopping arena for everything from designer gourmet food (like Kozlik's Canadian Mustard) to jewelry. I had to drag Kathryn out of here kicking and screaming (not really...).


Above (left): While I was in Toronto, I just had to make a trek to the world-famous Theatre Books, a shop I've been dying to visit for five years now. The book shop has written positive reviews for several of my Applause Books, including An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi, and Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company. The shop did not disappoint. Kathryn and I headed upstairs to the film center on the second floor and I was honored to see my newest book, Singing a New Tune: The Re-Birth of the Modern Film Musical, From Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond, up prominently on display, atop a book pyramid (along with other Applause Books, including a few from their impressive new releases on the collected film, music, and theatre writings of critic John Simon).

Above (right). That's Kathryn on Jarvis Street, right in front of The Bombay Palace, the Indian restaurant we went to on our first night. The food there was absolutely amazing, and we drank lots of red wine together and thoroughly enjoyed our meal. Following the taping for TVOntario on Tuesday, we visited Toronto's Chinatown and had lunch at a terrific restaurant called "Bright Pearl." Located on Spadina Avenue, this restaurant has been called "one bright pearl amidst a sea of disappointment" (by the Globe and Mail's Joanne Katus) and is favored by Toronto Star restaurant critic, Cynthia Wine, food writer Jennifer Boln and others. The lunch was - in a phrase - to die for. We were so full we had to hobble back to the hotel to collapse on the bed...

Toronto is a great city, and now I think Kathryn wants to move there. More on the Film Festival, TVOntario and other topics coming up in another post, but this is the "Muir Tour" of the City. Hope you enjoy the photos.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Toronto Film Festival Bound!

Well, Kathryn and I are making final preparations for our flight to Toronto and subsequent stay at the Toronto Film Festival next week (starting tomorrow). As a result, things will be awfully quiet around here for about a week. If you need a fix, hope you will dig deep into the blog archives for cult TV, retro-toy, comic-book and other nostalgia/pop-culture flashbacks.

When we're back, hopefully I'll have lots of photos to share and stuff to talk about from the Festival. I'm big-time bummed that screenings of Romance and Cigarettes (with Christopher Walken!), Brokeback Mountain and Atom Egoyan's Where The Truth Lies are already sold out, but I hope we'll get the chance to see something maybe with less buzz, but of equal quality. I passed on seeing The Corpse Bride - why pay top dollar for tickets to that when I can see it here in the U.S. in the next few weeks?

Anyway, our itinerary includes the taping for TVOntario's "Saturday Night at the Movies" on Tuesday, and I'm really looking forward to being a part of this long-lived and highly successful series.

So, until next week, adieu...