Saturday, December 03, 2005

Midwest Book Review likes Singing a New Tune!

The good folks at Applause Theatre and Cinema Books sent me this review of my new book, Singing a New Tune: the Re-Birth of the Modern Film Musical from MBR Bookwatch:

College-level students of the film musical will want to make SINGING A NEW TUNE: THE REBIRTH OF THE MODERN FILM MUSICAL FROM EVITA TO DE-LOVELY AND BEYOND essential to understanding the new film musical. Critics around the world have claimed the movie musical is a dead art form - but though it no longer commands the center of media attention, it's by no means dead as film expert John Kenneth Muir presents in his story of the film musical from the early 1990s to modern times.

Over a dozen musicals from the last decade are analyzed to explain how artists have interpreted and imbibed such musicals with new life, using psychology, sexuality and more to revive the art from. Interviews with notable directors and screenwriters round out the analysis, providing a thorough, critical review of the state of the modern film musical...

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "Planet of Fire"

This week, on the cult kid-vid show from the 1970s, Space Academy, Tee-Gar Soom (Brian Tochi) experiments with a "cryotron," a device that will ultimately be able to "cool down hot planets." But Tee Gar is also due for a vacation, so he leaves the Academy and doesn't learn that his experimental cryotron device (which looks like a ray gun with a back pack... has a fatal flaw: the frozen objects become unstable and explode.

With Loki and Peepo, the oblivious Tee Gar heads to the asteroid of Daleus to do further tests on the cryotron, only to see the potential weapon stolen by a strange, solitary giant named Draymen. Draymen abducts freezes Peepo with the Cryotron, and then needs Tee Gar's help to restore the robot to normal. The only thing that can save the diminutive droid is -- wait for it -- moist heat. "Moist heat?" worries Laura, who catches up with Tee-Gar and Loki, alongside Chris, "where do we find that?" Fortunately, a hot spring on the planet surface gets the job done.

At the end of the day, Peepo is saved in the nick of time, and Draymen returns to the Academy as a new friend. Tee-Gar promises to continue work on his freezing device.

"All great men have suffered disappointment," advises Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris), "from Galileo to the Wright Brothers..."

And that's the sermon for the day. There's also a lesson about friendship here. Draymen is confused that Peepo's buddies risked their lives to rescue him. "Maybe the way you act, you don't deserve them [friends]," Peepo suggests, and so Draymen reforms his nasty ways.

As usual Loki has the best line in the episode. "Robots have all the fun..." he complains. To which my wife replied, "that's true...because they don't have to watch episodes of Space Academy..."

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Weinstein Company to re-make 1980s TV series The Equalizer

Don't know if you've seen this already, but is reporting that a remake of the popular CBS mid-1980s series The Equalizer (which starred Edward Woodward) is now in the works.

Here's the link and a brief excerpt:

The Weinstein Company has acquired the rights to develop and produce a feature film based on the original hit television series The Equalizer in which Robert McCall, a veteran covert operative seeking redemption for his darker exploits, quits a CIA-like agency and puts an advertisement in the newspaper that reads; Got a problem? Odds against you? Call The Equalizer. The announcement was made today by Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company.

My thoughts on this news are mixed. I loved the original series...particularly Woodward's performance. I watched The Equalizer religiously as a teenager with my Mom on Wednesday nights, so I have fond memories of it. But look at the wretched job that Hollywood did with Dukes of Hazzard and Bewitched just this summer. And Night Stalker - a re-make of Kolchak - got axed by ABC after airing just six episodes. So, is re-making The Equalizer really a good idea given the industry's recent track record?

On the other hand, I think the idea could work, because the concept of the show (an ex-covert agent helps regular folk...) is pretty damn good. But the real question is this: who can Hollywood get to fill Woodward's shoes? I mean, the last thing I want to see is some young hunk as Agent McCall. No one under 45, please. That would suck royally, if like Stuart Townsend got cast or something. Instead, we need an "elder statesman"-type actor who brings gravitas to the role and is physically fit to boot. Right off the top of my head, I imagine Sean Connery or Patrick Stewart in the role. And if the producers want to skew a hair younger, how about Timothy Dalton? Just my thoughts at this early stage...

Anyone out there have any suggestions about who should play the movie version of The Equalizer?

CULT TV BLOGGING: Veronica Mars, Starting Season 1

People I know and respect have been raving about this TV series for months. And then I read not long ago how Buffy & Firefly creator Joss Whedon had called Veronica Mars his absolute passion, and a series that impressed him. Since I hold a high opinion of Whedon and his contributions to the medium of TV, I figured I really had no excuse anymore for not trying this series out.

So, on a whim, I ordered the complete first season box set of Veronica Mars (currently in its second season on UPN). The set arrived yesterday morning, and with anticipation, I watched the first three episodes with my wife last night, expecting great things.

I was not disappointed.

The "pilot" and first two episodes of this series met -- and exceeded -- all my expectations. How often can you say that about a TV show these days? Frankly, I'm kind of flabbergasted. Here's a series where the writing is smarter, snappier and wittier than anything else on the air. I wasn't prepared for a program - in the first friggin' episode, no less - to vault over ALL the writing I've seen on TV this year so far (and I'm including Surface, Invasion, Threshold, Supernatural, Night Stalker, Ghost Whisperer, Prison Break, Reunion, Boston Legal, My Name is Earl, even Lost and Medium).

Yes, I know I'm in the early stages with Veronica Mars here, but it's pretty rare for a series to come out of the box swinging so hard, and finding a confident narrative voice so quickly...

The DVD box describes Veronica Mars as "a little it Buffy. A little bit Bogart," and I think that's pretty apt. The series is set in and around Neptune High School- a playground for the very rich kids of privilege in California. There, cynical (but sweet...) Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) suffers under the weight of her new status of "unpopular" after being dissed by the popular kids in school, including her former boyfriend, Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn). You see, Duncan's sister, Lilly, was murdered last year, and Veronica's dad (formerly the Sheriff, now a private eye...) fingered Duncan's dad, billionaire Jake Kane, as the culprit. Protecting its own, the town-at-large didn't care for the accusations, and Veronica's Dad, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) was thrown out of office in a recall election. Veronica was given the option of renouncing her father and his beliefs to stay popular and "cool," or joining in him in exile. She chose exile.

Now, Veronica and Keith work together in his detective agency, solving petty, sleazy cases about adultery and the like. But Veronica still wants to know what really happened to Lilly, as the case was never closed to anyone's satisfaction (despite a convenient arrest by the new sheriff). This is doubly important to Veronica because her Mom split town during the hassle with Keith, and somehow, she's also involved....

I'm no push-over as a critic (see my reviews on the blog of Threshold, Supernatural, and Ghost Whisperer, plus certain episodes of Lost and Night Stalker if you don't believe me...), but Veronica Mars has me totally entranced at this stage. "Pilot," "Credit Where Credit's Due" and "Meet John Smith" all move with grace and humor on a carefully layered double-track. On one narrative track is the sort of "case of the week," and on the other is the continuing story-arc about Lilly and her death. The mix is just right, and everything is held together by creator Rob Thomas's noir sensibility and the performance of Kristen Bell as Veronica.

And I have no reservations about stating this: Veronica Mars herself is a great character. She's Nancy Drew with attitude, and - like Sarah Michelle Gellar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Bell brings an interesting and potent combination of strength and vulnerability to her performances. I find it interesting that both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars take as series leads' a "post-popularity" high school girl. That is, a girl who has been inside "the in-crowd" and ultimately rejected that shallow life, choosing instead a life of individuality. This choice (and it is a choice, mind you...) isn't easy, and both Buffy and Veronica take their lumps at school because they have moved outside the confines of the popular kids, the accepted norms. But what both characters have found in choosing self over group politics is an inner strength, one that can never be found by "joining," but only through, ultimately, doing your own thing in your own way.

Buffy and Veronica are thus both strong role models for not just girls, but any high school age kids going through the travails of high school. But I'm not addicted to Veronica Mars because it "teaches" good lessons or is morally valuable, but because the series is so damn compelling. Who doesn't love a good mystery?!

Again, I'm only three episodes in, but all those people who recommended this series are absolutely right. This is really, really good stuff. Can't wait to watch more. One more thing: why did I wait so long to catch up with this series? Well - mea culpa - I knew that Veronica Mars was set in high school, and the last thing I wanted to do was get into another teeny-bopper show. You know, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I get tired of all the "teen" programs on the WB, and so something about the idea of Veronica Mars and ANOTHER HIGH SCHOOL SHOW just turned me off. Let me just state for the record, if you're struggling with that same concern -- don't. The "teen" factor on this show is small; you won't be annoyed or irritated once. The performances and writing are both outstanding, and the high school as a setting is used cleverly and humorously...and not annoyingly. Just wanted to bring that up.

Veronica Mars, the complete first season, is currently available on DVD.

CULT TV FRIDAY FLASHBACK # 17: Now and Again (1999-2000)

Love the series; but hate that damn title.

Does anyone out there recall Now and Again, a one-season wonder that aired on ABC at the turn of the last century, created by Glenn Gordon Caron, the auteur who brought us both Moonlighting and the current hit, Medium? If not, you're really missing something special. For Now and Again wasn't merely a good sci-fi show, but probably one of the fifty best in history, a real overlooked treasure.

Never heard of it? Well, that's probably because of that overly generic, simple title. It's not Once & Again, nor Time & Again. It's Now & Again. Got that? Right. Let's move on.

The tale depicted in Now and Again commenced as 45-year old Michael Wiseman (a role essayed by John Goodman) was told he was losing his job at Empire Insurance to a scheming little, 27-year old backstabber played by Chad Lowe. After a night on the town drinking with his old buddy and co-worker, Roger (Gerrit Graham), Wiseman headed home from Manhattan to his home in the suburbs, only to be accidentally pushed in front of a speeding subway -- and killed. Thus, Michael left behind a devastated family that included his beautiful but sharp-tongued wife, Lisa (Margaret Colin) and their troubled adolescent daughter, Heather (Heather Matazzaro).

But Wiseman's untimely demise was only the start of a very strange odyssey. In fact, following his death, Wiseman's brain was subsequently transplanted into an artificial body (Eric Close of Dark Skies), just moments after his death. Working for the government, the stern but brilliant scientist, Dr. Theodore Morris (Dennis Haysbert of 25) had thus engineered the world's first "super soldier," a hero in perfect physical condition. Only problem was that Morris required a living man's brain to control that perfectly-designed body. Formerly a hefty 292 lbs, the resurrected Wiseman - now conscious in a buff and healthy body of 25 years of age and a lean 172 lbs.- was delighted to know he had been given a second chance.

But there was a catch (isn't there always?) to his new life. The U.S. government insisted that Michael could no longer have any contact whatsoever with his beloved wife and daughter, on penalty of their deaths! For Michael, this accommodation was worse than damnation in Hell. A family man to his core, he was still very much in love with Lisa, and through the course of the series, he struggled to see her from time-to-time between missions saving the world from terrorists. Meanwhile, Lisa faced crises of her own. Through the treachery of Chad Lowe's character, she would not receive Michael's insurance money, meaning she could lose her house. So Lisa had to get a job. She also had to wrangle Heather, and face the prospect of being single at 40.

"Caron uses sci-fi to delve into the depths of familial love and loss," wrote Allan Johnson in Cinescape (March/April 2000) while covering Now & Again, "That such diverse themes work so well together is a tribute to Caron's talents a s a storyteller."

Writing in Variety, Ray Richmond noted that Now and Again was "quirky," "mesmerizing", "addictive" and "so wildly original it defies conventional categorization" (September 20, 1999, page 40). People Magazine called the program "stylish, clever and unpredictable," and Dr. Howard Margolin, host of Destinies the Voice of Science Fiction noted in my book, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television that Now and Again was "as much human drama as it was straight action adventure. Probably more so."

Now and Again lasted only 22 episodes on CBS, and the impatient network pre-empted the show nearly constantly, for such mundane offerings as a Candid Camera "special" and the Miss USA Pageant. Worse, it scheduled the series against Regis Philbin's powerhouse ABC game show, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. Despite all the great reviews, Now and Again was hard-to-find on the schedule (it aired - sometimes - on Friday night), and hard-to-remember because of the generic-sounding title.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't a brilliant superhero show; the next evolution of 1970s programming like The Six-Million Dollar Man and 1980s affairs like RoboCop, which, like Now & Again, focused on an artificial man with "super" powers. But the superhero aspect, though ultimately rewarding, was never as interesting on Now & Again as the romantic and emotional angles -- which were positively heart-wrenching. Michael dealt with jealousy in "On the Town," when Lisa began to date, for instance. In "By the Light of the Moon," Michael found himself falling for the lovely young Dr. Taylor (24's Reiko Aylesworth...) only to feel as though he was cheating on the wife he still loved. The very set-up of the series, which saw a middle-aged man literally replaced by a younger model, concerned such topics as ageism, and as viewers, e wondered, could a middle-aged suburban housewife find love with the young Michael Wiseman, or rather his alias, Michael Newman? And if so, would she be threatening her own safety (and her daughter's?) I hasten to add that the series ended on a tense cliffhanger note, with Michael escaping from Dr. Morris, grabbing up his family, and going on the run. It galls me to know that we will never know what happened next...

As I wrote in the superhero book, the very names that Michael goes by in Now & Again, (Wiseman and Newman) spell out the central thematic tenets of Now & Again. In exchanging an older, experienced physical body (and appearance) for that of a young man's, the wise man had become the new one. And of course, "man" is the suffix of many-a-superhero. Spider-Man, Super-Man, Aqua-Man, Bat-Man, etc. Now & Again offered audiences the blending of Wise-Man and New-Man, the heroic (and fantastic) combination of a learned, accomplished, experienced mind with a young, spectacularly fit body. This was an artistic conceit, and one that served the series quite well over time.

Alas, Now & Again isn't available on either video or DVD today, and the Sci-Fi Channel only seems to air it periodically. But the series is soooo worth looking for. Seek it out. You'll be surprised how touching and inventive Now & Again remains.

TV BLOGGING: Invasion: "Origin of Species"

Invasion finally kicked things up to high gear last week. After literally months of doling out little clues and tiny hints piecemeal , suddenly, the series went ballistic and begn explaining things. And I must say, "Origin of Species" was a great episode (although Surface beat Invasion to the punch with a discussion of "invasive species" several months ago...)

This week, Sheriff Tom Underlay (William Fichtner) inched closer to being exposed, as his deputy figured out the trick Tom pulled on Mariel last week (substituting the corpse of an already-dead woman in the swamp, so Mariel would think she was wrong about seeing her own body in the water...). But then, the deputy, a one-armed veteran, was abducted by one of the glowing yellow aliens, and the audience witness at least part of the process that occurs when alien meets man. And, no surprise here - it's icky. With lots of organic tubes penetrating human skin. It looked painful, and the special effects were quite good. Imagine being trapped underwater, unable to breathe, with one of those giant alien rib-cages enrircling around you like a cage...

Then, Dave got kidnapped by two mysterious folk (an ex-CIA fellow and an Iraqi woman...) who told him and Russell that "strange lights" have accompanied hurricanes in Cuba and Brazil, among other places. And that people in each location were "changed" -- a change that resulted in mass suicide and the murder of children. They suggested that Russell needs to worry more about Mariel (and her exposure to his kids...), and that this time, in Homestead, the strangely-altered humans are reacting more "normally." Which makes me think that the aliens have been attempting this "invasion of the body snatchers" gambit for some time, and only now is their technique perfected (or close to perfected...)

There's still more to learn here, but Invasion just took a giant step forward in explaining some of the mysteries of Homestead, Florida. Can't wait for the next installment...

New Column up at Far Sector

My December "Transmissions Media" column is now live over on Far Sector along with the latest edition of the on-line mag. You can access my piece here. Regular readers of this blog will recognize elements of it: this is my pulling-together of the 2005-2006 TV season so far (as it applies to the genre). In other words, a report card of a kind at the half way point.

Here's an excerpt:

The TV season is half-over, and the “genre invasion” I wrote about in this space a few months ago is marching forward. There have been some casualties in this campaign, to be certain, but science fiction and horror on TV continue making significant in-roads with the networks, sometimes with surprising success.

The first genre casualty of the 2005-2006 season was ABC’s Thursday night drama, Night Stalker, a glitzy re-make of the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker series from 1974. Only six episodes of the series aired (though nine were produced), and ABC had the audacity to rip the program off the air in the middle of an unresolved two-parter called “The Source. “

Thursday, December 01, 2005

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 19: Playsets for Action Figures: The 1970s

Action figures need somewhere to live. That's just a fact of life. I mean, you can take 'em outside to explore "real" terrain on location (and risk soiling their spiffy uniforms...), but at the end of the day, you want your plastic figures to have a place to hang their hats.

And that's one reason why I've always loved action-figure playsets. Also, of course, if we're talking about TV/movie related playsets, these toys tend to recreate the sets of favorite productions. In other words, the bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek, the Death Star in Stars Wars or the like. It's not a lot of fun owning action figures and having nowhere to billet them.

The first playset I ever was given (and which I still own...) was indeed Mego's Starship Enterprisee bridge playset from the year 1976. This blue-hued set housed the tall Mego Star Trek figures from the 1970s (Kirk, Spock, Scottie, Uhura, "Bones" and "Klingon"), and featured a lot of goodies for intrepid and youthful Trekkies, including a helm console (with two stools...), a changeable viewscreen display, and, of course, a Captain's Chair. Of course, the best feature in this set is no doubt the spinning transporter beam! Plug a figure in to the transporter chamber, spin the switch, and press a button (red or green...) to beam that crewman down!

And where, pray tell, would you beam that landing party down to? Well, one option was Mego's "Mission to Gamma VI" playset, a recreation of the stone God Vaal from the second season Star Trek episode, "The Apple." This unique set, molded in sandy-yellow and green, came with a trap door at the foot of the monument and a two-story cave interior that is so cool you have to see it to believe it! Unfortunately, I know longer either the trap door or the backing behind Vaal, or even the alien accessories. Heck, at least I still have part of this toy. I can take solace in that.

As a kid, I also loved the Space:1999 Moon Base Alpha playset from Mattel, also released in the mid-1970s, and featuring a "control room and launch monitor center." Unlike the Star Trek bridge, this Main Mission Playset came with decals depicting actual clips of Eagles and space battles from the show, which to me made it seem more authentic. The 1999 playset also comes with a central "star flash" computer which, I suppose, tries to ape the look of Alpha's comm-post computer pillars. Okay, I'll buy that. This set housed the three Mattel action figures from 1999 (Commander Koenig, Victor Bergman, and Helena Russell) and also nicely provided them authentic-looking minimalist furniture (a chair and coffee table...)

I also collected Planet of the Apes playsets from Mego over the years. In its heyday, Planet of the Apes toys were very popular, and I had the treehouse and other neat stuff. Today, I'm left with the Forbidden Zone set (a broken down thing called "Judson's Garage") and a few accessories like the catapult and wagon. But damn, you can't touch this stuff on E-Bay. It's too bloody expensive.

When Star Wars arrived in 1977, action figure playsets went into overdrive. I don't think I could possibly list all the ones I've owned, played with and enjoyed over the years. But let me try: there's the Death Star, the Rebel Attack Base on Hoth (from the Empire Strikes Back) and the Ewok Village from Return of the Jedi, just to name three. But Kenner also released a Droid Factory, the Mos Eisley Cantina, the Star Destroyer bridge (replete with Darth Vader's cubicle...), and even Yoda's house on Dagobah (complete with quick sand!). At one point in time, I owned all of these sets, though I pretty much played them out until they were trash.

The year 1979 brought Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Mego released another Enterprise bridge playset, this time for the 3 inch figures from the movie. Alas, this flimsy plastic toy was not very well constructed, and was held together only by little adhesive squares that lose their "stickiness" after awhile. You can see pictured what's left of mine. It ain't pretty. There were always rumors of a "Vulcan shuttle" playset to attach to this bridge, but I've never seen it. Not on E-Bay. Nowhere...

Mego also built a similarly crappy set for the 3 inch Buck Rogers in the 25th Century figures. It was called the Starfighter Command Center, and it too was made of flimsy plastic, those bloody adhesive squares and decals. Still, I love this playset, despite its generally poor construction... I just can't help myself.

Anyone out there collect playsets for their action figures? Which ones did you have as a kid, and do you still have 'em?

TV REVIEW: Lost: "What Kate Did"

"Are we saved?" Sawyer asked Kate on last night's episode of Lost. "No, Sawyer, not yet," Kate replied. Now there's an exchange just loaded with symbolism, don't you think? As the episode "What Kate Did" revolves around Kate's murder of her stepfather Wayne, "being saved" is a pertinent point, isn't it? Could it be that all the folks stranded on the island are waiting to be "saved?" in the Biblical sense? That somehow they are sinners, relegated to a purgatory of sorts? I realize that explanation's been bandied about for a long time on the Net, but either the writers were playing with us, or that dialogue had a big, fat double meaning. You decide.

One thing I learned from last night's episode: Jack ain't gay. (I had kinda speculated about that, given how the character always retreats when Kate gets physical with him...) Instead, Jack got wacked out, firewood-chopping jealous when a feverish Sawyer blurted out that he's in love with Kate. Nice to see things heating up. The Jack-Kate kiss last night was good, but the Sawyer-Kate kiss last season was better (and hotter). Sorry, Jack. I think you're going to end up with Ana Lucia...

Overall, "What Kate Did" was a good episode of Lost. If you've been reading my posts on the series this season, you know of my increasing ennui with the lengthy character flashbacks. This one, however, didn't bother me, perhaps because there was new information here; not just re-hash (like Michael's flashback; or Hurley's). Instead, we finally know - as the title suggests - exactly what Kate did. Good for Lost. Now move on.

What I enjoyed more than Kate's flashbacks was the meeting of the island's two most enigmatic (and spiritual?) characters, John Locke and Mr. Eko (sp?). "Don't mistake coincidence for fate," Eko warned Locke, and I thought that was an interesting point to bring up, given Locke's bent. More genuinely interesting was the discovery of the missing "spliced" film, which reveals (at least partly...) what should occur if the numbers are not entered into the computer. Another "incident." Oh boy, that sounds scary!

Also, the Dharma film warns against using the computer for any purpose other than typing in those bloomin' numbers. So guess what Michael does as the hour ends? Yep, he types "hello" into the computer at another prompt reading "hello." And then...he learns...

...he's communicating with Walt.

Damn, every time I think I'm out of Lost, it reels me back in. Great show. Every week.

Writer Interview: Alec Worley, author of Empires of the Imagination

Recently, I had the great pleasure of discovering Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to The Lord of the Rings, a new reference book published by McFarland.

Written by Alec Worley, this book is a scholarly text devoted to the study of fantasy film. I noted in my review of the book for NCFLIX that the author undertook a difficult task, because even the very definition of "fantasy" is not settled. Yet what I discovered upon reading is that Mr. Worley had more than done his homework. In fact, he had worked carefully not only to succinctly define cinematic fantasy, but also provide a fascinating, dispassionate discourse on the subject. Empires of the Imagination is thus a stimulating and worthwhile read (and I recommend it.)

I recently had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Alec Worley on the subject of his book, and fantasy in film.

MUIR: Let's start at the beginning. How and when did you become motivated to write Empires of the Imagination?

WORLEY: Well, I was writing for a British horror magazine called Shivers, and the editor cautiously suggested that we might write a film-book together. He came up with the idea of a book about fantasy films, one that didn't include horror and science-fiction as part of its remit, as is usually the case. The only problem was coming up with a workable definition of fantasy that would encompass everything from The Grinch to Clash of the Titans. So I did a bit of brainstorming myself. Luckily I owned the only three serious books that seemed to exist on the subject (Peter Nicholls' Fantastic Cinema, John Clute and John Grant's Encyclopaedia of Fantasy and David Pringle's The Definitive Illustrated Guide to Fantasy), so I built on what I agreed with from each and came up with a theory that at least made sense to me. I then whaled on it with every argument and example I could think of, trying to tear it apart from every angle. Once I was satisfied the idea was still in one piece and would therefore carry an entire book, I pitched it to David who generously let me run off with it on my own.

MUIR: Let's cover some vital stats. How many films did you ultimately watch to write the book? How long did creating the book take from start to finish? And how difficult was it finding a publisher interested in the topic?

WORLEY: If I didn't have to watch all those movies, if I'd had a heftier reviews file to hand when I started, I probably would have finished the book within a year. But I must have gone through about 600 films or more, and had to be very selective about what I watched since by then I was working to a contract and time was now a factor. In the end it took about three years from start to finish, about one-and-a-half of which I was working nights at a reel assembly plant, splicing together those commercials you see at the start of a movie.

As for the publisher, I'd tried pretty much everyone in the UK, most of whom I'm still waiting to hear back from. The general feeling was the project was too whimsical for the academics and too thoughtful for everyone else. Then I approached editor Stephen Jones (of Best New Horror-fame) at a convention and asked if he could recommend a publisher. He asked if I wanted to make money, or if I wanted a proper book. I sensibly chose the latter and he put me onto McFarland, who have been magnificently supportive and professional throughout the whole thing. I really can't sing their praises enough.

MUIR: Discuss, if you will, some of the reasons why fantasy films as a genre have, for much of their 100 year history, been "ghettoized," as you put it? How has that changed today, or has it?

WORLEY: Fantasy always seems to have been taboo in western culture. In eastern cinema, fantasy has always been regarded as serious subject matter, from Germany's Die Nibelungen to Indian "mythologicals" like DG Phalke's Raja Harischandra. In the west we tend to see the genre more as a vehicle for whimsy, special effects and escapism, although some filmmakers have worked this to their advantage. Soviet filmmakers in the 40s, for example, utilized fairy tale to smuggle political satire past the Communist censors.

Here in the UK, the BBC ran a televised literary survey a few years back called The Big Read, which was won by Lord of the Rings (not surprisingly, since the book had topped a similar contest a few years before, and the publicity machine for the Return of the King movie was in full flight before the final result was televised). The response from the critics just about made my head explode with rage, the utter ignorance of these learned intellectuals as to just what fantasy is, what it can do, and what it has done. For a similar reason I find it difficult to understand Philip Pullman when he says he doesn't write fantasy.

The general consensus here was that fantasy begins and ends with Tolkien, anything like it that's any good has to go by another name. (One critic imaginatively defined His Dark Materials as "metaphysical fabulism.") The idea that fantasy equals mere escapism is crucially - only half the story. Many fantasy narratives begin with a character motivated by a wish to escape the pressures of the real world, but what the hero learns (in intelligent fantasy films like Wizard of Oz and Labyrinth) is that escape from reality is actually impossible. The point of embarking upon fantasy is to return to reality with a change in one's perception, so that you may live more in accord with the irresistible flow of life.

However, with the success of Lord of the Rings and given the response to movies like Narnia and Harry Potter, I believe these will probably only cement the negative view, unless both sides of the court, both fans and critics, achieve some kind of wider recognition of what the genre is and does. Tastes need to broaden on both sides, I think.

MUIR: You discuss the narrative strategies of the fantasy film in the book. Without giving too much away, could you delineate a few of those strategies here for our readers, with an example of each? (I think this is fascinating stuff.)

WORLEY: Well the way I see it fantasy cinema can be placed along a line spanning from documentary realism to avant-garde expressionism (by the way, I make absolutely no claims that literature or oral storytelling can be understood in the same way). It's an idea I borrowed from Louis Gianetti's book Understanding Movies. Basically I would place expressionistic types of story at one end of the scale and realistic stories at the other. As I put it in the book, the closer a film falls towards realism, the more its fantasy elements will be depicted realistically; the closer a film falls towards expressionism, the more its realistic elements will be distorted fantastically.

And here lies the four (well, five really) kinds of fantasy film. At the furthest reaches of expressionism lies pure surrealism (movies such as Bunuel's L'Age d'or), in which reality as we know it holds no more sway than it would in a dream. Fairy Tale (think Edward Scissorhands) sits the next step up towards realism. Here events are organised into a proper narrative but take place in a protean world shaped by the dictates of a God-like storyteller. Sitting dead centre in the realism/expressionism scale there's earthbound fantasy (It's a Wonderful Life), where the worlds of fantasy and reality invade each other. As we move away towards realism the forces of magic (the defining stuff of fantasy itself) becomes regimented more and more by the kinds of laws that affect our own world. Here we find Heroic Fantasy (Conan the Barbarian that's Barbarian, guys, not Destroyer, the crappy sequel everyone mistakes it for). This genre covers the exploits of superheroes like Hercules, Sinbad and Indiana Jones. Lastly, at the furthest reaches of realism, we have Epic Fantasy (Lord of the Rings). This is the most "realistic" breed of fantasy, realistic in that the magic within it is carefully disciplined to create the illusion of a living breathing world.

The theory's rather more involved than this, and there is a great deal of cross-pollination. The Harry Potter movies, for example, are part Fairy Tale, part Earthbound and part Epic. The important thing is not to see this as a set of pigeon holes, rather a sort of "spotter's guide to fantasy motifs," helping viewers and (it would be my fondest wish) writers and filmmakers to identify and understand the genre's components.

It's not about me trying to force my opinion upon everyone else, it's about (hopefully) generating some kind of serious debate on the subject.

MUIR: I thought that "Locating Fantasy" was a brilliant introduction to the book, and that you very carefully and thoughtfully defined fantasy in this section. How difficult was it to come up with that particular definition, and how would you say it eventually came to serve your survey? Were you constantly tweaking, or did you always have a destination in mind?

WORLEY: My definition of fantasy has always been that magic has to be responsible for all the weird stuff in a story as opposed to science. I really donÂ’t mean to be glib, but it's always seemed obvious to me, ever since I was a kid. It was the difference between Jason and the Argonauts and Godzilla. The moment you introduce science into what is essentially a fantasy story you change its entire outlook. Just look at how Lucas destroyed Star Wars with the revelation that the spiritual centre of the original trilogy (the Force) is actually nothing more than a rare blood group. Way to go, George.

Anyway, as I said before, I defined my argument and then tried to beat the crap out of it, reading everything I could, trying to find a chink, trying to contradict my theory. I don't know if you guys are familiar with Blackadder, a historical comedy Richard Curtis and Ben Elton wrote for the BBC in the 80s, but in one episode Robbie Coltrane plays Dr Johnson (author of the first English dictionary), who has a breakdown when someone mentions the word sausage, the one word he forgot to include in his book. Well, a friend of mine dedicated his life to finding what he calls "the Blackadder Sausage," the one example or movie that will bring my argument crashing down. Thankfully, he's still looking.

I wrote the Locating Fantasy chapter first and pretty much didn't touch it again. It was really quite spooky how fluently Empires came together after that, as if the book had already been figured out right down to details I hadn't even thought of, and all I had to do was write it all down.

MUIR: What would you say is your favourite type of fantasy film? In fact, what is your favourite fantasy film and why? Least favourite and why?

WORLEY: Of all the sub-genres I've really got a thing for Heroic Fantasy, probably because it's the most underrated and underexplored. It's the real outlaw of the pack, dealing as it does in the masculine psyche. Writers have done interesting things with this genre, Michael Moorcock's Elric and Pat Mills'
Slaine comics for example, but on film the genre hasn't quite got over Robert E. Howard yet. As for individual films, I could go on and on, but I'll give a quick run down. Neil Jordan's Company of Wolves has a weird magic about it that I find endlessly fascinating, along with Jan Svankmajer's Alice and Tony Harrison's Prometheus. I'm a sucker for goth kitsch like Edward Scissorhands, The Crow and The Corpse Bride, although I loathed Tim Burton's Willy Wonka.

Alain Resnais's Last Year in Marienbad and Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete and Orphee are clearly masterpieces, but I'm not sure the're quite loveable enough to be anyone's "favourites." I think Time Bandits (next to Brazil) is probably the best thing Terry Gilliam has ever done. The Golden Voyage is my favourite Sinbad and The Barbarian my favourite Conan. (If only Milius would put together a proper director's cut) There's also a French film I really like called Brotherhood of the Wolf, which in many ways epitomises the sensual texture of Heroic Fantasy.

I cry like a little girl with a skinned knee at Wizard of Oz, A Guy Named Joe, Field of Dreams, Big and Watership Down and for entirely different reasons at Dungeons and Dragons and Ator the Fighting Eagle. Heroic Fantasy also probably has the largest concentration of stinkers, from Thor the Conqueror to The Son of Hercules in The Land of Darkness, movies too dumb to even laugh at. I grew up loving The Neverending Story, but came to loathe it, and the same goes for Ridley Scott's Legend. As for Lord of the Rings I think they're not without flaws (the dwarf jokes are dreadful), but really the very best adaptations we could possibly have hoped for. Considering Hollywood's idea of fantasy at the time of their making was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, we should be thankful we never ended up with Kevin Sorbo as Aragorn.

MUIR: I notice you comment in the book on the difference between critical analysis and fan boy ardour. Was this a difficult line for you to walk while composing the text? Did personal preference color any of your reviews?

WORLEY: I was completely disciplined on this score. There are too many film-books out there on similar subjects that just gush and reminisce rather than analyse. I want the fantasy genre to be taken seriously, and in order to do that every film had to be looked at with a cold, critical eye, even when that movie was an old friend. I didn't deliberately set out to upset the fan consensus, just give a balanced view and as a result I hope I've given a fresh perspective.

MUIR: Lastly, what's your next project and when can readers look forward to it?

WORLEY: Several irons in several fires at the moment. I'm always guarded about future projects as I don't want to look like a dolt should they never come about. Aside from more film journalism (I've just done a couple of reviews for, I've got some short fiction and several comics projects on the boil (one of them a tribute to Dr Seuss about a flesh-eating zombies) and I'm currently putting some proposals together, one for a film book another for a children's book. Hopefully at least one of them will come to flower next year.

I want to thank Alec Worley for speaking with me on the subject of his book, and film fantasy. I wish him all the best with his future endeavours, and would just like to remind everybody that Empires of the Imagination is now available. You can pick up a copy at
McFarland's web site. Mr. Worley has given fantasy fans a great place to start (or renew...) debate on a genre now on the ascent. He's set the terrain for the discussion, and now it's up to readers to take it from there...

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 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 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 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. 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! 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 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. "'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 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.