Thursday, December 22, 2005

Happy Holidays!

From The Muir Family (and selected Sith Lords) to all visitors, readers and friends of the blog:

Our most sincere wishes for a happy, safe, and healthy holiday season with all your loved ones! May your season be merry and bright!

May the Force be with you!


I'll be back...

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 22: Atari 2600 "Video Computer System"

X-Box 360 is the big "game" system to own this 21st century holiday season, but I'll tell you what, I don't think any game system could provide me more hours of unfettered enjoyment than the one I grew up with in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the dependable, classic, Atari 2600. It was simple, elegant, easy-to-use, and fun, fun, fun.

If memory serves, my parents purchased the "Atari Video Computer System" for me and my sister in its first year of release, 1978. The idea of a video game console was so new to me, that I didn't even understand what the Atari was at first blush (I had just turned nine, go give me a break...)

But when the console was first hooked up to the TV, man, oh man! I enthusiastically became part of our nation's first generation of video-gamers. A role that took me from the Atari 2600 to the Atari 5400, to the Atari 800 computer, to Sega , to Nintendo and on and on until today. It's been an amazing journey, and the Atari 2600 was like a bicycle with training wheels...the system that started everything.

In that long ago year of 1978, I played Combat (the cartridge which came with the system...) and the most popular (and my favorite game of all time...) Space Invaders.

For those too young to remember, our nation was OBSESSED with Space Invaders for a time, this being the year after Star Wars and all. This obsession happened (and then burned out...) before the Pac Man craze that would arrive in the early 1980s, but what a time. At school, everybody was comparing high scores at Space Invaders. I remember, I was quite good at that game, and whenever I played doubles (two-player) with my father, he'd exclaim "Fly like a butterfly; sting like a bee!" I'll never forget that comment. It was the first time I'd heard it, and didn't associate it yet with Muhammad Ali.

I believe my parents also purchased Missile Command that first year we had an Atari. I still find that game absolutely addictive. Of course, it's a pretty devastating game: you must save six cities from nuclear apocalypse and bombardment (smart bombs and ICBMs).

In the Missile Command version we owned as kids, when you lost the battle, there would be a big flash of light, a sonic boom-type sound and series of nuclear explosions before the words "THE END" appeared on screen. Nice, huh? Remember, I'm of the generation that grew up with Mad Max, and Ronald - "We start bombing in five minutes" - Reagan, so nuclear apocalypse was a terrible fear for me at that age...

Over succeeding Christmas's in the Muir house, our collection of 2600 "game cartridges" multiplied to include such new hits as Asteroids, Centipede and the like.

From Activision I played games like Kaboom, Pitfall and something that I think (if I remember correctly...) was called "Night Driver." My favorite amongst the latter Atari game cartridges was probably Warlords, for which the paddles, rather than the joysticks, were utilized. Four people could play this game, and so it was a great free-for-all for me and my buddies.

All I know is, over the years, I suffered from many cases of the affliction known as "Atari Thumb." My Dad and I spent many joyous afternoon hours together after my school days (and his work days) destroying each other's tanks to the primitive graphics of "Battlezone." It was a wonderful bonding experience.

Some of my wealthier friends got into Intellivision and then Colecovision and Vectrex (the competing game systems back in those misty, cherished days of youth), but for me, Atari remained the final word. It was a reliable system (though the controllers would give out occasionally...) and an endlessly entertaining friend. Our particular game system lasted years, and I don't know what ultimately became of it, or the cartridges. Sometime in the mid 1980s, I think it got sold.

But then this past summer, my parents (who regularly frequent estate sales, yard sales and flea markets), found me a vintage Atari 2600 (still in its box) with six game cartridges (including Space Invaders, Pac Man, Combat, Super Break Out, Air-Sea Battle and Frogger), a power pack and a tv/game converter -- all for a measly eight dollars. So this year - more than 25 years after the first time I played Atari - I was back in the saddle. ,I also own a GameCube and absolutely love it (Resident Evil 4 is da bomb...). But there's something different, nostalgic and absolutely wonderful about returning to these simple games of yesteryear. Time flies when you play these games. They're still addictive...

Of course, my wife Kathryn isn't quite so sure about that. I've forced her into hours of gameplay on Space Invaders and the like since acquiring this game system from my childhood. Currently, she refuses to play Combat with me (a variation on Pong), because she says I drive her crazy, and she can't stand the beeping, whirring sounds. So if any of y'all come down to North Carolina soon and look me up, wanna play?

The Atari Video Computer System was advertised with the line on the box "more games - more fun." Indeed. The box also noted that "ATARI brings a powerful computer to your home television. The system allows you to build a game library with additional Game Programs and controllers."

We can laugh about the description of the 2600 as a "powerful computer" today, but once upon a time, it was actually state of the art. I should try to explain that to my nephews, who would no doubt laugh at this "primitive" video game system.

This year for the holidays, my parents also bought me an Atari Flashback 2 Game Console, which features forty classic Atari games (including River Raid, Pong, Pitfall, Centipede -- but no Space Invaders!) This is an ultra cool re-design of the system, featuring - as the box legend states - many of "the Games that defined a generation."

So now I have two Ataris. The original, and the much smaller, much more advanced re-imagination of the classic. So Kathryn is in for a holiday season of lots of annoying beeps and flashing lights.

I couldn't be happier. All I know is that we better have kids soon. As soon as they can press buttons, I'm getting them to play Atari with me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

TV BLOGGING: Sleeper Cell, Episode # 1

Well, I guess Showtime is really breathing down HBO's neck now. In the last year or so, shows like The L Word and Masters of Horror have been giving HBO's aging stable of original series a run for their money in terms of quality and buzz. Sex and the City is gone, The Sopranos is running out of steam, and on and on...

Sleeper Cell, a new series about an African-American FBI agent infiltrating a cabal of "holy warriors" in Los Angeles, looks likely to stoke that trend rather than curtail it. The series stars the charismatic Michael Ealy as our FBI protagonist, a man named Darwyn. That's a good choice of names, because watching the first episode, one senses he will have to be "fit" indeed to "survive" life under deep cover, inside a terrorist cell.

Anyway, in the first episode, Darwyn is released from the Federal Penitentiary at Lompoc, only to be contacted at a synagogue by an Islamic terrorist named Faris-al-Farak (a very menacing Oded Fehr). Darwyn is taken into the group's confidence on a first mission, at the same time falling in love with one terrorist's neighbor, a hottie single mom named Gail (Melissa Sagemiller) who sleeps around on the first date. Yowza!

A strange cross between 24 and Prison Break, Sleeper Cell -- at least in its first episode -- is beautifully photographed by ace cinematographer Robert Primes, and is filled with moments of pure menace and anxiety; such as when a terrorist named "Bobby" (Abdullah Habib) is punished by his fellow jihadists for boasting about their upcoming mission to a relative in Egypt. The other terrorists bury the guy up to his neck in desert sands and then throw rocks at his skull. Nice.

I'm only one episode in, and I know that the terrorists are up to no good because each sleeper cell guy has been given a vial of "military issue cipro." But Darwyn remains committed to "playing this out till the end," and even after 50 minutes, I worry for his safety; and our nation's.

While watching the first episode, I kept feeling that this show represents a sea tide shift in national politics. Isn't it interesting how fast TV and film turn a real life crisis into manufactured melodrama? I remember when, four years ago, the makers of 24 were not allowed to depict an airplane blowing up in mid-air, because of the 9/11 attacks. Then, last year, when 24 featured Islamic villains, civil liberties groups across the nation went nutso about it. In response, there was a service announcement (by Keifer Sutherland...) saying that in real life, Muslims are not all terrorists. And then there was the episode wherein two American Muslim shopkeepers defended Jack Bauer to the death against his enemies, again proving that Muslims are good citizens. This year, Sleeper Cell premieres, and what happens - I don't hear a word of complaint from anybody or any special interest group!

This must mean the War on Terror is over. Someone better tell George W. Bush to stop those NSA wiretaps...

TV BLOGGING: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 5

I'm sure Larry David gets tired of fans telling him how much they love Seinfeld. Because when push comes to shove, Curb Your Enthusiasm is sort of like Seinfeld unfiltered. The misanthropic four of Seinfeld represent elements, perhaps, of David's personality, divided liberally across several characters. Yet Curb Your Enthusiasm serves up that level of absurdity without any mitigating factors. So if you think David is funny, you'll love this series. If you think David is irritating, well, Curb Your Enthusiasm won't win any high marks from you. Larry David may just be an acquired taste...

I've watched all the previous seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm with devotion and really loved the show. I seldom failed to laugh out loud at David's anti-social, comedic tendencies. I remember some times just staring at the television, mouth hanging open. I was awed by David's seemingly endless capacity to inadvertently insult and offend those around him. Damn! I'm also a little bit in love with his much-hassled, put upon wife, Cheryl (played by Cheryl Hines).

Season Five of the series is good, to be sure, but some critical element of freshness is now gone from the mix. I know other critics have been carping about this, and I don't want to pile on, because I've always enjoyed the series so much. But, as David would say, this group of ten episodes left me feeling ehhhh.

Also, I think it would be really difficult to top the season that saw Larry David win a role in a stage production of Mel Brooks' The Producers. I experienced more winces and cringes during that batch of episodes than in any TV show since Ricky Gervais's The Office. And that's a compliment. I love it when discomfort, anxiety and humor mix on these programs...there's something realistic and downright addictive about watching people turn their lives into train wrecks.

Curb Your Enthusiasm's fifth season follows a two-part "story arc." The first story involves Larry's quest to find out if he's actually adopted. He hires a private detective, played by Mekhi Phifer, to find out. The second story involves comedian Richard Lewis, and his need of a kidney transplant. Turns out - of course - that Larry David is a perfect match. Only thing is, he doesn't want to donate a kidney and will do anything to avoid it (including hoping against hope that Lewis's cousin, Louis Lewis, will die in a coma so his organs can be transplanted...).

Both of these stories climax in an interesting - if not always inspired - fashion in the final episode of the season, "The End," which sees David meet the folks whom he believes are his biological parents: cornfed, Christians from the mid-west. Also, the kidney issue is resolved with a trip to the afterlife, but any further detail would spoil the fun.

My favorite episode of the season was the seventh installment, entitled "The Seder." This involved Larry inviting Rick Lefkowitz (The Daily Show's Rob Corddry), a convicted sex offender, to a religious dinner celebration. The other guests included a rampant conservative (and David, of course, is a progressive...), and a doctor that David suspected was stealing his newspaper every morning. As you can imagine, plenty of shame, mistakes and disasters got spread around before the half-hour was over.

Seinfeld was always famous for giving the world new catchphrases, and I think Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm is trying to do the same thing. This year, we met a character, Jeff's ex-girlfriend, who had "an unusually large vagina" ("The Ski Life") and also learned Jeff and Larry's "double transgression" theory. Maybe this stuff isn't as memorable as "master of your domain," but it's all funny nonetheless. It just isn't innovative.

Come the end of Season Five, it appeared that Larry David was about to meet his maker, and face judgment in the afterlife for all the people whom he has crossed swords with during five hysterical seasons. As David lay in a hospital bed dying, and a rabbi asked him if he wanted to make peace, the film cut to a lengthy montage of David's previous escapades on the series. This sequence had a valedictory feeling of "The End" (as the episode is titled), and again, I recalled Seinfeld, and how that series ended: with all the characters going off to the slammer after videotaping a crime, but not lifting a finger to stop it.

Here, Larry David questions his faith and heritage, and sees it restored. He dies, and returns to life. He claims to be a changed man...but we see he hasn't changed at all when he uses a handicapped bathroom. That's probably a perfect place to call it quits on Curb Your Enthusiasm: with the recognition that even a brush with death will not change Larry David's nature.

Now, I'm not saying the show should be cancelled. If it returns, I'll no doubt return for the encore. But really, how else can Larry David surprise us or keep us laughing? His "shtick" at this point is a known quantity, and so much of comedy depends on feelings of surprise and shock. If Curb Your Enthusiasm returns for a sixth season, I also hope that Cheryl will be more central a figure, like she was in the earlier seasons. She's still Larry David's best "straight man," as far as I'm concerned. The embarrassment David generates wherever he goes work best when someone close to him has to deal with it, and Cheryl Hines has mastered the slow burn. Her constant rejoinder to his insanity, "okay," speaks volumes about his nuttiness. It's a reply to cut off further debate, it's a prayer to the Lord to end her suffering, and it's always delivered with perfection.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Mind Over Matter Edition

"There is no spoon..."
-Neo, The Matrix (1999)

"You must unlearn what you have learned."
-Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

TUESDAY CATNAP # 23: What the Kitties Got for Christmas...

Well, the cats had an early Christmas celebration last night. We bought the babies home a great new toy: a fishing rod with feathers on one end, and a long, furry casting line. Lila, Ezri and Lily went ballistic over it, and we had a grand time playing with 'em. Included above are some shots of my favorite felines at play. No animals were harmed during the taking of these photographs...

Below, you can see their other "gift," (though maybe this one is really for us...), two "space age" litter boxes with hoods to keep them for making a mess

Monday, December 19, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Excalibur (1981)

The Dark Ages...

The Land was divided and without a King...

Out of those Lost Centuries Rose a Legend...

Of the Sorcerer, Merlin...

Of the Coming of a King...

Of the Sword of Power...

John Boorman's epic Arthurian legend, Excalibur (1981), begins with that on-screen legend (above), and for 140-minutes thereafter, we - the audience - are held enthralled by the stylistic storytelling of a master filmmaker at work. Held by visions of white horses, gleaming armor, and clanking swords. By the epic battles, in which blood flows like water and limbs get hacked off in a single blow from the sword of power. By the forbidden love of Guinevere and Lancelot, wherein love is described as a "mad distemper that strikes down beggar and king..."

Excalibur recounts the birth of Arthur (after the seduction/rape of his mother, the wife of a contentious Duke), the method by which Merlin spirited him away and gave him to an adopted father, and then, at last, the young squire's ascension to the throne of England after pulling the sword, Excalibur, from a stone in the forest. From there, we marvel at the heroic deeds of the "boy king," as he and his loyal knights bring peace and prosperity to the land, and share tales of their handiwork at the "Round Table."

The film takes us through Arthur's first encounter with the most noble and powerful knight in the world, Lancelot, as well as the King's marriage to the maiden Guinevere. After learning of his best friend's indiscretion with his wife, Arthur spirals into a decade-long depression, and since he and the land are always "as one," England suffers crops will grow, and pestilence sweeps over the countryside.

Desperate and searching for purpose, Arthur sends away his best knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail...a momentous failure. Meanwhile - under the King's nose - Morgana, Arthur's perverted half-sister, bears the King's evil child, Mordrid, who upon manhood wages a campaign to destroy Camelot once and for all.

Finally, when the chips are down, Arthur can count only on those whom he once considered betrayers. Guinevere (now a nun...) has sheltered the sword of power, knowing her king would one day return for it. Merlin, who was trapped in limbo long ago by Morgana's powers, is brought back to fight a final battle through the auspices of Arthur's love. And even Lancelot, now a wild man...but still a warrior dedicated to his king of long ago, returns to protect the glass and silver towers of Camelot one last time.

When I screened this film last night, I was a little shocked to see how just about everybody in the cast had gone on to become a major star. Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek) plays one of Arthur's first knights, seen initially during a joust. A very young Liam Neeson portrays the disloyal Sir Gawain. In a dastardly but memorable turn, Gabriel Byrne plays Arthur's lustful father. And then there's Helen Mirren (in kinky bra/body armor) as Morgana Le Fay, looking positively radiant. It's a strong cast, but my favorite character is Merlin, played so memorably by Nicol Williamson.

Merlin is just an amazing character...the only one of the film's dramatis personae who seems to have a wise perspective on life (and the events of the tale...) throughout. Come the climax, Arthur understands how the age of Camelot was a special time...but it is Merlin who understands all along how great men can fall, how evil can appear where it is least expected.

I know there have been other re-tellings of King Arthur's legend, from First Knight with Sean Connery and Richard Gere to last year's bomb, King Arthur, with Clive Owen, but for me, that world of knights, damsels in distress and sorcerers has never seemed more real, more tangible, than in Boorman's Excalibur. The film shines (and holds up today...) because it reveals the best of our nature (in Arthur's heroic, kingly temperament), as well as the worst (the unceasing violence, the petty jealousies, etc.), but more so because Camelot's world is rendered so convincingly. From the lady in the lake to the jousting contests, to Merlin's magical world, everything seems strangely authentic and believable.

There's something else I like too: the depiction of this Arthurian world as the new "Age of Man." Magic has a presence in this film, no doubt, but Merlin realizes his time - the time of the Gods, of dragons - is at an end. The Earth will become the ward of man. And one must hope that our leaders are always wise men like Arthur. So there's a melancholy in this work that is quite wonderful and poetic. That feel of one world passing to another is captured well.

We all understand what "Camelot" is. What it represents. The time of President John F. Kennedy, for instance, we refer to as Camelot...a special time in our country's history that didn't last nearly long enough. In our private lives, we might have a "Camelot" too...holidays spent with loved ones, time with family, and so on. The reason, I believe, that Camelot is such an important concept to man is that as a creature, man is acutely aware that great things (and indeed, all things) are fleeting. You can be living in a City on a Hill one moment, only to learn that your King is spying on your international phone calls the next.

But Excalibur - run red with the blood of the slain - is a film for the ages, because it also points out that even heroes fail sometimes in their endeavors. And those who have failed us before can still win a last battle, even after making terrible mistakes. By trying and fighting we can all create another Camelot.

Which, of course, will also be fleeting...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

The future just ain't what it used to be...

Once upon a time, our best scientific minds (not to mention our finest pulp sci-fi writers and artists...) forecast a fantastic world of glittering, art deco skyscrapers, elegant hovering machines, Byzantine flying robots, air combat from gravity-defying aircraft carriers and other wonders.

"Things to Come," we imagined and hoped.

Well, darn it, none of that happened; those imaginings are part of a "lost future." Instead, we live in a utilitarian time in which function plays more important a role than beauty...or elegance.

But imagine, if you will, that all those technological and architectural glories and wonders did come to pass.

Imagine the beauty and grandeur of the world we'd inhabit right now if they had. If you can conceive of a 1930s-style future (not unlike Coruscant in George Lucas's The Phantom Menace...) then you have a very good idea of Sky Captain's dramatic and spectacular visual appeal.

This imaginative film - conceived and created as a labor of love by first-time director Kerry Conran -- was released in theaters about a year ago, but didn't do nearly as well as expected with general audiences. I have a theory about that. Surprised? Why, you know I have a theory about everything...

Anyway, I believe that today's audiences refuse to participate in any vision of the 1930s in regards to their imaginative entertainment, and by that I mean, in particular, science fiction and fantasy films.

Exhibit A: The Rocketeer (1991) was a great superhero movie set in the 1930s, but you couldn't pay audiences to go see it.

Exhibit B: Later in the 1990s, The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996) both featured lovingly-created superhero "worlds" of the Great Depression Decade, and again, audiences stayed away in droves. You might be able to blame the perceived lack of quality of those films for their lack of popularity, but one or the other, depending on your perspective, was good enough to be a hit. I actually enjoyed both.

My so-called "anti-retro" (or pro-now-tro, if you prefer...) theory also explains the relative failure at the box office (thus far, anyway...) of Peter Jackson's 200 million dollar King Kong. Had it been set in 2005, I bet it would have grossed double what it did on Wednesday. Like Sky Captain, it imagines a world of the misty past, and asks us to come along on that nostalgic journey. I just don't think that general audiences have the patience to go there anymore...and I hate that fact. To its own detriment, America is obsessed with the new, the current, the technological, and the future. And going back to the 1930s is not something that a lot of folks want to see in their entertainment.

Which is a shame, because The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and King Kong are all magnificent efforts...amongst the finest fantasy ventures of the last twenty years, no doubt.

Sky Captain tells the story of Joe (Jude Law), his plucky reporter girlfriend, Polly Perkins (Gywynth Paltrow) and his - ahem - buddy, Frankie (Angelina Jolie), a British military officer, as they attempt to uncover the secret behind the disappearance of several prominent world scientists.

The journey to find the missing scientists leads from Manhattan to Nepal (and Shangri-La!), to a "robot master" named Totenkompf, a disenchanted genius (and Wizard of Oz-type figure...) who has been utilizing his futuristic technology to steal the world's power generators and other critical resources. Turns out he's building a giant space ark on a prehistoric island in the Pacific. That ark that will bring a new day for the planet, an opportunity to start over...but also the last day for humanity! So it's Joe, our Sky Captain, to the rescue...guns blazing...

From the opening shot, of a dirigible called Hindenburg III docking at the top of the Empire State Building, to the final locale - a primitive jungle world inspired by the lush lost world of 1933's King Kong - Sky Captain is a visual feast like nothing you've ever seen, an excavation of a future we never saw, but once dreamed of.

From the stalwart sidekick engineer named Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) to the Howard Hawks-style romantic banter between Joe and Polly, Sky Captain creates not just a lost world of 1930s-style futurism, but a nostalgic nod to the world of 1930s filmmaking...a time of black & white, fedoras, witty dialogue, "Yellow Menace" (here represented by Bai Ling's robotic assassin...) and fear of a coming tide of fascism. From script to special effects, The World of Tomorrow is splendidly realized.

I just bought the film and watched it on DVD, and I admired it even more the second time around. I saw the film originally in a "cheap seats" theater, and I don't think enough light was going through the imagery, making it appear overly dark. Glorious on DVD, the film is everything I would want in a "nostalgic" fantasy. It features charming, romantic characters; it has an innocence to it (like the original Star Wars). and my gosh, the movie includes armies of flying robots (resembling Gort...) that shoot laser beams out of their eyes. The sound effects come from the 1953 War of the Worlds! What's not to love.

If you ask me, the world needs more men (and more movies...) like Sky Captain.