Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween!!!

Masters of Horror Season Two: "The V-Word."

In, "The V-Word," Masters of Horror's second season gets it's most mainstream (and in some senses, the scariest...) episode yet. Tobe Hooper's "The Damned Thing" is a deeply disturbing look at the cycle of familial violence repeated from one generation to another, and John Landis's superlative "Family" gazes at the underbelly of modern McMansion suburbia. I don't think "The V-Word" sub-text is quite so deep or spot-on...though there's a running comparison in Ernest Dickerson's episode to video game violence and "real life" violence that is worth mentioning.

No matter. "The V-Word" is chill-inducing. I believe it to be the most beautifully filmed (and stylish) of the MOH 2.0 episodes I've seen thus far, almost literally a "haunted house" tour of darkness and terror (which makes it appropriate viewing for Halloween...).

The tale finds two college students, Justin (Branden Naden) and Kerry (Arjay Smith), at loose ends one night. They decide to alleviate their boredom with video games by visiting an ominous local funeral home, tellingly named Collinswood (a sideways reference to the vampire family in Dark Shadows). What they find in that ghastly, dimly lit funeral home is terrifying. A real life, yellow-toothed vampire (played with gusto by Michael Ironside...) has killed everyone inside, but is still hungry for more. Kerry gets bitten by the vampire (or, more accurately, he gets his throat torn out...) and then he turns Justin into a creature of the night. But Justin doesn't want to join this particular club, especially since the cost seems to be feeding on his family, specifically his young sister...

The finest element of "The V-Word" is not really the plot (we've seen stories about reluctant vampires before; in films as diverse as Fright Night, Near Dark and Lost Boys), but rather director Dickerson's splendid staging and mise-en-scene. He brings every scare scene to life in a joyous, go-for-broke fashion. The set design of the Collinswood funeral home is beautiful - appropriately ornate and gothic - and the impenetrable, pervasive darkness generates a nice anticipatory atmosphere of dread. Revealing he understands the tricks of the trade, Dickerson employs a number of subjective first person shots, or P.O.V. shots, to help the audience grasp the terrain of the battle. That's a necessity for good "jolts," and Dickerson delivers the goods.

I predict that mainstream TV audiences will enjoy this episode the best of the three I've previewed on the blog because it so brilliantly and effectively lensed. The episode's finest moment arises as Kerry and Justin stand in the darkness of the funeral home, frightened. In the distance ahead, the only illumination comes from an EXIT sign over a doorway. That's their escape route, but to cross it, they must navigate a long, dark hall...where anything could be waiting. As you might guess, this is the set-up for a spine-tingling scene in which "obstacles" appear in the darkness to prevent egress. Also to the good: I love the John Carpenter-esque, pulse-pounding score, and I deeply appreciated Dickerson's visual homage to Halloween. There's a scene wherein a hero stands in the foreground (in focus), while behind him - in the background and in more diffuse focus - a villain believed dead suddenly bolts up, unseen. Yep, it's a Michael Myers shot...and it always works!

I think "The V-Word" also marks the first time in horror films or television, that I've seen a bloody I-Pod as part of the carnage; proof positive that the technology has officially suffused our society since now it's showing up in a "teen" horror-type story. Otherwise, I'm kind of diffident about the validity of the theme which rests at the heart of "The V-Word." There's some unspoken, contextual criticism of "kids today" with "their video games," (I'm paraphrasing). The template here is video game violence and death versus real life violence and death, and the writer's seeming belief that a generation of young gamers don't understand the difference. Tp wot. when Justin and Kerry explore the funeral home, one says: "In a video game, this is the boring part." Okay, I get what the story is going for; it's interesting enough, but it doesn't quite work for me. Perhaps that's because I know some very nice young fellas who are consummate video gamers. I can state this about them with utter confidence: at their age (early twenties...) they have already run circles around me intellectually, professionally and philosophically. They're responsible, courteous young folk - scholars, really - who view video games as a valid art form. They're on the vanguard there. This is how I viewed television fifteen years ago...and the rest of the world has caught up with that perspective. So I don't really buy the theme of this story that our kids have had their minds muddled by the format of video games. And horror is a genre for the young.

But this is a minor quibble, and ultimately beside the point. I don't have to "buy into" the theme to note that it is well handled as a leitmotif. And my reaction doesn't mean that "The V-Word" isn't a splendidly-shot show which horror fans will enjoy. And - oh yes - it's gory to the max. There's one scene where Ironside gets a syringe in his eyeball, and another moment whereon a victim's torn up neck looks to be holding on by a thread...or a sinew.

Trick or treat!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Tour...

My buddy and The House Between producer (as well as film scholar...), Joe Maddrey, is out in Los Angeles these days (but he better come back to Monroe, NC for season two of my show...).

However, while I merely get to watch horror movies for October 31st, he's actually living the dream! In other words, he's out west visiting the Nightmare on Elm Street house, the Myers House (from Halloween...) and so forth. How cool is that?

Anyway, check out Joe's blog, "Maddrey Misc." and take a gander at his photos of these horror cinema landmarks,
here.

Catnap: Lila's new sleeping arrangements...


Well, Princess Lila's had enough of baby Joel crying and waking us up all night every night, and has officially evacuated the bed for now. For the time being, she's sleeping downstairs in the family room. Odd cat...she chose the floor last night instead of a sofa. I guess any port in a storm...

Sci Fi Wisdom of the Week: Lost in Space

"Little setbacks are good for the young. They build character."

-Dr. Zachary Smith, Lost in Space episode # 4, "Island in the Sky" (by Carey Wilbur).

Saturday, October 28, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Blue Magic"

Flash Gordon's Chapter Ten, "Blue Magic," (by Samuel Peeples), involves Flash's adventure in yet another Mongo kingdom commanded by a gorgeous Queen. Let's see, there was the underwater queen, Undina and then the Fridgian Queen, Fria. Now there's Azura, "witch queen" of Sik, a ruler "linked with the Evil Gods themselves." Like her queenly counterparts, Azura has a hard-on for Flash Gordon, which makes me ask the question: Aren't there any eligible males on Mongo besides this guy?

Anyway, we find out in "Blue Magic" that Flash is the spitting image of Azura's long-departed lover, named "Gor-Don." You see, "Gor-Don" was once the all-powerful ruler of Mongo, a sort of Alexander the Great figure. He ruled the planet wisely with Azura as his mate, but then he left to conquer other worlds and his high priest - Ming the Merciless - seized power on Mongo. Ming once attempted to defeat Azura but she used her magical powers to destroy his million-man army. Now, Ming gives Azura a wide latitude and no longer attempts to conquer her domain.

In this episode, Azura, who commands the "Blue Fire Worms," captures Flash, Thun, Zarkov and Dale while they are still riding the railroad back to Arboria (from Fridgia) to rendezvous with Barin and Vultan. Inconvenient that the rocket rail passes right through her kingdom. But anyway, the captives are ushered into the blue cavern kingdom on a magic carpet (by a wizard.) Then Zarkov, Thun and Dale are entrapped in a giant crystal ball, as Azura imposes the personality of Gor-Don upon Flash with a "memory crystal," thereby making him forget his friends and become her consort. Hubba-hubba.

But Zarkov, realizing that "knowledge is the sharpest weapon of all," manages to outfox the evil wizard minion, and he and the others race to stop Flash as the earther leads Azura's army (on a chariot, no less...) into battle against Barin and Vultan, who have come to his rescue.

Next week: "King Flash!"

Friday, October 27, 2006

Masters of Horror, Season Two: "Family"

Masters of Horror premieres tonight at 10:00 pm, and in honor of its return, I'm blogging another new episode of the series' second season today, in particular John Landis's "Family" (by Brett Hanley). The great thing about anthology programs in general - and MOH in particular - is the versatility the format offers. "The Damned Thing" was straight-up gory horror, yet "Family" is a different breed all together.

In some sense, "Family" arises from the same genre school as that 1980s film The Burbs, or another 80s flick, The Stepfather. Basically, this installment serves as a critique of modern American suburbia, noting that the anonymity of these new communities (and gaggles of McMansions...) only makes it easier for a committed serial killer to do his thing. After all, our life-styles are always on the move these days. We moving from place to place (houses are investments in 2006, not just homes...), and we don't really have time (or the energy...) to put down roots in one place and really know our neighbors any more. Over the years, suburbia has gotten ribbed on The X-Files too (in the sixth season episode, "Arcadia,") but "Family" quickly finds a valuable niche. It's a satirical effort, unlike "The Damned Thing," and John Landis seems to be having a wicked good time with the material.

"Family" opens with idyllic, idealized views of the American suburbs. Lawns are neatly trimmed; flowers bloom under radiant sunshine; families and children work and play in apparent safety. Landis's camera soon roves in-doors, however, into the home of a most peculiar fella named Harold, played by George Wendt. The camera grants what Harold later calls his "grand tour," as the strains of Christian, gospel music play loudly on the soundtrack. A nice touch here: on one chest of drawers rests a portrait of a glowering Dick Cheney. Proof positive, if you ask me, that Harold is a nut...just look at the man he admires. Mr. "Last Throes" Delusional himself (important since Harold is delusional...). Anyway, the tour ends in the basement, where we meet Harold...and he's busy pouring acid on a decaying corpse.

You see, Harold kills people, burns off their flesh, scrubs their bones, and then lovingly re-constructs their skeletons to serve as his ad-hoc family. There's his little skeletal daughter, Sarah, his nagging wife, and his old man. During the course of the episode, we also witness Harold hunt a grandmother for daughter Sarah (who talks to him...) and consider also killing her a big sister.

As Harold lives his twisted family existence behind closed doors, the Fullers - David (Matt Keeslar) and Celia (Meredith Monroe) - move in next door. They quickly befriend Harold, and before long, the corpulent serial killer decides he'd like Celia to be his new wife. When David mysteriously disappears, Harold seizes his chance and invites the gorgeous Celia over for dinner. He wants to introduce her to his folks and Sarah...whom he has tenderly propped up in the TV room...in a pose of greeting.

This is the set-up for "Family," an installment which reminds us that, well, we don't always know our neighbors quite as well as we think we do. The episode moves along at a merry, swift pace until it culminates with a surprise ending and double-cross that balances the scales of cosmic justice. In terms of gore, one of the program's closing shots (in which the camera seems to travel up one character's nostrils...) also looks disturbingly real...

Not as gory as "The Damned Thing," "Family" shares in common with that episode is a dedication and commitment to something Hollywood often doesn't permit in genre films these days: sub-text. The commentary on suburbia subtly suggests that the middle class is going mad behind closed doors (and I'm not just talking about Harold, as you'll see when you watch the episode.) "Family" also benefits from Wendt's portrayal of a madman. This Cheers alum doesn't play the role as a lark and doesn't "camp" the character up either. Instead, he takes the part seriously. He plays a perfectly polite and genial fellow...who also happens to commit murder on a regular basis. It's a great, nuanced performance.

"Family's" ending, which brings just desserts to Harold (to the strains of more Jesus tunes...) is a fitting one, and the episode is a perfect treat for Halloween. If the rest of the season is as strong as the two episodes I've watched so far, it could be Halloween on Showtime all autumn long...

TV Review: Jericho: "9:02."

The missiles are flying this week on CBS's Jericho. Yep, it's retaliation. That's the Federal response, apparently, to this ongoing crisis in the U.S. heartland. Where are the missiles headed? Syria? Iran? China? North Korea? Any nation that Jake terms "one of the usual suspects?"

Well, we still don't know. America's enemy in this war is still a mystery. And I like that facet of the series, since this isn't a drama about international negotiations, but rather about a small town having to start over in a "new world," as one of the characters aptly terms the situation.

Unfortunately, whether the old world or the new world, it seems the human race will always have to deal with bullies and opportunists; folks who exploit tragedy to try to get ahead. That's the theme this week on Jericho as tempers begin to flare in town. An EMP has gone off, you see, and for two weeks there has been no power. Nerves are frayed. Citizens start to break the law. The town is overrun by complaints, yet there's no legal mechanism to try any criminal who's been arrested. the nearest judge is at the county seat...and may be long dead.

And then, while the town folk grow fractious (and farmer Stanley and storekeeper Gracie fight over the last stock of crop pesticide...), in rides Mitch Cafferty, a real troublemaker who sees Jericho's misfortune as his big day. Jake used to run with Mitch back in the day, so he knows what this interloper is capable of and wants to stop him. He's given pause by Dad, the mayor. "If this family starts breaking the law, how can we enforce it?"

Good question, Pops. Of course, I hate to say it - and Robert Hawkins seems to understand this best - but unless Jericho's finest can maintain order and stop the Mitch Caffertys of the world, the town will descend into chaos and anarchy in no time. That's the danger looming.

Since this is a family show, that doesn't happen. After stealing the mayor's horses, there's a conflict and Mitch is brought down by Jake and Eric. Meanwhile, the town pulls together to harvest Stanley's endangered crops, and the story emerges as a parable about cooperation and team work in bad times. Mushy stuff? Perhaps, but you know...I kinda liked it. It's a good message, and isn't spoon fed with a helping of treacle.

One great joke this week on Jericho: Robert teaches his daughter how to use a gun and takes her out for some target shooting. What's the target: (now useless...) music cds! In particular, she blows away Vanilla Ice's "To the Extreme." Ouch.

How I Blog These Days...


Well, I'm learning to type one-handed lately. This picture explains why. Yes. I do look very sleepy, don't I?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Showtime unveils Masters of Horror Season Two

Just in time for Halloween (my favorite holiday...), Showtime launches the sophomore sortie of its critically-acclaimed horror anthology, Masters of Horror. The idea behind this video endeavor is that many of the genre's greatest and most legendary directors (Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Don Coscarelli, etc...) get a full hour - and a hell of a lot of creative freedom - to play trick or treat with TV audiences.

Last year, the series offered some memorable and spiky fare, including Tobe Hooper's amazing "Dance of the Dead," and Joe Dante's pointed political satire, "Homecoming, as well as the occasional misfire like John Landis's campy "Deer Woman." For me, "Dance of the Dead" is the one that still bowls me over: it's a nihilistic, brutal, dark venture that gazes at what could happen to small-town America after WMDs are detonated in our cities. This year, the self-same concept is a CBS series called Jericho...which is much more mainstream and (though I like it a great deal...), not so balls-to-the-wall and dangerous.

Considering how much I admire Tobe Hooper and loved "Dance of the Dead," I thought I'd begin my Halloween celebration this year by reviewing his season two entry for Masters of Horror, "The Damned Thing."

In Tobe Hooper's long and storied career, he has toiled quite a bit on the concept of horror originating from within a family unit, or corrupting a family unit. Consider the father/son "blood is thicker than water" murder team of 1981's The Funhouse, or the insane Sawyer family (the saw IS family...) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and its 1986 sequel. Even Hooper's remake of Invaders from Mars (1986) looks at parents and children in conflict, after a fashion (courtesy of a Martian invasion); as does Poltergeist (1982). So, it's entirely appropriate and keeping with his canon that Hooper would helm "The Damned Thing," an adaptation of a tale by Ambrose Pierce. Because under the horrific surface, the episode discusses the cycle of violence that exists from generation to generation in many American families.

"The Damned Thing" opens in 1981 in a picturesque, rural farmhouse in Red State America. Again - think of Texas Chain Saw - and Hooper knows this territory like Leatherface knows power tools. The Reddles are gathered around the supper table, sharing good family "quality" time, but we know something is awry because Hooper's camera circles the expansive table like a vulture throughout the entire scene, forecasting the terror to come.

It isn't a long wait.


The nice family dinner goes awry as Daddy Reddle snaps. He goes stark, raving bonkers, picks up a shotgun and blows away his wife while she's lighting the candles on his birthday cake. Young Kevin Reddle escapes his Dad's unmotivated killing spree, but then - from a hiding place on the farm land (in a tree...) - sees his suddenly-murderous father ripped to shreds by an unseen force...literally disemboweled before his (and the viewer's...) eyes.

Let me pause to say that the vicious, over-the-top death of Daddy Reddle is the goriest scene I've ever witnessed on television, cable or not. It's inventively staged (rather Raimi-esque in concept, if you ask me...), and I loved it! What happens is this: Reddle is repetitively spun around against his pick-up like he's a human ferris wheel while his guts are progressively ripped out in a torrent of red and brown. Yikes! The special effects folks deserve an Emmy nomination for this moment alone.

Anyway, flash forward to a quarter century later. Now Kevin is Sheriff of rural Cloverdale (and played by Sean Patrick Flanery). He's estranged from his wife and child, and worse, refuses to go back to his therapist to help him deal with the horror and trauma he saw all those years ago in his own family. Still...it threatens him and his family. In one scene, we watch as something malevolent and icky splits the skin on his forehead and peeks out. Yes, as we horror fans know all too well - the repressed always returns to wreak terror if not property confronted. Kevin was victim to an abusive, murderous father in 1981 and because he has not faced his personal demons, he will come to victimize his family too. The sins of the father and all...

Of course, this conceit about family and the cycle of violence spreading from one generation to another is merely the undercurrent of "The Damned Thing." Representing "the force of evil," (and, I think, Kevin's id...) in the flesh is an oil slick monster that destroyed the town of Sturgess in 1959 when a new oil well was opened in the ground. It is not only a corporeal threat (as the finale makes plain with some good CGI...), but an atmospheric one...meaning that it makes the town people in close proximity turn mean and violent. It felt like "poison" inside of her, according to Kevin's wife, Deana.

This is a brilliant template, especially as a playing field for that unpredictable surrealist, Tobe Hooper, and he has a bloody good time staging set pieces. It's not a joke or exaggeration to state that this episode about an evil oil slick is a "gusher" in more ways than one. For instance, there's another extremely gory scene involving a man who bludgeons himself to death with a hammer (thoughtfully using both ends of the tool before expiring...). Additionally, there's a welcome guest appearance by genre fave Ted Raimi, playing a dissolute priest who packs one mean pistol.

If, in the end, somehow all the narrative pieces don't quite fit together, and the climax is a bit too abrupt for my taste, "The Damned Thing" still works as a frightfully good "scare" piece and provides further evidence that Hooper - who, let's face it, is the post-narrative kid anyway - is functioning at the top of his form. Even if most of Hollywood doesn't recognize it. While discipline can sometimes be the friend of horror movies; Hooper understands that by breaking the rules of cinematic decorum and discipline, he can unsettle and chill the most hardened, experienced horror lover. He achieves that feat again in "The Damned Thing."

I've got a screener with two more Masters of Horror season two episodes, and I'll be blogging them both here as All Hallow's Eve looms! Masters of Horror returns to Showtime this Friday night, October 27 at 10:00 pm. Don't miss it!



Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Attack of the Foul-Mouthed Puppets!: Greg the Bunny Returns on DVD!

I'm a late-comer to the whole Greg the Bunny cult and phenomenon, having entirely missed the Fox sitcom from 2002 that co-starred Seth Green and a diminutive rabbit puppet. However, based on this new DVD release, The IFC Original Series: Greg the Bunny: Best of Film Parodies, I was really missing something special.

When you think of the off-kilter Greg the Bunny, think of The Muppet Show, only raunchier...and rude...and R-rated. What I liked about this DVD collection is that the worn-out looking, neurotic puppets exist with us in our world - and they're cranky, spoiled actors. They drink, they fuck, they swear....how awesome is that?

Consequently, Greg, Warren and the bunch do their own thing and live their own dysfunctional lives in these shows, which gives the series the aura and texture of a mockumentary. These puppets don't merely vet tired SNL-style movie parodies. No, they're actors with problems vetting SNL-style movie parodies. That's a critical difference in my book.

In other words, "Dead Puppet Storage," a satire of Pulp Fiction, actually becomes a meditation on troublesome actors who don't want to work (or show up late on the set). In this case, the psychotic Warren the Ape is the misbehaving thespian. Warren is a "method" ape/puppet, you see, and he thinks the idea of Pulp Fiction parody is old, so he makes life difficult for the other actors. To wit, he sees to it that Greg suffocates in his gimp outfit...

"Sleazy Rider," a would-be parody of Easy Rider, emerges instead (with Greg as the Dennis Hopper character...) as a discussion of supporting Bush and the War in Iraq. Warren politely informs Greg that most Hippies aren't Republicans, and then humorously describes a commune they visit as "The Partridge Family meets Ethiopia." The Wumpus (A Grimace knock-off...) plays the Jack Nicholson role from the 1969 film, and - ironically - has the same loopy eyeballs as the real actor. I got a good laugh out of the scene where rednecks attack the three puppets in their sleeping bags by darkest night. Something really absurd and off-the-wall going on in this series.

Some of the other film parodies are old-school satires without the "making of" character stuff and these efforts depend more on things like production design and clever writing to make their points: the 2001: A Space Odyssey parody is one of the funniest of this bunch, though cheapjack in appearance. I also rather liked "Bunny Hall," which is buttressed by good location work and a clever script (though it only lasts seven minutes). Here, Greg - as Woody Allen - romances a lobster named Petunia. And yes, there are scenes of bunny-on-lobster sex. Somewhere, Rick Santorum must be infuriated...

In this DVD set (now available at Amazon and other retailers), you'll also find a Coen Brothers parody (one that races through versions of Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou, but ends in the wood chipper...and a nod towards David Fincher's Seven.). My favorite episode may be "Blah!" which finds Greg befriending Count Blah, a washed-up vampire puppet (a la Ed Wood). This episode opens with a Blair Witch reference (it's Halloween time for the puppets...) and the relationship between Greg and Blah! is kind of touching...in a bizarre way. I particularly enjoyed all of Blah's references to The Count and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. If you ever wanted to know the behind-the-scenes dirt on these seemingly upstanding puppets, this is your chance.

If you've been a GTB fan for years, this DVD collection will be a welcome addition to the canon. If you're one of those folks (like me), who wondered what all the fuss was about, now you know. The flawed, funny characters populating Greg the Bunny will stay embedded in your psyche if you let them. In some weird way, the series reminded me of the original BBC sitcom, The Office because sometimes the humor is painful it hurts. In their foul-mouthed, silly way, these puppets actually say a lot about us humans, don't they?

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Best Science Fiction Movie Ever Made: Planet of the Apes (1968)

My favorite movie of all time - bar none - is Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes, from the turbulent year 1968. I also happen to believe this movie is the finest, most artistic genre work produced in well over one hundred years of the cinema.

Yes, I realize there are other contenders for best "sci fi" film. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great film; no doubt. And the Russian version of Solaris from the 1970s is another masterwork (and an unacknowledged well-spring of ideas for many American films and television programs). And sure, there will be those folks who champion Blade Runner (1982), or The Matrix (1999), or even Star Wars (1977). But the purpose of this post is not to argue for these films; or for that matter to put them down; rather it is to laud Planet of the Apes for what it remains almost forty years after its theatrical release: a remarkable and visually-accomplished text that functions (and excels) on a variety of thematic and narrative levels simultaneously.

Now, mind you, I'm not writing about the 2001 abomination, the re-imagination of Planet of the Apes directed by Tim Burton. No. I'm talking about the first film adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel, Monkey Planet. The one that starred Charlton Heston, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall and spawned four sequels, a TV program and an animated series. We're clear on that point, right? Okay, let's move on.

Let's re-cap the film's plot, in case you haven't watched the film recently. A spaceship carrying four human astronauts crashes on a mysterious planet after several months in deep space. The three surviving astronauts, Taylor (Charlton Heston), Dodge and Landon, believe they have traveled 300 light years from Earth, to somewhere in the constellation Orion. They also check their ship's chronometer and learn that Dr. Hasslein's theory of time travel at light speed is correct. Although they left Earth in 1972, their chronometer verifies that it is now November 25, 3978.

The humans brave an arid, seemingly endless desert as they leave the dead lake where their ship crashed, and soon discover that humans also exist on this world. But that they're mute savages...unevolved and unsophisticated.

Then comes the real shocker: the planet is ruled by intelligent, civilized simians...apes! The astronauts lose track of one another in a ferocious hunt of the savage humans (a tense, sustained action set-piece), and Taylor ends up in Ape City as a ward of a chimpanzee scientist, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an expert in human behavior. She and her fiancee Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), a chimp archaeologist, soon learn that Taylor - unlike all the other humans they have encountered - can speak; can reason. They defend this specimen (whom they term "Bright Eyes") from Dr. Zaius (Evans), a self-righteous orangutan administrator who serves as both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith. Zaius, as it turns out, has very good reason to despise humans, and to fear Taylor.

Taylor and a savage (but sexy...) consort, Nova (Linda Harrison), flee Ape City with the aid of Zira and Cornelius (who have been accused of heresy for defending the human and advancing the "insidious" theory known as evolution), and head back to the Forbidden Zone to seek the truth of Taylor's heritage. The apes believe he is a missing link between primitive man and civilized ape, but Taylor wants to show them his spaceship to confirm his story of having arrived from another planet. Finally, as the ocean tides endlessly beat against a rocky shore, Taylor comes face to face with mankind's destiny. A strange rusted statue jutting out of rock and sand is mankind's ultimate epitaph...and Taylor's evidence that he has - finally - returned home. In the sand he sees it. The Statue of Liberty. "You finally did it!" He exclaims, pounding the sand at his feet. "You blew it up! You maniacs...God damn you all to Hell!"

There are a number of reasons why I admire Planet of the Apes, and I hope to enumerate them all here, although frankly, it could take days. Many of the reasons for my admiration concern the nature and disposition of the film's protagonist, George Taylor and his "hero's journey." In particular, this astronaut (and the leader of the expedition to the stars), is an avowed cynic. Taylor boasts no faith in man or mankind when he leaves Earth for space. "Tell me," he rhetorically asks in the equivalent of a Captain's log, "does man - that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars - still make war against his brothers? Keep his neighbor's children starving?" (The answer, by the way, to these interrogatives - with my evidence being the Iraq War and the situation in Darfur - is yes, absolutely).

Anyway, after landing in the wasteland of the Forbidden Zone, Landon and Taylor bicker about their predicament. Taylor has poked fun of his companion for displaying an American flag on the shore line of the dead lake. The absurdity of patriotism (and hence jingoism...a reflection of Taylor's earlier comments about man making war on his brothers...) in this place and time is not lost on a bitter Taylor. Angry, Landon asks him what makes him tick then, if not patriotism or nationalism. "You're negative; you despise people," Landon accurately summarizes his skipper's attitude. Taylor doesn't disagree. His reply is: "I just can't help thinking in the universe there has to be something better than man..."

As you can guess from the film's title, Taylor's quest for something in the universe better than man will soon turn into a cosmic joke...

So, these early scenes establish Taylor's character in a clever and artistic way. He's a cynic, a misanthrope. And suddenly, he finds him the only intelligent human on a planet of apes. The man who hates mankind is thus forced into the position of being the defender of the species. Ironic, huh? Taylor knows all of mankind's flaws too well (he calls our culture one in which there is plenty of love-making but precious little love...). He has searched the stars for something better, but now must be man's advocate and champion. What a rich and (ironic) set-up for the film's central debate, and one which fits the production's overriding conceit: that of a world turned upside down; of somebody who boasts one rigid agenda yet is forced by circumstance to countenance another.

I hasten to add, this character arc works even more splendidly because it is the self-same "from my cold, dead hands," Charlton Heston who essays the role of Taylor. Heston is far right-wing ideologue, and yet here he is...starring in a paranoid left-wing dystopic fantasy about what could happen if man does not curb his predilection for war and conquest. Having Heston - a virile and robust figure representing American strength and beauty - beaten, bruised, and literally stripped naked before the superior apes - works fiendishly upon the subconscious of the viewer. This is Ben Hur! This is Moses! And how the mighty has fallen...

Taylor's fascinating journey - from hater of mankind to last defender of the species - would mean little were he not faced with a powerful nemesis. Fortunately, the screenplay for Planet of the Apes (by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling) provides him a terrific opponent in Dr. Zaius (Evans). Zaius, like Taylor, is a man divided by two thoughts. On one hand, he is honor bound and professionally responsible for the advancement of science (and science by nature, is impartial). On the other hand, he serves as Chief Defender of the Faith, which means he must rigorously maintain the apes' belief in their own superiority, transmitted through the auspices of organized religion. "There is no contradiction between faith and science," he asserts to Taylor at one point in the film; but clearly...there is. Although Ape Culture is rife with commentary that asserts the simian as the supreme creature of the land ("The Almighty created the ape in his own image," is one very telling ape proverb), Zaius knows the dark truth: that apes rose because man fell; that the return of intelligent man would inevitably spell the end of the ape dominion.

What I love about Dr. Zaius is this fact: by some point of view - perhaps another "upside down" or "inverted" one, in fact - he is the film's unlikely hero. Yes, he hates man and is ruthless to mankind. He performs lobotomies on man and wants to see the species exterminated. Yet as we learn at the end of the film, he has good, nay valid reasons for his fear and loathing of humanity. After all, It was the humans, not the apes, who turned their cities into deserts (in a nuclear war). The 29th Scroll - part of the ape religion, thus warns: "beware the beast man. For he is the devil's pawn." Zaius understands the meaning behind the flowery prose and tells Taylor. "The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it ages ago." In some sense, by preventing the new ascendancy of man, Zaius is saving the planet Earth for future generations (as he tells young Lucius). Or thinks he is, anyway.

So Planet of the Apes offers two very strong characters in dynamic opposition. It sends each of them on a journey in which their faith is tested by each other, and ultimately their prejudices are reinforced. Zaius believes man is a primitive destroyer of all things, and after dealing with Taylor, believes that more strongly than ever. Taylor leaves Earth believing man is a war-like barbarian who would destroy his brother for his brother's land, and when faced with the Statue of Liberty, realizes that he was absolutely right. Man's hunger for territory, for war, did ultimately destroy him. Made the apes supreme and turned the world "upside down."

But the character dynamics are only a part of the reason why Planet of the Apes is a great film. I believe that any science fiction film deserving of the moniker "great" must - after some fashion - carry audiences to a different and fantastic reality or world. Accordingly, another rewarding aspect of the Schaffner film involves the multi-layered depiction of Ape Culture. The full breadth of this "alien" world is often revealed in a most clever (and often funny...) way. Without ever seeming like either a travelogue or a half-assed parody, the film cleverly reveals the details of this upside-down world. We see an ape funeral (which includes the eulogy: "I never met an ape I didn't like...); we visit ape medicine (in the hospital) and learn about ape affirmative action ("the quota system was abolished..." says a disenfranchised chimp); take a trip to a natural museum (where humans - including astronaut Dodge - are stuffed and posed in little dioramas that mimic their "natural" environment), and even head full bore into the byzantine Ape legal system.

On the latter front, we witness an ape tribunal in which the notion of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, is dramatized in funny visual terms (with the three orangutan panel acting it out). We also see Ape maps, ape markets, ape buildings, ape hunts, and so forth. The scope of this world is absolutely remarkable given production limitations of the time. We even learn that there's an animal (or in this case, human...) rights group, "An Anti-Vivisectionist Society." In other worlds, the "ape culture" is a twisted, inverted reflection of our own.

The apes and their society are depicted in glorious, believable terms thanks to the exquisite make-up of John Chambers and the glorious production design, but this is a film, in the last analysis, about man, not apes nor special effects. The ape society exists as a mirrorof our own; as an indictment of our world. Therefore, the ape proverbs which we laugh at, like "human see, human do," reveal the arrogance that comes with a species' assumed superiority over the world and his other species.

"Why do men have no souls?," asks one ape of Taylor during the tribunal. "What is the proof that a divine spark exists in simian minds?" Remarks like this make viewers laugh with recognition. How can apes believe they are God's chosen ones? And then viewers step back and realize the uncomfortable truth. Ummm...that's what we believe, isn't it, as human beings? That we are superior to animals like cats and dogs (oh, they have no souls, right?) and that we're created in God's image. Suddenly, the film makes us realize that we are as misguided and silly as the self-righteous apes.

"All men look alike to most apes," Zira notes at another point, touching on racism, and so on, thus furthering the social commentary. Basically, the ape society is structured in Planet of the Apes to make us realize the insanity and "upside down" quality of our own religious precepts. As long as we cling to such arrogant and egotistic notions - such irrational notions that the world is ours to do with as we please because we're God's "select" - we are at risk of destroying ourselves.

Zaius has a good motive. He wants to preserve his people. Ye he is also a scripture-quoting racist who believes in the supremacy of his kind, even as he is "guardian of the terrible secret" about man. He is, like man himself, a hypocrite. He offers religious platitudes ("Have you forgotten your scripture?") in the place of science, and attempts to keep the truth hidden from his culture. And that truth is, simply put, that the supremacy of a species - any species - is fragile. Apes did not always rule the world; and man was not always cursed. And the tables could turn again at any time...

Planet of the Apes is also fervently anti-war, which is important since the film was released at the height of the Vietnam "police action." Here, the screenwriters imagine a world wherein man's predilection to "kill his neighbors for his neighbor's land" is taken to its logical conclusion: the destruction of civilization together. The Forbidden Zone is what's left of New York after a deadly nuclear war. The film's final image, of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand - says it all. Mankind has forsaken his spoken ideals of peace and love for wars of conquest. He has destroyed himself and his world over ideology (capitalism vs. communism, we assume...). Consequently, the beliefs we hold now about freedom, liberty and God's will will ultimately prove nothing but ruined artifacts for future archaeologists to puzzle over.

Other reasons why Planet of the Apes is tremendously successful:


* It functions both as a satire and allegory and as an action film. It is possible to enjoy the film simply as a rip-roaring action piece, if you're so inclined. From Taylor's opening hunt in the jungle, to Taylor's attempted escape from Ape City, to the final shoot out in the Forbidden Zone, the film's pace never lets up.

* This film boasts more quotable lines than any movie this side of Spinal Tap. "Take your stinking' paws off me, you damn dirty ape," is one example, but there are others. "It's a mad house, a mad house!" is a personal favorite; one which I find myself using here every day...

* Planet of the Apes is beautifully filmed; which gives it an additional sense of authenticity. Remember, Planet of the Apes was crafted well before the days of CGI. This means that filmmakers actually had to be clever rather than merely rely on digital imagery to make things look cool. The film's opening crash sequence is a prime example. There are no conventional modern special effects to speak of here. Instead, the film adopts dizzying P.O.V. camerawork, as if we're riding the nose of the rocket. The footage has been tweaked to make it more dramatic - sped up and turned upside down at points - to register the speed and angle of the crash. Even without contemporary visuals, however, the sequence is edited brilliantly. The terror of the crash is palpable.

A corollary: the film's location work is nothing short of stunning. So much of this movie's plot is "sold" to us in dramatic long shot, using the odd rock outcroppings of Death Valley and "big sky" of Arizona to represent the otherworldly Forbidden Zone.

* The best "surprise" ending in film history. This should be no shocker, since Rod Serling was a co-author of the screenplay and many of his Twilight Zone episodes featured dramatic, O'Henry-style endings. Here, the discovery of the Statue of Liberty is (on first viewing...) shocking, and on ensuing viewings remains chilling. It perfectly encapsulates the film's theme of a world-overturned. Man's ideals: buried.

On a similar note, the film is rife with other powerful symbols too. The small American flag in the sand of the Forbidden Zone; the strange scarecrows in the desert, like giant "X's" blotting the landscape; the human doll from ages past which lets out the cry of "Maaa-maaa."

Also: the shore line.ocean is a powerful symbol too, in a sense. The waves just keep rolling in from the ocean. Rolling in and washing away everything...for all time. The ocean and the waves are cleansing on one hand, and impartial on the other. No matter what man (or ape) does, the tides just keep coming and ages pass. Civilizations rise and fall unmourned, and the tides take no notice.

* The film's timelessness and continued relevance. Hmm, let's see. In 1968, there was the war in Vietnam. Today we're at war in Iraq, another quagmire. In 1968, America feared a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, today, it is North Korea and Iran. In 1968, Planet of the Apes took well-conceived and pointed shots at the American religious right, dramatizing the ape culture as a theocracy in which science and new ideas were anathema; and only perpetuation of "faith" and legend mattered. Evolution in the film is called "an insidious theory," and Zira and Cornelius are indicted for advancing it...even though they appear to have proof. Hmmm, look around at new movies like Jesus Camp, or at school boards in Kansas; which wanted to outlaw teaching evolution in the public classroom. Why, just last year there was a serious debate in this country(which included President Bush...) about teaching intelligent design ("the ape was created in God's image...") in the classroom. Clearly, all of the ideas in Planet of the Apes are as relevant (if not more so) today than they were forty year agos. The war on science, the killing of brothers to own our brother's land...all this continues (alas...) today. So Apes has translated well to the "next generation." The worries that dominate the film are still our worries, almost half a century later.

In closing, Planet of the Apes is, in some senses, a ruthless and brutal bit of business. It doesn't play games. It reveals to us a new world where man - because of his arrogance and hypocrisy - has been brought low before a new master race. The humor (seen in many ape proverbs...) is chilling. The hero is a misanthrope forced to defend mankind out of necessity, and that makes him unlikeable...but our only shot at survival. The ending is...startling, terrifying, the ultimate statement about mankind's predilection to destroy himself. I can't think of another science fiction film that so effortlessly creates a total world; adheres to a central theme...and which enlightens and terrifies.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Return of the Catnap: Guardian Cat!


Here you will see Ezri, my stalwart warrior princess, protecting my newborn son, Joel. At first, Ezri hissed at Joel, but after a day, she seemed to understand who he is and what he represents, and now she's his steadfast companion and guardian. I had him on the floor (on a blanket) to change his diapers the other day, and he started to cry. Well, as soon as that boy opened his mouth, Ezri was off the sofa and at his side, making certain he was safe and unhurt. Now that's what I call a good cat...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Superheroes on Stamps!


Hey! Have you guys seen these? I was out running errands around town this morning and I needed a book of stamps. Lo and behold, I found myself gazing at DC Comic superheroes. I asked my mail clerk if I could post the stamps on my blog and he said yeah, so long as I didn't try to print them off on color paper and sell them as stamps.

So here they are. This is a terrific collection, with some beautiful cover art. I was glad to see that many of my favorites are represented. From Superman to Green Lantern, to (old school...) Aquaman to Hawkman! The color on these stamps is dynamic and the art is so beautiful I don't know if I can actually use 'em. Which means I need to go back and by another book of stamps...D'oh!

Also, on the back of these USPS stamps, each artist is credited, and a little bit of data about the superhero is written. For The Brave and The Bold # 36 (with art by Joe Kubert), from June/July 1961, for instance, the legend reads: "Hawkman returned in 1960,
a reincarnated hero from the earlier "Golden Age" of comics. The new Winged Wonder and his spouse Hawkgirl were intergalactic police officers from a distant planet, meting out justice to the villains terrorizing Midway City."

Superheroes on postage? I give the idea thumbs up. This set is listed as "Chapter One," and I'm looking forward to Chapter Two. More stuff to collect, right?

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Monster of the Glacier"

Flash Gordon's ninth chapter, "Monster of the Glacier" (by writer Ted Pederson) finds Dr. Zarkov, Thun, Dale and Count Mallow in the evil clutches of Bruka and the giants of Fridgia. Flash and throaty-voiced Queen Fria are assumed to have perished in an avalanche, but in truth, they have survived and are plotting to rescue their friends.

While Dale resists the thuggish advances of the brute Bruka, Flash makes googly-eyes at Fria, calling her a "lovely lady." She offers him a place near her throne (*ahem*), but then they get back to business. While Fria frees the group in a pit, Flash battles Bruka underground for Dale's freedom. Flash is victorious (thanks to a well-placed rock, in a variation of the David vs. Goliath battle).

All together now, the fugitives flee into the caverns (which Flash quips are "worse than the Los Angeles freeway system.") They dive into an underwater river to escape Bruka once and for all, but then find themselves in the "dominion of Korel," a multi-headed electrical hydra. The team appears doomed until Zarkov figures out a way to short circuit the monster, and Thun and Flash do the grunt work. After the beast is destroyed in a cataclysmic series of shocks and pops, Flash comments: "Some fireworks, huh?"

Free now, Flash says goodbye to Queen Fria, who has come to realize that the hunky hero will never leave Dale Arden. They part friends and Flash, Thun, Zarkov and Dale next raid Mongo's rocket railroad! They board the train for Arboria with the Orium they came for, and after destroying several of Ming's metal minions. Then it's au revoir at last to Fridgia (the subject of two chapters).

Watching "Monster of the Glacier," one can determine why Flash Gordon (like Buck Rogers or James Bond) is such a basic and enduring male hero. He's got cool friends (like Thun, a lion man, for goodness sake), a good girl at his side (Dale), and the affection of bad, sexy girls like Aura and Fria. And, he has super-cool adventures in caves, in water, on trains, in spaceships and the like. Who wouldn't want to be this guy? What's funny is that this variation of the character Flash is such a square. Sure, this is a program for kids, but Flash is still awfully righteous and stolid. Every now and then, I miss the leer (and the blatant sexism...) of Gil Gerard's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

TV REVIEW: Friday Night Lights: "Wind Sprints"

Yeah, yeah, I know this isn't a genre program, so it's sort of out of place on a blog that features action figures, trading cards, and reviews of cult movies and Saturday morning cartoons. But what the hell? Friday Night Lights is great television, so at least for the moment, I'm blogging it. (Especially since I keep missing Heroes due to baby feeding and parent sleeping issues...).

"Wind Sprints," The October 17, 2006 episode of Friday Night Lights, picks up a week after quarterback Jason Steele's paralysis during the first game of the season. Matt Saracen is the new quarterback and as the hour begins, we watch as the Panthers play their first full game with the new line-up. In quick-cut montage, we watch a succession of violent tackles as the Panthers go down again and again, failing miserably. These violent moments are intercut with views of Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) screaming at his team in the locker room. "They've all but self destructed," the announcer says of the team, in a game in which the team should have easily "dominated."

For the folks in Dillon, Texas, this loss is the apocalypse and has serious repercussions the next week. That's the theme of the episode "Wind Sprints" as the coach, his family and the players go from being conquering heroes to big time losers. "You shamed your good name," one player is told. The quarterback, Matt is labeled "a loser" in graffiti. The blowback is so bad that anyone associated with the loss might as well wear a scarlet "L" on their jerseys for daring to let down the fans. Poor Saracen is threatened too. He failed during one game (though he played valiantly...) and now recruiters are looking to replace him with a Hurricane Katrina refugee from New Orleans. Nice? What does this teach young people? Fail once, and you're out!

As for Coach Taylor, he's now second guessed and manipulated by everyone, and even his fifteen-year old daughter is accosted over his failure to lead the team to victory. After just two games (and just one loss), Taylor's first season is officially dubbed "disastrous."

Talk about your fair-weather fans. If you lose in Dillon..watch your back. Hell hath no fury like angry football fans, I guess, yet what this episode points out nicely is that the team's loss actually builds character and helps these young men come to grips with grief, mourning and their feelings of anxiety. There's a great, climactic moment here, as Coach Taylor gazes at all the moping, whiny team members and decides they've been too indulged. They've been treated like Gods for so long by their peers that they've forgotten that victory is something that they have to work for. So what does he do? Tough love. He drives them out on the school bus to the middle of nowhere during a pounding rain storm - in the middle of a cold night - and makes them run laps through standing water and up and down a steep hill. There's nothing to take your mind off defeat like a physical challenge; like a little hard work, and the coach realizes this truth. The rain purges his team, his soldiers, and revives their spirit. Of course, in real life, such a stunt would likely have parents complaining in droves, and also result in a number of sick players (oopsy...), but it's just the right dramatic touch for the episode. If these boys want to win, they're going to have to fight. It's not going to be easy...

Also in this episode, Lila comes to realize that Jason is never going to get better, and that their dreams of Notre Dame and professional football (and a happy, wealthy marriage) are totally destroyed. It's a hard reckoning, but I love television programs that don't flinch from the truth, and Friday Night Lights gazes at this Texas football sub-culture - the good and the bad - with eyes wide open.

Why do I find this series so appealing? It's fast-paced. It's well-performed, and I just love that visual palette; the "stolen" cinema-verite, you-are-there moments that make the moments on the field (and everywhere else...) look like a battle field. This is one of the most distinctive looking series in a while, and though I hate football, the subculture of football fans is fascinating to me. I hope others are watching. I haven't fully formulated this thesis yet, but in some sense, Friday Night Lights is about war - about winning a war on the playing field. And since America is fighting a war in Iraq right now, there's a weird synchronicity. I don't know, that could be a "big time" reach, but there's something under the surface here that I want to scratch at just a little more...

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Federal Response"

Last night's Jericho, "Federal Response," saw the small Kansas town (which survived a nuclear attack on America)struggling to survive its own local apocalypse. In this case, the sudden resumption of power caused electrical surges all over the city. Fires broke out in the town library (a real disaster, since this branch of the public library might be the basis for all future knowledge...), and also destroyed Eric's house.

As usual, our protagonist Jake (Skeet Ulrich) proved a little too adept at being at the right place at the right time, and figuring out a way to get a water valve open so at least some of the library could be saved in the nick of time (and so that Heather could be rescued...). I realize there's this notion here that Jake was away from Jericho for many years and learned all kinds of trades on this "mysterious" journey, but it's getting to be a little silly that he saves the day in each episode. It's not so much that he's skilled or can think on his feet (I can believe that); but he's particularly lucky at being at the right place at the right time: whether to end a prison convict shoot-out in one episode (after conveniently blowing up a mine entrance...) or finding a downed school-us full of children in need...he's always at precisely the right place and time to avert a tragedy. It makes you wonder how the town ever survived when he was away.

Also, I need someone to explain something to me. The cunning African-American character, Robert Hawkins, is obviously a sleeper agent for some covert force (either our government; or the government that attacked us...), and this week Jake spies him sitting in his backyard utilizing a fully-functioning laptop computer beside a large personal satellite dish. The two exchange brief, angry words over this discovery while trying to save Eric's house, but Jake doesn't follw up. So tell me why? Why doesn't he report the matter (or Hawkins' useful technology...) to anyone in the town? Why not tell his Dad, the mayor. Nor his brother, the mayor's assistant? In a situation like this, wouldn't you report this strange event to someone? At the very least, the equipment should be confiscated for municipal use. I think this is a central flaw in the episode.

Besides this omission, however, "Federal Response" ended on a high (and creepy...) note, as the Homeland Security signal airing on the television gave way to a view of the U.S. Presidential lectern and bald eagle iconography. We were led to expect a speech from El Presidente, but instead the episode ended with the real "Federal Response." To wit, the startling closing image of this Jericho episode involved nuclear missiles heading up from Kansas into the night sky, bound for their targets across the globe. It was a chilling shot, and further evidence that Jericho isn't playing sweet and light with its apocalyptic premise.

I'm still enjoying this program a great deal. It doesn't yet feel like it's deliberately holding information back from viewers as some kind of stalling technique (and that's how Lost feels to me now...sorry), but I would like to see Jake a little more fallible in terms of his heroism. The show has been renewed for a full season, and I think that's great. After the diffident and goofy (and flag waving...) pilot, the series has become one of the highlights of this very strong new season.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

TV REVIEW: Dexter: "Crocodile"

My newest TV addiction is Showtime's freshman serial killer drama, Dexter. We hear so much about morality in politics these days ("values voters" and all), but often morality is just a buzz word or a code for validating entrenched hate ( it's moral to hate gays; it's moral to hate terrorists; it's moral to exercise the death penalty, it's moral to give tax breaks to the rich and not the poor...at least according to some "values voters.")

Frankly, the question of morality (and what constitutes morality...) is often left unexplained or undebated in our national conversation.

So far as I can discern thus far, Dexter is a unique series in that it steadfastly addresses that void. As a series, it constantly asks the question: is Dexter Morgan - a sociopath - ...moral?

Wow! How can I ask such a question? I must be a crazy liberal, right? Well bear with me okay. Consider the facts: Dexter protects and nurtures his sister, Debra. That's "good" isn't it? He also takes wonderful care of his girlfriend Rita's children. He protects them and makes them happy. That too is "good," right? Dexter even boasts his own moral code: he follows the "Rules of Harry (James Remar)," his deceased Dad. And Dexter punishes the guilty (admittedly outside the confines of law...). Is enforcing "justice" not the very definition of righteous; of morality? What do you think? Am I barking up the wrong tree here? Is there a case to be made for Dexter as a moral man?

So...Is a man who can feel nothing...capable of morality? That's the enduring and provocative interrogative that Dexter has so expertly raised, and I have to admit, I'm obsessed with the notion. Can a serial killer with no milk of human kindness, no emotions, no feelings be termed good? Can someone totally dispassionate and boasting an insatiable urge to kill, contribute to the betterment of society? Can someone who has never felt emotional pain, truly understand what it means to be human? Or, does he - lacking the barometer of emotions - better understand our existence than those of us who have our judgment clouded? I wonder. And I'm very happy that a mainstream TV series has dedicated itself to tackling so valuable a notion. It proves to me that television has indeed arrived in a new golden age. Like Twin Peaks, Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dexter looks to me like it can be analyzed in the same manner as great literature. Based on the first two episodes, it merits that comparison.

Many questions about morality occupy "Crocodile," Dexter's sophomore episode. At one point, Dexter even asks (in voiceover) "if God is in the details - and God is in this room - God is with me." It's a fascinating point to consider: Dexter employs eye-for-an-eye, Old Testament-style judgments against the evil, and he's learned to "always be sure" that his victims are guilty. So would our society, nay should our society laud and embrace a man like Dexter? Or shun him? Would you want him marrying your sister? Raising your kids?

Before you answer, consider at least that Dexter doesn't fool around with kids, practice graft like some very prominent Conservatives in Congress. Those men are worse than Dexter in my book. They are hypocrites who have hid their bad behavior under the label "moral" for years, right? They have judged others immoral (like President Clinton), when their sin was infinitely worse than his.

In its details, "Crocodile" confirms some of what I blogged about the premiere. To wit, Dexter comes flat out and notes that he is "the outsider looking in" on human society. This is troubling to him, however, because although he can see the pain of others, he "can't feel their pain." This observation comes up in regards to a gangster's brutal murder of a cop and his wife. Dexter attends the funeral and feels out of place. He's bored having to look grief-stricken when he really feels nothing. That's not nice, or even patient, but it doesn't speak directly to Dexter's morality. We can be moral without being polite, right? What does speak to Dexter's morality is that he wants to punish the guilty, and must weigh the consequences of doing so. To wit, he has an opportunity to kill the man who ordered the hit on the cop and his family, but to kill him then and there (in a men's room) would also expose Dexter and end his future capacity to punish the guilty. So which is the greater morality? Killing the bad guy, or preserving oneself to kill many bad guys? That's a true moral dilemma, folks.

Another one of Dexter's bad guys is Matt Chambers (alias Matt Brewster, Matt Rasmussen), a serial DUI murderer who has escaped justice in Boston and now Miami. If Dexter kills the local gangster, Matt Chambers gets away...and can kill again. So Dexter makes a choice.

What I like about this episode of Dexter, as well as each episode I've seen thus far, is that Dexter raises all these questions about morality but doesn't seem to boast a particular agenda. It seems more interested in observing and examining morality than in taking a definitive stance on it. The series doesn't sentimentalize Dexter. He calls himself a monster and does terrible things. Valid points. He also often responds to grotesque, macabre situations with tongue-in-cheek humor. So the series does not view him as a saint or anything like that...and yet he does good works. In recent years, television has given us many unusual heroes with foibles. Think of Monk, the detective with OCD; or Denny Crane, the crusading lawyer with alzheimers and a penchant for romancing younger ladies and talking out of turn. Dexter purposefully carries this trend as far as it can go, asking us to observe the life of a crusading sociopath; a man with no feelings, but who definitively does "good," who cleans up society's trash; and who is decent to his family and extended family.

Some people decry moral relativism in our culture. But after years of hearing some prominent politicians discuss "evil doers" across the globe and then categorically deny health care to children at home, I'm delighted to see a series that acknowledges that there are shades of gray in our world. Everything isn't black and white, and Dexter is the most philosophically deep program to come down the line in quite some time. It is consumed with dark questions about our existence, and what constitutes human morality.

Frankly, I'm riveted.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

TV REVIEW: Dexter: Series Premiere

Showtime's new series, Dexter, is a humdinger. Based on a novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" by Jeff Lindsay, this hour-long drama follows the life and pursuits of Dexter Morgan, (Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall), a blood-spatter forensic analyst living in Miami.

Sounds like some variation on CSI or the like, right? A crime scene investigator working in a major American metropolis? Well, here's the first twist: the charming, handsome and well-liked Dexter also happens to be a sociopath...and a serial killer too. He readily admits this in the series premiere (in a well-written voice over); that he has no feelings whatsoever for anyone in his life. Instead, he feels nothing at all. Dexter can almost feel emotions for his sister, Debra, but otherwise...there's just an overwhelming void in his heart. "You can't get emotionally invested," he warns Debra - a cop - during her investigation of a serial killer who drains the blood from his sliced-and-diced victims.

When Dexter says that, he's speaking from experience...

Again, people reading this review might say "ho hum," another TV show about a serial killer. What's the big deal? Well, first of all, here the killer is the protagonist; not a villain to be hunted and caught by well-dressed (but ultimately interchangeable...) stock cop characters.

Even more impressively, Dexter adopts a wonderful narrative twist and central conceit. You see, Dexter's Dad (James Remar), also a cop, discovered that his (adopted) son Dex was a sociopath when Dexter was still very young. When he learned this fact, Dexter's Dad decided that his boy's urge to kill could be co-opted and re-directed for good, positive purposes. He realized that Dexter could exercise his urge to be "bad..." on bad people...murdering the perpetrators the police simply couldn't catch because of legalistic loopholes. Then Dexter's father taught his son how to hide his own sociopathic tendencies while spotting them (or targeting them...) in others. Flash forward to today: Dexter tortures and kills menaces like Mike Donovan, a child murderer who has evaded the police and gotten away scot free. While killing Donovan, Dexter notes his repulsion for the serial killer, and moreso for the murder of children. "I have standards," he notes; defining the difference between himself and his brethren.

The first episode of Dexter is filled with clever observations (again, usually in voice over) from Dexter about the normal populace he interacts with and hides from. Thus, in the time honored tradition of science fiction programs such as Star Trek, he is essentially the "resident alien" or "observant outsider." Lacking a conscience and lacking any emotions whatsoever, Dexter is a character who can look coolly and distantly at us. He has a perspective on humanity that comes from outside it. "Normal people are so hostile," he trenchantly notes at one point. "I'm a very neat monster," he realizes at another point, proving that he is also able to turn the microscope on himself.

Can a sociopathic serial killer utilize his "handicap" or "disease" (or whatever you call it...) productively for society at large? That's the central question of Dexter, and it's the most original idea for a TV series I've seen in some time. You watch this show and you're immediately drawn into Dexter's world view. You see things how he sees things: without passion or prejudice; without love or bias. He is a monster, and yet he's human through and through. Still, he lacks the essential trait that makes us all what we are (that being feelings...) and yet - thanks to his Dad's teaching - he boasts a moral code of sorts. Sure it isn't legal; but vigilantism never is.

Michael C. Hall is terrific as Dexter Morgan, and it's awesome how funny - and truth be told, how deep - this series is. For instance, there's a subplot involving Dexter's inability to understand "mating rituals" and sex. In fact, part of his plan to hide his sociopathic tendencies from the rest of the world involves a girlfriend named Rita (Angel's Julie Benz). She was raped some time back and now vehemently distrusts men. This means she doesn't want to have sex, and that suits Dexter just fine. He finds intercourse "undignified." Unfortunately, Rita realizes how much she trusts and likes Dexter, meaning that is ready to have sex with him...an idea Dexter can't stomach.

Dexter Morgan is an unusual and highly unconventional protagonist, and it looks like many episodes will involve his cat & mouse hunt of the serial killer also preying on the population of Miami. His new nemesis carves up bodies...but leaves no blood at the crime scene. Dexter is impressed by his opposite's skill, and learns that he manages this feat courtesy of a refrigeration truck. In the first episode, Dexter hunts him by night, and interestingly, the as-yet unseen serial killer is also aware of what Dexter "is," and thus throws down the gauntlet: he dumps a decapitated head on Dexter's car during their first night-time encounter.

Fascinating and boasting a distinct point of view, Dexter is already appointment television. It's an inventive series, splendidly acted and written, but what I like about it most so far is the high quotient of black humor. For instance, Dexter keeps a sail boat. Not because he likes sailing so much as because it is handy for body disposal. The boat is named "Slice of Life..."

Friday, October 13, 2006

Happy Friday the 13th



Chi-chi-chi-chi, haah-haah-haah...

(That's horror-ese for: Don't Go In The Woods. Or: don't have pre-marital sex at Crystal Lake, and don't smoke weed either...)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Bionic Woman Gets "Re-Imagined"...and I Get a Headache

My good friend Fred - who always has his ear to the ground on genre news - sent me this interesting item. The next sci-fi series to get the Hollywood Special and suffer through a "re-imagination" (a la Battlestar Galactica or Night Stalker...) is the 1970s Lindsay Wagner classic, The Bionic Woman. And guess what? It's from the producer of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica too!

Here's the skinny according to author Josef Adalian:

"Battlestar Galactica
exec producer David Eick is teaming with feature scribe Laeta Kalogridis to reinvent "The Bionic Woman" for NBC. Eick and Kalogridis will exec produce a new take on "Bionic," a 1970s spin-off of "The Six Million Dollar Man" in which Lindsay Wagner played tennis pro-turned-superwoman Jamie [sic] Sommers. Skein aired for two seasons on ABC before shifting to NBC in 1977 for its final year.

"It's a complete reconceptualization of the title," Eick told Daily Variety. "We're using the title as a starting point, and that's all."

Sounds familiar (and arrogant...) doesn't it? Because, what fans of the original Bionic Woman really liked was not the story; not the characters...it was just the brand name, right? So that's all that's going to be used in the re-do. What genius! I'm glad there are clever producers out there who realize storyline and characterization don't wins hearts and minds of fans; only franchise titles do. These producers could create memorable new, artistic shows (with memorable new titles), but instead, they feast on the bones of fan nostalgia and craft GREAT new product like The Wild Wild West (1998) or the movie version of Lost in Space (1998). We all want more of that magic, don't we?

And by the way, did I tell you, I'm remaking Star Trek, but my version also just takes the brand name, not the concept or characters. The series is actually about running (or trekking...) around Hollywood chasing celebrities (or stars...), thus a Star Trek. I'm sure Star Trek fans (who just love the name of the original show, not the characters or storylines...) would appreciate that. Wouldn't they?

What makes this news even worse is that Kalogridis is the talent behind the WB crapfest that was known as Birds of Prey. In case you forgot, that was the short-lived re-imagination that cast Batman as an absentee father, whose reign of crime fighting was remembered by Gothamites only as a myth. Because people really only liked the title Birds of Prey (it was a comic...), not the actual content.

Sarcasm aside, it's sad that these bean counting vultures are the people re-making our favorite shows. People who see marketable titles, and then decide to "re-invent" them not according to the property's inherent value, but according to their infinite personal wisdom instead. .But I'm sure there will be fans who eat up the new Bionic Woman and say it will be superior to the "cheesy" and "old" original. Because if there's any ruling edict of Hollywood remakes it is this: anything that came about in the 1970s is cheesy, and everything that is old, sucks. Right?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Happiest Day...

Monday, October 9th was truly one of the happiest days of my life. My beautiful and incredibly strong wife, Kathryn gave birth to our first child, a son named Joel. He's the most adorable and sweet baby you've ever seen. We just got home from the hospital this afternoon, and so I missed blogging this week's Heroes and Friday Night Lights. Trust you'll all forgive the interruption in the blog on this occasion...

I guess I just wanted to share with all my readers the deep emotional joy and euphoria I feel at having this blessed, healthy son in our midst. In a silly way, I had hoped he'd arrive on a special day for me (Friday the 13th...), but seeing him here in my office nursing with Kathryn (right next to a cardboard stand-up of Captain James T. Kirk...) , I realize every day for the rest of my life will be very special indeed, and filled with love.

Don't worry, I won't blog here about breast-feeding or diaper changes - at least not often - but for today at least, I just couldn't keep this joy to myself...

New Column up at Far Sector

My monthly column is now up at Far Sector. It's called "The End of the World as We Know it (On Network Television), and looks at some of the early episodes of this season's sci-fi shows.

Here's a sample:

Last season (2005-2006), network television acknowledged the startling success of ABC’s Lost with a slew of imitators: serialized science fiction TV series that combined mystery and soap opera elements. All of them—NBC’s Surface, CBS’s Threshold, ABC’s double-hitter: Invasion and Night Stalker — bit the dust. None survived to see a second season (and in the case of Surface and Invasion, that’s a shame, as they both had a lot of promise.)

This season, the networks are at it again, attempting to blend science fiction 'high concepts' with soap opera character melodrama. The aliens and sea monsters of last year are absent, replaced by an entirely more fascinating breed of 'what if' set-ups. The trend has skewed from the fantastic and the extra-terrestrial this year to the dark. Real dark.

In particular, CBS’s Jericho is television’s first post-apocalyptic series since Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run came along in the Cold War 1970s, and NBC’s Heroes gazes lugubriously at the next evolution of humanity. Yes, it’s a superhero show…but also something darker and more mysterious; something with a portentous sense of gravitas. In particular, both series appear obsessed with a change in the nature of humanity and our world; the end of man’s 21st century civilization as we know it. I can only account for this new mini-trend by noting that it’s surely a sign of the times. With Christian fundamentalists populating the White House and Islamic fundamentalists leading Iran, how long is it before this so-called global 'clash of civilizations' ends badly for all of us? Which breed of religious zealot will push the button first? Both sides want to initiate the “End of Days,” so it’s a toss-up, especially given our reckless new policy of pre-emptive war.

So — as always — television capitalizes on the cultural Zeitgeist, and in this case, predicts a 'shift' in our world that could be catastrophic.

You can read more of these observations, and the rest of the column,
here.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "The Frozen World"

This week on Filmation's Flash Gordon, we have Chapter 8: "The Frozen World." Flash, Baron and Zarkov are hatching plans to unseat Ming (while Dale dutifully brings them tea...). The group realizes that the rebellion will need huge quantities of fuel to power their fighters, in particular, Orium. Prince Barin notes that Orium can be found in large quantities in the kingdom run by his cousin, Fria. It's called "Fridgia," and it is at Mongo's North Pole.

Flash, Dale, Zarkov and Thun head off in a leaf fighter (evading Ming's forces...) to meet Fria and request her help. Once again, Fria is a beautiful woman and Dale gets jealous (Hey, didn't that also happen with Queen Undina?) Anyway, Flash tells Fria that "the time is coming when the people of Mongo will rise up." Fascinated by the Earthling, Fria escorts Flash on a tour of her snow castle and informs the delegation that "ice itself" is the building block of her culture. She also tells Flash that he will find the "pleasures" in the city to his liking. Translation: she may live in Fridgia, but the Queen's not frigid.

Anyway, one of Fria's suitors, Count Mallow (That's Marsh Mallow, to you...) grows angry over Fria's attentive attitude towards Flash and attempts to kill Dale and Flash while they're swimming in a pool. Later, Flash rescues Mallow from a giant ice worm, and Mallow recants his evil ways. Unfortunately, before everyone can kiss and make up, Mallow, Dale, Zarkov and Thun are captured by a race of giants, and Flash and Fria are buried in an avalanche.

To be continued...

"The Frozen World" re-uses some footage we've seen before in Flash Gordon. The lair of the giants is actually the headquarters of the Beast Men from an earlier chapter. It wouldn't be so noticeable except that Fridgia is all icy blue, and the Beast Man mountain is desert red and orange. Oopsy.

Some other fun facts from this episode: Thun lets us know that "worry" is the natural state of the lion men. And also, Zarkov points out Sol, Earth's sun, to Dale, during the voyage to Fridgia. It looks very, very far away...

If you're keeping tabs, so far Flash has united The Hawkmen, Barin's Arboria, the Lion Men, the underwater kingdom of Undina, and now he's added Fridgia to the list. It's his own coalition of the willing to stop that despotic dictator, Ming.

Friday, October 06, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 48: Mattel's Flash Gordon Rocket Ship


As regular readers here are aware, I've been blogging the animated Filmation series from the early 1980s, Flash Gordon. Considering that, it feels like an opportune time to feature a collectible toy from that TV series: Mattel's inflatable Flash Gordon rocket ship. What a toy this is...

Straight from "the greatest adventure of all," this whopping rocket ship ("not for use as a flotation device," in case you were wondering...) is over 2.5 feet long (and was made in Taiwan). It's a giant of a toy, with room to hold two action figures from the Flash Gordon Mattel line. The box notes that the toy is over "2.5 feet [81.6 cm] long from nose cannon to tail fin when chamber is filled with air."

The rocket's cockpit houses two figures and can "detach" to carry Flash or Zarkov (not included) on adventure. Yep, it doubles as a "modular space shuttle" that can be rolled out on "a recon mission." The nose cannon also detaches from the central rocket (and "re-mounts with cloth fastener!"). Also, the box suggests that kids can find "the eyelets and your own string" to hang the ship up.

I remember collecting the Flash Gordon action figures as a kid. I had four of 'em to be precise: Flash, Zarkov, Ming and The Lizard Woman. I bought them at a store called Newberry's in Verona, New Jersey...where they cost a dollar a piece. But I also recall seeing this massive inflatable rocket ship in the pages of a Sears catalog and desperately wanting it.

I never actually owned the rocket until I found one mint-in-box on E-Bay for cheap about two years ago. Although I like to keep my toys in their packages, I couldn't resist opening and playing with this one. It now stands inflated in one corner of my office, where the cats bat it (worse than Ming the Merciless, I guess...) and my wife complains that it's going to be destroyed.

Still, this toy is totally awesome, in part because of the size; in part because it is light and easy to maneuver, and in part because it actually has that visible cockpit atop the ship where you can sit your Flash figures! That's just cool...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

TV REVIEW: Friday Night Lights

Here's an admission for you: I despise football. I hate everything about it. Just having football on the TV gives me a throbbing headache. The sounds of the crowd and the whistles and the commentary make me want to puke. Why the fervent non-love? Well, there are too many reasons to name, but here's a good one: many of the professional players are overpaid, over-glorified thugs.

Another geeky complaint: I have painful, long-buried memories of professional football pre-empting Star Trek reruns on WPIX when I was a kid. I carry those scars to this day...

And besides, soccer is an entirely more fascinating and skill-based game than American football anyway...

So take this non-fan seriously when I write these words: the new NBC program Friday Night Lights offers one of the best shot, best edited and best acted series premieres in the history of the medium. Yes, it's that good. Unbelievably good. Like...feature film quality good.

Friday Night Lights, developed for television by Peter Berg, charts the life and times of a small West Texas town that loves football. The high school football team, "the Panthers," is the non-stop subject du jour on the radio, on local tv, in the papers, at political meetings and in the corridors of the high school. Football is love; football is life; football is obsession.

And this focus makes things really tough for the Panthers' rookie coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler). He must prove himself worthy of the coveted job, and quick. "With expectations like this, the only place you can go is down," he is told during the countdown to the first big game of the season. He is also hounded all over town by citizens who offer him unwanted advice, support...and ultimatums. "We want to win championships," he is reminded constantly. The season premiere follows the events in the small town from a Monday in training to the first Friday night game, and builds up tension so gloriously you can almost forget all this rigmarole is about a stupid game in which people throw and catch a ball, and tackle each other.

But television, like movies, isn't always about whether you win or lose. It's about how you play the game, and Friday Night Lights plays like no other show on television (or any show in television history...). The episode I watched was visually distinctive, to say the least. It appeared to be cut together entirely of "stolen" moments. In other words, the series boasts a nearly cinema-verite look in which it appears footage were grabbed on the fly and not laboriously prepared and staged (which of course, is exactly how it's done...). This brilliant visual palette and conceit captures something essential and true about the life of these townspeople. If all feels spontaneous, anticipatory, portentous, ephemeral...and isn't that the precisely the feelings we experience before we watch any sporting contest, local or televised? Who will win? Who will lose? Who will rise? Who will fall?

But if Friday Night Lights were only great-looking and only concerning sports-cliches, I wouldn't give a damn about this series. Instead, Friday Night Lights is something deeper. It's a window into a weird and fascinating American sub-culture ("This is Texas football," we are informed, with great seriousness). This is a world where Christianity and football are oddly tied together, like Jesus Christ himself dreamed of being a quarterback or some such thing. There are multiple times in the premiere episode wherein religion and sports are conflated into one glorious thing. "Here's to God and Football," one person says, as though he truly believes his team his blessed by The Lord and destined to win. Like God - if there is one - doesn't have more important things to worry about. This kind of hyperbole goes further. The young quarterback, Jason Steele is described in glowing terms as a "super star" and a "great leader." Even this is not enough for the town's myth-building apparatus, which includes the press. Taylor tells the news reporters that Steele's also a man of high moral fiber. Like that's somehow necessary to throw passes, right?

As depicted on this series, the weekly Red State football ritual looks distinctly bizarre...and delusional. "Let's pray" is a common refrain before games, during games, and after games, and yet when Jason Steele falls in battle (on the field) and is replaced by a great new star, he is virtually forgotten. The Panthers win their first game and get a new star to worship, and the old star suffers in a hospital with a spinal injury, his future career destroyed. Whom Gods Destroy?

If I'm not making myself plain, let me put it this way: Friday Night Lights isn't merely about football; it's about the whole culture surrounding football (and in particular, Texas football). As a slice of bizarre, almost alien life, it is unmatched in its sense of observing human life unfold. The premiere opens, for instance, with views of a shabby, tiny house with a trashy front yard and used old car pulling up. This is exactly what America looks like in a lot of places...but we don't often see this unromantic, realistic vision on Hollywood-produced television. Instead, Friday Night Lights visually cues us in to a very important fact: football is an obsession in West Texas because the people who aren't lucky enough to live in the butt-ugly McMansions (which we also see...) instead live in poverty.

It's not that football is their escape...it's that football is their distraction from unpleasant reality. The hullabaloo around the game distracts the citizens from how crappy things are right there in their front yards. And that's kind of sad, isn't it? That we elevate high-school athletes to men of "moral strength," and "superstar" status because they can run and tackle? That we throw our daughters at these men like whores so that we can receive some sense of basking in their greatness? Let's face it, we should be focusing on making certain our neighbors are fed and sheltered and warm. Elevating football to Christian crusade only puts a new spin on a very old game of bread and circuses.

But damn if this isn't a great show...

Buck Rogers: "Happy Birthday, Buck!"

In “Happy Birthday, Buck” a long-time human captive on the planet Ovion (?) Colonel Cornell Traeger (Peter MacLean) escapes and returns...