Saturday, January 14, 2006

Link of the Week: Destinies - The Voice of Science Fiction

I often say that Dr. Howard Margolin, the host of the genre radio-talk show, Destinies, The Voice of Science Fiction, is the "sci fi Larry King."

I'm only half-kidding. Like King, Margolin is a great interviewer. But in many ways, he's also a lot better than Larry King, because Howard doesn't usually ask softballs. No offense intended to Mr. King.

For nearly a quarter century, Dr. Margolin has been hosting his radio talk show on Friday nights at 11:30 pm, transmitting from Stony Brook, Long Island. The bailiwick of Destinies is anything genre-related, and Margolin has featured telephone interviews as well as recorded one-on-ones over the years with novelists, musicians, comic-book artists, actors...you name it.

Howard brings to the table (and the recording studio...) two characteristics that any audience would desire in a talk show host, whether on TV or radio: knowledge and honesty.

On the former front, Howard is literally one of the most knowledgeable people I've ever met. His brain is an encyclopedia of facts, figures, dates and intricate cross-genre connections. Although Destinies explicitly concerns science-fiction, Howard is just as likely to know the minute details of Broadway musicals, comic-books created twenty-five years ago, superhero movies, soundtrack details, and on and on. He could probably host a different radio show each night of the week, if he had the inclination. Cuz he's definitely got the chops. I always tell him he's the one who should be writing books!

So Howard has the knowledge - and also, importantly, a passion, for this work. But equally critical, I think, is his intellectual honesty as a host. I've known Howard Margolin since the year 2000, when my wife and I met him and Richard Hatch for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. So it's fair to state that we're good buddies now. Yet the great thing about Howard is that he's never less-than-intellectually honest about his guests and their work. Before each show he prepares an extensive script (replete with detailed questions,), and if the subject of the interview is a new book, he'll read that book carefully from front to back before the show. And let's just say he won't let you get off easy if he senses you've written something weak, unmotivated, or contradictory.

Like I said, I've known Howard for over five years, and I've appeared as a guest on Destinies - I believe - six times, and on every such occasion, he manages to hit me with a difficult question that I hadn't really thought much about, thus illuminating some new aspect of my work. As opposed to being off-putting, this approach actually stimulates the discussion, and makes the interview very substantive. And that's a far cry from most "fluff" entertainment shows out there. One of the best interviews I've ever listened to Margolin conduct was with Richard Matheson a few years back. As a host, Howard is always polite, but - even when dealing with a legend like Matheson - asks the questions you'd like to hear answered.

So this week, I just wanted to direct all the readers on the blog to Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction. It's a genre radio show with a great host, but also - I hasten to add - great guests. Howard has interviewed cast members from Andromeda, Earth Final Conflict, Farscape, Babylon 5, Star Trek, all generations of Battlestar Galactica, and more. He's featured writers like Keith De Candido, Scott Nicholson, and Peter David. And I really admire this aspect of the show: Howard is open to new talent and "established" talent alike, and so his time on the air races by for the listener.

Sometimes, Destinies consists of panel discussions with in-studio guests (like a show two Fridays ago looking at the films of 2005), and this week, the program celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Adam West Batman series and the 30th anniversary of The Bionic Woman with a Destinies Radio Theater Double Feature.

So if you get the opportunity, check out Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction. Dr. Margolin ends all of his broadcasts with the unique sign off "best of all possible destinies..." and he's been making that promise come true for listeners and fans of talk radio for a long time now.

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "There's No Place Like Home"

In this installment of Filmation's live-action Saturday morning outer space series from the disco decade, young orphan Loki is despondent because he still doesn't know where his home is; from which planet in all the expansive universe where he hails. "If only I could wish upon a star," muses Commander Gampu, while secretly ruling out systems like Sirius and others. You can't be Sirius...

Meanwhile, something weird is happening in Bay 3, a hydroponics-type dome in the Academy. A strange man has "transphased" there. At first he appears as a giant, hairy Grimace-like creature. Then he transforms into a bunny rabbit, which Adrian adopts and names Jumping Jupiter. But when the alien morphs into a man, we start to understand his strategy. He finds Loki and promptly informs the orphan that he is from Loki's home planet. Furthermore, he seems to have information to back-up that assertion. He notes that Loki wears an amulet which features a holographic coat of arms. The alien promises to take Loki home, but only after the boy has stolen an unstable compound called MX-5 from the Academy science labs.

At first, Loki refuses to steal from his friends, but then the alien (now garbed in a green cape and hood, and played by Larry Dobkin), reveals his power to alter molecular structure. He threatens Loki by turning a table in the boy's quarters to stone. Suitably scared, Loki steals the compound (in a giant glass beaker...), and the alien flees the Academy, a seeker in hot pursuit. When the Seeker with the MX-5 aboard blows out its main battery, the Academy students and Gampu save the alien, and take his problems to the Federation for negotiation...

This episode raises a few questions. For instance, if the alien needs to steal a Seeker to leave the Academy and return to his home planet, how does he "transphase" successfully to the Academy in the first place? It might have been nice to use THAT technology to make quick his escape. Secondly, a rabbit appears out of the blue in an Academy dome, and nobody thinks that's suspicious. As my wife pointed out while watching this show, rabbits don't just grow on trees...especially in deepest space. Maybe the presence of a rabbit in the dome should have been a sign of warning to someone...

It's also quite bizarre that during the rescue operation aboard the damaged Seeker, Chris and Tee-Gar wear no protective gear at all, even though the cabin is filled with gas and smoke and vapour...and Loki has warned them about it. I guess they just figured they'd be quick?

Still, I got a real kick out of the moment at the end of this Space Academy episode when the little robot Peepo began flailing his arms and declaring "Danger! Danger!" This HAS to be a reference to Lost in Space, star Jonathan Harris's (Gampu) previous series...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Blockbuster Video - a Zombie?

I just read this fascinating article about the demise of Blockbuster Video at Slate.com. Journalist Edward Jay Epstein has written a piece, "Hollywood's New Zombie: The Last Days of Blockbuster." It's an interesting article, and it describes, in detail, how a combination of bad business deals and "new" market options (like Netflix) have made the old videostore obsolete.

Somehow, I can't find it in my heart to cry for Blockbuster, even though it is a cherished part of my college experience. Back at the University of Richmond in 1988-1992 when I was a student there, the Blockbuster Video store on West Broad Street (a shop which isn't there anymore, by the way...) was a staple. My roommate Allan, friend Chris and I were there all the time. And it seemed great to be able to rent episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series, the original Outer Limits, and more. Didn't hurt, either, that it was stationed next to a Taco Bell, for midnight runs to the border. Today, at 36, my stomach does tumbles at the thought of that...


But, of course, Blockbuster ran a lot of mom & pop video stores out of business on its way to global domination. So turnabout, I suppose, is fair play. I wonder if other so-called "brick and mortar" stores (like Hollywood Video and Family Video) are also facing this business apocalypse.

Must admit, I'm disappointed that one of the nails in Blockbuster's coffin came from that Mart o' Darkness, Walmart. Now there's a company I'd really like to see fail. (Or at least pay its fair share of employee health insurance, so it doesn't burden states...) But anyway, I guess I already know the answer about the future of "brick and mortar stores." Why? Just after Christmas, I read that all the Media Play stores in Charlotte, where I live now, are closing down. I've been purchasing stuff there since 1994, when I moved to the city with my wife, Kathryn. I used to love going to that store...but today, it just feels so...nineties.

Anyway, now I get my movies through Netflix. Or buy 'em straight-up from Amazon.com. I can't even remember the last time I shopped at Media Play, or rented from Blockbuster. So I guess their day is over. Another part of American pop culture relegated to the dust-bin of history.


What do you think? Where do you "get" your movie rentals these days? Downloads (naughty, naughty...), mail services (like Netflix) or old school, like Blockbuster?

Happy Friday the 13th!


Or, roughly translated into horror speak: CHI-CHI-CHI-CHI; HA-HA-HA-HA!

Yes, it's Friday the 13th today! Go out and celebrate!! But - word to the wise, here - if you go camping at Crystal Lake, don't engage in pre-marital sex, don't smoke weed, and don't say "I'll Be Right Back."

And if a crazed lunatic wearing a hockey mask and brandishing a machete comes at you, pretend to be his Mommy...

"That's a good boy, Jason. That's a very good boy. You make mommy so proud. So proud." (then skulk away...)

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "Us or Them"

Invasion returned Wednesday night (1/11/06), but I couldn't stay awake to watch it, hence I'm reviewing it today, on Friday the 13th.

Oh boy, and it's a doozy, this installment penned by Shaun Cassidy and directed by J. Miller Tobin. The Church Survivor's Group (a front for the "hybrids") beats up a non-hybrid, meaning a human, at the start of the episode; and suddenly a pack or mob mentality is obvious. These aliens like to protect their own, we see. Mariel derides the "us or them" mentality and comes to the fella's rescue. But lesson learned: don't cross the aliens.

Russell also confronts Mariel about his discovery, Tom's skeletal remains (or what's left of 'em..) and relates what he really thinks happened to the secretive sheriff back in that 1996 plane crash. Mariel reacts strongly; fearful that Russell is trying to take her family away. "I can't believe you'd want to hurt our family this badly," she weeps. Okay, I might just be in love with Mariel Underlay. At first, I was attracted to her ice princess exterior and cool doctor's demeanor; but now I see there's a soft, vulnerable center just crying out to be cared for.

I better stop that right there...

Anyway, it seems to me that this two-families-forced-together aspect of the show, created by Shaun Cassidy, remains the series' greatest strength; the thing that keeps me watching even when individual installments feel slow or deliberately opaque. The "blended family" drama raises the stakes a bit. Russell and Mariel are supposed to share responsibility for their children; but it's also clear that neither really trusts the other. I've known plenty of divorces that get this ugly. The paranoia about "the ex" is always high, but add a mysterious hurricane, some orange lights in the water, and, well, you've got Anxiety Central here. It's a good set-up. Children endangered? Check! Jealous "new" spouses? Check! One-upmanship among families? Check! See how nicely all that works side-by-side with the alien "body snatchers" drama? As Commander Koenig once said on Space:1999, "we're all aliens...until we get to know one another."

The remainder of "Us or Them" is also really good, and three other subplots dominate. In one, Lewis - the deputy who had to chop his arm off with a chainsaw in the last installment - loses "faith" in Tom, meaning our villainous sheriff could be trouble. In another, Tom and Mariel become estranged...things are looking bad for Tom here because of his secretive nature (i.e. his blatant dishonesty!). And finally, teenage Jessie - not to be outdone by Miles on Surface, who had his first kiss this week - gets to take a bath with Emily, a really hot sorority sister, who also derides the "us or them" mentality prevalent in this week's segment. "If you're not an us, you're a them," she complains, between deep dives to the bottom of the tub. "I've always been a them," Jessie admits.

It looks like next week's installment is going to bring a lot of this material to a boil. Tom has "abducted" the children (to take them to the water and make them hybrids, perhaps?), Lewis is MIA, and we learn that bikini-clad Emily is -- you guessed it -- a hybrid too; a sorority sister who drowned during the hurricane. No more baths, for you, Jessie....

Muir & The New York Daily News Part II: The Armageddon

Hey everybody, yours truly is back in The New York Daily News on this happy Friday the 13th! Lookie-lookie!

Journalist Joe Neumaier, feature writer at the Daily News and film expert himself, presents an article entitled
"Return of the Living Dread", which examines the latest horror trend; the new crop of 1970s-like "savage" cinema horror movies suddenly finding mainstream popularity in the 21st century (titles like Hostel, HIgh Tension, Wolf Creek, The Devil's Rejects, etc.)

Anyway, here's a sample of the piece. Go check out the full article. It's good:

The trend started with the remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in 2003, which had a $28 million debut. It continues this spring with a remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" (which is eyeballing an NC-17 rating for excessive violence) and an intense thriller called "Hard Candy," which, like "Hostel," has a fascination with surgical instruments.

It's a long way from the '80s heydays of Jason in "Friday the 13th" and Freddy Krueger in "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

"What happened is that the slasher films of the early 1980s eventually became self-parody, and weren't scaring anyone anymore," says John Kenneth Muir, author of "Horror Films of the 1970s" and "Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper."


Guess The Movie # 1


All right, let's see how good you really are. From what movie does the above-displayed still come from?

And more pertinently, what's the funniest caption you can come up with for the photo. Leave your answer in the comment field!

Here's my caption:


After President Bush set out the parameters for legitimate debate about Iraq this week, the Administration followed-up by releasing a brochure picturing their idea of the perfect war critic...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Which Are You? Apollo or Starbuck?

I recently had a long conversation with a friend about Battlestar Galactica, and the reasons I enjoyed the series so much back when it aired in the late 1970s (when I was still very impressionable, and it had a great impact on me...) I could argue many explanations (including the inclusion of a mythological subtext; the sincere attempt at an alien lexicon; the great special effects; the cool Cylons, and on and on.)

But I realized, there was something very clever and canny going on in the construction of the characters in this Glen A. Larson series (and I'm talking old school Galactica here, not the Moore post 9/11 "re-imagination.") To wit, I think that everybody in the world can be narrowed down to one of two types. You're either a Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) or you are an Apollo (Richard Hatch).

These characters have fundamentally different approaches to life; and I think they mirror universal psychological types.

Starbuck is the adventurer, swashbuckler, party-guy. He's the one who can game the system, and attract the chicks by being a "bad boy." Starbuck is charming, given to vices (like his fumarellos and ambrosia and gambling...), but also extremely good at his narrow skill set: he's the best viper pilot in the fleet.

By contrast, Apollo is a responsible fellow, one who wears authority with a great deal of fairness and even-handedness. He sees responsibility not as a burden (like Starbuck) but as a duty to be fulfilled. He's a good son to Adama and a good father (to Boxey). Again, there's that responsibility that this character takes so seriously! This time: family And that's a buzz word for Apollo -- he's serious. But also, consider that Apollo probably has a wider skill-set than Starbuck. He's the Blue Squadron commander, which means he leads warriors into combat, and he bears the burden of command decisions. In many senses, his sense of intellect is more developed than his friend's too...

I imagine these guys as roommates in college. Apollo would always have his head in a book studying, while Starbuck would be pulling pranks and attending frat (not frak) parties.

Growing up I think I always wanted to be Starbuck (because he has a way with ladies like Cassiopiea and Athena), but in fact, I think I'm much more like Apollo. I take things very seriously.

So who are you? Starbuck or Apollo? And why so? Who would you prefer to be? (and don't say Muffit...)

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 25: The Piggy Bank

Quick! Where does Captain Picard stow his paycheck? Ah, that's a trick question. Officers in Starfleet (and presumably all Federation citizens...) don't use money in the 24th Century. Hah! Everybody just "enriches" themselves educationally and stuff. Sounds boring if you ask me...

But for us guys left in the apparently Ferengi-like, "Yankee Trader" capitalist society of the early 21st century, we need a place to hold on to that valuable loose change. (A lesson Kirk and Spock learned in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home...) Sure we've got our ATMs and Debit Cards for big purchases, but where do we stick the dimes, quarters, nickels and - god forbid - all those pennies?

The answer, if you're REALLY a sci-fi geek, is - of course - science fiction oriented piggy banks! I guess they're not really "piggy" banks at all anymore, but sci-fi character banks. "Piggy banks" still sounds more fun as a descriptor.

One of the first such banks I ever owned was produced by Playpal Plastics Inc. in the mid-1970s. It's a character piece of Galen, the intelligent chimpanzee (played by Roddy McDowall) on the Planet of the Apes TV series. As a kid, I used to keep this item close to my bed, and dump the spare quarters in (so on the weekends, I could go buy trading cards at the milk store...).

One truly odd character oriented piggy bank came to me courtesy of my late grandfather, who - in the late 1980s and 1990s - explored probably hundreds of flea markets to find me sci-fi collectibles. It's an ALF "Talking Bank" from Alien Productions Inc., circa 1987.

The legend on the bank (which features ALF and a bank vault, is "Wonderful, Strong. Safe with me." This is a weird one, but I've never found anybody in the world who owns an ALF bank (besides me), so I sort of treasure it.

With the resurgence of Star Wars popularity in 1999 came a whole new generation of interactive character banks. Why, there were banks of Jar Jar Binks, Qui Gonn Jinn, Obi Wan Kenobi, old-schoolers like Darth Vader, and even my favorite non-Vader Sith, Darth Maul.

The great thing about these banks is that they all play music (like Vader's theme), dance around like little automatons, light up, and do all kinds of neat stuff. The downside is that they go haywire spontaneously. One of my best friends has a kid we just love, named Jacob. He was ten years old or so when these banks came out, and they would freak him out by suddenly "activating" themselves in the middle of the night. Very, very strange...

A couple of years ago for Christmas, my parents gave me a truly wonderful piggy bank. This is a Star Trek "borg" bank, a toy/bank that proves we truly live in the age of the collector. This bank lovingly recreates the Enterprise's first encounter with the evil Borg, from Next Gen. You place a coin on the Enterprise, a tractor beam activates, and the ship gets dragged into the large bank, the Borg cube.

Tell me that isn't incredibly cool. Or geeky. Depends, I guess, as Obi-Wan would say, on "your point of view."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Scarecrows and magic and other fatal fears do not bring people closer together. There is no magic substitute for soft caring and hard work, for self-respect and mutual love. If we can learn this from the mistake these frightened men made, then their mistake will not have been merely grotesque. It will have been at least a lesson - a lesson at last to be learned."
-The Outer Limits (closing voice-over narration), "The Architects of Fear," September 30th, 1963.

TV REVIEW: Medium: "Doctor's Orders"

Medium (like the brilliant UPN series, Veronica Mars) is one of those TV series I've seen as a "Johnny Come Lately." With Mars, at least, I had the opportunity to catch the entire first season on DVD this holiday season (thus generating a new entertainment addiction for me and my wife...)

With Medium, however, I'm still playing catch-up. NBC has aired a few reruns from early in the first season, so - slowly but surely - I'm picking up on the background detail of the series.

Allison's nemesis this week is one who's apparently been on the show before, but I'm not sure exactly who he is. He's the psychic projection, apparently, of a deceased - and highly malevolent - physician. The character (named Dr. Walker, I think...) is portrayed with chilling creepiness by Mark Sheppard, the fellow who once played firestarter Cecil Lively in an early, first season episode of The X-Files ("Fire"). He also guested as a frontier outlaw on a few episodes of Firefly, if memory serves.

Regardless, this dark spirit goes to susceptible men like doctors and butchers and urges them to kill women, and in "Doctor's Orders," he nearly gets his vicious claws into Joe and Allison's eldest daughter, Ariel. Masquerading as her new school librarian, the vengeful spirit encourages the twelve-year old to attend a weekend party with a fourteen-year old boyfriend named Todd Grimato; over the objections of her parents. This strategy nicely sets up Allison - the only threat to the "good" doctor's killing spree - so that she ends up in jail on charges of assault.

Of course, it's all a decoy. What he's really up to is far darker than encouraging a tween's bad behavior. He's the merciless Iago in the ear of an unstable butcher at the Sunfair Grocery Market, and the doctor tries to get the poor guy to carve up a hottie shopper in the back room. For Allison to stop the murder, she'll have to get released from prison...

I'm fond of Medium because it continues - in episodes like this one - to balance the psychic/horrific with the family domestic scene. That's a delicate tight-rope, but the show always pulls it off. For instance, much of this episode involves Joe and Allison's parenting choices. They form a unified front with Ariel, refusing to let her date a 14-year old boy; or go to the movies with him. Everything they say and dictate with Ariel is precisely what a responsible parent would say. And yet, with Ariel's blossoming teenage rebellion and that psychic Iago working from the side-lines, things get very scary. A child is threatened, and that's serious territory.


It's a testament to the respective talents of writer Rene Echevarria and director Helen Shaver that throughout "Doctor's Orders," I actually suspended disbelief, forgot I was watching a TV show and worried what was going to become of the family. Most episodes of Medium I've enjoyed tremendously, but this one felt darker and more dangerous than the ones I've had the good fortune to see. And it all works, I hasten to add, because the program has so consistently (and without maudlin, saccharine garbage, like Ghost Whisperer...) established the dynamics of the DuBois family.

My initial instinct about Medium was that it's a full-blown "horror series," especially because the first show I think I watched was the 3-D slice-and-dice episode "Still Life" (replete with spurting blood...). "Doctor's Orders" reinforces that notion fully. So "family horror" (also a factor on the missed and much-mourned Millennium) is, I guess, back in vogue

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY # 7: The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi (2004)

In many ways, the year 2004 was a magic year for me, at least professionally.

I had two books released from two publishers, and both were big successes commercially and critically. I've already featured (i.e. plugged) The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television here on the blog, in my weekly "Muir Book Wednesday" attempt at blatant self-promotion. (Hint: buy the book!).

Now, I want to feature the Applause Theatre and Cinema Books portion of that successful duo, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi. This one was a really fun book to write, and I'm glad it's done so well.

Sometimes, when I look back at books I did in the past, I wish I could change certain aspects of them. You know, alter a line in my discourse here or there; or bring in some new facet. Yet this is one book that really bucks that trend for me (and I'm always very critical of my own work). I'm actually still gratified by how good I think it turned out. Of course, Sam Raimi is easy to write about...he's a filmmaking genius.

Anyway, here's what the critics said:

Muir, who has written extensively on pop culture, guides readers on director Sam Raimi's 20-year journey from Michigan movie brat to Hollywood Heavyweight...Muir's giddy enthusiasm for Raimi shines through...the tone is perfect. All Raimi fans will want this book on the shelf next to their homemade Necronomicons. Highly recommended...(A STARRED REVIEW)"- Michael Rogers, LIBRARY JOURNAL, 6/1/04.

"Enter prolific genre scribe John Kenneth Muir, an aficionado and unapologetically hardcore fanboy who's already authored tomes on John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, as well as the indispensable coffee-table crusher Horror Films of the 1970s. Muir's gift for recognizing and interpreting film grammar serves him well once again, and while most of us could immediately (and correctly) identify Raimi trademarks like camera gymnastics and Three Stooges references, Muir digs even deeper to analyze themes and visual hooks that have evolved throughout films as diverse as Army of Darkness, The Gift and Spider-Man...Muir continues to prove himself as one of horror film's more gifted and passionate commentators." - John Bowen, RUE MORGUE, August 2004, page 18.

"Muir, author of Horror Films of the 1970s, admires and enjoys Raimi's highly praised work. Examining Raimi's oeuvre, from the cult classic low-budget horror film The Evil Dead (1981) through the mega-hit Spider-Man (2002), he offers lively, behind-the-scenes accounts via interviews with many of Raimi's collaborators. For example, he divulges the trade secrets of Tom Sullivan, the man responsible for the special effects in The Evil Dead, which illustrate the resourcefulness Raimi inspires in his colleagues...Muir shows how signature flourishes (e.g., his "Point of View subective shot") pop up in Raimi's fledgling works yet still thrill when used in Spider-Man. If there is a downside to the nonconformist director, Muir has yet to find it." - PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, May 31, 2004.

"...Author Muir is a staunch Raimi fan, waxing enthusiastic about each of Raimi's films - they're given a chapter apiece...it's more than a cut-and-paste job; he's interviewed assorted cast and crew and makes excellent use of their recollections. And he writes splendidly. An insightful chapter, for example, on the Raimi film I most admire, A Simple Plan, demonstrates how much it owes to the Cain and Abel story, Macbeth, Of Mice and Men and...The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Chapter by chapter, the book builds a case for Raimi as one of our most accomplished filmmakers...GRADE: A-." - Lawrence Tucker SCI-FI MAGAZINE Page 78. July 04.

"With two sections of photographs, including 20 never-before-seen stills detailing the making of the first two Evil Dead films, not to mention an amusing Raimi lexicon...The Unseen Force is in the end a must for the director's enthusiasts. " - Jeremiah Kipp, FANGORIA #235 page 79.

"The Unseen Force is a welcome and greatly appreciated contribution to the annals of filmmaking and filmmaker histories."- MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW.

"This is, overall, an excellent book by noted film author John Kenneth Muir. It takes us behind the scenes of every Sam Raimi movie from Evil Dead up to the newly released Spider-Man 2 and is for the most part, a riveting read...The most interesting thing about the study is the depth of detail to which Muir goes using information provided by key principals (where possible) to provide a neat analysis of each movie...the amount of information revealed is fascinating...a must for lovers of Evil Dead...Great for Raimi fans and Evil Dead fans alike with a strong analytical approach to keep prospective film students happy. RATING: 4.5 CHAINSAWS (out of 5)." - WITHIN THE WOODS: The Evil Dead Appreciation Site."

Very timely...for walking film encyclopedia John Kenneth Muir to write a book that discusses every single one of Raimi's movies, from the cult classic Evil Dead on, with an almost overwhelming amount of information and interviews...The book offers detailed accounts of Raimi's creativity behind the camera that will entertain and enlighten newcomers. But film aficionados already know this about Raimi. What the book does best is illuminate a novel reason why a Raimi film is rarely less than satisfying: It's not necessarily because of his technical skill, but because he creates an environment that brings out the best in those who work with him....this book is a very good starting place. And the interview footage contains enough bits of information to even satisfy longtime fans of the director." - Zal Sethna, THE DAILY YOMIURI September 12, 2004, page 22.

And this description is from the back cover:

Re-igniting the horror genre to such a degree that Wes Craven credited him on-screen, Sam Raimi exploded on the movie scene in 1982, when he was twenty-three years old, with the independently producer horror film, The Evil Dead. Raimi went on to direct two Evil Dead sequels, his own comic book superhero in Darkman, and a post-modern Western, The Quick and The Dead. A Simple Plan and The Gift reinforced the impression of a dark intellect at work.

John Muir follows Raimi from his early start in filmmaking to his box office record-breaking work in Spider-Man - with the biggest opening weekend in history, earning more than $114 million. Raimi's influence on other filmmakers can be seen in not only the "shaky cam" shots of the Coen Brothers, but also in the early oeuvre of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. The Unseen Force also features a look at the much anticipated Spider-Man 2.

Included here are thirty-first person accounts and interviews from a variety of eclectic sources, from the cinematographers who shot Raimi's early films to the producers, screenwriters, actors, special effects magicians, and composers who collaborated to make his films the stuff of legend.

So there you have it. You can order The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror: "Chocolate"

So far, the Showtime original series, Masters of Horror has been - by turns - relentlessly scary (Don Coscarelli's show), ridiculous (Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft contribution), and grimly nihilistic (Tobe Hooper's Matheson adaptation). With the addition of producer Mick Garris's episode, "Chocolate," (adapted by Garris from his own short story), I guess you can add "middling" to that laundry list of adjectives.

Garris is extremely fortunate to have cast the talented Henry Thomas - once Elliot in E.T. (1982) - in this segment, because this fine, believable actor holds our attention well, and his sincerity and "obsessions" are convincingly played. Without his outstanding efforts, I don't really know that the story would amount to much...

Here's the skinny: Jamie (Thomas) is a divorced chemist at the Cougar Chemical Flavor Company, where he works alongside an aging, baby-boomer scientist and wanna-be rock-and-roller, Wally (Matt Frewer). One day, out of the blue, Jamie begins to experience bizarre "spells." These sensory distortions put him inside the head of another person, far away. He comes to learn over time, as he experiences more and more of these spells, that he is feeling the internal life of a woman in Vancouver, Catherine Du Pres.

During one such spell, Jamie opens his eyes and sees - and feels - Catherine's boyfriend (a kinky artistic-longhair-type) nailing her. Later, when Catherine masturbates in the bath tub, Jamie feels that too. (Note: I liked all this stuff...It was daring and interesting.)

The next flash of psychic insight is less pleasant. Jamie witnesses Catherine stabbing her boyfriend in the chest, after he has struck her (following an argument over a menage-a-trois). Jamie feels certain the murderous act is one of self-defense and decides to throw caution to the wind. He meets Catherine in Vancouver, confesses his love (and his psychic link...), only to learn he's encountered a true femme fatale.

There's a lot of good stuff in this episode. "Chocolate" features several really kinky moments, and again, the segment is fortunate to have an actor as skilled as Thomas vetting the material. With someone less-skilled, some of these moments might have come across as funny instead of erotic.

But my problem with "Chocolate" is that - like a few of the other segments - it would work far better at thirty minutes than it does now, at a whopping sixty. It practically takes forever for this story to get started, and the audience must countenance boring scenes of "domestic drama." Jamie confronts an empty refrigerator. Jamie goes to a night club and listens to Wally's band. Jamie goes over to see his estranged ex-wife and young son at his old house. Later, we see him at a grocery store picking up a sexy young thing, and bedding her - and admittedly, that's quite sexy. But ultimately, not a one of these moments has a punch-line or plays into the episode's denouement...which occurs in another country, another city. The scenes about Jamie's loneliness and attempts to re-connect with his son (and the grocery girl store) are dropped like hot potatoes once Catherine enters the picture, and so contribute nothing of value to the overall story. Matt Frewer doesn't even get a valedictory scene. His character is entirely coincidental to the plot.

Yep, this episode is muddled and as well as middling. It's never clear, for instance, if the psychic link goes both ways. Near the climax, when Catherine drugs Jamie, she claims it is indeed a two-way link, and that she has felt what he feels too. But we're never sure if this is just a "lure" to kill him, or the truth. If it is the truth, then why doesn't she trust him? Why try to kill him?

Finally, this episode makes the claim that it is about love. It opens with Jamie, following his murder of Catherine, recounting his whole story to the police - film noir style - and he asks the audience, looking directly at the camera, "Have you ever been in love? Really in love?"

To which I reply, love is a two-way street, buddy. Hate to tell you this, but you had an infatuation. Nothing more. Even the scenes of Jamie experiencing sexual pleasure through Catherine's body are indicative of lust, not love. Were it indeed love, we should have seen some scenes indicating that Jamie was experiencing Catherine's emotional states, not just the revving of her sexual engine. He should have felt things like regret, fear, longing, isolation, desperation, and adrenaline. Those are the emotions pursuant to love. So really, "Chocolate" doesn't ring true, and doesn't get much right in terms of its narrative. It isn't really about love. It's about misguided obsession.

And really, if I were Jamie, I would have stuck with the really hot chick he met in the grocery store. She shared his love of junk food, and slept with him on the first date! But she was also adorable and sweet, and all together a better person than Catherine. Perhaps that was the point, that the disconcerting hallucination spells only served to lead Jamie astray?

But if that were indeed the thematic point of "Chocolate", there should have been an "ah ha" moment, wherein Jamie realized how wrongheaded he had been. When he went back to his home and re-connected with his pseudo-girlfriend. And when he made things right with his son.

Instead, those plotlines are just left hanging in the air, dangling forever, like the scent of...well, chocolate...

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 12

Following their successful (?) appearance on MSNBC's "The Countdown," Rich & Laura get tagged by armed operatives of the "Agency for Strategic Intelligence," and flee their hotel room. Really and truly fugitives now, Rich and Laura manage an escape (and Rich steals a gun...) but are contacted by a secret benefactor, one utilizing technology outside "the public domain."

Meanwhile, in Wilmington, North Carolina, Miles twice zeroes in on a first kiss with his new would-be girlriend, Caitlin. The first time, his lips generate static electricity at a crucial instant; and on the second attempt, the kiss gets unexpectedly...goopy. Boy, Miles is going to need a therapist after this...

And thus we've seen Surface, episode 12.

Actually, quite a bit of crucial stuff occurs in this installment. Laura and Rich separate (which made me nervous; since they've been working together now for weeks...) and Laura visits the secret headquarters of "Mr. Big," her benefactor. Turns out Mr. Big is a Mrs., a scientist (played by Martha Plimpton) who once worked for a nameless Corporation ("a shell within a shell within a shell") to alter "RNA Enzymes."

The short story: she (and about 2,500 other scientists...) engineered the sea creatures now making mincemeat of the food chain. Laura seems disappointed by this discovery. I guess she wanted the creatures to be naturally occurring "creations" rather than designed by the hand of man. She asks the Plimpton character why anyone would design these ravenous sea monsters, and Mrs. Big's response is the classic line from any over-reaching scientist.

"Because we could."

Because I'm a sucker for stories about people and their pets (just see my devotion to my cats in this blog's catnaps...), my favorite moment in this Surface episode involved Miles reuniting with Nimh in the Aquarium. The lovable little creature ran up to him, sat on his lap, and began the lizardly equivalent of a "purr." Awww. That's cute! As all pet lovers know, it's a wonderful feeling when an animal comes to you, unsolicited, because it genuinely wants to be with you. Very sweet.

Of course, I'm aware that there are many angry TV watchers out there who swear that Surface jumped the shark last week when Nimrod came back to life in the episode's teaser. I agree that the development was lame. I mean, could the makers of the show at least arranged to have a little tiny bit of suspense about his return? But overall, I'm glad Nimh isn't dead. He's actually my favorite character on the show; and Surface wouldn't be half as good without him.

Otherwise, Surface appears to be repeating the Buffy the Vampire Slayer playbook, at least in Miles' storyline. You see, Miles is beginning to change. (He spends an inordinate amount of time in the episode barechested, staring at himself in the bathroom mirror). Like a man bitten by a werewolf, his metabolism is transforming. He's giving off static *ahem* discharge, and when he kisses Caitlin, he secretes that goopy white stuff out of his hands. Yikes. Thus adolescence is equated (once again...) with something along the lines of lycanthropy. Only it's sea-monster-thropy here, I guess. But the bottom line is that horror and puberty once again are going hand-in-hand, like chocolate and peanut-butter in a Reeses cup.

Also, based on Miles' and Nim's reaction to the presence of the creatures nearby in the ocean (where the free ranging beasties kill some night-time surfers...), I'm beginning to wonder if the sea monsters share a hive mind of some type. I predict they do; and that Miles' "good" relationship with Nimh will ultimately be the thing that saves all mankind. He'll be able to tap into the sea monster collective and let them know that their presence is harmful to humanity and marine life. That's my official prediction.

Only three episodes of Surface left this season; and it's not airing next week, so NBC can accommodate the Golden Globes. I hope Nimh is nominated for something... "best dramatic performance" by a CGI sea monster. (The competition is stiff this year, what with Invasion and all...)

CATNAP TUESDAY #26: Sunshine On Their Shoulders (Makes Them Hungry...)




While I toil endlessly and anxiously on deadlines, my three beautiful felines (from top to bottom: Lily, Ezri, Lila) recline in the sunshine. Sleepy...

In about five minutes though, they'll be on my lap crying for food...

Clerks 2: Open for Business!

Hey, have y'all checked out the trailer for "Clerks 2" yet? You can find it here. It's pretty cool (and stystically, a bold decision on Smith's part, to render it virtually without dialogue, perhaps his strongest suit as a director/writer).

Dante and Randal are back in action for the first time since 2001's Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, and I appreciate how the trailer picks up visually where Clerks left off (in drab black-and-white; at the NJ convenience store), and then goes whole hog into glorious color for the stuff at Mooby's, the fictional burger joint of the View Askewniverse.

Keep your eyes peeled and you'll see My Name is Earl stars Jason Lee, and Ethan Suplee, as well as Mrs. Kevin Smith herself, the lovely Jennifer Schwalbach. Rosario Dawson looks to be the major guest star this time around. A good choice if you ask me. She totally redeemed Alexander, and was great - a revelation - in Rent.

I know some of the anti-Kevin Smith forces out there are ragging on the director for doing a sequel to Clerks, but personally, I think it's a great idea. Those characters still have something to say, and even over a decade later, Clerks is still a very funny and relevant movie. I mean, it's not like Smith went and spent 200 million dollars on a vanity project, right? More like he's returning to his roots after Jersey Girl, which, perhaps, wasn't what it could have been.

But then again, I tend to think that a brand of fan boys get a bit jealous over Smith because he's one of the bunch who's made good, where many...just haven't. These guys are envious, because they all think it's easy to make a movie, write a comic-book or the like, and thus sit around wondering why they haven't been plucked from obscurity for such fame. It's kind of the Wesley Crusher syndrome. (Why does he get to save the Enterprise?).

I wrote a book about Smith, obviously (An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith), but I have a rule that I only write books about filmmakers I really have a passion for, and Smith certainly fits the bill. I still argue Chasing Amy is a great film (and the perfect '90s movie), and I'd like to see the director tackle The Green Hornet after this.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Favorite Sci-Fi TV/Movie Vehicle/Spaceship?

Okay, indulge a fantasy with me for a moment. No, not that one...this is a family-oriented blog...

Instead, pretend for an instant that you are whisked out of our boring consensus reality, into the world of science fiction/fantasy movies and dramas. You get just one shot at this. You suddenly have an opportunity to choose ONE (and no more than one...) fictional vehicle to pilot. It can be a spaceship, a hovercraft, a TARDIS or even a submarine.

So which famous vehicle do you choose, and why? In other words, what's the one "cockpit fantasy"(!) that as a fan you've always dreamed of indulging?(Keep it clean!) On which conveyance would you most like to take the helm and say "make it so..."

An obvious answer for me is the starship Enterprise (preferably the movie version; NCC-1701-A). I've just always believed that's a gorgeous ship. Unlike many people, I love the sequence in Star Trek: The Motion Picture where she leaves drydock. Has the cinema yet given us a more elegant space ship?

But, as readers of the blog are aware, I'm also a huge Space:1999 fan, so there's a big part of me that wants to don a bulky orange spacesuit (and helmet), clip on a commlock and slip into the cushy pilot's seat of an Eagle transporter. I've always thought that the Eagles are the most "believable" looking spaceships in TV history. Just an opinion...they're very utilitarian and practical.

But when I was a kid - circa around 1980 - if you'd ask me the ship I want to pilot, I'd have said the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars first, and then maybe an X-Wing fighter. But then again, I also loved the viper fightercraft from Battlestar Galactica and the Directorate Starfighter from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century...

There are all kinds of choices here. If you're more on the "dark side" of things maybe you want to fly a TIE? Or a Klingon Bird of Prey?


If you asked me which craft I'd like to go jogging on for a while, my answer would be - of course - the Discovery. Open the pod bay doors, HAL...

Or - leaving behind spaceships for a moment - maybe you've always had a hankering to go deep underwater aboard the Seaview in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or the Sea Quest? Personally, if I had to pick a submarine, I'd select the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea...

Anyway, the sky's literally the limit here. What's your favorite sci-fi/fantasy tv/movie ship? Which one do you want to steer, and how come?

And, uh, where would you take the ship?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror, Episode # 3: "Dance of the Dead"

I don't know what I was expecting from "Dance of the Dead," the third installment of the Showtime original series, Masters of Horror, but this certainly wasn't it. I knew that one my favorite horror icons, Tobe Hooper, was directing, so I knew the episode would be dark and filled with sub-text. I just had no idea it would be THIS dark.

"Dance of the Dead" comes to us courtesy of a short story by Richard Matheson (adapted by Richard Christian Matheson) and Chainsaw helmer, Hooper. It's the disturbing story of a girl named Peggy, who - on her seventh birthday - witnesses a devastating terrorist attack on the country. In the episode, this assault is depicted in frightening and upsetting terms: the sky goes gray and gloomy all of the sudden, and then chunks of flesh begin to peel off the partygoers and curl up like crispy potato skins. Yuck!

Flash forward ten years. The world is a vastly changed place. Especially in America. Peggy works at a local diner with her restrictive, conservative Mom, and lives a sheltered life. She knows nothing of life outside the town boundaries. Nonetheless, a new "death culture" consumes the youngsters broaching adolescence in a USA where California doesn't even exist anymore. This death culture, by the way, is a reflection and extension of the 1980s punk rock ethos. Nihilism, self-destruction, no empathy...real dark stuff.

Then, one day, a handsome bad boy named Jak comes to town, and takes Peggy to the forbidden local hot spot in Meskeet, a city where a night club called "The Doom Room" revels in human (or is it inhuman?) depravity. Robert Englund - Monsieur Krueger himself - portrays the emcee at the Doom Room, and introduces a show that features a zombified dancer jerking and spasming on the stage. She's kept on her feet by thugs with cattle prods.

That undead dancer, it seems, is Peggy's long lost sister. Sold into slavery by her Mom some years back, when the girl got into drugs and Mom didn't want to deal with her anymore.

Man, is this episode dark...

"Dance of the Dead" is the boldest, nastiest, most unpleasant Masters of Horror yet. It's gruesome, mean-spirited, and my God, it's absolutely riveting. You can't take your eyes off the screen, and no matter how much you want to turn away...you have to know how it ends. Robert Englund goes totally over the top playing an over-sexed, drunk, corrupted, half-dead underworld businessman. It's a great and daring performance full of piss and vinegar.

Drug use, the sex trade, thugs stealing blood ("we're just in it for the red..."), "Dance of the Dead" portrays an America turned upside down by a weapon of mass destruction. A terrifying aftermath has been extrapolated in this post apocalyptic world, and it ain't pretty.

In some freaky, bizarre way, the episode also plays as a parody/homage of 1950s "teenager" movies. You know the type of film I mean: a motorcycle gang rides into town, and the leader romances a pretty, virginal townie. She's innocent and wide-eyed, and her parents - naturally - are terrified she'll losie her virtue to the twin demons of Harley Davidson and rock-and-roll. In the end, the parents learn a little bit about tolerance, and the kid learns a little more about the world. Either that, or there's wall-to-wall violence and a generational culture clash...

Only here, in "Dance of the Dead" the teenage culture really is obsessed with death. The music is hateful, the drugs are destructive (and this episode includes a lot of trippy imagery...). And the "truth" out there in the world is that Mom is no compassionate, Christian conservative. She's a really, really bad person.

Like I said, this is a really dark show, but - I submit- one that is brilliantly conceived and executed. It's one of the most hardcore, balls-to-the-wall things I've ever seen Tobe Hooper direct. And I mean - shit - this is the guy who directed Eaten Alive (1976), Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the like.

I can't really say that I enjoyed "Dance of the Dead," but boy did it keep my attention. I've never seen anything like it on television before. I've felt dirty and bad about myself ever since the screening...