Saturday, January 28, 2006

Link of the Week: Inner Toob

Now here's a fun and original idea for an entertainment blog, and one well-executed at that. Toby, over in "Joyville, TV Land" has put together a site called Inner Toob that "explores and celebrates the reality of an alternate universe in which everything that ever happened on TV takes place."

This means Toby can meditate on a cameo by Senator John McCain in an upcoming episode of the Kiefer Sutherland series, 24, and consider that maybe - in this cathode tube world - McCain went to work for CTU instead of representing Arizona in the Senate. This means that the blog can feature a "crossover of the week," and imagine such couplings as Veronica Mars meets Gilmore Girls, or more bizarrely, CSI:NY meets Entertainment Tonight. Personally, I'd like to see a three-way smack down between Medium, Ghost Whisperer and The Book of Daniel. Or how about the ultimate alien invasion crossover, Invasion/Surface/Threshold?

Other questions to ponder: Does James Spader's character on Boston Legal know that he's actually living in a TV show since he comments (in a recent installment) to Shatner's Denny Crane that he hasn't seen him much during "this episode?" Hmmm.

At Inner Toob, you'll also find actor bios aplenty (for the late Tony Franciosa and Chris Penn, for example) an appreciation of the sitcom Grounded for Life, and other goodies (like a look at classic TV such as The Night Stalker, News Radio and Maverick).

So beam on over to Inner Toob and take a gander!

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "The Phantom Planet"

This episode of the Filmation series Space Academy opens with the base on high alert. "Chris, have you ever seen a ghost?" Commander Gampu (Jonathan Hurris) urgently demands from the control room, revealing on the main screen how a strange world keeps materializing and de-materializing in space near the unstable asteroid, Proteus 9B.

Gampu sends the Blue Team in a Seeker to demolish the asteroid, despite the presence of the 'phantom planet' and Peepo is afraid. Loki is excited. "If you see a ghost," he tells Gentry, "let me know right away."

While Chris, Tee-Gar, and Paul set "technite" charges to destroy the asteroid, Laura, Adrian and Peepo are confronted by a raggedy ghost in a gray cloak who moans and howls, and beckons them to a cave. Adrian blasts the cave open with a laser gun that looks like an office water dispenser jug, and inside the cave, she and Laura discover a jeweled cavern. A bunch of golden eggs are ensconced there, and the ghost appears to be protective of them. Laura and Adrian take one at the ghost's urging, and return to the Academy with the others, beginning the countdown to the destruction of Proteus.

But just when you're thinking - oh, I've seen this on "The Devil in the Dark," those eggs are ghostly offspring, the story, by Samuel A. Peeples, takes a weird turn. It seems these golden eggs are not Jim Henson ghost babies at all, but rather memory "vessels," as Gampu calls them, devices that contain the ancient the wisdom of a civilization. They will "one day open and enrich the lives of people yet to be born," Gampu declares, after a seance in which he is possessed by the ghostly guardian.

Since the planet is due to explode any minute from those Technite charges, the only way to safely retrieve the other golden eggs is for Laura and Chris to use their newly honed powers of "astroportation." Thus they astral project themselves to the planet and retrieve all the eggs before the asteroid goes up in flames. Pleased, the Guardian now vanishes for all time...

Talk about laying a golden egg, this is a crazy episode of Space Academy. The ghost is a ridiculous-looking creation, like a refugee from a stage production of A Christmas Carol, and his "howls" are obviously just somebody standing off-stage bellowing like a kid trying to be "spooky" on Halloween night. And then - out of the blue - Laura and Chris develop the power to astral project? Huh?

"There's a lot of things we don't know here in space," Paul states in "The Phantom Planet,"
"we can't let them frighten us."

The only thing frightening about this episode of Space Academy is just how badly the plot all fits together. Why is the Academy intent on destroying the asteroid (even if it is unstable) once it's known a civilization once thrived there? Seems an archaeology professor somewhere would object...

But - of course - this was all intended for young kids, so I guess the message is a good one. Don't be afraid of what you don't understand. And if a funny-looking ghost hands you a golden egg...take it.

Friday, January 27, 2006

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "Redemption"

As opposed to Lost, which grows increasingly irritating each week, Invasion just keeps getting more compelling. Now that the action has begun in earnest, all those early episodes (some rather slow-paced...) dealing with inter-family crises are yielding interesting dividends. I find that having gone through those early shows with this talented ensemble, I really like the characters, and more so, feel curious, even anxious, to see what occurs next.

If anyone has been snubbed in Invasion's history, it's actor William Fichtner. He's top-billed on the series, but because of his role as (ostensibly) the series' villain, he's felt the most opaque at times. Tom Underlay, his character, is clearly up to no good in Homestead, Florida, but his motives, even his very nature, have remained mostly unexplored. We know he loves his wife; we know he's shipping weapons to the so-called "Hybrids"; we know he's protecting a secret. And yet something about him has remained remote, confusing.

Until this episode, "Redemption."

Yes, I know - I just finished a post reporting about how irritating the flashbacks are on Lost, but I'm going to do a course-adjustment here and state that this flashback-heavy episode of Invasion is terrific because it clues us in about where Tom has been. And let's face it, Invasion is only in its first season, and hasn't relied on the flashback heavily before, so this feels like a clever use of the technique, not overkill or time-wasting.

I was fascinated to see the history of these characters unfurl, going back some nine years (to August, 1996), and the first fateful meeting of Tom and Mariel in a hospital, following his plane crash. I've always wondered what it is that Mariel saw in Tom and made her leave Russell, and previous episodes have given us precious little in terms of information on that subject. "Redemption," written by Michael Alaimo and Shaun Cassidy, and well-directed by Bill Eagles, corrects that oversight. The audience sees here the beginning of their emotional bond; and also the "distance" in Mariel's marriage to Russell. She's apparently been unhappy for some time...

Equally interesting in "Redemption" is Russell's theory that Tom must survive (after he is brutally shot in the stomach three times; a gory sequence...) because the sheriff is the glue that holds the alien hybrids together. Remember, we learned from previous episodes of Invasion that the hybrids ultimately went wacko in places like Cuba and Argentina. They killed their children, and ultimately themselves. That hasn't happened here, and the working postulate is that this is because of Tom - who was changed all those years ago and yet has survived. I think the riddle of his "adjustment" after his rebirth involves his connection to Mariel - the human emotion of love. This sorta makes sense and kind of doesn't, but it sends the series off on an interesting new tangent. Especially because it means Russell and Tom must work together, at least for a while, rather than merely eye each other suspiciously. Underlay must live...

I do have a problem with the fact that Mariel has lived with Tom for some time and never asked him what he has padlocked in the hall closet. (Maybe she assumes it's his guns? He is a law man after all...) Anyway, I would want to know what my spouse has locked away in storage.

We do, ultimately find out in this episode, and the answer represents Tom's mental state. It's a flower he first gave to Mariel nine years earlier, one signifying hope. The flower symbolizes his love for Mariel, as well as his hope, no doubt, regarding the settlement of the Hybrids in Homestead.

Mariel looks more beautiful than ever in this episode, and Larkin - by contrast - is getting more irritating. Although she ultimately makes the right decision and doesn't air a TV expose about Tom and his "true nature," Larkin sure takes a lot of convincing. The character is coming off as a little self-righteous here, but I think she's just trying to get back at Russell for spending so much time with his hottie ex.

I don't know where Invasion is headed, but I enjoyed "Redemption" for giving us a peek into Tom's life; where he'd been and how he survived. The sheriff comes off as more three dimensional and - dare I say it? - more human - than he has in many episodes. And that's a good thing.

TV REVIEW: Lost: "Fire & Water"

It was a Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) episode on Lost, Wednesday night, in an installment written by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. "Fire & Water" found our favorite member of the rock band, Drive Shaft experiencing some pretty terrifying "waking dreams," some of which included portentous Christian imagery.

The other islanders, including a sanctimonious Locke and a frightened Claire, simply feared that Charlie had begun using drugs again. Interestingly, the episode didn't provide concrete proof either way. We didn't see Charlie using the heroin he had stashed in a tree stump, but he sure looked like he was using, didn't he? And Charlie really broke bad when he set a fire in the woods (as a distraction) so he could steal Claire's baby and baptize the kid in the surf. If you ask me, Locke did the right thing to punch the bastard. Several times.

And all this led up to a religious ritual conducted by our resident priest, Mr. Eko. Yes, Mother (Claire) and child received baptisms in the episode's denouement. I wonder if this preventive measure will keep "The Others" from taking the infant. Or quite the contrary. We know the Others only take people they deem good. Now that Claire's offspring has been officially baptized, I suppose the little guy actually qualifies for abduction...

This week's episode - another flashback heavy one - treaded territory we've seen before, charting the relationship between Charlie and his drug-addled brother, Liam. This week, we see Liam sell Charlie's prized sleigh, Rosebud, er - piano, given to him one Christmas morn by his doting mother. "You're special, Charlie," she tells him.

Much of this material feels like a rerun, because, as viewers who pay attention, we already understand the abusive dynamic between siblings Charlie and Liam. We caught the flashbacks last season, after all...

I like Lost; I really do. Some weeks, it's absolutely the best show on television. And others - it's the most intensely frustrating.

"Fire & Water" was more of the latter. It felt like another place holder with just one function: to prevent the audience from learning more about the mysteries of the island. A new mystery was added to the laundry list of puzzles the series is accumulating at warp speed. In particular, are Charlie's dreams real, and why is he getting them? And no answer presented itself. Honestly, at this point, I never expect one.

As far as the other narrative questions? No progress on Ana Lucia and Jack's army; no sign of Michael (I don't even think he was mentioned); no talk of rescuing Walt; no comment by Mr. Eko to the other islanders that he had come face-to-face with a monstrous black smoke entity; no mourning by Sayid about Shannon; no further explanation of those important numbers (which, by contrast, did appear on that night's episode of Veronica Mars...).

Actually, this was the first week that I taped Lost for later viewing, and watched Veronica Mars live instead. That UPN detective series features some pretty big mysteries too (like who was behind the bus accident...), but that mystery actually develops and is explored each week. We don't merely get character flashbacks.

On TV, this is the season of the flashback (we've got 'em on Invasion; we've got 'em on Lost; we've got 'em on Prison Break) and on and on. I don't object to the use of this now-popular technique (and indeed, the flashbacks on Invasion's "Redemption" were pretty bloody useful and fascinating), but I increasingly object to the time spent on 'em in Lost. We already know who these characters were before they arrived on the island. We know what they've done; who they've hurt, and why they suffer. Now is the time to see them take those pains in their past, put them aside, and deal with life on the island. It's time to address the situation they're facing; not the emotions of the past.

I understand that not all answers can be provided at once. I love ambiguity (hence my longstanding affection for Space:1999, X-Files, Sapphire & Steel etc.) and think that, in general, ambiguity can be a really marvelous thing. But when mysteries are ignored rather than acknowledged as the puzzles they are, believability goes out the window. For instance, I just don't believe, week-in-and-week out, that nobody is running around terrified or at least surprised by the fact that there's sentient black smoke hovering about, rattling trees. Charlie saw this "monster" for himself a few weeks back, and he's told absolutely nobody! At least not on screen. Not Claire, not Locke, not Jack! And ditto Mr. Eko. And here's the rub, it could have been acknowledged and fit into the storyline this week. Everybody would really think Charlie was using drugs if he ran around talking about the black smoke monster!!!

We're spending so much time in the emotionally tortured past of these castaways that the castaways themselves are forgetting where they are, what they're doing, and what dangers they're confronting. Why don't they talk to each other about the important stuff. Like the fact that last week, Jack met other inhabitants of the island, ones who threatened war and terror if our guys crossed a certain point in the forest? Isn't that worth a mention?

Next week, Lost will probably be great. About one in every four episodes this season is outstanding. I'd estimate that last season, the ratio was more like three out of four. At this rate, by next season, it will be one of eight episodes that is worth watching. I can't wait for the flashback episode about how Jack filled out the wrong medicare form for one of his elderly patients, and felt terrible guilt when the old guy couldn't get his medicine in a timely fashion. Or the one where Charlie is surprised when his brother Liam hocks his favorite amp (the one that goes up to 11). Or the one where Kate commits a terrible crime, but for noble reasons. Or where Sawyer remembers his troubled childhood, or where Hurley goes out on a date, or where Michael loses custody of Walt...again.

Come on Lost, get with it!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 27: Communicators: "Beam Me up, Mr. Scott!"

Last week for the blog's 26th retro toy Thursday flashback, I featured a variety of Star Trek phasers that I have owned over the years, and described my love of these (toy) weapons that can be set to stun.

One of the comments on that post came from my dear friend, Chris, in Chesapeake, VA. He noted that as a child, he really wanted a communicator toy or model, and always believed that if he could just get one, he could join up with Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew.

I'm right there with you, Chris. To this day, I find something absolutely magical and thrilling about holding one of those compact devices in my hand, flipping open that copper grill, and uttering the words, "Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise."

On my happier days, I'll say, " have Genesis, but you don't have me. You were going to kill me, Khan. Now you're going to have to come down here. You're going to HAVE to come DOWN Here."

Or another favorite: "Klingon Commander: This is Admiral James T. Kirk. I know this will come as a pleasant surprise to you, but my ship was the victim of an unfortunate accident. Sorry about your crew, but as we say on Earth, c'est la vie! I have what you want. I have the secret of Genesis. But you're going to have to bring us up there to get it..."

Man, I could just keep writing this stuff all day!!

The point is, it's a great feeling to grasp a communicator, and imagine a direct line to Starfleet, Lt. Uhura, the Enterprise, Gorns, Romulans, Orion Slave name it.

And I guess that's why so many toy companies over the years have produced toy replicas based on this classic communicator design. Last week, I wrote about the AMT Exploration Set model kit. It included a communicator along with a phaser and tricorder, and by my memory, that's the first communicator replica I ever owned. I played that thing out as a kid. I can't believe I still have it today; but I can tell you that the silver grill has been repaired many a time, and doesn't actually really flip up anymore. Where's Scotty when you need him?

But then, not long after, came something even better. That wonderful and much mourned company, Mego produced a set of two "Star Trek Communicators" (U.S. Patent No. 3,939,418). These solid state transistorized walkie talkies could send and receive voice communications or produce two "phase warp" sounds. Produced in 1974 (can you believe it was that long ago?) these communicators were molded in blue, and came replete with clips so you could attach them to your belt (just in case you needed both hands to wrestle with a Klingon or something).

The flip-up grill on this version of the communicator was blue, and was adorned with the Star Trek, U.S.S. Enterprise logo. I loved this toy when I was a kid. Several years ago, I got my hands on a mint pair, still in the plastic bubble. Today, these things go for like $250.00

Then came Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the design of the Starfleet communicator changed. Suddenly, communicators were worn on the a watch or something. These devices looked pretty cool in the movie - what you could see of them - but the toy produced later by Playmates (pictured here) was oversized and a little dorky-looking.

By 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation came along, and suddenly the classic communicator was nothing more than a piece of damn golden jewelry. Tap it once, and you could talk to the "Away Team" (personally, I always preferred the term landing party...). Anyway, tapping a communicator on your shirt could never match the feeling of pulling out a little black device from under your velour uniform shirt, and flipping open the grill. Sorry. I know, I'm an old school Trekker, what can I say?

And really, let's face it, it's that fantastic 1960s design that is surely the model for so many cell phones in use today, with their flip-up function and compact appeal, right? I mean, Star Trek surely influenced American society with that revolutionary concept! When we all start talking into jewelry worn over our chest, I'll give the Next Gen its props. Promise.

Some of the best communicator replica designs have come along in the last decade. The wonderful Playmates company produced a "talk back" communicator in 1996. You could program up to three seconds of messages in your own voice into the machine, and then play it back. You could store the communicator on your waistband for "emergency transmissions"(!) and the communicator featured a working status light indicating that you were sending "a strong subspace signal." This was the most accurate version of the communicator yet, I would wager.

But then - IPI created a version of the device in 1998 that takes the cake. This communicator features "authentic sounds and lights", a digital recorder, a clock and a calculator. And man does it look cool!!! I don't know how it plays, because I've never taken it out of the box. I want to, but my wife won't let me.

So today's flashback is to that influential communicator design, and in particular, the toy replicas over the years. "Beam me up, Scotty."

And don't we wish that could really happen? When's the first full-size, working transporter replica coming out?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Guess the Movie # 2

Okay film fanatics, the last "guess the movie" was apparently too easy, so I've selected a more difficult one this time.

I'll give you a hint: that mother/daughter embrace is about to turn real ugly.

So, what movie is the above-photograph from? And - can you come up with a funny caption for it?

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY #9: An Analytical Guide to Television's One Step Beyond, 1959-1961

I guess every author has written a book or two that he or she wishes received more attention. In the late 1990s, I composed a series of "analytical"-type guides to science fiction TV series, including ones on Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica, Blake's 7 and Doctor Who. Some of these books earned very positive attention, and some proved extremely controversial with fans, but all sold astonishingly well (and many have gone to second and third printings, and release in softcover).

But one book I wrote that got little attention at all (though Filmfax did call it "the definitive" book on the series) was my final installment in this unofficial monograph series: An Analytical Guide to Television's One Step Beyond, 1959-1961, a study of the once-popular paranormal TV anthology. The book gazes at a black-and-white series which ran for three seasons and 96 episodes (all hosted and directed by the late John Newland), and which focused exclusively on supposedly true stories of the paranormal.

I've always wondered if the book didn't garner that much notice at the time of its release in 2001 simply because a lot of young folks today don't remember the series, even though it was once revered as a genre-heavyweight, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Anyway, I thought that for my ninth Wednesday looking at JKM Books, I'd focus on my forgotten literary child!

Here's a sample from the introduction:

Have you ever stayed awake into the wee hours of the night and turned on your television set only to discover a smiling and good-natured (but sardonic) face staring back in stark shades of black-and-white photography? Have you ever listened, spellbound, as this mellifluous-voiced "guide to the world of the unknown" informed you, straight faced, that the events you were about to watch unfold were "a matter of human record?" Have you ever felt your heart skip a beat as you then witnessed the "personal record" of a character who survived a terrifying and perplexing experience in the world of the paranormal or the inexplicable? If the answer to any of these questions is affirmative, then you have already taken a small step beyond. Now take a giant one...

for the uninitiated, the preceding paragraph revises and re-phrases the inaugural narration from of television's true classics, the horror/paranormal anthology series known as Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (1959-1961).

Your guide to the world of the unknown was none other than Golden Age TV star John Newland, veteran actor of every notable TV production from that era, from Tales of Tomorrow (1951-53) to The Loretta Young Show (1953-61). And for three remarkable seasons and 96 half-hour episodes on ABC television, this noted performer conducted prime-time audiences through a twisted dark alley that most viewers had never envisioned: a voyage into the shadowy universe of paranormal and psychic phenomenon.

Long before Chris Carter's The X-Files made such sojourns a commonplace venture, One Step Beyond led viewers through gripping human ordeals concerning core parapsychological concepts such as ESP, clairvoyance, reincarnation, precognition, poltergeists, apparitions, automatic writing, spirit possession, out-of-body experiences, Bigfoot sightings and even, on one occasion, alien abductions.

Before this unique anthology series was finished unspooling, it had also dramatized for amazed audiences the mysterious psychic web that surrounded the sinking of the Titanic ("Night of April 14"), examined premonitions about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln ("The Day the World Wept: The Lincoln Story"), studied the world's foremost psychic investigator ("The Peter Hurkos Story"), recounted a peculiar true story about a phenomenon in Chico, California ("Where Are They?") and even conducted a "hands on" study of the psychoactive properties of hallucinogenic mushrooms ("The Sacred Mushroom").

Today, this TV series might accurately be described as a little off-kilter; in conservative 1959 it was positively "out there."

Each half hour segment of this imaginative black-and-white anthology TV program was unique, not only for its highly unorthodox content, but also for its distinctly eerie atmosphere. Effectively directed by Newland, One Step Beyond remains a textbook example of low-budget, economical horror filmmaking at its very best. With intense performances from the likes of Cloris Leachman ("The Dark Room"), Warren Beatty ("The Visitor"), "Jack Lord ("Father Image"), Christopher Lee ("The Sorcerer"), Donald Pleasence ("The Confession"), William Shatner ("The Promise"), Louise Fletcher ("The Open Window") and Yvette Mimieux ("The Clown"), One Step Beyond was impecabbly performed, as well as intelligently crafted.

And coupled with the timeless, chill-inducing music of composer Harry Lubin, the overall impact of One Step Beyond's many paranormal excursions was a sense of pure terror, a case of the creeps so bad it would not go away.

...A prime purpose in re-examining One Step Beyond conerns its oft-noted claim that its stories are based on documented and authentic cases of the paranormal and the inexplicable. Indeed, much of One Step Beyond's horrifying texture stems from this remarkable claim of accuracy and realism. The stories are frightening enough as mere drama, but buttressed by the claim of being "true," many episodes linger in the consciousness like unending nightmares.

This author has learned that many episodes of One Step Beyond do indeed report the "facts" of famous parapsychological incidents, if not the exact personal details (which were often rearranged for purposes of drama and pacing on the TV series). Additionally, One Step Beyond shepherded its core concepts (possession, reincarnation and the like) with a special care, accurately reflecting the literature of parapsychology of the day (and for the most part, of today as well).

Because One Step Beyond respected its audience and demonstrated this highly unusual dedication to accuracy, this reference book shall return that favor. It will honor One Step Beyond, by - wherever relevant - noting the research (and the cases) supporting One Step Beyond's claim that it is based on matters of "human record."

...Why were so many characters in One Step Beyond modern Cassandra figures, doomed to know the future but never to be believed? Why were so many of the characters who faced psychic phenomena also battling to save their marraiges? Where were so many of the protagonists recovering alcoholics or mental cases on the mend? These and other questions will be addressed as One Step Beyond's assumptions about people, psychic phenomena, drama and television are investigated. John Newland's personal feelings and remembrances about One Step Beyond have also been including in the following text, thanks to Newland himself, who, shortly before his death, granted a rare first person-account of the creativity, hard work and fun that went into producing this television classic.

...So let's take that giant step...

An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond
is available now! If you've got the dough, and you remember the show (hey, I rhymed...) then seek it out.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"I can feel it. My soul. it's really there! Kinda stings..."
-Spike, "Chosen," Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

TV REVIEW: Medium: "Raising Cain"

Cutting to the chase, NBC's Medium is one of the very best shows airing on network television today.

"Raising Cain," last night's segment, is a prime example why this is so. This episode (and indeed, virtually every installment so far this season...) boasts more twists and turns, more tantalizing moral and philosophical dilemmas, and cleverer writing, than a dozen other programs in the crime solving and horror genres stacked on top of one another. Even better, Glenn Gordon Caron's series is visually dazzling, loaded with stylistic flourishes that make it infinitely more appealing than your average boilerplate hour of prime time "drama."

To wit, "Raising Cain" opens with a grainy film reel meant to represent a 1950s era "educational film." Lensed in black and white, and replete with a booming voiceover from a VOICE OF AUTHORITY, this "Dubois Educational Film" (really one of Allison's prophetic dreams) sets up the dynamic for the remainder of the episode.

The film concerns the social dilemma of "the outsider," a trench coat mafia-type, disenfranchised youth "who may be tempted to act out" at school. The little film goes on to describe this character in a manner reminiscent of the fashion just such documentary shorts detailed personal hygiene, sexually-transmitted diseases, and dating in the 1950s. This is a brilliant and original way to introduce the subject matter of the episode, and Medium vets material like this each and every week, whether it be a 3-D presentation, or an introduction from the late Rod Serling.

The subject of "Raising Cain" is a variation on that classic temporal chestnut about Adolf Hitler. Knowing what Hitler would become as an adult, if you could go back in time and shoot the dictator in his crib, would you do so? Is it right to kill an innocent because he will one day become a monster? Or, can you change that innocent in a different way - a more positive way - by keeping him alive? I've seen this premise explored on Doctor Who ("Genesis of the Daleks") and Star Trek: The Next Generation ("A Matter of Time,") and Medium adds another fine meditation on the subject.

Here, Allison is drawn into a criminal case in which a very devout suburban mother ends up shooting her seven year old son, Tyler, in the head, because she has experienced the same prescient dream Allison has. She believes Tyler will grow up to become a murderous school shooter, and so therefore attempts to murder the "devil's spawn" before that destiny can arrive.

At first, Allison is horrified by the mother's brutal act.

And boy is it brutal - Mom wraps the boy's sleeping (sedated...) body up in a plastic bag and tosses it on a trash heap next to a discarded toilet bowl. Then she fires a pistol at him and leaves him to die amongst the dirt and garbage. Later, we see the image of the boy breathing inside the plastic bag, and it's disturbing.

Yet - after a time - Allison comes to wonder what the right answer is in this situation. If she fingers the mother as the shooter, the boy (who has miraculously survived the attempt on his life) could grow up and indeed become a killer. If she doesn't, the mother has a second chance, an opportunity to embrace the boy (instead of condemning him as evil), and take him down a path that could culminate with him the valedictorian of his high school class. Allison sees this second possible fate in another black-and-white 1950s style film entitled "The Power of a Positive influence."

This is a terrific, involving and difficult dilemma for Allison to deal with, and as always, she seeks guidance and advice from her much-put-upon spouse, Joe. I simply love how this series depicts the spousal relationship. It's one of occasional exasperation, petty quarreling...and deep, unspoken love and unending trust. Joe - always looking ruffled and half-asleep - may be awakened by his wife at 2:45 in the morning to talk over a riddle like this; but after his initial irritation, he's on board with Allison's mission, and is there when she needs him. As I've written before, so much of this program's best drama occurs in the Dubois bedroom - at odd hours of the night. During that time when husband and wife speak in whispers to each other about hopes and dreams, fears and uncertainties. This aspect of the show makes the show not just compelling, but very intimate.

The promos for Medium now make note of the resounding critical praise the series has earned. One major media outlet apparently called Medium "insanely good."

I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment.

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 13

Only two episodes remain of the NBC sci-fi series, Surface. At one point, I had heard reports of a second-season renewal, but apparently that's not the case. All the advertising on the program now indicates that "our questions will be answered" in the next two weeks, as the series concludes.

It's a shame to lose Surface at this point, because it's outlived one of its brethren (Threshold), and rivaled Invasion in terms of producing compelling drama. It's true that Surface is more of a crowd-pleasing, epic "rollercoaster ride" than the taut, intimate family drama of Invasion, but there's certainly room for it on the TV schedule. As my wife said after last night's installment, "If Surface had been this good all along, it wouldn't be getting cancelled..."

I tend to agree with her. I'm a big fan of the Spielberg canon, which Surface has cribbed from liberally, borrowing subplots from Close Encounter of the Third Kind, E.T., Jaws and even Jurassic Park. I can overlook this derivative storytelling because - gee whiz -- this is a show about giant sea monsters! As a longtime fan of monster movies and the like, I'm almost hard-wired to love it.

But last night's episode was a legitimate winner, despite my inclination to like the show anyway. What happened? The suspense was ramped up, and the story arc really took a turn. Young Miles became a sort of pied piper to Nimh (after a startling betrayal of his lizardly buddy) and the other critters...leading them out to sea. And Rich got attacked by a strange, genetically-engineered monkey thing, a kind of rabid Cha-Ka from Land of the Lost, that could speak English just like a sweet little girl. The ambush was a creepy, unnerving and bloody scene. But then the kicker came near episode's climax: Laura and Rich found an old film reel from the Dharma Initiative...

No just kidding, they found a film of one scientist's expedition in Tibet in 1957. The film revealed a crater amidst a mountainous landscape (a meteor impact or a crashed spaceship?), the possible origin of the sea beasties' DNA. More dramatically, the film revealed that Lee - the government agent tracking Laura since the beginning - was on that expedition. And that he has not aged a day since 1957. Guess who got an infusion of alien DNA?

I wish some of these plot riddles had been introduced earlier in the series' run, because now everything has to get wrapped up in two 42 minute installments. Great.

But the impending cancellation of Surface makes me realize just how bizarre the TV ratings game has gotten these days. A show like Surface pulls the same ratings (or better) than Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, and yet because Galactica airs on the "smaller" brother to NBC it is deemed a blockbuster hit (which is kind of laughable if you actually look at its numbers, and the percentage of the audience watching), while Surface gets axed and deemed a failure. I think the Sci-Fi Channel should pick up Surface for another season. It would be called an instant hit on that network if it retained the audience from NBC. I know reruns of Surface have been running on Sci-Fi, so how about a 12 episode pick-up?

Alas, I don't know if this show has a devoted fan following willing to start a grass-roots campaign for it.

CATNAP TUESDAY #28: Ezri's Heart...

Well, yesterday our beloved cat, Ezri, just six years old, went for her return ultrasound/echocardiogram. To refresh everybody's memory, our veterinarian discovered that Ezri had mysteriously developed a heart murmur back in late October 2005. This was the follow-up appointment with the ultra-sound doctor after a course of anti-biotics and a few months on a heart pill, which I believe was a beta-blocker.

The good news is that Ezri's heart murmur has been reduced to a gallup rhythm. The really bad news is that it is not an infection causing this condition, as we had hoped, but rather the early stages of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (IVS mainly), a progressive disease that will eventually take her life. One of Ezri's heart valves is slowly but surely thickening, and as it gets worse, it will be more difficult for her heart to pump enough blood. This leads to complications like blood clots, heart failure, stroke, and so forth.

Kathryn and I are pretty devastated. Not the least of which is because Cardiomyopathy of this type is most often a hereditary condition, and Lila, one of our other cats, is Ezri's litter mate. We'll be taking her to the vet soon too, to see if she is suffering from the same condition. So we may lose two of our cats from this disease.

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is known in some quarters as "the silent killer," because cats who suffer from it can show no symptoms for a long time, and then just suddenly die. So, it's really a very terrifying thing to be confronted with. We can only hope by finding the disease at such an early stage, we can control it for a period of years, rather than months. But Ezri's chances of living a long life are now severely diminished.

Ezri still has a good, strong appetite, and doesn't seem lethargic at all, so those are indicators, I hope, that she's up for the long fight and will respond to the treatment (new medicine which will help her heart relax...). Unfortunately, Ezri is showing some signs of depression...she's been overgrooming a section of her tummy, and that's also a sign of the disease, I think; an indicator that she may not be getting enough blood.

I'm depressed as hell too...

Sunday, January 22, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Deceivers (1988)

Before he assumed the role of 007, James Bond in 1995's Goldeneye, actor Pierce Brosnan starred in some very interesting and noteworthy - if not particularly well-known - productions, including the John McTiernan horror film Nomads (1987), and this Nicholas Meyer period piece, The Deceivers. In both of these films, Brosnan reveals remarkable depths and subtlety. These are strong, internal performances from an actor who is best known for playing it cool and sleek in such popular films and TV series as The Thomas Crown Affair and Remington Steele.

The Deceivers commences in India in 1825, as a likeable, upstanding British soldier, Captain William Savage (Brosnan) returns to his province after his wedding to discover a peculiar problem. It seems that one of the local women desires to commit suicide because her husband disappeared a year ago and has not been seen since. As a good Christian and a Good Samaritan, Savage is needled by his wife, Sarah (Helena Michell) to undertake a trick to preserve her life. Because he's of roughly the same body-build as the widow's missing husband, Savage will double as the M.I.A. husband briefly -- just to keep hope alive. He will appear to the widow and then flee, and then her family will not let her be burned alive as tradition demands.

But on the night of this trick, something unexpected happens. In Indian gear (and with swarthy make-up on too...) Savage happens upon a massacre in the forest by blackest night. Behind the crime is a vicious cult know as "the Thuggee." This gang is a Kali-worshiping band of murderers who strangle and gut wayward travelers, then hide their bodies in mass-graves. Ever the hero and the "do-gooder", Savage acts immediately to stop the Thuggees. He captures several of the perpetrators, over the complaints of his superior, and befriends and reforms one of the killers, a man named Hussein (played by Saeed Jaffrey).

Hussein then reluctantly agrees to take Savage deep undercover to infiltrate the cult of Kali to expose the murderers, the so-called "deceivers" of the film's title, who are believed responsible for more than two million brutal deaths in India.

But once ensconced inside the cult, Savage finds his Christian faith tested, especially after he tastes some of Kali's narcotic-like "gifts." Always in danger of being exposed as a white man, a British colonial, Savage must forge a choice about his future when Hussein is exposed, and Savage is ordered to strangle his friend before the other members of the cult...

The Deceivers, produced by Merchant & Ivory, is really a good old fashioned "heart of darkness" tale, a 19th century Donnie Brasco, in which a good man - one convinced of his own morality and religion - loses himself and his identity to a wicked "cult" that captures his imagination, his allegiance, and almost his soul. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the tacit, visual comparison of the Thuggee and the British; or as Westerners might put it, "pagans" vs. "Christians."

In particular, one of the Thuggee religious rituals portrayed in the films involves incense, a penitent pose among the practitioners, and the tasting of sugar cubes (rather than Communion wafers). The director, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan's (1982) Nicholas Meyer makes the most out of the moment by letting the audience detect the similarity itself. It's clear in the staging of the religious pract that there's very little difference, at least in this particular rite, between Christianity and the Thuggee. But Meyer doesn't make the fact trite or cliched by drawing attention to this thesis with heavy-handed dialogue.

Ahh, but - of course - Christians don't terrorize people, you say? Well, uhm, that's not strictly true, since the Westerners (Brits) in this film occupy and subjugate India's men and women in the colonizing and occupying of that country. And, as the film makes clear, some Brits take bribes to look the other way regarding the Thuggee, and others simply don't want to get involved. Instead, they'd rather just keep taking India's treasures and shipping them back to England. The m.o. of Brosnan's uptight superior is to keep the Indian people in poverty and ignorance. Don't improve their schools; don't improve their infrastructure. Do nothing except what benefits England.

Where The Deceivers works most successfully is in its depiction of Brosnan's steady psychological decline into barbarism as he becomes as fanatical and dangerous as the other Thuggee. Captain Savage strangles a man with his bare hands when his identity is threatened. He takes drugs, and - though he is married - makes love to a beautiful harlot who has been given to him for one night of debauchery.

This love-making scene represents one of the film's best, and trippiest moments. During the act, the lovely harlot transforms first into Brosnan's virginal love, the English, (and oh so porcelain) Sarah, then into the widow whom Brosnan first hoped to protect in his act of Good Samaritanism. But his lover's real identity is made clear when director Meyer cuts to the shadows on the wall behind them. Brosnan and his lover are seen intertwined there...and - out of the blue - an extra set of hands grasp Savage's torso. In other words, he is making love to the six-armed Goddess, Kali, herself. She has embraced him, this Goddess of Destruction, and he is truly hers now. Or, is this just the drugs in Savage's system, making him hallucinate? You decide...

Perhaps more intellectually fascinating than genuinely scary, The Deceivers boasts its fair share of suspense. It remains an artful, challenging film, one that makes its point visually rather than attempting to score points through clever words in a screenplay. For instance, at the film's opening, Brosnan's character hunts a wounded tiger in the brush without a second thought. He is arrogant in his superiority over the beast. However, by the movie's end, it is Savage himself who is hunted in the brush, wounded and desperate like the tiger he killed. The point, never reinforced through hokey dialogue, is that Savage - as his name indicates - has lapsed into animal barbarism by killing with his bare hands...and liking it. He is literally an animal, and Savage even attempts to strangle a child in his murderous state. That's the low point of his soul. It is in that brutal act that he realizes he has forsaken his humanity; and finally attempts to reclaim it.

Nicholas Meyer has contributed wonderful films to the genre, including Time after Time (1979), and The Deceivers represents one of his most artful, most restrained, cinematic efforts. The climax, in which a cavalry literally rides over the hill at precisely the right moment to save the endangered Captain, is the film's biggest weakness, though at times it is also a bit slow-paced, especially if you're expecting this to be an action-thriller. Instead, consider The Deceivers as Apocalypse Now, The Wicker Man, and Donnie Brasco meets Merchant and Ivory, and you'll have a good sense of what to expect. And I don't think you'll be disappointed.