Saturday, June 03, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "The Search"

"The Search," this week's Land of the Lost selection, arrives from the mind of sci-fi legend Ben Bova (and director Dennis Steinmetz). The story finds the Marshalls hoping to find Enik in the Lost City, but discovering their efforts stymied by Big Alice (the allosaur who guards the stone metropolis...).

Will spots something shining and "glistening" in the distance, and the Marshalls discover a deposit of matrix crystals hewn into the side of a rock outcropping. They begin to test various crystal combinations (red & blue = explosion), but the last combination they try paralyzes Rick Marshall's nervous system "like lightning."

It's here that "The Search" gets interesting. Holly must get Marshall back to safety at their High Bluff shelter, while Will must convince Enik to heal his father. It's a test for both kids -- a family crisis wherein each must grow up enough to face heavy responsibility. To save their father (and survive the day...) Holly and Will must each display creative thinking, problem solving and persistence. And they must do so completely independently.

And it's not always easy. Holly realizes she can't lift Marshall's weight up to the mouth of the High Bluff cave, and engineers a "counterweight" to him (in a basket...). Al the while, Grumpy the T-Rex looms nearby.

As for Will, he is tempted when Enik, the Altrusian, opens the time doorway and it happens to flash on the Marshall's time period. Enik urges Will to jump through; to take this single opportunity to return to his life. But Will can't leave his family behind, and Enik is shamed by his self-sacrifice. "Your self-control cannot be stronger than mine," Enik notes haughtily.

In the end, Marshall is healed, and realizes that the younglings aren't so young anymore. "Both of you saved me." "Both of you are growing up."

"The Search" has some good character moments, but my favorite was no doubt the instant at High Bluff when a dying Marshall talks seriously and emotionally with Holly. "You're just as headstrong as your mother was...bright, strong, never took a back seat to anyone, including me..." he says. This is a nice humanizing moment, though we know - of course - that Rick isn't really going to expire.

The only weird moment in "The Search" involves Enik's last scene. He has just healed Rick Marshall using two blue crystals, and then he speaks with the Marshalls for a moment. Suddenly, he begins to gesticulate wildly and exaggeratedly...totally unlike the cool, calm Enik. I wonder, was Walker Edmiston unavailable for that scene, and replaced by a lesser double? That's my best guess, because Enik isn't usually so effusive with the body gestures...

Another strange moment. Early in the episode, when the crystals explode, it looks very much to me like Spencer Milligan is standing too close...and is a little singed by the detonation. Go back and watch, and you'll see. During the next scenes, his eyes are tearing and his voice is shaking. And the explosion certainly looks dangerous...

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Trey Parker/Matt Stone Musical Trilogy: Cannibal, South Park, and Team America

The inventive duo of Matt Stone and Trey Parker are now infamous for raucous and raunchy potty humor on Comedy Central's South Park and their other productions (haven't you seen Orgasmo?) So when thinking of this creative team's output for film or TV, you might be tempted to conjure up images of swearing, animated children like Eric Cartman, or puppets having sexual intercourse (Team America); or perhaps even celebrity-baiting statements in South Park episodes about Tom Cruise, Rob Reiner, Ben Affleck and the like.

But let's face it, Parker and Stone are amazing producers for another entirely unheralded reason, one besides their boundary-bashing, taboo-smackdowns on TV and in theaters. The obvious (but often unreported...) fact is that these guys are genre scholars, movie musical lovers extraordinaire....not to mention talented composers and singers. How else to account for the fact that three of their feature films simultaneously parody and exploit the movie musical conventions established in the early decades of the twentieth century?

Let's start with 1994's memorable Cannibal: the Musical. We learn from the movie's informative opening card that the film was originally released in 1954 but was rapidly upstaged by the much more popular Oklahoma! and then promptly forgotten...until the original negative was excavated and "painstakingly" restored to its present condition.

Of course, none of that's true. Cannibal is an independently produced, low-budget flick made in 1993, while Parker was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. It's based on the "true" story of Alferd Packer (Parker), a pioneer who sets out with his beloved steed, Le Ann, and a team of prospectors to reach Colorado Territory. But the team takes a few wrong turns, winter falls, and well, before long, the specter of cannibalism appears. Oopsy.

Shot on location in Colorado, this bizarre (and bloody...) movie musical is packed with grand vistas, flowing rivers, monolithic mountains and the like, yet it does more than mimic the great outdoor look of Zinnemann's open-sky epic Oklahoma!

Rather pointedly, the film's first song finds Packer on his horse in pure Curly-style singing not "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin', but rather, the somewhat less-well known (but no less catchy) "Shpadoinkle." This tune - like its Rodgers and Hammerstein predecessor - describes a beautiful day, only in very basic terms. It is one wherein "the sky is blue and all the leaves are green." Alferd also descriptively sings that the sun is "as warm as a baked potato." Yep, it's a spot-on, drop-dead parody of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. It could only have been conceived by someone who knew the style well; and then, how to subvert it for comedic ends.

Another catchy tune in Cannibal, "Let's Build a Snowman," proves so annoyingly upbeat that the lost prospectors kill one of their own party rather than listen to another verse of the blasted thing. Finally, the movie climaxes in stellar fashion with the rousing, climactic tune, "Hang the Bastard," which not includes the requisite cowbell solo, but reveals scores of happy (though bloodthirsty...) townies dancing around their gallows and cheerily singing to send the doomed prospector 'straight to hell.' There's also the film's "yearning ballad" (in which a character expresses his or her dreams), here entitled "That's All I'm Asking For."

By the time of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in 1999, Parker and Stone had the budget and production chops to match their audacity and knowledge of musicals. They created a film that - for my money - is one of the finest movie musicals of the 1990s: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

Indeed, the charms of South Park arise not just from a witty story that involves parental censorship and the politics of war, but rather from the film's deliberate lampooning of long-cherished movie musical standards. "Anyone who's seen Beauty and the Beast's Belle describing her provincial life will recognize the roots of 'Mountain Town,' and even Satan gets a yearning ballad wondering about life 'Up There' a la Little Mermaid's 'Part of Your World,' wrote Entertainment Weekly's Chris Willman in 1999.

That was only part of the fun. "Cartman's perky 'Kyle's Mom's a Bitch' echoes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with choruses in fake Chinese, Dutch and French' observed Time Magazine's Richard Corliss. He added: "Saddam [Hussein] could be an Arabic fiddler on the roof as he struts his seedy charm in 'I Can Change.'...There's a dexterous quartet of musical themes, a la Les Mis. And though a song whose refrain is more or less 'Shut your flicking face, Uncle Flicka' would seem to have little room for musical wit, ace arranger Marc Shaiman turns it into an Oklahoma! hoedown with kids chirping like obscene Chipmunks."

Parker and Stone also parody hip-hop, BET style with their reprise of "Uncle Fucka" as a music video tie-in to "Asses of Fire," which features the Canadian duo Terrence and Phillip decked out in sunglasses, donning silver body suits, proffering piles of cash, wearing bling-bling, and surrounding themselves with nubile African-American female dancers in tight outfights.

"Kenny's Space Odyssey," in which the recently deceased boy floats about in outer space between Heaven and Hell, serves as a trippy reflection of 1970s head musicals like Ken Russell's Tommy, dreamy and serene one moment, hard-driving and pulse-pounding the next.

Basically, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is great because it co-opts the traditions of the musical format to reveal hidden character traits. Satan dreams of a better life on Earth ("Up There,") Saddam promises he can keep his promises to the World and the UN in "I Can Change," and, of course, "Blame Canada" was nominated for an Academy Award. It's a perfect anthem for the crusading parent. Busby Berkeley's unique staging-style also gets riffed in Big Gay Al's number, "I'm Super" and again, the feeling is that these creators understand the movie musical format and know how exactly to tweak it for laughs.

In 2004, Team America: World Police arrived in theaters, completing the Stone/Parker musical troika. Although this effort stars marionettes (a la Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds), the film is also perfect satire of the 1980s era action film, and so it deploys music (and musical tropes) to make thematic points (often ironic).

Here, the villain is not Saddam, but North Korea's Kim Jong Il, and he gets a sensitive ballad that describes his feelings of isolation, "I'm so Ronery." There's also a Broadway musical depicted in the film, a note-for-note parody of Rent, here entitled "Lease" and featuring the the politically-incorrect and unuly cheerful refrain "Everybody's Got AIDS!"

The brain trust behind South Park also resurrects a number from the popular TV series, "Montage," which - in remarkably specific detail - explains precisely how movies employ video-like "montages" to create the impression that time has passed, and a new skill has been learned. Originally, on South Park, Stan learned to ski to the strains of this song; in Team America, actor Gary becomes an action hero.

One of my favorite tunes in Team America accompanies the notorious puppet sex scene. It sounds like it came straight out of the hit soundtrack for Con Air, or some other Nicholas Cage movie circa 1997, but whatever its origin, "Only a Woman" remains a riot. Among the lyrics: "All I Ask is That You're a Woman." It's nice to have simple standards, isn't it?

I also get a tremendous kick out of the patriotic faux Toby Keith song "Freedom isn't Free," which in Team America is played over a stirring, inspirational visit to the national monuments in Washington D.C. by a contemplative...puppet. I think I actually spit up my soda watching the tiny marionette ponder the Lincoln Memorial and other "patriotic" sites.

If you ask me, way too much attention has been heaped upon the raw language and vulgar situations in the Parker/Stone canons. People have written books about South Park Republicans and the like, and the press has made hay about the show's attacks on Scientology and Global Warming. Yet, what clever film critics really need to do (besides obsessing on how many four letter words show up in these ventures...) is analyze how these creative filmmakers have marshaled music in their films to reflect on movies as a form.

The carefully composed and brilliantly performed music in Cannibal, South Park and Team America functions on a variety of thematic levels. The songs reveal character (as is the tradition of musicals), push the action forward (just look at the boys of South Park contemplating a strategy in 'What Would Brian Boitano Do'), and simultaneously comment on and lampoon movie conventions and cliches. In recent years, the musical form has made a real comeback in theaters (Moulin Rouge, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Chicago, Phantom of the Opera, Rent, etc.), and yet there is nothing more rewarding than a funny musical, one that simultaneously loves and skewers the form.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Classic Musicals: From Busby to Bollywood

Hey everybody, this post is directed at my film loving readers in North Carolina, and in the Charlotte area, in particular.

My good friend Sam Shapiro, a frequent guest columnist for The Charlotte Observer, a film professor at UNCC and a contributor on my upcoming book Horror Films of the 1980s, has prepared with his usual dedication this year's annual summer film festival for the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County.

This is from the press flyer on Classic Musicals: From Busby to Bollywood -- "The Public Library's 2006 Summer Film Series promises to be one of the best since it began in 1975. Not only are the movies great, but the series moves to ImaginOn: the Joe & Joan Martin Center - specifically to the center's 250-seat Wachovia Playhouse, complete with stadium-style seating and a state-of-the-art projection and sound system."

The festival begins on June 4th with Footlight Parade (1933). On June 11th, the festival shows Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat. June 18th is Stormy Weather (1943) with Cab Calloway and Lena Horne. Don't miss the June 25th movie, the Judy Garland classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1945).

Other shows include On the Town (1949) on July 9, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) on July 16, Oklahoma! (1955) on July 23, and the 1979 version of Hair starring Treat Williams on July 30th. The festival culminates with Devdas (2002), a Bollywood extravaganza.

This annual summer film series is free to all (and the selections are family friendly). Seeing these films again is a perfect way to spend your summer Sundays, especially if you love movie history and movie musicals. To learn more about the program, visit www.plcmc.org/programs/films.asp

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Space:1999 Pinball


Here's a fun sci-fi collectible I picked up twelve years ago (in 1994) in Charlotte, at a store on Albemarle Road that's long out of business.

Forget Elton John or Roger Daltrey, the real pinball wizard is Commander John Koenig of Moonbase Alpha...

I bought this Space:1999 wall pinball game for $25.00 back in the day, and it has hung proudly on my wall ever since.

I remember some reviews of Space:1999 back in the disco decade actually compared the series' traveling, intergalactic moon to a pinball bouncing around the cosmos...and well, now I can make that metaphor literal.

I especially enjoy this 1999 toy because very few toys from the original Space:1999 run (1975 - 1977) were made following Year Two and included Maya.

As you can see, Catherine Schell's beautiful creation is included here (on the middle left). Although the rest of the imagery is clearly Year One (including Christopher Lee as Zantor from "Earthbound" and Dione's battleship from "The Last Enemy") Helena is Year Two friendly, wearing one of those colorful Freiberger jackets with the big collars...

I've seen a Land of the Lost pinball unit just like this on sale for E-Bay occasionally. I've really got to get my hands on that one.

CATNAP # 37: Ezri Needs Her Pills...




Well, because of Ezri's heart condition (a progressive disease that thickens one of her valves, and makes it harder for her heart to relax), we're having to give her three pills a day...every eight hours.

It's not always easy...and it's kind of like feeding a baby. Ezri likes being held, but she doesn't like taking the pill. At all. Lately, she's been holding it under her tongue, and then when we put her down, she walks away and spits it out. On the weekends when we vacuum, we find her pills everywhere...in every room.

Monday, May 29, 2006

CULT MADE-FOR-TV BLOGGING: Someone's Watching Me! (1978)

One of John Carpenter's "missing" films (not currently available on commercial DVD) is the 1978 telefilm originally titled High Rise, but broadcast (on TV) as Someone's Watching Me! Despite the film's relative obscurity, it remains a fascinating production. It's the "flip side" in some senses, of Halloween. Because here, the killer doesn't need a knife. The telephone will do just fine...

The made-for-TV movie stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a headstrong, single, career woman who moves into Los Angeles' impressive Arkham Towers, a state-of-the-art (for 1978) apartment building replete with computer-controlled air-conditioning, high-tech elevators, "eighty miles of wiring and cables" and boasting a restaurant in the foyer, a gift shop, even a wedding chapel in the lobby.

Despite such "modern" conveniences, TV-director Leigh finds herself targeted and pursued by a dedicated and obsessive technological stalker, one who operates from a safe distance with the very latest tools of the trade: electronic surveillance devices, telescopes, tape recorders, walkie-talkies and the like.

The film's central notion, well-captured by the young Carpenter (who also wrote the teleplay), is that - as Hutton's Philosophy Professor boyfriend (David Birney) says -"we insulate our lives" and "guard our spaces" but technology can bring terror home; to our very hearths. The invisible stalker, Birney suggests, is "trying to hurt" Leigh "without touching" her. Or, as Leigh's lesbian friend, Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) aptly describes the situation: "rape is when a man consciously keeps a woman in fear."

That's the thematic playground of the Someone's Watching Me! As a filmmaker, Carpenter is a neo-classicist, an old-fashioned visually-skilled auteur who here - instead of evoking Howard Hawks (as in Assault on Precinct [1976]) - suggests the canon of that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. To wit, the film opens with a Saul-Bass style opening credits scene that could have been ripped right from Psycho (1960). The credits are accompanied by Harry Sukman's Herrmann-esque score, which squawks like Psycho too.

Also, the film involves the pursuit of a woman by an unseen killer, and there are plenty of Hitchcockesque red herrings among the characters, including a "slick man" who accosts Leigh at night, an obnoxious co-worker named Steve who doesn't take "no" for an answer, and the odd horticulturist who lives across from Leigh, in the parallel building called Blake Towers. Each one of these men could be the long-distance stalker, and Carpenter wrangles maximum (for TV...) suspense out of his identity. In one telling shot evoking the best tenets of film grammar, the killer tells Leigh he can see her through her open window, and she retreats whimpering to the sheltered bathroom, to a tight, confined space between toilet and bathtub, Carpenter's camera adopts an overhead angle. It's as though we're gazing down at Leigh in a fishbowl, which is precisely what the comfortable apartment has become for this woman. Her privacy has been stolen.

Carpenter's telefilm also cogently suggests the anonymous, disconnected and isolating manner of modern metropolitan life. An early shot at street-level reveals a group of cars traveling in one direction endlessly, not unlike lemmings. Who's in them? Where are they going? Could one of the drivers be the stalker? These are the questions the uncomfortable shot suggests. The film also pauses during scene transitions to include views of gleaming skyscrapers, ones with mirrored windows. In other words, you can't see in; can't see what's behind the panes....all we see is ourselvess, looking in; reflected The identities of others (like the stalker...) are protected.

Two things tend to date Someone's Watching Me! (which would be ideal remake material). The first is the film's technology. The surveillance devices, tape recorders and telephones all appear antique today, in the world of microtechnology, e-mail, wi-fi and the like. It's up to the minute for the late 1970s, yet watching the film, you can't help but realize how far we've come. And yet - simultaneously - that's a reckoning that supports the film's thesis too. Via the Internet (and faxes before it), and cell phones and beepers and the like, technology has infiltrated our homes in ways deeper than Carpenter - or anyone - would have imagined in the disco decade. Today, it's even easier for a stalker to "get in" while remaining "far away."

The second aspect of Someone's Watching Me that's aged, but which - personally - I enjoyed, is the idea of having a character, in this case Hutton's Leigh, voice her fears as a running, external monologue. This device recurs in Halloween: we are often privy there to Laurie Strode's (Curtis's) thoughts. Today, we might decry this running soliloquy as stilted or dated, but again - it's right from the Marion Crane/Psycho playbook. It's a nice window into Leigh's thoughts, but today we'd consider the device "hokey."

It's interesting to consider Leigh Michaels, as played by Lauren Hutton, because she represents the late-1970s ideal of the liberated American woman. She's depicted as "kooky" but extremely smart; professional but with an off-kilter sense of humor. She reserves the right to say "no" but is also sexually aggressive when it suits her. Because she is a single, career woman in a "man's business," Leigh is also disbelieved by the authorities when she reports the nature of her stalking (which includes phone calls, and unauthorized visits to her apartment while she's at work...).

This allows for a "don't cry wolf" kind of subtext to the telefilm, but the point is exactly what Leigh says: "Whenever I get around to telling the truth, no one believes me." Someone's Watching Me! suggests that's because, in part, Leigh has stepped out of the "traditional" role of women in society. She can't be believed or trusted because she's sexually aggressive and unmarried, a heterosexual woman "making it on her own." Society has already dismissed her before the killer first sets his telescopic sights on her. Leigh's only friend, noticeably, is a gay woman, another female "outsider." Sophie believes Leigh where the men - the police - don't.

The notion of voyeurism, the terrain of fellow Hitchcock heir Brian De Palma (see 1984's Body Double...), is also vetted carefully in Someone's Watching Me!, making it a sort of latter-day Rear Window (1954). There are plenty of telling shots adopting the perspective of the telescope lens as it peers in at other apartments, at women going about their business...unaware that they are being visually stalked. Carpenter alternates between this "remote" view of invaded personal lives with a series of stunning, desperate, faster-than-usual P.O.V. subjective shots symbolizing Leigh's "eyes." These occur as she finds her personal space (her apartment) violated by an unwanted visitor.

Had Someone's Watching Me! been made for the cinema, it would likely have been scarier than it is; but it's still one of the very best TV-movies of the era, in part because Carpenter's screenplay is filled with ideas about "modern" life in the disco decade; the change in women's roles in our society; the easy availability of technology, the isolating nature of city life, and the like. These ideas make the perfect background for a solid thriller in the Hitchcockian vein, even if - occasionally - you'll marvel at how much things have changed since the era of Jimmy Carter and the ERA. Technology continues to invade our homes, unabated, and the question becomes: is it still victimizing us today? It's not so much Someone's Watching Me! in 2006 but rather The NSA's Watching Me! Big Brother's Watching me! Phishers are Watching Me! Sexual Predators are Watching Me! Corporations are Watching Me! And on and on. At least Leigh Michaels knew she was being stalked - didn't like it and chose to fight back...

Note: The avid Carpenter fan will find plenty of the director's trademark touches here, but also some direct references to his next project, 1980's The Fog. To wit: The building across from Arkham is called Blake Towers. Blake, as you will recall, is the name of the Leper Leader in The Fog. Also, the first victim of the stalker in Someone's Watching Me! is named Elizabeth Solley. That's also the name of Jamie Lee Curtis's character in The Fog.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

My Office Now...Beam Me Up.




Hey everybody. Occasionally, here and at my web site (www.johnkennethmuir.com) I share photos of my crazy toy collections in the home office where I blog and write my various and sundry film books.

I did a re-vamp of my home office recently (the second time in a year) and added some new stuff, so I thought I'd put up a few pictures today. In particular, I hauled out a few more cardboard Star Trek stand-up cut-outs from mothballs. They literally came out of mothballs. I found that bugs had started to chew up my Captain Kirk display...

Paging Dr. Beverly Crusher...