Friday, July 07, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 43: Tom Corbett Space Academy Set (Marx Toys)

A couple months back, I had the amazing good fortune to find a neat old sci-fi collectible at a flea market in Deltaville, Virginia...a Tom Corbett Space Cadet thermos from Aladdin!

For those of you who may have forgotten, Tom Corbett Space Cadet was a CBS (and then Dumont) TV series from the early 1950s, and a forerunner of Star Trek. The series imagined a futuristic and golden space age in which responsible, decent-minded cadets like Tom patrolled the universe in rocketships such as the Polaris.

Well, this past weekend, my really incredible parents surprised me yet again with another treasure (after last week's Micronauts find, no less...) My father brought down from the attic a boyhood toy he had enjoyed with his best friend, Bob. In fact, on a recent trip to New Jersey, Bob had revealed to my Dad that he still had this toy in his attic, and that he wanted to give it to me. How can one guy be so lucky? I often wonder...

What's that toy my Dad played with back in the early 1950s? Well, it's the much sought-after Marx Toys Tom Corbett Space Academy playset..

Now, as you can see from the photographs decorating this post, what remains of this official Space Academy set (issued from Louis Marx & Co. Inc, the "world's largest manufacturers of toys"), is basically the small Corbett figurines (including space helmets on some!), several of the out-buildings, one vehicle, and several key accessories (chairs, desks, laser posts, control panels, an easel and the like). The protective outer/perimeter walls of the space academy, as well as the central buildings are long gone, alas.

But heck, this is still a real retro treasure from a great manufacturer of toys in the 1950s and 1960s. Marx used to make playsets like Fort Apache (with cowboys and Indians...) as well as this one, and as a kid, I remember owning some kind of Viking fort with figures, also produced by the company.. Anyway, this particular toy is made all the more special because my father and his best friend played with these very cool "action" figures fifty years ago. Some day, maybe my own son will be interested? Hopefully...

Trading Card Close-up # 1: "Fate of the Klingons"

I launched one of my new blog features yesterday ("Sci-Fi Characters I Love") and today I want to usher in another new brand of post. Trading Card "close-ups" will feature looks at - you guessed it - sci-fi card fronts and backs from years past.

I usher in the series with a card from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the year 1979. Card # 4 of the set, in fact, entitled "Fate of the Klingons."

I selected this card to begin with because of the unusual nature of these particular Klingons. You may recall, before Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Klingons looked like sweaty space pirates. No bumpy foreheads. Only goatees, mind-sifters and agonizers.

So when I first cast my young eyes upon this trading card (before I even saw the movie, I think...), I was fascinated by the transformation of the familiar alien race. Plus, these Klingons look really, really cool. Klingons in later Star Trek productions ended up looking a lot less severe and alien, don't you think? Mark Lenard, Spock's father, even plays the Klingon Commander you see in this card.

Also, "the fate of the Klingons" is what opened up Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The destruction (by V'Ger) of three Klingon cruisers remains the most exciting and cinematically interesting aspect of Robert Wise's picture, if you ask me. It was a special effects show-stopper in 1979, and a way to start the movie with a blast.

As a bonus on this card, the back features a "key" to the puzzle that you can assemble by collecting all 16 cards from puzzle "B!" Yep, it's the U.S.S. Enterprise crew, replete with Persis Khambatta, and Admiral James T. Kirk, here wearing his stylish two-tone uniform. The Star Trek crew never again wore these uniforms.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Coming Soon: Horror Films of the 1980s.

Yep, it's almost here. The long-awaited sequel to one of my most popular, critically acclaimed and widely-read books (Horror Films of the 1970s).

I toiled long and hard on this one, and hope you'll give it a gander. The stats: 328 movies covered; almost 200 photographs; a dozen interviews; eleven original illustrations. Tons of reviews, horror conventions (or cliches), memorable ad-lines, the 80s hall of fame and much more ghoulish, bloody fun.

This baby's up at McFarland, available now for pre-order. I'll let you know more about the street date, but it looks like this one might arrive in time for Halloween. I'm really excited about this book for many reasons. It's nice to "come home" in a sense, to horror, because I've been away since 2004's The Unseen Force: the Films of Sam Raimi.

Here's McFarland's book description:

John Kenneth Muir is back! His Horror Films of the 1970s was named an Outstanding Reference Book by the American Library Association, and likewise a Booklist Editors’ Choice. This time, Muir surveys 300 films from the 1980s. From backwards psychos (Just Before Dawn) and yuppie-baiting giant rats (Of Unknown Origin), to horror franchises like Friday the 13th and Hellraiser, as well as nearly forgotten obscurities such as The Children and The Boogens, Muir is our informative guide through 10 macabre years of silver screen terrors.

Muir introduces the scope of the decade’s horrors, and offers a history drawing parallels between current events and the nightmares unfolding on cinema screens. Each of the 300 films are discussed with detailed credits, a brief synopsis, a critical commentary, and where applicable, notes on the film’s legacy beyond the 80s. Also included is a catalog of the author’s “star” ratings for both 1970s and 1980s horror movies, as well as his ranking of the 15 best horror films of the 80s.

Sci-Fi Characters I Love # 1: Lydia (from V: The Series)

In the mid-1980s, the name of the game in sci-fi TV was V (not for Vendetta...), but for "Victory," in particular in the global war against those reptilian extra-terrestrial fascists, the Visitors. V, V: The Final Battle and V: The Series were all a crucial part of that decade's genre programming, and truth be told, likely a powerful influence on later productions like Independence Day (1996). V is one of the few programs in American network history that concerns a leftist resistance battling an overpowering right-wing hierarchy, one that scapegoats enemies (like scientists...) and manipulates the power of the media to its own ends. Wonder how that got by the network executives?

Regardless, V (the original mini-series in 1984) introduced the villainous and ambitious Visitor second-in-command, Diana (played with gleeful relish by Jane Badler), but it wasn't until V: The Series aired on NBC Friday nights that this character came up against a truly effective foil amongst her own kind. Oh, Sarah Douglas did a fine job playing such a character in V: The Final Battle, a fleet commander, but she was too easily bumped off by Diana's Machiavellian schemes.

However, in the blond, big-haired, British-accented Visitor officer Lydia (essayed in delicious fashion by June Chadwick), Diana finally countenanced a nemesis as scheming, manipulative and avaricious as she was. Consequently, viewers could pretty much forget or ignore what was happening with the Resistance down in Los Angeles (and with the series' protagonists...). The reason to watch V: The Series quickly became the Mothership sparring matches, the ongoing battle of wills, between Diana and Lydia. They fought over romantic lovers (like Duncan Regehr's Visitor, Charles), and tried to gain ultimate power, always making their opponent look bad in the process.

As part of my new blog series, "Sci-Fi Characters I Love," I'll be gazing back at some of my favorite dramatis personae in the genre's long history. My choices hopefully won't be obvious (at least to start), but rather genuinely stimulating and interesting ones. It's fascinating to consider, but the best characters in sci-fi dramas aren't always the leads. Sometimes they are the support characters; sometimes aliens instead of human; and sometimes...oft-times, they're villains.

Back in 2004, while I was writing Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, I had the most welcome opportunity to chat with Ms. June Chadwick, who played Lydia on V: The Series. She had also proven herself quite memorable a presence as Jeanine Pettibone, David St. Hubbins' irksome girlfriend in This is Spinal Tap (1984). The subject of the interview was Spinal Tap and the process of improvisation in that film, but I couldn't resist the temptation to ask Ms. Chadwick about her terrific performances as Lydia, and her memories of V: The Series.

Firstly, I wanted to know how Ms. Chadwick came to be involved with the sci-fi series.

"They bumped off a character, played by Sarah Douglas, who was British, and I think they wanted somebody European, and it was quite a small role to start with," June Chadwick explains. "I seem to come across a lot of roles the same way, which is the hard way, going into auditions. Sometimes they [these roles] come along, where I'm thinking, gosh, 'the glove doesn't fit.' And sometimes I think 'this is totally my glove.' V was one of those. I loved the humor of it."

And what was it like working with the Alien Lizard Queen, Diana, otherwise known as Jane Badler?

"Jane was doll...a doll," Ms. Chadwick emphasizes. "We became good friends. In fact I saw her fairly recently. I seem to come in late on projects, and I came in late on this one. It had been a mini-series and everybody had got used to each other. And it was a family sort of thing and I was newbie again. And Jane was very generous and welcoming, and I don't think all actresses are like that. Some actually take the competitiveness too far, into reality, and she absolutely didn't do that."

"And we did have a very good time together, and I remember we'd actually watch the episodes together. We'd be walking down these long corridors together and go hysterical because she and I both had one leg slightly longer than the other, and we kind of tipped to one side a tiny bit when we walked. And she tipped one way and I was tipping the other way and that's all we saw..."

And how did the role of Lydia, the Visitor officer, develop?

"Initially I had all these scenes walking up and down the corridors saying 'the Leader won' be pleased.', Chadwick jokes. "I think the character progressed from there. I think that there's something about being British. You can say those things with great aplomb and authority. With an American accent, it might not sound so official. But if you say them with an English accent...and it sounds pretty official, which is why Star Trek sometimes has British actors. I did a Star Trek CD-Rom game and I played a character, and it had loads of techno-jargon and it was a lot of fun to do."

"It (the character of Lydia) did develop," Ms. Chadwick continues. "Initially, I remember one of the producers telling me he wanted me to be meaner. And so it was interesting because I don't play 'mean' per se. I play a lot of mean characters, but I always play them in the way that she has something she really cares about. And my premise with this one (Lydia) was that humans were like ants to me. Not there's anything bad about humans necessarily, but they are totally useless and don't mean anything to me. And again, Lydia had a really big cause, and if someone was going to get in the way of that cause, they had to be demolished somehow."

In one of V's most memorable episodes, Lydia and Diana - fully made-up to appear like members of an outer space-going KISS cult - duke it out in ritualistic hand-to-hand combat. That female-on-female smackdown is one memory from the series that personally, I will always cherish. It was the equivalent of Linda Evans and Joan Collins sharing that catfight on Dynasty...

"Oh god I loved that," Chadwick recalls. "We had two fabulous make-up artists and they were sort of old-school make-up artists, and they went to town on us, which did half the job. I've trained as a dancer, and Jane is a good mover. It's basically choreography, as many fights are. We had a giggle. It's very fun when someone says 'action' and off you go, and you're doing all this stuff, and the minute they say 'cut' you dissolve into giggles."

And did Ms. Chadwick have any recollections of the fairly graphic (for television in the 1980s) Visitor dining scenes? Remember, these reptilian aliens feasted on all kinds of mammals (from guinea pigs to human beings...).

"Whenever possible they had you munch on something that was at least reasonable," Chadwick explains. "What used to fascinate me was when we had the banquets, they had this food - you might call it - on plates all day. They'd say 'cut' at the end of the day, and all the extras would dive in and eat the food. And I thought, 'oh my god, they're eating melting rats.'

Lastly, I had to ask Ms. Chadwick a delicate and rather provocative question about her character. I tip-toed around it. You see, I sometimes I got of Diana and Lydia. Like...hmmm, how should I put this?

"You mean the bi-sexual potential?" Chadwick noted, courteously ending my discomfort. Yep, that's what I mean.

"I don't think I ever went there, per se, in my mind," Chadwick relates. "But I definitely think we had a chemistry that was a bit of a kind of a love/hate thing, even on screen. And I think we did encourage each other. We did sort of stimulate each other. In terms of stimulation, well I guess I can only speak for myself, but she definitely stimulated me. Yes, she's a very sexy woman and it was a challenge, I think."

Now that V: The Series is on DVD and gaining new fans, any thought on its enduring popularity?

"There was a V convention I think at the same time Spinal Tap had its premiere, and I was thinking 'I can retire now, I've been in a cult movie and a cult TV series,''" Chadwick jokes. "I couldn't believe the number of people who came to this convention who were all wearing the costumes. They were just real sci-fi fans, and it still has this huge following. I think I got a repeat (royalty) check just yesterday on it, which is nice! I'm glad. I think it was a little sad it was stopped when it was. I remember Brandon Tartikoff, the head of NBC, saying it was the biggest mistake he ever made, canceling it when he did."

"I was also personally sad because the next six scripts were all about Lydia and Diana, and the two of us were hunting each other down on another planet. We were told the storylines, and as an actress it was disappointing for me, because the character had grown from being very small, to being beside the lead of the series..."

So today, on the blog, let's eat a guinea pig (or maybe a chocolate bunny) in honor of the gloriously evil Lydia, Diana's regal and scheming opponent. V: The Series ended on a cliffhanger note more than twenty years ago, so as far as I'm concerned, Lydia is still out there on another planet, making mischief, forked tongue and all...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

TV REVIEW: Edge of Outside: A TCM Original Documentary

Since July 4th - Independence Day - is now upon us, it seems quite right that Turner Classic Movies is marking the holiday with a celebration of the independent filmmaker and his filmic tradition. Edge of Outside is the network's first fully in-house produced documentary, and this enjoyable, fast-paced effort premieres tomorrow night (July 5th) at 8:00 pm. Directed by Shannon Davis, this enterprise is eminently worthy of viewing attention, especially if you love film - and in particular, film history.

Edge of Outside defines "independence" quite broadly, which simply means that director Davis seizes the opportunity to discuss with today's finest filmmakers such legendary talents as Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, as well as Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and John Cassavetes. Since the definition of independent is quite liberal here, the examined movie maker doesn't even necessarily need to work outside the studio system to be considered for inclusion. He just needs to understand how to manipulate the system so as to bring his unique personality and artistry to a celluloid project.

Even the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, is gazed upon in terms of his "independent" streak here. And if there's a downside at all to this interesting TV documentary, that's probably it: some film scholars will no doubt quibble with the filmmaker selections. For instance, other than Roger Corman, no horror movie makers are discussed in Edge of Outside. For quite a long a time, John Carpenter's Halloween and George Romero's Dawn of the Dead were the highest grossing independent films of all time. That might merit a mention at least.
Also - no women filmmakers are highlighted in this production. No Jane Campion or Mira Nair to be found anywhere...and that feels like an omission. Also, let's face it, a strong case could be made that George Lucas was an independent filmmaker, at least regarding the original Star Wars. True, his movie became a blockbuster immediately, but that doesn't change the fact that he accomplished his personal vision while facing enormous stress and adversity. This is where, perhaps, a more narrow reading of the term "independent" might have benefited Edge of Outside.

But no matter. The strong value of this loosely-structured documentary arises from the wonderful on-camera interviews. Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Arthur Penn, John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, Ed Burns, Gena Rowlands, Darren Aronofsky and the like discuss the reasons they admire and cherish Woody Allen, John Cassavetes ("the standard bearer" for independence), Samuel Fuller ("the greatest unknown director in the world") and "Bloody Sam" Peckinpah. Any network program that acknowledges and cherishes Cassavetes, perhaps the most authentic filmmaker in cinema history, wins major points with me. Basically, this documentary is like enrolling in a film study class with high-profile director lecturers. Each interview will hold your rapt attention.

One of my favorite moments in the documentary highlights Orson Welles' adage that "accidents are the friends" of a director, as well as his explanation about "dream sequences" freeing a crew from the trap of conventional logic. When in archival footage Welles notes how two percent of film is "movie making" and 98% is hustling, you realize again what kind of craziness this brilliant talent contended with. I also enjoyed the discussion of low budgets, and that they can actually be a strength. Welles said that "the enemy of art is the absence of limitations." That one line better sums up Hollywood in the CG era than just about anything I've read or heard elsewhere. It is very, very true, and I'm glad it is featured here.

Buttressed with clips from classic movies like Rebel Without a Cause, The Getaway, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita and more, Edge of Outside is like a survey of your favorite movie makers, and the documentary will remind you again about all the films you want to return to and sample. Personally, I'm motivated to queue up a Cassavetes marathon and then go back and re-examine the French New Wave. I've always been a huge Truffaut fan (and I watched The Four Hundred Blows again recently...) so it will be fun to return to his work (and Godard's) in light of the points made in the documentary.

According to the documentary, independent filmmakers are "born out of conflict," evade "lucrative traps" and "haven't seen the sun in ten years." They are "self-destructive" and can see outside "the hierarchy of the moment." Those are mostly good descriptors, and a fine place to begin a discussion of independent filmmakers.

Accordingly, TCM is following up the airing of the documentary with a month-long tribute to filmmakers who have worked on the fringe of Hollywood. In fact, at 9:15 pm on Wednesday night, immediately following Edge of Outside, TCM airs John Cassavetes' 1968 masterpiece, Faces. The following Wednesday, (July 12) films by Charles Chaplin, Erich Von Stroheim, Frank Capra and Orson Welles are featured. On Wednesday July 19, Nicholas Ray, Kubrick, Fuller and Peckinpah fill out the slate.

So here it is: let Edge of Outside serve as your informative overview and primer for a month of great independent movies. I guess the TiVo will be working overtime at the Muir house this July...

July '06 Far Sector Column Posted!

My July '06 media column at the web zine Far Sector is now live. My subject this month is - appropriately enough - Superman and his legacy. I'll be offering my review here of Superman Returns in the next few days, but before doing so, I wanted to pause and remember the Superman of the 1950s, and in particular, a B-movie production starring George Reeves called Superman and The Mole People.

Here's a sample of the piece ("Superman Returns...but from where?"):

"...the low-budget effort parted ways with character lore and comic-book tradition by taking reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) out of Metropolis and into the American heartland; to a small Western town called Silsby. There, the reporters attempted to solve the mystery of two diminutive “mole men,” creatures that inhabited an advanced civilization beneath Earth’s surface.

These two “explorers” had found their way topside when an oil company drilled deeply and recklessly into their terrain. Radioactive and therefore dangerous to humans, these aliens from “inner space” had no idea that their very presence was fatal to the good townsfolk of Silsby. The film’s villain was not a super-powered freak, not a madman bent on global domination, but rather an ordinary man named Benson (Jeff Corey) who reacted with prejudice and hatred towards the Mole Men and sought to incite a mob to destroy them.

A native of another world himself, Superman attempted to broker a peace between the two distrustful races, and Clark Kent alone saw the dangers of the mob mentality unleashed. Thus, this Superman film concerned not elaborate special effects, nor an operatic attempt to be “true” to a long-established character continuity, but rather human nature: man’s propensity to fear that which is different. Thus it serves as a revelation (and make no mistake—a statement) about the conformist 1950s; the age of Senator McCarthy and the Red Scare.

“It’s men like you that make it difficult for men to understand one another,” Superman tells Corey’s Benson late in the film, and a cogent point is forged. Bent on stopping hysteria and intolerance instead of a colorful, cartoony villain, Superman proved in this early cinematic outing that he could be a hero of great dignity and even objectivity…an important quality absent from even our supposedly “fair and balanced” news media in today’s world.

Steady, smart and strong, Reeves portrayed the Kryptonian immigrant as an evolved man, a decent man, a wise men —hence, a super man. It wasn’t his strength that made him a hero; it wasn’t that he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Instead, it was his morality that made Kal-El above the norm..."

Check out the rest of my column at Far Sector, as well the other offerings at the zine, including short stories, editorial commentary and interviews.