Saturday, August 19, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Vultan - King of the Hawkmen"

Script editor Ted Pederson contributes his first teleplay to Filmation's Flash Gordon with this, the third "chapter" of the ongoing serial.

"Vultan - King of the Hawkmen" finds Aura, Barin, Thun and Flash captured and taken to Vultan's hovering "Sky City." Vultan - who looks and sounds suspiciously like the movie's Brian Blessed - consigns the men to the city's "atomic furnace" and decides he wants to marry the yummy and scantily-clad Aura. Meanwhile, Ming launches his space armada to rescue his daughter and warns that Vultan will soon feel "the wrath of Ming!"

Down in the atomic furnace, Flash instigates the second slave revolt in two weeks and devastates the city's power core just in time for Ming to come and reduce much of the Hawkman city to rubble with his fleet. This is where the episode really takes off as the battle rages. In the air (over the spires of Sky City...) it's laser-firing spaceship versus sleek, flying Hawkmen, and I was amazed to see a children's cartoon featuring images of Hawkmen (and their hawk steeds...) being disintegrated in mid-air by the weaponry! Damn, that's cool...

In the end, the Hawkmen flee Sky City with Ming, Barin and Thun. Vultan resolves to join them as "brothers" since they now "share the same fortune." In just three episodes, Flash has allied three Kingdoms of Mongo, and soon he will begin the rebellion against Ming in earnest...

"Where there's a will, there's a way," he tells his new friends, and again I'm reminded of Flash Gordon's origins in the 1930s...in a time of gathering global danger when tyrants were sweeping through Europe and bringing the tide of fascism with them. The only chance to resist the momentum of evil was for the countries of the world to band together against evil; and Flash Gordon is certainly a metaphor for that idea of uniting: the putting aside of racial and ethnic divides to serve the common good.

That's a valuable message, especially today, when war wages in so many places.

Friday, August 18, 2006

TV REVIEW: Hex (BBC America)

Hex. Rhymes with "sex." And put in an "H" at the beginning for horror.

Described in promotions as a “supernatural coming of age series,” the scintillating adolescent drama Hex began airing on BBC America earlier this summer. Although the series premiered in England (on Sky One) in 2004, BBC America aired all eighteen episodes of the first two seasons in one 2006 sortie. So this is the best time to get hooked.

Hex is set at a countryside boarding school/high school in rural England, called Medenham. There, a beautiful (and promiscuous...) blond student named Cassie (Cole) learns that she’s the reincarnation of a powerful witch. Her roommate, a lesbian named Thelma (Rooper) is killed in a terrible scene, and then becomes Cassie’s constant companion and guardian...as an incorporeal ghost (who can only change her fashions by stealing the clothes off corpses...)

Meanwhile, Cassie falls in love with a hunky and dangerous bad boy named Azazeal (Fassbender), but he’s actually a creature called a ‘Nephilim,’ a fallen angel who hopes to breed with a human and launch a new war with Heaven. Guess who Azazeal’s chosen to be the mother of his child? Worse, as Thelma learns, these events have repeated over and over again through history, with the women in Cassie’s role all suffering horrible deaths.

Cassie is briefly possessed by a demon, and in that compromised state has sexual intercourse with Azazeal, an act which effectively brings about the beginning of the end of days. After an accelerated pregnancy, she gives birth to a son, Malachai, who - once grown - can release two hundred Nephilim monstrosities from their prisons. The only way to stop the apocalypse is by killing Malachai, but that’s understandably difficult for Cassie, the boy’s mother. Another problem: if the baby dies, order in the universe is restored and Cassie will no longer be able to communicate with the ghostly Thelma.

Soon, Ella (Pyper) arrives at Medenham. She’s a witch-hunter determined to stop Azazeal hellbent on murdering Malachai. Other cast members on Hex include Roxanne (Sainsbury), a ravenous schoolgirl trying desperately to deflower a handsome instructor at the school who also happens to be Azazeal’s minion. And Leon (Davis) is Ella’s confused boyfriend, also doomed to some unpleasant “growing pains.”

Critic W.M. Stephen Humphrey at The Portland Mercury insightfully termed Hex “Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with late-night Cinemax,” because the series boasts graphic sex scenes with plenty of female nudity. As for the Buffy metaphor, it is appropriate for numerous reasons. Cassie’s relationship with a hulking, brooding, 200-plus year old “monster,” dramatically recalls Buffy’s relationship with the sometimes good/sometimes soul-less vampire, Angel. Fans will also remember that Buffy’s witch friend, Willow became a lesbian in later seasons, and here Rooper - a similar friend supporting character, also plays a woman of alternate sexual persuasion. Man-eater Roxanne is also heavily reminiscent of Charisma Carpenter’s selfish Cordelia character, concerned only with fashion, sex and herself. There’s even a strong accent on comedy and wisecracks, so Hex could - at least on first glance - be aptly termed a clone of the more popular American series.

However, Hex is more frankly and openly sexual, and in some terrible sense, darker than its American cousin. The characters are frequently faced with terrible decisions (like aborting a child that could destroy the world...). They also often act more selfishly and unheroically than the more likable Buffy characters. In one episode, for instance, Thelma makes an alliance with Azazeal to get something she wants...an alliance that nearly kills Ella.

Also, without revealing too much, Hex brazenly pulls a Psycho-style trick mid-way through its second season, killing off a main character and throwing the entire series into disarray and chaos. This move will leave faithful viewers reeling. Finally, Hex features fewer and less impressive special effects than Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, but as characters fumble and fight, and darkness encroaches inevitably on mankind, the series becomes more and more compelling as a statement about tomorrow’s generation heading over the precipice.

A third season lands in America in the summer of 2007...and it’s going to be a long wait. If you miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hex isn't quite the same, but it is an adequate substitute, and getting better on an episode-by-episode basis.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

TV REVIEW: Lucky Louie (HBO)

Videotaped before a live audience, Lucky Louie starring comedian Louis C.K. is a sitcom that views itself as the heir to such blue collar classics as The Honeymooners and All in the Family. The series concerns a working class American family run by hapless Louie, living in a tiny, rundown apartment building in an urban setting. The primary sets on this HBO series include a dilapidated hallway (with dents and paint scrapes...), a kitchen, and a tiny bedroom. If the Kramdens were around in the 21st century, this would no doubt be their environs.

Louis is a dopey, overweight working class joe raising his smart-alecky daughter, Lucy (Gould) and engaged in a constant state of war with his wife, a nurse named Kim (Adlon). Louie doesn’t understand Kim, and so his friends at the muffler shop where he works, including Mike (Hagerty), are around to offer sage advice about women. Tina (Kightlinger) is Kim’s friend, performing essentially the same function, only in reverse. The next-door neighbors are Walter (Minor) and Ellen (Hawthorne), a well-to-do, snobby African-American couple. Walter and Ellen wear nicer clothes and own nicer furniture...which raises the practical question of why they’re living in the same rundown urban building with Louie’s one-the-edge-of-poverty family.

In the course of the series, Louie forsakes frequent masturbation sessions when Kim wants more intercourse...a ruse, in fact, for her to become pregnant again (“Pilot”). Another episode, “Kim’s O” revolves around Louie’s wife experiencing her first real orgasm at age thirty-seven...after seven years of marriage! Other plots revolve around other domestic issues, and occasionally, ones involving modern city life, like “A Mugging Story,” wherein Kim goes ballistic after losing her pocket book in a duel with a teenage mugger.

Lucky Louie comes straight from the mind of C.K., who has honed this working-class material for years. “When I started writing this stuff, I didn’t know it would be successful,” he told reporter Ed Condran, for The New York Daily News. “When I said that ‘I now understand why babies get thrown in the garbage,’ I was surprised that Middle America got it. Soccer moms in Cincinnati told me how hilarious the ‘baby in the garbage’ joke was to them.”

Which brings up why many are of two minds about Lucky Louie. The kind of meanspirited humor of “babies thrown in the garbage” is part of the problem with the series. Although Lucky Louie attempts to shatter sitcom conventions by featuring close-up simulated sex (“Kim’s O”), full-frontal nudity (“A Mugging Story”) and scatological language (the word “fuck” is deployed on a regular basis...), the underlying tenor of the series is crass and crude, and rather unpleasant. Married life is depicted ruthlessly, which is an interesting perspective to be sure, yet the characters are all despicable and selfish. Nor do they express themselves cleverly, because swearing is a crutch for bad writers. Why turn a smart phrase when someone can just say "shit" or "fuck?" All these blue collar blues more aptly makes Lucky Louie an heir to Married with Children rather than All in the Family or The Honeymooners.

Also, Norman Lear's classic All in the Family revolved around blue collar people confronting issues such as racism, sexual harassment, rape, menopause. There’s no overarching social value or message in Lucky Louie, as the characters don’t engage the outside world in any meaningful way and remain stubbornly stupid and fail to grow through the run of the first episodes. Archie Bunker was a bigot and ignorant, but in some senses, he grew over the years on the series. By contrast, Louie is a dolt who remains forever a dolt. His character is constantly re-booted to the lowest setting of "stupid" at the beginning of each new misadventure.

However, despite such reservations it is impossible not to appreciate the audacity of Lucky Louie. It doesn’t buy into Hollywood myths about America, and that in itself is refreshing...even liberating. The American dream of prosperity has never looked so unattainable on a TV show...or at least not in a very, very long time, as Neil Swidey writes in The Boston Globe: “Lots of sitcom sets looked this working-class in the ‘70s, in the era of Good Times, before we were all asked to swallow the notion that coffee-house waitresses could afford spacious Greenwich Village apartments with skyline views.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Thoughts on Contemporary Horror Films...

I just saw this!

Film scholar Kevin Flanagan has a terrific post up at Virtual Fools on the state of the contemporary horror film. It's an insightful, thoughtful read, and eminently worthy of debate and discussion. Kevin is a remarkable writer as well as a first-rate thinker. This guy has interviewed director Ken Russell (and excerpts of that interview appear in my upcoming Horror Films of the 1980s), written meticulously-argued and thoroughly-researched essays about films such as Gothic (also excerpted in Horror Films of the 1980s...) and more.

Here's a sample of Kevin's latest work, entitled Some Casual (But Deadly Serious) Thoughts on Contemporary Horror Films. As you'll see, even when he's casual, Kevin remains damn impressive:

"Last October in Asheville, North Carolina, I had the pleasure of attending a theatrical viewing of Saw II (2005) with a group of experts. Don Mancini (creator of the Child’s Play franchise), Barry Sandler (screenwriter), and Ken Hanke (genre scholar and critic) shared my distaste for the film, which I felt to be slightly hard to pin-down at first. Saw II was imaginative, stylish, and often displayed verve, yet left me sour. It was certainly a cutting-edge (puns aside) horror film, symptomatic of larger trends in the genre at large. Finally, after some discussion, we began to understand our mutual suspicions: films of this cycle delight in the minute, realistic depictions of pain and torture, now entirely possible due to advancements in effects technology (digital or manual). Whereas the greatest films of 1970s horror cinema transgressed towards social ends, this latest subgenre (“pain films”) seemed to remove or avoid marked political, moral, or artistic positions. Evil, sadism, and blood consumed the screen, sometimes without motivation or hope. How, when and where did the horror film lose its status as one of the most consistently socially conscious, probing genres?"

Click
here to read the full piece.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Star Trek: Legacy!

Okay, I know all you Trekkers have seen this news, right?

Star Trek captains--William Shatner's Kirk, Patrick Stewart's Picard, Avery Brooks' Sisko, Kate Mulgrew's Janeway and Scott Bakula's Archer--are beaming aboard Star Trek: Legacy, a new videogame marking the 40th anniversary of the legendary sci-fi franchise.

The game, due out this fall from Bethesda Softworks, will be the first time the five stars from the five TV series will team up for a Star Trek project.

Shatner, who will reprise his career-defining role of Captain James. T. Kirk on the original Star Trek voyage from 1966 to 1969, tells Reuters that he hopes his participation in the game might spark renewed interest in Star Trek. The franchise had been labeled "in decay" by Activision, which previously held the game license, and saw its most recent incarnation, Star Trek: Enterprise, fizzle out with lackluster ratings and uninspired plots. Some fans and industry watchers believed the end was near.

"It's been around a long time, it's a staple of American life and I think we need something new and different," Shatner told the wire service, noting that he just couldn't resist returning to the part that made him a legend. "I couldn't imagine someone else playing Captain Kirk, even in a videogame, so I kind of got a little territorial."

Personally, I welcome this news. I was interviewed for a Cinescape article in 1998 about the problems with the franchise following Star Trek: Insurrection, and I noted that there was no Star Trek youth market anywhere. I loved the show as a kid...but I'm 36 now! (Dammit, Jim..!). A kick-ass, state-of-the-art video game would be a lovely and exciting way to bring in the youth crowd, especially if a new Kirk/Spock/J.J. Abrams movie follows soon. And who can resist a game that includes all five captains? (Only problem, no Christopher Pike!). In addition to being wonderfully entertaining, Star Trek is about terrific morall values (like not interfering in other cultures; like relishing diversity...) and I believe that a new generation would benefit from having the franchise around. I'm not talking about the dull-as-dishwater recent series...but a revived, and electrifying Star Trek that speaks to this time, while not forsaking the history of the property.

Anyway, I guess I'm going to have to buy an X-Box now, huh?