Saturday, September 30, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Adventure in Arboria"

In the seventh chapter of the animated Filmation series Flash Gordon, Flash and his buddies Zarkov and Dale reach the shores of Arboria, but are quickly confronted there by a swarm of "Squirrelons." In case you're wondering, these rabid animals are literally flying squirrels...and they make pterodactyl noises as they swoop around the jungle. Of course, right after Zarkov notes that Squirrelon bites are fatal, he gets bitten by one. Oopsy.

While Zarkov and Dale climb a tree to escape the flying squirrels, Flash attempts to dissuade the swarm from attacking...so he starts a forest fire. Umm...good plan, Flash! The Squirrelons are repelled, but the fire burns out of control (and somewhere, Smokey the Bear is crying...).

With the Squirrelons gone, Flash must rescue Dale and the increasingly deranged Zarkov from the forest fire he just set. They're all given an assist by Vultan and his Hawkmen, who fly in and shoot Barin's "ice arrows" into the fire, squelching it.

Now it's up to Flash and Dale (with the help of Barin and Thun) to cure Zarkov's fatal bite with a special Arborian root that grows only in *ahem* "the bowels of Mongo." Note to self: beware of roots that grow only in bowels. Unfortunately, Ming the Merciless has sent his Metal Men Minions (say that three times fast...) to intercept the good guys, spawning another battle...

This is a zany episode of Flash Gordon, since Flash starts a fire in the forest world of Arboria without the slightest sense of worry or alarm. What's up, Flash? Don't you know that only you can prevent forest fires. Also, after weeks of being a wilting violet, Dale can't stop talking in this episode. My (very pregnant...) wife Kathryn watched "Adventure in Arboria" with me this morning and noted that Dale has much more to say this week...but it's "all insipid." Indeed.

Chapter Seven of Flash Gordon culminates with Zarkov cured, and Dale, Flash, Thun, Vultan and Barin "teamed" up to take on Ming the Merciless...again. Meanwhile, they have a secret, not-quite-trustworthy ally in Princess Aura...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Fallout"

Readers here on the blog know that I was "iffy" about the new CBS drama Jericho after the premiere episode last Wednesday. I found the debut installment preachy, soap-opera-ish and truth be told, a little dull given the premise (a Kansas town survives a wide-ranging nuclear attack on America). It was too much melodrama and too little action/sci-fi for my taste.

Well, after "Fallout," the series' second episode, many of my complaints have not only been addressed, but rectified. In it's sophomore sortie, Jericho is commendably leaner and meaner. The program is shorn of the patriotic pabulum that was formerly at center stage, and this episode focuses instead on a batch of impending crises facing the burg. Accordingly, the hour is like a pressure cooker, and I found myself thoroughly involved in the play. Ah...I love it when a series comes together...

In "Fallout" a storm cloud of radioactive rain is bearing down on Jericho (population: 5,000) and the citizenry is forced to evacuate to two bomb shelters that were long ago forgotten (and not in very good shape.) Meanwhile, the Mayor has some kind of collapse (a heart attack?) And, making matters even more difficult, some of the population doesn't want to leave the local saloon, run by the sexy bartender Mary. Therefore, the deputy mayor, Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) paints the recalcitrant patrons a not-so-pretty picture of what they face if they don't evacuate: "You're going to get radiation poisoning. Your hair is going to fall out in chunks...your skin will blister...your organs will start to fail..."

After this description, the denizens re-consider their position and decide to take shelter...

Meanwhile, self-confessed "screw-up" Jake (Skeet Ulrich) is proving to be too much the hero too soon, at least for my taste. In this episode, he (almost...) fixes the shelter's ventilation system, safely gets much of the population into a nearby mine for safety, and then seals the group in the mine (and away from the rain...) by correctly and safely deploying dynamite charges. Who is this guy, MacGyver? And then, in the last few minutes, Jake braves the storm and rescues Emily Sullivan (Ashley Scott) - on a distant farm, no less - from two murderous prison escapees masquerading as cops. And this kid is the prodigal son? I don't think so...

The other sub-plot on Jericho this week involves Emily dealing with those ex-con wolves in sheep's clothing. There are a few Hollywood-style conceits here. For instance, everyone who needs to know it, conveniently understands sign language. And, of course, the final battle between spunky Emily and the prison escapees comes down to an old-fashioned (and cliched) gun-fight in which the heroes win without getting a scratch on them. That made me groan, but heck, this is still TV, right? I gotta give Jericho it's due for creating an involving and interesting hour.

One of the best and most chilling aspects of "Fallout" involved the coda. Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) - my favorite character on the series so far - has de-coded a Morse Code message from a ham radio transmission. Anyway, he's penned a list from his translation, and while sitting in front of a map of the United States, Hawkins begins marking (with stick pins), the location of nuclear strikes. Bombs have struck Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego, and on and on. After a few seconds, the camera stops highlighting the names of the cities destroyed and instead focuses on Robert's hand returning again and again - over and over - to the bin of stick pins. The message is plain: this has been a devastating and huge attack. At this point, however, we don't know who the attackers are...

If next week's installment of Jericho is this good - this dark and this serious-minded, the series has at least one new fan: me!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride

The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride landed on my doorstep the other day, and I welcomed this film study book with excitement and anticipation.

In part, my enthusiasm is due to the subject matter itself. I remember viewing The Princess Bride for the first time back in the late 1980s - at the Essex Green multiplex in West Orange, New Jersey, to be precise. I saw the movie with my best high school buddies, Bob and Kelly, and I've always harbored nostalgia for it because of the time it arrived in my young life.

Also, The Princess Bride is a significant work of cinematic art because of what it represents in terms of Hollywood trends (and back-trends); in other words: the context from which it arose. It arrived in theaters during the post-Star Wars era in film history (Return of the Jedi having wrapped up the original trilogy in 1983...) and here was a movie loaded with swashbuckle aplenty, princesses, hissable villains, colorful sidekicks, sword-fights and the like.

Indeed, the project could have been sold to unsuspecting film execs as Star Wars-like, right?

But...not so fast! The Princess Bride was and remains a totally different kind of endeavor. As different in tone, in fact, from the Lucas films as one could reasonably conceive. Although The Princess Bride's story concerns "true love," the film itself is not at all innocent or romantic in any sort of traditional sense. Instead, it's actually some brand of highly-observant, post-modern masterpiece...poking fun at and de-constructing the conventions of adventure and romance films at the same time that it wraps itself in the dressings of one. And yet, the heart of the film is genuine; it is about true love. There's a delicate alchemy at work in The Princess Bride; one that's never been repeated...or surpassed.

I'm also enthusiastic about this book because it's written by a colleague I truly respect and enjoy reading. In fact, I make it a ritual to read her reviews. MaryAnn Johanson is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride and also one of the most astute movie critics working today (visit her site, The Flick Filosopher to see what I mean...). So I knew I should expect great things from this text, and wasn't disappointed. Johanson has penned a virtual treatise on the reasons The Princess Bride is a great film; but more significantly than that - why Generation X'ers and "geeks" have adopted the film and hold it close to their hearts even two decades after the film's premiere.

Johanson writes: "There is a kinship among people who 'get' The Princess Bride that isn't about the movie per se but about sharing a particular outlook on the world, one that does not tolerate bullshit, mundanity, or obviousness. People who 'get' The Princess Bride 'get' irony and sarcasm. People who 'get' The Princess Bride do not suffer fools gladly. People who 'get' The Princess Bride long for swashbuckling romantic adventure while simultaneously acknowledging the impossibility of such a dream."

Johanson insightfully concludes that fans of the film are a "special breed of cynics who are thwarted idealists." In other words, that the movie melts the hearts of even the most hardened intellectual. The film functions on two levels: poking fun at its purely innocent form; the fairy tale; and also - ultimately - serving as one itself. The Princess Bride is commendably self-reflexive in this sense, and the film's structure (which involves a grandfather reading the fairy tale to his sick grandson...) reinforces this notion of a two-prong or multi-layer tale. The Princess Bride gets under the skin of many post-Watergate, post-Vietnam X'ers because - like a certain gent named Mulder - we want to believe in true love, justice, and so on. Occasionally, when our defenses are down, we do believe, and somehow the movie knows precisely how to pluck that string...

Those of you who have read my work in print know that for me context is critical when discussing a film. You can't really appreciate or "know" a cinematic work of art without understanding the history from which it sprang. To my delight, Johanson makes her case about The Princess Bride by pointing out how VCR technology played a crucial part in making the film a "cult" hit in the late 1980s and beyond. She writes about the manner in which VCRs (and now DVD) have permitted film scholars to approach the film like a work of literature "that can be examined and considered from all angles."

Really, that's what this book accomplishes in spades.

The author has peppered the book with new and delightful interview snippets from the likes of Bride stars Mandy Patinkin and Chris Sarandon, and - in a virtuoso turn - even developed a fascinating (and so far as I can tell, totally fresh...) comparison between Princess Bride and Casablanca. Nor did I expect a thoroughly illuminating section that compares and contrasts Pitch Black's Riddick to Bride's Westley, but it tickled my fancy and made an important point. Yet what I admire most about this Geeky Guide is Johanson's clarity. She doesn't wander off on tangents or forget her central thesis about the film and why it conjures such magic upon my generation. Instead, she applies her customary razor wit to her central argument and slashes any fat that doesn't belong, thus making the work a short, sweet and thoroughly satisfying read. In The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, Johanson has metaphorically "stormed" the castle of modern film criticism; explaining how a post-absurd, post-innocence fairy tale successfully captured the imagination of a generation of cynics (herself included). The movie's feat is an impressive one; yet so is Johanson's ability to excavate and pinpoint the qualities underlying the film's long-lasting appeal.

Her "totally geeky" guide thus accomplished a very important mission: it made me want to pop in my DVD copy of The Princess Bride and experience the adventure, romance and humor all over again. This time, with fresh eyes, and new things to think about.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

TV REVIEW: Heroes (NBC)

Hollywood filmmakers have often found themselves in a quandary over the sub-genre of superheroes. Either the men and women behind film and TV comic-book adaptations and new superhero-style ventures rely on the popular "BIFF! BAM! ZOW!"-style of production that were part and parcel of the Age of Camp (Batman [1966]) or - as in the recent years of "The Dark Age" - the producers have tried so hard to take their costumed heroes and subject matter seriously that they have created broody, angsty, humorless night-time spectacles that all inevitably rely on the dialogue: "I made you? You made me!" Or at least a corollary, anyway. There have been so many "dark" superheroes of late, that some of the movies (particularly Elektra and Daredevil) have played like humorless parodies of the form. The real super-villains in these films are the over-utilized cliches...

Which is why I cheer and relish Sam Raimi's human-centric and daylight-filled Spider-Man films, and - to a lesser degree - last summer's Superman Returns. At least these films take place in a world we can recognize as close to our own. Not a world of either campy, so-straight-they-are-funny antics, nor one of perpetually rain-swept streets, night-time, and vigilante-ism substituting as heroics.

Which brings us to NBC's new superhero series, Heroes, which bowed last night at 9:00 pm. After an initial viewing of the premiere episode, it seems the series is neither Dark Age claptrap nor condescending camp. It's serious and smart, with a few nice touches of humor. While the notion of a "new gateway of evolution" granting certain individuals super powers is nothing new, and in fact very reminiscent of the X-Men mutation dynamic (and also the premise of the crappy, canceled, Mutant X...), this NBC series actually feels more like Lost or last-year's much mourned failure, Invasion. In other words, the story here unfolds slowly; there are many characters to keep track of; and the series looks primed to be laced with a number of fascinating mysteries. There's a methodical, deliberate pace, as each sub-plot is doled out with relish, and also the presence of a government conspiracy to contend with. Alas, no cigarette-smoking man...

I'm reluctant to make grand pronouncements after just one episode airs, but it certainly feels as though Heroes, created by Tim Kring, is respectful of superhero conventions (especially with its often-lugubrious tone...) without being slavish. There are moments in the pilot, at least, which are fun. Nothing undercuts a cliche better than humor, and any show that learns that lesson is headed in the right direction. So far, so good.

A little bit like last year's Surface (another series I miss, despite the cheesiness..), Heroes casts a wide geographic net, and - at least initially - keeps it dramatis personae carefully separated. In other words, central characters are experiencing strange things across the globe, and are not yet aware that they are part of a larger trend, the crossing of the "threshold of true human potential." Hence there's a work-a-day character in Japan who learns he can bend time and space, and he doesn't arrive in New York till episode's end. This sub-plot was actually my favorite part of the episode. Not only because this dorky character repeatedly referenced Star Trek (and, amusingly, the Vulcan death grip), but because he and his incredulous buddy actually evidenced a sense of humor about what was occurring to him.

Let's face it, superhero comics have been dragged down over the years by all the mopey super characters who dread their very cool powers and just long for "a normal life." I wonder how truly realistic this oft-repeated sub-plot really is. If I suddenly had the capacity to bend time and space, or shoot webs out of my wrists, or fly...I'd be excited about it...at least initially. Instead, in a misbegotten bow to "realism," comic book creators have gone overboard making heroes feel tortured of late. In other words, superheroes have lost their sense of fun (and let's face it, isn't the superhero myth one that's really about wish-fulfillment?). What isn't great about having a special destiny?

So, this is my long, roundabout way of saying that Heroes, at least in the Japanese segments, acknowledges the notion that "being special" can also be incredibly cool. At one point, this time-bending character enthuses "I'm not a loser anymore" and realizes he won't be last at work, in school, or on the sports field. In other words, his dreams have come true. What geek can't buy into that? His first real test of powers: teleporting into the ladies bathroom in a bar. That's great!

There are other interesting characters on Heroes too. I liked the Texas cheerleader, Claire Bennett, from Odessa, Texas. She's from a white-trash family, but she boasts the unusual ability to heal at an inhumanly accelerated rate. I particularly liked the moment in last night's show when she pulled up her cheerleader uniform to reveal bloody, cracked ribs protruding from her side. As if it was nothing, she just stuffed the shattered bones back in under the skin..by hand. Wow! Later, her fingers got chopped off in a sink disposal, and then re-formed before our eyes while she tried to hide it from Mom. The actress who plays this role is pretty good, and I thought I wouldn't like having another "teenager" with superpowers on the tube (since that's the premise of Smallville, after all). Instead, I found her pretty cool. She actually looks like a teenager, not a 25-year old underwear model.

Then there's Ali Larter, who may be playing a burgeoning super villain here, because she has a murderous reflection, a blood-soaked doppelganger. And there's also an artist in New York City who has had visions of Manhattan being destroyed in a nuclear mushroom explosion (he must have watched Jericho last week...), and so on.

All these characters were sketched rather thinly last night, but with enough depth to bring me back for further installments. At this point, I'd say Heroes is intriguing and different, and working on a "slow-burn" (again like Invasion...). I'd say the series is tantalizing enough to generate continued curiosity, and I'll be watching with interest. Also, I would commend the series for not veering into schmaltz and sentimentality, the handicap that crippled last week's installment of Jericho. I didn't find any dialogue in Heroes cringe-worthy or over-the-top. The premiere repeats tonight, so if you want to catch-up with the show, now's the time.