Saturday, October 07, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "The Frozen World"

This week on Filmation's Flash Gordon, we have Chapter 8: "The Frozen World." Flash, Baron and Zarkov are hatching plans to unseat Ming (while Dale dutifully brings them tea...). The group realizes that the rebellion will need huge quantities of fuel to power their fighters, in particular, Orium. Prince Barin notes that Orium can be found in large quantities in the kingdom run by his cousin, Fria. It's called "Fridgia," and it is at Mongo's North Pole.

Flash, Dale, Zarkov and Thun head off in a leaf fighter (evading Ming's forces...) to meet Fria and request her help. Once again, Fria is a beautiful woman and Dale gets jealous (Hey, didn't that also happen with Queen Undina?) Anyway, Flash tells Fria that "the time is coming when the people of Mongo will rise up." Fascinated by the Earthling, Fria escorts Flash on a tour of her snow castle and informs the delegation that "ice itself" is the building block of her culture. She also tells Flash that he will find the "pleasures" in the city to his liking. Translation: she may live in Fridgia, but the Queen's not frigid.

Anyway, one of Fria's suitors, Count Mallow (That's Marsh Mallow, to you...) grows angry over Fria's attentive attitude towards Flash and attempts to kill Dale and Flash while they're swimming in a pool. Later, Flash rescues Mallow from a giant ice worm, and Mallow recants his evil ways. Unfortunately, before everyone can kiss and make up, Mallow, Dale, Zarkov and Thun are captured by a race of giants, and Flash and Fria are buried in an avalanche.

To be continued...

"The Frozen World" re-uses some footage we've seen before in Flash Gordon. The lair of the giants is actually the headquarters of the Beast Men from an earlier chapter. It wouldn't be so noticeable except that Fridgia is all icy blue, and the Beast Man mountain is desert red and orange. Oopsy.

Some other fun facts from this episode: Thun lets us know that "worry" is the natural state of the lion men. And also, Zarkov points out Sol, Earth's sun, to Dale, during the voyage to Fridgia. It looks very, very far away...

If you're keeping tabs, so far Flash has united The Hawkmen, Barin's Arboria, the Lion Men, the underwater kingdom of Undina, and now he's added Fridgia to the list. It's his own coalition of the willing to stop that despotic dictator, Ming.

Friday, October 06, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 48: Mattel's Flash Gordon Rocket Ship


As regular readers here are aware, I've been blogging the animated Filmation series from the early 1980s, Flash Gordon. Considering that, it feels like an opportune time to feature a collectible toy from that TV series: Mattel's inflatable Flash Gordon rocket ship. What a toy this is...

Straight from "the greatest adventure of all," this whopping rocket ship ("not for use as a flotation device," in case you were wondering...) is over 2.5 feet long (and was made in Taiwan). It's a giant of a toy, with room to hold two action figures from the Flash Gordon Mattel line. The box notes that the toy is over "2.5 feet [81.6 cm] long from nose cannon to tail fin when chamber is filled with air."

The rocket's cockpit houses two figures and can "detach" to carry Flash or Zarkov (not included) on adventure. Yep, it doubles as a "modular space shuttle" that can be rolled out on "a recon mission." The nose cannon also detaches from the central rocket (and "re-mounts with cloth fastener!"). Also, the box suggests that kids can find "the eyelets and your own string" to hang the ship up.

I remember collecting the Flash Gordon action figures as a kid. I had four of 'em to be precise: Flash, Zarkov, Ming and The Lizard Woman. I bought them at a store called Newberry's in Verona, New Jersey...where they cost a dollar a piece. But I also recall seeing this massive inflatable rocket ship in the pages of a Sears catalog and desperately wanting it.

I never actually owned the rocket until I found one mint-in-box on E-Bay for cheap about two years ago. Although I like to keep my toys in their packages, I couldn't resist opening and playing with this one. It now stands inflated in one corner of my office, where the cats bat it (worse than Ming the Merciless, I guess...) and my wife complains that it's going to be destroyed.

Still, this toy is totally awesome, in part because of the size; in part because it is light and easy to maneuver, and in part because it actually has that visible cockpit atop the ship where you can sit your Flash figures! That's just cool...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

TV REVIEW: Friday Night Lights

Here's an admission for you: I despise football. I hate everything about it. Just having football on the TV gives me a throbbing headache. The sounds of the crowd and the whistles and the commentary make me want to puke. Why the fervent non-love? Well, there are too many reasons to name, but here's a good one: many of the professional players are overpaid, over-glorified thugs.

Another geeky complaint: I have painful, long-buried memories of professional football pre-empting Star Trek reruns on WPIX when I was a kid. I carry those scars to this day...

And besides, soccer is an entirely more fascinating and skill-based game than American football anyway...

So take this non-fan seriously when I write these words: the new NBC program Friday Night Lights offers one of the best shot, best edited and best acted series premieres in the history of the medium. Yes, it's that good. Unbelievably good. Like...feature film quality good.

Friday Night Lights, developed for television by Peter Berg, charts the life and times of a small West Texas town that loves football. The high school football team, "the Panthers," is the non-stop subject du jour on the radio, on local tv, in the papers, at political meetings and in the corridors of the high school. Football is love; football is life; football is obsession.

And this focus makes things really tough for the Panthers' rookie coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler). He must prove himself worthy of the coveted job, and quick. "With expectations like this, the only place you can go is down," he is told during the countdown to the first big game of the season. He is also hounded all over town by citizens who offer him unwanted advice, support...and ultimatums. "We want to win championships," he is reminded constantly. The season premiere follows the events in the small town from a Monday in training to the first Friday night game, and builds up tension so gloriously you can almost forget all this rigmarole is about a stupid game in which people throw and catch a ball, and tackle each other.

But television, like movies, isn't always about whether you win or lose. It's about how you play the game, and Friday Night Lights plays like no other show on television (or any show in television history...). The episode I watched was visually distinctive, to say the least. It appeared to be cut together entirely of "stolen" moments. In other words, the series boasts a nearly cinema-verite look in which it appears footage were grabbed on the fly and not laboriously prepared and staged (which of course, is exactly how it's done...). This brilliant visual palette and conceit captures something essential and true about the life of these townspeople. If all feels spontaneous, anticipatory, portentous, ephemeral...and isn't that the precisely the feelings we experience before we watch any sporting contest, local or televised? Who will win? Who will lose? Who will rise? Who will fall?

But if Friday Night Lights were only great-looking and only concerning sports-cliches, I wouldn't give a damn about this series. Instead, Friday Night Lights is something deeper. It's a window into a weird and fascinating American sub-culture ("This is Texas football," we are informed, with great seriousness). This is a world where Christianity and football are oddly tied together, like Jesus Christ himself dreamed of being a quarterback or some such thing. There are multiple times in the premiere episode wherein religion and sports are conflated into one glorious thing. "Here's to God and Football," one person says, as though he truly believes his team his blessed by The Lord and destined to win. Like God - if there is one - doesn't have more important things to worry about. This kind of hyperbole goes further. The young quarterback, Jason Steele is described in glowing terms as a "super star" and a "great leader." Even this is not enough for the town's myth-building apparatus, which includes the press. Taylor tells the news reporters that Steele's also a man of high moral fiber. Like that's somehow necessary to throw passes, right?

As depicted on this series, the weekly Red State football ritual looks distinctly bizarre...and delusional. "Let's pray" is a common refrain before games, during games, and after games, and yet when Jason Steele falls in battle (on the field) and is replaced by a great new star, he is virtually forgotten. The Panthers win their first game and get a new star to worship, and the old star suffers in a hospital with a spinal injury, his future career destroyed. Whom Gods Destroy?

If I'm not making myself plain, let me put it this way: Friday Night Lights isn't merely about football; it's about the whole culture surrounding football (and in particular, Texas football). As a slice of bizarre, almost alien life, it is unmatched in its sense of observing human life unfold. The premiere opens, for instance, with views of a shabby, tiny house with a trashy front yard and used old car pulling up. This is exactly what America looks like in a lot of places...but we don't often see this unromantic, realistic vision on Hollywood-produced television. Instead, Friday Night Lights visually cues us in to a very important fact: football is an obsession in West Texas because the people who aren't lucky enough to live in the butt-ugly McMansions (which we also see...) instead live in poverty.

It's not that football is their escape...it's that football is their distraction from unpleasant reality. The hullabaloo around the game distracts the citizens from how crappy things are right there in their front yards. And that's kind of sad, isn't it? That we elevate high-school athletes to men of "moral strength," and "superstar" status because they can run and tackle? That we throw our daughters at these men like whores so that we can receive some sense of basking in their greatness? Let's face it, we should be focusing on making certain our neighbors are fed and sheltered and warm. Elevating football to Christian crusade only puts a new spin on a very old game of bread and circuses.

But damn if this isn't a great show...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

TV REVIEW: Heroes: "Chapter Two - Don't Look Back"

Well, I officially have a new TV addiction...

I enjoyed Heroes pretty well last week, but found myself absolutely engaged and immersed in the series on round two. "Chapter Two" was even more engaging and mysterious than the decent pilot. In fact, I'd go further. Although critics are proclaiming that Studio 60 is the best new drama of the season, I'd say Heroes takes that honor at this early juncture. At least until I watch Friday Night Lights, which has been the recipient of some hard-core critical buzz. I hope that one's good too. All television should be this addictive. Then I'll never get anything done...

But back to Heroes. In "Don't Look Back," the main characters deepen, and viewers are introduced to some new and compelling characters, including the villain. We also get our first look at the series' McGuffin (a Hitchcockian term for those of you who didn't know...): Dr. Surish's computer program that can locate the "special" people by tracking "DNA migration patterns" of the "human genome." This is likely what he died for. His son looks dedicated to completing his work, and this week a hit-man posing as an exterminator nearly gets the younger Surish.

On the new hero front, this week we meet Matt Parkman, played by Greg Grunberg (an actor I've admired since his days on Felicity...), a cop with the power to hear the thoughts of others. He's going through some rough times in his marriage, and facing the ridicule of the police department because he's flunked the detective exam three times.

Anyway, Matt runs across a crime scene in "Don't Look Back," one created by the series' maniacal villain (still unseen I think...): Siler. Siler is one of the gifted, evolved humans too, so now we know for certain that this breed can be super-villains as well as super heroes. After the Reflection Lady went on a bloody killing spree last week, I kind of suspected this development. Anyway, Siler's modus operandi involves sawing-off the skull-caps of his victims. Yikes! Matt manages to rescue a little girl who survived one of his attacks.

To follow up with our other characters (and Heroes has a large cast...):

My favorite, Hiro, was back in the action this week. I love this guy. Don't know why, I just do. After teleporting to New York, Hiro discovers a comic book called "9th Wonders" describing his achievements in bending the space/time continuum. He tracks the writer/artist of the comic, Isaac Mendez, down to his apartment only to find him murdered. Then, if you saw the show, you know what happened next! Hiro is arrested just minutes short of the nuclear holocaust Isaac the painter predicted (during a heroin binge). Hiro then escaped this attack by returning to Japan, to the very moment before he teleported. To him, it's October 2nd. The date of the nuclear mushroom, we now know is November 8. Mark your calendars, boys and girls.

Elsewhere, Claire Bennet is in search of her birth-parents, hoping they may hold the key to understanding her strange abilities. Her father, - The Man in the glasses - alas, is the head of the dark conspiracy surrounding these evolved men (and the murder of Dr. Surish...) and he now knows she's one of "them." This doesn't bode well for Claire.

Also: Nathan and Peter can both fly, we learn this week; and Niki - well, she's losing time, experiencing black-outs and amnesia when her violent mirror-image takes over. "Sometimes I look in the mirror, and I'm not sure it's me I'm seeing," she says. Fascinating stuff, no?

All this, and Stacy Haiduk (Seaquest DSV, Superboy) was a guest star, looking hotter than ever. (I have her action figure around here somewhere...). Who could ask for more? Until next week...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

CULT MADE-FOR-TV BLOGGING: Death Stalk (1974)

Now here's a strange little number: a quasi-savage made-for-tv movie from the disco decade. However, a better name for Death Stalk would actually be The River Mild, since it's the generic (and overly familiar) story of psychotic prison escapees attacking white-water rafters on a dangerous river.

Deliverance (1972) or even The River Wild (1994) remain scary to this day (just say the words: "squeal like a pig") because they're intense films wherein man battles harsh nature as well as his fellow man. Yet this TV variation is a terribly white-bread version of the same brand of material. Yes, this was made for TV about the time of Nixon's resignation, meaning there was strict censorship in terms of what could be depicted on screen, but Death Stalk still lacks both subtlety and artistry. Think of other great 1970s TV movies: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Bad Ronald, Gargoyles, Someone's Watching Me all leap to mind, right? The oddly-titled Death Stalk isn't anywhere in the same league. It filled a 90-minute slot in prime time, but precious else can be said about it. It's filmed in generic terms: the river, the mountains, even the violence conducted on the rafters...it's all genuinely...mild...and distinctly un-memorable.

Death Stalk finds two suburban couples rafting on a dangerous river for the weekend. A common refrain early in the film is "don't forget the booze." Anyway, there's Pat (Anjanette Comer) and Jack (Vince Edwards); and Kathy (Carol Lynley) and Hugh (Robert Webber). They're all enjoying their weekend nature excursion when suddenly they run afoul of four escaped convicts from the nearby penitentiary (in 1970s "bleeding heart liberal" lingo, a rehabilitation center).

In a great bit of seventies casting, the nasty convicts are played by Combat star Vic Morrow, CHiPs star Larry Wilcox, Three's Company's Mr. Roper (Norman Fell) and the psychotic Neville Brand of Eaten Alive (1976) fame. Guess which one I'd be scared of? Hint: it isn't Mr. Roper...

Anyway, the convicts tie up the men, and head up the river with the women in tow. "I've been in jail so long I was starting to believe the greatest smell in the world was coffee," a lecherous Shepherd (Brand) says, menacing Lynley's Kathy. And that's just part of Death Stalk's 1970s-era sexual underpinnings. Pat quickly falls for the leader of the convict pack, Morrow's Brunner. She steals a moment with her fellow captive and suggests to Kathy that they should *ahem* submit to the men. These two women have an in-depth conversation, in fact, about granting sexual favors to the convicts in order to stay alive. When Kathy reacts with horror to this thought, Pat gets offended and says Kathy should be down with the arrangement since she "played around" before marriage. Nice.

In another weirdly sexist touch, the women are treated by their husband as inferior, materialistic creatures. One of the husbands urges his wife to row the boat faster, and if she does so, he'll buy her a "new dress." Wow! I'll remember that with my wife, Kathryn, next time I want her to do something. Let's see how far it gets me...

Anyway, Hugh and Jack follow their missing ladies up the river in their supply raft, but Norman Fell turns the tables and waits for them with a rifle, and tries to pick them off. During the battle, Hugh - the corporate boss - proves himself a coward. Jack, by contrast, proves he's got the stuff to kill when driven to murderous rage. Imagine how that could play out in Deliverance, or a Wes Craven movie. Because here you won't find out. The resolution is just plain bland.

Death Stalk progresses with a washed-out visual palette, and director Robert Day seems unable to establish the river's geography, or the character's positions on the river. A consequence of this old-style TV thinking is that the climax falls to generate any excitement, or even a raised pulse. Jack catches up with his wife Pat, and finds her getting it on with Morrow's character. Then they all stare intently at each other. Pat whimpers a little bit. Then the credits roll over imagery of the river...

End of movie!!!! I found myself asking: "would somebody please break the ice?" Can't someone get mad? Can somebody hit someone? Or shoot someone? What kind of a horror movie is this, anyway?

Anyway, as readers of my work know, my favorite kind of horror movie is "the savage cinema" of the 1970s. Rape & revenge movies like Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). These movies concern random violence perpetrated on unsuspecting victims; wrong turns of fate and destiny; and those same characters (or the survivors anyway...) finding the interior mettle to stand up to the pure, unadulterated horror.

Death Stalk comes from the same time period in Hollywood history. But being made for TV, it lacks teeth. And, truth be told, it's kinda boring. And the sexual politics are downright weird. Where's Meryl Streep when you need her?