Saturday, November 04, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "King Flash"

More "peril and adventure await us" on this week's Flash Gordon episode, Chapter 11, "King Flash."

When last we left our stalwart hero, he was trapped in the caverns of the Blue Magic witch queen, Azura. She had cast a spell on Gordon making him believe he was "Gor-Don," a conquering King of Mongo from years past...and her lover.

As "King Flash" opens, Gordon and Azura lead their war chariot and magical sorcerer minions in battle against Vultan and Barin. Dr. Zarkov has concluded that Azura's spell is "electrical," but is still unable to free Flash from the clutches of his new queen. Zarkov then determines he must "fight magic with magic."

Gor-don's army is triumphant and Vultan and Barin are captured. But when Barin says "Flash...remember," something comes through Gordon's psyche. Azura attributes this to weariness and sends Flash off to bed. There, Zarkov, Thun and Dale capture him and restore his memory, leaving in his stead a hologram. Unfortunately, Zarkov notes, Flash will retain a double personality for some time, even after he is healed. Another side effect of the restoration: Flash Gordon literally becomes "a shadow," a tool he will use to defeat Queen Azura.

When Azura realizes she can never own Flash Gordon body and soul, she releases the ancient "Fire King" Talors from the cavern to destroy him. But Flash is able to defeat the lobster/dinosaur creature in battle, and thus wins freedom for himself and his friends. Azura is now his new ally in the war to overthrow Mongo's despot, Ming.

Free and triumphant, Flash, Barin, Vultan, Dale, Zarkov and Thun leave the blue magic caverns...only to be captured by Princess Aura and Ming the Merciless...

To be continued...

Friday, November 03, 2006

The House Between update

Hey everybody,

I haven't blogged about my independently-produced web series, The House Between in some time, so I thought I would provide an update on post-production today. In a phrase: all is well.

1). The first episode "Arrived" is now at a final cut stage. I've had good comments from many folks who previewed the show at Fanta Sci back at the end of July, and incorporated changes where it was possible. I've also shot some new footage to better establish some "geography" of the strange house. I am delighted with how this episode looks and feels, and hope wider audiences will feel the same way as the screeners.

2.) I'm happy to report that I have a very talented graphic designer working on some special effects for later episodes. She did a top secret design for me just yesterday, and I must say, I'm blown away by what she created for me. The work is amazing.

3.) My terrific composer out in L.A. has watched a rough cut of the first three episodes ("Arrived," "Settled," and "Positioned"), and is scoring the show. He knows exactly what I want: an intimate, melancholy, mysterious score. His reaction to the first three episodes was also extremely positive. He said that the show was, in a word, "captivating." His feedback was 95% positive, and I'm also incorporating his feedback into my re-edits.

4.) Tomorrow, I'll be looping some hard-to-discern dialogue with one of the series stars, and breaking out the lights and camera equipment (and going out on location...) to shoot some new sequences for a few of the episodes, particularly the finale.

Basically, everything is going well, but as you may (or may not...) know, editing is a bear. It's a hugely time-consuming process and I'm a perfectionist. I want everything to be the best it can be, and alas, this means taking my time.

Bottom line: At least one episode, the premiere, "Arrived," should be up on the web by Christmas, assuming we stay on schedule, with the other six stories to follow on a weekly basis thereafter. (And then pre-production begins on Season Two!!!)

I''ll let you know where to tune in...

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Lost


"Don't mistake coincidence for fate."

-John Locke (Terry O'Quinn), Lost, 11/01/06.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Long Live the Mayor"

It's Halloween-time in Jericho, Kansas, the first Halloween after the nuclear attack, and things are getting rough for the town. Power is still out town-wide (save for a few simple items like flashlights...), the old world economy has collapsed so that barter and trade have replaced cash as currency, the mayor is still deathly ill (three weeks on...) from the flu, and a local warlord, Jonah (played by Dexter's James Remar...) is making incursions into the town to steal food...and to break out his incarcerated goons like Mitch Cafferty.

Then squirrely Gary Anderson, the mayor's rival in an election that will probably never take place, returns from his scouting expedition outside Jericho with mixed news. New York City has survived the war intact (yes!), but Washington D.C. is nuked...gone. Worse, the roads between here and there are - for all intents and purposes - war zones. Raiders and roadblocks stop any cars, and will kill travelers for the merest scraps of food or water.

Finally, things really get bad when the mayor goes "septic," and needs the drug Cipro to survive. This need necessitates negotiations with Jonah, who also happens to be Emily's (Ashley Scott's) estranged father. I particularly liked the aspects of the episode involving Jake's attempts to rationally negotiate with Jonah. His brother Eric and Gary Anderson refuse to trade Cafferty for the food Jericho's people desperately need because they don't want to negotiate with a crimina (i.e. a terrorist)l. By their way of thinking, engagement and appeasement are apparently identical. Sound like any American president you know? Yes, Jericho is still about us, despite it's apocalyptic scenario...

Otherwise, this story involves many of Jericho's dramatis personae attempting to deal with the fact that one life has ended; another begun. The IRS auditor from D.C. must cope with the fact that everyone in her life has been "incinerated;" petty storekeeper Gracie learns that she's not such a good Samaritan after all, and that the old ways of accumulating wealth don't really fit in with the new economy of Jericho. Emily must put aside her personal battle with her estranged father, and Robert Hawkins learns that his wife was dating a man named Doug before the nuclear attacks. Yep, it's transition time in this small Kansas time, and it makes for some fine character moments in a series that I believe improves each and every installment. If not a great show, Jericho is - at least - a very good one, and on the road to greatness.

I also liked another small joke this week (last week it was a Vanilla Ice CD). this time, Jake is warned by his school teacher girlfriend, as he's about to head into the hot zone of Rouge River: "watch out for giant irradiated ants out there...," a reference, of course, to the great 1950s horror movie, Them.

TRADING CARD CLOSE UP # 7: Star Wars & Wonder Bread!




Okay, what 35-year old geek with a pulse didn't collect Star Wars trading cards back in 1977, when he was a kid? Hmmm? I know I certainly did. I also remember that Wonder Bread released a series of cards from the Lucas film at the time. Which meant that as kids, we had to relentlessly pressure Mom and Dad at the grocery store to buy us a loaf of Wonder Bread, so we could get that ONE measly card. Ah yes, commercialism...

Anyway, I have memories of going to a Shop Rite in New Jersey, near Verona if I recall, just dying to get to the bread aisle, so I could look for the Wonder Bread loaves with the Star Wars cards in them. Worse, I remember groping the soft, compliant bread (mmmm...Wonder Bread....) to see if I could expose the card inside, and see if it was one that I still needed for my collection. I think I was in second grade at the time...

Because I'm obsessive, I guess, I still own my Wonder Bread Star Wars cards, at least a few of them, so I thought it would be nice to feature them on a trading card close-up today.

As you can see from these cards, they feature images of the characters from the film; the title Star Wars running up the right corner, and the names of each character in bold red lettering across the bottom.

On the back of each card is a description of the character. Darth Vader, for instance, is described as "an awesome, evil figure dressed in flowing black robes" who "uses his extra sensory powers to aid Governor Tarkin in putting down the rebellion." Artoo-Detoo's legend describes the droid as a "round, meter-high information retrieval robot, whose face is a mass of computer lights surrounding a single radar eye."

Here, you can see cards three (Princess Leia Organa), four (Han Solo), Five (Darth Vader), Eight (Artoo-Detoo), and Twelve (Stormtroopers).

I don't know how many more there were of these in toto, but I know I must have eaten at least five loaves of Wonder bread...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

Now here's a prime slice of 1990s "thriller" cheese. In regards to Sleeping with the Enemy, I don't know that a worse movie has ever pressed itself so deeply and so permanently into the national lexicon (at least with the exception of Prince of Tides).

I mean, we all remember Julia Roberts discovering the straightened towels in her bathroom during the climax of Sleeping with the Enemy, don't we? And the lined-up cans in her cupboard? I know that for me, to this day, when my wife and I have an argument, I always (jokingly...) approach her by saying, "I'm sorry we quarreled...," Patrick Bergin's rejoinder and non-apology-apology to Julia Roberts' character in the film.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's re-cap the plot of this really terrible movie and guilty pleasure before we start dissecting the film's lack of virtues. Julia Roberts plays Laura Burney, a kept woman who lives every day in mortal fear of her abusive, obsessive-compulsive husband, Martin (Patrick Bergin). In order to escape her seaside dungeon (a beautiful modern home on Cape Cod...), Laura learns to swim - behind Martin's back - and then fakes her own death on a dark and stormy night at sea.

As Sarah Waters (get it? Waters?), Laura begins her life anew in a Norman Rockwellish, Red State midwestern small town. There, a drama teacher, Ben Woodward (Kevin Anderson) romances the tender-hearted woman, who's seen so much of male ugliness. But big bad Martin is not ready to give up his wife, and so he follows Laura's trail...preparing for that day of reckoning when he will again make this woman subservient. He's unaware, however, that Laura has come a long way, baby. This woman has learned to take care of herself and will never be a victim again...

These days, people often ask me why, when and how American mainstream film changed from being wonderful (1960s, 1970s and 1980s) to being generally rotten (1990s to present). In response, I point my accusatory middle finger at the early 1990s and films such as Sleeping with the Enemy. I believe that this was the sad, sad epoch in cinema history that screenwriters and directors with essentially no talent and no sense of artistry somehow ascended to the top tiers of Hollywood. The vast majority of them are graduates of film programs or film schools; but nonetheless people who don't understand film grammar or imagery and only want to be "the next Steven Spielberg." Essentially, these tyros couldn't write or direct their way out of a paper bag, leaving their production teams - particularly production designers and special effects technicians - to carry the weight of their less-than-satisfactory movies.

Exhibit A of bad 1990s movies could be Sleeping with the Enemy. What little artistry exists in this film rests entirely in the field of production design (courtesy of Doug Kraner). To wit, Martin's home is an example of glorious (but cold...) modern architecture. It is all hard angles and big windows (so we can see everything going on inside...), but it's a place where we wouldn't want to live. It is devoid of warmth, and generally the space is empty (think of the hotel in Kubrick's The Shining, only with zen minimalist furnishings). Like I wrote above, this is Laura's dungeon, and the architecture tells us everything we need to know about Martin's character: he's a stone cold bastard; stoic and austere...shorn of human warmth. Oh, the Berlioz (also from Kubrick's The Shining...) as love theme adds to the impression of a sociopathic maniac.

Then, at the film's 29 minute point, this Rapunzel escapes her tower prison, and heads to heartland America. Suddenly, the film is lensed entirely in autumnal browns and glowing oranges. All the warmth we missed in the white-on-white first portion of the film is now evident and on-screen by the bushel full. Laura rents a beautiful, perfectly restored historic home with a giant porch...wonderfully furnished. How she can afford this remains a mystery. However, it is only here in this "bosom," surrounded by Americana nostalgia and the trappings of the healthy middle class that her catharsis can begin. We get a montage of Laura "nesting" in this new "warm" home: painting kitchen cabinets, setting out potted plants, and swinging by sunset on her porch swing. Yes, it's individual therapy by way of Martha Stewart; the zen of Home Depot. Paint some cabinets, arrange some flowers, consume and purchase...and you will be happy and your inner child will be healed.

After the surprisingly effective production design (which tells us more about the world the characters inhabit than does the script), there's precious little for Sleeping with The Enemy to rely on, save a grandiose and overblown score by Jerry Goldsmith that to this day I can't get out of my head. Occasionally, you will notice, it is still used in movie trailers. Anyway, the rest of the film is a manipulation of Julia Robert's Pretty Woman image (already old by 1991, if you ask me...) and the requisite cheap thrills.

Let's get to Julia Roberts first. I generally have no problem with her as an actress, though I don't exactly like her either. She's mis-used badly in this film, particularly in a totally out-of-place and campy "Pretty Woman" montage that occurs with theatre instructor Ben at the college's drama department. There, to the tune of "Brown Eyed Girl," Julia does her "cute little girl" routine with costumes and props.. in one of the most nauseating, treacly montages I've had the misfortune to sit through. She adorns various and sundry "funny" hats and flashes that trademark million dollar grin. She puts on clown pants and juggles too. She wears elephant ears. She adorns a top hat. Kill me now.

Next, "Runaround Sue" is on the soundtrack as Ben and Laura dance together and connect on a human level her former husband could never understand. I merely point this out, but when a movie can't conjure the emotions necessary via acting, camera angles or script, it is forced to plug in a nostalgic, popular song that will do the job. This sort of soundtrack pinch hitting occurs twice in Sleeping with the Enemy.

As for Kevin Anderson's Ben...who, you ask? Well, uh Anderson is granted a particularly lame introductory scene. Julia spies him through her window as he's dancing in the backyard to the lyrics of West Side Story, using a water hose as a prop. It would be hard for any acting career to recover from this scene, and I think that's the case for old Kevin Anderson, since I haven't seen much of him lately. Also, there's a weird sub-text here. Laura has escaped a sexually domineering Alpha male in Bergin's Martin, and there's a scene where she endures rough intercourse with him (again, to the strains of Berlioz, I believe...). She exchanges this for...a West-Side Story singing guy who uses a water hose? Would that garden hose be a sign of some inadequacy on Ben's part? That West Side Story singing an indication of a less-than-heterosexual inclination?

Don't ask; don't tell.

After a comedy of poorly constructed coincidences (meant to create tension...) in which Martin and Laura fail to spot each other at a nursing home, the final act of Sleeping with the Enemy arrives and it's the inevitable home invasion we've seen in a hundred 1990s films (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Blue Steel, and Unlawful Entry...). Martin shows up to re-arrange the towels and cans, there's some tussling, and then she thinks he's dead. Surprise, he's not and he gets up again!!! Wow, who didn't see that one coming?

In the end, it takes three shots to put down the mad-dog (but virile...) husband, and Julia is left in the waiting arms of her new "safe" boyfriend. The ending is as predictable as everything else in this canned, homogenized, and processed thriller. Yet...the film survives and is well-remembered to this day by many. Sleeping with the Enemy is on the boob tube once a week - at least on basic cable - and was even re-made (sort of) as a J Lo movie a few years back, Enough.

So what's the appeal?

If you ask me, it's that the production design makes us feel a certain way which, at least subconsciously, we find comforting. It's a rejection of unAmerican coldness and an embracing of warm Americana. Oh, and the film is undeniably appealing to disenfranchised housewives who wish their husbands were more sensitive. They somehow groove on the idea of "escaping" everyday life, moving to an idyllic town and romancing an effeminate man who can communicate with them and meet all their needs with a minimum of fuss. What the movie is actually saying -and which I don't think these viewers understand - is that Laura can't be alone; can't survive on her own. She's just traded one unacceptable man for an acceptable one; but she's still defined herself as a "girlfriend" or wife. It's actually a very anti-feminist movie; not the pro-female parable that it masquerades as.

The cinema of the 1990s - the cinema of Sleeping with the Enemy - provides critics with a most difficult proposition. Before the 1990s, you could usually tell a bad film right off. Horrible actors, bad sound, and ineffective out-of-focus camera work were tell-tale signs you were in movie hell.

Yet by the 1990s, virtually every film to come out of the Hollywood machine was flawless from a technical standpoint, even sumptuous. Camera work is pristine. Music is evocative. The sound is impeccable. But the stories? That's where the cliches rest.

Even good critics might be taken in by Sleeping with the Enemy; they might be hypnotized by that production design; enraptured by that architecture. These "face" values hide the fact that movie's script is silly and stupid. One example of the latter: Martin discovers Laura's wedding ring floating in his bathroom toilet months after she supposedly died and started her new life. What, he hasn't used the bathroom in his house even once in all that time? Now that's mourning...
It used to take a few hundred thousand dollars and bad camera work to make a bad movie; with the advent of fare like Sleeping with the Enemy, Hollywood proved it could spend tens-of-millions to achieve the same result.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween!!!

Masters of Horror Season Two: "The V-Word."

In, "The V-Word," Masters of Horror's second season gets it's most mainstream (and in some senses, the scariest...) episode yet. Tobe Hooper's "The Damned Thing" is a deeply disturbing look at the cycle of familial violence repeated from one generation to another, and John Landis's superlative "Family" gazes at the underbelly of modern McMansion suburbia. I don't think "The V-Word" sub-text is quite so deep or spot-on...though there's a running comparison in Ernest Dickerson's episode to video game violence and "real life" violence that is worth mentioning.

No matter. "The V-Word" is chill-inducing. I believe it to be the most beautifully filmed (and stylish) of the MOH 2.0 episodes I've seen thus far, almost literally a "haunted house" tour of darkness and terror (which makes it appropriate viewing for Halloween...).

The tale finds two college students, Justin (Branden Naden) and Kerry (Arjay Smith), at loose ends one night. They decide to alleviate their boredom with video games by visiting an ominous local funeral home, tellingly named Collinswood (a sideways reference to the vampire family in Dark Shadows). What they find in that ghastly, dimly lit funeral home is terrifying. A real life, yellow-toothed vampire (played with gusto by Michael Ironside...) has killed everyone inside, but is still hungry for more. Kerry gets bitten by the vampire (or, more accurately, he gets his throat torn out...) and then he turns Justin into a creature of the night. But Justin doesn't want to join this particular club, especially since the cost seems to be feeding on his family, specifically his young sister...

The finest element of "The V-Word" is not really the plot (we've seen stories about reluctant vampires before; in films as diverse as Fright Night, Near Dark and Lost Boys), but rather director Dickerson's splendid staging and mise-en-scene. He brings every scare scene to life in a joyous, go-for-broke fashion. The set design of the Collinswood funeral home is beautiful - appropriately ornate and gothic - and the impenetrable, pervasive darkness generates a nice anticipatory atmosphere of dread. Revealing he understands the tricks of the trade, Dickerson employs a number of subjective first person shots, or P.O.V. shots, to help the audience grasp the terrain of the battle. That's a necessity for good "jolts," and Dickerson delivers the goods.

I predict that mainstream TV audiences will enjoy this episode the best of the three I've previewed on the blog because it so brilliantly and effectively lensed. The episode's finest moment arises as Kerry and Justin stand in the darkness of the funeral home, frightened. In the distance ahead, the only illumination comes from an EXIT sign over a doorway. That's their escape route, but to cross it, they must navigate a long, dark hall...where anything could be waiting. As you might guess, this is the set-up for a spine-tingling scene in which "obstacles" appear in the darkness to prevent egress. Also to the good: I love the John Carpenter-esque, pulse-pounding score, and I deeply appreciated Dickerson's visual homage to Halloween. There's a scene wherein a hero stands in the foreground (in focus), while behind him - in the background and in more diffuse focus - a villain believed dead suddenly bolts up, unseen. Yep, it's a Michael Myers shot...and it always works!

I think "The V-Word" also marks the first time in horror films or television, that I've seen a bloody I-Pod as part of the carnage; proof positive that the technology has officially suffused our society since now it's showing up in a "teen" horror-type story. Otherwise, I'm kind of diffident about the validity of the theme which rests at the heart of "The V-Word." There's some unspoken, contextual criticism of "kids today" with "their video games," (I'm paraphrasing). The template here is video game violence and death versus real life violence and death, and the writer's seeming belief that a generation of young gamers don't understand the difference. Tp wot. when Justin and Kerry explore the funeral home, one says: "In a video game, this is the boring part." Okay, I get what the story is going for; it's interesting enough, but it doesn't quite work for me. Perhaps that's because I know some very nice young fellas who are consummate video gamers. I can state this about them with utter confidence: at their age (early twenties...) they have already run circles around me intellectually, professionally and philosophically. They're responsible, courteous young folk - scholars, really - who view video games as a valid art form. They're on the vanguard there. This is how I viewed television fifteen years ago...and the rest of the world has caught up with that perspective. So I don't really buy the theme of this story that our kids have had their minds muddled by the format of video games. And horror is a genre for the young.

But this is a minor quibble, and ultimately beside the point. I don't have to "buy into" the theme to note that it is well handled as a leitmotif. And my reaction doesn't mean that "The V-Word" isn't a splendidly-shot show which horror fans will enjoy. And - oh yes - it's gory to the max. There's one scene where Ironside gets a syringe in his eyeball, and another moment whereon a victim's torn up neck looks to be holding on by a thread...or a sinew.

Trick or treat!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Tour...

My buddy and The House Between producer (as well as film scholar...), Joe Maddrey, is out in Los Angeles these days (but he better come back to Monroe, NC for season two of my show...).

However, while I merely get to watch horror movies for October 31st, he's actually living the dream! In other words, he's out west visiting the Nightmare on Elm Street house, the Myers House (from Halloween...) and so forth. How cool is that?

Anyway, check out Joe's blog, "Maddrey Misc." and take a gander at his photos of these horror cinema landmarks,
here.

Catnap: Lila's new sleeping arrangements...


Well, Princess Lila's had enough of baby Joel crying and waking us up all night every night, and has officially evacuated the bed for now. For the time being, she's sleeping downstairs in the family room. Odd cat...she chose the floor last night instead of a sofa. I guess any port in a storm...

Sci Fi Wisdom of the Week: Lost in Space

"Little setbacks are good for the young. They build character."

-Dr. Zachary Smith, Lost in Space episode # 4, "Island in the Sky" (by Carey Wilbur).