Wednesday, January 31, 2007

TRADING CARD CLOSE-UP # 9: "Resistance is Futile"

For the seven years that Star Trek: The Next Generation aired in syndication, (1987-1994), I was an avid fan. I didn't always "like" the show (I grew tired of the endless Alexander and Lwaxana Troi and holodeck storylines, for instance...); but I watched religiously. This was Star Trek, after all.

For me (and, I suspect for many fans...) the series reached its apex at the tail end of the very strong third season, in the episode entitled "The Best of Both Worlds." Yes, this is the classic (and it is a classic...) two-parter that saw the long-awaited return of the Borg, the villainous race that had last been seen in the season two story, "Q-Who."

The episode "Best of Both Worlds" (Part One) was brilliant for a number of reasons. First, you had the return of what was clearly the ultimate bad-ass space villain (and there was as yet no silly "Borg Queen," which - truth be told - makes mince-meat of the "hive" Borg concept.) Secondly, you had great character fireworks with Commander Shelby coming aboard the Enterprise and threatening Riker's "safe" position as executive officer (he'd been offered a command of his own). And then you had that great scene with Captain Picard in Ten-Forward, pondering what could be the end of days for the human race with his friend, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg).

And, oh yeah - there were cool special effects in the space battle between the Borg Cube and NCC-1701-D, and even a moment reflective of Star Trek history, as Picard hid his flagship in a nebula (shades of Wrath of Khan!!!).

But, of course, the best reason to laud "The Best of Both Worlds" is clear on the face of this very trading card, from the Star Trek: The Next Generation "Inaugural Edition" Collectors series (1992; Impel). It was that crazy cliffhanger ending, with Captain Picard abducted by the Borg and re-engineered to be their mouthpiece; Locutus.

I'll never forget chills -- the goose-bumps -- I felt as that half-Picard thing shambled forward, out of the darkness of the Borg ship, and came slowly into the light. A mockery of the human form. Transformed into something antithetical to the individuality we (and the Star Trek...) characters cherish. And his cold; so lifeless. And he spoke those great words too. "Resistance is futile." Of course, this became a catchphrase in the Trek universe; and rightly so. (Although you can also go back in time and hear identical words spoken by the ultimate Space:1999 "evil race," the Dorcons, from a 1977 episode written by Johnny Byrne...)

And then, of course, Riker gave the order to kill his captain, and we had to wait a very, very long summer to see how everything would turn out.

Was The Next Generation ever better or more compelling than in this episode? I don't think so. "The Best of Both Worlds" (Part I) got every detail and mood right. Hard to believe it came around seventeen years ago, that's for sure.

So today, enjoy this view of Captain Picard transformed into Locutus. It's card # 30 of this particular set. On the back, the card reads "Locutus: Borg Identity of Captain Picard."

The card legend also reads, in part: "After the first contact between the powerful Borg and the U.S.S. Enterprise halfway across the galaxy, the Borg came into Federation space looking for Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Their goal: to "absorb" the Captain into the collective Borg intelligence and use his knowledge to destroy Starfleet and enslave the human race..."

Monday, January 29, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: The Cave (2005)

Do you remember those funny signs at amusement parks that are perched at the entrances of the roller coasters? They show a little clown or other figure of fun, and note that if you are as tall as he is, you can ride the roller coaster. Yippee!

If you're not tall enough, it's back to the kiddie rides for you. Enjoy the teacups, all right?

For whatever reason, I was reminded of that all-important sign while I watched the generally atrocious subterranean horror movie, The Cave. I'll be blunt. If you're tall enough, if you can endure it, rent The Descent instead. It's my choice for the best horror film of 2006, and it will scare you to your horror-movie-loving core.

The Cave? Well, it's the equivalent of the kiddie ride version of The Descent.

This movie, directed by Bruce Hunt, begins in the Carpathian Mountains thirty years ago, as a team of thieves uncover a secret Templar church. All the iconography in the church, from the gargoyles to the relief on the tiled floor, show strange winged demons. You think this might be a warning to the interlopers. But it isn't.

Anyway, there's a CGI avalanche, and the thieves fall deep into a cave beneath the earth...

Flash forward to "now," as a team of generic, off-the-shelf characters embark on an expedition to explore a heretofore "virgin" underwater cave under the same Carpathian Mountains. We get a "lady scientist" (as they were once called, in 1970s movies...), some multi-ethnic cannon fodder, the helpful, loyal tough-guy African-American - here named Top - and two hunky brothers (Cole Hauser and Invasion's Eddie Cibrian...) who have some sort of deep sibling rivalry. That's so when they're not underwater, they have something to talk about.

The first several minutes of The Cave linger on exposition. I have to admit, I learned a lot. Do you know how many cave divers per year end up dead? One in fourteen. Do you know how long you can stay submerged with the film's high-tech re-breathers? Twenty-four hours. If this is sort of material is your cup of tea, you may just love The Cave.

If not, just settle in and let the wave of crap wash over you. A fun game to play while you're waiting for the next murder is to think about what movie The Cave is currently stealing from. There are a series of monster P.O.V. shots that are reminiscent of Predator (1987), but most dramatically, this film cribs the plot and characters of Pitch Black (2000). Now, Cole Hauser also starred in Pitch Black (as a strung-out junkie space marshal...) but he plays the tough-guy Vin Diesel/Riddick role here. He even gets "special vision" (like Riddick) while fighting the monsters, and protecting his team.

In a movie where the heroes are 2.4 miles inside a mountain, and one mile deep within the Earth, you'd think there might be some claustrophobia and tension (like in, say, The Descent...), but there's surprisingly little of that. The film is rated PG-13 for "intense creature violence," but there's not much intense anything here. I did get a case of the creepy-crawlies in one scene involving a cavern filled with scorpions. Grossly, they're crawling around at eye-level. Ick.

In The Cave, you end up seeing some nice aerial photography over the mountains, and there's some good, well-photographed sequences in the "closed" eco-system where a "primeval" life form thrives, but going back to my amusement park metaphor, the film is like a walking tour of the old Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Now you're on the rapids, now you're underwater, now you're on a mountainside, now you're on an ice shelf, and now you're in Hell. Movie hell, that is. Particularly after one of the most seriously wrong-headed and insulting final sting-in-the-tale/tail moments I've ever had the misfortune to watch.

There are so many diverse environments on display in The Cave it's more a geologic travelogue than a horror movie. And I had to ask myself: how do these people keep finding their way back to each other after they separate? It just never seems particularly plausible. The cave divers, perhaps (except that 1 in 14...), but the scientists and documentary filmmakers? How do they find their way around down there, in the dark, with swooping parasitic dragons picking them off?

I know this isn't nice, but I was rooting for the swooping parasitic dragons...

Friday, January 26, 2007

The House Between: Meet Bill & Travis!

It's Friday again and that means another "clip" from my online series, The House Between gets posted on the blog today.

The clip I'm showing here is also from the premiere episode, "Arrived." This moment in the show occurs shortly after last week's segment. Our hero, Astrid (Kim Breeding) has already encountered Arlo (Jim Blanton), the strange young man in the kitchen, and by testing the doors and windows, discovered she is a captive in this mysterious old unusual means.

In this bit, Astrid has just gone upstairs after speaking with Arlo, hoping to meet the other folks trapped in the house. She does so. First off, there's Bill T. Clark a "one step at a time" kind of guy played by Tony Mercer. He's a methodical scientist, one who, by his careful observations, deepens the mystery for Astrid.

Then, as the clip continues, you'll be introduced to one troublesome Travis Crabtree, played by Lee Hansen. Like Arlo downstairs, Travis is a "loki" character in the series; one who is always making mischief and trouble for the other denizens of "the house between."

But you'll see that for yourself...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Dark Water (2005)

This is yet another Americanized remake of a Japanese horror film; in the spirit of The Ring, The Grudge and Pulse (which I reviewed on the blog last week). Like those remakes, Dark Water is also rated PG-13; which - if you'll forgive the expression, means "watered" down horror.

Yet Dark Water, which stars Jennifer Connelly as Dahlia Williams, is, perhaps a notch or two better than the average genre remake (it's certainly better than the worst of this lot, which for my money is the unnecessary sequel, Ring 2). Tallying it all up, I enjoyed Dark Water more than the flawed Pulse, for instance, if not as much as The Ring. It's not jump-out-of-your-seat scary in the sense you may expect, however. The film's power is not necessarily in the "jolts" or "shocks" but rather in the oblique little touches, and the world of perpetual rainfall and urban isolation it confidently and adroitly forges. The characters are all compelling too, and in general, they speak with distinction and verisimilitude. You don't find those qualities in horror films every day, so they're worth mentioning.

The film's greatest asset? Dark Water boasts a lugubrious mood, what a friend of mine ters "an atmosphere of dread." In other words, the whole enterprise feels ominous and unsettling and vaguely surreal. I guess if you're not that into nuances however, I could see how someone might rate it as "boring" rather than "moody." The film requires you bring a degree of patience along with your popcorn and soda.

Like The Ring - again - Dark Water is the story of a single Mom (Connelly) and her "haunted' child, in this case a little girl named Cecilia or Ceci, for short. The haunting comes about under the auspices of another "wronged" child (like The Grudge and The Ring...), also a little girl with long black hair. In this case it is a little specter named Natasha, who happens to haunt a shitty apartment building in New York. The first time you see a water tower on the roof of the film's central location, that squalid apartment building on Roosevelt Island, you'll be able to guess every detail of the story. At least I did. That's clearly to the film's detriment.

The film suffers from several narrative implausibilities too. The first is that Jennifer Connelly plays a recent divorcee. Her husband cheated on her, and frankly I have a hard time believing any guy in the universe would cheat on Jennifer Connelly. Go ahead, inform me, please, what out-of-this-world mistress would possibly be preferable to Jennifer Connelly? The second implausibility is that a conscientious mother, like Dahlia, would continuously permit her precious, psychologically fragile daughter Ceci sleep under a nasty ceiling leak every night. One that oozes black water and threatens to explode all the time. Jeez, just move the bed, would you?

But whatever. Those are actually somewhat minor complaints. What the film accomplishes, it accomplishes very well, and that's a good thing. The best aspect of the film involves the sequence which establishes the geography of the yucky apartment building, a would-be utopia built in 1976 and which now is Exhibit A of contemporary urban blight. The color palette of the film is a sort of puke gray-green, and every corner of this building looks authentically sleazy. The elevator is a nightmare (and there's a scary scene as odd denizens hurtle briefly into view while it moves from floor to floor...), and don't get me started on the laundry room in the basement. Jeez.

But instead of merely recording for us the details of the nasty apartment, I truly enjoyed how the film takes the time and energy to establish the upbeat but utterly immoral character of the apartment landlord/manager, played by the incomparable John C. Reilly. He gives Dahlia and Ceci their first peek at the apartment, and it's a great scene because of his performance. He euphemistically terms a fold-down kitchen table a "country kitchen!" and raves about the "dual use" space; meaning that the bedroom and the living room are actually one in the same. And then he patronizingly talks to Ceci in a kind of sing-songy voice that's really grating. Yet his tour of the apartment is practically mesmerizing. In turns it's creepy, amusing, and infuriating. Recommendation to filmmakers: if you have an exposition-heavy sequence, get John C. Reilly to vet it.

The film's second strength is Connelly herself, playing a tragic golden-heart; a lost soul who was abandoned by her mother at a young age (which we see in an unnecessary flashback...); an event she shares in common with Natasha, the apartment ghost and Ceci's new not-so-invisible friend. Accordingly, much of this film involves an understanding of what it means to be a good parent. What things to give up, what things to fight for. What things to sacrifice. Dahlia's character arc is touching - heartbreaking even - and Connelly is quite good in a meaty, affecting part.

And did I mention Tim Roth in the quirky role of an eccentric lawyer who works out of his car instead of an office? He also elevates the familiar material to a higher-than-expected plateau. I imagine good actors like John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth, and Pete Postelthwaite (playing a gruff handyman...) were attracted to the script because of these unique, well-drawn characters, all of whom possess individual voices. They aren't cookie-cutter roles like you might expect.

So Dark Water is well-cast and never less-than-gorgeously shot. My biggest reservation about the film is just that the premise is entirely and tiresomely predictable. We've been down this rainy alley before, many times in fact, and no matter how desperate Dahlia is, I just don't buy that she would remain in an apartment with a giant leak in the ceiling. I admire the performances in the film; I respect that it isn't exploitative. I like the "dark mood" and note with appreciation how the leitmotif of water recurs. I just wouldn't recommend you watch Dark Water unless you're wide awake, because - depending on point of view - it's either hypnotic or sleep inducing.

I'm feeling generous today. I'll say it's hypnotic. Ask me again tomorrow, however, and my answer might be that the film is a little drawn out. Like (Japanese...) water torture.

Monday, January 22, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Stealth (2005)

Firefox (1982), a Clint Eastwood movie about a high-tech jet that Clint must steal from Russia (during the Cold War) is one of my favorite movies from the 1980s. I love the aerial dog fights and I love the high-octane suspense (especially in the scene wherein Clint realizes he must "think" in Russian to control the difficult-to-maneuver plane).

So, with nostalgia looming large in my heart, I put Stealth, a 2005 action film about another high-tech jet plane, into my Netflix queue, and waited with bated breath for it to arrive. Kathryn rolled her eyes when she saw I had rented it. She knew what we were in for.

But hey, I didn't need the movie to be a classic. I didn't need it to be great, even. I just wanted a tense adventure, and some big-time aerial destruction, convincingly rendered. I still remember seeing the trailer for the film, which - if I remember it right - seemed to indicate that a plane equipped with artificial intelligence was barreling down on one of our major cities here in the U.S. and that it was up to three hot dog pilots to stop it before it could drop off a nuclear payload.

That sounds like a cool story, doesn't it? I think so...

Nothing like that happens in Stealth. Bummer. Big time bummer.

Stealth is set "the near future" when the Navy is testing a "new program" and "experimental technology," the film's opening card reveals. This new program as it turns out, is something called E.D.I. (Extreme Deep Invader), an attack plane that is, well, smart. Smarter than the screenwriter, anyway. E.D.I. boasts artificial intelligence and so can react faster than any human pilot in a crisis, even those three hot dogs I mentioned above, here played by Jamie Foxx, smoking-hot Jessica Biel (she can ride my tail anytime...), and Josh Lucas.

These pilots, who fly cool looking "talon" fighters (hey, He-Man also flew talon fighters!!!), are suspicious of their new computerized wing-man, and sure enough, they have just cause. Before long things go wrong. HORRIBLY WRONG. E.D.I. learns all the wrong lessons from the pilots, particularly the headstrong Lucas, and goes rogue on a mission in Tajikistan to take out a warlord with WMD. In the process, he chalks up some big time collateral damage. Oopsy.

All this set-up got my blood pumping, particularly the scene set in Thailand with Jessica Biel in a blue bikini. Wait, what was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Stealth. So anyway, the first half of the movie smells of three-day-old Michael Bay, but still, it's good in that cheesy Hollywood way. You just know E.D.I. is gonna go nuts and there's gonna be trouble in the air. Admittedly, the movie provides some incredible and impressive special effects. For instance, there's an amazing shot, a zoom from Earth orbit right down the surface with the planet, to a castle rampart where an evil terrorist is standing. If this isn't what CGI was designed for, I don't know what is.

Then there's the absolutely harrowing and nutty scene in which Biel must eject from her damaged talon fighter, and - under a disintegrating parachute - is always just inches away from flaming metal debris. Yikes.

This is all to the good. No doubt. But then things take a turn. A wrong turn. Let me give you the set-up. Biel is downed in North Korea, on her own. And Jamie Foxx has been killed in a great, moving scene involving aerial combat with E.D.I. Now, it's up to the last airborne pilot, Lucas, to bring in E.D.I. (which isn't barreling towards an American city with a nuclear payload at all...that's just a trailer gimmick).

So what happens? Well, in the last act, the evil plane, E.D.I. develops a "human" conscience and joins forces with Josh Lucas's character to rescue Jessica Biel and take down the evil General played by Sam Shepard.

What the hell?

I don't know that I've ever seen a more lame third act than this movie's. Why make this movie if - in the end - you're not going to pit human instinct and cunning against machine prowess for one glorious fight in the air? Why set up Lucas as the ultimate pilot bad ass, and put him in conflict with the newest evil technology...and then cop out on the final battle? Why make E.D.I. a "tragic" good guy?

In the movie's last scene, E.D.I. even obligingly commits suicide. Allowing a North Korean helicopter to blow him up. I have to admit, this scene made me laugh, because the hackneyed, menacing "North Korean"-sounding music on the soundtrack reminded me of Team America: World Police. I kept expecting a Kim-Jong IL puppet to show up.

By the end of the movie, I was righteously pissed. All Stealth had to do to merit a good review from this writer was deliver a climax that built on the action-adventure achievements of the first half of the film. It would have been a rip-roaring (albeit lame-brained...) actioner. It would have been a guilty pleasure that made me smirk and smile. Don't we all have movies we enjoy that are just this dumb?

But no. We can't have that. Instead, we get this lame-ass ending.

And don't even get me started on the scene that rips off H.A.L. in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Remember in the Kubrick classic how, when the astronauts conspired in the pod, HAL could actually read their lips? Stealth has the audacity to steal that scene here. I'm sure the writer would call it an homage...but let's call a spade a spade. It's a frigging rip-off.

My main question after watching Stealth: If some screenwriter somewhere was smart enough to crib a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, why wasn't he also smart enough to crib the aerial climax of Firefox? Or, for goodness sake, even Top Gun? Or Iron Eagle?

My last question: What the hell is Jamie Foxx doing in this shit? Isn't this the first movie he made after Ray?

Friday, January 19, 2007

The House Between: When Astrid Met Arlo

Well, it's Friday again, and that means it's time for another sneak peek at my independent dramatic series, The House Between.

Let me set up the short clip below:

It's a scene from the premiere episode of the series, "Arrived." Our series lead, a singer/songwriter named Astrid (Kim Breeding) has awakened to mysteriously find herself in an unfamiliar - and empty - old house. She has walked downstairs to the kitchen....and encountered a bizarre stranger who is living in that room, Arlo (Jim Blanton). Arlo has claimed the kitchen as "his," (or as a later episode notes, he has an unhealthy attachment to the kitchen...).

This clip shows the tail end of their first meeting as Astrid begins to gather information suggesting that her abduction and captivity is a lot stranger - and much more menacing - than she initially realized.

I call this clip "When Astrid Met Arlo."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Pulse (2006)

What if all those devices of modern convenience -- cell phones, I-Pods, laptop computers with broadband Internet -- machines designed to "connect" us to one another... are actually the gateway to evil? That's the premise of the horror film titled Pulse (2006), another remake of another popular Japanese genre film (Think of The Grudge, The Ring, etc.).

Like those other examples of the form, the idea dominating Pulse is that Evil can spread to millions of innocent folk quickly, and that there need be no reason or rhyme to the pattern of widespread infection. This is a different paradigm from the one featured in old school horrors, like Friday the 13th, for instance, wherein vice (illicit sex, illegal drug use...) always precedes an occasion of slice-and-dice. In the new brand of Japanese horror and their Americanized remakes, just being there - just being present - is enough of a motive to get horribly murdered.

Watch a videotape and die in The Ring. Walk into a nice house in Japan and die of a curse in The Grudge. In Pulse, it's a variation on the same theme. Anyone with Internet access, a cellular phone or digital cable could bite the
dust. This new breed of horror film is all about one thing: the mass, global media and the widespread broadcast of pain, misery and tragedy. Think, if you'll forgive me for bringing it up, of the terror attacks of September 11, and how almost instantly the images of the Twin Towers coming down were broadcast everywhere. It was nearly instantaneous, and it was utterly horrifying. And it replayed on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, etc...endlessly. People in Europe, in England and France said, on that day, that they were New Yorkers too. Why? Because they experienced the horror with their own eyes. They felt like they were right there, in Manhattan.

Another example: today, we talk about viral videos. Videos that spread like a virus from person-to-person. Is this a good thing? Sure (and by the way, did I mention that you should check my teaser trailer for The House Between at Youtube?) Anyhoo, Saddam Hussein's hanging was recently captured by a cell phone camera and transmitted to the world. The American government itself released videos of his son's bullet-ridden corpses to play on CNN and Fox. These horrors are free to all (even children...) and hanging out there in the ether to be watched, experienced, re-lived and seen again and again. Could there be a karmic or supernatural price for the existence of such widely seen horrors? What do such things do to the "global" human psyche?

So back to Pulse. It's the story of a smart college student, Mattie, played by Veronica Mars' star, the fetching Kristen Bell. She begins to notice an epidemic of lassitude amongst her college buddies. People are disappearing. People are not themselves. Her boyfriend, Josh seems to drop off the face of the planet. Then, she sees him commit suicide. Before long, the cities are deserted, and the End of Days is nigh.

What happened? Well, a telecommunications expert named Zeigler developed a new frequency to transmit huge torrents of information, a super wide band frequency. Unfortunately, the ghoulish spirits of the Dead can piggyback on this revolutionary carrier wave and squeeze back into our world. Where they promptly suck the life out of the living (much like a day spent watching nothing but MTV).
"Do you know what death tastes like?," Mattie is asked by one of the walking zombies? "Metal." That's a pretty creepy thought, but I must say that I found it highly ironic and disconcerting to see Bell playing the lead role in this film. Why? Well, as I've written before, her alter ego on Veronica Mars is a film noir-type detective updated to the 21st century, meaning that she avails herself of all the tools of today's detective trade: GPS trackers, digital cameras, Internet Search Engines and the like. If Veronica were in this film, she'd be in real trouble...because she'd be among the first to die! Funny that one actress should be involved in two productions that look at the yin and yang of modern technology. Someone needs to write a dissertation on Kristen Bell and cell phones.

Anyway, after the opening credits in Pulse, we get frequent insert shots of students walking on campus playing with laptops, talking on cell phones, snapping digital pics, - etc., and the idea made explicit by this imagery is that this stuff, this technology, is ubiquitous, and therefore the perfect avenue for an invasion. Much of the film's visual palette also seems to exist in the half-world of flickering fluorescent lights, which makes a kind of's like we're looking at a computer screen in the dark half the time. The form echoes the content nicely.

Pulse is a little boring, but also a little atmospheric. Anyone who's seen the other Japanese remakes (or the Japanese originals for that matter...) will be ahead of Pulse's gloomy narrative, and that's a problem. This is a variation on a theme, I wrote above, and it doesn't feel particularly fresh or innovative. It reeks of modern 'teen"-type horror movies in spots, and is less shocking and scary than it should be. But it adheres to its theme nicely. It will leave you feeling uneasy about the tools we take for granted.

Despite numerous flaws - mainly cardboard WB-age characters - the film goes for broke during an apocalyptic and surprisingly effective conclusion. There's a spectacular shot of a jet airliner crashing into a building as it is overcome by ghosts, and this is a beautiful and unexpected vista for a small budget horror. And then the end of the world comes. It isn't averted by a hoary ending, and the film doesn't cop out with a cheap way of stopping the invasion. Oh, the main characters attempt to upload an anti-invasion virus into a server mainframe at the college computer center, but the Dead - apparently having seen Jeff Goldblum already accomplish that task and save the world in Independence Day - circumvent the plan. The "survivors" are left with no choice but to flee to America's "dead zones," those few places out in the wilderness that don't get cell phone signals. It's the end of cities; the end of urban American.

didn't perform well in theaters, and I can enumerate the reasons why. It's dull and a little depressing in parts. There's an overfamiliarity of structure and in narrative content. But damn if the imagery isn't effective at points too, and the climax is damn scary. And uncompromising.

Monday, January 15, 2007

More House Between Goodness

Well, I hope y'all checked out The House Between teaser trailer this weekend. I know some folks did, because my stats on the blog went through the roof. Thanks to the numbers I just saw on Saturday and Sunday, the blog actually had it's biggest week ever (since I started up in Spring '05). Nice!

Anyway, there's all kind of goodness and support on the net for this first glimpse of our independent production, and I humbly thank everyone for watching (and commenting), and supporting the effort. A new clip goes up here this Friday, (and every Friday leading up to the premiere of "Arrived" in February...), so if you like what you saw, plan on return visits.

Over at his outstanding blog, our Svengali-esque producer, author Joseph Maddrey penned a beautiful post that I think aptly (and poetically...) describes the process of creating the show. He's such a great guy, and the admiration society is definitely mutual! We couldn't have accomplished what we did without him, that's for bloody sure.

Anyway, here's a clip from Joe's blog. (And by all means, go read the rest at
Maddrey Misc):

A six-member cast and an eight-member crew converged on Charlotte, North Carolina, in June 2006. For the next week, we would be trapped in an empty house with blacked-out windows, completely oblivious to the “real” world. It was like being thrown into a dream reality, with a very sobering mission: We had seven days to shoot seven (dialogue-heavy) episodes. No easy task. I appointed myself task-master.

From day one, I was amazed by the talent and dedication of everyone involved. It was as if every single person there had been waiting for an opportunity to like this, and when the cameras started rolling, they all became consummate – and passionate – professionals. Somehow, John must have known that it would happen like this. The actors learned their lines on the spot. The crew knew exactly how to get around any problem that presented itself. As on any good production, the team simply gelled.

The project quickly became a collaborative effort that relied on everyone there for its continued success. There were times when the production seemed like a house of cards. If any single member of the team hadn’t been fully engaged, the whole thing would have come crashing down. But everyone we needed was there, and giving 110%. By the second day, we were moving forward at full speed. By the fourth day, we were circumventing production problems with relative ease. (Many of the problems stemmed from our lighting equipment, which didn’t weather the 16-hour shoot days quite as well as the actors and crew). By the fifth day, everyone was comfortable enough for wild improvisation – making for a great episode that renewed everyone’s energy for the home stretch. (Truth be told: The lack of sleep was starting to make us all a little loopy.) By the seventh day, our nerves were frayed… but everyone maintained an air of professionalism, and we managed to get the last show in the can just before a summer storm swept into Charlotte, and provided us with some great moody exterior shots.

Afterwards, we all went to John’s house for a late dinner, and sat around talking into the early hours of the morning. It had been an absolutely grueling week, but nobody wanted it to end..."

At his blog, Notes on Culture, Kevin Flanagan (one of our lighting gurus and my frequent writing collaborator...), also comments about the show. And my friend (and fellow Space:1999 aficionado), Phil Merkel, has the teaser trailer posted up at his great site too, Captphil Online, so you can see it there.

And of course, you can watch it again, just by scrolling down on this page!


This week on Ark II, the Ark is on "automatic pilot," (*ahem*), as Jonah and the others explore Sector 14, Area 12. Jonah describes (in Log Entry # 51), the new mission. They are trying to open communication with people "who refuse to communicate with the outside world."

North Korea..

No, just kidding. There's another isolated village in the California desert, this one fearful of an epidemic that is claiming lives left and right. The Ark runs across several message balloons which describe the situation, and the crew meets up with young Ben and his grandfather, who are trying to save the village from extermination.

But then Jonah gets sick. And no, it's not because Adam the chimpanzee is again fixing lunch for the Ark II crew. (Would you let the monkey handle food? Even a talking monkey...). Anyway, in this episode, Adam fixes Samuel lunch, using a device to turn a pill into a plate of bacon and eggs.

Back to the main story: Ruth is able to fix a vaccine for the epidemic in - literally - seconds, and then inoculate all the villages. Message: "To block progress only stops growth."

Also, the myth that Ark II carries no offensive weaponry is quashed this week when the Ark fires a front-mounted laser to demolish several boulders blocking the path to the village. Oopsy.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The House Between: Teaser Is Up!

Hey readers!

The (very brief...) teaser trailer for The House Between is now up on YouTube, and playing right here on the blog.

This is a first look at the characters, sounds and imagery of my independently produced, seven-episode sci-fi series, and more clips will be online soon, leading up to the premiere of the first episode, "Arrived," in mid-February.

Hope you like it...

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 53: Lakeside's Intercept (1978)

Now here's a flashback from my misspent youth. I guess it was the Christmas of 1978 or 1979 when I ripped into a wrapped package to discover this great "electronic" game from a company called Lakeside(Leisure Dynamics, Inc., No. 9005). It was a gift from my folks.

It's called Intercept, "the electronic search and destroy game," and the box front trumpets that it comes with "the sounds and lights of fighter attack." Yep, Intercept is a Cold War era game that allows you to "BE THE ATTACK PILOT" or "BE THE DEFENSE COMMANDER." That means you can play either side in the nuclear armageddon with the Soviet Union, I guess...

Anyway, as the stalwart attack pilot, you are tested in this way (according to the box rear...): "Can you sneak past your opponent's surface-to-air missile sites and attack his Airfield? Manuever secretly across the tracking grid."

As the Defense Commander, you are tasked in this fashion: "Can you track down and destroy the Attack Jet? Use your logic to pin-point his position. Fire your rockets to score a direct hit."

The coolest piece on the board is a crimson "INTERCEPTOR DEFENSE COMMAND." Or as the box describes it: "This Special Aircraft, when placed on Target, ELECTRONICALLY locks on to the Attack Jet. It will program your rocket Fire and score a direct hit as the Attack Jet flares up on the tracking grid."

Ah, the days before video games, huh? Other pieces in the Intercept "Search and Destroy" Game include, "S.A.M Defense Sites," and "SIGHTING INDICATORS." As the Jet fighter, you control your fighter from an ATTACK COMMAND CENTER with a red knob that is the "ATTACK CONTROL." Midway down the board is a red "ATTACK ROCKET FIRE BUTTON."

You are entreated to "LISTEN TO THE SOUNDS" of "RADAR WARNING SIGNAL, "THE LAUNCH OF AIR MISSILES," and "THE SIGNAL OF A DIRECT HIT" in Intercept, a "self-contained portable electronic game." It takes one 9 volt transistor battery, and is a heck of a lot of fun. The one I have actually works now, which is doubly cool. Can't wait to show it to Joel...

Anyway, it's all very cool, especially from a disco decade kid's point of view, and this is one electronic game that I recall having fun with for hours when I was nine. Back in the year of the original Battlestar Galactica (1978) and the Atari-2600, this baby was absolutely high tech.

Did anyone else out there own of these too?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

McFarland January 07 Titles

Here's this month's list of film/tv/performing arts books from publisher McFarland, located in Jefferson, N.C.! If there's any media studies reader out there who's a Joss Whedon fan (or who wants to get all the skinny on his work so as to mount a studied assault against his pervasive influence..), there's a new book out this month on Buffy's controversial creator. I have a copy here in my office, and I plan to read it as soon as I get minute. I guess everyone knows where I stand: I love the guy's work, particularly Buffy and Firefly.

The Presidents on Film
With the prominence of the U.S. president and the presidency, the executive office and its occupant have naturally found their way into numerous cinematic expressions. Since 1903, presidents have been featured in no less than 407 commercial films. Ranging from respectful, biographical presentations to comic caricatures, the ways in which presidents are depicted on film reflects a great deal about contemporary perception of the office.This volume examines how filmmakers and their public have viewed the presidents and the presidency over the past 100 years. The book presents an all-inclusive list of commercial theatrical films that include an actual American president as a character, excluding documentaries, television productions and fictional characters. At times these roles are minor while in other instances they form one of the main characters of the film. In either case, however, an analysis of these depictions reveals a great deal about the president—and the filmmaker. The main body of the work is devoted to an examination, arranged in chronological order, of each of the 42 men who have served as president. A brief summary of each administration is provided along with a commentary on the overall nature of films in which the featured president appeared. Each relevant film is then discussed with the credits, plot summary, description of the presidential appearance and, when possible, an assessment of the presidential portrayal included. Photographs from notable films are also provided

The entertainment industry is all too much a man’s world, with Hollywood at its macho center. Thelma & Louise made film history with a female screenwriter, two female leads and a controversial, female-empowered storyline. The film is well worth studying for its impact on Hollywood and, in a broader sense, its reflection of women’s role in society.This book examines the cultural impact of Thelma & Louise, not only upon its release in 1991 but throughout the nearly fifteen years since. The book begins with a look at the role of women in media and the underrepresentation of women in the film industry, on and off screen. Next comes a thorough examination of Thelma & Louise’s public reception: the controversy it generated, the reviews it received, and the many ways it is referenced in popular culture. Case studies from newspapers across the United States, focusing on reviews and op-ed pieces in The Salt Lake Tribune, The Washington Post, The Boston Herald, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and others, show how the film’s reception differed from region to region. The final chapter provides current female employment statistics for the film industry and offers insight into the present role of women in film.

On June 29, 1908, U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte ordered the creation of a special force within the Department of Justice. Consisting of 28 agents and eight former Treasury Department investigators, it was designed to stop interstate crimes yet had no power to arrest perpetrators or carry firearms. Named the Bureau of Investigation, the agency was soon bogged down with its own inherent problems, becoming an object of corruption and contempt—until May 19, 1924. On that date, President Calvin Coolidge appointed J. Edgar Hoover to replace the corrupt director. Hard-working with a no-nonsense attitude, Hoover immediately set about reorganizing the bureau, setting a standard that he expected his agents to follow. Hoover, impressed by Hollywood’s manner of maintaining an image and manipulating the media, began to use some of these tricks to clean up his agency’s image. Thanks in part to his efforts, movies of the 1930s shifted from glorifying outlaws and gangsters to glorifying lawmakers—and who better to play that role than Hoover’s new, improved FBI?From crime-busting heroes to enemies of free speech, this volume examines the evolution of Hollywood’s portrait of the FBI over the last 75 years. The book looks in-depth at how Hollywood’s creative rewriting of history enhanced the FBI’s reputation and discusses the historical events that shaped the bureau off-screen, including the various figures who tell the real FBI story—the gangsters, the politicians, the journalists, the communists. The main body of the work examines the filmmakers, actors, technicians, writers and producers who were responsible for FBI films, following the FBI from the birth of a cultural icon in the 1930s, through the spy-busting war years and the threat of the Red Menace, and, finally, to death of Hoover and the scandals of the 1960s. Studio correspondence and once confidential FBI memos are also included.
This book is a critical encyclopedia of silent European films currently available on DVD, laser disc, and VHS. It provides concise and accurate summaries of the films, evaluates the quality of the prints, discusses the changing reputations of both films and filmmakers, and considers how the techniques developed during the silent period continue to influence filmmaking today.The book cites contemporary and recent criticism of the films and includes an extensive bibliography as well as a list of films by director. Numerous photos are also included.

This study examines the major works of contemporary American television and film screenwriter Joss Whedon. The authors argue that these works are part of an existentialist tradition that stretches back from the French atheistic existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, through the Danish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, to the Russian novelist and existentialist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Whedon and Dostoevsky, for example, seem preoccupied with the problem of evil and human freedom. Both argue that in each and every one of us “a demon lies hidden.” Whedon personifies these demons and has them wandering about and causing havoc. Dostoevsky treats the subject only slightly more seriously.Chapters cover such topics as Russian existentialism and vampire slayage; moral choices; ethics; Faith and bad faith; constructing reality through existential choice; some limitations of science and technology; love and self-sacrifice; love, witchcraft, and vengeance; soul mates and moral responsibility; love and moral choice; forms of freedom; and Whedon as moral philosopher.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Update to Retro Toy Flashback # 21: 2006 Star Trek Hallmark Ornaments

I don't know if you Star Trek fans out there got to see (or purchase...) these collectibles, but Hallmark released two new ornaments in 2006 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the original series. My mother-in-law up in Richmond (who started off my collection of Trek ornaments in 1992...) bought them both for me, and I can testify...they're both gorgeous. Beautifully crafted.

First, there's the classic series U.S.S. Enterprise. The box reads: "A flagship of Starfleet, USS Enterprise NCC-1701 embarked on its historic five year mission in 2264. Commanded by Captain James T. Kirk, the STARSHIP ENTERPRISE transported us to the final frontier for unparalleled adventure."

Then, the second ornament is "The Transporter Chamber." The box on this one reads "...Captain Kirk, Science Officer Spock and Chief Engineer Scott enter the transporter chamber. The crewmembers are then converted into a beam of energy and reassembled in another location to begin their mission. No Starfleet vessel leaves spacedock without one."

I hope you collectors out there kept your eyes open for these. I was surprised when I opened the package. I didn't realize there were new ornaments released for Christmas '06, and was thrilled to see that both items were from the Original Series...still (and always...) my favorite Trek.

Catnap: Who's the Baby?

Well, Ezri clearly thinks that she's the baby in this house. We came down to the family room yesterday morning and were going to put our baby Joel in his "City of Domes" (that's what we call the Gizmo in the photos...), and we found that there were no vacancies.

Ezri had moved in. This is her house now. Watch out Joel, no trespassing!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Flash Gordon: The Series?

Hey, my buddy Fred sent me this interesting news tidbit from Geek Monthly:

Currently being developed by SciFi Channel under a cloak of secrecy is a new television series based on the classic comic book character created by Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon. Despite critical acclaim, SciFi’s stellar Battlestar Galactica re-imagination has had continued ratings erosion which network honchos believe may be attributable to the show’s dark tone.
It has been known for awhile that SciFi has been looking to develop “lighter” properties in the vein of their Stargate series, although it is expected that Flash Gordon will have a far more serious tone than the campy 1980 film starring Sam Jones, Melody Anderson, Timothy Dalton, Max Van Sydow and Topol.

Two thoughts on this:

1. A Flash Gordon series could be pretty impressive today, given digital technology and a *hopeful* fidelity to Alex Raymond's designs. Wonder if it will be set back during the era of America's War on Fascism, the original context. Oh, and hey, today show runners can do a season (or multi-season...) arc like the takedown of Ming the Merciless.

2. Battlestar Galactica is facing "continued ratings erosion"? Gee, who didn't see that one coming? The audience for the show has always been small, and though it has a vocal, militant fan base...I don't personally know a single long-time science fiction cinema/TV fan who actually likes (or watches...) the show. Sure, the mainstream critics drool all over it, and the re-imagination drew heavy curiosity viewing initially. But fads do fade. I chalk up the ratings slide to the fact that BSG eschews basically all sci-fi trappings to serve - as my friend Tony calls it - The West Wing in Space. That concept gets pretty tiresome pretty quickly...

Saturday, January 06, 2007


The fourth episode of the 1976 Saturday morning sci-fi series Ark II is called "The Slaves." Written by David Dworski, it recounts the adventure surrounding Jonah's entry numbered #405, in the Area designated # 64 by his people. In particularly, Jonah hopes to "put an end" to the "miserable" and "immoral" practice of slavery in a nearby village controlled by a ruthless dictator, Baron Vargas.

Unfortunately, after noting in disbelief on the intercom that he "is actually looking at people who have become slaves," Jonah himself becomes a slave after being captured by Vargas. He learns from a helpful fellow slave named Gideon that the Baron maintains his iron grip on his slaves by claiming to possess magic powers. He says he can turn men into animals, and in fact, claims that he has turned Gideon's sister into a rabbit. He threatens to turn Jonah into a chicken.

"Shrink before the power of Baron Vargas," he commands, using fear and terror to keep his populace cowed and meek. Ah, but Jonah sees through the facade!

Playing the role of a post-apocalyptic Spartacus, Jonah sets out to free the slaves, unaware that there is a traitor among the insurrectionists. "You must fight fear," he tells the dominated. "He [Vargas] keeps you enslaved through your own superstition." Yeah, well, they don't have the Ark II's nifty forcefield or rocket pack either, that come in handy taking down tyrants.

At the end of the day, all's well that ends well, and Jonah reports that "unlimited power in one man's hand makes him a tyrant...and slaves of us all." Right on, Jonah!

"The Slaves," like other episodes of Ark II, features one really strange segment. Adam (the damned monkey...) is part of a plan to make a distraction, a decoy. The other Ark II'ers (Ruth and Samuel), dress him up in a cap and slave attire, and when Baron Vargas spots him, he asks, "who is that little man?"

Uh...that's the monkey, Baron Vargas. EMBRACE HIM! No, but really, Vargas doesn't seem to notice that Adam's a monkey, not a man. What's that about? It's like that moment in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when the stoners attempt to flee the Arena Diner with an orangutan in tow, and trick Will Ferrell (as Marshall Willenholly) by saying the simian's their adopted child.

Only this isn't a joke...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

CATNAP 2007: The Cat Next Door

Okay, so this isn't one of my cats. This is Isabel, as Kathryn named her. She's one of the (several...) cats who got left behind by some neighbors who moved from our street last year. Like her buddies (Blackie, L.J. Fuzzie #1 and Fuzzie # 2 as we call 'em...), Isabel has taken up residence in and around our front and side yard.

We have quite a feline crew now (and I feed them all..), but this means that out our kitchen window - while we're eating breakfast - we now often see vistas like this. It also means we're slaves to the cats. One morning, when I forgot to feed them, one of the Fuzzies came up and crapped on our porch swing as a reminder...

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy 2007!!!

Well, the holidays are over, and it's back to the blogging here! Hope you all had a happy holiday season and didn't party too hard on New Year's Eve.

Anyway, if you woke up this morning and decided you'd like to make 2007 a very John Kenneth Muir year (and let's face it, who wouldn't?), lots of interesting stuff will be happening in the months ahead. Both on the blog, elsewhere on the Net, and in bookstores too...

First off, my Internet sci-fi series The House Between will be premiering soon, with clips showing up here - on the blog - first. The show's first season (and yes, there will be a second season...) consists of seven half-hour dramatic episodes. The pilot episode is "Arrived," and naturally, it will "arrive" on the Net first. You can read more on the topic, and see pics at The House Between web site.

If books are more to your liking, I have three new film books coming out in 2007.

First off, there's my 800+ page goliathon called Horror Films of the 1980s. This heavyweight creepozoid should be published any day now. I spent my holidays indexing the book and proofing the manuscript (which was over 1500 pages). Fun! Anyway, I'm hoping this is my film book masterpiece...but that's for critics and readers to decide.

Here's the description from McFarland
: "
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 over 300 films from the 1980s. From backwoods 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 the author’s ranking of the 15 best horror films of the 80s.

Also included in the book are interviews with director Tom McLoughlin (One Dark Night, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives), Thom Eberhardt (Night of the Comet, Sole Survivor), James L. Conway (The Boogens), Kevin Connor (Motel Hell, The House Where Evil Dwells), Lewis Teague (Cujo, Cat's Eye, Alligator), Fright Night editor Kent Beyda, and "final girls" Ellie Cornell (Halloween IV, V), and Rebecca Balding (The Boogens, Silent Scream).

Next up, in May of 2007, from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, is The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia. Here's how Applause describes this one: "One great rock show can change the world” says Jack Black's character Dewey Finn in the 2003 Richard Linklater comedy The School of Rock. This exhaustive, highly-detailed, yet reader-friendly A-to-Z encyclopedia takes that lesson to heart by gazing at half-a-century of rock 'n' roll films, big screen epics both celebrated and obscure.From the 1950s and the age of “juvenile delinquents” in films such as Blackboard Jungle to more intimate, twenty-first century rock band portraits such as Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, this book by noted film authority John Kenneth Muir also features entries on rock documentaries such as Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, movies starring rock stars including the Sting vehicle The Bride, and even films boasting extensive rock soundtracks, for example George Lucas's paean to the age of cruising, American Graffiti.

The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia
includes 230 film entries from 1956 through 2005, including cast list, creative personnel, M.P.A.A. rating, running time, and DVD availability. Entries on the familiar conventions of this unique cinematic form, such as the Vietnam War, the ubiquitous press conference (in which band members wax philosophical), the rampant destruction of property (hotel rooms, specifically) and even the Yoko factor (meddling girlfriends).

Biographical entries on players who made significant impact on the silver screen, from Elvis Presley and the Beatles to Alice Cooper and Prince. Interviews with rock movie directors Allan Arkush (Rock 'n' Roll High School), Martin Davidson (Eddie and the Cruisers) and Albert Magnoli (Purple Rain). Peter Smokler, the cinematographer who shot the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter, the Jimi Hendrix film Jimi at Berkeley, and This Is Spinal Tap is also interviewed.

In addition to pure rock 'n' roll, the films included cover all genres of popular music, ranging from Johnny Cash to Madonna, rock-influenced musical theatre (Jesus Christ Superstar), tejano (Selena), disco (Can't Stop the Music, Xanadu), and reggae. Whether your “one great rock show” is a beach movie starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, a misbegotten horror/rock fusion like The Horror of Party Beach, or a rib-tickling, heavy metal mockumentary like This Is Spinal Tap, you'll find all your favorites remembered in the pages of The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia.

Finally, come June 2007, the first installment of my brand new book franchise premieres, TV Year Volume 1, 2005-2006. TV Year also arrives under the auspices of Applause and Hal Leonard, and here's the skinny on it:

Here is the inaugural edition of TV Year, a new survey of the most recent complete season of over 200 drama, comedy, reality, and game shows, and more, from all the major networks. Readers will now be able to make up their own minds as to whether or not we've entered “the new golden age of television,” as Jon Cassar remarked upon accepting his 2006 Emmy Award for best director for a drama series for 24.

This book includes: Every significant prime time (8 to 11pm) broadcast series, both new and returning, that aired on television from August 2005 through July 2006; complete credits and detailed, opinionated summaries of each show with excerpts of reviews and behind the scenes gossip. Initial air date and closing date, cast changes, and notations about cancellation. Each entry also notes the DVD availability of each series.

TV Year includes the season's mini-series and TV movies and lists the nominees and winners of the Emmy Awards. Film and TV expert John Kenneth Muir also can't help but add a few non-prime time shows as well that have become cultural events in their own right, including “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.

Also, and I'm thrilled about this facet, TV Year features a foreword from Hollywood screenwriter and TV legend, my friend Larry Brody (Automan, Star Trek: The Animated Series, etc.).

So there you have it, Muir-a-thon '07, coming your way...

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Big Chair

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