Saturday, September 22, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 65: Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979)

The best way to spend the long three years between Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), was to watch Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), one of the most entertaining space operas of the disco-decade. Like every sci-fi TV show airing the 1970s, from Star Trek (in syndicated reruns), to Space:1999 (1975-1977), to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), Battlestar Galactica's time on the air was accompanied by a merchandising toy blitz. Most of the products came from Mattel and Monogram-Revell, but the intrepid young fan of Battlestar Galactica certainly could choose amongst his favorite series-oriented toys.

I was always an action-figure kid and so was thrilled when Mattel released a line of action figures based on the series. Among the first releases, Lt. Starbuck, Commander Adama, Muffit the daggit, a Cylon Centurion, the Ovion, and The Imperious Leader. I'll never forget the day my Granny come over to visit our house in Glen Ridge and brought these six figures over (sold together in one box) for me. I was thrilled. The figures came adorned with capes (Adama and Starbuck), and armed with weaponry (a rifle for the Cylon and Colonial pistols for the heroes). I do remember being terribly disappointed that Mattel couldn't be bothered to create a Captain Apollo figure. He was my favorite character. It would be like releasing Star Wars figures but not making a Luke Skywalker edition, just Han Solo. It didn't (and still doesn't...) make much sense.

Later, Mattel released a second round of figures that included the alien Boray (from the episode "The Magnificent Warriors"), John Colicos' Baltar, a golden Cylon, and my most cherished of all the figures: Lucifer (an IL Series Cylon given voice on the series by Jonathan Harris). As you can see the from the photographs, I still own all these figures, though I must say time is catching up with them. Hard to believe it's been nearly thirty years.

Mattel also released a number of small ships based on Battlestar Galactica vehicles, including the Colonial Viper and the Cylon Raider. Two other ships were made, though they weren't featured on the series: The Stellar Probe and the Colonial Scarab, a kind of land-based viper/tank combo. Kids who grew up with these toys will remember that these ships shot small red pellets from their snout, and that one little boy choked to death while playing with one. This resulted in a quick CYA decision that all future versions of the ships (and the Boba Fett figure from The Empire Strikes Back) would be glued to the ships; and not launchable.

One of my favorite toys from Mattel was the large-sized, eighteen inch or so, Cylon Centurion warrior. You could push a lever on the back of his skull, and see his red eye move back-and-forth, from side-to-side. When you pressed a button on his backpack, his eye, his chest, and his laser weapon would all light up red as well. My Aunt Patty and Uncle Bob got me this toy for Christmas in 1978, and I'm delighted to say the old Cy Centurion is still intact...even though his legs are a bit wobbly. They also bought me the sparring partner for this Cylon, a white-haired Colonial Warrior who did not resemble any character on the series. When I was ten, I tried painting his hair black so he'd look like Apollo and succeed only in ruining the figure. He's no longer with me. Note to self: don't let ten year olds near spray paint.

Monogram released models of the four most prominent spaceships on Battlestar Galactica, including the Galactica herself, the Cylon Base Star, the Colonial Viper and the Cylon Centurion. I had all four (built my dad, who is an incredible modeler...), and spent hours waging space combat with them.

During its one season on the air, Battlestar Galactica merchandise included technical blueprints, an Iron-On-Transfer T-Shirt kit, scrapbooks, a plush Daggit (Muffit) and more. I've kept as much of this material as possible over the long years, and across my many moves (from Glen Ridge, to Richmond, to Charlotte, to Monroe). Looking at these toys, they aren't as in good condition as many of my other collectibles and I think that's because I played with the Battlestar Galactica toys a lot. It was a really, really fun show, and I had fun recreating my own adventures with Cylons and Colonials.

Friday, September 21, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 32: Moonlighting (1985-1989)

The unfortunate departure from television of Veronica Mars, my favorite prime-time detective, has left me remembering fondly another classic TV series regarding detectives, in this case a pair of them. Moonlighting (not to be confused with this season’s vampire detective series, Moonlight...) was created by Glenn Caron Gordon. This talent also gave TV one of the greatest superhero shows of all time, Now & Again (1999-2000) and is currently behind the Emmy-Award winning Medium, which is as much unconventional family drama as it is psychic genre series. Returning to Moonlighting today, one detects Caron’s skill in crafting dynamic characters and more importantly, making them look, sound and feel like individuals, not ciphers explaining plot lines. If Veronica Mars is an updating of the film noir form with today's tech devices (wi-fi, cell phones, etc.) functioning as critical McGuffins in the resolution of mysteries and crimes, Moonlighting is (for the 1980s anyway...) the last word on the The Thin Man aesthetic. Like the rarified world of Nick and Nora (Powell and Loy), this is a universe of delightful wordplay and what seems today like impossibly innocent charm and banter.

The pilot episode of Moonlighting (directed by Robert Butler) not only sets up the series premise, but reminds the viewer of the era it was created: the mid-1980s. In the very first moments of the pilot, for instance, we see a criminal with a Mohawk haircut (like he stepped out of The Road Warrior...), and a close-up of a Sony Walkman. Touches like these age the series somewhat, but also makes it a great nostalgia trip if you happened to be around during that time. As for me, I remember watching Moonlighting on network television in first-run, waiting patiently (seemingly forever...) for new episodes.

More importantly, the pilot establishes the premise of the series. Ex-model Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd), the Blue Moon Shampoo Girl, has been robbed blind by her business manager, and is left only with a series of non-liquid assets - write-offs - which include a pawn shop and a detective agency. Since being poor “doesn’t become” her, the prissy Hayes immediately visits all of the businesses she owns and begins to shutter them, firing employees and selling off materials. When she arrives at “City of Angel Investigations,” however, she encounters glib detective David Addison (Bruce Willis), who convinces her that they should team up as partners and run the re-named “Blue Moon” Detective Agency. Maddie is unreceptive to the notion, at least until she becomes involved in a murder mystery involving a stolen wristwatch, an item that could lead right back to stolen Nazi gold from a half-century earlier.

The pilot is inventive and funny, even if the narrative is slight. The amusing climax involves Maddie and David on a high-rise building in Los Angeles (on a ledge just below a giant clock…) attempting to recover a stash of hidden diamonds. It’s one-part thrills, one-part comedy, and wholly charming. Maddie ends up dangling on the hands of the oversized clock, hanging precariously over the street traffic far below. Movie buffs will recognize the scene as a variation of the classic Harold Lloyd gag/stunt from Safety Last! (1923), and this is part and parcel of Moonlighting's charm. At the same time that it is very 1980s, it also pays homage to Golden Age Hollywood.

Most of the mysteries served up on Moonlighting are amusing but equally slight. What truly made the series great; and what continues to make it a classic program today, is the writing (and performances) of the two eternally-in-opposition characters, Maddie and David. In a sense, it’s the old “Odd Couple” gambit, pairing Shepherd’s prissy, rules-oriented character with Willis’s “wild and crazy” guy persona (which was parodied so often in the 1980s and 1990s that at first it’s difficult to take seriously here...).

Yet what remains fascinating about these sparring partners is not just their individual differences and clear lust for one another, but rather the way that their characters symbolize particular views and agendas about the world and modern America. In particular, this is a series but the changing terrain of the war of the sexes. Bubbling right under the surface of Moonlighting's affable exterior is commentary on 1980s sexual politics, and it’s a fascinating subject to re-visit today (post-Ally McBeal - which in my view represents the death knell of feminism).

In particular, the 1980s was a period in which feminism, at least to a certain extent, floundered as an organized movement thanks to the forces of resurgent conservatism. The ERA went down to defeat in 1982, and anti-feminist forces held power for the entire decade. Yet - at the same time - women were gaining very real power in the work force as never before in American history. Just beneath the sexual-tension surface of Moonlighting is a series concerning such then-hot-button issues as what it means to have a female boss, the "appropriate" workplace relationship between men and women, the cultural infantilizing of men (or man-children, as Kathryn calls them), and a discussion of when and where charges of "sexism" might legitimately and meaningfully be lodged. Moonlighting's sparring partners are constant combatants in this war, always jockeying for positions of superiority.

In “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” a first season episode filmed in gorgeous black-and-white and introduced by Orson Welles, Maddie and David each “fantasize” about an unsolved 1940s murder case at a night club called the Flamingo Cove. Tellingly, they each play a role in an adulterous love triangle, and each is convinced that their “character” is innocent and that it is the other person who was guilty of murder. David takes on the persona of a coronet player who falls for a femme fatale, the chanteuse wife of a clarinet player -- Maddie in his dream. In his fantasy, he is an innocent down-on-his-luck guy led astray by a tough-talking, irresistible dame.

By contrast, in Maddie’s version, it is the coronet player -- David -- who is the seducer. She rejects all of his advances until he almost literally forces himself upon her. He comes at her powerfully, telling her he doesn't hear her objecting, meaning she doesn't stop his romantic advances. In both cases, "our" Moonlighting characters (the modern detectives) take on a character supporting their sexual agenda; we see the story through that lens, from both sides of the "war of the sexes." In the present, David accuses Maddie of being sexist because she assumes that the (male) coronet player is guilty; that no woman would have murdered her husband without a man urging her to do it. David's assertion is equally sexist: that the coronet player was led astray by the wiles of an irresistibly alluring woman; that the misdeed was paid for by the promise (and delivery...) of sex.

Another classic episode, "My Fair David," adopts Shaw's Pygmalion as source material and sees Maddie betting David that he cannot behave like a mature adult for one week. This means he can't do the limbo in the office waiting area (where there might be clients...); this means he can't sing and dance (as is his wont) and he can't even crack-wise. David's "cost" for losing the wager is that he must fire two employees at the detective agency, proving he can be a grown-up, professional and "boss," not merely a buddy. If Maddie loses the gamble, she has to unclench and do the limbo in the office reception area. The idea is Maddie's dedicated attempts to render David (a prospective partner...) an "acceptable" man to female eyes: meaning that he take seriously his job (a symbol of security), and that he presents well in public. Maddie needs him to be a trusted ally, not an infant. The old canard about women is that they fall in love with men, but then set about to change them; to blunt their edges to make them acceptable as providers and prospective fathers. That notion is clearly at play here.

However, there's more. The wager takes an interesting turn in "My Fair David" when the office receptionist, Miss DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) comments to Maddie that she has "de-Daved Dave," meaning that in her drive to change Addison's juvenile behavior, Maddie has ripped away the very qualities that make him attractive as a male. In the end, even Maddie comes to this understanding; she confesses that she misses "the old David," the one who loved life and made her laugh. So these childish qualities, which Moonlighting obviously views as "male" qualities, are seen as positive ones. Importantly, David doesn't really learn anything in this episode; whereas Maddie learns to lighten up. Men: 1. Women: 0.

Not every episode goes that way, of course, (though there is a Moonlighting episode that adapts The Taming of the Shrew, with David and Maddie in central roles...), and the approach is generally even-handed. What makes the individual episode sparkle is not merely the underlying context, but the staccato banter, delivered with warp-speed aplomb by Shepherd and Willis. The battle of the sexes is a game - perhaps, a deadly serious one - and David and Maddie are committed warriors. Yet their primary weapon is wit, and even in the age of Gilmore Girls, television doesn't often commit itself to the verbal flights of fancy we see on abundant display here. Also, as all lovers surely know, chemistry is a critical part of the romantic equation. I don't know whether Willis and Shepherd liked each other or not, but together they personify romantic chemistry. They possess in spades what Duchovny/Anderson had on The X-Files, and what Tracy and Hepburn shared back in their day. This personal chemistry makes every move, every quip, every battle of the wits on Moonlighting something more than just a war of the sexes-style diatribe or men vs. women argument. It makes it...foreplay.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pop Culture Consumes Self: More Remakes for Lunch

So, "originality" is now officially a quaint concept in Hollywood? I just read that there are remakes in the works of two more 1980s horror classics: Near Dark and Fright Night.

We can add these titles to a list of genre remakes that includes: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, Omen 666, The Hitcher, When a Stranger Calls, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, and Black Christmas. Already on the slate: Friday the 13th and Straw Dogs.

Putting aside the judgment whether or not these remakes have been poor, we must ask the question: why is Hollywood obsessed with remakes and re-imaginations? The only logical answer is the market. Movies have gotten so expensive to produce, and must earn their money back during a very tight window: on opening weekend. Thus, it is necessary these days to boast a "brand name." It seems a movie can't go into theaters and succeed financially without one. That brand name, that franchise title -- like the words "Big Mac" or "Whopper" -- immediately alert an audience about what to expect.

What is disturbing me to about the trend of remakes and re-imaginations is that they are most often helmed by young directors who have no understanding of the context or meaning of the original film. They are hired guns and traffic directors, not artists with something to say. When we gaze back at the more artistically successful horror remakes in film history (Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1978] and John Carpenter's The Thing [1982]), we can see that the filmmakers behind those efforts remade the original film with an updated, relevant context...which made the remakes meaningful. I don't demand that all remakes be faithful interpretations of the original material, I only ask that they have something to say; that they re-deploy a successful property to tell us something about the times we live in. Along with that, I'd like a little style, a little panache, not just blood and guts. Is that asking too much?

Here's a thought: One day I would like to go to the theatre and see an original horror movie that challenges and scares me. I'd like it to be original; something daring and new. That isn't to say those films never come around; I'm an admirer of recent horrors such as Hostel (2005), The Devil's Rejects (2005) and The Descent (2006). But those seem to be the exception today; not the rule. Again, we can argue the quality of remakes, but what we can't argue is that they are being served up with increasing regularity.

Am I just old and cranky, or do the plethora of remakes bother anyone else? Is originality such a difficult commodity to come by? Or is it just because Hollywood has been taken over by accountants, and those who should be making horror films - a whole generation - have been left out in the cold?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Muir in "A Decade of Darkness"

Back in April, not too long before I shot the second season of The House Between, a film crew came to my house in Monroe and interviewed me for a special featurette that was going to be included on the special edition DVD of Return of the Living Dead (1985).

Well, I got my copy yesterday and quickly found "Decade of Darkness," the documentary featurette that covers in 22-minutes the broad trends of 1980 horror films (with a little precursor going back to the 1970s and a little spill-over to the 1990s). I was happy to see that I was in very good company in the documentary, as it also included new interviews with directors John Landis, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, and Tom Holland. Elvira was also in the mix (alas, we didn't get to share any scenes...), as was Fangoria editor Tony Timpone and Chop-Top Bill Moseley.

Decade of Darkness features footage from an array of MGM video releases including, The Brood (1979), The Fog (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980), The Howling (1981), Motel Hell (1980), Lifeforce (1985), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II (1986), Child's Play (19888) and Pumpkinhead (1989). I was delighted that the editor selected a lot of R-rated, gory footage too; not the same run-of-the-mill clips you see all the time.

I'm grateful and honored to have been included in the documentary and I feel that the production hits the hot spots of the subject matter pretty well for so short a running time. Also, I must say, it's a pleasure to have my name associated in any way, shape, form or manner with Return of the Living Dead, which I name in Horror Films of the 1980s as one of the top 15 films of the decade.

So if in addition to seeing a great zombie movie, you want to see me in action discussing horror flicks - and in my living room to boot - check out the special edition of Return of the Living Dead and "The Decade of Darkness," now available.