Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye to 2008

Well, 2008 is set to soon fade to black. It's been quite a year all the way around, from economic disasters to the groundbreaking presidential election of 2008.

Here on the blog and in JKM-Land, it's been a banner year. There were almost a hundred more posts on this blog in 2008 than there were in 2007 (a leap from 237 posts to over 331).

And once again, the blog's traffic has expanded significantly (by well over 5,000 readers), making 2008 the biggest year here yet. We also crossed the 1,200 point in number of total posts overall.

The biggest quarters here were the first (when my web series, The House Between aired a second, much-watched, award-nominated season), the third, which featured my attention-grabbing review of X-Files I Want to Believe, and the fourth. For some reason, June was a low month.

The blog also received a much-needed design upgrade in the fourth quarter, making it look a bit more color-coordinated, not to mention user-friendly.

In terms of movies, I feel like overall that 2008 was a pretty good year for the genre. I loved Wall-E, Quantum of Solace, The Strangers, Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, Cloverfield and Iron Man.

On the other hand, I found myself irrevocably out-of-step with most mainstream movie critics because I adored both the inventive Speed Racer and the intimate X-Files I Want to Believe.

I also didn't particularly love some highly-hyped and critically-acclaimed efforts, most notably the vile Wanted, The Incredible Hulk and a little superhero movie starring Christian Bale (which I haven't gotten around to reviewing on the blog yet...). I'm still looking forward with great anticipation to Let The Right One In.

Television was disappointing in 08. Heroes didn't manage a return to greatness and Fringe proved unexpectedly lousy, one of the worst, most derivative TV series I've ever had the misfortune to endure. It's Bionic Woman-bad.

When I look back at the last twelve months on the blog, I see that we remembered several Alfred Hitchcock movies together, not to mention some of the more controversial efforts of auteur William Friedkin. We also recalled some of the Gene Roddenberry Pilots, and began to anticipate the new Star Trek movie. TV movies like The Last Dinosaur, Killdozer and Gerry Anderson's The Day After Tomorrow also got excavated, and we took a side-step into time travel movies and programs.

Looking ahead, 2009 will bring the third season (and shocking final act) of The House Between in late January, not to mention detailed episode retrospectives and analyses of the trail-blazing Chris Carter series, Millennium (1996-1999).

In short, there's lots more goodness to come.

Hope you stick around for another year of reflecting on film and television (and toys) with me.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 83: The Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center (Kenner; 1976)

Ever have one of these?

In the Christmas of our Bicentennial year 1976 -- the last Christmas before Star Wars (1977) arrived -- Kenner's "bionic" toys dominated the market...not to mention the imagination of children like me.

These were the prized toys that every kid in the neighborhood wanted and hoped that Santa Claus would bring.

An avid fan of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) or The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) could choose from any number of really fine toys in this line, including large-scale action figures (Steve Austin, Jaime Sommers, Oscar Goldman, Maskatron...), huge vehicles (like Jaime's sports car, or Austin's space vehicle...), and cool play sets galore.

The Bionic Woman had a salon/repair center, for instance. Oscar had his Washington D.C. OSI office (not to mention an exploding briefcase...), and Steve himself had a space capsule/repair station.

However, one of the most exciting and sought after play sets in Kenner's stable was The Six Million Dollar Man "Mission Control Center," the very place, according to the box legend, "where all the bionic adventures begin!"

This huge, impressive toy included a "giant inflatable dome, 17.5" high and 26" wide."

Since the dome was inflatable by air valve (9 for strength and durability...), the toy even came with a repair kit.

In case, I guess, Big Foot (Ted Cassidy) happened by hoping to puncture it with a pin or something.

And inside (or rather beneath...) that huge dome was the HQ for OSI agents Colonel Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers. It was protected, according to the dome specifications, by a "laser force field."

Another exterior
section of the dome was a computer, a "retrieval storage unit."

The Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center also contains (from the bulleted points on the box): "radar scanner," "TV Monitor," "radio headphones" "bionic check-out panels and cables," "command chair and command console" and "mission control vinyl floor."

At the "Bionic Check-Out Panel" you could "plug cables into your Six Million Dollar Man's modules" and "
pretend you check out his bionics for special missions."
At the
communications console, you could "change pictures in the T.V. monitor to communicate with Oscar, Jaime Sommers, Maskatron and outer space."

And there was even a "secret escape hatch" designed
"for those times when the Six-Million Dollar Man must get out of the Mission Control Center in a hurry without being seen."
Designed for kids ages five and up (and I would have just turned seven that year...), this Kenner Bionic Headquarters was never featured on either TV series that I can recall.

But it's such a truly awesome toy that it certainly should have been.

Now, if I could just get my bionic action figures out of remote storage...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #67: Picket Fences, Season One (1992-1993)

Somehow, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. Must be Rome. Wisconsin...

At this time of year (around the holidays), I can't help but to be reminded of David E. Kelly's neo-classic Picket Fences (1992-1996), a beloved and award-winning CBS drama from the mid-1990s.

The association is natural, I suppose. This quirky and at times, revolutionary series concerns the ways in which a "typical" American family (the Brocks) -- and by extension, an entire community (Rome, Wisconsin) -- deals with the concept of tradition, and perhaps more significantly, with the concept of change.

That change invariably involves new (and therefore controversial...) thinking about medicine (assisted suicide, abortion, human growth hormone...), about sexuality (pre-marital sex, gay and lesbian issues, transsexualism, AIDS), about religion (in school, in the home, in the heart), about politics (particularly mayoral politics...), about the law...you name it.

And as the holidays represent a time in which families universally come together around the dinner table to set aside petty differences, share tradition, and discuss, debate, argue and laugh at the vicissitudes of this modern American life (and the blistering pace of progress in medical science, technology and the like...), Picket Fences is a perfect fit.

Not coincidentally, I'm sure, several episodes of Picket Fences' first season (now available on DVD in its entirety) explicitly involve the holidays. "Thanksgiving" (which aired November 13, 1992), concerns a tumultuous family Turkey Day, with generations of Brock family members coming together to reckon with grandpa's (Richard Kiley's) new 26 year-old girlfriend. "High Tidings" concerns a Santa Claus with Alzheimer's. And "Pageantry" represents a most unusual twist on the old Christmas story; one that concerns a post-op transsexual elementary school teacher playing the role of the Virgin Mary in the upcoming Christmas pageant.

Move over, South Park...Picket Fences did the "apolitical" Christmas pageant satire first...by about five years...and frankly, it did it better.

Picket Fences boasts a perfect format by which to consider America and American values at the dawn of the Clinton Age (and the end of the first Bush recession). At the heart of the drama is the blended Brock family, led by the rock-solid town sheriff, Jimmy (Tom Skerritt) and his wife, the town doctor, Jill Brock (Kathy Baker). Jimmy and Jill have three children: teenager Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs) from Jimmy's first marriage, and pre-adolescents Matthew (Justin Shenkarow) and Zack (Adam Wylie).

The stories of Picket Fences take us from the intimacy of the Brock household into Jill's private practice, and -- invariably -- into the public forum by way of the local police department. There, Jimmy's deputies, the gung-ho Maxine (Lauren Holly) and the macho Kenny Lachos (Costas Mandylor) assist in solving many a bizarre local cases (including ones involving perpetrators such as The Green Bay Chopper, Frank the Potato Man, Cupid, and The Frog Man.) In the first season alone, Maxine and Kenny square off against a number of serious and not so serious serial killers. Remember -- this was the post-Silence of the Lambs (1991) nineties.

From the busy police station, Picket Fences invariably escorts us into the court room of Judge Henry Bone (the late, great Ray Walston), an arena where questions of innocence and guilt, right and wrong, fair and unfair, moral and immoral, are rendered impartially. Bone is a paragon of virtue: an elder statesman and oracle who is able to put aside the passions of the moment and consider the questions of the law. His judgments are rendered in logical, intellectual fashion, and universally written with flair.

Bone is perpetually vexed, however by my favorite character on this series, Jewish attorney Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel), a real "character" who seems to defend absolutely every litigant in Rome. Wambaugh harbors a brilliant and entirely politically-incorrect sense of humor, and also nurses a deep-seated inferiority syndrome. The entire cast of Picket Fences deserves kudos for great, consistent performances, but the interplay between Bone (Walston) and Wambaugh (Finkel) is an absolute delight; a high point of humor and wit. Every time we land in the court room with these two characters, the writing seems to ratchet up from the level of smart to genius; and the humor goes from being simply amusing to laugh-out-loud funny. When you hear the words "Wambaugh for the Defense," or some blunt variation thereof, hold onto your hats. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

In an important sense, Wambaugh deflates any tendency David E. Kelley might have to become self-important or self-indulgent. Just when you fear the series might become pedantic or lapse into a stultifying lecture on diversity, for instance, Wambaugh strides in and punctures that pompous balloon with an absolutely impolitic remark, rejoinder or joke.

In the annals of TV history, Wambaugh is one of the most remarkable characters ever brought to life, and Finkel is an absolute dynamo of perfect comedic timing and delivery. And on those occasions when Wambaugh does wax serious (discussing the death of his parents during the Holocaust), it practically takes your breath away...because you're not prepared for Wambaugh's perpetual shield of self-mockery and humor to drop so suddenly. It's not too difficult to discern that Wambaugh is the spiritual father of William Shatner's beloved but wacky Denny Crane on Boston Legal. In later seasons of Picket Fences, Wambaugh is pitted against an attorney general that is his equal, played by Don Cheadle, but in Season One of Picket Fences, Wambaugh almost steals the whole show.

I remember watching Picket Fences when it originally aired, and I especially remember the night that it was pre-empted so that the national news could cover the O.J. Simpson freeway chase. What I didn't realize, however, is how many "signature" Picket Fences episodes occur in this remarkable first season. These episodes all ring a bell, but I just didn't remember they came so fast in the series' early history. In this collection, you'll find the episode about a woman whose "killer menopause" is the legal excuse when she runs over her husband with a steam roller ("Bad Moons Rising.") Here is the episode with the Catholic nun/angel of death practicing euthanasia in Rome's hospital ("Sacred Hearts.") Here is the episode "High Tidings" in which -- the day before Christmas, Jimmy and Jill find Kimberly having sex with her boyfriend. Here is "Nuclear Meltdowns," in which Kenny dates identical twins (one spontaneously orgasms while he's having intercourse with the other..).

All I can say is that these episodes are as outrageous, as entertaining, as wicked, and as impolitic as they were sixteen years ago, at the time of original broadcast. Whether the Brocks are reckoning with an Indian tribe that has unexpectedly declared war on Rome ("Rights of Passage") or dealing with Kimberly's unexpected lesbian kiss ("Sugar and Spice,") this series is ribald, witty and wholly endearing. It's also a perfect snapshot of America as it was in the early 1990s. The Red/Blue State Divide was not as pronounced then as it is now, but here you see the seeds of it: good, intelligent Americans countenancing difficult issues and falling on opposite sides due to personal judgment.

What I love so dearly about Picket Fences is that the ideological divide, once breached...is always repaired. Jimmy and Jill fall on different sides of several critical issues (patient-doctor confidentiality, for one), but the center always seems to hold. A country - or a family - divided against itself cannot stand, and Picket Fence understands that well. Characters yell at each other here and passionately argue their points of view. But underneath those differences is a common bond of community and caring, of family and love. And that bond, the series understands, is one that should never be shattered.

I loved Picket Fences when it aired back in the 1990s, and I purchased the first season on a sort of whim, wondering if the series would hold up after so many years. I watched the pilot and had my doubts (it is easily the worst, most-stilted, most-"off" episode of Picket Fences in the first season...), but by the third or fourth episode, I realized that the series remains as imaginative, as informed, as infuriating, as intelligent and as laugh-out-loud funny as I recollected.

So where the hell is the second season collection, 20th Century Fox? Rome isn't just a nice place to visit. One trip there, and you'll want to move in....

Theme Song of the Week # 39: The Flash (1990)

Friday, December 26, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: And Soon The Darkness (1970)

I first saw it over ten years ago, but Robert Fuest's And Soon The Darkness (1970) remains one of my all-time favorite horror films.

This nearly-forty-year old genre thriller written by Terry Nation and Brian Clemens holds up remarkably well on repeat viewings, is unbearably tense in all the right places (and in all the best ways), and is so icily, so glacially precise in the clever application of horror movie techniques, that it deserves some pretty serious admiration.

Yet the movie only rarely garners the devotion of horror movie aficionados, perhaps because there are so many other great, landmark horror films of the 1970s.

Or perhaps because this production is short on gore and -- even in its wildest moments -- And Soon The Darkness maintains a high-degree of cold-blooded restraint.

And Soon The Darkness is a film of the "road-trip gone wrong" variety, but with some unique twists on that sturdy template. Specifically, the film concerns two British nurses, Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michele Dotrice), on vacation, taking a bicycle tour of rural France. Before long, the beautiful young women find themselves on an isolated country road "miles from anywhere."

Although this was part of their plan -- to "keep off the main roads...to see the real France" -- Jane and Cathy soon regret their selection of routes. They happen across a wooded patch of lonely road, one where three years earlier a brutal murder occurred "about this time of year."

Worse, according to a British ex-patriot, a teacher of French literature (and perhaps a lesbian?), who has moved to these parts, "it was more than murder...if you know what I mean." What she suggests ever so subtly, actually, is that the homicide was preceded by violent sexual assault...

Before long, Cathy and Jane are separated (they have a row about a man), and Jane heads on down the road by herself. She thinks better of it after a while, and returns for her friend. But Cathy...has disappeared. Jane finds only a wrecked bicycle -- and Cathy's under garments -- scattered across the woods.

At first, a desperate Jane is in denial ("she's hiding from me...just trying to scare me."), but before long, she realizes that something sinister has occurred to her friend and riding partner. But Jane is forever a stranger in a strange land; she knows neither the local language nor the local terrain. And Jane clearly doesn't know whom to trust.

The local gendarme, who lives in the station house with his senile old father?

The lady at the cafe who warns that this is "a bad road" and seems to be locked in a strange feud with a neighbor?


The mysterious, sun-glasses-wearing man on the moped who playfully follows Jane and Cathy down the road and claims to be a government investigator?


The Gendarme's senile father, who stands in the nearby field -- watching everything like an immobile scarecrow -- and, who, at a critical moment, wields a scythe?
For easy shorthand, just think of And Soon The Darkness as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) set in rural France. Only without the delirium.

Some important visual touches distinguish And Soon The Darkness. The first is that the film's harrowing events occur entirely in daylight, so the movie can't rely on the impenetrable blackness of night either to scare you or to successfully obscure what you see. Rather, quite inventively, the filmmakers erect a constant but entirely unspoken tension: Jane is racing against sundown too; not just the locals. Soon night will fall, and then there will be real terror on that lonely country road.


Secondly, And Soon The Darkness is set almost entirely outdoors, with only a few forays to interiors (most notably to the gendarme's house; and to the interior of an old RV in a French trailer park...).

Director Fuest generates considerable suspense by maintaining near-obsessive focus on that damnable country road, which stretches endlessly behind and ahead of the tourists, and which features no safe harbors...only mysterious woods, distant fields, and inscrutable strangers. Before the film is over, Jane navigates this section of road perhaps a dozen times (ever more hysterical...) yet every turn and every double-back represents a dead end of sorts...and night is still pending. The road, which seemed so wide open at first, soon becomes suffocating in its smallness.

Given the focus on the landscape, And Soon The Darkness features many beautiful long shots, which successfully highlight the isolation of the British nurses as they stray into dangerous foreign territory. A number of shots also find the camera perched relatively low to the ground (with the road and the woods taking up a significant percentage of the frame), so that when an "alien" object -- like the front wheel of an unknown vehicle -- looms suddenly into the foreground, it has an ominous, frightening effect.

A masterpiece of understated horror -- and one which makes do with very little dialogue -- And Soon The Darkness puts us in Jane's place on that country road of the damned, heightening a powerful sense of identification. Fuest occasionally deploys P.O.V. shots from the bicycle to land us there right beside his imperiled protagonist, but more trenchantly, he utilizes obstacles such as the language barrier to build our frustration and anxiety. Much of the film's hair-raising third act involves Jane's absolute inability to distinguish friend from foe, as her world grows smaller and smaller.

Finally, from that deceptively wide-open road, Jane's universe shrinks down to the size of a claustrophobic trailer closet...where a deadly, macabre surprise awaits. We're symbolically beside her in that shrinking domain the entire time, watching with anxiety as Jane's options narrow further and further, one at a time. By film's denouement Fuest has successfully limited our view (and experience) to extreme close-ups of Jane's crazy, furtive, desperate eyes (a technique Tobe Hooper would also use to great effect with Marilyn Burns in the third act of Chainsaw.)

By the climax of And Soon The Darkness, you'll feel as though you've endured an agorophobic's nightmare too, because the film so powerfully engenders a fear of wide-open spaces and a fear of foreign travel. The movie triggers palpable terror by depositing our heroine (Jane) and viewers far outside our comfort zones. In And Soon The Darkness, the world is an indecipherable nightmare, we have no allies, and that road is a setting from which there is no easy escape.

When the film ends, and the worst fate is avoided, Fuest makes a final, devastating artistic choice. Instead of providing us the darkness we expected in the form of the coming nightfall, he shows us something poetic and unexpected: a brief catharsis. A cleansing rain falls across the road, washing the horror -- the blood -- away.

But even there, Fuest isn't done throttling us. A high-angle shot tracks away from a weeping Jane and another bloodied survivor, and we unexpectedly find ourselves looking down through a trailer's transparent sun roof, down upon a corpse. Then, we cut away to that ubiquitous road once more, as two "new" girls ride by on bicycles.

Perhaps the horror isn't over after all...perhaps that stretch of rural road is actually a Mobius Strip, a strange, monstrous loop, taking us right back to the point where the terror originated.

The curtain falls. And soon the darkness comes. Again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Hey everybody, Happy Holidays from the Muirs!

I hope all you fine readers have a safe and happy holiday filled with laughter, love, good food, good fellowship...and good horror movies. (I recommend Eyes Wide Shut for holiday themed horror viewing by the way: just the thing to mitigate all the joy of the season; a meditation on marital alienation, fantasies of infidelity and creepy orgies, starring Tom Cruise, no less).

No, but seriously -- however you decide to spend it -- enjoy the season!

This is two-year old Joel's first "real" Christmas, the first one in which he understands what the heck is happening and can tell us what he thinks of it.

Yesterday, he helped one of our cats, Lila, pull the golden garland off the Christmas tree so she could eat it. There are now chunks of regurgitated garland all over the carpets...

When we ask Joel what Santa Claus is bringing him for Christmas, he replies "everything."

I hope Santa doesn't let him down. It's hard to fit "everything" under a tree...

Hope Santa doesn't let any of you down, either.

Now Kathryn says I have to stop blogging and be with the family. :)

Happy Holidays,
JKM

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

RETRO TOY UPDATE: More Colorforms


Way back in 2005, the first year I began writing this blog, I displayed some of my prized colorform sets (including Flash Gordon, Star Trek and Space:1999). I've been going through various closets, attic and crawlspace storages lately and weeding through old (and forgotten...) collectibles, and I discovered this: my Batman Cartoon Kit/"colorforms toy" from the year 1966.

Produced in Norwood N.J. and licensed by National Periodicals Publications, Inc., this Batman colorform set allows you to put the Dynamic Duo through their paces while battling the Joker and the Penguin (with a backdrop of Gotham City and the batmobile by moonlit night).

"Now! Your favorite hero in colorforms plastic!" reads the box. "Colorforms plastic pieces stick like magic. Easily lifted to put away, ready to play over and over again. No scissors, no paste, no muss."

Monday, December 22, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Quantum of Solace (2008)

So...this is the new normal.

By that I mean that Quantum of Solace (2008) -- the 22nd big screen adventure of James Bond, 007 -- cements the aesthetic direction of the Daniel Craig Era.

It's a cinematic epoch which follows, in sequence, The Sean Connery Era (1962-1968; 1970), The George Lazenby Moment (1969), The Roger Moore Era (1971 - 1985), The Timothy Dalton Era (1987 - 1989) and The Pierce Brosnan Era (1995 - 2002).

Described in a different way, we've had -- more or less -- a signature Bond for each of the previous four decades; for the mod/swinging Sixties, the malaise/disco days of the Seventies, the conservative Eighties, and the roaring Nineties.

Contemplated in a larger context, Daniel Craig's still-unfolding span plainly represents The New Millennium 007, a James Bond who straddles the confusing, contradictory world as it exists today.

It's a world in which international alliances are strained; in which the ends justify the means; in which the West is facing a crisis of principles; and in which dwindling natural resources (whether oil, water or food...) represent the ultimate prize. Trust in government is at an all-time low, and fear (of terrorism, of environmental apocalypse, and of economic meltdown...) is at an...all-time high (with apologies to Rita Coolidge...).

The narrative and stylistic direction for the Daniel Craig Era was established brilliantly in Casino Royale (2006) , a ground-up re-boot of the sturdy action-film franchise. And it is embellished upon succinctly here, in this all-business book-end. For Quantum of Solace is a direct successor that resumes the story of Bond scarcely minutes after the last film ended.

My most significant complaint about Casino Royale was that it seemed to end with so much of the storyline still up in the air, without a real or satisfying (or even particularly spectacular...) climax. By contrast, Quantum of Solace plays virtually as continual climax (a description James Bond would no doubt appreciate...).

The best way to experience the Craig Era right now? Watch these two films back-to-back, because they are connected in intricate, complementary fashion. That's what I did. I watched Casino Royale the night before going out to see Quantum of Solace in theaters, and these two films fit hand in glove. They are dramatically of a piece.

Thus far, and given this background as context, the Craig Era seems to consist of equal part tradition and innovation; continuing the things that have always worked beautifully about James Bond's universe, and adjusting or discarding those elements that don't play so well today.

So yes, this is the new normal.

I must admit -- as much as I enjoy this new approach -- the post 9/11 Bond aesthetic takes some adjusting to; especially for old-timers like me who grew up in the daffy Roger Moore era. Yet in some very important senses, Daniel Craig's spell as Agent 007 is plainly emerging as a new golden age for the legendary, long-lived character, especially if these two installments are an indication of the series' continued energy level, commitment to consistency, and quality of imagination. Not since Sean Connery's apex (in my opinion, Dr. No through Thunderball...) have we had two such engrossing, involving, consistent Bond films in a row.

Some specifics: Quantum of Solace concerns a dogged James Bond (Craig), who -- following the tragic death of his lover, Vesper -- relentlessly pursues the agents of Quantum, a shadowy international organization boasting clandestine operatives literally everywhere (as one explosive sequence aptly demonstrates).

Bond's investigation takes him to Haiti, Italy, Bolivia and ultimately Russia to track down elements of the secretive, multi-headed hydra known as Quantum. James is committed to destroying the organization, perhaps over-committed to it. But whether his dedication arises purely from personal reasons or rather for professional ones is a source of the film's ongoing (but underlying...) tension.

After years now of watching needlessly angsty, vengeful heroes on the big screen (credit Batman for that one...), we're inclined to ascribe to this Bond some deep internal emotional strife (read: EMO), when what he actually displays in Quantum of Solace is something different entirely; a mask. A suppression of his emotions and pain with drink and violence. This is very, very near to the Ian Fleming Bond of classic literature: Bond as (in the words of Fleming to Sean Connery): "a simple, straightforward, blunt instrument of the police force who would carry out his job rather doggedly."


Bond's primary nemesis in Quantum of Solace is the aptly named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) of Greene Planet, a would-be dedicated environmentalist who is actually a dedicated corporatist raider. Greene topples governments of Third World countries at the drop of a hat in order to procure their natural resources and thereby secure a profit. His latest bid for global domination is "Project Tiara," a Bush Doctrine-style pre-emptive first strike in the future global "water wars." Greene successfully cons everyone, from the CIA to the British Prime Minister, in order to secure the water supply of Bolivia, but he hasn't factored in the "dogged" Bond breathing down his neck. Interestingly, Greene is a diminutive little twerp -- like a self-satisfied CEO -- and as such, the perfect villain for our time..even if he doesn't possess any trademark Bond villain deformity (like Dr. No's metal hand, or Renard's bullet in the brain.)

Along the way, Bond teams up with beautiful Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), a woman on a personal quest of her own. She seeks revenge against the Bolivian General Medrano, whom Greene plans to install as the new President after the current government is toppled. Since their priorities align, Bond and Camille lay siege to a remote Bolivian headquarters/hotel -- which runs not too safely on eco-friendly fuel cells -- as Greene conducts his nefarious business with the would-be-tyrant.

While all this is occurring, M (Judi Dench) has a very tough decision to make about her most headstrong agent: Is Bond worthy of her trust? Is he a simple, straightforward blunt instrument, or a reckless loose cannon?

It's "good to have you back," she tells Bond at one point, after the dust has settled. "I never left," he replies, deadpan.

As viewers, we are thus asked to judge for ourselves the honesty and validity of Bond's response. But impressively the film doesn't push one answer or another. If Bond suffers inner turmoil, emotional distress and grief, he does so in solitude; and only inside. This is the last step of his "training" process, the final prelude to truly becoming "007."

Which is why, no doubt, the famous gun barrel opening has been shifted to the film's coda for Quantum of Solace. Because Bond's indoctrination to this shadowy world -- a world where loyalties can never really be known - is finally complete. The end of Quantum of Solace represents the beginning of Bond as a professional.

Quantum of Solace proves an engaging, exciting and rather serious entry in the James Bond film canon. I'm old enough to remember a time when Time Magazine complained bitterly about the Bond films being too light-hearted and even suggested that Bond had become such a self-parody -- so innocuous, androgynous and anonymous (by the time of Octopussy [1983]) -- that he could be played by Michael Jackson. Basically, serious Bond fans spent years, even decades deriding the silliness of the Roger Moore era (Moonraker, anybody?), wishing - hoping - for a return to the relative seriousness of the Fleming books and early Connery efforts.

That dream was half-achieved in the age of Timothy Dalton (a Bond I deeply admire). He approached the role seriously and smartly, but the scripts weren't really consistent enough to achieve the goal. The Pierce Brosnan era was even more helter skelter, opening strong with GoldenEye (1995), but descending by Die Another Day (2002) into a campy, outlandish world of ice castles, invisible cars, laser gloves and a CGI Bond ludicrously wind-surfing tidal waves.

No, it's only now, with the one-two punch of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace -- in the age of Craig -- that the long-hoped for vision of Bond as a real, flawed human being is fully realized. Given that fact, I'm experiencing a bit of whiplash from all the criticism that Quantum of Solace is somehow too serious. One critic even quipped, "Lighten up, James." My answer: the books were pretty damn serious; and one of my favorite Bond films, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is pretty damn serious too. Quantum of Solace doesn't seem out of line, at least to me. Craig is indeed serious -- and believable physically (which Moore wasn't; and which Brosnan wasn't) -- but it's not like he's mopey, down-in-the-mouth or navel gazing. At least not when there's a martini around, or someone to be killed.

Marc Forster can direct action, and he directs the action well in Quantum of Solace. His error, I believe is that he occasionally aims too high when he should have more wisely and conservatively settled just for capturing the essentials. In a few of the big action moments (in two instances, to be specific), Forster apes Coppola-style Apocalypse Now or Godfather cross-cutting. In one scene, for instance, Forster cuts a violent exterior chase between Bond and an assassin with the goings-on at a Sienna horse race. In another action sequence, Forster intercuts a fast-paced gunfight with a performance of Puccini's Tosca.

Now, on the one hand, I always laud ambition and the calculated selection not to go for a lowest-common denominator approach. As a critic, I dig this kind of thing. But on the other hand, in a Bond film this just feels rather pretentious. By the inclusion of the cross-cutting montages (and the use of Tosca) Marc Forster seems to be indicating none too subtly that for him the James Bond world is not enough; that Bond must exist on some rarefied, art-house level.

Still, I'll take this intellectual approach over close-ups of pigeons doing double-takes any day, if you get my meaning.

Some critics have also claimed that the action scenes of Quantum of Solace are incoherent. I disagree. There are a few bad choices (two very similar-looking black cars are featured in the opening chase scene, which makes identification difficult...), but for the most part the action is absolutely thrilling. The violence level is ratcheted up; the pace is extreme, and some of the shots literally assault the audience. There's one amazing moment in which a ledge topples and Bond falls into the camera. Another virtuoso shot follows Bond and a nemesis tumbling downward through a glass ceiling onto a scaffold, and the camera rides the whole way.

I don't think it's exactly fair to state that the "quick cutting" action-style used in Quantum of Solace is ripping off Bourne, either. This is simply the vernacular for action movies in our times. In the old days, Bond fights were made to look more fierce and pacey by literally speeding up the film; by fast-motion photography. Go back and look at the final battle aboard the Disco Volante in Thunderball (1965) and you'll see what I mean. We're experienced enough viewers today, in 2008, that our eyes recognize that trick; we see the film is sped up to apear more thrilling.

Quick cutting is simply the twenty-first century equivalent of speeding up the film-- a technique to enhance our sense of excitement. In forty years, we might laugh at it, see through it, or consider it quaint. But for today, this is simply how action movies are forged and to complain about its prominence in Quantum of Solace is the equivalent of complaining that the Bond films are sexist. Get over it. And remember that Bond films have always adopted the latest popular film trends anyway, from blaxploitation [Live and Let Die] to Star Wars [Moonraker] to parkour [Casino Royale]).

As far as Quantum of Solace's plot being inconsequential, I'll simply say this: in a galaxy far, far away, the Clone Wars began with a trade route dispute in some out-of-the-way solar system, didn't they? The point here isn't so much that Bolivia is imperiled; rather that Bond discovers an international organization de-stabilizing governments so as to control resources in an upcoming environmental end-game. Who's next?

Frankly, this is a highly consequential plot; and one of great, timely importance. Unfortunately, the First World is going to be battling over the Third World for the next several decades (just look at the Two Gulf Wars...), and this is the terrain the Bond Universe has settled on, which is both smart and realistic.

Another way to look at this: is this Bolivian gambit by Greene any less consequential a plot than a mad-man trying to sink Silicon Valley so he can sell more microchips (A View to a Kill?). Or an assassin selling a solar agitator (Man with the Golden Gun) to the Chinese? Or bringing down a drug lord (Licence to Kill?) Quantum of Solace is still about controlling the world; but it's about a covert operation to do so; a "phantom" piece of a much larger, more sinister puzzle.

I also enjoyed Quantum of Solace because it is a movie firmly rooted in Bond tradition, even as it gazes forward rather than back. If you think about it, in Quantum of Solace we have a possibly rogue Bond (in the spirit of Licence to Kill) teaming up with a revenge-hungry woman (For Your Eyes Only), to stop a criminal organization (like SPECTRE) from taking over the world, a piece at a time. But let's be honest, didn't the earlier films bungle the whole SPECTRE story?

Blofeld was played by a variety of actors (Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray), and each film about SPECTRE ultimately played as a sort of alternate-universe stand-alone because of it . Bond's wife was killed by Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but Bond never even mentioned his wife, Tracey, in the follow-up film, Diamonds Are Forever. The human essence of that story -- of Bond's love and Bond's loss -- was sacrificed in the Lazenby-Connery shift, in the Savalas-Gray shift, in the narrative refusal to countenance that Bond's life had changed dramatically; and in the commercial necessity to conform to "business as usual," with Bond happily seducing Tiffany Case and anti-climactically smashing Blofeld on an oil rig.

Contrast that debacle with the rigorous continuity between Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and you begin to understand why the new approach is superior. Here, a mourning Bond doesn't just miraculously forget everything that happened to him in the last movie. There's a real and noble attempt at continuity instead. Furthermore, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace appears to be building-up to a big confrontation with Quantum, step-by-step. That's precisely the sort of thing we never got with the early SPECTRE Bond films, after From Russia with Love. Again, it seems to me that this approach is legitimately a Bond film lover's dream because it takes Bond and his world seriously, the way that Fleming did. It's a world where action have consequences; where memory is long; and in which Bond discovers -- a bit at a time -- who his enemies really are. The cost of his line of work, as he learns, are pieces of his soul.

I have to admit, there was a moment near the conclusion of Quantum of Solace in which I experienced a strange and welcome sense of deja vu. Bond (in sleek black) was creeping stealthily through an enemy headquarters, one that was designed by Dennis Gassner to specifically resemble the designs of the brilliant Ken Adam. For a fleeting instant, I had the distinct impression was watching a Bond film of the 1960s; of the Connery era. Here was an actor with an equal level of gravitas (and physical believability); countenancing a story I cared about (like From Russia with Love, Dr. No, Goldfinger or On Her Majesty's Secret Service), battling against a powerful organization of supreme evil (like You Only Live Twice).

When I recognized that feeling, I realized with sudden optimism and excitement that the Craig Era represents a new Golden Age for 007. We've had standalone visions for forty-six years now. We've had the downs of Moonraker followed up by the ups of For Your Eyes Only, followed by the mediocrity of Octopussy followed by the downs of a View to a Kill...and what did we learn about Bond as a character, as a man through all that? I could make this complaint about the Brosnan era too. GoldenEye was good, but each succeeding film grew progressively and irrevocably worse until the series nadir of Die Another Day. Now -- at long last -- we have the makers of Bond films taking the heroic character and his legacy seriously, attempting to fashion a more consistent, more intelligent, more human, serial vision of this beloved hero. And in Daniel Craig we have an actor who perfectly embodies the three critical "S" factors of any Jams Bond: Sex, Sadism and Snobbery.

I know the purists wince at such proclamations, but the new normal is damn good. Two films into the Daniel Craig Age...and nobody's done it better; makes me feel sad for the rest.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Vault of Horror Strikes Back: Presenting the Top 25 Horror Films of the Modern Era!

One of my favorite blogs, Vault of Horror, is back with a second must-see list of horror film tops.

This time, the Vault opens the "Cyber-Horror Elite's" Top 25 films of the Modern Era (1990 - 2008). It's another tally that is certain to provoke debate (always a noble cause...), and the final selections are indeed fascinating ones.

Only a handful of my personal top ten made the list: The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2002) and a real dark horse; a favorite that I'm glad to see recognized as "horror" of the deepest, most disturbing type: Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

In general, I seemed more in tune with other critics on the previous list (the top 50 of all time), which I think may indicate how little real agreement there is on "contemporary" horror. It's still, in some important ways, too soon to be definitive. But this list is not only a great viewing primer, it's a terrific source for discussion.

I won't spoil the list, but let me just state that I am surprised by the film that represents director Eli Roth's output. I prefer Hostel (2005). Also, I'm sorry to see that such noble efforts as Jacob's Ladder (1990), Pitch Black (2000) and Silent Hill (2006) apparently had no traction with the other horror lovers. On the other hand, it's hard to deny the quality of most of the films that made the top 25. It's good to see American Psycho (2000) getting some belated love.

Check out Vault of Horror's entire list here. B-Sol has not only done a great job compiling and organizing this catalogue, he has analyzed it too, and provided some intriguing statistics on the selections.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

Okay. So perhaps this movie is a guilty pleasure.

Or perhaps I simply harbor deep-seated feelings of nostalgia for this "revenge of nature" flick from the year 1977.

Whatever the reasons, I love Kingdom of the Spiders. With irrational exuberance. God, I love it...

Listen, I've seen how bad spider invasion movies can turn out (The Giant Spider Invasion [1975.] A
nd I've also seen how big-budget, mainstreamed spider movies turn out (Arachnophobia [1990]). So I can declare with some confidence that Kingdom of the Spiders remains the best of the eight-legged arac-pack.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) stars William Shatner (yes!) as veterinarian Rack Hansen, a cowboy doctor who lives in peaceful but poor Verde Valley in Arizona. Rack's brother John died his second day in 'Nam, and now Rack takes care of his brother's widow, Terry (Marcy Lafferty) and little daughter, Linda (Natasha Ryan) during his off-hours.

One day -- while out in the desert lasso-ing cattle and sister-in-law, Rack receives an emergency call from a local, Colby (the great Woody Strode!), whose prized cow has been felled by what appears to be a mysterious illness. The cow dies, and Rack sends blood samples to a lab in Flagstaff to help find answers.

Those answers arrive in town with the fetching Dr. Diane Ashley (a yowza Tiffany Bolling). She's an expert in venomous animals and concludes that Colby's cow died from dozens of extremely poisonous spider bites. A closer investigation reveals a giant tarantula hill on Colby's property. This is an unusual development because the spiders are working together in harmony, not attacking each other.

"Why would spiders suddenly turn aggressive?" Rack asks.

Diane's answer -- in the tried-and-true tradition of environmental/when-animal-attack/1970s revenge-of-nature movies like Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Empire of the Ants (1977) and others -- is a chilling one: human interference.

Specifically, "through excessive use of pesticide" man has killed off all the local insects -- the spiders' primary "source of food." Now desperate, the spiders are turning on livestock and casting hungry eyes towards mankind, particularly the souls populating scenic Camp Verde.

Spiders gotta eat!

Rack and Diane recommend a quarantine to destroy the aggressive spiders. Unfortunately for the denizens of Camp Verde, however, Kingdom of the Spiders was produced post-Watergate (and post-Jaws [1975]), which means that the town mayor is a craven politician who steadfastly refuses to take effective action against the enemy in their midst. See there's a big town fair scheduled in two weeks with a lot of money at stake. So the beaches have to stay open, if you get my drift. The result? Carnage candy. Spiders rampage through Verde, cocooning their prey in webs and causing all manner of chaos.

Rack, Diane, Linda and a dopey tourist couple -- the Johnsons-- hold up at Emma Washburn's remote lodge, but the spiders lay siege.

And when I write "lay siege," I'm not kidding. Spiders drop out of ceiling air vents like mad sky divers, crack open windows, jump down chimneys into open fireplaces, short out the power box in the basement, and generally go blood simple. The film's protagonists retaliate with murderous force, and I can tell you without doubt...real spiders were harmed during the making of this film. Yep. They were stomped, crushed, rolled over by cars, pelted with chemical fire-extinguisher spray and burned.

Ah, the good old days before digital technology.

Really, you must see this movie to believe it. There's no CGI trickery or phoniness, and the actors -- not stuntmen for the most part -- wage real, intense close-quarters battle with thousands of crawling, skittering tarantulas. In one harrowing sequence, William Shatner crawls up a basement staircase with probably two-dozen spiders on his torso, legs, head and even his famous toupee. The Shat obligingly points his flashlight at his own face during the scene so we can get the full impact of the stunt in the dim light.

Tiffany Bolling is pretty damn courageous too, casually (and expertly..) plucking up spiders and petting them like she really loves them. The only giveaway: in the tighter shots you can see her hands shake.

I can't blame her.

This movie's final half hour is so intense, so non-stop spidery that a lot more than your hands will shake. It's a Night of the Living Dead-style siege on a single, remote location, but think of spiders pressing at the boarded-up doors and windows instead of zombies. There's a great moment wherein little Natasha Ryan is endangered...standing trapped and surrounded on a bed filled with a good dozen or so live spiders. Shatner bursts into the room to save her, admonishing the child to jump over the spiders on the bed sheets into his ready arms. He's about five or six feet away. Well, without hesitation this kid leaps blindly for him -- over the teeming beasties and - shit! - your adrenalin races.

What makes all this action hang together, however, is the fact that Kingdom of the Spiders has devoted the time and energy to develop its characters in more than rudimentary fashion. Old Emma Washburn still loves the town sheriff even though their romance died years ago; Rack and Diane share a fun romantic rivalry (though by film's end, the "liberated" Bolling character is subserviently fetching Shatner his beer...), and -- as surprised as you may be how they get under your skin -- you actually come to care about what happens to these people.

It's a lesson that today's horror spectaculars could stand to learn: you can't drive at 100 miles an hour for 90 minutes, and expect viewers to remain involved, much less scared. If you're always driving fast...you're never driving fast; there's no opportunity to breathe, relax...or let your guard down. Sometimes, for the big moments to pay off, they have to arrive after slow ones; after quiet character moments. For all its inherent silliness, Kingdom of the Spiders understands that fact. Sure, It owes a lot of its gonzo life blood from Hitchcock's The Birds and from Spielberg's Jaws yet it consistently pleases because it is consistently and thoroughly scary.

Not to mention absolutely brilliantly-staged at points. There's a plane crash stunt at about the one-hour mark that is achieved so deftly, so realistically, you actually believe the film's actors (including Shatner and Bolling) are in real danger. There's a sustained spider attack on the town of Verde that cuts no corners and pulls no punches, depicting citizens running in panic, and even young children overcome by spiders. It's gruesome, nasty and entirely effective. And I love how sound is used in one sequence preceding a scare, when all the crickets mysteriously go quiet.

John "Bud" Cardos direction and John Morrill's cinematography are also much finer, much more clever than you might expect of such a low budget effort. The camera in Kingdom of the Spiders has a funny but confident way of tilting down from a scene in progress, then gliding away from the action to pinpoint a crawling spider somewhere on the floor. And how can you not love the opening "stealth" attack on a grazing cow? One that features the spider's point of view (through tall grass...) and ends with a freeze-frame of the beleaguered cow's shocked eyeball (while the soundtrack plays a cow "mooing" in anxiety and pain)?

Sure, some of the dialogue here is really, really funny. I particularly enjoyed Altovise Davis's reading of the line "This is our home and no damn spiders are going to run us out." She doesn't do it badly; don't get me wrong. On the contrary, the actress commits to it so sincerely, so fully, so guilelessly, it takes practically your breath away. The gung-ho, go-for-broke style of performances is really affecting. No one's playing anything for laughs or for camp.

And Shatner? My God, the man upstages 5,000 spiders. He doesn't just lasso cattle in this film, he lassos the spotlight. His performance is 100% ham bone, but fine, delicious ham bone. Say what you will about the Shat, but the man's got presence, and more pertinently, the right presence for this movie. His trademark quirks and idiosyncrasies as a performer keep us firmly anchored in the "human" sub-plots and so the movie never descends to level of simple geek show.

Yes, yes, yes, Kingdom of the Spiders is an old, cheap B-movie, but it's a wondrous, terrifying, and wholly charming one. The film's coda (featuring an atrocious matte-painting) packs a gut-punch wallop too, despite the weak visual presentation because -- again -- you've honestly come to care about Rack and the others.

I know it's probably just me, but I cannot help but to fall in love (and stay in love...) with a horror movie about killer spiders that has the audacity to open with a yearning country ballad called "Peaceful Verde Valley." Composed and performed by Dorsey Burnette, this song asks us (in the lyrics) "What will tomorrow bring?" and then provides a multiple choice answer.

A.) Will it (tomorrow) "bring the love we need to last forever more?"

or

B.) Will it bring "the unknown that we've never seen before?"
Since this is a horror movie, you'd be tempted to choose "B," of course.

But the amazing thing about Kingdom of the Spiders is that because it focuses so much on its characters and their humanity in a crisis, the right answer is actually: C.) this movie brings the love and the unknown.

How unexpected, and how wonderful is that?

ACRL Likes The Encyclopedia of Superheroes On Film and Television

Money quote from Association of College and Research Libraries review of my Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television 2nd Edition:

"Muir (the author of Horror Films of the 1970s and Horror Films of the 1980s) is at his best in analyzing trends and critiquing plots, and he pulls no superpunches in his reviews: “Ghost Rider is one of those movies in which you know the next bad line even before it’s spoken.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958)

Apparently, Mars isn't the only planet that needs women.

Nope, aliens from Andromeda ("half way across the universe") are here on Earth, stealing our most precious natural resource -- our females! -- right out from under our oblivious noses.


That's the nightmarish premise of I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), a disturbing Eisenhower-era cautionary tale of marital emotional alienation. On the surface, it's a sci-fi chiller cloaked in genre conventions such as flying saucers, disintegration-rays and shape-shifting alien invaders, but the sub-text is all human.

Written by Louis Vittes and directed by Gene Fowler, Jr., I Married a Monster from Outer Space dramatizes in noir-ish black-and-the-white the sense of horror experienced by young bride-to-be, Marge (Gloria Talbott), when the man she fell in love with, Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon), is replaced by the man she actually marries: an emotionally-distant, extra-terrestrial doppelganger.

This insidious replacement occurs on the night before the wedding. The real Bill spends the evening partying with his marriage-fearing buddies at a local diner. They unleash a torrent of bad jokes about marriage and conclude the only answer to the misery it causes for men is likely "mass suicide."

Bill unwittingly discovers his own escape route from wedded bliss when -- on a late-night drive around a nearby lake -- he experiences a close encounter of the worst kind. He's unexpectedly intercepted by methane-breathing alien invaders. After he is touched by one monstrous alien creature, Bill is enveloped in creepy black smoke (a good 1950s-style effect...) and an interloper takes his place...and steals his life.

The wedding ceremony goes on as planned the next day, but Marge has an unpleasant surprise in store for her on the honeymoon. Bill -- who so assiduously and romantically courted her before their nuptials -- now seems bored, lethargic and uninterested. He isn't even interested in small talk.

"Why do we have to talk?" the doppelganger husband asks Marge before bed time, already bored.

Following the honeymoon debacle, Marge writes a letter to her mom revealing that "Bill isn't the man" she fell in love with and that he's "almost a stranger..."

On Bill's birthday a year later, Marge buys him a present -- a little puppy -- and Bill relegates the new pet to the basement...where he promptly strangles it. Understandably, Marge is disturbed by this anti-social behavior, but she has an agenda too. "We've been married a year..." she tells Bill, and they still haven't had children. Again, Bill's feelings about the matter seem...impenetrable.

Marge grows ever more desperate about her domestic prison and soon learns conclusively that an alien is inhabiting her husband's body. Marge confides in various (male) authority figures, but all the men in her life (including the police chief...) are already alien doppelganger, and therefore entirely unsympathetic to her pleas.

Finally, Marge is able to enlist the help of her family doctor (Ken Lynch), who comes to believe the specifics of her crazy story. With several new fathers-to-be in tow (men who are clearly human beings, because the "alien" men can't yet successfully reproduce...), Marge and the doctor attack the alien spaceship. The Earth mission "fails" and the aliens decide to continue on to "another galaxy." Bill and all the other men once replaced by aliens are freed from enslavement on the spaceship and return to lead happy lives with their wives and girlfriends...

Despite its unfortunately exploitation-style title, I Married a Monster From Outer Space succeeds as a horror film because what it actually concerns is us; not "them" (the aliens). Indeed, the film offers some subversive commentary about the very nature of men and women in that time (and perhaps even more universally).

Although the alien invasion plot specifics clearly reflect the fear and excitement involved in the rapidly emerging space race of the late 1950s (Russia had launched Sputnik and Sputnik 2 in late 1957...), more earthbound matters dominate I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

The late 1950s, for instance, represented the the cusp of second-wave feminism in America, as many women began to see their status in society as unfairly secondary -- and needlessly subservient -- to men. A whole new world would open up soon with the availability of the birth control pill in 1961, but in the late 1950s women depended entirely on men for economic stability and had few opportunities in terms of career advancement and placement.

You can see this notion implicitly played out in I Married a Monster From Outer Space as Marge ping-pongs from male authority figure to male authority figure, desperate for someone -- anyone -- to listen to her fear that something is deeply wrong with her husband. However, the men in her life -- all aliens -- are more interested in preserving the status quo than in helping Marge achieve marital independence. They listen politely to her ramblings about Bill, but when Marge threatens to step outside her assigned purpose/role in the invasion, she is threatened with the possibility of psychiatric incarceration. Warning to women: accept your lot.

Every possible method of communication with society-at-large in the film is controlled by aliens (again, read: men). The phone-lines to Washington D.C. are always busy, and Marge can't get a warning telegram out of her town (Morrisville) to the FBI because the male worker at the telegram office crumples up her message and throws it in the garbage before her very eyes. Marge can't even leave the city because there's a police roadblock. Escape -- like divorce -- is literally not an option. All avenues are closed to Marge. The aliens -- the men -- control absolutely everything.

When Bill won't talk to her; when Marge can't understand why something has made Bill change into a cold fish, she is understandably depressed. But when society refuses to listen to her fears, Marge feels isolated, powerless. When she can't fulfill the role society expects of her (child-bearer), Marge feels unworthy too. Her life truly seems to be a trap designed to prevent Marge from ever really attaining true happiness or self-confidence.

The creepiest and most disturbing scene in I Married a Monster from Outer Space is directly related to the dominant 1950s view of a woman's "proper" role in decent American society. The scene involves a hooker named Francine, who, late one night, decides to approach a prospective, anonymous John on a street corner.

The camera depicts this strange man from the rear, obscuring his features, as Francine approaches and solicits him for sex. We see only that the man is wearing a slicker with a hood, and we can't make out his face. But he steadfastly ignores Francine's entreaties and seems mesmerized by an object in a storefront window display. It's a baby doll.

When approached by the hooker -- a woman expressing sexuality for purposes other than reproduction -- the man turns to the camera to reveal that he is a horrifying alien invader. He promptly fires his ray gun at Francine and shoots her in the back, disintegrating her. Then, as if nothing happened, the alien male returns his gaze to the object that so consumes and fascinates him: the baby doll.

This scene is pretty clearly a statement on both the alien patriarchy of Andromeda and the American one of the 1950s; how men exerted control over a woman's life, sexuality and reproduction, even meting out punishment to those who transgressed.

As for the men in I Married a Monster From Outer Space, they are portrayed in a pretty ruthless fashion. Sam, Bill's friend, is depicted as an alcoholic louse, one who has kept his desperate fiancee on the hook for years without proposing. Not until he is an inhuman alien invader does Sam decide to marry her. Bill's other friends are all cynics who whine and complain about marriage and women. When one friend complains that he hasn't seen the married Bill in a year, he notes: "even coal miners get time off..."

Of course, Bill is an alien, but the way the story is structured, he loses his romantic "interest" in Marge almost immediately after the wedding. Preceding his statement to Marge that they "don't need to talk," Bill is made to feel small when -- of all things -- Marge criticizes his driving ability (reminding him to turn the headlights on; and showing him where the headlight controls are on the dashboard...).

In fact, one might even suggest that Bill is depicted in the film as something less than, um...fully "manly." When alienated from Marge, he notes wimpily that "there's always the guest room." More significantly, Marge fears that something has "crept" inside Bill, a description of the alien replacement procedure that certainly hints that Bill is in some way rendered feminine or even homosexual.

The longer he is an alien, the more Bill talks about emotions and feelings. "Along with these bodies, we inherited other things. Human desire. Emotions," he states. Even as he dies, the best this alien can muster is "I've just begun to learn..."


By contrast, The film's climax involves real armed men (those plucked from a hospital maternity ward; those who have just fathered children!) attacking the alien spaceship under Marge's direction. You might interpret this scene as a re-establishment of heterosexuality or patriarchy, but in this case, I see a different, more liberated answer: the men have been roused from inaction and lassitude by a woman; by Marge. In getting them to finally act decisively, Marge has at last achieved the power she had been denied as Bill's wife. The human "Bill" is likely to find that, after a year married to an alien, his new wife (now no longer a virgin, by the way...) is a bit more head strong and assertive.

I Married A Monster From Outer Space may not quite be in the class of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but it's certainly darn close. There are some odd scientific quirks, for example, that mitigate the movie's success. The aliens breathe methane and die from exposure to oxygen. Given that limitation, they certainly picked the wrong planet to invade, no? Also, we see dramatic example of the fact that the aliens can't recognize each other when "wearing" human forms. That sure makes an invasion difficult too; if the invaders don't even know who is on their side. In various incarnations of Body Snatchers, the aliens always knew who was in the club, so-to-speak.

Still, I Married a Monster From Outer Space showcases some terrific visuals. The aforementioned scene at the storefront with the baby doll is pure nightmare fodder, and occasionally director Fowler conjures up other unsettling imagery too. When the unlucky dog is strangled, for instance, Fowler cuts to a point-of-view subjective shot from the puppy's perspective, so it feels like we're being strangled as Bill's groping, alien hands reach out to encircle us. And, from time to time, the Bill doppelganger happens by a table lamp and is illuminated entirely from below. This lighting technique casts long shadows up across his face, and serve as a reminder of his alien nature.

But I Married A Monster From Outer Space is most worthwhile for the things it expresses about the occasionally strained relationship between married men and women. Perhaps marriage does encourage "alienation," and a woman can't just blindly stand by her man.

Or by her alien...

Majel Barrett Roddenberry (1932 - 2008)

The First Lady of Star Trek has passed away.

The AP is now reporting that Majel Barrett Roddenberry died yesterday, on December 18, 2008, at 76.

In the universe of Star Trek (1966-1968), Ms. Roddenberry portrayed Nurse Christine Chapel, Dr. McCoy's assistant in sick bay and a human Starfleet officer who fell in love with the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock.

Some of Ms. Roddenberry's most prominent performances came early in first season Star Trek episodes such as "The Naked Time" and "What Are Little Girls Made Of." Roddenberry reprised the character for the Filmation animated Star Trek series of the early 1970s (along with an alien communications officer named M'Ress) and in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994), Ms. Roddenberry portrayed Counselor Troi's Betazoid mother, Lwaxana, in a handful of episodes including "Haven," and "Menage-a-Troi." She played the same part in an early first season episode of Deep Space Nine.

Throughout various incarnations of Trek -- including the upcoming Abrams film -- Ms. Roddenberry also gave memorable voice to the Enterprise's computer.

Between Treks, Mrs. Roddenberry had supporting roles in the pilots created by her husband, Gene Roddenberry, including Genesis II, The Questor Tapes and Spectre. Outside of Star Trek, she guested on such genre programs as The Next Step Beyond (1978) and Babylon 5 (1993-1998). She also appeared in sci-fi films including Westworld (1972).

On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Mrs. Roddenberry in the year 2000, when she was planning an animated Roddenberry/Stan Lee collaboration entitled Starship. We also discussed Star Trek: The Animated Series for a "vintage vision" article for the now-defunct Cinescape, and the possibility of 21st century revivals of both Genesis II and Spectre.

My memory from that interview is of a charming person -- one at ease with herself -- who answered all my questions with humor, wit and grace.

My deepest condolences go out to Mrs. Roddenberry's son, Eugene, to whom the "Great Bird of the Galaxy" torch is now passed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 66: The Lone Gunmen: "Pilot" (2001)

An old proverb reminds us that truth can be stranger than fiction. Where genre television is concerned, however that line is occasionally blurred. The truth…is sometimes – shall we say? - …Out There.

Case in point: the Chris Carter X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen (2001). This series aired on Fox TV for a dozen or so hour-long episodes at the beginning of 2001. Cancellation came quickly, though the series is currently available on DVD.

Interestingly, however, one particular episode of The Lone Gunmen has not only endured...but become the stuff of legend, not to mention notorious conspiracy fodder.

The pilot episode -- written by Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz (and directed by Rob Bowman) -- aired originally on March 4, 2001.

This was mere months after the Supreme Court called the contested presidential election of 2000 for George W. Bush. The United States of America had a new president, but the country was still very much in the Peace and Prosperity Age of Clinton. We had no idea what lay ahead in the twenty-first century.

The inaugural episode of The Lone Gunmen unfolds pretty much as you might expect and hope, given the series' premise and quirky dramatis personae. Our heroes are Fox Mulder’s old buddies: the (relatively hapless…) trio of computer geeks-cum-editors at a Maryland-based conspiracy-theory newspaper called The Lone Gunman (latest headline: Teletubbies = Mind Control!). We first join these unconventional heroes in media res, during a covert op in progress.

Specifically, our triumvirate of protagonists crashes a ritzy party at E-Comm Con (remember the tech bubble of the late 1990s?). Their mission: to steal the new, ultra-fast Octium IV micro-chip, a technological advancement which the Lone Gunmen –- Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood) and Langley (Dean Haglund) -- believe is actually designed to invade user privacy and collect personal information. The Lone Gunmen want to examine the chip so they can pen an expose in their newspaper; one featuring cold, hard evidence of their accusations.

But remember, these guys – once the comic relief on the X-Files are not traditional TV heroes, either in appearance or skill set. They are closer in spirit, actually, to the original Kolchak than to the hyper-competent Mulder, Scully, or Frank Black. Their hearts are in the right place but...

...they make mistakes, bungles and foul-ups. However, after a funny riff on Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) involving the diminutive Frohike on a harness, the pilot episode unexpectedly turns serious. The E Comm Con caper fails and another thief – the enigmatic but beautiful Eve Adele Harlow (her name is an anagram for Lee Harvey Oswald) – steals the chip out from under the Gunmen’s noses.

This mission failure is followed by another bombshell. Conservative, buttoned-up Lone Gunman, John Fitzgerald Byers learns that his father, a high-ranking government official, has been assassinated because of his highly-classified work at the Department of Defense.

Much of the pilot episode involves Byers, Frohike and Langly helping another government official, Mr. Helm (code-named Overlord…) prove that Old Man Byers (George Coe) is actually still alive and in hiding…afraid the government will send a second assassin after him.

What’s Mr. Byers secret? The one that a “small faction” inside the federal government would commit murder to protect? Well, my friends, that’s where the controversy, notoriety – and conspiracy – comes in. Mr. Byers is privy to information about a Department of Defense counter-terrorism war game known as...Scenario D 12.

This particular military scenario involves a “Domestic Airline In-Flight Terrorist Act.”

Unfortunately, Scenario D 12 is no longer a game, as Byers learns directly from his father. No, it is horrifyingly real. A small faction inside the U.S. Government plans to utilize a remote control device to hijack an American airliner in-flight and crash it into a heavily populated urban area. The cover for this false flag operation will be a hijacking, a terrorist take-over of the plane.

Why would anyone want to commit such a horrible act?

Here’s what Mr. Byers tells his son. This is a direct quote from the episode, by the way:

“The Cold War is over, John, but with no clear enemy to stockpile against, the arms business is flat.

But bring down a fully-loaded 727 into the middle of New York City and you’ll find a dozen tin-pot dictators all over the world just clamoring to take responsibility, and begging to be smart bombed
.”

Byers and his father board a jet bound for Boston; the very one that will be used as a flying bomb over New York City. The exact target in Manhattan: The World Trade Center.

The final act of this Lone Gunmen pilot involves Byers aboard the imperiled plane -- and Frohike and Langley on the ground -- trying to avert the collision between plane and skyscraper and in the process rescue the 110 souls aboard the flight. At the last instant, we see the jet-liner veer up and away from the Twin Towers. Disaster -- and tragedy -- averted.

As everybody now knows all too well, a scarce seven months later, on September 11, 2001, two “fully loaded” domestic airliners did strike New York City and the Twin Towers. In the aftermath, at least one “tin-pot” terrorist claimed responsibility (Bin Laden) and another, Saddam Hussein, was – I guess – just “begging to be smart bombed.” We obliged him in 2003.

After that horrific Tuesday in September, arms sales boomed too, just as The Lone Gunmen predicted they would in the event of such a disaster. According to the Center for Defense Information, in 2006 alone, the U.S. was responsible for 16.9 billion dollars in international arms deals, over 41 percent of all arm sales globally.

After 9/11, our government disavowed any advance knowledge of these horrible terrorist attacks. "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center" said national security advisor Condoleezza Rice at a White House Briefing on the afternoon. May 16, 2002.

Really?

The Lone Gunmen TV series predicted the exact thing. On national television (with viewers ostensibly in the tens of millions...). And it did so six months before the attack occurred.

And here I thought everyone in the Bush Administration had to keep their TV sets tuned to Fox at all times...


But isn't it strange -- not to mention creepy as hell -- that The Lone Gunmen, a series about crazy conspiracy theories, by-and-large "guessed" the precise nature of the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history? It accurately guessed about the use of planes as weapons; plus it pointed out the target state, city and actual buildings. The episode even got the aftermath right: war against tin-pot dictators, using our expensive smart bombs as "shock and awe."

More than that, however, this Lone Gunmen episode anticipated the "conspiracy response" to 9/11 that has also arisen in the wake of the attacks. Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. A certain percentage (36%?) of American citizens don't believe the official story (Al Qaeda hijackers) and instead maintain that the government orchestrated the attacks. Indeed, this is Lone Gunmen's pre-event "explanation" of such an attack.

It's eerie and disturbing to contemplate all this. Yet, this isn't the first time that fact and imagination have mingled uncomfortably surrounding a global tragedy. To wit, in 1898, a writer named Morgan Robertson wrote a novel entitled Futility. The plot concerned the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner ever built. On an April night, this fictitious vessel struck an iceberg. And -- because there were not enough lifeboats aboard -- more than one thousand passengers died in freezing waters. The name of the ship in that novel Futility is...Titan.

So, fourteen years before the Titanic disaster in 1912, author Robertson imagined a disaster at sea that would indeed come to pass. Consider some of the eerie similarities there. Titan was 70,000 tons in Futility; the Titanic 66,000 tons. Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic 882 feet. The top sailing speed of both fictitious and real ocean liner was 25 knots. And even more bizarrely, both Futility's Titan and the real life Titanic were described with one memorable adjective: unsinkable. Both ships -- real and fictional -- struck icebergs and sank in the month of April.

The paranormal anthology One Step Beyond (1959-1961) dramatized a story based on this Titanic mystery titled "Night of April 14," in 1959, and I researched the story for my book. To my fascination, I found it authentic.

So, are writers such as Morgan Robertson and TV programs such as The Lone Gunmen just lucky (or unlucky...) guessers about terrible things, or is what we have here some strange form of synchronicity: some form of intuitive "knowing" divined subconsciously or unconsciously?

Submitted for your approval, from The Twilight Zone, perhaps. But seriously, rent The Lone Gunmen from Netflix and watch this pilot episode. But prepare yourself. It's a sharp, scary, well-crafted piece of TV fiction; and one that *happens* to have a very disturbing relationship with our "real" history.