Saturday, December 13, 2008

Frank Black Speaks...

Over at Back To Frank Black, a blog dedicated to the resurrection of Millennium (1996-1999) in movie format, there's a new, in-depth interview posted with Lance Henriksen, star of the much-missed Chris Carter series.

The first part of the interview covers everything from the real-life basis for the character of Frank Black, to the radical changes in Millennium's second season, to the debate about whether Frank Black's gift is psychic in origin, or something else entirely.

After the holidays, I'll be returning to the fascinating world of Millennium with some in-depth posts on several of my favorite episodes (from all three seasons...), so this interview is a good primer to help understand the series protagonist and where he comes from. Good stuff.

The Weekend The Box Office Stood Still?

The re-imaginaton of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) is playing in theatres around the country right now, so it seems an opportune time to remember (at least in brief) the landmark original Robert Wise production.

Here's saucer movie scholar and reference book author Paul Meehan with a good brief on the 1951 version:

"The Day The Earth Stood Still is a modern day passion play, with Klaatu playing Christ and Gort (read: God) playing angry Jehovah of the Old Testament. Klaatu dies and is reborn to save the world from the wrath of God with his compassion, after which he ascends into the heavens...

...A feeling of genuine religious awe pervades the film, a sense of apocalyptic miracles in the age of science...

...Politically the film reflects director Wise's liberal concerns about nuclear disarmament, but many critics have pointed out the notion of a society policed and controlled by inhuman robots seems alarmingly fascist."

- Saucer Movies: A UFOlogical History of the Cinema (Scarecrow Press, 1998), pages 46-47.

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK #82: McDonalds' Space Raiders (Diener Ind.; 1979-1980)

Waaaay back In the late 1970s, Diener Ind. and McDonalds teamed up for the occasion of the newly released Happy Meal feature at the restaurant.

In particular, in 1979-1980, Diener produced a variety of two-inch figures that would be sold in the cardboard H.M. boxes along with the burgers and fries.

A variety of figurine sets from Deiner were produced. There were McDonalds figures (like Mayor McCheese and Ronald McDonald...), Space Creatures (which included a Ymir, an Outer Limits alien and the alien from I Married a Monster From Outer Space [1958]...), not to mention sets of both jungle and undersea animals.

But as a kid, I collected the "Space Raiders" line obsessively.

In particular, I remember collecting these figurines during a family cross-country van trip from New Jersey to California (and back...) when I was nine years old.

Back in those days, a visit to McDonalds was a big (and rare...) treat, and my older sister and I would beg my parents to let us stop there so we could get Happy Meals...and collect these figures. More often than not, our parents indulged us.

These little toys were of paramount importance to me as a youngster that summer, because I had very few toys with me on the cross-country trip. As I said, we were traveling by van, and space was at a premium. Which meant -- for me -- very few action figures and almost no spaceships. These Space Raiders toys offered a whole new world of adventure, and they were small and compact.

The 2-inch Space Raiders figurines came in orange, pink, yellow, blue, green and brown. There was a whole array of characters and ships in the set. They were all made of a very soft but relatively durable rubber (and they could double as erasers, actually, should you get mad at them).

The characters in the line were ZAMA (a robot who resembles a cross between the Lost In Space B9 robot and R2-D2), BRAK (a creature who looks like the Metalunan Mutant from This Island Earth), DARD (a Darth Vader knock-off), and the angry-appearing HORTA.

Going back to my childhood, we had all of these characters, but I played with a blue ZAMA and my sister adopted a pink HORTA. Our brown DARD was sort of the universal bad guy, and I can't remember how BRAK fit in the mix.

Of the ships, there was a Forbidden Planet-style flying saucer called LYRA-4. We had a green one, I recall, and at some point, needed a replacement for it because the first one developed a fracture. But there were other spaceships too, including the rocketship ALTAIR.

Not pictured here -- though I recall that we had them -- were the KRYGO-5 (a sort of space shuttle design) and another ship...which I don't remember at all except it was shaped like a cigar and featured a dorsal booster.

As a kid in the seventies, I got a lot of mileage out of these figurines. Today I wonder how many other Generation X'ers remember looking forward to new Space Raiders inside McDonalds Happy Meals.

For more information on the Diener Ind.'s 1970s Space Raiders collection, check out Light Years to Yesteryear.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Reminder: Muir on Destinies at 11:30 pm Tonight

Don't forget! I'm on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction tonight with ace interviewer and program host Dr. Howard Margolin to discuss the second edition of my award-winning reference book, The Encyclopedia Of Superheroes On Film And Television

I'll be discussing my lists for best and worst (and most influential) superhero films and television programs of the last fifty-seven years, so it's going to be great fun. This is my tenth appearance on Destinies since the year 2001, and it's always a great pleasure to be there.

The live interview airs at 11:30 pm, for all you night owls. You can listen in
right here.

Join us, won't you?

I Still Believe A Man Can Fly: Superman: The Movie Thirty Years Later

Thirty years ago this very weekend, Superman: The Movie (1978) premiered in movie theaters around the United States. And by my reckoning, this Richard Donner effort (starring the late, great Christopher Reeve) remains the finest superhero movie ever produced.

Hold the brickbats....

I realize that the intervening three decades have brought us Batman (1989), X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), Batman Begins (2005), Iron Man (2008), and even the world-wide box office and critical phenomenon, The Dark Knight (2008).

Yet I still select Superman: The Movie as tops.

And I do so with my eyes wide open.

Superman: The Movie is a film of extraordinary heart, terrific special effects and soaring characterizations. Thanks to a unique three-part narrative structure, it boasts an epic sweep unmatched in the genre. And -- perhaps most rewarding of all -- it is confident enough in its own virtues (and the Man of Steel's virtues...) that it need not prove itself by being humorless, mean, loud, angry or relentlessly cynical and downcast.

So many modern superhero films compulsively (and pathologically) express the need to be "dark" for no other reason than because it is "cool" and "hip" with modern audiences. Superman: The Movie doesn't succumb to that trend.

Instead, Superman: The Movie lyrically captures the mythic, spiritual nature of the long-lived Superman legend. To re-cap: Jor-El (Marlon Brando), an Elder God-figure, sends his only son (a Jesus Christ surrogate...) to Earth to walk (and fly...) amongst humanity. Immaculate white and gleaming, Krypton is a visualization of an extra-terrestrial "Heaven," a world far in advance of our own. But just as Heaven faced an insurrection in the form of Lucifer, so does Krypton quell an insurrectionist named who is cast to a Hell-like dimension (The Phantom Zone) for his crimes. This religious-seeming pre-amble sets up the battle between Zod and Jor-El's heir -- a Biblical Armageddon of sorts -- in Superman II (1981). In that film, Superman is "even" tempted (like Christ) by human love for a time...

Superman: The Movie opens with several majestic scenes on otherworldly Krypton and then shifts tonally and visually when it arrives in Kansas. Here, the film transitions to a Norman Rockwell-like glimpse of American Midwestern life in the gentler, simpler 1950s.

Geoffrey Unsworth's stately camera artfully captures many remarkable natural vistas, focusing on sprawling wheat fields, traditional farmhouses and those wide-open American skies of radiant blue. These scenes purposefully contrast with those set on Krypton (which represented cold intellect as opposed to warm human heart...). This is important because the Kryptonians ultimately lost their world because of intellectual arrogance. Clark cannot let the same fate befall his adopted home world.

These moments set in picturesque Smallville also capture the virtues and wonders of Americana, ushering in quiet, family moments that most superhero films eschew in favor of action, violence and vengeance. Witness, for instance, the moment when Clark must say goodbye to his widowed mother. No bells and whistles here...just real human emotions.

And these scenes serve another important purpose: they reveal Clark Kent's training and instruction in the "American way." He is an immigrant, after all, and this is where his cultural assimilation the wheat fields of Smallville. The values he learns here he ultimately takes to urban Metropolis.

From Smallville, Superman: The Movie shifts to the fast-moving, morally-relative post-Watergate world of the 1970s, There it very quickly becomes a satirical commentary on then-contemporary America. For instance, when interviewed for the Daily Planet, Superman declares to Lois Lane (Margot Kidder): "I'll never lie to you."

That's a direct quote from then-President Jimmy Carter, who spoke identical words to a scandal-weary American populace in 1976. As a nation, we were disappointed with our elected leadership and were searching for a "new hope." As a people, we no longer believed that a man could fly, metaphorically-speaking. Hell, we didn't even believe that our leaders were "good" or "honest." The public faith was broken. But Superman was the real deal...the genuine article. Not only was he good...he brought out the best in the people around him.

Lois Lane, as portrayed by Margot Kidder, proves a perfect sparring partner for Superman and Clark in Superman: The Movie because she is so deliberately "of" this fast-moving, cynical culture in a way he is not and can never be. And yet...importantly...Lois is still absolutely taken with Superman. Because, I believe, all of us - no matter how jaded - still want to believe in "truth, justice and the American way."

Christopher Reeves' Superman is the ultimate fish-out-of-water: a principled man living in an unprincipled time. Yet despite this fact, he commits himself to being the savior of this tough, cynical world. A world that some might say doesn't even deserve Superman. This Man of Steel also reveals that it is not a weakness to be gentle; not a character flaw to be kind or honest. A real hero doesn't need to swagger or be a misanthropic "loner."

Instead, this is a visitor who is amused and puzzled by mankind. He can be strong and idealistic. He can be sincere without being a wimp. Accordingly the crises featured in Superman: The Movie are authentically human rather than special effects spectaculars. Over the course of the film, Clark loses two fathers (Jor-El and Jonathan Kent), bids farewell to his Mother, searches for the purpose of his life in the Fortress of Solitude, falls in love with a flawed "modern" human being (Lois) and embraces the stated traditional principles of his adopted country. When he violates Jor-El's "non-interference" directive during the film's climax and turns back time to rescue Lois, Superman proves he is no longer a child of cold, emotionless Krypton ...but a real child of America; of Earth. It's a great character-arc.

I should also note that this Superman isn't "darkly" obsessed with the death of his parents, nor motivated entirely by ugly emotions like "revenge." He is not a vigilante who believes the ends justify the means. Because of these qualities, this Superman represents true heroism...something for everyone to aim for; not something merely to settle for because the world happens to be an ugly place.

Perhaps this description sounds ultra-corny to a generation weaned in "The Dark Age" of superhero epics, but so be it. The three-part structure of Superman: The Movie renders it something much greater than your average superhero origin tale; something more profound than a clash with a brutish villain (Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor). Instead, Superman: The Movie is the epic life story of a hero, one as apt to focus on what a man will do in the name of love as what he will do in the name of hate.

These values may not represent the dominant values of today. Either culturally or cinematically. I'm entirely aware of that. But if they are still your values, Superman: The Movie remains a glorious production, a supreme entertainment, the cream of the superhero crop.

I'll be discussing Superman: The Movie's thirtieth anniversary, as well as the second edition of my award-winning book, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction tonight at 11:30 pm. You can tune in here.

As always, I have a lot to say on this subject...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Day After Tomorrow (1975)

NBC aired this obscure genre pilot in prime time as a so-called “Special Treat” in November of 1975, even as Year One of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series Space:1999 (1975-1977) was being broadcast in syndication around the country.

Today, it’s easy to tag The Day After Tomorrow (or Into Infinity, an alternate title) as an Anderson production circa the mid-1970s. The special effects by Brian Johnson are top-notch for the era, the camera-work (by veteran Frank Watts) is nothing short of stunning, and the script by the late poet Johnny Byrne captures the mystery and awe of outer space (not to mention the human experience...) in a powerful, even lyrical fashion.

However, The Day After Tomorrow also serves as a rather interesting production “bridge” between Year One and Year Two of Space:1999. The hard-hitting, hard-driving musical score is from the late Derek Wadsworth, who contributed the themes for Year Two. And overall the production is a little more colorful (less minimalist…) in color and costume than 1999’s sterling Year One.

Some props, miniatures and sets also look familiar from Space:1999 Year One. Namely the “bridge” of the main ship, Altares, closely resembles like the bridge of the Ultra Probe from the episode entitled “Dragon’s Domain.” Other props -- the colorful computer panels, for instance -- appear to have been utilized extensively during Year Two. Even the sound effects are familiar to those who know 1999 well.

So what we have in the 60-minute pilot The Day After Tomorrow is essentially a hybrid: a Year One style “awe and mystery of space” narrative, but one conveyed in the more colorful-looking/sounding Year Two fashion, if that makes sense.

The Day After Tomorrow commences in the near future at Space Station Delta (a re-dressed Darian space ark from the 1999 episode “Mission of the Darians.”) Delta serves as a “jumping off point” for destinations beyond Earth’s solar system.

A UN shuttle docks with the station, one carrying the crew of the first “light ship,” Altares to their new berth. The Altares crew consists of Captain Harry Masters (1999’s Nick Tate), chief scientist Tom Bowen (Brian Blessed), and his wife Anna, the ship’s doctor (Joanna Dunham).

Uniquely, Harry’s teenage daughter Jane (Katherine Levy) and the pre-adolescent Bowen boy, David (Martin Lev) are also full-blown crew-members on Altares. This is because of Einstein’s “time dilation” theory.

Since the Altares’ main engine has harnessed the “power of the photon,” it can travel at light speed., meaning that time will pass normally for the crew, even as decades – nay centuries – pass for people living back on Earth. In such an environment, parents would be younger than their children on the event of a return trip. Which would be weird...

The family that explores space together, stays together.

After a pre-launch countdown that includes a check for “human stress factors,” the Altares departs Space Station Delta bound for Alpha Centauri. Despite experiencing incredibly g-force stress during the voyage, the crew survives the acceleration to light speed (while noting such phenomena as meteorite showers and a Doppler shift).

The crew votes to continue forward into the great beyond after reaching Alpha Centauri. Upon re-activation, however, the photon engine breaks down, stranding the Altares in the gravitational pull of a Red Sun that is experiencing “an abnormal expansion rate.” In other words, it’s about to go supernova.

Over Jane’s objections, Harry undertakes a dangerous mission in the reactor room to repair the photon drive. He succeeds just in the nick of time, but soon after there is even more danger. The Altares is pulled into a rotating black hole and hurled into a “new universe.”

I’d like to report that there’s more to the story of the Altares than that, but there isn’t. It sure would have been nice to see a regular TV series pick up where the pilot leaves off (with the crew exploring a new solar system…) but alas, this was the last we heard of Captain Masters and his team. Maybe they ran into the crew of the Palomino?

All kidding aside, this straight-shooting Gerry Anderson pilot represents a sort of high-tech, science-minded update of the whole Lost in Space format: a ship lost in the interstellar sea, her crew…a family (or families), trying to survive and stick together.

Only here there’s no Dr. Smith or Robot (not even Brian the Brain...) around making trouble.

Even after thirty-three years, The Day After Tomorrow makes for a claustrophobic, action-packed hour, with almost all the action occurring inside the compact quarters of the Altares (think of a 1999 Eagle, basically…).

All of the incidents encountered by the crew have a solid basis in real science, per the network, because the program was intended to be “educational” and for children. But, in typical Anderson (and typical Byrne) fashion, matters tend still toward the mind-blowing, the trippy, the amazing.

For instance, the climactic trip through the black hole is a psychedelic, Kubrickian wonder, a montage dominated by double images, slow-motion photography and the use of a creepy distortion lens. Pretty powerful stuff for a kid’s show. As the script notes, “it’s a universe not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.”

The writing voice of humanitarian and historian Johnny Byrne is present here in other ways too. A voice-over narration (provided by UFO’s Ed Bishop), for instance, comments on what future Earth is like:

“They came from a world where natural resources have been squandered, where pollution and the haphazard destruction of the environment has put the future of humanity in jeopardy.”

Yet despite such a trouble-prone world, the characters in The Day After Tomorrow are still very human; and – as is the case in Space:1999 – there seems to be an underlying aura of Apollo-Age optimism about the future of man and the future of the space program.

In series' like Space:1999 and The Day After Tomorrow it goes without question that man will create spaceships and voyage to other worlds. Of course there will be trouble and accidents along the way, but the stars are always our destination.

The trained space-men of these productions don’ know what they’ll countenance in space, how to interpret it, or even how they’ll survive it, but they grit their teeth and get through it all without histrionics. “Nobody knows what it’s like to travel through a black hole…so don’t panic,” barks one astronaut in The Day After Tomorrow.

As a life-long admirer of Space:1999 (not to mention Anderson productions such as UFO and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), I enjoyed The Day After Tomorrow for what it is: a time-capsule of once state-of-the--art science fiction. The whole production brought me right back to the mid-1970s. That was a time when we knew – we just knew – that interplanetary space travel was around the next corner.

Like Space:1999, The Day After Tomorrow makes that eventuality seem exciting, a bit scary and very, very believable.

In 1977, Star Wars introduced Wookies, Banthas, droids, laser swords and a swashbuckling, fairy tale sweep to the genre of space adventuring...for better or for worse. Focus on science evaporated and science fiction films and TV series’ went in a new, more fantasy-oriented direction. More action-packed/less mind-blowing. More thrilling/less psychedelic. More imaginative in one sense, perhaps…

…and ultimately less “real.”

But even today – every now and then – I miss the moog music, the unisex costumes, the intricate miniatures (and utilitarian, modular space craft design…) as well as the trippy sojourns into realms of Inner/Outer Space offered by productions like Space:1999 and The Day After Tomorrow.

I guess I’m just the Seventies Space Kid at heart.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue... NOW!

It's here! It's Alive!

Writer/producer Joseph Maddrey (Survive This! A Haunting, The House Between) teases his upcoming 2009 documentary on a century of American horror films over at the movie's new
web site

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film
is Joe's labor of love, a feature-length work adapted from his 2004 reference book of the same name (which I reviewed here before I knew Joe very well, or had worked with him.)

Over the months, I've kept up with Joe's progress as he conducted a variety of interviews with horror movie legends including John Carpenter, George Romero, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, Mick Garris, Tom McLoughlin and more.

The documentary is narrated by Millennium's Lance Henriksen, who does a terrific job. I was fortunate enough to receive a screening copy of the film a few weeks ago, and actually -- in my humble opinion -- this is one of the best documentary on horror films yet made.

I'm not just saying that because I happen to know and like Joe, or because I was able to give him a hand on the project here and there (most notably with my extensive archive of film photographs...and a few on-screen quotes...), but because it happens to be the truth.

Here's why: most genre docs tend to just hit the "hot" spots -- the famous movies we already know about-- and that's not the case at all here. On the contrary, Joe's documentary is incredibly detailed, and the interviews with the horror luminaries are more than just informative; they go into genuine depth. Joe made a very smart decision early on: he prepared good questions for his interviewees and then let the horror "stars" answer them at length, without interruption. The results speak for themselves.

The decade-by-decade outline of the documentary (carried over from Joe's book), serves the production well. It not only provides context, but gives the interviewees the opportunity to discuss genre films that they love, not just the films they made. There's a funny little section involving George A. Romero discussing the Howard Hawks' version of The Thing, for instance.

In other words, just imagine John Carpenter, Romero, Cohen or Dante giving a lecture about horror movie history...

Anyway, enough of my blabbing. Head on over to the site, and watch the preview, read about the project, check out the links, and so on.

I'm eagerly awaiting the official release on this one...

Model Kit of The Week: Batmobile (AMT/ERTL; 1989)

Do you remember when there was all this crazy hype about a new Batman movie? Oh no wait...that was this summer. But okay, remember when there was all this hype about a new Batman movie...way back in 1989?

That was the year director Tim Burton, and actors Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson revived the franchise for the silver screen, pushing DC's caped crusader into new, heretofore unimaginable "dark knight" territory. The movie's brooding approach was quite a switch from the "campy" style of the 1960s TV series. Batman now wore a black foam-rubber muscle suit, rasped his dialogue like he had a sore throat, and even his Batmobile was different: a kind of film noir retro-futuristic 1940s conveyance.

To celebrate the new film (and make a few bucks), AMT-ERTL released this accurate-to-the-last-detail Batmobile model kit (1/25 scale). Which, of course...I still have. Sure, it's a little bit the worse for wear. But it has been almost twenty years. This "model kit of the week" features:

A removable canopy.

Interior includes: twin bucket seats, multi-handled shift quadrant and aircraft-style instrument panel.

Armament includes fender-mounted removable machine guns and a grappling hook.

Detailed chassis includes: engraved gas turbine and afterburner.

On the side of the box, this nifty model also had featured list of "specifications" for the real thing. The engine type, for instance is "jet turbine." The "thrust" is listed at 1500 lbs at 103% ROS. And the Batmobile can go from 0 to 60 MPH in just 3.7 seconds. Even the fuel requirements are listed: High octane 97% special.

I made you? You made me!

Monday, December 08, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: WALL-E (2008) interesting is this?

An animated film starring cute little robots ends up revealing a tremendous amount about the human condition. That's certainly the case in Wall-E (2008), an inspiring, visually impressive, and even emotionally affecting Pixar summer release.

Wall-E is set seven centuries in the future, on a brown, mostly-lifeless planet Earth that is overrun by mountains of...garbage.

Mankind has vacated his natural home world -- his birth-right -- for a sleek luxury love boat to the stars called Axiom. Aboard this technological marvel, human beings have evolved (or is it de-volved?) into obese, luxury-obsessed creatures. Axiom's passengers hover about endlessly on floating plush chairs while watching ubiquitous television screens. And they are constantly being served an array of fast-food in super-sized cups by subservient bots.

But meanwhile, back on lonely Earth, a utilitarian little robot called Wall-E toils away endlessly at his assigned task; crushing down man's endless trash into small cubes...and stacking those cubes into skyscraper-sized monuments to our species' wastefulness.

Wall-E goes about his duties with a dedicated sense of curiosity. Each object excavated in the refuse is an opportunity not for judgement but for learning; whether it be a fire extinguisher, a Twinkie (still not past its expiration date...), a rubik's cube, a cast-off diamond ring, or even an over-sized bra.

Wall-E's house (a truck bay) is a cluttered testament to 21st century man's disposable culture, a collection of all the cast-off oddities that have struck the inquisitive robot's fancy. On a jerry-rigged screen, Wall-E constantly plays an old movie in which a man and woman fall in love...and celebrate the romance by holding hands. Wall-E even learns the movie's dance moves, utilizing a garbage can lid as a top hat.

The movie musical has struck a powerful chord with Wall-E's, circuit boards. Although he boasts a little insect as friend/pet, the big-eyed machine lacks real companionship. day -- after Wall-E discovers an honest-to-goodness green plant poking out of the strained soil -- a spaceship returns to Earth. A droid named EVE, one assigned to scour the surface for active vegetation, emerges.

This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship...

Can a trash-collecting robot and an elegant droid that is one-part-life-giving Egg and one-part soaring Angel ( colored in immaculate and symbolic white) discover true love together? Can they rescue the human race
the planet Earth? Well, you'll have to find out for yourself...

Suffice it to say that if you ever pondered the notion that the industrious
Star Wars droid R2-D2 deserved his own heroic love story, this is likely the movie for you. Even that description doesn't do the film justice, however. This isn't just a modern-day variation on Heartbeeps (1981), it's something greater

I enjoyed Wall-E for many of its fine qualities. It is a beautifully-realized film in terms of design and animation. It's also extremely funny. But I enjoyed it the most as a film history lover, because in some important sense, it purposefully gazes back at cherished movie history as much as it gazes forward at the "distant future."

I'm not just talking about the significance of the movie musical, either.

in particular, the mostly silent Wall-E robot -- who doesn't speak much in the film, except in Ben Burtt's trademark beeps and whistles -- often comes across as a modern variation of the immortal Charlie Chaplin character, the Little Tramp.

The Tramp, as you may recall, was a solitary figure of great personal dignity...and also a trouble-prone klutz. The movie character became an icon of the Silent Film Age/Depression Era, and he appeared in such films as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush, and Modern Times (1936).

In Modern Times -- a parable about industrialization -- the Tramp worked on an always-accelerating factory assembly line, serving as a cog in the machine. He went about his mindless work dutifully until driven nuts by the escalating pace. Then, by happenstance (he picked up a red flag...), he was mistaken as a communist protester of the very system that created the modern factory in the first place.

Wall-E's futuristic journey isn't entirely different. Once aboard the Axiom -- a ship run entirely by robots -- Wall-E is similarly caught in an inhuman assembly line of sorts, an endless convoy of robots going about their own urgent business. He is tagged not as a Communist protester, of course, but rather as a dangerous "rogue robot" who threatens the establishment. In both situations, the character (either the Tramp or Wall-E...) falls afoul of authority figures, gums up the works entirely, and even finds love: Wall-E with EVE, and the Tramp with the Gamine (Paulette Goddard).

More crucial than these surface similarities, however, are the thematic ones. Chaplin was a famous leftist, of course. And a hard truth about leftists (that most right-wingers don't understand...) is that they too love America and the American dream. They just tend to see it in different terms. Accordingly, Modern Times concerned the concept of a man, a worker, who saw his individuality, personality and destiny controlled and dominated by wealthy capitalists; ones who were primarily concerned with making money, not about assuring worker's dignity or individual rights.

Wall-E is a leftist fantasy too, be assured. And in a very timely, very valuable way. In the future portrayed here, big business has run amok in the form of an out-of-control, unregulated monopoly: the Big Box Store company called Buy-N-Large, which controls everything from banks to gas stations, to superstores, to shipping lanes, to outer space itself.

In this future, big business has merged completely with Big Government (and hey, that fits my happy movie buzz word of the week: fascism!) There is no longer even a President as such. Nope, the planet is ruled by BNL's Global CEO, played impeccably and slickly by the always-impressive Fred Willard.

Buy-N-Large -- which owns everything proceeds to destroy everything. Earth is left a trash heap, cast-aside like a used beer can because of Buy-N-Large's greed and -- by extension -- the luxury-minded shoppers who just wanted cheap prices and fast food. But cheap prices have a high cost, an axiom as true here as it is in life. This is where Wall-E actually takes the next step beyond Modern Times and the Little Tramp.

If we can't hope for big business and corporations to take care of people, how on Earth can we expect that they will take care of the planet? That's the question underlying the action here. By the way, all of this seems even more timely in December 08, as our country slips into recession because Big Business went unpoliced for so long; in Bush's words "got drunk."

Like Chaplin's Tramp, Wall-E goes through a lot of comic shtick and pratfalls during his misadventures. He gets propelled backwards accidentally when he activates a fire extinguisher. He single-handedly wrecks a robot repair shop when he mistakenly believes EVE is endangered. He crawls through a garbage chute. He gets electrocuted. Twice. He even runs into a beached-whale conspicuous consumer, knocking the fat man off his perch (and changing his life forever, actually...)

This is a role the Tramp always fulfilled too: he was the universe's Loki Mechanism, a figure of (mostly-unintentional) mischief who, with a single act, could overturn a flawed establishment. Even Wall-E's final plot point, an importantly-placed kiss, seems to echo some critical aspect of Chaplin's famous film work, namely The Gold Rush's finale (at least before the 1942 re-release...).

Beyond presenting Wall-E as a tramp-like character, a sensitive traveler prone to trouble and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, this stellar Pixar film features dozens of references not merely to film history, but all of man's "kinder and gentler" past.

There's at least one allusion to Alien (1979); another to 2001: A Space Odyssey the latter in a snippet of The Blue Danube. I also caught glimpses of Sputnik and Rubik's Cube. And best of all, there's a tender moment that makes fine use of Louis Armstrong singing La Vie en Rose

The first Great Depression had The Tramp. As we slide towards another, we have Wall-E. I'm okay with that, in part because this is an update of the character with just as much heart and brains.

Ultimately, what Wall-E skillfully reminds us as we go forward is that this: there's a difference between "surviving" and "living." And that even when the task ahead is difficult, the hard work is made bearable by the fact that we can always hold hands with somebody we love.

But first we have to get out of the plush chairs, turn off the TV, exercise...and stop shopping at Wal-Mart. It's funny, but the final line of the vile Wanted (2008) desperately sought to kick us all out of our complacency. Yet that film was so mean, so ugly, so utterly inhuman, mechanical and repugnant that it was impossible to buy into that message.

By contrast, Wall-E -- a movie starring robots -- makes a similar point, but does so with a surfeit of humor, emotion and heart.

Send in the machines...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Horror! The Horror!

Not long ago, one of my favorite blogs, Vault of Horror, produced an excellent (and apparently highly controversial...) list of the Cyber-Horror Elite's' "top" horror films of all time.

Now adding to the fun and list-making is the site, No Ripcord, which has anted-up its own tabulation of nineteen "favorite" genre movies.

This list, compiled by editor and film scholar George Booker, includes such favorites as John Carpenter's The Thing (1981), the Cronenberg remake of The Fly (1986) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

This tally also offers some highly-defensible modern selections. I was gratified, for instance to see that Hostel (2005) made the list. You can read my review of Hostel here. David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman also make the fascinating roll.

You can read the entire article here.