Saturday, January 24, 2009

Re-Introducing THB

So, what is THB?

Well, since I first created The House Between, my independent web sci-fi/horror/drama in 2006, this blog has grown in size, scope and readership by a nearly astronomical amount. (Sometimes, even I can't believe it...) Considering this rapid growth, I've been feeling that many of the newer readers here may not be familiar with The House Between, how it was created or even what it's about. The third season of the series starts web casting next week, so I thought this would be an opportune time to re-introduce the series to everyone who wonders what the hell I'm writing about when I discuss The House Between.

Basically, in 2006, I was looking at the potential of independent web video, and wondering what I could do to put my own individual stamp on the new, growing format. What I appreciate about web video is that you can watch it any time, distribution is free, and there is no censorship regarding creative content assuming no X-rated material.

Now, I don't have deep pockets. I live on a writer's salary and royalties from my 20-plus books. That's it. And I don't have a surfeit of time, either. I blog, and I usually write two or three books a year, to feed the Muir Machine. So the series would have to be done cheaply and quickly.

So The House Between is a series predicated on these (admittedly insane...) production principles:

1. We would shoot seven half-hour episodes (a "season") in seven days. That means one episode of 30 pages (or more) a day. This means 16 - 20 hour days.

2. The cost of each episode (including feeding all sixteen people in the cast and crew) would not exceed $700.00 a piece. Like I said, no deep pockets here. I don't live in Hollywood. Far from it.

3. We would create human characters, and craft an interconnected, consistent mythos; one in which there would be mysteries...and answers. And you wouldn't have to wait six years for those answers. One my cast members called this creed "Fuck Lost."

4. I would write the majority of the episodes, direct the majority of episodes, create all the special effects myself, and edit the entire series myself. Why? Well let's put it this way: I have spent my life studying, interpreting and critiquing film and television. I felt I would emerge from The House Between experience a more effective film scholar -- on all fronts -- if I had some basic experience in those vocations (film editing, sound mixing, directing, writing, visual effects, even acting). So it was growth experience for me as a writer and film critic.

That was the plan, which I describe now as context, not apology. Today, we've created twenty episodes of The House Between, comprising three seasons or "movements." In my opinion, some episodes have been great; some not so much. The earliest episodes reveal diffident camera moves (on my part), and frankly, the sound is terrible at first. Both of those aspects improve as the series continues.. You can see "growth" happening before your eyes...if you're patient.

So basically, as a lead-up to the third season premiere (this Friday, the 30th), I will be re-running the entire series on the blog this week. Just links. Three episodes a day. That doesn't mean I won't be blogging other things at the same time. I'm nothing if not ambitious.

I fully realize some readers may have no interest in my independent, low-budget effort. But I wanted to put it in front of your eyes again, in case you might like it, and would appreciate a chance to "catch up" before the story resumes.

I can promise you this simple thing: if you watch the first three episodes with a patient and perhaps merciful eye (and an understanding of how quickly, how cheaply, and how far from Hollywood these things were produced...), you will find yourself...hooked. The performances are full of heart, and the story - if I may say so - is involving. You'll want to see what happens next. So if you have the time, the will, and perhaps a finely-developed sense of, well, forgiveness, you might see something here you like. Something rough. But something ultimately worthwhile...and addictive.

You don't have to take my word for it, though. Here's what some critics and viewers have written about The House Between:

"In the tradition of the original Twilight Zone and early Doctor Who...a series that succeeds on the strength of the writing and the characters." (Destinies, The Voice of Science Fiction)

"...One such diamond in the rough is "The House Between," a web series that has a small budget, but a big heart...If you are looking for a well-written science fiction series that has mystery, humor and a touch of horror then you have to check out "The House Between." Warning: The budget is low, but your love of the series will be high." (
Sy Fy Portal)

"The House Between is a supernatural/science-fiction mystery serial produced for online viewing. It’s an amateur production that has been so successful that I believe it’s been nominated for a genre award or two in the past, and is now in its third season. I only recently discovered the show and have noticed the rapid improvement of acting and production quality as the series progresses. It’s a low-budget labour of love, but a well written thriller about five strangers who wake up inside an inescapable house “at the end of the universe”. Outside, it’s pitch black – a “null” universe with no stars… yet something violent is trying to get in." (
NeuRODic Notions, 2008)

"Five strangers are brought to the "house at the end of the universe" in The House Between, an internet original science-fiction series. Created by pop-culture scholar John Kenneth Muir, the House Between is to Big Brother what Lost is to Survivor...Arrived is the first episode, and you can tell Muir is a pop culture kind of guy who has seen oodles of television: it's a by the book pilot, but in a good way." (
Bookworm and Beyond, 2007)

Joe Maddrey, our series producer (and the writer and producer of the upcoming horror documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue), wrote a great post in 2007 about how The House Between was accomplished; about how we did it:

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

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

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

On the eve of the third season, all I can say is that The House Between has been a hell of a ride. From the legendary initial discussion thread on Sy Fy Portal (which is the second-largest thread in site's impressive 10 year history, I believe), to the Genre Award nomination for "Best Web Production" (we lost to the big budget Star Trek: Of Gods and Men starring original series cast members by less than 100 votes...), it's been nothing short of magical.

So below, you will find the links for the first three episodes. You'll have to install the Veoh player...and I know that's asking a lot. But the house at the end of the universe awaits the curious.

So, here are the opening episodes of The House Between:

1. "Arrived"

2. "Settled"

3. "Positioned"

Tomorrow, links to episodes 4 through 6.

Friday, January 23, 2009

QI Interviews Astrid!

Kim Breeding, who plays Astrid on The House Between, has just been interviewed about the series and the upcoming third season for the fan page, Quantum Imprimaturs.

Here's a snippet:

I have read about how JKM forces so much secrecy about the storyline and will even resort to tricking the actors on the show to do certain things. How do you feel working in such an environment?

It can be frustrating, at times, but ultimately it fostered an environment of trust between us because as he would slowly reveal things to me, in their time, I understood his reasons for keeping them hidden. There's a scene where he slaps me in the face that was never rehearsed. He trusted me to keep going and not ruin the take, and I trusted him enough to not slap him right back, and instead keep going and not ruin the take.



Or is it?

Is this ancient Sparta we see depicted on our TV and movie screens...or is this -- circa 2001 - 2008, the turbulent, violent span of the Bush years and the Global War on Terror?

And if this is actually a story about us, who -- precisely -- are we in the play? The Spartans? The Persians? The Athenians?

These questions, I believe, are the primary ones raised by this gripping, violent, visually arresting and -- by my reckoning -- brilliant cinematic adaptation of the Frank Miller limited series (originally created in 1998).

Directed by Zack Snyder, 300 is undeniably cutting edge -- a technological special effects wonder consisting of more than 1500 special effects shots. - Yet it's also something else entirely; a determined, gritty and heartfelt meditation on the value of freedom.

300 dramatically countenances several important, life-or-death issues that we, as citizens of this era, recognize and have pondered deeply of late, Issues such as supporting the troops; the invasion and occupation of a sovereign land; the corruption of politicians, the propaganda value of organized religion, and more.

What I find endlessly provocative about this war picture, however, is the multi-faceted level of discourse it offers. Like the greatest examples of art, 300 -- on the surface easily dismissed as yet another computer-enhanced action movie -- can be interpreted in a number of ways. Nay, it has been interpreted in a number of ways.

So first, let me spell out some of the varying and even opposing fashions in which 300 has been read and interpreted by film critics, viewers and historians.

We are all Spartans

Yes, yes, 300 is indeed jingoistic, xenophobic and nationalistic. I don't deny that. Some scholars thus view the Spartans as a surrogate for contemporary America, and therefore they "read" the film as an explicit validation, apology and defense of all the actions taken by Bush after 9/11.

Let's consider this point of view.

After the horror of 9/11 we in America all (righteously) thirsted for justice...for retribution. So much so that we attacked Iraq...a country that wasn't at all responsible for 9/11. We were spurred to this aggressive military action by calls for "patriotism" from the media and the Bush Administration.

That's nationalism.

And jingoism? Well, we fought not only a just war in Afghanistan, but also (sadly) an unjust one in Iraq with overwhelming military "shock and awe." Our leader even landed on a military aircraft carrier in a military plane and spoke to the nation in martial tropes. Mission accomplished.

Well, two points. First: do you remember General William Boykin, undersecretary of Defense under Bush, who compared his Christian God to the "evil" Muslim God. He said in 2003 "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian" ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan." He also said "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.

Secondly, what about the widespread viral e-mail (and fear) of many uninformed Americans during election 08 that Obama was a secret Muslim raised and educated in a radical madrassa? That with a "foreign"-sounding name like Barack Hussein Obama (rhymes with Osama!!!) he must be an evil terrorist bent on our destruction? We often feared (perhaps still do fear...) that which might seem different, new, or ethnic.

Now compare these widely-held views to those held in the film by the Spartans. How do the Spartans of 300 gaze at those who share their world? Well, the Spartans are extreme xenophobes. The Ephors are "in-bred swine." The Athenians are "boy-lovers." Those who are sadly deformed (like the traitorous hunch back, Ephialtes ) are as ugly and untrustworthy inside as their physical form is repugnant outside. The Persians are seen as "barbarians" who are worshipful of a false God (Xerxes).

Spartans regard themselves as a breed apart, chosen by the gods and therefore special. "Only Spartan women give birth to real men," declares Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). Nationalism is raised above all other values: "service to Sparta." Dying for Sparta is the highest ideal.

As for jingoism, the Spartans resolve differences with violent confrontation. They have been "baptized in the fire of combat," are "constantly tested" and taught "never to retreat." The latter phrase might be re-parsed in American terms as the platitude, "stay the course." Violence in Sparta is rampant. Leonidas murders a diplomatic emissary from Persia in cold blood when he doesn't like his message. Queen Gorgo dispatches a political enemy, Theron (Dominic West) with a sword when he impugns her integrity. And remember, in America, we killed the sons of Saddam Hussein and then broadcast their bruised, bloodied corpses on CNN, parading the fact before the world.

It's rather impolitic on the politic left to approve of Zack Snyder's 300 (2007) these days, given Sparta's jingoistic qualities in the film, and the resonances of it that some detect so clearly in Bush's America. And actually, there's even more to disapprove of if you dig deeper. One can easily criticize the film in terms of historical accuracy, for instance.

Writing for the Toronto Star, historian Ephraim Lytle barked:
"300's Persians are ahistorical monsters and freaks. Xerxes is eight feet tall, clad chiefly in body piercings and garishly made up, but not disfigured. No need – it is strongly implied Xerxes is homosexual which, in the moral universe of 300, qualifies him for special freakhood. This is ironic given that pederasty was an obligatory part of a Spartan's education. This was a frequent target of Athenian comedy, wherein the verb "to Spartanize" meant "to bugger." In 300, Greek pederasty is, naturally, Athenian."


Critic Roger Moore (no, not the fellow who played James Bond...), wrote in the Orlando Sentinel that 300 is a "work with an obviously fascist aesthetic, it falls under the broad umbrella Susan Sontag used to encompass "fascist art," in that it reaches for a superficial human ideal (uncomplicated, orders-following, buffed, beautiful, nearly-nude fighting men) and celebrates death (theirs)."

Reviewer Dana Stevens, writing in Slade, noted that if "300, the new battle epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war."

We are all Persians
When I gaze at 300 -- at the text of the film itself -- I see deeper shades of gray than some of the remarks above indicate.

300 grapples with so many issues of today, but it isn't precisely a one-to-one metaphor. For instance, we invaded Iraq, right? Not vice-versa. Doesn't that make America in some small way...the Persians, not the Spartans in this particular circumstance?

And secondly the Nazis also were aggressors in historical Germany; aggressors against their own Jewish citizenry and against all of Europe and eventually the United States. Again, that's not the case with the movie's Spartans. So the parallel doesn't fit. The Spartans were minding their own business when Xerxes launched his fleet, weren't they? We might dislike their martial, hostile, jingoistic, nationalistic, xenophobic nature, but to coin a phrase: they didn't start the fire. As the film itself notes, "Xerxes brought it forth."

The depiction of the Persians actually raises serious questions about...America. The Persians, according to the film, possess the greatest military might in the world. The whole world rumbles when the Persian army rolls.

In real life, America possesses the most powerful army in the world and deploys it with modern, technological equivalent of shaking ground: shock and awe.

The Persians, according to 300, are "decadent" because they have accepted into their culture such factors as varied ethnicity (Asians, Arabs, Blacks, and Whites all serve the God-King Xerxes), homosexuality (the film features a lesbian kiss...), body art/defacing, and even the physically-weak (handicapped). Tell me, which side, in real life, has embraced such diversity of belief, values and origin, Al Qaeda or America?

Xerxes, the Persian leader, considers himself a God. And wasn't it President Bush who said “I believe that God wants me to be president?” Also, it is difficult to reconcile the image of Leonidas (Gerard Butler) - the loyal, resolute, noble King of Sparta, with that of our former President. When going to war, Leonidas lays down his own life courageously, to personally lead the troops in battle. What was Bush's sacrifice in the War on Terror?

He gave up golf. That's his own admission.

So perhaps we have actually been depicted as the bad guys in 300, not the dedicated, stoic (but fascist...) warrior race.

We Are all Athenians.

This is the interpretation I prefer.

At its apex, the great city-state of Athens was the world's hub for art, philosophy and education. It is renowned to this very day as the cradle of western civilization, and it gave rise to greats like Sophocles, Pericles and most importantly, for our purposes here, Socrates. So perhaps we should consider 300 in terms of the Socratic method: a deliberate form of instruction (also known as pedagogy) that asks questions not so as to draw specific answers or parallels, but simply to encourage insights about a number of fundamental issues.

I believe that this is precisely what 300 accomplishes. There is much talk of duty in 300, and so we, as viewers, are implicitly asked to weigh our duty -- as American citizens -- in a time of war. What is the duty of a priest? A politician? A free man? A soldier? A King? Would we act as Leonidas or Theron? Of course, We each arrive with our own personal answers to those particular questions, but 300 provides examples both positive and negative. We see loyalty, sacrifice, avarice, grief, stubbornness and other characteristics dramatized in the crucible of Sparta. The full-breadth of the human experience is delineated, with various characters symbolizing various paths.

As the film ends, the film's final statement is that the Greeks - Spartans and Athenians together - set out to save a world from the oppression of "mysticism and tyranny." What's at stake here is a "new age of freedom." That's precisely the historic promise of Athens. And the historic promise, not coincidentally, of the United States. Sometimes, we simply carry freedom on our tongues and forget what it actually means. What it means, simply, is that Spartans can be different than Athenians...and still fight side-by-side, as brothers. Lest we forget, freedom to choose is the freedom for everybody to choose their destiny. Whether Spartan, Athenian, Persian, American or Iraqi. You can defend freedom, if it exists. But you can't impose freedom, at the end of the gun. Control, yes. Freedom, no.

Perhaps that is the ultimate and most valuable lesson of 300. I think it's a pretty damn worthwhile statement, especially in this era.

We Are All Formalists

We would not be discussing any interpretation of 300 at all, had the film not been created in such powerful, artistic fashion.

I'm in no position to judge if "the new age of freedom is here," but in 300, the New Age of the Computer in Film has certainly arrived. This is a film that creates and sustains an entire world from the ground up. Everything is artificial and highly-stylized (from the land, to the sky, to the beasts set loose by Xerxes.)

The film isn't "real" so much as it is "super real," and since the 300 is a legend of sorts, that approach is entirely appropriate. Remember, this film isn't merely the story of Xerxes, it is the story of Xerxes as told by the verbose and charismatic storyteller, Dilios (David Wenham).

Because we are "hearing" and "seeing" the story as told by orator Dilios, everything we see and hear must be interpreted through that very lens. Dilios hoping to rally the troops (Athenians and Spartans) on the eve of the final battle against the Persians. His words must prove timeless, brilliant, inspiring and ...glorious. Therefore, the heroes of his tale must not be merely men...but paragons. The villains must be not mere men, either but...monsters. That's why a rhino or an elephant appears in his story as giant Goliaths and terrifying creatures. That's why Xerxes isn't just tall...he's a colossus. That's why the Earth shakes when an army walks. And that may be why talks of xenophobia are somewhat misplaced. This is how Dilios re-casts reality, not reality itself.

The entire film seems rendered on a single leitmotif: a "heightened sense of the moment." That's the exact spot where Dilios is, incidentally, as he recounts the tale of Leonidas: his adrenalin pumping, as battle nears. And that is exactly what our protagonist, Leonidas feels again and again, at crucial points during his life. When he battles a wolf in winter (as a young man), he recalls feeling a "heightened sense of things."

At the moment before his death, facing a different wolf -- Xerxes -- Leonidas makes the same mental notation (in voice over) In this instance, the film cuts to a brief montage so the audience feels what he describes. We see birds flying overhead. Wind blows at his feet. He experiences a brief vision of his beloved wife. Gorgo. Leonidas is aware of little but important things like heat, weight, breeze....the impulses and feelings of the moment.

A "heightened sense of the moment" is also a perfect way to describe the stirring battle sequences in 300. Snyder constructed his shots (action and otherwise) from specific frames of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's comic, but importantly, he has added dynamic motion. Snyder does so by mixing slow-motion, fast motion, and focal zoom and retraction into an orgy of sustained but beautiful violence. Leonidas's first, spirited advance is captured in an amazing combination of these techniques. He leads the charge - and we zoom in. He swings his sword - and we zoom out. He hacks down an opponent, and we go into slow motion as blood spurts and the limbs of the enemy are severed.

We see muscles flexing, tensing; so much so that we can almost feel the athleticism of this battle. We experience it as "heightened," right alongside Leonidas. I know some people complain about this kind of effect and think of it as Matrix-inspired silliness. Perhaps The Matrix is where some of the effects techniques originated, but Snyder has utilized them in a method all his own, and one in which the the form of the action explicitly supports the film's content and narrative.

300's color palette also qualifies as "heightened." Skies aren't merely gray...they're steely. Skin isn't merely's golden. A mysterious oracle doesn't merely dance in smoke...she swims in it. Again, it's a real historic event (the battle of Thermopylae) recounted through the super-real, heroic lens of our excitable narrator, Dilios.

Director Zack Snyder's form here -- just like Leonidas's form - is "perfect."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Academy Award Nominations

Oscar's no grouch this year. At least not in terms of superhero movies, fantasy and science fiction.

As I predicted, The Dark Knight received a surfeit of Oscar love - a total of eight nominations it looks like upon a quick glance. The late Heath Ledger was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, while the Batman movie also picked up nominations for art direction, cinematography, film editing, make-up, sound editing, sound mix, and visual effects. The only nominations I quibble with are film editing and sound mix. The action scenes in the film were incoherent (especially the Bat sonar sequence,) and the sound mix was an aggressive, non-stop cacophony designed to rattle audiences senseless. Even when the action on screen was underwhelming, that sound kept on rattling and shaking, injecting the movie with a false sense of urgency and importance.

My personal favorite film of the year, Wall-E, also picked up an impressive half-dozen or so nominations. It was nominated for best animated feature, best music, best song, sound editing, sound mixing and, impressively, best original screenplay. I would have loved it if Wall-E had been nominated for Best Picture, but the glass ceiling for animated films in that most-prized category remains intact. If Wall-E can't shatter that boundary, I don't know what animated film can.

And the fantasy film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which I haven't seen yet...) appears to be the "big" movie for the Academy this year. It was nominated for Best Picture, art direction, cinematography, film editing, costume design, best music, best sound mix, best screenplay (adapted), and best visual effects. Brad Pitt also picked up a Best Actor nomination.

Other genre films nominated: Iron Man (for sound edit and visual effects) and Hellboy II (for make-up).

I must admit, I'm disappointed (though not surprised) that Speed Racer didn't pick up a nomination for film editing or cinematography, or even visual effects. I realize the movie was a "bomb" and most critics hated it to pieces, but it was certainly the most revolutionary film of 2008 in terms of how it utilized visuals. It might have been nice to see the Academy go with an unpopular choice for a change, instead of making this a popularity contest.

TV REVIEW: Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2007)

I understand she apparently rubbed some longtime and committed Doctor Who fans the wrong way during her tenure as companion Rose Tyler, but neither actress Billie Piper nor the fictional character she played ever bothered me in the slightest.

Not even once.

On the contrary, Piper was so adorable, so committed and so spirited in her Dr. Who performances I felt it was absolutely natural for the alien time lord to fall head-over-heels for her.

I mean...I certainly fell for her.

Well, Piper now headlines a very different dramatic TV series, the scandalously-titled, highly-ribald, immensely-witty Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I just screened the first season (consisting of eight half-hour episodes) in its entirety on DVD and was impressed; even captivated.

Playing workaday “high class” London call girl Hannah (aka Belle De Jour), the actress is even more adorable and charismatic than I remember her. Piper's performance is full of wit, heart...and real bravery.

In one series episode -- one certain to become the stuff of legend in fandom -- Piper’s Belle du Jour beds down a drippy character played by actor named Matt Smith, who – as most of you now know – will be playing the Doctor in the new season of Doctor Who.

So if you ever wanted to see an historic bedroom scene between the Doctor and Rose, this is your opportunity. No, it isn’t Eccleston. Or Tennant.

But still…use your imagination.

If history-making sci-fi couplings aren’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of other excellent reasons to watch Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Prime among these is likely curiosity. If you have ever wondered what the day-to-day, job-to-job existence of a call girl might be like, find out. Accordingly, each episode revolves around some particular sexual assignment. Perhaps an orgy, a threesome, or some old-school S&M domination. There’s even one installment about Belle fulfilling the (paid-for) role of “perfect girlfriend” for what’s termed an “all-nighter.”

As for Belle herself, she doesn’t possess many hang-ups. She’ll “go gay for pay;” she doesn’t object to the big "A" (anal sex), and she readily admits she enjoys her job because she likes: a.) sex and b.) money. Still, none of this means Belle is eager to tell her family -- or best friend, Ben -- about what, precisely, she does for a living. She claims, actually, to be a “night-time” legal secretary – whatever the hell that is.

What I find most compelling about Secret Diary of a Call Girl is the open-eyed approach it takes to Belle's job. Everybody does what they do, and there is precious little judgment or tsk-tsking. Belle is intelligent enough to do any job she wants to do, and this, apparently is how she desires to spend her time and make her dough. In one episode, Belle stops working as prostitute for a time to observe “normal people.” Her observations send her running back to prostitution in short order.

Even though Belle likes her job, she still has bad days. Like we all do. In one episode, a really scary john shows up at her apartment and is – if not threatening – then highly creepy. In another episode, Belle has trouble dealing with the fact that a client she sort-of liked opted to see a different girl on his next date, and so on.

Again, the approach is a workaday one. What renders the show humorous is the blistering observations Belle makes about herself, her world, her vocation, her johns and the never ending vicissitudes of human sexuality. Often, Belle breaks the fourth wall and directs her remark at the camera, a beguiling invitation to intimacy.

As you watch the first four episodes of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, you may find yourself shocked (I know I was…) to see just graphic this show is in terms of nudity and simulation of sex acts. By about the fourth show, however, the shock slips away and you find yourself involved and engaged in Belle’s life, her travails, and her unusual perspective.

I realize some people might complain about a TV series that glamorizes prostitution, but that’s not the game here. As I noted above, prostitution is treated as a vocation, and all the characters are more-or-less handled as “real.” I guess if gangsters (The Sopranos), ad men (Mad Men), lawyers (Damages), politicians (Brotherhood), vampires (True Blood) and serial killers can have TV shows about them, prostitutes deserve the same treatment.

Fortunately, the sharply-written Secret Diary of a Call Girl is indeed in the same class as those other efforts. You shouldn’t miss it.

Watch it with someone you love. Or at least someone you want to have sex with.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"I remember how the meaning of words began to change. How unfamiliar words like "collateral" and "rendition" became frightening, while things like Norsefire and the Articles of Allegiance became powerful. I remember how "different" became dangerous. I still don't understand it, why they hate us so much. "
-V for Vendetta (2005)

Theme Song of the Week # 43: Thunderbirds! (1965)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Bush Era (of Movies and TV) Is Over Too...

President George W. Bush is history.

It's been eight long and unhappy years since Bush the Lesser first assumed office in a hotly-contested election arbitrated by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court.

Since 2001, We have been attacked twice on our own soil (9/11 and the Anthrax mailings), and become bogged down in two long, expensive wars. Over seven thousand Americans have died since Bush took the oath of office, either by attack or in war.
Nearly 50 million Americans are currently without health care. Unemployment is the highest it's been since...well, since the last Bush governed.

An American city sank in a hurricane while Nero fiddled (or played the guitar for John McCain's birthday, as the case may be.)

Oh, and the economy collapsed thanks to almost a decade of governmental negligence and lack of responsible regulation.

Wait, I'm still going...

We had the Enron Scandal, the Abu Ghraib Scandal, the warrantless spying scandal, the criminal outing of a covert CIA agent, and the overt politicizing of the Justice Department. We saw a record surplus transformed into a record deficit by unnecessary tax cuts for the top earning 1 percent of the "haves and the have mores." We saw, as (I think...) Allan Mendelowitz put it: "t
he Bush administration -- which took office as social conservatives" -- "leave as conservative socialists," presenting our nation with the greatest example of corporate welfare in its long history.


Have I forgotten any other outrages?

Probably...they were a dime a dozen in the Bush era. I state this not as a committed progressive, not as a lefty, not as a liberal, but as a patriotic American who happened to have his eyes open during these years. I know many conservative friends who feel precisely the same way I do.

As I recover from the Bush II Era -- the very era in which I began blogging -- I pause now to remember a few movies and television programs that seem (right now, anyway...) to capture the zeitgeist of this turbulent span.

Right off the bat, the adventure TV series 24 (which I quite enjoy...) leaps to mind. The series protagonist, CTU agent Jack Bauer (Sutherland) will do anything, and I mean ANYTHING (torture included), to keep America safe. He regularly battles terrorists and prevents the detonation of WMD on our soil, in our cities. The whole series exists in its own "climate of fear," real-time.

I'll always associate two movies in particular with the Bush Era. The first is Zack Snyder's amazing Spartan epic 300 (2006), an egregiously violent, heroic poem about jingoism, nationalism and xenophobia. An interesting facet of this silver screen adaptation of the Miller graphic novel is that some reviewers view it as an inspiring defense of the Bush Way, while others imagine it a deliberate contrast and critique. I'll be reviewing the movie here on the blog shortly. This week, actually. Stay tuned.

And then there's Christopher Nolan's beloved untouchable, The Dark Knight (2008). I understand why so many people enjoy The Dark Knight, and I'm glad so many people are so happy to see their favorite superhero treated so...seriously. I predict the movie willl likely win several Academy Awards. And I don't begrudge the film these successes, either critical or box office.

For me, however, The Dark Knight plays uncomfortably as a long validation of and apology for Bush's most troublesome policies. So it's hard for me to laud it.

In The Dark Knight, the ends justify the means. There is no higher ideal than that. The Joker is not merely a criminal these days, but actually a committed terrorist. And when he attacks Gotham City, his reign of fear brings the city to a standstill. A pervasive climate of fear is forged, even though one man (either the Joker or Osama Bin Laden) is...only one man, and can't possibly harm every person everywhere, simultaneously. Doesn't matter.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

At a difficult moment like this, Gotham requires a transcendental hero who can stand above the moment; a hero who can righteously declare "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." A man, perhaps, like Bruce Wayne's heroic father, who lifted the city out of economic Depression. Unfortunately, Wayne the Elder is dead.

Instead, Gotham gets Wayne the Lesser; just like America got Bush the lesser.

A man who, instead of calling to the best angels of Gotham's nature, lowers himself - and the very Thebes he defends - to the Joker's level. Bruce breaks the law (spying illegally on the citizenry), violates the sovereignty of a foreign nation, and most significantly, refuses to entrust the people with their own future, with the truth. He would rather lie, rather forge a black-and-white, Manichean fable of "pure good" vs "pure evil" than let the people make an informed decision. About the Joker. About Dent. And even, about him. This is a grave disservice to justice; not a defense of it.

Let us never again mistake the former for the latter.

So, what will the Obama Era bring? Well, at the very least, a clean break with the past. A new beginning. I'm hoping Obama brings a pervasive sense of can-do optimism to our country, and to our pop culture entertainment. I hope that J.J. Abrams Star Trek -- made in the Bush II Era but reserved for the Obama Era -- is the very movie that defines this new time; a time of promise; a time of brotherhood; a time of re-building.

Leave the Dark Knights to America's Dark Night of the Soul (2001-2008). Instead, let's commit ourselves to tomorrow.

RETRO TOY UPDATE: More Big Jim (Mattel)

Recently, I featured Big Jim's 1973 Sky Commander play set from Mattel -- a massive, fold-out jet plane interior & HQ -- on the blog as a retro toy flashback.

Well, that memorable item was merely the beginning of the vast Big Jim toy pantheon. My favorite Big Jim toy -- and one that I think every little kid in the 1970s owned -- is likely the brown Big Jim Sports Camper from 1972. God, I loved playing with this when I was about eight years old...

This impressive 18" four-wheel vehicle came equipped with a yellow fishing boat, two oars, a fishing rod, and a variety of other important camping supplies too.

Let's see, the van came fully kitted-up with a brown coffee pot, some pots and pans, a motorcycle rack, a card table and two fold-out chairs. There's even a camp fire, a skillet, a lantern and more. Oh, and I forgot the sleeping bag!

The interior of Jim's tan sports camper is decorated with cool sporting competition posters, Big Jim's medals and other goodies too are visible in there too. The rear of the van features a small kitchenette with sink and stove, molded in dark brown plastic.

If you're so inclined, You can prop open one of the van's side doors as a kind of tent roof, to get a good view of the entire interior. The other side features a sliding plastic door that you can remove all together. The van's rear has a "pop-up" window.

The Big Jim sports camper also boasts a transparent windshield you can swing open, so you can fit Jim behind the over sized steering wheel. Off to adventure he drives.

A possible destination for the van: Big Jim's Safari Hut. This toy was created in 1974, and it seems to be a bit less popular than the sports camper.

The Safari Hut is a thin carrying case (made of soft plastic...) that opens up to reveal the interior of a rugged African cabin. There are bunk beds, native decorations, some cabinets, and other neat touches. You can see (drawn on the walls..) items like Jim's movie camera (for photographing wildlife...) and a radio for emergencies.

I think I mentioned it in my last Big Jim blog, but I've been collecting some of this fantastic Big Jim paraphernalia for my son, Joel; to (hopefully...) indoctrinate him into the wonderful world of over-sized action figures and play sets.

So far, he absolutely loves the Sky Commander and the sports camper. The Safari Hut? Joel's not exactly thrilled with it yet. It came with a giant eagle, and Joel likes that item fine, but otherwise, he prefers to push Big Jim's camper across the carpet...

And proving that everything you ever remember from your childhood is archieved somewhere on Youtube, I even found a commercial for the Big Jim Sports Camper.

Remember and enjoy. There's nothing like the smell of the 1970s in the morning. Or afternoon, as it were...

Snow Day!

Monday, January 19, 2009

More House Between Goodness

As the clock ticks down to the premiere of The House Between's third season on January 30th, I've got all kinds of coolness to report.

First, the home page
has been entirely re-vamped and upgraded, and now features picture galleries, archived episodes (all fifteen of 'em!), the discussion board, trailers, interviews, merchandise and more.

Secondly, The Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction Interview I did Friday night has been posted on the net by CaptainPhilOnline here. Listen in!

Last, but in no way least,
Quantum Imprimaturs, the series' fan appreciation page has posted the first in a series of brand new cast interviews. First up: Jim Blanton (the indomitable Arlo).

Here's a sample of the Blanton interview, which you can read in its entirety here:

One of my favorite scenes in the entire series came in "Positioned" as Arlo sat on a staircase with Bill and delivered a lengthy but emotionally touching monolog about his background. Was that hard??

I’m glad to hear you enjoyed that scene. That was probably the second most difficult moment for me during the first season. The hardest scene for me was the first one I shot with Kim, in which our characters initially meet. I was working on finding the right tone for Arlo, so that was challenging. The staircase sequence was significant in that it was the first time I had to deliver a large amount of uninterrupted dialogue. Tony and I rehearsed that scene for a good bit of time (at least by our standards on the show), and that made a big difference in how that came off.

What were you thinking about when you delivered those lines?

Actually whenever I’m delivering lines I tend to be thinking of two things at once. First off, I try to think of an event in my life that conjures emotions similar to those Arlo would be feeling in a given scene. In this particular instance, while I don’t recall specifically what I was thinking of, I imagine it was probably the loss of a loved one. The second thing I’m thinking of is what I’m doing physically (e.g. eye movement, hand gestures, etc.). Given Arlo’s agitated state, I felt that he would always be someone who communicated a great deal through his eyes and body language. So (if I was successful) you should see that pretty consistently in what I’m doing. In using subtle physical characteristics to convey his emotional state, I felt I could avoid the potential trap of going overboard and making him a cartoonish figure.

Bob May (1939-2009)

More sad news to report: Bob May, the actor and veteran stuntman who heroically endured the robot suit on all three seasons of Irwin Allen's Lost in Space (1965-1968) has just passed away, according to Yahoo News.

Here's a link to the story:

"He always said he got the job because he fit in the robot suit," said June Lockhart, who played family matriarch Maureen Robinson. "It was one of those wonderful Hollywood stories. He just happened to be on the studio lot when someone saw him and sent him to see Irwin Allen about the part. Allen said, 'If you can fit in the suit, you've got the job.'"

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: The UFO Incident (1975)

The unsettling and inexplicable experience of Barney and Betty Hill -- of alien abduction -- was recounted meticulously in John Fuller's best-selling book, The Interrupted Journey. The same tale was also memorably adapted for American TV screens in October of 1975 by writer Hesper Anderson and frequent TV-movie director Richard Colla.

The film's title was changed to The UFO Incident, and actors James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons were cast in the lead roles. The late Barnard Hughes co-starred as the couple's stolid psychiatrist, Dr. Simon.

The UFO Incident commences a few years after the alleged alien abduction, as a troubled Barney and Betty Hill, an interracial couple living in New England, feel a strange compulsion to re-trace their steps from the night of September 19, 1961, the nights their lives were forever altered. There are gaps in their memories that they can't explain, and this fact vexes them both.

Since September '61, The Hills have driven the same stretch of New Hampshire road eight or nine times, but on this particular occasion (an event translated directly from Fuller's book...), something unexpected occurs. The presence of a group of men on the side of the rural highway causes a usually calm Betty to fly into a spasm of hysteria and panic. We see an alarming quick cut -- as she screams in terror -- of a gloved, grey hand reaching into the if to grab her.

Meanwhile, Barney is still reluctant to face the possibility that he and his wife encountered a UFO at all. He is insecure living in an all-white community with Betty and fears ridicule and isolation should the story of flying saucers come to light. "Your dreams are your dreams," he tells Betty, "and reality is reality." Later, Barney angrily acknowledges "I know it happened...but I can't get myself to believe it."

The couple goes to see Dr. Simon, a psychiatrist, to aid in resolving their "anxiety problems" and "double amnesia." But what the Hills ultimately reveal in long, detailed hypnosis sessions is something extremely terrifying: a close encounter with the crew of an alien spaceship. Aliens stopped their car by moonlight, and escorted the alarmed humans aboard their flying saucer. There, these curious, inhuman creatures conducted a variety of invasive medical exams, including a pregnancy test, before sending the Hills -- with wiped memories -- on their way home.

Over time, Dr. Simon helps the Hills contextualize and accept the events of September 1961, even if it can't be fully or even adequately explained. The cloud of anxiety lifts (especially for Barney...), and some sense of normalcy returns to the Hills, despite the oddness of this weird event in their history.

The UFO Incident inter-cuts a series of tension-provoking hypnosis sessions with more routine views of Barney and Betty's domestic life, to good effect. James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons share a number of sweet, well-written scenes together at the Hill residence, strongly registering as likable, "real" people under unusual duress. These relationship scenes purposefully contrast in tone with the horrific recitation of the fascinating, you-can't-look-away abduction details.

For the most part, the hypnoses scenes in The UFO Incident admirably eschew spectacle for intimacy. Colla's camera remains pinned to Jones' expressive face in intense, sustained close-up photography. Barney grows ever more disturbed during his account of the alien encounter, and the performance is stunning. Watching Jones "live through" Barney's experience, you are absolutely riveted. And when Jones breaks the carefully-staged close-up composition, suddenly lunging from frame "trying to escape," you'll feel your adrenalin kick in. This is scary, scary stuff.

There are also occasional cuts to flashbacks during the hypnosis session; to Barney worriedly studying the night sky, clutching his binoculars, for instance. Intermittently, the audience can make out a light shining down on forest trees, but other than that, we never actually see the UFO in flight. This is an effective technique simply because we seem to be remembering "fragments" of the experience at the same time Barney or Betty does.

The medical examination scene aboard the alien space craft is vetted with similar tact and dramatic flair. Colla's camera cuts to a variety of insert shots: close-ups of alien surgical tools and other instrumentation, for example. When these shots begin to flash by, faster and faster, we feel as though we are being overcome by a flurry of images, literally overtaken by the experience.

The UFO Incident's most chilling image, however, arises during Betty's hypnosis session. She describes (again, in committed close-up), a group of "men" appearing ahead of the car; coming out of the forest and slowly nearing. Here, the film flashes back to a sort of wooded glade, and at first we don't see anything distinct. Then, appearing in shadow -- in the blurry, darkened distance at first -- black-garbed creatures loom, eventually coming into plain sight. Again, it's very chilling.

Colla and Anderson rigorously and faithfully follow the events and experiences in Fuller's written account, a fact which makes this TV movie an unusual artifact in a medium that prefers to tart things up. But, The UFO Incident isn't exactly a documentary, either. Instead, the film seeks and ultimately locates the core of the Hill drama: the manner in which the encounter with the aliens plays into Barney and Betty's already-existing fears.

For instance, Barney is a pragmatist, afraid of that which is real, meaning racial prejudice, intolerance and hatred. He's also grappling with another very real fear -- his health. The men in Barney's family all died young from strokes and he fears the same fate. For Barney, acknowledging that the UFO experience is actually real, proves a traumatic and difficult thing. If it's real, then he has to deal with it the same way he has to deal with bigotry or his illness.

Coming from a more privileged background, all of Betty's fears are based not in the real, but in the unknown. She's not alone; but she fears being alone (of losing Barney). She fears the "unknown" of death too. For her, the UFO experience means countenancing and accepting the unknown in her life.

The UFO Incident could have easily proven a really lurid, sensational bit of business. However, the steadfast focus on character, on performance, and on effective camera-work renders the movie not merely respectable, but actually admirable. The movie could have been an over-the-top geek show, but The UFO Incident understands it doesn't need to embellish, enhance or "stylize" the story of Barney and Betty Hill to render it attention-grabbing and suspenseful.

On the contrary, all the drama -- all the anxiety -- we can handle is abundantly present. In close-up. In the expressive, human faces of Jones and Parsons.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Long Weekend (1979)

In the last month or so, the terrific movie blog Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion by Jim Blanton has surveyed a variety of Australian horror films and I've been joining in the fun from home.

So basically, I have Jim (who plays Arlo on The House Between...) to thank for leading me to the neo-classic crocodile horror movie, Rogue (2007), and also this rather remarkable 1970s effort, Long Weekend (1979).

Directed by Colin Eggleston (from a script by Everett De Roche of Patrick [1978] fame), Long Weekend is a compelling "revenge of nature" movie, all right, yet one very different from contemporaries of the disco decade such as Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Frogs (1972), Day of the Animals (1977), Night of the Lepus (1972) or others.

Where those films determinedly depict an apocalypse hastened by mankind's irresponsible use of chemicals, hormones, the destruction of the ozone or other global-scaled issues, Long Weekend instead implies a very personal, very intimate sort of holocaust. Here, the crucible of a bad marriage -- and the struggle for dominance in that arena -- is the spark that ignites angry Mother Nature.

As Long Weekend opens, we are introduced to a bickering -- and I mean bickering -- married couple. Whisper-thin husband Peter (John Hargreaves) and shapely wife Marcia (Briony Behets) have some real bad blood between them, as the audience quickly sees. Marcia's recently had an abortion; which she blames Peter for. Even though the baby was by another man...whom Marcia was unfaithful with. And Peter didn't want her to have the abortion anyway.


Anyway, in an attempt to reconcile (I guess...) this normal middle-class Australian couple decides to embark on a long weekend...camping. They pack up Cricket the dog in the car along with some supplies and a can of gasoline, and then head off for a remote rural beach, one that stands ominously close to an abattoir (just "six hundred yards on the right!") On the last leg of the journey, the couple gets lost in a patch of woods and it takes forever to escape a circular trail. While lost, the couple incessantly trades barbs and insults.

When Peter and Marcia finally arrive at the private beach, matters don't improve much. Ants swarm their food. An eagle swoops down from the sky and attacks Peter. And Marcia keeps hearing what she suspects is the sound of a baby in distress. Turns out it's an infant "sea cow," actually. When Mommy Sea Cow swims close to the beach, probably to help, Peter shoots it about a dozen times with his rifle.

You know folks, in horror movies, there's transgression and then there's TRANSGRESSION. This is an example of the latter.

Here's a short list of Peter and Marcia's anti-social, anti-nature behavior over their three-day holiday. Peter jokingly places his wife in the cross-hairs of his loaded rifle. Later, his harpoon gun misfires and nearly kill her (and yes, both of these incidents have the scent of foreboding about them...). While driving the car, Peter throws a cigarette butt out of the driver's side window and starts a fire in the brush on the side of the road. Later, he runs down and kills a kangaroo that happens innocently across the road.

Hold on, I'm still going.

Peter chops down a tree at the camp site (when asked why, he answers: "why not?"). Peter also kills the sea cow, after littering in the ocean. Then -- let me check my list -- Marcia wantonly smashes an eagle's egg (another reference to abortion and endangered babies...), and Peter gets bitten by a testy marsupial after cruelly taunting it. Their car rolls over a crab too, a flying duck splats bloodily against the car windshield, and the hits just keep on coming.

The amazing thing about these acts is that Peter and Marcia do not care at all. They do not shed tears or issue a single regret about the things they've done. It's an example of supreme human arrogance: Peter and Marcia treat the world like their personal property; and everything out there at the beach is for their use: their amusement and disposal. It's really...sickening.

Effectively shot, well-acted and carefully-scripted, Long Weekend leads us to an inevitable conclusion; that the hatred spewed by Peter and Marcia -- hatred for each other; hatred for nature; hatred for existence itself -- is so toxic, so destructive, so anti-life that nature actually rallies...and rises up to annihilate the couple. You've heard of The Lion King's Circle of Life, right?

Well, this is Long Weekend's Circle of Death.

Peter starts out the movie generating road kill, but by movie's end he's just road kill himself. Peter is the kangaroo. He just doesn't realize it.

In Long Weekend, the natural world and animal kingdom mirror the emotions and behavior of Peter and Marcia with increasing intensity. But despite everything the wayward vacationers do, you may still muster up some degree of compassion for them. They're jerks, they're idiots, and they certainly can't interpret incipient signs of danger, but in the end, they're still human. Groping, awkward, testy, emotionally fragile humans who, for all their flaws and foibles, just want to be loved. Even if they have absolutely no idea how to give love to others, or even nature itself.

And that's ultimately why the horror works so effectively. As Long Weekend nears its heart-pounding climax, you may start to feel your throat tighten up as the "great outdoors" is reduced to an ever diminishing, endless loop for a sprinting, desperate, out-of-breath Peter. Watching him attempt to escape the circular forest but return again and again to the same spot where he violated the laws of nature and of man is surreal, nightmarish and indicative of a hell all its own.

There are some startling and resonant images in Long Weekend too. A barnacled, corroded Barbie doll washes up on the beach (an avatar for Marcia I suggest: her seeming beauty "stained" by a burgeoning interior ugliness). And then there's the dead sea cow: a corpse which mysteriously appears to keep inching up the shore towards Peter and Marcia's camp site.

The ultimate environmental horror film, Long Weekend reminds us that if we treat the environment badly, the environment is ready and able to reciprocate.

Or, to put it another way: It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature.