Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays!

To all my readers and friends,

I hope each and every one of you has a joyous and safe holiday. If you're out there driving -- be safe. If you're inside over-eating, or discussing politics -- be safe.

Have a great time with your families; and may Santa be good to you...

Warmest wishes,


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #96: Mission: Impossible: "The Seal" (1967)

Although this Bruce Geller series is mostly devoid of character development (at least as it is understood in today's television milieu), Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) nonetheless remains one of the most dynamically visual TV series ever created.

Not only that, but many episodes of the espionage classic are damn near perfectly-executed in terms of generating suspense and thrills.

One good example of this "perfection" is the second season episode, "The Seal," which aired originally in 1967. IMF leader Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) is assigned another crazy mission by his unseen government superior. As usual, if he, or any of his IMF Team "are "caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of his action."

The mission: arrogant American Industrialist J. Richard Taggart (Darren McGavin) has unscrupulously purchased the highly-prized "Jade Seal" statue, the mascot of the small but strategically-vital nation Kuala Rokat, on the Chinese/Indian border. This "priceless, 2000-year old statue" must be returned to the country, or the American government feels the small nation could be driven "into the communist camp."

With Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), Barney Collier (Greg Morris), Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) and a cat named Rusty (!) as his partners in crime on this impossible mission, Jim sets out to recover the the Jade Seal from Taggart.

But it isn't going to be easy.

The Jade Seal has been locked up in Taggart's personal gallery, which is equipped with a "sonic alarm system," not to mention a pressure-alarm system in the floor, calculated to be tripped at any weight over four ounces. And the doors leading to the gallery are electrified. 500 volts.

Negotiation is out of the picture, naturally. Taggart is a smarmy, self-important bastard. He arrogantly recounts the entire history of the Jade Seal. It was once owned by both Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, and now Taggart likes that he's in the same club at those hisotrical figures. He openly acknowledges that the item was probably stolen, but all that matters to him is that he purchased it legally. He even ignores pleas from the State Department that he return the Jade Seal. "It happens to belong to whoever happens to have it," he says, calling the treasure "fair game."

And then Taggart really lays down the gauntlet. "If someone can steal it from me, it's theirs," he tells Cinnamon, who is masquerading as a newswoman, Mrs. Burton. "If they can steal it from me..."

The remainder of the episode involves an absolutely-inspired, complex strategy to retrieve that statue. The plot involves disguises, magnets, drills, personal trickery (Rollin's expertise; masquerading as an expert in comparative religions and a possible psychic...), and -- of course -- Rusty the Cat.

Rusty's part of the operation is particularly hair-raising. The feline must traverse a narrow bridge -- suspended from wall-to-wall in the gallery -- then open the Jade Seal's glass case. Finally, at Barney's coaching, Rusty must fetch the item (in his mouth...) and bring it back to Jim and Barney.

This scene with the cute orange tabby cat playing fetch with a 2000-year old treasure -- with life and limb in the balance for the IMF team -- is truly something of a masterpiece of suspense. The cat pauses on the bridge. It drops the Seal at one point. Then it picks it up. We watch the cat navigate the narrow bridge in extreme close-up; each footfall a nail-biter. The progress of the cat is inter-cut with close-ups of Jim and Barney as they perspire. Profusely.

The cat causes other problems too. The whole mission almost goes awry when Rusty breaks out of Jim's grasp and, unnoticed, makes a dash for the aquarium housing Taggart's prized fish. The fish begin to get jittery at the cat's proximity, and soon Taggart is paying attention to the fish, when his focus should be elsewhere if the con is to work. Cinnamon sweeps in, just in time...

"The Seal" finds Mission: Impossible in fine, unimpeachable form. The camera prowls, pans, tracks, zooms (and even acquires objects through the filter of the aquarium for a time...). Impressively, there's a minimum of dialogue (and explanation) to accompany what's happening on-screen. Instead, screenwriters William Reed Woodfield and Allan Balter, along with director Alexander Singer, trust the audience to keep up. Meanwhile, Lalo Schifrin's score creates mood, and serves as a drum-line beat right into your pulse.

One impressive sequence -- employing only extreme close-ups -- reveals Cinnamon (face only...) utilizing non-verbal, physical gestures (extremely small gestures, actually...) to relate critical and specific information to Rollin in real-time, as he pretends to be psychic. She does so right under Taggart's nose, and it's masterful.

I also love the "tech" in Mission: Impossible. It's all 1960s, space-race-style futurism. You know what I mean: computer punch cards and over-sized reel-to-reel computers. In fact, one computer in "The Seal" is so large that Barney and Rusty hide inside it for a while. But the focus on the technology -- and also on good old-fashioned American know-how and ingenuity-- recalls an age of optimism when we believed we could achieve anything, and more so, that we were the good guys.

"The Seal" features so many great moments, it's tough to enunciate them all. Barbara Bain (who won three consecutive Emmy awards for her performances on Mission: Impossible) is absolutely terrific here, feigning innocence throughout the con, and then delivering a final, derisive facial expression that serves as the episode's emotional punctuation. She delivers that metaphorical death blow to Taggart, saunters out a door (accompanied by Schifrin's theme...) and if you don't get goosebumps at the sight of this mission accomplished -- in such style -- you should go see a physician.

A boastful villain (courtesy of the charismatic McGavin), a brilliant "con," some terrific camera-work; and at least two scenes of jaw-dropping suspense (particularly in regards to herding that damn cat...): These are the elements that make "The Seal" an impeccable installment of Mission: Impossible.

If you love a good caper, this is one TV show that will keep you literally on the edge of your seat for 50 minutes. Rather than self-destructing (like Jim's instruction cassette), Mission: Impossible has survived for forty years by being damn ingenious.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Christmas TV Companion (2009)

So, for a while now I'd been contemplating a blog post here about all the sci-fi and horror television episodes over the years that involve the holiday and holiday season. Then I received in the mail a fun book on that very topic entitled The Christmas TV Companion: A Guide to Cult Classics, Strange Specials and Outrageous Oddities by Joanna Wilson. I realized that someone else had already done all the hard work, so why re-invent the wheel?

Available from 1701 Press, The Christmas TV Companion is a dedicated survey of Christmas TV specials and episodes across the decades, and the book features chapters on both Christmas horror ("Have Yourself an Eerie Little Christmas") and Christmas sci-fi ("Christmas Stars and Men From Mars").

In the horror section, author Wilson digs pretty deep, remembering a 1949 made-for-TV production hosted by the late, great Vincent Price, Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol. She also discusses one of my all-time favorite Night Gallery installments, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," and remembers prominent X-Files ("How the Ghosts Stole Christmas") and Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Amends") episodes. My only disappointment here: no mention of the outstanding (and really, really emotional...) Millennium Christmas episode: "Midnight of the Century." On the plus side, Wilson does feature some words on another Millennium holiday segment, "Omerta."

In the science fiction category, Wilson starts with the most notorious production of the lot: The Star Wars Holiday Special of 1978, set on the planet Kashyyk. Wilson is commendably even-handed and balanced in her criticism of this George Lucas show. She notes that it was our first introduction to Boba Fett, for instance, even if the low quality of the show was "a disappointing shock." In the rest of this chapter, the author remembers ALF ("Oh Tannerbaum!"), Mork and Mindy ("Mork's First Christmas") and Doctor Who's 2005 "The Christmas Invasion."

Additional chapters gaze at Variety Shows and animation (including South Park...), and there's even a chapter on "dark" Christmas specials. Here, Wilson discusses Peace on Earth (1939), a "stunning antiwar MGM Cartoon in technicolor" from animator Hugh Harmon.

A fun and fast read, The Christmas TV Companion is a good recap of Christmas television over the years. It's clear the author boasts a real passion for the topic, and has researched it thoroughly. The book brings up some great (and some terrible...) holiday-themed TV memories. After reading it -- or just flipping through - you'll want to make a beeline to your VHS collection (or DVDs...) to catch the holiday mood with Frank Black, Angel, Mulder and Scully, Alfred Hitchcock, or even the cast of Supernatural. This author is currently working on a Christmas-themed TV/film encyclopedia, and the Christmas TV Companion just whet my appetite...

Monday, December 21, 2009

30 Years Ago Today: Where Every Journey Ended; This One Began...

On December 21st, 1979, Walt Disney's The Black Hole was released theatrically in the United States. Critics immediately disliked it, for the most part, and the 25-million dollar space epic was considered a box office bomb.

Yet a generation of kids (this one included) grew up with the film...and never forgot it. Disney's first "PG" rated movie, The Black Hole was an one-of-a-kind combination of disparate styles and moods. It was a swashbuckling space adventure in the mold of Star Wars (1977), down to two cute robots (V.I.N.Cent and Old B.O.B) and mock heroics, but it was also oddly -- and thoroughly -- dark. Creepy even.

On an Earth spaceship in a dark corner of the universe, a mad Captain Nemo-type, Reinhardt, had transformed his human crew into drones; into slaves. He controlled his vast, cathedral-like ship via the massive, red robotic terror, Maximillian (who was equipped with propeller blades as a weapon and wasn't afraid to use them). At one point, Reinhardt even cryptically begged "save me from Maximillian..."

And the film's startling, do-or-die conclusion was a literal odyssey through Hell. Another of The Black Hole's unforgettable images: Reinhardt shunted inside the beast, Maximillian; his desperate human eyes entrapped inside a robotic shell.

Itself inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Black Hole seems to have been the inspiration for films such modern efforts as Event Horizon (1997). And, of course, we're due for a remake in the years ahead; though I doubt a new film can capture the pure, unique creepiness of the original. Hopefully, it can improve some of the film's dopier scientific flaws and dialogue.

In terms of look, The Black Hole was also something special. Outer space itself looked different (bluer...); the spaceship Cygnus resembled a vast haunted house; and the goose-stepping robots had a menacing but realistic air about them. Thematically, the film concerned how humans (and robots) faced the specter of the unknown: with madness (Reinhardt); with cowardice (Harry Booth); with blind devotion (Durant) and - thankfully - with heroism (Holland and the others). This was not an unimportant thing, since beyond the black hole laid a Manichean afterlife of sorts; a binary choice of Heaven or Hell for all souls going beyond the event horizon.

I can't believe it's been thirty years since I first saw The Black Hole. I was in the fourth grade...and I was stunned (especially by the violent death of Dr. Durant). Time flies. Anyway, here's a snippet of my detailed review of the film, from earlier this year: The Black Hole, viewers can detect a number of Manichean ideas expressed in the dramatis personae and the narrative situations. This is especially so during the metaphysical journey through the black hole in the finale, a strange religious twist on the trippy denouement of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mani believed that Evil had many faces...but that at all those faces were part and parcel of the same Evil, not different ones.

In The Black Hole, we see Maximillian and Hans Reinhardt as two faces of Evil (mechanical and human, respectively) and in their nightmarish last scene, these two evils literally join to become one: Reinhardt is subsumed inside the robot demon Maximillian. Hauntingly, we see Reinhardt's frightened human eyes peering out from the machine's mechanical shell. This is our last close-up view of the characters, of twin evils welded together.

This strange inhuman union occurs inside the black hole, in a realm that resembles a Boschean vision of Hell, with hopeless souls (the spirit-less humanoids) trudging across a Tartarus-like underworld of sorts as flames lick at the bottom of the frame. High atop a hellish, craggy mountain, the Maximillian/Reinhardt Hybrid rules, like Milton's Lucifer. In keeping with Manichean beliefs, this is visibly the realm of physical things: bodies, mountains, fire...materialism. It is no coincidence either that the production design of the film has colored Maximillian, Dr. Hans Reinhardt and Hell itself in crimson tones. This bond of red -- whether Reinhardt's uniform, Maximillian's coat of paint, or the strange illuminating light of Hell itself -- connects all of them as "the One Evil," not separate evils, conceived by the ancient philosophy.

Contrarily, the four survivors of the Palomino expedition (Holland, McCrae, Pizer and V.I.N.C.ent) find not Hell in at the event horizon, but rather a celestial cathedral of sorts. Their vessel, the probe ship, is guided through this realm of the spirit (not the body), by another soul...a white guardian angel of sorts. The protagonists temporarily seem to exit the world of the body, and the film reveals their thoughts -- past and present -- "merging" during a brief, strange scene involving slow-motion photography.

What this scene appears to portend is that the three humans -- and robot (!) -- have been judged by the cosmic, Manichean forces inside the black hole and found to be above "sin," hence their journey through the long, Near Death Experience-style "light at the end of the tunnel" and subsequent safe re-emergence back into space. Instead of remaining trapped in a physical Hell (like the Reinhardt/Maximillian hybrid), the probe ship and those aboard pass through the gauntlet of "spirituality" where nothing -- not even sin -- can escape, and arrive safely in what appears to be a new universe. The closing shot of the film finds the probe ship on course for a giant white sun...a beacon of light and hope, and perhaps even a new beginning for the human race (and again, robot-kind...).

Reinhardt's final utterance before entering the crucible of the black hole is simply a mumbled..."all light." This might be an allusion to William Wordsworth's poem, An Evening Walk Addressed to A Young Lady: "all light is mute amid the gloom," It may be Reinhardt's (too late...) recognition of the fact that just as he has squelched out all light in the souls of his crew; so will the black hole mute out his spiritual light...sending him into utter, eternal darkness.

The climactic and symbolic final moments of The Black Hole -- long a subject of debate among the movie's detractors and admirers -- fits the tenets of Manicheism perfectly, positing for us the metaphor of devouring black hole as a spiritual testing ground or judgement day: one where humans understand that the secret of man's spirituality; his sense of morality. So the use the movie ultimately puts the black hole to is not scientific at all, but rather spiritual, religious. For some viewers, that may simply be a bridge too far in belief. For other's, it's a recognition, perhaps, that man must ultimately reckon with himself, especially when facing the Mind of God.