Saturday, February 27, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: A Perfect Getaway (2009)

Honesty in blogging time here: I wasn't particularly enthusiastic to screen A Perfect Getaway (2009), a recent thriller starring Milla Jovovich, Timothy Olyphant, Steve Zahn and Chris Hemsworth.

From the trailers, I judged that the film just looked...generic. A bunch of vacationers in an isolated (but lovely) spot get killed off one-by-one by some garden-variety psychopath.


Been there. Done that.


But then I learned that A Perfect Getaway had been written and directed by none other than David Twohy. Now my curiosity was piqued.


After all, this is the underrated talent who directed the very best John Carpenter movie not actually directed by John Carpenter: 2000's sterling Pitch Black.

Twohy also made The Arrival (1996), a film which posited global warming as a secret alien terra-forming strategy. Not a perfect movie, perhaps, but a damned inventive thriller, replete with black hole bombs, creepy alien metamorphosis special effects, some nineties-era big-government paranoia, and a rousing final action scene set atop a giant satellite dish.

Yet despite Twohy's leadership here -- at least starting out -- I still felt that sinking feeling about A Perfect Getaway. It begins (sort of...) with a handsome, just-married couple arriving in Hawaii for a vacation. But Cydney (Jovovich) and Cliff (Zahn) aren't exactly smart travelers.

In short order, these characters make every mistake you can possibly imagine in term of horror movies and the "Stranger in a Strange Land" genre conventions. To wit, Cydney and Cliff show off their heaps of cash (their "wedding haul") to strangers. Then they are rude and crass in front of the locals (Cydney brings up blow jobs out of-the-blue...), Next, they recklessly stop to pick up two hitchhikers: the very menacing Kale (Hemsworth), and his girlfriend, Cleo (Marley Shelton). Worse, once they've made the offer of a ride, Cyd and Cliff try to slink out of it. Subtle.

But even as I grew quickly irritated with Cydney and Cliff for their rampant stupidity and social awkwardness, I found myself growing intrigued by Twohy's choices as a director.

In Kale's first scene, for instance, we never see the hitch hiker's face above the line of his moustache. It's not just a shot here or a shot there, either. A scene of some duration occurs by the roadside, and rough-and-tumble Kale is on screen talking...but we never see his eyes. At the very least, this approach is unnerving. More than that it's a metaphor for Twohy's approach to the entire film (and his steely focus, in particular, on lying eyes...).

Before long in A Perfect Getaway we learn that two innocent newlyweds have been murdered in Hawaii. With this data in the forefront of our thinking, we cringe when Cydney and Cliff easily take-up with two more strangers: Nick (Olyphant) and his butt-kicking, Southern girlfriend, Gina (Kiele Sanchez). Could they be the killers?

And did I happen to mention that Gina learned the fine art of animal butchery (by hatchet no less...) in the local Piggy Wiggly meat department? Or that Nick is "hard to kill," meaning he survived a land-mine explosion in the Iraq War? Said explosion pulped the back of his skull, but he was ambulatory for another seventeen minutes. Fall unconscious? Nah. He just wanted a cigarette..

The first hour of A Perfect Getaway is beautiful to watch, set in "the most gorgeous dead-end God ever made," but I feared I knew exactly where it was headed with all these seemingly off-the-shelf characters. For example, Cliff is an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter, and he and Nick keep discussing second act twists and red herrings. This sort of Scream-esque self-referential business is ten years out-of-date at this juncture, and just feels old and hackneyed. Thus I feared the movie would grind on to the predictable twist, be inordinately pleased with itself, and then end with a lot of sturm and drang.

However -- and I still find this miraculous -- the movie's twist is an absolute humdinger. Seriously. At about the hour-point, this formerly staid, seemingly predictable thriller kicks into high gear. The images go from luxurious color to cold glinty silver. A Perfect Getaway suddenly shifts into black-and-white film noir mode, and everything we thought we knew and believed is up for grabs. I don't write any of this lightly, but A Perfect Getaway lulls you into a sense of complacency before pulling the rug out from under you. Again, I was astonished...

What I feared would be an insipid movie about vapid characters instead becomes an animal of an entirely different stripe. And again and again, Twohy returns to a common conceit: the bonds we make with our eyes. How our eyes judge who is trustworthy. How our eyes reflect what we're feeling. How our eyes can lie, when necessary.

In the silver light that reveals the villains' m.o. (in flashback), their eyes are black and opaque, like their motives. They look like human sharks. Predators.

And then there's a great, tense scene near the end of the film during which a character in need of help meets a group of strangers. The killer arrives and attempts to sabotage her with the suspicious strangers. The killer claims our heroine is addicted to Meth. He claims she's out of her mind; that she's high. The strangers almost believe his story. And then, suddenly, one of the strangers has a thought about the killer's eyes. And the victim's eyes. And the game is up.

Even the motives of the killers comes down to the eyes, and what the eyes witness. The two villains are classic narcissists, you see. "Nothing exists until we get there" is their mantra. In other words, the world is their oyster. The world and its population mean nothing, at least outside of what it means to them. To further establish this point, there's a scene set on a beach in which the killer looks away from the tumbling waves-- and the waves actually freeze -- until he turns back to face them. They are their whole world, and nobody else and nothing else matters. There's no sense of empathy, compassion or humanity in them.

Or, at least in one of them.

Early in the film, Nick informs Cliff that when writing a movie, it is important to get the details right. Otherwise all you end up with is your basic "craptastic movie." Twohy seems to have internalized this message, and crafted a thriller that absolutely plays it straight; that absolutely earns your admiration; that stays two-steps ahead of you. This movie is so clever that it demands a second viewing so you can square yourself with your lying eyes. Especially in the first half of the film. The moves you thought were stupid and off-the-shelf? A second time, you realize precisely what's up.

A Perfect Getaway, even features a great title. Going in, you think this thriller concerns the perfect vacation spot; and the irony of finding terror in such an idyllic setting.

Coming out, you realize the title means something else entirely.

Friday, February 26, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

"Time can only be fully understood by an observer with a god-like gift of infinite regression."

- Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) discusses the dark, turbulent corridors of time in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

One of the finest and best-written horror blogs haunting cyberspace in 2010 is
Kindertrauma, a site dedicated to the film and TV productions that scared (and scarred...) us all as children.

In the spirit of that blog's dedicated mission statement, I've been thinking much lately about a disco-decade era movie that disturbed me tremendously as a kid. It's not exactly a traditional pick, I grant you. I certainly wouldn't classify it as horror, per se. But it was...horrific. And it certainly rattled my young mind.

The year was 1976 when I first viewed Escape from the Planet of the Apes on ABC Channel 7's 4:30 Movie (during Planet of the Apes week). I was six or seven years old at the time. I was in kindergarten, if I'm remembering it right. The movie itself concerned three ape-o-nauts hurled back from the future of 3955 AD (the era of the Earth's destruction in Beneath The Planet of the Apes [1969] to 1973; to now, essentially.


But Escape from the Planet of the Apes blazing, go-for-broke valedictory images -- especially following the film's easy-going, fish-out-of-water humor -- proved utterly traumatizing to me.


Specifically, at the film's climax, the audience is exposed to a number of really disturbing images. Kindly ape-o-naut doctor, Zira (Kim Hunter) is shot in the back several times while running away from her assailant.

A villainous scientist, Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) empties his gun into the body of Zira's baby (presumably), and we see the bullet-ridden, bloody blanket in close-up.

Then, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira's husband -- standing atop a high deck on a rusty ship -- kills Hasslein and we see the blood erupt out of his chest as a bullet strikes.

Next, a police sniper shoots Cornelius, and we watch in agonizing close-up as this beloved character, this pacifist chimpanzee, gasps repeatedly for air, plummets from his perch, and smashes hard onto the deck below. He lands with an unforgettable thud.

The most disturbing portion of this death scene is the close-up: Cornelius's lungs have been punctured apparently, and we see him register, shock, confusion and pain as the terminal nature of his wounds take effect, and he struggles for more air.

Finally, the bloodied Zira -- after dumping her baby's corpse into polluted-looking water -- crawls desperately to her husband's side and quietly dies beside him. Then there's a dramatic pull-back -- the cinematic equivalent of a "Holy Shit" -- as the camera retracts in horror from this orgy of violence perpetrated against, unarguably, the franchise's most beloved and likable characters.


And yes, this move is Rated G. For "General Audiences." Take the kiddies...

I've never forgotten this brutal climax to Don Taylor's third entry in the POTA franchise, and it's probably the reason I don't watch this film as often as I do the original 1968 film, or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Cornelius and Zira are such kind, innocent, loving beings and throughout the film, they literally wear their hearts on their sleeves. This quality of sincerity makes them very open with strangers ("I like you," Zira tells one of their captors, the kindly Dr. Lewis [Bradford Dillman]). Yet it also makes them impulsive.


This quality of total honesty and openness means Zira doesn't know any better than to tell her human captors EVERYTHING about her work in the distant future, including her experimentation on dumb and mute humans. And Cornelius also reacts impulsively (but protectively) when Zira -- following a torture session by Hasslein -- is insulted by an orderly. Cornelius kills the boy in an instant of fleeting rage. Considering all of this now, I still can't believe how unremittingly, how authentically dark Escape from the Planet of the Apes remains.

What I hadn't taken full notice of, perhaps, in my previous viewing of the film, is just how skilled and yes, how artistic, the film remains, in the support of such a rather bleak story. I had always boasted an unspoken bias against Escape since it is the only Planet of the Apes entry set in "our time," meaning no need for much by way of special effects, make-up or futuristic production design. The film also features less action than both of its silver screen predecessors. Having seen the film for so many years on television (in Pan-and-Scan), and not the more impressive wide-screen version, I had often considered the film ugly-looking, especially in respect to the other impressive films in the franchise.

Now, however, I see it a little differently. Don Taylor makes great use of the rectangular frame in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, forging a number of remarkable compositions in the process. One of the finest examples of his work opens the film. We start with a landscape view of a timeless ocean, bracketed on the left by a jagged mountain. This image plainly recalls the post-apocalyptic Forbidden Zone, rocky shore-line and Statue of Liberty-ending of Planet of the Apes. But before we can contemplate this particular (and familiar...) vision for too long, a contemporary helicopter unexpectedly juts into frame from the left, making audiences aware that we have returned to our Earth of the present. This is a great tie-in to the previous films; one of great visual consistency for the series. It's exactly the opening shot we would expect of a Planet of the Apes sequel...but with a twist.

In terms of visualizations, Taylor's direction also makes a case for our eyes that the human world (soon to die in a nuclear conflagration...) is already half-dead. The Apes from the future are welcomed to this world as heroes and celebrities, but soon are tortured and mistreated by agents of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Accordingly, Zira and Cornelius go from luxurious hotel rooms to utilitarian military bases, finally to a forgotten, rusted ship-yard that represents the wasteful, ruined, industrial infrastructure of a bloated human society living on borrowed time. Zira attempts to nurse her baby inside an abandoned ship there, and the vessel is a total wreckage. So what we get is an odd visual conjunction of birth and dying in the same frame.


In terms of visuals, Taylor also evidences a preference for images which note the apes' entrapment and ultimate doom here in our 20th century culture.

A preponderance of shots reveal the endangered apes through bars, window frames, door-frames or other enclosures that suggest, at least implicitly, their snare. Even the film's final shot adopts this stance; an appropriate touch since it occurs at the prehistory of ape enslavement in human culture. I should add, the shot also adopts the high-angle perspective frequently and in film grammar, that is also a signifier of doom.

Thematically, I also appreciate the way that Escape from the Planet of the Apes is structured as a mirror-image of the original, only flipping the ape/human dynamics. Three astronauts travel through time in both stories. Kindly "animal" psychologists tend to the astronauts in both stories -- in direct contradiction to the rules of the prevailing, cruel society -- and there are also early casualties amongst the space travelers in both Escape and Planet. In Escape's presidential commission or "panel of inquiry," there's even a resonance of Ape's famous "See/Speak/Hear No Evil" Tribunal.

What's even more genuinely commendable about Escape from the Planet of the Apes is the film's central theological and philosophical argument. To wit, Hasslein discusses the nature of time...and destiny. "Time is like a freeway, a freeway with an infinite number of lanes. All leading from the past into the future. However not the same future." He tells us. "It follows that a driver -- by changing lanes -- can change his future."

But then in a conversation with the President of the United States (William Windom in a terrific, ultra-slick performance), Hasslein admits that he wonders about his next course of action. Apes will take over the world if Zira and Cornelius are allowed to raise their baby. Hasslein thus wants to sterilize the parents and abort the baby. But -- as he aptly puts it -- "which future has God -- if there is a God -- chosen for our future?" In killing the Talking Apes, is Hasslein an instrument of God's plan, or an enemy of God's plan?

The President brings up the famous Hitler time-travel conundrum in response. Would we kill Hitler in the womb, knowing what we know of the man and his war crimes? Would he kill his remote ancestors? The President's answer is one of political buck-passing. When told that talking apes will dominate Earth's future, he notes sardonically, "I doubt that we shall still be in office by then."

This thematic conceit sees a deliberate reflection in a character introduced in the final act, the circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Armando states that he despises those who try to intervene in destiny, and act against God's plan. And furthermore, that if it is man's fate to be dominated by intelligent apes, then he hopes those apes are as kind as Zira and Cornelius. Essentially, we have two opposing points of view here: pre-determinism (Armando) vs. free will (Hasslein). Or to put it another way, Hasslein desires to "change lanes" in order avoid a terrible future for human beings. Armando prefers to believe that we're not even driving the car. That God has us on cruise control of sorts. Changing lanes is futile, if it isn't in God's scheme.

Interestingly, the very words of Zira and Cornelius, regarding "future" ape history, inform us a bit more about the shape of this argument. The two kindly chimps insist that, according to their Sacred Scrolls, pet apes went from doing tricks to performing services in two centuries. And that they turned the tables on their human oppressors in another three centuries. In other words, in the world that Zira and Cornelius arise from (and which Taylor visited) it takes 500 years for harried apes to develop the power of speech and become conscious to the philosophical concepts of slavery and freedom, unity and corporate action. This long period of "dawning realization" may occur because there is no real intelligent leader of the movement. Insurrection, revolution and a new order must arise through the crucible of experience; through evolution. Through generations of slavery.

But by "changing lanes," by traveling back in time, Zira and Cornelius have altered destiny (and their own history). Now, their child -- an intelligent ape -- will bring about the same pro-ape revolution in decades, not centuries. So the future has indeed been changed. It has been hastened.

But the irony of this is Hasslein's role. He acts to kill the baby of the taking apes, and the world believes he has succeeded in his quest. Thus the hunt for Zira and Cornelius's child ends permanently...at least until a paranoid governor named Breck picks it up twenty years later...when it is too late. By acting to destroy the threat now, by believing he can "change lanes," Hasslein has also hastened the very future he hoped to avoid (the pre-determined future?). The apes will take over his world; and they will do it much sooner than they would have without his witch-hunt. Perhaps God has played a trick on the vain scientist. The outcome was never in doubt; only the scheduling of it.

Critics are always quick to point out the pointed social commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and indeed, there's much there. Zira gives a bra-burning speech to a Bay Area Women's Club, striking a feminist chord right at the time that second-wave feminism was really entering the American bloodstream. "The marriage bed is made for two," she declares to rousing applause, "But every damn morning it's the woman who has to make it."

Similarly, Cornelius attends a boxing prize fight, and is horrified by the overt brutality of the event. By contrast, the humans don't seem to be horrified by this violence in the slightest. They cheer as the fighters pummel one another. Oppoistely, the humans do take great exception to the violence Zira inflicts on human experimental subjects...in the year 3955 AD. The same humans who decry Zira's lab experiments in the distant future are also the first to decide on her draconian personal disposition: sterilization after a state-enforced abortion. Given this scenario, Escape from the Planet of the Apes involves human hypocrisy. Or as Zira notes. "We've met hundreds of humans since we've been here. And I trust three."

There's also some underlying commentary in Escape from the Planet of the Apes about the American media and pop culture, and how it is so damn fickle. At first, Cornelius and Zira capture the hearts of "the voters" (as the President states). For a while, they are the toast of the town. Why, they even go to Disneyland to dedicate a "new boat " in the "jungle cruise."

Within a few weeks, however, the apes are spirited to an undisclosed location, and eventually murdered. The culture that worshipped them has apparently forgotten about them; moved on to different bread and circuses, apparently. The message: souls as honest and gentle as Zira and Cornelius get snuffed out in this media "circus" (as opposed to Armando's more compassionate circus, a place of sanctuary).

Ultimately, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a bridge between the first two films in the series and the last two. It is the only one not set in the future. It is also the movie, in a sense, that makes the entire Planet of the Apes series possible, since it "resurrects" characters from a destroyed Earth of the future and delivers them (and young Caesar...) into the 20th century timeline where the ascent of the Apes will soon occur. For all these reasons, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a strong entry -- and a necessary one -- in the five-strong franchise. But more than that, it's a pretty damn fine film in its own right.

And I still find it intensely traumatizing. Cornelius and Zira are golden hearts, to steal a descriptor from Lars von Trier. We have witnessed their decency and humanity in Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and here in their last film too. To kill off such sweet, beloved characters in such brutal, unblinking fashion is almost sadistic. But the point about the cruelty of the current human culture is made.

In truth, the enduring power of Escape from the Planet of the Apes probably arises from the vivid, unforgettable, bloody ending that spawns nightmares in the young. This is a Fin de siècle film. The human world is ending; a rusted, industrial nightmare of decay and bloat, and soon to take even further hits (the death of pets by space plague is just ten years off in this time-line, for instnace).

Even the film's final image is haunting, bizarre and a little surreal. A baby ape -- the real child of Zira and Cornelius -- is behind bars at Armando's circus. Shouting plaintively. Calling for "Mama." (And voiced by the late, great Walker Edmiston).

A sad baby searching for his murdered Mama? Not exactly a barrel full of monkeys.



Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #102: Space: Above and Beyond: "R&R"


This is Morgan and Wong Week over at Back to Frank Black, the campaign spearheading the return of Millennium's beloved, cult-TV, criminal profiler.

As you may recall, Glen Morgan and James Wong were writers on Chris Carter's The X-Files, producers of MIllennium's second season, and cult-TV creators in their own right. They were behind an excellent paranormal series, The Others, in 2000, for instance. But given this special BTFB event, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look back at another Morgan and Wong production from the 1990s: Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996).

I featured the pilot episode as my 37th CULT TV flashback back in November of 2007, and today I want to remember another segment, "R & R" produced by Morgan and Wong and written by Julie Selbo. But before we leap into a description of that particular tale, here's (some of) what I wrote about the series premise of Space: Above and Beyond, introduction-wise, back in 2007:

Imagine a "gritty, gutsy" (per TV Guide...) futuristic war drama colored in hues of mood battleship gray. It takes place in deep space following a devastating sneak attack on humanity by an unfathomable and merciless enemy.

Our protagonists in the war effort (which we are "losing badly") are young, attractive (but headstrong and angsty...) pilots. Much of the action occurs inside the cockpits of cramped space fighters and in military briefing rooms. The universe depicted by the series is one of murky morality and hard truths which shift in the troublesome and ambiguous sands of wartime. For instance, the specter of torture (here termed "re-education") is brought up in one installment.

You don't think I'm talking about the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, do you?

Instead, the first paragraph of this review describes the Glen Morgan/James Wong sci-fi war drama, Space: Above and Beyond, a mid-nineties-era TV endeavor that aired on the Fox Network for one season (and twenty-three hour-long episodes), and which concerned a squadron of rookie - but committed - soldiers serving in the United States Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry aboard a mobile space headquarters; not the Galactica, but the Saratoga.

Set in the year 2063, Space: Above and Beyond sets its stories in the immediate aftermath of a devastating ambush on an Earth Colony ship bound for distant Tellus, ("the furthest any human has ever ventured,") and thus this nearly-forgotten series imagined a futuristic 9/11 scenario...six years before 9/11 (and eight years before the Ron Moore remake of BSG). The enemy in this case was not the Cylon race, but the menacing and mysterious "Chigs," a derogatory slang name which refers to chiggers... fleas which burrow into the skin.

What remains so interesting about Space: Above and Beyond is not merely that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica co-opted so much from its look, feel and narrative without so much as a "by your command," but rather that the creators' of this cult series seemed to understand - far earlier than most of us - how truly divided Americans were becoming as a people; and how - as bad as it might be - a war effort could conceivably bring us together.

Some context: Space: Above and Beyond premiered just a year after the 1994 "Contract with America" Republican Congress swept the elections, a stinging rebuke to President Clinton and a victory for Nute Gunray...I mean Newt Gingrich. I often recall the 1994 elections as the "revenge of the white man" referendum, because this was the era in recent history in which there was so much complaining in the press about Hilary Clinton's (unelected) role in policy decisions (like health care), as well as lamenting over censorship re-crafted under the new term "political correctness." There was also a mighty backlash against social progress that appeared to the hard-right in America to undercut the white man in favor of women and minorities, specifically programs such as affirmative action.


Remember, this was post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas America, when the buzz word "sexual harassment" was all the rage. On a personal note, it was around this time that I first heard the name Rush Limbaugh, and began to meet otherwise seemingly-normal people who followed his every rant like he was some kind of cult leader.

Space: Above and Beyond reflects this reality in nineties America by featuring a diverse group of pilots, the men and women who will fight the Chig attackers. In particular, one of the pilots is Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland), who is part of a new minority in America called a "Tank," a term which is more derogatory slang, this time for "in vitros," citizens who were conceived and born in artificial gestation tanks.

America is still land of the free and home of the brave in 2063, but that doesn't mean that the "in vitro" class can expect total equality. As one character states bluntly in the pilot, "we believe in civil rights for in vitros, but not at the expense of our rights." This is EXACTLY what the debate was in the country at the time: women and African-Americans should have equal rights, as long as we didn't establish any laws that gave them privileges over the white man, some believed. Meanwhile - on the show - racism towards the in vitros still flourishes in the ranks of the space marines, mostly out of ignorance. "Tanks are lazy and don't care about anyone," reports one soldier, relying on an old stereotype. Later, a character registers surprise that "Tanks" actually dream. It's always easier to demonize the enemy (even a domestic one...), when you can somehow render them sub-human. Even the military equipment on hand in the Corps. doesn't fit the "Tanks," and Hawkes has to cut off part of his space helmet to accommodate a common "Tank" birth mark. "They don't make nothing with In Vitros in mind," he laments.

So this is the cultural context that Wong and Morgan were working on with Space: Above and Beyond. And the episode "R & R," directed by Thomas J. Wright, takes the characters of the 58th to yet another new horizon: furlough.

Specifically, the squadron is exhausted after multiple tours-of-duty, and the In-Vitro pilot Hawkes (Rodney Rowlands) is injured during a Chig attack on his patrol. Colonel T.C. McQueen (James Morrison) is relieved when the group is assigned 48 hours of vacation on a pleasure ship called "The Bacchus."

This vessel is described as "Vegas, New York City and Oz all rolled into one." I immediately thought of Sinoloa in the Buck Rogers episode "Vegas in Space" and "Space City," the so-called "Satellite of Sin" in Blake's 7.

In Space: Above and Beyond, this viper's den looks like a Trump Casino in space, and the futuristic Cabaret's master-of-ceremonies is none other than Coolio (!). He promptly informs the visiting soldiers that Bacchus is the place "where what you can only imagine, we make happen."

He also notes that this is not a world of virtual reality or "phony Holodecks," a pointed line which clearly differentiates Space: Above and Beyond's gritty, hard-bitten universe from that of another 1990s outer space franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Remember, Star Trek off-spring dominated the 1990s, and Space: Above and Beyond was a first dramatic step away from that Utopian world of plenty. Again -- in the heyday of BSG and SGU -- we might not appreciate the pioneering aspects of Morgan and Wong's space combat series as much as we should. Not entirely unlike Space:1999, this program ventured to present a realistic look at man in space; rather than going for an idealistic approach.

Back to "R & R." In short order, the pilots of the 58th start to let their hair down. On Bacchus ,Lt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) sets about winning some dough in the ship's pool hall, only to be verbally upbraided and relentlessly "played" by a psychologically-adroit android pool-shark, Alvin...an uncredited David Duchovny. This characters snarls like Clint Eastood and even asks Vansen "do you feel lucky?" I loved this subplot because it played on expectations (the audience's and the character's): Vansen arrives in the pool hall in a slinky black dress, manhandles her pool cue seductively (!) and vamps it up...expecting to get one by the other players on sex appeal.

Didn't count on a robot, I guess...

Meanwhile, Hawkes has to deal with the specter of drug addiction because of the pain medication he's been prescribed, for his injury. On The Bacchus, goes in search of sexual comfort. A virgin, Hawkes soon meets up with a beautiful in-vitro hooker who is far less glamorous than she appears. She's addicted to drugs too (so she doesn't have to think about how she earns her cash...), and she's the mother of an infant.

And yes, this distinctly un-romantic subplot indeed sounds familiar if you've seen the re-imagined, second season Battlestar Galactica episode "Black Market."

As "R & R" continues, another sub-plot: West (Morgan Weisser) learns that the seemingly-humorless colonel, McQueen, has a fondness for old, black-and-white, W.C. Fields movies. Before long, however, the brief respite from war is called off, and the pilots are back to combat. Hawkes, for his part, has trouble leaving the events on The Bacchus behind. The Colonel, who has also faced drug addiction, tells him "There is there . And here is here."

What we get in "R & R," which aired originally on April 12, 1996, is a dissection of virtually all the program's dramatis personae. Sometimes that dissection is explicit: Alvin (Duchovny) finds the right words about Shane's family life to shake her; to make her lose at pool. Sometimes the character dissection is more subtle: the episode tackles everything from loneliness and virginity to the way "closeness" in combat sometimes creates a false sense of intimacy. James Morrison's character, McQueen doesn't have a tremendous amount of screen time, and yet we learn a lot about him here.

It isn't often in Space: Above and Beyond that audiences got see the characters relate to one another and their universe outside of the battle situation, and their time on the Bacchus (except for the W.C. Fields movies...) doesn't seem relaxing at all. But perhaps that's part of human nature too: our need to pursue love, money and yes, danger, even when we're off the job, supposedly taking it easy. Of course, there's even more danger in pursuing these things when outside the confines of "responsibility. It's hard, as Vansen might say (especially after her encounter with Alvin), to "keep your head screwed on straight" in an environment like the pleasure ship.

Space: Above & Beyond is a remarkably prophetic show. I wrote a few months back about the sense of anticipatory anxiety evident in the works of Chris Carter, and I think you might detect that quality here too, in the efforts of Wong and Morgan. It's the belief that the apparent good times don't last forever, and bad times are imminent. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica of the 21st century also highlighted artificial people, sneak attacks, hookers, R & R, psychological mind-fucks, and gritty space combat, yet it's hard to ignore that Space: Above and Beyond hit the same notes (and without some of the more questionable soap opera plotting) almost ten years earlier. Also, Space: Above and Beyond always remained humanistic, rather than telling us that we are all the fools of the Gods, the victims of a fate we can't control.

So much of success in Hollywood is based on timing. Space: Above and Beyond in the Roaring Nineties, apparently didn't resonate with a wide audience (though its ratings were higher than many genre shows airing on television today). If it the program aired after 9/11, maybe we would have gotten to know Morgan and Wong's intriguing characters and solid writing for four seasons, or more...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Jonathan Harris







A mainstay of the 1960s and 1970s, the late Jonathan Harris headlined in several popular cult-TV series over the years, both as heroes and as scoundrels. How many of the many cult-tv faces of Jonathan Harris do you recognize? If you can, name the series, character, and episode (though that's harder this week...).

Monday, February 22, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Surrogates (2009)

There is a great tradition in the science fiction cinema of the “future” police procedural.

It’s actually one of my favorite sub-genres because it often involves a very human (hence imperfect) detective or police officer interfacing with new technology and new social norms based on that technology.

Sometimes, this format is what accomplished author Paul Meehan dubbed Tech Noir. Or to bring up the sub-title of his excellent book on the subject, it's "The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir."

To wit, in Soylent Green (1973), Charlton Heston’s investigation of a prostitute's murder led him down the rabbit hole, into a wide-ranging conspiracy concerning food supplies in an overpopulated city of the future.

In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), Deckard (Harrison Ford) came to a reckoning about what it means to be human -- and even what it means to love -- through his investigation and pursuit of android called Replicants.

Other examples of the future police procedural include Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), which arrived soon after 9/11 and the Bush Doctrine, and involved preemptive police “strikes” against "thought criminals" who have not yet actually committed a physical crime.

And then there’s also Alex Proyas’s flawed I Robot (2004), concerning a new "leisure" technology's terminal glitch: it might be murderous.

Obviously, some of these films are stronger and more well-regarded than others, but the “future police procedural” is valuable because it offers us one foot in the past (with the genre conventions of the police investigation) and another in the future. It’s a speculative format, but not so speculative that we can’t relate to it. In other words, it reminds us of human history at the same time that it tries to predict accurately the shape of things to come.

In 2009, Hollywood gave audiences the latest example of the “future police procedural,” Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. Based on the 2005-2006 graphic novels by Robert Venditti, the movie adaptation is an 88-minute actioner packed with both intriguing ideas and insightful social commentary on the direction the human race may be heading. Specifically, the film involves the widespread use of avatars…uh, I mean surrogates.

In the near future (2017), ninety-eight percent of the human population makes use of robotic surrogates on a regular, daily basis. This means that the “real” person sits at home in a “stim chair” while his or her better-looking, virtually-indestructible surrogate engages with the world outside.
It is the perfect surrogate who commutes to work (thus cutting down on car accident fatalities). It is the perfect surrogate who engages in sexual intercourse (thus cutting down on the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases). And it is the perfect surrogate who fights our foreign wars (thus cutting down on military fatalities.) But there's a dark underside to this technology as well, as the movie quickly points out.

Indeed, it’s not a stretch to read the whole surrogate phenomenon/revolution as a comment on two specific components of our contemporary 2009 society. First, the anonymity of life (and work) on the Internet. And second, our society’s increasing and even dangerous obsession with youth, beauty and physical perfection.

On the former front, an obese bald man may have a surrogate out in the real world who is a drop-dead gorgeous blond woman. So when you have sex with her, are you really having sex with her? Or with the obese bald man?

Similarly, when we choose a name or “avatar” on the Internet, it may or may not reflect our true identities (including age, sex, nationality, ethnicity, political beliefs, or even physical appearance). In other words, our Internet and Surrogate personalities may be but vainglorious fiction. In aggressively living this fiction, this fantasy, the film asks, what do we leave behind in the real world?

In the film, surrogates indeed offer human beings a chance to build an entirely new identity, one outside the constraints of our biological blueprint. In one sense, this is extremely freeing and empowering: we can literally be anybody online (or in Surrogates, in the outside world). Interestingly, the film notes that racial discrimination has diminished in the world of surrogate robots. This is because you "choose" your identity. You can choose to be black, white, Asian, straight or gay, based on your desires, not your biology. in this future world, skin color and sex are just fashion statements.

Yet oppositely, the film suggests there’s at least some level of deception and perhaps even cowardice involved in recasting yourself as someone entirely "new" and "different" I mean, why hide behind the blanketing wall of anonymity if you really believe in yourself, your abilities, and your words? Why pretend to be something you aren't?
One possible answer is that the motives of the hidden "concealer" are impure. When cloaked in anonymity, we can vociferously criticize other people with no possibility of being personally attacked in return. Consider: when an anonymous source attacks a political opponent, is it because the attack is truthful, or because that anonymous attacker is paid to do so, or even already ensconced in an enemy camp? We just can't know. When an anonymous source reviews a movie or book savagely and viciously, is it because the anonymous author was beaten-up as a snot-nosed kid by the author or filmmaker in question? Again, there's just no way to know. Motives become opaque; words can't be taken at face value. Trust is lost.

So anonymity proves itself both a shield and a point of deception: How can we accurately judge the real value of a persons' words if he or she won’t even stand behind his or her real name. Or behind his or her true appearance?

Surrogates
has a grand time playing with this notion, utilizing the technology of surrogate robots to make a point about modern life on the Internet. Accordingly, there are at least three occasions in the film during which an operator’s identity proves to be far different from the public face of the surrogate. Operators change surrogates in secret. Operators hide in unlikely surrogates, and so on. This nifty element of the film – a new wrinkle in the police “mystery” -- joyfully updates the format. How can you apprehend a criminal if that criminal's identity is fluid, ever-changing?

Finally, Surrogates seems to suggest that anonymity on the Net or in the real world, is actually a mechanism of trickery, denial, and hiding. “Look at yourself,” the film’s luddite Prophet (Ving Rhames) implores. “We’re not meant to experience life through a machine.” Later, we see a banner that reads “Unplug Yourselves!” and it’s another warning about living a false online life at the expense of our life as so-called "Meatbags," flesh-and-blood humans.

The company that creates surrogate robots in the film is VSI, and it has a slogan: "Life...Only Better." What this sound-byte comes down to is that every surrogate robot in the film boasts a sort of super-enhanced (but ultimately creepy...) beauty. Everyone in this future has perfect, youthful, almost plastic-looking, unblemished skin. All the men are tall and athletically-built. All the women are curvaceous and perfectly-coiffed. And most importantly, everyone appears to be young and vibrant. It's the Botox, plastic-surgery, breast-implant, diet pill culture taken to the logical and extreme ending point: robots with perfect tits, robots with perfect hair, and robots with the Peter Pan Syndrome: forever young.

This is disturbing, however, because of what the world of surrogates has so plainly lost: diversity. Bruce Willis (as Agent Greer) is a perfect example of this argument.

As a surrogate, Greer appears plastic and vapid (though young). Yet as a weathered, bald man in his mid-fifties -- as the real Operator -- he looks terrific...and utterly distinctive, unique.

There's a nobility in wrinkles; an honor in wearing your years on your face, the movie implies. A few powerful interests have sold to the many that there is a single concept of beauty, and that somehow we must all adhere to it. That's true in the movie, and in our lives.

Washboard abs. Big breasts. Perpetual youth. We can't all be Taylor Lautner or Angelina Jolie. And we shouldn't have to be to be considered beautiful or valuable.

Again, we're losing something vital, right now, here in our world, as we creep ever-closer to the universe of Logan's Run: where only those under 21 are considered worthwhile; where qualities such as physical perfection are preferred over qualities like intelligence, even experience. This world of "physical perfection" is an unattainable lie, and one that makes many people feel inferior (and hopeless) if they don't conform to society's stringent rules. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and Surrogates goes out of its way to remind us that by depicting how plastic and fake the beauty of 2017 really is.

I really enjoyed these didactic, science-fiction qualities of Surrogates. Yet, honestly, the film is one of the few "future police procedural" examples that gets the speculative sci-fi right, and the standard cop elements/investigation wrong. Specifically, the film involves a hand-held O.D. (Overload Device) weapon that can simultaneously fry a surrogate and his operator at home. The weapon liquefies human brains and blows out robot circuitry.

In investigating the murder of a surrogate, Greer learns of this weapon, and of the dark forces hoping to acquire and control it. But the problem is this: the culprit, when he is ultimately unmasked, has no compelling reason to act as viciously as he does; no motive. His master plan is to "upload" the O.D. weapon into the surrogate network and kill 98% of the world's population (meaning the Operators as well as the Surrogates). A little extreme, no?

This plan is essentially genocide, yet the villain sees it as a gift, a "rebirth" of the human race. That just makes no logical sense, especially when (as the movie makes plain), there is an easy way to destroy all the surrogates but leave the Operators intact, thus accomplishing the villain's goal of destroying surrogacy. Also, the villain himself is hooked up to a surrogate as he is about to launch his overload virus, so he's committing suicide too...

The details of Greer's investigation never prove particularly compelling, and the movie fails to make enough of a big character moment involving this protagonist. Greer's surrogate is destroyed in a pulse-pounding, well-directed chase sequence, leaving the Operator -- the man -- no choice but to unplug, leave his home for the first time in years, and reckon with ugly, messy reality.

After one scene in which Greer experiences a brief panic attack, this subplot is never again addressed in the film. A key to the "future police procedural" format is the detective's level of personal involvement with the revelatory investigation. How Greer is personally impacted by his sudden return to the real world should be the crux of the movie; and it isn't. We should understand what it means to be human again, in a dangerous world with high stakes. But the movie simply pays lip service to that idea.

There's a subplot here involving Greer's wife (Rosamund Pike), who has fled into her Surrogate on a seemingly permanent basis after a deeply affecting personal tragedy. It's an emotional subplot, but it's treated as a side-alley, a B-plot, and not as a convincing motive for Greer to throw all of contemporary society into unfettered chaos (as he does at the film's conclusion).

Again, perhaps it is my cynicism and personal bias, but I tend to prefer my future police procedurals gritty and realistic. I don't believe society can be changed in a day; I don't believe one simple act (or stroke of a keyboard) can undo decades of change and untangle decades of entrenched interests. In Soylent Green and Blade Runner, the imperfect, dominant system isn't brought down. Either the hero is killed by City Hall, or he flees City Hall, a fugitive. I find those resolutions more believable than the upbeat ending here. In fact, I would have preferred the darker ending of the comic-book series. It culminated with the destruction of surrogacy as well; but also with a suicide. You can't change the world without consequences.

Ultimately I enjoyed Surrogates' science fiction metaphors (particularly the message "Live for Real,") but felt that the script was contrived and the resolution nothing but forced Hollywood B.S. I don't buy the villain's motives either.

This is a particularly frustrating experience: that the film's cop angle should be so trite and cliched even while Mostow nails the really tough stuff: the science fiction.

So Surrogates gets a berth in the pantheon of "future cop procedurals," but not, ultimately, in one of the top spots. Like the Surrogates of the film's title, the script is just, finally, a little too...plastic.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Cult-TV Faces of: Roddy McDowall


A veteran of both silver screen and television, the late Roddy McDowall appeared on several cult-TV series over the years. How many of the many cult-tv faces of Roddy McDowall do you recognize? Can you name series and episode titles?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The House Between Turns Three


Three years ago today -- February 16, 2007 -- my independent dramatic web series, The House Between was broadcast for the first time on Veoh and Google Video.

For those of you who weren't visiting my blog back in the early days of 2007, I often termed The House Between "the great experiment."

With the able partnership and assistance of Joe Maddrey, producer of the Discovery Channel's A Haunting and the upcoming documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film, I created and developed The House Between in early 2006.


The mission:
to shoot seven half-hour episodes in seven days. Each episode cost only seven hundred dollars. We had a talented cast and crew, and everybody passionately gave their all for this project. Those involved in the series saw it as a (super low-budget) alternative to the science fiction television of the day. We shot in May 2006, and I edited through the summer, leading up to our 2007 air-date.

The House Between is the tale of five strangers who awake one day to find themselves trapped in an empty old Victorian house. There are no exits, and outside the house is an enveloping null zone of total blackness. The main characters are Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill Clark (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood). In the second season, an additional character, Sgt. Brick (Craig Eckrich) joins the "denizens" at this so-called "house at the end of the universe." The characters are not certain if their new "home" is a sanctuary or a prison, but they grow more aware, over time, that the house has a set of "rules" and even a personality.

On February 16, 2007, the premiere episode "Arrived" debuted. The story followed Astrid's first day in the mysterious house, and her apparent introduction to the other characters. We seemed to really hit our stride, however with the second episode, "Settled," still one of my favorite episodes of the show's entire run.

Looking back, the seven episodes of the first season -- though obviously low budget in execution -- (replete with iffy sound quality...) -- meditate about the earthbound matters that still interest me as a writer and human being.

"Positioned" (which our cast and crew dubbed "Die Hard in a Kitchen") was a story about the fight for resources inside the house; a battle that various nations fight every day on Planet Earth.

"Visited" looked at the (creepy) things that existed outside the house (the Outdwellers) and featured, in some fashion, the idea that violence begets more violence.

"Trashed" found the core group of five characters struggling with another problem: in a hermetically-sealed environment, what, exactly, happens to the garbage? "Mirrored" was our comedy show, about hidden character traits brought to the surface by a mystical looking-glass, and "Departed" was a series-ender that was revamped into a season-ender when it became clear we would be producing a second season.

Even amongst the participants, opinions vary passionately about The House Between (and which season was the best...) but nonetheless, I had the time of my life making the show. I wrote about 19 stories for the program (out of the 21 made), and directed 20 of the episodes. I also edited every single episode...so my heart was in it. And my heart remains in it.

As far as my personal favorites: I had the best time shooting the first season, but I think the second season is actually our finest. I know many of our crew, especially, prefer the third season programs by a wide margin (a span which saw a new location, and one episode dedicated to my late mentor, Space: 1999 script editor Johnny Byrne). Those stories were certainly more ambitious and experimental, anyway.

At our height in the second season, The House Between actually pierced the pop culture bubble a bit and was a cause celebre in some genre circles.

Much to our surprise and happiness, we developed a passionate fan base during the writer's strike in Hollywood, and the series experienced heavy viewership for the duration of the season. The series was even twice nominated for "Best Web Production" by Sy Fy Portal/Airlock Alpha -- against the likes of Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Star Trek: The New Voyages and Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog.

Needless to say, every one of those Hollywood competitors costs *slightly* more than 700 dollars to produce.

If you're curious to check out a production created on such a small budget and with such dedication and love, visit The House Between and start with "Arrived." Stick with it after that. You won't be sorry.

Soon, I'll be taking all the shows down from Veoh permanently, to prepare for the DVD release of the first season later this year. Also, a series soundtrack from the talented Mateo Latosa and Cesar Gallegos is imminent. Order information should be available soon.

Friday, February 12, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Tales from the Hood (1995)

As the amusing title indicates, Tales from the Hood is actually Tales from the Crypt with an African-American spin. Overtly concerned with issues of race in 1990s America, this is a horror anthology that -- while exhibiting a strong social conscience -- also features a commendable sense of balance. Two stories deal with white racists (on the police force and in politics, respectively) who victimize people of color, while the other two tales feature violence in the black community perpetrated by fellow blacks. Virtually every macabre tale in the anthology is closely related to real life, 1990s events, as well.

Today, Tales from The Hood’s best remembered story is likely “KKK Comeuppance,” which feature a white racist (Corbin Bernsen) terrorized by ambulatory black slave dolls, a kind of off-kilter tribute to the 1970s Karen Black TV-movie, Trilogy of Terror.

The first story featured in Tales from the Hood is “Rogue Cop Revelation” is a revenge-from-beyond-the-grave-style story, pure and simple, with racist cops paying the cosmic price for framing and murdering an innocent black political activist. Said activist, Clarence, returns from the grave and murders the offenders one at a time, in gruesome and extremely gory fashion. Wings Hauser plays the lead bad cop, named “Strom” after Dixie Party candidate and late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina. Early in the tale, the police stop Clarence in his car and nearly beat him to death for being a “political agitator.” The visual of several white cops circling and beating a black man -- defenseless on his knees -- blatantly echoes the videotaped Rodney King beating transmitted on CNN. Later, a fire on a city street brings to mind the imagery of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that the King verdict spawned.

But the cops in this story aren’t merely physical abusers. They are drug dealers interested in framing and discrediting black community leaders and destroying the black culture. In one especially incendiary scene, a white cop actually urinates on Clarence’s grave. The word epithet “nigger” is bandied around a lot here too, but again, that’s accurate to the historical record of the 1990s: LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, detective on the O.J Simpson case, was reported to have used that offensive descriptor by four witnesses at the trial, and was even captured using the term on audiotape. The point of all this: blacks and whites have very different views of the police force, based almost entirely on context of race.


In “Rogue Cop Revelation,” the scales of cosmic justice are righted when the evil cops are murdered by the resurrected Clarence. And importantly, a black cop who does not help Clarence is judged just as guilty as the bad cops here. His crime: race betrayal.

Tales from the Hood’s second tale, "Boys Do Get Bruised," involves child abuse in a black family. A school teacher, played by director Rusty Cundieff comes to suspect that a little boy, Walter (Brandon Hammond) is being beaten at home by his mother’s new boyfriend. Little Walter calls the boyfriend a “monster” and draws terrifying pictures of him.

The Twilight-Zone style twist at the end reveals that Walter -- like Anthony in "It's a Good Life" -- has the power to give life and breath to his drawings. Meaning that he cannot only draw monsters…he can erase and crumple them too. Again, there’s some powerful imagery here. Walter’s mother is beaten savagely with a belt in one sequence, and in another, there’s an all-out battle for survival in the family kitchen, the “hearth,” of this house. David Alan Grier plays the abuser in this story, and is actually pretty terrifying. Child and partner/spousal abuse is by no means an African-American occurrence alone, but it is important to remember how often domestic abuse occurs in “the hood” of the film’s title: an urban neighborhood with low incomes, high unemployment, crowding, and too many guns (and too much alcohol consumption).

In Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective: Defining, Understanding, and Combating Abuse, Dr. Kathleen Malley-Morrison and Dr. Denise A. Hines wrote that living “in neighborhoods with the lowest per capita income was associated with four times the risk of partner violence in comparison to neighborhoods with the highest pro-capita income.”(Sage Publications, 2003, page 137.) Tales from The Hood thus laments the conditions that have given rise to the “monster” played by David Alan Grier, and imaginatively locates the "cure" for such problems in the creative imagination – in art -- and in the education of the next generation.

The film's third vignette, “KKK Comeuppance” features a fictionalized version of the controversial figure David Duke (1950 - ), a former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who ran for the governorship of Louisiana in 1991 and ultimately won 55% of the white vote in that election. In favor of segregation and separatism, Duke was convicted for tax fraud in 2002.

In Tales from the Hood, the David Duke figure is named Duke Metger. Like his real life model, he’s former Klansman and governor of a Southern State who ultimately seeks the Presidency (as Duke sought that high office in 1988 and 1992). Metger lives in an opulent old plantation where black slaves were once abused, and now – in the era of Newt Gingrich’s Angry White Man and the congressional elections of 1994 -- rails against affirmative action, reparations, and any other governmental intiative that he deems might benefit African-Americans.

Forecasting comments made in the 200s by Don Imus, Metger also refers to blacks as “nappy-headed” and even mocks Rodney King by sarcastically asking, “Can’t we all just get along?” Duke gets his comeuppance when the souls of the murdered slaves come to life inside small, angry dolls buried under the plantation’s floorboards. Tellingly, Duke actually uses an American flag to bludgeon both the slave dolls and the “Voodoo Mother” who gave them life, a visual representation of America’s perceived hostility to the African-American experience and history.

The special effects in this vignette remain astounding, even fifteen years later, and Corbin Bernsen gives a go-for-the-gusto performance as the villainous, racist Metger. He makes the most of a distasteful role, and he’s one of those villains audiences will love-to-hate. Some might accuse this particular story of lacking subtlety or nuance, but the details of Metger’s beliefs and history so closely parallel those of David Duke's public life that the argument doesn’t hold water. In other words, it’s hard to believe anybody could be so utterly hateful to other human beings, no matter their skin color, but if you’ve ever listened to David Duke speak, you know "KKK Comeuppance" is no exaggeration.

The final tale, “Hardcore Convert” gazes at a vicious black figure, an ignorant, vicious gang banger named Crazy-K. Life is cheap to Crazy-K, and he commits murder (over money and drugs) as easily as he exhales. He is incarcerated, in the course of the story, with a “white power” Nazi, and the message comes through that Crazy-K’s anti-social behavior is only doing the Nazi’s work for him; confirming the white world’s opinion of many blacks as anti-social thugs and criminals.

Crazy-K undergoes a “behavior modification” program while in prison, and is told by his tormentor/doctor (Rosalind Cash) that “you’ve got to take responsibility to break this chain” The behavior modification regime in this case involves a viewing of real-life, documentary photographs and images of violence perpetrated against blacks in American history. This montage, -- a kind of homage to Clockwork Orange's Ludovico Technique -- begins with images of whites killing blacks but by the end of the presentation we see blacks murdering blacks and a sub-culture devoted to “gangsta” values. This sequence is simultaneously a critique of white and black violence, and as such a perfect summation of the film’s viewpoint, that indeed, blacks have been victimized by whites in American history. But – importantly -- they’ve also been victimized by themselves...and even if they can’t change the fact of the former -- the fact of ignorant white racism -- they can change the latter. And need to do so.

Ultimately, director Rusty Cundieff, -- who studied journalism at Loyola and also majored in the philosophy of religion -- does a terrific job crafting a horror film that is simultaneously poignant and entertaining. It’s an audacious, fearless enterprise, and Tales from the Hood is frightening, funny, even-handed and also remarkably moral.

The film's wraparound segments, involving a grinning Clarence Williams III (and titled "Welcome to My Mortuary") are also on point with the film's message. Williams plays Simms, an undertaker who greets three young "gangstas" and tells them the macabre tales that make up the film's duration. What these youngster soon learn, however, is that there is more on Simm's mind than simplestorytelling. It's no coincidence that these young men have come to him, and to his mortuary, and that's the film's take away point: about a generation of boys "in the hood" facing the specter of early and violent death, reliving a cycle of seemingly inescapable violence.

Again, I've always insisted that the best horror films are those that reflect the reality of their times. Tales from the Hood is a product and genre curiosity of the 1990s, the era of Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, the Clarence Thomas Hearings, the L.A. Riots, Clinton as our "first black president" and so forth. As these examples make plain, it was a span when race relations were once more front and center in the American conversation, and Tales from the Hood doesn't shy away from commentary on that dialogue.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Many Cult-TV Faces of: Joan Collins




In the 1960s and 1970s -- long before Dynasty -- Joan Collins made the rounds on several cult TV favorites, as villains, damsels-in-distress and double-crossers. How many of the many cult-tv faces of Joan Collins can you name? Series and episode titles?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 101: Cosmos: "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean" (1980)

"The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be..."

-Carl Sagan, Cosmos: A Personal Journey


I still remember feeling a keen sense of anticipation as I sat down to watch the first hour-long episode of the PBS series, Cosmos: A Personal Journey (September - December 1980). I was in the fifth grade at the time -- just ten years old -- and my English teacher, Mr. Rice, had assigned me to "review" the premiere episode, "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean." It was my first written TV/film review of many, I suspect...the inauguration of my own "personal journey," as series host Carl Sagan (1934-1996) might have aptly described it.

I recently re-screened the first episode of the award-winning Cosmos, "The Shore of the Cosmic Ocean," and it was amazing and gratifying to me how many ideas, how many visuals, how many specific moments I recalled with clarity, nearly thirty years later.


"The Shore of the Cosmic Ocean" opens with a view of tumbling, crashing waves, and then a long-shot view of a solitary man on a mountaintop. As this figure nears us, this very intense-looking man garbed in a red turtleneck and corduroy jacket begins to speak in forthright, blunt terms about the human race and our place in the universe. Meet Carl Sagan, our host, teacher, and philosopher-in-residence.

He speaks explicitly of the danger of the Cold War and our new found technological capacity to destroy ourselves. But he also notes appreciatively that, as a species, we are "young, curious and brave." What will follow this introduction, he states, is nothing less than the story of us, of humanity, floating "like of mote of dust in a morning sky."

After reminding us that for this TV journey we will require "imagination and skepticism both," we then board "a ship of the imagination," a glowing star craft that resembles a dandelion seed.

Next, we travel alongside our host for a close-to-thirty-minute voyage through the universe. We visit quasars, pulsars, a supernova, a stellar nursery, various galaxies ("chains of islands in the cosmic ocean") and more. We see the Orion Nebula, the Hercules Cluster, Andromeda, the planets of our solar system large and small, and then set a course into "the shallows of the solar system," where we finally reach blue, clouded Earth. This great, beautifully-rendered sojourn through galactic space ends pointedly with a montage of human faces, one that reveals us in all our great diversity and all our great similarities.

This entire segment features a trippy 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) quality, with host Sagan at the lonely control panel of a vast, minimalist-looking space ship bridge, staring into a huge view-screen.

The evocative, emotion-provoking Vangelis musical score adds to the aura of portentous discovery, and even the narration (written by Sagan, Ann Duyan and Steven Soter) boasts a lyrical, poetic quality. Sagan speculates about alien life forms; about their politics, music and religion. He wonders if alien races, like humans, pose a danger to themselves. His every word is, without exaggeration, mesmerizing.

Yes, Cosmos is an educational program produced in 1979-1980 for Public Broadcasting, but it has such a distinctive feel and mood. Some less-than-generous souls might term the vivid language a tad florid, but I disagree. Sagan loves words -- loves the act of communication -- as much as he loves science here. Therefore, his mode of transmitting fact and speculation is both colorful and individual. This is his "Personal Journey," the series announces; the equivalent, perhaps, of a modern-day vlog, in some weird sense. So indeed it is appropriate Cosmos should be stamped with Sagan's persona, his unique and dramatic way of both seeing and saying things.

After disembarking from our "ship of the imagination," Sagan next time-travels back to the Great Library of Alexandria in antiquity, "the brain and glory of the greatest city on the planet Earth." Thanks to some 1970s-era blue-screening composited with miniatures, we actually see Sagan stroll through the corridors of this great "citadel of human consciousness," telling us of the over one million scrolls of knowledge it once housed. It is right here, says our host, that Euclid studied and learned; that Archimedes pondered; that Ptolemy contemplated the stars.

In detail, Sagan relates how another user of the great library, Eratosthenes, calculated the circumference of the Earth...and was pretty darn accurate in his estimation. This particular segment of Cosmos reminds us of humanity's capacity for greatness. "The drama of the human species," as Sagan would say, is about our curiosity, our quest for knowledge, our unending capacity to grow, change and adapt to our new understandings about the cosmos.

The final bit of "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean" is downright humbling. Sagan leads us to a giant calendar displaying the twelve months of one year. Then he describes "cosmic time," stretching from the Big Bang...to now. The human portion of that calendar, Sagan says -- our entire recorded history -- fits into the last ten seconds of December 31st. Before that, perhaps, we were just "star stuff."

As Sagan is visually "zapped" or "beamed" into this cosmic calendar, I registered again how cleverly Cosmos deploys special effects. This is no dry science show; no emotionless recitation of dull fact. It is -- as promised -- a kind of imaginative, speculative journey rendered dynamic through up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art visuals (for 1980, of course...).

This first episode of Cosmos culminates with Sagan's suggestion that a new calendar year is about to commence, and how long our dominion lasts in that new year will depend on which of our human qualities wins outs: our tendency towards self-destruction; or our curiosity and need to acquire ever more knowledge.

Other segments of Cosmos include "One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue," "The Harmony of the Worlds," "Heaven and Hell," "Blues for a Red Planet," "Traveler's Tales," "The Backbone of Night," "Journeys in Space and Time," "The Lives of the Stars," "The Edge of Forever," "The Persistence of Memory," "Encyclopedia Galactica, "and "Who Speaks for Earth?"

Yet it is this premiere that I recall most vividly so many years after the initial broadcast. Sagan had a way with words, and a personal mode of contextualizing the cosmos in distinctly human terms. Nothing lasts forever, "not even stars," he tells us, reminding viewers that mortality is universal. The series Cosmos won't last forever, either, but after thirty years, Sagan's intellectual curiosity remains irresistible, and his exploration of "all there is, was or will be" is both valuable and illuminating.

I'm definitely going to get this series for Joel when he is old enough to appreciate it. Why? Specifically, Cosmos, though educational in tenor and approach, is actually dramatic, even enthralling, in a unique way. It boasts an unending sense of wonder about everything, about the order of the universe. And today -- in the era of seemingly "billions and billions" of dark science fiction TV series -- that sense of limitless imagination, that sense of renewed marvel and optimism makes Cosmos not a just a retro-curiosity, but a beacon in the night as bright as a pulsar.

Monday, February 08, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 100 Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982)

Donald Bellisario's name remains familiar to a wide audience of TV viewers, not just for popular programs such as NCIS, JAG, and Quantum Leap, but for eighties classics such as Magnum P.I. and Airwolf.

Yet way back in the year 1982, Bellisario also crafted the cult adventure program Tales of the Gold Monkey, an expensive, high-profile initiative set in the South Pacific during the late-1930s.

At the time of the series' broadcast on ABC, many TV reviewers complained vociferously that Bellisario's latest endeavor was nothing but a rip-off of Steven Spielberg's high-profile, summer blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

To wit: like Raiders, Monkey was set in the 1930s. And like Raiders, Monkey was considered a "pastiche" of 1930s era cliffhanging adventures, one re-purposing old genre tropes and chestnuts for a younger generation not yet familiar with them.

Adding to the lurking (but inaccurate...) sense of "copying" Raiders of the Lost Ark, another very similar adventure series aired on TV the same season that Tales of the Gold Monkey bowed, CBS's Bring 'Em Back Alive starring Bruce Boxleitner as Frank Buck. It was also set in the 1930s, in Singapore.

To misquote Oscar Wilde, to produce once TV series like Raiders of the Lost Ark in a season may be regarded as unfortunate; to produce two looks like a pattern. Or so the critics implied.

But whereas Bring 'Em Back Alive disappeared without a trace in short order, a dedicated fan base sprang up around Tales of the Gold Monkey. And it has been lobbying for years to bring the series back alive on DVD in the States. The reason for this steadfast dedication: it was far from the rip-off reviewers accused it of being.

On the contrary, the series was a loving excavation of the classic Hollywood 1940s-1960s adventure film...and one with spirit, camaraderie, and an abundance of humor. Simply stated, Tales of the Gold Monkey was much more Howard Hawks than Steven Spielberg. It was more Cary Grant than Harrison Ford.

Tales of the Gold Monkey is set in the year is 1938, as fascism is on the global march. Heroic but capricious American pilot Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins), his loyal mechanic, Corky (Jeff MacKay), and Jake's trusted one-eyed terrier, Jack, face peril and intrigue during their runs to the South Pacific island of Boragora. They battle Nazi spies, the Japanese Empire, slave traders, and even primitive natives. They just want to mind their own business, but the winds of war are upon them.

Jake's romantic interest in the series is Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O'Heany), actually a secret agent for the United States government who is masquerading as a second-rate singer/entertainer. Bon Chance Louie (Roddy McDowall), the enigmatic French proprietor of Boragora's most popular watering hole, the Monkey Bar, is another of Jake's allies.

While piloting his beloved (but always-in-need of repair) seaplane, The Grumman Goose all across the Marivellas, Jake frequently butts heads with two recurring foes: Kohi (Marta DuBois), a seductive Japanese princess, and her warrior guardian, Todo (John Fujioka). These villains hardly seem like Raiders characters either; more like Princess Ardala and Killer Kane from Buck Rogers, actually.

Several years ago, I interviewed Gold Monkey writer and director Tom Greene on assignment for Cinescape (before it went out of business), and he shared some of the behind-the-scenes history of Gold Monkey with me. In particular, Greene established the fact that Bellisario first pitched Gold Monkey to the networks in 1979. Chronologically speaking, that's well before the cinematic arrival of Indiana Jones. Bellisario's inspiration in creating Gold Monkey was actually...the films of Humphrey Bogart.

"Tales of the Gold Monkey was homage to those great Hollywood films of old," Greene reported. "Don's a romanticist when it comes to Hollywood -- he lives it and breathes it -- and that's what Tales of the Gold Monkey was all about."

An example of this love of "old Hollywood" is evident in the very names Bellisario selected for the Gold Monkey dramatis personae. Series hero Jake Cutter was named after Captain Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger portrayed by John Wayne in the 1961 film Western, The Comancheros, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca [1942]).

And Jake's profession as independent, small-time transport pilot was a reflection of Cary Grant's similar occupation in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), a Howard Hawks production.

Even Gold Monkey's loyal sidekick "Corky" was intentionally designed as an amalgam of all those famous Hollywood "character" or "sidekick" roles that had been seen throughout the years.

"Corky was a combination of three characters in film history," the late actor Jeff MacKay described for me during a phone interview in 2000. "One is Curly Howard of The Three Stooges. The second is Walter Brennan in To Have and To Have Not (1944), and the third is Thomas Mitchell in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Corky was the heart-of-gold, true-blue friend that the hero could always rely on, even though he had human foibles and weaknesses."

While preparing the series for its network run on ABC, the creative staff of Tales of the Gold Monkey moved into the old Alfred Hitchcock building at Universal Studios, another place rife with history. Though the series was budgeted at a once-astounding $900,000 per hour long segment, an entire island (and the recreation of a time period...) still had to be constructed in believable fashion

"Don's a perfectionist" episode director Harvey Laidman, who helmed several episodes of Tales of the Gold Monkey, told me during another phone interview. "He has a very vivid picture in his mind of what he wants...at the time we were doing Gold Monkey, I think he saw it as an action show and he wanted good, credible action that made sense."

Greene likewise notes. "Don's one of the last producers who makes television like feature films, Every week on Tales of the Gold Monkey is like watching great 1930s features." Indeed, that very quality is what brings dedicated viewers back to the series over the decades.

Tales of the Gold Monkey survived an entire season -- 22 hour-long episodes -- and audience attention slowly began to build. In no small part, that was probably due to the increasing boldness of the series' writers, who kept piling on more action, and more expensive stunts.

Greene gleefully reminisces about one such inspiration which also, not surprisingly, came from movie history. "One of the last episodes we did was "Boragora or Bust" about a gold strike, and the whole thing had to do with a revolution. We had this magnificent stuntman, Richard Farnsworth's son, and I said to him, 'can you jump a motorcycle with a sidecar, like the Steve McQueen motorcycle jump in The Great Escape (1963)? He said he could, so suddenly I had this flash of Steve and Jeff in this motorcycle and side car, going over a collapsing bridge, and soaring over it. The next thing I knew, we had it in the episode!"

That kind of thing went on all the time, which is why, decades years later, director Laidman still considers Gold Monkey the most exciting (and demanding) series he's been associated with. "It was a war movie every week. It had flying -- which I loved -- and we were in the Goose shooting process shots for two whole days on episodes. There were war scenes, battles, and I got to use vintage equipment. There was even one show with a China Clipper, but the production company just built a door, and Albert Whitlock painted the rest of the plane around it. It was incredibly ambitious."

Unfortunately, Tales of the Gold Monkey had a secret enemy in its midst. "The network didn't like the lush look of the series," line producer Don Baer reported to me. "They wanted it to be light and sunny, like a kid's show. They saw it as bright. The villains had to be clear-cut and the very idea that characters might speak with foreign accents really bothered them. It was unbelievable. Everything had to be articulated and clear, and the intrigue was not what they were looking for, so the show was considered controversial."

"Right after the pilot, we had a meeting with network staff in Bellisaro's office," Baer remembers, "and Don was reciting some of the developing story lines. We were all nodding our heads...it was great stuff. But the network staff just sat there and said, 'No, that's wrong. Don't do that.'"

And rather than encouraging Tales of the Gold Monkey to break away from any and all similarities to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the network demanded commonalities. "The studio kept pushing for mud people and monkey people and other elements that would play up the similarities," Greene told me with not a little irritation.

For Greene, working with ABC -- and their demands to turn Gold Monkey into a kid's show -- was daunting. "We had to overload episodes with swearing so we would have grounds to negotiate with Standards and Practices," he relates. "We would trade them a 'damn' or 'hell' for something we wanted to leave in. During one episode, we had these gorgeous dancers doing the can-can and I offhandedly joked that the performers were not wearing underwear. Well, someone from the network overheard and thought I was serious. Before I knew it, execs were screening the can-can footage frame-by-frame to see if they could detect visible genitalia...."

Ultimate, ABC canceled the series at the end of the first season, yet even that didn't mean that the show couldn't go out in style; or in the tradition of "old Hollywood" it had established with such conviction and fidelity in its almost two-dozen episodes. In fact, the series was supposed to end with another unlikely homage.

"I'd been working on Gold Monkey around the clock, and one night I turned on the TV and fell asleep," Tom Greene told me. "Suddenly I woke up and saw Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy walking around our Monkey Bar set! I thought I'd gone nuts. Then I realized I was actually awake, watching a movie called Devil at 4 O'Clock." That film -- concerning a volcanic eruption on a South Sea Island, was made in 1961, but Greene detected how it could add some visual effects luster to Gold Monkey's final show.

He continues: "The next day, I went to the art director, and he told me that he had built our series sets based on old studio blueprints from Devil at 4 O'Clock. So I said, 'great, let's do a volcano show and the stock footage from the movie will match our standing sets.' That's exactly what we did, in what was supposed to be the final episode of the series, called "A Distant Shout of Thunder." When people saw it, they thought we'd spent millions of dollars destroying our sets when in fact it was just a perfect, magical blend of new footage and stock...."

It seemed a spectacular finish to a spectacular series, but before long, the network struck again. "After we completely destroyed the island, ABC asked us to do one more episode..." Greene laughs.

Today, director Laidman attributes Gold Monkey's continued cult popularity to its timeless tales of adventure. "I thought the stories were absorbing, interesting, and a little corny in a fun kind of way. Bellisario had a rough-n-tumble sense of humor that resonated with audiences."

Producer Baer concurs: "It had the romance of the 1930s, the bigger-than-life hero with the leather jacket, and the elements of intrigue of that time period. It was a lot of fun. That plane [the Goose] was a magic carpet and it could take you anywhere..."

So here we are in 2010, still lacking a boarding pass for that magic carpet. Isn't it about time for an official DVD release here in the United States? There's been one in the UK, I understand. But after all, if (TV) adventure has a name, it must be...Jake Cutter.

(JKM's note: My ill-fated Cinescape retrospective on Tales of the Gold Monkey was not printed before the magazine went under in 2001; but that [lengthier and much more-in-depth] retrospective is posted at my web site here.)

Buck Rogers: "Happy Birthday, Buck!"

In “Happy Birthday, Buck” a long-time human captive on the planet Ovion (?) Colonel Cornell Traeger (Peter MacLean) escapes and returns...