Saturday, August 21, 2010

Coming Soon: The De Palma Thrillers!

Just a quick heads-up on this upcoming event, but I'm participating in a series of broadcasts created by Movie Geeks United! to pay tribute to director Brian De Palma (and his thrillers...) on the occasion of the director's 70th birthday.

De Palma a La Mod reports the schedule:

Brian De Palma will turn 70 on September 11th, and Movie Geeks United! is preparing a fantastic-looking slate of shows that week leading up to the occasion, with a rich line-up of special guests. The guests are still being added, but here is what they have so far:

The De Palma Thriller: SISTERS - Monday, September 6 at 10pm EST
featuring special guests author/critic John Kenneth Muir and producer Edward R. Pressman.

The De Palma Thriller: CARRIE - Tuesday, September 7 at 10pm EST
featuring special guests author/critic John Kenneth Muir, actress Nancy Allen, and additional insights from critic Armond White.

The De Palma Thriller: DRESSED TO KILL - Wednesday, September 8 at 10pm EST
featuring special guests author/critic John Kenneth Muir, actress Nancy Allen, actor Keith Gordon, and producer George Litto.

The De Palma Thriller: BLOW OUT - Thursday, September 9 at 10pm EST
featuring special guests author/critic John Kenneth Muir, actress Nancy Allen, and producer George Litto, with additional insights from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

The De Palma Thriller: RAISING CAIN - Friday, September 10 at 10pm EST
featuring special guests author/critic John Kenneth Muir and editor Paul Hirsch.


More details about when and where the show is airing will follow...so stay tuned!

Saturday Morning TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1976): "Medusa"

Watching the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans last weekend, I was unexpectedly reminded of my first childhood encounter with the legendary monster called Medusa.

That introduction did not come at the movies, actually, with the Ray Harryhausen version of Clash of the Titans in 1981.

Rather, I first "discovered" the monstrous Medusa on...Sid & Marty Krofft's Land of the Lost, on October 9, 1976.


The fifth episode of the third (and final) season of the NBC Saturday morning series highlighted the mythological, snake-haired Gorgon (sister in myth to Euryale and Stheno) as the villain of the week.


And indeed, if you are familiar with this bicentennial-era series, it may sound like a real stretch that the Gorgon Medusa would appear in the "closed" pocket-universe of the Land of the Lost. But 1976 was a year of significant format alterations for this childrens' show.

Specifically, star Spencer Milligan --playing Dad, Rick Marshall -- left the program, and so did ace story-editor David Gerrold. On screen, Ron Harper (Planet of the Apes) took the lead as Uncle Jack, and behind the scenes, Sam Roeca, a veteran of CBS's animated Valley of the Dinosaurs, came aboard as writer and story editor. Also, writer/producer Jon Kubichan joined up.

"The first thing that Sam and I did was watch all the episodes," Kubichan reported when I interviewed him for Filmfax. "I wanted the series to be more fun, and to do something in every episode that was instructive in terms of science."

Roeca was on the same page in these desires and shared a mutual enthusiasm for mythology with Kubichan. Together, the new team sought to present in each third season installment "something from the past, from some literature or children's narrative."

This shift in narrative/imaginative focus resulted in a controversial third season that saw the Marshalls grapple with mythological creatures and beings such as The Flying Dutchman, a unicorn, a fire-breathing dragon, the Yeti...and Medusa.

"Medusa wound her way into the Land of the Lost because that actress is my wife," Kubichan joked with me.

"A writer that I knew came in, Greg Strangis, and came up with his story. He said, 'How'd you like to do a Medusa story?' and I thought it was a good idea. He went home, worked out a story and I made some changes. He re-wrote a little, and that was that."

One reason that humanoid mythological creations like Medusa appeared on the show so frequently in the third season involved matters of schedule and budget. "It was very difficult to do anything with the dinosaurs," Kubichan informed me. "It took a long time to shoot that stuff, so you can't have it done in a couple of days. It takes weeks..."

In "Medusa," Holly (Kathy Coleman), Will (Wesley Eure) and Cha-Ka (Philip Paley) are busy preparing a sort of emergency canoe on the river that the Marshalls explored in first season's "Downstream." Holly boards the craft, and when a dam down-river breaks, end up hurtling away from the others. She is rescued by a mysterious woman named "Meddie" (Marion Thompson), and escorted to Meddie's "Garden of Eternity."

There, in the Garden, Holly sees several very life-like statues, including a statue of one Jefferson Davis Collies, the Civil War soldier that Holly encountered with her Dad and Will in the aforementioned "Downstream."

Now, this is a really splendid and entirely unexpected bit of continuity in the series; a direct reference to a program two years previous. The statue of Collies is even seen with his beloved cannon, Sarah.

After Holly learns that "Meddie" has also turned the land's resident triceratops, Spike, to stone, she begins to suspect that she's in some real trouble. Meddie attempts to entice Holly to stay in the Garden by offering her a new, beautiful dress..

Elsewhere, Uncle Jack, Will and Cha-Ka, attempt to rescue Holly from Meddie -- Medusa -- but most grapple with the Gorgon's sentient mirror (!) and the ambulatory, crushing vines that crawl all over the Garden of Eternity. In the end, Jack defeats Medusa by forcing the monster to gaze upon her own horrifying reflection...

Today, Land of the Lost's dedicated sense of creative imagination and fantasy far outstrips the production's prehistoric special effects, which have not aged gracefully. The series is still incredibly enjoyable (the effects are no worse than Dr. Who's; or Blake's 7, for instance...), but "Medusa" is nonetheless hampered by some poor visualizations. For instance, when "Meddie" turns into the Gorgon, it's clear that the snakes in her hair are just rubbery, inanimate, life-less things. And her "gray," monstrous face make-up doesn't extend fully down her neck. In other words, you can see clearly where the make-up stops and real flesh color begin.

But again, Land of the Lost remains a really terrific Saturday morning's kid show because it is so endlessly imaginative, and because all the episodes tend to concern great concepts, whether from science fiction (like time-loops, for instance) or from mythology. Greg Strangis's fantasy story is actually grounded in reality too, and has two very notable themes.

In a very real way -- and this is probably why this episode was so frightening to children at the time -- the episode concerns our childhood fear of strangers. Here, Holly is alone and taken in by an apparently kind adult, but one with secret motives. She tries and tries to get away, but the adult is both demanding and apparently friendly simultaneously, and, well, it's hard for kids to go against the wishes of an adult. Here, the stranger is indeed a monster, and Holly must plot her escape carefully. So the story here, in veiled terms, is -- watch out for strangers.

The other sub-text in "Medusa" surely concerns vanity. "Meddie" is ultimately undone by her narcissistic obsession with her physical beauty. In other words, according to the teleplay, it is actually "ugly" to be too concerned with one's self. As Holly notes at the end, the problem with vanity is that you might -- like Medusa -- get "trapped" by it.

As a six-year old kid, Land of the Lost's "Medusa" terrified me to my core (Kindertrauma alert! Kindertrauma alert!), but it wasn't just the Gorgon's appearance and frightening ability to turn people to stone that was so powerful; it was the idea that she was a dishonest, untrustworthy adult who was planning to do monstrous things to an innocent child. Yikes...now that's disturbing in a real life way; a way that, well, dinosaurs or Sleestak are not.

Today, it's probably hard to conceive that an innocuous Land of the Lost from the disco decade was ever something that was legitimately "scary." But even today, you can detect how the series always attempted to ambitiously present a lot on a very small budget. For instance, "Medusa" features one or two very impressive high angle shots of Medusa's lair. These difficult-to-stage angles get across the atmosphere of danger and dread in a powerful way. A kid's show in a hurry likely wouldn't have found the time to pick out the right angle in moments like these, but Land of the Lost remains powerful (especially to the young-at-heart...) because its stories were conveyed with care both on the page and on the stage.

When -- many years after "Medusa" -- I saw Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans, I knew all about what the villainous Gorgon was capable of, thanks to Land of the Lost. But the movie visualization of Medusa was in every way superior and even more terrorizing than what a Saturday Morning kid's show could realistically present.

It's a shame that the new movie -- with a big budget and modern computerized-advances -- couldn't actually create a Medusa that was equally troubling to the psyche.

Friday, August 20, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: [REC] 2 (2009)

The first [REC] (2007) was an hour-and-a-half of nerve-jangling, throat-tightening, first-person pandemonium, followed by one of the most terrifying, hair-raising and unexpected denouements in recent horror cinema history.

The sequel, [REC] 2 (2009), skillfully re-creates the pandemonium...but little else.

Juame Balaguero and Paco Plaza's follow-up picks up mere moments after the conclusion of the visceral first film. A SWAT team equipped with helmet cameras enters an infected apartment building in Barcelona.

Soon, the team -- led by the mysterious Dr. Owen (Jonathan Mellor) -- is in search of a blood sample belonging to the unfortunate Medeiros girl...who was demonically-possessed, experimented upon by the Vatican, and is the wellspring of the zombie-styled outbreak.

Owen notes grimly that the building is "infested with the damned...with demons."

Naturally, matters continue to spiral out of control inside the quarantined apartment building. The Vatican has secretly been experimenting on children, an element of the tale which is, perhaps a veiled metaphor for the recent (but ongoing...) priest molestation scandal in the Church. Children are but tools to be used and manipulated by the ostensibly altruistic organization. These demonically-possessed tykes crawl around air ducts, race across ceilings(!) and attack the flustered, frightened team-members. And some moments featuring these terrifying, blood-thirsty creatures (particularly a hasty retreat through an air-duct...) really get the blood flowing.

Our protagonist from the first film, Angela (Manuela Velasco) has also, miraculously, survived her encounter with that nightmarish creature, the Medeiros girl, and eventually joins Owen's team. Despite the overwhelming danger, Owen won't permit anyone to leave the premises until he has recovered the Medeiros blood sample. And he can enforce his orders. Only his voice authorization can enable release from the quarantine zone. If he dies or is incapacitated, no one gets out.

Give the directors of [REC]2 lots of credit for their stylistic ingenuity. The first-person, handicam approach of the original has been repeated and augmented with a half-dozen or so inventive new flourishes. For instance, the cameraman capturing all the dynamic, helter-skelter action now boasts the capability to switch views between SWAT officers, presenting a screen-within-a-screen dynamic for some important sequences.

In a first-person-styled movie -- where viewers can only see what the camera sees as the camera sees it -- this device permits the filmmakers to switch perspectives in a pinch. The technique not only maintains a sense of pace and chaos, but actually acts as the equivalent of cutting-between-scenes in a traditionally-structured movie narrative. Nice.

This sequel also provides two crucial switches in perspective to keep matters unpredictable. We begin with the SWAT team helmet cameras (and the picture-within-a-picture conceit) in the first act and then transition to the amateur home video of three local kids (who sneak into the quarantined building) in the second act. Finally, in the third act, we return to Angela's camera...the lens through which the saga began.

If only Owens had bothered to check Angela's footage...

Another ingenious scene, near the end of the movie, challenges our sense of reality itself. In particular, a camera set on night-vision reveals secrets not visible in the light. I'm not talking about a simple monster reveal here, either (like that splendid jump moment in The Descent [2006], for instance). Rather, I'm talking about a "prison of darkness" barred from our human eyes, our daylight illumination. This scene is daring, creative and unlike any other sequence I've seen in this type of experiential, first-person film. It's a spill-over into a (supernatural?) dimension not quite our own. It's an intellectual conceit, and presents a kind of creepy, cerebral horror not usually featured in the intense, violent fast-moving films of this sub-genre (think The Last Broadcast, Cloverfield, etc.)


Again, credit the directors with devising and executing these really terrific twists on their original formula. And this sequel is undeniably intense too, for sustained spells. You'll be perched on the edge of your sea throughout.

Yet, in the final analysis, [REC]2 never truly equals, let alone tops, the experience of the original film, which I count among the ten best horror films of the last decade. In part, [REC] succeeded because it played so ably against expectations. The audience believed it was trapped inside a first-person version of 28 Days Later, but it was actually participating in The Exorcist...on steroids. This sequel starts from that familiar endgame and doesn't vary in approach. or setting. [REC] 2's last scene is thus doubly disappointing then: an explanatory "the killer talks" moment that just can't compare in horror impact to the hair-raising, pitch-black finale of the original.

Another way to describe the problem: While [REC]'s ending was legitimately mind-blowing, [REC] 2's ending...sets up a sequel. All audience questions are answered on camera, and the franchise's scintillating ambiguity, its amazing sense of imagination, bleeds out. The climax here is obvious, commercially-based, and thus totally deflating. Couple that with the familiar setting, the almost-interchangeable, unappealing SWAT characters and the worn-out milieu of the fast-running zombie/infected person...and all the good stylish invention in visualization is arguably mitigated.

I absolutely need to be clear on this subject. If you're into the idea of [REC] as a continuing horror film franchise, this first sequel is a perfectly serviceable, imaginative, and occasionally-inspired effort. It's a "good" installment with bumps and jumps and some cool curve-balls. I can recommend it on that basis, as an effective 84-minutes of horror.

Yet plainly, this sequel is not the perhaps-one-of-a-kind artistic masterpiece that its predecessor was. It's a nasty little trap, really...I'll be the first to admit it. If [REC] hadn't been so damned- good, this sequel -- with all the inventive touches -- wouldn't seem disappointing in the slightest. It's only in comparison to the fine original that this sequel suffers. Think of the difference in quality between John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and Halloween 2 (1981), and you start to get the picture. Are both those films enjoyable? Yes. Are both scary at points? Yes. But Part 2 is nonetheless a step down from greatness.

I look at [REC]2 and I see some great visual conceits in search of a workable narrative. I have the distinct feeling that the directors could have applied these trail-blazing techniques to a better story and more interesting characters, given just a little bit of time and patience. In that scenario, perhaps they could have devised a sequel that looms as large in the imagination as [REC] does.

But I suppose the desire to produce a sequel fast -- to strike while the iron was hot -- was too much to bear. I understand two further sequels are simultaneously in development.

Maybe the devil made them do it...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gerry Anderson's Space Precinct Coming to DVD Soon...

From TV Shows on DVD:

"From sci-fi legend Gerry Anderson (Space 1999, Thunderbirds, UFO), this special-effects-filled series chronicles the adventures of two cops from Earth battling a rogue's gallery of alien criminals in the year 2040. Transferred from the mean-streets of New York City to a teeming alien planet halfway across the galaxy, veteran police detective Patrick Brogan (Ted Shackelford, Dallas) and his rookie partner (Rob Youngblood, NYPD Blue, Sliders) struggle to adapt to their exotic new beat. Tangling with otherworldly outlaws in one deadly close encounter after another, the officers fight to bring intergalactic law and order to a mind-bending realm where the bad guy's aren't just bad...they aren't even human!

Cast: Ted Shackelford, Rob Youngblood, Simone Bendix, Nancy Paul. Episodes: Protect and Survive, Enforcer, Body and Soul, Double Duty, The Snake, Time to Kill, Deadline, Seek and Destroy, The Power, Illegal, Divided We Stand, Two against the Rock, Takeover, Predator and Prey, The Witness, Hate Street, Friends, Smelter Skelter, Flash, The Fire Within: Part 1, The Fire Within: Part 2, The Forever Beetle, Deathwatch: Part 1, Deathwatch: Part 2."


No cover art yet, but the set is due shortly before Thanksgiving. Stay tuned (and thanks for the heads-up, Fred...).

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week


"Blood has no nationality"

-Gattaca (1997)

A Brief Tour of Movies, Music, Love...and Sex...

"When a man and a woman in a movie musical sing...they're in love. When they dance...they want to have sex."

-Ancient movie musical proverb
.
























Wednesday, August 18, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 115: Star Trek: "The Enterprise Incident" (1968)

For over forty years now, Trekkers have passionately debated the third and final season of ST: TOS (Star Trek: The Original Series, for the non-trekkers out there).

This was the spell during which the late Fred Freiberger (1915 - 2003) assumed the role of executive producer after series creator Gene Roddenberry -- the Great Bird of the Galaxy -- reduced his involvement.

A little background: Roddenberry had apparently promised NBC he would be a hands-on show-runner for the third season, but then the network pulled a fast one and re-scheduled Star Trek to the Friday night graveyard (or "death slot") at 10:00 pm. Roddenberry stepped down, and Freiberger arrived on the scene. Not everyone was a happy camper.

The general perception has long been that Star Trek took a significant downward turn in quality during Freiberger's tenure; perhaps as a result of his involvement. Yet the ratings-troubled series had other problems to grapple with too, including a dramatic budget cut in the third season which rendered location shooting impractical except on rare occasions (such as "The Paradise Syndrome," early in the new season). According to William Shatner's Star Trek Memories, the per episode budget dropped from a high in the first season of $193,500.00 to a low at the third season of $178,500.00. (William Shatner, Chris Kreski, Harper Collins, 1993, pages 290-291).

Now intriguing, visually-exciting location work -- "planet side" action -- had been a staple of Star Trek in the first two seasons; with episodes such as "Arena," "This Side of Paradise," "The Alternative Factor," "Shore Leave," and "Friday's Child" springing to mind. But in the third season, Freiberger -- in the words of original series star, Nichelle Nichols -- suddenly became a "producer who had nothing to produce with." (Nichelle Nichols, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York 1994. p.189.)

So depending on mind-set, you can either appreciate Star Trek Season Three for what it is (and in some cases, by necessity what it had to be), or dislike it for the manner in which it differed from the first two seasons.


One can either laud episodes such "The Paradise Syndrome," "The Enterprise Incident," "The Tholian Web" and "All Our Yesterdays" or curse the quality of such outings as "Spock's Brain," "And the Children Shall Lead" and "The Way to Eden."

Other third season episodes remain even more controversial, both loved and despised by fans in equal measure: "Let that Be Your Last Battlefield," "The Empath," and "Spectre of the Gun." Failures, or, in some cases, almost avant-garde masterpieces?

One third season episode that holds up remarkably well today is author D.C. Fontana's "The Enterprise Incident," which first aired September 27, 1968 and featured the Enterprise's secret espionage mission inside Romulan space to recover a new and deadly cloaking device technology. This was the second broadcast installment of the last season.

When I interviewed D.C. Fontana for Filmfax, she explained in detail about the origins of this episode: "It was a reflection of the Pueblo Incident, where a ship was captured in an area of sea where it shouldn't have been. The ship claimed not to be a spy ship, but in fact it was a spy ship."

Specifically, on January 23, 1968, the U.S.S. Pueblo, a Banner-class research vessel with six officers and seventy crew men aboard, was surrounded and captured by North Korean vessels. The U.S. government insisted the ship was well within international waters, but the Democratic People's Republic of Korea countered that Pueblo was inside its territory when captured.

Classified, high-security material was eventually found aboard the Pueblo...it was on an American spy mission after all. The ship was brought back to an enemy port (the nearest U.S. naval vessel was -- ironically, the U.S.S. Enterprise -- positioned some five hundred miles south and in no position to assist...). The Pueblo crew was then processed, tortured, and eventually returned stateside. The ship itself remains in the custody of the North Koreans.

In "The Enterprise Incident," you can see many deliberate resonances of the real-life incident, which had occurred scarcely nine months before the episode was broadcast. Here, a Federation starship, NCC-1701, strays into enemy waters, metaphorically-speaking. The Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville) plans to take the Enterprise back to a Romulan port as a prize, and process the crew before eventual release. Of course, that doesn't happen.

Here, history is re-written rather dramatically. The party that is actually in the wrong (conducting the espionage in enemy territory in the name of intergalactic security,) escapes with a secret device that could alter the balance of power. In fact, the Enterprise actually gets away scot-free, with an important captive in tow: the Romulan Commander herself. In other words, Kirk and Spock are on the side of the angels, keeping the Romulan-created technology...out of Romulan hands.

In space, all warriors are cold warriors...
In "The Enterprise Incident," Kirk and Spock's secret spy mission also involves the logical half-Vulcan science officer...uh...romancing the Romulan Commander to gain her confidence.

Like the rest of us, then, the Romulans prove themselves intrigued by Vulcan morals and ethics. In this case, they make a bad mistake. The commander is manipulated by the poker-faced Spock. Specifically, he distracts her while a surgically-altered Kirk (now resembling a Romulan) makes off with the top-secret cloaking device. Scotty does a lickety-split installation, and the escape is made.

Notably, Spock re-affirms in this episode that "Vulcans are incapable of lying" and live by a code of "personal honor and integrity." The Romulan Commander naively accepts his word on these crucial matters, and pays the price for trusting Spock.

Yet, "The Enterpise Incident" works so well because the noble Spock clearly takes no satisfaction, let alone joy, in manipulating this Enemy of the Federation. In the hands of another actor, Spock might very well seem like a heel or a cad for actively encouraging the romantic inclinations of the Romulan Commander, but Leonard Nimoy plays the role sensitively; humanely. This subtle approach comes to the forefront during Spock's final conversation with the Romulan commander aboard the Enterprise, in the turbo-lift.

The Romulan commander has been tricked and disgraced. She is angry, and rightfully so, over Spock's trickery. And yet Spock doesn't hide behind orders or regulations here. Instead, he expresses, perhaps obliquely, that this has all been a rather useless and short-lived game. "Military secrets are the most fleeting of all," he acknowledges. Rather, he suggests to the Commander that it is the connection that the two of them shared that will prove more permanent, more lasting.

This is one of the reasons I love and admire Star Trek. The character of Spock -- perpetually the outsider -- gives us a good, outside perspective on ourselves and our behavior. By contrast, Kirk is the giddy American cowboy, the dashing American secret agent, the guy who is going to accomplish his mission with heroic flair and dynamic action. He is entrenched in his mission (he cannot afford otherwise), and he doesn't really look outside it at the big picture. We love and admire Kirk for this clarity of vision and purpose.

But Mr. Spock thinks more analytically, and with a deeper perspective. He weighs matters outside of petty political and military concerns. Though as a Starfleet officer he performed his duty, he intimates that in this case, that duty involved something "fleeting," hence ultimately unimportant. Rather, the bond established by the Romulan Commander and Spock suggests that these two clashing races/empires can find common ground in the future, beyond the conflict of the present.

The second-to-last time we encounter Mr. Spock in Star Trek history, he is pursuing this very cause: the re-unification of Romulus and Vulcan. I've always wondered if Spock's personal encounter with the Romulan Commander was the impetus of his decision to pursue this tough-to-negotiate peace. In some subtle way, Star Trek -- despite the presence of all kinds of alien creatures and some imperialistic tales -- has really been, sub textually, about the bonds that unite humanity. We may differ with the Soviet Union (during the Cold War) or the Taliban today, during the War on Terror, but we hope and pray that in the future what unites us all as inhabitants of the planet Earth will overcome that which today divides us. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), only Nixon could go to China; only Kirk could bring peace between the Klingons and The Federation. And here, way back in "The Enterprise Incident" in 1968, the seeds of peace between the Romulans and the Federation are being planted...by Spock; in his humane treatment of the Romulan Commander.

Now, Spock also manipulates the Romulan Commander very successfully and in some sense, it does play as cruel. But lest we forget, she is also manipulating him simultaneously, using what she perceives to be Spock's sense of racial superiority to harness resentment against Kirk and loyalty towards her. So they are both pawns of the mission. But I would suggest that -- all along -- Spock may have a better future in mind. He may be stealing a cloaking device and deceiving a beautiful woman in the present, but he also realizes that military secrets are fleeting and that one person can change the world; can alter the direction of the future (also a message of another Star Trek episode, "Mirror, Mirror.")

In Star Trek history, "The Enterprise Incident" may actually be one of the most significant episodes of all, especially in terms of impact on the franchise.

This episode establishes a Klingon-Romulan alliance (later shattered, with great resentment and animosity in the Next Gen era), and it introduces blue Romulan Ale, though not in name, as a "powerful recruiting inducement." The episode also establishes Spock's time in Starfleet as 18 years.

Much of the drama also hinges on the mistaken belief that "Vulcans are incapable of lying," a turn of phrase which returns in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Also, although Fontana introduced Vulcan "finger-touching" as a gesture of affection in "Journey to Babel," here we see a more...erotic...application. That too returned to Star Trek, in 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Additionally, in "The Enterprise Incident," the audience gets some significant knowledge of the Romulans, from the "Right of Statement" to the command structure inside the Empire.

And of course, "The Enterprise Incident" introduces the Vulcan Death Grip. Which, as you surely know, does not exist...

I'll go even further. I believe that "The Enterprise Incident" is very much a template for the modern Star Trek motion picture series, as it involves the Enterprise forced to take dramatic action to capture or otherwise stop a weapon of mass destruction. Here it is the Romulan Cloaking Device. But Khan had Genesis, Soran had the Ribbon -- which he wielded as a weapon, Shinzon had a tharalon device, and Nero had Red Matter.

Over the years "The Enterprise Incident" has not been without controversy, of course. Fontana told me that the "episode wasn't substantially re-written" from what she had imagined, but rather "was changed in ways that really bothered me. The relationship between Spock and the Romulan commander was somewhat different than what I had envisioned. From a production standpoint, the cloaking device was supposed to be small and easily hidden, but on the show it looked like a lamp. That didn't work for me, because they had to run around holding this large device, it was pretty obvious. More than that, the relationship between Spock and the Romulan commander wasn't what I had in mind. I wanted it to be more adversarial than it was."

Indeed, if "The Enterprise Incident" contains one weakness, it is that the Romulan Commander appears far too trusting, far too early, of Spock. Especially since she did not know he was stationed on the Enterprise and therefore could not anticipate her strategy before seeing him on the viewscreen. Of course, given a little thought, the Commander's actions might be written off as signs of a healthy, Kirk-sized ego. She believes she can appeal to Spock's ego, assuring him that he is a "superior being" and thereby offer him ample incentive to turn against the Federation. Given Kirk's irrational, arrogant behavior leading up this incident (all orchestrated, of course...) it is also easy to see why she could imagine Spock would prefer to serve her rather than the fragile, insulting Captain Kirk. Of course, that's what she's supposed to believe.

I think some fans also dislike "The Enterprise Incident" because it says, basically, that when Starfleet breaks its own laws, it is okay, because -- hey, these are the good guys.

Perhaps today, given all we've been through in the last decade, this makes the program feel a little simplistic. The (overlooked) fact of the matter is that this mission could have sparked an all-out war with the Romulans, one that could have cost millions if not billions of innocent lives across the galaxy.

And furthermore, the Romulans had not even used this cloaking device in battle yet. They had used a similar weapon in the past, on Federation border outposts ("Balance of Terror"), but still, this seems to qualify as a pre-emptive strike, right? Does Starfleet subscribe to the...Bush Doctrine?

For a second, imagine what a powerful episode this might have been had Kirk's mission failed; had he and the stalwart crew been taken hostage and interrogated back on Romulus; had the mission been exposed as a dangerous, irresponsible one; had Starfleet paid the consequences for issuing such orders. But you know -- honestly -- that sounds more like a Next Gen era story of DS9-flavored one. And if that had happened here, we might have lost the valuable message that is clear in "The Enterprise Incident:" that peace can begin in the heart of one man, or one Vulcan, as the case may be. That Spock is, for lack of a better word, emotionally affected by his contact with the Romulan commander...who, despite her manipulations, comes across as strangely vulnerable...and likable.

In closing, I submit that "The Enterprise Incident" is a worthwhile and memorable installment of Star Trek because in that last scene, Spock acknowledges something important and true. Kirk, the Romulan Commander, and Starfleet itself are all playing one dangerous move in a much larger chess-game. They are focused on that move: getting the Cloaking Device (or getting the Enterprise, contrarily). But Spock is thinking a long-term strategy, thinking several moves ahead, to something more permanent than a fleeting military secret. He was touched by his encounter with the Romulan Commander, more than he ever could have imagined.

On the other hand, you could also argue that Spock's entanglement with the Romulans, begun in earnest in this episode of the classic series, is the very thing that destroys his timeline some hundred years down the road. As the Vulcan himself might note, "fascinating..."

Also, I appreciate Leonard Nimoy's thoughtful take on this tale: "Episodes like "The Enterprise Incident" made it exciting to go to work. Like all of Dorothy's scripts, it had an edge to it, an adult level of complication, and social commentary. The characters' lives were being affected, their ethics violated, even their spirituality touched. Scripts like this added to the moral structure of the Star Trek universe." (Nimoy. I am Spock. Hyperion, 1995, page 118).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

John Carpenter's The Ward To Premiere in Toronto

It looks as thoughThe Ward -- John Carpenter's first feature film in almost a decade (since 2001's Ghosts of Mars) -- will premiere at The Toronto International Film Festival this fall, during the week September 9 - 19th, 2010.

From The Hollywood Reporter:


John Carpenter is making a long-awaited return to the big screen with the world premiere in Toronto of "The Ward," a thriller about a young woman, played by Amber Heard, in a 1960s mental institution who becomes terrorized by malevolent unseen forces.

To help celebrate the return of J.C. to the silver screen, fellow blogger and friend J.D. at Radiator Heaven is launching John Carpenter Week from October 3 to October 9, 2010. Count me in! I've been jonesing for a reason to buy the Escape from New York Blu Ray...

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Robot



Monday, August 16, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dirty Harry (1971)

Ah...I love the smell of a reactionary action-movie in the morning...

...And Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) is one of my long-standing favorites of the form, even if the case it presents concerning civil liberties in the United States of the 1970s is undeniably...extreme. (Others have called it sick and "profoundly dangerous.")

In fact, no less a respected source than film critic Pauline Kael had grave problems with the film. Similarly, Roger Ebert termed the Clint Eastwood film "fascist" in "moral position" at the time of the film's release...just two days before Christmas Day in 1971.

Yet by today's standards, Dirty Harry -- though hardly a holiday, feel-good movie -- seems pretty innocuous. If you really, really want to see a film that is fascist in tone, position and expression, check out 2008's Wanted, an anti-human tract which suggests that super-human skills run only in the superior blood line of a murderous elite that knows better than the rest of us work-a-day "losers."

But that's a subject for another day...

Dirty Harry dramatizes the tale of a modern American city under siege. A psychotic sniper called The Scorpio Killer (Andrew Robinson) unleashes a reign of terror upon that derided bastion of liberalism: San Francisco. There, Inspector Harry Callahan -- nicknamed "Dirty Harry" (Clint Eastwood) -- is on the case with his new partner, Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). When a 14-year old girl is abducted and buried alive by the Scorpio, the pace of the police investigation ramps up dramatically.

Callahan apprehends the Scorpio outside the killer's apartment, on the grounds of a local football stadium, but breaks four constitutional amendments in the process. Since Callahan has wantonly violated the killer's civil liberties (without a search warrant, no less...), the City of San Francisco allows Scorpio to go free, and forbids Callahan even from tailing the madman.

When the Scorpio Killer inevitably strikes again, Callahan refuses to help the City bureaucracy catch the killer, and goes off on his own to confront the maniac. After rescuing a school bus of abducted children and shooting down the Scorpio Killer, Callahan finally tosses his badge into a lake. He's finished with a system that puts criminals' civil liberties ahead of victim's rights.

Originally titled, "Dead Right" (a moniker which certainly expresses the film's political leanings...) Dirty Harry makes the case that something is rotten in Denmark, or at least San Francisco. The fear expressed so palpably and vividly by the film is that traditional, "just" America has been overturned by, well, rampant liberalism, specifically by the activism of the Warren Court in the so-called "Civil Rights Era."

In 1966, for instance, in Miranda vs. Arizona Supreme Court, the Miranda Rights of criminal suspects were enshrined in U.S. Law, establishing 5th and 6th Amendment protections for them

"The suspect's rights were violated," declaims one bureaucrat in the film. "I'm all broken up about that man's rights," Callahan responds. He even goes so far as to suggest that the "law is crazy" for allowing a dangerous lunatic like Scorpio to go free and endanger more innocent civilians. Now, as I often suggest here, all films are reflections of their context, of their age, and Dirty Harry is absolutely no exception. It is very much a reactionary film, yes, and one deeply concerned about the direction of our country at the advent of the 1970s.

Director Don Siegel cunningly and cleverly utilizes film grammar and some fine mise-en-scene to argue this conservative perspective. Early, panoramic shots in the film over-look the vast, sprawling city of San Francisco. These rooftop moments visually establish Callahan as being positioned "above" the petty politics of the village below. At the same time, Scorpio is simultaneously positioned on the rooftops, "above the law" as well. The relative rooftop positions of the dramatis personae reveal that Callahan and Scorpio represent opposite sides of the same coin: a hero who won't be sidelined by legal technicalities and a villain who won't be restrained by a legal system that he believes favors his murderous activity.

Several night-time shots of San Francisco locales also successfully transmit the point that new laws -- which allegedly protect criminals -- have only created a society of excess, vice and moral turpitude. Repeatedly, Siegel's camera captures real-life imagery of adult sex shops and theaters (with signage that blares "Totally Nude College Co-Eds" or "Amateur Topless Contest!").

And in the scene during which Callahan (illegally...) tracks Scorpio to a nightclub, the entire interior scene is cast in a garish, lurid red illumination. It is literally a modern "red light district." This accent on what the filmmakers apparently consider "out-in-the-open" vice is also suggested in a scene in a San Francisco park at night-time, when Harry is propositioned by an attractive young man who calls himself "Alice" and says he'll take on "any dare." Callahan sends him home with a dismissive one-liner. There are bigger fish to fry...

The action in Dirty Harry is also punctuated by several images of Old Glory, the American flag. We see the stars-and-stripes fluttering in the breeze over San Francisco's city hall, in the mayor's office and even -- damningly -- plastered on Scorpio's refrigerator in his stadium apartment.

These views of the flag are designed to broadcast an ironic, even cynical notion: the idea that the law enforcement bureaucracy and the criminals -- in a perhaps unintentional alliance -- have taken over the country and the city streets with their dangerous vision of "America."

The preponderance of flag imagery successfully reminds the audience both what America was, historically, and what the filmmakers' fear America has come to symbolize in the 1970s. Several times in the film, Siegel also cuts dramatically to beautifully-composed insert shots of the regalia of police work -- the badge, the gun, the flag -- and asks viewers to consider the symbols and the meaning behind such items. Do they still carry the same pride? Are we -- as a people -- still behind these symbols?

Another symbol that shows up in the film is a colossal, Christian cross, standing in that aforementioned San Francisco Park. The Scorpio orders Harry to "face the cross," a signal, perhaps that Callahan will ultimately be crucified by the powers that be for failing to respect criminal rights.

The Dirty Harry script (by Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, and Dean Riesner, with uncredited assists from John Milius and Terrence Malick) also builds the case that good men will no longer desire or continue to work in law enforcement so long as criminal rights are favored over victims' rights; so long as they are hand-cuffed by bureaucracy. After being shot on the job, Chico Gonzalez -- a clever, earnest and wholly sympathetic detective -- decides not to return to the force. He's going into teaching instead. And when Chico's wife asks Callahan why he remains a police officer in this environment, Harry has no cogent answer. "I don't know. I really don't."

Even the film's opening imagery is squarely on the side of the individual policeman: it's a lingering, even loving shot of a plaque in San Francisco's police headquarters, showcasing -- through a series of dignified dissolves -- the names of fallen police officers. From the outset, then, Dirty Harry aligns itself with the man on the street, with the cop on the beat, not the chiefs, the mayor, the D.A. or the like. Those folks are all bureaucratic dunderheads more interested in covering-their-asses than in fighting crime and achieving justice for the wronged, the film suggests. As simplistic as this view is, the opening shot of Dirty Harry is also undeniably inspiring: a testament to the policeman's credo; to his dedication to protect and serve.

By film's end, in a deliberate reflection of High Noon's (1952) denouement, Callahan tosses his police badge away. If he can't protect the citizenry, the badge is meaningless in his eyes. By discarding his police badge, Callahan separates himself from a hierarchy that is more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit of justice. He's not going to be anybody's "delivery boy" anymore.

One way of interpreting Dirty Harry -- beyond the clear parameters of right-wing political polemic -- is as a very modern-day transposition of familiar Western genre tropes (like the aforementioned tribute to High Noon). Harry Callahan is the lone "hero" who rides into town to defend a helpless, imperiled community. As the form demands of its cowboy protagonists, Harry can't be a part of the established system when he saves the day. On the contrary, he becomes a vigilante who can only operate outside the system. The vigilante, according to Pramod K. Nayar, in Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis and Politics (Sage Publications, India, 206), "represents a symbolic escape-route for law-enforcers: it is only by stepping out of the bounds of the law that the law can be upheld."

The myth of the American frontier, the myth of the cowboy riding into the helpless (and often corrupt) community to save the day is one that has been re-directed in recent years to the superhero genre, for instance, particularly the cinema of Batman. However, these tropes also inform the specifics of Dirty Harry to a remarkable degree.

In understanding this filmic tradition, it may be easier for some modern viewers to the film's hard-right leanings. Siegel's movie is simply adhering to the Western myth, finding modern corollaries for long-standing cowboy chestnuts. That it does so with great humor at times is to Dirty Harry's everlasting credit. The scene in which a pistol-packing, hot-dog chewing Inspector Callahan single-handedly takes out a cadre of urban bank robbers plays as a parody of the Western or police drama far more adeptly than it functions as political agit-prop. After Eastwood glowers by a theater showing Play Misty for Me, sits down for a hot dog, and calmly -- while eating -- tells the chef to call in a 211 in progress -- there's a tongue-in-cheek vibe that's easy to enjoy.

On the other hand, Roger Ebert and other writers accurately pinpointed Dirty Harry's straw-man argument, a deliberate stacking of the deck to achieve maximum dramatic effect. Look at the film's villain, for instance. The Scorpio is not merely a criminal, he is the most extreme case of psychotic imaginable.

Alone, he terrorizes an entire city (including crying school children...), but then -- when confronted by the police -- he whimpers and cries about his rights, about retaining a lawyer. So he's both a maniacal genius and a sissy coward. Thus, I submit the Scorpio's not very realistic; he's at the far end of the spectrum of believable criminality. Most criminals aren't such maniacal masterminds. And few law-breakers would have the foresight, resources or self-discipline to go out and find someone to beat them up so the police appear to be brutalizers and abusers. This guy -- as a function of Dirty Harry's political message -- plays all the angles expertly.

Yet, oppositely, movies have never been strictly about realism; they're about making the most dramatic case imaginable. And that's exactly what Dirty Harry does; and does very well. The Scorpio is a great villain, contradictions and all. I love Siegel's selection of shot or camera angle at the stadium, when Harry finally traps the Scorpio. After the Scorpio stops screaming about his rights, about his lawyer, the camera (apparently perched on a helicopter) retracts from the scene --- up, up and away into the atmosphere (even leaving the stadium) -- as though God Himself is utterly disgusted by his wailing about civil rights.

Another straw man in the film, of course, is the derided bureaucracy of San Francisco. Down to a man, everyone but Harry is depicted as an appeasing, legalistic boob. Every last one of these heartless souls is willing to let a diabolical criminal go free because the letter of the law was broken regarding the Scorpio's rights. These characters are painted with an unnecessarily broad and simplistic stroke. In real life, lieutenants, mayors, and district attorneys also have the safety and well-being of the citizenry on their minds. They are not, everyone of them, all CYA-technocrats. But once more, this depiction -- while udeniably one-sided -- is also part of that Western tradition. By necessity, Harry Callahan must defeat the villain alone, outside the "legalities" of the corrupt system, and according to a higher natural law: true justice.

In other words, Dirty Harry puts down just about everybody so as to elevate Callahan -- the every man -- to the role of iconic defender of society and guardian of justice. Frequently, Siegel provides heroic low-angle views of Callahan too, or gazes at him down the barrel of his gigantic...pistol. In non-too-subtle terms, we are asked to worship this decent, uncorrupted man, and not just the girth of his pistol, either.

"My, that's a big one!" Scorpio exclaims with envy. Is he talking about the Magnum?

Many critics and audience members were legitimately upset and offended by the arguments that Dirty Harry makes with such power and cinematic aplomb. Philosophically, I certainly don't agree with many of these arguments simply on the grounds that everyone -- even police officers -- can make a mistake. You don't just want the police to catch anyone who looks guilty, you want to make sure they've caught the right person, the guilty party. Otherwise, innocent people will be tried, incarcerated, or heaven forbid, executed. In my eyes, society must balance some rights for those suspects not yet proven guilty in court with the freedom of the police to do their job effectively. I submit that recent History has proven that America pretty much has a good balance: we have seen violent crime rates go down and down since the 1970s -- the era of Dirty Harry -- even with those once-controversial Miranda laws in effect.

So yes, Dirty Harry indeed looks ultra-paranoid these days. And really, Harry Callahan is a trained, experienced police officer, so certainly he understands the importance of a search warrant. If he can't play by the rules proscribed by society at large, he has no business being in the game. (And indeed, perhaps Callahan realizes that fact; perhaps that is why Harry discards his badge at the end of the film...he no longer wishes to play.) And yet -- and I realize this may offend some people -- I still like and admire this film.

Today, perhaps the best way to look at Dirty Harry is as the cinematic missing link between John Wayne and Christian Bale, between the Western Cowboy and the superheroic Dark Knight. I don't have to agree with any (or every) argument or viewpoint in the film to make note of its significant artistry and skill. Stacked deck or no, straw man argument or no, Dirty Harry is still a great action film, a classic (if utterly reactionary) example of the genre.

So, how can a left-winger like me admire a right-wing cinematic effort like this? I guess I just feel lucky (punk...) to live in a country where our art has the freedom to argue a point, to debate the law, and to take a stand...even if I disagree with the conclusions reached.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

At the Movies Ends this Weekend

Nothing lasts forever...

This weekend, the syndicated TV series At The Movies -- which has been around since 1975 -- finally ends its impressive broadcast run. Movie critic hosts have come and gone, and the series has endured the best of times (Ebert and Siskel) and the worst of times (Ben Lyons).

But it's amazing to step back and think about everything that has happened in the culture since the series began in the disco decade. At the Movies has been around since The Ford Administration (!) and has remained on the air through the advent of VCRs, cable television, the Internet, streaming video, Netflix and more. That's pretty impressive.

In fact, I think a DVD release of the Siskel and Ebert years would be a fantastic gift to film buffs, but I don't know if that's possible.

Of course, the national discussion about film will continue, even if At the Movies does not. Still, a little light goes out of the pop-culture-sphere this weekend when that old balcony is closed permanently.

From my "cult TV flashback" last year about the series:


In the New York area, At The Movies was broadcast on WPIX, channel 11, and usually aired around 7:00 pm on Saturdays...right before I often headed out with friends to catch a new release. And the recommendations of these TV critics always carried considerable weight in my film selection process.

Siskel and Ebert had already hosted the PBS predecessor, Sneak Previews, prior to this Tribune-sponsored variation on the format. And in 1986, the duo moved on again, this time to Disney. Two inferior critics, Rex Reed and Bill Harris, manned their stations on At The Movies and the show drifted into silliness and pop-culture irrelevancy before merciful cancellation.

The format of At the Movies was simple. After a cheeky opening sequence which found Ebert and Siskel sneaking into the balcony of a movie theater, a short clip of a new movie played on the big silver screen before them (and positioned between them in the frame). Then, following the preview, we'd switch to the reverse angle -- facing the balcony -- as Siskel and Ebert introduced each other. I always felt that last bit of business was a nice, gracious (and original) touch in what was clearly a competitive partnership. To their credit, Ebert and Siskel never choked on each other's names or credentials...

Then, in the course of a fast-talking, high-spirited, ceaselessly-amusing half-hour, the two critics reviewed four new releases, assessing them, finally, with a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

The series occasionally featured a fun segment with "Aroma the Skunk," the show's mascot (a critter who always sat next to Ebert, for some reason...). This led into a spirited discussion of "The Stinker of the Week."

Sometimes, the critics even turned their gaze to new "home video" releases, and I recall one installment of At The Movies in which the duo discussed the 20th anniversary release of "The Cage," the original Star Trek pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter.

Other movie critics -- not to mention several textbooks on film criticism -- have been notably rough on Siskel and Ebert over the years. An Introduction to Film Criticism (Longman Inc., 1989) dismissed the duo as a "Laurel and Hardy imitation" and noted that their reviews were "as shallow as the average review in a daily newspaper; simply the unsupported opinions of the reviewers," (pages 17-18).

With respect to the authors of this book -- an otherwise outstanding study of critical approaches to narrative film -- I disagree. While it is true that Siskel and Ebert on At The Movies reduced film criticism to a simple (but useful) binary decision of thumbs up/thumbs down, it's also critical to make note of the medium in which they toiled. In fact, their program devoted more time to discussing film as an art form than any other weekly program in television history. Of course, the drawback of the TV format is time, and that should also be acknowledged in film books too. In the freewheeling blog format here, for instance, I can write about a movie until I'm blue in the face, but that's simply not the case in television. In a half-hour span, how many films can be debated in depth, especially once you throw in commercials, plus several clips of each film described?

To ameliorate this concern, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert talked fast, working in as much detail and analysis as was humanly possible. And they often devoted entire half-hours to a single relevant subject, so they could go into deeper detail. I remember an episode on the Star Wars trilogy (following the premiere of Return of the Jedi), another on the films of Woody Allen, and a third about the durability of the James Bond franchise. I remember that the critics also devoted one episode to sequels ("The Stinkers of 1983") and another one to reporting on screen violence. Again, there was simply nowhere else on TV you could go to find this in-depth perspective on modern film.

I would also argue that Siskel and Ebert, on At the Movies, traveled well beyond the basics, and well beyond simple "unsupported opinions." In their review of Gremlins (1984), they got down to the satirical aspects of Joe Dante's initiative, and even the palette of the film, which lampooned Norman Rockwell's vision of America. In their review of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) they noted -- before just about anyone else did, I think -- Spielberg's drift towards on-the-nose sentimentality. Their review of Ghostbusters (1984) brought up relevant comparisons between Bill Murray and Groucho Marx. And in that review of "The Cage" that I mentioned above, they were able to contextualize the episode's narrative (about the dangerous, numbing nature of illusion as "narcotic") to the mid-1960s drug culture.

I was in the sixth grade when I first started watching At the Movies, and I had never, ever, seen anybody, anywhere discuss films with this degree of specificity; in these contextual and historical terms. Within the obvious constraints of TV programming, Siskel and Ebert thus managed to provide a kind of weekly history lesson in cinema. They brought up films I had never heard of, and films I would never have sought out without their guidance. I watched a few old clips of the series again on You Tube this week -- after not seeing At the Movies in years -- and once more, I found myself sucked in by the passion and charm of these guys. Even today, their motormouth reviews are packed with interesting insights.

When I began watching At The Movies, I preferred Gene Siskel to Roger Ebert. He was so acerbic, and had this funny manner of rearing his head back -- almost like a lion -- and then leaning forward when he was about to score a point. He seemed a bit more camera-savvy than his sparring partner, and could really land the zingers.

But then I began reading Roger Ebert's movie yearbooks in 1987 (and purchased every new edition of the book through 1996...) and found that my tastes more closely aligned with his. Roger Ebert also seemed much more fair-minded, I soon realized. He often recognized and acknowledged the artistry of a film, even he didn't necessarily approve of the subject matter on personal terms (he championed Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, for instance.) I also began to grow more frustrated with Siskel over the years because I felt that his personal biases sometimes prevented him from recognizing a good film. He gave a "thumbs down" to James Cameron's Aliens (1986) because the film put a child, Newt, in harms way. I never felt that was a valid criticism, even as a kid. As I like to say, how would Gene Siskel have judged the movie had the aliens -- vicious, slobbering beasts -- treated the child with kid gloves? Of course, that would have been silly and unrealistic, and a good critic like Siskel would have noted that terrible lapse in tone and realism. Yet the critic had put Aliens in a box from which the film could not escape; from which it could not achieve a good review. No doubt I've done the same during my writing career, but I do try hard to remember this example.

Ultimately, I came away from At the Movies preferring Ebert. I always liked how -- when the camera turned to him -- he would absently straighten out his cardigan and then almost imperceptibly glide forward in his chair, towards the audience...like a wise philosopher sharing wisdom with his best student in the spirit of knowledge, not arrogance or superiority. To this day, I make Ebert's blog a regular stop. He's the only film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and just recently he was judged America's most trusted pundit. Still, it's a crying shame there's no "Collected Criticism of Gene Siskel" available in print ten years after the man's death. Ultimately, it was the discovery of Ebert on the book store shelves that drew to me to his manner of thinking; to his reasonable tone, fair-mindedness and consistent standards. But Siskel remains an important enough figure in the annals of film criticism that someone ought to assemble a collection of his reviews in print, and contextualize his work.

As I noted above, At the Movies went on sans Siskel and Ebert, but without these guys at the helm it was almost a self-parody, just two critics bitching over movies they didn't like, with no clear understanding of the standards applied. I watched the new crew a few times and found the enterprise...embarrassing.

I attended the University of Richmond in 1988, and watching television wasn't really an option or concern for me at that point, so I didn't keep up with the new Siskel and Ebert series very closely. Then I got married, and moved into my own writing career, and only occasionally saw Siskel and Ebert's show again in the later 1990s. However, I was very upset to learn that Gene Siskel had passed away in 1999, and tuned back in a few times to watch the new sparring partner, Richard Roeper. I had no problems with Roeper as a film critic or on-screen personality, but felt that the magic was gone; that nobody really challenged Ebert the way Siskel did. Siskel made Ebert better; and Ebert made Siskel better. Perhaps it was the spirit of competition, perhaps it was friendship, perhaps it was just chemistry...but their partnership worked. It worked so well, in fact, that filmmakers have gone out of their way to acknowledge (or attack) the duo. The 1987 film Willow featured a two-headed dragon named Sissbert, for instance. And the dreadful Godzilla of 1998 featured a New York Mayor Ebert and his assistant, Gene. And who can forget, Carpenter's They Live (1988), which revealed Siskel and Ebert to be insidious alien invaders?!

At the Movies, more so than Sneak Previews or the 1990s version of the series also reminds me of a special and cherished time in my own life. The movies reviewed on the program in those years are ones that I recall with nostalgia and affection, whether they were actually that great or not. Ghostbusters (1984), Aliens (1986), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Fright Night (1985), The Right Stuff (1983), The Last Starfighter (1984), Gremlins (1984), Dune (1984), Starman (1984), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), and so on. This was the period of dueling James Bonds (Octopussy vs. Never Say Never Again in 1983), Woody Allen on blazing ascent as a serious filmmaker (Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days), and more. So for me, this cult tv flashback isn't just about remembering the good times watching Siskel and Ebert on At The Movies, it's about the movies that informed by teenage years...