Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!!!!!!

Dear Readers,

I hope you all have a safe and happy Christmas this year.  May all your holiday wishes -- Micronauts, ROM, Star Bird, Rock Lords, Maskatron, and otherwise -- come true.

And watch out for Larry Drake in a Santa suit.

warmest holiday wishes,

The Muirs

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


"The Grid: a digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they traveled through the computer. Ships, motorcycles, with the circuits like freeways. I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see. And then, one day, I got in."

-Programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) describes a breakthrough in human knowledge in TRON Legacy.

Nearly thirty years ago, the state-of-the-art cinematic fantasy TRON (1982) ended with a beautiful and resonant image: 

Day slides quietly into night and a 1980s brick-and-mortar metropolis changes before our eyes.   All the roads, skyscrapers and moving cars in the frame seem to morph into the raw, blinking data of the virtual Grid, of the movie's neon computer world.  Our eyes detect colorful light trails just like those generated by the light cycles, but these light trails exist here in our world; in our cities and on our streets.

I wrote in my original review of TRON that this valedictory and artistic composition  is "an image that connects man's natural world and his technological one, and reminds us, visually, that we inhabit both.  To our detriment or to our glorification."

Joseph Kosinski's commercially-successful, action-adventure sequel, TRON Legacy, is constructed upon this very notion; upon the passing of a gift -- a legacy -- whose nature each ensuing generation must interpret for itself .
Specifically, ENCOM programmer Kevin Flynn's (Jeff Bridges)  legacy to his adult son, Sam  (Garrett Hedlund) is a virtual Grid that has miraculously sprouted independent, artificial life.  The Grid and its young life forms -- Isos -- can either prove detrimental to the human race or something completely glorious: a change (or evolution?) to rock the very foundations of medicine, science, and even religion.  
And as the sequel ends, Sam becomes the keeper of that torch for the time being.  He can either repeat his father's mistakes...or learn from them

That's the narrative terrain of the movie, and TRON Legacy explores it about as deeply and as meaningfully as one would desire from a high-tech, 3-D, action entertainment.  Niggling complaints aside, this is a genre film featuring just about the right alchemical equation of thrills and heart.
Despite this relatively adroit balance of action and "think" sequences -- plus some truly kick-ass 3-D moments -- many film reviewers have been grievously unkind to TRON Legacy.  But really, this just is deju vu all over again.  Those of us who were around in 1982 remember that TRON also earned bad notices for the most part.

For instance, New York Times critic Janet Maslin essentially called the original Lisberger effort beautiful but stupid.  And that's a variation of the same charge leveled against this sequel in the closing weeks of 2010.

However, if you enjoyed and appreciated the original TRON, it's probably a safe bet you will also appreciate this very faithful, very enjoyable follow-up film.  It seems like many critics -- echoing the film's villain, CLU -- are seeking their own personal brand of "perfection."  Not finding it,  these reviewers fail to enjoy the movie's on its own stated terms.

In terms of narrative structure, the 2010 sequel almost slavishly apes the blueprint of the original film, and in terms of human interest, the sequel dramatizes the affecting story of an ambitious father who seeks perfection outside the human realm of his family...and ultimately comes to regret his mistake.  After correcting that mistake, he passes on his legacy to another protector: the son he once abandoned.

There are indeed minor resonances of Apocalypse Now (1979) in the TRON Legacy mix too, as I had hoped there would be after seeing the early previews.  Jeff Bridge's older (but not necessarily wiser...) Flynn is a Kurtz-like figure who leaves the difficult, emotional world of family and responsibility behind, and who then stakes out his own fiefdom "up river," in the virtual world, seeking to shape it exactly to his liking. 

These background touches lend TRON Legacy a solid grounding in the human realm, even when the intense gladiatorial sequences come hot and heavy, and the screen is splashed with dazzling, dueling neon lights.  In terms of action, the movie is also pretty much unimpeachable: it's an exciting film, legitimately augmented by the 3-D process so to feel totally immersing.
"Change the scheme! Alter the mood! Electrify the boys and girls if you'd be so kind."  

TRON Legacy begins in 1989, some seven years after the events of TRON. Kevin Flynn has defeated Dillinger and the MCP, and reclaimed ENCOM. One night, Flynn informs his young son, Sam, of a breakthrough on The Grid; a miracle that could "change everything."

He is never seen again.

Decades later, a grown Sam -- aimless and hurt over the disappearance of his Dad all those years ago -- continues to be a thorn in the side of ENCOM, a software company threatening to fall into the clutches of Dillinger's money-hungry son (Cillian Murphy). 

Although Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) speaks up for the missing Flynn's philosophy and wishes, the inhuman corporation is only interested in profits.  Sam's attempts to hijack ENCOM"s new release (a new- but-not-improved operating system) are not greeted warmly by the Board.

Then, however, Alan comes to Sam with curious news that he  has received a page from Flynn; a page originating from Flynn's Arcade.  Sam visits the old Arcade and finds the means -- in the basement -- to transport himself to the Grid.  Almost immediately, Sam is apprehended there, in the computer world, by the gestapo-like forces of the Grid's commandant, CLU (Jeff Bridges). 
CLU -- Kevin Flynn's doppelganger -- dispatches Sam to the life-or-death gladiatorial games that the Grid's Program's seem to hunger for, but the lad escapes at the last minute, thanks to the intervention of the beautiful Quorra (Olivia Wilde).  She takes Flynn to meet with his father, and Sam learns of the Virtual World's history; a history marred by Clu's attempt to achieve a "perfect system."

In attaining that lofty goal, Clu has actually resorted to genocide, destroying the self-aware beings who were born inside the grid, the Isos.  Now, Clu wants to go even further: he wants to take his genocidal ways to the outside world and reshape our human life.  But he needs Flynn's identity disc to accomplish this goal; to find the hidden way out of the computer world... 

"Out there is a new world! Out there... is our destiny!"

In very specific terms, TRON Legacy, mimics the narrative flow of the original Lisberger film.  In the 1982 effort, Flynn entered the computer world and was captured.  He was then -- rather promptly -- put on the game grid.   The elder Flynn first had to battle a single enemy on a dangerous game platform, and later had to engage other Programs in battle inside the light-cycle arena.  Following an escape, Flynn and his friends used a beam rider as transport to cross the virtual wasteland and reach their quarry: the malevolent MCP.

In the 2010 sequel, the same sequence repeats.  Sam is zapped into the Grid, and captured by a Recognizer.  He is forced into disc-on-disc combat against a single opponent, and then put into light cycle combat.  After an escape with Quorra, Flynn and his Dad use a beam rider to transport across the virtual wasteland and reach their quarry: a portal that can return them to the "real world." 

The characters are similar too.  In both films, we encounter a triumvirate or triangle involving one female and two males. 

The identical order of events -- and deliberately re-use of  trademark franchise moments such as the disc battle, light-cycle race and beam-rider interlude -- suggest that this "Grid test," as it were, is actually symbolic.  It's a rite of passage.  First the Dad had to survive it, and now it is the son's turn to run the same gauntlet. 

Since so much of TRON Legacy concerns the the son growing up, and (hopefully) avoiding the mistakes of his father, this narrative structure does not feel like a re-hash of the earlier film, but rather an important point of context.  This is life, the broaching of adulthood and responsibility, the movie seems to intimate. And by putting our new hero, Sam through the same events his father endured -- and in the same order, no less --the film gets that point across rather nicely, and without forcing the issue. 

The prime difference between original and sequel arises not in the order which the the action-packed events occur, but rather in the perspective in which how they are viewed.  In the first film, Flynn attempted to survive in someone else's system. 

Here, Kevin and his son are struggling in the system the Father engineered...a system controlled by a monstrous, calculating alter ego called CLU (voiced by Bridges and visualized by CGI). 

In other words, this is the story of one father and two sons. 

Sam is the human son Kevin left behind for the technological "miracles" of his work, his job.  And CLU is the technological son Kevin  abandoned when CLU's viewpoints about a "perfect system" diverged from his Father's ideals.  Everything that occurs in the virtual world of TRON Legacy is a clear result of dear old Dad's mistakes; his vanity and arrogance.  His "God Complex," if you will.

Kevin Flynn believed he could craft a utopia, a perfect system, but didn't stop to consider  that his "computer" son, CLU, might execute his will in an inhuman manner (owing to his nature as a machine.)  When Flynn is later greeted by his (prodigal?) son, Sam -- a fallible but wholly human creation -- he realizes, in a sense, the error of his ways.  He realies that "perfection" was indeed within in his reach all along, but it was a "perfection" resting in his feelings of love and devotion for his biological, human son. "Engineering" perfection was an impossibility all along.  Perhaps only God -- who created both Kevin and the Isos -- could engineer such perfect creations.

It's not too difficult, given this context, to view TRON Legacy as a kind of critique or commentary on the different stages of adulthood, really.  As a young man, Flynn rebelled against "The System," (the MCP, Dillinger running ENCOM, etc.) and took down that system.  Now, years an older man, Kevin Flynn is The System.  And all the problems encountered in the sequel are not external ones of another individual's making.  They are his mistakes.

Again, this is how life is. 

As youngsters, we have so much to rail and rage against: the Establishment, the way-of-things, the world at large, the slow pace of change.  As middle-aged men and women, we are the ones to be rebelled against; the living, breathing results of a million choices and (some) bad decisions.   The world around us is one we've made, or at least shaped. 

I should hasten to add, this 2010 sequel is clearly and cleverly designed for the contemporary middle aged guy, like me. It arrives in theaters nearly three decades after the original TRON.  I was twelve years old when I saw the original; only-just forty one when I saw the sequel. 

Smartly, the movie makers take into account that so much time has passed and have crafted a film that appeals to that same audience, only grown up.  We are now the fathers, not the sons.  We are the ones who have made the mistakes.  How do we want to be remembered?

TRON Legacy both passes the torch to the next generation, and brings Kevin Flynn some measure of peace and understanding about his amazing life; and the mistakes he has made.   His acceptance of his flaws is visualized perfectly, and in distinctly sci-fi terms, when he must literally take them all back.  Those errors and foibles have coalesced in the person of CLU, and in the end, Flynn must re-absorb CLU into himself.  It's the ultimate act of responsibility, and one that paves the way for Sam and Quorra to have a positive future.

Perhaps this plot line is the reason why the younger fan boys may not groove so much on the film.  Though youthful Sam is undeniably the physical hero of the pic, Kevin Flynn remains the heart and soul of the Tron universe.  His journey is the one that resonates deeply, at least with those who fell in love with TRON twenty-eight years ago. 

And I should add as well, that the journey of TRON (Boxleitner) himself nicely  reflects and augments Flynn's journey of self-discovery.  TRON too has changed over the years -- veritably going to the dark side -- before a last minute redemption saves the day.  Watching our two heroes of yesteryear in this film -- responsible for and absorbed by the prevailing system -- men of my age must wonder if this too has happened to us, in the "real world."

In very simple terms, the movie reminds us to pay attention to our children, and not to let professional ambition interfere with what is perhaps the only truly perfect, unconditional thing in this mortal coil: the love of a son or daughter

To some that idea may sound hokey or corny, and I rarely make blanket statements like "you need to be a parent" to enjoy this film.  But in the case of TRON Legacy  it certainly helps you enjoy this film if you are over thirty, have some familiarity and nostalgia for the original, and are the parent of a child.

In terms of visual expression and ingenuity, I would still give the nod to TRON as a superior genre film, but I feel that TRON Legacy does not dishonor the original's accomplishments in any, way, shape or form

Indeed, this 2010 sequel culminates on a tight, unassuming two-shot of Sam and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) -- an artificial life form called an "ISO" -- riding off on a motorcycle together into the unwritten, unprogrammed future.

This is an appropriate and timely image, for Man and his technology have become infinitely more intertwined in 2010 than they were in 1982. The sequel's ending thus reflects our increasing sense of comfort with computers, software and "applications." Monolithic, computerized monstrosities such as HAL and the MCP don't carry the same dramatic power they once did because so many of us "interface" with our Droids, desktops, laptops, Internet and other high-tech tools several times a day.

Not once have these advanced tools tried to bite our hands, or transform us into malevolent, unfeeling cyborgs.

So TRON Legacy's final visual flourish -- the motorcycle two-shot with Sam and Quorra -- actually portends a kind of welcoming man/machine intimacy: the total marriage of the natural world and the technological one. A new direction that -- given our vigilance -- can open up a new information age and broaden our understanding of creation itself.
Technology is our co-pilot, in other words.

This idea is a dramatic and valid next step beyond TRON's Reagan-era ending, a deliberate moving of the ball down the field to our current epoch and its unique pitfalls and promises. 

In this fashion and in this ending, the 2010 sequel speaks to today's youth in the same literate and cinematic matter as its predecessor spoke to my generation. 

In the end, both TRON and TRON Legacy are not about video "games," but about how people choose to use or misuse technology.  Intriguingly, these movies also show how our high-tech creation's mirror -- more and more -- their creators.

Let's hope that these "programs" will continue to "fight for the users" on the Grid -- and in reality -- for generations to come.

All I Want for Retro-Christmas Countdown (3 Days Left...): Merlin!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 125: Nightmare Cafe (1992)

"Lost somewhere between life and death, time and eternity, there are places which...leave you forever changed. This is one such place...Each door leads someone to that second chance that will turn their life around and to others that reckoning that will end their sleep forever. Welcome to...the Nightmare Cafe."

- The opening narration to Wes Craven's Nightmare Cafe (1992).

On January 29, 1992, auteur Wes Craven and horror icon Robert Englund introduced the world to their latest genre collaboration: the NBC TV series called Nightmare Cafe. 

Although the series only lasted for six hour-long episodes before abrupt cancellation, it nonetheless remains a fascinating and unusual entry in the cult-tv Valhalla. 

At the time the show premiered (the year following David Lynch's Twin Peaks...), many people involved in the production referred to the program as "The Twilight Zone meets Cheers."

Writing for New York Magazine, critic John Leonard called the Craven TV series "rather witty" (March 2, 1992, page 59) though, in contrast, Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker opined that Nightmare Cafe was "Dull, stupid, and really annoying." (February 28, 1992, page 42).                         

Nightmare Cafe involves two "average joes," Faye Perronovic (Lindsay Frost) and Frank Nolan (Jack Coleman) as they unexpectedly become entangled with a supernatural, or perhaps mystical edifice: the Nightmare Cafe. 

The cafe itself is a kind of art deco, retro-noir-styled eating establishment perched on a seedy waterfront; the kind of joint -- or "dive" -- that is open all night every night, and no one seems to notice...or care.  In one episode, the diner is even called "a dump."

Already stationed inside the mysterious cafe is a third character: Blackie (Robert Englund), a sardonic, faintly-demonic man of unknown origin, motives and agenda.  In the first episode of Nightmare Cafe, he informs Faye and Frank that "Good or bad, dead or alive," the Cafe gets "all kinds" and that this duo  has "been selected" (by the cafe...) to help such strangers "and maybe learn something" about themselves "along the way."

So, rather unconventionally, Blackie serves as both the "Rod Serling" of the unusual TV series -- a narrator and master of ceremonies in the individual installments -- and an unpredictable, Loki-like player in the proceedings themselves.   At various points, you wonder if Blackie is the Devil, or simply a reformed soul doing "penance" for bad deeds in life.

In various guises and appearances, Blackie leads men and women (the series guest stars...) either to redemption or doom, and Englund is perfect in this unique role.  After all, Englund had played both the innocent Willie on V: The Series (1985) and the most famous screen-monster of the 1980s, Freddy Krueger.  A truly versatile player, Englund's Blackie proves a "wild card" and his very presence in Nightmare Cafe -- so ambiguous and unexcavated -- adds a sense of fun to each segment.

After confronting their own personal demons in the pilot episode directed by Philip Noyce, Faye becomes waitress in the cafe; Frank the short order cook.  And their weekly clientele is anyone who happens to wander in, perhaps at the heeding of the sentient Cafe itself. 

Various doorways in the colorful cafe lead to other worlds, to other times, and to alternate possibilities.  In fact, the Cafe is not entirely unlike Dr. Who's famous TARDIS: it can come and go to different locales as it chooses, and seems very much alive.  In one episode, "Faye and Ivy," the Cafe even nurses hurt feelings for a time.

In interviews at the time, Wes Craven described the Nightmare Cafe premise this way: "two people inherit a cafe that's somewhere between life and death," and that "People come to experience their worst nightmare...turning point...comeuppance...breakthrough. (Steve Biodrowski. Cinefantastique, Volume # 22, Number 2: "Wes Craven, Alive and Shocking." October 1991, page 11).

In other words, imagine the Twilight Zone as a diner; but with a set of continuing characters to shepherd visitors through the strange happenings and twisty narratives.  Thus Nightmare Cafe is a wholly unique show: part-anthology and part serial adventure with regular characters.  Perhaps the clearest, most familiar TV antecedent is ABC's Fantasy Island (1977 - 1984), which also saw regular characters (Mr. Roarke and Tattoo...) leading guest stars through weekly stories that could leap across established genres.  Romances, horror tales, fantasy, etc...
Accordingly, the six episodes in Nightmare Cafe's stable really run the gamut in terms of narratives and style. 

"Dying Well is the Best Revenge" (March 6, 1992) is a film  noir-styled murder story, replete with a femme-fatale and a would-be "patsy," Frank himself. 

"Faye and Ivy" (March 13, 1992) is a kind of family drama about Faye making peace with her long-estranged sister, Ivy (Penny Fuller). 

"The Heart of the Mystery" (March 20, 1992)  involves another interesting variation on noir conventions, with an obsessed detective (Timothy Carhart) offered the opportunity to travel back in time and witness a crime that he has never been able to solve. 

"Sanctuary for a Child" (March 27, 1992) -- starring Angela Bassett and William B. Davis -- involves a dying boy, Luke (Brandon Adams, of Craven's The People Under the Stairs [1991]) -- who cannot ascend to the spiritual realm until his bickering, resentful parents reconcile. 

And finally, "Aliens Ate My Lunch" (April 3, 1992) is a crazy satire about a Tabloid reporter who makes up a story about alien invaders.  The Cafe makes his unbelievable story all too true, and Craven uses this story (which he penned) to make a comment on the "mob mentality," in the very spirit of Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street."

In many ways, Nightmare Cafe remains an important element in the career of Wes Craven.  At the time of the program's broadcast, it was the latest development in his "rubber reality" horror formula (which included the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Serpent and the Rainbow [1987], and Shocker [1989]) and an indication of the Pirandello-esque direction he would soon take in cinematic efforts such as Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) and the blockbuster, Scream (1996).

I've always believed that given a little more time -- and some patience from NBC -- Nightmare Cafe could have proved a really potent, beloved, and long-lived horror series.  But with only six episodes in its canon, one might feel rightlfy that the show never truly found a consistent voice or approach.

Following cancellation, Nightmare Cafe matriculated to the Sci-Fi Channel in the mid-1990s.  There, it would often air as part of the "Series Collection" at 5:00 am on Sunday mornings, a time slot no better for the unusual series than its original Friday night perch. 

Under that umbrella "Series Collectin" description, Nightmare Cafe joined other failed -- but oft-remembered and appreciated efforts -- series such as Planet of the Apes (1974), The Fantastic Journey (1977),  The Amazing Spider-man (1978), and Darkroom (1981).

All I Want for Retro-Christmas Countdown (6 Days Left): Shogun Warriors