Saturday, January 29, 2011

From the Archive: Brian Johnson (February 2001)

John's note: I conducted this interview with award-wining special effects guru Brian Johnson (Space:1999, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, etc., in February 2001, via e-mail.  The subject was Space:1999, and the occasion was the new release of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series on DVD.

Interview with Brian Johnson

John:  After twenty-five years, the world finally seems to hve caught up with Space:1999 in some senses, with stories about the program running in The New York Times, Cinescape and TV Guide. And the series is being released on DVD. Did you know this day of re-assessment would come, and is there a sense of vindication?

Brian Johnson: I always tried to make Space:1999 a quality show in terms of visual effects. Vindication is not the word. Quiet satisfaction is probably nearer the mark.

John: Have you seen the DVDs?

Brian Johnson: I haven't, though I would like to. Every dog has his day, and the show deserves some extra acclaim. We all gave it our best bang for the buck.

John: I know you've mentioned that DVD is a different format than Space:1999 was originally intended for, and that the format throws off your "wire threshold." What exactly does that mean?

Brian Johnson: The resolution of TV images was low in those days. We had a margin with which we could view our dailies and say "That will never be seen on TV." I never re-shot stuff if I thought we couldn't improve the action, and it didn't show wires when projected at 25-30 frames per second, not rock and rolling and freeze-framing the way people do now, just to see how a shot is done. Wires were a bloody nuisance - I hated them. As often as possible, we avoided them.

John: If you were to do a new Space:1999 today, would you in any way change the look of the series? Do you see a role for CGI in a new Space:1999?

Brian Johnson: I would change everything - but not completely. The Eagles would be subtly changed with better undercarriage systems and "bits" on. The Moonbase could do with a spring clean, but not too much. I liked the launch pads. The planets would be much better now. I would use a huge amount of CGI work. I would shoot digitally and make subtle camera moves to enhance production values.

John: The Eagle may be one of the most beloved and believable spaceship designs in TV history. Can you tell us how you came to design it?

Brian Johnson: I was in my "modular" design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be "chained" together, etc. I sketched the basic idea and got Michael Lamont (then a draughtsman/art department) to draw up the full scale 44" plans. I then added sections and thickened tubes until it looked "right." The final cladding was added, and then the different scale versions were finished to match the 44" model. My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree - I think it made the Eagle believable.

John: Moonbase Alpha?

Brian Johnson: Moonbase Alpha was an unashamed homage to Harry Lange, Tony Masters and Stanley Kubrick from 2001, with my own ideas too.

John: One of the things that constantly amazes me about your work is how the miniatures of Space:1999 blended so seamlessly with the live action. How did you manage to coordinate the live action with the miniatures on so tight a schedule?

Brian Johnson: I was always about ten days behind the Main unit live action shooting, so Keith Wilson would do his thing. I tried never to interfere with his imagination, and we used the Main Unit shots as keys to our establishing shots. The trick was to "lag" the Main Unit. Also, editor Dave Lane was just the best at using everything we shot.

John: What was the one thing you wanted to do on Space:1999 that you never had the opportunity to do?

Brian Johnson: Motion controlled moves and such, but we didn't have time or money. We had just started to build our first motion control system, but it was cranky and slow.

John: At the time it aired, Space:1999 was roundly criticized for being mystical and anti-science. What do you think about such criticisms?

Brian Johnson: I have to confess that I was never really moved by the concept of Space:1999. I find the most exciting sci-fi ideas are those that obtain some semblance of reality. Frankly, the Moon traveling through space (other than in the company of the Earth) is dumb. We would have stood a better chance if we had been an Asteroid Mining Company, or something. I could have really gone to town in terms of visuals. We had good writers and good directors, and yet we never really got to know the main characters. It was all a little superficial. However, I am being picky here, and in its time, it did push the frontiers a bit. I think TV politics had something to do with the demise of the series.

John: What were the primary strengths of Space:1999, in your eyes?

Brian Johnson: Quality and attention to detail. A whole slew of superb actors who lifted some of the more esoteric storylines. Good directors like Charles Crichton, who, because of his background, was given the weakest scripts.

John: The primary weaknesses?

Brian Johnson: We didn't really progress as we went from Series 1 to Series 2. I still feel the first series had the best stories. The whole Maya thing was just a gimmick, though Catherine was superb, and we took on board an established American script advisor who led us away from the audience we had already established. I don't know what figures were charged for each episode, but I think the quality we put out allowed a much higher figure to be charged than was actually the case. If the unit cost was less, we might have gone on for years. Hopefully on an asteroid, not the Moon!

John: Any thoughts on the fans?

Brian Johnson: I'm always amazed by the enthusiasm and loyalty shown by so many different types of people. From the absolute nutter through the sci-fi buff, to the cerebral. Even Mums have a lot of nice things to say about the show - maybe it kept their kids quiet for an hour or so. I also do not have the retention of memory for lines in the script that many fans can recite, ad infinitum. I'm always flattered by the nice things they say about Eagles and Moonbase Alpha.

Friday, January 28, 2011

From the Archive: John Newland

John's note: This interview with John Newland, director and host of One Step Beyond, was conducted in the year 1999, as I was researching my book, An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond.  Mr. Newland -- a true gentleman and great talent -- passed away in 2000.

Interview with John Newland

John Newland came of age as a theatrical artist just as television developed into a national obsession.

Perhaps the foremost leading man of the 1950s, Newland guest-starred on programs such as Playhouse 90 (1956-1961), The Loretta Young Show (1953-1961), Kraft Television Theatre (1947-1958), Climax (1954-1958), Suspense (1949-1964), Studio One (1948-1958), Robert Montgomery Presents (1950-1957), Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Science Fiction Theater (1955-1957) and Inner Sanctum (1954).

Though Newland is best remembered for his role as the host of One Step Beyond and its syndicated sequel, The Next Step Beyond (1978-79), he also had a long and distinguished career as a TV director, helming episodes of Police Woman (1974-1978), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), Dr. Kildare (1961-1966), Star Trek (1966-1969), Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1973), The Sixth Sense (1972) and Wonder Woman (1976-1978).

He also directed the memorable (and chilling...) TV movie starring Kim Darby, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).

The following interview focuses on the production of One Step Beyond:

MUIR: How did you come to be involved with Alcoa Presents, the series known now and forever as One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: Producers Merwin Gerard and Collier Young were my friends, and we had done other shows together. We came up with idea of doing a program called Fantasy, a series that would highlight fantasy one week, horror the next, science fiction the next, and so on. But all those things had been done before, so we decided to focus on psychic phenomena instead. There were so many sources to call on for stories, and we had Larry Marcus, a formidable writer, and I would direct the episodes.

MUIR: And that was how the pilot "The Bride Possessed" came about?"

NEWLAND: Yes. We made "The Bride Possessed," and it had enough visual appeal to make the series seem worthwhile.

MUIR: Do you recall how much it cost to make the pilot (in 1959)?

NEWLAND: Around $30,000 dollars, I believe. We shopped it around, and Alcoa liked the show, so it became our sponsor.

MUIR: One of the things that made One Step Beyond so unusual was that many of the episodes were based on reported accounts of the paranormal, "based on fact," as it were. "Night of April 14" concerned a psychic web surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. "The Day the World Wept" reported President Lincoln's precognitive dreams of his own assassination, and "Earthquake" and "Eye Witness" told of people who forecasted real life natural disasters, such as the quake of 1916, or the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa.

NEWLAND: That's right. The stories had to be real, and there had to be proof, either anecdotal or published. Of course, we got some letters from people who said I was the Anti-Christ for pursuing this kind of thing. Ivan Klapper was our consultant, and it was just as the narration said. [He breaks into the series narration here - and it's a little uncanny to hear the voice coming through my phone]: 'Explain it? We cannot. Disprove it? We cannot. We are simply inviting audiences to explore the unknown.."

MUIR: How long did it take to film the average episode of One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: Three days. We'd work for five days a week, stop for two days to take a breather, and then start shooting again. We had a spectacular crew.

MUIR: And the budget per regular half-hour show?

NEWLAND: Between $30,000 and $50,000, I believe.

MUIR: And the shows were mostly shot inside. In the studio, right?

NEWLAND: We shot on the MGM lot. And we had access to their vast costume department, which meant that we could do period pieces.

MUIR: Were you allowed to improvise dialogue, or re-write any of the teleplays on the set, or were the stories pretty much filmed as written?

NEWLAND: We didn't need to improvise. We had good actors, good movement and good dialogue. We had four cameras, and the benefit of vast experience.

MUIR: Did you have complete creative control in your directing choices?

NEWLAND: I had a totally free hand...and a lot of help too! Henry Berman [editor of the series] was a major reason for the success of One Step Beyond. After lunch on any given day of shooting, he would approach me and let me know what he thought he needed in order to deliver a satisfactory cut.

MUIR: What kind of advice did he usually have?

NEWLAND: He would say: 'I need a two-shot here, John,' etcetera. And usually his recommendation was something that would have never entered my mind. Cutters are very helpful to directors, and I always listened to Henry and placed stock in his advice/

MUIR: What were your feelings about Harry Lubin, who wrote the creepy signature music of One Step Beyond? That theme, "Fear" still gives me shivers whenever I think of it....

NEWLAND: Harry was a very articulate man, and a great composer, and he really loved the idea of the show. I think the music reflected his genuine interest and feel for the material. When an album of his work on One Step Beyond was released many years later, it was quite successful.

MUIR: Since One Step Beyond was an anthology, you had the opportunity to work with a variety of famous performers. Can I ask about some of your memories of the actors who appeared on the show?


MUIR: Suzanne Pleshette appeared in "Delusion," the premiere of the second season. She played a duplicitous nasty girl, and the recipient of a blood-transfusion of a character played by Norman Lloyd. What was your impression of her?

NEWLAND: She was one of the best actresses I ever worked with. Period.

MUIR: In the print I saw of that episode, there was an abrupt cut as soon as Norman Lloyd began to strangle her. Was that a network-imposed cut, or did I just see a bad print?

NEWLAND: Well, I'm sure I told Norman to strangle her good. I don't recall if that cut was a result of the network asking us to change something.

MUIR: Any thoughts on William Shatner, who you worked with again on Star Trek? He appeared in "The Promise" as a German bomb expert, and gave a very sensitive and restrained performance....

NEWLAND: He's a charming actor, and a hard-working actor. I thought he was adorable, and he has been an excellent friend to me. I thought he gave a terrific performance in "The Promise.

MUIR: "The Visitor" was a deeply moving episode about how marriages can change over the years...with a psychic twist, of course. It featured a very young Warren Beatty as a man in his twenties, and then as the same character - but in his fifties. What was he like to direct?

NEWLAND: Warren was a friend. Of course he was a nobody back then, but Joan Fontaine [his co-star in "The Visitor"] wanted him for the part. I thought he was quite charming - and good in the role. He was dating Natalie Wood at that point, and she would come over to watch the dailies to see how he was holding up. He wasn't in [old-age] make-up that long, and it wasn't severe.

MUIR: Christopher Lee appeared in "The Sorcerer," just as he was becoming an international star for his portrayal of Dracula.

NEWLAND: Oh, he was funny and charming. He makes his living being spooky but he's really got a great sense of humor.

MUIR: How did you feel about the fact that you were always on-screen, in every episode, as the series narrator?

NEWLAND: That was a necessary selling point. Having me as an "established star" of television at the time, helped get the show sold.

MUIR: Part of your job, as I recall, was to hawk aluminum products for your sponsor, Alcoa. Was it ever awkward being their pitch-man?

NEWLAND: That was just part of the business. They were happy with my work, and I was happy with their money. It was a good relationship.

MUIR: While you were shooting the first season of One Step Beyond, you had an interesting encounter with Rod Serling, is that correct?

NEWLAND: I knew Rod, and he knew me as a director, and he was a splendid person to work with, and a real supporter. He called me up and asked me to meet him for drinks. Well, once we were at the bar, Serling told me he was going to be producing and writing an anthology series of his own. He assured me that The Twilight Zone was going to be pure fantasy, with no discussion of proof or psychic powers.

MUIR: Why do you think he wanted to tell you that?

NEWLAND: Because he was a class act. He just wanted to let me know in person that he wasn't going to rip us off.

MUIR: Any favorites among the 96 episodes of One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: I liked "The Devil's Laughter" [ a story about a criminal who kept escaping the noose by luck]. The story was good, I liked Alfred Ryder's performance, and felt engaged by the storyline.

MUIR: Least favorite?

NEWLAND: The one about the vine in Mexico.

MUIR: That was "Blood Flower," about an American professor being possessed by the spirit of a Mexican revolutionary whose blood had spilled on a plant...

NEWLAND: It was a dumb, silly concept. The pits.

MUIR: One Step Beyond had a location shift for the last part of its third season. Thirteen episodes were filmed in Great Britain.

NEWLAND: That was my idea. We thought it would be a little boost to the show. Great Britain offered good actors, good locations, and good settings. We sought permission from Alcoa, and they okayed it.

MUIR: What was ABC's general response to One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: They were very enthusiastic. The show always won its time slot. Alcoa was even more enthusiastic. It was a solid success.

MUIR: How much interference was there from Alcoa and the network?

NEWLAND: These were the days before Proctor and Gamble. We had a totally free hand.

MUIR: Do you know why the series was cancelled?

NEWLAND: We'd done 96 episodes, and there was the inescapable feeling that we were no longer the new kid on the block. The show was still drawing high ratings, but the decision was made that we needed to make room for new product.

MUIR: Okay, you know I've got to question you about the episode called "The Sacred Mushroom." This remains one of the most notorious episodes in network TV history, because you are seen on camera literally sampling mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties in a California laboratory. In your own words from the beginning of the show, "the story featured no actors, no script." Basically, it was a travelogue to Mexico to experiment with these mushrooms. What was going on with that story?

NEWLAND: That was our most popular episode. It was a spooky trip. We landed in a tiny airstrip in Mexico near a mission. From there, it was a donkey trip of four days to reach the village. It was a dangerous journey, but we got phenomenal footage.

MUIR: That portion of the episode involved Dr. Barbara Brown (a neuro-pharmacologist), David Grey (A Hawaiin spiritual leader), Dr. Jeffrey Smith (a philosophy professor from Stanford) and Dr. Andrija Puharch sampling a mushroom called "X," given to them by a local with doctor called a brujo. The peyote was supposed to enhance psychic abilities, and it was pretty damn unusual to see people getting high on TV in 1961, wasn't it?

NEWLAND: Alcoa told us that the show was so bizarre, that we don't dare put it on the air.

MUIR: So how did you salvage the episode?

NEWLAND: Well, Puharich asked me to take the mushroom, and I was game, so we took a camera crew and drove to Palo Alto and Puharich's laboratory. Once there, I had three cameras rolling the whole time, and I told the cameramen to just keep shooting until we ran out of film. We decided to shoot and shoot and shoot and see what happened.

MUIR: Did you feel anything strange when you sampled the mushroom?

NEWLAND: I felt light-headed...and a sense of well being...the stuff was distilled. It was very powerful, but not poisonous, so I didn't have any trepidations.

MUIR: Were there after-effects?"

NEWLAND: I had flashbacks and hallucinatory moments for about a month.

MUIR: But nothing psychic or paranormal happened?

NEWLAND: No. Not a grain.

MUIR: I guess I should ask you then, have you ever had a psychic or paranormal experience?

NEWLAND: I've not had a single experience. I'd like to have one, and if I were offered one, I'd certainly jump at it instantly.

MUIR: Going back to "The Sacred Mushroom," your involvement with Puharich in the lab saved the show for broadcast.

NEWLAND: Alcoa saw it and considered my testimony "proof enough," to air the show. As I said, it became our most popular episode.

MUIR: In 1978 you embarked on a syndicated sequel to One Step Beyond called The Next Step Beyond. It only lasted a season, and at first was shot on videotape.

NEWLAND: It was very inferior quality. We thought videotape was the medium of the future, but the results were not what we had in mind. We switched to 16mm halfway through the series to try to improve its look, but by then it was too late.

MUIR: With revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, has there been any serious thought about another new One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: We talked about doing all kinds of revivals, even recently, but as The Next Step Beyond proved so dramatically, you just can't go home again.

MUIR: Is there any message you would like to share with fans of One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: Thank you for your years of interest and belief. I am very grateful.

MUIR: And lastly what is your ultimate, final take on One Step Beyond, forty years later?

NEWLAND: It was the best production I ever worked on, period. It was the best time I had working in this industry, and it was the most creative and satisfying atmosphere in my life, both personally and professionally.

Please Stand By...

Hello, dear readers,

Because of a medical emergency in my family, I won't be blogging for the next few days at least. 

I hope to return here soon, with new reviews of THX-1138, The Matrix and other great cult movies.

In my absence, I'll be setting the old blog here on "automatic" to post  material from my writing career archives, mostly interviews.  First up: an interview with One Step Beyond host and director, John Newland conducted in 1999. 

I hope you enjoy reading this archival material until I can get back on the job.

Be well, and be safe.

Warmest wishes to all,
John Kenneth Muir

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #129: Dark Skies: "The Awakening" (1996)

Dark Skies (1995 - 1996) has finally been released on DVD, and cult-TV fans have cause to rejoice and also, incidentally, to re-assess

As I've written here before, Dark Skies premiered in September of 1996, during the heyday of The X-Files and the same year that also brought audiences the wonderful Millennium

At the time, skeptical critics promptly termed Dark Skies a rip-off of The X-Files after looking at the superficial similarities between series, namely "conspiracies" and "aliens." 

But the truth -- to use a loaded word -- is considerably more complicated.

Following the unprecedented success of The X-Files, American TV networks naturally began to green light genre series involving alien invasions, conspiracies, supernatural horror, the paranormal and the like (see: American Gothic [1995-1996], Nowhere Man [1995-1996], Strange Luck [1995-1996], Poltergeist the Legacy [1996 - 1999], The Burning Zone [1996 - 1997], Kindred: The Embraced [1996 - 1997], The Visitor [1997-1998], Buffy the Vampire Slayer,[1997 - 2003], Sleepwalkers [1997], Prey [1998], Brimstone [1998-1999], Strange World [1999], G vs. E [1999], The Others [2000]) and so on.

Two things about this; 

First, The X-Files has been on the receiving end of some negative backlash since 2008, especially since some audiences apparently didn't appreciate the second feature film. However, the above-posted list of genre programs that The X-Files paved the way for enunciates rather definitively, the importance of Chris Carter's initiative in the annals of cult TV history. 

In a span of roughly five years The X-Files inspired no less than a dozen other horror-oriented genre series, some of which became legitimate cause celebres and hits themselves, namely Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Others became respected cult programs with devoted if small audiences (American Gothic, Nowhere Man).

Therefore, it is both fair and accurate to state that these high-quality programs capitalized on the success of The X-Files without, necessarily, ripping off The X-Files.

There's a critical distinction there.

And today, I would also add the much-maligned Dark Skies to that list. 

There's no doubt in my mind that this program was green-lit and given a prime-time berth because of the success of The X-Files.  There's also no doubt in my mind, however, that Dark Skies was an original, visually-distinctive, and highly-involving initiative.   The series features a great, growling regular performance from the late J.T. Walsh, and also some very rewarding, very intricate plotting across the span of the catalog's nineteen hour-long shows..

Now that this bit of business is out of the way, let's gaze at Dark Skies for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

The first episode of Dark Skies, "The Awakening," aired on September 21, 1996, and the two-hour pilot film was written by series creators Brent V. Friedman and Bryce Zabel. 

The episode -- which today plays more like a full-fledged feature film -- was directed by none other than Tobe Hooper, the cinematic rebel and surrealist who helmed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Eaten Alive (1976), Salem's Lot (1978), The Funhouse (1981) and Poltergeist (1982). Here Hooper brings his trademark sense of visual aplomb to the pilot; both vividly capturing a sense of period detail and stylishly ramping up the shocks and suspense inherent in the series premise.

Camelot: Days of Idealism.

Artistically speaking, "The Awakening" actually concerns two awakenings.  One is literal.  One is metaphorical. 

As the Dark Skies mythology begins, President John F. Kennedy is inaugurated in Washington D.C. and the age of Camelot officially begins. 

Two enthusiastic, idealistic American youngsters, John Loengard (Eric Close) and Kim Sayers (Megan Ward) trek to Washington to begin a new life; to live the life of service imagined in President Kennedy's address of fifty years ago.  They ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

In very short order, however, John -- now working as a Congressional investigator -- uncovers the existence of a shadow government acting without Kennedy's knowledge or blessing. 

One organization in that conspiracy -- Majestic -- is aware of an alien invasion in progress, and is steadfastly keeping that knowledge from the President and his new administration (apparently because Ike didn't trust the Kennedys.)

This is John's "awakening" from the reality of Camelot; his awakening from what he believed to be American history. 

On another level entirely, John's experience is one that mimics the journey of real-life idealists everywhere in this nation.  I imagine Tea-Baggers are learning it the hard way right about now; even as the Obama admirers learned it after the 2008 election.  That lesson is, simply, you don't change Washington D.C.  Washington D.C. changes you.

In "The Awakening," John Loengard begins his journey as a just, idealistic crusader, out to save the world.  Before long, he is "recruited" into the ranks of Majestic by the cynical, jingoistic, hard-nosed commanding officer of that outfit, Captain Bach (Walsh).  In a characteristic bit of cynicism, Bach tells John that Loengard's "faith in the power of charming." 

Then John asks Bach who "appointed" him "God" and Bach answers, amusingly, "Ike."

Soon John is keeping secrets from his lover and fiance, Kim, involving himself in the blackmailing of a Congressmen, and operating entirely out of reach of governmental oversight.  He becomes -- almost immediately -- "assimilated" into corrupt Washington D.C. culture. John realizes this truth, and doesn't particularly like it.  He has joined a "very exclusive club," he states, one that "operates by its own code, and above the law."

At the same time -- and as interesting artistic counterpoint -- the aliens attempt to corrupt and assimilate Kim, "implanting" the beautiful young woman with an alien ganglion so she can spy on John and Majestic for them.  She too has been corrupted by an un-American agenda.

The solution to this crisis is simply to flee.  John attempts to hold fast to his ideals -- after a rousing, nighttime visit to the Lincoln and Washington Monuments --  by escaping from Majestic.

After freeing Kim from alien control with an untested "A.R.T" (Alien Rejection Treatment), the disillusioned duo gets in their convertible and head off for the homeland. On their way to an undisclosed location, John and Kim get a message to President Kennedy about Majestic and the alien invasion.

The next day, Kennedy is assassinated. 

And the Dark Skies pilot doesn't really make it clear at this juncture whether Majestic was behind the assassination, or the aliens were.  How's that for "dark skies?" 

Are the aliens our true enemies, or are we our own worst enemies?

Singularity: an offer of Utopia. Or is it just Socialism on a cosmic scale?
In charting the innocence, assimilation and (hopeful) redemption of John Loengard and Kim Sayers in the pilot film, "The Awakening," Dark Skies actually proves a perfect reflection of our times today, in 2011.  This is an age in which rampant fears about government and secret agendas are at their highest peak since, well, the 1990s and The X-Files

So Dark Skies lands on DVD at a time when some Americans already believe an alien is living in the White House, and that he is transforming our country into something monstrous.  I disavow that belief, of course, but what Dark Skies achieves with chilling efficiency and incredible imagination is the implication that every major event in America since 1947 (the Roswell landing) is the result of alien interference, or, perhaps just as scarily, Majestic push-back.   

Or as the series puts it, "our history is a lie."

In this pilot episode alone, the Dark Skies creative team finds alternative causes and motivations for the capture of U.S. pilot Gary Powers after his famous U-2 flight, the Kennedy assassination, the Betty and Barney Hill alien encounter, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Amazingly, the Dark Skies "version" of reality seems entirely plausible, and chilling.  Everything has been thought out in a way that seems consistent and oddly believable.

The most cinematic and compelling sequence in "The Awakening" arrives about mid-way through, when Loengard goes to Idaho to investigate newly-formed crop circles.  He encounters an implanted farmer, and survives the farmer's attempt to murder him.  Back in D.C., however, the alien ganglion escapes via the farmer's mouth (!), and attempts to find purchase in another human being.  This grotesque moment makes for a harrowing, violent and rather gory set-piece.  Both the scene on the picturesque farm and the later scene in the lab are shot with enormous skill. Without exaggeration, you feel like you're watching a big budget movie here.
A ganglion makes an unwanted appearance.
What isn't so good about Dark Skies, a decade-and-a-haf later?  I've written before how disappointing I found it when Jeri Ryan's character was added to the series mid-way through to, essentially, replace Megan Ward's delightful Kim Sayers.  I don't blame Jeri Ryan -- a fine actress --but nor do I believe that the honorable John Loengard would hop in bed with her so readily while the love of his life is missing, and compromised by aliens.  That never did -- and still does not -- ring true.

Also, watching Dark Skies this time around, I also can't help but note how flat the voice-over narrations are in "The Awakening," both in terms of writing style and Eric Close's delivery.  A perpetual joy of The X-Files remains Chris Carter's poetic manner of expression, and Duchovny's heartfelt delivery of that poetry.  Here the heroic voice-overs mostly seem to state the obvious, and in an obvious, deadpan manner too.  You could take them out of the show and lose nothing.  Eric Close is great in this role, as he is in another cult classic not yet on DVD, Now and Again, but the voice-overs in "The Awakening" are weak.

But Dark Skies has enormous virtues too.  The period details are rich, lush, and superbly realized (well before Mad Men came along), and the focus on "revising" our national history makes each and every episode a compelling, stimulating experience.  Aliens involved with the Ed Sullivan show and the Beatles?  Alien invaders interacting with Charles Manson?

I also enjoy the carefully-constructed lingo or "tech" of the program, with procedures such as "cerebral eviction" being mentioned often.  It's clear, just from the pilot alone, that tremendous attention was paid to the idea of building a consistent and believable universe.  A shame that universe was never given a fuller hearing on network television.

In short, Dark Skies works today not because it capitalized on the success of The X-Files, but because of strong production values and storytelling.  The program skillfully guides audiences through a history we think we know and then surprises us with some outlandish -- but utterly fascinating -- alien lore. 

This is one cult series I would love to see revived and started anew today (perhaps on HBO or AMC).  This DVD set is the silver lining in in cloudy skies, all right, but a modern Dark Skies re-boot (still set in the 1960s - 1990s) would be a real glimpse of the sun.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The A-Team (2010)

Let's start this review with a useful analogy. 

The 2010 A-Team movie is to the original A-Team television series as the 2009 Star Trek movie was to the original Star Trek series. 

In other words, the A-Team movie is a thorough and dedicated 21st century updating and re-vamping of the familiar franchise with re-cast central roles, but also with -- globally speaking-- an abundant sense of faith and love regarding its television origins and heritage.

In fact, the A-Team movie commences with precisely the right tone of appreciation and nostalgia. 

In a garage in Mexico, B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson) reunites with his beloved 1983 GMC Vandura Van -- an enduring trademark of the original TV series -- and notes, simply, "It's been too long.  Way too long..."

Indeed it has.

 For fans of the A-Team who have missed the popular action series since it was canceled by NBC in the late 1980s, this sentimental touch -- which occurs almost immediately before the van gets unceremoniously crushed in an action scene -- is actually a  love letter of sorts; an acknowledgement of mutually-shared appreciation of that which came before, and which is still honored here.

These are the words I wrote last year, in regards to the original A-Team television series:

"During the original NBC run of The A-Team (1983 - 1987), my father had a word he used to describe the Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo series:


Now, diverting can mean "entertaining" or "amusing," but it can also mean to "turn aside" or "distract from a serious occupation."

In the case of The A-Team, my Dad probably meant all of the above.

The A-Team is a vintage action series of unmatched cartoon violence, colorful but superficial characters, outrageous stunts...and not much narrative or thematic depth to speak of.

But taken on those very limited terms, The A-Team truly and fully "diverts."

What does this mean, exactly? Well, even today, you can't take your eyes off the bloody thing.

Oh, there are significant causes to complain, I suppose, if that's your stock and trade. Nobody on the show ever dies or is badly wounded...even in the most horrific car crash or gun-fight.

And women? They are pretty much utilized as set decoration.

How about realism? Well, let's just say that any TV series featuring John Saxon as a drugged-out religious cult leader probably isn't aiming strictly for realism.

But again, you either take a series like this on its own terms, or you don't take it at all. Your rational, logical mind may complain or rebel about some very important aspects of storyline, plot resolution and yeah, physics, but after watching an A-Team episode you may nonetheless find yourself smiling almost uncontrollably.

There's a joie-de-vivre about the players on this classic TV program, and it acts like a giant black hole...sucking you in, even if you put up resistance."

I might as well have been writing those words about this movie of 2010 vintage. 

Without putting too fine a point on it, director Joe Carnahan's (Narc [2002]) film is pretty much exactly the same thing as my description of the TV series above, save for a slightly less two-dimensional role for the lead female, here Jessica Biel's Captain Sosa. 

Otherwise, you've got the same style of cartoon violence, the same colorful characters, some tremendous stunts, and an overwhelming sense of fun and esprit de corps..   

Are the Laws of Physics violated in the much-complained about falling tank sequence? 

Yes, abundantly so. 

But if you're going to dismiss this particularly movie because of that specific scene, you should be prepared to dismiss as well Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) because of its inflatable raft-as-parachute scene, and Goldeneye (1995) too, for the most Physics-busting shot in James Bond film history: Pierce Brosnan diving after a falling plane in the prologue, catching up to it, climbing in, and flying it out of its death spin.

So yes, there is plenty to nitpick, deride or assail here, particularly if you are seeking a realistic and believable action-thriller.

But if you choose that route; you should at least acknowledge that you are reviewing the movie you wanted to see; and not an A-Team movie. 

Indeed, the film's winking dialogue -- as penned by Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods -- understands immediately the particular universe of this "crack commando team." 

"The A-Team," declares Sosa "specializes in the ridiculous."

I really can't put it much better than that. 

This movie -- like the TV series on which it was based -- specializes in the ridiculous.  You either go with the ridiculousness and get a kick out of the intentional over-the-top nature of it, or you won't enjoy the movie a lick.

The original series was always a low-brow, good-humored variation on Bruce Gellar's Mission: Impossible, and the 2010 movie understands that too. 

Face (Dirk Benedict) was the charmer of the group; Murdock (Dwight Shultz) the pilot; Hannibal (George Peppard) the irrepressible leader, and B.A. (Mr. T) the mechanic.  Together they would combine their skills to save innocent people, all while concocting ridiculous plans like, say, building flame throwers out of hot water heaters and washing machines.  The stories were clearly not as tightly plotted or elaborately constructed as those on Mission:Impossible, but this fact gave The A-Team writers room to let the characters banter and do their funny shtick

That shtick is still famous today. 

Hannibal crunching a cigar and optimistically -- eternally -- noting that he "loves it when a plan comes together." 

Murdock's insane act; a useful insane act which always distracts the enemy at just the right time. 

And then there's Face's sense of vanity and his way with all the ladies. 

And finally there's Bad Attitude Baracus, who really, really, really hates to fly...and must be tricked, cajoled and sedated to fly Murdock's friendly skies.

The movie revives each and every one of these beloved, extremely silly character gimmicks and touchstones, and in the process, provides audiences the origin story of the A-Team. 

The team is framed for a "crime it did not commit," in this case the theft of counterfeit engraver plates in Operation Desert Freedom.  The bad guys are Black Forest mercenaries (think Blackwater) who frame the Team and steal the plates for themselves.  A CIA guy named Lynch (another name you should recognize from the series...) is another heavy, and Patrick Wilson has a ball with the role.

After breaking out of prison, Hannibal (Liam Neeson) must free his friends and concoct a plan to get the engraver plates back, a plan that will --naturally -- involve lots of violence and death-defying stunts.

And on this last front, the movie A-Team -- with a whopping 100 million dollar budget at its command -- offers the goods in the way that a weekly TV series made in the 1980s simply could not afford. 

About mid-way through the film, Carnahan stages a stunning heist sequence at a skyscraper in Frankfurt, with the A Team -- and its opponents too -- plummeting down dozens of stories...all while firing machine guns and launching missiles.

Even truer to the aesthetic of the original series is the film's first major action sequence, which sees the A-Team hijacking a moving convoy in Baghdad to acquire the engraving plates.  The plan involves a magnet, a video camera, and several inflatable air bags.  It's stereotypically an A-Team, Rube-Goldberg affair, and it's a hoot.

Carnahan edits this scene -- and indeed the finale of the film -- as a delicate dance, a ping-pong back and forth between present and future (or is it past and present?), between intention and action.  The gathered team discusses the plan prior to the mission, while we simultaneously cross-cut to the plan in action. 

Now, some critics or audiences might complain that this approach is somehow "spoon feeding" the audience information for clarity, but I would differ about that assessment.  The cross-cutting is just a dazzling, highly visual way of leading us through a particularly byzantine action scene, without laborious exposition telling why, where, and how things are happening. 

In other words, these back-and-forths move at the speed of thought. Hannibal (or Face) proposes, and then we see the proposition happening in real-time, before our eyes. 

And for his final trick, Carnahan throws a monkey wrench into the movie's last shell game: a Black Forest mercentary with a rocket launcher.

Listen, I'm not going to argue that The A-Team is a great movie in any sense of that word, though honesty forces me to admit it is much better, more accomplished affair than last summer's other macho action pic, The Expendables.   Contrarily,  I only argue that The A-Team accomplishes pretty much the same thing that the TV series did on a regular basis. 

It diverts. It generates laughs.  It thrills. 

In other words, this is a faithful and accurate reflection of The A-Team TV series, even if it does not involve helping people in need.  No doubt that aspect of the mythos was being saved for the sequel, following this "origin story."

And I do admire the filmmakers for not transforming the A-Team universe into a brutal, sex-obsessed, angsty, brooding Batman-style world, where everything is ultra-realistic, dark-for-the-sake-of-being-dark, and serious to the point of ennui.  That would have been the easy route.  Instead, this movie -- like the TV series -- is an amusing, blatantly unrealistic lark, fronted by enormously appealing actors playing iconic roles. 

More even that even, I admire how Carnahan's movie attempts to find current day alternatives to bloody murder.  You'll remember how on the original series, cars would turn over and get destroyed in chases, but the bad guys would always crawl out of the wrecks, shake it off, and get back into the game?

Here, Carnahan pitches the film's fiercest battle between the A-Team in flight (on that notorious falling tank...) and two unmanned Reaper Drones.  Hence, the bullets can fly and there's plenty of violence and action.  But just like on the TV series, nobody gets hurt in the ensuing explosions.  Same idea; but new, clever expression.

Again, I'm not championing this storytelling approach as realistic, scientifically-accurate, believable, or even my preferred approach in filmmaking.  Rather I'm championing this storytelling approach as very, very...A-Team like.

If you liked the A-Team TV series and this brand of storytelling, there's no reason in the world you wouldn't enjoy this A-Team movie.  It remembers what made us laugh, gasp and smile about the old TV series, and in the process thoroughly...diverts, to use that word again.

In the end, the A-Team movie is not about a rogue but "valuable military asset," or a realistic "clandestine operation," it's about four larger-than-life characters we love who specialize in the ridiculous.   

If you can get behind that proposition, then this movie really does come together.