Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saturday with Sinbad: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts (1963) looks more beautiful than ever on the high-definition Blu Ray format, and after the relative disappointment of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), I felt much relief over that fact. 

I wasn't yet born when Jason and the Argonauts was released theatrically, but it was a staple of my youth nonetheless.  Whenever the film aired on national or local TV, I always tried to catch it (remember, this was the age before VHS, before Cable TV, even...).  It's nice to see that the fantasy has held up so well, even after nearly fifty years.  It's like revisiting an old friend and finding him still in fighting shape.

Watching Jason and the Argonauts  again in 2012, I liked it better than any of the Sinbad films, except for Golden Voyage (1974), which remains my favorite Harryhausen fantasy because it accounts for Sinbad's ethnicity and features a darker story about the "cost" of black magic.

Jason and the Argonauts is, perhaps, nearly as simplistic as 7th Voyage was in terms of characterization, but the film still holds together well.  This may be so because it has Greek mythology to fall back on as a rich resource for creature origins and compelling story points.

Jason was the Greek who, in Argonautica, embarked upon a dangerous quest for the Golden Fleece.  The men who accompanied him on the journey, including Hercules, Hylas and Orpheus, were called "The Argonauts."   On the journey, Jason fell for the high priestess, Medea, but their lives went rather badly down hill after he brought her you may recall.

In broad terms, the quest for the Golden Fleece forms the basis of the Harryhausen film, directed by Don Chaffey.   Here, Jason of Thessaly (Todd Armstrong) seeks the fleece to help "heal" his war-torn country and assume his rightful place on the throne.  To dp so, he must defeat the tyrannical usurper, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer).  With the help of Hera (Honor Blackman), Jason makes sail with a team of heroes for the end of the world, where the Fleece is reportedly housed (and protected by a multi-headed beast called the Hydra).

En route to the Golden Fleece, the Argo encounters a giant bronze statue, Talos.  A confrontation with the living statue costs Jason two of his most valuable crew members, Hylas and Hercules.  Later, Jason defends  the fallen King Phineas (Patrick Troughton) from vicious Harpies in direct defiance of Zeus's will and in exchange for exact details about the location of the Fleece.  The rescued Phineas reveals that the Golden Fleece resides in distant Colchis, and Jason sets sail.

After reaching Colchis, Jason falls in love with the gorgeous priestess Medea (Nancy Kovack).  She helps him steal the Golden Fleece and defeat the Hydra. 

But Colchis's king, Aeetes, is not ready to give up his treasure.  Using the Hydra's mystical teeth, he "grows" an army of sinister skeletons to confront and challenge Jason....

If you boast any familiarity with Greek myth, you'll notice some changes in the old lore here.  For one thing, Talos was encountered on the way home from Colchis in myth, not on the beginning stages of the voyage. 

For another thing, the film glosses over the inconvenient plot point that Hercules and Hylas were likely lovers.  In the film, Hercules goes off in search of Hylas, and never returns to the Argo, but the two men are just *ahem* devoted "friends."  And in myth, Hylas was not crushed to death by Talos either, but had an entirely different fate...which is why Hercules went in search of him in the first place.  Here, you wonder where Hercules could possibly go to search for Hylas since the island is so small, and since Hylas's corpse is stuck underneath the fallen Talos...

And, of course, this 1963 film ends incredibly abruptly after Jason and Medea return to the Argo.  Therefore, we don't get to see Jason reclaim the throne, or the bloody, murderous falling out between Jason and his new love.  As an adult, I would have loved to see some of those mythic elements incorporated.

Still, one can pretty easily detect that the significant changes made in Jason's story were an effort to keep the material appropriate for children.  Also, the encounters featured here make the most of Harryhausen's stop-motion capabilities.  The movie features a battle with Talos, a last-minute rescue from Poseidon, a struggle with flying harpies, and, of course, the famous skeleton sword fight.

I'm still in awe of that particular sword fight.  It is choreographed and executed with deftness and even brilliance.  The skeletons seem very much alive in terms of movement and demeanor, but the human actors really out-do themselves too in "selling" this particular special effects set-piece.  You can usually tell if an actor misses a mark, is looking in the wrong place, or is holding back with his sword thrusts and parries.  None of that occurs here.  The battle seems virtually flawless.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this battle is my son Joel's favorite Harryhausen set-piece, and probably mine too.  A real show-stopper.

I believe where Jason and the Argonauts probably gets the nod over The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is in its deliberate subtext about man and the Gods.  Here, we see a terrific depiction of Mount Olympus, one that looks a lot like Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans in 1981. 

But beyond that, the film gives us the unique example in 'blasphemer' Jason, a human who attempts to make his way without the interference of the Gods, and yet uses Hera's help some five times to achieve his victory. 

It's kind of hypocritical for Jason to lambast the Gods, and then accept their help, but still, an important idea is transmitted.  Man must chart his own course in the world, without the luxury or curse of interfering Gods.

I feel that this is actually a message you can detect throughout all the Harryhausen fantasy films, and a prime reason they survive and are remembered with such fondness.  All of his fantasies, whether they involve Sinbad, Perseus or Jason, concern brave men fighting out-sized odds with resourcefulness, humility and decency.  The Harryhausen hero vanquishes monsters and magicians not for famor n glory, but because he must help others.  There's an optimistic undercurrent to these films; the idea that man is absolutely indomitable, even in the face of Harpies, Cyclops, the Minoton, living statues, dragons, and skeletons.

That's a message I hope Joel has intuited and internalized during the course of our Harryhausen film odyssey.

Movie Trailer: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Films of 1982: Class of 1984

Some movies appeal to the intellect and others go for the heart. 

Or, in the case of Class of 1984, right for the jugular. 

This visceral 1982 exploitation film lives up to its sub-genre in spades.  Mark Lester's Class of 1984 gamely exploits widely-held "generation gap"-styled  fears, happily stokes extreme paranoia and anger towards failed American institutions (such as the police and public school sysstems) and finally descends into bloody violence the likes of which one usually expects to see only in a rape-and-revenge film

If dissected, coldly, rationally and intellectually in the cold light of day, Class of 1984 hardly holds together as a film at all.  It doesn't make sense even on a basic narrative level.  But in the darkness of a movie auditorium -- or your living room -- the film veritably pulsates with wild, anarchic energy.  It "feels" dangerous to watch, and puts you on edge from the very first frame.  Class of 1984 emerges from an era when exploitation films like this were made not merely with commendable gusto, but absolute fearlessness, plus a strong grounding in film style.

Given the film's emotional approach to its subject matter, it's an authentic surprise that Class of 1984's most valuable player is not a bomb thrower (like Van Patten's effectively dramatized gang leader, Stegman), but a perfect gentleman.  The late Roddy McDowall here plays a put-upon biology teacher, Terry Corrigan, just about at the end of his rope.  McDowall crafts his character with the sensitivity and intelligence one expects from this great actor. In fact, his performance grounds Class of 1984 in understandable, relatable humanity, when only blood and guts appeared to be on the syllabus. 

And yet even McDowall's appeal is an emotional, not intellectual one.  We feel the guy's pain almost as our yet, yet still want to ask him logical questions like: how about looking for another job?  Or not attempting vehicular homicide...?

Breathing life into Class of 1984's rambunctious tale of students gone wild is an old, widespread, real-life fear, a generation gap if you will.  Basically, the adult generation demonizes and "fears" the up-and-coming generation as a wild, apocalyptic, uncontrollable one.  Since the 1950s, teenagers have been an easy scapegoat for society's problems in this regard.  You can find generation gap films in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties without conducting a wide or deep search.

But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it indeed looked like things were falling apart to some folk, and this element of American culture played into the fear about the future, and the future generation.  New York City became a hub for urban blight and ruin in efforts such as The Warriors (1979), Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), Escape from New York (1981) and Wolfen (1981). 

In terms of teens, about a thousand murders a year were committed by them in 1982, and the trend grew worse until about 1994, when the trends sharply reversed.  But the early 1980s remains the age of an irrational fear of teenagers, some of whom were even termed "super predators" in the mainstream press.  Similarly, the media often recounted horrific tales of skyrocketing  drug abuse and prostitution among teens.  This Zeitgeist is perfectly captured by student thug Stegman's immortal line (put to music by Alice Cooper in Class of 1984):

"I am the future."

The narrative model for Class of 1984 appears to be director Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle (1955).  Often described as the very first "rock and roll" movie, Blackboard Jungle follows an English teacher, Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford) as he takes a new teaching job and runs afoul of violent juvenile delinquents including Miller (Sidney Poitier), Artie (Vic Morrow) and Stocker (Paul Mazursky). 

At home, Dadier's wife, Ann (Anne Francis) suffers from extreme anxiety over her husband's teaching assignment, and this anxiety could jeopardize her pregnancy.  During the course of the film, a gentle math teacher, played by Richard Kiley, sees his record album collection destroyed by the out-of-control students.  The film ends with Dadier earning the respect of his students after winning a knife-fight with Artie.

Blackboard Jungle opened with a passage that contextualized this strange tale of students gone crazy: "We in the United States are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth.  Today, we are concerned with juvenile delinquency -- its causes and its effects. We are especially concerned when the delinquency boils over into our schools.  The scenes and incidences depicted here are fictional."

Class of 1984 apes Blackboard Jungle significantly.  Here, there's another new teacher as protagonist, his pregnant wife, several out-of-control teenagers, and a teacher friend who undergoes a terrible loss, in this case the murder of his school room rabbits.  Even the didactic Blackboard Jungle prologue has a corollary in Class of 1984.

Specifically, a title card informs audiences that "last year" (presumably 1981...), there were "280,000 incidents of violence by students against their teachers and classmates."  The card concludes with an ominous note; that the "following film is based partially on a true event."  And yes, the word "partial" certainly leaves the filmmakers quite a degree of wiggle room, and they exploit the loophole to its fullest.

In plot and thematic focus, Class of 1984 is much like Blackboard Jungle on speed.  The films are of different generations, and from different narrative and cinematic traditions, and yet they both reveal a disdain and fear of teenagers, the "next generation."  That's apparently a recurring value in American culture, but Class of 1984 is the more hardcore presentation.  This 1982 film descends into violence and death, rails against failed institutions (such as law enforcement) and resolves not in amity, but in bloody, mortal combat between the generations.  It's final title card, which I won't reveal here, is a testament to the film's cynicism, and yet, it's impossible to deny that the film's finale -- gory as it is -- satisfies the heart.

"Face the music, teacher, teacher..."

 Written by Tom Holland, Class of 1984 depicts the story of Mr. Andrew Norris (Perry King), a high school music teacher who has just transferred to the difficult Lincoln High...where students must go through metal detectors before entering the school house. 

Very quickly, Mr. Norris runs afoul of a violent gang, one led by the brilliant but psychotic Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten).  Stegman is not only a bully, but an entrepreneur of sorts, running drugs and a prostitution ring in school.   He is always protected by a gang of enforcers, including a grunting neo nazi, and a skinny heroin addict.

When a music student dies from a drug overdose-spawned accident, Norris vows to punish the "pusher," Stegman (Van Patten).  Although Norris's friend and fellow teacher, Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) urges caution and restraint, Norris ignores his advice and spurs a a war between gang and teachers.  The warfare eventually takes Terry's life, and  causes another music student, Arthur (Michael J. Fox) severe injury.  On the night of a big school concert, Stegman and his goons break into Norris's house and gang rape his very pregnant wife, Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross). 

Realizing the impotent local police and school administration can't help him seek justice, Norris exacts bloody vengeance with fire, table saw (!), and automobile.

"What's the matter with you? What's the matter with me? What's the matter with matter?"

I wrote in my introduction that Class of 1984 doesn't really hold together on a logical or cerebral level.  In part, this is because the film really stacks the deck in Stegman's favor.  In doing so, it makes school bureaucrats and policemen look like ineffectual idiots. 

Al Waxman's detective, in particular, informs Norris that unless someone "sees" Stegman committing a crime, nothing can be done to stop him. 

This fact (ahem) is abundantly untrue in our legal system, and has never been true in our legal system, as I hope discerning viewers would realize.  Eyewitness accounts, forensic science (finger prints!) and even confessions are also helpful when putting away bad elements.  Much of Class of 1984's emotional argument about bad kids stems from this fully-expressed idea of helplessness; this idea that even the law itself is powerless to stop teenage super predators on the rampage.  It's the same irrational thought that underlines much of the cinema of Charles Bronson, and appeals mainly to paranoids.  Our laws just protect criminals!

In more specific terms, the film must jump through some wacky hoops to keep Stegman and his thugs out of jail.  Arthur -- the very young Michael J. Fox -- has witnessed a drug deal, but won't testify as to this fact, thus allowing Stegman to remain on the loose.  Norris spends much of the film trying to get Arthur to testify against Stegman, but he won't.  Then, Arthur is stabbed by one of Stegman's new lackeys, and finally, Arthur agrees to testify.  But here's the rub: he only apparently testifies against the lackey who stabbed him, not against Stegman, whom he witnessed selling drugs.  It makes no sense at all.  In for a penny, in for a pound, right Arthur?  Sensibly, there's no reason why the kid wouldn't tell the police everything he knows, at least to get Stegman off the street for the length of an investigation.

The worst aspect of the film, however, is that it lives up to the Principal's critique of his own school, that "the bad ones take so much of our attention." 

This idea is literalized when, during a brilliant concert performance of the 1812 Overture by the school band, Stegman's corpse -- hanged by a rope -- breaks through a stain glass window on the ceiling. 

In other words, the students who have done well and achieved a victory in the concert see their thunder utterly stolen by the bad more time.  But Class of 1984 doesn't recognize this.  It treats the finale as a triumph, a victory.  It is, I suppose, in the sense that Stegman dies and Norris and his wife survive.  But what about the kids who staked their futures on the concert?

A better ending, I submit, would have seen Norris dispatch the gang, and then return to conduct the orchestra triumphantly.  Instead, the movie just reinforces the idea that good kids get lost in the battle, and are treated with less importance than the bad ones.  Since the film makes you root and support the music students, the visual reiteration of the school principal's negative point is odd and counterproductive, to say the least.

And yet, of course, none of this matters a lick. 

Class of 1984 is an effective and brutal little film, one that activates the primitive impulses of your mind, and makes you absolutely long for vengeance.  This blood lust is achieved not just through violent acts, but through some pretty fine acting.  Once more, I must pinpoint Roddy McDowall's performance, which lifts the whole enterprise.  In particular, he has a scene in which he explains to King's newcomer, Norris, why he became a teacher in the first place.  It was to touch young lives in a meaningful way, to offer students a real connection to a world larger than their concerns.  But his hopes have been quashed and destroyed.  The students of Lincoln High want nothing from Corrigan. Nothing.  There's no fact, no theory, no idea, no message about life that he can impart to them, and so his life has become meaningless. 

Accordingly, Corrigan (McDowall) decides that the best way to teach these kids is not with a carrot, but with a stick. He holds his class at gunpoint and begins implementing a snap quiz about biology wherein the students better answer correctly.  Or else

In these two scenes, McDowall affords Class of 1984 its human heart.  I realize that movies such as this one don't get nominated for Academy Awards, but goddamn if McDowall didn't absolutely deserve one for his work here.  Sometimes the great work of an actor involves not taking high-falutin material and simply giving it just due, but working on a more problematic script, and elevating the whole affair.  As foolish, illogical and anger-baiting as the rest of Class of 1984 remains, McDowall represents a stark contrast.  Through Corrigan, we see the human toll on the teachers at Lincoln High, and this quality absolutely grounds the picture and makes it more than a simple reach for blood lust.

But you'll feel blood lust too. 

I think that's because, inherently, all human beings covet justice.  We want to see the good rewarded and the bad punished.  And yet our legal system doesn't universally reach a just conclusion.  So we get angry when we see bad people get away, and good people hurt.   We get angry when we see the law, and our schools, and policemen, fail in what we perceive as their duty.

On this front, Class of 1984 turns Stegman into an absolute monster, one who has escaped the law and operates with no fear of being caught.  By the end of the film -- after gang rape and other crimes -- you really do thirst for the deaths of the gang members.  The film obliges in a glorious, bloody denouement. 

You may regret your blood lust after the film ends, but during it, Class of 1984 brilliantly plucks all the right notes of indignation and outrage.  It certainly leaves you feeling...emotionally sated.

You may rightly ask yourself why you want to see a movie that doesn't make sense if you step back and examine it rationally.  Or one that provokes your most animal instincts and thirst for vengeance.  Or that simplifies a real, mult-ifaceted problem so much that it becomes the basic law of the jungle: kill or be killed. 

I don't believe I can satisfactorily answer those questions, except to suggest that all human beings possess a multitude of psychological shades.  As evolved and civilized as we might like to believe we are, there is still that part of our psyche that longs for the re-assertion of justice, even if it is bloody justice.  Bluntly described, Class of 1984 resonates with something powerful in the psyche.  The film is extremely effective in delivering what it sets out to give us, and the one-two assault of humanity (in McDowall's performance) and inhumanity (in Van Patten's) makes the bloody movie almost impossible to resist. 

Rationally, I can see how Class of 1984 panders to the worst in human nature.  Emotionally, I don't care that this is the case because the film does speak to some basic truth about our human need to see justice prevail.  I can't deny feeling a thrill when Roddy McDowall picks up a gun and begins to lecture his out-of-control class about biology.  It's not rational, but when I write here, I'm supposed to level with you, and express myself honestly.  For me, this movie worked.

In my book, irrationality aside, Class of 1984 gets a passing grade.  But Roddy is the one who did all the extra credit.

Next week: Poltergeist (1982)

Movie Trailer: Class of 1984 (1982)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sci-FI Wisdom of the Week

"Life is pain. Pain is everything."

- Class of 1984 (1982), to be reviewed here tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Collectible Update: The secret origins of Freddy Krueger

Last Halloween, I blogged about the Matchbox Talking Freddy Krueger doll from the 1980s that was so scary it was removed from toy store shelves (for frightening children...).

Well, the Internet can be a most amazing place, and recently, I was contacted via e-mail about this great 1980s collectible by the toy's original sculptor, Rich Roland. 

Mr. Roland wrote me to provide some new background about the toy, including photographs of his Freddy sculpt.

He writes:

"I took a few photos for you to see the original size of Freddy's head, close up and un-painted."

"It's my artist's proof casting at full scale of the polished wax sculpt super-master I created, that eventually would be burnt out of the mold, lost wax method. This way they have bunches of seamless vinyls to use as masters and go into production. Castings shrink 3.5% each time, so by the time it gets to market it's 7% smaller than my original."
"At the risk of boring you any more with this techno talk, just imagine how washed out and small Talking Freddy doll was by the time it was bought out from Matchbox and sold at Spencer Gifts by a new manufacturer years after the toy was banned from the shelves because of the AFA and conservative mentalities you mentioned. Right on. It was a first! Ha. The news even made it to Entertainment Tonight. I have the event somewhere on VHS packed in the attic somewhere..."

Mr. Roland also passes along the news that his love of monsters runs in the family.  His daughter, Tina -- who at age 5 was terrified of the Freddy Doll in her living room -- has gone on to design several interesting characters and creatures of her own.  You can check out Tina Roland's web site, here.

I want to thank Mr. Roland for sharing with me and the readers some more history behind the creation of such a memorable 1980s collectible...

Collectible of the Week: Zeo Deluxe Pyramidas (Bandai; 1996)

"The new ZEO ZORDS: To help the ZEO RANGERS defend the world from the new menace of MACHINE QUEEN, ZORDON gives them the ZEO ZORDS - robotic battle machines. When more power is needed, the ZEO ZORDs morph together to form even stronger combinations. Will they be powerful enough to defeat MACHINE QUEEN?"

- The legend that appears on Pyramidas's toy box.

Power Rangers Zeo (1996) -- a sequel or continuation to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers -- brought new suits, new gadgets, new robots, and most importantly, new toys to the rapidly expanding Power Rangers (Super Sentai) universe.

Among the most unique -- and most awe-inspiring due to its scale -- was Pyramidas, a crucial element of the new "Zeo Zord System." 

Specifically, Deluxe Pyramidis, the "carrier Zord," could combine with the Deluxe Red Battlezord and the Deluxe Zeo Megazord to form the devastating Zeo Ultrazord.

Got that?

The colossal Pyramidas, who is well over a foot tall, could even transform into four modes on his own:

Pyramid mode, carrier mode, attack mode (as a robot) and "open mode" where he could hold all the Zeo Zords inside three separate and distinct interior chambers.

My five year old son and I both enjoy not just giant combining robots, but play sets, and Pyramadis is, effectively, both. 

The only problem is that Pyramidas is so large, Joel has some trouble manipulating him.  I can't stress it enough...this thing is huge.  He's a goliath in our living room (much to my wife's chagrin).

Although I'm not a huge fan of the Power Ranger TV series -- I simply haven't watched enough of them to really get into that universe -- I'm an absolute sucker for the franchie toys, and the Zeo Zords seem like some of the best in terms of design.  Joel seems to agree.  He already has the Deluxe Zeo Megazord, Pyramidis, the Super Zeo Megazord and Warrior Wheel.  On the look-out for Auric...

Interestingly, Joel also boasts no interest in the actual Rangers or the "evil space aliens" they fight. 

Nope.  This is all about the toys, and Pyramidas (as I hope the photos reveal) is a pretty darn amazing one.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote # 4: Dragos and Lord Dredd

(First suggested by Dr. Howard Margolin, host of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Apollo 18 (2011)

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace..."

- Apollo 18 (2011)

Nearly every movie critic in the world apparently hated Apollo 18 (2011), a found-footage horror movie about a doomed, 1974 NASA mission to the moon. 

The film's narrative involves two American astronauts, Anderson (Warren Christie) and Walker (Lloyd Owen), who -- over a span of days on a secret, D.O.D. supervised moon mission, -- come to grapple with malevolent alien critters on the lunar surface. 

As the situation grows more desperate, the alarmed duo seeks to rendezvous with their orbiting capsule, unaware that a larger conspiracy hangs over the mission...

The Boston Globe called Apollo 18 a "snooze," The Orlando Sentinel noted it "flat out does not work," New York Magazine called it "80 minutes of dead air," Variety said it was a "stunt," Village Voice used the film to suggest the subgenre of found footage horrors "should remain lost," and Entertainment Weekly opined that Apollo 18 had "no atmosphere." 

On and on, down the line, Apollo 18 has been totally reviled. 

Which means, to me anyway, it must be worthy of closer inspection...

Actually, I read a great many reviews of the film before I saw Apollo 18 and tallied some of the criticism ahead of time.  For instance, one critic argued that the astronauts featured in the film don't appear to bounce around the moon, but walk normally, as they would on Earth. In our gravity. 

Patently not true. 

You can clearly see the astronauts bouncing right along there on the lunar surface, as if out of an episode of Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977). 

Another critic diminished the film on the basis that the surviving crew members attempt to mate a Russian lunar lander and American space capsule in space, when "everybody knows" (!) their systems wouldn't be compatible for such a rendezvous. 

Again, this description is patently untrue in terms of the specifics the movie actually establishes.  In the film, the astronauts -- attempting to meet up -- plan to get close enough in space so that the astronaut in the CCCP lander can "space walk" to the American capsule from the Russian lander.  A ship-to-ship link-up is explicitly dismissed on-screen as impossible.

Another outraged apparent science "expert" argued that the film doesn't feature a time-lapse between the men on the moon and mission control on Earth during radio transmissions. 

I'm certain this so-called science expert also complained in Star Wars when there were sounds and explosions reverberating in space, right? 

And besides, this argument doesn't bear much scrutiny given the details of how Apollo 18 is intentionally presented.  The film we are witnessing here consists of "uploaded" footage from a truth-seeking group called "lunar truth."  Said footage (hours of it; days of it...) has been heavily edited by this group (hence the film's many jump cuts), and some compositions even showcase white spotlights or irises around background alien movement; revealing how the footage has been augmented by editors to make certain some visual aspects are "easier" to parse. 

In other words, the footage we are seeing (as the film) has been intentionally organized and assembled, and we are seeing that assembly.  Thus, a time-lapse could have been edited out for viewing ease.

Given this fact, and the exigencies of dramatic license in movie-making, is it really such a stretch to accept an abbreviation of the Earth/moon time lapse in terms of radio?  Or is this "mistake," as the critic states, a disqualifying factor in terms of overall quality?

One after the other, an attentive viewer can absolutely demolish a great many of the absurd complaints hurled at Apollo 18, if he or she just actually, you know, watches and listens to what happens on screen. 

Now, I'm not declaring this movie is an unheralded masterpiece.  Rather, I merely assert that this film is in no way, shape, or form the dreadful enterprise so many reviewers enthusiastically described.  And, it's certainly an intriguing twist on the now-popular found-footage formula; one much more original, interesting, and intelligent, for instance, than the umpteen Paranormal Activity movies. 

In fact, Apollo 18 is a moderately effective, eminently respectable horror film and certainly worthy of your time, if only for one viewing.  You may leave a screening feeling it doesn't quite come off, but you may also be pleased that you've witnessed, essentially, an ambitious failure.

And indeed, Apollo 18 is a remarkably ambitious effort in terms of the burgeoning found footage genre.  Consider that the found footage-type film (Blair Witch Project, [REC], The Last Exorcism] is frequently a low-budget exercise primarily about transforming weaknesses (such as lack of budget and no big name actors) into a kind of expressionistic, experiential strength.  Cloverfield (2008) stands as a notable exception to this trend in terms of scope and budget. 

Now, I don't know the budget for Apollo 18, but I can readily assert, after watching it, that tremendous attention has been paid to making certain that the film's sets and wardrobes are appropriate and correct to the 1970s time period.   The film grain is right too.  The movie looks like an actual vintage space program mission.  So if you enjoy that era of the American space program, you'll likely find plenty of retro (low) tech wonders to enjoy here, from the Lunar Lander interior to the Rover mock-up.  The Russian LK capsule also really looks like it could have been a product of that era.

Even more dramatically, the creation of the moon's environment is visually stunning.  I can't begin to imagine how this vast, desolate landscape was recreated so ably, so authentically on a low budget, but the makers of Apollo 18 didn't just easily pinch something off here (as is the case with some found footage films).  Instead writer Brian Miller and director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego  made a serious period-piece...on another fucking planet (or rather, natural satellite, I guess).  How many other found-footage films go so far to build a complete context and world around their horror milieu? 

Not many.

In terms of the found footage approach, Apollo 18 by-and-large sticks to the rules it sets up.  There's one scene wherein an exterior camera runs out of film during the middle of a scene, and suddenly we're in another scene all-together, in an entirely different conversation.   No explanations, no exposition.  It's a good touch that feels realistic.

Many moments in the film are also distorted by static and other picture disruptions.  In fact, some of the visual disturbances take away from the viewer's ability to follow the narrative and identify fully with the characters.   There's indeed something a little distancing here.  But again, that's the price for a found-footage film in these circumstances.  Apollo 18 must seem like a real moon mission, and truthfully, it accomplishes that feat.

I suppose the most legitimate question about the film is: how did this footage get back to Earth?  The only reasonable answer comes in the form of paranoia and conspiracy.  On several occasions, Mission Control on Earth claims it knows exactly what's happening on the moon; meaning that Earth is somehow (mysteriously) receiving visual transmissions from the astronauts.   Again, I don't necessarily see this omission as something that destroys the entire film, but rather a mystery.

Look, I can complain about the dopey, out-of-proportion critical response to this movie till the cows come home, but in the final analysis, the film must stand on its own as a work of art.  And on its own terms, I would argue Apollo 18 is at least moderately interesting in terms of narrative, highly dynamic in terms of visuals, and indeed quite suspenseful.  The film works hard at a slow, steady-build towards terror, and features two absolutely nerve-jangling jump scares.  I'm an old-hand at anticipating this kind of thing, and yet I popped up from my seat at two separate instances. 

The "dead air" that so many critics complained of -- the authentic, work-a-day approach to the space program -- is actually the very thing that makes these jump scares so blazingly effective.  The jolts arrive in contrast to the almost boring minute-to-minute operation of the space capsule.  We're not expecting such moments, and so when they arrive...we're walloped.  Again, I feel this approach is, at minimum, respectable.  The film attempts to ape the work-a-day feel of the real Apollo missions, and then uses that grounding in a reality we all recognize to leap off into breathtaking, heart-pounding horror.

The story details of Apollo 18 certainly owe something to an old Outer Limits episode, "The Invisible Enemy," about another space mission that unexpectedly finds hostile alien life on a seemingly deserted world.  In both cases, the monsters actually hide in plain sight, and boast a kind of sinister brand of intelligence.  What differentiates Apollo 18, again, is the visually-dynamic presentation of the setting, the horrifying nature of the alien threat, and the astronaut's bewildered response to it. 

But Apollo 18 thrives most powerfully on the fact that the two astronauts on the surface really have no options for long-term survival.  They are alone, outnumbered, abandoned, running low on air, and increasingly desperate.  There's a moment inside a deep crater -- lit only by sporadically flashing lights -- that gets, most powerfully, at this atmosphere of total vulnerability. 

The found-footage genre reaches its apex of success, in my opinion, when it transports you so successfully into another life or world that you start to get a little panicky yourself.  Like you are actually there....and unsafe.   I felt that way in The Blair Witch Project (1999), as the kid filmmakers neared the weird, isolated house in the middle of the forest, and I felt it here too, when one astronaut was alone, trying to help his friend at the lip of a crater, and on the very cusp of being the last human being alive on the Moon...with no possibility of help or escape.  

Now, I don't know if the critics who hated this movie possess a deficit of imagination or I possess a surfeit of it, but I found this element of the film very effective; a brand of throat-tightening terror that is hard to shake off or invalidate.  Imagine being alone out there...separated from...everything.  In many ways, Apollo 18's central scenario is the ultimate horror crucible, the ultimate human nightmare.  The movie has a great high-concept, and a great, dynamic visualization of it.  In a few shots, we see Earth hanging in the black sky, thousands of miles away and tiny, and this composition is almost unimaginable in terms of the loneliness it projects.

Apollo 18 asks you to live, essentially, in an extended moment of fear and total isolation, and there's a touching moment during which one astronaut -- knowing he shall never see home again -- plays a tape recording of his wife and son over and over again; reaching out for something, anything human and comforting. Again, critics want to tell you the characters in the film are indistinguishible and you never care about them.  Watch and experience this scene of human longing and sepration and then see if you think that claim is entirely fair.

I should also add, perhaps that Apollo 18 exists within in the milieu of "conspiracy" films about the space program (think: Capricorn One [1978]).  Here, Watergate gets an explicit mention too.  We live in a similar age of suspicion today, obsessed on Trutherism, Birtherism and the like.  Today's widespread fear of big, out of control, arrogant government, is also reflected, to some extent in Apollo 18's depiction of patriotic Americans left callously to die on the moon.  Is this the best we can do for our national heroes?  For those who dare to expand the frontiers of human knowledge? Are we failing our best men and women?

So Apollo 18 speaks to the Zeitgeist of the day, is authentically scary at points, and is visually unlike any found-footage film ever made.  Those are the strengths it brings to the table.   The weaknesses, in my opinion, stem from the fact that you know too early where the film is headed (and how it will end), and that some moments of the deliberate space program "vibe" drag on too long (a claim which one might also legitimately make, by the way, of Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey).

So, a good attempt that falls a little short, or a total, horrible flame out?  I'd vote for the former. In my opinion, it's too bad so many folks believe Apollo 18 should have been scrubbed before lift-off, when, in some respects, it clearly points out a new trajectory for found footage films; one that may help the subgenre expand and grow beyond the current reach and scope of so many...paranormal activities. 

Nighttime nurseries can only be explored so many times before ennui sets in, but the dimensions of space are, of course, limitless.

Theme Song of the Week: Dark Shadows (1966 - 1971)

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Duel to the Death

Identified by Le0pard13: The Outer Limits: "Fun and Games"

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "Amok Time."

Identified by Dave Colahan: The Starlost: "The Goddess Calabra"

Identified by Dave Colohan: Planet of the Apes: "The Gladiators"

Identified by Dave Colohan: Space:1999: "The Rules of Luton."

Identified by Hugh and Dave Colohan: Blake's 7: "Duel"

Identified by Hugh: Buck Rogers: "Buck's Duel to the Death"

Identified by Dave Colohan: V: "The Champion"

Identified by Randal Graves: Angel: "The Ring"

Identified by Woodchuckgod: Farscape: "That Old Black Magic"

Identified by Hugh and Dave Colohan: Star Trek: Voyager: "Tsunkatse"

Identified by Hugh: Firefly: "Shindig"

Not Identified: Smallville: "Dominion"

Television and Cinema Verities: In the Words of the Creators # 3

"I was asked, 'Do you want to do a musical episode of Angel or Firefly?' And I said, 'Not in a million years.' Those shows don't lend themselves to it.  The thing about Buffy is that you do the musical episode without violating the reality of Buffy.  That's the most important thing to me.  What's hilarious about working in fantasy is that you can say 'The evil twin thing? That's not reality, that's bullshit! Who buys that? But the dwarf going out of someone's head is fine.'...You have this seemingly arbitrary, but in fact very strict sense of what can go on in this world.

And Buffy is so sophomoric, romantic, colorful, tense, sexual...I think half the episodes feel like they're about to burst into song anyway...So to say a demon has come who causes musicals make perfect sense in that world.  It doesn't make sense in the Angel world to me.  It definitely makes no sense in the Firefly world.  It's a different kind of choice."

- Joss Whedon discusses the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, "Once More With Feeling" with me in 2004's Singing a New Tune: The Re-Birth of the Modern Film Musical (Applause Books, 2005, page 282).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Beyond the Mountain" (February 17, 1977)

The third episode of The Fantastic Journey, "Beyond the Mountain" introduces the final piece of the series' character equation: Roddy McDowall's temperamental scientist, Dr. Jonathan Willaway, a man whose plane disappeared over the Sea of Japan in 1963.  

The character of Willaway would promptly become an important one for The Fantastic Journey, offering the writers another viewpoint to explore, and another way of handling crises. 

Where Varian, Lianna, Scott and Fred tend to agree easily on how to grapple with any given situation, Willaway is a bit more independent...and feisty.  In short, he adds the element of the unpredictable, and that's important for the entertainment value of the series, as well as the emerging character development.

"Beyond the Mountain" also perfects another component of its equation here: social commentary.  Historically, this is a critical facet that all great science-fiction series are wise to develop: the capacity to comment on contemporary culture (safely) by projecting that commentary into an alien or fantasy realm.   We saw a bit of that brand of social commentary emerge in the class warfare dynamic of "Atlantium," but the commentary is at full flower in "Beyond the Mountain."

In "Beyond the Mountain," Varian, Fred, Scott and Lianna are joined by Lianna's loyal cat, Sil-El, and then promptly engulfed in an eerie red-colored storm -- a close relative to the green one that stranded the crew and passengers of the Yonder in the Bermuda Triangle.  Lianna is promptly separated from the others, and Varian laments that the time zones are not as "predictable" as he'd prefer.

Lianna ends up in a paradisaical, luxury villa, where Dr. Jonathan Willaway -- a very "strong willed man" -- is tended to by subservient humanoid androids. He calls the androids his "family" but rules over them like a very strict father.  His pleasant and welcoming demeanor hides a darker streak.

Meanwhile, Fred, Varian and Scott are cast down into a misty swamp of gnarled trees and fog. The swamp (which looks like Dagobah...), is impressively-presented here, having been constructed on a sound-stage and seeming very atmospheric, especially in contrast to Willaway's sun-lit world, where the grass is literally always greener.

Before long, Willaway decides he wants to marry Lianna and attempts to keep her from searching for her friends, even as his android "son," Cyrus (John David Carson) also begins to develop human emotions for the lovely woman.

Lianna rejects Willaway's advances, and he drugs her to keep her prisoner at the villa.  He then attempts to re-program Cyrus to eliminate the android's feelings for her.

Down in the swamp, Scott, Fred and Varian encounter a race of green-skinned humanoids, aliens called "Arujians" (think Indians). Their leader is deathly ill from a "bacterial disease" -- malaria -- and Varian and Fred heal him.

Once recovered, the leader explains that Willaway  -- "the man from beyond the mountain" -- came to their land some time ago, subverted their androids, and banished the green-skinned humanoids to the primitive swamp.

"He does not think of us as beings of any worth," the leader comments about Willaway, and from this remark one can see how the episode's central metaphor is crafted. "Beyond the Mountain" is a comment on, for lack of a better word, "the white man's burden," and here a white westerner has re-located a race of "lesser beings" off their land for his own benefit. Just substitute green skin for red skin, and you understand the historical analogy. 

It isn't just the historical relocation of Native Americans that "Beyond the Mountain" comments on, at least obliquely, but also the very concept of slavery.

Here, Willaway keeps a society of androids serving him and is unable to countenance the idea that they could be sentient creatures deserving of the same rights and freedoms he enjoys.

They are only "an amalgam of simulated flesh and bone," he declares at one point. Willaway even tells his son, "your marrow is transistorized; your heart is a battery; your veins and arteries are wire filament." This might be another way of saying that because their skin is different than his; they are "less" than human, a widely-held belief of slave owners in America a hundred-and-fifty years ago.

Adding to the depth of the commentary, Willaway generally treats his android slaves with what he believes is love and kindness, even though he is still firmly master and they still obedient servants.   You've certainly heard the argument that pre-Civil War South, slaves were treated "well" and cared for affectionately.  Perhaps that was indeed true in some instances; but the slaves were still slaves, susceptible to the whims and wishes of a master who believed them nothing more than property. A cage is a cage, even if the warden isn't overtly cruel.  Because some slaves were treated with kindness does not make the institution of slavery morally acceptable.

Here the darkest side of the historical slavery equation is made plain when Willaway, challenged by a female android (Marj Dusay), warns her that if she misbehaves, he will "take her apart." When the enslaved androids finally do rebel against him, Willaway is baffled by their revolt. "I gave you a beautiful place to live. I even made you my son..." he says, feeling betrayed, unaware that his "children" are ready to chart their own destinies. 

Again, it's not difficult to read this analogy as one akin to slavery in America. Many slaves did live on beautiful estates, and many masters did give their slaves their family name  But once more these are not qualities equal to freedom, self-determination, and liberty.

So, in the course of one episode, Willaway displaces one ethnic group (the green-skinned swamp dwellers), and enslaves another (the androids).

Or as he puts it at the denouement, society and he "do have problems."

I'll say. 

You'd think, given his actions, that Willaway would be played as an out-and-out villain, and left defeated and vanquished by episode's end.  But The Fantastic Journey, to its credit, offers a bit more dimensionality in its treatment of Willaway.

In the end, with the help of the series regulars, both subjugated races are freed.  But surprisingly, Varian shows mercy to Willaway and allows him to travel with the group.

Again, this was the final piece of the character dynamics: Varian, Fred, Lianna and Scott are all likable, heroic characters, whereas Willaway (as this episode reveals) is more flawed; and more willing to strike off with his own agenda. He isn't a constant foil (like, say Lost in Space's Dr. Smith), merely a fly in the ointment and wild card. The ending solution, Willaway joining the team, works well story-wise and is even believable because Varian is a man from a peaceful future; one where men don't hold grudges or act in petty fashion. He is the series' version of the peaceful and enlightened Spock, and a great character because he calls to the better angels of our nature. 

In the spirit of Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah," Space: 1999's "One Moment of Humanity," Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Offspring," and the new Battlestar Galactica's "Downloaded" this Fantastic Journey episode also involves the idea of an android (or androids, plural) attaining humanity or understanding humanity. Willaway's son, Cyrus, in this episode dies (in love with Lianna), a "tear" falling from his cheek.  This image seems akin to the one of Zarl attaining "one moment of humanity" in the 1999 story, and the image of Lol dying after learning to feel love towards her father, Data,  in the absolutely heart-wrenching and brilliant "The Offspring," surely one of the most affecting Next Generation episodes produced.    Practically speaking, however, it's hard to imagine an android crying...unless tear ducts were installed.

Kidding aside, the idea of androids grappling with sentience and emotional awareness is handled well enough here; though the depiction of the androids (lanky men and women in gold lame jumpsuits with circuit panels on their backs...) dates the series somewhat dramatically.   Still, "Beyond the Mountain" is likely the best The Fantastic Journey episode of the first three aired, and probably a serious contender for best episode of the short-lived series.

Next episode: "Children of the Gods."

Fantastic Journey Promo