Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Tank" (October 16, 1976)

In this episode of the Filmation bicentennial era TV series Ark II, the moving “repository of scientific knowledge”—the Ark II -- cruises Sector 18, Area 93 and finds an “old battleground” there.  Captain Jonah’s stated mission is to make sure that “nothing dangerous still exists” there.

Nearby, scavengers attack and abduct a young woman named Jewel (Bonnie Van Dyke). She was visiting the battleground with her friend Zachery (Christopher S. Nelson) in defiance of their village’s laws.  There, Jewel’s dad -- the leader – has decreed that all machines are forbidden because they are “evil.”

Jonah visits the village to tell the village leader of Jewel’s abduction, and responds that machines are “just tools” and that “good and bad exist in the men” who use them.  This opinion doesn’t sway the leader, but when he and Samuel and Adam are also captured by the scavengers, Jonah and Ruth deploy a pre-apocalypse tank to help free the captives from a mountainside jail.

After the scavengers are successfully dispatched, the village changes its rules about machines, and the tank – an ancient war machine – is converted into a useful farming vehicle.  It’s a literal reading of the notion of turning swords into ploughshares, and a terrific final image for the episode.  Jonah’s final log entry in the episode reminds viewers that men can “seek out the good or bad in anything.”

Like all Ark II episodes featured thus far, “The Tank” is heavily moralistic and didactic in tone, but again the series was oriented towards children and these social messages were part of the Filmation formula.  What I appreciate so much about the program is what Ruth notes explicitly in this episode: “We don’t carry weapons.  We don’t believe in them.”  Instead, the Ark II team again uses that defensive weapon I mentioned last week: a hand-held light device which momentarily blinds enemies, a nice variation on the ideas of phasers set to stun, you might say.  It’s nice to see, each week, that the Ark II crew lives up to its values and don’t carry guns.

In terms of visuals, the opening of “The Tank” is a little intense for kids.  A group of male scavengers snatch a protesting, wriggling, screaming woman, Jewel.  This abduction looks and plays like a moment more appropriate to The Road Warrior (1982) than a children’s TV series.  The implication, at least at this point, is that Jewel is going to be physically assaulted.   Like I said, tough stuff for a kid’s program of the 1970s.

Once more, the Adam character is a bit of a stumbling block for me.  The talking ape is used often as comic relief, and here he makes banana on bread sandwiches for the crew’s lunch.  Again, I really wish they wouldn’t have the monkey preparing the food for the humans.  I’ll be blunt: this series would be a heck of a lot better without the talking chimp, especially since the series writers make no effort whatsoever to explain him.

Finally, there are some new sound effects featured in this week’s installment, and they all sound like they are borrowed from the original Star Trek.  Aside from that, “The Tank” features some nice new footage of the Ark II activating its force field, and of the vehicle roaming the battlefield of ruins.

Next Week: “The Slaves.

CBS Ark II Promo (1976)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Wing Commander (1999)

Chris Robert’s revolutionary space battle simulation video game Wing Commander took the world by storm more than twenty years ago, in 1990.  

At the time of its release, the game earned Computer Game World’s “Overall Game of the Year” award and numerous other hosannas. 

In short, the Wing Commander game landed the intrepid player in the pilot’s seat of a space fighter for a “World War II in outer space” scenario. Your mission: to help the Terran Confederation defeat the villainous aliens, called Kilrathi.  Your base of operations: The space carrier, Tiger’s Claw.

The 1999 movie  -- directed by game designer Roberts himself -- adapted the world of the popular video game to the silver screen, but didn’t fare nearly as well as the acclaimed game had.  In fact, critics were downright savage.

Meanwhile, Athima Chansanchai at Village Voice concluded that Wing Commander falls far short of its legacy and gets sucked into a gravitational cesspool of sci-fi clichés.”

In broad terms, this 1999 space battle film was criticized on every point from lighting to acting to special effects and dialogue.  The result was a soon-to-be notorious box office bomb. Wing Commander ultimately grossed only eleven million dollars or so against its budget of thirty million.

I’ve been reviewing 1990s space adventure films here on the blog of late (Generations [1994], Stargate [1994], Lost in Space [1998]) so I was hoping to return to Wing Commander and find an unexpected diamond-in-the rough, an under appreciated genre film that, in some fashion, might be rehabilitated upon closer inspection. 

Unfortunately, a second viewing reinforced my negative memories about the film. Despite some interesting and unique visuals, Wing Commander feels insular and confused, and some of the performances are authentically terrible, made exponentially worse by the legitimately risible dialogue The New York Times complained about.  That established, some of the visuals (set in space) are skillfully vetted.

If you want to play at being a fighter pilot I suggest you find a virtual fun zone.”

In the distant future, man is locked in a deadly space war with a race of feline space predators called The Kilrathi.  A Kilrathi fleet attacks a Terran Confederation outpost in space and steals the installation’s precious Pegasus Navcom A.I. computer.  With this tool, the Kilrathi can determine jump coordinates for the Sol System and Earth itself. With one attack, they can bring the space war to a terrible end.

Realizing the entire human race is jeopardized, Admiral Towlyn (Warner) decides to get a message to the nearest ship  in range of the damaged installation, Tiger Claw, via a courier: the half-human/half Pilgrim pilot Christopher Blair (Prinze Jr.).  Blair is currently serving aboard the Diligent, a ship under command of the enigmatic Captain “Paladin” Taggart (Tcheky Karyo).

Blair and his co-pilot, “Maniac” Lt. Marshall (Lillard) arrive on the Tiger Claw but Blair meets with prejudice from his fellow pilots because of his Pilgrim heritage. Meanwhile, both men catch the eye of their hard-as-nails new wing commander, Devereaux (Saffron Burrows).  She wants to rein them in, but that's easier said than done.

While the Kilrathi near their jump point for Earth, Devereaux’s squadron may be humanity’s last line of defense, and Chris must summon his repressed Pilgrim attributes to deliver jump coordinates to Towlyn’s waiting fleet, navigating a quasar in the process…

“Emotions are what separate us from the Pilgrims and the Kilrathi.”

For being so widely reviled, Wing Commander certainly strikes the right note as it begins.  The film commences with audio of an uplifting speech by President Kennedy, discussing the goal of mastering space.   

This opening is inspiring, certainly, and it’s refreshing to hear a speech from an epoch when our politics weren’t so small.  Back in Camelot, we believed we could work together to accomplish great things, even land on the moon.  Didn't matter if you were Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, the sky was the limit.

The same idea is expressed in the film's World War II-like aesthetic.  Everyone is galvanized by the existential threat of the Kilrathi, working together to stop a grave threat to humanity.  I appreciate how Wing Commander envisions a future where people of different ethnic backgrounds serve together for a cause.  And yet, of course, if you scratch the surface, there's prejudice toward some less-favored people under the surface. That also seems true to the World War II era of the 1940s.

From starting out on the right note, however, this 1999 film quickly becomes a superficial Top Gun (1986) in space, with hotshot young pilots (replete with colorful “handles” like “Maniac”) competing for attention in their high-tech cockpits.  The movie also throws in an unnecessary dash of Star Wars (1977)-styled mysticism with the inclusion of the “Pilgrims,” a race who -- like Dune’s Guild Navigators -- can travel space without benefit of instrumentation, or in the lingo of the film, without “nav-coms.”

The whole Pilgrim sub-plot here-- not present in the original video game, to my understanding -- is a bit under cooked.  The Pilgrims are actually humans who spent so much time in space that they thus developed a kind of “second sight” in navigating its ebb and flow.  But Pilgrims in the film appear fully human, and have a dark history with the human race, from which they broke off.  This history is all spelled out in the film, but unfortunately Blair’s Pilgrim nature never proves particularly dramatic in practice.  

Instead, to summon his buried heritage he must merely concentrate and – whammo -- he can suddenly navigate “jumps” without a computer.  Yet, importantly, Blair’s Pilgrim ability rests on an internal process -- calculations or “instincts” he feels in his head -- so it all comes across on screen as a weak echo of Star Wars’ famous “feel the Force” moments.

Feel your inner Pilgrim, Chris!

Looking at a mid-20th century thematic overlay, it’s possible indeed that the Pilgrim subplot is designed to reflect the (segregated) treatment of African-American soldiers in wartime, before President Truman’s order to integrate the Armed Forces.  

But even that real life metaphor doesn’t entirely fit, since African-Americans, though discriminated against by society-at-large, were never classified as an enemy of the United States.  Not so, the Pilgrims.  They actively fought against the Terran Confederation, and were conquered, apparently.

The whole subplot transmits as trite, and contrived.  The Earth fleet wins the day because one pilot happens to boast a quasi-magical power.   Good thing the Kilrathi don't have any exceptional pilots like that, I suppose.  And as is so often the case in the science fiction genre, the Pilgrim “blood line” seems vaguely fascist.  Only people who possess the right blood type (either Midi-chlorians in Star Wars or Pilgrims here…) can achieve super feats and tap the mystical essence of the universe.   Paladin even puts a fine point on it.  “It isn’t faith.  It’s genetics.”  No wonder humans hate these smug bastards, right?

So much for striving to be all you can be.  The Pilgrims are just born better than the rest of us.

After the umpteenth repetition in sci-fi movies, this kind of people-of-superior-blood-line thinking is tiring.  The original appeal of the Force in Star Wars, by my estimation, was its universality. We could all tap into The Force if only we tried...if only we mastered ourselves.  Once you add a genetic, biological component to such a concept -- as is also the case with the Pilgrims in Wing Commander -- the universality of the concept is diminished. 

In terms of Wing Commander, one must also wonder about the line of dialogue featured at the head of this sub-section. At a critical juncture in the story, Blair states that possessing emotions is what separates humans from Pilgrims or Kilrathi.  Really?  Isn’t that a kind of prejudicial or racist remark?  He’s part Pilgrim, after all, and Blair certainly possesses feelings.  Paladin is a pilgrim, and he shows emotion on more than one occasion.  And we don’t see enough of the Kilrathi to assess whether they are emotional or not, I would wager.  But the very argument suggests a kind or real-life racist thinking that a national (or interplanetary) enemy is somehow sub-human.  That’s not the kind of thinking a hero – one who is fighting discrimination, himself – should demonstrate, in my opinion..

The film’s biggest problems likely occur in the casting department.  Freddie Prinze Jr.  -- here channeling his inner Keanu Reeves -- and Matthew Lillard are generally  fine in the slasher films of the 1990s or other movies set in the present, but their trademark brand of snarky, California emotionalism seems somehow jarring in the far-flung world of 2654.  Judging by his work in this film, Prinze’s idea of a dramatic line reading is to shout…each…word…really…slowly.  “You…are…not…going…out…there!” and so forth.  He also spends an inordinate amount of time with his mouth drooping open...a stance which somehow diminishes the character's intelligence.

Some of the specific, practical details in the narrative seem off too.  Late in the film, while aboard Towlyn’s ship, Blair learns that Devereaux has been rescued from her cockpit by Paladin, and has been returned to the Tiger Claw.  He hops in his fighter, flies back to his carrier, lands, disembarks, meets up with Devereux and then orders a medic to the landing bay.  Shouldn’t someone – anyone, really – have ordered the medic a wee bit earlier than that?  I mean, everyone knew an injured officer was in-bound with Paladin because it was announced over communications channels, a speaker to be precise.  Why wasn’t a medic already standing by, especially since Blair himself had time for ship-to-ship transit?

Looking back today, many of Wing Commander’s visuals are indeed quite compelling, and the special effects remain colorful and dynamic.  In other words, the Rapier fighters and their opposite Kilrathi numbers look distinctive and unusual, move convincingly through asteroid fields and other space hazards, and some of the stellar vistas are downright gorgeous. 

With the pilots housed in their cramped fighter cockpits and trading barbs and zingers, this movie looks like a dry-run for the Battlestar Galactica TV remake of 2004.   In fact, the re-designed Cylon fighter of that Ron Moore re-imagination looks an awful lot like a Kilrathi fighter here.  Frankly, I suspect that if critics were too hard on any one aspect of Wing Commander in 1999, it was the visuals.  I found the look of the film, overall, at least…interesting.

Finally, even though Wing Commander relies excessively on all-too familiar World War II clichés and bromides for its narrative thrust, there’s something simultaneously baffling and off-putting about it too.  Watching David Warner (as Admiral Tomblyn) bark high-tech orders on the command deck of his space carrier while officers explain Pegasus nav-com A.I.and the like I suddenly realized what it must be like to watch a Star Trek film without having seen a single episode of the series.  If I had played the Wing Commander game, would I have felt this way?  I don't know...

Regardless, Wing Commander plays to me like the jargon-heavy sequel to a series never made.  This approach creates great distance between film and general audiences, and makes watching Wing Commander a passive rather than active viewing experience. The movie doesn't quite draw you in on an emotional level.

While watching the film, I did keep noting moments of invention and ingenuity in terms of visualization, and kept thinking that if this were actually a pilot for a TV series, I would have tuned in the following week to see if the performances normalized, if the details grew clearer, and if the narrative grew more interesting.  In other words, I would have given it a second chance and hoped against hope the series would improve, because I love space combat movies and programs.

But standing alone, Wing Commander feels like it was translated from the original Kilrathi.

I don’t know why good old-fashioned space adventure was so tough to vet during the 1990s, but Wing Commander does not represent the genre’s finest hour.

Movie Trailer: Wing Commander (1999)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Wing Commander

"You spend so much time out here alone, you end up losing your humanity. When Pilgrims began to lose touch with their heritage, they saw themselves as superior to man. And in their arrogance, they chose to abandon all things human and follow what they called their destiny. Some say they believed they were gods..."

-- Wing Commander (1999) 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Underrated but Great #1: The Twilight Zone, Season 5 (1963 – 1964)

This week I’m inaugurating a new blog post category here, one that I plan to return to on a semi-regular basis.  I’m calling it: “Underrated but Great.”  The category is designed to examine the conventional wisdom that surrounds cult-television, horror films, or popular movies in general. 

Basically, my premise is this: critical reputations form around movies, TV episodes, TV seasons, and entire series over time….like shrouds.  Those reputations – even if not entirely true – are difficult to shake.  Sometimes, the conventional wisdom about certain works of art lingers for decades, even in the face of new evidence that that it might be wrong, or at least not representative of the whole story.

I want to start this category with a TV series that already boasts a reputation as a classic.  Across the decades, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone has rightfully earned a vast number of plaudits.  The anthology is beloved by generations, and seemingly exists as a permanent part of the American pop culture firmament.   The series been re-made on television twice (once in 1985 and once in 2002), and a feature film premiered in 1983, with another one slated for release in the years ahead.

And yet to listen to the accepted narrative about it, The Twilight Zone’s quality degenerated as it reached its final year.  The fourth season experiment of making the series episodes an hour in length was hard to recover from, the legend goes.  Creator Rod Serling was burned-out after writing something like eighty episodes and long-standing writers apparently had copious complaints with the new producer, William Froug. 

While all of this background material may indeed be one-hundred percent true, an unbiased look at the final batch of Twilight Zone episodes reveals that the series was actually still in its creative prime.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so take a moment and just gaze across the episode catalog and you’ll see that the final tally of episodes feature some of the most well-remembered and often-talked about installments, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” about the gremlin on the wing of the plane, and “Living Doll,” the episode that introduced the fearsome toy, Talky Tina. 

Other episodes, like “The Bewitching Pool” and “Come Wander with Me” have also grown in critical esteem since they were produced, and become part of the Twilight Zone mystique, a discussion which always begins with the words “Do you remember the one where…” 

Incidentally, Season Five also aired the award-winning short-film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” simultaneously a budget-saving expedient and a great Twilight Zone installment. And one fifth season episode "Steel," by Richard Matheson was remade recently as the film Real Steel.

Here are five highlights from the underrated Twilight Zone, Season Five

5. “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You.”  In this episode penned by Charles Beaumont, set in the year 2000, all eighteen year-olds in America must undergo a “transformation,” a physical re-shaping into a perfect specimen.  

The problem is that there are only a handful of available models, so by-and-large, everyone in this future society looks like everyone else.  

One girl, Marilyn (Collin Wilcox) doesn’t wish to conform to society’s standard of beauty, especially because all those who do, including her mother (Suzy Parker) seem vapid and obsessed with appearances.  Society eventually forces Marilyn to comply, and after her plastic surgery she immediately proves just as shallow and superficial as everyone else. 

Produced in 1964, this episode gazes at both excessive political correctness (it’s unfair for some people to be beautiful when others are not!), and America’s always-growing obsession with youth and unnecessary plastic surgery.  In the age of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians -- when appearance not substance matters -- “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” is more timely than over.

4. “Living Doll.” I don’t really have to write anything about the values of this episode here except: “I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you.”  This episode is so intriguing because the terrifying living doll is actually, in a weird way, a force of good.  

Here, the doll grapples with a nasty stepfather (Telly Savalas) who emotionally brutalizes his new family.  Tina is murderous all right, but the stepfather certainly has it coming, and a little girl needs to be protected.

Justice is a concept the series often dealt with here, and here a talking doll is the one to mete it.

3. “The Masks” Directed by Ida Lupino, this Zone tells the story of an old man on the verge of death, Jason Foster (Robert Keith).  During Mardi Gras he holds a family gathering for the ungrateful relatives who seek to control and inherit his fortune. He requires each of his ungrateful relatives to adorn a hideous mask until midnight.  

The masks are grotesque, and carved by an old Cajun. Each of the masks expresses a quality of its wearer, showing, respectively, vanity, avarice, sadism and the like.  When midnight strikes and the masks are taken off, the wearers are permanently changed, their real faces now reflecting those inner qualities...for the whole world to recognize on sight.

This ghoulish episode, which also reveals to audiences the face of death, corrects a flaw in everyday human existence: You can’t always tell what’s in a person’s heart by looking at them, can you?  With these masks, you can see – straight up – the ugliness that might be found inside.  It’s a macabre segment, and though the victims wholly deserve their fate, one also feels a sympathetic sense of horror at the thought of having to go through life with a face twisted by those masks.

2. “Come Wander with Me.”  I’ve made no secret of my absolute love for this episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Here, the Rock-a-Billy Kid, Floyd Burney (Gary Crosby) goes to backwoods Appalachia in hopes of exploiting the local music scene (and musicians), but instead comes across his own unpleasant fate, and a song that expresses his story. 

That particular song, “Come Wander with Me,” is one of the most haunting things you’ll ever hear, and as it is replayed in the episode, again and again, it grows increasingly menacing, changed with new and upsetting lyrics.  The song was resurrected by director Vincent Gallo for his 2003 film, Brown Bunny.

1. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner, this episode aired originally on October 11, 1963, and is one of the show's most legendary efforts. In fact it's one of those stories that has become part of the American pop culture lexicon, and seems to have effortlessly survived the test and passage of time (and was remade, in 1983's Twilight Zone: the Movie). 

You all know the plot of this episode by heart: a man named Robert Wilson (age 37), played by William Shatner has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown caused by "over-stress" and "under confidence." The incident that spurred his six months in a sanitarium occurred on a plane in flight.  Now Bob and his wife, Ruth (Christine White) fly home, and Robert spies a gremlin walking on the plane during flight..

I'll be blunt: if there is a more pitch-perfect half-hour of horror television in the medium's history, I haven't seen it. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” loses none of its power (or terror...) on repeat viewing. The story draws you in, and the universal fear of flying renders the story riveting.  William Shatner’s twitchy performance is great, too.  He plays a man trying to hold on to his sanity, but a man who is likable and good. We relate to his predicament and his fear on a very deep, very basic level.  How good is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet?”  So good that you don’t care that the monster looks like a cuddly, over-fed teddy bear.

Runner-ups on this list of great Season 5 episodes would include "Uncle Simon," about an old man's ultimate revenge upon his greedy niece, "Spur of the Moment" about a woman trying to correct her past and destroying her future, and "The Long Morrow" a tragic story about star-crossed, time-crossed lovers.

Next time on Underrated but Great: The X-Files, Season 8.

And now I’ll leave you -- just for chills -- with “Come Wander with Me:”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Memory Bank: Great Adventure (Jackson, New Jersey)

As a child growing up in suburban New Jersey of the mid-1970s, there was probably nothing more exciting than a (long…) family day at the amusement park called Great Adventure.  The park yet endures -- in Jackson, New Jersey -- and for many years it has existed under the corporate umbrella of Six Flags. 

But the Great Adventure I remember so well – from my first visit, as a kid of seven or so -- came before that particular era began.  

The original Great Adventure park was imagined, designed and built by businessman and show-man extraordinaire, Warner Le Roy (1935 – 2001), whom The New York Times once termed the city’s “mad genius.”  

Mr. Le Roy was a successful restaurant-owner and son of an early generation of Hollywood moguls.  With Great Adventure -- which opened its doors on July 1, 1974 -- this entrepreneur imagined a colossal, one-stop entertainment facility for all tastes.  His park – carved out of beautiful forest land, but not obtrusively so – would feature a safari, stage shows of all types, roller-coasters, and even a campground.  The park was nicknamed "the Enchanted Forest."

The first time I visited Great Adventure with my Mom and Dad and sister, it must have been circa 1976 or 1977.  I’m not certain of the exact date.  But I was a little kid, it was summer, and  I remember we got up when it was still dark, probably before 5:00 am, packed a picnic lunch, and then drove for what seemed like an eternity to reach the park.  At this point in my life, I hadn’t yet visited Disney World (that happened in 1979...during a hurricane), so I had never seen anything like the Great Adventure amusement park.

We drove our car through the safari first, and it was a crazy experience.  Animals would walk up freely to the cars and get very…friendly.  I remember monkeys jumped on the roof of our car and stayed there for a while, and an ostrich stuck its beak in my mother’s window, scaring the living daylights out of her.  It was great fun.  But this safari was just prologue.  The amusement park was the main event.

As I recall, you entered Great Adventure through a big gate, and walked an old-fashioned main street shopping venue where you could buy overpriced souvenirs. And – on all sides – were attractions of unbelievable size, color and scale. 

There was the great Ferris Wheel for instance, and from atop it, you could spy the vast expanse of the park. 

There was the famous Carousel, built in 1881 but then (and now) occupying land at GA. 

There was the Runaway Mine Train, a great roller coaster (above a small pond if memory serves…) in the Old West portion of the park.

And then there was my personal favorite: the Enterprise.  The Enterprise was not a traditional roller coaster, but a great wheel of cars that circled vertically, over and over again, at what seemed like high warp speeds.  I think this was also my father’s favorite ride.

Another unforgettable attraction at Great Adventure was the Moon Flume, or Hydro Flume, a log flume with space age trappings, and which always had long, long lines. Even at that age, I preferred the future to the past, and always preferred the Moon Flume, with its futuristic look, to the Old West’s log flume, at the other end of the park.

Over the years, my family returned to Great Adventure probably five or six times, as new attractions were developed and added. 

Soon came Lightning Loops, a ride where you traveled a loop heading forward, and then reversed course and went through it backwards…very fast. 

Not long after, the park also introduced Rolling Thunder, which at that time was the largest, most frightening roller-coaster I had ever seen.  It was an absolute Goliath.

As the eighties came and went, Great Adventure added attractions like “Free Fall,” which I thought would stop my heart the one time I rode it, but the park also faced some bad publicity involving a fire in a haunted house attraction, and a tragic death on Lightning Loops.

My last visit to the park was early in the summer of 1990, when I went to the park with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Kathryn.  She got sick on one of the rides, and didn’t have a great day.  The magic was gone, in part because I had now grown up, and it was time to move on.  We would soon be moving to North Carolina and beginning a life together.

Still, I’ll always cherish the memories of that first, spectacular, magical summer day in the age of Jimmy Carter, disco and the bicentennial.  I can still feel the excitement and anticipation during the car ride to the park and during a marathon day spent on the rides.  We rode one ride after the other after the other, stopping only to see shows and eat our packed lunch of submarine sandwiches, Coke, and potato chips.  The day lasted till well-after dark, till the thick of the night. 

I recollect, too, riding Great Adventure’s Sky Ride, and looking out across the lighted entertainment metropolis: a vast land of attractions interspersed with lakes and beautiful trees.   I remember feeling dog tired, and still not wanting the day to end, hoping against hope that the “great adventure” would never end. When I finally returned to the car, I fell instantly into a deep slumber...and the whole day felt like a dream

Could such a magical place really have existed? 

To a child, the 1970s Great Adventure was indeed a dream come true.  I suspect that if I went back to the same park today, I wouldn’t recognize many of the rides or shows or attractions.  Besides, if I really had the urge to visit a modern amusement park, there’s one nearby me called Carowinds.  I could just go to that one.  But in neither case, would it be the same.  I'm reminded of Rod Serling dialogue from The Twilight Zone episode "Walking Distance" --  "Maybe there's only one summer to every customer."   If that's the case, I'm fortunate that mine, at GA, was so very, very happy.

In a few years if not sooner, my five year-old son Joel will be ready for his first amusement park. It'll be his summer, and I can't wait for it to start.   I trust I won't be too old to ride the roller coasters and feel, at least a little, like a kid at Great Adventure again.  All aboard the Log Flume!

You can read more about Great Adventure and its long history here.

Collectible of the Week: Super Laser Assembling 2-in-1 Change Bot

My five year old son absolutely loves transforming robots.  Joel  passionately collects Beast Wars, Gobots, Transformers, Megazords, Brave of the Sun name it.  Throughout our many travels in search of robots of all sizes and shapes, we often come across toys that we don't entirely recognize.  This week's collectible is one of them.

I must confess, I don't know if this particular toy came from a popular Anime franchise or not.  I'm not highly conversant in Anime, at least not yet.  I'm learning.  However, I believe this cool transforming robot set may have originated from something called "Video Senshi Laserion" in the 1980s, or "Super Laser" here in the States.

Regardless, this "Assembling 2-in-1 Change Bot" with "double joint power up" transformation is a pretty awesome mechanical life form.  The toy was made in Taiwan, and three separate robots are included.  

Individually,  the robot consists of "Ex-Caesar" (a car), "Atlas Carbot," and "Atlas-Jetbot."  Together, however, the machines make "Super Atlas-Bot," and the back of the box provides detailed, step-by-step instructions for transforming the robots into cars and planes, and vice-versa.  Not that Joel needs them.  He's far more coordinated at five than I was at that age, and he loves the thrill of discovering how to transform and combine robots.  Just between you and me, he's either going to be an engineer, or the world's biggest fanboy.  Or both.

As much as Joel wants to get his hands on toys like the Super Laser Assembling 2-in-1 Change Bot and start playing, I'm a devoted fan of box art.  Joel and I have an understanding: he gets the toys, and I get the boxes.  It's a good compromise, and when he's done playing for the day, the toys go back in the box.  Sure, they aren't mint in box anymore -- a phrase Joel has learned -- but I realized a few years back that it's more fun to play with these toys with my son than to keep them in boxes, on display.  

I just gave Joel this toy on the weekend, and he loves it...

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Jet Pack Edition

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bring Him Back

I have been watching with great interest over the last week or so the ascendant campaign to resurrect Frank Black, the lead character of Chris Carter’s Millennium (1996 – 1999).  The Back to Frank Black Campaign with Fourth Horseman Press will soon be launching a book dedicated to the beloved character, as reported by TV Wise. And series star Lance Henriksen himself spoke recently at a convention about his belief that the character will indeed return.

Twentieth Century Fox should be listening to the emerging groundswell, because this is the perfect time to produce a Millennium movie or TV-movie.  Forget the tiresome and inaccurate argument that since the millennium  actually turned in 1999 – 2000 the series is somehow out-of-date or past-its-prime.  The contrary is actually true.   

Stylistically and context-wise, Millennium was actually so far ahead of its time, I would argue, that the world is only now catching up with the concepts Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, and the other writers conceived during the three-year span of the series. 

In terms of story-telling style or approach, consider just for a moment how often Millennium’s complex formula has been tossed into a blender, ground down to its component parts, and then presented in pieces, to great ratings success. 

For example, the CSI formula of the last decade resuscitates the “forensic investigation” aspects of the Carter series.  Programs such as Criminal Minds ask audiences to travel inside the twisted minds of the most monstrous human criminals, just as Frank Black did on a regular basis.  And series such as Medium focused, to a large extent, on the value of unconventional insight in solving crimes.  Millennium brilliantly combined all these threads, plus Frank’s home life, plus the symbolism of the “yellow house.”

Outside of this style, Millennium obsessed on what I call in my book, Terror Television “those shadowy, half-understood fears which affect the human heart and soul.”  The monsters in the series, though sometimes originating from religious mythology, were also, often, human in nature.  Frank faced these human “monsters from the Id” on a weekly basis in the 1990s, but many of the aspects of life that vexed him in the Clinton Era have only grown more pronounced today.

If the 1990s represented the first significant decade of conspiracies run rampant (George Bush I’s “New World Order,” or The Clinton Body Count), then in 2012 the conspiracy mentality is, in fact, on steroids.  Today, we have Birthers, Truthers, Deathers -- you name it -- and they are all tearing at the fabric of our shared national reality and identity.  Wouldn’t it be nice, once more, to have a man like Frank navigate this shadowy, mysterious world and separate truth from fiction, fact from propaganda?  

The TV program's fictional Millennium Group was the prime mover of a secret history in the series, but just because the year 2000 came and went without dramatic incident, that doesn't mean the conspirators would  stop attempting to shape the future. In fact, one sect of the Millennium Group, the Owls, believed the apocalypse will occur in 2020…just eight years distant.  Imagine the plans they must be making, right now, right?

On a connected note, we need gravelly-voiced, insightful Frank Black to pick up his adventures again because of who we have become since Millennium left the airwaves. We seem more divided in 2012 than we have been, certainly, in my lifetime.  Political enemies don’t merely have disagreements anymore, they try to destroy one another.  The person with the loudest voice wins the cable TV sweepstakes and facts become lost in “gotcha” point-scoring. It’s not so much “The Truth is Out There” -- as was the mantra of Carter’s The X-Files -- but “The Truth is Buried Over There, But Let us Distract You From Finding It.” 

The quality I admired so much about Frank Black, and one abundantly evident in Henriksen’s brilliant, layered portrayal, was his utter lack of susceptibility to such bullshit.  

Even when provoked, Frank didn't take the bait or grow angry or irrational (unless, of course, his family was actively threatened).  Instead, he was reasonable and stable, and that is, perhaps, a strange thing to write about a character who has suffered a nervous breakdown or two (but who’s counting?).

But perhaps because Frank had seen and understood madness up-close, he had inoculated himself from it on a daily basis. One of the continuing delights of Millennium, even today, is how Frank fails to give his competitors or nemeses the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him.   

To put the matter another way: Frank isn’t worried about how popular he is.  He isn’t worried about pleasing the boss.  He doesn’t concern himself with partisanship or ideology, but instead tries to solve a problem the best he can, in the most reasonable way he can.  Importantly, he isn't selling anything.  Now it's not like he's Mr. Spock or Dexter – Frank clearly possesses strong emotions – but yet he  possesses this equanimity; this sense of wisdom and fairness. He would defend the weak, the voiceless, those assumed guilty.
He is The Calm.  And the rest of the world is The Storm swirling around him.

Mr. Henriksen has spoken eloquently about Frank Black in the War on Terror Age, but I also believe that Frank Black is the perfect hero for America at home, right now, because he possesses these qualities of stability and reason that often seem missing in action. 

In other words -- perhaps more than ever - we need Frank Black.  The Time is past near.  It's now.

If you agree with that sentiment, write a letter and support Back to Frank Black's campaign:

Michael Thorn 
Senior Vice President for Drama Development 
20th Century Fox Television
Twentieth Century Fox Television
10201 West Pico Blvd
Building 103, Room 5286
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Cult Movie Review: Shark Night (2011)

If you recall (the criminally underrated) Back to the Future II (1990), you may remember a “future” scene set in 2015, wherein hero Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) sees the holographic shark for Jaws 19 and declares that it the creature still “looks fake.”

Well, here we are in 2012, and the sharks of Shark Night (2011) still look fake. 

The mechanical shark called “Bruce” who starred in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws way back in 1975 may not have been wholly convincing – which is why the director often kept it hidden or cut to P.O.V. shots  – but when viewers did see the great white beast, he at least operated by the same laws of physics as we do.  When Bruce broke the surface, water would run off his back.  When Bruce bit a victim, blood would run down between his very sharp teeth.  We might not have always believed Bruce was 100% real, but we believed that he showed up for work, at least.

In Shark Night, the sharks phone it in.

They exist in abundant special effects shots that diminish their size and sense of scale.  Seen in the clear light of day, these “animals” look like under-detailed cartoons.  They can’t scare anyone because they actually bear no connection to the environment forces which purportedly work upon them; forces such as gravity

In fact, the sharks of Shark Night not only look incredibly fake – just a step or two up from Jabber Jaw -- they also act in most un-shark-like fashion throughout much of the film, often leaping high out of the water (like…twenty feet out of the water…) to swallow their cowering human prey.  In one of the movie’s least effective kill scenes, a shark intercepts a racing jet-ski …from the front, no less…and leaps several feet out of the water to do so.  On this occasion and several others, director David Ellis lets the shark hold center frame as it leaps towards the screen (for 3-D impact), thereby offering extreme evidence of the animal’s incredible phoniness.

Shark Night earned pretty terrible reviews, and studying these special effects sharks, one can detect why.  That established, I must reluctantly admit I didn’t hate this nearly as much as I thought I might, and that’s because the film unexpectedly plays around in the terrain one of my favorite sub-genres: the savage cinema.  In keeping with that form, the film acknowledges human ugliness as the overriding source of real evil in the world.  In other words, we might escape sharks, but we can’t escape human nature.

In Shark Night, Sara (Sara Paxton) returns to her home on Lake Crosby in Louisiana for the first time in three years along with a group of co-ed friends, including shy Nick (Dustin Milligan), a med-student.  Sara has been away so long because of an accident involving her former boyfriend, local diving expert Dennis (Chris Carmack). 

Back when they were going steady, Sara began to drown on a dive and Dennis wouldn’t share his air with her.  Panicky, she made it back to the surface alive, but when she piloted the boat for home, she accidentally struck Dennis’s face with the boat propeller, permanently scarring him. 

Dennis – who looks no less handsome or buff with that facial scar, by the way -- has never forgotten this traumatic incident, and with the help of a dumb redneck, Red (Joshua Leonard) and the town’s heavy-metal loving sheriff, Sabin (Donal Logue), plans to release several captured sharks upon Sara and her buddies while they frolic on the lake…

You can just tell from the first attack in Shark Night that you’re in a different league here than in Jaws.  Remember that film’s classic prologue, and how a beautiful blonde went for a tranquil midnight swim only to be attacked and killed by a shark?   This introduction to the film remains creepy, unsettling and highly effective, even today.  By point of comparison, Shark Night opens with a blond in a white bikini swimming in the lake and getting attacked almost instantly by a shark.  It’s all thrashing and splashing, and there’s no sense of suspense or even surprise during the attack.  People inclined to use the phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” regarding Hollywood will be sorely tempted to employ it here.

Lacking suspense, Shark Night is abundantly predictable.  If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you can predict -- down to the last person (and animal) -- the characters destined to survive the film’s bloody events. Also, Joshua Leonard’s character Red is a walking talking cliche, right down to his bad teeth and bad Southern accent.  He’s supposed to be the movie’s comic relief, but again, we’re in cartoon territory here.

And yet, as I wrote above, I didn’t entirely hate Shark Night.  I don’t generally prefer horror movies this dumb and vapid, but they can occasionally be fun if you’re in the mood for something trashy and light. Plus, Sara Paxton is the star here. She was terrific in The Innkeepers (2012) and is very good here too, despite the thinness of her character.

And Shark Night boasts at least one legitimate inspiration.  It turns men into the film’s villains, and gets at the notion that the sharks – while obviously the tools of mass destruction here – aren’t really the ones with the evil intent.  Instead, Dennis and his mates are the ones to blame.  Interestingly, they view themselves as victims.  They’re victims of women (Sara), victims of a bad economy, and victims of class warfare.  Their plan is to make it rich by creating a shark snuff film for fans of cable television’s “Shark Week.”   In other words, they have something to sell, and they’ve had to put their humanity aside to sell it.  

When one of the would-be victims notes that such a money-making enterprise is sick, the evil conspirator notes, importantly “There’s no such thing as sick anymore.  There’s only moral relativism.”  It’s a biting, caustic commentary on our culture, but one entirely of the times.  If you remember Governor Rick Perry’s comment about “vulture capitalists” who go in and eat up companies for profit, you might also see how the metaphor works with sharks.  These animals (like some capitalists) must keep moving forward -- devouring things, resources and people to live -- and the rest of us are, well…merely chum.

I don’t mean any of this commentary to suggest that Shark Night is deep or especially thoughtful, only that it is “of the moment.”  It’s unique that unlike Jaws (1975), the film portrays man as the real terror in the water, one eager to destroy his fellow man for a leg up the economic ladder of success.

The special effects in Shark Night are bad, the characters are mostly barely two-dimensional appetizers, and there’s precious little in terms of interesting narrative.  Yet to his credit, director Ellis seems to know all this is the case, and at times (like during the road trip to Lake Crosby), literally fast-forwards the film so he can get to the meat of the drama – the shark attacks – quicker.

Some may see this photographic trick as an admission of creative bankruptcy.  But contrarily, it may just be an example of efficiently cutting to the chase.  Who wants to see shallow characters talking and relating to one another when we can watch them getting chewed up and spit out instead?

Shark Night isn’t a good film and it isn’t a scary horror movie.  But it is amusingly trashy and lowbrow.  It features moments of interest, especially whenever Donal Logue is on-screen playing-up the resentment angle of his blue-collar economic climber.  I didn’t hate the movie that much, in part because Shark Night was clearly made in a spirit of dumb fun.

However, if I had been the maker of Shark Night I would have gone one step further with the movie, and offered up as its ad-line the very joke from Jaws 19 in Back to the Future 2.

This time, it’s really, really personal.