Saturday, August 11, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "Don Quixote" (December 11, 1976)

This week’s episode of the Filmation 1970s series Ark II, called “Don Quixote,” follows roughly the same outline as the episode “Robin Hood.” Only here, the crew of the titular vehicle encounters literary and mythic personalities who are not merry men, but rather based on Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605). 

Specifically, Jonah, Ruth, Samuel and Adam cross paths with two post-apocalyptic personalities who knowingly have cast themselves as the chivalric Quixote and his loyal squire, Sancho.

The conflict of the week occurs when this (confused) new age Quixote sees Jonah not as a hero, but as his most dangerous nemesis, the Black Knight himself.  Thus Quixote seeks to interfere with Jonah’s mission to detonate two unexploded pre-apocalypse bombs in an ancient battle area. 

Adding some comic relief to the episode, Quixote also sees the talking chimpanzee, Adam, as a damsel he can protect and love, Lady Marguerite. 

Finally, Quixote is recruited to the Ark II’s noble cause when the crew contextualizes the un-exploded bomb as a “serpent” the knight must defeat in combat.  Quixote actually proves helpful too, during the climax, because his metal knight’s armor can help to limit the range and power of an explosion, if one should occur.

Played more lightly than “Omega,” and “Robot,” and without the sharp social commentary of “The Cryogenic Man,” this installment of the Saturday morning series wouldn’t rank amongst the show’s best.  

Nor is it the worst, however. 

The final message of “Don Quixote is something akin to “use your imagination, but also see things through the eyes of others.”  That’s appropriately didactic for children. Yet it’s probably even more commendable that Ark II would name-check Don Quixote in the first place, no doubt causing a spate of little ones to ask their parents about the character and his story, or perhaps even visit a nearby library to find out even more about him. 

I must say, I appreciate the fact that over its run, Ark II has showcased a very literary, cerebral bent, alluding to Scripture, Dickens, the Robin Hood legends and Cervantes.  That’s an unexpected (adult) pleasure of revisiting the Saturday morning series today.

Next week, the final Ark II episode: “Orkus.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

Carlo Rambaldi (1925 - 2012)

The media is now reporting the death of Oscar winner Carlo Rambaldi (1925 – 2012), the so-called “father of E.T.”  Mr. Rambaldi was eighty-six years old when he passed, and during his long career he earned visual effects Academy Awards (and special achievements…) for King Kong (1976), Alien (1979) and E.T. (1982).

Mr. Rambaldi also contributed to the “realization” of the aliens in Spielberg’s Close Encounters (1977), and worked on significant films such as David Lynch’s Dune (1984), the Stephen King adaptation, Silver Bullet (1985), and Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975).

Gazing across this impressive list of films, it is plain that Carlo Rambaldi boasted an incredible imagination, and more than that, the rare capacity to bring his imagination to life in a way that resonated meaningfully with mass audiences.  I recently re-watched and reviewed E.T. (1982), and the special effects very much held up, even after thirty years.  The same is undeniably true of Close Encounters and Alien.

This great behind-the-scenes talent will be sorely missed going forward, but as I often mention in such tributes, we live in a truly remarkable time for artists such as Mr. Rambaldi.  His work will not disappear or be forgotten with the passage of time.  Rather, film preserves his talent for the ages, and therefore, generations from now viewers will yet marvel at the humanity of his E.T., or his other remarkable accomplishments.

Cult Movie Review: Waterworld (1995)

Sometimes, mainstream film critics focus too much on the inside-baseball aspects of filmmaking for my taste. 

I suppose that everyone enjoys behind-the-scenes stories of disagreements between lead actors and directors, and tales of woe concerning films that run massively and catastrophically over-budget.  

It’s impossible to take your eyes off a train wreck, in other words.

And yet the problem with this focus on inside-baseball emerges when the same critics draw an explicit connection between behind-the-scenes strife and the artistic merits of a finished work-of-art.  In other words, some reviewers utilize the inside-baseball knowledge to fit into a specific, pre-drawn narrative. 

Using the former factors (behind-the-scenes strife), to judge the latter (artistic merit), is problematic, I submit, because the relationship clearly isn’t one-to-one.  A difficult shoot doesn’t necessarily result in a bad film.  Going over budget doesn’t necessarily mean artistic disaster, either.  And the opposite is also true: a smooth shoot doesn’t indicate that a film is going to turn out terrific.

Certainly, this unfortunate critical paradigm was exposed with both King Kong (1976) and John Carter (2012), both of which were received harshly by the critical community largely on the basis of behind-the-scenes, inside-baseball factors rather than a judicious consideration of artistic factors.

This fallacy is also true of Waterworld (1995), a film that, upon release, was clearly marked in the press as a troubled production, and furthermore, the most expensive film of all-time. 

Yet seventeen years later, I don’t know that our knowledge of those facts is vital to a fair assessment of the film’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

Eschewing the inside-baseball stats and figures, Waterworld plays as a straight-up and not un-enjoyable transplant of The Road Warrior (1982) aesthetic, only in a world destroyed by global warming rather than by nuclear war. 

Kevin Costner’s gilled, mutant Mariner, in other words, is a wet Mad Max who, like his predecessor, is something of a variation on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, a classic movie character featured in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). 

In short, this archetype involves a “stranger” who rides into town and becomes involved in a conflict not his own, and who, largely, is rather stoic, allowing actions speak louder than words.  Similarly, Waterworld’s Mariner is frequently tagged as a silent brooder, and by film’s end has even become equated with “Death” Himself for his accomplished – if taciturn -- application of lethal force.

From this...

To this...

To this.

Beyond the obvious inspiration the film draws from the Mad Max mythos, Waterworld succeeds mostly because of the “reality” of the world it assiduously constructs. The film is one of the last sci-fi epics to emerge from the pre-digital age of Hollywood blockbusters and, accordingly -- and for all its apparent flaws -- boasts this heightened sense of texture or verisimilitude. 

Everything (or most everything…) our eyes witness had to be arduously constructed and set afloat, and that herculean effort pays off in a visual and imaginative sense.  You can practically smell the salt water and the burning fuel…

In terms of negatives, Waterworld takes an unnecessary dive into sentimentalism, a wrong turn that The Road Warrior never falls prey to, though Beyond Thunderdome certainly did. 

The film’s final act also consists of one generic action movie trope after the other, from the hero’s ability to outpace blossoming fireballs, to last minute, physically impossible rescues.  These almost cartoon-like moments tend to mark Waterworld as a product of eager-to-please Hollywood, and make it rather decidedly unlike its spare, gritty, Australian source of inspiration.

Still, some of the overt sentimentalism and action clichés in Waterworld might be overlooked because of the film’s absolutely original setting, and the skill with which that setting is presented.  The film’s lead characters -- when not grinding the gears of expected generic conventions -- are interesting enough to spend two hours with, certainly.  In keeping with the tradition of the post-apocalyptic genre, Waterworld also makes an earnest statement about man’s self-destructive nature.

“Dry land is not just our destination, it is our destiny!”

In a world of the future -- a world of ubiquitous oceans -- the silent, rugged Mariner (Costner) seeks to re-supply at a nearby atoll.  Unfortunately, he is arrested by the local Elders as a “muto” (or mutant) because he has webbed feet and gills behind his ears. 

The Mariner’s arrest comes at a bad time, because the leader of the eco-unfriendly Smokers, The Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is planning to launch an attack there and grab young Enola (Tina Majorino), a girl with an indecipherable map to the mythical “Dry Land” tattooed on her back. 

Enola and her stepmother, Helen (Jean Tripplehorn) free the Mariner from captivity in exchange for passage out of the atoll on his boat.  They barely escape with their lives, and the Deacon commits to pursuing them.

On the high seas, the Mariner and his “guests” have difficulty getting along at first, but soon he becomes fond of the women, and they of him.  One day, the Mariner takes Helen to the bottom of the sea and shows him man’s drowned cities there.  That lost world is the only (formerly) “dry land” he knows of, he insists.

When the Deacon captures Enola, it’s up to the Mariner to rescue her, and more than that, to lead other rag-tag survivors to “Dry Land.”  Enola’s map, properly understood, holds the key to man’s future…

“He doesn't have a name so Death can't find him!

The quality I admire most about Waterworld is its physicality.

That may not be the best word, but it gets the job done in a pinch.  I could also describe this ingredient as “texture” or “atmosphere,” perhaps, but physicality better gets at the film’s rugged and powerful sense of setting, of place.  I love the Rube-Goldberg-style devices, the trinkets from the “old world” re-purposed for Waterworld’s tech, and the sheer mechanical nature of the world.  It’s a place of whirring hydraulics, tugging pulleys, fold-out sails, and endless, ubiquitous sea.  As a whole, I find it all rather compelling and even believable. 

As I noted above, most of this setting, at least in terms of the human dwellings and conveyances, had to be constructed and then set afloat.  I like the tactility and verisimilitude of this world, and realize that if the film were made today, it would be a different beast all-together, one “rendered” with digital landscapes and CGI.  

In other words, it would likely seem a whole lot less real.  But some of the little, almost throwaway touches in the film are really quite spectacular, and contribute to the idea that "Waterworld" is a real place, and one boasting a deep and long history.

A world that you can touch.

A world that had to be built.

A world that works.

And a world that speaks of another time.
In terms of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, Waterworld  escorts the audience on an ominous trip to the bottom of the sea, and provides a haunting view of an old metropolis turned to dust at the ocean floor, a clear analog for the Statue of Liberty moment in Planet of the Apes (1968) or the “empty cities” of The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) or Night of The Comet (1984).  But that’s as close to conventional end-of-the-world imagery as Waterworld gets, instead setting its action on an unending, dangerous, but eminently beautiful sea.  I have always been impressed by the visual qualities of the ocean, a realm that is both beautiful and incredible dangerous.  And the ocean, as we detect in the film, also does a good job of burying secrets…

In terms of its narrative, it’s plain that Waterworld owes a great deal to The Road Warrior, and indeed, the entire Mad Max cycle.  The Mariner, like Max, is a man who lives outside of human society and who boasts some disdain for it. 

Both characters live as scavengers and traders, contacting civilization only to re-supply.  Both the Mariner and Max form meaningful relationships or friendships with children (Enola, and the Feral Kid, respectively), and both eventually come around to the idea of “helping” an endangered civilization find a new home (either Dry Land, or the gasoline truck’s promised land destination in The Road Warrior).

Finally, both sagas end with that new home established, but the warrior himself returning to the “wasteland” arena to continue his lonely travels.  Mad Max and the Mariner are violent men with a code of ethics, and so they both realize it is better for them to remain “outcasts” in the wild rather than to seek domesticated lives inside a new culture. In Beyond Thunderdome, the new city-dwellers light candles for the wanderers who haven’t come home; in Waterworld, Enola and Helen watch as the Mariner returns to the sea, the realm that nurtured him.   

In both The Road Warrior and Waterworld, a central scenario depicted is the “siege” of a pre-existing civilization.  Outsiders on a variety of crafts try to “break in” and pillage either Oil City or the Atoll.  The beleaguered city, naturally, fights back, but the walls are breached by attacking vehicles, either flying motorcycles or launched jet skis.  Both cities eventually fall, leading to a dedicated trek to new home. 

These factors -- the siege and the trek – make the films origin stories of a mythic type.  As Aeneas had to flee fallen Troy to found Rome, so do Max and the Mariner lead homeless survivors to greener pastures…literally in the case of Waterworld.

In one moment in Waterworld, we even get a deliberate mirror image composition of a famous frame from The Road Warrior.  There, in the first harrowing action scene, we saw the savage Wez perched on his motorcycle, another goon seated behind him on the bike, looking at his prey.  We see very much the same framing in view here (also in the first action scene), except, of course, on a water craft instead of a motorcycle.

Despite the obvious aping of the Mad Max universe, Waterworld’s unique, water-bound setting gives it a lot of “juice,” at least visually speaking.  The images are so lush and convincing you can make yourself forget, essentially, that the movie is a pastiche.

A city shall fall.

And so will this one.

And a child shall lead the people to a better future.

And so will this one.

The bad guys watch.

And so do these bad guys.

As we have come to expect from post-apocalyptic films, there is an environmental message in Waterworld that suggests man’s self-destructive nature.  The “Ancients” caused rapid global warming, and now, similarly, the Smokers are running through the last of their oil, trying to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle. 

Their need to live that life-style of relative leisure (replete with cigarettes, electricity,and even cars…) dooms the Smokers to a life of war and conflict, stealing what they need from other nation-states/atolls at the barrel of a gun.  The fact that the Smokers inhabit the Exxon Valdez, a poster-child for environmental irresponsibility, pretty much says it all.  And this too is America's fate, if we don't tap alternative energy sources.  We'll have to fight resource wars to maintain our culture's high standard of living.

Even the film’s villain plays into this leitmotif.  At one point, the Deacon attempts to flick a lit cigarette into an open oil tank, an act which could have instantaneous, catastrophic results were he successful.  The message is clearly that he is self-destructive, but there’s more.  By wantonly, thoughtlessly using up the Earth’s resources, we’re essentially lighting a spark that could destroy everything we hold dear too. 

We outgrew it,” one Smoker says of the Exxon-Valdez, and indeed that’s precisely fear of many environmentalists.  What happens when we outgrow the planet’s capacity to sustain us?

This environment message is leavened some by the film’s many action sequences, which grow progressively less satisfying and less convincing as the film continues.  The opening battles on the sea and at the atoll are genuinely awe inspiring, and feature death-defying stunts.  By the end of the film, however, rear-projection and cartoony explosions dominate the proceedings and some element of reality is sacrificed.

So much of the popular press still terms Waterworld a bomb (though it eventually made back its budget and more), but this is hardly a terrible science fiction film. Waterworld may not be a truly great science fiction film, but nor is it the epitome of Hollywood disaster, as many still make it out to be. 

Waterworld’s biggest problem, I submit, is that the film’s first half elaborately sets up a world and characters of tremendous interest, and then the last half spends all its time blowing things up, and resolving all the conflicts with fireballs and explosions.  In other words, it’s lot like many other examples of mainstream 1990s filmmaking.  And yet, the film doesn't open that way at all.  In fact, Waterworld's opening is a kind of brilliant "screw-you" to conventional  standards and decorum.  How many Hollywood blockbusters can you name that open with a shot of an established star, like Costner, pissing into a cup, refining his urine, and then drinking it?

And in terms of last shots, Waterworld finishes strong. The Mariner heads off to the next horizon and the next mystery.  Perhaps it’s the mystery of his very creation, or the mystery of the end of the world.  It’s kind of a shame we never got to see that second adventure. 

After all, Mad Max and The Man with No Man each got three attempts to get the equation right…

Movie Trailer: Waterworld (1995)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Waterworld (1995)

"If you'll notice the arterial nature of the blood coming from the hole in my head, you can assume that we're all having a real lousy day..."

The Deacon (Dennis Hopper) in Waterworld (1995) 

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #21: The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)?

Emiliano, a reader from Argentina, writes:

“I have been reading your blog since 2008 and I think you are one of the best reviewers in the world.”

“I would like to ask you if you have had the chance to see The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey directed by Vincent Ward (1988).

If you have seen the film, please could you make some comment? I think is a great movie and it would be good for many readers to see it too…”

Emiliano, I am very grateful for your kind words about my blog, and about my writing as well.  I appreciate your long-time support of the blog very much.
And secondly, I appreciate you directing our attention to this great Vincent Ward fantasy film from the late 1980s. 

I have not seen The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey in probably a decade at this point.  But I still carry vivid memories of the viewing experience. 

Specifically, I recollect that the film boasted a very…tactile atmosphere. There was nothing romanticized or glamorous about the characters or their settings.  The people we “traveled” with were dirty and smudged, and yet abundantly human.  The effect was one of total immersion in their world of the Middle Ages, as I recall.  Every moment and every character felt amazingly authentic

I also admire the core idea of the film as I remember it; that of primitive people encountering something totally beyond their world view, and having to accommodate it all in stride.   How would we see the world of the 25th century, for example?

I also loved the kind of anti-rational, magical realism aspect of this New Zealand-made movie.  The notion being that you could dig through a hole in the Middle Ages and suddenly find yourself - without explanation -- in a 20th century metropolis.  This is the kind of story I always enjoyed on The Twilight Zone (“A Hundred Years over the Rim.”)  I don’t necessarily need a scientific explanation for such a temporal crossover, I just enjoy seeing how things play out between “overlapping” worlds and people.

I’d love to see the film again and review it here on the blog soon. The only problem is that the film is not widely available on DVD at this point.  Netflix doesn’t carry it, and the movie is prohibitively expensive at retail sites.  If anyone knows where I can get an affordable copy, please contact me at   

This would indeed be a truly great film to revisit here on the blog.

I will definitely keep my eyes open for a screening copy of The Navigator, Emiliano, and hope to review it soon.  Thank you for your question, and for highlighting a great movie.

Don’t forget, ask me questions at  We have some more great reader questions coming up in the next week…

Cult-Movie Review: The Wicker Tree (2011)

There’s a strange glitch in the human psyche that encourages people of one religious faith to believe fully all manners of fantastical stories about their own chosen God while simultaneously standing back, judging, and dismissing the particularities of another faith’s deity. 

Your God is a woman who lives in the river and must mate with a willing human sacrifice every harvest season

Why, that’s patently ridiculous! 

(And please pay no attention to the fact that my God is a tri-part being, one of whom can walk on water, turn water into wine, and heal the sick with a touch…)

Robin Hardy’s horror film The Wicker Tree (2011) largely concerns this ubiquitous glitch in our human programming. 

Based on the 2006 book Cowboys for Christ, the movie is very much a twenty-first century re-statement of The Wicker Man’s (1973) aesthetic concerning hypocrisy.  It’s easy for a person of intense “faith” to self-righteously believe his way is the right one for everybody, and wish to selfishly impose that belief system on other folk, often whether such interference is desired or not. 

As you may recall, The Wicker Man concerned a British policeman and Catholic, Sgt. Howe (Edward Woodward) who visited the “pagan” island, Summerisle, only to be unwittingly recruited into a fertility ritual that required, ultimately, his sacrifice. 

The movie indicted Howe as a hypocrite for his inability to view the Summerisle’s non-Christian faith as a legitimate one.  Howe’s inability to see the ‘facts’ of the island outside his self-righteous Christian lens ultimately led him to a fiery and unpleasant demise.  Howe’s disrespect for the locals was actually stunning in the original film.  In one scene, he laid down a cross – an icon of his faith – on the grave of a boy who was not a Christian.  How do you think that made the boy’s parents feel?  It wasn’t an act of kindness, but one of usurpation and sacrilege.

The Wicker Tree concerns two evangelical, born-again Christians from Texas, pop singer Beth Boothby (Jacqueline Leonard) and her boyfriend, Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett) as they take a missionary trip to bring the message of Christ to the so-called “lost people” of Scotland, a realm where “people don’t believe in angels.”  These “young redeemers” also wear twin chastity rings so as to remember their vows of chastity.

Soon upon their arrival in Scotland, Beth and Steve get spotted by pagan cult leaders Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife, Delia (Jacqueline Leonard), and tagged to participate in their yearly May Day celebration, which honors the Goddess called “Sulis.”  Beth and Steve are too committed to their missionary cause -- and their narrow world view -- to detect that they are in tremendous jeopardy.

As May Day nears, Beth agrees to be Queen of the May, and Steve -- who eerily resembles Kirk Cameron -- takes on the role of Laddie in the festival…

As this synopsis reveals, the outlines of the two Hardy films are very similar, but The Wicker Tree is simultaneously somewhat less scary and much funnier than in its predecessor.  This is not such good news for horror fans, I suppose, but the film is still quite enjoyable.   Specifically, The Wicker Tree is wickedly observant and merciless in its commentary on what might widely be termed the “religious mentality” and the universal glitch I mentioned above.  The film concerns one religion seeking to use another religion, which in turn is exploiting the original religion.  Not a pretty picture.

I’m certain some audiences will view The Wicker Tree as anti-Christian, but, frankly, that’s a mistaken interpretation.  Beth and Steve are portrayed in the film as well-meaning rubes and rednecks, but are ultimately too innocent and callow to be figures that audiences can hate or even really dislike.   Where Howe was something of a hypocritical prick in The Wicker Man, you can’t make the same argument about Beth and Steve.  Right up until the end of the film, I was perched on the edge of my seat, hoping for these Texans to escape from the trap the Lachlans had sprung.

By contrast, the pagan leaders – Lachlan and Delia – are truly despicable sorts, and that’s precisely how the film portrays them.  Lachlan runs a local nuclear plant that irradiated the nearby river and caused the village’s women to become infertile.  Lachlan uses his (apparent) faith in Sulis as cover for his administrative and environmental misdeeds, and represents, in my opinion, the film’s true dark force: the unholy nexus of out-of-control capitalism, extreme wealth, and organized religion.   

Considering the depiction of the lead characters, I conclude that The Wicker Tree doesn’t wish to dismiss or diminish the concept of faith, or even the concept of God, but rather expose the supposedly “pious” men and women who trumpet their faith, in truth, as a form of self-glorification.  As evidence for this assertion, I would point the viewer to two very brief but crucial sequences. 

In one, Steve – the evangelical Christian – actually sees Sulis, the pagan Goddess, stretched out on a bed beside him, validating her as a “real” force or entity. 

Then, at the film’s end, we catch a second glimpse of an icon, this one validating Steve and Beth’s Christian faith.  

Surely, these moments would not be included if The Wicker Tree simply concerned “hating” religion and mocking any particular denomination or religion.  Instead, such inclusions suggest that though Gods may be real, human beings sure as hell make terrible use of them....

I don’t feel, honestly, that The Wicker Tree works all that effectively as horror film, though there is an extremely disturbing and gory scene near movie’s end.  The film boasts some intense and anxiety-provoking moments in the last act too, and also benefits from a growing sense of inevitability.  The only problem is that if you've seen The Wicker Man, that sense of inevitability feels more like familiarity.  Nonetheless, I would recommend the film on the basis of the humor and social commentary.   I particularly enjoyed the aspects of The Wicker Tree that showcase Beth’s earlier career iteration as a kind of slutty Jessica Simpson-type singer, another suggestion -- albeit a subtle one -- that her finding of faith coincided, in part, with her finding of a path to earn more greenbacks.

As far as the central performances are concerned, the break-out star here is an actress named -- I kid you not -- Honeysuckle Weeks.  Weeks plays the sexually aggressive, but ultimately pitiable and very human character, Lolly, and is terrific in the role.  I couldn't take my eyes off Weeks, not because she is beautiful (she is), but because she has real charisma, and a brand of fetching, off-kilter way of delivering lines and interacting with her fellow actors.

In some ways, both Wicker movies (I’m not counting the 2006 remake with Nic Cage) are not really about how terrible religions are, but rather how different religions can be from one another…and yet still be legitimate expressions of faith and spirituality.  I love how the films view sex, for instance, and observe different religious feelings about the role of the sex drive in the human animal.

But finally, I wonder, about the movie's point, the line of thinking I opened with.  Why do we thoughtlessly accept the inconsistencies in our own religion, while mercilessly pointing out the flaws in others?  What quality is it about us, as thinking creatures, that demands other people accept our personal beliefs regarding God and accept them as concrete fact?  Why can’t we live and let live?  And why isn’t there enough room for both Christ and Sulis, or Christ and Muhammad, without the followers of both deities waging war on one another?

Movie Trailer: The Wicker Tree (2011)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Memory Bank: Elastolin Knights (1977 - 1980)

When I was eight years-old in late 1977, my father constructed as a gift for me a huge wooden, Medieval Castle.   It was an amazing, multi-story, multi-part affair, replete with Banquet Hall-type furniture and a throne room…all built entirely from scratch.

Alas, I no longer have that castle.  It was sold some decades ago -- in the early 1990s? -- when the family moved from Glen Ridge, New Jersey to North Carolina, I believe.  It was a colossal toy, so it was unlikely to have survived the trip intact.

But that awesome castle of my childhood was populated entirely by amazing figurines: Elastolin Knights and Elastolin Normans.

These toys were painstakingly painted and detailed by my father, who, as I’ve written before, is a remarkable modeler.  He essentially gave me two armies worth of them.

Historically, Elastolin is a trademark of a German company called Hausser.  It has been in business since 1904, and the name “Elastolin” has become a kind of generic term for composite or plastic “toy soldiers.”  

Over the years the company manufactured knights, cowboys, modern soldiers and other high-quality toys.

The 1980 catalog from Elastolin, for example, reveals a number of the painted figures that my Dad assembled and painted, and which I still own.  These figurines are painted on the underside of the stands with the numbers “77” and "78" (by my Dad), so I’m pretty sure my memory is right.  It was 1977 -- for Christmas -- when I first began getting these.

Among the figures you can see photographed below are Prince Valiant, Princess Aleta, and Sir Gawain.  There are also a number of invading Norman soldiers.  As you can also detect, these figures came with different weapons: swords, spears, hatchets…you name it.  I’m not a hundred percent certain, but I think some of these were custom-made by my Dad.  Mostly, I hope you can also detect the incredible level of detail my father was able to highlight on these tiny figures.

To my surprise and delight, I discovered that in 2008, my father has also collected some unassembled Elastolin Knights for Joel, my now five-year old son.  I am already planning to pass on my entire collection to Joel.  But to learn that  these 1977 models will supplemented by my father’s  new work – painted some thirty-five years after he assembled and painted them for me -- really makes me happy.

I had great adventures with these knights, a long time ago, and I hope Joel will have the same experience.

Collectible of the Week: Buck Rogers Action Figures (Mego; 1979)

Mego acquired the merchandise license for the 1979 revival of Buck Rogers and used the feature film (originally a TV-pilot) as the basis for its many toy designs.  In past weeks I have featured here Buck’s Starfighter Command Center and Buck’s Laserscope Fighter.

This week, I want to remember the action figures from the series themselves. 

Nine were released all together, including Buck, Twiki, Wilma Deering, Killer Kane, Ardella, Dr. Huer, Tiger man, Draconian Guard and Draco. 

If you watched Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on television with any regularity, you’ll immediately pick up on some of the discontinuities between the program and the toys.  Specifically, Pamela Hensley’s character was named Ardala, not Ardella.  And Kane -- a character played by both Henry Silva and Michael Ansara – was never referred to by the nickname Killer Kane. 

Finally of course, King Draco appeared in the pilot/movie for about twenty seconds and was never seen again on the series.  Not even once.

Despite such problems, I always enjoyed these three-and-three-quarter inch action figures.  They could fit easily inside the Land Rover, the Draconian Marauder and the Starfighter, and in general looked a great lot like their video counterparts.  The figures’ drawbacks included the fact that they came with no accessories, not even laser guns or helmets. 

And additionally, like The Black Hole action figures from Mego of the same vintage, these Buck Rogers figures could break very easily because all their joints were held together by silver pins.  Those pins  had an annoying habit of loosening up or even falling out.

I still remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in theaters.  Afterwards, my parents took me to a Toys R Us store to buy me two action figures.  I was able to find Buck and Twiki and was pretty happy about it.  Our next stop was a carpet store and while my parents shopped, I flew Buck and Twiki around the huge store filled with rolled-up rugs. 

In short order, however, Buck’s interior elastic snapped, and the hero came apart into many pieces.  The very first night I had him!  Buck’s “accident” left me only with Twiki…which was a big disappointment.  

The astronaut had survived five hundred years as a popsicle only to spontaneously combust in a carpet store.

When we arrived home, my Dad glued Buck Rogers back together, but the poor guy was never quite the same, being now unable to move his hips. 

How could he teach my Princess Ardala figure how to boogie?

Game Board of the Week: Spider-Man game with The Fantastic Four (Milton Bradley; 1977)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Planet of the Apes Parodies

Cult Movie Review: Superman: The Movie (1978)

Although blockbuster superhero films have come and gone by the dozen since the release of Superman: The Movie in 1978, the Richard Donner film remains, in my opinion, the best film of its type yet produced. 

I make this grand assertion in part because of the film’s layered visual symbolism, which intentionally and methodically equates the life-time journey of Kal-El/Superman with that of a messiah, or Christ figure. 

I make this assertion in part because the 1978 Superman speaks meaningfully about its historical context: the Post-Watergate Age of the mid-1970s.  Specifically Superman is offered up to audiences as a positive role model, a kind of wish-fulfillment alternative for a country that appeared mired in partisanship, bickering, and corruption.  Superman’s promise that he would “never lie” to Lois (and to us) reflects this deep, burning national desire during the mid-1970s for a restoration of belief and trust in our elected leaders.

I make this assertion of greatness for Superman: The Movie, as well, because of the film’s remarkable and epic three act, biographical structure, which actually permits for intense focus on the hero rather than the villain, an absolute rarity in a genre which has distinguished itself largely, by spotlighting ever-kinkier, ever-more perverse antagonists. 

By focusing on Clark Kent’s origin, upbringing, and adult life -- instead of the Lex Luthor’s genesis, for example – Superman: The Movie provides a perfect allegory for the American immigrant experience.  That experience, in short, is about coming to a land of opportunity, assimilating its cherished values, and then living those values at highest level possible.

Buttressed by a sincere, pitch-perfect lead performance by the late Christopher Reeve, Superman: The Movie is also that rarest of breeds: a superhero film that doesn’t wallow in troughs of human ugliness. 

Certainly, the Donner film doesn’t short-change or deny the tragic aspects of its hero’s life, such as the death of his parents and destruction of his world, Krypton.  Yet nor does Superman: The Movie make the grievous, depressing determination that after such a personal tragedy occurs, angst, depression, revenge, and darkness are the only emotions a hero can possibly face, feel, and act upon. 

A real hero can still choose to take to the skies instead of lurking in the shadows, or seething in the dark of night. 

Superman: The Movie concerns a hero who faces tremendous adversity, to be sure.  Superman is a man without a nation (or planet) and a man without a biological family of origin.  And yet his response to such troubles is not to burrow inward and become twisted by hate.  His response is -- simply -- to be kind, to be “a friend” to those who need him; to those who also face adversity.  Because he is strong (physically) Superman can protect those who are like him…but who cannot protect themselves.  This kind of selflessness is, in my opinion, the very quality that should epitomize a superhero, but rarely does in the cinema.

I don’t believe that heroes -- let alone super heroes -- can truly be born through rage, victim hood, or revenge.  Rather, those are the unfortunate qualities of human life to overcome and surpass, not the qualities to dictate the shape of a meaningful and purposeful life.    

Superman: The Movie perfectly embodies this aesthetic. 

Through the dedicated application of visual symbolism and a literate screenplay that focuses on its hero, Superman: The Movie continues to speak to the better angels of human nature, even today.  Although the film’s special effects have certainly aged in the intervening three-and-a-half decades since its theatrical release, the Donner film’s soulful humanity yet resonates and inspires.

An act of revenge may satisfy blood lust temporarily.  But when a superhero soars above us and represents the best of human qualities, the sky is really the limit.   Superman: The Movie embodies that principle, and makes us all believe a man can fly.

I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.

On the distant, highly advanced world of Krypton, a great scientist, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) warns of imminent planetary disaster, but is ignored.   As disaster and death loom, Jor-El sends away his young son, Kal-El, on a multi-year space voyage to Earth.  There, the boy will grow up with incredible powers, courtesy of Earth’s yellow sun. But he will also grow up isolated and alone…the last of his breed.

On Earth, young Kal-El crashes in rural Kansas.  There, he is adopted by farmers, Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), and raised as their son, Clark Kent (Jeff East). As Clark matures, he resents the fact that he must always hide his powers away from humans.  But after his Earth father dies from a heart attack, Clark decides to pursue a grand destiny.  He heads north and creates, from Kryptonian crystal, a Fortress of Solitude where he can learn about himself and his world.

After twelve years of study, Clark (Reeve) emerges from the Fortress as “Superman,” a caped hero who can fight crime. He heads to Metropolis, where -- as Clark Kent -- he works as a reporter at the Daily Planet.  He soon falls in love with another reporter, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), but soon learns that she has eyes only for Superman.

When the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), launches a deadly real estate scheme to destroy the west coast of America, Superman confronts the twisted genius.  Unfortunately, Luthor has discovered the only substance on Earth that can harm the Man of Steel: a rock from his destroyed world, or Kryptonite…

“The single most important interview since God talked to Moses…”

Unusually, Superman: The Movie embodies three distinctive settings and movements in its final cut.  The first segment or section takes place on distant Krypton, the second in 1950s Kansas, and the third in Metropolis of the 1970s. 

By my critical reckoning, the first “act” or segment of the film concerns Heaven, the second concerns the discovery of a home and humanity, and the third involves achievement of destiny.

Superman: The Movie’s religious imagery remains most powerful in the Kryptonian segment, but continues throughout the picture (and indeed, in Superman II [1981] and even Superman Returns [2006].) 

But let’s discuss Krypton first.  It is a world of radiant, glowing white, a world that, literally, symbolizes Heaven.  When we first see Krypton, we pass through a layer of white mist, which suggests, visually, clouds in Earth’s sky.  In other words, we are moving beyond the Earth and firmament into the realm of the Angels.

Here the Kryptonians gather, led by the God-like Jor-El, whose surname, El means “deity” in Hebrew.

In his first order of business, Jor-El casts out the insurrectionist Zod, who is clearly a stand-in for a similar insurrectionist against God, Lucifer.  Zod and his minions are sent into a kind of living Hell, the “Phantom Zone,” for their crimes.

Following this removal of “evil” from Paradise or Heaven, Jor-El and his world face another, equally unexpected threat: a natural disaster that could destroy it totally. Jor-El’s entreaties to evacuate Krypton are ignored and silenced, and the radiant, formerly-white, heavenly realm turns scarlet red under the increasing light of the Red Sun. In Scripture, scarlet or crimson colors signify suffering, worry, fear and blood, the very opposite of the “purity” and “sanctification” that once represented Krypton’s ideal society.

Jor-El, the “God” figure, then sends his “only son” to Earth, to aid mankind, in a deliberate reflection of John 3:16:  "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Kal-El then travels to Earth in a spaceship that some suggest resembles the Star of Bethlehem itself.  He lands in Kansas and becomes the adopted child of Jonathan and Martha Kent. Certainly, there is a trenchant comparison to be made here between Jonathan and Joseph, and Martha and Mary.  They are not, strictly speaking, biological parents of a messiah, but rather instructors in humanity.  

Then, as if to cement the comparison of Kal-El to Jesus Christ, the character is seen -- as a young boy -- standing in a crucifixion-type pose, his arms outstretched.  This signifies, of course, that he is to become the messiah, and perhaps face scorn, even, for his sacrifices (as we see in later movies).

As Superman, Kal-El performs acts that -- in keeping with the Jesus Christ comparison -- are quite miraculous.  He can travel faster than a locomotive, leap higher than a skyscraper, and deflect bullets.  He also explicitly states that he “never lies,” a comment which conforms to the post-Watergate reading of the film, but also the religious allegory.  Where Superman will never “lie” to Lois, Jesus noted that there was “no deceit” in his mouth (Isaiah 53:9) and that “I tell you the truth” (John 8:45).

What’s the point of the religious allegory?  I suppose it is largely, that when a God or a messiah walks among men, he inspires men to be better.  That’s Superman’s gift too.  While he must also face “diseased maniacs” like Lex Luthor, Superman’s very existence proves that a man can live up to ideals like justice for all, or even, on a basic level, honesty towards his peers.  The closing shot of the film see Superman break the fourth wall and cast his eyes upon us, in the audience.   When this man-above-men gazes upon us, he reminds us, too, that we can do the things he does.  We can be friends and heroes to the weak, even if we lack Superman’s otherworldly powers.

Krypton is Heaven. 
Casting out the Insurrectionists to the Hell of "The Phantom Zone."

Heaven becomes Hell.

And Jor-El gives to mankind his only begotten son...

Kal-El, on Earth, stretches out his arms, in crucifix position.

The most visually beautiful segment in Superman: The Movie, I find, is the second or middle one.  This section is set in Kansas, under Big American Sky, and it captures beautifully a Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978) quality. 

As you may recall, Rockwell often painted imagery of small town life, and his work frequently asked the critical question: what does it mean to be an American?  Such works as Freedom of Speech (1943), The Problem We all Live with (1964), Runaway (1958) and Homecoming Soldier (1945) all focused, laser-like on the idea of the American dream, the American community, and, in some instances, the effort to achieve true social justice for all.  Law and order, heroism, prejudice, and other America-centric topics all found expression in Rockwell’s catalog.

As an immigrant living in America, Kal-El thus gets a lesson in Rockwell-ian Americana in the film’s second movement, and I feel that this view – while undeniably sentimentalized – represents what is best about our nation.  The powerful imagery of windswept wheat fields, of white church steeples, and of productive family farms suggests a simple, honest, corn-fed life of upstanding moral values.  Those values of “truth, justice and the American way” are crucial in forming Superman’s bedrock psyche.  He is not a biological child of America, but through his adoption of our land he understands the value of hard (physical) work, and the value of honesty and truth.  Best of all, he understands something else critical about the American dream: the idea that in America it is not the color of your skin or your land of origin that should matter most. 

Rather, it’s what you do here -- right now -- to contribute to the common good that weighs the heaviest. 

Superman’s story is thus the story of immigrants in America since time immemorial, and it’s no coincidence, I submit, that Superman soon takes Lois on a flight around the Statue of Liberty, an icon welcoming immigrants to our shores.  If Lois is his real life love, then Lady Liberty -- and by extension, America, --represent Superman’s other significant romance.

The scenes set in Kansas purposefully contrast with those set on Krypton, which represented, in a sense, cold intellect as opposed to warm, human heart.. This is significant because the Kryptonians ultimately lost their world because of intellectual arrogance. Clark cannot let the same fate befall his adopted home world.

Big Sky, Rockwell America.

More Big Sky, Rockwell America.

And more.

An immigrant visits Lady Liberty.

The third and final portion or segment of Superman: The Movie concerns America of the movie’s present (meaning 1978).  The Watergate Scandal had recently toppled a President, and America’s heroes of the day were two committed reporters, Woodward and Bernstein.  

Given the public’s dislike of the corporate press today, it is indeed difficult indeed to imagine a time when reporters were widely viewed as ideal protectors of American freedom, but that was indeed the case in the mid-1970s, the same era that gave us investigative reporter Carl Kolchak on The Night Stalker

The idea featured here, in both Superman and Kolchak, is that the truth matters more than power.  A reporter could -- armed with the freedom of the press -- fight City Hall, and expose City Hall as corrupt. Even a President was not above the law. 

In Superman: the Movie, Clark thus takes on two noble professions: that of a dedicated journalist, and that of a superhero.  It likely says something about how cynical we’ve become today that we can’t imagine a journalist being an advocate for unbiased, non-partisan truth.

That quote from Superman that I mentioned earlier, “I’ll never lie to you,” not only represents religious allegory then, but political allegory as well. Those words represent a direct quote from then-President Jimmy Carter, who spoke identical words to a scandal-weary American populace in 1976.

As a nation, we were disappointed with our elected leadership, and were searching for a "new hope." As a people, we no longer believed that a man could fly, metaphorically-speaking. Hell, we didn't even believe that our leaders were "good" or "honest." The public faith was broken. But Superman was the real deal...the genuine article. Not only was he good, he actually brought out the best in the people around him.  When he informs Lois that he wants to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, she scoffs at the cliche, warning that he’ll have to fight every elected official in the country.  But Superman boasts a quality that can change everything: the power to inspire.

Lois Lane, as portrayed by Margot Kidder, thus proves a perfect sparring partner for Superman and Clark in Superman: The Movie because she is so deliberately "of" this fast-moving, cynical culture in a way he definitively is not. And yet despite her cynicism, Lois is still absolutely taken with Superman.  This is so, I believe, because all of us - no matter how jaded -- still want very much to believe in "truth, justice and the American way."

In the age of Superman: The Movie (1978), reporters were national heroes.

Clark as latter-day Woodward or Bernstein.

He'll never lie to you...
Christopher Reeves' Superman is the ultimate fish-out-of-water: a principled man living in an unprincipled time. Yet despite this fact, he commits himself to being the savior of this tough, cynical world. It’s a world that some might say doesn't even deserve Superman.  But this Man of Steel reveals that it is not a weakness to be gentle, and not a character flaw to be kind, or honest. A real hero doesn't need to swagger, or be a misanthropic "loner.”

Instead, this is a visitor who is amused and puzzled by mankind. He can be strong and idealistic and baffled all at the same time. He can be sincere without being a wimp.

Accordingly the crises featured in Superman: The Movie are authentically human rather than special effects spectaculars. Over the course of the film, Clark loses two fathers (Jor-El and Jonathan Kent), bids farewell to his Mother, searches for the purpose of his life in the Fortress of Solitude, falls in love with a flawed "modern" human being (Lois) and embraces the stated traditional principles of his adopted country.

And when he angrily violates Jor-El's "non-interference" directive during the film's climax to turn back time to rescue Lois, Superman proves he is no longer a child of cold, emotionless Krypton ...but a real child of America. It's a great character-arc. 

I always find it ironic that superhero movies of recent vintage slather on one villain after the other. Some movies even boast three super-villains for a superhero to combat.  The implication, of course, is that evil is more interesting, dramatically, than good is; that excavating someone who is evil is intrinsically more interesting than examining someone who struggles to do good.  Superman: The Movie reverses that equation. 

This is the very reason why the film is still held up as a paragon of the form by many, or at least counted among the ten best superhero films ever made.  The Donner film’s focus is squarely on the man wearing the cape, not the freak in the grease paint, or the bald maniac. The film may compare Superman to a messiah, but in the Man of Steel, we can all see, too, the potential to achieve our very best self.