Saturday, December 15, 2012
The third episode of Land of the Lost’s final season, titled “The Orb,” is only a slight improvement over the disastrous second installment, “Survival Kit.”
Here, Enik (Walker Edmiston) is transformed suddenly into a clone of Mr. Spock, adopting the term “logical” no less than seven times in a twenty-two minute span. I counted, because the use of the term became so egregious after the first couple of uses.
Of course, “logic” is Spock’s buzzword, derived from his planet’s obsession with logical behavior. Why should Enik -- the resident alien of Land of the Lost -- suddenly adopt this obsession with “logical” behavior? In all of Land of the Lost history, in every Enik episode -- if you added them up -- he wouldn’t have used the word logical seven times. It’s insulting here, and even as a kid I knew that Star Trek was being ripped-off. I felt cheated, but also baffled. Enik was a well-established, well-defined character by the third-season. Why was he being re-written as a Spock clone?
In “The Orb,” the Sleestak spontaneously decide to eradicate all humans in Altrusia and believe that the key to doing so involves a mystical Sleestak orb that will plunge the world into total, permanent darkness. Unfortunately, this plan -- making it permanently night -- was also at the heart of “Blackout,” the second-to-last episode of Land of the Lost’s second season. There, the Sleestak used a secret second clock pylon to freeze time.
So…in a relatively short span, the Sleestak have forgotten they already attempted this plan...and it didn’t work the first time. Permanent midnight in Altrusia means, as that episode explained, that the moths that fertilize Sleestak will die in the cold. Permanent night is thus a death sentence not for humans, but for the Sleestak race.
Alas, there’s no sense of continuity between this installment, and “Blackout.”
In hopes of acquiring the orb, the Sleestak capture Enik and Chaka (Philip Paley) in the hopes that the Marshalls will come for them and retrieve the orb from the God in the pit. Fortunately, Will (Wesley Eure) happens into a pylon that no one has ever seen before, and it unexpectedly grants him invisibility.
Invisibility, it turns out, is quite handy in stealing the orb and releasing Chaka and Sleestak.
Long story short: the writing here is just unbelievably bad. Forget Enik’s aping of Mr. Spock. Forget the fact that the Sleestak strategy was just attempted…five episodes ago in terms of chronology.
But isn’t it awfully convenient that Will should develop the power of invisibility just when that one, specific power can solve the crisis of the day? In a sense, all of dramatic writing is about fashioning manufactured crises, but a problem arises when there is so much contrivance involved. That’s the case with “The Orb.” The contrivances stack-up.
On top of all these concerns, “The Orb” is the second episode in row in which Holly (Kathy Coleman) has virtually nothing of consequence to do. There is a case that could be made that she is the true main character of Land of the Lost, but the third season so far simply dismisses her as a little girl, and lets Will and Jack do the heavy lifting.
And in terms of Jack (Ron Harper), one can see why he proves necessary to the series in this episode. He brings a long a new influx of important equipment from matches and antibiotics to flare guns and flashlights. All those items, incidentally, make it much easier to solve the problem of the week. That established, the moments with flares lighting a dark Altrusia are memorably wrought.
I’m a long-time admirer of Land of the Lost, and not one to dismiss the third season out of hand. But between “Survival Kit” and “The Orb” one can detect that the series is on a fatal downward slide.
Next Week: "Repairman."
Friday, December 14, 2012
One of the glories of film as an art form involves its capacity to forge a powerful mood or “feeling” outside or beyond strict narrative parameters. This sense of atmosphere can be created through a combination of editing montage, musical soundtrack, and even pacing.
In other words, if the resultant overall mood of a film is potent enough, the moment-to-moment specifics of a movie’s plot don’t matter that much. Viewers can get carried away not in specific details, but in strong emotional resonances.
This is especially so in the horror genre, in which a well-realized vision or “atmosphere” can, eerily, mirror our universal sense of dreaming, or our experience of a nightmare.
In 1983 -- when I was thirteen -- I first saw in theaters a new horror film that, on a purely plot level, indeed seemed ludicrous and poorly constructed. But the visuals were so charged with spiky energy, the editing and music so utterly mesmerizing, that the film became something of a favorite with me. If my mind reeled at the silliness of the story and the banality of the dialogue, it also responded enthusiastically to the deft, unconventional visualization of the tale.
That film is Michael Mann’s The Keep, based ever so loosely on the popular novel by F. Paul Wilson. That author, I suspect, has ample reason to complain about how his literary work was translated to the silver screen.
And yet for all its notable flaws in terms of narrative clarity, dialogue, and character development, the film version of The Keep is inarguably hypnotic, even mesmerizing. Supported by a stunning electronic score from Tangerine Dream, and an almost early-MTV music-video sensibility in some key action sequences, this film plays like a surreal dream turned into a wild, epic opera.
Again, The Keep is not without faults, notably including the design and make-up for the central monster, Molasar. Instead of appearing fearsome and frightening, he looks like a man in a bad rubber suit, with red glowing eyes. So there is ample reason to criticize The Keep, if that’s the game.
But if one chooses to engage with The Keep on its own strange, unconventional terms, the film casts a remarkable trance-like power that I find, well, irresistible. In the film, those individuals who take refuge and sanctuary in the remote, titular Keep are swept away by bizarre, frightening dreams that seem to reshape reality itself.
Mann’s film actually expresses that very idea in its DNA, revealing in all its idiosyncratic glory a dream world of dark and light, good and evil, right and wrong. The film casts a spell that sweeps you away, even if you don’t always understand the story, what motivates the characters, or why things are happening.
One can certainly argue that a more straightforward approach might have made for a better or perhaps more easily digestible film, but Mann’s oddball, emotional approach here certainly gets at the true nature of the story he vets. We experience “the dream” of the Keep as the characters in the play do the same. And as I like to write frequently, there’s something to be said for a film’s form mirroring its content.
During World War II, a Nazi caravan led by Captain Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) arrives in a small town in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. There, Woermann reluctantly takes command of his new headquarters: an ancient Keep decorated with one-hundred-and-eight small crosses made of nickel.
The caretaker of the Keep (Morgan Sheppard) warns Woermann and his soldiers not to remain in the Keep, because they will suffer horrible nightmares if they sleep within the walls of the mountain fortress.
His warnings go ignored, however, and soldiers instead attempt to loot the Keep, removing a thick rock from an underlying structure and finding a passageway into the heart of the mountain itself, into a vast, seemly empty chamber.
In truth, the Nazis have actually released a ferocious and ancient evil force. When five soldiers are murdered under mysterious circumstances in the Keep following the breach of the mountain, a new, harsher Nazi commander, Koempferr (Gabriel Byrne) arrives and imposes draconian law on the nearby village.
But meanwhile, far away in Athens, a mysterious stranger called Glaeken (Scott Glenn) heads for the Keep, even as a Jewish scientist, Dr. Duza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Albert Watson) are transported there from a death camp to translate a message scrawled on the wall of the fortress.
It reads: “I Will Be Free.”
Suffering from a debilitating disease and knowing that the end of his life is near, Dr. Cuza comes to realize that the monster in the Keep -- Molasar -- can strike a blow against Nazi power around the world if only he can be released from this ancient structure, his prison.
But is Cuza’s plan to release True Evil actually worse than the evil unleashed by the Nazis?
From a visual standpoint, The Keep is an incredibly dynamic film, even when viewed in 2012. The most impressive and memorable shot, in my opinion, involves the initial breaching of the mountain interior.
A Nazi soldier pushes away a rock, and Mann treats the audience to what could be the longest, most dramatic pull-back in film movie history, at least pre-CGI. Star Trek: First Contact (1996) boasted a corollary, although digitally-rendered, in its opening scene on a Borg cube.
But here, we pull back and back and back…for a seeming eternity, through impenetrable shades of darkness, until we reach a distant cave floor. And then the shot extends further yet, escorting audiences through what appears to be an ancient rock-hewn temple. In the far, upper right corner of the frame, we can see where we began the shot: a Nazi soldier gazing out upon a stone precipice, and an open interior space of terror yawning before him.
It’s a gorgeous, masterfully-created composition that expresses beautifully the nature and setting of Molasar’s imprisonment. The shot suggests a scale beyond our human ability to conceive, as if we are opening up into another realm of Hell itself.
The film’s opening sequence is equally masterful, and it adroitly sets the tenor for the dream-like quality of the film’s remainder. The Nazi caravan drives through mist-enshrouded mountains on a small, winding road, and the local figures move through the fairy tale landscape in slow-motion.
Extreme close-ups of Prochnow’s wide-eyes also suggest the idea of a percipient awakening (or perhaps falling asleep…), and piercing a barrier into a new, unexpected realm. It’s as though the caravan has breached the wall separating reality and nightmare, real-scape and dream-scape.
When I reviewed The Keep in Horror Films of the 1980s, I noted that these misty, expressive visualizations, augmented by Tangerine Dream’s compositions, can make enraptured viewers feel as though they’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole into a universe of the strange and surreal. That observation is just as true today.
The first time we meet Molasar, the visuals are impressive too. We don’t see the (inferior) costume/make-up, but rather a roiling, tornado or storm moving purposefully through the stone corridors of the Keep. Smoke rises and falls, billows and rolls, coruscating and affording us only glimpses of the monster’s true nature. Once more this scene suggests a kind of dream-like quality, of monsters perceived but not quite seen or understood.
The novel upon which The Keep is based was more overtly a vampire story than the movie is, but one can detect the outer edges of a vampire story in this weird and wonderful film. Yet Mann has escaped and avoided silver screen vampire clichés by positioning his “monster” inside the world of dreams and half-understood visions. The unexpected use of neon lasers, slow-motion photography, and music-video-style cutting also subverts expectation about what a “vampire movie” can be, or how it should look.
If the film boasts any specific disappointment beyond the revelation of Molasar’s true character, it arises from a lack of exposition about Glaeken, the immortal vampire killer who has waited a seeming eternity for Molasar to awake so he can fulfill his duty as slayer.
Memorably, Glaeken makes love to a human woman, Eva, in a beautiful but patently weird sequence that is as much as about religious apotheosis (notice the lovers in the form of the cross…) as it is about sexual fulfillment.
But beyond his capacity to love Eva and destroy Evil, we know almost nothing about Glaeken, or what he “is,” human or otherwise. That established, Scott Glenn looks absolutely stunning in the role: a glowing-eyed, perfectly-muscled physical embodiment of the divine in man’s body.
The most satisfying thematic element in The Keep perhaps involves Dr. Cuza. He’s a man who hates the Nazis so much that he releases a monster several magnitudes worse to destroy them. His hatred has thus blinded him in a very significant way. The lesson there is that hate doesn’t make one strong, but rather weak…and that wanting to see your enemy destroyed so badly may in fact only perpetuate a greater evil.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy The Keep may be determined by how much reality, you demand of your horror movies.
If you desire to see expressed a strict, Euclidian “sense” of reality, I suppose the film is something of a bust.
But if you are willing to be swept away -- like Eva in Molasar’s arms, carried through the ancient corridors of the stone castle -- by Michael Mann’s unconventional “dream sense,” The Keep is a singular and stunning viewing experience. It remains one of the most bizarre and memorable films of 1983. Furthermore, The Keep is one of those movies I can return to again and again, and always see something new -- and beautiful -- in.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
A good historian is someone who is curious, methodical, and can bring order to chaos.
A good historian is someone who is meticulous to the point of being obsessive about the details.
And a good historian can tie things together in a way that surprises, enlightens, and educates his or her readers.
Author Rich Handley (From Aldo to Zira: Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes, Timeline of the Planet of the Apes) is a very good historian indeed.
His latest book, A Matter of Time: The Unofficial Back to the Future Lexicon is ample evidence of this fact. It’s a 339-page text that leaves no factoid unturned in its exploration of the Back to the Future film trilogy and all its spin-offs. And like the movies this encyclopedia explores so assiduously, the book is also a hell of a lot of fun.
Handley writes in his introduction that his new text is “designed for anal-retentive, die-hard fans, as well as those who simply enjoy the movies.” However, I think he’s soft-peddling the obsessive nature of the book there. The abbreviation key alone provides nearly four dozen sources of information on the Back-to-the-Future-verse, from interviews with the writers to music videos, to “photographs hanging in the Doc Brown’s Chicken restaurant at Universal Studios.”
You want complete? Hello, McFly! This encyclopedia is complete. There are (exhaustive) entries on every detail in the mythos from the bicycle shop seen in Courthouse Square (in 1955) to the von Braun family album. The book incorporates facts from an animated series, video games, amusement park rides and more…half of which, I must confess, I didn’t even know existed.
I can’t claim that my passion with Back to the Future runs as nearly deep as my passion for Planet of the Apes, but I am unhealthy obsessed, no doubt, with Back to the Future Part II (1989). It’s actually my favorite film in the cycle -- kind of a Back to the Future Unbound -- and in my opinion it’s a seriously underrated and technically accomplished film. I liked the original 1985 movie just fine, but it played, in some sense, on romantic nostalgia for a decade/time period I never lived through. Back to the Future Part II travels to the past, the future, and even “inside” the events of the first movie. It’s a crazy brilliant film that moves at a breakneck pace.
Reading through A Matter of Time, I really wanted to watch Back to the Future Part II again, and perhaps review it here on the blog. Handley’s text reminded me of that film’s sense of joy…and utter madness. It left me feeling "Fired Up," to refer to a 2015 Marty McFly and the Pinheads compilation album (addressed in the book on page 93).
If Rich Handley keeps writing books of this depth and detail every year, I have no doubt his hair will soon go as stark white as Doc Brown’s.
Occupational hazard for madmen historians, I suppose…
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
A reader named Amber writes:
“I'm addicted to your blog in 2012 and check it for updates several times every day. Please tell your readers that you have no plans to stop blogging any time soon.”
Amber, I’m truly flattered by your comment. I have absolutely no plans to stop blogging.
That doesn’t mean fate won’t intervene in some unforeseen way, but I love blogging, and it never gets old for me.
Or at least it hasn’t gotten old yet.
Plus, I can’t quit now when so many amazing things are happening in the next few years.
For instance, in 2013, we’ll have the 20th anniversary of The X-Files, the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, plus the releases of Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness.
The year 2015 will bring the 40th anniversary of my beloved Space: 1999, the tenth anniversary of Reflections, and the release of the next Star Wars film.
2016 brings the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, and so on…
So I would really, truly hate to stop blogging now, especially since the audience here keeps growing. Besides, writing every day on the blog (several times…) has, I believe, made me a better writer.
At this rate, I may start to get it right by about 2020 or so…
Thank you for your question and for your support.
Don’t forget to e-mail me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com. I’m currently working through a long list of reader mails, so if you have e-mailed me a question, and I haven’t answered it yet on the blog, don’t get discouraged. I’m getting there…I promise!
I remember with great anticipation the year of Space Precinct’s (1994 – 1995) arrival in syndication. That was the span when I was completing my Exploring Space: 1999 book, and I was excited that creator Gerry Anderson finally had a new sci-fi TV series in the works, especially one with “space” in the title and as a primary setting.
Unfortunately, here in North Carolina, Space Precinct only aired at 2:00 am on weekends and only sporadically at that. I think I ended up seeing two or three episodes in first run and feeling that -- much like Terrahawks (1983 – 1986) -- it wasn’t the greatest vehicle for Mr. Anderson’s talents.
The series was released on DVD in America in 2010, and you can read my full review of the series here. I enjoyed it much more the second time around, especially the retro-style model-based special effects. It’s not a perfect sci-fi series, but it has a lot of fun moments.
Although it was canceled after just one season, Space Precinct actually had its fair share of merchandise on the market. In my home office today, I still have several action figures from the series hanging on the wall, manufactured and distributed by Vivid Imaginations in England.
In all, twelve small action figures were released, including the human characters Brogan (played by Ted Shackleford on the program) and bickering officers Haldane and Castle.
The alien police officers included in the line were Captain Podly, Officer Took, Officer Orrin and Sergeant Fredo. The precinct’s robot Slomo was also among the toys released, and is one of the few figures I don’t have. Each police action figure comes with a blue identification card, and accouterments such as hand-guns or scanners.
The villains of the Space Precinct toy line were perhaps more colorful, including Snake and the grisly-looking Cyborg. Unlike the police action figures, these toys came with red ID cards and weapons including knives and rifles.
The two toys from the line that I really wanted but never managed to get my hands on were the police bike, which I don’t believe was actually featured on the program itself, and the nifty police cruiser. For me, the police cruiser vehicle was essentially the Eagle One of Space Precinct, a cool utilitarian design, and in some ways, the star of the show. It’s essentially a Blade Runner-esque flying patrol car with four engines. I still think it’s a pretty cool design, and I enjoy watching the series if for no other reason than to see it on patrol.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
|As Lana Lang on The Adventures of Superboy (1988 - 1992)|
|As Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Hitchcock on SeaQuest DSV (1993).|
|As Lillie Langty on Kindred: The Embraced (1996)|
|As the Guardian of the Urn on Charmed (1998).|
|As Rosalyn Stone on Brimstone (1998 - 1999)|
|On The X-Files: "All Things."|
|As Elisa Thayer on Heroes (2005).|
“It’s a Helluva Life” is one of Brimstone’s (1998 – 1999) finest episodes, a playful and often moving variation on the classic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Only here, Detective Stone (Peter Horton) is the one who gets a tour of his life... in this case by the Devil and a lookalike angel, both played by the delightful and acerbic John Glover.
In “It’s a Helluva Life,” Stone unexpectedly spots his wife, Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk) during his pursuit of a bank-robbing Hell escapee, and then debates with the Devil about the arc of his life.
The Devil suggests that Stone was always been a bad, irredeemable man, destined for eternity in Hell, and then reminds Stone (via flashbacks) of the time he framed a notorious criminal for drug possession. The Devil also shows Stone his continued neglect of Rosalyn, and reveals how Stone started down the dark path as a young boy. In one vision, Stone sees how his father's own bully-like ways were passed down to him.
But then an angel shows up and reminds Stone that the truth is not nearly so black-and-white as the Devil suggests, and that Stone’s final chapter on Earth is yet unwritten. The Angel takes Stone back to his first meeting with Rosalyn, decades earlier, and reminds him how their love began at the Policeman’s ball in 1980. Finally, the Angel suggests that Stone boasts “a divine purpose.”
Once more in Brimstone, the nature of good and evil is explored in a significant and nuanced way. In “It’s a Helluva Life,” the audience is once more asked to countenance shades of gray. Is it right to bring a known criminal to justice by manufacturing evidence against him if that is the only avenue to make the populace safe? Can we forgive a boy for his adult trespasses because he was mistreated by an abusive father? There aren't any clear-cut answers.
What this episode truly discusses is this: what is “evil” in human nature really about? Can it ever be mitigated or forgiven because of extenuating circumstances (like intent, and upbringing)?
Or, contrarily, is evil but a deed which once wrought, cannot be undone. Once you have committed evil, does that act of evil forever shade your future?
For instance, The Devil suggests to Stone that even the “thought” of evil counts, because it poisons the soul. Yet the Angel contradicts Satan, and suggests to Stone that “Universal law,” essentially is open to the idea of mitigating circumstances. I’ve written it before in these blog reviews, but the magic and genius of Brimstone is the way it explores moral relativism within the confines/context of a dramatic universe of absolutes. God and the Devil exist, and so good and evil must exist in their purest form. But how man chooses navigates the universe involves shades of gray.
I believe that “It’s a Helluva Life” is the finest episode in the Brimstone canon because it breaks established formula and doesn’t focus intently on the hunt for the Hell convict of the week.
Instead, Stone’s choices -- and Stone’s nature as a human being -- are at the core of the drama. We learn a lot about his history in this story, and Stacy Haiduk delivers a great performance as the tragic and winsome Rosalyn. She comes across as beautiful in spirit and form in this episode, and the scenes in which Stone delivers emotional hurt upon her are almost unbearably painful to watch, because we know where they are both heading.
Perhaps above everything else, “It’s a Helluva Life” reminds you to cherish those you love in the time you have on Earth, because that time could be unexpectedly cut short. In the fast hubbub of life, it’s all-too easy to let a hurt go unacknowledged. Here, Stone is burdened with regrets and paths not taken, and there's no easy way forward.
I admire that “It’s a Helluva Life” is emotionally moving without being schmaltzy. In large part, this is because Horton underplays Stone’s revelations, always keeping the character’s emotions close to the vest. But the schmaltz factor is also reduced because John Glover is so damned good as the Devil, forever puncturing any moment that threatens to become pretentious. Glover gets a great line here about Stone and “zooming” away on the Highway to Heaven. In that moment, the series truly lives up to its nickname: Touched by a Devil.
With only two episodes left to go in its abbreviated run, Brimstone hits a high-point with "It's a Helluva Life."
Next week on Brimstone: “Faces.”