Saturday, April 06, 2013

Monumental Destruction #5: Cloverfield (2008)

Cult-TV Gallery: Christina Hart

As Holly in Shazam: "The Lure of the Lost."

As Gwenith in The Fantastic Journey: "An Act of Love."

In The Incredible Hulk: "Vendetta Road."

In The Six Million Dollar Man: "Ghostly Teletype."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Herculoids: "The Beaked People"

This week’s segment of the Hanna Barbera  Saturday morning series The Herculoids (1967) is called “The Beaked People,” and it is a little jauntier than some of the previous installments.  There’s still no exposition, explanation or background, but the episode at least seems to have more fun with the basic premise than some stories so far.

In “The Beaked People,” alien parrots (!) led by the evil Krogar, invade the planet Azmot. Their first act of terror is to run off the planet’s peaceful flying monkeys, and “destroy all those who resist.”  Zandor steps up to fight Krogar but is captured, tied to a log, and sent hurtling down “The Dark River.”  His destination is a waterfall at the end of this “River of the Bottomless Pit.”

When Dorno is also captured too, Tara and Zok save the day.  Zok frees Zandor from his bindings as he goes over the waterfall, and Krogar ends up in his place.  We actually see him plummeting down the waterfall to his doom.

This is the first Herculoids episode in which we’ve seen other, apparently indigenous creatures of Azmot. 

The flying monkeys are a friendly lot, and look as though they came straight from The Wizard of Oz (1939).  

As for the regular creatures -- Igoo, Gleep and Gloop, Tundro and Zok -- at least a few of them are treated with humor for the first time.  Early in the episode, Dorno attempts to teach Igoo to crack nutshells with his fingers, but he ends up turning the shells -- and the nuts -- to dust.  Dorn also describes Tundro as having a very healthy appetite.

No it’s not much. But it’s an attempt at least to deepen the characters a little bit.  There seems to be a dawning awareness on the part of the writers that they are doing “camp” here.  Whether that is a good thing or not, I’ll leave to individual taste.  At least the hokey humor breaks up the monotony a bit.

In terms of the villains, Krogar and the “beaked people” are again given no motive, rational or otherwise, for their invasion of the planet of Azmot.  And again, Krogar professes a history with Zandor.  They have, apparently, tangled before. 

As an adult viewer of The Herculoids, it would be nice to know more about Zandor’s storied past, though as a kid, I suppose it’s the rock ‘em, sock ‘em action that matters. 

The Herculoids Promo

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Lure of the Lost" (September 28, 1974)

The Filmation live-action series Shazam (1974 – 1977) grows a bit more serious this week with an entry titled “The Lure of the Lost.”  While most series stories thus far have concerned juvenile or adolescent topics such as peer pressure (“The Joyriders”), being nice to your sibling (“The Brothers), or even caring for a pet (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”), this episode actually involves youngsters becoming involved with drug dealers and illegal drugs. 

As “The Lure of the Lost” commences, Mentor (Les Tremayne) and Billy Batson (Michael Gray) argue over what kind of music to listen to in their “far out” camper.  Mentor prefers Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but Billy likes “modern pop.”  Before radio privileges can be determined, a call from the Elders comes in.  Billy learns from the Gods about a “girl avoiding responsibility” that he will soon meet.

But in a variation from recent and established series formula, the Elders provide no famous quotation from a literary or historical source to guide Billy on his quest.  Instead, they simply note “the way is yours to choose.”  Perhaps it was too much trouble to find good quotations once the grind of the series was in full swing, or perhaps the producers were simply attempting to dial back the moralizing.  Also by allowing Billy to choose his own course, the writers make room for a little more heroism in the series.  He’s not quite so…programmed.

Anyway, Mentor and Billy soon meet Holly (Christina Hart), a flighty girl who has driven her VW bug into a ditch.  They help free the car, but when Holly leaves behind her purse, Billy finds illegal drugs in it. When confronted, Holly claims that they belong to her brother, who has fallen in with a villainous drug dealer.  Captain Marvel saves her brother, Gary, during a car chase, and instructs Holly to bring the drugs to the police.  But instead Holly flushes the drugs down the toilet to spare Gary any jail time, an act certain to have repercussions.

To be continued…

I must confess, I was a little surprised to see the generally benign and child-like Shazam! go into a story involving teens using and selling drugs.  Even more radically, one of the drug dealers is really destructive and immune to lessons about moral goodness.  He actually lies and claims that Billy is a drug pusher, which confuses Holly and makes it difficult to achieve her total trust. 

Although this is hardly Batman fighting Bane or Superman fighting a trio of villains from the Phantom Zone, “The Lure of the Lost” possesses a bit more danger and intrigue than some of the other episodes.  Usually, bad kids completely fold when faced with the upright moral values of Billy or Captain Marvel.  Here, Holly goes against his wishes and destroys the drugs.

Still, as an artifact from the didactic era of kids programming on Saturday mornings, this episode of Shazam feels a lot more like an After School Special than it does a superhero production.

This story-line concludes in next week’s tale “The Road Back.”

Friday, April 05, 2013

From the Archive: Ed Wood (1994)

"Greetings, my friends! You are interested in the unknown. The mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing you the full story of what happened. We are giving you all the evidence based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, places. My friends, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood Jr.?"

-- Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) narrates the opening of Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994)

It would have been abundantly easy to make the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) a mean-spirited film about the so-called "worst director of all time."  It would have been safe -- and it would have gone mostly unquestioned -- if director Tim Burton had created a film version of Wood's life that aped the mocking tone of books such as the Medveds' popular Golden Turkey Awards

But Burton does not select that easy, familiar route here. 

Instead of crafting a film about someone who -- by accepted and widely-held standards -- made incredibly "bad" movies, Burton creates a film about someone who was inspired by and actually in love with the movie-making process. 

In other words, Tim Burton's Ed Wood is not about those characteristics and talents that separated Ed Wood from Orson Welles.  It's about the qualities those legendary cinema talents have in common. 

And that simple conceit makes Ed Wood not merely a heartfelt, emotional story of artistic endurance, but, in some sense, an inspirational tale about overcoming obstacles (including the entrenched obstacles of Tinsel Town...) and the primacy of pursuing one's own vision. 

Naturally, this film is not strictly "true," since Ed Wood never really met Orson Welles, and since details of Bela Lugosi's career and life have been altered to some degree for dramatic purposes.  And yet Ed Wood feels emotionally true because Burton sees in Wood an indomitable figure -- an eternal optimist -- who despite the mocking of the masses and the disinterest of  Hollywood power did precisely what he desired...and is remembered and even loved for it.

Like so many Tim Burton films, Ed Wood concerns a protagonist who is far afield from what society-at-large terms "the norm."   However, Wood's response to his own apparent "strangeness" is not isolation, resentment or even bitterness.  Instead, as the film reveals beautifully, Ed Wood creates a "bubble" of acceptance for those "hunted" and "despised" individuals who don't conform, either socially or sexually to society's rules or standards.   Importantly, Ed's world of film making is one entirely without harsh judgement...or judgement of any kind for that matter

In fact, Burton views that very absence of judgement as the critical key to an understanding of the film's lead character. 

Off-the-set, Ed judges no one's individual strangeness, and on set, he does not judge at all when an actor knocks over a cardboard tombstone, bumbles his lines of dialogue, or otherwise missteps during a take.   It is not in Ed's nature to pass judgement on others, according to Burton, only to enthusiastically support the world he and his friends now share.  The director thus paints a picture of a man who was more interested in the act of film making than, necessarily, the results of that process.

Filmed in crisp black-and-white, Ed Wood is a fairy tale about one man's triumph over a world that systematically shuns him.  Accordingly, the film is visually represented as a collision between cruel, harsh Tinsel Town and the individual fantasy worlds of Wood's unique imagination.  Burton does not shy away from harshness or ugliness in expressing this conjunction of spheres.  The needle tracks on Bela Lugosi's arm speak of a terrible world and a terrible personal surrender. 

And the ubiquitous white "Hollywood" sign looms over the film in a powerful way too: a constant shadow and explicit reminder  of the crushing "weight" of silver screen dreams.  And yet, contrarily, in some very lovely two-shots, Burton expresses well how there can be friendship and companionship  "outside" the normal world, if only one is willing to forgo "judgement."

In showcasing a special friendship -- the friendship of Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood -- Burton creates in Ed Wood "a tender, midnight-madness parable about a determined moviemaker."  And yet it's more than that colorful description too.  In some manner, Burton's film is actually about how to cope with the reality of Hollywood.  You can't change a monolith.  No, you must change how you see (and treat) the industry, and through that trajectory navigate your own path to an individual version of success. 

In the final analysis, that's the lesson of Ed Wood.  Be your own man; have your own vision...and stick to your goals tenaciously.  Despite Eddie's hardships in the film, Ed Wood is uplifting because Burton suggests the character is nothing less than indomitable.

"Ed, this isn't the real world. You've surrounded yourself with a bunch of weirdos."

Ed Wood tells the story of a young artist on hopeful but rocky ascent.  Although Ed (Johnny Depp) has assembled an entourage of colorful actors, including girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) to support his work, he's bedeviled by bad reviews and a lack of interest by the public at large. 

When Wood's new play, Casual Company opens in L.A., it is met with disinterest and negativity, but Ed is able to see the silver lining around every cloud.  When a famous movie critic comments positively on the Army costumes that appear in the play, Ed trumpets his production's "realism."

Soon, Ed learns that Screen Classics is preparing a movie based on the sex change of Christine Jorgensen.  Because of his own fetish for angora and women's clothing, Ed pitches himself as director for the project.  At first he is rebuffed, but then, serendipitously, Ed meets Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), the former screen Dracula who has not worked in years.  Ed returns to Screen Classics and pitches Bela as a participant in the sex change picture, and history is made.  Before long, Ed shoots Glen or Glenda, an autobiographical film about men who "feel comfortable" in women's clothes.

After Glen or Glenda bombs, Ed dives into his next project, Bride of the Atom (soon to be titled Bride of the Monster).  He casts wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele) as the monstrous henchman Lobo, and Lugosi as a villainous mad scientist.  Loretta King (Juliet Landau) becomes his lead actress when she intimates (falsely...) that she has the money and inclination to support the production, a fact which alienates Dolores.  While they make Bride of the Atom, Bela and Ed deepen their friendship, and Ed learns that Bela is a morphine addict.  After the film is completed, Ed helps Bela check into rehab.

Following the disappointing reception of Bride of the Monster, Bela passes away, leaving a despondent Ed.  But with a small film reel consisting of footage of Bela that he shot before the actor passed away, Ed realizes he possesses "the acorn" of a great tree.  With funding secured from a fundamentalist Baptist church, Ed plans to resurrect Lugosi on screen one last time for his magnum opus: Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Committed to making a final film "for Bela," Wood pulls together his friends, including Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), the great Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), Vampira (Lisa Marie) and Tor Johnson.

Finally, countenancing interference from the baptists on the set, Ed stands to lose everything until a fateful chance encounter with Orson Welles...

"Eddie is the only fella in town who doesn't judge people."

In Ed Wood, screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszweski, the audience meets a number of outsiders and misfits who discover a sense of belonging in the movie-making world that Wood creates. 

Primary among these characters is the great (if prideful and foul-mouthed...) Bela Lugosi, who has been shunned by Hollywood because of his drug addiction.  Lugosi lives in a tiny house, in near-poverty, and hopes to somehow turn everything around; to return to greatness.  

"Eddie, I'm obsolete," he tells Wood.  "I have nothing to live for."   He also notes that no one in Hollywood "gives two fucks for Bela."  This is the tragedy of Lugosi.  He has gone from being a movie star to less than zero, and this is a story we see played out again and again in Hollywood, across the decades.

By participating in Wood's films, Lugosi once more feels good about himself; that he is doing again, the very thing he loves. The dark side of this equation, which Ed Wood hints at but doesn't delve into, is the specter of exploitation.  Was Wood merely "using" Lugosi to get his films made? 

That question has been raised many times, but in terms of the film itself, it's clear that Wood is on the side of the angels, and that he cares deeply for Bela and Bela's well-being.  In fact, it is widely reported that Burton's mentor/student relationship with the late Vincent Price helped him to identify and understand the Wood/Lugosi friendship.  Those of us who have been fortunate enough to interact with "famous" personalities in the industry understand very well the nature of the film's central friendship.  A relationship that begins as hero worship becomes one, very shortly, in which we start to detect the foibles and flaws of a real human being.  Someone who is an icon becomes exposed as a "real" human being, and as time goes on, we see that this is exactly as it should be.  Out of that realization of common humanity comes a new, deeper form of friendship, one eminently more meaningful and "real" than celebrity worship.   Ed Wood captures this type of relationship beautifully, and in sometimes haunting terms.

Importantly, the Bela/ Wood  relationship is tinged with tragedy in Ed Wood from their first fateful meeting.  When Wood initially encounters the faded star of Dracula, he sees him in a store for a coffin. 

Therefore, the audience first sees Lugosi in repose, with his arms folded over his chest...apparently already dead. 

This particular composition recurs in the film at least two times: once when Lugosi is in rehab, and once, finally, when he has passed away.  From his first appearance in the film, then, Lugosi is associated on screen with death, and that's very much the point.  Before he meets Eddie, Lugosi is indeed "dead" in terms of his screen career.  He claims he has not worked in four years and that he is obsolete.  Ed "resurrects" Lugosi for his films, just as -- finally -- Eddie resurrects Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space, bringing the actor once more to life for audiences after his death.

The friendship between Lugosi and Wood is very much at the heart of Ed Wood, and both roles are impeccably performed.  Landau earned an Academy Award for his heartfelt, often very funny performance as Lugosi, and rightfully so.  Again, in a notable example of art imitating life, Landau himself had gone through a kind of "career death" in the mid-1980s before a resurgence that saw him headlining in films such as Tucker: A Man and His Dream (1987) and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  Landau is at his expressive best here portraying a man who is not just addicted to morphine, but to movie-making the magic of the silver screen.  It's clear that only one thing makes Lugosi well: the opportunity to practice his art. 

When Lugosi delivers an impassioned speech for Wood's Bride of the Monster, the words are highly self-reflexive.   He says: "Home. I have no home. like an animal -- the jungle is my home! But I will show the world that I can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of people -- a race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!

In a weird, science-fictional way, this strange speech is very much about identity; about the homes we choose to make, rather than the "homes" from which we came, or which others attempt to assimilate us into.  Lugosi's character here is talking about not merely independence, but about re-shaping the world to his desires and needs.  And in a very real way, that's clearly what Ed has accomplished in his life.  In his film world, Wood has "perfected" his own "race of people," in his entourage, hasn't he?  "Hunted and despised" that entourage may be, but together, the group is doing what it wants to do, and in Eddie's mind, making art; telling "the stories" that he wants to tell.  On Eddie's own terms, he is a success.

Other than Lugosi, other individuals also thrive in Ed's "safe" and non-judgmental world.  Bunny Breckinridge, an openly homosexual man, is accepted without question.  In fact, he is so inspired by Ed's "coming out" in Glen or Glenda that he plans to undergo a long-anticipated sex change operation.  "It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," he says. "But it wasn't until I saw your movie that I realized I have to take action! Goodbye, penis!" 

As silly as that dialogue clearly plays, it does a good job of revealing Ed's positive influence on those around him.  His creation of a "bubble of safety" allows people like Lugosi and Breckinridge to find a safe harbor in an often-cruel town.   Notably, the woman he falls in love with, Kathy, passes the same test.  Ed informs her up front about his cross-dressing habits and she accepts them, no ifs, ands or buts.  Once Eddie knows that Kathy is accepting, little else matters.

Watching Ed Wood, we come to understand and realize the magic of this specific Burton "outsider."

 "How do you do it?"  Bunny asks Wood.   "How do you get all your friends to get baptized, just so you can make a monster movie?" 

In large part, Burton's film is about answering that very important question,  What the director finds is that Ed boasts two qualities that draw people to his cause: passion and optimism. 

In the first case, Eddie believes wholeheartedly in the films he creates, whatever their (obvious) short-comings.  And on the other front, Ed is indomitable in spirit.  The only way to survive in Hollywood (or as a writer, even) is to believe in yourself, and keep trying, no matter what.  Because you will face failures, you will face criticism, and you will deal with acerbic, cruel gatekeepers who want to keep you out of their privileged domains. 

But Eddie never lets those assholes get him down, at least for very long, and the script often references this fact.  When Eddie is told by a studio head that he made "the worst movie ever," his immediate response is "my next one will be better."  

When at the end of the film, Eddie suggests driving to Las Vegas, his girlfriend Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminds him that it is raining, and that it is a five hour ride to Vegas.  Wood's response is, again, characteristic of his optimism: "It's only a five hour drive and it'll probably stop by the time we get to the desert. Heck, it'll probably stop by the time we get around the corner. Let's go."

Those upbeat words embody Ed Wood as a person and also, not to a small degree, the nature of film making. 

If you're going to let yourself be stopped by a little things like the rain, you'll never make it as a director. 

Orson Welles knew it...and Ed Wood knew it too. They didn't stop making films when confronted with rain, weird casting decisions (Charlton Heston as a Mexican?) or funding problems.  No, they soldiered on, and their films became famous and beloved.

Again, considerations of quality don't necessarily enter the picture here.  There are as many people out there, no doubt, who love Plan 9 as there are those who love Citizen Kane.  And, as I wrote above, Ed Wood is much more about the qualities those films and their directors share, not the ones that separate them.

If Ed Wood has any sense of cruelty in it, it likely involves the unsympathetic treatment of the Dolores Fuller character.  In the script, she is the voice of the outside world; of harsh reality.  She calls Ed and his friends "weirdos."  She passes judgement on the movies (calling them "terrible") and she has trouble accepting Eddie for who he is (a cross-dresser). 

This unsympathetic description may not match reality, but it works for the film, because it's absolutely critical that there is an "outside" voice for society encoded in the narrative.  We need to see how Ed is seen by the world at large, and the movie depiction of Fuller is the one who provides that perspective.  There must be a doubter in Eddie's world, and Dolores drew the short straw, I guess, in the script-writing phase.

Ed Wood gives the director of Plan 9 From Outer Space the happy ending his real life plainly did not have.  In real life, Ed Wood died relatively poor while writing pulpy novels and making soft-core nudie/monster flicks.  In Burton's romanticized version of Wood's life, however, Wood finds the adoration of the masses at a well-attended movie premiere, and heads off for brave new horizons with his true love, Kathy. 

"This is the one they'll remember me for," Wood declares triumphantly, of Plan 9 From Outer Space

Of course, Wood was right in this assertion, but not in the way he may have wished to be right. We do remember him for that film today.  But it's because the film is so bad.

And yet, even so ironic a line is not played cheaply by Depp or by Burton.  Instead, there's a breathtaking innocence and vulnerability in Depp's line reading.  Wood is happy with what he has accomplished, and uttering a comment that is, to him, accurate.  Burton's film ends with a pounding rain storm outside the premiere-- a sign that Wood's journey is not to remain a smooth one -- but as we leave the film, he is happy and resolute.  He has honored his friend and told his story the way he wanted. He has succeeded.  I absolutely love that this film boasts the audacity to turn the world renowned "worst movie of all time" into, essentially, a high-point for Wood rather than his Waterloo, and that's such an inventive, ingenious way of countenancing this biography.  Where others see failure and derision, Burton shows us success...a valediction.

Burton's films are often extremely colorful and extremely lush, and Ed Wood stands in stark contrast to that normal approach.  The director often holds up misfits and outcasts as heroes or role models too, but in Ed Wood, there's a special alchemy to consider on that front.   The milieu of movie making adds a kind of extra layer of meaning to the tale.

Artists can control their art to some degree, but they can't control the response to it.  Hence the insecurity of so many filmmakers, writers and actors.  What if we bomb?  What if we step up to bat...and strike out?   Ed Wood is very much about that notion; with Tim Burton himself exploring the idea of being an Ed Wood, a talent "hunted" and "despised" for sticking to his own, admittedly-bizarre perspective of the world. 

And for that reason, "this is the one" I'll always remember Tim Burton for.  I admire many of his films (namely Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish), but Ed Wood is the one that really gets to me on a deep, emotional level.  It reminds me that failure may be inescapable, even inevitable, but that our response to failure is the thing that separates the real artist from the wannabe or poseur. 

Make the worst movie ever made?  The next one will be better...

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Tribute: Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)

Today marks the sad end of an era. 

America’s most prominent and well-known film critic, Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013), has passed away at the age of seventy.  He will be missed, and the summer of 2013 just won’t be the same without his movie reviews.  In this time of sadness, I can't help feeling selfish.  There are so many Roger Ebert reviews now that we'll never get to read, debate, and appreciate.

I grew up watching Roger Ebert on Sneak Previews (PBS) and then on the syndicated At the Movies and finally on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies.  When I went to university in the late eighties, I took several of his Year Film Review books with me...and devoured them.  His movie reviews were addictive, and informative.  I especially liked how Mr. Ebert approached each movie he reviewed with humor, with passion, with fairness, and with abundant love.

But as a horror movie fan, there was even more to admire in Mr. Ebert’s reviews than my description above suggests.  

For instance, I always appreciated the fact that Roger Ebert didn’t categorically look down his nose at the genre as a whole.   He gave positive notices to John Carpenter’s Halloween, as well as Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).  

Despite the famous Night of the Living Dead (1968) kerfuffle, Mr. Ebert was actually a long-time friend to the horror film, and always approached each new scary movie with an open mind.  Sometimes -- in the final analysis -- he got it wrong, but that’s an occupational hazard for all film critics, this one included.

No one gets ‘em all right.

The important thing is that Ebert’s reviews universally made logical sense.  

In some fashion, a good critic is one whose arguments you can identify with and follow, if not necessarily agree with, and that’s the kind of critic Mr. Ebert was.  You could always understand his thinking, and his writing was clean and crisp.  His reviews communicated his love of film, and negative reviews were more often about his disappointment than about cruelty or snark.  That’s a (worthy) model I have always tried to emulate.

Roger Ebert had a long and distinguished writing career. He wrote reviews in The Chicago-Sun Times beginning in the late 1960s, penned fifteen books, and was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975.  He has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has been termed (by Forbes) America’s most powerful pundit.

I have been reading Roger Ebert’s reviews for the better part of twenty-five years, and will miss his humor, decency, and enthusiasm for the art of film.  I have read, probably a dozen times each, every Star Trek movie review Mr. Ebert ever wrote, and it pains me to know he won’t get a crack at reviewing Into Darkness this summer. 

Roger Ebert’s positive review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 was a powerful one for this young reader.  In fact, it was one of the most powerful reviews I ever read because it went against the grain.  Mr. Ebert showed me in that review that as a well-known and widely-read critic (or as any kind of critic, for that matter…) you don’t have to go with the flow, you don’t have to think how other critics think, and that if you just clearly enumerate your reasons for appreciation, others will raise their hands in agreement.

I imagine that today the great Roger Ebert rejoins Gene Siskel in Heaven’s auditorium.  Those two beloved  film critics are sitting in that balcony together and discussing -- and perhaps arguing about -- the magic of the movies.

Rest in Peace, Roger Ebert.  Thank you for the years -- and decades -- of great reading and great television. 

The X-Files Promo: "The Host"

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Evel Knievel Toy Commercials

Road Trip: The Huntsville Space and Rocket Center

So, Joel, Kathryn and I recently returned from a camping trip to the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center in Alabama.  We spent a lot of time together at the museum, and Joel loved it, so I thought I'd share a few photographs of the excursion.

If you live in the South East, I highly recommend you visit the Space and Rocket Center at least once with your kids.  It's a great experience.

I was last there in 1982 -- over three decades ago -- as part of a cross-country trip with my own parents.  It's weird to think about it.  I was at the Space Center when I was twelve, and I returned at age forty-three with my six-year old.  It's kind of surreal.  My parents were with us on this trip as well, so it was a weird experience, not only seeing the state of space technology then vs. now, but the passing of the Muir generations as well.

The exhibits at the Space and Rocket Center were really terrific.  We saw one dedicated to the career of Wernher Von Braun, and another about the scientific nature of black holes.  We also saw a great IMAX movie called "Space Junk," about orbital debris.   Joel's favorite exhibit, however, was a simulator of a landing on Mars.  He loved it so much we had to ride it twice...and I nearly puked.  I also really loved watching my wife Kathryn climb a rock wall meant to simulate a Martian mountain.

Pop Art: 2001 A Space Odyssey/Arthur C. Clarke Edition

Collectible of the Week: Space:1999 Flying Eagle (VertiBird/Mattel; 1976)

The year 1976 brought a number of great toys related to the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson outer space series, Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977).  One of the rarest and most valuable of such toys is the Space:1999 Flying Eagle or "VertiBird."'

Like many VertiBird toys (and there were also editions for Battlestar Galactica [1978], and -- apparently -- Megaforce [1982]), the Flying Eagle toy consists of a central column and a small control panel that controls speed and altitude.  Hanging from the top of the central column is a long arm which holds up a craft, in this case an Eagle (with a propeller on the dorsal spine).  By adjusting the controls, you could fly your Eagle Transporter in a circle, take-off, and land.

On the box, the legend reads: "Space Age flying fun indoors and out."  And the advertisements promised a "compact operational version of TV's Space:1999 vehicle...You pilot tight maneuvers, sky-lift a moon buggy," etc.

The Space:1999 Flying Eagle came with a light mast, capsule, moon buggy, plus labels.  I had the toy and I can also attest that it came with a Kaldorian space ship from the episode "Earthbound" (guest-starring Christopher Lee).  The Light mast is a show-accurate representation of a lighting tower seen inside Moonbase Alpha's Eagle hanger.  You can see the photos of my Flying Eagle accouterments below.

Alas, these are that I still have left of the toy.  

The central column and Eagle itself are long gone.  As a child of about ten, I think, I attempted to do surgery on the Eagle Transporter by removing it from the arm, and breaking off the propeller.  I wanted it to look more accurate, I guess, as a spaceship.  As you might guess, the operation was not a success.  Today, the Flying Eagle buggy and Kaldorian ship dock at my Cardboard Amsco Moonbase Alpha Play Set.

Similarly, I also distinctly remember getting for one Christmas a Star Trek-styled VertiBird knock-off.  In this case, it was called "CSF" or Controlled Space Flight (from Remco).  There, you could control the flight of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the unsightly propeller was lodged in the underside of the saucer section.

Model Kit of the Week #22: Buck Rogers Starfighter

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Storage 24 (2012)

(Note: spoilers are discussed in the following review.  So proceed with caution and/or discretion.)

The low-budget British horror film Storage 24 (2012) reminded me of many of the “bad” alien monster movies from my misspent youth in the 1980s; movies that I absolutely adored, despite their abundant failings.  I’m talking about movies such as Galaxy of Terror (1981), Inseminoid (1981) or Creature (1985), to provide a few examples.

I’ll happily cop to the fact that those movies aren’t exactly good, but they all certainly…entertain.  And to some extent -- and under the right viewing circumstances -- those films even succeed as unsettling horror shows.  There’s a queasy sense in all those movies, for example, that the low-budget filmmakers are going to tread into disturbing, disreputable taboo territory about the human body or the human reproductive system, in the spirit of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), perhaps.

I’d make roughly the same assessment of Storage 24.

It cheerfully crosses the line separating good taste from bad on several occasions, and rises to moments of occasionally camp humor.  To its credit, Storage 24 also boasts something that the above-mentioned 1980s films don’t: an overriding theme about human nature

In short, this film is about human beings who are narcissistic and self-obsessed.  They are battling a monster “within,” when the big problem -- the monster outside -- goes unnoticed. 

And yes, this may be a metaphor for the global society at large, today.

For all its stupid, badly-delivered dialogue or failure to really spike the adrenaline, Storage 24 also boasts an undeniably great ending.  The film’s ingenious final twist not only punctuates the theme about inner/outer problems I enumerated above, it evokes something of an (exhausted) laugh. 

As a result, you may leave a viewing of Storage 24 focusing not on the considerable amounts of dreck it displays, but rather on the amused “it figures!”-styled humor of the inspiring denouement.

“You don’t excite me. You don’t make me happy.”

In Storage 24, a plane crashes in urban London, near a large storage facility.  The crash snarls traffic, impacts electronic devices, and releases a deadly alien predator from a steel cargo container or prison.
Meanwhile, a very unhappy fellow, Charlie (Noel Clarke) is on his way to that very storage facility to separate his belongings from his former girlfriend’s.  Charlie is bitter and upset because he still doesn’t understand why Shelley (Antonia-Campbell Hughes) has chosen to end their many-year relationship.    

At the facility, Charlie -- over his friend Mark’s (Colin O’Donoghue) objections -- confronts Shelley and causes a scene.

Before long, however, Charlie, Mark, Shelley, and Shelley’s friends Chris (Jamie Thomas King) and Nikki (Laura Haddock) realize that they are trapped inside the storage unit with some kind of murdering beast.  A crazy and paranoid resident of the facility provides the group sanctuary as they seek weapons with which to fight back against the monster.  They find a tire-iron, a steak knife, fireworks, a toy gun…and a vibrator.

One-by-one, Charlie and his friends are picked off, even as Charlie obsesses over a surprise personal betrayal.

The monster is finally defeated, but when Charlie and the other survivors emerge from the storage unit, they find that the war against the aliens has only just begun…

I just want to get everything sorted out.”

It’s interesting, but some reviewers of Storage 24 have tagged the exploitation film as misogynist in nature.  This feminist reading of the film suggests that Storage 24 compares the perils of a cheating girl friend to the perils of an evil alien from outer space. 

Such critics note, for instance, that the alien has an inner-mouth that looks a bit like a heavily-fanged vagina, that the alien literally rips out the hearts of men, and that, finally, at least two characters in the film -- Charlie and the paranoid storage unit resident -- complain bitterly about their relationships with females.   That paranoid storage unit resident even compares the alien -- to its face -- to his much-hated wife.

As I said, it’s an interesting and in-depth take, but I don’t personally feel the feminist reading takes everything about Storage 24 into account.  For one thing, the only character the movie treats as truly despicable and beyond redemption…is a man, Mark.  The highest contempt is reserved for him, not for Shelley, because he betrayed Charlie, his buddy.  Plus, Charlie is clearly a self-righteous prick.

And secondly, the man living in the storage unit is depicted as a raving, conspiracy-fueled nut-case, so it is never really clear that his (unseen) wife is supposed to be a castrating bitch.  On the contrary, based solely on the characteristics of the husband, no one sane would argue she should have stayed with him.  She would have been nuts to do so.

Rather than being anti-woman, then, Storage 24 appears to concern the way that we all focus on these minute personal hurts at the expense of the big picture.  Charlie just can’t let his relationship with Shelley go, and it causes him to act in ways that are detrimental to his continued survival. He throws his cell phone into the river out of anger, for instance.  It might have come in handy during his quest for survival. 

Also, Mark, Shelley and Charlie are so engaged in figuring out the dynamics of their love triangle that they can’t, for a long spell, focus on the more pressing matter: the fact that people are dying all around.  Matters of distrust, betrayal, and anger supersede matters of group survival on at least two occasions, both involving Mark.  He has two opportunities in which he could save either Charlie or Shelley -- in the vent shaft and in the lobby, respectively -- and doesn’t act, either time.  He can’t put his ego aside long enough to do what is right for everyone.

He is narcissistically focused on what he wants and desires, and that “inner” focus is short-sighted, as he soon realizes.

This kind of “blindness” to the big picture is adroitly and artistically transmitted in the dynamic visuals of the film’s climax.  Charlie and Shelley survive their battle with the monster, and are still tending to personal business as they head into the parking lot.  Shelley asks if Charlie ripped the windshield wiper off her car.  He did, he says.

Meanwhile, overhead, the invasion rages.  London is in flames. The human race is imperiled.

Shelly and Charlie have been focused entirely on the “inside,” and by that I mean what is going on with them emotionally, so that they have not even given a thought to the outside world. 

I submit it is a pretty clever conceit that Storage 24 spends all its time obsessing on interior frissons, represented by the labyrinthine storage unit, only to be confronted, finally, in the coda, with an exterior crisis of global proportions and implications.

The film isn’t necessarily misogynistic then, primarily because the women aren’t treated with any greater contempt than are the men.  Both sexes are guilty of putting their emotional states ahead of general, community well-being.  The alien may have a vagina for an inner mouth, but it also has sharp phallic-like teeth as an outer-one. 

So pick your poison.  The film either hates women, I suppose, or warns against the human tendency to make petty concerns grand in nature, to the detriment of the environment and the larger population.

Beyond these qualities, Storage 24 possesses some genuinely inventive moments.  For instance, Charlie is almost killed while searching for weaponry, but the alien recoils when a mechanical toy dog starts yipping at him.

The simple moment in which the alien recoils -- uncertain what to make of a toy --  suggests a lot about the alien culture, and actually feels like a legitimate response to something we might not see as weird, but someone from another planet certainly would.  That the climax picks up on and manipulates this alien “fear” of the little toy dog is an added bonus, and a wickedly humorous touch.

I was going to write next -- and at length -- about how bad the alien costume is in Storage 24, and yet it clearly and fundamentally expresses the alien’s emotional states in the key scenes, so maybe it is better than I’m giving it credit for.

Finally, what you get in Storage 24 is a low-budget movie with some middling special effects, some bad dialogue and acting, but a whole lot of pluck, and a rousing, inventive ending… plus the benefit a consistent thematic framework, applied visually in the final, inspiring ending.  That’s probably worth a rental, if you keep your expectations in check, right?

I don’t see Storage 24 as existing on an the same artistic level of other low-budget horrors such as Attack the Block (2011) or Citadel (2012), but the movie does possess a quirky sense of humor that, in the end, might actually render it a more memorable effort than either of those great horror films.  

In other words, you may not love or even like Storage 24, but the further away you get from it, and the more you think about it, the more amused you may be by your memories of the thing.