Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Tribute: Bob Hoskins (1942 - 2014)

The press is now reporting the passing of actor Bob Hoskins at the age of 71 years old. The great and beloved actor apparently passed away due to complications from pneumonia.

Mr. Hoskins had a long and distinguished film and TV career in both the United States and Great Britain. 

He starred in such classics as The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1987), and also in notable movies such as Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), Lassiter (1984), and The Cotton Club (1984). He played J. Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995), as well.

In the genre, Mr. Hoskins delivered many unforgettable performances. He starred in Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), Steven Spielberg's Hook (1991) and Super Marios Bros. (1993). His most recent genre appearance was in 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman.

For my generation, however, Mr. Hoskins is widely remembered -- and adored -- for the role of gumshoe Eddie Valiant in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a fantasy film that blended 1940s film noir with animated "Toons" or cartoon characters.  

The breadth of the titles above reveals quite ably Mr. Hoskins' versatility as an actor.  He could play hero or villain, supporting character or lead protagonist with equal aplomb. He was especially good, in my opinion, playing the man with a tough or gruff exterior, but a warm heart. One always sensed in his performances an interior life and light, sometimes one distinctly at odds with his pugnacious physicality and exterior mannerisms.

Mr. Hoskin's performances will be admired and remembered for years to come, and today I offer my sincerest condolences to his family and loved ones in this difficult hour. 

The Dark Crystal Read-along-Adventure

The Dark Crystal Magical Card Game (Milton Bradley; 1982)

The Dark Crystal Miniature Collection (Pinnacle Products; 1982)

The Dark Crystal View Master

Pop Art: The Dark Crystal (Marvel; 1982)

Trading Card of the Week: The Dark Crystal (Donruss; 1982)

Lunch Box of the Week: The Dark Crystal (Aladdin; 1982)

Board Game of the Week: The Dark Crystal (Milton Bradley; 1982)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Space:1999 Compilation Movie Editions

The Visitors are Coming: V: The Series: "The Sanction" (November 16, 1984)

In “The Sanction,” a deadly Visitor assassin and instructor in a fighting philosophy called “Ravak” is brought to Earth by Diana (Jane Badler) to train the Visitor Youth, including Sean Donovan (Nick Katt).  

The evil Klaus (Thomas Callaway) becomes a surrogate father-figure for the brainwashed human, even Mike (Marc Singer) grows ever more determined to free his son from Diana’s grip.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke) and Robin (Blair Tefkin) are finally reunited through a mutual friend, Kyle Bates (Jeff Yagher).

If I had to pick an early point indicative of real slippage in the quality of V: The Series (1984 – 1985), I would likely point to “The Sanction.”  

The episode sets up the evil Klaus -- dressed in black and equipped with removable hands and whip attachments – as a real alien bad ass, only to have Mike Donovan easily defeat him twice. 

Then, adding insult to injury, Mike’s teenage son manages, in one move, to incapacitate Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside). 

Accordingly, there’s just not a lot of “reality” to the fights in this episode, and as a consequence Klaus never emerges as a genuine or very menacing threat.

I also really dislike the fact that Tyler is caught off-guard and knocked unconscious by Sean.  I find it highly unlikely that Tyler would be unprepared for Sean’s behavior.  He’s a professional soldier who thinks out the consequences of every action, and certainly he would have played out the permutations in his mind.  He would have been ready for a brainwashed Sean.  Just look back at the second mini-series, and how wary he was of Julie after her conversion.

If you think about it, it’s a bit of a crazy dynamic. Mike -- a photographer -- outfights a professional Visitor soldier in hand-to-hand combat.  And then his son, a mere teenager in training, incapacitates a professional human soldier, Ham.  In both cases the untrained, non-professional comes out victorious.

When a series’ writing reaches this level of hard-to-believe antics, it’s generally a danger sign.  The same story could have been told, for certain, but in a way that didn’t require so much suspension of disbelief.  Perhaps Ham could have revealed that he allowed himself to be knocked unconscious, so he could then surreptitiously follow Sean’s movements.

Kyle Bates’ behavior also doesn’t bear close scrutiny.  In one scene, he realizes -- out of the blue -- that Elizabeth is the Star Child. Kyle shows surprise at her appearance because she is only “eight” years old, in his words.  But then, by the end of the scene, he is passionately kissing her.

But, yuck, she’s still essentially an eight-year old girl, right?

It’s poor writing to have Kyle acknowledge her extreme youth -- and child-like nature -- in the same exact scene that he makes a sexual move on her. Again, a quick, easy re-write would have solved the problem. There is no reason to call viewer attention to the fact, in this particular scene, that Elizabeth is only eight years old. That line should have been deleted.

“The Sanction” also opens with a scene cribbed from my favorite Bond film, From Russia with Love (1963).  In the pre-title sequence of that 007 movie, a deadly assassin, Red Grant, hunts Bond in a garden, and kills him.  But then the corpse’s face is ripped off, and we see that it isn’t Bond at all, but a man in a mask. We breathe a sigh of relief…

“The Sanction” opens with a recreation of that very sequence, with Klaus hunting and killing Diana, only to reveal that the victim isn’t Diana at all, but another Visitor.  Yet the derivative nature of the sequence isn’t the problem so much as Diana’s behavior. 

She appears scared and diffident, thus tipping off audiences that things aren’t what they seem.  Diana -- even when under the gun -- doesn’t evidence such overt fear or terror. We saw her in real jeopardy in “Liberation Day,” for instance, and Diana’s veneer of total authority almost never cracked at all.  She had a moment of uncertainty in reckoning with Bates, but quickly recovered her composure.

Unfortunately, the moments of a “scared” Diana moving down a dark hallway, stalked, have been exported from this episode into the series’ weekly opening credits…as if the victim here really is Diana.  Yet her behavior is totally out-of-character and tonally wrong…and this is our introduction to Diana every week as a new episode commences.

Sean is also a problematic character simply in terms of audience expectations.  We know that Mike can’t win and retrieve Sean, because then he would be saddled constantly with a teenage son, and that is simply something that would never happen in an action series of the 1980s.  So, there’s a certain level of predictability about Sean’s behavior and decisions.  That fact established, the moment in which he sides with Diana is quite powerful. We know the poor boy must be really turned-around to choose the evil Diana – who points a weapon at him – over his own loving father.

Finally, “The Sanction” also features one of my all-time favorite Diana lines.  She tells Julie to convey a message to Mike for her: “When I go fishing, I eat what I catch.”


That’s either a threat or a promise, depending on Diana’s mood.

Next week, Sybil Danning guest stars in a slightly better episode: “Visitor’s Choice”

Cult-Movie Review: Monsters (2010)

While watching Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010) I was reminded in visual and narrative terms, of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s haunting Babel (2006), and also -- more than a little -- of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995).
Those two (rather different) antecedents should inform you right off the bat that Monsters is not your run-of-the-mill genre film, or giant monster effort. 
The focus here is not on massive, city-scaled destruction or human vs. creature conflicts, but rather on two individuals getting to know each other on their long journey home to America through an “infected zone” of alien creatures.
Indeed, the big question one must ask of this superb, carefully-crafted work of art is the following: Are there actual monsters in the film at all?
Or, contrarily is Monsters really about confused and lonely beings seeking that rarest of treasures: genuine emotional connection.
Accordingly, we can wonder if the the monsters of the film’s title are actually our emotions and foibles, our traditions and societal rules, the very things, perhaps, which often shut-down, subvert, or prevent such meaningful connection from taking root.
Edwards crafted Monsters on a super-low budget, and yet the film’s special effects are extraordinary, and the location footage is incredibly, staggeringly beautifully.  Populated by characters you come to care about -- and who can’t stop talking -- Monsters is, among other things, a great love story.  The two main characters speak and emote as if real people, and there is nothing artificial or theatrical about the actors performances
But perhaps even that description of Monsters as a love story may be too simplistic, given the film’s virtues. 
Bolstered by its low-key soundtrack and cinema verite-style cinematography (hence the Babel comparison…) Monsters feels like an extraordinary – and hyper-real -- document about what it means to be a human being living outside America in the 21st century. 
The film touches on social issues as diverse as illegal immigration, war refugees, and, finally, even, reflexive -- and unwarranted? -- nationalism. 
Is home the place you live? Or is it the person you share your life with? 
Monsters suggests that the latter is true.
For both men and monsters.

“The vibe has changed”
Six years ago, a NASA space probe crashed in Mexico, and strange alien life-forms arrived on the landscape, and began to populate their new home. World authorities set up a quarantine zone between Mexico and the United States, and now the U.S. military rigorously patrols it with military war planes.
A photo-journalist, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) visits Mexico in hopes of scoring a photograph that will net him 50,000 dollars: the image of a dead child.  But his boss at a national periodical asks him for a favor.  He asks Andrew to escort his estranged daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able) back to the United States. Andrew is displeased by the interruption of his work, but agrees to take care of Samantha, whose wrist has been injured.
Together, Andrew and Sam board a train for the United States, but it is forced to stop mid-journey, and they must hitchhike to a border town.  When they arrive, Andrew buys Samantha a ticket for the ferry home, which costs five thousand dollars.
But after a night of drinking and carousing, Andrew loses Samantha’s passport to his one-night stand, who steals it and disappears without a trace.  Another ferry won’t arrive for months, and now Sam must hand-over her engagement ring so the local hustler/real-estate agent will make new travel arrangements.
Samantha and Andrew travel by boat and by car to the U.S. border but encounter rampaging creatures before they reach it.  They survive an attack on their convoy, and -- growing ever closer to one another -- return to America, to a Galveston, Texas that has been evacuated. 
There, at a gas station, Andrew and Samantha learn that the monsters, though incredibly dangerous, aren’t quite the inhuman terrors that they have been made out to be by the American press and TV reports.  In fact, in their emotional states and needs, they seem…almost human.

“It’s different looking at America from the outside, isn’t it?”
In a very dramatic but wholly non-judgmental way Monsters (2010) implies that there is, perhaps, happy human life outside Western values and traditions of the 21st century. 
Inside America, for example, Andrew is not allowed to acknowledge that he is father to his own son because of the wishes of the boy’s mother.
Inside America, Samantha is to be wed to a man she clearly does not love.
Yet outside it, she can be herself, and express her desires for her own life without expectations or fears of repercussions. 
Employed for American business interests, a man can make 50,000 dollars a shot by photographing a dead child for the news.
But outside America that payday is revealed for what it is: an inhuman atrocity. Andrew realizes that the reality of that photo is several degrees worse than the simple verbal promise of wealth.

Inside America, the TV news constantly showcases footage of military airplanes bombing aliens, fighting a never-ending war against them. 
Inside the infected zone, Andrew and Samantha learn that truth from the locals -- and with their own eyes -- that the aliens tend to attack only when riled by the planes, but otherwise mostly stay to themselves.
My observation here is that Monsters is not in any way, shape or form anti-American -- especially since it depicts swindlers and exploiters in the third world too -- only that, with quiet humility and a sharp intellect, it questions, deeply and thoroughly, the way we live now.
As Andrew, one of the film’s heroes, notes, America looks quite different from the outside than it does from the inside.  From the outside, we can see qualities that are, perhaps, invisible when we are immersed in it.
And specifically, Samantha tells Andrew “You need something bad to happen to profit from it.”
This point seems quite accurate indeed of American mass media, at least at times. How many dollars --how may ratings points -- has CNN earned from around-the-clock, week-after-week coverage of the disappearance of flight MH-370?
Andrew’s retort to Samantha’s accusation is that he doesn’t cause the bad things to happen, he just “documents” them, and that everyone “has to make a living.”
This begs the question: Why does everyone have to make a living?
And if making a living entails dancing on the graves of the dead, is it still a worthwhile human enterprise?
Monsters’ metaphor about illegal immigration and war refugees blossoms to full flower during the journey through the Infected Zone, as Andrew and Samantha must depend on the kindness of strangers for shelter, surrender their economic wealth, and risk life and limb simply to get into Fortress America -- a country surrounded by a gigantic wall. 
After making the journey, however, Samantha admits that she doesn’t want to “go back home,” to the life that Andrew described, of as “just making a living.”
For there, in the States, she is expected to marry someone she feels nothing for.  It is only here, in the wild, and with Andrew at her side, that she has felt a human connection.
The implication, perhaps, is that by cutting itself off from the rest of the world -- by hunkering down behind that great wall -- America has willfully separated itself, actually, from the ebb and flow of authentic humanity. 
At one point, Andrew and Samantha climb the ruins of an ancient (Mayan?) temple, which stands in ruins, and gaze out at America’s border wall…which stretches as far as the eye can see.  There seems an implicit comparison in this image between these giant structures: ruins of the past and ruins of the future, perhaps.
The bulk of Monsters is spent with Samantha and Andrew navigating the aforementioned Infected Zone, and the music and photography, again, reminded me of Babel’s stylistics. There’s the atmosphere here of being outside of America’s safety, but also, frankly, the possibility that a wondrous, unexpected event could occur as well; one outside the crushing norms of routine that we have accepted as our daily life.
Monsters does two things to make this world seem appealing, after a fashion.  It observes the beauty of the natural landscape, and it showcases the modesty and kindness of the people who help the travelers after they must disembark from the train.  The implicit question here is: are these the people some of us are so afraid of having come to America to join us as brothers?  Mothers and fathers who open their houses to strangers in the thick of night because it is the decent -- if dangerous -- thing to do?
Again, I don’t want to romanticize the movie’s stance.  The Infected Zone is, for all intents and purposes, a war zone, and in every war zone there are profiteers.  Andrew is at risk of becoming one, himself. And the travel agent who charges 5,000 dollars for a seat on the ferry is another such profiteer. 
Human nature is such that there will always be opportunists in the world’s most dangerous places, and that those who seek to better themselves and their situation will have to contend with them, and risk everything to get “home.”
If these observations about Monsters’ social critique discomfort you, that’s okay, because the movie operates on another level entirely. 
A great deal of the film involves Andrew and Samantha, and their relationship.  They spend much of the film simply talking and learning about each other.  They each learn about the other’s pain (Andrew’s fatherhood; Sam’s impending marriage), and slowly but surely…they connect.  
This unexpected connection in a world of chaos and violence is then, mirrored, by the surprising and strangely touching scene in which two giant alien monsters find each other, and do likewise. 
The need to love and be loved, it seems, is a universal constant.
Monsters is book-ended by one unhappy sequence, of a dreadful monster attack, and it suggests something very true about our human existence. 
We must embrace meaningful human connections where and when we find them because the next minute could take them away. 
Acknowledgment of this unpleasant truth casts a different shade on the central relationship of the film, and diminishes any sense that the journey of Samantha and Andrew has been candy-coated or was designed as polemic.
In short, Monsters depicts a violent, unstable world that is punctuated by moments of extreme violence, but is held together, finally, by our capacity not to destroy one another, but to love one another.
“You can’t fight nature,” one character in the film notes and that observation is a long-standing axiom of the giant monster genre, from King Kong (1933) to Godzilla (1954) and beyond.  
Yet Monsters also points out how often humans blindly accept one part of their nature (the Machiavellian, opportunistic, materialistic side) while pretending not to detect the other side: how deeply they need to be meaningfully, deeply connected to others.
There are no major set-pieces in Monsters, and no show-stopping action sequences, either.  Instead, the film centers on two very likable, very human characters trying to figure out how to get home, and if home is where they actually want to be.
Gareth Edwards’ quiet, grounded, immensely realistic (and touching…) approach to the film suggests that Godzilla is in good hands, indeed.
We’ll know more on May 16th, but here Edwards reveals that, as an artist, he knows precisely how to make a monster movie with heart, and indeed, about heart.

Movie Trailer: Monsters (2010)

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ask JKM a Question: Monsters (2010)?


Regular reader Jess writes:

"My husband and I absolutely love your reviews!  We often watch a movie and then immediately read your review.  It really inspires our discussion!  A lot of times, you are able to verbalize what we are thinking, but can't articulate.

We recently watched Gareth Edwards' 2010 film Monsters. We were both very impressed with the movie (we had very low expectations).  We were surprised to see that you haven't reviewed this film, and are interested to see what you think! You should definitely consider this movie for one of your upcoming reviews.  We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!!"

Jess, I want to thank you so much for your kind words about my writing and my review.  They mean a lot to me.  And on a related note, I always love it when readers direct me to films I missed, or new films that deserve a look.

For some reason that I can't fathom, I never saw Monsters! But I am rectifying that problem immediately.  

I will be doing a "Godzilla Week" May 14 - 18 here on the blog to celebrate the release of Gareth Edwards' new take on the Big Green Guy, so it makes sense that I should familiarize myself with the director's earlier work.

That said, I will review Monsters tomorrow at 6:00 am.  Look for the review, and thank you again for the question.  And say hi to your husband for me, as well!

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Books

A book is a collection of pages -- and a work of art to boot -- collected between two covers. A book is constructed of paper and ink, and includes, often, hundreds of pages, a cover, and perhaps a dust-jacket.

Science fiction and horror are literary forms, in a very real sense, and so it is not a surprise, perhaps, that books have been featured prominently in cult-television history.  

Rod Serling's anthology The Twilight Zone (1959 - 1964) features at least two episodes that concern, explicitly, books.  

The first "Time Enough at Last," is about a man, Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) who desires nothing more than time to read. After he survives a sudden nuclear war (camping out for lunch a bank vault...), Bemis gets his wish.  He goes to the ruins of the library and picks out every book he would like to read, but then the tragic happens: his reading glasses shatter.

Based on a short story by Marilyn Venable, "Time Enough at Last" is a brilliant episode of the classic science-fiction series, and yet it is one of the few Twilight Zone episodes in which the punishment does not fit the crime.  Mr. Bemis is a gentle soul, one who does not deserve so terrible a fate. 

Another episode featuring a book, "To Serve Man," is similarly ironic. Alien Kanamits arrive on Earth promising a future of peace and prosperity for mankind. These extra-terrestrials seem to abide by the dictates of a book with the title "To Serve Man."  As the human race soon realizes, however, "To Serve Man" is a cook book...

A vision of the 23rd century, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (1966 - 1969) promised a future in which, even with advancing technology, books would not disappear. The first season episode "Court Martial," for instance, featured an attorney, Samuel Cogley (Elisha Cook Jr.) who keeps books in his office for purposes of research, and used them to help him win his cases.

Similarly, Star Trek: The Next Generation, set a century later, suggested that books would go to the stars along with man.  

One second season episode, "The Royale," involved a dime-store novel that was converted into reality by a kindly alien race that had inadvertently harmed an astronaut and his crew, and sought to make reparations.  

Meanwhile, throughout the series, Captain Picard's (Patrick Stewart) volume of Shakespearean plays was often seen in his ready room.  In "Hide and Q," Q (John De Lancie) even read lines from Hamlet.

In both the live-action Planet of the Apes (1974) and animated series, Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975), books played a crucial role too.  Books written by man were direct, incontrovertible evidence that simians had not always ruled the planet.

In Chris Carter's The X-Files (1993 - 2002) and Millennium (1996 - 1999), pop writer and cynic Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) was featured. In "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," the ironic writer investigated a teenager's questionable claims of alien abduction.  And in "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense," he exposed the strange cult of Selfosophy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003) also featured books by the shelf. Buffy's watcher, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) was a librarian, and the first gathering space for the Scooby Gang was his library in the high school.  Every week on the program, old occult books were brought down from the stacks so Buffy, Willow and Xander could research the monster of the week.   

One episode in the third season, "Gingerbread" explicitly concerned book-burning, and the (horrible...) idea that books should be destroyed so as to protect (or shield...) the minds of the young.

Over and over, throughout the years, books have appeared in many such cult-tv episodes.  A book called Futility appeared in an episode of One Step Beyond (1959 - 1961), about the sinking of the Titanic.  

And a book also found its way into the hands of technician Anton Zoref in the Space:1999 story "Force of Life," even though he was stationed on Moonbase Alpha. 

More recently than either of those two examples, Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder) was seen reading the vampire novel Twilight in the first episode of The Vampire Diaries (2009 - ). 

The Cult-TV Faces of: Books

Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone: "Time Enough at Last."

Identified by Hugh: the Twilight Zone: "To Serve Man."

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: "Court Martial."

Identified by Brian: Batman: "The Bookworm Turns" (with Roddy McDowall).

Identified by Hugh: Return to the Planet of the Apes.

Not Identified: Planet of the Apes.

Identified by SGB: Space:1999: "Force of Life."

Not Identified: V: The Final Battle.

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Hide and Q."

Identified by SGB: Land of the Lost (1991 -1992): "Sorceress's Apprentice"

Identified by Hugh: The X-Files: "Jose Chung's From Outer Space."

Identified by Hugh: Millennium: "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense."

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer 

Not identified: Smallville

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "Human Nature."

Identified by Hugh: The Vampire Diaries: "Pilot" (Damon is reading Twilight...)

Identified by Hugh: True Blood.

Ask JKM a Question: You (Season Two)

A reader, Chuck, writes: "I know you have been busy and, frankly, I was not sure if you still have time for “Ask JKM a Quest...