Saturday, April 12, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian: "Island of the Body Snatchers (September 26, 1981)

Thundarr and his friends attempt to rescue an imperiled ship at sea in “The Mystery Zone” -- think the Bermuda Triangle -- and run across the evil witch Circe, and her minions.

Circe has been living under a curse for 500 years. She must remain forever on the island (in the ruins of London, England…) or turn to stone. 

But now, Circe hopes to switch her consciousness into Ariel’s young body, and outsmart her captors.  She lures Thundarr and the others into the trap, and makes the soul transfer in secret.

Now trapped in a hideous, aging body, Ariel must convince Thundarr that she is not a witch, but his dear friend…

With Ariel’s beauty, vitality and very soul on the line, “Island of the Body Snatchers” feels a little more urgent or suspenseful than some episodes of Thundarr the Barbarian.

Specifically, Ariel sees her beautiful visage stolen by the witch Circe, while she is left a hideous old hag. 

And worse, Thundarr doesn’t believe her story of soul transfer. In fact, he laughs at her.

There’s a nice paranoid aspect to this tale, as well as a little social commentary about how Thundarr’s society (and perhaps our society too…) views the old and the ugly. 

Regardless of the precise details, it is nice to get away from the “save the human village of the week” routine and into something a bit different.  

In this case,”Island of the Body Snatchers” also seems inspired by several elements of Greek Myth.

There, Circe was known as a goddess or witch of magic, the daughter of Helios and Perse.  Like the mythological Circe, the witch on Thundarr can transform men into animal minions resembling pig or swine.

Also like Greek myth, the Circe in “Island of the Body Snatchers” was exiled to an island and forced to remain there.  Specifically, Circe appeared in Homer’s Odyssey, which also featured an interlude with sirens, and “Island of the Body Snatchers” also concerns ships lost at sea, buffeted by rocky, turbulent waters, like that legend.

Once more, the visuals of a Thundarr the Barbarian episode prove incredibly appealing and resonant. 

In particular, much of the action here takes place around a ruined Big Ben, and Circe’s escape route is via a helicopter on an off-shore oil rig. These connections to our world make the story all the more intriguing and colorful, and in toto this is one of the best, most rip-roaring exciting episodes of the series thus far. 

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging Land of the Lost (1991 - 1992): "Misery Loves Company" (December 5, 1992)

While Tasha continues to go through “the terrible twos” and make a pest out of herself by ruining Annie’s paintings, Stink fakes a sprained ankle so he can get out of helping Kevin repair the tree house roof.

Later, Tasha and Kevin turn the tables on Stink and pretend to be injured…

The very last episode of this iteration of Land of the Lost (1992 – 1993), “Misery Loves Company” is a series low-point, which is saying something given the lackluster quality of episodes such as “Cheers.”

This whole half-hour revolves around a cranky baby dinosaur, Tasha, a lazy Paku, Stink, and the series’ most irritating, unlikable character: Kevin Porter.

“Misery Loves Company” features no sense of urgency, no outside menace, and no real narrative direction, even.  Instead -- and as I mentioned last week -- the series plays like a sitcom or situation comedy instead of a fantasy adventure. 

Admittedly, the sitcom was a highly popular commercial form when the series aired in the early 1990s, but the uninspiring format is such a disappointment to those who grew up with the adventurous 1970s version of Land of the Lost.  After the thrills of that series, this Land of the Lost feels inconsequential, dominated by directionless, irrelevant material.

It has been many weeks since there was any real sense of danger on the series, and this is despite the fact that the Porters live in the middle of a jungle with dinosaurs, an angry renegade cyborg, Sleestak and other threats

Despite the locale, and the denizens, the series writers’ have not been able to marshal the resources to present a good or imaginative science fiction or fantasy concept in weeks, or even a compelling story that involves a clash between the Porters and the other inhabitants of the land of the lost.

And so this two-season remake ends rather poorly, having failed to dramatize memorable or important stories, or even boast a leitmotif like the original’s statements about environment and community. 

Instead, this Land of the Lost concerns itself with pratfalls and jokes, like the damaged roof spilling water onto Kevin’s head.

Sometimes perspective is everything, and so I would note that if you go into this series expecting a family-oriented situation comedy involving Pakuni and dinosaur hijinks, you likely won’t be disappointed by what you get. 

But if you grew up with the Marshalls and the original Land of the Lost, you’re going to find the lack of ideas and the lack of real intelligence in this remake a quality that is virtually impossible to overcome.

This final episode of the series ends without a final appearance by Christa, the most appealing character on the series, and with another cameo appearance of Timothy Bottom’s Mr. Porter.  The series also ends with the Porter family stuck in the land of the lost.

But in this case, being stuck in the land of the lost -- with a car, with a video camera, with a boom box and the other amenities of home -- is hardly a cause for concern, let alone interest.

It’s sad that this series had two full seasons to develop a mythology and universe, but it settled instead for moralistic tripe about drunk driving (“Cheers”) using firearms responsibly (“Make My Day”) and so forth.  

The 1990s Land of the Lost thus goes down in the books as a wasted opportunity, and as a pale echo of a far superior originator.

I never got to see the series in its entirety when it aired and so I had always been curious about it.  But now that I have watched every episode, I’m not at all certain it was time well-spent. 

If I had to recommend a few episodes, the individual titles to check out would be: “Siren’s Song,” “Kevin vs. The Volcano,” “Flight to Freedom” and “Dream Maker,” which is arguably the best episode in the entire run.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Starlog TV Commercials

Cult-Movie Review: Freejack (1992)

"There's people at the bottom.  There's people at the top..."

- Freejack (1992)

Geoff Murphy's Freejack is a loose adaptation of Robert Sheckley's 1959 celebrated science fiction novel, Immortality, Inc

That literary work told a tale of the year 2110 in which a man named Blaine was reincarnated (by Rex Corp.) into a future world of suicide booths, body transplants and an after-life industry in which "only the rich" went to heaven.

By contrast, the 1992 film centers on a famous race car driver, Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) who, during a fatal accident, is zapped into the future year of 2009.There, Alex countenances a corporate dystopia in America; one where Big Business has its corrupt hands in everything, even the ownership of the human soul. 

In this future America, our nation has lost "a trade war" with the Far East (either China or Japan, it's not clear...). Accordingly, the middle class has disappeared entirely, leaving only the haves and the have-nots in perpetual conflict. Most of the population seems to live on the over-populated streets, in shanty-towns. This is a world in which you "either hide what you have...or you lose it," according to one character.

Alex quickly discovers that his very existence is on the line because a dying CEO, McCandless (Anthony Hopkins) has paid a considerable sum of money to transport him to this future, so that he can transfer his very consciousness into Alex's young, healthy body. McCandless has only thirty-six hours to make the soul switch, or his consciousness will disappear into a kind of virtual reality/storage device called "the spiritual switchboard."

Hunting Alex down for McCandless is a mercenary and "bone jacker" named Vacendak (Mick Jagger), a man looking to collect on a big payday. And, as Alex realizes, he is a "freejack," a person whose very body is up for grabs if you possess a big enough check book.

Taken in toto, Freejack is a familiar man-on-the-run story, and that narrative pattern conforms with many cinematic dystopias, including Minority Report (2002), The Island (2005) and Logan's Run (1975), among others.

The 1992 action film also seems to owe something important to Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), with its heavy focus on action, and on a hero attempting to navigate a world and personal relationships he doesn't fully understand yet.

On the latter front, Alex re-encounters his fiancee, Julie (Rene Russo) in 2009, now a business lawyer working for McCandless.  She could either be a traitor or an ally...

In depicting the "future" world of 2009, Freejack offers some intriguing speculation.  For instance, it accurately predicts the erosion of the American middle class and the economic travails of the Great Recession, but on the other hand features a world with no Internet

The idea of a trade war is scarily believable however, and Freejack's speculation about corporations grown unbound from legal authority seems right on the money given where we are culturally today.  This guess about burgeoning corporate power, in and of itself, however, is not necessarily a reason for a positive reaction to Freejack.  Movies such as Blade Runner (1982), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Code 46 (2005) have all concerned the rise of corporate rights over individual ones. But this overlong iteration of such a future feels phoned in and clunky, no more than a mildly colorful back drop for car chases and gun fights.

What Freejack rather determinedly lacks is the coherent vision of a director such as Spielberg or Ridley Scott, and the larger-than-life presence of an anchor such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here, Emilio Estevez is completely underwhelming as protagonist Alex Furlong. Although he rattles off the requisite one liners ("Mom told me not to pick up hitchhikers..."), Estevez  isn't able to symbolically remain above the fray like Schwarzenegger did in The Running Man and thus convey a kind of irony or bemusement about the character's situations. Estevez has very little screen presence, and his decision to play the role straight only comes across as flat.

Mick Jagger doesn't fare much better. He looks sillier in a tank helmet than Michael Dukakis did in 1988, and Jagger's abundant personal charisma doesn't translate well to the taciturn role of Vacendak. Like Estevez, Jagger seems out of his element here.

Even Hopkins is a dud in the villainous role of McCandless, the corporate soul marauder. I remember reading an interview with  Hopkins in Starlog when this film was first released, and his key to understanding and playing the character of McCandless involved the fact that his character smoked cigars. That anecdote reveals just how shallow the performances and concepts in this movie really are. Under the surface, there's almost nothing of real interest.

There's little more desperate in terms of bad movies than a would-be blockbuster that can't entertain an audience, and that's, finally, what Freejack is.

Or, as Owen Gleiberman wrote in Entertainment Weekly: "The trouble with low-rent science-fiction movies is that beneath all the futuristic gimcrackery — the video phones and laser guns and hyperspace leaps, the obligatory time-travel setups — you realize, at some point, that you're watching a routine urban chase thriller: Lethal Weapon 2000."

Yep.  Clearly, the opportunity was here to present Freejack as what author and scholar Paul Meehan terms a "tech noir," the kind of gritty, involving film that fuses high technology with low, basic human impulses. 

But Freejack can't get there. The film doesn't dig deep enough  about the reasons why such a miserable future has come to pass, or even why the characters respond the way they do to such a world. The film's idea of humor is to feature a crotch-kicking, shotgun-armed nun in a habit (Amanda Plummer), but no thought or explanation is given to her demeanor or belief system. She's just a joke, not a person we can understand.

And the future world of Freejack looks ramshackle and cheap (a lot like Johnny Mnemonic, actually), with just a few "futuristic" cars dotting the streets. Worse,  the action scenes are incredibly dire.  The film lurches from one boring chase sequence to another and then -- finally -- ends with a trippy virtual reality light show that today seems conspicuously dated, a relic from the age of such films as The Lawnmower Man (1992).

To put it another way, the entire film stakes itself on action, and then, in the last scene, attempts to thrill with metaphysical gymnastics. It fails in both instances.

Perhaps Freejack's biggest hurdle is the film's thoroughly uncritical eye about the miserable future it attempts to portray.

At the end of the movie, Alex survives the cosmic switchboard and fools the authorities into believing he is actually McCandless, the CEO of the biggest and most powerful corporation in the world.  Now Alex has access to money, power and lots and lots of fast cars.  He could change the world, save all the freejacks, and work for a better tomorrow. 

But does he?  

Of course not.

As the end credits roll on Freejack, Alex drives off in McCandless's luxury car, beautiful Rene Russo at his side. He's not looking back...or forward.  Nope, he just beat the bad guy and that's all the movie cares about.

With money and Russo to keep him flush and happy, Alex will get by in Corporate Land just fine...

So much for those have-nots on the streets below...

Movie Trailer: Freejack (1992)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

At Anorak: The Five Most Shocking Death Scenes of the ALIEN Franchise.

My newest article at Anorak has been posted.  "The Five Most Shocking Death Scenes of the ALIEN Franchise" gazes at the most surprising (and, invariably, violent) moments of the four Alien films (1979 - 1997).  These aren't the best death scenes necessarily, just the ones that most adeptly send audiences back on their heels.

Here's a snippet: 

FOUR movies strong, and spanning three decades (the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s), the cinematic Alien saga — consisting of Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection(1997) — is renowned for its titular creature, one of the most terrifying silver screen boogeymen of all time.
Given the nature of this franchise’s hostile (and perfect?) monster, it’s no surprise that the death scenes featured throughout the saga are frequently terrifying, bloody, and brilliantly-orchestrated.
Yet the truly memorable death scenes possess another quality as well. They’re shocking. These scenes strike with a combination of terror, disgust, sorrow, and surprise, leaving a permanent imprint on the viewer’s mind.
For a death scene to be considered shocking, it must be one that the audience can’t  see coming.  In other words, we expect that Colonial Marines fighting aliens by the pack are going to die, or that confused convicts running from a monster in a dark corridor will come to a bad end.
Similarly, a really shocking death scene must involve a character that we have come to care about. A death scene can’t shock us if we’re not engaged in what is happening on screen, or empathizing with the imperiled people.
Finally, the nature of the death — how gruesome it is, essentially — also plays a key role. To see someone you have invested time in suddenly taken out before your very eyes, often bloodily, can be quite bracing.
With this definition in mind, the following five death scenes represent not necessarily the best moments of the Alien saga, but simply the most shocking of the movie series’ death scenes, of which there are over two-dozen.
You may notice that the lion’s share of the shocking deaths, in my estimation, come from installments 1 and 3.
That’s in no way because Aliens (1986), the second installment, is a bad film.  On the contrary, it is because the James Cameron film goes to tremendous lengths to create memorable characters and character relationships, and many of those beloved characters expire horrifically…but in Alien3(1992).
In other words, Aliens brilliantly sets up the shocks of its own sequel, which then benefits from all that hard work
Similarly, Alien Resurrection is not represented at all in the following list below because by the time of that relatively-tired entry in the franchise, a sense of familiarity had set in like a hardening of the arteries, and though the deaths in the film may be effective at times, none are particularly surprising or unexpected, let alone “shocking” in the sense that the following five are. In fact, some deaths in the fourth film, such as General Perez’s (Dan Hedaya), are even played for cartoon laughs.

Cult-TV Flashback: Swamp Thing: The Series (1990 - 1993), Season One

The comic-book character Swamp Thing first came to life -- courtesy of writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson -- in the early 1970s, in DC Comics’ House of Secrets.

The character moved to his own title in 1972, and the comic-book depicted the tale of Dr. Alec Holland (Alex Olsen, originally…), a scientist hoping to defeat the plagues of starvation and famine throughout the whole world.  But instead Holland merely changed dramatically his own human nature.  In particular, an incident his laboratory involving his work -- a bio-regenerative compound -- caused Alec’s very biology to be impacted.

In this ecology-driven story, Holland emerged from what should have been his grave in the Louisiana swamp, but as a sentient plant being…one sworn to defend the local wild-life and terrain. Over the years in the comic stories, Swamp Thing faced many different menaces, but his most notable human opponent was the glory-seeking, avaricious Dr. Arcane.

In 1981, Wes Craven directed a low-budget Swamp Thing movie that emerged as one of the box office and critical winners of the summer of 1982.  The film starred Dick Durock as Swamp Thing, and the Craven film inaugurated a long movie and TV franchise, which eventually came to encompass a movie sequel, Return of the Swamp Thing (1989), a 1991 animated series, and this effort, the USA Channel Swamp Thing: The Series.

Durock returned for the TV series, which aired from July 27, 1990 to May of 1993, and Mark Lindsay Chapman essayed the role of Arcane. Shot at the Universal Studios Florida facility, the series quickly became the highest rated original program on USA, and was later rerun extensively on The Sci-Fi Channel throughout in the decade.  The series was developed by Joseph Stefano, who had also, with Leslie Stevens, given the world The Outer Limits (1963-1964).

The series premiere, “The Emerald Heart” re-introduces the viewer to the locale of the Swamp, and to Swamp Thing himself.  In particular, we meet young Jim Kipp (Jesse Ziegler), a troubled youth from Philadelphia who has moved to Louisiana for the summer, to live with his grandmother.  After rescuing one of Dr. Arcane’s prisoners in the swamp and losing his video camera in the drink, Jim meets Swamp Thing, who returns his camera and tells the boy that “The Swamp is me. I am the swamp.”  

This admission turns out to be one of the key conceits or leitmotifs of the series, and the first season in particular: the Swamp Thing is inextricably joined and connected with the land where he was born, or rather, re-born. The message is clearly environmental and pro-social in nature, as we are all a part-and-parcel of the natural environment. But Swamp Thing: The Series forges a direct life-and-death connection between Swamp Thing’s life, and his proximity to the swamp.

Some of the visuals in "The Emerald Heart" are quite effective, if simple. When Jim meets Swampy for the first time, they take a walk together, but a row of trees separates them, a fact which keeps Swamp Thing in the background. This visual selection not only obscures the suits and makes Swamp Thing look camouflaged, it reinforces the idea of Swamp Thing as part of the natural landscape.

Continuing with the story of "The Emerald Heart," Jim’s Mom doesn’t want to let the boy stay for the summer, but after Swamp Thing gives her an emerald heart necklace she lost as a child, she has a change of heart…and allows Jim to remain.  

The introductory episode, like many of the first season episodes, is incredibly simple and straight-forward.  In fact, it plays to me a lot like the episodes of The Lone Ranger from the 1940s.   

By that I mean simply that camera-work is economical, the scale of the stories is small, there’s a simple parable dominating each episode, and the story is complete and resolved in a warp-speed 22-minutes.  

Today, we are accustomed to long story-arcs and lengthy, serialized installments of superhero films and TV series, but Swamp Thing: The Series arose in the pre-history of that creative movement, and is refreshing in the sense that episodes are enjoyable on their own terms, without having to understand too much about the character or his world.  

Everything in the first season is plain and self-evident.  And Dick Durock brings a nice gravity and authority -- not to mention dignity -- to his super-heroic role.  Whatever reservations you may have about a talking plant, or a man in a plant suit, are almost instantly dispensed with.  The late Durock really inhabits the character in a meaningful way.  And after watching a few episodes, I also feel that the Swamp Thing suit looks pretty good.  The memorable theme song, additionally, implies a level of seriousness or sincerity that is praise-worthy.

Other episodes of the first season, such as “Grotesquery” involve specifically the developing friendship between Jim and Swamp Thing.  

In this story, Swamp Thing is paralyzed after being exposed to barrels of toxic waste in the swamp, dumped there by the villainous Arcane.  Two workers sell Swampy into captivity at a local freak show, a venue where Arcane sends many of his failed genetic experiments.  Jim must rescue Swampy, because the freak show is far from the swamp, and the superhero’s strength is fading.  

The episode offers little more than that description, but as a testament to a growing friendship, it doesn't need to much else, either.

Another tale, “Natural Enemy” reverses the relationship dynamics.  

Here, Swamp Thing takes Jim to a little-seen, remote area of the swamp and shows him several near-extinct plants and creatures.  

Again, the explanation for the coming extinction is simple: “people.”  

When Swamp Thing senses danger from a local life-form, he tells Jim they must leave at once, but on his own Jim returns that night, and is bitten by a horrible insect creature, another of Arcane’s mutants.

Jim is poisoned by the bite, and is taken to the hospital, near death. Swamp Thing risks exposure and discovery, and saves the boy by giving the child some of his own (green and yellow...) plant blood. 

The first season more or less progressed in this fashion.  Many critics have termed the series camp, but I feel that such a descriptor is more appropriate for the 1989 movie sequel, directed by Jim Wynorski.  The TV series is merely very straight-forward, very plain-spoken, and in a  crucial sense, child-like.  It's sort of innocent and guileless. The campiness that does arise in the series, in large part comes from the portrayal of Arcane.

Swamp Thing: The Series, in its first season, does two specific things, expressly: it develops the friendship between Jim and Swampy, and it explores the environmental leitmotif. With limited sets, performers and other locations, these episodes, like those of contemporaries Tales from the Darkside (1984 -1988) or Freddy's Nightmares (1988 - 1990) have a low-budget veneer to them.  If you can get past that limitation, there is some enjoyment to be had.  If you have young children to watch the season with, that enjoyment may double.

Joseph Stefano left Swamp Thing: The Series after the first season, and great changes were in the offing for the successful series. Young Jim was written out of the program (in a surprisingly brutal and merciless fashion) and the series found its creative voice by presenting science-fiction stories rather than the familiar -capture--rescue-escapes of the “superhero” genre, as it was perceived (correctly or not…) by many TV writers at that point. 

Swamp Thing: The Series Intro

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

At Anorak: A Vital History of Captain America on Film and Television

My newest article has been posted at Anorak, and it is a brief history of Captain America's TV and movie history. 

Here's a snippet:

WITH Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) shattering box office records this weekend, it is an opportune time to recall that this iconic Marvel superhero — and symbol of non-ironic Americana — has not always been treated very well by Hollywood.
In particular, the 1970s and 1980s proved a difficult span for the patriotic Cap, who had made a career in his Marvel comic-book of smashing Nazis and communists.
But first, the 1944 Republic serial, Captain America, created a new character and origin for the superhero.
In this case, District Attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell) — not Army private Steve Rogers — was the costumed hero, and the drama saw him battling a villain called “The Scarab” (Lionel Atwill).
 The Scarab was attempting to acquire a mining device called — I kid you not — a “Dynamic Vibrator” and convert it for use as a weapon against America.
 The plot is downright weird by today’s standards, and it is bizarre that a new secret identity for Captain America was created for the black-and-white serial.
But the problems with this movie adaptation ran even deeper than that. This Captain America used a gun instead of the character’s trademark shield, for instance. And Bucky, Cap’s dedicated sidekick, was nowhere to be found.
But at least this low-budget production got one idea right.
And that was, simply, that Captain America was a stalwart and committed defender of his nation.
Such nationalism, however, proved deeply unpopular in the era of the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War.
Accordingly, intrepid filmmakers of the disco decade found it difficult to re-parse the all-American hero for an age in which such true-blue expressions of patriotism were not exactly in favor.

Collectible of the Week: Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure (LJN)

Straight from LJN (the company that also held the license to create toys from the movie Dune...), comes this 1984 retro-toy treasure: the Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure. 

Toothy and imposing, Stripe stands at over a foot tall, has poseable limbs (and claws...), beady red eyes, and on his blue box is this legend: "WARNING: YOU MUST OBEY ALL MOGWAI RULES!"

Of course, this monstrous creature (the figure designed for ages 3 and up...) is from one of the most controversial genre blockbusters of 1984 (the same summer of Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.) 

Basically, Joe Dante's horror movie featured much violence (like a suburban mother sparring with a violent Gremlin in her kitchen...) yet the film was still aimed at children....the market that had appreciated E.T. 

Steven Spielberg was the executive producer and his clout was such that the movie (along with Indiana Jones) got a new rating "PG-13" instead of R. Basically, the M.P.A.A. created an entirely new ratings classification just to stay on the director's good side...

Anyway, this is indeed the figure of the malevolent Stripe, leader of the nasty gremlins, or Mogwai. 

The side of the box reminds us of the dangers of owning Mogwai by reciting the movie's warning. To paraphrase: Keep 'em out of water; Keep 'em out of light (sunlight is fatal...), and don't feed these buggers after midnight.

On the back fo the box, there's a Gremlins "Proof of Purchase" worth three points, and an admonition to "collect the entire line of Gremlins toys from L.J.N." 

These include the: "3 piece collectible gift set; wind-up Gizmo and Stripe; small Poseable Gizmo; Bendable Stripe; Large Poseable Gizmo; Large Poseable Stripe" and "Stripe and Gizmo Water Hatchers." 

As for me, I had this bugger, the Bendable Stripe, and the Large poseable Gizmo. But this is the only one that I still have the box for.

Also on the back of the box is an array of photos showing how a kid can "have fun making up your own Stripe costumes from accessories found at home." I'm sure Mom would appreciate you raiding her closet...

Gremlins Halloween Costume (Gizmo; Ben Cooper)

Pop Art: The Gremlins Storybook (Golden Books)

Gremlins Video Game (Atari 5200)

Gremlins Shrinky Dink Activity Set (Colorforms)

Gremlins Rub-n-Play Transfer Set (Colorforms)

Gremlins Colorforms

Trading Card of the Week: Gremlins (Topps)

Lunch Box of the Week: Gremlins (Aladdin)

Board Game of the Week: Gremlins (Mega Reel Games)

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Visitors are Coming: "Dreadnought" (November 2, 1984)

“Dreadnought,” the second episode of V: The Series (1984 – 1985) completes “Liberation Day’s” task of re-introducing the Visitor threat to Earth, and also introduces important new characters to the franchise.  In this case, “Liberation Day” adds the wonderful June Chadwick as Lydia, a haughty Visitor officer who contends for Diana’s throne, or rather her command.  Chadwick immediately brings authority -- and attitude -- to her performance.

The episode also ties off some dangling plot threads. The captured mothership is destroyed,  Robert Maxwell (Michael Durrell) dies a hero, and Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) imposes an “Open City” policy on Los Angeles so that personalities from the Visitor and Resistance camps can meet one another  in the series without opening fire.

Finally, Elizabeth completes her metamorphosis, becoming an attractive twenty-something year old (Jennifer Cooke). In charting Elizabeth’s development, “Dreadnought” also introduces a Visitor cult or religion. Willie (Robert Englund) discusses “The Mark of Xon” and the “Lords of Light" in the story, as well as person called "Amann."

Like last week’s entry, it’s clear that V: The Series’ biggest stumbling block at this juncture is the sheer cost per episode.  

The series features a large cast, many elaborate sets, and requires new special effects visualizations on a regular basis.  Here, we get even more stock footage from V (1983), the original mini-series, and, oddly enough, recycled footage from George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1953). On the plus side, we also get to see a new Visitor ship, the "particle beam Triax," and the special effects involving it (and its destruction of a moon of Jupiter...) are very good.

In “Dreadnought,” Diana (Jane Badler) returns to the Visitor fleet and meets her new second-in-command, Lydia (June Chadwick). Diana immediately orders an attack on Earth and “expects” total victory in the task. Meanwhile, she sends out a garrison to capture and retrieve Elizabeth, the Star Child.

On Earth, humanity faces all-out war with the Visitors. In some terrestrial locations, the Red Dust toxin has died, leaving the Visitors with a clear path to occupation. In other regions, namely cold ones, the Red Dust remains as dangerous to Visitor physiology as ever.  Nathan Bates, meanwhile, reveals that he will release storage containers full of Red Dust if Diana attacks Los Angeles, an act that would make the city uninhabitable by the aliens.  He assembles a provisional government and promises the people that he will administer an "Open City" policy with fairness.

But the truth is somewhat grimmer for the humans than Bates has let on. The Red Dust actually causes sterility in Earth mammals, including humans, and Earth is already at “the threshold.” Bates’ threat is an empty one, and he knows it…but Diana does not.

Hoping to destroy Bates and his Red Dust facilities, Diana diverts a Visitor doomsday weapon from the space shipping lanes...without permission. In a matter of hours, the “particle beam” Triax will arrive in Earth orbit and reduce Los Angeles to ashes.

When the Resistance learns of this plot, Mike (Marc Singer), Maxwell (Durrell) and a now-mature Elizabeth (Cooke) commandeer the captured mothership and plot a collision course for the Triax.

Like Diana herself, V: The Series possesses a lot of what was once known as “moxie.”  That old-fashioned colloquialism means “the capability to face adversity with spirit and initiative.”  

Here, the series’ makers simply had no way to afford a full-scale, global war on a small budget, and so re-purposed War of the Worlds footage to showcase such a thing.  From that George Pal movie, we now see the Visitors -- instead of Martian War Machines -- pulping Earth cities, starting fires, and firing weaponry.  It all looks relatively convincing and expensive, unless, of course, you happen to have a familiarity with the 1953 film.

Similarly, the shots of humans throwing home-made bombs into the parked Visitor fighter come from the V miniseries.  Already, the series is relying very heavily on the expedient of stock footage, a fact which reveals how expensive it was to create a new story on the expansive canvas the two mini-series established, and made so effortless appearing.

Some of the writing in “Dreadnought” is a notch-down even from “Liberation Day.” For example, two assassins working for Nathan Bates, but dressed as police and riding in a police car, open fire on Donovan ( Marc Singer).  He has no reason to suspect that they are not real police officers and yet, without a word, he returns fire with his Uzi right before the extended car chase.

First...yeah it’s sad that the franchise has degenerated to car chases. From It Can't Happen Here to The A-Team in less than two years.

And secondly, Donovan would be well-aware that by shooting at the police he is essentially murdering innocent men doing their jobs.  In the mini-series, one of the resistance fighters was a former policeman, even.  As audience members, we know the cops are fake, but Donovan doesn’t, and so it seems out of character for the heroic character just to open up on the LAPD with an automatic weapon.

Similarly, Juliet’s (Faye Grant) line -- or variation thereof -- regarding Elizabeth, is getting silly. 

“It must be her alien chemistry” is being asked to cover for a whole lot of dodgy material. Such as: why did Elizabeth’s skin, during her transformation turn scaly, only to be normal again at completion of the process? Or, why did her aging accelerate in the first place, and could it happen again? And why can’t Elizabeth speak, since she was able to speak as a child?

The answers we get aren't always entirely satisfactory.

It must be her alien chemistry” covers a whole cornucopia of writer’s sins, and if there’s one aspect of V: The Series that I truly dislike it is the treatment of the Star Child. She was a bad idea to start with, in V: The Final Battle -- a deus ex machina in the worst sense -- but in the series almost all of the scenes involving Elizabeth are even more dreadful and poorly conceived.

As bad as all this material truly is, the drama involving Nathan Bates is actually pretty strong. He negotiates an Open City for Los Angeles, which is a necessity for the series if it is not to concern all-out war, Furthermore, his revelation of the Red Dust’s environmental impact is moving and powerful.  V: The Series may not always be great, but the slippery Nathan Bates is a brilliant addition to the dramatis personae.

I also appreciate "Dreadnought's" acknowledgment that the Visitors have their reasons for war.  "We need this world for our survival," Lydia stresses to Diana, and that's a good point.  Lydia's words re-assert the motive for the Visitors' villainy.  These aliens are not merely evil -- they are trying to survive -- and I'm glad "Dreadnought" thought to include this reminder.

“Dreadnought” also represents our goodbye to Robert Maxwell, a character who has been front and center in the V saga since the original mini-series.  

The TV series seems to have forgotten that he had two other young daughters other than Robin (Blair Tefkin), as well as his vocation as a scientist.  In the series, he merely plays the doting, concerned “grandpa,” while asking another scientist, Juliet, for help understanding his grand-daughter.  

Maxwell’s final sacrifice is heroic, though one wonders why he couldn’t have remained with the series longer.  No doubt it had to do with the exigencies of cold, hard, cash.  

As I noted above, V’s cast was already large, and in that light, Maxwell might have seemed like a less vital character than Mike, Ham, Julie, Elizabeth, Willie, Elias, Robin, or even Bates.  But I will miss him.  His sub-plot in the original V was very important because it involved the scapegoating of certain demographics in a fascist state.  The series never gets back to that theme.

Next week: “Break Out.”

From the Archive: Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Historically-speaking, I have not been the biggest fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise. 

I disliked the first film for its lack of subtlety and nuance.  Paranormal Activity’s (2007) final reveal of a demonic close-up was a capitulation to lowest common denominator-style filmmaking, and an undercutting of the very “found footage” paradigm the film exploited.

I warmed a little (just a little…) to the second entry.  Some moments in the drama worked moderately well, whereas some effects -- exposed in too-revealing long shot -- actually played as funny.

I was surprised and impressed with the third film in the franchise, however, which I found, by-and-large, scary.   There’s a highly-effective sequence in Paranormal Activity 3 wherein a man (with video-camera) and a young girl seek shelter in a bathroom as an angry spirit attempts to break in. The scene escalates and escalates, and is as impressive as any “big” horror movie moment produced in the last few years.

So color me ambivalent about the franchise as whole.

But recently I had a reader here on the blog help me contextualize the PA movies in terms of horror movie history.  When I reviewed the found-footage genre for high-points in a recent Ask JKM post, Trent wrote the following in a comment:

I still think that you have to recommend 'Paranormal Activity' as a top tier found footage film. If The Blair Witch Project' is to the found-footage craze of the 2000's as 'Halloween' was to the slasher film craze of 1980s, (which I think is fair) then 'Paranormal Activity' is analogous to 'Friday the 13th.”

I suspect Trent’s point is spot-on regarding the comparison (if not the quality of Paranormal Activity).  Halloween and The Blair Witch Project are the gold standards of their respective genre formats, and demonstrate a zenith in terms of artistry and effect. The Friday the 13th films and The Paranormal Activity movies are much more mainstream and commercially calculated. 

Likewise, these series share in common the fact that they seem to vacillate wildly in terms of quality from entry to entry.  Furthermore, the next chapter seems to come out every year, without fail.

To continue the comparison, Paranormal Activity 3 may be the Friday the 13th (1980), or Friday the 13th Part II (1981) of the PA saga… a relatively “good” or strong outing.

But unfortunately, this comparison also means that the recent Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) is the Jason Takes Manhattan of the PA franchise, meaning, simply, that it is pretty dreadful.

In fact, Paranormal Activity 4 is so bad that it reinforces many of the common misperceptions about the found footage format: that the acting is bad; that the films are dull and pointless; and that the movies don’t make a lot of sense from a narrative or thematic standpoint.

 Paranormal Activity 4 continues the story of the demonically-possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) and the nephew she stole from his crib, Hunter.  The story is set in 2011 as Katie and a child named Robbie (Brady Allen) move into the house across the street from a tech-savvy teenager named Alex (Kathryn Newton).  Almost immediately, Alex and her buddy Ben (Matt Shively) suspect something weird is going on, and grow alarmed as Robbie befriends Alex’s little brother, Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp).

When Robbie comes to stay in Alex’s house for a few weeks (while his mom is ostensibly in the hospital), weird disturbances occur at night, and Alex begins to suspect that someone or something wants her dead.  With Ben’s help, she sets up cameras all over the house, and monitors the footage, at least for a time, from her computer.

The first thing one might notice about Paranormal Activity 4 is that this is the only franchise entry not to focus on adults, but teenagers instead.  Unlike the Friday the 13th films, however, the characters who are supposed to be teenagers are actually played by teenagers, rather than by twenty-somethings.  And for all the film’s abundant flaws, the actress who plays Alex, Kathryn Newton is pretty strong.  At the very least, she’s better than the material she is asked to carry. 

But the important point is an underlying one. The franchise’s shift to teenage concerns suggests recognition on the part of the producers that the franchise is now aging. Therefore attracting certain demographic groups has become crucial.

Secondly, this is the first Paranormal Activity film that is girded with specific tributes or homages to the horror genre, which again suggests that the franchise’s appeal is narrowing, and that filmmakers are hoping to target some demographics more directly.

I don’t know how many general audiences will recognize the re-staging of a famous and scary sequence from Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980), or another moment that echoes Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), for example.  There’s even a moment here that deliberately recalls Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). I recognized these allusions, but they don’t add up to anything meaningful in terms of Paranormal Activity 4’s narrative or themes.

My biggest concern with the film is that it features almost no scares.  Even the jump scares are mild.  And because this film is longer in duration (nearly 100 minutes) than the other Paranormal Activity films, the almost total absence of frightening material is noteworthy and troublesome.  This film is a long, hard slog -- Paranormal Inactivity -- and with the possible exception of a visual gimmick regarding Kinect, there are precious few innovations in format.

In addition, Paranormal Activity 4’s finale violates a cardinal rule of the found footage sub-genre: we don’t know what kind of device Alex is recording on during her fateful, night-vision journey into the neighbor’s dark and sinister house.  She doesn’t seem to be using her laptop, and there’s little indication she picked up Ben’s video camera.  Instead, the entire final scene plays like a coda tacked on in post-production, after audience focus groups found the third act uninspiring or disappointing.  One minute, Alexa is in her own house, being attacked by an invisible demon, and in the next, she’s crossing the street, using an unknown device, and probing into the dark house alone.  Almost all the supernatural “action” of the film, at least in terms of effects, occurs in this brief denouement.

Further, Paranormal Activity 4 falls prey to a problem that has become increasingly common in the found-footage genre.  Specifically, cameras record overt, undeniable, dangerous supernatural activity, but the dramatis personae mysteriously don’t review that important footage.  Here, Alex is levitated above her bed one night.  Several days later, she still hasn’t reviewed the footage and witnessed what occurred.

If she did watch that footage, it would be evidence for her doubting Thomas parents, of course.  And yes, there’s a lame excuse in the movie that Alex can’t access the footage because she’s forgotten the password that enables viewing.  But if you really believed a malevolent entity was after you, would you wait days and days before attempting even a basic password recovery?  Most password encoded programs have a prompt that reads: forgot password? Click here. 

Secondly, Ben also has access to the footage.  That footage includes his hot, would-be girlfriend going to bed every night in her skimpy jammies and shorts.  So wouldn’t he at least check in for lascivious purposes?
Basically, the entire last act of Paranormal Activity 4 is predicated on the ridiculous notion that Alex is filming tons of footage (so we in the audience can see it), but not watching a lick of it (so she can remain in danger).  It’s contrived in the extreme. 

Of all the Paranormal Activity movies, I would count this one as the worst, and also the most disappointing given the surprising quality of the third film.  There’s not even one good scare moment in this sequel, or one legitimately great visual composition, or scene set up. It’s all a slow, meandering trip to nowhere, with a tacked-on ending that exists only to grease the wheels for the inevitable sequel next year.

Perhaps that no-doubt-upcoming effort will be more Jason Lives! or The Final Chapter than a A New Beginning.  One can hope.