Saturday, May 24, 2014
In “Trial By Terror,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel arrive in Atlanta just in time to save Thundarr’s friend, Thorak from execution by the corrupt town’s sheriff and his pig-man deputies.
Specifically, Thorak has been accused of stealing fuel needed by the local villagers. However, Thorak disputes these charges vehemently and Thundarr believes his friend.
Behind the scenes, a wizard named Artemis -- who lives in a Southern plantation -- is pulling the sheriff’s strings. Specifically, Artemis needs the valuable fuel so he can launch his fearful new weapon, a vehicle called a “death ship…”
What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…
Actually, what we have here is another Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982) episode that functions -- in an under-the-radar fashion -- as a kind of social critique. Specifically, the episode looks at the Deep South, and the corruption it imagines there.
“Trial By Terror” opens with beautiful, highly-detailed images of post-apocalyptic Atlanta, and then moves into such weird imagery as uniformed pig-people driving pre-holocaust police cruisers. Now, this is where the commentary comes in, at least in a visual sense. These police officers are, literally, pigs. Modern slang often associates police officers with swine in terms such as “pig” but also “bacon” and “Trial by Terror” actually literalizes the concept.
The pig metaphor works here, in large part, anyway, because the episode strongly creates the impression of corrupt law enforcement officials “feeding from the trough.” Even the human sheriff is fat, and resembles a pig. Think Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s much the same idea here, only with actual pig-mutants serving as police.
Also, there’s a commentary in “Trial By Terror” on entitled aristocracy. Artemis is an effete, over-dressed wizard who lives in a plantation, far away from the ebb and flow of village life. He wants to control the village, however, and so “buys” the sheriff and the police force, essentially, to make his wishes come true. But, of course, he doesn’t stand a chance against Thundarr.
“Trial by Terror” features some of the weirdest visuals yet featured on Thundarr the Barbarian. One shot shows pig-man police officers attacking Thundarr while flying through the air on rocket packs.
That’s not something you see every day…unless you make it a habit to watch Thundarr: The Barbarian.
Next week, our Thundarr retrospective concludes with the final episode” Prophecy of Evil.”
In “No Face,” Walt and his monster friends are shocked when Chief Running Nose (Sid Haig) uses an old clause in a long-standing contract to buy the city for a mere twenty-four dollars.
Although the Mayor (Edward Fleming) complains, No Face cannot be swayed. “The city is my reservation now,” Running Nose informs his new employee. His first order of business: disarming the police.
When Walt and the Monsters investigate further, they learn that Chief Running Nose has actually been replaced by the diabolical criminal master-mind known as No Face, a genius with make-up whose next task is to imitate the Mayor, and make all crime in the city legal…
Although all the persistent pidgeon English “Chief Running Nose” shtick is highly questionable, if not downright offensive to some, today, “No Face” is nonetheless a slightly better-than-average episode of Monster Squad (1976).
This so largely because of Sid Haig, one of my favorite actors, and a man who can make the most ridiculous dialogue sound plausible, or -- as he does here -- even menacing. In short, there are some moments in the episode with Sid Haig as No Face in which he seems legitimately fearsome. Most villains on the series are not drawn in so effective fashion.
The episode also provides some nice history about Walt’s group. When the Mayor (really No-Face) tells the Monster Squad he doesn’t need its help, Frankenstein notes that “We’ve saved this city once a week for at least five years.”
It’s nice too that Edward Fleming is back as the Mayor, after originating the role in “Mr. Mephisto.”
If we look to the familiar formula that Monster Squad has established, one can see how “No Face” conforms. The Squad learns about the villain of the week on TV (as in ‘Music Man”), and heads off to defeat him. The cliffhanger threat at the villains’ headquarters (A movie studio) is a giant candle. Specifically, the Wolf Man is put inside the giant wax tube, and it is actually lit! Finally, the villain is hoisted by his own petard, by bottles of his hair spray “Forever Hold” and make-up putty.
Finally, another crib from Batman (1966 – 1969): “No Face,” a make-up master with the ability to change his appearance, seems like a reflection of Malachi Throne’s villain on the Dozier series, False Face.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Although not particularly warmly-received by film critics of the day, the epic fantasy Willow (1988) -- directed by Ron Howard from a story by George Lucas -- is one of those genre films that holds up surprisingly well over time.
In part, this fact may be due to the filmmaker’s insistence on location filming (in New Zealand…), a factor which grants Willow a sense of reality and spectacle often missing from today’s CGI blockbusters. In 2014, the film looks fantastic, and its visuals stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the latest multi-million dollar efforts from Peter Jackson.
Another factor to consider is that the on-screen chemistry in Willow between Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley -- later married and then divorced -- adds a palpable sense of romance and charm to the proceedings. The characters these performers play may be off-the-shelf, textbook fantasy tropes, but the actors nonetheless show a real spark with each other, and a joy about themselves as well.
Perhaps most critically, Willow once more reveals that George Lucas’s greatest talent as a story-teller rests in his unswerving ability to craft a canny pastiche; his ability to co-opt old and discarded myths and render them fresh and new, with the assistance not only of some serious 1980s wit, but with state-of-the-art effects work as well.
In short, Lucas knowingly revives old legends with charm and visual aplomb, and in the process evokes a feeling of, well, glorious innocence. Watching films like Willow, you feel like a kid again.
Lucas had already re-modeled the space adventures of the Flash Gordon Era into box office gold with Star Wars, and the pulp adventures of the 1930s as well, with the Indiana Jones franchise. Accordingly, Willow might be viewed, in some sense, as the third and final film in that Lucas pastiche trilogyl only one inhabiting the fantasy milieu of writers like Tolkien, Swift, and Baum, to name just a few.
In this case, Willow pays tribute to stories of the fantasy genre -- from Lord of the Rings right up through Star Wars (1977) -- without losing sight of its driving and inspiring theme.
Specifically, the 1988 film is an ode to the idea that, simply, size doesn’t matter. One individual with heart can change the world for the better.
“You need a warrior for a job like this. I’m a nobody.”
In another age and in a time of “dread,” the Evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) learns that a newborn child -- a girl -- will bring her despotic reign to an end.
Accordingly, the Queen orders all female infants killed, but one child, Elora Danan, escapes.
Elora is spirited away on a raft, and sent downstream, but Bavmorda orders her minions, including the princess Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) and General Kael (Pat Roach) to hunt down the baby at all costs.
Some ways down the river, Elora is retrieved from her floating raft by a kindly Newlyn, Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis). A farmer and aspiring magician, Willow realizes that the baby represents a danger to his people, but his wife grows attached to Elora.
Meanwhile Willow attempts and fails to become a sorcerer’s (Billy Barty) apprentice. He fails the wizard’s test, and is unable to answer correctly the wizard’s query: “The power to control the world is in which finger?”
When Bavmorda’s vicious hounds attack a Nelwyn town fair in search of their missing prey, Willow goes to the Elders of the community to seek a plan regarding the human baby. He is then instructed to take Elora to a busy crossroads and give the child to the first human, or “Daikini” that he sees there.
Unfortunately, the first human Willow sees is Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) a great warrior…and a terrible scoundrel. Because Madmartigan proves untrustworthy in Elora’s defense, Willow opts to remain with her.
On his quest to protect the child, Willow also meets the Queen of the Forest, Cheralindrea (Maria Holvoe), who tells him to seek help from a sorceress, Finn Raziel (Patricia Hayes). With Madmartigan and two diminutive sidekicks called Brownies in tow, Willow finds Finn Raziel and learns that she has been transformed into a crow by dark magic.
Sorsha and Kael continue to pursue the child, and Willow realizes that if he is to save Elora from Bavmorda’s evil plans, he must come to rely on his own senses, and his own brand of “magic.” All he lacks is confidence.
Along the way to finding it, however, Willow will have to grapple with trolls, two-headed monsters, and Bavmorda’s diabolical spells…
“Magic is the bloodstream of the universe.”
Willow (1998) casts a wide net in terms of source material, and the film re-purposes a number of stories for its tale of an every-man who defeats (evil) royalty. The film’s inspirations are many, to be certain, and emerge from film history, literature and myth.
The story of a lone child cast down a river on a raft of sorts, for instance, clearly evokes memories of Moses’ origin tale in the Hebrew Bible.
There, as you will recall, an Egyptian Pharoah ordered all male Hebrew children drowned in the Nile, but Moses was saved…and set afloat on that very river.
Clearly, the sex of the endangered child has been changed in Willow, as has any notion of ethnicity being at the core of Bavmorda’s undying hatred. But the imagery of a child on a raft undeniably evokes Moses’ journey.
He was destined for greatness, just as Elora Danen surely is.
Later in the film, Willow is captured by these tiny beings known as Brownies, diminutive little creatures who live in the forest. Willow and his friend are guarded, and pinned down by these beings. The beings even stand atop the Nelwyns’ prone chests.
This image too goes right back to an instantly-recognizable literary source: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
There, a shipwreck survivor, Gulliver, washes ashore in the land of Lilliput, a community of six-inch tall people not unlike Willow’s Brownies.
Again, it’s important to note that Swift utilized Gulliver’s journey to Lilliput as social critique or commentary about his time and culture, but that here George Lucas mines the familiar imagery for a different purpose.
Thirdly, Willow’s encounter with the benevolent spirit of the forest – Charalindria -- deliberately evokes memories of the ethereal Glinda -- the Good Witch of the South -- in both the literary works of L. Frank Baum, and the iconic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. In both cases, a figure associated with immaculate or pure “white” color holds the key to the hero or heroine successfully completing a quest.
From Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings cycle, we get our title character: Willow himself. He is not a hobbit, but rather a Nelwyn.
But what’s in a name, right?
Both Tolkien’s and Lucas’s story require a hero who lacks physical stature to leave his comfortable, safe surroundings and essentially, encounter a much-larger world.
Bilbo and Willow may not be tall, but they find that they are in tall in character, even when reckoning with villains and other great dangers. In other words, they already have inside everything that they need to succeed as heroes. It’s just a matter of learning that.
The greatest and most obvious inspiration for Willow, however, may just be Lucas’s own film: Star Wars.
Many characters and ideas featured in the Star Wars trilogy have strong corollaries or counterparts here.
The rogue Madmartigan is very much like Han Solo.
Bavmorda’s destruction of the castle at Galidor resembles the Death Star’s annihilation of Alderaan.
General Kael -- a soldier-villain in fearsome armor -- is a close relative to Darth Vader, and so forth.
Queen Bavmorda, fearful of being usurped is another version of Emperor Palpatine’s brand of evil and the Brownies -- the film’s only real weak point -- resemble the bickering duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO.
Even Fin Rizzell might be described as an amalgamation of Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Like them, she is the wise old warrior who returns to the fight after many years away from it.
On one hand, Willow’s wholesale absorption of so many characters and ideas from literature, mythology and film history may make it difficult for audiences to parse the film as a truly original experience.
On the other hand, these various and sundry touchstones cannily inform the audience that Willow’s story -- the story of one person’s self-realization -- is a universal one. It is the story of all of us. We are meant to recognize it.
Indeed, this story (a variation of Campbell’s “mono-myth”) has been told again and again throughout history -- by generation after generation -- and the recognizable imagery and character-types enhance our vivid and visceral connection to Willow’s world. Part of the reason that Willow is inspiring, indeed, is that we connect visually almost automatically to his plight. We connect to it because we so clearly recognize it from all the smart visual allusions. The hero’s face changes in all such stories, but he (or she) is always a surrogate for our struggles.
Willow, the Every Man faces a universal challenge, in other words, and the familiar visuals and archetypes Lucas deploys are totems or symbols which suggest that this story is mankind’s tale…our tale. The power of the universe is in our fingers, and it always has been whether the hero is Luke Skywalker (Willow’s analog), Bilbo Baggins, Gulliver, or Dorothy.
What elevates Willow beyond being a mere “re-packaging” of old stories, however, are the very (individual) qualities I listed above, in my introduction.
The performances, especially by Kilmer and Whalley, are joy-filled.
The location work immediately establishes a believable, tactile fantasy world.
And, surprisingly, the action scenes in the film are spectacularly vetted. Ron Howard doesn’t necessarily come to mind in this regard, but as director he orchestrates several moments -- like a battle on a breakaway wagon, and a toboggan ride across an arctic field -- with authentic flair. Buoyed by James Horner’s rousing score, Willow veritably thrives on the strength of its action scenes.
Willow proves less than satisfactory on two minor fronts.
First, Lucas names the villains of the film after famous film critics. Kael is Pauline Kael. And the two-headed dragon is Eber-Sisk, for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
Since these film critics are called-out as villains in the very body of the film, one can only assume that Lucas is a rather thin-skinned artist. I remember that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel devoted a whole show to the Star Wars films, and practically gave the inferior Return of the Jedi (1983) a tongue-bath.
So why single this duo out, anyway, in this fashion? Why heap scorn upon them?
It’s not merely a thin-skinned move, but sort of mean-spirited too.
And secondly, Willow might also be viewed as second canary in the coal mine -- if there is such a thing -- after Return of the Jedi, vis-à-vis Lucas’s obsession with juvenile side-kicks and their antics.
Many Star Wars fans I know like to pretend that the prequels -- circa 1999 – 2005 -- just suddenly materialized fresh the idea of awful sidekicks; namely Jar-Jar Binks.
Well, history records that Return of the Jedi had belching aliens galore and the Ewoks. And similarly, Willow features the insufferable, silly-as-could be Brownies. These characters sport ridiculously bad accents, dump love-potion everywhere, and randomly vacillate between shtick, cowardice and heroism, depending on the demands of any given sequence.
Clearly, juvenile, comic-relief sidekicks are a key part of the Lucas film paradigm, and that didn’t start with The Phantom Menace (1999).
That’s just when many fans decided to start complaining about it.
And yet again, it must be noted that Willow doesn’t seem nearly as juvenile as Jedi does, at least on retrospect, perhaps because the Ron Howard film has the counter-weight of Madmartigan/Sorsha…who are clearly hot for each other’s bodies.
Between the lines -- and captured in the performances --Willow suggests that sex can exist in a universe created by George Lucas. As an adult viewing the film, you can latch onto that chemistry and vibe, and it adds another layer of depth, and humanity, to the adventure.
Today, despite the presence of the Brownies and the unnecessary, thin-skinned critic-bashing, Willow moves like a model of filmmaking efficiency. This epic fantasy is just barely over two hours in duration, unlike the three-hour plus, rear-numbing fantasy epics of late. And Willow also has the dignity to end at a dramatic high point, rather than drawing matters out to a maddening, hair-pulling degree.
This film is sentimental -- much like all of Lucas’s genre efforts -- but Willow doesn’t wallow in sentiment.
Instead, this 1988 film is a high-flying and even inspiring pastiche which reminds us that the quest to self-actualize is a universal one. Like Willow Ufgood, we all have “the potential to be great.”
And the Nelwyn’s movie -- to my delight and surprise upon a 2014 re-screening -- actualizes that potential pretty well itself.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
My new article at Anorak gazes at five shocking character deaths in cult-television history.
Here's a snippet:
WILLIAM Shakespeare once wrote that “the valiant taste of death but once,” while cowards die “many times” before their actual demise.
Audiences of cult TV classics might also be said to die many times too, especially if they watch and re-watch beloved characters die in their favorite genre programming.
Over the years, a number of beloved series characters have been unceremoniously offed by series writers, only to leave grieving audiences in shock at their passing.
At least for the most part, these characters died heroically –or valiantly — though that was not always the case, either.
Sometimes, prominent characters deaths prove so shocking because they occur within no larger heroic or meaningful context…and seem — like life itself — utterly random.
Listed below are five examples of the most shocking character deaths in cult-tv history.
Found-footage horror meets the porn milieu in the surprisingly good Lucky Bastard (2014), a smart and cutting genre film that features better-than-anticipated performances, and offers a nice through-line about how reality and fantasy blend in the world of filmmaking, and especially in the world of adult movie filmmaking.
Sharp as a tack on an intellectual level, Lucky Bastard offers some clever observations on the subject of Hollywood -- the so-called “land of dreams” -- even if the film’s suspense fizzles out by about the mid-way point.
In other words, this is (an NC-17) film that is stronger as a social critique or character piece than, necessarily, as a horror film. To some extent, one can anticipate where Lucky Bastard is headed from about the ten minute point, and getting to the denouement isn’t as unpredictable, exciting, or anxiety-provoking as it might be.
Still, Lucky Bastard’s deficiencies as a thriller ultimately prove secondary to the film’s caustic statement about low-budget filmmaking, the porn industry, and how terribly easy it is to compromise your own moral code when money is waved in your face.
Lucky Bastard’s found-footage approach -- while not particularly ingenious -- nonetheless provides a riveting glimpse into another world. The first-person approach also provokes a kind of immediacy with the characters that is largely unrivaled in the genre. I suppose we’re all intrigued by sex, and with the world of porn, so Lucky Bastard’s work-a-day approach to the subject matter is illuminating, and at times, even shocking.
Although the action and violence in Lucky Bastard are occasionally anemic and sometimes even amateurish, you will nonetheless find yourself drawn into the characters’ orbit, and unable to look away, even as the third act flags.
This observation is especially true of the film’s central porn star Ashley Saint (Betsy Rue), and the film-within-a-film’s director, Mike (Don McManus). These protagonists are particularly well-drawn and intriguing to watch. The actors are completely convincing in their roles and create memorable, vivid people, which is no easy task given the restrictions of found-footage principles.
“Let’s do this before I change my mind.”
Mike (McManus) is the director of the web porno series “Lucky Bastard” -- a series which allows fans to fuck porn stars -- and he wants Ashley Saint (Rue) as the star of an upcoming installment.
Working with amateurs, however, goes against Ashley’s code of conduct, and she is especially uncomfortable with the fan that Mike has selected: the shy and socially maladroit Dave G. (Jay Paulson).
When Dave asks Ashley out and begins talking about her real name and her real children, Ashley wants out of the shoot. She has dealt with stalkers before and has no desire to do so again. But Mike negotiates for her to stay.
When it comes time to shoot the sex scene between Ashley and Dave at a house (formerly used by a reality TV show…) with cameras in every room, Dave has an embarrassing response to Ashley’s proximity, and Mike and the film’s crew tease him. Dave violently pushes Ashley, and blames her for his failure to perform.
Ashley refuses to work with Dave again, and orders Mike to send him away.
Mike does so, but Dave has no plans to be ignored, or to allow his shame to be broadcast to the world.
“I’m shy and people get mad at me.”
What I admire most about Lucky Bastard is its uncompromising view on the porn industry and low-budget filmmaking.
In terms of porn, we see here how easy it is for actors to be exploited if they don’t hold fast to their own code or rules. Nobody is watching out for them.
Ashley’s code -- which she violates for cash -- is, simply, “no anal and no amateurs.”
Alarmingly, Ashley forsakes her code for a pittance. She wants 5,000 dollars to do the gig with Dave for Mike, but settles for 1,500.00 instead.
Mike also calls out her hypocrisy when she complains about screwing Dave. “You’ll do rape porn, but not this?” he asks her.
For my money, the best scene in Lucky Bastard explores the reasons why Ashley makes the apparently self-destructive/contradictory choices she does.
Pouting and preening -- every bit the alluring porn star -- Ashley addresses the camera and sensually explains what really, really gets a porn star like her wet.
It isn’t a huge cock.
No, it’s using savings coupons at the grocery store, getting her taxes done and paid on time, and having enough money to afford her children’s care and school.
In other words, Ashley -- despite what she does for a living -- is not very much unlike the rest of us. She’s just trying to get by….and it is hard to turn down an opportunity when there is money on the line.
Similarly, Lucky Bastard’s script makes knowing notation of “dead eyed” porno stars, and that’s an apt description for many industry performers that I’ve seen over the years. There’s no there, there…because the porn work is largely a means to an end: financial security.
One performer in the movie-within-a-movie, Josh (Lee Kholafi), even describes how he is always able to achieve and maintain his erections during difficult shoots.
His success has nothing to do with the luscious, accommodating stars he happens to be fucking, and everything to do with his ability to tap into his own imagination. In other words, it’s all a mental game.
So Lucky Bastard offers a decidedly unromantic look at porn.
Mike, the porno film’s director is also an interesting case study. If anyone on the set of the film is a whore, he’s the one who most clearly fits the bill. He will do anything -- and I mean anything -- to get his movie made, and made in time, on budget. He constantly cajoles, pushes, and prods his cast and crew to keep going, no matter the warnings, no matter the danger signs.
This kind of narrow tunnel vision is not uncommon in low-budget filmmaking, and on one hand it might be described as tenacity, or dedication. If you don’t push, you don’t make a movie.
On the other hand, if you push too hard, people can get hurt. As Ashley notes of her director, he constantly “pushes people too far.”
For someone not in the industry and someone unaccustomed to Mike’s narcissism and demands -- someone exactly like Dave (Jay Paulson) -- he must seem like a horrible monster.
Lucky Bastard is a provocative horror film in two other ways worth noting.
First, the film notes the one thing that drives Dave over the edge of sanity: his sense of shame regarding his own body, and his own (poor) sexual performance. He is unable to perform with Ashley because of premature ejaculation, and is shamed by Mike and the crew for his physical lapse. This public shame -- and the knowledge that it will be live forever on the Internet -- leads Dave to snap.
Later, Dave realizes that he made a mistake that can’t ever be taken back. The footage of his sexual humiliation is not just in the camera, but on a storage drive in a studio, back home. It will live on in infamy….always.
And the film crew won’t even give him a second chance. “They made me the lucky bastard, and they took it away,” he laments.
Dave is unhinged, and should never have been selected to participate in the “Lucky Bastard” show, but he is shown such contempt by the filmmakers that he falls off his delicate mental precipice. Murder doesn’t seem like a terrible leap for Dave when the alternative is permanent, ongoing humiliation. And yes, this sub-plot is very relevant in the Web 2.0 Age, and we’ve also seen it played out in films such as Brian De Palma’s Passion (2013).
Secondly, Lucky Bastard plays cleverly with its movie-within-a-movie scenario. The first several minutes of the film involve Ashley walking in on a sex-scene/film shoot gone wrong, and with a woman apparently being raped. Ashley tries to help the other woman, but all is not as it seems.
At the end of the film, Ashley breaks the fourth wall and looks right at the camera recording the last moments of the “Lucky Bastard” experience, and she smiles ever so slightly at us. This final moment invites interpretation and analysis. What is it telling us?
Is this -- much like Ashley’s first scene in the film -- a sign that the humiliations and murder are, like the rape Ashley apparently witnessed, actually mere entertainment?
Are we watching a movie of a movie of a movie, where no reactions whatsoever are genuine? Has Ashley -- and all the others too -- been complicit, in some way, of making a fiction for us about Dave?
As you can guess, there is a clear post-modern, reflexive aspect to Lucky Bastard that, again, challenges the intellect.
Lucky Bastard threads that needle smartly, and again, the film’s approach seems designed to stimulate the mind more than the pulse rate. On a beneath-the-surface level, this is a film about filmmaking, and how we make assumptions about the reality of the events we see played out.
Lucky Bastard is not for the sensitive, be warned. Some scenes of violence are especially…personal, and the film doesn’t candy coat its numerous sex sequences. In fact, there are several scenes of simulated intercourse in the film, and some absolutely look genuine.
So that NC-17 rating is there for a reason. Tread carefully if you think you might be offended or bothered. I recommend this film to readers, but only the basis that they know what to expect.
While not always suspenseful and not often particularly scary, Lucky Bastard reminds me again why horror remains such a great genre. Here, the elastic found-footage format gives us a window into a curious new world at the same time it charts the utter strangeness and schizophrenia of the human psyche.
Why do people agree to do things that they are clearly uncomfortable doing?
And when things go predictably wrong, why do people respond with such an utter lack of compassion?
As Dave notes in Lucky Bastard saying that you are “sorry” is “never enough.” Not when your ego is on the line.