Saturday, June 30, 2018

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters: "Happy Birthdaze" (1973)


In "Happy Birthdaze," Zelda (Mary Wickes) plans to throw a birthday party for her intended beau, Sheriff Bevans (Joe Higgins). She has baked a birthday cake, and has a wonderful evening planned for him. Zelda asks Johnny (Johnny Whitaker), and Scott (Scott Kolden) to clean the house in preparation. Sigmund, meanwhile, wants to do something nice for his friends, and plans to clean the house himself.

Alas, it is also Big Daddy's Birthday, and the brothers are asked to clean the cave by Sweet Mama. They don't want to clean it, however, and decide to abduct Sigmund and make him clean the cave instead.  They attack Johnny and Scott's house, make a royal mess, kidnap Sigmund, and take the sheriff's birthday cake too.

Now the boys must retrieve their friend and the cake, before Zelda's big night is ruined.


The fifth episode of the live-action Sid and Marty Krofft series, "Happy Birthdaze" showcases well the the formulaic nature of the series. The format is well-established already.  In each installment, the sea monster family kidnaps one of the protagonists, whether it is Johnny, Scott, or Sigmund, and the others must figure out how to rescue them from the cave.  Some lame deus ex machina helps the protagonists save their friend.

In previous weeks, we have seen Johnny dress as the Frankenstein Monster, or the surprise arrival of the Wolfman. This week, Johnny uses a tape recording of a tsunami to scare the monsters out of their own cave.  The tape recorder gag even recurs in a future episode ("The Dinosaur Show.")

Outside the formula, this episode features an amusing scene of Sigmund's encounter with a persistent mail-man, who wants to deliver a package to Zelda's house. Sigmund is inside, and must pretend to be Zelda, all while not letting him in.

Next week: "The Nasty Nephew."

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Kolchak Blogging: "Firefall" (November 8, 1974)



In “Firefall,” Kolchak (Darren McGavin) follows the unusual case of a local symphony conduct, Ryder Bond (Fred Beir), who seems to be the culprit in a series of arson murders.

On further examination, however, the journalist realizes that the murders may actually be a result of spontaneous combustion, or some supernatural attack. Digging deeper, Kolchak learns that a gangster’s death at a local arcade some time earlier may be the key fact explaining the crimes.  When the gangster, Markoff, died, his spirit became a “doppelganger" and began to murder the friends of Bond, in an effort to take over his life. He has selected Bond as his target because his life-long love of the symphony.

Now, alas, the doppelganger is out to kill Kolchak, a task that can only be accomplished outside of a church, and if Kolchak falls asleep. Kolchak seeks the help of a gypsy fortune teller, Marie (Madlyn Rhue), to help him destroy the terrifying doppelganger. He learns that he must take the doppelganger’s corpse to the place of its death, if he wishes to vanquish this foe.


“Firefall” is the best Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1974) episode since “The Zombie,” which is unusual since the monster of the week, a vengeful spirit, is less colorful, perhaps, than a vampire, a werewolf, an alien, or Jack the Ripper. The episode fits the same formula that viewers will detect in all the episodes, from the hostile authority figures (usually police officers) to the local “color” that is on-the-take, here Rhue’s amusing gypsy.  And yet the story works well, for two reasons, primarily.

First, the doppelganger is legitimately scary. There is a scene here in which the spirit peeks inside at Kolchak and Bond through a church window, smiling malevolently. There is a sense from the monster’s expression that he is feeling tremendous joy from torturing Kolchak and Bond. This villain is downright sinister.


Secondly, Kolchak must solve this case without sleeping. While it’s true that all the “stories” on the series eventually come to involve Kolchak himself, since he is the one to slay the monsters, in this case the monster actually targets the news man and makes his life miserable. Kolchak grows exhausted, but knows if he closes his eyes, it is curtains for him.  Worse, he has no real allies. His friends in the INS office never believe his crazy stories, and Marie just wants Kolchak’s money. As she tells him acerbically: “It’s just terrible to be broke and be superstitious at the same time.”


So, in addition to being alone in his quest, Kolchak must battle his own exhaustion as well as the monster of the week. The episode’s finale finds him finally letting down and falling asleep…in the back of a police car as he is hauled off to jail for arson himself.  I would love to know how Kolchak evaded this charge, since he is directly responsible for the fire that destroys the arcade. And speaking of that arcade, as a fan of vintage games, it is a pleasure to watch this episode and see the pinball machines and other attractions at an arcade in America, circa 1974.

The special effects this week depicting the doppelganger's spectral form are about as weak as we've come to expect from the series, but somehow don't take away from the urgency of the narrative.


Finally, “Firefall” seems to take on a slightly Columbo-esque bent this week, as Kolchak develops a closer-than-usual, bicker-some relationship with the would-be victim of the monster, the haughty Bond. In both situations, a crumpled, slightly biarre (but brilliant) character, digs for the truth while hunting the perpetrator of a crime.

Next week: “The Devil’s Platform.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Coloring Book of the Week: The California Raisins Go to College


The California Raisins Colorforms Playset


Comic Book of the Week: The California Raisins 3-D


Video Game of the Week: The California Raisins - The Grape Escape (Capcom)




Trading Cards of the Week: The California Raisiins World Tour


Board Game of the Week: The California Raisins



Lunch Box of the Week: The California Raisins


Theme Song of the Week: Heard it Through the Grapevine (California Raisins Edition)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

25 Years Ago: The Last Action Hero (1993)


Last Action Hero -- directed by John McTiernan and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger -- was supposed to be the “big ticket” movie of the summer of 1993, but fate had other plans.

That title eventually went to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) instead, and today Last Action Hero is widely remembered as a misfire; a bomb. The film grossed little more than fifty million dollars at the American box office, and earned many negative reviews. I saw the film in the theater in 1993 (long-time Arnie fan, here…) and felt it was disappointing, if not downright awful.

But the purpose of this blog is (at least sometimes…) to re-examine those works of art that have been dismissed, overlooked, or forgotten.

So I wondered: is Last Action Hero worth a second look in 2018?  Has it aged well?


Or, conversely, have I changed as a viewer since 1993, and come to better see what the film was attempting to achieve?

First, let’s focus on the negative aspects of the film and get that out of the way.

More than twenty years later, one can detect the reasons why Last Action Hero so often fails.  At two-hours and eleven minutes in duration, it is simply too long for a film featuring, essentially, a lark as a premise: a real life boy ending up the sidekick of a movie world action hero. 

There’s just too much baggage -- to much detritus -- weighing down those light bones. 

This movie should be -- like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) -- no more than 105 minutes in running time. 

Why?

Any longer than that, and one is bound to start asking questions about the inconsistencies in the premise, and the universe the film creates.

Any longer than that, and the jokes start to repeat, and the performances begin to flat-line from the repetition.  Watching the film becomes a tiresome process by the third act because Last Action Hero doesn’t always seem to know where it is headed.

Secondly, the pace and tone of these two hours and eleven minutes might best be described as leaden. There are plenty of action sequences, certainly, but the plot moves at a snail’s place, and never settles on a consistent tone.

To wit: sometimes the film is a weird and wacky catch-all or satire; an Airplane (1980) type film. But then there are also those moments when viewers are supposed to feel invested in the details of the story, and in following the plot logically from point A to point B. The two approaches collide and the result is an unsatisfying mishmash.  If we are constantly being told that events don’t matter, or that this is all “just a movie,” it becomes ever-more difficult to invest in the plot details.

These facts established, Last Action Hero possesses many good ideas, and even a compelling thematic through-line that I hope to enumerate. That through-line ties into the jokes about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a movie version of the play starring Schwarzenegger (perhaps the best scene in the film…).  It also ties into the characters of Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) and Jack Slater.  All three heroes contend with the same “to be or not to be” existential dilemma.

In short, Last Action Hero is actually about Danny learning what it means to really live life, and to be the hero of his own lie.  First, he learns that lesson in a world with the training wheels on (the movie world) and then he learns it in the real world, where Jack Slater -- his role model and surrogate father -- must learn it beside him. 

And what does Danny learn in the real world?  That unlike the movie world, real world virtues include not expert gunplay, but compassion, loyalty, and love.

It is rewarding and admirable that Last Action Hero tells this story, but after twenty years, it is obvious that the film doesn’t tell it with anything approaching consistency or coherence. 

So what audiences end up with is a sweet, likable film that, despite those qualities, is also often dull and tiresome. 

It makes me sad too.  I want to like this movie more than I do.


“Here, in this world, the bad guys can win.”

Young Danny Madigan (O’Brien) avoids his real life problems (including an apartment in a bad neighborhood and the death of his father) by cutting school and hanging out at the movies with a kindly old projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky).

His favorite movies are those involving a larger-than-life action hero named Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) and his exploits as an L.A. cop.

With Slater IV due in theaters, Nick invites Danny to an advance screening of the sequel late one night. He also gives Danny a golden ticket given to him years earlier by Harry Houdini. 

As Danny discovers, that ticket possesses magic powers, and can open a bridge between the movie universe and the real universe.  Danny is swept across this bridge, and meets his hero, Jack Slater, in a movie-version of Los Angeles.

In the movie world, Jack is tangling with an evil hitman named Benedict (Charles Dance) and his mob boss, Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn). Danny helps Slater defeat the bad guys, and also reckon with the fact that he is actually living inside a movie.

Later Benedict gets ahold of the magic ticket stub, and moves into the real world. There, the villain realizes that bad guys can win, and with the help of the villain of Slater III, The Ripper (Tom Noonan), decides to set off on a reign of terror at the world premiere of Slater IV, where star Arnold Schwarzenegger is schedule to appear…

Now Danny and Jack must stop Benedict and the Ripper, and Jack must come face-to-face with his celebrity alter-ego.


“You can’t die until the grosses go down.”

There’s an amusing moment of allusion in Last Action Hero involving Charles Dance’s character, Benedict.  This assassin has stolen the magical golden ticket, and discovered that it opens the doorway to another dimension; to the real world. 

As Benedict’s hand lightly brushes the portal to that universe, a TV on in the background plays the opening narration and theme to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). This detail is an intriguing point of connection between productions.  Like those visiting The Twilight Zone, Benedict can now travel to another dimension.

Yet, by the same token, The Twilight Zone signifies something else significant: economy of storytelling.

Each episode of the series (except for those airing in the fourth season) are just a half-hour in length. They vet their wild tales, offer a few surprises, and then finish with astonishing rapidity and grace…often before too many questions can be asked. 

Last Action Hero alludes to The Twilight Zone in this scene, but takes a faulty creative approach by comparison.  The film is too long, too big, and too byzantine, and it lingers on details of a whimsical story that, simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For instance, if Jack (and all movie heroes) are bullet-proof in the movie world, essentially, then from what source should the movie’s tension arise?  If bad guys literally can’t win in the movie world (as Benedict verbally indicates) then why and how are we supposed to feel anxiety when Jack or Danny is imperiled by them?

This criticism is not meant to indicate that the movie doesn’t have fun with this idea of the movie universe, at least at points.  “You know, tar actually sticks to some people,” Danny tells Slater after he falls into tar pits, unscathed.  His status as indestructible is appropriately funny, but it also eliminates some aspects of immediacy from the story.

Somewhere in Last Action Hero, a really good movie is buried, and it attempts to surface several times. 

For instance, the movie uses Hamlet as a kind of base-line for action heroes and action hero behavior.  A high school teacher describes Denmark’s prince as the first such action hero, actually.  Yet Hamlet is paralyzed and defined by his inability to act, to do something; to defeat his enemies.

Humorously, the McTiernan film proposes an alternative to this hesitating, melancholy prince: a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Chomping a cigar and blowing enemies away with automatic weapons, this Hamlet has no problems acting with terminal force, or intensity.  There is nothing diffident about him at all. 

The “Trailer” for the Schwarzenegger Hamlet is uproariously funny, and strikes the exact right note of absurdity.  But more to the point, it is used, thematically, to let us know that Danny is -- like Hamlet -- unable to act forcefully, which is the very reason he looks up to substitute father-figure Jack Slater.


When a burglar breaks into Danny’s apartment, he gives Danny every opportunity to take his weapon, a knife, and fight him.  But Danny -- like Hamlet -- does nothing. He can’t will himself to act. And while watching Hamlet on TV in school, Danny becomes invested in the action (or lack of action). He urges Olivier’s Hamlet to “stop talking” and “do something.” Clearly, this is something personal for Danny. Although he aspires to be a Jack Slater, we learn that he sees himself as a Hamlet.  He is paralyzed over his father’s death (a death he shares in common with the prince from Denmark), and does not yet know how to act, or how to survive in this dangerous “real” world.

Danny then travels into the movie world, where Slater -- an action hero -- acts without thinking, without hesitation, and without deadly consequence. Slater can’t lose, and apparently can’t feel fear, so he always wins the day.  But the universe itself is stacked in his favor. Danny takes baby steps towards growth and survival in this universe, attempting a game of chicken against a speeding car, and learning to operate a dangerous crane.  In other words, he begins “acting” the role of hero. He emulates Jack, but does so in a safe environment; one where the good guys always win and he is no physical danger.

Then, in the movie’s final act, Danny and Slater pursue Benedict to the real world, a place with absolutely real danger, and where the bad guys can win. In this world, Slater is the child, playing by a set of rules he doesn’t understand, and therefore Danny learns the necessity of pro-active behaviors or action.  He must save his friend, who is badly wounded after a confrontation with Benedict. When Slater is shot, Danny realizes that the qualities he always had inside -- compassion, loyalty, and love -- are the very things that impel him to act decisively; to be a hero. He overcomes his Hamlet dilemma and becomes the hero of his own life.

All of this material fits together in Last Action Hero, and Slater even comments at one point that “the world is what you make of it, Danny.”  This is simply another way of expressing the idea that we can re-shape the world in a way to our liking if only we act, and act intelligently.  That’s the film’s dedicated leitmotif, and Last Action Hero is sweet because it is about a boy who thinks he needs a father figure but then -- through his interactions with that “idol” -- realizes that he can be the person he wants to be, and needs to be, all under his own steam.

Without being disrespectful, I would assert merely that Last Action Hero could tell this story -- and make this point -- more efficiently, and with greater discipline. The celebrity cameos are fun, the knocks-against movies are funny, and the explorations of tropes (like the wrong-headed, screaming police superior) are on target, but in some sense they are all but noise that ultimately takes away from the through-line I mentioned above.

I’m a huge admirer of McTiernan’s work in film, and his serious, grounded, approach to action but he doesn’t boast a very good “light” or “whimsical” touch on this project. This feels like a film tailor made for Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis, and I feel that McTiernan expends too much time and energy on the bells and whistles -- the fights, the chases, and the pyrotechnics -- when what he really needs to focus on, front and center, is the shifting relationship between Danny and Slater, and the way the Hamlet story illuminates Danny’s story.

Tar doesn’t stick to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was back in 1994 in the triumphant True Lies, but one can see why he was drawn to this script and this project. Somewhere, deep down, Last Action Hero is all about the way young children build-up “heroes” of the silver screen, but fail to take into account the fact that they thrive in a world unlike our own; one of different rules.

Schwarzenegger is terrific as Slater, a man who starts to realize that all his success may not be due to his own skills, but the nature of reality itself. There’s a great scene here in which Slater questions his life, and he reasons that it has gotten so weird lately.  Danny sympathizes and tells him it’s a matter of the rules.  “These are the sequels. They gotta get hard…”

The fickle Gods of film, right?


They give, and they take away. Even Slater’s boy was taken away from him so that he could have a “tragic past” to overcome.

Watching Last Action Hero again twenty-one years later, I knew what to expect, and so didn’t feel the same disappointment that I did in 1993. 

But, oppositely, I feel that this film has so much of value to say, but is lazy and disjointed in the expression of its valid and intriguing messages.  Last Action Hero demanded a light touch -- a director who would fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee -- but instead the film is played with the seriousness of a project like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988) or Hunt for Red October (1988).

The result?  “No sequel” for action hero Slater.

And honestly, that makes me a bit sad. The character is great, and deserved a better vehicle for his movie debut. At the very least, Last Action Hero’s heart is in the right spot.

It’s just too bad the rest of the movie is all over the place.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Guest Post: The Incredibles 2 (2018)




The Incredibles 2: The Incredibles family returns to fight for their rights to defend Earth"

By Jonas Schwartz

After 14 years, the sequel to the Pixar/Disney hit The Incredibles bulldozes its way back into theaters with new adventures, new powers, and new adversaries. Though set in a fantasy version of the 1960s, the film meddles in a retro version of the sexual revolution by focusing on patriarchal toxicity and the male's reluctance to accept females as fully equal.  

Like the Avengers at the beginning of Captain America: Civil War, superhero-dom has been castigated. A disastrous mission that leaves a city in ruins further alienates the heroes, who become a scapegoat for the government. The Parrs, Bob (Craig T Nelson), Helen (Holly Hunter), and their three children must remain underground because saving the world is an illegal act.

When billionaire siblings (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) finance a mission to recreate good buzz for the superhero mission, they choose the more diplomatic Helen to be the face of heroes to Bob's chagrin. While Helen fights for justice, Bob becomes Mr. Super-Mom, forced to care for the three kids. Leaping 20 story buildings and outracing bullets may be a breeze, but keeping his eldest Violet from depression over a boy, his Peck's bad boy son Dash from being Super-rambunctious, and his unpredictable infant Jack-Jack from demolishing everything in his path is a gargantuan task.



Director Brad Bird, responsible for the original megahit, continues to shape a movie version of the '60s glamour with architecture and visual style of the early James Bond films as well as the constructs of Disneyland's park Tomorrowland (Bird had two years ago made a live action version of said park which was a critical and commercial disappointment). Michael Giacchino's music harks back to John Barry's iconic Bond scores of the '60s. The animation is a cornucopia for the eyes. CGI has become so adept at simulating water, haze, and the flow of hair, that often it's unbelievable the audience is not seeing actual photography. The twilight times when the sky and clouds are translucent has been transferred beautifully to the screen.

Bird's configuration of the final climax on a speeding cruise ship forces your heart into your throat. It is on par with Bird's filming of Tom Cruise hanging off the Dubai high rise hotel in the best Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol. The audience has invested in the Incredible family and their welfare and reputation drive the audience to pray for a successful, and fatality-less ending.

The script itself is functional, but not groundbreaking. Though the switched marriage role scenario fits in with the '60s milieu, it's an old-hat construct. The villain's domination plan is rather lame, and the script doesn't seem to have purposely created an absurd revenge crime to comment on that superhero/superspy cliché like Amazon's brilliant The Tick season two with Jackie Earl Haley's The Terror, therefore it lowers the heft of Incredibles 2's antagonist.

The characters have been voiced by major talents, and they all show the shading and intelligence one would expect from Hunter, Odenkirk, Nelson, Keener, and Samuel L Jackson (who returns as Frozone). As in the first film, the highlight is director Bird as the fussy fashion guru Edna Mode.

A fun summer film, Incredibles 2 will keep the entire family amused. One only wishes that the story had found something new to say to warrant the Parrs' return after so many years.



Check out Jonas's other reviews at www.theatermania.com/author/jonas-schwartz_169 

The Cult-TV Faces of: Medals

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