Friday, June 30, 2006

Production Diary # 8: The House Between: The REAL Production Diary

Okay, when I was blogging about director "lessons" yesterday, I forgot one of the most important lessons I learned while filming The House Between.

Whatever you do, leave your props under lock and key...

Because, if you don't, wackiness ensues. To wit, our second episode "Settled," involves the discovery of a diary that has emotional meaning for Bill Clark (Mercer), one of our leads. There's a scene where he finally breaks down and reads it, finding a tender message from his daughter, Samantha....whom he has been separated from.


Don't you know, every damn day, cast and crew members took it upon themselves to surreptitiously (that means sneakily...) write diary "entries" that mark the making of the production, as well as reveal generally unhinged states of mind.

So today I am presenting, in all its glory, the REAL production diary prop from The House Between. In the interest of decency, only the PG pages are included. I will keep this authentic The House Between collectible for a while (as well as the companion diary...which is burned...) and then auction them on E-Bay for lots and lots of money. No just kidding. No E-Bay! No E-Bay!

Space:1999 Year Two Omnibus!

Well lookie, lookie what I found on the Muir Moonbase landing pad yesterday morning!

Direct from Powys Media in sunny California comes the spanking new Space:1999 book release: a gigantic 442-page tome; an omnibus Year Two edition that features adaptations of every Year Two episode produced back in 1976. This colossal effort is by Michael Butterworth, and yours truly was one of many editors on the vast project (along with Jon Blum, Mateo Latosa, and William Latham). It's a substantial piece of work, and -- in it's own fashion -- revolutionary in terms of tie-ins.

But the dust jacket interior describes it all much better than I could:

Initially published as six individual books, this omnibus edition, newly revised by the author, contains all the episode novelizations from the original editions plus - for the first time - the novelization of "The Taybor."

In addition, this volume presents the episodes in corrected order, following the chronological dating convention employed in the television series.

In this precedent-setting edition, the texts have been revised and amended to ensure a consistent connected continuity with the first season of SPACE:1999 -- YEAR ONE - and with the line of original novels already published and forthcoming from Powys Media. The goal is to create a single, unified, internally consistent literary epic tale.

Nice huh? This limited edition book is not only gorgeous (and exquisitely laid out...), it packs a wallop. My only problem is finding a place in my office to display it...

For the record, the stories adapted here are: "The Metamorph," "The Exiles," "One Moment of Humanity," "All That Glisters," "The Mark of Archanon," "Journey to Where," "The Taybor," "The Rules of Luton," "New Adam, New Eve," "Brian the Brain," "Catacombs of the Moon," "The AB Chrysalis," "The Beta Cloud," "Seed of Destruction," "A Matter of Balance," "Space Warp," "The Bringers of Wonder" (Parts I & II), "Dorzak," "The Seance Spectre," "Devil's Planet," "The Lambda Factor," "The Immunity Syndrome," and "The Dorcons."

There's also a revealing, behind-the-scenes foreword by author Butterworth, and an amusing, informative afterword by Mateo.

If you're interested in ordering this incredible labor of love, this limited edition Space:1999 collectible, go to Powys Media here.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Production Diary # 7: The House Between: Director Lessons

I've directed various and sundry no-budget productions before (with titles like Salvation's Eclipse [1998], Rock'n'Roll Vampires from Hell [1989], Slaves of the Succubus [1992], and Annie Hell [1999])), but nothing - NOTHING - could compare to the experience of prepping, shooting and "experiencing" The House Between, my independently-crafted TV show (which I am currently editing with Rick Coulter). I feel I learned more about movie-making/TV production on this shoot than all my previous efforts combined. It was an immersive and transformative experience for me. I hope that doesn't sound self-congratulatory or anything like that. I'm just saying that, above all else, and putting other considerations aside...I loved the journey.

And that's important to me, not just because I enjoy crafting origin
al material and taking it from script to screen, but because as a professional writer of many books about film and television, I've always felt it is important to understand the process and experience of moviemaking. That's what a lot of film and TV journalists don't get or don't understand (and which endlessly vexes me as a reader). For me to be a good reviewer, a smart and knowledgeable one, I think it's necessary that I've practiced the matter if it is on a no budget production or low budget one.

Someone once said to me at a convention that you can't give a movie or TV show an "A" for effort; that it doesn't work that way. But in some sense, I think perhaps it does. I guess what I'm saying is that I would prefer to sit in a theater and view an ambitious failure, something new and exciting and different (even if flawed...) rather than something mainstream and uninventive. Knowing and understanding and working through the difficul
ties of the filmmaking process from start to finish, I certainly hope I've garnered a vital perspective on how and why failures occur; on how important some shots can become; and why film and television straddle the worlds of art and business. A journalist who's never lifted a finger; never written a script; never acted; never held a camera...well, they're basing their reviews essentially on...what? Personal subjective opinion? Maybe? You tell me.

So anyway, today I thought I would chat just a little bit about some of the innumerable and valuable lessons I learned while crafting The House Between. I should note, these are pretty much my subjective feelings and thoughts alone. Others on the project boast their own uinque experiences; their own remembrances, and I respect all of them. These are just my feelings, pure and simple.

1.) Casting is vitally important. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Scotty urged one of his co-workers to use "the right tool for the right job." I don't know if I ever understood before how important casting truly is; finding the "right person" for the "right job." But down to the last person (including our guest star), I felt that we had the right person for the right character each and every time. Despite all the Z-Grade stuff I've done over the years, I don't know that I've ever felt how tangible and vital good casting can be. In the past, I usually just cast my friends...and some were absolutely wonderful and some were...not. Here, everybody is - of course - a friend too, but each talent brought new layers to the characters I had crafted. People grew into their roles; people understood their roles; and if I may be so bold - I think some people fell in love with their characters too. I know I fell in love wit
h all of them. I loved that by the third day of the shoot, actors were commenting critically about the scripts; that their characters wouldn't act in a certain fashion at a certain juncture.

2.) Vision meets Reality and in the end comes compromise. After much delay, I learned that not every single shot is going to be the most beautiful, meaningful and artistic portrait in the world. Sometimes it can't be...for very dramatic physical reasons, especially if the parameters of your set won't permit it; or if you don't have a louma crane, or the like. A corollary to this is the following advice: don't shoot important scenes in the parlor. For some reason, our parlor location was just cursed. Every time we did a scene there, it turned into a disaster. Maybe it was the size of the room; perhaps it was that there was a mirror involved. Who knows...

3.)Trust the experts. I learned that there is no crime and no dishonor in stepping back and allowing for collaboration; permitting for the experts to do their jobs; to incorporate the creative originality of other talents. To give you a for instance: At first, I felt really guilty and lame that I was stepping back and letting a stunt coordinator (the exquisite Rob Floyd) block the fight scenes. I mean, I'm supposed to be an auteur, right? But then I realized, that's what a good director (or good captain) does. He must trust his people...he must solicit their input and more.

For the first time on a movie shoot, I actually had a resource like Rob at my disposal (both in terms of make-up/SPFX and stunts), and I would have been foolish and short-sighted not to unleash his creative genius. But instinctively and personally, that was tough for me at the start to understand...I felt guilty. And then, honestly, when I saw what Rob could do, I instantly felt overwhelming relief. It was one more thing I didn't have to handle myself. I could worry about the shots; about the script; about the characters; about the schedule; and trust in Rob to get the best out of the actors and the movements. The same was true with the lighting. It was just best to get out of the way and let my brilliant lighting directors do their job...because they understood things I didn't. How wonderful is that?! To have such resources at your disposal?

4.)Respect the process of the others. Everybody works in a different way, and again, this was something I learned and came to respect. Some actors preferred extensive preparation to get them "in the mood" for the scene; others just wanted to step in and do it without much discussion. Some preferred spontaneity; some wanted rehearsal after rehearsal. I feel that watching To
ny Mercer, Jim Blanton, Kim Breeding, Lee Hansen, and Alicia A. Wood, I came to understand the process of acting better than ever before. I also learned that for each actor, there was a different set of issues, a different set of insecurities and that as a director, it was my job to find the best way to communicate with each particular talent. I don't know if I always achieved that goal, but one of the best and most enjoyable things for me in directing this bunch was learning how to relate with each person and personality in a way that took into account their needs and work process. It was... quite simply ...wonderful.

5.)Be prepared, but being in the moment is actually more important. I had shot lists going in to The House Between, at least on "Arrived" and "Settled." But you know, there's that old adage about war, that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and I think it also holds for filmmaking. I knew what I wanted, but if I had been rigid about those shot lists, we would have missed some great opportunities. In particular, in the fifth episode, "Mirrored," everybody on the production began thinking outside of the routine, outside the letter of the script, and in terms of character and emotions. Suddenly, we were picking up on new things, shooting original material and taking it all in a new direction. It felt great. Shooting that episode, I think, was the best day of the whole shoot. At least for me.

6. Never stop moving. Because if you do, you'll realize how fricking tired you are, and how crazy the whole enterprise is, and how many obstacles you have in front of you, and why this whole damn thing is impossible. Like a shark, you've got to keep swimming. If you stop, insecurity will snap at your butt.

So that's my sermon for the day.

CULT TV REVIEW: The Omega Factor: "The Undiscovered Country"

I've read little bits and pieces about the enigmatic BBC horror TV series The Omega Factor for a long, long time now. Created by Jack Gerson, the series lasted a scant ten episodes back in 1979, was a great source of social controversy in London (since the grandmother of the video nasty debate of the 1980s, Mary Whitehouse protested the series' supernatural/paranormal themes...), and has been heralded far and wide as the one of the fathers of genre television, with The X-Files named as a frequent and primary offspring. Thus I've been...curious.

Now, courtesy of DVD Box Sets, "the BBC's groundbreaking supernatural series" is available to view for the first time in twenty-five years, and, well, I couldn't resist. It was about a year-and-a-half-ago that I re-discovered Sapphire and Steel on DVD, another 1970s British TV classic, so I figured I couldn't go wrong with The Omega Factor.

And so far - more or less - I don't think I have; though right off the bat, The Omega Factor is neither as narratively crisp nor as visually confident as the glacial, assured Sapphire & Steel. Like many BBC productions of the day (the disco decade), there is virtually zero on-screen in terms of good production values (though that's just fine with me, honestly...), and the special effects can only kindly be referred to as such. More like modest effects than special ones, actually. But again, that's fine. The Omega Factor boasts other strengths.

Still, the opening credits of The Omega Factor open in cheesy 1970s fashion with a bleeping sine wave, a negative image of our protagonist running in the woods (apparently)... and a kind of kaleidoscope vision of his head, rendered pink or purple and colorized to look scary. Later in the first episode, the limitations of the primitive video technology are revealed several times. To wit, light sources actually "bleed" on-screen whenever a camera moves away from a light source. I owned an early home video camera in 1987 that did the same thing; so I'm all too familiar with this drawback of the early format. If you didn't want to catch the bleed, you couldn't move your camera within the composition, which seriously hinders your ability to craft mise-en-scene.

Still, I maintain you don't watch Blake's 7, Sapphire & Steel, Doctor Who or - I now know - The Omega Factor for gee-whiz, Hollywood-style special effects and production values. Instead, there are other virtues to be enjoyed (exquisite dialogue, provocative themes, etc.) and after the first episode, "The Undiscovered Country," I think The Omega Factor probably deserves to be ranked with these other British series, even if (at least in its premiere...) the show tends to be stagey and overly sedate.

The Omega Factor is the story of Tom Crane (James Hazeldine), a British journalist who has been experiencing bad dreams of late, and - though he's suppressed it - is a so-called "sensitive," a man capable of psychic visions and the like. Research on an article about the paranormal takes Tom to Edinburgh, and he becomes embroiled in a criminal case to find a missing woman there. At the same time, he makes contact with a gloomy fellow named Drexel (Cyril Luckham), a man who claims to be a powerful psychic, and is always accompanied by a strange, silent female. Drexel feels threatened by Crane's repressed telepathic powers and tells him to leave Edinburgh immediately...or else. "Don't loiter," Drexel suggests menacingly, "you won't like it if you do..."

But Tom does loiter, and follows a series of psychic clues (rendered to him through the paranormal art of automatic writing) and locates the missing woman's body in a tense scene that nicely resolves the mystery. The only problem I saw with this corpse-discovery sequence is that The Omega Factor temporarily forgets the importance of a very non-paranormal sense: smell.) Kathryn pointed this out to me while we watched the show. Tom's nose would have detected the corpse even before his eyes did.

Anyway, despite Drexel's warning, Tom does linger in Edinburgh and is joined there by his wife, Julia (Joanna Tope). One night, while Tom and Julia are driving about on a country road, the evil and powerful Drexel makes good on his warning. His mysterious female companion suddenly appears on a dark stretch of road in front of the automobile, and Tom swerves to avoid hitting her. A car accident ensues and Julia is killed. At the funeral, the strange siren appears again, unnoticed...

Sometime later, a frightened and mourning Tom is contacted back in his flat by a civil servant, Andrew Scott-Erskine (Brown Derby). Erskine tells Tom that Julia, his dead wife, was actually an agent for the government's Department 7, and that her assignment was to monitor her husband for signs of psychic activity. Furthermore, Erskine wants Tom himself to join up with Department 7, a branch which examines "The Omega Factor in life...the potential of the human mind." Understanding that "no man is whole until he understands himself," and that Department 7 is his key to catching and punishing Drexel, "a dangerous man" responsible for Julia's death, Tom agrees to sign on with the mysterious experimental unit. He'll work side-by-side with a psychiatrist named Dr. Anne Reynolds, a "scientist" (a la Scully...) character...played by Louise Jameson (the actress who played the fetching Leela during a season with Tom Baker on Dr. Who). His boss is psychiatrist Roy Martindale (John Carlisle), a bit of a cold fish.

"The Undiscovered Country" (directed by Paddy Russell) is not exactly earth-shattering television, but it is highly compelling and smart. Almost to a fault, actually. The pacing shall I put this? It's...British. Still, there are some trippy visuals at the start of the episode involving an odd man sitting in a doctor's chair, surrounded by pure white background, focusing on a bizarre M.C. Escher-type painting. This sequence is ultimately explained as a "test" for Tom. Crane receives the images of the paintings in the form of a nightmare, and proceeds to meditate on the idea of "the terror of whiteness." Personally, I think this is a trenchant horror notion that I've only rarely seen explained in horror film or television. Much of the terror generated by Michael Myers in Halloween, I believe, is based on the concept of "the terror of whiteness," the concept of a blank, white slate, emerging from darkness. We project all of our fears and horrors onto that white mask, onto that abyss of ivory staring back at us, and in some small way The Omega Factor registers this idea of "mirrors reflecting mirrors."

There's also a nicely frightening scene (utilizing a hand-held camera...) in which Tom is pursued by something ominous in the dark, in the middle of the night. We see him walking alone on a street as a the night lights begin to deactivate, one-at-a-time behind him, until he seeks refuge in a telephone booth (not a TARDIS, alas). Then, he is overcome by what appears to be floating jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the image of Drexel's black eyes. It's primitively rendered, but expressive cinematically in a way that CGI just isn't.

But "The Undiscovered Country" isn't all hugs and puppies either. Early in the episode, there's an extended dialogue sequence in a pub involving a character named Alfred Oliphant (actor Colin Douglas), and Douglas is so over-the-top, so theatrical and florid, his voice so booming and grand, that his performance nearly sinks the credibility of the entire enterprise, which seeks to gaze at mind power, thought-transference and other psychic phenomena. The Omega Factor does so through the rubric of real research and science in the field. Hence the aura of scientific detachment is broken by this performance. Also, Tom Crane is not the most interesting or vital-seeming series lead (and his mourning seems particularly stiff-upper-lippy), and Louise Jameson is given virtually nothing to do in this pilot.

Still, best not to judge a series by the first episode alone, and what I see in "The Undiscovered Country" is mostly commendable. The focus is serious and dedicated; the dialogue is intelligent, and I'm not bothered by the fact that the show is mostly talky (I've been known to write talky dialogue, myself...). Perhaps most importantly, despite sub par effects, "The Undiscovered Country" captures the chill and fear of the supernatural with grace and simplicity. I never cracked a sweat or a chill watching the freshman season of the underwhelming WB scare series Supernatural, but The Omega Factor is wonky, unnerving and on some level, unsettling. The sequence in which Tom drives that country road at night, his car's headlights the only illumination, is pretty fear-inducing. We anticipate the worst happening, and it does, in a splendidly staged car crash that is highly realistic (and highly brief...).

Obviously, I'm only one episode in here, but I can see how The Omega Factor has resonated over the decades and across other genre series. The new Night Stalker (not the original Kolchak...) that aired briefly on ABC this year featured Kolchak as a journalist (like Tom) whose wife is killed in a car accident (like Tom), and who uses this tragic incident as the catalyst to investigate the paranormal (like Tom). None of those touches came from the original Kolchak, except the character's vocation, and they had to come from somewhere. On the other hand, I didn't see a whole lot of The X-Files least not yet. That series' bread-and-butter was the twin world view, the twin lens of science and "belief" and I didn't find that material in The Omega Factor. Also, The X-Files depends on strong characterization and the chemistry between Mulder and Scully to drive many episodes, and there's no such chemistry here between Crane and Reynolds. They hardly seem to notice one another. Maybe that will change.

Next episode: "Visitations."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

South Park 2006: Shark Jumping?

I am a self-acknowledged, avowed fan and admirer of the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I've enthusiastically posted about their work here on the blog. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) is an undeniable masterpiece both in terms of comedy and film musicals (and yes, I actually own the soundtrack). And frankly, I'd also put Team America: World Police (2004) in that camp. Heck, I even like Orgazmo (1997) a lot. Week in and week out - for ten seasons now - South Park the TV series has made me laugh, snort, and frequently gasp.

But I've had a kind of sinking feeling watching this season unspool on Comedy Central. It feels like a rough spell for the durable comedy series. How can I write such a thing? Well, South Park has always had a vicious, wonderfully wicked streak that I adore. But to go alongside with that mean streak, the show has always been scrupulously honest and fair in its indictments of politicians, actors and American culture. The saving grace of the series has always been that it sees matters clearly, cutting through talking points and B.S. In a world where there isn't much common sense, South Park, for all its absurdities, has proven a bastion of common sense. I don't always agree with the conclusions reached by the creators of the show, but I've always admired how they state the case, and bring clarity to it.

And, of course, South Park has always been unrelentingly funny. I still feel shock and awe at that episode from 2005 referencing the Terri Schiavo case (and simultaneously the release of the PSP.) That episode was one of the most daring, original and brilliant things I've ever seen on TV in a long, long time. It took its shots at both sides of that issue and came to a smart, even-handed conclusion.

And yet despite so many past triumphs, I can't help believing that South Park has lost some mo jo this season. The season opener (which enjoyed tremendous ratings...) felt like a personal vendetta against Isaac Hayes over his choice of religion, Scientology. It likened that admittedly-distasteful religion to child molesting...which is a really low blow. But okay, fine...that's what South Park does, and usually there's a point. And yet, going back in South Park's long and storied history, you can actually find an episode about child molesters (a convention of them; and also a jab at Catholicism). You can also find another episode thoroughly mocking Scientology, and in particular, Tom Cruise. So at best, the "Return of Chef" episode is a rehash. And I know this is a matter for personal taste...but I don't think it was particularly funny. Now the one with Tom Cruise locked in the closet? That was funny.

Then there was the episode this season that was supposed to be a reflection of the controversy surrounding Oprah Winfrey, James Frey, and his "fictionalized" memoirs, A Million Little Pieces. In the South Park version, the stoned "worst character ever," Towelie, writes his own fictionalized story and then appears on Oprah's show. But along the way, Oprah's apparently sentient private parts (literally, her ass and her...well you know...) stage a revolt against the TV show host for her long-time neglect of them. The episode was shocking, to be certain, but also - again - lacking even one genuine laugh.

Heck, I'm all for knocking down sacred cows like Oprah Winfrey. As far as I'm concerned, too often she gets a free pass from the MSM. However, the show just felt...mean. And mean by itself isn't good enough, as South Park has proven over its long run. It has to be mean, cogent and funny. And this episode was only one of those things. If you're going to go after Oprah, why not point out how she's a two-faced Janus, going on "black" radio saying she likes to listen to rap on her I-Pod, but then failing to book rap artists on her "soccer mom"-friendly TV series? Or why not go after her for the fact that she has turned a program that used to be about self-help and growth into a long commercial for expensive Oprah products? She's caved to craven commercialism...that's the thing to attack, I'd wager.

And then there was the South Park episode this season in which a "perfect storm" of smugness, caused by the air over "liberal" San Francisco, Hybrid car owners in South Park, and George Clooney's Oscar acceptance speech threatened to destroy the American West. I don't really care about politics if a show is funny, but this episode is - again - a retread of a great episode from last season in which the townspeople believe they are under attack by global warming. Why do it again so soon?

In both cases, the series takes the hard-right, Republican/conservative stance that global warming is junk science and hooey, and that's the creator's right to adopt and express that point of view...but do the creators of South Park seriously believe that hybrid car drivers are causing global warming (a phenomenon which they don't believe in, anyway)? Where have Matt Stone and Trey Parker been during the SUV years? Why have they been silent about that? What about the smugness FOR FRICKING YEARS of SUV drivers who hog the road, take up two parking spaces, and generally endanger the unlucky plebians who are still driving sedans? There are those of us who could never afford an SUV, and have had to deal with the smugness of those drivers since the mid-1990s. I mean, SUV drivers make me puke...watching people who never hiked a day in their lives buy these cars because they could go "off-road" with them? I mean, what the hell? Where was South Park to comment on that?

One funny thing about hybrid cars is that the same people who jumped mindlessly on the SUV bandwagon are now the ones jumping on the hybrid car bandwagon. That's what's funny...not that hybrids make liberals smug (because let's face it, a lot of things make liberals smug these days; most of all the Bush administration...). And depicting the people of San Francisco as people who like to smell their own farts? One: that's not funny because comedy always has to be "reality plus one step further" and this concept has no relation to reality. And two: could you even imagine what the likes of Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh would say about a TV show that portrayed the population of an entire Red State City as backwards, ignorant, and gap-toothed? If the people of San Francisco actually liked the smell of their own farts, this joke would be amusing but I've never met anyone from San Francisco who did anything like that. Or anybody anywhere.

And hold up - George Clooney's smugness is a "threat" to the fabric of our society?! What about Donald "we know where the weapons of mass destruction are" Rumsfeld's smugness? What about Dick "they're in the last throes" Cheney's smugness? What about George "we never anticipated the storm would breach the levees" Bush's smugness? What about Condi "I believe it was titled was Bin Laden determined to strike inside the U.S." Rice's smugness? Can George Clooney's smugness even rate on the scale of the cosmic smugness we've seen evidenced from the Administration in the last six years? If you want to go after a smug and annoying Democrat, that's cool - have at it. Personally, I'd pick Hillary take your shot. But George Clooney?! I guess what I'm saying is that (of late anyway), South Park has simply not passed the honesty smell taste. It is now purely and simply pushing one side of various hot-button issues, and furthermore rehashing issues it has already covered...solely to take pot shots at the people the creators of the series apparently don't like.

I loved Team America, and it certainly took shots at folks like Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore. Truthfully, I get a kick out of puncturing self-importance like that. I'm not so set in my ways or so closed-off that I can't laugh at these jokes, or see the truth behind them. But now South Park wants me to believe that hybrid drivers are creating our environmental problems? That liberal actors are the people driving our country into war, chaos, deficit spending and the like? Funny, not a one of them holds high office, or sits in the Majority in Congress or is warming the bench of the Supreme Court. They may be loud and obnoxious (and many are...), but they don't actually have any real power...except the power to gab. And that's Free Speech, baby. Like it or not.

But leaving political pandering aside, South Park's flaw this season is simply that it hasn't been consistently or often funny. Perhaps all the glowing talk of "South Park Republicans" has finally gotten to the show's creators. Sure, they can take any political stance they want (that's free speech, baby...), but I watch the show to laugh and be entertained. And the show has failed dramatically on those fronts. The perfect storm of smugness, I fear, is the one emanating from the show's creators this year. Suddenly, they realize they have something important to say (which makes them a heck of a lot like George Clooney, doesn't it?). A few years ago, South Park would have made fun of that very notion...that a basic cable comedy cartoon would try to influence how a culture thinks. Now, the show is too busy sampling its own farts, I suppose, to smell the irony.

TV REVIEW: Captain Scarlet: "Swarm"

The second episode of the new Gerry Anderson CG series, Captain Scarlet (written by Phil Ford) is entitled "Swarm" and involves yet another Mysteron attempt to destroy the agents of SPECTRUM. In this case, the gorgeous pilot Destiny Angel inadvertently brings back a swarm of little green insectoid robots to Skybase after a mysterious plane invades SPECTRUM airspace and is destroyed.

These "cyber bugs" are actually a secret, experimental weapon (built by the United States, if I recall correctly...), but one turned against mankind by those Mysteron scoundrels.. Once aboard Skybase, the creepy little bugs start multiplying and breeding (with yucky egg sacs), until Destiny and Captain Scarlet at last find a way to destroy them. "It's time to wash these bugs down the drain," Scarlet notes, after realizing that water is the bugs' one weakness. Meanwhile, Lt. Green gets more than she bargained for when she is cocooned by the bugs and they start to scan her mind for detailed information about the layout of Skybase (which leads them to the atomic reactor...).

Watching this episode of Captain Scarlet, which I enjoyed even more than the two-part pilot, I felt the warm and happy glow of nostalgia. Not so much for Captain Scarlet or the other supermarionation shows, but for the mod-1960s live-action epic, UFO...which I still love (flaws and all). "Swarm" felt very much like an episode of that series, only modulated with the latest CG effects to be more dramatic. The narrative is familiar, however: an alien plot to subvert mankind's last line of defense.

And hey -- wasn't someone going to remake UFO a couple of years ago? I think it would be a cool idea, but - to get off topic - I'd miss the series' (now misplaced...) sense of futurism, the feeling that the 1980s would be a glorious extension of the freewheeling late 1960s (including a mod, flamboyant sense of fashion, an optimism about space travel; casual sex, and lots and lots of drinking...). The new Captain Scarlet, made in our lugubrious, conservative 21st century (the era of the PG-13 horror film...), doesn't reflect any of that wonderful old Anderson stuff, but the stories, characters and technology do indeed feel familiar...and charming. If only the late Ed Bishop were around to give voice to Captain Scarlet.

Now that would be cool.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 42: The Interchangeable World of the Micronauts

Okay. This is a post I have wanted to write since I first began blogging in the Spring of '05. As you know, I possess an office filled with a plethora of sci-fi toys (primarily from the 1970s and 1980s), but one toy line which has fascinated me since childhood has not yet been featured here: Mego Corp's incredible "Micronauts" (or more accurately "The Interchangeable World of the Micronauts").

Why haven't I featured the Micronauts before? Well, quite frankly, of all my toys, very few Micronauts survived my long (and continuing...) journey to adulthood. Until this past weekend, I owned the Hornetroid spaceship (which is cool beyond reckoning), a Baron Karza action figure I got for Christmas in 1980, and a Space Glider figure I picked up at a flea market about five years ago. I also have a relatively complete line of Marvel Micronaut comic books, but they aren't toys...

However, when I went over to my parents' house for dinner this Saturday night, I discovered they had made a yard sale plunder. They had bought for me a mint-in-box Micronauts Giant Acroyear and a complete-in-box (but not mint box...) Micronauts Mobile Exploration Lab. The total price tag? Five frickin' dollars! My parents occasionally do something like this...they find me a treasure that just blows my mind. (Last year they found me a dinky die-cast metal SHADO 2 tank from the Gerry Anderson TV series UFO...which they picked up for two dollars...).

But back to the Micronauts. You see, I had kept an eye on E-Bay for toys like these...but they are always out of my financial reach. So I elected to keep my collecting attention on collections I already had a lot of: Space:1999, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. The Micronauts, I feared, were simply out of reach.

And then this! So yes, I'm a happy man today.

Who are the Micronauts? Well, it was before Star Wars, I believe (the copyright is 1976...) that Mego bgan developing this amazing and highly-detailed line of futuristic action figures, vehicles and machines. The line came to include whole cities (A megapolis, I think it was called), a functional tube subway system (which I got for one birthday from my aunt...), missile-firing ships, robots, helicopters, starcruisers (my favorite toy...) and more. As the toys were laid out (though I think it was different in the comics...) the Acroyears were the robotic bad guys (they looked kind of like space vikings) and the good guys had names like Time Traveler, Space Glider and the like.

I don't know what the exact "toy story" was, only that as a youth I created my own world with these Micronauts. Baron Karza -- a Darth Vader knock-off whose limbs were attached to his torso by magnets -- was the amazing villain who would launch his evil Acroyear warriors (and later, mutants...) against my peaceful and advanced Micronaut City. Which was defended by the likes of a weird helicopter ship, the multi-part starcruiser, and more. Meanwhile, the Micronauts expanded their territory with exploratory vehicles like the mobile laboratory. They also had guardian robots at their side, like the giant Biotron (I think that is what he was called...)

The Micronaut universe came to be huge (and I remember at one point even owning a Micronaut laser pistol with interchangeable muzzles...), a galaxy unto itself, and I honestly think the line was one of the best toys ever released during my childhood. I love the Kenner action figures for Star Wars, but in some sense, when playing with them, you're buying into a universe someone else has created. The Micronauts, being interchangeable and with no overall story (outside Marvel's), were toys that you could shape and mold to your ideas and imagination. You could build the cities the way you wanted; you could configure the vehicles as you saw fit. You could always combine and create something new and cool. One toy could be five or six different ships. Anyway, the Micronauts were amazingly cool.

There are many, many dozens of Micronauts toys, and my newly expanded collection barely scratches the surface of this remarkable Mego product. But who knows when I'll find I wanted to feature them here. I know there was a re-release a few years back (of at a least a few Micronauts), but as you can tell from my blog, I'm an Old School kind of guy. It's the originals for me...

So, did you own any Micronauts? Which ones were your favorites? There was one figure called Galactic Defender that I really liked (he had a space helmet and a laser sword, I think...) , and also one who came in a sarcophagus...maybe called Phobos...

And there was a good guy to battle Baron Karza called Force Commander, right? I never actually had him...

Saturday, June 24, 2006


Well, I'm skipping an episode of the 1974-1976 series Land of the Lost today, in particular "Follow that Dinosaur." It's one of my favorite episodes of the entire three year run, but alas, I already featured it here on the blog, about a year ago as one of my cult TV flashbacks. Check out that episode review here.

Among the things I wrote about that episode back in the day:

"Follow That Dinosaur" is a splendid example of Land of the Lost's excellent story-telling for a number of reasons. First of all, it adds to the "lore" of the land, and reveals how the Altrusians came to be known as Sleestak. It was Pvt. Koenig who named them, after an officer in the army he disliked, one "Joshua Sleestak." The episode also reveals it is Koenig who wrote the warning on a pillar near the lost city: "Beware of Sleestak," which was revealed in the first episode. These touches reveal more background about the Land of the Lost, and also uncover a great deal of its history. People have been getting "trapped" there for centuries.

Beyond revealing some great background about the Land of the Lost, "Follow that Dinosaur" is a pretty suspenseful and dark 22-minute adventure for a show that aired on Saturday mornings. The Marshall family (including two children...) happen upon the corpse of their would-be savior, Pvt. Koenig, and the episode doesn't candy-coat his failure to escape this alternate world, or the details of his death. Furthermore, the episode is quite tense (and even a little scary...) as the Marshalls' realize their predicament in the lava cave, and try to flee the city

But let's not linger on "Follow that Dinosaur" and move instead into this week's selection, the agreeable and entertaining "Stone Soup." Written by Joyce Perry (who also wrote "Time Trap" for Star Trek: The Animated Series) and directed by Bob Lally, this installment finds the Marshall kids growing increasingly combative as a long draught -- and electrostatic storms -- continue to wreak havoc in the land of the lost.

Instead of watching Will and Holly squabble, Marshall re-directs their attention. He starts making something called "Stone Soup," a terrible concoction (a stone in hot water...) that needs new ingredients (like potatoes, carrots, and onions...) to taste edible. Holly and Will get roped into their Dad's stone soup ruse and start working together to make a palatable dinner. While collecting ingredients out in the jungle, they are nearly run over by a dinosaur stampede (and Will amusingly yells "Duck!" as the giant lizards run by...) and the two Marshall kids seek shelter in a Pylon. To their horror, they find the matrix crystal table has been disrupted by the Paku.

In fact, the terrible draught in the land is being caused by the Pakuni, who "are territorial by nature," according to Marshall. Being good shepherds of the land (a part of the environmental message of the series that I love...), the Marshalls realize they must negotiate with the Paku to get the crystals back and fix the pylon. However, the only thing they can negotiate with is...stone soup.

In the end, as apocalypse grows near ("it looks like the end of the world," says Will...), the Marshalls succeed in their quest and once again balance the forces of nature...causing a much needed rain storm. The Marshalls have achieved their goal of restoring the environment not by strong-arming, not by attacking, but giving the Pakuni something they want and need (food). Diplomacy, not sabre-rattling, saves the day.

Along the way in this episode, we lalso earn a few Pakuni words. "Opira" is Cha-Ka's word for "salt" and "opima" is the word, apparently, for stone soup.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Production Diary # 6: The House Between: The Crew!

As I edit The House Between (and yes, I am now officially editing the first episode, "Arrived,") I get the chance to see all my wonderful cast members and the fantastic special effects again. I also get to stand back with shock and awe as I gaze at the remarkable accomplishments of my behind-the-scenes team. I've blogged about the "stars" of the show this week, but today I have to offer my kudos to the "tech" folks who were also so crucial in providing me all the useful (and even artful...) footage.

I begin today's round of gratitude with my DP Rick Coulter. How do I put this? Rick is like...the calm amidst the storm. He's a serious but mild-mannered and generous fellow...who never gets worked up. And yet, through his viewfinder, he silently and without much direction composes beautiful, meaningful shots. Every shot reflects his intellect and sense of visual storytelling. Of course, if you want to get Rick riled, just start talking about the social constructs of a capitalist society. Go ahead, it's fun, but that's another story. By early in the production week, I was trusting Rick to find his own shots, call action and cut when I was otherwise occupied, and do just about everything else too. Rick is a great guy, and on the last day when I spontaneously lost my shit and had a nervous laughter attack over a certain scene (which still cracks me up...) he stepped in and with smooth authority finished the scene.

Next up are the two brilliant lighting directors who - perhaps more than anyone else - are responsible for the unique palette of The House Between (which I like to describe as a fusion of 1940s film noir and 1920s German Expressionism.) I'm talking about Kevin Flanagan and Bobby Schweizer, who - without complaint and with precious little guidance - masterminded the lighting scheme for the entire series. Their lighting reflects character mind-states (sometimes psychotic), "pulses" with evil life (in the episode "Visited") and basically makes the series look respectable...and like nothing else being produced today. Since we shot in empty house with literally no furniture and only a paucity of props, shadows became "the backdrop" for many a scene...and with precious few resources, Bobby and Kevin made my crazy vision a reality; and what's more - improved on what I had casually conceived. When I said I wanted the shadows to be "furniture," I had no idea how to accomplish that; but they did. Kevin and Bobby also helped in ways too numerous to count (keeping the house shrouded in darkness, for instance), and I can't imagine how much slower we would have gone if we didn't have them contributing. Kevin also gave me some really good script advice for episode # 7; advice I gladly took

Finally, I can't write this post without thanking my beautiful (and very pregnant) wife, Kathryn. She is a producer on the show too, and she not only offered some critical input at the beginning of each day, she kept the entire cast & crew well fed and cared for over the long shoot (with the help of Rob Floyd's wonderful and adorable wife, Phyllis). There would be no show to post about here if Kathryn had not permitted us to open up our home to fourteen people for seven days, and utilize our family resources to realize the project. Kathryn is one-in-a-million. I've known that since forever (our seventeenth dating anniversary is September 8th, this year...), but I'm truly grateful for her level of support and encouragement throughout this process...especially considering that she's working on a Muir production of her own..our baby. And also - Phyllis - what can I say about this classy lady? She applied make-up, corralled actors, prepared meals, read dialogue off-camera, stayed up till 2:00 am for the infamous bath tub scene, and did about a million other things. Without Kathryn and Phyllis, we would have ground to a halt.

The truly amazing thing about The House Between is that over the long, sixteen hour days, no ego or selfishness ever showed up at the location; neither among the cast nor the crew. Everybody chipped in, did their part with enthusiasm...and it was an incredible experience.

Now, Rick and I move into editing...and so far, so good!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 41: Shrinky Dinks

For your consideration today, another great 1970s toy: Shrinky Dinks! (from the Skyline Company). In particular, I present for your approval my somewhat worn (as you can tell from the pictures...) Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Shrinky Dink set from 1979.

What are Shrinky Dinks? It's not what you think...a derogatory name for something...flaccid. No, on the contrary, it's "Creative fun for Everyone!" Just: "Trace - Color - Cut - Bake!" and the toys shrink like magic to 1/3 original size (adult supervision required during 4 minute baking...).

What can you make with your Shrinky Dinks? How about: Light Switch Decorations, Stick-Ups, Key Chains, Gift Tags, 3-D Plaques and Zipper Pulls?

Here's what came with the Buck Rogers set: shrinkable plastic and and sheets ready to color, colored pencils, a "stickum" pad, a key chain, a zipper pull and the all-important direction and idea book! Now you can sling Twiki around your neck, or put Tigerman on a key chain! Bidi-bidi-bidi-bidi...

Yep, Shrinky Dinks mean hours and hours of fun for everyone. I'm going to crack this toy open when my firstborn child (coming this October!!!) is old enough to play.

By then, who knows - maybe Buck Rogers will be back in fashion...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Production Diary # 5: The House Between: Cast

Last week, I blogged about the sets/locations for my independently shot TV program, The House Between, as well as my admiration and gratitude for the laudable efforts of Rob Floyd, our special effects expert.

I wanted to kick off this week's House Between production entries with some comment on the program's dedicated cast. Because - quite simply - everybody was amazing; all in different ways, of course, but nonetheless amazing. And, as Bobby Schweitzer noted over at Virtual Fools, the pressure on the cast during this whirlwind shoot was intense; and I'm not one to write easy (or brief...) dialogue. I went for broke in my expectations, and to my delight, the cast always kept pace. So forgive the love-fest!

Kim Breeding portrays Astrid, my central heroine in The House Between. Kim is not only beautiful, and literally able to kick ass (which is a quality important for the role...) but she came to the set 100% percent prepared for action. She's got the bruises to prove it (alas, no stunt doubles!). Truth be told, Kim had thought seriously about her character so much that she didn't really require any direction from me. I don't think there was any time during the shooting that I provided her a direction she hadn't already considered. I love that about her: preparation and discipline! The camera loves Kim, and for good reason, but what I found so valuable about this actress (besides her gung-ho attitude) was that she always understood precisely how Astrid "fit" into the scene...even if the scene didn't really focus on Astrid. She was able to fit with the ensemble as well as be "the star" of a given episode, and that worked out so well. Kim is also incredibly versatile: she can convincingly fight, emote, sing, fall, rattle off dialogue and scream with equal aplomb...and on command. Scream Queen! Scream Queen!

Jim Blanton plays Arlo, an odd character who I once likened to a "squirrel with a nut." He's strange, a little off-putting, and even a tad psychotic. Arlo does some horrible, shocking things in the course of the series, but what I love about Jim Blanton's interpretation of the role is that he makes you like Arlo. He brings a level of innocence and charm to the character that turns Arlo, ultimately, into a rather likeable guy. Not pitiable...but lovable. Jim was able to tap both anger and naivete to play this critical role, and there were times - especially watching his close-ups - that I was shocked and impressed by the honesty, clarity and openness I saw registering on his features. I didn't plan it this way, but it seems that Arlo has become kind of the show's "emotional barometer," and that's because of Jim's interpretation. There was one sequence with Jim as Arlo that was just so perfect and moving that it brought a tear to my eye. And Jim and I hadn't even gone over that particular was something that just came to him naturally.

Lee Hansen plays Travis, the fly-in-the-ointment character. Basically, Travis is a real jerk (as you'll see when this thing gets streamed online...). So Travis is basically the total opposite of Lee Hansen, the person. Lee is just about the most gentle and kind person you'll ever meet, but he tapped some inner sense of lunacy to play this part. I know that I wrote for Travis some of the best one-liners in the series, but as played by Hansen, Travis is just hysterically funny...even in the scenes without written jokes. He just brings this insane sense of humor and physical presence to the role, and we had a running regulation on the set. Don't watch Hansen during the scenes. Because if you watched him while you were acting with him, or shooting him, or lighting him, you'd crack up and ruin the scene. Literally. Hansen has a bigness about him that is both irresistible and hysterical. He also brought out new layers to Travis, ones that make the character much more three dimensional. I knew going in that Hansen could be boisterous, but I had no idea that he could turn Travis into a kind of tragic figure.

Tony Mercer plays Bill T. Clark, the sort of "alpha male" of The House Between and since his character boasts a grounding in science, Mercer was on the receiving end of many of the show's long-winded and most difficult speeches. Yep, speeches. Yet what humbled and awed me about Tony's performances was the level of passion he brought to each new dialogue challenge, especially those which could have been...well, rather dry, especially in the hands of a different performer. In particular, there's one episode that features a lengthy speech (like pages and pages...) about abstract scientific theories and such, and Tony just nailed it. His intensity and passion was amazing, but I was even more impressed when I discussed with him how he was tackling that particular soliloquy. What he told me truly impressed me: he had painstakingly mapped out the eddies and valleys and high points of the lengthy dialogue and then proceeded to explain to me what Bill was feeling during each instant. This was something I couldn't have possibly imagined or dreamed of when I wrote that dialogue. But Tony had internalized it, made the words his own - and - in fact - turned those words into a kind of poetry; a kind of lyrical story that was about Bill and his feelings as much as it was about the explanation of a scientific theory.

Alicia A. Wood plays my "resident" Spock-type, Theresa, and all I can say is that if Star Trek ever needs another sexy female Vulcan, they'd be wise to look at her performance and immediately hire her. Alicia is a gorgeous young woman in her early twenties, relatively small in stature, and yet she brought to her performance (from Day One on...) an air of supreme authority and confidence. Not arrogance, just confidence, mind you. She could recite whole chunks of strange dialogue with almost no rehearsal and then - furthermore - imbue it with petulance, attitude, humor and the like. It was an astonishing and accomplished tour de force. And then, for the fifth episode, which reveals a new side to Theresa, Alicia suddenly expressed this incredible, child-like quality that just makes the episode all the more emotionaly involving. When I wrote the part of Theresa, I realized it was going to be difficult, and require someone completely in tune (and in touch) with their body, their voice, their presence. Thank Heaven we found Alicia. I really have no idea how someone so young proved so utterly accomplished, so comfortable in her own skin, but I won't question it.

Finally, Florent Christol leapt into the production for a guest performance on the sixth episode, "Trashed," playing a really, really nasty villain. With his silky, accented voice, extreme physicality and expressive eyes, Flo brought a new energy to the show. More than that, his presence really energized the other actors, who - I think - enjoyed having someone new to play against. Flo's dedication to his part (boiling scars and all...) brought everybody to a new level and exposed new sides of each character.

So today, my hat is off to my incredible cast. Each and every actor did an incredible job. I've been watching their performances while I catalog the footage from the show, and every time I watch a scene...I'm just impressed as hell by what they accomplished....and lose track of what I'm supposed to be recording and analyzing.

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 21: Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987): "Shattered"

Power On!

Now here's a nostalgic (and truth be told, cheesy...) blast from the 1980s past of Izod shirts, Madonna Wannabes and the like. It's Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, a one season, live-action (syndicated) wonder from creators Tony Christopher and Gary Goddard. A pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Straczysnski was among the series writers, as was Larry DiTillo, and the program aired during the 1987-1988 season...the same year that gave the world Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Set in the far flung year of 2147 -- after The Metal Wars -- (when "man fought machines...and machines won,") Captain Power is the inspiring but threadbare tale of stalwart Captain Jonathan Power (Tim Dunigen) and his elite squad of heavily-armored fighters, including the flying ace, Hawk (Peter MacNeill), the lumbering Tank (Sven Thorsen), the espionage expert, Scout (Maurice Dean Wint) and the lovely tactical systems technician, Pilot (Jessica Steen).

Together with their holographic computer (named Mentor), this crack resistance team combats the evil Lord Dread (a kind of Jason of Star Command's Dragos meets Star Trek's Borg meets Darth Vader...) and his evil mechanical sentries, Bio-Dreads, for supremacy in a post-apocalyptic world. Lord Dread is headquartered in a vast realm called "Volcania" (a dome that looks like a breast with mechanical nipple...) and his evil goal is to "digitize" the human survivors of the war, locking them into computers like the characters in the 1982 movie, Tron.

Buttressed by ludicrous early CGI, video effects, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future episodes tend to concern Captain Power's armored team leading the human resistance movement, and the episode I focus on here, "Shattered" is no exception.

In this story, Scout infiltrates and destroys one of Lord Dread's "energy installations" (actually a re-dressed boiler room...) and the evil lord realizes it's time to kill the meddlesome Power and his team. "Perhaps the answer to my future rests in Power's past," the Evil One muses. To this end, he digs into Power's personal past and sets a trap for our hero. Dread soon sends Power a cryptic message from an old flame named Athena, a hottie believed to have been killed in the Metal Wars. Power realizes immediately that the message revolves around a favorite chess move, and this brings back memories (i.e. a flashback...) of the days before "the new order."

When Power interprets the message from Athena (a former lab assistant to his scientist dad...), he knows he must meet her at their San Francisco rendezvous point, the book store City Limits. Though the others are wary, Captain Power is convinced that his old lover is still alive. Turns out, however, that she has been long "digitized" by Dread and is working to destroy Power in exchange for her freedom from the machine. Why? Well, digitization (like the later Borg assimilation process...) isn't too pleasant. "It touches you," she tells Power with fear. "It knows every secret...every hate...every love. It tortures you until..."

Power and Pilot survive Athena's trap only because Hawk shows up in the nick of time and engages one of Lord Dread's evil predatory Bio-Dread sentries in aerial combat, an extended sequence that merely serves to highlight how dated these special effects have become in the 21st century. Still, for a kid's show, this is a fairly dark episode of a fairly dark program. There's betrayal, death, bombed out cities, and very little hope. I guess that's why it lasted only one season...but truth be told, I dig it.

Why remember Captain Power today? For one thing, it's almost the program's 20th anniversary. And well, heck, as the advertisements for the series assertively blared: "POWER ON! TO THE INTERACTIVE VIDEO REVOLUTION!" Yep, a critical element of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was the fact that the entire series was designed as a state-of-the-art tie-in to a new line of interactive toys. To wit:

"Now kids can battle alongside their heroes in the first video that lets them interact with the TV screen. They can actually shoot at Bio Dread video targets using their Captain Power interactive toys from Mattel!"

Ah yes, a prehistoric attempt to create synergy between authentic entertainment and blatant merchandising. You gotta love it. That "dual" purpose helps explain the end credits sequence for the Captain Power series as well: it's a sustained P.O.V. trip through the bowels of Volcania (Dread Headquarters), where your toy spaceships can blow apart enemy installations. In practice, it looks like a cheesy Death Star trench as "players" weave and bob through the facility and must fire weaponry at appropriate targets (like a vent?). Drop those Cheerios kids, and pick up your's clobberin' time!

Still, craven commercialism aside, you've got to love Captain Power for its incredible ambition. This is a series that - sadly - looks like it cost about $1.50 per episode, and yet posited that five soldiers could fight a sustained war to win the back the planet from the evil machines. Human cities (like San Francisco) have been reduced to rubble, and the man-machine war forecasts movies like Terminator 2 (1991) and The Matrix (1999). The stories - though rudimentary - contain the seeds of adult drama, and are rarely maudlin or trite. In fact, one main character actually dies in an installment. Someone was clearly attempting something brave, even if it didn't always work out.

So, even if it looks fairly primitive today - as well as like a blatant attempt to steal your kid's dollars - I find something noble about the one season sortie of Captain Power. And yes... I still own most of the toys...

Monday, June 19, 2006

Sequels and Equals

The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter penned an interesting article on June 11th about the summer of the sequels. It's called "Try, Try Again: In This Brand-Conscious World, Sequels Are Great Investments. Every So Often, They're Great Movies Too."

Here's a piece of what he wrote:

And that's why there'll always be sequels. The money is too easy. All you have to do is pick it up. You can distill the charm out of the original, suffocate what was special about it, use its least relevant cast members for peanuts, lowball every production decision, and ride that sucker straight to the bank, laughing all the way.

Whether a sequel outearns its progenitor (the second "Ice Age" did; "Ocean's Twelve" didn't) is not the point: The point is, the retread almost always makes a hell of a lot of money, because there's a huge audience out there that wants a taste of the original it so loved.

Sequels open big. They may die fast, but they rack up the huge numbers that first Friday night before word of mouth, the market's most powerful movie critic, lashes them to nothingness. Not even Roger Ebert can close a sequel on Friday night.

So, pondering this, I guess I was wondering: what sequels do you think out-do their predecessor? Or are, at least, equals, worthy of side-by-side comparison? The obvious, oft-given answers are: Superman: The Movie/Superman II, X-Men/X-2, Alien/Aliens, Mad Max/Road Warrior, The Godfather/Godfather II, and Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back...but beyond this widely-accepted batch, are there any others we ought to consider?

I guess From Russia with Love and Goldfinger are both superior to Dr. No. And Star Trek II is superior to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (and Star Trek VI is superior to Star Trek V).

What sequels do you absolutely love and cherish? I've written before on the blog about the "rules" of bad sequels. Which ones do you think overcome those rules? Why? What quality makes a sequel an equal? In the age of TV serials with continuing story arcs, is it even relevant for critics to carp about the unoriginality of film sequels anymore? I mean, TV shows have sequels every week, don't they?

Who among the readership here will argue for the sanctity of RoboCop II over RoboCop? Or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes over Planet of the Apes? Or the superiority of Gremlins II over Dante's original? I'm not advocating any of those positions, but I wonder if there's someone out there dying to debate it...

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...