Monday, July 31, 2006

Fantasci V!

Hey everybody!

Well, we're back from the fifth annual Fantasci convention in Virginia, and had a fantastic time. The weekend started out in particularly fun form because Kathryn and I had the pleasure of sharing our Scion XB for the six-hour trip with the lovely and talented actress Alicia A. Wood. Of course, - and this is par for us - we got lost along the way, but Alicia handled our wrong turns well. Still, she didn't much care for the music we forced her to endure en route - Squeeze and the soundtrack to A Mighty Wind - but Alicia stood up under the pressure.

As a side note, I should comment that I discovered this weekend that Alicia is herself a closet geek...a Harry Potter and anime geek. She's also educating herself by watching the Star Trek movies for the first time. I tell you, she's going to make a great Vulcan one of these days. I even taught her the Vulcan salute. To which she replied, "I've never actually seen anyone do that." It was like she was seeing an animal in a zoo or something.

The show was a tremendous amount of fun. There was fellowship, great panels, merchandise galore and a hall full of Klingons and pirates. Which got me thinking...Klingons were originally kind of like space pirates, weren't they? Discuss amongst yourselves...

The convention was a multi-faceted show with lots of things going on, and I met some great new friends, including a writer from Horrorwatch named BQueen, who offers her con report
here. She and I are on the same page about M. Night Shyamalan and Kevin Smith, but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that she's a very cool and nice person, and I enjoyed our chat. We talked about The Descent, one of the best horror movies in years, and she had already read an advance copy of a horror novel I have in my queue, The Ruins.

Another new friend is Clay Hornik, a very thoughtful and friendly guy (and also - like BQueen - a fellow writer). We discussed matters about Doctor Who, particularly the new show, and Clay very kindly attended the showing of the first episode of my series, The House Between. He had nice feedback too, which is always better to get than negative feedback. Go visit Clay's Bookworm and Beyond
blog and read his feelings on the convention, and here's the money quote on The House Between:

"It does for Big Brother what Lost does for Survivor, reminiscent of both The Cube and The Prisoner, but made all the more creepy by the setting: an ordinary house, ordinary except for the void that surrounds it and the utter inescapability of the situation. The doors and windows won't open and there's nothing to see outside other than blackness.

And that brings me Saturday night, and the premiere of the trailer for The House Between. Well, uh...we actually showed the rough cut of the first episode, "Arrived" instead.. We got a great reaction. The audience laughed at the right places, and to my immense amusement, one lady sitting across the aisle from me even jumped and gasped during a tense moment. How cool is that?

The best part of the night (and the weekend) was simply being with all my buddies. Both from the TV show and from the region itself (where I've been a speaker at cons before). These are just the coolest, funniest, nicest people on Earth, and whenever I'm with them, I just want to soak up their presence and keep it close to my soul. Would it be weird for me to say that Kathryn and I are in love with absolutely every one of these folks? Well, weird it can be, because I just said it...

I want to thank my friends and partners in crime, Jim Blanton and Rob Floyd too, for inviting me to the con once more, and for providing me the venue to screen The House Between. You guys are the best.

Now, who wants to talk about Battlestar Galactica?


Relevant passages highlighted in bold:

"See, we were young once and when the old guy spun his tales of Apollo and Starbuck, we were satisfied with clear-cut heroes and nakedly evil villains. But we're older now. We've eaten a lot of popcorn over the years. We're ready for a bigger meal. Make the story more complicated. Make the people less black-and-white. Challenge us, provoke us, grab us by the throat with those massive hands and dare us to invest ourselves in flawed characters who face ambiguous choices in an imperfect world. Dare us to root for heroes with all-too-human weaknesses. See if we'll still embrace them if they fall prey to their imperfections.

Ask us to care for human beings instead of caricatures.

With those words leading the way, I turned in the final draft of Battlestar Galactica. Bold words, perhaps. Arrogant even. But they accurately describe the ambition driving this project:

We believe you can explore adult themes with adult characters and still tell a ripping good yarn.

We believe that to portray human beings as flawed creations does not weaken them, it strengthens them.

We believe that bringing realism to science fiction is neither contradictory nor a fool's errand.

We believe that science fiction provides an opportunity to explore our own society, to provoke debate and to challenge our perceptions of ourselves and our fellow Man.

We believe science fiction can still be relevant.

We believe all these things and more.

If you agree with us, then this is the show for you. If not, then thanks for coming, but the popcorn is in a different aisle.

- Ronald D. Moore
- Executive Producer / Screenwriter

Friday, July 28, 2006

Off to Fantasci

Well, Kathryn and I are hitting the road and heading off for the Fantasci Convention. We'll be premiering the three minute-and-six second trailer from The House Between on Saturday, and doing a panel discussion with members of the cast and crew. If you're in Chesapeake, VA or thereabouts...check out the show!

I'll have a table at the show too - a hub to sell books and shed cast-off videos from previous research endeavors. And don't miss my talk about Doctor Who at 11:30 on Saturday; and the panel about Battlestar Galactica at 3:45 pm.

Hopefully, I'll see some of you there!

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 45: Role Playing Games

Man, it was fantastic growing up in the eighties. That's all I'm saying. If you didn't grow up in the decade of Smurfs, Rubiks Cube, Madonna Wannabes and Scripto erasable pens...well, you missed a good time.

Video tapes had just come out, bringing home a whole new world of entertainment; MTV was changing the nature of television video by video, and heck - for the geek crowd anyway - there was the advent of the role playing game. Yes, when I hear about RPGs, I'm not thinking of rocket propelled grenades; I'm thinking about multi-sided dice.

Just to be clear on this. I wasn't a total and complete RPG convert. I only participated in one D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) adventure before being completely bored out of my mind. And I only played in that one because two of the other players were these hot (all-right, semi-hot...) girls; and I thought they might go in for an elvish threesome.

So, anyway...

I did enjoy role-playing games, but since I didn't play Dungeons & Dragons, guess what I played instead? A handful of tribbles and a snout-full of tranya to any reader who guessed...Star Trek.

FASA produced this fantastic Star Trek role playing game in the mid-1980s and I loved it. I played it through the end of high school and part of college (until I met my then-girlfriend/now-wife, Kathryn...who introduced me to different kinds of role playing...).

But back to the game. I joined a cadre of friends, including my roommate, and together we populated the crew of a Federation starship, the U.S.S. Nassau. I was the first officer and a human being (yes, I'm boring...), and we had an Andorian communications officer and a Caitian science officer. Our chief engineer was a Vulcan female (a Saavik rip-off, no doubt). We had lots of adventures together and many space battles. The adventure ended for me when my character got abducted to another space-time dimension by some super-intelligent telepathic life form. Yeah, bummer, huh?

But over the years, role playing games have come in all shapes and sizes. I have cloudy memories of playing an espionage role playing game in high school called Top Secret. It was fun; though I remember almost nothing about it. There was also a James Bond role-playing game for a time; between Octopussy (1983) and A View to A Kill (1985), I think. I played that one a few times...

And then, further indulging my love of superheroes, there was a Marvel Superheroes role playing game! Man, that one was terrific fun too. I played that one for a spell in high school too, if memory serves. You can see what the little character cards look like (replete with character powers, below.)

I guess RPGs are still pretty popular today, though I don't know for sure because they aren't really my thing nowadays. I can't imagine sitting around and rolling dice for hours on end (and not showering...) when I could be making movies, blogging, writing books, playing video games, watching Box Set DVDs, restoring our house, etc.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Trading Card Close-up # 4: "Cygnus Command Center"

My trading card close-up this week comes from that classic "guilty pleasure" sci-fi movie, The Black Hole (1979).

I loved this Walt Disney movie when I was a kid because it was packed to the gills with hovering robots, incredible special effects and vast, impressive sets.

Also - what a great cast! I mean, Robert Forster, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, Maximillian Schell and Yvette Mimieux sharing screen time?! And Roddy McDowall doing the voice of the robot V.I.N.CENT? How could you not love this movie based on cast alone? (Well, if you've seen it, you know. It's sorta...goofy.)

This card is # 20 from the Topps The Black Hole set. It's not particularly special except that it's a good ensemble shot, and a great view of the Cygnus command deck (which is HUGE in the movie).

The real reason I'm featuring this card, however, is that I want you to take a good long look at that hovering robot in the foreground.


Yep, I'm talking about V.I.N.CENT. I've been nursing this theory for the longest time that this robot looks just like...Eric Cartman on South Park. Seriously. They have the same eyes. And they're both squad and kind of fat.

Or I should say, big boned.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

When Messenger Becomes Message in Summer Movies

In the past few weeks, I've screened (and enjoyed) three very different summer films: An Inconvenient Truth, Lady in the Water and Clerks II. You couldn't select three more diverse films, right? One's a documentary about the environment; one's a fairy tale brought to vivid cinematic color, and the last is the strangely affecting tale of two slackers countenancing their mid-thirties. On the surface, these movies don't seem to have anything in common.

And yet - oddly - they do.

Audiences who so vehemently hate the people who make these films and aren't willing to even go see them share a common, defining trait. It's a kind of tunnelvision or blindness, really. In all three cases, these folks have mistaken the messenger for the message. They've become physiologically unable to separate the film's creative voice - whether it be Al Gore, M. Night Shyamalan or Kevin Smith - from the qualities of filmmaking inherent in the enterprise itself. The cult of personality is strong in this country, and we see no greater evidence of that than in the telling, hostile responses to these films.

Fox News, Joel Siegel...j'accuse!

Let's begin with the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which is a primer on the science behind global warming. Roughly 50% of the populace (red states?) apparently dislikes Al Gore and therefore believes that anything he says on any topic is going to be lies or propaganda. In the mind's eye of these folks, the movie is going to be about sour grapes over the 2000 election, or the deification of Al Gore. It's a fallacious argument that goes something like this: If I know "X" about a person, then that disqualifies Argument "Y" if the same person says it. Even if X and Y have nothing to do with each other.

Still, this documentary is - for the most part - pretty darn bi-partisan (did you know John McCain is fighting the good fight over global warming too?) For my taste, there is only one section in An Inconvenient Truth that boasts "too much" Al Gore in it. And that's the section that rehashes the events of election night 2000. Really, the outcome of that horrid election - love it or hate it - doesn't relate to the topic at hand; global climate change. The other two Al Gore "personal" stories in the film, one regarding the death of his sister from lung cancer and the other an accident that nearly took the life of his son, actually relate intimately to the film's core subject matter - and that's how people think, and how people can change...two very important matters if this crisis is to be taken seriously.

But the fact of the matter is that in this case, Al Gore happens to have hard science on his side (and the film makes this fact plain.) There are precisely ZERO science journals out there that can claim (or that do claim...) his science is wrong. But guess how many media stories question the existence of global warming? Fifty-three percent of all stories on the topic. Yep, there is precisely 0% argument amongst scientists on the topic...and only the wolves in the "liberal" (yeah, right...) media drum it up as a "debatable" thing. But what do you expect, these are the same people who claimed Al Gore said he invented the Internet (which he never said).

Still, the bottom line is that - take it or leave it - An Inconvenient Truth is a splendid documentary, one that conveys an enormous amount of fascinating information and makes a difficult scientific topic digestible. Many critics have said you don't need to like Al Gore to enjoy the movie, and I think that's a fair insight. But how many people who might enjoy (or learn something...) from An Inconvenient Truth won't even go see the movie because of preconceived notions about Gore? Because they've confused the messenger with the message?

The Lady in the Water is the second recent example of this fallacy. The rap against M. Night Shyamalan is that all of his movies are about "twists." Remember The Sixth Sense? Unbreakable? Signs? The Village? Consequently, many movie reviewers now approach all of his work in the same way: with their backs up. They go into his movies looking to pinpoint and assess the twist at all costs. If they figure out the twist before the end, the movie is a failure because the twist is "obvious." If the surprise ending isn't guessed, the movie is also dubbed a failure because the twist "came out of left field." Yes, my friends, this is one director who faces an absolutely no-win situation. He's damned no matter what he does.

Also, there's a vocal group of movie goers who have somehow discerned that in the director's rush to "fool" the audience with those surprise twists, he is actually asserting a level of arrogance; that he somehow believes he's "better" than the average movie goer, since he can fool the plebes. I'm sensitive to this argument. I admire and respect many people who make it. However, unless one can point to specific moments in his films - moments in the text of his work - that support the argument that he's an intellect who's condescending and patronizing, it doesn't hold water. I'm open to evidence (extant in the body of the work), but frankly, I don't see it.

Now arrives Lady in the Water, and the reviews all state pretty much the same thing: too much exposition and hey, wha' happened? Where's the twist? The very critics who've complained over banal twists, twists that don't work and the director's arrogance with his twistie things are now in a kerfuffle over the fact that his latest work doesn't include a twist. Again, a preconceived notion about the messenger (not the actual film) has colored mainstream perceptions of it.

I would argue that none of Shyamalan's film's feature twists at all. Instead, he vets his stories from a certain perspective and then - usually in the third act - holds up a mirror to those stories, and audiences understand them in a new way. That isn't a twist. That's a revelation. And that's clever filmmaking too. Imagine if we reduced Rod Serling to the same stereotype: All he ever did was write twists! Why, he must have thought he was smarter than us, huh? Bastard!

Finally, there's Kevin Smith. By now, you either love him or hate him -- and you no doubt have your reasons. Count me on the "love" side. I still believe he's the only director working in Hollywood today who understands Generation X; and how to talk about the generation in a way that's funny and meaningful. He utilizes sarcasm (the tool of our generation...) and cussing (ditto) to get his points across, but he's like a Gen X Woody Allen because he's consumed with matters of sex, love, and relationships. I adore the guy and his work.

But there are those folks out there - the same kind who can't believe anything Al Gore says (cuz he's a democrat!) and the ones who pigeonhole Shyamalan as Mr. Twist - who will never like anything Kevin Smith does. Why? Hell Hath No Fury like a Fan Boy overlooked. Because all these geeks out there live under the deluded impression that Smith somehow didn't earn his career. They look at Kevin Smith and see a comic-book-reading, Star Wars-loving fan boy and think....oh, I could have done what he did. That should be me making those movies! Of course, Kevin Smith is the one who maxxed out his credit cards; he's the one who actually did the work...and who made critical hits including Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma. Yet there will always be that vocal group of sour-grapes Talk Backers who gaze upon him and believe they are better than he. That they should be plucked out of message board obscurity to write the next superhero comic; or direct the next indie picture.

So they see Kevin Smith's movies, and - again - they confuse the messenger with the message. Oh, it's another Kevin Smith Clerks movie...must suck. Right? Well, Clerks II has a lot going on it (including the funniest Silence of the Lambs riff yet put to film...) but it's actually some kind of self-referential masterpiece. You see, Kevin Smith has made a movie about thirty-something angst; about the place where his characters Randal and Dante dwell. The thing is: that's where Smith dwells too. In the film, Dante is about to leave behind his life in search of someone else's perfect life; over the belief that it's time to be an adult and grow up. Think of what happened with Kevin Smith and Jersey Girl...a mainstream romantic comedy that blunted so much of his wonderful edge. He listened to the input of others around him, those well-meaning Iagos telling him he needed a different cinematographer; that the needed to make a certain kind of movie to be taken seriously. And now - like Dante and Randal - Smith comes home to Clerks 2 and makes the movie he wants to make. There's a lot to love here...and poor Joel Siegel missed it (he walked out of the screening over the donkey sex scene).

You know, I disagree vehemently with the politics of Chuck Heston, Arnold Schwarzenneger and Bruce Willis. And yet I love their movies through and through. I won't rule out their cinematic work simply because I find some aspect of their personalities discomforting or against "my values." If I did, I'd have missed Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, and Sin City, to name just three treasures. Vince Gallo is a conservative Republican, and I love Brown Bunny. I just think it's sad that people have already made up their minds about Al Gore, M. Night Shyamalan and Kevin Smith and joined the ranks of the haters. And still, I'm not innocent of this foible myself...I bypassed Mission Impossible III because of my personal distaste for Tom Cruise. I intend to rectify that situation ASAP.

An Inconvenient Truth, Lady in the Water and Clerks II are amongst the top entertainments in the summer of The Da Vinci Code, and it would really suck to not see them because of pre-conceived notions about the people behind them. After all, art is supposed to challenge and foster debate. When we categorically say "no" to Gore or Smith or Lady in the Water, without giving any a fair hearing, what we're really saying is that our minds have been closed and locked to art.

No one lives here anymore. We won't even tolerate the idea that Al Gore, Kevin Smith or M. Night has the capacity to surprise us. I thought Underworld was the death knell of movies (for reasons too numerous to mention here...), but maybe it's this new form of movie goer rigidity that's the authentic danger to cinematic art. The belief that to go so a movie - a brand name product - we must approve of all aspects of the makers beforehand. It is better not to learn, not to see, than to experience something we might disapprove of, I guess...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The House Between Trailer Goes to FantaSci

If you live in North Carolina, Virginia or thereabouts, set your course heading for Chesapeake, VA this Saturday (July 29) for Fantasci, a great genre convention packed with all kinds of events and goodies. This will be my second Fantasci, I believe, and I had a great time last year.

But this year promises to be very special. For one thing, I'll be debuting the three minute trailer for The House Between at Fantasci (just burned the DVD....), and then joining most of the cast/crew for a panel discussion about the making of the show. It's going to be great (and hopefully will be just the first such road show for my favorite team of buddies...)

But also, I'll hosting one of my patented genre seminars at 11:30 am, this one concerning the long history of that rascally time lord, the Doctor. Also, I'll be joining budz Tony Mercer and Chris Johnson for a talk about the new Battlestar Galactica. If you know my thoughts on the new Galactica, you know this will be interesting, to say the least.

Costumes, merchandise, premieres, talks, and fun to go around, you can't miss it! Join me at Fantasci!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Clerks II opens!

I've been an ardent admirer of Kevin Smith and his films now for - I can't believe it - going on a decade (and I wrote the first study of his cinematic canon, An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith). Kathryn and I are going out to see Clerks II tomorrow, and then I'll post my review here on Monday or Tuesday.

Anyway, as part of my celebration of the Clerks II premiere, I'll be watching Clerks again on DVD, and I'm also featuring this interview from the great blog, NC FLIX, regarding my book.

Here's a sample:

Now, with Clerks II opening this weekend, we asked John to tell us a bit about doing the book on Smith, whose work we admire--from his films to his hilarious, scatalogical, and candid evenings with Kevin Smith compilations of his lecture appearances at colleges.

Johns says Chasing Amy was "not only hilarious, it seemed very honest in it's observations about Generation X." Following that film, he wrote a book proposal which eventually sold to Applause Theatre and Cinema Books as
An Askew View, the films of Kevin Smith.

"My enthusiasm for Kevin Smith's work only grew as I began interviewing cast and crew members," John says. "Everybody at View Askew productions is simply tremendous to work with. They all love what they're doing. The enthusiasm floored me, and down to the last one, they're all whip-smart and talented. I couldn't ask for a better writing experience."

John's book on Smith is his biggest seller and he's still collecting royalties four years after publication. Clerks II may spawn a whole new set of Smith fans looking to find out more about him, the way I did when I first encountered John's book after an Encore showing of "An Evening With Kevin Smith."

"Kevin's fans are die-hard for a reason," says John.

Check out the rest of the piece here.

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "Hurricane"

Land of the Lost's "Hurricane" is one of the series' finest (and fastest...) entries. Written by David Gerrold and Larry Niven, the story finds a parachutist named Beau Jackson (that's Mr. Jackson if you're nasty...) falling into the pocket universe after Will fools with a pylon's matrix table. This particular pylon is stationed atop a mountain peak, at the highest point in the land...

This geography is important, because in the episode's most exquisite image (and indeed, one of the series' best moments...), Will, Holly, Marshall and Beau gaze across the snow-covered peaks of the land of the lost (using binoculars) and spy something interesting: themselves! Yep, they see themselves (from the back!), looking across the land...a view which beautifully sells the concept of a world that twists around itself, closed off, with no end and no beginning.

In this inventive episode, the Marshalls must find a way to re-direct the floating time doorway (which is cruising 50-60 meters in the air...) closer to Mr. Jackson, so he can be returned home (to his life in the far off 1990s...when we have space gliders and space stations...). Also, there's another problem. The time doorway opened while Mr. Jackson was on his space glider - directing an atmospheric re-entry. That means that all the wind and turbulence from the earth's upper atmosphere is gushing into the Land of the Lost and creating the mother of all hurricanes. The environmental watchdogs of the closed universe, the skylons, put in an encore appearance to help out.

"Hurricane" also boasts a great line from the Texan space pilot Beau (played with the right amount of disbelief and humor by Ron Masak...). Will tells him that one of the dinosaurs, Spot, is "omnivorous," and Beau replies, "I don't much care where it goes to church..."

The next episode, "Circle" is the final entry in Land of the Lost's first season!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Trading Card Close-up #3: "A gruesome alien creature attacks Eagle 1"

I was just five years old and yet my parents somehow knew to sit me down in front of the television one Saturday night in September; for the premiere of the brand-new TV series, a "science fiction spectacular," Space:1999.

That was way back in 1975, and in all honesty, the viewing experience probably changed my life. That's not an exaggeration. Before Space:1999 I was into Sinbad movies, King Kong and Godzilla. Afterwards, I was a changed eyes forever watching the skies...directed to the cosmos.

Anyway, what really made Space:1999 so appealing to me followed shortly after the debut. The second episode aired on WPIX, Channel 11 in New York, "Dragon's Domain" - and man, it scared the crap out of me. Although this was the 23rd episode produced, the station opted to air it after "Breakaway," probably because it is one of the series' strongest (and most memorable) outings.

As a five year-old, "Dragon's Domain" terrified me (and prepared me for Alien in 1979). The story involved a tentacled, cyclopean beast that haunted a "spider's web" of derelict spaceships. The thing was creepy (and would periodically shoot out jets of saliva...). And if it got a tentacle on an errant astronaut it would drag that poor unfortunate into its gaping maw...and spit out the smoking bones in mere seconds. It may not sound like much now, but in 1975, and to the mind of a 5 year old, this was amazing stuff...

It was grotesque, and terrifying, and bloody...and I loved every minute of it. So for my third trading card close-up, I recall the horrors of Space:1999's "dragon," featured here on card # 10 from the 66 card series released in 1976. Take a good, long look at that monster. It's probably the reason I'm a writer today...

Ark II, Space Academy and Jason of Star Command coming to DVD...

Okay, I guess I'm having what has become known as a "geek-gasm."

My friend Fred just made me aware of a press release from a company called BCI. Turns out the company has acquired pretty much the entire Filmation catalog going back thirty-to-forty years, and is in the process of releasing several classic Saturday morning cult TV series on DVD.

By the end of this year, we can expect Ark II which occurs "in the year 2476. Earth is a wasteland, and the team of Jonah, Ruth, Samuel and their monkey sidekick, Adam, try to help what's left of humanity."

Also on tap for '06: The New Adventures of He-Man, and She-Ra!

In 2007, things get even better. BCI is releasing Space Academy ("a group of young cadets at Space Academy face danger and adventure as they learn what mysteries lie within the galaxy...") and Jason of Star Command ("Outer space adventurer Jason and friends must contend with the evil Dragos and an assortment of aliens in the ultimate spaceship battles.")

And - holy cow! - then there's the best of all: The Secrets of Isis starring hottie Joanna Cameron. ("One of television's most popular superheroines returns as school teacher Andrea Thomas and uses her magic amulet to become the powerful Isis, endowed with the powers of the gods and goddesses.")

Damn, I can't wait to see these Saturday morning shows again. I don't know if they'll be "great" or even "good," but they sure as hell will be nostalgic. I plan on ordering all of them. Where's Shazam? And when can we expect Run, Joe Run?

You can read the press release

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Muir Translated in Japanese!

In the past, my literary efforts have been translated into Italian. And my books have been reviewed in German and French. But this is the first time I've seen my efforts converted into Japanese!!

Mr, Katsuaki Takeuchi, an admirer of the 1959-1961 paranormal TV series One Step Beyond contacted me recently and asked if he could translate my interview with the late John Newland, director of all 96 series episodes, into Japanese. Naturally, I agreed, and now the page is live on the Net.

Check it out
here. I'm really tickled about this. Now, if someone would just translate one of my works into Klingon, I'd really be a happy camper...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Encore Magazine Likes Singing a New Tune

Another review for Singing A New Tune, my Applause study covering the "new" movie musical format (and featuring detailed interviews with Sir Alan Parker, Todd Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell, Joss Whedon, Keith Gordon, Todd Graff and others...), just came in.

This one arrives courtesy of Encore, "The Performing Arts Magazine," which covers various performing arts venues throughout the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area (on web and in print magazine), so this is great. Especially because the magazine likes it...

The review reads, in part:

"Movie musicals reached their zenith with Busby Berkeley (42nd Street) and the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Post-war, Americans were past the point of fantasy. Yes, there were gems like The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but after Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz in 1979, successful film musicals were few and far between. By the late 1990s, filmmakers were creating movies with musical numbers that defied the old conventions.

Muir delights in the creativity of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, an animated movie musical that combined political parody with a musical send-up. And that was just the beginning. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, a hallucinogenic tour of a 19th-century Parisian hot spot—and Nicole Kidman, too—came in 2001....Muir lovingly details the genre’s hits, flops and near misses—from the kitsch of Xanadu to the overblown Phantom of the Opera. Forget the groaners....For movie lovers, Singing a New Tune is the literary equivalent of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Video Games: Establishing Aesthetic Criteria

In the July 2006 edition of Esquire, in the column Chuck Klosterman's America, the author has penned a piece called "The Lester Bangs of Video Games." He concludes (perhaps rightly) that there is no Lester Bangs of video games...

He writes:

There are still people in America who do not take video games seriously. These are the same people who question the relevance of hip-hop and assume newspapers will still exist in twenty-five years. It's hard to find an irrefutably accurate statistic for the economic value of the video-game industry, but the best estimates seem to be around $28 billion. As such, I'm not going to waste any space trying to convince people that gaming is important. If you're reading this column, I'm jut going to assume that you believe video games in 2006 are the cultural equivalent of rock music in 1967, because that's (more or less) reality."

Klosterman goes on to write that although many writers review games...there are few if any real "video game critics." He fails to locate a "Pauline Kael" of video game writing for instance, and examines the reasons why in his fascinating piece.

The Esquire article got me thinking about this notion. I recently completed a book about Rock'nRoll Movies, and so the author's metaphor about rock music in 1967 seems really powerful to me. Are critics missing the boat on what is potentially the most influential art form of the next thirty years? Have we - as a culture; and as critics - failed to come up with a common lexicon for legitimate criticism of video games?

Klosterman sees the gap in video game "criticism" as arising directly from the fact that games are seen as "product" and little more. They are not seen in terms of narrative, but rather in terms of playability. This would be a little like going to the movies and reviewing the quality of the auditorium seating, no? Actually, movies are increasingly seen this way too; but that's a debate for another day...

If Mr. Klosterman is right and - outside of product - there exists no common set of aesthetic criteria for "video game criticism", why don't we - here on the blog - establish them? Henceforth. I would like to put out a call to all those who are interested in this idea to submit scholarly pieces to me at my e-mail address, and I'll post them here on the blog in their entirety with your byline. Seems to me, we need to establish this missing information as soon as possible, and begin a new critical movement in the study of video games.

Why do I think this is important? Well, in honesty, video games actually have "one up" on movies and TV. Movies and television are always being criticized as "passive" pastimes. Personally, I find movie and TV viewing stimulating. Heck, I've made a career out of watching TV and film and analyzing them. But video games are can't argue that they are passive. Instead, they are immersive. What does that mean to us, as percipients and as participants?

What should the criteria be for "video game criticism?" If we're talking about horror games, I submit the same criteria I judge for horror movies: a benchmark of "is it scary?"; and consequently how does it make itself scary? I played the GameCube version of Resident Evil 4 last year and I'll tell you was as frightening, jolting and suspenseful as anything I'd seen in theaters in the last year or so. The game exploits a cinematic sense of "tight framing" and "peripheral vision" to create scares and jolts. Yet as much as it pains me, I honestly feel we might have to leave behind the descriptors and language of cinema studies to create a whole new vocabulary for games.

Maybe someone has already done this? Let me know!

And again, if you're so inclined, e-mail me well-thought out, scholarly pieces (no more than maybe 1200 words in length) that I can use here on the blog. Together, let's establish the aesthetic criteria for video game criticism. Let's haggle over it; fight, debate, and then emerge with a new school of criticism.


Friday, July 14, 2006

The marX-Files (at Paperback Reader) writes about The House Between!

Hey, look at this!

In his new column over at the web-zine Paperback Reader, blogger Marx ponders the future of television and in that light considers my up-and-coming independently-produced series, The House Between.

Check out his column (and Paperback Reader)

The blurb is under the header "Not Comic Books, But I Like It," one of several regular categories that Marx uses to organize news, facts and editorials at his site. Very cool!

Here's a clip:

"Muir, author of An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith and The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film & Television, wrote and directed this science fiction/horror series. It is being produced by Joseph Maddrey, co-producer of A Haunting and author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue. No, you won’t find the upcoming seven black-and-white episodes on a cable channel near you. This original live-action series will be available for streaming online in the very near future. Could this be the future of television? Could this be the start of an independent TV (or should I say web) series trend?"

Marx is asking smart questions. These are the very underpinnings of what we are trying and hoping to accomplish with this project. Just like blogging has democratized news, editorials and punditry in the last few years, I'm hoping that streaming video will democratize independent film and TV production. We'll see what happens, but I'm pleased as punch that Marx is thinking (and blogging...) about the notion. Someone is going to make this concept work...hopefully The House Between will be a part of that.

Thanks, marX-Files!

Trading Card Close-up # 2: "The Deadly Fumes" (*snicker*)

My trading card close-up this week arrives from the 1979 Roger Moore James Bond/007 effort, Moonraker. It's laughably...titled..."The Deadly Fumes" (*cough*, *nudge*).

No, but seriously, I'm featuring this particular trading card because that absurd caption clashes so amusingly with that horrific image. That poor guy looks as though he's caught a whiff of something really, really bad. But heck, he who smelt it...

Anyway, this is card number #31 of the Moonraker series, and no doubt, the most absurd. Recently, I re-watched a sixth-season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode in which the Nerd Trio (Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew) debated the finer points of Moonraker. Warren was against it because of the notorious shot of a pigeon doing a double-take at Bond's all-terrain gondola in Venice. I think I agree with him...

When I was a kid, I loved this movie with a passion (hey - it had space battles!). Now, I think it's probably the worst of the series (at least before Die Another Day...). In the final analysis, I guess I like Moonraker even less than The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). At least that Bond effort has Agent 007 piloting my first car - an early 1970s vintage AMC Hornet! - over a collapsed bridge. Whoo-hoo!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 44: Hasbro's Think-A-Tron - Electronic Question and Answer Computer!

"It Thinks! It Answers! It Remembers!" It's "amazing," "fascinating" and "educational." Wow!

You just never know what you're going to find at a flea market...

Last week, I was back in Deltaville, VA, visiting in-laws with Kathryn, and I unearthed another retro-toy treasure. This time, it's "the machine that thinks like a man," Hasbro's 1960 toy/learning device, the all-mighty Think-A-Tron. My sister-in-law, Julie, purchased the toy for me as an early Christmas gift, and now here it is...featured on the blog.

The amazing Think-A-Tron comes from the far-flung year of 1960, a year when computers seemed like miraculous devices that sometimes filled an entire room (or several rooms...). They operated on punch-cards, and were esoteric things that not all Americans had a familiarity with. The Think-a-Tron was designed to bring that "technology" home to kids right here in the U.S. of A. It's an educational tool and a fun toy too! The Think-A-Tron I found was still in its box (which had been taped on the top...), and appears unused. It now earns a place of reverence and worship in my office.

Inside the instruction manual, Hasbro had the following to say about the Think-A-Tron (in a sub-section entitled "Facts About Data Processing Machines"):

"There are new types of machines being made today that would have seemed impossible a few years ago. They quickly and effortlessly do work that once required many human minds and many hours to accomplish.

These new machines, called "Data Processing Machines" can "read" and "write" hundreds of times faster than humans can. They have "memories" able to store millions of bits of information to be used when it is needed. They can make intelligent decisions from the information given them, write out their answers and even control other machines.

They can do mathematical equations thousands of times faster than human minds can and on certain difficult problems requiring very exact values. They can be made to continue working, performing millions of operations until extremely accurate answers are obtained.

Sometimes, these difficult problems take several hours for the machine to complete, but this is fast because these problems would otherwise take many years of calculating by other methods. With faster and more exact calculations, airplanes can be designed to fly faster, rockets made more accurate and dependable, even old products, such as camera lenses, are made more perfect. Without the "Data Processing Machines," many of our latest technical achievements would have been impossible.

Of course, these new machines do not really "read" as humans do, instead of eyes for "reading," they use electrical sensing devices and they do not read books and magazines but read patterns on punched holes in cards or tape or sometimes they read magnetic patterns on discs or drums. Instead of living protoplasm, their "memory" might be thousands of little magnets.

They do not ""write" with pencil and paper, but write instead with electric printers, lights or by punching holes in cards. And they do not really "think" as humans do, but instead follow very simple and exact rules built into them by their designers.

Those of us not familiar with these new machines find them mysterious and often worry about their effect on our lives. Where earlier machines that man invented, such as the steam engine or the electric motor, were meant to increase his muscle power, the Data processing Machines are meant to increase his mental power and to do work that formerly required people's minds to perform.

The Think-A-Tron machine contains some of the more important elements of actual Data Processing Machines. The miniature punch cards contain information that the machine must "read." After reading the card, the Think-A-Tron selects the correct information from storage and prints out the answer in lights on the display screen."

Man, isn't that just great? A toy from another age! Before that new fangled thing called a PC. I hope someone has one of these things safely displayed in a museum somewhere (other than my office...). As for the punch cards, they ask great True/False questions. One asks if the population of the Earth is "1 billion," "2 billion" or "3 billion." This multiple-choice selection badly ages the Think-A-Tron, alas, since there are now 6.4 billion people on the planet. Computers - sadly - are only as good as the information we feed them, I suppose.

Other questions: "The scorpion is a type of?" (a. fish) (b. insect) (c. bird). "The speed of light is approximately?" (a. 1,000 miles per second), (b. 300,000 miles per second) (c. 186,000 miles per second). I hasten to add, "all questions and answers" have been "compiled and authenticated from THE BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE" according to the Think-A-Tron's box. Well, there's that, then. All hail the mighty BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE. You are wise, oh great Landru...peace be with you.

Okay, I need to stop playing with this thing and get back to work. I keep feeding the machine these punch cards waiting for answers. I feel like William Shatner getting his fortune told by a Bobble-Headed little devil in that Twilight Zone episode, "the Nick of Time." "The United States is the chief producer of cotton in the world?" True or false? "The oldest culture in the Far East is the Japanese?" True or false? "Silk is obtained from" (plants? caterpillars? sheep?) "Radar will not operate efficiently in heavy fog?" True or false? Come on! True or false?

Man, this is fun! Wait...don't I have a TV show to edit? A book to write? Okay, now I feel like Charlton Heston's Taylor discovering a human doll in Cornelius's cave in the Forbidden Zone, showing Dr. Zaius an artifact from an earlier age. "Think-A-Tron was here before Apple and Commodore VIC-20s...and it was better!!!!" Well, er - not really. Anyway - culturally speaking - at least we were more naive back then, in the Kennedy Age, in the epoch of Hasbro's Think-A-Tron. Back then we were amazed by a device wherein "Wheels Turn - Lights Flash!" Today? Not so much...

I wonder if I can program this thing to write my book for me...

TV REVIEW: Epitafios

Although - to some degree - I'm experiencing the summer doldrums in regards to TV viewing (reruns, reruns, reruns...), I've also found a number of new cathode tube obsessions. I wrote yesterday about Entourage (recommended to me by my buddy and dp, Rick Coulter), and today I want to feature another fresh obsession: the HBO Spanish-language series, Epitafios.

Epitafios, or "Epitaphs" is the harrowing, multi-part (13 episode...) tale of a diabolical serial killer who has spent the last four years of his life developing an intricate plan to bring justice to those who botched a delicate hostage situation at a Buenos Aires university years earlier. This lunatic (whose identity is cloaked from the viewer...) writes "epitaphs" on specially designed grave stones for whose whom he plans to "judge" (meaning: kill). These epitaphs are wordy and mysterious, their meaning unfathomable until justice is rendered, like "Here Lies He Who Turned Deception into A Game."

It's up to a balding, retired policeman-turned-cab driver, Renzo (Julio Chavez) and the psychologist he once loved, Dr. Laura Santini (Paula Krum) to catch the killer before he strikes again. This case is personal, however, since it was Renzo and Santini who botched that hostage situation at the college years earlier. One headstone is marked with their two they realize the killer is coming for them soon.

The bread and butter of the highly cinematic Epitafios is the notion that a fine line separates revenge and justice; and it's a line based entirely on personal, subjective perspective. However, viewers may find themselves in love with the stunning visualizations and compositions more than any deep thematic strands. Epitafios - which is filled to the brim with gruesome, inventive (and gory...) death scenes - is perhaps the most cinematic venture I've yet seen on television. In some regards, the series represents a lengthy variation on David Fincher's 1995 noir, Seven, because Epitafios is filmed (by DP Guillermo Zappino) in such sterling fashion. It's a world of rain-soaked streets, off-kilter close-ups, revealing angles and the like. In short, the series is simply beautiful to look at; and the mise-en-scene is the best I've seen on a TV show. Like...ever.

After viewing the first three episodes, I've witnessed corpse pieces strewn over a house that represents the killer's mind, vicious dogs rip out a detective's throat (in a harrowing scene that makes fine use of quick cross-cutting), a penny-pincher's mouth stitched into an open, agape position while coins are hurled down her throat (and the camera actually travels down her esophagus and tilts down into her stomach...), and most horribly of all, a beautiful leather fetish model stretched to death on a rack....before acid is poured on her face with a bottle dropper. Then one hand is amputated. Then...well, you get the idea...

Yep, it's that kind of show. I love it.

The (wide...) suspect pool in Epitafios consists mostly of the relatives of those hostages from years back...parents, ex-lovers, etcetera, who somehow might desire revenge, but this series alternates "current" murders with flashbacks of the University siege (which flames), as well as fine character development. Renzo quit the force over the siege, then fell in love with Santini...who spurned him. Now he's hooked on expired anti-depressants (provided to him by a transvestite client...) and still desperate to be with Santini. Meanwhile, the killer has communicated with the psychologist and demanded that she become...intimate with Renzo, lest her son be killed. It's all fascinating thriller material, and Epitafios utilizes flashbacks more cleverly than say, Lost, for example.

I still have several shows to go before finishing the "story arc" of Epitafios, and yes - the show is in Spanish (with sub-titles), but you'll hardly notice. The visuals on this series are so amazing (except for one or two instances of crappy CGI...) that they transcend the language barrier. This show first aired on HBO last fall, and it pains me that I'm only discovering it now. But better late than never, I guess...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

To Mr. Merlin, a Fond Farewell...

I just read the sad news that Barnard Hughes has passed away at age 90. This talented actor is famous to my generation for his appearance as the Walt Disney-type character in the 1982 special effects epic, Tron as well as his role as Corey Haim and Jason Patric's eccentric grandfather in the 1987 vampire film, The Lost Boys. In the case of the latter film, he gave The Lost Boys its memorable final line...

Yet, I tell you, I'll always remember Hughes for his performance in the short-lived 1981 TV sitcom, Mr. Merlin. The premise of that pretty obscure show is that Hughes was indeed the wizard Merlin...but living in modern (or eighties...) suburban America. Clark Brandon was the youngster who learned his secret and became Mr. Merlin's apprentice. I'm sure wackiness ensued, and I can't objectively speak for the real quality of that sitcom since I haven't seen it since I was twelve years-old. But I loved the show at the time, and have enjoyed Mr. Hughes' performances ever since. He always brought a special charm, quirkiness and warmth to his portrayals, and boasted a magnificent career in Hollywood.

So I bid a sad (but appreciative...) farewell to this talented actor, and grieve with his family in their time of loss.

Production Update: The House Between

Courtesy of Kim Breeding, my independently produced and shot TV series, The House Between now boasts an official logo.

Pretty cool, huh?

Kim did a great job (and she also updated the look of my web-site at Check it out!

Anyway, editing on the first episode of the series, "Arrived" continues. It's coming together real nice now, and my wife (a producer on the project...) is peering over my shoulder every step of the way. And...I will indeed have a trailer ready for public consumption at the convention Fantasci, July 29, 2006! I've been in touch with my composer too, and he's making strides on theme music and such. (I've been listening to the end credit theme all morning...or I should say, the prospective end credit theme music...) so it seems like everything is coming together. I hope to have the trailer on the Web (and here, on the blog...) by no later than mid-August.

Of course, at this rate, I'll be shooting the second season episodes by the time anyone sees the first season shows...

TV REVIEW: Entourage (Season 3)

In its third season, the HBO comedy series Entourage continues to fire on all thrusters. For those of you who haven't been watching, Entourage is the story of Vincent Chase (Adam Grenier), an up-and-coming young movie star in Hollywood - a veritable stranger in a strange land. Vince thrives (and navigates the Byzantine by-ways of La-La Land...) by keeping it "real;" maintaining his ties to the old neighborhood, Queens NY.

Vince's "entourage," his colorful group of hangers-on, include Johnny "Drama" Chase (Kevin Dillon), an out-of-work actor and Vince's brother; Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) - the driver, and a budding entrepreneur; and Eric (Kevin Connolly), the savvy business manager (and the only one with even a lick of common sense...). Also among those Vince must contend with is Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), his foul-mouthed agent...who plays all the angles and knows the ropes of the industry. This season, Ari is vexed by a dissolute child actor that wants to date his daughter.

However, what has really made this third season so much fun to watch (for me, anyway...) is that in the fictional world of Vincent Chase, he's just starred in a huge Warner Bros. superhero blockbuster: James Cameron's Aquaman! An early episode this season, "Aquamom," takes Vince and his buddies to the premiere of that mega-budget film, and features red carpet cameos by "King of the World" director James Cameron himself, and James Woods, who plays the fictional movie's villain (and who parodies his off-kilter, temperamental persona). What's neat about this facet of the series is the way Entourage pays attention to detail. For instance, production designers have developed a "logo" for Aquaman (a trident forming the letter "A") that looks just like a real Hollywood marketing ploy.

Follow-up episodes have continued the jokes about Chase's big superhero movie. The second episode of the season, "One Day in the Valley" follows Aquaman's opening weekend, and the worry and concern over the box office numbers. Is the movie going to be another Spider-Man (which grossed 114 million on its opening weekend...) or fall below expectations (which rest at 95 million)? As Ari tells Eric, Vince's business manager, one penny under expectations and the movie is a failure...and Vince might as well leave town. One penny over expectations, and Vince is a conquering hero. I hasten to add, this is the exact same rigmarole that Superman Returns and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel have faced in the last two the Entourage observations are timely.

The same episode takes the time to offer a well-crafted riff on a trademark scene from Cameron Crowe's 2000 rock-n-roll masterpiece, Almost Famous, so it's clear that Entourage is having a tremendous amount of fun with the exigencies of modern Hollywood, as well as film history. I also got a kick out of the fake scenes from of which includes hunky Vincent ripping open his shirt (Spidey or Superman-style) and spectacularly leaping off a pier to confront a looming tidal wave (which appears lifted right out of Cameron's The Abyss [1989]).

Other Entourage episodes this season, including "Guys and Dolls" and "Crash and Burn" continue to track Vince through his surreal, Alice in Wonderland-style existence as he becomes a prisoner of his own success and instantly becomes typecast as Aquaman. Vince wants to play Pablo Escobar in a passion project, a movie called Medellin (directed by Paul Haggis...who also cameos in an episode), but instead must report back to Warner Bros. for shooting on Aquaman 2, which is to be directed not by James Cameron...but Michael Bay.

The episode "Dominated" follows Vince to a promotional appearance at a theme park...where he's tasked to open the Aquaman rollercoaster ride, and it's all quite funny. I'm enjoying watching a show that acknowledges (and ribs) the odd, bi-polar nature of Hollywood. It's a land filled with creative artists, storytellers and actors, yet dominated by cutthroat, imagination-impaired businessmen. No wonder the town seems so schizophrenic...and watching Vince navigate this mine-field is amusing, bewildering, and spot-on accurate. I remember conducting an interview with the great writer Simon Moore (the man behind the Sam Raimi western, The Quick and the Dead) and he discussed with me in great detail how he was with Raimi when the opening weekend numbers for that Sharon Stone film came back...and the ensuing fall-out. So Entourage is not quite a satire...because it observes without histrionics the "real" movie industry, but it tickles the funny bone anyway; and in intelligent fashion.

I would say that Entourage is further proof of HBO's utter dominance on the contemporary TV series stage. Their slate also includes winners like Deadwood, Rome and Big Love. But then I got a gander at Lucky Louie, HBO's dreadful new sitcom...and realized that even at HBO, not every show is a winner (or even passable). Entourage is so good because it's precisely the kind of show that acknowledges how and why two-dimensional crap like Lucky Louie gets made in the first place...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Now in Book Stores: Scott Nicholson's The Farm

Horror readers, look out! Scott Nicholson's latest genre novel is now haunting bookstores.

Scott is not only a good friend and a fellow North Carolina author, he's one of the select horror novelists working today who's actually merits all those breathless comparisons to Stephen King. The blurb from Bentley Little says it all: Nicholson boasts a "true talent for terror." I couldn't agree more...

Scott serves as a guest reviewer on my upcoming Horror Films of the 1980s from McFarland, and certainly many readers recognize the author from his chilling previous novels, including The Red Church, The Harvest, The Manor and The Home.

The New York Times raves that The Farm is a "smoothly engineered supernatural entertainment," and here's another blurb on The Farm, and Scott's earlier work that will whet your appetite:

"For his latest thriller, "The Farm," he fictionalized the community history of Todd, NC, a once-booming forestry and railroad center that had declined, and threw in some small-sect Baptist religions that were sprinkled among the mountains. A 200-year-old circuit-riding preacher, a ghostly ex-wife, a pot-growing Libertarian, and a blood-thirsty scarecrow are among the characters in the book, but the story is built on the relationship between Katy Logan and her daughter Jett.

"Katy has married so she can move out of the big city and keep Jett away from bad influences," Nicholson said. "Except bad influences come in many forms. When a herd of carnivorous goats are watching you from the dark throat of the barn, you're probably better off taking your chances with drugs, gangs, and pollution."

Nicholson has written four other novels based in the North Carolina mountains. His first, The Red Church, was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award and an alternate selection of the Mystery Guild. It was inspired by a haunted church near his home. His novel The Harvest is a B-movie allegory about encroaching development in the rural mountains, and in The Manor, Nicholson used real ghost stories about the Cone Manor on the Blue Ridge Parkway to invent a tale about a haunted artists' retreat..."

I expect The Farm is going to be a real creepfest, and here in the Muir house, the real contest will be who gets to read the book first, husband or wife, since we're both fans. Anyway, check it out at Scott's web site here for more info, or click on over to

Friday, July 07, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 43: Tom Corbett Space Academy Set (Marx Toys)

A couple months back, I had the amazing good fortune to find a neat old sci-fi collectible at a flea market in Deltaville, Virginia...a Tom Corbett Space Cadet thermos from Aladdin!

For those of you who may have forgotten, Tom Corbett Space Cadet was a CBS (and then Dumont) TV series from the early 1950s, and a forerunner of Star Trek. The series imagined a futuristic and golden space age in which responsible, decent-minded cadets like Tom patrolled the universe in rocketships such as the Polaris.

Well, this past weekend, my really incredible parents surprised me yet again with another treasure (after last week's Micronauts find, no less...) My father brought down from the attic a boyhood toy he had enjoyed with his best friend, Bob. In fact, on a recent trip to New Jersey, Bob had revealed to my Dad that he still had this toy in his attic, and that he wanted to give it to me. How can one guy be so lucky? I often wonder...

What's that toy my Dad played with back in the early 1950s? Well, it's the much sought-after Marx Toys Tom Corbett Space Academy playset..

Now, as you can see from the photographs decorating this post, what remains of this official Space Academy set (issued from Louis Marx & Co. Inc, the "world's largest manufacturers of toys"), is basically the small Corbett figurines (including space helmets on some!), several of the out-buildings, one vehicle, and several key accessories (chairs, desks, laser posts, control panels, an easel and the like). The protective outer/perimeter walls of the space academy, as well as the central buildings are long gone, alas.

But heck, this is still a real retro treasure from a great manufacturer of toys in the 1950s and 1960s. Marx used to make playsets like Fort Apache (with cowboys and Indians...) as well as this one, and as a kid, I remember owning some kind of Viking fort with figures, also produced by the company.. Anyway, this particular toy is made all the more special because my father and his best friend played with these very cool "action" figures fifty years ago. Some day, maybe my own son will be interested? Hopefully...

Trading Card Close-up # 1: "Fate of the Klingons"

I launched one of my new blog features yesterday ("Sci-Fi Characters I Love") and today I want to usher in another new brand of post. Trading Card "close-ups" will feature looks at - you guessed it - sci-fi card fronts and backs from years past.

I usher in the series with a card from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the year 1979. Card # 4 of the set, in fact, entitled "Fate of the Klingons."

I selected this card to begin with because of the unusual nature of these particular Klingons. You may recall, before Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Klingons looked like sweaty space pirates. No bumpy foreheads. Only goatees, mind-sifters and agonizers.

So when I first cast my young eyes upon this trading card (before I even saw the movie, I think...), I was fascinated by the transformation of the familiar alien race. Plus, these Klingons look really, really cool. Klingons in later Star Trek productions ended up looking a lot less severe and alien, don't you think? Mark Lenard, Spock's father, even plays the Klingon Commander you see in this card.

Also, "the fate of the Klingons" is what opened up Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The destruction (by V'Ger) of three Klingon cruisers remains the most exciting and cinematically interesting aspect of Robert Wise's picture, if you ask me. It was a special effects show-stopper in 1979, and a way to start the movie with a blast.

As a bonus on this card, the back features a "key" to the puzzle that you can assemble by collecting all 16 cards from puzzle "B!" Yep, it's the U.S.S. Enterprise crew, replete with Persis Khambatta, and Admiral James T. Kirk, here wearing his stylish two-tone uniform. The Star Trek crew never again wore these uniforms.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Coming Soon: Horror Films of the 1980s.

Yep, it's almost here. The long-awaited sequel to one of my most popular, critically acclaimed and widely-read books (Horror Films of the 1970s).

I toiled long and hard on this one, and hope you'll give it a gander. The stats: 328 movies covered; almost 200 photographs; a dozen interviews; eleven original illustrations. Tons of reviews, horror conventions (or cliches), memorable ad-lines, the 80s hall of fame and much more ghoulish, bloody fun.

This baby's up at McFarland, available now for pre-order. I'll let you know more about the street date, but it looks like this one might arrive in time for Halloween. I'm really excited about this book for many reasons. It's nice to "come home" in a sense, to horror, because I've been away since 2004's The Unseen Force: the Films of Sam Raimi.

Here's McFarland's book description:

John Kenneth Muir is back! His Horror Films of the 1970s was named an Outstanding Reference Book by the American Library Association, and likewise a Booklist Editors’ Choice. This time, Muir surveys 300 films from the 1980s. From backwards psychos (Just Before Dawn) and yuppie-baiting giant rats (Of Unknown Origin), to horror franchises like Friday the 13th and Hellraiser, as well as nearly forgotten obscurities such as The Children and The Boogens, Muir is our informative guide through 10 macabre years of silver screen terrors.

Muir introduces the scope of the decade’s horrors, and offers a history drawing parallels between current events and the nightmares unfolding on cinema screens. Each of the 300 films are discussed with detailed credits, a brief synopsis, a critical commentary, and where applicable, notes on the film’s legacy beyond the 80s. Also included is a catalog of the author’s “star” ratings for both 1970s and 1980s horror movies, as well as his ranking of the 15 best horror films of the 80s.

Sci-Fi Characters I Love # 1: Lydia (from V: The Series)

In the mid-1980s, the name of the game in sci-fi TV was V (not for Vendetta...), but for "Victory," in particular in the global war against those reptilian extra-terrestrial fascists, the Visitors. V, V: The Final Battle and V: The Series were all a crucial part of that decade's genre programming, and truth be told, likely a powerful influence on later productions like Independence Day (1996). V is one of the few programs in American network history that concerns a leftist resistance battling an overpowering right-wing hierarchy, one that scapegoats enemies (like scientists...) and manipulates the power of the media to its own ends. Wonder how that got by the network executives?

Regardless, V (the original mini-series in 1984) introduced the villainous and ambitious Visitor second-in-command, Diana (played with gleeful relish by Jane Badler), but it wasn't until V: The Series aired on NBC Friday nights that this character came up against a truly effective foil amongst her own kind. Oh, Sarah Douglas did a fine job playing such a character in V: The Final Battle, a fleet commander, but she was too easily bumped off by Diana's Machiavellian schemes.

However, in the blond, big-haired, British-accented Visitor officer Lydia (essayed in delicious fashion by June Chadwick), Diana finally countenanced a nemesis as scheming, manipulative and avaricious as she was. Consequently, viewers could pretty much forget or ignore what was happening with the Resistance down in Los Angeles (and with the series' protagonists...). The reason to watch V: The Series quickly became the Mothership sparring matches, the ongoing battle of wills, between Diana and Lydia. They fought over romantic lovers (like Duncan Regehr's Visitor, Charles), and tried to gain ultimate power, always making their opponent look bad in the process.

As part of my new blog series, "Sci-Fi Characters I Love," I'll be gazing back at some of my favorite dramatis personae in the genre's long history. My choices hopefully won't be obvious (at least to start), but rather genuinely stimulating and interesting ones. It's fascinating to consider, but the best characters in sci-fi dramas aren't always the leads. Sometimes they are the support characters; sometimes aliens instead of human; and sometimes...oft-times, they're villains.

Back in 2004, while I was writing Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, I had the most welcome opportunity to chat with Ms. June Chadwick, who played Lydia on V: The Series. She had also proven herself quite memorable a presence as Jeanine Pettibone, David St. Hubbins' irksome girlfriend in This is Spinal Tap (1984). The subject of the interview was Spinal Tap and the process of improvisation in that film, but I couldn't resist the temptation to ask Ms. Chadwick about her terrific performances as Lydia, and her memories of V: The Series.

Firstly, I wanted to know how Ms. Chadwick came to be involved with the sci-fi series.

"They bumped off a character, played by Sarah Douglas, who was British, and I think they wanted somebody European, and it was quite a small role to start with," June Chadwick explains. "I seem to come across a lot of roles the same way, which is the hard way, going into auditions. Sometimes they [these roles] come along, where I'm thinking, gosh, 'the glove doesn't fit.' And sometimes I think 'this is totally my glove.' V was one of those. I loved the humor of it."

And what was it like working with the Alien Lizard Queen, Diana, otherwise known as Jane Badler?

"Jane was doll...a doll," Ms. Chadwick emphasizes. "We became good friends. In fact I saw her fairly recently. I seem to come in late on projects, and I came in late on this one. It had been a mini-series and everybody had got used to each other. And it was a family sort of thing and I was newbie again. And Jane was very generous and welcoming, and I don't think all actresses are like that. Some actually take the competitiveness too far, into reality, and she absolutely didn't do that."

"And we did have a very good time together, and I remember we'd actually watch the episodes together. We'd be walking down these long corridors together and go hysterical because she and I both had one leg slightly longer than the other, and we kind of tipped to one side a tiny bit when we walked. And she tipped one way and I was tipping the other way and that's all we saw..."

And how did the role of Lydia, the Visitor officer, develop?

"Initially I had all these scenes walking up and down the corridors saying 'the Leader won' be pleased.', Chadwick jokes. "I think the character progressed from there. I think that there's something about being British. You can say those things with great aplomb and authority. With an American accent, it might not sound so official. But if you say them with an English accent...and it sounds pretty official, which is why Star Trek sometimes has British actors. I did a Star Trek CD-Rom game and I played a character, and it had loads of techno-jargon and it was a lot of fun to do."

"It (the character of Lydia) did develop," Ms. Chadwick continues. "Initially, I remember one of the producers telling me he wanted me to be meaner. And so it was interesting because I don't play 'mean' per se. I play a lot of mean characters, but I always play them in the way that she has something she really cares about. And my premise with this one (Lydia) was that humans were like ants to me. Not there's anything bad about humans necessarily, but they are totally useless and don't mean anything to me. And again, Lydia had a really big cause, and if someone was going to get in the way of that cause, they had to be demolished somehow."

In one of V's most memorable episodes, Lydia and Diana - fully made-up to appear like members of an outer space-going KISS cult - duke it out in ritualistic hand-to-hand combat. That female-on-female smackdown is one memory from the series that personally, I will always cherish. It was the equivalent of Linda Evans and Joan Collins sharing that catfight on Dynasty...

"Oh god I loved that," Chadwick recalls. "We had two fabulous make-up artists and they were sort of old-school make-up artists, and they went to town on us, which did half the job. I've trained as a dancer, and Jane is a good mover. It's basically choreography, as many fights are. We had a giggle. It's very fun when someone says 'action' and off you go, and you're doing all this stuff, and the minute they say 'cut' you dissolve into giggles."

And did Ms. Chadwick have any recollections of the fairly graphic (for television in the 1980s) Visitor dining scenes? Remember, these reptilian aliens feasted on all kinds of mammals (from guinea pigs to human beings...).

"Whenever possible they had you munch on something that was at least reasonable," Chadwick explains. "What used to fascinate me was when we had the banquets, they had this food - you might call it - on plates all day. They'd say 'cut' at the end of the day, and all the extras would dive in and eat the food. And I thought, 'oh my god, they're eating melting rats.'

Lastly, I had to ask Ms. Chadwick a delicate and rather provocative question about her character. I tip-toed around it. You see, I sometimes I got of Diana and Lydia. Like...hmmm, how should I put this?

"You mean the bi-sexual potential?" Chadwick noted, courteously ending my discomfort. Yep, that's what I mean.

"I don't think I ever went there, per se, in my mind," Chadwick relates. "But I definitely think we had a chemistry that was a bit of a kind of a love/hate thing, even on screen. And I think we did encourage each other. We did sort of stimulate each other. In terms of stimulation, well I guess I can only speak for myself, but she definitely stimulated me. Yes, she's a very sexy woman and it was a challenge, I think."

Now that V: The Series is on DVD and gaining new fans, any thought on its enduring popularity?

"There was a V convention I think at the same time Spinal Tap had its premiere, and I was thinking 'I can retire now, I've been in a cult movie and a cult TV series,''" Chadwick jokes. "I couldn't believe the number of people who came to this convention who were all wearing the costumes. They were just real sci-fi fans, and it still has this huge following. I think I got a repeat (royalty) check just yesterday on it, which is nice! I'm glad. I think it was a little sad it was stopped when it was. I remember Brandon Tartikoff, the head of NBC, saying it was the biggest mistake he ever made, canceling it when he did."

"I was also personally sad because the next six scripts were all about Lydia and Diana, and the two of us were hunting each other down on another planet. We were told the storylines, and as an actress it was disappointing for me, because the character had grown from being very small, to being beside the lead of the series..."

So today, on the blog, let's eat a guinea pig (or maybe a chocolate bunny) in honor of the gloriously evil Lydia, Diana's regal and scheming opponent. V: The Series ended on a cliffhanger note more than twenty years ago, so as far as I'm concerned, Lydia is still out there on another planet, making mischief, forked tongue and all...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: Superman Returns (2006)

Back in the years 2000-2001, I occasionally jobbed as a contributor for a prominent genre magazine (one no longer in business...or rather, under the same ownership). While submitting article ideas for this publication, I was informed in no uncertain terms that all prospective articles in the magazine had to target sixteen year-olds.

Which means that I couldn't write about Space:1999 or the old Battlestar Galactica, or anything, for that matter, pre-mid-1980s. This edict was a shock to my system; I couldn't accept that popular mainstream magazines would focus only on the "new" and pretend that genre history didn't exist. Indeed, part of the reason that this blog exists today is to serve as a response to that policy. Here I write about whatever the hell I want to write about...old or new.

But that hard lesson about "business" was not so tremendous a shock to the system as Superman Returns, Bryan Singer'scinematic superhero event of 2006. Why? Well, this movie serves as a genuine anomaly in terms of modern Hollywood business-planning. Because Bryan Singer forged a Superman movie for me...a thirty-something year-old guy who remembers and adores the Christopher Reeve films of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  And you know what, today, by-and-large, fans hate, hate, hate it.  It is described often as being too reverential, or "boring."

I found it a pretty satisfactory follow-up to the original films of the 1970s and 1980s, and felt that, in some way, this movie proved that there is no certain approach to reviving a classic film series.  If you re-boot with faith, like Superman Returns, people complain.  If you change everything up, well...people complain.

I hasten to add in regards to this film that there are no sixteen year-olds walking around on this planet who remember these old films from their theatrical runs. Yet despite that fact, Singer has loyally re-used John Williams' stirring Superman theme, and marshaled archival footage of the late Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman's father. Furthermore, Singer has crafted his 2006 film as a direct sequel to Superman (1978) and Superman II (1981).

This is a revolutionary notion in corporate Hollywood, make no mistake. Bryan Singer's approach flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and the tack other films and TV shows have steadfastly adopted. Tim Burton's re-imagining of Planet of the Apes (2001) was not the continuation long-time fans desired or prayed for, but rather a bizarre dead-end, a pocket universe that today nobody even remembers (or likes). 

And Ron Moore has recreated Battlestar Galactica for his own personal amusement and political agenda rather than crafting a faithful continuation of what originated in 1978. Why? Because Hollywood cravenly pursues the dollar of the sixteen year-old above all others. So yeah, at least so far as entertainment is concerned, we live in the world of Logan's Run (another reference for older fans...).

But give Bryan Singer his due for his central conceit here. He has adopted a more respectful, more faithful stance than many of his peers might have taken and consequently given all those "old" Superman fans the movie we wanted back in 1983...when we got Richard Pryor in Superman III instead.  So, the film is faithful to the cinematic legacy of this character; not necessarily the comic-book legacy. 

I guess you have to pick your battles...

So, really, considering his creative decisions, Bryan Singer had me hook, line and sinker at "it's a bird, it's a plane, it's..." because he actually took my generation's hopes and dreams into account...something that almost never happens with blockbuster movies anymore. 

Singer made a movie he thought Generation X would like and cherish, and overall, I believe he succeeded in that endeavor. He also made a good movie that audiences of all ages can enjoy together; one about fatherhood and the passage of generations.

Of course, even as I harbored high hopes for this new movie, I went into Superman Returns with the iconic portrayals by Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman rolling around my brain. It's a compliment to say that Kevin Spacey erased Gene Hackman's Luthor from my mind, playing a far more menacing variation of the scoundrel Lex (yet one who could be interpreted as being the same man...given a few hard years in prison). 

As for Brandon Routh...I liked him. This young, mostly unknown talent did a more than respectable of re-casting Superman in his own image. I thought he was very good, very powerful in the difficult role. Routh evidences that sense of innocence that we desire from Superman; that notion of alone-ness, of standing-off and being different from those around him.

For me, Reeve perfectly balanced vulnerability with strength. Routh looks like he was hatched from a Christopher Reeve clone farm (Clonus, perhaps?), and certainly boasts the physical grace and sincerity to be this generation's Superman. However, I did miss Reeve's sense of humor in the role; which was never overpowering, just always percolating under the surface. Reeve was an underrated and accomplished physical comedian (especially in his scenes as Clark Kent), and Routh seemed more mopey and lugubrious in those parts of Superman Returns. Maybe it was the script...or again, merely what we demand of our superheroes today.

A sidenote regarding Routh and Superman. Have you noticed all the buzz recently about "is Superman gay?" This idea really irks me. Not because a superhero couldn't be or shouldn't be gay, but because Superman is being labeled "gay" for all these crazy sociological reasons, and make no mistake, it's meant in a negative, derogatory fashion. Our society has unfortunately come to associate contemporary manhood with swagger and arrogance; with violence and hatred and revenge meted out as "justice." But Superman is not born from such pettiness. He is not born of vengeance or swagger or arrogance. He is a man of decency, objectivity, sensitivity...and true justice. This is how Brandon Routh (accurately) plays the character in Superman Returns, but our society has grown so homophobic that any man who dares to openly express qualities of gentleness or kindness or even brotherhood towards another man is instantly deemed gay. Imagine the headlines when the new Star Trek movie premieres. "Is Mr. Spock gay?" they will shout. Why...he's a...pacifist, after all! He won't fire the phasers and wage war until he's tried to resolve a problem peacefully!!!! What a wimp...must be gay!!!!

It's really sad that our media and politicians are demanding that manliness be judged by the barrel of the gun and by cowboyish military adventures overseas rather than innate qualities of fairness and honesty, dependability and kindness. Must all our heroes be bad boys, I wonder, filled with darkness, angst and the big brood? If so, then that's a shame. Superman has always been my favorite superhero because -- although he carries difficult baggage with him -- he hasn't succumbed to the baser instincts. Truth, justice...well, you know the rest. And, I also admire Superman because throughout the wide pantheon of superheroes, Superman is the one forever in love with a dark-haired beauty of whip-smart intelligence and sharp edges. I'm in love with a woman like that; so I identify with his yearning for Lois Lane.

Which brings me to that reporter for the Daily Planet. I'm not going to say much nice here about Kate Bosworth's version. Bosworth is beautiful and generally acceptable in the role, but she definitively lacks the acerbic spark of most historical Lois Lanes. Margot Kidder was sharp, brainy and truly independent. She needed Superman because she'd always get in over her head...but she didn't know she needed Superman. Bosworth's Lane is bland and boring. Where was the snark? The edge? Heck, I would have taken Teri Hatcher's "Ally McBeal" variation of Lois Lane over Bosworth's lukewarm soup. Lois should have moxie; not be Mommy. Not that Lois can't be a mother but must motherhood blunt all edges, or preclude all traces of independent personality? But again, that's what society expects, I suppose? A woman can't be a Mother and a person all at the same time, right? Just one or the other.

But really, getting two characters right (and one wrong...) isn't too bad, is it?

Outside of the characterizations, I felt Superman Returns was strong and entertaining not so much for its lumbering narrative (which is occasionally tiresome and truth be told, a little dull at points), but rather in the registering of the emotional states of the characters. Superman goes through a lot in this film., and that was the most interesting arc for me (since I will be a father soon...I may have been more susceptible to this plotline than some). The details of Luthor's evil scheme were not particularly memorable or original, but they at least gave Superman something to play against.

I also found that the new film is not nearly so jaunty and good humored as the old ones. I guess we've come to expect our superhero movies to be serious business, and humor would have been inappropriate. But the original Donner film remains superior because it playfully acknowledged the things that are funny about Superman's life without mocking him. Maybe that's too delicate a balance to achieve in our cynical twenty-first century.

Thematically, Singer's Superman Returns picks up all the important strands left dangling by the collapse of the franchise in 1983. More than any version of the Man of Steel legend, Donner's film captured the religious nature of the Superman tale. Jor-El, a wise, God-like representative of a distant, highly-advanced planet, sends his only son (Jesus Christ) to Earth to live among humanity. The fact that Krypton is almost totally and immaculately white (without dirt, grays or other discoloration) suggests that the world is some sort of utopia or Heaven. That the Kryptonians in that film wear reflective, glowing uniforms (and in many cases boast white manes of hair...) further develops the Heaven metaphor.

But the Christ analogy goes futher. Immediately before sending away the child messiah, Jor-El and his "angelic" people have proven themselves victorious in a war against an insurrectionist named Zod (representing Lucifer). Before being "cast out" to a Hell dimension (the Phantom Zone), this villain threatens to one day return to battle Jor-El and his heirs, an Armageddon that is highlighted in Superman II.

Once on Earth, Kal El is adopted by kindly, bewildered parents (the Kents), regular humans (like Mary's devoted husband, Joseph) and both of them are at a loss to explain his miraculous arrival. Not quite immaculate conception, but close enough for jazz. Then of course, a mature Superman becomes nothing less than mankind's savior as he performs miracles (like saving Air Force One). That Superman is gentle, loving, kind, powerful, and honest also harks back to the stories regarding Jesus.

Superman Returns develops this idea about as far as it can be taken without beginning The Church of Superman. Superman is referred to throughout the film as a "savior" and Lois Lane has won a Pulitzer Prize for an article "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." It could have been titled, "Why the World Doesn't Need Christ," right? And then, of course, Superman is stabbed in the side by Lex Luthor, reflecting the Gospel of John, which reports how a Roman soldier stabbed Jesus Christ in his side. More immediately obvious as a Christ parallel is Superman's telltale pose after saving the world from the emerging Kryptonian continent. He hovers in space, his arms outstretched horizontally, as if he is pinned to a cross. Christ metaphors are a dime a dozen in horror and science fiction films (see: Alien 3 and The Omega Man), but in the case of Superman, the comparison has been earned since Superman: The Movie, Superman II and now Superman Returns all rigorously develop the notion.

Visually, Bryan Singer has come a long way since X-Men (2000). I didn't like that film as much as many fans did, in part because of the astoundingly weak visuals. The final mutant battle atop the Statue of Liberty was a mishmash of incoherent perspectives and was so corrupted by incongruous cuts of close-ups that it looked like a bad television show (Mutant X, anybody?) I liked X-2 much better, and Singer appeared there to develop an understanding of the full breadth of the cinema frame, and how to use scope and composition to vet his storyline. I'd say that arc is just about complete with Superman Returns.

Although it lacks the lyricism of Superman: The Movie (just compare Lois's flight with Superman in that film with Singer's anemic, less-effectively scored version here...) Superman Returns does boast a few shots that are downright beautiful....and touching. For instance, this is the first time in film history I can remember that Superman's x-ray vision has been utilized to such stunning - and emotional - impact. That's a development of technology as much as anything perhaps, but that's not the point. Singer is finally proving adept at using his filmmaker's quiver in all senses, from CGI to blocking to mise-en-scene.

Although some fans will argue for X-Men as the reigning champion of superhero franchises, I guess I still point to Sam Raimi's Spider-man series as representing the best of the modern genre. However, that reckoning only came about after Spider-Man II; when that sequel actually made re-watching the 2002 original a much richer, deeper experience. I think Superman Returns may be the same story. I long to have the film on DVD and watch it in sequence with Superman: The Movie and Superman II. The sequel to Superman Returns may add even greater luster to this new Man of Steel...we'll have to wait and see.

All niggling quibbles aside, Superman Returns is a glorious encore, and a fresh take on a hero who has been with America for nearly seventy years. One of the film's finest conceits, and one rarely mentioned, involves the climax. Superman doesn't catch the crook in the end. Instead, the film ends on an emotional note, not a plot point, and perhaps I sensed in that tiny development a new direction for the superhero genre. One where CGI wonders can finally be eclipsed by the wonders of the human heart again. After all, we've seen Superman fly, Spider-man vault from building to building, and even the Hulk go green. The only world left to conquer is inner space; the domain where the super must countenance the mundane and reckon with that. For Superman, his greatest feat - his greatest failure? - could be...fatherhood.

For a fascinating and erudite review of Superman Returns, check out film scholar Kevin Flanagan's take at Virtual Fools, here.

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...