Wednesday, November 29, 2006

TRADING CARD CLOSE UP # 8: Alien 3


I've been a long-time admirer of Alien 3, the second sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 classic, Alien. I'm not one of those fan fanatic bashers who hated the film because the creators had the audacity to kill Newt, Hicks, Bishop or any other beloved character/survivor of Aliens (1986). On the contrary, I've loudly championed Alien 3 (1991) as a great film, in a retrospective here.

Some of what I wrote in that piece:

"Fincher directed a visually dazzling film as determinedly different from Aliens as Cameron's vision was from the Scott original. Perhaps more significantly, Fincher created a film with a message more powerful and relevant than either predecessor. What the Alien faithful actually objected to in Alien 3 was not directorial approach, plot, or even theme, but Fincher's purposeful overturning of every expectation they had carried into the theater with them.

The roots of Alien 3's public relations nightmare can be pinpointed in the very nature of film sequels. The trick in producing a successful follow-up is giving audiences a big dollop of familiar material while also feeding them a diet of something different enough to avoid accusations of "ripping off" or "cashing" in on the source material. Fincher's task was doubly difficult because he not only had to produce a sequel that genuflected to Alien and Aliens, but one that could be heralded as a modern cinematic masterpiece and stand proudly in the franchise valhalla with the highly-regarded earlier movies.

This was no easy task, but Fincher succeeded by adopting an approach he would later repeat in Seven (1995), The Game (1997) and Fight Club (1999), by pointedly toying with audience perceptions and expectations. Although Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the Bishop Android (Henriksen), the titular xenomorph, and even Weyland-Yutani, the villainous corporation, all returned for Alien 3 action, every plot twist in the third film boldly dashed viewer expectations.

...Appropriately, the film's dialogue echoed the decision to make a surprising, dangerous sequel. The film's lead convict, Dillon (Charles Dutton), gave voice to Alien 3's overall philosophy during a funeral service for the early casualties of Alien 3. Eulogizing the dead, he declared (for the benefit of Ripley and, no doubt, the audience) that "there aren't any promises. Nothing's certain. Only that some get called; some get saved. " It was this application of cruel, random - but realistic, fate, not some kind of "loyalty" to franchise stock characters, that dominated Fincher's challenging sequel."

Anyway, I'm writing about this subject today and featuring Alien 3 as my eighth trading card close-up. Because, let's face it, the execs at 20th Century Fox meddled with Fincher's vision, and Fincher - in my estimation - is one of the few modern "greats" in terms of directing horror/thriller films. Looking at Panic Room today, I can see that he marshals CGI imagery as part of a film's tapestry, not as a special effects gimmick, for instance. In fact, if Hitchcock were alive and making movies today, I imagine he'd use CGI in the manner that Fincher does. So - if execs hadn't interfered in the making of Alien 3, imagine just what a true, unadulterated masterpiece it might have been.

We already know the making of the film was a difficult period, but these trading cards from Star Pics are very revealing. The cards show tons of deleted scenes that would have changed the nature of the film we saw; and would have (perhaps?) remained truer to Fincher's vision. An example: there's a shot of Ripley in the mud of Fury 161 -- what is this? It's a different introduction in the film for her character than the one we saw. There's another card with a shot of her being carried into the prison installation, and it doesn't look familiar either Yet another of her finds her inside a cracked cryo-tube! I also know that in the original (and shot...) version of the alien birth, the xenomorph emerged from oxen, not a dog. Indeed, in the theatrical version of Alien 3, there's an entire subplot missing involving the capture of the Alien, and its release by a deluded prisoner named Golic.

So I gaze at these cards and wonder what might have been. In 1992, David Fincher was decried as a music video director and a hack, and his contribution to the Alien saga was routinely attacked, slighted and misinterpreted. With more than twelve years of hindsight, and a career now composed of great great films, many observers realize the critical community (and fans...) of the day were dead wrong. These cards remind us that somewhere - still - there's a great work of art in Alien 3, just bursting to get out...

And I still think Alien Resurrection sucks.

Monday, November 27, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 51: Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure (LJN)


Straight from LJN (the company that also held the license to create toys from the movie Dune...), comes this 1984 retro-toy treasure: the Gremlins Poseable Stripe Figure. The very toothy and imposing Stripe stands at over a foot tall, has poseable limbs (and claws...), beady red eyes, and on his blue box is this legend: "WARNING: YOU MUST OBEY ALL MOGWAI RULES!"

Of course, this monstrous creature (the figure designed for ages 3 and up...) is from one of the most controversial genre blockbusters of 1984 (the same summer of Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.) Basically, Joe Dante's horror movie featured a lot of violence (like a suburban mother sparring with a violent Gremlin in her kitchen...) yet the film was still aimed at children....the market that had appreciated E.T. Steven Spielberg was the executive producer and his clout was such that the movie (along with Indiana Jones) got a new rating "PG-13" instead of R. Yep, the M.P.A.A. created an entirely new ratings classification just to stay on the director's good side...

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

On the back fo the box, there's a Gremlins "Proof of Purchase" worth three points, and an admonition to "collect the entire line of Gremlins toys from L.J.N." These include the: "3 piece collectible gift set; wind-up Gizmo and Stripe; small Poseable Gizmo; Bendable Stripe; Large Poseable Gizmo; Large Poseable Stripe" and "Stripe and Gizmo Water Hatchers." As for me, I had this bugger, the Bendable Stripe, and the Large poseable Gizmo. But this is the only one that I have the box for.

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

How do I get my fun from this Gremlin? Well, this little thing really scares my wife Kathryn (he's very lifelike, actually...), so occasionally, when she's not paying attention, I'll sneak into the kitchen and pose Stripe in the pantry, or inside one of the dish cabinets. Once, I posed him in her closet while she was dressing for work; when she wasn't suspecting it. Finally, she laid down the law and told me I was no longer allowed to display Stripe, and that I had to put him back in the box permanentlyy.

So now he sits safe in his box on one of the high display shelves in my office. I think tonight I might put him in Joel's crib...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "The Desert Hawk"

When we last left Flash Gordon, he was trapped deep inside the caverns of Tropica with fugitive Queen Desira (hottie!), Dale and Zarkov. Their enemy, Brasnor, is hot on their heels. He needs to kill Desira to take her kingdom, and claims she is an imposter to foster confusion.

A strange energy pull yanks our stalwart heroes out of an underground pool towards the roof of the cavern. We find out in Chapter Fourteen, "The Desert Hawk," that a meteorite of "superior density" has caused "suspended gravity" and that's why it's all funky in these parts. A giant bat attacks, but Flash knocks it out.

Meanwhile, far away in Arboria, Aura and Barin trade loving words on a castle ledge until interrupted by King Vultan. His "hawk sense" tells him that Flash is in trouble and needs help...

Back in Tropica, Flash and the other refugees escape into the desert, their "only avenue of escape," and proceed to get separated. In a time-honored cliche of sci-fi TV, Zarkov sends up "Morse Code" in the form of smoke signals, and Flash finds him.

Together, the heroes encounter Gandar, lord of the desert, a very-thinly disguised Arab king (he actually wears a turban...). Gandar takes them back to his desert kingdom, which resembles Baghdad (at least what Baghdad once looked like...). There's even a building that resembles a mosque. Together, Flash and Gandar mount a defense of the city against Gandar. Brasnor approaches in a caravan of laser-equipped armored cars.

The battle looks grim until - at the last minute - the cavalry arrives in the form in King Vultan and his Hawkmen (and several Arborian hunters.) Brasnor is defeated and Gandar is impressed. "Earth men never fail to amaze me with their unsuspected abilities," he says.

Finally, Queen Desira is triumphant over Brasnor, and offers her help to Flash in the rebellion against Ming. "Count on my help," she says.

Flash is confident. "No more we do run," he says. "The free men and women of Mongo are coming," adds a roaring Thun.

Two chapters to go before the fall of Ming...

Friday, November 24, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Red Flag"

It's a subdued Thanksgiving in Jericho, Kansas this week, as the survivors of the nuclear attack on America attempt to hold on to some remnants of their previous lives. "There are some things the apocalypse can't change," Jake's Mom stubbornly asserts, referring to an annual Greene family football game. Yet, the game doesn't happen...in part because the family is tearing itself apart over Eric's decision to leave the pregnant April and go live with his mistress, Mary Bailey.

But there are bigger fish to fry in Jericho this holiday season. In "Red Flag," Vietnam-era Russian planes drop supplies over the town using American military parachutes...food, medicine, even a generator. The foodstuffs are from China, which is disconcerting to say the least. The food comes with propaganda flyers that read "Do Not Fight. China is your friend." This development leads Jake and some of the others in town to suspect the "aid" may actually be the second wave of the attack; an attempt to poison and soften up the population before ground troops invade. The Mayor, fearing contaminated supplies, holds back the food from the town and thereby creates a new controversy since people are beginning to starve.

As if this isn't troubling enough, Jonah (Remar) and his band of goons steal the power generator from the town (actually, from Stanley's field...), spurring a confrontation between the Mayor and his new (untested...) militia and the warlord's well-armed gang. Emily (Ashley Scott) comes to the rescue and retrieves the generator, an act which has unexpected consequences: Jonah's leadership is questioned and it looks like he'll face an insurrection in his ranks.

The episode ends with a murder, and with the specter of an upcoming election in Jericho. The story's theme is that the people are "holding on to traditions" like "nothing happened." Jonah is still trying to make money; as is storekeeper Gracie. Gray and the Mayor are still playing politics; and Eric is ignoring his responsibilities as a future father. Interesting times...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

GameCulture Journal Goes Live!

Hey everyone, look at this! The inaugural edition of a new journal devoted entirely to the scholarly study of video games has just been published. How cool is that?

In the words of the editors, Game Culture Journal, is:

"...a periodical that examines the practices, institutions, history, and issues facing video games and video game players."

"Seeking to bridge the gap between popular journalism and arcane academic jargon, GameCulture Journal forges a critical edge while holding nothing above scrutiny."

"Video games have a solidified place in the cultural sphere, yet are still considered little better than children's toys by many - above and beyond all else, GameCulture Journal seeks to bring respect and dignity to games and gaming through serious discussion and scholarship."


Now, I'm an old guy from the Atari 2600 generation, but I'm tantalized by the possibilities this new journal offers. GameCulture Journal is a most welcome addition to the global conversation about video games, and it fills a void. I mean, it would be foolish to deny that video games are a new, burgeoning art form, and it's a terrific notion to build an arena where a critical, scholarly discussion of them is forged. What I hope to see here is debate not just about the games; but of the very vocabulary of game criticism. What are the terms we should understand while reviewing video games? What are the aesthetic criteria for judging video games?

I suspect terrific answers will be forthcoming soon. I already know I can vouch for the editors, Kevin Flanagan and Bobby Schweizer. They're two of the finest young writers, game enthusiasts (and people...) I've had the good fortune to meet in my career. I've collaborated with both of them before on a variety of projects, and understand that they are 100% committed to the journal's mission statement. With these two at the helm, great destinations are ahead.

Already, the first issue includes a book review, a statement from the editors and articles with such titles as "On Cultivating an Audiophilic Streak" and "Combat & Urban Decay: Class, Ideology, and the Legacy of the Beat 'Em Up."

So check out GameCulture Journal. And look for an article by an old Atari-guy down the road...

TV REVIEW: Day Break

After sitting through the two-hour premiere of the new ABC series, Day Break, a genre drama which finds a cop named Hopper (Taye Diggs) re-living the same tumultuous day over and over again, I'm experiencing a headache-inducing case of deja vu.

After all, it wasn't that long ago that a virtually identical concept was vetted thoroughly on another TV series called Tru Calling (Fox). Now, this may be a blatantly sexist comment, but if I'm going to be forced to watch endless repetitions of Ground Hog's Day on TV, please God, let Eliza Dushku be the star. Taye Diggs is a fine actor, but - come on - Taye or Eliza? No contest there...

The Day Break series premiere opens with noisy montage of the sun rising over a busy, metropolitan Los Angeles as commuters blithely go about their business. Subsequent scene transitions are also deja-vu provoking: washed-out and shaky quick cuts of metropolitan skyscrapers, just like you see on say, Boston Legal, Justice, Shark, etcetera etcetera. Let's call a moratorium on this technique right now. It's overused, it's unattractive and it is now officially cliched. Can't a clever director of photography think of another way to bridge sequences? One that doesn't involve causing seizures in the audience?

A close-up of a digital clock flipping from 6:17 to 6:18 am comes next, and then the pilot (directed by X-Files vet Rob Bowman) is careful to set up all the necessary details of the premise so we will understand that "yesterday is today" and that the same day is repeating ad infinitum, ad nauseum. So therefore Brett Hopper trips over his holster after getting out of bed with his girlfriend, Rita (Moon Bloodgood), spies garbage men out the bedroom window, and hears on the morning TV news that a truck filled with diapers has overturned on the free way. Again - deja vu - this is the self-same technique that Tru Calling assiduously utilized on a regular basis -- pointing out the minutiae of daily life and then observing (with delightful trickery...) how it can be changed, avoided, made to stay the same...whathaveyou.

My deja vu watching Day Break isn't merely confined to my memories of Tru (which was really - honestly - getting good when it was canceled...), No, in Day Break, Brett is framed for the murder of assistant D.A. Garza; a crime he didn't commit. This story element necessitates he spend his repeating day on the run, being ruthlessly hunted by fellow police officers Spivak (Mitch Pileggi) and Choi (Ian Anthony Dale). So what we have here is ultimately a twenty-first century version of the David Janssen classic, The Fugitive (1963-1967), only with a science fiction twist. It's a classic man-on-the-run premise, down to the hapless pursuers.

And hey, it's not just a science fiction twist either. There's a taste of The X-Files in this series; and not just in the presence of Pileggi (who was Mulder and Scully's boss, Skinner...) and director Bowman, but also in another story sub-plot: There's a shadowy conspiracy bent on framing Hopper; one independent of the police. A little paranoia can go far, I guess. And so can a healthy helping of 24 and Prison Break. Yep, Day Break is yet another serialized adventure necessiting regular watching. I'm going to have to quit my job and just camp out in front of the TV to keep track of all these serials (Lost, The Nine, 24, Prison Break, Vanished, Kidnapped, Heroes etc.)

"For every decision, there are consequences," a shadowy conspiracy figure informs Brett as he re-lives the same day over and over. That's what passes for wisdom and philosophy in Day Break, alas. In the pilot, we see our hero live the same day four or five times (I eventually lost count...). In two "do-overs" of that day, his girlfriend Rita is murdered. In another, his sexy partner (a corrupt narcotics cop played by Victoria Pratt), gets shot. So Brett must navigate his day absolutely perfectly or loved ones will be lost. He discovers this when on one rerun he prevents a bus accident, yet by not stopping for coffee on the re-do, misses the event (and sees the bloody results...).

Since this series has opted to make one day - repeated constantly - the dramatic battlefield, the pilot is brimming with plot devices and story fragments that can allow the series to head off in different directions if boredom ensues. Brett's sister Jen is being abused by her mean husband, for instance. Someone has also left Brett an important and mysterious package. Then there's a witness in a safe house Hopper needs to protect for an undercover Federal investigation. There's also the woman hit by the bus; then there's the day that Rita seems to disappear. There's Brett's sparring relationship with Rita's ex-husband, played by Firefly's Adam Baldwin with just the right amount of menacing glee. And on and on and on. There are so many passageways to new stories in this pilot that it's practically dizzying.

There is one thing that differentiates Day Break from its thematic predecessor, Tru Calling. On the old show, Tru's day would stop repeating when she solved a certain problem and saved a person who had asked her for help. It looks like that isn't going to be the case here. The day repeats no matter what; with no obvious key to move time forward to the next day. Furthermore, Brett awakes each "same" morning with the wounds and fatigue of the previous day...something that never happened to Tru. Not a significant difference you say? Well, beggars can't be choosers...

I will say that the second hour of Day Break was significantly stronger than the opening hour - which labored through a molasses-slow teleplay to establish a plot hook only an idiot wouldn't understand after a minute or so. The second hour took the show off in new, exciting directions and featured a tense car chase and motel shoot-out. The action was quite good, and even kind of involving. I can't believe it, but by the end of the second hour, I was actually kind of intrigued, and interested in knowing what would come next.

What ultimately broke me down in an otherwise repetitive, over-stuffed and derivative series? Well, I did like the notion that Brett is "cursed" with the knowledge that he could (and likely will...) lose his Rita, the woman he loves. There was something in the chemistry between those two characters; something sincere in that love relationship that I identified with. I always find Cassandra figures appealing. They see the future but are never believed and are helpless to change it.

But otherwise, you've seen this show before. Pick up the phone, Brett Hopper. That's Tru calling.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Blue Steel (1990)

Jamie Lee Curtis portrayed Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978), a beloved character who remains one of the most memorable (if not THE most memorable...) of the "final girl" archetypes in the slasher film paradigm. Given this fact, it seems oddly appropriate and resonant that the self-same actress would essay the role of Megan Turner, another endangered woman, in the 1990 horror-thriller Blue Steel.

In this film, another likeable Laurie Strode-type, the aforementioned Megan, is all grown up and getting her feet wet in the male-dominated world of law enforcement. During the course of the movie, the audience learns that this newly minted cop faces a number of challenges. Foremost among these, the amorphous "bogeyman" or "Shape" of adolescence (the menace dominant in Halloween) has changed; morphed into a threat even more frightening and endangering to both female adulthood and female independence. This menace is more traditionally realistic than Michael Myers, you might conclude...but no less unkillable: a patriarchal society that breeds male maniacs and which dominates and subjugates women.

In the course of Blue Steel, adult Megan encounters horrors unimagined by teenager Strode. She is sexually violated by a stalker (in a brutal rape scene), made the object of sexual prejudice on the force (by a wrong-headed police superior and Internal Affairs...), and deemed unacceptable by a society at large, which would prefer to "box up" women in traditional career roles like homemaker or office secretary. Why? Well, a female cop "scares off" men, as Megan is thoughtfully informed by a prospective date named Howard.

"Why would you want to become a cop?," he asks her with utter contempt. "You're a beautiful woman..."

By point of contrast, slasher Michael Myers - whether deemed an unstoppable force of nature like the shark in Jaws, a supernatural avenger, or a killer with the mentality of a child playing "trick or treat" - never touched Laurie or Annie or any other victim in an overtly sexual manner; never threatened to destroy a woman's standing in society. His threat was simple (though inescapable): a big, sharp kitchen knife matched with the desire and strength to kill. The threat in Blue Steel has in the early 1990s (the era of Anita Hill...) grown much more personal in that it is Megan's body and sexual person that is imperiled. And also, paradoxically, more generalized in that society neither protects nor approves of a female who wields power that might be traditionally termed "male." Megan's attempt to "be strong," has in fact, rendered her society's victim. This unacceptable notion (a woman cop) is what draws the moth to the flame; which brings the killer's obsession into focus.

But I get ahead of myself. Blue Steel, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark) is Megan's story of self realization. She's a newly graduated female cop who prevents a burglary in a grocery store by shooting a violent (and armed...) assailant. One of the men in the store, a deranged customer named Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver), witnesses Megan's demonstration of lethal force and and becomes unhealthily obsessed with her. He stalks her, and even steals the dead assailant's gun from the crime scene; treating it as though it is an object of religious significance.

Megan quickly finds herself in trouble with her superiors in the police department because it now appears she killed an unarmed man. Her judgment is questioned. Since she's a woman, did she "panic" when confronted with a crime, and kill a man unnecessarily? That's the question! And make no mistake, it arises from our society's preconceived notions of male/female sex roles. A man's control of his emotions and particularly his fear, wouldn't be questioned quite so readily, would it?

So while Megan is suspended for the unauthorized use of the deadly force, her stalker, Hunt, begins to randomly kill people on the streets...and inscribes his bullets with Megan's name. At the same time, Megan begins dating Eugene - who works on Wall Street - unaware that he is actually the wolf in sheep's clothing, the menace systematically taking apart her life. Hunt, the so-called "44 Magnum Killer" and Megan, the female cop, soon share a "You Made Me/I Made You" dynamic (see 1989's Batman), which finally ends in a fierce shoot-out which balances Eugene's "weapon" (i.e. gun) against Megan's. Eugene, threatened and attracted by the show of force represented by a female cop, now feels the need to assert his dominance over her by using the same tool to destroy her. In other words, it is a pissing contest, and Eugene is threatened because a woman has dared to wield more power than he. He is abetted by a society which also disapproves of a man's "power" in the hands of a female.

Blue Steel is undeniably a child of Fatal Attraction (1987), and highly indicative of 1990s horror cinema in that it concerns monstrous psychotics (serial killers, mostly...) making in-roads into both middle-class society and suburban homes. Unlike Michael Myers or other slashers, however, the "bogeymen" of this age are not faceless goons who move in shadow and darkness, but rather colorful maniacs boasting definable, specific psychological disorders (which you'll find in the DSM IV). This evolution is a good development for actors; though not necessarily the committed horror fan, and Blue Steel clearly represents the knife's edge between the thriller/horror genres.

The horror genre is at its best and most effective when motives, movements and explanations are ambiguous. We don't know what Michael Myers "is." He is metaphorically and literally "the Shape" a mystery wrapped in an enigma wearing a white mask. Murderers like Eugene in Blue Steel lack that same sense of ambiguity (and hence, menace...); the sense that the killer could be something more than human (or less than human...).

And films like Blue Steel, since they delve into psychology, tend to provide more concrete reasons behind a killer's anti-social behavior. For instance, in Blue Steel, Eugene takes a night-time tour of Manhattan by helicopter. "When you're way up here, looking down at people," he says to Megan, his companion, "they're just little specks. Like they don't matter much." That is pretty much a manifesto, a movie diagnosis of the God Complex (and heck, the guy DOES work on Wall Street...) and while interesting in terms of characterization, the sense of horror (if not tension and anxiety...) is diminished. We fear that which we can't understand (like the Blair Witch, the shark in Jaws or Michael Myers...). Oppositely, understanding curtails fear.

Which is not to state that Blue Steel doesn't also operate on a highly symbolic level. Indeed, that's why I'm writing about it. In some senses it's a deep film that perfectly reflects the age of its production (the late 80s/early 90s). Basically, this is a film about a phallic symbol. Yep. The gun.

It's about a woman who dares to wield that power; and a threatened man who is so tantalized and uncorked by her wielding of it that he feels it necessary to dominate her and put her in "her place" with his own "weapon." That may sound like gobbledy-gook, but it's actually a fairly close and academic reading of the film's imagery. Eugene is so diminished by Megan's use of the gun (and the authority it brings her) that he stands before a mirror playing with his own...gun. He also works out, lifting weights, making himself feel more masculine and powerful in the process.

"You are God,"
he assures himself. "You are unique...they will fear your name." The implication is that he can't be feared - can't be respected - so long as a woman treads into the territory he feels is his; and that's why he becomes hellbent on destroying or "owning" Megan. Before he has sex with Megan, Eugene also - perhaps paradoxically - asks her to keep the gun on for love making. He caresses it and feels it in its holster; asks her not to remove it. If this isn't an acknowledgment of the power of the phallus in our society - to both sexes - I don't know what is.

As the film ends, the competition for control of the phallus, control of the gun, comes to a climax (did I just write that? Damn!). Shorn of her responsibilities as a police officer, Megan takes the law into her own hands (as a male movie icon like Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson would also unquestioningly do at this juncture...) and decides it is time to utilize the gun. She fights a man explicitly on a man's territory: violence, vengeance...and heavy fire-arms. What the film successfully captures here, and which I think is highly important, is the idea that this might not be the best way to handle things. That the power of the gun and the bullet is a terrible one to wield; and not to be taken lightly. How do I come to this conclusion? Primarily from the visualizations in the finale; not the script, frankly.

The final shoot-out is a sustained, tense bloodbath (often depicted in slow-motion photography), which diagrams in loving, gory detail just how utterly destructive guns are; how devastating their power remains to the human form, the human flesh. Indeed, the apex of Blue Steel is the audience realization, perhaps, that Megan has been wrong to pursue the male power as her own. Not because a woman shouldn't wield it; but because no one should. The terror of bullet wounds and blood...it's anti-human; corrupt. wrong. When Megan finally takes out the murderous maniac Eugene at point-blank range (and the slasher conceit of the The Killer Who Won't Die/The Sting in the Tail/Tale rears its ugly head...), is it a moral victory? It's the end of the film, and the credits roll, but what do we learn?

I believe this was not a victory for Megan, rather another skirmish in the battle of the sexes, and a telling one at that. A woman can be just as violent, irrational and impulsive as any man, I guess. That, perhaps, is what "equality" means in 1990s America; the privilege and right to kill.

Even the title Blue Steel carries an underlying meaning. Right? I mean, it could have been called Purple Helmet, but the point is the same...we're all worshippers before the altar of the gun. Praise God and pass the ammunition.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Castaways in Tropica"

As this chapter of Flash Gordon commences, our heroes Flash and Barin have been forced to fight one another in the arena, in Ming the Merciless's "tournament of death." Since they are the last two gladiators, they are compelled to duel with "flame swords" on a high-wire over a raging fire.

At the last minute, Princess Aura realizes she loves Barin and rescues both the Prince of Arboria and Flash from the clutches of her father. Together with Dale and Zarkov, they all escape the arena together. Barin and Aura make for Arboria while the Earthers make for their (miraculously...) repaired rocket ship and blast off. Unfortunately, their ship runs out of fuel in the upper atmosphere of Mongo, and they're forced to set down again in dangerous territory.

That territory turns out to be the kingdom of Tropica, a land that looks like "The Garden of Eden" and is run by luscious Queen Desira and her major domo, Brasnor. Brasnor is hot for Desira, even though they're cousins. Also, Brasnor is planning an insurrection to seize the kingdom...

Flash, Dale and Zarkov are captured by Desira's men; basically armed guards in purple berets who ride horned beasts called gryphs. But Brasnor pulls a fast one, and stands idly by while a "tree dragon" attacks his queen. Flash saves Desira, and then Brasnor reveals his hand, taking everyone captive and imprisoning them in his mountain fortress.

"This is one prison that even Flash Gordon cannot escape," Brasnor cackles. When Flash does manage an escape with Desira and his friends, Brasnor bitterly observes that "the Earth man has more lives than a Mongo cat." Indeed.

The fugitives climb down the castle wall and into a cave, which is "honeycombed with abandoned passages from older ruins." They pause to take sustenance from a "bread tree" (a delicacy in these parts...), and then face a new danger from "rock termites," over-sized ants which eat everything in their path, including stones.

To escape the ants, Flash and his buddies jump into a river, but soon find themselves being pulled into a tunnel, as if by a magnet. "But where is it taking us?" queries a worried Dale Arden.

We won't find out till next week...

Friday, November 17, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 50: Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center



Last week for the retro toy flashback, I featured Mego's U.S.S Enterprise Bridge from 1980 (a favorite toy of mine...), and on a similar note, this week I'd like to remember another kindred Mego toy; also from 1980. It's Mego item # 85022. Otherwise known as the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center (recommended for children over 5 years old. Thus, I barely qualify...).

Anyway, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century starring Gil Gerard ran on NBC TV from autumn 1979 to the Spring of 1981. It was a fun sci-fi show, and as a kid, I loved every campy minute of it. How could you not love a series featuring Erin Gray (in spandex...) and Pamela Hensley (showing mid-riff)? . Even as a child, I think I understood that the series was cheesy and inconsistent, but it hardly mattered. No, Buck Rogers in this incarnation was like James Bond in space; with neat spaceships, cool sets, and gorgeous ladies. The villains (which included Frank Gorshin and Julie Newmar), were also quite colorful.

Of course, I collected all of the Buck Rogers action figures of the day, though even my ten year old mind rebelled at the lack of care that went into some of the marketing. For instance, Princess Ardala was called "Ardella" on her action figure card. What, nobody could be bothered to spell check the character's name? And why make a figure of King Draco, who was barely in the show at all? And Kane was called "Killer Kane." He was never called that on the series; though that name came from earlier incarnations. Fine, whatever.

Anyway, Mego released a whole line of very cool Buck Rogers spaceships and toys, including the Directorate Starfighter (my favorite ship from the show), the Draconian Marauder (known as a Hatchet fighter on the series...), a Land Rover, and a Laserscope Fighter (not a design from the series). So it only makes sense that the same company would market a place to dock these ships, the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

Christmas 1980 was the holiday of Buck Rogers for me. I'll never forget going over to my aunt and uncle's house in Summit, New Jersey and opening toy after toy -- all Buck Rogers models and figures (though, as I recall, this was also the Christmas of The Empire Strikes Back and my giant AT-AT. But that's another story).

The toy box suggests: "Issue commands to Buck and monitor his flight pattern with this authentic replica of the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center!" Indeed.

The toy also includes "2 level deck with radar screens and railings, "Cut-out landing and launch pad for Buck's Star Fighter," and "landing control console for use with Mego Buck Rogers 3 3/4 action figures and all other poseable 3 3/4 action figures." Wow, railings and radar screens! Okay, maybe not that very exciting on retrospect, but for me as a kid, this was exactly the kind of toy I wanted.

What remains most interesting about this toy is that what you see displayed on the box is not necessarily the toy you get inside. On the box, for instance, the upper deck of the landing pad shows a chair from Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise bridge. In the actual toy, a different style chair is molded to the deck.

Also, the decals on the box and the decals of the actual set are completely different. Wonder why? I do know that Mego was juggling a number of licenses at the time, including Star Trek, Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, so there may have been some franchise confusion. Just a guess.

This just goes to show you that back in the 1970s and 1980s, even great toy companies like Mego weren't necessarily paying close attention to the exact details of their (admittedly wonderful) products. This isn't really an "authentic replica" of the landing bay on the series. That's okay, it's still a fun toy, but authentic? Naah.

As you can see from the pictures, this toy today holds a cherished spot in my home office. Bidi-bidi-bidi.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Crossroads"

One week before the "fall finale" of CBS's promising new series Jericho, and things are heating up in Kansas. When last we left the stalwart Green brothers (Eric and Jake), they had returned from Rogue River with the medicine needed to save their Dad, Johnston (the mayor). But...they'd run afoul of professional mercenaries who pillaged Rogue River (just 90 miles from Jericho).

In "Crossroads," this week's installment, the chickens come home to roost as the Ravenwood mercenaries, led by villainous D.B. Sweeney, arrive on the outskirts of Jericho with humvees and guns. Lots of guns. The town sets up a roadblock on a bridge, but Jake has tangled with Ravenwood before (in the Iraq War...) and knows they won't be stopped short of a violent confrontation. Jake wants to blow up the bridge leading into Jericho, an act which will stop the professional soldiers once and for all but also geographically isolate the town (and force those who live on the other side of the bridge - like farmer Stanley - to abandon their homes).

The idea of mercenaries run amuck in heartland America isn't quite as farfetched as it may seem, as this episode clearly reflects the situation in Iraq where our Federal Government has "outsourced" security to professional, hired soldiers rather than the military. These private contractors are not bound by the military standard of conduct, and can therefore do...whatever the hell they want want. Imagine being an Iraqi citizen trying to figure out the difference between an American soldier and one of these guys? Not fun. Indeed, some of these "outsource" soldiers were responsible for the atrocities that occurred at Abu Ghraib. So Jericho - like all good science fiction - extrapolates the "future" or an alternate reality based on ours. We recognize the world it depicts, and here we're being told something about Iraq (and also about contemporary America).

Meanwhile, Emily wakes up to realize it is her wedding day...though her fiancee Roger is still missing. Throughout the episode, Emily (Ashley Scott) "fantasizes" an alternate day. One where "the end of the world" didn't come, and she and Roger married. We are treated to snippets of the wedding preparations, the reception, and so forth, as Emily contrasts what is with what might have been. This is an interesting touch that doesn't get too maudlin, and helps to reveal to audiences how much the world of Jericho has changed in a month. (In the fantasy world, Stanley is watching a sports game on the telly, for instance.)

Trouble is also brewing for Eric. April is finally ready to tell him she's pregnant with his child, but before she can, he works up the courage to tell her he's leaving her for his mistress, Mary Bailey. This development is a little bit soap-operaish, if you ask me, but these days (the days of Lost, Battlestar Galactica...) sci-fi fans are frequently asked to accept soap opera plotting as a substitute for genuine genre thinking.. Contemporary producers have mistaken old General Hospital plots for "maturity" and for being "dark" or "angsty"...when in fact the stories of alcoholism, affairs, unwanted pregnancies, etc., are merely staples of the soap opera form. In some cases this development is acceptable (hey, Jericho IS about a small town and the lives of its citizens, so it gets a tentative pass on this front...), but Battlestar Galactica is supposed to be about the big issues (like the extermination of the human race and the search for a new home...) and Lost has bigger issues - like about a dozen or so mysteries - to contend with. I just wish those shows would get over themselves and actually tell science fiction stories; deal with science fiction concepts instead of As The World Turns-style intrigues, but then, I digress...

After stopping the mercenaries, Jake confronts his father (now recovered) and warns that the town needs a military, a "trained" and "sanctioned" security force. The Mayor agrees and gives his son the responsibility, handing him a U Ranger handbook. A wise decision or opening a Pandora's Box? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Truly, this brings up an interesting dilemma. The town of Jericho needs to be defended from marauding outsiders. But would you want a heavily armed (but inexperienced...) citizen police force marching your street? What's the balance? Hopefully, Jericho will tell us (and show us...) in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

CULT TV BLOGGING: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Flames of Doom"

Some of my less-than-positive comments about the re-imagination process in modern Hollywood (particularly as it applies to the new Battlestar Galactica...) have made the rounds on other blogs and I guess I may be getting a reputation as an anti re-imagination guy. That's okay with me, I suppose, but it's not always true.

Exhibit A in my defense just may be the 1975 animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes, a re-imagination of the first order. It's a program developed for television by David De Patrie-Fritz Freleng, which assimilates and re-invents characters, plotlines, devices and technology from all previous incarnations of the once-popular franchise, including the Pierre Boulle novel, the 1968 film and sequels (Beneath, in particular...), and even the 1974 live-action TV series. The result is nothing less than an invigorating shot in the arm for the franchise. I hadn't watched these half-hour episodes for something like thirty-one years, but re-discovering them today on DVD, I was shocked and pleased at just how attentive and committed to details (and an overall story arc) this animated series remains.

Because frankly the buzz from the old genre press wasn't good. Going back to Fantastic Television a reference book from 1977, the author writes in a summary review of the NBC series that it "was a not very exciting animated version of the short-lived CBS live-action series," and that the artwork and plots were "simplistic." (page 177). Frankly, I don't see how anyone with a pulse, anyone with an intellect, anyone who actually watched the animated series, could honestly make such an assessment.

The premiere episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes, "Flames of Doom," (by Larry Spiegel), finds a NASA space capsule called the "Venture" traveling on a routine deep space mission on August 6, 1976. Aboard are three diverse astronauts: Bill Hudson (a white man), Jeff Allen (an African-American) and Judy Franklin (a woman). Bill narrates the captain's log and confirms Dr. Stanton's theory of "time thrust;" that man can utilize faster-than-light speeds to propel himself into the future. Admirers of the 1968 film will recognize this comment as a reflection of Chuck Heston's opening narration, and Dr. Hasslein's theory named there. It's been simplified for children in this cartoon, but the idea is the same.

No sooner has Hudson informed us about this theory than the ship's chronometer goes wild and the Venture plunges into some kind of time warp. The "Earth Clock" goes crazy, and the Venture arrives battered in the year 3979, where it crashes on a strange planet in a dead lake.

Meanwhile, on the planet below - a planet ruled by intelligent apes - General Urko, a gorilla power-monger, addresses the Supreme Council of Ape City and demands genocide for all humans. Arguing the opposite case is the kindly chimpanzee Cornelius, who pleads for a "different course." He and his wife, a behavioral scientist named Zira, wish to study humans as the key to "simian origins." Arbitrating this dispute of national importance is the ruler of the apes, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius. I must note, the level of attention to detail in this scene is remarkable, for as Zaius issues his decision on the matter at hand, a stone relief on the wall behind him reveals the long history of ape-human relations. There are images of apes hunting humans, and domesticating them. Nice.

Humans may be hunted as legitimate sport, Zaius concludes, or brought into the city to perform "menial tasks." They may even serve as domestic pets, but Zaius will not demand their total destruction. However, on an ominous note, he warns that Article 18 of the "Book of Simian Prophecy" demands that man must be destroyed at any cost if he develops the power of speech. In other words, this is a temporary victory for Cornelius's cause, and for the primitive, mute, stone-age humans who populate caves outside the technologically advanced ape-city.

Watching this portion of the episode, a few things become plain. First and foremost, the franchise has returned to the ape society as depicted in Boulle's novel. In other words, the apes dwell in a twentieth century city with television, radio, automobiles and the like. Their city is not a rock-outcropping like in the popular movie, but rather a contemporary metropolis with buildings that resemble those from human history (in a wonderful nod to the adage "monkey see, monkey do.") The ape culture of the original film was almost medieval, despite the presence of guns and such things as brain surgery. Not so here.

For instance, the imposing ape council building resembles nothing so much as our own Capitol Building, where Congress deliberates.. Since this is a re-imagination and updating of Planet of the Apes for the mid-1970s, not only is there the burgeoning notion of diversity (this was the era of the equal rights amendment, we must not forget...) on hand in the make-up of the astronauts, but the focus on the Council and its proceedings reveals a more bureaucratic bent to the apes. Instead of ape culture being essentially of one mind (as in the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil triumvirate of the Schaffner film showcases), here Ape society is bedeviled by partisan politics, with chimpanzees representing the pacifist left, gorillas the militant right, and orangutans the sensible center. This is especially important considering the context of Return to the Planet of the Apes: immediately post-Watergate (and the congressional hearings would have been seen by Americans on TV), and soon after the Vietnam conflict. Again, this is an example of updating and changing a franchise, but not throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Continuing with the story, Bill, Jeff (voiced by the amazing Austin Stoker of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Assault on Precinct 13), and Judy abandon their sinking spaceship and flee into the Forbidden Zone. Recalling the portions of the original film shot in Death Valley, the series here offers a brilliant and artistic montage as the three astronauts search for water and food under the glaring sun of what they believe is an alien world.

Here, the animated frames turn a bright scarlet hue to represent the heat of the desert and there are close-ups of human faces caked in sweat. Close-ups of tired feet marching in the sand also appear. This montage doesn't rely on dialogue but rather clever images. There is a lengthy interlude wherein we pan across (again, animated...) desert images to carry the mood and atmosphere of the story. The animation is limited perhaps, but these limitations are marshaled as a strength on the program. Overlapping views, double exposes, intense close-ups, insert shots and first person subjective point-of-view shots all provide a texture to the desperate march through the wasteland. This march ends, appropriately, with the sighting of an Ape Mount Rushmore. Another new touch, but again one that (along with the city), reveals the ape talent for mimicry (monkey see, monkey do) and is therefore thematically valuable; a subconscious reminder that all of the simian accomplishments are built on "aping" human society.

In the desert, Jeff and Bill lose Judy when fires spontaneously erupts in front of them and an earthquake splits the ground in a series of lovely frames that reveal a high degree of fidelity to images from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (particularly Taylor's abduction by the underground mutants). The astronauts have little time to ponder the loss of their companion, however, as Bill and Jeff encounter a tribe of stone age humans, including the beautiful Nova.

Suggesting an interesting mystery, Nova wears the dog tags of another astronaut, someone named Brent (again, a reference seemingly to Beneath the Planet of the Apes). His birthdate was May 2, 2079, so Jeff and Bill are forced to ponder the notion that an astronaut who was born after them arrived on the planet of the apes before they did. Boggles the mind, no? This is a pretty advanced concept for a kid's show, and it also provides an underlying mystery for adults to enjoy. Where is Brent? What happened to him? I suspect the series will explore that further...

Before long, the apes arrive - on the hunt - in tanks, jeeps and with heavy artillery. The gorillas even lob gas grenades at the primitive humans. Here, the series uses zooms inside individual frames (not actual motion, but rather camera motion...) to suggest the frenetic pace of the hunt. Jeff and Bill are separated, and Bill is captured and taken to ape city.

That's where the first episode ends, but already, the attentive viewer can detect how this canny re-imagination assimilates the important aspects of the Planet of the Apes mythos with something akin to 20/20 hindsight. Instead of making up the saga as it goes (a deficit of the otherwise outstanding motion picture series...), Return to the Planet of the Apes accounts for - from the beginning - the mutants in the Forbidden Zone (here termed "The Underdwellers.") It also employs old characters in new ways and new situations, and even incorporates movie imagery to vet the story.

In terms of characters, Urko comes from Mark Lenard's character on the 1974 TV series. In Beneath, the same character was known as "Ursus." He is essentially the same here, as are Zira and Cornelius, but Dr. Zaius has changed the most. He is no longer a hypocritical religious zealot, but rather an equalizing force of moderation in Ape Society...almost heroic! "The free ape is he who does not fear to go to the end of his thought," he even states; an ideal that the movie's "chief defender of the faith" could never get behind. This is actually an intelligent structural change as well as a symbolic representation of the left/right divide in our culture. Why? Because with Zaius moderating pacifists and war-mongers, we can more logically believe that humans (particularly the astronauts) can continue to escape and outmaneuver a technologically advanced simian culture. The whole planet isn't out to kill them; they have allies.

From the original Planet of the Apes movie, "Flames of Doom" also incorporates other powerful visuals. We see the ape scarecrows on the border of the Forbidden Zone again (and, on a connected note, hear the same gorilla "hunt" horn on the soundtrack...). We see a small, yellow rubber raft and a U.S. flag planted in the Forbidden Zone too, as well as the discovery of a first green plant indicating life on the fringe of the desert.

Again, the approach here seems to be to this: take what worked in the apes movie, book and TV series, and then put them all together in a more coherent, cohesive story, smoothing out the bumps and making everything jibe. That's important, because long time Planet of the Apes fans will remember some of the more dramatic gaps fouling continuity in the film series. In Planet of the Apes, for instance, it is the year 3978 when Taylor arrives, but when Brent arrives on his heels in the follow-up, Beneath, it is magically 3958. Similarly, there are discrepancies between Escape and Conquest in the story of how the apes ascended to superiority in man's world. Cornelius's story involves an ape named Aldo (whom we meet in Battle), but does not take into account the true ape revolutionary, Caesar. Return to the Planet of the Apes - coming at essentially the end of the apes cycle - benefits from knowing everything that came before.

Indeed, this is the true reason for a re-imagination. Taking what worked ine one production and maintaining it; and taking what didn't work and improving it. Notice that there is not merely change for the sake of change here; that characters have not miraculously switched sexes, and whole swaths of mythology have not been removed or altered. What I'm saying is that fundamentally there is a respect in evidence here for the the productions that came before, for the apes mythos. So yes, Virginia, a re-imagination CAN work, and this dedicated animated series is one example where it did so. Splendidly.

Monday, November 13, 2006

TV REVIEW: 3 Lbs: "Lost for Words"

CBS has a new medical series airing Tuesday night, called "3 Lbs" (a nod to the brain's weight...). The more cynical critical elite may note that series lead Stanley Tucci, playing Dr. Doug Hanson, is yet another version of Dr. House M.D. (a colleague on Fox...) solving medical mysteries and so forth. Or that the series is really another Grey's Anatomy, only featuring horny neuro surgeons instead of horny residents.

But - thankfully - this assessment would be entirely wrong. "Lost for Words," the revised 3 Lbs. pilot that I screened last night in advance of the series premiere tomorrow, is it's own dramatic animal; both energetic and remarkably thoughtful. It is (thankfully) lacking the pretentious, self-satisfied air and Ally McBeal-type humor that ruins Grey's Anatomy. As for Hanson being a character like House, well, TV these days is packed to the gills with anti-heroes as central protagonists (James Woods on Shark; Victor Garber on Justice, and on and on...), and besides the idea of an arrogant M.D. is hardly the bailiwick of one series alone.

But enough with drawing comparisons to other series. "Lost for Words" finds young, handsome Dr. Singer (Mark Feuerstein) moving to New York to join the Hanson Neurology Clinic, "the most competitive surgical fellowship in the country." Singer is a sensitive and touchy-feely guy. He likes to meditate (and at this point in the episode, my wife Kathryn began drooling...). Singer feels that the brain is a mystery and that he can't operate on tumor patients without first knowing whose soul he is "bumping up against." A pumped-up Tucci (who shows off his new buff physique in a locker room scene...) plays Hanson, Singer's spiritual opposite.

Hanson's philosophy is that the brain is just "wires in a box." As Indira Varma, (Kama Sutra, Rome) - playing another doctor at the clinic - informs Singer, Hanson regards brain surgery as "a purely logical" enterprise with "no gray area." To my delight, she further notes, "He's like Spock, you know," making 3 Lbs. yet another new show this season (after Heroes) that makes a point of referencing the original Star Trek in a positive way.

Speaking of Star Trek, Singer also considers the brain is "the undiscovered country." Of course, to get whoopy-frigging technical about it, both Star Trek and 3 Lbs. get this Shakespeare reference wrong. On Trek, the undiscovered country was "the future," and here it's a metaphor for a medical frontier. However, the Bard had a much simpler metaphor in mind. To him, the undiscovered country was purely and simply...death. Still, this is a nice reference, and in the deluge of cop, lawyer and doctor shows on the air today, I can't think of another mainstream endeavor that would reference Shakespeare.

Anyway, Singer becomes Hanson's "shadow" (or "sorcerer's apprentice," as another character describes the job) on a difficult case involving a young violinist, Cassie Mack, who has developed a brain tumor and has arrived in the clinic for surgery. Cassie has lost the ability to play the violin, and worse is losing her facility for language...for words themselves. This dramatic and frightening loss is played out in a weird but strangely lyrical dream sequence. We see Cassie playing her instrument in a recital when her new inability to connect with words results in something strange. Cards with words written on them (like "sister" and "grace") fall from the ceiling like snowflakes. She stands tip-toed on a chair trying to catch the words...and fails. This is a poetic, expressive and non-linear way to express the horror of aphasia. I don't think you can have a series about a concrete thinker (Hanson) and a spiritual thinker (Singer) and not be willing to go into interludes that dramatize for the viewer the wonders and mysteries of the human brain. Yet dramatic television is too often a safe medium stylistically; a catalog of familiar "safe" shots that we've seen a hundred times before. 3 Lbs bucks that trend and is willing to harness fascinating and unconventional imagery to tell its story. I like that. I like that the show doesn't stop to explain everything, like what the dream "means." Viewers are left to interpret it for themselves.

While Hanson and Singer quibble over how to treat Cassie, and a publicity-seeking co-worker, Dr. Cole, inserts himself into the case, Varma's character also gets a subplot about a man named James Will, who is surprised to find himself confused and losing his way a lot. Turns out he has an AVM (which is what Nate in Six Feet Under had...), another condition requiring surgery. This "B" plot raises many questions about the way the human mind is unique; proving itself the only one in the animal kingdom to anticipate and obsess on fear. "We think too much," Varma notes, while also suggesting that "fear is the brain's magic trick." If not overtly deep, this is more than enough philosophical material to fill the hour, and keep the show moving at a good clip.

Other issues on the show: Dr. Doug Hanson is a brain doctor with a brain abnormality himself. To wit, he keeps hallucinating the appearance of a small, mysterious girl...a strange siren from "the other side," perhaps. The series also looks poised to dive full-bore into the personal lives of the doctors, as audiences meet Hanson's teenage daughter, and watch him attempt to seduce Cole's wife. Personally, I found all this "relationship" material a lot less interesting than the philosophical, medical stuff. For instance, I particularly enjoyed a shot near the beginning of the show: we get a CGI tour of the violinist's innards, watching as impulses race up her arm into her brain; her skin transparent. It's as if we're riding a roller coaster to the central nervous system itself.

Another moment I enjoyed involves the description likening sex to gravity (!), and overall I found the structure of the show solid. Generally, I like a series in which two world views are vetted and compared, Mulder/Scully or Spock/Bones style, and 3 Lbs looks poised to do so, gazing at the inner workings of the human brain with both cold detachment and spiritual insight. Plus, let's face it, Indira Varma is a gorgeous and more-than-welcome presence here.

What didn't I like? Well, Coldplay is on the soundtrack, and though I like Coldplay, their sound is apparently de rigueur now on dramatic TV shows, and is already getting old. Do we really need any more musical montages on purportedly dramatic series? I don't think so. Also, I approve of the fact that 3 Lbs. is clinical and mostly non-sentimental, but found a last minute line about Cassie receiving a message from her dead sister to be wholly unnecessary and cheesy. In an otherwise restrained, tasteful hour, this Ghost Whisperer moment sticks out like a sore thumb.

On the other hand, however, I found myself unexpectedly affected by the moment in 3 Lbs. (during exploratory surgery...) when Hanson's' probe triggers a sense memory in Cassie. For the briefest of instants, the patient smells lilacs...and is carried away (from the surgical theatre...) to a memory of a beloved one who has passed on. There's something in Cassie's close-up - in the way she asks to experience it again - that perfectly captures the mystery of the human experience. If 3 Lbs. continues to get moments like that just right, it's going to be appointment television.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Tournament of Death"

Our multi-ethnic Mongo/Earth crew is now in the clutches of Ming the Merciless and Princess Aura, as Chapter 12, "Tournament of Death," commences on the Filmation series Flash Gordon. There are some lovely views of Mingo City in this installment as Gordon, Zarkov, Dale, Thun, Barin and Vultan are escorted (in shackles...) into the metropolis to participate in "the great games."

As for Prince Barin, he has a plan. If he wins in the arena, he can marry the woman of his choice; and he wants Princess Aura. Unfortunately, she wants to be the bride of Flash Gordon. Awkward...

Before the games commence, Flash engineers an escape into the caves beneath Mingo City, using Zarkov's inviso-ray to take out several of Ming's metal men. The team subsequently escapes, but Aura sends three dragons - the "Royal Groks" - after them. Flash gets the Groks to fight each other instead of the humans, but then there's another obstacle to face. The group encounters "The Cavern of Fire," and the only way to escape is through a tunnel on the far side of the "flame barrier." A cable car can carry them there, but Aura intercepts the fugitives and re-captures Flash, Dale and Zarkov. Vultan, Thun and Barin are free, but again, Barin has a plan...

While Ming threatens to take Dale to his "apartment" (a funny line...), Flash is led to the arena. "Let the Great Games begin," Ming declares, as Flash the gladiator fights many of the creatures we've seen in previous episodes. There are royal Groks, the lobster-like "Talors" (The Fire King...), and the giant blue magic worm from Azura's kingdom, among others. Flash makes short work of the beasts and other gladiators (including a man with a bull-heat - a minotaur?), but then runs into a tough masked warrior who suspiciously resembles Prince Barin. Hmmm.

At the end, only Flash and the Arborian prince stand, and Ming warns that the gladiators must next face the dreaded "cable of green flame." Whatever that is...

To be continued...

More Muir in the Media...

November is already shaping up to be an interesting month here in Muirville.

While I obsessively edit and re-edit episodes of The House Between, I also have an article appearing in this month's Filmfax Plus (available at newstands now!).

It's a very lengthy and detailed interview with legendary writer Dorothy Fontana, and the piece remembers her work from classic Star Trek episodes like "This Side of Paradise" to all her other 1970s genre efforts (which include - amazingly - Fantastic Journey, Logan's Run, Ghost Story/Circle of Fear, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Sixth Sense, and even Star Trek: The Animated Series).

There's also an article about Filmation's 1970s superhero show, Shazam, an interview with Robert Bloch and Dee Wallace, and other terrific stuff. It's really a great issue...

Also, my friend Fred just pointed this out to me, but BCI - the company officially releasing the 1970s Filmation live series Space Academy on DVD - is mentioning me in their promotional material! How cool is that? Readers of the blog will remember I blogged the entire series (all fifteen episodes...) last year, and put up a page on my site, here, devoted to the show.

Last but certainly not least, the cover for my upcoming book, The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia is now up at Amazon...and is very cool! The book will be published May 2007.


Now...back to editing.

Friday, November 10, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 49: U.S.S. Enterprise Bridge (1980)


It must have been 1980 or 1981, I guess; a bitterly cold winter's day as I recall. I was at Englishtown flea market in New Jersey with my family, searching out toy treasures. At that time in my life, that would have meant Planet of the Apes, Star Wars or Star Trek figures, to put a fine point on the matter.

Bundled in a warm winter jacket and sipping hot chocolate out of a Styrofoam cup, my lips shivering, I soon came across a toy that I had never seen before (and have only rarely seen since). And which today, I prize. It's the Star Trek: The Motion Picture "U.S.S. Enterprise Bridge" from Mego Corporation, released 1980. I found it mint in its box at the flea market that day...selling for one dollar. Needless to say, I bought it. (And I still had allowance to spare...)

I've kept this toy with me ever since - during all my geographical moves from New Jersey to Virginia to North Carolina, though the toy box is long, long gone.

And just recently, I bought a new one (with box...) on E-Bay for significantly more than one dollar. Why? I had always promised myself that if I saw another of these rare toys, and it was under a certain price threshold, I would get it, since I had played mine out and all the decals had basically rubbed off.

To explain further about this toy, it is not the famous "spinning transporter" Bridge playset from Mego; from the original TV series. No, this is the movie Enterprise bridge from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The box legend says it all, capturing the glory of this toy: "take command of the helm and recreate all the adventure of the crew of the starship Enterprise."

How many of us X'ers, as kids, wanted to do just that? I know I did, and since the movies were from my era growing up, the 1979 -1991 era, this was the bridge I wanted. The bridge V'Ger's probe attacked. The bridge Kirk returned to after a 2.5 year absence after the five year mission; the bridge from which he faced "KHAN!"

"All scaled for Mego 3 3/4 inch Star Trek crew" figures, this bridge "measures over 24 inches long and 12 inches wide and features" the following: "Working Docking Port," "Helm Control Center," "Navigational Station," "Captain's Chair," "Science Center," Communications Console" and "Authentic Decals."

Trademarked 1980 by Mego Corp, to follow the release of the first Star Trek movie, the box also suggested you can dock this bridge "with the Vulcan shuttle (sold separately)," a toy that to my knowledge was never widely released. So how cool is that? What's really awesome is that the you can see the prototype toy in the picture on the side, if you look closely enough at the side of the box, or at least a part of that Vulcan shuttle. Damn, why didn't they ever release this toy? I want one...

I guess there's a certain kind of kid (a geek?) who would rather sit inside and play with action figures than go outside and throw a ball around, and that was certainly me. But what's even funnier is that the bridge isn't exactly a "hub of action." I mean, it's a place with control panels and chairs where the action figures...sit. When I think of the Star Wars toys from Kenner, I remember the Ewok village, the Death Star (with trash compactor!) the Rebel Hoth base and more...places of action and battle! But then Star Trek was (and is...) for a certain kind of kid too. I mean, I don't want to diss Star Wars because I love it, but the thrill of Star Trek is the notion of a team of people exploring the unknown together. The bridge is the gateway to that unknown, that cosmic mystery. Any kind of alien being or space phenomenon or wormhole could appear on our view screen, and off we go into the realm of the undiscovered, the new, the imaginative.

That's why I guess I'll always prefer Star Trek. Swinging light sabers and blasting stormtroopers is really fun for a while, but Trek is ultimately warp speed ahead into universes unseen and unimagined. A planet of gangsters? A living machine? A Klingon battle fleet? A secret mission into the Romulan neutral zone? Pioneering a new world? From this bridge, (and with the right scale figures...), it all seemed within reach.

Truth be told, this toy is made of flimsy plastic and held together only by tiny adhesive stickers. The controls are just decals, flat and uninteresting. There are no lights, no whirring parts. And compared to Kenner's wonderful (and extremely sturdy...) Star Wars toys, this Enterprise bridge pales in comparison. And yet - again - the child who loves Star Trek knows these things don't really matter. It's what we bring to the human adventure, our imagination, that counts, and this bridge - deficits and all - is still the command center that carries our mental starships into new worlds to meet new life forms and new civilizations...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Rogue River"

This episode of the promising new CBS series Jericho picks up "one month after the bombs..." as siblings Eric and Jake race to Rogue River - a nearby town - to retrieve Cipro; the medicine they require to save their father's life. Dad (the mayor...) has gone septic and his organs are beginning to shut down...

The early scenes of "Rogue River" feature some really terrible process optical work for the road scenes - as we're in the car with Eric and Jake - and I was surprised to see such fakey special effects for something so simple as a driving scene. The bad fx distracted me from the deep Eric/Jake conversation, but I got the swing of things soon enough.

There was a striking and ominous scene not long after, which found the boys driving into Rogue River and interpreting the markings (left on evacuated houses...) spray-painted by FEMA. For instance, we learn that the town of Rogue River was evacuated on 10/25; and that FEMA noted how many people they rescued in each house...and how many they found dead. This segment brought up memories for me of Hurricane Katrina, the occasion many people first learned what those symbols meant, and I credit Jericho for being dark, realistic and accurate in this regard. I can't imagine that CBS is thrilled with a mainstream series dredging up memories of a real life disaster, but I think the metaphor is apt. This is definitely a post-Katrina show...there's no help coming; and the only representative we have of the Federal government, Hawkins, may be more a bad guy than a good one, though the jury is still out.

Soon after pulling into town, Eric and Jake encounter a soldier who has been fighting mercenaries, (a squad led by actor D.B. Sweeney), and attempt to retrieve the medicine they need from Fillmore County Hospital. After a gunfight and a daring escape, however, Eric realizes that he lost his wallet in the hospital. Oopsy. The episode ends on another scary, ominous note as Sweeney's character finds the wallet and reads Eric's address: "Jericho." Okay, this is a problem, and it's clear from the ending of the episode that the mercenaries are headed to town. It looks like there's gonna be a war next week on the show...

Lawlessness and heavily armed roving gangs (an argument for fewer guns or more guns, you think?) are just two problems Jericho raises this week. Here's another: back home, there's no way for April to make the ice which is necessary to reduce the mayor's fever. His wife complains bitterly about this, "This day and age...how can someone die of a fever?" Good question, I think. The answer in Jericho is that the school teacher remembers a science project from the previous year about how to make ice. Good thing. But I wonder, how many of us could accomplish the same task in a pinch? Without sounding mean or derisive or anything, we're all "moderners," aren't we? I mean, if we had to, could we make ice without help? How about electricity? We've become a country where everything is so easy that we don't question how we receive light, television signals, or frozen foods. I'm glad Jericho is looking at this angle of the post-apocalyptic scenario.

You know, when I was a kid, I was a tremendous fan of the Mad Max/Road Warrior movies and the Planet of the Apes saga. In very different ways, these franchises gazed at post-apocalyptic scenarios. In a way, Jericho is the TV equivalent, and a show I've always wanted to see, ever since I was a thirteen-yea- old laying in my bed at night and fearing nuclear war (especially after President Reagan's joke about outlawing Russia and "the bombing" starting in "five minutes.") This is a series that really honors its dark premise; at least so far. The longer it lasts, the more desperate the characters and situations on Jericho should become, and I hope the producers and writers are up to the task and aren't going to start candy-coating the end of the world.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The House Between Saturday Shooting

Well, Kathryn took care of Joel this Saturday afternoon, while I got down to business shooting some new scenes with actress and buddy Alicia Wood, who plays Theresa in The House Between.

I've got to say, it was weird seeing Alicia in full Theresa regalia again after a five months span, and especially in a different environment (my house, instead of the location where we shot the series). It's funny, but Alicia (much like Jim Blanton - who plays Arlo) - goes through a complete physical transformation to play the TV show character. When she becomes Theresa, Alicia takes on a whole different countenance and it's kind of Twilight Zone-ish to see her morph before our eyes.

We had a fun time, and after we shot some green screen material and two new, freshly written scenes (for episode 7, "Departed,") Alicia sat down with me to drink some red wine and do some dialogue looping at my editing station. This was a lot of fun, and I shouldn't be surprised that Alicia proved a natural at it. We would play her dialogue, watch her mouth moving on the screen, turn the sound down, and she would "synch" her dialogue to the screen.

Then, Alicia previewed the second and third episodes of the series, "Settled" and "Positioned." When we finished, I asked her what she thought of the shows and she looked at me, raised her Vulcan-type eyebrows and said
"John, you know I was just watching me the whole time..."

Master Blaster...


My friend (and, according to some - my sidekick!), Lee dubbed the Joel/grown-up combo "Master Blaster" recently, and given this gear, I'm going with that as our nickname.


Notice the radiant light behind us. No, it's not camera flash, it's the glow of ascendent fatherhood and brilliant Joelster! Little Joel's already giving me editing advice...

Monday, November 06, 2006

November Column at Far Sector

My new column at Far Sector this month takes another look at the outstanding Showtime series, Dexter, and asks the question: could sociopath Dexter Morgan be a (*gasp*) superhero?

"...from a certain point of view, Dexter Morgan might be viewed not as a sociopath, but actually—and controversially—as a super hero. In one episode, Dexter talks explicitly of wearing a 'mask,' much like Batman or The Flash. Dexter also boasts a secret identity as an avenger, much like the Caped Crusader; one that he rigorously hides. By day he’s mild-mannered Dexter Morgan, by blackest midnight, he’s a Dark Knight of sorts, cleaning up the city of human refuge. Dexter also incorporates the “outsider” perspective of Superman (existing outside humanity and thus being able to comment on it). Finally, Dexter has dedicated himself to the eradication of evil and the pursuit of justice, the very mission of the super hero archetype.

We’ve all heard the proverb that “justice is blind.” To be blind, we must put aside our emotions right? Justice isn’t about passion…that’s just revenge. Dexter is ideally suited to mete out justice because he doesn’t feel love or hate, amity or enmity. No, he is unclouded by such human concerns…and therefore perfectly placed to police us. He is unbiased.

And yet Dexter’s a murderer and a monster. So is he good or evil? He is an evildoer who does good? It’s hard to say, but these are the questions you’ll ask yourself while watching Dexter...."


Check out the rest of the column here
.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "King Flash"

More "peril and adventure await us" on this week's Flash Gordon episode, Chapter 11, "King Flash."

When last we left our stalwart hero, he was trapped in the caverns of the Blue Magic witch queen, Azura. She had cast a spell on Gordon making him believe he was "Gor-Don," a conquering King of Mongo from years past...and her lover.

As "King Flash" opens, Gordon and Azura lead their war chariot and magical sorcerer minions in battle against Vultan and Barin. Dr. Zarkov has concluded that Azura's spell is "electrical," but is still unable to free Flash from the clutches of his new queen. Zarkov then determines he must "fight magic with magic."

Gor-don's army is triumphant and Vultan and Barin are captured. But when Barin says "Flash...remember," something comes through Gordon's psyche. Azura attributes this to weariness and sends Flash off to bed. There, Zarkov, Thun and Dale capture him and restore his memory, leaving in his stead a hologram. Unfortunately, Zarkov notes, Flash will retain a double personality for some time, even after he is healed. Another side effect of the restoration: Flash Gordon literally becomes "a shadow," a tool he will use to defeat Queen Azura.

When Azura realizes she can never own Flash Gordon body and soul, she releases the ancient "Fire King" Talors from the cavern to destroy him. But Flash is able to defeat the lobster/dinosaur creature in battle, and thus wins freedom for himself and his friends. Azura is now his new ally in the war to overthrow Mongo's despot, Ming.

Free and triumphant, Flash, Barin, Vultan, Dale, Zarkov and Thun leave the blue magic caverns...only to be captured by Princess Aura and Ming the Merciless...

To be continued...

Friday, November 03, 2006

The House Between update

Hey everybody,

I haven't blogged about my independently-produced web series, The House Between in some time, so I thought I would provide an update on post-production today. In a phrase: all is well.

1). The first episode "Arrived" is now at a final cut stage. I've had good comments from many folks who previewed the show at Fanta Sci back at the end of July, and incorporated changes where it was possible. I've also shot some new footage to better establish some "geography" of the strange house. I am delighted with how this episode looks and feels, and hope wider audiences will feel the same way as the screeners.

2.) I'm happy to report that I have a very talented graphic designer working on some special effects for later episodes. She did a top secret design for me just yesterday, and I must say, I'm blown away by what she created for me. The work is amazing.

3.) My terrific composer out in L.A. has watched a rough cut of the first three episodes ("Arrived," "Settled," and "Positioned"), and is scoring the show. He knows exactly what I want: an intimate, melancholy, mysterious score. His reaction to the first three episodes was also extremely positive. He said that the show was, in a word, "captivating." His feedback was 95% positive, and I'm also incorporating his feedback into my re-edits.

4.) Tomorrow, I'll be looping some hard-to-discern dialogue with one of the series stars, and breaking out the lights and camera equipment (and going out on location...) to shoot some new sequences for a few of the episodes, particularly the finale.

Basically, everything is going well, but as you may (or may not...) know, editing is a bear. It's a hugely time-consuming process and I'm a perfectionist. I want everything to be the best it can be, and alas, this means taking my time.

Bottom line: At least one episode, the premiere, "Arrived," should be up on the web by Christmas, assuming we stay on schedule, with the other six stories to follow on a weekly basis thereafter. (And then pre-production begins on Season Two!!!)

I''ll let you know where to tune in...

Buck Rogers: "Cruise Ship to the Stars"

In “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” Buck (Gil Gerard), Wilma (Erin Gray), and Twiki (Mel Blanc) board the space luxury liner Lyran Queen on ...