Saturday, August 30, 2008

Season 3 Shooting Continues!

I've got assorted cast & crew members of The House Between visiting me here in Monroe today for a long, probably difficult day of shooting.

We committed (because of total exhaustion...) to shortened third season this year (although the episodes will be longer...), and we slated this day - a separate bloc - to finish parts of an episode entitled "Addicted." We're also doing some green screen effects work (always fun...).


Finally, we're shooting a really fun, touching and surprising revelation scene from "Resolved" today -- our finale -- in total secrecy. The script that cast members read (and performed...) could be a part of one of my famous (and elaborate) ruses to keep cast & crew off the scent of the real story.


Or not.

Anyway, it's great to have the gang (or part of the gang...) back together. Even if just for a short time...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friedkin Friday: Nightcrawlers (1985)

Well, this is a little different.

In today's installment of Friedkin Friday, I want to remember William Friedkin's unforgettable (and intense...) twenty-one minute contribution to the 1980s resurrection of The Twilight Zone (1985-1989).

In particular, the man behind cinematic efforts such as The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising and The Exorcist directed one of the very best episodes of this often undistinguished re-do, a high-anxiety adaptation of writer Robert R. McCammon's 1984 short story, Nightcrawlers.

The episode was shot by veteran director of photography, Bradford May, and written by series producer Phil De Guere. In the audio commentary for the episode (available on DVD), both men remember Friedkin as difficult, demanding, and yet also inspiring to work with.

Nightcrawlers depicts a compelling and nightmarish story set at a small diner just off the highway...a perfect setting for The Twilight Zone. It is blackest night -- with incessant rain pounding -- as the tale commences. A cocky police trooper (Jimmy Whitmore Jr.) who avoided service in Vietnam enters the diner, recounting to a waitress and the cook a harrowing story about the bloody aftermath of a strange motel shoot-out. He's clearly shaken by what he's seen.

As more travelers (including a family...) seek solace from the violent storm, events in the diner take a weird turn. A nervous man named Price (Scott Paulin) arrives...and is almost immediately revealed to be highly disturbed. He's a Vietnam veteran, you see, and was once part of an elite unit called "Nightcrawlers." Price was traumatized by one particular night mission against Charlie, one which cost the lives of several American soldiers. That night's horrific events remain so resonant with Price that he has developed an unusual power: the ability to manifest his terrible memories...in the flesh.

When Price sleeps (or is unconscious for any reason...) his violent nightmares of 'Nam are granted substance...and then run amok (which accounts for the motel massacre). Price and the trooper don't get along, and after a verbal confrontation, the trooper knocks Price out. His unconscious state paves the way for a violent dream that transforms this 1980s diner into a jungle landscape...one wherein armed soldiers are on a brutal mission to...kill everyone. The episode culminates with a maelstrom of destruction and gun-fire, and the chilling promise that other veterans like Price are out there.. ones with the same destructive "power" and memories.

Boasting a heavily de-saturated and grainy look (the contrast was adjusted by Friedkin himself, according to the commentary), this is a Twilight Zone episode that looks more like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than it does the average installment of a popular TV series. This is an appropriate touch, because we're subconsciously reminded of authentic Vietnam War footage, and the grainy look it often boasted.

Utilizing just one set (the diner), Friedkin builds escalating tension by focusing on two visual flourishes; ones that he often deploys in his films: insert shots (to create a sense of detail, mood and texture), and extreme close-ups (to draw us into the world and troubles of the characters). On the former front, we get a tour of the diner's seemingly mundane terrain (including coffee cups filled with steaming coffee, cigarette lighters and the like). On the latter front, we are treated to a sustained, highly-upsetting close-up of the mad Price: red-eyed and psychotic; and growing ever more upset. This shot lasts a long time -- beyond all reason, actually -- and is highly disturbing. Friedkin's decision to hold the close-up (in conjunction with Paulin's committed performance) sells thoroughly the notion of this man's insanity.

The theme underlying Nightcrawlers is that for the men -- the American soldiers -- who witnessed atrocities and horrors in the Vietnman War, the conflict is never truly over. This notion was just bubbling to the surface when this episode of The Twilight Zone was made. It entered the American lexicon during the Reagan 80s as "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" (or PTSD) and never left, although a similar syndrome had once been known as "shell shock." Still, the idea was that we had a generation of men "coming home" in the late 1970s who had seen such horrible things, -- who had done such horrible things -- that they could never again lead what we non-combatants consider a normal life. And worse, their problems were being ignored by the government, the citizenry, and even the majority of the media.

Remember what Freud stated so memorably: that "the repressed" returns as "symptoms." Nightcrawlers makes literal that notion. The only way Price can "exorcise" the demons of Vietnam is to produce those vivid demons in our reality. In much the same way (though less fantastical), there are some Vietnam veterans who lashed out with intense violence against their families and co-workers. So what we have in Nightcrawlers is a genre metaphor for PTSD, down to the idea that - if left unexorcised - the violence unleashed in Vietnam will claim more victims here at home. Given the situation occurring in Iraq today, this metaphor is relevant in 2008.

Producer/writer De Guere thoughtfully describes Nightcrawlers as "one disturbing piece of television," and he's spot-on. In 1985, when this episode aired, violence as depicted here was not the norm either on the tube or on the silver screen. I'm surprised it got on the air as is (especially since the climax is highly destructive...). Also, remember, this episode pre-dates high profile Vietnam-themed efforts such as Platoon (1986) and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987).

From the opening close-up of pounding rain to the anxiety-provoking visual distraction of bright lightning flashes and intermittent electrical black-outs, Friedkin makes this installment of The Twilight Zone feel authentically like an unpredictable powder-keg; one always on the verge of exploding. The personal fire-works between the highway trooper and Price are balanced well by the real (and disturbing) fireworks in the climax. The episode also generates a ubiquitous mood of deep unease (one of Friedkin's specialties, I'd say).

Yet what renders Nightcrawlers truly a landmark show is the manner in which Friedkin visualizes the tale's underlying theme: that horrors suppressed or ignored (or even belittled by chickenhawks), are horrors that bubble to the surface and threaten the safety of all of us. Friedkin -- so famous for his cinematic exploration of demonic exorcism - here suggests that we are possessed by a different sort of demon, a national one. And furthermore, that it must be reckoned with honestly if it is to be expelled.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Final Countdown (1980)

Imagine, for just a moment, that you could travel back in time seven years to the morning of September 11, 2001 - in an armed jet fighter. Say you should happen by Manhattan, around morning rush hour. A passenger jet -- no, two! -- are barreling towards the Twin Towers.

What would you do? Utilize the technology at your disposal to prevent a full-scale national tragedy? Or "preserve" the flow of history as we have already experienced it...and sit on your hands. Doing nothing.

That's the debate, essentially, that informs this clever 1980 science fiction film, The Final Countdown. The narrative concerns the "modern" nuclear air-craft carrier, U.S.S, Nimitz, as it is mysteriously hurled back in time to December 6, 1941 -- immediately preceding the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The ship's captain, Yelland (Kirk Douglas), recovering from the "storm" that has sent the ship backwards forty years, debates with his officers about what his next task might be. Should he prepare for battle with Japanese Zeroes and the naval task force in wait? Or should he set course for calm waters and let history repeat itself?

On board the ship is a civilian named Mr. Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), an advisor and consultant for the Tideman Company, which built the Nimitz. Lasky is the first and most adamant to suggest that the ship's movement through time is real; not some trick or war game scenario. More than that, he believes strongly that every tactical and national mistake from 1941-1980 could be undone by the presence of the militarily-superior Nimitz in the past. Imagine it: Hitler would be defeated in hours, not years. There would be no reason to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, because the ship (and the numerous jet air craft it carries...) could make short work of any mid-20th century war machine. The Cold War might never have happened either, with America getting a forty year head-start on new military technology.

Another officer, the CAG, Commander Owen (James Farentino), has been - conveniently - writing a novel about Pearl Harbot and so just happens to have a lot of information about this time period at his command. He is in favor on non-interference. Owen is especially concerned that the Nimitz has rescued at sea one Senator Chapman (Charles Durning) and his assistant, Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross), because Chapman could be the next Vice President of the United States. History records he disappeared on December 6, 1941...what would happen if he survived? (And if Harry Truman didn't assume the Presidency?) In Owen's argument, we're asked to countenance the idea that time unfolds in a certain way for certain reasons, and that it is best to step-aside and let the tides of time have their way.

I love these time paradoxes, and The Final Countdown, directed by Don Taylor, has some wonderful fun playing with time travel concepts. I have to admit that amongst all the characters and viewpoints, I admire most the pragmatism of Captain Yelland. He balances Owen and Lasky well. He doesn't need to know the "whys" "hows" or "what for." His job, as he sees it, is to defend America - anytime, anywhere - and to make decisions in "the here and now." That might sound like tunnel vision, but there's a certain clarity to it. Especially because there's no guarantee the Nimitz can return to the 1980s. Everybody else seems paralyzed, afraid to act, but Yelland weighs everything intelligently...and chooses. I felt a patriotic chill when Yelland, selecting his course of action, issued the order: "Splash the Zeroes!"

The Final Countdown also tends to hint at a deeper universe than it actively explains or depicts, which is an approach I always prefer. Ambiguity can do wonders for building tension in a screenplay, and here it is the enigmatic nature of the "time storm" that is left deliberately unresolved. In one creepy moment near the end of the film, it is revealed that the time storm is actually following The Nimitz across the sea; as though it boasts an intelligence and purpose. There's no follow-up to this throwaway line, but the notion of a "phenomenon" with sentience is tantalizing.

My biggest problem with The Final Countdown is that it ultimately doesn't boast the courage of its convictions. Yelland makes a fateful decision, to defend the United States and go to war with the Japanese. In other words, he has decided to change all of modern history and undo the "day that will live in infamy." He commits his planes, his men and his ship to the cause. But then, the pesky time storm returns and takes the Nimitz back to 1980 before the battle can be joined. This anti-climax smacks of a deus ex machina, no question about it. It reduces the entire movie, essentially, to a hypothetical question rather than a practical application of the scenario. Had I been writing the screenplay, I would have followed through all the way and permitted the men and women of the Nimitz to see the ramifications of their actions; to live in the "brave new world" their actions created. Alas, that's not what occurs.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a very cool twist at the end of the film, involving the Tideman Company, the design and construction of the Nimitz, and Commander Owen's fate. But still, even this personal resolution feels like we're getting the icing and not the cake. I wanted the damned cake. I wanted to see modern jets (with their guided missiles), blowing the outmatched, surprised zeroes to smithereens. Not because I'm anti-Japanese or anything, but because this "attack" is the promise of the movie; the very "what if" scenario we want to see. The Final Countdown doesn't deliver that, and so there's an undeniable disappointment factor here.

Another concern: The Final Countdown (1980) often plays like a protracted advertisement for the U.S. Navy. The film apparently elicited the support of the military, and yay for that. The film seems very authentic in military procedures and so forth. But how many times do we need to see planes launching and landing on the air craft carrier deck? It is a time consuming process and grows incredibly tiresome by the third or fourth go-round. The obsessive focus on the hardware does something inimical to the film. It shorts some essential human aspect of the story, in my opinion. Again, I would have loved to see the Nimitz in battle; or the jets in aerial combat. What I'm discussing here is not my preferred denouement, but rather the rote, routine launches and landings, which are...snooze-worthy. The Final Countdown needed a good editor. Seriously, you could lop off about ten minutes of "tech" stuff in the film and have a taut, engaging movie instead of an occasionally dull one.

I understand, of course, that the film was made in the late 1970s, when American military muscle was taking a beating around the world, and Iranians were holding American hostages, dampening our national morale. The country felt impotent to a large degree (paving the way for the ascent of jingoistic Reagan), so it is understandable that The Final Countdown focuses so much on our impressive military hardware. It's always nice to strut, but it still isn't very dramatic in human terms.

Finally, I want to return to the possibility I posed at the beginning of this post. What if you flew through that time storm on or around September 11th, 2001? After years of watching Doctor Who and Star Trek, I suppose I subscribed unthinkingly to the idea that you shouldn't "disrupt the timeline." However, considering The Final Countdown, Yelland's decision, and recent American history, I truly feel differently today. In other words, I would interfere. I would disrupt the timeline. Absolutely. I'd shoot down the three planes (as terrible as that sounds), and prevent at least some of the devastation of 9/11. Just think: several thousand lives would be saved, and though the hijacking (and shoot down) would still be incredibly traumatic, it would not be so traumatic that we - as a nation - would feel it necessary to bloody the nose of a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with the attack. In other words, I think the Bush Administration would have rightly pushed for retaliation in Afghanistan (against Bin Laden), but would not have been able to so easily sell the American people on an invasion and occupation of Iraq if the towers had not fallen. And that would certainly be a historical "plus," don't you think?

I believe Yelland makes the right decision in The Final Countdown. It's just a shame he isn't able to execute the battle.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's Here!





Super villains beware!

The new edition (Volume 2) of my Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (from McFarland) landed on my doorstep this afternoon (with a loud crash...). As you can tell from these scans, the book looks positively gorgeous. It's also filled with new illustrations, and tops out at just about 700 pages. I dedicate this new edition to my dear friend, Destinies host Dr. Howard Margolin and my young son, Joel.

Anyway, this reference book (covering the A - Z of cinematic and TV superheroes) is available now. You can order it right here. Or at Amazon.com.

Storyteller or Salesman?

The theatrical release of the animated Star Wars film The Clone Wars may have turned the mainstream media forever down path to the Dark Side of the Force. To (intentionally) misquote a little green Jedi: resentment leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to...backlash.

Anyway, this piece, from The Washington Post (
August 10, 2008, page M01) concerns George Lucas and reads (in part):

"He may go down in history as American cinema's master mythmaker, but George Lucas still can't tell a story.

Three years after concluding the epochal "Star Wars" franchise and very publicly retreating to his sprawling Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., to make "my own little movies," Lucas has reverted to form. Earlier this summer, he produced and co-wrote yet another installment of the lucrative but creatively exhausted "Indiana Jones" adventure series. Friday marks the release of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," an animated spinoff that Lucas executive produced and that looks like precisely what it is: a television show that has been puffed up into a feature-length advertisement for itself."

This article doesn't mince words, so nor shall I. These are the messages of the article as I see them:

1.) Lucas can't tell a story. In fact, he could never tell a story (a fact indicated by the author's use of the word "still," meaning that this is a perpetual or long-standing concern).

2.) Lucas promised to make small movies, but reneged (meaning he's a liar).

3.) He just keeps pounding out "creatively exhausted" (meaning bad..) sequels and advertisements for toys.

4.) And uh...he "may" go down in history as a master mythmaker.

Okay. My turn.

What we have here is -- in essence -- the mainstream media's version of the "Lucas raped my childhood" meme. You've seen this a million times in talk-backs and on message boards, only here it's painted with a more intellectual and respectable veneer (and fewer ALL-CAPS!). But this article is no less one-sided than many of those familiar comments. A later paragraph in this article even pauses to diss American Graffiti (1973), an almost universally-admired American film of the early 1970s. Some might even call it a classic.

So what do you think? Does the author have a point? Or is there some bias and resentment coloring this journalism?

Well, it's worth asking, anyway. As for me I am no apologist for Lucas. I do not worship the man. I believe he is fully capable of making bad artistic choices. Whether it's Greedo shooting first, Jar-Jar Binks, Ewoks or a re-run Death Star threat in Return of the Jedi, I am fully capable and willing to criticize Lucas. Do it all the time. But I like and enjoy his Star Wars movies very much. I see their strengths, but I also see that they have notable weaknesses.

As someone with no horse in the race, however, I think this article is a load of poo-doo.. Let's get to the specifics:

1.) Lucas is no story teller. Never has been. Really? George Lucas directed THX-1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars. He provided the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those four film credits alone should settle any argument about whether or not he can recognize or dramatize a good story, don't you think? He could make bad films for the rest of his life, and we'd still have those four great films. That's a lot more success than many film artists get, I might add.

Let's skin the Rancor another way. One measure of a good or successful story is that it survives the passage of time, and translates successfully from one generation to another. Since Star Wars was released in 1977 and is still being debated and watched 31 years later (a generation later...), I would argue it passes that test with flying colors.

2). He promised to make small films and hasn't yet. So he's a liar. Well, yes. This is technically true. Since he finished making Revenge of the Sith, Lucas hasn't released a small, independent film of his own making. But so what?

My problem with the underlying assumption behind this point is that somehow big science fiction films are unworthy. It's an old and insidious line of attack. Why are you wasting your time with that comic-book/TV show/science fiction crap, when you could be making a perfectly respectable movie about gay cowboys eating pudding? (No offense to Brokeback Mountain). Isn't it possible that George Lucas -- in the honored tradition of H.G. Wells, George Pal, Rod Serling, Gene Roddenberry and others -- realized that a science fiction franchise like Star Wars permits him to say the things (to a vast audience)... that a small indie film couldn't? And if Lucas did make a small indie film, don't you bet that people would be calling him self-important and indulgent? People would be yelling at him for not producing more Star Wars. "Because that's what everyone wants to see, not this crap!"

3.) So, Lucas keeps pounding out creatively exhausted crap? Well, I don't like to judge by critical aggregates, but at Rotten Tomatoes, Revenge of the Sith [2005] seems to have garnered support from 79% of reviewers...which is pretty impressive. The so-called "creatively exhausted" Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls garners an equally impressive 77% positive score. A more balanced article about Lucas would have made note, at least, that Indy (which came out the same summer as the derided Clone Wars) was favorably received by the majority of critics. The story isn't nearly so simple as this article makes it. This article wants us to believe that Lucas is just voiding cinematic feces on a regular basis, but it's not that clear cut. A lot of people (myself included), thought Indy IV was pretty damn terrific.

4.) There's no "may" here. Lucas's name is already enshrined in studies of American cinema, and likely will be for the next hundred years. Star Wars inspired a slew of imitators, revolutionized special effects, changed the way movies are marketed, and popularized science fiction. To argue otherwise is to ignore the facts. Would we have gotten Alien without Star Wars? Blade Runner? Perhaps, perhaps not.

So why is Lucas sitting alone on the hot seat here? The simple answer is that the American press loves a fall from grace. And it likes to push a guy on a precipice...over the edge. Some folks smell the blood in the water with The Clone Wars. They've been waiting a long, long time to cut George Lucas (and Star Wars) down to size, and here's that golden opportunity. There will never be a better time.

And why the ire at Lucas for marketing toys, when films like Transformers are actually based ON toys? If this journalist just wanted to make the point that Clone Wars is a bad movie, I wouldn't take issue. If this journalist wanted to complain about the review embargo on Clone Wars and the way it was handled, I'd be fine with that too. But this article isn't a movie review per se. And It doesn't offer much in terms of specific arguments. It just makes sweeping, broad statements about Lucas's whole career. And I think it does so with a decidedly negative, false slant.

What do you think?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Strangers on a Train (1951)


Lives (and deaths...) "criss-cross" in master-of-suspense Alfred Hitchcock's taut Strangers on a Train (1951), a classic black-and-white thriller that unfolds like an extended tennis match between evenly-matched (and opposite) contenders.

On one side of the court, we have Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a likable if deadly-serious up-and-coming tennis star. He's unhappily married, and his cheating wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers) is pregnant with another man's child. Guy wants a divorce so he can escape Miriam, as well as his unhappy life in small-town Metcalf; but also so he can be with his beautiful Washington D.C. girlfriend, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). She's a Senator's eldest daughter, and Guy wants a career in politics.


On the other side of the court, we have Guy's nemesis, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a flamboyant playboy-type who "sometimes goes too far" in his obsessions (according to his dithering, clueless mother...). Bruno dreams of murdering his overbearing, disapproving father, a wealthy local aristocrat. Anthony is everything Guy is not: frivolous, un-serious, and deeply, deeply unstable. He's also brash, and seemingly unafraid of legal or social consequences for his actions. Life (and death) seems like nothing but a game to Bruno.

The "court" on which these diametrically-opposed strangers first meet is, as the film's title announces, a train. To set up the ensuing "match" between these players, Hitchcock determinedly cuts (after views of "criss-crossing" railroad tracks), to opposing shots of the players' feet heading in clashing directions. In fact, it is their feet that make the inaugural contact between the two men, a would-be Larry Craig moment rife with homo-erotic undertones. The somewhat antiquated British term "cottaging" concerns foot signals among gay or bisexual men indicating sexual desire (often in public places like train stations), so Hitchcock's choice to focus on feet touching in public (on a train) as mode of initial contact between Guy and Anthony is certainly significant, not to mention provocative.

After their feet collide in a train passenger car, Bruno strikes up a probing, flirtatious conversation with Guy. "I have a theory. You should do everything before you die," he says.

Then - aware of Guy's problem with Miriam from the newspaper gossip pages - Bruno offers his theory of the perfect murder. It comes down to this simple plan: two fellows -- with no connection -- meet and swap something...intimate. No, not fluids, but rather murders. It is specifically, as Bruno describes the strategy, a "criss-cross." Bruno will murder Miriam for Guy, thus leaving no trail back to Guy for the police to follow. And Guy will murder Anthony's father, doing the same for him. This makes sense because, as Anthony points out, it's always "the motive" that trips up a murderer. In this case, there is no motive.

Weirded out by this overly-friendly stranger, Guy excuses himself from Bruno's presence, but Bruno manages to pocket Guy's engraved lighter, which reads: "From A to G." (Meaning from Anne to Guy). As many critics have also pointed out, this inscription might also mean, sub-textually, from Anthony to Guy, another indicator of the under-the-surface, not-quite right relationship between the men. Also branded on the cigarette lighter is a significant image: two tennis racquets are "criss-crossed." Just like the lives of these two players.

Bruno then takes it upon himself, without any encouragement from Guy whatsoever, to go forward with his plan; to kill Miriam. Bruno hops a train to Metcalf, and stalks Miriam at a local amusement park. In one clever scene, Bruno boards a boat called "Pluto" and pilots it through the tunnel of love, following Miriam out to an isolated island with her two-would-be-suitors/lovers. The name of the boat, Pluto, is significant since in Roman lore, Pluto was the god of the underworld, one technically associated with the grave or with death. The name of his boat thus associates Bruno with the act of murder. Similarly, the Pluto of myth was a son of the child-eating Saturn/Cronus, a character who symbolizes a domineering father. Again, this is a perfect connection to Bruno, since he desires to purge himself of his father. Like literary Pluto, Bruno is a vengeful son.

Throughout the scene at the carnival, leading up to the violent strangulation of Miriam, the sexual imagery crafted by Hitchcock proves quite potent. The "loose" Miriam immediately sends non-verbal signals to Bruno that she wants to have sex with him. She seductively licks an ice cream cone, her eyes never leaving Bruno's. In return, he reveals his strength and prowess, wielding a hammer to pound a weight all the way to the top of a marker tower (a clear phallic symbol). Then, in a wickedly edited series of shots equaling foreplay, Hitchcock's camera equates the riding of horses on a merry-go-round with the riding act of intercourse. Bruno, atop one horse, is leaning forward aggressively, in the superior or dominant position. In the very next shot, Miriam (who is shot slightly from behind), seems to be presenting or receiving. These two shots -- in combination -- indicate the desire Miriam and Bruno apparently share.

Finally, as Bruno strangles Miriam, we watch the murder through one lens of Miriam's fallen glasses. Why just one?

Because Strangers on a Train is a story vetted through two perspectives, two world-views, two lenses. Guy's and Bruno's. Here, in the case of the choking death of Miriam, we are seeing exclusively through Bruno's eyes. It's a view (or vision...) that also comes to haunt him, as he equates eye-glasses with the murderous act he conducted in lover's lane.

Bruno soon ends up at Guy's house in Arlington, and tells him what he's done. Throughout the scene, Guy and Bruno are both positioned (physically) behind the bars of a gate, a visual cue to the possibly consequences of their relationship (prison bars...), and an indicator that Guy has become trapped by his "chance" encounter on the train with Bruno. He cannot simply report Bruno to the police for Miriam's murder, because Bruno promises he will name Guy as a co-conspirator. Finally, Bruno gives Guy an ultimatum: kill Bruno's father, or face the consequences. In this section of the film, with Bruno stalking Guy, Hitchcock utilizes another great visual touch that lends new meaning to the tale.

Bruno, in essence, becomes an immovable object. And as we see, an immovable object holds all the power (just like Bruno does). Watch how Bruno is carefully positioned in the frame of several shots. He is absolutely still, unmoving...like a statue. In one extreme long shot, we see Bruno standing silently on the steps of a Federal-style building (between pillars), just watching Guy...from an extreme distance. He is a menace at a distance; a storm-cloud on the horizon. Threatening...

In another shot, Bruno is positioned amongst a large audience watching a tennis match. Everyone in the audience is following the match, except Bruno...who is looking right at Guy. Making eye contact. The "heads" of the audience members ping-pong back and forth comically (left to right; left to right;) avidly tracking the back-and-forth of the tennis match, but Guy is totally and completely still. By keeping Bruno immobile, centered, Hitchcock visually expresses the notion that he is strong, unaffected by what is around him; a singular force to be reckoned with.

And that's exactly the right approach to take, because it is indeed Bruno who now holds all the power in the relationship with Guy. One word from Bruno and Guy is "outed." Fingered. Guy, like Bruno will be labeled a deviant, a criminal. And again, it doesn't take much to understand the sexual or social subtext here. How Guy wants to keep his "relationship" with Bruno a secret.

In the climactic portion of the film, Bruno realizes that Guy will never "follow through" with their relationship (!) and complete the criss-cross, killing his father. So, Bruno decides to drop Guy's monogrammed lighter at the scene of the crime (the lover's lane where he killed Miriam) to implicate him. As Bruno hops a train to Metcalf, Hitchcock cuts to an increasingly tense, increasingly fast-cut tennis match between Guy and an opponent. Guy wants to finish off his competitor quickly so he can get to Metcalf and stop Bruno, but there are reverses, surprises and delays.

The entire scene becomes an exercise in generating suspense. Hitchcock perfectly deploys the art of cross-cutting here, and there is one brilliant moment - a surprise - that finds Bruno accidentally dropping the lighter down a grate under a sidewalk. Almost immediately after this stunning accident, the film cuts back to Guy and we hear the words "game, set, match." We think it's over. Fate has intervened on Guy's behalf. But then there's another reverse...a physical feat from Bruno as impressive in dexterity as Guy's tennis. And it's here - watching the ball go from Guy's court to Bruno's and back - that you fully realize how Hitchcock has structured the entire film as a visual tennis match, a fierce competition in which Guy and Bruno hurl the initiative back and forth at one another.

From the tennis match and cross-cutting to the stirring denouement of the film (culminating with an exploding merry-go-round...) you will find yourself riveted, unable to look away, unable to disengage or even truly intellectualize what you are seeing. This scene serves as a remarkable example of Hitchcock's oft-noted capacity to play the audience like a piano. The characters have gone from criss-cross to deadly, fast-moving circle (as represented by the runaway merry-go-round, spinning in fast-motion). That too seems appropriate. At this point the dance between Guy and Bruno (a battle of opposites; a battle of lovers; a battle of doppelgangers, a battle of reflections) is so intricate, so complex, that it can't be untangled. So the two men spin and spin, locked in combat, until the spinning itself can't be sustained either and there's a massive...er...explosion.

Strangers on a Train more than lives up to its reputation as a compelling thriller. Robert Walker is the stand-out in the cast here, portraying an early screen stalker who diabolically straddles the line of charming-obnoxious-creepy without missing a beat. Yet -- as is universally the case when Hitchcock is involved -- the director is the real star of the picture. Hitchcock has cleverly taken the story of two strangers "criss-crossing" and transformed it into something much deeper; and much more disturbing. Murder is the game Anthony plays, one suspects, when he'd rather be playing...something else. After his last bluff, the lighter with those letters on it slips out of Bruno's clutched hand, finally, and the contest of wills is over.

From Anthony to Guy. Game. Set. Match.

Final note: Strangers on a Train is reportedly being re-made for a 2008 release. Anyone think it's going to live up to Hitchcock's version?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friedkin Friday: Jade (1995)

In the early 1990s, outspoken screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was the toast of Hollywood.

The writer behind the mega-hit Basic Instinct (1992) quickly became the highest-paid screenwriter in history, not to mention one of the most controversial. And for good reason. His scripts enthusiastically blended brutal violence with lurid sex, and his outlook on women was either blatantly misogynist or extremely feminist, depending on your interpretation. Plus his movies often featured craven bi-sexuals and lesbians.

Lots of lesbians.

Eszterhas contributed further "erotic" thrillers -- such as Sliver (1993) -- to Hollywood's revival and re-interpretation of the film noir aesthetic...but with pumped-up, acrobatic sex scenes, macho dialogue, and strange murders aplenty. The result? Suddenly, cineplexes were jammed-packed with so-called "sexy" thrillers like Madonna's (atrocious) Body of Evidence (1993), the equally-moribund Whispers in the Dark (1992) and the uninspiring Final Analysis (1992).

However, by the half-way point of the Age of Clinton (1995), the trend had burned itself out, just like the hot candle wax poured on Willem Dafoe's privates by Madonna in Body of Evidence. Eszterhas's remarkable fortunes were notably reversed, and the writer shepherded two notorious bombs to theaters, the ridiculous and campy (though extremely enjoyable...) Showgirls [1994]) and the dead-on-arrival William Friedkin film, Jade (1995).

The outline -- the outline, mind you -- of Jade was purchased by Paramount's Sherry Lansing (Friedkin's wife) for a whopping 2.5 million dollars. The final film, however, was a Waterloo for all involved. Jade only grossed ten million dollars against a fifty million dollar budget, and was almost universally critically-reviled. Most of the animosity, however, was directed at Ezsterhas's turgid script rather than Friedkin's direction. It's also clear in retrospect that Jade - although no masterpiece (and not in the same class as Sorcerer, Cruising or To Live and Die in L.A.) -- suffered from a double backlash that had little to do with the specifics of the film itself.

First, critics were still gunning for the by-now millionaire celebrity writer, Ezsterhas, desiring to punish him for his egregious success (and his fall from grace, with Showgirls). I'm not sure why this is the case, but many critics love to take down someone "big" who picks a bad project, or who, after previous successes, makes a less-successful film (see: Kevin Costner, Ben Affleck, M. Night Shymalan, and currently...George Lucas.)

Secondly, Jade starred David Caruso, a talent Friedkin once described in an interview (with Charlie Rose) as "the new Steve McQueen." As you may recall, Caruso walked away from a starring role in the highly-successful Steve Bochco TV series NYPD Blue after one (admittedly glorious) season, and critics and audiences interpreted his departure after so brief a spell as one of supreme arrogance and ingratitude. Caruso was also duly punished for his sins: both films he made in 1995, Kiss of Death and Jade, suffered ignoble deaths at the box office. People were angry with Caruso, and his film career evaporated because of it.


Again, none of this historical background is meant to imply or suggest that Jade isn't responsible for its own trespasses; only that - starting out - this critically-derided William Friedkin film had two big strikes against it. Still, Jade might have weathered the twin Eszterhas/Caruso backlash had it been a stronger, better-written film. As it stands, it suffers from a confusing, underwhelming climax, and all the touches we now typically associate with an Eszterhas script.

In other words, Jade feels ugly, leering, and crass. The particular details of the film's narrative are so luridly shocking (a millionaire collects pubic hair trophies of his sexual conquests! The prostitute known as Jade is famous for taking it...uh...the Greek Way!) that we're momentarily distracted from the fact that the characters have little (or no...) depth and that the story is muddled beyond belief.

All of these problems are present and accounted for in Basic Instinct too, by the way, but Verhoeven directed that film with a zealous, even bombastic sense of voyeurism, one bordering on circus-like, and in the lead role Sharon Stone proved herself a game, self-aware ringmaster, a hyper-femme fatale for the ages. Jerry Goldsmith's score evoked Hitchcock, and with her patented Ice Princess act, Stone's character could be traced directly back to Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Even if the film wasn't authentically Hitchcockian in technique and meticulous plotting, it felt enough like Hitchcock to pass muster in March of 1992.

But William Friedkin isn't Paul Verhoeven in either style or temperament.

Verhoeven has proven to be at his best as a wicked social satirist, in efforts such as RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). By contrast, Friekdin is a more gloomy, realistic, existentialist director; one who tends to ruminate on heavier matters. To Live and Die in L.A. and The French Connection both draw a profound moral equivalency between obsessive cops and their criminal quarry. Sorcerer obsesses on the fickle whimsy of fate, and The Exorcist deals with the idea that true evil dwells in this world. In Jade, it's clear that Friedkin is examining something else that fascinates him, in this case, sexual jealousy, and the manner in which people either exorcise it, or hide it from society.

The film noir format has always concerned "the underneath," the simmering, ignoble motives that drive a man to desperation; to commit a crime; to fall in love with the wrong woman; or to kill an enemy. Friedkin, in crafting Jade, utilizes the leitmotif of "the mask" to explore that duality of the surface world and the underneath; to plumb the depths of public/private faces.

One of the first shots in the film, for instance, involves a slow, menacing (and beautifully orchestrated) glide up a long, elegant stairway The camera's prey is -- no surprise here -- a dark black mask on display at the top of that staircase. We seem to steadily approach the empty eye slits of the ebony mask, as if the camera wants us to put it on ourselves. Later, evidence found at a crime scene includes a bloodied mask of another kind, a fertility mask. Critic Bob Stephens, writing for The San Francisco Examiner made clever note of the preponderance of masks in Jade:

"CEREMONIAL AND psychological masks dominate William Friedkin's most recent film, "Jade," which is set in San Francisco. In Friedkin's intriguing murder mystery, we encounter the menacing fertility masks of primitive cultures, colorful masks in the celebratory Chinese New Year parade, opaque public personas and the "masks" of identities assumed in hedonistic sexual activities. In "Jade" people are not what they appear to be; with each new revelation of a homicide investigation, the relationships of politicians, legal agencies and three friends change drastically."

Indeed. Jade's story is one in which masks play a crucial role, and which the truth underneath those masks shocks, surprises and confounds. The film's narrative centers around San Francisco's assistant district attorney, David Corelli (David Caruso) as he investigates the stunning and brutal murder of a local philanthropist. The eccentric man died in a compromising position and the one of the few clues as to the identity of the perpetrator involves his collection of pubic hair snippets from sexual conquests. Yes, you read that right.

One such pubic hair snippet apparently belongs to a mysterious high-class prostitute called Jade. Jade's real identity is unknown, but as the case deepens, Corelli draws closer to finding her, and the murderer too. The case leads Corelli to an investigation of California's governor (Richard Crenna), one of Jade's clients. More disturbingly, it leads Corelli straight to his best friends from college -- Matt (Chazz Palminteri) and Trina (Linda Fiorentino) Gavin -- a high-powered married couple living in San Francisco. Matt is a ruthless attorney, and Trina is a clinical psychologist. That very day, Trina happened to visit the murder victim. She offers a plausible explanation for the social call, but her fingerprints are soon found on the murder weapon: a ceremonial hatchet.

David also finds a cuff link at the scene of the crime, and it too is a crucial clue. Meanwhile, the police (led by Michael Biehn) zero in on Trina. Adding to the cloud of guilt surrounding her, she writes successfully (and gives lectures...) about an issue in "the changing workplace." In particular, Trina discusses how it is important to "distinguish between someone who's had a bad day that ends in a temper tantrum and someone whose failure to resist aggressive impulses results in serious destructive acts."

What happens when people are "no longer able to control their urges?"

According to Trina, "they disassociate from their own actions, often experiencing an hysterical blindness." "They're blind," she establishes, "...to the darkness within themselves."

In most movies of this type, Trina's psycho-babble dialogue would prove a sort of explanation of the killer's motive or mind-set. What separates Jade from the sleazy erotic-thriller pack, and what marks it as a Friedkin film, is that Trina's description covers literally every character in the film.

To wit: Trina leads a double life as Jade -- the hooker every man wants to be with. Her husband Matt...well, if you've seen the movie, you know just how "dark" he is. He's an amoral lawyer and a monstrous, cruel husband, and worse, doesn't even practice foreplay. David himself is pretty dark, threatening the district attorney in order to stay on the Jade case (and gain a political foothold, perhaps, in S.F.).

Michael Biehn's character has secrets too...his public face hides a dark, private one.. As for the governor, he has orchestrated a massive conspiracy to cover his sexual dalliance, all the while maintaining a smile and a laconic demeanor. The "masks" people wear in public, we see, are the masks that allow them to - in Trina's vernacular -"disassociate" themselves from their urges, their moral failings, their monstrous deeds.

As in the best examples of the film noir genre, in Jade it's not merely a few bad apples who are corrupt...it is the world itself that is twisted and perverse. And that tenet certainly fits in with the gritty nihilism we've detected in Friedkin's other cinematic works. There's a great shot in the film, early on, that seems to express visually this conceit. At a ritzy San Francisco party, an empty tuxedo jacket hovers near the ceiling, over the revellers, social climbers and wannabes - the "haves and the have mores." As the shot suggests, they're all sort of empty suits, devoid of morality and social purpose beyond hedonism and self-aggrandizement. On the soundtrack, "Isn't it Romantic?" plays ironically.

So, is Jade misogynist or feminist? Well, the film concerns a woman subjugated and enslaved by her callous, two-timing husband, who - while donning her mask of disassociation -- steps out on her marriage to experience sexual pleasures with other men. This act may make Jade/Trina immoral, but it certainly doesn't make her a monster.

Again, this is made clear through Friedkin's savvy staging of a scene involving Matt and Trina making love. Matt mounts Trina without any foreplay whatsoever, and selfishly - and painfully - has very brief sex with her (I was going to write "makes love to her" but that was clearly the wrong phrase). For the duration of this act, Friedkin's camera remains on Trina's face; in relatively tight shot. A tear falls down her cheek. We detect on Trina's face a flurry of conflicting emotions. There's physical pain; there's emotional hurt; and then the mask returns. The staging -- close on Trina -- makes us feel the pain too and helps us understand that although she may make questionable moral decisions, she's hardly the film's villain. I don't believe the film is misogynist because "Jade" (unlike Catherine Trammell) is not a loopy psycho-killer. Her worst transgression is the search for sexual satisfaction outside of marriage. True, she takes that quest a bit far...but it is mostly the men in Jade who are the monsters.

I would also argue that the film isn't exactly feminist. Jade -- like all the other characters in the film -- dons the public "mask" of propriety while shedding it in private. Just because she's a woman, she's not automatically better than the men. The movie doesn't exactly approve of her of what she's done. In fact, Jade doesn't exactly approve of herself or what she's done. There's one mask in the film even she is ashamed to wear: that of a stocking pulled tight over her face, while a sexual partner screws her from behind. This moment occurs during a sleazy hotel room tryst, and the stocking makes Jade's face look deformed, distorted...even piggish. This is where Jade draws the line; where her ability to "disassociate" fails, and even she feels exploited.

Jade is a thoroughly fascinating film, but ultimately a somewhat unsatisfying and opaque one. Friedkin wants to examine the characters and ideas here with some depth, but the script rarely affords him the opportunity to go beyond the superficial, except in his choice of images. And the final revelatory scene raises more questions than it answers. For instance, if the killer of the philanthropist is whom the script tells us he is, then why the ritualistic nature of that murder? Why would the culprit -- as fingered by the screenplay -- arrange the body in such a fashion? It makes no sense in terms of motivation, in terms of narrative, and in terms of character. It's in that moment you realize how poorly-constructed the film's screenplay is; despite the interesting themes that occasionally make it tantalizing or alluring.

"The frustrating thing about Jade," wrote critic Carlo Cavagna, "is that it proves Friedkin still has it."

Cavagna goes on to explain: "The drawn-out opening sequence, a build-up to a murder during which the camera drifts through an opulent mansion filled with valuable artwork, including several eerie masks, is masterful. The signature of the artist who made The Exorcist is unmistakable. Moreover, the protracted car chase an hour into the film is nearly the equal of Friedkin's exceptional car chases in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A., and recalls similarly stomach-lurching work by John Frankenheimer in The French Connection II and Ronin. The secret seems to lie in not overdoing the action and instead allowing the intensity of the actors to play into the scene, while at the same time putting a camera in the car to show the fracas from the driver's perspective."

There are some good points made there and I agree with them to a large extent. Jade occasionally struts with a sense of anticipatory dread and foreboding that is hard to dismiss. And Linda Fiorentino -- star of a fantastic film noir called The Last Seduction (1994) -- is beguiling in the film. Nonetheless, I prefer Friedkin in a more "gritty" and realistic mode (The French Connection or Sorcerer). The expressionistic editing with jolts and subliminal flashes -- a new style when Jade vetted it in 1995 -- has, alas, become boring de rigueur these days and just adds to the triteness of the story.

I also enjoy the Chinatown chase scene -- or what Friedkin calls an "anti-chase" scene since it involves cars stopped by traffic for long intervals -- but as skillful as it is from a purely technical perspective, this sequence doesn't cover any new ground for this artist. Before Jade, we already knew that Friedkin could stage, direct and edit a brilliant car chase. The impression here is that the director is searching -- desperately searching -- for some way to make the risible screenplay more engaging and punchy.

That Friedkin succeeds in that difficult quest with both his "masks" motif and his adrenaline-inducing car chase is a testament to his talent. At the very least, this film is intriguing. Jade may still be a mediocre film, but it's worth at least one viewing if you enjoy film noir, not to mention the spectacle of a great director working around a script to make his points with crafty visuals.



Thursday, August 21, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dinosaurus! (1960)

I loved, loved, loved, loved this movie.

When I was six years old.

What can I say? Whenever Jack H. Harris's Dinosaurus! aired on the local TV station in 1975 or 1976 (I can't remember whether it was WPIX or WWOR...), I was soooo there. With my plastic dinosaur toys clutched in my hands and my Aurora dinosaur model kits (built by my Dad) in tow. You couldn't drag me away from the TV. Seriously.

I was deep in my extended dinosaur "appreciation" phase (commonly referred to by psychologists as a dangerous childhood obsession...) when this movie was making the TV rerun rounds, and Dinosaurus! -- in case the title didn't give it away -- is a film about a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaur. These giant lizards wake up on an isolated island in the tropics in 1960 and promptly wreak havoc until a visceral man vs. nature coup de grace with a bulldozer (queue the Tonka trucks, John).

Next to King Kong, Godzilla, The Last Dinosaur, or The Land That Time Forgot, this was as good as it got for kids in the seventies pre-Star Wars. (A fact, which may - incidentally - explain why Star Wars is such a touchstone for my generation...).

Anyway, Dinosaurus! (don't forget the exclamation point, please...) concerns an American construction company working on the Virgin Islands to build a new harbor for the locals. The "locals," by the way, consist of Irish drunks (think in terms of a live-action Groundskeeper Willie), a Cuban villain called Hacker (who talks like Ricky Ricardo and looks like a swarthy Vincent D'Onofrio), and his French-sounding henchman, not to mention assorted Latinos and black extras. Oh, and lest I forget, there's also a mental midget named "Dumpy," who - for some reason - is allowed to handle heavy machinery (not to mention Molotov Cocktails).

I never realized that the Virgin Islands were so well-integrated before watching Dinosaurus!, but there you go.

One day, a lovely and plucky gal named Betty (Kristina Hanson) happens into the harbor in a motorboat while hunky construction team leader Bart Thompson (the blow-dried Ward Ramsey) is detonating explosives nearby. An explosion knocks Betty's picnic lunch into the water, and she dives in after it. Unfortunately, she finds not lunch, but a giant hibernating Tyrannosaur. It appears to be dead -- or mostly dead, anyway -- but is "perfectly preserved." The explanation given (off-handedly) is that there's a cold subterranean channel down there, just off the beach. In the tropics?

Whatever...

The construction workers then drag the dinosaur out of the sea, up to the beach alongside a companion: a perfectly preserved brontosaur. "One look at them and you'll never forget them!" declares one character in description of the dinosaurs. He's right, of course. Because when lightning strikes the slumbering dinosaurs (as well, apparently, as a slumbering cave man...), the behemoths come to life and begin walking the island in full view. And once you've seen them...I promise, you won't forget them. No matter how hard you try. The special effects were created by Wah Chung and Gene Warren (who later collaborated on Land of the Lost), two greats of the film industry, actually. So allow me to state simply that the effects don't really hold up very well today, even though I appreciate the 1960s era artistry.

But never mind that, when I was six years old, these dinosaurs were good as real, buddy. Absolutely real. And scary.

Okay, so the unfrozen cave man is played by Gregg Martell, and he quickly explores the island. Wouldn't you know it, right off the bat he finds a hatchet and ends up smashing the only working radio in a thousand miles. D'oh! He also confronts a 20th century woman in rollers and facial lotion...and runs screaming away like a little girl.

While the Neanderthal goes in search of his two buddies (the other Stooges...), the islanders -- led by Bart and Betty -- team up and decide to make a last stand at the local ruins. They dig a moat around an ancient fortress and wait for the tyrannosaur to show up. Meanwhile, local politician and villain, Hacker (who beats his wayward child, Julio...) thinks he could get rich off the Neanderthal...

Before Dinosaurus! has ended, there's been a noble self-sacrifice on the part of the cave man, the brontosaur fails to elude fate and ends up dying in quick sand, and Bart goes mano-e-mano with the T-Rex from the seat of a bull-dozer. He doesn't exactly say "Get away from her, you bitch," but Bart utilizes the mechanical device to duel the dinosaur to a standstill, clubbing the beastie off a high mountainside with the scoop bucket. Young Julio, who had befriended the neanderthal, is sad, but Bart explains to him how confusing it can be to wake-up with a million-year hangover.

Imagine you woke up one day in the twenty-first century, Bart offers, by way of explanation, to Julio. Or, if you are me -- seeing this movie for the first time in thirty-two years -- imagine you were a kid and loved this movie and then woke up one day in the twenty-first century to realize how ridiculous and silly the whole thing is.

Because that's kind of what happened with Dinosaurus! I told one of my friends (producer Joseph Maddrey) I was going to watch the movie and how much it had meant to me as a child, and he said something along the lines of "why are you going to do that? why do you want to ruin good memories?"


Note to self: I should listen to Joe more often.


Of course, this whole review is kind of glib, isn't it? That's because the little boy part of me (read: all of me) is wounded and sad and disappointed that - unlike, say King Kong (1933) or Godzilla: King of Monsters (1956) - Dinosaurus! doesn't really hold up to adult scrutiny. It's a perfectly adequate (if ludicrous) time-waster and B movie, but I can't make any arguments for the artistic merit of the film, and boy does that bum me out. Big time.

I made Kathryn watch this one with me last night and she was asleep in thirty minutes. Before she drifted off, I asked if he she thought our two-year old, Joel, would ever dig a movie like Dinosaurus! I mean, he likes bulldozers, right? She smiled pleasantly, but gave me a look that indicated only a six year old in 1976 could possibly love a movie this clunky. Joel is already more evolved than his father, I guess, so this may be my last run at Dinosaurus!

If I had known that beforehand, I would have made sure to attend this final viewing with my plastic dinosaurs and model kits in hand.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: A Boy and His Dog (1975)

In 1975, Harlan Ellison's award-winning short story, "A Boy and His Dog" (featured in the 1969 collection called The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World) was adapted to film by actor L.Q. Jones, a relatively novice director. You may recognize Jones' name because he's a talented actor who has appeared in films as diverse as Casino (1995) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006) and he wrote the truly amazing (and deeply underrated) 1971 horror film, Brotherhood of Satan.

A low-budget production that nonetheless expertly forecast a post-apocalyptic vision quite similar to the one depicted in Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog proved to be an authentic triumph for Jones; in turns quirky, absurd, and in some surprising moments...even oddly heartwarming.

Generally well-received, A Boy and His Dog nabbed a Hugo for best dramatic production and was also nominated for several other awards, including ones from The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, and The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Despite these honors, some critics also concluded that the film (advertised with the tag-line "a rather kinky tale of survival") was a misogynist effort, a judgment based almost entirely, it seems, on the film's final line of dialogue. Of A Boy and His Dog, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert (writing in March of 1976), opined: "The movie doesn't look or sound like most s-f tours of alternative futures. It's got a unique . . . well, I was about to say charm, but the movie's last scene doesn't quite let me get away with that..."

A Boy and His Dog stars a very, very young Don Johnson as Vic, an impulsive and callow scavenger living in a ruined, post-apocalyptic Arizona circa 2024 A.D. (following World War IV...which lasted five days). Vic is accompanied on his journeys by Blood (Tiger from The Brady Bunch...I'm not kidding...) a canine with whom the lad shares a most unusual telepathic link.

In other words, Blood and Vic talk to each other, and much of the film is actually a running dialogue between dog and man. In this case, the dog -- whose main purpose is to procure women for Vic and help the young man avoid the roving "Screamers" -- is by far the smarter and more experienced of the two beings. But Vic doesn't always listen to the dog, and that causes problems.

Case in point: Vic really, really wants to get laid. It's been six weeks since he's been with a woman, and he's getting desperate. At a local showing of an old porno film in an open air venue, Blood informs Vic that he smells a lone female in the audience of homeless, pitiable people. Vic tracks her down, and this is how he first encounters Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton), a beautiful (and willing...) woman from the unseen world "down under." No, not Australia, but a civilization beneath the surface of the desert.

After Vic and Blood save Quilla from a gang of attacking Screamers, Quilla attempts to entice the head-strong, independent Vic to her mysterious world. But Blood is badly injured, and begs Vic not to go. Fired up about Quilla June, Vic decides to ignore the dog's advice (again!) and visit the subterranean world of Topeka. It's a creepy kind of 1950s Ozzie and Harriet "nightmare" civilization where everyone is so pale (from lack of sunlight), that they've taken to adorning creepy white pancake make-up. The town is run by an organization called The Committee (led by Jason Robards).

Topeka has big plans for Vic. They plan to make use of "the fruit" of his "loins." Turns out Quilla June was sent to lure him to the underground world. The women there can no longer get pregnant by the male citizenry of the little burg, and they need a man from above to get the job done. Vic thinks this is a dream assignment -- obviously -- until the exact details are made clear. There will be no intercourse (this is a prudish, repressive, 1950s patriarchy, remember?). So instead, he's attached to a painful looking sperm extraction device ..and it's here...filling one vial of semen after another...that he'll spend the rest of the days. A line of 35 blushing brides (in gowns...) wait outside Vic's medical theatre, nervously expecting his...fluids.

When Quilla realizes that the Committee has double-crossed her and has no plan to make her a senior member of the organization (her condition for luring Vic below...), she helps Vic escape. Vic can't wait to get back to his dog, to his life on the surface. "I gotta get back in the dirt...so I feel clean," he quips.

Back on the surface, a dying (but loyal...) Blood awaits. Vic is forced to make a tough decision to keep Blood alive. He must choose between a treacherous woman...and a beloved dog. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I imagine that from the hints dropped in this review, you probably know what I'm talking about.

A Boy and His Dog is both surreal and disturbing, but it's also (let's face it...) a truly funny movie. It's the rare genre film in which even the title cards prove amusing. A Boy and His Dog commences with a colorful, artistic montage of blooming mushroom clouds and then, after describing the duration of World War IV, cuts to a title card that reads: "The politicians had finally solved the problem of urban blight." Ouch.

That sort of blunt cynicism runs throughout the picture, from Vic's no-holds barred complaining ("I'm hungry and I want to get laid"), to Blood's retort when he and Vic encounter a brutal local warlord, and Vic asks why people follow him. "Probably just charisma," says Blood, deadpan.

The entire movie crackles with sharp, pointed exchanges like that. Don't get me wrong, it's not tongue-in-cheek or silly, it's just clever, and -- if memory serves -- remarkably faithful to Ellison's novella (especially in terms of Blood's dialogue). Today we know this brand of wicked sarcasm as "snark," so perhaps A Boy and His Dog is the first (and only...) snarky sci-fi epic. Yet it's more than just a whip-smart genre film, it's highly skilled in the ways it establishes and develops the characters. Within twenty minutes, for instance, you won't even think it odd that Don Johnson is arguing with a canine. I always liked Miami Vice, but I don't know that I ever thought Johnson was a truly great actor. Watch him here -- bouncing off a dog with passion, verve and resentment -- and you'll be convinced that he is. The entire film represents a sort of twisted genius (on a low budget). You'll never see another film like this, believe me.

In terms of theme, A Boy and His Dog is probably an equal opportunity offender. I saw the film's message as essentially libertarian: Vic was better off roaming the surface of a devastated earth with his dog than dealing with a so-called "society" like Topeka, one with layers of bizarre bureaucracy and twisted social mores. Better to be hungry, poor and battling Screamers than dealing with backstabbers and two-timers.

I certainly understand why someone would be tempted to look at the film and argue that it is misogynist, but I really, really think that's the wrong message to take away. For one thing, it's not exactly like Vic is choosing any old dog over a woman. His dog is quite special, after all: a telepathic mentor and friend. And the woman in question had just tried to sell Vic down the river and convert him into a living sperm bank. I mean, given those two alternatives, who would you choose? The friend you'd been with your whole life? Or the person who just tricked you? This particular woman is a bad apple; that's all the movie is saying.

For some reason, while I was watching A Boy and His Dog I was suddenly reminded of a great quote from an old Twilight Zone episode ("The Hunt," if I remember my Zones, correctly)

It went something like this: "A man? Well, he'll walk right into Hell with both eyes open. But even the Devil can't fool a dog..."

Word to the wise in the twilight zone; or in post-apocalypse Topeka.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 55: The Tomorrow People (1973): "The Slaves of the Jedikiah"

From Great Britain - the home of Dr. Who, UFO, Blake's 7, Space:1999, The Prisoner and Sapphire & Steel - comes this durable 1970s TV serial about homo superior, a new brand of "evolved" human beings who are in the process of replacing regular old homo sapiens.

In the first five-part serial of The Tomorrow People, penned by series creator Roger Price and Brian Finch and directed by Paul Bernard, we join the first three tomorrow people in the middle of a delicate rescue mission, in media res.

In particular, Tomorrow People leader John (Nicholas Young) -- a serious, fast-talker -- and his companions, Carol (Sammie Winmill) and Kenny (Stephen Salmon), have set out with the help of their friendly computer, Tim (a more kindly version of HAL) to bring a young boy named Stephen (Peter Vaughan-Clarke) into the fold.

Stephen is in the delicate process of "breaking out" (an experience analogous to puberty in humans), wherein his mental skills as a "tomorrow person" are coming to the forefront of his psyche. Among these powers are the three "T's" of the tomorrow people: telepathy, teleportation and telekinesis. When Carol visits Stephen in the hospital following a "brainstorm," she informs Stephen of his destiny as an evolved human being, a tomorrow person.

Because they share a mental link, "tomorrow people are never alone." Also, they are totally incapable of killing. Tomorrow People can defend themselves, but they cannot commit murder under any circumstances. Fortunately, their advanced minds as well as their technology help them complete their tasks (locating and educating more tomorrow people, and communing with alien races...), and we see examples in this first serial of their tools of the trade.

For instance, The Tomorrow People carry nifty stun guns (which don't kill), and also wear belts that help them "jaunt" back and forth from one location to another (through hyperspace...). Jaunting, in case you were wondering, is "the instant transmission of bodies from one point in space to another" (like beaming up). The tomorrow people operate from a central headquarters in an abandoned underground station (where a geological fault was detected...), one equipped with view screens, computers, a jaunt pad and more.

Tim (Philip Gilbert) is the best technology of all. "I'm a biological computer," he informs Stephen. "I don't have disks and tapes." The high-tech "machine" is fully capable of original thought, and he also cooks...materializing food instantaneously (sort of like a replicator in latter day Treks). In this serial, we see Tim make some executive decision when the young tomorrow people can't. In an especially dangerous situation, he overrides the jaunt pad so that all the tomorrow people can't be put into danger at once.

The Tomorrow People also reveal to Stephen in this episode that Earth is a "closed world;" that aliens are not supposed to visit Earth, though they occasionally do so. And that fact leads into the central intrigue of "The Slave of Jedikiah:" a mysterious bearded man also wants to get his hands on Stephen for some mysterious purpose, and abducts the boy to rural Bentham Hall with the help of a comic (and annoying..) motorcycle gang. The Jedikiah squelches Stephen's telepathic ability with a "silencer band," which soaks up mental transmissions.

The Tomorrow People set out to rescue Stephen and solve the mystery of the Jedikiah (who calls the Tomorrow People "younglings"). They soon discover that there is some truth Homer's Odyssey, particularly in the character of Polyphemus. Seems that Jedikiah is the (robotic), shape-shifting servant of a green and fat alien cyclops aboard a damaged spaceship in Earth orbit. The Cyclops requires the help of telepaths (like the Tomorrow People) to help him get his ship into hyperspace, because his own telepaths (slaves...) died in an accident. While evading Jedikiah (rendered out-of-control by a stun-gun shot to the head), the Tomorrow People attempt to send the alien Cyclops back to his planet. In the process, they learn that, according to the alien, "Earth has a bad reputation."

"You are always at war," he tells them, and every time an ambassador is sent from other worlds, "he's slain."

"The Slaves of the Jedikiah" ends with Stephen on track to join the Tomorrow People in future assignments, and a friendship forged with the comic motorcycle dudes.

Critically-speaking, "The Slaves of Jedikiah," The Tomorrow People's introductory serial, is one that grows less and less interesting the longer it lasts. The first portions of the narrative (thru Part III or thereabouts) serve as splendid set-up of Price's interesting and unique universe, but by episodes four and five, we're deep in "runaround" territory (a failing also of early Doctor Who), with Kenny getting kidnapped and rescued, and the robotic Jedikiah roaming endlessly through spaceship corridors. The good will and curiosity forged by the serial's fine beginning is pretty much squandered by the end. You watch episode 5 and you're ready to move onto the next serial already (which I'll do here soon...). You like the characters; you like the settings...you just want a better story.

What works so beautifully about The Tomorrow People (termed a children's show at the time) is the dynamite central premise (one shared, in various ways by modern franchises such as Heroes, Prey and Mutant X). It's the notion that mankind is evolving into something better, and that people with special abilities walk among us. Because this series was created in 1973, the next step of human evolution depicted here - homo superior - is idealistic, anti-war (this was the age of the Vietnam conflict after all) and intensely pacifistic. The Tomorrow People boast the idealism of the Hippie Movement, but have the technology, science and power behind them to exploit their skills in clever, useful (and entertaining) ways.

Even the central threat in "The Slaves of Jedikiah" arises not from deliberate alien malevolence, but rather from misunderstanding and fear. Carol asks Ranesh (the Cylops) why he didn't just ask for help, rather than trying to force the Tomorrow People to come to his aid, and his answer is about human nature and human history. Yeah, it's a "message," but it isn't preachy. It's in the fine tradition of The Day The Earth Stood Still or Star Trek.

I also love the idea so prominently placed here that any child in the world can "break out;" can become a tomorrow person. That's an enormously appealing idea; the notion that one day you can make an impact; change your world for the better. And there are no exclusions on your abilities based on Earthly prejudices like sex, race or (presumably) orientation. It's an immensely positive idea to impart to kids (and grown-ups too...), and I dig it. Again, this optimism reminded me of Star Trek, but it isn't imitative or derivative of Star Trek.

If you've watched 1970s British science fiction television before, you know that (excepting UFO and Space:1999) there are limitations in terms of budget, and therefore in terms of visualizations. The same is true here. The robot Jedikiah turns into is very, very lame (a sort of cardboard box creation). There's a lot of what appears to be chroma key or early green screen work...some of it good (the jaunting), some of it not so good (the hyperspace sequence). The "futuristic" space helmets appear to be football helmets, down to wire mesh over the eye slits. Still, I really dug the look of the Underground HQ (a great set...), and I appreciated the retro-style jaunt control belts.

When I recommend TV series like Dr. Who, Blake's 7 and The Tomorrow People to folks around me, I tell them that you have to leave your criticism about the special effects behind, and just go along for the ride, because otherwise you'll miss some very cool stuff. That's especially true here. The visuals are variable...but the ideas are usually strong.

For a so-called "children's show," The Tomorrow People does absolutely zero talking down to the audience. This serial, "The Slaves of The Jedikiah" explains in rapid-fire succession such adult genre concepts as hyperspace, teleportation, shape-shifting, biological computers, telepathy even Darwinism and the like. The imagination of the ideas far outstrips the special effects and I'm okay with that. And so far, I particularly appreciate Nicholas Young's character, John, who delivers his dialogue with determined and staccato intensity. John's a kid, yes, but he's a no-nonsense leader too.

I'm only at the beginning of my "jaunt" with The Tomorrow People, but I can already see why series fans love it with such devotion. It's clever, yet a little kooky too. It's earnest and heartfelt, even amidst some horrid spfx. As a committed fan to Sapphire & Steel, Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, I really eat this stuff up, cheesy visuals and all.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 54: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (1977) :

This short-lived horror anthology series, Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected (known by Brits as Twist in the Tale) was praised by none other than horror authority Stephen King in his non-fiction study of the genre, Danse Macabre (page 249) back in 1981. King termed the disco decade effort "interesting" and made note of one particularly scary episode involving the dead returning to life on a murderer's TV set.

Unfortunately for the obscure series, Stephen King is just about the only horror scholar or reviewer (besides me!) who actually remembers Tales of the Unexpected at all! This obscure Quinn Martin venture ran for just eight hour-long episodes in February, May and August of 1977, airing on Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. It then disappeared...never to be rerun, never to be seen on the Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S., never released on VHS (save for a two-hour episode called "The Force of Evil," released by Worldvision in 1987) and not yet released on DVD. Call it Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unremembered.

Narrated by the late William Conrad, Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected is a color genre program that offers a different tale of the macabre each week, one that almost universally culminates with a shocking (or not so shocking...) twist or "sting." Many of the stories deal explicitly with the vicissitudes of human nature, but many of the episodes also rely on "stock" genre elements and therefore lack a necessary element of originality or freshness. Sometimes, the series seems as slow as molasses...

At an hour in length, the derivative nature of each of the tales combined with the snoozy pacing actually made them somewhat less than unexpected. More like Tales of the Predictable. Ironically, a low-budget show from Australia - The Evil Touch (1973) - in syndication a few years earlier than Tales of the Unexpected aired - boasted a deeper understanding of horror, not to mention better pacing, and covered virtually identical territory in terms of narrative and themes. Still, I'd like to see a release of this series on DVD for the simple historical value of the show.

Among the eight episodes in the canon here is a re-write of The Invaders' opening story ("Beachhead"), now re-named "The Nomads" and featuring David Birney in the Roy Thinnes role. The plot follows a Vietnam veteran who witnesses an alien race landing on Earth and preparing an invasion. Naturally, he has trouble convincing anybody that his story in true.

Another episode, the aforementioned "The Force of Evil," is a diluted 1970s TV version of the 50s' feature, Cape Fear, with a character named Teddy Jakes (William Watson) assuming the stalking duties of an ostensibly unavailable Max Cady. Lloyd Bridges (in the Gregory Peck role) watches helplessly as Jakes terrorizes his family, kills the family pet (a horse), and creepily befriends his daughter, The Brady Bunch's Eve Plumb. One confrontation scene even occurs on a house boat(!), as if the other story similarities to Cape Fear aren't obvious enough. What the long-winded "The Force of Evil" adds to the Cape Fear mix is the notion that the stalker villain may be supernatural, a kind of "walking dead" back from the grave and ready to party.

"A Hand for Sonny Blue," another Tales of the Unexpected episode, recounts the misery of Dodgers pitcher Sonny Blue (Rick Nelson) when his right hand is crushed in a car accident, and he receives a transplant (one that narrator Conrad informs us does not originate from God, but from [presumably evil] science!!!). Turns out Sonny boy's new right hand is pretty darn bad. It oncebelonged to a criminal (a murderer who robbed a liquor store...) and is now up to its nasty old tricks.

Based on the short story "The Hand That Wouldn't Behave" by Emile C. Schurmacher, "A Hand for Sonny Blue" was directed by the great Curtis Harrington (Who Slew Auntie Roo? and The Dead Don't Die) but even his remarkable talent couldn't bring much originality to the oft-told tale of a transplanted limb possessed by evil. The story's surprise climax (presaging Bobby Ewing's appearance in the shower by the better part of a decade), was the ultra-annoying revelation that the entire story was...a dream. D'oh! "There is no present, no future...only the past...and it happens again and again," suggested our omnipotent gravel-voiced narrator in a closing commentary that made no sense and seemed to bear no empirical connection to the tale that preceded it.

During it's brief spell on network television, Tales of the Unexpected also featured a story about a reporter (Roy Thinnes) undercover on death row, called "The Final Chapter," as well as the tale of a man (Bill Bixby) caught in a time warp, entitled "No Way Out." Other stories included "Devil Pack" (about hell hounds) starring Ronny Cox, "The Mask of Adonis," about the eternal quest for youth, and "You're Not Alone," which pitted Joanna Pettet against a stalker.

I pretty much love anything that aired on television in the 1970s for nostalgia's sake, but I can't really make a very powerful critical argument in favor of this particular anthology. More tedious than thrilling, Tales of the Unexpected is a perfect example of what can happens when a non-horror guy (Quinn Martin) produces a horror show without really understanding the terrain. The plots are familiar and hackneyed, the twists aren't really twists at all, and the scares are few and far between.

That said, Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected features a great opening credit montage and pulse-pounding theme song.

Anyone out there remember this one?

25 Years Ago: Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

Twenty five years ago, Wes Craven celebrated the tenth anniversary of the creation of his most popular boogeyman: Fred Krueger. The...