Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sy Fy Portal Returns To The House Between

Sy Fy Portal founder and editor-in-chief Michael Hinman announces the return of our low-budget, independent web series, The House Between, today at the popular sci-fi web site.

Here's a snippet:

"John Kenneth Muir has returned for new episodes of his popular series "The House Between," the independently produced online series that begins its third season with the episode "Devoured."

The newest installment, the 16th in the series, continues the story of five strangers trapped in a Victorian house with no furniture and no escape, surrounded by dark matter. It stars Kim Breeding, Jim Blanton, Craig Eckrich, Lee Hansen, Tony Mercer and Alicia A. Wood.

The latest episode is dedicated to the memory of "Space: 1999" script editor Johnny Byrne, a friend of Muir who died just as planning for Season 3 was getting under way."

Meanwhile, Fantasmo Cult Explosion, blogged by THB resident Jim Blanton (Arlo) also has some thoughts on the advent of this year's batch of episodes:

"It was a labor of love for all involved, and it’s a little bittersweet as this marks the final run of the series. For those following it so far, I think you’ll really enjoy the third round. It’s easily the best yet. If you’re new to the show you can catch all the old episodes and the new at several locations. The easiest place to look though is The House Between official site at:"

Quantum Imprimaturs, the series fan page, offers up a review of the first episode, "Devoured," here:

"The story itself is typical The House Between zaniness in the ways it is both weird and coherent. As always I love how the show blends scientific and magical ideas, though the emphasis on this time was mostly magical."

Friday, January 30, 2009

Premiere Day

Well, January 30th has finally "arrived," to coin a phrase.

The House Between Season Three is running today. Now.

You can find
"Devoured," -- the first episode of the third season in a few places. Simplest and neatest, It's playing on the home page, here.

"Devoured" is also broadcasting on Google Video right now,
at this link. Unfortunately, I can't embed that video here. Seems to be an issue with blogger. So for now -- just a link!

Or, you could watch the entire episode over at Veoh, with this link. But for some reason, the sound warbles horribly there (though it plays fine at Google Video...). I've reloaded the video three times at Veoh (don't ask how long THAT took...!), and every time it's the exact same thing. The picture is better at Veoh, but the sound is awful.

Another option, if you're extremely patient: download the episode in its entirety from Veoh and play it at the original quality. This provides the best picture and the best sound, but it takes some prep: the download took about 40 minutes on my computer.

Also, The House Between is generating a bit of buzz on these old Internets. Over at Marx Pyle's, Marx Madness blog, he resurrects an old interview with me about the origins of the series, and adds to it with a bunch of new material.

Here's a snippet:

Those who have sat down and stuck with ‘The House Between,’ have — for the most part — been hooked. But I don’t know how to train people to watch entertainment on their computer,” Muir said. “It’s something that will happen over time; and it will definitely be a generational thing.”

We would be remiss not to try and get the scoop on the new season. Muir was tight-lipped but did reveal that the third season takes place in a new location, The Dark Place - “a soiled, old and ruined place. The shape of it is something quite dastardly, as we learn in the third episode.”

Muir also disclosed, “Our denizens in the house at the end of the universe really start to reveal their cards in Season Three. There are some big revelations pending, particularly for the characters of Astrid and Travis. And, the overall story goes from intimate to epic; as the full story of the smart houses — and their place in the universe — is revealed at last.”

So, enjoy Premiere Day and here's hoping you like "Devoured." Watch it today, and watch it often...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #69: Dark Skies (1996-1997)

Here’s a decent a science fiction TV effort from the 1990s that probably didn’t get the love it deserved during its original network broadcast. In fact, the expensive, highly-promoted Dark Skies suffered cancellation after a pilot and just nineteen hour-long episodes aired on NBC.

Dark Skies (1996-1997) ran during the reign of the magnificent X-Files, and – rightly or wrongly – has always been viewed by an unimpressed media in the shadow of that more popular creation; as an unworthy imitation rather than as its own individual (and original) thing.

Variety termed Dark Skies “shamelessly derivative” of the X-Files and The Invaders, while The Skeptical Enquirer dubbed the series a “clone” of Chris Carter’s series. Entertainment Weekly noted Dark Skies boasted “amazing gall” and concluded that the sci-fi proceedings -- if not laughable -- were “at least snickerable.”

The tantalizing premise of Dark Skies is that – simply stated – American history as we have learned it and experienced it is a sham. It's nothing but a carefully-constructed confabulation. Assassinations, natural disasters, presidential elections, economic upheavals and foreign wars are all merely the cover story for something else, something far more sinister.

In particular, these turbulent events are the results of the American government’s pitched battle against a malevolent extra-terrestrial alien collective consciousness known as “The Hive.”

Battling the Hive is a dedicated, secret American military organization called SHADO.

No, just kidding.

The secret organization is “Majestic 12,” led by Captain Frank Bach (the late J.T. Walsh). Bach’s agency was formed after the Roswell encounter in 1947, and on Dark Skies it was operating well into the 1960s. Like Commander Straker before him, Bach wasn’t interested in pursuing half-measures or courtesies. His mission was to save America from evil aliens. Pure and simple. This mission made him both a patriot and a zealot.

But Bach isn’t even the central figure in the series. Rather, Dark Skies focuses on two idealistic young college graduates who have come to serve in the Kennedy Administration in Washington D.C. during the Age of Camelot: John Loengard (Eric Close) and Kim Sayers (Megan Ward).

These youngsters arrive in DC full of hope and can-do optimism, planning to make their mark on the planet...and the future. They learn in short order of secret conspiracies and corruption, both alien and human. Their discovery -- their unwitting ‘awakening’ from dreamy Camelot -- echoes a very real disillusionment and disappointment that grew up in youthful America after the Kennedy assassination and led to the Vietnam War Era. Dreams die hard.

Over the course of the series, John and Kim travel across these great United States attempting to stop the grand alien invasion plan, and occasionally curb Bach’s worst civil-liberty-crushing excesses. Various Dark Skies episodes involve the Kennedy Assassination, The Warren Commission and even the Watts riot.

On their travels, John and Kim encounter famous historical figures such as Howard Hughes (“Dreamland”), Gerald Ford (“The Warren Omission”), The Beatles (“Dark Day’s Night”) Timothy Leary (“Bloodlines”) and even alien abductees Barney and Betty Hill (“The Awakening.”)

Dark Skies producer James Parriott described the series with this phrase: “Our future’s happening in our past.” I enjoyed that idea very much, and felt that the period-piece aspect of the series successfully differentiated Dark Skies from The X-Files. Also, Dark Skies featured a continuing enemy: the alien hive. The X-Files (beautifully) alternated between aliens, genetic freaks, serial killers and other antagonists. So I don’t necessarily view Dark Skies as a direct copy except in the most superficial matters. For instance, John and Kim “investigate” cases together like Mulder and Scully, and there’s an overriding conspiracy. If you want to talk about a real series with gall, and one that's a by-the-numbers clone of X-Files, just check out this year's Fringe.

One other notable difference: Dark Skies never evidenced the sense of humor that The X-Files so intelligently cultivated. All in all, It was a rather…dour program.

Dark Skies also underwent an unnecessary cast shift about half-way through the run of twenty episodes. A pre-Seven-of-Nine Jeri Ryan joined the cast as Juliet Stuart -- a no-nonsense but very sexy Majestic agent -- starting in the episode "The Warren Omission." Abducted by the Hive, Kim Sayers' just....disappeared. The character was all-but-abandoned for the remainder of the program's run. She returned briefly as an alien agent, but the shift never quite felt right. The casting change simply smacked of desperation: the shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic. Especially since there was incipient sexual tension between Loengard and Juliet. That facet of their relationship felt highly inappropriate, given the tragedy that had occurred to Kim, the love of Loengard's life.

Still, there's much to appreciate in Dark Skies. The idea that the sixties were so turbulent because of the Hive is one that's fun to speculate about. And also, there's a good subtext here that these alien invaders are communists. "We have no color. We have no conflict," one alien tells Loengard in an episode set in Mississippi at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Also, the production values of Dark Skies are absolutely top-notch, and the series features the occasional harrowing horror scene (like the forced expulsion of an alien "ganglion" from a human being, during the pilot.)

Dark Skies was extremely popular in Europe in the nineties, and it developed a small but dedicated cult following here in the States. The final episode of the series, "Bloodlines" featured a voice over narration from an elderly Leongard informing viewers that the alien menace had finally been beaten. It was a stopgap measure to be certain, a stop-gap attempt to bring some closure to a series destined never to return. But still, you can't help but feel watching Dark Skies that there was a lot of life left in the premise, even with the wrong-headed cast changes. After all, we haven't run out of interesting American history yet, have we?

Hopefully, a Dark Skies series DVD is forthcoming soon...

Director's Notes: THB 3.1 "Devoured"

“Devoured,” the sixteenth episode of The House Between and the first installment of the third season, is dedicated to my friend and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne.

As you may remember, Johnny served as the script editor during Space: 1999’s (1975 – 1977) landmark first season, and he penned such influential tales as “Mission of the Darians,” “Force of Life,” “Voyager’s Return,” “Another Time, Another Place” and “The Testament of Arkadia.”

Johnny was also a writer for Doctor Who in the eighties. His time lord tales include “The Keeper of Traken,” “Warriors of the Deep” and “Arc of Infinity.”) Johnny’s career was more than just sci-fi writing, however. He created the medical series Heartbeat, for instance, and co-authored the famous 1960s rock bible, Groupie (1969).

Johnny and I met at the Breakaway Convention in 1999 and became fast friends, a warm relationship which lasted through his untimely death in 2008. Over the years, we met again in Manhattan in 2000, and shared many telephone talks about our mutual careers, family and my Space:1999 book.

We even collaborated on a script called “Grimoire” in 2001. Always the gentleman, Johnny politely endured my independent film, “Annie Hell” and miraculously found something good to say about it; noting how much he enjoyed the dialogue “flights of fancy.” It was on the strength of my dialogue in “Annie Hell” that he suggested we work together…which wasan incredible moment in my career.

In some ways, Johnny is also the spiritual grandfather of The House Between due to a crucial morsel of advice he once offered me. It was back in 2000 when we were discussing our admiration and enthusiasm for The Blair Witch Project.

Discussing that low-budget phenomenon, Johnny told me that the filmmakers had learned well the key secret to creating good films and television; they had turned weakness into strength.

With virtually no resources to draw from (not even professional grade cameras...), the filmmakers had crafted a terrifying film within their minuscule means. It accommodated shaky camera-work, and a lack of budget for on-screen monsters (the titular witch not seen…only imagined). They had successfully transformed their weaknesses into strengths.

When creating the very premise for the House Between (a handful of characters trapped in an empty house), Johnny’s advice was at the forefront of my mind. At seven hundred dollars an episode, I couldn’t afford props, costumes, famous actors, constructed sets or much by way of special effects. Instead – thankfully – what I turned to was mood; and peoplecharacterization and narrative. The bells and whistles on the show would all be…individual ones.

I talked with Johnny about The House Between journey just before he passed away, and he was fascinated, supportive and enthusiastic about the series; which I appreciated. We even talked about whether or not he could write an episode for the third season, or at the very least, write a story outline for an episode.

He passed mere weeks after that chat. And as I prepared the third season days later, I knew I needed to dedicate a show to him. It was…and is…important to me.

And that program is “Devoured.”

The dedication is appropriate because “Devoured” makes use of some of Johnny’s favorite writing devices from Space: 1999, specifically the opening voice over narration that frames epic events in personal terms. It’s a technique Johnny drafted into service with great success on “Testament of Arkadia,” and which the series also utilized (to dramatic impact) in Christopher Penfold’s amazing “Dragon’s Domain.”

“Devoured” also features one of Johnny’s beloved sci-fi subjects: the eternal debate between mysticism and science (a debate you can see played out on Space:1999 in Byrne’s “The Troubled Spirit,” for one).

A line of dialogue in “Devoured” purposely also evokes the phrase “force of life,” which is also the title of my favorite Johnny Byrne 1999 installment. That’s pretty explicit.

Whenever I write a House Between story, I look for ways not only how to turn “weakness into strength,” but how to incorporate and blend various elements of the genre’s history to synthesize something new and dramatic.

In this regard, viewers will likely find further resonances of Space:1999’s “Dragon’s Domain,” particularly in the gruesome fate of a pair of soldiers named Hinman and Pyle.

Also, there’s a magnificent, creepy episode of The Outer Limits entitled “The Guests” that proved very important to me in the formation of “Devoured’s” visualizations. One particular image from that episode -- that of a traveler being pulled up a staircase by malevolent alien hypnosis – stuck with me as nightmare fodder. It provided a veritable well-spring of creativity here. A similar image appears –- again -- in “Dragon’s Domain,” a group of astronauts “mesmerized” to their gruesome doom.

This may surprise you, but I was also inspired by the finale of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. (Even though the film isn’t well-liked…) In particular, I enjoyed the cheeky, Shatner-esque scenario of “what does God need with a spaceship?”

What I appreciated there was the notion of human beings confronting something alien and extremely powerful without fear, or a sense of “by your leave.” Even though the Old Testament God-alien punished Starfleet’s finest with laser bolts every time our heroes stepped out of line. It was like a knuckle-slapping from cosmic Sunday school nuns.

So I got to thinking. What if our THB heroes had to face a monster of great power, but also had to take the hits…in order to beat it at its own game? What if the strategy became not avoidance of getting shot…but rather intentionally getting shot? That conceit informs a battle in “Devoured.”

In terms of concrete storyline, “Devoured” had another mission. I couldn’t just dramatize a fresh story here, I had to satisfactorily wrap up all the dangling plot-lines left by the cliffhanging, go-for-broke second season finale, “Ruined.”

At the same time, I also had to introduce a new location and make certain that it would prove interesting; and lead our characters into new, valuable terrain. Not an easy task, I must say.

And did I mention that at least two of the characters get major re-thinks and appearance upgrades in "Devoured" too? Just as Bill and Theresa got re-thinks and appearance upgrades in "Returned" last year?

Anyway, for a good long while, I was certain I’d written myself into a corner with “Ruined." That there was no rational, believable way out of that doomsday scenario.

And that’s when another inspiration hit. I realized I was thinking exactly like Bill Clark (our resident scientist); that the very thing holding me back was my own inability to “believe” in the only possible solution to the narrative.

Considering that, I therefore made Bill’s inability to believe in Theresa’s philosophy one of the central motifs of “Devoured.” I could then contrast Bill’s lack of belief -- lack of faith -- with Arlo’s unfettered sense of imagination…and, specifically what he did (and what he created) with that sense of imagination.

These ideas take root through the reminder of the season, and help lead the characters to their ultimate destinations.

“Devoured” features some big revelations. About Travis, mostly. What information he shares with us in “Devoured” offers a path to re-interpreting the entire series, and I always love those moments on The House Between. One piece of new information puts every event in a new context.

“Devoured” also sets up some important season three plot points (look out for some brief mentions of a technology called “the Loop” and beings called “Discarnates,” plus Arlo’s off-hand observation that some things in the Dark Place seeming….familiar.)

So that's the story as a writer. As a director? What do I remember of shooting “Devoured?”

Well, my DP, Rick Coulter (a cherished friend), and I got into a mini-brawl shooting a scene one night. We were vehemently arguing over whether or not one of my proposed shots “crossed” the (invisible) shooting line.

I insisted it didn’t.

He insisted it did.

So we argued.

For a good long while….as cast and crew watched anxiously on the sidelines. Actually, this happened at the end of a long day, and as soon as the scene was over, I called it a day. Rick and I made up (but didn’t kiss…) the next morning, and everything was fine. We worked happily together throughout the rest of the shoot and are still planning future projects in collaboration. He's still a communist bastard though. Kidding...

Otherwise…we didn’t make our day! I’m not a hundred-percent certain about this, but I suspect that this is the first time in THB history we didn’t finish an episode in the time slotted. In fact, we weren’t even close to finishing.

This meant that every night hence…after shooting other episodes during the daytime….Kim, Alicia, Jim and Craig had to hang around, change costumes, and try like hell to finish “Devoured.”

This meant that those four performers were up past 2:00 am every ensuing night of the shoot. It was painful, to say the least. And made more so by the fact that on Friday night – the last opportunity to get the show in the can -- all of Downtown Monroe came alive. A number of very loud drunks kept interrupting our shoot. I wanted to scream. I probably did scream.

I recall that this year I never got more than four hours of sleep a night during shooting. The night we finished “Devoured” was the worst, though. We finished “Devoured” at 3:00 am and then I had to rewrite a script for the next morning. I finally went to bed sometime after 4:00 am, and was up again at 6:00 am, printing out that script.

“Devoured” really starting coming together, however, once I began assembling footage. The addition of Mateo Latosa’s beautiful score was a real boost too. On the editing front, producer Joe Maddrey had me remove a whopping NINE minutes from the beginning of “Devoured," a cut I was reluctant to make until Kathryn explicitly reinforced the advice.

On the latter front, Mateo composed some lovely work here, including an elegiac piece that opens “Devoured” and which captures the post-"Ruined" mood beautifully. There’s also a great, scary bit of music that follows Arlo as he explores ‘The Dark Place.”

So there you have it…the story of The House Between’s sixteenth episode, “Devoured.”

“Devoured” is available for download and streaming beginning tomorrow morning. So let me know what you think...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Do you know how Florentine women ensure their husbands come home? Every morning they slip him a slow poison, and every evening the antidote. That way, when the husband spends the night away, he has a very bad night."

-Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

Theme Song of the Week # 44: Dark Skies (1996)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The House Between Episodes 13 - 15

Episode # 13: "Distressed"
Ghosts migrate to the house at the end of the universe, and provide the key to a series of historical mysteries. The ghosts grow increasingly dangerous, possessing the living and injuring the denizens. Now it's up to Astrid (Kim Breeding), Theresa (Alicia A. Wood), Arlo (Jim Blanton) and Sgt. Brick (Craig Eckrich) to solve the mystery. What they find has repercussions for Travis (Lee Hansen).

Episode # 14: "Caged"
Vitality - the household lar - unexpectedly faces an attack from outside, one that forces her to join with one of the human denizens at the house at the end of the universe. During one long and portentous night, Lar examines the hearts and mind of each denizen, selecting her prospective partner.

Episode # 15: "Ruined"
The final episode of The House Between's second season finds the denizens at the end of the universe fighting for their lives against the Dark Matter Entity. Astrid holds the key to salvation...or destruction.

The House Between Episodes 10 - 12

Episode 10: "Reunited"
In "Reunited," a pair of mysterious visitors (John Muir, Craig Eckrich) arrive in the house at the end of the universe with a a military strategy that jeopardizes the other denizens (Kim Breeding, Jim Blanton, Lee Hansen, Tony Mercer, Alicia A. Wood.)

Episode 11: "Estranged"
Dr. Sam Clark's (John K. Muir) misbegotten plan to capture an Outdweller has left the denizens separated, terrified and under siege. Astrid (Kim Breeding) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) are trapped upstairs. Travis (Lee Hansen) and Arlo (Jim Blanton) are locked in the sun-room with advancing Outdwellers. And Bill (Tony Mercer), Brick (Craig Eckrich) and Sam face the prospect of combat in the foyer. While tempers rage, Astrid and Theresa attempt to solve the riddle of the group's collective amnesia.

Episode 12: "Populated"
The temperature rises when Bill (Tony Mercer) finds Travis (Lee Hansen) reading his diary. Before long, tempers flare and something strange occurs: a gaggle of new, strangely inhuman denizens arrive in the house. As the temperature rises to 118 degrees in the house and Astrid (Kim Breeding) and Theresa (Alicia A Wood) struggle to determine the cause, one of the strangers has a message for Arlo (Jim Blanton).

Monday, January 26, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Timeline of the Planet of the Apes: The Definitive Unauthorized Chronology

Before Blu-Ray or HD, before DVD, before VHS, before - even - fandom as mainstream and acknowledged pop-culture phenomenon, the five-film cycle of Planet of the Apes film accomplished something utterly remarkable.

Today, following The Matrix (1999) and its sequels, not to mention Star Wars (1977) and its prequels/sequels, we might be tempted diminish that accomplishment or take it for granted.

But we shouldn't.

The Apes films - commencing in the late 1960s - forged a five movement saga, an interrelated epic sequence of films that, if watched "as a piece," formed a whole universe; a tale that loops around itself, connects, and turns beginning into end; end into new beginning.

The substance of this saga, of this unique "loop." stems from a concept called -- in the terminology of the films themselves -- a "Hasslein Curve," a fictional (so far...) theory about a spacecraft approaching light speed and the ensuing time dilation.

This theory permits a space craft (or crafts...) from the year 1972 to voyage to Earth in the year 3979 AD (or 3955). Said curve also permits the same ship -- this time populated by talking apes -- to make the reverse trip.

In Planet of the Apes then, a trip to the future...creates the past. And a trip to the past...makes the future. And in between those book-end space/time journeys is a pitched battle for dominion on Earth. A war for supremacy between man, simian and mutant.

Directed by Franklin Schaffner, Planet of the Apes (1968) as a standalone is my candidate for best science fiction film of all time (followed closely by 2001: A Space Odyssey). But taken together with its four sequels, Apes represents something perhaps even a greater: a complete "alternate" history/perspective of man's future. Some of the sequels are authentically great (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), some are good enough to pass muster (Escape from the Planet of the Apes), some are flawed but remain intriguing (Beneath and Battle...). Yet each installment is necessary viewing in any attempt to understand the larger cycle. Each entry is more than the sum of its parts.

So here comes intrepid author Rich Handley, a skillful writer who first discovered the Apes movies as I did in my youth: on the 4:30 pm Movie, Channel 7, out of NYC in the mid 1970s. You can tell from a reading of Handley's foreword and introduction that the detailed alternate future history presented by the Apes franchise has consumed him since he first starting watching the movies.

I get it.

The gaps. The inconsistencies. The brilliant connections. The subtle reflections. The unique repetitions. Handley has worked out this obsession (an obsession, I share...) in his exhaustive new book, Timeline of the Planet of the Apes: a meticulous chronology of all the events featured in the Apes franchise.

And Handley hasn't limited himself to the films, either. On the contrary, the author has incorporated a wide array of filmic and literary sources and compiled all of them into one, amazing, gigantor timeline. You'll find here references to the movies, the live action series, the cartoon series, and comic stories both published and unpublished.

Even the derided Tim Burton re-imagination of 2001 is included. And Handley accounts for everything, down to the minutest detail, including the invention of the Internet and the ascent of bloggers in the early 1990s of the Apes universe. He doesn't miss a fact, a nuance, a connection, or even an inconsistency. When an inconsistency does arise (and there are plenty in the Apes universe), Handley does a good job of reconciling facts as he can, and explaining why he has selected the answer he has.

Now, some fans may quibble with just how (remarkably...) inclusive Handley's timeline is. The Burton film's events stick out like a sore thumb, because Mark Wahlberg's astronaut, Leo, would have had to grow up after a nuclear war and also following the ape rebellion, and that doesn't smell very plausible to me (which Handley himself, points out.)

But the principle of inclusion also means we get the benefit of Marvel's brilliant comic series, "Terror on the Planet of the Apes," so there's little cause for complaint. I grew up on those beloved Marvel comics, and the adventures of Jason, Alexander and Brutus (and the Gorilloids...) are as "real" to me as anything in the films or various TV series.

Lavishly illustrated with literally hundreds of instances of poster art, promotional materials and comic-book covers (not to mention DVD and VHS box art), Timeline of the Apes is 300-pages long (small-type) and packed from cover-to-cover with fascinating data -- concrete and insightfully extrapolated -- on the World of the Apes. The chronology itself is divided into twelve sub-headings. First is Pre-History of the Apes (Before 1972), which starts at One Billion BC (!) and then takes the reader from the origin of Genesis (1445 BC) to Darwin's writings (Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man in 1859 and 1871, respectively).

Part 2: "Genesis of the Lawgiver" (1972 - 1973) focuses on the launch of Taylor's (Charlton Heston) mission aboard ANSA spaceship Liberty 1, the time-dilation theories of scientist Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), and the return in November 1972 of Taylor's spaceship -- back from the future -- with three intelligent apes in the cockpit (Zira, Cornelius and Dr. Milo). Given everything that occurs in this span, the year from 1972-1973 (in this universe anyway...) may prove the most important -- and catastrophic -- in the long life of Planet Earth. The destinies of two races (man and ape) are decided right here.

Part 3: "Under Ape Management" (1974 - 1990) reveals a deadly plague's ascent in February of 1983, one that devastates Earth by killing all cats and dogs. A Pet Memorial is built, and soon mankind -- missing his furry friends -- begins to take apes as household pets. Before long, the apes become servants. Then, finally, slaves. In this chapter, Handley points out the interesting theory that the deadly plague was brought back by Zira and Cornelius a decade earlier...

Part 4: "The Beast, Man (1991-1992) details the Ape Revolution and the rise of Caesar, ape revolutionary.

On and on this continues, down the years, right up through Part 10: "The Beginning of the End" (3087 to 3977), which culminates with Taylor's detonation of the Alpha-Omega Bomb in ruined NYC, and the ensuing destruction of the Earth. Then, finally, there's Part 11: "Stranger on a Strange World" (After 3979), which is the chapter where most of the Burton-oriented material lands. What I found fascinating here was that some Apes authors (in comics and books) found a way to meaningfully (and relatively believably...) incorporate Thade and his universe into the canon universe of the earlier Apes productions. It never happened, but it could have happened. And somehow, that makes me appreciate Burton's film just a little bit more. Not much, but a bit. One of the things I so adamantly disliked about the Wahlberg movie was that it basically discarded the entire, interconnected universe of the original films for a standalone, relatively shallow separate universe. There was so much hubris in that decision to "reboot" a universe that was so beloved by so many.

Nothing is glossed over here. No fact is forgotten. Instead, through his exemplary attention to detail, Handley exposes the intriguing cleverness of the Apes narrative, as well as the subtleties of some inter-movie connections that you may have missed, or failed to examine closely.

Consider, for example, that the Planet of the Apes films begin with a chronometer registering the date of March 23, 2673 A.D. That chronometer is aboard Liberty 1, Taylor's spaceship. On that day, Taylor records a log entry about mankind. He wonders if man still makes war, still kills his brother for his brother's land. He wonders if man will ever change. He wonders if there's something better than man "out there."

Meanwhile, Battle for the Planet of the Apes -- the last film in the cycle -- ends on Earth in the year 2670 AD. This is approximately the same time Taylor is recording his thoughts. On Earth, ape and man are building the very future, Taylor is bound to discover, though here they have forged a tender, momentary peace. So Taylor is asking a question at the beginning of the film cycle as...ape and man live the answer at the end of the film cycle. So the Apes movies begin and end at almost exactly the same time period (2670 - 2673). Even though that beginning and end actually come five movies apart.

Timeline of the Planet of the Apes is an involving read. It's a labor of love and ultimately as involving and thought-provoking as the movies themselves. It's a perfect companion if you seek "the bigger picture" and the sweeping context of history in this bizarre, oft-revisited alternate world.

You can order the impressive Timeline of the Planet of the Apes here, from the cheekily-named Hasslein Books. I encourage all fans to -- by all means -- Go ape!

The House Between Episodes 7 - 9

Links for the next three The House Between episodes, in sequence, for those sampling:

Episode 7: "Departed?"
Theresa, Arlo, ... Astrid, Bill and Travis believe they have finally found an escape from the house at the end of the universe.

Episode 8: "Returned"
In ... "Returned" (nominated for "Best Web Production" in the Sy Fy Genre Awards), the former denizens at the mysterious house at the end of the universe - Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill T. Clark (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) - are returned to their imprisonment in the strange house, but with startling gaps in their memories. Where did they go when they left the house? How did they return?

Episode 9: "Separated"
Arlo (Jim Blanton) has ... disappeared and re-emerged in a version of the house at the end of the universe that is a dark reflection of the world he knows. Meanwhile, his friends - Astrid (Kim Breeding), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Alicia A Wood) - struggle to get Arlo back before time runs out, but Travis and Bill grow ever more argumentative.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mirrors (2008)

SYNOPSIS: Ben Carson (Sutherland) is a suspended NYPD detective suffering from post-traumatic stress after killing a man on the job.  Carson is estranged from his wife, Amy (Patton) and their  children, and attempting to beat his alcoholism. While living with his sister, Angie (Smart), Carson takes a job at a burned-down old department store in Manhattan, The Mayflower, and patrols the premises as the new nightwatchman. The last nightwatchman, Gary Lewis, was murdered in a subway. Very quickly, Carson begins to see horrible, traumatic visions reflected in the Mayflowers' over sized and ubiquitous mirrors. These reflections are not simply horrifying, they are actually murderous, and come to haunt Carson over a period of nights. Of course, his disbelieving friends and family think he's officially a nutcase. When the demonic mirrors threaten Carson's family, he sets off on an investigative quest to locate a mysterious woman named "Anna Esseker," believing that she may hold the key to resolving the crisis.

COMMENTARY: Mirror, mirror on the wall, what's the most disappointing Asian horror remake of all? It's Alexandre Aja's Mirrors, a lugubrious and turgid re-crafting of the 2003 Korean genre effort, Into The Mirror.  Basically, if you've seen The Ring (2002), you've seen Mirrors. In both cases, an imperiled protagonist faces a supernatural threat that endangers children. In both cases, the evil originates with an apparently-evil little girl in a mental hospital (Samara in The Ring; Anna Esseker here); and in both cases, the evil spreads like a contagion, either via videotape or, as here, in the looking glass. Both films involve an investigation into a dark and troubled personal history, one that leads to revelations from the Evil One's family members and old, forgotten medical records.

But the derivative and wholly-predictable narrative represents the least of Mirrors' problems. As is the case in such inferior films as The Eye, the real deal-breaker is a total lack of internal consistency. In horror films of the rubber reality venue,  in which consensus reality is shaken and stretched, internal consistency is absolutely vital. To provide two brief examples: Freddy Krueger must obey the laws of the "dream world" in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The dream world is key to his power and his defeat. And Pinhead in Hellraiser is tied to the Lament Configuration puzzle box. He doesn't just show up when he wants to. Hands don't call him; desire does. In these and other rubber reality films, the filmmaker establishes the overarching rules of the battlefield, and sticks to them (with surprises included), so that audiences can understand the threat, and more importantly, accept the resolutionCreate instead a rubber reality world with no rules, with no internal consistency, and it's all just phantasmagoria. There can be no adequate resolution because the parameters of Evil's power have not been established, let alone sufficiently explained.

Take for instance, the monster in Mirrors. It adopts the form of reflections as people wander by the reflecting skin of the mirror. Once it captures your "image," it can kill you, by killing your image, your reflection. This dynamic is played out in the gory prologue. Gary Lewis spies his reflection in a mirror. Then, the reflection version of himself slits his throat. But the wounds show up on Gary, as well as on the reflection, and the real man bleeds to death.  So that's the rule: you see your image die; you die. But then, Mirrors changes its mind. In one scene, Ben sees his reflection in a mirror as it draws a gun and shoots him at point blank range! But it's just an illusion. Ben doesn't get shot. So a mirror glass shard the thing that killed Gary is real, but the mirror bullet fired by the mirror Kiefer is not? This kind of thing happens again and again in the film. Early on, Sutherland relives a horrible conflagration and sees his reflection catch fire. But he's actually fine. Just his reflection burned up. Again, different rules at different times.

Another example is the utterly ridiculous scene involving Angela's murder. The camera depicts actress Amy Smart standing in front of her bathroom mirror. She leaves the sink, but her diabolical reflection creepily remains in the mirror, watching her take a bath. Then, the mirror version of Angela rips off her own jaw, and so the real Angela's jaw falls off too!  In this example, Angela wasn't even looking in the mirror when this horror happened! So, you look in the mirror just once and it gets you? You don't need to be in the proximity, or watching? Or even have your eyes open? If that's the case, then why do Kiefer and his family spend so much time in the film painting over all the mirror surfaces in Amy's house? I mean, the mirrors have already seen Amy and the kids by this time, right? What's the point?

This discussion leads, alas, to a fairly significant instance of the movie's general incoherence.  Consider: a long time ago, little Anna Esseker was possessed by a flesh-and-blood demon. The monster was finally "exorcised" into mirrors. Now, over fifty years later, the demon in the mirror is haunting men like Ben Carson and Gary Lewis because it wants them to locate Anna Esseker and, for lack of a better word, re-possess her. So, the film introduces s a demon who is virtually invincible. He lives not merely ensconced in the mirrors of a department store, but can travel to any mirror, anywhere in the world, apparently, including those in subways and family homes. In these mirrors, the demon can make people kill themselves even if he catches sight of them just once (like Angela), and his victims don't even have to be looking at a mirror to be under the demon's evil sway (again Angela). Furthermore, the demon can't be destroyed, because the mirrors all magically heal after being shot at, cracked, or thumped with furniture. And heck, it isn't just mirrors where the demon can live. It also thrives in pools of water, which also reflect images. But this all-powerful demon desires to trade this existence -- this invincibility -- for the frail physical, flesh-and-blood body of an elderly nun (Anna Esseker), so that Kiefer Sutherland can beat that body, burn that body, shoot that body, and perforate it with a boiler room pipe?

The movie bears out this complaint in believability. The demon finally gets back into Anna's body and about two minutes later gets killed. Be careful what you wish for, demons! See how the movie's logic does not survive even the slightest bit of scrutiny?

Even the small details seem off. For instance, how does the dead night watchmen, Gary Lewis, send Ben Carson a package, via UPS half-way through the movie? No only has Gary Lewis never met Ben (and even if he knew his name, how would Gary know Ben's address?) But again, Gary died in the movie's first scene, before Ben took the night watchman job! I didn't know UPS was now making deliveries straight from Hell.

Character motivation is way, way off in Mirrors too. The nun, Esseker, is totally resistant to helping Ben resolve the crisis. Not once but twice she refuses to help him. even after looking at a photo of Carson's cute kids. The only way she'll go back to the Mayflower (or Matthews Hospital...) is at gunpoint, actually. Then, just one scene later, she's miraculously leading the charge. She gets to the Mayflower and is totally on-board, ready to sacrifice her life, barking orders at Ben about what, precisely, to do to summon the demon. 
There's a scene missing here: the one in which Esseker "embraces" the mission and isn't just Ben's hostage. Without that scene, her sudden and inexplicable change of heart is just another WTF moment in a film full of them. Why not offer the audience the bread crumb of one token scene in which Esseker ponders her vows, their meaning, and then has a change of heart?

Also, ask yourself this question: why doesn't Ben ever lead any of the doubting thomases in his life (friends and family) to the Mayflower and simply shoot the mirrors there in front of witnesses? Nobody believes him that the mirrors self-repair, and so he attempts to prove it by shooting another mirror at Amy's house. Which, of course, doesn't self-repair and therefore makes him look more like a raving lunatic. Well, why not call the demon's bluff, and go back to the Mayflower with an entourage of witnesses and shoot those mirrors? Either result in that case would have been a positive one for Ben. Think about this logically for a second. Either: a.) the demonic mirror wouldn't have called his bluff, and would have therefore been destroyed by the gunshots, or b.) the mirror would have indeed self-repaired, and Ben would have had the hard evidence of his story in the form of eyewitness accounts.

Mirrors is doubly disappointing, I suppose, given the level of talent involved. Kiefer Sutherland boasts a long, distinguished connection with the genre. From The Lost Boys (1987) to Flatliners (1990) to Dark City (1998), the actor has done particularly well with horror and dark imaginings. But seven years of 24 has apparently rubbed off on him. In his first post-Jack Bauer horror film Sutherland plays Jack Bauer. There's a really off-moment here in which Ben threatens the nun at gunpoint, and, well, all you see is Jack on his latest mission. All that's missing here is Chloe.

And Aja? This is his most undistinguished and disappointing work. There is nothing to mark this film belonging to Aja. Nothing to delineate it as special, different, inventive, original or even particularly frightening. Mirrors is pretty much on a par with low-rent material such as One Missed Call or The Eye. It's  especially saddening that a premise so rife with potential is rendered so mind-numbingly stupid by a filmmaker as clearly talented as Aja remains. The idea of reflections, of "doubles," and of opposites, is one that could be quite powerful. Not to mention quite revealing in terms of human psychology. Lip service is paid to the concept here, but that's it. Offhand, this author can think of two films that do much better with the concept of mirrors as "portals of evil." The first is John Carpenter's underrated but utterly brilliant Prince of Darkness (1987). It gets the concepts right, using the mirror as the universe of the Anti-God. And the other film is a terrible movie, Poltergeist III (1988). But here's the thing: as bad and as stupid as Poltergeist III surely is, the director there meticulously crafted all of his mirror scenes with doubles, with two-sided sets (the "mirror" in the middle bisecting it), and so there was a physicality and reality to the threat. Actors playing horrific reflections had to carefully mimic performances. In Mirrors, Aja takes the easy route and relies almost entirely on CGI. Bad CGI is everywhere. An early shot of the gothic Mayflower department store digitally inserted into modern Manhattan is unbelievably fake. Look, if you can't even manage a believable establishing shot of your primary location, how are you going to suspend disbelief for almost two hours? Short answer...Aja doesn't.  I hope the director didn't end up with seven years of bad luck after making this movie.

The House Between, Episodes 1 - 6

For those readers generously giving my independent web series The House Between a try leading up to the third season premiere this Friday (the 30th), here are the links/synopses to episodes 1 thru 6 of the saga.

Episode 1: "Arrived"
This is the first installment of the sci-fi serial, in which singer-songwriter Astrid (Kim Breeding) awakens to find herself in a strange, empty old house. Among those she encounters are a strange squatter in the kitchen, Arlo (Jim Blanton), the "one step at a time" scientist, Bill T. Clark (Tony Mercer) and the difficult, secretive lawyer, Travis (Lee Hansen).
The enigmatic new arrival in the strange "house ... at the end of the universe," named Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) spins a fantastic tale about her background that the other denizens have difficulty believing. While Theresa ruffles feathers with her unusual manner, Bill (Tony Mercer) discovers a diary that seems to have a connection to the family he's been separated from, a fact which vexes him. Meanwhile, Astrid also confronts a "ghost" from her past in the form of a haunting melody; one that brings up tragic memories
Tempers boil over when the manipulative Travis (Lee Hansen) seizes the kitchen, thereby sending unstable, obsessive Arlo (into a tailspin). Travis's hostility sparks a revelation from Arlo; and Theresa and Astrid attempt to mediate a solution with Travis.

Episode 4: "Visited"
In "Visited," Arlo's act of violence in the strange house summons malevolent creatures outside in the blackness, the mysterious "Outdwellers."

Episode 5: "Mirrored"
A new danger emerges when provisions dwindle...and a shortage of food is imminent in the hermetically-sealed house. In an effort to communicate with their invisible warden or caretaker, psychic Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) suggests a seance. Unfortunately, the seance has drastic repercussions, landing a mysterious mirror in the house; one that has profound impact on Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill Clark (Tony Mercer) and even Theresa herself.

Episode 6: "Trashed"
A sinister telepath named Sange (Florent Christol) from Theresa's (Alicia A. Wood) past arrives via faulty transit on a secret mission to kill one of the denizens of the "house at the end of the universe." Meanwhile, Travis (Lee Hansen) takes matters into his own hands when Arlo (Jim Blanton) won't clean up the increasingly chaotic house, specifically his collection of tin cans. Finally, Sange's influence spurs a revelation that changes everything for Astrid (Kim Breeding), Bill (Tony Mercer) and the other captives.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Re-Introducing THB

So, what is THB?

Well, since I first created The House Between, my independent web sci-fi/horror/drama in 2006, this blog has grown in size, scope and readership by a nearly astronomical amount. (Sometimes, even I can't believe it...) Considering this rapid growth, I've been feeling that many of the newer readers here may not be familiar with The House Between, how it was created or even what it's about. The third season of the series starts web casting next week, so I thought this would be an opportune time to re-introduce the series to everyone who wonders what the hell I'm writing about when I discuss The House Between.

Basically, in 2006, I was looking at the potential of independent web video, and wondering what I could do to put my own individual stamp on the new, growing format. What I appreciate about web video is that you can watch it any time, distribution is free, and there is no censorship regarding creative content assuming no X-rated material.

Now, I don't have deep pockets. I live on a writer's salary and royalties from my 20-plus books. That's it. And I don't have a surfeit of time, either. I blog, and I usually write two or three books a year, to feed the Muir Machine. So the series would have to be done cheaply and quickly.

So The House Between is a series predicated on these (admittedly insane...) production principles:

1. We would shoot seven half-hour episodes (a "season") in seven days. That means one episode of 30 pages (or more) a day. This means 16 - 20 hour days.

2. The cost of each episode (including feeding all sixteen people in the cast and crew) would not exceed $700.00 a piece. Like I said, no deep pockets here. I don't live in Hollywood. Far from it.

3. We would create human characters, and craft an interconnected, consistent mythos; one in which there would be mysteries...and answers. And you wouldn't have to wait six years for those answers. One my cast members called this creed "Fuck Lost."

4. I would write the majority of the episodes, direct the majority of episodes, create all the special effects myself, and edit the entire series myself. Why? Well let's put it this way: I have spent my life studying, interpreting and critiquing film and television. I felt I would emerge from The House Between experience a more effective film scholar -- on all fronts -- if I had some basic experience in those vocations (film editing, sound mixing, directing, writing, visual effects, even acting). So it was growth experience for me as a writer and film critic.

That was the plan, which I describe now as context, not apology. Today, we've created twenty episodes of The House Between, comprising three seasons or "movements." In my opinion, some episodes have been great; some not so much. The earliest episodes reveal diffident camera moves (on my part), and frankly, the sound is terrible at first. Both of those aspects improve as the series continues.. You can see "growth" happening before your eyes...if you're patient.

So basically, as a lead-up to the third season premiere (this Friday, the 30th), I will be re-running the entire series on the blog this week. Just links. Three episodes a day. That doesn't mean I won't be blogging other things at the same time. I'm nothing if not ambitious.

I fully realize some readers may have no interest in my independent, low-budget effort. But I wanted to put it in front of your eyes again, in case you might like it, and would appreciate a chance to "catch up" before the story resumes.

I can promise you this simple thing: if you watch the first three episodes with a patient and perhaps merciful eye (and an understanding of how quickly, how cheaply, and how far from Hollywood these things were produced...), you will find yourself...hooked. The performances are full of heart, and the story - if I may say so - is involving. You'll want to see what happens next. So if you have the time, the will, and perhaps a finely-developed sense of, well, forgiveness, you might see something here you like. Something rough. But something ultimately worthwhile...and addictive.

You don't have to take my word for it, though. Here's what some critics and viewers have written about The House Between:

"In the tradition of the original Twilight Zone and early Doctor Who...a series that succeeds on the strength of the writing and the characters." (Destinies, The Voice of Science Fiction)

"...One such diamond in the rough is "The House Between," a web series that has a small budget, but a big heart...If you are looking for a well-written science fiction series that has mystery, humor and a touch of horror then you have to check out "The House Between." Warning: The budget is low, but your love of the series will be high." (
Sy Fy Portal)

"The House Between is a supernatural/science-fiction mystery serial produced for online viewing. It’s an amateur production that has been so successful that I believe it’s been nominated for a genre award or two in the past, and is now in its third season. I only recently discovered the show and have noticed the rapid improvement of acting and production quality as the series progresses. It’s a low-budget labour of love, but a well written thriller about five strangers who wake up inside an inescapable house “at the end of the universe”. Outside, it’s pitch black – a “null” universe with no stars… yet something violent is trying to get in." (
NeuRODic Notions, 2008)

"Five strangers are brought to the "house at the end of the universe" in The House Between, an internet original science-fiction series. Created by pop-culture scholar John Kenneth Muir, the House Between is to Big Brother what Lost is to Survivor...Arrived is the first episode, and you can tell Muir is a pop culture kind of guy who has seen oodles of television: it's a by the book pilot, but in a good way." (
Bookworm and Beyond, 2007)

On the eve of the third season, all I can say is that The House Between has been a hell of a ride. From the legendary initial discussion thread on Sy Fy Portal (which is the second-largest thread in site's impressive 10 year history, I believe), to the Genre Award nomination for "Best Web Production" (we lost to the big budget Star Trek: Of Gods and Men starring original series cast members by less than 100 votes...), it's been nothing short of magical.

So below, you will find the links for the first three episodes. You'll have to install the Veoh player...and I know that's asking a lot. But the house at the end of the universe awaits the curious.

So, here are the opening episodes of The House Between:

1. "Arrived"

2. "Settled"

3. "Positioned"

Tomorrow, links to episodes 4 through 6.

Friday, January 23, 2009

QI Interviews Astrid!

Kim Breeding, who plays Astrid on The House Between, has just been interviewed about the series and the upcoming third season for the fan page, Quantum Imprimaturs.

Here's a snippet:

I have read about how JKM forces so much secrecy about the storyline and will even resort to tricking the actors on the show to do certain things. How do you feel working in such an environment?

It can be frustrating, at times, but ultimately it fostered an environment of trust between us because as he would slowly reveal things to me, in their time, I understood his reasons for keeping them hidden. There's a scene where he slaps me in the face that was never rehearsed. He trusted me to keep going and not ruin the take, and I trusted him enough to not slap him right back, and instead keep going and not ruin the take.



Or is it?

Is this ancient Sparta we see depicted on our TV and movie screens...or is this -- circa 2001 - 2008, the turbulent, violent span of the Bush years and the Global War on Terror?

And if this is actually a story about us, who -- precisely -- are we in the play? The Spartans? The Persians? The Athenians?

These questions, I believe, are the primary ones raised by this gripping, violent, visually arresting and -- by my reckoning -- brilliant cinematic adaptation of the Frank Miller limited series (originally created in 1998).

Directed by Zack Snyder, 300 is undeniably cutting edge -- a technological special effects wonder consisting of more than 1500 special effects shots. - Yet it's also something else entirely; a determined, gritty and heartfelt meditation on the value of freedom.

300 dramatically countenances several important, life-or-death issues that we, as citizens of this era, recognize and have pondered deeply of late, Issues such as supporting the troops; the invasion and occupation of a sovereign land; the corruption of politicians, the propaganda value of organized religion, and more.

What I find endlessly provocative about this war picture, however, is the multi-faceted level of discourse it offers. Like the greatest examples of art, 300 -- on the surface easily dismissed as yet another computer-enhanced action movie -- can be interpreted in a number of ways. Nay, it has been interpreted in a number of ways.

So first, let me spell out some of the varying and even opposing fashions in which 300 has been read and interpreted by film critics, viewers and historians.

We are all Spartans

Yes, yes, 300 is indeed jingoistic, xenophobic and nationalistic. I don't deny that. Some scholars thus view the Spartans as a surrogate for contemporary America, and therefore they "read" the film as an explicit validation, apology and defense of all the actions taken by Bush after 9/11.

Let's consider this point of view.

After the horror of 9/11 we in America all (righteously) thirsted for justice...for retribution. So much so that we attacked Iraq...a country that wasn't at all responsible for 9/11. We were spurred to this aggressive military action by calls for "patriotism" from the media and the Bush Administration.

That's nationalism.

And jingoism? Well, we fought not only a just war in Afghanistan, but also (sadly) an unjust one in Iraq with overwhelming military "shock and awe." Our leader even landed on a military aircraft carrier in a military plane and spoke to the nation in martial tropes. Mission accomplished.

Well, two points. First: do you remember General William Boykin, undersecretary of Defense under Bush, who compared his Christian God to the "evil" Muslim God. He said in 2003 "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian" ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan." He also said "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.

Secondly, what about the widespread viral e-mail (and fear) of many uninformed Americans during election 08 that Obama was a secret Muslim raised and educated in a radical madrassa? That with a "foreign"-sounding name like Barack Hussein Obama (rhymes with Osama!!!) he must be an evil terrorist bent on our destruction? We often feared (perhaps still do fear...) that which might seem different, new, or ethnic.

Now compare these widely-held views to those held in the film by the Spartans. How do the Spartans of 300 gaze at those who share their world? Well, the Spartans are extreme xenophobes. The Ephors are "in-bred swine." The Athenians are "boy-lovers." Those who are sadly deformed (like the traitorous hunch back, Ephialtes ) are as ugly and untrustworthy inside as their physical form is repugnant outside. The Persians are seen as "barbarians" who are worshipful of a false God (Xerxes).

Spartans regard themselves as a breed apart, chosen by the gods and therefore special. "Only Spartan women give birth to real men," declares Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). Nationalism is raised above all other values: "service to Sparta." Dying for Sparta is the highest ideal.

As for jingoism, the Spartans resolve differences with violent confrontation. They have been "baptized in the fire of combat," are "constantly tested" and taught "never to retreat." The latter phrase might be re-parsed in American terms as the platitude, "stay the course." Violence in Sparta is rampant. Leonidas murders a diplomatic emissary from Persia in cold blood when he doesn't like his message. Queen Gorgo dispatches a political enemy, Theron (Dominic West) with a sword when he impugns her integrity. And remember, in America, we killed the sons of Saddam Hussein and then broadcast their bruised, bloodied corpses on CNN, parading the fact before the world.

It's rather impolitic on the politic left to approve of Zack Snyder's 300 (2007) these days, given Sparta's jingoistic qualities in the film, and the resonances of it that some detect so clearly in Bush's America. And actually, there's even more to disapprove of if you dig deeper. One can easily criticize the film in terms of historical accuracy, for instance.

Writing for the Toronto Star, historian Ephraim Lytle barked:
"300's Persians are ahistorical monsters and freaks. Xerxes is eight feet tall, clad chiefly in body piercings and garishly made up, but not disfigured. No need – it is strongly implied Xerxes is homosexual which, in the moral universe of 300, qualifies him for special freakhood. This is ironic given that pederasty was an obligatory part of a Spartan's education. This was a frequent target of Athenian comedy, wherein the verb "to Spartanize" meant "to bugger." In 300, Greek pederasty is, naturally, Athenian."


Critic Roger Moore (no, not the fellow who played James Bond...), wrote in the Orlando Sentinel that 300 is a "work with an obviously fascist aesthetic, it falls under the broad umbrella Susan Sontag used to encompass "fascist art," in that it reaches for a superficial human ideal (uncomplicated, orders-following, buffed, beautiful, nearly-nude fighting men) and celebrates death (theirs)."

Reviewer Dana Stevens, writing in Slade, noted that if "300, the new battle epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war."

We are all Persians
When I gaze at 300 -- at the text of the film itself -- I see deeper shades of gray than some of the remarks above indicate.

300 grapples with so many issues of today, but it isn't precisely a one-to-one metaphor. For instance, we invaded Iraq, right? Not vice-versa. Doesn't that make America in some small way...the Persians, not the Spartans in this particular circumstance?

And secondly the Nazis also were aggressors in historical Germany; aggressors against their own Jewish citizenry and against all of Europe and eventually the United States. Again, that's not the case with the movie's Spartans. So the parallel doesn't fit. The Spartans were minding their own business when Xerxes launched his fleet, weren't they? We might dislike their martial, hostile, jingoistic, nationalistic, xenophobic nature, but to coin a phrase: they didn't start the fire. As the film itself notes, "Xerxes brought it forth."

The depiction of the Persians actually raises serious questions about...America. The Persians, according to the film, possess the greatest military might in the world. The whole world rumbles when the Persian army rolls.

In real life, America possesses the most powerful army in the world and deploys it with modern, technological equivalent of shaking ground: shock and awe.

The Persians, according to 300, are "decadent" because they have accepted into their culture such factors as varied ethnicity (Asians, Arabs, Blacks, and Whites all serve the God-King Xerxes), homosexuality (the film features a lesbian kiss...), body art/defacing, and even the physically-weak (handicapped). Tell me, which side, in real life, has embraced such diversity of belief, values and origin, Al Qaeda or America?

Xerxes, the Persian leader, considers himself a God. And wasn't it President Bush who said “I believe that God wants me to be president?” Also, it is difficult to reconcile the image of Leonidas (Gerard Butler) - the loyal, resolute, noble King of Sparta, with that of our former President. When going to war, Leonidas lays down his own life courageously, to personally lead the troops in battle. What was Bush's sacrifice in the War on Terror?

He gave up golf. That's his own admission.

So perhaps we have actually been depicted as the bad guys in 300, not the dedicated, stoic (but fascist...) warrior race.

We Are all Athenians.

This is the interpretation I prefer.

At its apex, the great city-state of Athens was the world's hub for art, philosophy and education. It is renowned to this very day as the cradle of western civilization, and it gave rise to greats like Sophocles, Pericles and most importantly, for our purposes here, Socrates. So perhaps we should consider 300 in terms of the Socratic method: a deliberate form of instruction (also known as pedagogy) that asks questions not so as to draw specific answers or parallels, but simply to encourage insights about a number of fundamental issues.

I believe that this is precisely what 300 accomplishes. There is much talk of duty in 300, and so we, as viewers, are implicitly asked to weigh our duty -- as American citizens -- in a time of war. What is the duty of a priest? A politician? A free man? A soldier? A King? Would we act as Leonidas or Theron? Of course, We each arrive with our own personal answers to those particular questions, but 300 provides examples both positive and negative. We see loyalty, sacrifice, avarice, grief, stubbornness and other characteristics dramatized in the crucible of Sparta. The full-breadth of the human experience is delineated, with various characters symbolizing various paths.

As the film ends, the film's final statement is that the Greeks - Spartans and Athenians together - set out to save a world from the oppression of "mysticism and tyranny." What's at stake here is a "new age of freedom." That's precisely the historic promise of Athens. And the historic promise, not coincidentally, of the United States. Sometimes, we simply carry freedom on our tongues and forget what it actually means. What it means, simply, is that Spartans can be different than Athenians...and still fight side-by-side, as brothers. Lest we forget, freedom to choose is the freedom for everybody to choose their destiny. Whether Spartan, Athenian, Persian, American or Iraqi. You can defend freedom, if it exists. But you can't impose freedom, at the end of the gun. Control, yes. Freedom, no.

Perhaps that is the ultimate and most valuable lesson of 300. I think it's a pretty damn worthwhile statement, especially in this era.

We Are All Formalists

We would not be discussing any interpretation of 300 at all, had the film not been created in such powerful, artistic fashion.

I'm in no position to judge if "the new age of freedom is here," but in 300, the New Age of the Computer in Film has certainly arrived. This is a film that creates and sustains an entire world from the ground up. Everything is artificial and highly-stylized (from the land, to the sky, to the beasts set loose by Xerxes.)

The film isn't "real" so much as it is "super real," and since the 300 is a legend of sorts, that approach is entirely appropriate. Remember, this film isn't merely the story of Xerxes, it is the story of Xerxes as told by the verbose and charismatic storyteller, Dilios (David Wenham).

Because we are "hearing" and "seeing" the story as told by orator Dilios, everything we see and hear must be interpreted through that very lens. Dilios hoping to rally the troops (Athenians and Spartans) on the eve of the final battle against the Persians. His words must prove timeless, brilliant, inspiring and ...glorious. Therefore, the heroes of his tale must not be merely men...but paragons. The villains must be not mere men, either but...monsters. That's why a rhino or an elephant appears in his story as giant Goliaths and terrifying creatures. That's why Xerxes isn't just tall...he's a colossus. That's why the Earth shakes when an army walks. And that may be why talks of xenophobia are somewhat misplaced. This is how Dilios re-casts reality, not reality itself.

The entire film seems rendered on a single leitmotif: a "heightened sense of the moment." That's the exact spot where Dilios is, incidentally, as he recounts the tale of Leonidas: his adrenalin pumping, as battle nears. And that is exactly what our protagonist, Leonidas feels again and again, at crucial points during his life. When he battles a wolf in winter (as a young man), he recalls feeling a "heightened sense of things."

At the moment before his death, facing a different wolf -- Xerxes -- Leonidas makes the same mental notation (in voice over) In this instance, the film cuts to a brief montage so the audience feels what he describes. We see birds flying overhead. Wind blows at his feet. He experiences a brief vision of his beloved wife. Gorgo. Leonidas is aware of little but important things like heat, weight, breeze....the impulses and feelings of the moment.

A "heightened sense of the moment" is also a perfect way to describe the stirring battle sequences in 300. Snyder constructed his shots (action and otherwise) from specific frames of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's comic, but importantly, he has added dynamic motion. Snyder does so by mixing slow-motion, fast motion, and focal zoom and retraction into an orgy of sustained but beautiful violence. Leonidas's first, spirited advance is captured in an amazing combination of these techniques. He leads the charge - and we zoom in. He swings his sword - and we zoom out. He hacks down an opponent, and we go into slow motion as blood spurts and the limbs of the enemy are severed.

We see muscles flexing, tensing; so much so that we can almost feel the athleticism of this battle. We experience it as "heightened," right alongside Leonidas. I know some people complain about this kind of effect and think of it as Matrix-inspired silliness. Perhaps The Matrix is where some of the effects techniques originated, but Snyder has utilized them in a method all his own, and one in which the the form of the action explicitly supports the film's content and narrative.

300's color palette also qualifies as "heightened." Skies aren't merely gray...they're steely. Skin isn't merely's golden. A mysterious oracle doesn't merely dance in smoke...she swims in it. Again, it's a real historic event (the battle of Thermopylae) recounted through the super-real, heroic lens of our excitable narrator, Dilios.

Director Zack Snyder's form here -- just like Leonidas's form - is "perfect."

Return to the Planet of the Apes: (1975) "River of Flames"

In “River of Flames,” Jeff and Bill see a hologram of Judy, who asks them to meet with the Under Dweller leader, Krador.   When they do so, ...