Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tribute Gallery 2013

Michael Ansara

Karen Black

Eileen Brennan

Roger Ebert

Dennis Farina

Joan Fontaine

Annette Funicello

James Gandalfini

Ray Harryhausen

Stanley Kauffmann

Tom Laughlin

Richard Matheson

Peter O'Toole

Ted Post

Lou Scheimer

Jean Stapleton

Gilbert Taylor

Paul Walker

Marcia Wallace

Jonathan Winters

As always, any omissions in the gallery are entirely unintentional.  Please feel free to remember these (or any other...) film and TV artists in the comments section below.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Remembering 2013 on the Blog

Horror Films FAQ

Well, the year 2013 is rapidly moving into our rear-view mirror, and so goes another year of posts here on Reflections.

This year, I posted more than 1,280 times, which is a record for me, and I had a great time doing it.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I'll see if I can top the number for next year...

In more specific terms, in 2013 the blog celebrated the 20th anniversary of The X-Files, marked Star Trek Week for the release of Into Darkness, Superman Week for the premiere of Man of Steel, and even had The Lone Ranger Week.  

The year also saw the release of my books, Horror Films FAQ and Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s.  

As I've written before, these books are the gasoline that keeps the engine of the blog running, so if you can spare the money, please think about supporting my work in print (or e-book form).  It helps.  A lot.
Not long ago, the blog also celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of a certain time lord for Doctor Who Week.  I also reviewed all the Indiana Jones films.

And on Sundays, I blogged Star Blazers season one, and Joss Whedon's Firefly.

We also had time to remember the life and career of those we lost this year, including genre giants Richard Matheson and Ray Harryhausen.

Most importantly, I'll always remember 2013 as the year we undertook the Reader Top Ten together for the first time.

In 2013, readers selected the best science fiction movie of all time, the greatest sf movie character, the greatest science fiction movie 2000 - 2013, the best horror film 1960 - 2000, the best science fiction film of the 1970s and the greatest toys of their childhood.

It was a great pleasure to read the reader choices and explanations, and this type of post has become my favorite.  For one thing, you've all helped me find new movies to watch...

As 2014 -- my ninth year of blogging -- looms, so does a set of new anniversaries.  In the twelve months ahead I'll be gazing back at the films of 1984, for instance, and celebrating The Terminator's 30th anniversary. 

Upcoming 2014 releases sure to merit attention include Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Robocop, Godzilla, Veronica Mars, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, and Max Max: Fury Road.

In the next few weeks, I'll also be reviewing all the Riddick films, the Back to the Future films, and I'm toying about re-visiting the entirety of the Die Hard franchise too, if readers are interested. 

So stay tuned.  As I like to say, the best is yet to come...

The Six Cult-TV Diseases You Don't Want to Contract...

Disease has often been termed the greatest enemy mankind has ever faced.  If you go by cult-television history, that idea certainly seems true.  A wide swath of genre programs have memorably showcased the (often-gory) impact of disease on the fragile human life form.

Of course, some of these fictional diseases are much more hideous and horrible than others.  Below is a tally of six truly dreadful, nightmare-inducing cult-TV diseases you really, REALLY don't want to contract.

6. "Venusian Plague."  (From the Space: 1999 episode "The Lambda Factor.")  In this Year Two episode of the 1970s Gerry Anderson outer space series, Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) relates a horrifying story from his days as an astronaut cadet.  On a routine re-supply mission to a Venus space station, two of Koenig's friends and ship-mates, Sam and Tessa, became infected with the plague there.  Rather than risk bringing the incurable disease back to Earth, Koenig had to leave his friends behind to die.  In the episode, Koenig relates this harrowing story to Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and we also see the "ghosts" of his guilt, namely Sam and Tessa...but as plague-infected ghouls.  Their faces are scarred and marred by blisters, and well, it isn't a pleasant sight.  I recounted the full, gory details of the Venusian plague in one of my contributions to the officially-licensed Space: 1999 short story anthology, Shepherd Moon (2010).  But the scary notion underlining this disease is its origin.  The Venusian Plague originates on another world, but affects us.  Was it engineered?  Created to keep us away? I've always wondered...

5. "Gamma Hydra IV Disease."  (From the Star Trek episode "The Deadly Years.").  In this tale, Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones and Lt. Galway are infected with a strange form of radiation while on a planet called Gamma Hydra IV.  Because of their exposure, the landing party begins to age rapidly.  Kirk loses command of the Enterprise, and Spock loses something worse: Kirk's friendship.  It's terrible to witness these vibrant, intelligent, young heroes succumb to the frailties of the flesh, and "The Deadly Years" is an affecting installment because of this. Here, the infected crew members develop arthritis, senility and other maladies associated with extreme old age, and as audience members we get to reflect that there's nothing worse than growing old before your time.  In 1988, Star Trek: The Next Generation re-visited the idea of an "aging" disease in the episode "Unnatural Selection."

4. "The Angel of Death" (From The Burning Zone pilot)  In the premiere episode of this short-lived 1996-1997 UPN series, archaeologists in Costa Rica excavate a cave that has been sealed for 15,000 years and inadvertently let loose a sentient disease.   The infected can be detected from hemorrhagic-appearing (bloody) eyes.  This disease is also sentient, part of an intelligent "hive" (shades of Doctor Who: "The Invisible Enemy.") It can even control and direct subordinate "warrior viruses" to further infect and distract humanity.  The fear at work here is one regarding our enemy's "intent," and perhaps even one involving...scale.  Can something as microscopic as a virus think, plan, and conquer the human race?  Being struck with a disease is terrible enough, but to imagine that there is insidious purpose or malevolence behind that disease ups the ante considerably.  I have often described The Burning Zone as "disease of the week," and other shows involved an outbreak of spontaneous combustion (!) and an epidemic of malaria.

3. "F. Emasculata." (from The X-Files episode of the same name.)  This second season segment of the Chris Carter  series also begins with the discovery of something terrible in the rain forest of Costa Rica, namely an insect parasite that burrows inside living human hosts and creates grotesque, white, pulsating pustules on the skin.  These boils throb and grow, and ultimately explode, spreading the disease all around in a sickly, moist burst.  It's absolutely the most nauseating thing you've ever seen. My wife still refuses to watch this episode of The X-Files, in part because of a final, tense stand-off set on a bus.  A badly infected man -- with pustules growing and threatening to burst on his cheek -- uses a young, innocent child as a hostage.  Mulder (David Duchovny) must free the boy, and do it before that damned zit bursts.  

2. "The Marburg Virus" (From Millennium's two-part "The Fourth Horseman/The Time is Now.") The disease featured in this episode of Millennium remains absolutely horrifying. One scene -- set at a middle-class family's Mother's Day dinner -- depicts an American family bleeding out before our eyes.  The disease (originating from contaminated chicken, of all things...) quickly sets in, and dark brown pustules begin to form on the infected family members.  The Mom dies first as her white blouse becomes awash in crimson.  Then, all at once, these poor folks sweat out their whole blood supply in a matter of seconds.  This is also the disease that costs Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) dearly in terms of his family...

1. "The Phage" (From Star Trek: Voyager's "The Phage.")  The Vidiians remain one of the most creepy and disturbing alien races ever featured on Star Trek.  Residents of the Delta Quadrant, the Vidiians suffer from a necrotizing -- flesh eating -- virus.  Infected souls must undergo skin transplants and skin grafts regularly to combat the effects of the deadly disease, but even after such "healing" operations still appear absolutely hideous, like rotting corpses.  Perhaps the creepiest thing about the Phage is that the disease has also, essentially, devoured the Vidiian Sodality's culture.  These advanced, once-peaceful aliens have forsaken art, commerce and other noble pursuits in order to save themselves from extinction.  The Vidiians are thus terrifying because they embody two fears about our mortality.  First, that we could succumb to a deadly, disfiguring disease ourselves.  And second, that it could sweep away all of our loved ones, and even destroy our very civilization.  Imagine not only being disfigured and ill yourself, but watching your children and spouse suffering and dying from the Phage every single day.  It would be Hell on Earth...

Television and Cinema Verities #102

"Working with Richard [Basehart] was a joy. He wasn't an easy person but we hit it off from the start...He made bad dialogue breathe. I learned a lot from him."

- David Hedison discusses his Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea co-star, Richard Basehart, in Science Fiction Television Series, Volume 2, by Mark Phillips and Frank Garcia, 1996, page 534

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cult-TV Blogging: Firefly (2002): "Objects in Space" (December 13, 2002)

In “Objects in Space,” the crew of Serenity runs afoul of a unique and dangerous bounty hunter: Jubal Early (Richard Brooks).

Early has been secretly shadowing the ship for some time, and plans to acquire River (Summer Glau) and return her to the Alliance for a big pay day.

Early sandbags much of the crew in short order, including Captain Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), but finds that River isn’t the easy mark she appears to be. 

In fact, River unnerves Early by claiming to be “one” with Serenity, and revealing personal secrets about him that she couldn’t possibly know.

But Early only grows more dangerous as River grows craftier…

An argument can be made that “Objects in Space” is the most complex, and also the very best episode of Firefly (2002), as well as a perfect distillation of the series’ overall aesthetic values. 

The episode’s central villain, Jubal Early is named for a Confederate General in the Civil War, and thus revives the series’ exploration of that milieu, although in a future/outer-space setting. 

In particular, the real Jubal Early (1816 -1894) was a man who served General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the Civil War, but not before making known his point-of-view that secession and war were the wrong courses of action.

In some way, the Early we meet here seems similarly conflicted.  The man boasts a singular intelligence, and a unique manner of expressing himself, yet he also seems captive to his baser instincts…to his sadistic side.  

It seems like anyone as smart as Early should know better, and it is clear that he has come to deceive himself about why he acts as he does (“it’s my job,” he notes). 

But River cuts through the lies. She “sees” Early for what he really is: a monster.

There’s a great and totally odd-ball Jubal Early moment mid-way through the show in which Simon (Sean Maher) asks the bounty hunter if he is working for “the Alliance.”  Jubal mishears the term, and thinks that Simon has asked him if he is “a lion.” 

This description gives Early reason to pause and reflect, and he actually contemplates if he is, in fact, symbolically “a lion.” 

It’s a crazy, weird, inventive, out-of-the-norm moment but it exposes to crucial aspects of Early’s psychological gestalt. The first thing to consider is that he is a vainglorious narcissist.  The second is that, as base and monstrous as he is, is Early wicked smart, and a philosopher even. 

The question of whether or not Early is “a lion” adheres to the overall approach to the hour, which stresses existentialism, and the idea that we are “just floating in space,” and thus objects without meaning…at least until we imbue ourselves with meaning.   We could all be lions, or even a spaceship, if that is how we choose to regard ourselves, the episode intimates.

Jubal Early stops to consider if, metaphorically, he could be considered “a lion” (a fierce and cunning animal), and that odd reckoning emerges from his ability to philosophize and rationalize away “meaning” in his own life.  He hurts, maims, and kills people for a living, but Early contextualizes those acts as merely being part of a “job.”

Similarly, River wishes to vanish from existence itself, to become one with “Serenity” because she feels unloved and unwanted by the crew.

What “is” River? 

A danger to the crew? A sister? A crazy woman? A psychic “reader?”  Is she something with independent, objective meaning, or is River actually only the “thing” that others view her as?

River grapples with this idea, perhaps, because of her mental aberrations.  At one point during the episode, she holds up a gun, but importantly, she views it as a tree branch.  Again, we asked to consider the meaning of this “object in space.”  A gun is designed expressly for killing.  Contrarily, a branch is a stick or part of a tree that grows out from a central bough or trunk.  It is an extension of something, an outgrowth from a hearth.

In grabbing hold of the branch, is River actually contextualizing herself (and the gun) as an outgrowth of Serenity (presumably the tree in this metaphor)?  Is her act of holding the gun, actually the action of protecting the hearth, or reaching out to the others?

What’s important, perhaps, is the “boundary transgression” River undergoes in this particular episode, at least according to scholar Karin Beeler in her essay “The Transformation of River Tam.”  Beeler notes (in Seers, Witchs and Psychics on Screen; 2008, page 47) that “Objects in Space” showcases River’s essential other-ness by moving from being human to being part of the machine (as part of Serenity, during her ruse).  Then she becomes human again, and finally another machine, in the form of Early’s spaceship.  As J.P. Telotte notes in The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, River comes to identify herself “more closely with the intert technology of the ship than the crew.”

On a more basic level, River is able to put herself into the “experience” of reading and sympathizing with others.  She takes over the sheltering/protective duties of Serenity, and also sits in Early’s chair, and comes to see him as he really is.

“People don’t appreciate the substance of things,” Jubal Early says in “Objects in Space,” and perhaps that phraseology is a way of noting that the crew can’t appreciate the substance of River, because she is so different from the other humans. 

Ironically, Early is guilty of the same transgression.  He doesn’t see -- until it is far too late -- the substance of River.  His misreading of her -- his misinterpretation of the “substance” of her -- is what leads to his downfall.  Early and River are both dangerous, and both cunning, but River can “become” something else, becoming something outside her psyche so that she can see and appreciate the substance of things.  Early can’t escape his ego and narcissism enough to see that perspective.

This episode is very cleverly constructed and brilliant executed, but ultimately, one need not ponder any of this material to enjoy “Objects in Space.”  The episode is tense, the conflict is direct and urgent, and Early is an unforgettable villain.   

Accordingly, Firefly ends its TV run on a high note, and perhaps even the highest note of the series

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Mission of Mercy" (November 1, 1975)

In “Mission of Mercy,” a number of crises strike all at once for the astronauts.  

First, the World War II airplane that Bill, Jeff and Judy have been utilizing to defend the humanoid pueblo city runs perilously low on aviation fuel, meaning another dangerous foray to Ape City for supplies.

Meanwhile -- and even as General Urko searches “New Valley” for the humanoid populace -- Nova falls gravely ill from an illness in her lungs which is highly contagious.  

Unless a serum can be acquired, Nova will die, and the rest of the humanoids, including the astronauts, will follow..

This week’s episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) actually concerns a pretty good idea, and one which has re-surfaced in the pop-culture in The Walking Dead. Specifically, after the fall of human civilization, the survivors will fall prey to diseases and illnesses once conquered by modern medicine…but now once more grave threats.   Talk about having to swallow a bitter pill!  In this case, Nova nearly succumbs to a treatable disease, and Judy must make a dangerous trek to Ape City to get help from Zira and Cornelius.

Despite the interesting concept, the execution of it leaves something to be desired. In particular, Judy -- an astronaut capable of flying spaceships and even World War II war planes -- doesn’t know about serums and how they work.   No doubt, her ignorance is a result of the writers wanting to explain the topic to young audiences.  But still, it's handled pretty poorly.

Beyond this hard-to-swallow aspect of the episode, “Mission of Mercy” is mostly an action-oriented episode, with the astronauts struggling to beat the clock and once more save the day.  Bill and Jeff must cross a rickety bridge in a truck, just as it collapses.  And then their truck breaks down…in a lightning storm.  Suffice it to say that a lot of obstacles get thrown up against the astronauts as they struggle to hold onto the one advantage they have (the war plane), and keep Nova alive at the same time.

In some sense, the focus on action is true to the Apes film franchise, but the five movies alternated serious action with cerebral science fiction concepts (like infinite regression) and a sub-text about racism and religious zealotry.  As a cartoon series aimed for kids, Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn’t quite rise to that level, but “Mission of Mercy” seems a bit more pedestrian, even, than other installments. 

Also, it’s getting a little difficult to believe that Zira and Cornelius can go out into the wilderness outside of Ape City on yet another mission to help the humanoids, and not get caught either by Urko or Dr. Zaius.  The pacifist chimps take big risks in every episode, and with no repercussions.

Next week: “Invasion of the Underdwellers.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991): "Heat Wave" (November 16, 1991)

In “Heat Wave,” the Porters and all the denizens of the Land of the Lost endure a terrible and long-lasting drought.  In desperate need of water, Kevin and Mr. Porter hike to a local watering hole only to discover that the Sleestak are already intent on using it.

Given a choice between leading the Sleestak back to their compound or sending them on a merry chase, the Porters choose the latter option, and head out into the wild…

“Heat Wave” is a relatively undistinguished, though harmless, episode of the 1991-1992 Land of the Lost remake.  It’s more of a “runaround” than anything else, and the episode eats up its running time with the Porters being chased by Sleestaks, or simply hiding from them. 

The main idea of “Heat Wave” is that it would be “game over” for the Porters if the Sleestak learn the location of their treehouse and compound.  This is so presumably because the Sleestak are so powerful and threatening. They would take the house by force for themselves, and kill or enslave the Porters and their entourage.

Unfortunately, the new series has routinely treated the Sleestak as comic buffoons, and demonstrated again and again how the Porters out-smart and out-fight them.  In other words, the episode’s central threat doesn’t really work as meaningfully as it should.

By contrast, on the original series the Sleestak were indeed menacing, and I remember some terrifying episodes in which they swarmed the Marshalls’ home (a temple, at that point) by night, and could barely be repelled.  The three Sleestak outcasts of the new series – seen in broad daylight -- just don’t rise to that level of terror. 

Accordingly, “Heat Wave” is never particularly thrilling or interesting.  The only interesting aspect of it is the pairing of Porter and his son, Kevin.   The episode becomes about their “father/son” bonding, but even this aspect of the tale would have felt more meaningful if the conflict with these re-done Sleestak were stronger villains.

Next week: “The Thief.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Films of 1984: The NeverEnding Story

The NeverEnding Story (1984), a child-like, innocent fantasy film made in Germany by director Wolfgang Peterson.  His is a name you will recognize immediately for his efforts in the genre like Enemy Mine (1985) and those outside it too, such as Das Boot (1981).

The NeverEnding Story also features stellar practical effects from Brian Johnson, the accomplished special effects director and guru behind Space: 1999's (1975 -1977) miniatures and pyrotechnics, plus the effects of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Aliens (1986).  Many of the landscapes and creatures Johnson devised for this cinematic effort remain positively wondrous a quarter-century on. 

Both tonally and visually, The NeverEnding Story boasts a softer, more whimsical vibe than the film's appreciably darker and more adult contemporaries,  Krull or Legend for instance.  But the world  The NeverEnding Story so ably depicts is also refreshingly fanciful and indeed, a bit surreal; what Variety called a "flight of pure fancy."

I realize the movie won't be everybody's cup of tea, however.  It's not all Rrc battles, clashing armies and sword fights; and there's never any sense that this tale is part of some larger, realistic, otherworldly saga. 

Instead, as valuable description of the film's atmosphere, let me quote the Boston Globe's Michael Blowen.  He termed the movie "so wonderfully appropriate to children that it seems to have been made by kids.  But there is enough artistic merit in the tale to enchant adults equally."

Looking back today, it's clear that The NeverEnding Story succeeds most powerfully indeed as this "dual track"-styled fantasy that Blowen hints at.  On one hand, this is a  genre film starring children and intended for children; alive with adventure, whimsy and excitement.  On another level all together, however, adults can enjoy the film because it cleverly references (albeit symbolically), the vicissitudes of adult life. 

When young Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) faces several dangerous tasks in the film, it is not just adventure or ordinary fairy tale creatures he countenances, but existential dilemmas about self, about the human psychology.

In the beginning, it is always dark....

A dangerous book: The NeverEnding Story.
The NeverEnding Story's particular narrative arises from a popular and critically-acclaimed literary work by German writer, Michael Ende. Alas, Ende was allegedly unhappy with the film's translation of his 1979 book, in part, perhaps, because it depicts only the first half of his narrative. At the box office, the 27 million-dollar film was considered a bomb, though (lesser) sequels were eventually produced.  Critical reviews were mixed. 

In The NeverEnding Story, a sad boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) is doing poorly in school after the untimely death of his mother.  His father is cold and distant, and Bastian feels alone, rudderless. At school, he is relentlessly bullied by his classmates, and the world feels devoid of hope; of warmth.

One day, Bastian hides from the bullies in a book store and learns from an old man named Koreander (Thomas Hill) of a strange book; a book that is different from all others.  It is called "The NeverEnding Story."   Koreander claims that it is not a safe book.  He hints it can actually transport the reader to another world, another time.

Alone in an attic, Bastian reads the mysterious book. It tells of a mythical world called Fantasia where a creeping "Nothing" is devouring the world a land at-a-time. 

A young boy, about Bastian's age -- Atreyu -- is summoned to the Ivory Tower to embark on a heroic quest.  The land's Empress is dying of a strange malady, one tied to the existence and spread of "The Nothing."  Atreyu must learn how to cure the Empress's disease, an act which should simultaneously stop the "The Nothing."  But it will not be easy.

Early on, Atreyu loses his beloved white steed, Artex, in the "Swamp of Sadness," attempting to contact "The Ancient One" -- a giant old turtle "allergic" to young people. 

There, Atreyu begs the apathetic old creature -- who lives by the motto "we don't even care whether or not we care" -- for help.  The Old One finally informs the boy warrior that he must travel ten thousand miles to the South Oracle if he hopes to get his answer about the Empress.

Fortunately, a luck dragon named Falcor rescues Atreyu from sinking further into the Swamp of Sadness, and transports him to the Southern Oracle.  There, with the help of two kindly elves, Engywook and Urgl, Atreyu faces two critical tests. 

First, he must walk through a gate in which is self-worth is judged.  If his self-worth is found lacking, two giant statues will destroy him with eye-mounted particle beam weapons.

The second test at the Southern Gates is the "magical mirror test."  There, Atreyu must gaze into a mirror and countenance his true self.  Here, brave men learn that they are cowards inside.  And kind men learn that they have been cruel.

Surviving both tests, Atreyu learns that he must next pass beyond the "boundaries" of Fantasia to save his world and his queen.  This is something of a trick answer, however, as he learns from his feral nemesis, Gmork. 

As Gmork confides in the warrior about Fantasia: "It's the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries."

In the end, worlds collide. Atreyu needs the help (and the belief) of Bastian in his world; and Bastian must be the one to save the Empress, even though at first he can't quite make himself believe that he can help.  As the Empress notes, Bastian "simply can't imagine that one little boy could be that important."

But, of course, he is...

We don't know how much longer we can withstand the nothing.

A beacon of hope in Fantasia, The "Ivory Tower."
In the synopsis above, one can easily detect how the dangerous, fanciful quests in Atreyu's Fantasia (Fantastica in the Ende book...) translate into relevant messages about human life here on Earth, and in particular, the challenges of adulthood.

"The Swamp of Sadness," for instance, is a place that -- if you stop to dwell -- you sink further and further.  

In other words, this specific trap is a metaphor for self-pity.  If you stop to focus on how sad you are, how depressed you feel, you just keep sinking.  And the further you sink, the harder it is to escape; to pull yourself up.  Sadness creates more sadness.

And the Ancient Guardian?  

He represents apathy and old age; wherein acceptance of "how things are" has overcome the desperate need of  hungry youth to change (even save...) the world.  Appropriate then that this guardian should be visualized as a turtle...since he can just hide from everything in his over-sized shell, never to face reality.  As the movie notes, "There's no fool like an old fool!"

The Southern Gate's first test, of "self worth," also relates to us, right here, everyday.  If we don't believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish under our own steam, how can we make others believe in us or our abilities?  Feelings of strong self-esteem and self-worth must by need precede all quests of "self actualization," right? If you don't believe you can do something in the first place, why try?

The second Oracle test -- also encountered before victory -- involves facing yourself.  There are all sorts of "monsters" and crises to fear in our everyday lives, but none of those beasts is worse or more terrifying than self-reflection;  how we sometimes view and judge ourselves

The magical mirror test asks us to solemnly reflect on who we are; on who we have become.  Are we the good people we could be?  Or are we hypocrites hiding behind platitudes about being good? When we look in the mirror, which face do we see?

Even the movie's nebulous but effective central threat is contextualized as a danger to the psychology; a danger to self.  What's at stake if you have low self-esteem, if you sink into depression, and you don't see yourself truthfully in that mirror of conscience? 

Well, the creeping Nothing around you -- and inside you -- just grows and grows.  

"It's the emptiness that's left," Gmork says, describing the "Nothing."   "It's like a despair, destroying this world...Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger."

So, meet 1984's The NeverEnding Story: the self-help book of fantasy cinema, in which every challenge Atreyu faces alludes to the book's reader, Bastian, and his unique set of challenges.  Not to mention our challenges too.

Should he wallow in self-pity in despair, with the end result that the quicksand will consume him?  Should he hate himself because he is sad, and not pulling himself up by his bootstraps as his Dad desires?

If Bastian succumbs to these visions of himself (and does not see his own self worth), the Nothing consumes him...just as it consumes Fantasia.  The answer, of course, is to believe in himself, and this message is not as heavy handed as it might have been, in part because of the delightful fantasy trappings. 

It's amusing and also rather charming to see our grown-up fears (of depression) and foibles (like low self-esteem) made manifest into the physical genre trappings of the heroic quest; dangers to be avoided and beaten down.  Depression as a swamp. Apathy as a turtle inside his shell. Self-worth as a hurdle that must be crossed, etc.

Another highly commendable aspect of The NeverEnding Story is how it views imagination and education

Of course, the act of reading (and of imagining the adventures of literary figures) is championed here as a way of dealing with unpleasantness in real life; unpleasantness like death, and like bullying.  Reading is the catalyst of everything important in the film: the introduction to adventure and the key to saving the world.  As Julie Salomon wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 1984, The NeverEnding Story "brings back the early excitement of reading as a child, when the act of turning pages took on a magical quality."

But more than that, I appreciate how The NeverEnding Story turns the idea of "the Ivory Tower" on its ear.  In metaphor, the Ivory Tower has become synonymous with something negative.  The phrase Ivory Tower widely "refers to a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life."

Today, people decry Ivory Tower residents as "elitists" or as being somehow bad, even evil.  Instead, ignorance and anti-intellectualism are raised up as virtues, instead.   Don't read the newspaper?  Great!  Don't know geography?  Terrific. Who's the leader of Pakistan?  Don't know? Don't care?  Outstanding. 

Well, as The NeverEnding Story makes plain, nothing bad EVER originates from the Ivory Tower.  Self-enrichment and education are universal positives...in any reality.  There is no down side to being smart; to  gathering knowledge; to being a resident of this "Ivory Tower."

Ask yourself, what do others gain by keeping another person away from learning, away from the proverbial Ivory Tower? By keeping others ignorant? That's the danger of anti-intellectualism right there; that someone will "bully" another being into being something less than what he or she could be.  

Gmork makes the case aptly:  "People who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control... has the power."

When you tie together The NeverEnding Story's multiple strands of education (and learning to read, to experience literary worlds), imagination (putting yourself into the literary fantasy...)  and self-worth to the movie's paradise -- "The Ivory Tower," --  you get the point plainly.  

It's a message perfectly suited for adults and kids: don't for a minute believe that one person can't be important.

The question, for viewers, of course, is simply: are you interested in a fantasy film created in this vein, a fantasy film in which the advice "never give up, and good luck will find you," is championed at the expense of more mature, nuanced themes.  

I can easily imagine that, before having a son, I might have felt that this message was somehow cheesy or over-the-top.   But being the parent of a seven-year old, I find myself appreciating The NeverEnding Story more than ever before.  The movie is fun and inventive, and it has a light touch with this material. I find it audacious and courageous that a fantasy movie should take the form of, literally, the aforementioned "self-help book."  

Now, I don't know that I would want other fantasies to emulate this mold; but in this case, the unusual symbolism successfully differentiates The NeverEnding Story from its many brethren of the early 1980s. The result is that the movie is distinctive...and memorable.

Of course, not everyone agreed.  Critic Vincent Canby wrote, of the movie's approach: "When the movie is not sounding like ''The Pre-Teen- Ager's Guide to Existentialism,'' it's simply a series of resolutely unexciting encounters between Atreyu and the creatures that alternately help and hinder his mission."

Perhaps that's true, but what about when the movie does sound like a Pre-Teen Ager's Guide to Existentialism?  For me, that's where this movie's worth ultimately resides; in the idea of real life foibles and crises made manifest in fantasy terrain.  I don't think the movie's great strength --  the brawny central conceit -- should be discounted quite so readily.

Having a luck dragon with you is the only way to go on a quest...

Falcor, the Luck Dragon...looks suspiciously like a puppy.

The other factor that distinguishes The NeverEnding Story today is the film's pre-CGI visualization of Fantasia. 

In fact, this movie, -- much like The Dark Crystal (1982) -- is a wonderful testament to the things practical effects can achieve given an adequate budget and a sense of unrestrained imagination.  Here, an entire world is built from the ground up; and it's a world of leviathan Rock Biters, racing snails, Sadness Swamps, weird "elf-tech," and much more. 

Using prosthetics, gorgeous sets, miniatures, and mattes -- and no digital backgrounds or monsters whatsoever -- the makers of this film support the storyline with their droll, highly-detailed creations.  Some of these creations are really, really weird, mind you. 

For instance, the Rock Biter is an amazing, idiosyncratic and wholly individual thing. He's crazy-looking, and yet he's got real personality and character.  I can't say he looks "real"; more like something you'd imagine from Alice in Wonderland.  And yet he has weight and presence, and when he is sad, you feel his pain.  In the movie, the Rock Biter contemplates giving himself to the Nothing, essentially committing suicide, and the pathos is authentic.  A bad special effect could not have accomplished that feeling.

Today, some of the flying effects don't hold up; certainly that is true.  The ending of the movie also feels sudden, and a little too convenient.

But nonetheless, The NeverEnding Story still has...something.  It may not be what we desire of a fantasy as "serious"  grown-ups, but trenchantly it does recall such youthful stories as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

Empire's Ian Nathan wrote of The NeverEnding Story: "This was sweet and charming at the time but now it just lacks either the comedy or sophistication of kids' fantasy film that we've all become accustomed to."

I agree with him that The NeverEnding Story remains sweet and charming.  And the film's sense of sophistication arises from the central conceit of turning human emotions -- depression, self-hatred, apathy -- into the trials of a heroic, fantasy quest.  

But I know what he means.  

There's the sense after watching the film that, somehow, The NeverEnding Story isn't merely child-like, it's actually childish. 

I'll leave it up to each individual viewer to decide if that's the film's ultimate weakness, or true blue strength.

Movie Trailer: The Neverending Story (1984)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Joel's Christmas Haul

Here's a sampling of Joel's Christmas collection, from parents, grandparents, and other family members!

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

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