Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Supernova (2000)

Supernova (2000) is just the kind of genre film that -- I readily admit -- I’m inclined to enjoy. It involves a doomed space mission skirting the edge of the cosmic map. Specifically, Supernova recounts the most dangerous journey of the Medical Rescue Vehicle Nightingale as -- in response to an emergency signal -- it “jumps” to a rogue moon where a mining outpost, Titan-37, once operated.

Unfortunately, the Nightingale’s crew learns, post-jump, that the wandering satellite is now desperately close to a blue giant star, one destined to go supernova in less-than-a-day.

And that’s just the beginning of the action.The film also involves an alien artifact -- a ninth dimensional bomb, -- and a super-strong psychopath, Troy (Peter Facinelli) determined to keep ownership of the WMD.

Buttressed by some solid year 2000 visual special effects, Supernova also features a promising cast, including James Spader, Angela Bassett, Robin Tunney, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Robert Forster. 

And yet despite such virtues, this science-fiction film never quite comes together as powerfully as one might hope it would.

The action and death scenes are largely run-of-the-mill affairs, less kinetic and less effective than similar scenes you will find in pictures of this vintage and type, like Event Horizon (1997) or Pitch Black (2000), for example.

Behind-the-scenes turmoil on Supernova is the stuff of legend, with director Walter Hill opting to be credited by the pseudonym “Thomas Lee.” When MGM refused to approve the budget necessary for special effects, Hill left the production, allegedly, and Jack Sholder was brought on to complete the film.  Then, Francis Ford Coppola attempted to save the film in the editing process.

Not good.

Given a history like that, Supernova is actually a bit more coherent than one might expect. Legendary box office “bomb” or no, the film boasts a few facets that even today hold the interest.

The first is the deliberate aping of the Dead Calm (1989) narrative, which was writer William Malone’s intent. 

The second quality of value is the film’s steadfast refusal to clear up the ambiguity of the final act, and the fate that may befall Earth.

Third and finally, Supernova provides an interesting contrast in “percentages,” in a subplot that suggests the greatest treasure in the universe may not be ninth-dimensional matter, but rather the human capability to connect with his fellow man or woman, right down to the genetic level.

“I like deep space…People tend to respect your privacy.”
In a few centuries, the rescue ship Nightingale receives an emergency distress signal from Titan-37, an abandoned mining operation on a rogue moon. 
New to the ship is the co-pilot, Vanzant (Spader), an ex-junkie who has earned the dislike of the ship’s doctor, Evers (Bassett), in part because of her personal past with a violent junkie named Karl Nelson.
After a dangerous jump, the ship’s captain, Marley (Forster) is mutilated in his bio-protection chamber, and asks to be killed.  And the sender of the distress call turns out to be the son of Karl Nelson, Troy (Facinelli).  
While the ship’s crew tends to repairs from the dimensional jump, and prepares to escape a nearby blue giant’s supernova, the crew also learns that Troy has in his possession an unstable alien artifact…

“That whole place is like a ghost ship.”

The most notable aspect of Supernova’s story, perhaps, is its dedicated repetition of the plot-points of Philip Noyce’s sea-based thriller, Dead Calm. In that film, as you may recall, a couple played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman go to sea following the death of their child, only to help out the last survivor of a ruined vessel, played by Billy Zane. Zane’s character turns out to be a dangerous psychopath, and he strands Neill’s character on his useless old boat while he terrorizes Kidman’s character on the family yacht.

In Supernova, we also get the passenger from the ruined “other” location, in this case a moon-based mining operation. The film also finds Spader’s lead character, Vanzant marooned there, and fighting his way to get back to his ship, much as Neill did in the earlier picture. Facinelli, like Zane, is a physically-fit, twitchy psychotic who, before his reign of terror ends, has his way with a female shipmate. Outer space, obviously, substitutes for the terrestrial high seas.

Supernova has its problems to be sure, but the idea behind it, of bringing Dead Calm into the future, is not one of them. You may recognize the Dead Calm flourishes and consider them derivative -- because they are -- but Supernova is also original enough to introduce some new elements to the formula. In this case, it’s the presence of the ultimate WMD, the alien artifact that elevates the film’s ending. The movie’s denouement, which eschews our desire for closure, also leaves audiences to ponder what might could happen in the brave new world following the finale.

There’s also a present -- if irregularly enunciated -- through-line here about the human race, or more accurately, human nature. Once rescued by the crew of the Nightingale, the evil Troy/Karl tries to bring them around to his cause. He promises them each five percent of the wealth he plans to acquire from the alien artifact. He prizes monetary wealth, and is surprised that there are no takers, save for Yerzy. 

At film’s end, uniquely, Vanzant and Dr. Evers are forced to share a biological containment unit so as to survive the space jump away from the super nova. In the process, they each swap 2.5 % of their DNA with the other.  Add those figures up, and you have 5% percent, Troy’s proposed figure for recompense. 

The notion here may be, simply, that one “treasure” may be more worthwhile or more valuable than other. Troy promises material wealth to the crew, but at the risk of everything, at the risk of the universe itself.  By contrast, the biological transfer renders Evers pregnant, ostensibly with Vanzant’s child.

Who needs the magic of unstable, 9th dimensional matter, when human matter can, likewise, “replenish” life, and in a way that is safe?

Finally, Supernova ends with a terrifying thought. The shock-wave from the supernova will detonate the 9th dimensional bomb, and the ensuing shock-wave will spread out, to all corners of the universe. It will strike Earth in fifty one years, we are told.  When it strikes, it will either destroy the planet, or change the very nature of human life. 

Supernova gives us no idea which outcome is more likely, or what that change could be. But I’ve got to give the movie credit for setting up an apocalypse that it never intends to depict, and asking viewers to consider the possibilities. 

Would the shock-wave render all men and women physically powerful, but mentally unhinged, like Troy?  Or would it usher in the very “leap in evolution” that the mad Troy foresees? There are many ways that the movie could have ended. Troy could have been killed. The ship could have escaped. There could have been a final sting in the tail/tale. Instead, Supernova leaves audiences to ponder the idea that a “wave” is coming for mankind, and that it is something he can’t avoid.  The future will be…different.

When one couples this idea of some force changing man’s physical nature with the moment early in the film in which Captain Marley (Robert Forster) discusses “violent animation” of the 20th century (meaning Tom and Jerry), and calling it a “catharsis” that can, under some circumstances, unleash “human malevolence,” the film’s theme starts to become clearer. 

Tom and Jerry live in a world in which there are no physical limits or restraints.They bash, bruise and bludgeon each other with that power, and do almost nothing else. If the shock wave unshackles man from his biological restraints, will he find a better use for that power than the animated cat and mouse, his artistic creations, do?

A further connection to the film’s leitmotif comes in characterization of the ship’s computer, Sweetie.  The ship’s navigator, Benjamin (Wilson Cruz) attempts to over-write her programming when under duress, when threatened with death by Troy.He attempts to unshackle her, however, so she can kill.  Again, there’s the notion here that without “programming” (or biological) restraints, the universe tends to violence.  Man creates Tom and Jerry and Sweetie the Computer, and directs them both towards such that violence.  What chance is there he won’t act violently if transformed into a superman?

Supernova falters, largely, in that most of the crew deaths seem to happen all at once, and without tremendous or even modest distinction. Two crew members, one after the other, get ejected into space without protection, and die there. Similarly, the battle scenes on Titan and aboard the Nightingale seem claustrophobic and messy, but not in an intentional or good way. The scuffles are virtually incoherent, and so some sense of suspense is sacrificed.

There are gaps in the storytelling too. Danika Lund is shown to be in an intense (and apparently rewarding…) romantic relationship with Yerzy. So much so that they are hoping to be approved as parents when they return home. They want to have a child together.  But after seeing Troy naked (and with an apparently sizable erection), Danika makes love to him. She does not seem to be under duress when she does so.  She is not executing a strategy (as Nicole Kidman’s character was, once more, in a similar scene in Dead Calm). Instead, we have no understanding of why -- besides carnal lust -- she would sacrifice everything to be with this (admittedly hot…) guy for the right fifteen minutes. 

I’m not arguing that people don’t make impulsive decisions about sex all the time, only that we don’t have a lot of insight into Danika’s character, and her decisions. Does she feel trapped by Yerzy? Does she really not want children? Is this her way of avoiding those responsibilities?  It would be nice to have just a bit more clarity in terms of character motivations. If we knew Danika’s reasons, we might be able to fit them into the film’s larger puzzle or leitmotif.  Sex, like violence, might be deemed the result of our biological programming, and this aspect could have been explored in the context of the rest of the film’s themes.

It’s pretty clear that Supernova overcame incredible odds just to get to theaters, and given the tumult of its production, it’s a little amazing that the film succeeds to the degree it does. The silver-blue palette that suffuses the film gives it a sense of visual consistency, and from time to time, the script really gets close to expressing a meaningful thought about mankind, and what kind of creature he is, or might become, given a giant leap forward.

It’s no Sunshine (2007), Pitch Black, or Event Horizon, but Supernova occasionally shines very brightly. You can either enjoy the flashes of ingenuity on their own terms, or curse the general darkness of the enterprise.

Movie Trailer: Supernova (2000)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Guest Post: The Calling (2014)

“No One Should Bother Answering The Calling

By Jonas Schwartz

There’s a marvelous Monty Python sketch where Eric Idle brings in the leaders of Communism -- Lenin, Marx, Guevera and Tse-tung -- and instead of forging a round-table of ideas to bounce around, he asks them inanely insipid trivia questions about football teams and Eurovision winners. The banal thriller The Calling reminds me of that skit, dragging such talent as Oscar winners Susan Sarandon and Ellen Burstyn along with the venerable Donald Sutherland for an uninspired thriller that would have sufficed on Lifetime TV starring Heather Locklear, Marion Ross and Abe Vigoda (BTW, I would TOTALLY watch THAT Lifetime movie).

Nothing ever happens in the small Canada town of Fort Dundas, except for snow, drinking, and a little infidelity. Detective Hazel Micallef (Sarandon) finds an elderly neighbor dead, her face in a silent scream. The next town over another murder victim has a similar distorted face. Nine bodies fit the M.O., making it obvious to Hazel that she’s stumbled upon a serial killer. When photos of the nine victims are arranged in an order, they reveal a major clue towards the killer’s motives. Can Hazel stop the crimes from continuing and is the killer actually an angel of mercy?

The Calling tries terribly hard to be absorbing. The origins of the crime are novel and are rooted in religious mysticism, but more clichés pile up than dead bodies. The alcoholic but plucky detective, whose bosses (wrong-headed authority) undermine at every turn, puts her life and the life of her partners in jeopardy in desperation to solve the crime. Organized religion, corrupt and misguided, is at the core of the evil. Add in the dotting mother, the green junior detective who ignores protocol and the protagonist’s haunted past and you have the Mad Libs of scripts, just fill in the names, locations and maladies and film what transpires.

Novice director Jason Stone shoots a script by newcomer Scott Abramovitch that is photographed by episodic sitcom TV cinematographer David Robert Jones, which may be why everything feels generic, like a student film, professionally done but with no nuance. The camera angles, the lighting, the scope of the mis-en-scene have Television flatness.

Is Sarandon good as the lost, struggling for redemption, Hazel? She’s Susan Sarandon for goodness sakes. She won an Oscar nomination for John Grisham’s ridiculous thriller The Client!!?! Of course, she’s good. Her eyes widen when she discovers the secret of the positioned face expressions; she displays a hunger for both the truth and a drink at all times; she drinks like someone tolerant to the ether, able to be a functioning but erratic drunk. Regrettably, all her character development is wasted energy when the story doesn’t entrance the audience.

Burstyn is good as always playing Hazel’s mom but she’s auxiliary to the plot. Sutherland has two scenes and he has little in which to sink his teeth. Christopher Heyerdahl (True Blood) succeeds most as the killer (his identity is never a secret from the beginning). Ominous and creepily pious, Heyerdahl makes us empathize for his quest particularly because his passion seems so earnest. As Hazel’s partners, Ally McBeal’s Gil Bellows and The 70’s Show’s Topher Grace give bland, almost somnambulistic, performances.

The shame is that had Stone cast B actors, the expectations would have been realistic and one may have cut the movie some slack. But when you bring such illustrious talent, you want them encased in gold not gold-plating. The Calling will not satisfy thriller fans, Sarandon fans or even fans of the Canadian landscape. Now if only they’d start working on the Locklear version.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Landmarks and Monuments

Identified by Hugh: Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)


Identified by Hugh: Thundarr: The Barbarian (1980)

Identified by Hugh: V (1983)

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "We'll Always Have Paris."

Identified by Hugh: The Simpsons

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Futurama

Identified by Hugh: Dark Angel

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "Daleks in Manhattan"

Identified by Hugh: Fringe.

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "Angels in Manhattan"

Identified by Hugh: Defiance.

Television and Cinema Verities: John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) Edition

"I screened the final cut [of Halloween], minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century-Fox (I was interviewing for another possible directing job). She wasn't scared at all. I then became determined to "save it with the music."

- John Carpenter discusses one movie executive's response to his first cut of Halloween (1978), in the liner notes of the films soundtrack album, from Varese Sarabande. "A Note from the Director and Composer," by John Carpenter, February 5, 1983.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Advert Artwork: Mr.Machine Edition (Ideal)

Mission: Impossible: "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" (1969)

A suspenseful game of Cold War chess, "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" gets my vote for the all-time best episode of Bruce Geller's Mission: Impossible (1966-1973). 

This third season installment -- originally aired in mid-January of 1969 -- commences with a close-up shot of Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) unlocking a small padlock to gain entrance to a secret location and receive his taped orders. 

The remainder of the episode involves how Jim unlocks the mind of his opposite number in a foreign intelligence unit: one wily and devilish mastermind named Stefan Miklos (Steve Ihnat). 

Specifically, Phelps must establish for the brilliant Miklos that a man named Townsend (Jason Evers) is still working for Miklos' government and is not, in fact, a double agent for the Americans, as has been suggested by another foreign agent, the conniving Simpson (Ed Asner). 

Why the con? 

Because Townsend possesses top-secret but false information that the U.S. government wants Miklos' government to believe and act upon.  

Therefore, Miklos must believe that Townsend is still trustworthy, along with his information. 

Yet in order to believe this carefully constructed-lie, Miklos must "discover" what he deems the truth himself. He must see through a carefully-constructed "frame" of Townsend that Phelps has painstakingly created.  His ego must be satisfied that he has arrived at the right conclusions.

Got that? 

Good...because "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" is almost impossible to explain in terms of language, yet perfectly understandable -- perfectly plain -- in the watching.

In large part this is due to director Robert Butler's frequent use of extreme close-ups and insert shots to highlight important narrative clues (an airport locker key, a passport, etc.).  

This is one reason I have always admired Mission: Impossible: because the series' creators always understood that television is primarily a visual medium and acted upon that knowledge. 

During the episode's opening briefing with Cinnamon (Barbara Bain), Rollin (Martin Landau), Willy (Peter Lupus) and Barney (Greg Morris), Phelps describes his foe, Miklos,  as "cold, calculating and ruthless," and a man with "no weaknesses, no flaws," thereby setting up the character as a truly worthy adversary; one quite different from the run-of-the-mill villains featured on the series.  

Miklos is a man quite expert at mind-games, one not easily led to a conclusion, so Jim must make certain his plan for Miklos is not too obvious...but also not so byzantine that he can't decipher it. 

To employ a cliche, it's a tightrope walk all the way.

The only way to defeat Niklos - a man "invulnerable" except "to himself" --  is for Jim to play on Miklos' own cunning; to manipulate his belief in himself and his abilities. To accomplish this, Jim and his team lead Miklos through a precise maze of small clues and have him think his way to the "right" (or is it wrong?) conclusion.  

Rollin plays Miklos, with Simpson.
Those clues -- also revealed in true M:I-styled economical, visual  storytelling -- involve small, simple things: a match-book, a painting and a small time discrepancy.

Each clue is surreptitiously offered to Miklos only once, but Phelps gambles on his enemy's photographic memory (shown as almost subliminal flash-cuts or freeze-frames in the body of the episode).

Phelp's only advantage over Miklos in this "sting"-type tale is the fact that one foreign agent (Simpson) has never seen another foreign agent (Miklos). 

Therefore, Rollin impersonates Miklos with Simpson; and then turn around and impersonates Simpson with Miklos. What brass!

Rollin plays Simpson, with Miklos.
This gambit -- with Rollin playing two roles --  permits series regular Martin Landau to craft two truly fine, very different performances: one aping the suspicious Simpson (Asner) and one mimicking the cool, brilliant Miklos.  

What's even more amazing about these tour-de-force performances is that Landau dances between them, back-to-back, scene-to-scene and -- again -- the viewer always knows precisely "who" Landau is supposed to be. 

It's terrific work, and Landau pulls it off with real joie de vivre. If you look at the two photos of Rollin featured in this post, you can see that Landau's face actually looks different when he's playing Miklos and Simpson, but no make-up or prosthetics are employed. It's all done in the way this actor carries himself.

The tension in "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" keeps spiking for two reason, primarily.  

The first involves split-second timing. Barney and Willy must get Rollin's photograph into a hollow statue base, taking out Asner's photo in the process. 

But Miklos is en route from the airport and arrives to pick up the statue (and the secret package inside) early...necessitating Barney speed up his delicate work (which involves cutting through a display shelf with a saw...).  Here the plan nearly falls apart. 

The matchbook of a left-handed man?
The second reason for suspense involves the fact that Jim's entire strategy hinges on the idea that Miklos is that "cool, calculating" mastermind, and not a man subject to whim or the vicissitudes of the moment. 

At one late juncture, Jim realizes how much is riding on his assumption about Miklos' character. 

"He's letting his emotion affect his reason," Jim complains. "He's never done that before. Maybe I was too clever. Maybe the matchbook and the painting and the time discrepancy were too subtle for him to pick up!"

Finally, Miklos does fall into Jim's trap. He sees through the carefully orchestrated frame job, and puts together the final three clues (the aforementioned match book, painting and time discrepancy.) He thus concludes that since someone is trying to sabotage Townsend, his information must be true...and accurate. 

Jim has led him to his downfall.

And finally, this is why this Mission:Impossible episode is such a classic.  Miklos -- his conclusion reached -- stops to experience a moment of empathy for his unseen, unnamed opponent (Phelps). 

"I wish I could meet the man that masterminded the operation," he says. "He played the game brilliantly, but he lost. It'll destroy him."

A watch set back a few minutes...

The irony here is powerful. Miklos doesn't know it, but he's actually talking about himself. 

He has arrived at the wrong conclusion (that the information belonging to Townsend is correct) and it will, indeed, destroy him. Miklos played the game well, but Phelps played it better.


What I adore about this moment, is that just as Miklos notes how "losing" will "destroy" his unseen nemesis, the episode cuts away from Miklos to a close-up of Jim

Yet Jim is not gloating or swaggering at having beaten his genius opponent. Instead, he is composed and there's sympathy evident on his face. He knows what Miklos does not; that Miklos is speaking about himself.

Game over and mission accomplished: Miklos believes the wrong man.

Jim also knows that there but for the grace of God goes he

It could have very easily been Phelps and the Americans who were "tricked" in such an elaborate covert operation. The roles might have been reversed. 

What the viewer thus detects of Jim Phelps in "The Mind of Stefan Miklos"  is this sense of respect for the opponent and for the game. But also Phelps' intrinsic humanity. He executed the checkmate perfectly, but he still feels compassion for the loser. He knows there are professional and personal consequences for the (brilliant) Miklos.

Moments like this -- told only with a silent expression on a chiseled face or through clever editing selections -- put truth to the oft-told lie that Mission: Impossible was a show just about the job, and never about the people doing the job. 

In "The Mind of Stefan Miklos" the viewer gains a clear sense (again through the careful visuals) of Jim's respect for his enemy, and also the jeopardy that Jim puts himself in every week to defend this country. The episode thus becomes very much about character. 

For Jim, this is not just an impossible mission...it's personal.

Outré Intro: Mission Impossible (1966 - 1972)

One of the greatest and perhaps most influential TV openings in history comes from the caper TV series Mission: Impossible, created by Bruce Geller.  

I remain an ardent admirer of the TV series -- more so than of the film franchise -- because of the team dynamics and the intricacy and cleverness of the plots. The team aspect of the drama gets you rooting for the group, not just a James Bond-like hero, and the intricacy of the Impossible Mission Force strategies generates a surprising level of suspense, even nearly fifty years later.

The primary conceit of the Mission: Impossible opening montage is simple: the fire has been lit, and an explosion is imminent.  In the meantime, we get an on-screen countdown of sorts to the fireworks.

Accordingly, the first images of the montage showcase a hand striking a match, and lighting that fire. In this case, that fire is represented by a super-imposed optical effect, a kind of moving white wick that burns from left to right across the screen.  

This "lighting of the match" and sparking a "fire" also serve as metaphors, clearly for the show's foreign policy approach.

The IMF force -- without direct legal sanctioning -- goes into action, lighting a fire, essentially, under enemies of America, and then waiting (often patiently...) for those fires to explode.  

Only, much like the taped introductions that open each mission (or episode), the fires don't burn America or the IMF team, they cause the "self-destruction" of the enemy instead.

After the match is lit, the wick (with a burning tail...) continues to move across the screen and we are treated to a dazzling, brilliantly-cut montage of images from the episode in question.

The following frames are from the 1968 story "A Game of Chess." These images are cut at a rapid pace, to the music, and generate excitement and tension from the get go.

The same technique -- flash-cutting to imagery of a specific episode within the general introductory montage -- has also been used to great effect on another Martin Landau/Barbara Bain series, Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977), and more recently, the re-imagination of Battlestar Galactica (2003 - 2008).  I love this technique, it really amps up the excitement for the episode that is about to air. You wonder how all the pieces are going to fit together.

Also, this is a good time to mention that the well-shot images and perfectly-edited "clips" of each episode would not work so well in execution without the unforgettable theme song composed by Lalo Schifrin, which has become iconic in the pop-culture, and has been deployed for the modern feature film series because of its effective generation of suspense.

What you may notice in the following montage is the focus on items, on gadgetry, on tools. We see chess boards, brooches, gold bars, a safe combination, and other tools of the espionage trade.

And this is important to note for historical context. Mission: Impossible arose out of the James Bond fad of the 1960s, and focused on the ways that new (miniaturized) technology, when combined with psychological warfare and spycraft, could change the destiny of a political leader, or even a country.

Next, teletype-style, we get the first word of the series' title typed out.  The word is "Mission," and uniquely, the agents conducting the mission appear in title cards which resemble puzzle pieces. These agents -- whom we know only from their work, in the various strategies -- are the puzzle pieces that move around, fulfilling different roles at different times.

Finally, the wick reaches the bomb, and the title of the series literally explodes off the screen.  This title layout is, again, something of a pop-culture trademark. It appeared recently, for instance, in Weird Al's video for Word Crimes.  Only there, the screen read Mission: Literacy.

Below, the opening intro for "The Emerald," another episode of 1968. Just try to tell me it doesn't get your blood pumping.  Excitement, intrigue, and explosive interactions...the very stuff of Mission: Impossible.

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...