Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advert Artwork: The Brady Bunch Fan Club Edition

Amazing Stories: "Lane Change" (January 12, 1987)

In the second season Amazing Stories (1985 – 1987) episode “Lane Change” by Ali Marie Matheson, a business-woman, Charlene (Kathy Baker) is driving on a rain-swept highway alone at night. She picks up an older stranger (Priscilla Pointer), who needs a lift to the next gas station.

On the road together, Charlene and the older woman strike up a conversation, and talk about the fact that Charlene is leaving her husband George because he didn’t fight for her when she announced she wanted to leave him.  

As they drive and talk, Charlene sees several strange sights on the road, including her father’s Studebaker, and the car she and George shared on their honeymoon…

I won't pull my punches: Amazing Stories is one of the most crushingly disappointing TV series in history. 

Perhaps expectations were too high, given Spielberg’s film pedigree and blockbuster track-record. 

Or perhaps the series simply lacked a cohesive hook, an umbrella of unity like “the Twilight Zone” or “the Darkside,” which was immediately accessible and understandable to audiences.

For whatever reason, some Amazing Stories episodes are just the pits. “Fine Tuning,” “Hell Toupee,” “Miscalculation,” and “Secret Cinema” are absolutely groan-worthy entries.  

Other tales feature a brilliant build-up, like “The Mission,” but end in ignominy with magical happenings and sharp left turns into fantasy that negate the sense of reality so arduously-created previously. 

Many of the stories seem designed simply to show off a large budget, but have nothing to say about human nature.  The stories aren't amazing so much as thin and two-dimensional.  

As a kid in the eighties I watched every episode, at least in the first season, because I kept hoping the series would get something right.

It did, occasionally, like "The Amazing Farnsworth," for certain.  But on a weekly basis, Amazing Stories got its clock cleaned by the new Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside or even The Hitchhiker.

One episode that bucks this trend is “Lane Change,” which originally aired on January 12, 1987. The entire episode takes place in a car, as two women talk to one another, and discuss life, relationships, missed opportunities, and the future. 

The episode has no special effects to speak of, no tone-shattering lunges towards dumb comedy, and no schmaltzy reaches for unearned sentimentality. 

Instead, "Lane Change" is an economical story about the way that we sometimes let ourselves become passengers in our own lives, and let someone else do the driving.

Specifically, Charlene remembers the behavior of her father. 

When her mother died when Charlie was young, the little girl cried on the way home from the funeral. Her father punished her for showing such weakness, and made her sit in the back of the aforementioned Studebaker because “babies” sit in the back.  

Unwittingly, and perhaps even sub-consciously, Charlene has grown-up to live her father’s life, Now she is sacrificing her marriage because she can’t respect a man like George...because he cries. 

Subconsciously she has assumed her father's draconian, unemotional world view.

That’s just a piece of the episode’s puzzle. As the title indicates, it is possible, while driving, to change lanes, to pick a new direction.  We may end up at bad places sometimes, but we can always get back out on the highway, take another turn, and make a better choice. 

“Lane Change,” at its most basic level concerns a woman who averts a bad decision. Charlene changes lanes and arrives at a better destination for herself; a destination promised by the presence of Priscilla Pointers’ character.

This episode of Amazing Stories feels a lot like an entry in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and that’s because “Lane Change” remembers that human beings, not visual effects or gimmicks, make for the best storytelling.  

“Lane Change” is uniformly well-acted, and rather emotional too. If you’ve ever let someone else “drive” your decisions -- even unconsciously -- you’ll understand where Charlene is coming from in this episode.  So many Amazing Stories episodes are stylish with no substance...shallow, facile tales that don't amaze in the slightest.  

"Lane Change" is an intimate step in the right direction.

Outré Intro: Amazing Stories (1985 - 1987)

The 1985-1986 television season brought the world the Great Anthology War. It was the year that CBS revived The Twilight Zone, The Ray Bradbury Theater premiered in syndication, and NBC resurrected Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Meanwhile, The Hitchhiker and Tales from the Darkside were already broadcasting their later seasons on HBO and in local syndication, too. 

The most ballyhooed anthology of all, however, was Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories, which aired on Sunday nights at 8:00 pm on NBC, and which was guaranteed for a full two seasons --  a whopping forty-four episodes -- before the first episode even premiered. Each half-hour installment was budgeted at the princely-sum of $800,000 dollars.

Amazing Stories, however, didn't quite live up to the hype.

In fact, I'll never forget my (bitter) disappointment with the series' first few installments. "Ghost Train" was a special effects-laden variation of an old One Step Beyond story called "Goodbye, Grandpa," only re-made to tug at the heart-strings, and "The Mission" -- a claustrophobic, well-shot World War II story set aboard a damaged bomber -- ended with a fantasy cartoon moment out of left field.  

Critics didn't hold back. 

The New York Times called the series a "spotty skein of cliches, sentimentality and ordinary hokum." Tom Shales termed the Spielberg program "one of the worst ten shows of all time, in any category...over-cute and over-produced...with primitive premises."  

And at The New Leader Marvin Kitman coined the series "Appalling Stories."

Despite the bad reviews, however, the opening or introductory montage for Amazing Stories remains absolutely stirring. 

Accompanied by a soaring, triumphant John Williams theme song, the introduction dramatizes -- in a short amount of time -- nothing less than the entire history of storytelling.

We begin in prehistory, as a caveman family (no, not Korg 70,000 BC...) sits around a blazing campfire, and a grandfatherly tribe leader dramatically tells a remarkable tale, his loved ones at rapt attention.  

As the camera probes closer, we see, in close-up, the man's passion for his stories. At this point in our development, oral storytelling was the mode of communicating and maintaining a common or shared history.

In the next series of images, we move up through the ashes of the tribe's camp-fire, and ascend towards modernity.

First, we see an ancient Egyptian construction, a tomb perhaps, and witness a scroll unfurl, with a story inscribed upon it.  

Next, we move up and forward into the Middle Ages, and a cathedral, where a bound book flies the length of the chamber.

The CGI here may look primitive today, but it still gets the job done.  The imagery reminds us of the role that the written word, and storytelling, have played in human civilization across the centuries.  In this span, words on a page are a way of maintaining history, and sharing favorite tales.

Next, the flying book promises stories of horror (represented by a painting of a haunted house) and magic (symbolized by a magician's black hat, and playing cards...).

We're not just countenancing run-of-the-mill stories then, the imagery suggests, but amazing, wondrous ones.

Next, a book is opened, and on the page an illustration of a knight comes to life, suggesting that stories serve a wonderful purpose: They ignite the imagination.

The knight transforms, next, into a spaceship, and so we consider the idea that when we broach the stars in our future, we will continue to tell stories, and take our cherished stories with us.

The spaceship veers off and we turn our attention back to planet Earth.  We move toward the planet, and careen down towards a 20th century city in America...

The lights of the city at night become, intriguingly, a circuit-board on a TV or computer, suggesting that in our age, technology -- not the voice of the prehistoric cave leader, or the bound scrolls and books of antiquity -- bring us our favorite tales.  Once more, the mode of transmission has been altered, but not man's love of stories and storytelling.

The montage ends with that same cave-man from the opening imagery.  Only now, we are watching his story on our TV set, an act which completes the tradition and history of human storytelling.  The cave man's story, with us since the very beginning, is now transmitted to millions on television, as a middle-class, 20th century family watches.

Next our series title forms.

Say what you want about the quality of the actual stories depicted on this Steven Spielberg TV series, the introduction remains an inspiration, and a wonderful journey through the history of storytelling. 

 Perhaps the stories themselves felt so lacking, in part, because this introduction (and John Williams theme...) raised expectations to a near impossible level.

Here's the intro to Amazing Stories in living color:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg 70,000 BC: "The Running Fight"

In “The Running Fight,” Bok (Bill Ewing) is bitten by a large spider while out hunting, and begins to act erratically and violently, threatening the family.

Korg (Jim Malinda) understands that the spider bite can do “strange things” to men, and uses himself as a distraction, allowing Bok to hunt him rather than the family until the venom in Bok’s blood stream weakens.

But Bok has “super human strength” brought on by the bite, and is the better hunter of the two brothers…

Penned by frequent Star Trek (1966 – 1969) author Oliver Crawford (1917 – 2008), “The Running Fight” is a solid episode of Korg 70,000 BC, except for the technical matter of a very fake looking spider.  

The installment opens in picturesque fashion at Vasquez Rocks, but never quite recovers from the appearance of the furry, immobile arachnid, which bites Bok on the face, over his eye. Bok’s red, swollen face looks much more convincing than the spider itself.

This is also the first episode, I believe, that has explicitly noted Bok is actually Korg’s brother, although I suppose it could be surmised from earlier segments. Clearly, Bok’s importance to the family -- as brother, uncle, and hunter -- means that he must survive the crisis more or less intact. 

This means Korg can’t harm him, and must risk being his quarry while he is in a deranged state. One nice element of this final chase is Korg’s decision to change directions so that the sun is in Bok’s eyes, slowing hi down during his pursuit.

Narrator Meredith notes in this episode that “Neanderthal Man does not venture by himself except in extraordinary circumstances,” and it’s a sound byte that gets reused throughout the series. 

In terms of the threat of the week, the furry spiders which live in Vasquez Rocks, Korg 70,000 wasn’t on too fanciful ground. 

In 2011, a prehistoric spider fossil was discovered in Mongolia in 2011.The weird impact of the spider venom, however, causing Bok to forget his family and act violently, is all fiction.

Next week: “Magic Claws.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "Who am I?"

In the BraveStarr episode “Who am I?,” Tex-Hex’s minion Vipra steals the Lost Book of the Ancients, and uses its magic spells to embark on a reign of terror.  She manifests giant snakes to trap Jamie, uses a spell to make herself fly, and renders BraveStarr an amnesiac.

BraveStarr learns from the Shaman at Star Peak that his memories are still there,” but they are “locked behind a door” and only he can find the key to unlock them.

Meanwhile, Vipra attacks Fort Kerium, steals the keys to the city and renders herself both marshal and mayor of the frontier town.

One of the great TV clichés is the amnesia story.

Captain Kirk suffered from amnesia and went native as Kirok in Star Trek’s “The Paradise Syndrome.”  Buffy the Vampire Slayer suffered amnesia in “Tabula Rasa” and imagined herself a regular girl.  Even Superman forget his identity for a spell in “Panic in the Sky.

BraveStarr takes a stab at the trope this week, with “Who am I?,” a story that suggests -- in the tradition of the earlier amnesia tales – that even without memories, we are destined to be true to our identities.

“Who am I” is a more action-packed episode than some earlier installments of BraveStarr, and pits the friendly marshal against the evil Vipra, a powerful villainess equipped with a spell book of “The Ancients.”  She is virtually invincible with the tome in hand, but BraveStarr summons his feelings of love and friendship to restore his identity and defeat her.

What could have made the story feel a little less familiar was more background on the Lost Book of the Ancients.  Before it is stolen by Tex Hex and Vipra, it arrives on New Texas in a top-scret space cruiser, under protection from Galaxy soldiers.  It is termed "the most dangerous book in all the galaxy." 

But why is it being brought to BraveStarr, and who are the Ancients?

Next week: “The Vigilantes.”

Friday, November 28, 2014

Godzilla: 1985

Godzilla: 1985, or Return of Godzilla (1985) is the first and only Godzilla movie I was fortunate enough to see theatrically before 1998.

The film showed at the Center Theater in Bloomfield, New Jersey, close to my home in Glen Ridge, and my best friend Bob and I went to see it together.  I don’t believe I liked the film very much at the time. It seemed cheap and overly-sentimental.

All I knew was that I really liked Godzilla himself.

Always did.

I can write definitively, today -- after a re-watch and almost three decades later -- that I admire Godzilla: 1985 and now consider it to be one of the most underrated films in the entire Godzilla canon. Many critics and audiences at the time were only able to view the film in terms of its special effects, which in America were considered primitive. 

Like my teenage self, those critics missed the forest for the trees.

Godzilla: 1985 kicks off the Heisei period of Godzilla film history, a deliberate un-writing all Godzilla movies post-1954.  And while I don’t think it was necessary to reboot the franchise quite so aggressively, I certainly understand the desire to get back to basics, or to tweak beloved material so it remains current, and vital.

In terms of metaphor, Godzilla: 1985 works very effectively indeed because it was produced at a time that might be considered a corollary for the 1950s, the era that shaped King of Monsters.

In the eighties, the Cold War was burning hot following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, and President Reagan was a right-wing hawk who called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire” and joked on an open mic about “bombing” Russia in five minutes. 

These points are important because the fears that had given rise to Godzilla in the first place were so blatantly rearing their heads again as the Cold War grew hot. Other genre films from this era including The Day After (1983), Dreamscape (1984), Testament (1984) and Threads (1984), and they all obsessed on nuclear war and the environmental fall-out that would follow.

Accordingly, Godzilla returns in Godzilla: 1985 to threaten Japan at this important historical juncture, when nuclear tensions were as high as they had been since the early 1960s and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A key character in the film is Japan’s Prime Minister, a man who must balance the aggression/agendas of the United States and the U.S.S.R. as they pertain to Japan and its involvement in its own defense.  He must decide if he should stand by a principle -- no nuclear weapons to be used on Japanese soil, ever -- or kowtow to the demands of international partners.

I have read that some fans consider Godzilla: 1985 too “political” an entry in the series because of this plot l, but I believe the Godzilla films always  work best when they play off of specific real life fears or dreads, and react meaningfully to the dangers of their era.  Godzilla: 1985 certainly qualifies on that front.

Boasting surprisingly artful compositions and a screenplay that explicitly understands why Godzilla is “tragic” and “innocent,” but not evil, Godzilla: 1985 is actually a smart, well-crafted entry in the franchise.

Raymond Burr returns to his role of Steve Martin from the Americanized film, Godzilla: King of Monsters, and his character notes trenchantly here that “when mankind falls into conflict with nature, monsters are born.” 

Those portentous words not only define the spirit and purpose of the kaiju films in general, they comment on the 1980s Cold War period, a period that threatened to very quickly spiral out of control if tempers were not controlled. 

“One lizard is down for the count.”

The great monster Godzilla, not seen in Japan for thirty years, is learned to be near the beleaguered country once more.  Godzilla attacks a fishing boat, Yahata Maru, and also a Russian submarine, precipitating a nuclear stand-off between Cold War enemies East and West.

Armed with evidence that Godzilla is responsible for the sunken submarine, the Japanese Prime Minister, Seiki Mitamura (Keiju Kobayashi) announces the truth to the world.  Before long, both the Americans and the Russians are eager to destroy Godzilla using nuclear weapons, but Prime Minister Mitamura is unequivocal. There will be no nuclear weapons used on Japanese soil, no matter Godzilla’s destruction.

After absorbing the energy from a nuclear reactor, Godzilla lands in Tokyo Bay, and is confronted by the new military weapon, Super X. The plane’s cadmium missiles knock Godzilla out, but an accidental detonation high in the atmosphere of a Russian nuke soon brings him back to life.

While American Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), the “only American to survive” the disaster of 1954 consults with the American military, a scientist in Japan, Dr. Hayashida (Yasuke Natsuki) realizes that Godzilla -- whose brain is apparently like that of a bird -- responds to bird calls. 

Hayashida plans to lead Godzilla to the lip of a volcano, where controlled explosions will destroy the ground beneath him, and send the monster careening into the magma below…

“Sayonara, sucker…”

In Godzilla: 1985, Godzilla destroys a Russian nuclear submarine, and tensions between Cold War enemies escalate.  The Japanese Prime Minister, Mitamura, quickly makes a statement affirming Godzilla’s responsibility in the matter. 

After doing this -- to defuse nuclear war -- the prime minister, however, must deal with two nations that want him to act in a specific way.  Specifically, the matter of using nuclear weapons on Japanese soil is raised, and the prime minister expressly forbids it.

Impressively, Godzilla: 1985 sets up a nice visual framework here, suggesting the nature of the pressure the prime minister faces. 

In two separate compositions, we see the fluttering flags of the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. on diplomatic cars as they speed their representatives to a diplomatic conference. The impression is that these two states are rushing to an answer, but not really considering the problem. Nationalism is the overriding concern, as represented by the flags, and the issue is accelerating towards a boiling point, as represented by the fluttering, wavy flags.

A few minutes later, Prime Minister Mitamura is lobbied by both an American and Russian representative at the conference.  The very shots here reveal the kind of pressure he faces.  His face is seen in the corner of the frame, edged-out, virtually, as the representative in question makes his point, literally taking center stage. Then we see the same shot, but with the other nationalist.

Taken together, these two compositions suggest that the Japanese official is actually caught between a rock and a hard place. If he doesn’t satisfy both suitors, as it were, nuclear war could be the terrifying outcome.

Godzilla: 1985 also suggests that, born of nuclear or atomic power, Godzilla craves it as a form of nourishment or energy.  He absorbs a Japanese nuclear reactor and goes on his merry way, but the metaphorical implication is that once nuclear power is used, the door on its use can’t be easily closed.

Godzilla isn’t a one time “event.” 

Instead, he constantly craves the nourishment that reactors provide, and we can parse that idea to mean that once we incorporate nuclear energy into our regular usage patterns, it is impossible to remove it easily.  

Godzilla -- and the civilized world – is “addicted” to the power that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy provide.  And nuclear energy is, by its mere nature, dangerous.

The nuclear tensions between the Russians and Americans actually strengthen Godzilla, as we see in the film. A detonation over Tokyo -- caused by the Soviets -- provides the energy the goliath needs to overcome the cadmium missiles of Japan’s flying weapon, the Super X. 

I also admire the subplot in Godzilla: 1985, largely brought forward in the American version by Raymond Burr’s character, Martin.  It states, essentially, that to conquer Godzilla, one must not use weapons of war. 

Instead, one must seek to understand his nature.  “He’s looking for something…searching,” Martin tells the military.  “If we can find out what it is before too late…

That line may sound silly in the cold light of day, but it’s an important expression about understanding – and listening -- to nature.

Although I am a big fan of the colorful and mostly kid-friendly Godzilla movies of the 1970s, I also admire how Godzilla: 1985 attempts to maintain the menace and mystery of Godzilla. 

Almost every scene involving the big green lizard is set at night, in darkness.  Somehow, under an impenetrable, ebony sky, Godzilla looks all the more real, and terrifying.  His landing in Tokyo Bay is a great set-piece, and the miniature work of his destructive stomp through the city is a great improvement over similar scenes in the 1970s. 

I also dig the moment at the reactor when a guard spots Godzilla, and the camera pans up and up and up and up, to his roaring mouth.  This moment does a fine job of suggesting Godzilla’s sheer size.

Similarly, there are more moments here than in previous Godzilla films wherein the camera is tilted up, gazing at the beast from a low angle, thus demonstrating his massive scale.  In many cases, Godzilla really looks “huge” and not just like a man on a suit, stomping through a miniature sound-stage.  The right angle and the right point of view matter.

Finally, Godzilla: 1985 does a terrific job of walking the line about the monster’s contradictions.  Godzilla is a terror, to be certain, and yet he is also in Martin’s words “strangely innocent and tragic.”  

This description is a knowing and sympathetic way of acknowledging that Godzilla is both a monster, and, in a weird way, a beloved character to the audience.  My biggest complaint about the American Godzilla (1998) is that it never decides how the audience should feel about the monster.  Should we love him or hate him?

Godzilla: 1985 makes a choice in that regard, and a good one.  It reminds us that Godzilla is a terrible natural threat -- a hurricane or a volcano with thunderous thighs, essentially -- but that we can still feel sorry for him as a living being out of his time, and out of his place.  We can have empathy or him, because we made him what he is…

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...