Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg 70,000 B.C.: "The Picture Maker"

In “The Picture Maker,” Korg and his family rescue a mute boy, Moon, while out hunting.  

Although Moon is unable to speak, he can communicate by drawing pictures in the sand with a stick. 

To Korg and his family, this seems like a magical -- and useful -- gift.

However, Moon’s family comes looking for him. He has shown cowardice during his first hunt, and if he can’t hunt, he can’t eat.  And if he can’t eat, he will die. The men in his family refuse to hunt for him any more.

Korg (Jim Malinda) and Mara (Naomi Pollack) attempt to convince Moon’s family that he has other gifts of value, beyond hunting, particularly his ability to communicate by drawing.

“The Picture Maker” is a sort of new template for Korg 70,000 B.C. Future stories, including “The Ancient One” and “The Story of Lumi” follow the same pattern that unfolds here.  Basically, a stranger is welcomed into the Korg family, despite the scarcity of resources (food and water).  But that person, despite being an extra mouth to feed, reveals that he or she has virtues, and can contribute something important to the family. 

When the visitor’s family of origin arrives to take the visitor away, Korg and his family attempt to impart this lesson to the other group.

It’s not a bad template, for certain, but it is repetitive.  This week, we meet Moon, a boy who can’t talk or hunt, but can draw.  Next week, it’s Lar, a dying old man who can’t physically hunt, but can share his hunting experience for the good of the community. 

Although I like the message, and it is important to recall that the series is designed for children of the 1970s, it is a little jarring to hear a Neanderthal women tell a rival tribes-people that “there are other meanings to life besides hunting.”  I just don’t believe that the world we have seen depicted in the series so far – a world of extreme fear and ignorance, often – would have such an enlightened point of view.  Many people today still don’t have that enlightened point of view, and try to put people into boxes.  But here is Korg 70,000 B.C., preaching cave man tolerance.

As I said, I like and appreciate the message (and in fact, agree with it), but it’s hard to swallow this moral lesson coming from these characters who, on several occasions, have gone into full blown panic attacks (not to mention catatonic paralysis…) because they don’t understand how the world works.

Next week: “The Ancient One.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Secrets of Isis: "The Lights of Mystery Mountain"

The highest rated program on Saturday morning television circa 1975-1976 was the superhero program The Secrets of Isis, originally a portion of The Shazam/Isis Hour on CBS.

Created by Filmation under the aegis of Lou Scheimer, The Secrets of Isis starred beautiful Joanna Cameron as Andrea Thomas, a science (chemistry) teacher at Larkspur High School who -- on a trip to Egypt -- unearthed a golden Egyptian amulet that gave her “the powers of animals” and “power of the elements.

After this great discovery, Thomas became -- in the words of the voice-over narrator (Lou Scheimer) -- a “dual person,” both a mild-mannered teacher and the remarkable deity, Isis.

In “the premiere episode of The Secrets of Isis, The Lights of Mystery Mountain" -- which first aired on NBC on September 6, 1975 -- Andrea is faced with an unusual mystery. One of her students, Cindy Lee (Joanna Pang) photographs what appear to be flying saucers over Mystery Mountains.

Additionally, there are reports of an abandoned car in the area and “burn spots” on the ground nearby, telltale signs, perhaps, of an alien abduction.

 A panic begins to build among the locals. “What are you going to do if we bring you back a real life UFO?” Andrea asks her superior at Lakespur.

Andrew, Cindy and Rick Mason (Brian Cutler) investigate the mystery, and soon learn that a shady real estate developer, Mr. Moss, has been arranging false UFO sightings with the help of two teenage boys.

The boys believed it was all just a harmless prank at first, but soon realized that Moss meant business, and was trying to run off the denizens of Mystery Mountain so he could purchase the land and tap into a newly discovered vein of gold.

Fortunately, Isis teaches Mr. Moss a lesson. She first pursues him by air. “Oh Sun that changes day to night, help me stop this man in flight,” she declares, invoking the power to fly and chase him.

Later, Mighty Isis corners Mr. Moss by stating “Ancient Sphinx – all knowing and wise – confront this man with his own lies.” Suddenly, a desperate Moss is ambushed by tiny UFOs and -- his mind cracked -- he begs for help from Isis. She takes him to the local sheriff and the matter is finally resolved.

As you can probably tell from the above-synopsis, The Secrets of Isis isn’t exactly high-brow entertainment, but nor was it meant to be. Instead, the episode plays – roughly – at the level of a Super Friends episode of the mid-1970s era. In other words, there’s no real violence to speak of, nothing particularly dangerous happens in the story, and a strong moral lesson is conveyed by the end of the twenty-two minutes.

Much of the program plays like warmed-over Adventures of Superman clichés, with characters noting that they never see Isis and Andrea at the same place at the same time. Meanwhile, Rick Mason is the Lois Lane of the show; often in need of rescue and always condescending to Andrea while simultaneously in love with Isis.

What makes The Secrets of Isis particularly memorable for folks of Generation X is the presence of Joanna Cameron in the lead role. The actress conveys a strong sense of presence, decency and strength as Isis and -- by sheer force of charisma -- manages to overcome some of the poorer special effects and hackneyed plotting.

Dressed in a white, jewel-bedecked, sleeveless (and short….) gown and an Egyptian-style headdress, Cameron is an absolute knock-out too.

In the mid-1970s, female superheroes were the rage in the pop culture with the likes of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman, and Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl. Today, many kids of that era (myself included) retain strong memories and impressions of these super-powered women crime fighters, and it’s probably fair to state that the impression of strength, decency and power such characters exerted survives the sometimes weak storytelling on any particular series.

Of the bunch, The Bionic Woman is undoubtedly the best program overall, with Wonder Woman coming in a close second. The Secrets of Isis does not play its action as camp in the style of the Adam West Batman (1966-1968), like Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl, but today may nonetheless be interpreted as camp simply because tastes have changed so radically in the intervening thirty-plus years.

That fact established, The Secrets of Isis is still perfect, un-jaded entertainment for young children, and, I suppose, for those of interested in a sense of nostalgia.

One contextual, culture thing I observed in “The Lights of Mystery Mountain” is that the bad-acting teenagers learn their lesson, are repentant, and then treated with mercy and understanding by Isis. She sees that they are sorry for their actions, and sees no need to pursue the matter further, or ruin their futures over one mistake. In today’s America, I don’t think we’d see such mercy. Instead, the kids would be tried as adults, and locked up in jail for five to ten years.

The Secrets of Isis is an innocent Saturday Morning TV series for a much more innocent time in American history.

Next Weeks: "Spots of the Leopard."

Friday, January 16, 2015

At Flashbak: Size Doesn’t Matter? The Tiny Heroes of the Big and Small Screen

My new article at Flashbak looks at the miniature-sized heroes of TV and movie history. 

"This summer, Marvel introduces a diminutive superhero to general audiences with Ant-Man (2015) starring Paul Rudd.  The teaser trailer, released last week, suggests that this hero will possess a keen sense of humor about himself, and his tiny stature.

In the history of film and television, however, other heroes have also grappled with being, well, vertically challenged.

Here are a few of the most memorable pint-sized or miniaturized heroes in pop culture history..."

Found-Footage Friday: As Above, So Below (2014)

The found-footage horror movie As Above, So Below (2014) is a frightening and effective films of its sub-genre. I enjoy found-footage movies quite a bit, and lately some -- like The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) or Exists (2014) -- have really raised the bar. 

As Above, So Below deserves consideration in that regard, for certain. The film concerns a trip deep beneath Paris, into the bowels of Hell itself, and the movie succeeds for two primary reasons.

First, there is a strong psychological component to the action we see unfold on-screen. As Above, So Below explicitly involves the idea that we shape our own world and our own reality every single day.

We can shape it into a paradise…or into Hell on Earth. 

Whichever path we ultimately choose, we see the world through our own eyes, and therefore our own lens or perspective. We are the same above as below.  No matter where you go, there you are. Without being preachy or over-the-top about it, the film cleverly explores this leitmotif.

Secondly, in keeping with its overarching theme, As Above, So Below doesn’t depend on the typical-brand of thoughtless horror that we often see in the lesser found-footage horror films. Specifically, it doesn’t rely on jump scares or mindless run-arounds/chases. 

On the contrary -- and much like The Shining (1980) or Event Horizon (1997) -- the film’s horrific imagery consists of the Id’s darkest dreams made manifest in the flesh. The film features much nightmare fodder, including the out-of-place appearance of a piano and rotary phone. Out-of-context, these objects don’t sound scary or like appropriate avatars for fear. In context, however, they prove terrifying.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that As Above, So Below also treads head-first into the terrors of claustrophobia in the most effective manner since 2006’s The Descent. There are moments in the film that are extremely uncomfortable, and will likely scare you shitless.

As Above, So Below hasn’t, apparently, earned very strong reviews, and that’s a genuine surprise to me.  The film is imaginative, scary and intelligent, and therefore another redeeming entry in the ever-expanding found-footage canon.

“This quest is a path to madness.”

A brilliant young historian and scholar, Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) hopes to follow in her dead father’s footsteps.

In particular, she wishes to acquire the holy grail of Alchemy: the Philosopher’s Stone. This artifact is believed capable of turning base metals into gold, and more than that, grant a user the gift of immortality. 

Scarlett’s quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone takes her to a tomb in Iran, and then back to Paris, and the grave of legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel. Scarlett’s friend, George (Ben Feldman) is able to translate a code found in Iran, and apply it to directions hidden on the rear side of Flamel’s tomb-stone.

Together, they soon plot an expedition to go below Paris, into the ancient catacombs -- where literally millions of corpses lay buried -- to find the stone.

Scarlett’s friend, Benji (Edwin Hodge) documents the quest, and guiding them through the underworld is a French local named Papillon (Francois Civil).  But the journey will be treacherous. Flamel’s directions suggest that they must approach the “darkest gate,” the city of Hell itself, to find the stone.

Over George’s recalcitrance, the group descends into the catacombs. The team is unable to avoid a tunnel which Papillon says is “evil,” and from there, things only get worse. 

For one thing, the seekers encounter a gate labeled with the legend “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter…”

“This is the empire of the dead.”

As Above, So Below’s deeper meaning concern’s mankind’s on-going hunt for knowledge. We search for truths forbidden or dangerous, often at great physical risk, and the characters in this film certainly take such chances here. Why?  Because knowledge is worth the sacrifice. Scarlett is following in her father's footsteps for emotional reasons, but also because she sees the opportunity to know...the truth.

But uniquely, the filmmakers also understand the notion that knowledge and truth are universally received through the filter of…you. 

How you perceive knowledge is an individual thing, and therefore personal.

The film’s heroes are confronted with manifestations of the Underworld here that have deep meaning for them, and that, accordingly, serve to terrify them. One character deals with a guilty conscience, and another a sense of grievous loss that has never departed from his psyche. These fears manifest as objects in the catacombs, like an old, dusty piano that just happens to remind a character of the one his family used to own.  

Or, in the dark, confined tunnels -- somewhere around the next curve -- a rotary telephone rings and rings incessantly. Demanding to be answered.

Pick it up at your own risk.

Some characters outlast such terrors, and come out the other side. Others don’t. 

Our imagination can be our greatest asset, or our greatest vulnerability, and As Above, So Below acknowledges that reality while meting out the fates of these explorers in terror. At one point in the film, Scarlett realizes that the manifestations they must confront emerge straight from their own psychologies.  They are “real” in this place (near the darkest gate…) but she has a mantra -- cribbed from the alchemists -- by which to gird her senses:

 “As Above, So Below.”

That means you can conquer your demons once you understand them, and yourself. Once you understand that you are the same individual, the same psyche, no matter what terrain you happen to occupy.

The psychological aspect of the film makes As Above, So Below resonate more deeply than some examples of this sub-genre. We all boast inner demons and ghosts, and ways with which to cope with them. But the characters here must cope with them in the worst circumstances imaginable, in an underworld of albino priestesses, cloaked and deformed monsters, and demons that seem to literally burst from the cave walls.

Yet for all the great imagination the film showcases, the most harrowing scene concerns a very earthbound terror.  The cameraman, Benji (Edwin Hodge) must crawl through a tunnel (with a floor of bones) that is extremely tight.  

About half way in, he gets stuck.  

He tries everything to break loose, and yet can’t find a purchase. There’s no way backward or forward, and it's as if he is paralyzed. The moment is played out to agonizing, panic-inducing length. 

I admit it, this is personal to me. I have a bias. I am deeply, deeply bothered by the thought of being buried alive in a cave, trapped under tons of rock, with no route of escape. I don’t know why, precisely. I’m just wired that way.  

The Descent just about drove me up a wall with its finely-honed sense of claustrophobia, and As Above, So Below accomplishes the same feat.  My wife and I had to practice deep breathing together to get through the scene.  It’s that harrowing.

I suppose I admire the film precisely because of the yin/yang it embodies.  As above/so below.

Director John Erick Dowdle seems to appreciate and comprehend both the “irrational” aspect of the horror scenario here -- expressing something fearful that affects you on a deep, psychological level --  and the smart, intellectual aspect of the central scenario as well.  He understands what roils beneath the surface, and the surface itself.  Think of it as subconscious fear versus conscious thought.

The characters, but particularly Scarlett, take multiple opportunities in the film to think their way through crises. They do so using their fund of knowledge (alchemy and history), and their common sense. One terrific scene sees Scarlett and George attempting to solve the riddle of a hidden back door exit to a subterranean chamber with no obvious point of egress. 

The duo must select the right rock, utilizing a puzzle/directions to find it. But to move the correct rock, they must know the number of planets in the solar system, or rather the puzzle-maker's knowledge of the number of the planets during a previous historical epoch. This is one of the film's authentically brilliant moments, as the characters go back and forth, in rushed, staccato voice, piling on every bit of historical data they know before arriving at a decision.

As Above, So Below really hit a sweet-spot with me. It takes intelligent, resourceful characters, and asks them to think their way in and out of Hell itself. I found their efforts fascinating, riveting, terrifying, and finally rewarding.  

If the found-footage format can keep generating original, focused horror films like this one (as well as ones such as Exists, or Deborah Logan), the cliches about it being "dumb" or "cheap" may have to be cast aside permanently.

Movie Trailer: As Above, So Below (2014)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: The Running Man (1987)

"This is television, that's all it is. It has nothing to do with people, it's to do with ratings! For fifty years, we've told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear. For Christ's sake, Ben, don't you understand? Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give 'em what they want! We're number one, Ben, that's all that counts, believe me."

-Damon Killian, in The Running Man (1987) 

Based on a 1982 sci-fi novel by Richard Bachman (Stephen King, actually), the motion picture version of The Running Man (1987) arrived in theaters during the Great Year of Arnold Schwarzenegger; the very season that also brought audiences John McTiernan's spectacular Predator. 

Although viewers typically and rightly associate Schwarzenegger with action and s.f. films, The Running Man ably -- and rather surprisingly -- functions best as a pointed satire of American television and politics.  

While the writing and performances in this dystopian film tend towards the razor sharp, the action sequences in the film don't always hold up as well in terms of 21st century expectations. They feel episodic and repetitive.  To be certain, the film is a highly entertaining experience from start to finish, but never, precisely, the adrenalin-inducing thrill ride that some action fans might hope for or expect.

Still, it seems the film's trademark action scenes did inspire a real life competition TV series titled American Gladiators (1989 - 1996), right down to the spandex costumes. Also, one might argue that the episodic nature of the action sequences in the film in some way mirrors the episodic nature of television programming, which adheres strictly to formula, as unalterable as death or taxes.

Bachman/King's literary version of The Running Man remains far more grim, serious and spectacular in approach than the Schwarzenegger film, a fact which makes the possibility of a more source-faithful movie adaptation a possibility, especially in this age of remakes. The novel is set in a totalitarian America in 2025 and involves a man, Ben Richards, "running" on a popular TV program so as to pay for expensive medicine for his ailing daughter. 

The movie version eliminates this important character background and motivation, as well as the novel's incendiary, unforgettable ending; one which transforms Richards from a game show contestant to a bona-fide enemy of the state, martyr and so-called "terrorist." 

The 1987 movie version is less interested in creating real, identifiable characters and building a believable dystopian future world than it is in commenting humorously (if accurately) on aspects of our own  culture.  Not there's anything wrong with that.

Like I wrote above, it's the biting satire of American media and politics that makes The Running Man such a rewarding film to watch over twenty five years after it was released. If anything, the film's observations about our entertainment seems only more apt in 2015, after we've all endured more than a decade of reality television programming.

The movie version of The Running Man actually has much more in common with Roger Corman and Paul Bartel's trail-blazing Death Race 2000 (1975) than it does with King's literary portrait of a totalitarian future America.

In both Death Race 2000 and The Running Man, the media and the government have joined forces -- through a popular TV show -- to divert  the attention of the poverty-stricken masses. While the country fails, these "bread and circuses" successfully keep the populace distracted from real problems, namely the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots.  In both films, the popular TV show also overtly focuses on bloodshed and violence, either in the form of a cross-country race or a pedestrian chase.

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, The Running Man also shares much in common with another great 1987 science fiction movie: Verhoeven's RoboCop (which I'll be reviewing next Tuesday).

Both cinematic endeavors feature short, satirical commercials and imagery that reveal, at length, how crass and stupid network television can really be. Ironically, considering Schwarzenegger's presence, The Running Man also shares RoboCop's  anti-establishment suspicion of the ascendant right wing in America during the eighties. 

Where RoboCop humorously depicted the end result of privatizing anything and everything in America, including the police force, The Running Man gazes more directly at the cult of celebrity in America and the ever-increasing blending of politics and entertainment. 

Lest we forget it, a Hollywood actor was President of the United States in 1987 and, because of his advanced age, some folks considered him more a showman by many than an actual leader in terms of policy and administration. The Running Man takes that premise further, envisioning a wholesale blending of entertainment and politics at every level of government. 

For instance, at one point in the film, Killian (game show host Richard Dawson) barks "Get me the Justice Department...Entertainment Division."  In the same scene, he orders an underling to "get me the President's agent."  In another sequence, "court-appointed talent agents" are discussed.

The idea here is that Hollywood and politics are a match made in Heaven (or is it Hell?).  Both Hollywood and Washington D.C. focus on the same important task: selling imagery and fantasy, not reality, to an American populace desperately seeking hope, truth and justice.

The film is even more cynical than that description suggests. The Running Man posits that concepts such as justice are all just a game, anyway...a spin of the wheel of fortune.

And in the world of The Running Man, freedom isn't even on the board.  You can win such great prizes (if you're lucky...) as "trial by jury," "suspended sentence" and even "a full pardon," but real liberty is absent.  

"I'm not into politics.  I'm into survival."

The Running Man is set in the year 2019. The World Economy has collapsed and food, oil and natural resources are in short supply all over the United States. 

Because of these crises, a police state has arisen in America.  No dissent is tolerated, and television is controlled and created entirely by the State.

Helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is arrested by his fellow officers when he refuses to open fire on unarmed civilians during an urban food riot.  But the State manipulates video footage of this event and thus transforms the innocent Richards into "The Butcher of Bakersfield." 

This is another example of government's manipulation of media, and media imagery in the film; the transformation of a real-life hero into a hiss-able villain for wide-scale public consumption.  An easily digestible image or sound-bite is packaged and sold, rather than a possibly-damaging, harder-to-countenance reality.

Richards is sent to a work camp and spends the next eighteen months there.  After an escape from the labor camp, Ben Richards is apprehended by authorities thanks to lovely, Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso), a citizen who believes the lies about "The Butcher."

When Damon Killian (Dawson), host of the number one TV show, The Running Man, sees news footage of Richards in action, the ratings-hungry showman realizes he's discovered the next great star.  He quickly negotiates to have Ben Richards turned over to him.

Richards reluctantly appears on The Running Man, a game show in which contestants run for their lives...against terrible odds. There, he is pitted against government "heroes" -- really bloodthirsty killers --with names such as Sub-Zero, Bloodlust, Buzzsaw, Dynamite and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). 

However, if Richards can hook up with the People's Network, a growing resistance movement, and gain control of the Running Man transmission, Killian may have a few surprises coming his way...

"Mr. Richards, I'm your court-appointed theatrical agent."

The Running Man works overtime, and with more than a modicum of cleverness, to create a world in which image and reality don't match up. 

Again, this is what I have often termed the Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid/Don't Worry Be Happy duality of the decade. 

Americans were asked in the eighties s to believe that they could spend (much) more on national defense and pay lower taxes and shrink government all at the same time. 

This was the essence of  the argument in 1980, but by 1988, government had grown considerably, adding 61,000 Federal jobs to Washington. Also, taxes were raised three times, in 1983 (gas tax), in 1984, and in the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Finally, America piled on 2.7 trillion dollars to the national debt in those eight years.  The people were sold the very appealing mantra of lower taxes, smaller government and affordable defense, but that was not the reality that was delivered by Washington D.C.

The Running Man reflects the huge gap between reality and fantasy that we saw in real life during those years.  Damon Killian -- whose name always makes me think of Simon Cowell --  is a character who puts on a face of love and kindness for audiences. He kisses old ladies, and hand-holds nervous contestants. But he is actually a mean-spirited, power-mad, control-freak. In one scene, Killian nearly trips on a newly waxed floor in his office building. An employee apologizes to him, and Killian graciously accepts the apology to the employee's face. As soon as the custodian is gone, Killian orders him to be fired. The face of the establishment is affable, but the actions are destructive to those not in power.

This is just one small example of the reality/imagery gap. As mentioned above, Killian has the Bakersfield food riot videotape edited so that it presents a lie, the very opposite of the truth. A man who should be lauded as a hero, Richards, is instead despised as a villain...all so Killian can get better ratings. Similarly, Killian makes another attempt to deceive audiences late in the film, utilizing "traveling mattes" and other state-of-the-art special effects techniques to make it appear as though Richards is killed in the contest when, in fact, he has escaped unharmed.  The message: make people live in a constructed reality, rather than face real life.  Today we call this an ideological bubble.

Another of Killian's lies: last season's winners on The Running Man are not celebrating on a tropical beach somewhere, they've been murdered by Killian. 

Described succinctly, everything Killian does in public and for the TV show is a show. It bears no resemblance to reality. It's just show business...but this behavior is especially sinister in the film because lives are on the line, and the movie has explicitly connected show business to politics and government.

The people of America aren't exactly spared harsh criticism by this satire either. Although Killian repeatedly discusses "traditional morality" and such on The Running Man, the people in America are actually nourished on a steady diet of violence, avarice and perversion. 

We see this fact exemplified in one of the commercials made for the film, Climbing for Dollars, which shows hungry dogs nipping at the feet of contestants as they climb a rope, scrambling to collect money.

At another point, we see a poster for a television series titled "The Hate Boat."   Again, this is not traditional morality, it's sex and violence as governmental distraction or sleight-of-hand.  As long as we're watching the telly, we're not watching the actions of our overlords as they dismantle democracy.

The audience members watching The Running Man are particularly fickle too.  At first they mourn when their gladiators die in battle.  But soon enough, they are hooting and hollering in favor of Richards, the very man who killed their "favorites."

Again, the projected image is one of decency and traditional values, but it's not real.  "Words can't express" how sad the audience feels at the loss of their heroes says Killian. But then he cuts to commercials, and sells more "Cadre Cola."

Apparently mourning can't get in the way of making a few bucks. And the audience can't even remember who they were rooting for before the commercial break.  

The Running Man works efficiently as a satire because it reveals so well how films and TV can, in the wrong hands, be utterly manipulated and manipulative. The film's master-stroke regarding this leitmotif involves the casting of Richard Dawson, former host of Family Feud. Hiring Dawson was a real coup, because he very ably mocks his familiar game show persona but then layers on the screen character's private, caustic face.  Dawson makes for an extraordinary villain by playing on our expectations and then totally subverting them. 

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted: "Mr. Dawson, who was the host of television's long-running ''Family Feud'' game show, is wonderfully comic as a fellow who'd star his own beloved dad as the ''running man'' if it would buy him a few points. His hair always perfectly blow-dried, his haberdashery immaculate, Mr. Dawson steals the movie as a personality composed of equal parts of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore (Mickey) Robespierre."

More than the imposing Schwarzenegger, Dawson is the fuel that drives The Running Man, making it so very wicked, so much fun, and seemingly so real.

That established, this is also one of the Governator's most impressive film performances. The Washington Post wrote: "Pumped and primed for self-parody, the burly star proves as funny as he is ferocious in this tough guy's commentary on America's preoccupation with violence and game shows."  I agree with that review as well.  If Dawson is willing to mock his public image here (and he is), Schwarzenegger courageously goes down that same path with his co-star, even mimicking his most famous screen line, "I'll be back," and opening himself up for Dawson's great comeback.

"Only in reruns..."

There's something very post-modern happening here. The Running Man tackles the unholy juncture of television and politics at the same time that it playfully pivots off our intimate knowledge and affection for Dawson's and Schwarzenneger's familiar screen personas.  It's a very, very...meta equation, for lack of a better term.

I only wish that the action scenes in The Running Man were a little more varied, a little less predictable  A killer is called on stage, and then he goes in to hunt Richards.  Richard is victorious and it's time for another hunter.  Rinse and repeat. Watching the film, you get the distinct sense that all of the talent was energized by the film's witty ideas, but that the action scenes were sort of left to fend for themselves.  Of course, as I noted above, the repetitive nature of the fight scenes could be a deliberate allusion to the repetitive nature of game shows.  We tune in every week to see the same thing, don't we?

Still, The Running Man isn't out of steam, even today. It gets a lot of the "future" detail just right.  From fears of an economic collapse to fuel shortages, the film makes some pretty accurate guesses about the 2010s.  At one point, Ben Richards books his escape route/travel itinerary on an interactive television set, a precursor to something we do on the Internet now all the time. 

And also, of course, this 1987 film seems to understand that our television and politics were headed towards a generation of ingrained and unimaginable cruelty.

It's not a pretty picture, but I bet that with just a few tweaks here and there, Killian's The Running Man would be a pretty big hit with some people these days....

Movie Trailer: The Running Man (1987)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Late Night Blogging: Gerry Anderson Adverts

At Flashbak: Five Shows-within-Shows that Deserve Their Own Time Slot...

My latest article at Flashbak considers five programs that are actually shows within shows, and whether or not they would make good programs on their own.

"Even fictional TV characters like to kick back and watch television from time-to-time. We know this for a fact because many cult-TV series feature shows-within-shows, fictional programming set “in universe.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, many of these shows-within-shows have proven so tantalizing or so entertaining that fans have wondered from time-to-time if these “fake” shows might actually matriculate to the airwaves themselves.

Any list of fictional TV programs that deserve to be green-lit would have to include:..."

Supercar: "The Lost City" (1961)

In Supercar’s second episode, “The Lost City,” Mitch, Jimmy, Dr. Beaker and Mike Mercury prepare for a visit to the South Pole.  En route, however, Supercar is unexpectedly pulled off-course. 

The amazing vehicle makes a course-adjustment for the Amazon Basin, and Mike notes that it “seems to have developed a mind of its own.”

Supercar lands in the ruins of an ancient city in the jungle. Before long, Beaker and Mercury are transported via hidden elevator into a subterranean lair belonging to a mad scientist, Dr. Watkins, and his robots.

Watkins hold the heroes captive as he launches an atomic missile at Washington D.C…

Well, it’s right into the action in “Lost City,” an early episode of the 1961 Supermarionation/Gerry Anderson series, Supercar.  This episode features lost cities, mad scientists, numbered robots armed with ray guns, and a nuclear weapon fired right at the heart of the United States.

The episode ends with real-life stock footage of a nuclear mushroom after Supercar trips the missile off its course, and then re-adjusts its aim for Dr. Watkins’ lost city.  So it’s sayonara to the good doctor, and his scientific wonderland of robots.

“Lost City” is pulpy good fun, and the episode hops from crisis to crisis with a sense of confidence and velocity. In fact, after a while one hardly notes that puppets are doing all the acting. The story -- through sheer acceleration -- keeps one engaged.

Supercar is old fashioned fun, for sure, but the operative word there is fun.

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