Saturday, May 02, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "What Goes Up" (September 14, 1974)

The second half-hour episode of the animated series Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974) is titled “What Goes Up,” and it aired on September 14, 1974.

“What Goes Up” opens with a stampede of angry dinosaurs -- including a tyrannosaurus -- charging through the jungle near the Butler family cave. The prehistoric brutes are agitated because millions of over-sized ants called “Tagas” are on the march towards the valley.

Before you can say The Naked Jungle (1954), the Butlers and their prehistoric friends are grappling with this new and troublesome issue.

They realize that no force in the valley can stop the onslaught of the army ants, and so decide to create a defense line of "fire rocks" (or hot coals...) as a barrier between their cave and the marauding ants.

"Back home, we'd just call the exterminator," quips Katie.

Mrs. Butler, however, suggests another more helpful alternative. She wants to create a hot air balloon that can transport both families and their pets to the mountaintop and out of harm's way.

In short order, this mission is accomplished. Gorok makes a visit to the cave of "giant snakes" and steals their cast-off skins for the weaving of the balloon.  They weave a gondola basket, and prepare to lift off.

Disaster is averted when the Butlers and their prehistoric counterparts fly away in the balloon, and the ants obligingly retreat during a storm.

The threat this week on Valley of the Dinosaurs feels a bit run-of-the-mill in one sense because there is no follow-up.  The tagas decimate the valley, especially the plant life, and move through village, but by the story’s end everything is back to normal.  Of course, this is a Saturday morning TV series, so it’s natural that some aspects of the danger are minimized for the sake of children.

What makes the threat interesting is the idea that something tiny -- miniscule, actually -- can scare giant dinosaurs.

The events in “What Goes Up” also, however, call into question the overall premise of Valley of the Dinosaurs. If the Butlers can make a hot air balloon and fly to the cliff top -- why not fly out of the valley of the dinosaurs all together?
We’ve got to assume that the Valley isn’t that gigantic, so a short flight ought to do it.  Even if it were a long flight, the Butlers would no doubt feel it worth the effort.
One of the Butlers' actually suggests this notion in the episode, but then, at the end, the balloon is destroyed and Kim says something along the lines of "so much for going home."
Why? Can't the family just build another balloon? There's a cave full of giant snakes nearby, and their skins make for great balloons, as we’ve seen.

The plot device of the hot-air balloon was a popular one on Saturday morning shows of the 1970s.  Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) had a story about one, “Terror on Ice Mountain,” and the third season of Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977) highlighted a tale called “Hot Air Artist.”

Next week: “A Turned Turtle.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "Seeing Eye Horse"

In “Seeing Eye Horse,” a young man named Noah (Gregory Elliott) who has been blinded in an accident is sad because he can no longer ride horses on his family ranch.  On the day his bandages are to be removed, he is disappointed to learn that his sight still hasn’t returned.

Hoping to help, Mrs. Thomas (Joanna Cameron) gets Noah a seeing-eye horse named Sonny, one who bonds with Noah, and helps him when tragedy strikes on the ranch. First, Noah nearly drowns in a lake, and then a fire starts on the property.

Fortunately, Isis is also around to render aid and assistance.  Specifically, she makes it rain to put the fire out.

The second and final season of the Filmation series The Secrets of Isis (1975 – 1976) commences with this episode, “Seeing Eye Horse.” 

The first thing to note regarding season changes is that Cindy Lee (Joanna Pang) -- Mrs. Thomas’s favored student -- is gone…apparently having graduated. She is replaced by Rennie Carol (Ronalda Douglas), another student.

Secondly, Isis herself looks a bit different this season.

In particular, when Thomas changes into the famous superhero, we see that Isis has lightened her hair, and it is no longer straight. Cameron, as Isis, also wears heavy eye-make up this season. Apparently the producers were going for a more Egyptian-styled look, but Cameron is a natural beauty, and to bury her expressive eyes in garish make-up seems a shame.

The second season’s first episode, “Seeing Eye Horse” re-establishes the continuing characters of the series, basically Mrs. Thomas, Rick Mason (Brian Cutler), and Tut the Raven. It also re-establishes the idea of focusing its narrative on a teenager with a problem, rather than a typical superhero-type crisis (like the committing of a crime, and the catching of the person responsible for it).

Here, a blind boy loves horses, and can’t ride them anymore, at least until Mrs. Thomas thoughtfully acquires him a Seeing Eye horse.  Filmation had already, at this point, done a similar story with a horse at its center, on the sister series, Shazam, 1974’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

As is typical for Isis stories, there is no real villain here, only a set of dangerous circumstances that endangers people.  Noah falls off a pier into a lake, and a fire starts on the ranch.  Isis/Mrs. Thomas, spend a lot of time trying to encourage Noah, telling him that he can still achieve his dreams, if he is willing to do the hard work.  She notes that many professionals are blind.

Finally, there’s the Isis rescue scene, where she saves the day. In this case, she asks clouds to part, rain to fall, and the fire to be put out.

Next week: “The Hitchhiker.”

Friday, May 01, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a beautifully-photographed, unconventional vampire film, one enlivened by its strange location (the fictional “Bad City” in Iran), and a trance-like mood. 

That vibe is enhanced, periodically, by moments of music and dance. The film isn’t a musical in any sense -- it’s horror through-and-through -- but important characters dance on at least three separate occasions, signifying motive and mood through movement.  

The aura these moments generate is remarkable.  It’s not languorous, but downright hypnotic.  Although there is relatively little dialogue throughout the picture, and the movements of the narrative are subtle, sometimes slight, you still can’t take your eyes off the screen. 

The film is directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, based on her own 2011 short film, and she imbues every black-and-white frame of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night with energy, intelligence, and a painterly eye. Some of the location photography -- the film was actually shot in California --– contributes to the overall feel of a de-humanized, “vampiric” world, one where positive human connection is harder and harder to come by.

The film’s terror emerges early, and effectively.  A teenage girl -- and vampire -- prowls the streets at night, seeking targets of opportunity.  She stalks her victims, and often we see only her as a specter when she kills, a looming silhouette in a black chador -- sometimes out of focus -- but often frighteningly still.  

Her victims, intriguingly, tend to be those who aren’t serving the community in any positive way: a heroin addict who has ruined his son’s life, a hobo on the streets, an arrogant and dangerous drug-dealer, and so forth. One of the film’s best scenes involves the vampire's pursuit and approach of a young, wayward child, and her struggle to assess if he is just an innocent child or, like the others, a drain on the life of the city.

Atypical in its rhythm and cadences, but ultimately hopeful about humanity and the possibilities of love, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is one of the most beautiful horror films I’ve screened recently, and if you’re in the mood for something different, a little off-kilter, it’s worth taking a walk on the wild side with it.

“I’m lost.  Where are we?”

While “The Girl” (Sheila Vand) -- a vampire -- stalks the streets of Bad City, seeking prey by which to sustain herself, a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi) adopts a cat, and tends to his father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), a drug addict.  

Hossein is ruining Arash’s life a piece at a time, and owes money to Saeed (Dominic Rains), a local drug dealer. Saeed takes Arash’s car to settle his father’s debt, leaving Arash at loose ends, wondering how to get his ride back. He settles on the theft of a pair of expensive earrings at the home where he works a job.

The Girl, however, has targeted Saeed as her next victim, and allows him to seduce her, and take her back to his place.  There she kills him, almost exactly as Arash arrives to trade the earrings for the car.  

Now, the Girl is aware of Arash…

Surprisingly, over a series of nights in Bad City, The Girl and Arash find themselves growing attracted to one another, even as the Girl continues to feed her habit, murdering locals to sate herself.

When Arash throws his father out of his home, Arash kills him, meaning that Arash and the Girl will have to contend with her violent act -- and nature -- if they are to share a future together, one in which they flee Bad City.

“Don’t count the things you’ve lost.  Count the things left.”

Periodically, in A Girl Walks Home at Night, Amirpour cuts to images of ugly black machinery -- oil digging rigs – as they move mindlessly and repetitively to extract treasure from the earth. These machines are a ubiquitous blight on the landscape, and represent, in a sense, how the world itself is vampiric. We take what we need to survive and flourish from the life-blood of the Earth itself.  We don’t ask.  We just take, around the clock, all day, every day.

Other characters in the film are defined subtly as vampires too. Saeed is a pimp, a drug dealer and a thug, and sucks the life out of the community, keeping people hooked on drugs and enslaved in poverty.  

Even addicted Hossein might be termed a vampire, as he leeches off his son’s love and sense of family obligation, without giving anything back. 

Ironically, in this company, the Girl does not seem so terrible a creature.  

She’s a vampire too, but her desire, her appetite, is controlled, in a sense, by her morality. She doesn’t kill without thought, or at random. She watches her victims, stalking them, before deciding if they deserve to live.  Sure, she’s become the judge, jury, and executioner, but there’s a pro-social aspect to her acts too.  She takes Saeed off the streets. She kills Hossein, removing an impediment to Arash’s happiness, and satisfying a man with no future, only a past, who longs for death.  

We know The Girl is not evil, outright, because of her dealings with the boy child. She asks him repeatedly if he is a good boy.  He answers that he is, but she warns him that she will be watching him, anyway.  

In other words, she scares him straight. In the absence of any moral authority in the aptly-named Bad City, “The Girl” fills a void. Unlike the oil diggers, she is not only merely taking, but establishing a framework of morality, oddly enough.

A cat plays a large role in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and one senses that the cat may reflect significantly on The Girl and her nature.  The cat might be considered a vampire in a sense too, going wherever it can to survive, taking resources from people who care for it.  But like The Girl, it does not simply kill, it does not simply harm others. Instead, it offers something: companionship.  Both the feline and the Girl may be “vampiric” in some sense, but they have other qualities which offset their need to take.  Also, importantly, they are vampiric by nature; by biology, not by choice. 

One cannot say the same of Saeed, or Hossein, or even those who suck the Earth dry of its black blood.

The interludes in the film involving dance are among the most interesting moments on display here. Saeed dances for The Girl, a dance of desire and would-be seduction. But there is something garish and lurid about his dance. It is not a dance of beauty, but one of hunger.  Again, this is an intriguing reversal because it is the Girl who is literally a vampire.  But in their scene together in his home, it is Saeed who is on the make, and out to take something.

Later in the film, Hossein asks a prostitute to dance for him, and she does so, illuminated by a light in the shabby bed-room.  This light has the effect of creating a kind of glow or halo-effect around her, as though she is heavenly, or sent by God.  Hossein is in a drug haze, and again, the dance that he perceives seems to be one of desire, both for his long-gone wife, and for the bliss of forgetfulness, of stupor.  His dance is about seeing beauty, and letting go out of that beauty, of life itself, in a sense.  This is one of his final moments, one of his final glimpses of beauty.

We see The Girl dance too, and oddly enough, her dance appears somewhat innocent by contrast to the ones I noted specifically above.. Not impulsive (for she is not impulsive), but innocent.  Once more, this seems like a visual avenue of suggesting that though she is, biologically-speaking, a vampire, The Girl is not vampiric. 

She possesses the soul of a girl, not a monster.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a romance between a vampire and a boy, and if that in any way sounds at all like the premise of the Twilight films, I apologize for suggesting the connection. But this is not a teen romance in any stereotypical way, or in any way that you can imagine, frankly. The film has more in common with Let the Right One In (2008), than it does with Twilight.  This movie is about two people finding each other -- discovering each other -- in a terrible place, in a world of takers and alienation.

At times, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night might be considered slow by mainstream standards, but every image, every frame, every composition is riveting, paints a picture, or tells a story.  There is humor in the film at times, namely Arash’s outing as Count Dracula, and the expectations raised by the title.  A girl walking home alone at night is supposed to be vulnerable, right  Not this one.   But the overall takeaway from the film is that there are vampires of necessity and vampires of choice. 

You don’t want to be a vampire by choice.

Movie Trailer: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Guest Post: The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Good Adventure Fun...But Not Great
The Avengers: Age of Ultron

By Jonas Schwartz

It’s ironic that the theme of Frankenstein and his creation runs through Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron because the plot has been cobbled together by old tropes like Ghost in the Machine, Lawnmower Man, Stephen King’s IT, Mary Shelley’s classic, and several episodes of the film’s director Joss Whedon’s landmark Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There’s a lack of inspiration in the second Avengers, or at least that patented Joss Whedon genius that made the first film so lively is missing. The action scenes lack punch. Luckily the script still contains Whedon’s witty dialogue, and the film contains a wicked performance by James Spader.

After a complicated mission leaves the team frazzled, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) decides this is the perfect time for a robotic savior, one who can keep the planet safe. He and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) bring Ultron on-board, but immediately, the Artificial Intelligence (Spader) declares war on The Avengers. Believing that the world would work better without humanity, he makes it his mission to destroy the planet. His army of robots put each member to the test.

The film’s energy cranks up every time Spader speaks. His voice -- knowing, angry and a bit afraid -- is both menacing and childlike. The animation and mechanical engineers responsible for Ultron’s look and movement capture Spader’s subtleties. The robot’s features moves like Spader’s would, so that the audience forgets there is no man in the machine. Though only a voice and scrap metal, Spader’s Ultron towers over all the other characters.

Ruffalo and Downey Jr. have always brought realism to their characters, not allowing the comic book tales to dissolve into cartoon. They bring that same aplomb to this film. The rest of the cast seems tired in their roles. Their line readings are wooden. Of the newcomers, Elizabeth Olsen brings pathos to Wanda Maximoff, the medically enhanced agent filled with hatred for the Stark family, who can manipulate memories, yet her Eastern European accent wavers.

Whedon directs the many battles with clever camerawork and editing, but the scenes get monotonous. The plot feels inconsequential. Even with the human race in jeopardy, the stakes have no gravity. On the positive side, Whedon’s trademark quips and asides brings levity to even intense action sequences. He allows his characters to be silly without selling them out.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron can claim to be one of the better Marvel Sequels. With the exception of Iron Man 3, which may actually be better than the first Iron Man, most of the sequels were directed by second-string directors (like Thor 2’s Alan Taylor). Avengers 2 has more spark than those films. However it also lacks the fan boy euphoria that Joss Whedon usually brings.  He normally creates a new universe but here he’s retreaded old territory. It’s enjoyable a first time, but it doesn’t make you want to rush back and see it again. Grade: B

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

Cult-Movie Review: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

For my money, the late Robert Wise (1914-2005) remains one of the most underrated of all genre directors. 

Wise gave the world remarkable horror films including The Haunting (1963) and Audrey Rose (1977), and sterling science fiction pictures such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and, of course, the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-seller, The Andromeda Strain.

Underlining all these disparate efforts is the sense of a curious and engaged guiding intellect, an artist determined to treat his material with intelligence. Wise's films are cerebral, open to new possibilities, and rife with visual imagery that skillfully reinforces the content of their narratives. Throughout his genre canon, one can detect how deeply Wise respects both his material and his audience, and this quality is a rare gift, for certain.

The Andromeda Strain showcases this Wise style or approach to a significant degree. It is pitched at a high-level, features no spoon-feeding, and creates a flawless, impeccable sense of "reality" even when dealing with futuristic hardware and the "sci-fi" threat of an alien bug landing in an American town. The film seems frighteningly plausible.

Similarly, The Andromeda Strain's actors actually look and sound like real scientists, not super models or super-stars, and so nothing is allowed to shatter the film's sense of authenticity or, similarly, suspense.

I decided to feature The Andromeda Strain (which I have reviewed before -- in at least two books)) here on the blog today not only because I am a steadfast admirer of Wise's films, but because earlier in the week I reviewed Contagion (2011): a film also concerning a disease or virus. 

Soderbergh's more recent effort also trades, largely, on its sense of non-exploitative realism. In both efforts, there seems to have been ample opportunity to dial up the hysteria and melodrama, and in both cases, the directors resisted the temptation to make sensationalist works of art.

The Andromeda Strain imagines a future of science and high-tech computerization that today may seem dated, but underneath those bells-and-whistles the film -- much like Contagion (2011) -- is really about people. Specifically, The Andromeda Strain involves the ways that humans can sometimes erect barriers to success through miscommunication or personal foibles; barriers that, in the end, threaten civilization itself.

"Establishment gonna fall down and go boom..."

A satellite from Project Scoop carrying an alien micro-organism crashes in Piedmont, New Mexico, and exposure proceeds to kill all but two denizens of the town.

The U.S. government quickly marshals an emergency response, and two scientists, Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and surgeon Mark Hall (James Olson) explore the contaminated town in bio-hazard suits. They rescue the two survivors: an old drunk, and a crying baby.

Later, at a state-of-the-art, subterranean scientific facility called Wildfire, Hall and Stone are joined by other scientists including Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), and together the group attempts to determine if the strange alien micro-organism could threaten human life throughout all of America, and indeed the world.

Studies reveal that the alien micro-organism, code-named “Andromeda” is 2-microns in diameter. Possessing a crystalline structure visible only under electronic microscope, the ever-mutating Andromeda can also grow in a vacuum, and its development is accelerated by energy discharge.

Bad news soon reaches the base about their newly discovered “bug”: a super-colony of Andromeda has formed over the Pacific Coast and is growing larger by the moment. It could kill millions of people in days.

The scientists race to avert a nuclear strike on the colony that they recommended and that was subsequently ordered by the President of the United States, realizing that the energy involved in such a detonation would only impel Andromeda to grow even larger.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hall studies his patients -- the old sterno drinker and the crying infant -- and determines that Andromeda can only survive in a narrow range of pH levels.

Before this knowledge can be applied to destroy Andromeda, however, Wildfire is contaminated, and the base’s computer initiates a timed self-destruct sequence. 

Now Dr. Hall must race through the many, self-contained levels of the Wildfire complex to avert total annihilation.

"Enemy? We did it to ourselves!"

Mankind enters the “future age” of ascendant science in director Robert Wise’s impressive techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain, and the film ultimately proves that technology and scientific know-how can battle a deadly space “bug” to a stand-still.

Accordingly, Wise and his film itself -- an adaptation of a Michael Crichton best-selling book -- seem to worship at the feet of machinery, medicine, and science, not to-mention provide a reverent near-religious litany of techno-talk. In this world, ordering up a computer test is more like quoting Scripture.

The film’s assessment of mankind, however, may seem less gracious. Here, mankind’s failings get in the way of progress, slow-down the process of stopping Andromeda, and nearly destroy the entire world. The film’s final message, diagrammed in a computerized “601 Error” is that machines are ultimately only as good as their users.

In other words, we are the weak link. If computers fail, it’s because of us.

From The Andromeda Strain’s dynamic opening credits, Wise takes pains to present new technology as a vivid brand of modern art. The colorful credits reveal overlapping, multi-colored images of schematics, inter-office communiques, top-secret documents, and the like.

These seemingly non-romantic dispatches are cut together and blended into new patterns (via superimposition) for the remarkable montage. These swirling and dazzling images are also accompanied by Gil Melle’s machine-like electronic score, and the final effect is both staggering and thematically daring. 

We might very well be watching a computer program’s vision of art. This imagery conveys the idea that machines aren’t just tools, but capable of moving into terrains that man has long reserved for himself: artistry, creativity, imagination.

In assembling the blueprints, maps, graphs and other images for the purposes of this montage, the film’s opening credits take a step beyond Jackson Pollock, forging heretofore unseen, unconnected patterns out of dot matrix scans and the like, in the determined synthesis of something new and bold.

The implicit message: technology is your friend.

This pro-automation approach runs deliberately counter to one of the most common ideas of 1970s science fiction cinema, as related in films such as Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) or Demon Seed (1977), that technology will prove man’s undoing.

Instead, The Andromeda Strain’s dialogue reinforces the notion of a world in which science will save the day. The film is dominated by tongue-twisters like “Red Kappa Phoenix Status,” and the scientists eat “Nutrient 2-5” while ordering up a test called a “7-12.”

Although these phrases seem like meaningless jargon in simple human terms, in this world they are vital symbols of man’s ascent to a more evolved plateau.

The science-talk reflects Wise’s uncanny ability (also seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to forge a documentary-like or “realistic” tone in science fiction, but also suggests that in the first space age emergency, space age lingo is a necessity. Advances in computers, science and medicine will change the world, and they will also change how we talk, the film indicates.  Our words will change, in their very nature, as we embrace the machinery of the future age.

It’s difficult to deny that this is actually the case, and in 2015, laypeople talk about “wireless routers,” “diagnostic updates,” “system restores” and other once arcane-seeming phrases with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the scientists portrayed in The Andromeda Strain.  The revolution in technology involves not just what we can achieve with computers, but how we speak about them, and relate to one another over them.

The tools used by the scientists in The Andromeda Strain are often the focus of Wise’s intent directorial sight, and electron microscopes, computer scans, “electronic diagrams” and other visuals are regularly highlighted by the camera. The idea, of course, is that in the dawn of a new age, machines will make the difference between life and death on planet Earth. Robert Wise even once called his film’s setting -- the Wildfire Base -- the real star of the movie.

And of course, he’s right. Without the resources of this subterranean base, man would not be able to stop the spread of Andromeda.

Wise’s treatment of man himself is far less generous in The Andromeda Strain

For example, Dr. Ruth Leavitt is an epileptic, and she hides that vital knowledge from her co-workers and hence from the computerized databases in Wildfire. So when an important computer screen transmits its data to her in red-blinking lights, Leavitt cannot receive it. She seizes instead, and has no memory of having seen the crucial data.

Thus a personal embarrassment or foible nearly ends the world.  Ruth's sin, perhaps, is vanity. She does not wish to be seen as weak, or incompetent in front of the other scientists, but her plan to hide her illness nearly has catastrophic impact.

Again, no one can blame this series of unfortunate events on the computer, which accurately tagged the “no-growth” medium for Andromeda that Leavitt sought. Instead, user error -- human error -- is the culprit.

Similarly, the scientists at Andromeda order a nuclear strike at Piedmont before they have all the facts. They make an assumption that a nuclear blast will wipe out an alien organism, and this is -- again -- proven catastrophically wrong. In fact, the opposite would have been true. A nuclear blast would have spread a super-colony of Andromeda across the entirety of the North American continent.

In this case, the scientists are prevented from causing global-scale catastrophe only by a machine failure: a paper jam in a printer-like device. So again, even inadvertently, the machines of The Andromeda Strain save man from himself.

And, of course, Andromeda comes to Earth in the first place as part of a secret plot by the U.S. government to harness it as a bio-weapon, and then develop it at the Wildfire installation. Man brings about his own near-death by his self-destructive tendencies, by his jingoistic desire to defeat enemies. 

Other Wildfire denizens seen in The Andromeda Strain are not much more self-aware than Leavitt is. Trained scientists panic and flee when they believe that Wildfire is contaminated with the alien organism. They do not act rationally and attempt to help Hall, who has -- dangling around his neck in the form of a key -- the capacity to save everybody from nuclear apocalypse. Instead, they resort to fear, paranoia and terror.  Once more, we must consider that our machines are not susceptible to such influences.

But the screaming ninnies of Wildfire don’t consider this reason; don't measure their actions against the consequences of their actions.. Instead, they run around like chickens with their heads cut-off, and  higher-reasoning appears completely short-circuited. After all, if the base is contaminated, as they fear, then it is going to self-destruct, and no amount of running or screaming is going to get them to minimum safe distance following a many-megaton blast.  So why panic?

All of this material comes late in the film, but Wise hooks the audience early (and permanently) with his staging of the Piedmont reconnaissance.  

We are led, by two relatively staid scientists, through a ghost-town of sorts, the aftermath of a grisly disaster. And yet Wise doesn't linger or wallow in the terror.  

Instead, his camera again adopts a documentary approach, so that we are asked to observe the events in all their stark, clinical horror, but largely without editorializing.  He reports, and we take note, coming to conclusions ourselves about occurred to Piedmont.  Wise sticks with this restrained approach as, in the finale, the countdown to annihilation occurs.  

As a result, the film's denouement is extremely anxiety-provoking and suspenseful.  We feel we are watching real events unfold from a distance, and with no guarantee that things will turn out as we would prefer.

There may be some viewers who watch The Andromeda Strain and seek a more human-centered story about resolving the first biological crisis of the space age. But the film’s glory is that this is not the story it tells at all.

Instead, Wise tells the story of man’s amazing machinery solving the problem, and this is a creative, counter-intuitive approach to the material.  

 If we can just get out of our own way, the director seems to suggest, we'll be all right.

This idea is also -- in its own weird way -- optimistic.

After all, who built all these great machines in the first place?

Movie Trailer: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Late Night Blogging: The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk: "Alice in Disco Land" (November 3, 1978)

In “Alice in Disco Land,” David Banner gets a job as a bus boy at Pandemonium Disco, and meets a runaway teen, Alice (Donna Wilkes) whom he knew as a child. 

In fact, David has fond memories of taking care of Alice as a girl, and reading to her from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Now, however, Alice isn’t doing so well. Virtually abandoned by her wealthy mother, she is adrift and alone. And although she is a great disco dancer, Alice is also an alcoholic.  She can’t go a day without drinking, a fact that David gently reminds her of.

When David attempts an intervention, however, the disco’s ganger owner, Ernie (Marc Alaimo) thinks that Banner is compelling her to testify in a Federal case against him, and sets out to punish him.  But Ernie hasn’t counted on the fact that David can transform into the Hulk.

Before long, the denizens of Pandemonium Disco meet the Hulk on the dance floor, and terror ensues.

I had forgotten, before watching a few The Incredible Hulk (1978 – 1981) episodes this week, just what a time capsule for the 1970s the series is. 

“Alice in Disco Land,” which aired on November 3, 1978, derives all its energy from the ascendant disco culture of the era, including the blockbuster film Saturday Night Fever (1977). To wit, most of the action takes place inside Pandemonium Disco, and under a glitter ball.  

While David works as a bus-boy, hairy men in tight polyester pants and flowery shirts and ultra-skinny women (sans bras…) gyrate on the dance floor to songs you never heard of (including a disco-fied version of the series’ piano theme).

Underneath these disco trappings, however, it’s clear that “Alice in Disco Land” actually concerns alcoholism, and the story attempts to draw a signficant connection between David and Alice.  At one point, late in the action, Alice notes of her drinking problem: “You don’t understand, this is something in me. I need to control it.”

Clearly, those words resonate with David. The purpose of his life now is to control that thing inside himself, the rage that brings life to his alter-ego, the Incredible Hulk.  Both he and Alice must fight internal urges if they are to succeed against the odds, and be whole once more.

“Alice in Disco Land” is one of the episodes of The Incredible Hulk I vividly remember watching during the series’ original run. I was eight years old at the time, and I remember that my older sister and I attempted to re-create the disco milieu (using a Bee Gees album on the record player), and I would pretend to be the Hulk, smashing and throwing sofa pillows in our family room.

That personal story is no weirder, I promise you, than the events of“Alice in Disco Land.”  It was a strange time.

The Hulk defeats disco!

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