Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Wonderbug: "The Incredible Shrinking Wonderbug" (October 8, 1977)

I will make a confession right now.

Wonderbug (1976-1978) was never my favorite Sid and Marty Krofft live-action Saturday morning series. 

That honor goes to Land of the Lost (1974-1977), but I would also take Dr. Shrinker (1976), The Lost Saucer (1975), Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976) and a few others over Wonderbug.

I recently screened an episode of Wonderbug, “The Incredible Shrinking Wonderbug” and came away with the same feeling.  The series has three generic teen leads, and a mild fantasy element: a schleppy car that turns into a superhero car.  But the stories are dopy and the humor feels antique by today’s standards.

For me, it’s more than that. It’s that there’s no real dramatic hook here.  In Land of the Lost, for example, the Marshalls want to find a way home (not to mention stay alive...).  In Dr. Shrinker, even, there’s a villain to outwit, and the need to restore the Shrinkies to their normal size.

Wonderbug is just a bunch of zany, silly adventures, with no real rules or consistent universe.  In noting that, I sure feel like a humorless bastard, though  I can tell you that I always watched Wonderbug, even though I never really liked Wonderbug.

Wonderbug aired as part of The Krofft Supershow (1976-1978) for both seasons that the omnibus aired, and garnered such a devoted following that a great deal of merchandising was produced for the series, including a board game (from Ideal), a lunch box, and even a comic-book.

The basic premise of the series is that a magic horn transforms a dilapidated old dune buggy called Schlep Car into the shiny super-heroic vehicle, Wonderbug.  (Think: Herbie the Love Bug). 

Three hapless American teens then travel with Wonderburg on his journeys: Barry (David Levy), C.C. (John-Anthony Bailey) and Susan (Carole Anne Selfinger).

Each week, the car and its occupants get into trouble, trouble that requires fixing by Wonderbug.

In terms of special effects, Wonderbug, like Land of the Lost and Dr. Shrinker, makes heavy use of chroma key.  In the scenes featuring a flying car, for instance, a shiny toy dune buggy is chroma-keyed over a live-action background, and, well, it’s pretty obviously a toy. 

The toy dune buggy (presumably remote-controlled) is also used in some scenes wherein Wonderbug performs tricks, like rearing up on its back wheels.

In “The Incredible Shrinking Wonderbug,” Barry learns that a villainous client, played by Gordon Jump, is stealing cars and then shrinking them down (using a Mego Star Trek Phaser Target gun, only slightly redesigned…).

The gang tries to bust the auto theft ring, but Schlep Car – who has a “hood” cold -- is shrunken down to tiny proportions too.  Now Wonderbug’s human friends must save their fried and stop the criminals.

It’s a weird, and horribly shticky half-hour, I must observe.  Or, to put it in terms of the dialogue, “this is not your average, run-of-the-mill turkey.” 

For me, Wonderbug is one of those Saturday morning series like Big John, Little John (1976), better remembered as nostalgia than necessarily enjoyed in the present.  

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Doctor Shrinker (1976): "The Other Brad"

In this week’s episode of Dr. Shrinker (1976), “The Other Brad,” our titular mad scientist (Jay Robinson) and his minion Hugo (Billy Barty) attempt to capture the Shrinkies -- three shrunken young adults -- using a perfect robot replica of Brad (Ted Eccles).

When the real Brad is captured and taken to a cage in the laboratory, his mechanical replacement attempts to trick B.J. (Susa Lawrence) and Gordy (Jeff Mackay) into a trap.

But Brad is able to escape from captivity and warn his friends about the danger they face…

The Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning series Dr. Shrinker is always a lot of fun, and as a kid growing up in the 1970s, I loved it.

But as an adult, it’s funny to see how the series doesn’t really hold up to the scrutiny of logic.

Consider the following: Dr. Shrinker (Robinson) hopes to make a fortune by demonstrating that his shrinking machine works.  He must therefore re-capture the Shrinkies to prove this fact, though why he doesn’t just shrink Hugo, or Boris the chimp (seen last episode), is a question worth asking.

Yet okay, I’ll accept the premise.  The Shrinkies are proof-positive that the shrink ray works, and Dr. Shrinker is located on a remote island, so he doesn’t have a lot of choices. 

So this week, in “The Other Brad,” Dr. Shrinker invents a perfect robot duplicate of a human being to help him capture the Shrinkies.

But...if Doctor Shrinker can build a perfect robot that replicates a human being so well that even that human’s best friends don’t recognize the difference off the bat…why is he bothering with a shrink ray? 

Forget asking the highest bidder to pay for the bloomin’ shrink ray. Sell them the perfect robot technology instead. It may have more practical applications, anyway, especially in Dr. Shrinker’s villainous circles.

But of course, Dr. Shrinker doesn’t think of that…

In a way, this kind of logic-less plot is what really differentiates a show like Dr. Shrinker from something like Land of the Lost (1974 -1977), another Sid and Mart Krofft program. There, David Gerrold, a real science-fiction author, story-edited the series and brought in great genre writers to pen individual stories.  He paid attention, and made certain that stories like “The Other Brad” didn’t get through the creative process, at least not without some heavy rewriting.  He made sure that the universe of Altrusia had a consistent set of rules, and that they weren’t violated.

Dr. Shrinker is a fun show with a kind of one note premise, but clearly nobody was making certain 
that all the stories followed logically from point A to point Z.  “The Other Brad” is exhibit A.  If you think about the story for even a minute or two, you realize it’s absolutely ridiculous.

I can’t remember what I thought at age six when I likely saw this episode. But I do know my son, at age 8, would crack down on this kind of faulty plotting in a heart-beat.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Shyamalan Series: The Sixth Sense (1999)

One thread that weaves consistently through the films of director M. Night Shyamalan is very simple, but simultaneously spiritually and morally uplifting. In the vast majority of his cinematic works, audiences encounter characters who, after seeing the world in a new way, finally understand their place in it. 

The clouds -- their previous assumptions about life -- suddenly part, and the sunshine of understanding, of destiny, shines through.

Shyamalan’s protagonists, whether Dr. Malcolm Crowe (The Sixth Sense) David Dunn (Unbreakable), Father Graham (Signs), or Cleveland Heep (Lady in the Water) all conform to this particular pattern.

Throughout their respective narratives, these men are depicted as carrying around sadness or discontent because their destinies -- their very purpose in life -- is unclear to them.  Through the (often harrowing…) events in their narratives, however, these characters come to discern their place, and their role, and thus achieve their rightful destiny.   

In short, the films of M. Night Shyamalan are all about discovering yourself, and your purpose here on this mortal coil.

Not knowing your purpose is a source of not merely unhappiness, but the greatest soul-sucking pain. These men feel empty, alone and isolated because they no longer believe in themselves. They no longer know who they are, or where they fit in.

Sometimes, in Shyamalan’s films, we actually meet two characters who achieve this critical understanding about destiny. And sometimes, those characters take parallel or opposite-styled journeys. They act as mirrors for one another.

Certainly, that’s the case with the director’s first feature film, the Academy-Award nominated The Sixth Sense (1999). 

The film involves a psychologist, Crowe, and his patient, Cole Sear, coming to terms with their respective trajectories and destinies in this life. Crowe learns that he can correct two great wrongs in his life (one personal; one professional), but that this is his last opportunity to do so. 

Meanwhile, Cole learns that he needn’t be scared of what he sees, and that his strange vision is a mechanism not for inspiring terror, but for him to help people; spirits who still have something significant to tell the living.

It is not revealing anything, at this late date, to report on the 1999’s film’s final revelation, that Malcolm himself is one of those spirits that Cole can see and help. 

Cole “sees dead people,” and so Crowe, we learn, is dead himself. This is the nature of the film’s twist ending, but as is often the case in the works of Shyamalan, there are various and numerous bread crumbs leading viewers to this conclusion, from the very start of the film; following Crowe’s tragic shooting.

Of course, we can question if this ending is actually a surprise at all given the assiduous preparation for it. After all, another common factor in many of M. Night Shyamalan’s films is that they don’t merely tell stories; they comment on storytelling, on writing in general.  For example, Unbreakable muses about comic books as a kind of sacred text, one that reveals man’s true nature and history.  Similarly, Lady in the Water features an acerbic movie critic (Bob Balaban), and the various ways that people read or analyze stories. 

And The Sixth Sense involves, quite explicitly, how stories are structured or organized so as to galvanize the audience’s attention. 

Specifically, stories can’t play all their cards at once.  As Cole informs Crow, “you have to add some twists and stuff,” or they are boring. 

This is Shyamalan’s tell, another breadcrumb, so-to-speak, that prepares us for the denouement. From the film’s dialogue about “twists and stuff,” we understand we should expect something that will shift our perception of what might be seen as a linear or straight-forward story.  And that’s precisely what Shyamalan delivers in the movie’s climactic scenes.

What is the story we think we are experiencing in The Sixth Sense? It goes something like this: Traumatized adult psychologist helps disturbed, possibly psychic kid.

But in fact, the story is not that.  Rather, it is this: Psychic kids helps a disturbed ghost make peace with his life, and his mistakes in life.

Cole and Crowe (like Elijah and David Dunn in Unbreakable) switch places; switch roles in terms of our understanding of them, as the film ends.  Actually “switch roles” may not be the right choice of phrases here.  They are who they have always been, we simply begin to perceive their roles differently in light of the revelation that Crowe is dead.

The Sixth Sense thrives as a brilliant work of art because Shyamalan knows precisely where best to place the camera, and when to move it so that -- on first viewing -- the audience can reasonably fail to notice or observe some important things. But on the second viewing, finally, we understand clearly the significance of things we ignored, or overlooked, the first time.  Ambiguity gives way to clarity; uncertainty to order.  To create this kind of “dawning” truth, Shyamalan himself made be said to possess a sixth sense about understanding how our eyes and minds process information.

What things to our eyes gloss over?  What things do they focus on? 

Shymalan’s approach encompasses both guileless and guileful misdirection, one might conclude.

And he makes the switch over in perception seem as clear as day.  On second viewing of The Sixth Sense, we can’t understand how we failed to miss the importance or relevance of the bread crumbs at all.

In this way, The Sixth Sense is actually two distinct experiences.

In the first, we proceed upon mistaken assumptions, until we learn the truth.  Importantly, this way of “seeing” (a view consisting of mistaken assumptions) is a deliberate reflection of how Malcolm proceeds through life and the narrative.  His eyes are only half-open. He misses important details. He is trapped in his belief about that world, namely that he has gone on living as a mortal human being.

On the second-go through, however, we see the story as Cole might, with a clear of understanding of who Malcolm is, and who/what he signifies in Cole’s learning. He’s not a trouble kid that’s deluded or hallucinating. He’s the one individual who sees the whole world as it is.  And “Sear,” of course, is our bread-crumb or signifier. Sear = Seer.

The mirroring of protagonist roles as well as the parting-of-the-clouds, ambiguity-into-clarity visual symbolism together represent a complex and cerebral way to tell a story -- with more than the requisite “twists and stuff” -- and yet even his haters should acknowledge the truth. 
Shyamalan makes it look virtually effortless.

There are only a few “cheats” in The Sixth Sense, and these moments don’t subtract from the picture’s overall success, or the sheer emotional resonance of the tale.

In short, The Sixth Sense is a beautiful and complex genre film that holds up to scrutiny, and has something ital. and true to tell us about humanity or at least the way humanity perceives itself.

We must have a purpose, and we must understand that purpose, or we are but lost souls.

“I’m ready to communicate with you now.”

On the very evening that night he receives an award from the City of Philadelphia for his long, dedicated service to the community, married psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is gunned down in his home by an old client whom he failed to help, Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg). 

The following autumn, Crowe is estranged from his wife, Abby (Olivia Williams) and devotes himself to a case involving a troubled little boy like Vincent, this one named Cole (Haley Joel Osment).

Cole claims to see and communicate with “dead people.” 

Crowe must first confirm this boy’s “gift” and then help Cole learn how to live with it, and utilize it to help others, and himself.

“I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I don’t want it to slip away.”

They don’t see each other,” Cole Sear declares of the dead in The Sixth Sense.They just see what they want to see.  They don’t know that they’re dead. They’re everywhere.”

This dialogue excerpt, however, is also very much about the movie’s audience; you and me. 

Remember, Shyamalan’s film works on two tracks simultaneously, as a literal narrative about its characters and their journey but also as a reflexive narrative about the nature of storytelling, and the things that audiences require from storytellers (“twists and stuff,” again.)

The most significant thing one must understand about the film is that, structurally, it plays delicately on character and audience assumptions.  And assumptions are often wrong.  The entirety of The Sixth Sense rests on the writer/director’s capability to make audiences feel a certain way in certain scenes, without getting at what is truly happening in those scenes, until the final revelation lands like a hammer. 

In other words, the film visually implies certain assumptions and perceptions, and then, in the last scenes, reveal a different perspective.  Like Cole’s ghosts, the audience, going in, largely sees what it wants to see, not what actually exists.

Apart from some notable but relatively slight inconsistencies in this approach, The Sixth Sense largely accomplishes the goal of playing on audience assumptions, of encouraging perceptions and then pulling the carpet out from under them. 

For instance, we see Crowe’s wife, Abby, crying on a bed early in the film, surrounded by crumpled Kleenex. We assume she is crying because something bad has happened involving her relationship with Crowe.

On the contrary, however, she is crying because she is still in mourning over his untimely and tragic death (or, more accurately, murder).  But we think their marriage is in trouble in a conventional sense.  He’s spending too much time at work.  He’s ignoring her.  So she’s sad.

On the contrary, he’s a corpse. She can’t move on.

Similarly, it’s noteworthy that Malcolm never meets with Cole in a professional office setting. Instead, Cole goes to the hospital to see him, or sits in an apartment foyer, or meets Cole on the street while he is walking to school. 


Doesn’t it strike anyone as weird that this psychologist is just hanging around?  It might, but as movie-goers we brush off these feelings on first viewing.  That said, not many psychologists I know make house calls.  But given the severity of Cole’s case, and his young age (plus Crowe’s drive to make up for the mistake of Vincent Gray), we assume the psychologist is making an exception. We assume he has taken a special interest in this troubled boy.

In fact, Crowe is a ghost, seen only by Cole, but this example (no office visits) should allow you to detect fully how the movie lets us run with our own ideas and thoughts, and doesn’t attempt to correct us or our perceptions.

In another scene, set at a restaurant, Malcolm meets with his estranged wife, Abby for their wedding anniversary.  She doesn’t speak to him, and the audience assumes -- again -- that, since the shooting at the beginning of the film, they’ve become estranged.  She exits the restaurant in a flurry of emotion, and leaves Malcolm behind, and the audience assumes she’s mad.  She isn’t.  She doesn’t know he’s present at all.  She can’t see him.  Even though she says aloud, “happy anniversary” she is talking to herself; not to the ghost she has no concrete awareness of.

Commendably, The Sixth Sense does not go out of its way to unduly deceive us. It never states, for instance, that Crowe’s office is being repainted, or some such thing to lead us off the track.  I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t always the case in a Shyamalan film.  Sometimes, he tips the scales against us (like the grave stone with the erroneous dates in The Village).  But more often than not, he plays fair. He just leaves a gap in the story and lets individual imagination fill it in.

For me, this relates to one useful definition of great art, and one I learned from director Nicholas Meyer, in his discussion of the Star Trek franchise. For him, art is the act of not telling the audience everything up front; of leaving holes that allow audience imagination to supply the rest.  I find that this is the case with The Sixth Sense, and much of Shyamalan’s work.  He gives the audience enough information to rope it in, but not enough information to squelch imagination, or importantly, speculation and assumption.

Are there exceptions, or moments that might have been handled more deftly in The Sixth Sense?  Well, on this re-watch (probably my fourth or fifth viewing), I noticed that a shadow (presumably Crowe’s) passes over Cole in a meeting at a church.  A ghost wouldn’t cast a shadow, would it?  But perhaps there was another person in the church, passing by, behind Crowe, at the same time.

Similarly, we see Crowe -- a ghost, remember -- manipulate pens, tape recorders, notebooks and other elements of our reality “here” on the mortal coil.  How does that work exactly?  The Sixth Sense avoids explanation, perhaps to its detriment. As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1990s, Ghost (1990), at least, attempted to explain how ghosts move between and manipulate earthly objects.

Yet over and over again, given these few exceptions, The Sixth Sense knowingly and deftly stages scenes in a way that encourage assumptions, but can track in the opposite direction too.  When the big reveal comes, we realize our beliefs were wrong and that the movie (and movie-maker too) is still an honest, and reliable narrator. All of this is extremely clever, and it’s clear that M. Night Shyamalan is a canny student and observer of human nature, not to mention mainstream movie-going habits, since by and large, audiences do react exactly as he expects them to. He rarely loses his balance.

Has any other director, other than Alfred Hitchcock so cleverly, and for such a sustained duration manipulated the audience so expertly?  Have many movie talents so assiduously crafted a story that successfully operates in two realities, until the final fork in the road, when only one reality can be dominant?

I think you would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of other talents, and that fact certainly, is one reason why Shyamalan is worth lauding or studying.  Consider that most movie lovers you encounter will concur that The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs all achieve what they set out to.  That’s three times (in a row) up at bat in which he pulled off this feat with consistent audience appreciation and buy-in.

I think it is also fair to state that Shyamalan accomplishes a great deal by focusing on small, seemingly ordinary things.  

The film possesses a strong sense of disorder, as though the world is out of whack.  If you gaze intently at some of the visuals, such as a kitchen in which all the drawers and cabinet doors are open, or a girl hiding under a bed, or even a shot of a lone character standing in the dark, shadowed in a dark basement, one begins to see how the visuals themselves seem to symbolize nature's imbalance. 

No expensive visual effects are needed to make the film frightening.  These off-kilter touches do the job magnificently. Shyamalan is one of the few directors still working in this decade who -- like Robert Wise once did --- can make a door-knob seem terrifying.

The performances in The Sixth Sense are also stellar, and add immeasurably to the success of the film.  Bruce Willis has never been better, I would assess, except perhaps in Unbreakable.  He adopts the passive, professional detachment of a clinician here, and that very-internal, very-buttoned approach explains his passivity (why few others seem to take note of him), and also raise alarm bells about his true nature…as a ghost. When Crowe learns this story has been about him needing help, not Cole, Willis opens up, and the film reaches a fever pitch of emotion. He realizes that he has been given an opportunity to fix two mistakes, and makes the most of it. Our final views of Crowe show us his separation from his wife and his sadness at leaving her, while he heads...beyond.

Osment, meanwhile, is the emotional anchor of The Sixth Sense, and expresses terror, sadness, isolation and love in an unpracticed, innocent fashion. Cole achieves the ending or destiny he deserves: a recognition of his gift and purpose in this life.  Crowe gets that too, understanding that he has made up for two failures, both in putting his wife second to his career, and correcting the mistake he made with another sensitive, Vincent.

The most difficult thing for me in terms of all the Shyamalan bashing one finds on the Net is that people seem to think that Shyamalan is trying, in films like The Sixth Sense, to prove he is better than the rest of us. 

You know, who does he think he is always trying to outsmart the rest of us paeans all the time?

Well, there’s an answer encoded right into the fabric of The Sixth Sense.  Shyamalan is not working against us, he is working for the audience.  What’s my proof?  When he has Cole say that stories need twists and stuff or they will be boring, he is specifically looking out for audiences; making certain that his story doesn’t fail to please.  Shyamalan has made the audience’s desire for a good story, well-told, paramount in his efforts. 

We all know the old saying that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, right?  Well, that’s sort of what Shyamalan seems to be saying in this story, too: I have a new way of telling a story, and I don’t think you’ll see it coming. 

I’m not certain why that must be perceived as vanity or ego. Aren’t we in the market for strong stories, told in ways that are fresh and innovative?  I know that’s why I’m here. That’s why I write books.  That’s why I blog. That's why I go to the movies.

But then a lot of people are like The Sixth Sense’s ghosts, aren’t they?  They don’t see the truth, they see only what they want to see. One has to wonder if in some way, Shyamalan was answering his prospective critics in the very body of his film, in the very text of The Sixth Sense.

Because what I see in The Sixth Sense is an emotional, horrific and meticulously constructed film that surprises by unexpectedly inverting the roles of its main characters. 

What I see is a film that recognizes a basic truth that stories just don’t happen magically or spontaneously, they must be constructed in such a way so that the audience remains engaged from start to finish. 

What I see is a film that recognizes the fact that our eyes don’t always tell us the whole story on first look.   Sometimes, to truly see, we need to look closer.

And what I see, finally, and perhaps most importantly, is a film that reminds us that the greatest evil in the world is not death, but the inability to know one’s self, and one’s purpose.

Movie Trailer: The Sixth Sense (1999)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Guest Post: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Fun, Frothy but Forgettable.

by Jonas Schwartz

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015), the origin story of the successful 1960s TV series, would make a fine placeholder for a year without a Mission Impossible or James Bond movie.  However with Rogue Nation still in the theaters and Spectre landing in November, this light action thriller/comedy feels superfluous and lacking compared to the competition.

In 1963, Former thief and current CIA asset Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, Man Of Steel) smuggles out an East German female mechanic, Gaby Teller, (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) with a KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, The Social Network), on their heels. 

Teller’s mission is to contact her father, a former Nazi scientist who has been kidnapped and forced to build a nuclear weapon.  Due to the horrific nature of the situation, the US and Soviet Union work together, forcing Solo and Kuryakin to become partners.

The original TV series, which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, ran on NBC from 1964-1968.  James Bond author Ian Fleming was connected to the series, and the show had the flair found in the early Bond films but with a more limited budget. The show never felt derivative.  

This movie, written by director Guy Ritchie and Harry Potter producer Lionel Wigram, captures the mod sixties but doesn’t have a clever enough story to be noteworthy.  The plot steals from every Buddy film since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  

The partnership of an American and Russian agent was better handled in the Bond hit The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  Elements of Gaby Teller can be found in many Bond heroines, including From Russia With Love’s (1963) Tatiana Romanova and Thunderball’s (1965) Domino Vitali.

Even the slick, stylish villainess Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) is minor compared to Bond femme fatales Fatima Blush (played in Never Say Never Again (1983) by Barbara Carrera) and Fiona Volpe (played in Thunderball by Luciana Paluzzi). Though she has that cool cat voice and nonchalance when committing atrocious crimes, she becomes an ancillary villain, one easily dispatched.

Ritchie uses split screens to pump up the tension in action scenes and uses black humor even when the heroes are in danger to thrill the audience. The opening sequence and a scene involving a truck and speedboat are the most fun. Ritchie and Wigram also use script editing to mix the event sequences out of chronological order, which leads to pleasant surprises.  

The women’s performances fare better than the men's. Vikander is a striking damsel in distress. While her heroes are manipulators by trade, she is the moral center and adds a sense of integrity to the gang. Though her role is underwritten, Debicki is delightfully venomous. In one delicious moment, she poisons a character then glides down to the sofa like a snake about to swallow a horse whole. Hammer and Cavill are more mechanical than early Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cavill’s robotic voice is meant to be suave but dulls the senses. Hammer’s Russian accent slips in and out.

The best part of the film is the pitch perfect score by Daniel Pemberton, featuring lounge music by Roberta Flack, Nina Simone and Peppino Gagliardi. The cocktail sound fits perfectly with the bubbly champagne tone.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is reminiscent not only of Bond and Mission Impossible but also this summer’s sleeper hit Spy. That Bond spoof, starring Melisa McCarthy in her best role, captures the themes, humor and action that U.N.C.L.E lacks with a cast more game than the one found here.

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

Is He Unbreakable? The Shyamalan Series Begins

On Friday, September 11th, director M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, The Visit, will be released theatrically in the United States. The film is of the found-footage variety, and apparently straddles the line between horror and comedy.

I’m…curious about it.

Now, I understand fully that Mr. Shyamalan is a controversial figure in film circles these days, though I have been a vocal admirer of his films since seeing The Sixth Sense in the theater in 1999.

I have rarely felt disappointed by Shyamalan’s silver screen work, in part, because it so relentlessly personal, so individual in visualization and story-telling.  

Indeed, I find it highly ironic that this cinematic artist is criticized so regularly (and so angrily) for boasting a consistent, distinctive approach to filmmaking while dozens of generic, cookie-cutter superhero movies get made every year and are lauded breathlessly as being something special and unique.

In short, I would take Shymalan’s brand of individuality -- failures and all -- over the specter of filmmaking by committee any day (and every day, for that matter).

Mr. Shyamalan often gets pigeon-holed by unappreciative critics as simply being a director who wallows in twist endings. However, I find his creative approach much more complex and much more intriguing than that descriptor suggests. 

I also know that critics -- at least many I have encountered -- simply don’t like being out-guessed. They don’t like it when a filmmaker surprises or outsmarts them, or does something different. Because all critics are above reproach and know everything about how to make movies, right?

Accordingly, Shyamalan’s film are often perceived by reviewers as a direct challenge to their legitimacy. His work is then judged negatively on the following basis: it either surprises successfully, or it doesn’t surprise at all. He is graded entirely by the twist ending, in other words.

He’s sort of in a no-win situation there, honestly.

Everyone has already pre-judged Mr. Night's next film, knowing that it will be glacially-paced, philosophically deep, and featuring some “twist” at the end. 

But what if that twist ending is not M. Night Shyamalan’s game at all?

You see, I don’t believe he actually trades in trick or twist endings. On the contrary, I believe that the description -- "twist ending" -- is simultaneously a neat short-hand, and a bad short-cut that allows people to avoid thinking.

In fact, as you will see, Shyamalan’s film narratives are all fairly linear in nature.

As a director, Mr. Shyamalan achieves something quite rare. He cleverly and repeatedly plays on and subverts audience assumptions in his films.

Near the conclusion of each of his movies, the curtain is lifted, so-to-speak -- because of new information --and the audience realizes it has been reading the picture entirely wrong, from the earliest frames. 

It’s not the ending that twists, in other words, it’s the audience’s understanding of the imagery and symbols featured that must contort.

Therefore, we are forced -- in this director's best work -- to question our initial assumptions about characters, about stories, and about events.  The twist, you might conclude, is that we come to recognize our own incorrect perceptions. 

But Mr. Shyamalan might rightly point out that he has scattered bread crumbs all along the way for us to pay attention to.  It's not that he's trying to trick us on our journey.  t's that he's trying to make us see. Our problem is that either we can't see, or that we misinterpret the signs, those bread crumbs left behind.

Is the game, then, in Mr. Shyamalan's films, actually to make viewers re-consider how they view the world? To see -- all of the sudden -- the erroneous assumptions that people take with them into new experiences? 

Perhaps that's too grand a claim. At the very least, however, Shyamalan's films make viewers sit up and pay attention. 

So -- as you can tell -- I am not a Shyamalan hater, quite the opposite. I detect beauty and virtue in the vast majority of his films. It saddens me that so many film lovers would rather criticize and hate his films than actually engage with his work, or meet him half-way in his explorations of the human soul.  I hate seeing people treat the director as a joke, or kind of reflexively gag at the mention of his name. Those are juvenile responses.

I should say as well that I have not, at this juncture, seen The Last Airbender (2010), so I cannot comment meaningfully on that effort, or its success and failure as an adaptation of previously created material.  People claim it is horrid, but people say that about all his films, even ones that I admire and adore, like that fantastic and moving bed-time story for the cinema: Lady in the Water (2007).

So, leading up to September 11th  and the release of The Visit, I’ll be conducting a Shyamalan retrospective here on the blog a few days a week. 

The titles featured in the series include The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2007), The Happening (2008), and After Earth (2013). I’ll cap off this blog series with a review of the new film, The Visit (2015).  

Just gazing at that catalog of titles, one must acknowledge, at the very least, thia director's continuing commitment to exploring the fantasy and horror genres. For sixteen years, he has worked exclusively in that terrain. 

As always, I can’t ask you to believe what I believe, or see what I see. I can ask only that you approach the films and my reviews with an open mind and respectful commentary.

First up is The Sixth Sense!  Check out my review here, tomorrow morning at 6:00 am.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Films of 1987: Masters of the Universe

Masters of the Universe (1987) is a silver screen fantasy based on the Mattel toy-line and Filmation cartoon TV series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983 – 1985). 

Although the film is decidedly a low-budget one, and it takes some liberties with the “mythos” of the TV series established at the time, the Gary Goddard movie also boasts the underrated benefit of directness

Uniformly, the movie lacks pretension or distraction, eschews the requisite “angst” and obligatory three hour running time of most modern fantasy films, and generally opts for straight-forward action over camp.

While it’s true that Masters of the Universe doesn’t boast much in terms of narrative or thematic depth, it also moves fast enough-- and with enough clarity -- that you don’t really mind.

Masters of the Universe depicts its “fish-out-of-water” story, set on Earth, with a kind of blunt-faced “move along” verve, and that is a welcome approach. For example, you might start to ask questions about why a man in a loin cloth and cape, wielding a sword, is teamed up with high-tech soldiers in futuristic armor.  But by the time you enunciate the interrogative, the movie has moved on to its next set-piece.

Similarly, Masters of the Universe’s production design, make-up (by William Stout) and costumes are actually all pretty strong, and -- per the director’s intent -- seem to directly imply a Jack Kirby-esque cosmos. If you are a fan of Kirby (as I am…), some of the visual and thematic touches here seem to recall his impressive illustrations.

Perhaps Masters of the Universe’s greatest deficit is Dolph Lundgren’s central performance as He-Man. Lundgren looks great, obviously, but resolutely fails to imbue He-Man with any color, shading or personality. 

This big “blank” spot at the center of the action takes away from the film’s low budget virtues and charm.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the world’s greatest actor either, but nonetheless he was able to imbue his Conan with a sense of humor, cunning, and personal charisma. It’s not that you need a great actor for this kind of fantasy role it’s that we need to know who He-Man is, and why he fights. You need someone who projects a kind of inner intelligence or inner life, and Lundgren just doesn’t transmit it in this case.

Masters of the Universe comes from Cannon Films, the house which pretty much put the final nail in the coffin of the Superman movie franchise with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986).  Masters of the Universe is a much better, coherent film than that sad, sad effort.

This movie fails to emerge, perhaps, as a widely acknowledged cult classic simply because the story is limited somewhat by the budget, and also by the perimeters of its “fish out of water” scenario.  The fish out of water film was all the rage in the mid-1980s but today seems abundantly less interesting than the (expensive) possibilities of an Eternia-based epic.

I prefer not to use the term “guilty pleasure” because if you like something, and it gives you joy, there’s no reason to feel embarrassed by it.

Masters of the Universe lacks the rollicking confidence and opulence of Flash Gordon (1980), and the sheer genius and imagination of writer David Odell’s other fantasy, The Dark Crystal (1982), but there’s nonetheless a cheeky, ask-no-questions jauntiness or zeal about the movie.    

If you allow yourself to “key” in on that note, to reference the film’s musical McGuffin, then Masters of the Universe is sort of a good old fashioned, straight-up fun B-movie.

On distant Eternia, the villainous Skeletor (Frank Langella) nearly succeeds in overthrowing the peaceful denizens of the planet, and he seizes Castle Grayskull. Skeletor also captures the kindly Sorceress (Christina Pickles), hoping to absorb her mystical powers and combine them with his own at the coming moonrise, when the “eye” of Grayskull opens.

Meanwhile, the hero of Eternia, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) along with his friends, Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) encounter a troll-like being, the locksmith and inventor Gwildor (Billy Barty).

Gwildor admits that Skeletor achieved his advantage in battle with a cosmic key that Gwildor made, which can open doorways to any location in the universe. The good news is that Gwildor possesses a second key, and he can use it to transport He-Man and his colleagues inside Grayskull.

Unfortunately, the heroes are not able to save the Sorceress, and retreat into another spatial portal, one which takes them to…Earth.  

Once there on that primitive world, they lose the cosmic key…the only way back to Eternia.

Soon, however, He-Man befriends young Julie (Courteney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill).  These American teenagers have found the cosmic key and are willing to help He-Man get back home.

But Skeletor and his minion Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster) have already sent monstrous mercenaries like Beast Man through the portal to re-acquire the key…

I must confess that my memories of Masters of the Universe’s visuals were flat out wrong.

I remember seeing the film on VHS -- and perhaps on broadcast TV -- in the late 1980s. My memories are that the film appeared dark, muddy, brown and grainy. The print I saw twenty-something years ago looked…lame.

By contrast, the DVD version I watched this weekend to prep this review looked very vivid. The film’s costumes, make-up and sets are all glittering, colorful, and bright. This fact alone makes Masters of the Universe look a lot less “low-budget” than I erroneously remembered it.

While it’s true that we only see one chamber in all of massive Castle Grayskull, it is nonetheless quite a spectacular and vast one.  

Similarly, Skeletor, his minions and shock-troopers all appear pretty menacing, too, and the optical effects involving lasers, mini-wormholes, blazing swords and the like are likewise satisfactory.  The aforementioned Superman IV barely coheres in terms of special effects presentation, production values and editing.  By comparison, Masters of the Universe looks like a masterpiece.

It’s apparent, of course, that limitations were imposed by the film’s budget; limitations which, I suspect result in this mostly earthbound story, which merely book-ends on Eternia.

The story of He-Man on planet Earth is what is often termed a fish-out-of-water story, and examples from the mid-1980s include Back to the Future (1985), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Crocodile Dundee (1986].

Like Masters of the Universe, all these films feature protagonists encountering “alien” cultures, or confusing social mores.  The heroes are strangers in a strange land, essentially, combating their ignorance of local customs as well as attempting to complete a mission. 

Unlike those other three films, however, Masters of the Universe doesn’t tread deeply at all into cross-culture conflict, and characters from different worlds hardly seem to ask questions of one another at all. 

Instead, it’s all just a set up for action and more action. The film would have been cleverer if had featured some direct and humorous comparisons between Eternia and Earth, alas. The fish-out-of-water scenario just isn’t used to its maximum efficiency, and this fact reinforces the notion that the setting was, largely, a matter not of creative choice, but of economy.

If humor and social commentary are slighted, some of the visuals remain powerful. 

The moment when Skeletor glides down a small-town U.S.A. Main Street on his clam-shell battle skiff is actually pretty accomplished and resonant.  

Menacing shock-troopers surround him during this night-time incursion, and there’s the legitimate feel of an invasion from another reality. There’s very little that plays as fake or phony about this moment.

Straight-faced and in many scenes lacking self-awareness, Masters of the Universe occasionally showcases a kind of innocent charm.  For example, Frank Langella is terrific as Skeletor and he delivers with panache some subtly amusing lines. 

When waiting for He-Man to appear, for instance, Langella throws away the line “I expect him at any moment,” an under-the-radar reminder that in the (highly-repetitive…) cartoons, Skeletor and He-Man clash repeatedly, and eternally without a clear-cut victor.  

But they always end up facing each other…again. And always just as Skeletor’s plans are finally about to come to fruition.

I also enjoyed Skeletor’s description of Earth as “a primitive and tasteless planet.”

This from a guy with an expressive skull for a face and garbed in a black robe…

In terms of the aforementioned cartoon, Masters of the Universe omits some of the details of the Filmation series. There is no Battle Cat here, alas, and that represents a significant absence. 

On the other hand, there’s also no Orko in the film.

The most memorable image from the Filmation cartoon may be Prince Adam raising his sword and declaring (with reverb): “By the Power of Grayskull…I have the POWER!”

The movie provides audiences a variation on that trademark moment, and it works well within the movie’s context, without being annoying, cheesy or campy. 

Significantly, He-Man never transforms here into his alter-ego of the TV series, “Prince Adam.” 

From a certain perspective, thee absences of Battle Cat or Prince Adam can be easily rationalized away.  In Masters of the Universe, we are treated to a very time-specific tale in which He-Man and his closest friends are on the run, retreating from a surprise attack.

So it’s very possible that there was no time for him to turn into Prince Adam or wrangle Cringer/Battle Cat.

But oppositely, He-Man is such a thin character on paper and on the stage here, that any deepening of him – even in a trite Clark Kent/Superman mode -- would have at least added something to his personality.

The problem with Lundgren’s He Man is that the movie gives us no understanding of his history, personal history, or personality.

Is He-Man a battle-hardened hero?

A knight driven by duty and honor? 

An aristocrat or noble playing at war but becoming a real warrior? 

A cocky superhero?

Lundgren could have selected any approach, from above and tried to bring some depth or definition to the character. Admittedly, the script doesn’t help him much. But nor does his bland, vacant performance help the film overall.

I suppose a key reason to dislike Masters of the Universe is its 1980s approach to fantasy. Here, we get teenagers with mullets, an adventure on Earth, and a relatively un-nuanced battle between good and evil.

There are no epic army clashes, and no radical otherworldly vistas (like we see in Thor: The Dark World [2013]) for instance. Instead, Masters of the Universe gives us a few scuffles, and a view or two of old, familiar Vasquez Rocks.

But unlike the recent Thor film -- which gets bogged down in the technical details of its story and fails to generate any legitimate human emotion, even when Asgard’s matriarch dies -- Masters of the Universe is refreshingly linear, and generously unspoiled by delusions of grandeur. Even with all its deficits, Masters of the Universe, at least, didn’t bore me to death.

On a personal note, I also really dig the Jack Kirby-esque visuals in this 1987 film. 

Take a look at the golden helmet Skeletor wears during the film’s final battle, for one example of this aesthetic. It seems piped in directly from the icon’s Fourth World saga. 

Again, I don’t want to keep making comparisons to Thor: The Dark World, but there really is something to be said for a real life, substantial costume, over CGI armor and the like. There’s obviously a strong Kirby ethos in Dark World, but something about the weight of Skeletor’s helmet here -- the gold and the horns -- that captures a Kirby influence more profoundly or at least more vividly, in my opinion.

Finally, if you believe that movies are like Skeletor’s stated philosophy in the in film -- “I must possess all, or I possess nothing” -- Masters of the Universe might be viewed as a misguided, unfaithful, and low-budget adaptation of a once-popular property.

Like Courtney Cox’s character in the film, you might wish “you could change things…”  

But this He-Man -- while undeniably flawed and small-potatoes by today’s world-exploding, apocalyptic CGI movie standard -- still possesses “the power” to entertain.