Saturday, January 16, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command (1978); "The Victory of Star Command" (December 23, 1978)

In the final episode of the first season, “The Victory of Star Command,” Jason (Craig Littler) evades a trap set by Dragos, destroys the medallion that creates the minions, and flees the Dragon ship with Nicole (Susan O’Hanlon).

Meanwhile, Space Academy falls under attack from Dragos’ drone fighters.  But the attack falls short, and Space Academy is victorious.

Refusing to accept defeat, however, Dragos promises to return.  “I will be alive in every dark corner of the universe,” he promises.

“The Victory of Star Command” is kind of a silly ending for the first season of this series.  When Dragos disappears in the last scene, for example, he leaves behind his helmet, gloves and cape.  


Isn’t he going to need his helmet wherever he is going? Why has he left pieces of his uniform, but not all of it?  

Secondly, Jason of Star Command has established all along that energy clones are real flesh-and-blood beings. But Drago’s duplicates this week are intangible and untouchable.  So they aren't energy clones at all, and the series' last chapter doesn't tightly tie in with the first few (wherein we discover Canarvin is an energly clone).  

This is a missed opportunity to tie back to the beginning of the season, and the whole energy clone subplot. But then, the series has long since stopped being coherent at this juncture. It's all phantasmagoria.

What makes the finale a little disappointing, even as phantasmagoria, is the fact that many of the effects are but stock footage at this point.  We've seen the Starfire escape the belly of the Dragon ship before, and we've seen the attack on the Academy by the drone fleet too.  So a sense of freshness and excitement is missing here.

Indeed, I’m not sure why this is the “finale” storyline except that the Dragon ship is destroyed, and Dragos leaves his items behind in his command center.  But we have seen in earlier episodes that Drago, whenever defeated, just comes right back and picks up where he left off.

And indeed, that’s sorta what happens in the second season of the series, isn’t it?  Next week, Season Two!

Series Primer: Filmation's Flash Gordon (1979)

"Blasting off on a desperate mission to save Earth from the evil plottings of the tyrannical space lord Ming the Merciless. Dr. Hans Zarkov and Dale Arden have joined me, Flash Gordon, on a fantastic journey into worlds where peril and adventure await us."

- Opening Narration to Filmation's Flash Gordon.

One of my all-time favorite Saturday morning series -- especially of the animated variety --  is Filmation's Flash Gordon (1979-1982). 

For me the series is right up there with Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974) or Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975). I love this series, and still remember watching it in first run, in that magical year of my youth: 1979.

Nostalgia isn't the only reason I enjoy Flash Gordon.  

Although it was produced at the end of the 1970s (and into the 1980s), it retains both the retro-futurism of the original 1930s strips, and the themes from the franchise in its first steps. These ideas and images require no updating, at least as vetted by Filmation. The series is brilliantly-designed and executed, even with frequent stock-footage re-use.

Ming's retro 1930s warship.

Ming's Art Deco "Mingo" City.
Filmation created this version of Alex Raymond's pulp hero shortly after the success of Star Wars (1977) in cinemas. Despite this no-doubt exploitative timing, the animated series is incredibly faithful to the Flash Gordon strips and serials, both in terms of narrative and Art Deco design  and doesn't obviously crib from George Lucas's space fantasy.

The first season of NBC's Flash Gordon dramatizes Gordon's first adventure on Mongo in serialized fashion (in chapters), going from the crash of Gordon's rocket in an alien ocean to the defeat of Ming the Merciless with the help of Mongo's now-united rulers.

All the familiar characters are here. Flash (Robert Ridgley) is teamed with fellow Earthlings Dr. Hans Zarkov (Alan Oppenheimer) and Dale Arden (Diane Pershing).  

Flash Gordon and Dale Arden.

The heroes on Mongo.
Over the sixteen-week first season adventure, these heroes battle the minions of Ming the Merciless (Oppenheimer again) -- metal men, imperial guard, lizard women, Mer-Men, and so on -- with the help of a diverse set of leaders representing different kingdoms.

Ming the Merciless

Metal Men

Captain of the Guard

Lizard Women

Aiding Flash, Prince Barin (Bob Holt) rules Arboria. King Vultan (Allan Melvin) rules a floating city, home to the Hawkmen.  Other biomes featured on the series including the frozen wasteland of Frigia, Syk, and the underwater domain, Coralia.  

Flash's other allies include Thun, the lion man and the alluring Princess Aura (Melend Britt), who is drawn in somewhat more adult fashion than one might expect from a Saturday morning cartoon.




A dazzling series in terms of its visuals, Flash Gordon features great-looking spaceships with tail-fins and wings, and a number of bizarre fantasy creatures, representing the alien wild-life of Mongo.  

Overall, the series remains a metaphor for the fight against fascism in Europe. In short: an American hero (Flash Gordon) rallies the dis-united States of Mongo (representing Europe) to depose the tyrannical Ming, quite obviously a Hitler stand-in.

Beyond that subtext -- diverse people working together to throw off the shackles of oppression and terror -- this iteration of Flash Gordon is heavy on action and cliffhangers. The second season on NBC sees the addition of an overtly friendly kiddie character, the dragon Gremlin, and ditches the overarching serial format. 

For right now, however, it is time to revisit the colorful, dynamic world of Filmation's Flash Gordon

Next week: "A Planet in Peril," Chapter One.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Found Footage Friday: Greystone Park (2012)

The found footage horror movie sub-genre features several sub-genres of its own.

One of them is the “haunted hospital” trope or cliché. Thus far, I have seen documentary film crews or individuals with cameras explore dilapidated asylums and other medical facilities in films such Grave Encounters (2011), Reel Evil (2012), Sx_Tape (2013), and Hollow’s Grove (2014).  

Usually, the unlucky filmmakers run up against the malevolent spirits of those who were subject to bad treatment in the ruined facilities years earlier.

Greystone Park (2012) -- from director Sean Stone -- depicts the same old, familiar story, and does so without an abundance of new twists, unfortunately. Stone is the son of legendary director Oliver Stone, who also appears in the film, and Sean also stars here as the leader of the expedition into New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.  

This imposing place (a real location) was constructed in 1876 and at one time housed more than 7,700 patients. The hospital was closed down in 2008. The poster shown above notes that this movie is "inspired" by "true events," and that sentence may refer to the hospital's long history, rather than the "ghost story" the movie vets.

Critics have not been kind to Sean Stone’s picture, and it’s easy to see why. Without any twists or innovation, Greystone Park feels like a rerun of the other found-footage films name-dropped above. 

Also, in an attempt to liven up the proceedings, the film often cuts to black-and-white montages of the hospital inmates…from years past. This kind of intrusion into the modern proceedings is jarring, and seems a violation of found footage format, which demands an excavation of one particular location, and at a particular time. We're watching raw footage here (or we're supposed to be), so other footage -- unless it is clips of stuff on the camera (see: Cloverfield), and being taped over -- ought not to be featured.

Although Greystone Park clearly features many deficits as a work of art, there are aspects of the film worth commending and that reveal Stone’s promise as a filmmaker. One recurring object -- a bloody Raggedy Ann doll -- makes a scary impact, and the film’s denouement, which will make some literal minded viewers howl in disdain, is a welcome reach for artistic integrity and symbolism.

So while Greystone Park may be a clear case of “been there, done that,” the film, and the filmmaker occasionally succeed in their efforts to distinguish their movie from the found footage pack.

“There are things no humans should know about.”

At a dinner party attended by Sean Stone, his father Oliver Stone, his girlfriend Antonella, and another friend, Alex, the guests discuss ghost stories. 

In particular, Oliver Stone discusses a story from his youth, when he was at camp, and ran across a gray-haired, green-eyed ghost nicknamed “Crazy Kate.”

Sean and the others then discuss Greystone Park -- a closed-down mental hospital -- and the ghosts that may exist there. They resolve to tour the haunted facility (at night, no less) and learn the truth of it once and for all.

Alex, Antonella and Sean make the trek to Greystone Park -- trespassing on the property -- and gain entrance to the vast, dilapidated, former mental hospital.

Before long, they start to suspect that the stories of ghosts associated with the location are absolutely true...

“My advice is to leave the dead alone.”

Greystone Park starts slowly, with a lengthy dinner party scene that looks to have largely been improvised, and features all the hall-marks or clichés of the found footage horror film.

There’s green night vision footage at one point, a scene in a car involving the lead characters driving to the remote location, and also lengthy sequences of the same leads lost in a vast, industrial wreckage.

It’s tough for the film to gain any kind of creative traction or purchase in its opening act, though the presence of Oliver Stone is helpful. 

When the elder Stone begins to discuss his childhood experience with Crazy Kate, Greystone Park picks up a notch or two in terms of human interest.  Not so successful, however, are the flashbacks to previous footage of Antonella. In these small moments, she describes how she feels like she is a ghost already, and will feel right at home in the former asylum. This is a bit too on-the-nose in terms of foreshadowing her fate.

Once in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, the film spends a lot of time in wrecked rooms, underground tunnels and the like; the bread and butter of these “haunted hospital” movies.  

One scene, however, is rather effective.  Alex, Antonella, and Sean stumble upon a room that appears to have been recently inhabited. Antonella gets a bad vibe from the chamber and immediately wants to leave. Sitting in the room (near an un-tucked bed) is a large Raggedy Ann doll.  

That creepy doll keeps making appearances in the film, in other locations, and is a frightening presence, to be certain; an indicator that it is either moving of its own volition, or some unseen “watcher” is moving it about, anticipating or following Sean and the others.

Greystone Park's climax depends on the film’s two ghost stories coming to life. 

We already know about Crazy Kate, thanks to Oliver Stone. But Alex tells a story about Billy, a former ward of the hospital who went crazy. He wears a gas mask, and you can detect his approach by rattling chains. 

The former ghost, Kate, gives the film it’s most effective jump scare, but Billy proves a bit of a bust.  He shows up, basically, to punch and abuse the two male leads, disappearing and re-appearing but without ever proving particularly frightening.

I can see why some horror fans might despise the film’s ending or label it as pretentious. Sean stands against a wall in a dimly lit corridor, wearing a hat.  His shadow stands next to him. 

Then, as Sean walks away into the dark (our final glimpse of him), we notice that the shadow remains frozen. For me, this composition actually pulls the whole movie together in a strong, symbolic fashion.

Early in the film, Alex talks about Shadow Men. He says that the inmates at Greystone Park had pieces of their souls “broken,” ripped off, by their horrible treatment.  Those pieces of human souls then became Shadow Men, haunting Greystone and finally becoming “demons.” 

The film’s final composition -- with Sean leaving our view (his destination: madness), while his shadow remains in the hospital -- captures nicely the meaning behind Alex’s monologue. A piece of Sean shall remain in the institution forever. Part of his soul will linger and lurk there.

I commend Sean Stone on the artistry of that imagery, and the effective staging of the shot. 

I only wish he were working here with a script and premise that doesn’t feel so used up. The director's best efforts to enliven the material aren’t always effective, despite the imaginative staging of the film’s denouement.  

In short, I don't think Greystone Park is nearly as bad as some have claimed. But other than a very well-orchestrated ending and one or two good, creepy moments, it's a visit to a location we've all been before. A return trip there is neither desired, nor necessary.  

For films of this genre-within-a-genre, I still recommend Grave Encounters.

Movie Trailer: Greystone Park (2012)

Spaceships: 2000 - 2009

The first decade of the twenty first century brought new spaceship designs, including two new variations of the Starship Enterprise, and a new version of the Battlestar Galactica.

And yet, looking at these ships, I confess not to feel too close to most of the designs (Firefly's Serenity is a big exception...I love that ship.).  

By this time -- 2000 - 2009 -- in movie and TV history, CGI is regularly employed to create these ships. Though they appear intricate, I can't say many of them captured my heart like Space:1999's Eagle did, or the way the Millennium Falcon did.

How many do you remember, or recognize?

Not Identified: Pitch Black.

Not Identified: Titan AE.

Identified by SGB: Andromeda.

Identified by SGB: NX-01 (Enterprise)

Identified by Nicolas Fraser:Star Trek:Nemesis (Scimitar)

Not Identified; Firefly (Serenity)

Identified by Nicolas Fraser: Battlestar Galactica (Remake)

Not Identified: AVP (Predator Ship)

Identified by SGB: Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

Identified by The Science Fiction Fanatic: Defying Gravity (Antares)

Identifid by Nicolas Fraser: Stargate.

Identified by The Science Fiction Fanatic: Sunshine (Icarus)

Identified by The Science Fiction Fanatic:WALL-E. (Axiom)

Identified by Nicolas Fraser: Star Trek (2009) (U.S.S.Enterprise)

Identified by Nicolas Fraser: District 9

Identified by Nicolas Fraser: SGU (Destiny)

Identified by Nicolas Fraser: V (Remake)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Tribute: Alan Rickman (1946 - 2016)

We have lost another great talent in the world of film (and indeed, theater), today.  

The media is now reporting the death of Alan Rickman (1946-2016).  Like David Bowie before him, cancer took Mr. Rickman from us.

Although my son's generation will immediately think of Mr. Rickman's many performances as Snape in the Harry Potter film franchise (2001 - 2011), my generation will be reminded instead, of another role: Hans Gruber. 

Rickman played this most extraordinary thief in Die Hard (1988), and it's the film that made a name for him in Hollywood.  

In a sense, Rickman redefined the action movie villain with this trademark role. Gruber was a fully developed bad guy Thanks in large part to Rickman's efforts, Gruber revealed a sense of humor, rage, irritation and other recognizable human qualities at the same time that he exuded menace. Rickman's Gruber was a perfect foil for John McClane, and the Die Hard franchise has yet to produce a villain (a villainous performance) that is of equal substance.

Rickman brought his considerable wit and skill to other villainous roles, like that of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), or the interrogator in Closet Land (1991).  

But to simply pigeonhole this great actor as an essayer of memorable "bad guys" does him a great disservice.

Rickman also starred as the acerbic, put-upon Voice of God, Metatron, in Kevin Smith's Dogma (1999), and as the Leonard-Nimoy-like actor saddled with a science fiction role no one will ever forget, in Galaxy Quest (1999). He also appeared in Sweeney Todd (2007) and contributed his unmistakable voice to such efforts as Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Beyond these roles, Rickman's performances in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Love Actually (2003) showcased his versatility, humanity, and dedication to his craft.

I offer my condolences to Mr. Rickman's family, and mourn his loss today. His work and his life shall not be forgotten.