Saturday, April 02, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Mimi's Secret" (November 24, 1979)

In Jason of Star Command’s “Mimi’s Secret,” Jason (Craig Littler), Samantha (Tamara Dobson), Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) and young Heidi (Heather Connell) escape an attack by Dragos’ (Sid Haig) drones, and then return to Star Command.  

Once there, they meet with Queen Medusa (Francine York), who, under a flag of truce, promises to exchange Heidi’s missing father for her doll, Mimi.

By this point, Parsafoot has realized that “Mimi” is actually a code-name for M1M1, an acronym which pinpoints the location (planet M1) of a secret “guardsman” mineral vein. The valuable material is used throughout the galaxy as a power source, and Dragos would find it incredibly valuable.  Meanwhile, Heidi stows away on Medusa’s ship.

Finally, Jason and the others rescue Heidi and her father on the surface of M1, and fight to keep the mineral out of the hands of Queen Medusa…

“Mimi’s Secret, the second-to-last Jason of Star Command episode, boasts some nice flourishes.  

One of those is the visual of Queen Medusa’s starship. It discharges energetic particles while traveling through space; particles that are pink and purple, the very colors of Medusa’s skin tight, spandex uniform (a hand-me-down from Julie Newmar.)

Another point of interest is the episode’s brief commentary on prejudice based on skin color.  Young Heidi asks Commander Stone (John Russell) why his skin is blue, and he responds with a comment about not judging people by color, because color doesn’t reveal their true selves. It’s a brief moment, but a good one that feels, perhaps more in keeping with Space Academy (1977).

In terms of production values, “Mimi’s Secret” is a noticeably weak episode. M1 is represented by the same studio planet set we’ve seen a dozen times this season.  Worse, the interior of Medusa’s ship is just a re-dressed Seeker/Star Fire interior, with the seats white instead of red. Kind of a disappointment, and it’s one of the few instances in the series where the miniature work doesn’t match a live-action interior.

No monsters or stop-motion aliens this week, but “Mimi’s Secret” opens with a pitched space battle between Dragos’ drones and Jason’s Star-fire.  Jason defeats the enemy fighters by tapping into their control panels and jamming their “control frequencies.”  It sounds a little like what Admiral Kirk did to Khan aboard the Reliant a few years later in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

As far as Mimi (and her secret…) go, it turns out the doll is hiding information about the important power source, but the episode never really explains how she lives.  

In this segment, Mimi even shoots laser beams out of her eyes. But, unlike many of her cult-tv brethren, she’s not an evil doll, just a living one.

One last JOSC episode to go, next week: “Battle for Freedom.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "King Flash" (December 1, 1979)

More "peril and adventure await us" on this week's Flash Gordon (1979) episode, Chapter 11, "King Flash."

When last we left our stalwart hero, he was trapped in the caverns of the Blue Magic witch queen, Azur
a. She had cast a spell on Gordon making him believe he was "Gor-Don," a conquering King of Mongo from years past...and her lover.

As "King Flash" opens, Gordon and Azura lead their war chariot and magical sorcerer minions into battle against Vultan and Barin. Dr. Zarkov has concluded that Azura's spell is "electrical," but is still unable to free Flash from the clutches of his new queen. Zarkov then determines he must "fight magic with magic."

Gor-don's army is triumphant and Vultan and Barin are captured.But when Barin says "Flash...remember," something of his true character comes through Gordon's psyche. Azura attributes this to weariness and sends Flash off to bed. There, Zarkov, Thun and Dale capture him and restore his memory, leaving in his stead a hologram. 

Unfortunately, Zarkov notes, Flash will retain a double personality for some time, even after he is healed. Another side effect of the restoration: Flash Gordon literally becomes "a shadow," a tool he will use to defeat Queen Azura.

When Azura realizes she can never own Flash Gordon body and soul, she releases the ancient "Fire King," Talors, from the cavern to destroy him. But Flash is able to defeat the lobster/dinosaur creature in battle, and thus wins freedom for himself and his friends. Azura is now his new ally in the war to overthrow Mongo's despot, Ming.

Free and triumphant, Flash, Barin, Vultan, Dale, Zarkov and Thun leave the blue magic caverns...only to be captured by Princess Aura and Ming the Merciless.

So, another kingdom down, another Queen converted, and more monsters defeated in battle.  Yep, just another week on Mongo, for the exceptional Flash Gordon. By this point in the series, the storytelling and plotting are absolutely rote. 

Next Week: "Tournament of Death."

Friday, April 01, 2016

Book Review: The Interrupted Journey (1966)

This riveting fifty-year old account of the Barney and Betty Hill Abduction is a cause celebre in UFO literature and lore. The story, told expertly by journalist John G. Fuller, has also become fodder for TV movies such as The UFO Incident (1975) and fictionalized hour-long dramas such as Dark Skies (1996-1997).

The Interrupted Journey (1966) recounts (in meticulous detail) the events of the evening of September 19, 1961, a span when an unassuming interracial couple -- the Hills -- saw their weekend drive in New England interrupted by a...flying saucer.

A UFO not only shadowed these unlucky sojourners for a time, but aliens actually took the humans aboard their craft, the Hills alleged. There, a slew of medical exams were conducted before the couple's release.

After this event, as Fuller recounts, the Hills returned to their home and their jobs. Life went on, but they both felt mysteriously unsettled, with significant gaps in their memories. Betty experienced nightmares for a time. Barney saw a flare-up of his ulcer.

Soon, Betty began to remember bits and pieces of the unnerving experience, even as Barney resisted the idea of aliens and flying saucers all together, fearing that friends and family would find his story ludicrous.

But slowly and surely, the couple began to come to terms with the bizarre, inexplicable events of that night.

The Hills were aided in this endeavor by a reputable, rock-solid psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Simon, who utilized hypnosis to excavate the Hills' buried (or blocked?) memories of the close encounter on September 19th 1961.

Their stories -- told separately in marathon individual sessions -- matched one another's very closely. Husband and wife both spoke of an alien visitation that featured missing time (a span erased by the aliens...), medical exams (including a painful pregnancy test for Betty...) and so on.

These thorough hypnosis sessions -- which often read as decisive, even prosecutorial cross-examinations -- are featured in The Interrupted Journey in the form of transcripts. These word-for-word accounts make for absorbing, provocative and even anxiety-provoking reading.

Fuller does well with the remainder of the text too, his prose devoid of unnecessary or distracting drama,
hysteria, or silliness. In fact, Fuller downplays everything in a just-the-facts writing-style that disarms the inner skeptic and generates a fair bit of, well, uneasiness. The idea of alien visitation is rendered entirely believable here...and palpable.

Ultimately, we come to judge this oddly disturbing story on a human basis, a personal basis. The Hills don't seem like craven attention-seekers (on the contrary actually...). They waited for years to come forward in the public square to tell their version of the story, and then only after an unscrupulous journalist published their story without permission or input.

In The Interrupted Journey, when Barney first sees the alien leader's inhuman black eyes glaring down at him (pressing telepathically into his skull), the reader shares Barney's sense of primal terror; mainly because Fuller's sketched the man in such realistic, human fashion.

The Interrupted Journey is a remarkable work of literature, and I recommend the book as such. Just don't take it at face value or as a priori, Gospel Truth. On the (admittedly-limited) basis of literature, however, The Interrupted Journey is entirely successful. You sympathize with the characters; you're caught up in the drama, and the book evokes a strange feeling that somehow, some way, you're being watched while you turn the pages. It's not good material to read while you're alone in the house.

Or after dark. The book makes you feel paranoid; like you're under a microscope.

Yet the inner skeptic in me still had some questions and concerns about the veracity of the Hill tale. Let me play devil's advocate for a bit, if you don't mind.

To start with during her encounter with the aliens, Betty is offered an extra-terrestrial book as proof of the aliens' existence. The aliens ultimately take the book back, however, conveniently defying Betty any hard evidence of the encounter.

But my problem is with the idea of the alien book itself. We're nowhere near the advent of interstellar flight, but in a few short years, print books will go the way of the dodo on Earth, totally extinct; relics. Would aliens capable of interstellar flight and mind-bending amnesia tricks still carry around books on their space ship (where space and weight would presumably be at a premium....)?

Wouldn't they at least have Kindle?

Secondly, there's the alien confusion about "time." To The Interrupted Journey's credit, the book openly and fairly acknowledges this paradox. Specifically, the aliens tell Betty to "wait a minute" at one point but later, during her exam, confess no knowledge and/or understanding of time or even of the passage of time.

For instance, concepts such as "years" and "old age" are beyond the Saucerites. If the aliens could translate thought well-enough to use the phrase "wait a minute," why couldn't the same technique bring them an understanding of time?

Thirdly, the physical description of the flying saucer -- Barney and Betty's mutual description -- feels uncomfortably like a 1960s phantasm of "future" technology. Barney sees (through his binoculars...) a group of aliens standing at a large black control panel. Again, in the decades since this book's publication, we've seen the revolution of miniaturization, not to mention the development of touch screen consoles.

So why would aliens from a futuristic society (a society advanced enough to possess interstellar flight...) rely on old-fashioned, bulky, non-touch screen computer panels? More to the point, perhaps, why would four-foot tall aliens have laboratory bays with human-sized examination tables?

When Barney first detects the aliens (as reported in a startling hypnosis session) he briefly mistakes the uniformed extra-terrestrials for Nazis. In another portion of the book, he admits that he has a deep-seated affinity for the people of Israel. He identifies with them deeply, apparently fearing a similar form of persecution (as a black man married to a white woman in 1960s America).

Given his initial description of the aliens as "Nazis" -- in tandem with this self-acknowledged psychological affinity for Israelis -- the intrepid reader may begin to suspect that this alien encounter could, in fact, be an hallucination, a event entirely psychological and not what we would consider "real."

Also, there are a few notable difference in Betty and Barney's story that do bear a casual mention. Betty initially claims that the aliens possess "Jimmy Durante"-type noses. By contrast, Barney says that the aliens have no noses...only recessed nasal slits. I'd be willing to chalk this up to the fog of abduction, but it's a discrepancy nonetheless.

Finally, Betty admits that she and Barney do have some at least sub-conscious awareness of the burgeoning sci-fi pop-culture of the 1960s. In particular, she mentions The Twilight Zone by name during one of her hypnosis sessions. And then there's this little factoid, straight from Wikipedia:

"Entirely Unpredisposed author Martin Kottmeyer suggested that Barney's memories revealed under hypnosis might have been influenced by an episode of the science fiction television show The Outer Limits titled "The Bellero Shield", which was broadcast about two weeks before Barney's first hypnotic session. The episode featured an extraterrestrial with large eyes..."

But listen, I'm no debunker. I have no interest in that job assignment.

In terms of UFOs, let's just say......I want to believe. I really do. More than that, I'm inclined to believe. But to protect myself, I also set a pretty high bar for that belief.

Disappointment can be a bitch.

My feeling on the subject of UFOs has always been that, given the size of the universe, it seems entirely plausible that alien civilizations might indeed exist....somewhere.

It is also entirely plausible to me that some life forms "out there" would be sufficiently advanced for interstellar travel. There's a caveat, however. Space traveling requires considerable resources, not to mention a tremendous amount of energy, and it seems to me you would only travel some place far away (like Earth...) for a matter of great import.

Which leaves me to consider three options in regards to the Hills.

One: the abduction happened in exactly the way the couple described, and I'm incredibly wrong in whatever skepticism I harbor. I sure hope that's the case.

Or Two: the abduction happened all right, but it was a top secret government or military experiment. Probably one involving mind-altering drugs.

Or, lastly, the Hills (now both deceased, unfortunately...) experienced something traumatic but entirely human on September 19, 1961; something that they didn't understand, and that their minds couldn't adequately process. That mystery accounts for the story of The Interrupted Journey.

Again, I want to believe. And while reading this book -- for a time -- I did believe. Betty and Barney Hill seem like good people, caught up in a terrible mystery. I don't know that you could ask for better, more credible eye-witnesses. But in the end, one couple's word -- even word of honor -- is simply not good enough. Not to sway me, anyway.

I wish desperately that the Hill Abduction could be proven conclusively; that The Interrupted Journey could be respected as something more than a fine, remarkably frightening campfire tale.

Perhaps one day it will be. But for now, that’s the purpose (ably) and literately served by The Interrupted Journey.

Cult-TV Movie Review: The UFO Incident (1975)

The unsettling and inexplicable experience of Barney and Betty Hill -- of alien abduction -- was recounted meticulously in John Fuller's best-selling book, The Interrupted Journey. The same tale was also memorably adapted for American TV screens in October of 1975 by writer Hesper Anderson and frequent TV-movie director Richard Colla.

The film's title was changed to The UFO Incident, and actors James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons were cast in the lead roles. The late Barnard Hughes co-starred as the couple's stolid psychiatrist, Dr. Simon.

The UFO Incident commences a few years after the alleged alien abduction, as a troubled Barney and Betty Hill, an interracial couple living in New England, feel a strange compulsion to re-trace their steps from the night of September 19, 1961, the nights their lives were forever altered. There are gaps in their memories that they can't explain, and this fact vexes them both.

Since September '61, The Hills have driven the same stretch of New Hampshire road eight or nine times, but on this particular occasion (an event translated directly from Fuller's book...), something unexpected occurs. The presence of a group of men on the side of the rural highway causes a usually calm Betty to fly into a spasm of hysteria and panic. We see an alarming quick cut -- as she screams in terror -- of a gloved, grey hand reaching into the if to grab her.

Meanwhile, Barney is still reluctant to face the possibility that he and his wife encountered a UFO at all. He is insecure living in an all-white community with Betty, and fears ridicule and isolation should the story of flying saucers come to light. 

"Your dreams are your dreams," he tells Betty, "and reality is reality." Later, Barney angrily acknowledges "I know it happened...but I can't get myself to believe it."

The couple goes to see Dr. Simon, a psychiatrist, to aid in resolving their "anxiety problems" and "double amnesia." 

But what the Hills ultimately reveal in long, detailed hypnosis sessions is something extremely terrifying: a close encounter with the crew of an alien spaceship

Aliens stopped their car by moonlight, and escorted the alarmed humans aboard their flying saucer. There, these curious, inhuman creatures conducted a variety of invasive medical exams, including a pregnancy test, before sending the Hills -- with wiped memories -- on their way home.

Over time, Dr. Simon helps the Hills contextualize and accept the events of September 1961, even if it can't be fully or even adequately explained. The cloud of anxiety lifts (especially for Barney...), and some sense of normalcy returns to the Hills, despite the oddness of this weird event in their history.

The UFO Incident inter-cuts a series of tension-provoking hypnosis sessions with more routine views of Barney and Betty's domestic life, to good effect. James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons share a number of sweet, well-written scenes together at the Hill residence, strongly registering as likable, "real" people under unusual duress. These relationship scenes purposefully contrast in tone with the horrific recitation of the fascinating, you-can't-look-away abduction details.

For the most part, the hypnoses scenes in The UFO Incident admirably eschew spectacle for intimacy. Colla's camera remains pinned to Jones' expressive face in intense, sustained close-up photography. Barney grows ever more disturbed during his account of the alien encounter, and the performance is stunning. 

Watching Jones "live through" Barney's experience, you are absolutely riveted. And when Jones breaks the carefully-staged close-up composition, suddenly lunging from frame "trying to escape," you'll feel your adrenaline kick in. This is scary, scary stuff.

There are also occasional cuts to flashbacks during the hypnosis session; to Barney worriedly studying the night sky, clutching his binoculars, for instance. 

Intermittently, the audience can make out a light shining down on forest trees, but other than that, we never actually see the UFO in flight. This is an effective technique simply because we seem to be remembering "fragments" of the experience at the same time Barney or Betty does.

The medical examination scene aboard the alien space craft is vetted with similar tact and dramatic flair. Colla's camera cuts to a variety of insert shots: close-ups of alien surgical tools and other instrumentation, for example. When these shots begin to flash by, faster and faster, we feel as though we are being overcome by a flurry of images, literally overtaken by the experience.

The UFO Incident's most chilling image, however, arises during Betty's hypnosis session. She describes (again, in committed close-up), a group of "men" appearing ahead of the car; coming out of the forest and slowly nearing. 

Here, the film flashes back to a sort of wooded glade, and at first we don't see anything distinct. Then, appearing in shadow -- in the blurry, darkened distance at first -- black-garbed creatures loom, eventually coming into plain sight. Again, it's very chilling.

Colla and Anderson rigorously and faithfully follow the events and experiences in Fuller's written account, a fact which makes this TV movie an unusual artifact in a medium that prefers to tart things up. But, The UFO Incident isn't exactly a documentary, either. Instead, the film seeks and ultimately locates the core of the Hill drama: the manner in which the encounter with the aliens plays into Barney and Betty's already-existing fears.

For instance, Barney is a pragmatist, afraid of that which is real, meaning racial prejudice, intolerance and hatred. He's also grappling with another very real fear -- his health. The men in Barney's family all died young from strokes and he fears the same fate. For Barney, acknowledging that the UFO experience is actually real proves a traumatic and difficult thing. If it's real, then he has to deal with it the same way he has to deal with bigotry or his illness.

Coming from a more privileged background, all of Betty's fears are based not in the real, but in the unknown. She's not alone; but she fears being alone (of losing Barney). She fears the "unknown" of death too. For her, the UFO experience means countenancing and accepting the unknown in her life.

The UFO Incident could have easily proven a really lurid, sensational bit of business. However, the steadfast focus on character, on performance, and on effective camera-work renders the movie not merely respectable, but actually admirable. The movie could have been an over-the-top geek show, but The UFO Incident understands it doesn't need to embellish, enhance or "stylize" the story of Barney and Betty Hill to render it attention-grabbing and suspenseful.

On the contrary, all the drama -- all the anxiety -- we can handle is abundantly present. In close-up. In the expressive, human faces of Jones and Parsons.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Disaster Day: The Wave (2015)

In 2016, I’ve devoted some real estate here on the blog to “Disaster Day,” my reviews of classic disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure (192), The Towering Inferno (1974) and even Earthquake (1974).

My obsession with these movies runs deep, but for a good reason, I hope. Specifically, many of these genre films from the seventies seem like more than mere demolition derbies. Instead, they offer unique viewpoints on life, and how to survive in difficult times. I think, for example, of Gene Hackman's reverend in The Poseidon Adventure and his boot-strap brand of  "those who help themselves" Christianity.

By contrast, many modern disaster films, such as San Andreas (2015) feel much more concerned with special effects than with people, let alone philosophical musings.

But 2015’s The Wave -- a Norwegian film from Roar Uthaug -- is a worthy heir to the disaster genre flicks I name-checked above. 

Intriguingly, it’s a highly personal film. Most genre flicks give audiences faded celebrities -- Shelley Winters, Fred Astaire and George Kennedy -- by the (capsized) boatload but The Wave reinvigorates the formula, in part, by cutting out the fat in the cast.  

Our main characters are in one family, for example. 

It's true,  that we meet one or two other victims (a neighbor and a couple visiting a tourist hotel), but the primary focus here is on the family, and how its members relate to one another, and cope with a day nobody believed would ever come. 

The special effects in The Wave go beyond the realm of the impressive to actually stunning, but -- importantly -- aren’t asked to carry the picture. 

The special effects scenes are beautiful and effective, yes, but limited, and that too seems like a re-write of modern genre rules, which seem to demand constant spectacle and constant one-up-man-ship. The tsunami featured in The Wave decimates a seaside town, but doesn’t bring down skyscrapers, planes in flight, or whole continents.  In essence, then, The Wave is rooted in reality, not fantasy.

The Wave is a low-budget film and that’s a contrast to the disaster films made by Hollywood, but its focus on the essential qualities of good drama make for a big impact, and big achievements. With fewer characters for us to keep track of, the film’s danger feels more immediate. And with limited scenes of mayhem and destruction in the mix, the effects transmit as believable, instead of over-the-top. 

Once more, this approach reels in viewers, focusing and refocusing attention not on destruction, but on suspense instead.

Accordingly, The Wave is a thoroughly involving and terrifying film, and a welcome addition to a genre that, since the 1970s, has reveled in trickery and excess instead of good dramatic storytelling.

In beautiful Geiranger -- a tourist village in Western Norway -- a geologist named Kristian (Kristoffer Jonner) has devoted his professional life to monitoring a local mountain range for signs of collapse, or a rock slide. 

Such an event has happened before, decades in the past, and one occurring now would generate a huge tsunami. The town’s unsuspecting denizens and tourists would have only ten minutes to reach high ground (87 feet above sea level…) once a collapse begins.

But now, feeling like a stranger to his family, including his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and young daughter, Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), Kristian has accepted a new job in the city, at a big oil company.

Immediately following his last day on the job in Geiranger, Kristian begins to detect signs that something is wrong inside the mountain. 

His boss, Arvin (Fridtjov Saheim) refuses to sound the alarm and evacuate the village, for fear of destroying, economically, the tourist season in Geiranger. While Kristian makes his case for warning the town, he separates from his family, as Idun goes to her job at the hotel, and Sondre skateboards in the hotel basement.

Before long, Kristian's long-feared disaster strikes.

What do you do when disaster seems impending, and you’re the only person who can, literally, sound the alarm? 

That’s one big question raised in The Wave. Kristian lives in fear and anxiety because he knows that a rock slide is a matter of “when,” not “if.”  

Accordingly, he has become something less-than an ideal father and husband. He is galvanized with fear -- every day -- by the possibility of disaster. Others -- in and out of his family -- view Kristian as “Chicken Little,” one might conclude. 

For him, the sky is always about to fall.

The only problem? It could fall, at any time. With minimal warning.

Arvid, Kristian’s superior, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. He is a man with apparently no imagination, and he denies, even to himself, the signs of the coming apocalypse. Like the town elders in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) who just want to keep the beaches open, Arvid wants to avoid panic, humiliation and false alarms at all costs.  

I suppose if one is willing to consider this conflict or dynamic on a wider scale, there's a real life corollary worth considering. 

Arvid ignores impending disaster -- and the considered evidence of a scientist (Kristian) -- in favor of economic and personal concerns.  

And yes, this exact dynamic is happening right now, and every day, regarding climate change. The Wave, without being preachy in the slightest, makes the case that our failure to responsibly care-take the environment will eventually bite us in the ass. 

It isn’t an “if.”  It’s a “when.”

In The Wave, Arvid pays a price for his failure to heed evidence and facts. While investigating the mountain, he becomes the first to die, thus paying penance for his “keep the beaches open” economy-over-environment viewpoint. Similarly, his failure to act responsibly when it makes a difference, causes many people to die.  

And the tourist season is destroyed anyway.

Meanwhile, Kristian lives through his worst nightmare. In this equation, the scientist plays the role of the mythical Cassandra. He knows what is coming, but is ignored, and ultimately, helpless to stop destiny. 

Still, Kristian’s arc in The Wave is significant and affecting. After he faces the fear of what is happening (not what might happen), he becomes the man his family needs him to be.

The feeling of terror and suspense in The Wave are palpable. Director Uthaug gets much mileage from the classic ticking clock conceit. The mountain collapses into the water near Geiranger, and the ten minute countdown till disaster commences. 

When it starts, Kristian is separated from his wife and son.  He sets his watch for ten minutes, and knows just how long he has to get his daughter to safety, and find Idun and Sondre.

Suddenly as he realizes, there is no time left. A missed call, which goes to voice mail, could be the difference between his family’s survival or destruction. Or a missing hotel resident could delay the departure of the tourist evacuation just long enough to cause total disaster.

The Wave isn’t just about “time,” either. The equation for survival also includes distance and, actually, height. 

One of the film’s most harrowing sequences finds Kristian -- with young Julia in tow -- realizing that he can’t make it to the desired high ground by car in the remaining time left, due to traffic.  

Accordingly, he exits the car with his daughter, picks her up, and starts running.  In the background behind Kristian and Julia, one can see the wave looming, growing ever closer. Then, a neighbor is injured, and Kristian must send Julia ahead so he can take care of the wounded friend, and get her to safety too.

Another powerful technique that The Wave makes use of comes straight from the horror genre. 

Many times, horror movies begin with title cards suggesting that what we are about to see is based on a true story.  

The Wave opens with archival footage of earlier tsunami incidents in Norway. The movie informs us of a disaster in 1905 (with 60 people killed) and again in April, 1934, when a tsunami killed 40.  

The inference is obvious: The Wave is not some far-fetched fantasy. It is not showing audiences just something that could happen.  Rather, it tells a story about history -- predictable history -- repeating itself.  The film’s end card resurrects this call to reality.  We are told the mountain near Geiranger still stands…and scientists aren’t sure when it will collapse.

But they are sure it will collapse.

If that prediction of future terror doesn’t chill the blood, you’re watching the wrong genre, perhaps.

The Wave features many of the tropes one expects of the disaster films. There are panicky survivors who jeopardize everybody’s safety.  There are feats of courage. There are people trapped underwater.  There are families separated and fearing the worst.

But instead of simply repeating such chestnuts in a hackneyed way The Wave floats above the predictable. 

Consider the scene in which Idun, a tourist, and Sondre are trapped in a bunker rapidly filling with water. The tourist panics and begins to mindlessly drown Sondre. How Idun reacts to his behavior is surprising, smart, and brutally efficient. There’s no debate, no second-guessing...she just acts. And I like to think I’d have the presence of mind to react as quickly given the same circumstances.

Suspenseful, emotionally-affecting, and beautifully-rendered, both in terms of cinematography and special effects, The Wave proves that disaster films still have a lot of life left in them when vetted by thoughtful filmmakers. 

More than that, the disaster film looks and sounds great with a Norwegian accent.

Movie Trailer: The Wave (2015)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mini-Kojak (Pilen)

Kojak Emergency Kit

Action Figure of the Week: Kojak (Excel)

Kojak, Power Records Sets

Pop Art: Kojak Annuals

Kojak Letraset

Kojak Action Pack

Kojak Toys (Corgi)

Trading Cards of the Week: Kojak

Board Game of the Week: Kojak (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Kojak (1973-1978)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Conscience of the King" (December 8, 1966)

Stardate 2817.6

The U.S.S. Enterprise is drawn to Planet Q by an old friend of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Dr. Thomas Leighton (William Sargent), but under false pretenses.

Instead of having made progress on his life’s work to cure hunger in the galaxy, Leighton has brought Kirk to the distant planet to see an actor named Anton Karidian (Arnold Moss).

Leighton believes that Karidian is actually Kodos the Executioner, the former governor of Tarsus IV, and a man who, twenty years earlier, executed 4,000 colonists so that the colony could thrive in a time of scarcity. 

Both Leighton and Kirk were living on Tarsus during that crisis, and can thus identify Kodos. The problem: Kirk doesn’t recognize Karidian as Kodos. He is uncertain.

After Leighton is murdered, however, Kirk starts to believe his friend’s suspicions were accurate, and arranges for Karidian and his troupe -- including his lovely daughter, Lenore (Barbara Anderson) -- to come aboard the Enterprise for transport to their next show on Benecia Colony.

As Kirk attempts to determine if Karidian is indeed Kodos, another murder attempt is made. Kevin Riley (Bruce Hyde) -- another survivor of Tarsus -- is found poisoned.

Star Trek and Shakespeare: perfect together?

Since early in its first season (and including episode titles such as “Dagger of the Mind”), Star Trek has taken pains to connect its universe to the works of Shakespeare. 

This connection continued into the Next Generation (and in episodes such as “The Defector”), and even into the movies series, especially Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). We have heard about Shakespeare translated from the “original” Klingon, for example, and learned that Captains Kirk and Picard share a favorite author in the Bard.

“The Conscience of the King” is an intriguing and distinctive episode of the original series for its two-track references to Shakespeare and his plays.  

On a literal level, the episode involves an actor's troupe that performs Shakespeare’s works. The episode opens with a performance of Macbeth, and closes with a performance of Hamlet, granting the installment a nice book-end structure.

On a much deeper level, however, “The Conscience of the King” alludes to Shakespeare and his recurring themes by putting characters, essentially, in roles that one would immediately recognize from a reading of the author’s tragedies.

Take for example, our protagonist, James T. Kirk. He plays the role of Hamlet in a very real way. He encounters not the ghost of his father, specifically, but a ghost from the past nonetheless. 

A friend reminds him of a bloody incident from his youth, and Kirk must seek justice for the ghosts of those who died on Tarsus IV.  Significantly, Kirk demonstrates Hamlet’s inability to act decisively and quickly to resolve the matter.  In other words, Kirk inherits Hamlet's hesitance. He doesn’t want to condemn Karidian as Kodos unless he is absolutely certain of the man’s guilt. By contrast, Spock is certain about Karidian's identity and expresses that certainty.  Kirk still can't act until he is satisfied, in his gut, that he is right.

But consider the mode in which Kirk does act, for a moment. 

He goes to great lengths to orchestrate the equivalent of "a show" to entrap Karidian. He agrees to transport the troupe aboard the Enterprise. And he romances Lenore, when he may or may not be legitimately interested in her romantically. 

In other words, Kirk sets the “stage” to entrap Karidian, manipulating people and events so it is possible for him to learn the truth.  It’s not precisely the play that Hamlet "produces" to ensnare his father’s murderer, Claudius, but it is very close.

Uniquely, Lenore views Kirk not as Hamlet, but rather as Julius Caesar. 

She terms Kirk a “Caesar of the stars” and contextualizes herself as his Cleopatra; there to worship him.  Yet, this is only a surface.  

Of course, Caesar was assassinated and some part of the mad Lenore's psychology must realize that Kirk is, similarly, bound for assassination. He is one of the few men left alive in the universe who can harm her father.  Therefore, he must die.  Like Caesar, his time is nearly up.

Although he says it jokingly, Kirk also notes with “interest” that Lenore plays the role of Lady Macbeth in a performance on Planet Q. 

Lady Macbeth is a villain and a manipulator; one who facilitates and urges her husband’s (bloody) ascent to power. Lenore is a manipulator certainly -- though so is Kirk in this episode -- and she facilitates her father’s freedom and continued survival, she believes. So the comparisons to Lady MacBeth are a bit displaced, it seems.  What she is doing she does for love; not out of avarice.

It is true, however, that Lenore falls well into the tradition of the Shakespearean “mad woman,” (of which Lady Macbeth is also a club member) but she is more like Ophelia from Hamlet, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Karidian is both Macbeth and Claudius in terms of character. All three are men who have committed acts of great violence and cannot escape the repercussions of that violence.  They wish to escape their "ghosts," but the die is already cast.

The two-tracks of Shakespearean references in “Conscience of the King” nicely reinforce each other. The play is the thing, one might say, that brings out the truth about each main character.

William Shatner performs particularly well in the episode, I feel, primarily because he doesn’t play up, literally, the connection to his literary counterpart, Hamlet. Kirk is tortured by his choices, and the morality of his decision (to trick Karidian and his daughter, and to expose them). 

But he never goes big and stereotypically Shakespearean in terms of expression or word choices. He stays in character -- stays grounded -- as Captain Kirk. Kirk just happens to be grappling with a choice of Shakespearean proportions.

By contrast, Arnold Moss and Barbara Anderson go over-the-top a bit in their performances from time to time, doing the “full” Shakespeare, so-to-speak. 

The purple nature of some moments in the episode is, finally, a detriment. I know that both performers are playing actors, but in their moments as 23rd century “people” -- Karidian and Lenore -- respectively, they transmit as a bit too theatrical within the hard sci-fi world of Star Trek.  Moss's wail or lament -- "I am TIRED" -- might be fine in the universe's theatrical play, but is a little too much outside those confines.

There’s Shakespeare after all, and then there’s bad Shakespeare. Occasionally, Moss, goes too big for my taste.

Outside the Shakespeare references, “Conscience of the King” is one of the last episodes of Star Trek episodes to include the paradigm I have termed “lower decks.”  

As you may recall, this paradigm tells a story not only among the lead characters (Kirk, Spock and Bones, basically), but features important complementary moments with the lower-ranking crew members. This approach makes the Enterprise feel like a real ship, populated by a real crew.

In this story, for example Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) sings “Beyond Antares” in the rec room.  She serenades Kevin Riley, who is alone in Engineering.  

But importantly, Riley represents another Hamlet type-character; one seeking justice or vengeance, and attempting to dispel the ghosts of the pasts. He is a lower decks surrogate for Kirk too; sharing Kirk’s history and family tragedy.

Importantly, "The Conscience of the King" also depicts the crew enjoying a play, Hamlet. We learn from this episode that theater and literature both survive and flourish well into the 23rd century.  Despite all the technological development of this new age, live performance and literary classics are still cherished.

A compelling and unique first season entry, “The Conscience of the King” also seems to be the episode that time -- and the franchise -- forgot. Specifically, Kirk is given an entire detailed back- story here. We learn that at as a teenager, he was at the Tarsus IV colony, and that his life was jeopardized by Kodos’ survival plan. The J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films completely elide over this background, but in fairness, the original series never goes back to it, either. 

Later in the series run, we meet Kirk’s brother Sam (“Operation: Annihilate,”) but we never learn if Sam was also present on Tarsus. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) tells us James Kirk was born in Iowa, but doesn’t make mention of his time on the planet Tarsus, either.

Still, this episode suggests that the Tarsus interlude was one of the most important events in young Kirk’s life. He could have been murdered. He also saw, at close-up range, a leader who had to make a tough call…and made the wrong one.  Or, at least Kirk has seen how history can decide which is the right call and which is the wrong call.

It seems like this event is a pretty formative one for Kirk, something that would shape his adult perception of politics, leadership, and morality. Yet there is no mention of this again in the official continuity. It's a blind alley, character-wise.

“Conscience of the King” is a unique outing for Star Trek, but also, perhaps, a really odd one.  The series keeps bringing back Shakespeare (in titles and quotations) yet ignores the episode’s contribution to the series’ lead character.

Next week: “Balance of Terror."