Saturday, April 16, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar (1981) Series Primer

“John Blackstar -- astronaut -- is swept through a black hole into an ancient alien universe. Trapped on the planet Sagar, Blackstar is rescued by the tiny Trobbit people. In turn, he joins their fight for freedom against the cruel Overlord, who rules by the might of the Power Star.  The Power Star is split into the Power Sword and the Star Sword.  And with the Star Sword in hand, Blackstar -- together with his allies -- sets out to save the planet Sagar….This is his destiny!”

-Introductory Narration to Blackstar (1981)

Our next Saturday morning blogging spotlight falls on another much beloved Filmation animated series: Blackstar (1981).

Blackstar is the tale of an Earth astronaut, John Blackstar (George DiCenzo) who unwittingly travels to another universe – hence a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon figure -- and joins the fight against a tyrant much like Ming the Merciless: The Overlord.

Many viewers have noted the similarities between Blackstar and another animated program: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980-1982).

John Blackstar, like Thundarr, carries a special weapon (the Star Sword rather than the Sun Sword), and is assisted by a beautiful woman with magical abilities (Mara [Linda Gary], rather than Princess Ariel).

Both series also involve landscapes or terrains that seem fantastic, but have a strong basis in science fiction. Thundarr dwells in a far-future, post-apocalyptic world, and Blackstar does so in an alternate universe (and planet) of dragons and gnome-like beings, as well as sorcerers. Blackstar is also assisted by a kind of “resident” alien character, not Ookla the Mok, but rather Klone (Patrick Pinney), an elf-like shape shifter.

Unlike Thundarr, Blackstar faces off against a recurring villain, the Overlord (Alan Oppenheimer), and has a regular steed: the green dragon, Warlock.  Blackstar is also a man of color perhaps a Native American (forecasting Filmation’s Bravestarr [1987-1988]) or perhaps a Latino. The series’ Trobbits also have a reflection in Bravestarr: the diminutive Prairie People.

Many viewers of Blackstar have gazed at the series from the opposite perspective, and judged it a crucial influence on the much more successful, much more popular He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985).  That series features a hero (Prince Adam) on an alien planet (Eternia rather than Sagar), who also wields a sword (The Sword of Power), and battles a recurring villain voiced by Oppenheimer: Skeletor.

Historically-speaking, He-Man is important to Blackstar for another reason. Blackstar ran for just one season of 13 half-hour episodes on CBS before it was cancelled. The runaway success of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, however, resulted in local stations showing reruns of Blackstar in syndication, and giving it a second life.  It was in that second life that a number of toys and playsets were released.

The stories for Blackstar are action-packed, and some are written by great genre vets such as Marc Scott Zicree.  Some elements are common. Overlord, for instance, often harnesses the power of a minion (like the “Time Lord”) to achieve his goals, but they are vanquished by the forces of good.

Similarly, John Blackstar often comes to the aid of the Trobbits (think Trees+ Hobbits + Smurfs), little pink-skinned, white haired gnomes. The Trobbits live in a big red tree, over which a purple rainbow hangs in the sky. Some of the prominent gnomes are named Balkar, Paul, and Gossamear.

I watched Blackstar on its first run and loved it, though today I don’t believe it holds up as well as Thundarr does. One of the key delights of Thundarr is the “wreckage” of our world in the “fantasy” landscape of Thundarr’s world. Blackstar has no similar conceit that adds an extra layer of interest and meaning to the proceedings.

Next week, the episode retrospective commences with “City of the Ancient Ones.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Castaways in Tropica" (December 15, 1979)

As this chapter of Flash Gordon commences, our heroes Flash and Barin have been forced to fight one another in the arena, in Ming the Merciless's "tournament of death." Since they are the last two gladiators standing, they are compelled to duel with "flame swords" on a high-wire over a raging fire.

At the last minute, Princess Aura realizes she loves Barin and rescues both the Prince of Arboria and Flash from the clutches of her father. Together with Dale and Zarkov, they escape the arena together.

Barin and Aura make for Arboria while the Earthers make for their (miraculously...) repaired rocket ship and blast off. Unfortunately, their ship runs out of fuel in the upper atmosphere of Mongo, and they're forced to set down again in dangerous territory. If I’m not mistaken, this represents the third time this (awesome) rocket ship has been destroyed and re-built.

The Earthlings soon discover that they are in the kingdom of Tropica, a land that looks like "The Garden of Eden" and is run by luscious Queen Desira and her major domo, Brasnor.  Brasnor is hot for Desira, even though they're cousins. Also, Brasnor is planning an insurrection to seize the kingdom.  A key lesson of Flash Gordon? Never trust your second in command!

Flash, Dale and Zarkov are captured by Desira's men; basically armed guards in purple berets who ride horned beasts called gryphs. But Brasnor pulls a fast one, and stands idly by while a "tree dragon" attacks his queen. Flash saves Desira, and then Brasnor reveals his hand, taking everyone captive and imprisoning them in his mountain fortress.

"This is one prison that even Flash Gordon cannot escape," Brasnor cackles. When Flash does manage an escape with Desira and his friends, Brasnor bitterly observes that "the Earth man has more lives than a Mongo cat."


The fugitives climb down the castle wall and into a cave, which is "honeycombed with abandoned passages from older ruins." They pause to take sustenance from a "bread tree" (a delicacy in these parts...), and then face a new danger from "rock termites:" over-sized ants which eat everything in their path, including stones.

To escape the ants, Flash and his buddies jump into a river, but soon find themselves being pulled into a tunnel, as if by a magnet. "But where is it taking us?" queries a worried Dale Arden.

We won't find out till next week, but this episode nicely captures the breathless, cliffhanger quality of the 1930s Flash Gordon productions starring Buster Crabbe.

Next week: “The Desert Hawk.”

Friday, April 15, 2016

Disaster Day: Short Walk to Daylight (1972)

Disaster movies were very much in vogue during the early 1970s, due in large part to the efforts of producer Irwin Allen, the so-called "Master of Disaster." 

The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974) all proved early box office hits during the decade, and the appeal of such films -- both then and now --  arises in witnessing the varied and colorful human responses to chaos, mortality, and apocalypse. 

Some characters in these dramas may rise above their petty everyday problems to survive. Others find the weight of their own prejudices, problems and weaknesses too tremendous to overcome, even in moments of high crisis.

The group dynamic is important too. In most good disaster films, power struggles arise, and group loyalty shifts back and forth.  Who knows the "right" path to survival?  The right fork-in-the-road that will save lives? 

One made-for-television movie that exploits this tried-and-true yet still efficacious disaster formula is Barry Shear's impressive Short Walk to Daylight (1972).  The TV movie aired on October 24, 1972 and involves a small handful of subway passengers in Manhattan who, late on a quiet Saturday night, become trapped in a catastrophic earthquake and must escape from the ruined, collapsed tunnels. 

The film stars James Brolin as a white police officer, Tom Phelan, and James McEachin as African-American train driver Ed, two very different prospective "leaders" during this particular crisis. 

Each man sees the survival of the group as his bailiwick and responsibility. And each man wants to call the shots based on his own knowledge and experience.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group consists of two young white women returning home from a night on the town, Joanne (Brooke Bundy) and Sylvia (Suzanne Charny), a sullen, disenfranchised African-American man, Alvin (Don Mitchell), and a hard-working African-American mother ending the night shift, Dorella (Abbey Lincoln).  

Also on the train when the quake hits is a junkie, Jax (Lazaro Perez) and his girlfriend, Sandy (Laurette Spang). We begin the subterranean odyssey with these eight characters, and along the way, their numbers begin to dwindle in crisis after crisis.

The elephant in this subway system, other than the earthquake itself, is clearly racial tension.

As noted above, Tom and Ed butt heads over leadership, and whether to remain in the train, or to seek escape in the tunnel systems.  More plainly, Tom and Alvin also develop an immediate dislike of each other.  Tom takes Alvin for a criminal and thug at first, and Alvin sees only a racist cop who is out to judge him.

As the film progresses, Alvin and Tom confront each other as well as their own prejudices. Although they don't realize it at first, they are each  looking only at a stereotype, rather than the individual.

Desperation grows in the tunnels as several escape routes are blocked, and one tunnel route system under Brooklyn begins to flood.  The group realizes quickly that "no one is digging for" them early on a Sunday morning, under Wall Street, or anywhere else for that matter. If they are going to survive, it's up to them.

A crisp 73 minutes in duration, Short Walk to Daylight makes the most of a small budget by fostering a powerful sense of claustrophobia. After the film's first shot of Manhattan by night, the film cuts to a view of Sylvia and Joanne descending a long flight of stairs.  From that shot on, the film never actually returns to the world of the surface or the world of daylight.

Instead, after the earthquake scuttles the train, the film adopts a shaky cam to present an informal, spontaneous aura to the action. Sometimes, the camera is also positioned behind broken glass, observing characters through a shattered lens, in essence. 

This kind of expressive mise-en-scene, along with the minimal lighting and restrictive set confines, grants Short Walk to Daylight a strong sense of disorder, chaos and urgency.

The small, gritty details are appreciated, and worth noting too.  The Iowa girl, Joanne (Bundy) breaks her nose in the quake, and spends the movie with a bloodied face. And Tom's shirt is covered in sweat for the narrative's duration. The persistent overlapping dialogue also adds to the unnerving vibe of a disaster unfolding "as live," essentially.

Short Walk to Daylight is also bolstered by a few impressive effects sequences, thanks to the hard work of Albert Whitlock.

A good matte painting reveals an overburdened tunnel at one point, and near the film's climax, water bursts into the tunnel and gravely imperils the survivors.  One character is washed out to sea in the rushing waves.  It all looks very convincing, and very deadly.

But in the final analysis, what works best about Short Walk to Daylight is the intense, unswerving focus on the eight diverse dramatis personae.

Tom is a good cop, but one who thinks "you can shake people enough," so they'll do what he wants.

Alvin, by contrast, is a man with an overdeveloped persecution complex, and sees the earthquake as yet another one of the daily hurdles in his life to overcome.  "All my life, this city has been coming down on me," he notes, "and all I have to say is let it crumble on down."

The most sympathetic character in the drama is Abbey Lincoln's character, Dorella, who is slow to trust and like her fellow survivors, and already exhausted from a hard night's work. 

The only thing Dorella desires is to be back at home, on a Sunday morning, with her two little boys.  Every Sunday morning you see, she gets to relax, and her children bring Mom breakfast in bed for a change. 

There's a moment in the film -- traversing a flooded tunnel compartment -- when Dorella's life is unexpectedly imperiled, and this TV-movie gets you exactly where it wants you. After her monologue about Sunday mornings and her two sons, all you can think about are Dorella's children, facing the thought of life without their Mom.

Short Walk to Daylight never wears out its welcome, and never returns to daylight, even in its valedictory moment.  The reason, of course, is that all the drama is right here: these diverse people forced to contend with one another in the dark.

The issues at play, like their locale, are all part of the "underneath" of the American experience.  The battles over the law, jurisdiction and race reveal how different from one another Americans can sometimes seem; in every regard from philosophy to background. But ultimately, the film also reveals how similar we all are aside from such skin-deep differences.

Many disaster movies thrive on epic and expensive imagery: buildings falling down, skyscrapers on fire, the end of the world, even.  Short Walk to Daylight features good but minimal visual effects and saves the real fireworks for the character interaction.  It's a good call, because a Short Walk to Daylight is actually better than a  big-budget 1996 disaster film with roughly the same premise, called Daylight. There, the focus was on impressive stunts and mock heroics, not people...and what people fear losing. 

Yet loss is the real looming threat of any disaster or crisis.

What moves us and motivates us is the terrible fear of losing loved ones, or even our lives. And that's what Short Walk to Daylight never forgets; the human  component of such tragedy.  We all live for those Sunday mornings with our families, but man proposes, and God disposes, right?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Tribute: Gareth Thomas (1945 - 2016)

Gareth Thomas -- a sci-fi TV icon -- has passed away.  

Mr. Thomas is widely beloved and remembered for his two season stint as rebel leader Roj Blake on Terry Nation's genre series Blake's 7 (1978-1981).  

For the futuristic program's first two seasons, Thomas's Blake was in command of the stolen alien ship Liberator, while attempting to take down a totalitarian Federation. 

After he left the series, Thomas returned on two occasions ("Terminal," and the series finale "Blake.")  
His last episode as a regular was the season two cliffhanger, "Star One."

Blake's 7 wasn't Thomas's first encounter with science fiction TV.  

A few years earlier, he played a  different renegade, Shem -- from another dystopia -- in Star Maidens (1976). This was a short-lived series about a female-dominated planet called Medusa, and the program aired in local syndication in the U.S.

Over the years, Mr. Thomas also appeared in such cult-programming as Hammer's House of Horrors (1980), Tales of the Unexpected (1988) and Torchwood (2006). Outside of genre work, Thomas also starred in Heartbeat.

Mr. Thomas will be much mourned in the days ahead, and I offer my deepest condolences to his friends and family.

Cult-Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)

A revenant is a person who comes back from the dead…a ghost. 

In Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant (2015), audiences encounter a man of the year 1823 who simply refuses to die: trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio).  

In essence, he returns from the dead multiple times.

Glass manages not to die -- to return to the realm of the mortal -- by simply enduring one breath at a time. As he notes at one point in the narrative: “you fight for every breath.”

You breathe. Keep breathing.”

Driven by the specter of his dead wife, a beautiful Pawnee, and his murdered son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), Glass endures and survives physical challenge after physical challenge. 

Glass is compelled to survive by visions of his loved ones, but also by the Earthly demand to enact revenge on one person, the selfish murderer of his boy: John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

At the end of his harrowing journey, Hugh Glass also comes to a reckoning about revenge, and the fact that, finally, it is not in his hands to enact…and nor should it be.

Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015) are such very different films -- with different aims -- and yet both are cinematic masterpieces.

Birdman is an incredible, funny, multi-faceted commentary on the dichotomy between pop art and high art, and the way that one actor navigates it.

Thanks to its breathtaking photography and performances, The Revenant is absolutely beautiful to behold. It is a haunting, throttling vision of the world that "was." coupled with the frightening imagery of the world that "will be" (epitomized by a mountain of buffalo skull).

Perhaps The Revenant is less overtly an intellectual or cerebral experience than Birdman was, but the remarkable consolation is that this film feels entirely more visceral. I am aware that some viewers apparently feel that The Revenant is more like an endurance test than it is a fully-fleshed out movie narrative.  

I would debate that assumption.

The Revenant very much concerns a man who will do anything to achieve a particular end -- revenge -- only to learn that his life's purpose is finally, bankrupt. That bankruptcy, meanwhile is also seen in the film's depiction of capitalism (represented by the mountain of dead buffalo.)  But the overall idea is about the human experience; the notion that we run around, every day, trying desperately to achieve ends that, finally, are irrelevant in the face of nature, or in the face of mortality.

But first thing's first. There is no doubt that The Revenant is absolutely compelling --and gory -- and appears authentically as though it is was filmed on another planet (or at least in another time period). 

I have tried to locate and harness the best words to describe Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography but keep coming up short. I keep returning to "miraculous", or "near miraculous." So much of The Revenant's artistic success depends on its depiction of the untamed world, and the plight of those men seeking to tame it.

On one hand, I am relieved to know that such untamed beauty still exists on this planet, and was available to be filmed. 

On the other, I am dazzled and impressed by the production team, and its efforts to bring this world to our movie theaters and TV sets.

It's not just the landscape, or rather the visual presentation of the landscape that is stunning. If it were, we could achieve the same delight from viewing a painting, or a photograph. Instead, Inarritu's staging of the action in this untamed world is simply breathtaking.

The film’s opening attack on Glass’s trapping party by an Arikara hunting party, for example, is a masterpiece of brilliant staging and editing.

Watch, for example, how Inarritu’s moving camera constantly erases the old foreground and creates a new one in the frame. 

He works in this fashion so that objects (and fierce attackers) may dart into view, surprise the viewer, and thus suggest the sudden, brutal nature of the attack. Since the foreground keeps shifting -- always in motion -- the assault on the senses keeps coming. There is no "safe" zone in this attack.  The attack isn't brief. Attack is perpetual, sustained and unrelenting.  

At least that's how it feels to the senses.  

Considering the idea of a frontier --- and the unknown encroaching on all sides -- this is perhaps the perfect application of a moving camera. We feel, on a visceral level, what it means to be under siege in the wilderness, and by those who know the land better than we do.  We might flee, and we might run, but the incursion keeps violating the sanctity of the frame and therefore our sense of comfort or safety.

Other moments also legitimately qualify as stunning. Glass rides a cresting waterfall…and survives.  He endures a brutal bear attack…and survives. He races across an icy plain on a horse, and rides his steed over a mountaintop…and survives.

Each of these moments, on its own, is jaw-dropping in the extreme. I cannot stress enough how convincing, how amazing, how immersive, these moments are. I appreciated every single set piece. The action in the film is incredible.

I suppose the opposing point of view here is that these moments, immersive as they may be, do not add up to a believable experience.

The critics of the film would tell us that in The Revenant there’s chance. There’s luck. There’s incredible good luck. And then there’s Hugh Glass.

Perhaps this is the point where the director's facility for magical reality comes into play and ameliorates such concerns. Glass is supposed to be a “revenant,” someone who has returned from the dead, and it is clear that he is impelled to survive by his driving quest, his need to avenge the death of his son. He struggles to survive -- and does survive -- because he must; because he is overpowered by his drive.

How is that drive manifested? Delightfully, not in terms of violence or hatred or rage (the emotion du jour, of our national dialogue). Throughout the film, Hugh is girded by flashbacks of his beatific wife and his loving son. 

At one point, she is even seen to be literally hovering above Glass, like a guardian angel. The implication may be simply that she watches over him; or that his faith in her drives him to continue; to endure.  Perhaps, by dying, Glass has interfaced with a world beyond our own, and that connection with the other world permits him to endure.

In other words, Glass survives because either his wife is guarding him, or he believes his wife is guarding him.  Perhaps it is her memory which helps keep him alive. 

In terms of history, we know that Hugh Glass did survive his ordeal, though The Revenant no doubt takes liberties with the truth. Still this "based on a true story" veneer this is another factor that helps the film's gauntlet read as more believable and less fantastic.

Many have also detected a powerful anti-capitalist statement in The Revenant. 

They are correct to do so. Powaqa’s father, a vengeful Native American makes a very direct comment about how the white man as stolen “everything” from his people, including “the land” and “the animals.”

The film’s villain, Fitzgerald is often explicitly equated too, with material wealth.

He wants to hold onto the boat. He wants to hold on to the pelts. He desires a reward for staying behind and taking care of Glass. 

His actions all originate with his ubiquitous desire for the acquisition of material wealth.

Glass's vision of the skull mountain showcases the logical ending of such overwhelming desire; a strip-mining of the environment and the animals. They will all die or be destroyed to sate our human need to "own" things.  

Soon, the only things we "own" will be a vast boneyard of the used up, the gutted.

These visions, coupled with the anti-capitalist statement very strongly relate to Glass's mission of revenge. Whether the quest is to be rich, or to kill an enemy out of revenge, the endeavor is ultimately pointless.

In the former case, you die alone, and you can't take money with you. Eventually, the world and resources around you will be destroyed, if everybody subscribes to the same philosophy.

In the latter case, revenge will not bring back the dead. Contrarily, it may actually dishonor the dead.

Both ideas -- material wealth and bloody revenge-- are, finally, bankrupt ones that run strongly against the principles we see espoused by the Pawnee, for example. In the last frames of the film, Glass looks up, in the direction of the camera. He has finally let go of revenge -- and just barely -- still lives.

His expression is worth commenting on. He doesn't exactly break the fourth wall, but Glass certainly looks in the general direction of the camera.  It's as if he's saying "now what?"  The philosophy that has kept him alive, kept him moving, kept him warm in the frozen wasteland, even, is bankrupt.

To what -- and whom -- shall he now devote his days?

Glass must choose to change, and stop subscribing to the petty values of his culture. This idea is given voice early in the film, on another occasion as well.

Early on, for example, there is a memorable visual transition from Glass’s cloudy breath to the clouds over a mountain range.  This moment is not merely pretty, make no mistake. The two shots suggest that man, in settling the Americas, is becoming God over the planet. Man's breath and God’s breath are directly equated by the symbolism.

Later, one can absolutely connect Glass’s decision to leave revenge to “God” to a reckoning that man should not settle the land, and should not progress to conquer the Americas, instead leaving its natural beauty to its original inhabitants.

Whether you agree with this philosophical sentiment or not, the way that Inarritu forges the connection -- through a remarkable and symbolic visual transition -- is quite beautiful and quite powerful. This is precisely the kind of rich, illustrative symbolism  that elevates the film beyond its action genre roots.  

In a certain sense, The Revenant really is a “prestige” horror or action movie, with a focus on violence, blood, and even gore. It is a film that makes a character run a deadly and harrowing gauntlet to achieve his goals. It also boasts a pro-social point, that revenge is not a worthy venture.

The magic realism in the film places the dead (or revenants) on the same plane of existence with the livng. In some cases, the dead can signal to the rest of us that love doesn't die. 

In other examples -- such as the buffalo skull mountain -- we see signs of a dark, used-up future.

In both cases, Inarritu's visuals seem to tell us one thing: that the dead don't want us, the shepherds of the Earth, to follow vain pursuits. 

That's the message that the dead convey to the living with such haunting power in The Revenant.

Movie Trailer: The Revenant (2015)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Cult-TV Flashback: Wonderbug (1977): "The Incredible Shrinking Wonderbug"

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 dumb 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 one episode, “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 friend 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.  

Pop Art: Wonderbug Coloring Book (Whitman)

Wonderbug VHS Art

Wonderbug GAF Viewmaster

Board Game of the Week: Wonderbug (1976; Ideal)

Lunch Box of the Week: Wonderbug

Theme Song of the Week: Wonderbug (1976)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Shore Leave" (December 29, 1966)

Stardate 3025.3

The U.S.S. Enterprise orbits an uninhabited planet in the Omicron Delta system, and an exhausted Captain Kirk (William Shatner) prepares to authorize shore leave rest-and-relaxation for his fatigued crew.

On a landing party with Mr. Sulu (George Takei), however, Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) spies a talking white rabbit, and then a little girl who is apparently the protagonist from Alice in Wonderland.

Kirk delays the shore-leave to investigate this oddity, and soon begins to encounter several others. Sulu discovers a twentieth century hand-gun, for example. And Kirk, after reminiscing about his days at Starfleet Academy, encounters a tormentor and bully, Finnegan (Bruce Mars) and a former lover, Ruth (Shirley Bonne).

Then the unthinkable happens: Dr. McCoy is killed in cold blood by a black knight. 

Enraged and in mourning, Kirk resolves to solve mystery of this strange world, where thoughts and imagination seem to take tangible form.

“Shore Leave” is another classic -- nay, trademark -- early episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) and one that is oft-remembered in the modern pop culture. "Shore Leave" has been parodied, for example, on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999).  

The episode's central idea, which borders on fantasy, is simply of a planet where wishes or thoughts become reality.  “Shore Leave” reveals, in its final moments, that the strange planet is actually an amusement park for an alien race, and that there is no danger of any visitors being permanently harmed. A variation of this notion -- right down to an underground “fantasy” factory for the construction  and repair of robots -- is developed in the Michael Crichton film Westworld (1972).

Perhaps the first thing one should understand about Theodore Sturgeon’s “Shore Leave” is that it is possessed of crazy, boundless energy. 

Characters run back and forth across wide open fields on a regular basis, and Kirk has a knock-down, drag-out fight with Finnegan.  That fight is energetically choreographed and scored in an unforgettable fashion.

At one point in the adventure, Spock expresses exasperation with the human concept of a vacation, or rest, and his comment is illuminating about the episode itself:  “On my planet, to rest is to rest. To cease using energy,” he notes. 

Humans, by contrast, vacation and relax by going on trips, or exerting themselves hiking, swimming, or undertaking other exhausting but fun physical activities. “Shore Leave” lives up to this paradox about "resting by presenting a story that never stops moving, never stops running, and which acts, finally, as a kind of physical catharsis both for viewers and the characters.  In short, “Shore Leave” is Star Trek letting its hair down and having a bit of fun.  And on that basis, it is both delightful and memorable.

“Shore Leave” also features another great line of dialogue, and one which I have repeated on more than one occasion to my brilliant nine year old son, Joel.  “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play,” Kirk notes, and this is another splendid moment of Star Trek philosophy.  

What does it mean?  Simply that an advanced alien race with incredible technology and knowledge need not give up fun as it evolves and matures.  Indeed, the opposite is true. 

Such a race would need more outlets for fun, perhaps.  In an era wherein so many programs (from The Outer Limits to Trek itself) sometimes conflate advanced beings with emotionless sobriety, it is delightful and -- again -- cathartic, to see a tale like “Shore Leave” that champions play, make believe, and imagination as worthwhile and advanced traits.

So this episode boasts a great through-line or theme, reveals some fun back-story for Kirk (regarding his Academy days) and possesses energy, literally, to burn. It also delves into some creepy imagery, like the wax-face of the fearsome black knight.

But overall, "Shore Leave' is a story much like The Voyage Home (1986) or “The Trouble with Tribbles” that practically oozes feelings of delight and happiness. There's an exuberance and looseness to the whole enterprise that is downright infectious. These stories are fun, and watching the characters go through their paces is fun too.

On those grounds, "Shore Leave" is unimpeachable, and worthy of its reputation as a great episode of the franchise.

On the other hand, the episode is a bit of a wreck, at least visually-speaking. This is not a big surprise, perhaps, because the episode underwent drastic rewrites even as it was being filmed...and that kind of last-minute work is never a conducive environment for filmmaking.

Here are just a few examples of the visual problems:

On at least two occasions, red spray paint is visible on the trees where the main characters are staged for action.  

At about the twelve minute point of the episode -- as Kirk and McCoy are walking through the wilderness of this planet -- a straw hut is plainly visible behind them. Of course, this is a planet in which no animals and no structures are supposed to exist.  

A chain leash is clearly visible around the tiger’s neck, even though it is supposed to be wild and free.  
And finally, the Japanese zero plane that strafes Esteban and Angela is clearly stock footage that features not one plane, but two, and therefore doesn't match the dialogue or situation on the ground.

The worst moment in the episode may be the one in which that plane attacks. Esteban and Angela run from the bullet spray, and the staging of their attempted escape is so poor that it is not clear, upon watching, whether Angela has been hit by bullets, or Esteban has merely run the poor woman, face first, into a tree, and knocked her out.  If she were hit by bullets (which I believe is what the viewer is supposed to infer), there should be some blood on her uniform.  

I won’t even mention the fact that the episode’s final scene resurrects Dr. McCoy but neglects to resurrect, on-screen, poor Angela Martine.

Actually, Angela’s presence in "Shore Leave" raises another question of continuity worth exploring. We initially met this character as the doomed bride-to-be in “Balance of Terror.”  Admittedly, there is quite some time between the stardates of that episode and this one, but the air date is sequential.  So viewers watching Star Trek in December of 1966 saw Angela’s groom-to-be die one week, and then saw her flirting with Rodriguez in “Shore Leave” the next week. It’s not a good impression, generally, of the character.

On the other hand, the same air date order works well in other regards. Since this episode follows up the tense “Balance of Terror,” it makes sense McCoy would conclude (to Sulu) that “we are one weary ship.”


Perhaps the biggest logistical problem with “Shore Leave” is that the protagonists don’t react quickly enough to the presence of things that, well, couldn’t possibly be there. There is no way -- and Kirk should know this -- that Finnegan and Ruth could appear on this far-flung planet.  Upon seeing them, he should reckon, immediately, that his thoughts are being translated to concrete manifestation.  

The episode’s answer, that “we must all control our thoughts” comes much too late in the action.  

Perhaps one can chalk the slow responses off to the crew’s weariness, since Kirk, at episode’s beginning, can’t even remember accurately the current stardate.  

His efficiency rating is off, indeed.

“Shore Leave” is an absorbing, entertaining and classic episode of Star Trek.  It is such fun, in fact, that I feel like a curmudgeon pointing out the episode’s flaws.  

Perhaps I just need to be reminded of the Caretaker’s words. The planet, and this episode too, are “intended to amuse.”

And amuse “Shore Leave” certainly does.

Next Week: “The Galileo 7.”

Cult-Movie Review: Birdman (2014)

What is Birdman (2014)?

The answer to that question is not exactly clear-cut, or simple.

On a surface level, the Academy Award-winning film from director Alejandro Inarritu is the immersive story of a once-popular movie actor -- Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) -- who attempts to make a comeback that he, rather than his fans, feels is legitimate.

His fans desire desperately to see him in Birdman 4. However, Riggan believes that his quest for legitimacy leads to Broadway, and to a small theatrical production of a Raymond Carver short story.

Along the way to the play's opening night, Riggan contends with a disruptive actor, Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), who considers Riggan’s commitment to “art” somehow inferior to his own. 

Disturbingly, Riggan also sees and hears his feathered (and fictional) alter-ego -- Birdman -- at times….and the superhero is not always a benevolent premise. Rather, he is an insistent one.

Birdman is thus about a lot of things: acting, Hollywood, the theater, critics, and superhero films. 

The film’s most unique quality, perhaps, is its intentionally paradoxical mode of expression. 

On one hand, Birdman is lensed in a series of riveting, brilliantly-orchestrated long-takes. A dedicated attempt is made, via editing, to bridge these takes together, thus creating a kind of quasi-“filmed in one take” view.

Make no mistake, this approach is about immediacy, and about immersion too. The camera follows Thomson from locale to locale, from back-stage onto the street, and back to the theater again, and this mode creates a sense of urgency and tense, “you are there” realism.

It's more than that, actually.  

With the focus on personal squabbles, relationships gone bad, a possible unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, and even, perhaps, suicidal behavior, Birdman might aptly be described as belonging to the school of aesthetics known as "dirty realism."  

That's explicitly the terrain of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) as a short story writer. The author wrote his literary works about blue collar individuals struggling and facing these very problems. And Thomson, in the film, is producing a play based on Carter's writing, and world view.

But then -- simultaneously -- Birdman adopts a different and opposite technique too.  

It violates its carefully-crafted sense of "dirty" reality to depict Thomson utilizing telekinesis (!), flying through the streets of Manhattan, or conversing with his superhero alter-ego.

Some critics have termed Inarritu’s approach here “magical realism.” They register the realistic tone and depiction of Thomson’s world, overall, and then the unexplained invasion of magical or supernatural elements, which go totally unexplained.

As viewers, we fill in the ambiguity about these fantasy moments with our own answers. 

Birdman is actually about mental illness, some critics report. Thomson is not merely a struggling actor, but a man bordering on schizophrenia as he tries to keep all the elements in his life from waging war upon one another.

Other critics view the film as being a commentary on the discipline or process of acting itself.  

Thomson may be playing a character in a dramatic play, but part of his mind is still occupied by the character he once played -- a superhero -- and the universe he once inhabited as Birdman. That universe is a place of flight, superheroes, exploding helicopters, and so forth. Accordingly, Thomson can’t purge his previous role from his imaginative psyche, and so still interacts, uncomfortably with it.

Both such interpretations are valid, and backed-up by events as they unfold in the film.  

Yet I view Birdman in terms of a different dichotomy.  On his odyssey of dirty realism and magical realism, Thomson veers and lunges between the poles of popular culture and high culture, and struggles to find personal and professional validity in either.

If we accept here the parameters of an “elite” vs. “populist” debate, we can explicitly tie Birdman into the larger context or conversation this nation has been undergoing since a least 2010 about politics, among other things. 

Who is the appropriate gatekeeper for our society? Do the people choose what they like and desire (as evidenced by pop culture) and where our culture should head? Or do a group of elites manufacture consent and guide us to their pre-ordained destination? Do they determine good taste (in terms of high art), and even the brand of leadership our country should have?

This is Birdman’s galvanizing crisis, one might conclude. Thomson can apparently only achieve self-respect from the outside approval of high culture gatekeepers (like the critic, Tabitha Dickson [Lindsay Duncan] who despises him).  

And he can only achieve pop culture fame via his career link to Birdman and the pop culture, which is epitomized in the film by Riggan's encounters with viral videos, movie posters, and even Twitter accounts.

Let me explain how these two worlds collide.  

Set on Broadway -- again in the world of dirty realism explored by Carver -- Birdman (the film) inhabits the world of the stage, of theater critics and the gatekeepers I mentioned. This is the world of Shiner, Dickson, and literary masters.  This world is small, cliquish and has hard/fast rules. It is a world guarded by reputations of literary excellence (Carver), starving-but -committed actors who commit to roles, not to fame or fortune, and by critical gatekeepers who assure that pretenders are not allowed in.  

If such pretenders do break in, they are exposed as fakes or wannabes.

But then, the world of the popular movies -- of superheroes -- invades the world of the theater in Birdman. Reality is disrupted by Thomson’s flights of fantasy.  

These flights of fantasy are all about popular but fantastic things, works of, for lack of a better term, "low" art. 



Blood and guts battles over city streets.  

The “fever dream,” pop-cultural elements of the film invade the always-moving, always panning immersive '"dirty" reality of the theater world.

One might conclude that this is all a metaphor for real life in the 21st century. Pop culture has invaded every other aspect of the culture. It has crashed through the barriers, blowing right past the gatekeepers.  

Indeed, the gatekeepers who once existed -- folks like Tabitha Dickson -- have been replaced or co-opted by fan boy/fan girl critics who are receptive to fantasy, horror, science fiction, and comic books. 

Superhero projects, meanwhile, have matriculated from the silver screen to TV, to Broadway even.  

The pop culture keeps pushing against high culture, and keeps invading it. 

What does it accomplish by doing so? Well, it erases the boundaries between these poles; the distinctions that differentiate these forms of art.

Birdman echoes that erasing of the boundaries in its dual but paradoxical visual approach of dirty vs. magical realism.

Thomson, after confronting Dickson, realizes that he will never be able to satisfy the demands of the old, but rapidly vanishing "high" culture. 

He will never achieve the respect of the critics. They will never see him as anything but the guy who played a superhero, and who had the money to spearhead a vanity project on Broadway.

But Thomson also concludes, via his muse, Birdman, that he has a path forward.  Modern audiences are changing too. They don’t really desire philosophizing, powerful dialogue and intimate characterization. Tastes have changed, and audiences want the blood and violence of the pop culture now.  

Accordingly, Riggan amends his play (which he directs) to bring violence and blood into the theater in a “realistic” way the theater has never seen before.  


He shoots himself in the face on stage.

This act, which blows off his nose, apparently, demonstrates Riggan's total commitment to the craft of acting (so that high culture cannot complain that he is a pretender). But his pop-culture alter-ego, Birdman represents the voice that allows him to bring blood and violence to a “cerebral” or “abstract’ art form in a way that will resonate with the pop culture, and on Twitter.  

In other words, Riggan's magical realism alter ego, a superhero, has allowed him to take dirty reality to a level never before imagined on the stage.

Putting this another way, Thomson realizes he is doomed to disappoint and fail his Broadway critics unless he imports what he learned from his experience as a Hollywood actor; that blood and guts -- the populist stuff -- gets attention, approbation, and funding.

The film’s subtitle comments explicitly on the “Virtue of Ignorance.” This is no accident. 

Thomson can’t play in the world of high culture, or literary culture. He isn't that deep a thinker. He doesn't really get it.

But without understanding that material (the Carver material, specifically), Thomson honors it by making it more real and visceral than anyone would have believed possible or likely.

And let’s face it, Thomson is indeed sort of a pretender. 

He’s famous for playing a superhero, and what’s the reason he picked Carver as his source material for a debut on Broadway? 

Carver, the author of his play, once wrote Riggan an encouraging note about acting on a cocktail napkin. 

This background story is an indication that Thomson is not a deep thinker.  He doesn’t love the work for what it represents, for what it signifies, or means in and of itself. He loves it because of what it means to him, personally.  He possesses the narcissistic attributes, one might conclude, of a Hollywood actor seeking fame and fortune. Carver encouraged him to stay in acting, so now he wants to direct a Carver story.

In the last scene of the film, Thomson flies out of his hospital bed like a real bird man. 

This is not a suicide attempt any more than the action with the gun blowing off his nose was a suicide attempt. 

This is Riggan's apotheosis, his reckoning that he can achieve power and reputation in the high culture by corralling the “gutter” authenticity -- blood and violence -- of the pop culture.  

He will soar to new heights, no doubt, in a resurgent movie career because of the stunts he pulled on Broadway. He has learned, from his opening night antics, that Birdman is not character to keep hidden or locked away, but his muse.  Instead, that muse will keep him connected to the popular culture and the will/desires of the audience.

In other words. Fuck this drawing room play. 

It only becomes real once the coarse emotions, spectacular action, and violence of the pop culture make it “live” for the audience.

The schizophrenic approach to Birdman --- immersive dirty reality/flights of fantasy -- echoes the schizophrenic career of Thomson, and his attempt to reconcile those opposites. 

Instead of being embarrassed by Birdman, superheroes and so forth, Thomson finally permits that anarchic voice loose inside the staid, cerebral world of high culture.

A less judgmental view of Thomson’s odyssey in Birdman might simply involve his technique; his devotion to craft. 

He never nails his role in the Carver play (or his directorship of it) until he grasps the odd fact that the Birdman part of him -- instead of being discouraged or sublimated -- should be allowed to come out and play.  

His path to ‘finding the part’ is by using what he knows. 

And what he knows is, finally, Birdman.

If this is the case, then the film represents a different kind of reckoning, perhaps. And that is simply, that subject matter doesn’t make for pop art or high art

Rather it is one’s level of commitment to that subject that matters most.  Thomson proves that he is committed to his role and his play at a perhaps insane level.

There’s a lot going on in Birdman. 

For example, the film boasts another kind of schizophrenia or division. 

On one hand it is about Thomson and his career. But on the other hand it very reflexively seems to involve Michael Keaton and his career choices, as well. 

Is this movie Keaton’s come-back, and reach for high art acceptance? Or is it a cheeky acknowledgement that even on Broadway, you can’t escape your superhero past. 

Birdman veers so wildly between its poles of extreme, immersive dirty reality and flights of fantasy or magical reality that it is bound to confound some audiences, or frustrate those seeking tonal consistency. Yet Birdman’s clashing forms of art are also a fact of life, as Michael Keaton’s involvement testifies.

One day you’re Batman, the next you’re Hamlet, or Willy Loomis.  

The dirty little secret, perhaps, of all good actors is that the experience of playing Willy Loomis and Hamlet not only can inform your turn as Batman.  

Oppositely, Batman can also inform -- can make or break -- your portrayal of Hamlet or Willy Loomis.

If that's really true, says Birdman, then the dichotomy between pop art and high art is finally dead. 

It's all the same thing, and Tabitha Dickson is a lonely voice in the wilderness, arguing for a dead kingdom. 

Popularity, to quote Shiner, is no longer "the slutty little cousin of prestige."