Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar: "The Quest" (October 10, 1981)

This episode of Blackstar (1981), "The Quest" sees a trobbit, Poulo, in danger. While fishing, he falls into the water and is infected by by the "poison of the pond."

An effort is made to cure him using an ice potion, but it fails to bring down Poulo's terrible fever. The Trobbits and Blackstar realize that only a legendary healing stone -- in the possession of the "Desert Dwellers" -- can save him.

Blackstar and Klone travel to the desert and help the dwellers stave off an attack by deadly gargoyles. In return for their courage in battle, the dwellers loan Blackstar the healing stone for "six moons."

But a minion of the Overlord, the Emerald Knight, steals the stone, and takes it to Overlord, in his heavily-guarded ice palace.

Blackstar, Klone, and Mara travel to the ice palace, confront the Emerald Knight, and launch a battle to re-acquire the healing stone for their trobbit friend.

"The Quest" is an exciting episode of Blackstar, with a nice, didactic counter-point between heroic and villainous characters.  

The Emerald Knight, we learn, is a woman who has been given the gift of eternal youth by Overlord, so long as she wears her helmet and serves him.  So she has sacrificed her soul, basically, for herself; for her own vanity. She remains young, but serves evil.

And then we have John Blackstar, a hero who fights gargoyles, travels a great distance, and risks life and limb to save a friend, Poulo, who suffers from "the poison of the pond." He is a man of his word, both curing Poulo and returning the healing stone to those whom he borrowed it from.

There's still plenty here to second-guess.  Klone still shows no personality. He's just a walking story-device: shape-shifting.  

And for the second time in four or five episodes, Mara shows up at an appropriate time to save the day, and help her allies. She's like Blackstar's secret weapon, always showing up at the last second, apparently by surprise, to kick some bad guy ass.00

Overall, however, "The Quest," is a strong episode of this Filmation series, especially because it contrasts the selflessness of Blackstar with the selfishness of the Emerald Knight. It's nice too that she sees the error of her ways, and becomes a friend, proving she isn't evil...merely misguided.  We all make mistakes, and we can all be forgiven.

Next week: "Shipwrecked."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Sir Gremlin/Deadly Double" (September 24, 1982)

In the second episode of Flash Gordon's (1979 - 1982) second season, Gremlin the Dragon is once again a central character.

In "Sir Gremlin," the hapless pink dragon is on hand to help Flash when Azura the sorceress once more attempts to win the heart and soul of Earthman.  

On the "Night of the Magic Moons," Azura executes her strategy, ordering her "magic men" to abduct Dale Arden. Naturally, Flash follows,,and Azura offers him the chance to be king. When he refuses, the witch makes Flash battle a giant beast man.

In "Deadly Double," Ming the Merciless is back with another evil plan. His chief cyberneticist, Dr. Tavv, has created a robot duplicate of Gremlin and replaced the real thing, causing havoc for Flash and his friends.

There's not much positive to write about this second installment of the second season of Flash Gordon. The first season of the series did such a great job diagramming Flash's attempt to win over he chaotic kingdoms of Mongo and defeat the tyrant Ming the Merciless that these episodes feel largely pointless.

The second season of Flash Gordon, in other words, is AfterMASH, a kind of footnote, at least narratively-speaking to the main event.  

There's no real sense of urgency, and threat of Ming is totally undone since he doesn't operate, anymore, from a position of power. Instead, he's just sort of a bungling has-been, hatching ridiculous plans.

In "Double Dragon" his entire (silly) plan revolves around replacing Gremlin, and using that robot replacement to lead Flash to his doom.  

While it's interesting that the episode introduces Dr. Tavv, the scientist who designed Ming's (awesome) metal men, it says something that Ming's plan involves using Gremlin against Flash.  Is Gremlin really such an important figure in Flash's life? In Mongo politics?  

A better plan might have been to replace Dale Arden, or Flash with a duplicate, and sow discontent from within Mongo's new ruling regime. 

Instead, we just get a robot version of Gremlin that Thun recognizes instantly as a phony, and that shreds a football.  In two words, this is all small potatoes, isn't it?

The first story of this half-hour resurrects one of the crummiest aspects of Flash Gordon season one, which was that female rulers on Mongo all desperately desire Flash, and would give up their royal seat for his love and partnership.  

Azura already tried that last season, and she does so again in "Sir Gremlin," with the same results. 

That's the definition of insanity, right?  

Anyway, why would an amazingly powerful ruler, with fearsome magical abilities, willingly render herself secondary to a man she has met once?  Forget the sexist aspects of the story. We never, for example, see a male ruler, like Ming, offer to give up his throne for Dale's love.  Instead, just focus on what a bad idea this is in terms of logic.  Would any ruler give up power to a lover she or he hardly knows, and one from another planet at that?

The worst quality of this episode, however, is just how darn inconsequential it all feels after Ming's take down. 

I think what the writers needed -- and didn't have here -- was a second story to equal the first season's  

Perhaps the story of how Flash, Dale and Zarkov try to find what they need on Mongo to get home and return to Earth?   Maybe that could have learned that somewhere on Mongo, in a cavern or lost city, rests a teleporter that can beam them to any location in the universe.  

Another story possibility:What if the legendary Gor-Don, precursor, to Ming, came home, and wants power again? 

Next week: "The Game/The Seed."

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Films of 1956: Forbidden Planet

"At times loud and frenzied, literally encircling the viewer with sight, sound, and fury, and at other times subtle and silently unnerving, Forbidden Planet is, on every conceivable level, a work of commercial art."

- Jeff Rovin. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films. Citadel Press, 1975, page 78.

To assess the dynamic in purely Generation X-friendly terms, Forbidden Planet is to the 1950s what Star Wars is to the 1970s.

Or perhaps what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to the 1960s.

In other words, Forbidden Planet is a visual space odyssey so involving, so expertly presented, so beautifully designed that it endures as a landmark in the history of the cinema. 

Even fifty-five years after its theatrical debut, Forbidden Planet still impresses, and on some level even terrifies, in significant degree due to the eerie "electronic tonalities" of the score devised by Louis and Bebe Barron.

Today, this 1956 film from director Fred M. Wilcox and writers Cyril Hume and Irving Block remains one of the boomer generation's most important genre touchstones, and has been referenced directly and indirectly in  a wide-range of high-profile sf productions including Serenity (2005) and Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek (1966 - 1969).  

The film's mostly-invisible villain, "The Monster from the Id," is one that is still well-known by name in the pop culture lexicon.

At the movie's core, Forbidden Planet concerns an anxious fear not of technology itself, but of the human application of technology.  Or, more directly, human hubris.  The film reveals that for mankind (much like the ancient Krell), the stars can be our destination.  But our species could also lose everything it holds dear by failing to understand the greatest mystery of the universe: the human psyche.

Buttressed by "superior special effects" (Science Fiction Films. Bison Books Corp., 1984, page 39), Forbidden Planet truly  "thought big" and thus shines yet as one of the most imaginative and compelling movie visions of the future. 

As a kid of the 1970s,  I grew up frequently reading in the protean genre press about how Forbidden Planet was one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made.  Regardless of factors such as generational loyalty or nostalgia, those testimonials are absolutely, positively accurate.  This has been one of my favorite and most beloved films for a long time.

Delightfully, even if divorced from its Atomic Age original context, Forbidden Planet remains provocative.  The film remembers what so many science fiction visions of today fail to acknowledge; the fact that human beings -- and human problems -- must remain at the heart of any forward-thinking work of art. 

After all, when man reaches the stars he will still be man, and his decisions and wisdom (or lack thereof) will always spark the most invigorating of dramas.  Awe-inspiring special effects are one thing (and Forbidden Planet certainly deploys such effects brilliantly), but a story that connects to us, here and now, on an emotional level trumps such technical achievements every time.

"The secret devil of every soul set loose on the planet all at once..."

In the 23rd century, mankind endeavors to to conquer space, thanks in large-part to the invention of the hyper-drive, which makes interstellar travel possible.

As Forbidden Planet commences, space cruiser C-57D under command of stolid J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielson) approaches Altair IV, a world previously visited some two decades earlier by the Bellerophon. 

On approach to Altair IV, Adams and his ship are warned away from the planet by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who insists that he won't be responsible for the outcome should Adams ignore his counsel.

Adams sets down anyway on the craggy surface of the planet and soon encounters Robby the Robot, Morbius's highly-advanced mechanical servant.  Robby takes Adams, "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens) and Lt. Farman (Jack Kelly) back to Morbius's home, where they meet the man.

The grave, serious Morbius is the last surviving original member of the Bellerophon expedition and reports that "some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force" killed the other humans on his crew.  However, he has been safe and secure in the intervening nineteen years, living alone on the planet with just Robby (his construct; something he "tinkered together") and his beautiful if naive daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis).

The ship's crew responds enthusiastically (*ahem*) to the lovely Altaira, even as Adams determines he must contact home base to request further instructions regarding Morbius.

Unfortunately, the cruiser's long range communication apparatus, the "Klystron Transmitter" is sabotaged at night by an unknown, apparently invisible foe.

In the days ahead, Morbius introduces Adams and Doc to the great archaeological find of Altair IV.  Beneath the scientist's house, inside a vast subterranean complex, stands an ancient power generator belonging to an alien race called the Krell.  The colossal machine -- whose exact purpose remains unknown -- is all that remains of the once super-advanced people.

In fact, the Krell were so advanced that they visited Earth before man even walked the Earth, and brought back samples of the planet's wildlife, including tigers and deer. 

In one impressive alien laboratory, Morbius demonstrates a Krell educational game, a "brain boost" machine that he himself has experimented on, augmenting his own natural intellect in the process.   

Alarmingly, Morbius also reports that the Krell civilization vanished in one night, on the eve of an almost divine achievement: the creation of a device that could render unnecessary all forms of physical instrumentality.

Awed and a little disturbed by Morbius's alien discoveries, Adams believes Earth  and the "United Planets" must be permitted to share in the wealth.  Morbius objects to the captain's interference, however.  

As if in response, the terrifying invisible foe returns again and again, night by night, growing ever stronger...and ever more murderous.

"We're all part monsters in our subconscious.  So we have laws and religion."

As any college level English student can dutifully attest, Forbidden Planet appears loosely based on William Shakespeare's play The Tempest (1610). 

That work by the Bard revolves around Prospero, a man who has lived on a remote island with his daughter Miranda for twelve years. 

Prospero is served by a spirit called "Ariel" and uses the auspices of Ariel's magic to create a  storm (a tempest) at sea.  The storm causes a shipwreck and draws important visitors (Alonso, Ferdinand, etc.) to Prospero's island for his unique purposes of personal and family renewal. 

Importantly, also residing on Prospero's island is Caliban (think cannibal): a monster who utilizes magic for much darker purposes. In the end, Prospero renounces magic and Ariel is set free from servitude, while Miranda and King Alonso's son, Ferdinand, are free to marry.

Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest is frequently assessed a highly-reflexive work of art because it compares Prospero's use of magic with the magic of the theater.  Prospero's renunciation of magic at play's end is thus said to represent Shakespeare's own pull-back from the stage; his professional retirement, essentially.  The Tempest is also widely considered a "post-colonial effort," drawing specific interest because of the way that Prospero treats (and mistreats?) Caliban, Ariel and the other denizens of the faraway island. 

Forbidden Planet certainly shares an abundance of common narrative and thematic points with Shakespeare's final literary endeavor.  If you substitute Altair IV for the remote island, Morbius for Prospero, and Altaira for Miranda, the comparison begins to take shape.  Captain J.J. Adams -- as love interest for Altaira/Miranda -- is at least part Ferdinand, and the extraordinary Robby the Robot fits the bill as Ariel, the servant of Morbius/Prospero. 

What seems rather unique about the transference of The Tempest's scenarios to the futuristic realm of Forbidden Planet is that the makers of this classic sci-fi film have made some very intriguing switches or substitutions.  

Here, technology -- alien technology -- replaces magic or the occult.  Robby is not a "fairy" or "spirit" like Ariel, but rather a thinking machine created from super-advanced technology; Krell technology.  Just consider  Clarke's third law, of 1961.  Advanced technology -- machines beyond our understanding -- appear as baffling as magic, right?

Furthermore, the film's "thing of darkness," to turn a Shakespearean phrase (Act II, Scene II), is positioned as a psychological, interior force, rather than as an exterior personality, Caliban.   It is the scientist/wizard's "id" in Forbidden Planet that creates problems, not a fellow and less honorable practitioner of the magical arts.  

Indeed, Forbidden Planet purposefully re-contextualizes Shakespeare's line in The Tempest that "we are such stuff as dreams are made of," so as to readily incorporate the the Id, which is one third of the human psychic apparatus as delineated by Sigmund Freud. 

Id is instinct.  Id is chaos.  It is aggression and destruction, with no overriding sense of morality, and it operates on passion and desire. Often, our nocturnal dreams  and phantasms are seen as the representative outlet of the Id, and in Forbidden Planet, Morbius -- immediately before his heroic demise -- explicitly names dreams as devious originator of his unpardonable sins. 

"What man can remember his own dreams?" Morbius asks desperately, suggesting that consciously he is fully separate from the the instinctive human urges which created the Monster from the Id and committed murder.  The truth is that the Monster here is actually a reflection of his basest, most primitive self.  Something that -- even in the era of space travel -- man cannot fully expunge.

Another substantial difference to consider when comparing The Tempest to Forbidden Planet involves the manner in which Morbius uses Robby.  Though it is clear from Morbius's demonstrations involving the robot that the scientist holds a kind of spell over him --  able to render Robby immobile with a simple voice command --  Morbius does not utilize Robby to bring visitors to his world. 

On the contrary, Morbius explicitly shuns such visitors while the cruiser is still in orbit.  This act separates him rather dramatically from his literary predecessor, Prospero.  In the denouement of both works, however, the non-human servant (Ariel/Robby) is freed from his master and takes part in the navigation away from the island/planet.  In Forbidden Planet's final scene, we see Robby at the controls of C-57D, having adjusted rather nicely to his new environs.

There are major differences in tenor as well.  In no significant or meaningful way does Forbidden Planet attempt to draw parallels between the technology of the Krell, for instance and the technological art form of film. 

On the contrary, Forbidden Planet plays its story completely straight, sometimes even underplaying moments so as to more fully erect a sense of complete, overwhelming reality about the film's universe.  Again, the idea at the root of the film is not a comparison of magic to art, but a comparison, rather, of  future technology to more current events, circa the mid-1950s.

In the Atomic Age, a literal Pandora's Box was opened thanks to the creation of The Bomb, and many people feared what could happen when mankind "tampers in God's domain."    That's the explicit fear of Forbidden Planet and the lesson to draw from the unfortunate, god-like Krell.  The film is about achieving a technological awareness that our species is not yet emotionally ready, not yet wise enough, to countenance.  No one man can possess such great power, and possibly use it wisely.

In terms of the post-colonial aspects of Shakespeare's work, again, Forbidden Planet differs significantly.  It is of interest here that both Morbius and Altaira treat Robby as a servant, but this seems no more than an oblique comment on human views of artificial intelligence, hardly applicable to the idea of post-colonial paternalism or racism.

The comparison to The Tempest appears most illuminating in understanding Forbidden Planet's theme: that of man harnessing a tool (whether magic or technology) responsibly.  The brief reference to the "Bellerophon" (the name of the first ship to visit Altair IV) expertly cements this thematic strand.  In Greek myth, Bellerophon is a demi-God and son of Poseidon who commits the crime of arrogance or hubris.  He attempts to fly Pegasus to Mount Olympus to reach the Gods, until Zeus retaliates (with a gad-fly), and Bellerophon falls back to Earth, forever broken by the experience.

Quite clearly, Morbius (a Bellerophon crew member) is the one who dramatically overreaches in Forbidden Planet, attempting to gain access to divine knowledge which is not his right nor his destiny.  Morbius's tale and Bellerophon's myth are both explicitly cautionary tales about human overreach.  In the film, J.J. Adams seems to recognize this in his impromptu requiem for the good doctor, and notes that the name Morbius will one day "remind us that we are, after all, not God.." 

Even the (unseen) demise of the Bellerophon space ship in Forbidden Planet seems to harken back to the myth.  Morbius describes how, during take off, it was pulled back and "vaporized," in flight.  Were the colonists going to share the secrets of the Krell with the outside world?  Were they reaching for Mount Olympus when they were downed?

"...a new scale of physical scientific values..."

An undeniable and perennial pleasure of Forbidden Planet is the style and epic scope of visual presentation.  This is a film that occurs entirely on a distant planet, and therefore involves both futuristic human technology and alien technology with absolutely no relation to Earth and our history or design aesthetics.

Consequently, no earthbound locations are featured -- redressed or not -- in Forbidden Planet, and nor were the film's makers able to rely on our modern digital technology (CGI).  Instead, a vast sound stage is converted into the expansive landing area of the C-57D, and some of the most impressive matte paintings you've ever seen are deployed, along with exceptional miniatures and some opticals, to diagram the world and scope of the Krell technology.

Morbius's house represents a splendid vision of what homes of the future might look like, from the inclusion of a "household disintegrator beam" disposal unit, to metal shutters, to an architectural scheme that incorporates both natural rock and plant-life right into the home's hearth. 

Although the C-57D's familiar "flying saucer" design may seem antiquated to some viewers, the interior of the ship is constructed in full, and in laborious detail: a multi-level affair with a central control station, hide-away bunk beds, and a "deceleration" post for braking (after light-speed).  And the impressive scene in which this craft lands on Altair -- and ladders descend and crew disembark -- plays as absolutely real, in part because so much of the craft's exterior has also been constructed to scale. 

Late in the film, Morbius takes Adams and Doc Ostrow on that extended tour of "the Krell Wonders" and this portion of the film is nothing less-than-awe-inspiring because of the visualizations, successfully living up to Morbius's high-minded description of a "new scale of physical values."   Morbius's matter-of-fact lecture during this tour only serves once more to effectively ground the film in a very substantial form of reality.  This is literally a tour, with a sort of teacher relating to us information about energy usage, power systems and more.  It might seem dry and lifeless to some, but the technical dialogue and professorial delivery actually serve a terrific purpose.  This approach enhances the believability of the enterprise.

This tour -- which plays as educational and real -- is a powerful contrast to the film's most visceral, memorable scene: the Monster from the Id's sustained attack upon the landed cruiser by night.  This particularly riveting sequence, with blazing laser weapons, crackling force-fields, and some unique wire-work (utilized to express the visual of spacemen caught in the grasp of the invisible monster) is still awe-inspiring and terrifying.  The famous monster is visible only sporadically -- an animated energy beast -- and thus terror is rigorously maintained.  The electronic tonalities I mentioned at the outset of the review also help out in maintaining the horror.  This planet and its monstrous denizen not only appear alien, but sound alien as well.  The monster's unearthly howl is not easily forgotten.

Some of the film's vistas also nicely eschew technology human ana alien for more natural settings.  There's an almost poetic shot and matte painting of the grave yard where the Bellerophon dead are buried.  Another shot evocative of the best pulp space art involves Altair at night, with two luminous moons hanging low in the black sky. 

In terms of design creativity then, Forbidden Planet is right off the charts.  Even today, science fiction films visualize holograms, force-fields, lasers and robots in much the same fashion as those concepts are crafted here.  Certainly, robots today are a little more streamlined than the wonderful Robby, but he remains quite impressive (and oddly lovable).  The New York Times' reviewer's words about him still hold up too.

He called Robby "a phenomenal mechanical man who can do more things in his small body than a roomful of business machines. He can make dresses, brew bourbon whisky, perform feats of Herculean strength and speak 187 languages, which emerged through a neon-lighted grille. What's more, he has the cultivated manner of a gentleman's gentleman. He is the prettiest piece of mechanism on Planet Altaire."  Easy, then, to detect why this robot has been beloved for several generations now.

In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of Forbidden Planet should feel remarkably flattered.  Star Trek adopted the film's "United Planets" template lock, stock and barrel, the captain/doctor relationship, and the Chief Quinn character (a Scotty-like miracle-worker) as part of its core, while Star Wars' C-3PO -- another robot of many languages --  and Lost in Space's B9 certainly owe much to Robby in concept and design.  We call this homage, of course. 

In the annals of cult television history, even The Tempest-like tale of a father and daughter living alone on a distant planet together has been oft-repeated, in Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah" and Space:1999's "The Metamorph" to name but two.  It is also said that Dr. Who's serial "Planet of Evil" derives from Forbidden Planet in name and concept.  It's a story of a scientist's good-intentioned overreach and devolution into a monster on a faraway world.

Forbidden Planet is a product of its time, and that means, among other things, that no racial minorities are featured in the film at all, which today may likely trouble some folks. Also, Alta is defined in the film largely by her reactions and relationships with the men in her life.   She goes from being an obedient daughter, to being an obedient romantic partner. She's not the independent spirit we might expect in today's cinema. 

But of course, the film was created in 1956, not 2016 and so was a projection of the future that included the America of that era as the foundation of everything.  Despite such concerns, Forbidden Planet remains a terrific and sometimes startling example of what traditional Hollywood can achieve in the genre when equipped with a good budget, a strong and literate script, and the most imaginative effects and production design possible for the day.

Forbidden Planet isn't a movie that was just "tinkered together" and nor is it "an obsolete" thing.  Contrarily, it's a sci-fi masterpiece that both inspires and warns us about our trajectory heading out there, into the Great Unknown.  

From Prospero in the 1600s to Dr. Morbius in the 23rd century, the human condition, it seems, remains a fragile, mysterious, and magical thing.

Movie Trailer: Forbidden Planet (1956)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

At Flashbak: Five Times That Earth’s Space Probes Came Back to Haunt Us in Film and Television

This week at Flashbak, I looked at the (fictional) danger of unmanned space probes in films and TV programs.

Here’s a snippet and the url for “Five Times that Earth’s Space Probes Came Back to Haunt Us”:

“Humanity’s dedicate attempt to reach the stars -- the space program, for lack of a better term -- is unequivocally, one of the greatest achievements in human history. It is responsible for many technological advancements, and a deeper understanding of our universe.

But genre film and television have often considered a unique form of blowback to the space program.  In particular, movies and TV programs have, for decades, imagined that the very unmanned vehicles we send out to the stars for learning and scientific investigation – space probes -- come back instead to threaten and destroy us instead.

Here are five of the most memorable examples of dangerous space probes.  As you can see, this idea seemed to carry a special currency in the years 1967-1979, a time-span which coincides with some of the most important NASA mission.

1. Nomad (Star Trek: “The Changeling” [1967])

In this second season episode of the original Star Trek, the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters Nomad, a space probe launched from Earth in 2002 by eccentric engineer Jackson Roykirk.  At some point on its intergalactic journey, Nomad collide with and fused with an alien space probe called Tan Ru. Now the hybrid seeks to not seek out new life, but sterilize imperfect life forms.  When the Enterprise encounters this “changeling,” it has just killed the 4 billion inhabitants of the Melurian solar system.
Before Nomad is destroyed by Kirk (William Shatner), who convinces it that it too is imperfect, Nomad kills Scotty (James Doohan) an erases Lt. Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichols) memory.

2. The Venus Probe (Night of the Living Dead [1968])

What causes the zombie apocalypse in George A. Romero’s Living Dead Universe?  Well, it’s another dangerous space probe. In this case, NASA’s Venus Space Probe returns from that planet carrying a dangerous an unknown form of radiation. NASA self-destructs the craft on its entrance into Earth’s atmosphere, but it is too late.  The probe carries that radiation, which, according to news reports in the film, may be responsible for the zombie plague….”

The Films of 1968: The Green Slime

When I was five years old and living in New Jersey, a TV station out of New York, WABC, (Channel 7) aired The 4:30 PM Movie every week day. 

And via this 4:30 PM Movie platform, I was introduced to a multitude of cinematic treasures.  For instance, this was how I first encountered all the Planet of the Apes films, The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), and, yes...The Green Slime (1968).

Alone among those titles The Green Slime has gained quite a reputation as something of an anti-classic.  Specifically, it has earned only a lowly score of 3.7 from user/reviewers on the Internet Movie Database.

In additions, books such as The Official Razzie Movie Guide and Son of Golden Turkey Awards have pretty well mocked and eviscerated the film too. 

The former resource calls the movie a "camp classic" while the latter describes The Green Slime in this fashion: "Some of the worst American actors meet some of the worst Japanese special effects in this multinational fiasco." 

So that's the conventional wisdom.

The New York Times was slightly more forgiving of The Green Slime, however.  Critic Howard Thompson opined that  the film "opens promisingly, keeps it up for about half-an-hour but then fades badly. There is a quiet, tingling efficiency about these early scenes and very little nonsense. The trick photography and stratospheric effects are neat and clean. And the plot itself isn't half bad for this kind of operation."

Well, first off, I believe The New York Times' Howard Thompson was actually more accurate in assessing and describing the film's strengths and weaknesses than the professional and amateur mockers have been.

In 2016, the film's special effects have undeniably aged poorly, and the actual Green Slime monsters probably never looked particularly convincing, let alone scary, to adult eyes.  Not even back in '69.  It wasn't really until Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), perhaps, that space monsters were suitably scary on-screen, and The Green Slime looks almost prehistoric by comparison.

I might also add that the science as presented in the film seems ludicrous.  And that the acting is -- termed politely -- stiff.  Blow dried might be a better description.  

If we're keeping count, one might note that much of the dialogue is risible...and thus humorous.  The view of scientists is pretty cliched too, with one professor's irresponsibility walking hand-in-hand with his idiocy.  

And last but not least, the overt swinging sixties vibe (down to the awesome theme song and scantily clad astronaut ladies drinking champagne...) readily encourages the prevalent "so bad that it's good" interpretation of the film.

So please, take all these negative points as absolute givens if you decide to watch The Green Slime.   Don't say I didn't warn you, okay?

But playing devil's advocate now, this Japanese production filmed at Toei is also -- to my surprise -- constructed on some pretty sturdy film craft.  The film's director, Kinji Fukasaku (1930 - 2003) is well-known as a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's and even in The Green Slime, one can detect the reason behind his admiration. 

No, this isn't The Yakuza Papers (1971) or Battle Royale (2000) -- not by a long shot -- yet Fukasaku is the same artist; one extraordinarily gifted with visuals, especially talented at selecting the very right shot at the right moment.  

The upshot is that a producer could actually mount a shot-for-shot remake of The Green Slime in Hollywood today --  featuring big-name actors and upgraded special effects -- and it would probably be pretty damned good.

"We found something strange up there, sir."

The Green Slime is the story of a planetary disaster in the making.  The multi-national UNSC (United Nations Space Command) learns that a rogue asteroid, named Flora, is on a collision course with Earth. 

In fact, it will strike in less-than ten hours. Stalwart Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) is assigned to destroy the asteroid before catastrophe occurs.  Unfortunately, Rankin's assignment will also involve relieving his old friend, Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel), from command of the international space station, Gamma 3...and seeing his old flame, Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi), again.

But Jack is a non-nonsense kind of officer, and rushes in where angels fear to tread.  On a rocket mission to the rocky surface of Flora, Horton's team detonates several explosives in short order.  The threat to Earth is pulped, but a single glop of indigenous green slime lands on one astronaut's pants.

Upon return to Gamma 3, the crew celebrates the mission's success, unaware that the green slime has begun to grow in the decontamination chamber.  In fact, the Green Slime thrives on electricity, and soon becomes a walking, cyclopean, tentacled monstrosity capable of "feeding on energy and discharging energy."

The Green Slime can also regenerate at a "frightening" rate.  Even one drop of spilled Green Slime can regenerate a nursery full of these squeaking monsters.  In other words -- to quote Alien -- "you don't dare kill it!" 

Very soon, Jack realizes that there is no choice but to abandon and then destroy the overrun Gamma 3 station, lest the alien threat reach planet Earth...

"If he's right, those things are going to be all over the place!"

As I wrote at the start of this piece, it's easy, from a casual viewing, to detect what's bad and unintentionally funny about The Green Slime

I do not now and never shall deny any of those important elements. 

But solid film criticism isn't merely about plucking low-hanging fruit from the vine.  In some instances, it's about excavating those things that get buried in favor of the obvious.  And the fact of the matter is that The Green Slime is highly entertaining for a number of reasons, and it seems fair and judicious to enumerate those reasons in this review.

In particular, I recommend that viewers pay special attention to the visual compositions, and the ways Fukasaku uses the frame to create an escalating sense of tension.

For instance -- effortlessly and perfectly -- Fukasaku shifts to hand-held shots in the interior of a small spacecraft set just as the movie's protagonists undertake their important mission to Flora. The sudden shift from a more stately grounded camera to the hand-held shots supports the story's rising anxiety level.

I also admire how the director dramatically marshals whip pans and intense camera pushes during the big "reveal" moments and the sustained battle sequences.  

There's nothing wrong with any of these compositions, and in fact, many are actually quite gorgeous.  If you just try not to focus on the floppy-armed monsters, and look at the particular shots, there's a level of real artistry apparent. 

And not all the special effects look terrible. There are some inventive angles here of the Green Slime climbing up an Infirmary wall, edited in reverse, apparently.

That sense of artistry extends to the film's numerous space sets, which have sometimes been termed "cardboard."   I didn't see that much, frankly, except in a few short sequences where Gamma 3's doors appear momentarily light weight.  And on the contrary, the surface of the planet Flora as visualized here is quite dynamic and intriguing: a live-action studio set of considerable intricacy, color and depth.  In the days before CGI, everything had to be built -- including whole planets -- and The Green Slime's foreign Flora looks like fantastic today.

I could also comment on the effective choreography and early wire-work in some of the flying/battle sequences in space, a precursor to such EVA battles as we've since seen in Moonraker (1979), among other films. 

With all this good work, it is a mystery to me why a clearly capable director allows his poorly-designed, silly-looking monsters to get so much damned face time on camera.  This film could have been significantly improved by some shock cutting, by featuring dimmer light in a few moments, and by other techniques that could hide or mask the fakery.  If those steps had been taken, The Green Slime might be remembered very differently today.

In terms of atmosphere, The Green Slime is gloriously a product of its time and specific context, the late 1960s.  This was our world in the midst of the Apollo Program, with a moon landing on the horizon.  Accordingly, the film benefits from the same kind of 1960s retro-futurism and can-do attitude as TV series like Thunderbirds or Star Trek. 

That means the film is veritably filled with astronauts in red and blue jump suits, bustling about and moving quickly into action to face danger and save the world in the process.  Launch a space mission to save the Earth in under ten hours?  No problem! Just hit the accelerator!  The Green Slime goes into laborious detail showing space cruiser launches, futuristic cities and other examples of man's "high technology" in this possible future.  The breadth of imagination in terms of production design and miniature work on display here is not so easily dismissed, even if we have outgrown both miniatures and can-do futurism.

In terms of the world it presents, The Green Slime offers an irony-less view of can-do space adventuring, with serious men and women going about their business without tongues-in-cheek.  In today's hipster world, this is just something else to laugh about, no doubt, but The Green Slime is the product of a more optimistic age.  One in which we all believed -- without question -- that man would conquer space.  I find this facet of the film charming and innocent, I must admit.  The film's confidence in us, in mankind, is one of its finer qualities.  This faith is reinforced in the subplot that many critics find so deplorable, the Rankin-Elliot rivalry.

Specifically, Rankin is all about the job, damn the consequences.  We're all expendable! 

And Elliot is the opposite, willing to save his men at the expense of the mission. 

In the end, both men -- and both approaches -- are required to save the day.  This plot-point alone seems evidence of a more innocent, less polarized time in our world.  Today the answers to a lot of our national and international problems are both liberal ones and conservative ones, but no one wants to admit that fact.  It always has to be either/or; not a little bit of both. 

The Green Slime's dueling commanders -- fighting over the love of a woman and the path to success -- each must compromise a bit, and come to see the validity in opposing approaches.  Is this particularly deep?  Perhaps not, but it's another byproduct of The Green Slime's more optimistic epoch.

I've written a lot here about the things I admired in The Green Slime, in part because I enjoy highlighting positives more than I do writing a review focusing on some weak dialogue, or bad special effects. 

The Green Slime is not a great movie, but it is enjoyable and it boasts some visual distinction.  Snark about the movie can be found elsewhere. 

In the final analysis, whether or not you enjoy this film depends largely on your perspective of a common criticism.  Many reviewers have complained that the film features effects that make it look like "a Godzilla movie."

If you think that comparison is a valid criticism and a sign of "bad" cinema, then don't waste your energy on The Green Slime.  You won't be that into it.

On the other hand, if you believe the comparison to Godzilla films is actually a positive -- because Godzilla movies possess incredible artistry and valuable social commentary -- then by all means, sit back, relax, and have a good time with this silly movie played ever-so-straight. 

I know which camp I belong in.

Movie Trailer: The Green Slime (1968)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Guest Post: Money Monster (2016)

Money Monster Is Cobbled Together With Parts From Better Films

B Jonas Schwartz

Expectations are high when the credits roll with such superstar names as George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jodie Foster, but Money Monster smashes very easy targets, and though it hits the bullseye often, it uses a cannon as a weapon.

Tabloid news, the rich eating the poor, and the poor reaching a breaking point, are all timely, particularly in this election season, and though Money Monster moves at a breezy pace with a self-aware, fun performance by Clooney, the movie itself lacks wit, subtlety or surprises. Director Foster brings none of the quirkiness and ingenuity that she brought to Home For The Holidays.

Flamboyant finance TV host Lee Gates (Clooney) and his producer Patty (Roberts) perform just another show, combining stock tips with flashy graphics and entertaining hip-hop dance breaks. The diva Gates treats his crew like slaves, and beneath his swagger drips insecurities.

He panics when he has no one to join for dinner on a Friday night, and feels personally offended that a CEO friend Walt Camby skipped out on an interview on the show. Camby's company was big news after a computer glitch the day before caused the company to lose millions in minutes, and his appearance on the show would have been a coup for Gates.

The program is interrupted by an angry gun man (Jack O'Connell) who holds the crew hostage and straps a bomb to Gates' chest.

The terrorist lost his life savings the day before on Camby's company, and blames both the CEO and the fast food financial analyst Gates for his troubles. Because the crime is broadcast live, the trauma becomes a national event with people treating the hostage situation like just another TV show.

The script by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf contains funny lines, but the writers are unable to drive the story forward. 

The script follows similar plot points from Mad City, with Dustin Hoffman, and John Q, starring Denzel Washington, two films that were unimpressive on their own merits, and borrows themes that were building blocks for masterpieces by Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel and Oliver Stone.

The motivations are obvious, the twists blatant, and the final half hour defies logic. The script's biggest issue is turning a man who shoved a loaded gun in someone's face and put everyone's life in jeopardy into a misunderstood hero by the final act.

Though his character was legitimately pissed, his actions were far from noble. The script also has issues turning the cops into anything but trigger happy stereotypes. Obviously the writers were thinking of Ferguson et al, but turning the force into Keystone Kops was a cop-out.

Foster's direction is oddly paced. She captures the chaos of live television, but focuses too much attention on nameless characters with whom the audience never identifies. Also curious is that Foster chose to have a strong female character caught in an adulterous relationship with her married boss. It seems out of character for Foster to undercut a female protagonist.

Clooney adds fun as the buffoon TV star. Bombastic and histrionic, his Gates adds energy to the film. His frequent co-star Roberts always has great chemistry with him. Their dynamics and screwball comedy dialogue are an asset.  Outlander star Caitriona Balfe brings elegance and determination as the corporate mouthpiece who turns detective.  Though O'Connor's role is histrionic and clumsily written, he brings pathos and panic as the everyman who chooses violence so as to be heard.

The script of Money Monster could have been a Lifetime Movie in the early 90's starring Heather Locklear and Luke Perry with no alterations.  What compelled Jodie Foster, George Clooney and Julia Roberts to carry on with this cardboard thriller is the only mystery worth investigating.

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

Pop Art: Little House on the Prairie (TV Guide)

Little House on the Prairie Laura Doll (Knickerbocker)

Little House on the Prairie Colorforms Playset

Lunch Box of the Week: Little House on the Prairie

Board Game of the Week: Little House on the Prairie (Parker Bros.)

Theme song of the Week: Little House on the Prairie (1974)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Court Martial" (February 2, 1967)

Stardate 2945.7

After the vessel takes considerable damage in an ion storm, and a crewman is killed, the U.S.S. Enterprise takes an unscheduled lay-over at Star Base 11.

There, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) explains the events leading up to the death of Lt. Commander Ben Finney (Richard Webb), and his actions in the yellow and red alerts. Specifically, he had to eject a pod monitoring the storm, and give Finney enough time to evacuate it, before jettisoning.

Unfortunately, the Enterprise’s main computer records a different story, and depicts Kirk jettisoning the pod (and thus killing Finney) while the ship is still at yellow-alert.

Because of the discrepancy between Kirk’s testimony and the record, Commodore Stone (Percy Rodriguez) charges the captain with perjury and culpable negligence. Prosecuting the case is Kirk’s former lover, the formidable Lt. Areel Shaw (Joan Marshall) of the Judge Advocate’s Office. She recommends that Kirk get an attorney, and even suggests one: Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook, Jr.)

A general court martial is convened, and the most damning evidence comes from a machine: the Enterprise’s computer. 

Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) soon realizes, however, that the computer has been tampered with, and that the computer tape extract is thus untrustworthy.  This clue leads Kirk, Spock -- and indeed the entire court tribunal -- to the Enterprise to determine the real fate of Ben Finney.

“Court Martial,” though not a great episode of classic Star Trek (1966-1969) is nonetheless one of the most influential stories in Trek history, and indeed, sci-fi TV history.  

Here, Kirk is hauled before a panel of judges because he stands accused of terrible crimes (negligence and perjury).  It is up to his shipmate and friends, as well as an idiosyncratic lawyer -- played by Elisha Cook Jr. -- to clear his good name and save his career.

Although the wraparound story of “The Menagerie” -- which saw Spock on trial -- came first in the chronology, “Court Martial” is absolutely a foundational text for sci-fi television, essentially a Perry Mason episode in space, or in the future. 

Star Trek itself returned to the idea of a main character standing trial in episodes of The Next Generation (1987-1994) including “The Measure of a Man,” “A Matter of Perspective” and “The Drumhead.”  

Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) presented court room dramas in “Dax” and “Rules of Engagement,” not to mention “Tribunal.” 

And Voyager’s Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) was framed for a crime he didn’t commit in “Ex Post Facto.”

Other series also went where Star Trek went before.  

On The Starlost (1973), there was an episode with Devon (Keir Dullea) standing trial, “Children of Methuselah.”  

Lt.Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), meanwhile, had to fight a charge of murder in Battlestar Galactica’s (1978-1979) “Murder on the Rising Star.”  

The same trope was also ported to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) in episodes such as “Time of the Hawk” and “Testimony of a Traitor.”

Generally (and broadly) speaking, these are not particularly good or memorable episodes of their respective franchises.  In part because the central Perry Mason dynamic is actually reversed. 

In Perry Mason (and other legal programming, like The Practice or Boston Legal, the criminal is a guest star, and the main or continuing character is the attorney.  But in the sci-fi TV iterations, it is a central protagonist -- Kirk,  Data, Riker, Dax, Paris, Starbuck or Buck Rogers -- who is hauled into court, or accused of a crime.  

Some amount of tension or suspense is deflected because viewers understand the series is over if Kirk loses command, or Buck goes to jail, or Starbuck becomes a convict living on the prison barge.  

Also, audiences never really believe that Kirk is negligent, or Buck is a traitor, no matter what evidence happens to be presented/manufactured.  

So each such court-room story is its own little dead end, in a sense, with rare exceptions (again, “The Menagerie,” or the brilliant “Measure of a Man” come to mind)  It all becomes a game of technicalities.  How can Apollo, or Wilma, or Spock, or Picard find the evidence needed to exonerate a friend?

The drama in these episodes feels artificial and manufactured for purposes of drama in a way that other episodes simply do not. Nobody believes Starbuck is a murderer, even for a minute. The same of Captain Kirk in “Court Martial.”

What's the appeal? Well, court martial or trial shows are self-contained in some fashion.  You need a court-room and not much else.

“Court Martial” raises some serious questions of logic, believability and execution too.  

For instance, in any episode -- of any series -- about crime/trials, motivation is a key question.  Here, Ben Finney wanted his own command, and to punish Kirk for the delay in that goal. Finney’s plan only satisfies one of those two agendas. 

If Finney is dead, at least according to Starfleet records, he is certainly never going to rise to be captain of a starship, is he? 

How did Finney expect to maintain the fiction that he had died? 

For the rest of his life, he would, by necessity, be an outcast from all his friends and family.  As long as he was visible -- working, or just living in a region inhabited by Starfleet personnel -- his plan to ruin Kirk would be at risk. He would be discovered. Basically, he has given up his entire life -- friends and family -- just to get back at Kirk.

Talk about wrath. This guy puts Khan to shame. Finney has eliminated the possibility of his own future for pure revenge.

Secondly, the Enterprise -- and Spock -- can’t determine that the log entries or “record” from the Enterprise were edited? 

Today, we have digital footage with time stamps, and other ways too to get to the truth of whether or not visual footage has been manipulated to tell a false story. 

Similarly, what about the command chair/center seat instrumentation or unit itself, which should certainly be able to be accessed and the truth determined about precisely when -- and in what order -- Kirk activated certain switches?

There ought to be redundant systems, so that contradictions can be reported.  What if the button deice shows one thing, while the log entry recorder shows something else?  This seems like it would be a crucial back-p.

Also, and perhaps most significantly, I can’t help but report that the episode’s theme is misguided and muddled, vis-à-vis technology (again) and its role in the 23rd century. 

Cogley argues passionately about man being de-humanized by his machines, by technology.  He states that Kirk has never had the right to face his accuser: a computer.  

But the fact of the matter is that the computer was tampered with by a flesh-and-blood person, an act which showcases the dominance not of machines, but of man himself. Kirk stands trial not because a computer lies to the court room, but because a resentful man has the knowledge, imagination, and cunning to execute a scheme of lies and manipulation.

In fact, one might argue that it is technology itself that saves Captain Kirk, rather than trampling his rights. The worst prop in Star Trek history -- a white noise machine (actually a 1960s microphone) -- reveals the key fact that Finney is alive, and still aboard the Enterprise.  It breaks the case wide open. 

It goes without saying, its a

And the computer’s failure to beat Spock at chess reveals to the intrepid first office that it has been tampered with (by a human).  

The key to exonerating Kirk in both instances rests with the use of or understanding of a machine.  I sure hope in Finney’s defense, Cogley calls as witnesses the ship’s computer, and the white noise machine, since they -- by his way of thinking -- testified against his client (and saved Kirk).

“Court Martial’s” idea that the “law” rests in printed books, but not in computer data repositories is also patently absurd, given what we know of technology, even today.  

Whole law books, unexpurgated, can be presented on the net, or read on a modern e-reader or iPad. 

There’s nothing de-humanizing or illegitimate about that fact.  

Sure, I love a printed book as much as the next guy, but the law isn’t located on “pages” made of tree pulp, it is located in the ideas and philosophies written down on those pages.  

Those ideas and philosophies can just as easily by discovered, explored, internalized, and synthesized on a computer or e-reader screen as they are in a dusty old volume.

I totally understand why "Court Martial" applauds written books. This shows that Cogley is a quirky individual, and one who remembers the past.  More importantly, the existence of these books says something about human beings in Star Trek's universe.  History will stay with us. Comfortable things (like books) won't disappear just because the final frontier is opened. 

I get it, but I still don't think Cogley's case about the law being in books, not in computers, makes a lick of sense today.  I love seeing an old book in Kirk's hands in The Wrath of Khan (1982), and it's an important statement that books 'survive' to the 23rd century.  But the law is about ideas and ideals, not about how you access them.

This episode also does a poor job explaining why Commodore Stone would prosecute Kirk so viciously.  

Kirk is, at this point, the youngest man to command a starship. 

He has -- in just the last year -- defended the Federation from a Romulan incursion ("Balance of Terror"), opened negotiations with a technologically advanced alien race, The First Federation (“The Corbomite Maneuver,”) and even opened the doorway to a dialogue with the Talosians (“The Menagerie.”)  

He has stopped another war (“Arena,”) and a planned invasion by androids too (“What are Little Girls Made of”) too.  

And without even contemplating the idea that the log entries have been manipulated, Stone wants to stamp him down and drum him out of the service? 

Why?  The episode never really makes the case for Stone’s hostility and closed-mindedness towards Kirk, especially given Kirk’s stellar record (as witnessed by the computer recitation of his medals and honors).  To me, his zealous, antagonistic nature speaks to the sense of artificial drama I noted above.  
There's something not quite true or honest about how this episode is presented.  It feels like a ginned up, gimmicky story, not an authentic one.

All this commentary is not meant to suggest that “Court Martial” is actually terrible episode, however, merely that the ideas it presents haven’t necessarily aged well.

And, though it is not the episode’s fault, too many lazy writers have followed up on the outer space court-room milieu, usually as a budget saving bottle show. 

What works well in “Court Martial,” I would submit, is the close look at Kirk’s past, aboard the Republic, and the choices he has made. In particular, I like the scenes in which he describes his friendship with Finney, and his career in Starfleet.

For me, the absolute best scene in the episode occurs when Kirk talks about his training, and his preparation for life-or-death moments and decisions. 

He states he has spent his whole life in preparation for such events, and worries that when one occurred…he failed.  

This is a potentially identity-destroying moment for Kirk, a possible negation that everything that he stands for.  But even in this contemplation, Kirk is indomitable. He stops questioning, and refuses to believe that he made such a mistake. 

“Court Martial” thus shows his spine of steel.  He may question himself and his choices, but there is also a point where he knows must trust -- if he is to continue as captain -- his ability to make a responsible decision.  He is not a panicky guy, and so he knows the charges are false.

In terms of series development, “Court Martial” -- the twentieth episode aired -- still hasn’t settled on some core terminology. Kirk refers to the “Vulcanian Expedition” at one point, and Spock refers to himself as “half-Vulcanian” too. The settled terminology, now, is “Vulcan.”

Next week: “Return of the Archons.”