Saturday, March 18, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "Show Me The Way to Go Home" (September 18, 1971)

In Lidsville’s (1971 - 1973) second episode, “Show Me The Way to Go Home,” the Colonel approaches Mark (Butch Patrick) with an old map that may show a way home to his world.  

Specifically, the map reveals a giant golden ladder stretching to the sky, a possible escape from Lidsville.

Mark, Weenie (Billie Hays) and the Colonel begin a safari through Sideburn Meadows to locate the giant golden ladder, but they encounter resistance in the Hair Forest.

Meanwhile, Hoo Doo wants to prevent Mark’s escape with his genie, and uses a new weapon -- Big Daddy -- to attack the innocent Hat People of Lidsville.  Big Daddy is a giant, inflatable version of Hoo Doo, one bent on crushing all hats!

Mark and the others see Big Daddy from a mountaintop on their journey, and realize they must abandon their search for the Golden Ladder and return home to save their friends.

“Show Me The Way to Go Home” is pretty much the same story as Lidsville’s first episode. An attempt is made to return Mark home, but the attempt is interrupted by Hoo-Doo, and abandoned (until next week!) 

I certainly hope that the map with the Golden Ladder will be remembered at some point, and Mark will attempt the trek again.

This doesn’t seem like something the character should forget exists, or is a possibility.

This episode also exposes, in some way, the thinness of the series premise.  Why does Hoo Doo want to prevent Mark from returning home?

One, Mark universally seems to foil his plans, and help the people of Lidsville.  So it seems it would be beneficial to send Mark packing, and return him home (or help him return home, as the case may be.)

Secondly, I understand why Hoo Doo wants his genie returned, but what does he care about keeping Mark, since Mark seems to possess no special powers?

This episode of Lidsville ends with a song and musical number about “ladders,” and how they exist everywhere, all over the world, and we must climb them. Perhaps not the best subject for someone seeking a ladder, and failing to find it.

Finally, this episode reveals some new regions of the land of hats, including the Sideburn Meadows, and the Hair Forest.  The Hair Forest has mobile trees with hair on branches, instead of leaves.  The trees look look like leftover costumes from H.R. Pufnstuf.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters: "The Flying Dutchman" (October 4, 1975)

In “The Flying Dutchman, the ghostly Captain Beane (Stanley Adams) of the Flying Dutchman materializes in the local graveyard in search of new crew-members for his famous, eternal ghost ship. 

He and his first mate, Scroggs (Philip Bruns) spot Spenser (Larry Storch), Kong (Forrest Tucker) and Tracy (Bob Burns) and settle on the trio as perfect candidates.

“The Flying Dutchman” is probably the weakest episode, thus far, of The Ghost Busters. At least the villains of the week are actually ghosts this time, and not the ghosts of monsters (like a werewolf, or the Frankenstein Monster).  

Still, that’s hardly an endorsement, as the episode features lame gags (“I haven’t had so much fun since Long John Silver taught me the one step…”) and some poor special effects.

On the latter front, the interior of the castle this week apparently becomes sea bound, and sprays of water hit Captain Beane. It looks like someone is squirting him with a water pistol from right off-camera.

Stanley Adams is our villain of the week, and this episode aired approximately two years before his tragic death, in 1977.  Adams is beloved by a generation of TV fans for his work on Star Trek (“The Trouble with Tribbles,”), The Twilight Zone (“Mr. Garrity and the Graves”) and Lost in Space (“The Great Vegetable Rebellion”) but The Ghost Busters’ “The Flying Dutchman” doesn’t represent one of his better or more well-known roles.

Nope, it's just goofy business as usual, for this live action cartoon.  

Next up on The Ghost Busters: “The Dummy’s Revenge.”

Friday, March 17, 2017

Guest Post: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Remaking a Classic: The Good, The Bad and The Beastly, Part II, Beauty And The Beast

By Jonas Schwartz

The 1991 animated musical Beauty and The Beast is beloved.  Audiences and critics went insane for the animation that perfectly mimicked the thrill of epic live-action cinematography, an engaging story and Broadway caliber songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. 

It was the first animated film to ever get a best picture Oscar nomination and spun off into a highly successful (at least financially) Broadway production. After scoring with a slew of live-action versions of Disney classics (The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Alice on Wonderland), the studio has returned to this tale as old as time. Surprisingly, many of the elements are arresting, with casting, script, acting and design all in top form. There is only one facet that fails and for a musical, it's a gigantic issue.

Following the framework set up by Linda Woolverton in the '91 film, Belle (Emma Watson) trades her life for her father’s (Kevin Kline) when he accidentally wanders into a cursed castle and is taken prisoner by a beast (Dan Stevens).

She remains in her father's place and though the castle is a haunted gothic monstrosity, Belle finds the beauty in the palace and even the beauty in her misunderstood, hostile captor. With the help of several inanimate servants, like a candelabra (Ewan McGregor), a clock (Ian McKellen), a teapot (Emma Thompson) and a dresser (Audra McDonald), she turns this hell into a home. Back in town, a blowhard with an ego bigger than Disneyland (Luke Evans) expects Belle to be his wife, whether she chooses him or not.
The cast is impeccable. Watson and Stevens make charming lovers. The love blossoming between them is affectionate and grounded. Instead of playing to the rafters, Evans is appropriately villainous but in more subtle ways. Gad makes a hilarious sidekick who functions as a fully-realized character with feelings (not just those of passion for Gaston as reported recently in the news) and a conscience. McGregor shows off a Broadway caliber voice as he had in Moulin Rouge. Kline is more fatherly than the original incarnations. Maurice is still a bit eccentric, but his kindness, ingenuity and tenderness with Belle shines through.

The script by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos perfectly transforms a cartoon into a live-action film. Some of the more buffoonish characters are more realistic and empathetic than their clownish versions. The dialogue sounds fresh and funny. The script does bring up some layers that could have enhanced the story if handled better, but wind up slowing down the film.

In this film, Belle has inherited her father's passion for inventing, as can be found in an early scene where she creates a washing machine. But never does that kernel of an idea sprout throughout the film. It's completely forgotten. There's also a revelation towards the end between Maurice and Belle wherein she finally understands why they left their past life in Paris. Yet, never before in the film had Belle given any indication of resenting her father, so it's unclear why she's suddenly forgiving him. She was never standoffish or even a bit concerned about her father's motives at any time earlier.

Director Bill Condon has assembled a Candyland of visuals. The costumes are luscious (the introduction to Belle's iconic dress is a dazzling moment); the sets are magnificent. Everything looks worthy of the original sumptuous ink and painted designs. The original movie was an homage to the Broadway musical genre with every song representing a component of the classic musical structure. Condon plays on that concept by echoing famous musicals of the past: Belle glides on a grassy hill just like Maria in The Sound of Music; during "Be Our Guest," when Lumière (McGregor) says the word cabaret, John Kander's famous vamp can be heard; in the same song, Lumière dances in the water as tribute to Gene Kelly.

The score is where things turn problematic. Most of the popular songs have returned, but the score sadly misses "Human Again" (a song that was cut from the original film but was returned in later releases and the Broadway musical). The new songs, like "Evermore" for the Beast and "How Does A Moment Last Forever" for Maurice, lack the style and nuances of the original score. Anthony Van Laast's choreography is unimaginative.

The biggest issue, one that is inexcusable in a musical, is the sound mixing is way off. The orchestra overwhelms the singers so that all the lyrics are unintelligible. My spouse performed in various international productions of the show for over three years and even he could not decipher what the actors sang. For a musical, that is a cardinal sin, and could have been an easy fix. 

Turning the cherished animated film Beauty and The Beast into a live-action replica was a risky venture and one that Bill Condon, for the most part, excelled. With a bit of editing and more adept sound mixing, this could have been a classic. Here's wishing for a future director's cut.

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.

Movie Trailer: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "Futurepast" (January 2, 1978)

“Futurepast” is a strange episode of Logan’s Run: The Series (1977). The episode’s writing isn’t especially compelling.  But the visualization of the story is absolutely superior.  In fact, this is one of the best visualized stories of the entire series.  The imagery is symbolic, and actually develops the characters; or at least one character: Jessica.

Here, Logan (Gregory Harrison), Jessica (Heather Menzies) and REM (Donald Moffat) find a dream clinic in the woods; one run by an android and "dream reader" named Ariana (Mariette Hartley). Every time REM is near the lovely Ariana, sparks fly out of his body.

In other words, it's android love.

But while REM and Ariana court one another, Logan and Jessica decide to avail themselves of the dream clinic and go to sleep. Once unconscious, they begin to experience a high level of nightmares (or, to start out, actually clips from "The Collector" and "Pilot.") Logan dreams he has run into another Sandman, and Jessica dreams she is in Carousel. 

Then there's some footage thrown in from "The Capture" too, just for good measure...

But soon, she encounters a Boogeyman -- a representation of death -- that implores her to join him.

REM discovers he can't wake up his friends until the cycle of nightmares is over because they're in "Cycle C" sleep and going deeper, towards "Cycle D," which means death. And worse, Francis (Randy Powell) and another Sandman have arrived at the clinic too, and shoot Ariana.

Logan and Jessica emerge from their nightmares, and trick Francis into undergoing the process. REM, meanwhile repairs Ariana, and promises to return to her, once Logan and Jessica have found Sanctuary.

Some of “Futurepast” is quite hokey. I readily grant that. The android love story is stilted and a little weird, and more than that, unexplained. The connection between REM and Ariana is sweet, but it isn’t clear how androids can experience love.

And the final method to get rid of Francis (tricking him into going to sleep) doesn’t do much for his character. It makes him seem gullible and weak.  Since he's a hapless pursuer, this development doesn't help Francis seem more menacing.

Also, the episode begins, quite unimpressively, with clips from previous programs.  We have already seen Logan grapple with his fears about killing, and being hunted by other Sandmen from the City of Domes before (“The Collectors.”)

So yes, at times, “Futurepast” is a clips show.

But then something authentically intriguing happens. 

Jessica’s nightmares develop, and the imagery becomes quite powerful. Jessica encounters a grinning Boogeyman figure. He is dressed all in black, except for his white Carousel mask. He is a frightening figure, and yet, in some way, a compelling one.  

He attempts to seduce Jessica. Not sexually, exactly. He tries to bring her to him by telling her that some part of her yearns to be with him; to be with Death. She admits this is true. She is drawn to him.  

And this admission seems to coincide with Ariana’s suggestion that all humans subconsciously possess a death wish. This is precisely what Jessica seems to experience in her dream.

Incidentally, the admission also ties in with the City of Domes and the Carousel/Renewal ritual. There must be some part of the city denizens that acquiesce to the process; to death itself. The whole society is based, in a way, on a worship of death, though with a belief about the after-life.

But another portion of Jessica’s dream is even more intriguing. As she runs from the grinning boogeyman, she encounters her Mother. Jessica -- both in the movie and in the TV series -- has expressed the desire to know her mother. This is not considered normal in the City of Domes. All children there are raised by computers in “The Nursery.” It is considered perverse and sick to want to know your birth parent in this world of casual sex.

But Jessica possesses some sense that being a mother involves more than the biological act of conception.  She wishes she could know her mother, and benefit from her mother’s experience. And n her nightmare in “Futurepast,” Jessica actually encounters her mother. Jessica is filmed from a high angle, making her look small an insignificant in the frame, as she is bracketed by two images of her mother.

Her mother, meanwhile, is shot from a low angle, which makes the maternal figure seem imposing and powerful.  And in the nightmare, Jesscia's mother spurns her; and her desire to know. The mother is a figure not of experience and knowing, but of danger, cruelty, and great power.  The images absolutely convey this relationship in a symbolic fashion.

Some viewers may find it a little bit much, but “Futurepast” thrives on this symbolic level, utilizing fish-eye lenses, and slow-motion photography, to represent and extend the experience of a nightmare. The usage of film grammar in this episode is absolutely superb, and in some way the imagery carries the day, overcoming the stilted nature of the story. We learn more about Jessica’s psyche (and therefore her character) in “Futurepast” than we do in any other episode of the series.  

There is some part of Jessica that fears rejection, and some part of her that possesses a death wish.

It would be nice if the episode found some way to excavate Logan’s character through visuals as successfully. Instead, “Futurepast” just ports in his nightmare from “The Collectors,” and that’s a gigantic letdown.

Did the series' writers really have nothing else to about the title character of the series?

We know from his history that Logan begins to question, and chooses to run fro the City of Domes.  We must presume that this is because he has come to see himself as a murderer.  It seems like his dream in "Futurepast" should focus on that idea.  

What if he were chasing Jessica in a dream, with Francis at his side?  What if he cornered her, and had to pull the trigger, with Francis urging him to do so?  That situation, and Logan’s solution, would have revealed far more about Logan 5 as a human being and as a continuing character.

Finally, it is great to see Mariette Hartley in this episode, and even though she acts unemotionally as an android character, the episode conveys, visually, her innocence and goodness. When we first see Ariana, she releases a bird into the air, from a balcony.  

It’s another fascinating act of symbolism pictured above. Ariana's job, as a dream specialist, is to free people from the pathologies that hold them back during waking life.  Her act of releasing the dove suggests her role.

Next week, another strong episode: “Carousel.” 

Cult-TV Movie Review: The People (1972)

A young elementary school teacher, Melodye Amerson (Kim Darby) travels to a small, isolated farming community in the southwest to run the one-room school-house there.  She has left behind a boyfriend, who worried that she would be alone in the middle of nowhere.  Melodye’s response is that, in this new location, she’ll have “more time” to figure herself out.

On her arrival in the rural community of Bento, however, Melodye finds the young students distant, unemotional, and strange.  Worse they are not allowed to sing, dance, make pretend, or otherwise express aspects of their imagination.  The whole community seems shut down emotionally.  The nominal leader of the town, Sol (Dan O’Herlihy) seems very reserved, and stern.

Also baffled by the incredibly healthy people of the town is Dr. Curtis (William Shatner), who wishes to study their hearty nature, and local medicines.

As Melodye and Dr. Curtis soon learn, the people of the town of Bendo are not and never can “be normal.” They are actually refugees from another, long-destroyed world. They emigrated to Earth, hoping to find safe harbor, but their ship blew up in the atmosphere on approach. Now, their people have settlements all over the world, mostly far from large human populations.

As Melodye soon learns from a student named Francher, these gentle, unassuming aliens possess advanced mental abilities, including ESP, and telekinesis. Melodye -- a bit of an outsider herself -- decides to stay on as the school teacher, and learn about the unusual community.

Executive-produced by Francis Ford Coppola, The People aired on The ABC Movie of the Week, on January 22, 1972. The telefilm is based on the novellas and short stories of much-beloved author Zenna Henderson (1917-1983), who wrote several tales involving “the People,” with titles such as “Ararat” and “Pottage.”  The People is a loose adaptation of the latter tale.

Like many of its 1970’s brethren (Night Slaves, The UFO Incident, or The Stranger Within), The People involves aliens on Earth, but here the story is not -- at least for the most part -- horror-based. 
On the contrary, The People is a straight-forward (and sympathetic) allegory for the immigrant experience in modern America.  Specifically, these aliens of Bento -- because of their cultural differences -- choose not to assimilate or accommodate to the dominant culture of the local population.  Instead, they “separate” (think: the Amish), setting up an isolated community and only tangentially relating to locals, like school teacher Melodye, or the physician, Dr. Curtis.  The aliens separate from the human community not only to maintain their individual culture and beliefs, but to maintain their safety and security. They are afraid of being discovered, and exterminated, when their alien nature is discovered.  But they are a danger to none, not knowing aggression or other violent impulses.

The situation of the aliens in Bendo is, impressively, mirrored by Melodye’s situation.  If the “people” are outsiders to the human race, Melodye is an outsider to Bendo, and the alien ways she soon discovers there. The path she chooses, as an émigré, however, is accommodation.  She doesn’t assimilate to the alien ways, leaving all her learning and rituals behind.  Nor does she put a wall of separation around herself, so as not to be “contaminated” by ways not her own. 

Instead, she attempts to share her beliefs (through teaching lessons at school) with the people, while she opens herself up to learning of their ways, as well.  Dr. Curtis, played by a low-key William Shatner, selects much the same path.  They are only humans in the town of aliens, and yet --for their own reasons -- they choose to make Bendo their home. As Curtis notes, he has “learned to respect the people and their customs.”

The People’s most compelling scene involves Melodye’s school project for the children, called “I Remember the Home.” Here, she asks each young student to draw what they remember of the place they hailed from.  As she learns from the results of the lesson, “The Home” is another world all-together.  But The People proves most artistically-adept as the story of the aliens is visualized through a series of children’s drawings, paintings, and sketches.  The whole journey, from the old world, to the new one, is transmitted via art, and this is a great, symbolic way to fill in back story, or provide exposition.

Some of the levitation effects don’t look great today, and yet the special effects hardly matter.  The unique thing about The People is that it concerns advanced, thoughtful people who have, at least largely, come to shun technology.

The film’s conclusion, with the aliens putting down “fear” to learn about the humans, is a hopeful one, too.

The story of diverse people learning to get along with one another is just as timely today, in 2017, as it was in 1972.  As Melodye points out “different people are what make the world interesting.”  How boring it would be if we were all the same, all living exactly the same way. The film’s conclusion is that the alien people possess a “wisdom and experience beyond anything we can imagine,” and that Earth “can be a place of love, as well as fear.”

But I like that this is not a one way street.  The process of “separation” has not served all the people of Bento well, resulting in the need for contact, with those like Melodye, or Dr. Curtis.  It is the immigrants, too, who learn to put down fear, not just the humans who encounter super-powered aliens.

The People was a back-door pilot for a series that never came, and which would have reunited the stars here, including Darby and Shatner (who first appeared together in the Star Trek episode “Miri,” in 1966).  It’s a great shame that the series never came to be, as this TV movie is charming, sweet, and engaging 

Although the central roles would need to be recast, it is not difficult seeing how this concept could be made to work again, in our modern environment, as an antidote to the rabidly anti-immigrant national dialogue of the past few years.

Not everyone who is different, or who carries different beliefs, is a monster. The People transmits that idea beautifully, although, honestly, I could do without the scene involving the flying kazoos.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Guest Post: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

[Editor's Note: Today, we are fortunate to have a second look at Kong: Skull Island here on the blog, and an alternate viewpoint of the film from experienced movie critic Jonas Schwartz. Enjoy!]

Remaking a Classic: The Good, The Bad and The Beastly, Part I, Kong: Skull Island

By Jonas Schwartz

The latest Kong remake is a wild-ride adventure with exciting visuals and a realistic ginormous monkey. Unfortunately, it feels merely like a placeholder, a prequel to the big game being released soon, Godzilla Vs King Kong Vs Mothra Vs Rodan Vs every other creature over 50 feet tall. Therefore, the passion for this story feels stale, a block piece on the edge of a puzzle, not a full-fleshed film.

During the last days of the Vietnam War, a secret organization funded by the government journeys to a newly discovered island in the South Pacific. Randa (John Goodman) believes there are ancient monsters ruling this island and brings a geologist (Corey Hawkins), a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a war photographer (Brie Larson), and a military battalion led by a blood thirsty Lieutenant Colonel (Samuel L Jackson) just looking for a fight. Lucky for him, there's something very large and very hostile on the island who doesn't appreciate being disturbed.

People pay money to see the beast and in that way, Kong: Skull Island delivers. Unlike Rick Baker in a furry suit in the 1976 film or the heavily CGI enhanced zeros and ones of the 2005 film, Kong here never feels fake. The visual effects artists give the title character the illusion of reality, at least as real as a 104-foot-tall creature can appear. The facial expressions, body hair movement, how he runs and pounds  enemies are all credible.  The other visual effects are subtle with flying embers, twigs and bugs swimming in the foreground of shots.

The tumultuous year of 1973 has been strikingly captured by the art direction, production and costume design. The location supervisors found island spots that look untouched and dangerous. Instead of the boilerplate songs found in most late '60s/early '70s films, the music supervisor found some rarer numbers for the soundtrack from The Hollies, Black Sabbath and The Stooges.

It's not accidental that the long grass and swamp land of Skull Island resembles Vietnam. The correlations between the famous war photos of soldiers sneaking through the rice fields of South Vietnam and the scenes of Samuel L Jackson's men lurking through the fields in the film are far from subtle. The script finds interesting motivations for the characters due to the harsh shame of losing the war. Jackson's character goes full Rambo on Kong because he can't handle losing to another enemy. The script also tries to draw parallels to today's political chaos with protestors shouting in the streets of Washington D.C. and Goodman's character stating "Mark my words, there'll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”

The script by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly has witty dialogue but the story loses an empathetic string by dropping the bizarre but touching love story between the beast and the beauty. Larson's quick touch of Kong's cheek and his scooping her up to safety are sweet but lack the punch that the lump of clay and Fay Wray managed in 1933. Being 140 feet makes for a climb up the Empire State Building less a feat, but that iconic scene in the '33 film is more special than any of the non-stop action scenes created here.

Newcomer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts forms some clever action moments and visuals. One that stands out are the flashbulbs of a camera going off in the dark as a reminder of Kong's latest lunch, but the editing is so rapid-fire that all the victims' deaths become non-descript. One is never sure who died in a past scene until you've taken a headcount in the next sequence.  Because the brigade separates after the first attack, each cavalry seems to follow the same marks in their own locations which becomes repetitive and drags down the pacing. The final action scene between Kong and an ancient beast seems too reminiscent of Jurassic World with beast versus beast while the humans sit around, dazed. 

The acting is never embarrassing but no one seems to notice others are being pulverized next to them. No sadness or terror registers on anyone's face. The script gives stars Hiddleston and Larson little to do, but the always reliable Jackson and Goodman have fun with their over-the-top roles. John C Reilly steals the film as a loopy former pilot who had been stranded on the island since the '40s. Manic (who can blame him when he's had very little companionship for thirty years) and wise (after surviving a prehistoric danger zone), Reilly rises above the material. He manages to be both comic relief and the film's heart.

A diverting two hours, Kong: Skull Island will whet people's appetite for the main course coming in several years, and hinted at during the post-credit teaser, but at almost $20 a pop, films should be more than just hors devours and this film is only a starter.

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.

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Bread and Circuses" (March 15, 1968)

Stardate: 4040.7

After discovering the wreckage of the S.S. Beagle in space, the starship Enterprise tracks survivors to a class-M planet that, for all intents and purposes, is a 20th century Roman Empire.

The planet is ruled as Ancient Rome once was, and even conducts gladiatorial games, but this time for TV consumption! It is a striking example of parallel world development.

When the Enterprise monitors a TV transmission that mentions barbarians dying in the colosseum games, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) realizes that the crew of the Beagle was sent into combat to fight.  Hoping to learn more about this grim fate, the Captain, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) beam down to the world’s surface. The Prime Directive -- the non-interference directive – is in full effect.

There, on the planet, Kirk and his party are befriended by renegade slaves and “Sun [sic] Worshipers.” 

One of the peaceful men, a former gladiator named Flavius (Rhodes Reason), is asked by another, Septimus (Ian Wolfe) to escort the strangers to the city to help them learn about what became of the Beagle crew.  But the landing party and Flavius are promptly captured by the Romans.

In the city, a captive Kirk learns that the captain of the Beagle, Merrick (William Smithers), now serves the cunning Proconsul of the Empire, Claudius Marcus (Logan Ramsey).  Marcus wants Kirk to beam down his crew to fight -- and die -- in the arena.

If Kirk refuses to cooperate, he will have to watch Spock and McCoy fight to the death in the same venue. 

Fortunately, Scotty (James Doohan) arranges a diversion from the bridge of the Enterprise, one that doesn’t violate the Prime Directive.

After the landing party returns to the ship safely, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) reveals some information that she gleaned from the air-waves she monitored.

Flavius and others did not worship the sun in the sky.  Rather, they worship the son of God. What the crew witnessed on the planet was the beginning of Christianity on the Roman world.

“Bread of Circuses” is another second season “parallel world” Star Trek (1966-1969) story, one in which a far distant planet in the galaxy develops in a manner exactly like some historical example on Earth. 

In the other two prominent stories of similar types, “A Piece of the Action” and “Patterns of Force,” the parallel culture develops because of either inadvertent or intentional interference from Federation personnel.  Historian John Gill models Ekosian culture on the Nazi example in “Patterns of Force.” And a book, Chicago Mobs of the 20s, pollutes the minds of the impressionable denizens of Sigma Iota.

The parallel Roman culture that arises here (as in “The Omega Glory”) is a natural development, by contrast. (Either that, or we don’t know the source. It could be the Preservers, I submit).  The Roman culture seems, however, to have arisen naturally, and lived well beyond the time period that the society did in Earth history.

In fact, the Romans are so strong (and so ruthless) that they take down would-be interferers here, casting those they deem “barbarians” (out-worlders) into the arena to be massacred. The whole episode is tense, in part, because the Roman State is so well-organized and so well-run that Kirk isn’t even thinking about interfering or “setting” things right. Basically, he just wants to get out with his skin (and his officers’ skin) intact. He is captured, pressured, seduced, pressured again, and attacked.

The primary strength of “Bread and Circuses,” however, is of an outside thematic nature, not an “in world.” continuity one.  Specifically, this story serves as a commentary on our own culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.  The cut-throat world of gladiator games is explicitly connected to the cut-throat world of television production in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Here, the televised games of painted backdrops, canned applause (and boos too), and ratings are apparently a concern for the Romans  At one point, Kirk makes an observation that TV entertainment on Earth was apparently similar to that featured on this planet, a cutting joke about how dramatic programming lives and dies by the ratings on NBC, CBS, and ABC.  No one, apparently, wants the Empire (or the Network) to do a “special” on them, if they step out of line.

The episode is also notorious for its controversial conclusion, which is very much open to interpretation. 

Some viewers and historians see the episode as a validation of Christianity as a force in Star Trek’s universe. Coupled with Kirk’s comment in “Who Mourns for Adonais” that one God is “quite sufficient,” Christian Trek fans have made a case that the Christian religion survives and prospers to the 23rd century, despite creator Gene Roddenberry’s self-proclaimed (and well-known) atheism. 

Here, for instance, Lt. Uhura notes that cynical Romans could not invalidate the nature of the Son Worshiper’s belief system, and McCoy calls it a philosophy of “total brotherhood” and “total peace.”  Kirk expresses his fascination with the rebirth of Christianity on this world, and marvels that it would be amazing to be a part of it, to see develop all over again. Rome, after all, had Caesar and Christ.

Others have argued that “Bread and Circuses” ends with, simply, the crew’s historical interest over seeing a major touchstone of human development repeat itself. It’s not that the crew is espousing Christianity. Rather, it is marveling at seeing one of the moving forces of humanity happen all over again.

Either way, it’s a fascinating end to the episode.  I like, actually, that the episode’s conclusion is open to multiple interpretations.  I think that makes “Bread and Circuses” much more intriguing than it might have been as merely another “parallel” world story.

For the most part, I also appreciate the banter and humor in the episode. However, one scene goes a little far (for my taste). The scene in which McCoy and Spock bicker in the jail cell gets a little mean, in my opinion.  McCoy just really goes for the jugular, and then, after having attacked ruthlessly, says “I know, I miss Jim too," in substitute for an apology.  Spock could have said “I worry about the Captain as well, but my worry did not require me to attack you.” Seriously, McCoy is way over the line in terms of nastiness in this scene.  That doesn’t mean I believe his observations are wrong. Only that he needn’t be so cruel in his discussion of them.

Next week: the final episode of season two, “Assignment: Earth.”

The Films of 2017: Kong: Skull Island

For an almost-summertime blockbuster, Kong: Skull Island (2017) sure has a lot on its mind, and that’s a good thing in this age of message-free movie entertainment. 

On a very basic, literal level, much of this film concerns cinematic universe-building. The adventures here, on Skull Island, reveal the back-story of Monarch, a monster hunting organization that audiences first encountered in 2014’s Godzilla.  The film’s post-credit sequence sets up Godzilla 2: King of Monsters (2019), and likely, Kong vs. Godzilla (2020), as well.

So there’s plenty of continuity-building for the avid kaiju fan, if that’s what you’re most excited about.

It would be disturbing, however, to report that the entirety of the film is designed exclusively for exposition and fan service, and paving the way for more hype-laden sequels. 

Fortunately, Kong: Skull Island features deeper themes, and subtext too, even as it moves the King Kong myth some distance away from its previous and historical obsessions (namely a beauty-and-the-beast romance, and a statement about mankind “caging” nature, and thus destroying nature). 

In all likelihood, you’ve seen the Apocalypse Now (1979)-styled Kong posters, and this allusion is a key piece of understanding the new film. 

Like Coppola’s film, Kong: Skull Island is set in the Age of Vietnam.

Apocalypse Now is set in 1969; Kong in 1973. In both cases, the war is known (by all but a few) to be a lost cause, Richard Nixon is President, and America is in the midst of some serious soul searching about the purpose of the war, the prosecution of the war, and, finally, the impact of the war on the national psyche.

Apocalypse Now, of course, is a very loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 literary work, Heart of Darkness, whose theme can be summed up, broadly-speaking, by the following phrase: colonialism (or imperialism, if you prefer) causes insanity. 

Specifically, the novel’s madman, Kurtz, separates from his own world (Europe of the 19th century), and in goes off the rails as a kind of (crazy) God figure in Africa, treating the indigenous people like they are mere things to be exterminated. This is also Kurtz’s function, incidentally, in Apocalypse Now, though the story there is relocated from the Congo Free State in the 19th century to Cambodia during the Vietnam Era.

Kong: Skull Island, modifies the theme just a bit.

Although war may be considered a form of imperialism I suppose, I would state the 2017 monster film’s theme in this way: a failed war creates insanity in men, particularly in men like Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and leaders in Washington D.C.

Having lost this particular war -- a war of uncertain purpose and limited support -- such men have lost their moral compass and, indeed, their grip on sanity. This viewpoint is purposefully countered in the film by the presence of a morally-centered veteran from a “just” or “noble” war, World War II.

To ground this discussion in the film’s details a bit more, Kong: Skull Island’s primary antagonist is a Kurtz-like figure (Packard), who decides to make war against a being -- Kong -- that he comes to hate. Packard is not able to look at the larger picture, and understand how Kong protects the status quo on his island home; protecting indigenous peoples from the fierce Skull Crawlers. 

Instead, Packard wishes to interfere on the island and destroy this enemy, simply to prove his own superiority. If the island should fall to other monsters, then Packard will return with the “cavalry” and kill them too. To Packard, might can make right. America didn’t lose in Vietnam, he reports, the powers that be made his soldiers “cut and run.”

With Kong, he doesn’t want to make that mistake again. He is committed until the bloody, self-destructive end, and if he takes his loyal men with him, well, so be it.

Kong: Skull Island features terrific special effects, and at least one great character (Marlow, portrayed by John C. Reilly), but it achieves greatness primarily on the basis of its deeper meaning, so don't believe the superficial reviews that tell you the movie is just dumb fun.

Kong is a monster, and a danger to man under the right circumstances, yes, but he is one who also serves a purpose on Skull Island. Remove him, and a whole island is de-stabilized.  As intimidating and “monstrous” as he is,  Kong remains a bulwark.

Reading a bit further into this analogy, it’s clear that this idea doesn’t belong in the distant past. A decade ago, America chose to take out a “monster” in the Middle East, and the result, once that bulwark was gone, was great chaos and uncertainty; and the creation of new, even more deadly enemies.

That’s exactly what could happen on Skull Island, should Packard succeed in his mission.

Through powerful imagery (of Washington D.C. at the start of the film, and of a President Nixon bobble-head), Kong: Skull Island conveys well its theme, a warning about imperialism and war. One soldier notes -- and I paraphrase -- that if you bring guns to a new land, you’re going to find new enemies to fight, and new battles to wage.

In this -- the second Kong film of the 21st century -- the old script is flipped. The mighty ape is a great hero dedicated to balance and the custodianship of his home. This Kong is thoughtful and intelligent (capable of using tools, we see in the climax), and man is actually the destructive “monster.” 

“Is that a monkey?”

In 1973, a man from a secretive company called Monrach, Bill Randa (John Goodman) wrangles a military escort to explore a newly-discovered land mass he calls Skull Island.

Leading that escort is Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), a solider still upset about the end of the war in Vietnam, and America’s failure to stay and fight what he perceives as a winnable conflict. 

Also along for the ride are Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), an ex-soldier turned mercenary, and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).

The team reaches Skull Island and after navigating a wall of storms, begins a mapping mission that requires the detonation of bombs.  After several explosions on the surface, however, a force of nature -- a giant ape named Kong -- strikes back.  

With his helicopters destroyed and his forces decimated, Packard plans a counter-attack to kill Kong.

Conrad, and Weaver, meanwhile, encounter a World War II pilot, Marlow (John C. Reilly), who explains to them how Kong protects the people of the island from colossal, subterranean lizard creatures he calls Skull Crawlers. Kill Kong, as Packer wishes, and the island’s natives will be endangered and quite likely destroyed.

A desperate mission by river is launched to reach the north side of the island and signal for help, but Packard refuses to leave Skull Island before destroying Kong. 

Meanwhile, Packard’s use of munitions and napalm fighting Kong awaken the largest of the dormant skull crawlers…

“It’s time to show Kong that man is king.”

At its heart, Kong: Skull Island seems to be a tale about what happens to men -- good men -- when they fight a war that they don’t understand, don’t believe in, or feel is somehow unjust.  

Packard loves and honors his men, those he serves with, but he has totally lost his moral barometer, and therefore the ability to understand what is best for them. When many of his soldiers are killed in an attack by Kong -- in an incredibly tense and well-sustained action sequence -- all he can see is the need to kill an enemy. Packard doesn’t see, for example, that what is goon for his team is to get the surviving men out of danger.  That would be, in his eyes, cutting and running, and he is never, ever going to do that again.

Packard’s understanding of Kong, and the situation on Skull Island, is deliberately juxtaposed in the film with the perspective of Marlow (John C. Reilly), a World War II veteran who crashed on the island in 1944, and who has come to not only respect the native people, and Kong, but even his enemy: a downed Japanese pilot. 

Marlow -- named after the protagonist of Heart of Darkness -- perhaps because his war was perceived as just and necessary by his people, and by those who served -- is able to maintain his moral compass in a way that Packard cannot.  He is able to understand Kong’s role on the island, and see the giant ape as something other than a rampaging monster. He respects Kong’s role as guardian of the people, and furthermore can explain Kong’s violent behavior towards Packard’s team. 

Packard’s men came to the island and began dropping bombs, with no warning, no prologue. These bombs not only threaten the wild-life on the surface, as we see in several sequences of deer-like animals running from the explosions, but also threaten to awake Big Daddy Skull Crawler from his subterranean slumber.  This monster killed Kong’s parents, but is now quiescent. Packard’s actions are not only harming innocents, but threatening to awake a sleeping giant. 

Marlow says it well, himself: “Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight.”

Packard has been itching for just such a fight. To prove to himself, and others, that he didn't lose in Vietnam. 

Again, consider these two men in balance. One is able to see the incursion on the island as a provocative move that demands Kong’s response (as king). The other, Packard, believes he is king, and that it is his prerogative to choose the fate of the island.  

And one man comes from a war of honor; the other from a war without any clear overriding moral purpose.  

When there is no clear overriding purpose in war (except to win), any technique, any strategy that keeps one alive, or in control -- napalm, automatic weapons, what-have-you -- becomes justified.

We see Packard’s jaundiced, and unstable view on full display in his arrogant response to photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) when he first meets her. She takes photographs in war, documenting fact. Yet Packard sees her (and the press, by extension) as a threat to him, and to the American people. If only she took photos that supported his viewpoint, maybe the people at home would have supported the Vietnam War better. That’s what he believes. 

Yet it’s not Mason’s job (or the press’s, actually) to be PR agents supporting a war, or supporting a particular political agenda. It’s the press’s job to question power, and show people the truth. Only fools and failures blame the press for their own shortcomings.

America's failure in Vietnam is also played with, intriguingly, in the first approach to Skull Island, by helicopter convoy.  

There is a storm front of catastrophic proportions surrounding the island.  Yet Randa (John Goodman) and Packard make the call to fly through it; to brave the whirlwind without knowing, without understanding, the conditions they’ll face on the other side. Essentially, they are flying blind into a world they don’t understand.  

As the helicopters pierce the veil of gray clouds and lightning, we see a Nixon bobble-head on the dash of a chopper start to spin and shake. Later, when faced with Kong, it spins even more madly, as if experiencing a seizure. It’s as though Nixon, from the vantage point of 2017, is warning the team not to engage, not to go forward into a war that cannot be won.

The film’s social commentary also involves politics, and Washington, D.C. One of the first lines of dialogue in the film is Bill Randa’s assertion that “there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.” 

Historically, we know this is not a statement of fact. Since 1973, we’ve had the debacle of the Iraq War, (remember when we were going to be greeted as liberators?) and even the madness that has seized the city now; with sinister foreign influences entangling many in the new Administration’s cabinet.  In the film, however, we see the error of 1973 decision-making. The mission to Skull Island is green-lit, only because Russia might get to the island first.

The reason to visit the island is not exploration. It is not discovery. It is not entertainment (Kong 1933).  It is not the harnessing of resources (Kong 1976). It is the quest to win, to get ahead in a global cold war. Consequences and preparations be damned. 

Lives be damned too.  It's a race!

Against this injudicious madness, Kong: Skull Island gives us two approaches.  

One man, Marlow, seems crazy on the surface (having been away from “civilization” for 30 years), but he is actually quite sane. 

And then we have Packard, who on the surface seems reasonable, but is the opposite; he is as mad as Kurtz ever was.

The other characters -- and there’s a fellow here named Conrad, after the author of Heart of Darkness -- are little more than ciphers, in comparison. 

I'll go further. Marlow is the real heart of the film. He is never over-the-top, or cartoon-like. Instead, we relate to his wisdom, and his yearning to see home, and his family, again. Kong: Skull Island's final pre-end credit sequence is so emotionally powerful because Marlow is the film’s heart and soul; a soldier who understands his cause, but also understands his place in the world. He has been judicious for years, turning enemies into friends and learning to respect the rules of the island. And now, as he returns home for a long-delayed reunion, his faith is rewarded.

The film’s central theme, that war causes insanity, is a key strength of the film, but there are others worth noting.  

For one thing, Kong: Skull Island features a terrific sound-design and sound-track, recalling for us the age of Vietnam both through popular music, and the whirring hum of the Bell Huey copter.  The film is an incredible auditory experience, and the sound design dovetail perfectly with the chaotic imagery.  Again, Kong’s unexpected, surprise attack on the copter squadron is a dramatic high-point, a show of American force instantly out-matched by an enemy no one saw coming.  

And that idea, of course, is a perfect metaphor for the Vietnam Age.

In terms of the Kong cinematic myth, a number of historical images are here re-purposed.  The Native Wall re-appears here, though is put to new use.  We learn it was not built to keep Kong out (as it was in in all other editions of the myth), but rather to protect the people behind the walls from the monstrous skull crawlers. 

Another standby, a visual composition I call “in the hands of the beast” (in which a character -- most often female -- is carried in Kong’s enormous fist), also appears here, but greatly reduced in important from previous iterations of the myth.  Mason is picked up by Kong, after having nearly drown, and held for only one sequence. Again, Kong doesn’t hold this woman throughout the film.  Instead, the moment is reserved for just one powerful moment.  The beauty-and-the-beast aspect suggested by this shot is negligible in this film.

Kong does climb mountains in Kong: Skull Island, but he doesn’t fight a battle on a man-made summit (Empire State Building, Tokyo Tower, or World Trade Center).  This deletion makes sense for a couple of reasons.  Kong is no-longer an anti-hero or tragic hero, but rather a full-fledged hero. 

Secondly, he doesn’t die in this film, but lives to fight another day. The writers have thus saved themselves the trouble of figuring out some bizarre, byzantine way of resurrecting him for Kong vs. Godzilla.  

Frankly, I’m relieved.

As in all previous Kong films, the giant ape does face a “contender for the throne" here, some monster that challenges his supremacy on the island.  In 1933 and 2005, he went up against a T-Rex (or pack of them, as in the Jackson edition). In 1976, he fought an over-sized snake.  Here, Kong battles a whole family of skull crawlers, but the cause is more personal.  We learn that Kong's entire family was murdered by the Big Daddy Skull Crawler, and that now he is a lone sentinel on the island, protecting the people.

As a life-long Godzilla fan, I also found it intriguing that some aspects of Toho Kong made it into this re-imagination. Kong fights an octopus here (as he does in King Kong vs. Godzilla), and I swear Kumonga makes a guest appearance too.

I have read some reviews that don’t appreciate these modifications, or that suggest the movie gets Kong “wrong.” 

I’ll be honest about this: I did not need a fourth version of the original King Kong story, and I certainly did not need to see the character fall off a tall building and die for a fourth time.  I believe it was the right call to keep many of the ingredients of the myth, but change up the details and practical application of some story elements.  This movie feels fresh in a way that, perhaps, the Jackson film did not.

After 85 years, it’s about time. 

And since Kong: Skull Island intelligently rewrites the Kong myth to include the theme about war, and madness, I would say it does not lack for vital or relevant meaning.  

On the contrary, this king-sized monster movie deals with a re-thought and re-considered Kong, rather than just reviving a monster from a “bygone era” of movies.