Saturday, July 08, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Mind Group" (November 27, 1976)

Captain Jonah (Terry Lester) and the team from the Ark II set out on a vital mission to find three children who have disappeared from their village, and return them home.  

The unusual thing about these kids, however, is that they come from a place where everyone communicates telepathically.  

The telepaths there view normal humans -- “Speakers” -- suspiciously, and shun them.  Jonah, Ruth and Samuel see this rescue mission as a way to change that perception.

The warlord Brack (Malachi Throne) captures the children in his village (the left-over Planet of the Apes set, last seen on Ark II in “The Flies”), leaving Jonah and the others with few means to rescue them.  But the mission is successful, and the children return the favor by rescuing Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), who has become trapped on the Ark II during a fire.

After the children are returned home, Jonah muses about the experience.  The telepaths may be a force for good or evil in the future, but hopefully the children who interacted with Ruth and Jonah will grow up and remember the Speakers’ acts of kindness…

“The Mind Group” is the first Ark II episode I’ve reviewed thus far that finds the series protagonists interacting with characters who are not scavengers or, poor, fearful rural villagers.  

The telepathic children of “the Mind Group” hail from a nearby community of Espers, and perhaps it would have been more interesting, narrative-wise if the Ark II went to that locale to attempt to make contact with the group and open peaceful relations. 

Still, you’ve got to love the easy-going, live-and-live nature of the heroes in this Saturday morning TV series from the 1970s.  Neither the Ark II crew nor the (invisible) hierarchy that supports the vehicle’s continuing mission express fear at the thought of powerful telepaths (and telekinetics) developing into a powerful community nearby.  In real life, the very fact of their existence would be cause for a pre-emptive attack, at least according to some people. 

Instead, the Ark II crew sticks to its sense of morality and decides that when the telepaths choose to emerge from their shroud of xenophobia -- for good or evil -- the Ark II will deal with them then.  This is a nice re-assertion of values, but a recent episode “The Balloon,” just preached against the evils of xenophobia, so it’s contradictory and a little hypocritical that the telepaths here get a pass…without even a lecture about opening up their society.

In terms of Ark II tech, “The Mind Group” unveils a portable force-field generator that Jonah uses in a pinch.  And we also get our first up-close look at Ark II’s futuristic kitchen.  Even though we’ve seen Adam cooking in the kitchen in the past, this episode reveals that the vehicle possesses a quasi-replicator device, one that can turn little white vitamin pills into any food a person desires.  Here, a kid chooses meat and mashed potatoes, and we see the pills transform…

Next week: “The Lottery”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos: "Firefly, Light My Fire" (September 12, 1970)

In Tranquility Forest, the Bugaloos -- Joy (Caroline Ellis), Harmony (Wayne Laryea), John Philpott (Courage) and I.Q. (John McIndoe) -- come to the rescue of a Firefly named Sparky (Billy Barty), who was nearly run-down by a negligent driver.

That driver is Funky Rat (Sharon Baird), chauffeur to failed musician/celebrity Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye). 

After a local DJ, Peter Platter refuses to play Benita's latest album, the villain offers to make the Bugaloos stars. They refuse her offer, and admonish her for nearly killing Sparky.

Benita captures the band, and threatens to kill Joy -- on a giant turn-table, no less -- unless the Bugaloos comply. 

Sparky, who does not know how to fly, gains the confidence to help his newfound friends.

The Bugaloos (1970 - 1972) is the live-action Saturday morning cult-TV series from Sid and Marty Krofft that aired after H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1970) and before Lidsville (1971-1972). Many have compared it to The Monkees, as the series involves the wild adventures of a young band. In this case, however, the Bugaloos are all British.   The Bugaloos are all played by dewy, attractive young people

In broad strokes, all three of these series feature notable similarities. 

Each strongly features a notable villain played by a familiar (established) face, whether Witchie-Poo (Billie Hayes), Benita (Martha Raye), or Hoodoo (Charles Nelson Reilly).  These villains almost always create the tension/action of the week by doing something dastardly.  In all cases, they also risk stealing the show away from the protagonists. 

 Each of these villains is, likewise, associated with a vehicle, or mode of transport: the Vroom Broom, Benita's car, and the hataram.

Finally, each colorful series is set entirely in a fantasy land inhabited by fantasy creatures. Here, the Tranquility Forest is the setting, and is inhabited by Peter Platter, a bunch of talking grapes (!), and a talking flower. 

Also like the other two series, The Bugaloos only ran for one season, and for a little more than a dozen episodes. Despite the short runs, all of three series are remembered by fans, even today.

The Bugaloos, however, is the only one of these three  Sid and Marty Krofft early-seventies series that does not feature a hero attempting to return home from the fantasy land. Instead, the Bugaloos are happy residents of Tranquility Forest.  

Also it's interesting to note that The Bugaloos features a "first" or "initial" story, while H.R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville both depict their first episode in the series' opening montage, via theme song. In "Firefly, Light My Fire," the Bugaloos have their first experience with Benita Bizarre, and also meet Sparky for the first time.

If Lidsville focused on the world of hats, The Bugaloos, uniquely, focuses on a world of music. Benita Bizarre is desperate to be a successful, beloved singer, and is constantly trying to manufacture a hit song.  She lives in a giant juke box in the forest.  

By contrast, the Bugaloos have beautiful singing voices, and absolutely no desire to be famous. They are creatures of nature, and live in the forest, not in an artificial domicile. They just want to be left alone to enjoy their lives.  Because of the focus on music, every episode in the series features at least one song. Many of these are quite memorable, and some even climbed the music charts in the early disco decade. 

In this story, the Bugaloos sing about "The Senses of Our World," and Benita croons a much less appealing tune about "supersonic sneakers."

Next week: "The Great Voice Robbery."

Friday, July 07, 2017

The Films of 2001: Session 9

There's a school of thought regarding movies that goes along these lines: If you don't like a film-- or think you could do it better -- then, go ahead and make one in response.

Or, simply stated, the best answer to criticisms about one movie may be producing another movie.

In intriguing and careful fashion, Brad Anderson's Session 9 (2001) lives up to that notion because it's a very well-played, very atmospheric variation on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), but one that successfully skirts the line that The Shining, finally, tripped over.

I'm as devoted an admirer of The Shining as the next horror enthusiast, for a variety of reasons, and in Horror Films of the 1980s, I rated the film four stars out of four. But at a certain point in the film's narrative, Kubrick sacrifices the ability to play the drama of Jack Torrance and his family on two parallel tracks simultaneously.

The story is either about a haunted place, the Overlook Hotel, or about a man who has lost his marbles entirely under his own auspices, Jack Nicholson's Torrance. 

Ultimately, The Shining makes a choice that it is indeed ghosts who spur Torrance's mental degeneration and that the Overlook is actually "haunted." We know this, in part, because ghosts unlock old Jackie boy from a freezer where his wife, Wendy, has trapped him.

Freezers don't unlock themselves.

Now, I'm not stating categorically that ambiguity is the best way to present a cinematic ghost story. 

Only that with ambiguity comes uncertainty. And feeling "uncertain" during a movie fosters a sense of uneasiness and terror in audiences. Bluntly stated, those are always good vibrations for horror films to tap into.

Session 9 boasts many similarities to The Shining, right down to its formal structure. 

Like The Shining, Session 9 uses title cards on a black background to periodically interrupt the narrative and remind viewers of the passage of time. 

And also like The Shining, Session 9 occurs mostly at one, fearsome setting, in this case the abandoned, blighted Danvers State Mental Hospital.

Session 9's tag-line, "Fear is a Place" could also advertise for The Shining in a pinch.

More importantly, Session 9 and The Shining both concern a man experiencing some trouble with his family, (Gordon [Peter Mullan]) in the former, and Nicholson's struggling writer in the latter. 

And, both films also feature first act "tours" of the landscape, of the imposing structure that quickly proves the fulcrum of the action.

 Furthermore, in both efforts, a tour guide -- Ullman in The Shining and Griggs (Paul Guilfoyle) in Session 9 -- relates the long, tortured history of the place.

And what a place we visit in Session 9. Built in 1871 and closed in 1985, Danvers State Hospital is a self-contained town of sorts, with a church, a movie theater and even a bowling alley. The patients rooms are called "seclusions" and the facility housed 24,000 mentally-deranged people at its height. The hospital is also known, not pleasantly, as the locale where the "pre-frontal lobotomy was perfected."

It is this empty, desolate castle where Gordon -- "The Zen Master of Calm" according to colleagues -- and his three co-workers (Phil [David Caruso], Hank [Josh Lucas] and Jeff [Brendan Sexton]) attempt an impossible job -- asbestos abatement -- in just one week's time. Hank and Phil don't like each other either, which makes the work all the more difficult. And Gordon's wife has just given birth to the couple's first baby, meaning that he isn't getting any sleep. He's on edge, he's exhausted, he's short-tempered...

On Gordon's first sojourn through the vast, abandoned hospital, something disturbing occurs. He hears a disembodied voice welcome him. "Hello, Gordon," it says.

 Later, the same voice seems to convince him, "You can hear me."

And worst of all, the creepy voice seems to match exactly the voice heard on an old patient session tape; the voice of a person with multiple personalities, one who claims to live inside "the weak" and the "wounded."

As the days pass by in the story-line, the tension in the film mounts by degrees. To bring up another classic horror film, Session 9 reminded me a bit of The Amityville Horror (1979).

Stephen King very ably described in his book, Danse Macabre, how that film doesn't really concern ghosts so much as it does a fear of home ownership and financial ruin: the mortgage you can't pay, the heating bill you can't afford, and so on.

ession 9 generates much of its suspense from Gordon's impossible schedule, his desperate need for money, the dangerous nature of removing asbestos (and the necessary precautions to do it safely...) and his apparent estrangement from his wife at home. As Phil and Hank bicker, the clock ticks down, accidents occur, and an impossible job just becomes all the more impossible.

Director Brad Anderson also peppers his film with intimations of something far more sinister than human nature, or pending deadlines, however.

Specifically, he suggests something evil creeping out of the very wood work at Danvers. There is a discussion, early on, of Satanic Ritual Abuse Syndrome, for instance. 

And a poster on a wall inside Danvers reads, "Suddenly, it's going to dawn on you," and sure enough, the audience begins to get the unshakable vibe (from those voices and other dark happenstances) that there is something far more monstrous, and even supernatural at work in this ruined place.

One scene, set in a dark basement at night, and featuring Hank quickly proves incredibly terrifying. Hank is alone, in a long dark, subterranean corridor...when he begins to hear noises somewhere behind him. And then a figure, a shadow appears in the distance, and trust me, your adrenalin will rocket. By this point, the movie has raised so much uncertainty and fear that little things like that carry tremendous impact.

When Gordon's team members begin to show up lobotomized...their eyes bleeding, your mind will really go into over-drive asking questions: which of these men boasts the knowledge to perform the act? Or -- even more alarmingly -- does that knowledge of the procedure come from the spirit of the edifice itself? Is one of the men possessed?

And that pondering inevitably brings me back to The Shining (1980).

Unlike that film, Anderson here draws out the ambiguity to almost unbearable, gut-wrenching lengths, so that, as viewers, we frantically ping-pong between explanations. 

Either the source of the evil is human frailty; or it is the Danvers' living, sentient Id, let loose to play. 

Commendably, Anderson never reveals his hand, and so even when the film ends, the images continue to linger in the imagination. This is one movie which will have you mentally replaying scenes for clues over a span of days.

Session 9 is a resourceful and careful film. It's masterpiece of mood too; a low-budget horror film that succeeds by suggesting, not showing, the forces at work on the characters.

And the setting itself, -- especially the Psych Wing -- is utterly terrifying. Like House of the Devil (2008), this film has mastered the art of the anxiety-provoking build-up, the set-up that just keeps inching and inching along until it grabs you by the throat. 

In this case, Anderson doles out "session" tapes down in the records room a little bit at a time. Every time these recordings answer a question in the larger puzzle, they raise another one.

In this review, I've compared Session 9 to The Shining (1980), The Amityville Horror (1979) and House of the Devil (2008), and frankly, it's a film that deserves to be considered in such rarefied company. The movie's structure is highly reminiscent of The Shining, but I appreciate how Anderson has extended his story's sense of ambiguity to almost torturous lengths as a differentiating quality.

What's actually amazing about Session 9 is that, without Kubrick's budget, studio sets and extensive shooting schedule, Anderson has managed to convey in Session 9 the substantive, inescapable, suffocating feeling of being trapped in a place that is truly evil.

That's no small accomplishment, and Session 9 will really rattle you, whether or not you are the "Zen Master of Calm," like Gordon.

Movie Trailer: Session 9

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "The Tyrant" (November 22, 1974)

In “The Tyrant,” the fugitives -- Galen (Roddy McDowall), Virdon (Ron Harper) and Burke (James Naughton) -- attempt to entrap a ruthless, corrupt gorilla named Aboro (Percy Rodrigues), who has been promoted to prefect of a local village. He has taken over from Galen’s cousin, Augustus.

In an effort to correct matters, Galen pretends to be an underling of Dr. Zaius named Octavio, and offers Aboro a new position: as a replacement for General Urko (Mark Lenard). 

This plan requires, however, Aboro to assassinate Urko, a step he is ultimately willing to take.

For the fugitives, the plan is less simple. They must convince the human-hating Urko to go along too, to prove Aboro’s corruption. But Urko cannot trust humans, or an ape who “chose to live with humans.”

“The Tyrant” may just be my least favorite episode, so far, of the short-lived Planet of the Apes (1974) TV series. 

In short, the episode is another pot-boiler, with no real social commentary or depth. Instead, this episode is plainly “Mission: Impossible on the Planet of the Apes,” as our trio of heroic fugitives successfully bring down a corrupt ape. They resort to subterfuge and trickery to do it, waging a kind of psychological warfare campaign against Aboro.

Galen is the Rollin Hand character of this team, adopting the disguise (accent, and gait) of Octavius, a hench-ape to Doctor Zaius.

I understand the necessity of giving Roddy McDowall, the top-billed actor on the series, something of substance to do each week, but having his ape become a master of disguise is a risible solution. Galen works best, perhaps, as a guide to ape culture, and a curious “outsider” to human culture. But more and more, the series uses him as a wily trickster, fooling other apes into believing his disguise/fake identity of the week.

It is difficult to deny that episodes such as “The Tyrant” abandon all pretense that Planet of the Apes (1974) is a science fiction series, contending with legitimate science fiction issues. There is no real discussion of ape society in this episode, or even of human society, for that matter. Nor is there is “mythology” present to refer back to, regarding the astronauts’ plight. There aren’t even any futuristic futuristic touches, either.  On that last front, there was clearly a model from the feature films to work with: the subterranean human mutants.

Instead, “The Tyrant” is simply an espionage, M:I story with talking apes.

That’s a disappointment, especially since the series’ best episodes -- “The Legacy,” “The Deception,” and “The Trap” -- for instance are strong in terms of commentary and character development, at least.  Here, the character decisions are baffling, in a way. If planned out more cleverly, Galen, Virdon and Burke might have rid themselves of both Aboro and Urko in one stroke, instead of merely removing the former. But since this is a 1970’s series in which the status quo must always be rigorously maintained, that eventuality does not occur.

I suppose what I am complaining about here is that little thought seems to have gone into what kind of series this should, or could be. I suppose one might argue that Aboro is a symbol for the Watergate Scandal in the real world, but even that comparison seems incomplete, or facile.

Indeed, the most intriguing aspects of the episode actually make one sympathize a little with Aboro’s situation. Galen’s cousin, Augustus, is aghast that a gorilla has risen to the position of prefect, since “our kind” (meaning chimpanzees) “always fill administrative positions.” 

In other words, there seems to be a class stratification in ape society. Aboro rises to a role gorillas don’t frequently hold. Sure he’s a despot, but still, he’s taken advantage of his skills and his opportunities.  But then Galen and the others take him down, reinforcing the belief that gorillas can’t be trusted to hold administrative positions. In this case, the series establishes a prejudice in ape culture, and then confirms that prejudice: gorillas can’t be trusted to hold positions of power.

Surely, however, Urko is in an administrative position, right? (And he's definitely a gorilla).

Next week: “The Cure.”

Guest Post: Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming Is the Boy Who Could Fly

By Jonas Schwartz

Tom Holland may not be 15, the age of Peter Parker in the latest reboot, Spider-Man: Homecoming (he was around 19 when filming the role), but his youthful exuberance shines through, bringing the comic book parable of puberty to life. A goofy, inventive, coming-of-age comedy, this version of Spider-Man will delight anyone who remembers the trials and tribulations of surviving adolescence, whether capable of shooting webs or not.

Unlike the first chapters of the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield series, this Spider-Man skips the origin story. When the film begins, Peter (Holland) has already fought on the side of Team Iron Man (during Captain America: Civil War) and received a state-of-the-art suit from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr). Pumped from his first battle with The Avengers, Peter's raring to go. He scopes the city desperate to curb crime, but mostly he finds himself helping little old ladies for the cost of a churro. When he discovers a nefarious crew selling alien/human hybrid weapons, he goes rogue to bring them down. His mentor Tony, and handler Happy (Jon Favreau) are unimpressed with his meddling.

Relative newcomer director Jon Watts has mostly helmed a few independent films and shorts, however as evidenced by the film, his storytelling confidence suggests someone with a vast film career. The action scenes are taut and imaginative with both major set pieces leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat. Watts puts the audience in the red boots of a kid, where even facing death is a rush and everything's an adventure.

Though six writers worked on the film, the movie has a focused progression. Stripping the story of the usual Spider-Man constructs, gone are Uncle Ben and the backstory of Peter's parents, along with Peter's discovery of his talents, to concentrate on Peter's journey as a superhero as a metaphor for teenage wonderment. Incredibly bright, awkward with girls, and anxious to join adulthood, Peter represents all kids who feel lost in their teen years. The first Spider-Man series to include Avengers members, the script draws the parallels of wanting to be a member of the cool crowd and to be taken more seriously by your more experienced elders. Peter Parker is so identifiable. He's no multi-millionaire like Tony Stark, nor God like Thor; he's someone still trying to get his bearings in life, someone who most of his peers dismiss as flaky or a dork. He's a John Hughes superhero who needs to learn life lessons to grow up.

The script isn't afraid to play with the template. Unlike earlier renditions, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is more of a big sister than substitute mother. The central relationship emphasizes Peter and his best friend (Jacob Batalon) more than his crush on the popular girl (Laura Harrier). Even the villains are skewed from the formula. Where Norman Osborne (Green Goblin), Dr. Octavius (Dr Ock), Dr. Curt Connors (The Lizard) and others from the Maguire/Garfield universes were decent men poisoned or infected, turning into monsters, Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton) is in complete control of his faculties. Whether due to greed or fear of not supporting his family, he still chooses to commit evil deeds and is fully responsible for his crimes.

Holland, who began his career in the Elton John musical Billy Elliot in London and with a heartbreaking performance as Naomi Watts' son in the tragic The Impossible, is infectious as Peter. He projects all the fascination a kid feels soaring into new territories. He's unassuming enough that Peter's role as a high school misfit is believable. As his school friends, Batalon, Harrier and Zendaya (who plays the rebellious Michelle) all center their roles in normal youth behaviors. Other than escaping a harrowing deathtrap, the three's performances could be lifted from any teen story that doesn't involve special effects and super villains. Keaton never plays Toomes as a snarling villain. He is your average family man who has built a criminal empire and will commit any crime to protect it.

Laugh-filled, with thrilling climaxes, and an emphasis on character, Spider-Man: Homecoming is the most down-to-earth, relatable layer of the Marvel Comic Universe.

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: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

July 4th Blogging: Star Trek: "The Omega Glory"

Stardate: Unknown

The U.S.S Enterprise discovers the missing starship Exeter in orbit of remote planet Omega IV. A landing party beams over to the vessel and finds that the crew has died as a result of a mysterious illness, ostensibly exposure to contaminants on the planet.

A recorded message from the ship’s chief medical officer reports that anyone boarding the ship will also become infected, and that the only antidote rests on the planet.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his landing party leave the Exeter and beam to the surface, hoping to buy survival time from the infection.  Kirk and the others find that Exeter’s Captain Ron Tracey (Morgan Woodward) is alive, and has, quite possibly, violated the Prime Directive in order to save the planet’s peaceful humanoid villagers, Kohms, from the wild hordes nearby, known as Yangs.

Tracey has taken this action because he believes that the Kohms have discovered the secret of eternal life, or the Fountain of Youth.  As Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) investigates this possibility, Kirk weighs his responsibilities, vis-à-vis Tracey’s violation of General Order One. Meanwhile, Tracey wants the Enterprise to beam down more phasers, and more phaser packs to help him in his quest to defeat the Yangs.

When the Yangs invade the Kohm village, however, retaking lands they held long ago, Kirk realizes that a kind of parallel to Earth’s history is playing out. 

The Kohms were once “communists.”  The Yangs were…Yankees….

“The Omega Glory,” is a strange, strange episode of Star Trek, though a perfect one to revisit on July 4th, or Independence Day.

The narrative begins with a strange disease killing a starship crew, moves into a meditation on the Prime Directive, and ends with Kirk nodding, knowingly and approvingly at a (parallel) version of Old Glory, our American flag.  Our Stars and Stripes will not only live on in the memory of the greatest starship captain of the 23rd century, "The Omega Glory" tells us, but will restore freedom on a parallel planet.

Despite the wide-ranging subjects covered by "The Omega Glory," the episode is never less than “fascinating,” to echo Mr. Spock’s famous exclamation.  In part, this is because the scenarios are memorably realized in visual terms, and buttressed by a soundtrack that underscores the weird, and discomforting nature of the tale.

I have long found “The Omega Glory” to be a pleasure to watch because of the imagery.  The episode begins with pure eeriness, as Kirk’s landing party discovers Exeter’s dead crew.  There are no traditional corpses, however.  Only uniforms and chunks of white chemical compound are left behind.  This is a remarkable and original visualization, and one that is terrifying.  Basically, the crew decomposed to these chunks of chemical residue.  The uniforms -- and the remnants -- are draped over stations, positioned in chairs, suggesting a truly alien condition, and a terrifying danger in the final frontier.

Later, the episode focuses on intense close-ups of Spock’s magnetic, slightly devilish eyes, and cuts to literary images of a Vulcan-like interpretation of the devil making quite explicit the comparison between Spock’s nature and the Devil’s. If Kirk is “The Evil One,” as the Yangs believe, Spock is his dark minion. The views we get of Spock in this episode -- especially as he hypnotizes Sirrah – support this notion visually.

By the time we get to the image of a ratty, torn relic of American flag -- introduced with a dissonant, creepy, alternate version of The Star Spangled Banner -- the episode has demonstrated a visual and aural ingenuity that sets “The Omega Glory” apart.

Another key strength of the episode is Morgan Woodward’s performance as Ron Tracey. Woodward is a charismatic personality, one who projects physical strength and mental toughness.  Indeed, if you look at the original series “captains” -- Kirk, Decker, and Tracey, specifically -- one detects some commonalities.  These are all men of uncommon will and constitution.  Decker is undone by a tragedy not his fault.  Tracey too deals with tragedy (though in a way we may not approve of) but both men represents lessons, in a way, for Kirk to learn from.

Of course, however, “The Omega Glory’s” plot of a parallel Earth is often criticized by fans and scholars. When Spock notes that the parallel of Yangs/Yanks and Kohms/Communists is almost “too close” to be believed, there are many who will agree with his assessment. 

And yet, let us remember that the key analogy between Star Trek and our reality of the late 1960s is undoubtedly the Cold War.  In most cases, Klingons sub for the Soviets, and the UFP stands in for the USA.  Here, Kirk and company stumble across a world that fought a World War over the ideologies of these two forces, and destroyed themselves. 

So, at least in a sense, “The Omega Glory” remains true to the underlying conceits of the Roddenberry series, even if in this case, the comparison may be very “on the nose.”  Also, it’s clear, given Kirk’s reverence for the United States flag and the U.S. Constitution that this episode revels in national patriotism.

Kirk’s argument that the worship words of the Constitution are for all the people, Yangs and Kohms is rousing, indeed, and meaningful, in this context.  The words must apply to all people, he says, or they are rendered meaningless.  The underlying idea here is that words, over time, and through crises, can lose their meaning, if not read closely; if not read carefully; if not remembered.  The Yangs want their country back, but have lost the meaning of the words they supposedly revere. Kirk puts meaning back in those ideals with his dramatic reading of the worship words.

Of course, a key problem here is that it takes two to tango, and though the episode advises mercy for the Kohms (the words of worship are for everyone!), no commentary is given to the fact that if two ideological forces go beyond the brink, to nuclear war, both ideologies and both nations bear the responsibility. The “glory” of “Errand of Mercy,” for instance, was Kirk’s realization, forced by the Organians, that he was part of the problem too; hungering for a conflict with the (admittedly aggressive) Klingons.  There’s no such even-handedness here.

As a Prime Directive episode, “The Omega Glory” is also highly intriguing.  Tracey loses his whole crew, and then sees peaceful people being massacred by wild men, and so intervenes to protect them. It is not at all impossible to see Kirk doing the same thing in the same situation. Would you stand by and let the last apparent refuge of civilization fall on Omega IV?

But Tracey goes further, believing that he can somehow redeem himself and his actions by bringing a (mythical) Fountain of Youth to the Federation. He goes from interfering to save lives, for interfering to acquire something for his own people.  I would argue that this is his great violation of the Prime Directive, his vainglorious desire to be seen, perhaps, as a savior to his own people; an act which would mitigate the loss of his ship and his crew.

Some fans have judged “The Omega Glory” corny, both for the reverence to the American flag in a 23rd century context, and for Shatner’s impassioned reading of the “worship words.”  I understand that, and yet feel the episode remains visually fascinating, and conceptually unusual.  One thing is for certain: the episode is never less than entertaining.

And, on July 4th, it is never a bad thing to remember that the Constitution applies to all the people of America, not just some people.

July 4th Blogging: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

So, it took twenty long years for filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to give audiences…this movie.

I won’t mince words about it: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) is a terrible, awful, no good movie.

I’ll go further. This is quite possibly the worst big budget studio release in a generation, or at least since I’ve been reviewing movies. 

Big, would-be emotional moments in Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence fail utterly, and even the supposedly spectacular action scenes are flat and lifeless. Beloved characters and actors return to the franchise, and have almost no impact whatsoever.

Now, I know there are readers out there who hate Independence Day (1996) with a passion, but I don’t feel that way. 

For all its inherent, generic, goofiness, ID4 remains a nineties pop-culture touchstone. The scene of the alien flying saucer destroying the White House is absolutely iconic. 

And the dramatic material, while schmaltzy, nonetheless carries authentic emotional impact. President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) final, inspirational speech in the film, about the human race joined as one, finally, in opposition to an outside threat, is remarkably delivered.  It also captures an idea often spoken, by the likes of President Reagan and others: that the human race will only truly be united in opposition to an alien attack.  

If the Earth is at stake we will come together as one.

For whatever flaws the 1996 film possesses -- namely and most importantly, the relentless pandering to a wide audience -- ID4 still feels like a huge pop culture event; one with grand, carefully orchestrated special effects, and an ominous sense of build-up and tension as the alien attack on Earth commences.

The new film, Resurgence feels utterly slapdash in comparison. It looks like a cash grab that should have been released in 1998, two years after the original film premiered so as to capitalize on some of the good will generated by the original film.

But this is twenty years later -- not two years -- later, and Independence Day: Resurgence is a disaster of epic proportions. It’s shocking, actually, to watch the whole enterprise go up in smoke before your eyes.

Twenty years after an alien invasion nearly destroyed humanity, the human race is once again thriving. 

Utilizing technology reverse-engineered from captured and shot-down alien ships, the Earth Space Defense, sponsored by the UN, has established based on the Moon, and operates from an HQ at Area 51.

As the twenty year mark nears, however, a mission to the Congo -- consisting of scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Dr. Marceaux (Charlotte Gainesbourg) and the warlord Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) -- discovers that a crashed alien ship has been transmitting a distress signal to deep space.

Similarly, those who were once telepathically-linked to the aliens -- including ex-President Whitmore (Pullman) and Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) -- begin receiving mental impressions again.

Meanwhile, at Earth’s Moonbase, where hot-dog pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is stationed, a small spherical ship approaches. It is shot down immediately, but is not actually part of the invasion. Instead it harbors the secret to defeating the aliens, known as “Harvesters.”

Soon, a 3,000 mile-in-diameter Harvester vessel approaches and destroys Earth’s defenses. It begins to drill into the Earth in an attempt to remove Earth’s core, killing the planet.

Levinson, however, believes, that there is a way to stop the procedure. The aliens possess a hive mind, and killing the Queen will stop the drilling operation.

There is a good (and very Japanese-ish/kaiju or Gerry Anderson-ish) idea embedded in Independence Day: Resurgence, but that’s about it. 

Specifically, the movie features the idea of a unified Earth developing a multi-national defense force against external threats.  It's a pseudo SHADO.  

All the Earth planes and ship designs featured in the film are futuristic in design, powered by the alien’ anti-gravity technology.  There isn’t a lot of dialogue about this upgrade in the film, which actually works in the movie’s favor.  It is a brand new world we encounter here, twenty years after the invasion, and a lot of the technological progress is (rightly) un-commented upon.  Rather, it is merely accepted as being a fact of life.

Beyond that idea, there’s not much here to recommend Resurgence to thoughtful audiences. The movie features three creative specific failures worth describing in detail. One involves the actual invasion, the second involves the new characters, created for the sequel, and last regards the handling of the characters who return from the original.

Let’s take each issue in turn.

In Independence Day, there was a slow-burn build up to the attack, and accordingly, a sense of suspense and mounting anxiety.  The aliens didn’t just arrive and start smashing landmarks. A signal was detected, suggesting a coordinated attack around the globe, and then a mysterious countdown.  That countdown was detected too late, and an evacuation of government sites began, only half-successfully.

I understand that the mystery is gone now about the alien intent. We know they are hostile. So the same card can't be played a second time.  

However, the whole premise of this movie seems to be, simply, that bigger is better. That’s it: shock and awe, CG style.  

Accordingly, we get a huge spaceship arrive, latch on to the planet, and pretty much wipe through Europe in one over-the-top scene. The ship is huge, the destruction is huge too, but it is over in a few short moments. There’s no sense of a pitched battle, no sense of the people who live in the affected city (London).  It’s a digital cartoon, without human scale, and therefore, without human impact.

The second such scene, with Julius Levinson’s boat escaping the giant space ship, is played more for laughs than horror, and it feels impossible. We know he is going to survive, even as every other ship in the sea is pulped. Why, because he's the movie's indestructible comic relief.

The special effects are lacking in human impact, perhaps, because the new human characters are conceived and performed in the most generic way imaginable. 

Liam Hemsworth, Jessie Usher, and Maika Monroe are utterly forgettable as this “next generation” of characters, and the audience doesn’t ever come to truly care about them. They never leave a footprint on your mind, let alone on your heart.  Jake (Hemsworth) and Hiller (Usher) are given some back-story conflict that goes nowhere and means nothing. It's just a way to waste time, and make you feel that there is a "history" to these cardboard creation.

But you know the movie is failing on a catastrophic level when it looks, for a minute, that the young heroes have died in an escape from an alien saucer, and you find you just don’t care.  The movie’s soundtrack rises to a crescendo, and you realize that you are supposed to be concerned, engaged.  You are supposed to care.

You don’t. 

I can’t remember, offhand, another blockbuster movie where the crowd-pleasing moments, the big victories, the prospective failures, fall so utterly, horribly flat.  The young, underwear-model cast is never able to generate any real or genuine interest on the part of the audience.

The returning characters don’t fare all that much better.  Bill Pullman registers strongly as President Whitmore at first, but then the character is sacrificed for what is, finally, a meaningless death. He gives another speech that is supposed to register as inspiring and stirring, but plays as a pale shadow of the original ID4 oratory.  His death, again, doesn't reach the emotional heights the movie aims for.

Judd Hirsch continues to be over-the-top as the senior Levinson, while Jeff Goldblum feels oddly disconnected from the material, simply walking through the part. By contrast, Vivica A. Fox gets what should be a powerful death scene, but again…the moment carries almost no emotional weight. She's been given so little screen time here, that there is no chance to reconnect with her.

Of all the original characters, Dr. Okun is the only one who comes off well. Brent Spiner steals practically every scene he is in, but even he can only do so much heavy lifting.  He gets the last lines of the film, which should be a rallying cry for the sequel, but feels more like a slapdash joke.

At his best, director Roland Emmerich can rouse audiences with efforts such as Stargate (1994) or Independence Day (1996), and at his worst, he provides audiences empty thrills and brain-dead narratives like 10,000 BC (2008) and 2012 (2009). His Godzilla (1998), widely-derided, falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Independence Day: Resurgence is a new career low, as it leaves out even the emptiest of thrills. The whole movie flies on automatic pilot, with no apparent creative investment. It's all just a formula, without heart, without emotional connection or creative distinction. We have no idea, from this film, why we should love these characters, or invest in their world.

The title of this sequel was once proposed as Independence Day: Forever.

How about Independence Day: Forget It.

July 4th Blogging: Independence Day (1996)

"In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. "Mankind." That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night!" We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day! "

- President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) delivers an historic address in Independence Day (1996).

Independence Day (1996) remains one of the big “event” movies of the 1990s, a sci-fi blockbuster of monumental, almost unimaginable proportions.  The crowd-pleasing film successfully tapped into the decade’s unending fascination with aliens and UFOs (The X-Files, for example) and significantly augmented that interest too, resulting in a slew of further alien films and TV programs from Dark Skies (1996) to Men in Black (1997).

As an inside-the-industry cautionary tale, Independence Day also represented the (unfortunate) cementing of the Emmerich/Devlin blockbuster “formula” -- a revival of 1970s disaster film tropes.  This format would meet its Waterloo in 1998’s Godzilla, but nonetheless continues right into this decade with films such as the dreadful 2012 (2010).

Of all the Emmerich genre fare, I’m most fond of 1994’s Stargate, as it seems to strike the right balance between spectacle and intelligence.  After that film’s release, the scales in further efforts kept tipping towards spectacle and away from brains, and so the ensuing films suffer mightily for the imbalance. 

That established, I was certainly part of the enthusiastic audience for Independence Day upon its summer release, and I still remember how great the film looked on the big screen.  A recent re-watch confirms how terrific the miniature effects remain.  The scenes of awesome alien saucers lumbering to position over major world cities -- though obviously reminiscent of Kenneth Johnson’s V (1984) -- remain downright staggering.

What ages Independence Day most significantly, instead, is the pervasive shtick and the schmaltzy, sentimentality-drenched characters. At every step of the way during its narrative, Independence Day punctures its end-of-the-world majesty and gravitas with low humor and over-the-top sentimentality, qualities which today render the whole affair close to camp. 

Science fiction fans, of course, experienced conniption fits over Independence Day’s unlikely finale: a third act which sees an Earth-produced computer virus successfully uploaded to an alien computer aboard a mother-ship, thus giving humans the opportunity to strike back…on July 4th, no less. 

The movie doesn’t pay even lip service to the idea that aliens from another solar system might have developed anti-virus software (!), let alone computer systems totally incompatible with our 20th century Earth technology. 

Given how badly things go for Earth in the first hour of Independence Day, it’s difficult to countenance the film’s final veer into outright fantasy as every heroic campaign – with split-second timing – comes together perfectly.

Despite my misgivings about the film’s humor, sentimentality, and narrative resolution, however, I still find the grave, apocalyptic, anxiety-provoking tone of Independence Day’s first hour worthwhile, especially the President’s grim choice to deploy nuclear weapons in an American city to drive off the aliens.   

It would be absolutely foolish to deny, too, that some of Independence Day’s imagery has become iconic in the annals of cinema history.  We all remember that portentous shot of hovering saucer pulping the White House for instance.  Thus -- even while criticizing this over-sized beast -- I've got to give the Devil his due for getting matters right on a visual terms

In terms of theme, Independence Day works overtime to remind all of us that although we are separated by oceans and other Earthly partitions, we are all nonetheless citizens of the same planet. It’s a laudable message in an age of hyper-partisanship to be certain, even if delivered with little nuance or subtlety.  This through-line in the film is consistently and well-conveyed, both in terms of incident and in the make-up of the diverse dramatis personae.  Who would have imagined our precious Earth could be saved by a war veteran, a drunk crop-duster, a Jewish cable repairman and an African-American fighter pilot?

Movie critics were understandably divided on Independence Day.  At The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: “Guess what: "Independence Day" lives up to expectations in a rush of gleeful, audience-friendly exhilaration, with inspiring notions of bravery that depart nicely from the macho cynicism of this movie season. Its innocence and enthusiasm are so welcome that this new spin on "Star Wars" is likely to wreak worldwide box-office havoc, the kind that will make the space aliens' onscreen antics look like small change.

Writing for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley opined: "Independence Day" is primarily a $70 million kid's toy, a star-spangled excess of Roman candles and commando games designed to draw repeat business from 9- to 12-year-old boys. Little girls won't find any role models among the barnstormers, though a plucky exotic dancer is featured among the heroines. Even with the end of the world in sight, she shakes her booty. It's for her kid. No, really.  Maybe the moviemakers' mission was to boldly go where everyone in Hollywood has gone before: the bank.

Honestly, I can see both sides of the critical equation in this case. Independence Day is such dumb fun, and yet fun nonetheless.

“A the end of the world.”

The people of planet Earth watch with anxiety and wonder as three-dozen alien saucers descend from orbital space to take up positions over cities around the globe.  President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former jet pilot in Desert Storm, advises calm, but new information from genius cable repair man David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) suggests the alien ships have initiated a countdown and are preparing a coordinated attack.

As the countdown ends, Levinson’s suspicions are confirmed, and the alien ships destroy Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York and other population hubs. President Whitmore survives the attack on the Oval Office and escapes by Air Force One.  He promptly orders a retaliatory strike.  Pilot, top-gun, and would-be astronaut Steven Hiller (Will Smith) downs an alien ship during battle, and captures one of the fearsome aliens for study.  The rest of the fight, however, is a rout, and the U.S. jets are unable to penetrate alien shields.  Humanity stands upon the edge of extinction.

The President visits the secret military base at Area 51, and learns there that scientists there have been experimenting with an alien ship for close to fifty years.  When Hiller arrives, the President attempts to communicate with Hiller's captured alien, but finds the being implacably hostile.  The aliens, he soon learns, are like locusts.  They travel from solar system to solar system using up planetary systems and then moving on…leaving only carnage and waste in their wake.

After nuclear weapons prove ineffective against the aliens, President Whitmore is at a loss how to save the planet, or the human race.  But David comes through again.  He believes he can take the captured alien ship at Area 51 to the mother-ship and upload a computer virus there, thus bringing down alien shields…at least for a few minutes.  When Steven volunteers to fly that risky mission, it’s up to the President himself to coordinate and lead a huge aerial attack against the alien saucers, both in America, and world-wide…

It's a fine line between standing behind a principle and hiding behind one. You can tolerate a little compromise, if you're actually managing to get something accomplished.

For a film about such a terrifying topic – an alien invasion – Independence Day frequently plays thing...light.  At least a half-dozen major supporting characters in the film are defined by their shtick. Judd Hirsch plays a nagging Jewish Dad, Julius Levinson, and his lines and delivery are pure Borscht Belt ham-bone.   Harvey Fierstein plays another kitschy character, Marty, who hams it up and makes jokes about his therapist and his (presumably overbearing...) mother.  Harry Connick Jr. portrays a cocksure pilot who provides the film at least one dopey gay joke.

But the worst character is likely Randy Quaid’s Russell Casse, a drunken crop-duster (and alien abductee) who joins the air battle against the aliens during the film's denouement.  Quaid’s dialogue is so incredibly dreadful that it has become the stuff of legend and MST3K fodder.  “I picked the wrong day to stop drinking,” springs immediately to mind. 

Among all these actors hamming it up and stealing time, Brent Spiner likely fares the best as aging ex-hippie and scientist Dr. Okun. Spiner comes off as weird and eccentric, but not so dreadfully hammy that you want to turn away from the screen in shame for watching.  His last scene -- played with alien tentacles pressing against his larynx -- is also genuinely unsettling.

Why do I have a problem with the film's pervasive moments of low humor?  Well, Independence Day already boasts Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith continually cracking wise in leading roles.  Their dialogue is dreadful too, from "Welcome to Earth" to "Now that's what I call a close encounter!"  Given all this material from our leads, do we really need Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein, Harry Connick Jr., Randy Quaid and even Brent Spiner dishing out lame one liners too?  The ubiquitous nature of these characters makes Independence Day, at times, resemble an overblown sitcom.  Maybe if the material were stronger, these characters would not seem so objectionable. I guess what I'm saying, is that these moments are rarely actually funny.

Another weak character is Secretary of Defense Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), a man who in one scene advises the full scale nuking of many American cities, but in a later scene argues against a “risky” maneuver to attack the alien mother-ship and upload the virus.  His objections to the (ultimately) successful plan make no sense, and aren’t consistent with the “war hawk” image he projects in the film all along; a guy who advises going to Def-Con 2 before the President has made his final decision.  Instead, Nimzicki is contradictory simply so the audience can boo at him, and the President can dress him down…thus appearing tough and resolute. 

While I have real disdain for much of the writing and characterization in Independence Day, I do feel that the film's visuals often still shock, and often still carry real emotional resonance.  One shot, set on July 3rd, reveals the Statue of Liberty toppled, face down in the harbor...a massive saucer hovering low in the sky.  Colored in autumnal browns,  this is a terrifying composition of American culture annihilated.  

It’s tough indeed to compete with the amazing Statue of Liberty imagery of Planet of the Apes, yet this moment in Independence Day remains quite upsetting.    The film is also anxiety-provoking in the way it reveals American military might crushed before a more technologically-advanced enemy.  The battle sequences, the nuclear option, and other heavy moments are all deeply scary because one realizes that if America can’t save the world…the world ain’t getting saved.  Indeed, Independence Day plays up the alien threat so successfully in terms of spectacular visuals and special effects that there’s almost no way the scripted, climactic victory can ring true.  It’s like we’ve slipped into an alternate movie or something.

The first half of Independence Day is undeniably the strongest, as alien saucers push through storm and cloud fronts, and emerge over our cities, casting dark shadows upon bewildered and amazed populations.  These moments continue to impress, and pack an almost visceral gut punch.  We’ve all wondered if, one day, we’ll wake up to something like this imagery…a new dawn in which we learn definitively we are no longer alone.   As much as I deride Independence Day’s silly humor and bad dialogue, I have no quibbles whatsoever with the way that these scenes of “arrival” are vetted.  As I said in my introduction, many of these scenes still carry a staggering punch.

From its first shots to its final ones, Independence Day also makes an interesting point about mankind being unified by a threat from the outside.  The film opens with imagery of a plaque on the moon which reads “We came in peace for all mankind.”  That’s a wonderful thought, the movie seems to suggest, but then the filmmakers set up a paradigm by which that hopeful expression of common cause is tested.  Suddenly, all mankind must work together to defeat the alien threat, putting competition and petty differences aside.  This idea is expressed through scenes set in Iraq, the location of America’s most recent war (Gulf War I).  There, in the desert, British and Iraqi soldiers join the battle against the mother ships.  The implication of such scenes is that mankind is indeed capable of working together.

The same idea is presented in the film in the (positive) character of President Whitmore.  Before the alien crisis, he is viewed not as a warrior, but as a “wimp.”  He can’t even get his Crime Bill passed by a hostile Congress.  Whitmore laments that “it’s just not simple, anymore” and that people don’t seem to understand that compromise is the only path towards moving everyone ahead, together.  He then works with the nations of the world to defeat the aliens, and in the process transforms an American holiday into an Earth holiday.   Again, the message implicit in Independence Day is that we can apply ourselves to solve big problems, not just alien invasions.  Why can’t we all band together to keep our neighbors and our neighbors' children from starving?  Or to eliminate poverty?  Once we acknowledge our common humanity, petty partisan differences shouldn’t really matter, should they?

In this sense, Independence Day -- set in part on July 4th -- acknowledges a new, evolved brand of patriotism.  It is a patriotism not merely to party or to one nation, but to all of humanity.  As a fan of Star Trek and a person who believes we can achieve great things if we sometimes accept compromise, I appreciate the film’s ultimate message of hope about human nature.  This consistently-applied theme almost mollifies my concerns about the film’s ridiculous and ill-conceived conclusion, and the surfeit of characters who spew cliché after cliché, bad joke after bad joke.  Almost, but not quite.    Still, I know I'm spitting in the wind against an 800 million dollar blockbuster, a veritable entertainment machine.

So am I a hopeless sentimental for recognizing Independence Day’s entertainment and social value, even amidst so many stupid groaners and moments of cynical, calculated humor?  

Or, like Randy Quaid's character...did I just pick the wrong day to stop drinking?