Saturday, December 31, 2005

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (Almost)...

From my crazy cannibal clan to yours, may your 2006 be wonderful, happy and safe.

-John K. Muir

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "My Favorite Marcia"

This week's episode of the 1977-1978 Filmation, live-action Space Academy series is called (get ready to groan...) "My Favorite Marcia," and it guest-stars Dena Deitrich as Marcia Giddings, that favorite cliche of sci-fi TV. She's a "rogue" space trader, bound to make troubles for our regular characters.

Y'all recognize that profile, don't you? The troublesome space trader was called Harry Mudd on the original Star Trek. On Space:1999 she was known as "the Taybor." In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the rogue space trader made trouble for Captain Picard in the dreadful second-season episode called "The Outrageous Okana."

Given the overall quality of these various episodes, you might hope (as I do...) that this character-type gets retired soon. And frankly, maybe that HAS happened. After all, there's not a rogue space trader on the new Battlestar Galactica, is there? When was the last time you spied one on TV?

Anyway, "My Favorite Marcia" finds stalwart Commander Gampu leading a team to study a star going supernova, when he determines that a "galactic distress beacon" has been activated on the fourth planet in a nearby star system. He investigates and finds that his old "friend," space trader Marcia Giddings -- a woman "with the happy faculty of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time" -- is hunting diamonds on the planet surface, but that her spaceship has been neutralized by an evil robot.

And that evil robot is -- wait for it -- a re-dressed Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956)! Yes, Robby has been given a new brain pan, a "dome" and glowing blue eyeball for Space Academy, and he's playing a "war machine" gone mad who Peepo says "wants to harm everybody." To prove his evil intentions, he traps Laura, Gampu, and Tee Gar in a yellow "force shield" (which is accompanied by the bionic sound effects from The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman).

Needless to say, there's a happy ending, as Peepo manages to short-circuit Robby. Oddly, the evil robot just vanishes into thin air without explanation. Don't quite understand how the little guy managed that. Anyway, I was disappointed that Gampu spends most of the episode sparring with Marcia rather than the evil robot. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to have star Jonathan Harris say something from his Lost in Space days like "You Bubble Brained Booby!" or the like.

Instead, we do find out here that Gampu's first name is Isaac. But we never find out what the robot was doing on that planet, or why he was attacking people...

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Stupidest Movie Tag-Lines...

When I sat down to eat my lunch today, I saw that HBO was playing AVP (that's Alien vs. Predator...) on one of its multitudinous channels. Watching a bit of this underwhelming, PG-13 movie again, I was reminded of the really, really terrible ad line from the film.

Whoever wins...We lose.

That was probably unintentional truth in advertising (and it would have been a great ad-line for the 2004 Presidential Election...). In terms of AVP, the audience was certainly "the loser," wasn't it?

But anyway, I got to thinking about how our pop culture is really one dominated by "sound bytes," and how - in this age of mega-information - the simple messages tend to be the ones that get through the "noise" best.

When I think about great ad-lines or tag-lines from the past, I think of "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly," from Superman: The Movie (1978), which perfectly expressed the film's sense of wonder, the feeling of "heart." I also think about "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid," from The Fly (1986) which still gets quoted today quite a bit.

But talking about bad tag-lines now, I keep coming back to the AVP choice, which is unintentionally funny, if you ask me. Another one I remember as being really hysterical comes from a 1989 Patrick Swayze bomb called Next of Kin. I remember the trailer ended with the tag-line: "You haven't seen bad yet, but it's coming..."

Wow! I mean, does that make you want to see the movie or what? I just remember laughing out loud at that unintentional word of warning from the Hollywood marketers.

So clock in on the comments below and tell me, what's the stupidest movie tag-line out there, and why? And if you can't think of a bad one, what's your favorite tag-line?

RETRO TOY UPDATE: Star Trek Ornaments: 2005

Two weeks ago, I blogged about my collection of sci-fi Hallmark Christmas ornaments (Star Trek and Star Wars), and this Christmas, my mother-in-law up in Richmond came through yet again.

I discovered in my stocking Christmas morn' two more Hallmark Ornaments from Star Trek, both dated this year, 2005. The first one is now my most beloved ornament(!), because it's my favorite version of the Enterprise. It's NCC-1701-A, the "motion picture" style starship seen at the end of The Voyage Home, in The Final Frontier and The Undiscovered Country.

The other ornament is another interesting character piece, featuring Jean-Luc Picard as Locutus of Borg, standing in a Borg cubicle next to the Borg Queen. Very, very cool (And it talks!)

So these are my Christmas acquisitions. And I'm very happy about 'em.


In addition to all my other collecting quirks, I happen to collect issues of TV Guide featuring science fiction and horror TV shows.

Don't ask me why, I just do.

I have a drawer full of these things in my office, so I figured it might be fun this week to focus on my "collectible" genre covers, especially since the magazine recently altered its format to become more glitzy. I suppose that makes my collection even more...collectible?

When I was a teenager, I was always thrilled to come home from school every Thursday afternoon to get the TV Guide for the following week.

My favorite among all issues was the annual "FALL PREVIEW" edition, revealing which shows were returning, and which ones...weren't. It was here, in this FALL PREVIEW edition, for instance, that I first learned that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century would return for a second season...though drastically altered, and featuring a guy named "Hawk."

I also remember seeing a full-page spread in TV Guide about the return of Battlestar Galactica, only called Galactica:1980. I was thrilled, until I realized that I didn't see either Richard Hatch or Dirk Benedict in the promotional art. Hmmm...

And I'll never forget the day in 1985 when I cracked open my TV Guide to see if NBC would air a new episode of V: The Series on Friday night, and I read the foreboding words "last episode of series." Not "last episode of season." Nope, "last episode of series" simply meant that the show was axed.

And terribly, this happened that same week that the last episode of Otherworld aired. Don't remember Otherworld? Okay, well I think it only ran for six weeks, but it was a sci-fi series about a "normal" suburban family thrown into an alternate dimension after a visit to a pyramid in Egypt. I remember, Mark Lenard guest-starred in an episode as some kind of military scholar.

But I digress. TV Guides, over the years, have featured wonderful sci-fi TV oriented stories, often about Star Trek in particular. I remember one classic piece in the mag involving the perceived "duel" between Captain Kirk and Picard. Personally, I'm a Captain Kirk man. Anyway, the magazine also introduced me to DS9, Voyager and follow-up series (and I'll never forget one cover I absolutely loved...featuring Seven of Nine. YOW-ZA!)

Pretty soon though, the magazine got wise to the fact that fans were enjoying it and began issuing "collectible" alternate covers in the 1990s. Clever publishers. Very clever. Now I had to buy four versions of the same issue.

So now, like I said, I have a drawer full of TV Guides with science fiction and horror imagery emblazoned on their covers. My collection basically spans the 1990s to present, from the heyday of Star Trek: The Next Generation and SeaQuest DSV to Buffy/Angel.

Unlike Playboy, however, I really do read TV Guide for the articles...

In closing, I remember a line from the grandpa (played by Barnard Hughes - Mr. Merlin himself) in The Lost Boys (1987). His grandson, Corey Haim, looks through a TV Guide excitedly, but then realizes his Grandpa doesn't actually own a TV. "If you get TV Guide," the old curmudgeon states wisely, "you don't need a TV..."

He was probably right...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Actress Interview: Gloria Gifford

Gloria Gifford is a highly experienced and skilled actress (and acting teacher, writer/director...) who appeared in some of the most popular cult (and blockbuster...) movies of the 1980s, one of my favorite decades in American cinema.

You may recognize Ms. Gifford as stony Mrs. Alves, the no-nonsense head nurse at Haddonfield Hospital in Halloween II (1981). Or, you may recall Gifford's classic appearance as an airport security officer confronted with a - ahem - surprise in rocker Derek Smalls' (Harry Shearer's) pants(!!!) in the seminal rockumentary, This is Spinal Tap (1984). But these brief descriptions just scratch the surface of Gloria Gifford's successful career in Hollywood. She's co-starred in films with Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Mr. T., and Eddie Murphy, as well as horror icon Michael Myers.

Recently, as part of several simultaneous book assignments I'm working on, I had the opportunity to catch up with Ms. Gifford and ask her some questions about her career, and in particular, her 1980s efforts.

MUIR: Let's start at the beginning. How did you become an actress?

GIFFORD: I'm from New York, and after I was out of college and after I had been a case worker, and after I had been a buyer for Bloomingdales, I decided to do what I'd always wanted to do, and I took an acting class at HB Studio. That's what made me realize that I had been avoiding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life....

MUIR: And then?

GIFFORD: After about four years of working really hard at taking [acting] classes, I managed to get a Broadway play starring Zero Mostel. The first day of rehearsal, it was televised, because Zero Mostel is a huge star on the East Coast. He starred in Fiddler on the Roof and the movie The Producers, and everything. So they televised it, and Bill Cosby was watching television in his home in Connecticut or Massachusetts.

He decided to send an offer [for me] to do a pilot with him, but I didn't want to leave the Broadway show, because it was a play based on Merchant of Venice. It was classical and I had a really good part in it. It was my Broadway debut, and I didn't want to leave that, so I kept turning Bill Cosby down.

MUIR: Wow...

GIFFORD: I met with his executive producer, Sheldon Leonard, who produced I Spy and a lot of shows, and said 'No.'

Finally, the play closed and my agent said,'Whatever happened to Bill Cosby?' Because he had sent me other scripts and I kept saying 'No, no, I'm still doing this play.'

So I finally called him, and he said, 'Well I'm doing this other movie, but I can only introduce you to the director,' and that was for Neil Simon's California Suite.

So I met the director, Herbert Ross, who had directed A Turning Point and had got an Oscar for Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl. Then the director flew me out, and I met Neil Simon, and I read for it, and I ended up being in the movie.

So my equity card I got by being in the play, The Merchant, and the SAG card I got for being in the movie California Suite. I played not Bill Cosby's wife, because I was too young, but Richard Pryor's wife. That's how I got started.

MUIR: How was it working with (the late) Richard Pryor?

GIFFORD: Well, Richard was a really terrific guy. He had some problems at the time with drugs, or whatever he was doing. That's not something I was ever involved with, but he was generous as a human being and easy for me to work with. I enjoyed him. It was - to me - a great experience, because he's a legend. As is Bill Cosby. As is Neil Simon...

MUIR: As a horror movie fanatic and author, I have to ask you about working on Halloween II as Mrs. Alves...

GIFFORD: That was an unusual thing. What happened was, we were all in an acting class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, and the director [Rick Rosenthal] had just taken his degree at AFI. It was going to be his first movie [Halloween II], and he decided to use actors from the class. So he recommended me. The role was written in the script for a fifty-five year old caucasian woman. I was clearly not fifty-five, nor caucasion. So he suggested to Debra Hill that she read me, and they did and said 'Okay, you look so young, I don't know if you can play the head of these people, but you have the authority.' I've always been the authority figure...

When I went into make-up for the first time, they said, 'Well, what role are you playing?' And I said, 'Mrs. Alves.' And they said, 'No, no, it's a fifty-five year old white woman.' And I said, 'Not anymore, it's me.' That was a shock to them, but it never seemed to hurt the movie.

MUIR: How was it working with director Rosenthal, after being in a class as his student?

GIFFORD: It was a very lucky [thing], because we all worked fast, and he didn't feel, as a first-time director, that he was getting stopped by actors questioning him. Because we didn't question him. We were grateful.

MUIR: Any thoughts on working with Jamie Lee Curtis, the Scream Queen of that age?

GIFFORD: She was sensational. She was absolutely fabulous to work with. She was so professional, present, [and] strong. She's focused and funny and easy-going and regular. She made it just a dream, and there was no difficulty.

MUIR: Any memories from the set of Halloween II?

GIFFORD: It was a very low-budget production. It was very different from what I'd done in California Suite, which was very high budget. They spent a lot of money on California Suite. I had a driver, and life was completely different. And then I moved to California and suddenly I was doing this low-budget movie and there was nothing! Instead of a huge [meal] table, there were ice cream bars...

MUIR: Was there research involved in playing Mrs. Alves?

GIFFORD: Rick made us go to the hospitals and learn how to do medical procedures as nurses and doctors, and there was a real doctor on the set, and they had to use him when they came in for real-close-ups...

MUIR: Did you shoot in a real facility?

GIFFORD: We worked in a hospital that was closed down, somewhere in L.A. and it was kind of spooky to work there, because it was empty.

MUIR: Your (very memorable) death scene in the film doesn't make a whole lot of sense. That Michael Myers, the Shape would stop to hold your character down, attach tubes to her veins, and drain her of blood...

GIFFORD: Yeah, that's true in a way. I don't know how they came up with that. That was in John Carpenter's script...

MUIR: What are your memories of shooting that death sequence?

GIFFORD: They put all this white make-up on me, like the blood was drained out of me, and they put me on a table and filled the room with the blood, so the Lance Guest character could come in and slip and fall. And then they were like, 'Okay, Gloria,' and then they went to lunch.

And I said, 'Well, what are you doing?' and they said, 'You can't move, because you can't disturb anything.' And I said, 'Excuse me?' And they left me there, you know, because they didn't want to disturb the blood on the ground that they had put there perfectly. So I just laid there...

And then of course, we had Lance coming in and slipping, and then changing his clothes and slipping, and changing his clothes again and slipping again, while I pretended to be dead. Which is a memory for me, playing that scene. I always remember that...

MUIR: Any thoughts on your co-star, Pamela Susan Shoop?

GIFFORD: She is very nice. I saw her last year. For some bizarre reason, I finally got invited to a Halloween convention. It was the first time I ever went, and I saw Pamela there, and we had not seen each other since we made the movie. She still looked beautiful, and she does a lot of Christian things now, and she's not active in acting, I think, but she was still active in these conventions.

MUIR: Did you enjoy the con?

GIFFORD: Well, I loved being there, but I was uncomfortable with people paying me for photographs. People kept coming up and asking me how much I would charge to get a picture taken, and I couldn't conceive of it...

But I thought it was fascinating. People came from all over the country. I was shocked. And everybody remembers everything I said and did in the film...

MUIR: Tell me about 48 Hours.

GIFFORD: That was Eddie Murphy's first film. [And] that was the first time I ever played hooker. I came in to read for Joel Silver, for the part of the girlfriend at the end. I was outside with Eddie for about forty-five minutes, and one of his favorite movies was California Suite, and he knew every single line from the Richard Pryor sequences. We were out there together for so long, and he remembered my dialogue and asked me so many questions that by the time we walked inside to read together, we were like brother and sister. We didn't have that sexual chemistry. Joel said, 'I think I left you guys alone too long.'

MUIR: So you did a different part, right?

GIFFORD: They called me and asked me if I wanted to do this day of work [on the film], and I said 'No, I don't do a day in a movie'. And they said 'No, no, no, Eddie really wants you and they've written this great scene.' A producer friend talked me into it, and I did it.

MUIR: What was it like working with Murphy?

GIFFORD: When I got there, the dialogue was all written and we did the scene, and Eddie was funny, and we had a great time. In fact, I teased him, because I could tell he had a big ego. I told him, 'Hey you know, I'm going to be on the cover of TV Guide next week, and he said 'No!' and I said, 'No, I'm kidding you.' He was driven. And I don't mean ego in a negative way. It was a good ego.

MUIR: Any other memories from 48 Hours?

GIFFORD: Joel Silver he called me in for the looping, and he conducted the looping of the line, 'So where do you want to do it, honey? Wanna hop up on the counter?' He wanted a different way that I would say that line, so it would have a lot more heat and a lot more sex.

And that [line] ended up being in all the trailers, and ironically for one day [of work], I got more recognition for that movie than almost anything else I've done! That was a hit movie, and Eddie was hot, and I brought him heat, and he was lusting after me, and that was a good trailer moment. And that's how smart Joel Silver is...

MUIR: Another cult 1980s movie you appeared in was DC Cab.

GIFFORD: I was directing a play this summer, and one of the actors who's about 27 told me that when he was in college, they played it every day...

MUIR: Given the cast, it must have been an interesting movie to make...

GIFFORD: That was a completely insane movie experience. I was on it for three months, and it had stand-up comics, Gary Busey, Mr. T and two amateur body builders. It was a nightmare. A lot of guys were on drugs...not Mr. T, he was always a straight-ahead, great guy. But oh, three months together, and they were wild. They were animals. And I was playing a sexy character in it, and I was the only pretty girl with the guys, and so they were always flying across the table and trying to grab my breasts and stuff like that. Every day was like war.

MUIR: That was directed by Joel Schumacher...

GIFFORD: Joel has a very distinctive style of direction. He feels, 'Well, let's throw everybody together and let's see what happens' He did St. Elmo's Fire and Lost Boys, and he likes big casts. So everything that could possibly happen did happen. It wasn't as disciplined as the other movies I'd done. It was a very...different experience.

I saw something on I Love the 80s, and they had a piece of it [DC Cab] there. And they didn't say anything, but Bill Maher has become the most successful person out of the movie, and I don't think people remember that he was in it.

And Mr. T. And Gary Busey were the quintessential - and opposite - in 80s icons.

MUIR: I have books coming out discussing more deeply your work in Halloween II, as well as you role in Spinal Tap, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Spinal Tap here.

GIFFORD: I think it's one of the most brilliant movies I've ever seen. When I see it, I laugh at every single actor and every single situation. I don't even have a favorite one, because they're all funny to me.

MUIR: Did you have any idea it would become such a classic?

GIFFORD: Not at all. Whenever people talk about the funniest movie ever made, Spinal Tap is always in the top five.

MUIR: And your scene is one of the most famous among several famous ones..

GIFFORD: It's the most remembered scene, but so much of that movie is funny to me. I think Christopher Guest is a genius...

MUIR: Do you get recognized most for your role as the airport security guard in Tap?

GIFFORD: Over the years, people have said to me, 'That's one of my favorite movies. That's my favorite scene!' Then they say, 'That was you?'

MUIR: Any closing thoughts on any of your film work we discussed here?

GIFFORD: In Halloween II, Dana Carvey was an extra. I have a picture of him with me, and he never mentions that movie. I actually worked with Dana, because we had a scene together. He just NEVER mentions that movie, so I just laugh and think 'I have a picture of us, buddy.' He was playing some kind of reporter at the end of the movie who comes in. It was a very, very tiny role. He may have had one line..."

My deepest gratitude to Gloria Gifford for sharing her thoughts and remembrances with us here (as well as her contributions to my upcoming books...). In addition to her film work described here, Ms. Gifford also runs The Gloria Gifford Conservatory for Performing Arts: A Professional Acting, Directing, Writing Arena. You can read more about that endeavor here.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week:

"We're living in deep space...there are so many things we don't understand. We don't know what the alien force was, why it came here, or why it selected Anton. But we've got to try to help each other understand..."

-Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) in Space:1999; "Force of Life" by Johnny Byrne

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


A few years back, one of my wife's friends at work let us borrow the first season DVD box set of the BBC Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant "britcom," The Office. My life hasn't been the same since. Today, I'm the proud owner of both season boxes (as well as the Christmas specials...) and I love to trot these episodes out every few weeks, truth be told, to experience it all over again. These episodes are not only funny, but there's a really touching love story in there too.

Told in the form of the mockumentary (or what Christopher Guest calls "documentary style" comedies), The Office follows the misadventures of an office manager named David Brent. A nightmare boss, he's clueless, racist, sexist, obnoxious...but ultimately kinda sweet; TV's greatest anti-hero, I'd say, since Archie Bunker...or at least George Costanza. David does despicable, horrible things from time to time (like leaving a wheelchair-bound employee on a stairwell during a fire drill...), and yet you can't help but feel empathy for the guy. He's lonely, fumbling, in search of friends, and desperate to be loved. He imagines himself a witty comedian, but of course, his humor is pitiful. It reminds me of a line from Woody Allen's Interiors (1978), in which a shallow Manhattanite comments on how she burns to express herself artistically...only she doesn't know what she has to say...

My wife can't watch The Office anymore because it makes her feel so bad. David Brent's need to please practically brings her to tears. I'm trying to help her work through it. My favorite episode of The Office (a series now remade on NBC...) is the one in which David Brent hijacks a training seminar at work to indulge his ego by playing the guitar. He sings a ridiculous composition called "Freelove freeway." As someone who spent the years 1994 - 1996 in a corporate environment, this training seminar and its bizarre "group" exercises ring all too true.

But anyway, with The Office done and finished, Merchant and Gervais have returned to television for the HBO/BBC comedy series Extras. This time around, the mockumentary format is gone (probably a good thing given its high visibility of late...) but the show's feel is still improvisational and spontaneous. Gervais plays Andy Millman, a disgruntled "background artist" (or movie extra, if you prefer...) who is desperate to get a "real" line in a movie. So far, I've seen episodes where he squabbles with director Ben Stiller, offends Samuel L. Jackson, and even causes lovely Kate Winslet a bit of humiliation. Six episodes were produced, and I've seen five.

Writing and directing partner Merchant plays Gervais's energy-drained agent on the series, in a wonderful character bit, but the greatest thing about Extras is that Gervais has been joined by a character equally offensive as his Millman. Ashley Jensen plays Maggie, a fellow extra, and one with a terrible knack for saying offensive things. In one episode, she refuses to date a fellow who has one leg longer than the other, and makes a comment about his Herman Munster-sized shoe. In the Samuel L. Jackson episode, she tries to pretend she isn't racist and tells Jackson she loved him in The Matrix. Of course, that was Larry Fishburne...

Curb Your Enthusiasm and now Extras have really perfected a brand of cringe-inducing, humiliation-style humor, wherein characters say absolutely terrible, horrid things to one another and then try to worm their way out of the conversation with skin intact. I collapsed into nervous laughter during the first episode of Extras, when Andy invented a whole Catholic upbringing so he could "shag" a Catholic extra on the set of a movie. He made up a priest named O'Flatley - and a lot more - and then was called on his lies by his intended and another priest. "Did Father Flatley exist?," asks the priest. "O Flatley," corrects Andy. "Did he ever exist?" "No...," Andy admits. Jeez! I practically crawled out of skin during that exchange.

But my favorite moment in Extras thus far also comes from the first episode. Kate Winslet is the guest star (playing a nun in a movie about the she can win an Oscar...) and she kindly provides Maggie some advice about how to spice up her phone sex skills. Later in the show, Maggie's boyfriend is on the set, and Kate Winslet starts making all of these obscene gestures and comments concerning phone sex behind his back, knowing that he is the fella Maggie told her about. In the middle of her outrageous and vulgar pantomime - with her tongue hanging out one side of her mouth, and one hand tweaking her bosom - Winslet gets caught by the boyfriend as he turns around. This was flat-out hilarious, and I had no idea that Winslet could be so much fun. She should do comedy more often.

I understand that the buzz on Extras is mixed. The criticism is that it's either too much like The Office or not enough like The Office. If you ask me, it's pure comic gold. The films of Christopher Guest often concern an aspirant, someone with the dream to succeed in show business, but not the talent (of self-awareness) to bring that dream to reality. David Brent was surely a variation on this character, but now we get that quality in Andy Millman, and much more. We see the entire world of "industrial" movie-making skewered week in and week out on Extras, and Gervais is the perfect man to headline the satire. I don't know if the entertainment industry has ever been so delightfully skewered before, so I'm hooked...

CATNAP TUESDAY # 24: Back Home with the Cats

Well, Christmas is over (as is the hiatus on this blog...) and it's back to work! We had a great time visiting Kathryn's family up in Richmond, and returned after four days away to find that our three cats had eaten every last scrap of food left for them during that interim. That's never happened before. I always "overfeed" in our absence in case anything happens, but apparently this time (Lily's first holiday...) they were all VERY hungry.

Also, Lily and Ezri had both managed to work themselves out of their collars during our absence. Only my sweet Lila remained collar-bound during the interval.

Anyway, the cats were glad to see our return, spent the night in bed with us, and have been close ever since. We've fed them their Christmas viddles, and played them out with their new toys. Their "grandma" (Nana) gave them a stocking full of treats and toys, and these cats are happy, full-stomached, and content...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Happy Holidays!

From The Muir Family (and selected Sith Lords) to all visitors, readers and friends of the blog:

Our most sincere wishes for a happy, safe, and healthy holiday season with all your loved ones! May your season be merry and bright!

May the Force be with you!


I'll be back...

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 22: Atari 2600 "Video Computer System"

X-Box 360 is the big "game" system to own this 21st century holiday season, but I'll tell you what, I don't think any game system could provide me more hours of unfettered enjoyment than the one I grew up with in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the dependable, classic, Atari 2600. It was simple, elegant, easy-to-use, and fun, fun, fun.

If memory serves, my parents purchased the "Atari Video Computer System" for me and my sister in its first year of release, 1978. The idea of a video game console was so new to me, that I didn't even understand what the Atari was at first blush (I had just turned nine, go give me a break...)

But when the console was first hooked up to the TV, man, oh man! I enthusiastically became part of our nation's first generation of video-gamers. A role that took me from the Atari 2600 to the Atari 5400, to the Atari 800 computer, to Sega , to Nintendo and on and on until today. It's been an amazing journey, and the Atari 2600 was like a bicycle with training wheels...the system that started everything.

In that long ago year of 1978, I played Combat (the cartridge which came with the system...) and the most popular (and my favorite game of all time...) Space Invaders.

For those too young to remember, our nation was OBSESSED with Space Invaders for a time, this being the year after Star Wars and all. This obsession happened (and then burned out...) before the Pac Man craze that would arrive in the early 1980s, but what a time. At school, everybody was comparing high scores at Space Invaders. I remember, I was quite good at that game, and whenever I played doubles (two-player) with my father, he'd exclaim "Fly like a butterfly; sting like a bee!" I'll never forget that comment. It was the first time I'd heard it, and didn't associate it yet with Muhammad Ali.

I believe my parents also purchased Missile Command that first year we had an Atari. I still find that game absolutely addictive. Of course, it's a pretty devastating game: you must save six cities from nuclear apocalypse and bombardment (smart bombs and ICBMs).

In the Missile Command version we owned as kids, when you lost the battle, there would be a big flash of light, a sonic boom-type sound and series of nuclear explosions before the words "THE END" appeared on screen. Nice, huh? Remember, I'm of the generation that grew up with Mad Max, and Ronald - "We start bombing in five minutes" - Reagan, so nuclear apocalypse was a terrible fear for me at that age...

Over succeeding Christmas's in the Muir house, our collection of 2600 "game cartridges" multiplied to include such new hits as Asteroids, Centipede and the like.

From Activision I played games like Kaboom, Pitfall and something that I think (if I remember correctly...) was called "Night Driver." My favorite amongst the latter Atari game cartridges was probably Warlords, for which the paddles, rather than the joysticks, were utilized. Four people could play this game, and so it was a great free-for-all for me and my buddies.

All I know is, over the years, I suffered from many cases of the affliction known as "Atari Thumb." My Dad and I spent many joyous afternoon hours together after my school days (and his work days) destroying each other's tanks to the primitive graphics of "Battlezone." It was a wonderful bonding experience.

Some of my wealthier friends got into Intellivision and then Colecovision and Vectrex (the competing game systems back in those misty, cherished days of youth), but for me, Atari remained the final word. It was a reliable system (though the controllers would give out occasionally...) and an endlessly entertaining friend. Our particular game system lasted years, and I don't know what ultimately became of it, or the cartridges. Sometime in the mid 1980s, I think it got sold.

But then this past summer, my parents (who regularly frequent estate sales, yard sales and flea markets), found me a vintage Atari 2600 (still in its box) with six game cartridges (including Space Invaders, Pac Man, Combat, Super Break Out, Air-Sea Battle and Frogger), a power pack and a tv/game converter -- all for a measly eight dollars. So this year - more than 25 years after the first time I played Atari - I was back in the saddle. ,I also own a GameCube and absolutely love it (Resident Evil 4 is da bomb...). But there's something different, nostalgic and absolutely wonderful about returning to these simple games of yesteryear. Time flies when you play these games. They're still addictive...

Of course, my wife Kathryn isn't quite so sure about that. I've forced her into hours of gameplay on Space Invaders and the like since acquiring this game system from my childhood. Currently, she refuses to play Combat with me (a variation on Pong), because she says I drive her crazy, and she can't stand the beeping, whirring sounds. So if any of y'all come down to North Carolina soon and look me up, wanna play?

The Atari Video Computer System was advertised with the line on the box "more games - more fun." Indeed. The box also noted that "ATARI brings a powerful computer to your home television. The system allows you to build a game library with additional Game Programs and controllers."

We can laugh about the description of the 2600 as a "powerful computer" today, but once upon a time, it was actually state of the art. I should try to explain that to my nephews, who would no doubt laugh at this "primitive" video game system.

This year for the holidays, my parents also bought me an Atari Flashback 2 Game Console, which features forty classic Atari games (including River Raid, Pong, Pitfall, Centipede -- but no Space Invaders!) This is an ultra cool re-design of the system, featuring - as the box legend states - many of "the Games that defined a generation."

So now I have two Ataris. The original, and the much smaller, much more advanced re-imagination of the classic. So Kathryn is in for a holiday season of lots of annoying beeps and flashing lights.

I couldn't be happier. All I know is that we better have kids soon. As soon as they can press buttons, I'm getting them to play Atari with me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

TV BLOGGING: Sleeper Cell, Episode # 1

Well, I guess Showtime is really breathing down HBO's neck now. In the last year or so, shows like The L Word and Masters of Horror have been giving HBO's aging stable of original series a run for their money in terms of quality and buzz. Sex and the City is gone, The Sopranos is running out of steam, and on and on...

Sleeper Cell, a new series about an African-American FBI agent infiltrating a cabal of "holy warriors" in Los Angeles, looks likely to stoke that trend rather than curtail it. The series stars the charismatic Michael Ealy as our FBI protagonist, a man named Darwyn. That's a good choice of names, because watching the first episode, one senses he will have to be "fit" indeed to "survive" life under deep cover, inside a terrorist cell.

Anyway, in the first episode, Darwyn is released from the Federal Penitentiary at Lompoc, only to be contacted at a synagogue by an Islamic terrorist named Faris-al-Farak (a very menacing Oded Fehr). Darwyn is taken into the group's confidence on a first mission, at the same time falling in love with one terrorist's neighbor, a hottie single mom named Gail (Melissa Sagemiller) who sleeps around on the first date. Yowza!

A strange cross between 24 and Prison Break, Sleeper Cell -- at least in its first episode -- is beautifully photographed by ace cinematographer Robert Primes, and is filled with moments of pure menace and anxiety; such as when a terrorist named "Bobby" (Abdullah Habib) is punished by his fellow jihadists for boasting about their upcoming mission to a relative in Egypt. The other terrorists bury the guy up to his neck in desert sands and then throw rocks at his skull. Nice.

I'm only one episode in, and I know that the terrorists are up to no good because each sleeper cell guy has been given a vial of "military issue cipro." But Darwyn remains committed to "playing this out till the end," and even after 50 minutes, I worry for his safety; and our nation's.

While watching the first episode, I kept feeling that this show represents a sea tide shift in national politics. Isn't it interesting how fast TV and film turn a real life crisis into manufactured melodrama? I remember when, four years ago, the makers of 24 were not allowed to depict an airplane blowing up in mid-air, because of the 9/11 attacks. Then, last year, when 24 featured Islamic villains, civil liberties groups across the nation went nutso about it. In response, there was a service announcement (by Keifer Sutherland...) saying that in real life, Muslims are not all terrorists. And then there was the episode wherein two American Muslim shopkeepers defended Jack Bauer to the death against his enemies, again proving that Muslims are good citizens. This year, Sleeper Cell premieres, and what happens - I don't hear a word of complaint from anybody or any special interest group!

This must mean the War on Terror is over. Someone better tell George W. Bush to stop those NSA wiretaps...

TV BLOGGING: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 5

I'm sure Larry David gets tired of fans telling him how much they love Seinfeld. Because when push comes to shove, Curb Your Enthusiasm is sort of like Seinfeld unfiltered. The misanthropic four of Seinfeld represent elements, perhaps, of David's personality, divided liberally across several characters. Yet Curb Your Enthusiasm serves up that level of absurdity without any mitigating factors. So if you think David is funny, you'll love this series. If you think David is irritating, well, Curb Your Enthusiasm won't win any high marks from you. Larry David may just be an acquired taste...

I've watched all the previous seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm with devotion and really loved the show. I seldom failed to laugh out loud at David's anti-social, comedic tendencies. I remember some times just staring at the television, mouth hanging open. I was awed by David's seemingly endless capacity to inadvertently insult and offend those around him. Damn! I'm also a little bit in love with his much-hassled, put upon wife, Cheryl (played by Cheryl Hines).

Season Five of the series is good, to be sure, but some critical element of freshness is now gone from the mix. I know other critics have been carping about this, and I don't want to pile on, because I've always enjoyed the series so much. But, as David would say, this group of ten episodes left me feeling ehhhh.

Also, I think it would be really difficult to top the season that saw Larry David win a role in a stage production of Mel Brooks' The Producers. I experienced more winces and cringes during that batch of episodes than in any TV show since Ricky Gervais's The Office. And that's a compliment. I love it when discomfort, anxiety and humor mix on these programs...there's something realistic and downright addictive about watching people turn their lives into train wrecks.

Curb Your Enthusiasm's fifth season follows a two-part "story arc." The first story involves Larry's quest to find out if he's actually adopted. He hires a private detective, played by Mekhi Phifer, to find out. The second story involves comedian Richard Lewis, and his need of a kidney transplant. Turns out - of course - that Larry David is a perfect match. Only thing is, he doesn't want to donate a kidney and will do anything to avoid it (including hoping against hope that Lewis's cousin, Louis Lewis, will die in a coma so his organs can be transplanted...).

Both of these stories climax in an interesting - if not always inspired - fashion in the final episode of the season, "The End," which sees David meet the folks whom he believes are his biological parents: cornfed, Christians from the mid-west. Also, the kidney issue is resolved with a trip to the afterlife, but any further detail would spoil the fun.

My favorite episode of the season was the seventh installment, entitled "The Seder." This involved Larry inviting Rick Lefkowitz (The Daily Show's Rob Corddry), a convicted sex offender, to a religious dinner celebration. The other guests included a rampant conservative (and David, of course, is a progressive...), and a doctor that David suspected was stealing his newspaper every morning. As you can imagine, plenty of shame, mistakes and disasters got spread around before the half-hour was over.

Seinfeld was always famous for giving the world new catchphrases, and I think Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm is trying to do the same thing. This year, we met a character, Jeff's ex-girlfriend, who had "an unusually large vagina" ("The Ski Life") and also learned Jeff and Larry's "double transgression" theory. Maybe this stuff isn't as memorable as "master of your domain," but it's all funny nonetheless. It just isn't innovative.

Come the end of Season Five, it appeared that Larry David was about to meet his maker, and face judgment in the afterlife for all the people whom he has crossed swords with during five hysterical seasons. As David lay in a hospital bed dying, and a rabbi asked him if he wanted to make peace, the film cut to a lengthy montage of David's previous escapades on the series. This sequence had a valedictory feeling of "The End" (as the episode is titled), and again, I recalled Seinfeld, and how that series ended: with all the characters going off to the slammer after videotaping a crime, but not lifting a finger to stop it.

Here, Larry David questions his faith and heritage, and sees it restored. He dies, and returns to life. He claims to be a changed man...but we see he hasn't changed at all when he uses a handicapped bathroom. That's probably a perfect place to call it quits on Curb Your Enthusiasm: with the recognition that even a brush with death will not change Larry David's nature.

Now, I'm not saying the show should be cancelled. If it returns, I'll no doubt return for the encore. But really, how else can Larry David surprise us or keep us laughing? His "shtick" at this point is a known quantity, and so much of comedy depends on feelings of surprise and shock. If Curb Your Enthusiasm returns for a sixth season, I also hope that Cheryl will be more central a figure, like she was in the earlier seasons. She's still Larry David's best "straight man," as far as I'm concerned. The embarrassment David generates wherever he goes work best when someone close to him has to deal with it, and Cheryl Hines has mastered the slow burn. Her constant rejoinder to his insanity, "okay," speaks volumes about his nuttiness. It's a reply to cut off further debate, it's a prayer to the Lord to end her suffering, and it's always delivered with perfection.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Mind Over Matter Edition

"There is no spoon..."
-Neo, The Matrix (1999)

"You must unlearn what you have learned."
-Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

TUESDAY CATNAP # 23: What the Kitties Got for Christmas...

Well, the cats had an early Christmas celebration last night. We bought the babies home a great new toy: a fishing rod with feathers on one end, and a long, furry casting line. Lila, Ezri and Lily went ballistic over it, and we had a grand time playing with 'em. Included above are some shots of my favorite felines at play. No animals were harmed during the taking of these photographs...

Below, you can see their other "gift," (though maybe this one is really for us...), two "space age" litter boxes with hoods to keep them for making a mess

Monday, December 19, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Excalibur (1981)

The Dark Ages...

The Land was divided and without a King...

Out of those Lost Centuries Rose a Legend...

Of the Sorcerer, Merlin...

Of the Coming of a King...

Of the Sword of Power...

John Boorman's epic Arthurian legend, Excalibur (1981), begins with that on-screen legend (above), and for 140-minutes thereafter, we - the audience - are held enthralled by the stylistic storytelling of a master filmmaker at work. Held by visions of white horses, gleaming armor, and clanking swords. By the epic battles, in which blood flows like water and limbs get hacked off in a single blow from the sword of power. By the forbidden love of Guinevere and Lancelot, wherein love is described as a "mad distemper that strikes down beggar and king..."

Excalibur recounts the birth of Arthur (after the seduction/rape of his mother, the wife of a contentious Duke), the method by which Merlin spirited him away and gave him to an adopted father, and then, at last, the young squire's ascension to the throne of England after pulling the sword, Excalibur, from a stone in the forest. From there, we marvel at the heroic deeds of the "boy king," as he and his loyal knights bring peace and prosperity to the land, and share tales of their handiwork at the "Round Table."

The film takes us through Arthur's first encounter with the most noble and powerful knight in the world, Lancelot, as well as the King's marriage to the maiden Guinevere. After learning of his best friend's indiscretion with his wife, Arthur spirals into a decade-long depression, and since he and the land are always "as one," England suffers crops will grow, and pestilence sweeps over the countryside.

Desperate and searching for purpose, Arthur sends away his best knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail...a momentous failure. Meanwhile - under the King's nose - Morgana, Arthur's perverted half-sister, bears the King's evil child, Mordrid, who upon manhood wages a campaign to destroy Camelot once and for all.

Finally, when the chips are down, Arthur can count only on those whom he once considered betrayers. Guinevere (now a nun...) has sheltered the sword of power, knowing her king would one day return for it. Merlin, who was trapped in limbo long ago by Morgana's powers, is brought back to fight a final battle through the auspices of Arthur's love. And even Lancelot, now a wild man...but still a warrior dedicated to his king of long ago, returns to protect the glass and silver towers of Camelot one last time.

When I screened this film last night, I was a little shocked to see how just about everybody in the cast had gone on to become a major star. Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek) plays one of Arthur's first knights, seen initially during a joust. A very young Liam Neeson portrays the disloyal Sir Gawain. In a dastardly but memorable turn, Gabriel Byrne plays Arthur's lustful father. And then there's Helen Mirren (in kinky bra/body armor) as Morgana Le Fay, looking positively radiant. It's a strong cast, but my favorite character is Merlin, played so memorably by Nicol Williamson.

Merlin is just an amazing character...the only one of the film's dramatis personae who seems to have a wise perspective on life (and the events of the tale...) throughout. Come the climax, Arthur understands how the age of Camelot was a special time...but it is Merlin who understands all along how great men can fall, how evil can appear where it is least expected.

I know there have been other re-tellings of King Arthur's legend, from First Knight with Sean Connery and Richard Gere to last year's bomb, King Arthur, with Clive Owen, but for me, that world of knights, damsels in distress and sorcerers has never seemed more real, more tangible, than in Boorman's Excalibur. The film shines (and holds up today...) because it reveals the best of our nature (in Arthur's heroic, kingly temperament), as well as the worst (the unceasing violence, the petty jealousies, etc.), but more so because Camelot's world is rendered so convincingly. From the lady in the lake to the jousting contests, to Merlin's magical world, everything seems strangely authentic and believable.

There's something else I like too: the depiction of this Arthurian world as the new "Age of Man." Magic has a presence in this film, no doubt, but Merlin realizes his time - the time of the Gods, of dragons - is at an end. The Earth will become the ward of man. And one must hope that our leaders are always wise men like Arthur. So there's a melancholy in this work that is quite wonderful and poetic. That feel of one world passing to another is captured well.

We all understand what "Camelot" is. What it represents. The time of President John F. Kennedy, for instance, we refer to as Camelot...a special time in our country's history that didn't last nearly long enough. In our private lives, we might have a "Camelot" too...holidays spent with loved ones, time with family, and so on. The reason, I believe, that Camelot is such an important concept to man is that as a creature, man is acutely aware that great things (and indeed, all things) are fleeting. You can be living in a City on a Hill one moment, only to learn that your King is spying on your international phone calls the next.

But Excalibur - run red with the blood of the slain - is a film for the ages, because it also points out that even heroes fail sometimes in their endeavors. And those who have failed us before can still win a last battle, even after making terrible mistakes. By trying and fighting we can all create another Camelot.

Which, of course, will also be fleeting...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

The future just ain't what it used to be...

Once upon a time, our best scientific minds (not to mention our finest pulp sci-fi writers and artists...) forecast a fantastic world of glittering, art deco skyscrapers, elegant hovering machines, Byzantine flying robots, air combat from gravity-defying aircraft carriers and other wonders.

"Things to Come," we imagined and hoped.

Well, darn it, none of that happened; those imaginings are part of a "lost future." Instead, we live in a utilitarian time in which function plays more important a role than beauty...or elegance.

But imagine, if you will, that all those technological and architectural glories and wonders did come to pass.

Imagine the beauty and grandeur of the world we'd inhabit right now if they had. If you can conceive of a 1930s-style future (not unlike Coruscant in George Lucas's The Phantom Menace...) then you have a very good idea of Sky Captain's dramatic and spectacular visual appeal.

This imaginative film - conceived and created as a labor of love by first-time director Kerry Conran -- was released in theaters about a year ago, but didn't do nearly as well as expected with general audiences. I have a theory about that. Surprised? Why, you know I have a theory about everything...

Anyway, I believe that today's audiences refuse to participate in any vision of the 1930s in regards to their imaginative entertainment, and by that I mean, in particular, science fiction and fantasy films.

Exhibit A: The Rocketeer (1991) was a great superhero movie set in the 1930s, but you couldn't pay audiences to go see it.

Exhibit B: Later in the 1990s, The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996) both featured lovingly-created superhero "worlds" of the Great Depression Decade, and again, audiences stayed away in droves. You might be able to blame the perceived lack of quality of those films for their lack of popularity, but one or the other, depending on your perspective, was good enough to be a hit. I actually enjoyed both.

My so-called "anti-retro" (or pro-now-tro, if you prefer...) theory also explains the relative failure at the box office (thus far, anyway...) of Peter Jackson's 200 million dollar King Kong. Had it been set in 2005, I bet it would have grossed double what it did on Wednesday. Like Sky Captain, it imagines a world of the misty past, and asks us to come along on that nostalgic journey. I just don't think that general audiences have the patience to go there anymore...and I hate that fact. To its own detriment, America is obsessed with the new, the current, the technological, and the future. And going back to the 1930s is not something that a lot of folks want to see in their entertainment.

Which is a shame, because The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and King Kong are all magnificent efforts...amongst the finest fantasy ventures of the last twenty years, no doubt.

Sky Captain tells the story of Joe (Jude Law), his plucky reporter girlfriend, Polly Perkins (Gywynth Paltrow) and his - ahem - buddy, Frankie (Angelina Jolie), a British military officer, as they attempt to uncover the secret behind the disappearance of several prominent world scientists.

The journey to find the missing scientists leads from Manhattan to Nepal (and Shangri-La!), to a "robot master" named Totenkompf, a disenchanted genius (and Wizard of Oz-type figure...) who has been utilizing his futuristic technology to steal the world's power generators and other critical resources. Turns out he's building a giant space ark on a prehistoric island in the Pacific. That ark that will bring a new day for the planet, an opportunity to start over...but also the last day for humanity! So it's Joe, our Sky Captain, to the rescue...guns blazing...

From the opening shot, of a dirigible called Hindenburg III docking at the top of the Empire State Building, to the final locale - a primitive jungle world inspired by the lush lost world of 1933's King Kong - Sky Captain is a visual feast like nothing you've ever seen, an excavation of a future we never saw, but once dreamed of.

From the stalwart sidekick engineer named Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) to the Howard Hawks-style romantic banter between Joe and Polly, Sky Captain creates not just a lost world of 1930s-style futurism, but a nostalgic nod to the world of 1930s filmmaking...a time of black & white, fedoras, witty dialogue, "Yellow Menace" (here represented by Bai Ling's robotic assassin...) and fear of a coming tide of fascism. From script to special effects, The World of Tomorrow is splendidly realized.

I just bought the film and watched it on DVD, and I admired it even more the second time around. I saw the film originally in a "cheap seats" theater, and I don't think enough light was going through the imagery, making it appear overly dark. Glorious on DVD, the film is everything I would want in a "nostalgic" fantasy. It features charming, romantic characters; it has an innocence to it (like the original Star Wars). and my gosh, the movie includes armies of flying robots (resembling Gort...) that shoot laser beams out of their eyes. The sound effects come from the 1953 War of the Worlds! What's not to love.

If you ask me, the world needs more men (and more movies...) like Sky Captain.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

TV REVIEW: Medium: "Being Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"

I'm still catching up on the first season of the NBC paranormal hit, Medium. So forgive me for blogging reruns! Anyway, "Being Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" aired originally on April 25, 2005, before the repeat aired this December 12th.

This episode finds Allison Dubois (Arquette) experiencing night terrors about a deadly plane crash. One of the imperiled passengers she dreams about is Threshold's Robert Patrick Benedict. Fortunately, no bio-altering signals are involved...

Anyway, Allison is drawn into the case of a missing woman in Phoenix. The victim's worried husband is Captain Call (Chad Lowe), a highly-skilled airline pilot...and he is the very pilot Allison saw in her dream; the one man who can pull the imperiled jet out of a dizzying descent and keep it from pulping Cleveland. When an investigation points to Call as a man who killed his own wife and buried her in the desert, Allison seeks Joe's help in asking a variation of an important question: "do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one?"

In other words, should Allison let Captain Call off the hook - thus betraying his dead wife - so that he may fly that otherwise doomed plane and save two hundred lives? Or is Allison's responsibility purely to the victim? Should she see that Call is arrested, even though if he is incarcerated, he can't fly that endangered air liner?

It's a fascinating tale of precognition, and another really fine episode of Medium. I'm getting hooked on this show, in part because each episode takes unexpected turns, and asks unique questions. I noted last week how much of this series takes place in Allison's bed during the wee hours of the morning...and I like that. There's a very intimate feel between Allison and husband, Joe (Matt Crower), and I appreciate that so much of the program involves their relationship, and they way they deal with familial responsibilities.

In terms of the horror genre, the "doomed" airliner is genre convention going way back to The Twilight Zone and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Since then, the same plot device has been utilized on shows such as The Sixth Sense's "Coffin, Coffin in the Sky" (1972), Freddy's Nightmares' "Cabin Fever" (1989), The Burning Zone's "Night Flight," Poltergeist The Legacy's "Let Sleeping Demons Lie" (1997), Millennium's "The Innocents" (1998), G vs. E's "Airplane" (1999), The Others' "Souls on Board" (2000) and this season's Supernatural entry, "Phantom Traveler."

Medium's "airplane" story distinguishes itself primarily through its climactic ambiguity. I enjoyed the fact that Call didn't end up flying the plane, and that the plane didn't crash, either. Neither possibility emerged, and Joe felt like he'd given Allison some good advice. "See, the plane didn't crash," he told his wife. "This year," Allison replied, hinting that her dream might still come true at another date. That's chilling!

Although it's not in the class of Veronica Mars (TV's best show; hands down...), I'm continuing to really enjoy Medium, and hope you're watching too.


Another crisis on the 1977 Saturday morning live-action, Filmation TV series Space Academy this week. Seems that an "energy distributor" on asteroid BX3 is leaking and could poison space for three parsecs, including an inhabited space colony.

But on the Academy, the cadets are embroiled in a crisis. Captain Chris Gentry has ordered Cadet Matt Prentis (John Berwick) called up on charges because he showed "flagrant disregard for procedure" on their last mission. Commander Gampu settles the crisis by suspending the hearing on the matter, and putting Matt Prentis, a laser technician, in charge of the mission to seal the malfunctioning energy distributor.

The mission proves dangerous, and Matt orders the Seeker through an ion storm and - again - Chris reacts negatively to Matt's irresponsibility. But when Matt is injured during his attempt to seal the energy distributor, Chris takes over and saves the day, using the Seeker's bulldozer-like arms to push a small asteroid into the energy distributor, thereby creating a new "artificial" sun to provide energy to this part of the galaxy.

"The Cheat" is essentially the same story as the previous installment of Space Academy, "Life Begins at 300." A pushy non-regular learns a valuable lesson about working with "the team" after initially being a hothead. This episode distinguishes itself primarily because Matt asks Laura out on a date(!), and also because the episode features a hysterical slow-motion interlude wherein Tee Gar Soom uses his karate skills to break down a jammed engine room door on a Seeker. Bruce Lee would have been proud...

I do think that Space Academy missed a bet on teaching a good lesson to kids with stories like "The Cheat." In both this and the previous installment, our heroes were proven to be correct in their convictions all along, and it was the dangerous interloper who had to learn a lesson. All the good guys really had to do was express "forgiveness" for the trespassers. Wouldn't it have been nice had Chris or Gampu or one of "our" team been proven wrong in "The Cheat" instead? And Matt - the guest star - been proven correct? Sometimes, a good lesson for kids to learn is that it's okay to be wrong; and to be the one asking for forgiveness. Right? It seems that Chris reacts negatively to Matt's position of authority...maybe he was just threatened all the way along by someone as capable as he was...and again, that's something that kids should learn about: feelings of competition and jealousy and how to deal with them.

But maybe I'm asking too much from my 1970s kid-vid these days...

Friday, December 16, 2005

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 21: Hallmark Star Trek & Star Wars Christmas Ornaments

If you check this blog often, you've seen my extensive (and seemingly unending...) toy and collectible collection, and you know that I'm one lucky guy. Lucky, cuz I ain't actually rich, but I have a lot of folks in my life who love me and keep buying me these wonderful gifts.

I thought it would be appropriate this week, given the upcoming holidays, to focus on a school of collectible that I haven't spent a single dime on: Star Trek and Star Wars collectible Christmas Tree Ornaments! That's right, I own a vast collection of these items, but it's all landed in my home office through the auspices of my wonderful parents and in-laws. Every year, come hell or high water, I receive a new sci-fi ornament. Feels good to be loved, doesn't it?

My collection began in 1992, when my mother-in-law (who lives in Richmond) bought me the first Star Trek ornament (price tag: $20.00) I'd ever seen, a representation of NCC-1701, Captain Kirk's starship Enterprise (and still my favorite version of the classic heavy cruiser). This ornament was a hot-ticket item that holiday season (along with Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers toys) , and I didn't expect to get one. There was even a waiting list. But lo and behold, come Christmas morning...I owned a starship! My mother-in-law still threatens to take it back occasionally, especially when I say she coulda' been a Jersey Girl instead of a Southern Belle...

Last time I checked, these ornaments go for hundreds of dollars...not that I'm in the collecting biz' for the money. It's just nice to know that if I lose a lot of money on the horses, I can hock an ornament. Just kidding. I'm not a gambler...

Anyway, the next year, my sister, who lives in New Jersey, purchased me the follow-up Hallmark "keepsake" ornament from Star Trek (which sold for $24.00), The Galileo 7 shuttlecraft. This ornament is great not only because the front windows light up, but because if you press a button on the bottom, Mr. Spock wishes you a happy holiday season. How very illogical - but sweet - of the dour half-Vulcan!

This was 1993, I guess, and from there, my own mother was forever on the case of Star Trek and Star Wars ornaments, and I have not been left in need once since. Over the years, she and my Dad have given me Next Gen, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Phantom Menace, and classic Star Wars ornaments for Christmas. Often, they miraculously unveil ones I've never even seen before, like the Romulan fighter from Star Trek: Nemesis.

Last year, when my house was on the historic home tour in our town, I even put up a special Star Trek Christmas tree for all to behold, and it was quite amazing.

I also "beamed down" the Captain Kirk ornament into my wife's proudly displayed Nativity Scene. There Kirk was, right next to the Three Wise Men, sitting in his command chair. Sacrilegious? Naah! We all know that I worship William Shatner, right? Freedom of religion, and all...

This year, my mother-in-law sent me another great Hallmark ornament in the mail, the 2005 Star Trek edition. The model? Ricardo Montalban's Khan! I hadn't seen this anywhere, and didn't even realize that the Star Trek license is still viable.

But now I can add Khan Noonien Singh to the Nativity scene and have my Captain Kirk ornament shout "Khaaaaaan!"

"Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," Khan can reply...

That's an odd Christmas thought, I suppose, but I just want to thank all my family members for, over the years, keeping me fully-stocked on these things. I appreciate the love, support, and the toys.

So what about you, do you collect any sci-fi ornaments for that special outer space Christmas tree?

KONG BLOGGING: The Films of Fay Wray by Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich

As part of my week-long Kong fest, I've been enhancing my film book library on the subject of the cinematic great ape. On Wednesday, I reviewed Ray Morton's colorful, vibrant history of the Kong character, but there's also another "giant" personality attached to the Kong "myth," and I wanted to post about her here, today. In part because I've always had a crush on her, since the first Thanksgiving when I watched King Kong (1933) on New York TV.

The late Fay Wray (1907-2004) was the first "beauty" to meet the giant "beast" of Skull Island. And what a beauty this talented actress was, both in terms of her gorgeous good looks, and in terms of personality. Authors Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich have just written a highly-detailed, thoroughly-researched book about this iconic talent, The Films of Fay Wray (McFarland and Company Inc., Publishers; $39.95)

The purpose of this scholarly text is not just to celebrate the career of Kong's first love, but to excavate Wray's other work, which Kong fans may not know so well. The authors set out the facts about Ms. Wray's career succinctly in the introduction: only five of her seventy-seven movie roles from 1925 to 1958 were in the horror genre; and in sixty-seven of those efforts, she was the leading lady.

"The extent of Wray's career," the authors write, "as documented in this book, may come as a surprise to many. A likeable, dependable and competent actress, she has been directed by talents as diverse as William A. Wellman, Maurtiz Stiller, Erich Von Stroheim, Alan Crosland, Frank Capra, Michael Curtiz, Jack Conway, Karl Freund, Roy William Neil and Josef von Sternberg. Her leading men have included Gary Cooper, Emil Jannings, William Powell, Richard Arlen, Jack Holt, Spencer Tracy, Ralph Bellamy, Frederic March, Wallace Beery, Joel McCrea, Claude Rains, and Richard Barthelmess."

In other words, Ms. Wray was much more than unlucky Ann Darrow, Kong's lady love. The book goes into great detail to describe (often with the late Ms. Wray's input...) a remarkably successful acting career in Hollywood...but one ultimately overshadowed by Skull Island's most well-known denizen. The book is filled with interesting revelations about the making of that 1933 classic, including Wray's concern that there was too much screaming in the film. She calls the screaming "overdone," which is interesting, since she became known as the greatest screamer (or Scream Queen) in Hollywood, at least until the dawn of Jamie Lee Curtis.

There's a really interesting comment on the times that this book makes plain through its illustrations: Fay Wray showed much more skin in the 1933 King Kong than Naomi Watts does in the 2005 version. Yes, we indeed live in conservative times. Drats!

Anyway, on pages 93 to 96 of this text, there are some beautiful black and white cheescake photos of Ms. Wray in very revealing "jungle wear," that helps, in no small way, to explain why so many young men grew up with Wray as a first love. In addition to her talent, she was one fine-looking, athletic sex symbol. But we do live in restrictive, PC times now and so in the new Kong (which I love, as you can tell from my review...) much of the sexual angle of the story has been deleted. I miss that. I'll never forget those shots from 1933 wherein Kong takes Wray up to his lair, and peels off her clothing a piece at a time and then smells his fingers...very animalistic, very sexual, and apparently too much for our censorious times.

I enjoyed reading The Films of Fay Wray, and learning much more about this accomplished actress. The book is separated into 3 parts: Silent Films, Sound Films and 1950s Feature Film Supporting Roles, and two appendices describe appearances in theatrical shorts and TV guest spots. If you've ever had a desire to learn more about Kong's first love, this is no doubt the book to own.

You can order The Films of Fay Wray at McFarland's web site, or through their order line, 800-253-2187.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

KONG BLOGGING: King Kong (2005)

Despite my love for the original King Kong (1933) -- as well as the 1976 remake introducing Jessica Lange -- Peter Jackson's two hundred million dollar update, which opened in theaters yesterday, wasn't necessarily an easy sale for me.

Why? Well, on the first count, I'm not one of those people who thinks the same movie needs to be re-imagined and re-made for every generation just because special effects have improved. Let alone a film already once re-made.

And I also think there's something very healthy about the idea of today's 15 and 16 year olds seeking out a film from 1933 or 1976, and becoming acquainted with what movies looked like in those eras. Cinema history is more than Napoleon Dynamite (which I love...) Wedding Crashers and Shrek. One of the greatest movie "awakenings" in my life occurred when my father began introducing me to the movies he loved from the 1960s, titles like The Great Escape, Cool Hand Luke, Hud, Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate and the like. I was about sixteen when we did this together. I shudder to think how I would be different today had I - as a teen in the 1980s - not been exposed to such works. Today's teenagers, weaned on CGI and the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, could do with a little history lesson.

Secondly, and more importantly, I was one of those apparently few-in-number movie-lovers who didn't drink the Peter Jackson kool-aid after the last installment of Lord of the Rings; Return of the King. I greatly admired Jackson's first film in that trilogy, Fellowship of the Ring, but found both The Two Towers and Return of the King somewhat overlong, lugubrious, and laboriously paced. Let's face it, you could just watch Fellowship and Return and skip The Two Towers all together, and still get a pretty good sense of the Rings story without missing anything vital. The second film just kills time....for over three hours. I realize, this is heresy I'm writing to some people...

And yes, I am quite aware that Jackson and Return of the King took home a near-gaggle of Academy Award statuettes, but that fact doesn't change my estimation of these films. The latter two installments of the saga bored the pants off me. And believe me, you don't want me sitting around reviewing movies without my pants...

One quality a good filmmaker requires is discipline. Yep, discipline. The original King Kong was a taut and lean 90 minutes from start-to-finish. When I heard that Jackson's King Kong was going to run over three hours (three hours and seven minutes, I believe...) I really began to grow concerned. I remembered how the ending(s) of Return of the King rambled and rambled. And I wondered if Jackson weren't just a director badly in need of a close associate who would tell him that he hadn't just shit a golden egg, that his work, too, could use the experienced hand of a fine editor.

So, as I wrote above, I was not necessarily sold on the Kong remake, despite my love of the property over the years.

But now, having seen the film on opening day, I can state unequivocally and for the record that these amazing three hours move very quickly and enjoyably. Director Jackson knows exactly what he's doing, and this is a better film than any he's yet made. King Kong is an incredible silver screen spectacle - a monster movie epic on a scale heretofore unimagined, even by genre enthusiasts like myself.

Like I said, I was inclined to be wary, but came out of the film filled with awe, excitement and wonder. This movie is everything you imagine it could be; and much more. The special effects are, for the most part, quite fantastic, and the elements that have made Kong work so well as a story over the years have been augmented, nay improved. The end result is a film that makes more sense, and tugs more powerfully at the heart than either Kong predecessor.

This is Jurassic Park on steroids. And more.

Although I like all incarnations of Kong, if I'm being totally honest, I guess I've always felt a tiny disconnect with one element of the tale. Each film before this one - each in its own way - has wanted audiences to sympathize with Kong, with the Beast who "is as one dead" because of his love for a blond beauty. That element comes to the foreground most successfully in this version.

The dinosaur attacks on Skull Island in Jackson's version are so ramped up, so-over-the-top, so much the last word in edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger action, that you can't catch a breath. You'll squirm and gasp throughout these exhilarating moments. Kong and Ann swing from vines, fall from a precipice, fight off a pack of tyrannosaur and emerge triumphant, and so something is clear in this story in a way it's never been before in Kong history. These characters have bonded. An experience like this permits nothing else. They've been through the wringer together, and Ann has come to need Kong to survive on Skull Island, so it is natural that she would, after a fashion, fall for the big hairy guy.

This is really one of the best things about the movie. For the first time, you believe that a gorgeous blond actress could fall head over heels in love with a 25-foot tall gorilla. It's perfectly understandable; even rational, given the (admittedly peculiar) circumstances.

It's odd to write about a giant gorilla as a "character," but this version of Kong is far more developed too. He is a battle-scarred warrior, perhaps a little over-the-hill, even. He is the last of his kind, as you can see from his cave high over the island, where the bones of his ancestors and family lay scattered. And the natives in this film are terrible, psychotic people, so one senses that Kong has made his loneliness their worst nightmare. They live in mortal fear of their "God," and again, no version of the film has brought that idea home better than Jackson's. When you see the terrors of Skull Island this time around, you'll understand exactly how and why a giant gorilla might long for the company of a Vaudeville entertainer to take his mind off certain things. Like giant vampire bats. Or roving T-Rex packs.

And because the Ann Darrow/King Kong relationship makes more sense in this version, the last third of the film (set in 1933 Manhattan...) is far more effective. Again, this may sound absurd based on the fact I'm writing about a giant simian here, but the film works in the same rarified dimension as Romeo & Juliet or any other tale of star-crossed lovers. Ann isn't just "sorry" for Kong because she has sympathy for an innocent animal, she actually loves him, based on their experiences together. All her life, the script informs us, the people she loves have left her; leaving her vulnerable. Kong is the one creature always there for her; always fighting to protect her.

After the dinosaur stampedes (an amazing sequence), the spider pit (which will make you really uncomfortable...) and the film's other horrors, I figured it was impossible for Jackson to surpass his already considerable efforts for the climax. But he does just that . The portion of the film set in Manhattan, particularly atop the Empire State Building is utterly enthralling. You will feel awe (at the depiction of NYC during that time...), vertigo (at the dizzying heights), and anxiety (even though, of course, you know how it's all going to end.) This is an amazing climax to an amazing roller-coaster of a film, topped by a denouement for the ages. Does this sound like mindless praise? Well, just remember, as I enumerated above, I went in a skeptic. I wasn't inclined just to give the movie a pass because I love the character of Kong.

King Kong is a great Beauty & The Beast story, a tragic tale of a "brute's" love, and how it is ultimately used against him. I don't think the metaphor for male/female relationships has ever been better put in a monster movie. A lefthanded compliment, perhaps, but this is the most emotional and also the most satisfying Kong. It's also an unsurpassed thrill ride. The dinosaur stampede will knock your socks off, and the Empire State Building sequence will rip your heart out.

You can tell that every frame of this film is a labor of love.

But don't take my word for it, go see it. It's more fun than a barrel of...well, you know.