Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Herculoids: "Sarko the Arkman"

“Sarko the Arkman” is another episode of The 1960s Hanna-Barbera animated series The Herculoids that reveals the series’ basis for storytelling: the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, particularly the Tarzan stories.

In this tale, an alien scientist called Sarko lands on unspoiled Azmot and captures the powerful primate creature Igoo, as well as Tundro, and Zandor’s son, Dorno.  Almost immediately, Zandor responds, taking the dragon Zok to the stars to retrieve the abducted Herculoids from the planet Zodan.

Like the pirate villains featured in last week’s opening episode, Sarko (or “Arko” as all the characters call him) boasts some undisclosed previous relationship with Zandor.  He notes, for example, that he has been warned never to return to Azmot.  The precise nature of their relationship, is, however, left unexplored.  Were they enemies in a galactic war?  Allies?

This week’s episode contains two specific moments which recall the adventures of Tarzan.  In the first, Zandor bounces from one jungle vine to the other, recalling the trademark image of Tarzan swinging from such vines since time immemorial.  No animal yell, alas, is evident.

The second Tarzan-inspired image is of a technologically-advanced non-native traveling to a wild ecosphere (think of an American zoo-keeper or hunter on safari in Africa) to capture and bring the wildlife back to his own world.

Sarko is a plunderer of the natural environment, and again, is contextualized in terms of his technology.  He has the power to immobilize the local wild-life, as well as the interplanetary transportation to bring them back to his civilization.  Late in the program, we see what happens to “animals” such as Igoo and Tundro when taken out of their natural habitat and made slaves in the “first world:” they are put in cages for display.

Basically, “Sarko the Arkman” re-states The Herculoids’ thesis, which is that Azmot should remain free and unspoiled for those who live there, while those living in the galaxy’s technological space age must stay away, or risk Zandor’s mighty wrath. 

Uniquely, Zandor is fully capable of piloting a starship, as we see this week when he commandeers Sarko’s Ark.  It would have been nice to see some of the character’s background information filled in a little bit.  Where did he learn this skill?  Why did he forsake all aspects of technology for a life on Azmot?

Again, it would be incredibly cool if a screenwriter wrote a Herculoids movie that filled in all these details, and remembered to glean inspiration and metaphors from the works of Burroughs.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam!: "The Joyriders" (September 7, 1974)

The first episode of the Filmation live-action series Shazam! (1974 -1976) is titled “The Joyriders” and it establishes the formula and parameters for the Saturday morning eries’ (abundantly-cheap) storytelling brand.  This first adventure involves a kid named Chuck (Kerry MacLane) who feels peer pressure to be part of a gang that has become involved with stealing cars and going on those titular joy rides.

Meanwhile, on this “far out day,” Billy Batson (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) drive the back roads of an unnamed town in a Winnebago and learn that the Elders want to communicate with them.  Using a small red-dome like device decorated with blinking lights, Billy speaks an incantation to establish contact: “Oh Elders fleet and strong and wise -- appear before my seeking eyes.”

Once in the (cartoon) realm of the Elders, the Gods inform Billy that he will encounter someone soon who “can’t be himself.”  One of the Elders then quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Polonius in particular: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Future episodes feature quotations from Wordsworth and Aristotle.

Soon, Billy and Mentor cross paths with the timid Chuck, who fears being called a “chicken” by his friends.  The gang steals another car, and it’s up to Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) to save the day when the gang, including Chuck, end up in a dangerous junkyard….nearly crushed.

As the preceding synopsis makes plain, this is very juvenile storytelling.  And by that I mean it is storytelling literally about juveniles, made in juvenile fashion.   Of course, one must remember the time slot and historical context: Saturday morning in the mid-1970s.  Accordingly, “The Joyriders” involves a “teenage dilemma” and a message about that dilemma.  The story is didactic, to be certain, but also lacking in any genuine scope or real danger.  In the age of Iron Man (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and The Avengers (2012), this feels like superhero storytelling in a very minor league indeed, but of course, it is fruitless to make such a comparison, since decades separate Shazam! and such productions.  But importantly, Shazam! also does not travel the route of its contemporary superhero series like Batman (1966 – 1969).  It deliberately eschews super villains for more “real” (if, again, small-potato) stories.  

Honestly, the series would be more interesting to watch with more dynamic and colorful villains.

Despite the small-potatoes nature of the narrative, Hollingsworth Morse shoots the first episode with crisp authority, and there are some nice, if workman-like set-ups featured throughout the half-hour  Shazam actually looks as though it was filmed under the auspices of modern guerrilla filmmaking principles, with shots grabbed in parking lots, on back streets, in junkyards, and so forth.  There isn’t a single interior shot in the whole half-hour, unless one counts the front seats of Mentor’s RV.

In terms of character background, very little information is provided in “The Joyriders.”  Billy reveals that he and Mentor are on vacation, and that he is relieved he doesn’t have to prepare and deliver the morning news cast at his school.  But other than that information, we don’t know how Billy and Mentor met, how Mentor came to know of the Elders, or upon what principles the strange communication dome in the RV operates.  Instead, the episode is an immediate descent into SoCal juvenile delinquency and After School Special-type lessons about moral behavior.

I have a six year old child, so it’s not like I’m not opposed to TV stories containing a “lesson” in good behavior, but Shazam sure feels relentless in its moralizing.  That established, what this episode diagrams is the importance of empathy. Chuck has had his bike stolen, so he understands what it would feel like to have a car stolen.  Today, I find that a lack of empathy -- across the culture -- is perhaps the biggest problem facing us as a nation.  We have politicians who grew up with a social safety net, a social safety net that sent them to college or helped them endure deaths in their families, and yet today those very same politicians want to gut the same programs that were there for them in those times of need and pain.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to put oneself in the position of the less-fortunate “other?”

So perhaps I shouldn’t complain that Shazam chooses this idea of empathy as a part of its inaugural “lesson.”

In terms of the performances, Jackson Bostwick plays Captain Marvel here, and he brings a gentle, quiet strength to his scenes as the superhero, never saying too much, or contributing to the episode’s talkiness.  His taciturn nature is a nice change from all the overt moralizing.

Next week: “The Brothers.”

Friday, March 15, 2013

From the Archive: The Running Man (1987)

"This is television, that's all it is. It has nothing to do with people, it's to do with ratings! For fifty years, we've told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear.  For Christ's sake, Ben, don't you understand? Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give 'em what they want! We're number one, Ben, that's all that counts, believe me."

-Damon Killian, in The Running Man (1987) 

Based on a 1982 sci-fi novel by Richard Bachman (Stephen King, actually), the motion picture version of The Running Man (1987) arrived in theaters during the Great Year of Arnold Schwarzenegger; the very season that also brought audiences John McTiernan's Predator. 

Although viewers typically and rightly associate Schwarzenegger with action films, The Running Man ably and rather surprisingly functions best as a satire of American television and politics.  

While the writing and performances in this dystopian film tend towards the razor sharp, the action sequences in the film don't always hold up as well. They feel episodic, dull, predictable and repetitive.  To be certain, the film is a highly entertaining experience from start to finish, but never, precisely, the adrenalin-inducing thrill ride that some action fans might hope for or expect.  Still, it seems the film's trademark action scenes did inspire a real life competition TV series entitled American Gladiators (1989 - 1996), right down to the spandex costumes.

Bachman/King's literary version of The Running Man remains far more grim, serious and spectacular in approach than the Schwarzenegger film, a fact which makes the possibility of a more source-faithful movie adaptation a possibility, especially in this age of remakes.  The novel as you may recall, is set in a totalitarian America in 2025 and involves a man, Ben Richards, "running" on a popular TV program so as to pay for expensive medicine for his ailing daughter. 

The movie version eliminates this important character background and motivation, as well as the novel's incendiary, unforgettable ending; one which transforms Richards from a game show contestant to a bonafide enemy of the state and so-called "terrorist." 

In other words, the 1987 movie version is less interested in creating real, identifiable characters and building a believable dystopian future world than it is in commenting humorously (if accurately) on aspects of our own world.  Not there's anything wrong with that.  Like I wrote above, it's the biting satire of American media and politics that makes The Running Man a rewarding film to watch over twenty years after it was released.  If anything, the film's observations about our entertainment seems only more apt in 2013, after ten years+ of reality television programming.

The movie version of The Running Man actually has much more in common with Roger Corman and Paul Bartel's trail-blazing Death Race 2000 (1975) than King's literary portrait of a totalitarian future America.  In both Death Race 2000 and The Running Man, the media and the government have joined forces -- through a popular TV show -- to divert  the attention of the poverty-stricken masses.  While the country fails, these "bread and circuses" successfully keep the populace distracted from real problems, namely the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots.  In both films, the popular TV show overtly focuses on bloodshed and violence, either in the form of a cross-country race or a pedestrian chase.

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, The Running Man also shares much in common with another great 1987 science fiction movie, Verhoeven's RoboCop.  To wit, both cinematic endeavors feature short, satirical commercials and imagery that reveal, at length, how crass and stupid network television can really be.  Ironically, considering Schwarzenegger's presence, The Running Man also shares RoboCop's  anti-establishment suspicion of the ascendant right wing in America during the eighties. 

Where RoboCop humorously depicted the end result of privatizing anything and everything in America, including the police force, The Running Man gazes more directly at the cult of celebrity in America and the ever-increasing blending of politics and entertainment. 

Lest we forget it, a Hollywood actor was President of the United States in 1987 and, because of his advanced age, some folks considered him more a showman by many than an actual leader in terms of policy and administration.   The Running Man takes that premise further, envisioning a wholesale blending of entertainment and politics at every level of government. 

For instance, at one point in the film, Killian (game show host Richard Dawson) barks "Get me the Justice Department...Entertainment Division."  In the same scene, he orders an underling to "get me the President's agent."  In another sequence, "court-appointed talent agents" are discussed.

The idea here is that Hollywood and politics are a match made in Heaven (or is it Hell?).  Both Hollywood and Washington D.C. focus on the same important task: selling imagery and fantasy, not reality, to an American populace desperately seeking hope, truth and justice.

The film is even more cynical (and wonderful) than that.  It suggests that concepts such as justice are all just a game, anyway...a spin of the wheel of fortune.  And in the world of The Running Man, freedom isn't even on the board.  You can win such great prizes (if you're lucky...) as "trial by jury," "suspended sentence" and even "a full pardon," but real liberty is absent.  

"I'm not into politics.  I'm into survival."

The Running Man is set in the year 2019.  The World Economy has collapsed and food, oil and natural resources are in short supply all over the United States. 

Because of these crises, a police state has arisen in America.  No dissent is tolerated, and television is controlled and created entirely by the State.

Helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is arrested by his fellow officers when he refuses to open fire on unarmed civilians during an urban food riot.  But the State manipulates video footage of this event and thus transforms the innocent Richards into "The Butcher of Bakersfield." 

This is another example of government's manipulation of media, and media imagery in the film; the transformation of a real-life hero into a hiss-able villain for wide-scale public consumption.  An easily digestible image or sound-bite is packaged and sold, rather than a possibly-damaging, harder-to-countenance reality.

Richards  is sent to a work camp and spends the next eighteen months there.  After an escape from the labor camp, Ben Richards is apprehended by authorities thanks to lovely, Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso), a citizen who believes the lies about "The Butcher."  When Damon Killian (Dawson), host of the number one TV show, The Running Man, sees news footage of Richards in action, the ratings-hungry showman realizes he's discovered the next great star.  He quickly negotiates to have Ben Richards turned over to him.

Richards reluctantly appears on The Running Man, a game show in which contestants run for their lives...against terrible odds.  There, he is pitted against government "heroes" -- really bloodthirsty killers --with names such as Sub-Zero, Bloodlust, Buzzsaw, Dynamite and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). 

However, if Richards can hook up with the People's Network, a growing resistance movement, and gain control of the Running Man transmission, Killian may have a few surprises coming his way...

Mr. Richards, I'm your court-appointed theatrical agent.

The Running Man works overtime, and with more than a modicum of cleverness, to create a world in which image and reality don't match up. 

Again, this is what I have often termed the Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid/Don't Worry Be Happy duality of the decade. 

Americans were asked in the 1980s to believe that they could spend (much) more on national defense and pay lower taxes and shrink government all at the same time. 

This was the essence of  the argument in 1980, but by 1988, government had grown considerably, adding 61,000 Federal jobs to Washington.  Also, taxes were raised three times, in 1983 (gas tax), in 1984, and in the Tax Reform Act of 1986.  Finally, America piled on  2.7 trillion dollars to the national debt in those eight years.  The people were sold the very appealing mantra of lower taxes, smaller government and affordable defense, but that was not what was delivered by Washington D.C.

The Running Man reflects the huge gap between reality and fantasy that we saw in real life during those years.  Damon Killian -- whose name always makes me think of Simon Cowell --  is a character who puts on a face of love and kindness for audiences.  He kisses old ladies, and hand-holds nervous contestants.   But he is actually a mean-spirited, power-mad, control-freak.  In one scene, Killian nearly trips on a newly waxed floor in his office building.  An employee apologizes to him, and Killian graciously accepts the apology to the employee's face. As soon as the custodian is gone, Killian orders him to be fired.

This is just one small example of the reality/imagery gap.  As mentioned above, Killian has the Bakersfield food riot videotape edited so that it presents a lie, the very opposite of the truth.  A man who should be lauded as a hero, Richards, is instead despised as a villain...all so Killian can get better ratings.  Similarly, Killian makes another attempt to deceive audiences late in the film, utilizing "traveling mattes" and other state-of-the-art special effects techniques to make it appear as though Richards is killed in the contest when, in fact, he has escaped unharmed.

Another of Killian's lies: last season's winners on The Running Man are not celebrating on a tropical beach somewhere, they've been murdered by Killian. 

Described succinctly, everything Killian does in public and for the TV show is a show.  It bears no resemblance to reality.  It's just show business...but this behavior is especially sinister in the film because lives are on the line, and the movie has explicitly connected show business to politics and government.

The people of America aren't exactly spared harsh criticism by this satire either.  Although Killian repeatedly discusses "traditional morality" and such on The Running Man, the people in America are actually nourished on a steady diet of violence, avarice and perversion. 

We see this fact exemplified in one of the commercials made for the film, Climbing for Dollars, which shows hungry dogs nipping at the feet of contestants as they climb a rope, scrambling to collect money.  At another point, we see a poster for a television series entitled "The Hate Boat."   Again, this is not traditional morality, it's sex and violence as governmental distraction or sleight-of-hand. 

The audience members watching The Running Man are particularly fickle too.  At first they mourn when their gladiators die in battle.  But soon enough, they are hooting and hollering in favor of Richards, the very man who killed their "favorites."  Again, the projected image is one of decency and traditional values, but it's not real.  "Words can't express" how sad the audience feels at the loss of their heroes says Killian.  But then he cuts to commercials, and sells more "Cadre Cola."   Apparently mourning can't get in the way of making a few bucks.  And the audience can't even remember who they were rooting for before the commercial break.  

The Running Man works efficiently as a satire because it reveals so well how films and TV can, in the wrong hands, be utterly manipulated and manipulative.  The film's master-stroke regarding this leitmotif involves the casting of Richard Dawson, former host of Family Feud.  Hiring Dawson was a real coup, because he very ably mocks his familiar game show persona but then layers on the screen character's private, caustic face.   Dawson makes for an extraordinary villain by playing on our expectations and then totally subverting them. 

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted: "Mr. Dawson, who was the host of television's long-running ''Family Feud'' game show, is wonderfully comic as a fellow who'd star his own beloved dad as the ''running man'' if it would buy him a few points. His hair always perfectly blow-dried, his haberdashery immaculate, Mr. Dawson steals the movie as a personality composed of equal parts of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore (Mickey) Robespierre."

More than the imposing Schwarzenegger, Dawson is the fuel that drives The Running Man, making it so very wicked, so much fun, and seemingly so real.   That established, this is also one of the Governator's most impressive film performances. The Washington Post wrote: "Pumped and primed for self-parody, the burly star proves as funny as he is ferocious in this tough guy's commentary on America's preoccupation with violence and game shows."  I agree with that review as well.  If Dawson is willing to mock his public image here (and he is), Schwarzenegger courageously goes down that same path with him, even mimicking his most famous screen line, "I'll be back," and opening himself up for Dawson's great comeback.

"Only in reruns..."

There's something very post-modern happening here.  The Running Man tackles the unholy juncture of television and politics at the same time that it playfully pivots off our intimate knowledge and affection for Dawson's and Schwarzenneger's familiar screen personas.  It's a very, very...meta equation, for lack of a better term.

I only wish that the action scenes in The Running Man were a little more varied, a little less predictable  A killer is called on stage, and then he goes in to hunt Richards.  Richard is victorious and it's time for another hunter.  Rinse and repeat.  Ad nauseum.  Watching the film, you get the distinct sense that all of the talent was energized by the film's witty ideas, but that the action scenes were sort of left to fend for themselves.

Still, The Running Man isn't out of steam, even today.  It gets a lot of the "future" detail just right.  From fears of an economic collapse to fuel shortages, the film makes some pretty accurate guesses about the 2010s.  At one point, Ben Richards books his escape route/travel itinerary on an interactive television set, a precursor to something we do on the Internet now all the time. 

And also, of course, this 1987 film seems to understand that our television and politics were headed towards a generation of ingrained and unimaginable cruelty.

It's not a pretty picture, but I bet that with just a few tweaks here and there, Killian's The Running Man would be a pretty big hit with some people these days....

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

You can make the Veronica Mars Movie Happen...

I just contributed to the cause, and I hope you will too.  

Veronica Mars' creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are behind this Kickstarter project so it is for real.  There are thirty days left to meet the goal of 2 million dollars.  644,000 2,515,000 dollars have already been raised.

If you haven't seen Veronica Mars, you are really missing something.  This is what I wrote about the series, not long ago: 

"In just three years, Veronica Mars gave us one of the greatest, most memorable TV detectives since Peter Falk’s Columbo in Kristen Bell’s feisty, brilliant character.

The mystery format is an under-served genre on television right now, and no show has achieved as much as Veronica Mars did regarding that genre, adroitly updating the form for our high-tech age and advances like social media and cell phones. Picking up on the series now would allow us to follow Veronica as an adult (with new technology…) meaning a whole new avenue of storytelling, whether she’s at the FBI, or still working with her Dad in Neptune. 

At heart, Veronica Mars was also a mystery series that examined class differences in America: the lives of the obscenely rich and the very poor in one particular context (a California beach town).  Today, that background context feels much more pertinent.  Hence Veronica Mars deserves a return."

So go ahead and kick in a few bucks, if you can...

Update: the campaign's goals were met, and the money has been raised!  My thanks to everyone who contributed!

Pop Art: Space:1999 (Syndicated "Movie"/VHS Edition)

Collectible of the Week: The Bionic Woman Sports Car (Kenner; 1977)

In the mid-1970s, Kenner produced an expansive and gorgeous line of action figures and play sets in the bionic universe of Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) and Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner).  I collected these toys with fervor as a kid, though don’t have many left in 2013.

However, one toy from the line that I still possess is the Bionic Woman Sports Car.  This car is “Designed for action-packed Bionic adventures!” and comfortably houses Jaime and a passenger (either Steve, Oscar or Maskatron…).

The car comes equipped with a “Front storage area with bionic plug-in for first aid and repairs” and a “back storage area for extra clothing, shoes, and mission purse.” 

If this car were Steve’s, I can’t imagine the trunk would be for extra “shoes.”

Anyway, the car’s side doors open in the event of brake malfunction.  Or as the box puts it: “Emergency - - - Brakes failed! Don’t worry - - - Door swings open to help Jaime make bionic stops.”

The bionic toy which I always wanted, but never had, however is the Six Million Dollar Man Venus Probe Toy.  That thing could have really gone head-to-head with Jaime’s sports car…'

Model Kit of the Week #20: Mr. Spock

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Oz Movies

Cult-Movie Review: Oz The Great and Powerful (2013)

“Nobody working seems to love the movie-ness of movies more than he does, reveling in the fun stunts that can be pulled with cranes and dolly tracks and wide-angle lenses. From the flying eyeball POV shot in The Evil Dead to the shaft of sunlight beaming through a perforated torso in The Quick and the Dead, he’s happily assumed the role of everybody’s movie-mad kid brother, tinkled pink at his own baroque ingenuity.”

-          David Chute writes about director Sam Raimi (Film Comment, November/December 1998.)

The quote printed above accurately describes Sam Raimi’s style as a director of genre films.  In terms of the aforementioned brand of ingenuity, the baroque art form is one of exaggerated motion, and crisp detail in the service of drama, suspense, grandeur, and, essentially, emotion.  

Oz The Great and Powerful is one of the finer epic movie fantasies of recent years owing mostly to these qualities.  In other words, Raimi’s aesthetic personality infuses almost every moment with that trademark ingenuity and larger-than-life brand of emotionalism.  He goes big and wide and deep to plumb the heart-strings, and isn’t afraid to clutch at sentimentality or schmaltzy humor on his quest. 

In fact, Raimi deliberately nudges scenes over-the-top to generate laughs, terror, and pathos in Oz.  As always, he recognizes the line between horror and comedy, and then trespasses it relentlessly…and with inordinate pleasure.

The second and perhaps equally crucial element of Raimi’s aesthetic approach involves the fact that he is -- for all intents and purposes -- a showman, or a magician.  As such, he loves and cherishes the idea of film as a brand of magic. 

He desires to trick and wow audiences, and more than that, understands how to trick and wow audiences.

Raimi grew up performing magic shows in Michigan -- with Bruce Campbell as his assistant, no less -- and  during that span he came to to see the art of movie-making as an extension of the art of illusion.  Tim Philo, cinematographer on The Evil Dead (1983) told me about Raimi in 2004 (for my book, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi), that: “sometimes [on The Evil Dead] he would say ‘I want to do this because it is a twist on a magic trick’ or ‘I just want to do this because they’ll wonder how we did it.’”

Likewise, one must consider Raimi’s fondness for the movie-going experience, and how he has mused about it in terms of both the technology and emotional impact of that technology.  He says:

When you sit in a theater, there’s a great deal of expectation as you wait for the film to begin.  You’re in the darkness and the screen clears and that arc lamp comes on the projector and the screen is flooded with light.  Then the logo comes up and it’s brilliant.  It calls to mind all the great classics that have come before.” (Laurence Lerman. “Killer of Dreams,” Video Business, August 28, 2000.)

To fully understand Oz The Great and Powerful, it’s necessary to remember and understand Raimi’s creative approach, and this enduring fascination he boasts for the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the moviemaking experiencing, the technology that makes mass entertainment of this sort possible in the first place. 

In short, the film’s central character, Oscar (James Franco), the wizard of Oz, is in fact, a mirror image of Raimi.

Both men create what appears to be magic through the auspices of technology.  Another way to put it is that they are both technological wizards, the kind who work wonders with light, smoke, gears and cogs, not to mention misdirection and sleight-of-hand. And, both the film and its director stand at the same unhappy career cross-roads.  Oscar’s latest show in 1905 Kansas meets with cat-calls and tomato-throwing from unhappy audience members, and if you think back to Raimi’s last mainstream picture, Spider-Man 3 (2007), he’s roughly in the same boat (despite the fact that Drag Me to Hell rocked).

So, this is a case where the journey of the filmmaker and the journey of the film’s protagonist intersect.  And the answer that resolves both crises rests in the “magic” of technology, the magic of the movies.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the epic fantasy of Oz is, finally, familiar material for Raimi.  He once told another cinematic story about a con-man defending a kingdom from evil via the “magical” auspices of science.  That film was titled Army of Darkness (1992). 

By returning to this theme, and by doing so in his trademark baroque-ingenious fashion, Raimi transforms Oz The Great and Powerful from generic CGI blockbuster into an emotionally-resonant fantasy about the place for science in a world ruled by mysticism, and one man’s journey from scorn and self-loathing to redemption. 

The latter element, the closely observed human journey, enables Oz The Great and the Powerful to rise above largely-soulless, recent CGI cinematic fantasies such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Wrath of the Titans (2012), two films so devoid of human interest and human emotion that they literally seemed to turn to ashes as you watched them.

Oz The Great and Powerful is a family movie and a blockbuster, but within the considerable strictures associated with those formats, Raimi again finds the space to be playful and big, experimental and, simultaneously, comforting.  As an audience member, you'll get everything you expect, and then quite a bit of the unexpected too.

In Oz The Great and Powerful, a small-time carnival con man and magician, Oscar (James Franco) is pulled via a hot air balloon and a tornado funnel into the colorful and fantastic world of Oz.  There he is greeted as “the wizard,” a messiah who can save the Emerald City and other Kingdoms from the hands of the Wicked Witch, who has murdered and deposed the rightful king.

At first, Oscar allies himself with Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and her lovely, innocent sister, Theodora (Mila Kunis).  But when Oscar meets Glinda (Michelle Williams), he realizes that Evanora is the wicked witch herself, and that she possesses the powers to turn Theodora’s good heart against itself, to the ruination of everyone. 

With the help of a little China Girl (Joey King) he has rescued from China Town, as well as a flying monkey, Finley (Zach Braff) who owes him a life-debt, Oscar sets about saving Oz, and his own human soul from the forces of evil (and greed, in particular). 

To succeed, Oscar will have to bring his own unique brand of magic to this troubled wonderland…

Itself based on Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Raimi’s Army of Darkness contains several parallels with Oz the Great and Powerful.  In Army of Darkness, Bruce Campbell plays a modern day hero in King Arthur’s court, Ash. He is not terribly bright, nor terribly brave, but Ash is a hero because he devises a strategy, using science, to defeat the advancing army of the Deadites.

The key to that strategy is the book in the back of his death coaster Delta 88: a modern science textbook.  Armed with science and the pre-existing belief/prophecy that he is somehow the people’s “Promised One,” Ash leads Arthur’s kingdom to victory over the Medieval Dead.

Notice how closely Oz The Great and Powerful tracks with Army.  The lead character, Oscar, is not a traditional hero either, but rather a con-man and money-grubber.  Furthermore, he is prophesized to bring freedom to the land, not as “The Promised One,” but as “The Wizard.”  And finally, he leads the troops to battle by learning the lessons of another  book, this time one called “Mastering Magic.”  He brings 20th century “magic” -- meaning the tricks of Thomas Edison, in particular -- to a land without such technology.  And he is victorious.

Both stories concern, to a very large degree, how science and rationality – that which appears “magic” to those who don’t understand it -- can usurp the role of traditional religion/mysticism in a society controlled by tyrants or under threat from them.  In both situations, mysticism only raises evil, whether via the Deadites or the Wicked Witches.  Science and technology, by contrast, are the stabilizing factors which restore order in both tales.  In both stories, 20th century “magic” -- science -- makes life better.

In an age when some congressmen loudly proclaim that science and evolution are from “the pits of hell,” this is a message that bears repeating, and which is welcome in our mass entertainment. 

In terms of their lead characters, both Army of Darkness and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court remind the audience that you don’t need to be a burly muscle-man or even a marksman to be a hero.  Instead, you need to have passed your high school science class.  And again, given the anti-intellectual strain which pervades certain elements of our culture, this is a value worth championing.

Raimi re-purposes the Wizard of Oz's black-and-white/color, Kansas/Oz duality to make many of his thematic points.  Oscar isn’t a very good person in “real life.”  In cold, austere black-and-white, he can’t help a girl in a wheelchair walk again.  He can’t even succeed with magic show audiences.  In this world, people don’t want his science and gadgetry, they want miracles. And he can’t give them miracles. He feels bad about himself for lying to them about the nature of what he does. 

But in colorful Oz, that dynamic is flipped. 

The girl in the wheelchair becomes the China Girl, an individual who can be fixed via the auspices of science (which gave us glue). Finally, Oscar realizes that this world already has miracles – the miracles of magic – but what it needs to prosper and grow is science and showmanship.  So he performs the greatest show of all time, tricking the Wicked Witches out of Oz with fireworks, scarecrows, motors, and the magic of filmmaking.  He never has to fire a shot, and he is beloved by an adoring crowd for showing them something they have never seen before. 

As is often the case of late, several critics have missed the boat about Oz, failing to connect Raimi’s aesthetic approach to the material either in terms of specific shots, or the film’s self-reflexive quality.  But a crucial thing to remember about Raimi’s approach to filmmaking is that, like Oscar, he wants to wow you.

He can accomplish that goal by orchesrating a cliffhanging moment of alternating humor and terror entirely in silhouette and long-shot, for instance.  He can do it through the art of montage, with extreme, Dreyer-esque close-ups of Tinkerers hard at work on the eve of battle.  He can even do it with an almost sadistically intense scene of a “heart withering” in which the very film itself seems to pulse and quake as if enduring cardiac arrest.

So don’t believe the haters.  There is no “corporate cynicism” in this movie-making approach, only an earnest desire to please and enchant.  Those who have seen and claimed cynicism in Oz are reflecting not what occurs on screen.  Instead, they are reflecting their own cynicism, I would estimate.  Gaze across Raimi’s career and you’ll see for yourself: he doesn’t make cynical movies…because he is not a cynic.  He’s a guy in love with the art of movie-making and, facts-are-facts: cynics don’t generally make good showmen.

There’s also a weird self-hatred in many critics and viewers that seeks to diminish what is made “now” and champion what was made “then,” even in cases when what is made now is pretty good.  The Wizard of Oz (1939) is widely considered a classic and rightly-so, but again, facts are facts: Oz the Great and Wonderful, at least in terms of canny visualizations, suspense, and action, dwarfs the original film because Raimi possesses more resources with which to paint his canvas.

That’s okay.  They are two different films, and it’s permissible to like both, and see what “value” each film possesses.  In the case of the former, there are the immortal songs, the German expressionist forest, and other dazzling touches, most of which grow out of the Vaudeville experience in America. 

The glories in Oz The Great and Powerful by contrast grow out of the director’s understanding of the magic of film; of the way it can be used to misdirect, or create fear, or otherwise stoke and shape our emotions.  The tools Raimi utilizes are indeed largely the tools of today, but here’s the important thing: the effects, landscapes, and creatures of the film are seen through the eyes of a master magician, a man who knows from experience how to entertain, and how to achieve the maximum impact from the best application of film techniques.

Again, the same people who hated John Carter last summer want you to hate this movie in 2013.  They’ll tell you that James Franco is smarmy and blank.  I’ll tell you, instead, I’ve never seen him more engaged or animated than in Oz.  They’ll tell you the movie is without love, joy, or intensity.  I’ll tell you the exact opposite.  The moment of Thedora’s apotheosis -- her transformation into the Wicked Witch -- is so scary and intense on a purely emotional level that the scene sent my son, Joel, scrambling out of the theater (with his mom), despite the fact that he had already seen the valedictory shot of that sequence in previews:  the green claw with black fingernails emerging from darkness and scratching a wooden table.

In the moment, however, that image terrorizes because the emotions of the moment of have been expressed in that Raimi-esque baroque, or grand, style.

The truth is, Oz The Great and Powerful is a big, expensive summer entertainment, featuring everything that generic description entails.  But the movie goes beyond that description enough too, to warrant a positive recommendation. 

We’ve known for a long time that movies are a form of emotional manipulation.  And since that’s the case, you might as well see a mainstream film this summer in which you are manipulated by the most-skilled of magiciansIn the final analysis,  Oz the Great and Powerful, succeeds because of Sam Raimi The Baroque and Playful.

Movie Trailer: Oz The Great and Powerful (2013)

Theme Song of the Week: Eerie Indiana

Monday, March 11, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Ark Movies

Ask JKM a Question: Film Criticism vs. Opinion

A reader named Susan writes:

“Ever since I saw my first movie, I wanted to be a great movie critic.  What I’d like to know from you is what you believe is the key factor to being a movie critic on the InternetWhat is your advice?”

Susan, that’s an intriguing question, and I’m very happy to answer it.

There’s a lot of terrific film criticism on the Internet today, and a lot of bad criticism too. 

And part of the reason there is so much bad criticism is that many reviewers simply just give their opinions of films.

But everyone -- critic and non-critic alike -- has an opinion, of course. 

A movie critic must go beyond personal opinion and provide reasons, or arguments for or against a film’s quality or artistry. People can disagree with those reasons, but it is necessary to enunciate those arguments anyway.    In this way, readers can determine if you are full of shit, or deeply engaged in trying to convey the artistry of a film.

Personally, I grow immensely tired of reviews which make declarations about a film’s quality without any support whatsoever for those remarks.  Snark is not the same as criticism, and such reviews are nothing more than the written equivalent of mouthing-off.   

In my opinion, a good critic should approach every film her or she reviews with:
  • An understanding of film history.
  • An understanding of the social context outside the film (the Zeitgeist).
  • An understanding of film technique or film grammar and how it makes or breaks the film in question.
  • The patience and writing acumen to explain and support why a film strikes one in a certain fashion. With examples.  Lots of examples.

If a critic addresses those points, he or she usually impresses me.  The bottom line is that you must approach criticism not from an attitude of dismissal or derision, but from respect and open-mindedness.  By doing so, you raise the level of the dialogue, instead of lowering it.

The Internet gives everybody a platform to publish their work, but the fact is that not everyone is a critic by temperament. 

Just tossing out an opinion isn’t the same thing as writing movie criticism.  Critics don’t get “paid” for opinions.  They get paid -- when that happens at all -- to meaningfully contextualize films for audiences.

Critics should guide viewers in the process of seeing a particular film in a meaningful way.  If they don’t accomplish that task in their reviews, readers aren’t really getting their money’s worth, or time’s worth.

I hope that advice helps, and I hope you have much success in your career endeavors.  Go fulfill your dream of becoming a great movie critic!

Don’t forget to ask me a question at

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Arks

In the Bible, Genesis recounts the story of Noah’s Ark: a sea-going vehicle built by kindly patriarch Noah so as to save his family, and the world’s animals too, during the Great Flood.  The Hebrew word for ark is “teba” which means “salvation from water.”  Water, of course, is an agent of cleansing or catharsis, and so the ark story is about destroying the corrupt, and cleansing the very world.  It is also a story of new beginnings.

In terms of cult-television history, the Noah’s Ark narrative has been transformed to involve any vessel -- usually space-going -- that can save the population of Earth from global disaster.  Usually, the global disaster involves the Sun, but not universally so.

Doctor Who (1963 – 1989; 2005 – present) has frequently featured ark-style narratives during its long run. 

In 1966’s “The Ark,” the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions travel to the 57th Segment of Time, around the year 10 Million AD, and discover the remnants of mankind on a starship heading for a new planet to call home.  The Earth itself is dying because of the expansion of the Sun.  The mystery in the puzzle, however, is the presence of a cyclopean alien race called Monoids aboard the Ark…

In 1975, The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companions find themselves aboard Nerva several thousand years in our future.  Nerva is a space station orbiting an Earth ravaged by solar flares.  Several thousand humans have been frozen in suspended animation since coming aboard, and are awaiting the signal to awaken and re-populate the planet.  Unfortunately, an alien race called The Wirrn is feeding on the dormant astronauts, jeopardizing the future of the human race.

Recently, in 2012, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions -- including Queen Nefertiti – discovered a Silurian Ark in the seventh season story “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.”  Here, the ancient homo reptilia --– the Silurians -- feared a planetary collision in prehistory, and preserved several species of dinosaurs aboard their Ark. Now, in 2367 AD, that ark is returning home, but with a dangerous scavenger aboard who wishes to exploit the animals.

The early 1970s series The Starlost (1973-1974) also revolved around the concept of a space ark. Five hundred years or so after launching from a devastated Mother Earth, the Earthship Ark is on a collision course for a “Class G Solar Star.”  Alas, none of Earth’s denizens are aware they are aboard a spaceship, separated into separate biospheres, as the disaster nears.

When first imagined, Glen Larson’s series Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) was to be called “Adam’s Ark,” and it involved an exodus from Earth in a time of disaster.  In the actual series, the ark premise was reversed.  After a deadly war in space, brothers of man from another galaxy set a course on their ark – the Galactica – for Earth.

Other cult series have also seen regular characters interfacing with space arks for an episode or two.  On Star Trek’s (1966 – 1969) “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky,” the Enterprise encounters Yonada, a world-ship or Ark on a collision course with another world. 

And in Space:1999’s (1975 – 1977) “Mission of the Darians,” the Alphans attempt to render aid to the crippled space Ark S.S. Daria, only to find the upper class of the ship preying on the bodies (and spirits…) of the ship’s other inhabitants. 

In some sense, Moonbase Alpha is itself an “ark” in this series, one carrying humanity’s best and brightest to another world.  Writer and story-editor Johnny Byrne often contextualized Space: 1999 as the (future) origin story of the Alphans, thus making it a story not unlike in some ways, Noah’s Ark.