Monday, November 20, 2017

Memory Bank: WWOR TV and Thanksgiving Monsters

When I was growing up in the New Jersey burbs during the seventies and early eighties there was a great Thanksgiving Day tradition that I’d like to share with you today, on the eve of the holiday in 2015. 

Every year, WOR Channel 9 would broadcast King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) on Turkey Day.

Then, on Friday, the same station would host a Godzilla marathon consisting of such films as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971) and many others. Some years, if memory serves, War of the Gargantuas (1968) also played.

I remember showering and dressing early on those Thanksgiving Days, so I could be lodged near the TV when the Kong movies started.  

Meanwhile, my Mom and Dad would be busy in the kitchen preparing a great meal of turkey, stuffing, baked carrots with cinnamon, and home-made biscuits. The house would fill with the delectable aromas of the feast, and even downstairs -- while glued to WOR-TV -- I could feel my appetite for dinner building.

Our guests, usually my grandparents and aunts and uncles, would arrive sometime in the early afternoon, around 1:00 pm and I would socialize with them, and then sneak back to the family room for more King Kong.  Sometimes my uncle Larry, a horror fan after a fashion, would join me.

Then the meal and dessert -- a chocolate cream pie and a pumpkin pie -- would be served, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company over the delicious food.  After an appropriate interval of visiting and socializing, I’d high-tail it once more back down the stairs to watch more of the movies.

I’m certain my description of Thanksgiving makes it sound weird and anti-social, but you must remember that in the seventies, there were no VCRs (let alone DVRs or movie streaming), which meant that if you wanted to see a movie like King Kong, you had to seize your moment, or else wait for another year.

I believe it took me the better part of four Thanksgivings to see all of King Kong, and then not even in chronological order.  I actually saw the entirety of Son of Kong first, perhaps because it was often scheduled between our early afternoon dinner and dessert course.

This tradition of King Kong Thanksgiving and Godzilla Black Friday continued over a long period at my house -- the better part of a decade -- so much so that I still irrevocably associate the Holiday season with WOR Channel 9 and its monster movie broadcasts.  

I still remember, a bit guiltily, forcing my parents to watch the seventies Godzilla movies on Fridays, while we ate Thanksgiving leftovers in the family room.  My folks liked the King Kong movies, but when it came to Japanese monster movies, they weren’t exactly big fans..

Anyway, if you decide to spend the holiday with giant monsters, make sure to bring the pumpkin pie...and Happy Thanksgiving.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Thumbs-Up

The “thumbs up” sign is a gesture of approval or satisfaction, at least in the United States of America. In some other countries and regions, however, the thumbs up is actually an insulting expressin, a gesture we reserve, here, for the middle finger. This is true in some areas of South America, Iran, Afghanistan, and Italy, for instance.

In cult-TV history, however, the thumbs-up sign has often been a funny sign of assent and agreement, but the gesture is also a trademark of two particular historic programs, in particular.

Happy Days (1974-1984), a nostalgic program about the 1950’s, introduced the character of the Fonz -- or Fonzie (Henry Winkler) -- who was the coolest person in existence. The Fonz wore a leather jacket, drove a motorcycle, jumped a shark, and indicated approval with his ubiquitous thumbs-up gesture. The Fonz became such a pop culture icon that his “thumbs up” image was seen on T-shirts, trading cards and other collectibles.

The other TV series to make frequent use of the “thumbs up” gesture, of course, is At the Movies (1982-86), which featured film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert giving their (often dueling) opinions of current movie releases.

A thumb’s up sign was also seen in the opening credits, each week, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989 – 1999) during the Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) era. Joel appeared in his red-jump suit and hard-hat, “cleaning up the place” (Gizmonic Institute), and giving his assent to the camera with the thumbs-up.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Thumbs Up!













Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "The Crystallites" (September 13, 1975)

Barney (Chuck McCann), Junior (Bob Denver), and Honk (Patty Mahoney) run out of water on an alien planet.  Junior and Honk go out in a rover to find some of the much-needed liquid, but find colored alien coconuts instead. The milk inside tastes like chocolate.

Though Barney refuses to taste the milk until it is tasted, Junior shows no such restraint. After drinking the liquid, he transforms into a hairy green monster every time he sneezes.

Meanwhile, Trentor -- the leader of the Crystallites (John Carradine) -- spies on the stranded Earthlings and decides that they could be useful. In particular, he wants to transform Junior into a Crystallite, after making him king.  

The only downside is that Junior will be made of glass. And, well, that his role as monarch lasts only a day.

Honk and Barney escape from the Crystallites, and make Junior sneeze so that he can stop the attack of the Crystallites.

The second episode of the Sid and Marty Krofft live-action Saturday morning series The Far Out Space Nuts (1975) follows very closely the format of the first episode, “It’s All in Your Mind.”

Last week, it was a computer, G.A.L. that wanted to capture and absorb Junior. This week, it is an alien Crystallite, played by the legendary John Carradine, who has a malevolent plan for the clumsy Junior.  

In both cases, the alien leader has exactly three followers, who fly around on a hover device, and chase our heroic “space nuts.”

In this case, the Crystallites are also armed with transparent glass rods that can crystallize all living matter.  And the aforementioned hovercraft resembles giant salt and pepper shakers.

This episode also establishes that the space nuts have no weapons. When tasked with defending themselves, they resort to a tennis racquet, a beach ball, and a fly swatter.  Not very effective.  But these items create a secondary problem (and one that was frequently seen on Lost in Space [1965-1968]). 

What exactly are these items doing on a spaceship where there are weight limits, and space is at a premium? What’s the function, after all, of one tennis racquet, and a beach ball?

John Carradine is our villain of the week, and he acquits himself well, especially considering his silver costume and glitter make-up. Carradine makes for an effective bad guy, but it is sad to see an actor of his stature and reputation relegated to a cheap Saturday morning series, and a guest part like this one.

Finally, this episode is not as creepy as last week's installment, because the villainous minions "ham" up their act, slipping, and sliding, and exaggerating their zombie-like stomp to comic proportions.

Next week: “The Robots of Pod.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Trial of the Super Friends" (October 7, 1978)

The Super Friends defend a new energy source called “Liquid Light,” but the Legion of Doom soon steals it. In truth, the Legion has a far more insidious plan.

It uses its agent to capture the super devices of the Justice League, including Wonder Woman’s lasso, Green Lantern’s power ring, and the utility belts belonging to Batman and Robin.  The Super Friends are rendered powerless and transported to the HQ of the Legion of Doom.

There, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Caped Crusaders are put on trial and found guilty of defending justice. They are sentenced to fight android duplicates of themselves; but ones armed with their devices.

The heroes of the Justice League get a “taste of their own medicine” in “Trial of the Super Friends.” Deprived of their devices, they are forced to understand what it is like to be hunted by those who possess them.

This episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1978) reveals more information about the Legion of Doom. For example, the members operate by their own set of laws, of what you might call “anti-justice.” In their eyes, the Super Friends are the criminals. 

Actually, their laws are pretty, well... Libertarian. They seem to object to the heroes on the specific basis that the heroes interfere in their plans to do whatever they desire.  Amusingly, the oath in this anti-legal system is “So help me, Grod.”  That’s pretty funny.

Secondly, we see that the Legion HQ has an operating transporter device that can beam people from one location to another. As with other devices, the series’ writers only remember this device sporadically, when a particular narrative requires it.

As usual, logic is not a strong suit. At one point, Green Lantern is without his power ring. That ring is creating an impenetrable green force field. But Green Lantern just reaches through it, and grabs it. Is this because he controls all green powers, even without the ring?  If that’s the case, why bother to steal the ring anyway?

Repetitive dialogue watch: This week, Cheetah gets the constantly repeated line, “That’s what you think.” She addresses it, in this case, to Wonder Woman.  Later, Superman repeats “That’s what you think” to Black Manta.

This line is constantly and tiresomely repeated, and, as we have seen, totally interchangeable. It’s a playground level taunt for first graders, used by protagonists and antagonists alike.

Robin’s exclamation this week is pretty amusing “Holy Mistrials!

Next week: “Monolith of Evil.”

Friday, November 17, 2017

JLA Week: Justice League (2017) Trailer

JLA Week: Smallville: "Justice" (January 18, 2007)

In “Justice,” Clark Kent (Tom Welling) is still busy rounding up Kryptonian criminals who have escaped from the Phantom Zone.  But when his old friend, Bart Allen (Kyle Gallner) -- the fastest man alive -- happens into Kansas, Clark is suspicious that something is up.

He’s right. 

Bart is now working in secret with Oliver Queen/Green Arrow (Justin Hartley), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Alan Ritchson), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Lee Thompson Young) to help stop Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), and his secret “33.1” program, which involves the capture and exploitation of those with unusual abilities. His plan seems to to create an army of "super freaks."

On his mission to learn more, Bart walks into a trap at the Luthorcorp Ridge Facility, and Clark attempts to rescue him, unaware that the same facility is refining the meteor rocks that are deadly to him. 

Fortunately, Oliver’s “Justice” league comes to the rescue, and destroys the facility.

This sixth season episode of Smallville (2001 – 2011) written and directed by Steve DeKnight, sets up the Justice League for future appearances on this long-lived superhero series. Indeed, the league would return with new members (like Black Canary) throughout the remainder of the program’s run.

We live now in an age when superheroes on film and TV are not shy at all about appearing on-screen in comic-book uniforms. Smallville emerges from the age immediately preceding that one (post X-Men 2000]) when this was not the case. There was some embarrassment, apparently, on the part of producers about the comic-book costumes. Accordingly, the Justice League featured here is not seen in uniform, but rather in colorful “hoodies” and designer eye wear.  

The Flash -- here called Impulse -- wears a red hoodie, for example. Green Arrow wears a green one.  In a nod to the character’s appearance in The Super Friends, Arthur Curry’s Aquaman in Smallville is seen in an orange shirt.  

It’s not a perfect solution, for certain, and today – post-Avengers [2012], the hoodies seem silly and unnecessary, when we could have seen the characters in their classic uniforms instead.

So how does “Justice” hold up today? 

Well, again, one must consider the historical context. Smallville arose from a TV era that gave us two brilliant genre series: The X-Files (1993-2002), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003). In those series, audiences saw monsters-of-the-week, and also a strong post-modern, or “meta” sensibility.  

The same is true for Smallville.  

Especially notable in this episode is the latter quality.  Oliver jokes that he wants to give his league something with the name “Justice” in it. Similarly, Clark notes he boasts some “pretty amazing friends,” which seems like a reference to the Super Friends version of the Justice League.  The whole episode is quippy and tongue-in-cheek, and yet effective dramatically in one very real sense.

What is that sense? 

Well, Smallville ran for a very long time, and had a very “slow burn” approach to its story arcs.  “Justice” is worthwhile because Victor, Arthur, Bart, and Oliver, of course, have all had special episodes devoted to their back-stories and abilities by this point. "Justice" is not their first appearance, but rather their first appearance together. Accordingly, there is a sense of history about each of the league members that we would not have had, if the series had not assiduously devoted time and energy to establishing their characters individually. That history pays off here.

And yes, the episode is a bit cheesy.   

I won’t write, as one character quips, that “disappointment abounds,” but clearly this is the Justice League on a live-action TV budget. The team’s most dramatic moment finds the group -- walking in slow-motion-photography -- in the foreground of a shot, as Lex’s facility explodes in the background.  The effects don’t hold up particularly well today, and the moment doesn’t make  any sense anyway. 

Oliver is still human, rather than meta-human, right? Wouldn’t he want to move quickly away from a fireball?  

Actually, the same thing holds true for Clark, since we know meteor rocks are on the premises, and would make for very dangerous shrapnel in an explosion of the size we witness.  But now, instead, we get a cool-for-cool’s sake moment.

The other disappointment, of course, is that Justice League as featured here lacks two of the most famous and notable members: Batman and Wonder Woman. Come to think of it, this Justice League, at this juncture, is all-male.

Still, I was a big fan of Smallville over the years, in part for the investment that Welling and Rosenbaum clearly put into their starring roles. 

So when “Justice” aired for the first time -- a decade ago -- I was thrilled to see the Justice League come together in live action.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

JLA Week: Justice League: "The Enemy Below" (December 3, December 10, 2001)

“The Enemy Below” is a first season episode of Justice League (2001 - ) that has the distinction of introducing Aquaman to the prime-time TV series (if not the titular organization).

In “The Enemy Below,” a U.S. nuclear submarine, the Defiant, comes under attack by an advanced vessel. This underwater vehicle belongs to Aquaman, King of Atlantis, who is protecting his borders from invasion. He has no use for “surface dwellers.”

But Aquaman soon has greater problems to contend with: treason. His own brother, Orm, attempts to murder him, and kill his son, the rightful heir to the Kingdom of Atlantis.

The Justice League intervenes to help Aquaman, who must now stop a “doomsday” device from destroying the surface world.

Look at what they’ve done to Aqauman! In the 1960’s and 1970’s Aquaman was a blond haired, friendly superhero who could communicate with the animals of the sea. He was wholesome and kind, and basically -- down to the curl in his golden hair -- an underwater, blond version of Superman.

But the upshot was that some people made fun of the character, and felt he wasn't edgy, or angsty enough.  He was the butt of many jokes.

So the original portrayal changed in the 1990’s. Aquaman developed an attitude, grew long hair, and acquired a hook for one hand.  

This episode of Justice League follows on with that modern portrayal.  It depicts a Namor-like, arrogant individual who wears the heavy weight of ruling Atlantis on his shoulders, and clearly lacks for the social niceties. And, in the course of the two part “The Enemy Below,” we see the incident that costs him a hand.  Here, in the act of saving his son, he must cut it off.  He later acquires the hook.

As far as communicating with animals goes, this Aquaman does call for the assistance of an Orca during one climactic moment, but we don’t see any psychic waves emanating from his head (as was the case on The Super Friends in the 1970’s).

This Aquaman is so attitudinal that he gruffly pushes Wonder Woman aside -- without so much as an "excuse me" - and even, by episode’s end, doesn’t fully trust the surface dwellers. In the original continuity, if I remember correctly, Aquaman was one of the founding members, actually of the JLA.

As I noted in my review of "Secret Origins" earlier today, the writers of Justice League apparently found it necessary to cause Superman incredible pain on a regular basis in an effort to humanize the character and show that he wasn't a God. In this story, Superman is constantly being zapped and hurt by Atlantean weaponry, so we can't assume that he is invincible. Again, I will say that this approach doesn’t really work. Once you realize what the writers are up to, it becomes something of a joke that Superman is constantly being battered and blasted.

Man of Steel…magnet for pain.


JLA Week: Justice League: "Secret Origins" (November 17, 2001)

In the fall of 2001 -- on the WB -- the Justice League was finally about to be done….justice

On Monday nights at 9:30 pm that autumn, many beloved D.C. heroes came together for two dozen adventures of action and excitement. This was Justice League, from producers Rich Fogel and Bruce Timm, and it was supposed to be a far cry from The Super Friends of the 1970’s.

No Wonder Dog.

No Wonder Twins.

No Wendy or Marvin.

No “That’s what you think!”-styled dialogue.

Instead, the focus was to be on the D.C. Universe and an adult rendering of the League characters.  

The protagonists featured in each half-hour episode were Batman, Superman, Jon Stewart (Green Lantern), Wonder Woman, Hawk Girl, Flash, and Martian Manhunter, who was introduced to the team in the pilot, “Secret Origins.”

The story of “Secret Origins” follows an attack on Earth by a race of alien parasites controlled by an intelligence called “the Imperium.” Martian Manhunter arrives on Earth to warn our planet of the extreme danger, since his culture was destroyed by this race.  

Soon, it’s all-out war, with only the superheroes to save mankind from subjugation.

At the end of the tale, the aliens are defeated and a Justice League is proposed, “like a bunch of Super Friends,” according to the dialogue.  

More like a…Justice League,” is the appropriate response.

Although grand in concept and in action, The Justice League is not the pure triumph it might have been because of the extreme focus on action, rather than on character. 

This weakness is plain in “Secret Origins.” It rivals The War of the Worlds, or at least Independence Day (1996) in terms of scope and ambition, but the characters are given short shrift. Hawk Girl and the Flash just show up, with no back-story or history to help us get to know them

Only two heroes -- Martian Manhunter, and Wonder Woman -- are given much by means of “secret origins” in this tale.  We learn here the tragic history of J’onn J’onz on Mars, and also the story of Wonder Woman leaving Paradise Island.  

When she first sees the superheroes, Green Lantern asks “Who’s the rookie in the tiara?

So Wonder Woman is, in essence, in this series, a novice superhero.

Batman and Superman are “in character,” here, meaning that they behave in ways that mark them as individual and distinctive people, but they still don’t get a lot of interesting things to say or do.  At the very least, they don’t announce what they are doing, all the time, like the characters did on The Super Friends.

“Secret Origins” features some scenes at the UN involving a protest about weapons of mass destruction, making it particularly timely for the turn of the century, and the soon-to-be Age of 9/11. 

Here Superman repeats his actions from the feature film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), disarming the nuclear weapons of the world, only to see the interference back-fire. 

The Imperium arrives, and Earthlings can’t defend themselves without their nukes. So, make no mistake, this first episode of Justice League is a social commentary about the need to maintain an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. 

Who knows when the next super villain plots to invade the planet, or our nation?  At least that seems to be the undercurrent here.

Superman’s act of kindness and peace is viewed as misguided and having the opposite effect.  The impact is to humanize the character (and reveal his flaws), but again, it’s strange that the writers picked this particular lesson since it was, indeed, the very lesson of Quest for Peace, which isn’t exactly considered a high point in the D.C. movie-verse.

Re-watching Justice League this time (in 2017), I noticed that the writers make special pains to give Superman feet of clay, so that he is "relatable" as a character, and not a God Incarnate.  In this episode, for example, the Man of Steel is almost constantly undergoing "pain" from mental contact with Martian Manhunter. He is always doubling over, collapsing, and grimacing.  I'm not sure it really works in terms of the character.

The great thing about “Secret Origins,” I suppose, is that it is action-packed, and each character gets a moment to shine…violently. We understand, from the visuals, exactly what each hero brings to the table, in terms of abilities, and strength.  

At the time the series aired, I watched it religiously, but came away, after the first season, feeling that, again, an opportunity not been fully exploited.  This is a more faithful take on the D.C. Justice League than we have yet seen, but I'm not sure that it accomplishes that meme of doing the team members "justice."  I know the series is very highly-regarded by fans, but on a re-watch I found the constant focus on action to, actually, sort of dull.