Wednesday, December 27, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK #27: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Justice"

There are many, many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes I could remember and champion today with fondness and appreciation (fine ventures such as "Yesterday's Enterprise," or "The Inner Light."). However, I want to recall a segment that is pretty unsung, and I have my own reasons for hailing it. Primarily, I believe it a critical and unique example of Gene Roddenberry's original vision for the spin-off series (prior to the takeover of the show by Rick Berman, and the introduction of such popular characters as the Borg). Yes, "Justice" might be considered damn cheesy. But that is part of the reason we love Star Trek, isn't it? It wears the heart and emotions on its sleeve. It is unfailingly honest. Some people think that makes the show "cheesy." I find it...delightful.

First, I ask you to remember Star Trek: The Next Generation in its first season. Come on. Think back. Some see this span in the history of Trek as deeply flawed, and they probably have a point. But let me play devil's advocate. On the other hand, one might gaze upon that age (the 1987-1988 season), as the clearest, most distilled example of Gene Roddenberry's true vision, excepting Star Trek: The Motion Picture. To wit: like the original series, the new series back then (1987) seemed bound and determined to set a record for interspecies kinkiness....a Roddenberry fetish. On the original series, Kirk bedded a lot of space chicks (or at least kissed them. Angelique Pettyjohn, where are you?) In the beginning of Next Gen, we had Tasha bedding a "fully functional" Lt. Data in "The Naked Now," Riker donning feathers and earrings (and showing man cleavage!) for the prime minister of a matriarchy in "Angel One," (yeah baby...), and this episode..."Justice." Wherein the natives on an alien world, a sensual sun-tanned lot called "the Edo" (think H.G. Wells' the Eloi, from The Time Machine...) "play at love" and make love at the drop of a hat. "Any hat," as Tasha Yar reminds us. Cue the porno music.

Now think about the rest of Next Generation seasons. Was the show ever this oddly and openly kinky again (besides the androgynous episode, "The Outcast" in Season Five and the one with Riker bedding an alien tabloid fan, "First Contact," I believe). This was indeed part of the original Star Trek vision (and part and parcel of the original series, witness episodes "By Any Other Name," "Gamesters of Triskelion," "Wink of an Eye," and "Conscience of the King..."). This heritage was forsaken in the new series as the seasons continued. I for one miss that spicy and spiky brand of perverse kinkiness. Give me "By Another Name," "Turnabout Intruder," or "Whom Gods Destroy" any day.

Other facets of The Next Gen's first season back in 1987: Roddenberry liked to solve stories without resorting to fights and firing phasers, whenever possible. Witness "Skin of Evil," in which the crew of the Enterprise D outwits the evil oil slick...with talk. Boring you say? Well, yeah sure, but also, in it's own way, quite a courageous and dramatic choice. What fun is it having a Shakespearean actor as a lead actor in your series if he has to resort to phasers all the time? Better to have Patrick Stewart sit down in the sand with the oil slick...and mediate. Remember, this was the age when we were talking to the Soviet Union - in summits in Iceland and elsewhere - not confronting it with missiles and armies. This was the age when it wasn't considered a sign of weakness to engage in diplomacy with enemies. Even if that enemy was a big, malevolent oil slick. Again, most fans of the series probably don't like the first season much; but there's a case to be made that it is the clearest version of Roddenberry's utopia. The downside, as my friend Howard Margolin pointed out? Picard isn't cool. Ever. He surrendered the flagship of the Federation twice in Next Gen's first four episodes. Oopsy. It's hard to get behind this guy the way you would Captain Kirk.

This is also the season that we learn the eating of meat is forbidden (or more appropriately enslaving animals is forbidden...) in "Lonely Among Us." This is the season in which Roddenberry boldly and brilliantly posited the idea that the enemies in space were not the Soviets/Cold War villains of the original series, but us. That's right, "The Last Outpost" introduced the Ferengi as "yankee traders," ravenous capitalists who would do anything for a quick buck. Now, who do you think Roddenberry was referring to there, in the midst of the Reagan eighties? Notice that in later seasons, the Ferengi became a comical threat, rather than the "big bad" they were intended to be (as early references, in episodes such as "Encounter at Farpoint" indicate). Another example of the formula changing to make the series more mainstream. More popular. More acceptable to the masses.

The early programs of Star Trek': The Next Generation's first season also point out the difficulties of strutting nationalism and rah-rah patriotism (John De Lancie's "Q" as an Oliver North figure, replete in U.S. Marine Corps. uniform...). Capitalists (or yuppies) also got a big fat raspberry in the final episode of the season, "The Neutral Zone." Showing how things had changed since the 1960s. Kirk awoke Khan - a genetically engineered superman - from suspended animation in 1967's "Space Seed." Picard awoke a 21st century Ivan Boesky or Gordon Gekko, a corporate raider, in 1987. Again, the fans may blanch at such things, but in some sense, this was fascinating material...a rebuke of the American way of life in the "greed is good" era. Roddenberry is forever and always a clever devil.

But cue the phasers, fans wanted more space battles, less social commentary, and less standing around and talking. I sympathize with this point of view. Totally. I'm an old school original series fan boy. I'm just saying - heck - go back and watch those original 24 shows of Next Gen's first season. Drink some coffee. Take some Vivarin. Then watch - with interest - how they rigorously set up Roddenberry's "new and improved" Trek universe. You may not like it, but this was truly Roddenberry's vision, sans Borg, sans big space battles. The later seasons and Next Gen films never followed up on this vision with any degree of fidelity. They became space opera. Lwaxana Troi came aboard the love boat, I mean Enterprise, how many times? How many holodeck stories were there? Worf had an illegitimate son. Can anyone say...soap opera?

So back to the episode "Justice," which I see as a critical part of that (eventually dropped...) first season vision. It's about the crew of the starship being judged by a superior life form (a big Roddenberry obsession; also in "Encounter at Farpoint"), but it also involves heavily the crew's sense of morality and humanity. Here's the tale, in case you've forgotten: The Enterprise visits the Rubicun system, and finds the Elo to be a sexually free but nonetheless...friendly race. Picard sends an away team down to the surface to assess the planet for a shore leave visit, and Wesley Crusher ends up breaking a law. He steps on some flowers and crushes them, and the Edo laws demand the "death penalty" for his infraction. Wow, so what we have here is a comment about a so-called advanced and "progressive" race which still adopts regressive laws. (The death penalty also came up in "Angel One," by the way, so one might also see that as a Roddenberry obsession too...).

Anyway, Picard just can't beam up Wesley and say "to hell with the Edo," because in orbit hanging like a "nemesis" is the Edo's God - some sort of interdimensional alien space ship that watches silently. Observing. Picard must prove that the Edo's law condemning young Wesley Crusher to death is wrong, and he must do so before this God. Eventually - with wisdom and carefully measured words - he does just that. It's another trial for the crew, yes, but one that proves an essential point about draconian laws. There have to be exceptions, lest a culture unwittingly descend into barbarism. In a country that tries 13-year old minors as adults; in a country that administrates the death penalty on a regular basis for the poorest of the community (who can't afford proper legal representation in some cases), Roddenberry was talking directly to us. "Justice" by Worley Thorne and directed by James L. Conway, handles all these issues superbly. While also being about some very sexually liberated people.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I like this show, because I remember watching "Justice" and feeling shivers at the set-up and resolution. Shivers of nostalgia. Feeling that this episode was in the best tradition of the original Star Trek. That even though it was an early show in the series, it had gotten the feel of Gene Roddenberry's vision - his world view - absolutely right. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss "Justice" with its director, Mr. Conway.

"I did "Justice," which was the ninth show, and I did the season finale for that show,
"The Neutral Zone," Mr. Conway reminded me as we began. In regards to "Justice" he notes: "That was a lot of fun. That was a classic old-style Star Trek episode. I remember that one of the first things I shot on the show was the scene where we beamed in like nine people at once. It was an unwieldy to try to photograph nine people on one side, and then all the people seeing them on the other side."

"It was fun," he continues. "They spent a lot of time designing the costumes. If you look at the old early Season One of TNG, and you see where it went in seasons three and four when it became such a huge hit, it's a totally different TV show."

"It ["Justice"] was very much a Gene Roddenberry-style show. He was a great guy, by the way. I loved Gene. When he left the show...originally there was no interfering with other cultures, so there were no fights, there was no action to speak of. And frankly I think the show got much better when the Borg showed up and everyone started shooting at each other."

"It was like an updated version of the original series, down to the wardrobe," he concludes. "We had a very sexy actress playing the lead, Brenda Bakke," he also remembers.

So today, for my twenty-sixth cult tv flashback, I recall Star Trek: The Next Generation in its original iteration, as something closer to Gene Roddenberry's vision, perhaps, than any other season of any Trek series. Was it flawed? Yes. Was it sometimes boring? Yes. Were the later seasons superior? Yes, perhaps. But that first season - love it or hate it - was damn interesting. And damn brave to boot. In the age of Stallone, Rambo, Schwarzenneger and Die Hard, Roddenberry created a space show short on action...and long on philosophy. He asked us to think, not pull the trigger. Star Trek isn't just about space battles, it is about the human condition, and I contend (as devil's advocate...) that modern Trek spin-offs were never more so about the "human equation" than in that flawed but fascinating first year.

If you claim to love Gene Roddenberry and honor his beliefs about the future...this is the season of Star Trek: The Next Generation you must reckon with.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Another (Good) Mercy in Her Eyes Review

Well, it's been a Merry Christmas for me professionally! Mercy in Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair is continuing to draw strong attention (and good reviews) across the Indian Press. In a December 24th, 2006 piece called "A search for identity," in The Tribune, journalist and critic Rachna Singh writes the following:

"John Kenneth Muir in his eminently readable book Mercy In Her Eyes traces Mira Nair’s journey as a filmmaker who intends to "change the world through art". Muir forges a true-to-life image of Nair as an intensely visual auteur, a "truth-seeking" Amazon and a filmmaker who feels a sense of "genuine joy" in her creation.

Varied perceptions of people associated with Nair’s cinematic genius give this well-researched book a life and vivacity of its own. Sooni Taraporewala (screenplay for Salaam Bombay), Roshan Seth (Jay in Mississippi Masala), Uma Thurman (Deb in Hysterical Blindness) et al show us a Nair "who wants to make serious passionate cinema that will get an ordinary audience, not an arty intelligentsia crowd".

We also see an "irreverent and playful" Nair using her consummate skills to "reveal our tiny local worlds in all their glorious peculiarity". The eccentricities of the marigold-eating Dubey of Monsoon Wedding or the graveyard sojourn of Krishna and Chillum of Salaam Bombay leave an indelible stamp.

...For Muir, this depiction of a human truth makes Nair unique and her cinema global.

Kenneth Muir also infuses his book with an honesty which is characteristic of Mira Nair and her work. So Muir, forever the judicious critic, hands out "kudos" to Nair’s genius but also openly debunks Kama Sutra for its sensual and languorous haze, which overpowers a story of true love. The Perez Family also becomes just an "attractive spectacle". But in the end, what endears the book to the reader is its pulsating rhythm and energy, which encapsulate the true Mira Nair. A must read for film aficionados and all Mira Nair fans."

Saturday, December 23, 2006


This week on Filmation's Ark II, Jonah records log entries numbered 74 and 75 in Sector 18, Area 93. They crew has heard rumors of an "old battleground" nearby, and their mission is to "check it out" and make certain that "nothing dangerous still exists."

While Adam navigates the vehicle (yeah, he's the monkey...), he spots a girl, Jewel (Bonnie Van Dyke) being captured by Scavengers. "Man chase girl. Girl run away," Adam croaks. This gives me the creeps.

But anyway, the Ark II team also spies a World War I era tank in this "Valley of Machines," and it is being driven by Zachery (Chris Nelson), a villager who - like all his people - has been forbidden from using machinery.

In the agrarian village, Jonah and the others tell the Village leader (Marshall Thompson) about his daughter's abduction. He is distrustful of machines, but Jonah tries to set him straight. "Machines are just tools," he says. "Good and bad exists in the men who use those tools."

Indeed, Jonah. Indeed.

So Jonah, Ruth, Adam and Samuel, with Zachery and the old tank, set about to rescue Jewel, and succeed in doing so. When asked why Jonah didn't just use the Ark II to save the captured girl, he replies that he wanted the village leader to see that other machines -- those in the valley - have value in the right hands.

And that's the sermon for the day. So what do we learn about the Ark II universe this week? Well, Ruth declares, "We don't carry weapons....we don't believe in them." This is interesting, because even the Star Trek crews carry defensive weaponry - phasers - in landing party excursions. The Ark II crew really sticks to the philosophy of non-violence. Their tools include a force field on the Ark II, but no guns. And the only "device" they carry (other than wrist communicators) is a mirror that can "blind" opponents at appropriate times. Very interesting.

Also, for some reason, that damn monkey is always depicted cooking the meals for the crew. You gotta wonder why such an advanced group of youngsters allow an unwashed chimpanzee handle the foodstuffs, but who am I to quibble? Personally, I don't think this is really a sanitary practice, but then it isn't my ship.

One other fact: the Ark II lab is able to synthesize gasoline and other fuels, as we learn in this episode of the series. Which would make it very dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: Casino Royale (2006)

Wow. Okay. I guess there's no point in pussy-footing (or Pussy-galoring...) around my point here. So I'm just going to say it.

Daniel Craig is the best James Bond 007 yet. And Casino Royale is in the top tier of Bond movies. Perhaps the very best film since From Russia with Love in the early 1960s. It might be the best Bond film yet.

There, I said it. Fire away!

Now, if you read this blog regularly, you've seen me fight the good fight against re-imaginations, pre-quels and re-boots. You've read as I've railed against MI:3, Battlestar Galactica and other new productions that I feel have betrayed the heritage of their respective franchises.

That's why I hope you'll trust me (and go see the movie...) when I write these words: Daniel Craig is the best James Bond yet. His portrayal doesn't betray the James Bond legacy. It restores it.

This praise is coming from a guy who saw his first Bond film in the theater thirty years ago, in 1976 (Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me). This is from a guy who holds all the Bond films close to his heart, and has watched them and analyzed them countless times over the years. In the past, my favorite Bond was - surprise, surprise - Sean Connery, with Timothy Dalton second, Roger Moore third, and Pierce Brosnan last.

Well, move over Sean. Meet Daniel. Or should I say Bond, James Bond...

I guess it was some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s when ABC began running all the Sean Connery movies on Friday nights. I was in my early teens, and while I was already familiar with Roger Moore, this was my first chance to meet the other Bonds (including George Lazenby). It was also at this time that seeing the films (like Dr. No and Goldfinger) inspired me to read all the original novels by Ian Fleming. I was hooked.

Suddenly, I had a context for Bond. I now understood why longtime Bond fans had a tough time with the inanities of - say - Moonraker (1979). Then, in 1987, Roger Moore left the film franchise and the far more lean-and-mean Timothy Dalton replaced him in The Living Daylights. He was closer to the Bond of the books than any actor yet, but the producers made a terrible mistake. They didn't change the formula. Meaning that the serious, wolf-like Dalton had to grit his teeth and deliver stupid one liners, or ride a cello down a hill during a chase scene, or suffer some other indignity.

The formula was altered to a degree for Dalton in Licence to Kill (a film I admire...), but the producers insisted on keeping everything else "the same," intact, even if the mission (one of vengeance) was different. This meant that Q, the Armorer was still around for easy laughs. This meant that Ms. Moneypenny had her designated five-minute cameo. This meant that Felix Leiter - nearly eaten by a shark - was recovering nicely by the end of the film. This meant that Bond was instantly forgiven for going rogue. This meant that as much as producers might have wanted to change the formula of the Bond pictures after twenty-five yers, they were - for some reason - unable to do it.

Well, now they have taken the plunge. And not a movie too soon either. Die Another Day, though undeniably profitable, must be the worst piece of trash in the Bond canon. It's the only Bond film I don't own. It is absolute garbage, filled with implausible CGI effects and saddled with the worst theme song in Bond history. James Bond, as played by Pierce Brosnan, is a big, blow-dried black hole sucking air out of the film. Even at his worst, Roger Moore at least evidenced a charm and grace; a sense that he was winking at the audience. For Your Eyes Only proved he could play the grittier side of Bond too. All Brosnan ever seemed capable of mustering was a furrowed brow and a seething kind of whisper. Worse, despite all the hotties thrown at him, I never felt that Brosnan's Bond was genuinely interested in sex (like Connery or Moore). For that matter, he didn't seem that interested in violence either (like Dalton or Lazenby...). He was just...dull. A walking model in a black tuxedo.

But Brosnan's Bond is dead and gone -- so no more criticism of the actor. Long live the new king, Daniel Craig. He boasts piercing eyes, an incredible physique, a beguiling vulnerability, and charisma to spare. He takes Casino Royale by the throat and makes the Bond franchise his a degree that is startling. This is roughly like Christopher Reeve playing Superman for the first time back in 1978. We're witnessing history here folks; the beginning of a great ride. To their credit, the producers and writers have substantially changed the Bond formula too. At long last.

How have things changed? Well, with a kind of merciless glee the producers have burned out all the fat, all the kitsch, all the camp...all the insulting stupidity that dogged the franchise. They've brought Bond right back to his literary roots and this time, without fear or hedging their bets. This is back-to-basics Bond, meaning that it is the man - Bond himself - who is important, not which gadgets he happens to be carrying at a given moment. Ultimately, that's the reason why this is a re-imagination I can get behind without qualification. This is a Bond that Ian Fleming could have imagined...And I believe, would have appreciated. He's a hard-drinking, lonely guy. Someone who borders on being a thug. Someone who makes mistakes, miscalculates, but endures...And triumphs. James Bond is not a superman, and Casino Royale remembers that. The best moments in the film occur when Bond goofs up and must fix his errors. Arrogance is his big flaw, as Bond Girl Eva Green (as Vesper Lynd) points out to him. His desperation to be successful, to win - to beat Le Chiffre - actually makes him human, vulnerable. I don't know that any other Bond film boasts as powerful a narrative through-line as this.

For years now, maybe decades even, Bond movie plots have been the thinnest of skeins, a series of robust and spectacular action set-pieces between dialogue interludes. In the age of Octopussy (1983), it felt like the stunt double should have shared equal billing with Roger Moore. No more. Casino Royale depends not merely on action (though there is plenty), but character interaction and intrigue. It's a game of chess, or more accurately, Texas Hold 'Em Poker. Every character in the film is holding some card close to the vest...And, in some sense, bluffing about their hearts. How Bond navigates this game - and gets played himself - makes the film compelling and human in a way that feels practically revolutionary in a Bond film. Who knew a 007 movie, shorn of gadgets, the stock characters (Moneypenny, Q), and ludicrous stunts, could feel so vibrant, so real? And, back in the day (the 1960s), the Bond films also boasted a sort of sadism about them: rock 'em sock 'em fight scenes that were...personal. (Anyone remember the incredible fight in the tight train car in From Russia with Love? In the elevator in Diamonds are Forever?) It was fisticuffs over stunts, and Casino Royale remembers that tradition. So no, Bond doesn't hang onto a flying blimp in this film, or surf over a tidal wave, or drive an invisible car. But he gets into a really nasty battle with a machete-wielding psycho. And by god, is that blood I see on Bond's tuxedo?

Okay, okay. The movie is not perfect. I grant you that. Tell me which Bond film is? For instance, in Casino Royale isn't it handy that Bond's car comes equipped with a portable de-fibrillator, and Bond just happens to need that particular gadget on this mssion? And near the end of the film, it slows down dramatically and as viewers, we get ahead of the writers. The film includes one ending too many, which undercuts the power of the movie's last line. But as far as Bond films go, this is still in the top two or three. Out of twenty-something. In fact, there's no significant reason not to declare it the best Bond film ever, but heck, I've only seen it once and don't want to give over to irrational exuberance. And as far as heroic re-imaginations go, this beats Batman Begins and Superman Returns by a mile.

I'm sure there are fannish reasons to dislike Daniel Craig. Blond hair and blue eyes and all. But they are, indeed, fannish reasons. I'm sure there are also loyalty issues to dislike Daniel Craig. We gravitate to what we know; what makes us comfortable. We've all lived with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, even George Lazenby for a long time, and it's always tempting to say that what's new also sucks. Daniel Craig is not traditionally good-looking...but watch this guy in action and decide for yourself if he isn't EXACTLY what James Bond should be.

Maybe Sean Connery could have been the best Bond ever, had he once been granted the chance to play a character as human as Craig's Bond in a story as compelling as Casino Royale. But we'll never know...he skipped out for On Her Majesty's Secret Service. That's the one script and one story that could have proven Connery's chops on the same level. My point: the new Bond is exactly what Bond should have always been, and wasn't. Ian Fleming's James Bond.

So now we have Daniel Craig as 007. He not only delivers a brilliant, smoldering performance in this film, he does the seemingly-impossible: He makes it difficult to imagine anyone ever following in his footsteps. That's the first time this has happened since...Sean Connery.

Monday, December 18, 2006


Okay, okay so it's not Saturday morning. It's Monday. I'm a little behind the eight ball...

Anyway, this week on the 1970s series Ark II, our stalwart heroes from the 25th century are in "Area 32, Sector 16," in search of a "Stone Age" tribe that they can help. Again, the mission is to "improve the quality" of their lives.

In "The Rule" (by Martin Roth and directed by Ted Post), the Ark II finds the Stone Age people and - oops - they're hostile. They throw rocks at the advanced vehicle, but the transport is protected by "vertical" and "lateral" forcefields. Whatever that means...

Meanwhile, Ruth and Adam are out in the all-terrain vehicle, and Ruth carelessly drives it into a rock. (Women drivers...) She's rescued by a young man who is part of an agrarian community that's been menaced by the rock-throwing stone age folk. Unfortunately, the community's leader is rather draconian. He has imposed a strict "rule" that those who are infirm, sick or lazy and can therefore not pull their weight in the fields...will be exiled from the village. On this very day, he exiles a blind man and his wife from the community. His son (the kid who rescued Ruth...) also has built a primitive hang glider because he has "vision and imagination," but his Dad warns he would rather be "dull-witted." Damn! In the end, the Ark II team helps prove that nobody is worthless by defeating the bad Stone Age tribe and getting the leader to abolish his rule.

I watched this episode with two close friends, and they had some interesting notes on "The Rule." One friend noted that this is an Icarus story; that "The Rule" gazes at a kid who flies too close to the sun...and crashes his hang-glider. My other friend noted that when the boy is wounded after his firstflight, the villagers could have used his glider as a stretcher. But didn't. Oopsy.

Basically "The Rule" concerns the law of people vs. the law of the jungle, as Ruth and the other crew of Ark II convince the villagers not to be so quick to dismiss people. The message is summed up at the end: "everyone has something valuable to contribute."

I like that message, but I gotta tell you, that Village Leader is quite a political cat. When he reads the political wind, he changes his mind about "the rule" and abolishes it. (Lest he be overthrown.) And then - the gall! the gall! - in saying goodbye to the Ark II crew, he tells Ruth that "we must touch to say goodbye." That this is custom.

Oh yeah buddy, then why not embrace the monkey?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 52: Star Trek...from Galoob

When you think of Star Trek toys and toy companies, two names leap immediately to mind: Mego and Playmates. The first company held the license for Trek toys in the 1970s (including and up to Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and the latter created toys from the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation all the way up through Voyager.

Although AMT/ERTL briefly produced a small line of Star Trek action figures for the release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, there is one another company that deserves serious kudos from fans for manufacturing some high quality and fascinating Star Trek toys.

Of course, that company is Galoob, which from 1987 through 1990 -- the opening years of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the epoch of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier -- held the license to produce toys based on this popular space opera.

I remember the happy days of 1988, when I graduated high school, was a freshman at University of Richmond, and was deeply, deeply into The Next Generation. Although I was way too old to play with action figures (yeah, right!), I remember when Galoob released the first set of action figures, and ordering them through some mail order company in Florida. It seemed to take the action figures forever to come, but when they arrived...I was a happy camper.

In the release I purchased, there were six crewmembers, all from the Enterprise-D (and Next Gen). Each was molded with an original brand phaser in the left hand. This is neat in part because this "dust-buster" brand phaser (seen in
the first season only of The Next Generation, and featured heavily in episodes such as "The Arsenal of Freedom,") was replaced quickly in the franchise with more deadly, less bulbous designs. Each figure also came with a shoulder-strapped tricorder. The figures were: Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Lt. Data, Lt. Tasha Yar, Lt. Worf and Lt. Geordi La Forge. Again, this bunch is kind of interesting for a few reasons. One: this is a first season Riker, meaning he is sans beard (Playmates never made a Riker figure without a beard, except the large-scale Star Trek: Insurrection 9-incher). Secondly, both Worf and Geordi are donning red uniforms, rather than the yellow uniforms they wore from the second season on (when they were promoted to Security and Engineering, respectively). And, of course, Tasha Yar died after the first season episode "Skin of Evil." So virtually all these action figures have some interesting and collectible component. The Lt. Data of this line, for instance, is notorious, because some figures were released with blue rather than yellow skin.

Galoob didn't stop with this release. More rare (I never had 'em...) and more valuable was the line of alien figures from the Next Generation. These were: Q in his "Judge" robes (from "Encounter at Farpoint"), a Ferengi soldier (with laser whip!) from "The Last Outpost," and two aliens who - let's face it - aren't particularly memorable in the annals of Star Trek history, the Antican and Selay from the sixth episode, "Lonely Among Us." The truly holy grail of the Galoob figure line from this epoch is the almost-never-seen Romulan and Wesley Crusher figures. Anyone got one they want to give me?

At the same time that Galoob released these figures, the company also released two very cool spacecraft for the crews to inhabit. One is the shuttlecraft Galileo (which my then girlfriend, Kathryn, bought for me...), and the other is a Ferengi fighter. Now, the shuttlecraft Galileo is - again - based on a first season design (seen in such episodes as "Coming of Age"), and the design changed radically over the seasons. The Ferengi fighter features qualities of the Ferengi cruiser seen in first season eps "The Last Outpost" and "The Battle," but is not actually a vessel seen in the series at all.

Galoob also released a hand phaser with a
flashlight component, and a toy that I think is beautifully crafted: a die-cast metal U.S.S. Enterprise with a separating saucer section. Does anyone remember the inaugural year of The Next Generation, and how all the genre press was abuzz about how this Enterprise had two bridges and could separate in battle (so the families would escape unharmed?)? Well, this toy remembered that feature, even if series' writers did not. The Enterprise separated exactly twice in seven years, if I'm correct, in the aforementioned "Encounter at Farpoint" and "The Arsenal of Freedom." The next time the vessel separated was, I believe, in Generations (1994). Frankly, it was an unwieldy plot device anyway. [NOTE: My pal, Chris Johnson, reminds me the Enterprise also separated fighting the Borg in "Best of Both Worlds. - JKM]. The maneuver basically required Picard to warp away in the middle of a fight, ditch the saucer section, and then warp back into action. De-cloaking Klingon Bird of Preys don't usually leave time for such details...

In 1989, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier premiered, and Galoob released a series of taller, nicely detailed action figures of the movie cast. They were poseable figures, but much more like collectors' items than toys a kid would actually play with. These limited edition figures included Kirk, Spock and Bones in their "commando" fatigues (for the raid on Nimbus III...), and villains Sybok (in Vulcan robes) and Captain Klaa. Although not often mentioned, I believe these figures are actually quite nice. They resemble the actors well, and make lovely displays. I have three of 'em; Kirk, Spock and Sybok.

Later on, Galoob released a number of "micro-machine" sets -- small Star Trek spaceships (from all series), but by then the action had moved mostly to Playmates and their highly-detailed, extensive Star Trek toys.

Still, I remember well the years between 1987 - 1990, getting acquainted with The Next Generation for the first time, and eagerly awaiting Trek V in theaters. Galoob's toys always bring back nostalgia for that time.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mercy in Her Eyes in the Indian Press

My monograph on independent filmmaker Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, The Namesake...) Mercy in Her Eyes: The Films of Mira Nair, has just hit bookstores and the press in India!

Here are some of the highlights so far. From The Hindu (India's national newspaper) is a piece by S. Theodore Baskaran entitled
"Cultural Crossover Oeuvre." It reads in part:

Muir, who has examined the films of Sam Raimi in an earlier work, looks at Nair's films in this book. He sees Nair's films in the backdrop of globalisation. Observing her unique style and her concerns, Muir identifies her as an auteur, fitting in with this French theory of film study. Nair's major concern that gets reflected in her films is one of identity. Her characters face the questions: What makes me who I am? What makes me unique? She turns her lens on exiles, expatriates, outsiders, and `nowhere' people. Muir concludes that her "films reflect and represent her own personal experiences, political and social views, and even general perceptions of life itself. Nair's films so often represent love letters to the India she knows and adores, an India that globalisation could imperil, or at the very least, substantially alter. This is why she is truly a local filmmaker, but one whose audience is global." He points out that Nair is able to capture not merely the place and a time but a texture and a feeling. This is exemplified by many sequences in `Missisipi Masala'.

The author of this book, Muir, has not only analysed her films but have spoken with those who worked in her films, such as Dr. Abraham Varghese, author of `My Own Country', actor Naveen Andrews and Delhi-based theatre person, Barry John, an early and lasting influence on Mira Nair.

Muir, an independent film scholar, explains film studies concepts in a language that is reader-friendly and engaging. Though one misses a complete filmography of Mira Nair, there is an insightful appendix, which provides a point-by-point textual analysis of her feature films. It provides a model for film analysis. An elaborate bibliography and an exhaustive index increase the utility of this work. This delightful book is bound to stimulate interest in film studies in India."

At The Financial Express, Editor Sudipta Datta (a delightful journalist whom I had the opportunity to correspond with...), writes in her article "Local stories, Universal resonance" that "John Kenneth Muir has drawn an engaging portrait of Mira Nair as seen through her films."
She goes on to write:

"What emerges is an interesting portrait of an artist, who has “focused dramatically on the subjects of national and personal identity, and more importantly, the quandary of characters who have departed their home only to find that in their new lives, they are traversing uncharted waters…” It’s about an artist who has succeeded in the global market by “remaining committed to her art even in the face of temptations that other directors might find irresistible (she famously refused to direct a Harry Potter film).” At least in four of her films, she has had to struggle to get finances.

Muir also peppers the book with lively anecdotes. For instance, Raghubir Yadav recalls the challenging day he had while Nair shot the funeral scene. “It was shot like a real funeral, where my corpse – played by myself – was tied on the bier for the whole day… I had to play dead with the poor children cursing me all the time due to my weight.” Also, Muir shows us how she puts the Satyajit Ray principle to work in most of her films – even when bad, life is good – and to look around with mercy in one’s eyes. So, a Mira Nair film touches you, more than anything else. It also “pulses with life, colour, symbolism, and meaning.”

I also did an interview for Ms. Datta, which you can also find at The Financial Express. It's entitled ‘Nair crafts stories of global appeal.'

Here's an excerpt:

Mira Nair’s films are universally appealing for two reasons, primarily. First and foremost, she boasts an eye for beauty and film composition (mise-en-scene) that cannot be discounted. I believe this quality arises from her love of photography and understanding of “the frame”, among other things. Regardless, her films always appear ravishing. Nair’s eye for capturing life in all its richness and colours and movement is vitally important because the visual — the eye — transcends the barriers of language and culture. Secondly, Nair understands that by telling “local” stories; stories of her India, those personal tales will resonate with audiences around the world. Humanity is what we all share in common, regardless of home or national identity. By focusing on the personal and human, Nair crafts stories of global appeal.

MOVIE REVIEW: Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

Yeah, I'm catching up on my summer movies. Slowly. I had X3 in my Netflix queue and then this second sequel, starring Tom Cruise and directed by J.J. Abrams.

Disclaimer: in general, I've had problems with the Mission:Impossible franchise. Why? Well, in essence it's a movie empire built on one image: that of a man flying towards the screen while a fire ball explodes behind him. That's not much to base a movie upon, let alone three. (And yeah, the image is repeated in MI:3, with Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt catapulted towards the camera while a missile blows up a truck behind him, on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge).

Now, once upon a time, Mission:Impossible was a television series. Created by Bruce Geller, it concerned a team of covert espionage agents who rarely used guns in their dedicated efforts to preserve national security. Instead, they achieved their aims in detailed, cleverly-conceived "cons," using agent expertise in psychology, acting (!), and the latest secret technology (including masks, etc.)

But, somewhere along the twisted road to the silver screen, the concept mutated, and Mission:Impossible became all about the glorification of one extraordinary man, Tom Cruise's agent, Ethan Hunt. The films didn't really feature teams (or psychology at all...), but rather expensive stunts. They became, in a word, American James Bond films, with Cruise fulfilling that role.

Oh man. Why do I even bother? Why do I keep complaining about re-imaginings like the Mission:Impossible franchise? Don't I get tired of it? Well, yeah I do. But I do it because I see an American populace settling for increasingly dumb entertainment, even in a smart genre like science fiction. We're so cowed and stupid, apparently, that we accept (and love!) the idea that people in another galaxy will share our fashion sense and slang (in the new Battlestar Galactica), and we'll accept blaring guns and fireballs instead of carefully-constructed plots and a team of agents in the Mission:Impossible movies. But, to quote Dirk Diggler, I'll keep trying if you keep trying. I'll keep complaining about dumbed-down re-imaginations no matter how tiresome I sound, cuz someone's gotta do it. Hey, I have a son now, and I want Joel to grow up in a world where the movies are smart; where the television captures his imagination.

When I was a kid, I was often glued to the tube watching Mission:Impossible. The series was short on spectacular action and dialogue, but brilliantly conceived in every way imaginable. Not every aspect of the story was directly explained, and the viewer had to put all the pieces of the "con" puzzle together for himself. The information wasn't spoon fed to the audience. This was especially rewarding at the end of each episode, when the bad guy would be hung out to dry (by his own petard...), and the IMF team - anonymous and secret - would simply drive away from the scene unnoticed in a non-descript van. How cool is that? They left no footprints. They just did their job, invisibly - and with no couch jumping - and moved on.

Somehow, I can't imagine Tom Cruise's character doing that. Because these movies are ALL ABOUT HIM.

But to be fair to Mission:Impossible 3, it does boast a more complex template than just exploding fireballs. And that template is...Alias. Yep, J.J. Abrams' canceled espionage series, formerly airing on ABC. For instance, Mission:Impossible 3 cow-tows to Alias's peculiar fetish for brutal interrogation and torture sequences with not one but two (count 'em!) such scenes. It also utilizes familiar locations (like Berlin and Shanghai) from the series, and most derivatively of all, adopts the Alias theme of an agent balancing his home life with his "business life." Why, the movie even opens with the common Alias conceit of opening an episode in media res, and then backtracking to explain how the main character got into the dangerous predicament.

So really, why didn't Abrams just make an Alias movie? I sort of prefer Jennifer Garner's character, anyway. But I shouldn't complain too much, because as derivative of Alias as MI:3 is, at least there's more going on than big explosions (see MI:2). Also, of all the Mission:Impossible films, this is the only production that actually features a team (meaning more than two guys...) pulling a con. To wit, there's a splendidly paced, shot and orchestrated sequence in the Vatican. For fifteen minutes, while this scene unfolds, the movie feels like a Mission:Impossible episode. And...I loved it. Whoo-hoo.

Otherwise, the movie is a bizarre series of dead ends. A Q-type agent at the IMF rattles on at length about a rogue molecule, a deadly technology called "the Anti-God." It plays absolutely no role in the film. At least no direct one. Then there's the McGuffin of the film, "the Rabbit's foot," which Ethan must recover. Maybe it's the Anti-God molecule, but the screenplay declines to share any information. That's right, you go two hours and six minutes and don't even find out what the rabbit's foot is. I'm all for ambiguous mysteries, but this just isn't playing fair. How would viewers have liked it if in Star Wars, Darth Vader talked the whole movie about the stolen Death Star plans, but no one ever told the audience what the Death Star was?

Here's the difference between TV show and this movie. On the TV program, the characters didn't stop to explain what they were doing, but we understood what the mission was and there was a "light bulb" moment as the mission came together in the finale. In this movie, Tom Cruise goes after an object that is vital...but we never know what it is, why it's important, what it means, or what it could do. He accomplishes the mission...but it means...nothing. See the difference?

I think someone was trying too hard to be clever here...

Like X3: The Last Stand, I can write with authority that the film is fast-paced and the explosions are impressive. But, really, there's nothing else happening. Also, I must note that Lalo Schifrin's Mission:Impossible theme song is so good, so riveting, so goose-pimple inducing that J.J. Abrams could have filmed Tom Cruise walking his dog, added the music, and the movie would have still felt exciting and vibrant.

The theme song, I hasten to add, was composed forty years ago.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: X3: The Last Stand (2006)

Well, it doesn't suck too hard. In fact, it's sorta okay. In a safe, predictable and middling kind of way.

That may be the bottom line concerning X-Men 3: The Last Stand, one of the blockbusters of the summer of 2006. To the good, the third movie in the X-Men franchise moves assuredly from special-effects set-piece to special effects set-piece like a well-oiled machine. And the crux of the story - an injection that "cures" mutants - is a solid, interesting hook on which to hang a tale.

And yet, a crucial element of heart seems to be missing on this go-round. The film's story is an outline in search of a plot, despite the potential of that narrative hook. Worse, the familiar characters march lock-step through their paces on automatic pilot; as if nobody behind-the-scenes thought to provide actual motivation for anything they say or do. The actors all seem bored and disengaged. They showed up, and that's a plus, I guess.

Now, I'm not going to bash Brett Ratner, the director. That's too easy and too common. On the contrary, he manages to stage and shoot the set-pieces with aplomb. If we're being honest here, he manages this aspect of the production far better than Bryan Singer handled the Statue of Liberty battle in the original X-Men back in 2000 (a melange of confusing perspectives and close-ups that lacked scope). Nope, Ratner may have been but a hired hand on this project, but he does a competent job with what he's been given in terms of script. The fault isn't his.

The fault is in the script...which is a turd. The story involves the mutant community's reaction to the "cure" which will transform them all into humans. At the same time, the script resurrects Jane Grey as Dark Phoenix, a force of pure evil. How did she manage to survive the crisis at the end of X2? "Her powers wrapped her in a cocoon of telekinetic energy," Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) helpfully explains. Oh. And if you believe that, I have a bridge in San Francisco I want to sell you...

Anyway, as goofy as that one sentence explanation is, I accept it. For purposes of the story we need our evil Phoenix in action, so...whatever. Dramatic license and all. What I can't and don't accept is the slapdash way the film abruptly and immediately kills off Cyclops. Can someone explain to me why Dark Phoenix kills Cyclops but not Logan? (Hint: Jackman's a bigger star.) How does she kill Cyclops? Why don't we ever see it? Why has it been relegated to an off-screen moment? Why does she take a near-roll-in-the-hay with Logan but not Scott, before killing him? Why murder a franchise character in such a half-assed, unfocused way? A way in which, I might add, he contributes nothing to the plot? Cyclops has a cameo in this movie, and that's about it.

Secondly, why does Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) not even think about what might have happened to Scott until AFTER he frees Jane Grey from mental restraint in the lab. Is he that stupid? It suddenly occurs to Wolverine - after Phoenix is up and about and acting nutsy - that she might have had something to do with Scott's disappearance. Not the brightest bulb, this Wolverine, I guess. On the other hand, at least he actually thought of Cyclops. The script provides not a word of sorrow, confusion or worry over Scott's fate from Storm, Rogue or Professor Xavier. Aren't these guys supposed to be a team? What's with all the Cyclops non-love?

One story-point and its resolution illuminates best the problems with the film's script. Rogue, the mutant who absorbs the powers of any mutant she touches, struggles with the idea of the cure. Should she take it or not? What would she give up if she did so? What would she gain? Of all the mutants, Rogue certainly has the most dramatic reason for wanting the cure. After all, her powers physically separate her from those she loves. This should be a focal point of the script. But the plot point is resolved in a short scene, again in by-the-numbers fashion. With little build-up, she reveals to Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) that she took the cure. Oh, okay. So it was more important to Rogue to have physical intimacy...I get that. I believe it.

But hah! Then, in the deleted scenes, you'll see the exact same scene, only this time with the opposite resolution. Rogue has decided not to get the cure; to retain her powers, in this version. It's the same scene, except for her choice. In other words, the writers never sat down, got into Rogue's head and attempted to figure out exactly what it is that this character would want or desire. Nope. It was just a flip of the coin, apparently. That stinks if you're writing a movie and you understand the characters so little that you don't know where they'd stand on the plot's main point.

So the morality of the cure is not even examined here. Was Rogue wrong to want it? To get it? To give up her powers? Would she have been wrong not to have taken the mutant antibody? X3: The Last Stand has no idea. Why? There's cars to flip over and bridges to destroy!!!

Finally, why do Storm, Wolverine, Kitty, Iceman, and the other X-Men defend the humans from Magneto and his Brotherhood, when it's fairly obvious that the American government is indeed launching a genocide against Mutants? I mean, the U.S. President has authorized the use of the anti-mutant drug as a weapon. It can be fired from guns like bullets, for heaven's sake. Is that not evidence that his Administration has it out for mutants? But because the X-Men are the good guys (a priori...), they defend the human race.

Well, I'll tell you something, sometimes the human race ain't worth defending. Sometimes, we do stupid ass shit and need a smackdown. Why don't the X-Men fight Magneto AND disarm the human troops carrying the mutant "cure?" I'm reminded, of some reason, for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which didn't play favorites in terms of species...even though the audience was exclusively homo sapien. In that film, humans enslaved apes and treated the simians terribly...monstrously. The audience was rooting for the apes to win their bloody insurrection, because mankind had proven totally unworthy of being the "master" race. X3 seems to believe that the audience will be on mankind's side no matter what...even though mankind has broken faith by turning the "voluntary" cure into a pogram of eradication.

Again, it's as though the writers just didn't ever stop to think about what any of the characters in this story would legitimately feel. For that matter, what's up with the U.S. President? He's got a mutant ensconced in his administration and seems reasonable. So then why does he go from making the cure voluntary to weaponizing it? Again, the script provides not a single line of dialogue that explains his motivations.

In The X-Men universe, "mutantcy" is an allegory for homosexuality in our world. Can gays be cured? Would they want to be cured if they could? This is not an issue that's settled or obscure today. So why doesn't this film take a "stand" (or last stand...) on the matter? Why doesn't it have characters on either side of the debate passionately argue their point? Again, I suspect because there's wire-work to do, and things to smash ("I'm the juggernaut, bitch!") But an opportunity has been missed. Imagine how much more powerful it would have been if The X-Men themselves (forget Magneto...) were divided on the issue of a cure.

Again, another movie franchise, Star Trek, handled this sort of idea well. The Undiscovered Country was all about racism...even the "invisible" racism of the Enterprise crew. "Let them die," Kirk said of the Klingons. "They don't place the same value on life as we do," Scotty told Spock about the Klingons. These were horrible comments revealing that the characters we love were indeed flawed and human (we're all that way..., come on!) However, in the course of the film, Scotty, Chekov ("Guess who's coming to dinner?") and Kirk
were confronted with their own racism and were able to rise above it. That's what makes them heroes! Yet in X3, the X-Men are all golden goodies, and the folks in the Brotherhood are all black hats. There's no nuance or shades of gray, and thus the issue at the core of the film is not explored in any significant way. Characters like Storm and Wolverine don't learn anything in the course of the movie. Not about the cure and not about themselves. They thought one way at the beginning of the adventure and they feel the exact same way at the end of the story. Kinda boring. And deeply, deeply disappointing, since The X-Men comic-book has always been about a disenfranchised minority fighting for freedom in a society that doesn't understand it.

X3 is a competently-made film, and the twin mutant smackdowns (one at Grey's house; the other at Alcatraz) get the adrenaline pumping. But there's something terribly by-the-numbers about this sequel. It's not so much that it feels rushed, just that it feels...empty. Again, like an outline in search of a movie. If you turn off your brain, it's entertaining enough, I suppose. It's not embarrassingly bad. Just...vacant.

On the scale of superhero sequels, this not the worst (Superman III, Batman and Robin, RoboCop 3), but it is nowhere near the top tier either (Superman II, Spider-Man 2). It's actually not even a Blade 2. Instead, it's down in the middle of the pack somewhere...a kind of sorry ranking for a "last stand."

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Filmation was really da bomb in the 1970s, at least in terms of Saturday morning science fiction television. They had Star Trek: The Animated Series, Space Academy, Flash Gordon, and this series, Ark II. What's not to love?

Ark II aired on Saturday mornings beginning September 11, 1976. Like many sf tv efforts of the time, it was a "civilization of the week" program; meaning that each week and in each episode, the diverse protagonists traveled (usually by a ground vehicle; sometimes on foot...) to a new and strange civilization. Basically, it was Star Trek again, only without the U.S.S. Enterprise and outer space. The format was seen on Logan's Run, The Fantastic Journey, The Starlost and, in the 1980s, Otherworld, to name a few. Gene Roddenberry himself had attempted to take the formula to new heights with Genesis II and Planet Earth, two made-for-tv movie/backdoor series pilots from the early 1970s.

Although airing during America's bicentennial year, Ark II is set in the 25th century, and focuses on a large, impressive tank-like vehicle, the Ark II, which traverses the wasteland to come to the aid of what remains of mankind after an environmental disaster. The opening narration goes like this:

"For millions of years, Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th Century. Only a handful of scientists remain, men who have vowed to re-build what has been destroyed. This is their achievement: Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge manned by a highly trained crew of young people. Their mission: to bring the hope of a new future to mankind."

The crew of Ark II consists of Captain Jonah (Terry Lester), scientist Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), and young scholar Samuel (Jose Flores). Bizarrely, they also travel with a talking chimpanzee named Adam(!)...who can play chess and drive the Ark in a pinch. Weird, huh? I have to say, as much as I like Ark II, it is really weird (and frankly, stupid...) to put a talking chimp in the crew. I guess this was the series' way of including a "resident alien" type. But I mean, really...where's Roddy McDowall when you need him?

The first episode of Ark II is entitled "The Flies." Written by Martin Roth and directed by Ted Post, it finds Jonah recording his log entry numbered 1444. The Ark is patrolling Sector 83, Area 12, investigating a gang called "The Flies" that is responsible for "serious infringements on the rights of the others." The assignment: bring "discipline" and "reason" into their lives.

Unfortunately for Jonah, the Flies - an interracial gang of youngsters - are all too loyal to their leader, a rapscallion named Fagon, a scoundrel played by the one-and-only Jonathan Harris. He isn't exactly susceptible to reason or diplomacy, and ties up Jonah, who has used the rocket pack to find the Flies. Making matters worse, Fagon is now in possession of a relic from old times: deadly gas canisters!

Fagon takes the poison gas cylinder (and a gas mask to protect himself), and heads to the HQ of the local warlord Brack (Malachi Throne), who lives in the "the Village of the Lords," actually the Ape City set from the live action Planet of the Apes TV series and films. Fagon believes he has found "the ultimate weapon," and attempts to wrest control of the warlords from Brack. Brack beats Fagon at his own game, however, and captures the Flies, forcing Fagon to forfeit his leadership.

Now it's up to the crew of Ark II to save Fagon and the Flies, and retrieve (and dismantle...) all the dangerous gas canisters. They do so cleverly, simply and without resorting to violence. I appreciate that (and this is a show for kids...). The episode ends with a nice moral. It's written well and doesn't come across as heavy-handed that much. Basically, "weapons man creates to use against others can easily be turned against himself." Yep, that's true.

I admire the look and production design of Ark II. The main cast, for instance, wears skin-tight, attractive space-age uniforms with computerized belts and cuffs (replete with wrist communicators). One can see how this design influenced later Star Trek outings, for example. Also the set design is kind of interesting, a mix of Old West, Viking and Planet of the Apes. It presages the barbarity of The Road Warrior on a TV budget and within TV restrictions. The Ark II itself, built by the Brubaker Group, is a remarkable piece of hardware (a life-size, operational vehicle...) that looks thoroughly convincing....especially in motion. It is equipped with a protective forcefield so the savages can't run off with it, I guess, and also billets a smaller vehicle, a fast-moving roadster. I also like Jonah's rocket pack, though I had just seen basically the same device in action while watching an early Lost in Space episode.

At 22 minutes, "The Flies" moves at a good clip and boasts a nice, literary feel (as the DVD insert notes). For instance, Fagon is clearly "Fagan" from Oliver Twist; and the "Flies" seems to reference Lord of the Flies. How many other Saturday morning shows allude to such works? I could name one: Star Trek.

Still, I could do without the talking (or croaking...) chimpanzee. I haven't seen the other episodes in years (though I will soon, as I blog them here...), but I wonder how Adam gets explained. I mean a talking ape who isn't named Caesar, Cornelius or Galen? Is this throwing a bone to Planet of the Apes fans? If so, it's a bad idea.

Until next week...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

TV REVIEW: Sleeper Cell: "Salesman"

"Salesman," the second episode of Sleeper Cell's sophomore sortie, may also be the best installment of the entire series. Why? Well, for starters, the episode is a brilliantly crafted character piece about this unique fella named Hasani. He's someone we haven't seen on TV before; or at least not very often.

Hasani is an Americanized muslim, whose son is a U.S. marine that served proudly in Iraq. Hasani's history is checkered, however. He was an armorer for the mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the war with the Soviets in the 1980s. In fact, Hasani claims he single-handedly won the war for the resistance in that conflict. Now, however, he runs a butcher shop in Los Angeles and drives a cab by night. He was a rich man in Pakistan, but is a poor man in America and now...well, he just wants to feel important. He wants his son to be proud of him again.

Which is the reason why he agrees to do something stupid: broker an arms deal (coming out of retirement...) for Darwyn, who has been tasked by his terrorist superiors to acquire a surface-to-air missile for a future jihad operation. Unfortunately for him, Hasani has fallen under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam, whose agents believe he is a big-time arms dealer. They want to nab him making the deal with Darwyn.

What happens to Hasani - a rather pitiful loser type, and his family - while becoming caught in the War on Terror, makes for emotional drama. Hasani is a man who lives "in a fantasy world," and the cost to him and his son for his deluded belief in himself is high. By turns, the episode is harrowing, brutal, sad, and funny. Consequently Sleeper Cell has never proven more affecting emotionally because of it. In fact, "Salesman" is eminently Emmy-worthy in terms of regular and guest performances, writing (Alexander Woo) and direction (Charles Dutton).

Also in this episode, Jay Ferguson (from NBC's Surface last season...) joins the Sleeper Cell cast as a wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent who takes over as Darwyn's case manager. Wearing a shit-eating grin, he makes a number of gaffes that cost Darwyn (and others...) dearly, but he's a great and welcome addition to the show. Sleeper Cell works best with Darwyn trapped between a rock and a hard place; forced to manage and out-think both the terrorists and the American bureaucrats who arrogantly believe they know better than a soldier on the battlefield in the War on Terror. Ferguson's clueless character is a great foil.

Also in this installment: Farik gets a Muslim chaplin who encourages him to tell the U.S. captors everything he knows, lest he be remanded to a CIA prison overseas...where the gloves will come off. Farik gives up some information in exchange for a video link-up with his wife, but as usual, the terrorist has a surprise or two up his sleeve...

Just two episodes into the second season, Sleeper Cell is poised to top its impressive season one story arc. Can't wait to see where this is all headed...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

McFarland December '06 Releases

Looks like another fascinating month at McFarland, publisher of exquisite film and TV reference books. I see on the slate an interesting effort on Hitchcock (focusing on his less-famous or celebrated works...), and a text I'm certain the readers here would really enjoy...a book that gazes at the Hellraiser films and their legacy (which arrives with a foreword by Pinhead, Doug Bradley, himself!).

If you have a film "reader" on your Christmas list, consider these McFarland titles:

In this book the author examines how women detectives are portrayed in film, in literature and on TV. Chapters examine the portrayal of female investigators in each of these four genres:the Gothic novel, the lesbian detective novel, television, and film.

Best-selling horror novelist Clive Barker had a rocky start with the first attempts to convert his stories into a visual
medium. Directors and screenwriters turned the film adaptations of Underworld and Rawhead Rex into something barely recognizable—and box office failures as well. Consequently, when he approached film companies about Hellraiser, Barker insisted that he be involved in every step, including the direction. The resulting 1987 film has become an undisputed horror classic, spawning a movie franchise that to date includes eight films.This volume explores not only the cinematic interpretations of the Hellraiser mythos but also its intrusion into other artistic and cultural forms. Beginning with the unconventional sources of Clive Barker’s inspiration, the book follows Barker from his pre–Hellraiser cinematic experience through the filming of the horror classic. It examines various themes (such as the undermining of the traditional family unit and the malleability of the flesh) found throughout the film series and the ways in which the representation of these themes changes from film to film. The religious aspects of the films are also discussed. Characters central to the franchise—and the mythos—are examined in detail. Included is a foreword by actor Doug Bradley, who portrayed the infamous Pinhead.

Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz —all were unforgettable characters who played an integral part in some of Hollywood’s most memorable productions. For over three decades, from the 1930s to the 1950s, character actresses who brought such roles to life were one of Hollywood’s great but little acknowledged assets. Often lured from Broadway yet billed fifth or sixth (if at all), these talented ladies received little acclaim for their roles in film industry productions. Still, what they lacked in promotion and perhaps adulation they made up for in longevity. While a screen star’s career was generally limited by age and physical appearance, character actresses often worked well into their seventies, eighties or even nineties. Signed to contracts by major studios just like the stars they supported on screen, character actresses made hundreds of films over their careers.From the early days of sound film through the end of the studio era, this volume documents in detail the lives and careers of two score of Hollywood’s most talented character actresses. It presents information regarding birth, death, film credits and prizes and analyzes each player’s unique talents, signature roles and overall career development. Forty individual profiles are provided from a representative range of backgrounds, character types and career experiences. These include actresses such as Marjorie Main, Agnes Moorehead, Thelma Ritter, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Lucile Watson, Sara Allgood, Lee Patrick and Jessie Ralph, among others. A fascinating tour through Hollywood’s big studio era and the lives of its characters.

In 1891, William Dickson, a researcher at Thomas Edison’s firm, developed the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera that used Eastman Kodak’s new celluloid film. Almost immediately, an industry was born. The new artistic and technical discipline of motion picture photography matured as the film industry grew. From the beginnings of the movie camera, developments in film production and exhibition have been inextricably linked to the evolution of motion picture photography.This work traces the history of motion picture photography from the late 19th century through the year 1960, when color photography became the accepted standard. Generously illustrated, it covers each decade’s cameras, lenses, cameramen, film processing methods, formats, studios, lighting techniques and major cinematographic developments. Each chapter concludes with examples of the decade’s outstanding cinematography.

Alfred Hitchcock made many great films, but he also made many that critics and audiences largely dismissed. These least celebrated films, despite their admitted flaws and relative obscurity, offer much to reward the open-minded viewer.This critical study examines and reappraises fifteen such films generally overlooked by scholars and Hitchcock aficionados: Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game, Waltzes from Vienna, Jamaica Inn, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, I Confess, Torn Curtain, Number Seventeen, Rich and Strange, Secret Agent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Stage Fright, The Wrong Man, and Topaz. Each film is discussed and analyzed in detail, revealing the master’s touch in many previously unheralded ways. Brief assessments of the films from popular review compendia introduce each one, and excerpted highlights of numerous works of scholarship are liberally sprinkled throughout the text. In addition, wonderful rare still photographs from each film are included. Readers will come away with a richer sense of the director’s talents in these films, adding to their appreciation of his work in unexpected ways.

“He always is very, very close to the camera, and he is terribly inspiring. I don’t know what his magic is, but it is something that makes you want to give everything you have. He has respect for actors and for everybody. A bad director very often doesn’t have that respect.” Liv Ullman’s words about Ingmar Bergman hint at the consummate director he was, one who knew the business, the strengths and weaknesses of actors and crews, the arrangement of the set, the framing of the camera, and all other particulars of the fine art of directing. This work presents Bergman’s life and work, beginning with his youth in Uppsala, Sweden, and covering his formative years, his development as an artist, and his career as a world-renowned director. A brief synopsis for each of Bergman’s films is provided, with such information as producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor, art director, music sound credits, running time, casts, Bergman’s own comments, and the reactions of critics.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sleeper Cell Season Two: "Al-Baqara"

The Emmy-nominated Sleeper Cell returns for a second season on Showtime this December 10th, and I'm glad it's back. The first season was dynamic, riveting, nail-biting television; boasting all the qualities that make 24 such a hit on Fox...and then some.

Now, I'm not taking a pot-shot at 24 (one of my favorite programs...), but merely noting that thus far, Sleeper Cell hasn't endured any cringe-worthy "mountain lion" moments of disbelief (yeah, you know what I'm talking about...). Whereas 24 by necessity is slave to its revolutionary "real-time" style and format, Sleeper Cell boasts the luxury of beinga little more loose. It can afford to be both anxiety-provoking (like the Sutherland show...) and very thoughtful, even contemplative when the mood strikes.

For those who didn't watch the series the first year, Sleeper Cell is the tale of Darwyn (Michael Ealy), an FBI UC (undercover agent...) who - because of his devout faith in Islam - has joined the War of Terror against the Middle East radicals who have hijacked the name of Allah for their nefarious and murderous strikes on America. Darwyn is - to my knowledge, anyway - the only Muslim portrayed as an action hero on American television; and that's certainly noteworthy. Now, I'm not such a lefty that I think Islam should be championed or glorified all the time on TV (any more than Christianity should be...), but I do believe there's room for a TV series that examines the religion in a full-blooded, even-handed way, and makes a Muslim the protagonist. Sleeper Cell fills that niche. I like Darwyn as a hero; he lives up to his name, because he must be fit (and observant) to survive. He's constantly in danger of being exposed; and constantly being forced to question what people are doing in the name of his religion. And also what his government is doing in the war on that religion.

Anyway, in the first season, Darwyn successfully infiltrated and dismantled an Al-Qaeda cell working in Los Angeles that was planning to poison 150,000 Americans at Dodger Stadium. His nemesis was the cell's cunning, diabolical leader, Farik (Oded Fehr)...who was captured by American authorities in last year's season finale.

Season Two of Sleeper Cell opens with the installment called "Al-Baqara," an episode which finds Darwyn "decompressing" (according to the lingo...) on vacation in San Diego. He's become a beach bum along with his girlfriend Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) and her young son, Marcus. Darwyn's also been offered a teaching job at Quantico, which has the advantages of being "boring" and "safe," according to Gayle. But lo and behold, Darwyn's case agent Patrice (sexy Sonya Walger...) shows up with news that an old acquaintance of Darwyn's from his days undercover in prison - a Latino Islamist named Benito Velasquez - has turned up at a Mosque in California, and may be "radicalized." She asks Darwyn to do just one little job; to discover if Benito is working with terrorists or is (as he claims...) a "peaceful brother."

Naturally, this brief assignment turns into something far more dangerous as Darwyn is abducted and tested, and then recruited into a new terrorist cell. Darwyn's needed by this new group's leader, Khalid, because he still has access to Farik's financial connections...and the cell is in need of money. The new cell members include an Engineer from the UK, Benito Velasquez, who has gang connections, and Mina, a beautiful Dutch woman whose husband was a holy warrior, demolitions expert and martyr in Iraq. The scene that introduces these characters is great. Darwyn, hoping to prove his credentials as a radical, attacks Mina as "some white chick from Amsterdam" and argues that there is no place for women in the jihad. It's great stuff, and such layered material too. Darwyn isn't a sexist, but he plays one in the cell.

While Darwyn again navigates the tight-rope of undercover work, Sleeper Cell's second season also gazes at two other survivors of the Los Angeles cell from the first season. Farik is now in prison, and the episode's first shot is a long, slow pull-back of the terrorist kneeling in prayer....and then being interrupted by his captors. He is ruthlessly interrogated by a pair of American agents, one a good cop, one a bad cop. Chris Mulkey plays the good cop, a fella who attempts to play a mind-game on Farik that make the terrorist question his faith.

The other subplot involves Ilija (Henri Lubatti), who has dyed his hair blonde and is living with an American girlfriend. He's become paranoid (and he compulsively cleans her apartment so as not to leave DNA samples anywhere...). The episode is particularly clever in depicting this relationship. Ilija's girlfriend is a conspiracy-theorist who believes that Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani masterminded the terrorist attacks on 9/11 from a bunker in WTC 7. But, of course, she's actually shacking up with an honest-to-goodness terrorist.

This sub-plot is an example of one reason why I admire Sleeper Cell. It is even-handed; not taking sides, in what is clearly a controversial war. Conspiracy nuts are lampooned here for not believing that terrorists exist (or that they don't pose a danger), at the same time that America's ruthless interrogation tactics are attacked for their barbarity. In other words, both the extreme right and the extreme left take their shots here. And that's important. For me, the interrogation scenes are especially interesting. How do you apply force to save lives, while still retaining your humanity and morality? In the episode I saw, one American interrogator was a vicious bastard, both arrogant and ignorant...which is pretty deplorable. He makes a joke about going to the bathroom, asking if his crap is a "Shi'ite or a Sunni," for example. So...I wonder, can you use force without being racist or hateful? Can you hate the terrorists and what they stand for without also ridiculing the religion of millions? That's the question this episode raises; but it's not obvious or simple-minded (like, say, Battlestar Galactica's torture episode...).

Also, I must note that in its second season, so far, Sleeper Cell is revealing a bit more wit and humor than we saw in the first season. There's a funny sequence in which Darwyn points out Khalid's hypocrisy driving an SUV. Darwyn reminds the terrorist he could fund an attack for the price of the luxury vehicle. Khalid dismisses Darwyn's argument with the comment that a Land Cruiser is "the vehicle of choice for holy warriors across the world." Wonder when we'll see that line on Land Cruiser TV commercials...

"Al-Baqara" also talks a lot about faith; and what faith is and isn't. It balances the views of those who have faith with those who see organized religion (and faith) only as a tool of mind control; a way of separating us into teams. This is the kind of debate we - as Americans - have been denied in our public square for years, but at least our "art" is filling the gap.

Sleeper Cell season two is off to a good start, and I'll be blogging several more episodes this week...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Muir in the Contra Costa Times!

Hey folks, I'm quoted today in Chuck Barney's article about the new show Heroes (and superheroes on TV...), in The Contra Costa Times. It's called "TV Heroes Show Their Powers," and it's a good commentary on the state of the genre now, and where it's been.

Here's a sample of the Barney piece:

"Kring's grounded-in-reality approach is partially why "Heroes" has managed to go beyond the comic-book crowd and cross over into the mainstream, according to John Kenneth Muir, author of "The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television."

"The show has avoided some of the crazier conventions of the genre's past," he says. "The characters aren't saving the world on a weekly basis. They're not facing a cast of colorful freaks like the Joker or Penguin ..."

"...We want to see our superheroes do extraordinary things. We want to see Spider-Man, for example, fly from building to building in spectacular fashion," says Muir. "But television usually hasn't been able to pull that off. We briefly got a live-action Spider-Man on TV in the late '70s who wore clunky wristbands and whose eyes looked like ski goggles. He simply wasn't the Spider-Man we all envisioned."

Check out the rest of Mr. Barney's article

Saturday, December 02, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Ming's Last Battle"

We cap off our Saturday morning double-header today with Chapter 16 of Filmation's Flash Gordon (the last chapter of the series' freshman season). It's titled "Ming's Last Battle," and is written by Ted Pederson.

While Flash Gordon is frozen in suspended animation to be a witness at the wedding of Dale Arden and Ming the Merciless, Vultan and the allies plot the final battle for control of the planet. In one hour, Vultan reveals from his restored throne, "the free people of Mongo" will "march on Ming's palace."

In Mingo City, Dale reminds Captain Erzine (Ming's right-hand man...) of Earth atrocities carried out in the name of "following orders" in hopes of stoking his conscience (a veiled reference to Nazism and World War II...). Also Aura rescues Flash from his prison of ice.

At the same time, the war rages between Ming's fleet and the Hawkmen over Sky City. At the last minute, the others Allies show up to save the day. Queen Undina (from Coralia...) arrives in the nick of time to help Flash and Aura destroy a mobile gun fortress, and Fridgia's Queen Fria turns the tide in air battle, delivering the necessary Orium power supplies to prevent Sky City from dropping out of the sky.

Alas, Gundar "the desert Hawk," Azura (the Magic Queen) and Tropica's Queen Desira are all MIA. Which kind of sucks. We've spent fifteen chapters building allies, making new alliances and so forth, and it seems like this is the time for the reunion. Hope they don't get to share in the spoils once Barin is "regent" of Mongo.

Anyway, the final campaign for control of Mongo occurs in the ornate throne room as Dale (looking sexy in her wedding gown...) and Ming are to be wed. Ming and Flash fight it out on ledges, in corridors, and on high city spires. Ray guns, flame swords and fisticuffs all get play. Inevitably, Ming speaks the classic line "Now You Die!" I waited a dozen episodes for that bit of dialogue. In the climactic duel, there's a surprise and a shock and...well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?

Summing up the Flash Gordon experience: "So many strange many new friends."

And, just a teaser: the season ends with a kiss...

We'll return to Filmation's Flash Gordon season two some day in the future. Next week, we begin a brand new Saturday Morning show: the live-action 1976 series, Ark II.

So bring your Cheerios, and tune in then. Same blog time; same blog station.