Saturday, February 20, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Secret of the Ancients" (October 13, 1979)


The Saturday morning adventures continue in Jason of Star Command's swashbuckling episode "Secret of the Ancients," first aired in late 1979.  

Here, the manipulative Dragos (Sid Haig) promises to save Jason's (Craig Littler's) life if only Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) deciphers the mysterious star disk of the "Tantalutions" now in the despot's possession.

Parsafoot agrees, and Jason is rescued from space. Very quickly, Parsafoot learns that the disk functions as a "matter transmitter."  Specifically, it can send any life-form into another dimension, a kind of cosmic "limbo."

When Commander Stone (John Russell) attacks Dragos' dragon ship, Dragos sends the unfortunate commander into this very limbo. And when Matt Daringstar betrays Dragos, the madman sends the boy, Parsafoot and Jason into  the eerie limbo world as well...


Although it lacks a stop-motion monster, "Secret of the Ancients" is a fun episode in terms of characterization.  Parsafoot must make a choice between helping Jason and sacrificing his principles, or letting Jason die. Jason -- though alive -- is disappointed by his final selection.



Even more interestingly, Jason continues his unofficial tutorship of Matt Daringstar (Clete Keith), turning the conflicted boy from the dark side, as it were, and towards the light. Jason does so, largely, by asking Matt if he'd rather be rich, or have friends who really care about him.

In the age of President Carter's "Crisis of  Confidence" speech, this is not a small concern, and Jason of Star Command does a nice job of depicting Daringstar's choice.  Would he rather be rich, in the service of a monster, or be his own man; one that he can take pride in?

I also enjoyed the deepening of the Commander Stone character here. In "Secret of the Ancients," Stone reveals that he bears some unknown "personal score" to settle with Dragos, and launches Star Fire 3 to take him on. The mission fails, but Jason ribs the by-the-book commander about his decision to endanger himself on a mission.  "Not exactly by the book," he notes, and Stone admits that "there are times when the book is inadequate," but then quickly recants.  "I'll deny I ever said that."

Alas, despite the fast pace and excellent outer space effects for the age, Jason of Star Command showcases the limit of its budget this week.


When Jason escapes from prison, he leads one of Dragos' spaghetti-monster aliens on a merry chase down a high-tech corridor. One hallway is seen again and again, from different angles during the chase, and the re-use of the set is plain. Also, when Jason disables one of Drago's computers, it's not clear what he precisely has done to it. He just stamps his feet behind the console, and it explodes! 

Finally, the episode ends with another cool JOSC cliffhanger: the roar of an unseen monster in the mist-filled limbo.  I hope this promises a cool stop-motion monster in next week's show...

All in all, this episode is a pretty good build-up from last week's arc opener, but it's a disappointment that Samantha (Tamara Dobson) continues to be sidelined when there is so much more to explore regarding her "amnesia" and character background.

Next week: "The Power of the Star Disk."  

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "The Beast Men's Prey" (October 20, 1979)




This episode of Flash Gordon -- which follows last week's (temporary) defeat of Ming the Merciless -- isn't up to the same high quality standard of previous installments in the Filmation series. 

In fact, it's a bit of a mess. I suspect that's because the first five episodes comprised footage from the made-for-TV film; whereas this is all new stuff now...and that probbly means resources were stretched thin.



"The Beast Men's Prey" (by Sam Peeples) finds Flash, Zarkov and Dale seeking to escape Ming's palace just as Vultan, Barin and Thun -- under pressure from Ming's Metal Men Warriors -- make a hasty retreat. Zarkov thinks they've been abandoned. Flash's response.: "Don't think negatively, Doc." Even in terms of stereotypical American Exceptionalism, that's a bit weak.

Meanwhile, Flash and his friends are dealing with the fact that they may never get back to Earth, after demolishing Ming's planetary drive controls. 


Mongo -- like Moonbase Alpha -- is now roaming beyond Earth's solar system. I realize this franchise is considered space fantasy, and pulp entertainment, but I would be curious to know how Mongo's atmosphere doesn't freeze as it moves away from the sun, from one star system to the next.  It would take one or two words of dialogue to explain it: planetary force field.   There should at least be a veneer of technology or scientific plausibility, between action scenes.

Also, in this very same scene, Flash lets an important tidbit of information drop. Dale is afraid to jump from a ledge, and he comments on it. It's almost a throwaway, but he states: "Remember, you're stronger here on Mongo than on Earth."

That would have been nice to know earlier, and would have explained (or helped to explain), Flash Gordon's miraculous survival rate on the rogue planet.



Anyway, Flash, Dale and Zarkov steal a magnetic automobile and careen through Mingo City in it until the vehicle goes off a bridge. The triumvirate makes it to a distant shore, to a primitive land like "Earth during prehistoric times." 





There, they encounter a tribe of primitives -- Besast Men -- who worship a giant statue of Ming as their God. "I am your God, Ming," the Statue (replete with glowing eyes) tells his minions, "Obey Me!"


Flash and the others escape the cathedral of the Beast Men by climbing a staircase in the folds of the giant Ming statue's robes.They head over a lava pit, and Flash muses "It can't be any worse over there..." 

Later, Flash, Dale and Zarkov discover that their rocket has been rebuilt by Ming, steal it from sexy Princess Aura, take to the skies aboard the vessel, engage in a beautifully animated space battle, and then chart a course for "The Sea of Mystery."

If this scattershot summary tells you anything, it's that "The Beast Men's Prey" feels like a catch-all episode.  There's no explanation for the survival in the void of a rogue planet like Mongo, a quickie explanation for Flash's success rate on Mongo, and then the baffling plot development that Aura has recovered Flash's rocket from the bottom of the sea and restored it to operation.




Why would she do that? Earth technology, by Mongo standards, isn't exactly high-tech, right?  The real answer: stock footage.  The creators of the show are able to use the same alien dogfight used in the first episode at the conclusion of this one. For that to happen, the rocket had to be un-pulped.

Next week, the same rocket is re-pulped!  That occurs in Chapter 6: "Into the Water World."

Friday, February 19, 2016

Found Footage Friday: Exhibit A (2007)



Any horror movie aficionado who harbors doubts about the validity or efficacy of the found footage format should watch Exhibit A (2006), one of the format’s darkest and most effective offerings. 

Unlike the vast majority of found footage horror films, Exhibit A does not concern anything remotely supernatural or paranormal.  Rather, it charts with meticulous detail the slow but steady disintegration of a middle-class family in Yorkshire, England.

As you might guess, there’s nothing pretty about the family’s destruction. Instead, the film’s camera acts as witness to all the daily pressures that ultimately drive the family patriarch, Andy King (Bradley Cole), over the edge of sanity.

Those pressures are interpersonal, and they are financial. The demons that Andy battles -- and is defeated by -- are the demons that people like you and I face all the time.  

These devils are past due bills, a mortgage payment, and so forth. Throw a bit of alcoholism into the mix and one can detect how dangerous the environment can become.

Although it is certainly possible to interpret or parse Andy as a typical horror movie “Bad Father,” one can nonetheless experience sympathy for this misguided, deeply-flawed man as well. 

By picture’s end, Andy turns into a monster, yes, but in large part it is because there is nothing he can do to live up to the role that society has demanded he play; no way for him to earn back the lost love and respect of his family.

Produced on a shoestring budget, Exhibit A is remarkably well-made, and -- in its story of “real life” pressures -- proves itself one of the most horrifying and harrowing found-footage films that I’ve seen.

Watching Exhibit A, you know all along how it is bound to end, but still you can’t turn away from it. 

You search the footage for clues about pathology and psychosis, but the dark answer behind the “death” of the King family is more complex than a simple pointing out any one individual’s behavior.  

Andy’s dark action is not just about him, but about the daily pressures and expectations that make people crack, and turn against those they love most.


“Why is it that you hate me so much?”

Andy King (Bradley Cole), gives his daughter, Judith (Brittany Ashworth), a video camera for her birthday. 

 Judith uses the device to chart her interactions with the family, including her brother, Joe (Oliver Lee) and her mother, Sheila (Angela Forest). Judith also uses the camera to explore her own sexual awakening, and a fascination with the beautiful neighbor next door, Claire.

Andy is up for promotion, and his wife wants to move to a new house on the beach. But buying that house will be a stretch, financially-speaking, and their current house must be sold. 

Andy believes he can get a better price for the current home if it has a backyard pool.  Since he can’t afford to put one in, Andy begins digging the pool himself.

And then Andy doesn’t get the promotion he expected, and he lies to his family about it.  Later, a co-worker bound for that promotion is injured on the job, and Andy looks to be responsible.

As Andy’s behavior grows more desperate and violent, Judith follows his every move with the camera, a move that causes Andy to go ballistic and reveal the intimate secrets of all those whom he loves.  

But there are some secrets he learns that destroy the family, and make it impossible to reconcile. Realizing what he has done, Andy takes final, irrevocable action against his loved ones.


“You don’t have to pretend anymore.”

We see during a tour of the King family house during the opening act of Exhibit A that the abode is labeled “Camelot.”  

That’s a brilliant allusion to start this movie out on. Camelot is the home of “kings,” isn’t it, and a name for a place of idyllic peace, happiness and tranquility?  Camelot is what a family home should be, and what the Kings fancy their home to be.

But this particular Camelot is short-lived, as a series of financial setbacks drive Andy King to madness and murder. 

Here, one motivating factor for that madness is Andy’s inability to provide a better life (a new and improved Camelot) for his middle-class family He believes he will be promoted to “area manager” on the job, and that a new house on the beach is within reach.

Upward mobility is the name of the game, and he believes he can make it happen for the Kings.

But Andy doesn’t get the job, and the house was never really within reach. 

Andy can’t stand to face these truths, and more trenchantly, can’t stand to be seen as a failure in terms of providing for his family.  

So he lies. And he makes one bad decision after another.  

These bad decisions include attempting to put in a swimming pool at Camelot, and, ultimately, injuring a co-worker so he can take his job…and higher paycheck.

Then, when Andy is outed as a liar -- and he is a liar -- he strikes back at his family, noting that they are liars too.  

Judith is gay, and Andy does the unthinkable. He outs her to the family before she has even had the chance to fully examine how she feels about herself, or her orientation.  

He also reveals that Joe is a drug addict, and that Sheila, his wife, has lied about her pregnancies.  

The truth in the last case is far more upsetting than Andy could have imagined. Andy learns that Sheila had an abortion, without telling him, rather than have a third child that the family cannot afford.  

Again, this is an affront to Andy’s sense that he is the leader of the family, and that he can provide for those who dwell in Camelot. Sheila's action proves that she doesn't believe him. That she's never believed in him.

As you can probably tell, Andy is a defensive listener too He takes all feedback from Judith and the others as an attack, and doubles down on every bad decision he makes.  It gets to the point -- in the final moments of the film -- when the only way for Andy to save face involves murder.

There are a lot of larger societal questions brewing underneath Exhibit A

Why do we keep raising men to believe that they must have all the answers, and always be “knights in shining armor” for their families? The fact of the matter is that such an expectation creates enormous pressure for some men. Andy does what he does, finally, because he can’t stand being a failure; can’t bear his failure to live up to society’s ideal for fathers and husbands.

Another issue, of course, is financial. Andy has a job, and yet can’t keep up with the financial demands of the middle class. He fails to get his wife the house she wants, and then fails to increase the value of “Camelot," the Kings' current house.  

Andy's desperation becomes evident -- and pathetic – as he attempts to stage with Joe and Judith a funny video for a sweepstakes that could make them rich if only they win.  At first the staging is light and funny, and then it turns increasingly dark and ominous, as Andy continues to demand that they do it again and again.  

Before long, a moment of “family fun” becomes absolute torture.

And that’s because Andy -- unbeknownst to his children -- needs that video to succeed. He is desperate for the money it will bring. He has banked the entire future on winning a contest, and that isn't really a valid or smart choice.

The film’s big question, of course, involves Andy and his nature. Is he a bad guy, and villain? Is he a monster?

Certainly, the acts Andy commits at film’s end are monstrous and nightmarish for any good father or family man to contemplate. And yet one can see, throughout the film, Andy’s feelings of inadequacy about himself.  He wants so desperately to be loved and admired, and when that door finally shuts, he feels he has no recourse but violence.  I'm not excusing this choice, the final bad decision among many. But based on the footage, it isn't all that unexpected, is it?

One scene captures perfectly Andy’s state-of-mind. 

Pool-side, he starts to dance frenetically and pathetically, longing for some approbation, some applause. He wants everyone to celebrate him, and what he has accomplished for the family. But Andy is dancing in place, not moving forward, and the dance only paints over insecurities deep and permanent.  The dance scene will make you cringe, as you feel bot embarrassed and sad for Andy. Every attempt to make his family happy back-fires and makes thing worse.


Most found footage movies are about monsters from the outside world, like zombies, demons, or Bigfoot. Exhibit A dwells on the monsters that eat at us from our own insides.  Those monsters have names like insecurity and depression.

As the movie's tag line reminds us, the camera never lies. And Andy's family stopped being "camelot" a long, long time ago.  He just never understood that.

Movie Trailer: Exhibit A (2007)

Superheroes of: 2000 - 2009

Identified by Sirrus: The X-Men.
Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Unbreakable


Identified by Sirrus: The Tick.

Identified by SGB: Smallville.

Identified by SGB: Bluntman and Chronic.

Identified by Vejur79: Birds of Prey.

Identified by Sirrus: Spiderman.

Identified by Sirrus: Blade.

Identified by Sirrus: Daredevil.

Identified by Sirrus: The Hulk.
Identified by Sirrus: Hellboy.

Identified by Sirrus: The Incredibles
Identified by Sirrus: The Punisher

Identified by Sirrus: Batman Begins

Identified by Sirrus: Elektra

Identified by Sirrus: The Fantastic Four.

Identified by Sirrus: Sky High

Identified by Vejur79: Heroes.

Identified by Vejur79; My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Identified by Sirrus: Ghost Rider

Identified by Vejur79: Hancock

Identified by Sirrus: Iron Man

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Films of 1990: Dick Tracy


A key question involving Warren Beatty’s ultra-stylized Dick Tracy (1990) is, simply: are (gorgeous) pictures worth a thousand words?

Your response to this film may depend wholly on what qualities you believe matter most in a movie. Are brilliant images enough to intrigue you, even if the narrative fails to engage your senses?

Undeniably, Dick Tracy is a visual masterpiece.

The film is a unique, beautifully-realized, and downright dazzling comic-strip on screen. Beatty’s picture doesn’t recreate the 1930s so much, actually, as it recreates a comic-strip version of the 1930s.

It does so in loving homage to the compositions of comic strip creator Chester Gould (1900 – 1985), who wrote and drew Dick Tracy strips from 1931 to 1977.

Accordingly, Dick Tracy is beautiful to look at, and to intellectualize as a fully-executed work of art that evokes its source material with remarkable fidelity.

And yet, despite such glorious visualization, Dick Tracy never really dramatizes a compelling story, nor makes us feel, through its dialogue, that the characters it depicts are living, breathing people with concerns that matter.

Perhaps that wasn’t the intent of the filmmakers.

Perhaps the intent was to translate Dick Tracy to the silver screen, note-for-note, from the old strip, leaving out all three-dimensional detail and shading in the process.

This is a comic-strip displayed on the silver-screen, no more, no less.

If so, that’s understandable as a creative or artistic strategy, but the ambitious plan doesn’t exactly work as intended, or like one might hope it would.

Why?

There’s a kind of remoteness or distance from the film that occurs while one watches Dick Tracy.

There’s almost no emotional impact at all in any of the action or character arcs. And the story-line feels so generic that, at times, it is difficult to focus at all on what is happening, and why it is happening.

The characters are all simple, off-the-shelf “types,” or clichés, such as the dedicated, good woman (Tess Trueheart), or the marble-mouth informant, Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), and they simply don’t ever become more than their names suggest they are.

They are, merely, the sum total of their faces and their names. 

And again, that’s precisely what they are in the comics.

Symbols.

Representations of character traits such as loyalty, avarice, or even dogged determinism.

Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney may be the closest thing to an exception in the film. She registers strongly as a person, perhaps because Stephen Sondheim’s songs so effectively give her character a distinctive “voice” in the proceedings. Also, Madonna is not shy about transmitting sexual charisma.

But since most of the people featured in the film are brush-strokes as much as they are legitimate personalities, one’s enjoyment of Dick Tracy is based almost entirely on intellectual or cerebral grounds. 

To wit, the color scheme is gorgeous (and faithful to the strip), the camera-work is craftily brilliant in the way that it respects the boundaries of the comic-book frame, and the prosthetics that characterize the villainous criminals are not merely inventive, but effective in conveying the nature of their specific sins.

Perhaps these achievements should be enough.

Dick Tracy is a distinctive, imaginative, inventive comic-book movie, and one can gaze at its flourishes with appreciation just as one might gaze with approbation at a lovely painting in a gallery.

But Dick Tracy’s great flaw, it seems, is that -- while the pictures are admirable and compelling -- the words the people speak don’t move or inspire us. 

Stephen Sondheim’s songs occasionally offer that inspiration, as I’ve noted. An occasional montage of crime-fighting does so as well.

But overall, Dick Tracy doesn’t provide us the meaningful words, or emotions, to go with all the remarkable imagery. 

We can read a comic strip in moments.  

But a motion picture we must commit to on a longer, more thorough basis. And on that basis, I would have to argue that the film is a failure.

A movie critic friend of mine has noted, before, that reviewers can’t give out an “A” for effort on ambitious movies that, somehow, don’t manage to gel successfully.

Yet in my heart, I award Dick Tracy an “A” for effort despite its failings to tell a coherent story, or make us love its characters.

Warren Beatty has directed a gorgeous, challenging film, and I love the breadth of his imagination and fidelity to the source material.

At the same time, the film’s story is dead-on-arrival, and I wish that the gorgeous, inspired pictures were enough to carry the production through its nearly two-hour running time.

The best way to watch and enjoy Dick Tracy, perhaps, is in five or ten minute increments. 

The visuals prove powerful, and in such short “chapter-play” bursts, the film doesn’t lose its pacinng or momentum.


“Whose side are you on?”

In New York of the 1930s, diabolical gangster Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) makes a daring move. With the help of his minions, including Flattop (William Forsythe), he takes out his competitor, Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino), and steals his place: the Club Ritz. 

Included with ownership of the Club Ritz, is a sexy torch-song singer, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).

While Big Boy Caprice grows his empire and bribes the city mayor (Dick Van Dyke), he faces legal problems from “maverick police detective” Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty). Tracy needs someone to testify against Caprice, but Mahoney refuses to do so. 

Instead, she admits that she has fallen in love with Tracy.

This attraction complicates matters for Dick, because he is in love with kindly Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley), and is caring for an orphan boy, The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), who looks up to him as a paragon of virtue.

As Tracy and Caprice clash for control of the city, a new, faceless informant shows up to complicate matters; one who seems to have both Dick Tracy and Caprice in her nefarious sights.


“Eat Lead Tracy.”

Dick Tracy not only looks great…it looks amazing. 

The film’s characters and locations exist in a comic-strip world consisting of only four or so colors: blue, red, green, and yellow. These colors are vibrant and over-whelming, and reflect the comic-strip color scheme to a high degree, as you can see.  


In a way, these colors dictate the nature of the characters, and their world.

Even better than the color scheme, however, is the film’s extensive use of matte paintings. Today, CGI would be used in such circumstances, but something essential -- a sense of the “hand-painted” or “hand-drawn” -- would be lost in in the process.  The mattes here are by Harrison Ellenshaw, one of Hollywood’s most remarkable talents. It appears as though every establishing or location shot in Dick Tracy is “enlarged” and colored by such paintings, and the effect is stunning.

The effect is not so much that we are in a giant city, but -- as noted above -- a giant comic-strip city, one imagined, constructed, and toiled upon by very human hands; by the hands of an individual illustrator. 

Again, one should note that these city-scapes don’t look “photo real.” You can't take them for real. They look, instead, like they came from an artist’s viewpoint or imagination of the world, and that’s perfect. 






Similarly, Warren Beatty achieves much here from the notion of the movie frame echoing the comic strip frame. 

There is a scene, for example, during which Dick Tracy follows the Kid to his ramshackle home, and beats up his abusive father. 

We see the fight from outside the shack, and the only movement in the frame is the tilting of that edifice from one side to another, as Tracy’s fisticuffs strike the abusive Dad, and the walls of the home shift. Significantly, the action is contained within the frame, and the camera is static, it doesn’t move.  



Beatty utilizes this technique again and again, and even creates movement out of artistic montage, rather than via the auspices of a moving camera. 

Late in the film, there’s a crime fighting montage featured, for instance, as Dick Tracy takes the fight to his enemy. It deploys super-imposition and other old fashioned techniques that would be available to a comic-strip artist….pictures within pictures.


This crime-fighting montage is actually my favorite scene in Dick Tracy because everything just comes together so perfectly, and it builds, finally, a sense of momentum. We see close-ups of machine guns firing. We see Tracy, super-imposed over the streets. We see villains falling out of broken windows, another method by which to show movement in the frame without actually moving the camera, and so on. It’s so beautifully conceived and executed, from start to finish.

The villains in the film look great too. 

As their make-up reveals, these are people who wear their sins in the very lines of their faces

Lips Manlis boasts huge, hanging lips…all the better to suck oysters (and demonstrate his avarice…) with. 

Caprice is hunched over, burdened by the weight of his ambitions. 

R.G. Armstrong plays Pruneface, a wizened old gangster whose face, is wrinkled beyond belief. We know from a mere glance at these personalities that they are twisted, evil and perverted. 





We don’t need to know the specifics of their trespasses, because their visages and their bodies speak volumes.

The problem, of course, is that all these characters are expected to function in a tale that lasts nearly 120 minutes. 

Once we know what they are (by looking at them), their plans need to compel us, to drive our interest.

And, simply, they don’t. 

Dick Tracy is true blue. We know this from looking at him. 

Tess Trueheart is a true heart, her name and actions say. 

But the movie is not able to shade these obvious characters with any sort of three dimensional reality. By being so stolid and stereotyped, they transmit as campy.

Again, I know it isn't the game to humanize these comic strip individuals. 

But beautiful cardboard is still cardboard, in the final analysis.  

In a two-hour motion picture we need to be driven by a story, and by the desires of the characters. Dick Tracy shows us beautiful and ugly people in a picturesque world, but it never engages our heart sin a real way.

There’s an important asterisk there, of course.

And her name is Madonna.  

While belting out a Sondheim tune, or confessing her desire for Tracy, Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney transmits as fully -- and fallibly -- human. 

As you may remember, Madonna and Beatty were in a romantic relationship together when this film was made. It’s no surprise then, that Beatty is best in his scenes with Madonna, particularly the scene wherein Tracy rebuffs Mahoney’s advances. 

It feels there -- like nowhere else in the film -- that feelings and the future itself -- are on the line. 

Madonna brings an incredible and playful brand of sexiness to the film, particularly in the scene wherein she crawls -- on all fours -- over Dick Tracy's office desk.


Perhaps the problem I’m really writing about in this review involves nuance.  

In a motion picture, if interest is to be sustained, the story and the character must feature some nuance. 

In a comic strip like Dick Tracy, by contrast, the idea is the opposite. With so little space available to tell a story, every image must transmit a surfeit of information. We must know from a character’s name (Tess Trueheart) or his very appearance (Flattop) what that character is all about. 

In a movie, by contrast, we want to learn a little at a time..

So what Dick Tracy gains in terms of fidelity to a comic strip, it loses in terms of emotional connection and nuance.

It seems a dilemma, doesn’t it? 

Perhaps Dick Tracy is un-adaptable in film format, at least without serious adjustments to the comic strip format.

The whole problem reminds me of Big Boy Caprice’s dialogue in the film. “You get behind me, we all profit. You challenge me, we all go down.”


Perhaps the original Dick Tracy strips needed to be challenged a little bit more, in terms of their efficacy as workable motion picture material. 

I've tried to get behind this movie, but still, it goes down...