Sunday, May 29, 2016

Advert Art: Starship Troopers (Sega Edition)

At Flashbak: The Green Machine

This week at Flashbak, I remembered Marx Toy’s Green Machine.

“In the year 1977, if you were just too big for a “Big Wheel,” there was only one alternative: Marx’s The Green Machine. 

Selling for just under twenty dollars, this pedal-operated hot rod had adjustable bucket seats, “hug the road tip-proof-design,” stick-shift controls and as per-size mag-style wheel with a honeycomb design on it.

It was the perfect ride, according to promotional materials, “for guys 8 9, 10 years old who really know how to ride.” 

Hopefully, it was for gals who knew how to ride too.

Other ads described the Green Machine as “mean,” and the “ultimate in low-slung style and performance” with a “low center of gravity…”

Please continue reading at Flashbak.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar: "Spacewrecked" (October 17, 1981 )

In “Spacewrecked,” John Blackstar’s lover, Katana follows his trajectory by tracing the photon vapor trail from his ship.  It leads through the black hole, and on the other side of the phenomenon she is reunited with him. They make plans to leave Sagar together. The Trobbits are heartbroken.

Their joy is short-lived, however, because The Overlord wants to possess the spaceship -- a “time ship capable of multi-verse travel” -- for his evil plans. Overlord captures Katana and hypnotizes her into stealing the star-sword.

But the Overlord hasn’t reckoned with the greatest power in the universe: “love.”

Filmation’s Blackstar focuses on Sagar, and the battle between the human astronaut and the Overlord. But in the case of “Spacewrecked,” audiences get to see a bit more detail about Blackstar’s personal life, as well as the hierarchy he operates under. 

The episode starts with Katana communicating via radio to her home base, as she contemplates a trip through the black hole. 

And the episode ends with the promise that she will return to help Blackstar.  She communicates again with Earth, and tells mission control “I’ll need the entire fleet for my mission. I’m going back there to help him.”

Unfortunately, Blackstar was canceled after one season of just 13 episodes, and audiences never saw Katana’s return.  It’s certainly possible, however, to imagine a final episode in which the cavalry from Earth comes over the hill (through the black hole...) so-to-speak and defeats the Overlord once and for all. Indeed, that would have been a great note to go out on, though the Trobbits would have been sad, in any regard, to see John Blackstar leave Sagar.

“Spacewrecked” is likely a candidate for “best episode” of the series primarily because it reveals that Earth has not forgotten about John Blackstar, and reveals that its technology is coveted by the Overlord as a great weapon, even though he typically relies on magic.  

Finally, we meet the love of Blackstar’s life and thus can start to fill in some gaps about his background and history.

Next week: “Lightning City of the Clouds.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "The Game" / "The Seed" (October 2, 1982)

In “The Game,” the rulers of Cavern City burrow into Arboria (interrupting a dance) and capture several denizens -- including Flash -- to serve as gladiators in their arena games.

In “The Seed,” Ming the Merciless embeds a new weapon inside a meteor, and then crashes it into Arboria. The strange seed sprouts a giant tentacled monster, which goes on a killing rampage.

The second season of Filmation’s Flash Gordon (1979-1982) doesn’t gain much momentum from the two stories in this installment.

We have already seen Flash in an arena fight before (in the first season installment “Chapter 12: Tournament of Death”), and we’ve also seen him lead slave rebellions too.  Accordingly, "The Game" doesn't break much in terms of new ground.

However, this story does feature a nice opening shot. We move down, from Mongo orbit, through the clouds -- down to Arboria.  It’s a nice segue, and one that gets reused a few times in the second season, and in the next batch of episodes.

As, we get to see Flash act like a “first rate ham” dancing with Dale in “The Game,” and it is hard not to reflect how his character has become more cocky and less sincere than in his first season incarnation.  He doesn't feel like Flash anymore. He doesn't take anything, even danger, seriously.

“The Seed” is pretty dire too. 

The monster that the seed looks like a cross between The Real Ghostbusters’ Slimer and the creature from Cloverfield (2008), but is vaguely humorous all the same.

Here, the best character touch involves Dae Arden learning to fly a rocket on a simulator in Arboria (about time too…).  I also liked the new hovercraft design we see during the attack on the creature.  

The episode’s ending, with the monster turning on Ming in his science lab, is pretty risible. It's a typical cartoon ending.  The villain gets his comeuppance, but by the next episode everything is back to normal.  We are never told how Ming gets rid of the beast.

Next week: “Witch Woman” and “Micro Menace”

Friday, May 27, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Perhaps the most famous TV-movie ever made, Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror (1975) boasts an impeccable pedigree.  The anthology, which aired on March 4, 1975 as ABC's "movie of the week," consists of three Richard Matheson stories, two teleplays by William Nolan, four memorable performances by Karen Black, and sterling direction from Dan Curtis, the man behind Dark Shadows and the TV adaptation of The Night Stalker. 

If you're a fan of the genre on television, it really doesn't get much better than this...

The first Matheson story in this TV anthology is called "Julie," with a teleplay by Nolan. 

Here, a callow university student named Chad (Robert Butler) eyes the apparently prim-and-proper English Lit. teacher, Ms. Eldrich (Karen Black).  He fantasizes about her without her clothes on and then sets about making his fantasy real.  

Chad works up the courage to ask Julie Eldrich out on a date -- to go see a drive-in movie.  She accepts, and they watch The Night Stalker (!) on the big screen together.

At the movies, however, Chad drugs Julie's soda pop and takes her back to a seedy motel, where he snaps incriminating photographs of the teacher.  He then uses these photographs as a form of sexual blackmail, and makes poor Ms. Eldridge, essentially, his sex slave.

There's only problem.  Chad has assumed from the very beginning that he is in control of the situation; that Ms. Eldrich is exactly who and what she appears to be, a repressed, librarian-esque school marm.  Turns out that was an incorrect assumption, and Ms. Eldrich teaches an important life lesson to the "singularly unimaginative" Chad.

Although not the most-remembered segment of this horror anthology, "Julie" is pretty intense, especially because of the story's kinkier aspects: a student-teacher sexual relationship, and an early appearance on television of date-rape (replete with rape drug). The lurid segment's final revelation, that Julie is a veritable man-eater who maintains a scrapbook of her sexual conquests and murder victims, is also scarily effective.  Although it becomes clear that Julie is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing, the story nonetheless works as a "cosmic scales of justice righted" tale.

Chad certainly had it coming, given his misdeeds...

Prime among the Trilogy of Terror stories, "Julie" makes fine use of Karen Black's talents, understanding the raw, unusual allure of this distinctive performer.  Sometimes Black can look absolutely gorgeous, but she can also be made-up to appear somewhat homely.  In other words, Black is a performer with layers, and all those layers are put to tricky and clever use in the TV-movie's first story.  In "Julie," Black exudes coiled-up, repressed sexuality even in the most innocuous school room scenes.  Even "hidden" under ugly glasses and dressed in unflattering clothes, Black manages to project this electric sense of the dangerous, of the erotic.  And that's what this story is all about.

In Trilogy of Terror's second story, titled "Millicent and Therese" another apparently prim-and-proper woman, a spinster named Millicent (Black) plans to destroy her younger sister, the sexually-promiscuous and possibly Satanic, Therese (also Black). Millicent communicates with a psychologist  (George Gaynes) about Thesese, and then plans to use her sister's own fondness for voodoo against her.

Of the triumvirate, "Millicent and Therese" proves the weakest story in short order.  It's pretty obvious from the get-go where the story is headed, and what relationship these "sisters" actually share.  There's much talk of sex in "Millicent and Therese," but in many ways, this story feels like a retread of "Julie" in that Black again plays both reserved and overtly sexy.  Despite the familiarity of the material and obviousness of the story's final "twist," Dan Curtis does an effective job of directing the tale.

Millicent and Therese
For example, most of the story occurs inside one room, inside a library in Millicent and Therese's mansion.  Curtis films several scenes in this locale from a low-angle that accentuates the architecture and decorations of the old world library. 

The idea being, I suppose, that those things which ail Millicent and Therese emerge from this particular milieu.  From this house; from this room. Even from the books on the shelf.

For instance, Therese may have killed her own mother as a child.  And she also seduced her own father when she was sixteen. The books in the library -- all about the supernatural and paranormal -- reflect those "evils" after a fashion.  These volumes also prove the gateway to the destruction of both sisters. 

It may not sound like much, but the nice staging of these sequences in the library somehow suggests a place of evil looming in the sisters' twisted history together.  And given what we come to know about them, it makes perfect sense.

In the third, final and most memorable of the tales in Trilogy of Terror, titled "Amelia," the audience is introduced to a weak-willed, mild-mannered woman, Amelia (once more, Karen Black). Amelia is constantly being bullied by her (off-screen) mother.  In particular, Amelia's mother does not like that her daughter has moved out of the house (to a spacious apartment sub-let) and that she is dating an anthropology professor.

On one Friday night, Amelia decides not to visit her mother and instead spend the evening with her boyfriend, since it is his birthday.  As a gift, she has purchased the anthropologist an authentic "Zuni Fetish Doll," a miniature monstrosity with sharp teeth and armed with a spear.  According to legend, the Fetish Doll houses the spirit of a great hunter, but the murderous soul is trapped inside the doll so long as he wears a golden necklace around his neck.

In short order, the necklace is removed (it falls off, actually...) and Amelia is forced to wage war in the apartment against a violent, miniature predator.

Based on Matheson's short story, "Prey," "Amelia" is pretty clearly the go-for-broke segment of Trilogy of Terror.  After the relative restraint of the first two tales, this one truly goes all-out to get the blood pumping. 

Curtis and director of photography Paul Lohmann, un-tether themselves from they expectations they have knowingly fostered in the first two tales (of a relatively staid presentation) and with tremendous gonzo indulge in expressive, action-packed film making. 

Accordingly, this story features rocketing cameras bearing down on the imperiled Amelia, and other dramatic tracking shots, all lensed from the killer Fetish Doll's unique perspective.

Curtis achieves something else here as well, and it bears mention.  In particular, he stages many deep-focus long shots of the apartment, with Amelia framed in the background -- surrounded by door-frames on some occasions -- and only emptiness in the foreground.  The result is that we're actually looking furtively under coffee tables and chair legs for any sign of the murderous Zuni Fetish Doll. 

In many such cases, the doll is not present in frame at all...but we know he's nearby, and the deep-focus, long shots expertly set up the terrain of the battle and more than that, a sense of expectation.  These moments of silence and emptiness linger, and increase and enhance the mood of suspense. 

We wonder where the bloody monster is hiding this time...

As the battle grows more violent and intense, and Amelia grows more and more imperiled, Curtis makes these deep focus long shots turn cockeyed, which admittedly sounds cliched (like something out of Batman), but instead proves an effective tool in fostering real terror.  As the balance of power shifts towards the supernatural threat, it's only right that the "real" world's sense of order begins to literally and metaphorically tip over.  This technique of off-kilter shots successfully transmits the full-breadth of the monster's threat to Amelia.

Trilogy of Terror's Zuni Fetish Doll lives even today as one of the most potent 1970s "kinder traumas," responsible for God-knows-how-many youthful nightmares.   The creature has lost none of his macabre effectiveness some thirty-years later.  The Zuni Fetish monster boasts the sharpest teeth you've ever seen, has a big grinning mouth, and utters terrible, strange yells at it repeatedly attacks the imperiled Amelia.  You'll never forget what this creature is like in action; and you'll never forget the sound of his "voice," either.

Thematically, the Zuni Doll is surely an avatar representing Amelia's personal dilemma: the fact that in her personal life she constantly and continuously surrenders to others; to her Mother and also to her boyfriend.  The Zuni Doll makes Amelia -- for once -- fight back.  It's too little too late, perhaps, and Amelia makes the ultimate surrender to the Zuni Doll in the film's final, chill-inducing close-up.  But she puts up a hell of a fight before then, using everything from suitcases to the bathtub to the oven to battle the monster lurking in her apartment.

Another reason "Amelia" works so well is that it lunges directly into the horror territory that the other stories studiously skirted.  We don't know exactly what Julie's power is in "Julie," and in "Millicent and Therese" the voodoo doll is almost an afterthought in a psychological tale about multiple personalities. 

But here, the audience finally sees a supernatural monster in action; one with snapping, hungry jaws, and inhuman powers.  Crimson blood flows pretty freely in this segment too -- a surprise for 1975 television production -- and so again, the effect of the story is amplified.  The first time you see Trilogy of Terror, you aren't really prepared for the third story to descend into bloody murder and wildly expressive camera-work, and so "Amelia" becomes all the more powerful and stunning. 

The thrill of Trilogy of Terror after all these years is three-fold.  On one hand, it's terrific to see Karen Black's versatility used to such dramatic and purposeful effect.  She is a gifted, idiosyncratic performer who isn't afraid to express seamy, powerful and unattractive emotions.  Secondly, the Zuni Fetish Doll is the high octane fuel of a million (or more) bad dreams, and can still provoke throat-tightening terror in audiences. And thirdly, the imaginative and terrifying stories by Richard Matheson plumb the depths of our worst nightmares.

For these reasons, Trilogy of Terror doesn't play like a funny old artifact from the disco decade, but as a damn fine horror movie.   The spirit of the film -- like the spirit of the malevolent Zuni Fetish Doll -- endures.  The film's final shot -- a zoom to close-up of Amelia in her new state as a "hunter" --  is not something you can easily forget or put down.

So make sure you check for Zuni Fetish Dolls under your bed before you go to sleep tonight...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: Rank all the 007 Movies and Choose the Next Bond?

Great friend and regular reader SGB writes a follow-up to the question I answered on Monday of this week:

“Hi John,

I thoroughly enjoyed your "How would you rank the Bond movies by actor" post and agree with it with the exception of Moonraker only because I am fond of the extensive use of the NASA Space Shuttle Orbiters a.k.a. Moonrakers. 

I do agree that it was not a reality-grounded Bond film and thus the script was weaker.  At the end of the The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) it stated in the credits the next Bond film was to be For Your Eyes Only so we know Moonraker was made abruptly to exploit the success of Star Wars (1977). 

My challenge is in two questions:

1-Rank all the Bond movies mixed together from best to worst from Dr. No to SPECTRE
2-If Daniel Craig departs the Bond role, then which actors make your top ten list to be the next OO7 ?

Thank you.

SGB, those are two great challenges, for certain.  Thank you for posing the question.   

And by the way, I agree with you about Moonraker (1979). I enjoy it as a post-Star Wars fantasy, but not as a James Bond film if that makes any sense at all.  I also loved seeing those shuttles launch, dock, and carry troops into space.

So, my Bond movie rankings, top to bottom, eh? I will, but with the understanding that some of the titles in the middle of the pack may move up or down, based on re-watch, or my mood.

All right, here goes:

The Great:

1. From Russia with Love (1963): Greatest fight in the series (Train Car); greatest soldier villain (Red Grant), and Sean Connery at his most charming/fit.

2. Goldfinger (1964): Greatest villain (Auric Goldfinger), greatest car (Aston Martin), great pre-title sequence prototype, great car (Aston Martin with ejector seat!), great sacrificial lambs (Jill and Tilly Masterson), and greatest overall leitmotif or organizing principle (gold).

3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): The most human Bond film. The first “re-grounding” effort in the saga, and one that considers Bond as a person, not just an agent.  Greatest Bond Girl Ever: Diana Rigg’s Tracy Bond. Greatest ending in the series, too.

4. Casino Royale (2006): Another great “re-grounding” effort, after the ludicrous Die Another Day (2002) gives us the most physically-fit, believable Bond in Daniel Craig, and offers a solid villain (Mads Mikkelsen) and great Bond Girl, to rival Tracy: Eva Green’s Vesper. In a way, a great “origin story,” and in the 20-something other films, we’ve never really had that.

5. Licence to Kill (1989): Timothy Dalton’s final film was only twenty-five years ahead of its time, giving us a bloody, serious, tortured Bond on a mission of vengeance. Features one of the franchise’s all-time great villains, the quasi-Shakespearean Sanchez (Robert Davi), and a remarkable action scene involving trucks on a winding highway.

6. For Your Eyes Only (1981): The Bond re-grounding film -- following the excesses of Moonraker (1979) -- that proved Roger Moore can be a great James Bond. The film eschews fantasy, and shows how resourceful Bond can be. The car chase with the junky old Citroen proves it’s not the car mode itself that matters, it’s the man behind the wheel. The film also features the most suspenseful action scene in all the canon, with Moore’s 007 scaling a sheer mountainside as villains attempt to send him plummeting to his doom. That scene is absolutely nail-baiting.

The Good:

7. Skyfall (2012): Who knew Bond had a Mommy Complex? This film, in keeping with the Craig Era, gives us more insight into the creation of Bond’s world, adding flesh to the bones of Moneypenny, Q, and even the new M.

8. Dr. No (1962): The first Bond film, and the one to set the tone/style for the series.  Features a great villain, an amazing Bond girl  (Ursula Andress), and made Sean Connery a star.

9. The Living Daylights (1987): Another re-grounding film (this time after A View to a Kill), giving us a younger, more vigorous Bond in Timothy Dalton. The film speaks meaningfully to then current events (the Reagan Administrations’ shadowy arms deal with the Iranians), and gives the audience the most human, flawed 007 since Lazenby’s in 1969.

10. Never Say Never Again (1983): Overall, this one gets high marks from me because the film acknowledges that Bond (Sean Connery) has aged, and must now rely on his wits and cunning. The film’s villains are of the 1980s “push button” age, playing video games and remotely detonating bombs, but Bond is a moving human target, relying on his instincts and physicality.  Great antagonists here, too.

11. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): A veritable remake of You Only Live Twice (1967), only with nuclear submarines instead of rockets. But this movie features a great Bond car (the Lotus Esprit) and the finest pre-title sequence of the saga, with Moore’s Bond skiing off a mountainside and deploying a parachute.

12. Live and Let Die (1973): This Bond, the first starring Roger Moore, apes the Blaxploitation movie trend of the time period, but still holds together well.  Features the best title song of the franchise, and one of the finest Bond girls, Jane Seymour’s Solitaire.  The presence of Baron Samedi – Death Himself – also adds a layer of visual and thematic artistry to the affair.

13. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Brosnan’s best Bond; a rip-roaring social critique of the 24-hour news cycle, and the rise of cable news at the turn of last century. Michelle Yeoh is a fantastic ally for Bond, and Brosnan seems especially committed to the proceedings, notably in his scenes with (sacrificial lamb) Teri Hatcher.

14. Goldeneye (1995): After the ahead-of-its-time Licence to Kill, Pierce Brosnan’s first outing is a perfectly entertaining -- and perfectly bland -- re-establishment of the series’ spectacular side.  Unlike other re-grounding Bond films, this one is all about re-establishing the series’ “big,” outrageous moments. One huge downside is the funeral dirge-like soundtrack, which casts a pall over what should be a fun, buoyant, Bond film.

The Fair:

15. Quantum of Solace (2008): Craig’s sophomore outing in the 007 role is best enjoyed as the second half of Casino Royale (2006). On that basis – as well as its pastiche-style recycling of classic Bond images (girl in oil; girl in gold; Quantum = SPECTRE) -- the film is worth revisiting.

16. Thunderball (1965): This Bond film is over-long, edited poorly, and features one of the dullest villains ever: Largo. By this time, it’s also clear that Sean Connery is also getting bored in the role of 007. This is the “tipping” Bond in his era, the film that starts the descent towards utter crap (see: Diamonds are Forever.)  The fight scenes lose their effectiveness too, by the over-use of fast-motion editing to make them seem more pacey.

17. You Only Live Twice (1967): Features a great villain (Donald Pleasence), a great gadget (Little Nellie), and a great villain headquarters (inside a volcano), but also feels bloated, and is weighted down by Connery’s apparent disinterest in the whole enterprise. Also, there’s his terrible Japanese make-up…

18. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974): Roger Moore’s second film is fun but pretty unmemorable, overall.  A low point in the film is the return of Live and Let Die’s bigoted Southern sheriff. A high point is Maude Adams.

19. Spectre (2015): After starting out with real flair (and remarkable cinematography), this (final?) Craig effort peters out quickly. A villain’s headquarters is shown briefly, and then literally exploded with one well-placed shot.  And the retcon of Blofeld’s back-story is ludicrous, cringe-inducing and wrong-headed on a near cosmic scale. The film’s most interesting female character is played by Monica Bellucci and she gets almost no screen time.  Craig is still impressive, however.

20. Octopussy (1983): Another disposable entry in the Moore Era. Not bad, but nothing special either (except for the pre-title sequence with the AcroStar mini-jet). Roger Moore looks old and disinterested, and the last thing the series needed at this juncture was to feature his 007 dressed as a circus clown.

21. The World is Not Enough (1999): Sophie Marceau is fantastic in this film as Bond’s lover/nemesis, but Denise Richards isn’t exactly cut out to be a nuclear physicist. More than Brosnan’s first two Bond films, this one feels like little more than re-shuffled elements (another boat chase, another ski chase, another submarine set-piece…).

Below Average:

21. Moonraker (1979): Pardon my schizophrenia. As a Star Wars kid I love this film without reservation.  As a Bond fan, this film is low-points of source, made so by the campy, tongue-in-cheek approach and every single scene featuring Jaws (Richard Kiel).  That said, I could watch this any day and be thoroughly entertained. Still,I could do without the pigeon doing a double-take, and the gondola-turned hover-craft.

22. A View to a Kill (1985): I should look as good as Roger Moore does in this filmwhen I’m his age. That said, he’s still way too old to be a convincing James Bond at this point.  The film is bloated and slow, and Tanya Robert’s Stacy Sutton is the most annoying Bond Girl of the series.  Christopher Walken, Grace Jones, and Duran Duran are all “fresh” ingredients in the franchise that nonetheless utterly fail to enliven this beached-whale of an epic.

23. Diamonds are Forever (1971): Terrible, awful, no-good effort that sees Connery’s retirement from the role until 1983. The film’s steadfast refusal to connect itself to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is insulting, as is Blofeld’s death scene.  Overlong and with a confusing plot.  The seventies lounge-lizard look hasn’t exactly aged well, either.

24. Die Another Day (2002): The first twenty or so minutes of this Bond film -- which see 007 (Pierce Brosnan) captured, tortured, and humiliated in North Korea -- are great; a fresh launching point for the saga. But then -- after a serious first act -- the film devolves rapidly into fantasy excess: ice palaces, invisible cars, power gloves, and Bond surfing CGI tsunamis. Excessive, stupid, and a sad end for Brosnan’s era.

Now, who are my choices to be the next 007?

I have to break that down into answers, actually.  

If the goal is to go with a non-traditional choice, as many fans and movie-goers seem to desire at this point, my top choice is Gillian Anderson, and second: Idris Elba. 

If we go the traditional route my top ten choices are (in order):

1.          Tom Hiddleston.

2.          Hugh Dancy

3.          Michael Fassbender

4.          Ewan McGregor

5.          Jonathan Rhys-Meyers

6.          Clive Owen

7.          Timothy Dalton (he looks fantastic, and has experience, right?)

8.          Tom Hardy

9.          Aiden Turner

10.        Gerard Butler