Monday, September 30, 2013

Starman

image(1984)
Directed by
John Carpenter
Written by Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon
Starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel
IMDB Entry

John Carpenter is known almost exclusively for his horror and science fiction horror films.  Though he did venture into humor with Dark Star, he generally stayed away from movies that didn’t scare anyone.  The one exception – and one of his most accomplished directorial efforts -- was Starman.

The movie starts when aliens discover the Voyager 2 space probe, with the gold disk that was set up to greet them.  They decide to head to Earth, where they are promptly shot down by the military.  One of the aliens makes his way to the home of the recently widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen).  Taking a few cells from the roots of a lock of hair, it takes the form of her late husband (Jeff Bridges).  The starman convinces Jenny to go with him to a rendezvous point so he can go back home.  Meanwhile, the chief of the NSA* George Fox (Richard Jaeckel)wants to save Earth from the “invasion’; while scientist Mark Sherman (Charles Martin Smith) wants to try to understand the aliens.

Though the movie is essentially a chase, it works because of the relationship that develops between Jenny and the Starman. She, quite rightly, freaks out seeing her husband again, and has to deal with seeing someone she loves who isn’t really what he looks like.  Karen Allen is excellent in showing the strong emotions inherent in the situation.

Jeff Bridges handles the clich├ęd “alien discovering humans” situation with a sense of wonder and aplomb.  It’s not played for laughs** and we learn to care for his situation.

It’s not a typical Carpenter film, probably because he was hired just to direct and had nothing to do with the screenplay.  Though he managed to make everything in it into one of the best adult SF films of the time,*** it’s not often considered part of his oeuvre**** and certainly the emotionality of the film and its ending are too far from his regular work for his fans to like.  The movie was critical success and Bridges was nominated for an Oscar.  financially, it broke even, but was not a smash hit.  Blockbusters continued to rule the genre, where science fiction like this, that deals with real people and real problems, is hard to find.  But if you want something more that the usual alien battles, Starman won’t disappoint. The film goes for and succeeds in creating the magic that is at the  heart of the SF genre.

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*Yes, it’s been around that long  -- and longer.

**Well, maybe  a few chuckles.

***Most SF films, starting with Star Wars, were aimed for adolescents, not adults.

****to be pretentious.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Planet Patrol (Space Patrol) (TV)

(1963-64)
Created by
  Roberta Leigh
Voices of  Dick Vosburg, Libby Morris, Ysanne Churchman, Ronnie Stevens, Murray Kash
IMDB Entry

GalasphereBack in the early 60s, Gerry Anderson’s “Supermarionation” puppet shows were about the only science fiction in TV.  Today, people fondly remember shows like Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5, and Supercar. But there was one of this type that I liked best and which no one ever seemed to mention.  I had forgotten the title, but clips of the Gerry Anderson shows never showed what I remembered most:  a space ship that looked like a top, that generated a sphere as it flew.  It took me years to track it down, and I discovered it wasn’t Gerry Anderson at all.  The show was Planet Patrol.*

The show was set in the year 2100, where the members of the Space Patrol** traveled through the solar system, investigating mysterious events.  The Patrol was let by Colonel Raeburn (Murray Kash), with his top pilot Captain Larry Dart (Dick Vosburgh) who commanded the Galasphere 347 with its crew, the Martian Husky (Ronnie Stevens) and the Venusian Slim (Libby Morris).  The crew were aided by Raeburn’s aide Marla (Libby Morris/Ysanne Churchman) and professor Haggerty (Stevens) and his daughter Cassie (Morris).

Space Patrol

The show tried to be as scientifically reasonable as possible.  The Galasphere stayed in the solar system, and would take months to reach its destination, using suspended animation if necessary.  The marionettes looked somewhat less goofy than the Gerry Anderson models.

Roberta Leigh, who created and wrote the show, was a successful children’s book and romance author when she joined up with Gerry Anderson in the 50s.  But with Planet Patrol, she was on her own, working on the show whose budget is miniscule. 

Still, the show did a lot with what it had.  One notable thing was that is used an all-electronic music score, the first on TV.***

Planet Patrol only ran 39 episodes.  Its production company didn’t have the deep pockets behind Gerry Anderson, and the crew moved on to other things.  Leigh tried another couple of TV series, Paul Starr and The Solarnauts, neither of which seemed to have made it to the US.  She then returned to her novels and is still writing today.

Voice actor Dick Vosburg appeared in several early Monty Python shows, and went on to write the Broadway hit A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.

Planet Patrol has faded from memory.  Indeed, it might have been completely lost if Roberta Leigh hasn’t discovered films of the shows in a storage locker.  It was a fine attempt at early SF that just didn’t catch on.

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*Space Patrol in its original UK version.  The title was changed in the US due to an earlier live-action show that was very popular about ten years earlier.

**The title did not change for the US version.

***Doctor Who, whose theme song is often considered the first electronic one, premiered several months afterward.  Of course, Forbidden Planet had already done this a few years before in the movies.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

House of Cards (TV)

House of Cards(1990)
Directed by
Paul Seed
Written by Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs
Starring Ian Richardson, Susannah Harker, David Lyon, Diane Fletcher
IMDB Entry.

The Netflix series House of Cards has been a major critical and popular success, so much so that its origin has been given short shrift.  But the original British series is at least as good and is, in may ways, better.

Note:  Here be spoilers for both series.  Proceed at your own risk.

Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is the Conservative Party whip in the UK.  After missing out on a cabinet appointment, Urquhart decides to oust the Prime Minister and take his place.  Encouraged by his wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), he starts an affair with a political reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) and quietly undermines the prime minister and discredits all potential rivals.

If you’re watching the Netflix version, this sounds familiar.  But Urquhart is different from Netflix’s Frank Underwood.   The differences between the US and UK political system make a big difference in the story, since Urquhart is able to directly work his way up to prime minister without an election, while Underwood has to be more indirect.  The relationship between Urquhart and Mattie is more perverse and Elizabeth takes a smaller but more significant role in the affair (she suggests it to him).

Francis UrquhartThe delight of the series is Ian Richardson.  He takes his cue from Shakespeare’s Richard III* and plays it more menacingly, while, at the same time, more charming.  He takes the audience into his confidence in a way that makes him seem appealing. While Spacey is a favorite actor of mine, Richardson plays the character with a little more depth and is far more unpredictable.

There’s also the matter of his catchphrase.  Urquhart often uses the line “You might very well think that.  I couldn’t possibly comment” as a way to lead the press the way he wants.  He gives the words different emphasis to make different points.

The series was successful enough to spawn two sequels:  To Play the King, where Prime Minister Urquhart goes up against the new king of England, and The Final Cut, where his administration finally falls.  It is exhilarating television.

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*A role he had played on stage.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Thirteen Days

image(2000)
Directed by
Roger Donaldson
Written by David Self, from a book by Ernest May and Phillip Zelikov
Starring Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Dylan Baker, Bill Smitrovich, Ed Lauter, Kevin Conway
IMDB Entry

Sometimes history makes the best drama.  The Cuban Missile Crisis is a case in point, the closest we came to having the Cold War turn extra crispy.  Thirteen Days manages to distill the tension down into a single movie.

The move is history as John F. Kenney (Bruce Greenwood) tries to walk the tightrope of having the Soviets remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba without making the wrong move and starting a war.  The story is told through the eyes of JFK advisor Kenny O’Donnell* (Kevin Costner) as the administration tries to figure out the best way to deal with the situation, with advice coming from all directions.  Especially chilling is General Curtis Lemay (Kevin Conway) who would love to start dropping nukes on Moscow.

Despite everyone knowing the results, the movie ramps up the tension as Kennedy tries to figure out Soviet intentions, while avoiding an excuse for war.  The film used some documents that had been recently unclassified to shed light on what was involved.

Despite good reviews, the film flopped, not even coming close to earning its budget.  It was released late in the year, probably to get some Oscar buzz, but the buzz never materialized.  It’s still an gripping look into a frightening few days.

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*In real life, there is controversy as whether O’Donnell was involved in events. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Gog

image(1954)
Directed by
Herbert L. Strock
Written by Tom Taggert (screenplay), Richard G. Taylor (additional dialog), and Ivan Tors (story)
Starring Richard Egan, Constance Dowling, Herbert Marshall, John Wengraf, William Schallert
IMDB Entry

Let’s face it:  modern science fiction films are stupid.  I don’t mean that they’re bad, or even poorly written, but there’s no attempt to portray intelligent scientists at work; it’s usually just action and monsters, devolving into alien invasion films that just are an excuse to spread alien and human blood all over the screen.* But in the 50s, even monster movies were given at least some scientific rationale behind matters.  Gog, while dumb in many ways, at least tries to avoid being stupid.

Producer Ivan Tors considered this part of his “Office of Scientific Investigation” trilogy, where the fictional agency looked into monsters and aliens threatening US security.  Tors went all out with this one, filming in color and in 3D.

Gog is set in a super-secret underground lab, where Dr. David Sheppard is summoned by director Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) in order to investigate some mysterious murders.  Sheppard is given a tour of the facility by his (top secret) girlfriend, Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling) and begins to focus on the abrasive Dr. Zeitman, who is responsible for the facility’s computer, NOVAC, and who has developed two robots, Gog and Magog to perform work.

I wouldn’t say anything about the plot is a surprise, and much of it is silly,** but the movie is entertaining and there’s an attempt to show scientists at work and to make a scientific rationale for all that goes on.

The film was cheaply made despite the color and 3D, shot entirely in a studio and probably was successful due to its low budget. 

Tors moved from movie to TV, producing Science Fiction Theater, Sea Hunt, Ripcord, Flipper, and Daktari.

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*Critic Darrel B. Schweitzer remarked after seeing 12 Monkeys that it would be the last bit of intelligent science fiction Hollywood would make. The prediction is depressingly close to be accurate.

** Gog and Magog may have been sinister in 1954, but the look goofy today.