Saturday, March 26, 2011

Max Headroom (TV)

Cast of Max HeadroomCreated by
Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton, and George Stone
Starring Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, Jeffrey Tambor, George Coe, William Morgan Sheppard
IMDB Entry

TV programmers seem to think that Friday night is where you schedule science fiction shows.  This probably comes from The Twilight Zone, which was a notable success, and aired on Fridays. For this reason, the list of TV SF shows that have been aired on Friday is frighteningly long.  It's not by coincidence that SyFy has always run its original series on that night, and shows like The Wild, Wild West; Time Tunnel; The Six Million Dollar Man; Kolchak: The Night Stalker; Firefly; The X-Files; and Dollhouse were aired on that night.

Sometimes, though, an SF show manages to become a success on another night.   Max Headroom was one of these, and a phenomenon.

The series was developed in the UK as a TV movie. It was then developed for the US market, with some actors added and dropped, and showed up on TV in March of 1987.

Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) is a crusading reporter for Network 23.  When he gets too close to a dangerous story, he runs and crashes his car into a barrier.  Carter falls into a coma.

Max HeadroomBut this is 20 minutes in the future.  Computer whiz kid Bryce Lynch (Chris Young) uploads Carter's personality into a computer, creating a virtual version of him.  But the system is still experimental and the new personality takes on the name of Max Headroom (Frewer).*  Max stuttered, wisecracked and faded in and out as he commented and occasionally took action.

But Carter survived.  Thus, aided (and hindered) by Max, he went to uncover corruption in the government and TV networks.**  He was assisted by Theora Jones was Edison's "controller" (sort of like a director) while Murry, his producer (Jeffrey Tambor) fretted.  Network president Ben Cheviot (George Coe) still had enough ideals to support Carter's crusades even when the ratings (gathered continuously) dropped.  Edison was helped by Blank Reg (William Morgan Shepard), who lived off the grid.

The show was a somewhat dark look at the future where corporations ruled and personal freedom and privacy was at risk.  Carter and Theora would race to unmask the plans before it became too late.  The show owed a lot to the cyberpunk movement in science fiction.

But it was Max who stole the show. He was primarily a form of comic relief, but his weird, stuttering style and strange voice effects.  He quickly appeared on the cover of Newsweek.  The show became a minor phenomenon, even winning a few technical Emmies.

Then ABC made their programming decision for the next season.  The show was doing fine on Tuesdays, but -- since SF had to be on Fridays -- they moved it.  Opposite Dallas.  And Miami Vice.  These ratings juggernauts killed the show.***

MAD about MaxMax continued on.  He became (ironically, given his origin) a spokesman for Coca Cola.  Later, Cinemax used him as a host of The Original Max Talking Headroom Show, an interview show.  For a few years, Max Headroom himself became an integral part of popular culture.

But, alas the show did not.  Maybe it was too weird; maybe too close to reality.  But clearly it would have lasted a lot longer if ABC hadn't tampered with the time slot.

*A joke that didn't really translate to the US.  In the UK, the "Max. Headroom 2.3m" sign he hit was the equivalent of an American "Clearance 7 1/2 ft." in a parking garage.  Max was not actually computer generated; Frewer dressed in a latex prosthetic and played the role.

**There was a lot of overlap.

***Max's final words before cancellation were "We will fight them on the streets of Dallas... We will fight them on the streets of Miami... Vice... and if the ratings book lasts for a thousand years, they will say this is Max Headroom's finest hour."

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Directed by
Gore Verbinski
Written by Adam Rafkin
Starring Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, and a mouse
IMDB Entry

Growing up near New York City, I was well aware of Broadway stars.  And it always surprised me when people who were big on stage never found success in movies or film.  You'd hear about people like Mary Martin or Gwen Virdon or Barbara Cook or Julie Harris or Larry Kert or Alfred Drake or John Raitt and see their names on original cast albums, but their film careers were reduced to minor roles. The same thing seems to have happened to one of Broadway's biggest current stars, Nathan Lane.

Lane came to prominence on Broadway with his role of Nathan Detroit in a revival of Guys and Dolls in 1994.  Since then, he has become a megastar on Broadway, so much so that his presence can even overcome mediocre reviews (e.g., The Addams Family).

But Lane has never hit it big in movies or TV.  His most successful was The Lion King, but voice acting is not a path to stardom.  His various TV shows were all flops, and even when he was given a chance to reprise his Broadway role in The Producers, the film did poorly and he was no match for the memories of Zero Mostel.*  It didn't help that his other movies were all quite forgettable.

Except for Mousehunt.

Lane plays Ernie Smuntz,** an aspiring and arrogant restauranteer who, with his brother Lars (Lee Evans), is the heir to the Smuntz String Company.  When their father dies, Ernie is perfectly happy letting Lars run the business; he's only interested in the fame and money his restaurant brings him.  That all crashes down, however, when the mayor dies after eating a cockroach in his meal.  Lars, in the meantime, has turned down an offer to sell the factory to a string conglomerate because of a promise he made his father.  His wife kicks him out.

The two men have only one place to go:  a worthless old house that they inherited.  Ernie discovers that the house was designed by a famous architect and is worth millions.  And more if they fix it up.

There is only one thing stopping them:  a mouse.  And this isn't any ordinary mouse.

Ernie and Lars almost catch the mouse The movie is an intriguing mix of cartoon and black comedy.  Director Gore Verbinski -- in his first feature film -- manages to make the cartoony elements work with real actors.  There's plenty of slapstick, but it has a dark tinge. 

The acting is broad, which may be why a stage actor like Lane fits in so well.***  Ernie is, in many ways, the coyote, trying schemes to catch the mouse and having them backfire, to his growing consternation.

But it's Lee Evans who makes the film work.  He's plays the dumber of the two brothers, but the one with a heart.  He wants to follow his father's wishes, and do the right thing.  Without him, Ernie's arrogance would be hard to take.  You don't really care about Ernie, but you do about Lars, and since their fates are intertwined, it makes their failures more sympathetic.

The movie was a solid success, but never really got much buzz.  But Verbinski did use it as a stepping stone to direct Pirates of the Caribbean,**** a film that has a similar visual sense.  And now Verbinski has come out with Rango, which is as cartoony as Mousehunt. Like Walt Disney, his career started with a mouse.

*Ironically, Mostel's success in The Producers kept him from suffering the same "big on Broadway, small in pictures" fate.

**One of the few exceptions to Ebert's First Law of Funny Names.

***Stage acting requires broader gestures than film for people to see what's going on.  I once saw a demonstration by Michael O'Hare about the difference:  he showed how you react when another person comes into the room.  For stage, you turned your head to look at him; on TV of film, your head barely moved, but your eyes did.  All actors have to make this adaptation, and some are just better at it than others.

****People forget now that pirate films had been having a dismal history from the 1950s on:  one flop after another.  Verbinski and Johnny Depp ended that losing streak.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

George Pal

IMDB Entry

George Pal and Puppetoons He probably did more to make science fiction respectable in Hollywood than anyone else until George Lucas,* yet the legacy of George Pal is lost in the current disdain for older special effects.  That's too bad, since he was the one producer to put out consistently successful high-budget SF films in the 50s and 60s.  He is still considered a giant by those in the field, even if his films have tended to get lost in the shuffle.

Pal was born György Pál Marczincsak in Austria-Hungary.  He started working in the film business in Budapest and developed into a successful animator, inventing what he called "Puppetoons," a different form of animation.  It used three-dimensional puppets for the animation, but instead of moving the puppet's arms or legs from frame to frame, a new puppet would be swapped and shot in its place.  It leant a unique look, and Pal eventually migrated to the US to work on a series of Puppetoons for Paramount.

In 1950, Pal started moving into producing live-action features.  His first, The Great Rupert, featured a puppetoon-animated squirrel as its protagonist.  It did well enough for Pal to move on to science fiction.

He was smart enough to do it right.  He hired Robert A. Heinlein to help with the script and to act as technical advisor.  Destination Moon became a success and is still a well-regarded early film of the era. 

It did well enough for Pal to start moving to color.  The films are a long list of 50s SF classics:

  • When Worlds Collide.  A movie that presaged the SF film Amrageddon, but without the happy ending:  a planet is on its way to collide with Earth, and a spaceship is built to house what will be the human race.
  • The War of the Worlds.  The classic 50s version of the H.G. Wells classic, starring Gene Barry.
  • Houdini.  Tony Curtis as the famous magician. 
  • The Naked Jungle.  Not strictly SF, it's based upon a short story "Leiningen Versus the Ants" and stars Charlton Heston as a man whose live and livelihood are threatened by a swarm of army ants**.
  • The Conquest of Space.  Essentially, Destination Mars, with a strong hard-SF bent. 
  • tom thumb.  The fairy tale in live action (with some Puppetoons thrown in).  Directed by Pal.
  • The Time Machine.  Another classic.  Rod Taylor goes to the future to fight the Morlocks.  The time traveling sequences still hold up brilliantly today. Directed by Pal.

The Time Machine

  • Atlantis the Lost Continent.
  • The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.  A biography of the brothers, with animated versions of their fairy tales.***
  • The Seven Face of Dr. Lao.  A well-regarded fantasy about a mysterious circus. Directed by Pal
  • The Power.  There are superhumans among us, and they are dangerous.
  • Doc Savage, Man of Bronze.

No producer did more science fiction and fantasy,**** especially in a time when the genres weren't fashionable.  Pal's films also were always the front runner for the Best Special Effects Oscar; Pal himself was given a special award for Puppetoons. 

After 1975, Pal was not able to get his projects funded, though he continued to work on treatments until his death in 1980.

Pal influenced countless young filmmakers and is, in many was, the father of movie science fiction.  He deserves to be remembered by everyone.

*Who actually made it profitable, not respectable.

**The ants are normal sized, but just the same.

***Well, not really theirs. William and Jacob Grimm did not write their tales.  They collected folktales from around Germany and from other countries and then recounted them in a series of collections (and never claimed authorship).  Jacob later specialized in language and developed Grimm's Law, an important principle of etymology which governs how sounds change over time.

****Though I suppose someone has possibly surpassed him by now.