Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Action Figures of the Week: Laverne and Shirley (Mego)

Pop art: Laverne and Shirley (Dynamite)

The Cast of Laverne and Shirley Sings

Laverne and Shirley GAF Viewmaster

Lunch Box of the Week: Laverne and Shirley

Board Game of the Week: Laverne and Shirley (Parker Bros.)

Theme Song of the Week: Laverne and Shirley

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Return of the Archons" (February 9, 1967)

Stardate: 3156.2

In “The Return of the Archons,” the U.S.S. Enterprise investigates the culture living on an M-class planet known as Beta III.  One hundred years earlier, another Starfleet vessel -- the Archon -- disappeared while exploring this very world.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) beam down to Beta III with a landing party, and find a humanoid culture there that resembles Earth of the late-nineteenth or early twentieth century…though with some unique differences. 

One of these differences is that all the denizens walk about constantly in a beatific state of mindless supplication.  They refer to being part of “The Body,” and worship an apparently benevolent and omnipotent deity called Landru.

Additionally, these repressed, controlled human beings are given opportunity -- during “The Red Hour” or “Festival” -- to shake loose from this shut-down, trance-like state, and act fully human, engaging in wanton sex and violence.

While Landru’s menacing robed lawgivers attempt to “absorb” the members of the landing party (who “infect the Body”), Landru himself tries to yank the Enterprise down from orbit to end the threat it poses to a “perfect” society. 

In the end, Captain Kirk discovers the truth about the God called Landru: he is an advanced computer imposing a machine’s vision of “peace” and “paradise” upon the humans of Beta III.

For several decades at least, the first season Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” has been interpreted by a majority of critics and fans as a coded critique of Communism or technological totalitarianism. I saw no reason to quibble with that assessment until I recently re-watched the episode.

Quite contrarily “The Return of the Archons” actually plays as a satire of organized religion, and in particular -- and with apologies -- Christianity.  

The episode’s questioning, and occasionally caustic spirit makes abundant sense given Gene Roddenberry’s oft-stated dislike of organized religion.

In terms of Roddenberry-ian, beliefs, these are just three prominent quotes from the Great Bird of the Galaxy about religion:

“Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all.” (In His Name, page 39).

“We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing, all-powerful God who creates faulty humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.” (Can a Smart Person Believe in God? page 90).

There will always be the fundamentalism of the religious right, but I think there has been too much of it. I keep hoping that it is a temporary foolishness.” (Humanist, 1991 interview with David Alexander.)

On other occasions, the late Mr. Roddenberry also termed religion “largely nonsense, largely magical, superstitious….”

Certainly Roddenberry’s particular viewpoint is evident in “Who Watches the Watchers” and other episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994).  In the former episode, Captain Picard refers to the “dark ages” that go hand-in-hand with devout religious belief.  I suspect it was a lot easier -- outside of network interference -- to vet critical stories about religion in the 1980s than it had been in the more-traditional, pre-counter-culture1960s. 

Accordingly, much of “The Return of the Archons’” religious criticism or satire is laced in code that requires some deciphering. 

There are contextual clues throughout the episode about the story’s meaning, and the first and perhaps most significant may be that Regehr (Harry Townes), a denizen of Beta III, notes that Landru first came to the world 6,000 years ago and imposed his will. 

Of course, 6,000 years is the span that equates, precisely, to Young Earth Creationism’s belief about the time-frame for Earth’s (and the universe’s) genesis at God’s hand.  It’s so specific a number and date that it can’t be an accident that both God and Landru “created” their kingdoms on the same date.

Secondly, “The Return of the Archons” addresses various principles and dogma familiar from Christianity. 

When a citizen of Beta III for instance, decides to leave the flock or disobey the will of Landru, he or she is “absorbed” back into the body by the Lawgivers, and consequently spiritually reborn as a devoted adherent.  This process of “absorption” conforms to the idea in Christianity that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  If you replace the word God with “Landru,” the idea tracks perfectly. 

Importantly, those who are “born again” into the world of Landru (like McCoy and Sulu in the episode’s narrative) begin to aggressively “profess”  the perfection and beauty of Landru, just as the born-again here on Earth often feel duty-bound “professing Jesus.” 

This particular brand of religious “professing” dominates “The Return of the Archons” in oft-repeated phrases such as “It is the will of Landru.”  Or “Do you say that Landru is not everywhere?”  The notion of “the will of Landru” is historically in keeping with such religious phraseology as “God willing,” “deux vult” or “Masha Allah,” the specific acknowledgment on the part of the faithful that life proceeds as according to an impenetrable divine plan.

“The Return of the Archons” also critiques the Catholic Church’s principle of papal infallibility at one point when of the denizens (who escaped life as a Landru supplicant) suggests -- tongue and cheek --  of the Lawgivers: “Are they not infallible?” 

Again, the word choice -- infallible -- can’t simply be a coincidence. It is utilized here in a religious context.

When Captain Kirk finds a planet of sheep bending their knee to an inhuman shepherd, he makes an interesting comment that boasts two meanings simultaneously.  Kirk confronts the hologram of Landru and notes that he (meaning the God he faces) is “a projection, unreal…” which is both a comment on Landru’s physical presence in the room, and, implicitly (in code) his status as a God.  

Some people might even state that the various versions of God created by man’s religions are also “projection,” but of the universal human desire to believe in something beyond the mortal coil.  These Gods are also “unreal” in the sense that no such deity apparently exists, at least according to the tenets of modern science.

On a global, symbolic level, however, what “Return of the Archons” suggests most plainly (and with the least amount of coding…) is that theocracy stymies human invention and evolution. 

Before Landru’s coming, Beta III was a highly-advanced world with technology surpassing that of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  After Landru’s coming, however, the world fell into a pre-technological, backwards state.  It has stagnated there for 6,000 years, the duration of Landru’s kingdom of peace. 

Again, this notion is not without real world parallel.  Some very faithful people are so obsessed about the next world that little attention is paid to the improvement of this one.  If we concentrate on our pleasurable fantasies of an afterlife and an “eternal” paradise, why end poverty, fix the environment, or otherwise improve our brother’s lot here? 

The Return of the Archons” acknowledges this religious trap by revealing how a theocracy strives on conformity and fear rather than innovation and evolution.  After all, any new technology could be against the will of Landru, right?  It might threaten “The tranquility” of the Body.

In this episode, Kirk finally sets Beta III right by destroying Landru and restoring the civilization to a more human standard.  What he’s really doing -- literally -- is freeing Beta III from an invisible overseer, one who promises peace, but actually offers only stagnation.

Although it is not widely hailed as one of the best Star Trek episodes, “Return of the Archons” features a potent visual imagination.  When Landru calls upon his flock to attack the landing party, the hypnotized followers pick-up weapons on the street and attack like mindless zombies.  Phaser fire puts them down, but then more attackers rise.  And then more rise after that.  It’s quite terrifying to witness men and women turned into a blood-thirsty, relentless mob, all consumed by their belief, all obeying the edicts of a God who demands violence from them.

Also, the “Red Hour” or “Festival” -- a limited span in which all emotional behavior is permitted -- proves a remarkably creative conceit, and one soon to be revisited in a summer release called The Purge starring Ethan Hawke.

But again, there’s a critique of religion underpinning the “Red Hour.”  If you live permanently under a repressive religious regime, the deepest human desires and emotions still require some outlet, some expression.  A theocracy doesn’t permit these desires to be expressed in a healthy, normal fashion, so when they do emerge -- as they do so memorably during “Festival” -- they appear monstrous, savage and out-of-control.

“The Return of the Archons” has been consistently misinterpreted, I believe, because it is easy to fit into the peg of being another Star Trek episode in which Kirk pulls the plug on a highly-advanced computer.  What he’s really doing here however is bringing down a stagnant, theocratic regime, one that uses an unreal God figure to assert morality. 

The episode thus belongs more in the camp of “Who Mourns for Adonis,” -- an episode which suggests mankind has outgrown its need to “worship” any God -- than it does fare like “A Taste of Armageddon.”

Roman J. Martel: Ranking the Bond (007) Films by Actor

The great Roman J. Martel of Roman's Reviews and Musings has taken up the challenge and ranked, according to his preferences, the 007 Films by actor.

Roman writes:

"Well John you do realize you asked for this right? I’m not one for short responses, so here you go.

Sean Connery:

When it comes to the Connery films I think director Terrance Young had the right idea and concept for the character and how the movies should work. Focus on thrills over action. I place all three of his films over the rest of the group. FRWL works the best all the way around, but I really love “Thunderball”. I agree it goes on too long, and trimmed down it would easily be one of the best Bond films ever. I know its blaspheme, but I found “Goldfinger” to have a really messy script that is fun, but never has that danger that Young’s films capture. And I’m not on board with “Never Say Never Again”. I love “Thunderball” and Fiona Volpe too much. But I will say that Von Sydow is an excellent Blofeld.

  1.      From Russia with Love
  2.      Thunderball
  3.      Dr. No
  4.      Goldfinger
  5.      You Only Live Twice
  6.      Never Say Never Again
  7.      Diamonds Are Forever

Roger Moore

When Roger was on, he was on. But it took them a bit to find that sweet spot with him. “Spy” is a ton of fun, maybe the most fun James Bond film of the series, and it just works on nearly every level for pure entertainment. But I like my Bond movies with a bit more danger, so FYEO gets my top spot. I love the location shooting in Greece and the focus on top-notch stunts and thrills makes it one I watch nearly every year. “Moonraker” has grown on me over the years. It is a fun Bond parody that straddles the line of spectacle over substance, but still keeps things fun. And yeah I’ve got a soft spot for the horribly bad AVTAK. Walken’s over the top performance, the Duran Duran song and the oh so 80s-ness of it just work for me. Well that and it was the first Bond film I ever saw in theaters.

  1.     For Your Eyes Only
  2.     The Spy Who Loved Me
  3.     Moonraker
  4.     A View to a Kill
  5.     The Man with the Golden Gun
  6.     Live and Let Die
  7.      Octopussy

Timothy Dalton

I’ve got to say that Dalton is probably my favorite actor in the role of James Bond. He just hits all the right points, and if he had been given one more great script I think his legacy would be assured. LTK is the better of the two films, but it feels more like a “Miami Vice” episode than a James Bond film. But Dalton brings the goods and he is a force of nature in this film. TLD has a lot of great moments, but the script is a mess. That opening scene in Gibraltar is one of my favorite pre-credit sequences of the franchise. What a great way to introduce the actor and his take on the character.

  1.      License to Kill
  2.      The Living Daylights

Pierce Brosnan

I’m with you, I think Brosnan could have been one of the best of the Bonds. He has the acting skills, he has the look, he has the ability to play serious and comedy and a mix of both perfectly. But time and again the scripts fail him. The four films are exercises in frustration, with great moments overpowered by horrible ones. “Goldeneye” is my favorite of the group, but a lot of that is nostalgia admittedly. Still, I think Sean Bean’s 006 is one of the best villains Bond ever faced. I like how TND starts, but it really falls apart halfway through the movie. TWINE has a great core story and so much potential. But I get the feeling the studio got cold feet with a deadly serious Bond script and injected a bunch of ridiculous moments (and characters and casting) to lighten it up. It is one of the most frustrating movies of the series, because you can see a really great film buried in there. I still feel bad that Brosnan never got a Craig script that would have ended his tenure with a bang.

1.     Goldeneye
2.     The World is Not Enough
3.     Tomorrow Never Dies
4.     Die Another Day

Daniel Craig

So yeah, if  Dalton is my favorite Bond, then you can guess that I really like Craig. His run has been the most consistent of all the Bonds. Even QOS has a very good story at its core, but is tripped up by poor execution – and still it is an entertaining movie (thanks to the crisp editing and short run time). “Casino Royale” may be the best Bond film yet made: great script, great cast, great build up and execution, and a killer ending. On top of that David Arnold’s score is amazing. Just a hell of a ride all the way through. “Skyfall” comes close, but is a little too close to “The Dark Knight” for comfort. “Casino Royale” proves that no one does it better than Bond.

1.     Casino Royale
2.     Skyfall
3.     Spectre
4.     Quantum of Solace

Stop by Roman J. Martel's movie review blog at

The Films of 1991: The Rocketeer

A strange factoid about superhero movies -- which I've written much about lately -- is that period pieces rarely succeed at the box office.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) are all examples of superhero movies set in yesteryear that failed to succeed with audiences. 

In 2011, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger beat that long-standing curse. Perhaps that success happened because the director had faced the same problem once before with 1991’s The Rocketeer, a brilliant and beautiful genre film that never achieved the success it so abundantly deserves.

Why do fans prefer modern superheroes over ones operating in the past? 

Perhaps it is because the superhero template is -- broadly -- similar to the Western format, only with some technological upgrades. Substitute a cool car like the Batmobile for Silver, and a man in a cape for a cowboy in a ten gallon hat, and one can detect how alike the genres truly are.

In both brands of stories, singular men (or sometimes women) tackle corruption and evil, and then, largely, go on their way…until needed again. 

So take a superhero hero movie out of the present, and you might just as well be watching a Western. 

Or perhaps it is just too difficult for us to suspend disbelief in a period superhero film. Audiences might accept a man in a cape fighting criminals in a modern day urban jungle, but if it happened in, say, 1939, how come nobody ever heard of the guy? 

My point is that a period superhero not only asks us to believe in one fantasy element (a person with super powers, for instance), but two, if you count alternate history.

One can speculate any number of reasons why modern audiences will readily accept an Indiana Jones, but not a Kit Walker or Lamont Cranston.  The point is, I suppose, that audiences seem to prefer superheroes with a hard, technological -- even futuristic -- edge.  We want them saving our world, today, operating on the bleeding edge of now.

And in the case of The Rocketeer, it’s a crying shame that our tastes run in this direction.  As critic David Ansen observed, regarding the film, it is “determinedly sweet,” and features “action scenes that are more bouncy than bone-crunching.”

Because of such virtues, I have always considered The Rocketeer the spiritual heir to Superman: The Movie (1978), my choice -- still -- for the best superhero film of all time. 

At one point in The Rocketeer, a character notes “you’d pay to see a man to fly, wouldn’t you?” And indeed, Superman’s famous tag-line was “You’ll believe a man can fly.” 

People flocked to Superman: The Movie in 1978 (in the immediate post-Watergate Age) because they wanted to dream about just such a thing being a reality; they wanted to “believe again.”

The Rocketeer understands perfectly that brand of emotional longing in general, and the long-standing human fascination with flight in particular. 

It depicts the magic of leaving terra firma behind as pilots attempt to touch Heaven itself.  Indeed, the film’s hero, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) discusses flight in precisely -- nay, explicitly -- those terms. 

In the film’s denouement, he discusses wearing the film’s rocket pack and getting as close to Heaven as is possible for a living mortal. “It was the closest I’ll ever get,” he says.

In pure human terms, The Rocketeer is very much about that yearning to touch the sky, and few modern superhero pictures feature such a direct and delightful, human through-line. Instead, they get bogged down in character backgrounds, villainous plans, and byzantine back-stories.

Beyond that accomplishment, The Rocketeer lovingly (and meticulously) revives 1930s Los Angeles, and features a great turn by Timothy Dalton as a flamboyant villain. 

Significantly, there is no angst in The Rocketeer.

There is no trademark genre darkness, cynicism or bitterness. 

The film doesn’t focus on revenge, either. 

Instead, The Rocketeer is really about joy; the joy of flight, and, in a way that can’t be diminished, the fact that love of country can bring people of unlike backgrounds together. The movie, after all, ends with Italian mobsters, a failed pilot, government agents and Howard Hughes banding together to stop a Nazi invasion.

What could be more American, or more ennobling, than that “flight” of fancy?

“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”

A young pilot, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) becomes embroiled, accidentally in a battle between Federal agents and gangsters. Through a strange set of coincidences, he ends up with his hands on a new super-weapon, a rocket-pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) called the X-3.

Hoping to make a living after his plane is destroyed in the battle, Secord secretly keeps the X-3, and has his resourceful mechanic friend, Peeve (Alan Arkin) make him a helmet to go with the rocket.  

Before long, he emerges as a hero the press dubs “The Rocketeer.”

Unfortunately, the number 3 box office draw in America, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), is actually a Nazi spy and has been tasked with stealing the X-3 and returning it to the Fatherland.   He is allied with mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), though Valentine doesn’t know Sinclair’s true allegiance.

Sinclair attempts to ingratiate himself with Secord’s aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) to get close to the X-3.  When that doesn’t work, however, he resorts to force. He abducts Jenny and makes a bargain with Secord: the rocket pack for the girl.

Unfortunately, Howard Hughes and the U.S. government also want the rocket pack back, and Cliff must make a difficult choice.

“How did it feel? Strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of Hell?

The Rocketeer is adapted from the work of graphic novel writer-illustrator Dave Stevens, who first published the title in 1982.  And overall, the title, like the film, is an homage to and pastiche of the pulpy genre entertainment of yesteryear.

For example, the visual look of the title character seems inspired by Commando Cody, a hero who wears a leather flight suit, a bullet-shaped helmet, and a jet pack. The character head-lined in King of the Rocketmen (1952) and Radar Men of the Moon (1953).

The film, however, focuses much of its artistic vision on the 1930s milieu. The audience encounters Hollywood legends Clark Gable and W.C. Fields, for example. A singer in the South Seas Club croons tunes from Cole Porter.  And the soldier villain, Lothar (Tiny Ron) is a dead ringer for Rondo Hatton (1894-1946), a screen actor who suffered from Acromegaly, and put his fearsome visage to menacing use in films like The Brute Man (1946). 

The film also reveals the evolution of the landmark Hollywood sign. It goes from reading Hollywoodland (in 1923) to reading Hollywood (1949), all because of a Nazi incursion on American soil.  And Neville Sinclair, of course, is a variation on film idol Errol Flynn (who was once believed to be a Nazi spy, oddly enough…).

One of the best moments in The Rocketeer, for my money, however is the Nazi propaganda film featured in the last act. In a sort of Art Deco (or Futura) style, we see an animated representation of the Nazi plan for world domination using the X-3.  The terrifying (but beautifully-wrought) imagery shows rocket men destroying Washington DC, burning the American flag, and raising the Swastika.  This short film sells perfectly (and cheaply) the threat that America faces.

Thanks to production designer Jim Bissell and director of photography Hiro Narita, The Rocketeer looks fantastic.  But just as powerful, if not more so, is the movie’s sense of heart, and innocence. 

After Secord saves a fellow pilot (dressed as a clown for an air show), and takes off using the rocket for the first time, the film veritably soars.  One might attribute this feeling of emotional flight to James Horner’s musical score, or to the setting -- wide open wheat fields under Big American Sky. 

Whatever the cause, this inaugural flight sequence is one of the few in superhero movie history that legitimately deserves comparison to the Smallville interlude in Donner’s Superman: the Movie.  The overwhelming feeling is for an age -- an innocence -- lost, but also a yearning for Americana and the American Dream. 

What is that American Dream? In films such as The Rocketeer it involves the achievement of something more than wealth or success.  It involves doing great things; breaking barriers; going where none have gone before. Touching the sky.

It is an indicator of The Rocketeer’s unfettered gentleness and innocence that its call to patriotism in the final act plays not as cheesy or overdone, but as authentically stirring. We see a mobster, Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) make common cause with G-Men to stop a threat to America’s future: Nazi soldiers. 

Then, after he implores Secord to “go get” the bad-guys, we get the glorious shot of The Rocketeer posed next to Old Glory herself, the American flag. The not subtle (yet still wonderful…) message behind this imagery is that Americans may have many, many differences, but in times of strife and crisis, they come together. 

Mobster or G-Man, Americans draw strength from one another and defend their country -- and the ideals of their country -- when they are threatened. I still remember seeing the film in the theater, and the audience hooted and hollered with raucous energy when the Valentine expressed his love of country, and his urging for Secord to fight the good fight.  It gives me chills thinking about it, even today.

In some way, superhero movies are really about (or should be about…) the things we can’t always do; the ideals we can’t always live by, even though we wish to.

Like rising to the occasion in a crisis. 

Or strapping on a rocket pack and taking off into the sky; touching Heaven.  The Rocketeer absolutely understands this facet of the genre, and presents a kind of wish-fulfillment genre story of the highest order.

The Rocketeer is a light, joyous film that never focuses on special effects over people. The film’s feet never touch the ground, and the action scenes, particularly the final set-piece on the Nazi dirigible, are memorable and well-orchestrated.

So why didn’t audiences flock to the film?

I think that goes back to my original point about audiences deliberately not-seeking out period superhero efforts. Even Captain America, Joe Johnston’s genre follow-up to The Rocketeer, eventually reaches the 21st century, right?  Some people might see that development as hedging a bet; protecting against an undesirable outcome (financial failure).

Today, superhero films have largely become mechanical and formulaic. They give us everything we expect as part of some multi-media franchise experience (the teaser, the trailer, the second act surprise, and the post-credits reveal or preview for the next picture), but somehow forget to hold up as narratives, as movies that live and breathe and tell us something vital about human nature.

The Rocketeer makes us believe that a man (and America with him, in one of its darkest hours)…can fly. 

You’d pay to see that, wouldn’t you?

I know I would.