Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Korg 70,000 B.C. "The Story of Lumi"

In “The Story of Lumi,” there has been no rain in Korg Valley for six weeks, and the available water supply is all used up.  It is a difficult, four day journey to the Big River for more water, and no guarantee that it has not dried up too.  Mara (Naomi Pollack) is worried about Korg’s journey.

As Korg (Jim Malinda) and his family ponder how to weather the water crisis, they encounter a girl named Lumi from another tribe.  She was separated from her family while they were out looking for water. 

Although water is in grievously short supply, Korg shares the family’s supply with Lumi, who is only a child.

Two hunters from Lumi’s tribe arrive at the cave to retrieve the girl, but steal all of Korg’s remaining water supply at the same time.  Lumi, now a friend, begs them not to, but they pay no heed.

When Lumi becomes trapped on a cliff-side however, Korg’s family helps the hunters rescue her, and makes an accommodation regarding the stolen water.

Another visitor joins the Korg family, and another crisis arises involving how to divvy up resources, in “The Story of Lumi.” 

So once more, Korg 70,000 B.C. goes over some familiar territory. Actually, this is the third episode in three weeks to recycle the same basic narrative: a visitor arrives, uses resources, causes a crisis, and leaves after an encounter with another tribe. This repetitive storytelling is disappointing and surprising, because earlier episodes were more diverse in storytelling.

Much of the story here takes place at Vasquez Rocks, especially in the final act, and the sequence with Korg building a make-shift ladder out of a tree in order to rescue Lumi still works nicely.

A couple weeks back I tagged “cooperation” as one of the key recurring themes of the series.  Here, Korg again shows his decency, and helps Lumi and her family, despite the fact that they have stolen from his family.  I don’t know how historically realistic this is, but it helps to remember the show was made for 70s audiences, even if it concerns Neanderthals in pre-history.  I can’t help but wonder if, really, Korg’s decency would have marked him as being weak, at least according to competitors for the same resources.

Next week: “Tor’s First Hunt.” 

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Secrets of Isis: "Fool's Dare"

In “Fool’s Dare,” directed by Hollingsworth Morse, two of Cindy Lee’s friends dare her to enter a locked auto junk yard.  She accepts the dare, trespasses, and almost immediately runs afoul of a car theft ring.

Coincidentally, this ring of thieves has just stolen Mrs. Thomas’s car!

Before long, it’s Isis to the rescue...

The third episode of Filmation’s Secrets of Isis features a pre-Halloween (1978) guest appearance by the great Charles Cyphers. Cyphers played Haddonfield’s Sheriff Brackett, but he was on the opposite side of the law here, portraying a car thief. In fact, he plays the nastiest of the bunch.

In this episode, Isis deals with indignity of having her car stolen, which isn’t something that often happens to superheroes, but at least in this case it leads her to Cindy Lee’s rescue. The message of the episode is that kids shouldn’t feel pressured to do something (whether drugs, or entering a locked auto junkyard) and instead “listen to your own inner voice.”

The series is still adding some interesting powers for Isis at this relatively early juncture. Here, her head-piece glows and she can see through the eyes of her pet crow, Tut, who is a regular sidekick at this point.  Tut flies into the junkyard ahead of Isis, and gets the lay of the land.  But Tut is usually seen in the classroom.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

All life on Earth -- and throughout the universe itself -- is connected.

Human beings would see that fact, and live very differently if only they used their brains to a fuller extent. 

That’s the two-part message underlying director Luc Besson’s electric and imaginative Lucy (2014), an action-infused variation on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Much like that classic sci-fi film, Lucy features scenes set at the dawn of man (or dawn of woman, in this case…), and escorts viewers on a stunning third act “ultimate trip” that diagrams the next step of evolution.

Although some reviewers have complained that the Besson film relies on a discredited scientific theory -- the notation that humans utilize only a measly ten percent of their brain -- the concept, faulty or not, works efficiently and poetically in terms of the film’s artistry and message.

This cinematic short-hand about the human brain is the avenue by which Besson explores and charts the idea of our potential, and our too-frequent failure to manifest it. It’s the artist’s way of noting that we all possess the tools to be better, but have trouble accessing them.

If you look around the globe and see the strife and crises brewing in so many places, Besson’s message is one that gets to the very heart of human nature. Lucy powerfully implies that by merely being smarter, we can understand life and each other better. The key to self-knowledge (and true knowledge too) is not to be ignorant or closed off, but to open yourself up, to grow…to acknowledge the vastness of the scheme of things. It is the strong tree that bends, the brittle one that breaks.

To my delight, Besson is a highly visual film director, one universally aware of symbolism, and he relies strongly on the fundamentals of film grammar to forge his points about the nature of life. Therefore, Lucy’s visuals express its content beautifully.  Many images are not only stunning and memorable but resonate in a very specific way. They have been tailored, it appears, to remind viewers that even though we don’t see and think about our connections to our past, to other species on Earth, or to the stars, an invisible bond nonetheless connects us all.

It would be a drag -- and Lucy would be much less visceral too -- if Besson relied merely on words to craft a narrative exploring his central idea. Instead, the viewer experiences ninety minutes of blazing action, and climactic, even transcendent imagery that may make you appreciate both humanity’s smallness in the cosmic sea, and, paradoxically, its bigness too.

Scarlett Johannson, so unforgettable in Under the Skin (2014) proves a remarkable talent here as well. Her character, Lucy, is the key to the film’s success. She plays an “every woman” who one day opens her eyes from a waking-slumber to realize she exists in a much larger universe than she ever imagined. She is so busy being buffeted around from task to task that she can’t stop to really look at her life. The events of the film give her that opportunity.

Seen in light of these ideas -- of awakening, connection, and transcendence -- Lucy is hardly the dumb action movie some critics called it. Instead, it’s a colorful, dynamic, questioning work of art, and in my book we can never get enough films of such imagination and wonder.

“Ignorance brings chaos, not knowledge.”

A young American woman in Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) gets tricked by a duplicitous boyfriend, Richard (Pilou Asbaek), into delivering a locked briefcase to a local gangster, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik) at his hotel. 

After Richard is killed, Lucy is forced to open the mysterious case. Inside are several tubes of a synthetic drug called CPH4.

Lucy is ordered to become a drug mule for Jang, and to transport the drugs in her stomach to another city.  But after her delivery of the drugs, Lucy is held hostage and brutalized by thugs. After being kicked savagely in the gut, the CPH4 seeps into Lucy’s blood-stream, and she begins to undergo an amazing transformation.

Suddenly, Lucy’s brain begins to re-wire itself, making new connections and opening new doorways. 
Lucy contacts a renowned professor, Dr. Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) who has studied the potential of the human brain, and makes him aware of her  surprising evolution. She is now capable of telepathy, the mental control of radio waves, and other strange powers.  But, her new intelligence has also shown Lucy that her “life cycle” may not last more than 24 hours if she doesn’t acquire additional quantities of the drug.

Lucy goes in search of the other drug mules, while promising Dr. Norman that she won’t die without “passing” on the information she has learned, preferably in the form of a new supercomputer and its data drive. 

A French police officer, Del Rio (Amr Waked) helps Lucy in her quest.

As the twenty-four hours near an end, and Lucy uses 100% of her brain’s potential, she undertakes a mental trip to the dawn of time, and to the ends of the universe itself. But Mr. Jang also comes looking for the woman who stole his drugs…

“We humans are more concerned with having than being.”

Lucy’s character arc in Besson’s film is a good one. When first the audience meets Lucy, she informs her boyfriend, Richard, that she is, in essence, scattered, “concentrating on so many things.”

The routine and details of life are oppressing her in some way, so that she can’t be her best self…and she knows it. This is how daily life is for so many of us; so many competing calls for attention; so many things to do.

But before long, Lucy discovers the means by which to improve herself, and see life not as a series of insoluble challenges. Rather, she recognizes that the key to self-knowledge already exists within her.  

It comes not from owning things, but -- rather like the dolphin who can echo-locate by natural means (an example in the film…) -- by exploring the idea of being.

Some may suggest the presence of a strongly feminist message here, and that is appropriate. As the film starts, Lucy is buffeted by others, forced into action by both Richard and Mr. Jang. They assume control of her life and her actions, and Lucy finds herself in constant danger, and in pain under that stewardship.  When Lucy begins to transform, however, she takes control and ownership over her life, and her understanding of it.  No long is she so scattered that she can be blown like the wind from one horrible task to another.  Now it is she -- armed with knowledge and a sense of agency -- who will control her own path, and her own journey.

But outside of sex roles and politics, a part of understanding “being” is also the open acknowledgment that we are all connected in time and space.

To express the concept of connection, Besson relies heavily, at least at the beginning of the film, on the technique of cross-cutting

When Lucy is dragged into Richard’s mess, and she faces the possibility of being executed by thugs, Besson cuts to a big cat -- a cheetah -- on a Savannah, hunting a frightened but alerted gazelle. These images are connected in terms of metaphor, and the cross-cutting from one scene to the other makes the point.  The gazelle and Lucy share the same feelings of terror and the same instincts of fight or flight when faced with an existential threat: a dangerous predator.

It would not be necessary to include this symbolic metaphor if all Besson intended here was to showcase Lucy’s fear.  Instead, the cross-cutting makes it plain that Lucy and the gazelle are one in the same; life possessed of the same feelings and the same fears; dwelling in the same universe where mortality is feared, and death is something to be avoided at all costs, and desperately if necessary.

The visuals in this case, clue us into the fact that the film concerns connections not only across the human world, but across other species as well. 

In terms of humans, it’s impossible not to notice the eclectic, rainbow make-up of the film’s dramatis personae. Lucy is a Caucasian female. Professor Samuel Norman is an African-American male. Pierre Del Rio is a Parisian cop. Mr. Jang is a Korean mobster.  They all become connected -- from Taipei to Berlin to Paris -- in one story, all playing their “part,” as it were.  So again, even the casting denotes a form of the film’s message, that every person, no matter their origin or ethnicity, is connected. Lucy is truly a global, or intercultural effort.

The subtext of connection goes deeper. It comes to include time. Lucy travels back in time to prehistory during her “ultimate trip,” and connects with another Lucy, the hominin, or human ancestor, who walked upright on Earth over three million years ago. 

The modern, evolving Lucy (Johannson), herald of the future, touches the fingertips of the primitive Lucy, symbol of the past or beginning, and the entirety of human history is connected. 

The same image also recalls Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam, in the Sistine Chapel.  There, God breathes life into Adam by touch, by outstretched digit.  Lucy’s variation on this idea also involves the touching of digits. The idea is that our past breathes life into the future, and maybe, perhaps, our future even breathes life into our past. Therefore, all time periods are connected, and that there is, actually, no real past or future, only the connection that stretches between all forms of life

Certainly, the film’s imagery after that touch, of Lucy witnessing the Big Bang, and even the pre-Big Bang (when coruscating, living matter seems to be squeezed into our universe through a black hole…), suggests the idea that space and time are one, and that we, are, literally, stardust, matter that was present when the universe began.

The film’s final reckoning, that Lucy outgrows the need to be tethered to a particular corporeal form, or a particular moment in history, supports this reading of the film.  “I am everywhere,” she reports, and by that, I also assume she means that she is every-when, capable of interfacing with every corner of creation in every epoch of time…simultaneously.

To evolve, at least in this particular cinematic world, is not to become the star child, but -- by reaching the limits of biology and physiological potential -- to conquer physical death; and even the need to be contained or housed in a body. If all life goes back to the Big Bang, and all life is connected, then death is not real, is it?

We never really die,” Lucy suggests.

Take away all the high-minded metaphysics and all the spectacular special effects, and Lucy’s message is really simple and straight-forward: We live in a world in which we narrow our gaze, because to comprehend the immensity of it all would be…well, scary.We’ve codified our existence to bring it down to human size, to make it comprehensible. We’ve created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale,” she declares.

Indeed. Some of us forget that our lives are finite because we focus on a litany of day-to-day responsibilities and occupations. We have tunnel vision. We create a human scale so we don’t see the unfathomable scale, or the things that scare us.

Lucy itself performs the opposite task. 

It presents as a dazzling, fast-moving action film, and then progressively expands itself to reckon with human nature, the nature of the cosmos, and, finally, transcendentalism. It ends with an acknowledgment that we are all connected, if only we seek those connections and don’t limit the scale of our lives.   Lucy, who was one of us, “concentrating on so many things,” has been freed to see the things that matter, on a universal scale. 

We were given the gift life, and Lucy tells us that her example tells us “what to do with it.”

I love and admire films that ask me to stretch my vision and see things in a new or fresh way. Lucy succeeds in that task, and with guns blazing to boot.

Movie Trailer: Lucy (2014)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

At Flashbak: They Stick Like Magic! A Gallery of Colorform Adventure Sets (1966 – 1980)

Now at Flashbak, a gallery of my Colorforms collection!

"Last week here on Flashbak, I remembered “Fotonovels” or “Photostories,” and tagged those publications as one way that kids of previous generations could remember the experience of their favorite movie or TV program in the pre-VCR age.

Today, I remember another popular item from the same time and having roughly the same purpose: the Colorform Adventure Set, or “Cartoon Kit” as it was sometimes known.  In broad terms, Colorforms sets consist of vinyl-sheet figures, ships, or objects, and a cardboard background upon which they can be set, and re-set.

Colorforms were first created in 1951, and in 1957 the company began to license popular entertainment characters such as Popeye for their sets.

In the year 2000, the Toy Industry of America named Colorforms one of the best toys of the 20th century, and in 2011, Time Magazine named them as one of the 100 best toys “ever.”

Colorforms often came with brochures or booklets demonstrating for kids “one of the many” scenes they could make with their new toy.  And parents were informed, likewise that “your child now joins millions of others in the same age group in a happy growing experience.”

For Colorforms, according the booklet, possess “rare educational value” helping your child with six important skills: “Finger dexterity,” “sense of spatial relationship,” “size matching,” “building ability,” “color sense” and “sense of neatness and order.”

When I grew up in the seventies, Colorforms proved a key and constant element of childhood, and today I want to feature pictures from my home collection, and some of my very favorite sets. 

Basically every sci-fi franchise you could think of in the 1970s and 1980s had Colorforms sets to accompany them, from Star Trek (1966 – 1969) and Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) to Planet of the Apes (1968) and Gremlins (1984). I had as many as I could get my hands on, and I’ve managed to keep several sets across the decades.

Here are five examples of the Colorforms adventure sets, circa 1966 – 1980..."

Cult-TV Review: The Man in the High Castle (2015)

(Here there be spoilers...proceed at your own risk.)

The Man in the High Castle (2015) is a new and impressive pilot from X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz and director Ridley Scott. It is being featured as part of Amazon's second annual pilot season.

The filmmakers have worked with great skill and artistry to adapt the Hugo Award-winning 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick to a visual format. Dick’s story has been termed an “alternate history” science fiction story, meaning it ponders what might happen had history gone differently.  

In this case, the Axis Power won World War II, and have since carved up America. Imperial Japan now controls the West Coast, and Nazi Germany controls the East Coast, with a “neutral zone” in the mid-west separating fiefdoms.  

The series is set in 1962, some dozen or so years after the end of the war.

The Man in the High Castle pilot focuses primarily on two characters, one living in Japanese San Francisco, the other in Nazi-run New York, as they make separate, unplanned pilgrimages to Canon City, in the Neutral Zone. 

Making the journey from the west is Julianna Crain (Alexa Davalos).  

Making it from the east is Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). 

Independently of each other as well, each character carries notable contraband: a film reel titled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which showcases documentary footage of the West -- FDR, and Winston Churchill -- winning World War II for the Allies.  

Since this did not happen, apparently, in Joe and Julianna’s particular reality, that means that the world -- reality itself -- is false in some way not yet understood.

The pilot episode commences in terrifying fashion, as images of American sovereignty and power are overcome by the relentless march of the Axis Powers.  

Scored to a morose, creepy version of “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music (1959), the introductory montage is unforgettable.  The funereal tone makes viewers aware that they have entered a world without freedom and liberty, where the face of Lady Liberty has fallen under a shroud of darkness. It’s an effective and ominous note to start out on, and the opening montage is quite powerful.

From there, the narrative moves crisply and cleanly o introduce this “brave new world” of the 1960s.  Rock Hudson and June Allyson are still making movies for Hollywood, but America is not the same country any more. 

Joe Blake seeks to join the Resistance movement in New York, while Julianna sees her sister Trudy gunned down in cold blood by the Japanese regime for her role in the resistance. Both characters take up the same odyssey from opposite sides of the country, and by pilot’s end, meet one another.  

And, of course, there’s a final twist that will leave you gasping.

The pilot also contends with the specter of a new Cold War. 

Hitler is aged and dying in this alternate reality, and his would-be successors (Goebbels, Himmler, and Rommel) are scrambling for power. This means trouble for Japan, because many in the Nazi hierarchy believe that the U.S. should not have been partitioned. Instead, it should have been taken for Germany. Accordingly, nuclear weapons stand ready to bomb the Japanese island as well as San Francisco.  It’s possible that the world will plunge into an all-out war…again. 

Some characters in the drama believe that they can use the I-Ching, an ancient divination text, to determine what shape the future will take.

In the original novel by Dick, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was a book, not a film, but I liked this update and change because TV is a visual art-form, and the existence of a documentary film establishes better than words on a page would that the world featured in the series could be false, or perhaps, merely one world in a massive multi-verse. 

If a series should develop, the exact nature and origin of this book will no doubt be a major plot line.  How did get to this universe?  Is this universe real?  Is it a game?  A simulation?  A parallel reality? 

A clever and intelligent writer like Spotnitz can spin the narrative in any tricky direction, hinting at multiple possibilities, and keeping us on our toes for many seasons. Certainly, the pilot episode is well-crafted, particularly in its attention to small details.

For example, there’s one scene of utter horror that occurs while Joe is on the road. He stops his truck, and speaks to a police-man. 

Ash suddenly falls from the sky like snow. 

Joe is perplexed, and the policeman reports that a hospital is nearby. And Tuesday is the day of the week that said hospital burns cripples, the terminally ill, and other “drags on the state.” 

Blake is eating a sandwich when this revelation occurs. Watch him closely as he regards his meal. His unguarded response (or lack of one) is a clue about his character's nature. But this little throwaway moment captures the terror and inhumanity of the Axis Powers more powerfully than could a scene involving Nazi soldiers and large scale combat. We understand immediately how this America is different from ours.  

Here, death panels are really…and burning every Tuesday.

The Man in the High Castle introduces a number of good concepts that could well serve a long-term series, including the belief that “fate is fluid” and that “destiny is in the hands of man.”  It would be incredibly intriguing to see this idea play out, across a Japanese/Nazi Cold War, and across a dedicated resistance movement.  

Already, The Man in The High Castle is extraordinary, imaginative television, dominated by strong performances, crisp writing and surprisingly good production values. On that last front, there’s a shot of Nazi Time Square here that will make your jaw drop.  

Let's hope this one makes the cut.  I'm still in mourning over Amazon's treatment of The After. Let's hope it doesn't make the same mistake twice. The Man in the High Castle could very well be the Game of Thrones for the alternate reality sub-genre...if Amazon doesn't kill it in the cradle, that is.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Late Night Blogging: More Supermarionation Adverts

Coming Soon: The Fantastic Four (2015)

Fireball XL5 (1962 - 1963): "Flight to Danger"

In “Flight to Danger,” the second episode of Fireball XL5 (1962 – 1963), Astronaut 90 is working hard to get his “astronaut wings” so that he can become the best controller in World Space Patrol History.

Although nervous about his progress, Steve Zodiac shepherds Astronaut 90 through the training program.

First up: landing Fireball XL5 safely at Space City.  It’s not a pretty landing, but 90 succeeds in the mission and pilots the craft to safe touchdown.

Next, 90 must launch the XL-1 successfully in orbit to show he is capable of “directing space traffic” and again, he succeeds. 

However, the final stage of the astronaut training program involves the “psychological strain of being completely alone in space.”  To that end, 90 must fly a space capsule alone in space to demonstrate his “endurance” and “aptitude.”

Unfortunately, a freak malfunction causes 90’s atomic motor to become dislodged in flight, and the capsule is destroyed in a terrible explosion.

Zodiac, Venus and the Fireball XL5 crew go in search of 90 but find only debris.

But 90 survives, proving resourceful and earning those astronaut wings…

“Flight to Danger” is a solid, effectively-written and executed episode of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series Fireball XL5. It is concerned primarily with character development, and one character’s progress through a training program.  

The character in training is Astronaut 90, and he is a young, insecure man that the audience (and Steve Zodiac) come to care for.  There’s no standard pulp stuff here about death rays or alien plots to invade Earth, only a narrative that reveals more about the world of Fireball XL5, particularly astronaut training.

The episode is strong in terms of how it treats other characters as well. Steve Zodiac shows confidence in Astronaut 90 and is a good mentor.  At one point, he even laments his presence in Space City Mission Control, noting that he’s “strictly an action guy,” not a push-button guy. 

Commander Zero also is handled well, coming off as a bit of an obsessive-compulsive who worries about every aspect of every mission. This is a good quality to have in a man in control of a vast space program, but his angst adds a sense of humanity to the character.

“Flight to Danger” also deals with real, nuts-and-bolts aspect of a space program, such as coping with feelings of isolation, loneliness and even claustrophobia in space.  This is one reason I have always enjoyed Anderson’s works.  Set in the near future, these productions typically remember that man is capable of great things, but also tethered to Earth (and his history) by his psychological foibles.  This is a contrast, somewhat, to the world envisioned by latter-day Star Trek, in comparison.

I also enjoyed a weird visual in this episode: sweating puppets! 

At a few junctures in “Flight to Danger,” we see that Zodiac and the others -- their nerves tingling -- are perspiring heavily. It’s a weird touch to see sweat glistening on wooden puppets, but another bow, in some weird way, to Gerry Anderson’s realistic approach to human crises.

Finally, this episode features Steve and Venus at her beach house enjoying a night “of musical relaxation.” 

I thought for certain that this was a metaphor for a more adult pastime, but sure enough the episode cuts to the Fireball crew enjoying music together in her house…

Fireball XL5 Jetmobile