Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Birds (1963)

My endless quest for the perfect chicken sandwich continues. Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, KFC, Burger King. I'm discovering timing regarding the overall quality of the sandwich is nearly as important as the sandwich itself. Is it made fresh? This should comes as no great revelation, but alas it is. It's like when the French fries are fresh versus sitting around all day. My brother would ask specifically for them to make fresh French fries at McDonalds. He had a point. What a difference. They were often amazing right out of the deep fryer. Anyway, something about that chicken bird that keeps me on my endless pursuit of the best of the best chicken sandwich. And yet so many I have yet to discover.

Speaking of birds and discoveries, The Sci-Fi Fanatic took in director Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), following a recent look at the classic Psycho (1960), as part of an ongoing personal Hitchcock-a-thon.

These films are indeed historically important and are still stunning as visual feats and feasts. These are pictures sadly lost on most filmgoers (remember before Covid when we went to the cinema) today.

I won't deny that these films have aged. They have. They must. Looking at The Birds I was struck by how odd some of the language and writing was in the film. Perhaps its particular time and era lends an air of peculiarity to the mystery of the supernatural proceedings. The play and dance of words between characters was clearly intentional, but it is odd.

The beautiful bird Tippi Hedren stars, mother of Malanie Griffith, in her debut opposite Rod Taylor (The Time Machine), Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy, Cocoon, Fried Green Tomatoes), Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright (Alien). The film is loaded with birds and real ones too. It's quite impressive just how strong even dark some of Hitchcock's female leads were in some of his films as they are here or as was the case for Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960).

It's wonderful to see the details of an era long gone too from cigarette machines to cars and detailed backdrops. Bodega Bay couldn't be more striking with all of the wonderful mattes provided for this feature. The effects work was top notch once upon a time. But again, The Birds is an odd little picture, something of a Dodo by today's standards, and I mean no disrespect in that to cinephiles, because film aficionados understand its intrinsic beauty and film values.

There's something special about the editing in the film too, like Psycho, that is rarely seen today. Such a remarkable and judicious use of powerful editing by Hitchcock in critical moments. There's one scene of truly gruesome horror that had to be a bit surprising in 1963. Eventual directors like David Cronenberg had to be inspired. I was reminded of a key scene for Cronenberg in his The Dead Zone (983).

It's undeniable the influence of films like The Birds on any number of director's pictures even on something much more contemporary like Frank Darabont's The Mist (2007), for example, but you can see it. People held up and imprisoned by supernatural forces marching unrelenting upon them.

It's hard to recommend The Birds to just anyone especially from a modern filmgoing audience, but it is clearly recommended to the aficionado of film classics. Here are some of those striking Hitchcock images for your eyes to enjoy. Time for me to fly.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

HD DVD vs Blu-Ray

The battle was epic, but ephemeral, like so many things in this life. And damn it, once again, I picked the losing horse. Ah, those first world problems. Nevertheless, I do remember the war. R.I.P. HD DVD (2006-2008). There was just something not very forward thinking about that name apparently. Oh well, all hail Blu-Ray...for now. It's been a good run.

*image from SCIFINOW #6, p.32

Monday, December 7, 2020

She Blinded Me With Science-Fiction Part 1

2020. No words.

Like the snowman in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, "tell me when it's over." Short of war this has been a nightmare of epic proportions if ever there was one, globally, nationally, personally, but it could always be worse. It could be right? We have to tell that to ourselves. Plus, we need to find the bright spots in this often dismal year.

Sadly, this writer has not been overly motivated to write and deep dive on science fiction of late. I wish the inspiration was there, but, alas, the proof is in the proverbial pudding here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic as you can see by the general infrequency of posting. Perhaps this virus-related mask wearing, social distancing, rioting, thieving, burning, destruction, defunding, deep political divide and general lack of kindness has me worn down.

My Blu-Ray player, as the situation has called for it, has been my haven from the nightly news which is generally depressing beyond words. So with that escape in mind this sci-fi writer has enjoyed catching up on a great many TV series in 2020 (of course many of those shows are rife with political messaging---maybe there really is no escape). Here are a few short takes on what I've been viewing on that front in front of the sexy old boob tube (She Blinded Me With Science-Fiction Part I). The old girl always delivers during this pandemic and she's been in overdrive, but when isn't she?

LOST (2004-2010). It took some time to getting around to completing this series. I wrote about the outstanding Season One right here on this blog. Upon its original airing, following the series and waiting week to week for the next episode became a labor and I dropped off the show at the end of Season Four. This is not uncommon for me. With two seasons to go, it was always my intention to get back to it and finish the series. So, I went back to the beginning and watched it all beginning to end.

I'm here to attest that LOST was exceptional television, outside of being merely influential. It was a thrilling mystery ride straight through to its rather poetic conclusion. For a show without a definitive game plan or series bible from which to draw upon by all accounts, it amazed thanks to all involved. However, despite that bible, it was the fortunate recipient of strong writing, creative showrunners and magnificent casting, not to mention that glorious island backdrop. Some of the episodes were positively stellar (Flashes Before Our Eyes, The Man From Tallahassee, Expose, Left Behind, The Man Behind The Curtain and Through The Looking Glass may be some of my favorites from Season Three as an example), but none were really ever less than very good to excellent. To pinpoint and name just a few would actually be a disservice to how outstanding this show is as a whole. I'm pleased to see the series was given such a fitting conclusion. ABC smartly signed on a winner and despite its creative limitations enforced by network television still managed to be dramatically enthralling without the no holds barred graphic content and freedom other shows have since enjoyed on other channels. Experiencing it today it still holds up. LOST is simply filled, palm tree to palm tree, shore to shore, with so much dramatic and story subtext it is a relentlessly engaging tale nailed and sold by killer performances and great direction. 

Additionally, and I'm not offering anything that hasn't perhaps been written about before, but aside the series being set upon an unknown island and physically being lost, the writers assembled a cast of characters that are for all intents and purposes genuinely lost in their lives. We identify with the journey of these characters most of all, because at the end of the day aren't we all a little lost in life? 

I suspect LOST will forever remain one of the very best. For the library, this is a Blu-Ray Essential!

Stargate Universe (2009-2011). SGU is the third and, to date as of this writing, final iteration of the long-running and established Stargate franchise. It's another series I was able to finally complete. In fact, an overall summation of Stargate Universe Season Two was one of my last posts here at the blog. I wasn't entirely certain what to expect from the show's second season given its untimely cancellation. Perhaps I was about to unwittingly discover what all of the problems were with the series that led to its unexpected demise despite an incredibly strong first season.

Upon completing the entire series and its nearly perfect forty (40) episodes I was able to experience for myself just how special it was, however ephemeral.

Nearly thirty years after another short-lived sci-fi conclusion in the form of Space:1999 (1975-1977), it was clear SGU echoed the sense of exploration and mystery that immersed that once special series in its own distinct approach to space exploration and sci-fi storytelling. SGU was, in a sense, a kind of sister series to the Gerry Anderson classic, as much as it was a part of an established franchise, and both were cut short prematurely with so much more potential.

Nevertheless both exist, can and do endure, and in this much we can be thankful. SGU and Space:1999 (a series that still feels like appointment television when I sit down for an episode) are both worthy of discovery beyond their conclusions. Both are imbued with high quality production work and are essential for science fiction fans. Thus, both are Blu-Ray essentials!

Sadly, Season Two is on DVD only, but still essential. Season One is on Blu-Ray. Way to respect a property MGM.

Swamp Thing (2019). This is arguably the DC superhero series equivalent of the science fiction series Firefly (2002). A single season with so much promise, wonderful effects and some good storytelling is, yet again, sadly axed before it could even emerge from the swamp and find its legs with an audience. As a science fiction fan Firefly is still near perfect.

As someone not particularly drawn to the world of superheroes in TV or film, Swamp Thing's concept is worth appreciating. In film, Watchmen and perhaps Nolan's Batman series remain favorites, but outside of those if I see a comic book association (and I collected them voraciously as a kid) they are often of little to no interest.

I made an exception with the TV series Swamp Thing. Even as solid as Swamp Thing is, in all its murky details, it's still unessential viewing to this fan of collecting a great series on Blu-Ray. For fans of DC Comics' characters and DC TV drama Swamp Thing comes recommended and I believe possibly essential to those in love with the superhero culture particularly the Swamp Thing character. As positive as many reviews have been for this series, it is not a critical must watch and a generally slight and underwhelming entry.

American Gods (2017-present). Folks. Ugh. Wow. Argh! Pray to the gods this one is turned around for Season Three. After a positively mesmerizing first season experience that is one to absolutely relish, the folks in charge of the series interpretation of Neil Gaiman's comic work fall flat on their faces for Season Two. It's like a different show, because it is. What a mess!

All of the racial politics infused into this season aside, it's just not executed well on any level. I remained open-minded throughout the second season but it became an absolute slog. Often it was downright boring. One of the characters is killed and by the time you get there you don't even care. I was exhausted and just wanted the season to be over. I had read all of the negative reviews out there for the second season and I finally caved believing all those people had to have it wrong. Oh the pain. They were not wrong. Season Two started admirably and the first three episodes kept me in the series in a way reminiscent of Season One. Episode four takes it off the rails and never recovers. There has been a third season renewal. If the reviews for it are not resolutely positive like the first it will be a definitive pass. That's truly unfortunate because anyone who has seen that first season can appreciate all of its stylish direction, scriptwriting swagger and delicious performance turns from a plethora of notable faces. Even Ian McShane and Crispin Glover cannot save the old and new gods from this positive apocalypse of a season. Thankfully the brief, but painful, disappointment is for a mere eight episode sophomore season. American Gods Season Two is a hard pass. This is non-essential to the Blu-Ray library! Season One however remains essential.

Watchmen (2019). However imperfect the Zack Snyder film was it was nevertheless an immersive film experience. Snyder is constantly under assault as a filmmaker, but his Watchmen film remains a visual pleasure not unlike 300 (2006), Sucker Punch (2011) or his underrated Superman film, Man Of Steel (2013). Unrelated to Snyder, the Watchmen film was as dazzling as that first season of American Gods. I'm ignorant to the facts here regarding the source material, but by all accounts I believe the film was quite faithful to the book, while Lindelof developed a complete reinvention or reimagining of the source material. HBO, with favored scribe Damon Lindelof, took on a premiere TV interpretation of the Gaiman novel. Some have dubbed it Wokemen. Again, with open mind, this writer came out the other end of the nine (9) episode series with mixed feelings. It was as if the people involved with both this and the second season of American Gods were indeed channeling recent political movements and racial politics. I'm open to new interpretations and this result may be your thing, but it wasn't for me.

Lindelof, the man behind HBO's The Leftovers and amazing LOST episodes like Through The Looking Glass (Season 3), The Constant (Season 4) or The End (Season 6) just to name a few of the many, tackles yet another complex world with much aplomb. The atmosphere, music and performances are second to none. Regina King and Tim Blake Nelson are riveting as are Jean Smart and Jeremy Irons. There is no shortage of things to love about HBO's Watchmen. Editing, set pieces, the story, it all flows rather well as a bizarre alternate history despite its many disparate, strange and even otherworldly elements. Though, as it proceeded from a strong start into inevitable, politically-infused mind-fuck territory, the series ultimately lost me. Issues of race and the deconstruction of history through this science fiction left me wondering if the series echoed any of the material found in the Dave Gibbons work. The film was much different. I'm grateful for the differences, but one worked much better than the other for me a story of entertainment.

Lindelof is incredibly talented but, not unlike American Gods Season Two, Watchmen tackles racism within some rather strange material. This new culture war that is being stoked in real life is on display here, but rather artfully so. As a result, Watchmen is arguably more effective than American Gods' second season to be sure. The messaging today is so radically different from what I was taught as a kid it's just hard to comprehend quite frankly. But a new world it is and the creative people behind American Gods and Watchmen seem to be tapping into it and on board with it, understand it and/or want to promote it in their own creative ways.

The approach to the writing of the story over nine short episodes was very reminiscent of the sometimes impenetrable The Leftovers. This storytelling approach is becoming a Lindelof trademark, but the human component of the Watchmen was a bit lost in translation. Who did I care to watch at all and why? It was absent from the second season of American Gods. It wasn't sold to me on Watchmen either.

Once upon a time 22-24 episodes of a single season of network television seemed overly extensive. It was a miracle how strong each LOST season was given those tall story orders. With just nine episodes there's no room for filler in Watchmen, and there isn't, but these overly short seasons leave me wishing for a slightly lengthier run. Though perhaps additional material would not have helped here for me. As it is, the episodes appear to achieve the planned story however oddly alternative this world was intended to be. American Gods at just eight episodes seemed to meander and lose focus as it delved into a slavery narrative. Watchmen is much better with its focus, and while it worked sometimes even with its anti-white messaging, these alternate history narratives seemed to struggle as entertainment despite their share of high points.

Watchmen is by no means essential, while I respect the efforts made here more than I did the second season of American Gods, it just wasn't as good as the promise of those initial episodes teased and should have been much better. For those in the mood for something a bit more extraordinary and logically complex this may be a series for you. Perhaps a working knowledge of the Gibbons book would help, but this deconstructed Watchmen won't be for everyone. This is one you really need to see for yourself to determine its artistic value to your heart. I'm sad to report though, this series is non-essential viewing in my humble estimation particularly with regard to anyone looking for an emotionally resonant human component. This is often important to me. It won't have a place in my Blu-Ray library next to the more traditionally faithful film. If you want unconventional and challenging the HBO series may be worth a shot, but proceed with caution. This writer wanted to enjoy this series much more and it just never materialized.

So there you have it your watch man did some watching and clearly a lot less writing of late. But I thought I would stop and say hello and wish everyone well and continued health through this most trying year.

The bloggers and readers out there are always a pleasure to have around. I personally enjoy seeing the writers write out there so I thought I'd offer a short take here as I continue to flounder in my own personal inspiration oblivion.

I leave you with some of the wonderful images from LOST.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Space:1999 Y1 E17: War Games

"We're not here by choice. We cannot control the course of our moon. We're looking for a place to live. We won't use force. All we want is peace."

-Dr. Helena Russell-

"You have no future. You carry with you the seeds of your own destruction. You are a contaminating organism--a fatal virus, a plague of fear."


"Ever since we were blasted away from Earth we've been fighting for survival. We have survived. Now how I don't know. There's no rational explanation. But what I do have is an absolute faith in the strength of the human spirit and the belief that someone or something is looking after us, God if you like. And we will survive."

-Commander John Koenig-

"Come and seek us out... if we still exist. Come and teach us all you know, because we have learned many things, but most of all we have learned... that we still have much to learn."

-Professor Victor Bergman-

Far and few between to be sure, but yes a FAB FRIDAY just the same!

I had been anxious to return to an episode of Space:1999. The appropriately dubbed Space:1999, Year One, Episode 17, War Games, opened with about as much action-packed Eagle excitement as any pre-pubescent kid of the 1970s could dream. The Eagle takes centerstage in the episode with about as much screen time as any episode has allotted to date.

Fans of Brian Johnson's Eagle design are treated to a host of Eagle craft not least of which was the Mark 9 Hawk Warship model (finally seeing a diecast release by Sixteen Candles in 2021). The CGI-free model work and string/cable-based (yes, on Blu-Ray you can see those ever-present strings clear as the day is long, but it does not detract) action is a sight to behold if a bit too vintage for some of today's science fiction viewers. Nevertheless, for those with an appreciation for artisans and classic science fiction, War Games offers plenty of model work and set and production design efforts that even today's budget-heavy works would have difficulty rivalling. Much of the work is detailed, in gloriously restored full-color for Blu-Ray with endless imagination. Gerry Anderson tapped into something special even if it wasn't fully appreciated upon its initial release beyond the critics envy of the series' budgetary numbers.

Alongside modeler Brian Johnson and production designer Keith Wilson (just look at the images of the wondrous shots from War Games to behold their work), War Games is gifted with a script by Space:1999 Year One mainstay Christopher Penfold (involved in the writing of eight entries in the series) and direction from Space:1999 journeyman Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda). Both Penfold and Crichton worked together on Guardian Of Piri, starring a pre-established, Maya-free Catherine Schell, The Last Sunset, Space Brain and Dragon's Domain. Crichton directed fourteen entries in all for the series.

War Games offers a good deal of dramatic interplay and heft by the many characters in the series working as a solid ensemble piece. Ziena Merton, Nick Tate and others receive considerable screen time. War Games is also witness to some of the most destruction set evidence in a single episode of the series to date. Moonbase Alpha is seemingly annihilated throughout the first part of the story. The episode even experiences the loss of a significant recurring minor character from medical or does it?

Following the action infused first half of War Games, the entry ironically returns to what Space:1999 always did best, present a show of ideas and concepts for humanity lost. Some of the evidence of the thoughtful script can be seen above.

The remainder of the episode becomes this writer's favorite part of War Games asking questions of human fallibility, human error, placing a mirror to man's fears by examining the wisdom of entering into a decision of war.

On a purely science fiction level Penfold delivers a beautiful script that is at once exciting, but exquisitely penned with pensive ideas on the imperfections of humankind.

On its face, the Alphans arrive at a planet guarded by a race of beings of great intellect who have eradicated fear and see humanity (the space invaders in this case) arriving as a plague to the inevitable destruction of their peaceful world.

The script is eloquent in presenting the concepts but not spoon-feeding the audience its truly beautiful story of human reflection. It wonderfully inverts many of the alien invasion concepts.

In the end, Dr. Russell has glimpsed their world. This world without fear she calls beautiful, but sadly suggests humanity has lost that inner beauty by contrast.

Once again, War Games packs a lot into its story conceptually, but is still a powerful story of rumination today---one of those timeless exercises in intelligent science fiction. 

War Games tricks us into a belief this is a simple exercise in Gerry Anderson modelling and pyrotechnic action (a la Thunderbirds), but then turns the tables creating a truly human story that is at once philosophical and existential with meaty roles and special moments for the entire cast. Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Barry Morse, Ziena Merton all have their moments to shine. War Games is precisely the kind of science fiction that proves Anderson and company didn't deserve the harsh criticism it received in the 1970s.

War Games is filled with all of the quiet, spacious and thought-provoking ideas that make it yet anther strong entry in forever underrated Year One. In LOST (2004-2010), John Locke represented a position of faith while Jack Shephard offered us a vantage of science on events throughout six dramatically-charged and gripping seasons of the series. Well, Space:1999 often exercises two sides of the same coin, the unreliability of science and the imperfection of human decision versus the belief in something much greater, faith and God. The mysteries and unknowns of space positioned Alphans to constantly balance human understanding through science and knowledge against more philosophical leaps of faith into the void. Koenig (here revealed to be the ninth commander of Moonbase Alpha unless just a part of the dream) and Bergman often challenged us in those arenas believing their fate lay beyond the actions of man. Penfold's challenging, even poetic, script is quite brilliant in this regard. It's easy to see why Penfold considers it his best work on the series. It's arguably one of his best.

Reflecting on the entry, this writer couldn't help but recognize that he too was aging in this life more than ever by realizing the show had lost many including Landau, Morse, Merton, Wilson, Crichton as well as Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Only a few remain.

So many in the series had invested their talents and voices into something that was sorely underappreciated and still is, but whose influence and remembrance continues.

Anyone who enjoyed 1970s cinema and television would be hard pressed to not look at Space:1999 as one of the intelligent best from that period. The series asked questions and posed many moments of self-examination at a time that didn't necessarily require it. There is indeed a certain darkness, isolation, mystery and loneliness to Space:1999 and War Games captures so much of what worked so well in that series.

War Games: A. Writer: Christopher Penfold. Director: Charles Crichton.

Additional commentary:

Author John Kenneth Muir called the episode "the most visually spectacular science fiction television episode in the history of the medium" in his book Exploring Space:1999 and he's not wrong to level such a compliment. It is stunning and as he notes could have easily held up against some sci-fi productions straight through the 1990s in terms of effects and production magic. This initial assessment made it all the more bewildering to find he placed War Games in the category of "mediocre." Why? Only because my love of the episode increased more in terms of the human components found in the second half, Let's investigate.

Muir and I would part company on the rendering of the remainder of War Games. He felt the rest of the episode had "little to recommend it." I wonder if Muir would feel differently regarding War Games all these years later or still feel the same? He dubs the episode "confusing" and "non-sensical." Truly Muir is a great writer and it's always hard to rail against his points. I would argue that War Games provides just enough pieces of the puzzle to allow the viewer to assemble its message on human fallibility and the question of fear and how it indeed impacts human decision and drives humankind alongside love.

Muir makes some terrific arguments about the logic of the nightmare/dream the aliens force upon the Alphans to explore human frailty and does indeed have problems with it. Still, it is the Alphans' nightmare and however odd or unusual some elements may be within War Games such as the use of Earth-based Hawk IX warships it is all manifested from the human mind and could stand to reason. After all when have dreams or nightmares ever been completely logical? Again, there is enough in play that makes the story work through to its dénouement.

Muir asks good questions about the aliens' intentions in foisting this test upon the Alphans and it is a test. Muir suggests the aliens were in turn acting out of fear, but the beings indeed possess a higher intelligence that suggests they already know the humans act out of a combination of reason and emotion. They seem to understand what they would indeed bring to their peaceful world. Knowing what the humans are capable of they force them to look in the mirror at themselves in an attempt to prevent them from coming. The aliens also give the Alphans a chance to see what could be if they indeed make a choice not out of fear. This is a gift to humanity, but they are still not welcomed for the evolution of humans as intelligent beings is indeed primitive by comparison and arguably in its infancy.

Muir asks why the aliens would welcome Dr. Helena Russell into their collective hive brain mentality given the flaws of humanity. One could argue, again, the aliens were presenting the Alphans with a look at what is possible utilizing Helena as a vessel. Given the intellect of the aliens what they were doing with Helena and the Alphans was in effect a foregone conclusion. Could it be they knew the outcome for the Alphans? They were in control throughout the encounter. Helena was indeed welcomed within the alien dream and humanity as Bergman notes is left to "learn" the many mysteries of space.

In fact, the extreme reaction in the dream regarding Koenig's second decisive move toward violence yet again seems to underscore the damage of such a decision and thus Koenig is provided a chance to retry the fateful decision. When he does the Alphans don’t make the same mistake twice. In effect, the Alphans “learn” as Bergman ruminated demonstrating humanity is indeed capable of change. In our real lives, whether it chooses to do so, based on all evidence since the making of this series, remains to be seen.

This writer too was not frightened by the episode as Muir suggested it should have been more "frightening," but I was entranced by the story and the writing. Throughout the second half I had literally forgotten I was attempting to blog. I was that engrossed.

Muir finds War Games expects a lot of the viewer as he sees the writing question the logic in motivation and stretch credulity even resolving its story with the art of illusion calling the dream a "dramatic cheat." Muir finds the dream element to be a bit too convenient. This is often a convenient construct, and if so is not the application of the illusion in War Games not completely original in nearly every element of its plotting? It worked for me in delivering its themes. Unlike Muir who found some points of the story to be the result of "poor writing" I quite enjoyed Penfold's script and found it to be a terrific entry in the series growing stronger as the episode progressed.

Interestingly, Muir makes a comparison of the entry to Black Sun (Y1, E3), another he lists as simply mediocre, and yet another episode this writer held in much higher regard along with War Games. Did the philosophical underpinnings of these two entries supersede the internal flaws within the episodes and ultimately speak to this writer in a way that didn't work for author Muir? There is indeed an emotional resonance and impact within these atmospheric mystery pieces that have an impact on this viewer. I recall a conversation with Mr. Muir where he had a change of heart toward Black Sun all these years later if I'm not mistaken. The same could hold true for War Games. Still, this writer always enjoys his analysis and the logic of his breakdowns rarely fails. I'm grateful to read intelligent analysis that allows for a counterpoint or conversation within the genre.

SciFiNow gave Black Sun a roughly similar rating as Mr. Muir and War Games a roughly similar rendering as me creating a split view on the two stories for that publication.

One thing is certain, any story, even those I've visited could result in a very different takeaway with time. That's the special thing about a series like Space:1999. These little episodic stories and works of art are ripe for reinterpretation and revisits time and again. There is so much to explore here.

Ultimately, for me, War Games and Black Sun, would easily find a placement within Muir's excellent category. These are two outstanding pieces of science fiction that still hold up extremely well all these years later for fans of science fiction.