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Archive for the ‘Sam on Movies’ Category

them2

by Sam Juliano

Throughout history, compassionate minds have pondered the dark and disturbing question: what is society to do with those members who are a threat to society, those malcontents and misfits whose behavior undermines and destroys the foundations of civilization? Different ages have found different answers. Misfits have been burned, branded and banished. Today, on this planet Earth, the criminal is incarcerated in humane institutions…..or he is executed. Other planets use other methods. This is the story of how the perfectionist rulers of the planet Zanti attempted to solve the problem of the Zanti misfits.        The Outer Limits, “The Zanti Misfits”

The 1963-4 science fiction television series The Outer Limits ran for a scant season and a half, producing forty-nine episodes until ABC cancelled it after was pitted against the Jackie Gleason Show.  The show’s moody textured look, eerieness and indebtedness to German Expressionism set it apart from its era’s other major anthology work, The Twilight Zone, which for all its narrative brilliance was shot conventionally.   Of course The Outer Limits was a one-hour program as opposed to the other which ran a half hour for all of its five seasons save for the fourth.  While such science fiction luminaries like Gene Roddenbery have admitted that the influences The Outer Limits exerted on Star Trek is incalcuable it can’t be argued that retrospectively The Outer Limits owes some of its own ideas to 1950’s sci-fi cinema.  Indeed the most celebrated episode in the run of the show is “The Zanti Misfits” which features ant-like, rat-sized aliens who exhibit human faces.  Representatives of this alien world by interplanetary communication ask that Earth provide a penal colony for its criminals.  Set in a California desert the show winds down with the complete obliteration of the creatures and expected reprisals, but Earth officials are quickly thanked for doing something that their own non-violent race cannot.  In the closing narration an alien spokesperson refers to Earthings as “practiced executioners.”

This theme of the total annihilation of a hostile force, also set in an arid southwestern terrain, and showcasing menacing ant-like invaders is the subject of Them!, a 1954 landmark film that is uniformly regarded as the first of the run of the “Big Bug” features that spooled out over the decade.  While “The Zanti Misfits” is patterned after Them!, the 1954 work was an encore of sorts to the The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms, in that both share a single cautionary theme against the use of nuclear weapons.  We’ve seen a more didactic use of the theme employed in films like 1959’s On the Beach, which focused on the after effects of a nuclear war, but the science fiction umbrella allows for a far less preachy approaach and one predicated on entertainment in good vs. evil mode.  Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner, aiming to capitalize on the spectacular finantial success of Beast –made for $200,00, and grossing 5 million- doubled the budget, lengthened the running time and even gave serious consideration to color, 3-D and widescreen, though these embellishments never materialized due to their incapatability with the F/X process. Warner attempted to make Them! like Beast in scene-by-scene manner , employing the documentary style rather than embracing the monster effects of a horror film, and he even encored Cecil Kellaway’s ironic scientist from the earlier film with the affable thespian Edmund Gwenn, who is as patient here as he was when he portrayed jolly old St. Nick, but in the end with markedly less compassion. (more…)

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it! 1

by Sam Juliano

Another word for Mars is death.            

Edward Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space remains a prime example of a modestly budgeted 50’s science fiction film that was gloriously resurrected on television after a theatrical run fueled by the drive-ins.  In the New York City market it remained a staple on WPIX’s Chiller Theater, where it was rightly perceived as a horror/sci-fi hybrid, and aimed squarely at the baby bommer generation.  The original title, The Vampire from Beyond Space is a better appraisal of the movie’s central conflict, which is variation of sorts on another 1958 genre classic The Blob, but the film is now mainly celebrated as the inspiration for Alien,  a mighty acknowledgement, especially for a standard programmer in an era inundated with this brand.  Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (inexplicably missing from this countdown) even with the decisive lean towards horror, is another film with striking similarities to It!)  The future as depicted in the film is scarely fifteen years away -1973- which is only four years after man first stepped foot on the moon.  But the Jerome Bixby (Twilight Zone’s “It’s A Good Life”; Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror”) penned script relied on what appeared to be rapidly advancing technology, bolstered in part by the success of Sputnik the previous year, and the Cold War space competition that could very well see the U.S. negotiated not one but two missions back-to-back amidst the tensions associated with trying to exceed the other.

The rubber-clad terror that has invariably reduced the Martian physiology to that of the title protagonist showcased in Creature from the Black Lagoon is a reptilian monster with a singular aim of killing all who come in its path.  There is nothing remotely sophisticated in both the plot and the character motivations exhibited in It! The Terror from Beyond Space, neither does the story arc veer into unexpected directions.  Yet, there can be no question that once the suspense begins to build, it has the macabre allure of something like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, where the question isn’t “if” but “how” and “when.” (more…)

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spock

by Sam Juliano

One of the most beloved characters ever created for a television series is one that is now become as a cultural icon, if not a worldwide phenomenon.  The Vulcan Spock was brought on to serve as science officer on the starship Enterprise for the pilot of a new futuristic series in 1966 by the show’s architect and Executive Producer, Gene Roddenberry, who insisted above network objection that his alien character be maintained beyond the debut appearance.  Spock was the only character on the show, titled Star Trek that was specifically written for an actor.  That fairly young but well-traveled thespian, Leonard Nimoy brought physical confirmation to what Roddenberry had envisioned, and with some crucial tinkering like the employment of pointed ears, Spock’s popularity even eclipsed that of the show’s central protagonist, Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner.  The fascination with Spock was and continues to be his logical demeanor and lack of emotions.  Playing yang to Shatner’s ying Nimoy helped to forge one of television’s most indelible pairings, one that defined casting chemistry, and continued to captivate viewers from all walks of life in virtually all age groupings in the decades that followed the show’s three year run from 1966 to 1999. (more…)

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Midsummer-masthead

midsmmer

by Sam Juliano

The unconscionably horrific events that unfolded in idyllic Newtown, Connecticut on the morning of December 14, 2012 left a world in cathartic disbelief.  Three and a half years later a mere reference rekindles the darkest memories that can be envisioned.  Inevitably some brave -some might frame them in a much more unflattering light- documentary filmmakers sought to painfully recall the specifics and wider implications of a crime so unthinkable that many choose not to deal with it in conversation, much less in any comprehensive medium that will bring numbing grief left in a holding pattern a renewed potency.  The human stories surrounding the families who lost children at Sandy Hook Elementary School on that fateful day dominated the internet for many months, and the killer whose name is often unspoken was leading search engine inquiries, and typically unrestrained local tabloids.  Indeed to this date in time there remain unsettled lawsuits on behalf of the victims’ families -20 first graders and six adults including the school’s principal were gunned down after the killer shot his way through glass panels at the building’s entry point, from which point he randomly stalked and shot at classes scurrying for cover.  The deranged 20 year-old who lived on the other side of town on Yogananda Drive, had killed his mother in her sleep with one of the cadre of weapons kept in the house and later turned the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle on himself as the first responders entered the school.  There were heroes, teachers who sacrificed their own lives for their students, and a few others -students fleeing after the killer’s weapon apparently jammed and one first grader who played dead- who were on the right side of luck, and there are forever shattered families who can never move beyond the utter senselessness of the tragedy.   The horror particularly -and understandably- brought the calls for gun control to deafening levels, with the New York Daily News leading a continuing crusade against anyone sympathetic to weapons providers or legislators sympathetic to their cause.  Just a few weeks ago Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was strongly criticized for his failure to hold gun store owners responsible, in what seemed to be a very dubious position for the Vermont Senator to make at this time. (more…)

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magnus-film-1050x600

by Sam Juliano

For a very long time chess was a niche interest in the west, a competitive sub genre in the sports world, distinguished of course by its unparalleled level of intellectual acumen.  The first world champion was the Austrian-turned-American William Steinitz, who even now has openings named after him.  It is generally speculated that the game originated in India, though most of the champions of the last sixty or so years have hailed from Russia.  The west, and the United States in particular though, did not embrace the game with the kind of euphoria afforded other sports until 1972 when the famously eccentric Brooklynite Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in a then Cold war confrontation that is now regarded as the “match of the century,” and the series of games that is most often studied by aspiring masters and aficionados of the game worldwide.  Each game was studied during live television broadcasts in the states by a man who later became known as the “Julian Child” of chess – Shelby Lyman.  Because of Fischer, chess became all the rage in the US, with clubs taking root in high schools and colleges, and chess volumes flying off the shelves of bookstores, many collection of prior tournament games and studies of openings.  As a a lifetime chess player, I fondly remember my term as Vice President of my University club back in the mid 70’s, and have maintained my interest.  Yet I can only marvel at the level of brilliance reached by this master intellect and the complexities that can only boggle the mind.  Some degree of interest waned after Fischer refused to defend his title federation rules, and went into seclusion, later taking up residence in Reykjavik, Iceland, the site of his match with Spassky. (more…)

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MEMORIES-OF-A-PENITENT-HEART_Original_1_web

by Sam Juliano

At the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival former President Bill Clinton introduced the documentary Bridegroom, which was directed by his good friend Linda-Bloodworth Thomason.  Funded by kickstarter, the film garnered the coveted Audience Award for Documentary, and deeply moved many with its story of a shunned gay lover by the family of the partner who died in a tragic accident.  An assistant film professor in a Florida college, and the niece of a gay man who died of AIDS in 1987, Cecelia Aldarondo opens up a proverbial can of worms in her own examination of her uncle’s past, while both outing him and finding his demonized lover for a vital contribution for the work.  Like the Thomason documentary, Aldarondo has also relied on kickstarter for funding and has told her story with aching poignancy, divulging some guarded secrets and misconceptions that have long dogged the perceptions of family members.  Aldarondo and her kin, all born in Puerto Rico to a rigid Catholic upbringing, were told that Miguel died of cancer.  When his story is told it is clear the cause was AIDS related.  One comes away with not only an understanding of what tore apart a once solid family dynamic, but also how religious and culture bigotry are brought to bear on a lifestyle rejected by familial traditions and the conviction it violates the tenets of Catholicism.

Miguel’s sexual leanings were given free reign after he moved from his Caribbean home to New York City, where he found gleeful refuge in the theater.  He met “Robert” and embarked upon a gay relationship kept under the wraps of long distance cover.  In the film’s major irony, Robert has served as a clergyman, but abandoned the pursuit during the years of his relationship with Michael, only to return years later as the only way to achieve peace of mind.  When Aldarondo finally tracked down Robert after some initial failures, the surviving partner was as candid as he was unrepentant for the relationship that was fueled by mutual passions.  In a telling phone conversation he informed Aldarondo that Michael’s mother -the director’s grandmother- never abandoned her belief he was responsible for her son’s altered sexual orientation.  No attempt by Aldarondo to interpret the long impasse between her grandmother and her uncle’s lover as a “misunderstanding” changed Robert’s perception that he was seen as a morally injurious influence on an unwitting accomplice, and in the initiating phone conversation he candidly confirms the long running hostility. (more…)

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kicks_press_1

by Sam Juliano

The central conceit in newcomer Justin Tripping’s visceral Kicks hearkens back to one of world cinema’s most venerated classics.  Vittorio DeSica’s 1948 neo-realist Bicycle Thieves spent nearly its entire running time on the wrenching pursuit of a stolen bicycle that represents economic survival at a time of war ravaged economic impoverishment.  The final twist in the Italian film was meant to imply that desperation reeks violation of the very tenets of fair play that launched what initially seemed like a hopeless search.  In Kicks the theft of a handsome pair of Nike Air Jordan sneakers doesn’t remotely change the survival dynamic, but it is a generational concern that can’t be solved by moving on – these S.E. Hinton types are born and bread on violence and confrontation, and an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth is the prevailing mindset.  Tripping’s film, which recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s Hinton adaptation of Rumble Fish is saturated in style, symbols and a lyrical bent, often leaving the narrative without direction or logical development.  This borrowing from Peter to pay Paul might sink most other films in wallowing self-absorption, yet Kicks works by embracing a Terrence Malick school of film making, understanding that film is a visual medium that doesn’t always have to stay abreast of script and narrative logistics.  To be sure Tripping’s work is often undisciplined and experimental, but it is simultaneously gripping and suggestive.  And like all memorable coming of age films it boasts a magnetic lead character, which in this film yields an electrifying performance. (more…)

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