Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best films of 2015 and 1985

Composing a top ten films of the year list has been a tradition for me since 1985. So to commemorate the 30th anniversary of me making such lists, below are my top ten films of both this past year, and 1985, taken from a chicken-scratch entry in a musty old notebook/journal I still possess to this day.

Of course, as always, the new 2015 list is subject to change since many of the prestige Oscar bait pictures have not been released outside of NY or LA yet. This has always and still does piss me off. It is an exercise in elitism; a practice of institutionalized snobbery that assumes anyone living outside of NY or LA must be an ignorant, toothless, drooling, half-wit, derelict, moron who could not possibly comprehend artistic cinema or have the slightest interest in any films aimed at an audience above the age of five with an I.Q. above 70.

At any rate, my top ten films from 1985 and 2015 with the director in parenthesis.

Top ten films of 1985

The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg)

The Journey of Natty Gann (Jeremy Paul Kagan)

To Live and Die in LA (William Friedkin)

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis)

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton)

Witness (Peter Wier)

The Legend of Billy Jean (Matthew Robbins)

Explorers (Joe Dante)

Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood)

Young Sherlock Holmes (Barry Levinson)

Top ten films of 2015 

The Age of Adaline (Lee Toland Krieger)

It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Creed (Ryan Coogler)

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)

Chappie (Neill Blomkamp)

The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Spoiler free “Star Wars” and other cool stuff

The final quarter of 2015 has been one of intense method writing as I hit the home stretch on several writing projects. I am savagely psyched about this stuff, and dying to unleash this riveting new material to the world. More on that after the 1st of the New Year.  

When I am focused—I am focused.

I don’t do the multi-task thing. Multi-tasking is for bartenders, or air-traffic controllers, or middle manager white collar executives. It is not for creative people, and certainly not for storytellers.

When I am in the midst of writing a story, I am living in that story, and that world becomes very real for me. It is an exhilarating experience to be in that creative sweet spot—when you know you are just nailing it.

Now the downside of being so intense is that when this process is underway, it can be ultra-consuming. So I don’t have any creative energy (or time) left over for reviews, columns, and other such ramblings you see posted here in this blog.

So, let me update you on a few things I have been reading, watching, listening too, etc, starting with…

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

I won’t play games with wordy intro paragraphs.

“The Force Awakens” is thrilling, beautifully acted, gorgeously shot and scored, funny, riveting, intense, and just plain fun.

This is the “Star Wars” movie you’ve been looking for.

Co-writer/Director J.J. Abrams and Producer Kathleen Kennedy use the same aesthetic approach here as they did with the underrated “Super 8” in 2011. Create a satisfying reverential experience for long-time loyal fans, while bringing a fresh, new creative voice to the table. While “Super 8” was a beautiful homage to vintage Spielberg, that was Abram’s own personal childhood in the film, and it really resonated. For “The Force Awakens” Abrams shows us new angles, both camera and character wise, allowing us to experience the George Lucas created universe in an exciting, new way.

Daisy Ridley is fantastic. I really love her Rey, and all of the new characters. But for me, Han and Chewie stole the show. Harrison Ford gives his second knockout supporting performance of the year. Which leads me to…

“The Age of Adeline”

Now that it is available on Blu Ray, I had a chance to catch my third viewing of this criminally neglected gem, (I saw it twice in the theater). The new viewing has only strengthened my opinion of this beautiful, heartfelt, emotionally affecting masterpiece.

“The Age of Adeline” is the best film of 2015 and Blake Lively is the Best Actress.

Harlan Ellison

One of my projects I have underway is a collection of short stories. I used to write short stories all the time, starting at the age of 12, up through college. But then I shifted into screenplays and novels, and as the short story itch returned, I found out it is a very different discipline than either of those. And in a lot of ways, much harder.

I needed to shake off the rust and revisit the format, so I began reading someone who is arguably the greatest American short story writer of the past 60 years, Harlan Ellison.

Man this guy can write. I mean he can write!

And not just short stories. I have been binging on his original (presented as he typed them on his typewriter before turning them in) television scripts. They have been published in book form spread out over six volumes. (so far), and they are wickedly addictive.

Carly Rae Jepsen

Hey, I like pop music. Yeah, that’s right. You heard me tough guy. And you wanna know why? Because it feels so damn good!

There was a ton of great pop music in 2015. For me, Carly Rae Jepsen’s slinky, seductive, catchy “Emotion” gets the top spot, barely edging out Ellie Goulding’s addictive “Delirium” and Lana Del Rey’s somber “Honeymoon”.


Of course, I have been listening to “The Force Awakens”.

It is absolutely astounding how at 83 years of age, John Williams is not only as great as ever, he is arguably composing some of the best music of his storied and legendary career.

My sweetly (and smartly) packaged CD just arrived yesterday so I am still absorbing this musical treasure trove. A full review will follow sometime in the near future but for now me just say two words—action music.

“The Force Awakens” contains some of the most aggressive, complex, propulsive action music I have ever heard from John Williams, or any other composer for that matter. There is also a wonderful new theme for the Rey character.

Best TV of the year

I make no secret in these pages of my intense crush for “Supergirl”.

I have been loving the living hell out of the new CBS series. Kudos to Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg for getting this right and hitting the sweet spot between action, dramatic intensity, and humor. The effervescent and charming Melissa Benoist is fantastic as Kara Zor-El and her red-caped alter ego.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

‘Supergirl’ soars into midseason form

Fans of the Man of Steel’s spirited Kryptonian cousin have had to wait thirty-one years to see Supergirl flying back into action. After five new impressive episodes, it is time to issue an updated report on the series. And that report is filled with nothing but rave reviews from this long-time Kara Zor-El fan.

Executive Producer Greg Berlanti, (currently, the superhero TV king mogul, if such a thing exists), and his talented team, have managed to strike the perfect sweet spot between humor, action, science fiction, and millennial soap opera angst with a light touch. If you are going to have a show with a love triangle, (“Supergirl” actually has two overlapping ones), this is how you handle it.

Every episode had been pitch perfect in tone, nicely paced, and impeccably acted by the talented cast. Never was this more on display than in the best episode so far, “Livewire”, a Thanksgiving show that aired on November 16th with a major storyline featuring Kara’s human stepmother Eliza Danvers, played by the 1984 “Supergirl” Helen Slater. The scenes featuring the two Supergirls is the legendary stuff of fevered fan imaginations. It was absolutely priceless and proof once again that Greg Berlanti gets it. This guy knows what the fuck he is doing.

Not enough Helen Slater was one of my minor beefs with the pilot. That has obviously been corrected, and hopefully there will more Eliza Danvers to come. 

My other fear about the pilot was the Otis/Jar Jar binks potential of the over-the-top Cat Grant. Well, I was wrong on that one too. Thank God! It turns out that Cat Grant is actually an interesting character and being played quite skillfully by Calista Flockhart.

On top of all this we have a formidable, emerging new super villain with a modern twist, (Maxwell Lord), and an intriguing conspiracy arc. What is Henshaw up too? And what did happen to Kara and Alex’s father?

This is stating the obvious, but is worth repeating again...

Of course, the greatest strength of the show, and what makes it all work, is Supergirl herself, Melissa Benoist. She is utterly charming, projecting an effortless earnestness—funny and touching as Kara Danvers—charismatic, strong, and fierce as Supergirl. Her approach reminds me so much of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” films. And I love it!

Bottom line: **** (out of four)

This show is absolutely irresistible. I have a crush on “Supergirl”. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Timeline for the 'Caitlin Star' trilogy

Here are the some of the key events taking place in the “Caitlin Star” universe.

7880 B.C. — Some of the events in “Caitlin Star and the Rise of the Barbarians”

1983 – A mysterious muscle-bound vigilante makes his first appearance defending a homeless man against a gang of bullies.  It is the first documented appearance of the man known as “Gunner Star”.

1985 – Gunner Star takes on his first protégé, a stock trader genius named Zahn. Gunner teaches him the “Bull Mongoni philosophy”, a credo of beliefs based on the teachings of a mythic race of hominids who vanished long ago.

1985 – 1990 – Gunner and Zahn become the Batman and Robin of Pittsburgh. They operate out of the shadows, dispensing social justice and defending those who have no voice or power to fight back. They are fearless, never hesitating to take on sadistic agents of evil, no matter how powerful and influential they are. Thus, they become heroes to those in need, but enemies many of those in power.

1990 – Zahn becomes increasingly aggressive and fanatical, wanting to go beyond the mission parameters of enacting vigilante justice. “All humans are evil. This mistake of history must be reversed. Only then can the Bull Mongoni rise again.” Gunner believes there are still worthy humans who will have a place in the new world. While Gunner wants to change the world, Zahn wants to blow it up and start over.

1991 - The disagreement between Gunner and Zahn leads to a falling out and a physical showdown. Zahn vanishes from Gunner Star’s Lair of Doom.

1992 – Gunner Star goes dark.

1999 – Gunner Star re-emerges as he takes on a new protégé named Joe Fenton.

2003 – Gunner Star rescues a thirteen year-old girl from a group of would-be rapists and begins to train her in the ways of the Bull Mongoni. That girl is Caitlin Star.

2004 – Joe Fenton publishes the book, “The Sacred Scrolls of Tarmok”. It is the first time knowledge of the Bull Mongoni has been made public. The book becomes an instant sensation and soon there is a world-wide movement of Bull Mongoni disciples.

2005 - Gunner Star begins recruiting and training an elite band of warriors to build an underground army for the dark days of revolution that lay ahead.

2012 – A new recruit arrives at Gunner’s Lair and is to be trained by Caitlin. His name is Tyrone Fulton.

2016 – The escalating culture wars result in the rigged election of a President Perkins and his new Moral Authority. Soon, any talk of an earth older than 6000 years is a felony and the bodies of all women of reproductive age are declared property of the state.

2018 – Perkins dissolves the Supreme Court and declares all of North America under the Moral Authority rule. Led by Caitlin Star, the Bull Mongoni, revolution begins!

2020Senator Ben Cross of Texas revives the Moral Authority, under the guise of a para-military gang known as the White Hand in Central Africa, and is intent on destroying the only remaining patch of pristine rain forest on Earth. Caitlin springs into action.

2020 -2021 —  A World War III apocalypse event takes place.

2025 — The events of “Caitlin Star and the Rise of theBarbarians”

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

‘Supergirl’ gets 'The Flash' treatment

After months of a beautifully crafted and executed promotional campaign, “Supergirl” made its long-awaited, furiously anticipated debut to record ratings on CBS Monday night, giving fans the first stand-alone incarnation of the character in any medium outside comics since the underrated 1984 film starring a young ,(18 years of age while filming), Helen Slater.

Eschewing the current New 52 storyline as well as all previous origin stories in comics as well at the 1984 film, the producers opted for a mini-Smallville style beginning (mostly off screen) where Kara arrives on Earth at age 14, is met by Kal-El, set up with foster parents (played by Dean Cain and the great Helen Slater), and raised as a normal girl with a big sister who chooses (or maybe is convinced by an insecure older sister?) to forget about her powers and just lead a mundane life of dating dorks and fetching coffee for her obnoxious boss, media mogul Cat Grant played way over the top by Calista Flockhart.

Such is the setup as the adventure begins for a now 24 year-old Kara Zor-El.

But then, fate intervenes. Kara’s big sister’s commercial flight is the victim of foul play, is in a plummeting free fall, and Kara decides to use her powers to save her sister and the plane, thus going public with her powers.

Far from showing gratitude, her sister Alex, (played by Chyler Leigh), warns her this was a mistake and that she is now in grave danger. Alex should know. She works for a super, secret CIA type agency that have been tracking a freighter full of alien hardcore convicts from Krypton and other places. In a plot line straight out of “Superman II”, many of these convicts were sent to their fate by Kara’s Kryptonian mother Alura, and would love nothing more than seek retribution by destroying the daughter of their jailer.

All of this is just as fun as it sounds, and like “The Flash” that it seems modeled after, surprisingly poignant and quite emotional at times.

In my last blog post I raved about Colleen Atwood’s suit design and after seeing it in action, I  am even more impressed.

As expected, Melissa Benoist as absolutely fantastic as Kara Zor-El / Kara Danvers / Supergirl. She brings a natural, effervescent charm to the role, but also shows she can kick ass when required.  Her performance as the nerdy, character within a character coffee fetching Kara Danvers is a spot on hilarious and another wonderful nod to the Christopher Reeve “Superman” films.

Also, I positively, absolutely dig the Jimmy Olsen character reboot (now “James”, unless you are Superman that is), into a hunky, cool bad ass played with electrifying charisma by Mehcad Brooks. Hank Henshaw, described as “a former CIA agent and current head of the Department of Extra-Normal Operations” is played by David Harewood, who actually did play the CIA director on “Homeland”, and carries the same intense gravitas here that he did on that acclaimed show.

The CGI flying effects are beautifully rendered, although I would like to see some slow non-action flying sequences such as when Helen Slater skimmed the lake or Christopher Reeve took Margot Kidder on a romantic flight among the clouds.

The standard composer of choice for Greg Berlanti, Blake Neely provides the music. While he is no Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams, (or Michael Giacchino), the music works fine within the show, especially the quieter emotional material.

I have only two minor quibbles. The Cat Grant character just does not work for me. It is the one part of the trailer that looked bad and it is just as bad here. Let us hope she is toned down and developed a bit and does not become the Otis or Jar Jar Binks of this show. And a few seconds of screen time for Helen Slater??? Really? At least Berlanti gave John Wesley Shipp a meaty role in “The Flash”.

Bottom line: ***1/2 (out of four)

“Supergirl” is an absolute joy featuring an irresistible Melissa Benoist as the girl in the red cape, a strong supporting cast, and a colorful, entertaining storyline with great potential. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

‘Supergirl’ the series preview

Okay, here we go.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog is well aware of my affection for “Supergirl”.

I have read all the various incarnations of the comic book since the late 90s, including the current teen-age angst-ridden version in the New 52. I a huge fan of the underrated and misunderstood 1984 film starring Helen Slater, and its rousing, majestic soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.

And as you can tell from the novels I write, I tend to favor strong female leads in action/adventure roles. So the new “Supergirl” series is right in the middle of my entertainment sweet spot.

When the original extended six-minute plus trailer debuted on the internet a few months ago, it set off a storm of controversy in geek fandom everywhere. The presence of a prominently featured Calista Flockhart, (in a role similar to what Merry Streep played in “The Devil Meets Prada”), prompted a fanboy freakout. “It’s too girly”, they cried.

I stayed silent and thought it best to reserve judgement. Like I said, I have actually read the books and seen the 1984 film many times and read the terrific novelization and I understand the character. And guess what? “Supergirl” is not Black Widow, or Black Canary, or Huntress, or Catwoman, or even Batgirl. She is not dark. She really is a “girly girl”.

But still. I admit I did find the whole “Ally McBeal” meets “The Devil Wears Prada” vibe of the trailer a bit troublesome. Workplace humor and girl drama are all well and fine, but I want to see action and adventure—not a romantic comedy. And this is the story of an alien. So I want to see science fiction ideas about other aliens and alternate universes and time travel and all the other super cool stuff that is often in the comics.

Two things I will say already. I love Melissa Benoist. Helen Slater will always be the gold standard for me. Melissa’s take on the character is obviously going to be lot lighter, but I love what I have seen of her so far.

Colleen Atwoood is in my opinion the greatest Hollywood costume designer of all time and I absolutely love her “Supergirl” suit design.

I will have my full review of the “Supergirl” premiere episode posted right here in this blog later this week.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The ‘Outer Limits’, “Valerie 23” episode review

In another review series here I have been taking a look at “Amazing Stories” as a homage to its 30th anniversary. There is another anthology series also celebrating a landmark anniversary. “The Outer Limits” second incarnation premiered 20 years ago on March 26, 1995.

But unlike “Amazing Stories”—which was met with hostile reaction, dismissed, and has been so neglected and forgotten it cannot even get a commercial DVD release of its second season—the 1995 version of the “Outer Limits” was a smashing success for the Showtime Network, syndication, and the SciFi (as it was then called) Channel.

The original “Outer Limits” (1963-1965) was a bold, irreverent, atmospheric science fiction drama featuring eerie, expressionistic cinematography by Conrad Hall and unforgettable music by Dominic Frontiere (and Harry Lubin in season two). The 90s “Outer Limits” is not in the class of its predecessor, (nothing is), nor does it have the film school-like innovative cinematic approach of “Amazing Stories”. But “The Outer Limits” version two does offer consistently interesting—and occasionally brilliant—stories. It can also boast one the strongest rosters of superb (and often A-list) acting talent of any anthology show ever.

After a much acclaimed 93 minute debut episode (a two-parter when shown in syndication with commercials), “The Sandkings”, based on the George R.R. Martin novella and featuring a wickedly intense Beau Bridges performance, the “Outer Limits” took its first of many explorations into the world of artificial intelligence with episode two, “Valerie 23”.

In a plotline that echoes so many recent movies and television shows (especially the brilliant 2015 film “Ex-Machina” and AMC’s “Humans”), “Valerie 23” is the story of a super advanced prototype human-looking android created to be the perfect companion to some poor lonely soul. In this case that lonely person is paraplegic robotics designer Frank Hellner, part of the team who worked on a need to know basis on the top secret Valerie project.

Frank is played by the brilliant character actor William Sadler who nails every moment here.

At first, Frank resists being test subject zero for Valerie, in the same way one would wave off some well-meaning but meddlesome relative or friend who was trying to fix you up on a date. Besides, he already has his sights and his heart set on his physical therapist Rachel, played by the always wonderful Nancy Allen. But when Rachel rejects Frank’s advances because she is reconciling with her abusive boyfriend, Frank tells his boss to bring on Valerie.

What is ensues is a fascinating debate about “what does it mean to be alive”, and a tension filled romantic relationship that quickly escalates into an awkward love triangle. Now keep in mind this episode was first aired in 1995—long before Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, the “Battlestar Galactica” remake, or the aforementioned “Ex-Machina” and “Humans”.

Sure, there were plenty of androids around in pre-1995 science fiction, including Data from ST-TNG. Rem from “Logan’s Run”, etc. But “Valerie 23” did break new ground in its very direct exploration of romantic and sexual aspects of a relationship between biological and artificial humanoids.

Strong writing, a progressive story, and superb work from William Sadler and Nancy Allen are all well and fine. But this episode is called “Valerie 23”, so it all hinges on the performance of Sofia Shinas as the title character. In a word, she is sensational. In a performance that foreshadows Alicia Vikander’s acclaimed turn in “Ex-Machina”, Sofia Shinas is the ideal fantasy female you cannot help but fall in love with—and yes—lust after.

The actress and pop singer had just been seen in the 1994 cult hit movie “The Crow” the year before as Brandon Lee’s slain on-screen fiancé Shelly Webster. To say that Sofia Shinas exudes overwhelming beauty and is the embodiment of physical perfection would be an understatement. One of the refreshing characteristics of the 90s “The Outer Limits” is its sexual and erotic aspect—rare for a genre show like this—and “Valerie 23” does not shy away from the sexual nature of the main character.

But the most intense emotional moment in this episode is a straight dramatic one—when Frank cruelly rejects Valerie, saying he could no more have a relationship with her than he could his dishwashing machine. The acting by Sofia in this moment is absolutely exquisite. It is a heart-breaking scene and we feel her pain and know that she is indeed “alive”.

Bottom line: **** (out of four)

One of the best episodes of the 90s “The Outer Limits”, “Valerie 23” is a thoughtful, involving exploration of artificial intelligence featuring a knockout performance by the sensational Sofia Shinas as the title character. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Future noir: ‘Minority Report’, the series review

Steven Spielberg’s 2002 cinematic adaption of the Phillip K. Dick story “Minority Report” is arguably one of the great science fiction films of the past twenty years—and also one of the most prophetic. But transitioning such a complex and effects heavy concept to television would seem to be a Herculean task. But the producers at FOX and Amblin Entertainment, (including Spielberg himself) have found a way to mold the science fiction noir into a sleek, entertaining show.

The producers wisely chose to make this series a true sequel to the 2002 film. So rather than having the thankless task of replacing a megastar like Tom Cruise, the series begins ten years later and focuses on the precogs themselves—the three gifted psychic mutants who were held against their will and exploited by the Metro PD and the government to “solve” murders before they happened.

The series opens up ten years after the events in the movie and someone in the Federal government finally figured out maybe it was not such a great idea to arrest and convict people,(and sentence them to lifelong mental torture prisons), for crimes they did not actually commit. So with the pre-crime program closed, the precogs consisting of two twin brothers, and an older (and far more powerful) sister, were free to live normal lives outside of prying eyes of this futuristic quasi-police state.

Although they stay in touch, the three precog siblings have all chosen very different post Pre-crime lifestyles. The handsome Arthur (played by studly Nick Zano) whose gifts allow him to see names and numbers, is cashing in on his talents as a high stakes financier (a.k.a con man). The enigmatic and ethereal true leader of the three siblings, Agatha (played by the beautiful Laura Regan) still lives on the undisclosed pastoral island where they were originally set up at the end of the film.

The series focuses on the third precog, Dash, (played by Stark Sands) a tortured soul who suffers from unannounced convulsions where he is forced to live through the disturbing imagery of a murder that has yet to happen—but will—unless he finds a way to prevent it.

Dash decides he cannot stand by and just let these murders happen and joins forces with a renegade police detective who is equally frustrated by her inability to stop murder before they happen. In order to extract the imagery from Dash’s brain—in a painful procedure—they seek the help of the precog technician from the Precrime days—Daniel London as Wally the Caretaker—a great supporting character played by the same actor from the film.

Dash’s partner Detective Lara Vega is played with a no nonsense, the end justifies the means, bad ass vibe by Meagan Good. I love the fact that producers have done a twist on the old film noir formula. Here, a female plays the hard-boiled cynical lead character, and the gorgeous, charismatic Meagan Good is more than up to the task. 

Much has been made by mainstream critics about her body hugging, cleavage-revealing uniform. But I love it—and not just because of THAT reason. Because it fits the character. Why should she be dressed in a potato sack? She has a voluptuous body and to hide it would be weak for the character—not to mention the writers and costume designer. Lara is anything but meek! Think of Starbuck from BSG (the 2000s SyFy remake).

To add to the tension, Lara has to keep Dash’s true identity and the nature of their partnership a secret from her prying ex-boyfriend control freak boss. Not only is what they are doing illegal—there are dark forces at work both in and out of the government who would capture and exploit Dash and his siblings if given the chance. In episode three, “Hawk-Eye”, Agatha has that very vision, a disturbing future where she and her siblings are once again held captive by the government in a milk pool and exploited for political gain.

Technically, “Minority Report” gets top marks across the board. The producers have opted for a more color saturated look than the stark, expressionistic tones of the movie—and it works great.  As mentioned above, the costumes are awesome. The sets are detailed and convincing, and the parade of super cool visual effects is beyond impressive—all of it very creatively done. 

“Minority Report” also has an outstanding musical score courtesy of Sean Callery of “24" and “Homeland” fame. John William’s fans such as myself really appreciates his homage to “Spiders” in the pilot.

Bottom line: ***1/2 (out of four)

Visually stunning, with a great concept, a strong lead, and solid supporting cast—“Minority Report” has the potential to become a great science fiction series. Let us hope FOX starts promoting it more and gives it a chance to succeed and develop.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

‘Amazing Stories’, episode 3 “Alamo Jobe” review

“Alamo Jobe”
Original airdate October 20, 1985
Teleplay by Joshua Brand and John Falsey
Story by Steven Spielberg

Directed by Michael D. Moore

A teen-age soldier fighting in the Battle of the Alamo ends up in modern day (1985) San Antonio. The confused time traveler stays focused on fulfilling the final order of his dying commanding officer—to deliver a message to his General on Shuttlecock Road.

This type of scenario turned up frequently on the original “Twilight Zone”, and it is an interesting premise for a story. While the most of the “Twilight Zone” episodes of this type focused on the surreal nature of such a bizarre time placement, “Alamo Jobe” is an action oriented story featuring a fairly exciting and well-staged horseback chase and ride through downtown San Antonio.

The location shooting is terrific and there is a hilarious (and obligatory) break dance scene that was inserted into just about every movie or TV show made in 1985. “Alamo Jobe” also has a terrific, rousing score by the late, great James Horner.

Bottom line **1/2 out of four

“Alamo Jobe” is an interesting premise that is well-executed. But still, given the hype and the title of this series, I wanted more.

Next up: “Amazing Stories” finally delivers with the clever “Mummy Daddy” and one of the show’s great masterpieces, the Spielberg directed “The Mission”. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Run Caitlin Run!

The following is an excerpt from the novel "Caitlin Star and the Rise of the Barbarians" Caitlin Star book 3 by James J. Caterino.

Copyright 2014, 2015  James J. Caterino All Rights Reserved

Caitlin felt sick inside hearing the screams and the cries from below as the creatures of the jungle fled in terror from the raging firebombs.

Homes were being destroyed. Life was being extinguished. Entire cultures and maybe even wholesale species could be lost forever; all because a former U.S. Senator fancied himself the conduit of an invisible man in the sky. Cross was not hard to figure out. He wanted subjects to impose his will on. Subjects to worship his perverted version of God, and by default Cross himself, since only he could speak for God. His philosophy was clear and defined; get greedy, take from anyone and everyone and especially from the earth itself, and leave an endless trail of dead bodies, burned lives, charred souls, and toxic waste by the truckload.
The former cruise ship turned death ship continued to launch a barrage of fireballs into the jungle as it chugged up the Congo. It had to be stopped now. If that ship crossed through the next channel and continued bombing, they would be on the other side of the rift. With no more natural barriers to contain the raging flames—the entire Triangle could burn into a wasteland and the fires would burn for months from coast to coast. Paradise would be lost. With the rain forest gone and one of the few remaining habitable zones turned into a wasteland. With nothing left to oxygenate the already depleted atmosphere, life itself in post-apocalyptic earth could be over. The planet would become nothing but a barren, inhospitable rock. Earth would become another Mars.
Caitlin could not let that happen. This death ship had to be stopped and stopped right now. They had a plan—a long shot that Caitlin had to turn into a sure shot. It was a plan Lori and Lithgow had dubbed, “Operation Deathstar.”
She tapped the radio earpiece and microphone Lori had made for her.
“I am at the target spot. On the plateau trail, across from the river island, just above the cliff overlooking the rocks where the underground river from the Lost City merges into the Congo,” Caitlin said. “Are you reading me?”
“Roger that,” Lori said.
“Okay sister,” Caitlin said. “You’re on. This is your moment. Your turn to be the hero. Just tell me what to do?”
“What is the exact location of the ship?” Lori asked.
Caitlin looked into her binoculars and focused in on the ship of doom.
“Coming around the island split via the eastern channel side. The one further away from me,” Caitlin said.
“Give me one minute,” Lori said. “The Guardian coming back to life has created an energy bubble. The surge in transmission power if off the charts. I may be able to use this to tap into an old satellite network, bounce a tracking signal off of you and the ship and give you the precise time to go for it.”
There was a beat of silence as Caitlin heard her furiously tapping a keyboard. Before she locked into the mission Caitlin had to ask her the nagging anxiety bothering her.
“Any sign of Gunner yet?” Caitlin asked.
“Not so far,” Lori said. “But no worries. Lithgow says we still have some time. The gateway is stable and has yet to show any power slippage. And you know Gunner. He’ll get here in time. He finds a way. He always does.”
“I know,” Caitlin said, more out of an auto response than actually believing it.

Caitlin knew—as Gunner himself had taught her—she had to focus only on what she could control. Her mentor’s fate and the idiosyncrasies of temporal quantum mechanics were out of her hands. But what was in her hands was the fate of this death ship driving up the Congo and spewing out destruction. And what would soon be in her hands—was Cross’s scrawny neck when she snapped it. She really hoped that he was not on board. Going down with that wicked ship was far too easy of a death for such an agent of evil.

“Okay, I have a fix on you and the ship,” Lori said. “Inputting schematics and making calculations….now.”

Another beat of silence passed.

“Come on sister,” Caitlin said. “Don’t leave me hanging. Talk to me.”
“Shit,” Lori said. “This will still be doable. But you are going to have to really sprint fast to get enough momentum for the jump. I mean like really, really fast.”
“Hey, it’s me,” Caitlin quipped. “How fast?”
“Like superhero fast,” Lori said. “Faster than you ever did in the one-hundred meter at Steel Valley or Pitt. Faster than…well…any human has even ran before. Husain Bolt was once clocked at twenty-eight MPH. I need you to do thirty.”
 “I got it,” Caitlin said. “Just be my eyes in the sky. You call the plays. I execute them. Just like the old days.
“Oracle and the Black Canary,” Lori said.
“There you go,” Caitlin said. “How long till the starting gun?”

“In about four minutes and twenty-two seconds,” Lori said.

“Let me know when we hit thirty seconds,” Caitlin said.

“Roger that,” Lori said.

Caitlin took the next four minutes to empty her mind, stretch out muscles, focus every fiber of her being, and engage in the transformative visualization technique she had been mastering since she turned thirteen years-old and was rescued by a vigilante anti-hero named Gunner Star.

“Thirty second countdown begins right…now,” Lori announced in her earpiece.

It was now time for operation Deathstar.

Caitlin secured her very best javelin-style throwing spear, doused the tip in the concentrated explosive goo Lori and Lithgow had conjured up for her. Then she crouched down into a sprinter’s stance, and waited for Lori’s start command.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

‘Amazing Stories’, episode 2 “The Main Attraction” review

“The Main Attraction”
Original airdate October 6, 1985
Teleplay by Brad Bird and Mick Garris
Story by Steven Spielberg

Directed by Matthew Robbins

Set in a John Hughes type mid 80s white suburbia high school, “The Main Attraction” is the story of an over-the-top, obnoxious, narcissistic, popular, all-state everything jock who literally becomes a walking human magnet when a meteorite strikes his house.

The producers of “Amazing Stories” decided to put in a comedy episode as its second show. Given the hype, impossible expectations, and the intense backlash the show was already receiving, I’m not so sure this was good idea.

It is not that I am opposed to flat out comedic episodes in SF/Fantasy/Horror anthologies. The original “Twilight Zone” did it often and very well, and two of the all-time best “Amazing Stories” episodes, (“Mummy, Daddy” and “The Family Dog”), are comedies.  But the show really needed a strong, dramatic story in this key number two slot—something intense. That would eventually come three weeks later with the Spielberg directed “The Mission”. But by then, the show was a lost cause in the ratings, its reputation (a false one) as a bomb already cast in stone.

Okay, “The Main Attraction” was the wrong story at the wrong time, but is it any good? Or more to the point—and the most important question to ask of any comedy—is it funny?

Well, yes…a little bit…here and there. The caricatures are so over the top—which can be fine if it is done with some specificity and wit. The problem here it is played so super broad.  It all comes across as lightweight. This kind of comedy needs a bit of an edge that is lacking here. This episode needed more story—it needed more bite.

Still, a lot of things do work in this episode. The lead actor, John Scott Clough, who plays Brad Bender (a great name!) looks like a cross between Ted Danson and a young Jim Carrey, and he appears to be very talented slapstick comedy performer. Likewise, Lisa Jane Persky is good as the nerdy girl who has a crush on him.

Director Matthew Robbins , (“Dragonslayer”, “Batteries Not Included”), is no stranger to special effects, and the physical effects of the magnets flying around are quite elaborate and inventive—very well staged. And this is “Amazing Stories”, so of course the musical score is fantastic—this time courtesy of “The Last Starfighter” composer Craig Safan.

Bottom line: ** out of four

Mildly amusing with some cool physical effects, “The Main Attraction” is a lightweight entry in “Amazing Stories”.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

‘Amazing Stories’, episode 1 “Ghost Train” review

“Ghost Train”
Original airdate September 29, 1985
Teleplay by Frank Dees
Story by Steven Spielberg

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Shrouded in the trademark Spielberg secrecy of the time, “Ghost Train” was the lead off hitter in the “Amazing Stories” lineup. The hype throughout the summer of ’85 had been omnipresent and the soaring expectations for the series were beyond ridiculous.

To add to the already tense atmosphere, Spielberg did not provide any advanced tapes or review screenings for critics. For Spielberg, this was a way to avoid spoilers and was similar to the way he handled his movies. But for television this was unheard of at the time. TV critics took this as a slap in the face.

They were already pissed about Spielberg’s two year guaranteed contract with NBC. They were pissed off about the secrecy surrounding the show. They were pissed off “E.T.” made so much money. And now they were really pissed this guy had the gall to shake up the system. “Who does he think he is?” was the prevailing attitude.

Finally, “Ghost Train” premiered and the next day critics went berserk. The show was savaged with some of the most over the top vitriolic reviews imaginable. Viewers and genre fans were not much kinder. The next month’s Starlog Magazine letters section was packed with reader’s expressing their disappointment in the series and “Ghost Train” in particular. Even my favorite genre analyst of all time, the astute John Kenneth Muir wrote in Terror Television that “Amazing Stories” was one of the greatest disasters in the history of television (I’m paraphrasing).

“Ghost Train” is the story about an old-timer named Opa Globe (played by Roberts Blossom) who is waiting for a train called the Highball Express to return and take him to his destiny—a train that he thinks he caused to crash seventy-five years earlier.

The episode focuses on the special bond Opa has with his grandson Brian (played by Lukas Haas, one of the best child actors at the time and fresh off of co-starring with Harrison Ford in “Witness”).  Unlike Brian’s parents, he gets his grandfather. He listens intently when Opa tells the story about the Highball Express and what is about to happen—and he believes.

In a Spielberg story only children or—people with a childlike sense of wonder such as Opa—have a true sense of the transcendent—the world beyond—the fantastic. Regular adults (such as Brian’s parents) going about their mundane lives of stressful banality are far too distracted and cynical to see what is going on around them, until it (in this case literally) comes crashing down into their lives.

Spielberg is a true visual storyteller. He tells his story in a series of artfully composed images that seamlessly take us from point A to point B. There is usually not a whole lot of intricate or complex plot or a great deal of verb-age. Back in 1985, this was highly unusual for television which at that time was a very static medium visually. TV in 1985 was dialogue heavy, plot driven and full of talking heads—very un-cinematic. And here comes this visually oriented director telling a this little thirty minute story with a series of sweeping pans, push-ins, and tracking shots, cut to the soaring themes of John Williams.

It was something audiences had never seen in a television series and were not very receptive to it.

Much of the problem here is the length as well as the format. In a two hour film in a darkened theater the director has time and space to tell his story through the visuals and allow the audience to immerse themselves into the movie as Spielberg skillfully leads them on a physical and emotional journey. “Ghost Train” does not and cannot work the same way as a Spielberg film because he simply does not have enough time to work his magic and bring us come to the emotional catharsis we so desperately require.

The director’s segment in “The Twilight Zone Movie” suffered in a similar way and “Ghost Train” has the added burden of playing on a (at the time) tiny screen amid a household full of distractions, not to mention having to break for toilet paper commercials every ten minutes.

And make no mistake, “Ghost Train” plays more like big budget experimental short film than it does a television drama.

Technically, it is beyond reproach. As noted above, the John Williams music is superb, very much in line with the emotionally potent material he was creating at the time. And if you do seek this show out, see it on DVD or at least streaming at Netflix (and not the illegal grainy pixelated copies uploaded at YouTube) because “Ghost Train” looks fantastic. It was shot by my favorite Spielberg cinematographer Allen Daviau, who also lensed “E.T.”, “The Color Purple”, and “Empire of the Sun”.

So the plot is somewhat bare-bones, the visuals and music and direction superb, but what is “Ghost Train” really about?

Much like “Poltergeist”, it is about the sins of the past. It is about the falsehood of “American Exceptional-ism”, this notion that United States has always been this virtuous beacon of justice and our past a romanticized utopia where everyone was happy and prosperous and spiritually fulfilled. The “Ghost Train” in this episode is not so much about Opa, who merely seems to be hitching a ride into the afterlife.

It is really about those other passengers on the Highball Express, who were heading out west to take over the lands of the Native Americans. Native Americans who were either herded into concentration camps, or outright slaughtered, by the United States Army. The people on that train are prisoners—destined to roam forever over the blood-soaked lands they sought to grow fat and rich off of after the United States government had taken care of the only thing that stood in their way—that pesky “Indian Problem”.

The above reading is not such a reach when you consider that Spielberg would go on to make a film about another genocide called “Schindler’s List”.

Bottom line: *** out of four.

Beautifully shot, staged, and scored, “Ghost Train” is interesting, but is just not Spielberg at full steam.