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.

Monday, September 28, 2015

‘Fear the Walking Dead’ taps into modern angst

Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead

Many reviewers and “Walking Dead” fans, (including me) feared that “Fear the Walking Dead” would be at best an inferior version of its parent series, or at worst, a cynical cash grab. Both of those expectations could not have been further off the mark. Instead, as the moody “Fear” heads into its sixth and final episode of the season, it stands as flat out the scariest piece of television drama since the early seasons of "The X-Files" (as well as Chris Carter’s other 90s horror series, “Millennium”).

The writers and producers have given us insight into something most “Walking Dead” fans have always wondered. How did everything go down? What was happening in those early days when Rick was in a coma? How exactly did the world end?

Well, as one character says in the pilot episode (and was again re-iterated last night by the great Ruben Blades in episode 5):

“When the world ends, it ends fast.”

The show runners behind “Fear of the Walking Dead” astutely took a very different approach than the parent show. “The Walking Dead”, despite it horror trappings, is essentially an action adventure show. The walkers are part of the landscape, and to be sure, despite their familiarity by now, hordes of flesh eating zombies can still be terrifying. But the true horror in “Walking Dead” comes from the evil humans in the form of governors, gangs, child rapists, wife beaters, and even flesh-eating (literally) cannibalistic humans.

But while “The Walking Dead” hit the ground running in one spectacular staged action sequence after another—“Fear the Walking Dead” has been unleashed in a simmering, slow burn of orange-hued cinematography amid the urban angst landscape of a drought plagued L.A. Setting the series deep in the heart of Los Angeles and telling the story via a “modern” family of very real (and very relate-able) people is another wise move. 

A tense sense of dread permeates everything in the early on in the pilot episode, and the atmosphere of suspense continues to build slowly throughout each show.

This is a drama that understands the art of patience and payoff. Ground your story. Create realism and draw the audience into the world of the characters. Then when the horror does it—it will be all that much more effective.

This is also a show that understands the art of the payoff—how to effectively build the suspense. We first only hear about the “infected” who have the “flu”. Then we get glimpses of them on social media video footage. Then, when have our first true encounters with the undead, it is absolutely terrifying.

There are three sequences in this series, (Nick’s drug dealer, Maddie and her student facing down the Principal in the eerie, desolate school, and the neighbor zombie in the house scene), that are riveting, talk-back-to-screen, clench your jaw, cover your eyes, super scary.

Of course, strong writing, brilliant on-location cinematography, and great atmosphere mean nothing without the right cast, and this cast is outstanding!

Kim Dickens as Maddie anchors this series with the same impressive gravitas and charisma that lead to her stealing “Gone Girl”. She is this show’s Rick, and just like Andrew Lincoln, this role will cement her reputation as a major star who can carry anything. The entire supporting cast is equally up to the challenge, but the true standout here that must be mentioned is Rubin Blades as Daniel Salazar—what a great character!

What is terrifying about “Fear” is how closely the on-screen horror mirrors our own brooding real-life reality. When there were a couple of isolated Ebola cases in the U.S. last year, fear-mongering madness ensued. An American nurse returning from East Africa, with no symptoms of the disease, was detained and locked into a cage by blow-hard loud mouth New Jersey Governor Chris Christi. The rhetoric on all sides was apocalyptic as paranoia ran rampant. Now imagine what would happen if anything even remotely close to any widespread epidemic were to strike—not to mention an actual zombie virus.

Chilling stuff. There is a scene in “Fear of the Walking Dead” where I actually felt the need to begin stockpiling weapons for the day when that epidemic hits. This is a show that will get under your skin.

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

Creepy, chilling, brilliantly photographed and scored, with strong performances from Kim Dickens and Ruben Blades—“Fear the Walking Dead” is scary stuff.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

'Amazing Stories', 30th anniversary

I have been searching for a new television series to blog about. It had be something retro—something without a lot of current coverage on the internet. It had to be something with a manageable running time–i.e. something short-lived so I can watch and review each episode without taking years. It also had to be something I liked enough to be motivated to do it.

But perhaps most important of all, I wanted to pick a series that is long overdue for a re-examination—one that perhaps did not get a fair shake the first time around from either critics or fans. Two recent examples of shows like this are the underrated “Revolution”, mishandled and abandoned by NBC because it was produced by another production company, and “Caprica”, rejected by fans for not being a clone of “Battlestar Galactica.”

Maybe I will take on those two shows some time in the future, but for now I wanted to go back a bit further in time, and given the recent “Fantasy Island” and “Outer Limits” binge I have been on, I was leaning toward an anthology.

The show I have chosen to blog about and do a weekly episode by episode review of is “Amazing Stories”.

For those of you too young to remember parachute pants or The Human League—or perhaps preoccupied with actually living life back in 1985—here is the backstory on “Amazing Stories”.

One of the most hyped pop culture television events of the 1980’s, "Amazing Stories" was created by Steven Spielberg and premiered on NBC in September 1985 with the 30 minute episode "Ghost Train", directed by the man himself. Critics were absolutely savage. I still recall Rona Barret on Entertainment Tonight raging angrily—railing against the director, accusing him of "showing off" his technical skills with a tracking shot (masterfully executed by the way) and other flashy cinematic flair.

What really seemed to piss off the media (and the television industry in general) was the fact that Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment was given a two year 44 episode guaranteed contract. Which is exactly what I would do if I was the most successful filmmaker of all time. History, and recent history—especially when it comes to genre shows—proves time and time again a broadcast network will fuck you over any chance they get. So it was the smart move creatively to protect the show. But this guaranteed contract also guaranteed a relentless drubbing from resentful, bitter critics throughout the series’ two year run, especially when the show was getting its ass kicked in the rating by that infallible television juggernaut, CBS’s “Murder She Wrote”.

At this point history, the beginnings of a serious Spielberg backlash were emerging. Remember, “E.T.” had taken the world by storm in 1982, played in first run theaters for over a year, and had just been re-released in the summer of 1985. “Back to the Future” was the number one box office smash of the year and “The Goonies” was already developing a serious cult following among children and young teens. Although neither “Back to the Future” or “The Goonies” was actually directed by Spielberg, his name was still above the title, and nobody outside of hardcore film buffs knew who Robert Zemickis or Richard Donner were.

Add to that the uproar over the previous year’s controversial “Gremlins” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, and the absolute outrage among film and literature snobs over the fact Spielberg was directing an adaption of “The Color Purple”, and you have the perfect storm brewing for a vicious Spielberg backlash that lasted until 1993 when the director once and for all (mostly) silenced his critics with the one-two punch of “Jurassic Park” and ‘Schindler’s List”.

So the stage was set in the fall of 1985 for something to bear the initial brunt of all of this venomous resentment that in some Hollywood circles had been building from a decade earlier when the then 27 year-old wunderkind created the modern blockbuster with “Jaws”. Unfortunately, that something became “Amazing Stories”.

As a result of all of this history, a false narrative about “Amazing Stories” developed—a narrative that continues until this day. So let us set the record straight.

Perhaps the greatest falsehood perpetuated about the series was that the writing was atrocious and all of the stories terrible, and the show was just excruciatingly awful.

To put it bluntly, this is simply bullshit.

While “Amazing Stories” falls short of the 1960s classic anthologies of the original “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits, it is far superior to the any of “The Twilight Zone” reboots or glut of late 80s early 90s syndicated anthologies (“Tales From The Dark Side”, “The Hitchhiker” etc.). Overall, I would put “Amazing Stories” on par with late 90s/early 2000s “The Outer Limits” reboot or Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”; uneven, but brilliant on occasion, and always interesting and entertaining.

“Amazing Stories” featured writers such as “Back to the Future” co-scribe Bob Gale (one of the best screenwriters of all time IMO), Mick Garris (whose episode “The Amazing Falsworth” won an Emmy for God’s sake!), Menno Meyjes (an Oscar nominated screenwriter), Michael McDowell, Anne Spielberg, and one of the three greatest television genre writers of all time, (along with Rod Serling and Harlan Ellison), Richard Matheson. Matheson also served as the show’s second season story editor.

The talent behind the camera in the director’s chair reads like an all-star team. Each episode was literally a piece of innovative short filmmaking. The series brought cinematic techniques to the small screen with young talents like Phil Joanua and Lesli Linka Glatter, as well as A-list directors such as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood, Kevin Reynolds, Tobe Hooper, Danny DeVito, Peter Hyams, Bob Balaban, Brad Bird, and many more.

Among the stellar cast of outstanding talent in front on the camera were Gregory Hines, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Costner, Kiefer Sutherland, Eve Arden, David Carradine, James Cromwell, Jon Cryer, Mark Hamill, Polly Holliday, Jeffrey Jones, Mabel King, John Lithgow, Hayley Mills, Andrew McCarthy, Christopher Lloyd, Joe Seneca, Rhea Perlman, Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, M. Emmet Walsh, Sam Waterston, Kathy Baker, Cindy Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Helen Shaver, and many, many more.

“Amazing Stories” also features hands down the best collection of musical scores of all time of any television series ever! Seriously. “Amazing Stories” features music by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Bruce Broughton, David Shire, Billy Goldenberg, Danny Elfman, Georges Delerue, Pat Metheny, Leonard Rosenman, Alan Silvestri, and Michael Kamen, just to name a few.  

Outside of a few episodes I owned on Laser Disc, I have not seen most of “Amazing Stories” since its initial run in the mid-80s. So I am really looking forward to this blog series, and hope you will join me over the next 45 weeks or so as I take a look back at this often overlooked and underrated anthology series from the 1980s.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Up from the depths, "Fathom" Volume 3 review

Fathom Volume 3

The comic book “Fathom” debuted in 1998 amid a wave (no pun intended) of acclaim and popularity. “Fathom” creator Michael Turner’s gorgeous renderings of “Witchblade” had earned him a sizable and enthusiastic fan base and this new creator-owned book was the ultimate vehicle to showcase his unique talents, as well as that of inkers Joe Weems and Sal Regla, and colorists Jonathan Smith and Peter Steigerwald. 

The talented young artist’s new creation was embraced by the comic book world and even the main stream. At one point there was even talk of a major motion picture event involving none other than James Cameron! It is easy to understand why Cameron was attracted to “Fathom” because it shares many elements with “The Abyss” (1989) as well as “Avatar” (2009).  Actually, considering that Hollywood pretty much adapts everything comic book or graphic novel related, I am shocked nobody has yet made “Fathom” into a movie. Because in the right hands, it would be amazing.

Yes, “Fathom” features absolutely stunning artwork, images that will bath over you and entice you to look at then over and over and keep staring in wonderment.  But here is the thing, “Fathom” is a lot more than pretty pictures. It also features a strong, emotionally involving storyline written by Michael Turner and Bill O’Neil, starring a terrific main character.

“Fathom” is the story of Aspen Matthews, a young girl who is raised by a surrogate father. Her mysterious past eventually catches up with her and she must come to terms with who she really is and her true heritage—an underwater species of intelligent humanoid creatures known as “the Blue”. Of course, when the Blue and Humans encounter each other, it does not go well. It is the “Abyss” meets “Avatar” meets “Aquaman” with a dash of “Princess of Mars”.

Sadly, Michael Turner passed away in 2008 at the young age of 37. His legacy and his company (Aspen MLT) live on, as do his characters, including the wonderful Aspen. But I shied away from reading volume 2 of the “Fathom” series (circa 2004) since Turner was not drawing it himself. To me it was like reading a “Conan” book not written by Robert E. Howard or a “Tarzan” not penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Turns out to be my mistake. Copies of the trade paperback collection of “Fathom” volume 2 are impossible to find, unless you want to pay several hundred dollars!

But, having just read The New 52 “Aquaman”, I was in the mood to revisit the character of Aspen, so I took a chance and picked up a copy of the widely available Volume 3. And I am glad I did. I fully expected the book to look beautiful and it does. No, AlĂ© Garza is not as good as the late, great Michael Turner, but he is an outstanding artist in his own right and really captures the essence of Aspen and the other characters. The colors are mind-blowingly amazing and the layouts beautiful. The book is gorgeous and I fully expected that. But what I did not expect, what really blew me away, was the strong story written by Michael Turner and J.T Krull.

Fathom Volume 3 focuses on an ideological civil war between two different factions of the underwater humanoids—the Blue and the Black. The Blue, realizing staying hidden beneath the seas is no longer an option now, seek to negotiate a peaceful co-existence with the humans. While the Black are the purists, who see the humans as a dangerous advancing threat that must be destroyed. The Black are led by Kiani, another great character who is the dark side of Aspen.

The humans also have ideological divisions and the way the political subtexts are set up is quite complex and utterly fascinating, particularly given so many of the recent temporary political debates where any attempts to negotiate is often derided as “appeasement”, a loaded term referring to Neville Chamberlain cowering to Hitler before WWII.

In the middle of all this saber rattling and war mongering there is Aspen, who is part Blue, part Black, and raised by humans. She is literally a part of all three worlds. In some ways, the story here reminded me of the brilliant 2014 film, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” where Caesar, had emotional ties to both the human and ape world.

Bottom line: If you love beautiful artwork, mermaid stories, DC Comics Aquaman, or the 1989 movie “The Abyss”, then “Fathom” Volume 3 is something you will enjoy.