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 fiancĂ© 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”.