Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pop Art: The Last Starfighter (1984) Activity Book

Pop Art: The Last Starfighter (Marvel Super Special No. 31; 1984)

The Last Starfighter Video Game (Atari; 1984)

The Last Starfighter (1984) View-Master

Lunchbox of the Week: The Last Starfighter (Aladdin)

Model Kit of the Week: The Last Starfighter Gunstar (Fantastic Plastic; 2012)

Game of the Week: The Last Starfighter (FASA; 1984)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Visitors are Coming: V: The Series: "The Deception" (November 9, 1984)

In “The Deception,” Diana (Jane Badler) is determined to get her hands on Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke) – the Star Child -- but is unaware that the child’s accelerated growth has transformed her into an adult. 

Unaware that her information is faulty, Diana captures Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) and with a combination of powerful drugs and holograms, attempts to convince the Resistance fighter that the war is long over, he is married to Julie, and that his delivery of Elizabeth to a rendezvous point on the way to New York was crucial in defeating the Visitors.

When Donovan spies a mock-up newspaper trumpeting the victory -- but revealing Elizabeth as a child --he recognizes Diana’s plot.  He also realizes that his son, Sean (Nick Katt) has betrayed him…

“The Deception” is a pretty strong episode of V: The Series (1984 – 1985).  The early episodes of the NBC series are the best of the bunch, and it is apparent here that neither money nor imagination has yet entirely run out.  

A replacement for “Break Out,” which went unaired in the original schedule, “The Deception” concocts a more appealing back-drop for Kyle Bates (Jeff Yagher), and ramps up the series’ sense of kink.

In terms of Kyle, he’s less combative and more heroic here than the man we met at the prison camp in “Break Out.”  He is clearly being set up by series writers’ as a maverick-type character, one who works with the Resistance, but isn’t a joiner.

In regards to kink, this quality seems a crucial aspect of the TV series, frankly. The kinkiness arises from Diana’s avaricious nature.  She is clearly a sexual being, but one that -- as we shall see -- is curious about humanity in that regard. 

This is a disturbing (and even a bit arousing…) character trait because Diana also devours humans as a food source. Thus when attractive humans are captured by Diana, it’s an open question whether she will serve them up on a dinner platter, or sleep with them…or perhaps both.

Diana gives new meaning to the term “bi-curious,” since she feels sexual attraction both towards Visitors and human beings.

In “The Deception,” Diana pretends to be Julie, Mike Donovan’s wife, in the deception scenario described in the synopsis above.  She kisses him passionately while they are in bed together, and doesn’t seem bothered at all by the intimacy, though Lydia (June Chadwick) -- watching from behind a two-way mirror -- is clearly disgusted by Diana’s fraternization with a lowly human being.   

In their previous encounters (in the two mini-series), there has been an odd undercurrent of attraction between Singer and Badler, so it is amusing and appropriate that the series almost immediately plays into that unspoken chemistry.  It’s too bad the scenes didn’t go further…

The kinky aspects of “The Deception” make it extremely entertaining, though even this story -- of deception and deceit -- is a far cry from the franchise’s original task of documenting the nature of a fascist state. 

V has officially and permanently moved into soap opera territory here, with smattering of action (mostly in the form of car and motor-bike chases).  So while “The Deception” doesn’t represent the franchise at its best, it does represent the series at its apex of quality.  Future episodes begin the down-hill descent, especially after the cast-massacre mid-way through.

That established, I couldn’t help but notice in “The Deception,” again, that to its credit, V features many strong, individual female characters.  There’s the charismatic Diana, of course, but Julie is also a leader, and one who -- in the tradition of male heroes like Captain Kirk on Star Trek -- reckons with self-doubt and worries over her decisions. 

Similarly, we have Elizabeth, a woman in the process of seeking and finding her own identity outside the constraints of her society. She is determined to be someone that she likes, not what Diana or anyone else expects her to be.

Beyond those three significant female characters, we also have the power-hungry Lydia, and insecure Robin Maxwell (Blair Tefkin).

Off-hand, I can’t think of another science fiction TV program in the 1980s that features such significant -- and numerous -- female roles.  Basically, the action in the series is driven by women, and their choices, on both sides of the combat divide.

By point of comparison, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) features women characters mainly in care-taker/nurturer roles, especially after the early death of Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby).  As late as the fourth season of that series, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) are breaking crockery over bad guys’ heads (“Q-Pid”) instead of showing competency in hand-to-hand combat or taking charge of away teams.  V: The Series may degenerate into soap opera silliness in short order, but it was also forward-thinking in terms of women’s roles and characterizations.

Next week: “The Sanction.”

Now Available: Space Monsters Issue #4

I received my copy of Space Monsters, Issue #4 in the mail today, and am now in the process of hungrily devouring all the great content.  

This issue is the giant monster/Godzilla issue, and it features reviews of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, Mothra, Gorgo, Godzilla Raids Again, and King Kong. There's also an Ultraman episode guide, and retrospectives of Logan's Run and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

In other words... all my favorite things.  Check out the issue and the magazine if you get a chance. It's a great read!

Cult-Movie Review: Would You Rather (2013)

Would You Rather (2013) is an unexpectedly riveting and timely horror film from director David Guy Levy. The movie concerns the fact that those at the bottom in America’s bad economy have no opportunity to change their fortunes unless they gamble big, or miraculously get lucky. And worse, at the top of the food chain are exploitative sharks that use the poor for their amusement and entertainment.  
The movie would seem more speculative and less timely if Princeton hadn't just released a report determining that the U.S. is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy instead.  The report's central point is that "economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

In the spirit of that observation, the bulk of Would You Rather occurs around a long, ornate dining room table as a rich man hovers vulture-like over the poor people around him, and sets them against each other in a sadistic parlor game…all for a measly slice of his obscene wealth.
Jeffrey Combs stars as the craven rich man who turns others into his playthings, and he delivers a wicked and delicious central performance.
Comb’s character, Mr. Lambrick insists that the game he forces the desperate folks to play – “would you rather” -- is actually all about “decision-making in its rawest form,” but the game is about something else entirely.
It’s a distraction. 
Everyone dances to Lambrick’s tune to acquire a portion of his wealth when the fact of the matter is that if everyone worked together to change things, no one would go hungry, or lack health care, or suffer the indignities he demands of them.
Thus the movie serves as a perfect metaphor for unbridled, uncontrolled capitalism.
Would You Rather caustically suggests that the wealthiest 1% in this country profit not just on their innovation and acumen, but by keeping everyone else down, by distracting and demoralizing the masses with bread and circuses.
When one considers how our national politics have become feverish debates about unimportant issues -- like Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy or the War on Easter (!) -- rather than legitimate debates about the problems of poverty and hunger in America, Would You Rather’s perspective is nicely borne out.
The haves and the have-nots have battled it out quite a bit recently at the cinema, in films such as The Purge (2013) and Elysium (2013), but the familiar theme is treated with ruthless, efficient flair in Would You Rather.  Modest, straight-forward and, indeed, incredibly vicious, Would You Rather concerns a culture in which everyone “has a price” and everyone is looking out for number one. 
It’s not a pretty picture by any means, but as I always like to assert, troubled times make for terrific horror movies, and Would You Rather abundantly qualifies.

In Would You Rather, young Iris (Brittany Snow) is desperate to support her brother, Raleigh (Logan Miller), who has leukemia.  The competition even for waitress jobs is fierce, and the medical bills are rapidly mounting.  Iris has also had to put the family house up for sale.  But of course, because of the economy, nobody is buying.
Then Raleigh’s doctor introduces Iris to a benefactor: Shepard Lambrick (Combs). Lambrick informs Iris that if she wins a game that night during a dinner party he is throwing, his charity will pay for Raleigh’s treatment, and even fast-track a bone marrow transplant.
Iris realizes she has no choice, and proceeds to the Lambrick estate.  There, she meets several other contestants who have also fallen on hard times, including an Iraq War vet, Travis (Charlie Hofheimer), a senior citizen in a wheelchair, Linda (June Squibb), a former alcoholic, Conway (John Heard), a man with a gambling addiction, Cal (Eddie), and the mysterious Lucas (Enver Gjokaj)
The group is led to an ornate dining room table, where Lambrick introduces the game they will be playing: “Would You Rather.”
In the first round contestants must decide whether to deliver electrical shocks to themselves, or to other contestants. 
In the second round, Iris and the others must decide whether they should stab someone in the thig with an icepick, or whip one contestant, Travis, the war hero.
Those who survive this brutal round move to the third, which involves making a different kind of choice.  Here, the players must choose between the “known” (being submerged for two minutes in a barrel) or the unknown, in this case drawing cards which reveal either gruesome fates, or the equivalent of a get out of jail free card.
The night ends with the fourth round. Iris and one other contestant must decide whether to commit murder and win all the money, or spare their opposite number and go home empty-handed.
Meanwhile, at home, Iris’s brother Raleigh plays a form of “would you rather” of his own making.

As a character aptly notes in Would You Rather, the game that Lambrick makes his guests play isn’t about helping each other, but about eliminating each other.
And that paradigm is, quite simply, a metaphor for life itself. 
We each want to get ahead in life and succeed for ourselves and for our families, and that desire, in some key way, mitigates our ability to act for the good of the community as a whole.  Resources aren’t infinite, after all, and if you don’t move to protect and “build” what you see as yours, someone else will take it. 
Here, the game contestants must decide who should suffer and who should succeed, and altruistic behavior soon proves counter-productive.  To save somebody else, you must face pain, yourself.
You might be able to do it once, or even twice, but pretty soon you are on the ropes. With no allies and no resources, you make sure the other guy, not you, gets the knife on the next turn…
They want us to turn on each other,” one character asserts and indeed, that’s the way, in our society, that the filthy rich remain powerful.  They tell the rest of us who to hate, and we see evidence of that behavior in the film as Lambrick decides in the second round to transform the war hero, Travis, into a perpetual victim. 
After Travis has been whipped a dozen or so times, it becomes easier for the contestants to cause him further pain. So Lambrick names the target, and everyone else accepts his definition.  It doesn’t matter that Travis suffered for our country (he volunteered, after all…).  He is now, literally, a whipping-boy for everyone at the table.
And through it all, the wealthy Lambrick and his entitled son Julian sneer at the desperate contestants for doing as they tell them to do.
You’re basically asking my family for a hand-out,” asserts Julian, and his attitude reflects our culture’s recent and very ugly obsession with calling everyone who needs help -- even briefly -- a “moocher” or a “taker.” Julian and Lambrick thus look down their noses at the game contestants, even as they desire to control them, to tell them what to do and who to hate.
Indeed, it’s very intriguing the characters that Lambrick includes in his game. There is a single woman, a black man, a veteran, two addicts of differing types, and a senior citizen.  These are all people who, historically, have been disenfranchised or excluded from the country’s power base.
Would You Rather’s message, then, is that if these demographics worked together, the traditional power base would no longer be in charge.  The tide would turn.
Impressively, Would You Rather goes deeper even deeper than the central metaphor suggests.  Iris’s brother Raleigh, at one juncture, asks her if she ever wished to be free of him, since his illness is destroying her economically and emotionally. 
Like those seated at Lambrick’s table later on, Raleigh must likewise choose whether he should be the one to suffer, or if he should continue to “pass” his suffering on to Iris.  He demonstrates tremendous courage in choosing Iris’s well-being, just as she demonstrates courage in choosing his.
Similarly, Would You Rather does a fine job of diagraming Iris’s desperation. As the film opens, we see her interviewing for a job at a restaurant, even though she has no experience. Then, we see her poring over bills for school, doctors, “everything.”  Unfortunately, these scenes play as all-too real, and so sympathy for Iris and her brother is strongly generated.
As I noted above, Would You Rather spends most of its time at that long, expensive dining room table, as contestants of different demographic groups decide who should suffer so that another might succeed.  But despite the general lack of movement away from that location, the film is never dull, or visually boring.
Even better, Combs holds everything together with his portrayal of a so-called “philanthropist” who feels that the size of his wallet entitles him to decide how other people should live. Lambrick is a great character and villain, one who suggests he is “creating opportunity for everyday people,” when in fact he is merely a sadist of the first order.
I should also note that Would You Rather is intensely gory.  There’s one scene here in which a contestant draws a card demanding that he take a straight-razor to his eyeball, for instance.
And there’s another scene in which a kindly old handicapped woman is stabbed in the leg with an icepick…and thick red blood pools on her clothes.
The violence is unremittingly bloody and broached bluntly but never leeringly.  At one point while watching the film, my wife indicated she couldn’t continue to watch because the movie was so disturbing…but she also couldn’t bring herself to turn away.
It’s that kind of movie.
Would You Rather rivets your attention, demands your engagement, and is, finally, absolutely brutal -- and dead-on -- in its observations about our culture today. 
There are some critics who choose to term the film “torture porn,” because Would You Rather involves people being absolutely horrible to each other.
But if Would You Rather is torture porn, then so is life itself. It seems silly and short-sighted to blame a movie for reflecting so accurately, and uncompromisingly, our human nature.
Instead, as Lambrick might note at this juncture: “I believe a thank you is in order.”