Friday, March 27, 2015

TV Review: Parallels

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This gives us Sliders done right as it goes heavier on the mystery and sci fi and delivers some interesting characters.

Parallels is an original telefilm written and directed by Christopher Leone--who previously created the mini-series The Lost Room for Syfy--and it is considered the launching point for more movies or perhaps an ongoing series. It is currently available for streaming on Netflix, though it is not considered one of their original series. The story begins with a brother and sister coming home when they receive a cryptic message from their estranged father. They follow his instructions and (along with a childhood friend) go to an abandoned building where they believe they will meet up with him. However, a strange power surge occurs in the building and when they emerge from it they find that they are on an alternate Earth which has been devastated by nuclear war. They also meet up with another person who has been inhabiting the building and she explains to them that it travels between alternate timelines and only stays there for thirty six hours. They must then either find some way of controlling the building or riding it out until they can make it back to their own timeline and/or find their father who appears to have a connection to all of this. Parallels is basically Sliders meets Lost with an intriguing stand-in for Doctor Who’s TARDIS thrown in for good measure.  And the pilot movie definitely drew me in to the story and left me wanting more. Personally, I was never a big fan of Sliders, feeling that one had a good premise though it suffered from poor execution (which was partially the fault of network tinkering from what I understand). But Parallels, at least in the initial installment, incorporates some of the best aspects of Sliders while bringing along many of the Lost-style mysteries that we expect from a sci fi series these days (but without feeling too derivative). And the alternate Earths offer plenty of story opportunities, though it seems like that thirty six hour deadline could prove somewhat of an impediment to story development. On the other hand, it could also be a device that keeps the show from descending into stock genre stories, something that happened all too often with Sliders. The characters in Parallels are also interesting because they refreshingly deviate from the archetypes you expect with this type of show. There’s no history expert or know-it-all scientist or even the typical leader-type as instead we get three young people (though not annoying, pretty-faced teens) along for a WTF ride. At this point, I see a ton of potential for the series and characters to grow if it continues in the same direction as the pilot.

Mr. Leone talked about Parallels in a recent AMA he did on Reddit offering the following comments:

PARALLELS is kind of unusual. I made it with Fox Digital Studios, which isn't a TV studio -- they make content for the web. But now that these worlds have converged, especially on Netflix, the digital realm is now this kind of wild west for creating new stuff. We always knew PARALLELS was the beginning of something, we knew we were going to do more, but we weren't sure what form it would take, whether it would be another ~90 minute installment, or a TV series, or what. So we're figuring that out right now, which is pretty damn exciting.

He also commented that the the response to it thus far has been "phenomenal" and on his twitter account he has stated that

We are hellbent on making more PARALLELS! We're figuring out the next steps now but I should have news to share very soon.

I have personally pointed several friends to the movie and I highly recommend that all sci fi fans give it a look.  It appears to be exclusive to Netflix for now, though maybe at some point that will get expanded so that more people can see it.  I could see where a Kickstarter campaign could help raise the funds for a second movie, or perhaps a fan drive could convince Netflix (or Amazon. Hulu, etc,) to pick it up as part of their original offerings.  But however it happens, we definitely need more installments from Parallels.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Anti-Blockbusters: When the Wind Blows


Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

This odd little animated movie came out at the height of the Reagan-era Cold War days prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain when the threat of nuclear destruction still loomed heavy over the world (and no folks, it hasn't gone away).  It was based on a graphic novel written and drawn by Raymond Briggs and from what I understand the movie follows the source material very closely.  It tells the tale of an elderly couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, living in rural England in the days just before and immediately after a nuclear attack on the country.  When they hear about the impending attack, they make all of the preparations according to the instructions in the Civil Defense “Protect and Survive” pamphlet.  Then after the bombs hits, they continue to rely on this resource to guide them as they also patiently wait for the government to contact the citizens and tell them that things have returned to normal.

The film adopts a rather unique animation style as the characters are brought to life with typical, line-drawn animation while their house and the other surroundings are depicted mostly with real-life objects (miniatures, I believe) and animated with stop-motion when they move.  The film also boasts a soundtrack led by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (accompanied by The Bleeding Heart Band) and with contributions from David Bowie (who sings the title song), Genesis, Squeeze, and Paul Hardcastle.  But the soundtrack is not the highlight of the film, as it stays mostly in the background.  Instead, this movie succeeds because of its story and the irony and tragedy that unfolds throughout its relatively short 80 minute running time.

The elderly couple have a very grandparenty demeanor to them in such a way that the viewer can easily relate to them as if these were two of their own beloved aged relatives.  And the Bloggs make a pleasant pair, even if they seem somewhat na├»ve while at the same time hard-headed and set in their ways.  And they also have a bit of that British stiff-upper-lip about them that leads them to stubbornly soldier on through the hard times that befall them.  Yet all of this leads to their undoing while at the same time the viewer feels a growing despair as if witnessing the last days of dying loved ones.

There have been many movies that have dealt with nuclear destruction, some brilliant (Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe), some not so much (Damnation Alley).  But few have achieved the same emotional impact of When the Wind Blows as it proceeds from such a simple premise yet delivers such a gut-wrenching blow by the time that the final credits role.  This movie is definitely a condemnation of Civil Defense procedures, but it also delivers a stark depiction of the true consequences of a nuclear attack.  And it does this not by resorting to shock tactics or gore, but by irony and directness as we watch the deterioration of the two main characters. 

Jim and Hilda Bloggs have the utmost faith in their government, and they survived World War II so they blindly assume that things will get back to normal eventually just like in the 1940’s.  And they go about their business as best they can after the attack occurs and believe that the Civil Defense instructions give them all the guidance they need to weather out this storm.  We can see their misguided faith almost from the beginning, yet only watch in despair as the inevitable approaches.  And the final scene of the movie delivers probably one of the most heart-breaking moments in the history of film, even if it has unfairly never been recognized for this.  If you can sit through that without shedding a tear, you need to check for a pulse or see if there is an empty alien seedpod in your back yard.  This quote from a review of the movie on Amazon.com says it all:  “I'm a horror film fan entertained by the likes of Fulci, Argento, D'Amato, Lenzi, et al, but the ending to this movie is shocking beyond anything those guys could produce.”

The film only runs 84 minutes and it is rather slowly paced.  But that is broken by occasional moments of ironic humor, and we also find ourselves drawn into the story by the charming appeal of the Bloggs (at least at first) as well as the tension, urgency, and despair surrounding their fate.  When the Wind Blows undeservingly received very little attention in the United States upon its release in 1987, a time when its message should have resonated deeply with audiences.  And it has failed to garner much attention in the years since, possibly in part because of the end of the Cold War.  But this is definitely an important film with a sad yet lyrical quality to it plus a message that transcends its era, and it still should strike a nerve in a world rife with global tension and not yet completely safe from the threat of a nuclear devastation.

The movie made it to VHS shortly after its initial release, and has since been re-released on DVD (it’s actually an on-demand DVD-R available from Amazon.com).  The entire film is also currently available for viewing on YouTube (at this link), though it may not stay there long so I recommend checking it out sooner rather than later.

Buy the DVD and the Graphic novel from Amazon.com:

Friday, March 6, 2015

TV Review: 12 Monkeys

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars (after 7 episodes)

Bottom Line: So far it has delivered a decent science fiction series that does not resort to simple resolutions to the moral dilemmas it presents.

12 Monkeys is Syfy’s latest new entry and it is a reimaging of Terry Gilliam’s feature film of the same name that starred Bruce Willis and Brad Pit.  Aaron Stanford (X2, X-Men: Last Stand) steps into the Bruce Willis role of James Cole as the man from the future sent back in time to our present to stop the outbreak of a virus that will wipe out the majority of the human race.  Now let’s address the elephant in the room right up front on this show.  There were many naysayers out there that felt the movie was not a good fit for an adaptation to an ongoing television series and that any attempt would denigrate the original film.  I recall seeing the movie when it first came out, and even though it is now considered a classic and I love the works of Terry Gilliam, this movie never quite registered with me like it did for others.  Perhaps I need to go back and revisit it, but I decided not to before watching the series so as not to bias my opinion going in.  And so far, the series is doing quite a good job with its premise and it's delivering a first rate science fiction show that deserves some attention.  Time travel tales can always be tricky, because I find that writers typically have a hard time adhering to any sort of consistent rules as they often force the time travel "logic" to fit their story instead of building around scientific principles.  But 12 Monkeys has done a good job with that so far and it has actually been a strength for the show.  They have delved into the consequences and moral quandaries involved with time travel and not just resorted to simple resolutions.  Also, I find the lead character quite interesting for his own moral ambiguous nature.  His mission is to go back and change the past in order to avert the catastrophe to come and he has shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to make that happen.  The lead scientist from the future who started this project (Katarina Jones played by Barbar Sukowa) has her own questionable character traits and those play well next to Cole.  And then we have Cole’s main contact in the present (Dr. Cassandra Railly played by Amanda Schull) who provides some moral balance but has also come to realize that some hard decisions will need to be made to save the future.  All of this presents us with the challenging type of stories that are currently helping shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones dominate the ratings.  And while I wouldn’t put 12 Monkeys quite in the same class as those two, it has the potential to get there.  The biggest question, though, is how long can they sustain this story?  To me, it has not felt padded out in its first season (with seven episodes aired and six more to go), and I could see where it could easily continue for at least another couple of seasons (in the same episode range).  But I have a hard time seeing how they could carry it beyond that without diluting the premise too much (I did say the same thing about Lost in its first season, though, and was proven wrong about that one).  That all may be a moot point, though, seeing as 12 Monkeys is currently struggling in the ratings (it has barely registered the last few weeks with only a 0.2 rating in the 18-49 demo based on the overnights).  It does fit in well with Syfy’s alleged return to science fiction, though, and it has been getting good reviews, so maybe they will give it the chance to build up an audience.  I certainly hope so, because this is one that deserves to stick around for at least a few more seasons and science fiction fans should be giving it a look.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sci Fi Genre Gems: Jeremiah (2002 TV Series)

What Is It?  This 2002 post-apocalyptic series which aired on Showtime came to us from Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski and was loosely based on the Belgian comic strip of the same name.   The basic premise of the series is that a virus (known as “the Big Death”) wiped out almost everybody above the age of puberty leaving only the youth behind to pick of the pieces of a shattered world.  The series starts fifteen years after the plague and focuses on one of the survivors named Jeremiah (Luke Perry) who is traveling across the remains of the United States looking for Valhalla Sector where his father had told him there might be survivors who can help rebuild the world.  Along the way he teams up with another drifter, Kurdy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), and these two also join up with a group of survivors who have taken over the Cheyenne Mountain complex (“Thunder Mountain”) which used to house NORAD.  This group plans to use their resources to eventually begin rebuilding the world and they use Jeremiah and Kurdy as well as other groups to scout out the country and find bands of survivors that will eventually unite with them.

Why It Stands Out: Jeremiah never received the acclaim of Straczynski’s Babylon 5, but it had many of the same strengths as that show and delivered a well-made, post-apocalyptic series with strong characters, interesting arcs, and some first-rate stories.

The Skinny:  In the early 00’s sci fi was still mostly anathema on the Big Four broadcast networks while it was finding much more success in the syndication market and on cable (when, believe it or not, the Sci Fi Channel was actually the champion for the genre).  During this time, the premium cable channels did some experimenting with genre shows and Jeremiah was one of the ones that landed on Showtime (that network also produced one season of Odyssey 5 in 2002 and had produced the first five seasons of Stargate: SG-1 which began in 1997).  This venue allowed these shows to expand into more adult themes than what the broadcast networks or basic cable channels would explore, and Jeremiah definitely took advantage of the freedom allowed to it.  Not just by amping up the sex and violence (though it did do that), but also by presenting challenging tales that didn’t necessarily lead to the nice, tidy sort of wrap up that Prime Time television typically prefers.

J. Michael Straczynski was of course no stranger to these type of stories as he had already explored some of the same territory with his five plus year run on the Babylon 5 franchise, and he continued very much in the same vein with Jeremiah.  The series began with more of an episodic feel (similar to the first season of B5) as it followed Jeremiah and Kurdy travelling across post-apocalyptic America, and it was in these episodes that Straczynski (as well as some of the other writers who contributed to the show) managed to deliver some hard-hitting tales rife with moral quandaries and challenging ideas (similar to the path that show's like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are currently trailblazing).

The second season of Jeremiah changed the format up some as it became much less episodic, and the overall feel of the show seemed to shift as well.  It became more story arc driven, but also less intense and less focused on the moral quandaries presented during year one.  The show's studio MGM had started tinkering with it which led to frictions between them and Straczynski, and that—along with less than spectacular ratings—led to the series getting cancelled after its second season.  JMS had plenty of advance notice on the cancellation, though, so the series does resolve most of its ongoing arcs.  But there was still plenty more story there to tell that we will probably unfortunately never get to see.  Still, the show’s two seasons managed to accomplish a lot and it deserves much more recognition than it has received over the past ten plus years.

Notable Stars: Luke Perry, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Sean Astin, Peter Stebbings, Joanne Kelly

Did You Know:  According to IMDb.com, J. Michael Straczynski was so displeased with his experience working with MGM on the series because of the tight grip they maintained over the production that he claimed that he would never work with them again under that administration.

Buy Jeremiah on DVD from Amazon.com or Stream it for Free with your Amazon Prime Membership:

Friday, February 20, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Book Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 5 out of 5 Star (Highest Rating)

Andy Weir's The Martian chronicles a mission to Mars in the near future that goes wrong causing the astronauts to make a quick exit after a treacherous dust storm descends upon them.  However, one member of the team--botanist/engineer Mark Watney--is left behind when the others believe that he perished in the evacuation.  He returns to their base, which survived the storm, but with his crewmates on their way back to Earth and no ship scheduled to return to Mars in several years, his prospects for survival look bleak with only limited supplies available to him.  He then puts his mind to working out a means to stay alive until a rescue mission can arrive, and thousands back on Earth work around the clock to assist him.

This book from newcomer Andy Weir has an interesting publishing history.  He set out to write a story about a rescue mission for an astronaut stranded on Mars, and his goal was to make it as realistic as possible.  Weir committed himself to painstaking research on space exploration and tried to make the events of his story as realistic as possible based on current technology.  However, he could not interest any literary agents or publishers in picking up the book so he decided to serialize it one chapter at a time on his website.  He eventually published the entire story as a Kindle book and it became a bestseller in that format.  That led to Podium Publishing picking it up as an audiobook followed by Crown picking up the print rights.  And now it is heading to the big screen with Ridley Scott rumored to direct and Matt Damon attached to play Mark Watney (and I'm sure after reading this that all of us working on our own self-published books will start doubling up our efforts).

The book itself is quite well written and an engaging piece of speculative fiction.  It shifts from Watney's personal log entries to a third person account of Mission Control monitoring the situation back on Earth and Watney's crewmates in space who find themselves unable to help at first.  Interestingly, much of what Watney recounts in his logs are the mundane details of the steps he is taking to ensure his survival (i.e., he decides he must plant a crop to provide himself with food, so he walks us through the planting and growing of potatoes).  It seems like that would be incredibly dull to read about, but it definitely kept my attention throughout.  I do have to admit that the constant setbacks he experiences start to get tiresome, but then these were believable and not contrived and ultimately paid off in the end.  I consider this an excellent book about space exploration that never compromises its science and also never dulls the reader with it.

As for the audiobook adaptation, I don't believe that they could have picked a better reader than R.C. Bray.  He lends just the right amount of snarkiness to Watney's log entries which really helps bring out the character.  He also delivers a near flawless job with the voices of the other characters, shifting in an out of various, well-articulated accents.  It is rare that I give a five star rating for an audiobook based on the narrator alone (it usually goes to well done "enhanced productions" that add sound effects and music like Audio Realms' adaptation of Elric of Melnibone), but Bray definitely deserves it for his reading of this book.  I will be searching out more books that he has narrated based on his performance here alone.

The Martian is definitely an excellent science fiction novel and one that I believe fans of the genre should seek out.  And the audiobook version is most certainly a great way to experience it.  The print and Kindle edition of the book is available from Amazon.com and the audiobook is available from Audible.com as well as iTunes, Barnes and Noble and other sources.


Friday, February 13, 2015

CW's Tales from the Darkside Reboot Needs to Happen, Plus an Idea of What that Network Can Do with its Burgeoning Cast of DC Superheros

The CW has picked up a pilot for a reboot of George R. Romero's classic 80's horror anthology series Tales from the Darkside meaning that they are considering that as an addition to their 2015-16 Prime Time schedule.  And that is something in my opinion that needs to happen.  Mind you, I don't consider myself a huge fan of the original series, though I remember tuning in to watch it and enjoying the episodes that I saw.  And I know several horror fans who consider it one of the better entries for that genre on television (though I'm sure they are cringing at the thought of The CW's trademark young and uber-hot faces picking up the baton for the franchise).  The main reason I want to see it happen, though, is that the anthology series needs to come back to television and this network is a good one to lead that charge.  With all of the science fiction and fantasy shows they currently have on their schedule (including upcoming mid-season entries iZombie and The Messengers), The CW has essentially become the broadcast network sci fi channel (as it continues to out sci fi Syfy even though that cable net keeps claiming it is getting back to its roots).  And despite the preponderance of young, pretty faces on the fifth place network, they have still managed to do pretty good with the genre the last couple of years, far outpacing the other broadcast networks (and Syfy) in this area.  They are willing to take some chances and I can see them doing that with an updating on Tales from the Darkside.

And we really need to get an anthology show or two back on television as they have less focus on extended arcs and more on telling a good, short and simple story.  This would even be a good one to air when other shows are on hiatus because it does not require viewers to watch every episode in order.  It gives The CW a good way to pad out the schedule and run less repeats (which we are about to get assaulted with over the next few months).  A good sci fi anthology would be much welcome as well.  They could reboot The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, or just come up with a new title.  It doesn't really matter if the stories are good.  Anthologies offer writers/directors the opportunity to take some chances and push the boundaries of television,  They also offer the chance to tryout some new ideas that may carry on into their own shows.  But mostly, they can--if done right--give us some damn good genre tales.  Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside and more all did that in their prime and its about time we get that back on television. It's been a while since we have had a really good genre anthology series (Masters of Horror?  The Outer Limits reboot?), and I'm hoping that The CW will succeed in bringing one back starting next season.

And speaking of anthologies, there's another one that network should think long and hard about for next season as it is planning its schedule.  Currently, they are looking at doing an Atom spin-off from Arrow and there are plenty more characters from the DC milieu that have been introduced on that series and its recent spin-off The Flash.  All of these have the potential to jump to shows of their own, But with the network only programming ten Prime Time hours a week, how many can they realistically get onto the schedule?  And how long before this leads to a superhero burn-out?

So the obvious answer to the question?  A superhero anthology series that can accommodate all of those characters and more.

Call it The Brave and the Bold, DC All-Stars, Showcase, or something like that.  You could run a multi-episode Atom or Birds of Prey or Suicide Squad arc then throw in a onesy for Firestorm or Ra's al Ghul or any of number of other characters they have introduced or have waiting in the wings.  And there are currently rumors floating around that Arrow's Diggle could become Green Lantern.  This anthology could handle all of that and more.  And as I mentioned above, it could air when the other shows (particularly Arrow and The Flash) are on hiatus to ensure less repeats throughout the year.  This seems like the best way to cover all DC characters they currently have plans for as well as future additions.  They could even take a page from the comics and have something like an Atom lead story and maybe a ten minute segment featuring another character.  Or pick one main character and have him/her team up with other superheros, similar to Batman's long run in the Brave and the Bold comics where he fought next to a revolving door of DC characters.

Seems like a great way to go about it and also gives the creative talent the opportunity to take some chances and try things that may be too daring for an established show like Arrow or The Flash.  And the network has already done an excellent job with those two characters so I would trust them to continue that streak having an expanded cast of DC superheros to work with.

As the other broadcast networks have seen their audiences dwindle notably the last few years, The CW has actually seen some gains as it has revitalized its schedule and reached out to the genre audience.  And I believe that the Tales from the Darkside reboot as well as a DC superhero anthology (and possibly a sci fi anthology) can help them to increase their momentum and possibly overtake one of the lagging Big Four broadcast networks.   

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sci Fi Trifles: Lost in Space was the End of Guy Williams' Acting Career

Actor Guy Williams is well known by fans of classic sci fi television for his portrayal of Professor John Robinson on all three seasons of Lost in Space.  But did you know that series (often ranked among the Top 10 worst sci fi shows ever) was effectively the end of his career as an actor?

Guy Williams (born Armando Joseph Catalano to Italian parents) began acting in the late 1940's and had mostly bit roles for the first ten years of his career (including an appearance as a cop in the B-Movie "classic" I Was a Teenage Werewolf).  His career jumped up to the next level, though, when he was offered the lead role for Walt Disney's Zorro in the late 50's and he would continue with that series until the early 60's.  After that show had ended, he had starring roles in two minor movies as well as a short stint on TV's Bonanza before he was offered the lead in Irwin Allen's Lost in Space.   He played Professor John Robinson who was the patriarch of the spacebound Robinson family and he was originally supposed to be one of the focal characters of the series.  However, Jonathan Harris' Dr. Smith character proved more popular with the younger-skewing audience and the show started to focus more on the trio of Smith, the Robot, and the young Will Robinson as the scripts became more and more outlandish throughout the show's three season run.  Lost in Space was cancelled at the end of its third year and after sharing screen time with such absurd antagonists as space hillbillies, space ghosts, space werewolves, and a giant talking carrot, apparently Williams decided to call it a career.  He had done well in the stock market and with business investments and decided by the mid-70's to retire to Argentina, a country he had fallen in love with and which received him warmly because of his well-respected portrayal of Zorro. Williams has no acting credits to his name on IMDb.com after Lost in Space except for a 1980's German translation of The Prince and the Pauper which he had starred in on The Wonderful World of Disney in the early 60's.  And that was likely a very good move for him seeing the troubles that other well-known TV actors from the 60's had in finding roles after being typecast from the earlier shows they starred in.

One additional note: Williams actually came close to never playing the role of John Robinson in LiS.  He joined the cast of Bonanza in 1964 when Pernell Roberts wanted to leave the role of Adam Cartwright.  Williams played Will Cartwright and was set to become one of the co-leads on the show, but producers lured Roberts back and Williams' character was written off.  Had he stayed with the show, he likely would have never been considered for the Lost in Space lead as Bonanza remained on the air until 1973.  And if had followed that course, it would be interesting to ponder whether he would have retired at that the same point in his career.

Buy Lost in Space on DVD from Amazon.com: