Friday, March 24, 2017

The Robinsons Encounter Some Strange "Invaders From The Fifth Dimension"

This post is part of the Favorite TV Episode Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud Of Thoughts. Thanks to Terence at that site for letting me participate! To view the other entries, please use this link: http://mercurie.blogspot.com/2017/03/the-3rd-annual-favourite-tv-show.html.

During the mid to late 60s, producer Irwin Allen had his own science-fiction empire on television, with four shows airing at various times. Lost In Space, Voyage To The Bottom of The Sea, The Time Tunnel and Land of The Giants featured exciting stories, appealing characters, and colorful costumes and special effects. While I enjoy all of Allen's series, I have to admit the sci-fi kid in me has a real soft spot for Lost in Space. The show has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. In 2015 the series celebrated its 50th anniversary. Stars Bill Mumy, Marta Kristen, Angela Cartwright & Mark Goddard have appeared at a number of conventions to celebrate the anniversary, as well to promote the Blu-ray release of the complete series.

The aliens capture Dr. Smith
Lost In Space, which originally ran from 1965-68, followed the adventures of the Robinson family. Their ship, the Jupiter 2, goes off course on a mission to Alpha Centauri. Along for the journey with parents John and Maureen Robinson are their children Will, Penny and Judy. Also onboard are co-pilot Major Don West, the traitorous Dr. Zachary Smith and a robot aptly named...Robot. It’s Smith’s sabotage that causes the ship to go astray. During the series’ first year, the Jupiter 2 is stranded on an alien planet as the crew tries to effect repairs. Most fans prefer this season’s black & white tales, before Jonathan Harris’ Smith character transformed from an outright villain into a more buffoonish, comedic foil.

One of the best of these early episodes (and a personal favorite of mine) is “Invaders From The Fifth Dimension,” which originally aired on November 3, 1965. Maureen & Judy observe a strange blip on the ship’s radar, but when they call Don over to take a look, there’s nothing there. Meanwhile, Dr. Smith sees a strange ship land, and is promptly captured by its alien crew. They explain they need a brain to power their ship’s damaged computer, so they can return to their own dimension. Of course, they’d like to use his brain. But the conniving Smith tells them he’s got a better idea. He can bring them Will’s brain, which he says will prove much more effective for their needs. The aliens install a shock collar on Smith & release him, telling him the device will kill him if he doesn’t return with Will as soon as possible.

Smith finds Will, and cons him into going back with him, saying there’s a threat to the family, and only Will can help stop it. As they make their way to the alien ship, Smith slowly plays on the boy’s fears, manipulating his emotions. First, he conveniently uses Will’s walkie-talkie to demonstrate the depth of a sand pit, effectively disposing of Will’s method of communicating with the rest of the family. Then there’s a chilling moment where Smith convinces Will some water he wants to drink is unsafe, simply by playing on his insecurities. Jonathan Harris is excellent in these scenes. This is an openly evil, villainous Dr. Smith who uses guile & subterfuge to get what he wants, and doesn’t care about anyone but himself. There’s precious little of the over the top mannerisms that would define the character in later episodes of the series.

The Robot tries to rescue Will, who's trapped inside the ship
While Smith & Will head for their rendezvous, John and Maureen realize their son is missing and head off in the land rover-esque Chariot (along with the Robot) to look for him. Don joins the search from the air by using the rocket powered Jetpack. Everyone converges on the alien ship. Will discovers what the aliens really need him for, and decides to remain with them for the good of his family. Smith is set free, and tries to make everyone think he & Will were captured together, and that only he was able to escape. As Will prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice, the aliens learn a lesson about humans & their emotional attachments. Of course, there's a happy ending for all...well, except for the aliens.

This is an exciting, well-paced story. The black & white photography lends an atmospheric quality to the episode. The alien craft is truly unique: it's definitely different in look & design than many of the types of models used (and often re-used) in Lost in Space and the other Irwin Allen series. The creepy mouth-less aliens are also eerie & effective. The episode was directed by Leonard Horn, a television veteran who was also behind the camera for the classic Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born,” starring Martin Landau. Shimon Wincelberg wrote the story for “Invaders From The Fifth Dimension.” He co-wrote “No Place To Hide,” the original unaired pilot for Lost In Space. Footage from that pilot was used in the first five episodes of the series. Wincelberg also penned episodes for Star Trek, The Time Tunnel and Mannix.

The episode showcases the talents of Jonathan Harris as Smith & Bill Mumy as Will. They’re both very effective here, and the interaction between the characters is quite different than how it’s portrayed later in the series. This is one of the best installments of the show, along with such gems as “The Derelict,"  the two-part “The Keeper,” which guest starred Michael Rennie, and “There Were Giants In The Earth." During the second season the tone of the show shifted from science-fiction adventure to a whimsical fantasy with more overt comedic & campy elements. After that, Lost In Space rarely reached the heights of its first year, but it was always fun to watch the adventures of the Robinson family, as well as the heroes of Irwin Allen's other enjoyable TV series.

A couple of additional notes regarding this episode: We get to see both the Chariot and the Jetpack in this story, which would become a rare occurrence as the series progressed. Also, you can catch a quick glimpse of Bob (the man inside the Robot) May’s legs during the climax, when he moves out from behind some rocks. The Robot also gets one of the best lines in the show, during this exchange with Maureen:

Robot: I determine an alien presence.
Maureen: Alien? You mean from this planet?
Robot: On this planet, WE are the aliens.
Maureen: Touché.

Please make sure to visit the rest of the Favorite TV Episode Blogathon entries at the link above, and if you're looking for more coverage of Lost In Space here at Eclectic Avenue, you can follow these links: http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2015/10/get-lost-in-space-all-over-again.html and http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2016/12/a-retro-tv-christmas.html. Thanks for reading!


Friday, March 17, 2017

The Fall: An Enchanting Adventure

In today's world of big budget special effects extravaganzas & superhero franchises, there aren't many movies that can truly be called unique. Here at Eclectic Avenue, I often try to call attention to noteworthy films that have flown under the radar for some viewers. This week, I'm recommending the The Fall (2006), a spellbinding story directed by Tarsem Singh. Set during the silent film era at a hospital in Los Angeles, the film stars Lee Pace (from TV's Pushing Daisies and Halt & Catch Fire) as Roy Walker, a movie stuntman. Roy is hurt performing a stunt, and while recovering from his injuries, he meets a young girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who has suffered a broken arm. To pass the time, he tells her a fantastic story of high adventure about a heroic masked bandit & his stalwart allies (including Charles Darwin?!) and their efforts to rescue a beautiful princess from a vile villain named Odius. 

Roy continues to recount the story, and the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. The friendship between the two deepens. Alexandria becomes involved in the telling of the tale, interjecting her own ideas into the story. But Roy may have an ulterior motive for befriending the girl, and all is not as it seems. What will happen in both stories, the real life one & the imaginary tale? How will it affect Roy and Alexandria's relationship? The answers are both enthralling & surprising. To say much more about the story and its twists and turns would spoil this beguiling, original film for 1st time viewers. Suffice it to say that this is truly a journey worth taking.

Catinca Untaru & Lee Pace
The movie was filmed in stunning locations all over the world (including Italy, France, Spain & India) over a period of four years. Director Tarsem Singh financed much of the production with his own money. The Fall was a deeply personal project & true labor of love for him. The absorbing screenplay is by Singh, Dan Gilroy & Nico Soultanakis. It's a fascinating look at storytellers, who can alter and shape the direction of a tale, and how the telling of a story can affect the storyteller as well. You may notice some parallels to The Princess BrideThe Wizard of Oz, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the film, though this tale takes a decidedly darker, but still compelling, turn as the story moves forward. 

Singh brings a remarkable visual palette to the film. There are some spectacular & breathtaking sequences during the fairy tale portions of the story; it really is an amazing & extraordinary film. Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru have great chemistry, and work very well together. Untaru's performance feels very real & unforced. Much of the dialogue between the two co-stars was improvised, to allow their relationship to feel more natural. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you're in the mood for something a little different on your next movie night, take a look at The Fall. I think you'll really enjoy visiting Tarsem's marvelous and imaginative world. Here's a link to the film's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwsYyRc9j4g.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Journey Back to the Planet of the Apes

The Planet of the Apes franchise has experienced something of a rebirth in recent years. The film series was successfully rebooted beginning with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, followed by 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and continues with War for the Planet of the Apes, which is scheduled for release this summer. There have also been several new graphic novels & comic book series based on the films, including a crossover with the classic Star Trek crew. Now editors Rich Handley & Jim Beard bring us Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone, an anthology featuring sixteen fascinating short stories set in the classic Apes universe. The backdrop for the stories spans the era of the five original films to the worlds of the 1970s live action & animated television series. The authors include such well-regarded science-fiction, fantasy & comics scribes as Nancy Collins, Will Murray, John Jackson Miller & Paul Kupperberg.

Standouts include Dayton Ward’s “Message In a Bottle” which acts as a coda to the live-action TV series; Bob Meyer’s “The Pacing Place” a "what if" style alternate ending (or is that a new beginning?) to the original 1968 movie, and “Milo’s Tale” by Ty Templeton, a story about the simian scientist who was featured in the 1973 film Escape from the Planet of the Apes. You’ll also find tales populated by such familiar faces as Cornelius, Zira, and Nova, as well as characters from the live action television show, and the Saturday morning animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes. Both editors contribute engrossing stories to the collection; Beard's "Silenced," moves across several settings & time periods from the Apes mythology and Handley's absorbing "The King is Dead - Long Live The King" takes place after the events of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the final film in the original cycle.

The book also features “Of Monsters & Men,” Kevin J. Anderson and Sam Knight’s look at a young Dr. Zaius, and Greg Cox’s “Endangered Species” an intriguing tale set many years before the time period of the original 1968 film. There's even a story focusing on the mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Dan Abnett's "Unfired." This project is a labor of love for these fine writers, who are obviously fans of the Apes saga and its colorful characters. They've clearly taken the project seriously & therefore have provided us with some well-written, thought-provoking and entertaining genre fiction. Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone is an enjoyable anthology of original tales set throughout the history of that frightening future world where intelligent apes rule, and man is subservient. As a longtime fan of the Apes epic, I had a great time reading this book, and I think you will, too. Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone is now available online at sites such as Amazon and also at brick and mortar stores like Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Surreal "Night" From Charles Laughton

There are some movies whose characters, images or themes leave an indelible impression on you. And each time you revisit them, you may see something new that enriches the viewing experience. For me, The Night of the Hunter (1955) is one of those films. As the movie begins, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is awaiting execution for his part in a robbery that led to the deaths of two men. The money from the heist hasn’t been recovered. Ben shares a cell with an odd preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who tries to find out where he’s hidden the money. After Ben's death, the now released Harry uses his guile and charm to worm his way into the life of the thief’s wife & children. He also dazzles the residents of their town, who are taken in by his faux spirituality. Ben’s son John suspects there’s more to him than meets the eye, and sees a hint of the evil under the surface. The preacher's dark side begins to emerge. Eventually, the children must run for their lives as the maniacal, black clad preacher pursues them in his quest to discover the location of the cash.

The Night of the Hunter is the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, best known for his roles in films like Witness For The Prosecution and The Private Life of Henry VIII. Laughton & writer James Agee collaborated on the screenplay, based on Davis Grubb’s novel. It’s an excellent production, with an expressionistic look, courtesy of the moody cinematography by the talented Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles' The Magnifcent Ambersons. The stylized, almost theatrical sets, offbeat camera angles and unique use of shadows & light add an ethereal quality to the film. Some sequences have an almost fairy tale feel to them, including a dream-like journey down the river by the children, as they try to escape from the madman on their trail. They eventually find shelter with a kind old woman (played by silent film star Lillian Gish) who has a group of other displaced children living with her.

Robert Mitchum & Shelley Winters
The performances are superb; Mitchum excels as the deadly Powell, who hides behind a mask of civility and smooth talk. His charming, hymn-singing preacher can turn from kind & caring to a lying, violent fiend in seconds flat. He’s the personification of evil, becoming a relentless force of nature during the final third of the movie. Gish is wonderful as the angelic earth mother who stands up to Mitchum's devil, the light shining against his darkness. Shelley Winters is very good in a supporting role as the children’s mother, who eventually falls prey to Harry’s manipulations. Billy Chapin & Sally Jane Harper are quite effective as the children, John & Pearl. The Night of the Hunter was not successful during it’s initial run, but the movie has grown in stature over the years, becoming a cult classic. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, The Coen Brothers and Spike Lee have all cited it as a favorite and a major influence on their work. In 1992, the movie was selected for addition to the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress, who preserve culturally or historically significant films.

If you do decide to watch The Night of the Hunter, try to rent or purchase the excellent Criterion Collection edition, which was released in 2010 on Blu-ray & DVD. In addition to a great looking transfer of the movie, it features some fantastic extras, including a new documentary on the film's legacy, and archival interviews with some of the stars. The most amazing extra is a two and a half hour film called Charles Laughton Directs Night of the Hunter, which is taken from home movies filmed on the set. It covers the entire scope of the production, giving a complete picture of the making of this captivating film. Sadly, due to the film's poor initial reception, Laughton never directed another movie. The Night of the Hunter is one of my favorites. It's truly a one of a kind film. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have; it’s a movie that truly stays with you after watching it. And you'll never hear the classic hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" the same way again. Highly recommended. Here's a link to the The Criterion Collection's "Three Reasons" trailer for the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LuSu5ZWmyg.