Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Ten Percent: Wonder Woman, 1941 – 2016

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Ten Percent: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

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Poster for <i>Once Upon a Time in the West</i>.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time.

The American West has been a place of myth, violence, and wonder ever since the first Europeans looked up from their toehold on the east coast and gazed towards the distant Appalachian Mountains. As the young United States once again expanded in the aftermath of the Civil War, coming into direct contact and conflict with the great horse peoples of the plains, and with the often brutal realities of life in often marginal environments between the Mississippi and the Rockies, the Western myth only grew. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show began framing the mythic space into the shape we know today, and The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the first American movies ever made, opened the door to an era of cinematic American mythopoeia that continues to this day.

The myth is epic. Vast open spaces, scrub desert, and red dust against the primordial background of John Ford’s greatest discovery: Monument Valley. It is a space of violence and bravery, endurance and reduction, with heroes and villains who rival the legends of Arthur or the pen of Shakespeare. It is an immigrant story, and of the men who stood above them for good or ill by virtue of their guns and their deadly willingness to use them. It is a racist myth, where white skin is ascendant while red and brown are in degraded decline. It is difficult to overestimate how much of American mythic culture is bound up in the Western, yet it is somehow appropriate that the director to take the genre, and the myth of the West, to its highest cinematic summits, was an Italian: Sergio Leone.

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Publicity photo. Left to right: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Sergio Leone, Charles Bronson, and Jason Robards.

Perhaps best known for his “Dollars Trilogy” starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, Leone was the great director of the “spaghetti western.” These films were made relatively cheap and fast, using a mix of American and European actors, used Cinecitta sets, and Italian and Spanish exteriors to create a (for the time) hyper-violent, heavily symbolic version of an already legendary West. The films found international success, even in America, and helped to launch Eastwood’s career as a star and a director. With scores by the ever-brilliant Ennio Morricone, Leone’s westerns reinterpreted the genre for audiences of the mid- and late-1960s as Europe and the US convulsed in unprecedented peacetime social and political upheavals. Despite a desire to move away from Westerns, his Dollar Trilogy was so popular in the States that Leone found that before he would be able to direct something new, he would have to create one last western – only this time, he would be able to film in Monument Valley.

The result is Once Upon a Time in the West, one of the greatest westerns of all time, and truly the apotheosis of the mythic West in film. At the height of his powers, Leone’s mise-en-scene is almost obsessive. There are no accidents in composition here, and every scene, every sequence partakes of a detail and a slow devotion to telling the story that creates frame-by-frame works of art. Leone’s use of both ambient sound and Morricone’s score is brilliant, and his trademark close-ups show every dusty crease and pore, and allow every pair of eyes its own revelations, right from the opening sequence of the film.

Once Upon a Time in the West is operatic in scope and scale, and cries out to be seen on the largest possible screen. The tale centers on a former prostitute, Jill, played by the staggeringly gorgeous Claudia Cardinale. She has travelled into the West to join her husband, only to arrive hours after the massacre of him and his children by a group of ruthless, duster wearing outlaws led by Frank, played with true malevolence and dark joy by Henry Fonda.

This may be the most brilliant stroke of the film. At the time, and even today, Fonda is known for playing good guys, and his entrance, every bit as dramatic as Charles Bronson’s still chills. Indeed, this intertextual effect was exactly what Leone wanted to achieve. When Fonda arrived on set with brown contacts and a moustache he’d grown for the role, Leone ordered that both be removed – he wanted to shock of an immediately recognizable Fonda in the role, and he wanted those sharp blue eyes. Frank and his employer, railroad magnate Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) want the widowed Jill’s land, but the Man with the Harmonica (Bronson want’s Frank, as does the  infamous outlaw Cheyenne, who’s given a perfect comic edge by a scruffy Jason Robards. The two combine forces to protect Jill and, through her to get to Frank and Morton. Interwoven with the drama are the themes of technological and social change, of the coming of civil order into formerly untamed spaces, and destruction of a world.

It’s a pretty standard plot, but the meat lies in the telling of the tale, and Leone and his cast elevate the story into something so tightly choreographed that the grime, murder, greed, heat, lust, and hatred come together to transcend the usual limits of the genre, and catapult the story into the realm of pure myth, where something like demi-gods, or Jungian archetypes stride across the screen, their every twitch a symbol – of power, of inevitable change, of resistance and revenge.

There really is nothing quite like Once Upon a Time in the West. The film mesmerizes, and takes over the space in which it is viewed. Taken out of Leone’s hands for editing for US release, the movie failed at the box office, but the uncut, international release gained widespread acclaim and is now the standard version for DVD and Blu-Ray. Leone’s film is superb, but there is more to it than mere mastery of craft, artistic talent, and decades of experience. One Upon a Time in the West is myth making, a tale passed down around fires lit against the darkness in which failed and fallible gods walk and limp and dance and kill. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, part of the Ten Percent.

 

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016)You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

 


Filed under: General Tagged: ensley f. guffey, k. dale koontz, Once Upon A Time In The West, sergio leone, The Ten Percent

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Ten Percent: Farscape (1999-2003)

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.

What do you get when you produce a television show across three continents, combining financing and “notes” from three very different networks in three very different time zones? What if this show was also an intricately plotted space opera — with puppets? Well, if you’re Rockne S. O’Bannon and Brian Henson, you get Farscape. In the US the series ran from 1999 – 2003 on the Sci-Fi channel, with a follow-up mini-series, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars airing in 2004. Starring Ben Browder (John Crichton) and Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun), Farscape traces the (mis)adventures of American astronaut Crichton, who is inadvertently catapulted into the distant reaches of the galaxy while test-piloting his experimental space engine. Crichton finds himself a true stranger in a strange land, surrounded by species that are technologically far in advance of Earth, and generally much, much older than humanity.

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Ben Browder & Claudia Black as John Crichton and Aeryn Sun

So far, so not-so-unusual. Yet Farscape quickly becomes something more than a standard, episodic, good-guys v. bad-guys space show. It turns out that real life, even in the vastness of space, isn’t nearly that clear cut, and shades of grey predominate. Despite undeniable technological advances, and supposed socio-cultural ones, the strange alien polities Crichton finds himself in the middle of have the same old problems: arms races, cold wars, greed, corruption, and special interests abound, and in-between are billions of people on thousands of small worlds who become conquests or colonies of hungry empires, or proxies in their conflict, or are simply ground underfoot, unnoticed as titans clash.

Crichton and his new pals are definitely in this latter category. A group of escaped supposed criminals aboard a living ship which was itself enslaved as a prison barge, they are the definition of flotsam and jetsam in this wider universe, people with little or no value to the galactic superpowers, but priceless to themselves and each other. Much like Firefly (about which much more later!), Farscape is about chosen family, and about the capacity for change inherent in even the most twisted of souls. The main cast (for seasons 1 – 3) is rounded out by Anthony Simcoe as Ka D’Ago, a Luxan warrior prone to hyper-rage; Gigi Edgley as the sensuous and dangerous grey-skinned Chiana; and Virginia Hey as Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan, a blue-fleshed priestess, but not always a gentle one.

Then there are the puppets, brought to brilliant life by the puppeteers at the Jim Henson Company. Several generations removed from Jim Henson’s original felt-covered creations, the Farscape puppets are incredibly intricate, often enormous constructs requiring multiple puppeteers to operate. The most central of such are Pilot, the, well, pilot of the living ship Moya, multi-limbed, with a massive head and carapace, Pilot is literally gown into the ship. Voiced by Lani John Tupu, Pilot is the crew’s direct line of communication to Moya, and the heart of the fragile family. At times teacher, confidant, confessor, or scold, Pilot is the moral center of the series, dedicated to the protection of Moya, and therefore the only character whose core motivation is the preservation of another’s life. Perhaps Pilot’s polar opposite is Dominar Rygel XVI a stubby, rotund ex-monarch and kleptomaniac. Given a royally entitled voice and personality by Jonathan Hardy, Rygel looks out for himself before all others, and often to the exclusion of everyone else.

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Pilot and Rygel XVI

Some of the crew will leave, and other will arrive, but all share the same fate of being lost, of looking for home, or for something like it. Each eventually will find that place aboard Moya, at least for a time, and discover that chosen family can be much stronger than one cast together by the randomness of DNA. The crew moves through dangerous spaces in dangerous times, and slowly becomes the obsessive interest of great powers for knowledge they are believed to possess, knowledge that can supposedly bring final victory and dominance for whichever power controls it.  Such knowledge is worth having at any cost, particularly when it comes to the lives of Crichton and the crew, and their desires are inconsequential, particularly when it comes to a preference not to be dominated by anyone.

Farscape is the Cold War writ large, where something called “Mutually Assured Destruction” seems to be a viable and desirable policy, even if it means the destruction of entire planets. It is also a look at how the machinations of the powerful can all too often become divorced from the goals of civilization, and how the really important things: love, family, a productive life lived in peace can wind up being considered not just tertiary concerns, but irrelevant in the face of “larger issues.” Ultimately, however, Farscape is also about the power that the really important things actually have, and how dangerous the ignored can be when they are forced to fight for them. Farscape tells these tales with true style, incredible performances, effects, and writing, and uses the genre of science fiction to ask some really big questions and postulate some answers along the way. It is intricate, beautiful, gripping, sexy, and intensely moving, and that is why it is part of The Ten Percent.

 

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016)You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

 


Filed under: Ensley F. Guffey, science fiction, television, The Ten Percent Tagged: anthony simcoe, ben browder, brian henson, claudia black, cold war, Farscape, Firefly, gigi edgley, Jim Henson, jonathan hardy, lani john tupu, puppets, Rockne S. O'Bannon, sci-fi, The Ten Percent, virginia hey

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Friday, October 9, 2015

The Martian (2015): Now With 75% Less Science!

Matt Damon in The Martian.

Or something like that. I expect a film based upon a book that relies heavily on things like math, biology, and orbital mechanics for its plot to get dumbed down for the big screen, but with The Martian, screenwriter Drew Goddard, and director Ridley "Go Home, You've Been Drunk for Thirty Years" Scott managed to gut the driving force of the plot, and turn a gripping story of human ingenuity, perseverance, and bravery into just another basic survival movie where even the science they leave in is at best half-assed, and at worst just plain wrong. Matt Damon does a solid job, but lacks the power to captivate for long periods alone on screen (see Tom hanks in Castaway for an actor who actually can), but the cut-aways to an Earth full of big movie stars in supporting roles manage to support Damon's performance handsomely. All in all, the movie is fine, but if you really want a gripping, edge-of-your seat space thriller, read the book.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Housebound (2014): A Dark and Funny Kiwi Fruit

Left to right: Rima Te Wiata, Ross Harper, Morgana O'Reilly, and Ryan Lampp in  Housebound..

To make up for the trauma of Fantastic Four (2015), tonight we watched Housebound, a quirky, laugh-out-loud-funny, and really creepy horror film from New Zealand, directed by Gerard Johnstone. This was a delightful film with wonderfully developed characters and very human relationships that were well and quickly drawn. Great camerawork, tremendous use of lighting (or the lack of it) with more than a few twists in the very original story. It's streaming on Netflix right now. You should go watch it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015): Just Don't

These people had careers once.
Just back from Fantastic Four, which is (unbelievably) even worse than Fox's 2005 attempt. Not only it it an insult to the source material, it is an insult to the medium of film itself. Bad CG, bad acting, bad editing, appalling storytelling, nonexistent direction, baffling musical score, and writing that was turgid enough to clog an industrial toilet, which is where this film belongs. Do not go see this movie. Do not rent or stream this movie in the future. Instead, slam your foot in your car's door over and over again for 100 minutes while shouting "flame on!" and you will enjoy the same experience for much less money.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello again Readers Mine, and welcome to another installment of "Tuesdays with Mollari!" This is the place where I natter on about the greatness that is Babylon 5, and the various adventures associated with writing a book about the show. We're calling the project Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5, and we're looking at a publication date in the fall of 2017, but we may manage to be ready to go earlier. Our publisher is ECW Press out of Toronto, and this will be our second book with them, following Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad (available wherever fine books are sold, and probably in some other places too!)

First off, I want to give a big Centauri shout out ("VALTOOOOOOO!!!!") to the UK's own John Joshua. You'll remember in my last post about the B5 comics, I mentioned that I have been unable to obtain a copy of the tribute mini-comic Beyond the Rim. Well, the day that post went live, John e-mailed me and offered to send me hi-res scans of his copy, which were in my inbox the next day. That was really, really awesome, and you can bet we'll be thanking him in the book and sending a signed copy across the pond come the day! Thanks very much, John!

Marshall Teague as Nelson Drake in "Infection" (1.04).
Babylon 5 is rightly hailed for bringing the long, or grand arc to television, but not every episode was so directly dedicated to advancing the overarching stories of the series. Straczynski balanced his grand arc with episodes that were far more traditional and episodic, where a problem arises, is dealt with by the protagonists, and at the end of the episode things pretty much reset to the status quo. Babylon 5 even did this differently, however, as the series had a memory, and viewers were often asked to remember events in previous episodes in order to fully understand what was happening at a given point in the show. Even seemingly non-arc episodes.

The formula of grand arc/season arc/and episodic storytelling would be refined a few years later in Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003), and fans of that show would coin the term "monster-of-the-week episode" to denote an episode that really did nothing to advance the larger season or series arcs, and were almost entirely focused on Buffy and the Scoobies taking down a random threat o' the week. So when I began to sit down and write the episode guides for Dreams Given Form I expected to use the "monster-of-the-week" phrase relatively frequently when dealing with episodes like "TKO" (1.14), "GROPOS" (2.10) "Grey 17 Is Missing" (3.19), etc. I figured these would be relatively short write ups along the lines of "well, a few titbits for the larger story were scattered here and there, but basically this one is a monster-of-the-week" and then move on.

The thing is, it is turning out that I'm wrong. Thus far, in any given episode written by J. Michael Straczynski (an important caveat), information that is either deeply relevant or even fundamental to the larger arcs is included. Take "Infection" (1.04) for example. At first it seems like a placeholder episode, but when you look at it critically with an eye to the entire series, several really important things become clear. Interplanetary Expeditions (IPX) is introduced in this episode. Non-human biomechanical technology is first mentioned (Shadows, anyone?). The fact that Earth is looking for alien tech to turn into weapons is dropped into a conversation, and this is the episode where JMS introduces his recurring themes of ideology, militarism, and fanaticism v. science, faith, and lawful armsbearing. All in this easily overlooked episode about a guy who gets gobbled up by bad CGI and tries to kill everybody for the thinnest of reasons.

Again and again, the intricacy of JMS's plotting and storytelling, the sheer painstaking details of his arc continue to astound me, and I am reminded of why I study television. That's it for this go-round, folks. For all of the latest B5 and pop-culture news that comes across my screen, be sure and follow me on Twitter or Facebook, and check out our bi-weekly column, "The Ten Percent" over at Biff Bam Pop! Until next time...

Hold the Line!