Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Good Reads :: Standing On the Edge of the Opportunities and the Perils of Darwyn Cooke's The New Fronter (2004)

I would argue that Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier (2004) is probably the best thing DC Comics has published in the last twenty or so years. Set in the gray area between the Golden and Silver Age of comics, after an opening preamble set in 1945 involving The Losers and a suicide mission on Dinosaur Island, the majority of the tale takes place in the martini-soaked, jet-set and space age of the 1950s as the Cold War and McCarthyism sees the disbanding of the JSA and the forced retirement of masked vigilantes, making way for non-superhero groups like the original Task Force-X / Suicide Squad and the Challengers of the Unknown.

Still, a brand new generation of costumed crime-fighters and caped crusaders are starting to appear, some terrestrial, others not so much as Kryptonians, Martians and alien power rings find their way to Earth. But in this age of paranoia and conspiracy the government does their best to shut these heroes down -- with a few exceptions. And not to over-simplify things but there is a paradigm shift in this attitude when a crisis with extinction-level ramifications hits and all these new heroes unite under government sanction to take out the threat and usher in a new age of heroes; a new frontier, if you will.

Whenever I reread The New Frontier it’s always a slow go because I tend to savor every panel and every minute detail Cooke sticks into each panel to just soak it all in. It's pure alchemy. And as I get toward the end there is always a pang of regret because I do not want this adventure to end. I had always hoped Cooke had more vintage Challengers of the Unknown tales to tell -- easily the best and my most favorite part of the book. Alas, Cooke passed away last year so this will never be but at least we got this and for that (-- and his Catwoman run, and those Parker adaptations --) I will always be eternally grateful to him.

Now, one of the most amazing and refreshing things about the plot of The New Frontier, in my experience, is how the Batman essentially disappears for the climax, realizing he can actually do more good in this cosmic fight against something like ‘The Center’ as Bruce Wayne (-- established in one throwaway panel). Given the nature of DC’s ‘All Batman All the Time’ attitude it was a ballsy movie and I’m kinda surprised they let Cooke get away with it. Of course, Superman gets knocked out of the final battle as well. As does Wonder Woman, though less so, leaving it up to the likes of the Flash, a brand new Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter, the Challengers, Adam Strange and several more familiar faces -- including the Blackhawks and a scientific brain trust that includes Will Magnus, Niles Caulder and Ray Palmer, to end the threat.

Which brings us to the animated version of The New Frontier (2008), which gets to the root of my point here. In the adaptation, of course, the Batman was brought out front and center to prove once again that he is the smartest man in the room and only he and he alone has the smarts and know-how to save the day like he always does and they always do -- sorry, but, *yawn* and *yawn* again, while everyone else is pushed way back into the background because god forbid they actually do something that ISN’T Bat-Centric in the DC animated universe.

So, in this version there are no Losers, no Rick Flagg, no Suicide Squad, no Adam Strange, and no Challengers of the Unknown (-- that glorified cameo does not count, sorry), which, to me, is unconscionable. And if the supplemental materials on the DVD are to be believed, the main reason all of that happened is because Bruce Timm thought it would be “cool” to see the vintage Bat-Plane in action during the climax. Well, screw that noise as far as I’m concerned. Next thing you know Batman will be screwing Batgirl.

Alright, fine. That’s a little harsh. The cartoon is actually pretty good at capturing the spirit of Cooke’s epic saga and is entertaining enough. But as an adaption of the story, it @#%*ing sucks. And so, if you’ve seen that and haven’t read The New Frontier comics I encourage you to do so to get the real picture of what the creator had intended. And if you’ve read the comics but haven’t seen the feature version yet brace yourselves for some drastic changes. It kinda takes a massive dump on it but at least there was some effort to clean it up before presenting the finished result. And you’ll still recognize it for what it is but also for what it isn’t, and so, you may just want to skip it altogether. I kinda wish I did. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Favorites :: Behind the Scenes :: They Sure Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To...

"Movie making has changed quite a lot. Back in what they called the Golden Age Hollywood, most movies were made in places like this. This is MGM's Lot #2. Since 1927 almost six hundred pictures have been shot here. Garbo, Gable and Garland all worked here. Way back then they built whatever they needed on the big movie lot. Now, of course, it's the other way around. It costs a fortune to build and maintain elaborate back lot sets. Modern film equipment is portable, and most films are now shot on location. So, movie-making has changed in that way. But in the seventy odd years movie's have been made, this much hasn't changed. People still make 'em. They haven't automated that yet."

I touched on this a couple posts ago, the sorry state of MGM, as a studio, and it's fabled back lot in the 1970s. These pictures and opening quote were taken from a documentary on the making Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running (1972), a picture for Universal, sure; an outer-space epic that was mostly shot on a converted aircraft carrier, which gets to the point of the doc and this interlude; that they sure don't make 'em like they used to. Not a judgement, mind you, just an observation.

MGM had a total of six back lots. By 1973 Back Lot #3 was gone, dozed over for housing development. Back Lot #2, featured above, known as the musical back lot, where things like Singing in the Rain (1952) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) were filmed, was the next to go. In fact, part of that destruction was caught on film for the made for TV movie The Phantom of Hollywood (1974), a thinly veiled dig on MGM's current management team by way of Gaston Leroux, adding a whole 'nother layer of meta to the ignominious end of so much film history. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

In Memoriam :: Left to Flounder.

Admit it. You go through life wanting to be a Bluto,  but we all know deep down in our hearts we will always were, and will forever be, a Flounder.

I honest to god had a come to "fat drunk and stupid is no way to go through life son" meeting with the dean of my college after my first freshman year was lost in a alcoholic haze. (G.P.A. of 0.34.) Always felt a kinship there. With this character, which bled over into the actor as I kept up with him in things like Scavenger Hunt (1979), Midnight Madness (1980), Silent Rage (1982) The Unseen (1981), The Dream Team (1989) and especially the raunch-com Up the Creek (1984), where, at least for a little while, our hero finally got to be Bluto and acquitted himself beautifully. Not to mention his work on the small screen, ranging from Dr. Elliot Axelrod in St. Elsewhere to Vir Cotto in Babylon 5, to voicing Fanboy on Freakazoid. *sigh* 

Dammit. This one hurts. This one hurts bad.

Stephen Furst

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Boy! Does The Delos Corporation Have a Vacation for You! :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973)

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To prove they’ve cornered the market on the ultimate resort package, the Delos Corporation’s latest promotional piece for their expansive theme park takes a roving reporter to the people, resulting in a vox populi testimonial from many a satisfied customer. And what is it which Delos offers that tops Disney, Six Flags or Worlds of Fun that folks are willing to cough up a $1000 a day for? The answer is total immersion into an authentically recreated era from three historical periods: 

RomanWorld offers the bacchanalia of the Roman Empire at its most decadent heights (-- complete with toga orgies and vomitoriums, I’m sure); meanwhile, MedievalWorld offers chivalrous and swashbuckling adventure for wannabe knights and maidens fair (-- complete with flagons of mead and a torture chamber with a damsel in distress already included deep in the castle keep); and finally, WestWorld offers up a rustic 1880s frontier town (-- with the bonus features of daily bank robberies, jailbreaks, and a well-stocked saloon and whorehouse).

Now, having read that you would be right to assume there is something slightly carnal and debaucherous about all three adult-oriented theme parks but what makes the Delos package so enticing is you can leave the kids at home and do whatever you want -- eat, drink, screw, and even kill, as much as you want, with no repercussions or emotional baggage. See, the real draw of Delos is the theme park is populated by a series of automata -- androids, nearly indistinguishable from their human counterparts just waiting to be fornicated with or be killed, which are then patched up and hosed out during the overnight and sent back out to do it all over again. And that, as I said, is the real draw. Everything on the surface of Delos, the people and the animals, are all fake, mechanical, run from a sprawling command bunker below the parks, situated in the middle of the vast deserts of the American southwest. (We can assume this isolation is both for security reasons and allows for more environmental control.) And so, this promotional piece concludes with a clarion call for all to partake in the ultimate vacation of self-indulgence and hedonism and then ends with this statement: “Delos -- the ultimate resort. Where nothing can possibly go wrong."

Delos also plays this same video for passengers on the shuttle to their isolated destination in the far flung future of 1983; among them are John Blane (Brolin) and his reluctant friend, Peter Martin (Benjamin). This is Blane’s second trip to Westworld and Martin’s first, who was talked into this little adventure to get his mind off a failed marriage that just broke-up on the rocks of signed divorce papers. Both hail from Chicago but appear to be a tad mismatched, with Blane looking like the Marlboro Man while Martin has ‘nebbish accountant’ written all over him. (One could almost read Blane is using this experience to toughen his friend up a bit in keeping with that macho 1970s vibe.) But after kind of a rough start and a brief period of adjustment (-- which allows Blane to explain away a few potential plot-holes on how Delos works, like how customers can’t accidentally shoot each other during the daily mayhem due to built in safety features), Martin is soon in the swing of things and having the time of his life, including outdrawing a bullying gunslinger (Brynner) at the saloon, cathartically blowing him away, and then spending a blissful and sexually satisfying night at the brothel with one of Miss Carrie’s (Barrett) whores.

Yep. It appears to be business as usual at Delos -- only it really isn’t, and hasn’t been for quite some time. As always, it started small with a few glitches that eventually grew into malfunctioning robots going off script and acting autonomously, including a recent incident in MedievalWorld, where one maiden-bot slapped and rebuked the advances of a lecherous customer. And yet all later inspections can find nothing diagnostically wrong either mechanically or with the software used to run the androids. 

Still, this problem seems to be growing at an alarmingly exponential rate, and so, the head supervisor of Delos’ underbelly (Oppenheimer) takes his concerns to the board of directors, asking that Delos be shut down completely so a more thorough investigation can be conducted before something really goes wrong. And to their credit, the board actually agrees to this request but feel it is okay to let the latest batch of customers already there to finish up their allotted stay. And so, the good news is in three days Delos will be shut down. The bad news is, it’s already too late...

Like most major studios at the time, after a string of high-profile flops, MGM was near financial ruin by 1970. And after a hostile takeover by Kirk Kerkorian and his appointing former CBS executive, James Aubrey, to run the studio, things only got worse as Aubrey slashed budgets, cut back on promotions, cancelled productions, and sold off the majority of MGM’s assets, ranging from equipment, to props, to legendary costumes (-- including Dorothy’s ruby slippers), and even the studio’s famed back-lot was parceled off -- but instead of using this infusion of cash to right the floundering studio, the vast majority of the money was funneled into financing Kerkorian’s new MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas, ushering in the the era of Mega-Resorts along the fabled Sin City Strip. This ruthless house-cleaning also ran off a lot of talent both in front of and behind the camera -- Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah to name a few. And things were getting so bad, and productions made so cheaply, people in the industry were beginning to wonder if one of the Ms in MGM now stood for Monogram; not quite the dead end of the old Poverty Row studios, that would probably be PRC, but the once storied franchise had definitely fallen on hard times.

And yet it was this newly formed vacuum of talent that allowed an upstart author to fast-talk his way into a chance at directing a major motion picture to help fill that void. His literary bona fides already well established, by this time Michael Crichton also had one of his novels adapted into a movie with The Andromeda Strain (1970), which was already showcasing the author’s trademark theme of technology being a potential trap that mankind will willingly fall into as the Wildfire lab becomes even more of a threat to a group of xenobiologists than the alien virus they’ve recovered, and how the whole world was almost doomed to mass extinction thanks to a minor technical glitch when a signal bell doesn’t sound on a printer because a small piece of debris jammed the striker.

Looking to expand on these ideas, Crichton first got the notion of Westworld (1973) after a trip to Florida where he visited the Kennedy Space Center and Disney World. At one location he watched the astronauts train, noting how they were being conditioned to make their responses automatic, perfect, machine-like. And at the other he saw the Hall of Presidents and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, where machines were made to look, talk and act like a real person. “The two tendencies toward making people as machine like as possible and machines as human as possible are creating a lot of confusion,” said Crichton. “It was the idea of playing with a situation in which the usual distinctions between person and machine – between a car and the driver of the car-become blurred, and then trying to see if there was something in the situation that would lead to other ways of looking at what’s human and what’s mechanical."

Finding it more fantasy than science fiction, Asimov’s rules of robotics no longer applied. Crichton also realized the “fantasy” of Delos needed to be realized visually. Thus, with the notion of a theme park going berserk where the ride rebels and attempts to kill the passengers, the author felt it was a story that wouldn’t work on paper as a novel. Thus and so, the author wrote the story as a screenplay. “In some ways, it’s a lot cleaner as a movie, because it’s a movie about people acting out movie fantasies. As a result, the film is intentionally structured around old movie cliche situations -- the shoot-out in the saloon, the sword fight in the castle banquet hall -- and we very much tried to play on an audience’s vague memory of having seen it before, and, in a way, wondering what it would be like to be an actor in an old movie."

When the script was finished, Crichton shopped it around Hollywood but only got a nibble from MGM, currently in the middle of that chaotic regime change. Pushing his luck, Crichton also made a pitch to make it a package deal that would also allow him to direct the picture. By now, Crichton had already leveraged his way into directing an adaptation of one his books into a made for TV movie, Pursuit (1972), which gave him more of a leg to stand on. And at that point, no one else was really willing to work with MGM, which opened the back door for Crichton. Still, the studio had plenty of demands and would only agree to make the picture for one million dollars with a shooting schedule of just thirty days. And while the novice director thought that would be nearly impossible given the scope of the picture, figuring this might be his only chance, he took the offer and shooting began in the spring of 1972.

Strangely enough, Crichton never really spells out what went wrong with Delos. No concrete explanation is ever given but there are a few clues and plausible possibilities presented as a once well-oiled machine throws a rod and descends into deadly chaos. Throughout the film we are given brief but effective glimpses of Delos’ inner-workings from the ethereal nightly clean-up, to the nuts and bolts of the repair centers, to the somewhat detached inhabitants of the command center, where this once magnificent feat of engineering has become somewhat of a dull routine. At this point it appears the park essentially runs itself as these techs are so on cruise control it’s almost comical, seemingly more interested in what’s on the breakfast menu than the morning checklist.

And perhaps in an effort to keep up with demand, corners were cut and the support staff are no longer quite as qualified to repair this kind of intricate stuff as those who first built and maintained them. These same corners were probably cut on the replacement androids as the first wave wore out. There’s also talk of upgrades and new hardware that needed to be installed that doesn’t quite fit properly into the individual chassis but is installed anyway, forced to fit, in the likes of the Gunslinger, who had also been showing signs of misbehavior, giving him faster reflexes, more acute audio and visual inputs, and a longer shelf-life on his battery which normally expires in about 12 hours. With the impending shut-down imminent, one could and should question why these upgrades weren’t put on hold, adding a communications breakdown to the litany of problems facing Delos at this crucial moment. And speaking honestly, the androids come off as more human than their masters at times.

There are also references to a possible computer virus causing this erratic instability, which makes more sense in today’s world of malware and backdoor trojans but in 1972 such a thing wasn’t really invented yet until almost two years later. But after studying the data, the chief supervisor appears to be convinced by the symptoms that this is the case, impossible as it may seem. And although his superiors feel this is preposterous, they cannot deny the evidence that something is going wrong (-- alas, their tepid response will be their ultimate undoing and cost hundreds of lives.) Thus, one cannot rule out sabotage by some insidious rival or, more than likely, a disgruntled employee. Then again, this whole disaster could be chalked up to plain old entropy. Things fall apart. Order always declines into disorder. And it’s only a matter of time. Have these machines reached true sentience? And does this lead to open rebellion? A new epoch that calls for the genocide of what came before? That’s me shrugging right now.

Regardless, things are definitely going awry at Delos, and then we officially pass the rubicon when the Black Knight (Mikler) in MediavalWorld punctuates that point of no return by running his broadsword through one of the slovenly tourists he was dueling, which triggers an all out massacre as the androids turn on all the humans and butcher them. This murder mange quickly spreads to RomanWorld and WestWorld, too.

Meantime, down below, the controllers are desperately trying to restore order. And, believe it or not, the best idea they can come up with is turning Delos off and then on again. Only Delos stubbornly refuses to reboot, cutting power to everything, including the electronic door to the command center. That has no manual release. Leaving them trapped in an airtight room. With no more oxygen coming in. Due to the power being shut off. Because nothing can ever go wrong. Ever. Brilliant piece of engineering, says I -- and Crichton, too, whose commentary on this fit of narcissism and hubris is quite brutal.


Meanwhile, Blane and Martin first become aware that something isn’t quite right after spending most of the day alone hiding out in the desert after Blane gunned down the sheriff and busted Martin out of jail in another bit of role-playing. And when Blane is bitten by a rattlesnake, at first thinking it’s real, Martin blasts it to pieces, revealing the shredded reptile was just another android. Figuring it was just a minor malfunction, and unaware of what’s really been happening, the two ride back into town, which is strewn with dead bodies but they figure another bank robbery went down, which always results in a lot of collateral damage. Things also appear to be eerily silent -- except for the approaching Gunslinger, who seems to have had a hard on for these two over the past couple days. And since Blane hasn’t had the opportunity to kill him yet, Martin backs off and lets his friend take care of this showdown -- only the Gunslinger is no longer playing by the rules, proves the faster draw, and guns down a very surprised Blane.

His friend dead, a bewildered Martin is soon on the run from a relentless killing machine, which leads to the best part of the film as this deadly game of cat and mouse continues with the Gunslinger running his prey right out of WestWorld and into an adjoining park, which is littered with dead people and malfunctioning androids. Martin does find one technician trying to flee the area, who reveals what happened but has no explanation for the android rebellion. He also reveals there might be a slim chance for survival if they can find some place to hole-up since the androids will eventually run out of juice before he is gunned down as the Gunslinger catches up to him. 

Thus, the chase continues into the bowels of Delos itself, where Martin finds the sealed off command center and all the asphyxiated people trapped inside. He also proves fairly wily by laying a trap for the Gunslinger in one of the repair shops, pretending to be a deactivated android on a workbench to lure his nemesis close enough for a face full of acid.

But while this disfigures the Gunslinger and plays hell with his visual infrared receptors, it’s still pursues Martin by sound into what’s left of MedievalWorld (-- luckily, nearly all the Delos androids are now running on fumes except for you know who thanks to that ill-timed upgrade). There, Martin hears a cry for help and finds a woman chained up in the dungeon. He releases her, tries to comfort the girl, only to realize she’s an android, too. Not realizing it, he’s also backed himself into a corner as the only way out is now blocked by the Gunslinger. Thus, with not much left in his own tank, an exhausted Martin rallies himself one more time for the final showdown between man and machine.

Again, I cannot stress enough how great the last act of Westworld is, especially when you consider how deceptively simple the action comes off. And it is simple, but extremely effective. I mean, all it consists of is Martin, played beautifully by Richard Benjamin, as an ersatz Final Girl fleeing from a deranged unstoppable killer, played equally beautifully by Yul Brynner. Brynner was a familiar face in that cowboy get-up, playing to what Crichton was trying to sell, movie fantasy wise, as his costume appears to be his old outfit from The Magnificent Seven (1960). 

But it’s not how he looks, which is intimidating enough, honestly, but how he acts. His thumbs constantly hooked in his gun belt. His pace steady. There’s no need to run. And while that doesn’t sound very scary, think about how this android will never, ever stop until its prey is dead. (Yes, it will eventually run of juice but odds are its prey will run out of gas first.) And how invulnerable it is. And how it can’t be reasoned with. And how its steady, unceasing gait, with the rhythmic clack of his boot heels mixed with Fred Karlin’s eerie score, almost an electronic drone, really ratchets up the tension. And the whole scenario would prove hugely influential to future films and filmmakers, ranging from John Carpenter, who based Michael Myers on the Gunslinger, and James Cameron as it’s not too big a leap to get from the unstoppable Gunslinger to a ruthless Terminator.

Alas, the rest of the film cannot quite reach the same heights as the climax. Yeah, for the most part Westworld, like a lot of MGM product from this period, kind of comes off as a cheap made for TV knock-off of some feature film that inspired it. Most of that can be blamed on MGM’s budget, which left only about $75,000 for all the sets. I’m not sure if the WestWorld frontier town was already built but I do know it was reused the next year in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974). More money was saved by renting out Harold Lloyd’s estate for the brief glimpses we get of RomanWorld and MedievalWorld.

The film has some serious pacing issues, too, and kinda drags in a few spots, showing several telltale earmarks of a first time director. The barroom brawl feels a little too self-indulgent and goes on way too long for one. And it could’ve been even worse. Apparently, after taking a look at the first rough cut of the film, Crichton was so depressed by how boring it was he immediately recut it, trimming out whole scenes, reducing others, and redid the entire ending because “It didn’t work” and seemed phony. Seems the original ending was more of a brawl that saw the Gunslinger winding up on the rack in that dungeon where he is torn apart. However, to tighten things up even further, the director cut out more scenes of the homicidal androids, which, to me, seems to be a tactical mistake once you consider everything else he left in.

Still, I liked Westworld well enough and feel Crichton acquitted himself rather well considering the limitations, studio interference, and his own inexperience, and it did prove to be a rare hit for MGM upon its release. I think it’s a neat idea with some cool things to say on first impression but found it’s best not to think about the premise any harder than that as it quickly crumbles, fantasy or not.

I mean, Why are the androids even given live ammunition? For that matter, Why is anyone given live ammunition? What happens with ricochets or stray shots? With those infrared sensors they claim to have that prevents any shooting at a live target, these same sensor arrays could trigger blood squibs on the targeted android, giving the use of blanks the same visceral kick and result. And what the hell kind of safety features do you put on a battle axe, sword, arrow, or a mace? That is just silly. I can’t even imagine what Delos would pay a month for liability insurance but I can guarantee they would definitely have to charge more than a $1,000 a day per customer to cover it. Also, is there any worse future job in sci-fi cinema than the poor Delos-tech in charge of cleaning up and *ahem* 'cleaning out' the sex-bots? *bleaurgh*

Of course Crichton would take another run at this kind of catastrophic theme park breakdown with his novel, Jurassic Park, opening a whole new can of worms of science gone amok on a genetic level -- and in the interim, InGen apparently learned nothing from Delos. And while I liked the book and Spielberg’s 1993 film adaptation it lacks a certain sense of humanity from his earlier effort. Life prevails in both but in completely different ways. 

For while it is fun to watch homicidal androids running amok and dinosaurs on a rampage, at the heart of Westworld you have the tale of Peter Martin searching for a new identity post-divorce. And while his friend tries to mold him into a tough guy, any progress made is quickly lost once he’s on the run -- his newfound bravado a facade like everything else in WestWorld. And only when it gets to the point where an exhausted Martin is stripped down to nothing and starts using his wits instead of his brawn does the tide of the fight turn and our evil robot overlords are turned back. At least for now. 

Sources: All Crichton quotes were taken from his website.

Westworld (1973) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Paul N. Lazarus III / AP: Michael Rachmil / D: Michael Crichton / W: Michael Crichton / C: Gene Polito / E: David Bretherton / M: Fred Karlin / S: Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Yul Brynner, Alan Oppenheimer, Michael T. Mikler, Majel Barrett
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