Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE (1978, Alan Dean Foster)

Stars:  3 of 5.
Length:  199 pages.
Publisher:  Del Rey/Ballantine, NY.
Tag-line: "Stranded on a jungle planet, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia found themselves desperately racing Imperial stormtroopers to claim a gem that had mysterious powers over THE FORCE"

Now this is a true curiosity.  A quickie paperback sequel to STAR WARS that used inside info of George Lucas' original drafts of the script (with his blessing) to build a smaller, more intimate storyline that might have been the actual movie sequel to STAR WARS had the first film not been such a resounding success.

The plot follows Luke, Leia, C-3PO, and R2-D2 as they travel to the Circarpous system to spread the Rebellion and recover a mysterious force-focusing crystal on the planet Mimban.  Darth Vader makes a brief appearance at the end, also hunting for the crystal.  Ben Kenobi is mentioned a few times, though Han and Chewbacca are nowhere to be found (Han warrants one mention only, on the penultimate page, when Luke argues in passing, "I know another man, a smuggler and a pirate, who once thought the same way as you.").  

It's a strange, quick read (it's one of those books you can finish in an hour and a half) that feels sort of quaint (droids are persistently called 'droids throughout, for instance) in light of the actual STAR WARS sequels, and any die hard fan will find much amusement in its pages.  Therefore, without further ado, here are my ten strangest/most hideous/favorite things about SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE:

#10.  The level of self-seriousness.  First off, the title: SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE.  It's already striving for something greater than "STAR WARS." STAR WARS gets straight to the point: you got yer stars, you got yer wars, and there you go.  "SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE" sounds partway between a Tennessee Williams play and a Daphne Du Maurier short story and a Philip K. Dick novel. This seriousness sometimes extends to the prose.  For instance, the opening line had me chuckling out loud:

"How beautiful was the universe, Luke thought.  How beautifully flowing, glorious, and aglow like the robe of a queen."

Now, in context, the first movie began with pew-pew laser-blastin' spacecraft screaming across a field of stars...  that I've always considered to be much like like the robe of a queen.

Pictured: the robe of a queen.

#9.  The names.  Alan Dean Foster definitely nails Lucas' (more recent) propensity for unwieldy names:  Circarpousians, Kaiburr Crystals, The Temple of Pomojema, Captain-Supervisor Grammel...  er– Captain-Supervisor Grammel?  Seriously?  There is no precedent in the first film for the rank of Captain-Supervisor.  That's unwieldiness for unwieldiness' sake. And I kinda like that.

#8.  So much Luke and Leia romance.  SO MUCH LUKE AND LEIA ROMANCE.

This was more than enough already.

I realize that they peck in STAR WARS and kiss in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and that we don't know their actual sibling relationship until halfway through RETURN OF THE JEDI, but in retrospect this stuff is extraordinarily awkward, and most of it feels culled from a trashy Harlequin paperback:
"The other [Leia]...  whenever he looked at her, the other caused emotions to boil within him like soup too long on the fire, no matter if she was separated from him by near vacuum as at present or by only an arm's length in a conference room."

"Awkwardly pressed up against him, the Princess seemed to take no notice of their proximity.  In the dampness, though, her body heat was near palpable to Luke and he had to force himself to keep his attention on what he was doing."
"Disheveled and caked with mud from the waist down, she was still beautiful."

Luke does some sleeper creepin':

"It was not the face of a Princess and a Senator or a leader of the Rebel Alliance, but instead that of a chilled child.  Moistly parted in sleep, her lips seemed to beckon to him.  He leaned closer, seeking refuge from the damp green and brown of the swamp in the hypnotic redness."

At one point Luke and Leia must (?!) undress in front of each other:

"She put her hands on seal-curve hips, cocked her head to one side and stared meaningfully at him.  'Oh,' he murmured, half-smiling.  He turned away and continued undressing."

At another point, in a great leap forward for gender relations, Leia must role-play as Luke's servant-girl in order to fool the local authorites:

"He thought furiously.  'No, she's... uh, I bought her.'  Leia twitched, stared at him a moment before returning resolutely to her food.  'Yes, she's a servant of mine.  Spent all my earnings on her.' ... Her shoulders shook.  'But she was the best I could afford.  And she's kind of amusing to have around, though she tends to get out of line at times and I have to slap her down.'

#7.  As a writer myself, I'm always on the lookout for bad sentences, the sort that jut out of the page and fall straight on their faces.  Usually, they are ambitious sentences; a simple sentence has fewer ways in which it can go wrong.  In any event, bad sentences can happen to good writers, and Alan Dean Foster is no exception:

"While most of it tasted like reprocessed X-Wing fuselage insulation, a couple of the subterranean gourmet delights were downright flavorful."
"We could find ourselves marooned forever on this empty world, without companionship, without knowledge tapes, without... without lubricants!"

"She did as she was told, the motion generating squelching sounds from the bog."

"Air!  Most delicious of gases, it filled his starved lungs, those weakened bellows pumping harder with every fresh breath."

"Swear it!" She [Leia] demanded, her voice that of a steel kitten."

#6.  Pre-Yoda speak.  At one point, Luke pontificates, "Survive we will, if the Force is with us."  The man hasn't even met Yoda yet!

#5.  Lovecraft references.  At one point, beloved Lovecraft descriptors like "eldritch," "stygian," "abyssal," and  "sepulchral" appear within the same paragraph.  The only one missing is "Cyclopean."  As they say, everybody loves Lovecraft.

#4.  Brief social commentary.  On the planet Mimban, the underclass' plight is addressed:
"She gestured, and they saw the degraded, crawling beggars pleading with patrons for a chance to perform the most servile acts in return for a sip of alcohol."
Holy shit– Imperial policies have created a society of deviant hobo drunks!

The STAR WARS universe and this guy seem like they'd be a good fit.

#3.  After cutting off a ruffian's hand with his lightsaber, the Mimban locals give Luke the nickname "Saberman."  Boy, I wish that name would've stuck!

"Use the force, Saberman."

#2.  Foster is forced to expand on little throwaway bits from the first movie because at this point, it represents the entirety of his source text.  Some of these are actually well-developed.

For instance, Leia is basically suffering PTSD from her encounter with the interrogation droid in the first STAR WARS movie. ("Small black worms crawled through her brain...the machine drifting into her holding cell.  The remorseless black machine, illegal, concocted by twisted Imperial scientists in defiance of every code, legal and moral... Screaming, screaming, screaming never to stop she was...").

Later, she makes Luke promise to murder her ("put that saber at your hip to my throat") if she's captured by Vader, because she won't be taken alive again.

Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) mentions the Emperor disbanding the Imperial Senate in the first STAR WARS.  In SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE, Foster tries to address how this is putting undue pressure on the local system Governors, who no longer have Senate infrastructure and don't always have access to Imperial military.  While it's kind of bureaucratic in a PHANTOM MENACE kind of way, I appreciate the effort.

#2.  Darth Vader is a total perv.  I guess the dudes's always been into leather and bondage and asphyxiation and could definitely fit in with the gas mask fetishists.

I would never say that his cape reminded me of the robe of a queen, however.

Maybe this whole time his cape has really been just one big handkerchief indicating what sorts of scenes he's into.

Would you say, "leather daddy?"

Anywho, in SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE, while fighting Princess Leia Vader says the following:
"'Foolish infant.  The Force is with me, not you.'  But, he [Vader] shrugged amiably, "we will see."  He assumed a position of readiness.  'Come, girl-woman... amuse me.'"
Er–  did you really just say that?

"Yes," Vader observed, perverse amusement in his voice, "I can see that you do.  I am truly sorry I have nothing as elaborate to treat you to at this time.  'However,'  he added, swinging his weapon lightly, 'one can do some interesting things with a saber, you know.  I'll do my best to show you all of them if you'll cooperate by not passing out.'

In lieu of comment, I will simply remind you that we never really knew what went on inside that chamber.

#1.  Okay, so we seem to have a mix of progressive and backward thinking running throughout this book.  It takes a hardline stance on torture and Imperial hobo policy, but on servant-girl fantasy and daddy-daughter-dance protocol, it's a tad sexist.

Let me back that up: it becomes a plot element that Princess Leia can't swim.  And Luke can.  Luke, who spent the entirety of his life thus far on a desert planet.  As in, "lacking in bodies of water whatsoever."  From our brief glimpse of Leia's planet Alderaan before it's destroyed,

we can see that it's at least 75% water.  Plus, Leia clearly had Alderaanian dressage tauntauns and palace diving pools and water polo lessons and lakeshore property and sailing lessons and summer homes and all that jazz, and you don't experience all that without learning how to swim.

In SPLINTER OF THE MIND'S EYE, Luke demonstrates his lifeguarding skills on Leia and she says, "I'm sorry I was so much trouble.  I'm sorry I did so much screaming.  I... usually have better control of myself than that."  In the first STAR WARS movie we saw Leia survive torture, murder a stormtrooper at point-blank range while his blaster was set to 'stun,' and coordinate a war room.  She's a two-fisted Hawksian heroine, for sure, and she doesn't need a farm boy to fish her out of a swamp.

At least she gets to take on Darth Vader with Luke's– I mean Saberman's– lightsaber at the end, but she only holds him to a draw till Luke can extract himself from the rock that has pinned him. Luke finishes the battle but cutting off Vader's arm and knocking him down a mineshaft, which is a pretty stock ending, but what are you gonna do.

Three stars.

–Sean Gill

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Television Review: CHRISTMAS AT PEE WEE'S PLAYHOUSE (1988, Wayne Orr & Paul Reubens)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 49 minutes.
Tag-line: None.
Notable Cast or Crew: Paul Reubens (PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), Annette Funicello (BABES IN TOYLAND, BEACH PARTY), Frankie Avalon (GREASE, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE), Grace Jones (A VIEW TO A KILL, VAMP), k.d. lang, Dinah Shore, Little Richard, Cher, Magic Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg (FATAL BEAUTY, THE CELEBRITY GUIDE TO WINE), Oprah Winfrey, Joan Rivers,  Charo, Laurence Fishburne (APOCALYPSE NOW, BOYZ N THE HOOD), Chairry, Floory, Globey, Conky 2000, Clockey, Magic Screen, Pterri, Mr. Window, Dirty Dog, Cool Cat, Chicky Baby, Randy, Billy Baloney, the Dinosaur Family, and The Flowers.
Best One-liner:  "That was Cher!  Cher was right over there!  In the same room as my chair!  I hope I didn't stare!  Oh well!  I don't care!"
Secret Word: "Year."

Now this was an 11th Hour Christmas Eve recommendation from my sister, who let me know it was streaming on Netflix.  And holy cow, what an embarrassment of festive, camp-tastic riches!  Occasionally subversive for a children's program, it uses its substantial powers to celebrate diversity and kitsch in something approaching equal quantities.  It's madness down the line, but for the moment, let me regale you with the top seven most amazingly absurd moments in CHRISTMAS AT PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE:

#7.  The opening tableau, which involves sequined back-up singers and the UCLA Glee Club men's choir dressed as U.S. Marines in dress blues
cavorting in the background and ultimately hoisting Pee Wee into the camera lens where he caterwauls impressively.

#6.  L.A. Laker Magic Johnson shows up inside the Magic Screen

because Magic Johnson is cousins with the Magic Screen.  Later, they are chased by a cartoon polar bear:

#5.  Pee Wee forces Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon into a form of slave labor, the arts n' craftsy task at hand being to construct his Christmas cards.

Later, for all their efforts, he serves them bread and water.

#4.  Whoa-oh-oh!  Cher drops by to mess around with Conky and determine the Word of the Day, which is "YEAR."

Pee Wee then proceeds to make a variety of Cher-related puns.

This represents the content and flavor of the entire show condensed into a single freeze frame.

#3.  Little Richard minces in, flustered by his own inability to ice skate.

Pee Wee then delights Little Richard with a deft display of ice-skating.

However, the use of stunt double "Hans" saddens Little Richard, who pouts in disappointment.

#2.  There is an ongoing gag about Pee Wee receiving unwanted fruitcakes.  Naturally, he sets two beefcake-y construction workers to building him a tower out of them.

 Literally a tower of fruitcakes.

#1.  A crate is delivered by mistake to Pee Wee.

It is intended for then-lame duck President Ronald Reagan.

The crate contains Grace Jones, who is wearing a bizarro foam outfit with sculpted breast-molds, because of course she is.

Pee Wee attempts to repackage Grace Jones,

 but she insists on singing "The Little Drummer Boy" while she strips off her fur and gloves as if proceeding into a burlesque number

while Pee Wee himself sits on a tiny chair in childlike euphoria throughout.

Unfortunately, no one has ever accidentally delivered Grace Jones to my house.

I feel as if I have only scratched the surface here (I didn't even get to Charo, Whoopi, Oprah, or Laurence Fishburne!), and invite you, too, to visit this, which may very well be the most willfully insane of all the 80s Christmas specials.  (You'll note that the STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL is from the 70s.)  Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and here's to a tremendous New Year!

That's the secret word!  AHHHHHHHHHH!

–Sean Gill

Monday, December 22, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... COMPANY OF KILLERS

Only now does it occur to me...  that while COMPANY OF KILLERS is a fairly dull, run-of-the-mill 70s TV police procedural, amid depressed Ray Milland,

I feel your pain, Ray

a sleepy Fritz Weaver,

I know it ain't CREEPSHOW, but run it up the flagpole, man!

and a hardboiled but bland John Saxon (doing a weird, sorta old-country accent),

He plays– no joke– an assassin named... "Poohler"

is an incredibly likable Clu Gulager performance as "Frank Quinn," a persistent and wacky newspaper reporter who cracks wise and offers people the opportunity to pull out his tonsils.

He's always chewing on things and messing around with unexpected bits of acting business, as is his way.  You get the idea he's actually having some fun in the middle of all this crap, which is more than can be said for anyone else.  Good goin', Clu!

(And for those who are not acquainted, you can read more about my love of all things Gulager here, and a little more about the saga of his artistic family here.)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Film Review: KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1985, J. Lee Thompson)

Stars: 2.5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Adventure of a Lifetime"
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Richard Chamberlain (SHOGUN, THE MUSIC LOVERS), Sharon Stone (BASIC INSTINCT, SLIVER), John Rhys-Davies (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING), Herbert Lom (THE DEAD ZONE, SPARTACUS).  Written by Gene Quintano (POLICE ACADEMY 3, POLICE ACADEMY 4: CITIZENS ON PATROL) and James R. Silke (REVENGE OF THE NINJA, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION).  Music by Jerry Goldsmith (THE OMEN, GREMLINS, ALIEN).  Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  Directed by J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN).
Best One-liner:  "I'll take that rug!"

KING SOLOMON'S MINES is an unabashed, unrepentant rip-off of the Indiana Jones series, sloppily orchestrated by everybody's favorite 1980s production company, Cannon Films.  The utter shamelessness of the effort is staggering... and brilliant... and absurd. 

First, a little background.  Cannon Films wanted to celebrate the centennial of Henry Rider Haggard's famed adventure novel, KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1885) and make a few dollars along the way by ridin' the Indiana Jones gravy train.  They shot two movies (this and ALLAN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD) simultaneously to maximize the profit (as was the case with 1970s classics like THE THREE MUSKETEERS/FOUR MUSKETEERS and SUPERMAN/SUPERMAN II, among others).  Tobe Hooper was originally slated to direct, but instead used his Cannon Connections to do LIFEFORCE the same year.  In his absence, resident director and Charles Bronson-wrangler J. Lee Thompson took over.  Apparently the shoot proved to be so cursed that he (possibly apocryphally) hired a witch doctor (!) to make sure things didn't get any worse.  
As our Indiana Jones– er, I mean, Allan Quatermain– they hired Richard Chamberlain who so brilliantly portrayed Tchaikovsky in Ken Russell's THE MUSIC LOVERS, but Cannon was probably excited he'd made some recent success in the TV miniseries department (SHOGUN, THE THORN BIRDS).  
Chamberlain and Stone encounter the natives in KING SOLOMON'S MINES.

Ford and Capshaw encounter the natives in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.

Sharon Stone is our female lead, and any similarity to TEMPLE OF DOOM's Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) is surely coincidental.  
Sharon Stone as  Jesse Huston.

Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott.

When I saw Golan speak a few years back he said (with utter charm) "Sharon Stone is our discovery.  She was a nobody before us."  And I think this exact quote from the IMDb trivia page says it all:  "Sharon Stone was hired by mistake Golan had wanted another actress instead of her."  That's perfect.

But back to the movie.  This thing is awful.  But it is also spectacular.  I'm not even sure how I feel about it.  It often plays like goofball parody, but it's got that sincere Cannon moxie, too, mixed with plenty of non-sequiturs. I suppose the major question here is this:  Is Cannon Films taking the piss?  Is this an elaborate joke on the audience?  I genuinely can't tell. On the one hand, it's directed by stiff-lipped Englishman J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE), who managed to make a scene where Bronson assaults a man with a dildo feel earnestly grim.  On the other, it's co-written by the guy who did POLICE ACADEMY 3 &4.  Hmm.  

Let's look at the opening scene as a case study.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-alumnus John Rhys-Davies (who is a fan of paychecks) is trying to force some poor sap into translating the writing on a mystical artifact. 
The poor sap translator's buddy makes a run for the door, whereupon he triggers a deadly trap that skewers him against the doorway with what is essentially a giant meat tenderizer.
It's sort of gruesome, and is not played for a laugh.  Then John Rhys-Davies' crony, who apparently owns the building they use for intimidating potential artifact translators, pops up and exclaims, "MY DOOR!"
like how Charles Bronson says, "It's MY car!" in DEATH WISH 3.  Why is he so concerned?  If he owns the building, he already knows that he had a giant meat tenderizer hanging from the ceiling, ready to destroy his door if someone tried to escape.  Is it supposed to be funny?  Like, "wow, he is overly concerned about the property damage right now."  Or is it supposed to be harsh character-building, like "gee, these guys are tough customers– they just murdered somebody and only care about the holes in the door."  Or is it supposedly to be morbidly and cretinously 'funny' in a BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD vein, like "Hah ha!  That guy got skewered!"  It's difficult to assess.

Most of this film is difficult to assess.  It's packed with racist, imperialist attitudes (replicated from the original 1885 novel) but they're handled with the bizarro Cannon approach, the same one that brought us colorblind gang violence in DEATH WISH 3 and the "It's A Small World" of rap videos in RAPPIN'.  This movie is racially problematic to the point where you begin to wonder if it possesses a spoofy-self awareness, applying a post-modern lens to Nineteenth Century attitudes.  But in the end,  you can't approve of a movie where every person of color is either a buffoon, a cannibal, or someone who desires to feed you to crocodiles for sport.
This movie came out in 1985.

So let's pretend that KING SOLOMON'S MINES is a spoof of classic adventure novels, cultural appropriation, racist caricatures, etc., etc...  so then why is it trying so hard at times to be an Indiana Jones film?  In this regard, I mean that it drops the jokey façade and attempts to recreate, nearly shot for shot, several setpieces from the first two Indy movies.  [Of course this is all rather like an ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail), because the Indy movies are inspired by the Republic serials that were inspired by the original Quatermain novels, but no matter.]

There's the "Basket Game" scene from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, whereupon Indiana Jones tries to save Marion from the Nazis in Cairo after she's whisked away in a basket by Egyptian goons on the German payroll.  The same thing happens in KING SOLOMON'S MINES, except they throw Sharon Stone in a carpet roll instead of a basket.

 Indy shoves his way through the crowd in RAIDERS.

 Quatermain shoves his way through the crowd in MINES.

The basket's getting away in RAIDERS.

The carpet's getting away in MINES.

Then, take the famous "Ark Truck Chase" scene from RAIDERS.  Indy is flung through the windshield, over the hood, under the truck, and dragged from behind while clinging to his whip.

In MINES, the exact same thing happens– except it's on a train, not a truck, so it's totally different.

My final example (I could go on) is from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  Indy and Short Round find themselves trapped in a chamber where spikes descend from the ceiling after a large stone lever is pressed.

The exact scenario arises in MINES, except the budget's lower, so we get papier-maché stalactites instead of the aforementioned fearsome iron spikes.

So that would seem to close the book on that– it's not parodying Indiana Jones– it wants to be Indiana Jones.  Though we cannot neglect the major point here:  this is a Cannon Film.  It can't be Indiana Jones, no matter how hard it tries.  It's not going to be competent enough to do so.  But in trying, you would assume that it could stumble upon some unintentional movie magic.  And, on a few occasions, it does:

SEE!  A giant, rabid spider eat a poor extra wearing a fez:

It comes with the Cannon guarantee that you've seen better special effects on your neighbor's lawn last Halloween.

BEHOLD!  An evil sorcerer thrown down a pit like the Emperor in RETURN OF THE JEDI and exploding in flower of matted-in flames!

GAZE UPON!  A Nessie-style dinosaur chomping on a man while Sharon Stone looks on in terrorized disbelief!

Sharon Stone, Oscar-nominated (...for CASINO).

In the end, as I said, I'm not sure what to do with this.  It comes nowhere near the heights of the Cannon classics (like BLOODSPORT or THE APPLE or REVENGE OF THE NINJA), and is probably most comparable to FIREWALKER, another J. Lee Thompson-directed Cannon rip-off of Indiana Jones.  But, being part freak show and part train wreck, I sorta can't believe this thing exists, and for that I must award it about two and a half (extremely awkward) stars.

–Sean Gill