Cinematic Television – Science Fiction & Fantasy

One of the television genres to really rise to the level of cinematic programming are those based around science fiction and fantasy. Television is full of shows that either go the hard sci-fi route (Stargate, Battlestar Galactica) or incorporate their elements more subtly (Lost).



Twin Peaks (1990 -1991, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost)
Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Sherilyn Fenn, Madchen Amick, Sheryl Lee, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jack Nance, Grace Zabriskie, Ray Wise

There had never been a show like, and probably never will be another show like, Twin Peaks. The series was a perfect combination of the avant-garde sensibilities of filmmaker David Lynch and primetime soap producer Mark Frost. The show is at moment high camp and melodrama, then switching to tense neo-noir thriller, and over to creep-infused cinematic horror. The premise is incredibly simple: Young girl’s body washes up on the shores of her small Washington state town, FBI eventually called in to investigate. Out of this premise rises one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled on the small screen. Kyle MacLachlan plays Special Agent Dale Cooper, an investigator the likes of which you have never seen. He doesn’t put much stock in typical detective work, but rather relies on Eastern philosophy and his enigmatic dreams to guide the case. The series will introduce you to the wonders of the Log Lady, the Backwards Talking and Dancing Midget, The One-Armed Shoe Salesman, and a coffee percolator with a trout inside. You’ll never have coffee and pie the same way again. Though the series lacks horribly in the middle of its second season (Lynch was away from the series to work on a film), it is still light years better than anything you’ve ever seen on TV.



Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009, created by Glen A. Larson, Ronald Moore, and David Eick)
Starring James Edward Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katie Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Michael Hogan, Tamoh Penikett, Aaron Douglas

When I first heard they were doing a remake of the cheesy Star Wars knock-off Battlestar Galactica I was a bit suspect. It wasn’t till 2006 that I actually sat down and began to work my way through the first two seasons of the series and was amazingly surprised. The names were the same, and original premise was fairly intact (Cylons destroy the Twelve Colonies, forcing a small fleet of ships to begin searching for a new home), but the themes and tone of the remake was startlingly fresh. What was done so well in BSG was that is stayed true to the great science fiction trope of being more about our present society and context, much more than any future environs. The series manages to capture a lot of tension in post-9/11 America, with characters finding it easy to dehumanize their enemies, debating if authority has the right to seize power in the midst of crisis, and approaching issues of religious conflict. Despite the first half of the third season being one of the most brilliant things ever, the show begins to crumble in the second half and never recovers during the final season. The show’s focus began to get tied up in trying to explain its overly dense mythology and characters behaved in erratic ways. The series is definitely one of the best science fiction series ever aired and spawned a spin-off prequel series, Caprica.



Lost (2004 – 2010, created by Jeffery Lieber, JJ Abrams, Damon Lindeloff, and Carleton Cuse)
Starring Matthew Fox, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson, Josh Holloway, Evangeline Lilly, Jorge Garcia, Daniel Dae-Kim, Yunjin Kim, Naveen Andrews, Henry Ian Cusick

I must admit my bias. Lost is one of my favorite things ever. EVER! I was less than interested when I watched the premiere during its original airing, but returned to the series when my roommate ‘s obsession pulled me back in at the start of the 2nd season. I have been hooked ever since. What makes Lost great is that it took its time to get to its big mysteries. The entire first season is all character based, with slight touches of mystery sprinkled throughout. Because we have an emotional investment in these people when the trouble goes down, we feel it more. The production values of the series are astonishing. Every episode features beautiful cinematography, gorgeous music, and writing that is very clever and knows how to dole out pieces of a mystery perfectly. The show has a dragging point in the first half of season three, but quickly recovers and hasn’t let up since. The current and final season has been carefully pulling the layers of the onion back before the full reveal is made. The creators of the series have an apparent love of classic crazy sci-fi TV, particularly the shows of Irwin Allen (Land of the Giants, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel). That is mixed with some fascinating spiritual themes and literary references, that make the show enjoyable if you want to simply watch for fun or mine it for all its thematic richness.



True Blood (2008 – present, created by Charlaine Harris and Alan Ball)
Starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Sam Trammel, Ryan Kwanten, Rutina Wesley, Chris Bauer, Nelsan Ellis, Todd Lowe, Carrie Preston

If Tennessee Williams wrote a vampire novel, this would be what was produced. The accents are garish, the acting sickeningly melodramatic, and the plots are over the top. But I can’t stop watching it! Set in the fictional hamlet of Bon Temps, Lousiana, True Blood focuses on Sookie Stackhouse, a dive bar waitress with psychic powers and in love with a Civil War era vampire, Bill. In the world of the series, vampires have “come out of the coffin” and are attempting to become integrated into modern society. The impetus behind this is that scientists have managed to synthesize blood, meaning vampires can crack open a cold one rather than gnawing on a warm one. However, there are certain vampires who see this as selling out to the establishment, and there are humans who have fetishized being the playthings of the living dead. The heart of the show are not the leading romantic pair, but all the supporting citizens of Bon Temps. The short order cook is secretly dealing “V”, vampire blood used to trip like acid but better. His replacement is an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. The bar’s owner vanishes on certain nights, showing up naked in the middle of nowhere. A voodoo priestess lives in a trailer just outside of town performing exorcisms. This is not for people looking for Mad Men, though you can enjoy both shows. If you like some supernatural insanity then definitely check this one out.

I’d like to know what dramas, comedies, and sci-fi/fantasy series YOU are watching that I haven’t included and you believe should be. Reply to the comments here or e-mail me at huckabees@gmail.com

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The Burton/Depp Collaborations – The 2000s

Director Tim Burton’s style of filmmaking began to change in a not so wonderful way in the new millennium. His work became much more adaptation and remake based, rather than producing original ideas and scripts. Stylistically he fell into a major rut, reusing the same aesthetics over and over again, which felt much more bland now that we had been consuming them for a decade already. However, he did have films that rose above the repetition of his tropes.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter

This remake had been in production limbo for around a decade. At one point, Marilyn Manson had been attached for the Wonka. Now that would have been an interesting pic. The studio decided on Burton, who brought along his old collaborator Depp and new wife Helena Bonham Carter. Despite earlier shakiness with the Planet of the Apes remake, I was still fairly confident in Burton. Big Fish had been a huge departure from his typical style of filmmaking. However, upon seeing this picture I found that the visual flourishes that had once captivated me caused me to literally fall asleep. The first time I saw this film, it was the middle of the day and I actually fell asleep in my chair, something that never happens to me when I am watching a film. Afterwards, I realized that Burton seemed to using his aesthetics as a crutch, providing us no real meat to the film. Oh yes, there was some half-assed attempt at giving Wonka an origin story (such a terrible idea), but if you had seen the first film there was nothing here that added to it except updated CG graphics.



The Corpse Bride (2005)
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, Christopher Lee

The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of the most beautiful and perfectly made stop-motion films in history. Its an art style of animation that is rarely attempted, compared to its CG brethern, but when done right it stands above all else (Also remember, Burton only produced and did design work for that film, not direct). I was very excited to see Burton returning to that method of filmmaking and interested to see the story he told this time. For the second time in a year I was utterly bored. The film’s look was basically Victorian Nightmare Before Xmas, the shape of characters and the way ghosts were designed. I don’t remember much of the plot of this film, because I found my mind wandering and uninterested. It’s definitely a beautiful film. Let it never be said Burton doesn’t know how to fill a frame. However, like with Charlie, it lacked substance underneath the surface. The humor and characters were both ultimately forgettable.

Sweeney Todd (2007)
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeremy Irons, Sacha Beren Cohen

This was a semi-return to form for Burton. The key this time wasn’t his aesthetics (they were as bland and repetitive as usual), but the writing of Stephen Sondheim that caused this picture to rise above the rut. Because this film was an operatic tragedy, the bleak landscapes of Burton felt perfectly at home. London came across the dirty, grime-covered hellhole Sondheim originally tried to get across on stage. The casting for the film was wonderful, though Depp wouldn’t have been my first choice for the lead. He does a good job, but its the supporters who really carry the film here. For me, this was the single true highlight of Burton’s in the 2000s. It kept my interesting throughout every frame and has a truly devastating and heartbreaking finale. It’s my hope that Burton is able to reproduce this sort of emotional resonance in his coming work.

Seventies Saturdays – Little Big Man



Little Big Man (1970, dir. Arthur Penn)
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan

At the height of the conflict in Vietnam, American filmmakers were ensconced in counter-cultural material. The 1970s were also a renaissance period in American cinema as well, influenced particularly by the French New Wave of the 1960s. Both social and aesthetic revisionism is at the heart of Arthur Penn’s adaptation of this novel, which results in a film that is both clever and funny, and at other times muddy and unsure of itself.

As a young boy, Jack Crabb’s family are massacred by Indians, however he and his sister are rescued by the friendly Cheyenne. Jack grows up amongst the Indians and eventually is pulled into the white man’s world, where is to be properly educated in good Christian morals. For the rest of Crabb’s life he goes back and forth, between being a “civilized white man’ and a “savage Cheynne”. A sort of Western Expansionism Forrest Gump, Crabb runs across historical figures like Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer, the latter of whom he serves under three separate times.

Penn allows the Cheyenne to speak in plain English, but within the rules of the film, its their native tongue translated so that we may hear. This was a big change in film at the time, as Indians had been portrayed as speaking in broken English and using tired, clich├ęd phrases. However, the film does fall into some common cliches of another kind when dealing with the tribe’s single homosexual member, who’s portrayed as a limp-wristed effeminate dandy. It would have been more interesting to have a common brave amongst the tribe end up being attracted to his fellow warriors.

The film is infused with a biting sense of humor, and definitely plays up the common myths of the frontier for laughs. General Custer, historically known for being pompous and grandiose, is played wonderfully by Richard Mulligan. Dustin Hoffman does a very convincing job as Jack Crabb, and shines particularly in the physical comedy gags. At one point he operates as a gunslinger (The Soda Pop Kid), and has a nervous encounter with Wild Bill, which highlights the small stature of Crabb. It’s a very fun film, that rushes over so much, and that it keeps it from becoming a true classic.

Import Fridays – Un prophete



Un prophete (2009, dir. Jacques Audiard)
Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi

Un prophete is playing at the Belcourt Theater starting today.

Everyone loves a story of “boy makes good”. Nothing better than a young man pulling himself up by his bootstraps and making a name. The only downside is the body count. That story is what French film Un prophete seeks to tell, and colors its story with issues of racial identity, particularly how it can influence other’s perceptions of us. And the film also manages to not miss the simple moments amongst all the crime and violence. It’s in those moments that the picture shines.

Malik has just entered prison after an undisclosed crime. He’s a very young Frenchman of Arabic descent, who is incredibly nervous and introverted now confronted with years in prison. After a chance encounter with Arab inmate Reyeb, he’s recruited by the Corsican mob on the inside to kill this rival. That murder colors Mailk’s existence, Reyeb appearing in his bed in the middle of the night, his garish throat wound still present. The haunting happen in such a subtle way, Reyeb just suddenly there, Malik never jumping but living with this ghost in his mind.

Malik begins taking on more responsibilities with the Corsicans, who still view him as a “filthy Arab”, while the Arabic in prison see him as a “Corsican dog”. It’s evident that this labeling has a strong effect on Malik. Despite this internal conflict, he soldiers on, running errands while on day leave for Cesar, the head of the Corsican prisoners. What Malik doesn’t tell Cesar is that he is starting his own low level operations on the outside, particularly running drugs.

Every thing Malik does is out of an innate sense of survival. He knows he won’t make it long on the inside so he takes the murder job from the Corsicans, spending hours trying to hold a razorblade on the inside of his cheek for preparation. The film lingers on those moment of prep time, letting Malik fester in the anxiousness of what he has to do. As terrible as you know his actions will be, you still root for him, want him to get away with it because of his relative innocence compared to the weathered inmates around him.

One of the highlights of the film comes when Malik flies a plane to meet with Arabs in Italy. This is his first plane ride and, instead of skipping over it to get to the action with the Arab mob, the film pauses and lets us see Malik’s wonder at riding in a plane. He peers over his seat mate for a glance out the window and is surprised when a flight attendant brings him cookies and glass of water. Scenes like this are what make Un prophete stand out from other “rise to power” mob stories. Malik’s tale ends in the way the audience will probably expect, but its not his position as the new boss that is important, its the journey that brought him to it and the person he was that he left behind.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Son of Rambow



Son of Rambow (2007, dir.Garth Jennings)
Starring Bil Milner, Will Poulter, Jessica Hynes, Jules Sitruk

I can remember watching Ghostbusters (not the first time, probably the tenth) when I was seven, and afterwards taking an old backpack, a paper towel cardboard tube, and attaching the two with a long piece of a yarn. A shoebox with another piece of yarn attached served as my “ghost trap”. I was always doing these things as a kid. Not having the latest action figures of my favorite comic book or Saturday morning cartoon characters, I would draw and cut out figurines on paper to play with. My desire to tell stories was stronger than the limitations of economy. This is the same love of stories, and being forced to go low tech that informs Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow.

Living in the 1980s, young Wil Proudfoot is the son of a woman involved in a Mennonite-like religious sect. As a result, he is not allowed to view films or television, but has a strong sense of creativity, drawing intricate worlds on the pages of his Bible. Lee is the son of an absent mother, growing up in a nursing home owned by his step-dad, and has an older brother who forces Lee to bootleg movies for him to sell on the street. Lee and Wil meet each other during an incident at school and Wil follows Lee home and glimpses his first film ever: First Blood (the first Rambo film). Wil is smitten with the film and immediately sets about storyboarding his own sequel, Son of Rambow, which he and Lee decide to film together.

Jennings is a well known music video director (he’s worked with Blur and Radiohead) and is best known in film for his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That less-than-stellar flick bears some similarities in its quality to Son of Rambow. Rambow starts out with a crackling sense of excitement and possibility. Wil’s fantasy sequence right after seeing the film is brilliance; done in line drawings on paper and with the slashing speed lines that accompanies such artwork. There’s some great meta-textual commentary on filmmaking as well. As more kids find out about the production, and particularity with the involvement of hip French exchange student, Lee’s vision as director is co-oped. A brilliant scene where Wil is admitted into the upper upperclassmen’s lounge, which parodies the sort of upscaled celeb parties one would encounter in Hollywood (Coke and pop rocks are used to substitute alcohol and cocaine).

The flick is definitely worth a view, but wans near the end as it tries to make a “lesson” of the story. I would have enjoyed the sense of playfulness at the beginning to continue throughout. It was also wonderful to see Jessica Hynes, best known for co-starring with Simon Pegg in Spaced. If you get the chance, and were a kid who loved to imagine, check this one out.

Newbie Wednesday – Brothers



Brothers (2009, dir. Jim Sheridan)
Starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepherd, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison

“Support the troops”. Its a slogan we hear time and time again. Yet, no matter how many yellow ribbons we put up or bumper stickers we slap on our cars, there is a severe situation involving soldiers coming home with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. While Brothers addresses this, it fails to create compelling characters and ultimately comes off as preachy, rather than significant.

Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire) is preparing to ship off to Iraq, and the day before his little brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is being released from prison. Cahill leaves Grace (Portman), his wife and two daughters behind and ends up being declared KIA. While, Grace deals with the loss with the help of Tommy, Sam is actually alive and well, being held by Sunni extremists along with a private in his unit. Sam is put under severe torture and starvation and made to commit horrible acts. Tommy finds himself drawn closer to Grace but the two fight their urges to give in. Eventually, Sam is coming home and there will be a falling out.

The film is slow, but that is not a bad thing. The plot involving Sam is very interesting and were the moments of the film I paid attention to the most. The Grace/Tommy story is where the film drags. There is really no chemistry between the two so the hints that they might end up together feels incredibly forced. The relationship is so muted to the point of feeling like a way to kill time till Sam returns home. The most compelling interactions are between Tommy and his father (Sam Shepherd). It seems their father dealt with PTSD upon returning from Vietnam and drowned it alcohol, eventually taking it out on the kids. Tommy ends up being the black sheep of the family, and Sam enlists in the Marines because of his idolization of his father.

The picture ends on a very melodramatic note, though its last 20 minutes are its best. The top performance comes from 11 year old Bailee Madison, who plays Isabella, Sam and Grace’s daughter. She very natural and composed for her age, and is a key part of the conflict in the film. Overall, a decent picture but this director has made much much better films.

Hypothetical Film Festival #10 – Gary Oldman Forever!

If you don’t know who Gary Oldman is upon seeing the name, then I weep for your soul. He’s one of the best, most versatile actors in the biz right now. Very few actors disappear the way he can. So without further ado, the film festival!



Sid and Nancy (1986, dir. Alex Cox)
Starring Gary Oldman, Chloe Web

This was the one that helped Oldman breakout. His portrayal of seriously messed up Sex Pistol Sid Vicious is shocking, heartbreaking, and exhilarating all at once. Chloe Webb is equally fascinating as the crass Nancy Spungeon. Its completely evident why these two are in love. They are both so deep in the chaos of their lives, they cling to each other to keep from drowning. The tragedy of these two will tear your heart out. The final scene between them is one of the most emotionally painful performances I have seen on film. It was evident from early on that Oldman was an actor to watch.


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Richard E. Grant

This is not a good movie. It suffers from a lot of indulgence on the part of Coppola, and a lot of poor acting from Ryder and Reeves. What makes the film tolerable is a completely unrecognizable Oldman as the dastardly count himself! Oldman definitely ranks amongst Lugosi and Lee with his take on Dracula. His best performance comes as the decrepit older Dracula that Reeves encounters at the beginning of the film. The film proves that Oldman can make a self-indulgent piece of crap watchable just because of his awesomeness.


Leon/The Professional (1994, dir. Luc Besson)
Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman

Here Oldman takes on the role of Stansfield, a drugged out cop so crooked he murders an entire poor family. It seems the man of the house had gotten involved with Stansfield’s DEA unit and was hiding cocaine for them. Things go bad a little Matlilda is left an orphan, getting help and training from her neighbor/hitman, Leon. Oldman is the perfect villain for the film, at once charismatic and second later exploding and completely off his hinges. A scene. A scene where Stansfield and Matilda encounter each other in a public restroom is particularly unnerving.


The Fifth Element (1997, dir. Luc Besson)
Starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm

There were a lot of garish sci-fi films in the 1990s. But The Fifth Element is the only one that got that over the top sense just right. Oldman is industrialist Zorg, a schizophrenic Southerner who is obsessed with communicating with a cosmic force of evil and becoming one with it. To do this he must intercept a mysterious Fifth Element. Also on the search are Korben Dallas and Leeloo, the heroes of the film. This is a loud, obnoxious, insane film and it couldn’t be more fun.


Hannibal (2001, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Giancarlo Gianni

I don’t like this movie. It’s too long. It’s too dull. The one gem within it for me is Gary Oldman as the utterly disgusting Mason Verger. Verger had his face gnawed apart years ago by Hannibal Lecter, and is using his vast resources to capture Lecter and feed him to some hogs. Oldman delivers a gruesome, gurgling performance and amps the creep level up to 11. A film ONLY worth watching because of what Oldman brings to it.