Cameron has seen sci-fi soar out of the basement


The science-fiction world has delivered some of the worst movies I've ever seen -- from "Plan 9" and "Creeping Terror" to films that had  bigger budgets but not better ideas. But sci-fi has also delivered greatness, all the way up to "ET" and "Terminator." James Cameron has worked on some of the bad ones and directed some of the great ones. Now he has a new series, talking to people about sci-fi; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Somehow,
science-fiction films have had a total transformation.

They've gone from
the bargain basement to the penthouse, from the outcast to the center
of the party. And James Cameron has been at both extremes; he's been
involved with:

-- The old,
mini-micro days. “Almost all science fiction was done on a fairly
low budget,” Cameron said. “If you think about the B movies of
the '50s, the production values were pretty cheesy.”

-- The modern,
mega-money days, including his “Avatar” sequel, planned for 2020.
“We can't afford for it not to work, (with) the budget level that
we are dealing with.”

Currently, he's
pondering sci-fi history. “James Cameron's Story of Science
Fiction” offers lots of clips plus, as AMC programmer David Madden
puts it, “interviews with lightweights like Steven Spielberg,
George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Will Smith, Paul W. Anderson, Keanu
Reeves, Christopher Nolan.”

These are the people
who changed everything, starting with Lucas. “'Star Wars' came
along and all of a sudden, science fiction could be the highest
grossing film in history,” Cameron said.

One source
(boxofficemojo.com) has sci-fi films in eight of the top 10 all-time
box-office spots. (The lone exceptions are Cameron's “Titanic” at
No. 2 and “Furious 7” at No. 6; his “Avatar” is No. 1.)

And no, that's not
what was expected. “Science fiction was the redheaded stepchild of
movies,” said Cameron, 63. “It was not considered to be a very
lofty genre.”

As a Canadian kid
near Niagara Falls, he said, he was “growing up on a steady diet of
science fiction.” Hr read the classic authors, from Ray Bradbury to
Arthur C. Clarke. When Clarke's story became “2001: A Space
Odyssey,” Cameron saw it 10 times.

The next year, his
family moved to California, where Cameron spent his senior year of
high school. He tried junior college, then had a split life – a
blue-collar worker (as a truck driver and maintenance man) who
watched and made movies on the side.

“I just thought
... 'I'm wasting my life. If I've got all of these ideas and all of
these images, I've got to get them out.,'” Cameron said. “So I
quit my job ... and I started making a film.”

It fizzled, but the
resulting short got him a job with Roger Corman, the mini-budget
master.

“You learn how to
do a lot with a little,” Cameron said. For “Battle Beyond the
Stars,” he “populated the walls of a spaceship interior with
McDonald's fold-out Styrofoam breakfast trays.”

The result worked
and Corman assigned Cameron to direct “Piranha Part Two: The
Spawning.”

It was a trap, Marc
Shapiro wrote in “James Cameron” (Renaissance Books, 2000).
Corman didn't realize that the film's producer only wanted an
American director to fulfill a contractual requirement. He fired
Cameron, who then got control in the editing room, with so-so
results. “This is a routine monster film,” a Variety reviewer
wrote, “with an idiotic premise and laughably phony special
effects.”

Soon, however,
Cameron's “Terminator” script was drawing a buzz. He insisted on
directing, with his girlfriend Gale Anne Hurd producing. While
waiting for co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger to finish another film, he
also did drafts of the “Rambo” and “Aliens” scripts.

“Terminator”
cost under $5 million, Cameron said. “Even in 1984, it was not a
lot of money. So we had to shoot kind of guerrilla style .... We'd
drive around town until we found the brightest streetlights.”

The result scored.
Cameron was hired to direct “Aliens,” then went on to “The
Abyss” and “Titanic.”

The latter had a
character with a lot in common with the filmmaker. Like Jack, Cameron
was an artist who had painted his girlfriend (who later became his
first wife) in the nude. Like Jack, he was a blue-collar kid,
intensely pursuing someone (Hurd, who became his second wife) who had
grown up rich.

Unlike Jack, Cameron
survived the Titanic. He's married three more times; he's made “True
Lies,” “Avatar” and lots of sequels, often with an epic feel.

“It's very
possible for spectacle to overwhelm a film,” Spielberg said, but it
can also propel a story. “The question is: Are we letting our
visual imaginations overwhelm our emotional artistic expression?”

It's the sort of
question he can ask during his story of science fiction.

-- “AMC
Visionaries: James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction,” 10 p.m.
Mondays, AMC

-- The opener was
Monday (April 30), but it reruns at 4:40 a.m. Friday (May 4), 3:11
a.m. Saturday, 3:40 a.m. Sunday.

-- The second
episode is 10:05 p.m. May 7, rerunning at 3:50 a.m. Then the first
two rerun at 9 and 10 a.m. May 8.

 

Picasso: A "disruptive" genius left artistic beauty, personal chaos


Sure, there are some problems with the first chapter (April 25) of "Genius: Picasso." The story bounces around too much; it throws people into chaos before even introducing them.

But this is still a fascinating story, filmed in a gorgeously epic style. And if you're confused about who's who and what's what? This story, which I sent to papers, may be helpful:

By Mike Hughes

The word “genius”
gets tossed around easily.

It might go to any
filmmaker who blows up a robot or any designer who puts sparkles on a
handbag. But now the real “Genius” is back on National Geographic
Channel, viewing great talent amid chaos.

The first year had
Albert Einstein; this new one has Pablo Picasso. The third – Mary
Shelley, creator of “Frankenstein” -- may find fresh turf, but
what do these first two guys share?

“They are
progenitors of disruption in their time,” said Brian Grazer, who
co-produces the series.

Samantha Colley, who
has played key people in both lives, agreed. Both men had a
“relentless drive toward ... a different point of view,” she
said. That “doesn't necessarily make them good life partners.”

In the first
“Genius,” she was Mileva Maric, a brilliant physics student who
may have helped Einstein's breakthroughs during their 10-year
marriage. Now she's Dona Maar, a gifted photographer who was
considered Picasso's muse during their 10-year relationship.

Both received strong
financial support afterward. Maric's career never re-started; Maar's
did, after bouts of deep depression. “They knew the price of living
within excellence,” Colley said.

Picasso's obsession
with women was understandable, said Antonio Banderas, who plays him.
“This was a man who was born in the 19th century, but
got to Paris at 19, (at a time) of unbelievable freedom.”

Both Picasso and
Banderas grew up in Milago, Spain. When Banderas was born (in 1960),
it had about half its current population of 570,000; when Picasso was
born (in 1881) it had about 115,000.

“Going to school
when I was a little kid, with the hand of my mother, we always
crossed in front of ... the house where Picasso was born,” Banderas
said. “I am talking about a time (when) Spain didn't have too many
international heroes. (Picasso) was bigger than Franco.”

At 57, Banderas is
an international movie star, playing Picasso beginning at age 56.
That was in 1937, with Maar spurring his most epic work – a mural
decrying the bombing of a Basque village in Spain by German and
Italian planes, in support of Francisco Franco.

That era offered a
turning point in both stories. Einstein, facing extra danger as a
Jew, moved to the U.S. when Hitler took power in 1933; Picasso stayed
in Paris.

Both stories split
the lead role between two actors. “I didn't know much about the
younger Picasso,” said newcomer Alex Rich, who plays him. “I've
since read all kinds of books.”

Picasso, whose
father was a traditional artist and art teacher, grew up with strong
technical skills. His dad and uncle (who offered financial support)
wanted realism, but the young painter moved on.

“He practically
did every style in painting,” Banderas said, “from figurative or
expressionism to cubism.” He was so good, Banderas said, that
gifted artists – even Henri Matisse – hid paintings when he
visited. They feared “if Picasso had the opportunity to look at
them, he could do them better.”

Then Picasso created
his own style. He became a superstar, often leaving gifted women
behind. In the first night, “Genius” viewers meet Maar plus:

-- Marie-Therese
Walter, who met the married Picasso when she was 17. Later, he had
two mistresses he painted as opposites – Maar, dark and acerbic;
Walter, blonde and sunny. “He always promised her marriage and that
never happened,” said Poppy Delevingne, who plays her. “But ...
she was very considerate, compassionate .... I think she gave him a
little less grief than a lot of other women.”

-- Francoise Gilot,
a child prodigy who met Picasso when she was 21 and he was 61. She
later wrote that she knew this would be trouble, said Clemence Poesy,
who plays her. “She's like: 'I would rather have interesting
catastrophes than just mediocre love stories.'”

The result of such
“catastrophes” varied. Walter -- who never established a career
of her own -- committed suicide at 68. Gilot – an artist, author,
painter and the widow of Jonas Salk – lived to 96.

-- “Genius:
Picasso,” 10-part mini-series, National Geographic Channel.

-- First two parts
at 9 and 10 p.m. Tuesday, rerunnng at 11; also, 10 and 11 p.m.
Saturday, rerunning at midnight. After that, 10 p.m. Tuesdays.

 

Yes, there is a Broadway; Sutton Foster found and conquered it


Sutton Foster is a terrific performer, as we found wen she sang for the Television Critics Association. Now she has that same sort of concert -- intimate and Broadway-laced -- on PBS Friday (April 20), Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For a while, Sutton
Foster didn't even know there was a Broadway, much less a chance to
conquer it.

She was a kid in
Georgia -- “no music, no theater” -- and then in Michigan
suburbia. “No one in our family is an entertainer,” she said. “My
dad worked for Chevrolet; my mom was a mom.”

And then, quite
quickly, both kids zoomed to the top.

Her brother Hunter,
48, has been in 10 Broadway shows and received a Tony nomination.
Sutton, 43, has done 11; she's twice won the Tony for best actress in
a musical and has been nominated six times.

Now comes a new
distinction: She launches a PBS series of intimate concerts by
Broadway stars.

“There are so may
fantastically talented young Broadway folks, with great voices, great
stories,” said producer Andrew Wilk. Foster is “the real deal,
just perfectly authentic.”

On Broadway – and
in TV's “Younger” and “Bunheads” -- she plays grown-up
versions of the girl next door. That's how she comes across in real
life, as a Michigan/Georgia kid, astonished to live in the city.

“I love and hate
New York,” Foster said. “We have this wonderful relationship.
It's a thrilling city and a frustrating one at the same time.”

She was born in
Statesboro, Ga., and was show-biz-ready in one way: She and her
brother were both given distinctive names.

“My mom and dad,
their names are Helen and Bob,” she said. So “my mom was like,
'We have to name our children something more exciting than Helen and
Bob .... As soon as I started to become interested in the arts, I was
like, 'My name is going to stick out.'”

Hunter and Sutton
started in the library, she said, checking out cast albums. “I was
just watching things on the Tonys (and PBS). It was just sort of like
this fantasy dream world.”

She also found that
Georgia does have lots of musical theater, after all. By the time she
moved north, at 13, she was experienced. At Troy (Mich.) High School,
she was Frenchie in “Grease” and starred in other musicals. At
15, she was on “Star Search”; at 17, she left school early
(finishing by correspondence) to go on the road with “Will Rogers
Follies.”

A decade later,
after four other Broadway shows, Foster got her biggest break: She
was in the ensemble of a pre-Broadway “Thoroughly Modern Millie,”
when, reportedly, Kristin Chenoweth dropped out and Erin Dilly turned
down the role. Foster took it to Broadway and won the 2004 Tony.

She would win again
in 2011 for the “Anything Goes” revival. By then, Foster says,
she “was feeling a major burnout, because you do eight shows a week
and it's incredibly taxing and grueling.”

So she did two short
seasons of “Bunheads,” as a former chorus girl who inherits a
small-town dance studio. Then – after another Broadway show
(“Violet”) and another Tony nomination – was “Younger.”

The cable drama –
which starts its fifth season in June – started with Foster as a
40-year-old, disguising as 26 to survive in Manhattan's
youth-obsessed world. It's a deception she could pull off easily.

Foster still comes
across as a young mom. She and her second husband (Ted Griffin, the
screenwriter for “Ocean's 11,” the “Terriers” series and
more) adopted a daughter, who recently turned 1.

“I waited (until)
later in life to start a family, and I'm so glad I did in many ways,”
Foster said. “Because I never would have been ready.”

She feels she's also
ready for a PBS intimate concert, reflecting on her career so far. “I
feel like the last six years, we've been kind of working towards,
oddly, this show.”

-- “Live at
Lincoln Center,” 9 p.m. Friday, April 20 (check local listings), PBS; Sutton Foster, with Jonathan
Groff of “Glee” as guest star..

-- First of four
intimate concerts by Broadway stars. The next three Fridays have
Leslie Odom, Jr., Stephanie J. Block and Andrew Rannells and.

He's Bill Nye, the climate-change guy


For a while, Bill Nye was just a goofy guy wih goofy bow ties. He still has lots of the ties (about 500 of them) and still likes humor. But now, at 62, he's in the middle of dead-serious debates about climate change and more. Nye will be profiled in an interesting PBS documentary movie at 10 p.m. Wednesday; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Bill Nye has taught
kids many skills, including blowing things up and throwing things
down.

But the most
important lesson comes from his own journey: In college, pay
attention to electives.

Nye had a fine major
(mechanical engineering), from a fine school (Cornell), leading to
the start of what could have been a fine career. He even had an
invention at Boeing; he might have been known as Bill Nye, The
Hydraulic Resonance Suppressor Tube Guy.

Instead, he became a
TV personality, first for kids and then -- as shown in a PBS
documentary movie Wednesday -- for grown-ups in hot-button
environmental issues. He's Bill Nye, the Science Guy ... and for
that, he credits an elective course taught by former PBS host Carl
Sagan.

“The guy utterly
changed my life,” Nye said. “I had finished all my engineering
requirements, so I thought, 'Oh, I'll take astronomy.'”

Nye went on to
Boeing in Seattle, but there were other tugs. One was the science
passion Sagan ignited; the other was winning a Steve
Martin-impressions contest and moonlighting in comedy clubs.

He began doing goofy
science experiments on a TV comedy show in Seattle. Then – in 1987,
when he was thinking about doing a science series -- came a brief
chat with Sagan.

“I met him at my
tenth college reunion,” Nye said. “I got a meeting with him for
five minutes. He said, 'When you do this show, focus on pure science.
Don't focus on technology.'

“You know, I'm an
engineer. I'm all about technology. And that really was hugely
important.”

Five years later,
“Bill Nye, the Science Guy” debuted. Produced by Seattle's PBS
station, it had a double life for five years, running of PBS and
commercial stations.

“His show made
science everyone's favorite subject,” said Justine Nagan, whose
“POV” series is showing the Nye film. “His blue lab coat and
bow tie became iconic.”

Both are in the
Smithsonian museum. The series – ranging from a vinegar and baking
soda explosion to hurling things down from a rooftop -- won 19
Daytime Emmys, two for best children's series.

It also may have
stirred young minds. “I grew up thinking the world was about 10,000
years old,” said David Alvarado, co-director of the PBS film.
“Watching Bill on TV was ... like getting out of that community and
thinking about the world in a different way.”

The notion, Nye
insists, is to stick with things that can be questioned and proven
scientifically. Now he spends much of his time – with speeches, two
books and a Netflix series – railing against what he calls
“anti-science” views about climate change and more.

The filmmakers
showed the adulation Nye gets on campuses, but also showed his
troubles. “They get what they want,” Nye said wryly. “They get
Steve Wilson saying that one thing, dear friend of mine.”

What Wilson said
was: “Bill has always wanted to be famous, from the get-go.”

This is a guy who
has kept finding the spotlight – from “Hollywood Squares” to
“Dancing With the Stars” to some poorly chosen battlegrounds.
After his much-publicized debate at a creationism museum, fundraising
soared for construction of a giant Noah's ark. “Kentucky tax
dollars are paying for buses to take kids to that thing,” Nye
grumbles.

The film shows
things out of his control – a “survivor's guilt” for escaping
the ataxia that struck his dad and siblings – and within it. It
shows Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist, digging into his life alone.

“In the middle of
the film, Dr. Berlin (is) grilling me about women and girlfriends
.... I kind of want to kill myself,” Nye said.

Viewers get the
impression he's never married, which is technically true. Seven weeks
after he married Blair Tindall (an oboist whose book is the basis for
the “Mozart In the Jungle” series), the license was declared
invalid; he got an annulment and, later, a restraining order.

His life has been
crowded. He may have overachieved that wish for fame. “Walking with
Bill through New York City is ... like Beatlemania sometimes,”
Alvarado said. “I imagine it takes a toll.”

-- “Bill Nye,
Science Guy,” 10-11:30 p.m. Wednesday, in PBS' “POV” series

-- Part of the PBS
preview of Earth Day, Sunday. “Nova” looks at science and the
weather, from 8-10 p.m. Wednesday; also, the animated “Cyberchase”
has eco-episodes all week.

-- “Bill Nye Saves
the World,” currently on Netflix

-- Previous shows
often appear on-air or in classrooms

-- Two books,
“Undeniable” (2014) and “Unstoppable” (2015), from St.
Martin's Press

 

 

Once a 'library nerd,' Lumbly now conquers Earth and Mars and beyond


"Supergirl" has always been a good show, but when it returns Monday (March 16) for the season's final nine episodes,it has a particularly strong hour. Alongside some boom-bang action scenes, there are moments of deep drama, some involving Carl Lumbly. Here's the story about Lumbly that I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Carl Lumbly keeps
rippling through the world of TV science-fiction.

He was a black
superhero, 23 years before Black Panther conquered Hollywood. He's
been a voice in many Superman and Batman cartoons. He's been the
Martian Manhunter and – currently, on “Supergirl” -- the
Manhunter's father.

So can we assume
this is some boyhood dream – that he used to gobble up comics as a
kid?

“Not comics,
books,” Lumbly said. “I was a library nerd. I read constantly.”

He devoured Robert
Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and, later, Oc tavia Butler. He savored “the
idea that we could move forward,” envisioning new worlds and often
reflecting on our current one.

In many ways, that's
what “Supergirl” does now: When the show returns Monday (April
16), it includes deeply dramatic scenes in which Lumbly's character
deals with age and memory loss.

“We all have a
curtain, we just don't know when it is,” said Lumbly, who is 66 and
widowed. “When you realize that, you react differently, including
gratitude for each and every moment you have.”

The show also
thrusts him into another issue – the immigrant experience.

M'ymn J'onzz
(Lumbly) has just arrived from Mars. His son J'onn (David Harewood),
the Martian Manhunter, has become accustomed to this country; for
M'ymn, it's a bewildering blur.

“That echoes
experiences in my own life,” Lumbly said. “It was a situation for
my mother and father.”

They were from
Jamaica and the dad had a job sponsor in Minneapolis. “You're going
from this beautiful, warm place to somewhere with 18-below
temperatures.”

That brings changes
in lifestyle, a tendency “to rely on infrastructure and to remain
walled off.”

Minnesota is famous
for good-natured people and Lumbly talks about “some wonderful
people I went to school with, of all backgrounds.” But even there,
he confronted bias.

He remained a book
person and a words person, graduating from Macalester College in St.
Paul and planning to be a journalist. But while covering a
Minneapolis theater group, he was cast in a show; it was the start of
a busy career.

Lumbly's roles have
ranged from small ones in support (including all seven years of
“Cagney & Lacey”) to big ones. He's played real-life people –
Bobby Seale, U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, a heroic dad in the passionate
“The Ditchdigger's Daughter.” He also had “my Spandex role”
in the 1994 series “M.A.N.T.I.S,,” playing a scientist whose suit
gives him superpowers.

His wife, movie star
Vonetta McGee, died in 2010 of a heart attack at 65. Lumbly has
continued to be busy, ranging from voice work – including the
Martian Manhunter in several cartoon series – and often returning
to the stage. “I'm just really dedicated to the idea of being an
actor,” he said.

That makes him an
ideal link with Harewood, a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts grad,
described by Lumbly as “a treasure and a good, good man.”

Harewood entered
“Supergirl” as Hank Henshaw, before viewers learned that's the
Earth identity of J'onn J'onzz. Now he learns that his powerhouse
father is losing his memories.

-- “Supergirl,”
8 p.m. Mondays, CW

-- Returns April 16
for the final nine episodes of its third season; already renewed for
its fourth