Saturday, December 01, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "After Shock" (September 11, 1976)

An earthquake strikes Altrusia both conceptually and literally in the third season premiere of Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977), titled “After Shock.”   

Behind the scenes, star Spencer Milligan (Rick Marshall) departed from the series, replaced by Ron Harper as Uncle Jack Marshall. And a new team of writers, led by Sam Roeca (Valley of the Dinosaurs) and Jon Kubichan replaced outgoing writers such as Dick Morgan.

In terms of the actual storyline, “After Shock” begins with a quake that sends Rick Marshall -- working inside a pylon -- spiraling home to his home in California, leaving Will (Wesley Eure) and Holly (Kathy Coleman) to contend with a shifted reality in Altrusia. 

High Bluff is buried in rock, taking all of the Marshalls’ equipment with it, and a strange new, two-headed monster (which Holly christens “Lulu”) appears in the lagoon.  Uncle Jack also falls into the Land of the Lost, a fact which conforms to the one-person-in, one-person out balance of the strange land as viewers understand it.. 

Finally, Chaka (Philip Paley) also loses track of the other Pakuni, Ta and Sa, though his explanation for their disappearance doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Chaka claims that the other Paku were separated on the other side of a crack in the land, running far away.  But we know from Land of the Lost history that Altrusia is a small pocket universe that circles around on itself, and so there’s no way for the Paku to have disappeared or left. 

It would have been better if Chaka simply saw Ta and Sa fall into a crack in the Earth, though that explanation may have scared the kiddies, I suppose.

After Will, Holly and Chaka find Uncle Jack by the lagoon, they all go in search of a new home, and must battle the fearful Sleestak for possession of “The Old Temple” near the Lost City.  It isn’t clear if this structure is supposed to be the same old temple that was featured in second season stories such as “The Musician,” though it looks completely different here.

As for Jack, Ron Harper is a capable actor, and he did a great job as Virdon on Planet of the Apes (1974).   The writing here establishes Jack as an engineer, which helps to explain how he is able to build so many interesting and helpful devices in the Land of the Lost, like wheels for the heavy temple door.  

Gazing at “After Shock,” one can debate, certainly, the idea of change as a positive for Land of the Lost and change as a negative factor.  The episode starts out promisingly as Will reminds an upset Holly that “we aren’t alone.  We’re just on our own.”  In some sense, this is the moment the series -- and Rick Marshall -- have been preparing the kids for since the family first fell into the land of the lost.   Everyone has always known that separation was a possibility.

There’s an argument to be made that the arrival of Uncle Jack is thus truly unnecessary, and the series should have continued just with Will, Holly and Chaka living together, in no need of a father figure.  Instead, Uncle Jack’s arrival feels like the idea of change…without real change.  He’s a new Dad, essentially, and so the story line and characters don’t truly move forward in a meaningful way.

Even the idea of losing the cave at High Bluff and moving to the Old Temple is promising, but its potential largely undelivered by future episodes.  The temple set is a really good, really intriguing one, and very different from the old cave.  The set is dotted with all of these large stone doors, ostensibly leading to other unexplored chambers.  But no episode of the series ever explores what chambers or tunnels lay beyond those doors.  That’s a disappointment, because a core aspect of the series has been, in episodes like 

“Downstream” and “Follow that Dinosaur,” an exploration of new territory.  Instead, the Marshalls and Chaka move in during “After Shock” and never really look around their new digs.  Even as a seven year old kid, I wondered why the family didn’t explore its new home. I wanted to know what was behind those doors.

“After Shock” also shows some of streamlining of core, long-standing Land of the Lost concepts.  Now, both Chaka and the Sleestak Leader clearly and understandably speak English, for example. It’s a shift, and again, one with ups and downs.  If one chooses, one can register Chaka’s sudden understanding/learning of English as a side-effect of his experience in “The Musician,” near the end of the second season, when his intelligence was “evolved” by the Builders of the Land of the Lost. 

I used to consider Chaka’s new Tarzan/pigeon-English a continuity error, but after watching several episodes of the second season in which he and the Marshalls waste precious minutes of story time trying to communicate with one another via the Pakuni language, I can’t argue that this streamlining is a dramatic mistake, especially considering the events of “The Musician.”

“After Shock” is a pretty strong episode of Land of the Lost, the beginning of a new era that promises some intriguing story-lines.  The problem isn’t that the new direction is bad, but rather that follow-up episodes don’t necessarily deliver on the potential promised by this installment.  The second episode, for instance -- called “Survival Kit” -- is one of the worst episodes of the entire series and entirely inconsistent with what we know of the Sleestaks, the Land of the Lost, its history, and its inhabitants. 

Next week: “Survival Kit.”

Friday, November 30, 2012

Films of 1983: Krull

Although it isn't heralded as much as it likely should be, the span from 1980 - 1987 surely represents a new golden age in terms of silver screen fantasy. 

This was the era that brought the world Clash of the Titans (1981), Excalibur (1981), Dragonslayer (1981), The Dark Crystal (1982), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Tron (1982), The Neverending Story (1984), Legend (1985), Highlander (1986) and many, many more.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Road Warrior (1981), Superman II (1981) The Last Starfighter (1984) and other titles of this epoch also leap quickly to mind, sterling instances of action, super-heroic, post-apocalyptic, and outer space-styled fantasy. 

In all likelihood, this renaissance in cinematic fantasy arises from the unprecedented financial success and cultural popularity of George Lucas's Star Wars in 1977. That grand space opera was the ultimate pastiche of Lord of the Rings, Arthurian legend,  Joseph Campbell's mythic heroic journey -- the so-called "monomyth" --and about a dozen other literary and filmic sources of both swash and buckle.

In 1983, director Peter Yates presented another big-screen fantasy in this mold, the handsomely-mounted epic called Krull.  The movie was a box office bomb, unfortunately, and has never really found a considerable audience.  

Yet in terms of visuals, the film remains both incredibly imaginative and dazzling in almost breath-taking proportions   Pre-CGI, Krull presented an alien world in terms that seem both realistic and legitimately other-worldly.  That's no easy trick, and perhaps Krull's greatest success is forging this sense of "place" that seems both tangible and a little magical.

Writing in terms of narrative, Krull's familiar fairy tale story plays mostly like a familiar re-iteration of the Campbell "monomyth," featuring stock characters such as the young hero who-would-be-king, the damsel in distress, the old wizard, the comedic sidekick and the embodiment of True Evil, here known as The Beast. 

Despite this overly familiar story, Krull offers viewers some unique and worthwhile flourishes.  In particular, one emotional and tense interlude involving a character called "The Widow of the Web" (Francesca Annis) contextualizes the classic  heroic journey in terms of generational passage. 

That's a novel and worthwhile twist that grants the Yates film a much-needed sense of gravitas leading up to the final battle.

Only if we're united do we stand a chance against them...

The Black Fortress lands on Krull.
In very broad strokes, Krull depicts a story about freedom and individual liberty (and not incidentally, true love). 

On the distant world called Krull, an alien Beast has landed in his menacing Black Fortress and set loose his destructive slayers to dominate the almost-Medieval-style landscape.   The Slayers are terrifying soldiers too: greasy insectoids housed in humanoid armor, boasting deadly, advanced technology.  When the armor is breached, the juicy insectoids squirm out, squawking plaintively.

The humanoid people of Krull bravely resist the deadly, planet wide invasion. In particularly, two kingdoms unite when young Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) and Colwyn (Ken Marshall) choose marriage over the political status-quo.  Unlike their bickering fathers (think the  Hatfields  and McCoys), the next generation of Krull selects unity over division and petty differences. 

But the Beast is not content to see his enemies unite.  His slayers lay siege to Lyssa's kingdom and capture the young princess.  His father murdered, Colwyn is left, barely alive, to brace an uncertain future. 

Fortunately, a wise old man named Ynyr (Freddy Jones) travels down from self-imposed exile in the distant Granite Mountains (think Obi Wan Kenobi in the desert wastelands beyond the Skywalker farm...) to instruct the boy how to destroy the Beast and rescue his true love.

The Glaive: An ancient symbol of freedom.
The first order of business is for Colwyn to acquire an ancient weapon called a "Glaive" -- a five-point, jewel- encrusted throwing-star (think of Tron's MCP-destroying frisbee/disc).  Colwyn climbs a treacherous mountain peak to remove the Glaive from a  bed of lava. Like Arthur's sword-in-the-stone, Excalibur, Colwyn holds the glaive up to the light to see it shine...

The next order of business is for Colwyn to learn where the Black Fortress is going to materialize the next day.  In one of the story's more interesting twists, The Beast causes his headquarters to teleport from day-to-day so that it can never be located, much less attacked. 

With the help of Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley), a robber named Torquil (Alun Armstrong) and his merry men (including  Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane), plus a lonely Cyclops, Rell (Bernard Bresslaw), Colwyn sets out to learn this information from a blind Seer (John Welsh).

Unfortunately, the Seer is replaced by a deadly changeling in a perilous swamp, and the heroic protagonists face an ambush by Slayers.  Many of the team are killed in the ensuing, leaving Ynyr no choice but to visit the mystical Widow in the Web -- his long-lost lover, also named Lyssa --  to acquire the important knowledge about the Beast's lair...

Meanwhile, in the Black Fortress, the Beast attempts to seduce Lyssa with a golden wedding gown and the promise of immense power (a clear predecessor to a similar plot-line in Ridley Scott's Legend).  She resists, temptation and voices one of the film's unpretentious themes.  When she is told by the Beast that "love is fleeting; power is eternal," she turns the axiom around on him, insisting the reverse.  "Power is fleeting; love is eternal," she insists.

Eventually, in Krull's prescribed and all-together expected ending, she is proven right, of course.  The Beast is defeated by true love, and everyone on Krull (and in the galaxy) lives happily ever after.

And if you're pure at heart, you simply wouldn't have it any other way.

Krull as Mono-myth

The Kingdom of Krull is threatened and order is overturned, true to the Monomyth.

In (perhaps too...) dutiful fashion, Krull ticks off every anticipated stop in the long-established "hero's journey."  There's Colwyn's initial "call to adventure" as he is forced to become King when his father is murdered by Slayers.

Then there is the archetypal "refusal of the call," -- a dedicated refusal to fight and to accept personal fate/destiny -- until Colwyn is guided by a surrogate father-figure, Ynyr.

In further compliance of the Campbell outline, Colwyn also calls upon supernatural aid in his quest to fight Evil.  Here, those supernatural auspices are the weapon with a mind of its own, called a glaive, a lonely Cyclops, an inept sorcerer, the wild fire mares, and the Emerald Seer  Without these supernatural tools supporting him, Colwyn could not emerge from his trials victorious.

Colwyn also succeeds at the Monomyth's "first threshold" by retrieving the ancient weapon -- the Glaive -- and, finally, in the third act, goes into deep into "The Belly of the Whale," the villain's frightening, Hellish headquarters.  Here, in the Home of the Beast, Colwyn undergoes a metamorphosis that allows him to understand his spiritual powers.   Specifically, his union with Lyssa -- true love -- makes him strong.

Why, there's even the archetypal a woman temptress in one important scene, and finally, Colwyn -- after his road of trials -- delivers a boon unto his people: a generation of peace, and a son who shall benevolently "rule the galaxy."

You can admire Krull's slavish devotion to the details of the human mono-myth at the same time you might feel compelled to yawn a little and note that -- especially in this fantasy film era -- we've been here before.

"No Man has Ever Seen Him and Lived"

Princess Lyssa trapped in the mind's eye of The Beast.

The primary reason that Krull is as diverting and entertaining as it is?  Even almost thirty years after it was made, the film's visual imagination is nothing short of dazzling.  The film is, without exception, gorgeously crafted.

In particular, visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings and production designer Stephen Grimes have forged a marvelous fantasy world that, even now, compares favorably with modern CGI epics such as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings installments.

There are several stand-out scenes the film that yet dazzle the eye and spark the imagination.  For Lyssa's captivity in the Fortress, for instance, the interior of that Pandemonium-like structure is depicted in utterly surreal terms.  The Beast is seen only in distorted glimpses for much of the film; but the inner chambers are bizarre, abstract and wholly impressive.  At one point, Lyssa appears to be trapped in a room that resembles a giant claw (she is literally trapped in the Beast's grip, the set design reminds us). 

At another memorable juncture, Lyssa is seen staring out from a chamber that appears to be a humanoid eye.  This means that the Beast's eye is upon her; and the weird surreal sets like this also express the notion that The Beast and the Black Fortress are two heads of the same monster; that its interior is a representation of his fearsome, inhuman Id.  The Campbell-ian idea of the "Belly of the Whale" is translated very literally: this is the belly (or brain?) of The Beast.

The point of all this strange and almost biological interior design is to preserve the mystery and terror of the Beast as long as possible; and therefore heighten suspense about his gruesome, malevolent nature.  He is not seen as a recognizable (and very alien...) life-form until the film's not-entirely-satisfactory conclusion. 

And then, after his wicked Fortress interiors have done so much work to establish his evil credentials, the visualization is almost a disappointment; a man in a suit.  It's a good suit; but clearly a suit nonetheless.  The Beast is more effective in close-ups, and even in the final battle, Yates relies on these close-ups, wisely, to accent the Beast's alien-ness and undercut our sense of place (and therefore safety).

The Slayers spring their trap in a wonderfully-realized visual moment.
Outside the Black Fortress, another visualization that holds up remarkably well involves the deadly swamp where the Blind Seer is replaced by a long-fingered Changeling.  All the trees in the swamp are dead, gnarled things; and the sky in the background is a hazy, menacing mauve color.  But the best moment sees a squad of Slayers rising slowly from the reflective waters of the swamp -- heavily armed -- to launch their surprise attack. 

There's something incredibly powerful about this moment: alien soldiers on an alien landscape, attacking the film's heroes.  It looks like a real evocation of an extra-terrestrial war in ways that CGI somehow can't yet manage (Avatar excluded, perhaps).  Watching this scene, you are immersed in the details of the planet's struggle, countenancing visions of believable "other-worldiness."

Perhaps the film's most dynamic visualization occurs as wise old Ynyr attempts to navigate a gigantic spider's web to reach his long-lost love, the Widow.  He is shadowed by a giant spider the whole way, and the scale of the web (and the albino spider) is nothing less-than epic.

Shot at Pinewood Studios in England, and on locations in Italy and Spain, Krull is a gorgeous fantasy that legitimately deserves comparison to The Dark Crystal, Legend, and other classics of the period.   Yes, the visuals are that good.

Where Krull comes up a little short, however, is in its pacing and an its perhaps too-simple narrative.  At just over two-hours the film feels over-long and slow-paced, even with James Horner's rousing, blood-pumping score. 

And the film's lack of major cult support from fans arises, I believe, because unlike Star Wars or other fantasies of the period, the film does not very clearly erect a believable or logical basis for its "magic."  

To wit, in Krull's last act, Colwyn learns that the Glaive is not the source of  his power.  Rather, it his love for Lyssa and vice-versa, that gives him such awesome power.  He takes on the Beast and literally shoots fire out of his hand, like a flame thrower

While this is undeniably a beautiful thought -- that unity brings great strength and power -- it is also somewhat child-like. 

On the one hand, that childishness grants the film a legitimate and nice sense of wonder.  On the other hand, it sometimes plays a little as arbitrary.  Convenient that Colwyn's hand should become a flame thrower, right?  Though, certainly, an early wedding ceremony in the film involving fire, as well his retrieval of the Glaive from fire/lava, embeds this eventuality as a possibility.

Another way of saying this is that George Lucas made sure in Star Wars that everything had a basis; a kind of sense. 

The use of "The Force" -- an energy field binding, penetrating and surrounding all life forms -- enabled the "magic" to not seem magical, if you get my drift.  There was an order to things, and if you could tap into the Force, you could influence others (Jedi Mind Trick), and even destroy the Death Star. 

Here, there's some sense of inconsistency, of magic haphazardly applied to resolve crises in the story.  How does Ynyr -- the wise elder -- know so much about the Black Fortress and the Beast, for example?  

It isn't even clear how long these "invaders" have been here, at all.  We see the mountain arrive (from deep space) at the film's opening, and a voice-over narration tells us of the Beast's history for taking over other worlds, but that doesn't answer the question. 

Is the Beast new to Krull, or is this a multi-generational campaign of terror? 

Also, how does Ynyr know of the Cyclops' otherworldly history?  He recounts a fascinating tale that positions the Cyclops as extra-terrestrials who were seduced by the Beast's promises, but how does he know this information?   Come to think of it, who first spoke the "Prophecy" of Lyssa, Colwyn and their offspring?  The answer: we don't know.

Occasionally in the film, Ynyr functions too much as all-purpose exposition without explaining how he knows so many important things. He is a convenient mouthpiece for the writer, for the most part.

Furthermore, since it is relatively easy to tame the film's flying "fire mares" (think Pegasus in the original Clash of the Titans), why aren't these impressive and fast-moving animals being harnessed in battle against the Slayers and the Beast on a regular basis?  Seems like that could even the odds a bit...

And where are the people of Colwyn and Lyssa's kingdom, anyway? We see a castle, beautifully-realized, and the palace guard decimated by the Slayers in a great battle scene, but no "regular folks."

When you couple the random application of magic with the overly familiar details of the monomyth -- the quest, the sacred Excalibur-like weapon, the wise elder, etc. -- Krull finds it hard to sustain interest at two hours. 

The make-up, visual effects, production design and scoring do a lot of the heavy lifting for a narrative that often seems to glide, on automatic pilot, to its pre-ordained conclusion. 

Even the occasional movie quotations -- such as a fight with Slayers in the palace that recalls Errol Flynn's Robin Hood -- don't do much to make the movie move nimblly enough.

"These are the Sands of My Life"

Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) play hide-and-seek.
All these criticisms and questions established, Krull is not without an overarching theme of relatively nice complexity. 

Specifically, the film balances the story of Old Ynyr and his Lyssa (The Widow of the Web) with the story of young Colwyn and his Lyssa. 

That both  female characters in the film are named "Lyssa" is no accident.  Rather, the identical name for this damsel in distress makes the audience consider the woman (the love object of the hero in Campbell's monomyth) as something more than a person. Krull contextualizes the princess as a woman "of ancient name," meaning that this name carries with it an historical legacy.

In two cases in the film, a "man" (Ynyr and Colwyn, separetly) has the opportunity to follow his heart -- to unify the world too -- and find peace and happiness with a "Lyssa."  In the case of the older generation, that opportunity is lost.  Ynyr forsakes his Lyssa and out of anger, she murders their child together.  As punishment, she is transformed into the eternal "Widow of the Web," a creature luring men to their doom.   She is not happy about her crime or her fate, but as this Lyssa tells Ynyr, her "rage needed a victim."

Ynyr is now an old man, and in this stand-out sequence, he forgives the woman he once left; realizing his part in her unhappiness and rage.  He was not true to their love.  They will have no future together ("no man has ever escaped the web"), but at least there can be final reconciliation.

With the current lovers, however, the mistakes of the past can be rectified. Kingdoms can be united...and love can become "eternal."  Lyssa does not accept the seductive wealth and power of the Beast; and Colwyn does not accept the sexual comforts of a woman who comes to him (really a minion of the Beast).  They have learned from the mistakes of their fathers and are not going to repeat them.

In short, this is an optimistic take on the world in the 1980s, a time when old men in the United States and the Soviet Union held the fate of the world in their hands (and could destroy civilization with the push of the button). 

Here, the young generation promises to set right that which the older generation has gotten wrong (and in terms of contemporary films, you can see the same theme played out in Wes Craven's 1984 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street).  The dream of Krull is not for a world of eternal enemies on opposite sides, but "a single kingdom under our children."

That's still the dream.

But the wistful, sad "Widow of the Web" interlude powerfully gets at the passage of the generations.  Every generation has its chance to succeed, and must grasp it or face death a failure. 

In this enchanting scene, Ynyr notes that his "race is run" and his Lyssa implores him to help the world anyway, even if they, personally, shall die.  "Save the other Lyssa," she pleads.  This is Krull's way of noting that there is a time when adults must stop living for today and for their own happiness, and start living for the happiness and continuance of the species; for the next generation; for their children.

Alone, this beautiful and sad passage nearly manages to redeem the almost rote "mono-myth" narrative of Krull.  One wishes the film could have followed through with a bit more of the complexity and adult perspective depicted here, but then perhaps wonder might have been sacrificed.

Still, overall enjoyment and appreciation of Krull arises from the film's stellar production values: effects, sets, make-up and costumes that still impress and even amaze nearly three decades on.  But also largely from the Widow of the Web sequence which is the red meat, perhaps, that grown-ups need to enjoy what seems like an almost childish fantasy at times.

It doesn't hurt if you posses that proverbial pure heart, either, at least during a screening of this movie. 

The are movie virtues other than originality, to misquote Ynyr in the film, and one of them is charming innocence. 

Krull succeeds on that front, which is one reason I feel "safe" sharing this film with my son, Joel while he is still young.  Without cynicism or skepticism, the movie dreams big for a better tomorrow and it does so with vivid, gorgeous visualizations. 

Maybe in these days, that's legacy enough worth cherishing.

Movie Trailer: Krull (1983)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What I'm Reading Now: A Matter of Time: The Back to the Future Lexicon

"It's rare that comedy sequels manage to re-capture the magic of their progenitors, as anyone who paid to see the disastrous Police Academy, Revenge of the Nerds and Look Who's Talking follow-ups knows all too painfully well.  But the BTTF trilogy indisputably pulled it off.  Between the multi-colored sci-fi future of 2015, the dark "Biffhorrific" alternate 1985, the nostalgic revisiting of the first film's 1955 sequences, and the sentimental Spaghetti Western riff in 1885, the sequels hit it out of the park, scene after scene."

-Rich Handley, author of A Matter of Time: The Back to the Future Lexicon, Hasslein Books, page xii.

Back to Frank Black: A Reflection

In the year 1999, when Chris Carter’s Millennium (1996 – 1999) was still airing on Fox TV, my wife and I purchased our first house together, a charming, one-hundred year old white Dutch Colonial. 

We had not been in our new home for but six weeks when, unfortunately, we were victims of a crime.

On the very day my wife graduated from her grad school program in psychology, a man broke into our home, and stole her computer (which had her thesis on it…) and my video camera (which still had inside it new footage from the no-budget film I was making, Annie Hell.)

Dirty, mud-caked footprints from the robber dotted the once-pristine white sofa we had recently purchased for the living room, and a window was pried open.  

I’ve never forgotten those footprints. 

The damage, of course, was worse than they immediately indicated.  The dirty footprints had also trampled my wife and me, at least metaphorically-speaking.  I still remember my wife crying in our family room, feeling…violated.

Not long after that day…I painted the house yellow. 

And today I’m showing you the photographs to prove it. 

Frank Black's yellow house.

..And mine, circa 1999.

I painted the house yellow in honor of Frank Black’s yellow house on Ezekiel Drive in Millennium.    

And there was something immensely cathartic in that affirmative act of turning our Dutch Colonial yellow.

It was, as Chris Carter would describe it, a “painting away of the darkness” we had experienced together.  The yellow house helped us regain and reclaim our dream, somehow, some way.

We lived happily, safely, and proudly in our own, beautiful yellow house for over a decade following that incident, and my newborn son came home from the hospital to live there too, in 2006.  We moved away not long ago, but still, I sometimes go back to that yellow house in my memory.

I don’t know that this personal story is particularly important or perhaps even that interesting to read, but I believe that overall, it points to the fact that Chris Carter’s Millennium deeply and irrevocably influenced those viewers who were open enough to experience it, and engage with it.

In my “business,” I don’t often encounter TV programs that function as complex works of art first, and exercises in commerce second, but that’s exactly what Millennium represents to me.  

I’ve written these words before, but they still seem true and vital today:  Chris Carter created this particular TV series with a sense or artistry that is largely unparalleled in the TV medium.   If you’re a fan, I think you know what I mean. 

There’s this…purity of vision about Millennium. 

And it stems in part from the symbol of the yellow house. You get the sense watching the series that Carter was allowed to express himself in an unfettered way, and that in creating the series, he reached deep down inside himself in a very potent and honest way.

Given this inception, it’s no surprise to me that, some thirteen years after the series was canceled, I hold in my hands a book called Back to Frank Black, a tome dedicated to what Millennium represents and means. 

I suspect that, much like me, many other fans of the series own yellow houses, or in some other meaningful way connect Frank Black’s travails to those from their own lives.

The book itself is a remarkable achievement.

At a whopping 510 pages in length, it features in-depth interviews with  luminaries such as Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, Lance Henriksen, Klea Scott, Kristen Cloke, Meghan Gallagher, Tom Wright, Brittany Tiplady, James Morgan, Glen Wong, Erin Maher, Kay Reindl, Chip Johannessen, Michael Perry, Robert McLachlan, Sarah Jane Redmond, and Mark Snow.

And impressively, standing side-by-side these first person accounts of the making the series are several remarkable essays about what the series symbolizes to various writers and artists.   

Each writer who pens an essay in the book “sees” the series differently…and with tremendous individuality. 

Again, this is precisely what great art can achieve.  It communicates something that is ultimately received, interpreted, and explained by the likes of folks such as Joseph Maddrey, Brian Dixon, or Gordon Roberts.

The book opens with a foreword from none other than Lance Henriksen, and he describes his memorable character, Frank Black, as a person with “the chess player’s eye for detail” in a world of, essentially, conspiracy unbound. 

Frank Spotnitz follows-up Henriksen’s piece with another foreword that focuses on the second half of the actor’s equation, a comment in part on “the darkness that we fear in the real world.”  His piece also takes us back to the creation of the pilot, and provides us a window on that time and place.

Spotnitz’s words are followed up by an introduction from Chris Carter, and he describes Frank Black as a “man dealing with an existential problem. Something terrible is going to happen, the clock is ticking, and all the responsibility is on him.” 

Like Henriksen’s assessment of Black, this description from Carter gets at the nature of the character at Millennium’s heart. 

As a critic who values historical context as a key to unlocking visual texts, I was also gratified to read here Carter’s description of TV programs as “a product of influences.”  If a show is “good,” the artist suggests, “it is a reflection of the time it was created, and captures our hopes and fears.”

Beyond the front material and interviews, a group of talented writers help to explain how the series indeed captured those hopes and fears at the end of last century. 

I’ll enumerate just a few highlights:

Joseph Maddrey writes about Millennium as a product of the fin de siècle movement, and compares Black explicitly to Sherlock Holmes.  He also has a few great lines comparing the natures of Fox Mulder and Frank Black.

Paul Clark, meanwhile excavates the indelible Henriksen mystique and explains how it interacts with the character Carter first created on the page. 

Gordon Roberts intriguingly expounds on the modern idea of “families under siege” and contextualizes Frank’s interaction with the Millennium Group in terms of such movies as The Godfather and TV fare like The Sopranos.  In other words, Frank must choose between his family, and a version of the “mob,” a secret society family. 

Joe Tangari contributes a brilliant survey too, explaining how popular music is utilized in the series over the various seasons, often in ulta-unconventional fashion.   Not to be outdone, Brian Dixon offers a sterling piece about “second sight,” and the visualization in the series of Frank’s (often violent) “insights.”

On and on, one after the other, each essay is well-written, strongly-argued, and bolstered by a tremendous sense of passion….and emotional investment.  Again, the only obvious conclusion is that Millennium inspired those who engaged with it, and led them to think deeply about its meaning and value in our society.

I should add that this sense of inspiration goes well beyond the contributors of the specific pieces, and extends to editors Brian Dixon, Adam Chamberlain, James McLean, and Troy Foreman, the talents who boasted the dedication and determination to bring this 500 page book to market.  That means transcription of interviews.  That means careful proofreading.   That means deliberate, thoughtful organization of material.

And on this last front, organization, I was especially pleased to register how the book is structured. The text essentially takes us on a journey from Season One to Season Three, leaving no stone unturned along the way.  There’s logic and careful thought dictating the ordering of the contributions, and, frankly, that’s more than I can say about many anthology collections I’ve been involved with.

I also want to note James McLean’s piece here: “A History of the Back to Frank Black Campaign,” which reveals the hard work behind the effort to resurrect Millennium.  I already knew some of this information -- at a distance -- from my experience with the campaign, but I found it a fascinating read from an “inside baseball” perspective.  This contribution explores the “hows” and “whys” behind the existence of this book.

I haven’t written a traditional review here, I realize, in part because of my own involvement in the project.  But I just wanted to write today -- for the record -- that I am very proud and humbled to be a part of this book’s tapestry.   I hope that Millennium fans find it as satisfying and informative a read as I did, and that the book accomplishes its mission: sparking further the dedicated movement to resurrect Chris Carter’s often unheralded masterpiece.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pop Art: Bed Sheets Edition

Collectible of the Week: G.I. Joe Adventure Team Headquarters (Hasbro; 1972)

One of my favorite toys from childhood was Hasbro's G.I. Joe Adventure Team Headquarters, a two-story base for the large G.I. Joe action figures of the age.  

Now, I wasn't actually that big a fan of G.I. Joe himself (save for his 1977, sci-fi-themed Super Joe incarnation..), but his headquarters was an amazing piece of work, and it functioned admirably as an enemy fortress for the Knight of Darkness (Ideal), or for Mego's Klingons.

This large fold-out base came complete with a signal buzzer, an elevator chair, a map table, maps, equipment storage racks, and hangers, ear phones for Joe, and even an Adventure Team Comic-Book.  I still love the retro-futuristic look of the thing, with the blinking-light computers and tape-to-tape reels.

Designed for Ages "6 - 12," this Adventure Team H.Q. box was accompanied by the legend "where the adventure begins..." and could fold-up, like many play-sets of the 1970s, for "easy storage."  This feature made it easy to take outside, into the backyard, and into the thick of new adventures.

I'm still not certain how I came by my  original Adventure Team Headquarters, but I think it arrived courtesy of my (now-deceased...) uncle Glenn, my father's youngest brother.  He had collected a huge amount of G.I. Joe toys (including the Sea Wolf submarine, and a mobile support headquarters) and one day decided to pass the entire collection onto me, his nephew.  I'll never forget that act of kindness.  I know for sure that the mobile HQ was in that bunch of Glenn's toys, as were several figures, and I *think* that's how I got my hands on the Adventure Team HQ, though it is possible my parents found it for me at a yard sale.

The comic-book that accompanies the HQ encourages the reader to have a "different adventure every day with G.I. Joe" and to look for G.I. Joe adventures including "Danger of the Depths," "Flying Space Adventure," "Secret Mission to Spy Island," "White Tiger Hunt," "Fantastic Free Fall," "Capture of the Pygmy Gorilla," "Hidden Missile Discovery," The Shark's Surprise" "Space Walk Mystery" and "Secret of the Mummy's Tomb," among others.

Inside the comic book, the new H.Q. is described as "incredible" and a "team member's dream."  It also notes that it "takes more than daring to operate out of this Headquarters.  It takes a good knowledge of advanced electronic technology to operate all this special equipment."

All I know is that I spent a lot of great, imaginative play hours with this toy back in the mid-seventies.  I recently got my hands on one on E-Bay, and intend to share it with Joel.  We'll see what he makes of it...

Below, you'll find a TV commercial for the HQ.

Model Kit of the Week #7

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cult-TV Blogging: Brimstone: "Lovers" (January 8, 1999)

After the gravity (and shock…) of the previous installment, “Ashes,” “The Lovers” is a really fun and light episode of the 1998 -1999 horror series Brimstone.  The Stone/Devil banter is funnier than ever, and the Devil (John Glover) even shows up as a used car salesman, an occupation which is just about perfect for the guy.

This episode is, broadly, about love, the most important connection between human beings.   Accordingly, “The Lovers” commences with a view of love’s absence.  Stone (Peter Horton) looks around him, everywhere, and sees families, lovers, and old married couples…a fact reminding him of his isolation and separation from the ebb and flow of humanity. Since he has returned to Earth, he has not known love.

Meanwhile, the Hell convicts of the week are a wicked combination between Bonnie and Clyde and Romeo and Juliet: star-crossed lovers/criminals who defied others’ expectations of them in life, but also committed murder to protect their love.

After buying a wreck of a car from the Devil, Stone sends one of the lovers, Paco Gomez (Jesse Borrego), back to Hell, unknowingly leaving Paco’s lover, Jocelyn Paige (Shannon Sturges) alone, and in mourning. 

But rather than letting Stone send her back to Hell, Jocelyn does the deed herself.  She cuts out her own eyes rather than be separated from her true love.

The Devil calls this act “killing two birds with one [Ezekiel] Stone,” but the episode raises, again, the question of a universe of black-and-white.  Is it right or moral for two people in love -- even criminals -- to be separated for all eternity in Hell?  It seems an excessive punishment to me. 

Anyone who can truly feel love for another person is a person who should not be classified as beyond redemption. 

Even Paco’s Hell-created powers in this episode reflect the  story’s leitmotif about love.  He is able to “burn the hearts out of people.”  That sounds like a description of love so strong it hurts, right?

In terms of visuals, “The Lovers”  is less steely, de-saturated, and colorless than many episodes of Brimstone.  The sun seems to actually shine down on Stone for a change (at least at Venice Beach, where he goes roller-blading…) and that too seems an allusion to the power of love.

The episode’s final punch-line is also a funny one. After realizing the surprise that Jocelyn is a Hell-escapee too, Stone makes the connection that there may be one more villain of the week on the loose.

Accordingly, he shoots out the headlights of the car that the Devil sold him…and sends it straight back to Hell.

Next week: “Carrier.”

Cult-Movie Review: [REC] 3: Genesis (2012)

Until this third entry in the popular horror franchise, the REC movie series has been all about exploiting a cinema verite approach; about the expression of a horrific, claustrophobic scenario in ultra-realistic, “life-as-unfolding” terms.

But in [REC] 3: Genesis, the found-footage saga takes an unexpected detour into artifice, theatricality and romance.  It’s an absolute (and deliberate) departure from franchise tradition to be certain, but one that suggests ingenuity, and one filled with humor…and even pathos.

To find a corollary in the horror genre, [REC] 3: Genesis is to [REC] or [REC] 2 as Evil Dead 2 (1987) is to the original The Evil Dead (1983): an amusing re-invention that maintains the gore-and-grue, bread-and-butter of the franchise, but veers headlong into terms funnier than its hard-core predecessor.

Since [REC] 2 wasn’t much more than an average retread of the brilliant [REC] in terms of content and style, perhaps it was indeed time to re-invent the wheel.  And so that’s precisely what this sequel does.  It continues the progression of the “outbreak” story established by the first [REC] film, but in a way unexpected, absurd, and even refreshing in its audacity.

But be warned: this sequel has earned many negative and dismissive reviews.  I suspect the negativity arises because “brand identification” has become so crucial in the last few years to both viewers and, alas, critics.  To those inclined to think in such inartistic terms, a [REC] movie must hit certain notes, carry a certain tone and look, and develop in a certain way.  What modern audiences appear to want out of a sequel is the exact same experience they already had.

[REC] 3: Genesis knowingly and brazenly explodes all such expectations, and for that reason has proven divisive with audiences and reviewers.  The key to enjoying the fine qualities this film does offer -- humor, romance and suspense -- is to take it on its own terms.  One must judge what it is, not what it isn’t.

“Okay, Cinema Verite…”

[REC] 3 begins as lovers Koldo (Diego Martin) and Clara (Leticia Dolera) prepare to take their wedding vows. 

A videographer, Atun, records the ceremony and conducts interviews with Koldo and Clara’s loved ones.  But during the reception -- one of the guests, Koldo’s uncle -- begins showing signs of the zombie infection of the previous franchise entries.  Specifically, the vector in common seems to be the infected dog, Max, who was taken to the veterinarian in [REC].

Before long, several guests at the reception are infected, and newlyweds Koldo and Clara are separated.  They must fight their way back to one another through throngs of fast-moving, saliva-dripping zombies.

Through it all, Koldo and Clara -- each independently of one another -- determine that their spouse is alive, and refuse to give up hope.   Going back for Koldo against the odds, Clara cuts her wedding dress down to fighting-size, and makes use of a chain-saw to eradicate the pervasive rabid-zombie threat.  For his part, Koldo dons a suit of armor and, at one juncture, utilizes a sword (for cake-cutting...) to combat the drooling dead.

In the end, a tragedy ensues.  But through it all, Koldo and Clara refuse to be separated, or to abandon one another.  No matter what happens, their destinies shall be intertwined.

“Is this our family?” “Not anymore…”

Perhaps the boldest decision made by director Paco Plaza involves his choice to drop the found-footage format after approximately twenty-minutes or so of [REC] 3: Genesis.  

The wedding video is a great introduction for the film using that found-footage format, but this sequel finally realizes -- no doubt sensibly -- that someone trapped in a life-or-death situation isn’t constantly going to be glued to a camera eye-piece. 

At some point, recording the event becomes less important than actually surviving.

The dropping of the found footage subjective viewpoint allows Plaza to meaningfully differentiate his second sequel both in terms of visuals and tone from the previous entries.  Some horror fans and critics apparently don’t approve of this choice, wishing that the scenario presented so originally and viscerally by [REC] could be repeated, without alteration, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

I am not one of them.  The same thing, done a second and third time just gets old…and uninventive.

For those open to a change, however, [REC] 3: Genesis is successful on its own terms.  The film works ably as a tongue-in-cheek satire of family gatherings (like weddings), and even a bride’s sometimes zealous commitment to making sure she has her “special day” as she desires it.  The drooling, anti-social zombies -- beginning with the smiling, zombie uncle -- fit beautifully into this tapestry as the troublesome, sometimes drunk relatives you often encounter at such parties. 

You just never know what disaster they are going to kick off.

If Dawn of the Dead (1978) concerns conspicuous consumerism (and ends in a slapstick pie fight between bikers and zombies), it’s entirely appropriate for the REC series to spend some time – during the second sequel -- offering a bit of social satire.

This film also functions, uniquely, as a send-up of the REC franchise.  Early in the proceedings, the camera man repeats dialogue verbatim from [REC] and its uninspired American remake, Quarantine (2008):

People have a right to know what’s going on.  I’m filming everything.” 

But in about twenty minutes, nobody’s filming anything anymore.  So much for social responsibility!

The found-footage angle gets dropped like a hot potato, and the film lunges full-bore into soap opera territory instead, as Koldo and Clara face certain death in order to reconnect, and to meaningfully start their lives together.   

The considerable tension in the film arises from the fact of the couple’s separation, but the humor results from the unexpected ways they proclaim their undying love.  They do it over the church’s P.A. system, and again, finally, when there seems to be no hope for survival.

Our blood-soaked bride, Clara, becomes, in many ways, an Ash-type, larger-than-life figure here, and Leticia Dolera is stunningly beautiful to watch in action.   By film’s end, she is all-business, ordering Koldo to cut off an infected arm, and powering through the pain.  You almost can’t help but think of Bruce Campbell and Evil Dead 2.  But this sequel isn’t a retread of the Sam Raimi aesthetic either, and reaches unexpectedly for pathos in its final, bloody moments.

[REC] was all about pandemonium, about rats trapped in a maze with no way to escape.  [REC] 3 shatters expectations by playing not with the found footage format, but with the audience’s emotional state-of-mind instead.  It’s an even trade, in my opinion, especially for a one-off effort.  The inevitable [REC] 4 can always re-establish the franchise’s hard-core visual and narrative qualities, since, as this film’s ending makes abundantly plain, this is a self-contained tale.

But for eighty minutes, [REC] 3: Genesis surprises and entertains, with a few jolt scares thrown in for good measure.  The characters of Koldo and Clara -- even when we are laughing at them – are the most human individuals featured in the entire franchise. What happens to them matters.  And how they face what happens to them states something meaningful about the human spirit.

If the film boasts any significant misstep, it involves the efficacy of "prayer" as a way of stopping the rabid zombies.  That solution is something that could negatively impact future entries in the franchise even though the touch is inventive, and in keeping with what we learned in [REC].

But otherwise, I  just can’t imagine how going back into that same, dark, contaminated apartment building a third time would have been a better, more creative, or artistic choice for [REC] 3. Therefore, I applaud Paco Plaza and the other filmmakers for playing out a fun variation on a theme, instead of merely grinding a familiar, well-worn theme to death.  

Other filmmakers -- and other horror movie franchises -- could stand to learn the same lesson.