Sunday, January 31, 2016

At The X-Files Lexicon: "The New Associate"

As X-Philes eagerly wait for episode three of the series revival -- "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster" by Darin Morgan -- they can pass the time till Monday night with a new interview from Matt Allair at The X-Files Lexicon.

This time out, Allair profiles a new face behind-the-scenes: revival producer Garfield Whitman.

"I'm the associate producer or co-producer on post-production. The production manager typically is on the production side, so it's a slightly different term, but the post producer, that person's responsibility is to shepherd everything after camera films, so that's the budget, the schedule, editorial, the editors, the editorial machines, the sound, VFX, color timing the moving of media between all of the departments for what we call "turnover," which is essentially turning over media so each department can begin their work. You turn over to sound, you turn over to your on-line facility, visual effects, color. It's a lot of fun when you get everybody working together..."

Read more at The X -Files Lexicon.

At Flashbak: Remembering Mego's 2-XL

My second Flashbak this past week remembered Mego’s 2-XL, a toy from the 1970s that had a great run, and was even revived in the 1990s.

“In 1978, Mego introduced a small, toy robot that could play 8 -rack tapes: the amazing “2-XL,” described in promotional materials as “the robot with a personality.”

2-XL was a small plastic robot that could speak, and would, according to Mego, “tell jokes, “ask you True-False Questions,” “Tell you if you’re right or wrong,” “give you the correct answer,” give you more information on many different subjects,” and “play games with you and your friends.” 

Okay, so 2-XL isn’t exactly Siri, but this toy robot could play “standard 8 track cartridges” too. The result?  According to TV commercials: “Teenagers love him! Adults can’t resist him!”

Indeed, 2-XL wasn’t just a fun buddy for children in the late seventies, he also considered an educational toy because parents could purchase as accessories a variety of 8 track tapes on various subjects.  There was one cartridge about the Metric System, another concerning Astronomy, and yet another reporting about the Animal World…”

At Flashbak: The Five Most Underrated Episodes of The X-Files' Final Two Seasons

In honor of The X-Files revival, my first Flashbak last week is called “Sunshine Days?” and remembers the best and most underrated episodes of the series final two years, the Doggett/Reyes era.

“Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2002) returns to television this week with a six hour limited series, and the reunion of the pop culture’s favorite FBI agents, Mulder and Scully, is highly-anticipated.

Conventional wisdom about the original Fox series, however, tells us that the series’ last two seasons (eight and nine), were somehow a disappointment or not up to snuff.  This was the span in which Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) stepped in to fill the void left by David Duchovny’s absence from the long-lived series.

As is often the case, however, conventional wisdom may not tell the whole story. A number of legitimately great “x-files” ideas were explored in the last two seasons of this cult-series, and today I want to bring your attention to the five most underrated adventures of that period...”

For my selection of great episodes, continue reading at Flashbak, please.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Frozen in Space" (September 22, 1979)

In the second episode of Jason of Star Command’s second season, “Frozen in Space,” Jason (Craig Littler) and his new friend, the amnesiac alien, Samantha (Tamara Dobson), head to a small planetoid that appears to be the source of a deadly freezing beam.  

As Samantha and Jason seek out the beam’s source, Star Command nears destruction. The base’s power systems frozen, it lurches dangerously towards a dwarf star…

On the surface of the inhospitable planetoid, Jason and Samantha meet “Tehor,” a monstrous minion of Dragos who is responsible for controlling the freeze beam.  

Realizing that she may be Star Command’s last chance for survival, Samantha pretends to be an ally to Tehor and Dragos, and betrays Jason. In reality, her actions are an excuse to get the duo into the base and to the all-important freeze beam control system.

Straight-forward and to-the-point “Frozen in Space” by Margaret Armen is buttressed by some outstanding special effects work, and a dramatic through-line that is actually pretty impressive in terms of children’s television.  

In the case of the former, “Frozen in Space” features some dynamic miniature shots of Star Command under the burning shadow of a giant dwarf star.  There’s also a terrific composition here involving Jason’s Star Fire descending to the planetoid surface. This is actually a rerun from the first season, but it still looks good.

On the latter front, we get the newest chapter in Samantha’s on-going attempt to discover her own mysterious origin…and nature. She wonders aloud: “what if my people are evil?” Samantha wonders too, if she might be evil, on a personal basis.  

Jason’s encouraging reply suggests that she can be whom she chooses to be. In that answer, one can detect how a good message is being transmitted to the kiddies out there in TV land.  

It’s not too heavy-handed, but Samantha’s plight reminds the viewer that people should be judged by the content of their character, not by stereotypes or other external factors which may not truly consider the measure of a man, or woman.  

Samantha also claims this week to be a person from a race called “the Capillos.”  I don’t remember if that moniker recurs or not in future episodes…

Other than the nice character development about Samantha proving to herself she is not evil in nature, “Frozen in Space” is a pretty rudimentary narrative affair with captures, escapes, and more captures.  The characters run lots of places, rescue each other, get captured, and then defeat the villain…but not much meaningful actually happens.  The pure movement and busy-ness of the enterprise distracts you from the thematic emptiness. The original Dr. Who, in the early years, did a lot of these “runaround” stories, and after a while they certainly grow tiresome. 

Here, Jason of Star Command seems more obsessed with action than interesting sci-fi storytelling: Jason smashes the freeze beam control panel by throwing a chair at it!  Not exactly a high-minded solution, though it certainly gets the job done.

Besides the narrative’s general lack of ingenuity, “Frozen in Space” features quite possibly the slowest, worst-aimed paralysis beam in TV history.  

Samantha and Jason (and WiKi) all attempt to avoid the ray, yet somehow manage to outrun and pivot around the bloody thing.  Dragos needs to upgrade his technology or something.

Probably the biggest disappointment of the week is that Jason and Commander Stone don’t get to interact, and continue their contentious process of coming to understand one another.  Stone is trapped on Star Command with Parsafoot, and Jason is away on the planet, so there aren’t many character fireworks.

But, of course, "Frozen in Space" is aimed at kids, not at adults seeking thematic complexity. Hopefully things get a little more fun and elaborate next week...

Next episode: "Web of the Star Witch!"

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "The Monsters of Mongo" (September 29, 1979)

The animated Flash Gordon series kicks it to high gear in "The Monsters of Mongo," the second episode of this Filmation effort. ]

Here (in a tale written by Samuel A. Peeples), Flash, Dale and Thun (The Lion Man...) escape Mingo City into the caverns below, only to be recaptured by luscious Princess Aura. Then, Ming adds Dale to his harem, and consigns Flash and Thun to radioactive mines beneath the city, a place that "rots flesh and burns eyes."

In the caverns below, whipped and dominated by Lizard Women Overlords, Flash and Thun organize an impromptu miner's strike. "By sticking by each other, maybe we can accomplish something," Flash tells Thun.  Again, this is textbook Flash Gordon philosophy: triumph through team-work; success through cooperation.

There's an uprising in the caves, and in great anti-fascist (pro communist?) imagery, the workers brandish their shovels and pick-axes (seen in black silhouette...) against their masters. The animation here is quite powerful, by the way. Black shovels jut into the air triumphantly and the background is a fire and revolutionary red. 

After the slave revolt (which gets flooded out by Ming...), Aura helps Flash and Thun escape to Arboria, but first the unlikely allies must face the god of the caverns, Ti-Sack. The episode ends with Flash and Thun fleeing from Arboria (and the arrival of the Hawkmen), as Prince Barin and Aura trade barbs.

One of the things that struck me most powerfully about "The Monsters of Mongo" is the adherence in the series (and indeed, in the very concept of Flash Gordon) to the whole parochial and stereotypical Madonna/Whore complex. 

Think about it: Flash is always forced to choose between the abundantly sexy but evil woman in the metallic bikini, or the acceptable, loyal, demure always-in-need-of-rescue Dale Arden, who in this episode lamely declares. "I'm no wilting violet. I share the risk." This is right after she gets scooped up by a dinosaur, by the way, and Flash saves her. Again.

What's interesting is that Flash treats the so-called "whore" as an equal in fighting and cunning. He's physically aggressive with Aura (he's always grabbing her by the wrist; and here he steals her Multi-ray projector rod...). 

Similarly, when they are attacked by a giant carnivorous plant [a metaphor for a devouring vagina, perhaps?), he lets her -- like his buddy Thun -- fend for herself. 

Whereas Flash is basically Daddy and protector to Dale, treating her like a child who needs guidance or help. I suppose this is a 1930s vision of male/female relations, or is it still in play today? I wonder.

In a way it makes sense, when one considers the World War II milieu and metaphor. Dale is the un-worldly but solid  and loyal "American" female (again, stereotypically speakin), the one whom soldiers like Flash would have left on the home front to go to war.  

Aura is the European woman: exotic, different, and engaged in the battle that concerns her particular homeland.

The idea, under the surface, is that one of these women is appropriate for marriage; the other for bedding in war-time, in an exotic/foreign country.

One might think this sort of discussion is strange, since it regards a Saturday morning TV show, but this episode about "monsters" of Mongo is largely -- at least under the surface -- about sex. Ming sends Dale to his exotic harem, which we see in detail in future episodes. And Aura -- lustful of Flash and lusted after by Barin -- is also depicted in sexual terms.

Next week: "Vultan - King of the Hawkmen" 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Found Footage Friday: The Mirror (2014)

The British-made The Mirror is a found-footage variation of horror films about haunted mirrors such as Uli Lommel’s The Boogeyman (1980) and the recent Oculus (2014).

In The Mirror a trio of young adults fall prey to a deadly looking glass that that begins to change one of their number in incremental and insidious fashion. He goes from nice guy to possessed, sleep-walking maniac.

So yes, you’ve probably seen this particular story before.

But here’s the rub: You may not have seen this story told in same fashion that The Mirror tells it. And since there are no original stories, only original approaches to familiar stories, you might find this one worth a look. You can ignore the movie's tag-line -- "Don't Look" -- and give this one a spin.

I’ve gone through a lot of found footage movies in the last two years. Some are brilliant, some are downright dreadful (Buck’s County Massacre), and some, if not ultra-memorable or incredibly scary, get the job done and are worth at least one watch. 

I’d judge The Mirror eminently worthy of a watch. The performances are surprisingly good, the premise -- without being heavy-handed -- critiques our modern, money-obsessed culture, and the film features a nice slow-build towards terror and a very personal apocalypse.

The clichés of the format are all firmly in place here too, rest assured, but watching The Mirror once won’t turn your mind to mush or make you hate yourself for getting duped.

“We have to film all the time!”

In The Mirror, three young people in the UK -- Jemma (Jemma Dallender), Steve (Nate Fallows) and Matt (Joshua Dickinson) -- decide to enter the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge sponsored by James Randi’s Educational Foundation.

After scouring E-Bay, they purchase an old mirror that the previous owner claims is authentically haunted. 

The mirror is hung in Steve and Matt’s flat, and a video camera watches it 24/7 for signs of occult activity.

Jemma, who doesn’t believe in ghosts, begins to grow concerned, however, when Steve -- who has had psychic experiences in the past -- begins to experience strange changes in his character.

“Come on, scare me.”

If you step back from the narrative a little, The Mirror is all about people who desire to get rich quick. They desire this goal so deeply, in fact, that they “stir the pot,” and play a dangerous game with a haunted relic.

Instead of saving their money, instead of working extra jobs, Jemma, Steve and Matt bring something terrifying into their house....all for material gain. 

In effect, they hope to win the lottery. 

But one of their number, Steve, has a personal history that raises questions about the existence of the supernatural. He seems especially susceptible to paranormal or psychic experiences. So for him, this devil’s bargain is even worse than it may appear to be.

Thus it would be as though an alcoholic -- in order to win a million dollars -- agrees to bring home a refrigerator full of booze. That liquor would keep calling, keep pulling him in, jeopardizing his health and long-term survival?

Is that a good deal?

None of this is leitmotif is handled in a heavy-handed or preachy way, but I find it intriguing that the end goal here is not a noble one (like gathering evidence of life after death, as in The Haunting [1963]).

Rather the goal is to pad one’s wallet.

The prominent presence of E-Bay (a commerce site) and a million dollar contest in the film adds to this notion that The Mirror is actually reflecting something unpleasant about these normal-seeming young adults. 

They desire a short-cut in life, even if they must jeopardize their safety, and even their lives, to get it.

The Mirror raises some questions of logic and consistency that are difficult to put aside. For instance, why doesn’t Jemma rush Steve to the doctor when he begins to develop debilitating head-aches, or when he starts sleep-walking, or when he wakes up in the morning with one eye completely bloodshot?

These are all warning signs, no?

I fear a low budget is the problem here, impacting the film’s overall effectiveness. 

The Mirror is set almost entirely in the flat (save for a couple exterior murder sprees…), and while that creates a commendable sense of claustrophobic tension, the “outside” world is still there, and can be accessed. 

Jemma, reasonably, would and could get medical help (even an ambulance…) for her increasingly whacked-out boyfriend.

Much of The Mirror’s plot also relies on the tropes or clichés of the found footage format. There are scenes here involving green night vision (de rigueur in films of this type), confessional video diaries, and so forth. 

There’s also a regurgitation of a popular found footage closing shot: the cockeyed camera.  

As is the case in The Blair Witch Project (1999), in The Mirror the camera-person ultimately comes to an unfortunate end while the device itself continues filming. A cockeyed shot indicates no one is at home anymore. The footage is on automatic. Running by itself.

Beyond found-footage convention, The Mirror also re-uses the horror movie cliché of the relic that -- even when destroyed -- returns home to vex its former owner. Here, a character takes a sledge-hammer to the looking glass, smashing it completely. 

When he returns to the flat, it’s hanging on the wall like nothing ever happened to it.

If you’re a fan of the found-footage format, The Mirror features some good scares, some good characterizations, and a nice-re-tooling of the evil mirror trope.

When one character assumes the mirror is a fake, for instance it is noted that the item is a “rip off.” 

The same conclusion is not true for The Mirror, the film. It gets the job done with just enough intelligence and vigor to be worth the avid horror film fan's time and attention.

Movie Trailer: The Mirror (2014)

The Superheroes of: The 1980s

In the 1980s, superhero productions underwent a dramatic change.While the Superman movie franchise dominated the first part of the decade, the last few years of eighties saw a transition to "dark," broody heroes such as RoboCop (1989) and Tim Burton's Batman (1989).

The decade also saw a gradual shift from TV to movies as the primary channel for superhero productions. 

TV failures such as Automan (1983), Manimal (1983) and Once a Hero (1987), coupled with the success of Batman (1989), assured that superheroes -- going forward for at least a decade -- would find a home on the silver screen.

How many of these eighties superheroes do you recognize and remember?

Identified by Sirrus: Pumaman!

Identified by BT: Condorman.

Identified by Sirrus: Superman in Superman II.

Identified by Sirrus: The Greatest American Hero.

Identified by Sirrus: Swamp Thing.

Identified by SGB: Automan.

Identified by Sirrus: Manimal.

Identified by Sirrus: Supergirl

Identified by BT: Sheena.

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Once A Hero.

Not Identified.

Identified by BT: The Spirit.

Identifie by SGB: Superboy

Identified by Sirrus: Batman.

Identified by Sirrus: Captain America

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The X-Files: "Founder's Mutation" (January 25, 2016)

In “Founder’s Mutation,” agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate a horrific and violent suicide at Nugenic Technologies.

The investigation leads the duo to the company’s founder, Dr. Goldman (Dr. Savant), who is a self-professed “champion of the unborn,” and demonstrates a remarkable obsession regarding children with genetic deformities.

As Scully and Mulder soon learn, Dr. Goldman -- who has ties to the Department of Defense -- is hiding a secret about the deformed children in his clinic.

Some of them are no mere accidents of nature, but actually human/alien hybrids genetically engineered to one day replace humankind.

Goldman’s history with these children extends to his own family, and his own son and daughter.  Scully and Mulder seek to find out the truth about Goldman’s children from his institutionalized wife, even as the case awakens feelings of guilt in Scully about her son with Mulder, William.

In the spirit of Robert Frost (1874-1963), “Founder’s Mutation” -- the second episode of The X-Files Revival -- very much concerns the road not taken, at least for Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson).

On a surface level, this installment written and directed by James Wong concerns all those qualities we want and desire in an episode of this beloved genre series.

To wit, “Founder’s Mutation” features some connection to the overall mythology or Mytharc (alien/human infants), but boasts a monster (or two..) of the week by featuring a pair of adolescents with telekinetic and other psychic powers. The episode is also creepy as hell, thanks in large part to a prologue that ends with an unlucky soul committing suicide with a letter opener “by way of the ear canal.”

“Founder’s Mutation” is also tightly written, frightening, and both surprising and funny, especially regarding Mulder’s rendezvous with an informant that goes awry.

Yet as much as “Founder’s Mutation” nails all the technical and narrative components that we expect from The X-Files, Wong’s tale achieves greatness on the basis of its character revelations. In particular, we are given a new window into the viewpoints of Mulder and Scully.

And what we learn is devastating.

I referenced Robert Frost above -- as well as his poem, The Road Not Taken (1916) --and yet this episode of The X-Files is a story -- much like that poem -- that Mulder and Scully “shall be telling with a sigh,” as they reflect on their choices, decisions, and indeed, mistakes, in life.

Those choices involve William, the son they had together, and whom they gave up for adoption.

That adoption occurred because Mulder and Scully were worried that William was in some kind of mortal danger as long as he was close to them and the conspiracy. In other words, as parents Mulder and Scully made a self-less decision to put their son’s life ahead of their own.

But what they lost in that decision is heart-breaking, and “Founder’s Mutation” focuses on the road not taken -- the road sacrificed -- when they gave up their only child. 

On two occasions in this installment, we see Mulder and Scully day-dreaming, essentially, of an alternate universe; one where they raised William. Where they were a family.

Scully imagines taking her young son to school, and picking him up there in the afternoon. She imagines comforting him when he is hurt.  Her dream is all about being with her son, day-to-day, seeing him grow, and care-taking him when life is hard, or hurtful.

Mulder’s daydreams are no less heart-wrenching and they affected me, the father of a nine year old, deeply.  Mulder imagines the first occasion he watches 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with his young son, and their ensuing talk about the meaning and mystery of the Monolith while eating from a bowl of popcorn. 

Later, on a golden afternoon, they launch toy rockets together.

But of course, nothing gold can stay, to continue my Frost comparison, albeit from a different poem.

These are fantasies, not memories. 

This paradise-like world of family bonds exists only in the imagination of the day-dreamers. Mulder and Scully’s boy is now 15 years old, and Mulder and Scully don’t know him.

Even if they find him, they can’t get back the time lost.

Mulder and Scully are thus haunted by the road they didn’t travel; the road they didn’t take, fifteen years earlier. This character aspect of “Founder’s Mutation” elevates the tale beyond mere “science run amok” story, because it reveals how a particular investigation impacts Mulder and Scully on a personal and human level.

These scenes are also beautifully photographed. In fact, the scene involving Mulder and William outside, preparing the rockets, is one of the most beautiful visuals I have seen on TV in quite a while. It feels like a moment of stolen time. In the composition above, you can see the sun casting its gold light upon the characters, but its position, low in the frame, also suggests an impending end to daylight. This moment is here now, but will soon be gone...

What may prove even sadder than the path not taken is the fact that Mulder and Scully have not, apparently, meaningfully discussed their grief or mourning over William with one another.

Scully pointedly asks Mulder if he ever thinks about William. He responds in the affirmative, but suggests that he tries not to think about the past, or linger on such things. 

The episode’s final scenes suggest that the truth is somewhat different than what Mulder shares. He dreams of those sunny days, while he and his son reach for the stars. Meanwhile, in reality, he sits alone in a dark kitchen, his back to us, clutching a snapshot of his son as a baby.

That's all he is left of William.

What I also find admirable, and very rewarding, about “Founder’s Mutation" is the high level of interconnection between the story and imagery. Playing on the television in Scully’s hospital ward, at one point, is a significant scene from Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). 

Now Planet of the Apes (1968) has been visually referenced in The X-Files on at least two occasions before, in “War of the Coprophages” and “Sein Und Zeit,” so this is a nice call back in terms of series history to the best damned science fiction movie ever made.

Beyond that surface level, however, consider the plot of Escape from the Planet of the Apes. The movie finds two endangered parents, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) giving up their baby, Milo, for adoption by circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban). 

In other words, these simian parents have made the same choice that Mulder and Scully make, vis-à-vis, their child. To protect their son, they give him away, losing him forever.

So this is clearly a case in which a visual allusion reflects on the story being told.

The visual and in-narrative allusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey also helps us learn and understand “Founder’s Mutation” better.

Kubrick’ film concerns the development, evolution, or perhaps creation of a new species here on Earth. That growth is forced or impelled by the alien presence of the Monolith. First, apes impacted by the alien instrument evolve into men. 

And then ages later men, like David Bowman (Keir Dullea), will ultimately become another species too, the so-called “Star Children.”

If I understand it correctly -- and no guarantees on that! -- a founder effect or mutation in science is the loss of genetic variation that happens when a new population is established by a very small number of individuals originally from a larger population. Those individuals -- parents, essentially -- have genetically initiated alterations in DNA that are passed down to all their children.

Those terms are very fancy ways of describing what occurs in 2001: A Space Odyssey, aren’t they? An ape, impacted by an alien object, evolves into a new species: man. And man, similarly, becomes another species too (The aforementioned Star Children).

In this episode of The X-Files, alien DNA is being used to create children of a new parent species too, a parent species of a new breed. That’s what Molly and her brother are, a new race separate from humanity; a branching off point from homo sapien for homo dominus, or some such thing.

Again, it’s rewarding that The X-Files explores a genuine scientific concept (fist theorized in the 1940s) and then explores it thoroughly, while also alluding to another work of art (2001) where the idea gets so memorably dramatized.

When you delve into the imagery and ideas of “Founder’s Mutation,” one can see how cleverly all the moving pieces fit together. Wong has constructed his episode like a steel trap, with all pieces interrelated and strengthening the others. One visual reference (Escape from Planet of the Apes) is about parents and the sacrifices they make, just as one aspect of the episode involves Scully and Mulder’s similar sacrifice.

Another visual reference is to the genetic process of change or mutation (spurred by aliens?) as seen both in 2001: A Space Odyssey and in Dr. Goldman’s laboratory/clinic.

There may also be some carefully coded social commentary here, though it is handled lightly and respectfully. Dr. Goldman very much appears on the surface to be “pro-life,” wanting to save all of his “children.”

But while those children are indeed alive, they are kept in cages as subjects of experiments. Their quality of life is miserable. They are prisoners, with no freedom, and no destiny but to be used. This idea is a reflection of some of the concepts I discussed here yesterday, in my review of “My Struggle,” namely the loss of individual liberty.

Again, one must consider the comparison or contrast carefully presented by the episode.

Mulder and Scully gave their “different” child, William, a chance at a real-life when they gave him up for adoption. They have lost him and may regret the road not traveled. But their son is safe, and free.

Goldman, who is a champion of the unborn but not apparently the already-born, uses the children as fodder. They are his to do with as he pleases. He sees them as property.

The discussion here is not even vaguely partisan, either pro-life or pro-choice. Instead, “Founder’s Mutation” asks the viewer to consider quality of life, and weigh its importance in the grand scheme of things. Because we live in such hyper-partisan times, some will insist the message here is either pro-life or pro-choice. Yet, as usual, The X-Files goes far beyond easy labels and black-and-white answers to nuanced questions. 

It asks us to think, and consider our own faith, point-of-view, and grasp of the facts. It asks us to search for meaning, even as Mulder and Scully search out that meaning on screen.

Going in, based on the strong critical buzz, I was expecting a sturdy “monster of the week” type episode this time out. But “Founder’s Mutation,” with its focus on Scully and Mulder’s road not taken, proves itself far more emotionally resonant than such a generic description suggests.

And that, to quote Frost a final time, makes "all the difference."

Next Wednesday afternoon: My review of "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster."

Ask JKM a Question: You (Season Two)

A reader, Chuck, writes: "I know you have been busy and, frankly, I was not sure if you still have time for “Ask JKM a Quest...