Saturday, February 06, 2016

Bring Him Back: #MillenniuM20th

On the occasion of the Millennium Tweet-a-thon, I decided to dig deep into my blog archives and re-post some of my words about The Back to Frank Black Campaign from a few years ago. 

They've been updated for today. 

But the song remains the same.

Here goes:

"Fox should be listening to the emerging groundswell or a revival, because this is the perfect time to produce a Millennium limited series or TV-movie. 

Forget the tiresome and inaccurate argument that since the millennium actually turned in 1999 – 2000 the series is somehow out-of-date or past-its-prime.  

The opposite is true.  

Stylistically and context-wise, Millennium was actually far ahead of its time. I would argue, in fact, that the world is only now catching up with the concepts Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, and the other writers conceived during the three-year span of the series. 

In terms of story-telling style or approach, consider just for a moment how often Millennium’s complex formula has been tossed into a blender, ground down to its component parts, and then presented in pieces, to great ratings success. 

For example, the CSI formula of the last decade-and-a-half resuscitates the “forensic investigation” aspects of the Carter series.  

Programs such as Criminal Minds ask audiences to travel inside the twisted minds of the most monstrous human criminals, just as Frank Black did on a regular basis.  

And series such as Medium focused, to a large extent, on the value of unconventional insight in solving crimes.  

Millennium brilliantly combined all these threads, plus Frank’s home life, plus the symbolism of the “yellow house.”

Outside of this style, Millennium obsessed on what I call in my book, Terror Television “those shadowy, half-understood fears which affect the human heart and soul.”  

The monsters in the series, though sometimes originating from religious mythology, were also, often, human in nature. 

Frank faced these human “Monsters from the Id” on a weekly basis in the 1990s, but many of the aspects of life that vexed him in the Clinton Era have only grown more pronounced today.

If the 1990s represented the first significant decade of conspiracies run rampant (George Bush I’s “New World Order,” or The Clinton Body Count), then in 2016 the conspiracy mentality is, in fact, on steroids. 

 Today, we have Birthers, Truthers, Deathers -- you name it -- and they are all ripping at the fabric of our shared national reality and identity.  

Wouldn’t it be nice, once more, to have a man like Frank navigate this shadowy, mysterious world and separate truth from fiction, fact from propaganda?  To tell us that we can still stop an impending doomsday?

The TV program's fictional Millennium Group was the prime mover of a secret history in the series, but just because the year 2000 came and went without dramatic incident, that doesn't mean the conspirators would stop attempting to shape the future. 

In fact, one sect of the Millennium Group, the Owls, believed the apocalypse will occur in 2020…just four years distant.  

Imagine the plans The Group must be making right now, right?

On a connected note, our society need gravelly-voiced, insightful Frank Black to pick up his adventures again because of who we have become since Millennium left the airwaves. 

We seem more divided in 2016 than we have been, certainly, in my lifetime.  

Political enemies don’t merely have disagreements anymore, they try to destroy one another. The person with the loudest voice wins the cable TV sweepstakes, and facts become lost in “gotcha” point-scoring.

The quality I admired so much about Frank Black, and one abundantly evident in Henriksen’s brilliant, layered portrayal, was his utter lack of susceptibility to such bullshit.  

Even when provoked, Frank didn't take the bait or grow angry or irrational (unless, of course, his family was actively threatened).  Instead, he was reasonable and stable, and that is, perhaps, a strange thing to write about a character who has suffered a nervous breakdown or two (but hey who’s counting?).

But perhaps because Frank had seen and understood madness up-close, he had inoculated himself from it on a daily basis. 

One of the continuing delights of Millennium, even today, is how Frank fails to give his competitors or nemeses the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him.   

To put the matter another way: Frank isn’t worried about how popular he is.  

He isn’t worried about pleasing the boss.  

He doesn’t concern himself with partisanship or ideology, but instead tries to solve a problem the best he can, in the most reasonable way he can.  

Importantly, he isn't selling anything.  

Now it's not like he's Mr. Spock or Dexter -- Frank clearly possesses strong emotions -- but yet he possesses this equanimity; this sense of wisdom and fairness. He would defend the weak, the voiceless, those assumed guilty.
He is The Calm.  

And the rest of the world is The Storm swirling around him.

Mr. Henriksen has spoken eloquently about Frank Black in the War on Terror Age and Beyond, but I also believe that Frank Black is the perfect hero for America at home, right now, because he possesses these qualities of stability and reason that often seem missing in action. 

In other words -- perhaps more than ever - we need Frank Black.

Now, in 2016, we have seen how The X-Files can prosper in a new TV paradigm.  It was ahead of its time in so many ways and feels right at home in our world now.  

The same description is true for Millennium.

Let's bring it back, folks.


The Time is Now: Millennium Tweet-a-Thon Starts at 3:00 PM EST!

Please don't forget: The Time is (Almost...) Now. 

From 3:00 to 5:00 pm EST today, a Tweet-a-thon campaign is occurring to draw Fox TV's attention to Chris Carter's Millennium (1996 - 1999), and the fan desire to see the Lance Henriksen series revived.

Please join the team!

If you do tweet, use the hashtag #MillenniuM20th.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Web of the Star Witch" (September 29, 1979)

In "Web of the Star Witch," the third episode of Jason of Star Command’s second season, Jason’s apparently abandoned Star Fire returns to the Star Command docking bay. Commander Stone (John Russell) is concerned over the strange arrival, and with good reason. 

In secret, one of Dragos’ minions has infiltrated the base, and is planning to set a time bomb.

Meanwhile, Jason and Samantha run afoul of the evil Queen Medusa (Francine York), who desperately wants Jason to join her in seizing control of the galaxy. After Jason refuses to team up with the villain, he and Samantha utilize Medusa’s matter transmitter to return to Star Command, and help Stone and Parsafoot with a search for the ticking bomb…

All in all, "Web of the Star Witch" is perhaps a bit more exciting than “Frozen in Space,” (which I call “Frozen in Place.”)  There’s a little bit more intrigue in this narrative, and in terms of visuals, the episode features a terrific stop-motion alien monster.  

Watching Jason and Samantha face off against this unusual star beast, I was reminded immediately of Jason and the Argonauts (1962), and then considered again how the swashbuckling fantasy world of Ray Harryhausen seems to be one of the key inspirations of Jason of Star Command.  

Consider the similarities: a heroic leader and his courageous team  -- with Samantha as a kind of female, amnesiac Hercules -- facing off against evil creatures and aliens.  In the same sense as Jason and the Argonauts, Jason of Star Command is tremendous fun, and filled with surprisingly effective special effects for a Saturday morning TV show.

Of course, some of the character mechanics don’t make a lot of sense. Why would Medusa risk everything she has gained working with Dragos on the slim chance that Jason would join her? In terms of motivation, it doesn’t seem likely, and, of course, Jason rejects her call to join up. “My allegiance is to Star Command and a free galaxy,” he tells her, and his words aren't exactly a surprise.  In fact, they recall his words to Julie Newmar's character in Season One, under similar circumstance.  I think Medusa wears the same outfit, as well.

What seems missing from “Web of the Star Witch” is a larger overall plot-line, or arc.  Each Jason of Star Command features a terrible threat to Jason and to Star Command, and yet it all feels terribly random, as though Dragos is just throwing everything (including the kitchen sink…) at his opponents.  

Dragos would seem a more effective villain if the audience felt he actually had a multi-piece strategy. On the other hand, if space terrorism is his goal, perhaps Drago is effective in "terrorizing" Star Command.

Another nice touch in “Web of the Star Witch” involves the development of Commander Stone, perhaps the season’s most intriguing personality. Here, he demonstrates his people’s ability to implant mental directives directly in the minds of other individuals.  Specifically, he subdues an alien creature with the instruction to “rest.”  He does so by placing two fingers against the alien’s temple. This ability looks like the Vulcan mind meld in practice, but acts like the Vulcan nerve pinch.  Regardless, it passes for a pretty cool ability.

“Web of the Star Witch” also demonstrates how WiKi has become an easy crutch for  series writers.  In this story, the tiny robot destroys the chains binding Samantha and Jason, overloads an alien computer, and saves the day again and again.  He has become, in short order, Jason’s “Get out of Jail Free” card.  He’s virtually indestructible too.

Although the presentation of Queen Medusa is hackneyed (she even possesses a magic wand...), “Web of the Star Witch” remains a pretty fast-paced half-hour, and at least gets Jason back to Star Command, so he can introduce Samantha to the rest of the gang. 

Next week: "Beyond the Stars."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Vultan - King of the Hawkmen" (October 6, 1979)

Script editor Ted Pederson contributes his first teleplay to Filmation's Flash Gordon (1979-1982) with this, the third "chapter" of the ongoing serial.

"Vultan - King of the Hawkmen" finds Aura, Barin, Thun and Flash captured and taken to Vultan's hovering "Sky City." 

Vultan -- who presciently looks and sounds like the 1980's movie's Brian Blessed -- consigns the men to the city's "atomic furnace" and decides he wants to marry the scantily-clad Aura so he will beome heir to Ming the Merciless. 

Meanwhile, Ming launches his space armada to rescue his daughter and warns that Vultan will soon feel "the wrath of Ming!"

Down in the atomic furnace, Flash instigates the second slave revolt in two weeks and devastates the city's power core just in time for Ming to come and reduce much of the Hawkman city to rubble with his fleet. 

This is where the episode really takes off as the battle rages. 

In the air (over the spires of Sky City...) a laser-firing spaceship combats sleek, flying Hawkmen, and I was amazed to see a children's cartoon featuring images of Hawkmen (and their hawk steeds...) being disintegrated in mid-air by the weaponry!

In the end, the Hawkmen flee Sky City with Ming, Barin and Thun. Vultan resolves to join them as "brothers" since they now "share the same fortune." 

So in just three episodes, Flash has allied three Kingdoms of Mongo, and soon he will begin the rebellion against Ming in earnest...

"Where there's a will, there's a way," Gordon tells his new friends, and again I'm reminded of Flash Gordon's origins in the 1930s, in a time of gathering global danger when tyrants were sweeping through Europe and bringing the tide of fascism with them. 

The only chance to resist the momentum of evil was for the countries of the world to band together against evil; and Flash Gordon is certainly a metaphor for that idea of uniting: the putting aside of racial and ethnic divides to serve the common good. The uniter, of course, is one heck of an exceptional American. Flash brings grounded wisdom, practicality, and honor to Mongo, a place (standing in for Old Europe) where those concepts are considered alien.

"Vultan - King of the Hawkmen" also follows Dale Arden (Diane Pershing) as she is taken to Ming's harem. There are several frames here of his scantily clad brides...of many species.  Last week, I wrote some about sex in Flash Gordon (no doubt to the discomfort of some...), and yet here comes the sexuality again. In addition to Ming's harem, there are also exotic dancers in Vultan's palace!

The inference is clear: Flash must save Dale from a fate worse than death; being deflowered and debauched as one of the "exotic" Ming's many lovers.

And again, it's a bit surprising to see a Filmation kid's show be quite so explicit in its imagery.  On the other hand, this is a welcome development, as the series feels more three-dimensional and adult than do some series from the same studio.

Next week: "To Save Earth."

Friday, February 05, 2016

Found Footage Friday: JeruZalem (2016)

Now here’s an intriguing variation on the found-footage format. JeruZalem (2016) is an Israeli-made riff on Cloverfield (2008), except the giant monster here isn’t an extra-terrestrial in nature. Instead, this Beastie comes from religious beliefs.

Set and filmed in the city of Jerusalem at the dawn of Yom Kippur, JeruZalem colorfully chronicles a group of vacationing twenty-somethings there as a Gate to Hell opens, lost souls attack, and some giant demon/Satan-type creature -- only occasionally seen -- pulps the Old City.The tourists’ only hope of evacuating the quarantine zone is to evacuate Jerusalem through a subterranean passageway.

JeruZalem gets two important things right.

The first thing the film really nails is its sense of humor. The directors, Yoav and Doran Paz, boast a witty, subversive -- one might even say sacrilegious -- sense of humor. They never let matters get too serious.

The second quality JeruZalem gets right involves the film’s lead character, Sarah Pullman (Danielle Jadelyn). This young woman spends the vast majority of the found-footage film behind the camera, which in this case is actually a pair of Google Glasses. What that means is that Sarah is our set of eyes, the camera-person, essentially, and so we often don’t see her. 

Yet, miraculously -- given Sarah’s actual screen time -- she transmits as a fully-developed character.

JeruZalem also boasts a great, nearly miraculous final shot, especially given its low budget. Were it fifteen or twenty minutes shorter and a bit more tightly edited, JeruZalem would be a great horror film of its type, and not one that merely qualifies as good.

“There were signs coming…”

After her loving father presents her with a pair of Google Glasses, Sarah Pullman (Jadelyn) and her best friend, Rachel (Yoel Groblas) take a flight to Israel for a sight-seeing trip. Sarah hopes the trip will help her get over the death of her brother, Joel.

On the plane to Tel Aviv, Sarah and Rachel meet Kevin (Yon Tumarkin), a young man studying anthropology who is fascinated by the occult. He points out that all major belief systems -- Christian, Jewish and Muslim -- believe in demons and the undead.

Kevin convinces the young women to change their itinerary and travel with him to Jerusalem instead of seeing Tel Aviv first. 

In Jerusalem, the tourists meet Omar (Tom Graziani), who works at their hostel. Together they all see the Damascus Gate, the Wailing Wall, and Solomon’s Quarries. At the Wailing Wall, Sarah leaves a letter asking God to bring back her dead brother.

Kevin, meanwhile, grows increasingly disturbed, experiencing a sense that something terrible is going to happen in the City.

His ominous prediction proves correct. As Yom Kippur commences, strange forces attack the people of Jerusalem, and the Israeli Army quarantines the city.  

Now Sarah, Rachel, Kevin and Omar must find a way to escape.

“Maybe you two are developing Jerusalem Syndrome.”

Two common criticisms of the found-footage film format involve the fact that movies of this type tend to feature cardboard or indistinguishable characters, and lack any sense of humor.  

Rewardingly, neither objection proves true in the case of JeruZalem.

Let’s gaze at the film’s humor, first.  There’s a scene, mid-way through the film wherein Sarah takes off her glasses and beds Kevin at the hostel. 

While they are busy stripping down on the bed, kissing, and beginning to have sex (under the watchful eye of Google Glass), an app opens up on the device. 

It’s Sarah’s Dad attempting to reach her.  And while his young daughter is getting it on, he’s calling her “Pumpkin” and messaging about how she’s Daddy’s “good little girl,” and so forth.  It’s a funny juxtaposition.

Another joke also succeeds in garnering a chuckle. When Sarah first gets her Google Glass at home in the U.S., she opens an app called “Die Zombie Die” in which she kills off staggering ghouls with a sword.  

In the film’s last act -- set in the subterranean caverns -- she ends up with a sword-in-hand, killing off the winged-demons/fallen souls in much the same fashion. 

Who says video game don’t offer real life value?

On the other hand, Sarah proves a bit too impulsive with that sword...

The first moment described above (the juxtaposition between lusty sex and a Dad’s infantilizing messages…) is a bit stronger than the video game/real life comparison later on, simply because nobody comments on it. 

Sarah almost kills the second joke by noting “it’s just like a video game.” That’s a line that, with tighter editing, could be omitted. Smart viewers will catch the visual connection between scenes without the character hitting it on the nose or telegraphing it.

Still, it’s rewarding that this low-budget horror film takes the time to make such jokes, and to tell those jokes through visualization and imagery.

Additionally, I admire how the film keeps Sarah in the mix as the lead character, even though she is actually on-screen far less than are either Rachel, Kevin, or Omar. Through adroit camera-movement sand choice of shots, we come to (wordlessly) understand  Sarah's grief over her brother’s death, and her commitment to rescuing Kevin from an asylum in Jerusalem. I don’t want to spoil the climax, but even when she is “merely” our eyes, the viewer gleans a strong sense of Sarah, who she is, and what she endures.

The film’s final shot is also amazing, as it involves an ascent into the sky, and a view of Jerusalem as, literally, all Hell breaks loose. This shot helps the film achieve a sense of scope that is breathtaking.

As for the shots of Satan, or some other giant Demon wandering the City, these moments are infrequent, and the effects may not hold up to great or intense scrutiny.  

These moments aren’t bad, necessarily, and the editor does everything within the realm of possibility to make our views of the monster brief. Cloverfield is clearly the model in this regard, and as you may recall, there we mostly saw only bits and pieces of the giant monster, at least until movie’s end.  

JeruZalem, by contrast, doesn’t feature a visual a pay-off regarding its giant, only the swirling mass of undead rising from the opened Gates of Hell.

Another element that JeruZalem cribs from Cloverfield is the idea that the smaller threat (either alien lice, or the winged lost souls) carries a contagion that contaminates human beings. Their bite/scratch, in both cases, is terminal. Frankly, this is the least interesting aspect of JeruZalem, and the scenes involving this aspect of the threat are not particularly persuasive.

In the third act, this horror film runs out of steam a bit, and one is left with the impression that with a little judicious trimming, the whole experience could have felt more intense, more immediate. The movie runs about ten or so minutes too long, and tension has dissipated to the point that viewers may rightly fear they are a step ahead of the filmmakers.

Despite such concerns, I liked and enjoyed JeruZalem overall. I think the Paz film works best as a visceral, visual experience. The frame-within-a-frame nature of the presentation is less distracting than in efforts such as Unfriended (2015) or Nightmare Code (2015), for instance.

Also, the film's prologue -- of an occult event in 1978 -- is powerfully rendered. It actually likes like an old film, and not like a modern filmmaker's impression of an old film.

Finally, identification with the protagonist is strong throughout, and JeruZalem ends on a high note…literally. 

It’s just too bad these considerable strengths aren’t enough to sustain the film's spirits for the full 94 minute running time. 

Still, there's no "Fatal Error," to keep one from enjoying this latest addition to the ever-increasing Found Footage catalog.

Movie Trailer: JeruZalem (2016)

Superheroes of: The 1990s

Powered by the success of Tim Burton's Batman (1989), the nineties saw superhero cinema rise and become a dramatic force at the box office.

Although period superhero films largely failed, the Batman saga least until 1997. And the 1990s is also the first decade that saw a number of superheroes of color on the big screen.

How many of these nineties superheroes do you remember?

Identified by Sirrus: Darkman.

Identified by Sirrus: The Flash.

Identified by Sirrus: The Rocketeer.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Meteor Man.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Blank Man (on TV, Handiman).

Identified by Bruce Nims: The Crow.

Identified by Sirrus: The Mask.

Identified by Sirrus: The Shadow.

Identified by Vejur79: Black Scorpion.

Identified by Veju79: M.A. N.T.I.S.

Identified by Sirrus: The Phantom.

Identified by Duanne: Bibleman.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Identified by Will Perez: Nick Fury, Agent for SHIELD..

Identified by Sirrus: Spawn.

Identified by Sirrus: Steel.

Identified by Sirrus: Blade.

Identified by Will Perez: Angel.

Identified by Sirrus: Mystery Men.

Identified by SGB: Now and Again

And if you like revisiting historic superheroes, don't forget to read my book: The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (2008).