Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Enemy Within" (October 6, 1966)

Stardate: 1672.1

The U.S.S. Enterprise crew conducts a “specimen gathering mission” on the surface of planet Alfa 177. The inhospitable planet turns deadly at night, when the temperature drops to “120 below zero.”

A crewman, Fisher, beams up to the Enterprise after taking a fall. Unfortunately, the technician’s uniform is contaminated with a strange metallic ore, and the ore damages the ship’s transporter.

When Captain Kirk (William Shatner) beams up to the ship, the damaged device splits him into two individuals. One is savage and avaricious. The other is weak and diffident.  The violent, “dark” Captain Kirk assaults Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) and demands Saurian brandy from Bones (De Forest Kelley), while the other must cope with his dwindling ability to command a starship.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sulu (George Takei) and his landing party on Alfa 177 must remain the night on the frozen world, pending the repair of the transporter.

While Kirk is disgusted by the sight and thought of a vicious, barbaric double, Mr. Spock sees an opportunity for study, to understand the qualities that make a person a great commander…

Penned by the great Richard Matheson (1926-2013), “The Enemy Within” is a classic episode of Star Trek (1966-1969). Matheson’s teleplay examines -- through the use of a transporter malfunction -- the dual nature of humanity. 

Inspired in art by the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Matheson has penned a story about Captain Kirk which reminds the audience that strength, leadership, decisiveness, even, may stem from a negative or dark part of the psyche.  This is a powerful revelation, and Kirk’s final, sad musing that he has “seen a part of” himself “that no man should ever see” is powerful, even haunting.

“The Enemy Within” has for a long time been esteemed as a great episode of Star Trek, but I wonder, after my recent viewing, if it hasn’t aged poorly to some degree.

For example, Spock’s joke to Yeoman Rand at the end of the episode (about the evil, assaulting Kirk having some interesting qualities) is in bad taste and insensitive, for example. What a terrible thing to say to someone who has suffered an assault from someone she cares for. Knowing what Whitney suffered on the set of Star Trek makes the remark even worse.

Furthermore, the last act is drawn out, with the two Kirks being forced to embrace each other at great length, and with great emotionality.

Much worse, in my estimation, “The Enemy Within” is an absolute mess from a visual standpoint. The editing is sloppy in some crucial instances. 

For example, early in the episode, Kirk’s uniform is missing an insignia.  In the very next scene, it has returned to its proper placement.

And in the episodes final confrontation, the bridge’s view-screen is a big white board…with no image projected upon it in post-production. This really sticks out. It’s not like we’ve ever seen the screen in “off” mode before.

Then, of course, there are all the compositions that have been printed in reverse, meaning that haircuts are parted on the wrong side and insignias appear placed the wrong side.

In toto, this is a sloppy episode of Star Trek from a visual standpoint, and the mistakes are jarring, repetitive, and frequent. The alien dog with the antennae and electronic bark is also one of the sillier aliens to make an appearance on the program.

If I were William Shatner, I would certainly have cause for complaint about the production values, editing, and shooting of this story. 

After all, he delivers not one but two phenomenal performances in this episode, and his efforts are under-cut frequently by the pervasive mistakes. When he takes center stage, however, Shatner is indeed a commanding presence.  His “dark” Kirk is a ferocious, feral presence.

Even the threat of the week -- crew members trapped on a frozen planet -- doesn’t hold up well today because in 2016 we all know that the Enterprise houses shuttlecrafts.  They should be used to rescue Sulu and his cohorts, but of course, in terms of production, a shuttle didn’t yet exist, either practically or in the imagination of the writers and producers.  

But looking back, it’s a glaring omission, and adds to the sense that the episode is sloppy, or ill-considered.

The qualities that make “The Enemy Within” stand out involve the clever observations about human nature, particularly from Spock.

Although I believe it is a mistake that he would note his “alien” rather than Vulcan half, specifically, his point is nonetheless well-taken.  He has two sides fighting a war inside of him, every single day. 

But Spock’s observation that what makes a man a leader is “his negative side,” properly controlled, is unforgettable. That’s a pretty daring observation for a young TV show, and one in the mainstream.  

It says, essentially, we derive or power and strength from dark or negative impulses. We aren’t altruistic beings. We don’t seek power for noble reasons.  But, if even tempered, we can still do good things with that power.

In terms of overall structure -- as I wrote about in regards to “Where No Man Has Gone Before” two weeks ago -- it is good to have McCoy arguing the other side of the debate.  He doesn’t see a dark side or a negative side here. “It’s not really ugly, it’s human,” he says, and that’s a good point too.

“The Enemy Within” is an important episode to Star Trek not merely for its dissection of Kirk’s leadership, but because it gives us a number of important series firsts. This is the first episode in which Spock uses the famous Vulcan nerve pinch.  It is also the first time we hear McCoy say his immortal line, “He’s dead Jim.”  We saw some of Engineering in “The Naked Time,” but this is the first episode that features an extended sequence set there, if memory serves.

I’ve always loved and admired “The Enemy Within,” but this time, while I watched, I wondered if time had finally passed it by. There is a legitimately great episode of Voyager (1995-2001), for example, called “Tuvix,” wherein Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) must examine the moral case for separating two life forms who have been blended by transporter (Tuvok and Nuvix). 

That episode works on a stronger, more advanced philosophical level, and has fewer unforced visual errors.

Of course, at the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that “Tuvix” couldn’t exist had “The Enemy Within” not arrived first.

For me, the reason to watch this episode remains William Shatner’s gonzo, totally-committed performance. Also, I love the Rand/Kirk scenes.  That is a fascinating relationship that I wished had been given the opportunity to develop more fully.

Next week: “Mudd’s Women.”

Die Hard on a Blog: Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)

The biggest problem with Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), perhaps, is that it follows on the heels of a legitimately great movie in its franchise.  

John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) is brilliantly constructed in terms of its character dynamics, its camera-work, and even its primal male fantasy sub-text. It's the gold standard in terms of the action genre, at least for its era.

Die Hard 2 is good enough to merit a positive review, and proved an even bigger success at the box office than Die Hard did. But watching Die Hard 2 today, one cannot help but feel that virtually every ingredient featured this time around is a bit less artfully calibrated.

The villains are a huge step-down from Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, for one thing. Similarly, McClane begins the slippery descent from Every Man to Super Man in this movie, and the supporting characters who make a return appearance -- like narcissistic Dick Thornburg (William Atherton) -- feel shoe-horned into the plot. 

When the movie culminates with the first Die Hard’s R-rated catchphrase, and the same closing song  too -- “Let it Snow” -- the impression of not a sequel, but a rehash, is firmly cemented.

By contrast, the next film in the cycle, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) throws out enough standards (the isolated location, the man-alone syndrome, and the Christmas Day setting) to transmit as a more legitimately original follow-up to a masterful action classic.

This first sequel, however, expertly solidifies some intriguing elements that, perhaps, aren’t always considered in regards to the Die Hard formula. I admire here, for example, McClane’s pattern of cooperating with other Every Men (and Women) such as Marvin (Tom Bower) the janitor, Barnes (Art Evans)  the airport engineer, and non-narcissistic journalist, "Sam" Coleman (Sheila McCarthy)  

They are all real people, working real jobs, often going up against the bureaucracy -- or Establishment --  a key obstacle, if not outright villain, of the overarching Die Hard saga.

Undeniably, Die Hard 2: Die Harder is impressively-made and boasts moments of pure exhilaration. It is also superior to some of the franchise’s later entries, so it has that going for it. Yet -- to quote again  Roger Ebert and his review of Halloween II (1981) --  this sequel is still a “fall from greatness.”

Perhaps this sequel is not a steep fall, or a crash on the runway, but Die Hard 2 nonetheless begins showing the incipient symptoms of franchise-itis.

“You’re the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

L.A. cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) waits in Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. for the arrival of his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) from California.

Unfortunately, the renegade Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) and his team of special forces troops take over the air-port, stop all incoming flights, and attempt to rescue an incoming American hostage, deposed strong man General Esperanza (Franco Nero).

McClane must now get Holly’s plane safely to the ground before it runs out of fuel, and defeat Stuart, Esperanza, and a fiendish double agent, Major Grant (John Amos).

“Another basement, another elevator…how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

Die Hard 2: Die Harder is based on the 1987 novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager, which concerns a retired police detective fighting to defeat terrorists who have seized an airport, and get his daughter --trapped on a plane overhead --  down to the ground safely.

So if Die Hard was a dynamic extension of The Towering Inferno (1974) paradigm, Die Hard adopts its setting from not only a novel (like Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever), but from the disaster genre too, namely Arthur Hailey’s Airport.  

In the Airport movies -- which were released from 1970 to 1979, approximately -- a plane in flight is jeopardized, and intrigue occurs at an airport. Die Harder adds to this common scenario seem key real life "current events."

Colonel Stuart, for example, is a clear corollary for convicted felon (and failed senate candidate), Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who lied to Congress, and was a “functionary” in the Iran-Contra Scandal, which was still big news in 1989, when Die Hard 2 was conceived.  

The film also recreates the international conspiracy angle of that illegal operation with the presence of Esperanza and Grant as shadowy colleagues. In other words, the villains in this piece are American soldiers who don’t view the rule of law as an obstacle to them. They pursue their illegal and so-called patriotic agenda anyway, which actually involves propping up right wing dictators in third world nations. American lives mean nothing to these vainglorious scoundrels.

The James Bond franchise also featured an Oliver North-like criminal -- Joe Don Baker's Whitaker -- in 1987, in The Living Daylights.But despite the intentional resemblance to such real-life malfeasants, Stuart, Eperanza and Amos -- three villains for the price of one -- still can’t match Rickman’s urbane, self-aware Gruber in terms of menace. 

There’s even an unnecessary scene here in which Stuart apes a fake accent (Southern) to trick a British plane into crashing. The whole attempt comes off as a pale imitation of the “Bill Clay” scene in Die Hard.  

All three actors are fine in their roles, I should hasten to add, and I’m a big fan of Sadler (see: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.) But three lesser-villains just don’t make up for one guy who is, essentially, the perfect bad guy. I believe it was a mistake dividing the villain role across three individuals, as not one of them offers the same kind of intricacy or three-dimensional personality as Rickman projected.  They don't have enough screen time, for one thing.

Renny Harlin achieves much directing Die Hard: Die Harder, but some of the core visual conceits here are quite different, and inferior to the original strategy. McTiernan’s furtive, desperate, rolling, tilting, panning camera is gone, and a consequence of that absence is that the action doesn’t feel quite as immediate. 

As I wrote in my review last week, Die Hard’s photography aped the man-alone desperation of McClane.  No such technique informs the action here.

Also, the camera-work and narrative details made it truly seem that McClane was in mortal danger throughout Die Hard.  He had to run across broken glass in one scene, and paid the price in blood. He was scared and desperate, and often won battles on the basis of pure grit and luck. In Die Hard 2, he has much greater -- and perhaps -- super-heroic luck.

For instance, there’s a silly scene set at the under-construction Skyway Annex. McClane is seen rolling across the floor -- in plain sight -- and terrorists bracket him. 

He rolls and pivots, in clear view, picking off the terrorists, and they don’t get in even one clear shot.  Not even a flesh wound!  Again, McClane is an obvious, slow-moving target.  

Even an Imperial stormtrooper would graze him!

The shot looks awesome, of course. McClane looks bad-ass slowly rolling across the floor, expertly picking off his nemeses, but the sense of furtive desperation is gone.

Similarly, in a later scene, McClane is trapped inside a grounded plane, as Stuart lobs a half-dozen or so grenades into the cockpit with him. The devices land next to his face, at his feet, and around the cabin. Yet McClane still gets ample time to strap himself into a chair, pull an eject lever, and escape the cabin before even one grenade detonates.

At most he would have 3-5 seconds, once the grenade lands.

He gets a lot more time than that to achieve his spectacular escape. 

Again -- mea culpa -- I love this scene in terms of the special effects presented, and Willis's spirited performance. It is fantastic and delightful to see the chair (with McClane strapped to it...) hurtle right towards the camera (taking up a position high in the sky), as an explosion blossoms below him. 

 But Harlin doesn’t get us to that great visual punch-line without cheating the set-up.

One is left to conclude that McClane has begun the journey from determined, gritty, human cop to Rambo-like super-hero. The slide is reversed a bit in the next film, which gives McClane a hang-over, and restores the furtive camera-work. 

But then the slide continues, unabated in the franchise.

Still, I appreciate how Die Hard 2: Die Harder sets out to establish or fully-cement some aspects of the so-called Die Hard paradigm. 

Here, McClane allies with people who, if not outright blue collar in terms of their jobs, are either cultural/gender minorities, or out of power, to achieve his ends.  

He befriends a reporter named Samantha, for instance, who comes through for him right when he needs her.  McClane treats her with respect (or at least more respect than Stuart does...), and Samantha gets him access to a helicopter when he needs it.

Engineer Barnes, largely ignored and considered unimportant by his superiors and Carmine, demonstrates ingenuity and initiative in finding the terrorists’ headquarters at a nearby church.  

And Marvin the janitor is crucial in leading McClane from one part of the airport complex to another. These three friends -- disdained, disciplined, and lacking privilege and/or authority -- are crucial to John’s success.

By contrast, Die Harder also diagrams the idea that there are two kinds of bad guys in these films.  

First, there are the terrorists who actually attempt to do evil, with finely-crafted strategies and brute force.  

And then there is the establishment, or bureaucracy, which prevents John from doing his job successfully.  

Representing the latter category, we meet two police officers, Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) and his brother, Vito (Robert Constanzo), who make one wrong-headed decision after the other, thoroughly gumming up the works and making it easier for the terrorists to complete their anti-social tasks.  

Trudeau (Fred Thompson) is a more neutral “establishment” figure, one who must be persuaded to trust McClane, but who then qualifies an ally of sorts.

Part of the Die Hard franchise’s Every Man appeal involves this “Fighting City Hall” story angle. John makes friends and enemies as he fights the good fight. And he has a perfect barometer in choosing his friends. They are are usually lower-level, disenfranchised people who nonetheless know their jobs, and clearly see right from wrong.  

Yet the nearer the distance to power someone becomes, these movies tell us, the harder it is for people to embody that kind of clear-headed thought. They are bogged down in red tape, and lose their clear moral compass.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder succeeds as much as it does because the location/setting -- a snowed in airport -- is unique and intriguing, and the danger to the planes overhead is palpable. It is a horrific scene, indeed, when the terrorists trick a plane into landing…and it blows up on the tarmac. 

We all harbor a fear of flying, at least at some level, and Die Hard 2 absolutely taps into that universal dread.

Yet still, by the end of the film, I felt that the sequel had failed to tread boldly enough into new territory. Having John note “how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice” is meta and funny, I suppose, but  the in-joke doesn’t cure the film of its particular deficit: repeating too many of the ideas that informed John McTiernan’s original.  It tells the same jokes, in other words, but tells them less effectively and artfully.

For purposes of franchise building, I absolutely believe that McClane can -- and indeed, must -- get himself into danger again.  

I have more trouble believing it would occur again on Christmas Eve, and so intimately involve his wife Holly and journalist Thornburg. The movie’s choice to end again with fire and “Let it Snow” is also a sign of creative exhaustion.  

Too many notes are, literally, repeated.

Clearly, Die Hard 2: Die Harder got the job done, both at the box office and in terms of fan expectations. I can second-guess it all I want, and the facts don't change.

It’s a solid sequel. But at the same time, some of Die Hard’s inspiration clearly didn’t make the flight with the rest of the luggage.

Next Week for Die Hard on a Blog: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995).

Movie Trailer; Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Monday, February 08, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: Hemlock Grove?

A reader named Chuck writes:

With Nextflix’s Hemlock Grove now in its third and final season, I was surprised to see that you have not reviewed it before.

Do you have any upcoming plans to review it in the future?

Given how saturated the current market is in werewolf/vampire media, I can certainly understand some hesitance to sit through an entire three seasons of episodes. But, despite being a little too slow at times, I have really enjoyed it.

I almost forgot to mention why I think the show stands out (at least to me, anyway). Almost every other werewolf/vampire story seems to explore the romantic relationship between its werewolf and vampire protagonists. This is one of the few that focuses instead on a different kind of cliché: the werewolf and the vampire as best friends (let’s call it the “Buddy Cop” theme.) 

Thanks again for the great blog!"

Chuck: Thank you for the great question. 

I began watching Hemlock Grove about a year ago -- when I also began teaching for the first time -- and I had a difficult time staying tuned to it, to be honest.  I think this failure was more about me than the show, as my wife took to it rather quickly.

So when I received your e-mail in November of 2015, I decided to give the series a second look. Over the holidays, I started over and watched a handful of episodes.

Look for a review (of what I’ve seen so far…) on Thursday.

All my best, and thank you for the comment about the blog!

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Hearts

The heart has, for the better part of a century, been the symbol of St. Valentine’s Day. Before modern times, the heart was also believed to be the human organ of emotions and feelings.

In cult-TV history the heart has been a plot point several times.

In Space: 1999 (1975-1977) for instance, it was known that Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) had an artificial heart. In the Year Two story, “Catacombs of the Moon,” Dr. Russell (Barbara Bain) had to transplant an artificial or mechanical heart into another Alphan.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), during the second season episode “Samaritan Snare,” audiences learn that Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), similarly, possesses a mechanical or artificial heart, all owing to a bar fight (and stabbing) during his youth.

In many more examples from cult-TV history, however, the heart is a symbol of horror.  An episode of The Evil Touch (1973) called “Game of Hearts” involves a corpse who, having had his heart transplanted to a new person, wants it back…and seeks it from the transplant doctor (Darren McGavin).

The X-Files (1993 – 2002) episode “Milagro,” involves a psychic surgeon -- and murderer -- who removes the beating heart from his victims.  Those victims often happen to be in love; a fact which signifies the meaning or purpose of the heart in terms of legend

Torn out hearts are a regular feature, too, of horror dramas.  The vampires of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Angel (1999 – 2005), True Blood (2008 – 2014), The Vampire Diaries (2009 - ) and The Originals (2014 - ) regularly rip hearts of human or vampire chests in an example of a very brutal kill.  For extra points, the vampires sometimes eat the hearts.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Hearts

Identified by SGB: Space:1999: "Catacombs of the Moon."


Identified by Hugh: The Simpsons.




Identified by Hugh: True Blood.

Identified by Hugh: The Vampire Diaries

Identified by Hugh: The Originals

Sunday, February 07, 2016

At Flashbak: Kenner's Alien Action Figure (1979)

This week at Flashbak, I also remembered one of Kenner’s most unusual action figures: the titular xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).

“…Kenner Toys -- flush from its huge success with the Star Wars licensing contract -- actually manufactured a giant action figure of the acid-spewing, face-crushing xenomorph from the popular, franchise-spawning, rated R horror movie. 

The written description to this H.R. Giger-inspired toy notes the alien’s “evil brains” that “glow in the dark.”

The same instructions sheet also instructed the kiddies to “press the back of his head on the bottom. His mouth opens and the gruesome teeth move forward.”

How many children could have possibly seen Alien, I wonder?  Did parents take their kids to see it?

Perhaps a more pertinent question is this: how many children wouldn’t be scared to death by a cat or dog-sized action figure with retractable inner jaw and an eyeless, human skull for a head?

Well, I didn’t see the movie (I was nine), and I still wanted the toy. Desperately.

I didn’t get it.

I feel like a lot of kids my age wanted the Alien toy too, whether or not they had seen the film, but apparently parents complained about Kenner’s masterpiece of horror and, legendarily, the toy sold poorly. 

The alien was thus pulled from toy shelves at the behest of concerned parents and terrified children, and a generation of psychologists grew rich treating the PTSD of innocent children who happened down the aisle hoping to buy a plus R2-D2, only to catch sight of this leering, plastic monstrosity.”

Continue reading at Flashbak.

At Flashbak: Situation 4 and Situation 7 (Parker Bros; 1968-1970)

This week at Flashbak I remembered the intriguing ‘double jigsaw’ Situation games produced by Parker Bros. circa 1968-1970.

“In the late 1960s, Parker Brothers -- manufacturers of Sorry!, Ouija and other great board games of the era -- devised a fiendish new game series, one that was part puzzle, part tense competition. 

These “strategic” and “competitive” Situation games required “wits” to win “the brand new, totally engrossing strategy game that two people (or two teams) play with puzzles.”

So how did one play the Situation games? 

Well, “each side competes for the same territory, dreaming up tactical moves to gain key objectives and score the most points.

Situation 4 was first out the gate in 1968, and its competitive puzzle or map was of a World War II battle. The theater for combat and competition, I believe, was Europe. 

I actually preferred and played (in the 1970s), the 1969 edition: Situation 7.  This was one was set in space.

As described on the box:

“Here is a game and a puzzle combined. Each player of team has a complete puzzle, identical except for color.  Both puzzles are played on the same area.  The object is to cover more areas than your opponents and score more points.  Special pieces! Special plays! Watch the crowd gather and join in the fun.”

Situation 7 depicts two planet home bases, and a solar system up for grabs. The idea is for one team to win the “space race” and to conquer as much of the solar system as possible. You not only want to claim planets (and the sun) for points, but also man-made satellite, rockets, and astronaut installations.”