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Favorite Episodes: Star Trek: The Next Generation

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In honor of its anniversary, Ben and Kyle sat down this week and discussed their favorite episodes from the much-celebrated Star Trek: The Next Generation.  We’d love to hear from you on our Podcasting Them Softly Facebook page.  Which is your favorite TNG episode and why?

The Inner Light

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BEN: From the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the series’ 125th episode, wherein the Enterprise encounters an alien probe adrift in space.  As the crew investigates, the ship is probed by an energy beam which renders Captain Picard unconscious.  What appears to be minutes in real time, is the story of a lifetime as Picard is transported to Kataan, where he lives 40 years as a Kamin, a scientist.  The story and teleplay by Morgan Gendel is first rate science fiction television and in all the years of Star Trek, I’m hard pressed to find a more personal, intimate story.  We get to witness Kamin’s life in politics, his efforts to recognize a pending global ecological disaster, a family (Margot Rose as Kamin’s wife, Eline), his friend Batai (character actor Richard Riehle) and to watch his kids grow up (real-life son Daniel Stewart in the role of Batai and Jennifer Nash as Meribor).  This episode came towards the end of an already strong season.  This is, hands down, one of my favorite episodes.

KYLE:  This is not my favorite, but easily one of the strongest of the entire franchise, let alone series.  I love how it is such a departure from the traditional episode, and entirely focused on Picard…and yet it’s not.  The ending is one of the most heartbreaking and simultaneously uplifting conclusions of the entire show.

Yesterday’s Enterprise

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BEN: From the third season, comes a story which directly reflects Star Trek’s own past as well as The Next Generation when a time-space rift opens, allowing the Enterprise – C to move forward in time 20 years.  As a result, the timeline the audience knew was subtly altered as Picard wrestles with the idea that he must send the war-damaged ship back to its own time.  In the altered timeline, Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) is the ship’s tactical officer, while Worf is largely missing.  This episode was a highlight for many reasons, not the least was Crosby’s return.  It also gave us a chance to explore everyone’s favorite bartender, Gunian (Whoopi Goldberg) and her abilities related to time.  We are also introduced to the former ship to bear our favorite ship’s name and registry number, completing a gap in the overall history of Star Trek.

I remember as a teenager how violent and effective one of the scenes was.  The guest cast was also very remarkable here given the short amount of time we had to see how Yar and the change in the timeline would affect the future.  And I’m just willing to bet that fans the world over will remember this line for all time . . . .

KYLE: This is my favorite episode of the series and one of my all-time favorite episodes of television.  The direction is tight, the cast give some of their best performances, and the special effects for the battles were ahead of their time.   Aside from exploring the mysteries of Guinan, I think what I really appreciate about this episode is that it defines the heart of the show: Doing the most good.  Star Trek is about an ideal, about striving to better the universe and uncoupling ourselves from the petty things that drag us down.  I absolutely adore Crosby’s return, but it’s the sacrifice of the crew that always sticks with me.  This is what heroism is about, being brave in the face of certain death, but always thinking about others and the greater good.

I also think Crosby’s performance is reflective of the series’ concepts of destiny and purpose.  The capstone with Guinan and La Forge discussing her legacy was a great nod to the fanbase.

The Best of Both Worlds

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BEN: Hailed as one of the best cliffhanger episodes at the time, the producers of the series decided to not only bring back the most feared and revered threats to the universe, but they took it to the next level when they made it a personal story about Picard while being a Riker-centric story.  The ongoing tension built through Michael Piller’s teleplay was palpable.  Make no mistake: this is as good a serial television gets. The guest cast was also amongst the strongest of any episode so early into the series with Elizabeth Dennehy (Brian Dennehy’s daughter) as Lt. Commander Shelby and a familiar face in the role of Admiral Hanson (George Murdock who had played ‘God’ the previous summer in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier).  They managed to alter the Borg’s look and this was the last time we would see the Enterprise-D’s emergency saucer separation procedure.  Although I don’t think the second part was as strong as the first part, the entire two-part episode was edited into a single, feature length episode and it seems to play best that way.  I also like the fact that it was the impetus for the Benjamin Sisko character in the future series, Deep Space Nine which Michael Piller co-developed with series producer Rick Berman.

KYLE: It’s no secret that First Contact is my favorite Trek film.  I love the Borg, how they’re essentially high-tech zombies that convert rather than infect.  The genius of these two episodes is that they showed no one was safe.  Even Picard, the face of the show, the captain of the Enterprise wasn’t safe from harm.  A theme they would explore in depth for the remainder of the series and the films.  PTSD and the horrors of war were not themes often explored on TV during TNG’s run and it was refreshing to see them tackling so many important, and extremely (sadly) still relevant issues.

Chain of Command

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BEN: We’re on a role here with Star Trek feature film guest stars, Kyle.  In our next series, we get to focus on the Cardassians.  Introduced during the season four episode “The Wounded,” this two-part episode actually surprised audiences with its brusque nature, with Edward Jelico (Ronny Cox in a very snarmy performance) assuming command of the Enterprise-D while Picard, Worf and Crusher are sent on a clandestine mission to sabotage a Cardassian installation which threatens the Federation.  The episode’s strength lies in its contentious dichotomy, featuring a palpable ongoing argument between Jelico and Riker and Picard’s incarceration at the hands of David Warner’s Gul Madred.  Although I was bothered by Jelico’s departure at the end of the second part, I loved the final scene in Picard’s Ready Room as he recounts his experience to Troi, admitting . . .

Patrick Stewart’s Shakespearean acting came in handy in this episode.

KYLE:  This is probably both Frakes and Stewart’s best performances in the series. Picard’s ability to convey a wheel of emotions is staggering, while Frakes and Cox’s political dance if chock full of tension.  It’s a marvelous balance of the two, showcasing rare covert operations and the price of being captured, an issue that usually serves as an inconvenience in action adventure shows.  Once again, TNG decides it has more in store for the audience and ups the ante by showing an unthinkable torture scenario around which is framed a complicated battle of friendship and duty.

All Good Things

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BEN: The series finale was a bittersweet moment for me.  I grew up on The Next Generation and though I’d missed a season or two because the local network airing the series had changed their schedule, Rick Berman never forgot to bring the theme of family into an episode.  But it was equally bittersweet because the same week the finale aired, I was finishing my finals, and getting ready to graduate from High School. The episode would mark the return of Denise Crosby as Yar (though I still wonder why they didn’t do something with her hair towards the end of the episode) as well as the illustrious, omnipotent Q (John de Lancie) who I contend makes the finest, funniest threat to the crew of the Enterprise-D.  I didn’t find his subsequent visit to DS9 or Voyager as strong as his bond with the TNG crew, only because we were introduced to Q seven years prior.  Colm Meaney returned from DS9 for this episode in an extended version of the Bridge Conn Officer role (though he was featured on the Battle Bridge in “Encounter at Farpoint”) and Andreas Katsulas just chewed up the screen every time he played Tomalak, a Romulan commander.  There was something in this episode for every member of the cast, and I think I could make the case that we never again saw the entire Star Trek: The Next Generation cast as well-utilized as we did in this episode, a credit to Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, who would go on to write Star Trek: Generations which was filmed while this episode aired.  My favorite scene in this episode?  The overhead cam shot of the senior staff playing poker.

KYLE:  Pure fanfare and I love every single second.  You’re right, the shot of the poker game almost defined description.  This is a show that set a lot of trends, won a lot of awards, and yet, they decided to end it on an intimate note.   There’s effects, and the usual hijinks, but in essence, this is a very tame and humble episode that is the perfect send off.  There’s a lot of truth to the final conversations and revelations about the future, about the fracturing of friendship and the unstoppable light of hope.  I’m honestly not sure you could ask for a better send off for Enterprise D’s crew.

Conspiracy

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BEN: Our final favorite episode is from the very maligned first season, which is interesting for a number of reasons.  The first, is that we get to return to Earth of the 24th century (though I cringe every time I see the stock footage from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).  The second is that this is a continuation of an episode from earlier in the first season, “Coming of Age”.  Robert Schenkkan, Ward Costello reprised their roles as Lt. Commander Remmick and Admiral Aaron, respectively.  The episode is celebrated for its graphic makeup and effects work, compliments of Michael Westmore (who would win one of the three Primetime Emmy Awards for the first season.) I loved this episode because it left so many loose ends, but it also stands on its own.  It gave rise to Section 31 and a political tension that Star Trek lacked up to that point.  Bet you’d never thought I’d like this episode as much as I do, Kyle, eh?

KYLE: I’m surprised, but in a good way!  I love this one because it’s the closest the series ever came to going full horror.  The effects work is phenomenal, but I love how it’s a genuine mystery almost until the very end.  While the reveal is cheesy by today’s terms, the level of over the top insanity was a welcomed addition to the hit and miss first season.  As you say, it left a ton of loose ends, which I was sad to see never come back around.  Still, despite this, Conspiracy will always remain one of my personal favorites because it’s so different.  The mood, the tone, everything is darker and it’s a great example of how horror has a place in primetime entertainment.

I want to give a parting shout out to Lower Decks as another great episode that just missed the cut!

Join Ben and Kyle next time as they discuss their favorite Ridley Scott films in honor of Blade Runner 2049’s release!

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Jennifer Lawrence: Five Essential Films

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In celebration of this week’s release, mother!, Ben and Kyle sat down to review five of their essential Jennifer Lawrence films. While they may not be her “best”, these were a few of her films that the guys thought were essential to her filmography.

Winter’s Bone

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BEN: I seem to remember seeing this movie at some point and liking it.  It is also one of her earliest works, a story about survival, instinct, hope, and finally courage.  I thought it was important to include it on the list because it really defines the types of roles she would be selected for going forward.  As I mentioned, I barely remember the film, but as I write this, the cinematography is coming back to my mind along with Jennifer Lawrence’s performance.  I will definitely check it out again.

Along these same lines, I would very much like to see Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, which Lawrence starred in after Winter’s Bone.  It’s going on the list, Kyle.

KYLE:  This is my favorite performance of Lawrence’s.  Just an outstanding, low-fi crime thriller with a ton of heart.  Her performance is so understated, desperate, and yet full of courage.  Her scenes with John Hawkes are pure lightning and it was a pleasure to see them both get nominated.  Lawrence display here that she is an actress that can command our hearts as much as our attention.  I also think, outside of mother!, this is the best film she’s ever participated in.  Absolutely brutal, and yet endearing, this is essential viewing.

X-Men:  First Class

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BEN: Lawrence’s performance as Mystique was absolutely sublime in that it conveys her sense of survival, instinct and ultimately, courage.  Even as a villain, she conveyed a sense of duty and honor, something that worked in her character’s favor.

I’d love to talk more about Matthew Vaughn next week, Kyle because his direction here is one of the reasons why Lawrence’s performance was as good as it was.  The story and the characters, all of which we’d seen in previous iterations of X-Men were revitalized.

KYLE: Agreed.  She does a good job with what she has, despite the two leads being the focus.  I think the reason this is on the list, for me, is that it demonstrates her ability to support without stealing focus and displays her ability to mine depth in roles that would otherwise be overlooked because they are “sidekicks” or non-essential to the plot.

The Hunger Games

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BEN: Lawrence’s two previously mentioned performances truly were in preparation for Katniss Everdeen.  The YA novel focused on a dystopian future where Gladiator-style battles defined entertainment and survival.  Lawrence’s performance here reminded me of Schwarzenegger’s performance in The Running Man, determined desperation.  Lawrence just shined here.

KYLE: That’s an interesting parallel!  I got more a Red Dawn vibe with a psychological twist.  My favorite thing, apart from Lawrence’s unbridled anger at the system, is how she dances between cold blooded killer, traumatized symbol, and hopeful leader within each film.  Her Katniss clearly understands the stakes and the depths of the horror of combat, and yet always tries to remain hopeful.  As someone who appreciated the trilogy, I was pleased to see her bring them to completion, with her final scene with Donald Sutherland being my absolute favorite of the series.

American Hustle

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BEN: I have to say that this is the first movie where Lawrence really came into my subconscious.  I haven’t seen it since it was released in theaters, but I know David O. Russell’s ability to corral an ensemble cast is second to none.  I haven’t seen Silver Linings Playbook all the way through, but what I’ve seen of it and her performance, I’m not surprised that we got the caliber movie we did in Hustle.  Lawrence’s performance here reminded me of Sharon Stone’s in Casino (similar time and setting).  The most important thing is that it looked like Lawrence genuinely had fun making this movie.  I guess I need to revisit it.

Along these same lines, I need to make a point to watch Joy which I hear she absolutely makes the movie what it is.

KYLE: Great comparison with Stone.  I got those vibes as well.  This is definitely the most fun she’s had in a performance and while I’m not sure if garnered the Oscar nom, it was a ton of fun to experience.  She fits well into the ensemble dynamic as you mention, but it’s her on again, off again chemistry with Bale that really drives everything home.

Passengers

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BEN: Late last year saw the release of this film, which at the time I said “its ambition steeped in Titanic.  Instead, its Lost in Space meets ‘The Love Boat’ with all the drama that [sic] entails.”  I’ve since had a chance to reflect on the film and my analysis still stands, but Lawrence was an amazing asset on the film and Chris Pratt really helped to push the relationship despite the less than idea story.

Silver Linings Playbook

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KYLE: I haven’t seen Passengers, but I wanted to circle back to Silver Linings Playbook.  As a social worker, I love this film and I love her approach to the material.  Some complain about how it downplays depression and other mental illnesses; however, I think it has a remarkably human and fresh approach to the subject matter.  Lawrence’s performance is genuine and heartfelt and it was amazing to see her work recognized.

BEN: Thanks for speaking with me, Kyle.  I’m getting a kick out of revisiting all of these films and, of course adding new films to my watch list.

KYLE: Same here!  Looking forward to our next discussion!

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In Memoriam: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

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The cinematic world was deeply saddened by the passing of Tobe Hooper in late August.  Responsible for some of the most iconic American films in the horror genre, Hooper’s legacy will always be remembered for pushing boundaries and using ours fears as a means of self-reflection.  This week, Ben and Kyle sat down to discuss Hooper’s masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

BEN:  Like many classics, I’m sad to say that this is yet another film that I had not previously seen. Despite it being the father to so many other films, whether horror, sci-fi, thriller or a combination there of, Hooper’s film looks every bit his $300,000 budget and even more.

KYLE: Wait, you’d never seen it until now?  Why did you wait so long!?

Ben:  I can’t honestly answer that.  I really didn’t gravitate towards horror films when I was a kid.  Even as an adult, slicing people with knives or razors still creeps me out.  Which is why the sequence in the van when they pick up the hitchhiker works so very well.  Edwin Neal played ‘freaked out’ to the hilt, but it was the close quarters of the van and Daniel Pearl’s camerawork that really make the magic happen.  And that was Tobe Hooper’s gift. His film is shot and edited in such a way that it makes you think you’re seeing more than you actually are; the mind plays tricks on you.

KYLE: Absolutely.  It’s part of the film undeniable charm.  From the first shot, you know you’ve waded into a greasy pit of hell.  I love that you mentioned the close quarters.  Paranoia is an important part of this film, both from the experience the characters endure and in how America was feeling at the time.  The country was still reeling from Vietnam and I think that is why it was so popular.  That and the outstanding cinematography and editing.

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BEN: The technical achievements aside, this film is torture porn with bits of voyeurism if I’m not being too blunt. Sally’s screams uttered from Marilyn Burns were ear piercingly jarring, but they were effective.  Paul Partain probably had the more difficult roles as a paraplegic, but his acting got on my nerves towards the end of the film.

KYLE: I like how it switches between presumed violence and voyeurism depending on the situation.  It’s somewhat tame by today’s standards and yet, it’s unrelentingly bleak without being a complete downer.  A lot of modern horror comments on the darkness within everyone where Hooper was more interested in exploring a darkness that is almost inhuman.  Again, perhaps it is a comment on the place where the nation was at during filming?

BEN:  Oh, I very much liked the framing using the graphic news clips to place you in the middle of everyday life throughout the United States in the mid-1970’s.  More specifically, the use of a grave robber was creepy enough.  Young college-aged kids were more apt to be adventurous, which is why they picked up the hitchhiker with such ease.  And yet, they were skeptical.

KYLE: That is a great point.  It’s interesting how this is the proto-slasher and yet, it has a lot of qualities that are outside the niche genre, specifically with respect to the kids being skeptical.  I also enjoyed how sexuality was underplayed.  It is part of the world, but not the focus.  While the 80’s was filled with a lot films who used sexually charged victims as bait for the underage VHS generation, this is a smart film, both in its handling of violence and treatment of its subject matter.

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BEN: Alan Danzinger as Jerry, William Vail as Kirk and Teri McMinn as Pam were effective at helping to convey the free-spirited nature of the times; it was almost like looking at a time capsule.  It helped that Hooper and Kim Henkel’s script incorporated the news clips I mentioned earlier.

Despite the marketing and the opening monologue by John Larroquette, this was not a true story. Hooper admitted that his inspiration for the story elements reflected the distrust of the government including Watergate, the 1973 oil crisis, and Vietnam. The character of Leatherface and some of the plot details were based on serial killer Ed Gein.

KYLE: This is the heart of the film and the reason I think it retains its legendary status decades later.  The best films are often reflections of their time and TCM is a great example of one of the many things that can be birthed in the midst of a counterculture revolution.

BEN: Gunnar Hansen had the unenviable task of playing Leatherface, someone who had to thrash about the frame while trying to project his character’s intentions at the same time.  One might think it would be easy to use a chainsaw to point in a direction. Without motivation, there’s no pointing.

KYLE: And the chainsaw almost killed one of the cast members!  Almost every cast member was injured during production.  Marilyn Burn’s costume was so drenched with blood it had completely stiffened by the time they wrapped.  It’s details such as this only enhances the film’s notorious mystique.

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BEN: I found it interesting that Hansen took the time to get his inspiration from special needs children, learning their movements, which Hooper keyed in on.  The house in Round Rock, Texas plays as much as role in the film as the other characters.  Who ever thought that a farmhouse with a white picket fence could be so menacing?  Robert A. Burns’ art direction added the textures that bring the house to life.

KYLE: Absolutely. The film presents an idea of a hidden, haunted American backwoods filled with all manner of horrors, all of which are human.  Fear, when distilled through our own world is the most potent brand imaginable because the audience already knows the world is a dark place.  Hooper’s masterful understanding of this and using it as a weapon against the unsuspecting is just one more ingredient in a perfectly tainted recipe.

BEN: The local Alamo Drafthouse here in Phoenix screened it, in honor of the late Tobe Hooper.  They had a DCP, but it looked like I was watching a 35mm print, it looked that good. I was surprised to learn that Hooper used 16mm film, which explains the harsher look. Massacre is a stunning technical achievement for its budget. Between the editing by Larry Carroll and Sally Richardson, Burns’ use of real rotting carcasses, and Pearl’s stunning cinematography, Tobe Hooper’s film is a tribute to the cast and crew’s dedication.  I would definitely revisit this film again.

KYLE: It’s one of my favorite films of all time because it shows that a big budget isn’t required to make an influential film that continues to hold up.  Hooper’s guerilla tactics behind the camera congealed with a thrilling ensemble and unspeakable visuals to create one of the most important horror films ever made.

Ben and Kyle would like to thank you for continuing to follow their conversations.  Join them next week as they discuss their favorite Jennifer Lawrence performances in honor of the release of Mother!.

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Jackie

Jackie

2016.  Directed by Pablo Larrain.

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America consumes its legends.  The fuselage of politics and media exposure are the cutlery, while national tragedies are the main course, with the blood and camera lights dripping from the chin of insatiable public opinion  Pablo Larrain’s daring, borderline terrifying examination of Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination is a fairy tale biopic that abandons any sense of tradition in favor of focusing on the concept of bereavement as an inconvenience to the patriotic machine and the unsung defiance of a woman forced to reinterpret her existence in the face of the unthinkable.

Natalie Portman becomes her subject, shredding the First Lady veneer to expose the ugliness of circumstance.  Her embodiment of Jackie, of a woman whose entire existence was undone with a bullet, is both brutal and demure, balancing the warm embrace of depression with the repressed rage of gender misappropriation.  Poise and conviction are her weapons, filling every sequence with subtle devastation and reluctant resilience.  Within instants of the fatal shot, Portman’s Jackie is relegated to an inconvenient specter, walking the halls of the future White House, with her ethereal presence carrying the film through the spectacle of the final act.  The deft manner in which Portman glides between cataclysmic psychological horror and rebellious self realization is unparalleled in this year’s lead actress performances.

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Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography captures the conflicting nature that flows through the veins of Jackie by using a variety of lighting and sharp angles to offset the personal torment with the grandeur seen by the public.  The moments of public knowledge, such as the exquisitely recreated funeral procession, use bright reds and warm blacks in combination to both respect the melancholy underpinnings and explore the inside of a national tragedy.  It is the moments in between, however, the quiet and eerie happenings within Jackie’s solitary hell, that are the most memorable.  Jean Rabase’s magnificent art direction turns the fabled White House into a haunted Camelot, with Jackie holding a lonely court amidst smoke filled chambers, adorned in immaculate costuming by Madelaine Fonataine.  Soft pinks highlight bloodstains and bruised skin, pulling the raw emotional upheaval into the focus, locking the viewer into Jackie’s tumultuous dirge.

Mica Levi’s score is a living entity, the shadow of history that is behind Jackie wherever she treads.  Filled with ominous crescendos and sharp tonal misdirection to signify the fleeting dream of America that has become a nightmare.  Noah Oppenheimer’s script has garnered some controversy for its treatment of the Johnson’s and Jackie’s reactions to them, but when taken in the context of the situation, the acts as displayed are organic companions to the film’s core mechanic of a woman being systemically undone and this is what elevates Jackie to being one of the best films of its year.  The free world will always need a leader, and the second JFK stopped breathing, Jackie’s entire universe, both her porcelain public persona and her briskly resigned private life began to evaporate.  The conflict over the funeral serves as a means for Jackie to commit a final act of patriotic maternity that ultimately became the nation’s first steps towards recovery.

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Available now for digital rental, Jackie is ballad of pain.  A unique offering in the biopic genre that weaves threads of horror and hope into the Chanel armor of its champion, this is a one of kind of offering of poetic deconstruction.  Featuring one of the best performances of 2016, astounding technical craft, and an unforgettable score, if you’re looking for an unabashed examination of one of America’s greatest tragedies, this is the one.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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I’LL BE BACK: FIVE FAVORITE SCHWARZENEGGER FILMS

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In honor of the latest re-release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Skynet’s 20th birthday yesterday, Ben and Kyle sat down to reflect on Ahnuld’s film legacy. Those action-adventurers and comedies that marked a highlight in his film career. From an Austrian bodybuilder to the action star of the 80’s and 90’s, to a storied politician, the duo revisit five classics and put our their spin on them.

Conan the Barbarian

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BEN: Although he had a number of roles in the 1970’s after being discovered as a body builder, none of those roles defined Arnold Schwarzenegger more than 1982’s Conan the Barbarian and its sequel, Conan the Destroyer two years later.  Patterned after The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, John Millius’s and Oliver Stone’s script for Barbarian is at its heart a revenge story, full of amazing cinematography and classic characters, such as James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, Max von Sydow as King Osiric, Mako as the Narrator/Wizard amongst others.  I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen this film in a very long time and I’m overdue for a visit because I remember Duke Callgahan’s cinematography of the desolate, yet rich mountainside landscapes to be stunning along with Basil Poledouris’ drum-heavy instrumental score.

KYLE: Poledouris’ score is legendary.  Aside from the outstanding cinematography, one of the things that makes this film work is that it is unapologetically violent and adult oriented.  The 80’s was a decade in American cinema where you could get away with quite a bit and many films, particularly those geared towards children had a darker undercurrent.  Barbarian went the opposite route and didn’t bury the darkness, it showcased it.  This is also easily Arnold’s best performance.  Conan is flawed and violent, but there’s a savage nobility to him that really comes to fruition after the crucifixion scene.  It’s my favorite part, when they raid the orgy and Doom’s minion says “You” and Conan immediately raises his sword.  It’s scenes like this that make you fall in love with movies.

The Terminator

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BEN: In some ways, this role really defined Schwarzenegger’s style as a sarcastic something or another.  It wasn’t so much the character of the Terminator that defined him, but his formidable, yet mechanical presence on the screen. Future roles would lighten him up, where here, Cameron had him approach the role with a more robotic precision, which would permeate some of his more militaristic roles in future movies.  What I liked about his performance was that he was ultra-cool even when he was deadly serious.  The opening scene with Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson where The Terminator asks for their clothes and Paxton’s character says “This guy’s short of a six pack” says a lot about the story and the character because in the next scene Schwarzenegger just sticks his fist into the abdomen of one of the punks, killing him instantly.  It is this precision in Schwarzenegger’s acting that really is defined in this film and is something that we continue to see today.

KYLE: Cameron’s best film by a mile and the one that put Arnold on the map.  It’s the perfect blend of 80’s neon dystopia and cold war paranoia…a place where Arnold’s inhuman assassin is free to kill with impunity in the name of a machine dominated future.  While Arnold is amazing, I’d argue this is really Michael Biehn’s film, but his layered performance only works because it is contrasted by the emotionless antagonist that only Schwarzenegger could portray.

Commando

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BEN: This film allowed us to explore Schwarzenegger’s . . . tender(?) side by exposing his character to a situation that placed his daughter in danger.  The intriguing element is that he is very much a military muscle jock, even if his character is retired and ‘off the grid’.  I really liked the story and characters in this film.  The settings are very 80’s with the Contras-like group taking his daughter hostage as he tries to figure out what’s going on.  Just as with his Terminator role, here he is a no-holds barred killer and he’ll blow anyone and anything up.  Except his daughter.  Oh, and Rae Dawn Chong.

KYLE: The body count for this one rivals Total Recall (which sadly didn’t make our list!).  Where The Terminator was the gritty underbelly of the 80’s, Commando is ultra-macho American end of the spectrum.  Let’s also not forget the tool shed scene, which is a legend unto itself with respect to comic book violence.  While the subject matter may not hold as much relevance today, the combat and over the top performances will always remain fixtures in American action cinema.

The Running Man

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BEN: Never has there been a more relevant film to not only the time in which it was made, but also today.  It’s ironic then that Stephen King (under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) set the film in 2019.  Steven E. de Souza gave the horrors of government control a graphic representation, while director Paul Michael Glasser (yes, that Paul Michael Glasser!) layered the film with a veritable who’s who of actors to surround Schwarzenegger including Yaphet Kotto, Maria Conchita Alonzo, and former game show host Richard Dawson.  Some who have never seen it might call it cheesy, but it mirrors our reality today quite well.  Pay attention to what this movie is trying to say.

KYLE: I absolutely adore this film.  Coupling the very serious themes with the campy overindulgence of reality television makes for an outstanding experience.  There’s terrific action set pieces, mysterious landmarks of the zone, and Dawson’s scene chewing villain.  This is one of Arnold’s more vulnerable roles and it’s a blast to see him fighting the system.  Some of the commercials and other propaganda that are placed throughout are hilarious.  This is probably Stephen King’s actual worse nightmare, and like you say, it’s interesting that it is slowly becoming a reality.

True Lies

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BEN: Our final film is another James Cameron classic, if not an underrepresented film.  Based on the French film La Totale!, Lies focuses its story on Harry Tasker, a global sales manager who doubles as a black operative for a covert terrorism taskforce known as Omega Sector.  The story by James Cameron and Randall Frakes balances Tasker’s real world situations with his life as a family man, where he is married to Jamie Lee Curtis’s Helen Tasker, who knows nothing of his real life.  Tom Arnold and Grant Heslov round out his team while his daughter, Dana, played by Eliza Dushku is full of teenage angst.  Art Malik as the bad guy is very effective. Bill Paxton was hilarious as a faux double agent, Simon. Cameron surrounds himself with notable technical folks to support him.  Russell Carpenter serves as the cinematographer.  Whether we’re being chased down a snow covered, tree-lined hill in the Austrian Alps or we’re taking a helicopter ride over the Overseas Highway spanning the Florida Keys, Carpenter is up to the task. Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt and Richard A. Harris are all editors on various Cameron projects and they do a stunning job over the course of the 141 minute run time.  Finally, Brad Fiedel is back to give Harry and company a riveting adventure score.  Watch for the Westin Bonaventure Hotel to make another appearance as a stand-in for a D.C. hotel.

KYLE: While Total Recall and Predator are probably higher on my list, I think True Lies is an interesting film.  There is a lot of debate about whether True Lies is chauvinistic with respect to Arnold’s treatment of Curtis and while I won’t get into the specifics here, I do think the conversation has merit.  One of my favorite things about this film is how everyone appears to be having a wonderful time.  It’s probably the most fun film of Arnold’s adult oriented content because, like its premise, it knows it is an illusion.  It is a caricature of the films that Arnold built his career on while simultaneously being a playful examination on relationships, loyalty, and perspective.  Technically, this is one of Cameron’s most impressive entries, with the editing being the true stand out.

BEN & KYLE: Thank you for continuing to follow our conversations.  Next week, we’re going to take an in depth look at Lawrence of Arabia.

 

In Memoriam – Chimes at Midnight & Jeanne Moreau

 

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In honor of Jeanne Moreau’s passing, this week Kyle and Ben sit down to discuss one of Orson Welles’ crowing achievements, Chimes at Midnight (Fallstaff).  Having been released in Spain in December 1965, in France in May 1966, and in the United States in March of 1967, it was initially a critical failure and it did not achieve the box office success that Welles had sought.  Over time, critical reappraisal has lauded the film as one of Welles’ finest works.

BEN: I have to be honest, I’m not big on Shakespeare.  I read him when I was in school and he confounded me and my imagination.  I sincerely enjoyed Welles’ Chimes at Midnight.  I knew Shakespeare’s works were replete with intimate locations and rich characters, but I did not realize how sharp the tongues were.

KYLE: I’ve been revisiting all of Welles’ works recently and I was blown away by this one.  I think it is Welles’ finest performance and an honest masterpiece.  I absolutely adore the tonal shifts and the somber portrayal of Shakespeare’s legendary hedonist.

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BEN: Welles layers his story of a rebellious father, King Henry IV and a rebellious son, Prince Hal who is at the behest of a literal father figure, Sir John Falstaff.  The majority of the film is spent within the confines of the Boar’s Head Tavern carrying on the intimacy of a stage play, allowing our characters to develop their identities.  Hal, played by Keith Baxter is the roguish playboy, a philanderer without a care in the world.  He is encouraged by Falstaff to enjoy the spoils of life, without the responsibilities, nurturing his rebellious nature as well as his growing desire for power.  There was a point in the film where Hal nearly became a Robin Hood, but he started to see that his ways were not germane to his status as a future king.  Returning to his father’s side, he fought the noble Henry Percy, played by Norman Rodway in a stunning battle set piece.  I was surprised at the level of gruesomeness displayed; it served as a striking counterpoint to the jubilant celebrations that mark the earlier parts of the film.  Edmond Richard’s cinematography is simply gorgeous, from the placement of the camera, to the tracking shots to the use of light.  His outdoor work, especially during the battle sequence is something for the history books.

KYLE: I think the swing in tone is the best part of the film because it focuses on the point that Welles was making.  All good things come to an end, and while Hal’s journey from miscreant to monarch is a perfect example, I think the deeper meaning involves the trauma of responsibility and the death of innocence when adulthood, and all of its dangerous and wondrous revelations arrive.  This is highlighted during the battle scene that you mention.  I really enjoy the framing as well, particularly in the scenes at the inn because position is almost as important as dialogue, and of course the parody of the king scene is not only iconic, it is a wonderful summation of what is in store for the viewer.

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BEN: Of course, we wouldn’t be discussing this film if not to celebrate the life of Jeanne Moreau, who I confess to not having seen much of her work.  Here she plays Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute at the Boar’s Head.  She is as sensual as she is vociferous.  I liken her performance to being a chameleon, blending into the background in the beginning, falling for Falstaff’s charms.  Then, as events heat up, she raises her voice in protest.

KYLE: Pure icon.  My first film of hers was Jules and Jim and I was not only blown away by her free spirited and tragic performance, but I instantly respected her nuanced presence, something that I continue to enjoy each time I view one of her films.  From Jules and Jim, La Notte, and my favorite Diary of a Chambermaid, Moreau has left a legacy behind.  It is truly a thing of greatness to witness her layered performances, harnessing a variety of complex emotions and combining them into unforgettable characters…because they are so human, the viewer can’t help but to identify.  That was her talent.  She is incomparable and one of the truly great actresses of all time.

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BEN: I really enjoyed watching this film.  It’s amazing to learn that this film released over a three-year period.  Can you imagine something like that happening now?

KYLE: It still happens, with films debuting at festivals across the world and then not making it into the theater or on demand in different countries for several years, but technology has, for better or worse, changed distribution procedures across the world.

BEN: I’ve already found a certain affection for Welles’ works over the years and this is something that I will be revisiting again, especially with Criterion’s fine Blu-ray.  I will also be exploring more of Jeanne Moreau’s works in the future.  Something tells me I’m in for a treat.  Although this was a French-Spanish release, none other than Mr. Harry Saltzman was involved in its production.

KYLE: Touch of Evil is my favorite Welles’ film, despite the undeniable importance of Citizen Kane.  I recently viewed The Lady from Shanghai after learning about its history from the You Must Remember This podcast.  It is a very strange, yet fascinating film and I recommend that you start there on your journey through Welles’ legendary portfolio.

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Ben: Thank you for sitting down with me again this week, Kyle.  I know we were originally going to do a quick review of Umbrellas of Cherbourg this week, but we decided to hold that for now to do something a bit more special with it.  Later this week, we’ll be back with something timed for the upcoming Logan Lucky release.

KYLE: Looking forward to it!

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Kathryn Bigelow: Five Favorite Films

In their continuing series, Kyle and Ben sat down this week to discuss their five favorite Kathryn Bigelow films.  When you’re simmering over the controversy that is sure to arise from her latest film Detroit, reflect on this journey through her earlier works.

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Near Dark

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BEN: It’s funny.  I hadn’t seen this film prior to this year, but I’m glad I got to experience it on a theater screen.  Bigelow’s take on vampires is every bit as fun as Schumacher’s The Lost Boys.  Where Schumacher intentionally brought in a sexual overtone, Bigelow demonstrated her action chops while managing to combine a dramatic story.  Her characters feel real, thanks to her relationship with James Cameron.  Many of the actors he successfully used in prior films make an appearance here including Lance Henriksen, Jeanette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton.  Their respective performances really drive the dangerous side of vampirism.  Adrian Pasdar is Caleb, who unfortunately falls in love with Mae (Jenny Wright) and as their love grows deeper, Mae’s dark secret comes to light.  Tim Thomerson, who made a splash in smaller movies like this, plays Caleb’s dad.  His relentless concern is really the driving force in this film.  I thought it was a lot of fun to see Thomerson and Henriksen square off in the finale.  The film is dated and cheesy, but it cemented Bigelow’s status as a cult-action director with interesting stories to tell.

KYLE: I don’t think it’s cheesy so much as a product of its time.  Bill Paxton gives one of the best performances of his career in this.  I love how it fuses the western genre with the bloated vampire catalogue to create an unforgettable experience.  It’s also shot remarkably well given the time.  One of my favorite parts is that the word “vampire” is never said, yet the viewer instantly knows that this is a vicious band of predators.  This was also Bigelow’s feature debut and it is the template for all of her films.  She’s a filmmaker who is interested in relationships and characters, and how the often overlooked ingredients are usually glossed over in favor of spectacle.  It’s what makes Near Dark work so well.  My only complaint is that the finale is a tad…abrupt given the setup, but regardless, this is a cult classic for all time.

Point Break

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BEN: I was too young for this movie, but the allure of this film was just overwhelming.  It still is.  Based on W. Peter Illiff and Rick King’s story, Bigelow’s action sense combined with dramatic tension truly drive this poetic cult classic.  Where she tried to bring in a troupe of actors in Near Dark, here she starts fresh with Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, and Lori Petty.  The story is amazing, Donald Peterman’s cinematography is truly unmatched as he had to combine a wide range of shots from aerial jumps to bank heists and a lot of foot chases with handheld cameras.  As dramatic and action-oriented as the film is, it is just plain fun.  The actors all looked like they had a blast, especially Gary Busey:  “I don’t know why the agency has to have me train some snot nosed quarterback punk named Johnny Unitas.”  I could go on gushing, but you get the idea.

KYLE: Quintessential 90’s action.  The homoerotic (over)undertones are pure bliss.  I think one of my favorite things is the aesthetic.  Bigelow takes the surfer, California subculture, and builds it into a living organism.  I love how she takes classic crime and noir tropes and updates them for the 90’s.  It is also a testament to her skill how she is able to use both Reeves and Swayze’s well known flaws to her advantage.  This is a wonderful example of a director understanding the limitations of her cast and using them as strengths.  Busey is the standout, bringing his usual captivating insanity to bear and his performance is wonderful throughout.

Strange Days

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BEN: Before Virtual Reality exploded, Bigelow gave us Strange Days.  I hate to say this, but I don’t remember the movie very well.  I know I saw it when it first came out on home video and I know that the cast is a veritable who’s who.  I remember it being a bit noir-ish in its Sci-Fi approach.  Ralph Fiennes really lit the screen up while Angela Bassett just drove the story.  I also remember Matthew Leonetti’s camerawork, especially the POV shots during the SQUID sequences.  This was Bigelow’s biggest commercial failure at the box office and from what I understand it nearly derailed her career.  I guess I need to see it again.

KYLE: I think this is Bigelow’s greatest film.  The entire intro sequence is some of the best camerawork I’ve seen in her films.  It is most definitely a neo-noir and probably the best science fiction noir since Blade Runner.  I also see a lot of parallels with Detroit, which I’m screening tomorrow.  Fiennes is just outstanding as the underdog and I love how there’s not a lot of action.  His chemistry with Bassett is remarkable, and as you mentioned, she’s the center of this formidable machine.  Juliet Lewis and Tom Sizemore are also amazing additions, with some of the best performances of their rocky careers.  It’s also a great dystopian film that is extremely relevant of the current climate in America.

The Hurt Locker

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BEN: As with James Cameron, Bigelow started to form her own troupe of actors, namely Anthony Mackie and Ralph Fiennes.  She also would continue to use real-life situations, as she did in Strange Days, to influence her future narratives.  And, thus we begin her working relationship with Mark Boal, a freelance journalist who used his real-life experiences to write the script.  Set during the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker features Jeremy Renner, David Morse, and Guy Pearce as part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team who are trapped by insurgents.  Boal’s story and Bigelow’s direction focus on the psychological trauma which results from the stress of combat.  The film would go on to win best director for Bigelow and best picture for the film, a distinction that Bigelow holds as the first and only woman to have won both.  Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography firmly places us in the middle of the action without losing the sense of perspective.  It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this one too.  I guess I’m due for a revisit.

KYLE: My favorite scene is when Renner and Mackie are trapped by snipers and Mackie is on the Barrett.  When Renner gives him the capri sun to drink, virtually ending their feud through an act of camaraderie is something you don’t see often in war films.  That is the genius of this film.  On the surface it’s a war film, but truly, at its heart, it is about the trauma that our armed forces experience every day when in combat.  The cinematography is outstanding.  You are, as you mention, right in the thick of things.  I remember not breathing for the duration of my screening and I was thinking about the film, about its implications on modern warfare, for days after.   While it’s not my favorite of hers, I think it might be her best made film.

Zero Dark Thirty

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BEN: And this is why I enjoy these conversations, Kyle.  Your insight into these films is spectacular.  Our final film is a doozy and it created such a firestorm over its authenticity with the federal government at the time of its release that Julian Assange probably could have leaked it and it would have attracted less attention than Bigelow received for Zero Dark Thirty.  Again written by Boal, who used information he had gleaned from a speech given by former CIA director Leon Panetta during a ceremony is the story of a fictional CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain who is on the hunt for Osama bin Laden after gaining new intel which spurred on the real-life incursion which brought the Al-Qaeda Emir down.  Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, and Kyle Chandler co-star.  Greig Fraser’s cinematography in the desert is amazing as are his nighttime shots, especially the hand-held action during the final raid.  Thirty represented Megan Ellison’s first major production credit as her Annapurna Pictures independently financed the movie.  This film created quite a controversy with audiences as well, but it was well-received and was recognized with Bigelow’s second directorial Oscar nomination.  Chastain would win the Best Actress Golden Globe and cemented her work in A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Martian, and last year’s spectacular Miss Sloane.  She is as tough as they come.

KYLE: I think Jason Clarke was robbed of a supporting nom.  His scene with the monkeys is heartbreaking, and a simple, quiet symbol of the madness of covert warfare.  Chastain is cold, but intimidating in every scene.  I love how the entire film is an extended procedural, with the payoff being the hand held madness of the compound raid.  Hand held apparently plays a big part in Detroit, and I can’t wait to see it.  I think the aspect of this one that works so well is how it is very removed.  Outside of the chilling intro, with actual calls from victims in the towers, the entire film is sterilized; presenting a possible narrative on how the most wanted man in the world was captured.   This is Bigelow at her finest.  Meticulous, artful control and searing, unapologetic presentation.

BEN: Thank you for the amazing insight, Kyle.  A pleasure as always.  Next week we celebrate the life of Jeanne Moreau and a special review of Jaques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

KYLE: I’m looking forward to it!   Also, a shout out to K-19: The Widowmaker.  While it didn’t make the list, it’s a fun film for sure.  See you next week!

 

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