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Beyond the Black Rainbow

Beyond the Black Rainbow

2012.  Directed by Panos Cosmatos.

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Beyond the Black Rainbow is a film out of time, a bad acid nightmare that would have been right at home on the VHS shelves of the 1980’s.  An exercise in personal catharsis for the director after losing his parents, Rainbow is an amalgam of surreal cinematic influences, that uses confounding and genuinely gorgeous alien aesthetics to present an unsettling exploration of what lies beyond the limits of the human mind.

Elena is a teenager who is a captive in a scientific prison underneath the Arboria Institute, a new age research company whose aim is to achieve transcendence through extensive indulgence in psychotropic narcotics.  Her captor is Dr. Barry Nyles, Dr. Arboria’s heir apparent, whose mind and body were cosmically altered after a ghastly inter-dimensional encounter in 1966 that left Elena’s mother dead and Dr. Arboria in a fugue state.  Nyles has become infatuated with Elena’s psychic abilities, believing they hold the key to the mysteries of the subconscious.  As Nyles gradually slips into pure madness, Elena harnesses her preternatural abilities and attempts a desperate escape into an alternate reality in which the Cold War’s threat of nuclear extinction is but one of many horrors waiting in the darkness.

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Beyond the Black Rainbow is jigsaw origami.  The surface level is relayed through sharp angles and psychedelic colors that present Elena’s ordeal as a reverse Alice in Wonderland.  Beneath the LSD convolution lies a subversive criticism of the baby boomer generation, presenting the casualness of the demographic as the Black Rainbow, a metaphysical point of no return that mankind had no place crossing in the first place.  The theme of personal improvement and evolution pervades throughout the glacial narrative, with Cosmatos presenting strange technology, malignant psychic capabilities, and the bio-mechanical horrors of the Arboria Institute as the yield from foolhardy experimentation fueled by manic obsession.

Norm Li’s cinematography is jaw dropping, using a deluge of colors and framing techniques to give the Arboria Institute an otherworldly atmosphere that is simply unforgettable, evoking the compositions of Kubrick and Argento with skin crawling results.  In particular, the 1966 flashback scene, shot in unfocused black and white is both terrifying and awe inspiring.   Yes, the concession that many aspects of Beyond the Black Rainbow were taken from other films is undeniable.  However, the way that Cosmatos assembles each nostalgic block into a psionic Jenga is pure, malicious brilliance.  Within a few, precious minutes, you know you’re witnessing something truly different, the type of experimental voodoo that enraptures as much as it divides, and Rainbow is a prime example of one of these poisoned offerings.

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Eva Allan conveys Elena’s torment as a form of telepathic bipolar, portraying a young woman whose entire life has been experienced through captivity.  With only a lonely, unreliable television to keep her company, Elena fixates on the world outside and wishes only to be reunited with her father.  Her chemistry with Michael Rogers’s Nyles is surprisingly potent, especially during the first therapy scene.  Rogers’s gives a delirious turn with his villain, presenting Barry Nyles as the false prophet, a murderous prodigal son who maintains his human status through creepy cosmetics and a barely passable sense of endearment that sits atop a furnace of aberrant rage, epitomizing the film’s central theme that not only should man not seek to exceed it’s karmic limitations, but that success in such endeavors would only lead to a new dimension of unspeakable dilemmas.

Cosmatos’s script is filled with important details that will almost certainly be overlooked during an initial viewing.  Astral communication happens through unplugged telephones, while an ominous Ronald Reagan monologue enshrouds Elena’s predicament.  A disturbing diary contains the profane incantations of a madman and strange automatons, Sentionauts haunt the corridors of the institute, each of them baring a horrifying similarity to Elena’s child like visage.  Almost every aspect of the film has an implied double meaning, electing to use limited dialogue and overwhelming visuals to construct a haunted house story told from the inside out.

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Jeremy Schmidt AKA Sinoia Caves’s soundtrack is a synthesized love note to Tangerine Dream, one of the many influences on the film.  Every song is perfectly applied to a specific segment, enriching the atmospheric occultation with an array of 80’s cult melodies.  La Vonne Girard’s set designs, clearly influenced by Suspiria, present the interior of the institute as a post modern dungeon, filled with precarious open chambers that offer few places for Elena to hide.  Kathi Moore’s costume design is devilishly simplistic, using a simple white dress for Elena and presenting Nyles as a shag carpet hold out from the institute’s free love origins.  The Sentionauts, however, appear as crimson golems who remain suspended in their leather suits until activated, merging the deceptive mundane with the unnatural truths that lurk throughout.

Available now for digital rental, Beyond the Black Rainbow is one of the most unique films of the 21st century.    From a distance, this movie is an extreme example of stylistic overkill for what appears to be a straightforward premise.  However, if you’re patient with the slow burn allegory, Beyond the Black Rainbow has a plethora of dark wonders to explore, hidden among an eclectic blend of hallucinatory motifs and surreal horror.  If you’re interested in a remarkably different, constantly elusive film, this is a one of kind viewing experience.

Highly.  Highly Recommended.

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Top 10 Performances of 2017

Here we are, the end of another year of amazing films and amazing performances. Even though the box office performance has continued its downward trend, movies in general haven’t satisfied movie goers and Movie Pass has made a huge splash in the lily pond, there are several noteworthy performances that appealed to our roving film critics, Ben Cahlamer and Kyle Jonathan. Here are their favorite 10 performances of 2017 along with honorable mentions.

BEN:

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  1. Daniel Day Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread Although the film is still in a limited release, plenty of critics and LA and New York filmgoers have raved about Daniel Day Lewis’s Golden Globe – nominated and storied turn as a dressmaker in this turn-of-the-century period piece.

Honorable Mention: Barry Keoghan as Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

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  1. Gal Gadot as Diana/Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman and Justice League. It’s very rare that filmgoers get two performances of the same character in one year from two separate movies, Ms. Gadot’s performance in her solo Wonder Woman film just leapt off the screen. More than her beauty is her intelligence and her empathy for the human race. The fact that she played a larger role in Justice League is just icing on the cake.

Honorable Mention: Bella Heathcoat as Olive Byrne in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

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  1. Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair in Novitiate. The convent featured in Melissa Betts’ film is a place where young Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) finds herself. Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother St. Claire runs the convent on a very short leash, holding tradition sacred, despite the Vatican Papers directing her to follow the new order. Her stoicism in the face of adversity and her adherence to what she has practiced all her life is something to be admired.

Honorable Mention: Sally Hawkins as Maud Dowley in Maudie.

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  1. Robert Pattinson as “Connie” Nikas in Good Time. In one of the most brilliant of independent films of 2017, Robert Pattinson breaks out of his Edward Cullen role from the Twilight film series into a more dramatic and adult role. As “Connie,” he is always looking for his next angle. Between trying to hide from the police, trying to get enough scratch to get his brother out of jail and just trying to keep himself sane, Pattinson’s tour de force performance is one for the ages.

Honorable Mention: Richard Jenkins as Giles in The Shape of Water.

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  1. Michael Stuhlbarg as Sam Perlman in Call Me by Your Name. Let’s be clear that this is a film actors dream of being able to participate in. Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer are at the center of the film and both are worthy of the accolades they have already received. However, it is Michael Stuhlbarg’s widely praised performance as Sam Perlman that truly gels the film together. I suspect he will be among a very few select actors to be nominated by the Academy for one single scene.

Honorable Mention: Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles ‘X’ Xavier in Logan.

Finally, in the Year of the Mustache, I extend honorable mentions to Kenneth Branagh for his exquisite mustache as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express and to Henry Cavill for his lack of a mustache, which was digitally removed for his reshoots as Superman in Justice League and the talk about it on social media. Well done, lads.

KYLE:

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  1. Florence Pugh – Lady Macbeth

Pugh’s performance is one of the year’s best surprises.  Tackling complex themes of female empowerment, sexual freedom, and class entitlement, Pugh’s total commitment to the role is dangerous and entrancing.  This is a stunning turn that shows how much promise this young actress has and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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  1. Vince Vaughn – Brawl in Cell Block 99

Vaughn started in comedy and appeared to have pigeonholed himself into forgettable roles in which he plays the charismatic underdog.  True Detective season 2 showed exactly how much skill he has and I was eager to see him push his limits.  His quietly ferocious role in Brawl in Cell Block 99 is exactly what I was hoping for.  This is a landmark performance that will undoubtedly go overlooked by many viewers.  S. Craig Zahler’s furious grindhouse homage is an unrelentingly brutal time and Vaughn dominates every one of his scenes.  This is not to be missed, an almost mythological performance.

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  1. Robert Pattinson – Good Time

Our first tie!  Pattinson has really developed into something special since his Twilight days.  Not only is Good Time one of the best films of the year, I am hoping that Pattinson is able to nab an Oscar nom for his performance.  Connie is a narcissist who is able to turn the world to his desires….yet unable to escape the darkness of his predicament.  Good Time is more of an experience, a neon soaked love note to Breathless and After Hours and it simply does not work without Pattinson’s bravura at the center.

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  1. Kristen Stewart – Personal Shopper

Another Twilight veteran, Kristen Stewart has shown that she is one of the most talented actresses working today.  Pairing with auteur Olivier Assayas, her performance in Personal Shopper has been lauded by film critics across the globe.  A murder mystery, ghost story, and heart breaking meditation on loss, this is one of 2017’s best and Stewart’s endearing role as a medium searching for her brother’s spirit remains the epitome of acting prowess for the year.

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  1. Barry Keoghan – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest continues his trend of divisive, darkly comical, and utterly terrifying storyteller.  Barry Keoghan’s supporting role as Martin is simply astounding.  He has two monologues that absolutely dominate the entire film, producing some of 2017’s most memorable cinematic moments.  Part myth, part morality tale, and always uncomfortable, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is my favorite film of the year and Keoghan gives my favorite performance.

Honorable Mentions – Pekka Strang – Tom of Finland, Michael Fassbender – Song to Song, Keanu Reeves/Jim Carry – The Bad Batch, Gil Birmingham – Wind River, Tiffany Haddish – Girl’s Trip

Dario Argento’s Suspiria

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Dario Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria, is a sinister mood experiment, that uses incoherent dream logic and wicked visuals to create a mysterious world of living nightmares.

Suzy is an American ballet dancer who enrolls at a prestigious performance academy in Germany.  Soon after her arrival, a series of bizarre murders grips the campus.  As Suzy delves into the accursed history of the school, she is drawn deeper into a place beneath reality, a place of dark magic and madness.

Argento’s script presents Suspiria as a string of ideas rather than a conventional plot, making a film that defies explanation.  The performances are overly melodramatic, the set design is impossibly audacious, and the colors are loud and out of control.  These elements bleed into one another, making it difficult to determine what is real and what is dream, while also conceding to the viewer that this was done with intent.  Guiseppe Bussan’s enigmatic sets appear alien and inhospitable.  The compositions of every scene are meticulous down the placement of objects and the positioning of the cast.  Everything is a clue to a mystery that never asks to be solved, with Suzy sleepwalking from one terrifying experience to the next.  Every door promises violence and every window teases a false hope of sanctuary.

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Luciano Tivoli’s cinematography uses strange angles and brilliant colors to show that the subconscious is in control and reality is an ethereal concept, lying just beyond the viewer’s reach. The visual presentation borders on sensory overload, requiring multiple viewings to decipher all of the clues and symbols.  Both the cinematography and set design are considered to be the pinnacle of the horror genre.  This is what sets Suspiria apart from other classics.  It is a high concept film presented in a vibrant, unforgettable package that continues to be imitated and dissected 40 years later.

Jessica Harper’s performance as Suzy is paradoxically cliched and nuanced.   Suzy is the conduit through which the story is told, making her a passive protagonist.  This tactic would normally be a weakness, but Harper uses considerable skill to convey genuine terror and dangerous curiosity, an attribute that Argento continually explores in many of his Giallo works.  One of the more intriguing aspects of her turn is that Suzy never ascends to “final girl” status.  Every action she takes is a reaction to the fear that she is experiencing and even in the climax, her response to the horror is organic and clumsy, harnessing primal instinctual response and subliminal surrender in equal amounts.

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Goblin’s legendary soundtrack has a repetitive quality that bolsters Suspiria’s surreal framework.  Luciano Anzellotti’s sound editing fills the spaces in between with ominous footsteps and creepy incantations, making the supernatural elements auditory phantoms that loom in the shadows.   The amount of restraint with regard to the fantastical elements is remarkable.   Everything is pointedly vague to the point of frustration, with Argento stingily doling out kernels of explanation in a randomized pattern. The abrupt appearance of the credits is a perfect footnote to the experience, snapping the viewer out of the reverie and back to reality.

Available now on a gorgeous 4K transfer from Synapse Films, Suspiria is one of the greatest horror films ever made.  Fans of traditional storytelling may be discouraged by Argento’s design, but if approached with complete surrender to its atmosphere, this is a film that delivers an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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John Carpenter’s Halloween

Halloween

1978.  Directed by John Carpenter.

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Plausible nightmares are one of the most engrossing forms of horror.  John Carpenter’s legendary film Halloween, uses a simple premise, devoid of supernatural influence, to construct a muted Giallo homage that uses outstanding compositions and wonderfully understated performances to present a homespun tale of suburban terror.

On Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers repeatedly stabs his sister to death with a kitchen knife.  Michael is then placed in a mental hospital and his therapist, Dr. Loomis spends the next 15 years trying to heal the child’s fractured sanity.  On Halloween night in 1978, Michael escapes from the sanitarium and returns home to resume his unfinished killing spree.  He sets his sights on Laurie, a teenager who is having a party with several of her friends.  Loomis pursues Michael, planning to set a trap, however Michael has other plans in store for this very special All Hallows’ Eve.

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Carpenter’s direction uses artistic discretion and eerie lighting effects to masterful ends, presenting the events of the film as a possible reality in which the blurred and obscured backgrounds are filled with true evil, and it is their contrast with the red blooded American victims that is so unforgettable.  Jaime Lee Curtis does an admirable job as one of the first incarnations of the American “scream queen”, but even her role is subdued.  Carpenter outright refuses to allow anything to rise to the level of parody, imprisoning the teenage cast  in a pubescent purgatory.  Starting a long held horror film tradition of the victims being the ones to engage in substance abuse and sex, Halloween’s brilliant narrative conceit is that its killer is not overly intelligent, but simply opportunistic and inhumanely relentless.

Long time collaborator Dean Cundey’s cinematography captures the precise blocking of the cast with vivid close ups that use blurred backgrounds to present Myers as a spectral force.  Shadows and light are manipulated in such a fashion that even the most innocent looking hallway is presented as a diabolic jack in the box waiting to unleash it’s malicious payload anytime a character deigns to walk down one alone.  One of the best scenes involves a looming shot of a crowd of mental patients in a field at night, their white gowns wandering aimlessly through a rainstorm, partially illuminated by a car’s fluttering headlights, giving the viewer a taste off the atrocities that Michael endured to make him the monster that he has become.

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Made on a shoestring budget, Carpenter’s quiet mastery of every element of this film is what makes it so cherished.  From Carpenter’s iconic, character-like score to the dime store William Shatner mask that Michael dons prior to his rampage, Halloween is a film in which small, intimate details meld together into a murderous magnum opus.  Light on the blood and heavy on the suspense, Carpenter’s control is meticulous.  Considering that many of Halloween’s influences and contemporaries were exploring the boundaries of the medium and creating visual mind benders and extreme splatter features, Carpenter’s minimalist approach was the perfect counterbalance, appealing to mainstream audiences with an organic and morbidly possible story line.

Available now for digital rental, this is a film that requires no selling.  An all time trick or treat classic, Halloween is the best film ever made for the October holiday season.  A stripped down horror epic whose paramount craft is the result of its astute director, the incomparable John Carpenter.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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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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