Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Note About Comments on the Blog

Just a public service announcement about comments here on the blog:

I am only publishing negative comments on the blog, at this point, that have a name attached to them, or Anonymous ones that are signed at the bottom of the comment with what appears to be a legitimate name.


I put my name behind every post I write here. 

You know exactly who to criticize, and where to find me. I even post my e-mail address for all the world to see on my Ask JKM posts. So I must stand behind every word I write. I take that responsibility seriously.

So if you have a  negative comment about something I have written -- great, I need constructive criticism!-- I will happily post it, but I ask that you attach your name to it, in a sign of good will, and fairness.  This policy helps me know and understand that you are serious and stand behind what you write too. All I ask is for the same level of responsibility I demand of myself. 

I hope this policy diminishes drive-by commenters who simply hurl insults, and then disappear forever.  I also believe this policy keeps the commentary at a civil, and generally respectable level.  

Again, I cherish constructive feedback or differing opinions. 

But I don't have any time for anonymous comments that shout at me, or say negative things, with no sense of responsibility behind them.

So if you have something negative to say about a production, or my writing, show some responsibility and attach your name to that commentary.  That's all I ask.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "The Power of the Star Disk" (October 20, 1979)

"We don't even know what dimension of space we're in!" Commander Stone (John Russell) reports in "The Power of the Star Disk," the next episode of Jason of Star Command featured in our Saturday morning cult-tv blogging.

As you'll recall, Jason (Craig Littler), the Commander (Russell), Dr. Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) and Matt Daringstar (Clete Keith) have been sent into "limbo" by the evil Dragos (Sid Haig).  In that limbo this week, our heroes encounter a ghostly alien Tantulution, a "guardian" who establishes a telepathic link with the Commander.  

As it turns out, the Commander's race (still unnamed, I think...) bears a biological connection to the legendary Tantulutions, and the Guardian wishes to share his galactic knowledge with Stone -- a descendant -- before the planet's sun goes supernova.

Once the telepathic link is complete, Jason and the others are able to escape the planet (and dimension...) and return to our universe using a second star disk.  They do so just in time too, since Dragos has released a "warp dragon" to destroy Star Command...

The multi-episode Star Disk/Tantalution arc ends with this episode of Jason of Star Command, which primarily provides new details about Commander Stone.  For one thing, his score to settle with Dragos (mentioned in the previous episode) involves the fact that the despot drove his people from their home world sometime in the past.

We also learn that the Commander's people are related to the legendary Tantulutions, as mentioned above. At this point, it's fair to state Stone is becoming the most well-developed of all the characters on the series. For instance, we know more about his past than we do about Jason, which is strange.  It would be great if Samantha were to see the same level of attention as Stone in upcoming episodes as well.

Otherwise, "The Power of the Star Disk" presents quite a challenge for Jason as he must navigate barriers of fire to open a locked door inside the Guardian's panel.  An over-sized vent shaft also rears its ugly head, so I wished I could have seen this episode a few weeks ago to include a gallery image for the Cult-TV Faces of Vent Shafts.

Finally, the special effects are, once more, extraordinary. The planet of "mist" is an impressive and creepy set, and there's a great shot here of Stone's crashed Star-fire, composited with the live-action. The Warp Dragon also returns in this episode, and looks more impressive and menacing than before.

In terms of Jason of Star Command episodes, "The Power of the Star Disk" is a pretty good one, I suppose, though it still boasts some glaring errors.

For instance, in the insert-shots of Wiki, the episode cuts to the Year One model of the handheld robot, not the more recent upgrade seen in second season episodes.  Also, Matt Daringstar goes from being bounty hunter, traitor and "pirate" to a man who cowers and trembles at the presence of unseen ghosts in this episode.  

Not very daring, Daringstar...

At the end of this episode, the Star Disks disappear because man is "not meant to use them," which is convenient but doesn't make a whole lot of sense given the details of Samuel A. Peeples' story line.

I thought Commander Stone was given the knowledge of the disks as a descendant of the Guardian and the Tantulutions?   Why is the Guardian reneging on the deal now?  Does Commander Stone still possess the knowledge from the mental link?  Is Dragos just going to give up and move on to another nefarious plan to conquer the universe?

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jason of Star Command isn't going to answer these questions, but instead move on to something new and different.  

And just when it was starting to get kind of interesting, and building up a mythology about the universe, and its most ancient inhabitants...

We'll find out for sure, in "Through the Stargate..."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Into the Water World" (October 27, 1979)

Chapter Six of our Filmation Flash Gordon serial from the early 1980s, "Into the Water World" by Ted Pederson, finds a magnetic ray pulling Flash's rocket-ship deep into Mongo's turbulent oceans. "Will we ever get off this horrible planet?" Dale Arden wonders.

Shortly, Flash, Zarkov and Dale are captured under the sea by the minions of sexy Queen Undina. 

She's the ruler of Coralia, an underwater domed metropolis. Like all her gray-green-skinned people, she's a water-breather. 

Worse, Undina has used her laboratory to convert the Earthlings into water breathers too. According to her, they shall never walk on the surface of the planet again.

Zarkov and Dale attempt to reverse the process,while Flash distracts Undina on a swim to salvage their damaged rocket ship. Unfortunately, Dale and Zarkov are caught and made prisoners. They're taken to a dungeon, and Dale remarks "This planet seems to be filled with dungeons..."Clever observation, Dale. Very post-modern.

Meanwhile, Flash learns from Queen Undina that she too hates Ming the Merciless, and that the despot would like nothing better than to rule Coralia as he does the rest of Mongo. "As long as Ming rules, there will be no peace on this planet," the Earthlings are told.

Before long, Ming sends his Gill-Men and an armada of submarines to attack Coralia. When Coralia's magneto-ray is destroyed by Ming's forces, all looks lost. 

However, Zarkov and Flash come up with a plan to super-heat the water around Coralia. They boil the water and destroy the Gill-Men, earning Flash and his friends the gratitude of Queen Undina.

Now, Flash Gordon has united another kingdom of Mongo behind his cause. 

Queen Undina agrees to convert the Earthlings back to being air-breathers and all's well that ends well. 

Thematically, as you might be able to tell, "Into the Water World" is a bit of a retread of earlier Flash Gordon stories. Flash visits a bizarre kingdom of Mongo; sees it attacked by Ming; defends it, and gains a new ally. 

It's all overly familiar, and one has to wonder at the stupidity of Ming that he keeps letting his kingdoms slip through his fingers, whether it be Arboria, Vultan's city, or Undina's underwater domain. 

What distinguishes this story most, perhaps, is the nature of the featured kingdom. Coralia is a beautiful, underwater domed city, and its denizens are water-breathers.  And, of course, Queen Undina falls in love with Flash.  This fact makes him three-for-three with the women in the series. Dale, Aura and Undina all lust after him.

Finally, I was sad to see Flash's cool rocket-ship get destroyed in a battle with a sea monster this week. I love that retro rocket design; and have an inflatable toy of it here in my office. Still, the stock footage has to be re-used at least once right?  This is one spaceship that has the distinction of getting destroyed six weeks.

Next week: "Adventure in Arboria."

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Films of 2000: Supernova

Supernova (2000) is just the kind of genre film that -- I readily admit -- I’m inclined to enjoy. It involves a doomed space mission skirting the edge of the cosmic map. Specifically, Supernova recounts the most dangerous journey of the Medical Rescue Vehicle Nightingale as -- in response to an emergency signal -- it “jumps” to a rogue moon where a mining outpost, Titan-37, once operated.

Unfortunately, the Nightingale’s crew learns, post-jump, that the wandering satellite is now desperately close to a blue giant star, one destined to go supernova in less-than-a-day.

And that’s just the beginning of the action. The film also involves an alien artifact -- a ninth dimensional bomb, -- and a super-strong psychopath, Troy (Peter Facinelli) determined to keep ownership of the WMD.

Buttressed by some solid year 2000 visual special effects, Supernova also features a promising cast, including James Spader, Angela Bassett, Robin Tunney, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Robert Forster. 

And yet despite such virtues, this science-fiction film never quite comes together as powerfully as one might hope it would.

The action and death scenes are largely run-of-the-mill affairs, less kinetic and less effective than similar scenes you will find in pictures of this vintage and type, like Event Horizon (1997) or Pitch Black (2000), for example.

Behind-the-scenes turmoil on Supernova is the stuff of legend, with director Walter Hill opting to be credited by the pseudonym “Thomas Lee.” When MGM refused to approve the budget necessary for special effects, Hill left the production, allegedly, and Jack Sholder was brought on to complete the film. Then, Francis Ford Coppola attempted to save the film in the editing process.

Not good.

Given a history like that, Supernova is actually a bit more coherent than one might expect. Legendary box office “bomb” or no, the film boasts a few facets that even today hold the interest.

The first is the deliberate aping of the Dead Calm (1989) narrative, which was writer William Malone’s intent. 

The second quality of value is the film’s steadfast refusal to clear up the ambiguity of the final act, and the fate that may befall Earth.

Third and finally, Supernova provides an interesting contrast in “percentages,” in a subplot that suggests the greatest treasure in the universe may not be ninth-dimensional matter, but rather the human capability to connect with his fellow man or woman, right down to the genetic level.

“I like deep space…People tend to respect your privacy.”
In a few centuries, the rescue ship Nightingale receives an emergency distress signal from Titan-37, an abandoned mining operation on a rogue moon. 
New to the ship is the co-pilot, Vanzant (Spader), an ex-junkie who has earned the dislike of the ship’s doctor, Evers (Bassett), in part because of her personal past with a violent junkie named Karl Nelson.
After a dangerous jump, the ship’s captain, Marley (Forster) is mutilated in his bio-protection chamber, and asks to be killed.  And the sender of the distress call turns out to be the son of Karl Nelson, Troy (Facinelli).  
While the ship’s crew tends to repairs from the dimensional jump, and prepares to escape a nearby blue giant’s supernova, the crew also learns that Troy has in his possession an unstable alien artifact…

“That whole place is like a ghost ship.”

The most notable aspect of Supernova’s story, perhaps, is its dedicated repetition of the plot-points of Philip Noyce’s sea-based thriller, Dead Calm.

In that film, as you may recall, a couple played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman go to sea following the death of their child, only to help out the last survivor of a ruined vessel, played by Billy Zane. Zane’s character turns out to be a dangerous psychopath, and he strands Neill’s character on his useless old boat while he terrorizes Kidman’s character on the family yacht.

In Supernova, we also get the passenger from the ruined “other” location, in this case a moon-based mining operation. 

The film also finds Spader’s lead character, Vanzant marooned there, and fighting his way to get back to his ship, much as Neill did in the earlier picture. Facinelli, like Zane, is a physically-fit, twitchy psychotic who, before his reign of terror ends, has his way with a female shipmate. Outer space, obviously, substitutes for the terrestrial high seas.

Supernova has its problems to be sure, but the idea behind it, of bringing Dead Calm into the future, is not one of them. You may recognize the Dead Calm flourishes and consider them derivative -- because they are -- but Supernova is also original enough to introduce some new elements to the formula. 

In this case, it’s the presence of the ultimate WMD, the alien artifact that elevates the film’s ending. The movie’s denouement, which eschews our desire for closure, also leaves audiences to ponder what might could happen in the brave new world following the finale.

There’s also a present -- if irregularly enunciated -- through-line here about the human race, or more accurately, human nature. Once rescued by the crew of the Nightingale, the evil Troy/Karl tries to bring them around to his cause. He promises them each five percent of the wealth he plans to acquire from the alien artifact. He prizes monetary wealth, and is surprised that there are no takers, save for Yerzy. 

At film’s end, uniquely, Vanzant and Dr. Evers are forced to share a biological containment unit so as to survive the space jump away from the super nova. In the process, they each swap 2.5 % of their DNA with the other.  

Add those figures up, and you have 5% percent, Troy’s proposed figure for recompense. 

The notion here may be, simply, that one “treasure” may be more worthwhile or more valuable than other. Troy promises material wealth to the crew, but at the risk of everything, at the risk of the universe itself.  

By contrast, the biological transfer renders Evers pregnant, ostensibly with Vanzant’s child.

Who needs the magic of unstable, 9th dimensional matter, when human matter can, likewise, “replenish” life, and in a way that is safe?

Finally, Supernova ends with a terrifying thought. The shock-wave from the supernova will detonate the 9th dimensional bomb, and the ensuing shock-wave will spread out, to all corners of the universe. It will strike Earth in fifty one years, we are told.  When it strikes, it will either destroy the planet, or change the very nature of human life. 

Supernova gives us no idea which outcome is more likely, or what that change could be. But I give the movie credit for setting up an apocalypse that it never intends to depict, and asking viewers to consider the possibilities. 

Would the shock-wave render all men and women physically powerful, but mentally unhinged, like Troy?  

Or would it usher in the very “leap in evolution” that the mad Troy foresees? 

There are many ways that the movie could have ended. Troy could have been killed. The ship could have escaped. There could have been a final sting in the tail/tale. Instead, Supernova leaves audiences to ponder the idea that a “wave” is coming for mankind, and that it is something he can’t avoid.  The future will be…different.

When one couples this idea of some force changing man’s physical nature with the moment early in the film in which Captain Marley (Robert Forster) discusses “violent animation” of the 20th century (meaning Tom and Jerry), and calling it a “catharsis” that can, under some circumstances, unleash “human malevolence,” the film’s theme starts to become clearer. 

Tom and Jerry live in a world in which there are no physical limits or restraints.They bash, bruise and bludgeon each other with that power, and do almost nothing else. If the shock wave unshackles man from his biological restraints, will he find a better use for that power than the animated cat and mouse, his artistic creations, do?

A further connection to the film’s leitmotif comes in characterization of the ship’s computer, Sweetie. The ship’s navigator, Benjamin (Wilson Cruz) attempts to over-write her programming when under duress, when threatened with death by Troy. 

He attempts to unshackle her, however, so she can kill.  Again, there’s the notion here that without “programming” (or biological) restraints, the universe tends to violence.  Man creates Tom and Jerry and Sweetie the Computer, and directs them both towards that violence.  

What chance is there he won’t act violently if transformed into a superman?

Supernova falters, largely, in that most of the crew deaths seem to happen all at once, and without even modest distinction. Two crew members, one after the other, get ejected into space without protection, and die there. 

Similarly, the battle scenes on Titan and aboard the Nightingale seem claustrophobic and messy, but not in an intentional or good way. The scuffles are visually incoherent, and so some sense of suspense is sacrificed.

There are gaps in the storytelling too. Danika Lund is shown to be in an intense (and apparently rewarding…) romantic relationship with Yerzy. So much so that they are hoping to be approved as parents when they return home. They want to have a child together. 

But after spying Troy naked, Danika makes love to him. She does not seem to be under duress when she does so.  

To be clear, she is not executing a survival strategy (as Nicole Kidman’s character was, once more, in a similar scene in Dead Calm). Instead, we have no understanding of why -- besides carnal lust -- she would sacrifice everything to be with this guy for the right fifteen minutes. 

I’m not arguing that people don’t make impulsive decisions about sex all the time, only that we don’t have a lot of insight into Danika’s character, and her decisions. 

Does she feel trapped by Yerzy? Does she really not want children? 

Is this her way of avoiding those responsibilities?  

It would be nice to have just a bit more clarity in terms of character motivations. If we knew Danika’s reasons, we might be able to fit them into the film’s larger puzzle or leitmotif.  Sex, like violence, might be deemed the result of our biological programming, and this aspect could have been explored in the context of the rest of the film’s themes.

It’s pretty clear that Supernova overcame incredible odds just to get to theaters, and given the tumult of its production, it’s a little amazing that the film succeeds to the degree that it does. The silver-blue palette that suffuses the film gives it a sense of visual consistency, and from time to time, the script really gets close to expressing a meaningful thought about mankind, and what kind of creature he is, or might become, given a giant leap forward.

It’s no Sunshine (2007), Pitch Black, or Event Horizon, but Supernova occasionally shines brightly. 

You can either enjoy the flashes of ingenuity on their own terms, or curse the general darkness of the enterprise.

Movie Trailer: Supernova (2000)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Die Hard on a Blog: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

John McClane enters the 21st century – not to mention the post-9/11 age -- in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), the first PG-13 entry in the durable action franchise.

Although it’s difficult to be particularly judgmental of the generally entertaining Live Free or Die Hard (2007) -- especially given the quality of its follow-up, A Good Day to Die Hard (2011) -- this movie also provides ample evidence to suggest the franchise’s best days are behind it.

In particular, Live Free or Die Hard features a bland, forgettable villain, played by Timothy Olyphant, and regurgitates, almost precisely, the format of Die Hard with a Vengeance by eschewing a single location story and partnering up McClane with another bicker-some partner, in this case one played by Justin Long. Where Samuel Jackson’s Zeus Carter battled McClane over issues of race, Long’s character offers a generational challenge to the put-upon cop.

Live Free or Die Hard’s greatest drawback, however, is that this third sequel to McTiernan’s 1988 classic transforms McClane into a veritable superman, one able to fly cars into helicopters and surf a military jet in flight. The whole idea of the every-man with a “die hard” personality is lost, to a great extent. And since Willis plays McClane with greater restraint than ever before, we don’t even have his darting eyes and furtive movements to suggest is he in constant jeopardy, or afraid for his life.

Certainly, there’s a great scene in Live Free or Die Hard wherein McClane describes exactly what it costs him, personally and emotionally, to be a hero, but that scene -- firmly planted in reality -- is but a passing blip in a film that, intentionally or not, makes the case that McClane is as indestructible as Arnie’s Terminator.

Len Wiseman directed Live Free or Die Hard, and the movie was a huge success at the box office. The film is no embarrassment (again, in light of A Good Day to Die Hard…) so this second-guessing of ingredients is largely academic.  Still, this entry in the canon accelerates Die Hard’s descent towards generic, mindless action franchise. It may not be a bad movie overall, but it is another rung down the ladder towards mediocrity. 

The fact that the movie’s PG-13 rating doesn’t even permit McClane to utter his immortal catchphrase -- “yippee kay yay, motherfucker” -- is an omen, perhaps, that business and demographic concerns have finally eclipsed artistic ones in the Die Hard universe.

“You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.”

After arguing with his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), divorced cop John McClane (Willis) is tasked with bringing in a hacker, Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) who may have knowledge of an escalating cyber-attack on financial markets and the government of the United States. 

At the same time, however, assassins are sent to kill Matt, and John is once again in the wrong place, at the wrong time, facing a terrible threat.

As Matthew explains to John, a group of well-organized, well-funded hackers are attempting a “fire sale” attack on the U.S. 

When John gets Matthew to Washington D.C., he learns that the culprit is the once well-respected Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who pointed out to the government its lack of defenses in the case of a cyber-attack.

Now Gabriel is showcasing that lack of defense, but in reality, is planning a huge cyber-robbery.

When Lucy is kidnapped by Gabriel, John and Matthew must work together -- despite generational differences – to short-circuit Gabriel’s escalating attack and save the day. 

They will require the help of an expert hacker, a guy called Warlock (Kevin Smith).

Another day in paradise.”

I’ve written about this concept before, but in the first decade of the twenty-first century -- just around the time of Live Free or Die Hard’s production, actually -- TV and film switched places; suddenly switched paradigms. 

Suddenly, television was the venue for intelligent, niche programming that would never have survived on a “big” network in earlier eras.  Think Dexter (2006-2014), or Mad Men (2006-2015).  And movies, which had survived and thrived through an independent film movement of great quality in the 1990s, began to become horribly, catastrophically homogenized, so as to attract all possible demographics and win the all-important opening weekend sweepstakes. 

One can argue why this switcheroo occurred and remains in place today, but Live Free or Die Hard feels like it bears the weight of the switch. 

Remember how Die Hard had all those weird-moments with pin-up girls, and Christmas party revelers snorting coke and having sex?

There are no moments like that in Live Free or Die Hard.

Remember how Zeus Carver and John McClane shared some really tough, really frank conversations about race relations in Die Hard with a Vengeance?

There is nothing so edgy or frank, or for that matter, real, in Live Free or Die Hard.

Remember how John McClane’s catchphrase alone gets each Die Hard film a hard R rating?

The character’s very catchphrase is not uttered in the theatrical version of Live Free or Die Hard.

It all makes one wonder if Die Hard was sold in a “fire sale” to Walt Disney Studios.

The switch to a more generic, safer approach, ill-suits the Die Hard franchise, because the films concern a stubborn man who is not easy to live with. McClane is confrontational, and, well, edgy. John makes enemies wherever he goes because he is “die hard.” He doesn’t tolerate fools, and he knows how to get things done. If someone isn’t helping him with a problem, they’re part of the problem. The first film made his world view abundantly clear, especially in terms of the “Dwayne” character, a bureaucrat and fool.  So if you take away John’s ability to cuss, and you’re already downgrading the individuality of the man, and his distinctive viewpoint.

But much worse than censoring John’s ability to swear, is the film’s insistence on censoring John’s ability to bleed, or break bones. 

In Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane is thrown off a jet in mid-air and keeps going. He doesn’t miss a beat.

John’s timing and reflexes -- while traveling 55 miles an hour -- are so great that he is able to “kill a helicopter” by launching a car at it. 

These are not the feats of a “die hard” police man; these are the feats of a superhero.

Another way to put it involves the concept of gravity. In the earlier Die Hard movies, John accepts the limits of gravity, and works within those limits to achieve his desired ends.  He sends C4 explosives strapped to a chair down an elevator shaft to blow up terrorists with an RPG. Gravity is his friend.  The chair drops eighty or so floors via the auspices of gravity. John delivers a bomb, in other words, with gravity’s help.

The set-pieces in Live Free or Die Hard, by contrast, are all about John defying gravity.  Jon surfs the back of a jet fighter -- standing on two feet -- as it accelerates and spins high in the air.  When at last he is thrown off the jet, he is flung a great distance, and his bones don’t shatter when he lands. 

See the difference?  Here, he is not a man working with gravity, he is a man somehow defying it…until he doesn’t. Look at how he drives a several-ton truck up a steep incline, and it doesn’t tumble down, towards the Earth. At least not immediately.

Here, it is clear, we have moved into the terrain of outright fantasy.  Die Hard becomes a stunt-filled comic book instead of a film series about a guy who is so stubborn, so thorny that he will just not give up.

It’s a huge shift in the paradigm, and one that doesn’t fit well with series history. 

Some of the outrageous stunts here would be more forgivable, perhaps, if we felt more in touch with the characters. 

Timothy Olyphant’s character, Thomas Gabriel, is the Marco Rubio of Die Hard villains. He’s young, he’s attractive, and he’s hip, but…on close analysis, he’s nothing more than acceptable. 

Like the villains in all the Die Hard movies, Gabriel is supposed to be a cunning and brilliant thief, who cloaks his venal love of money behind some act of apparent terrorism, in this case one that reveals to the U.S. government how vulnerable it is to cyber-attack.

But ask yourself a question: do you ever once believe that Olyphant’s Gabriel is a thief? Pulling a con?  Does he ever get a truly memorable scene, or even a memorable line of dialogue?

Mostly, he’s just a handsome bad guy who fits the template of action movie villain.  Now, this isn’t an attack on Olyphant, who is a great actor and has delivered remarkable performances in TV series such as Deadwood (2004-2006) and Justified (2010 – 2015). Even Olyphant has reported that the character of Gabriel is undeveloped.

Gabriel looks good, provides some generic menace, but never shows off any real humanity. The best two villains in the Die Hard series -- played by Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons, respectively -- ably convey humanity.  We get the sense that they are particularly clever robbers, ones engineering the greatest cons (and robberies) of all time.  There’s no sense of joy or accomplishment from Gabriel. He’s an off-the-shelf, generic villain to go with the off-the-shelf, generic action scenes.

I appreciate aspects of the film. I appreciate that John is now world weary; beaten down by life. He sees very clearly that fighting bad guys has not made him happy, or held his family together. He has many regrets.  This is all conveyed in a powerful scene, and the moment demonstrates why Willis is so great for this role.  He boasts great range as an actor.

But that’s the thing.  The screenplay must make use of that range. Not just here or there.  All the time.
We should be encountering a John McClane who is in danger, on the edge, half-crazy, running on adrenaline.  The movie rarely uses him in that way.  Like a real person.  Like a person we will wish we could be.

Except for a flash of humanity here or there, McClane might as well be played by Schwarzenegger this time out.

So no, this movie doesn’t “die hard.” But it doesn’t exactly “live free” either.

It lives, instead according to the sanctified rules of homogenized movie-making in the 21st century.  The key rule of that style of movie-making is: be as broad-based in your appeal as possible, no matter the subject matter of your film.

It’s all… “Yippy-kay-yay…you (gender neutral, PG rated put-down).”

And that’s a disappointment.

Movie Trailer: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The X-Files: "My Struggle II" (February 22, 2016 )

Scully (Gillian Anderson) is disturbed to arrive at the X-Files basement office one morning and find Mulder (David Duchovny) missing.

When she checks his laptop, she sees that Mulder has been watching “Truth Squad” with Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), a web program that has returned to broadcast after a six week hiatus.

O’Malley reports that something sinister is occurring, nationwide.

The conspiracy is on the move, through the use of a deadly contagion that will kill millions, while preserving only a handful of chosen survivors.

Scully and Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) work to confirm the existence of a genetic anomaly that has its basis in Scully’s alien DNA, but a  surprise visit from Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) reveals the startling truth.

The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) is alive, and launching the final stage of a strategy concocted in 2012 (the year of apparent alien colonization) to reshape the planet.

And the alien DNA is not the source of the contagion, but rather the only cure for the “The Spartan Virus.”

As people all over the country fall ill, and pandemonium skyrockets, Scully struggles to make a vaccine from her own blood.

Meanwhile, Mulder travels to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to confront the diabolical architect of man’s extinction.

Although Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale) broadcasts the thought that humanity will go extinct with a “deafening silence,” and a “whimper,” The X-Files revival actually goes out with one hell of a bang in “My Struggle II.”

This episode moves at a frenetic pace, is genuinely disturbing in its implications, and pushes forward the entire franchise mythology by more than a few yards. In short, “My Struggle 2” is precisely the season-ender I hoped we would get, and then some.

I believe it is safe to assume that if we had gotten an X-Files III motion picture, it would have concerned to a significant degree the unfolding of plans for impending colonization. “My Struggle 2” diagrams the equivalent in 2016 terms: the execution of CMS’s plan to remake the world, with himself as God (or the Devil, perhaps).

This is -- as the Mein Kampf allusion suggests -- his particular struggle. He is, literally, taking over the world.

Regardless of the specifics, it is clear that The X-Files is pushing the human race to the precipice of disaster in its final revival narrative. This is an admirable and courageous move on the part of Chris Carter because it suggests that The X-Files isn’t frozen in amber, always forecasting Armageddon, but never getting to it.

Nope, we’re getting to it.

Or, we’re getting to at least one iteration of it.

Right now.

Beyond the choice to push hard towards a new precipice, “My Struggle II,” is a well-constructed and apocalyptic book-end to the ideas introduced in “My Struggle” and developed throughout this mini-season.

The book-end nature of the enterprise is apparent by the episode nomenclature (returning to the title “My Struggle”), but also this episode’s introductory scene.

The first episode commenced with a montage and voice-over from Mulder’s perspective, explaining his history and beliefs. “My Struggle II” features a mirror-image voice-over and montage, but this time from Scully’s perspective.

I find it intriguing how well this structure functions in terms of the overall story arc.

Mulder’s curiosity and willingness to believe in the conspiracy “opens” both the investigation and the revival series, and Scully’s science is the thing that brings us to the end of both; to a science-based apocalypse and to the season finale.

There are several other laudable qualities here beyond the book-end structure, however.

The prologue is also brilliant for its visual punctuation: the fast transformation of Scully from human to alien. 

This is a terrifying moment, and a perfect visualization of the character's fears.  If she possesses alien DNA, does that mean she is becoming less human?  

In many ways this key idea that obsesses Scully, and which she must put to rest in "My Struggle II." 

All season long she has grappled with the loss of William...and what it has made her. Is she a mother? Did she treat her son like trash?  Is she even human anymore...or just a vehicle for guilt and shame?

The answer becomes clear in "My Struggle II." Scully may possess alien DNA, but she is "more" human than ever, it seems. She showcases courage, imagination, tenacity and other virtues in her desire to save the world.

Scully isn't alone in those qualities, and that's another reason why I loved this episode. 

“My Struggle 2” lives up to and continues the series’ history of depicting capable, and brilliant women characters. We’ve all heard of “The Scully Effect,” how the depiction of Scully (in terms of writing and performance) in the initial series run led to a generation of women pursuing and excelling in STEM careers.

This episode should have a similar impact.

Virtually every important plot point in this episode is conveyed by one of three women: Scully, Einstein, or Reyes. 

And there is a fantastic scene set in a hospital wherein Einstein and Scully debate, furiously -- and with scientific terminology I can barely understand -- the nature of the problem they face.  They talk with rapid-fire words, fully informed about every aspect of their fields of study.  They don’t fight, or bicker. They challenge assumptions. They press the logic of their viewpoint. And they imagine what could be. They build on the foundations of their knowledge, extrapolating, suggesting options, and even admitting they could be wrong. They are intense and committed, and dedicated to answers…not having a pissing contest.

I loved every minute of this scene.

Regardless of the precise details or science, one thing is absolutely plain:

Our fate is in their hands. And we are very, very lucky to have Einstein and Scully looking at this problem.

Make no mistake: the depiction of these women as committed, brilliant, imaginative, and courageous is incredibly powerful. It is also, in television, incredibly uncommon. Women may be partners, or subordinates, but they are rarely -- even today -- the ones debating science, debating a course of action, and the ones making solutions happen.

We have heard from so many damned gate-keepers in the mass media how The X-Files is “transphobic” or “Islamophobic” in recent weeks.

They are astoundingly wrong and ill-informed on both of those points, as I hope my episode reviews of the episodes in question abundantly illustrate.

But it’s strange, isn’t it, that the same gatekeepers are absolutely silent this week about the affirmative depiction of women in The X-Files?

It’s almost like those gatekeepers have a specific agenda: to paint The X-Files as somehow past-its-prime or out-of-touch, since it was originally a nineties show. .

Funny how they are so quiet now…

Until I read otherwise, I will take the gatekeepers’ “deafening silence” on “My Struggle 2’s” affirmative depiction of women as tacit recognition of their own previous wrong-headedness.

Perhaps an apology is forthcoming.

But I won’t hold my breath.

The other terrific quality which astounds throughout “My Struggle II” -- and which has not been commented upon widely -- is the installment’s strong direction.

This episode more closely resembles a feature film than it does a TV production.  The close-quarters fist fight between Mulder and the CSM’s goon is probably the best executed such sequence in series history.

It is brutal, savage, and cut brilliantly. It moves quickly and engages the senses, but it doesn’t try to hide the combatants’ moves with a herky-jerky camera.

In other words, there is a neo-classical crispness to the fight. It is modern, I suppose, in its viciousness, yes, but visualized so we can register what is happening at each moment, and to whom it is happening.

The outdoor nighttime scenes on the bridge and in and around Washington D.C. also look terrific, and move with purpose. If memory serves, Carter had to orchestrate some major chaos for the pilot of The After a few years back. He seems to have taken that fine work and improved upon it. He orchestrates this chaos with a steady hand, and a knack for making us feel tense, or uncomfortable. Carter mounts the climactic scenes with aplomb, and then hits us hard with the cliffhanger finale.

And what a finale it is!

When it was all over, my wife and I fell silent, and then I looked at her and she said, simply, “well…shit.”

The episode moved with such deftness, such swiftness, that it felt like perhaps fifteen minutes had gone by. Tops. That we still had a ways to go before having to say goodbye, once again, to this beloved universe…

In terms of mythology stories, I feel that “My Struggle” (both parts) makes for one of the best of all in terms of series history. It is so fast, so furious, so smart, that I have had to watch it three times just to pick up all the details.

I credit not only Carter for the smart writing, but also Dr. Anne Simon and Dr. Margaret Fearon, who introduce all these new (yet somehow completely faithful and appropriate-seeming…) concepts to the franchise.  Carter runs with those concepts.

There’s also a kind of caustic intelligence to the writing. Many things that CSM says in his scenes are, oddly enough, justified. He says horrible things, and he says true things, and he intersperses truth and nihilism so that he almost sounds reasonable when in fact…he’s the most evil man who has ever lived. He speaks with a forked tongue, indeed. He can justify anything.

So, in closing, the revival goes out on a strong, high note. “My Struggle 2” is both involving and scary. It is also forward-looking for the franchise. Not just in terms of the action, but how the action leads right back to the characters. William's shadow looms large over all the episodes of the revival, and especially this one.  Finding him will be a key not just to Scully's stability and mental health, but Mulder's survival.

In large part, I watch The X-Files to listen to Chris Carter’s words, to see his imagery and symbolism, and to experience his vision of the world; his philosophy. When I watch, I want to connect with his vibe, his perspective on the world.

My Struggle 2” gives me all those things; things that I cannot get anywhere else at the moment. I cherish this opportunity to reconnect with the artist and his imagination.

Looking back on this episode, and the X-Files revival in total, I feel strongly about two factors. 

First, that the writers, directors and actors went out of their way to create a compelling and challenging set of episodes. The storytelling and ideas were ambitious, and remarkably unconventional. The episodes were all brilliant, and more-so, they were each brilliant in different ways.

“Babylon” is not only the best episode of network television this season, for example, but the best episode of network television in years. It is a genre-bender. Not exactly action, not exactly sci-fi. It thrives on how it blurs definitions such as though (as well as definitions of terms like "extremist.")

Secondly, I feel that -- in broad strokes -- some critics and audiences simply weren’t prepared, ready or even willing to engage with the series on this level of imagination and thought. 

I think they had an idea of what The X-Files was supposed to be, going in, and then attempted to categorize the episodes based on how well they fit into a pre-existing (but incomplete) perceptual set about the program.

I admire and adore the revival, I suppose, because it puts a big focus on the “X” aspect of the franchise.

X represents the unknown, like an implied question mark, 

And “X” can be person, place or a thing…anything that marks an object as mysterious.

An “X” can be the mysteries of the human soul.

This new chapter in The X-Files showed us the “X” factor behind a culture of materialism and selfishness (“Home Again”), behind extreme tribalism (“Babylon,”) behind our ability to transform and improve ourselves, even, (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were Monster”) and much more.

The revival moved beyond mere science fiction, horror or any cult-TV tropes and really asked audiences to consider who we are, and the way we live in 2016.

May Chris Carter’s The X-Files continue to do so for many years to come.

Even if it has to be six episodes at a time...I’m there.