Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Star Trek: Catspaw

Episode: "Catspaw"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 7
Original Air Date: October 27, 1967
via Memory Alpha
"Catspaw" is the closest the Star Trek franchise has ever come to a holiday special.  Exploring the planet Pyris VII, the Enterprise crew stumbles upon a gothic horror-scape, engineered by powerful beings from another galaxy.  Dungeons, skeletons, a black cat, mind control, illusions - all the spooky trappings.  Kirk even makes reference to trick-or-treat. 
via Memory Alpha
For the second week in a row, the threat comes from outside our own galaxy.  Trek marks an important departure from the xenophobia of Cold War era scifi but there are still elements of fear of the unknown.  Or perhaps it's just a reminder that no matter how far we explore, what we know will always be outweighed by what we don't.

via Memory Alpha
Antoinette Bower played the role of Sylvia, the more powerful of the two alien beings, a seductress/nemesis to Kirk, yet another in the long line of Q predecessors.  Bower was born September 30, 1932 in Baden-Baden, Germany to British parents.  Most of her 33-year acting career was on television, including multiple appearances on Perry Mason, The Fugitive and Hogan's Heroes.  There has been some big screen work, including early '70s B-movie horrors such as The Mephisto Waltz and Die Sister, Die!  More recently, she was a regular on the early '90s series, Neon Rider.

Monday, April 21, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Anne Frank

Title: Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography
Authors: Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón
via Junior Library Guild
For her 13th birthday, Annelies Marie Frank was given a diary.  Just a few weeks later, she and her family went into hiding in Amsterdam to evade Nazi persecution.  The thoughts she recorded in the journal would eventually be published in over 70 languages worldwide as one of the most important books of the 20th century, by far the most widely-read first person account of the Holocaust.  Beyond its undeniable historical importance, it is a work of depth and wisdom far beyond what one would expect from such a young author.

When I was eleven years old, we took a family trip to Europe.  We spent most of our time in Germany and France.  However, there was one quick detour to the Netherlands.  My older sister wanted to see the Anne Frank House.  It was not my first exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust.  That came with the film The Chosen a couple years before.  But the personal connection the House presented was powerful.  I shall never forget my day in the annex.

My parents gave our daughter this book, a biography in graphic novel form, for Christmas.  We hadn't really talked to her about the Holocaust before.  Her reaction after reading it was predictable: it was good, but very sad.  As such, she was surprised I wanted to read it myself.  The biography offers a broader view than the diary does - a more extensive history of the family and full disclosure on concurrent world events.  The depiction of the concentration camps is quite graphic.  As an introduction to the subject, it's good.  I hope Our Girl will read the diary herself one day, though she doesn't seem too interested at the moment.  When she does, I hope she'll appreciate knowing the context ahead of time.  The warmth and humor of Anne's writing are all the more astonishing when one fully understands the darkness around her.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Family Movie Night: Muppets Most Wanted

Title: Muppets Most Wanted
Director: James Bobin
Original Release: 2014
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Muppet Wiki
The Muppets have always been a big part of my life and self-understanding.  I have written about them before here.  Seeing their latest movie was more a question of when? than if?  I am glad to have seen it in the theater, making it the first Muppet movie I've seen on the big screen since The Muppet Christmas Carol (review here) way back in the early '90s. 

Fresh off the set of their last film, our furry, felted friends set off on a world tour at the urging of sketchy promoter, Dominick Badguy (Ricky Gervais).  Dominick is actually an international thief who goes by the name of "The Lemur."  He is in cahoots with Constantine, an even more notorious criminal who has just escaped from a Siberian gulag and happens to look just like Kermit the Frog apart from a black mole on his face.  Constantine pulls a switcheroo and sends Kermie off to the tundra while he takes over the variety show.  Naturally, Constantine and Dominick are planning a major heist which requires extensive European train travel.

The previous movie in the series, entitled simply The Muppets, earned high praise for recapturing the spirit of the franchise.  But I actually think this latest offering did a better job of it.  The act which toured Europe had the crazy, edge-of-disaster feel of the old show and there were numerous homages to the first three films.  There were even a few clips from the original TV series.  Just hearing Jim Henson's voice again was transporting for this sentimental fool.  The human cast, led by Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey, was well into the spirit of the affair.  Musical highlights include "The Muppet Show Theme" performed in Spanish and "Together Again," a reworking of the song from The Muppets Take Manhattan.

I am biased.  I'd likely give a Muppet movie a 4 even if it were terrible.  Even so, I think this one's well worth the trouble.  Neither the Muppets nor Sesame Street will ever be the same as the Henson days again but I'm happy to see the spirit live on.  The movie has been a box office disappointment so who knows if we can expect more in the coming years?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Doomsday Machine

Episode: "The Doomsday Machine"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 6
Original Air Date: October 20, 1967
via Memory Alpha
In our story, the Enterprise crew encounter a weapon of mass destruction from another galaxy.  The object, which looks an awful lot like a tin foil windsock, demolishes entire solar systems, then gobbles up the debris for fuel.  In one of Trek's less subtle commentaries on Cold War diplomacy, Kirk and Spock compare the device to the "H-bombs" of the 20th century.

The windsock actually looks a lot less tin-foily than it did when I first watched this episode back in the '70s.  When the series was re-mastered digitally, "The Doomsday Machine" was given the most thorough make over of the whole lot.  The space effects in general are a lot more impressive than they used to be.

via Memory Alpha
William Windom played the role of Commodore Matt Decker, commander of the USS Constellation, a ship that fell victim to the windsock.  Windom was born September 28, 1923 in New York City.  His great-grandfather, of the same name, served as Secretary of the Treasury under Benjamin Harrison.  The younger Windom was a paratrooper during the Second World War.

Windom had a long career in television, covering nearly half a century.  He won a Best Actor Emmy for My World and Welcome to It in 1970.  He made his big screen debut in 1962 as the prosecuting attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird.  He died in 2012 of congestive heart failure.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Family Movie Night: Some Like It Hot

Title: Some Like It Hot
Director: Billy Wilder
Original Release: 1959
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
We needed a good comedy this week.  On Wednesday morning, we woke up to three inches of water in our basement, a condition which has ruled our lives since.  Taking time for our weekly movie ritual was vital therapy and Wilder's classic Some Like It Hot was just the ticket.

In desperate need of work - and even more desperate need to leave Chicago after witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis) join an all-female band on its way to a gig in Florida.  Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the band's singer and ukelele player, draws predictable interest from both gentlemen, though their need to maintain their secret female identities prevents them from pursuing her directly.  As with all Wilder movies, the witty dialogue distracts one from whatever holes might exist in the plot, like how did the two gents manage to find women's clothing on short notice and no money?

In 2000, the American Film Institute named Some Like It Hot the greatest American comedy movie in history.  Interestingly, their #2 film on the list, Tootsie, is also about a struggling artist resorting to drag to get a job.

I am a child of the '80s.  So obviously, I've had this song going through my head all week in anticipation of the movie:

How many music videos feature a woman shaving her armpits?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Star Trek: The Apple

Episode: "The Apple"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 2, Episode 5
Original Air Date: October 13, 1967
via Memory Alpha
Hold on to your hats, folks!  The Enterprise and her crew are out to spread the gospel of sex to the universe.

In "The Apple," our heroes visit Gamma Trianguli VI, an apparent paradise.  However, it turns out the native primitive civilization lives under the rule of a tyrannical computer, Vaal.  This story shares many similarities with the Season 1 episode, "The Return of the Archons" (reflection here) including the rationale for violating the Prime Directive. But rather than decked out in 19th century garb, GT6's inhabitants are scantily clad primitives, beautifully sculpted but with the innocence of children. 

There's a lot of sex talk in this story.  Or rather, there's a lot of meaningful eyebrow raising between characters as they allude to without ever actually saying anything about sex.  After the crew frees the natives from Vaal, the planet's mechanical overlord, they must educate them about sexual reproduction.  Apparently Vaal had managed to keep them perfectly preserved in their youthful state, negating the need for children.  Sex and physical affection of any kind had been entirely forbidden by Vaal.

This episode holds a special place in the hearts of the devoted as it marked the beginning of the Redshirt Trope.  Longtime followers of the franchise know that pretty much anyone in a red shirt who beams down with a landing party is doomed to a gruesome death.  All four of the men in red who beam down in "The Apple" are killed off very quickly by Vaal's tricks and traps.  Interestingly, they all had lines of dialogue before perishing.  That's another tip off in future episodes.  Red shirt?  No lines?  He's a goner.

via Memory Alpha
Keith Andes played the role of Akuta, leader of the Feeders of Vaal, as the planet's people call themselves.  Andes was born July 12, 1920 in Ocean City, New Jersey.  As with many I've featured in this space, his showbiz career began in radio.  He attended Oxford in England but graduated from Temple in Philadelphia.  He also studied voice at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music.  He launched his Broadway career while serving in the Air Force.  Andes made his big screen debut in 1944's Winged Victory

Andes was married twice and had two children, including Mark Andes who was a longtime bassist for Heart, among other bands.  After a long battle with bladder cancer, Keith Andes committed suicide by asphyxiation on November 11, 2005.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Family Movie Night: A Star Is Born

Title: A Star Is Born
Director: George Cukor
Original Release: 1954
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Imagine that instead of lighthearted and inspiring, Singin' in the Rain were dark and depressing - not to mention significantly longer.  You'd basically have A Star Is Born.  The movie, a remake of a 1937 film of the same name, was originally billed as Judy Garland's comeback picture.  Garland plays the role of singer Esther Blodgett who unexpectedly hits the career jackpot when she meets Norman Maine (James Mason), a Hollywood A-lister whose own fortunes are taking a nosedive due to his alcoholism.  As her star rises, his plummets, jeopardizing their marriage.  The part seems a strange choice for Garland as her career had already been severely compromised by her own well-known addictions.  Cary Grant apparently turned down the role of Norman because of her reputation for unreliability.

The movie was restored in 1983 to include footage from previously lost scenes.  Pan and scan of production stills are dubbed with preserved dialogue - a little strange but somehow, it matches the mood of the film nicely.  I wondered at first if it was done intentionally a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but apparently not.

Garland's singing carries the film.  Whatever other damage she had done to mind, body and spirit by that point in her life, the voice of gold was still intact.  Songs, mostly by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, are generally solid, though I could have done without the highly pejorative "Someone at Last."

The movie is definitely sad.  If you're seeking a light frolic, this isn't it.  But for a brutal glimpse of the darker side of Hollywood stardom, the film is frightfully honest.