Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin (voice), Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy

If there’s one thing I truly envy my parents’ generation for, it’s that they were the ones who got to witness firsthand the beginnings of manned space exploration. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by the endless possibilities of what’s “out there.” But, with the US space program largely placed on the shelf, the chances of manned expeditions to Mars or beyond taking place within my own lifetime grow smaller with each passing day. That’s where science fiction steps in. We can go on these odysseys without ever leaving the comforts of our homes or movie theaters. The trouble there is sifting through all of the crap to get that sense of awe and wonder that should always come with stories like this. A lot of the time, it’s just going to be a larger-than-life action movie. Few science fiction films ever make the attempt to challenge our minds, or even inspire a sense of awe and wonder. Quite possibly the last one to truly accomplish this was 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” However, most sci-fi fans will agree, when prompted, that 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is the standard-bearer of this type of motion picture. Count director Christopher Nolan among them.

As we join things in progress at the beginning of “Interstellar,” we find that the Earth is in deep doo-doo. A blight has claimed most of the world’s crops and reduced the human population, and it seems destined to finish the job sometime in the not-too-distant future. Heavy dust storms have become a regular occurrence. Former NASA astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) runs a farm with his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow), son Tom and 10-year old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Cooper would much rather be flying in the skies or the stars than attending PTA meetings with Murphy’s teachers, who insist the Moon landings were propaganda films. They’re lucky that Buzz Aldrin isn’t in the room, or he’d be arrested for murder. Murphy’s a smarter young lady than the idiots who run the school give her credit. She’s currently tracking a “ghost” in her room, one which appears to be sending messages using binary code. I put the word “ghost” in quotations because this is a science-fiction tale, not a supernatural horror movie. Many who watch this movie will have figured out the true nature and identity of this phenomenon as soon as the word “ghost” is even uttered, although the movie won’t reveal that card outright for another two hours. That’s okay.

It turns out that the messages being sent by Murphy’s “ghost” are coordinates. Together, the father/daughter team discover that the coordinates lead to a secret NASA base, headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine). The Professor tells Cooper of a plan to ensure the survival of humanity, involving relocation on a new planet. NASA has sent “Lazarus missions” to three planets in orbit around a black hole on the other side of a wormhole they’ve discovered near Saturn. The hope is that one of these three worlds will be found to be hospitable enough for humankind to start a new colony there. Along with a crew that includes the Professor’s own daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Cooper is asked to pilot the Endurance, the craft that will fly out to collect the “Lazarus missions” data and find out which of these planets, if any, is our last best hope.

Even with the advantages presented by the wormhole, the disadvantage is that everyone back home will age at a far faster rate than those on board the Endurance. Each hour the crew spends on one of the three distant planets will equal roughly seven years back on Earth. Amelia’s father will die while she’s in another galaxy. Cooper’s children will grow old and have children and grandchildren of their own. As Murphy ages, she will be played by three different actresses: Mackenzie Foy (age 10), Jessica Chastain (young adult), and Ellen Burstyn (senior citizen). It should be obvious from the get-go, but Murphy’s role in the progression of the plot will prove to be just as pivotal as that of her father, if not more so.

The acting in this movie is quite superb. Much of that is thanks to the caliber of the talent, as there are quite a number of previously Academy Award-winning and/or nominated actors present, among them McConaughey, Caine, Hathaway, Chastain, Burstyn and Matt Damon (as a screenwriter). Even the voiceover work from Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart is reminiscent of Douglas Rain’s performance as the HAL 9000 computer from “2001,” as they are meant to be. Irwin and Stewart portray the artificial intelligence crew members TARS and CASE, each of whose solid black rectangular structure makes them resemble the Monoliths from “2001.” But it may be little Mackenzie Foy who gives the best performance of them all.

More than the characters or the plot, what I find is most stunning about “Interstellar” is the visuals (surprise, surprise). Any time the scene shifts back to the dust bowl that Earth has been reduced to, I wait for the return to the stars. Each of the three worlds the Endurance crew visits, having been named for the scientists originally sent there, couldn’t be any more different from one another. The first is a world composed of water for as far as the eye can see. This one will destroy any spacecraft that lands there and lingers for too long, shattering its hull with immense tidal waves. Surf’s up! One of the remaining two had better be suitable for our needs, or we’re screwed. You know the second planet they visit isn’t going to work out, or else “Interstellar” would be about an hour shorter than it is.

There was a moment where I was scared that the movie was going to degenerate into just another “blow shit up” action movie, and it very nearly could have. Much of the plot is familiar territory. You can almost count the moments leading up to the scene where one character reveals their cowardice and betrays the group. This was the only part of the plot I got wrong, as I had misjudged who the person would turn out to be. But given that “Interstellar” is Christopher Nolan’s tribute to all the science-fiction films which have made a lasting impact on him, he has presented us with the kind of science-fiction movie I would hope to make if I were in his position. It’s also the first time since I saw “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” that I’ve felt transported to another world, and saddened once the adventure came to a close. I finally understand what my father has been talking about all these years when he says that “2001: A Space Odyssey” begs to be seen in the theater. “Interstellar” is that same kind of experience, immersing you in all of its beauty and inspiring that sense of awe and wonder that sci-fi fans crave.

Two Cathedrals

The West Wing – Season 2, Ep. 22, “Two Cathedrals”

Original Air Date: May 16, 2001

Today, the day after the anniversary of the JFK assassination, it seems fated that the concluding chapter of my “Five Hours” series should cover “Two Cathedrals,” an episode which deals with a death in the White House family and the political ramifications of a potential change at the top of the Executive Branch. The difference is that nobody killed the President this time, although his spirit has been put to the test, if not broken. NBC’s “The West Wing” was an award-winner for much of its run, and always deservedly so, but it was particularly good in Season 2. “Two Cathedrals,” the season finale, was a culmination of that year’s hard work from cast and writing staff alike, and represents “The West Wing” at peak efficiency.

President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) begins “Two Cathedrals” in the midst of a scandal, having covered up the fact that he’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Even fellow Democrats are advising him not to seek a second term. Bartlet has also been rocked by a recent personal tragedy. His personal secretary and surrogate big sister, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) had recently bought her very first car. At 18th and Potomac, a drunk driver struck Mrs. Landingham’s vehicle, killing her. News of this incident has Bartlet in a funk, reflecting back on how the two first met when Jed was a student at a school with a rather stern headmaster: his father (frequent “The West Wing” writer & producer/MSNBC news anchor Lawrence O’Donnell). Kudos to the casting department: Actress Kirsten Nelson instantly makes you believe you’re looking at a thirty-something Mrs. Landingham.

What these flashbacks are a reminder of is just how important a figure Mrs. Landingham was in the life of the President. Even in his youth, whenever he was unsure of himself, there she was to deliver a swift kick in the pants to help keep him motivated. In this particular case, she’s using the agenda of equal pay for female staffers at the school as an excuse to get Jed to stand up to his father. That the ensuing conversation never allows an opportunity for Jed to bring up the issue isn’t important; that he’d made up his mind to actually try to talk to the man is.

“Two Cathedrals” is named so for the two buildings in which Bartlet, at different points in his life, summed up the strength to talk to a father figure, only to have his words fall on deaf ears. The second such scene takes place in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where Mrs. Landingham’s funeral is held. After the service is over, President Bartlet asks that the doors to the church be sealed so that he might have a private conversation with God. Angry, Bartlet really lets Him have it. A learned individual, he slips into Latin once he crosses over the altar. After making his point, he informs God that He’ll have to rely on Vice President Hoynes, because Bartlet intends not to run for re-election.

It might have ended there but, in the midst of an out-of-season tropical storm, Bartlet again faces a crisis of conscience. Talking to himself (though, in his mind, talking to Mrs. Landingham), Bartlet argues a point/counterpoint on whether or not he should seek re-election. Similarly to her younger self, the vision of Mrs. Landingham suggests that his decision on whether or not to run for a second term should not be based upon how hard he thinks it will be. Contrary to his posture throughout the episode, as though a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, President Bartlet now stands up straight and walks with confidence towards the awaiting press room to make his official statement. In a nod to the earlier flashbacks, the President stands tall in front of the podium, stuffs his hands in his pockets and smiles, indicating that his mind is made up. That the President’s final decision is not definitively stated at the end of the episode is not a problem. The implication is that he will run for re-election.

Martin Sheen has long been one of my favorite actors, and his involvement was in large part the main factor which drew me into watching “The West Wing” during its original run from 1999 to 2006. With “Two Cathedrals,” and in Bartlet’s conversation with God in particular, Sheen delivers one of the best performances of his career. Showrunner Aaron Sorkin (who bowed out after Season Four) was also up to the task as this episode’s writer, proving just why he continues to be highly sought after by television and film studios alike. I’m also very pleased with the choice of music during the episode’s final scene. Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” is the title song of one of the top five best albums of the 1980’s. The song itself may specifically be about the Falklands War in 1982 between the United Kingdom and Argentina, but this episode makes great use of its “unity in the face of adversity” message.

This great hour of television has so much going for it that one would do well to tune in. One would also do well to come in already familiar with everything that’s going on, but it wouldn’t be a total crime for this to be your introduction to the show if it makes you interested in seeing all that came before and after. If you decide not to watch because politics are a turn-off, I can respect that (politics being one of my two least favorite subjects).  But if you skip out on this show because you think you can’t be entertained or think it a waste of your time, then, as Mrs. Landingham would say: “I don’t even want to know you.”

Ozymandias

Breaking Bad – Season 5, Ep. 14, “Ozymandias”

Original Air Date: September 15, 2013

From a story of how one man’s best laid plans got in the way of his insatiable urges, leaving no one in his life unaffected, we move on to yet another. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had begun the TV series “Breaking Bad” as a highly-respected high school chemistry teacher and family man, albeit one who always felt like he’d been handed the short stick in life. A man of his intelligence ought to have been the next Alfred Nobel or Werner Heisenberg. Instead, Walter was left only with a death sentence: a lung cancer diagnosis. Turning to meth cooking with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) might never have entered into his mind otherwise. It never should have, considering that his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), happened to be a DEA agent. Within a year’s time, Walter would not only be producing the most pure form of crystal methamphetamine that anyone in Albequerque, New Mexico (and other parts of the world) had ever seen, but create a legend driving fear into the hearts of men with his nickname of “Heisenberg,” and become a drug kingpin in his own right. But, like most empires, Walter’s was destined to crumble.

By the time of “Ozymandias,” Walter had burned all but one of the bridges in his life. Jesse had seen Walter’s monstrous side and had finally had enough. Hank had inadvertently discovered Walter’s secret through the signature of a dead man in a Walt Whitman book sitting on a stack of magazines in Walter’s bathroom, and realized that his own brother-in-law was the very man he’d been trying to track down and arrest for nearly the entire length of the series’ run. In an enemy-of-my-enemy situation, Jesse gave Hank all the information he needed to make an arrest, something Hank was in the process of doing out in the New Mexico desert when a group of neo-Nazis with heavy artillery showed up and opened fire.

Walter had always genuinely tried to keep his family safeguarded from his double-life as Heisenberg, even resorting on this occasion to bargaining his $80 million in cash with the neo-Nazis. Now, with Hank dead, Walter had finally and ultimately failed in that task, losing his brother-in-law and most of his fortune (the Nazis left him $11 million), all Walter can do now is race home and try to convince his family to join him in a getaway. This does not go over well because his sister-in-law, Marie (Betsy Brandt), in believing Hank to be triumphant has already forced Walter’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) to tell their cerebral palsy-afflicted son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) everything. Walter Jr. tells his mother something that many fans have been screaming for a while now, “If that’s true, then you’re just as bad as him!”

Walter shows up at the house, evasive about answering why he’s not in Hank’s custody. Skyler puts 2 and 2 together. In a terrifically shot sequence, Skyler sees before her two options of something to grab: Does she go for the knife rack, or the telephone? Skyler chooses the knife. The scuffle that ensues causes Walter Jr. to call the cops. This gives Walter the opportunity to make his tearful getaway, but not alone, as he picks up and carries his infant daughter, Holly, with him. With Walter driving off, Skyler gives chase but to no avail. Walter realizes his mistake later when Holly tearfully cries out her first word, “Mama!” Leaving Holly in the passenger seat of a fire engine, he calls Skyler, now flanked by her sister and the police. Sparing Skyler the chance of going down with him, he angrily resorts to name-calling and insists that his empire was something he built all on his own, that she had no part in it whatsoever. Skyler doesn’t get it at first, but you can almost see the proverbial light bulb above her head turn on, and she plays along. Walter has only one course of action remaining that won’t result in jail or death, and that’s to hop into a van and start a new life. Yeah, like that’s gonna last…

Named for and directly influenced by the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the only thing wrong with this episode is that it runs a total just of 47 minutes (minus commercial breaks). You’re so busy admiring this work of art that it’s over before you know it. The opening sequence sets the tone, making you sweat upon seeing the death of Hank and the threat upon Jesse’s life. For five seasons, these were my two favorite characters in the show, and now there was a very real possibility that they might both meet their maker within seconds of one another. The acting and writing on “Breaking Bad” were always worthy of accolades, but there is something sincerely special about “Ozymandias.” A lot of it is thanks to Bryan Cranston, whose character is witnessing his entire world falling down around him. Walter White’s greatest scene in the entire series may well be that last phone call to Skylar. But perhaps the most heart-wrenching performance comes from the one person in this show who doesn’t realize they’re an actor, the infant(s) appearing as Holly. Whether her reactions are purely spontaneous or are prompted by someone off-screen, “Holly” grabs your attention just as easily as Cranston, Anna Gunn and the rest of the main cast.

Written prose is not the only media from which “Breaking Bad” drew inspiration. Music plays a very important role, not just in setting a mood but in telling a story. In “Ozymandias,” it is “Take My True Love By the Hand” by the Limeliters which parallels the narrative just as neatly as Shelley’s poem. Walter loves his family, yes, but it’s his brand of blue crystal meth and the empire he built with it which makes up his passion in life. So, it’s no mistake that the song plays as Walter is rolling his last remaining barrel full of money along with him as he travels through the desert following the shootout. He’s “taking his true love by the hand” and “leading her through the town.”

Series creator Vince Gilligan calls this his favorite episode of “Breaking Bad,” and I must concur. It has also been suggested that “Ozymandias” could easily serve as a series finale to most any other series. Given all that was packed into this one episode, I once again see no reason to disagree. But as this was the fourteenth episode of Season Five, that means that there were yet two more episodes before we officially bade Walter & Co. a final farewell. Likewise, this five-part series of television reviews has one more episode forthcoming. “Ozymandias” would surely be a perfect one to finish with but, like Walter White, “I still have things left to do.”

The Getaway

Dexter – Season 4, Ep. 12, “The Getaway”

Original Air Date: December 13, 2009

Instincts… They aren’t always an exact science but, for better or worse, they do serve as a guiding path for us to choose whether or not to follow. Every action taken based on instinct comes with risk attached. How each person’s life progresses is built from the risks he/she is willing to take. Even for those who profess not to believe in organized religion, when tapping into their instincts, are proving that they still do believe in something or someone. For officers of the law, it’s the willingness to think outside of the box that can lead to a big breakthrough in a case. For newlywed couples or in the case of siblings, it’s the belief that the person you love, be they husband, wife, sister or brother, is a better person than they perceive themselves to be. You may not have all the information you need to make such a judgment, but you make it nevertheless because you haven’t seen anything to contradict that belief.

There are, of course, instances where your instincts fail you. Case in point, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall). Most of the people in Dexter’s life who think they know him never see the darkness that he keeps hidden away. Those who do rarely survive one encounter. By day, Dexter is a blood spatter analyst for Miami Metro’s Homicide division. By night, he’s a serial killer, albeit one who only kills other serial killers. He’s been at this for a while now, and he’s gotten pretty good at it. He’s also been one step away from being caught on a number of occasions. As of “The Getaway,” the final episode of Season Four, Dexter had two women in his life whom he could honestly say he loved: his wife Rita (Julie Benz) and foster sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), herself a detective at Miami Metro. Neither of them have even a clue as to Dexter’s night life. He remembers when his foster father Harry (James Remar) who knew from the beginning what Dexter was and took steps to focus his primal urges, reacted by committing suicide after finally seeing for himself what Dexter could do. It would destroy Dexter to have either Rita or Deb find out the truth about him and/or die because of it.

In Season Four, the main antagonist is Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow), a man known to Miami Metro only as the Trinity Killer. He acquired this nickname due to his perceived pattern of killings: 1) Slicing the femoral artery of a young woman in a bathtub, 2) forcing a married mother of two to jump to her death and 3) bludgeoning a father of two to death with a hammer. What wasn’t learned until late in the season is that the cycle begins with the killing of a ten-year old boy. Each represents a member of his childhood family: The boy is himself (whose innocence died), the others are his sister and mother (who both died in accidents), as well as his father (an abusive prick whom Arthur himself killed). Arthur’s been doing this for 30 years, and has remained cloaked under the guise of a Christian charity worker and as a married father of two. It’s this last bit that kept Dexter from killing Arthur the first chance he had. That would have been the logical thing for Dexter to do, but he instead went with his instincts which told him he had something to learn from Arthur.

Dexter at this time was a new father to a son, and was having a harder time balancing his family life, his job and his extra-curricular activities. Believing himself to have things in common with Arthur, but wary of revealing his true identity, he got to know the man and inquired as to how to find the balance he was searching for. If Dexter had known just how badly Arthur treated his family behind closed doors, he wouldn’t have bothered. Instead, he got too involved and put himself and his own family on Arthur’s radar. Flash forward to the events of “The Getaway.” In his haste to be rid of his nemesis, Dexter gets into a hit and run that leads to a heated discussion with police, ending in Rita having to pick Dexter up from jail. Smooth move, Dex. But one good thing this alone time did for Dexter was to contemplate the end to his career as a serial killer. He wants to be a better man for his family, he says, and he means it.

Another thread which had been going on at the same time was Debra’s investigation into her father’s indiscretions with his C.I.’s (or criminal informants). One of them, it turns out, was Dexter’s birth mother, Laura Moser, who also had an older son named Brian. Debra knew him all too well, having been engaged to and then almost murdered by the bastard. She considers keeping her discovery of Dexter’s origins to herself, but eventually tells Dexter, who feigns surprise (although he is surprised that she didn’t find out more beyond those basic details) and expresses gratitude when Debra affirms her love for him. So, Debra now knows where Dexter comes from, and it hasn’t changed how she feels about him. Seemingly, that’s one fear which Dexter can now put to bed.

After trying and failing once to corral Arthur, Dexter finally tracks him down and kills him with the same hammer which Arthur had used in his own cycle of violence, but not before Arthur utters the same spine-chilling phrase he spoke to the bathtub victim from Season Four’s opening episode: “It’s already over…” More at ease knowing for certain that Arthur has been removed from this world, Dexter heads home to pack for the Florida Keys and his honeymoon with Rita. Intercepting a phone message from his wife telling him she’d returned to pick up the passport she’d forgotten, Dexter tries to call back… but Rita’s purse and phone are still inside the house. Moments later, he can hear Harrison crying. It’s coming from the bathroom. There, Harrison sits in a pool of his mother’s blood… the same manner in which Dexter had been found years ago after Laura Moser’s murder. To Dexter’s horror… and that of the TV audience… there lies Rita dead, bled out in the bathtub as the Trinity Killer’s final victim.

Even as I type those words, I get emotional just thinking about it, and yet it was never a surprising event for me. I knew of Rita’s death long before I’d ever started watching the show, and purely by accident. I’d been familiar with actress Julie Benz through her guest appearances as the vampire Darla, first on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (where she’s the first person you see in the pilot episode) and later in the spin-off series “Angel.” Sometime in early 2010, I’d stumbled upon an article online which detailed the gruesome means of her departure from “Dexter.” Lacking a subscription to Showtime, the channel which aired “Dexter” during its entire eight-year run, I had no way of seeing this or any other episode of the show by legal means until it came to Netflix late in 2013.

So instantly hooked by this show was I that it took little time at all to reach Season Four. Once I finally got to “The Getaway,” the anticipation level was like that of Christmas morning. This episode was like the present you already knew you were getting, but it pleases you no less, both because of the contents inside and the feelings behind the gift itself. Initially, I’d only been thinking about how terrible a sight Rita’s death scene would be. It was so perfect for her death to have occurred off-screen. This way, we are left to imagine the brutality with which Arthur Mitchell committed this deed. What I didn’t anticipate was the camerawork, the music (which is never anything short of impeccable) and the acting of Michael C. Hall. Dexter had made mistakes before, but this was the first time he’d let an enemy get the last laugh, and it was a mistake that would haunt him throughout the rest of the series.

There were enough game-changing events in this one episode that, combined with the way it ends, “The Getaway” could have served as the series finale. Many fans of the show have said the same thing, expressing disappointment in what came after. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that nothing Seasons 5 through 8 came up with ever quite matched this one for drama, excitement, anticipation, and sadness all in one hour. Somehow, knowing what would happen did not lessen the overall impact. Because that knowledge piqued my interest enough to start watching and become a fan of “Dexter,” I can say without question that following my instincts was the right course of action.

The Body

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season 5, Ep. 16, “The Body”

Original Air Date: February 27, 2001

Rare are the opportunities in life for one to experience a true epiphany. One such opportunity came to me in early 2002. As I often do, I was channel surfing one day when I stopped on an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which as it happens had begun only a few seconds earlier. That episode was “The Body.” If you’re at all knowledgeable about this TV series, then you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute! You mean to say that ‘The Body’ was your introduction to ‘Buffy’?!” As a matter of fact, I do. Like I suspect many have done either because of the show’s bizzare-sounding name, or because the subject matter is unappealing, I had ignored Joss Whedon’s first major breakthrough in TV until it was well into the sixth of its seven seasons. Fortunately for me, FX was airing the reruns, so I was able to play catch-up within a few months. Had Netflix been around back then, I would have only needed a week or two. I wouldn’t find out until later, but “The Body” is perhaps the most atypical episode this series ever produced.

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) comes home one day to find her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) sprawled out on the couch, unresponsive and with eyes wide open, staring at nothing. Buffy’s reaction is the same as anyone else’s would be: She dials 9-1-1 and tries to perform CPR. During this whole scene, including when the paramedics arrive and fail in their attempt to revive Buffy’s mom, the camera reflects the frantic and futile nature of the situation, tracking Buffy’s movements through the house, zooming in on various shots, choosing to focus only on the paramedic’s lips (as Buffy would be) as he delivers the bad news. As they are called elsewhere, Buffy (who by this time is emotionally shut down) wishes them good luck.

We stay with Buffy as she waits for Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) to arrive. She vomits on the floor, and then one of the more perfectly shot moments of the episode takes place. As Buffy opens the back door, her face is lit up by the sun and you can hear wind chimes, children playing and someone practicing on their trumpet. What this scene is telling us is that death occurs, and yet life moves on. Buffy still has yet to have any sort of reaction apart from losing the food in her stomach until Giles shows up and sees Joyce’s body. She shocks even herself when she blurts out the words, “We’re not supposed to move the body!”

Buffy’s next charge is to have to go to her sister’s school and inform Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). She’d rather face a cadre of vampires than have to do this. At that time, Dawn is only concerned with the bitchy girl in the class spreading lies about her, unaware of the tragedy that has taken place that morning. Buffy wants to go somewhere private because she knows her sister and how she’ll react. The camera shifts from out in the hall to back inside the classroom. We stand with her teacher and classmates, watching with sympathy as Dawn collapses to the floor in tears.

In the dormitory room of Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), one of Buffy’s two best friends in the whole world, we get another truly fantastic scene. Willow, in her grief, is rifling through her entire wardrobe trying to find a blue shirt that she says Joyce liked. She’s upset with herself for not having enough “grown-up” clothing. This was said to be the hardest scene for writer/director Joss Whedon to film, as it was based on his own difficulties in choosing the right tie to wear to a friend’s funeral. Understated because it was not meant to be the focus of this episode is the fact that “The Body” marks the first time that Willow and girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) kiss on-screen. It’s less passionate and more comforting, and that’s probably the only way it got by the censors… the same ones who wouldn’t bat an eye at this display of affection today. If only everyone were so tolerant.

Buffy’s other best friend, Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) shows up at the dorm with his girlfriend, the formerly immortal demon-turned mortal human Anya (Emma Caulfield). Xander takes the typical male approach of expressing his grief through anger, first by vowing vengeance against Glory (the main villain of Season Five), and then blaming the doctors who had removed a tumor from Joyce’s brain earlier that year. You know that moment of pure frustration where you just feel like putting your fist through a wall? Xander actually does this, not through some sort of superhuman strength (that’s Buffy’s angle) but because of some rather shoddy plasterboard material.

The surprise of this scene comes just before Xander decides to blame the wall. It’s when Anya is asking seemingly horrible questions (“Are we going to be in the room with the body?” “Are they going to cut the body open?”) Being new to this whole mortality gig, Anya doesn’t know how she’s supposed to act in a situation like this. She doesn’t understand why Joyce can’t just stop being dead. Human death makes no sense to her at all, and it’s tearing her up inside. She’s already learning what it is to be human, and doesn’t even realize it. This was actress Emma Caulfield’s finest bit of acting in any of her episodes.

So abnormal was this episode that, looking back, it’s amazing to me that it’s the one that first got me interested in watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which since grew into one of my favorite TV shows, if not my #1. One of the greatest choices Joss Whedon made was to film this episode without any music (except for the opening/closing credits theme). Had there been any hint of a soundtrack, it would only have served as a distraction. We don’t need music to tell us how to feel about the topic of death in the family. For Buffy and friends, this was brand new territory. For almost five years, they had fought and survived countless battles with vampires, demons and other creatures of evil. During that time, many fellow students, teachers and even friends had fallen victim, but it wasn’t until the death of Joyce that they felt completely helpless. Here Buffy was this young woman imbued with the strength to fight any enemy in her path, and she can’t even save her own mother from the natural conclusion of life. There were so many great episodes this show came up with, but none so easily relatable, none so grounded in reality, and none more well-written in the history of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Taking a break from the usual posts concerning movie reviews, I am shifting my attention… albeit briefly… towards the small screen. I’ve watched a lot of television in my life, beginning with the early days when it was cartoons on Saturday/Sunday mornings and music videos during the week on MTV, when that channel actually aired music videos and they were some seriously creative stuff! In all that time, I’ve seen a lot of stuff that I wish I’d never tuned in to watch. However, I’ve also watched certain half-hours and hours of television so compelling that I still think about them to this day. I could probably spend several days mapping out a list of potential favorites, expanding it into a list so long that I could spends months (or years) of my life trying to talk about it all. This is simply not necessary.

When it comes down to it, there are five hours of television which I can single out as having the biggest impact on my viewing experience. Like all lists, everyone’s going to have his/her own opinions about what should/shouldn’t make it onto lists like these, and I respect that. I also believe it to be a futile argument, because we’re all different folks out there, and so it could only be by some strange coincidence that someone else could name the same five TV episodes I’m about to. Also by coincidence, each of the five deals with the subjects of death and/or defeat. Always good for dramatic effect, and certainly in the case of these five. I’m only including episodes of TV series which aired during my lifetime, and only from shows I followed through to the end. Thus, there will be no Westerns, no episodes of “M*A*S*H,” etc. In no particular order, I’ll be referencing key plot points from each of the five shows, so it is now that I give my first and last warning to those reading up to this point: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

 

The Best of Both Worlds

Star Trek: The Next Generation – SEASON 3, EP. 26, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I”

Original Air Date: June 18, 1990

I’ve been a “Star Trek” fan since the age of four. Whether I’m supposed to be referred to as a “Trekkie” or a “Trekker” I leave up to you, because I gave up trying to figure that one out years ago. But I digress. I’ve been a TNG fan since the original airing of the pilot episode in the autumn of 1987, yet even I can admit that the show took a while to find its footing. By Season 3, the writing was much improved, and the actors had established their roles as fully-developed individuals which required no overacting whatsoever, excepting in the case of deliberately comedic adventures. There was nothing funny about their original encounter with the cybernetic hive mind known as the Borg, which occurred in Season 2’s “Q Who?” It was then that viewers knew who the chief adversary of the Enterprise crew was meant to be. The moment finally arrived in the final episode of Season 3, ominously titled “The Best of Both Worlds.”

For two years, Starfleet, the Romulan Empire and others have been discovering whole colonies within their territories destroyed, each believing it to be the work of their sworn enemies. None among them could have suspected or anticipated that an unstoppable force from the other side of the galaxy was truly responsible. A chance encounter with the Borg sent Starfleet into a frenzy, scrambling to prepare for the inevitable assault on Earth. They knew where the Borg were likely to strike, but not how. With the Enterprise hiding from the Borg inside a nebula, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) turns to advice from Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), a being of extraordinary age and wisdom who serves as bartender on the Enterprise. She’s also the only person on the ship who has escaped the Borg’s wrath and lived to tell about it, a more fortunate fate than that of the majority of her race. She warns that Humanity is in for a similar fate, and that the only possible victory may simply be to survive. Shortly after being forced to leave the nebula by the Borg, the Enterprise is boarded and the captain kidnapped from the bridge. An away team discovers the reason for his capture: The Borg have made Picard one of them!

Up until this point, “Star Trek” had only flirted with the concept of a two-part episode once before, with the original series’ glorified clip show, “The Menagerie.” That aside, this franchise had been all about stories which resolved themselves in 60 minutes (or less, minus the commercial breaks). “The Best of Both Worlds” marked the first time either existing “Star Trek” TV series had tried its hand at a cliffhanger. This meant that viewers were to sit on their thumbs for the entire summer, contemplating just how in the hell their beloved crew was going to will their way out of the mess they were in. It was truly agonizing for me. At only eight years of age, this was my first encounter with a cliffhanger, and no other has surpassed it in terms of sheer drama. Before the age of the Internet, and without access to any publications which might leak any hints, I would remain clueless until the show returned for its fourth year.

Routinely, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” shows up at the top of fan polls for favorite episodes in the show’s run and with good reason. Among other things, it’s the most theatrical of all “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes, the first sign that this cast was worthy of a shot at the big screen. The second TNG feature film, “Star Trek: First Contact” serves as a sort of sequel to the events of this and the following episode, albeit with some revisionist history. For me, the one outstanding moment of the show’s seven-year run is that final image of the assimilated Picard threatening his former crew, and Commander Riker responding by giving the order to fire on the Borg vessel. I told actor Jonathan Frakes this much when I met him in person in May at the Fanboy Expo in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennesee. There were other, much more thoughtful and more cleverly-written episodes in the series’ run, but it is “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” which sets the bar, and continues to be one of my five favorite TV episodes of all-time.

Platoon (1986)

Director: Oliver Stone

Starring: Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen

One thing I will never be accused of is blind patriotism. I didn’t grow up believing that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. How can I be sure of it when I’ve never been further from my home than a ten-hour bus drive up to Pennsylvania? Even if I had ever taken a trip outside the United States, what makes the human beings that occupy my part of the world any better than those who live on the other side of this little blue planet? For a long time, it was believed we were better because we had chosen democracy, and that any nation which had adopted communism was evil and had to be corrected. In the 1960’s and the early part of the 1970’s, Vietnam was the focal point of a long, brutal, and ultimately futile attempt to “make the world safe from communism.”

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a young American deployed to Vietnam in 1967 who, unlike most of the others in his platoon who were drafted, actually volunteered for combat. He comes in with a sense of patriotism, as well as a legacy to live up to. His father and grandfather both served in the Army, and so he sees it as being his turn now. If only he’d known what he was getting himself into, maybe he’d have moved to Canada instead. Unfortunately, there’s no instruction manual for how to handle both external and internal conflicts. It’s one thing to have to sleep in shifts, constantly picking the fire ants and the leeches off of your flesh while you’re waiting for the Viet Cong to come and blow you and your fellow soldiers into tiny bits. It’s another thing entirely when you’re also dealing with a civil war within your own ranks.

Chris’s platoon is divided almost 50/50, with loyalties split between the ruthless Staff Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the more free-spirited Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe). Those who are with Barnes are emotionally stunted, and exceptionally violent. Some of these men are animals in the truest sense of the word. They have no place in a civilized society. Those in Elias’s camp… Chris among them… partake in mind-altering drugs, listen to “hippie” music, and try hard not to think too much about the horrors that await them out in the shit. They’re waiting for their orders to come in so they can hop the first helicopter out of this hellhole.

What defines a hero is as subjective as anything else, but it seems to be a term which is thrown around a lot more casually than others. In my estimation, “hero” is a title that cannot be given away; it must be earned. There is a noticeable shortage of heroism in “Platoon.” The characters around which the story progresses fight and kill each other with as much unsettling ease as they do to the Vietnamese, whom they also terrorize, rape, and burn down their villages. Part of this is due to the lies they’ve been fed by the U.S. government, and part of it is built out of their own frustrations from being so far away from home in a foreign land where they’re not especially welcome. War seems to always be shrouded in a confusing shade of grey.

Although we see most of the action in “Platoon” through Chris’s weary eyes, the most interesting character is Staff Sgt. Barnes. He’s an immoral son of a bitch, for certain, but he’s a hell of a soldier. It makes one wonder if it’s this war that’s made him that way, or if he’s always been flirting with insanity and being in the military has simply made him a more efficient killer. He’s got an incredible legend: Having been shot seven different times has cause some of his infantrymen to ponder the thought that he may be invincible. The scars on his body, in particular the distinctive one on the right side of his face, are an untold story all to themselves. How did he acquire them, and in which battle? Are they clues to the shaping of his state of mind, or are they just old wounds? Whatever the case may be about Staff Sgt. Barnes, actor Tom Berenger gives a memorable, scary and intimidating performance in bringing him to life.

This movie is also blessed with a supporting cast filled with recognizable faces. In addition to future Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, you have John C. McGinley, Keith David, Tony Todd, Kevin Dillon and a baby-faced Johnny Depp (who, at this point, still hadn’t decided whether to make a career out of acting). Some, like Depp, are not around nearly long enough. Perhaps the most memorable is Kevin Dillon’s Bunny, a sadistic little creep who has Barnes’s violent streak but lacks a certain discipline.

If “Platoon” is a genuinely depressing look at a depressing point in American history (and it is), it’s because it’s based in part on the real-life experiences of its director, Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam Veteran and a recipient of the Bronze Star, the Purple heart, and the Army Commendation Medal. I don’t care to speculate what exactly he saw during his time there, nor do I care to. I prefer to sleep at night. What is clear is that Chris Taylor, more or less, IS Oliver Stone.

You won’t catch me watching too many war movies from back in the day (i.e. pre-1970), and for two reasons. Firstly, too few of them are willing to present the blood-stained ugliness of war in its true form, including what remains of those who are fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to survive. Secondly, most of those gung ho movies are centered around World War II, a necessary war which the U.S. helped to resolve, ridding the world of an evil unlike anything ever seen before. Vietnam shows a truly ugly side to war, in which we really had no right or reason to invade there, and didn’t even get the job done.

When the various military holidays such as Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day roll around, rather than think of how we have “the greatest military in the world,” I think instead of the unfortunate souls who never got to come home to their families, especially the ones who would never have put themselves in danger in the first place if they’d had any choice in the matter. I also think of how I almost never came into being because of the Draft, and of how precious that makes my own life. Such are the musings which enter into my mind when watching a masterpiece like “Platoon.”