Saturday, September 22, 2012

Masters of Horror - "John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns"

Season 1, Episode 8
Original Airdate: December 16, 2005
Writers: Drew McWeeny, Scott Swan
Director: John Carpenter
Executive Producers: Mick Garris, Keith Addis, Morris Berger, Steve Brown, Andrew Deane, John W. Hyde
Cast: Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Zara Taylor

“Film in the right hands is a weapon.”
A character intones this in “Cigarette Burns,” and after watching the violence caused by “The Innocence of Muslims” and the domino effect that continues, my mind kept drifting back to this episode of “Masters of Horror,” in which an evil film becomes a cause for pain, torture and riots. Here is an episode of television with gigantic, far-reaching ambitions that just exceed the grasp of the filmmakers creating it – but watching them try to pull it off is some kind of wonderful.

When I say the movie in “Cigarette Burns” is evil, I don’t mean it in the same manner I do the inept and disgusting “The Innocence of Muslims.” The film in question, “La Fin Absolue du Monde” (translated to “The Absolute End of the World”) is actually evil. It depicts, among other atrocities, an angel having its wings savagely torn from its body. We learn that there was only one screening, at a festival in the ‘60s, where the audience rioted and attacked one another until the aisles were slicked with blood. After that, it seemingly disappeared into the ether.

Kirby (Norman Reedus), a film historian who has a reputation for being able to find any lost film, is hired by a rich man named Bellinger (Udo Kier doing a great Peter Lorre impersonation) to track it down. Bellinger is obsessed with “La Fin Absolue du Monde” and has several props from the film: The pair of wings torn from the Angel framed on his wall…and the Angel trapped in chains in his basement. Kirby is a recovering junkie who recently lost his love Annie (Zara Taylor) and takes the job because he owes a lot of money to Annie’s father (Gary Hetherington). He’s already emotionally fragile from his loss – and from the moment he begins his pursuit we can tell he is going to fall into the same cycle of obsession Bellinger cannot escape from.

Kirby seeks out to find information about “La Fin Absolue du Monde” from several people, and we make the quick realization that any person even slightly associated with the missing film has been mentally (or, in some cases, physically) destroyed. Hell, the director, Hans Bakovic, has also seemed to disappear completely. Most memorable among those Kirby can track down is an audience member (Chris Britton) from the first screening who has spent decades attempting to pen a worthy review of the film, writing tens of thousands of pages in the process. Surrounded by the pages, he speaks in a horrifyingly calm tone to Kirby:

“We trust filmmakers. We sit in the dark, daring them to affect us, secure in the knowledge that they won’t go too far…Hans Bakovic is a terrorist. He abused that trust we place in filmmakers. He didn’t want to hurt his audience – he wanted to destroy them completely.”

More than that, the film is physically manifesting itself for Kirby the closer he gets to it. He begins seeing “cigarette burns,” those circles you see at the top of a film frame when you’re at the movies that signals it’s time to switch reels, and though he keeps telling others that he doesn’t want to see the movie, we know he won’t be able to escape it.

The co-writers, Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, have set up an incredible concept (the horror version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in many ways) and beautifully build suspense throughout the episode. There are many scenes where characters say some version of “This movie is fucking evil,” but McWeeny and Swan manage to find interesting variations and ways to continue the escalation. John Carpenter, who also directed the film masterpieces “Halloween” and “The Fog,” is expert in maintaining tension and his touch is apparent throughout, despite an over-reliance on gore that became both a hallmark and problem for most of the “Masters of Horror” episodes. Particularly out of place is a scene where Kirby is tied to a chair and must witness a psychopath (driven mad by the film, of course) behead a woman by repeatedly chopping into her neck with a machete. The scene feels exploitative and done because the audience expects it more than because it serves the story. It also doesn’t work on a technical level – the psychopath makes a point of talking about how powerful a murder would be if shot in a single take, but what power the moment might have is undercut by the editor’s constant snipping.

Kirby finally gets his hands on “La Fin Absolue du Monde” and here is where “Cigarette Burns” stumbles, but that’s not to say there aren’t thrilling moments in the climax. It’s just that, unfortunately, the writers did such a fantastic job of building to the moment that nothing could possibly live up to the viewer’s expectations. Carpenter unwisely made the decision to actually show sections of the “La Fin Absolue du Monde” instead of just letting our imaginations do the work, and that stops the episode dead in its tracks. One scene looks like something from “The Blob,” and the others are nothing we couldn’t see in any “Saw” or torture-porn flick. In many ways it is reminiscent of the third-act problems with Carpenter’s near-masterpiece “In the Mouth of Madness,” where he literally found himself written into a corner (those who have seen the film will get the pun).

But there is great stuff in those final moments. Bellinger’s butler has such a visceral reaction to seeing the film that he stabs both his eyes out. Bellinger falls deeper into madness and actually tears out his small intestine and begins running it through the projector, which is one of the most disturbing/amazing death scenes ever placed on film. And the final beat, with the Angel taking back the film and escaping from the destruction, is rightly moving.

By naming his show “Masters of Horror,” Mick Garris set an impossible standard for his anthology series. He did recruit some of the best names in horror: Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Landis and Dario Argento, among others, to direct the episodes but, as with most anthologies, the episodes vary widely in quality, with many way too gory for their own good (even the Masters often forget that more blood doesn’t automatically equal more horror). One episode in particular, “Imprint,” (directed by Takashi Miike) involved so much blood, gore and aborted fetuses that even Showtime found it too disgusting to air. But several, like “Cigarette Burns,” Dante’s “Homecoming” (a brilliant dark comedy where all the soldiers who died in Iraq raise from their graves…to vote against George W. Bush) and Landis’ “Family” (in which a deranged family man wants to murder his neighbors and adopt them into his home) are genuinely awesome. After two seasons on Showtime the show moved to NBC with a new title, “Fear, Itself” and leveled out in quality right before its cancellation.

I love “Cigarette Burns” for what it aspires to be, and it is one of the few modern horror works that actually got under my nerves and affected me on a visceral level. At its very best (or very worst), film and television can affect a viewer deeply in a manner no other artistic outlet can, which can be both lovely and horrifying, depending on your perspective.

“Cigarette Burns” is available as an individual episode onDVD or as part of the “Masters of Horror” season one boxed set. It’s also available on iTunes and on Hulu.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Friends – “The One With the Embryos”

Season 4, Episode 12
Original Airdate: January 15. 1998
Writers: Jill Condon & Amy Toomin
Director: Kevin S. Bright
Executive Producers: Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman, David Crane
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow

Over the decades, the “Game Show” episode has become a touchtone for most long-running comedies. It provides viewers with a chance to see their favorite characters behave surprisingly under immense pressure without there being any real stakes, and often the results are memorable fan favorites. There’s “The Odd Couple” episode entitled “Password,” “The Game Show” on “Maude,” “The Brain Game” on “Popular,” and “Grab That Dough” on “The Golden Girls,” to name a few. But the best version of this chestnut is by far “The One With the Embryos” from “Friends’” fourth season.

After Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) guess every item in Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) shopping bag, Rachel and Monica (Courtney Cox) challenge them to a game of “Who Knows Who Better?” This example of the “Game Show” formula transcends the others for several reasons. First, it keeps the game intimate by having it be, essentially, a variation on “Jeopardy” done by the characters in their home instead of injecting the gloss of an actual game show set. Second, the episode concerns trivia about the characters instead of random facts the viewer has no attachment to. Finally, the storyline blossoms into having legitimate, real stakes (Monica and Rachel must swap apartments with the guys) instead of vague cash prizes that you know they won’t win.

More than that, this episode came at the right moment in the series. The viewers knew the gang enough that the writers, Jill Condon and Amy Toomin, could throw in some sly in-jokes (hey, what is Chandler Bing’s job?) while creating bits of trivia that serve as more than punchlines – they feel like natural extensions of our characters that we just didn’t know about yet.

As with other “Game Show” episodes, watching the characters suffer through immense pressure under the guise of a game is fantastic for the viewer and allowed the actors to do some fascinating things with their characters. Look at the way the group repeatedly becomes exasperated with Ross’ (David Schwimmer) impression of a Game Show host, or Aniston’s awesome reading of the simple line “Ooh, that’s interesting.” However, nothing beats Monica’s completely (purposely) over-the-top shriek of “Nooooo…!” when she loses the game.

Also interesting is how the studio audience feeds off of the energy of the game as if it is a real Game Show. There is applause at the end of every round, and the laughter becomes more gleeful as the game evolves. It’s one of those rare episodes where the audience’s laughter almost morphs into a character – the same way the audience did during “I Love Lucy’s” infamous egg tango.

If all that wasn’t enough, what makes the episode transcendent is the B-story, involving the embryos of the title. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) has agreed to be a surrogate for her brother and sister-in-law (Giovanni Ribisi and Debra Jo Rupp), and here we follow the implantation of the eggs and the eventual reveal that Phoebe is, indeed, pregnant. What gives the arc some dramatic weight is that this is the only chance they’ll have at trying surrogacy, because all their savings is tied into those eggs (“They are literally putting all their eggs into my basket,” Phoebe opines). Phoebe was always a close cousin of Katherine Hepburn’s character in “Bringing Up Baby,” and here Kudrow gives us some of the best work of her career. There’s a beautiful scene where she’s speaking to the embryos that are about to be implanted. Her speech is some of the best writing in the history of the show, perfectly balancing the sentimental with the laughs:

“Hello tiny embryos. I’m Phoebe Buffay. Hi. I’m hoping to be your uterus for the next nine months. You should know that we’re doing this for Frank and Alice – who you know. You’ve been there. You know, they want you so much, so when you get in there really grab on. Okay? And I promise that I’ll keep you safe and warm until you’re ready to have them take you home. Oh! Also, next time you see me, if I’m screaming, don’t worry, that’s what is supposed to happen.”

There isn’t a joke in the monologue that feels forced, and nothing feels like a punchline. Kudrow’s delivery gives the awesome writing another level of humor and heart. At this point most viewers have seen the series and know there will be that heartbreaking scene in the one-hundredth episode where Phoebe is holding the triplets after giving birth and must give them away, which gives this entire episode a beautiful, bittersweet quality.

The episode also features one of the very best lines in the history of the series. After Phoebe takes a pregnancy test and it’s positive, her brother proudly screams at the top of his lungs: “My sister's gonna have my baby!”

There isn’t a wasted moment in “The One With the Embryos,” and the writers ensure that the aftermath of the game is just as enjoyable as the build-up. At once heartfelt and genuinely funny, this episode underlined what set “Friends” apart from the hundreds of sitcoms that have tried to rip off its formula and characters in the years since its broadcast. Instead of being happy with just taking classic sitcom scenarios and doing a good version of them, the “Friends” writers twisted and toyed with the clich├ęs until they were new and innovative again. It’s also a show that never shied away from taking storytelling risks that could have alienated the core fanbase (pairing Monica and Chandler, turning Ross and Rachel into a triangle with Joey), but because the writers stayed true to their characters (quirks, issues, faults and everything in between) they not only made it work, but made it work wonderfully.

“The One With the Embryos” is available on iTunes, on DVD, on Amazon Instant Video and is probably showing on some channel on your television right now.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Star Trek – “The City on the Edge of Forever”

Season 1, Episode 28
Original Airdate: April 6, 1967
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon, Gene Roddenberry
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley

Odd that the best episode of “Star Trek” also seems to argue against everything that the series holds dear. While the show always presents war as something the Federation and Enterprise will do anything to avert, here it appears to tell us it is necessary, and while the crew and Captain always seem to find a way to save lives no matter what the risk, here they seek to allow an innocent woman to die.

Of course upon further examination there’s so much more to it than that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The episode begins with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally overdosing on a drug that gives him manic paranoia. He escapes the Enterprise before he can be secured and manages to slip into the time stream thanks to a talking rock, and soon changes the course of history to the point where the Enterprise and Federation no longer exist. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) follow him to 1930 San Francisco to stop him from doing whatever it was that created this mess, and in the process Kirk falls for dreamy soup-kitchen owner Edith Keeler (Joan Collins). Soon Kirk and Spock realize that Edith is meant to die and McCoy saves her, which accidentally allows Hitler to win World War II and change everything. Phew.

In case you couldn’t tell from the above paragraph, the storytelling here is very complex, but never to the point where you lose yourself in the intricacies.  Often, the first “Star Trek” series doesn’t get enough credit for its story structure and great complex storylines, but rewatch an episode like this or “The Trouble WithTribbles” and you’ll be surprised by how many balls the writers juggle with ease. While the plot here has many facets, it never feels forced or rushed. It was written by Harlan Ellison, then famously revised and rewritten by several producers and ghost-writers, and instead of feeling watered-down or convoluted because of the multiple voices, it soars on both a mechanical and emotional level. It would have been so much easier to write the episode about Kirk and Spock preventing McCoy from killing someone in his madness, but this is much more intriguing.

Joan Collins - Soft focus, angel lighting
There’s even time to create a sweet love story between Kirk and Edith. If we didn’t feel a connection between these characters then the episode would only feel like an exercise instead of a tragedy, which it really is. Director Joseph Pevney did his part by shooting Collins in close-up early and often – and almost always in soft focus and lit with the “halo” effect over her head to make her seem angelic. Honestly, it gets to be a bit much by the end of the episode, but thankfully the writing rises to the occasion. Though Edith gives Kirk and Spock kindness early, Ellison paints her as a character with many opinions and inner strength. She also owns a soup kitchen, which would normally be taking it a step too far into sainthood, but this actually serves a logical function within the episode. Of course Kirk and Spock would end up there, and of course the insane McCoy would be brought there as well. She’s a genuinely fascinating character in her own right, and Collins wisely underplays it (surprising considering her most memorable onscreen persona is just the opposite), and we can see why her beauty and personality attracts Kirk. I also have to applaud Shatner’s performance in the episode. He is known for hamming it up in this series and others, but here he beautifully carries the emotional weight of a man who has a date with destiny he doesn’t want to keep. Look at the pain on his face when he admits to Spock (and himself) that he’s in love with Edith, and watch the amazing moment when he hears Edith die and cradles his head into McCoy’s shoulder, unable to deal with what he did.

I said earlier that the episode seems to be pro-war, but upon further examination I don’t think so. McCoy breaks the Prime Directive by going back in time and changing history, and the episode is about setting that right, not insisting that lobbying for peace is silly and delaying the inevitable. Spock blatantly states: “She was right, but at the wrong time.” History happened the way it happened, and that is that. Any change, for the better or worse, is unfair to all it would effect in the future. Ellison was anti-war but other producers were against peace demonstrations and said the episode obviously lobbied for that, but I don’t think so. As a writer, I hate to admit it, but perhaps having multiple voices giving input into the story resulted in a far more complex question that the viewer continues to think about long after the episode ends.

I’m painting the episode as fully dark and depressing, but it really isn’t. In fact, there’s plenty of levity here. Kirk’s brief romance with Edith is charming, and there is a lot of early fun centered on Spock’s Vulcan ears and how Depression-era Earthlings react to it (“They were caught in an electric rice picker” is how Kirk explains it). By allowing us to laugh, it makes the emotion of the finale all the more impactful.

Time travel stories have always had a very special place in the “Star Trek” canon. Three of the best features (“Star Trek IV: The VoyageHome,” “Star Trek: First Contact” and the reboot/sequel “Star Trek”) deal heavily with time travel, and whenever it’s used in the many spin-offs (the two-part “Time’s Arrow” in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Trials and Tribble-ations” in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” are notable examples) the shows fire on all cylinders. And here there’s something so…fun…about seeing our characters wandering through the streets of a backlot trying to make sense of being out of time.

The original “Star Trek” series shot for the stars (pardon the horrible pun) and really tried to be about “something” instead of just presenting phaser battles and weird-looking aliens like the “Flash Gordon” serials and sci-fi monster movies of decades before. Like “The Twilight Zone,” its fantasies shrouded stories of real meaning in a digestible form. You never felt like you were being preached to, but you understood that the stories were on a different level. And the reason the franchise has lasted so long and through so many incarnations is that it tried to remember that. Sometimes the show failed, and sometimes it did get preachy, but sometimes, particularly episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” it found that perfect balance.

Also, who would have ever thought that an episode about a talking, light up rock would be a masterpiece?

Addendum: I haven’t seen the episode since Paramount inserted new special effects into the series, but the results seem pretty damn flawless. I’m curious to see what the rest of the series looks like revamped.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is available on the first season DVD of “Star Trek: The Original Series,” on iTunes, on AmazonInstant Video and on