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Blatantly unoriginal plot balanced by interesting developments to the Klingon story arc
SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER!!!
It is impossible to talk about this episode without spoiling it. You have been warned.
SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER!!!
You have been warned twice . . . !
It's impossible to talk about this episode without spoiling it. That's because if you've seen ANY iteration of "The Manchurian Candidate" or read the original novel, then you already know the entire story. Coming so soon after "The Drumhead," which itself blatantly refers back to the era that produced "The Manchurian Candidate" in the first place (Sen. McCarthy => Sen. Iselin in the original "TMC" => Admiral Whatshername in "Drumhead"), you have to wonder if the well had run dry in the ST:TNG writer's room after the glories of the first half of season 4. Whatever the case, I'm amazed that Richard Condon was not listed as a co-author of this episode, or at least got a "based on a story by" credit. The only saving grace is the tweaks to "Candidate" that they made to fit it into the Star Trek universe, as those adjustments set the stage for much Klingon drama to come. The fact that the actors are settled into their characters by this point also helps as the performances are pretty good throughout. Disappointing on its own, but it has an important place in one of the TNG story arcs.
ADDITIONAL COMMENT: I've read elsewhere now that the writers intended this episode to be a homage to "The Manchurian Candidate" and even tried to get at least one of the actors from the original movie to do a cameo. I suppose I could forgive the lack of originality since this makes it clear the writers deliberately sought to use "Candidate" here. However, watching this episode cold as I did 20 years ago, and rewatching it again the other day before I discovered this little tidbit, all that strikes me is that while the adaptations to the Star Trek universe may have been clever, to me they still don't speak well about whatever creative juices were flowing or not at the time. However, your mileage may vary. :-)
Red Ball Express (1952)
Agreeable if average war flick
The setup, in case you don't already know it, is this. The troops of the western Allies were bottle necked in Normandy, France, for the first month or so after the D-Day landings. The armies finally broke through the German defenses and Gen. George Patton's Third Army rapidly advanced across central and northern France. So rapidly that they outpaced their supply lines. The U.S. Army put together a truck convoy system to keep Patton's forces supplied and named it the Red Ball Express. Aside from managing to keep up with Patton's advance, the outfit is also noted for being one of the few integrated units in the U.S. armed forces at the time--I use the term "integrated" somewhat guardedly, since that usually meant white senior officers leading black junior officers and enlisted men, which is not what would first come to my mind as "integrated." Regardless, around 75% of the servicemen in the Red Ball Express were African Americans.
You wouldn't know that from this movie, where the ratio seems to have been reversed. However, I'm willing to give the filmmakers some credit for at least trying to address the integration issue at the time when they were working rather than castigate them for not doing what we might expect a present-moment filmmaker to do. That's not the real problem with this movie as a movie. Acting is not the problem with this movie, either, as another reviewer suggested. The acting is workmanlike--neither outstanding nor poor, just efficient. No, the weakness of this movie is that it is simply another cliché-ridden war movie; blame not the messengers, but rather the script. First, there is the clichéd unit. Our two lead characters have a troubled past and, surprise surprise, are forced to work together in the same outfit ("of all the gin joints in all the towns . .."). The unit has a romantic, it has a "runt" of the litter with glasses, it has a stolid misunderstood commander, it has a guy clearly from Brooklyn, and so forth. Just like any other war movie of the day (think of, say, "Air Force" or "Guadalcanal Diary"). What's new here for the time is that the filmmakers exchanged African Americans for some of the other stereotypical roster of "average Americans" you got in any war movie. Notably, there are NO characters who are clearly supposed to be white Southerners--an omission that itself speaks volumes about how sensitive race relations were in the early 1950s in the U.S. and especially in the then-recently desegregated U.S. armed forces.
The clichéd unit is indicative of the rest of the flick. You've seen this movie before. Bunch of misfits forced to work together overcome their differences and become a cohesive fighting unit--well, except here I never really got the sense we were watching an outfit of misfits. Yes, there's the guy with the racial issue vs. Sidney Poitier, and yes, there's the lead characters with the troubled past--one of whom is the main stumbling block that's keeping this outfit from fully coming together (what's that you say? That setup sounds like "Flying Tigers"? no wait, "Sands of Iwo Jima"? no, wait . . .)--but the movie is in too much of hurry to get this outfit on the road to really *show* how this outfit becomes a team. Essentially it just is. What else, you ask? How about the sweet-talking American and the saucy French girl? Rivalry with another outfit, with other outfit finally recognizing our heroes are indeed Heroes? The guys who think there mission is going to be a cakewalk only to discover the Harsh Reality Of War? Etc., etc.
Oh, the movie is solid enough and hits all the standard points--some action, some down time, some roughhousing, a romantic moment or two, some grousing, some "let's pull together" time--and some of the cast members are likable enough that, all told, you won't feel like you wasted your time watching this one. However, aside from the then-timely touch of trying to show an integrated outfit there's nothing here to see you haven't seen before.
Lightning in a Bottle (2004)
"Look at me!" instead of "Listen to me!"
I just got back from watching this movie and have to say I was quite disappointed. You have a stellar lineup of musicians who are going to show us a thing or (fifty) two about playing the blues, so what does Fuqua do? Alternate for most of the running time between sending his cameras all over the place and going in for tight closeups to watch people emote. It's even worse with the handling of the guitarists (disclaimer: I am one): show us what they're doing with their hands, not their faces. Better yet, show both. B.B. King is almost completely mishandled in this respect after he plays his intro.
This was always the worst thing about concert movies from the 1960s especially--the cameramen are always pointing in the wrong place. This, for example, is why the coverage of Jimi Hendrix in "Woodstock" is so terrible and why Austin City Limits, say, is consistently so great. It is about the MUSIC, folks--the performance is about everyone on stage and what they're doing with their whole body. Let them do their thing and don't try to juice it up by moving that camera all over the place. Scorsese knew this when he made "The Last Waltz" all those years ago--you would have thought he could have passed on a hint or two to Fuqua about how to make a concert film.
A case in point: my spoiler. Now, my spoiler is actually about singers, not the guitarists, though I won't spoil things totally by naming a name. Suffice it to say that a very famous comedian comes on stage to be the foil for Ruth Brown, Odetta (I think), and Natalie Cole (I think) when they sing, "Men Are Like Streetcars." See, they're supposed to sing these lines about how men are like dogs, and the comedian is on stage to react to everything for the enjoyment of one and all. Now, John Cleese in talking about the Monty Python movies once spoke about how to set up comedy shots. He pointed out that you pretty much always want a two-shot. That is, you want to see the person telling the joke and you want to see the person reacting in the same shot. This maintains the rhythm of the joke, as the two performers cue each other for greater effect. Send the shots back and forth and it's easy to lose the rhythm of the joke, the timing of the punchline.
Well, what do they do for "Lightning"? THEY ZOOM IN FOR CLOSEUPS AGAIN ON THE WOMEN AND DON'T SHOW THE COMEDIAN!!! We don't get to see the comedian reacting to the horrible things said about men AS THEY ARE BEING SAID. That's what's going to make them even funnier, and that's what's going to make him seem really funny, too! We lose the joke, we lose the reason for this guy being on stage, we lose the rhythm, we lose the timing. Oh, sure, we get the occasional cut back and forth, but the effect is simply not the same and the viewer is left wondering, "Why did he even come on the stage in the first place? He is a very funny man (oops, spoiler!) and that was about the most unfunny appearance of his I've ever seen--no, not 'unfunny,' but 'didn't even get a chance to be funny.'" What a waste. He's just comic relief, but the choices of camera angle and movement in his segment symbolize the cinematographic problems with the whole.
To top it all off, my sense is that a fair number of guitar solos were simply cut out. Either that, or a lot of folks were told not to do one. Goodness, the song John Fogerty played cries out for a long solo at the end, one he does in the original recorded performance and did again in his concert film (more satisfying than this film, but they should have shown more of his band--he ain't makin' all that noise up there by himself!). Where is it? Granted, the filmmakers doubtless wanted to get this one in under two hours, but a helluva a lot of the blues is about long jam sessions while everyone boogies down--and I'm not talking about 60s/70s rock version of the blues, either.
So, what you get with this movie is a lot of performances that are reasonably strong, a couple of weak ones, and a handful that are just great (Solomon Burke, the Neville Brothers, and the just-too-cool-for-words Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown come to mind instantly). All in all, however, the busy camera work spends more time screaming, "Look at me and all the places I can send a camera!" instead of just letting the music stand on its own. The truncations or cutaways that get made right when the music really kicks really dampen the overall effect (man, SHOW me Buddy Guy and Vernon Reid trading licks, not Angelique grooving to it--let us see WHAT she's grooving to without interference, nice though watching her shake her thing may be). I wouldn't buy the DVD even for the extra performances; this one is a renter. There's too many distractions even for the standout performances (look at that footage of Son House or Hooker from the 1950s--one camera, one focus, and far more compelling than most of the "Bottle" footage). It's definitely worth seeing once if you're into the blues, but there's nothing that demands you to go back and review it once the film has finished. And if you're a musician, you'll cry at the lost opportunity.
Jet Attack (1958)
Laughable Korean War entry
Poor acting from the supporting cast throughout the entire picture and footage of Tokyo at night meant to be Seoul (two quick cuts at the beginning) make it quickly apparent how this one was made on the cheap. Taped this off of AMC and thought about keeping it just for Cold War culture kitsch value, but it's so bad that I think I'm not going to even keep it for that.
Black comedy/satire about Japan and cultural imperialism.
This movie is black satire of Japanese imperial ambitions in the 20th century. In Meiji era Japan (1868-1910), the Japanese state sought to establish itself as an empire as a way to both catch up to and remain free from the West. These activities also lay the foundation for the disasters to come mid-century. This movie satirizes those efforts from a mid-1980s perspective, giving it an obvious subtext of being a commentary on the efforts of late 20th century Japanese businessmen abroad as well. The "hero" is a businessman who, realizing that the Japanese armed forces will likely soon be advancing across Asia, decides that they will require brothels wherever they go as well and so sets up shop in Southeast Asia. A very black comedy from one of Japan's finest film satirists (cf. "Pigs and Battleships," "The Pornographers") best known abroad ca. 1999 for "The Eel" and "Black Rain" (the film based on the novel about Hiroshima, not the Michael Douglas flick).