“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982”

“You’ve managed to kill just about everyone else, but like a poor marksman, you keep missing the target!”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982 (William Shatner), Paramount Pictures

Considered the best of Star Trek movies, director Nicholas Meyer wisely applied the lessons learned from the first film to launch the popular television franchise and utlized television production techniques to craft this clever sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. To say that Star Trek II is faithful to the NBC television series is obvious even down to the story, which sequelizes not only the film series, but also the first season episode, “Space Seed.” Star Trek II brings back Khan Noonian Singh (electrifying Ricardo Montalban), a product of 20th century genetic engineering, who we last saw being shipped into exile with his crew by Kirk at the end of the episode. Unfortunately, a short time later, the disruption of a nearby planet causes Khan’s new paradise to become a desert filled with horrid, mutated creatures.

Khan captures the U.S.S. Reliant (a science vessel on alert for appropriate planetary bodies upon which to experiment) by means of hideous slug-like creatures inserted into key personnel Chekov and Terrell’s ears to control their minds. Khan and his crew travel to space station Regula 1, where Doctors Carol (Bibi Besch) and her son, David Marcus (Merritt Buttrick) are developing the “Genesis” device, which can turn any lifeless astronomical body into a fertile garden. Khan wants “Genesis” (for reasons that are never adequately explained – perhaps he feels he has it coming to him), but he has to get through Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) to take it. Kirk, obstensibly on board the U.S.S. Enterprise to supervise a training assignment under Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), assumes command of the ship to rescue his former lover, Carol, and their son.

This presents difficulties for Kirk, who is “celebrating” his birthday. For the first time in his life and career, he is confronted with his own mortality, which turns out to be a much greater foe than Khan, or an irate Gorn, or a community of sadistic telepaths. With Spock and McCoy serving as advisers (and even more fascinating, Jungian extensions of his subconscious in the form of wisdom and logic), Kirk must fight an enemy who swore vengeance upon him fifteen years before, as well as form a temporary truce with his new family in the form of Carol and David. For his part, David is an angry genius who would like to flatten his father for what he perceives as abandonment. The “Genesis” device represents an analogy for our own atomic bomb; utilizing science that could’ve saved us, the bomb has the power to kill us all. Nicholas Meyer’s next project would be The Day After for ABC.

The beginning of a successful trilogy that ended with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a rare case of a cinema adaptation that succeeds and then eventually improves upon it’s source material (in this case, the television series) by embracing the finest aspects of the original material. All of the narrative beats are there: the fundamental conflict between Spock and McCoy (DeForest Kelley), which would be turned on it’s ear for the sequel, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a great villain in Khan, a hysterically angry and passionate Kirk, excellent visual effects and battle scenes, and a complex moral/philosophical argument embodied in “Genesis.” This is what a Star Trek film should be.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is being re-released to theaters for two nights only, September 10th and 13th, as part of a 35th anniversary event. I recall seeing the film upon it’s first release in June of 1982.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“Rear Window, 1954”

“Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.”

Rear Window, 1954 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

Freshman year of high school, we had a cocky, smarmy English teacher who enjoyed watching us fumble through Shakespeare, and apparently lived to correct our pronunciations of various phrases and outdated language. In the middle of the semester, he directed our school play, It Had To Be Murder!, based on the Cornell Woolrich story, which would also be adapted as Rear Window. I read for the part of “Jeff”, but was given the part of Doyle, “Jeff”s” cop buddy, who ignores him and lectures him on the U.S. Constitution. Our teacher had an interesting take on how to tell the story. He wanted us to pretend there was an enormous window at the edge of the stage, and when the principal characters are looking at what they think is a murder, we’re actually looking out into the audience. Where “Jeff” is supposed to fall from his window into the courtyard, he simply falls off the stage. The actor playing him, ironically, shattered his coccyx, but luckily he didn’t have to do an encore.

James Stewart is our “Jeff” for this movie. He plays adventurous photographer, Lionel “Jeff” Jeffries who, when he isn’t convalescing (with a broken leg set in a heavy cast) in his tiny one-room apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, or dodging his gorgeous girlfriend’s demands for a more serious relationship, enjoys peeping on his neighbors across the courtyard. He even has nicknames for them: Ms. “Lonely Hearts,” Ms. “Torso,” etc. Traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) seems doomed to care for his sick wife forever until one night, as “Jeff” drifts off into sleep, he hears (or thinks he hears) the sound of breaking glass and a woman’s scream. The next day, Mrs. Thorwald is nowhere to be seen, so he starts putting pieces together. At first, his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) doesn’t believe him, but then she starts putting her own pieces together. His Nurse, Stella (hilarious Thelma Ritter), is all in and begins to speculate about what Lars did to conceal the body.

Lisa’s big pitch is Mrs. Thorwald’s purse. There’s no way she would leave her purse behind if she were going on a trip (this is Thorwald’s alibi to Doyle). My wife always disagrees with her line of reasoning. Maybe she just doesn’t like being pigeon-holed, but it is a woman doing the pigeon-holing, for what it’s worth. Try as he might, “Jeff” can’t convince Doyle to launch an investigation. Doyle tries to tell him about the difficulties of obtaining a search warrant, so “Jeff” puts the two women in his life in danger by sending them out to dig up the garden where they suspect Thorwald has buried his wife’s body parts. Lisa takes it one step further by breaking into Thorwald’s apartment, where she finds his wife’s wedding ring! This is very exciting and suspenseful, especially when Thorwald realizes somebody is watching him from an apartment directly opposite his across the courtyard! You’re seriously on the edge of your seat watching this as it unfolds.

There are beautiful character moments in Rear Window. Lisa (and Thelma’s) bravery in the face of “Jeff’s” obvious impotence in the situation; constricted by a wheelchair and a broken leg. The sarcasm and quick humor of everyday New Yorkers. Lisa and “Jeff’s” near-constant arguments and debates about their relationship and “rear window ethics.” “Jeff” is somewhat turned on by his girlfriend’s courage. What’s even more staggering is that all of this occurs within the confines of a tiny New York apartment. This is a fantastic movie and goes in my top five of Hitchcock movies. Speaking of five Hitchcock movies, August marks Alfred Hitchcock Month on Vintage Cable Box, wherein I will review the five movies (the “missing Hitchcocks” or the “forbidden five”) that were re-released in 1984, and then shown on cable the next year. These were the movies that introduced me to Hitchcock.

Special thanks to Bronwyn Knox for supplying the artwork.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“Nate and Hayes, 1983”

“Can’t trust women – even when they’re dead!”

Nate and Hayes, 1983 (Tommy Lee Jones), Paramount Pictures

Big “Bully” Hayes tells his story to a writer hours before he is to be executed. He had been busted and betrayed by repugnant Brit Ben Pease (whose balls he had “shot off” at some point in the back-story) after trying to sell guns to backward natives on a remote island. He talks about the time he had been paid to ferry Reverend Nate (Michael O’ Keefe, wearing a ridiculous hat) and his intended, the gorgeous Sophie (luscious Michelle Pfeiffer lookalike Jenny Seagrove) to an island in the South Pacific his Aunt and Uncle govern.

Sophie hints she’s warm for “Bully’s” form (he’s kind of like the bad boy all chicks dig), but before she can do anything about it, the wedding is interrupted by the sleazy Pease and his cohorts, who murder Nate’s family, leave him for dead, and abduct Sophie so he can sell her off to a Samoan king. “Bully” comes back (presumably to liberate Sophie from her impending domesticity) but he discovers the island has been ransacked and the peaceful villagers have been taken away to be slaves. Meanwhile Nate, assuming “Bully” to be the principal architect behind the massacre, sets off to exact revenge.

After several days without food and water, he very nearly dies, but he is then rescued by Hayes. They join forces to rescue the (improbably) brave Sophie, who has to fend off Pease, his men, and and an inept German Count (Grant Tilly). The reason I say Sophie is improbably brave is because her character is obviously written to be, while no-nonsense and a realist, of aristocratic background and something of a porcelain doll, but because of our burgeoning feminist sensibillites (for the time) and a script co-written by John Hughes, she comes over as a tough chick. I don’t have a problem with it because it feels natural. If anything his script is stronger for it’s anachronisms.

Lovely Jenny Seagrove

The movie was, inexplicably, renamed Savage Islands (perhaps to cater to fans of exploitation movies), produced as a “tax shelter” movie with New Zealand money, and then sold to Paramount as a negative pick-up, which may explain the spotty distribution of the film to other formats. This is one of a handful of movies to trigger the MPAA’s PG-13 rating due to scenes of graphic violence too intense for children. Obstensibly an attempt to cash in on the action and pulp adventure boom of the early ’80s, the film failed at the box office.

A daring rescue!

Nate and Hayes was my “white whale” for a time in pursuit of those hard-to-find movies that received endless play on cable television.  This was a movie I spent years trying to track down, and even existing in chunks at places like YouTube, those chunks were soon deleted.  I finally gave up and found a VHS tape of it thanks to Captain Ziggy.  I thought I was getting a well-worn tape, but imagine my surprise when I find the Captain had sent me a sealed Paramount Home Video tape made in 1990 (possibly the last time the film was released on VHS for home exhibition)!  There are two other “white whales”; one film I managed to find, the other is still elusive.

Special thanks to Captain Ziggy!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“King Kong, 1976”

“He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic.  A year from now that’ll be an island full of burned-out drunks.  When we took Kong, we kidnapped their god.”

King Kong, 1976 (Jeff Bridges), Paramount Pictures

Once upon a time, movies were made for fun. There was the promise of riches, of course, but technicians took an interest in telling stories, entertaining the masses, and weighing the benefits of big box office grosses and shelf life. There was no room for philosophy or a filmmaker’s personal responsibility. When Jaws brought the fervor and potential of explosive summer movie box office openings to a fever pitch, producers scrambled like mad to make big movies for wide release. The system is still in place today, but with nowhere near as much zeal or child-like enthusiasm as it once had. It’s become a more cynical market for big budget genre movies.

With Kong: Skull Island now making the rounds in theaters, there have been at least 18 incarnations of the “creature who touches Heaven,” and there will be more for sure. We saw the movie last week, and while I was grateful the writers and producers made an all-out monster movie this time around, I was dismayed at the lack of creative enterprise. This was by-the-numbers computerized filmmaking, and so much thought was put into Kong’s appearance that very little effort was left to write a compelling story or develop interesting characterizations, but I don’t want to write about Kong: Skull Island. I call this column Vintage Cable Box for a reason.

Dreamy scientist Jeff Bridges stows away aboard greedy industrialist Charles Grodin’s merchant tanker as it sets a course for an uncharted island obscured by a mysterious fog bank somewhere in the North Pacific. Along the way, they receive a distress call from a sunken yacht and pick up aspiring actress Dwan (delicious Jessica Lange), and it isn’t long before the two most attractive people in the entire cast become attracted to one another. They pierce the white veil of fog surrounding the island and make for shore on an expedition for oil (an interesting narrative choice considering the gas shortage of the time).

The explorers run afoul of unpleasant natives who demand blondie Dwan in exchange for six of their own women so she can be used for a strange marriage ritual. They refuse and set off a light-show with guns to scare off the natives. Later that night, they abduct Dwan, drape her in gowns and offer her up to our titular primate. At times, their courtship is quite endearing. Kong is initially furious with her because of her stubborn streak, but he grows to like (and then, admittedly inexplicably) love her. For Dwan’s part, she spends most of her time with Kong in fear, either of his temper, or the other various creatures and dangerous situations on the island. She ultimately develops an affection for the enormous ape. Rick Baker (in the ape suit) and Carlo Rambaldi (responsible for the expressive mechanical makeup effects) create an incredible character in Kong that we feel for, and ultimately pity.

After tests indicate the petroleum isn’t ready for drilling, Grodin doubles down and captures Kong to save his job by making the big guy part of an advertising campaign akin to the Esso “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” promotion.  He takes Kong to New York, and of course, the ape goes … well … ape.  Kong takes Dwan to the top of the World Trade Center and is killed by helicopters.  The movie does a great job of negotiating the terror of the beast with the ethical quandry of removing him from his habitat without the proselytizing quasi-bestial leanings of Peter Jackson’s overblown (and unnecessarily epic) 2005 remake, or Merian C. Cooper’s rambling, unintentionally funny ode to the “white male reality.”  This movie is the “Goldilocks” of all the King Kong movies, for me.  It’s just right.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Little Darlings, 1980

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“Do you realize that I am almost the only virgin in camp? Every girl knows this secret life except me. Look at it this way. It’d be a learning experience.”

littledarlings

Little Darlings, 1980 (Kristy McNichol), Paramount Pictures

On a strange hot summer night, I pop in the old Paramount tape of Little Darlings. I remember the juxtaposition of Kristy McNichol kicking a guy right in the nuts before hopping into a convertible on her way to the summer camp bus, and Tatum O’ Neal going to the same bus in a Rolls Royce. Angel is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s a jean-jacket-wearing little hottie with a chip on her shoulder. Ferris (Ferris?) is a spoiled little rich girl predisposed to shit-eating grins and compulsive lying, but more on that later.

The two girls hate each other, so you know they’re going to wind up best friends by the end of the movie. They even fight on the bus ride. It’s unusual watching girls display this kind of behavior. They push each other, they mix it up, compare the size of their burgeoning boobies, and talk openly about sex and birth control. Both girls find themselves harrassed (for different reasons) at the camp. Ferris and Angel are very quickly revealed (in ways I can’t quite explain) to be virgins, and one particular brat offers up $100 to the first girl who can lose her virginity before camp ends.

The girls engage in the usual summer camp antics; softball, boating (with dreamy counselor/stud Armand Assante – I keep using that word a lot lately), and hiking. Tatum hits it off with Assante (who seems to be flirting with her) as they discuss France and astrological signs. It’s times like this that I wonder if I have what it takes to be a camp counselor at a girls camp. Yes! Yes, I do! The girls choose their intended targets. Tatum, of course, choose dreamy Armand, and Kristy has her eyes on young Matt Dillon. Dillon is very much her speed and the kind of guy she would date anyway. While he seems tough with street-born good looks, he is revealed to be sensitive and vulnerable, and the way she sizes him up is fantastic.

This is an unusual film for 1980, coming out (pun!) at the peak of summer camp movies; at least comedies that didn’t involve super-human killers who wear hockey masks.  It’s an interesting reversal of gender motivations, where we have the girls acting as predators in the tribal ritual of lust, and the men are depicted as the prey; essentially clueless as to the intentions of Angel and Ferris.  The filmmakers are careful to not exploit the girls, and the clever scripting (by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young) plays to the strengths of McNichol and O’ Neal (I can understand why girls flocked to this movie when it was released), both utterly adorable in this film.  A very young Cynthia Nixon is hilarious as some kind of a crazy hippie flower girl.  McNichol, in particular, is a brilliant actress.

“Can two teenage girls go to summer camp together without driving each other crazy?”

In an interesting twist, Tatum, her face glowing, lies that she had sex with Assante (who politely brushes her off in a sweet scene), and Kristy lies that she did not have sex with Dillon.  In reality, Kristy understands all of the consequences of a sexual relationship, while Tatum romanticizes it to the point of losing all touch with her specific actuality.  I think what I learned from the movie is not that girls are objects to be lusted after (they most definitely are, in my view), but that girls are capable of the same kind of behaviors we normally attribute to the male of the species.  The men in this movie are photographed as objects of beauty and game to be conquered, and I find that to be refreshing.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.