Sunday, December 30, 2012

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

"Son, we are about the break the surly bonds of gravity, and punch the face of God."
- Homer Simpson

Star Trek V is the first Star Trek film that stands on the other side of one of the most significant divides in franchise history, although you'd never know it based on what's on screen.  Star Trek 4 was produced and released in 1986, and Star Trek 5 was produced in the winter of 1988 and spring of 1989, with a release that summer.  Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on September 28, 1987, the first live-action television series set in the Trek universe since the cancellation of the original series, almost 20 years before, and the first featuring a completely new crew.  So this film was created in a world in which Trek had finally, after multiple stops and starts, made its way back to the small screen, with a new crew and a new tone.  And I mention all of this, not to make any connection with Star Trek 5, but to point out just how little this film cares about the fact that its crew is no longer the only kid on the block.

On the "Galactic Planet of Peace", which is called Nimbus III but which I am going to refer to as the GPP, a mysterious Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) hatches a plan to bring a starship to the planet, and to him.  The crew of the Enterprise (which is now the Enterprise-A) is currently on shore leave on Earth, the ship itself not yet in flying condition, but when they receive the distress call from the Federation regarding the ambassadors who live on the GPP (which Sybok has set up specifically to bring the cavalry to him), they saddle up and head out that way anyway.  Sybok, who appears to have the power to turn people into followers of his through magic, hijacks the Enterprise and sets off towards his ultimate destination.  We learn here that Sybok is, in fact, Spock's half brother on his father's side, and also that his destination is the mythical Sha Ka Ree (which is equated to the notion of Eden on Earth) planet near the center of the galaxy, through a "Barrier" which is supposedly impenetrable.  The Enterprise passes through the Barrier and Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Sybok land on the planet and discover that the planet is inhabited by a being claiming to be God, but who turns out to simply be an alien who was imprisoned on the planet.  Sybok, fully disillusioned by this reveal, sacrifices himself to help defeat the alien, and Spock and Kirk talk their way out of the threat of a Klingon ship that has also traveled to the planet for the express purpose of capturing Kirk and which I haven't mentioned yet because who cares.

I can say, without any exaggeration, that Star Trek 5 is one of the most singularly unpleasant film watching experiences I have ever had in my life, and I watched Moonraker not a few months ago.  This is not a case like Star Trek 1, where the kernel of a decent idea periodically peeks through the fog of a movie that is mostly a misfire.  Everything here is bad, from conception through execution, and the only thing capable of saving this film is to destroy every single copy of it and then salt the Earth where the ashes come to rest so nothing can grow of it ever again, with signs posted in a 50 mile radius that warn any potential travelers to stay clear of the spot.  Every single thing that happens in this movie is aggressively terrible, and the only thing that stands between me and perhaps permanent insanity is that I have a venue here in which to catalog as many of these things that I can.

The film opens on the GPP, which from what I can gather was supposed to have been a planet where the Federation, the Klingons and the Romulans could come together and create a functioning society, but which infighting and bureaucracy have left a barren, mostly deserted wasteland.  The idea that the three societies couldn't even come together to make something of this one planet is I guess a reasonable one considering the practical realities of the relations between the three groups, but it's also breathtakingly cynical.  Star Trek is supposed to be a universe of hope and optimism and here, in its purest possible expression, is an indication that that is horseshit.  Even as a non-fan, this bothers me.

Other than Star Trek 4, the Trek movies have thus far been pretty close to obsessed with the theme of aging, and with the notion that our crew is Getting Too Old For This Shit.  The first time we meet any of our crew in this movie, it is a (very long) scene of Captain Kirk free-climbing El Capitan.  This makes me kind of wish I hadn't already blown my quota of using the phrase "breathtakingly cynical."

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are out in Yosemite during their R&R time, and they have a little camp out, complete with a fire and a pot of beans and camp songs.  And I mean, they actually fucking sing "Row Row Row Your Boat", or at least Shatner and Kelley do.  I'm not a camping person but if I was, this scene might turn me off of the entire endeavor forever.  It looks like whatever the anti-matter opposite of "fun" is, three old-ass men eating beans, singing shitty songs, and bickering.

From what I understand, James Doohan was actually the most anti-Shatner member of the cast, and there was perhaps some concern that he would refuse to appear in a film that Shatner directed.  Scotty is given quite a bit to do in this film, because the Enterprise-A is nowhere close to flight-ready, so he's constantly being given scenes where he bitches about having to fix up the heap of shit that he's stuck with.  This is almost certainly the bargain they cut with Doohan to get him to agree to the film, and if it makes the Federation seem like a bunch of amateurs (they just built this brand-new ship and it's a total rust bucket?) well, so be it.

The crew has to bring their shore leave to an abrupt end because the Federation forces the Enterprise to sail off to the GPP and find out what the hell is going on there.  So the ship heads off once again with a skeleton crew (I don't think the Enterprise has flown with a full complement in any of the films so far) and in a state of bad disrepair.  Their reasoning is that they need Kirk's experience to deal with the problem, and the obvious question is why don't they just put Kirk onboard some other ship, one that's battle ready and has a full crew onboard, but the answer to that question is "Hollywood bullshit" so whatever, fuck it.

On the GPP, Sybok has the representatives of the three groups (Federation, Klingon, Romulan) held hostage, so the Enterprise crew pulls off a "siege the base" type maneuver.  The thing here that is most notable is that this film manages to surpass Octopussy's "Bond in a clown suit" scene in terms of something that happens that is so upsetting you wish desperately that you could unsee it.  Our good guys need to divert part of Sybok's forces to their location in order to break some of Sybok's numbers advantage, so they.....oh God.  So they......they have Uhura do, like, a burlesque dance in the moonlight, to which the troops are drawn like moths to a candle.  And she is singing, too (well, a professional singer is singing for her).  Look.  Okay.  Look.  I think Nichelle Nichols is a sexy lady, I do.  But she was 56 when this movie was filmed.  A 56 year old woman, doing a burlesque dance.  This is, to put it bluntly, granny porn, and it is so upsetting, and I feel so bad for Nichols, but I mostly feel bad for me, because I have seen this happen and I can never go back to a time in my life before I saw this thing.

Here is a sentence that I will type so I can start to forget, and can move to the next bullet point.   Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh..........................................................

Okay.  Sybok is played by Laurence Luckinbill; so far in the film series, his role is probably the second biggest for a guest star to date, right after the Montalban.  Who the fuck is Laurence Luckinbill?  Exactly.  Supposedly this role was offered to Sean Connery (who chose the 3rd Indiana Jones flick instead) which is why the planet at the end is called "Sha Ka Ree".  HAHAHAHAHAHA!  Seriously though, Luckinbill sucks.  Sybok is supposed to be some massively famous Vulcan, having left behind the whole "logic" thing to let his emotions control him, but not an ounce of that comes through in his dishwater dull performance.  And here's the real kick in the nuts - the Federation representative on the GPP that he takes hostage is played by David Warner.  Now, Warner isn't a big star or anything, but he's famous enough, and he has a history of playing outsized bad guys, and he could have been swapped in for Luckinbill so easily with a significant uptick in quality for the character.  God.  Fuck you, Shatner.

Sybok turns people into followers by, I wish I was making this up, identifying with their "pain" and I guess eliminating it.  For example, he turns McCoy (although it doesn't stick) by showing him the memory of his dying father, who McCoy helped to euthanize when he was dying of some incurable illness, but later it turned out that the illness could easily be cured.  I think.  I lost the thread a bit here.  Anyway, he shows McCoy this scene, and then "takes away" McCoy's pain, and then McCoy is another one of his followers.  The "I'm OK, You're OK" bullshittery of this is so far off the charts it's immeasurable.  This is a film that posits that one of those Scientology Audits is not only real, but basically wizardry that can instantly cure a person.

So Sybok has used his powers on the three representatives on the GPP, and then he uses it on Uhura and Sulu and Chekov, and they all immediately abandon their responsibilities and let Sybok take over the Enterprise in order to fly it to Sha Ka Ree.  He puts Kirk, Spock and McCoy in the brig and they pull off some sort of jailbreak with Scotty's help which isn't remotely interesting and is not worth talking about except that it includes a "joke" where Scotty says that he knows the ship like the back of his hand and then immediately knocks his own dumb ass out by running into a low-hanging beam, hilarious, and then Sybok pulls the Auditing trick with McCoy and Spock, but it doesn't work, but the Enterprise is at the magic planet anyway so it doesn't matter.

So they're at the planet, and everyone is curious what's down there, so they immediately basically forget that Sybok has taken them all hostage and is pretty much a war criminal, and they accompany him down to the surface, which I guess makes some logical sense (I mean, I'd be curious too) but is the sort of thing that can only happen if you completely forget that this is a show that is, at its heart, about a military organization.  Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Sybok go down to the planet.

Sybok is absolutely overwhelmed by awe at the surroundings on this planet.  He is overwhelmed by this:

And, okay, it turns out that this isn't Eden after all (quelle surprise) but seriously, why is Sybok so excited about looking at that shithole?  This movie is cheap beyond cheap.  The effects, what little there are of them, look like complete shit, and the vistas are all just the ugliest, outskirts-of-L.A. desert that you will ever have the misfortune to see.  I'm sure this wasn't a very expensive movie but it looks even cheaper than that, like all the money went into craft services and then when it came time to film it everyone threw up their hands and dragged their cameras out into the parking lot.

So they meet the being who lives on this planet, who resembles the white-bearded, Judeo-Christian conception of God, but who everyone immediately figures out is just some alien asshole because he asks for a spaceship and keeps shooting people with lightning that shoots out of his eyes, which is probably not the sort of thing that God would do, at least on the first date.  And then Sybok wrestles him, and the Klingons show up, and Spock is on the Klingon ship, and they shoot the alien, and they have a party, and this movie is over, the end, I quit.

(I'll be back for 6.  I like 6, at least I hope I still do.  I am broken, but not defeated.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained

One of my favorite characters in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series is Hob Gadling.  Hob essentially declares that he is going to live forever and Death, who is in the tavern when he makes this declaration, grants him his wish.  Dream, the main character of the story, who is also there in the tavern, visits with Hob once every century, to check up on him; their friendship is one of the few tangible things that Dream seems to truly value.  In any case, at one of their meetings (during the 18th century, I believe, although I may be mistaken), Hob tells Dream that he is currently in the slave business, and marvels at the efficiency of the triangle trade, and how little effort it takes him to make money at it.  Dream tells him that it's a bad business, and he should get out of it (which he does, of course, since New World chattel slavery ultimately ceases to be any kind of profession at all), and life continues for Hob Gadling, all the way into the present day.

That's the way the universe works - people make awful moral decisions and, at best, they live long enough to renounce those decisions and choose a different path, but usually the world keeps spinning and no one really cares and no one ever pays the price for them.  But that is not the way Quentin Tarantino's universe works, and perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of his filmmaking is what a starkly moral universe he inhabits.  Those who make compromised moral choices, even at something of a remove, are punished for them, and the audience is forced to reckon with both the moral choice that has brought the vengeance down upon it, as well as its own culpability in desiring the vengeance in the first place.

Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who has been separated from his wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington) by a particularly sadistic master, is enlisted into the bounty hunter trade by King Schultz (Christophe Waltz) because Schultz needs his help in ID'ing a trio of men who were former overseers at Django's last plantation.  Django discovers he has a knack for the bounty hunting business and he and Schultz spend the winter of 1858-59 hunting fugitives from justice until their travels bring them, finally, to the plantation owner who currently owns Brunhilde, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a plantation-owning scion who is also a Francophile and not a bit of a dandy.  Django and Schultz devise a scheme to free Brunhilde from bondage, and, as this is a Tarantino film, an orgy of blood follows.

Waltz's ability to hone in on Tarantino's weird cadences, and deliver them with something resembling actorly ability, is nothing short of remarkable, and it is not surprising that he has become the filmmaker's latter-day muse, because he is perhaps the only person capable of making Tarantino's dialogue work as well on screen as it does on paper.  Between Waltz's presence and DiCaprio's go-for-broke performance (and it is very nice to have DiCaprio working outside of his taciturn comfort zone; some may legitimately balk at the bigness of Calvin Candie but I, for one, loved the character as presented) Foxx is almost the odd man out in what is, ostensibly, his film.  Django doesn't truly come into his own until the final act but when he finally does, it is a moment of triumph, and the point at which having the supremely confident Foxx playing the character really pays off.  But the film is, in many ways, stolen by Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, a slave who is Candie's closest confidant and who clearly regards the status quo as the proper order of things.  He is, in a weird way, something of the film's moral compass, a character who is both a victim of the slave society into which he was born and also a perpetrator of it.  Calling him the film's true villain isn't quite accurate - he is the most dangerous and treacherous character in the movie, but he is also perhaps its most human.

This is a film that is awash in slavery, in its brutality and in the way that it forces those who live under its dominion to make awful, compromised moral choices, some of those people happier to make those choices than others.  The third act of the film is set into motion by a choice that Django makes, one that initially horrified me but which I came to understand in the context of the film, and which I will not spoil.  The first time we meet Brunhilde she is being subjected to a particularly brutal bit of torture that forces the audience to contemplate the true horror of what it means for a person to own another human being, to have their life completely under the dominion of another.  That the commeuppance of first-order slavers like Candie is the primary goal of the film is of no surprise; that second-order slavers like the trio of, essentially, escort men who are charged with sending him to his final destination (a mine which uses exclusively slave labor) in the third act are also in Django's sights is perhaps more surprising, and that the film finds little reason to mourn their loss is perhaps its most subversive notion.  But Stephen presents a real moral dilemma, one that the film does not have particularly easy answers for, and that is perhaps its most truly surprising idea.  And no one ever gets to say, "I was just following orders", because there are no orders, there are only men and women under human bondage, and those who allow that system to perpetuate itself.  A

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

So far as I can gather there are, broadly speaking, two types of time travel stories.  First, there are stories which explore the mechanics of time travel - namely, the paradoxes that arise from its deployment, and the various ways in which those paradoxes alter the normal rules of the world.  And second, there are stories in which time travel is simply a method by which to put the hero(es) of the story in a fish-out-of-water tale, seeing the past, present or future through the eyes of someone, or ones, who are unfamiliar with the customs and mores of the time.

There is a very famous episode of the original series (I've never seen it, for the record) which I gather does a bit of both but which works very hard to explore the paradoxes of time travel.  And then there is Star Trek IV, which couldn't care less about paradox and is defiantly only the latter type of time travel story.  The script itself is clearly a tape job, with four different screenwriters credited and a production history which apparently involved bringing Eddie Murphy aboard for a major guest-starring part (he decided to do this instead, which is also a total mess but has at least one reasonably funny scene):

So the script was rebuilt around our 7 leads (and one major guest star of a much, much lower level of fame than Murphy) instead.  A doctored-up script about the crew of the Enterprise traveling to 1986 to save the goddamned stupid-assed whales should have been, let's be honest, a complete and utter disaster; the fact that the film works as well as it does (though far from perfectly) I will chalk up to the 7 major members of the Enterprise crew, and the easy chemistry they have together, especially when they are given things to do other than genuflecting on the greatness that is Captain Kirk.  The film is significantly behind Star Trek 2 in terms of overall quality, but it's a big step up from 1 and particularly 3.  The ability to shoot on location in San Francisco, without spending any extra money to "futurize" the place, really helps, especially after the ugly set-work that characterized Star Trek 3.

The plot.  In the 23rd century, some fakakta Space Cylinder travels to earth, generally fucking up everyone's shit, because it is trying to communicate with the whales, which have become extinct by this point in time. Meanwhile the crew of the Enterprise, now traveling aboard the Klingon ship they took over in the last film, heads back to Earth to face the music for hijacking and then blowing up the Enterprise.  They get to Earth just as the Space Cylinder does and, being the only ship in range that is capable of doing anything, put together a plan to travel back in time to the 20th century, grab some whales, and hightail it back to the 23rd century to allow them to tell the Cylinder to back the hell off, baby.  In the 20th century (1986, natch), they get into a number of scrapes and adventures, meet whale expert Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks), and eventually bring her whales, and her, into the 23rd century to save the day.  After all of that they are still brought to trial for the crimes of the last film, but all that happens is that Kirk gets busted back down to the rank of Captain and given the command of a brand new Enterprise.

The best thing the script does, by far, is split the crew of the Enterprise into discrete groups, and allow them to each have their own adventures on 20th century Earth, at least for a little while.  So Kirk and Spock go chasing after the whales (and they are the ones who meet Dr. Taylor, of course, because she is a classic Bond Girl archetype, even if we're in a different film series, and her time will be spent with the star, who is always and forever the Shat.)  Scotty, McCoy and Sulu are in charge of building a container for the whales on the Klingon ship, and Chekov and Uhura are in charge of some sort of engine repair that involves finding a nuclear-powered ship in San Francisco harbor.  Each group has one person who is the biggest fish-out-of-water, so with the first it's Spock learning how to use "colorful" language which basically means Nimoy gets to PG-13 swear inappropriately.  With the second group it's Scotty, trying to talk to an old-ass Mac through its mouse, and in the third group it's Chekov, who keeps saying "wessels" to the point of diminishing returns and gets mistaken, with good reason, for a Soviet spy.

Bullet points:

We open on a dedication to the Challenger crew.  This film began principle photography soon after the Challenger disaster, and it's hard to overstate just how much of a deleterious effect the disaster had on America's space program.  Star Trek, being a series that draws explicit connections between the current state of humankind's exploration of space and its postulated future trajectory, is more affected than most fictional universes when things like this happen.

The opening song doesn't really leave a lot of mystery as to the tone of the film to follow.  "We are making a whimsical movie" is what it screams.  It sounds like the theme you would hear right after Ebeneezer Scrooge had his change of heart about Christmas.

Star Trek likes to get good diversity mileage out of the captains of one-off ships.  Here, we have a ship at the beginning, discovering the Space Cylinder for the first time, that is captained by a black woman (and apparently piloted by Pei Mei from Kill Bill Volume 2 for whatever reason.)

In order to bring themselves up to speed about what happened to the Enterprise, Starfleet brass pops in their copy of Star Trek 3.

The Klingons make it clear to Starfleet that they want Kirk's head on a platter.  One of the things that always turns me off about Star Trek, that I alluded to earlier, is how Kirk-centric it so often is.  Kirk is boring.

The matte work hasn't really improved.  The Klingon ship parked on Vulcan, where it left off the last film, looks like Thomas Kinkade had a mid-life crisis and started doing sci-fi vistas instead of cabins in winter or whatever the fuck that guy painted.

I'm pretty sure Vasquez Rocks makes an appearance, as a location on Vulcan.  Star Trek just really, really loves Vasquez Rocks.

We go from "what is this weird Space Cylinder thing?" to "we are traveling through time" in record speed.  This is really not a film that is interested in exploring the science end of the science-fiction equation and, you know, that's probably for the best.  The Space Cylinder is really, really stupid, and is such an unloved MacGuffin that you just want it to go away so fun things can happen again.

After the plan is already very clear about going back in time and grabbing some whales, McCoy recaps it in a long infodump.  The script here is quite a bit better than Star Trek 3's "treat the audience like they're 6" abomination, but it still can't help itself sometimes.

When the Enterprise travels back through time there is a really batshit dream sequence, with CGI heads of all our crew and Christ knows what else.  It really does not fit in this whimsical film.

The movie has your mother's idea of what's hip in 1986. The punk on the bus who Kirk and Spock meet is Star Trek's idea of "cutting edge scary" (without being, to its credit, super racist).  I actually think the punk is pretty funny, if only on a meta level that that style of punk rocker was something like 8 years out of date, but the song he is listening to has the basic cadences of punk rock down pretty well, so at least it has that going for it.

"Since the dawn of time, men have harvested whales" according to Dr. Taylor.  I question your premise, lady.

The video at the whale center, when Kirk and Spock first meet Dr. Taylor, shows some really disturbing video of whales being flayed, and all sorts of gore and blood everywhere. I'm not sure the best plan to keep the tourists rolling in is to show them Faces Of Death: Whale Edition.

Kirk (to Dr. Taylor): "You're not exactly catching us at our best."
Spock: "That much is certain."
Nimoy's timing really sells this exchange.

Despite Catherine Hicks' bad 80's hair and irritating 80's attitude, she grew on me eventually.  I wouldn't want to see her again, but for a single movie Bond Girl-ish type, she gets the job done.

Chekov's escape from the (unbelievably contrived, involving dumb transporter shenanigans) situation in which he gets captured by the US military on board the nuclear wessel is scored to the wackiest music imaginable.

The script starts to really show its seams when we get to the part where Dr. Taylor has her whales taken without her knowledge and then goes to Kirk for help.  The night before this happens, Kirk is basically forced to lay out for her that he's a future spaceman who came back in time to save her whales.  Then, for no good reason, he refuses to prove this fact to her by showing her the Klingon ship, instead having her drop him off in the middle of a park and then disappearing (by beaming on to the ship, but she doesn't see this part).  At this point, no one with any amount of brains would think Kirk was anything but a crazy homeless person, and that is seemingly what Dr. Taylor believes.  Then the whales get taken, and the first thing she does is run to the park and start screaming for Kirk.  Why?  Why would she do this thing?  Of all the possible solutions to her problem, the time-traveling spaceman would unquestionably be at the very fucking bottom.  But that's what she does, and then she discovers the ship (cloaked, but parked right there) and gets beamed aboard.  Kirk is pretty nonchalant about having her come onboard, which really calls into question why he didn't show her the damn thing in the first place, considering how badly he needs those whales and how the ship would have offered proof of his insane story.  This whole section doesn't make any sense.

After escaping capture, Chekov has a bad fall and gets re-captured, but this time he's in intensive care and on the verge of death, so Kirk, McCoy and Taylor go to the hospital to rescue him.  The "McCoy saves Chekov" scene is not nearly as funny as the film thinks it is.  The film plays McCoy's constant dismissals of late-20th century medicine as barbaric with the same sort of wacky and funny tone as most of the rest of the film, but it just comes off as a guy with a chip on his shoulder for no good reason.  Rather than being delightfully irascible, he just comes off seeming like a dick, putting down 20th century medicine and then saving Chekov, not with any kind of specialized knowledge, but with a bit of whiz-bang 23rd century technological sorcery.  He takes a device out of his pocket, sticks it on Chekov's head, and then he's healed.  Well thank you, Doctor Awesome.  Anyone could have done what you just did if they had that stupid piece of equipment that you didn't even create.

So after getting Chekov back our crew goes flying after the just-released whales.  The whales are being hunted by some pretty embarrassing old-timey whalers, introduced entirely to give the late-game some sort of conflict.  I mean, the whales were literally released like a few hours ago and some whaling ship is already bearing down on them?  Come on.

After getting back to the 23rd century and saving Earth from the Space Cylinder (and bringing back the whales from extinction through time travel magic), the crew is put through some sort of court-martial trial.  But of course, no one even attempts to make Kirk feel bad for all the shit he pulled, they just give him what he wanted (command of a starship) and pretend it's a punishment.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Magic Mike

It's not hard to believe that Magic Mike is a semi-autobiographical film based on Channing Tatum's brief career as a Tampa-area stripper in the late-90's, and not just because Tatum has the physique and dance moves of, well, a male stripper.  It's also because Mike Lane, the character he plays in the film, has the same go-go hustle that an actor of as limited abilities as Tatum possesses must also have in order to have turned himself into one of the most interesting film stars of the last 5 years.

Magic Mike, as he is known, is the star attraction of the all-male strip club run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey).  Mike, naturally, considers stripping a temporary gig, something to provide him with the sort of money he needs to start his own business. What little thread of a plot there is running through the film involves Lane taking a directionless young man named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing as the latest member of the revue, while simultaneously falling for Adam's sister Brooke (Cody Horn).

Steven Soderbergh films Florida with a sort of washed-out, sun-dappled color scheme - it doesn't look ugly, per se, but Tampa's limited charms are certainly presented with very little glamour.  The first half of the film is mostly just a character study, as we explore Mike's life through the eyes of Adam, and simultaneously watch Adam discover just how much talent he has, not only for stripping, but for the lifestyle that comes along with selling sex to eager women until the wee hours of the morning.  I couldn't begin to tell you how a wooden actor like Tatum has managed to craft himself into a film star but between this film and 21 Jump Street (which he stole from Jonah Hill) there is simply no getting around the fact that he arrived as a genuine talent in 2012.  McConaughey has gotten most of the awards-season attention (and he is indeed bursting with charm here as the older, retired version of Mike) but Tatum carries the film from start to finish, and his performance is the real revelation.  I was less enamored of both Pettyfer and Horn; Pettyfer does a passable job selling the fairly unlikable Adam, but never really sells the idea that his character has the charisma to replace Mike as the star of the show.  Horn's performance travels from awful to simply mediocre, and the film frankly becomes less interesting once the plot, mostly involving Adam's various fuck-ups and Mike attempting to deal with them while Brooke looks on disapprovingly, begins to intrude on the purer pleasures of the front half.  But with Tatum and Soderbergh's guidance, what could have been "that male stripper movie" proves significantly more captivating than it has any right to be.  B+

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The expectations game can do funny things to a film's reception.  I remember very distinctly the stories that were written about The Phantom Menace when it hit theaters in 1999 after what was probably the biggest hype campaign in the history of cinema.  People liked it.  Or, rather, people found ways to like it in spite of its massive flaws, to say nice things about a film that they so badly wanted to love.  It was only after some time passed that the consensus view of the film began to curdle, and eventually rot, until it is remembered as the colossal failure that it is today.

I believe that something close to the exact opposite has happened to the first installment in the (eventual) three-part Hobbit adaptation.  The hype for this movie has been not quite as deafening (because we are used to over-hyped movies at this point, and have come to take them for granted) but has certainly been massive, and the reception to the film has been lukewarm, because the hype machine has told us to expect greatness, and the film possibly falls short.  But, in this reviewer's opinion, it does not fall all that short, and its flaws (which are real) do not begin to match its successes, which are extraordinary.

At the behest of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a company of dwarves led by the gruff and distant Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on a quest to reclaim their lost kingdom, take the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) with them, to serve as the group's burglar.  Along the way the company has a series of adventures, including Bilbo's fateful meeting with Gollum (Andy Serkis), which includes Bilbo taking possession of the One Ring.

That's about it.  A start to a quest, and a series of adventures that flow one into another, to a stopping place that is less an ending than a big blinking "To Be Continued" sign.  The film is basically a series of vignettes of the company running into danger and making its way back out again, the spine of which is Bilbo's journey from, essentially, baggage into an indispensable member of the group.  It is a small journey that Bilbo takes but an effective one, helped along immensely by Armitage's nicely unlikable performance.  Thorin here serves as something of a mirror image of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy; where Aragorn was most comfortable doing small scale morale-building and being in among the men that he was charged to lead, Thorin is distant and decidedly uncomfortable with the everyday job of leadership.  It is not a small thing for Armitage to take such an unlikable character and turn him into someone whose approval we desperately want our hero to obtain.  But, in the end, the film ultimately belongs to Freeman, an actor who is able to fully realize Bilbo's warmth and courage, as well as his distinct discomfort with any day that doesn't end in a good meal and a warm bed.  Freeman's performance here is nothing short of remarkable, and it is to the film's detriment that he is not onscreen more, because he feels immediately like the most fully-realized hobbit we have seen in any of Jackson's Tolkien adaptations.

The flabbiest part of the movie, by far, is the first act, where the meeting between Bilbo and the dwarves spends altogether too much time attempting to build the dwarves into characters that never really coalesce (there are, quite simply, too many dwarves for us to really get to know anyone but Thorin; Ken Stott's Balin came the closest for me, an older dwarf who seemed to take a bit of a fatherly interest in Bilbo, but a couple of other ones also got a bit of time in the spotlight, including Graham McTavish's Balin and James Nesbitt's Bofur).  In addition, we spend way too much time with Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown, who serves as the bridge between the fairly straightforward quest that the company is on and the larger events of Middle Earth swirling in the background which will eventually form the story on which the Lord of the Rings trilogy is based.  McCoy's performance, in particular, is mostly a mistake, turning Radagast into basically a weird, twitchy hoarder, and sucking any gravitas from the character completely.  The time spent with the character really drags, and could have been excised from the film entirely.

The Hobbit is a small, goofy little adventure as a novel, and film that we are presented with here is nothing of the sort, presenting a story that is just as grandly epic as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I can certainly understand the complaint that its tone does not square with the tone of the book whatsoever, but I believe that as Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, as opposed to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, it is largely successful at what it sets out to do, and I, at least, am looking forward to spending more time in this universe with Jackson and Freeman.  A-

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

The Enterprise, in desperate need of repairs following its battle with Khan, heads home to Earth after the crew has said their final goodbyes to Spock, whose body now rests on the brand-new Genesis planet.  McCoy, having been on the receiving end of Spock's final mind-meld, is acting like a man possessed, and is taken into custody once the ship arrives home.  Kirk is informed that the Enterprise has seen its final voyage, and will be decommissioned.  In the meantime, a rogue(?) Klingon, Commander Kruge, is trying to discover the secret of Project Genesis, coveting it as a weapon for the Klingon Empire.  Spock's father Sarek asks Kirk to brings Spock's body back home, to be reunited with the piece of him left in McCoy and laid to rest on Vulcan.  Since the Genesis planet is currently under quarantine, Kirk steals the Enterprise and flies it to Genesis where he, Kruge, and a science team led by his son David and Lieutenant Saavik, converge on the planet.  Spock, brought back to life by the Genesis effect, is rapidly aging along with the planet itself.  After a space battle that cripples both the Enterprise and his ship, Commander Kruge, recognizing that Kirk knows something about Genesis, demands the device in exchange for the lives of Saavik and Spock, after killing David to show he is serious.  Kirk surrenders the Enterprise but sets it to self-destruct and beams down to the planet just as the Klingon boarding party beams aboard the ship and are killed as the Enterprise self-destructs.  Kirk bests Kruge in combat and hijacks the Klingon ship to Vulcan, where Spock's now-adult body is reunited with his mind.

Leonard Nimoy was given an out during the filming of Star Trek II, the chance to walk away from the series on his own terms, Spock having died to save the Enterprise with the final act of the film dedicated to giving him a proper send-off.  But he liked making the film so much that he decided to stick around, and so we get a direct sequel to Wrath of Khan whose job it is to find a way to bring Spock back to life.  And, as a bonus for Nimoy, he turned his considerable leverage into an opportunity to direct the movie, which certainly made practical sense since he doesn't appear in the film until the very end, and could focus on directing.

I don't want to overstate just how over his head Nimoy is as a director on this film.  It is certainly not an incompetently made picture, and one scene flows into another well enough.  But it is not a well-made movie, with Nimoy exhibiting the sort of heavy hand that can sometimes plague first-time filmmakers - he too often feels the need to be doing something, when the movie would be better off with him sitting back and letting things play out simply.  He's like the manager of a shitty baseball team who is constantly pushing buttons, a hit-and-run here, a squeeze there, and costing his team runs by trying too hard to appear to be in control.

The shitty team here is the script, and what a nightmare of subtext as text it is.  This is a film that refuses to ever let the audience figure something out on its own, spoon-feeding them every emotional beat and thematic idea with all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the head.  Harve Bennett is the credited scriptwriter, and he certainly deserves some of the blame, but another director, one who was perhaps more self-assured (read: experienced) probably could have done some on-the-fly re-writing work.  Nimoy understandably was pre-occupied with how to present his visual language, and I'm guessing Bennett's script was used close to as-is, which is the thing that ultimately sinks the movie.

That's the big problem with the script.  The small problem, but one that is a niggling annoyance all throughout the film, is how much it pushes against the boundaries of my "A wizard did it" policy (this is the policy of simply saying, whenever any science or tech comes up that doesn't immediately make sense, that it is a wizard's doing.)  It's a good policy, and it's a necessary policy for a Star Trek film, but this movie so thoroughly revolves around the science of the Genesis planet, and none of what happens with that planet makes any logical or, more important, consistent sense, that it really started to try my patience and my policy.  The planet "ages" rapidly which, first, is not a thing that planets do but is a thing that this planet does so that Spock can also age rapidly (it is exposited that David used "protomatter" in the Genesis device, which is a banned substance and is incredibly unstable, and I fear that if I try to understand any of what I just said I will collapse into a spiral of despair).  Why does Spock restart his life as a little kid (or, presumably, a baby, or maybe a fetus) instead of simply emerging as a full-grown man?  The mechanics of how the planet brought him back to life never coalesces at all.  And then why, as the planet "ages" itself into oblivion, does Spock not do likewise?  He gets to the exact age that he was when he died, and then he stops aging, even as the planet continues its death spiral.  When "a wizard did it" collides with "Hollywood bullshit", well, you've got this movie.  An entire movie based on bringing a character back to life through magic would have been a hard sell no matter what, but it's an even harder sell when no one attempts even a cursory explanation of the rules of that magic.

Bullet points follow:

Star Trek has, from the beginning, used the Captain's Log as a narrative crutch, shoehorning in exposition or character motivation in a pseudo-organic way when they couldn't figure out how to properly write it into the script.  Kirk's opening Captain's Log infodump here is way on the nose, with Kirk basically laying out all his feelings about Spock and the Genesis planet in voiceover.  Shortly after this, some random crewmember flat-out asks Kirk if there will be a ceremony for the Enterprise crew when they get back to Earth, allowing Kirk to opine further about the sacrifices they've made.  Script, you are the worst.

The Klingon ship decloaking is a pretty cool effect.  Kruge gets his hands on the Genesis Project proposal from Wrath of Khan from some sort of human double agent.  For reasons that aren't clear Bibi Besch didn't come back for this movie to reprise her role as Carol Marcus, so the job of expositing the Genesis Project is handed over to Kirk, narrating the same video, in the same way, that Besch did in the last movie.  The dude who is helping the Klingons steal the Genesis Project data actually uses the phrase, "When do I get paid off?" and I will stop pointing out specific ways that this script never uses a subtle line when it can use a big blinking landing strip of a line because it happens a lot and it is too sad to keep documenting it.

I'm guessing this is the first time we've ever seen a Space dock, because they make a big fucking deal about it with the music.  It's a big miniature compared to the Enterprise, and probably would have been too expensive to do on a TV budget.

Blu-ray is not kind to Shatner's toupee.

When we get our first glimpse of the Genesis planet in its current state, flashed on the screen is the redundant "Genesis Planet" label and also a dumb stardate for some reason.  Thanks Leonard, that stardate definitely puts the events of the film into the proper temporal frame for me.

Saavik is really kind of an enormous failure of a character.  We've got a new actress now, Robin Curtis, and she is significantly worse than Kirstie Alley, but the problem is in the character.  I don't care about Saavik.  No one cares about Saavik.  She's not one of our core 7, and she never does anything interesting enough to bump her into the vicinity of them.

Is it possible that I just don't understand Vulcans?  Sarek is totally pissed off at Kirk for leaving Spock's body on the Genesis planet.  Mark Lenard doesn't even attempt to disguise his actorly emotions, and I thought the whole shtick with Vulcans was that they had suppressed their emotions?

Nimoy goes with ultra close-ups of Lenard and Shatner when Sarek mind-melds with Kirk and speaks Spock's last words back to him.  This is the sort of "let's call a suicide squeeze now!" thing that I'm talking about.

Dumb pet-peeves, but pet-peeves nonetheless - security footage that is edited like a film.  Kirk uses security footage to find who Spock's final mind-meld was with (Sarek assumes it would have been Kirk, and Kirk has to discover that it was actually McCoy), and it's just footage from the last film (obviously), edited together perfectly.

"One alive, one not, yet both in pain."  Okay, one more potshot at the script, couldn't help it.

Star Trek never, ever, ever seems to understand how evolution works.  Down on the Genesis planet, when David and Saavik come across Spock's coffin, it is surrounded by these weird slime beings that David says have "evolved" from microbes that were on the coffin's surface.  That is not a thing.  (If you're curious, I also read The Agony Booth's recap of Threshold, a couple of years ago, which is what I'm basing my blanket statement here on.)

Kirk asks for permission to go to the Genesis planet and retrieve Spock's body from some Starfleet mucky-muck (which is impossible, because the planet has been quarantined for somewhat nebulous reasons, but I gather having to do with what a colossal mess the whole "Genesis is actually a doomsday device" situation is).  Kirk relays the spiritual mumbo-jumbo that Sarek told him about reuniting Spock's body with his soul, and the mucky-muck tells Kirk to knock it off, that his life and career stand for "rationality" and not "intellectual chaos", because that guy lives in Opposite Town.

So Kirk and Co. put together their plan to steal the Enterprise, but first McCoy (who is not in his right mind and is acting like a lunatic) goes to the most intellectually bankrupt replica of the Star Wars cantina ever looking for a ride to Genesis.  He even meets with some smuggler who talks kind of like Yoda.  God this scene is awful, I can't do it justice.  McCoy is busted and put in space jail, and Kirk and Sulu bust him out.

With Nimoy out of the picture, and guest stars being mostly absent in the first half, our regulars get a bit more to do than usual.  Takei gets a (brief) scene during the space jail breakout to act like a badass, and Nichols gets her first showcase of the film series so far, putting some douchy young Starfleet dickwad in his place as she helps Kirk, Sulu and McCoy beam up to the Enterprise (she makes the most of it, and what an underutilized talent she's been to this point, and will continue to be for the rest of this film, since she disappears completely at this point and doesn't show up again until the very end.)

The Excelsior is the Enterprise's replacement, with some sort of newfangled warp drive powering it.  James B. Sikking plays the captain of the Excelsior as basically a dull bureaucrat, to contrast him with our impulsive Captain Kirk who answers to no one.

Our crew pilots the Enterprise out of spacedock and the Excelsior chases after it.  The Excelsior's fancy warp drive craps out because Scotty has sabotaged it, and it makes a really unfortunate "engine stalling" sound effect as it comes to a halt.

The snow on the Genesis planet is singularly unconvincing; I can practically taste the potato.  There is clearly no location work in this film, with all of the scenes on the surface of the planet being shot on really ugly sound stages.  Paramount is fucking cheap.

I want to accept Christopher Lloyd as the murderous Commander Kruge, I really do.  I like Lloyd.  I am trying very hard here.  But I can't.  It's just not possible.  It's not just Doc Brown, it's Reverend Jim and Judge Doom and friggin' Uncle Fester, sure, throw him in there too.  He has played too many iconic and sub-iconic oddballs, and he is too recognizable in his vocal cadences and in his features, even underneath the Klingon makeup.

John Larroquette, on the other hand, is mostly unrecognizable, granted that he does not have nearly the number of iconic characters or unique mannerisms and doesn't have many lines in this film.

Down on the planet, adolescent Spock is going through Pon Farr, which is some sort of Vulcan super-puberty that makes Vulcans murderously horny I guess?  Saavik calms him by gently doing some kind of finger rub with him and if Pon Farr is what I think it is that seems like the exactly opposite of what she should be doing at the moment.

Merritt Butrick's performance as David is much improved, even if the relationship between him and Kirk continues to have no actual emotional weight behind it.  Between the emotional distance of the relationship on screen, and Shatner's silly, hammy reaction to learning the news, David's death really doesn't register emotionally at all.  He's a plot point, nothing more, something for Kirk to claim to have "sacrificed".

I don't want to accuse Nimoy of deliberately sabotaging Shatner during the infamous "You Klingon bastard" scene, a la Norman Mailer and Ryan O'Neal in Tough Guys Don't Dance, but it's hard not to at least consider the possibility.

There is a really great shot right after the Enterprise has self-destructed, with the crew seen in silhouette on the Genesis planet at dusk, watching the fireball of the destroyed ship streak across the sky.  But then the shot immediately gets broken up by a closeup on everyone's face as they watch the ship, followed by another ham-handed bit of dialogue between Kirk and Bones explaining what we just witnessed and what it means to Kirk.  Every damn time a nice thing happens, it is immediately ruined by the direction or the script or both.

The kid who plays teenage Spock never says anything and it's supposed to be because McCoy has Spock's essence buried inside his mind but it mostly makes Spock seem like he's Rain Man or something.

Kirk never had a face-to-face confrontation with Khan, and it didn't matter, because their battle was perfectly pitched and didn't need it.  This movie twists itself in knots in order to put Kirk and Kruge into the same space, where they fight a hand-to-hand battle to the Klingon's death, and it is so much lamer than the Kirk/Khan battle.  Kirk kicks Kruge into a volcano, where he explodes.  Not even kidding.

Kirk takes over the Klingon ship by sheer animal magnetism (meaning he tricks the remaining Klingon crew into beaming him up by speaking like 2 words of Klingon and then hijacks the entire ship with just his phaser.)

The scene where Spock's mind gets fused back into his body is probably the one time that Nimoy's heavy-handed approach pays off, because it's a super-weird thing to have happen and needs a good bit of theatricality to the direction in order to sell it.

And then this is the second thing in this movie that I don't get.  Why did Spock put his essence into McCoy? I gather that's something that Vulcans do before they die, but why would they do that?  Why would they split their minds from their bodies, just to have to bring them back together again?  It all seems very strange to me.  It only really makes sense if you believe that resurrection is something the Vulcans have mastered, but that doesn't seem to be the case, it only happens in this movie for Spock because of Genesis.  His mind and his body fuse back together, and we get our lame-ass emotional payoff as he recognizes Kirk again.  This payoff was really muted by the fact that the actual big surprise of the film (that Spock was still fucking alive, thanks to the Genesis planet) was barely commented on, and just taken as a given.  Putting his mind and body back together is claimed to be some majorly difficult thing but WE'VE ALREADY SEEN HIS BODY COME BACK TO LIFE AND WE KNOW THAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING OF ALL.  The whole thing is totally botched from the beginning.

I'm not sure it's possible to talk about the way this film sabotaged the emotional ending of Wrath of Khan at this point.  Spock came back here, and then he stayed back, and that is a longer period of Star Trek history than was the period before this film.  Yes, it absolutely sabotages Spock's death scene given that we know he's coming back in the next movie.  That genie's never going back in the bottle at this point, and Wrath of Khan is still a great movie even without the emotional payoff of Spock's death hitting with anything more than a dull thud.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek: The Motion Picture managed to make money on its budget, but that budget was an astronomical at the time 46 million dollars.  I have to assume that part of that total reflects whatever costs went into the aborted Phase II project, because it was really not up on the screen; Star Trek:TMP looked, not cheap per se, but certainly not enormously expensive (to put that 46 million in some sort of perspective, the Superman film released in 1978 was the highest-budgeted movie up to that point, and it cost 55 million dollars to make.)  It was an expensive movie, is the point, and Paramount decided that they didn't get enough of a return on their investment, so changes needed to be made.

The biggest change that they made was to kick Gene Roddenberry upstairs into a "consulting" role, which is Hollywood speak for "Thanks, pops, but we'll take it from here."  It would be easy, and cheap, for me to say that the reason Star Trek II is so successful is because Roddenberry was removed from the project.  But one, Roddenberry's fingerprints were, are, and always will be all over Star Trek, and that can't be denied, so anything good that happens under the aegis of Trek owes some debt to him..  Second, and significantly more importantly, there are many post-Roddenberry projects that are widely understood to be much, much worse than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so it simply has to be acknowledged that other people are just as capable of making a hash of this universe as Roddenberry was.

The irony, of course, is that Star Trek II was made for significantly less money than ST:TMP, but it looks like it was made for much more.  The locations are more diverse, the effects are more evocative, and there are more guest stars hanging around.  Chalk part of this up to the leftover Phase II costs that got tacked on to the first film's budget, and chalk part of it up to the ability of Star Trek II to re-use sets, but director Nicholas Meyer has to be given a good deal of credit for doing a much better job of putting the money he had available up on screen in an interesting way, rather than padding the film out with, for example, a 10 minute scene of the Enterprise travelling through the heart of a boring cloud.  We spend time on two non-Earth celestial bodies and on board two distinctive Starfleet ships (the first movie just had the Enterprise, and the Cloud.)  In a movie that is 20 minutes shorter than the first film, significantly more things actually happen.

You know the plot.  Of course you do, but I'll recap it anyway for my own edification.  The captain of a scouting ship, USS Reliant, along with his first mate(?), Commander Chekhov, beam down on the barren surface of what they believe to be Ceti Alpha VI; they are looking for a lifeless planet, any one will do, to serve as the testing surface for the Genesis Project, a device which can instantly terraform a planet, replacing its current surface with one that is capable of supporting life.  Unfortunately for them they are actually on Ceti Alpha V, the planet that served as the base for Khan Noonian Singh's marooning at the hands of Jim Kirk.  Khan (always Khan) has an unstoppable hate boner for Kirk, not for the marooning per se, but because Ceti Alpha V was knocked out of its orbit by the explosion of Ceti Alpha VI, causing it to become the lifeless husk we see now and costing Khan's wife her life.  In the years since his marooning, no one (namely Kirk) ever checked up on the inhabitants, forcing them to fend for themselves, forgotten by the rest of the universe.  Khan manages to hijack the Reliant and uses it to pursue the Enterprise, with the Genesis Device used as bait to lure Kirk to a science station orbiting Regula I where it was developed and is currently housed.  After a brief battle that cripples both ships, the Enterprise limps to the science station and a team led by Kirk beams on board to look for the missing Genesis Project scientists, including Kirk's former lover Carol Marcus and their son David, who Kirk has apparently never met.  The scientists have escaped to a hollowed-out cave inside the planet where the Device was tested, and the team follows them down there, where Khan uses the opportunity of Kirk's temporary absence to steal the Genesis Device by beaming it onboard the Reliant.  Kirk and the away team beam back aboard the Enterprise and lure the Reliant into a local nebula, where the two ships engage in a cat and mouse chase before the Enterprise finally, and seemingly irrevocably, cripples the Reliant and mortally wounds Khan.  Khan has one more trick up his sleeve, however, and activates the Device.  With its warp drive inactive thanks to the earlier battle the Enterprise will seemingly be destroyed by the Device re-shaping all the matter in the general vicinity into a life-sustaining planet, but Spock fixes the drive just in time for the Enterprise to escape, in the process subjecting himself to a lethal dose of radiation.  As we gaze upon the new Genesis planet, Spock's body is sent down to its final resting place on its surface.

Whew, that was exhausting.  Just a ton of stuff happens in this movie; I didn't even mention the ear slugs that allow Khan to control Chekhov and the captain of the Reliant, or the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario that Lieutenant Kirstie Alley goes through, or Kirk's coded message gambit from inside Regula I, or probably a half dozen other things.  Star Trek has a tendency to get bogged down into ethical and spiritual quandaries, and to forget to simply entertain.  Khan's monomaniacal pursuit of Kirk fixes that problem - there are no deeper questions involved in his revenge quest, just a man who is royally pissed off and will stop at nothing to have his vengeance.  The Genesis Device provides a (small, admittedly) window into the ethical dimension of the series, as it is essentially a doomsday machine, albeit one that can be used for altruistic purposes.  The film kind of leaves this part of the plot behind in the final act, but it waves at the questions it raises just enough to satisfy me.  In other words, this is an eminently rewatchable film, and I don't mean to damn it with faint praise when I say that it transcends its source.  Bullet points to follow.

Can you sing the opening theme of this film?  Well, you probably can, because you're a huge nerd.  But a normal person couldn't.  It is not at all memorable.  I guess the music in this film is effective enough, but this is yet another film in the series where we get a brand-new opening theme.

Supposedly, the news that they were planning to kill off Spock had become something of an open secret during the production of the film, so they pulled the trick of faking out the audience with a bunch of deaths during the Kobayashi Maru training sequence at the very beginning.  I don't know if anyone was fooled when they saw Spock "die" only to get back up, thinking "oh, that's what the rumors were about", but at least they made an attempt.

Can we talk about the Kobayashi Maru scenario?  It is total bullshit.  First of all, during any given real-life scenario at the helm of a starship, there will be an array of options, and all of them will land somewhere on the spectrum between "really good" and "really bad".  The idea of a win/lose dichotomy is a terrible thing to teach to your trainees.  Second, the idea that a training exercise can teach a person how they will respond to their imminent death is just nonsense.  No one knows how they will deal with that until it actually happens, and no training scenario can possibly mimic the stresses of that.  And third, there is no way that the fact that the Kobayashi Maru training test was a thing wouldn't leak out to the cadets at Starfleet, meaning they would all be expecting it to come up at some point and would be almost completely immune to its stresses.

Even though the last movie ended with Kirk taking the Enterprise into the great unknown, this film starts with him again sidelined on Earth as an Admiral without a starship, lamenting his lost baby again.  I don't really care about continuity but given how much of the first film revolved around the same dumb theme (there is absolutely no chance that Kirk would give up command of the Enterprise unless he was forced out under penalty of death) it's kind of annoying to have to go through it again.

There are five major guest stars here.  We've got Paul Winfield as Captain Terrell, the captain of the Reliant, and he comes across as a little overwhelmed (Chekhov is given a lot of the heavy lifting to do during their scenes together, which has the unfortunate effect of making it seem like the black captain of a starship automatically defers to his white inferior officer).  Kirstie Alley plays inexperienced Vulcan officer Saavik, and she's cute but never seems to have a great handle on how to do the sort of emotionless acting that Leonard Nimoy owns as Spock.  Bibi Besch plays Carol Marcus, the head of the Genesis Project team, and she makes almost no impression.  She's there to exposit about the project and be Kirk's former lover (they have absolutely no chemistry which, really, it's hard to have chemistry with the planet-sized ego that is Billy Shatner.)  There is Merritt Butrick as David Marcus, whose performance is unpleasantly mumbly and stuck on "petulantly arrogant" for most of the movie.  And then, there is the Montalban.  His reputation in this movie is totally earned.  Every line reading he gives is completely cool beyond belief, even when he's hamming it up (and he hams it up a lot).  He is the coolest thing in the movie, and the first thing in this series that would not be out of place in a James Bond film.  I mean Khan is, at his heart, basically a Bond villain, someone with inexplicable rage and a unique sense of style who represents a threat to all of humanity but especially our hero.

Chekhov's knowledge of Khan is sort of all over the place.  He doesn't seem to recognize the containers that Khan and his followers live in, but he recognizes the name Botany Bay even if he doesn't know why.  Then when Khan reveals himself (in a perfectly theatrical moment, with Montalban slowly removing basically an armored suit to reveal his face) Chekhov knows who Khan is, but his tone of voice reveals clear surprise that Khan is there.  If Chekhov knows who Khan is, which he clearly does, then why does he A) not immediately make the connection between Ceti Alpha V and Ceti Alpha VI and B) not also immediately realize that Khan is going to be the leader of the group that captures them?  Hollywood bullshit, that's why, so we can have our heroes explore the location and also get the big surprise reveal of Montalban.

Why do their spacesuits have handles on the front?  That's just asking for a 20th century genetic superman to  grasp them and lift.

The space slug in the ear scene is way gross.  Would this have been traumatizing to some children?  Probably.

We do get a complete carbon copy of the scene from the first movie where Kirk and Scotty took a shuttlecraft around the Enterprise and gazed on it with something pretty close to sexual rapture.  This time it's Kirk, Sulu, Uhura and Bones, and the sexual rapture is muted but still present.  It's mercifully shorter this time, but still completely unnecessary unless you basically assume the audience either didn't bother to watch the first movie, or has completely forgotten everything about it (which is, admittedly, not far-fetched).

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, unless you're James T. Kirk and your need is to constantly steal the command of the Enterprise from its rightful current owner, which this time is Spock.  Then your need is what matters the most.

The Genesis presentation by Dr. Marcus is a good way to maximize special effect budget value.  You see this cool-looking transformation of an entire world, but it doesn't have to look like anything but a simulation.  They never explain how Genesis is going to deal with temperature problems of sub-optimal planetary orbits, but who cares I guess, wizardry is a good enough answer to basically all Star Trek science questions.

Saavik tries to get Kirk to raise shields when the hijacked Reliant won't respond to hails, but he's too much of a dingus to listen and gets a bunch of people killed.  There's a running gag about Saavik quoting Starfleet regulations and Kirk not knowing them, and this is maybe supposed to make Kirk seem cool but really makes him seem like an incompetent.

Boy, Engineering has to be the most dangerous job in Starfleet.  No one should sign up for that gig; every time someone attacks the Enterprise, someone (or ones) from Engineering gets it.  They actually linger on the death of a red shirt who works down there, which is the sort of small thing that really makes a world feel lived in.  Kirk gets some of the kid's blood on his uniform's white apron thing, and it sticks there for a while.

The prefix code is really a bullshit deus ex machina.  Why does it exist?  Why do other starships have access to it?  Given logic, it should generally work the exact opposite of the way it does here, with Starfleet ships being hijacked by malevolent actors and then using the code to destroy ships still under Starfleet command.  But Kirk uses it to take down the hijacker.  Also, given that its only positive attribute is that it allows a captain facing a hijacked ship to even the odds, shouldn't everyone's mind pretty much jump to it immediately as the answer to their problem?  They don't, it takes Kirk making a leap of logic for anyone to even remember that it exists.

When they go down to the Genesis project science station around Regula 1, the away team prowls the corridors in a scene that pretty clearly references Alien.  It's good for Star Trek to move outside of its hard sci-fi comfort zone and dip into a genre like horror occasionally.  They even find a dead body hanging from the ceiling.

DeForest Kelley is the (probably not-so-secret) MVP of the Star Trek series.  His cantankerousness allows the audience just the right amount of distance from the material, to see its inherent ridiculousness while not being completely pulled out of the universe.

Shatner's weird rhythms have never been better utilized than in the scene right after Khan's assassination plan (using the mind-slug-controlled Chekov and Captain Terrell to try to kill Kirk on the science station) fails, when Kirk and Khan have their little tête-à-tête over communicators.  "You keep....missing....the target!"  Two enormous hams, facing each other down.

Kirk's freakout (the KHAAAAAAAAAAN moment) when Khan says that he's stranded them inside Regula 1 forever doesn't really make a lot of sense in light of the fact that he had a plan up his sleeve the whole time, and he gets back on to the Enterprise without really breaking a sweat.  Why does he feign so much anger at Khan at that point?  I mean, he already knows that Khan's plan has failed.

I kind of stopped taking notes during the last 30 minutes or so, because it's just really great submarine movie action through the nebula with the Enterprise and the Reliant.  Meyer goes really heavy on the nautical stuff all throughout the film, and it really pays off once we get down to brass tacks, the two ships pursuing one another through three dimensional space in which neither has a clear picture of its surroundings.

If the Genesis device could turn a nebula into a planet, then why didn't they just do that in the first place instead of spending all that effort seeking out a lifeless planet?

I can't say I got emotional at Spock's death or anything but I certainly think that I could have if either I didn't know it was coming or I was more invested in these characters than I actually am.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

(Note: this intro ran longer than I thought it would.  The next 4 paragraphs are about the history of this film's journey to the screen, and have fuck-all to do with the movie under discussion.  Feel free to skip them.)

Star Trek originally ran for 3 fairly unsuccessful seasons on NBC from 1966 to 1969, and then was unceremoniously canceled because its ratings were shit.  Even non-Star Trek fans probably know this basic outline, because Star Trek's success as a franchise fits neatly into its underdog narrative.  The unwanted child went on to become a multi-billion dollar empire.  I mention this because I want to focus a little bit on how remarkable the existence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture actually is.  After the cancellation of the TV series, there was a (low-quality) cartoon series that ran on Saturday mornings for two seasons, from 1973-1974, and then was also cancelled with little fanfare.

This is the normal order of things.  Something comes on TV, is only popular with a tiny, dedicated audience that can't sustain it as a series, makes its way down the food chain from proper series to cartoon to syndication and, eventually, dies an unloved death as fan fiction written by cultists who can't let go.  The funny thing that happened to Star Trek is that its syndicated rerun numbers were big, really big, big enough to suggest to the people running Paramount that there was still money to be made in this universe.  Keep in mind that this happened in a world in which essentially only word of mouth could keep the memory of something alive.  There were no ancillary projects like video games or books (two original novels were created within the Star Trek universe between 1966 and 1976, neither of which was anyone's idea of a massive success.  Novels mostly came later, after the syndication numbers made Star Trek a thing again).  And there was no internet, to bring fans together to obsess over the series, and perhaps harness their energy into bringing it back.  There was only the cold, unconnected darkness of catching an episode here or there in syndication, and yet it managed to be enough.  This certainly speaks to how thoroughly the show's aesthetic connected to an entire generation of TV watchers, something I can marvel at even if I don't share in it.

They commissioned a movie first, and when they couldn't come up with a script that anyone liked, they decided to aim a little lower and create a brand-new television series, featuring most of the old characters (and their actors) along with a few new creations.  The fact that they could get just about everyone to come back for a new TV series is perhaps less remarkable, as the actors on the series were (famously) type-cast by being on the show, and bringing them back together for a new project was not as difficult as it would have been otherwise.  This show, Star Trek: Phase II, was meant to launch a brand-new, Paramount-backed network, in the same way that Star Trek: Voyager eventually did for the UPN network once Paramount finally scraped together enough money to put the plan into action (and given that UPN no longer exists, it is probably the case that they were right to scrap it the first time.)  In any event, Star Trek: Phase II disappeared into oblivion when Paramount backed out of the idea of creating a new network.

This, of course, is where Star Trek gets rescued by the villain that helped to create this monstrosity, and I'm sure the irony won't be lost on people to note that Star Wars saved Star Trek, because it proved that science-fiction on film could make a ton of money for everyone involved.  So everyone went back to the drawing board, and 10 years after it was cancelled (after an ugly, budget-gutted 3rd season that saw it shunted off to the wasteland of Friday, because no one at NBC believed in the show and they just wanted rid of it) Star Trek was reborn, not as another low-budget TV series, but as theatrical movie with a reasonably robust budget.  And this is an amazing thing to have happened, a thing that shouldn't and doesn't happen.  Sure you get the odd Serenity here or there, but that universe sank back into nothingness after the film came out.  Star Trek has been a fairly consistent part of the cultural landscape for the past 30 years, and this is sort of where the whole thing started.

So all that nonsense out of the way, let's get to this sucker, shall we?  The Enterprise is currently stationed near Earth, at the tail end of an 18-month retro-fitting.  Admiral Kirk (he is, at the moment at least, an Admiral) comes on board to lead the ship on a mission to intercept a Gigantic Blue Cloud of Doom that is barreling down on the Earth.  He replaces the current Captain, Will Decker, and demotes him to First Mate, a situation that Decker is not at all thrilled about.  Neither Spock nor Bones are currently part of the crew, but Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekhov are all still hanging around.  In addition to Decker, our other new crew member is Ilia, who comes from Planet Bald, and she and Decker have some sort of (non-sexual) history, because she's taken a vow of chastity.  The Enterprise goes out to meet the Gigantic Blue Cloud and in the process Ilia is captured by it, essentially hollowed out as a person and rebuilt as a cold, unfeeling probe of the Cloud, who is now going by V'ger.  At some point both Spock and Bones join the crew, bringing the old gang completely back together.  Further exploration of V'ger reveals it to be, at its heart, one of the old Voyager probes, itself captured by a race of intelligent machines and upgraded into the Gigantic Blue Cloud. It is trying to fulfill its original mission, which is to gather data about the universe and send it back to its Creator on Earth  It regards the people of Earth as obstacles standing between it and its mission, and threatens to murder them all if it doesn't meet the Creator in person.  Decker chooses to stand in for the Creator, melds with the machine, the Earth is saved and the Enterprise flies off to its next adventure.

If I had to choose a single word to describe this movie, it would be "unambitious".  It's not that you can see the seams where a script for a single, 46-minute episode of television was expanded out into a 2+ hour movie, it's that the seams are actually enormous chasms over which have been erected a handful of rickety bridges.  Long stretches of the film basically play like a bottle episode, with everyone hanging around on the bridge and deciding how to proceed, and those parts that don't (particularly the opening section, with Kirk re-joining the Enterprise, and the climax, where our main characters get off the ship and visit face-to-face with V'ger) could very easily be jettisoned entirely, or re-written in such a way that they could happen right on the bridge too.  The whole thing is thoroughly padded out, suggesting a rush job on a script that, quite frankly, does not have enough meat on its bones to be given the feature-length treatment.  The character beats for Kirk, Spock and especially Decker are completely rushed through (Decker, in particular, could have been excised right out of the movie without doing any real harm to it), afterthoughts obviously tacked on to the film because this is a movie and movies require multiple character arcs.  Thanks to the generous padding, the film feels totally hollow and sterile, and that is not a great way to kick off a film franchise.  But we shall continue along in this endeavor, and it can only get better I guess.  As always, it's bullet point time.

It's very weird that they went with a new song, given how important to the brand the original theme is.  This would probably not happen nowadays, because fans would throw a total shit-fit about it.  The theme to this movie, of course, is much more famous now as the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song.

There's good miniature work on the ships in this movie (primarily the Enterprise) but really, really shitty blue screen work.  Everything has a very distinctive halo effect.

We meet Spock early on down on Vulcan, I guess.  Very weird-looking place, very late-70's.  Some old Vulcan lady is threatening to don Spock with a truly ghastly necklace that represents his final break from emotion or something, but then it turns out he sucks too much and he doesn't get to wear it.

The matte painting work in this movie really dates it badly.  At Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, there's a matte painting background of the city and part of the HQ, and there are little tiny people on the painting that are frozen in place.

The Enterprise transporter is broken, conveniently forcing Kirk and Scotty to take a transport shuttle to the ship for Kirk's first return to it in some number of years(?)  This allows the camera to swirl around the model of the Enterprise while the theme plays.  It's an incredibly sexually-charged moment, two men gazing lovingly at the curves of The Only Woman They've Ever Loved for 5 solid minutes.  Of course, every time you see a long shot of the shuttle, it's obvious that it's just a shot of the two of them projected on a screen, because they look completely flat.  I'm not going to be too harsh on the effects of this movie going forward (they are what they are) but these shots really stand out badly.

Everyone stares beatifically at Kirk when he first comes on board, and Christ knows what actorly part of themselves they had to delve into in order to pretend they were happy to be stuck in a room with Shatner again.

When Kirk swipes the command from the dad from 7th Heaven (aka Will Decker), Kirk weirdly acts like a total cock about it.

More padding - someone tries to beam two people aboard the Enterprise, despite the broken transporter.  They can't materialize and get sent back to their original destination, where it is implied that they came back in some gruesome form.  It's actually a pretty cool moment all things considered, giving the movie a rare jolt of visceral emotion, but it's also totally unnecessary.

Kirk gives a presentation about the Gigantic Blue Cloud to the assembled Enterprise crew.  Among the crowd are a man and a woman in full Native American regalia, a guy with a big blue head, and some dude with a head like a butt.  Mostly just late-70's era humans though.  Disappointingly light on mustaches.

Little things - after leaving dry dock, the Enterprise makes a flyby of Jupiter.  Why?  Because.  The flyby includes a bunch of its moons all bunched together, too, as if everything was just within spitting distance.

The Enterprise enters warp and immediately goes into a "wormhole" entirely for the purpose of adding some life into a so-far completely inert movie.  And then the wormhole slows down time, which is basically the opposite of what you'd want to be doing with the movie at this point.  This whole part, which goes on for what feels like 30 minutes but is probably only 5 at most, is really unspeakably awful, with the crew getting this weird flaring effect and everyone moving and talking really slow as they try to fix the problem.

The arc that they attempt with Kirk is that he comes back to the Enterprise both unfamiliar with the crew, and not really in any sort of shape to be a Captain of a starship, and has to work through those problems.  They mostly have his dickishness bounce off of Decker, but the film's attempt to make a point about Kirk's recklessness is constantly undermined by the fact that Decker is a huge pussy about basically everything, Ackbar before Ackbar.

The Enterprise travels into the cloud and as it does so, the camera is constantly switching between long, 2001-esque light show special effects of the inside of the cloud and shots of the crew looking on in wonder.  The distrust of the audience is palpable; not trusting them to be completely amazed by the effects (and they shouldn't trust them to be, because the effects are boring), they have the crew be amazed for them.  The voyage into the cloud takes 10 solid padded minutes, with only a couple of short dialogue scenes to break up the monotony.

When the Ilia probe is returned to the ship, she wears an outfit that comes down about as far as a medium-sized T-shirt.  Why are her legs completely exposed?  Maximum value from actress and former model Persis Khambatta, that's why.

Spock goes rogue!  He goes flying into the heart of V'ger to gather information (he mind-melds with the cloud, which is pretty much just him holding his hands up to the empty air around him) and to get there he has to go through an opening that looks not a little bit but a lot like a gigantic space anus (the space anus prevents the Enterprise from proceeding any further into the interior of the cloud.)

Spock's short character journey takes him from superdick who's trying to rub out all emotions forever to enlightened half-human who sees the hopelessness of V'ger's cold machine logic and rejects it.  It basically happens in a single scene, where Spock gets religion from the mind meld and realizes he's tired of being a superdick to Bones.

V'ger finally sucks the Enterprise through the space anus, and then basically the entire leadership apparatus of the ship goes down to visit with the machine.  Why is there an atmosphere here, in the heart of a gigantic machine-based lifeform?  It's never explained.

So we get our big reveal, that V'ger turns out to be one of the Voyager probes (Voyager VI, we're told) that had had the O-Y-A blocked by space tar or whatever.  Both Voyager spacecraft were sending back pictures of the Jovian system in 1979.  There was, of course, no Voyager VI, only a I and a II, but Star Trek is always very optimistic I guess.  This reveal possibly played as interesting in 1979, when Voyager was probably in the news a lot.  Nowadays, it doesn't play as dated so much as, okay, that's something vaguely interesting I guess.  This came from Earth, not sure why they're making such a big deal about the stupid name.  (When I was a kid I had one of those big glossy books all about the Voyager missions, so this means slightly more to me than it does to pretty much everyone else in the universe, and it still doesn't really mean that much to me.  Voyager, hooray!)

They don't call black holes black holes anymore in whatever year this is.  I don't know what they call them, but not that.  Decker says that Voyager VI went through what used to be called a black hole, which is a weird thing to say if you think about it.  Why wouldn't he just use the current name of them?

V'ger wants to meld with its Creator in order to become more human.  Decker, in what amounts to a fit of adolescent impulsiveness, decides that this is all of a sudden what he desperately wants out of life.  This allows him to space-bone Ilia, which is pretty clearly why he signed up for the deal.  He and Ilia meld together in the second-most sexually-charged moment of the film, and then they are gone, becoming part of V'ger.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Star Trek Movie Marathon

I do not like Star Trek.

That's not quite right.  I don't hate Star Trek, not completely and utterly.  I've watched episodes of every series that isn't Enterprise; I even liked a few of them.  But generally speaking, the world and ethos of Star Trek doesn't appeal to me.  It was born as a 60's television show, and I don't like the aesthetic of 60's era TV, and even though it's 45 years later, I think it still retains that part of it in its DNA.

So why the fuck am I doing this?  Well, first of all, so it's clear, I am going to watch all 11 Star Trek feature films, and only those things.  This is a movie blog, not a TV blog, and I am not going down the rabbit hole of watching a bunch of episodes of some TV show that I don't like that much anyway. So why?  Well, besides it being a relatively easy project to do, and something where I get the chance to perhaps snark on a sacred cow, I'm curious how these films hold up as films, as pieces of culture divorced from the TV show(s) that spawned them.  And I would like to watch the series evolve (or devolve) as the world around it changes.  This is 30 years of films (so far), and that fact reveals something about social concerns, even if the people making them didn't know it at the time.

Unlike the Bond films, I have actully watched more than half of these at some point, though I could only detail out the plot of 2, 6 and the JJ Abrams remake from memory.  So it's a chance to see a lot of these with fresh eyes, from the standpoint of someone who judges film with a critical eye and is willing to see the bad and the good anywhere it can be found.  To be clear, I am not simply watching these movies in order to take them down a peg.  I want to be surprised, and I expect to be surprised.  And I expect to be vindicated along the way too.  It's all part and parcel with the deal here.

So into the breach I will go.  We will begin with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (at some indefinite point in the very near future, I haven't quite decided yet), and I will try to recap some of the film's backstory as well as review it.