Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Star Trek: Nemesis

A member of the Reman race, the inhabitants of the Romulans' sister planet, takes over the Romulan Senate and initiates peace talks with the Federation.  The Enterprise-E, after discovering a more primitive version of Data named B-4 on a remote planet, is sent on a diplomatic mission to Romulus and there meets the Reman Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who is actually a human clone of Picard who was raised in the crucible of the Reman slave mines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shinzon turns out to be less interested in peace than he seems, and his true goal is to conquer not simply the Romulan Empire but the Federation as well, by using "thalaron radiation" which is weaponized on his ship, to wipe out life on Earth.  In addition, the procedure that cloned him left him with a life-span that is rapidly coming to an end, so he needs Picard's DNA to reverse the process.  Shinzon captures Picard and plans to undergo the procedure that will save him, but is foiled in the attempt by Data - Shinzon had planted B-4 for the Enterprise to find, and had been using him to obtain information about the Federation, but when he thought he beamed B-4 onboard his ship it was actually Data.  With Picard and Data back on board, the Enterprise heads to Earth but is ambushed by Shinzon's ship on the way, and after a space battle which leaves both ships (and another Romulan ship which had entered the battle to try to stop Shinzon) partially crippled, Shinzon activates the thalaron device in order to kill everyone on the Enterprise, and tells his crew to continue to Earth and complete their mission without him.  Picard beams onboard and fights his way to the bridge to stop Shinzon, ultimately killing him, but without the time left to turn off the thalaron device.  Unknown to him, Data has also come onboard Shinzon's ship, and his final act is to affix a beaming device to Picard to beam him back to the Enterprise, before he destroys the thalaron weapon and in the process blowing up Shinzon's ship and also sacrificing himself.  Back on board the Enterprise the crew mourns Data's loss, but B-4 turns out to have been given more of Data's memories than the crew realized, and Data will live on in a fashion through B-4.

I've watched a handful of Next Generation episodes, of varying quality, but the one that I always think of first when I think about the series is "Tapestry".  I won't go into the details of the plot (most of you people probably know it better than I do anyway) but it's an episode about the way our experiences create the person we are, and that we should treasure all of them, both the positive and the negative.  It's an effective episode of television - it's about a Big Idea, and it plays around with alternate timelines and other fun science fiction conventions, while also revealing a nice bit of backstory about Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: Nemesis attempts to find its way to a similar theme.  Shinzon and Picard have the exact same DNA, but they have lived completely different lives, and are very different people (and they are implicitly and explicitly compared to B-4 and Data in this).  Shinzon is angry and vindictive, and is willing to commit monstrous acts of genocide in pursuit of his goals; Picard, naturally, is a scholar and a humanitarian, and believes in peaceful exploration.  It's probably not a surprise when I say that this idea never coalesces in the slightest - Shinzon and Picard don't seem remotely similar on any level, and it is only through exposition that we would even know that they are clones.  Given that The Next Generation is a series about ideas more than it is about action, it's a fairly major indictment of all four of these films that they almost entirely botch their ideas (with a bit of leeway for First Contact, which I was underwhelmed by in general but at least had some vaguely interesting thoughts about revenge).  There isn't really all that much effort put into any of the ideas that these movies are nominally centered around, and Nemesis pretty much gives up on its idea after the first act.

However (record scratch).

Taking that as a given, that the ideas here are a complete non-starter that aren't even really worth discussing, then what is here is surprisingly successful.  In particular, I'd posit that the third act of the film is the most well-realized section of any of the TNG films - tense, exciting, filled with top-notch action and ending with a real emotional payoff (even if it basically repeats the exact same beats as Star Trek II).  A good third act can paper over a lot of sins, and this is a really great third act.  None of the Star Trek films have done a particularly great job of exploring the deeper ends of their bench, and the four Next Generation films were mostly interested in Picard and Data, with everyone else circling their orbit.  But of all the performances in all 10 films so far, I might like Stewart's here the best of the entire lot, because he manages to find depths in his personal quest that aren't really present in the script at all.  I don't think Nemesis is quite as good as the two best Original Series films (II and VI) but I think it is the one Next Generation film that can at least stand in their general vicinity.

Bullet pointin':

The opening scene aboard the Enterprise has Picard giving a speech about duty and honor and leading men into battle, and then the big reveal is that he is giving the best man speech at Riker and Troi's wedding.  This reveal makes him seem like a seriously narcissistic weirdo.

His speech eventually becomes emotional about how much he loves Riker and Troi, and I have to take the film's word for it that the emotion has been earned in the television series, because it certainly hasn't in the film series.

In the future, cymbals will still be the same shape and size, but they'll be made of green plastic.

Data croons a standard for Riker and Troi, because Brent Spiner had albums to sell.

On the planet where they find B-4, the away team of Picard, Data and Worf, after picking up the pieces of the android, are under assault by an entire army of Mad Max rejects.  No one ever seems the tiniest bit perturbed by this fact - the action direction here is pretty poor, with all the effort being poured in to making sure the three seem capable of battle, and no effort being placed on the actors giving believably frightened performances.  I can't stress just how outmanned the away team is - we know they will make it out okay, because it's early yet, but they shouldn't know that.

B-4 acts like child Data, and everyone is really shocked that he exists, but doesn't Data already have one brother called Lore who's evil?

Spiner's performance as B-4 ends up making sense once we get to the big emotional payoff at the end of the film, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of seeming to have been dropped in from a completely different film for the bulk of the running time.  Picard is doing tense, serious acting with Shinzon, discussing all sorts of monumental things, and in the background B-4 is basically eating paste.

We get a Janeway cameo.  For fans only, meaning not me.

The Remans, whose planet is only habitable on the dark side, look like Nosferatu.  It's one of those things that's way too obvious to be called clever.  Was the Reman/Romulan split ever dealt with in the series?  The film dumps a bit of exposition about it, but it all seems very cursory given that we're given this whole other race in this movie who are intimately tied to one of the major races of the Star Trek universe.

Dr. Crusher on how the Romulans managed to clone Picard: "They've probably used a hair follicle...."  Haha, baldy.

Shinzon explains away the fact that Tom Hardy doesn't actually look that much like Patrick Stewart by saying that all the violence he's experienced has altered his face.  Kind of stupid, but suspension of disbelief isn't totally out of the question.  But later, when Picard is looking at an old picture of himself from the academy, it's a picture of Tom Hardy in uniform.  That's sort of contemptuous.  We know Hardy and Stewart don't look alike.  You've hand-waved it away, and we will process it in our own way.  Move on.

Hardy was clearly not yet ready for movie stardom.  It's weird watching this now that he's a reasonably big star - it makes sense that an actor of his caliber would be asked to carry half the film in retrospect. But at the time, he was a nobody, and what he's asked to do in the film is well beyond his means.  He just seems like a petulant child, and he is unable to carry any of the menace that he is supposed to.

Have we ever seen fighter jets in the Star Trek universe?  I don't think I have.  Picard and Data commandeer one when they escape from Shinzon's ship.  Fighters don't fit, somehow, even though they should be a logical extension of everyone's military tactics.  Big ships blast each other with lasers and torpedoes, that's just the way battles happen. (This is obviously nothing more than a function of television-sized budgets in 1967, but I'm just spit-balling about the implications of that fact.)

Poor Gates McFadden has to do a lot of expositing in this movie.

Shinzon's offensive manuever that he runs against the Enterprise is named after himself, but the Enterprise's defensive manuever is named after Kirk.  Fuck that noise.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Queen of Versailles

Not all of the victims of the 2008 financial crisis were poor.  It's true that a lot of people lost homes who could scarcely, or not at all, afford to do so.  And it's true that the financial crisis led to a concurrent (and still continuing) employment crisis, where people already on the edge of financial ruin lost their jobs as well.  But time-share mogul David Siegel, who had been planning to move his family into a larger house modeled after Versailles (the largest house in America, but who's counting) before the economy collapsed, was just as much of a victim as anyone else.  More so by some reckonings, since he lost considerably more of his money than most people could even imagine it was possible to lose.

No, just kidding, David Siegel is scum.  It's a wonder he allowed filmmaker Lauren Greenfield to continue to film him once the movie morphed from "rich people building unfathomably large house" to "rich people learning to continue to be rich, but slightly less so."  There is not a single point in the film where he comes across as anything other than a money and status-obsessed huckster who treats his family like they're living props who happen to occupy the same space as him (it is no surprise at all that he was the man who did this.)  Towards the end of the film, as he desperately tries to salvage his business empire, the film finds him more often than not holed up in his grimy study, surrounded by stacks upon stacks of papers, begging for money from investors and shunning his family when he's not actively berating them for various money-related misdeeds.  He is a fully unsympathetic figure, a man who allowed his children from his first wife to live in poverty while he built that multi-million dollar empire, and if the film had been about him it would have been nothing but schadenfreude all the way down.

But this film is not really about him, it's about the titular queen, his wife Jackie.  And Jackie is a woman with a lot of facets, someone who asks an airport rental car agent who her driver will be with a straight face, but who also sends her childhood friend 5000 dollars in order to save the friend's house from foreclosure.  Upon surveying Versailles, in the pre-crisis part of the film, she walks up a staircase with a friend and remarks, "this is the staircase I would use if I wanted to visit the children."  And, admittedly, things like this keep happening all throughout the film; she is puzzled by the fact that the bailout money that was sent from the taxpayers to the banks isn't being used to help people like her family.  So it's easy to write her off as just another rich trophy wife who believes that the world owes her something.  But after spending 100 minutes with her, when she claims, at the end of the film, that if her and her husband had to move into a truly regular house, in a regular neighborhood, and live like middle class people, that she would do it, you believe her, or at least I did.  Because despite how badly her perspective has been warped by the amount of money she lives with, she does seem to care for the people around her, her nanny-raised but reasonably doted-upon children, her friends and family that she left behind when she moved from Binghamton, New York out into the wider world, and even perhaps her husband (although that seems less likely).

The film is a little bit muddled about the time frame.  The Siegels' fortunes are never completely clear - when things go south after '08, the family jumps between being in seemingly truly difficult straits to continuing to spend money with utter abandon.  Jackie receives a 2000-dollar can of caviar for Christmas, but David flips out about too many lights being turned on in their house.  Greenfield could have spent more time establishing just how warped the Siegels' relationship to money actually is by delving into the numbers of their lifestyle; as it is, we get talk of facts and figures here and there about David's business, but never a full reckoning of the Siegels' assets, and just how sheltered they truly are, as individuals, from the real consequences of the financial crisis.

The secret weapons of The Queen of Versailles are the people who work for the Siegels, especially the Filipino nanny who raises their children and hasn't seen her own children in 2 decades.  Her pain is palpable when she talks about trying to send money home to the Phillipines so her family can build their own modest house, and when the Siegels hit their rough patch it hits her hard too - at one point the film has her living in one of the kids' abandoned playhouses on the grounds of their estate, although the film does not establish whether this is a part-time occupancy or a full-time one.  Neither David nor his son, who occupies a top position in his company, ever comments on the fact that what they do (sell time-shares to people who only have access to the kind of money required to buy one because of loose credit in a booming economy) is the same thing the banks did to their business, giving them loans to buy more and more real estate to turn into time shares because money was cheap and investment was loose before everything fell apart.  They lament the latter once it all collapses around them, and never once connect the dots to the former and what a scam their business model really is.  David even refuses to give up on Versailles, the boondoggle to end all boondoggles, because he believes a turnaround of his fortunes is imminent.  But Jackie, perhaps naive but mostly guileless Jackie, understands what a fleeting pleasure it really was, and lets it go without a real fuss.  David Siegel is the perfect villain for understanding what happened when the world economy melted down in 2008, a money-hungry scumbag who is never satisfied with what he has and didn't even have the foresight to put a bit of money away for his childrens' college fund while he was building a 90,000 square foot ode to tacky American excess.  But even though Jackie lives the life of a trophy wife and is completely warped by the copious amounts of money in her life, she never completely lost her humanity to it.  A-

(I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the funniest scene in the film; after the collapse, Jackie goes to Wall-Mart with her kids and one of her maids to do Christmas shopping.  The family is in fairly dire financial straits and everyone has had to cut back, which includes indulging less in shopping.  She ends up buying 3 carts full of crap, which includes a bike for one of the kids.  When they get home, the maid takes the bike into a garage that is filled near to bursting with.....a bunch of bicycles.  She casually leans the new bike against the pile of old bikes, and walks off.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Star Trek: Insurrection

The crew of the Enterprise-E are pulled away from a diplomatic mission by Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) in order to deal with a seemingly malfunctioning Data, who during  a clandestine operation observing the primitive Ba'ku people on a remote world, revealed the presence of the mission to the Ba'ku.   The crew travels to the planet and manages to deactivate Data, but their suspicions are aroused by the Admiral's insistence that they leave the system immediately after completing their mission.  While on the planet, they discover a Starfleet plan to remove the Ba'ku, who are in truth a technologically-advanced species who have been granted immortality by the planet's unique properties, from the surface without their knowledge.  The Federation are working with the Son'a people, a race that engages in a grotesque skin stretching ritual that seemingly keeps them alive.  They are led by Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham), and plan to harvest the immortality-granting rings of the planet in order to use its gifts for the good of the wider galaxy, but the success of their plan means the desolation of the planet.

Picard, who has become close with one of the Ba'ku, Anij (Donna Murphy), has moral reservations about this plan, and also suspects that it is not endorsed by the full Federation, so rather than complying with the Admiral's order to leave the system he and the bulk of the command crew (everyone but Riker and Geordi) go down to the surface of the planet to help the Ba'ku defend themselves against the Son'a/Federation plan.  While the Enterprise travels away from the planet in order to deliver a message to Starfleet, the crew on the planet learn that the Son'a and the Ba'ku are the same race, the Son'a having left the planet as rebellious teenagers who balked at their elders' insistence that they not engage with the wider galaxy.  They have returned because they desire the planet's healing properties under their own control, and are using the Federation to achieve that end.  Picard and company manage to stop the Son'a and restore the Ba'ku to their  bucolic existence through a bunch of convoluted plot mechanics that, quite frankly, I don't feel like detailing.

I feel like I have less to say about this movie than about any of the other Star Trek films thus far.  It's not a successful film like Star Trek II.  It's not a noble failure like Generations.  It's not a spectacular, epic failure like Star Trek V.  It's just a run-of-the-mill failure.  A bunch of shit happens, our heroes get in and out of a handful of scrapes, then they complete their mission and it's over.  In some ways it's possibly the most Bond-like of all of these films, albeit one of the lousy Roger Moore ones - there's A Girl who our hero romances, there's a deformed bad guy who is a complete lunatic, and there's a pretty decent amount of action.  Even the two women in the cast get to shoot guns at things in this film, which I guess is a decent consolation prize since first place, "developing interesting characters who the audience can identify with," is off the table.  You'd think that all that action would lead to a film that was exciting, but you would be 100% wrong.

The biggest problem here is that there is just nothing remotely cinematic about this film.  Oh, it has all the trappings of cinema - a sizeable effects budget, location shooting, Oscar-winning guest stars (sure, F. Murray Abraham is more of an answer to a trivia question than a major film star but, still, he did win the damn thing). But the plot is so wafer thin, and so padded out by extraneous nonsense that the film is absolutely anchored to the Earth as "a movie based on a TV show" rather than an actual film that can stand on its own.  Insurrection is an episode of TV.  There is nothing at stake here really, and the reset button is liberally deployed at the end of the film.  Among everything that happens in this movie, the thing that will probably have the most lasting effect is Riker shaving his beard.  Three movies in to the Next Generation's run on the big screen and creative bankruptcy has already set in; the film series ended after the next one because people stopped showing up, but you can see the seeds of its destruction here.  This movie reflects a tired and bored creative team that was out of ideas.

Bullet pointing:

The scenes of the idyllic Ba'ku planet are something like The Lord of the Rings shot by James Cameron on a shoe-string budget.

When we first meet the Enterprise-E crew in this film, they are doing some diplomatic work, meeting with some alien race or other.  The aliens put some weird beaded thing on Picard's head as a sign of honor and respect, and Riker and Troi roll their eyes because they are racist xenophobes I guess.

I couldn't begin to explain whatever hurdles were jumped through in order to bring Worf aboard again.  He was putting in time on Deep Space Nine but they obviously had to find a way to bring him back around for every one of this cast's films.

Picard's ploy to stop Data involves singing some of the score from the HMS Pinafore and I mean really.

The Baku are really off-puttingly precious.  They're like hobbits, but instead of being endearingly earthy, they're pretentious and self-righteous.

Data: "In the event of a water landing, I have been designed to serve as a flotation device" (blowing up a balloon sound).  Funny jokes!

Worf has a pimple.  Everyone in the cast gets "younger" in some fashion due to their proximity to the Ba'ku planet's rings, but Worf comes out by far the worst.  Riker shaves his beard, Geordi's eyes get fixed, Picard's equipment starts working again I guess because he's all up on that Anij lady, but Worf really gets put through the adolescent ringer.  Mood swings, bad hair, the whole nine yards.  He came back for this shit?

Picard dances a mambo on the Enterprise all by himself, which I guess is also a symptom of the rings turning everyone's clock back, but could just bit a bit of contractual wrangling that Patrick Stewart insisted on.  Maybe he was learning the mambo during breaks in filming and wanted to show off.

Picard and Anij have a bit of chemistry, it's not bad.  All things considered, their interactions are perhaps the best part of the film.  They're not great or anything, this is pretty standard romantic drama territory, but they are better than most of the lazy shit around them.

I think the morals of this film are kind of ass-backwards, but I don't really care enough about the topic to detail why.

F. Murray Abraham's performance stays pretty close to 11 the whole way through.  At one point, it gets so hammy he starts bleeding from the exertion.

During the initial Son'a attack, as the Enterprise crew evacuates them from out in the open, a Ba'ku kid and his pet space gerbil trip and he screams out "Father!" because it's important to stack the deck here.  Data has a long conversation with this tow-headed youth and it is truly dreadful.  Has there ever been a little kid on Star Trek that everyone didn't immediately want to punch in the face?

The Baku can slow time for some reason, which Anij demonstrates to Picard.  You almost get the impression that no one working on this film gave a shit about it.

The two women of the crew have a brief conversation about the planet making their boobs more firm and I should probably complain but honestly, at least it manages to allow the two women a chance to interact.  Would've been nice if it was under less stupid circumstances but whatever, you take what you can get.

"I wouldn't be surprised if history remembers this as the Riker Manuever" is a phrase that Geordi says during the Enterprise's big battle scene with the Son'a.  I mean, this is fan-fiction.  This is not a real script.

F. Murray Abraham kills Admiral Dougherty by putting him in their face-stretching machine, and it's pretty gross in a PG-13 way.

The dumb Son'a face-stretching thing makes significantly less sense once the big reveal is made, even though the movie thinks it explains it.  The Son'a broke away from the Ba'ku 100 years ago, and the movie posits that they were so upset about losing the benefits of the Fountain of Youth planet that they went to any means (meaning face stretching) to hold on to their youth.  But the face-stretching mutilates their appearnce into something so grotesque that it's pretty hard to believe that the entire group of them went along with it.  No one said, hey guys, maybe we should either say sorry and return to the magical immortality world or, failing that, grow old like normal people rather than, you know, turning ourselves into freak-show horrors?  Their face stretching made sense when it was just some dumb cultural thing.

Lol, holodeck'd.  I really can't explain exactly what happens in the climax of this film - Picard et al. make use of a holoship (a ship with a giant holodeck that could replicate a large space) that the Federation had planned to stuff the Ba'ku into as a way to get them off the planet.  They get the Son'a on that ship through plot wizardry so that when the Son'a think they've succeeded with their ring-harvesting plan, they've actually just been inside a mock up of their ship's bridge, and it's all fake.  When F. Murray Abraham finds this out, his performance goes from 11 to 1 billion.

A bunch of shit happens after this, including the final confrontation between Picard and Ru'afo, but it's all so lazy and uninteresting that I'm taking the rest of the review off.  See you back here for Nemesis.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

There's a moment towards the end of the second act of Zero Dark Thirty when the CIA director (played by an actor in a mostly unbilled cameo that I won't spoil) polls his operatives, including dogged pursuer Maya (Jessica Chastain), about the odds that the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan actually houses Osama bin Laden.  Sixty percent they mostly agree on, although one says 80 and Maya is absolutely, 100% certain that UBL, as they call him, resides there.  60 is a big number but it's not that big in context, given what Maya's ultimate goal is, which is to kill bin Laden.  Maya would prefer to simply drop a bomb on the compound but that number, 60, means that the higher-ups are skittish about the operation, and they choose to send a strike force in instead, a decision which puts American lives at risk but which allows for a bit more nuance in terms of who lives and who dies inside the walls of the compound.  If a Saudi drug dealer lives in the compound with his family, and a bomb is dropped on top of it, very uncomfortable questions will be asked of the US government by the Pakistanis.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film that, more than anything else, pulses with the energy of a supremely confident filmmaker who knows exactly how to ratchet up and release tension, even when not much more is happening on screen but two people talking to each other about what some tiny shred of intelligence actually means.  Kathryn Bigelow has always been a talented visual stylist, but she's found a collaborator in screenwriter Mark Boal who has allowed her, first in the masterful Oscar winner The Hurt Locker and now in this film, to deploy her talents on a film that has real substance.  The story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is one of countless numbers of people, working across all manner of intelligence and bureaucratic agencies, painstakingly putting together the pieces of where bin Laden was hiding.  Boal takes that story and filters it through Maya, a character who, thanks to Jessica Chastain's typically excellent work, we come to empathize with and genuinely care about, even though we know next to nothing about who she is.  A rotating cast fills out the edges of her story; Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle and a number of other actors flit in and out of the story but Maya always remains, with her eyes fixed on the one target that she desperately wants to find.

That 60 percent number is where the film resides.  If the Maya (and the other CIA agents) had been wrong, no one ever makes Zero Dark Thirty, because it's just another failed, and subsequently covered-up, operation.  Sixty percent is, realistically, the best anyone can do under the circumstances, because that is how intelligence works, with percentages and probabilities, not certainties.  Maya believes in her own certainty, but the people in charge of making the decision can't afford to be anything less than completely honest about the mission.  In the end, the film is, at its heart, a revenge flick, and revenge flicks don't exist without closing the book on the target of their vengeance.  The toll the hunt takes on Maya is obvious in the closing scene but the truth is that the killing of Osama bin Laden from the audience's perspective is a cathartic moment.  Just like there is no such thing as an anti-war movie, there is no such thing as an anti-revenge movie.  This film earns its vengeance, even if it might not be completely satisfied with it.

It is, of course, not possible to talk about this film without at least mentioning its politics - I believe that it is a film whose politics are, by and large, those that a person brings to bear on it.  If you believe that America's torture program was (and is) absolutely crucial in the fight against international terrorism, there is plenty here that would suggests that you are right.  If you believe (as I do) that America's torture program was a practical failure and a morally repugnant turn for this country, there is evidence for that too.  However you feel about legally sanctioned torture, the film does not allow anyone off the hook for what it actually looks like on the ground, the brutality and degradation of it, and I appreciated that fact, even if I maintain some degree of trepidation about just how much of the film's point of view is with the CIA.

This is a film about the slow but steady accumulation of intelligence, and also about how quests for revenge change the perspective of those who engage in them.  Just as surely as Osama bin Laden ultimately got precisely what he deserved, it is reasonable to inquire what, exactly, the continuing quest for justice, one that did not truly end with his death, has cost America.  Zero Dark Thirty, by focusing on Maya, asks that question obliquely, but it is always there, traveling along with the film, even as it thrills on the surface.  A

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I am, I have to admit, something of a sucker for a good twist ending.  There are a lot of movies with a shitty twist ending, something that comes out of left field, and it's obvious that the filmmakers didn't know how to end the film and figured this was as good as anything.  But a good twist ending makes you want to watch the thing again, with the knowledge that you didn't have the first time, just to see how all the pieces fit.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi has perhaps the subtlest twist ending that I have ever seen in a film, but it is one that completely inverts the narrative of the film.  Jiro Ono is an 85 year old sushi master whose tiny restaurant in the heart of Tokyo earned 3 stars from the Michelin Guide.  His two sons, Yoshikazu and Takashi, followed in his footsteps in the family business; Yoshikazu continues to work at Jiro's restaurant as his second in command, while Takashi has since opened his own sushi restaurant, and is no longer in his father's employ.

Jiro's perfectionism is at the heart of the story, and filmmaker David Gelb hints at, and sometimes explicitly states, just what an unpleasant person he is to work for.  He's a striver, and he is deeply passionate about sushi; it's clear from the very beginning that Jiro's passion is the thing separating his restaurant from your run-of-the-mill sushi joint.  At 85 he still runs the restaurant while Yoshikazu, ever the dutiful eldest son, takes his orders with grace and dignity and waits for his own turn to run the place himself.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about loving what you do, but it's also about being good at what you do, and it's about the way fathers can overshadow sons and make things difficult on them without meaning to.  Jiro loves his sons enough to train them in the thing that drives him, but while he strives towards an elusive perfection that he will never reach, he sometimes has trouble seeing the thing that is right under his nose.  But the reveal at the end is subtle and beautiful and makes you understand just why Jiro does what he does.  A-

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Star Trek: First Contact

The Borg launch a new, concerted attack against the Earth, and the Enterprise-E is instead sent out to patrol the Neutral Zone because Starfleet is concerned that Captain Picard's personal history with the Borg will override his judgment in battle.  As the Enterprise crew learns that the battle is going poorly they disobey orders and head to Earth just in time to lead a renewed attack on the Borg ship and defeat it, but not before an escape pod gets away.  This pod travels back in time to 21st century Earth and takes the Enterprise along with it, where the crew discovers that the Borg has changed the future and converted the entirety of humanity into members of the Borg Collective - they've managed to do this by destroying the capability of Zefram Cochran (James Cromwell) to launch Earth's first warp ship, therefore delaying humanity's first contact with alien lifeforms long enough for the Borg to take over instead.  The Enterprise destroys the pod but, unknown to them, survivors infiltrate the Enterprise and begin assimilating its crew.

A group on Earth led by Riker, Geordi and Troi work to salvage Cochran's work and attempt to launch the warp ship at its designated historical moment, while the rest of the crew of the Enterprise battles the Borg menace on the ship.  Data is captured by the Borg and meets the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who attempts to reverse engineer him into a Borg, grafting human flesh on to a mechanical body.  As more and more of the ship is lost to the Borg, Picard's officers plead for him to destroy the ship and the Borg along with it but he refuses, a fact which Cochran's colleague Lily (Alfre Woodard), who had been brought aboard the ship for medical attention, realizes is due to Picard's desire for vengeance against the race that once assimilated him.  Picard, confronted with the reality of his obsessive quest by Lily, acquiesces to his officers and sets the ship to self-destruct, but he is thwarted by the Queen and the newly-assimilated Data.  As Cochran's ship lifts off from Earth, the Queen orders Data to fire on it, but he proves to be a disloyal member of the Collective, and deliberately misses Cochran's ship before destroying the Borg Queen and the rest of the threat aboard the Enterprise.  The warp ship, having safely completed its flight, returns to Earth, and a Vulcan ship touches down that night, proving to humanity that it is not alone in the universe.  The Enterprise travels back to the 24th century, having defeated the Borg and restored humanity's future.

I feel very comfortable stating, without qualification, that the Borg are the most interesting villain in the Star Trek universe.  They have a clear goal, one which makes a certain kind of twisted sense from their point of view, they are (within reason) an unstoppable force, they have no particular reason to ever listen to a rational argument for why what they are doing is wrong, and they are weird and creepy looking in the best body horror tradition.  The Klingons or the Romulans or any of the other Bad Guy races in the Star Trek universe can be effective here or there, but too often rely on the sort of implied racism that says that any entire group of people can simply be thoroughly incompatible with the ideals of civilized society, a dumb and reductive idea.

I've read that the producers of the series had trouble figuring out how to deal with the Borg after they'd been introduced.  The Borg were supposed to serve a role closer to, say, the Klingons, being an antagonist that the Enterprise would scrap with on a regular basis, but they were such an effective and terrifying enemy that the writers realized they had to pull them back a little bit, because if they showed up too often the Enterprise would have to thwart them again and again, robbing them of much of their power.  So they only ended up showing up a handful of times in the Next Generation series (although I understand they were much more of a major antagonist in the Voyager series).

The big screen adventures of the Next Generation crew were tailor-made for a Borg-related story, and the second film in the series was the perfect time to introduce them to a film-going audience.  Get the first film jitters out of the way and then dive back into the series with a film built around Picard and crew's most terrifying enemy.  And I think parts of this film hint at what might have been, but on the whole this has been the most disappointing film in the series so far.

The biggest problem here is that it's not simply a Borg story.  In Star Trek II, two very different plots (the Genesis device and Khan's quest for vengeance) were sandwiched together into a film that managed to be more than the sum of its parts.  In First Contact, two different plots are again sandwiched together (the Borg menacing Earth, and the inaugural flight of Earth's first warp drive) but the two stories are so completely divergent, and so wildly different in tone, that the film never coalesces into a satisfying whole.  One group of characters is down on Earth having wacky adventures with the perenially-sloshed creator of said warp drive, and the other group is up in space basically re-enacting an Alien flick in Star Trek guise.  The horror of what's happening in space never bleeds into the goings-on down on Earth at all (no one even knows what's happening to the Enterprise, only that they can't get in touch with them), and the goofy good vibes of Zefram Cochran and his band of misfits continually sucks the terror of the Enterprise-based scenes right out of the film.  One or other of these stories should have been the film all by itself, and when I say one or other of them I mean the Borg stuff.  This film promises the Borg, and by all rights its fans deserve the Borg, and no one really cares about seeing humanity's first meeting with the Vulcans.  That's fan-fiction territory, not Big Screen Adventure territory.  I'm sure Zefram Cochran was one of those names with whom fans were familiar, it was probably dropped here or there in the original or Next Generation series, but sometimes less is more when it comes to doling out backstory.  Cochran's story is supposed to provide a lesson about the way that our heroes are simply mortal men, with all the flaws inherent to that fact, but that's quite frankly kind of a trite idea, and it's only explored on a surface level here anyway.  It could have been written out of the movie without doing it real harm, but it's here and it keeps reminding you that more interesting things are happening elsewhere.

Bullet points:

Jonathan Frakes gets the opportunity to direct the film, and his debut as a director is more confident than Leonard Nimoy's was for Star Trek III.  The jarring tonal shifts throughout the film are the script's fault more than his.  My one complaint is that he tends to rely on cliche, particularly when he's doing the horror portion of the film.  There is actually a shot of a woman looking directly at the camera and screaming, like this without the plunger (which is from 1963):

The credits continue to be a horrible, pointless time suck at the opening of the film.  This film's credits are maybe the worst of the whole bunch.  There isn't even a starfield, just a blurry blue blob as each credit moves from extreme close-up to in-focus.

The opening shot, on the other hand, is one of those things that allows me to say that Frakes is indeed pretty confident, and it conveys a lot of information with no words - it opens on a shot of Picard, in a machine pod, and as the camera slowly zooms out we see hundreds and then thousands of identical pods, each housing a Borg.  This shot tells us about Picard's history, and it tells us about the nature of the Borg, all without any words being spoken.  The scene gets less interesting as dialogue is introduced, because no matter how good of an actor Picard is, he can't help but deliver his Borg lines with his Shakespearean inflections.  It is also unfortunately followed by a nested dream sequence, and if I never see another nested dream it'll be too soon.

This film introduces new uniforms.  Everyone now has a grey yoke on top of a black tunic, with the color underneath the yoke presumably identifying which department they work in (rather than the mishmash of black top/colored yoke or colored top/black yoke uniforms they had in Generations.)  It's a nice clean look, and I for one like it quite a bit.

There are some changes at the beginning of the film that are basically uncommented on.  They are now on the Enterprise-E (Star Trek V made a big deal about the Enterprise-A, but this film doesn't linger, it simply establishes its existence and moves on), and Geordi no longer has his weird eye visor thing, having had it replaced by similarly weird blue contacts.  I appreciate the absence of expository dialogue about these facts.

Neal McDonough is occupying the Memorial Wesley Crusher Console on the bridge in one of his first film roles, and he gets a decent amount to do in the film.  I will refer to him as Ensign Blue Eyes going forward because I forget his character's name.  An almost unrecognizably young Adam Scott also shows up briefly, as the helmsman on a ship that Worf is commanding.

I guess they fixed Data's dumb emotion chip problem where it made him act like a lunatic?  It never comes up, and he is much more subdued with his emotions in this film.  Data's place in the movie is much improved over what they saddled him with in Generations - he still gets a spotlight subplot, but it's a bit subtler, and he doesn't have to be the awful "comic" relief at any point.

After the bulk of the battle with the Borg Cube takes place offscreen, the Enterprise comes in to act as classic Napoleonic reinforcements, but it does so inadvertently (since the Enterprise wasn't supposed to be anywhere near the battle).  Either Starfleet doesn't have the wherewithal to come up with a good reinforcement plan, the sort of thing that should be written in to any tactical plan, or they're working on a much deeper level than is immediately apparent to stop the Borg threat.

In the midst of a battle against humanity's most lethal enemy, it's good to know that Riker still has time for a bit of comic jackassery with Worf (who gets dragged back to the Enterprise through transparent script shenanigans.)  Frakes gets a bit more to do here than he did in Generations, and while I think Riker can sometimes be too smarmy for his own good, it's still generally more good than bad when the script gives him stuff to do.

The time travel mechanics in this film are a total mess.  The Borg go back in time just because, and their plan, which involves stopping the launch of Cochran's warp ship and using that as a jumping off point to assimilate all of humanity, has never really made sense to me.  I could go into a long, discursive discussion about this nonsense but I don't see the point.  The time travel aspect introduces Cochran, and I think Cochran doesn't need to be here at all, so I'll just leave it there.

James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard look like Mutt and Jeff next to each other.  They are supposed to be in Montana, which unsurprisingly looks a lot like a California pine forest.

Data is tasked with delivering a bit of exposition about how ironic it is that Cochran ushered in an era of peace by using a nuclear missile (which he repurposed into humanity's first warp ship).  I mean, I'm barely paraphrasing, he basically delivers that line uncut.  I guess that's the value of having a robot as a character, he can do the "As you know, you are the world's leading expert on human/alien brain transplants" without having to act his way through a dumb bit of exposition-as-dialogue, because a wooden reading of a brutal bit of exposition is what you are already expecting.

When the crew of the Enterprise has figured out that the Borg are taking over their ship, Picard gathers together a commando team to go down and meet them in force.  He tells the commandos not to hesitate to fire on the already-assimilated crewmembers.  But wasn't he brought back from Borg-hood?  If that's possible, why don't they just stun them and then de-Borgify them?  I'm sure there was some reason discussed in the "Picard goes Borg" episodes, but as it stands it just seems like a plot hole.

Marina Sirtis' British accent goes in and out really bad when she has to do her "act drunk" scene with Riker after having discovered the equally drunk Cochran.

Does Zefram Cochran use the phrase "you're on some kind of star trek" in this film?  Yes he does.

Alfre Woodard's performance is really kind of unnecessarily bugfuck.  She has to go toe-to-toe with Picard's full-on Richard III energy when he flips out about destroying the Enterprise instead of standing and fighting, so it works for that part.  The biggest problem is that her crazy energy is starkly in contrast with Cromwell's laid-back dudery.  It's not remotely clear how these two even became colleagues, and the film also suggests that they are also lovers.

The Enterprise's windows are forcefields?  Has this always been the case?

I have to deal with the Borg Queen.  There's probably a rule that, in any series which introduces a hive-mind type enemy, it will eventually throw in the idea of a queen.  The funny thing is, the way she talks it's not even clear that she serves as the classic "controls-the-troops" queen, but that's mostly because she talks in these incomprehensible philosophical riddles.  Whatever the case may be about her function, she is a pretty big miscalculation.  The terror of the Borg stems, in part, from their sameness, and from the fact that they're an inplacable enemy which can't be reasoned with.  But Alice Krige gives us a Borg Queen who has obviously thought long and hard about the Borg's mission, and can carry on long conversations about the nature of her species.  The Borg come from the same enemy family that zombies do, and zombies don't have queens, their threat is much more diffuse and therefore much more terrifying.  I'm sorry that the Borg Queen exists, and she really takes away from some of the horror which should be inherent in this film.

We get a scene of that self-indulgent noir character that Picard likes to dress up as on the holodeck.  He uses it to help neutralize an immediate Borg threat to him and Lily which, okay, that's moderately clever I guess but I'm pretty sure I could think of about 300,000 more useful programs if your goal is to stop the Borg than a 1940's detective novel.

Picard and co. determine that the Borg are using the Enterprise's deflector dish in order to send a message to the Borg of the 21st century to come to Earth, and Picard, Worf and Ensign Blue Eyes suit up for a spacewalk across the hull of the ship in order to stop them.  The tension in the scene is ratcheted up by some pretty transparent script chicanery.  The three men have to push a bunch of buttons and futz around with these big blocky solid-state chips in order to accomplish their goal of releasing the deflector dish from the ship, while the Borg slowly realize what they're doing.  Every time you need to work quickly, there's a stuck lever standing in your way.

Lily's entire purpose in the plot is to be the one non-Starfleet officer on the Enterprise, so that she can force Picard to admit that he's out for revenge against the Borg and that's why he won't agree to simply blow up the Enterprise.  A little bit of movie magic immediately fixes the problem, as Lily's forcing Picard to confront the reality of his quest for vengeance causes him to see it clearly for the first time, and he has an immediate about-face about his decision-making.  Suffice it to say that this is not how people actually work, but the character arc has to take this necessary next step, and it'll do it by hook or by crook, by which I mean by Stewart doing some capital-A Acting.

While the ultimate horror is happening to the Enterprise as its entire crew is slowly but inevitably assimilated into the Borg Collective, Cochran is flying his ship to the sound of "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf.  I guess that particular jarring tonal shift is on Frakes more than the screenwriters.

After her flesh has been all melted away, and she's nothing but a metallic skull and spine, Picard snaps the remains of the Borg Queen's neck like a fucking boss.  You can tell Ahab to stop chasing the whale, but you can't convince him not to stab it in the eye a few times after it's been killed anyway.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Star Trek: Generations

Onboard the newly-christened USS Enterprise-B, Captain John Harriman (Alan Ruck) welcomes Kirk, Scotty and Chekov for a photo-op and a brief maiden flight.  The Enterprise, not yet prepared for active-duty service, is nevertheless pressed into her first mission when a distress signal is received from a couple of ships that are trapped inside some kind of energy vortex.  The Enterprise rescues a handful of people from these ships, among them Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell) but in the process of escaping from the vortex Captain Kirk is lost and presumed dead.

100 or so years into the future the Enterprise-D, under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, receives a distress call from an observatory, whose only survivor is the very same Dr. Soran.  Soran, it ultimately turns out, has a deal with a group of Klingons - he gives them the technology to destroy a star, and they help him carry out his plan to bring the energy vortex, called the Nexus, to the surface of a planet.  Soran desires to re-enter the Nexus, which presents to those who enter it a timeless and ageless vision of paradise, where immortality and ultimate happiness are achievable.  Soran's plan involves destroying stars in order to alter the gravitation along a path that will ultimately bring the Nexus to a planet, from which he can re-enter it, and the solar system in which he plans to re-enter the Nexus contains an inhabited planet which will be wiped out if he is able to go through with his plan and destroy the solar system's star.

Picard, having beamed down to the surface of the planet to confront Soran, is ultimately unsuccessful in stopping him, and both men enter the Nexus as the star and both the inhabited planet, and the Enterprise, are destroyed.  Picard manages to reject the promise of the Nexus and instead seeks out the help of Captain Kirk, who is alive and well inside his own personal Eden, to come back with him to a point in time just before Soran destroyed the star, where the two men together will be able to stop him where Picard alone failed.  They manage to stop Soran, but Kirk is killed in the process.  Picard re-groups with the crew of the Enterprise on the surface of the planet, where the saucer section had been grounded after a battle with the Klingons, and the crew leaves an unsalvageable Enterprise-D behind but the solar system intact.

I think it's safe to say that the 7 key members of the Enterprise-D's crew (Picard, Riker, Data, Geordi, Worf, Troi and Dr. Crusher), taken as a whole, are not as iconic as the 7 members of the original Enterprise's crew.  A bare two years after the final film for the original crew, the film series is essentially completely rebooted with this crew, a crew that was certainly well-known but not cultural icons.  So this film had two jobs to do - it had to tell an interesting story (it couldn't afford to dick around with atmospherics like Star Trek I, since there wasn't a backlog of goodwill and anticipation built up) and it had to introduce our new crew, and make audiences care about them.  Whether it did the former is debatable, I guess; I think there are interesting ideas here that are too often botched, but the basic premise of the film is decent enough, certainly not a complete write-off. Whether it did the latter, however, is a very easy question to answer - it did not.  This film effectively only has 4 characters: Captain Picard, Data, Soran, and Captain Kirk.  That means that, of the seven members of the Enterprise-D's crew, 5 of them are completely superfluous.  To be fair, in 6 films with the original crew, I think Uhura had a grand total of about 3 scenes, and one of those involved her doing a naked fan dance.  So the Star Trek films have always had this problem.  But given that this is a new day of Star Trek, with a significantly more generous leading actor and quite a bit of the 90's era of good feelings baked into the formula, it's pretty disappointing that the film has almost nothing to say about the bulk of its characters.  Even Guinan gets more to do than the superfluous 5.

More than anything else, this film reflects an incredible lack of confidence on the part of the producing team.  The crew of the Enterprise-D doesn't even make an appearance until almost 20 minutes into the film, and the entire third act is given over to Picard and Kirk, with the rest of the crew figuratively and literally side-lined, with nothing to do and no part to play in the plot.  Giving over so much of the film to Shatner is understandable from a commercial standpoint but absolutely indefensible from a storytelling one.  His crew had its time.  They rode off into the sunset, in a movie that allowed them to do so on their own terms.  And yet here he is again, pulling a film that is supposed to celebrate the new crew into his own inescapable orbit.  It was a massive miscalculation, and probably doomed the film before it shot an inch of film, even if the rest of the movie wasn't so decidedly mediocre, which it is.

Bullet points:

The miscalculation starts from the very beginning.  The three old-timers pile aboard the Enterprise-B and what is their first scene about?  Them getting old.

The Enterprise-B is an ugly, dumpy, squat excuse for a starship.  It looks like an MMA fighter, one of those guys with a big square head and no neck.  A totally unlovable monstrosity, something that was obviously cooked up without a lot of forethought.

Captain Cameron Frye, who is presumably Kirk's successor as the captain of the Enterprise, is badly undermined immediately.  How did an indecisive putz like him move all the way up to captain?  And Kirk acts like a total asshole towards him the whole time he's on his ship, questioning him about the lack of all the amenities that have yet to be installed because the ship isn't in mission shape.  Kirk is an old war hero who is on the Enterprise for some dumb photo op, traveling around the Solar System on the new ship.  The fact that the ship left spacedock without those amenities is, quite frankly, kind of his fault.

The dude who played Tuvok is on the Enterprise-B.  I guess they liked his "taciturn helmsman" performance enough to bring him back.

You know, as much as the bridge of the Enterprise gets tossed around like a cork, maybe the seats should come equipped with safety belts.

We open up with this crew with a scene on the holodeck (of course), with the whole crew dressed in old-timey sailing gear for a promotion ceremony in Worf's honor.  Do they always go through this horseshit whenever they promote someone?  That seems like a lot of trouble, and also perhaps suggests that Captain Picard is not totally sound of mind.  Also, considering that they're promoting the ship's only Klingon, isn't it kind of a dick move to do this whole thing with old human traditions instead of, you know, Klingon ones?

Picard's geuine nostalgia about 18th century sailing culture also makes him seem like an idiot.

The first shot of the Enterprise doesn't even show the whole ship, just a brief glimpse as the ship closes in the aforementioned observatory.  Okay, the inordinate amount of time spent ogling the Enterprise in the original cast films was a little bit unseemly, but this is almost worse.  It's a neat ship!  Give us something to work with here.

I've always liked the design of this ship's bridge, although the fact that the Captain is directly flanked by his first mate and (ugh) counselor pretty much immediately dates it.  Do all Starfleet commanders have a counselor like Troi sitting next to them?  And if they don't, why did they design the ship that way?

The "emotion chip" that Data gets saddled with during the entire course of this film basically just means that Brent Spiner overreacts to everything and also becomes a hacky, Borscht Belt comic.  It is really quite upsetting.  I didn't even touch on this plot in the recap, the "Data gets to be a real boy" plot, because I don't know what to do with it.  Do fans like this?  I certainly don't.  Data's interesting for the same reason that Spock was interesting, because their lack of an emotional response sets them apart from everyone else, and allows everyone else's common humanity to be seen in relief.  And this film immediately undercuts that, and just makes Data a really unpleasant character.  Part of the problem here is Spiner himself, who really dials it up to an unnecessary extreme.

Dr. Soran has a phaser that's designed to deliver a gangsta-style killshot, in that the gun rotates 90 degrees so that it has to shoot sideways.  "That would be cool!" is a thing someone in production said.

Picard cries, to his counselor, while discussing with her the death of his brother and his brother's son.  Touchy-feely 90's-era Star Trek, at its pinnacle.

I'm guessing that this family of Picard's, if they ever got any notice in the show before, it was only obliquely.  There's this sort of unavoidable irony at play here where you have a show that ran for, what, almost 200 hours total?  But since each of those was parceled out in 1 hour blocks, there was presumably not a lot of time to explore character backstories, since each episode's individual plot had to be dealt with.  Here we have a bare 2 hours of Star Trek, but since it is 2 full hours, dealing with the same plot the whole time, you get stuff like this.  And make no mistake, this character beat that they're forcing Stewart to play is kind of awful, with the audience asked to care about the death of a couple of people who either we have never heard of before (like me) or maybe have the barest hint of their existence (if you're a fan, and this came up in the show at some point.)  Because given how low-stakes "Picard's brother and nephew have died offscreen" really is in the grand scheme of things, it forces the audience to think less of Picard, who gets all whiny and pissy before he's had a chance to actually do anything cool or heroic.

Troi uses her telepathic sense on Picard to come up with the keen insight, "Your family history is very important to you."

God, even Picard is obsessed with getting old.  ENOUGH WITH THIS FUCKING THEME, STAR TREK!  WE GET IT!

There are echoes of earlier shitty Star Trek movies in Soren's plot, with him being a crazy old man trying to get to paradise (V) and also enlisting the help of a renegade group of Klingons (III)

Guinan sure has a lot of candles in her room.  That seems unsafe on a starship.

Soran, during the course of events, takes Geordi hostage, and he holds Geordi captive, shirtless, with a leather collar around his neck, in cinema's least well thought-out reference to Roots.

The Stellar Cartography set-piece is really, really cool.  It's too bad it takes so long to finally begin, after another long, boring discussion by Data about what it means to feel emotions.

Data singing.  The "scanning for lifeforms" song as he pushes buttons on the console.  This....this is a low.

Soran and the Klingons exchange Geordi for Picard, and in the process they rig his visor to allow them to see everything he sees.  He eventually makes his way to Engineering where he sees the ship's shield frequency, allowing the Klingons to shoot photon torpedoes right through the Enterprise's shield.  So the stupid Prefix Code (they don't call it that this time, but it's the same principle) screws the Enterprise, in the way that it was always going to.  All it took the Klingons to get it was to smuggle a damn camera on board.  Sure they did it in Geordi's visor but, honestly, given 24th century technology does anyone doubt they could have stuck a camera in a discrete spot on any given random ensign's uniform?  The prefix code is a terrible idea.  They should have fixed it by now.

Why does the Klingon ship have a periscope?

When the Enterprise manages to defeat the Klingon ship and blow it up, it is definitely the exact same "Klingon ship explosion" effect from Star Trek VI.  Exact same.

Part of the "Picard for Geordi" hostage negotiation involves Picard being beamed down to Soran's location on the planet.  I actually like the quiet detente between Soran and Picard, as Soran does his final preparations for the star-destroying weapon, and Picard can't get to him because he's protected by a forcefield.

So the Enterprise, after the battle with the Klingons, has its warp core irrevocably damaged, and the ship has to separate the saucer section from the rest of the ship.  I get the impression that this is a Big Deal, the sort of thing fans had been pining for for a long time.

They have to evacuate everyone from the lower portion of the ship into the saucer.  Someone on the Enterprise, during the evacuation scene, is clearly holding a tribble.

Why would sickbay be in the same section of the ship that houses the warp core?  That's just sloppy design. There's also a really regrettable amount of kids in the section of the ship that is most in danger of going completely critical in the event of a particularly heated space battle, which happens to the Enterprise, I don't know, all the goddamn time.

Given that this is the second Enterprise in this film series that has been written off as a total loss, Starfleet's insurance premiums must be astronomical.

The saucer section gets pulled down by the gravitational field of the planet, and crash-lands in a forest.  Most everyone seems to live, because Hollywood.  Anyway, the force of the crash broke the glass dome on the bridge, which is a thing that exists I guess?  This is another one of those things that is just really bad design.  If the crash could do that damage, so could a well timed phaser or photon torpedo burst out in space, and then the entire command crew of the ship would be sucked out into the void of empty space.

One of Picard's kids in the Nexus is played by Thomas Dekker, who's been in a bunch of stuff but who I always think of as this little bastard, from Seinfeld:

Credit to the filmmakers for making the Nexus more than just a MacGuffin and actually exploring it as a space.  And then all that credit removed, and many demerits added on top, for how blandly pedestrian the whole thing is.  Picard's paradise is some cloying, Victorian-era domestic scene (and the whole scene is underscored by the most unsubtle choral oohing and aahing imaginable); Kirk's is a cabin that someone built in basically the same location that they had their awful camp-out in Star Trek V (Kirk dreams of, I guess, spending all day chopping wood) and then something something horses.  This is the place that warped Soran's mind so bad that he was willing to kill hundreds of millions of people in order to re-enter it?

And here's the other thing - this scene totally sells out everything we know about both characters.  What is the one thing we know about Captain Kirk, the one message that was drilled in our heads over and over and over again through the first 6 movies?  He lives for captaining a starship.  That is his passion, through and through.  He mentions that the cabin used to be his house until he sold it, presumably because he was out gallivanting around the galaxy and didn't need a house on boring, provincial Earth.  But the Nexus, taking him to his own personal Eden, takes him to a life of domesticity on Earth?  Give me a fucking break.  All the same things apply to Captain Picard.  If he wanted to settle down and have a big family and celebrate Christmas with them in domestic bliss, he could have.  He chose to pilot a starship around the galaxy, because that is what he actually wanted out of life.  The Nexus doesn't even give you what you actually want, it just grounds your ass on Earth and says, "This is what you always actually wanted, trust us."  Fuck the Nexus.

Guinan serves as Picard's spirit guide in the Nexus through the power of whatever sci-fi witchcraft they exposit.  She brings him to Kirk's paradise, because magic.

Kirk cracks an egg in a hot pan first, and then proceeds to start whisking it.  God, what a dingus.  Give Shatner credit here though, he's having a lot of fun.

Why does Picard need Kirk to help with with Dr. Soran?  Does he need his technical expertise?  His knowledge of Soran and the Nexus?  No. He just needs an extra set of punching fists.  This movie thinks so, so small.

And then a bridge falls on Captain Kirk and he dies and everyone hates this movie forever - even by Hollywood standards, Kirk's death scene is remarkably stupid, not just for the chumpy way he goes out but also by how much jolly opining he is allowed to do before he expires.  And his prophecy from the earlier films doesn't come true in that he doesn't die alone, because Picard is there, but maybe this movie just doesn't think much of Picard, and thinks that dying with him around is the same as being all by yourself?  Kirk doesn't even get a proper burial, just an ugly pile of rocks in some godforsaken, backwater shithole.

Data finds his orange tabby in the Enterprise's wreckage and the cat is as happy to see him as every cat always is to see their owner, which is to say not at all.

I guess I have to mention the fact that the plot of this film, with its no-questions-asked time travel, means that Picard could never truly fail his quest, because he could keep entering the Nexus over and over and then go back in time until he got it right.  He didn't even really need Kirk's help, except he's lazy and didn't want to have to keep doing it again and again.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Somebody can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the general consensus in regards to Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the first two seasons of the show are mostly disappointing, with a few gems scattered throughout, and that the show only really found its legs during its third season.  I mentioned in the review of Star Trek 5 that that film was the first to be released after the premiere of TNG; the film was, in fact, released towards the tail end of season 2 of that show.

Star Trek 5 is, in my estimation, completely, monstrously awful, but more important is the fact that it was a fairly massive commercial flop.  It made money, because even a lot of shitty movies manage to make money, but not very much, and its failure both commercially and critically was a really bad omen for the series.  I don't remember what people were saying about Star Trek at the time, but combine the failure of the film with the general apathy that (I believe) fans had towards the new series, and I have to think it was not a great time for the fans.  The film series had sunk to new lows, and the TV series was mostly disappointing up to that point.

Seasons 3 and 4 of TNG carried a heavy burden, and their success paved the way for the continuation of the brand into the future.  I don't remember the release of Star Trek 5 but I certainly do remember the release of Star Trek 6, which came out somewhere in the middle of TNG's 5th season, and I distinctly remember that Star Trek was in the cultural consciousness as much as it ever had been in my lifetime up to that point.  The new crew had become beloved, and the old crew was going off on one last adventure.

Where Star Trek 5 ignored The Next Generation entirely, 6 is heavily burdened with the weight of being a torch-passing exercise.  It's not simply in the story, which fills in a bit of the back-story that is necessary to understand the world of The Next Generation.  It's not even just that an actor from TNG (Michael Dorn) shows up here playing a very similar part with the exact same name as his character on the series.  It's in the sense that this film, and this mission, are truly our final curtain call with Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu, Scotty, Uhura and Chekov.  That they are, for all intents and purposes, going on their final journey together, and then fading away into that good night.  And while these films have been virtually obsessed with the theme of aging, being about a group of people who retain the desire to travel around the galaxy but no longer have the physical or emotional wherewithal to do so, this film is less obsessed with aging than it is with saying thank you.  Thank you for the adventures, thank you for being in our lives, and now you can say goodnight, we can take it from here.

A crisis within Klingon space has left the Klingon Empire in an untenable position as a rival power to the Federation, and they move to begin peace talks.  Not everyone is completely thrilled about this state of affairs, including both our own Captain Kirk and his mirror image on the Klingon side, General Chang (Christopher Plummer).  The Enterprise hosts Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), along with Chang, for peace talks, and things go from frosty to downright hostile when the Enterprise seemingly fires on the Klingon vessel, followed by two Enterprise crew members beaming aboard the ship to assassinate the Chancellor.  Kirk and McCoy beam over to the ship after the attack in an attempt to help the wounded and are arrested by the Klingons and, after a brief show trial, sentenced to a Klingon prison planet for the rest of their lives.  In the meantime, Spock's investigation into the circumstances of the attacks winds its way eventually to lieutenant Valeris (Kim Cattrall), a Vulcan whom Spock had previously championed but is now unmasked as a member of a conspiracy who want to sabotage the peace talks.  Valeris and her co-conspirators, who include a high-ranking Starfleet Admiral, the Romulan Ambassador to the peace talks, and Chang himself, with Kirk out of the way, are plotting to also assassinate the President of the Federation (Kurtwood Smith).  Kirk and McCoy escape from the prison planet with the help of Martia (Iman) and beam back aboard the Enterprise, which along with Captain Sulu's Excelsior, manage to destroy General Chang's ship and get to the second round of peace talks in time to stop the assassination plot.  With the conspirators neutralized, the way is paved for the Federation and Klingon Empire to forge a new and lasting peace.

When all is said and done, and I am now done with the original crew of the USS Enterprise, my head would say that Star Trek 2 is the best of this batch of movies.  It's the one film that can be watched on a Saturday afternoon by basically anyone, and holds up completely as a stand-alone piece of cinema.  But in my heart, Star Trek 6 is the one I have the most fondness for, for the way it weaves a rich (by Star Trek standards) allegory about the distrust between peoples, and the way that getting old can harden our positions when it should soften them.  But mostly I appreciate the way that it allows our crew to go out with their dignity intact, even Shatner (for the most part).  That's a nice thing, and they deserve it, because they mean something profound to the culture, even if I am sometimes ambivalent to that thing.  I liked Star Trek 6 a lot the first time I saw it, and it has only increased in my esteem since then.  And having made it through the gauntlet of 5, I think I goddamn well deserved it.

Bullet points:

Nicholas Meyer is our director, and I'm sure it's not a coincidence that he directed my two favorite of these films.

The credits to all of these movies so far are really interminable.  They're just name after name after name projected on a moving star field.  At least the credits to the show had the Enterprise whooshing by to break up the monotony.

I assume that the "Klingons = Soviets" thing was part of the series from the beginning.  They do not go subtle with that idea in this movie; this is not a gentle metaphor, but one that is used to bludgeon you to death.

They explicitly reference the phrase "Only Nixon could go to China" when Kirk is handed the job of meeting with the Klingons. Needless to say, this doesn't make sense, since Nixon was a politician, answerable to the public, and Kirk is a soldier, answerable only to his superiors.  If this movie's elevator pitch was "Kirk goes to China" I would not be surprised.  Spock is the one that volunteers the Enterprise for the gig; as the series went along, their rationalizations for putting the crew into whatever situation the plot demands became less and less plausible, since it was clear time and time again that the Federation wanted to put these people, and this ship, out to pasture, and yet they keep getting these important missions.

Kirk's ultra anti-Klingon racism is actually a pretty interesting character note.  It leaves the audience really off-kilter, forced to both root for and be reviled by the hero.  Then again, Kirk's racism proves to be at least somewhat accurate (he calls them "animals", and the way the approach the "getting to know you" dinner is kind of feral) so it sort of dulls the edge somewhat.  The film kind of wants to have it both ways, with Kirk's racism as a stand-in for US/Soviet distrust but also the Klingons being pretty damned uncouth after all.  And in truth, all the humans are kind of super racist.

Valeris is a pretty clear Saavik stand-in.  Spock's extreme faith in her sets off big, blaring warning sirens from very early on.  I'd make Sex and the City-related jokes here if I knew any; you'll have to supply your own, I'm afraid.

David Warner shows up for the second film in a row, but he has an actual character to play this time, and he adds some gravitas to his short time on screen.  And then we have Christopher Plummer.  I don't know how this movie managed to get an actor of his stature to slap on the Klingon makeup, especially after the disaster that was 5, but man is it nice to see accomplished actors again.  I think the word "Luckinbill" genuinely makes me nauseous now.

Even Klingons know you don't violate Godwin's Law.

Plummer's character is way into Shakespeare, to the point of making everyone around him a little uncomfortable.

Spock's line "In that case, Mr. Chekov, it resides in the purview of the diplomats" is said with an enormous amount of reactionary disdain.  Spock is a soldier, through and through.

Master Pei Mei is now the President of the Federation.  That guy gets around.  Also played by Kurtwood Smith!  Never would have recognized him through the weird makeup and wiggery.

Valeris encourages the crew of the  Enterprise to throw their shoes (once known as sabot on Earth, hence the word "sabotage") into the gears of the Federation bureaucracy when they are recalled back to Earth after the attack on the Chancellor.  The politics here get pretty muddled, but the important thing is we are learning about words.

Plummer is the prosecutor at Kirk and McCoy's trial for some reason?  Good old Klingon parsimony.  A Klingon named Worf defends them; presumably not the exact same Worf from TNG.  I'm sure there's some accepted canon explanation, that he's Worf's grandfather or whatever.  Here's where the film makes the connection between this crew and the TNG people explicit, in any case.  It's fun to have Michael Dorn around, and the film doesn't do the audience the discourtesy of blasting you in the face with "Here is your beloved Worf!"  It's nicely subtle.

Chang, during the trial, screams at Kirk, "Don't wait for the translation, answer me now!"  I confess that this is one of those lines that pops up in my head from time to time.  Plummer goes awfully big in this scene, and the Shat actually responds by going small.

I really like the glimpse we get of the Enterprise's galley as Spock does his investigation.  We get to see more of the workaday crew members and their jobs on the Enterprise in this film than in the previous 5 films combined.  And hey!  We're working with a full crew this time!  Fancy that.  Very strange to have a fully loaded Enterprise.

Iman sucking face with Shatner is pretty upsetting, I'm not going to lie.

The Christian Slater cameo remains completely inexplicable.  Obviously he must have been a fan, and the filmmakers threw him a part to grab for some of that tasty lucre from the teenage girl demographic, but it is a very weird scene, where you hear his (distinctive) voice and then see him partially emerge from the shadows on the Excelsior as some sort of officer on that ship delivering a bit of exposition to Sulu, and then he's gone.
(ETA: An answer finally emerges - Mary Jo Slater, the casting director on the film, is his mother.)

Martia is a shape-shifter, and the morphing effect that they deploy twice is really not bad at all.  According to wikipedia, this film cost less than Star Trek 5, but somehow it looks way, way more expensive.  The answer to this almost certainly revolves around the way an inexperienced director (like Shatner) can waste a lot of time, and with it money, by not having a careful plan in place, whereas a pro like Meyer knocks scenes out without a lot of futzing around and saves that money (cast and crew salaries add up quickly) for the effects budget.  The effects in this movie really hold up pretty well, even in Blu-ray.  And there is some actual location shooting during the prison escape scene.  Real snow, real cold.  It makes a big difference.

I don't want to pick on Uhura, but as the ship's communication officer shouldn't she have learned enough Klingon to fake her way past a checkpoint?  She has to cobble together some rudimentary Klingon in order to get the Enterprise safely into orbit around the prison planet.  That seems like something that should be in her job description, no?

Martia turns out to be working against Kirk and McCoy, taking them out to the surface of the planet so they can be more easily eliminated by the conspirators, who want the two of them out of the way.  She and Kirk have a hand-to-hand tussle once she reveals herself.  Why the hell does she take on Kirk's appearance during their fight?  Why not some sort of big, scaly monster with teeth and horns or something?  That's just ego, pure and simple.  Shatner ego.

The fight between the two Shatners just brings out all the worst aspects in his performance.  Even when he's working against a green screen version of himself that isn't actually in the same scene until post-production, somehow he senses the hamminess coming from his theoretical double anyway and ratchets up accordingly.  Shatner's hamminess is not additive but exponential.

There have got to be a billion easier ways to off Kirk and McCoy than the prison break plan that the conspirators come up with.  This is an entire planet full of pissed off, meatheaded alien criminals with chips on their shoulders.  Not to mention that they have access to phasers that can completely vaporize a body, perfect for corpse disposal when you don't want to have to answer a lot of questions.  This part is definitely the "Shatner's toupee lace lines" of the Star Trek 6 script.

Spock performing a forcible Vulcan mind meld on Valeris for the information about her co-conspirators is a little uncomfortably rapey.

After the crew has saved President Pei Mei, and with it the notion of peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, Kirk gets to deliver a post-climax soliloquy about peace for no particularly good reason.  We even get a slow clap.

And then the old people steal Federation property again for a little while, but Kirk puts a button on this crew's journeys with his final Captain's log, explicitly saying that this is the final journey and conspicuously replacing the "where no man has gone before with "where no one has gone before" (which is how Picard says it in the TNG opening, I think, right?)  Then the cast each signs their name on the closing credits, and the torch is finally and irrevocably passed.