Monday, February 25, 2013


(There are at least two different versions of Duel, due to its origin as a TV movie-of-the-week, a 74 minute television cut that ran on ABC in 1971 and a 90 minute theatrical cut that played overseas in 1972.  I'm not entirely sure if the 74 minute cut is available so obviously the version I am working from is the 90 minute theatrical one.)

It's not news that the made-for-TV movie has mostly disappeared from the television landscape.  Broadcast networks have almost entirely given up on them, and the cable channels that still make them are bifurcated into two camps - the big prestige pictures from the art-house networks, like last year's HBO-produced Game Change, an Emmy-baity bit of insta-politics starring bonafide movie stars, and bottom-of-the-barrel shlock like Sharktopus, produced by Roger Corman and starring the remains of Eric Roberts' career.  There is effectively no ground for a lark like Duel, a low-stakes but well-produced thriller starring a B-list actor that desires nothing more than to come into America's living rooms and entertain for 90 minutes.  I don't necessarily lament that fact (bad TV movies significantly outnumbered good or even average ones, and young directors like the 24 year old Steven Spielberg are probably better off honing their craft in the DIY, indie film style than in the employ of a corporate-owned network) but it's a salient fact when watching Duel to recognize its time capsule quality.

Duel began life as a Richard Matheson short story which was published in Playboy, and which he eventually expanded into a TV movie length film.  Matheson is probably most famous either for writing I Am Legend, which has been filmed several times, or for his handful of Twilight Zone episodes, including the classic Shatner-starring "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (the gremlin-on-a-plane episode); I feel very confident in saying that he was the much bigger name on the film when it was produced.  It unquestionably reflects Matheson's paranoid horror sensibility; Spielberg has been forced to bend his style into the shape of Matheson's script, rather than the other way around.

The film divides very neatly into thirds.  The first act begins with our hero, David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver, who I gather was something of a That Guy for 60's and 70's era television) traveling into the boonies outside of LA in his sad, red/orange Plymouth Valiant on some sort of business-related trip.  Along the way he passes (as in, goes around on a two-lane road) the ugliest, grimiest oil tanker imaginable, and is slowly but inexorably drawn into a game of cat-and-mouse with the sociopathic, unseen driver of the truck, who the film suggests was just looking for an excuse to make sushi out of a hapless driver.  Mann manages to escape the chase when he crashes into a white picket fence outside of a rural diner, and the second third of the movie has Mann discover that the tanker, which he thought he had lost, is parked outside the diner, and then indulge his own paranoia about which of the customers at the restaurant is the driver of the truck.  The final third picks up the chase on the road once again, with the driver of the tanker escalating the conflict to its breaking point, and Mann desperately searching for a way to end it.

It's something of an understood phenomenon that Spielberg is a much better beginner than he is a finisher.  Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with a bravura action setpiece involving a man being chased by a gigantic rolling ball of death, and ends with people closing their eyes.  Jurassic Park's most famous moments mostly involve the pre-sabotage "Holy shit, dinosaurs!" scenes, and it goes without saying that Saving Private Ryan is quite possibly the film with the most precipitous dropoff in the history of film from the stage-setting opening sequence to the long, intermittently interesting slog that follows.  Duel falls right into this same category - the first act plays like the tautest, most viscerally exciting thriller you'll ever see, and then eventually things go flabby.  A long opening scene tracks the passage of Mann's car from city to country, while the soundtrack is made up of nothing but diegetic sounds, the radio, the car, the sounds of nature.  Spielberg takes the time to build the tension from the moment Mann first encounters the truck to the point at which he's barreling down the highway at 90 miles an hour, in serious danger of his life, and the entire sequence pre-diner takes less than half an hour.  Cut it by about 5 minutes and it's a memorable episode of the Twilight Zone; add another 15 minutes and it's your grandfather's favorite Mannix, the one where Mannix is chased by the psycho truck driver for the whole episode and eventually outwits him.

But this is a movie, and there is still an hour's worth of material to pad out before we get to our conclusion.  There are a handful of secondary characters in Duel, but none of them (with the possible exception of Mann's wife, who he has a phone conversation with midway through the first act) makes much of an impression.  Mann is the only character of note in the film, and the script has to figure out a way to filter his perception of what's happening to the audience.  The script makes an unfortunate, though probably not surprising, choice in the second act by including a narrative voiceover from Mann's perspective.  I honestly wasn't sure that that's what it was doing at first - when it first happens, with Mann standing in front of a mirror at the diner, I assumed (given how I'm attuned as a 21st century film watcher) that it was simply a bit of soundtrack overlap, and the scene of Mann looking in the mirror would soon cut to a scene of him talking to someone at the diner, out loud, about what was happening.  But no, this is spoken internal monologue, and it is really jarring.  Mann is confronted by a diner full of taciturn, shit-kicking good old boys who all wear similar boots to the ones the driver of the truck wears (the only positive identification he has of the person who is menacing him, and I'm not sure if one would genuinely expect to find modern-day cowboys in the wilds of Southern California, but it's a nice nod to the film's Western roots, so I can go with it), and Mann slowly loses his mind, first in his interior narrative and eventually outwardly, as he tries to figure out how to deal with the fact that his tormentor is apparently sharing space with him.  The film picks back up once we get back to spoken dialogue between Mann and the person who he identifies as the driver - the voiceover is not a fatal problem for the film, but boy is it a wretched choice.

So Mann eventually gets back on the road for the third act finish, and although it's a significant improvement from the static second act, the fact that we basically know all there is that the film wants us to know about the driver of the truck at this point robs the film of some of its suspense.  The slow rollout of the truck driver's malevolent intent in the first act ratches up the tension in stages; the danger represented by the truck in the third act starts at 10, so there's nowhere for the tension to really go but down.  The film futzes around with a strange interlude with the driver of a school bus, filled with supremely obnoxious children, asking Mann to help him give the bus a moving start - Mann insists his car is too small to do it, the bus driver insists he's wrong, eventually Mann is proven right, and then the truck shows up to menace Mann again.  This scene in particular really belies Duel's TV movie roots, and wikipedia tells me that it was indeed added to the theatrical release to pad out the running time; it goes from nowhere to nowhere, but allows Weaver to yell at a bunch of children for immediately climbing all over his car the moment he stops to help out, which is extremely weird but kind of funny.

Ultimately, the biggest sin of the third act is the anti-climax that ends it.  I won't give it away for anyone who hasn't seen this and wants to, but the movie really comes to an abrupt and deeply unsatisfying end.  The choice is made very early on to make the truck itself the villain of the piece, and while I appreciate the sort of mysterious terror that this gives to the film, it means that, in the end, Mann's quest doesn't end with a satisfying payoff against a real-live person, but an (unsatisfying, in my mind) payoff against an object.

Weaver's performance is workmanlike, and I don't necessarily mean that negatively.  He has a TV actor's weakness of not really being willing (or able) to alter the performance as he goes along, which is the sort of thing you rarely need to do when you're playing a guest character on a 48 minute episode of a television show that will only ever revert to the status quo ante once the episode is over.  Mann's journey here is supposed to take him from a sad, shlubby loser who can't even fathom what is happening to him to a determined, somewhat courageous man who recognizes that his only way out is to fight back, and while he's good at the shlubby part of that the sense of steely determination never really comes across at the end.  He does have a nice, expressive face, and he wears an ugly pair of early-70's sunglasses like no one's business.  The film pushes very hard and unsubtly on the theme of male anxiety in the first act (there are two parallel conversations, one of which is between a radio caller and a talk show host that Mann listens to, and one of which Mann has with his wife, that both hit hard on the idea that the men of the early-70's are having a tough time figuring out their place in a world in which they are no longer the sole or even main breadwinners of their households, and the idea of the traditional male role is in rapid flux.)  But it mostly drops that theme after that, which is maybe reflective of the film having trust in the audience to remember and reflect on it as the plot of the film progresses, but is also probably reflective of the fact that the script couldn't figure out a good way to work the theme back in organically.  Spielberg also, after a nice, understated touch with the soundtrack in the 1st act (the sound design is really good, with the differential sound of the two vehicles' respective engines providing an underscore to the menace that the tanker poses to Mann's sad little Valiant) eventually goes heavy-handed with the music, especially near the climax.  This is another problem he has evinced throughout his career, and it's one that can already be detected here.

Matheson's script never quite figures out how to efficiently tell the story it intends to tell without someone for Weaver to play off of, and Spielberg's direction spends too much time exploring dead-ends.  But the suspense that they build together is undeniable, and if you can get past the fact that they come to an unsatisfactory conclusion, it's a pretty good B-movie for a lazy Saturday afternoon.  Spielberg the visual craftsman is in here, no question about it, but he hasn't quite emerged yet.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Steven Spielberg marathon

I won't do too much preamble here - the provenance is pretty simple, back when I assumed Lincoln was going to clean up at the Oscars (which has become a longshot), I figured it'd be a good opportunity to fill the holes in my Spielberg canon.  I am not going to pore through his entire canon, there are too many films, most of which I've already seen, and a few of which I couldn't possibly say anything remotely objective (ask me to judge ET or Raiders of the Lost Ark as pieces of filmmaking and I wouldn't know where to begin.)  So I'm just doing six movies here, all of which I have never seen, and most of which are somewhat minor Spielberg.  The list is as follows:

Sugarland Express
1941 (yikes)
The Color Purple
Empire of the Sun

Yes, it is true, I have never seen Jaws, it's been the biggest omission in my entire film-watching history for a very long time.  But I'm going to start with Duel and knock these six films out, and if I'm lucky then by the time I'm done I'll have Lincoln in my hands as well, which I haven't seen yet, to bring my total up to seven.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


I can pinpoint the exact moment at which I stopped believing the story being told in Compliance.  Fast food restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) has been on the phone with a man purporting to be a police officer named Daniels (Pat Healy), told that her employee Becky (Dreama Walker) had stolen something from a customer earlier in the day, and essentially deputized over the phone and ordered to conduct an interrogation and strip search in order to get at the truth.  Naturally, "Officer" Daniels is no such thing, and is conducting an unspeakably cruel prank for reasons which remain mysterious.  Sandra is told that she needs to bring a man into the room where she's holding Becky to watch after her and after another employee, Kevin (Phillip Ettinger) balks at the assignment of keeping tabs on a half-naked Becky, Sandra calls her fiance, Van (Bill Camp), who leaves his construction worker friends to come to the restaurant.  Once Van is in the room alone with Becky, the caller orders him to take an escalating series of liberties with the cowed Becky, and Van complies.  How could he believe that this was a police officer who was telling him to do such unspeakable things?  No one could be that naive, or that cruel.

The twist here, if you'll indulge me in calling it that, is that Compliance isn't simply "based on a true story" as it purports (I mean, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre claimed to be based on a true story, and that's only true in the absolute loosest sense of the phrase) but takes something pretty close to a documentary level of realism with the facts of the case (this case, and reading the details will both horrify you to the soul, and spoil you on the film, so be warned on both accounts.)  All of the real people involved did act in the exact ways that the film suggests they did, and this isn't some threadbare urban legend, this is a criminal case with filmed corroboration that happened in a real place to real people.  The young woman who was victimized, Louise Ogborn, has been remarkably forthcoming about the case, and all parties involved have been filtered through the justice system in one way or another.  It turns out that people aren't simply capable of acting in the bafflingly cruel ways that they act in this film, but they did, in fact, act in those ways.

The film is mostly successful in its storytelling - the story is harrowing and deeply, deeply uncomfortable, and director Craig Zobel tells it with a straightforward efficiency.  Dowd's performance holds the film together, her reticence about the tasks she's asked to do but extreme deference to authority giving the outlandish nature of what's happening somewhere to rest in real space.  Walker has to be alternately defiant, cowed and broken, and she acquits herself well.  Zobel's insistence on the procedural details of getting us from point A to B (a strange man calls a restaurant out of the blue, and the people involved wind up committing sexual assault because of his suggestions) means that we get somewhat short-shrift with the characters - it would have been nice to have known a little bit more about Becky, and about Van and Sandra's relationship prior to this, although I will say that I appreciate that he did not attempt to psychoanalyze "Officer Daniels", a character (and real person, who is named David R. Stewart and who managed to wrangle an acquittal from the justice system) who doesn't deserve anything more than a cursory analysis.

People have commented on the meta-analysis of the film - in a story that strips away the humanity of its main victim by forcing her to strip for strangers, there is a level of audience compliance in the story, in that we are voyeurs watching Walker strip down.  I think Zobel does a pretty good job of walking the line between uncomfortable nudity and titillating nudity, and the film never feels exploitative of Walker the way it very easily could.  But the very nature of how film works means that we are, at least in part, enacting the same drama, in a small way, that the people who went along with stripping Ogborn of her clothes and her humanity enacted, and that is an uncomfortable proposition that has to be wrestled with.  The second meta-layer is that everyone in this film has a real-life counterpart, and especially for the victim (who was not consulted on the film, and that is an issue that I don't feel confident opining about), the entire world now has the option of re-enacting the most traumatic night of her life in real time for entertainment purposes.  I'm not really sure what to make of that - it is a troubling story that can and should be told, and it has some obvious (and some less obvious) lessons for all of us in its dissemination.  But boy, the troubling nature of this film only barely touches the surface, and there are layers upon layers if you keep digging.  B

Friday, February 15, 2013


When the Avengers movie blew a massive hole in the box office in the summer of 2012, it felt like a triumphant coronation for a guy in Joss Whedon who had had a lot of well-documented struggles in reaching a mass audience with his particular brand of self-aware geekery.  I'm not a member of the cult of Joss - I have never watched a single episode of any of his TV shows (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) - but even I felt good for the guy, because if there's one thing that comes across loud and clear with Whedon it's how much he genuinely loves his fans.  It can be easy for the creators of cult phenomena to become jaded by the fervency of the cult, but Whedon never seems to fall into this trap, and the reverence with which he treats his fan base is something I respect immensely.

When Firefly was unceremoniously canceled by Fox after airing 11 (out of 14 produced) under-performing episodes (and, to be honest, Fox dicked around with the show in ways that were never conducive to building a large audience) it was destined to be a lamented cult failure, cherished as much for its pristine beauty (shows that only run for 14 episodes never run into the universal problem of the cult hit, which is the impatience fans have with the inevitable dips in quality of a long-running TV show) as for its merits as a TV series.  Somehow Whedon, who is obviously deeply attached to this project, managed to convince Universal Pictures to acquire the rights and bankroll a feature film, which picked up the characters where the series left off.  Serenity hit theaters in the late summer of 2005, almost three years after Firefly was given the axe.

Some back of the envelope math - something like 4.5 million people were tuning in to Firefly by the time it got cancelled.  If each and every one of those people bought a 10 dollar movie ticket to see it in the theater, the film would gross 45 million dollars domestically (and a film based on a TV show that barely made a dent in America would probably not be a huge hit overseas.)  Serenity, at a very marked-down budget, cost about 40 million dollars to make.  Add in marketing and promotion and you're at 50, 60 million dollars.  That's a shitty investment for a movie studio unless you're convinced you can pull a substantial audience who already had one chance to invest in this world and declined.

I can't really figure out if Whedon meant to set up a new film franchise, or if he just wanted to give fans one last chance to say goodbye to these characters.  The film is certainly open-ended enough to suggest further adventures, and movie studios don't usually take a chance on action-adventure films from novice directors unless they see sequel potential.  The members of the cast who couldn't sign up for multiple films were killed off on-screen, so someone at least was thinking about sequels.  On the other hand....I've watched Serenity.  And it is really hard for me to picture anyone involved as genuinely seeing this as a good entry-point for a new generation of fans.  In no uncertain terms, I think that Whedon either didn't really care about sequels, or he seriously miscalculated how newbie-friendly the film he made actually is.  Joss Whedon loves his fans, and he made a film that, I believe, is meant to please them (how effective he was in that task I'll leave to actual fans to determine).  But he didn't really make a movie that is meant for the rest of us, and it's not really a surprise that Serenity cratered at the box office, and this universe is kept alive only through ancillary media with low start-up costs (ie. novels, comics, and pen-and-paper RPG's).

There's an infodump at the beginning that lays out the basics of this universe - inner planets, Alliance; outer planets, not; some kind of war, Reavers that eat people.  It leaves a lot of unanswered questions but it fulfills its function well enough.  The problem really sets in when we're introduced to the crew of the Serenity.  Whedon chooses to go with a show-offy 5 minute unbroken take, following Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) through his ship, as he checks in with everyone.  There are six other people aboard the ship and, while we get something of each person's personality (Jayne is a hothead, Kaylee is mousy and in love with Simon, Simon is a haughty dickface) what we don't get, and never really do, is any sense of the relationships between most of them.  That can't be helped to some degree, but what's most frustrating is just how little we understand why they are under Mal's employ.  Mal is obviously cut from the Han Solo template, right down to his wardrobe, but just based on what this film tells us about him, he is kind of an unpleasant fuckstick, alternating between unfeeling and self-righteous.  There is clearly some kind of bond between these people that is lingering just underneath the surface, but it is not shared with us here.  To give just one obvious example - Zoe (Gina Torres) is obviously the person that Mal trusts the most on the ship, and she is something close to his right-hand woman.  I am quite certain that she and Mal have a lot of history between them.  But I haven't the vaguest clue about what that history is, so when Mal really turns on the self-righteousness and basically forces the crew to go on a suicide mission for nebulous reasons, I can't remotely piece together why they all say yes.

I also can't really figure out what the crew of Serenity does.  I mean, I know what they are tasked to do in this movie - protect River Tam (Summer Glau) and figure out why the Alliance wants her so bad.  But I'm not sure what their greater goal is.  We see them go on one non-plot-related mission, which is basically an armed bank robbery.  Actually, that's precisely what it is.  Is that what this crew does?  Travel from planet to planet and rob people?  Are they just an interplanetary gang of thieves?  That seems unlikely.  So what do they do in the broader sense?  I have no idea.  This is one of the inherent benefits that the Star Trek franchise gets from working out of a military framework.  If you watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture without knowing anything about Star Trek at all, you'd probably have a lot of these same questions, but the answer to most of them ultimately winds up at "because they are under orders to do so".  That's why they go on missions, and why the crew never abandons a fuck-up like Kirk.  With Serenity, I'm just totally adrift when it comes to motivations, and that's a big problem.

The acting is a mixed bag, as one would expect from the cast of a television show.  I can see the appeal of Fillion's too-cool-for-school attitude, although I find his performance somewhat one-note.  Glau, who is asked to carry large portions of this film, sometimes suggests interesting depths to the damaged River Tam and sometimes is in way, way over her head.  Alan Tudyk does his Alan Tudyk thing as Wash (which is a thing I mostly like); the same could be said for Adam Baldwin as Jayne, who is basically playing his character from Full Metal Jacket but in space.  Jewel Staite is cute as Kaylee, although her performance is all on the surface.  Sean Maher's performance as Simon is something close to dreadful.  Gina Torres is the one actor in the main cast who seems like a significantly more talented performer than the material she's given here as Zoe - I would have preferred to watch a movie about her character than one about River.  Chiweter Ejiofor chews the scenery nicely as the guest villain, and I'm glad they allowed him to use his natural accent.  And I'm not really sure what movie David Krumholtz is in but it's not really this one - the scenes with him seem mostly like a parody of space opera films.

I can't avoid talking about the script.  To call it "in-jokey" would be doing a disservice to just how alienating a lot of it is.  People say things like this: "We're gonna explode?  I don't want to explode."  Kaylee uses the phrase "Twixt my nethers" at one point.  And people keep using the word, "gorramn" which I always thought was one of those dumb internet memes like the obnoxious "ermagerd" but is apparently some sort of in-universe term of choice.  Ultimately the blame here probably has to fall on Battlestar Galactica (the original, and then the remake for continuing the trend), for suggesting to sci-fi writers that it's okay to create words and then beat them into the ground.  It is not.  Everyone needs to stop doing this.

I can enjoy Serenity on an entirely surface level, as an action-adventure space opera that does a lot with its limited budget.  It's a sci-fi movie and it's not brainless, so its simple existence is already unusual.  The problem is that this is a lived-in universe where the lived-in part of it is obviously only meant for people who have already invested in the 14 hours of television preceeding.  That's not a huge commitment for a person to make, and on some level I'm just being lazy in not wanting to put in the effort, but a feature film that runs in movie theaters should be expected to be more friendly towards novices, and this one just isn't.

A few odds and ends:

The opening exposition involves nested stories, and I hate nested stories as much as I hate nested dreams.

The cute, mousy girl down in Engineering has a thing for the haughty charisma-vacuum that is Simon.  Why?  This is one of those things that is particularly alienating for a non-fan, because Simon is awful, and this sub-plot screams at me that I Just Don't Get It, Man.

I've been around the internet block long enough to know that Browncoats are a big thing in Firefly fandom, but when this movie mentions the term it never really does the work of explaining how they fit into the universe.  They were I guess the army of the outer planets that fought the inner planets?  And Mal was part of that army?

There are a lot of fisticuffs in this universe.  At least 3 separate scenes of kung-fu fighting from what I remember.  Whedon fell a little too in love with pitting his characters against one another in hand-to-hand combat.

The brief space battle at the end between the Alliance and the Reavers is very busy, with a whole bunch of ships that aren't really distinguishable from one another.

I don't really understand why the crew of the Serenity needs to use Krumholtz's equipment to broadcast the message about the Reavers that winds up being the film's MacGuffin.  It seems like there should be a million easier ways to get the message out, especially since it ends with the crew defending a location against a much larger army of Reavers, while Mal has to jump across a chasm to get to Krumholtz's stuff, Super Mario style.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The House of the Devil

Horror movies are like rock and roll - no matter what the current state of the genre actually is, everyone believes that they are living after the golden age has already passed.  Every decent horror film is inevitably described as a throwback to some earlier touchstone, and genre deconstruction isn't simply something that directors do on occasion, but an entire subgenre unto itself.  With The House of the Devil director Ti West, working from his own script, cuts out the middleman and simply makes a throwback horror movie without pretense.  Set in some indeterminate year in the early-to-mid-80's, the film announces its old-fashioned bonafides right at the opening credits.

Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college student with pressing money issues who takes a babysitting job from the mysterious Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan).  He and his wife (scream queen Mary Woronov) turn out to be looking for a sitter, not for their child, but for Mr. Ulman's mother, and despite the misgivings of her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), Samantha decides to go through with the job.  As the true nature of the job slowly reveals itself to us, and to her, Samantha's night begins to take on the tenor of the horror movie that it has always threatened to become.

West doles out the scares in very, very measured doses.  From the moment Samantha and Megan arrive at the Ulmans' house it is clear that sinister things are peeking out from the margins, but West lets the dread build and build while mostly not delivering overt scenes of horror.  There's a real confidence in this film that I appreciated immensely - Donahue spends the bulk of the movie alone on screen, moving around the house, and the anticipation of what terrors might await Sam is the only thing really sustaining its forward momentum. Donahue makes an adequate horror movie protagonist, but the real stand-out performance is character actor all-star Noonan, whose banal creepiness as he describes the job to Sam sets the stage for the tense second act (Woronov's performance is a tad too unsubtle and weird, and pitched too much for the third act reveal).

This is not a fast-moving horror film - this is a deliberately paced movie that wears its 60's and 70's era influences on its sleeve.  The tension is turned way up and the gore turned way down (although there is a tad, for anyone who can't stomach any).  No one will have to describe it as a throwback, because it does the job itself, but it is a creepy little movie in the best horror film tradition.  B+

Friday, February 8, 2013

Star Trek - Where Many People Have Gone Before

And so we come to the end (but not quite the end end, stay tuned).  Let us say goodbye to Captains Kirk and Picard, and Spock, and Uhura, and all of those people in the Next Generation cast who I've already forgot, by brutally ranking them.

Film Rankings:

Star Trek VI
Star Trek II
Star Trek
Star Trek IV
Star Trek: First Contact
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek: Nemesis
Star Trek III
Star Trek: Generations
Star Trek: Insurrection
Star Trek V

Villain Rankings:

Khan, Star Trek II
General Chang, Star Trek VI
Giant Space Cylinder, Star Trek IV
Borg Queen, Star Trek: First Contact
V'ger, Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Commander Kruge, Star Trek III
Tolian Soran, Star Trek: Generations
Nero: Star Trek
Shinzon, Star Trek: Nemesis
Ru'afo, Star Trek: Insurrection
Sybok, Star Trek V

Favorite action scene - the Enterprise and the Reliant pursue each other through the Mutara Nebula, Star Trek II

Worst action scene, normal version - Kirk kicks Kruge into a volcano, Star Trek III

Worst action scene, Shatner can't figure out a budget version - The Rock Monsters are replaced with a big head that shoots lightning bolts out of its eyes, Star Trek V

Worst use of old cast members - Nimoy and Kelley turn them down so the producers of the film move lower on their contact list and go with Doohan and Koenig, Star Trek: Generations

Best use of old cast members - The producers ask Nimoy to appear and tell Shatner to go fuck himself, Star Trek

Best use of scenery - Present day San Francisco in all its 80's glory, Star Trek IV

Worst use of scenery - Awful backlot sets stand in for the Genesis Planet, Star Trek III 

Favorite homage to Gene Roddenberry's somewhat shallow world-view - The Enterprise crew saves the whales, Star Trek IV

Worst homage to Gene Roddenberry's somewhat shallow world-view - Sybok takes away your "pain" and then you are under his command, Star Trek V

Swankiest Enterprise that is confined to the films - The glowy Enterprise-E, Star Treks First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis.

Ugliest Enterprise that is confined to the films - The dumpy Enterprise-B, Star Trek: Generations

Best use of make-up - All those crazy Borg designs, Star Trek: First Contact

Worst use of make-up - The awful face stretching procedure that the Son'a undergo, Star Trek: Insurrection

I Am Too Big Of A Star For Make-Up - Christopher Plummer is only barely a Klingon, Star Trek VI

It's Ladies Night For A Change - Zoe Saldana brings a bit of real edge to Uhura, Star Trek

But Women Drivers Are The Worst - Counselor Troi takes the helm and immediately crashes the Enterprise on to a planet, Star Trek: Generations

Bronze medal, worst singing scene - Data sings Gilbert and Sullivan, Star Trek: Insurrection
Silver medal, worst singing scene - Data sings the "lifeforms" song, Star Trek: Generations
Gold medal, worst singing scene - Kirk and Bones force Spock into galaxy's most depressing campfire sing-a-long, Star Trek V

The Star Turn - Ricardo Montalban gives his career defining performance, Star Trek II

Not Quite Ready For Stardom - Tom Hardy is much more petulant than menacing, Star Trek: Nemesis

Can See A Star By Looking Up At The Night Sky - Laurence Luckenbill takes up physical space, Star Trek V

Best use of time travel - The cast experiences wacky misadventures in 80's era San Francisco, Star Trek IV

Worst use of time travel - The Borg travels through time for some reason and the Enterprise follows them, Star Trek: First Contact

Unlikeliest Kirk romantic subplot - Shatner's unseen "love of his life" that he had supposedly secretly been pining for for years, Star Trek: Generations

Likeliest Kirk romantic subplot - Kirk makes googly eyes at the Enterprise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Can Never Be Unseen Memorial Award - Uhura's fan dance, Star Trek V

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Star Trek

I would argue that science-fiction TV shows, more than any other type of show, are built to take advantage of the medium's innate ability to explore different genres within the same basic framework week after week.  A bit of hand-waving about technology or primitive civilizations and you've got a noir or a western or a screwball comedy or whatever else the writers want to do this week.  There are hundreds of episodes of Star Trek TV shows and they go down all sorts of weird rabbit holes.  This isn't always a good thing - the Star Trek writers, at least the ones of the modern, post-TNG era, have something of an infamous reputation as having a tin ear for comedy.  But it does at least mean that, week after week, you can't really predict what you're going to get from any of these shows.

The television business demands that a sizable audience return again and again to watch the adventures of its characters, and within a time frame that means that the previous installment is still very much fresh in their minds when they are consuming the current one.  Do the same thing too often and the audience gets bored (even Law and Order has to throw crazy curveballs into its cases on a semi-regular basis).  A normal film series, on the other hand, does not work that way.  By the time a new film hits the theaters the last one is 2, 3, maybe even more years old.  The last one is a distant memory, and the series sinks or swims entirely within a "what have you done for me lately" framework.  This is changing somewhat with planned-out series like The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter movies, but for the most part film series are still mostly serendipitous - if the first one makes a big profit, then someone will want to make a 2nd, and if that does well a 3rd will be commissioned, and so on.  That's not the way TV works - even a show that gets a small pickup is contracted to produce several episodes.

More and more, TV shows are being consumed by people in the way that I'm consuming this film series, at whatever pace they decide.  Marathon an entire season of Breaking Bad on Netflix over the course of a weekend, that's a normal way of doing business nowadays.  Marathoning a traditional film series is a different animal entirely.  Formula is baked into the medium of television, so writers work very hard to subvert it as much as possible.  Film series mostly happen by accident, so formula is almost demanded by the marketplace.  Stray too far and, if the film tanks, you've killed the golden goose.

All of this is a long way of getting to the point that, having watched these 11 Star Trek movies in reasonably rapid succession, the formula really stands out in sharp relief in a way that it might not if you just dip in and out of a few of these movies every so often.  There is our crew.  The film introduces a Bad Guy.  That Bad Guy represents an existential threat to A) our heroes or B) the Earth or C) some rinky-dink solar system that we will care about because there are innocent people living there.  The crew fights the Bad Guy.  He (or she) gets the best of them at first.  They overcome whatever problem led to their early defeat, and they triumph over the Bad Guy.  That's the formula for basically every film in the series (with the likely exception of Star Trek IV, an oddball in just about every way.)  Each movie zigs or zags here or there, but most of them play these beats out in one way or another.  They are not like the various shows, which explore a lot of very different ideas and genres.  These are basically all action movies, with questions of cosmic import being, at best, explored at the very edges of the margins of the script.  A bad guy is met.  That bad guy is overcome.  The crew lives to fight another day.

The worst thing I can say about this long-awaited reboot of Star Trek is that it plays right into this formula, just like every other film before it, even though it is ostensibly a complete rebuilding of this series from the ground up, rather than a vehicle for a hoary old cast to take a big budget victory lap.  The second-worst thing I can say about it is that its Bad Guy (Nero, played by Eric Bana, an actor who has really struggled to find his proper niche in the Hollywood ecosystem) is a complete cipher who is set adrift by the screenplay and whose actor never finds anything interesting to do with him.  And the third-worst thing (I promise this will be the last) is that the meat of its plot, which takes up almost the entire back half of the film, involves a race to stop this Bad Guy that is not compelling in the slightest, and that wastes a lot of time with action scenes that go nowhere (the "Scotty gets stuck in a tube of liquid" scene is perhaps the most egregious example of introducing tension through obvious script finagling rather than through the organic motions of the plot).

But, despite all of this, the film manages to rise above these failings and be almost entirely successful, for two main reasons.  One is that the main 7 of the crew are extremely well cast (with, in my opinion, one major exception that I will get to) and each of them is given at least something interesting to do, even if it's just Anton Yelchin having a ton of fun with his interpretation of Walter Koenig's weird "Russian" accent.  And two is that JJ Abrams obviously completely believes in this project, and his love for the atomic material that makes up the Star Trek mythos is palpable.  I know that not every Star Trek fan is over-the-moon for this new version of the series (and I also know that some fans absolutely love it) but for me, someone who is at best a dabbler in this universe, Abrams' enthusiasm for the film is palpable, and impossible to resist.

In terms of the cast, I'll start with Chris Pine, naturally.  Ultimately, his job is mostly not that difficult in my opinion.  Be Kirk, but don't be Shatner.  I have perhaps beaten to death my anti-Shatner crusade, but it finally finds its full flowering here - Pine is fantastic, and his Kirk is, in my mind, instantly the definitive version.  (Although I accept that it's hard for me to gauge how good Pine truly is, given my bias).  He's charming and charismatic, and actually makes sense as the lead of a big-budget franchise.

The big problem in the cast, to my mind, is Zachary Quinto.  Given what an unloved show "Heroes" turned out to be, Sylar (the sociopathic killer character that he kept playing throughout the run of the series, through increasingly implausible plot mechanics, given that he should rightly have died at the end of the first season) is right at the surface of this film at all times when Quinto is onscreen - the unemotional thing that Spock does melds too easily with Sylar's sociopathy.  Admittedly, Quinto had a very difficult task here, trying to follow in the footsteps of one of the all-time great TV performances in Leonard Nimoy's Spock.  I'm not sure that anyone could have done Spock justice, and I don't think Quinto is terrible in the movie.  He simply never finds the right rhythms, so when he has his big emotional outburst that leads into the 3rd act, it feels less like a big dramatic moment than a natural extension of his entire performance up to that point.  I'm hopeful that Quinto will find the performance going forward, but he's not there yet in this movie.

Everyone else is great.  Karl Urban is nicely cantankerous, and his American accent picks a good resting point near DeForest Kelley's.  Zoe Saldana's Uhura is given significantly more to do here than Nichelle Nichols ever was in any of that cast's films, and she is up to the challenge of turning Uhura into a real character (I don't love the romance plot, not because her and Spock don't make sense but because it seems a little trite to insist on coupling up your one major female character, but so be it).  John Cho gets his one spotlight sword fighting scene, and seems to be having a good deal of fun, even when he's just pushing buttons on a console.  Simon Pegg actually has something resembling a Scottish accent (as opposed to James Doohan's bizarre drunken Pakistani), and the comic relief nature of the character in his hands means that he's in on the joke, rather than being the butt of the joke like Doohan too often was made to be.  And Anton Yelchin, although he doesn't really have much to do, sells the phrase "Captain Cork" like no one's business.

So it's a good start for this series, although not a perfect one.  At the very least, I can say that I am extremely interested in seeing where these characters go next, something we will find out in a few short months.

(I'm going to skip the plot recap, because I find the plot both sort of uninteresting and too complicated for its own good.  Nero comes back through time, fucks up the timeline, and eventually Kirk and crew have to stop him from wreaking havoc on Earth.)

Bullet pointin':

George Kirk's family, including his pregnant wife, is on board the Kelvin with him, meaning that there are presumably other families on the ship.  The idea of families aboard Starfleet ships is pretty unclear to me.  They were obviously a part of the complement of the Enterprise-D, but Picard and Kirk have both expressed regrets during this film series about not being able to have families.  I guess you could argue that that's something unique to the Captain, that regulations state they cannot have a family aboard ship with them, but that doesn't really follow logically - why would the first officer (which George Kirk is) have a completely different set of rules?

The plot is too convoluted by half, but I give the writers a ton of credit for figuring out a way to both reboot the series and not negate 4 decades worth of continuity.  Bringing Spock into the plot was a good idea - Nimoy deserved to do a victory lap, and old Spock giving the plot his blessing helps to anchor this film as a part of the Star Trek universe, rather than just a cash-in by a Paramount that was eager to start making money from this property again.  Which they were, but still.

Why is there an enormous gorge in the middle of Iowa?

When we get our first glimpse of Vulcan, Abrams works Vasquez rocks into the background.  Later, when Vulcan comes into play as the emotional catalyst for Spock's journey, it turns out that the entire planet is basically made up of Vasquez rocks.

Ben Cross looks weirdly like Mark Lenard.  He's well cast simply for that fact.

I like the interplay between Kirk and Uhura quite a bit.  She has a pretty barely-disguised disdain for the guy, which is an interesting character beat to insert into this new version.

The less said about Tyler Perry's awful cameo, the better.  I realize that every black person loves Star Trek, that's science, but couldn't we have gotten someone better than him to play this role?

This movie had a very long pre-production history, and for a long time it was basically thought of as the "Kirk and Spock at the Academy" movie (back when Matt Damon was still the rumored name of choice to play Kirk).  It's a little disappointing just how little of their Academy career is actually covered here.  We jump pretty quickly from Kirk as cocky Iowa farm boy to the cadets on their first mission on the Enterprise.  And Spock and Kirk are never really peers, their relationship maintains a power imbalance throughout.  I am absolutely of the opinion that this movie would have benefited with more time spent on the Kirk/Spock relationship at the academy, and less goddamned Nero.  But no one asked me to make the film, so what are you gonna do?

Poor Engineer Olson.  Abrams' first Star Trek red shirt, sucked into the business end of Nero's drill.

The marooning of Kirk on Delta Vega is a transparent attempt to inject action back into the film, and also sets up a couple of really dumb coincidences, with Kirk meeting Old Spock and also Scotty on this barren, frozen rock.  This part of the script really could have used another pass, to come up with some logical reason for why these things happen.

The Federation outpost on Delta Vega must be the dingiest place that Nimoy's Spock has ever set foot in.  It looks like the setting for an Antarctic zombie movie.

The engineering deck of the Enterprise is significantly more mechanical than I can ever remember it being.  It's all pipes and valves.  I'm so used to the TNG's design of Engineering now, the glowing stack of pancakes surrounded by a bunch of computer screens.  At least with this version of Engineering, it makes sense that the ship is constantly venting gas all over the place whenever it gets hit.

This movie has great sound design.  The phaser battle when Kirk and Spock first beam aboard Nero's ship gets almost all of its power from the sound.

Nero's motives get really murky in the 3rd act.  I can understand his vendetta against Spock and the Vulcans, I guess, but why does he turn his fury on Earth?  And how does he know (and why does he care) that he killed Kirk's father?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

5-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√© Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) eke out a meager but seemingly happy existence in the Bathtub, a sort of "based on a real location" version of the wilds of the Louisiana bayou which exists on the other side of one of the levees that protects the population centers further north.  When the big storm hits and others flee the danger of the Bathtub for more solid ground, Hushpuppy and Wink (along with some of their neighbors) choose to ride out the storm at their homes, come what may.  The storm brings complications which threaten their community, and Hushpuppy has to find a way to survive both the encroaching influence of the authorities, as well as Wink's failing health.

Katrina was a seminal event for New Orleans, and for America at large, but the low-lying parts of Louisiana are constantly under threat, both from storms (smaller storms than Katrina can do quite a bit of damage) and from the slow rising of the level of the sea.  Beasts of the Southern Wild plays directly into our post-Katrina understanding of this part of the world, but the status quo of the Louisiana bayou is much more tenuous than perhaps most people realize.  There is something to be said for the maintenance of that status quo, and there is something to be said about the way Katrina affected the lives of the people even further down the totem pole of American society than the forgotten residents of the Ninth Ward, people like Hushpuppy and Wink who exist on the very fringes of society itself.  The problem with Beasts is just how little it establishes why that status quo is worth saving, and why anyone should look on the life that Hushpuppy is being raised in as anything other than borderline child abuse.  And I use that "borderline" very hesitantly, not only because Wink is not above physical abuse, but because the life Wink has chosen to give Hushpuppy on the bayou is one that is constantly on the edge of even mere subsistence - there is a scene in the film where she nonchalantly cooks up a pot of pet food to eat.  Hushpuppy goes to a version of school along with a handful of other children living in the same area, but her teacher seems more interested in apocalyptic tales of Biblical-level destruction than in teaching them the basics of learned society.  These kids are basically a lost cause for true societal integration before they've even had the chance to make that choice for themselves, and while I find that idea deeply troubling, the film very clearly takes for granted the notion that the threatened existence of these people is something to be treasured.

Wallis gives a surprisingly subtle performance as Hushpuppy, although the movie mostly asks her to be spunky and fiesty - she was nominated for an Oscar, which seems a little gimmicky, but her performance certainly works within the context of the film.  Henry's performance as Wink is a significantly bigger problem - he was famously cast as a non-actor, and while he's not a complete embarrassment by any stretch, he is constantly putting the needle in the red where a defter, subtler touch is called for.

Director Benh Zeitlin unquestionably has an eye for bringing out some of the beauty of this part of the world, although he has a predilection for shaky-cam shots that gets a little tedious after a while.  I don't doubt his sincerity about wanting to tell a story about the forgotten denizens of a forgotten place, but that sincerity excuses too many terrible choices being made by the film's characters, particularly Wink.  I can understand why some people have fallen in love with this film, as its moments of triumph and catharsis are beautifully staged and shot.  But they betray a hollowness at its core that I could never get past.  Wink and his neighbors may choose to live in a meager libertarian paradise, but that doesn't mean I have to condone the choice.  D+