Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 2

Let’s continue with our Questionable Trek series. Today’s question comes from Scott and it’s about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khaaaaaaaan! (1982).

Question From Scott: “You ranked Star Trek II as your second favorite film in the last question. Give me five criticisms of the film.”


Andrew’s Answer: Tough question Scott, but I am all about criticism, so......
1. The dialog actually gets pretty sloppy and there are moments where it makes no sense if you think about it. For example, in the classic scene where they get the Reliant to lower her shields, why does Khan interrupt Kirk and Spock? He doesn’t want anything and then he acts like Kirk interrupted him.

2. Kirk’s son is a whiny, wussy, waste. I’d phaser him.

3. There is a sense throughout the film that the original crew is too old. I wish they would have dropped this. It adds an unneeded element of depression to a film that is about action and vengeance and other extreme emotions.

4. This film starts the disrespect for the Star Trek history. Why did they let Khan capture Chekov and then claim he “never forgets a face” when he never met Chekov? How hard would it have been to use Sulu instead and respect the history of the series? This, like point 3, set a bad precedent.

5. I don’t like the way they refer to THE Enterprise as “Enterprise” and Savick as “Mr. Saavik.” This strikes me as an attempt to sound more military but it’s wrong and it sounds jarring.

Scott’s Response:
1. Fair enough IF you really stop to think about it, but the film is so well done (overall) and quotable that the viewer rarely has time to contemplate this stuff. To use another example I’ve mentioned before, Back to the Future has its share of time travel plot holes but because it’s done so well, we don't have time to think about them. Only when a film starts to drag does the audience start thinking about what they’ve just seen.

2. I don’t think he’s as bad as you think. I recall someone asking Nicholas Meyer during a Q&A session, "Why did you cast such a bad actor to play Kirk’s son?" He didn't dignify the question with a response!

3. I believe the midlife crisis subplot was done to compensate for the lack of character development in the first film (Spock notwithstanding) and I suppose the filmmakers simply wanted the characters to start showing their age. At least in this film, it’s part of the overall tone - Kirk’s surrounded by young cadets, Spock has a young protégé, Kirk meets his son, the MacGuffin is a device that can transform old worlds into new ones - it’s all part of a tapestry. Generations handles this in a more awkward fashion during the Nexus scene when Kirk asks Picard about retirement and tells him about making a difference - nice sentiments but it kinda comes out of nowhere. Nemesis handles this even worse with Data’s death. There was a great post-wedding scene with Picard and Data discussing human celebrations and the passage of time, which would’ve done a better job informing the death scene... except it was cut!

4. I never had a problem with Khan recognizing Chekov - most fans suggest that perhaps Chekov had been serving on the Enterprise during that episode, but below decks, where Khan could’ve encountered him. The bigger problem I have is, why didn't the Reliant know what planet it was?!?! They think it’s Ceti Alpha VI but it’s actually Ceti Alpha V. Author Greg Cox explained this in one of the novels but I know you don’t count that stuff. [smile]

5. I think the military stuff in this film works just fine. Star Trek VI is where I feel Nick Meyer went overboard with it (“Right standard rudder”?). Meyer initially had trouble relating to the Trek universe until he made the Horatio Hornblower connection. Trek, in his view, was gunboat diplomacy. To this day, fans still debate the nature of Starfleet: is it a scientific organization or a military one? Thankfully, Star Trek has managed to walk that line relatively well over the years.

Andrew’s Reply: On point 1, what bothers me is that these things would have been very easy to fix, but they didn’t. On the Ceti Alpha problem, that actually doesn’t bother me because I accept the idea the planet’s orbit shifted and it is now where Ceti Alpha VI should have been.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 23

If someone who litigates is a litigator, then why isn’t someone who detects a detector? I don’t know, but for $25 a day plus expenses, I’ll look into that for you.

Who is your favorite detective on film?


Panelist: T-Rav

Character-wise, that would be Sherlock Holmes, of course. As for the actors who have played him, I think most have done a pretty good job (except for Roger Moore; really?), but I think you just about have to go with Basil Rathbone. It doesn't get more classic than that.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I'm going with Bogart as Sam Spade in Maltese Falcon, probably only because I already voted for Dirty Harry as favorite anti-hero. Maybe I could cheat and do private vs. public sector. ;-)

Panelist: ScottDS

Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant Police Squad (a special division of the police department). Drebin was portrayed by Leslie Nielsen in the three Naked Gun films which, in turn, were based on the short-lived ABC show Police Squad! The show (which was cancelled after six episodes) was a parody of police procedurals but, just as Airplane! is primarily based on Zero Hour!, Police Squad primarily resembles the 1950s cop show M Squad, which starred Lee Marvin as Lt. Frank Ballinger. Drebin is a bumbling fool, but he always gets his man. His boss is Captain Ed Hocken (George Kennedy in the films, Alan North on the show). The show and the films were filled with ridiculous sight gags, puns, and non sequiturs, and indeed, the reason why the show was cancelled was because the audience actually had to watch it - creators David & Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams learned the hard way that most people simply multi-task with the TV on. The films reprise the show's classic title sequence and theme music and feature Priscilla Presley as Drebin's love interest Jane Spencer and O.J. Simpson as the hapless Officer Nordberg. Drebin battles a variety of villains including assassins, evil industrialists, and mad bombers. Oh, and be on the lookout for "Weird Al" Yankovic's cameos in all three films! R.I.P. Leslie Nielsen. "Nice beaver!"

Panelist: AndrewPrice

So many good choices from Eddie Valiant in Roger Rabbit to Peter Hustenoff as Hercule Poirot in Death On the Nile to Sam Diamond in Murder By Death. But when it comes to film, there's only one man I trust to solve my murder: Dirty Harry Callahan. You may not know if you fired five rounds or six, be sure does. . . punk.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man series! They served a mean martini and wore great clothes and always figured out “who done it”. And Asta the wire-haired terrier was cute too!

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Film Friday: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

Battle: Los Angeles looked like a big blockbuster film designed to attract an audience for two weeks and then be forgotten. Imagine my surprise to find a truly inspired film. And do you know what makes this film stand out? An utter lack of cynicism and a strong sense of patriotism. This IS a conservative film!

** spoiler alert **

Battle: Los Angeles is the story of a platoon of Marines who are called in from Camp Pendleton to defend Santa Monica when aliens begin an invasion of the Earth. The squad’s initial orders are to rescue civilians who are trapped in a police station which was overrun. But things get complicated as the aliens grow in strength and numbers and the squad finds itself stuck behind enemy lines.

Everything works in this film, from the effects to the acting to the writing. For example, when they fly to the battle, you never once doubt they are in actual helicopters looking down on a burning city. Explosions are realistic. There is no wire fighting. The battles are believable as well. They don’t overdo the damage to the city or the power of the weapons, nor do they downplay it to give the characters an easy out. Indeed, the battles feel entirely real and the city looks like a city that’s been under attack -- the level of damage even increases as the film advances and the battle spreads. Even the use of the shaky cam (something I normally HATE) is done well here to add to the sense of motion rather than just annoy the audience.

The aliens are great too. They are original looking and yet also completely believable, and we are constantly given little moments of insight, such as when we learn their weapons are surgically attached to their bodies. The story also does an excellent job of ratcheting up their threat level as the film progresses, and neither side ever acts stupidly to create drama.

Moreover, the film does a very credible job of presenting a realistic portrayal of how the Marines would deal with these aliens. Too often, films like this pretend that none of the characters has ever heard of an alien, a zombie or a vampire and thus has no idea how to deal with them. Not here. These Marines know what aliens are, just as you and I know, they just haven’t seen a real one. And when they do, their reactions are realistic, particularly with regard to how the Marines gather the knowledge they need to fight them. There is one particularly brilliant scene where the lead character, Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) tries to figure out where to shoot the aliens to kill them without wasting a lot of bullets. That’s the sort of thing Marines really would do.

Indeed, the military procedures throughout are highly accurate. The characters never ignore military protocol, rank, or the chain of command. They also use their weapons realistically, and not in cool “Hollywood” ways, e.g. standing out in the open machine gunning down dozens of aliens while firing two guns at once. In many ways, the procedures are so accurate this feels like it could have been a documentary about a real operation.

But where this film really hits it out of the park is in the writing. Modern war films have become cliché-ridden and are laced with noxious liberal messages: the military is power hungry, the military murders civilians, the military kills for oil and tortures prisoners, and our officer corps is full of stupid, arrogant racists. This film has none of that!

The platoon is made up mainly of minorities, which is the liberal myth that the poor and minorities do the fighting for America, but a funny thing happened after that starting point. Not one single character ever mentions race. . . not even in jest. These characters hang out with each other, care for each other and fight and die for each other and there isn’t one single hint in this film that they ever consider the race of their comrades. Moreover, the officer in charge of the platoon, Lt. William Martinez (Ramón Rodriquez), is an Hispanic character (several officers are minorities) -- something Hollywood rarely shows.

And while Martinez is fresh from Officer Training School, he’s not cowardly, stupid or unprepared as such officers are usually presented. And even though his veteran staff sergeant has to shake him out of his initial shock, he doesn’t fall apart or abandon his training. Indeed, unlike other movies that use this premise, the staff sergeant doesn’t ridicule him, doesn’t overstep him, and doesn’t try to take over the platoon to save everyone else. He does what he’s been trained to do: assist Martinez to be a better officer.

None of the other liberal clichés are here either. None of these soldiers is power hungry or bloodthirsty. They are instead proud professionals who do their job without complaint. No one whines about not knowing why they are fighting or tries to surrender or betray the unit. They don’t rape or loot or plunder or engage in an orgy of violence. Not one of them is shown to be a coward. The same is true of the civilians who prove to be heroic in their own right. In effect, everyone is shown acting their best at the moment of crisis.

The film also avoids all of the toxic geopolitics which pollute other films. There’s no politician or oil company trying to exploit the crisis. There’s no CIA operative who wants to sneak home an alien body to create a bioweapon. There’s no general who really, really wants to nuke American cities. And there are no gangs who suddenly appear to create apocalypse kingdoms. There are just good people doing their best.

I’m sure some would argue this film is actually a veiled metaphor for America as a resource plundering nation that exterminates indigenous people. But that’s just not the case. There’s never once a sense of irony that the aliens are now doing it to us and no one suggests this is turnabout. Moreover, the aliens attack the whole world, not just America. And the American military saves the day. That’s not anti-Americanism.

Reinforcing all of this are a handful of truly stirring speeches. Nantz was brought to the platoon because their regular sergeant was away. There is resistance to Nantz initially because it is believed he got some Marines killed in Afghanistan in a raid. . . he did not get them killed through cowardice or incompetence as is usually the case in recent war films. This issue gets resolved later in the film and when it does, Eckhart gives a deeply moving speech about the responsibility officers feel for their men. This is not a speech anyone who hates the military could ever have written. In fact, the film is strewn with excellent speech where the characters explain why they fight. None of these fit the cynical modern mold. Indeed, unlike Tom Hank’s horridly defeatist speech in Saving Private Ryan, these speeches are deeply patriotic, such as when Lt. Martinez tells his squad they are “fighting for our families, our homes, and our country God dammit!”

All of this is highly patriotic in the best sense of the word. These characters don’t wrap themselves in the flag and then dishonor it, instead they honor the spirit of our nation through their every action and their love of the country, its people and their sense of duty. This is a film about people who believe in America and who will never surrender or dump their duties on others.

That’s why this film is so fantastic. It’s populated by good people doing their best for all the right and noble reasons. There is no cynicism and no irony and none of the defeatist, disheartening hallmarks of modern Hollywood war films. It is thus no surprise that liberal reviewers hated this film, because it rejects their ideological expectations about how the military, patriotism and race should be presented and it is an affront to those who want to hate America, Americans and the American military. That’s why they trashed it.

I very much recommend this film.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Scott's Links January 2012

For those who don't know, Scott roams the internet far and wide. Because of this, he supplies interesting links to Big Hollywood every day. I've asked Scott to give us a list of the best links he finds each month and a quick synopsis of what's behind each one. Check these out. . . share your thoughts!

A look back at Last Action Hero

1993's ill-fated Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is another guilty pleasure of mine. After reading this article, it's a miracle the filmmakers managed to get a frame of film shot. Egos, paranoia, money, and a release date against Jurassic Park all spelled certain doom for this tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the (80s) action genre.

39 things we learned from the Dark City commentary

I haven't seen the film in years, though Andrew reviewed it back in 2009. I'm a fan of informative DVD/BR bonus features and while Roger Ebert recorded an excellent commentary track for the film, this article focuses on what director Alex Proyas has to say.

Why can't Hollywood get Washington D.C. right?

Try as they might, it's simply impossible for a film crew to get every single detail correct when they shoot one location for another. This article focuses on the Showtime series Homeland in which North Carolina doubles for our nation's capital.

The 100 greatest Simpsons movie references

I haven't watched a new episode of The Simpsons in years and I stopped collecting the DVDs after season 10 but as far as movie references go, it doesn't get any better than Troy McClure in Planet of the Apes: The Musical.

Out of print Blade Runner sketchbook available online for free

When this film was released 30 years ago, a book of artwork was published, featuring work by futurist Syd Mead, director Ridley Scott (an accomplished artist in his own right), and more. A kind soul has scanned every page and put it online for all to see.

Movie plots that technology killed

The author of this article is correct: Marion Crane would still be alive if she could check out the Bates Motel on her Trip Advisor app.

George Takei's greatest and weirdest moments

I'd say this one is pretty self-explanatory. Oooh myyy.

25 things you didn't know about Three Amigos!

This movie still makes me laugh after all these years. I recently bought the Blu-Ray release which has some deleted scenes, including a brief appearance by Fran Drescher as an actress (and the Amigos' studio rival). Sadly, the rest of the deleted footage - including a Sam Kinison cameo! - has been lost forever.

4 unexpected fanbases in popular culture

I'll never get over the idea of grown men who watch My Little Pony. I'm not kidding - they call themselves "bronies"!

The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy glossary

These guys have been responsible for much of what I watched during my childhood (and continue to watch today). This article explains the method to their madness. "Nice beaver!"

Last night's listening:

La-La Land Records recently released a 2-disc album of Elliot Goldenthal's score to Batman Forever. It's so nice to be able to hear music from the film that wasn't on the original score album from 1995. Yes, even as a 12-year old, I was aware of such things. The remastered music sounds great and, while many of the technical terms found in the liner notes go over my head (tritone?), it's interesting to get Mr. Goldenthal's take on the music and the superhero genre itself. I also love his inspiration for Batman's theme: when children play, they tend to make up their own theme music! So Goldenthal simply unleashed his inner-child and wrote!

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Politics of Trek: “The Way To Eden”

Today’s episode is Episode 75: “The Way To Eden.” Hippies. Dirty, smelly hippies. How can hippies be conservative? Observe.
The Plot
As our episode begins, the Enterprise captures a group of hippies who have stolen a space cruiser. Among them is the son of an ambassador, which means Kirk must treat these hippies as guests rather than criminals. There is an obvious culture clash here, but the Enterprise crew comes to see the hippies as harmless and accepts them. But the hippies aren’t harmless. They are led by a brilliant research engineer named Dr. Sevrin, who is a luddite and is leading the hippies to a planet he believes to be Eden. Sevrin is barred from traveling to primitive planets because he carries a disease which would wipe out the indigenous populations. When Kirk tells Sevrin he will not be allowed to continue to Eden, Sevrin plots to hijack the Enterprise. Catching the crew unaware, the hippies knock out the crew using acoustics. These acoustics are strong enough to kill if left on, and Sevrin leaves them on when the hippies leave the ship. Moreover, the hippies have risked intergalactic war with the Romulans by taking the Enterprise deeply into Romulan space. In the end, Eden turns out to be a poisonous, uninhabitable planet.
Why It’s Conservative
“The Way To Eden” is crawling with conservative themes. For example, there’s a self-help message when Spock suggests the hippies make their own Eden. There’s also the old favorite rule-of-law idea both when Kirk points out his frustration that he cannot put the hippies in the brig because one is an ambassador’s son and in this exchange where Kirk and Spock debate the merits of the hippies:
KIRK: Doctor Sevrin is their leader?
SPOCK: Yes. A brilliant research engineer in the fields of acoustics, communications and electronics on Tiburon. He was dismissed from his post when he started this movement. . .
KIRK: Well. But they've rejected all that and all that this technology provides. And they seek the primitive.
SPOCK: There are many who are uncomfortable with what we have created. It is almost a biological rebellion. A profound revulsion against the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully balanced atmospheres. They hunger for an Eden where spring comes.
KIRK: All do. The cave is deep in our memory.
SPOCK: Yes, that is true, Captain.
KIRK: But we don't steal space cruisers and act like irresponsible children.
There are two conservative principles here. First, Spock points out that seeking their own utopia is a worthwhile pursuit (imposing one would not be). This is conservative because the idea of the individual charting their own course rather than following the herd is the very underpinning of classical liberalism, which sought to give individuals the freedom to make their own decisions. It is modern liberalism which seeks to limit the risks people can take, the goals they may achieve and how far they may stray from the herd.

Kirk then counters Spock’s point by noting that a noble goal does not excuse criminal and selfish behavior. This is rule of law and respect for property rights, both of which are conservative positions. Conservatives do not riot, do not steal, and do not destroy the property of others when they are upset because conservatives understand the value of the labor and the sacrifice/risk the owner undertook to obtain the property and they respect others’ rights to be left in peace. Liberals, by comparison, see property crimes as harmless, and consider minor violations of society’s rules as excusable (unless it is a law they like).

But there’s something much bigger in this episode. Dr. Sevrin, who appears to be based on LSD/“turn on, tune in, drop out” advocate Dr. Timothy Leary, is using the hippies for his own evil purposes. He is a megalomaniac who wants to remake a planet of primitive people into his version of utopia despite the fact his body carries a disease which will kill those same primitives. Here’s the transcript:
SEVRIN: I have no influence over what [the hippies] do.
SPOCK: They respect you. They will listen to your reasoning. For their sake, you must stop them. . . . incitement to disaffection is criminal. The Federation will never allow the colonization of a planet by criminals. If they persist, they will be so charged and forever barred from Eden.
SEVRIN: As I have been barred.
SPOCK: Then you knew you were a carrier.
SEVRIN: Of course I knew. You've researched my life. You've read the orders restricting me to travel only in areas of advanced technology because of what my body carries.
SPOCK: What I fail to understand is why you disobey those orders.
SEVRIN: Because this is poison to me. This stuff you breathe, this stuff you live in, the shields of artificial atmosphere that we have layered about every planet. The programs in those computers that run your ship and your lives for you, they bred what my body carries. That's what your science has done to me. You've infected me. Only the primitives can cleanse me. I cannot purge myself until I am among them. Only their way of living is right. I must go to them.
SPOCK: Your very presence will destroy the people you seek. Surely you know that.
SEVRIN: I shall go to them and be One with them. And together we shall build a world such as this galaxy has never seen. A world. A life. A life.
There are three strong conservative messages here. First, this episode warns against charismatic leaders. Sevrin represents the danger of following a charismatic leader: there is no protection should the leader prove to be evil. If Sevrin gets his way, the Enterprise crew will be dead, a galactic war may start, and any indigenous population already on Eden will die. The hippies know this, but they wrongly trust Sevrin when he lies to them, as seen here:
IRINA: What will that do to them? What is it?
SEVRIN: Well, I'm using sound against them, beyond the ultrasonic. It will stun them and allow us time to leave. We'll go in one of their shuttlecraft.
IRINA: Sound pitched that high doesn't stun, it destroys. I remember when we read in the text that it--
SEVRIN: I've gone beyond those texts, Irina. It's correct for you to be concerned, but be assured also.
RAD: . . . It does destroy.
SEVRIN: We cannot allow them to come after us. It will not reach us in here. I can control it all. I have adjusted it so that it will suspend its effects after a few moments and allow us time to escape. Then, after we've gone, it will automatically reactivate. Rejoice, brethren. Soon we shall step together into Eden.
Note that Irina is a talented scientist who knows what Sevrin is saying is false, but she accepts his assurance because she has chosen to follow him blindly. This is how the Hitlers of the world come to power. This is also why conservatism subscribes to rule of law, rather than rule of man. Conservatism holds that the best society results when the rules apply equally to all and keep the country’s leaders in check. Liberalism, by comparison, is grounded in vague notions of fairness and it trusts charismatic leaders with extreme discretionary power with the intent that they will use it fairly. Sevrin shows the folly of that.

The second and related point is a direct warning regarding the hippie movement and similar movements. Mindless followers attract evil leaders. And by 1968, it had become obvious the American hippie movement was being overrun by radicals, terrorists, and communists, who sought to do harm. They used the hippies as a smokescreen. By not looking closely at the leaders of the movement, society let a dangerous, destructive element into their midsts. This point is driven home in this episode when the crew dismiss the hippies as harmless and when the hippies overcome a security guard as he is distracted by their music, giving us the conservative message to stay on guard and always find out who is pulling the strings and what they really want, i.e. trust but verify.

Finally, the episode raises an interesting question about tolerance. Throughout the episode, the Enterprise crew is told to tolerate the hippies: they may be different, but they are harmless. Yet, the crew is shown repeatedly that the hippies are abusing that tolerance, which eventually rises to the hippies trying to kill them. The message is clear, tolerance is fine, but blindness is not. You simply cannot tolerate someone who will not tolerate you. This issue lies at the heart of the multiculturalism debate, with liberals arguing that all foreign ideas must be tolerated and conservatives arguing that foreign ideas that seek to destroy Western ideas should not.

That is why this episode is conservative.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 22

Where are my flying cars!! Science fiction may be visionary, but sometimes it’s annoyingly wrong too.

What do you think was the silliest guess about the future made in a science fiction film?


Panelist: T-Rav

I don't think there have been a lot of really stupid guesses about the future, considering how many things we have now that would have been totally outlandish a few decades ago. The one thing I've never understood, though, is the idea that we could press a button and food or other materials would automatically materialize. Not gonna happen. You can't make something out of pure nothing.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Planet of the Apes. Look, it is supposed to be science fiction, so I may have to revise this if I can think of a film that presents a dumb vision of the future and pretends to take itself seriously.

Panelist: ScottDS

1995's Johnny Mnemonic. It's obviously no classic and while I'm not exactly an expert on the work of William Gibson or the "cyberpunk" genre, this film gets quite silly at times. For starters, filmmakers in the 90s seemed to think that the Internet of the future would look like a Blade Runner-style theme park and we would all surf the Internet using virtual reality or some other kind of sensory input. We're not quite there and I don't see people wearing goggles just to read their e-mail. The filmmakers also failed to take Moore's Law into account. At one point, Keanu Reeves (the titular Johnny Mnemonic) complains that he has to store 320 GB in his head. I can go to Best Buy today and purchase a 2 TB drive the size of a paperback book. Oh, one more thing. . . the filmmakers failed to predict solid state memory and personal video recorders. Despite taking place in 2021, Ice-T's character tells people to fire up their VCRs. Whoops!

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I’m going with everything about the Star Wars prequels. Why? Three reasons. First, although these are prequels, somehow their technology got more advanced than the later films. Secondly, their world is incredibly sterile. It’s a world without personal effects, a world of soundstages. No one will live like that. And third and most importantly, none of their technology is useful. It’s a world with some cool stuff, but none of it is practical and none of it is stuff that would make people’s lives better or easier.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Does The Jetsons count? If so, where did the land go? Why don’t they have any roads? I know the cars fly, but what happens to all the “antique” cars that would probably require rubber tires and garbage powered-nuclear reactor engines? And if you can fly in a car, why do they use the vacuum tubes to get places? I mean really, what happened to the purple mountains majesty? However I really hope that one day we have instant dressing tubes. It would save a lot of time.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Film Friday: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

I see where The Adjustment Bureau looked like a brilliant concept. Random chance brings a man and woman together. They fall in love. But God’s plan for the world requires they be apart. Angels separate them, but the man fights against God’s plan to be with his true love. That’s an incredible amount of fascinating conflict. Sadly, Bureau mishandles every aspect of this and muddles all the conflict, which makes it feel as tired and indifferent as the last few weeks of a canceled television show.

** spoiler alert -- I will talk about the ending **
The Plot
Matt Damon is the idealized liberal politician destined to become President. Damon meets a woman (Emily Blunt) and falls in love. Damon is kidnapped by men who turn out to be angels, and told he cannot be with the woman because it violates “the Chairman’s” plan (i.e. God). If he tries to be with her, they will blank his personality and leave him insane. Damon still tries to find her because he’s fallen in true love. He finds her. Now the angels warn Damon he will ruin her life and his if he doesn’t leave her. He does, but then goes back to her. Surprise! They chase him. He tries to see God to get God’s plan changed. True love conquers all.
Where It All Went Wrong
Based on a Philip K. Dick story, Bureau is one of those films that feels wrong when you watch it because you have a hard time caring about the things they tell you to care about, the mystery doesn’t seem mysterious, and it all feels pointless. Here’s why. Films are about conflict, and conflict requires interesting stakes. If there’s nothing worth gaining or losing, then the conflicts won’t interest the audience and the story will be hard to care about. Bureau is packed with conflict, but it keeps undercutting every single stake it tries to establish.

For example, there are problems at the outset with the believability of the characters. Damon is running for Senate and dreams of becoming president. This desire to be president is a vital point to the story, as you’ll see in a moment. But Damon’s character seems indifferent to the prospect. In fact, the only reason we know he wants to be President is because other characters tell us this is what Damon wants. This is bad writing and it happens throughout the film -- we are constantly told things are true even though there’s no evidence to support them.

The love story suffers similarly. Instead of finding some way to show us how much Damon and this woman love each other, we get only good- natured, self-depreciating ribbing along with a couple kisses. To convince us this is love and not just acquaintanceship, the writer has the other characters tell us repeatedly that these two are in love. In fact, they don’t just tell us they are in love, they tell us they are in God’s plan-shattering destiny LOVE. Yet, there isn’t the slightest hint of this from Damon or the woman. This is mainly the fault of really poor writing, but Damon plays a role in this failure too. Matt Damon has become a nasty man, and I don’t just mean politically. The likable Matt Damon of Good Will Hunting and Ocean’s 11 has been replaced by the brooding Jason Bourne, and Damon seems angry throughout this film.

Even beyond the love story, Damon’s character is hard to believe. He’s presented as the ideal (liberal) politician -- a young good looking environmentalist outsider who isn’t like other politicians. . . he’s “authentic!” And what proves he’s authentic is a concession speech he gives where he exposes the sordid underbelly of candidate packaging. But here’s the problem. This speech is pedantic and pointless. We’re supposed to believe he’s exposing some big secret which makes the world fall in love with his authenticity, but all he’s really doing is confessing that he paid a consultant to pick his tie and scuff his shoes. There’s no substance in the speech which would make the public love him. So how do we know the public loves him? Because every character tells us so -- the writer even obnoxiously has random characters call out Damon’s name as he walks around town and tell him they voted for him and they love him.

As an aside, Damon is clearly a white version of Barack Obama and the script is laced with Obamaism, like when one of the angels says he doesn’t know God’s plan because “that’s above my pay grade.”

But all of that is just the beginning of the problem. The film really falls apart when it gets to the stakes. The angels tell Damon that if he doesn’t abandon the woman, then his dream of becoming president will be destroyed. Those are the stakes: true love versus fulfilling his dream. But these are problematic stakes, because wanting to be president isn’t a dream people consider realistic. And there’s no reason to think he needs to be president to cause something good or stop something bad. Nor will he end up homeless eating garbage if he fails, he’ll still be rich and famous. That’s not really a horrible loss, so it’s hard to get worked up over this. Also as mentioned above, he certainly doesn’t seem to care about this personally.

And it gets worse. As the story unfolds, the angels tell us the reason he wants to be president is the plan calls for it, hence the angels put the desire to be president into his head. But this kills the stakes. Now Damon is being asked to give up true love or he won’t be able to fulfill a dream that was never his. See the problem?

It gets worse yet. For one thing, a little earlier in the film, when they established what the angels can and cannot do, we were told the angels can’t change your desires. Suddenly, we have a story-rules breakdown. Also, this undercuts his greatness as a politician because the angels tell us this desire derives from a desperate need to be loved by crowds. In other words, he doesn’t want to be president because he’s a principled person with good ideas, he wants to be president because he craves the public’s love.

Further, Damon is looking to give up “his” dream because he has fallen in true love with this woman, right? That’s what we’re told. And it is God’s will that they never hook up. Thus, this film is about Damon’s free will challenging the God-created fate which the angels are trying to impose -- indeed, this free will v. fate point is made repeatedly throughout the film. Only, it turns out that God had a plan before the current plan and in that Plan A, Damon and the woman were to fall deeply in love. And the reason the angels are having a problem keeping them apart is that remnants of the original Plan A are still out there interfering with the new Plan B.

Now think about this.
● This means Damon isn’t acting according to free will. He is instead a victim of two contradictory versions of fate colliding. Ergo, the entire free will v. destiny conflict is phony and we no longer have any reason to care how it resolves.

● This means the whole “greatest love ever” bit is phony as well. They haven’t fallen in love against the very will of God, they fell in love because God told them to under Plan A and screwed up his math on his new Plan B. Their love is not real, it is forced upon them. Thus, it’s really not worthy of being a stake and this undercuts the entire love story.

● The whole movie is premised on the idea that God can’t change his plan. This is why the angels are so desperate to force Damon to surrender his (non-existent) free will. But now we’re told God changed his plan already once for Damon. In fact, we’re told of two other instances where God changed his plan. Further, there’s a whole division of angels who swoop in to erase people’s personalities when they don’t do as they’re told, and thereby completely re-write the plan again. In effect, we’re told Damon is going against an unchangeable plan, yet that plan gets changed all the time.

● In the end, Damon tries to get God to change his plan. To do this, Damon goes through a door by turning the doorknob left instead of right, something he’s been told never to do because “that’s only for angels.” He does it anyway, “risking everything” and thereby proving his love is so powerful that God sees it as worthy of changing the unchangeable plan. But he’s not really risking anything because the angels are chasing him to blank him out. Thus, he either does this or he dies. That’s not “risking everything.”
This is why this film fails. It promises some interesting ideas but has no clue how to handle them as it keeps undercutting everything it does, from the conflicts it establishes to the reasons we’re supposed to believe the characters. And despite the cool philosophical implications of this film, the writer basically just wrote a chase-movie. Not only are ideas like omniscience, omnipotence, faith, and even the mercy of God ignored, but the writer chickens out on his subversive idea of man v. God by making the angels fools who can’t stop Damon, by refusing to call God “God” and instead calling him “the Chairman,” and by studiously avoiding all of the philosophical and theological questions. “The Chairman” could just as easily have been some alien or a government conspiracy and little would have needed to change in this film.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"A Night To Remember" -- The Titanic In Film Since 1953

By Tennessee Jed

Few, if any, events in modern times have captured public imagination as has the Titanic disaster. That assertion is bolstered by the fact four feature length films, not to mention two made for television movies, have chronicled its demise. Numerous other productions, some dating as far back as 1912, feature either Titanic or a thinly veiled substitute.

Excluding the 1943 German film Titanic which was strictly Nazi propaganda, the other major productions each helped create or revive fresh interest in the story. The sinking of R.M.S. Titanic is the perfect template for the “disaster genre,” made all the more intriguing by the fact it was an actual historical event. Facts surrounding the disaster include all the requisite elements for gripping drama: who lives or dies, bravery, cowardice, chivalry, class distinctions, celebrity, unresolved mysteries, and abundance of eerie “what ifs.” The viewer invariably asks “how would I react under those circumstances?”

Most people today associate with the 1997 box office blockbuster that garnered eleven Oscars, and propelled Leonardo DiCaprio to mega-stardom. Movies with multiple “remakes” make for interesting comparisons. While later versions benefit from advances in cinematic technique, it is also harder to find a “fresh” angle. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the sinking, let’s review the major productions. No spoiler alerts required:

Titanic ( 20th Century Fox, 1953) - This was the first Hollywood feature film about the disaster. Although several celebrity millionaire passengers and crew officers are briefly portrayed, the focus is almost exclusively on one fictional family. Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck star as an estranged couple, Richard and Julia Sturges. She is traveling first class to take the children Annette and Norman back to America away from the foppish, high society world that engrosses her husband. In order to stop her, Richard secretly books passage in second class, then bribes his way “upstairs.” Their daughter falls for a young Purdue student named “Giff” Rogers (portrayed by a young Robert Wagner who looks eerily like Leo DiCaprio.) As Julia and Annette are being placed into life boats, Richard and Julia have a tearful reconciliation. Young Norman refuses his seat and remains with his father joining a chorus of doomed passengers singing “Nearer My God to Thee” (“Bethany” the American setting) as the ship founders. While helping lower lifeboats, “Giff” is knocked overboard, breaking his arm. He is pulled into a life boat and survives. Richard Basehart plays a young priest who had been suspended for alcoholism, but leads prayers as the ship goes down.

Modeling and special effects were pretty good for the time. Stanwyck was reputed to have been overcome with sorrow during the scene where she was lowered over the side in a lifeboat.

A Night to Remember (The Rank Organization, 1958) - is a highly faithful film adaption of Walter Lord’s 1955 best selling book. Because the book was so well written and the facts so compelling, it reads like a suspense novel. Lord scrupulously researched all information available at the time, reviewing testimony from boards of inquiry, plus newspaper and eyewitness accounts of survivors from both passengers and crew. There are a few scenes where slight artistic license is taken, but no wholesale fabrication of characters or fictionalized sub-plots. In reality, the film is more docudrama, yet never lacks for tension. Costuming was perfectly detailed and accurate, interiors perfect reproductions of the actual grand staircase, dining rooms, and smoking lounges were used. It is the most accurate of all Titanic films, even though exterior modeling shots were a bit weak.

The film stars veteran British actor Kenneth More as Second Officer Charles Lightoller, and is primarily told from his point of view since he was senior surviving officer and one of the more reliable witnesses. When I first saw this movie, I had not yet read the book, and knew little detail beyond that presented in the 1953 film. I was amazed to see how Lightoller survived after going into the freezing ocean, climbing onto an overturned collapsible life boat with several others, then somehow managing to keep it from capsizing by calling out commands to lean left or right as needed. All of this was accomplished for several hours without succumbing to hypothermia as ice formed on their soaked clothing. At first, I assumed this was merely incredible cinematic license only to discover it was a true account.

The British production, which took five months to film, added even more authenticity to the film with a cast mostly unfamiliar to American audiences. This film features an incredibly poignant scene with cellist John W. Woodward playing and singing “Nearer My God to Thee” in the more likely Horbury setting. It is fun to see a young David McCallum as assistant telegraph operator Harold Bride, plus Honor Blackman, and very brief uncredited appearances as crewmen from both Desmond Llewelyn and Sean Connery (the latter three later appearing together in larger roles in Goldfinger.)

S.O.S. Titanic (EMI, Argonaut 1979) - This production was first seen as an ABC “movie of the week.” At over two and a half hours without commercials it was presented over two nights. A shortened version cutting about 40 minutes was shown theatrically in Europe. Plagued by horrible editing, this unfortunately is the version used for subsequent VHS and DVD releases. Rushed into production prior to a rumored expedition to locate and raise the Titanic, it carries a definite television quality feel, but at least retains the distinction of being the first Titanic movie filmed in color.

The film stars and focuses on David Jansen as J.J. Astor, Cloris Leachman as Molly Brown, and David Warner as Lawrence Beesley (an actual second class passenger survivor who wrote a book about his experience.) Susan Saint James plays the fictional Leigh Goodwin, a school teacher and quasi-love interest for Beesley. As with the later Cameron film, a significant amount of time is spent with steerage passengers. In fact, there is a bit too much political sermonizing about the class distinctions of Edwardian England. Much of the footage was shot aboard the Queen Mary, and it appears several special effects shots were pilfered from A Night to Remember, then subsequently “colorized.” Bright spots include future great Helen Mirren in an early role as stewardess Mary Sloan, and Ian Holmes as J. Bruce Ismay. Despite some shortcomings it was a welcome addition to the Titanic catalog, the first re-telling in over twenty years.

Titanic (RHI Entertainment 1996) - Seventeen years later, another two part tele-movie premiered on CBS. It too leaned heavily on fictionalized characters to recount the experience of the sinking. Television, as is it’s habit, rushed production to capitalize on the hype generated by the forthcoming Cameron film. It shows, and this is clearly the weakest of the group in terms of sub-plots, dialog, and acting. Plotting yet again follows a pair of fictionalized first class and steerage passengers in romantic relationships. Perhaps the best thing about this version is that American audiences are introduced for the first time to the stunning beauty of the young Welsh actress, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Isabella Paradine, a married American passenger who is returning from Europe alone after attending a funeral. By chance, she meets her former lover, Wynne Park, played by the thoroughly dreadful Peter Gallagher, and they rekindle their long lost love while Mrs. Paradine struggles with the guilt of it all.

Before departure, a young pickpocket, Jaimie Perse (Mile Doyle), is saved from Queenstown police by two men in a crowded pub. One becomes quite drunk, brags about his upcoming passage on Titanic, and passes out permitting Jaimie to pilfer his steerage boarding pass. The other man who shielded Jaimie is the unsavory Simon Doonan (Tim Curry), a truly evil individual who happens to be a steward on Titanic, and uses his position and knowledge of the stolen pass to extort Jaimie. Curry is a fine actor, excellent villain, and produces one of the brighter acting jobs in the film. George C. Scott has a somewhat expanded role as the ship’s captain, Edward J. Smith. It may be the only time I’ve ever see Scott mail in a role, as his acting mainly consists of grimacing every time he speaks. Roger Rees (Cheers) overplays Ismay as the “go to” fall guy at fault for the disaster. In this film’s defense, almost all versions tend to unfairly promote a somewhat exaggerated, unflattering view of Ismay in that regard.

Also included is a gratuitous, inaccurate scene in which Doonan rapes Jaimieʼs love interest, Aise Ludvigsen, another steerage passenger he meets on board. Class bias is hyped and historical inaccuracies abound. On the bright side, discovery of the actual wreck in 1985 confirmed reports by many eye witnesses that the ship had in fact broken apart as it foundered. That effect was included, an improvement over prior films. The band does not play “Nearer My God to Thee” a distinct possibility.

Titanic (20th Century Fox/Paramount/Lightstorm 1997) – There is little that can be said about James Cameron’s Titanic that hasn’t already been said or written. Nominated for fourteen academy awards, winner of eleven, worldwide revenues over $1.8 billion. Essentially, this version became an incredible phenomenon, shattering all previous box office records. Cameron came up with a story that was original, and an angle that was fresh. He paid attention to details of historical accuracy, and put his $200 million of expenses to good use in terms of sets, costuming, and CGI. In short, the film deserves the success it attained. Once again, “Nearer My God to Thee” is featured as the last song played by the band using the “Bethany” setting.

This version of Titanic was first to make full use of the 1985 discovery and subsequent exploration of the wreck by modern deep water submersibles. The exploration is expertly woven into the story using a past and present format that permits the story to be told by the reminiscences of a 100 year old survivor. The screenplay proves just how well the events can be recounted utilizing fictional protagonists. Acting was overall first rate, particularly for the principals DiCaprio, Winslet, Zane, and David Warner. The inclusion of Warner in this film permits him to hold the unofficial record of three appearances in films featuring Titanic. (The third was Time Bandits which features a segment set aboard the ship.)

Cameron intends to re-release this film in 3D, 2D Imax, and Blu Ray as part of the centennial anniversary observance of the ill fated voyage.

Summary - We may never shake the grip the Titanic disaster still holds on so many of us a hundred years later. I admit to an unending fascination with the events, ironies, trivia, side stories, and human drama. As such, I appreciate all dramatic efforts to bring it to life. However, my own conclusion is that while the 1997 film Titanic is undoubtedly the best, most elaborate recounting ever made, A Night To Remember remains my personal favorite. The former is the most realistic visually and boasts a terrific screenplay. The latter unveiled more historically accurate events and a devotion to accuracy of sets and costumes than other films before or since. What is your favorite?

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Defending Star Trek V

by ScottDS

Let’s go back in time to the summer of 1989. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Licence to Kill, Ghostbusters II, the juggernaut that was Batman. . . and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the film that easily could’ve killed the Star Trek franchise (but thankfully didn’t). I’d say a good 90% of Star Trek fans consider the film an unmitigated disaster – or at the very least, an odd curiosity, a vanity project for its director, a film that had the rug pulled out from under it by the studio. . . a film about Big Ideas without the Big Budget to pull it off. But I like it!

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy had in their contracts a “favored nations clause” which stipulated that anything one actor received, the other would also receive. After Nimoy’s success behind the camera on Star Trek III and IV, it was Shatner’s turn. His original outline was titled An Act of Love and told the story of a holy man named Zar (later Sybok) who is searching for God. Zar hijacks the Enterprise and turns the crew against Kirk. After arriving at the planet where God supposedly resides, Kirk and Zar instead find Satan (and, by extension, God exists). Zar dies and Kirk manages to save Spock and Bones from being whisked away to Hell. The studio liked the idea but producer Harve Bennett (who had joined the franchise on Star Trek II) said it reminded him of a TV Guide logline: “Tonight on Star Trek, the crew finds God.” Immediately, the viewer knows this is impossible.

Ultimately, the crew would not find Satan, but instead an alien entity masquerading as God. Gene Roddenberry had his misgivings and both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley demanded revisions: neither Spock nor McCoy would ever betray Kirk. Screenwriter David Loughery was hired to turn Shatner’s outline into a script but two things were working against him: the 1988 Writers Guild strike and the studio brass who, after the success of Star Trek IV, wanted more humor in the film. The studio also demanded budget cuts, which meant Shatner had to scale back his vision for the ending, which involved angels and demons in a rather Dante-esque tableau. Shatner and Co. scrapped this and went with six lumbering rockmen. . . then later one rockman. . . then finally some flying energy bolts. Unfortunately, Industrial Light & Magic wasn’t available to produce the visual effects and the filmmakers went with Associates and Ferren in New York. As anyone can see from the final film, they were in over their heads.

Looking back at the film now with the benefit of hindsight, it’s actually not bad. I think it’s better than the last two TNG films (Insurrection and Nemesis) and I give this film all the credit in the world for having a big heart and for wearing it on its sleeve. As much as Shatner enjoys action, he also dares to ask the Big Questions about man’s purpose and relationship to the universe. This harkens back to the first film which, despite its flaws, had a good old-fashioned sense of adventure. Whereas most of the films are your standard action films with Hornblower-inspired space battles and fisticuffs (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), Star Trek V is an adventure in which our crew sails into the unknown, survives it, and emerges on the other side wiser for having faced the challenge. There’s also a great familial feeling on display. The trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy has never been better and they share some heartfelt scenes throughout the film.

Shatner proves to be a capable director. This was his first theatrical film but he had prior experience directing theater and episodic television. I don’t entirely blame him for the difficulties he had to face here (all of the above plus a Teamsters strike!) and it’s a miracle we even got a watchable movie out of it. Shatner knows how to frame a shot and, as I wrote in my Temple of Doom article, establishing geography and spatial relationships is important. There are also some interesting camera moves (including a bridge shot which starts at an overhead angle, rotates, and eventually tilts to eye-level) and some great individual shots including one in the opening of Sybok riding his horse which looks like something out of Lawrence of Arabia, and another towards the end with Kirk, et al. walking down a mountain which is silhouetted against the sun.

The opening credits feature Kirk free climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. While some may consider this nothing more than an ego trip for Shatner, I believe it when he says (in on-set interviews) that it is representative of man’s need to scale new heights. Kirk, Spock, and Bones share a poignant scene in front of a campfire where, as usual, they contemplate their own mortality and Kirk admits that he’ll die alone. This comes full circle wonderfully at the end when he tells Spock he thought he would die and Spock, having just rescued him, replies: “Nonsense. You were never alone.” Kirk also insists that men like them don’t have families – another line that is paid off when Kirk mentions that he lost a brother once but (looking at Spock) he’s glad he got him back. Bones: “I thought you said men like us don’t have families.” Kirk: “I was wrong.” It’s scenes like these that make geeks like me want to be a part of this universe and spend time with these characters.

Sybok is portrayed by Laurence Luckinbill, who does not get the credit he deserves for his performance. Sybok, it turns out, is Spock’s half-brother. He was banished from Vulcan for embracing emotion instead of logic. This is best exemplified in his first scene in which he laughs – something Vulcans aren’t exactly known for. Luckinbill portrays Sybok as cunning and manipulative (the character was inspired by televangelists after all!) but also strangely dignified and we genuinely feel for him at the end when he’s defeated by his own vanity and avarice. His best scene – and arguably the best scene in the film – takes place in the ship’s observation lounge in which he attempts to relieve Kirk, Spock, and Bones of their “secret pain” – which is how he’s able to amass followers, who are so grateful for the experience that they’ll follow him anywhere. We see Bones relive the experience of pulling the plug on his ailing father and Spock’s father’s initial rejection of him for appearing “so human.” Kirk will have none of this and the scene culminates in a great Kirk Speech in which he yells, “I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain!” It’s might be one of the best scenes in any Trek film.

Another item in the plus column is the excellent music score. This film marked the return of composer Jerry Goldsmith to the franchise ten years after his Oscar-nominated work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He reprises his theme to that film (which had since become the theme to TNG) along with his Klingon theme while developing four entirely new themes: a theme for Sybok, a theme for the “God planet” Sha Ka Ree, an Americana-flavored theme for the Yosemite scenes, and a four-note “quest motif” which he would use again in future Trek scores.

While most of the visual effects are subpar (Shatner and Co. admit this much on the DVD retrospective), there are a few great shots, including one of the Enterprise against the moon as well as a fun crash sequence in which a shuttlecraft barrels its way into the shuttlebay. The scale is off but it’s still exciting. No one will ever argue that Star Trek is about special effects but, sadly, this is one film in which they were sorely needed. Ironically, the low budget meant they had to produce many of the effects in camera (without compositing) and there are some good shots that resulted from this, mainly any shot in which we see outside the Enterprise through a window. With bluescreen, the camera would most likely have been locked down. . . but with rear projection live on the set, Shatner could have a moving camera and there would be no matte lines.

As much as I enjoyed the new Star Trek reboot, it wasn’t nearly as humanistic as this one, nor did it have that extra little bit of intellectual “oomph,” the Big Ideas that keep people thinking on their way out of the theater. At the end of the day, I think this film deserves another look. There are some good lines of dialogue and character moments and while some of the humor falls flat, some of it actually works, including the Yosemite “Goodnight” scene which must’ve been the filmmakers’ homage to The Waltons. If Paramount ever allows Shatner to produce a Director’s Cut of the film, I’ll watch it (he was already denied once) but if they don’t, I can live just fine with the film the way it is now.

Bonus: Captain Kirk is Climbing a Mountain (Techno Remix)

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 21




Worst. . . sequel. . . ever. . .?



Panelist: T-Rav

Spider-Man 3. No contest. There have been a lot of bad sequels, but none which killed my enthusiasm for the whole series so completely as this one did. It's the rare movie that just made me feel worse the longer I thought about it later.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Hmmmn . . . how about Jaws 3?

Panelist: ScottDS

Hmm... I can answer this in any number of ways. In terms of massive disappointments, my answer would have to be - wait for it - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In terms of sequels that actually taint the original, we have The Matrix sequels. But as far as total cinematic clusterfraks go, my answer would have to be Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which had a flawed premise to begin with, along with a couple of infamous producers - Golan and Globus of The Cannon Group - who slashed the budget at the last minute, which is why the visual effects are actually worse than the effects in the first film produced a decade earlier! You really can't help but feel bad for Christopher Reeve, who is probably the best thing in the movie. Oh, one more: Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, which went direct to video. Sure, the other films aren't exactly works of art but this film makes the first one look like Citizen Kane. I'm embarrassed to own it but it came in the box with the other six films. If I celebrated Christmas, I'd use the DVD as a tree ornament!

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Highlander 2. Highlander was a cool movie with a unique idea which came to a natural and complete end at the end of the film. Highlander 2 had no idea how to re-open the series, so it came up with some just awful reasons to explain why the first film really wasn’t the end and it could all sort of begin again. The film was so bad they basically ignored it when they started the television series and the later sequels. Essentially, everyone pretends it didn’t happen.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

This is a hard one. There are so many. I was most disappointed in the sequel to National Treasure. With the success of the original, the sequel was just a cheap imitation and the subject could have been interesting – The Book of Secrets – but it went off the rails.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Film Friday: Tron: Legacy (2010)

Was Tron: Legacy the worst movie ever? Nope. I liked the soundtrack a lot, the effects were excellent and the actors read their words competently. It didn’t offend me either or bore me too much. So if that’s what you want, then this movie certainly delivers. Thumbs up! But if you’re one of those picky people who want more than a placebo for a film, then this one isn’t for you.

** spoiler alert **

I usually start my reviews by outlining the plot, but that’s not possible here because there really wasn’t one. Basically, the hero gets sucked into the computer world, does some disc fighting, has a motorcycle chase, meets the be-breasted NewTron (this time called Quorra. . . which is Latin for “not all there”), finds his dad, gets told how to get back out of the computer, and leaves. It takes 98 minutes before we even find out the bad guy (evil Jeff Bridges) is up to something more than just being evil, and even then we don’t really know what. He’s built an army and wants to do something to the outside world. But what exactly he wants to do is never really spelled out because this film has an aversion to substance. His big beef seems to be imperfection, which makes me think he’s a spell checker gone rogue.

The rest of the movie is pretty much nonsense too. First of all, the film is a scene-by-scene theft of Tron. Indeed, if you lined up the order of events in Tron, and the events here you will see they are identical, they’re just hidden by different effects. Also, much of the film is stolen directly from The Matrix, such as the effects in the digital desert, the techno music during the fights, the wire-fighting, and even the black-clad hero is just Neo with less personality. . . yeah.

The fascinating bit, though, is the utter lack of substance in this film. Observe:

This film supposedly takes place inside a computer world like the original, but nothing tells you that. One of the strongest aspects of Tron was that it was strangely believable. Sure, computers don’t really work this way, but Tron set up a believable world where the characters acted as one would expect computer programs to act if they were given human form. Their actions, their desires, their conflicts all reflected perfectly the kinds of issues that occur inside a computer -- struggles for access, energy needs, security measures, etc.

All that’s gone in Legacy and these programs never really act like programs. They attend gladiatorial games where they cheer the death of other programs. They attend clubs where they dance and drink. One program is suicidal. Several programs seem to be motivated by sex. And through this all, there is no sense that the actors were given rules to follow to make them act like programs rather than just club kids. Plus, in the end, these programs are all pretty pointless to the plot.

Neo is pointless too. He comes, he leaves. He does little else. Also, his character is set up as a generic rebel, but he never mentions anything he cares about -- either pro or con, and this “rebel” owns all the shares of the company and thus controls the company, so his once-per-year “struggle” against the evil company is nonsense. Beyond that, he’s pretty pointless.

The good Jeff Bridges (Neo’s dad) had a purpose before the film began. In flashbacks, we learn he wanted to create the perfect computer world where all of us could move. . . no, I’m not kidding. Then he found these living things which aren’t explained all that well, but they all got killed so now he lives in a cave. Beyond that, he’s pretty pointless except he knows the way to the exit.

Be-breasted NewTron really adds nothing to the story except breasts. It turns out she’s one of these living things, but that goes nowhere. The only reason they mention that is so Neo can take her back to his world and live happily ever after with his electronic dream girl.

There’s a guy who owns a bar. He looks like those Albino things in Matrix II and he seems kind of important for about five minutes, though I have no idea why from the script. All he really teaches us is that he likes to rip off Doomsday when he dances during fight scenes. Beyond that, he’s pretty pointless.

There seem to be some rebels too, but they don’t do anything except show that black and minority programs are socially conscious.

There’s old Tron too, sort of. He grunts a lot and you never see his face. His purpose seems to be to add wire-fu to the film, but that’s about it.

Then there’s the bad guy, evil Jeff Bridges. He’s a knock off of the Master Control program from Tron only he spends his time bored watching the games and chasing after good Bridges’s identity disc because that will give him the power to let his army go forth and do something or other. . . somewhere. His goals are revealed to us in a very bland speech that is meant to suggest fascist tendencies, but is actually nonsense if you listen to it. I honestly could not sum up his plans for you.

Heck, even the action is pointless. This is one of those “go to point A so they can tell you to go to point B where you will fight someone to win the movie” kind of movies. There is no actual plot. The bad guy has no plan except stop the good guy. The good guy has no plan except stop the bad guy. There is nothing the good guy really needs to do to make this happen except arrive at the end of the film. The people who help him along the way impart neither wisdom, clues or skills which the good guy will need, nor does he really need their help. Basically, they just help him pass the time. And the few times they venture into something that could generate substance, the characters spit out meaningless dialog before they start fighting.

I am not kidding when I say this movie is truly substance free. . . it is Michael Bay’s wet dream. And I find this pretty shocking. They’ve stolen two movies -- Tron and The Matrix -- which crawl with philosophical and moral questions and they turned them into village-idiot-grade pabulum. Tron established a world where users are as much a mystery to the inhabitants as God is to us. The Matrix deals with the nature of reality. And Tron: Legacy stole these two films wholesale yet somehow managed to ensure that not one single idea actually comes across to the audience.

I don’t know if I should be horrified at the idiocy of these plagiarists or stand in awe at their achievement. Was this a mental tour de force where they brilliantly showed their power to suck the life out of something inspirational? Or did they just leave out the hard parts they didn’t understand? I honestly don’t know.

In any event, as someone who loves science fiction, let me suggest that films like this are ultimately very destructive. Films like this mock the idea that science fiction is capable of anything more than blowing stuff up. Films like this are undoing the legacy created by films like 2001, Blade Runner, The Matrix and even Tron.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Movie Rewind: Where Were You in ’82?

By ScottDS

Along with 1939, 1982 is considered a banner year for Hollywood. Many films we now consider classics thirty years later (and a few we consider “guilty pleasures”) made their big screen premieres this year. Some struck box-office gold while others needed some time to be appreciated. Let’s take a look at a few members of the Class of 1982.

Blade Runner -- What more could possibly be said about Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s story about replicant hunter (“blade runner”) Rick Deckard? The director clashed with crewmembers as well as Harrison Ford who, in turn, didn’t get along with Sean Young, and executives kept threatening to take the film away and recut it themselves. However, the film is visually stunning with details upon details threatening to overflow the frame, and features a stirring synth score by Vangelis, complex performances, an intelligent screenplay, and visual effects that still hold up to this day. Blade Runner was greeted with mixed reactions upon its release but found the fame it so deserved in the 90s with the discovery of an alternate cut. Ridley Scott later completed his Final Cut which you can find on DVD and Blu-Ray. “Wake up. Time to die!”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan -- Paramount brought in TV veteran Harve Bennett to produce a Trek sequel that wouldn’t cost as much as the first film. Bennett, in turn, brought in Nicholas Meyer, best known for his Sherlock Holmes novels. Cobbling together bits and pieces from other drafts (including terraforming, a son for Kirk, and a protégé for Spock), Meyer turned in a script in 12 days. Leonard Nimoy and the studio eventually had second thoughts about killing off Spock so an epilogue was filmed in which we see his torpedo-slash-casket on the surface of the Genesis planet, thus proving that, in Star Trek, no one is ever truly dead. This film also marked the debut of Kirstie Alley (as Lt. Saavik) and was the first Trek job for effects house Industrial Light & Magic while the nautically-inspired score put young composer James Horner on the map. “Aren’t you dead?”

Poltergeist -- This film, chronicling the Freeling family and the malevolent ghosts that abduct their youngest daughter, remains controversial to this day. The question of who really directed it – co-writer/producer Steven Spielberg or Tobe Hooper? – still hasn’t been answered to some folks’ satisfaction while others consider the so-called “Poltergeist curse”: among other things, the use of real cadavers as props and the untimely deaths of actresses Dominique Dunne (strangled by her boyfriend) and Heather O’Rourke (septic shock during production of the third film). However, the film is a modern horror classic with likable characters, an ethereal score by Jerry Goldsmith, and wonderfully old-school visual effects. This was Spielberg in full “popcorn mode” and he’s never been able to top the string of hits he produced in the 80s. “This house is clean.”

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial -- Oh, how I wish I had been around for the craze surrounding this film, which became the highest-grossing movie of all time, holding the record for 11 years. The story of a lonely boy who befriends an alien, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic was spawned from a couple different ideas he had been toying with, including a story about childhood and another about malevolent aliens who terrorize a family. The film has also been subject to myriad interpretations with some calling E.T. a Jesus figure and others labeling it a Jewish story: the ultimate immigrant’s tale. Of course, one group that was disappointed was Mars, who refused to let the filmmakers use M&M’s! Spielberg’s technical prowess is in top form as are his collaborators, specifically composer John Williams and creature effects guru Carlo Rambaldi. “Well, can’t he just beam up?”

Tron -- This film is the very definition of “ahead of its time.” After years in development, first-time director Steven Lisberger finally found a home at Disney for his far-out vision combining video games and computer graphics, which at the time were about as advanced as Pong. The end result is a visually dazzling tale of good versus evil, with Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner as our heroes, Cindy Morgan as the love interest, and the always-entertaining David Warner as the villain who seeks (virtual) world domination. Greeted with mild box-office and mixed critical reception, the film later became a cult hit and spawned a series of comics, merchandise, and a rather unnecessary sequel in 2010. Pixar chief John Lasseter pays the film the biggest compliment when he says, “Without Tron, there would be no Toy Story.” High praise, indeed. “Now that is a big door!”

Porky’s -- Writer/director Bob Clark’s film tells the story of a group of Florida teenagers intent on losing their virginity. After being humiliated by the owner of the titular club who promised them a good time in exchange for all their money, the boys plot their revenge. Along the way, they manage to spy on their female classmates in the shower and let’s just say one boy regrets this after the appropriately-named Ms. Balbricker intrudes on the scene. Truth be told, the film is rather uneven and many of the characters tend to blend together. There’s also a ham-handed racism subplot (with a Jewish boy mistakenly referred to as a “kite”) and many of the laughs seem to come from watching other characters laugh… but it’s all harmless fun. “Please, can we call it a ‘tallywhacker’?” (Sadly, Bob Clark and his son were killed by a drunk driver/illegal immigrant in 2007.)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High -- In 1981, a young writer named Cameron Crowe spent a year undercover in high school researching a book. He later adapted it for this film, which also marked the directing debut of Amy Heckerling. The film takes place within the span of a school year and introduces us to a variety of characters, including: stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn in the role that even his critics enjoy); Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who loses her virginity and, in a rather dark turn of events, gets an abortion; Stacy’s brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) who hates his humiliating fast food job and is caught in an embarrassing moment by Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), whose pool scene caused many VHS tapes to be constantly rewound and subsequently damaged. (Oh, and be on the lookout for a young Nicolas Cage!) “Aloha. My name is Mr. Hand.”

The Thing -- John Carpenter’s adaptation of the novella Who Goes There? (which also inspired Howard Hawks’ 1951 production of The Thing) is a cold, claustrophobic, extremely effective horror film. After a tepid reaction at the box-office, the film has become a modern cult classic. Kurt Russell leads an extremely likable cast of character actors, including Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Charles Hallahan, Richard Masur, and Richard Dysart – just Average Joes living a humdrum existence on the edge of civilization as an evil force unknowingly lurks within. Rob Bottin’s make-up effects (this was before CGI) still amaze and disgust after all these years and the film ends on an ambiguous note as our only surviving characters decide to “wait [and] see what happens.” Production values are all top-notch. “I just wanna get up to my shack and get drunk.”

Also: Conan the Barbarian, Deathtrap, The Dark Crystal, Das Boot, Death Wish II, Diner, First Blood, 48 Hours, Night Shift, An Officer and a Gentleman, Tootsie, The Verdict, and Gandhi.

Will 2012 prove to be as memorable? I hate to sound like a cynic. . . but I’m doubtful.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Politics of Trek: “The Conscience of the King”

Let’s continue the Politics of Trek series with Episode 13: “The Conscience of the King”! This is a fascinating episode about a man who executed thousands of people to save thousands more. What conservative message could this send? How about, the ends never justify the means.
The Plot
As the episode begins, the Enterprise has been diverted to Planet Q by Kirk’s friend Dr. Thomas Leighton. Leighton claims to have discovered a new food source, but he’s lying. He really wants Kirk to investigate a visiting actor, Anton Karidian, whom Leighton believes to be Kodos the Executioner. Kodos was the governor of Tarsus IV, where he executed 4,000 people, including members of Kirk’s family. He did this because the colony was running out of food and Kodos hoped to save half the colonists by executing the other half. Kodos was believed killed when he was overthrown, but his body was never found. Kirk initially refuses Leighton’s request. But when Leighton is mysterious killed, Kirk arranges events so the Enterprise gives the acting troupe their ride to the next planet. One thing leads to another and Kirk confronts Karidian, who is in fact Kodos.
Why It’s Conservative
A fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals involves the question of whether motives can excuse behavior. With rare exceptions, e.g. self-defense, conservatives judge people on their actions, not on what motivated those actions. Liberals, by comparison, take motives into account. This is why they consider things like root causes, the relative economic power of the parties, and whether the person’s goals outweigh the tactics they use to achieve those goals, i.e. do their attempted ends justify their means. Conservatives reject this and look only at the means you have chosen. This episode comes down firmly on the conservative side.

For example, Leighton lies to bring the Enterprise to the planet and Kirk reprimands him for it, despite the extreme importance of his request. Kirk then engages in trickery himself and thereby alienates and endangers his friends and crew. Both times the message is that the ends, no matter how important, did not justify the chosen means. But the real focus is on Kodos. Here Kodos tries to justify his crimes to Kirk:
KARIDIAN: Kodos, whoever he was—
KIRK: Or is.
KARIDIAN: Or is. Kodos made a decision of life and death. Some had to die that others might live. You’re a man of decision, Captain. You ought to understand that.
KIRK: All I understand is that four thousand people were needlessly butchered.
KARIDIAN: In order to save four thousand others. And if the supply ships hadn’t come earlier than expected, this Kodos of yours might have gone down in history as a great hero.
KIRK: But he didn’t. And history has made its judgment.
KARIDIAN: If you’re so sure that I’m Kodos, why not kill me now? Let bloody vengeance take its final course! And see what difference it makes to this universe of yours.
KIRK: Those beautiful words, well acted, change nothing.
Kodos is walking through standard liberal arguments here. First he argues that he acted with the best of intentions. This is the argument liberals use to excuse abuses of power: that the ends were very important and justify the means. Then he argues that he deserves “understanding” because he was charged with making life and death decisions. This is moral relativism because it asks that he be judged under a different standard than others because of the circumstances he faced. This is the idea behind the liberal root-causes argument, which says that criminal behavior should be judged in light of a person’s economic circumstances or personal history. Finally, he argues that punishing him will not undo the crime. This is the liberal impulse to dismiss all aspects of criminal justice except reformation. Kodos essentially presents liberal criminal law in a nutshell.

Kirk rejects these arguments with disgust and derision and doesn’t even bother to refute the logic: “all I understand is that four thousand people were needlessly butchered.” That is conservatism: all that matters is what Kodos did, not why he did it. Guilty.

So what about punishment? McCoy, the show’s bleeding heart, suggests there’s no point in punishing Kodos because his victims are dead:
MCCOY: What if you decide he is Kodos? What then? Do you play God, carry his head through the corridors in triumph? That won’t bring back the dead, Jim.
KIRK: No, but they may rest easier.
Kirk rejects this because he sees justice as a matter of principle and asserts that it must account to the victims even if they are dead. Liberals increasingly see this view as “vindictive,” which is why they oppose long sentences, victim’s rights laws and so-called “victimless crimes.”

Kodos then suggests he has suffered enough when he says he no longer treasures life and he laments how he has been haunted by his crimes:
KARIDIAN: Blood thins. The body fails. One is finally grateful for a failing memory. I no longer treasure life, not even my own. I am tired! And the past is a blank.
Actor Arnold Moss does a tremendous job of conveying how this has tormented Kodos even with only these few words, but Kirk dismisses this idea out of hand. Unlike liberal Captain Picard in “The Survivors”, Kirk does not accept the idea that self-imposed suffering is sufficient. Instead, Kirk takes the conservative position that crimes must be punished objectively and cannot be overlooked just because the criminal thinks the punishment is too harsh.

So what does Kirk do? Interestingly, he tells Kodos that he won’t kill Kodos despite wanting to:
KARIDIAN: Did you get everything you wanted, Captain Kirk?
KIRK: If I had gotten everything I wanted, you might not walk out of this room alive.
This is the conservative answer, though it is frustrating. This is Kirk returning to conservative form after his earlier abuses of power. This is his declaration that he will not use improper means to achieve his desired ends, i.e. he will not repeat Kodos’ mistake. Instead, he will let the system extract justice, which dovetails with Kirk’s law-and-order / rule-of-law conservatism.

So Kirk has acted conservatively. But merely arresting a man who thinks he was justified in killing 4,000 people isn’t enough to establish the complete conservative moral, which requires the imposition of a proportional punishment. Since there’s no time to show Kodos’ trial and execution (plus television is about drama), the writer imposes a little proportional cosmic justice and in the process makes the dual points that great crimes require great punishments and evil begets evil. Indeed, it turns out Kodos’ daughter has been killing the witnesses who can expose him. Kodos thought he had shielded her from his past and it destroys him to learn his deeds have poisoned her.
KARIDIAN: What have you done?
LENORE: What had to be done. They had to be silenced.
KARIDIAN: All of them? All seven? More blood on my hands?
LENORE: No Father, not anymore. I’m strong, Father. It’s nothing. . . . Don’t you see? All the ghosts are dead. I’ve buried them. There’s no more blood on your hands.
KARIDIAN: Oh, my child, my child. You’ve left me nothing! You were the one thing in my life untouched by what I’d done. . . Murder, flight, suicide, madness. I never wanted the blood on my hands ever to stain you.
She then kills her own father while trying to kill Kirk. The punishment is complete, justice is had, and the moral is clear: evil means are never justified and evil will receive the punishment it deserves. And that is a strong conservative message.

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