Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek Film Series (1984-1986)

3. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Time has come to discuss the dreaded Star Trek Movie Odd/Even rule. For those unfamiliar (And I can’t imagine anybody reading this would be), the rule dictates that the even number Trek flicks “rock” and the odd number ones are “teh suck.”

Obviously, it’s was in the wake of Part III that this opinion formed but, honestly, “Search for Spock” is not that bad. After “Wrath of Khan,” it is disappointing and the film is somewhat awkward overall but there are several stand-out moments. It is a direct follow-up to the last, a move I’ve always admired, and it at least deals with the ramifications of the last film’s ending logically. Bringing Spock back from the dead could’ve been an epic death cheat and rob “Khan”’s ending of its power. While I can’t really argue with that too much, the issue is handled delicately. The biggest problem has less to do with the idea of resurrecting Spock and more too due with the vague details. His body lands on the Genesis planet and just, magically, becomes connected with the planet’s life force.

The story’s structure is, over all, a little sloppy. The villainous squad of Klingons run in and out of the story for the film’s first half while we cut back and forth from the Enterprise’s crew to the events on the planet. Not only is it slightly slipshod, it affects the pacing, causing events to drag somewhat. One thing I do like about the earlier parts is Kirk and crew ship-napping the Enterprise and going off on their own thing. It’s a nice element and offers characters overlooked by the last two films chances to shine, specifically Sulu and Scotty. Heck, even Uhura gets a badass scene. (Though I wonder if that character will ever get real development.) Robin Curtis is definitely a weaker Saavik then Kristie Alley.

It was a weird casting decision to have recognized character actors as the Klingon bad guys. While none of the performance are bad, per say, Christopher Lloyd and John Larroquette’s voices and mannerisms are so recognizable, even under makeup, that it’s hard to take them seriously as a threat.

Once all the story threads come together near the last act, things smooth out, but there’s another problem. Spoilers alert ahead: I really dislike the way David’s death is brushed off. He was a major character in the last film and, as Kirk’s son, should be an important part of the mythology. But he gets axed, Kirk kinda’ morns for a minute, and then the story moves on to the action-packed finale, without batting an eyelash. After handling a major character’s death so well and with so much pathos last time, it just seems really limp-wristed and weak here. Shatner’s performance suffers because of it.

However, the self destruct of the Enterprise and Kirk and Kruge’s final showdown both make for exciting action sequences, even if the whole thing rings slightly hollow. The same can be said of the ship firefights earlier. The resolution on Planet Vulcan makes for the most satisfying moments in the film and at least ends things on a positive note. Apparently, the hesitant Nimoy was lured back by a directing offer. He shows a solid enough hand and the occasionally shoddy effects can’t be blamed on him. Ultimately, “The Search for Spock” is a mostly solid film damaged by a handful of seriously problematic story issue.
[Grade: B-]
It sounds ridiculous on paper. The Enterprise crew goes back in time to save the whales. It probably sounded like the “Trek” team was submitting to the same trend that gave us the World Wildlife Fund and Captain Planet. While the film comes close to bumping up against camp or goofiness, “Star Trek IV: The Journey Home” turns out to be one of the most satisfying entries in the series.

The most successful aspect is that it stripes the series down to its bare essentials. No big phaser fights, no intergalactic ship battles, no deaths. The only trademark we have of the series is the sense of adventure and, of course, the characters. Everyone has something to do in the story. By breaking up the crew and sending each off on their own adventure, the entire cast gets equal screen time, more or less. I suppose Sulu and Uhura get the shaft, as usual, but are still important to the story. And, heck, Chekov actually becomes a major plot point. Nimoy gets to play Spock as somebody relearning much of his life. Shatner is allowed to stretches his comical ability, something he’s always good at. I was happy to see so much Scotty in this movie, even if Doohan’s characterization began to lapse into parody around this time. Catherine Hicks is the sole important addition to the cast. While her and Kirk’s chemistry isn’t ideal, it isn’t a bad performance.

Dropping everyone in the middle of 1980s San Francisco is gimmicky, as with any time travel story. The situation leads to the kind of fish-out-of-water comic relief you’d expect. Sounds stupid right? All I can say is we must have a good script because the futuristic cast having to put up with inconveniences of the past are actually, legitimately entertaining. Maybe it’s just because the copious humor is a relief after the fairly serious previous three installments. McCoy’s reactions to then-modern day medicine provide some of the biggest laughs, while Spock’s attempts at swearing also get a number of chuckles. The only sour note hit is the famous Punk on the Bus scene, which just strikes me as obvious. (And, yes, yes, I love the wessels too. Who doesn’t? You have no soul if you don’t love the wessels.)

The movie has some of the best special effects of the series and they hold up amazingly well. The model shots of the ships and the probe, though used sparingly, are all excellent. The animatronics of the whales are hugely impressive, to the point were most viewers at the time didn’t even realize there were puppets, and rightfully earned the film an Academy Award nomination. Nimoy’s directorial skills have evolved. The time travel sequence of the film is the most interesting bit of the film, a surreal dream mixture of beautiful, serene images. It’s an auteur moment that shines through naturally in the kind of movie you wouldn’t expect to see it in.

I do have one major problem with the movie. It gets off to a fast start. The general premise is set up as quickly as possible. Not a bad idea, as we want to get the crew to 1986 and get to the meat of the movie. But the chaos the probe causes and the way Spock immediately deciphers time travel are rushed through awfully quickly.

I’m ultimately too sentimental. “The Voyage Home” is, on its own, a funny, exciting adventure flick and a solid “Trek” entry. But the whale aspect made it a childhood favorite of mine and much of that nostalgia probably links to my enjoyment of it today. If nothing else, the film successfully wraps up the plotline started in “Wrath of Khan.” By the end, everyone’s right back where they belong. You can’t deny, it feels good to be back.
[Grade: A]

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek Film Series (1979-1982)

It should be known that I'm a life-long Trek fan, having been introduced to the series at a young age by equally nerdy parents. In preperation for the latest entry in the franchise, I decided to sit down and rewatch the previous ten films and figured, hey, why not, let's turn it into a report card.

1. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Let’s look at “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” from the perspective of a Trekkie in 1979. It had been over a decade since the Enterprise crew had been seen together in live action. Both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars” had come and gone, drastically changing the face of science-fiction forever. What could fans possibly be expecting? What direction would “Trek” go in, considering the ways sci-fi had evolved since the show went off the air? And, perhaps more importantly, how would the universe look with the constraints of television tossed off and the freedom of big-budget film in its place?

Whatever fans had in mind, I bet what they got wasn’t what they were expecting. “Motion Picture” is a very flawed production, an awkward transition between mediums. It’s not a bad movie. While not delivering on the huge space battles you might expect, some striking imagery is shown off here. In particular, the interiors of Verjur make for unique views that would have been quite impressive on the big screen.

In addition, the movie makes the most of bringing its cast back together for the first time in ages. Both the return of Kirk and the Enterprise are given the appropriate iconic weight. Robert Wise, an adamant professional as always, brings a steady hand to direction. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is quite evocative and makes great use of the original series theme. The opening scene on Vulcan feels like a real alien planet, something you could probably never say of the original series.

As for the rest of the movie? Whoo, is it slow and boring. “2001” was the obvious inspiration here, right down to the two minute musical overture that opens the film. An attempt is made to replicate the thoughtful, philosophical tone of that film. Sadly, all this does is totally sap any sense of urgency from the admittedly solid story. Earth is in threat of total destruction and an interesting alien threat is introduced. But the, ahem, “deliberate” pacing is so crushing that little to no suspense is generated. So the film lumbers forward, never a sequence being any more then basically engaging. That the movie often stops to ew-and-awe over the special effects doesn’t help any.

The rivalry between Kirk and Decker prove to be the most interesting stuff, save for the brief sequence where the bridge is attacked by a ball of energy. The cast has a hard time. Truthfully, the script never really gives much room for any body. Despite the bloated run time, there’s little of the prized character interaction between Kirk and Spock that we love, with the supporting parts being even more anemic. Scottie, Uhura, Chekov, and especially Sulu are barely in this movie. Only DeForest Kelly manages to bring any energy to ol’ McCoy. While the updated Enterprise is impressive, what is up with those new uniforms? The film ends on some more nice imagery but it’s a long road getting there. By attempting to distances itself from “soft sci-fi” like “Star Wars,” the producers sucked out most of what made the show fun in the first place.
[Grade: C+]
So, after the disappointment of the debut feature, a new creative direction was implemented on the “Trek” franchise, even to the point of forcing out Gene Roddenberry. That might have seemed like a bad idea, but, considering his story involved time traveling Klingons and the assassination of JFK, it was obviously for the best.

Right from the beginning, “Wrath of Khan” fixes several of the first film’s major problems. First off, there’s plenty of the character interaction the series was built on. Kirk is given a juicy arc, coming to grips with aging. Spock has a very important part, which I’ll expound on in a bit. Hell, even Chekov is made an important part of the story. I suppose Uhura still gets the short end of the stick, but she kind of always did. Either way, on a cast level, this feels like classic Trek. The total lack of action in the first is made up for immediately. The movie opens on an action sequence and features plenty throughout, focusing on the kind of ship battles we associate with the series.

We certainly can’t underplay the importance of Ricardo Montalban to this film’s success. By reviving a fairly obscure, one-time appearance villain, this series finally got the iconic enemy it needed. Montalban’s Khan proves to be a legitimate rival to Shatner’s Kirk, in intelligence, cunning, even rugged handsomeness. He manages to successfully leave his Mr. Roark persona behind, proving himself to be… A real badass.

Maybe more then anything else, why “Star Trek II” succeeds over “The Motion Picture” is because of a little thing called pacing. This one has it, that one didn’t. The script is tight and concise, never wasting any time getting to the point. Things move fast from one plot point to the next. A lot is packed into the comparatively short 113 minute runtime. Truthfully, the movie almost feels too short and I wouldn’t mind the middle act, particularly Kirk’s relationship with his son, being beefed up some. But, honestly, when character development isn’t spared any and it gets us to the exciting showdown in the finale as briskly as it does, I can’t complain.

Ultimately, up through this point, while “Wrath of Khan” is a thrilling, meticulously crafted sci-fi adventure, something seems to be missing, a quality of pathos. All of this is solved with the fate of Nimoy’s character towards the end. Killing a character off these days might just seem like the lead-up to the ineviableable cheat, but a real sort of emotion is packed into the moment here and I think it was a brave decision on the writer’s behalf. Though often criticized, William Shatner gives a good performance here with that moment being the finest bit of acting out of his entire career, and arguably the same can be said of Nimoy. While the resolution drags on some, the sentiment is heartfelt, providing the film with the spirit it really needed. “Star Trek II” is the shot in the arm the series needed and, correctly, widely consider a major success for all involved.
[Grade: A-]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2005-2008)

45. Chicken Little
I feel like such a heel for liking this one. It includes so many of the aspects I hate about modern animated films. First off, it’s CGI and could be seen as the death knoll for hand-drawn animation. The humor is decidedly modern with pop culture references and some low-brow shtick thrown around. The story is all around light and nonthreatening and there’s also modern pop songs inserted over the action.

And yet… I enjoyed it. The chemistry between Zach Braff and Garry Marshell is great. They’re quite funny and are very believable as father and son. I suppose the themes just appealed to me. The dysfunctional father/son relationship and all the main character being losers and outcast are themes close to my heart. The inclusion of old seventies pop-songs is also something that made me laugh. So it’s completely fluffy and easily dismissed, but I liked it anyway. Better then anything DreamWorks animation department has cranked out in recent years. [Grade: B-]

46. Meet the Robinsons
A move in the right direction, perhaps, but “Meet the Robinsons” doesn’t quite sing. The picture starts off kind of slow. I found Lewis to be largely uninteresting as a protagonist and his whole unwanted orphan bit is pretty old hat by this point. Wilbur and Bowler Hat Guy were far more interesting characters and the movie picks up with their entrance. However, as soon as we get to the future, the movie hits another snag. When we first meet the Robinsons themselves, the mindset is frantic, shrill, and annoying. And for being so prominently placed in the title, none of the futuristic family members are actually developed beyond gimmicks, some not even that much. Sure, it’s cool to hear Adam West as a futuristic pizza delivery boy but we never spend enough time with his character to really care about him. And he’s one of the more prominent members.

Once introducing everyone is finally out of the way though, the movie gets a little better. The sequence involving the dinosaur is by far the funniest in the film. (To digress, if I was gifted with a time machine, the very first thing I would do is go back in time and get myself a pet dinosaur. It’s only natural.) There’s a brief moment where we feel settled in with this family a little bit and you actually feel something for little Lewis.

However, the mood is hijacked again following that as we set off for the high-stakes final act in which the filmmakers attempt to bring some classical Disney drama into the picture. But, as all ready established, since we don’t really care about anyone, any drama is ineffective so the climax just comes off as jarringly dark. I though the theme of “The past is the past, look forward to the future!” was overstated and, frankly, wrong. There is a twist revealed midway through that is easily predicted. Still, at least the filmmakers tried to actually do something with the story instead of just shoving out a product. You get the impression that they actually cared about the characters and the story. It’s a cute flick with some funny moments but the Mouse Factory isn’t quite there yet. Bonus points for actually casting Tom Selleck in a key role, though. [Grade: B-]

47. Bolt
“Bolt” could’ve been just another CGI talking animal cartoon in a sea of them. It hits the majority of story steps common for such a tale. The hero goes through the expected cycle of delusion and self-doubt, before finally learning the true strength of his virtues. Under most circumstances, it wouldn’t be anything to write home about. However, there are a few important details that allow the movie to rise above the concept.

The movie opens with a faux-blockbuster sequence, one that skews many of the cliches of current action films while also managing to be pretty exciting in its own right. It isn’t long afterward that the driving element of the story, its sense of heart, is introduced. This relatively routine cute animal story actually has some real emotion to it. I suspect this is due to the involvement of John Lassiter, the former head of Pixar who is now running Disney’s animation department. Maybe it’s just because the central relationship is between a cute little girl and her fluffy puppy dog, but there is a legitimate sweetness here, especially in the scenes where Penny and Bolt are separated.

Another thing I admire about the movie is that it takes place in the real world. Characters are put in danger and we actually fear for their lives, a sensation that hasn’t graced a Disney animated feature since “Tarzan.” The train/ladder sequence and the fiery climax actually had me nudging towards my seat’s edge. At one point, a character actually bleeds. The difference between reality and fantasy is the main theme and this grounded direction helps support it.

The characters are also given actual back stories and, even though the changes they all go through are expected, they’re still done fairly well. Watching Bolt’s transformation from deluded superstar to actual dog is entertaining and Mittens setting aside her cynicism and caring about someone again is somewhat touching. Rhino the hamster functions as the wacky comic relief character but his rabid enthusiasm makes him a unique addition to the Disney canon. He actually helps moves the story along too, which makes him stand out among wacky comic relief characters. John Travoltra and Miley Cyrus might seem like gimmicky casting but both are pretty good. James Lipton also has a neat small role.

The highest compliment I can pay “Bolt” is that in several parts it actually made me feel like a seven-year old kid again. Its not one-hundred percent unique but you can see that Disney magic starting to sparkle again, just a little bit.
[Grade: B+]

And that's it for Disney. "The Princess and the Frog," a return to traditional animation, fairy tales, and musicals is coming later this year and I'm really excited for it.

I honestly didn't intend for this report card to stretch out for five months. I don't really have an excuse other then I've been either busy or lazy. Anyway, "Star Trek" is next. That one won't take as long, I promise.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2002-2004)

41. Lilo and Stitch
It’s interesting to note the direction the Disney Animated Features took during the 2000s. They have all been a bit different from the typical mood established during the nineties.

First off, “Lilo and Stitch” gets a lot of credit for its unique look. This is some of the best character designs I’ve seen in a long time. Everyone has a rounded and smooth look to them and even background characters, like the aliens on the ship at the beginning, have a cool, memorable appearance. Also of note is the brilliant color and beauty that the backgrounds have. You really get a sense of location here. While “Rescuers Down Under” really just used its exotic location to spice things up a bit, you get the feeling that the creators not only did their research on this one, but actually fell in love with Hawaii and its culture. The use of music, color, and atmosphere lends the film a feeling all to its own.

Another unique attribute the picture has is in its lead character. Though Emperor Kuzko, The Beast, and Quasimodo could claim the title, I think Stitch is Disney’s first leading anti-hero. Though the character does come around in the end, he still maintains many of his rambunctious qualities. Lilo, voiced spiritedly by Daveigh Chase, too is quirkier then you’d expect, and naturally, all the more endearing because of it. It might not be exactly new ground, but I love how Lilo and Nani’s relationship is handled. They actually act like real relatives in that they love each other but don’t always get along. The movie’s humor is also a little more off-kilter then usual.

The characters of Jumba and Plenkly aren’t fleshed out all that well and are clich├ęd, despite Kevin McDonald and David Ogden Stiers injecting some life into them. The movie’s climax lacks some punch and the action scenes, though beautifully animated, don’t work as well as the other parts of the film. I also found some character’s changing sides at the end to stretch believability, a very nice, Disney-esque move for a film that seems to do it’s best to separate itself from that attitude. Still, “Lilo and Stitch” serves as something of a swan song to the golden period of the nineties. Sadly, the studio has yet to produce something as wildly entertaining as this film is. [Grade: A-]

42. Treasure Planet
As a sorta’-steam punk take on the classic tale, I found this one appealing. Seeing how the concept is played with in alternate takes on familiar stories is always something I enjoy. This is also something of a double edge sword, however, as it makes the story predictable too. Still, there are enough twist to the formula to keep it fresh.

The animation is excellent and full of color and movement. Several of the action scenes are quite exciting and nicely directed. The character designs are unique and many of them are paired with energetic voice performances, particularly Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, Brian Silver, and Michael Wincott. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a good actor but goes a little too board with his performances. The film feels the need to give Jim Hawkins a few too many cute comic sidekicks, as Martin Short’s B.E.N. character is borderline irritating. The super happy ending plays to the audience’s expectations a bit too much and I found it mostly unnecessary. And why it might get me laughed at by the music snobs, I actually like John Revsnick’s original songs quite a bit and they blend with the film’s mood excellently. [Grade: B]

43. Brother Bear
It is so glaringly obvious how much this one wants to be “The Lion King.” Instead of African tribal influence, you have influence from Eskimo culture. You have two comic relief side-kicks. You have the world seen through the eyes of animals, again.

However, while that film was brimming with a unique subtext and packed a real emotional punch, “Brother Bear” feels so hollow. There is no subtext, no suspense, and the characters are barely memorable at all. While Phil Collins produced some excellent, suiting music on “Tarzan,” his stuff here characterized the horrible pop-music pap that is his standard today.

The voice acting tries. Tries and fails. Being a “Strange Brew” fan, I did enjoy Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis’ moose characters. They at least got me to laugh. The ending is a terrible cop-out and seems to be written solely to make way for the inevitable Direct-to-DVD sequel. “Brother Bear” is painfully mediocre and represents a studio that has completely forgotten what made it great in the first place. [Grade: C-]

44. Home on the Range
I expected the worst, especially after the lousy “Brother Bear” and the awful advertising campaign. Maybe due to my low expectations, I didn’t completely hate this one. It’s still weak, without a doubt, and is barely a blip on the Disney radar, but there are one or two moments.

I like the voice cast, despite its dependency on established actors. The music is pretty decent, and I dig the Bonny Taylor number and the yodeling cowboy. The attempts at emotional resonance are ineffective but at least
you get the impressive the writers gave a half-way shit and there are one or two colorful moments though there should have been more.

The story is pretty lame, the character designs are bland, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s role is downright hateful towards the audience, the results overall are lazy and boring. Still, it’s better then “Brother Bear.” [Grade: C]