Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek (2009)

11. Star Trek
Go back a few of years. The duel failure of “Nemesis” and “Enterprise” has sunk “Star Trek,” with even the head of Paramount saying the franchise is dead. Over time, news trickles out concerning plans for a prequel. Right, because those always work out so well.

2007: Hotshot J.J. Abrams will be steering the new ship, retrofitting Trek’s old parts for today’s hip youth. Casting news, images, teaser trailers, release date changes, and more came steadily afterward, an uneasy cloud of uncertainty hanging over it all. Even after the kick-ass full trailer, I wasn’t sure it would be any good. Sitting in my theater seat, munching on my popcorn, I still wasn’t sure. Honestly, it wasn’t until about twenty minutes in I was convinced that this was going to rock. It gets off to a shaky start, what with the slightly unconvincing opening battle and Little Kirk rocking the Beastie Boys (Sabotaage, anyone?), and there are a smattering of problems: Abram’s over reliance on modern music video shaky-cam tactics and lens flares, uneven comic relief and Anton Yelchin’s jokey Chekov prime among them.

Ultimately, these squabbles are minor. The movie successfully revives the old girl. The universe is crafted with love for the past but risks are taken. In addition to the cool modern new look for everything, the story takes some big leaps and gleefully breaks established rules. While the phaser fights aren’t all great, the ship battles look more epic then ever before. The script is tight with the rescue of Pike and fate of the Federation providing a driving dramatic force. But, the characters have always been the heart of the matter and I’m happy to report the heart is healthy. The real revelation is Zachary Qunito as Spock. The amount of time and thought he put into the character is obvious. I love that you can see his conflict over his emotions in his face throughout. It is a phenomenal performance and, dare I say, better then the original.

A great thing about the script is how everyone gets equal screen time. Each crew member has a full arc and are important to the story. The rest of the cast easily cements themselves as the new versions of these classic characters. Chris Pine really had something to prove as Kirk. His bad boy persona straddles the line between likable rogue and cocky jackass but, ultimately, as the movie evolves, so does he. By the end, he has become a strong new interpretation of Captain Kirk. Pine thankfully doesn’t try to mimic Shatner’s mannerisms, but obviously has a grip on the role. Karl Urban perfectly channels DeForest Kelley, embodying the character of McCoy. Uhura was always a little underdeveloped, relegated to the girl’s part in a boy’s club. That’s fixed right away by the proactive script and Zoe Saldana’s solid portrayal. John Cho is as athletic and charming as Sulu ever was, even if his ninja flips are goofy. The one casting decision I was sold on from the beginning was Simon Pegg as Scotty. Sadly, he doesn’t show up until well into the second act but when he does, it’s awesome. While Eric Bana’s Nero isn’t a Khan level villain, he proves to be a strong adversary. I’m really glad Nimoy tagged along for this adventure. As much as I trust the new cast, it was great to have one of the veterans show up and pass the torch, insuring that while franchise has been taken in a new direction, it still respects the past.

The reason I really loved the movie is for the numerous cool nerd moments. Spock nerve pinches someone for the first time, Kirk’s continued skills with green-skinned babes, “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor, not a…” The return of the brain slug, a Red Shirt getting fried, a subtle call out to those who disliked “Enterprise” (Poor Porthos!), the classic sound effects on the bridge… Honestly, I could go on and on. Abrams can deny it all he wants but this was obviously made by fans, for fans. Once again, “Star Trek” is flying high and boldly going. The world feels a little bit safer now. [Grade: A]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek (1998-2002)

9. Star Trek: Insurrection
When “Star Trek: Insurrection” came out, it was met with typical disdain from the “odd/even rule” crowd but… I don’t know, I kinda’ like it. It’s far from perfect and, at the end of the day, might seem a little routine, but the movie certainly satisfies.

One of the main purposes behind the idea, I suspect, was to get “Trek” back to its roots with a smaller, more character oriented story. This turns out to be its biggest asset and problem. After the big action of “First Contact,” I honestly don’t mind a slower film. Indeed, one of the main themes revolves around being able to just sit back and experience being. The story of aging being reversed provides the majority of the cast with some interesting things to do. It actually gives Picard an excuse to play action hero, for once, and Stewart has some nice dramatic moments. Riker and Troi’s romance being rekindled is cute and provides Frakes with a more charismatic turn then usual. Data has a very important role and Spiner proves as entertaining to watch as ever. Worf shows up again with his DS9 duties being brush aside with a single line of dialogue while Geordi’s seeing for the first time provides at least one nice moment. (Dr. Crusher gets pushed to the side, as usual.)

One of the main reasons I like this one is because of the humor. Oh sure, some of it is maybe a little too broad (“Floatation device?” Oh brother.) but even some of the goofier stuff appealed to me. I found the entire Gilbert and Hammerstein sequence to be hysterical and there’s sharp, amusing dialogue spread all around. Once the focus shifts from the humor and characters and we get into the action stuff, things get a little less interesting. Though splitting the story worked in “First Contact,” having Riker and the Enterprise go off on a fight scene while Picard and crew stays on the planet was a mistake and schisms the pacing. All of planet sided action is quite successful while the ship battles are significantly more routine. Still, stuff wraps up in a nice fashion and I found the resolution genuinely heart touching. And, again, Jerry Goldsmith throws out another pretty score.

The biggest complaint measured against the film is that it feels like little more then a beefed up episode of the show. Granted, I feel that. Again, this has to due with the smaller story but also with how the story is almost completely removed from the rest of the “Trek” universe. Unlike previous entire, what goes on here hardly affects the universe at large. Of course, this was done to keep the movie accessible but even a casual fan such as myself admits that a Dominion War movie probably would’ve been cooler. (And that’s coming from somebody who barely watched “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.”)

It isn’t until later in the film when you find out the personal connection between the Son’a and the Ba’ku that they become legitimately interesting villains. The idea of a race of basically decomposing corpse determined to stay alive is visually captivating but underdeveloped. F. Murray Abraham brings a required amount of skill to his part but overplays it more often then not. The use of the holo-deck in the finale is obvious and I thought it was a little weak how Picard basically talks a bad guy into switching sides. Still, problems aside, “Insurrection” is a solid effort. It doesn’t reinvent the “Trek” wheel but entertains.
[Grade: B]
By the time this movie came around “The Next Generation” had been off the air for nearly a decade. “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” were gone. The only viable “Trek” franchise was “Enterprise,” which most everyone seemed to agree was a bad idea right from the get-go. (Or right from the theme song, maybe.) My point is it was easy to be apathetic about the series when “Nemesis” came out. And, if the final movie was any evidence, it was even easy for the studios to be apathetic.

There are a multitude of problems, the main one being just a lack of fresh ideas. Far too much feels recycled. The screenwriter admitted in interviews that he patterned a great deal of the story on “Wrath of Khan,” which is only too evident, especially at the ending. The concept of Data having a double was all ready explored in the TV series, as was Troi being mind-raped. Sadly, the new stuff brought to table isn’t exciting either. The whole idea of the Romulan sister race, the Remians, manages to be fairly wasted. Though their deep sea fish inspired designs are interesting to look at, their sense of subjugation by the Romulians never comes through. For a fact, their relationship to the larger empire is mostly brushed aside, confined to two or three scenes. Shinzon, the evil clone of Picard, could’ve been a good idea, especially if the original idea of having Patrick Stewart play both parts was carried with. Instead, the character was given to some douche named Tom Hardy, who manages to punch up absolutely zero charisma. He’s never menacing, threatening, or even mildly interesting. Not even when he begins to get sick and slowly die does Hardy inspire any real feelings and especially not during the final showdown. If writer John Logan was hoping for another Khan, he really dropped the fucking ball.

The script itself features a lot of pretentious talks of destiny and trust that is totally superficial. B-4, the other new addition to the mythology, comes of as a mildly retarded version of Data, does next to nothing in the course of the story, and is such an obvious set-up for the final death cheat. When Data does go all Spock-sacrificing on us, it is totally devoid of emotion. Director Stuart Baird doesn’t provide any “You have and always will be my friend” moments and seems more focused on the big explosion.

Speaking of that Baird dick, on the DVD special features, he admits to not being a “Trek” fan and, as the esteemed director of “Executive Decision” and fucking “U.S. Marshals,” seems to think he’s above all this sci-fi goofiness. I could ignore him being a prick if his direction wasn’t so incredibly stale. Most of the action is phaser-based and composed of people getting shot and falling down. There’s also some dramatic slow-motion thrown in which, you know, was really fresh in 2002. The ship battles at the end are slightly better but still fairly boring, managing to filled with dramatic moments that carry no weight. Patrick Stewart and Bret Spinner both do their best with what their given, while Jonathan Frakes, with his digitally removed back hair, comes extremely close to embarrassing himself. He was too old to play action hero at this point. None of the other crew members are given much of anything to do.

There’s a handful of okay moments. The opening wedding sequence is sweet and when Data jumps from ship to ship through space is the sole dynamic action beat. Otherwise, “Star Trek: Nemesis” is a big plodding bore, adding next to nothing to the proud series legacy. Is it any surprise that it effectively brought an end to the series’ theater presence for years?
[Grade: C-]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek (1994-1996)

7. Star Trek: Generations
Growing up in the nineties, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was the Trek of my youth. It was this series, with its bigger budget and more fan-conscious writing, that first acquainted me with the franchise. Soon, I saw the original series movies and a few select episodes of the classic series and became a full-fledge fan/nerd.

Honestly though it has been years since I’ve seen the TNG episodes and it’s the original series I relate to more now. So, sitting down to watch “Generations” for this review, I found myself experiencing “Next Generation” for the first time in years. Taken on its own merits, “Generations” is an all right time. The most successful elements of TNG, and Trek in general, are maintained. And that’s, of course, the characters. Patrick Stewart has a juicy character arc. Dealing with the death of his brother and nephew, he gets to go to some interesting emotional places and this is wisely tied into the main plot. Though most of the Enterprise-D crew are given supporting roles that range from minor but important (Geordi, Riker, Troi) to nonexistence (Dr. Crusher, Worf), Data’s part is quite interesting. Bret Spiner gives a wonderful performance as his character grapples with his new found emotions. The moment where he finds Spot again towards the end is actually quite sweet.

The film’s main goal is passing the torch and the story is focused towards bringing Picard and Kirk together. Towards this effort, the plot device of Nexus and the villain Soran take up most of the screen time. Soran is played by Malcolm McDowell who has more or less built a career on playing villains and exudes wickedness with ease. Granted, perhaps the emotional drive for Soran’s evil, the death of his wife and children, could have been developed more for a stronger effect but it’s still a fun performance to watch.

The movie is uneven up until the turn of the second act. The entire subplot involving the Klingon twins are, frankly, boring, and feel out of place, as if they’re pandering to the hardcore Trekkies by throwing in an established series element. The script even more or less admits this by brushing the characters away before the proper climax even comes close to occurring. Stuff really picks up when Picard gets into the Nexus. The movie finds its emotion core here and becomes better because of it. Shatner shows up again around this point too. What to make of Bill’s performance here? This was during the “Rescue 911” era of his career before he stumbled into self-parody and later found himself again with Denny Crane. It’s not too bad a turn but is a little tired. Truthfully, a good reason isn’t given for why Kirk would want to leave the Nexus.

Things then wrap up in time for a slightly disappointing climax. A lot of talk has been given to Kirk’s death. I feel it was a little gimmicky and the movie maybe didn’t need it. I mean, as far as the official time line is concerned, Kirk is dead anyway, so why was it necessary to do that? The way his demise is dealt with and then the movie goes on, it’s obvious it was more concerned with establishing the new crew as a film team then properly sending off the original team. (Since they all ready had a great send-off in part six.) The best decision would’ve been to just forget the crossover movie and immediately start with the newer characters. Still, all this considered, “Generations” is far from a bad movie. It’s very entertaining, occasionally exciting, has a considered emotional core, and, if nothing else, is over quickly.
[Grade: B-]
“First Contact” gets right to the action. Near minutes into the film, following a very brief intro, the crew of the Enterprise is all ready on there way to fighting the Borg. This is a sign of the film’s best feature: It’s straight-ahead, action-packed pacing.

Things could’ve been tricky. The Borg, despite arguably being one of “Next Generation”’s most important contribution to the mythology, always struck me as a slightly cliché threat, an unstoppable race of techno-zombies. And time travel… Jesus, haven’t we been down that road enough? “First Contact” doesn’t let these problems bother it. The time travel aspect and importance of the first contact is simply a McGuffin, the thing to drive the action. It is really the Borg that provides the suspense. A movie budget allows the race to become truly menacing, not to mention truly visually interesting.

The threat also allows for far more action then just about any previous “Star Trek” movie. We get to see Data actually use his android abilities to fight. Picard’s personal connection to the story’s threat gives him an excuse to want to join in the active fight, even if that spits in the face of what the character was in the series. Hell, the movie even gets Worf back with the Next Gen crew where he belongs. (The present of the Defiant and the Hologram Doctor are two call-outs to the at-the-time current series that might have been unnecessary but are cute.) By setting the majority of the action on the Enterprise it self, it certainly thrust the majority of the cast into the middle of the battle. Despite Jonathan Frake’s direction feeling somewhat TV-like at times, he handles the transition well (The supped-up effects and production values certainly help) and creates a number of exciting action set-piece. The confrontation in the hallway where Data is capture is tight and suspenseful with the shoot-out on the satellite disc being, easily, the highlight of the picture. The holodeck sequence is cool too.

Data and Picard are easily the main characters of the film and both have solid character arcs. Data’s is easily the more interesting. His struggle to become human is thrust right to front of the story and becomes a major theme. His relationship with the Borg Queen, played with an amazing creepy sexiness by Alice Krige, creates some of the most interesting moments of the movie. I mean, Data is rarely shown in a sexual light to begin with so his slightly heavy-handed seduction into evil is provocative, to say the least. It’s certainly a good bit of acting from Brent Spiner. The captain’s arc is a little less interesting. His relationship with Alfre Woodard is good enough but his sudden thrust into Ahab-syndrome is melodramatic.

The other part of the movie is set on Earth and, despite being a time travel story, is also pretty good. Riker and Troi aren’t given too much to do though Geordi has some stuff. It’s really James Cromwell as the cranky, drunk Zeframe Cochrane that owns this subplot. His reluctance to become a great man proves captivating and Cromwell pulls it off well. Again, all the suspense and real excitement is rightly saved for the Borg story. The final climatic showdown, with Picard heading to save Data and battle the Borg Queen, silly as it might sounds, is awesome and so, so satisfying.

I have few complaints here. The way time travel is brushed aside as no big deal, especially at the end, sticks in my teeth a little, even as somebody who couldn’t care less. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is good but not as good as his previous “Trek” work. “Star Trek: First Contact” is “Star Trek” as action-packed, popcorn sci-fi movie and that works quite well. It fully established “The Next Generation” cast as a team worthy of their own movies.
[Grade: B+]

Friday, June 5, 2009

Series Report Card: Star Trek Film Series (1989-1991)

5. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
“Star Trek V,” your reputation proceeds you. It is one of the most derided films in geek history and sits among “Highlander II” and the “Star Wars” prequels as one of the most disliked sequels of all time. Sitting down to watch it for this review, pulling my VHS copy off the shelf (I’m old), I saw it was still wrapped in plastic. I obviously hadn’t seen the movie in years and was unsure if I had ever seen it in its entirety. I was more then willing to give it a try, despite its reputation.

Is it really that bad? Yeah, pretty much. There were just a lot of bad decisions made in the writing process and the thing is plagued by glaring plot holes. Things start off shaky but okay. The chemistry between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is still pretty strong, even if the rocket boot effects are lousy and kind of out of character for Spock. After that, things take a bad turn. Most of the humor here is coy and totally out of place. Chekov’s blizzard impersonation and Scotty hitting his head on stuff isn’t the worse of it, Uhura’s fan dance is the worse of it. (Seriously, Nichelle, we all love you, but by 1989, you weren’t in burlesque performer shape.) When those fucking rocket boots show up again out of the blue, it’s bad.

The special effects throughout are unforgivably shoddy, especially those displayed during the climax. And, what the hell was with Uhura and Scotty’s romance? Over the course of three television seasons and four movies, they never showed any interest in each other and now suddenly they’re flirting it up like an old couple?
Let’s talk about that plot, shall we? Spock’s brother showing up out of nowhere is stupid but begrudgingly acceptable. However, that he could just do his pop-psychology mind-melding heal job and people who have been Kirk’s friend and faithful coworker for years are turning their back on him? Sulu is suddenly shooting at him? What the shit, movie? Dr. Phil might help with your psychological pain but that doesn’t mean you’ll immediately join his cult. Also, he’s literally searching for God? Not the worst of story ideas but its horribly underdeveloped. The lead bad guy Klingon looks like the lead singer for an eighties hair band and is cartoonish-ly villainous. The entire motivation of that plot doesn’t make any sense, since its been established over the last two films that the Klingons and the Federation have a shaky relationship and to imagine that a Klingon leader would just go off and try and kill Kirk like that smacks of lazy writing. That subplot is basically a set-up for a deus ex machina in the last act, making the whole thing even cheaper.

So, our characters get to the center of the universe and navigate through the supposedly impenetrable barrier pretty easily. They’re on the planet and then they meet God. Wait, what? Yep, God. But, oh, wait, no, he isn’t. It’s some evil entity that has been trapped there and has pulled Sybok to the planet to help him escape. Want to know who this not-God person is, how he got there, what he is, and what he wants to do? Sorry, not in this movie. Just make up your own origin. For a supposedly God-like super-being, he’s dealt with pretty easily and the Spock’s brother plot is brushed off in a similar fashion. Then the movie ends with Spock singing “Row Row Row Your Boat,” an inglorious ending if there ever was one.

Some minor positive notes: Jerry Goldsmith’s score is quite nice, with his theme of the God-planet being notable. The cast has played these characters for so long that’s its really hard for them to hit any off-notes by now. Even if the character is weak, Laurence Luckinbill gives a good performance. The raid on the Galactic Peace planet is mildly exciting. Shatner’s totally confident if slightly flat direction is often mocked but it’s actually the least of the film’s worries. No, “The Final Frontier” has its crappy script to thank for its status. Beam me out of this thing.
[Grade: D]
After the all-around failure of part five, the “Trek” movie franchise was mothballed for several years. But by 1991, with the commercial and critical success of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the 25th anniversary of the original fast approaching, it was decided to bring back the old crew for one more adventure. Nicholas Meyer, who directed part two and help write part four, both generally accepted as the best of the series, was brought back to write and direct.

The result is, in my opinion, the best film of the original series. First off, the look and feel of the movie is much classier, darker, and cinematically richer then any of the previous entries. The majority of the story takes place right on the Enterprise and the sets were designed and shot to be much moodier then before. The story is concise and exciting, filled with plenty of action and, perhaps for the first time in the series, a palatable sense of suspense. The mystery solving aspect, though having the potential to be tedious, turns out to expertly written, leading to a fun and involving discovery of clues. The “What if the wall came down in space?” concept is used really brilliantly, bringing a great deal of subtext about the Cold War and racism.

There are a number of excellent set pieces sewn throughout the film. The assassination of the Klingons, taking place in zero-gravity and performed by faceless killers, is a standout sequence. The brutality of the killings make the act more grave and serious and the floating blobs of blood makes for unforgettable imagery. The middle act, where Kirk and McCoy are stranded on the icy work camp, introduces a colorful group of aliens, many of which expand beyond the series’ usual template of a normal person with some stuff glued to their head. It’s a universe expanding moment, one that really should’ve happened sooner.

The climax of the film is cut in two: In space, we get a daring ship battle while on the surface, other crew members have to rush to prevent another assassination. Luckily, neither sequence interrupts the other. It might be one of the best conclusions out of all the films. The stakes are really raised during the ship battle, as we see the Enterprise take more collateral damage then ever before. Suspense is wretched up and the result of the battle proves to be extremely satisfying. Meanwhile, the on the ground sequence is equably well done because the movie has all ready proven by then it isn’t pulling any punches.

Don’t think the movie is solely intensity and seriousness though. While the humor over the last two films was arguably distracting, it evolves naturally out of the characters and their interaction this time, becoming a character building tool instead of just misbegotten “comic relief.” The special effects are also really great overall, showing the same ageless quality we saw in part four.
The film introduces a number of new characters and does a very good job of juggling the old and new cast. Each of the established cast is given plenty to chew on. Kirk has to come to grips with his own prejudice, Sulu gets his own ship, while Scotty and Chekov are no longer buffoons. Most of the strength of Spock’s storyline comes from his relationship with Valeris. There is a definite sexual tension between Leonard Nimoy and Kim Catrell which makes their interaction worth watching, especially the mind melding scene. Iman’s shape shifter makes for a bewitching presence and helps the middle act navigate a few potential bumps. The movie also has the first great villain since Khan in the form of Christopher Plummer’s General Chang. Though slightly over the top at times, the Shakespeare quoting Klingon makes for a formidable opponent to any of the good guys. The atmospheric score is also a high point.

As everything ends up on a comforting, bittersweet note, I actually found myself wishing this was the final legacy of Star Trek. “The Undiscovered Country” was a truly fitting swan song for Kirk and crew.
[Grade: A]