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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Star Trek in Retrospect - Part I: "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982)

With Abrams’ big reboot on the horizon I thought it was about time I take a trek through past films in the nerd-ridden franchise. In memory of the fonder moments of Star Trek I’ll be looking at my favorite, and arguably the best, of the Star Trek films. So if you’re looking for my thoughts on the first and fifth movies, you’ll have to wait. I’m sure I’ll get to thrash them one day. I also won’t be focusing much on any of the series because, frankly, that would take up more time than I’m willing to spend.

So where do I begin? Well not quite the beginning in this case. And, despite the ever-charitable need to save the best for last, it just so happens the best is at the front of the line—At least in this retrospect.

After the first movie, which was based on a 45 minute script for the pilot of the debunked “Star Trek: Phase II,” Paramount decided to go a different direction with the franchise. Putting the Star Trek cast in the hands of director Nicholas Meyer proved to be one of the greatest decisions in the franchise’s history. Loved, spoofed and revered by audiences, fans, film historians and critics all over the world is the U.S.S. Enterprise’s greatest mission—And for that matter, one of science fiction’s greatest films: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

Based as sequel to the original series episode “Space Seed,” “The Wrath of Khan” made sure prior knowledge of the episode was not a requirement to enjoy the movie. After the genetically engineered renegade Khan escapes from exile he sets course to kill the man who banished him: James T. Kirk. The aging Admiral, unaware of Khan’s return, meanwhile contemplates his life decisions in contempt and juggles his worries with that of the Genesis device—A powerful tool for six-second terraforming, but also a dangerous weapon that could fall in to the hands of Khan.

I try to keep my synopses concise. Sometimes I like how I’ve worded them, other times I roll my eyes at myself, knowing there’s really no way to do a film justice while keeping the summaries short. As I write this I have to roll my eyes a little. I suppose no summary does a great film, like this one, any justice. It simply must be experienced.

Experience is a great deal of what this film is about anyway, so its fits the bill of being a movie. (Rather than some other form of media.) So often will I hear that “Star Trek II” is a great revenge story. This is very true considering Khan’s hunt for Kirk borrows such sensational literary mimicry from “Moby Dick.” But historians have explored that side of the film so many times that it has become an easy target for commentary. I prefer to look at Admiral Kirk’s story, which includes so much more than outwitting Khan’s Captain Ahab persona.

For audiences unfamiliar with the Star Trek cast, watching “Star Trek II” gives the impression that James T. Kirk has always been this well written. For those of us who know Star Trek better, it’s interesting to note that we’ve never dived this far in to Kirk’s character. At long last those late nights with Orion slave girls, duels with expressionless, plastic lizard-men and constant ripping of his command tunic have caught up with Kirk. Going through something one might call a mid-life crisis, Kirk comes face to face with a slowing career, a family he could have been with and the heartbreaking task of handing the Enterprise to a younger generation. When Khan finally enters the picture Kirk begins to wonder what he’s been doing for the last fifteen years since he exiled his nemesis. Is it worth being put through the events in the film?

This is an important aspect of the film to understand because of its chief theme: Life birthed from death. During all the mayhem of Kirk’s life and Khan’s “wrath,” the Genesis device awaits testing. From the beginning it is contemplated as a miracle as well as a threat. Echoes of the atom bomb’s birth ring loudly among the Genesis device’s entrance in the story, but there’s more to it. It plays an intricate roll in the film’s finale, and Kirk’s reunion with life. After a famous “death” happens aboard the Enterprise it ignites the metaphorical “rebirth” of Kirk’s character, breathing new life in to his outlook and his future.

Those who have seen the movie know of the life from death that I speak of. And the excellent contrast of that specific death with the new world being born of the Genesis device is absolutely astounding imagery. I’m writing this review as if to cater to those who have yet to see this movie, but truthfully, if you have not seen “Wrath of Khan” stop reading this and go watch it now. If you’re a friend of mine and have yet to see it, we’ll have chat about how long we’ll remain friends later.

Well now that we’ve looked past “Wrath of Khan’s” more poetic moments it would be criminal not to mention the film’s visual aspects. I’d like to begin saying that I’m a fan of outer space battles, but if they aren’t a lot of fun, then they need to be fresh. My problem with the final film in the original “Star Wars” trilogy was that it recycled so much in terms of space battles. The Star Wars prequels didn’t provide anything new either. That said, while the final showdown in “Star Trek II” is a much slower paced skirmish, its also one of the smartest and most dramatic of the space sci-fi genre. Instead of plowing through the stars, firing all weapons, the Enterprise and its opponent wander aimlessly through a dark nebula trying to outwit each other like two submarines. The result is thrilling and, ultimately, gorgeous, as the nebula makes a beautiful backdrop for these awesome ships.

I must also note the uniform design. Director Nicholas Meyer wanted something that resembled, “Horatio Hornblower in space.” As such, these uniforms have a militaristic, navel look to them. The Star Trek uniforms have never felt so real and as a result of their genius they were used for the next four films. These are easily my favorite uniforms in the Trek universe.

By the end of the film the audience has felt the full wrath of Khan, they have learned more than they ever thought they would about the much beloved James T. Kirk and the beautiful Enterprise, battle worn, is a little bit emptier. I can’t think of a more accessible Trek film (currently) and it’s hard to find much wrong with this movie. If the best science fiction says more about ourselves than it does aliens, or starships or… whatever, then “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” really is one of the best movies out there. It avoids any alien encounters, keeps the techno-babble to a minimum and maintains a great love for the human heart. Space poetry at its best.

**** out of ****

REVIEW - "Quantum of Solace" (2008)

Even after the time that has passed since this film’s release I’m still divided over it. Sure it’s fun, the story is enjoyable and Bond has never been so cold. On the other hand, it’s not even close to hitting the bar set by “Casino Royale.” Although, I suppose if I were to compare every Bond film to “Casino Royale” I’d have to call the whole series mediocre—Or, wait… What does that say about the series? Well now I’m in a conundrum. Perhaps instead of dissecting the quality of the Bond franchise I should look at “Quantum of Solace” as a film on its own. Sounds fair, no?

After the capture of Mr. White (from the previous film), Bond finds his priorities shifting from his country to personal revenge. Battling an organization linked to Vesper, Bond uncovers a plot to hold Bolivia for ransom by obtaining its natural resources. Allying himself with a former Bolivian agent, Bond tries to thwart the organization’s plans with the intention of avenging Vesper.

Being one of the more down-to-Earth Bond storylines, “Quantum of Solace” has a certain charm that maintains the idea that this is a new, fresh Bond series. Nowhere in sight are the laser-armed watches, transforming cars and shoe phone. (Oh. Wait. Wrong franchise.) And with the absence of these tools it gives more time to the characters. Right? Well…

The storyline’s “mission” tends to take away from the characters. It’s not that the story is poor; it speaks worlds about our penchant for natural resources and director Marc Forester made some valid points with C.I.A. Agent Felix’s misgivings. It’s simply that Bond’s character is so much more interesting of a story than what Forster pushes to fit in this movie. Extreme visual comparisons to how we value oil over gold today are effective, but when you have a chance to stretch Bonds’ character I have less interest in the mission.

Furthermore, risking the criticism of being too much like Jason Bourne, I think there’s a level of absurdities the Bond series should maintain.(Especially if the characters aren’t going to be center stage at all times.) Instead, Marc Forster throws director Paul Greengrass’s best “Bourne” shots at us—Delivering car chases and roof leaping rundowns with shaky camera work and rapid fire editing. This would be fine if it weren’t such a defining watermark on the Bourne series. Admittedly, the action in “Quantum” is no less entertaining. Go figure.

This isn’t to say that James is devoid of any characterization. He’s clearly upset and impressively furious throughout the film. Rarely is there a moment where you can sense relief from Craig’s stern expression. Bond’s lying and constant lack of expressing his feelings keeps him cold and hateful. For some this might be a turnoff, for me, it was excellent to see his character so profoundly affected by Vesper’s death.

While Bond’s descent in to a cold-blooded killer is quite obvious, some of his antics skew me in to confusion. While a Bond movie can’t go without him making would-be love to a lady, his reasons for doing so are muddled to the viewer. Is it simply because he’s suave and manipulative? I can’t tell if the scene was meant to cater to the hardcore fans or insinuate a certain tragedy behind his womanizing actions. Either way it’s slightly disheartening. Isn’t he trying to avenge Vesper?

While I believe Bond’s hardened soul is the most interesting aspect of the film, it also leaves us wanting more. I understand Bond is a character not suited for breaking down in front of an audience, but I wish it explained more about why he is... Well… Bond! Instead, he’s simply as mad and cold as all hell.

Veering off for a moment, I feel compelled to mention the rather interesting edition to the Bond-girl lineup. Camille Montes, played by Olga Kurylenko, is an unconventional “Bond-girl.” She has no romantic involvement with James, but her story is the same as the British agent’s—She’s out for revenge. The fact they’re not romantically involved is very appropriate as their commonalities are best suited for their mission and nothing more.

So where does “Quantum of Solace” sit? Accusations that it’s the worst Bond film ever are severely exaggerated, but it’s not the sequel to “Casino Royale” I was hoping for. The Bond franchise finally opens up with secrets about a character we’ve just assumed was an action hero cliché. Next, it silently hardens him, projecting him back to that cliché for future entries. Luckily “Quantum of Solace” avoids the cliché and keeps the action flowing. It’s not the best and it’s not the most exciting Bond film, but it’s good enough to escape mediocrity. If just barely.

**½ out of ****

Friday, April 17, 2009

TRAILER - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Lost Count Which One This Is...)

Anyone wondering how many more trailers Warner Brothers is going to release for the sixth Harry Potter film? I guess I don't mind if they keep topping each other. This is easily my favorite trailer of... well, any of the Harry Potter films. But it also concerns me. Apparently this is the 3rd domestic trailer for the film and it's absolutely outstanding. Action, torment and amazingly dynamic musical cues highlight this sucker-- Is it too good to be true?

Early reports claimed the film was not on par with most of the others and had opted to take very little time with the villain. Rumor has it these things have been fixed. Besides, its hard to believe Voldemort will be reduced in this adaptation with so much of it pertaining to him in the trailer. Of course... maybe that's all there is? Uh-oh. Cynical Gman again. Take a look at the trailer yourself. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

REVIEW - "Dragonball: Evolution" (2009)

Uninspired. Cliché. Underwhelming. Wasted. Poor. Embarrassing. All of these are choice words that one might describe “Dragonball: Evolution.” It’s clear that 20th Century Fox sat on the rights for the franchise with no idea what to do with it; and before their licensing on the franchise ran out, they slopped something together just to fulfill their announcement of seven years ago. The only relief I can give to fans of the franchise is that it’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Let that sentence sit for a moment.

Goku, played by Justin Chatwin, meets up with Bulma (Emmy Rossum) and Master Roshi (Chow-Yun Fat) to find all seven dragonballs and stop Piccolo from destroying the world. It doesn’t get simpler than that folks. Without any further explanation that’s really all there is to it. I suppose that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the movie weren’t quite as boring as the sentence that describes it.

Watching this movie I felt an irrational need to compare this with another animated-to-live action adaptation: “Transformers.” My hatred for the film is no secret, but whereas Bay’s adaptation was an overblown mess, “Dragonball” is an underdone hack job. Everything is half-baked with its lightening fast pacing, poorly developed characters and uninspired battles.

Before I continue any further, I’ve noticed a lot of defenders of this little movie are under the impression that if a person dislikes “Dragonball: Evolution” it’s because they don’t like all the changes from manga/anime to Hollywood production. Whereas most of the changes in “Transformers” I felt were largely unneeded, I firmly believe “Dragonball” is a franchise in need of changing if it is to transition to live action-- So elements like Goku in high school didn’t bother me at all. No, what bothered me was the painful delivery Justin Chatwin would put in to several of his lines—Not that the script gave him, and the other actors, a lot to work with anyway.

“Dragonball’s” script calls for either the very least amount of development or simply wishes fans to rely on their knowledge of the franchise to fill in the holes. The characters shudder at the fact that Piccolo has returned after two thousand years, but do they ever question how he escaped? Of course not! That would call attention to the fact that the film fails to explain how he returned. How about his control over “Oozaru the Destroyer?” Why does he have control over it? And who was the Oozaru two thousand years beforehand? Who is Mai and why did she join Piccolo? Did she free him? Why didn’t Roshi jump out of the hole sooner? I could list another fifty questions the movie decides to ignore, but it wouldn’t help bring them to light any faster.

Outside the atrocious structure of the film’s events is the wonderfully amateur sense of character development. While the characters tend to grow, (surprisingly) the reasons for their development just aren’t there. At one moment Bulma is disgusted with the newly recruited Yamcha, and not a few scenes later are they contemplating a kiss. I don’t know what happened off screen during those few scenes, but it must have been more interesting than what I was watching. Meanwhile, the idea of developing Goku rests solely in the act of repeating cliché lines his grandfather and Roshi have told him about twenty times each. I wonder if doing this cut down the cost of writing the script?

After putting up with all of this, “Dragonball: Evolution” ends with the most anticlimactic fight between Goku and Piccolo. For a series later known for long-winded battles it was disappointing to see something so rushed as the “big” finale. Although, since the special effects were really starting to waver by this point, I suppose it was for the best.

Behind this would-be, gung-ho of an action flick is the source material that is “Dragonball / Z.” I maintain the idea that it is possible to transform the franchise in to a reasonably good movie. “Dragonball: Evolution,” however, isn’t it. It is an example of Hollywood at its most shrewd and a blatant middle finger to not just fans, but general audiences everywhere. I really do wonder what goes on at Fox.

½ out of ****

REVIEW - "Hamlet 2" (2008)

After I first watched “Hamlet 2,” I was quite surprised by how much I liked it and how it definitely exceeded expectations. Steve Coogan has a great amount of talent and the story, as strange as it was, is a comically intriguing take on “Dead Poets Society.” So what keeps it from being memorable? It’s probably best to describe “Hamlet 2” as a good flick caught in its mediocre struggle to be a comedic masterpiece. What it offers tends to be far more promising than what it really is.

Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a failed actor who has taken up the role of a high school drama teacher. Finding himself with a class full of gangs and apathetic hoodlums, Marschz ventures to get respect by writing a sequel to “Hamlet” which involves the prince and Jesus time traveling to Hamlet’s beginnings. As he struggles to bring his story to life he is faced with budget cuts, a wavering relationship with his wife and an inability to pay off his home.

Sounds like a winner, no? It’s interesting to note that this movie is as irreverent as “Tropic Thunder” with its racial slurs and bastardized take on both Hamlet and Jesus. So why doesn’t it work as well? “Tropic Thunder” is able to reel out its insensitivities with ease—And it only gets funnier as it does it. Now, it’s not that “Hamlet 2” isn’t funny in similar ways, but it tends to try harder. Too hard. Whereas “Tropic Thunder” paced itself well, “Hamlet 2” tends to pack in as much as it can to top the irreverent comedy subgenre—Never going too far, but always trying to do too much at once.

The aspect that keeps “Hamlet 2” from collapsing on itself is the film’s lead Steve Coogan. His awkward character is littered with a lovable panache that keeps the audience attentive and hopeful for his ambitions. Oh. Yeah. He’s also pretty bleepin’ funny. Coogan appears to be no stranger to physical comedy and yet he balances it well with some clever writing. He is truly the only actor that makes the story work.

The rest of the characters feel like an ant farm colony being held by Coogan. They’re always on screen, they’re always doing something funny and they’re always furthering the story, but they don’t do anything on their own. The supporting stars hardly develop and as a result the bad-class-turned-skilled-actors subplot is lost in transition to Marscz’s passion for bringing Hamlet 2 on stage.

While the poor pacing from subplot to subplot is a little jarring, “Hamlet 2” has a script that makes it easy to forgive. The best part is how it constantly refers to Marscz’s sequel to the famous Shakespeare play. The reactions to what we have yet seen on stage are quite funny and, as a result, build anticipation for the film’s absurd finale. When Coogan and crew climb onstage to deliver the long awaited play the film comes full circle. It’s a trip! And if you’re easily offended it’s clearly not the movie you should be watching.

For “Hamlet 2” there is a misconception that more is better. While it performs well when it’s not so poorly paced, it does tend to try and be the best at what it does. It’s funniest at its minimum delivery and weakest during its obvious ambition. Despite its flaws I hope to see Coogan in more films. He tends to make the most of whatever he’s doing.

**½ out of ****